This vibrant market came to existence when the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, shifted his capital from Agra to Shahjahanabad, now Old Delhi, in the mid 17th century. While Chandni Chowk or the moonlit square no longer bears the magnificence of the bygone era, its importance in the annals of Delhi will never be lost.
Chandni Chowk, or the Moonlight Square, was designed and established by Princess Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, in 1650 CE. The bazaar, which was shaped as a square, was given further elegance by the presence of a pool in the centre of the complex.
The bazaar was designed by Jahanara Begum, the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory the Taj Mahal was built.
The original market was divided into four parts: Urdu Bazaar, Johri Bazar, Ashrafi Bazaar, and the Fatehpuri Bazar. During the golden days of the Mughal era, the splendour of Chandni Chowk had spread far and wide. Merchants from Asia and Europe are known to have frequently visited the market.
The most striking aspect of Chandni Chowk was the glittering reflection of the moon in the tributary of the Yamuna river, which passed down the centre of the bazaar. The rows of banyan trees lining the streets added to the appeal. The canal was bordered by wide platforms, and it was here that the residents loved to sit for hours lost in conversation. Elaborate royal processions passing through Chandni Chowk was also a common sight in those times.
Over 1,500 businesses of all kinds had initially set up shop along the 1.3-kilometer-long road, stretching from the Red Fort to Fatehpuri Masjid. At the time, these shops were designed in the shape of a half moon.
In particular, the pool shimmered in the moonlight, a feature which was perhaps responsible for the nomenclature of the marketplace. The shops of the complex were originally built in a half-moon shaped pattern, which, for some reason, is lost today. This could also have an important role to play in the nomenclature of the place as silver is referred to as Chandi in Hindi, a word which could have been slightly deformed to form Chandni Chowk.
Chandni Chowk was once the grandest of the markets in India. In fact, the Mughal imperial processions used to pass through Chandni Chowk. The tradition was continued when Delhi Durbar was held in 1903. Delhi Town Hall was built in 1863 by the British.
Chandni Chowk runs through the middle of the walled city, from the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort to Fatehpuri Masjid. Originally, a canal ran through the middle of the street as a part of the water supply scheme. It was initially divided into three sections:
- Lahori Gate to Chowk Kotwali (near Gurdwara Shish Ganj): This section closest to the imperial residence, was called Urdu Bazar, i.e., the encampment market. The language Urdu got its name from this encampment. Ghalib noted the destruction of this market during the disturbances of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and its aftermath.
- Chowk Kotwali to Chandni Chowk: The term Chandni Chowk originally referred to the square that had a reflecting pool. It was replaced by a clock-tower (Ghantaghar) that was damaged and demolished in the 1950s. This section was originally called Johri Bazar.
- ‘Chandni Chowk’ to Fatehpuri Masjid: this was called the Fatehpuri Bazar.
Even though today Chandni Chowk appears choked with congestion, it retains its historical character. The following terms are generally used to describe the buildings and the streets
- Haveli: a mansion. A normal haveli would have a big courtyard (atrium) surrounded on four sides by spacious rooms and often another walled courtyard around the exterior as well. One of the largest preserved havelis in the area is the Chunnamal haveli.
- Kucha: a zone with houses whose owners shared some common attribute, usually their occupation. Hence the names Maliwara, the gardeners’ neighbourhood and Ballimaran, the oarsmen’s neighbourhood.
- Katra: refers to a separate wing of tradesmen and craftsmen belonging to the same trade. They usually lived and worked together. It is a system similar to the guild housing in Amsterdam.