The Streets of Old Delhi: Order in a Seemingly-Chaotic Public Realm

By Ray Bromley | Professor Planning and Geography - University at Albany - State University of New York | Feb 11, 2016
The Streets of Old Delhi: Order in a Seemingly-Chaotic Public Realm
Rooftops of Old Delhi: View Westward from Jama Masjid

This essay is part of a series that examines the roles that community-based organizations (CBOs) have played as active participants in the process of "governing" megacitieswhether in service delivery, risk mitigation, or the creation of livelihood and other opportunities. More ...



The streets and alleyways of Old Delhi are among the best-known examples of traditional urban environments in India. They are characterized by a great variety of users and activities, changing substantially according to day of the week, time of day or night, weather, seasons, and the cycle of public holidays, religious festivals and other special events. There is intense competition for space, and for many hours each day, especially between 11a.m. and 9 p.m., the streets and alleys are heavily congested and very noisy. Despite all the hustle and bustle, however, there are informal norms and practices that influence the use of space and that keep accidents, property damage and criminal activity to low levels. This paper explores the continued viability of Old Delhi and the informal norms and practices that keep it functioning.

Old Delhi was founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as Shahjahanabad in 1639, and the city served as the Mughal capital till the last Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed and exiled by the British in 1858. Old Delhi survives because of its vibrant economy and historical significance. So far, at least, the Government of India and the Delhi City Authorities have tolerated it as a historic area, far too complex to formally reorder according to modern norms that give priority to motor vehicles and focus on simplification, specialization, creating space, and reducing density. Governments seek to ensure that law and order prevails, that taxes are paid, and that major accidents and tragedies are avoided, but not to fundamentally transform the area to conform better to the models of urban development applied since the early twentieth century in other parts of the metropolitan region. Motor vehicles are not banned, but they are not favored, and the urban design of neighborhoods intended originally for pedestrians, carts, bicycles, cattle, and draught animals remains in place.

From Shahjahanabad to Old Delhi

Old Delhi is characterized by high-density, low-to-medium rise, mixed use development in areas that lie within the original walls of the old city of Shahjahanabad. Some parts of the walled city were heavily damaged in 1857-1858, during and after the Indian Mutiny or First War of Independence—the great uprising that affected much of northern India. After the uprising the British occupied the Mughal fortress and palace complex (the Red Fort) and the great mosque (Jama Masjid). The British ordered the demolition of almost all the structures between the Fort and the Mosque and to the south of the Fort, creating an enormous buffer space for military security, training and parades. Shortly afterwards they ordered the demolition of an east-west swathe of the walled city for the Delhi Junction Rail Station and associated lines, and in the early 1900’s they ordered the clearance of a north-south swathe just beyond the western walls for the Agra-Delhi Railroad. The British also demolished substantial portions of the walls and allowed stone to be removed for other constructions, so what remains of the original walls are primarily the fortified gateways. The original walls enclosed an area of 6.1 square kilometers, and about 4.0 square kilometers of the historic city remain as dense urban neighborhoods. 

In the nineteenth century the British developed their characteristic military cantonment areas and bureaucratic civil lines to the north of the walled city. They created a low-density semi-suburban “North Delhi,” designed on the assumption that, for their health, safety, security and happiness, most British residents needed to reside in bungalows surrounded by gardens, and to ride horses or travel in horse-drawn carriages to get around the area.

The street plan and urban design of New Delhi, designed by the British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, seemed to deliberately contradict and negate every aspect of Old Delhi. 

In 1911 the British announced the transfer of the administrative capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi and the development of a new capital city on the south side of Old Delhi, to be known as New Delhi. The street plan and urban design of New Delhi, designed by the British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, seemed to deliberately contradict and negate every aspect of Old Delhi. New Delhi was purposefully low density, with wide streets and a complex Renaissance street pattern featuring a variety of geometric shapes including concentric circles, hexagons, octagons, and many elaborate roundabouts. The street system seemed to ignore the presence of Old Delhi to the north, instead focusing on a giant west-east ceremonial mall axis known as the Rajpath, with the principal governmental buildings at the top (west) end and major monuments, now centered on the India Gate, at the bottom. A second rail station was added, the New Delhi Station, on the west side of Old Delhi, just outside the historic walls.  A second cantonment was also created to the south-west, so as to facilitate direct military support to the new governmental areas.

