City Walk – Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi
Touched by moonlight.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It is pleasant to be in Chandni Chowk, to sweep the eyes 360 degrees in this in-your-face Secular India theme park—temples, mosques, church and gurdwara.
To see masked Jains, kirpan-wielding Sikhs, saffron-robed sadhus and bearded mullahs carrying on with their spiritual pursuits. To look at sari-clad and burqa-clad women strolling alongside sweating labourers and foreign tourists. To spot the native Delhiwallas from fashionable parts of the city, making an excursion to their idea of ‘Old Delhi’, armed with mineral water bottles, hand sanitisers and shades.
But the most pleasant thing about walking in Chandni Chowk, the moonlit bazaar, is to smell that sweet pungent mix of sewage, sweat, dung, deep-fried jalebis, steaming parathas and yellow marigold flowers.
The walk begins from outside the Red Fort.
Cross the chaotic Netaji Subhash Marg and look to your left. This red-coloured building is Digambar Jain Mandir, famous for its birds’ hospital. A bhikshu (Buddhist monk) is sleeping under a Heritage Building status slab. Not far away a group of backpackers is taking photographs of the surrounding scenes. A foreign woman is walking alone, she is looking deep in thought.
A green-coloured Chandni Chowk bus shuttle rumbles by. It is packed beyond capacity with the Chandni Chowk natives (that is, they are not looking like travellers) heading towards Ballimaran, to Nai Sadak, to Katra Neel, to Fatehpuri. A sprightly Namdhari Sikh is hanging on to the door of the mini-bus.
On the right stands what used to be Fort View Hotel–shabbily-mantained but still majestic. It is home to a Sony showroom, a cinema, and a coffee chain outlet.
One backpacker, following The Delhi Walla‘s gaze, looks up at the building, and then hurriedly flips through his copy of Lucy Peck’s Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building. Just then appears a red-capped man, belonging to a tribe of traditional ear-cleaners from Turkman Gate, and offers to de-wax the backpacker’s ears. To break the language barrier and explain his profession to the tourist, he takes out a needle, inserts it into his right ear and brings it out from his right nostril.
Looking at the horrified tourist, I feel bad for travellers who come to Chandni Chowk to sketch the pattern of the haveli jaalis or to study the Colonial influence on Mughal architecture. At the end of this walk, they might remember nothing but the grey sky above, the jostling crowd beneath, and perhaps the golden arches of McDonald’s. Yes, it too is here giving an interesting perspective to the Red Fort skyline.
Amidst such mumbo-jumbo, it is easy to miss two stately sights—the Baptist Church and the State Bank of India building.
Of course, you cannot miss the Seesganj Gurdwara. The entrance is crowded with pilgrims. It stands next to Sunehri Masjid from where the Persian invader Nader Shah watched the massacre of Delhi in 1739. The lane outside the mosque is blocked by a golgappa walla and a pineapple walla.
Talking of food, Chandni Chowk’s ‘Old, Famous Jalebi walla’ is just a few steps away. The entry to paratha waali galli, too, is somewhere around. Haldiram’s is on the other side of the road. Unmoved by laddoos and dahi bhallas, I keep walking straight, past stores selling Chinese toys, bras, saris, footmats, goggles, belts, burqas, chappals, watches, and even swimming costumes.
Look for the iconic Mughal-era mithai shop Ghantewala. You won’t find it. It shut down a few years ago.
Nai Sadak, now.
The Town Hall building on the right, flecked with hundreds of masakalis, is looking straight out from the pages of some outdated London guidebook. Not surprising since it came up just a few years after the 1857 mutiny. (For that Piccadilly Circus touch, there are benches and stylish lampposts on the little plaza on the left.)
Determined to quickly finish this walk in one of the city’s most crowded avenues, I’m not feeling obliged to linger in front of the claustrophobic histories and monuments lining both sides of Chandni Chowk. The weather-beaten Lala Channamal ki Haveli is left behind without a respectful stop. Amritsari Lassi Walla is coming up now. Next is Fatehpuri Masjid, the journey’s end. Time your walk so that you arrive at this mosque immediately after the sunset. Then it is like a dream.
The fabled walkway