The walled city built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century has been touted as the Rome of Asia. Some of India’s most dazzling sites are found here: the imposing Red Fort; the Jama Mosque, India’s largest; and of course, the thrill-a-second boulevard of Chandni Chowk, still teetering on the brink of chaos. At the street’s western end, in the warren of the Khari Baoli spice market, thousands of burlap sacks overflow with gorgeously colored powders. At the eastern end, the Kinari Bazaar spills over with glittering garlands, tinsel, and other wedding accessories. In an alleyway too narrow to walk down two-by-two, determined teenagers eke out a cricket game—the ball ricocheting off stone walls, laughter echoing down the lane. A baby goat dodges a man on a moped with a hundred badminton rackets lashed to the backseat. A girl rushes by carrying 20 chickens in a two-foot-square cage. Look out for that mango cart! That burbling cauldron of oil! Curd vendors, hair-tonic vendors, car-door salesmen, and ammunition dealers occupy the minuscule storefronts that line these mazelike streets. Flimsy bicycle rickshaws groan under the weight of 10 uniformed schoolchildren, on their way home for lunch, balanced precariously atop their book bags. Particularly after a rain, the air carries an acrid, metallic tang not unlike the smell of a Teflon pan left on the stove all day. It mingles with joss smoke and propane fumes and the sugary stench of fried jalebi batter.
But just when your senses are thoroughly overloaded, you spin around a corner and onto a tranquil lane of 19th-century mansions whose upper levels are framed by wrought-iron balconies and ornate cornices—a reminder of an era when Shahjahanabad was a pinnacle of Muslim society, a paragon of courtly refinement and grace. This is where Mirza Ghalib and the other great Urdu poets found their inspiration (Ghalib’s house still stands here; it’s now a museum). In the exodus of Partition, however, as much of the city’s Muslim population left for Pakistan, Urdu poetry virtually disappeared.
British administrators never had much love for Shahjahanabad; its twisting, congested lanes were impossible to police. (The Indian Mutiny of 1857 made this explicit.) But even after Independence, a 1962 report by the Indian government took a similar attitude toward the old city—labeling Shahjahanabad “socially and culturally stagnant” and too filthy for the common good. The “problem” of Old Delhi has been around almost as long as Old Delhi itself.
What a conundrum that the very places travelers are drawn to—for being so eye-opening and transporting, so Other—are often what the local powers-that-be desperately want to fix or shake clean like a dirty old rug. Beyond the ramparts of Shahjahanabad, the new Delhi rushes ever-forward to meet the world and reflect it back upon itself. Yet in these dusty overlooked corners, and along the footpaths of Lodi Garden, and among the faithful at Nizamuddin’s Shrine—despite chimichangas and PlayStations and all the vain efforts to change it—India is still India, at least for now.
Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.