In Paintings: Chandni Chowk of Delhi

Today, Chandni Chowk is synonymous with choked streets filled with the smell of the Delhi’s sweet and savoury delicacies, and narrow lanes stuffed with busy haphazard shoppers, looking to strike bargains on everything from dry fruits and spices to replicas of designer lehengas. But long before assuming this identity, Chandni Chowk was a premier market of Old Delhi. Its history dates back to the founding of Shahjahanabad in the 17th century. It was designed by Emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara. And it derives its name from a shallow water channel and pool that was built through its centre specifically for reflecting moonlight.

We look at the bustling market of Chandni Chowk and its historic buildings through paintings, lithographs and prints, and photographs!

Chandni Chowk originally referred to the square with the reflecting pool only, but later the name came to be used much more liberally to refer to the entire road from Lahori Gate of the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri mosque. The road was divided into 3 bazaars: Urdu Bazaar, Johri Bazaar and Fatehpuri bazaar. The main road had tributary streets or kuchas often lined with havelis and katras (guild houses). Chandni Chowk houses several other important building and monuments.

Jama Masjid

Completed in 1656 under the reign of Shah Jahan, The Jama Masjid is one of India’s largest mosques (capable of holding 25,000 worshippers) and a quintessential example of Mughal architectural style. The mosque has three impressive gates, four towers and two minarets made of red sandstone and white marble. The name ‘Jama Masjid’ comes from Arabic, meaning ‘Friday Mosque’. However, its other name ‘Masjid-i Jehan Numa’ literally means the ‘world-reflecting mosque’. After the Revolt of 1857, the British confiscated the mosque and stationed soldiers there. They wanted to destroy the mosque, but abandoned the plan due to huge backlash.

Red Fort

The Red Fort was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1638, when he decided to shift the capital of the Mughal Empire from Agra to Delhi. The architect tasked with designing the Red Fort-Ustad Ahmad Lahori- had also designed the Taj Mahal. Named after its imposing red sandstone walls, the Red Fort has three gates: Lahori Gate (marking the beginning of Chandni Chowk), Delhi Gate and the Khizrabad Gate. The third gate was reserved for sole use of the emperor. 

The Red Fort has been the site of many historic events. As the residence of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, it was the inadvertent symbol of the 1857 revolt. Following its failure, it turned into a British garrison. The emperor was also tried here before being exiled to Rangoon. During the Indian National Movement, it was the site for many important speeches by freedom fighters, most importantly Prime Minister Nehru’s historic speech ‘Tryst with Destiny’ on the eve of India’s independence. The tradition of delivering the Independence Day speech from the Red Fort continues till today.

Begum Samru’s Cottage

Begum Samru’s Cottage or ‘Churiwallon Ki Haveli’ was located in Begum Ka Bagh, a garden laid out by the Mughal Princess Jahanara. Begum ka Bagh was reserved for royal ladies until the reign of Shah Alam II, when he gave Begum Samru a piece of land in the garden in return for her help in the battle against the Rohillas. It was built in colonial style with massive columns. It also served as a bank for a brief period until it was bought by a wealthy local resident. Today it houses the State Bank of India’s office.

Clocktower and Town Hall

Princess Jahanara created a beautiful caravanserai along the east side of Chandni Chowk. It was held by French traveller Francois Bernier as one of the finest buildings in Delhi and he compared it to the Palais Royal of Paris. Today the Town Hall stands in place of Jahanara’s caravanserai, and a clocktower in place of the pool from which the Chowk had earned its name. This was the Northbrook Clock Tower, named after Thomas Northbrook, the Viceroy of India from 1872-1876. Although, ironically the architecture of the tower did not please him! A statue of Queen Victoria was also placed in the Town Hall. In 1930s the Clocktower was the site of Swami Shraddhanand’s satyagraha, and it was his statue that replaced Queen Victoria’s. On 15th August 1947, the Union Jack was taken down from the top of the clocktower and the Indian tricolour hoisted in its place.

Chandni Chowk today

Chandni Chowk has undoubtedly gone through a series of changes, adding to its multicultural character. The area of Chandni Chowk transformed from the being pride of the Mughal Capital of Shahjahanabad to serving as a British military and administrative centre until it was finally reclaimed by independent India. But it always remained a historic market, and even today, is a bustling marketplace, marked by several buildings and monuments of importance. Currently a redevelopment project by the Delhi Government is underway, aimed at its beautification and at turning the street into a no-car zone. Keeping in line with the Mughal architectural style, red sandstone is being used for the new path. It is part of a larger redevelopment project that involves Jama Masjid, Daryaganj, Lothian Road and also the improvement of various connecting roads.

Chandni Chowk redevelopment
New Chandi Chowk after redevelopment. Credit: DelhiMessenger

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  1. Nice photographs and a well written piece, giving a nostalgic glimpse of the rich history that is mostly forgotten by our likes, today.

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