Old Delhi is chaos. Old Delhi is a challenge. It is a street photographer´s paradise and a travel newbie´s nightmare. You may explore it with eyes wide open, shock, fascination, or complete disorientation because old Delhi will take you on a roller coaster ride of sensations. The massive heaving humanity of the area will suffocate you. The noise or the racket will make your ears ring, and the dust will tickle your nostrils. Smells will assault you from all sides. These may be roasting kebabs, flowers, incense, spices, sweating human bodies, or urine. Sights will make your heads turn and the historical importance of this part of India´s capital city will captivate your interest.
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Old Delhi is a world in itself
You will be amazed at the countless people living cheek-in-jowl in crumbling old erstwhile noblemen´s mansions. Their insistence on carrying out generations-old dying trades will make you shake your head in disbelief and you will wonder if it is pride or mere naivete. You will find their gentle highborn ways and their quirky timeless hobbies like pigeon-flying interesting and their gentle, highborn manners will fascinate you. When contrasted with the rough and ready attitude of their newly arrived immigrant neighbours, you will understand that old Delhi is a world in itself.
A seat of centuries of royals
It is a prosperous poor area of the wealthy and the have-nots. Not very clean, very congested, and noisy, old Delhi alleys are as old as time. Centuries of different dynasties have called it home and it is scattered with remnants of great monuments, magnificent mansions, and intricate temples. Bustling markets take place in unexpected courtyards and hole-in-the-wall shops sell all kinds of things: sequins, buttons, lace, patches, sewing needles, threads, leather goods, fireworks, silver and gold jewellery, etc. Quacks of all kinds have set up shop here and their billboards advertise treatments guaranteeing remedies for impotence, lack of sex drive, and infertility. Here and there black magicians and self-termed fakirs carrying peacock feathers peddle amulets, love potions, and charms for getting your love back.
An eye of chaos, noise, and energy
Troops of children in smart, clean uniforms share rides in over-crowded rickshaws and their childish, high-pitched voices yell ´´hellos´´ to you as they pass by. The rickshaws swerve and turn missing buses, cars, bicycles, hard-carts, and massive humped bulls as they pose as immobile nuisances in the middle of congested streets. All the while, music blares from loudspeakers from somewhere and rhesus monkeys swoop from gnarly, old banyan trees. Only the muezzin´s call from the towering, old mosque punctuates through the blanket of noise and for a brief moment, a sense of calm pervades. It is soon broken and you once again watch out for the inextricable jumble of electrical wires that hang overhead and step cautiously around mangy-looking street dogs.
Spices, markets, and hidden temples
When all this starts to feel overwhelming, you take a turn and suddenly find yourself in Naughara: a quiet cul-de-sac that houses a row of beautiful 18th-century Jain mansions and from where only hushed voices come forth. You knock and request permission to enter Shvetambar Jain temple, one of the most beautiful and private Jain temples in Delhi. Silence greets you here as you stare fascinated at the intricate gilded decoration of the room. Your time, however, is soon up and your host firmly but politely ushers you out. Suddenly from a world of cotton-wool silence, you are back to mayhem, noise, street barbers, hand-pulled carts, men sleeping on the sidewalks, and sharp smells of spices. You pass through all of that and walk down the street as the sidewalks are given to pushcart vendors, survive the garbage, cows, dogs, and monkeys, and return home with stunning photos of a world in colourful chaos that is old Delhi.
Why should you explore Old Delhi?
Originally called Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi was established in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Although sacked and looted by various foreign invaders, the walled city has been continually inhabited for a little less than four centuries. It is an interesting section of India´s capital city, where heritage buildings are home to communities that still practice their ancestral professions. It is a busy commercial area that boasts of thriving wholesale markets selling spices and wedding essentials. Old Delhi has one of India’s finest mosques and the remains of a Mughal fort. Explore the network of narrow winding alleys to discover pockets of interesting markets, traditional restaurants, hidden doorways, mansions (Havelis), or ornate Jain temples. It is also famous for street food so make sure to sample some succulent kebabs at Karim’s. You can also shop till you drop for spices, attar (oil-based perfumes from the Mughal tradition), or beautiful, glittery lace. To soak up the atmosphere, stay at the sumptuous Haveli Dharampura or dine there.
Things to do and see in Old Delhi
- Red Fort – A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Red Fort was once the main residence of the Mughal emperors. It is a vast complex with museums, gardens, and various architectural marvels.
- Jama Masjid – Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame this 17th-century mosque is one of the largest and most impressive in India.
- Khari Baoli Spice Market – One of the largest wholesale spice markets in Asia, Khari Baoli is an explosion of colours and smells. Along with fresh spices of all shapes, sizes, and colors, this market sells myriad nuts, herbs, dry fruits, and grains. It is absolutely photogenic.
- Digambar Jain Lal Temple – The Digambar Jain Lal Mandir is the most prominent landmark of Chandni Chowk. The temple dates back to 1656 when the then-Mughal emperor Shah Jahan requested the Jain and Aggarwal community to set up a base in this area.
- Chandni Chowk Market – One of the oldest and busiest markets in Delhi, Chandni Chowk is a network of narrow alleys lined with shops selling spices, textiles, jewellery, and street food. Do not miss the famous Paranthe wali gali.
- Naughara – Turn right from shop number 2031 in Kinari Bazaar to reach Naughara, a narrow cul-de-sac. Naughara literally means ‘nine houses’ and there are nine 18th century havelis. And at the end of the lane is a Shvetambar Jain temple.
- Enjoy some royal fragrances – Visit Gulab Singh Johri Mal’s store in Dariba Kalan and experience the Mughal love for hand-crafted perfumes. Sample tones of warm-earthy musk, ambergris, or sweet jasmine with spicy notes of cinnamon and cloves or a classic rose produced true to the original method.
- Shop till you drop – Shop at Kinariwala for pretty trimmings; Khari Baoli for spices, nuts, and dates; and Dariba Kalan for silver jewellery.
- Evening Out – Enjoy a light and sound show at the Red Fort.
- Carry a water bottle. Do not drink tap water or any beverage from the street vendors.
- Delhi can be very hot and dusty. Wear sunglasses, a hat and a scarf.
- Avoid any isolated or shady areas and do not explore Delhi at night.
- Be prepared for a culture shock, lots and lots of people, noise, crazy traffic, and trash.
- Bargaining is acceptable when hiring a rickshaw or shopping but don´t be a skinflint.
- Do not give to beggars or pet street animals.
- Watch out for the crazy traffic and have your wits on you at all times.
- You may be flooded with countless requests for selfies, especially if you are a Western traveler. It is okay to firmly, but politely say no.
- Dress appropriately especially if you decide to enter a religious monument like the Jama Masjid.
- Go with an experienced tour guide to see the best spots.
Follow the rest of the Delhi series
- INDIA TRIP IN A NUTSHELL
- STREET ART IN DELHI
- DELHI GARDENS AND PARKS
- KHAORI BAOLI SPICE MARKET IN DELHI
- DELHI IN WINTER
- JAMA MASJID IN DELHI
- KATHPUTLI COLONY IN DELHI
- OUR WONDERFUL DELHI CITY STAY
- LODHI GARDENS, MY FAVOURITE DELHI PARK
- AN AFTERNOON AT SAFDARJUNG TOMB
- SUNDER NURSERY; AN OASIS IN DELHI
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE