Postcard from Old Delhi – 2

February 15, 2024
Avinash (second from left) and Subhash – friends for the last 47 years

Continuing from my last post, in this dispatch, I write about my travel story related to my principal destination on this trip – Chandni Chowk.


Chandni Chowk is one of the oldest markets of Old Delhi. It dates back to the founding of the capital city of Shahjahanabad when Emperor Shah Jahan established the Red Fort on the banks of the Yamuna River beside his new capital. The original Chandni Chowk, a half-moon-shaped square, was located in front of the Municipal Townhall and its reflection used to shine in the moonlit water pool located in front of it. The pool shimmered in the moonlight, a feature that was responsible for Chandni Chowk’s name. A shallow water channel was built from Yamuna, which ran through the middle of the straight road currently known as the Chandni Chowk bazaar, with roads and shops on either side of the channel.


I had been to Chandni Chowk many times before. Having lived in the NCR for over 4 decades, Chandni Chowk was the go-to place for a wide variety of things. We headed to Nai Sarak for books, to Khari Baoli for spices, and Dariba Kalan for silverware. However, while we would have had something specific in mind while heading from home to the Chandni Chowk area, such was the attraction and bargains there that we would end up buying a lot of (unwanted) stuff as we sauntered through the busy and narrow market streets. I had also been to Chandni Chowk’s Photo Market – a whole row of shops for cameras and accessories – for jugaad camera repair.

I recollect that in the late 1970s when my cousin from the US landed at our house with a Polaroid Colorburst camera, and in his enthusiasm to take pictures with that camera – which we saw as a miracle device – he unexpectedly ran out of film. The Polaroid technology was unheard of in India or so I thought. I headed to the Photo Market to try my luck. As I enquired at some of the shops, I was directed to a particularly unremarkable one. I was asked to quietly come inside and was led through a trapdoor of sorts to enter a plush air-conditioned room. The room was stacked with rows upon rows of sealed cartons of the Polaroid film – all smuggled. I surprised my cousin – waiting at home in anticipation – with the riches.

Ah! With college friends!

This time around, I was visiting Chandni Chowk with my two friends from college, Avinash & Subhash. Avinash had retired as a banker and Subhash had retired from the Indian Foreign Service. We had known each other for the last 47 years.

I had fixed Golcha Cinema as the meeting point for Avinash and Subhash who were converging at the meeting point via different Metro lines. As I was staying at an Airbnb accommodation at Daryaganj, Golcha Cinema was a short walking distance for me.

It was the day immediately following Deepavali. The weather was extremely pleasant with a nip in the air. As I waited at Golcha Cinema – a decrepit version of its erstwhile glorious avatar – a burst of mild sunshine flooded the street – an auspicious sign for a walk in the Delhi winter. Avinash and Subhash came on time and the 3 musketeers headed to a day out just like those olden days. Although both Avinash & Subhash were based out of the NCR, all of us were visiting Chandni Chowk for the first time after the famous redevelopment project had been completed. The project decongested Chandni Chowk and restored some degree of heritage character to the area.

Chandni Chowk – then and now

Earlier, the Chandni Chowk thoroughfare leading from the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Mosque was a relentless river of humanity that flowed in both directions. The road used to be barely visible. Two-wheelers of all kinds jostled for space while anyone with a four-wheeler who had any idea of Chandni Chowk would leave the four-wheeler at the Red Fort parking area and take the cycle-rickshaw or walk. Narrow streets (Kucha or Katra) lead from the main thoroughfare into a dizzying maze. There are markets dedicated to specialty items. For instance, Bhagirath Palace is a market for electrical items, Chawri Bazar specializes in hardware items, and the Cloth Market supplies home furnishing fabrics and ready-made items.

As we entered Chandni Chowk this time, the stark difference following the redevelopment project was visible. The road seemed very wide. In the absence of vehicles – only cycle rickshaws and e-rickshaws are permitted – pedestrians walked leisurely. The road was very visible now. Everywhere we saw red sandstone structures. Even the road was of the color of red sandstone. It was indeed a transformation.

As part of the redevelopment project, red sandstone bollards have been installed along the median of the main street. Someone had designed them very intelligently – they seemed inviting enough to be used for seating but once we sat on them, they were quite uncomfortable. No wonder then that ordinary-looking people sat on the street rather than on these bollards. I also spotted some red sandstone funnel-shaped flowerpots installed near these bollards except that now they contained litter and had been put to ‘better use’ by the public – as spittoons. Some parts of the median have been enclosed by metal lattice frames for some electrical installations or by wooden lattice enclosures for decorative purposes, and at some locations to protect some greenery. While the metal frames were still intact, the wooden frames have been subjected to abuse, and at many locations, they have given way. It is clear that a serious attempt has been made to add some greenery in the form of sandstone planters bearing leafy plants but they are very few and far between. I spotted clear signages that directed us to the various streets that led away from the main thoroughfare – another achievement of the redevelopment project. The litter, however, is another story. Smart steel Dry & Wet waste containers have been installed at different locations except that these are too small for effective use in this kind of massive marketplace. Consequently, much more litter could be spotted outside these containers than inside them. It is possible that I saw so much litter in the open as the garbage collection vehicles were doing the rounds at that time. All said and done, I would consider the redevelopment project a huge success.

