The story of Old Delhi is a fascinating one, once you know where to start that is. There we were at 9.00am on a cold wintery morning in the centre of one of the main crossroads, surrounded by a swirling circle of traffic made partially invisible by the slow rising fog of a December morning. Auto rickshaws, bicycle pulled carts with rolled carpets piled high, motor-bikes balanced on either side with large tins of fresh milk, women in sari’s and tightly woven scarves zig-zagging the mayhem. I’ve been travelling back and forth to India for many years now and it’s moments like these when Delhi peels back the layers and unveils her irrepressible spirit that I love her best.
As we walk along Chawri Bazaar Road the fog lifts and the dusty, grey-brown air settles on an industrious scramble that spills onto the road; food carts with neatly stacked warm doughy naan breads and carts filled with rounded plates of silken daulat ki chaat. This was the first taste of Old Delhi for me, a flat wooden spoonful of the sweetest soufflé, churned and left to set overnight and soak in the dew on the open rooftops and whisked again for hours the next morning until it becomes a light, fluffy buttery taste that along with the flavours of condensed milk melts in your mouth. Its name translates to wealth as a sweet reminder of the transitory nature of money; it’s there one minute and can disappear swiftly the next.
Everywhere you look there is activity, each open door way leading to a larger recessed stairwell and sunken room that stores a treasure-trove of artistry; we walked through the paper market with freshly pressed silky rolls and hand-pressed envelopes in every colour, there are dark narrow halls that lead to the light filled courtyards of hidden Mosques with colourful hand-printed floral reliefs climbing the columns. It’s one joyful surprise after another. As the traffic builds, clusters of men mostly, draped in beige and wheat coloured shawls gather in tight circles outside the many street side eateries beckoned by the steamy pots of bubbling chai. While visitors need to be careful of eating local food, our hardened tummies were all too willing to enjoy breakfast on the roadside. Steel plates with dollops of spicy warm potato and fragrant puris served by the hundreds as the morning wears on. Absolutely delicious!
At street level, Old Delhi is a kaleidoscope of movement and chaos, the electricity wires literally fill the skyline in bundles and knots and everything looks as though a layer of brown haze has settled in the thin morning air. But when you look up, beyond the wires and into the pale sky you notice the underbelly of Haveli veranda’s, with their carved wooden supports and sculpted door frames in pastel pink and pale blue. It looks like a set of dollhouses when we walk into one of the avenues that lead to a Jain Temple. The Naya Mandir was allocated to the Jain community during the reign of the Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb and today its facade is the pretty sky blue that characterises the older Jain homes I’ve seen across Rajasthan and much of India. Theirs is an aesthetic to which the word pretty, just fits. Even the central tenant of the religion, where “the function of the souls is to help one another” resonates in equal softness.
One of the most interesting aspects of Old Delhi is the diversity of religions upon which the city is built. Jains, Muslim’s, Hindu’s and Sikh’s celebrating their Gods through their architecture, festivities and human spirit; even how Old Delhi got its name is more to do with the ever-shifting political and religious landscape than any creatively inspired namesake. From the early 13th century, Delhi was the seat of the Sultanate only to give way to the Mogul Empire some 300 years later. The present day walled city of Old Delhi was established in 1639 by Shah Jahan but when the British revolt of 1857 added to the city’s volatile history, the British Raj shifted their capital to Calcutta. With the British development of Lutyens Delhi in 1911, they returned to this new quarter of Delhi declaring it’s previous incarnation as old…and so became Old Delhi.
To get to the heart of Old Delhi, taking the Metro is the best way. You’ll arrive directly at Chowri Bazaar, which is exactly where we started our morning tour. It also avoids taking your car into the area and given that either your tyres or your car brand logo could end up for sale in the Thief’s Market, the Metro could save you considerable money too. I’m thoroughly amused by this market, made up of a rambling line of car part shops selling any and every part of cars and motorbikes. It’s quite conceivable that the missing hubs on your front wheels will be hanging in a shop-front an hour later and you’ll be left haggling for your own property. As you walk down the laneway opposite the Jama Masjid, the menu changes and the famous Muslim breakfast Nahari is the dish people are lining up for. It’s a much sought after delicacy served mostly in winter; a steamy slow-cooked stew of meat and marrow, garnished to taste and occasionally served with brains. It also sits directly opposite India’s second largest Mosque and though the approach also looks a lot like a market bazaar, inside it is truly worth the visit.
Tied to the mesh fencing outside the Mosque were 4 or 5 goats, without question they were the size of Shetland ponies and wearing cable knitted jumpers covering their backs, bellies and front legs with their hoofs peeping out from the cuffs to abate the cold. Once you climb the grand staircase, take off your shoes and pay 300 rupees for each camera or phone that you’re carrying, the Jama Masjid and its wide open courtyard transports you with its red sandstone archways and glossy white marble domes. The size and scale is breathtaking. We took the opportunity to climb the narrow spiral staircase to the peak of one of the minarets and from here could see the majesty of the entire complex. There are three arched entrances and behind the grandest of them all, the spread of Delhi stretching into the horizon. When a sudden noise sparked a thousand pigeons to flutter and fly across the skyline it was a picture perfect moment.
Old Delhi is filthy, it’s as if the dust from hundreds of years of stone being built, worn down and built up again has permanently embedded itself on everything. It’s also a place that is totally authentic in its life as a bustling, industrious and energetic marketplace, but it wasn’t always so. There was a time when the streets of Old Delhi belonged to that of Emperors and Princesses and the buildings that are today occupied by chaiwala’s housed elocution teachers and songstresses. In the mid 16th century when Old Delhi was in its prime, Shah Jahan held court over a progressive, creative and spirited Empire. Today, like most of Delhi, the jumble of streets and market stores of Chandani Chawk offers a wonderful peek into the chaos of this ever-evolving city. I know people who have lived in Delhi for years who have never gone, tourists who have braved it once for the experience and others who keep going back for it’s eccentric personality and old world charms. It may look like a free-for-all but it comes together like a symphony.