Delhi is a city that is interestingly known to have many cities within it, which, in the modern day are also relatively known as districts. The 17th century city of Shahjanabad, also known Purani Dilli is by far the most majestic, cosmic, and of course, chaotic- among all. It encompasses the areas of Chandni Chowk, Chawri Bazaar, Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Daryaganj and other adjoining areas.
Apart from the pandemonium of perfect anarchy, this part of Delhi has an almost eccentric charm that, as you move along the narrow by-lanes, savoring the most delicious delicacies and marveling at the age-old structures, tends to seep within you and the mayhem seems strangely somber.
Huge. Astonishingly Beautiful. Magnificent. The Red Fort is the perfect epitome of Mughal royalty, built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century at a cost of over ten million rupees; it expands over 250 acres and needs at least half a day to tour thoroughly. The museum on the story of Indian Independence and the Mumataz Mahal are must visits. I was lucky to find the arch bridge leading to the adjacent Salimgarh Fort where I discovered the prison quarters where dissidents have been housed since the days of Aurangzeb to the British.
Moving on, the Jama Masjid is India’s largest and most imposing mosque. Sadly, a decision to wear shorts due to the heat robbed me of the access to the inner precincts of the mosque, so make sure you don’t make that mistake and cover your arms, head and feet, properly. What I can claim privy to, is the unparalleled view of the nearby areas that standing on the gigantic steps of the mosque gives and that is certainly a sight to behold.
Right off the steps of the Jama Masjid is the thriving Meena Bazaar which should be given a visit only if you’re interested in buying pirated music CD’s from every era, precariously placed electronic parts of all shapes and sizes or if you happen to have an appetite for the most unhygienic and tasty sugar-dipped samosas.
The next stop should be any of the countless eateries and stalls lining the avenue named Chandni Chowk after both its flourishing silver trade and a layout modeled after a crescent moon. The ones you shouldn’t miss are the Dahi Bhalla from the eternally thronged stand named, Natraj. Aloo Chaat or Tikki, a Delhi favorite can be had from almost any shop or stall as all of them offer something different to give a touch of their own. Papri Chaat from Ashok Chaat Bhandar and Poori Aloo at Shyam Sweets in Chawri Bazaar are others that will enthrall your taste buds and leave you wanting more.
While you are busy weighing between what and what not to eat, do give a visit to the Gurudwaara Sisganj Sahib. The rules on clothing here are restricted to covering your head for which scarves by volunteers are provided for free. Inside, this Sikh shrine acts as an oasis of peace and tranquility within this labyrinth of confusion. The langar on offer needs no prelude, so, dive in!
The urban myth of Chandni Chowk is firmly placed in the shops in the now legendary Paranthewaali Gali that are said to be churning out Paranthe of all shapes, sizes and combinations for centuries. Personally, the hype seems a bit overly as what you get are rather small, exceedingly greasy, at times uncooked Paranthe with 5 types of chutney, sabzis by hurried waiters who frequently mix up orders trying to ensure the people waiting for a table outside don’t move over to the next shop. This is a bit of a turn-off for someone who’s used to somewhat large, overly filled, butter topped Paranthe at home. And, of course the ambience where one look sideward reveals a throng of people looking right at you and awaiting you finishing your lunch is a deterrent at times.
After all this, move over to Giani di Hatti for the most rich Rabri Faluda layered with nuts and cardamom. The Sohan Halwa at Ghantewala and Jalebi at the famous old Jalebiwaala are worthy alternatives, as well.
After you’re done with all the eating, shopping and sight-seeing and are trudging along back home you’ll realize that you miss the cacophony of madness, the benediction of finding calm within chaos, the ignominy of not having stayed longer- longing for the preposterous sycophancy by shopkeepers, missing the annoyance at being pushed around in this myriad mass of humanity and then, you smile.
“Smile at how beautiful disorderliness can be, smile at the unearthly cadence of this place, smile at how superfluous and overwhelming a place can be. It is then that you realize that Purani Dilli is not merely a place, it’s the heart of Delhi. It’s an enigma. An enigma, that tends to stick to you, calling you back incessantly.”