Old Delhi Heritage Walk: Unlocking Chandni Chowk’s Well Kept Secrets!

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old delhi chandni chowk mirza ghalib

Ghalib's Haveli in Gali Qasim Jan

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” ~William Shakespeare~


The tea business! Morning teas in Chandni Chowk are taken very seriously!


the chai affair..

Call it Dilli 6, the Walled City, or as I like to call it, Shajahanabad, when I think of Old Delhi, this quote from “Romeo and Juliet” comes to mind.

At the face of it, Old Delhi, popularly known by its moniker Chandni Chowk, looks nothing more than a maze of buzzing streets, a labyrinth of dangerously perched electrical wires, thousands of locals and tourists, rickshaw pullers, market dwellers, and a gust of pulsating activity. Walking in this sea of crowd is a challenge like none other. But if you can look past the madness, there lies a city that is crumbling under the deadweight of its own monumental history.


He gave me halwa for clicking his photo.. I owe him a spot on my blog!

Owing to one of my many travel projects, I got one where I was assigned the task of finding Delhi’s depth, something that can resonate with its melting pot culture, its rich historical past and its philosophical flavors. My profound research about my own backyard gave me an opportunity to see Delhi outside the “Tu jaanta nahi mera baap kaun hai” purview.

It made me realize that Connaught Place may be Delhi’s heart, but Old Delhi is its soul.

Old Delhi Heritage Walk red fort

Click Credits: @TheWickedSoul

Just when I was proud and amazed of Delhi’s rich past, a realization hit me in the face that I am yet to explore my own city! I have travelled far and wide (read my Kashmir story here), almost to a point where I can proudly say that I have seen more than 60% of my country and seen it well. But Delhi? I don’t know shit about it. Ask me about cheap drinking places and I’ll drop names in a heartbeat, but that’s pretty much the extent of my local knowledge. Thanks to my travel project, that was about to change.

Just when I was planning to visit all the hidden places I found during my research, I got a confirmation from my friend that her trip to India is finally coming through! I was delighted because there is no better way to see Old Delhi than to show it. I was excited to play my role as a local guide and started planning for her impending visit. As she landed in Delhi, I gave her one night to rest it out and decided to go hunting in the annals of Chandni Chowk the next morning.


Leah & I.. or as we like to call it, Ebony & Ivory 😀

I will share my tips and tricks at the end of this blog, but first let me share with you the 4 awesome hidden places in Old Delhi that made waking up at 5 AM, on a cold winter morning, totally worth it!

Ahata Kaley Saheb: Mirza Ghalib’s Secret Home


Ahata Kaley Saheb ruins

This was such a chance find! I knew there is a house burrowed deeply in the by-lanes of Gali Qasimjan that has more history to it than “famous” Mirza Ghalib Haveli. But its exact location? Even Google map doesn’t know! I followed the tight lanes and kept going until a nondescript sign on a gate said “Ahata Kaley Saheb.” I, obviously, went in. All I saw was a web of more lanes and nothing that looked remotely close to ruins that at some point belonged to Nawab Qasim Jan, a prominent courtier of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Mughal durbar. Ghalib is believed to have taken temporary residence here after serving time at a British prison for loan default. Kaley Saheb was a saint and the said haveli was gifted to him by Ghalib’s sister-in-law.


Still cant find!!

I was still looking for this “ornate” haveli or maybe a sign of it, but to no avail. I didn’t know who to ask or where to go. So, I sat on a staircase wondering what to do. Just then a rickshaw puller comes in and opens a gate to a blue-ruined mansion that I recognized instantly from my research.


Mansion’s getting a makeover.. 😛


The rickshaw puller with his parking spot..

There it is!! I almost jumped with excitement and we pushed past the rickshaw puller to go inside. He was clearly baffled by my elation. What could possibly be so exciting about this crumbling place? For him, this century old structure was just a parking spot for his rickshaw!

“Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder” This quote rings true each time I visit the ruins. While most people may dismiss this place as mere shambles, I try to imagine how life would have been here, visualize the opulence of a bygone era, the rhetoric of Ghalib that may have amused someone standing right where I stood.

IMG_9297 2

Marveling at it..

Moving on…

Begum Mubarak Masjid: From a Nautch Girl to a Revered Historical Figure


The visual paradox..

This one was my favorite, mainly because of its controversial title, Randi ki Masjid. This name has thankfully been dropped, but its history reeks of deep patriarchal system existent back then.

  • A little history

The masjid is named after Mubarak Begum who was a mistress of David Ochterlony, British General for East India Company. She later married the general and was known to be one of his favorite wives. She exercised great influence on her husband and was infamous for being everyone’s mistress inside the walled city, hence the name randi, aka prostitute. The building in question was an Anglo-Mughal bagh tomb that was acquired by her after her husband’s death. But her unpopularity among Mughals and British preceded her, ensuring that no “respectable” man would visit the structure and was given a name, Randi ki Masjid. The stigma is no more attached to the building. Instead, what you see is a clean historical structure amid busy streets of Chawri Bazaar.

