“Ahhhchooo”, “Ahhhchooo”…these were my first reactions to Khari Baoli spice market in Delhi. A very popular wholesale market in the old city of Delhi, Khari Baoli is a staple among travelers interested in the heritage circuit of the city. Photographers and Instagrammers love it too and it is a very photogenic place indeed. Quintessentially Indian, Khari Baoli comes with a hefty dose of chaos, a cacophony of motorcycle horns, and loads of dust. You will find the omnipresent stubborn cow blocking traffic, narrow lanes, men heaving massive burlap sacks of produce, and shop keepers busily minding their generations-old trade amidst piles of multi-hued spices. There will be some pigeons too, a handful of gawkers, and curious photobombers who will smile into your selfies in a good-natured way. An insane amount of mannerless, ruthless traffic coursing through the lanes near Khari Baoli will drive you mad but thankfully there are lots of places to take a break, have a bite or two and sip really good Masala Chai. This is Khari Baoli spice market in a nutshell and me being a local market aficionado, I absolutely loved it.
Meet my Khari Baoli tour companions
I went there last April with baby Akash and my dear blogger friend, Nirdesh.K.Singh of Just-Tripping. Akash thrived in the charismatic chaos and my friend showed us around. Now, Nirdesh is a hippie-flower power man at heart and a major history buff. Old stones talk to him and trees of Delhi seem to flower only for him. So, quite understandably the walk came with lots of historical anecdotes and photo moments. He also took us to really good places to eat there and since Nirdesh is a frugal eater, we happily wolfed down his share of great food. This worked for all three of us and hence, I personally recommend combining a Khari Baoli walk with some local food sampling. Trust me, you will not regret it, especially if you are a foodie.
A bit about the history of this 16th-century spice market
Khari Baoli originated as a step-well during the reign of Salim Shah, the son of Sher Shah Suri. The well was completed in the year 1551, though nothing of it remains anymore except for some mentions in old literary works. The market evolved with the construction of the 15th century Fatehpuri Masjid and it grew around it. During Shah Jahan’s name, the adage Khari Baoli got stuck to the site and till today, the market bears that name. Baoli means step-well and Khara or Khari stands for salty. Thus, it is believed that during Shah Jahan’s reign, the step-well was used solely for animals and bathing purposes. The step-well came with an ambitious fortified gateway which was one of the 14 gates of the old city of Delhi. The gateway led straight to a Pakistani city and thus was named the Lahori Gate. Sadly, nothing of the epic historical grandeur of Khari Baoli remain today and the well and the gateway lie buried the present day market.
How the re-settled loan sharks created Khari Baoli of today
A bit of fast forward time traveling and 1936 saw a revival of Khari Baoli. It started when a Punjab government minister announced a decree which canceled all debts of the villagers. This drastic move made many loan sharks lose their money lending businesses and they migrated to Delhi for better prospects. This new wave of migrants settled in pockets all over South Delhi and set up shops in various locations within the walled old city of Delhi. Khari Baoli was one such location and till today, many of its shops are known by their serial numbers. Having identities like “Chawal Wale 13” or “21 Number Ki Dookan,” these businesses are operated by the ninth- or tenth generation of the founders of these establishments.
This is a nucleus of massive human energy and wealth
At first glance, Khari Baoli looks like complete chaos. However, just like India, there is an underlying sense of order and the narrow dingy lanes of the market are nuclei of an enormous amount of wealth. Trading of stupendous proportions are conducted here every day and thousands of livelihoods depend on it. Many claim Khari Baoli to Asia’s biggest spice market, technically it may be only a half-truth. In reality, “Gadodia Market”, located on the southern side of Khari Baoli is Asia’s largest wholesale spice market, though this demarcation is barely discernable. A walk through Khari Baoli is a cornucopia of fantastic sights and sound and this is as close to the exotic India image as possible.
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And of course, an overwhelming amount of spices
The tightly packed stalls of Khari Baoli sell a wide variety of spices, nuts and dried fruits from across northern India and Afghanistan. From dried mulberries, fine Darjeeling tea, chili, turmeric, allspice, fiery Malabari pepper, Kashmiri saffron strands, tender green cardamoms, unrefined pink Himalayan salt, black rock salt, various pulses, rice, herbs, ‘khoya’ i.e a traditional milk solid used in desserts to diverse dry fruits, the produce heaps of Khari Baoli display a huge array of colours, textures, and shapes. The pace is frenetic there, unsuitable for dawdling, though you will be tempted to stop every second to absorb the atmosphere or take endless pictures. Sunlight falls in shafts through overhead gaps and dust particles dance in them. There is so much spice in that place, that people find it difficult to pass through without giving out torrents of explosive sneezes. A few street vendors sell a cornucopia of glittering religious paraphernalia and there is the unmissable pavement tobacco shop. Human industriousness hardly gets any more tangible than this, so inhale deeply and take in the adrenaline rush of the crushing humanity of India.
Tips on how to experience Khari Baoli
One of the largest wholesale spice markets in Asia, Old Delhi’s Khari Baoli is definitely worth visiting. Along with fresh spices of all shapes, sizes, and colors, you will find a myriad nut, herbs, dry fruits, and grains, displayed in photo-worthy mounds. Moreover, despite being a wholesale market, you can still buy small quantities of whatever catches your fancy. It is a popular stop on Old Delhi tours and is best explored with a local guide. However, if you want to visit there alone, do give the following tips a read. Khari Baoli is in the western end of Chandni Chowk, just south of Old Delhi Railway Station and west of the Red Fort. By metro from New Delhi, take the Yellow Line to Chandni Chowk station, a 10-minute walk from the market. The market is open daily from 11 am to 7 am except for Sunday when it is closed. Try to visit the Khari Baoli spice market in the winter months or early in the morning to avoid the May-June summer. Do visit the cloth market and Fatehpuri Masjid while you are there. Want information on places to eat around Khari Baoli? Check out this post by Himanshu Barsainya.
Things to Remember Before You Go
- Khari Baoli is essential for foodies, market lovers, and photographers visiting Old Delhi.
- Wear comfortable footwear—Old Delhi visits require a fair bit of walking.
- Dress appropriately and avoid exposed shoulders, mid-riffs, or legs.
- If you are allergic or sensitive to scents and dust, wear a mask, as the spices cause people to sneeze.
- The market is not accessible to wheelchair users.
- Most importantly, be prepared for a culture shock, especially if you are visiting India for the first time.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE