Old Delhi Days / by Ankita Dhussa

After my dad finalized his trip to India this past December, I decided I wanted to explore Old Delhi with him—partially because we had done this once before when I was in high school, and secondly because I liked the idea of sharing a nerdy, fieldwork day with him—the changing landscape of Old Delhi for him, the contemporary Delhi Metro (and our mode of transportation) for me.

Though not originally from Delhi, my father has spent a lot of time in the city and knows it well. His dissertation explored urban images of Delhi through literature. He's also likely the reason behind the seeds of my own blooming Delhi interest.

Our adventure held a few objectives:

  1. Take the Delhi Metro to Old Delhi
  2. Document a few remaining katras that we could find
  3. Lots of pictures of the people, landscape, interesting happenings etc (per tradition) 1
  4. Eat
  5. Go to Karol Bagh for wedding shopping

So, we had a busy day ahead of us!


Before diving into today’s Old Delhi, a quick history lesson:

Popular opinion states that there have been seven cities of ‘Delhi’. Essentially, these are the various dynasties that have claimed Delhi as their own, thus marking Delhi as a powerful region throughout the history of ‘India’ 2 . But the story starts even before these seven, dating all the way back to Indraprastha - the supposed home of the Pandav family from the Hindu epic The Mahabaharat, set between 400 BCE and 200 CE. There’s likely history even before Indraprastha, but details I am not aware of.

The seventh city of Delhi was known as Shahjahanabad3. This walled city of was built by Shah Jahan (same guy that built the Taj Mahal), of the Mughal Empire. Shahjahanabad served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1638 to 1857, after Shah Jahan shifted the capital from Agra, and until the Mughal Empire fell to the British. Today, the area of Shahjahanabad is known as Old Delhi, or, Purani Dilli, and encompasses almost everything I love (and hate) about Delhi.

Some notable attractions that Old Delhi hods:

  • Red Fort
  • Jamia Masjid 
  • Chandni Chowk
  • Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib
  • Lal Mandir
  • The 14 gates that lead in and out of the city (I’m not sure how many of these are still standing, but I’ve seen at least 3, Turkman, Kashmiri, and Ajmeri)
  • So. Much. More.
Ah yes, some authentic Old Delhi street food, Mickey Ds, with Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib in the background.

Ah yes, some authentic Old Delhi street food, Mickey Ds, with Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib in the background.


So, after grabbing the Violet Line from Nehru Place Metro Station, we got off at the Lal Quila (Red Fort) Metro Station. 

It’s hard to describe just how amazing it is to be traveling in a fully air conditioned, clean Metro up to 80km/hr (50mi/hr) speeds, around 30m (98ft) underground, and then exit into the heart of Old Delhi, surrounded by roads and buildings that have existed since the 1600s. 

Our marvel, however, was short-lived, as entering the heart of Old Delhi also means entering into a state of high-alert, while trying to navigate all of one’s senses. 

We took a quick look at Red Fort on our left and then turned right onto Chandni Chowk in search of katras. 

Beginnings of the Chandni Chowk hustle and bustle

Beginnings of the Chandni Chowk hustle and bustle


What is a katra?4

"A katra is a cluster of houses and shops within a defined or undefined enclosed space. It is the smallest subset of a residential community. Most katras were actually massive havelis {mansions} earlier. Even the lanes and by-lanes within a katra were originally not lanes but navigable spaces, leading a person from one party of the haveli to another."

What is a koocha?5

"A koocha is generally a corner or a chauraha which serves as a common meeting place and leads to a katra. There can be several koochas in a katra. A koocha mostly has a lot of shops. Even today, most koochas are market places."

My dad was particularly interested in documenting some katras for his research. After stopping every so often to take photographs, my dad and I decided to enter a katra. He had been in them before, but apparently not as far as we went that day. As we went further and further, it became clearer and clearer that we did not belong there.

So, naturally, people (men) asked us along the way if we needed any help. My dad asked a few men the way back to Chandni Chowk and they pointed us down a very narrow lane. I could tell my dad was a little skeptical. To be honest, I was, too. Had I been alone...Actually, wait, I would never have done this by myself, so this point is moot.

Off we went, down this narrow lane filled with turns. I stopped for a bit to take some photographs, and a couple of the young men noticed we had stalled and came back toward us. This kind of freaked me out. But we told them I just wanted to snap a photo, and they went about their way.

