Everything you've imagined about India being tumultuous and teeming with activity comes to life at Chandni Chowk in Delhi. This prominent thoroughfare and surrounding market area is one of the most crowded places in India. Yet, it's also where you'll get some of the best street food, spices, and bargain goods. Plan your trip there with this complete guide to Chandni Chowk. Don't miss exploring it!
These days, it's hard to believe that Chandni Chowk was once a stately promenade and the route of royal processions during the Mughal era. It was constructed in the mid 17th century as part of Shahjahanabad, the extravagant capital city that fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan established when Mughal rule was at its peak. As Shahjahanabad's central street, Chandni Chowk connected a gate on the city's encircling outer wall to the Red Fort, running in a wide straight line so that the fort could be seen from the street at all times.
It's said that Chandni Chowk, meaning Moonlight Square, got its evocative name from the moon's reflection in a large pond of water. Apparently, the pond existed in the square in front of the present-day Town Hall but the British built a clock tower over it (the clock tower collapsed in 1951). Gradually, the whole street and adjoining area became known as Chandni Chowk.
The market area around Chandni Chowk was designed by Shah Jahan's eldest daughter, Jahanara, and became the principal bazaar of the walled city. In contrast to today's congestion, it was laid out in orderly sections, with soothing gardens and palatial buildings. It also incorporated a caravan serai (inn) to accommodate the many merchants who visited from Asia and Europe. Fatehpuri Begum, one of Shah Jahan's wives, added another grand landmark to Chandni Chowk, Fatehpuri Mosque.
As the walled city grew, it attracted all kinds of artisans and professionals from across India to provide services to the royal household. They grouped themselves together, according to their occupations, in the various lanes of Chandni Chowk. The richer ones built magnificent havelis (mansions), some of which have been restored.
Chandni Chowk retained its elite status into the early 18th century, before the fortunes of the royal family began to decline. It was the place for important people to gather and shop for expensive jewelry, gemstones and perfumes. However, the walled city and Chandni Chowk were repetitively invaded and plundered during the long period of instability following Emperor Aurangzeb's death in 1707.
The Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the consequential end of the Mughal Empire brought further changes to Chandni Chowk. Many structures were destroyed in the revolt. The British then altered the area to their liking after they took over and occupied the Red Fort. This included remodeling the gardens and constructing new colonial-style buildings such as the Town Hall. Traders once again prospered. Unbridled commercial development, after India gained independence from the British, overrode what was left of Chandni Chowk's elegance though.
Chandni Chowk is still regarded as one of the top markets in Delhi. Yet, these days it's a congested and crumbling commercial zone, with a bewildering jumble of vendors all competing for space. Government-owned Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation aims to revamp the area but plans are yet to be finalized.
Chandni Chowk is located in the heart of present-day Old Delhi, a few miles north of the Connaught Place business district and Paharganj backpacker area. It's easily and conveniently reachable by Metro train. The closest Metro train station is Chandni Chowk on the Yellow Line and Lal Qila (Red Fort) on the Heritage Line, which is an underground extension of the Violet Line. Taking the train there will help you avoid crazy traffic snarls.
What to Buy and See
Although Chandni Chowk's tangle of lanes may seem intimidating, vendors largely remain grouped together in specialist bazaars according to what they sell. This makes it somewhat easier to find what you're looking for. If you want something specific or are likely to feel overwhelmed (especially if it's your first time visiting India), it's a good idea to take a personalized shopping tour. The one conducted by Ketaki of Delhi Shopping Tours is highly recommended. Delhi Magic also conducts an insightful Old Delhi Bazaar Walk.
Tourists will be most interested in the perfumes and jewelry at Dariba Kalan, fabrics, and saris at Katra Neel, shawls and peals at Moti Bazaar, sunglasses and shoes at Ballimaran Market, brass and copper antiques at Gali Guliyan, and Asia's largest spice market at Khari Baoli. Other popular items include all the trimmings for an Indian wedding (including plenty of bling) at Kinari Bazaar, books and stationery at Nai Sarak, electronics around Bhagirath Palace, cameras at Kucha Choudhary Market, chemicals at Tilak Bazaar, and hardware and paper products at Chawri Bazaar.
