There were two Ghantewala sweet shops in old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. One was just plain and simple Ghantewala and the other was Ghantewaala Shahi Halwai. Many, like me, believed that Shahi must be the original one, but many claimants to such lineages turn out to be imposters. It was true in this case as well. The real Ghantewala was just Ghantewala. He did not need any prefixes or suffixes because he was the original. Only the johnnies-come-lately needed tassels.

The landmark closed down on July 2, and to understand the forces that led to this, we need to tell its life story, which began 225 years ago or earlier. The founder, Lala Sukh Lal Jain, was a small-time maker and seller of sweets. He did not have a shop, but he knew how to prepare sweets, and he made them with the finest of ingredients, with love and care. He arranged the sweets in a shining brass tray, and balancing it on his head, went hawking his wares from street to street, ringing a bell to announce his arrival. Hence his name, the Bell Man.

His sweets were good, the touch of the master unmistakable. Soon he had a pushcart and still carried the bell. By this time, he was known as the Ghantewala. His clientele grew through word of mouth, and by 1790, his business had grown to a scale that enabled him to take a large shop in Chandni Chowk. The ghanta, a small brass bell, was now a permanent fixture in the shop and Ghantewala had become an institution.

Witness to history

Being around for more than two centuries means that Ghantewala has witnessed all the joys and sorrows of Delhi, from the time of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, who ruled between 1759 and 1806, to now. This includes the collapse of the Mughal order; the era between the two empires; the rise of the British Raj; the first organised resistance against the Raj and its crushing and massacre of tens of thousands at the hands of those who had come ostensibly to civilise us; the return of the  capital to Delhi after a short  break in Kolkata; the prolonged and successful struggle for and the attainment of freedom; the partition of India and in its wake the communal riots; the exchange of population; the dark days of the Emergency, which also marked the beginning of the systematic eclipse of Shahjahanabad, as the capital was called, and the  gradual transformation of one of the grandest mediaeval cities into a wholesale market for its rapacious neighbour, New Delhi.

Ghantewala’s good old sweet shop itself became a part of what once was – a lost slice of the heritage of the city. There have been many obituaries of Ghantewala, one of which went overboard in claiming that the sound of the bell from Ghantewala was heard inside the Lal Quila, certainly a patent exaggeration unless the author was trying to suggest that Ghantewala’s Sweets were a regular component of royal repasts. But this is unlikely because by the time Ghantewala came into existence, in the late 18th century, the financial resources of the Mughals were more than a little strained.

However, despite a decline in the fortunes of the Mughals, there was plenty of wealth in the city. Even as the opulence of the Mughal court declined, the wealth of soldiers of fortune, or time-servers to the cause of the new pretenders to the throne, multiplied as did the riches of the traders, jewellers, ivory merchants, perfumers, armourers, bullion traders, wholesale merchants of fabrics, grains, pulses, spices, dry fruits and of hundreds of other traditional and new businesses. So did Ghantewala’s clientele.

Delhi landmark

People returning from Delhi to other parts of India carried the famous Ghantewala sohan halwa with them, and so Ghantewala became a Delhi landmark. Delhi became known for Ghantewala.

In the past 22 decades and more that Ghantewala has been around, Chandni Chowk has gradually changed but there was a certain continuity, and that is why Ghantewala, Kunwarji’s Namkeen, Jain Gazak Bhandar, Hazarilal’s Khurchan, KD’s Qalmi Bada, Daulat ki Chaat, Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan and Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prashad Paratheywaale and many others survived. But the pressures have gradually become unbearable and establishments that survived major upheavals now succumb to minor tremors.

Chandni Chowk and the city of Shahjahanabad had been able to overcome the loot and massacre of 1857 because the coming of the railways re-established Delhi as the preeminent centre of trade and commerce, and the city flourished despite the shifting of the capital to Kolkata. In fact, it helped Delhi to go back to its old rhythm, unhindered by too much attention from the new dispensation. When the capital shifted back to Delhi in 1912, Chandni Chowk was able to absorb the new influences gradually without any major dislocation to its business.

Changing Chandni Chowk

The look and feel of Chandni chowk was, however, seriously compromised in early 20th century. The canal, built by Shahjahan’s chief engineer, which flowed through the heart of the market was blocked and the trees that lined the broad street were chopped down, apparently to teach a lesson to Dilliwalahs who had given shelter to the revolutionaries who threw a bomb at Viceroy Harding, in front of Katra Dhulia not too far away from Ghantewala, as he rode through Chandni Chowk at the head of a procession to mark the shifting of the capital to Delhi in 1912.

