Many, many years ago, a beautiful princess decided she wanted a bit of the moon for herself. So she ordered her workmen to dig a canal through the city which lay in front of her palace- a canal whose waters would reflect the silver rays of the moon.
For those who think I’ve wandered way off course (this is a travel site, for pity’s sake, not a fairy tale page!)- take heart. Because this isn’t a fairytale; it actually happened, and just about three hundred years ago. The city was Shahjahanabad, the capital of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, better known for having built the splendid Taj Mahal; the princess was his daughter, Jahanara; and the canal, although it doesn’t exist any more, gave its name to the marketplace around it: Chandni Chowk- Moonlight Square. Shahjahan, Jahanara, and the stunning court which they once presided over, are now dead and gone- but Chandni Chowk lives on, minus the canal, minus the glamour of three centuries ago- but as busy, as interesting as ever.
Chandni Chowk stretches from the Red Fort, which once housed Shahjahan’s court, to the small mosque of Fatehpuri Masjid- a straight stretch of bazaar which has so many interesting landmarks scattered along its length that it could well take you two or three hours to explore the area. From the main street branch off numerous `galis’, `kuchas’ and `katras’- lanes and tiny squares, which in earlier times were demarcated on the basis of trade: the jewellers lived and traded in one katra, the cloth merchants in another, and so on. What’s really quaint about the whole thing is that katras still retain the name and to some extent the trade of their original occupants: Katra Neel (Indigo Square) is still dominated by dyers and textile merchants.
Chandni Chowk, in its heyday, was the domain of rich noblemen, Armenian and Turkish adventurers, Persian poets, Italian merchants; this was, after all, the home of one of the world’s wealthiest courts- scholars today estimate that it would take at least 14 years to accurately assess Shahjahan’s personal wealth. At that time, Chandni Chowk was a beautiful tree-lined street, swarming with coffee houses (an import from Persia, and with a very restricted clientele: only the very rich could afford the alien brew) and shops which sold everything from glass hookahs and Chinese eye-glasses to exquisite jewellery, cheetahs, greyhounds, eunuchs and midgets (!!!- this was the "exotic east", remember).
The wares, as you’ll notice on a walk through Chandni Chowk, have changed- but the mind-boggling variety can still dazzle you. Near the beginning of the street is a gorgeously fragrant flower market; and as you stroll down the length of Chandni Chowk, you’ll see its many faces: the razzle-dazzle of Dariba Kalan, the jewellers’ street; Kinari Bazaar, where every other shop sells wedding outfits, garlands threaded with fake rupee notes, theatrical costumes, masks and more; and Parathewali Gali, named for the sinfully rich bread which its many eateries have been selling since Shahjahan’s time.
Further down the road, between Gurudwara Sheeshganj and the Sunehari Masjid is the spot where the kotwali (the police station) stood in Mughal times- and where the modern-day police check-post still stands. Beyond, a short walk brings you to Ballimaran (The `Street of the Oarmakers’), a lane once known for the many famed physicians who lived here, and which is today crowded with opticians and spectacle-makers. Wander through Ballimaran, to the now-dilapidated mansion of one of India’s greatest Urdu poets, the 19th-century bard Mirza Ghalib (a man whose favourite tipple was French wine mixed with rosewater!).
Take your camera along when you go to Chandni Chowk (if you forget it, considering popping in at Kucha Chowdhury, a lane whose shops deal exclusively in cameras and photographic equipment); this is one part of Delhi which promises some of the best photographic opportunities in the capital. Thoroughly modern, but with its feet firmly entrenched in the past. Crowded and busy, yet with a leisurely pace when it comes to enjoying the good things in life- like a creamy cupful of cardamom-scented kulfi or a piping-hot paratha, served with a neat dollop of ghee, a bowlful of cool yoghurt and some tart lime pickle…
"Exotic"? You bet!