As a child, when my father was posted in Air Headquarters in the early 1980s, we used to visit family in Old Delhi very often. The route taken from Connaught Place to Roop Nagar was via the Ring Road in Delhi. To the right, on this road were the final resting places of eminent Indian leaders and to the left-the ramparts of the imposing Red Fort.
Roop Nagar consisted of a number of lanes, lined with double or triple storied houses-all with a “chhajja” or balcony over-looking the street. Kids older than me played happy “gali” cricket and the visits were never complete without a treat of succulent “jalebis” and crisp “samosas” and “kachoris”.
The fascination for Old Delhi took root then….all those years ago. Over the passage of time, we moved out of Delhi and so did our family from Old Delhi. The memories receded somewhat in the background as I got down to the business of education, learning and occupation.
By a happy chance, my first job post my hotel management was based out on Asaf Ali Road at The Hotel Broadway. An orientation trip to the hotel took me straight down memory lane….in more ways than one! The recollections got a little sharper and I renewed my acquaintance with Old Delhi….leading this time to a firm friendship.
Asaf Ali road is located just a flyover’s distance from Connaught Place and the drive takes us from Edwin Lutyen’s British Delhi to the erstwhile Mughal capital-Shahjahanabad. The contrast is drastic and fascinating. In the 1950s, Asaf Ali Road was the business district of Delhi and was apparently called the “golden mile of Delhi”, for the rich businessmen who owned high value property here and transacted their lucrative businesses. Even today, major business transactions are carried out from various offices here and it is home to the Delhi Stock Exchange.
Hotel Broadway-built in 1956 and my first work place is a quiet and homely property, which has some third generation guests from the same family as its regular patrons. Comfortable guest rooms and a restaurant with a touch of eccentricity and terrific food-Chor Bizarre make it a desirable destination.
As a young trainee, I was taken through the paces of learning the ropes of my trade, except that some of the ropes here were unusual. Namely-Chor Bizarre’s Memory Lanes. Walks through the lanes of Old Delhi with a brief lesson in history and the way of the Indian life. Endlessly fascinating for visiting foreigners. And just as enthralling for me. And thus the unlikeliest of friendships got a fresh start-Old Delhi and I.
Teeming with people with scarcely an inch to walk. The long stretch of road chock-a-block with cycle rickshaws, cars, busses, two-wheelers, handcarts and occasionally cattle….amidst honking and incessant noise. Chandni Chowk is a far sight from the clean, orderly existence of the “fauj.” Yet, this bustling place is the hub of business and one of the largest whole sale markets in the country.
Historically, Chandni Chowk dates back to the Mughal era.A part of Shahjahanabad-the Mughal Capital built by Shah Jahan. Designed by his daughter Jahan Ara, a lane each was dedicated to traders plying the same trade. This encouraged quality and competition.
Thus there is “Dariba Kalan”-the silver market- a row of silver shops with a brief and fragrant “ittar” halt as an age old “ittar” merchant has his shop here. Name a flower; he’ll give you an “ittar” for it. Proceed on your way and a burst of colour greets us-for we reach “Kinari Bazaar” selling embellishments, borders and bling of every conceivable kind- aptly called the “Marriage Market; “Ballimaran” –where oarsmen lived and “Khari Baoli”-the whole sale spice and dry-fruit market-built over a dried step-well or “baoli” of salted water.
Invariably, every other shop has a “nazar-battu” at the entrance. 7 chillies and a lemon strung together to ward off evil spirits and encourage business.
It is not only about commerce though.
One cannot talk about Chandni Chowk and not discuss food. The crisp “parathas” of “Parathe Wale Gali” , the humungous “jalebis” of “Jalebi Wala” and the crisp “aloo tikkis” from “Natraj.” Add to this the small vendor serving “matar-kulcha” from a shining brass pot strapped on his cycle. No swanky restaurant on earth can ever replicate these flavours. The “Ghantewala” mithai shop, is in fact said to be in existence from the days of Shah Jahan himself and is so named because his elephant used to refuse to budge from here till fed his favourite sweets, shaking his head and ringing the bell around his neck.
“Karims” serves some succulent kababs and curries and during Ramazan, the streets behind Jama Masjid are a beautiful sight to behold. Lit up and humming with activity, mouth watering biryanis and other delectables tempt our appetites.
But the food is one jewel in the crown. There are others.
A terrific example of religious co-existence, Chandni Chowk boasts of the majestic Jama Masjid towering over the area. The Hindu Gauri Shankar Temple and The Digambar Jain Temple follow next with Gurudwara Sis Ganj Saheb and A Baptist Church along the way and The Fatehpuri Masjid at the end. In the many by-lanes off Chandni Chowk as well, there nestle small temples and mosques, including a Jain Shwetambara Temple. There is, no doubt some inter-religious tension once in a way. However, the day to day life appears peaceful and it is quite heart-warming to see so many houses of the same god all on one street like neighbours.
As it says in my daughter’s school prayer:
“Mandir –Masjid Ya Girija Ghar,
Sabhi Prabhu Ke Dham,
Malik Sab Ka Hai,
Alag Alag Hai Naam”
Translated, it means Temple, Mosque or Church
All are home to God,
There is but one God,
We just know him by different names.
Across the road, the imposing facade of The Red Fort, the Tri-colour a-top adds to the already rich character of the place. It brings home the fact of our secularism.
I have missed as many attractions and places as I have mentioned. It is impossible to do justice to them all in one go. But as I wrote about the colour, the history, the heritage and the food, it came home to me that what attracts me most is how unpretentious the people and places are. They are straight forward, hardworking and businesslike, but invariably polite and courteous. No airs and graces yet the charm of an era gone by. A sense of inherent values and honesty. A sense of real India.
(This post has been published as “Bustling Memories” in the Dec 2012-Jan 2013 issue of “Salute to the Indian Soldier”.)