A walk through history

We decided to take a walk first. My idea was to enjoy the leisurely walk in the mild sun, stop at will, and taste the eats. After all, Chandni Chowk was always known for food. My friends agreed with me.

Our first stop was the Old Famous Jalebi Wala (established in 1884 by Late Lala Nem Chand Jain). I gather that Lalaji migrated to Delhi with just INR 2 in his pocket which he got as a dowry in his marriage – no wonder, behind every successful man, there is a woman – and opened a shop with that money. He experimented with many recipes before finally making and selling the jalebis that have such a fan following now. It is his secret recipe that is followed to date.

With the signboard proclaiming rather proudly, ‘We have no other branch in Delhi & NCR’, it is abundantly clear that this is an iconic place. Having been run by four generations, their USP is that they use desi khandsari sugar for making the syrup instead of regular sugar, and the Jalebis are prepared using desi ghee, cooked over coal fire.

Here’s their piping hot, thick, juicy, and freshly-made Jalebi. Delectable!

We spotted Annapurna Bhandar (established in 1929 by Late Purna Chander Modak) on the other side of the road.

We crossed over for their delicious Samosa. I have always loved their special Masala in the Samosa. To follow a Jalebi with a Samosa was not as per the established norm but who cares?

After having our fill, we sauntered through the bazaar. We were in no particular hurry. As we went along, we revisited our respective lives and the innumerable stories that enriched them. We had listened to these stories innumerable times but then when a reunion among friends happens, the same story can evoke the same emotions…again. Isn’t that what a timeless friendship is all about?

We stopped for some tea at the ‘Bombay Famous Nagori Tea & Faluda’ joint. Nagori Tea is from Rajasthan’s Nagaur region. We were served in a kullad. It was a little too sweet for my taste. We took this opportunity to rest our feet. Subhash kept us riveted with stories of his international sojourns. On the way, we spotted a signage displaying ‘Katra Subhash’ and we had a picture taken with Subhash pointing out to that signage.

On a cycle rickshaw

Our next plan was to travel through the narrow streets leading away from the main thoroughfare and we decided to take a cycle rickshaw. I had my Insta360 X3 camera installed on a selfie stick and I wanted to shoot a video of our rickshaw ride through the maze. We took Om Prakash’s cycle rickshaw. He hailed from Meerut. While Avinash and Subhash sat on the rickshaw seats, I chose to sit backward at the rear end of the rickshaw on that narrow wooden plank like some of those Delhi school children. To be seated, I had to assume the role of a contortionist to fit into the narrow frame but the good part was that once seated, both my camera & I felt quite secure. I could now operate my Insta360 camera via my mobile phone.

I switched on the 360 video mode of my camera as the cycle rickshaw turned into Dariba Kalan. Except for rickshaws, no vehicles are allowed inside Dariba Kalan but I did spot some youngsters on their motorbikes occasionally. As I looked up, I saw a huge mass of tangled electrical cables. To me, it represented India in some form – order in disorder. The arrangement didn’t fit any established template but then Life goes on here…and quite well.

To me, Dariba Kalan represented another aspect of Life. This silverware and jewelry market was full of extremely wealthy merchants but even if they wanted to – and could easily afford to – they couldn’t expand their establishment. They were constrained to operate from their small shops. It reminded me of my Quote #20 which says, ‘Life is a great equalizer. The more we have of something means the less we will have of something else.’

From Dariba Kalan, we entered Kinari Bazar. There was so much to see and absorb. We passed by a tiny but fully operational temple. On the way, someone had very smartly fixed several pictures of Gods on a bare wall. It was meant to deter an overactive bladder. Occasionally, we met another cycle rickshaw coming in from the opposite side. Om Prakash had to dismount and drag our cycle rickshaw to the side to allow the approaching cycle rickshaw to pass. Om Prakash greeted his counterpart with a smile which was equally reciprocated. As we turned into Maliwara – a hub for sarees – a cycle rickshaw with a couple of foreigners on it followed us playing a very popular Bollywood song on his transistor. In that narrow street, he could not overtake us and I got to enjoy Kumar Sanu’s singing for a while.

We spotted many foreigners on foot and cycle rickshaws, some with guides and some without. Having been to many Western countries, I can understand how fascinating it must be for them to visit India – so many people, so much color and variety in every sense of the term. But the India experience is not for everybody. It can get quite overwhelming.

As our cycle rickshaw tour ended, we paid Om Prakash and thanked him. These markets were more than a century old and he had offered us a ringside view of history.

Lunch – fresh off the oven

It was time for lunch. We chose the pure vegetarian, Kake Di Hatti (estd. 1942) which has been running for the last four generations. Known for their oversized Naans, I experienced Kake Di Hatti’s quality cuisine in Bangalore recently – they are now expanding into various parts of India via their franchise model. We were tired after our Chandni Chowk exploration and allowed the waiter to decide for us from their very elaborate menu.


Watch our fresh Naan emerging from their oven:

Post lunch

It was time to call it a day but not before tasting Dahi Bhalla at yet another iconic landmark Natraj Dahi Bhalla Corner (estd. 1940). Started by Late Pyarelal Sharma, Natraj Dahi Bhalla Corner is now being managed by his grandson.

Mouthwatering Dahi Bhalla!

The adventure never really ends

With Chandni Chowk, the adventure never really ends. We had spent only a few hours and yet had seen so much. Honestly, I could spend a lifetime here as a travel storyteller.

So what! I could come back again.

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