Medieval-seeming Old Delhi is a crazy hubbub that bombards the senses. Set aside at least half a day to do this fascinating area justice.
Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-1658) decided to move back his capital from Agra to Delhi in 1638. Within 10 years the huge city of Shahjahanabad, now known as Old Delhi, was built. The plan of Shah Jahan’s new city symbolized the link between religious authority enshrined in the Jama Masjid to the west, and political authority represented by the Diwan-i-Am in the Fort, joined by Chandni Chowk, the route used by the emperor. The city was protected by rubble-built walls, some of which still survive. These walls were pierced by 14 main gates. The Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate (often referred to by auto-rickshaw wallahs as ‘Truckman Gate’), Kashmere Gate and Delhi Gate still survive.
Shahjahanabad was laid out in blocks with wide roads, residential quarters, bazaars and mosques. Its principal street, Chandni Chowk, had a tree-lined canal flowing down its centre which became renowned throughout Asia. Lined by peepal and neem trees, at night the waters reflected the moon, hence the name Chandni Chowk (“Moonlight Square”). The canal is long gone, but the jumble of shops, alleys crammed with craftsmen’s workshops, food stalls, mosques and temples, cause it to retain some of its magic.
Self-Guided Tour Around Old Delhi
The best way to explore the area is to catch a taxi or auto-rickshaw to Red Fort, then set off within Shahjahanbad (Old Delhi) in a cycle-rickshaw, or on foot if it’s too congested. Head down the principal street, Chandni Chowk, which leads from the main entrance to Red Fort. Along this busy commercial street are mosques, a church, and a number of temples.
First up, opposite the fort, is Digambar Jain Temple, the oldest of its kind in Delhi and surprisingly simple compared with other Jain temples, which are renowned for the intricacy of their carvings. Attached is a bird hospital, which smells less charming than it sounds.
If you’re pressed for time, skip these and proceed to vibrant Gauri Shankar Temple (look for the mounds of marigolds, sold to worshipers as they enter), which has an 800-year-old lingam. Or stop at Sisganj Gurudwara , an unassuming but superbly atmospheric and welcoming Sikh temple, which marks the spot where Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, was beheaded by the fundamentalist Aurangzeb (Shah Jahan’s intolerant son). You will be expected to hand over your shoes at a superefficient kiosk and wash your hands and feet at the cheap taps plumbed right at the temple entrance; on the way out you may be offered food—no harm in indulging, if not for the food, then to appreciate the generosity that permeates Sikh culture, and to experience the rare joy of receiving sustenance from a stranger, which can be both uplifting and humbling.
Then, either turn left into Kinari Bazaar or head the length of Chandni Chowk to the mid-17th-century Fatehpuri Masjid, designed by one of Shah Jahan’s wives. Take a detour to the right into Church Mission Marg and then left into Khari Baoli— reputed to be Asia’s biggest spice market—the colors, textures, and aromas that literally spill out into the street are worth the side trip, but be careful with your belongings in these packed streets. Then double back down Chandni Chowk, turn right into jampacked Kinari Bazaar, and stop to admire the cheap gold and silver trinkets and accessories. Or keep going until the right turn into Dariba Kalan, “the jewelers’ lane,” where you can bargain hard for gorgeous baubles.
Go south down Dariba Kalan to reach Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, keeping an eye out on the right for the tall spire of Shiv Temple. Having explored Jama Masjid, you can head west down Chawri Bazaar for brass and copper icons and other souvenirs, then up Nai Sarak (which specializes in the most magnificent stationery, some bound into diaries). Or head south to Churiwali Galli, the “lane of bangle-sellers,” and make a final stop at Karims to sample the authentic Mughlai cooking that has kept patrons coming back for over 100 years.
A little farther along is Sunehri Masjid, recognizable by its three gilt domes from where the Persian invader Nadir Shah enjoyed a bird’s-eye view as his men massacred some 3,000 of Shahjahanabad’s citizens in 1739.
This done, you’ve pretty much covered Shahjahanabad / Old Delhi’s top attractions by rickshaw or foot.