The Chandni Chowk No One Remembers


The Past is another country.

Warmed by the kindly sunshine, we explored Chandni Chowk of Old Delhi.. the city of the majestic Qila Mubarak, the Jama Masjid, the moon-lit avenue that Shah Jahan and Jahanara built like titans but finished like jewelers; that Delhi of Aurangzeb, where in 1675 Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur and his three disciples were kept and tortured at the Kotwali, and martyred at the present site of Sis Ganj Gurudwara; when Aurangzeb was amazed at the spontaneous tolling of temple gongs at the Jain Mandir that was set up in 1658 in the Urdu Bazar, without anyone present in the temple premises; the Delhi of 1739 which was mercilessly plundered and looted by Nadir Shah, of which, the Sunheri Masjid and Dariba Kalan are the living spectators; the Delhi of feeble and inefficient Mughal Kings, and prominence of Begum Samroo from 1778, whose partly-restored haveli in its present re-incarnation as a bank building calls upon us to remember the gallant lady;  the Maratha’s conquest and vassalage of Delhi, of which the Shiv Temple constructed by Maratha soldier Apa Ganga Dhar in 1761 is an extension;  the Delhi of 1857 when almost all of Delhi and Red Fort was being leveled and razed, and when the wealthy money lender Lala Chunnamal, flush with liquid cash,  purchased off the Fatehpuri Masjid; and, of course, the Delhi of 1947 partition …


With each one of these layers yearning to tell a myriad tales, you will kindly excuse me if I get carried away in a dimly lit by-lane of history..

If a magician can turn back the clock by 350 years, in our imagination at least, the great Red Fort just been commissioned , majestically across the banks of Yamuna seen from the green velvet fields of young wheat, stripped with patches of yellow blossoming mustards. Its Diwal-I-Aam’s walls and pillars and balustrades, adorned with  flowers, fruits, birds, and beasts done in the most beautifully finished mosaic,  wrought with lapis lazuli, carnelians, agates, onyx, jasper, jadestone, green marble, amethyst and what not; the leaves and flowers and vines and stems interleaving, twining in and out,  waving up and over all of the arches. Its roof, walls, and columns were hung with brocaded velvet from Turkey and China. If we can see the past, the palace peopled with hardy mountain men – the huge, powerful bodied Afghan, Baluchi, and Kashmiri- and haughty, fierce Rajput soldiers. The Diwan-I-Am, or the ‘Hall of Justice’ lined up with turban headed people in their flowing robes under the great canopy of embroidered velvet raised on four silver pillars, their heads downcast out of fear and respect for the sitting Emperor ; the learned Qazi seated on a raised marble slab in front of the emperor’s throne adorned with an embroidered mat, with a Koran in front of him on a silver book-stand, carefully concealing his feelings and inclinations to either side of the pleaders – rich or poor – who would be presenting their cases before the highest court of the country, against which there would be no further appeal. If we can redecorate in our minds, the rooms, walls, doorways with rich gorgeous crimson silk and velvet curtains, cover the floor with thick stuffed Persian carpets, richest satins and damasks of Persia and China, and rugs of heavy azure silk brocades glittering with inter-woven beaten gold, white muslins of gossamer firmness, arrange few immense cushions inlaid with pearls, and gems, and stitched in the famous gold cloth of Benares, it may seem ‘Arabian Nights’ may not actually be all fiction!



As if not quite self-evident then, the Persian inscriptions in gold above the Diwan-i-Khas still declared:

“If there be a Paradise on Earth, it is this; it is this; it is this.”

It is said, that there was no parallel in the world to the three cities of Babylone, Shahjahanabad, and Lahore; where sufficient provision had been made for open spaces. Shahjahanabad was planned taking into advantage of the location of river Yamuna, and the Aravali Ridge, in a semi-elliptical layout of a bow fronting the river Yamuna, and the Chandni Chowk street representing the arm of an archer. Sufficient open spaces were allocated, including the placement of a central water canal at Chandni Chowk; and the city was provisioned with many beautiful gardens, such as Roshanara Gardens, Qudsia Bagh, Queen’s Garden, with their fountains and flowers making green buffer zones. The city architecture was like a poetry, where every single tree or building was in sync with the harmony of the place. It had 7 main gates for vehicular, mounted, or pedestrian traffic : Kashmiri, Mori, Kabuli, Lahori, Ajmiri, Turkmani; and Akbarabadi gates; in addition to three water front gates – Nigamabodh, Raja Ghat, and Qila Ghat; primarily for Hindu rituals.

