On one end is the Red Fort and on the other is the grand 17th-century Fatehpuri Mosque. Between the two is a chaotic, bustling world that carries the essence and enigma of many histories, and centuries of tangible and intangible heritage.
Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, with its labyrinth of gullies lined with shops and eateries, is a marketplace like no other in India. Come September, it will also get its first mall.
The developer, Omaxe Ltd, has branded it after the iconic destination. Hence the name, Omaxe Chowk.
When they hear about this mall, those who have visited – nay, experienced – Chandni Chowk exclaim in disbelief: “But where’s the space for it?!”
Turns out, there is. That’s another wonder of Chandni Chowk. It just seems to take everything into its fold.
The mall, a sprawling 4.5-acre white giant, is coming up off the central promenade in the lane opposite the Sis Ganj Gurudwara, the site where the ninth Sikh guru was beheaded on Aurangzeb’s orders.
On the ground floor will be retail shops; the first floor is being developed as a “Bridal Chowk”; and on the second floor will be a food court, which, with a capacity of over 1,600, will be among the biggest in India.
The promenade, with its planters, bollards and benches, has been developed as a no-vehicle zone, so what about access to the mall? While a sea of cycle- and auto-rickshaws and hand-pulled carts has already come up around it, will cars be able to drive in?
Jatin Goel, director, Omaxe Ltd, in a written response to Business Standard, says a multi-level parking that will accommodate close to 2,100 cars is being developed in the erstwhile Gandhi Maidan close by.
Also, besides nine gates to the mall, direct entry and exit from the Chandni Chowk Metro Station to the first floor of Omaxe Chowk is proposed, he says. This is the floor that will exclusively be for bridal shopping – something Chandni Chowk is known for.
For decades, the market has been a must-visit for wedding shoppers, courtesy its designer rip-offs that cost a fifth of the original – and even less after passionate bargaining.
Will the mall, then, impact the market’s bridal business?
The proprietor at Chhabra Emporium, a wholesaler and retailer of saris, suits and lehengas, isn’t worried. “Do you think the shops in the mall will be able to match Chandni Chowk’s competitive prices?” he asks, smiling. “They’ll have to factor in the high rent and the high staff salaries.” He says it’s a good thing that such a big air-conditioned space is coming up in the market and while people will go to the mall as well, what Chandni Chowk offers will remain unique and in demand.
Outside glitzy shops like his, a persistent buzz of “suit, suit, suit, sari, sari, lehenga, lehenga” follows passers-by as the staff tries to lure shoppers in. Ask the staff on the job in front of Ashiyana Bridal if this will change once the mall becomes operational and they laugh: “You think? Madam, that’s retail; this is wholesale. Add to that the Chandni Chowk discounts. Nothing will change.”
Several shop owners say they have been invited to open their outlets in the mall, but they don’t intend to.
Chandni Chowk is a foodies’ hub, too, with historic eateries. Now with the food court, for which Goel says brands like Haldiram, Hira Sweets, WOW China, KFC, Burger King, Subway, Amritsari Express, House of Candy and many others are already on board, will they be tempted to register their presence in the mall?
Vikesh Singh Chauhan, the staff at the Old Famous Jalebi Wala, smiles at that question. “We don’t need to, though they’ve asked several times,” he says. A no-frills place, the Old Famous Jalebi Wala was established in 1884 at the mouth of Dariba Kalan (“unparalleled pearl” in Persian), a silver jewellery market. While its size hasn’t changed since it opened, the price of its jaleba (jalebi three times its size) has gone up from Rs 30 a kg in 1980 to Rs 500 now.
“We don’t even go across the road to deliver jalebis; people come to us,” Chauhan says. “The only person we would deliver to was (Atal Bihari) Vajpayeeji on his birthday.” People, he says, will not come to Chandni Chowk to go to a mall; “they’ll come here for legendary places like ours, or the Natraj Dahi Bhalle Wala or Giani’s Di Hatti (famed for its rabri falooda), which also cater to every class, which malls don’t do”.
The sentiment is the same, whether one stops by at the 173-year-old Kanwarji’s confectioners, where the sweet boxes these days are stamped with the G20 logo, or heads into the Paranthe Wali Gali, where one can savour exotic parathas stuffed with lemon, bitter gourd, lady finger and even banana, all deep fried in desi ghee.
Gaurav Tiwari of Pt Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prashad Dixit Paranthe Wale, which has been in business since 1875, pulls out his mobile phone to show a promotional video of the mall. “We have been getting such messages every other day. They have been asking us to open an outlet in their food court,” he says. “We aren’t going. Why pay an arm and a leg for that tiny space when our world is here?” he adds, waving at the aromatic gully that’s packed with visitors.
His confidence comes from the extraordinary brand that is Chandni Chowk. But the other reality is that in the lane where once 10 eateries served exotic parathas, today only about five remain.
Sachin Bansal, chief explorer, India City Walks and India Heritage Walks, who has his office in the heart of Chandni Chowk, is of the view that both, the mall and the market, will benefit.
“The mall fits in for recreation and relaxation when one has explored the heritage and culture through walks and street food,” he says, adding that the food court could be good especially for children and the elderly (in a post-Covid world).
As for shopping, Bansal says, ultimately, Chandni Chowk is a wholesale market, and retail could benefit from the mall.
From the look of it, Chandni Chowk will embrace the mall as well – the way it does with everything else.