It was not a happening place, in that sense of the term. Neither was it an intellectual hub like ‘Samovar’, about which I’ve written sometimes ago. But the place was iconic. A landmark in old Delhi’s legendary Chandni Chowk!
So iconic was ‘Ghantewala’ of Chandni Chowk, that B.R Chopra had included the shop, in a scene involving Meena Kumari, in his 1954 classic ‘Chandni Chowk’. In fact, it was dramatic climax shot in front of this fabled shop.
Founded in 1790, it was the oldest sweet shop in Delhi. And over the centuries, it had created an impressive Brand name for itself, a landmark of sorts.
Having created to cater the Emperors, it was a prime choice of the Presidents, Prime Ministers and to the people, not only from Chandni Chowk…but far and beyond.
Old Delhi is a place of contrasts.
In the real sense, experiencing Old Delhi is almost like experiencing the magic of India in its variety and diversity.
Again, Old Delhi is not just old or fossiled. It is a picture of both change and continuity. In spite of the assault on the core character of the city from various sides, its critical feature has not changed. Of course, the mutation happened, but its past could not be totally wiped out. The streets here have become so crowded that one can hardly walk. There are vehicles from bullock carts, to Mercedes, vying with each other!
The ‘Old’ city may be physically there, but it’s just a name with a settlement bereft of its soul. Many heritages in Chandni Chowk and adjacent areas were demolished or closed down. Much noise was made about their ‘heritage’ status raised by the intellectual types, but who cares!
Today, a new middle class has emerged. Monetary power with political power is rulling the roost. People from all over India have made it their home, who neither have any knowledge of its past or love for any history.
Mir Taqi Mir once wrote about this city: “Dilli jo ek shahr tha aalam mein intikhaab/Hum rehne wale hain usi ujre dayar ke.”
“There was a city, famous throughout the world/Where lived the chosen spirits of my time/Delhi was fairest among the fair/Fate has now plundered it and made it deserted/And to that withered city I belong”.
The very mention of Chandni Chowk and Purani Dilli today conjures up images of congested roads, utter chaos, dilapidated buildings, higher noise pollution, and utmost unplanned civic areas of Delhi.
Chandni Chowk, or the moonlit bazaar, used to be the commercial hub of the Mughal Capital of Shahjahanabad. Today it is a pale shadow of its glorious past. Poorly maintained, grossly neglected and highly dilapidated. But to someone, somewhere and sometime its past still dawdles someplace inside!
Established by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, once, this part of Delhi was known as Shahjahanabad.
Chandni Chowk, or the Moonlit Market, is the originally crescent-shaped bazaar designed in 1650, dearly patronised by Princess Jahan Ara, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan was known for his great building interests. He was also the builder of renowned Taj Mahal and the Red Fort.
Although the glory and grandeur of the erstwhile days have disappeared, Chandni Chowk continues to be as popular as ever, for reasons other than just shopping in the moonlight.
Today, it’s one of Asia’s largest wholesale markets. There are scores of people who brave the chaos and confusion, heat and dust, everyday, to venture into the labyrinth of narrow lanes in search of the best bargains in spices, dry fruits, cereals, edible oils, herbs, wedding finery, textiles, jewellery, electrical goods, chemical products, industrial tools, books and stationery, perfumes and thousands of other merchandises.
As the crowning glory of the nostalgic past is the big tempting assurance of a wide variety of street food. These exclusive culinary attractions have stood the test of tastes and time.
Amidst the dodging hawkers and buyers, and innumerable pedalled rickshaws plying in and around the narrow lanes, the history-laden paths of Chandni Chowk still pulsate with a mélange of taste, combinations, local flavours and aroma for the food lovers and hungry shoppers alike.
Nostalgia is always followed by genial serves in plentiful helpings in Chandni Chowk. As it happened in the narrow bylanes of old Delhi, hidden almost within the magic realm, for all these years. These non-imposing family-run, mostly one-shop eateries survived the onslaught of modernisation for so many years! But the times are changing.
The food critiques has foreseen, this is bound to happen. These outlets have survived so far, for their authenticity, familiarity, local patronisation and their iconic status.
As the globalisation has stayed here for quarter a century, many people have crossed the demarcation line called middle-class, affluently, a gastronomical revolution has taken place in a traditional and conservative nation where eating outside one’s family, caste, kinship and community was avoided or looked down upon, only a generation ago!
Riding on the newly acquired wings of affluence, India’s high-spending, globally-minded and techno savvy younger generation is biting into Hot Dogs, Burgers, Pizzas even Momos with elation. It’s the prevalent way of proclaiming a new economic order in this, once deprived nation.
McBurgers, KFCs, Pizzerias, Retro Cafes and Bistros are now giving tough completion to these family run outlets, and gradually pushing them out.
