Tag Archives: Chandni Chowk

A Weekend in Old Delhi

A budget weekend in purani Dilli ♦

The top of Fatehpuri Masjid, facing towards the Red Fort.

The most difficult decision I had to make while packing for a weekend in Old Delhi, was what sort of attitude I ought to carry with me to this contigu­ous yet discrete part of the capital city. Many travellers have written about how home can only be un­derstood once one leaves it for the world; and how the world becomes known to us through what we find familiar in it. But who would ad­vise me about ‘travelling’ to a part of the city that I had been flitting in and out of for years?

New Dilliwalas have a complex relationship with Shahjahanabad, which is not just the historic capital of the Mughal emperor for which it was named, but also the last of Delhi’s great citadels; and it has been almost continuously ruined and rebuilt since it was founded in the mid-17th century. We read books about it, raid its kuchas and its katras for perfumes and precious metals, write blogs about it, fill city magazines with descriptions of its flavours and scents. Us new Dilliwalas bemoan the loss of puraani Dilli’s history because it is also our history. But the volume of trade that pumps life into the rattling, breathing sheher is mostly irrelevant to us; we don’t really live there.

Two nights of sleeping in the old city would at least be a different kind of adventure, and the Hotel Tara Palace seemed a promising start. The budget hotel with an incredible view is tucked away on an offshoot of Esplanade Road, the wide thoroughfare created by the British after 1857 to separate the city from their military encamp­ment at the Red Fort — a sliver of which was visible from the bal­cony of my alley-facing room. Tara Palace rises above the other build­ings in the cycle market around it, and the hotel, with its rooftop view of the Red Fort, the Jain Lal Man­dir, the Gauri Shankar Mandir, the Gurudwara Sisganj, and the Jama Masjid, has apparently been used for several film shoots, including Chandni Chowk To China (the lane outside was turned into a facsimile.of Parathewali Gali), Black & White and Delhi-6.

Rather than zooming in on the landmarks though, the fun of actually staying in the old city was the freedom to keep glimpsing these monuments in my periph­eral vision. So, just on the way to purchase a replacement for a forgotten toothbrush, I stopped by the Old Famous Jalebiwala for a sugar rush before ducking into Dharampura, the area east of Esplanade Road and south of Chandni Chowk. The historic dharamsalas in this Jain-dominat­ed area are a bit difficult to find, not least because there are nearly a dozen of them scattered about, but worth a visit for their colourful wall paintings, intricate marble in­teriors and golden daises crowded with wide-eyed tirthankaras. The prominent Naya Mandir, built in 1807 is generally open in the morn­ings, but the smaller Panchayati Mandir, originally built in 1745, is a peaceful stop in the evenings.

Emerging out of the tinsel-strewn Kinari Bazaar and bypass­ing the greasy plates in Parathewali Gali, I loitered at the Northbrook Fountain intersection, also called Bhai Mati Das Chowk after a dis­ciple of Guru Tegh Bahadur; their martyrdom at this spot is grue­somely reconstructed next-door at the Bhai Mati Das, Sati Das Sikh museum and commemorated by the Gurdwara Sisganj. Besides me, the only other people not in a rush to eat, pray and shove were a couple of boys on the terrace of the 18th-century Sunehri Masjid opposite me, watching the occa­sional Mercedes barrel out of the gurdwara gates and scatter the stream of human traffic before get­ting mired in a glut of electric- and cycle-rickshaws. Above the green­ish bronze domes of the masjid and the gleaming golden domes of the gurdwara, a full moon rose into the sky, its light opalescent behind the hazy veil of summer pollution.


A view of Jama Masjid from the top of Tara Palace hotel.

The heat was oppressive. I was tempted to head down the ‘moonlit avenue’, luminous with sequined garments and neon signage, for a nimbu-soda banta from its supposed inventor, Pandit Ved Prakash Lemonwale. Instead, I headed back to Tara Palace for a stiffer drink. A few friends joined me on the roof, where the staff accommodatingly laid out a plastic table and brought us strong beer and vegetarian snacks.

Eventually, the Jama Masjid, twinkling with tastefully re­strained fairy lighting for Ramzan, beckoned, and we headed to­wards it for some proper grub. We ascended above the snacking and socialising crowd in bazaar Matia Mahal to the top-floor of Al-Jawa­har Hotel, to dine on kebabs and kormas in its peach-and-saffron painted family room. Outside, the sweetshops selling multi-coloured blocks of halwa, vats of shahi tukda, matkas of phirni, and piles and piles of fried pheni and khajla, did brisk business.

