No visit to Delhi is complete without a visit to the beating heart of the capital, Old Delhi. To be fair this area is extremely overcrowded, often quite dirty and many of its buildings are now worn out and in various states of decay. Nevertheless history has imbued Old Delhi with a status as the cultural and symbolic center of the city.
Founded in 1638, old Delhi was designed to replace Agra as the capital and would come to be the administrative center of Mughal rule over India until the end of the dynasty in 1857. It is host to countless shrines and temples in all areas of Old Delhi, many dating back hundreds of years if not longer. India remains a deeply religious country and nowhere can this be seen more than on the great variety off temples that exist in Delhi. To add to this, there are a variety of different architectural works such as the Jama Masjid and Red Fort that attract visitors from within the country and abroad.
As one of the largest mosques in India, it is an awe-inspiring work of art built with sandstone and white marble by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (more well-known for commissioning the Red Fort and Taj Mahal). Due in part to its lavishness, size and ability to accommodate 25,000 people in prayer the Jama Masjid came to be the royal mosque of India’s Muslim rulers following its completion in 1656. The only downside is the small fee that one has to pay to enter and an additional fee to take photographs, though well worth it to capture the beauty of such an architectural marvel.
Another one of Old Delhi’s important icons is the Red Fort which served as the residence for Mughal Emperors for 200 years of their rule. The creative layout of gardens and usage of marble made it even more elegant in its heyday though much of that was lost after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Nevertheless the structure itself remains well-preserved and its synthetic blending of Indian, Persian and European art rightfully earns it its place as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Red Fort remains an important icon for Indians, perhaps second only to the Taj Mahal, serving as the first place where independence leader and First Prime Minter Jawaharlal Nehru raised the Indian flag.
Finally we have the area of Chadni Chowk in Old Delhi, recognized as the busiest and indeed largest market in the city. Daily it remains a very crowded and noisy place where anything from spices to clothes and temples can be found. Aside from religious temples and shrines that seem to be around every corner, the area also has a variety of mansions and eateries.
During both Mughal and British rule, the large mansions of the well-to-do with their open courtyards and lavish rooms were located in Chadni Chowk. Many of these havelis continue to exist today though unfortunately in a deteriorated state. Still there are a few that have remained relatively well-preserved, offering a glimpse of the past.
Several restaurant exist that date back centuries such as the sweet shop Ghantewala Halwai which dates back to the 1740s and has seen emperors, presidents and countless visitors pass through its doors. The narrow alley of Paranthewali Gali which is filled with paratha (Indian flatbread) shops dating back to the 19th century.
The rich tapestry of shops that crowd Old Delhi make up the beating heart of the capital city; it is both off-putting and alluring in highlighting both what makes the city great as well as the social issues that continue to plague it.