The tell-tale sign of new economic order is now overtly visible in Chandni Chowk. Bikanervala is not solely depending on its sweets alone. The kids coming with their families for shopping drop in and asking for pasta or pizza, and they have ample arrangement for that.
Brijwasi has introduced its Pizza section, including home delivery.
McDonald’s has its busy outlet at Chandni Chowk, opposite Sisgunj Gurudwara, two others at Old Delhi Railway Station and Kashmiri Gate.
The mantra is now sporadic marketing- the American style of Brand Building. Moreover, the Fast Food market in India is a not like the USA a blue collar worker’s ready choice, but for the well-off and upwardly mobile. An air-conditioned interior, computerised set up, young waiters in uniforms, who are well-mannered and English speaking too. A “slice of America” has already outsmarted the traditional Indian eateries!
The iconic Paranthewali Gali has only four shops remained out of the original 16.The future generation is not sure, how far they will be able to make money, depending on dwindling footfalls of occasional tourists!
No More Mithai Mania?
“This was bound to happen”, Commented an Old Delhi food connoisseur.
The sweets are a costly affair these days, as the search of quality fresh Mawa, is pricy and they become costlier, because they were made in desi Ghee. Also, the big clientele in an around old city have gone, with their tastes and money. Original residents of old Delhi are moving out to other parts of the city or places like Gurgaon. Many houses and iconic shops have been turned into godowns now!
Still, Mithai shops are aplenty in Old Delhi. Family run outlets known for generations to Mithai Lovers.
In the Fatehpuri Mosque area, there is one of Delhi’s old Mithai shops: Chaina Ram. This one claims to be the origin of the slushy and sweet Karachi Halwa. Owned presently by Hari Gidwani, the shop has its origin in Karachi, in the Sindh province of Pakistan, where it was founded in the year1901.
Haldiram‘s is another Chandni Chowk landmark. Founded in 1937 by Gangabisenji Agrawal, as a retail Sweets and Namkeen shop in Bikaner, Rajasthan. However the original credit goes to Tansukhdas, his grandfather. When it comes to Sohan Papdis, Kaju Katlis, Laddoos, and of course Bhujias, it’s Haldiram, first and foremost, for a lot of its traditional clientele.
The Old and Famous Jalebiwala (as the shop publicises itself) at the intersection of Dariba and Chandni Chowk, is there since 1880, when Nem Chand Jain, came from Agra, and started selling Jalebis at a makeshift stall, which gradually became the talk of the town.
Annapurna Bhandar is Old Delhi’s most famous shop for authentic Bengali sweets, and has been around since 1929. From Sandesh to Rosogollas, Misti Doi to Kancha Gollas, the older people still vouch for their irresistible Ras Madhuri!
Walking from the Famous Jalebiwala towards Ghantewala, one will come across another oldest Mithai shop named Kanwarji’s. This shop has been around there since 1850, and is famous for its Gulab Jamuns and special Imartis.
Adjacent to Kinari Bazaar, there is Hazari Lal Jain’s famous ‘Khurchan Bhandar’. It specialises in a special sweet called khurchan (Scrapping in English), which is made by continuous boiling down a lot of milk into a crumbly mass. Many VIPs, including a former PM was great fans of Hazari Lal’s Khurchan!
Tewari Brothers, originally from Kolkata is another Sweet Shop, which has earned a name for it in the last three decades. Many vouch by their Motichoor Laddoos and Kaju-Anjir Barfi.
Giani di Hatti is another Old Delhi shop which is known for its wonderful Rabri Falooda and Urad Dal Halwa and Gajar Ka Halwa.
“The business is not like earlier days. During occasions like Holi and Diwali, we get bulk orders, but otherwise it’s a daily survival. Our new generation is interested in other avenues of money making, apart from Sweet Shops.” Lamented a famous sweet shop owner.
Even the iconic Ghantewala had to rent a part of its premises to a Sari shop, years ago.
Ghantewala: The Oldest One In India
There are thousands of small or big sweet shops across India.
According to an estimate, there are more than 42,000 Mithai Shops in the city of Mumbai itself! And each city has its best and most popular shops.
Like Damodar Mitaiwala of Dadar in Mumbai, or the ‘Booda Kaka Mahim Halwa Wala‘ the oldest Sweet shop in Mumbai. Kolkata has its K.C.Das or Ganguram. Chennai has its Sri Krishna Sweets or Archana Sweets, Delhi too has many contenders, but no one was as iconic as Ghantewala in Chandni Chowk.
Founded in 1790 by Lala Sukh Lal Jain who had arrived in the walled city from Amer in Rajasthan, and had begun by selling ‘Mishri Mawa,’ a Rajasthani speciality, which became immensely popular in those days.
The shop was being run last by his great grandchildren of eighth generation.
“People associate their memories of Chandni Chowk with Ghantewala in the same way that one links Karim‘s to Jama Masjid. It was part of Shahjahanabad’s intangible heritage,” said A G K Menon, the convener of INTACH Delhi Chapter.
