The heart of the Walled City, Matia Mahal bazaar, is the dream Baghdad of Arabian Nights. Here is the land of chicken stew, bearded mullahs, kaftan-clad beggars, fat goats and veiled women. Chaotic during the day, it shows its inner life (and beauty) on cool summer nights when the trading instinct weakens and it is time to dine, laugh with friends and pretend life is nothing but a picnic.

Matia Mahal Bazaar, Jama Masjid. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Start the walk at 10pm from Urdu Bazaar, which is lined with Urdu language book stores, grubby guest houses and eateries selling buffalo kebabs, keema kaleji, ishtu and korma. While some of the best bookshops such as M Rashid & Sons and Maktaba Jamia (it has an in-house calligrapher who is a treat to watch at work) have closed for the day, a few bookstalls near the turning to Matia Mahal remain open where you can browse for Urdu authors not available in the rest of the city.

At this hour, the entire Urdu Bazaar is bathed in an orange glow, and from across the road, where it’s dark, it looks like a scene from a fairy tale. The sights are kaleidoscopic: boys on bikes; kebabs on skewers, chickens in their coops and beggars on trolleys. The sound of Islamic songs coming from music stores tries to underwhelm the soft roar of the dying traffic.

Matia Mahal’s main alley faces the principal entrance of Jama Masjid, Old Delhi’s signature monument. Its stone minarets stand like sentinels, watching over the pleasant commotion of the bazaar. Kalan Sweets, there since 1939, is a dessert eater’s delight. Among its various sweets is a delicacy called habshi halwa.

Next to it are stalls selling fen and rusks, the classic Delhi breads and sewai, the deep-fried golden-coloured vermicelli cooked in boiling milk. All of it comes from Old Delhi bakeries situated deeper in Matia Mahal by-lanes; some of them still busy stuffing breads into the oven. A left lane, few steps ahead, leads to Karim’s, Old Delhi’s most famous Mughlai speciality restaurant. Not far away, in the main alley, is Al Sahi Chicken Corner,, where juicy birds are being roasted in front of customers. For rice lovers, there are big-bellied vendors selling saffron-flavoured biryani from their huge cauldrons, and the occasional phirniwallah selling his sweets in earthenware bowls.

Matia Mahal Bazaar, Jama Masjid. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

As you walk further into the bazaar, the crowd increases. You see men in shorts, jeans, lungis and pyjamas. Some are dressed more stylishly in sherwanis. A few sport their grandfather’s Turki topi, the tasselled Turkish cap that was once daily wear in Delhi.

Amid this bustle—the cry of vendors, the chatter of women, the laughter of men, the ringing of rickshaw bells, the horns of bikes—it is difficult to imagine that the area’s history is soaked in blood. During the 1857 mutiny, when Old Delhi was wracked by riots, Matia Mahal resident Zahir Dehlavi wrote about a late evening scene he witnessed in Urdu Bazaar: “… it was completely quiet, and there was not a single bird to be heard or seen. Indeed there was a strange silence over the whole town, as if the city had turned suddenly into a wilderness. Shops were lying looted, the doors of all the houses and havelis were closed, and there was not a glimmer of light".

Wind up your walk at Matia Mahal Chowk soaking in the scenes, smells and sounds. There are tables set on the side of the road, with people sitting quietly, or having chai, or munching on kebabs and egg parathas.

The experience till this point is intense. Thereafter, it is like walking down a hill. The best is over. There are fewer people, the shops are closed, pavement vendors are few and the street is unlit in places.

The right alley, off Matia Mahal Chowk, leads to Gali Chooriwallan. Straight ahead is Chitli Qabar chowk, with a florist shop at the centre. If you take the left lane from there and keep going straight, then left, and right, you will find yourself on Netaji Subhash Marg in Daryaganj. This is the Delhi we know. What we saw some time ago, however, lingers on like a dream.