Whether it’s garments or handicrafts you are looking for or simply mouthwatering cuisine from different parts of India, it’s all there in Dilli Haat.
This is one destination that should figure prominently in every tourist’s itinerary if he’s visiting Delhi. It’s the only place in the country where you can purchase handicrafts, plan your wardrobe, view cultural programmes or have your fill from the food stalls representing the 25 states and Union Territories of India. It’s Dilli Haat we’re talking about.
Located on Sri Aurobindo Marg, opposite INA Market, and barely half a kilometre from Delhi’s well-known All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Dilli Haat is a permanent handicrafts bazaar. The word ‘haat’, refers to the mobile weekly markets that are held in rural India. The brainchild of Jaya Jaitley, Samata Party leader and chairperson of Dastakaar Haat Samiti, work on the Haat began in 1990 on land that was salvaged through a reclamation project.
The Haat was officially inaugurated on March 28, 1994. In the first year of its existence, the Haat had 300 visitors on a daily basis. In the words of an official, the project is aimed at providing additional marketing outlets to genuine craftspersons from the handicrafts and handloom sectors throughout the country”. In essence, this joint venture project of Delhi Tourism and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation seeks to ensure that dying arts and crafts are given a new lease of life and do not disappear due to lack of commercial exposure.
Built on six acres of land, this ‘palatial complex’ creates an enchanting rustic ambience the moment you step onto its stone-and-brick precincts.
Small thatched-roof, brick-and-mortar cottages, statuesque palms, tall eucalyptus trees and colourful plants with a profusion of flowers instantly create a mixed, but balanced, image of rural and urban India.
Since its inception, the Haat has been open 365 days a year from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. An entry ticket here costs Rs 10 for adults and Rs 5 for children between five and 12 years. As you enter the gate you can see a throng of shoppers, tourists-which include a few foreigners-and ubiquitous kids who seem to go berserk at the sight of goodies and toys, all within grabbing distance. Recognising that children account for a fair percentage of visitors, the Haat has an exclusive playing area for them.
Winter is a good time of the year to visit the Haat, when strolling around in the sun for a couple of hours is a pleasure. During summers the best time is after 5:30 p.m. when the heat is not too enervating. “In winter,” says Delhi Tourism’s Deputy Manager Ashok Kakar, “the average attendance on weekdays is 5,000 to 7,000. And on holidays and festivals, the attendance can go up to a staggering 17,000 per day. On summer weekdays between 2,000 and 3,000 people turn up. On Sundays and holidays, around 4,000 to 7,000 come here.” Monthly visitors are now pegged at 180,000, with at least 500 of these being foreigners.
The most popular attractions for adult shoppers are the wares displayed across 62 handicraft stalls. Kashmir’s trinkets, Kullu’s coats, caps and shawls, Rajasthan’s handicrafts and embellished camel-hide footwear, Gujarat’s lehengas and cholis, Bihar’s Madhubani paintings, Assam’s teak wood furniture, Maharashtra’s Kolhapuri chappals, Hyderabadi pearls, artificial and semi-precious jewellery, Lucknowi chikan, paithani, chanderi and patola saris, bamboo swings, cane garden chairs, jute sandals and paper bags, sofas, sofa-cum-beds and rocking chairs, wind chimes, chandeliers, chess-board tables, silver-plated tea sets, telephone sets from a bygone era, brassware, pottery-they can all be found here.
The display halls on the premises are rented to NGOs or state handicraft organisations that hold regular exhibitions. Most items sold here could be pegged at small premiums, depending on the artisan concerned. A round of bargaining is, therefore, in order, which could see some reduction in rates. Quite a few stalls go by the fixed-rate dictum and will make their position amply clear. All the same, you could still get a good bargain as compared to the rates for ethnic products at up market shopping malls.
According to M.A. Chisti, deputy director of DC Handicrafts, craftsmen have to get themselves registered with the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts and Handlooms in order to get a stall at the Haat. Stalls were earlier allotted on an ad hoc basis, with an unofficial premium supposedly being charged for corner stalls which attract more shoppers. To weed out irregularities, stalls are now being allotted through a draw of lots. Although they are allowed to display their products only for a fortnight, Kakar reveals that artisans are eligible to apply for stalls again after three months. Handicrafts and garments are not the only highlights here.
For culture vultures, there is an open-air theatre where cfolk music, song and dane are held frequently. Bhangra, kathakali, bharatnatyam and other dance performances are a regular feature. For kids, the occasional pantomime and puppet shows are a big draw. And for women, alongside semi-precious jewellery and trinkets, the highlights are the huge variety of saris, Punjabi suits, nightdresses and an array of footwear.
Regional festivals are also held regularly at the Haat, Rajasthan’s Teej Festival was celebrated between July 22 and 30. Organised by the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation, the highlights of the festival were the food fiesta and a puppet show organised by Rajasthani artistes.
Quite naturally, this was one time of the year when the Rajasthan food stall stole a march over the more popular ones. Specialities like dal bati churma, the special thali and ghevar were all lapped up with gusto.
Throughout the year, Dilli Haat hosts one regional festival or the other in collaboration with a state tourism department. The year opens with Tamil Nadu’s Pongal festival in January; Id in February; the Jammu and Kashmir festival in March; Rajasthan’s Teej festival in July-August; Kerala’s Onam festival in September; the Punjabi festival in October; the Bengali and Deepavali festivals in November, and finally, Dilli Utsav in December. Besides, the Garden (February), Mango (July), and Qutab (October) festivals are held annually.
Having had your fill of shopping, you can slake your thirst and quieten a growling stomach through a choice of countrywide cuisine. In the initial years, in fact, Dilli Haat boasted of an International Food Plaza. But with regional cuisine available at reasonable rates, the ‘international food’ was discontinued.
Unike other stalls, the food stalls are allotted on an annual lease, either to state governments or to private contractors. Currently, the most popular stalls are those from the North-east like Sikkim, Manipur and Mizoram. Not surprisingly, the most popular food at the Haat is the chicken momo and the most popular beverage is the fruit beer.
Although the Sikkim stall may have introduced fruit beer, the Manipur stall seems to draw the biggest crowd, with the non-vegetarian momos selling faster than the vegetarian ones.
Those looking for idlis, dosas and uttampams can take their seats at the Tamil Nadu or Kerala stalls. For tourists who have been missing pork dishes in their menu, the Goa stall has pork vindaloo. Other delicacies worth trying out at the Haat include Palda and Madhra from Himachal Pradesh; Makki di roti and Sarson da saag from Punjab; Dhoklas and Theplas from Gujarat; Chowmein from Mizoram; Tuna fish sandwich, Fish and Chicken coconut curry from Lakshadweep; Gushtaba, Rista, Rogan josh and Yakhani from Kashmir; Prawn malai curry, Fish orley and Fish roll from West Bengal and Prawn Masala and Fish vindaloo from Goa.
Considering the popularity of Dilli Haat, the administration now proposes to introduce features that will make it easier for the physically challenged to visit it. For instance, since the handicapped find it difficult to climb the stone stairs or purchase tickets at the booking counter, Pradeep Sachdeva Design Associates, the designers of the Haat, were sounded out for infrastructural changes. There’s a proposal smoothen the ragged stones at the entrance, create a separate parking lot, provide ramps and railings around the complex and making special modifications in the toilets to facilitate the movement of the disabled.
Thanks to the Haat’s roaring success as a mini heart of India, plans are afoot to build Haats in each zone of Delhi. Until then, south Delhi’s Dilli Haat will continue to rule the roost.