Once, it was a land of galis (lanes) and kuchas (residential alleys usually inhabited by people having the same occupation). But little remains of Purani Dehli’s canals and tree-lined passageways bespeaking the Mughal era. Windowless hovels and dangling power cables fit the modern description of Old Delhi, aka Shahjahanabad. Its neighbourhoods retain almost nothing of their original character.

Even so, swiftly-shifting Old Delhi offers a glimpse of its early days in the place names of its lanes and localities. These identities are derived from professions and peoples, landmarks and landscapes. A stroll helps trace the foundations of a royal capital that endures and thrives.

Regular excursions to the Walled City do not mean that it is the only part of the Capital worth falling in love with. Indeed, it is also not important for you to be a Dilliwalla. Shahjahanabad will fascinate anybody who wants to witness the ongoing alteration of our great cities. Old worlds are disappearing and being replaced by the new. In such a time, the supposedly unimportant elements of a city have become precious. In Old Delhi—and I’m not referring to the touristy Jama Masjid or Chandni Chowk—the commonplace streets and neighbourhoods have acquired the desperate beauty of a fading fresco. This giant mural not only provides us an aesthetic sense of our past but also shows us the silent and ceaseless transformations of our values, beliefs, aspirations and ways of life.

Galli Shahbul Khair.

Akhare Wali (gali)

Named after an akhara—a school for wrestlers where women cannot enter. The akhara no longer exists but at a unisex gym nearby I find veiled women on treadmills, while the men are straining at weights (there are two more streets of this name. One had its akhara shut down a year ago because of the encroaching fad of gym membership. The other has an earthen pit, but is surrounded by the huts of migrant labourers who cart great loads of blank sheets for the paper merchants of Chawri Bazar). Last week banners came up across the Walled City announcing the opening of a women-only James Gym Aur Fitness Center in Gali Chooriwallan, a street named after bangle (choori) sellers who used to have homes there, while their shops were in Ballimaran.

Anwar Ali

Formerly a haveli, an arched doorway with wooden brackets leading into a musty, covered corridor is all that is left of the mansion. It now houses the Shanta Public School, which has an elegant chandelier, and a marriage hall.

Ballimaran (mohalla, or residential neighbourhood)

Best known for the poet Mirza Ghalib’s last haveli, which until recently served as a coal store. It was named after the wooden poles (balli) used to anchor boats in the Yamuna and also in the canal that ran between Chandni Chowk’s Fatehpuri mosque and the Red Fort. The area was home to a Punjabi business community that had converted from Hinduism to Islam in the 16th century while on the way to a holy dip in the Ganga—following a miracle performed by a Muslim saint. After Partition, many residents migrated to Karachi. Today, Ballimaran is famous for shops selling spectacles and made-in-Agra leather shoes.

Batashe Wali (gali)

It is lined with shops selling white brittle candy batashe as well as desi khand—the powder obtained from crushing the candy.

Behram Khan Tiraha

It is a three-way avenue guarded by an unwieldy peepal tree. A tattoo parlour stands beside an aloo tikki stall. In the morning, daily-wage painters and carpenters gather here to be hired by contractors.

Bulaki Begum (kucha)

Some residents say Bulaki Begum was somebody’s mistress; others guess she was the wife. The eye-catching landmark is not the remains of her mansion but the crumbling Lachhumal Dharamshala. Built by a Jain trader, it is unoccupied.

Bulbuli Khana

Named after the bird bulbul, its residents actually groom pigeons on their rooftops. One stone grave is said to be the tomb of Razia Sultan, Delhi’s first female emperor.

Chamrewali (gali)

This was home to leather workers—chamra means leather—who specialized in making army boots. Today you find a sweatshop producing cardboard boxes. A few residents still make leather chappals, with the entire family pitching in.

Chandni Mahal

A palace stood here. Today the most prominent landmark in Chandni Mahal is a police station. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, gifted it to Tanras Khan of the Dilli gharana of Hindustani classical music. Descendants of the gharana still live in the area, which has a lane called Gali Tanras Khan.

Chawri (bazaar)

Originating from the word chawhat, Sanskrit for a place where four roads meet, Chawri was a district for courtesans. Young men from noble families learnt the arts of poetry, paan and love from the dancing courtesans. At some point the pleasure district moved elsewhere, and Chawri Bazaar was transformed into a marketplace for copper, brass and paper products. The shopkeepers call it India’s biggest centre for wedding cards. The metro station nearby is, at 30m (98ft) below ground level, Delhi’s deepest.

Chelan (kucha)

The full name is Chelan Ameeran. This was the address of the Walled City’s upper crust. Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely read English newspaper, was founded here by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. One story is that the neighbourhood was named after a haveli that housed 40 (chaalis) rich nobles who were murdered by the British on the banks of the Yamuna. What is certain is that during the 1857 uprising some 1,400 unarmed Dilliwallas were killed by the British here. Today its maze of dusty lanes is lined with cramped apartment buildings.

Chitli Qabar Chowk.
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