Do you want to understand the Indian crowd and the smells of India? Then you must come to Chandni Chowk, in the heart of Old Delhi that hosts one of the oldest markets in India, which is a kaleidoscope of contrasts, juxtapositions of light and shadows and layers of smells. Colors and loud noises reverberate contradictions at every turn. The streets teem with life-like worms on a decomposing body with its richness and its history.
Here you can leave aside the IT explosion in the country and glass buildings that rise here and there. Here you can feel the smell, the noise and the vitality of the country. This is the market by definition. Perhaps one of the largest markets of the world, it is also centuries old, popularised by those Mogul rulers who gave the current face of Old Delhi.
Chandni Chowk, which is also called Shahjahanabad means a city square in the moonlight, because the place was once divided by a canal to supply water to the adjacent private gardens designed for the princess, that precisely reflected the moon. What pleases anyone visiting this place is its ability to bring back that era.
Chandni Chowk, once famous as the richest street in the world for the extraordinary amount of valuable goods that it offered is also a melting pot of people of all religions as it hosts the Digamber Jain temple, the oldest Jain temple in the capital, originally built in 1656, at the mouth of Chandni Chowk, just opposite the Red Fort. Hindus reach the nearby temple of Gauri Shanker, which is for 800 years dedicated to the worship of Shiva.
A few steps away is the Central Baptist church established in 1814 and Sikh Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, built in 1783, in honor of the ninth Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur and some of his followers executed by the Mughals in that place in 1675 AD. In the courtyard, a big pot offers a free meal to anyone who requests it. Of all this, the mass of pervasive humanity, push and walk disorderly in all directions.
But it is the Red Fort or Lal Qila of Delhi that stands out, right in front of Chandni Chowk, built in nine years by Shah Jahan as the official palace of the Mughals. In front of it, the beautiful Jama Masjid, the other building that Shah Jahan built in six years is one of the largest mosques in India, that dominate Chawri Bazar, the central street of Old Delhi. There are three inputs and to access the main entrance. We pass through the stalls of Meena Bazar, picking our way among the sellers of items intended for tourists. A monumental staircase leads to the portal.
With an inextricable tangle of narrow winding streets that occupy the entire area beyond the Jama Masjid at the edge of the Red Fort, the swarm of the faithful masses slip into narrow lanes that allow access to this market area, which is basically a non-stop succession of small shops and stalls attracting the eyes of the passerby.
The noise is very strong, as sellers scream to enhance their products, attract passersby, who bargain animatedly in the endless struggle between the customer and seller. Certainly the latter has the advantage of knowing how far they can go without losing. In short, a difficult balance that both sides know and a daily struggle to fight all the time, to get to the final deal.
Just next door, the fierce competition from other thousands of merchandise vendors more or less are similar, even piled next to each other, with a concept exactly opposite to the western market, where similar stores, sometimes have to have a minimum distance between them, in order to not stepping on the foot.
It goes without saying that the more interesting part is the grocery shops with mountains of products of all kinds, cereals, legumes, vegetables and fruits, with the latter often stacked in perfect pyramids and shiny spices, packaged or more often sold loose. It is these that give the smell to the market, which dominate and characterize the taste of India everywhere. The aroma of spices is strong enough to make your head spin because, in the shadows, every sense is more ready and more receptive. At each corner a small room holds bags of fragrant spices and deep green and glossy betel leaves.
Around here, those who prepare the food in dark caverns in huge semicircular pans are half full of amber liquids frying all kinds of batters, donuts, stuffed pasta, sweets and then place them alongside in oily and hot pyramids. Each subscale with a gap on the way home to a camp stove that prepares tea with condensed milk and cinnamon, which is then carried around in a basket of six cups by kids, offering it to passersby shouting "Chay, chay".
Others will hold out glasses of lassi, the watered down refreshing yogurt. At each corner a banquet with a machine equipped with two gears in which are inserted the long sticks of sugarcane are squeezed to provide a brown and milky liquid, which is filtered several times before being poured into large glasses that bystanders drink.
The Dabbawalla, with their filled baskets with lunch food, run in any direction to deliver every day the millions of meals that clerks or merchants will consume in their lap. A hubbub of shouts and screams, street requests from carriers with carts and improbable parcels, which will be rendered almost incomprehensible by the noise of the bikes and the thousands of bicycle horns, tuktuk and any other kind of vehicles, including cars that have the desire or the audacity to shove in those passages.
The scent of the spice will be your constant companion of this experience. In the stretch of the jewelers, the shops are a little more demanding. The managers all seem more fat and plump, squatting cross-legged behind the low glass counters that display rings and anklets, while groups of women, mothers, aunts accompanying the possible future bride choose gold or some substitute.
