Getting to Chandni Chowk, for our tour with Delhi Heritage Walks was hard work that Monday afternoon.
First a purported three minute walk to the subway station ended up being ten, I am guessing, because we neglected to specify the name of the station. Once there (Janpat), we found every ticket vending machine out of order, and lines in front of the counter extending almost all the way to Connaught place!
Outside, a paan chewing auto driver, the kind you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark deserted street, grunted an insolent, “Do sau” (200). I could sense my scrupulously punctual husband beginning to panic, but I wasn’t about to get into that insolent man’s vehicle, even if I was inclined to pay that price. Further down, we found a decent soul who offered to take us for a lot less and nearly got beaten up for it!
That sorted, we proceeded to get stuck in the worst of Delhi traffic. Chavi Sharma, our walk leader, had messaged us twice already, urging us to return to the metro station, since the pile up seemed crazier than usual. But we were too far ahead to turn back.
We finally arrived nearly an hour late to the pulsing, humid throng of humanity, in a place that would require every ounce of an insanely vivid imagination to be referred to as ‘Moonlit Square’!
Chandni Chowk, said to have been designed by princess Jahan Ara, eldest daughter of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, was once a glittering tree lined artery (check out some illustrations and old photos here!) connecting the palace inside the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Mosque at the opposite end. With opulent mansions and luxury merchandise arrayed on either side, and a canal running along the middle….the stuff of legends.
Delhi’s nobility lived here then. Even up until independence. Its erudite elite. Poets and scholars, and founders of universities. Partition brought about their exodus. Mostly to Pakistan, some to the the rest of the country. A few stayed back. And like water seeking its level, the underprivileged filled up the vacuum.
Today, it is still the main drag in the warren of streets comprising Old Delhi. Or Delhi 6 as it is commonly referred to (for its pin code). But reduced to a dirty crowded ghetto. A mere shadow of its old self, with its ruined city walls and gates, and scores of grimy shopfronts standing cheek by jowl with legendary (and Delhi Belly inducing, for those that do not posses our cast iron guts!) food stalls. Nearly a million people crammed into the roughly six square kilometer walled space under tangled canopies of electric cables. The forlorn fort almost as dilapidated as its surroundings.
Make no mistake. There is beauty to be found here if you can brave the seething mass of people, the incessant honking of two wheelers, and the speeding cycle rickshaws. And with a knowledgeable guide in tow.
Old havelis (mansions) and hidden temples. Centuries old businesses still being run by the same families. And of course, the magnificent Jama Masjid. There is history, however faded and stained, etched into every wall, every street corner, every face. And photo ops at every turn. This was after all Shahjahanabad: the last capital of a glorious empire.
But don’t expect romance here. The kind one associates with old towns across the world. This isn’t a show put on for visitors. This is the brutal grind of life. Of sheer survival. Beautiful in its intensity. Not pretty.
PS: Delhi Heritage Walks organise scheduled walks every weekend. Check their website for details. Or email them for private customised walks.