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The excessive opulence of the Mughal era has long since departed. The havelis or mansions of wealthy nobles are mostly disintegrating. The shimmering moonlit canal of Chandni Chowk has given way to crowded by-lanes. But despite the loss of its former grandeur, timeworn Old Delhi refuses to let go of its innate charm and still continues to captivate everyone who visits the city.
Old Delhi is hardly ever at a standstill. The many bazaars in the area are lined with compact shops specialising in everything from garments, books, jewellery, spices, perfumes and electronics. Those who do not have the means to own a shop are not deterred in the least. Barbers, florists, fruit sellers, masons, astrologers and people from every line of work use the streets of this ancient city as their thriving trading ground.
The fading remnants of the erstwhile Mughal buildings have now been converted to stores and warehouses. The tall trees that provided shade in the olden times have been replaced by dangling power cables. Old Delhi is, thus, a city caught between the nostalgia of a bygone age and the demands of modernisation. The chaos that has surfaced as a result of this polarity is what gives Old Delhi its distinct character.
Under the influence of such towering names in Urdu poetry as Mir Taqi Mir and Ghalib, it is believed that lyrical verses streamed from every nook and corner of Old Delhi. Even street hawkers are said to have demonstrated their poetic skills while selling their wares. The people of Old Delhi are much too busy nowadays to indulge in such literary treats, but they do go on with their daily lives with a rhythmical finesse. The faces that make up modern Old Delhi tell a story of their own and no matter how swamped they are, occasionally they do manage to flash a welcoming smile to an outsider.
The names of most of the streets in Old Delhi have been derived from the professional community who first settled and established their trade in the area. Paranthe Wali Gali, (parantha is Indian stuffed bread), Gali Chamre Wali (chamra is leather), Batashe Wali gali (batasha is a type of sweet) are some of the renowned streets. Today, descendants of the first generation of merchants still continue to run the family businesses. The lack of innovation and failing to keep up with changing times may have hurt some trades, but many prefer to persist with the status quo.
In the days of yore, Old Delhi was almost obsessed with tehzeeb or etiquette. Polite manners and a dignified air governed every aspect of daily lives. With each passing generation this culture is withering away and few among the younger generation are acquainted with it. It isn’t the lack of desire to preserve such traditional practices, but the increasing strains of present-day existence which has led to the decline.
With so many of Old Delhi’s historic structures now tarnished, the ones that have survived are dearly cherished. These architectural wonders built during the 17th century by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan provide a window to the aesthetic past. Everyday tourists from all over the world visit these historic sites, and the locals too frequently drop by to rediscover their heritage.
In Old Delhi, the one thing that has remained untainted through centuries is the closeness of communities. It’s not just the various religious places of worship that reflect a spiritual solidarity, but the residents themselves embody this togetherness in full faith every single day.