Its stories, wafting aromas, heritage and architecture; just a few of the reasons for getting lost in the gallis of Shahjahanabad. Amid the worn-out heritage structures of Chandni Chowk, the glare of the yellow ‘M’ signalling a McDonald’s outlet looks out of place, and time. “My grandfather tells me this was a cinema hall before it was converted to a ‘McDee’ outlet,” the INTACH walk leader tells me as we set off to explore Shahjahanabad, the capital city built by Emperor Shah Jahan (1628-1658).
The walk, ‘Exploring Shahjahanabad: A walk in Old Delhi’, starts from the Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, located opposite the Red Fort. Standing in front of the mandir, believed to be the oldest Jain temple in Shahjahanabad, we get a crash course on the old city.
Designed by Jahanara, the Emperor’s favourite daughter, Chandni Chowk was one of the main thoroughfares of the capital city. Where did Chandni Chowk get its name? There are two stories: a pool existed in the area and because its water shimmered in moonlight, the place was named Chandni Chowk; second, the area was named after its silversmiths and the word ‘chandi’ (silver) became ‘chandni’.
Down the main road is the State Bank of India building, built on an estate owned by Begum Samru, who headed a mercenary army. The building has high ceilings, colonial-style gateposts and large jali openings. A few steps ahead is the Central Baptist Church, one of the oldest churches in the city. Right opposite is the Sis Ganj Gurdwara, the site of the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur and the Sunehri Masjid. Chandni Chowk has the distinction of being perhaps the only trade market, which houses so many places of worship of different religions.
From here we entered the sinews of Shahjahanabad: Paranthawala Gali, Kinari Bazaar, Katra Kushal Rai and Dharampura. As we negotiated the narrow bylanes, someone mentioned how cool the place is. A smart piece of planning made sure that too much sunlight did not enter the area, we were told. The day was yet to start in these gallis, only some eateries in the Paranthawala Gali were doing brisk business. The smell the fresh ghee on the paranthas wafts through the galli. To woo customers, most eateries have strategically placed old photographs of politicians and Bollywood stars devouring paranthas made by them.
As we exchanged notes at the end of the tour, we deliberated whether we should take the lanes back to Chandni Chowk — on our own. Yes, was the unanimous answer and with the map in hand, we started the treasure hunt all over again.
I wrote this story a while back in ‘Hindustan Times’, a prominent daily, but thought of sharing with more folks.