“We used to produce around 40 to 50 different varieties of sweets that we kept changing according to the season or festivals,” one of the family members had said.
The ‘Sohan Halwa’ a Ghee dripping delicacy of Persian origin was a trademark of Ghantewala. According to R V Smith, an author and chronicler of Delhi, sweets for former Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were brought regularly from the Ghantewala shop.
It was also the favourite Sweet shop of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. During many Kavi Sammelans held at his official residence, he would send someone to Ghantewala, to bring his favourite sweets and snacks.
Not just the rulers, during the historical days of Delhi Mutiny, Ghantewala catered to the mutineers of 1857, who were utterly charmed by the goodies it offered.
‘Dihli Urdu Akhbar’ of August 23, 1857 wrote:
“…The moment they (the rebels) have a round of Chandni Chowk, enjoy the sweetmeats of Ghantewala, they lose all urge to fight and kill their enemy.”
According to eyewitnesses, the rush was so heavy during Diwali, that the owners of the shop had call police to maintain order and manage the bulge of customers who would queue restlessly for their special Diwali Mithais!
In its heydays, It used to offer more than 40 varieties of sweets apart from the varieties that were specialties. It also served snacks and fast food.
Apart from their trademark product Sohan Halwa, Pista Burfi, Motichoor Ke Ladoo, Rasamalai, Kalakand, Karachi Halwa and snacks like Makkhan Choora were highly popular. They also sold traditional snacks, like Samosa and Kachori. On festive seasons they used to have a separate section selling Ghevar, Gujia, Barfi, Gulab Jamun, Rasgulla and Peda among others.
They were also doing brisk sales online, in India and abroad.
What’s In A Name?
How the shop got its name has several anecdotes, related to it. It is said that the sweet shop was named after the owner initially started ringing a bell, to attract the Chandni Chowk customers, to attract into the shop.
Another Legend is that, during Mughal era, big processions used to pass along Chandni Chowk and one of the royal elephants would stop in front of the shop and ring its bell. It would refuse to budge until fed its favourite sweets. Hence the name Ghantewala Halwai!
Another version is that the shop got its name from a bell (Ghanta) placed on a tower nearby. Apparently the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, who could hear the bell toll from his Red Fort residence, would ask for sweets from the shop located near the bell (“Ghantey ki neeche wali Dukaan”). The name remained.
A bit changed version is this: The emperor often used to go to Fatehpuri Mosque to offer his prayers. When his royal carriage left the Red Fort, a huge bell (Ghanta) stationed outside this area was rung to alert his Ministers who, at that time, lived in the Havelis behind the street. On hearing the bell ring, the ministers would come out on the street to pay their respect to the emperor. They would later enjoy the goodies at the famous sweet shop there, hence the name Ghantewala.
Incidentally, there were two Ghantewalas in Chandni Chowk. The one closer to the Chandni Chowk’s fountain, Ghante Wala Shahi Halwai, started by one of the brothers, had closed several years ago.
The other one, Ghantewala Halwai, located on the other side of the road, remained in business, till a few days back.
Kesar Singh, the manager who had been manning the shop for past 40 years or more had reminisces about the Trams in Delhi, screeching whistles and passing through Chandni Chowk, during his childhood days.
Old Delhi’s legendary treats like Sohan Halwa, Motichoor ke Ladoo, Kalakand, Burfi, and Gulab Jamuns were then just a Tramcar ride away!
Every Sweet Thing…Comes To An End!
The shop was cleared in the earlier night. The display units were sold as scraps, according to a report. A big refrigerator came out last. On Wednesday, July 1. Ghantewala closed its shop, after 225 long years!
Sushant Jain, who was running the shop, as the eighth generation proprietor, cited declining sales as one of the main reasons for ultimate closure.
“There is a long list of reasons behind closing down of the shop and low profits are one of them. Business requires a lot of efforts and time. It is a tremendous task to run a business like this and needs much attention,” narrated Jain
For the heritage lovers and numerous as admirers of the shop, it was the demise of one of the remaining icons of the city – a living reminder of the past!
According to food critics and Delhi’s chroniclers: “A sweet connect with the past is snapped as the iconic sweet shop at Chandani Chowk, Ghantewala downed its shutters”.
The closing down of Ghantewala is the snapping of an epochal connection with the past and a harsh reminder of the fact that all good things come to an end….remarked a food historian.
Anubhav Sapra, who had started the popular Delhi Food Walks lamented, “When places like these shutdown, they take away a little bit from your best memories. A bit of India has been lost to the younger generation.”
We Indians have less respect for our history. Many of Delhi’s iconic places were either razed or made into departmental stores, offices or even godowns!
Ghantewala, a sweet shop with so many legends, so much love and nostalgia has now been merged into the history.
By Deep Basu
Images supplied by the author