Chatta Chowk: A market for all reasons

Chatta Chowk: A market for all reasons


 CURIO HUNT ‘Chatta Chowk’, inside the Red Fort, caters only to tourists and foreigners now. But very few know of the famous Chatta Chowk (covered market), built by Shah Jahan, inside the confines of the Red Fort in Delhi.

As Shah Jahan decided to build the Red Fort (1638-48) in Delhi, he wanted to have all the amenities, especially for the 100s of members of the Mughal harem, although the Emperor himself had only three wives, including the Lady of the Taj – Empress Mumtaz Mahal. One of the favourite pastimes of women is shopping. But the Mughal women of rank seldom ventured outside, and usually shopkeepers came to the palace to display the wares. But then, the fun of bargaining and the sharing gossip with their friends was lost.

Shah Jahan knew this weakness of his harem and found that in Persian fortresses like that of Isfahan, there were bazaars, known better as covered markets, to cater to the ladies and the nobles of the regime. Usually, the ‘Ladies Day’ was restricted to one day in a week, as it was taboo to have male shopkeepers around when the women shopped.

Also, a lot of precautions needed to be taken, like having the wives of shopkeepers to welcome them and show them the display, as you cannot have them wearing veils while buying the items. Shah Jahan himself had seen one such market inside the Mughal fort at Peshawar.

Bazaars, in 17th century India, were normally in the open air. A covered bazaar, although of a design common to West Asia, was an innovation in India. He instructed Mukarmat Khan, who was supervising the construction of the Red Fort, to build a similar covered market there. When it was completed, Shah Jahan was greatly impressed, as its design was suitable for the hot climate of Delhi.

Presently known as Chatta Chowk Bazaar or Meena Bazaar, this market was earlier known as Bazaar-i-Musaqqaf (the market with ‘saqaf’, meaning roof), or ‘Chatta-bazaar’ (a roofed market). Lahori Gate, the entrance portal of the Red Fort, leads into the shadows of this Chatta Chowk Bazaar/ Vaulted Arcade. Shah Jahan was perhaps impelled by political reasons to position Chatta Bazaar at the principal ceremonial entrance to the fort, as an appropriate place to exhibit the Mughal Empire’s growing wealth, talents and capabilities.

Walking through the Lahori Gate, one can immediately enter this covered two-storied arcade, 230 foot in length and 13 foot in width, with octagonal court in the middle for sunlight and natural ventilation, known as Chattar Manzil. This divides the market into two sections, eastern and western, which have vaulted roofs supported on a series of broad arches given at regular intervals. The width of this courtyard is 30 feet. The roof of the chatta, is made of ‘ladau’ inlay work in which there are various types of waves and curves. It appears that the whole of the market, in the interior and on the exterior, was originally stuccoed, painted and gilded to give a gorgeous effect.

On the right and left sides of this courtyard are small doors which used to open to the most populated places in Mughal days. Their edges, supported by stone, and the intermediary space (i.e., a vault) bears stalactite (honey comb motifs) in stucco, which has been universally used in Islamic art, structurally as well as ornamentally.

On either sides of this courtyard are four feet high platforms. The bazaar on each side contains 32 arched bays that served as shops, just as they do today. The lower cell consisted of two rooms. The front one was possibly used for the actual display and the one at the back for storage, manufacture or business transaction. The upper cells may perhaps have been used for the official transactions related to the commercial function. Nowadays, the upper cells are used to house the families of army men serving in the Red Fort.

About 300 years ago, in Mughal days, this bazaar catered to the luxury trade of the imperial household, specialised in exquisite carpets, rugs, jajams and shatranjis; takia-namads and quilts; shahtus and pashmina shawls; costumes; velvet pardahs and chiks; embroideries with zari and brocades; and a wide variety silks, woollens, velvets and taffetas which the Mughals used in their daily life; precious stones, exotic jewellery and indigenous ornaments; gold and silver utensils, fine wood and ivory work; brass and copper wares; fine arms and armaments; coloured ganjifas and indoor games; jafran (saffron), kasturi (musk) and other spices; and it was the privilege of the Emperor that these rare and precious things were mainly available only in the ‘Fort Market’, for the exclusive choice of the harem and nobles. It is said that there were also tea shops here, where aristocrats used to meet and discuss the latest court gossip and news of the empire.

Today, the shops in the chowk sell souvenirs, eatables and drinks. They are now located only in the lower arcade, whereas in Mughal times, the shops were located on the upper, as well as lower, arcades. But only tourists patronise these shops now as Delhiites can get the same items displayed in these shops at cheaper rates near Chandni Chowk.

In 2003, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which is responsible for the maintenance of this 17th century bazaar, tried to evict the shopkeepers, stating that they wanted to reclaim this heritage structure as shopkeepers were defiling it. But, in a landmark judgment, the Delhi High Court ruled that the shops should remain as the heritage structure would lose its ambience if the shops were removed.

Today, one major problem being faced by the Chatta Chowk is that its two massive doors cannot be closed. This is because the preparations for the annual August 15 speech by the prime minister require the roads inside the fort to be asphalted every year to ensure smooth traffic, free from potholes. Therefore, the road leading into the fort from Lahori Gate, the heritage structure’s main entrance, has been raised by two-and-a-half feet, much higher than the lower sill of the gates. Ajay Sahni, whose shop has stood for 70 years in the bazaar, told the media, “It would take us two steps to enter our shops here. The original road was much below the shops but they have been laid afresh almost every year.”

With the road rising, the picturesque mouldings at the side of the entrance and the pathway have also been destroyed. 

But the newly bestowed heritage status of the Red Fort in 2007,  by the UNESCO, will change things for the Chatta Chowk. The Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) by the ASI, for the fort, includes this historic bazaar also. Walking through the plethora of shops in this famous bazaar is mind boggling. The bargaining of tourists, the hankering of shop keepers, the bustling crowd, and the colourful stalls are what you see here once you step inside this famous market of old Delhi.

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