Old Delhi has always charmed visitors from all over the world. In recent times the Mumbai filmmakers seem to be fascinated by Chandni Chowk. Walking in the streets, which were a part of Shahajahanabad, takes you back to the cities as they used to be, probably without the density of crowds. The narrow lanes, and each lane dealing in a specialty, the parapets overlooking the lanes, interweave of lanes, the chaiwalas and restaurants spread across and the tall monuments standing in between all the chaos, take you eras away.
Me and a friend, decided to discover Delhi by walking around and plan to start this by doing the walks from the book ’10 easy walks in old Delhi’, and we started with walk 2 from the book, which covered the parts mentioned in the title. Metro is the best way to travel to old Delhi without getting lost and without loosing any time. So get down at Chandni Chowk metro station and either walk or take a cycle rickshaw to Jama Masjid. Check at the gate the timing of the Namaz and if it is going on what time will it end and entry be allowed. If you have to wait for the entry, go to adjoining Meena Bazaar and come back to the mosque when the entry is allowed.
Walk around Jama Masjid, Meena Bazaar, Chawri Bazaar & Nai Sarak
Meena Bazaar always had an opulent image in my mind. From what I had read in the history books, it was the bazaar where the royal ladies use to come shopping for their silks, for their jewels and for their bangles. It was located between the mosque and the red fort, hence easily accessible to them. What you would see now is nowhere close to your imagination. It still sells the clothes and that too meant for special occasions like weddings. It sells blankets in bright colors and whole lot of religious items associated with Islam. What definitely remains even today, probably from the Mughal era is the Islamic character of this bazaar, where not only are the buyers and sellers primarily Muslims but also the merchandise sold has some imprint of Islam. I wish the market was cleaner and better smelling. As it exists today, you have to think many times before you step in and go through its maze. The items sold are reasonably priced but I am not sure how much business these shops do as I hardly saw any buyers in the market. There were tourists here and there but they hardly buy such items. I tried striking a conversation with couple of shopkeepers to find out how their business is, but surprisingly they were very reluctant to talk.
Jama masjid, is often called the largest mosque in India, but I think the Taj-Ul masjid is Bhopal is definitely bigger than this is size, though not as well known. It is a monument that stands tall on the edge of numerous busy streets. Like typical mughal buildings, this is also made in red stone and white marble and has all the nuances of mughal architecture, the huge gateways, the minarets, delicate and intricate jaalis, a water body, corridors running around the building and big courtyards. If you climb the minaret, what you get to see is probably the best view of Delhi. It is interesting to stand at the narrow top of the minaret and identify the landmark buildings around it. Since most of the area around Jama masjid is not high rise, you would enjoy the view. In fact the high rise buildings on the periphery of the old city, make you feel as if you standing in the middle of a bowl. Going up the minaret can be scary and claustrophobic as the stairs keep getting narrower at the top and there is hardly any light inside the stairs. I strongly advise against going alone on this, though you would always find people climbing it. The roofs leading to the base of the minaret are not clean, so take care of your feet. Interestingly women and children are not allowed to climb up the stairs if they are not accompanied by an adult male, but I and my friend were asked no questions and we just climbed the minaret on our own.
Jama masjid has some of the relics that are definitely worth having a look at. There is a hair from the Prophet Mohammad’s beard. There are only 3 such hair that are supposed to be there in the world, the other two are in Turkey and Hazrat Bal in Kashmir. Along with it there are two Korans, written by the son-in-law and the grandson of prophet, both on dear skin and one of them written without the Maatra. There is camel skin sandal belonging to prophet, now preserved in a glass case and covered with flowers. There is marble with a footprint of prophet and this is the item that you are allowed to touch. I do not know if this is pure psychological or it is spiritual, but the marble slab did have some energy as everyone felt uplifted after touching it. All these relics are stored in a beautiful white dome like Almirah. A usual visitor who does not know the existence of these relics may miss them as they are usually kept under lock and key. There can be some amount of convincing required to make the incharge of the relics open it for you. The incharge is the 14th generation descendent of the first caretaker of these relics in Jama Masjid. He also says that he is a descendent of Prophet Mohammad himself, and a small booklet given by him traces the family line.