Before Aurangzeb installed a stone veil, if anyone from the Diwan-i-Aam would cast his eyes from the famed Hall of Public Audience, towards the grand entrance of the citadel, looking yonder “Chandni Chowk’, the great thoroughfare of the city in a perfect straight line, it would have culminated at the Lahore Gate of the city boundary, right upto Fatehpuri Masjid, to immediately have a feel of the pulse of the city…

The Pulse of the city that would have manifested in simple rituals of those years:

A dastan goh, or the professional story teller, would be roaming the city selling his stories in the daytime, and the evenings would be enlivened with the golden-voiced dancing girls in the intoxicated ambience of wine and beauty. The Mughal court would be holding gup-baazi or boasting matches, and in one instance, Jehangir was so pleased with the story teller Mullah Asad that he was awarded with an elephant, a horse and palanquin, and weighed in rupees.

There would be a random beggar who could recite the Koran by heart, and loved to travel by palanquin, and had a knack of predicting things. The famous bandsmen of Chandni Chowk, whose descendants still play at marriage processions, would be making preparations for a party. As the evening approaches, an old man hanging lanterns on his shoulder would start visiting  one house hold to another, selling the lanterns in the dimmest of the gullies. The kabab-farrosh, or even the road side kababia, would be handing over the seekh, gola, chapli, kati, shami, nargisi, tandoori, murgh, machli and even hiran kebabs to the long queue of hungry souls. And along with Chandni Chowk’s chaats, and kulfis, people would be enjoying the jalebis at Ghantewala’s shop established in 1790 during Emperor Shah Alam’s time –  named as ‘the Bell Ringer sweet shop’ because the Emperor’s royal elephant would stop here and ring the bell, and not budge unless the sweet-seller gave him enough sweets. The Garhaia Unani hakims – physicians in the Mughal Court – would be treating the patients ,  both the celebrity and as well as the common man , if not of anything serious, then at least, for Delhi Belly! In some corners, the Boxwallah would be visiting the customers carrying everything that a general merchant shop sells – lace, trinkets, shawls, combs, and what not. People would be shopping the loveliest necklaces, earrings and bracelets in the Dariba Kalan – ‘the street of the incomparable pearl’;  and prospective bridegrooms lost in the glitz and glitter of gold and red wedding essentials like embroidered brocades in the Kinari Bazar – ‘the Wedding street’, or just having a fill of stuffed parathas at the Pandit Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan’s café in the Parethawalla Galli, whose sixth generation descendants still run the shop till date; or simply would be offering prayers at the Onyx-statue at the Urdu Jain Mandir ..




Chandni Chowk, was once a fine broad avenue with an open conduit running in its middle, supplied with water from an old canal that was built by Ali Mardan Khan. A stone paved walkway lined with shade giving trees paralleled a carriage way. Mornings here would be spent in the business transactions in this busy commercial mart, while in the evenings, all the noblemen and women would ride on their elephants with men running ahead of them, shouting and announcing their revered titles. It was a place of great show of Delhi, where brilliant processions of marriages and other  important functions, would pass through this fine avenue. Royal families would turn up in their gorgeously caparisoned elephants, gaily decorated Royal guards, batteries of camels, trains of palkees, followed by the bride and groom seated on separate elephants, with servants waving giant peacock-feather fans.

Sometimes the Great Mughal Emperor would ride out on a hunting expedition or a pleasure trip to Khyber, Kabul, or Kashmir, from the palace gate onto these very streets of city: a giant army of richly garrisoned castled elephants, burdened camel trains, carrying the royal households and tents for the Durbar tent,  reception tent, kitchen tents, living tents for the Royals, bath tents, tents for gymnasium and exercise, tents to be used as mosques,etc etc. along with troops of dancing girls, players, and buffoons to entertain in evening camps. Few rare animals would follow in tow – hooded hunting leopards  trained to take down deer, led along by their keepers ; and even a few tigers in cages for a late afternoon entertainment of fight with a giant bull; with thousands of armed men leading the procession and shouting : “ Clear the way for his sublime Highness, the King of the world…!”