Chandni Chowk isn't just about shopping. Foodies will love sampling Delhi's famed street food there, served up by outlets that are centuries-old. Paranthe Wali Gali is renowned for its succulent deep-fried stuffed parathas. Stop by Old Famous Jalebiwala near Dariba Kalan for crunchy jalebis and samosas.
If you're serious about eating, a guided food walk through Chandni Chowk will provide the best experience. There are a few to choose from, such as this Old Delhi Food Walk or this Old Delhi Food Trail.
Those who are keen to learn more about the area's heritage as well should sign up for this very popular Old Delhi Bazaar Walk and Haveli Visit, which includes the opportunity to try some street food. It's conducted by the owner of Masterjee ki Haveli, one of the restored mansions in the area. The tour concludes at the haveli for a traditional meal.
There are other old havelis scattered throughout the area that you can visit to get a glimpse of Chandni Chowk's erstwhile grandeur. Haveli Dharampura from the 19th century, on Gali Guliyan, was beautifully restored in 2016. Its restaurant serves modern Indian cuisine and hygienically prepared street food (in case you're wary of getting sick). You can even stay there. Some immersive local experiences are offered. Drop into nearby Tripti Handicrafts for a superb range of brass artifacts.
Naughara lane has many old 18th century mansions, with colorfully painted exteriors, belonging to the Jain community. It's located in the Kinari Bazaar area.
Mirza Ghalib ki Haveli, in Gali Ballimaran, was the home of acclaimed 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. It's been turned into a museum by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Rambling Chunnamal Haveli in Katra Neel belonged to Rai Lala Chunnamal, wealthy textile merchant and first Municipal Commissioner of Delhi. It's still privately-owned by his descendants, although they're in the process of selling it because of the high maintenance cost.
Close to Jama Masjid, a 200 year-old, Anglo-Indian haveli has been turned into the funky Walled City Cafe and Lounge. It's an ideal place to chill out and unwind.
If you wander the length of Chandni Chowk's main road from the Red Fort to Fatehpuri Mosque, you'll encounter notable places of worship of different faiths. These include Shri Digambar Jain Lal temple (with its attached charity bird hospital, which you can visit) and Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib (built on the spot where the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded by Emperor Aurangzeb in 1675).
Do be aware that most shops in Chandni Chowk are closed on Sundays. However, an early morning chor bazaar (thieves market) comes to life near the Red Fort. Get there before 8 a.m. for the pick of the stuff. A book market also takes place on Sunday mornings along Asaf Ali Road in Dariya Ganj, to the south of Chandni Chowk. (Delhi Gate Metro Station on the Violet Line is the closes railway station).
Safety and Etiquette
Chandni Chowk will overwhelm your senses. Expect a big dose of culture shock! Wear comfortable shoes, dress conservatively, and be prepared to walk a lot. Women will find it useful to carry a scarf, especially if visiting mosques.
Access to Google Maps on your cell phone will be invaluable for navigating your way around. Don't be afraid to stop and ask for directions as well.
Pickpockets operate in the area, so take extra care to keep your belongings safe and secure.
When shopping, haggle with vendors to get the best price. However, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Fake products are widely sold.
Lastly, try to go with the flow and simply soak up the frenetic atmosphere.
What Else to Do Nearby
Chandni Chowk is usually combined with sightseeing at the Red Fort and Jama Masjid. Avid meat-eaters should try the Mughlai-style food at iconic Karim's near Jama Masjid. (Brain curry will keep adventurous foodies happy).
If you're in the neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon, catch a free traditional Indian wrestling match known as kushti, at Urdu Park near Meena Bazaar. It gets underway at 4 p.m.