Construction of New Delhi was quite slow after 1911, and the new capital was not inaugurated till 1931, just 16 years before it became the capital of newly independent India in 1947. Ever since there has been a confusion of identities, with some people referring to everywhere in the National Capital Territory (NCT), including North, Old, and New Delhi, simply as Delhi, and others insisting that the whole city is New Delhi and Old Delhi is just a cluster of neighborhoods within that city. Meanwhile, the metropolitan area has spread out in all directions, far beyond the boundaries of the NCT into the adjacent states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, with giant suburbs like Noida, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon giving the metropolitan area a total population approaching 30 million, or even exceeding 30 million if satellite towns developed by industrialists and real estate speculators are added in.[1]

Most of the sprawling Delhi Metropolitan Region is enormously reliant on motor vehicles and the extensive metro system for transportation. Wide straight main roads have been built to accommodate motor vehicles, and most of the metro is elevated along some of the major road axes. Walkable areas are limited to lower income neighborhoods, small shopping centers, the interior of shopping malls, and the immediate vicinity of the metro stations. In contrast, most of the new middle to upper class residential areas are walled and gated with controlled entry only for residents and their occasional approved guests. The residents can walk within their gated residential complexes, and those complexes may include membership of tennis clubs, golf clubs and other exclusive Members Only facilities, but there is no true public realm, open to all. In middle to upper class English-language media and in the airport, metro stations and other locations, there are many advertisements exhorting young up-and-coming professionals to do the right thing and buy into a gated villa, townhouse or apartment complex. These complexes are presented as totally new, clean, beautiful, green, and ecologically sustainable—earthly paradises for those who have the money and wisdom to buy into them. They seem to offer protection from many supposed perils of the city, most notably congestion, pollution, dirt, garbage, itinerant vendors, beggars, crime, and contagious diseases. 

If we follow the logic of Delhi’s inexorable sprawl, people who can afford to do so seem to be fleeing everything that Old Delhi stands for: density, congestion, seemingly chaotic public spaces where walking is often the fastest and best way to get around, and the presence of great socioeconomic diversity. Yes, Old Delhi is often noisy, has substantial air pollution, dirt and garbage, and has many street vendors and a few beggars and petty criminals, but many people, including some wealthy merchants, want to be there because of the great variety of economic opportunities that it offers in a relatively small area. Its buildings, streets and alleyways have high occupancy levels, and many of its businesses are highly concentrated by types of craft, merchandise and activity. The logic of agglomeration and scale economies is vital, with many different specialized areas, each combining wholesale and retail trade by dozens of merchants dealing in a specific commodity like cotton textiles, sandals, spices, pulses, fruits, schoolbooks, or calendars.

Urban Morphology[2]

As befits a walkable city, Old Delhi has a great variety of houses of worship, historic buildings and other landmarks, but the majority of the buildings are residential and commercial. Most of the buildings occupy most of their lots, with little or no setbacks to the front or side, so the streetscape is essentially continuous, with occasional narrow private alleyways leading to backyard spaces and with broader public alleyways providing access to properties that do not front onto the streets. Most buildings date from between 1820 and 1970, though many have received repairs, modifications, extensions or new facades since then.

Old Delhi is a world of relatively narrow streets surrounding large and irregularly shaped blocks penetrated by many alleyways. Most of the streets have no sidewalks and have the space for just one or two lanes of motor vehicle traffic. Off to the sides run public alleyways which penetrate the blocks and often branch to connect with other alleys. Occasionally an alley may open out a little to create a pocket plaza around a shade tree or well. Some of the alleys are just dead ends or U-shaped axes coming back to the same street further along the axis, while others cross the blocks to eventually reach a different street. There is little concept of a 'block' because there is no grid plan to permit steady counting of progress in one direction. Indeed, in the narrow alleyways, where buildings may protrude over the walkway and where arches are common linking properties on both sides, visitors can very easily lose their bearings.

