*The Chandni Chowk from the top of the Lahore Gate of the Fort, the canal depicted running down the middle, by Sita Ram, 1814-15
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The history of Asia’s oldest market : Chandni Chowk

With time the enigmatic Chandni Chowk has amassed a plethora of anecdotes and facts that remain discreet to the commoners like it had trams, canals and much more. My curiosity made me dredge up deeper into the history of the artifact, as a result, I ferreted some astonishing vignettes & facets of the splendid place Chandni Chowk is.

Chandni Chowk has been of the most revered piece of Delhi’s history, that had umpteen anecdotes which defined & redefined its psyche. The 350-year-old Chandni Chowk in old Delhi is not just a bustling bazaar – it is Delhi’s most vibrant commercial center for export, wholesale and retail trade.

The Beginning: Chandni Chowk’s Denomination

When the famous Mughal Emperor Shahjahan shifted his capital from Agra to Delhi and established the city of Shahjahanabad, he had the majestic Red Fort or Lal Qila, on the banks of River Yamuna. Chandni Chowk was built in 1650 AD as an accompaniment to the fort. It was designed by Jahanara, the Emperor’s favorite daughter. A large chowk (“square”) with a central pool was built at some distance from the fort.
The story goes that on a moonlit night, the new complex and the pool lay shimmering; as a result, it was dubbed as Chandni Chowk- “the moonlit square”.

Another legend says that the Chowk was named after it’s silversmiths and there is a confusion of the word ‘chandi’ (silver) with ‘chandni’ (moonlit).

The procession to the Jama Masjid during the great Delhi Durbar to celebrate the accession of King George V. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images
The procession to the Jama Masjid during the great Delhi Durbar to celebrate the accession of King George V. Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

Delhi’s romance with Trams

Many are unaware of the fact that decades before Delhi’s metro paved its way through the common man’s diurnal life, Delhi’s transportation system was rallied by a network of Electrical Trams similar to the ones in London.

A tram snaking it's way throught the old chandni chowk market
A tram snaking its way through the old Chandni chowk market

When the British took the city in 1803 from the Mogul emperors, Coronation Durbars were held in 1903 and 1911. The British initiated the tram system on March 6, 1908, and by 1921 there was 15 km of track and 24 cars. The system closed in the year 1963.

The Canal that ran amidst Chandni Chowk market

While the Red Fort was being constructed, the lack of drinking water perplexed the Emperor. The wells in the area were drying up. Shahjahan thereby summoned one of his trusted nobles, Ali Mardan Khan and beckoned him to find a solution to the predicament. Khan, well versed in the art of dredging up canals, renovated an old canal and renamed it Faiz Nahar. This canal ran through the entire length of Chandni Chowk, from the fort to the Fatehpuri Mosque, providing water for both drinking and irrigation.

The canal went into disuse with the decline of the Mughal Empire. The English revived it in 1820, only to close it in 1910. During its long and eventful lifetime, it proved to be both a boon and a curse for the people. Well maintained, it would provide the city with pure water all the year round. Neglected, it would become the breeding ground for all sorts of diseases. Today, a wide road runs where it once stood- a symbol of changing times and priorities.

"Chandnee Chauk, principale rue de Delhi," from 'L'Illustration', 1867
“Chandnee Chauk, principale rue de Delhi,” from ‘L’Illustration’, 1867 (click for large image)

Chandni Chowk is archaic but still caters to the ever elevating needs of the population, the place had seen ebbs & flows through the history of time but it still has its true essence and poise intact.

Amidst this architectural mayhem, and chaotic flow of trade traffic, life still moves on. The rich and the poor live in the same neighbourhood, the bridal market flourishes, the street-food draws loyal food junkies by the thousands, the spice market, often described as ‘the best in the world for its quality’, keeps the curries flavored – and the 150 year old ‘Attar’ or perfume shop in Dariba sells not just the extract of rose or motia but also the essence of Chandni Chowk – in its little glass vials!

The new generation now considers Chandni Chowk as fenile, besides the arduous traffic jams and crowded streets, they have option to shop in the comfort of AC in a Mall.




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