Paharganj is a mix of crowded makeshift homes, budget traveler hangouts, and the odd chunk of decaying heritage. It’s also an example of what happens when a section of town is left to its own devices with little consideration for urban planning.
A few centuries back, Paharganj was a grain bazaar populated almost exclusively by Muslims, a short walk outside the walls of Mughal Delhi. Today, most of the Muslims have gone, but here and there are the domes of an old mosque, fronted by an ugly concrete structure, squatted by several families, or converted to a budget hotel. Most hotels in the neighbourhood are unauthorized windowless dives who steal water and electricity from lesser mortals. Wires and plugs dangle all over, and the shoddy structures look as if they’re about to collapse onto themselves.
The noisy main bazaar is congested with kerosene-powered motorcycles spouting black fumes, three-wheelers, cycle rickshaws, cows, carts, and the occasional car squeezing through. I even saw an elephant rambling through at 11PM, its driver asleep for the night on his back. Wide-eyed shellshocked travelers, fresh off the plane, can’t see beyond the noise, cows, and raw sewage. Then there’s the old India veterans, dreadlocks down their back, also shellshocked, but in a different way — they took a wrong turn on their long strange trip and ended up in Delhi. Both of these groups feel like they’re in transit — Paharganj is an unfortunate stop on their journey to somewhere a little more scenic or relaxing.
To me, Paharganj is a destination in itself. I love it. There’s something worth seeing if you succeed in standing back, separating yourself from the scene, and looking around. It’s among the best places on earth to watch street life. The main bazaar is full of dense panoramas where you can zoom in and get lost in the details. Paharganj is also incredible for the sheer variety of street food, from potato tikki, to gulab jamun, to the late-night “hello toilet-paper-omelette” vendors (don’t worry – they sell their eggs and toilet paper separately).
Paharganj also has some quieter areas, down the small laneways off the main bazaar. These areas aren’t quite as grubby, and you occasionally stumble onto a well-maintained architectural gem or atmospheric hidden temple. There are kids playing on the streets, sometimes entire families, and hardly any foreign tourists or souvenir shops around. It’s fun to get lost, stop for streetside chai, and get nosy with the locals.
There’s one exception to the municipal authority’s seeming laissez-faire attitude to Paharganj: the arrival of the shiny new Delhi metro. Both ends of the main bazaar are punctuated by metro stops, their entrances barely noticeable amidst the chaos. Past the turnstiles, it feels as if you’ve stepped from an apocalyptic slum into a sanitized chunk of the developed world. But I’ll save the Delhi metro for another post…
Tags: Delhi, Exploring the City, India, Informal Settlements, Markets, Streetlife