Even though I was born and raised in a satellite city only 10 minutes from New Delhi, there is a lot of Delhi I have yet to see. One such place in Old Delhi. A crowded, noisy affair with narrow and twisted gallies (“roads” in Hindi), Old Delhi is a place where religion, tradition, and most importantly food, come together. While one moment you find yourself in the middle of Muslims with the Jama Masjid right around the corner, the next you’re in the middle of a bunch of Sikhs in Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. One moment you’re eating deep-fried sweet sweet Jalebis, the next you’re in the middle of an entire alley that specializes in Parathas (stuffed bread) known as “Parathe wali Galli”. And, of course, who can ignore the meat shops - some that have been around for over a century - in Chawri Bazaar.
The walled city of Old Delhi (popularly known as “Purani Dilli”) was founded by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan - yes, the same one who commissioned the Taj Mahal - as Shahjahanabad to serve as the capital of the Mughal Empire all the way back in 1639. Old Delhi remained the capital of the Empire until the Mughals were officially overthrown by the British in 1858. The city is shaped almost like a quarter circle with the Red Fort, which used to be the residence of Mughal Emperors, at the center. The fort is made of red sandstone, consists of gigantic walls, and exhibits a fusion of Mughal and Timurid traditions. The city of Old Delhi was protected by 14 gates that can be seen, and are a vital part of the city, even today. Some of these gates, such as the Kashmiri Gate, the Delhi Gate (which links the metropolis of New Delhi with the walled city of Old Delhi), and the Ajmeri Gate still stand tall and proud in Delhi. Metro trains running near these gates have stations named after them. Ask any Delhite, and they will tell you that if you’d like to catch a train to, say, Mumbai, from the Old Delhi railway station, you should get off at the Kashmiri gate metro station.
When I finally visited Old Delhi, after having lived near the city for pretty much my entire life, I was equal parts mesmerized as I was overwhelmed. Old Delhi, to say the least, is crowded. It is noisy beyond belief and chaotic to the extent that you constantly feel like you’re seconds away from having your foot swashed by a rickshaw, an auto (the name for tuk-tuks in Indian cities), or a motorbike.
My experience of Old Delhi was as exhilarating as it was overwhelming. To walk through the alleyways in search of that one shop that has been around for decades that is known for its jalebis (with over seven thousand reviews on Google) and to observe pure devotion from the sidelines was an experience that would be hard to forget. In these gallies, you will find Havelis (mansions) that were once the homes of wealthy British now turned into multiple tiny electrical shops. You will see women in salwars, jeans, and burquas, all walking in the same direction side by side. They perhaps didn’t come here together. But now here they are, going about their day like any other.
The entire area is unorganized and feels rather unplanned. At the same time, there is an undeniable old-world charm to it. To think that the posh lanes of South Delhi with its cafés, bars, 5-star hotels, and jazz music, are only half an hour away feels almost laughable. Well, turns out there is a reason for this.
The Government of India and the Delhi city authorities collectively decided to let the area…be. This was in part due to the area’s historic significance. And in part, because they were aware of just how difficult (perhaps impossible?) it would be to add some order to this chaos. Old Delhi is not resistant to the modern - it appears to simply be immune.
So the government does its part to the extent of collecting taxes and ensuring law and order prevail. It doesn’t, however, go out to make any infrastructural changes or any change that might impact the ecosystem of Old Delhi.
What is fascinating about Old Delhi is just how entrenched it is in Mughal history and how, somehow, despite the centuries of British rule, the Indian Independence movement, and the ongoing political state of the country, no one has felt the need to disrupt the chaos of Old Delhi. It is as if the crowds, the movement, the mishmashed alleyways, and the food from across cuisines are a tribute to times that used to be. In the midst of Delhi, there exists a slice of Mughal life, frozen in time. Preserved. One that would have you believe that you weren’t walking through the streets of Old Delhi, but Shahjahanabad.
Close by, you will find the famous Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk (the oldest street in Delhi), and Chawri Bazaar, to name just a few areas. Here, you will find devout Muslims on their way to the evening prayer or rich Sikhs from the posher parts of New Delhi in their Range Rovers who have come to get blessings at the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. At Chawri Bazaar, you will see tourists looking confused and frazzled as they try to make a spiritual experience of the noise amidst curious and more used-to-the-bustle localities. At Chandni Chowk (Moonlight Square), which is the biggest and the busiest wholesale market, you will see savvy new-age businesspeople negotiating with merchants, and at the Red Fort, you might bump into families on a weekend out or college kids out on a more offbeat date.
Today, Old Delhi is known for its food, its crowds, its bazaars, and as a melting pot of cultures and traditions. While India as a nation is more divided than ever (especially over religion), it is here that one can appreciate the real diversity of the country. It is here that one realizes what India might be on its way to losing. This acceptance. This appreciation rather than othering. The fact that the layers of history have an undisputed togetherness that might now be on its way to not-so-slow eradication.
This is not to say that all is perfect. Far from it. It just goes to show that the country finds its magic in its history. Rather than the current government attempting to change street names in cities, perhaps it would be better off preserving the magic?