A walk through one of Asia’s largest spice market, Khari Baolii, in Old Delhi is a chef’s delight. Resonating with vibrant sounds and redolent with the exotic aroma of spices, the market is located on the western end of Chandni Chowk, close to the Red Fort and adjacent to the Jama Masjid. The Khari Baolii is indeed engulfed in rich history. It came up around the same time as Fatehpuri Masjid, that was built in 1650. The word kharii means salty, and Baolii is the Hindi name for a step-well. Though the name Khari Baolii refers to the salty water found in the step-well, today, there is neither the step-well nor any water in the vicinity. So, the step-well that the market was named after can be found only in the pages of history.
Although none remains of the original structure, there is an ancient feel to the whole place. It is said that the work on the baoli commenced during the reign of Islam Shah, the son of Sher Shah Suri. The remains of the baoli are lost, and it made way for the spice market, Khari Baolii, that sprang up in its place. The street where this spice market is located was built by Lakshmi Narayan Gadodia in the 1920s. Now popularly referred to as the Gadodia Market by the local shopkeepers, the wholesale and retail trade is centred around this area. This vast complex is a mix of shops and godowns and has residences and apartments on its topmost floors. Interestingly, the shops have to date retained their names like 15 Number ki Dukaan, Chawal Wale 13, etc., that were in use since the inception of the market. Each shop reeks of history in this market area.
A visit to the roof of the Gadodia Market gives an uninterrupted view of the central courtyard and the adjoining Khari Baolii bazaar. The buildings are living examples of a syncretic style of architecture—a smooth mix of the European influences from the Victorian, Edwardian, and Georgian periods with Indian architectural elements. Though they look distinctly European, the ornamentation, such as chhajjas and chhatris, reflect a strong Indian influence. From the rooftop, visitors get an astounding view of the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, the adjoining Fatehpuri Masjid, kabootar-baazi (pigeon fighting), and kite flying. These mansions of old during the colonial era have now been transformed and have evolved into a treasure trove of spices.
Khari Baolii offers a variety of spices, local as well as exotic, and the reason behind India being hailed as the land of spices can easily be deciphered here. From red chillies, turmeric, and bay leaf, to the more elusive spices, they are all available in this market. It is said that around 100 different spices are traded in this market, and this number does not account for the varieties one can find for each spice. You can find traders sitting beneath the portraits of their ancestors and conducting their trade in an organized and disciplined manner. What is noteworthy is the fact that the majority of the traders are fifth- or sixth- or even tenth-generation spice merchants.
Despite the choked sinuses due to the ubiquitous spice dust, Khari Baolii is a poignant reflection of the human spirit; labourers and customers who come and go on a daily basis, and the merchants and traders who for generations have made it their life and livelihood. Of late, it has also become a popular destination for international and domestic travellers, heritage enthusiasts, and photographers, who get to experience and see the new against the backdrop of the old.