Encountering Chirag Dilli

Narrow winding lanes, suddenly opening into chowks….every chowk with its own special character, but one is special. Not so special to the residents but to the voyeuristic romanticism of mine. The usual chowk with usual shops around it, but in the center there lies an unusual tree.  Somehow a Peepal Tree got enmeshed with a Neem Tree, and now with the eternal hug they share a single trunk. Quite symbolic of the diverse mix of the residents of Chirag Dilli.


The Neem cum Peepal tree

Chirag Dilli is quite unique, probably the only urban village in Delhi with a square fortification, and currently the least influenced by its neighborhood, but heavily linked to the city as a whole. Chirag Dilli was built around the mazaar of the 14th century sufi saint who was popularly referred to as Chirag-e-Dilli (Light of Delhi). In 1729 emperor Mohammed Shah Rangila built a square fortification wall around the tomb as an offering to the Dargah. The square fortification had four gates in the middle of four walls. In early 1760s Delhi was invaded by Ahmad Shah Abdali, one of the many loot sieges carried out by Afghans. During this attack many citizens took refuge inside the Dargah walls, and they never left, giving rise to the Chirag Dilli, The Urban Village of today.

Abdali’s wall is almost extinct, but there is a wall of commercial (hardware shops usually) that surrounds Chirag Dilli. Out of the 4 gates the West gate is encroached upon, and now people live in it. I don’t know weather to call it encroachment or not, but there are numerous other smaller monuments specially on the west section of the settlement where people still live inside tombs.

Very few of the old havelis are left now and sub division of the plots have lead to new concrete buildings. These are the buildings from where the momos roll, which gets sold to almost as far away in Delhi as North Delhi. Chirag Dilli provides the perfect ecosystem for the momos. The workers, the entrepreneurs who run the business, the raw materials and of course the space.

The story of momos is tightly linked to the story of migration of young men from Nepal and Darjeeling. This migration is quite different from the ones that I am aware of. As usual the people migrate to Chirag Dilli as they already know someone, but they don’t migrate to Chirag Dilli, but they migrate to the momo making industry. So basically a migrant before coming already has a job, a place to live and a social network waiting for him. These young men range from workers who don’t know how to even make momos to the experts who make and even sell them.

Story of 1000 momos begin with these balls!

Story of 1000 momos begin with these balls!

As the migrants come to Chirag Dilli, they live together in a room with a shared rent. As obvious strong bonds are built quickly, leading to new forms of living that is displayed in the city. Chirag Dilli is no slum, there are basic amenities including a toilet and quite better environment as compared to the slums. Chirag Dilli is no village for them, as all of them are engaged in secondary industries, while Delhi is booming in tertiary industries. A new form of private player driven housing, to formalize in language may come close to working men’s hostel!

As the playful production of momos go on in the first floor of a shop in Chirag Dilli, Vikas, one of the 25 year old momo entrepreneur jokingly ask – “इतनी फोटो खीच रहे हो, कहीं बेन तो नहीं लगवाओगे?” ‘you are taking so pictures, will you ban us (laughs)’ …. and me “मेगी की तरह मोमो को बेन कर दिया तो दिल्लीवाले सड़क पे उत्तर आएंगे!”  ‘if momos are banned like magi then dilli walas will protest on roads’……. laughs break as I taste the ingredients!


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