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Walking Old Delhi with a local

Walking Old Delhi with a local

There's only one way to really discover Old Delhi, the 17th century city laid out by Moghul emperor and Taj Mahal creator Shah Jahan: on two feet.

Though the government of India is centred on the geometric streets of New Delhi, the 1930s city constructed by the British colonial rulers, Old Delhi has more historic appeal. Off pulsing Chandni Chowk, the district's incredibly busy main street, are dozens of narrow alleyways leading to shopping precincts and eateries.

It's not an easy place to navigate as a pedestrian. Which is why on selected Sunday mornings a guide from local company Delhi Heritage Walks leads a group through the organised chaos of Chandni Chowk and its back streets.

Forts and temples

The walk begins at the grandest end of Chandni Chowk, at a T-junction opposite the massive Red Fort, once the palace of the Moghul Emperors. Its outlines are hazy in the early morning, but I can make out the Lahore Gate opposite the walk's meeting point, the Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir temple of the Jain faith.

Today's guide is Kanika Singh, a history graduate with a detailed knowledge of Moghul-era Delhi. The majority of our group is made up of Indians interested in their own country's history. Kanika explains that Sunday morning is the best time for the walk because it's the only time that the area is quiet enough to lead a group; though "quiet" is a relative term in Delhi, as there are plenty of people around us, strolling, sitting, shopping and cycling.

Martyrs of history

Squeezing along the cracked pavement between motorcycles and other pedestrians, we follow Kanika as she points out merchants' houses from the 19th century, their attractive façades now plastered with advertising; a very respectable looking bank wherein the manager was killed by rebels in the uprising against British rule of 1857; and, on a lighter note, a stall titled "The Famous Jalebi Wala", which sells the deep-fried rings of sweet batter known as jalebi.

Further on, there's another reminder of the diverse spirituality that's at the heart of Indian history and culture: the Sis Ganj Gurdwara, an important Sikh place of worship. It was on this spot, says Kanika, that the cruel Emperor Aurangzeb murdered a Sikh guru in the 17th century, which led to the later erection of this temple in his memory.

Alleys lead to the square

After passing a decorative blue and white fountain, Kanika suddenly leads us off the main street into a narrow alley, and points out a popular stall selling daulat ki chaat. This fascinating sweet Delhi specialty is made from frothed milk, saffron, pistachios and sugar, and is decorated with the edible silver leaf known as varq. It's a light, insubstantial treat with an unforgettable taste, and the more poetic merchants will tell you it requires an additional dose of moonlight to get it just right.

There's no time to sample any, however, as Kanika leads onward while explaining how these areas stretching back from Chandni Chowk were once nobles' estates enclosed by walls and gates. Most of the boundaries were pulled down by the British to aid movement, but the odd gate still remains. Kanika points to one, a solid metal structure behind a stationery stall.

Returning to the main road, the space suddenly opens out. Here was once a public square, with a pool that reflected moonlight — which is what Chandni Chowk means, moonlit square. The European-styled building opposite was once the British-built Town Hall, though it's watched over nowadays by a statue of early independence leader Swami Shardhanand.

A holy oasis

Crossing the road and entering another alleyway, we take a moment to inspect the interior of a small Hindu temple with a beautiful central canopy. It's dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, but surprisingly it's also a family home. Kanika says the owner sells tea in the alleyway in front of the entrance on weekdays, and indeed there's a small teacup-shaped sign hanging on one side.

The smallness of the temple is in sharp contrast with the vastness of the Fatehpuri Mosque, the next stop on our tour. Named after a wife of Shah Jahan, the founder of the city, it's a congregational mosque with a spacious open-air interior within its walls. It's a peaceful place to visit on a Sunday morning, as visitors walk through its interior holding their shoes in deference to the Muslim tradition of entering a mosque without footwear.

At the far end is a structure with graceful arched openings and a central dome, wherein the imam preaches his sermon on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. In the centre of the vast courtyard is a decorative water tank which worshippers use for ablutions before prayer. Perched along the edge of this are people, sitting quietly as if in contemplation. After the hectic street, this is the perfect place to take a moment to draw breath, relax and appreciate a dash of serenity.

Chillies give way to a view

Nearing the end of our Old Delhi adventure, we enter the Gadodia Market, a covered space given over to spice merchants. This is the place to buy chillies, and the pungent aroma of the hot red peppers seem ground into every stone within the market.

From here, we take a battered old stairwell to the top of the building. There's a sweeping view of Old Delhi from this point, taking in minarets, gates, the fort, Chandni Chowk, and all the Delhi residents who make the old city such a memorable place for a Sunday morning exploration.

The Chandni Chowk walking tour takes place monthly on a Sunday morning. Dates and starting times are subject to change, dependent on season, so check the Delhi Heritage Tours website for details of upcoming tours.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Thai Airways; see his travel blog at www.aerohaveno.com

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