Once, it was a land of galis (lanes) and kuchas (residential alleys usually inhabited by people having the same occupation). But little remains of Purani Dehli’s canals and tree-lined passageways bespeaking the Mughal era. Windowless hovels and dangling power cables fit the modern description of Old Delhi, aka Shahjahanabad. Its neighbourhoods retain almost nothing of their original character.
Even so, swiftly-shifting Old Delhi offers a glimpse of its early days in the place names of its lanes and localities. These identities are derived from professions and peoples, landmarks and landscapes. A stroll helps trace the foundations of a royal capital that endures and thrives.
Regular excursions to the Walled City do not mean that it is the only part of the Capital worth falling in love with. Indeed, it is also not important for you to be a Dilliwalla. Shahjahanabad will fascinate anybody who wants to witness the ongoing alteration of our great cities. Old worlds are disappearing and being replaced by the new. In such a time, the supposedly unimportant elements of a city have become precious. In Old Delhi—and I’m not referring to the touristy Jama Masjid or Chandni Chowk—the commonplace streets and neighbourhoods have acquired the desperate beauty of a fading fresco. This giant mural not only provides us an aesthetic sense of our past but also shows us the silent and ceaseless transformations of our values, beliefs, aspirations and ways of life.
So, for around six years, I’ve been walking and walking around the Walled City. I’d arrived in Delhi as a hotel waiter. Living in a south Delhi slum and spending the work hours carrying heavy salvers at weddings, my only comfort was Sunday outings to the second-hand book bazaar in Daryaganj. Gradually, I was pulled into the multiple lanes that connect to the historic quarter. The aimless wanderings gave way to a passionate curiosity that would only be satisfied by recording the shifts taking place in the area. Today, I have a list of those streets. It is certainly not comprehensive—there are hundreds of alleys. Also, some of the stories told to me could be, well, just stories. Yet these place names speak to us, not so much about the past, but as signposts, you might say, about where we’re headed.
Akhare Wali (gali)
Named after an akhara—a school for wrestlers where women cannot enter. The akhara no longer exists but at a unisex gym nearby I find veiled women on treadmills, while the men are straining at weights (there are two more streets of this name. One had its akhara shut down a year ago because of the encroaching fad of gym membership. The other has an earthen pit, but is surrounded by the huts of migrant labourers who cart great loads of blank sheets for the paper merchants of Chawri Bazar). Last week banners came up across the Walled City announcing the opening of a women-only James Gym Aur Fitness Center in Gali Chooriwallan, a street named after bangle (choori) sellers who used to have homes there, while their shops were in Ballimaran.
Formerly a haveli, an arched doorway with wooden brackets leading into a musty, covered corridor is all that is left of the mansion. It now houses the Shanta Public School, which has an elegant chandelier, and a marriage hall.
Ballimaran (mohalla, or residential neighbourhood)
Best known for the poet Mirza Ghalib’s last haveli, which until recently served as a coal store. It was named after the wooden poles (balli) used to anchor boats in the Yamuna and also in the canal that ran between Chandni Chowk’s Fatehpuri mosque and the Red Fort. The area was home to a Punjabi business community that had converted from Hinduism to Islam in the 16th century while on the way to a holy dip in the Ganga—following a miracle performed by a Muslim saint. After Partition, many residents migrated to Karachi. Today, Ballimaran is famous for shops selling spectacles and made-in-Agra leather shoes.
Batashe Wali (gali)
It is lined with shops selling white brittle candy batashe as well as desi khand—the powder obtained from crushing the candy.
Behram Khan Tiraha
It is a three-way avenue guarded by an unwieldy peepal tree. A tattoo parlour stands beside an aloo tikki stall. In the morning, daily-wage painters and carpenters gather here to be hired by contractors.
Bulaki Begum (kucha)
Some residents say Bulaki Begum was somebody’s mistress; others guess she was the wife. The eye-catching landmark is not the remains of her mansion but the crumbling Lachhumal Dharamshala. Built by a Jain trader, it is unoccupied.
Named after the bird bulbul, its residents actually groom pigeons on their rooftops. One stone grave is said to be the tomb of Razia Sultan, Delhi’s first female emperor.
This was home to leather workers—chamra means leather—who specialized in making army boots. Today you find a sweatshop producing cardboard boxes. A few residents still make leather chappals, with the entire family pitching in.
A palace stood here. Today the most prominent landmark in Chandni Mahal is a police station. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, gifted it to Tanras Khan of the Dilli gharana of Hindustani classical music. Descendants of the gharana still live in the area, which has a lane called Gali Tanras Khan.