You can sit on the stairs outside the prayer hall and look feel the place, you can look at people coming there with devotion, some with awe and some irritated after being hassled to wear something that do not want to. As you look at the Masjid from one of the streets leading to it, you would see a lot of loudspeakers on the facade, which you really wish were not there as they take away the symmetric beauty of the place. You would also notice a part of the corridor covered with walls to cover the things kept inside and you wonder could the things not be kept somewhere else. There are small shops just outside the gate, which can definitely be more aesthetically placed. We really need monuments management to maintain the monuments as they were and not play around with their structure and ambience.
Just opposite the main gate of Masjid is Matia Mehal lane, where again you get all kinds of items. There are restaurants that serve food, I guess primarily for the traders around and for the tourists which also form a major chunk of population on any given day. If you go around lunch time, you may see lot of people squatting outing the restaurants with their hands folded. I could gather that they are looking for free food, and it was apparent from their faces that they were regulars at this place and knew that they would be provided with food. As I was looking around, a person from Garib Nawaz hotel called and asked about us, and when I asked him if he feeds these people, he very interestingly replied ‘No, it is you guys who feed them’. It took me a minute to understand that there are people who place orders to the restaurant to feed a certain number of people. Then I suddenly saw a flurry and I was told that we have just been asked to feed 10 people. Having said that, Mohammad Aslam, the owner of Garib Nawaz hotel ordered an ice cream for us and simply refused to take any money for the same. I was later told that he is known for his hospitality and is usually found doing this. My point if view on this: Both me and my friend had cameras and were clicking pictures, I was taking notes and the smart businessman knew we are potentially going to write about him. He did verify with me by asking who do I write for? Can our much written about B-school pass outs ever do business like these businessman who have inherited businesses in their blood, who strive and thrive in the most competing places, without always appearing in the media and with minimum overhead expenses.
As you go around Jama Masjid, you cross the spare parts market, which was known as the Chor Bazaar few years back, when people would never get their vehicles near this area with the fear of having to buy parts of your own vehicle. It is said that you can buy anything to do with any vehicle here. The shops are small and the parts are literally spilling out of the shops. I wonder how they fit them back in their small shops during the night. As a traveler you can probably just pass by this street at the back of Jama Masjid. If you are interested, you can always talk to one of the shop owners but most of the times they are too busy with their business to interrupt it and talk to you, though they may be keen to oblige the foreigners.
After a small walk the road joins the Chawri Bazaar, which is the hub of stationary trade. What you would see all around on display is the wedding cards, primarily Hindu but also for other communities, in bright shades with lot of decorations and space to print the specifics of the invite. Red and off white are the pre-dominant colors though there are other ones too. Although the display is of weddings cards only for the retail buyers who come here once in a while to buy invitation cards of latest designs, but these shops deal in all kinds of stationary. Here you can find papers of all sizes, thickness, texture and quality. Anything that you can think of in stationary is available here, but you have to buy them in numbers, nothing less than the minimum packing is available. There are few antique shops also there which you can browse around, though I can not recommend buying as I found the prices too high almost like boutiques which probably also buy from the same place. Items sold here are not really antique but are made to look like antique. Art pieces are sourced from all over the country and primarily from UP, where there are towns which produce lot of brassware.
As some point, Chawri Bazaar crosses road with Nai Sarak. Nai sarak is no longer new, but still goes by this name. This road specializes in books, primarily educational books, school and college books, medicine and engineering books. It is crowded like any other road in the area, but if you are a bibliophile, you would love the site of books all around you. I am not too sure if there are many people who come to pick up books from here, but I am sure all the retailers come here and this road is an important link in the books supply chain across the city. You would also see some clothes and Sari shops on the road. If you eat or drink anything on the road, do remember to ask the price before hand, otherwise you will be obliged to pay whatever they ask for.
Old Delhi is a must do on any traveler’s itinerary, but it essentially remains one of the busiest business areas in the country and everyone working in this area is a hard core businessman, and more so a trader. There is nothing that gets manufactured here, but all that is manufactured across the country can be found here to be re-distributed again from here. Nonetheless you would enjoy walking around these streets which have all the old world charm while being the hardcore business district.