Luckily, this place could be found on Google Maps and so I started walking towards it. The street was humming with day’s action. I had a hard time concentrating on the map, dodging the traffic and people at the same time. Just then the voice-assistance on the maps announced that I have arrived. I looked around, looking for a building that matched the photos I saw during my research. Such an imposing structure is hard to miss. But I could not find it and Google Maps said otherwise.


The staircase

So, I turned to look around and found a tiny gate leading up the stairs. I went up to find what I was looking for. There it was, the beautiful renovated masjid, hiding in plain sight, an oasis of peace in the middle of a throbbing market. I was absolutely blown over by the structure’s simplicity and its tranquility. After spending about 10-15 minutes, just when I was preparing to leave, a man came up and threw a shade at me for coming into their prayer house with my shoes on. Just then, he forgot about the shoes and fired at me for being a woman in their prayer house! Guess not much has changed in the 100 years!!


The mosque..

Excelsior Cinema: A Rundown Cinema Hall and a Happy Encounter

My love for ruins and abandoned buildings stem from a belief that all these places have a tale that they want to share with anyone who is crazy enough to seek them!


I am not going anywhere until you open this gate! :/

I saw this cinema hall, abandoned and lonely in an eventful Chawri Bazaar street. The world passes by as this building stands still in time. I see a bruised and battered poster of Sholay on the wall. Just then something in me said that I should find a way to enter this building, and find I did!

I started asking around if there is a way to see this rundown cinema from inside. Someone suggested that we should go to the backside and request the guard to let us in. I followed the street behind and found a public bathroom. An old man, bitter and angry, sat guarding the hall and the loo. I asked if I can use one and see the other. He yelled something at me and asked me to get lost. Well, first I override his authority and use the washroom. Then I went and sat by his side, on his decrepit bed and asked about his story. I could see him soften instantly.


The happy meeting.. From a sullen old man to a smiling one..

In a world where people are too busy, and too self-centered, showing genuine interest in someone’s story or, plight in this case, can be a real icebreaker. He told me that he comes from Punjab and has no money to eat, no kids, no family. He is alone and 70, dying a slow death just like this crumbling, abandoned cinema hall. He shared his daily struggles of how he bought vegetables and rice everyday to feed himself at people’s mercy. He had no income and nowhere else to go. Despite that, he offered me some of his rice that he was cooking right there. I politely declined and requested him to see the cinema hall. He was happy to let me in. In fact, he encouraged that I go see it. There was nothing to see except its dusty halls. But, I liked the interaction that went into gaining the access! It is never about the destination anyway, it is always the journey that matters.


A sign from above? 😛

Now on to my absolute favourite!!

The Walled Café: A Sanctuary in Mad Markets


The only one I could manage until my phone died a happy, content death!

This one may seem like a misfit in a post about architectural finds and historical sites, but trust me, it holds merit.

The only café in Old Delhi is bang opposite Jama Masjid’s gate number 1, nestled in crowded and snug Motor Wali gali. Here you will find a lovely, intimate space that acts like a refuge for people, tired from day’s walking. This café is housed in a 200-year-old heritage mansion with stained glass windows complete with upbeat interior. I loved sitting here in the sun, enjoying the music and resting my tired feet while I sipped on machine-made Cappuccino. I could hear azaan in the distance emanating from the mosque close by. It was a perfect end to a day that started on a cold winter morning at 6 AM!

I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is its body and Delhi, its life! ~Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib~

Tips to see Old Delhi


True happiness is popping a puri!

  1. Get an early start, preferably by 6:30-7:00. You will not only get the streets to yourself but see the city’s transition from sleepy mornings to manic intensity.
  2. Reach early to enjoy fresh breakfast of aloo poori at one of the many restaurants. I went to Meghraj at the corner of Fatehpuri Masjid. Do check it out, its really delicious!
  3. Carry water, lots of it. Trust me you are going to need it.
  4. Be prepared for long walks, so wear comfortable shoes.
  5. Dress conservatively if you plan to visit mosques as part of your visit

In the end, I would like add that adventure travel is not just about jumping mountains or swimming raging rivers. It is about leaving the comforts of your home to walk into the unknown, even if it is your own backyard!


Do you have stories of your own that can add color to Shajahanabad’s history? Do share with me in comments.


Sorry for the long post, here’s aloo poori 😛

Kanika Gupta
Kanika Gupta
I find beauty in all things natural, mountains are my soul and adventure is my passion. I hate being stagnant and my mind feeds on problems. I travel because I believe that change is the only constant in this universe. So embrace it, love it and celebrate it!


  1. Anjali says:

    Beautifully carved, Kanika 🙂 And photographs are such eye candies. Reading the post gave me a sense of delight. It just made me wonder why we always dream about traveling to foreign destinations when such lovely places are hidden in our own backyard. Old Delhi is certainly the soul of Delhi. Hope to explore it soon. Keep exploring and keep writing!

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Thank you so much Anjali for reading and appreciating my blog! I do hope you can join me on my next one or get to experience these on your own 🙂
      In any case, if you need any help, you know where to find me!

