An Open Letter to Jahanara Begum

Chandini Chowk from then to now

I always wanted to write to you ...having experienced your creation, unknown to many that it was conceived by you , Jahanara Begum, Padshah Begum.

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Chandini Chowk ...a walk during the Pandemic

Jahanara Begum, most today don’t know that it was you who commissioned a canal and an area in Shahjahanabad which now is called Chandini Chowk. I have heard of an octogonal  pool that reflected the moon which must have lit up the sky every night, brightening up the entire bazaar. Jahanara Begum, daughter of Emperor Shah Jehan, I wonder what would you be thinking if you were alive today to see that it still somehow evokes the feeling of that bygone time. Many are of the opinion that it is ruined but I think otherwise. How many bazaars can boast of still being utilized as the place they were built centuries ago?

A few years ago, I had visited Chandini Chowk, bustling with people, vendors, rickshaw pullers, and some of the best street food India has to offer. The vibe in the market was that of a place that was ‘alive’. I had heard they have changed the infrastructure to match it a bit like when you were there. So I wanted to visit it.

Though lots has changed at the chowk from your time,it no longer has a canal or a pool (though I would have loved to see the reflected moon). It would have been mesmerizing as later the chowk was named after it. But now a path is laid with red stone making it pedestrian-friendly at least.

Due to the pandemic, I visited it in the early hours of the morning, to savour my favorite breakfast at a renowned sweet shop.Nagodi Halwa and Bedmi puri channa sabzi (deep-fried aniseed-flavored small crisp puris with semolina halwa and whole wheat and daal fried spiced puris with spicy chickpeas and vegetable gravy).  The thing about this particular dish is, that no one prepares it as they make it here, nowhere in the world. The lanes are the same..very narrow only for pedestrian walkers or rickshaw pullers. But nowadays cars too try to make their way into these tapered paths.

 I walked on the recently laid red stone in the early hours of the morning, thinking of all the processions that must have passed through the very same road. On one end, I could see the Lahori gate of Shahajahanbad and the other led us to the other end where my favourite sweet shop, Chaina Ram , resides towards the Fatehpuri Mosque, built by another woman , Fatehpuri Begum.

As I came to the plaza where the octagonal pool would have been, I stopped to see why you had chosen this place to make it ..and could feel the grandeur and could only imagine how beautiful it would have been with trees flanking both sides of the canal, and now there are some plants in the centre and a few trees ..making it a bit more green than before.

I bought up my favorite besan barfi (gram flour sweet) and other sweets from Chaina Ram . Earlier they used to be showcased on huge thals outside tempting passers-by. Due to the pandemic, there is a glass shield that barricaded the sweet seller and me, but I got a whiff of the gigantic puris that were being fried onsite.

There are some very old buildings that still are reminiscent of an era I wasn’t born in. Now, next to this plaza is a statue of  Swami Sharadhanand, a missionary and an Indian independence activist Earlier there had been the statue of Queen Victoria, which was replaced. I do hope someday you would be acknowledged too. Behind that, there is a Town Hall. This was constructed 150 years ago and even housed an education facility known as the Lawrence Institute. This was the place where your gardens must have been. It is now hoping to be leased out to a hotel or a library that may be in line with the Begum ki Serai, the inn for wealthy Persian traders in the 16th century. You wanted it to be the best place where traders and travelers could rejuvenate …I do hope this area can be restored to its glory.

I have heard of the various shops that would sell from kebabs and rubies to flowers, and that cafes were packed with traders and merchants. Even now there are various sections of the bazaar that sell jewelry, silver, and its renowned paranthas or fried stuffed flatbread after which even a path, 'galli' or 'kucha' is named.

There is nowhere in Delhi where Jalebis and Rabri taste so good, still made in a way that one can douse it in a glass of milk and it swells up. And there is nowhere in Delhi where the people are so generous, patient, and kind as here.

There is no place like Chandini Chowk in the wee hours of the morning as now cars are bened to drive on the main path before 10 a.m. One can see vast skies overhead flanked by a ‘Delhi’ that is only found in books, old jharokhas, and the quiet of the morning there is unmatchable, where only some early morning risers can be seen at breakfast spots.

You created the heart of Dilli , it’s called Delhi now, and it will always remain its heart. It was never made known that a woman created Chandini Chowk, and now as women are taking up various roles in diverse industries, you would have been proud of what we all are accomplishing. 

Chandini Chowk will always be special and unique and I am grateful that you created a space that beats as 'Delhi’s Heart'

P.S A special thanks to my sister who always assists me on my walks in India .

Chandini Chowk