From squalid to serene: Old Delhi's famed Chandni Chowk is getting a makeover

One of the most historically significant boulevards in India is undergoing a much-needed revamp that's set to boost earnings for an entire generation of struggling shopkeepers

Outside Mohammed Anwar’s little denim shop is a long tin wall. On the other side of this partition is nothing but noise and filth. The road is dug up, earthmovers rumble around and the deafening sound of digging and drilling – machines and men at work – make conversation impossible. Far from being irritated at the disruption, though, Anwar is thrilled.

“I have lived in this area for 40 years and I have never seen the government doing anything to improve it. This sound and these men,” he says, waving an arm in the direction of the work, “means that, for the first time in decades, the government is doing something for Old Delhi.”

A brief history of Old Delhi, and Chandni Chowk

Old Delhi is the name of the Muslim quarter of the Indian capital. It’s where the great Mughals set up their capital in the 17th century. It was known as Shahjahanabad, after Shah Jahan, who built the colossal Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India.

Shah Jahan planned the imperial city meticulously, ordering gardens, canals and boulevards to be built, and insisting the shop facades on Chandni Chowk – the massive central vista – should look the same as one another. The city was meant to reflect the glory of the Mughal empire at its height. By rights, the quarter should have been lovingly preserved for its heritage and historical value. 

But for decades it has been crumbling. ­Government after government has neglected it, letting it turn into one gigantic slum. The traffic, noise, pollution, the surging crowds, ­collapsing edifices, scruffy shops and total squalor are not for the faint-hearted. The sensory overload is enough to damage neurons. The key word is “density” – of people and traffic. Driving a distance of just 300 to 400 metres can take up to an hour.  

Anwar has grown up, like other residents, navigating a minefield of broken footpaths, vast tangled clumps of low-hanging electric cables and encroachments by hawkers when he arrives to open his shop every morning. For many decades, there has been no repair or maintenance. The civic authorities have not even so much as moved the electricity lines underground to tidy things up.

The rundown boulevard is now getting a monumental makeover

Yet, change is finally coming to Old Delhi. Chandni Chowk, which starts at the Red Fort and continues for a kilometre down to Fatehpuri Mosque, is being transformed. By early next year, it will be a pedestrianised, tree-lined vista where people can breathe clean air and walk without being constantly jostled.

Shah Jahan's favourite child, princess Jahanara, originally designed this vast processional avenue. It once had a canal running through it to reflect the moonlight, hence the name Chandni (moon in Hindi) Chowk (market). Once upon a time, shops lined the pavements, as did the mansions of Mughal noblemen and courtiers. Traders came from Central Asia to buy spices and exchange gossip in the coffee houses. Elephants and camels carried produce into the Red Fort, the royal residence. 

<span>In many parts of India monuments are ­routinely neglected owing to a strange absence of respect for history. People in the plushest parts of New Delhi, happily throw their rubbish next to exquisite and ancient tombs</span>

That old grandeur cannot be revived, but the majestic space and proportions of Chandni Chowk are being given fresh life by the New Delhi government, which, after 16 years of endless discussions, has finally asked architect Pradeep Sachdeva to restore the street. 

"We took it on because I can't think of a more challenging project of this nature anywhere in the world," Sachdeva tells The National. "It's not just the sheer number of stakeholders in the area, it was also the level of degradation that had taken place over the years. It didn't seem possible to manage the complex issues in the street." By this he means cyclists, carts, rickshaws and street vendors, not to mention the sheer number of people and ruin.

Old Delhi's historical importance cannot be overstated

Another reason for taking on such a complex project was the historical importance of it. Old Delhi, or the Walled City as it is also called, was the capital of one of the most powerful and ­successful dynasties the world has ever seen. At one point, the Mughals ruled 150 million ­people in an area that covered nearly all of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The cultural achievements and opulence of the Mughal court were unparalleled.

When the British took over from the Mughals, they moved their imperial capital from Kolkata to Delhi, but not to the Walled City. Rather, they built their new capital to the south of Old Delhi, where the political and social elite continue to reside to this day.

"This area is one of the most important, historically, in the whole country," says Sanjay Bhargava, president of the Traders Association in Old Delhi. "Lining Chandni Chowk is an old Baptist church, a Sikh gurdwara, a Hindu temple, a Jain temple and a famous golden-domed Sunehri mosque – that's a huge amount of heritage." Bhargava's own fabric shop is situated near the mosque.

