Mansions Inside India's Walled City of Chandni Chowk


The walled city of Shahjahanabad (famously known as Chandni Chowk) is a perpetual jewel box of enigmatic facts and history. The more I explore the old city, it throws out more on me. There is ‘so much’ hidden in cluttering lanes of old Delhi, that one can never be sure whether they have covered all.


The picture of the old Delhi which I carried for long time in my mind was- overcrowded street, garbage dumps, sewerage water flowing across the roads and streets, some unhygienic food stalls etc., however, it got a major revamp ever since I started exploring it deeper and deeper…  The clogged streets now appear a vibrant cultural mixture and the unhygienic food stalls make me go gaga over their sumptuous taste and ground cheap prices.


The revamped picture with newly developed interest into travel writing has compelled me to saunter into the old walled city again and again in search of new stories. Recently on one of my outing to explore our very own “Saddii Dilli”, I became aware of the some old “Havelis” (mansions) in the maze of old Delhi. I browsed for more info and zeroed down a few before finally meandering through the ‘perpetual jewel box’ to locate them. To be honest, I was completely unaware of their existence or their present conditions and in a manner it was good as I did not had any preconceived notions of these “Havelis”. Below are the Havelis I explored during my walk:


My first stop on the jaunt was the residence of a famous Urdu and Persian poet who needs no recognition. The haveli was used as heater manufacturing shop until 1999, when government took over a small portion of it and converted it into a museum in 2000.

Entrance to Ghalib's Haveli

Entrance to Ghalib’s Haveli

The “haveli” is no easy task to locate until one is meticulously aware of the twists and turns of the old city. In spite of being visitor to Chandni Chowk couple of time now, I still get lost in the web of streets. I knew it was somewhere tucked in the ‘Ballimaran’ locality but I kept on rambling through the vicious circle of wedding card market and the ‘chasma’ market until one shopkeeper told me look for ‘Gali Qasimjaan’ in specific. A few more navigational chats and finally I was standing before the arched façade of the famous poet’s residence. Ghalib though born in Agra had spent considerable time in Delhi. He breath his last in the same haveli. The doors are old fashioned made from wood and much bigger than the present ones.

Sculpture of Ghalib

Sculpture of Ghalib

Courtyard of Ghalib's Haveli

Courtyard of Ghalib’s Haveli

I stepped inside to discover it more but was constrained as only limited portion was turned into the memorial. The major portion was still occupied by the families which resided in there from time immemorial. The original structure must have been capacious to fit in the terminology of haveli. There was a small courtyard which displayed some old poetry books by the Ghalib, and some replicas of the utensils used by him. The walls were camouflaged by big posters exhibiting some important events, verses of poetry and pictures from life of the Ghalib. In one corner was the sculpture of the poet gleaming with halogen lights and some old torn out antique texts purportedly written by the poet.

Antique text books written by Ghalib

Antique text books written by Ghalib

Clothes used by Ghalib

Clothes used by Ghalib

I then sat with the guard for couples of minutes inquiring about the memorial and he told the place is almost forgotten and only few people (around 50 daily and 100 on weekends) visit the place.


I left Ghalib’s haveli for my next destination on the list. I stopped at an shop for seeking directions and it ended into a bit longer discussion. The shopkeeper was an old man who had spent all his life in the maze of old Delhi. While I sought direction for Chunamal’s Kothi, he apprised me  some other old mansions including Zeenat Mahal, the residence of most favoured wife last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. I was little excited by the suffix ‘Mahal’ and dearly desired to see although I was warned that there was nothing to see.

The Only left out ruins of Zeenat Mahal

The Only left out ruins of Zeenat Mahal

I walked towards it and almost landed on the mosque under the impression. Later, I crossed it without even noticing it. When I returned on the same street, I found the similar old fashioned doors like the one in Ghalib’s haveli (but bigger than that) covered in dust. There was old dust clad board with the “Zeenat Mahal” written on it which was also fading away.

Tattered entrance to Zeenat Mahal

Tattered entrance to Zeenat Mahal

I went inside, there were few shops and I moved further to hunt for something that matched its name but only disappointment welcomed me. While my eyes still looked for some hope, a local Sikh shopkeeper greeted me. I inquired about the ‘Mahal’ and he amusingly told me that I am standing in the ‘Mahal’. He told me nothing remains of the medieval opulence except for a small tattered structure just above the main gate. The front of the tattered section which faced the main road had some derelict medieval pavilions covered in dust as if it had been deserted for years. Major portion of it was running a girls schools and the remaining had been encroached upon by the shopkeepers’ long back.

The only old structure left from Zeenat Mahal (Inside View)

The only old structure left from Zeenat Mahal (Inside View)

A part of Zeenat Mahal

A part of Zeenat Mahal

The residents are not even bothered to mend the broken portion and I feel the structure is still standing only on god’s grace and nothing else. While I was taking some photographs, I was interrupted by one of the shopkeepers inquiring my intentions behind the same. I explained to him that I write articles to which he gave a squinted look towards me. Later, he showed me some portions of the façade from where one of the stone fell off. He aggressively told me to write about its dilapidated condition to bring government attention towards it and I nodded in affirmative.


With a saddened feeling in my heart seeing the ruined condition of Zeenat Mahal, I moved towards Chunnamal ki haveli with hope. This is the biggest haveli of the area spread across the area of around an acre with 128 rooms. This massive haveli belonged to Rai Lala Chunnamal who once was the richest merchant of the city and also the first municipal commissioner of Delhi. He was also the first one in Delhi to own a telephone and a car. There is much…..much…..much more to the credits of Rai Lala Chunnamal but I’ll confine to the residence.

The Building is part of Rai Lala Chunamal's havelli

The Building is part of Rai Lala Chunamal’s havelli

The haveli is located on the street literally known as Chandni Chowk. As I walked towards Red Fort from Fatehpuri Masjid, I saw long stretch of green railing with red painted windows on first floor of the building with shops on the ground floor – i.e. Lala Chunnamal’s haveli. The present condition nowhere reflects the grandiosity and opulence of the residence of a richest man of Delhi. All have disappeared in the viscous circle of time.

I walked in slender lanes flurrying with garments shops (it is also the part of the mansion) to look out for entrance to the residence, but, could not figure out the same in the labyrinth. Later, when I googled the same, I found some remaining pictures of grandiosity preserved by the 10th generation of Lala Chunnamal who resides there. I hope to figure out the entrance next time and if possible meet them too.


There are many other small and big havelis in the walled city, but almost all of them have been modified (I would say ‘destroyed’) to convert them into commercial hubs and nothing remains to speak of old lavishness except their names remains which will also fade in time.


Kaushal Mathpal
Kaushal Mathpal is an Advocate practicing in Delhi Courts in India but also has a flair for travelling. When he's not in a courtroom, he enjoys exploring various parts of India and the surrounding region. He also writes on his blog and you can follow him on Twitter @KaushalMathpal.
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3 Responses to Mansions Inside India's Walled City of Chandni Chowk

  1. CatherineBroughton March 9, 2014 at 3:00 am #

    Hmmm … progress and progress I suppose. A very interesting read, thanks.

  2. Kaushal Mathpal
    Kaushal Mathpal March 10, 2014 at 3:32 am #

    glad u liked the article…

  3. Kaushal Mathpal
    Kaushal Mathpal March 10, 2014 at 11:35 am #

    glad u liked it…

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