Back on Esplanade Road, la­bourers were unloading a couple of trucks, or stretched out across their handbarrows, taking a load off themselves. I was struck by how quickly the hotel’s alley had become familiar — probably because there was a bed waiting for me at the end of it. For a few minutes, I stood on my balcony, looking over a patchwork of roofs, unable to imagine them as once-spacious courtyards. The earliest account of a past I could think of that resonated with the present moment was just seventy-five years old: Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. “But the city lies indifferent or asleep, breathing heavily under a hot and dusty sky,” Ali wrote, himself describing a time eighty years before his own. “Hardly anyone stops the flower vendor to buy jasmines or opens a door to satisfy the beggar. The nymphs have all gone to sleep, and the lov­ers have departed.”

I was pleasantly surprised by my first organised rickshaw tour of the old city the next morning; the three hours with When in India, a tour company founded by sisters whose grandparents lived in a haveli, passed by quite fast. The sites covered — mostly masjids and markets — were not off the beaten track, but a steady narration of an­ecdotes and an album of historical photos kept things interesting.

An early stop was the Khazan­chi, or the treasurer’s haveli, one of several mansions that have fallen into ruin relatively re­cently. The sky-blue walls of the junk-cluttered courtyard set the tone for the rest of the morning. The sun dappled toppled pillars, dilapidated arches, and a door to nowhere — as well as the rough ad­ditions, bricked up windows and scattered furniture of the people living here. I was reminded of a let­ter Ghalib wrote around 1859. “If you want to know how things are in Dilli, read this,” he said, quoting his own verse:

What was in my dwelling that your devastation could destroy it?
What I used to have is here yet — just the yearning to construct.

“What does this place have now for anyone to plunder?” he added.

The poet’s question echoed as we trundled past the landmarks of Chandni Chowk: the E.S. Pyarelal Building, which once housed the Fort View Hotel; the SBI building in front of Begum Samru’s palace; the Central Baptist Church; the Allahabad Bank building; Ma­havir Jain Bhavan; the erstwhile Town Hall, which began life as a cultural hub and may soon become one again; and the sprawling, still majestic haveli of Lala Chunna­mal. Even if you don’t take a guided tour, a cycle rickshaw is the best way to admire the avenue’s last bits of marble latticework and wrought iron, hanging, like tattered lace curtains, between the shuttered shops on the street level and the concrete additions on top.

Standing on the cupola-corned roof of Gadodia Market, a partially enclosed quadrangle in the Khari Baoli spice bazaar, I shielded my eyes against the intense glare. Below me the tingling heat of a million red chillies wafted from gunny sacks, above was a searing, cloudless sky. I noted the crowded Coronation Building, on the site of the notorious Namak Haram haveli, and on the other side of the Fatehpuri Masjid, the tower­ing Crown Hotel — a hippie trail landmark famous for its rooftop parties in the early seventies, that now looks quite tame.

Winding through Lal Kuan and Bazaar Sitaram, the tour ended at the company’s own simple haveli, which was built in the 1860s. Old museum photographs lined the walls, and there was a spread of bedmi-aloo, samosas, jalebis, tea and coffee and, best of all, a creamy kulfi from the local sweet-spot, Kuremal Mohan Lal Kulfi Wale.

I got dropped off at Ajmeri Gate, opposite the Anglo-Arabic Girls’ School, but it was too hot to hop across to the 17th-century mosque within its premises. Men lay draped across their rickshaws, spread-eagled on any patch of dirt or pavement; I considered inves­tigating the ‘Purdah Bagh’ to the north of Daryaganj, but decided instead to check in to Casa Home­stay to recuperate.

Quiet, residential Daryaganj, which was set with riverfront mansions when the Yamuna still ran along it, is an ideal base for exploration. A little before sunset, I walked to Delite Cinema, a sixty year-old hall that used to also stage plays, including by Prithvi The­atres, in its heyday. It was divided into two refurbished auditoriums, Delite and Delite Diamond — com­plete with cushy loos, hand- painted domed ceilings, and Czech chandeliers — several years ago. I watched half of Dawn of Planet of the Apes (Hindi) and half of Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, with the theatre’s obligatory ‘maha sa­mosa’ in hand (they also sell chuski at the concession stand).