The one major exception in the street plan of Old Delhi is Chandni Chowk—a wide boulevard that runs .9 miles westward from the Red Fort. Chandni Chowk has sidewalks, and some sections have arcades, with the second stories of the buildings overhanging the sidewalk and columns every 7-16 feet creating a nominal divider between the sidewalk and the street. Down the middle of Chandni Chowk there is a raised divide, often with a small fence on top, intended to prevent vehicles and pedestrians from crossing to the other side. The boulevard was created in the mid seventeenth century as an integral part of the new Mughal capital, Shahjahanabad, creating an elegant promenade from the imperial residence in the Red Fort to the heart of the walled city. Along its axis are some of the most important houses of worship including the Sri Digambar Jain Temple, the Sikh Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, the Suneri and Fatehpuri Mosques, the Gauri Shankar and Shri Shiv Navgrah Hindu Temples, and the Central Baptist Church. It also includes the old Town Hall, which served as the center of urban government from 1866 till 2009.

Most of the buildings of Old Delhi are not officially zoned for single uses, and each building has the use, or mix of uses, that its owners have chosen. 

Old Delhi’s traditional urban environments, like comparable historic areas in other major Indian cities (Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Ahmadabad, Varanasi, etc.), are characterized by mixed use. Most of the buildings of Old Delhi are not officially zoned for single uses, and each building has the use, or mix of uses, that its owners have chosen. It is very common for downstairs front uses to be retail or service and downstairs back areas to be used for warehousing and storage, while the remainder of the building is residential. Entire multi-story buildings may be rented out room-by-room to a mixture of businesses and residential tenants. Buildings are often festooned with signs advertising the many businesses that function inside, and religious and public buildings are interspersed between the private residential and commercial properties. Some buildings have a small semi-private space in front—an area bordering the street or sidewalk that belongs to the building owner, and the owner may reserve that space for personal parking or a retail stall, or rent it out to someone else. Very often, also, private retail and service businesses encroach onto the adjacent public space, giving their businesses extra visibility and turnover.

Old Delhi Streetlife

Focusing on the public spaces of Old Delhi, there is little or no formal spatial separation of street commerce from traffic, or of parking from vehicle movement. Similarly, there is no formal separation of pedestrians from vehicles, or of animals and humans, or of different types of vehicles. Most streets and alleyways are two-way, and vehicles and pedestrians adjust their movements and expectations to somehow get through, stopping, reversing, squeezing to the sides, but most often just relentlessly pushing forward. Chandni Chowk and Netaj Subhas Marg, the major north-south axis that separates the Red Fort from the remainder of Old Delhi, have central dividers to separate the traffic going in each direction, and some similar arrangements are present in the vicinity of the two rail stations, but elsewhere it is normal for vehicles to move over to the right side of the road whenever there is an obstacle to the left. The alleys are mainly used by pedestrians, animals, and two- or three-wheel vehicles,as larger vehicles are limited by the sheer narrowness of the alley spaces and awkward angles of the intersections.

... to a very large extent, the continuing peaceful functioning of the public spaces depends on the common sense and mutual give-and-take of the many people who use them.

Both in British colonial times and since the Independence of India in 1947, local laws have been promulgated to govern street activities and traffic flows in Delhi, but the rules have generally not been strictly enforced in Old Delhi. It is much easier to enforce rules in newer, lower density areas, and enforcement is particularly strict in governmental New Delhi and in the elite suburbs, where the police are expected to protect privilege. Police superintendents and other officials ride around in cars, ordering their subordinates to enforce rules, if necessary using powers of arrest or confiscation. In the very crowded, congested, competitive  and multicultural environment of Old Delhi however, micro-encroachment from private to public spaces is common, and many vendors, motorists and pedestrians simply do whatever they feel like doing in the public realm until specifically pushed back or told not to. Some vendors and petty transporters have official licenses to practice their trade, but most work without permits and simply move away for a time or pay a small bribe if there is an inspection. In a congested and seemingly chaotic environment, it is very difficult to enforce rules because so many seem to be breaking them. Instead, to a very large extent, the continuing peaceful functioning of the public spaces depends on the common sense and mutual 'give and take' of the many people who use them.

