Old Delhi is a historical treasure-trove buried under a flurry of ceaseless commerce; once the splendid capital of the Mughal Empire, its haveli mansions have long since been converted into warehouses and stores. The canals that used to reflect the moonlight and give Chandni Chowk (Moonlight Square) its name have been filled and turned into roads clogged with traffic and lined with shops, stalls and hawkers. Like India itself, it tends to reflect the mood of the observer: exciting and picturesque on one day, unbearable and overwhelming on another.
The heat is sticky and oppressive today, turning the air opaque and making every move a small victory. We are at the end of an unexpected heat-wave and the heavy skies have not yet delivered on their promise of rain. Kinari Bazar Rd., a narrow lane as well-trafficked as any highway, is unusually dark for this time of day, the tall buildings on either side blocking off the sickly sunlight. Many dark alleys branch off into the maze-like bowels of the market. The street is lined with shops, most of them barely more than cavities in the grimy wall, in which the salesmen, always men, sit cross-legged and grim among shelves of silk, satin and cotton. Every shop is an explosion of colour and light, selling wedding saris of bright red with intricate golden embroidery, piles of red-and-gold silk for the groom’s turban, rows of hangers straining under the weight of lehenga skirts thickly encrusted with golden thread, beads and mirrors.
On the left there is a jewellery shop, marbled, air-conditioned and resplendent behind large windows separating it from the muggy dirty world outside. A matronly woman in a purple sari lifts the pieces offered by the salesman and inspects them against the light, frowning slightly. Her husband, with a mighty moustache and an even mightier belly, is standing nearby cradling her purse. On the street a bicycle rickshaw is barrelling towards me, a wiry dark man with a milky eye pedalling along two Caucasian women on a tour of Old Delhi. I press myself against the wall, careful not to step into the puddle of muck, and let them pass.
It’s a disorienting cacophony of life, walking down this road: watching my feet so I don’t step into a puddle, in a hole, into cow dung, or on someone else’s feet; watching the traffic of people and bicycles and motorbikes coming at me in every direction; and glancing up every now and then, at the tangled webs of electrical wires hanging low over the street, the occasional frayed end dangling just low enough to electrocute an unsuspecting tall European.
But if you manage to look past the gaudy colourful shops, or further up, past the electrical wires, you just might catch a glimpse of Shahjehanabad, described by a 17th Century traveller as “a Garden of Eden that is populated.” An arch that would once have led to the haveli courtyard, a beautifully worked latticed window, an ornamental balcony, a pillar wrapped in intricate engravings – all the quiet beauty of a dead empire.