With the fall of ShahJahan at the hands of his son Aurangzeb, Jahanara, his tenderly beloved daughter preferred to look after her father in his captivity at Agra, over the splendor and unsurpassed magnificence of her loving brother’s court. 20 years later, she directed a simple tomb to be made for herself, at the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, inscribed with her own lines:

“ Let nought but the green grass cover the grave of Jahanara,

For grass is the fittest covering for the tomb of the lowly”

These very feelings reverberated almost a century later in the words of the English poet, Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) :

“Be the green grass above me. With flowers and dewdrops wet;

And if thou wilt, remember, And if thou wilt, forget.’

This is , however, the same city, the same street that Nadir Shah, the King of Persia, captured and plundered in 1739, killing  and torturing, mutilating and butchering its citizens to extract money that dark day and night, when men killed their own family members and went out to the streets to die. On 7th March 1739, Nadir Shah ,after defeating Mughal emperor Mohammed Shah entered Red Fort, and for 4 days, had his troops under control so that citizens are not inconvenienced. However, when they force-demanded the granaries to be opened without paying the merchants, violence erupted resulting in death of few Persians. Nadir Shah rode out on his horse trying to calm the mobs, but was fired at. In the subsequent massacre that he ordered, almost 30,000 citizens were butchered by 3 PM on 10th March 1739. He returned to Persia in May 1739, carrying with him a huge loot including the Koh-i-noor, and the Peacock Throne. The throne’s cost was estimated by the resident French jeweler from Bordeaux in Shah Jahan’s court at 6 million pound sterlings; and the amount of treasure carried away by the Persians is estimated to be minimum of 320 million rupees.

A mere 7 years later, the Afghan King of Kandahar;  Ahmed Shah Durani arrived here with his massive force and laid siege to Delhi.  After only a year’s time, the invading force of Marathas arrived to loot and plunder once again, taking down the gold and silver filigree ceiling of the palace, melting it into 17,00,000 rupees. Two years later, Ahmed Shah Durani returned again to extract whatever he can get and looted the city once more. Eleven years later, the Rohillas marched into the city, captured Emperor Shah Alam and blinded him, forcing him to produce concealed wealth that has long been plundered. In 1803, Lord Lake, marched into Delhi with a British force, releasing the Moghul emperor and the citizens from the clutches of the oppressive vassalage of Marathas. There was nothing of monetary significance left in the city by the time Lord Lake set his foot in Chandni Chowk, but the king, nonetheless, preferred the British captor to the Maratha captors, and thus began the British Resident-ship over the Mughal Court, with Sir David Ochterloney.

After the 1857 uprising, the East India Company was dissolved, and power was transferred to the British Crown, and thereafter began erecting numerous statues of Queen Victoria, just like the Nehru-Gandhian naming spree that blossomed after the Independence. In Delhi, Connaught Place was named after Queen Victoria’s son;   a bronze statue of Queen was erected in Chandni Chowk in front of  the Town Hall, at the erstwhile site of Jahanara’s famed Caravan-serai, the statue now having been replaced with that of Swamy Shraddhanand; Victoria Zenana Hospital was commissioned near Jama Masjid; numerous schools were named QV, in addition to naming so many little girls after the Queen; even a dal was named as Malka Masoor because of Queen’s fondness for it! A statue of Prince Edward VII riding on a horse was installed in front of the Red Fort, but removed and replaced now with that of Subhas Chandra Bose.

Begum Samroo, once more:



A little over a half century after Aurangzeb’s reign was over, stormy times came on Delhi, as one weak and inefficient Prince after another ascended the throne. Ninth on the Mughal line was Shah Alam, and during these times, countless European deserters – mostly Portuguese, French, British, and Dutch – from their Army and Navy flooded India offering armed mercenary services and trainings to the comparatively far inferior Indian troops. One such deserter from the French East India company was the German national Reinhardt , to whom Begum Samru had married. Sometimes after unsuccessful military campaigns when war spoils would be less, there would be a minor mutiny in the ranks, and the soldiers would bind Reinhardt to a canon’s mouth and slowly light up a fire; prodding him to chose distribution of more money, or get roasted from the heat of the iron barrel. After his death in 1778, Begum Samru converted to Christianity, and  used her haveli in Chandni Chowk – gifted to her by Mughal emperor Akbar Shah –  for retaining a part of her troops here, while the larger battalions, an ammunition depot and gun foundry was at Sardhana.  After her rescue of Shah Alam in 1788 from the rebels who blinded the king to extract his hidden wealth, Begum Samru rose very fast in the echelon of power in the Mughal court. Shortly thereafter, she married Frenchman Le Vassoult; but during yet another rebellion in her battalion, she took out her dagger and stabbed herself in her palkee. As the news of the blood soaked Begum was carried over by the wailing maids to Vassoult, he immediately drew his pistol and blew out his brains. Begum somehow survived the suicide bid. In the inevitable British-Maratha war, she wisely foresaw the winning side and switched her loyalty to the British, which immensely enhanced her power equation. She died at an advanced age in 1835, leaving her fortune to her step-son. Her palatial bungalow at Chandni Chowk, after changing few hands, was purchased by Lala Bhagirath Mal in 1940, and the present electronics market is known by his name as Bhagirath market.

( For more of Chandni Chowk, please see my earlier post on Shahajahanabad:


Chunnamal’s Haveli:



Lala Chunnamal’s 3-storied, 128-room Haveli, known to have played host to Kate Winslet in recent times, was constructed in 1848 by the wealthy textile merchant of Chandni Chowk. The original chandeliers, clocks, life-size mirrors, candle stands and even a functional fireplace adorn its drawing room. Presently the tenth generation lives in the haveli.

Chunnamal was one of those British-loyal money-lenders, bankers and traders who prospered even more after the 1857 revolt, having enough liquid cash to buy not only immunity from the Prize Agents , but was able to buy large havelis of erstwhile Mughal noblemen that were put up for auction by the British. Lala Chunnamal was even able to purchase the Fatehpuri Masjid at Rs 40,000; which he sold back to the British in 1877 in exchange for 4 villages worth Rs 116,613, clocking a 300 per cent profit.

Mirza Ghalib had bitterly commented, “ While most of Delhi was plunged in grief and darkness, Chunnamal’s haveli was so flooded with light that it made night look like day.”

Fatehpuri Majid:


Built in 1650 by one of Shah Jahan’s wives, Fatehpuri Begum, the well-cared-for mosque still offer an air of calm, even though shops, a Muslim School, and a public library now share its walls. Its central niche, or Mihrab, pointing to Mecca, is simple yet striking. In the courtyard, graves of the Shahi Imams who had served the mosque can be found. After 1857 rebellion, the mosque remained a private property of Lala Chunnamal for almost 17 years, before it was needed back by the British to hand over to the Muslims.





Khari Baoli  & Gadodia Market:

The ‘Brackish Step-Well Street’ has been a very busy street, from the times of Shah Jahan, selling myriad nuts, dry fruits, such as almonds, cashewnuts, pistachio nuts, raisins, dried dates and figs, among others.  In the olden days, the street was the route to Lahore. The tributary of river Yamuna was brought to Shahjahanabad via a canal running along this street, before feeding the central water body of Chandni Chowk, and also into the Red Fort, where it ran in water-ways inlaid with white and green marble in zigzag lines, which, once full of water, gave the impression of fishes swimming.


The step-well is not visible , and must have long been encroached.

Built by Seth Narayan Gadodia almost 75 years back, the Gadodia spice market lives on today, even with its original spaciousness now disappeared, with porters busily carrying sacks of chillies, turmeric, cloves, and all sorts of spices, that makes the market so full of smell, on a working day.




The cul-de-sac called Naughara, or Nine Houses, is a quaint little street with its own gate that the residents can close in the evening; and the houses in the street are quite distinctive with their brightly colored doors, and all of them are occupied by Jain households living like one extended family.


Apart from the sweet-obsessed elephant’s story, there is another interesting reference to Ghantewalla during the uprising.

“The troops who can act with great daring outside…the moment they drink the water of the city and take a round of Chandni Chowk and stroll about in the big and small Dariba and go around Jama Masjid and enjoy the qalaqaand of Ghantewala and its laddus, they lose all urge and determination to fight…experience as well as books of histories and biographies show us how this place [that is, Delhi] has been prone to luxury and idleness.”  — Dehli Urdu Akhbar, August 23, 1857.

Kanika Singh of Delhi Heritage Walks led this heritage exploration.


  1. Capital Vignettes; by RV Smith
  2. Old Delhi 10 Easy Walks; by Gaynor Barton & Laurraine Malone
  3. Illustrated India: Its Princess and People; by Julia A. Stone
  4. The World of Walled Cities; by I. Mohan
  5. Rana Safvi’s blog on Sunheri Masjid:
  6. Chunnamal’s Haveli:
  7. Christina Rossetti’s poems:
  8. Wall Street Journal interview with historian Narayani Gupta:
  9. Delhi Heritage Walk Blogs :

4 thoughts on “The Chandni Chowk No One Remembers

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