“The evenings are magical here with the youth, princes and nobles coming for an evening stroll and entertainment…There is nothing in the world that is not sold here,” wrote scholar and reformist Syed Ahmed Khan about Chandni Chowk in the first volume of his book Asar-us-Sanadid in 1847.
Time played a cruel joke on Chandni Chowk, however, as much would change after the Revolt of 1857, and the Partition of India in 1947. In 2019, it is one of seven Lok Sabha constituencies in Delhi, and is dug up, with renovation work underway to turn the chaotic market into a car-free zone.
It’s fair to say, however, that even now, the evenings are magical in Chandni Chowk. In the 17th Century, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara built five markets — Urdu Bazar, Dariba Bazar, Kotwali Bazar, Chandni Chowk and then Fatehpuri Bazar.“In front of the Bibi ka Serai built by Jahanara in Shahjahanabad was a water tank, surrounded by buildings. On a moonlit night, the buildings would get illuminated because of the moonlight reflecting from the tank. That’s why it was called Chandni Chowk,” said historian Sohail Hashmi.
While this is a story as old as time, not many know that Chandni Chowk was just the square area, and not the 1.3-km stretch from Fatehpuri Masjid.
Noted historian Narayani Gupta said, “In Sair-ul-Manazil (1821) and Asar-us-Sanadid (1847), there is no mention of a street named Chandni Chowk, only the square is called that. The first mention of Chandni Chowk as a street is on a map in 1857, after the revolt.”
In his 2015 book Delhi: Unknown tales of the city, journalist R V Smith writes about Chandni Chowk’s many proposed names. From “Murdon-ka-Chowk” after the Revolt of 1857, to Begum Sumroo briefly calling it “Chooriwali ka Adda”, to rumours of “Inquilab Chowk” in 1912 to the latest proposal to call it “Sachin Tendulkar Chowk” in 2012. Smith’s chapter is aptly titled “Moonlight Chowk’s Many Names”.