A new Chandni Chowk: sandstone, greenery and tranquil spaces

Sachdeva’s vision for Chandi Chowk could not be more different to the present-day avenue. In his designs, the street looks calm and tranquil. He generously uses the same red sandstone that was seen in the construction of the Red Fort. There is pretty lighting, greenery and stone benches. All the electrical and telecom cables and water lines are buried underground.

One of those shopkeepers was Pal Singh, whose family has been selling ceremonial Sikh swords in Chandni Chowk for three generations. "Business has been badly affected because who wants to come and shop in this mess?" Singh laments. "But eventually business will boom when shoppers realise they can walk freely and enjoy the experience." "I suspect the residents were a bit ­apprehensive at first," he admits. "However, now that the work is under way, there seems to be hope. Last week I came across a group of shopkeepers walking around and looking at the samples of paving, drains, planters and street furniture. They seemed happy."

'Who wants to come and shop in this mess?'

One of the busiest markets in India, it is divided into sub-markets that sell specialised wholesale goods. This includes Dariba Kalan for perfumes and silver jewellery; Khari Baoli, Asia's largest spice market, where you can find everything from saffron and pine nuts to obscure herbs; wedding-­related paraphernalia can be found at Kinari bazaar – from exquisite lehengas (a type of skirt) to accessories for the groom; and Nai Sarak for stationery, among others.

In each area, all manner of goods have to be unloaded, often by porters pulling great hessian-covered bundles that have been piled on to hand-pulled carts ­because the lanes are so narrow a normal vehicle cannot pass.

One drawback of the renovation is that this movement of goods has been disrupted by the project. So-called "coolies"or porters who carry or push goods around – have lost business because of this, and they are understandably unhappy. "It's been a disaster for us," one coolie called Ram Verma tells us. "Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is coming up [on Sunday, October 27]. This is when we make the most money and buy gifts for our children, but no one is going to come shopping here with all this work going on."

Sachdeva’s team are trying to minimise this disruption and any loss of livelihood, but it’s not easy to navigate the disrepair. This form of neglect is not exclusive to Old Delhi, ­however. In many parts of India monuments are ­routinely neglected owing to a strange absence of respect for history. People in the plushest parts of New Delhi, for example, happily throw their rubbish next to exquisite and ancient tombs, demonstrating a total lack of civic sense and consideration for one’s surroundings.

But it's time to say goodbye to Chandni Chowk’s canal

This lack of civic responsibility is one of the ­reasons Sachdeva quickly abandoned any fanciful notions of restoring Chandni Chowk’s canal. “Water bodies don’t work in urban India,” he says. “They just get clogged up with waste.” Instead, he has used a patterned tile that suggests flowing water and landscaping in the central median to symbolise where the canal used to be.

This decision was easy, but others were harder. For example, he grappled for months on where to put the public toilets, the electricity transformers and police kiosks. Despite opposition from some conservationists, Sachdeva placed these utilities on the central median rather than on the footpaths on either side, where they would have obstructed the flow of shoppers. “Restoring a vast avenue like Chandni Chowk is not like restoring a monument,” he explains, defending his position. “It’s a living street where people live, work and shop. Your design has to strike a balance between heritage and aesthetics on the one hand and [customers’] daily needs on the other.”

It's an important project with significant challenges, but it's still on schedule to be completed by March. Everyone involved expects it to restore the pride of its residents, bring new life to a city that was dying and encourage more Indians to appreciate its heritage. It will also bring in more tourists who want to see monuments and heritage, but cannot cope with the congestion and chaos. "We expect to see many more Indian tourists and foreigners coming here after it's finished," adds Bhargarva. "It will be a wonderful experience. At the moment, it's a nightmare even for me, let alone a foreigner."

Sachdeva hopes it also paves a path for similar plans in future, kick-starting the redevelopment of the whole of Old Delhi. “It should give hope that projects like this can be done across the country in our numerous heritage precincts that have also been neglected.” In particular, he wants the whole area around the Jama Masjid to be revived. Also, he adds, “if I had my way, I’d love to start a similar restoration project on Crawford Market in Mumbai and in the old colonial part of Kolkata”.