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I shop (and eat); therefore I am. Visitors to Chandni Chowk, the spectacular bazaar at the heart of Old Delhi, would do well to take on this philosophy before entering the fray and allowing themselves to be swept along in the mile-long melee of buyers, sellers, barterers and gob-smacked first-timers (London’s Oxford Street on Christmas Eve has nothing on this bad boy, take it from us).
To define Chandni Chowk as a market belies its historical and commercial significance, yet at its heart that’s exactly what it is – a living, breathing enterprise,
full of drama and chaos. It’s also one of the most important business hubs in Delhi, not to mention the busiest wholesale market in Asia.
Chandni Chowk was built in the 17 th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and designed by his daughter, Jahanara Begum (her mother was Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory the Taj Mahal was built). The name is interpreted as either ‘moonlit square ’ or ‘moonlit market’, although both romanticise modern-day Chandni Chowk somewhat. Where once a pool shimmered at the centre of the bazaar around which some 1,500 merchants sold their wares, these days commerce is king. The pool’s long gone and the half-moon arc of shops lost as more businesses spring up.
That’s not to say, however, that the narrow streets don’t retain an old-school charm as they throng with the shouts and chatter of the buyers and sellers. They may have money on their minds, but this is a very long way from Wall Street.
Chandni Chowk offers pretty much anything you might care to buy, but the star attractions are the silver jewellery at Dariba Kalan, spices at Khari Baoli and, somewhat randomly, photographic equipment at Kucha Choudhary Market (the locals know it as Photo Market, which says it all). Also not to be missed is the street food at Paranthe Wali Gali, a narrow lane filled with the sights and sounds of lunch (or dinner) on the go. The specialty here is paratha – or Indian stuffed flatbread – filled with potato, cauliflower, cashew or papaya. Those with a sweet tooth should head for Kanwarji's, the area’s most famous sweet shop and an Old Delhi institution, and have a wander through the Ballimaran area for bakeries and chai shops.
Dariba Kalan is a mini market in its own right, and the name means ‘street of the incomparable pearl’. Indeed, in its 17 th century incarnation, vendors sold precious stones, although the area is now known mainly for its reasonably priced silver. Amateur and professional photographers alike will goggle at the excellent kit to be found at Kucha Choudhary Market – if you’re a keen snapper, build in a good chunk of time to browse this section at your leisure.
And you can’t come to India and not explore the spice markets – Khari Baoli is possibly the most fragrant, colourful shopping experience you’ll ever have in your lifetime.
Old Delhi. Head for Chandni Chowk on the yellow line of the Delhi Metro, or take a cab or rickshaw from downtown New Delhi. The best way to get around is on foot. Given the volume of people, there’s no other way.
9.30am-8pm, every day except Sunday, when it’s closed. It’s busy during the week, but maddening at weekends.
Entrance is free but you should bring money, resilience and your best bartering skills.
Think conservative, as in India in general – cover your legs and shoulders.
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