No visit to New Delhi is complete without a trip to Chandni Chowk. It is a market in the old part of the city, and means “moonlit market” in the Hindi language.
They say travelling around India is a bit of a culture shock – well, it certainly was for me as a solo backpacker. Many times around Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi (near to Lal Quila) I began to feel a little uneasy about myself as the prying eyes of the locals began to pierce my pockets. Maybe it was just my paranoia, but I felt as though I was being watched the whole time. It gave me a new perspective and level of respect towards the workers and street vendors at Chandni Chowk as these conditions they must put up with every day of the year. For me, a humble tourist from Europe, I could just call a taxi or walk back to my hotel, but for the workers they are stuck there, and for most of them it’s just a way of life. Maybe they have hardened up over the years and no longer worry about the safety or hygiene of the place?
I am always careful with what I eat when travelling, and in India in particular my alarm bells ring at the slightest thing. I do enjoy Indian food, although street food in the old markets of Delhi are places at which to be wary – especially when I have an international flight out of the country in less than 48 hours! That said, I wanted to try a few quick snack foods during my expedition to Chandni Chowk, and thus risked getting Delhi Belly! I just didn’t imagine I would feel so awkward. I have been to markets in Dhaka, Bangladesh (New Market), and in Kathmandu, Nepal (Thamel and Durbar Square) and never felt unsafe to this degree. I wonder what makes Old Delhi so rough?
Street food in Chandni Chowk is very important. The smells of this food are abound everywhere you walk and you get hassled by the vendors at every turn. I love street food, and it was a real experience to check out some of the stuff on offer around here, despite reservations about poor hygiene standards. Chandni Chowk is well-known as being the best place in Delhi (and maybe all of India) for Chaat, but as well as all that stuff I did enjoy the meat kebabs and golgoppa pictured above.
If you are not willing to buy anything, the best bet is to just ignore the vendors as they shout at you. Getting in to a conversation is only going to prolong your agony. On one such occasion, I was followed for what seemed like 10 minutes by the same guy who wanted to sell me some meat; I was already eating, so clearly my answer was going to be NO, but around here some people do not take no for an answer…
Although Indian people may not know any different, the first thing a traveller will notice when strolling through Chandni Chowk is the lack of cleanliness. It must be said that perhaps most of urban India is like this – certainly in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata it is – but Chandni Chowk is just old and dirty, with rickety buildings, damaged paving, inadequate drainage and sewage systems, and of course hundreds of stray dogs. A ‘culture shock’ is perhaps the best term to use here. It does, however, have a certain old world charm, like much of India, and the people here (well, most of them) are what makes the place what it is, they are very friendly and always curious to see why a traveller has come to their city – but this won’t get you any bargains though! Believe me, I tried!
All kinds of goods are sold at Chandni Chowk, from antiques to porcelain, from materials to clothing. I often wondered if much of this was second-hand, and I guess so. It is a market, after all, not a luxury shop at Connaught Place. You can really lose yourself here trying to find a good bargain, as long as you know your Indian Rupee conversion rates! I was on the look out for some textiles, just something small that I could either keep with me and take back the UK when the time came. In the end, I didn’t buy anything (apart from the food!), but there were lots of specialities on offer.
I was very interested in the nooks and crannies of the market, with street after street divided by rickety buildings. Everywhere you turned was another potential dead end, with some shady characters staring at you from their mopeds or rickshaws. I am sure they all wondered what on earth I was doing with camera in one hand and chicken skewer in the other! Luckily, I didn’t get physically confronted – the worst thing that happened to me was getting meat juice down my shirt!
For further reading, please check out this informative blog from Bianca D’Alessio, who reminisces of her experiences in Chandni Chowk and provides some amazing photos. Additionally, this fun blog from Varsha Nagpal sheds more light on the ‘Moonlit Market’.