More grown-up delights were in order afterwards at Thugs, the pub in the boutique Hotel Broadway down the street. The Mogambo Margarita was sadly unavailable (a broken blender), but a solid Kaalia (rum and cola), complete with paper umbrella, made up for it. Then to Moti Mahal, the decades-old restaurant that claims to have brought butter chicken to India during Partition (let’s leave aside the hotly contested debates of authenticity around this estab­lishment). Dinner was tasty, and imbued with the sort of pleas­ant bathos that seasons all such exercises in consuming nostalgia. The small musical troupe churned out a timid rendition of ‘Kajra Mohabbatwalla’, the chicken was swimming in buttered tomato pulp, the breads were large, the spiced onions plentiful — all was well with the world and my air-conditioned bedroom was just five minutes away.

The next day the city itself seemed to have been skew­ered and slapped into a blazing tandoor, but I forced myself to walk out into the Sunday book bazaar that lines the main arter­ies of Netaji Subhash Marg and Asaf Ali Road. Between biology study guides and sex manuals from the 1980s, I picked up a couple of books of poetry, before crossing back towards the quieter area around Ansari Road, Delhi’s traditional publishing hub. I paused at Jain Saheb’s (one of a couple of popular bedmi-puri breakfast joints in the area), which is renowned for its pumpkin sabzi, before trudging along the city wall — rebuilt here by the British — towards the Zinat-al-Masaajid, or ‘ornament of mosques’.

Also called the Ghata Masjid, the mosque was built in 1707 by Zinat-un-nissa, one of Aurangzeb’s daughters. Zinat-un-nissa was a poet and a spinster (the mosque’s third name is ‘Kumari Masjid’, it was supposed to have been built with her dowry). Poets, including Mir Taqi Mir, apparently met here in the early 18th century; and one can imagine it must have been a pleasant spot at the time — a gilded building overlooking a river. Today, the mosque is spartan but pretty, with three striking black-and-white pinstriped domes and minarets that seem, in proportion, to soar up­wards. Zinat-un-nissa’s tomb was removed by the British after 1857, but its Persian epitaph, composed by the pious princess, read: “It is enough if the shadow of the cloud of mercy covers my tomb.”

Indeed, clouds were now amass­ing above the old riverbed, and the sky had darkened with the promise of rain. A strong wind blew across Delhi, heaving through the trees and taking with it my daydreams of this other city. Fat drops began to splatter the cracked sandstone around me. The minarets seemed to pierce the sky.


The domes of Gurudwara Sisganj.


The information

Getting there
Old Delhi is 22km from Indira Gandhi International Airport, and about 4.2km from the New Delhi Railway Station. The Old Delhi Railway Station is next door. A taxi from the airport costs about Rs 375.

Where to stay
Hotel Tara Palace
(from Rs 1,800 plus taxes, includes breakfast and airport pick-up; tarapalacedelhi.com) is a welcoming, spic-and-span hotel with all the amenities, plus a 24-hour restaurant. Another great place to stay is the Casa Homestay (from Rs 3,000, includ­ing taxes and a hearty, homemade breakfast; casahomestay.com) is a posh yet warm suite in a historic Daryaganj mansion. It is run by Colonel Abhimanyu and Reva Nayar, who live downstairs and provide all the amenities with a personal touch.

Getting around
The Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk metro stations are practi­cal links to other parts of Delhi. Cycle rickshaws are the best way to get around (anywhere from Rs 20 to Rs 100 per trip; more for a tour). Several companies provide walking and rickshaw tours; When in India (wheninindia.com, from $50) tours are professional and com­fortable, with branded rickshaws, uniformed drivers (some of whom speak English), cold drinks in chill­ers under the seats, and unobtru­sive wireless headsets through which the guide gives informa­tion to the group. They average 1.5-3 hours and can be tailored for groups or individuals.

What to see & do
Red Fort
, the Jain temples in Dharampura, Jama Masjid, Fateh­puri Masjid, Khari Baoli, Delite Cinema, Zinat-al-Masajid, Darya­ganj book bazaar on Sunday and the local mansions

Eat, drink & shop
Old Famous Jalebiwala
serves overpriced (Rs 50 per plate), oversized jalebis at the entrance to Dariba Kalan. Al-Jawahar hotel (about Rs 500 for two) is an airier alternative to the more-famous Karim’s next-door and worth a stop for the nihari at breakfast; likewise Moti Mahal (about Rs 900 for two) for butter chicken and ghazals at dinner; and Thugs (hotelbroadwaydelhi.com; cocktails from Rs 175) for drinks.

Fancier than the stores around it in Khari Baoli, Mehar Chand & Sons (facebook.com/mcs1917) sells well-presented blended powder masalas (from about Rs 200), special teas and spices. Harnarain Gokalchand (facebook. com/harnarains) has its local brand of khus, kewda, rose and other sharbats further down the street. Gulab Singh Johrimal on Chandni Chowk (gulabsinghjohrimal.com) is a charming old attar and incense shop (from Rs 12 for 2.5ml vial) with retro-packaging and old-fashioned cabinetry. In Daryaganj, Aap Ki Pasand (aapkipasandtea.com) is an oasis-like tea shop.