Originating from the word chawhat, Sanskrit for a place where four roads meet, Chawri was a district for courtesans. Young men from noble families learnt the arts of poetry, paan and love from the dancing courtesans. At some point the pleasure district moved elsewhere, and Chawri Bazaar was transformed into a marketplace for copper, brass and paper products. The shopkeepers call it India’s biggest centre for wedding cards. The metro station nearby is, at 30m (98ft) below ground level, Delhi’s deepest.
The full name is Chelan Ameeran. This was the address of the Walled City’s upper crust. Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely read English newspaper, was founded here by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. One story is that the neighbourhood was named after a haveli that housed 40 (chaalis) rich nobles who were murdered by the British on the banks of the Yamuna. What is certain is that during the 1857 uprising some 1,400 unarmed Dilliwallas were killed by the British here. Today its maze of dusty lanes is lined with cramped apartment buildings.
Chitli Qabar Chowk
Apart from Hauz Qazi, this is Old Delhi’s only major intersection with four streets. Named after the grave chamber of one Sayyid Raushan Shahid, it’s called Chitli because it had ornamentation in various colours. Some locals believe it to be the tomb of a goat. A pavement bangle seller locks his wares inside the tomb at night. Every morning without fail a woman in a tattered kaftan arrives to swear in Bengali at no one in particular.
Chuhiya Mem (chatta)
The chatta is named after an Anglo-Indian woman who moved here after the 1857 uprising. She was thin, slender and dark and was nicknamed Chuhiya, a mouse, by the residents. Gradually, the chatta—where the upper storeys of houses arch over the street and block the view of the sky—came to be known by this name; her real name has been forgotten.
Dacoits fleeing from the countryside took shelter here in the Mughal era. Now inhabited by shopkeepers and people with respectable day jobs.
Dariba Kalan (gali)
Amitabh Bachchan mentioned it in the film song Kajra re. One elderly man said the word dariba means “glittering water” in Persian. Another said it means a betel leaf stall. Wikipedia translates it to the “street of the incomparable pearl”. Many of the jewellers and goldsmiths—all are Hindus—have been here since the creation of Shahjahanabad, while a significant number arrived as Partition refugees. The street has dozens of food carts. Most vendors hail from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and hawk aloo tikki and daulat ki chaat.
Farash Khana (mohalla)
A neighbourhood of grocers, butchers, barbers, kite makers and poets, it derives its name from the masons who were brought to Delhi to lay tiles on the farsh (floors) of Red Fort.
Originally home to people who rented out donkeys for the transportation of construction material. To this day bricks and cement are borne by these animals in Old Delhi.
The katra—one-room quarters around a court with a single narrow entrance and inhabited by people of the same caste or occupation—was a neighbourhood of ghee traders for centuries; now there are Mother Dairy booths all across the Walled City. However, a guesthouse called Ghee Wala can be found opposite the Jama Masjid.
Habsh Khan (phatak)
Phatak means a gateway. The neighbourhood is named after Sidi Miftah, an Abyssinian slave elevated to Habsh Khan by Shah Jahan. Habshi is the Urdu slur for “black”. It also lends its name to Habshi Halwa, an Old Delhi delicacy, which is black.
Imli Pahari (gali)
One side of the hill is called Bhojla Pahari—after a dacoit called Bhojla—and the other, Imli Pahari, after a tamarind tree long dead. The quiet street snakes its way up the hill and is flanked by houses with old-style courtyards. Hills are a natural feature of Old Delhi, but now almost invisible because of modern construction.
It had houses belonging to Jat families. The prominent landmarks include Ada Beauty Parlour, a tailoring shop, and a temple built around a peepal tree.
This is the site of a palace that has disintegrated—kalan means big. When Old Delhi was being built, emperor Shah Jahan would come from Agra and stay here to oversee the construction of the Jama Masjid and Red Fort. Today the place is home to shopkeepers and people with jobs in shops and factories.
Kallan Kahar (gali)
It is named after a kahar, a man from a community specifically employed to carry women from rich families in draped palanquins each time they left their havelis. Today, it is inhabited by handicraft workers.
Kamra Bangash Ali
An extinct mansion, built by one Faizullah Khan Bangash. Bangash is the name of a Pashtun tribe along the present-day Afghan-Pakistan border.
There’s no Bangash family now. The area has a settlement of Hindu dhobis, or washermen, but most of them have left for other places following the closure of their ghat five years ago by the municipal council. In fact, the dhobi ghats in Old Delhi have dwindled from five to one, near the graveyard behind GB Pant hospital.