Theatres such as Moti, Kumar, Majestic and Jubilee had come up in Chandni Chowk in the interregnum; some of them were proper theatres that hosted performances of travelling Parsi Theatre companies before they turned into cinema halls.

One of the early markers of the change in Chandni Chowk, aside from the theatres, was the arrival of modern methods of medical treatment. There was Dr HC Sen’s Clinic, probably the first allopathic clinic to start operations in Chandni Chowk, in the heart of a city that used to swear by its hakims. Then came Dr Jena, the dentist, whose clinic was operational opposite Gurudwara Sisganj till the mid-1990s.

But perhaps the first sign of this change in Chandni Chowk became visible through Punjab Spectacles, opened in 1901 by Latif-ur-Rahman, from an old family of businessmen from Ballimaran. The shop, located diagonally across from Ghantewala, was perhaps the first Indian-founded and -owned optical establishment and continues to function from the same location for 114 years.

The establishment is now run by Mohammad Ahmad, the grandson of Latif-ur-Rahman and the son of Jamil-ur-Rahman and Rashida Khatoon. It was here that I bought my first pair of glasses in 1973, and it was through Rashida Khatoon’s younger son, the geographer and town planner, Dr Iqbal Jamil, that I was first introduced to the joys of Ghantewala’s halwa sohan.

Rashida Khatoon was particularly fond of the sohan halwa and rare was the day when one did not get to bite into the hard and crisp disk of sohan halwa after lunch at her house in Ballimaran. I was present at many such lunches because through our college days, both Iqbal and I would invariably reach his place for lunch, before wandering off to the Connaught place coffee house.

Sweet memories

Most families in Delhi, or those that could afford Ghantewala’s sweets, would regularly send for them. Rajan belongs to one such family from Charkhewalan, near Chawri Bazar. He was many years our senior and so he wasn’t a friend but a guide and philosopher to many. He remembers a trip to Ghantewala. This is how it went: Rajan’s father gave him some money and asked him to get a kilogram of mixed sweets from Ghantewala. Rajan, like most college-going young people, had little interest in running errands but since he was told to go, he went.

He reached the shop and in a tone that youth reserves for such occasions he asked Lalaji for a kilogram of mixed sweets. Lalaji asked, “You want barfi?” Rajan said, yes. “Which one?” Rajan said, “Whichever is good.” Lalaji persisted. “Do you want pista barfi?”Rajan said, yes. It was only when he was asked to pay about Rs 500 did he realise that he should have been a little more alert. Ghantewala’s pista barfi was among the most expensive of sweets that he sold, and even those days would have been close to Rs 1,000/ kg. So 250 gm would have set his father back by about Rs 250. Needless to say, he was not sent to Ghantewala again.

Atam Prakash Agarwal’s family has lived in Naughara off Dariba Khurd or Kinari Bazar for many generations. Kinari Bazar, the street where both the St Stephen’s college and the Hindu College started in 1881 and 1899 respectively, is located virtually behind Ghantewala and Atam Prakash has many memories of Ghantewala.

Atam Prakash’s earliest memories are of a huge shop that had many glass cases filled with large metallic trays laden with all kinds of sweets that were taken out every morning and placed on a platform. According to Iqbal Jamil, such platforms, known as chabootras, existed outside each shop and shopkeepers encroached upon them especially in the post-Independence period, and still pay a chabootra tax to the municipality.

Niranjan, the son of one of the staff of Ghantewala, and Atam studied together in school, and this association led to many sweet memories for Atam. He would rush to the shop whenever his mother or grandmother gave him a coin, and without fail he got much more than the coin’s worth. His favourites were the coconut Barfi and the gulab jamun, and he still recalls those days with great fondness.

End of the road

Ghantewala is now a memory. All kinds of explanations are being put forward to explain why this shop had to shut down. Some say that no one wants to eat desi ghee preparations, while others are suggesting that the sweets were rather old-fashioned. The real reasons, however, have nothing to do with these, because both desi ghee preparations and traditional sweets are being sold all over this megapolis.

The real cause of why so many traditional businesses and crafts are dying out so rapidly in this city and all over the country is because as a people we, who are so deeply involved in retrieving an imagined past and a mythical heritage, do not value the living heritage that is slowly and irretrievably dying right in front of our eyes.

Add to that the tunnel vision of those who currently preside over the destiny of this nation of 1.2 billion people, because it is central ministry of urban affairs or development or whatever they call it that has decided to not press forward the proposal for granting heritage status to Shahjahanabad. In their view, this is not part of our heritage. The real reason why all this heritage is allowed to die is that they want to pull down all this and give it to the real estate developers and land sharks.