Top tip
The Archaeological Survey of India’s free monuments app isn’t completely comprehensive, but it maps the major attractions. Download ASI Delhi Circle from the Google Play store. INTACH’s Delhi: 20 Heritage Walks (intach­delhichapter.org) includes two very informative booklets on the built heritage of North Shajahanabad and South Shahjahanabad.

Originally published in Outlook Traveller, August 2014.

Published: February 15, 2015

Shahjahanabad coolers

Street the heat ♦

Feeling a bit parched in puraani Dilli? Quench your thirst at these local institutions. Read the Time Out Delhi (July 2009) story as a PDF, find the text reproduced below, or download it here.

(Pairs well with this story on old Delhi street food.)

Amritsari Lassi Wala

The thickest lassi we’ve found in old Delhi is available at this wellknown neon-yellow shop. Very much of the heartland, the lassi is served with a spoon and plenty of malai chunks. It’s also ice-cold and available in flavours like banana, jeera namkeen, mango and rose. Amritsari Lassi Wale has been around in Delhi since 1974 and is conveniently located next to a number of chhola bhatura walas. 295 Fatehpuri Chowk, at Chandni Chowk (2394-2260). Metro Chandni Chowk. Rs 8-20.

Bikaner Sweet Shop

Compared to some surrounding vendors, this namkeen shop is a newbie, having been established only 27 years ago. That certainly doesn’t stop passers-by from availing of the shop’s convenient location in Dariba, just out of the sun of Chandni Chowk. A bucket of ice holds bottles of kaju milk, pista milk and badam milk. 255 Dariba Kalan, off Chandni Chowk (2328-1971). Metro Chandni Chowk. Rs 20.

Jain Coffee House

Perhaps better-known for his fruit-and-cream sandwiches, Pawan Kumar at the Jain Coffee House also whips up some sweet milkshakes. Available in seasonal flavours, the whole milk shakes are frothier than the little-girl party frocks on Chandni Chowk. Mango, apple and coffee were the choices when we visited. Raghu Ganj, Chawri Bazaar (2391-8925). Metro Chawri Bazaar. From the station, take the main road towards Jama Masjid. You’ll walk past a big shop called Gujarat Namkeen Bhandar on your left. Watch for an iron gate on the left side that says Raghu Ganj. Go through this to a courtyard – JCH is on the left corner. Mon-Sat 9am-7.30pm. Rs 25. If you’re closer to Chandni Chowk, try Kamdhenu Family Corner, which has mango, chocolate and other seasonal shakes. 5469 Nai Sarak, corner of Chandni Chowk, opposite Town Hall (2394-4386). m Chandni Chowk. Daily 9.30am-8pm. Rs 20.

Murarilal Inderjit Sharma

The crowd outside Murari’s lassi, dahi, milk and paneer outlet in Kinari Bazaar is relentless. Established about 60 years ago, the dairy stall uses two of Delhi’s classic “Sultan” machines to churn creamy – but not excessively thick – lassi in kullars and steel glasses. Some of the area’s merchants bring their own silver cups to be filled. A squirt of kewra is added and the glass is topped with a thin, creamy-crisp slab of malai before serving. A namkeen version is also available. 2178 Kinari Bazaar (2327-1464). Metro Chandni Chowk. Rs 20.

Oberoi Sindhi Lemonade

This neat little stall stocks shikanji masala powder, bottles of banta and neat little bottles of jeera masala soda. The concept is identical to Pandit Ved Prakash (see p38), but this stall is a little quieter, cleaner and almost next door. Nai Sarak. Turn left on Nai Sarak off Chandni Chowk and the stall is on your right. Metro Chandni Chowk.

Pakodimal doodhwala

This little lassi stall isn’t marked, but it’s across the road from a few others that are (Jain Bengali Sweets among them). What sets Pakodimal’s stand apart is his barfiwali lassi, in which a piece of khoya barfi is mixed in with the yogurt. According to food writer Rahul Verma, this stall might be one of the oldest doodhwalas in town. Sadly, the old man wasn’t there when we visited, and the barfiwali lassi had finished for the day. But we’ll definitely be back to try it. From Khari Baoli, turn left on Naya Bans and stop at the third or fourth stall to your left, opposite Jain Bengali Sweets. Metro Chawri Bazaar. Rs 15-20.

