Millennium Post

Trading in tezheeb and time

To the uninitiated, the meandering lanes and bylanes of old Delhi, packed with people, rickshaws, autos, cars and shops, connecting the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib and the foodies’ delight – paranthe and jalebi wali gali, as well as the numerous hole-in-the wall outlets selling assorted relishes such as sweets, lassi, kebabs and curries, have a single, undifferentiated identity – Chandni Chowk. But brave the crowd and take a walk down Chandni Chowk’s plentiful gullies, and you will discover lanes, each with its distinct identity and character, and history that dates back to the times when Shah Jahan set up a market outside Red Fort’s walled township, to cater to the needs of his nobles and womenfolk. And a thriving commerce that will scoff at Mumbai’s tag of the commercial capital of the country!


If Bhagirath Palace is the hub of all electrical goods, especially lights, just explore Fatehpuri for the dry fruits on offer; survey Naya Bazaar that is the kirana or grocery market, while go to Tilak Bazar for all things chemical; Chawri Bazaar would be the centre for paper, stationery and cards and well, Nai Sadak would be the concourse of books – both academic and leisure. Then there is Dariba Kalan, where most of the jewellery and metal workshops are concentrated, Kinari Baazar for zari and embroidery work and Ballimaran for spectacles.

Garment shops are spread across the length and breadth of Chandni Chowk. If you don’t find something here, chances are you won’t find it anywhere in Delhi or north India, since this is the biggest wholesale/retail market in the region.

‘Prices here are much cheaper. A spectacle frame that you would get for Rs 200 here, will cost you at least Rs 1,000 in south Delhi. I bought a sherwani for a friend here for Rs 1,000 that would have cost me Rs 5,000 at any mall. Shop and boutique owners from across Delhi buy from here and then sell it for more in markets elsewhere,’ says Ashok Khanna, who has spent his entire life in old Delhi, adding, ‘40 per cent of the business here comes from wholesale trade and 60 per cent from retail’.
Such is the repute of the old Delhi bazaar that people flock here from not just all parts of India, but even from abroad. ‘I import a certain kind of gold-leaf work from China, as it is not done here. And whenever I introduce myself in China as a trader from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, I find that they all know about the market. They may not know about the newer malls and markets in Delhi, but Chandni Chowk is very well known abroad,’ says Sunil Gupta, who has a more than 30-year-old jewellery shop, Rajdhani Jewellers, in Dariba Kalan.

‘Though the jewellery shop is a little over 30-years-old, my family has had a shop in this very spot for generations, from the time of the Mughal rulers,’ says Gupta adding, ‘Earlier we had a grocery shop. But when I was in college, this young girl one day called me a Pansari — someone who has a grocery shop. It hurt my ego and I told my family that I’ll not go into the family business and take a job somewhere. My grandfather suggested I start a jewellery shop. I had started the business with only Rs 3,780 in hand. Today the annual turnover of the shop would be more than a crore.’


Each shop here has a story to tell. And brisk though is the pace of business, a few lakhs must be changing hands every minute, the shop owners still follow the old world tehzeeb of greeting customers, so much so, that no one seems too busy to offer one a cold drink or a cup of tea, depending on the season, or answer a question about the shop or the gully. Or maybe it is just pride in their heritage that prompts them to do so.

Ratan Chand Jwalanath Jewellers have been doing business in Dariba Kalan since 1752. ‘Back then it was known as the Lal Kiwadiyon Wali Dukan. People would write letters of business and address it to the
Lal Kiwadiyon Wali Dukan
, Delhi and it would reach the shop. The business then was more of bullion, gold and silver bars than jewellery. People would buy the bars from here and get the jewellery made from their local jewellers,’ explains Rajkumar Gupta, the present owner.
So eclectic is the offering here, that it is impossible to see it all in one day. If one street glitters with fairy lights and chandeliers of all shapes and sizes, another bylane offers shimmering lehengas and zardosi saris that can give Bollywood and the fashion fraternity a run for their money. The traditional kundan and silver jewellery draws just not the foreign tourists, a group of whom can be always be spotted excitedly shopping here, but also other jewellers from across India, who come here for inspiration for their patterns and styles. The grain, dry fruits, grocery and chemical markets are of less mass interest, but no less in size or volume of business.