A few minutes later, we found our way back onto bustling Chandni Chowk.

Looking above from inside the katra

Looking above from inside the katra

Dad snapping some photos

Dad snapping some photos



We continued to walk through Chandni Chowk, toward Khari Baoli, an extension of Chandni Chowk known for spices and dried fruit.

We were called out by shop owners, mainly dried fruit sellers, to step in and make a purchase. My dad got lured by some raisins, and we ended up leaving with kishmish (raisins), badaam (almonds) and kaju (cashews). I was particularly fascinated by the variety of credit card companies the shop, that was established probably over a 100 years ago, now accepted. 

As we we walked toward lunch, crossing the Fatehpuri Masjid (Fatehpuri Mosque), my father reminisced visiting his older brother at his workplace near the Masjid, and the time his family made a trip to Delhi in the 50s for his eldest sister’s wedding.


Alas, the time had come for grub. We looped back onto Chandni Chowk and ducked into its infamous Paranthe Wali Gali. 

The gali, once home to roughly 20 paranthe shops, now only has three. But, interestingly, all allegedly belong to branches of the same family. Still, the gali remains popular, and appears to be undergoing a revival, both in Chandni Chowk, as well as through various thematic restaurants that attempt to recreate the Old Delhi charm and parantha style.

The paranthe themselves are deep-fried and can come in many non-traditional varieties, such as badaam (almond), rabri (sweet, condensed-milk dish) or khoya (a type of dried milk typically used in sweets), but one can also get the classics. My dad and I opted to split a classic aloo (potato) parantha and wash it down with some of the best lassi (yogurt based drink) we’ve had. 

Chandni Chowk scenes:



The final task of the day was to head to Karol Bagh and shop for my dad’s formalwear to wear to my sister’s upcoming wedding. 

We headed over to my father’s trusty kurta-pajama (kurta=long shirt, pajama= loose pants) shop, Raunaq. I’ve been hearing about this store for the last 20 years, ever since he first went there with my Maasadji (mother’s sister’s husband), to buy a new kurta-pajama for my cousin’s wedding that got scheduled while we were in India.

Since then, he’s been taken to this shop whenever he’s been in need of some new Indian formalwear. And not just by my Maasadji! A cousin on the other side of my family took him there once, and any time he’s sung the shop’s praises, but can’t remember its name, a local easily jumps in with the name.

I was skeptical though. To be honest, I was skeptical that it was still even in business, especially with the likes of Manyavar and other flashy Indian menswear brands. So, as my sister and I went to Karol Bagh the week prior for her own bridal trousseau shopping, we tried to scope it out. We found it, and it was PACKED. We realized pretty quickly that we were in the right place.

This time, the task to take my dad to Raunaq had fallen to me (as I like to pretend I'm a Delhi local these days). My dad and I grabbed an auto from Chandni Chowk and headed to Karol Bagh. We happily chatted along the way about some notable landmarks we passed. But once we arrived at Raunaq, our smiles quickly evaporated. Neither of us particularly enjoys shopping for clothes and the shop was, as always, packed. Ultimately, after some real-time Whatsapping with my mom, we made it out with some fresh kurta-pajamas and exchanged pleasantries with the owner of the shop. And I, once again, was reminded how much easier (and faster) it is to shop for men’s clothing. 

We made a few more snack breaks along the way home, and ended our day by grabbing some tacos at Taco Bell. An appropriate parallel to our Paranthe Wali Gali adventure from the morning, I think, and a way to round out our research day by comparing Delhi's ever-changing landscape.

Looking incredibly American as we model our down jackets in an auto rickshaw selfie

Looking incredibly American as we model our down jackets in an auto rickshaw selfie

Dad looking stylish during a chai break in Chaayos

Dad looking stylish during a chai break in Chaayos

  1. My love of photography is actually a family tradition, with my father and grandfather also being avid photographers
  2. India as a country is fairly young—attaining independence from the British Raj in 1947. However, the Indian subcontinent has had a strong presence for centuries and was arguably never meant to be a unified country
  3. Click here for a nice overview on the walled city of Shahjahanabad
  4. https://olddelhiheritage.in/katra-neel/
  5. http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/kuchas-and-katras-keep-their-tales/article7800505.ece