Pandit Ved Prakash Lemon Wale

The Pandit’s progeny claim that their ancestor popularised the nimbu-soda banta. The family has been in the cold drinks line for about 150 years, according to Chinibhai, one of the brothers who runs the stalls in Dariba Kalan and near the Town Hall. Until the British introduced the Codd-neck bottle to India (it was invented by Hiram Codd in 1872), the family was in the sharbat business. In the early 1900s, they began focusing their efforts on banta, mixed with their own house masala. They also sell their own jeera masala soda. 5466 Chandni Chowk (2392-0931); 266 Dariba Kalan (2325-5259). Metro Chandni Chowk. Rs 7-9 per glass.


Finding the rainbow connection in Khari Baoli

If, on a hot summer day, you happen to visit Harnarain Gokalchand’s murabba and pickle shop, you’ll be offered a cup of bright green liquid, with a scent like rain over dusty leaves. Khus (vetiver) sharbat is just one of the elixirs stocked at this store, that is now more than 70 years old. Though many of the murabba-achaar stores along the wholesale spice market stock sharbat, Harnarain is one of the few that still manufactures it. Of course, the manufacturing process has changed a bit since the shop first opened (it used to have a branch in Connaught Place as well). Though the line of sharbats is manufactured in the dusty industrial area of Lawrence Road and despite the fact that most of the ingredients listed involve preservatives, the objective of this implausibly coloured arsenal of mixers remains the same: to cool you down. The Arora family, which owns the store, manufactures bel, amla, kewra, chandan (sandal), khus and rose sharbats as well as mango panna – all priced under Rs 75 per bottle. Perhaps the snazziest sharbat line on the market, though, is the Shri Guruji brand, also available at a few shops in Khari Baoli. Founded in Kolkata in 1970, the company drew its inspiration from family patriarch Shree Jagdeeshprasad from Shekhavati, Rajasthan. The guruji is said to have once held a 16-day satsang, during which he served 16 different cold drinks. The company – now based in Indore – makes kesariya thandai; sharbats in flavours including badam kesar, chandan, kesar pista, kesar, khus, rose and “panchamrit” (intriguingly, the bottle only lists gulab, kewra, chandan and kesar: what is the mystery fifth ingredient?); squashes like amla, bel, jamun, lemon, lemon barley, lemony ginger, litchi, orange, and pineapple; and fruit cordial. Harnarain Gokalchand 6678 Khari Baoli (2399-2590). Metro Chawri Bazaar. Mon-Sat 11am- 8pm. Sharbat Rs 65-75. Ram Lal Om Prakash (For Guruji sharbats) 6542 Khari Baoli, Fatehpuri (2396-7853). Metro Chawri Bazaar. Mon-Sat 10am-7pm. Sharbat Rs 85-140. 

Pink drink

Before Campa, there was kewra

If Delhi can claim any drink as its own, it’s Rooh Afza. The sharbat, almost synonymous with sweetness in our city, has an intriguing family story behind it. In 1906, Hakim Abdul Majeed, a Unani medicine practitioner who had studied under Ajmal Khan, started his own clinic in Lal Kuan. The next year, he started selling bottles of the rose-red concentrate. His son, Hakim Abdul Hameed, expanded the Hamdard Dawakhana and popularised his father’s summer sharbat beyond the walled city. After Partition, his brother Mohammad Said went to Karachi to take care of Hamdard’s operations in Pakistan. The brothers kept in constant touch and the Indian and Pakistani companies grew together. They both set up universities and Said did a turn in politics as well. Eventually, he was assassinated and, within a year, his brother in Delhi also passed away. The company is still in the family’s hands, with Majeed’s greatgrandsons Hamid Ahmed and Asad Mueed working on revamping Rooh Afza’s image with Juhi Chawla ads and new jingles. The taste of the drink, however, remains the same, just as the Hamdard Dawakhana still stands as a major landmark in Lal Kuan. A lot of components go into that indescribable flavour: sugar syrup; pineapple juice and orange juice; extract of dhania, gajjar (carrot), khurfa (bara lunia or purslane), tarbooz (watermelon), palak (spinach), pudina (mint), hara ghia (luffa), kasni (chicory), munaqqa (raisins), sandal, khus (vetiver), chharrila (stone flower lichen), gul nilofar (waterlily), gaozaban (borage or starflower), citrus flowers, kewra and rose. Available at general stores across the city. Rs 90 for 700ml.

(Pairs well with this story on old Delhi street food.)

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2009. 

Published: July 24, 2009