The famous Karim’s restaurant is here, as well as the family’s four-storey house. The street is also home to kebab makers whose grandfathers came from western Uttar Pradesh. Their street stalls opposite the Jama Masjid stay open till 1am. Every morning a haleem cook called Naimuddin sets up his kitchen in a little clearing to prepare this one-dish meal of wheat, lentils and meat; his haleem is ready by 12.30pm and is sold out within an hour.
The market takes its name from wholesale stores for embellishments like zari and gota that are sewn along the edges, or the “kinara” of salwars and kurtas.
Kuen Wali (gali)
It got its name from a well, or kuan—later filled up and replaced by two water pumps that serve the areas on the facing hill.
Lal Kuan (bazaar)
Named after a red sandstone well, it lies by a peepal tree and is decorated with statues of Radha and Krishna. A priest who attends to the well every day lives in the nearby Gali Samosa Wali, which has no samosa stall. The bazaar is celebrated for its kite shops.
Manihar Wali (gali)
Named after manihars, the workers in bangle shops, who were specifically employed to help the shoppers delicately slip the glass bangles over their fists and slide them on to their arms. The manihars lived here.
It was home to the mashalchis, who carried the torches in royal parades and wedding processions.
Named after a cloth woven out of silk and cotton and popular among wealthy women. The area was inhabited by traders who imported the cloth from Hyderabad.
Mazar Wali (gali)
It had an unnamed Sufi dargah that has made way for residential buildings. Some locals point to a tomb-shaped outline on the wall at the street’s entrance.
Mir Hashim (kucha)
A narrow alley starting from the noisy Turkman Gate bazaar and ending at the spacious Sufi dargah of poet-mystic Mirza Mazhar Jan-e-Janan; the street sounds are absent inside the shrine. Bearded scholars pore over books in dimly-lit chambers or meditatively count the beads on their tasvis.
Mir Madari (gali)
Named after a resident nicknamed madari (monkey trainer) after he adopted a pet monkey that amused the neighbours by dancing on the street.
On a hill. This was home to candle-makers and gets its name from wax, or mom. You’ll find a hole-in-the-wall sweatshop where a lone man is seen folding hundreds of mithai (sweet) boxes daily.
The lane was famous for hosting cockfights, once one of the main forms of public entertainment. The tradition continues in front of the eastern gate of Jama Masjid on Sundays (the street has lately acquired a second name—Gali Bajrang Bali—after Hanuman).
Nahar Khan (kucha)
Named after a Tughlaq-era raja of Mewat, now in Haryana; his haveli later came in the possession of former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s forefathers.
Naicha Bandhan (kucha)
It was home to artisans who made the pipes, or naichas, of hookahs. In the Mughal era, the long naichas would reach the upper floors of mosques, havelis and the kothas of nautch girls in Chawri Bazar. The customers smoked inside while the hookah vendor remained on the street.
Nal Bandan (gali)
This was a neighbourhood of blacksmiths who traditionally made horseshoes, or nalis, and fitted them on to the hooves.
This was home to nats, people who entertained crowds with tightrope-walking and vaults. To this day children can be seen performing at New Delhi’s traffic signals.
It literally means a street with nine houses. There are 11 houses and eight families—and seven of them are Jain. The principal attraction is the lavish Jain Svetambara temple. The marble statue of lord Sumatinath sports a silver crown, a diamond tilak on the forehead and a gold necklace.
Neem Wali (gali)
It has a series of sparsely designed arched entrances. On a clear day the street is dappled with soft, golden light. The neem tree, at the other end, is surrounded by boxy houses.
Originally called Kucha Panghat because of a well—panghat means riverbank. Later, the well disappeared and the name was corrupted to Pandit. Today there are dozens of shops selling motor parts. One lane here leads to Mohalla Niyaryan, the setting of Ahmed Ali’s classic Twilight in Delhi. It’s just behind GB Road, Delhi’s red-light area.
Parathe Wali (gali)
Famous for eateries dedicated exclusively to parathas; one shop has a framed notice saying the maharaja of Kashmir dined here; another a picture of the late prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru enjoying a paratha. The varieties range from the usual (mint, daal, cauliflower) to unusual (tomatoes, khoya, bananas) to improbable (almonds, rabri, bitter gourd, okra). The Kanwarji Confectionery at the entrance has lately started serving the Turkish sweet baklava in addition to ladoos, mithais and kulfi.
