My latest, a story about Zagreb's coolest neighborhood for The New York Times

Guest post: Old Delhi

Posted by anja | March 11, 2010 | Delhi, Ex-blog, guest post, India

As part of the guest post series, this week’s travels take us all the way to India. There, on the hectic subcontinent, we explore old Delhi through the eyes of resident Ellen of A Reason to Write, who shares some of her highlights and a few tips. Enjoy the wander around Delhi!

DELVE INTO OLD DELHI

Old Delhi is one of my favorite places in India. While I do love visiting the monuments around town and throughout India, it is old Delhi that draws me in over and over again. Busy with life, old Delhi does not stand still for even one second. In between the hustle of life and work, you can enjoy the calls to prayer and the smiles of children hustling back and forth to school. Because cars cannot navigate the narrow passageways, it is possible to escape the horn honking that is hallmark India. The smells can be strong so bring a hanky if you are sensitive to strong odors.

Upon first arriving in Delhi, I was intimidated to go into the streets crowded with men, dirt, animals, rickshaws and street food that I would not dare eat. Slowly, I not only became comfortable and in awe with all that old Delhi offers but I am now confident enough to take visitors on tours, teach them the history, and help them navigate which foods are safest to eat. Many people worry about their safety in old Delhi but you just have to think of it as you would of any crowded place: take precautions, enjoy yourself and bring a camera. If you are comfortable trekking out without a ride, walking is the easiest way to navigate old Delhi. Alternatively, it is possible to rent a bicycle rickshaw. Just make sure to confirm the price before you get on.

Old Delhi was created by Shah Jahan, most famous for building the Taj Mahal. He is also famous for moving the capital of India from Agra to Delhi during his reign. As such, old Delhi is also known as Shajahanabad. Built along the Silk Route as the epicenter of the trade world, it was alive with worship, trade and life even centuries ago. Still today, old Delhi is alive with much the same vibrancy as it was in Shah Jahan’s time. From trading at the Spice Market to shopping in Kinari Bazar (the Wedding Street) to living on Naughara Lane (the best maintained lane in old Delhi) to worshiping at the Jama Masjid, life exists much like it did so many years ago. The only thing really missing is the emperor, and maybe a few elephants parading down the streets.

The Red Fort was Shah Jahan’s home. As he was building the fort, the locals built havelis in regal fashion to impress and win the favor of Shah Jahan. The havelis were family mansions which have since been passed down through generations. Unfortunately, as families grew, so did the number of heirs. Now, all too often, families simply own rooms rather than entire buildings. The contentious nature of sharing such tremendous inheritances that have been broken into smaller pieces has allowed much decay and little upkeep to be all too normal.

One place where you can see the havelis as they used to be is Naughara Lane. Here, you can visit Ashish Nahar (1999 Naughara Lane), a wholesaler who specializes in silver and semi-precious stone jewelry. His family has lived and sold jewelry here for many generations.

Shah Jahan also built the Jama Masjid. It was here that he worshipped. There are stories of large parades every Friday coming to the Jama Masjid from the Red Fort. The stairs of the mosque were said to be lined with elephants and story tellers. A tip: If you enter the Jama Masjid, you must pay a fee to take pictures and women must cover their heads. Loose fitting clothing is essential and everyone must take off their shoes. During prayer time, women visitors are not allowed in the mosque.

Another fascinating thing about old Delhi is that all the major religions of the world peacefully coexist there. Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Akbar the Great, was a true believer in harmony in all aspects of life. As such, he married women of different faiths and set the tone for acceptance of religious differences. To this day, the Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Christians live, trade, work and worship together in old Delhi.

Just a few doors down from Ashish the jeweler is a Jain temple that’s over 1000 years old. The Jains are faithful believers who value life at every single level. The strictest of Jains are vegetarians who will not even eat the root of a plant because they know that eating that root would kill the plant. A tip: You do not need to cover your head if you enter the Jain Temple but you cannot enter with any leather products or take any pictures while inside the temple. You will be asked to wash your hands and remove your shoes before entering.

The Spice Market is another ‘don’t miss’ sight of old Delhi. If you go early in the morning, you will see the market literally wake up. Men sleep on mattresses in their stalls and slowly begin their day by bathing in the faucets that sit at the ends of the walkways. Everything begins after 11am. Wholesale merchants sell their spices out of large sacks, bins and bottles. You physically enter the Spice Market from Khari Baioli (pronounced Curry Bowly). Some of the spices you will see, smell and taste, if you dare, are red chillies, turmeric, anise, coriander, ginger, cinnamon and salt. As you enter and then leave the Spice Market, you will see that the streets are lined with nut and flower wallas (vendors), making their living right on the roadside.

The Spice Market is situated directly behind Fathepuri Mosque. Initially, the mosque was created to serve as a place of worship near a caravanserais (a resting spot for the Silk Road merchants who could stop, store their goods and get a decent night’s sleep). The mosques earned income from these rest houses. The owners used the resources to provide for those who were destitute. Fathepuri Mosque was one such project, endowed by an imperial governess named Fathepuri-Begum. If you plan to enter the mosque, be prepared to remove your shoes, while women should also cover their heads. You will also want to wear extremely conservative clothing – you should be covered from wrists to ankles with loose fitting clothes.

These are just a few highlights. Old Delhi is alive with life. Its history and the stories behind its walls never disappoint.

Blog Comments

Lovely post. The first time I went to Dehli too I was more than a little nervous but it grew on me so quickly! Have you read 'City of Djinns' William Dalrymple? That was my 'guidebook' when I was there.

Oh those markets! The architecture is awesome, but the colors of the stuff they sell! Lovely.

The Chandni Chowk market is really an interesting place to wander around. Old Delhi is the best part of the city in my opinion.

Thanks! We're heading to India in April and this was helpful.
Btw, I saw your website, I loved your photos of Croatia, we went a few years ago and loved it! We posted about it on our blog if you want to check it out. Thanks again!

Glad you enjoyed Ellen's post, Niamh! Myself, I haven't visited India yet but I'm very intrigued. Will look up "City of Djinns" when I go.

I know, Trudy!I'm also loving the sight of those markets. Makes me want to go to Delhi tomorrow. 🙂

Yes, will definitely have to check out the Chandni Chown market when in Delhi, Anil.

Thanks for stopping by, Aron! I checked out your post about Croatia. Glad to hear you guys had such a good time in my home country! You should go back though and explore some more off-the-tourist-radar islands and the interior of Istria, which is very dear to me.

You did capture the essence and intricacies of Delhi, one of the better projections of Delhi I have heard lately, Thank you!

Add a comment

*Please complete all fields correctly

Related posts

Happy 2014
Posted by anja | January 2, 2014
It was a pivotal year, yet it felt somehow quiet. Perhaps because I write this from a quiet place. But it wasn’t so most of the year. My husband &...
Posted by anja | May 31, 2013
  In May 2011, I visited Kenya. On the 10-day sojourn, I went to three national reserves, got charged by a bull elephant, witnessed a fresh cow blood drinking ceremony...
Posted by anja | May 27, 2013
  In winter 2006, I fulfilled a long-awaited dream – I traveled to Cuba. Among the highlights was the afternoon I spent marching with the Cuban people through the streets...