Delhi: Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk

Courtesy Delhi Magic

During the 17th century Chandni Chowk (literally “Moonlight Square”), in the walled city of Shahjahanabad, now Old Delhi, was the center of Moghul culture. Nobility lived in the giant mansions, called havelis, with their staff, elephants, and resident poets, and the silver merchants who gave the road its name lined the area’s eponymous central avenue. But since the turn of the 19th century, the elegant homes here have been covered up with rusted signs and clumps of electrical wire and overtaken by wholesale shops selling everything from car parts to jewelry.

From the Red Fort, commissioned by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 on the easternmost edge of the city, the arrow-straight Chandni Chowk stretches west, with small alleyways and streets spreading out into the tangle of the walled metropolis. It may all seem quite incomprehensible, but there is a definite method to the madness. Each area, called a katra, has been taken over by tradesmen or artisans in the same businesses, be it the silver street, the bangle sellers’ palace, or the mutton alley. The spice market fills an entire run-down haveli, each room overflowing with gunnysacks of freshly crushed spices, workers covering their faces with handkerchiefs to protect themselves from the overpowering smells.

The only way to maneuver through the maze is by foot or in a bicycle rickshaw (in 2007 these were banned on Chandni Chowk proper, but they are still readily available), and a guide is an absolute must. Haggling with rickshaw drivers, suggesting the best spots to eat, and pointing out the small details often missed in the mêlée, he or she will make the area seem exciting rather than overwhelming. But even the best guide won’t be able to keep the confusion entirely at bay. Visitors should be prepared for a bit of wear and tear. Rickshaws will jostle, goats will nibble, and mud will splash. Travelers should also note that the district is heavily religious, home mostly to Muslims, so short sleeves and shorts are frowned upon and forbidden outright inside the mosques here, including the Jama Masjid, the largest in India.

Abercrombie & Kent (800-652-7984; abercrombiekent.com) has a wonderful guide in Satish Jacob, a retired BBC correspondent and former Old Delhi resident, who does private tours through the city—and his childhood memories. He’ll modify the walk according to what his guests want to see and what he’s in the mood for, be it a quick stop at a friend’s haveli for a cup of rose-petal soda or a side trip down a quiet road to bargain for rubies and pearls (a half-day walking tour is $465).

For a less personal and more generalized introduction to the area’s history, religion, and shopping, there’s Deepa Krishnan’s company, Delhi Magic ($35 per person in groups of two to six; delhimagic.com). Since Old Delhi is at heart a giant marketplace, Krishnan makes her tours feel as comfortable as a shopping trip with a friend—albeit one who knows the secrets of every building she passes along her browsing way.