The piyaon, or well, has been turned into a handpump, while retaining its well-like structure. A temple is built around it. The brass pot is tied by a chain that links it to the temple bell. The street’s two shops sell industrial valves and weighing machines, respectively.
Qabil Attar (kucha)
Named after a wholesale dealer of Unani medicines who also traded in the rare medicine mushk (obtained from the glandular secretion of deer who would come to Kashmir from their home in Tibet to feed on zafran, or saffron). Today, shops sell ladies’ suits and dupattas.
A cluster of houses built around a graveyard, or qabrastan, that includes the shrine of a Sufi saint called Dada Peer. The neighbourhood is home to a large community of hijras (eunuchs). In the evening, girls play hopscotch, jumping across the tombs.
It was home to masons, or rajaans. Now it’s a neighbourhood of butchers and so also known as Gosht Wali Pahari—gosht means flesh. Every morning labourers climb the hill carrying freshly slaughtered buffaloes and goats straight from the Ghazipur slaughterhouse in east Delhi. One family living here owns the landmark sweet shop Shireen Bhawan, famed for its pheeki jalebis and safed gaajar ka halwa.
Sadar Sadoor (gali)
It was originally the haveli of the Mughal-era nawab Mirza Lala Zarbeg. After the 1857 uprising, it was sold by the British to a magistrate who gave his name to the mansion, and then to the street.
Sakke Wali (gali)
It is named after a community that used to draw water from the wells, pour it into a goat-skin bag called mashak and then hawk it from house to house; today, their descendants run car-part shops near Jama Masjid.
Sham Lal (gali)
It is within walking distance of the Jama Masjid. In winter, many Kashmiris come to Old Delhi and stay at the four guesthouses on this extremely congested street. In the morning, the tea shops at the street’s entrance serve the trademark breakfast of Kashmir—pink noon chai (salted tea) and lavasa bread.
Here, patients suffering from various ailments were treated with singhi, or goat horn, which was used to draw out “bad” blood from their bodies. The only bloodletting today happens in front of Jama Masjid’s eastern gateway, where a hakeem draws blood from a patient by slashing his leg with a shaving razor.
Shiv Prasad Master (gali)
It is so narrow that two people cannot walk side by side. Locals say that a musician of this name once lived here. The only music now heard is from Hindi films, on FM channels.
Sir Syed Ahmad (road)
Named after the author of Asar-us-Sanadid, the first and definitive book written about the monuments and ruins of Delhi. The remnants of his haveli, just around the corner, face the curiously named Haram Kids Shop.
It was inhabited by people who made and sold sirki, the wooden slats used to make chilman, a screen-like curtain. Today, the shops specialize in iron and steel pipes. The landmarks include a mosque impolitely referred to as Randi ki Masjid (randi means prostitute, and it’s named after a courtesan, called Mubarak Begum) and the grim-looking Cinema Excelsior, patronized by Old Delhi’s subaltern class.
It was home to artisans who made a living from needlework; sui means needle. Today, it is home to a large number of mirasis—the musicians who traditionally perform qawwalis in Sufi shrines.
Originally part of a haveli, it later became a locality for people who extracted tel, or oil, from the oilseeds of mustard and sesame. Until the 1970s, every home had a bull and a wooden press. The slum-cleaning drive during the Emergency in the 1970s forced the telis to move to Delhi’s suburbs. Now it is home to rag-pickers. There is also a street of this name. It was home to oil vendors.
One of the four surviving gateways of Shahjahanabad, it was named after Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani, one of the earliest Sufis to settle in Delhi. Since he liked isolation, he came to be known as bayabani, which means “the one who lives in a jungle”. Turkman’s tomb, close to the darwaza (gate), is adjacent to the Holy Trinity Church; its compound is home to 42 Christian families.
The street is lined with kebab shacks, hotels, butcheries and book stores. Originally believed to be an army market, it was considered one of the best places in Delhi to hear conversational Urdu, whose origins are described by Encyclopedia Britannica (the 11th edition) as a “natural language of the people in the neighbourhood of Delhi, who formed the bulk of those who resorted to the bazaar”. Founded in 1939, the landmark Kutub Khana Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu bookshop gets visitors, in search of rare books, from across the world. It also sells English-language books, including Sexual Etiquette in Islam: Guidance for Husband And Wife.
Ustad Hamid (katra)
It is named after one of the two architects who designed the city and the Red Fort. Both died before its completion. Facing the north side of Jama Masjid, it housed the establishments of Muslim goldsmiths. They went to Pakistan, and were replaced by Hindu refugees. Today it is a residential locality.
Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint.