All About Khari Baoli: From A Mughal Stepwell To A Spice Market

Standing since before Shah Jahan inhabited Delhi, witness the rich history and evolution of Khari Baoli, the biggest spice market in Asia
Gadodia Market on Khari Baoli
Gadodia Market on Khari BaoliShutterstock

While on the surface, you may trace as many as three or four cities and their remains scattered around Delhi, some claim there to have been about eight to eleven cities throughout history in Delhi. Steering clear from the number of cities that may have been, visually, one could reasonably surmise that most of the past cities have left a glorious residue of architecture, culture and history behind them. From the earliest settlements in Indraprastha to Mehrauli and Shahjahanabad, the excess of ruination encircles you wherever you go. One such surviving structure is the Khari Baoli, located in the heart of Old Delhi. Initially a stepwell, the place grew to be Asia's largest wholesale spice market, attracting traders and tourists alike.

Find out all you need to know about this gem of a place, ranging from its history, evolution, contemporary imagination and importance within the circuit of South Asian centres of tourism and trade.

Khari Baoli: An Etymological Unveiling

The old architecture of Khari Baoli
The old architecture of Khari BaoliShutterstock

A general disambiguation of the name "Khari Baoli" leaves us with two words: Khari and Baoli. Baolis, also known as stepwells in English or baori or vav, are complex structures that consist of descending steps leading down to a well. These structures were used as water sources and social gathering places in ancient India and some were also of cultural and religious significance. Baolis were built in various styles to suit regional aesthetics and social requirements. Some baolis even transformed into heritage temples with sacred water. While baolis could be found across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, some of the most marvellously intact baolis can be found across Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi.

The Khari, or “khara” that precedes Baoli literally translates to “salty,” “brackish” or “saline” in English. This refers to the texture of the water that once adorned the stepwell. Over the years, however, the water in the stepwell receded giving way for the bubbly market of exotic spices, herbs and condiments to spring up.

A History of Khari Baoli

A view of the Khari Baoli
A view of the Khari BaoliShutterstock

In popular history, the existence of Khari Baoli as a populated site of trade as well as a site of importance is traced back to the era of Emperor Shah Jahan. However, it is prescient to note that the stepwell had existed from much before the time when Shah Jahan shifted his capital from Agra to Delhi. Historian Rana Safvi, in her book “Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi” traces the existence of Khari Baoli to the reign of Salim Shah, also known as Islam Shah, (1545 - 54), the son of Sher Shah Suri.

Scholars claim that the establishment of Khari Baoli was brought along by Khwaja Abdul Shahr Lawar Qureshi in the first year of Salim Shah’s era. The area then housed the Salimgarh Fort where Salim Shah ruled from. The construction was finished in 1551. Though not much exists today of the stepwell that once was, some Arabic inscriptions on the structure were documented by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in his work “Asar-us-Sanadid.”

A view of the Fatehpuri Mosque
A view of the Fatehpuri MosqueShutterstock

Later on, Fatehpuri Begum, who enjoyed an esteemed position in the harem and court as one of Shah Jahan’s favourites, built the Fatehpuri Mosque at one end of the Chandni Chowk. Soon, people witnessed the spring of a commercial marketplace in the vicinity. Surrounding the Khari Baoli stand other notable structures other than the Fatehpuri Mosque, including St. Stephen’s Church, Sirhindi Masjid and the Lahori Gate.

The Evolution of Khari Baoli

The map from Khari Baoli
The map from Khari BaoliWikimedia Commons

After the area of Shahjahanabad witnessed inhabitation, the site of Khari Baoli was taken over by new shops and houses, which later turned out to be a spice market. The entrance to the market goes through an old gateway which, according to Safvi, belonged to the Sarai Bangash, a sarai that existed there in the later Mughal era. Quoting Bashiruddin Ahmad Dehlvi, a scholar of the late Mughal era, Safwi highlights that Khari Baoli was then used as a godown dotted with shops of grain and fashioned a grand darwaza (gateway) which is but a building with an octagonal courtyard right in front of it.

Gadodia Market
Gadodia MarketShutterstock

Later in the 1920s, the Gadodia Market was set up within the same site by wealthy merchants, notably Seth Lakshmi Narayan Gadodia. It is a three-storeyed building around a courtyard, the top of which offers a view worth your time of the Fatehpuri Mosque and Chandni Chowk. The marketplace that dealt in the trade of whole spices attracted a plethora of customers from nearby regions such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

The place retains an aura of being frozen in time as many shops are still referred to by the names given to them at their onset. For instance, you will find “15 Number ki Dukaan” and “Chawal Wale 13” exuding a sense of the old world in both their nomenclature and presence.

Asia’s Biggest Spice Market

Inside Khari Baoli
Inside Khari BaoliShutterstock

“What you may fail to find anywhere in the world, you are sure to find in Purani Dilli,” a befitting note on the area from the film “Sultan” (2016). A visitor once remarked that one can not walk past the lanes of Khari Baoli without sneezing, so strong is the aroma of the spices and chillies on display in the market. The market is a sensory delight, with narrow lanes lined with shops selling an array of spices such as red chillies, turmeric, bay leaf, sacks of rice and tea by the koli and much more. In addition, you may also chance upon rare Ayurvedic and Unani medicines. The place is a melting pot of cultures with a history of numerous Jain, Punjabi, Hindu and Muslim merchants doing business under the same roof—truly a warehouse of wonders.

Know Your Way Around

An aerial view of Khari Baoli
An aerial view of Khari BaoliShutterstock

Though the market comes off a haywire grid of utter chaos at first, it is contrarily a rather well organised market where complex exchanges happen each day. For an effective exploration, you must consider visiting the place during winters when you are not threatened by heat waves and dust within the maladjusted environment. The market functions throughout the week except Sundays from 10 am to 8 pm. Visiting around the lunch hours from 2 to 4 pm would be advisable as the chatter remains calm owing to the siesta.

Getting There

The closest metro station to Khari Baoli is Chawri Bazar or Chandni Chowk. From both the metros, the site is at a walkable distance. You can hail an auto or an e-rickshaw to get there quickly.

Address: Khari Baoli RdFatehpuri, Chandni Chowk, Delhi, 110006

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