Then the whole part of the fabrics and clothes, which redounds of so varied and dazzling colors occupy exaggerated pantone and rich shades, to make you the choice difficult from embroidered and quilted gold saris, elegantly cut kurtas, salwar kameez, and imaginative fabrics to color the environment in a colorful kaleidoscope that makes you confuse the view.
Occasionally tiny or larger places of worship, ranging from simple newsstands hiding perhaps just a small head of Ganesha or a little farther on are almost majestic buildings, wedged between the shops, from which comes the rhythmic chanting of priests abound. Along the main street that crosses it, there is even a large Sikh temple, proud of its porches in white marble, surrounded by faithfuls in colorful turbans, neat black mustache and full-bodied kurtas. Some hold spears, which are symbols of this religion, who nevertheless welcomes you right away and invite you to come in with big smiles.
We let ourselves be carried away by the current, the eye that tries to grab images, the mind that metabolizes, the nose after a few minutes of unbearable smells, adapts. Then suddenly the current takes you by the roadside and as a gust of small lateral eddies eject you from the side, it's time to go home.
Chandni Chowk is a maze of narrow, crowded lanes with shops and stalls selling anything from books to clothing, from shoes to electronics, from gold to silver, from leather to jewelry, tapestries to antiques, clothes for the wedding to everything anything else you can think of and even animals like sheep, goats, chickens.
The sights also falls on the colorful pyramids of spices of all kinds, which extols the tourists. It is a congested scenario full of the colors with the silks fluttering in big and small shops, where the clerks, mostly men, unfold, with a capacity of skilled flag-wavers, sizes of silky and shiny fabrics, where women, seriously immersed in the deal, choose the most suitable dresses.
People of all types and shades with pastel turbans seem to walk alone in the midst of the crowd as tourists have fun on the rickshaw. The sense of smell fills the heart, because the smell is that of authentic Indian cuisine, with its delicacies and desserts with the inviting smell of street food of the many types of breads which, in form and ingredients, have different names such as chapati, roti, naan, to name only the most popular.
It is the smell of parathas fried in pure ghee cast in iron pots and served with chutney of various flavors like mint, banana, tamarind and stuffed with pickled vegetables or potatoes, cauliflower, peas, lentils, carrots, greek hay, radish or stuffed with paneer, mint, lemon, pepper, cashew nuts, raisins, almonds.
And then there is the smell of papad, the crispy waffles rabdi, the Khurchan soup made of paneer, tomato and spices, the jalebis fried in pure ghee, the pao bhaji cooked with vegetables, potatoes and coriander. The halwais, namkeen wallahs and paranthe wallahs smile to the stranger inviting them to taste the kachoris made of potato and peas, the gobi matar, made with cabbage and peas, the samosas, unmistakable for their triangular shape, fried and stuffed with meat or vegetables and the matar paneer tikki.
Then there is the flavor of chaats, a mix of spicy snacks, spicy and savory as the Gol Gappe, the dahi bhalla, a fried dumpling with curd, tamarind chutney and pomegranate seeds or made with fruits to the flavors of kachori, usually stuffed with vegetables and served with potato curry and aloo tikki stuffed with potatoes and peas. It all tasted with the chai, the typical Indian tea made with milk and spices.
There is an explosion of flavors in Old Delhi as some of the most popular restaurants can be found right here, with the smell of fish, aromatic kebabs and fried chicken. And here they sell mostly kebabs, mutton stews and tikkas, wrapped in rumali roti. Even the ice cream you can find in Old Delhi and the rabri faluda, served cold, is very similar when enriched with vanilla cream. The kulfi ice cream is a dessert made with milk of various flavors including mango, pomegranate and lychee.
Its winding roads and the many shops, temples of all denominations, humanity and traders live with the sheep, ready to be sacrificed, with monkeys and squirrels that inhabit the streets and with cows. And at the same time I swallow the smell of a land, where the mysteries merge with each other, in a timeless natural spider web, as I swallow the strong colors, vivid and intense identity far away from models of beauty and approval, bracelets and anklets and eccentric clothes that make women princesses of the past.
This is Chandni Chowk, with its palaces, which are also sometimes crumbling, with the dangling wires, and the sadhus that give a glimpse of authentic India. The carnality of colors and scents of food lined up on trays unite the subtle pleasure of trying on the tastes that mix with the surrounding inconsistencies, in a kind of theater, amidst the alchemical breakdown of the elements that make up the tasty magma of India. I leave satisfied amidst the colors of Chandni Chowk.