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Chandni Chowk - Delhi

Chandni chowk, is literally the street of the silversmiths, is more an area than a single street branching out into a bazaar of mixed splendour and squalor. Indeed, one of the most fascinating things about this area is the persistent contrast that it presents on the one hand of the choice and valuable jewellery it stocks and on the other of masses of simple people walking, or cycling, or traveling by cycle rickshaw up and down its old lanes and by-lanes.

Where, three-and-a-half centuries ago, there was space, now there are crowds of jostling people. Chandani chowk caters to everyone. Where once princes and princesses rode in palanquins, milkmen on cycle today weaves their way through pedestrians, insistently ringing their cycle bells. Where once there were processions with “roses, roses all the way”, today there is the fragrance of roses and of those attars (perfumes) that recall the Mughal past, but there is also the tempting smell of today’s parathas and kababa.

In season there are jasmines. There are marigolds always. And in the huddled shops there are tinseled garlands awaiting the wedding receptions that are taking place throughout the year. There are fabrics of all colours and textures; there are toys, balloons biding high on tall sticks; there is colour, sound, scent.

As for sound, listen and you will hear the muezzin call, for the Jama Masjid is not far away. You will hear cries of cyclists, of rickshawwallahs and sometimes of pedestrians in warning or fear. At some point cars must stop, for the lane is not wide enough for them to pass, you mush take a rickshaw or walk, keeping clear of the gutters on either side, but you always hear the sound of car horns or the screeching brakes of buses. For this is amongst the most populous of Old Delhi’s areas. You are aware of thousands of people all day, every day.

To those who do not fear crowds, have always been attracted by mixed sounds and the human tapestry oif colour, smell and noise, Chandani chowk presents no real problem. Two English women spent several days here last year, and wrote in superlatives about all they found on their walks. Cross again to the left of Chandani chowk. Enter the main Jain Temple Complex on the corner and take off your shoes. A man stands ready to collect leather goods, handbags and shoes. Climb the marble steps and enter the temple.

Leave the temple, turn right and enter the Jain Bird Hospital, an amazing place, very clean and extremely busy, with about 60 birds admitted and treated every day in summer. The staff are dedicated and welcoming.

Leave the Jain complelx, walk along Chandani chowk keeping to the left, past the flower-sellers and cross Esplanade Road, a straight thoroughfare unlike the winding roads west of it, because it was built so much later. After 1857, the British demolished many of the lovely 17th century mansions and made a parade ground.

And now kalans. First, Dariba Kalan or the street of the incomparable pearl. The word “Dariba” is made up the Persian Dur e be baha. That means peart without compare. This is to the left of Chandani chowk proper meet, there was once a gate across the road, that was called Khuni Darwaza or the Bloody Gate. In 1739, Nadir Shah, the Persian invader, defeated the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah at the Battlke of Karnal and then marched to Delhi. Dariba Kalan was then full of gold and silversmiths, but with Nadir Shah’s invasion it became a street and were piled up against the gates.

But you are now looking for Kinari Bazaar (braid-shops/street). As you walk down Dariba Kalan and take the fourth opening on your right you enter Kinari Bazaar which has the most glittering shops in Old Delhi. It is the centre of the wedding ceremony trade, full of gold, groom’s turbans, currency-note garlands and huge rosettes.

The shops have larvae stocks: they sell to both wholesalers and retailers. Brides and their families, of all religions, come here to bu their wedding apparel. In October the street becomes magical, for the shops stock Ram Lila bows and arrows, extra heads for Ravana and cardboard swords for hundered of schoolboys.

Walk along Kinari Bazaar until the narrow street opens up; there’s a road to your right that will lead you back to Chandani chowk proper. This road is part of Paratha Walan the street of paratha sellers. Hence you watch parathas being made, stuffed and fried. On the right, you can see the handsome Red Fort. But close by there is a famous old sweetshop Ghantewala (the bell ringer) – established in 1790 which still sells the most delicious varieties of sohan halwa, kaju ki barfi, laddus and pinni made from khoya.

You must be a little tired by now. Stand and listen to the voices and the footsteps, real and unreal of present and past, for you stand on a historical ground. Three-and-a-half centuries ago it came int being with the building of Shahjahanabad in 1648. Between then and now, millions of people, Indian and non-Indian, have walked the area in search oif cloth, jewellery, savouries and sweets, toys for children, apparel for brides and bridegrooms, for it caters to all ages, all tastes. The foreign travelers-French, Italian, English have recorded their glowing impressions of what they saw. In 1988, W.H.D. Adams wrote “The shops of Chandani chowk literally coruscate with their show of gold and silver embroidery, beads and bangles, sheeny silken stuff, delicate lace work, fantastic toys, gorgeous headdresses and marriage caskets.” Eleven years later, G.W. Stevens said, “The houses in Chandani chowk totter and lean together. The street is a mass of squatting, variegated people; bulls, in necklaces of white and yellow flowers, sleep across the pavements; donkeys stroll into the shops; goats nibble at vegetables; a squirrel flights with a caged parrot.”

In 1902, Lovat Fraser saw Chandani chowk at sunset and wrote: “I have not seen any spot which so nearly approximates to the accepted idea of the oriental bazaar as does Chandani chowk just now.” Hw describes its mass of traffic-bullocks carts and four-wheelers, camels, elephants, and people – many shops “each holding a king’s ransom, where jewelers display their wares.” Sellers of fruit block pavements. Glaring lights, noise and hubbub. And you see the rose-red walls of the fort flushed with the glow of the setting sun. Then Chandani Chowk is “that marvelous artery of Delhi which epitomizes the magic and mystery of an eastern city.”

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