Exploring Old Delhi beyond food

Evening crowds outside Jama Masjid
Image courtesy: ©Aman Agrawal/EyeEm/Getty Images

The serpentine lanes and bylanes of Old Delhi might be a chaotic setup for many, but for explorers at heart there is charm and rhythm in that cacophony. Delhi might be largely synonymous with the fast-paced New Delhi, but it is here that time bewilders. If it has adapted to the pretentious urban ways thriving not very far away, it has also kept the all-inclusive unperturbed essence of the past alive. Here’s a journey through its unique flavours that go beyond the obvious.

Gateway to poetry

You just need to spend some hours wandering here, getting greeted by unknowns and stopping to listen to some tales form an elderly and you would understand why Delhi was poets’ favourite. Be it during the tumultuous times of invasion and destruction or the elevating periods of prosperity, it never failed to inspire. Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan, famously known as Mirza Ghalib, made romantics out of many with his ghazals and shayari. His residence in Gali Qasim Jan, Balli Maran, is not only a heritage site but almost a pilgrimage for his fans and followers.

Heritage of havelis

Some are crumbling, some clutching to the remains of their glorious past and some regained the lost splendour- the havelis are one of the most striking features of Old Delhi, with their big carved wooden gates and pillars dating back to Mughal or colonial era. One of the most famous but a mere shadow of its past is Zeenat Mahal in Chandni Chowk, built by Bahadur Shah’s third wife. Haksar haveli was the starting point for Jawaharlal Nehru’s baraat, Namak Haram ki haveli, Chunna Mal ki haveli and more are hardly recognisable. What is now Bhagirath palace was once Begum Samru’s haveli. Then there are examples like Dharampura haveli, Nawab House and Seth Ram Lal Khemka haveli which have been meticulously restored to make them either financially viable or suitable as personal quarters.

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Religious trail

A believer or otherwise, a visit to the landmark religious structures is a fine study of the melting pot that Old Delhi is. You could start with Digambar Jain Lal Mandir with its imposing red shrines. Standing across the Red Fort, the temple is believed to have been built during Shah Jahan’s reign. It is flanked by the 800-year-old Gauri Shankar temple which was built when Delhi was under Scindia influence. Right next to it is the famous Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. It was here that the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded by Aurangzeb for refusing to convert to Islam. On the other end of Chandni Chowk is Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India and the subject of many artists and photographers’ affair with Old Delhi. St. James Church near Kashmiri Gate completes the trail. The 19th-century church is a pretty picture in yellow with its copper ball and cross on the top is said to have been inspired by one in Venice.

Shop, shop, shop away

Be it a wedding trousseau, ethnic and contemporary jewellery or colourful lamps, these crowded lanes have got all. The most amusing are the aromatic lanes and shops of Khari Baoli, one of the oldest and largest spice markets in the world. From daily kitchen spices to saffron from across the world, there would hardly be any exotic ingredient that you can’t find here. If you love silver jewellery, you would be in your own version of heaven in Dariba Kalan. It also boasts of some age-old shops selling handmade perfumes known as ittar. Nai Sarak is not only the go-to place for textbooks at reasonable price but also for wedding shopping. Kinari Bazaar and Chawri Bazaar complete that shopping list, with the former housing everything bling that could be added to an ensemble and the latter mastering in all types of wedding invitations. To add that touch of class or antiquity to your home decor with lamps and lampshades, Bhagirath Palace is worth a visit. It is a centre of attraction around Diwali.