  2. mayuri patel says:

    beautifully written with charm of old delhi. Backyard travel is always worthythan tempting for foreign destinations.

  3. Gemma says:

    This is such a great post about exploring your own city! Gotta say that your pictures are just stunning too!

  4. Anna says:

    Such beautiful photos! India has been on my bucket list for forever! It’s great to see the roads less traveled like Old Delhi. Great post.

  5. Caitlin says:

    I love how informative this post is, and your photographs are beautiful, too!

  6. Mona Corona says:

    Those are some of the most beautiful abandoned buildings/ruins! The colors, the architecture. Just wow!! You looked like you had a great time exploring and discovering. The history bits were also very interesting! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  7. Katie says:

    What a fabulous urban adventure – so great to explore your local area like this! From the photos it was definitely worth finding access to these places.

  8. Ruth says:

    Your photos are amazing! I love every detail of what you have shown in here. I have experienced the same thing as you. I have traveled to a lot of places but there are some nearby places I have not been to. I am trying to change that. The other thing is that I do not think you know your city well until you can function as a good tour guide for visitors. In my case, I have been able to show my visitors great places. I keep discovering to refine my craft.

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Ruth, that is a good thing you are doing! Travel is not just about crossing seas and traveling abroad. It is about exploring and doing justice to every ground you walk on. Thank you for reading and enjoying my post!

  9. Ashley says:

    Looks great! I love old buildings and older parts of cities, it’s so much fun to imagine what life was like in its prime!

  10. Hiral says:

    That Aloo Poori is mouth watering, you got me drooling, girl. ? I would go for this heritage walk only to eat that, no just kidding, I love learning history and I’m totally adding this to my bucket list. Thank for sharing ?❤️

  11. Rosemary says:

    I love your sense of adventure. What fun and so much to discover. Your love for ruins and abandoned buildings comes through so clearly. Keep exploring and sharing those adventures!

  12. LyneLeLyne says:

    Such an amazing walkthrough ! Exploring Old Delhi sounds very interesting although the crowd looks a little scary to me ahah and it’s always nice to explore more of your own backyard 🙂

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Thank you so much! Delhi is so incredible. You can find history at every bend of the road 🙂 It is a history buff’s paradise.. I am glad you enjoyed reading about my experience.

  13. Balaji says:

    I would love to go to old Delhi. Can you be our guide?

  14. Balaji says:

    Actually, I am a little worried about safety in Delhi as I will be traveling with my wife and I speak no hindi as well 😛 . I wish the place is as safe as Kashmir.

  15. SShelly says:

    I was in India last year and it’s a beautiful country 🙂 I was able to visit some places you posted in this entry.

  16. Dorothy says:

    It’s so funny how that works out. You can explore everywhere but sometimes forget your own backyard! Thank you so much for these hidden gems and tips! I have had Delhi on my list for a long time and will definitely keep them in mind when I finally make it.

  17. Diana says:

    Isn’t it funny how sometimes we’re so focused on traveling the world that we forget about our own city? I’ve definitely found myself doing that too and have been making more of an effort to get to know my city better. I LOVE that you took the time to talk to that man outside the cinema and get to know his story. I’m sure that just made his day (or week or month), and the kindness of strangers is not forgotten! That’s something we can all be better about doing, whether on our travels or at home. Props to you!

  18. I love the pictures you took. They are lively and beautiful. We do tend to travel far and wide and we skip what is usually right under our nose. This I discovered for myself last year, when I decided to look, really look at my home town. And I was surprised. I learned so much and there still is so much more to learn.

  19. KKatherine says:

    Never apologise for a long post! This is an awesome round up of Old Delhi. It sounds like a lot of walking is involved, but it’s totally worth it. Meanwhile, now I want some aloo poori!

  20. Maya says:

    Ok guilty of this crime, I am always looking for an excuse to hop on the next plane but somehow there are parts of my own country that I haven’t thoroughly explored. As a photographer, I love taking pictures of places I visit, especially of the locales and I agree that showing some interest, offering a hand, chatting with someone is the best ice breaker and you also get to deepen your knowledge about the local culture. I just love your photographs – BEAUTIFUL!

  21. Nerissa says:

    I love how your pictures really capture the essence of Old Delhi. I’ve never been but hope to one day. And backyard exploring is great, we should all do it more often.

  22. Jewels says:

    I love off the beaten path places! Your trip looks awesome! Glad you got a chance to experience it with your friend!

  23. Shareen says:

    India is on my list, great post! BTW – your photography is beautiful.


  24. Mattea McKinnon says:

    Such fantastic photographs! Your post has given me a fantastic insight into Delhi. Sounds like such a fascinating, interesting place.

  25. I love Delhi, and exploring each tid bit of it is my life motto 😀 I had planned a trip to Ghalib ki Haweli, but couldn’t go, now I am sure I am heading there next week 🙂 I never hear about Begum Mubarak Masjid, that looks amazing, I would want a picture in my camera roll as well. One day I’ll surely be there.

  26. Lovely post and reminder that one only needs to see what is right in front of them to explore. Beautiful photos.

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