Vijay Gupta, of the Association of Kirana Shop Owners, says the daily turnover of the kirana market would be to the tune of Rs 20 crore. ‘It is the only market of its kind in India and probably the world, where you will get every kind of spice, dry fruits, tea, etc., that are produced in India and abroad. It is a distribution centre. What’s produced in the south comes here to be sold to markets in north India and vice versa,’ explains Gupta. The association of 1,100 members dates back to 1905, but the market, of course, traces its origin to the Mughal era.

Ditto for the Association of Grain Merchants, which was formed in 1912-13, though their business dates back to much older times.  ‘The daily business would be to the tune of Rs 200 crore,’ says Om Prakash Jain, president of the association.
Most of the traders are those whose families are original inhabitants of these regions, or moved here when the Mughal rulers set up capital here and have been living here since. Some migrated here from present-day Pakistan during the partition of 1947. ‘They are those who would already have had trade relations with businessmen in Chandni Chowk and after the partition they set up shop here,’ explains Ashok Khanna, himself a post-partition refugee.
The business community claims credit for the economic growth and development of the national capital after independence. ‘The main revenue earnings of the government is from Vat. It constitutes 30 per cent of the government earnings. In 1995, it was only Rs 1000 crore, but the earnings from VAT in 2012-13 has been Rs 17,000 crore. Of course, the business community of Delhi, and Chandni Chowk is where commerce in Delhi is concentrated, has a big role to play in its development,’ says Sushil Goel of the Association of Chemical Merchants. The association was formed in 1962 and registered in 1965, though the chemical business, says Goel, is more than 200 years old and started with the sale of
for the Mughal kings and noblemen. The association has 1,000 members and an annual business worth more than Rs 4,000 crore, he adds.


The parliamentary debates over and the government push for FDI in retail do not worry the traders. Isn’t there a global brand presence already in the form of a big, sprawling McDonald’s right in the heart of Chandni Chowk? But hang around till 8pm, and as one shop after another downs shutters for the day, you’d see the growing crowd outside the desi parantha and sweet shops. Chandni Chowk has learnt the art of peaceful co-existence with foreign brands.
But as business worth thousands of crores continues to be transacted in Chandni Chowk’s narrow lanes, there is something else that has put a line of worry on the trader’s foreheads. ‘The government has stopped the storage of hazardous chemicals in the vicinity of Chandni Chowk. There have been plans to construct a chemical storage facility at Narela since 2000, but though we have paid our share of the money for it, we are yet to take possession of the same. One problem is that the government is allotting only 50 sq metres for each trader, but that is not enough. We need at least 150-200 sq metres space. Then there is the uniform tax rate that was introduced in 1998, which has affected business. Trade is stagnating,’ says Goel.
The other problem is of space and infrastructure. Space is at a premium in Chandni Chowk, and as business and families grow, traders are shifting to the comfort of air-conditioned offices elsewhere, maintaining the Chandni Chowk shop only as a contact point with clients. Members of the chemical merchants association in Tilak Bazaar have already started shifting to offices in Netaji Subhash Palace, Pitampura.
Commuting to Chandni is also difficult. ‘Though the Metro has solved that problem to some extent, but those who come by car complain of congested roads and lack of parking space. Hawking on the streets here has been banned by the Supreme Court, but the authorities have done nothing to remove them. There are certain other facilities which shoppers get in organised retail markets that are missing here, such as toilets for women,’ says Sunil Gupta.
Traders complain that the government has for years been talking and simply talking, of planned development of the area. Facilities like car parking and toilets would be good. For those used to the comforts of an AC mall, a trip to Chandni Chowk’s hot, crowded gullies may even mean a week’s rest from shopping. But there’s something addictive about the old bazaar’s dirty, sweating, confusing streets, that makes one wish that its quirky chaos is never completely tamed to the comfortable homogeneity of modern-day marketplaces.
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