The streets and alleyways of Old Delhi have a clear rhythm over the 24-hour and seven-day cycles. Activity steadily rises from before dawn until the early afternoon, peaks in the mid to late afternoon and early evening, and declines from 8pm onwards. The quietest period is between 1:00 am and 5:00 am, and street cleaning, whether by municipal employees or locally hired sweepers is usually done overnight. There are few or no places to deposit trash, and so during the course of the day the street becomes increasingly littered with waste that will probably be removed during the night. The main through roads around Old Delhi have a notable morning rush hour between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. as corporate and government employees head to work, but this is hardly noted in Old Delhi, where the rhythm of commercial activity is the prime determinant of congestion. Traffic is generally lower on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, because of public and religious holidays, with Sunday as the quietest day, but at peak hours the streets are packed on all seven days of the week.

Many street activities are closely related to weather and seasonality. Delhi has great climatic fluctuations, with average daytime temperatures peaking at 104ºF in May and falling to 68ºF in January, and average nighttime temperatures peaking at 82ºF in June and falling to 46ºF in December and January. Heavy rains may accompany the monsoon season in July, August or September, and fog and air pollution are notable in winter.[3] Many vendors adjust their merchandise to the climate, for example selling ice cream in hot periods, umbrellas in rainy periods, and hot drinks in winter. Some vendors give up selling on rainy days, and many people adjust their hours between hot dry periods, wet periods, and cold periods.

Street vendors vary enormously in level of capital investment and type of stall. Many simply lay their merchandise out on a cloth or plastic sheet by the roadside. Others walk around carrying their merchandise, an approach that favors sales to vehicle drivers and passengers. Others sell from a flat cart mounted on four bicycle wheels, which can be taken off the street and stored overnight, while still others have elaborate stalls or kiosks, or even sell from the back or side of parked vehicles.  

Animals are important elements of the street environment in Old Delhi; they are usually tolerated and taken for granted. They are not as frequent and visible as in Indian villages, but they play significant roles in the local environment and economy. There are many dogs, some associated with houses, some effectively wild on the streets, and significant numbers of monkeys, often scampering across the rooftops. Pigeons and crows are the most visible birds, and there are many locations where seeds are frequently scattered to attract and feed the pigeons. Horses and oxen pull carts, and cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens are all kept by local property owners, with cattle often standing or sitting out on the street and consuming fodder grass or garbage. Some older hungry cattle wander the streets, abandoned by their owners and waiting to be picked up by the local authorities. Occasional camels and donkeys are kept to pull carts or carry loads, and sometimes an elephant may be walked through the street, perhaps heading to a procession, circus or special event. In general the animals are very docile, as they are accustomed to large numbers of people and crowded streets, and pedestrians and motorists simply move around the animals without significant risks of accidents. Animal excrement often falls on the street and is usually cleaned up overnight and eventually used for fuel or compost. 

The vehicles of Old Delhi are even more diverse than the animal population, with a full range of motor vehicles: trucks, buses, pick-ups, minibuses, cars, vans, auto-rickshaws (three-wheel motorcycles for passengers or cargo), motorcycles, motor-scooters, and even some electric bicycles. In addition there are many vehicles without motors, ranging from hand-carts to bicycles, cycle-rickshaws (three-wheelers for passengers or cargo), hand-powered tricycles for people with lower body handicaps, and on to a range of carts and carriages pulled by oxen, horses, donkeys and camels. Bicycles are often heavily loaded with cargo and then pushed to their destination.

The norm is that faster vehicles move towards the center of the road, slower ones move towards the sides, and stationery activities like vending or parking are at the sides, but every journey has its surprises! 

The result of high levels of congestion and the great variety of animals, vehicles and pedestrians on the streets is that traffic usually moves at less than six miles per hour and many vehicles and pedestrians move at under one mile per hour. The norm is that faster vehicles move towards the center of the road, slower ones move towards the sides, and stationery activities like vending or parking are at the sides, but every journey has its surprises! A few vehicles commonly found in rich countries and shopping malls worldwide are rarely seen, notably baby carriages and strollers or motorized vehicles for the disabled. Such vehicles are rarely used, partly because of their high cost, but also because rough and dusty pavements, combined with great pedestrian crowding, would make them unpleasant to ride in. Small children are usually carried, and parents or servants rent an auto-rickshaw or cycle-rickshaw when they want to move several children. Vehicles are often tightly-packed, so that a motor-cycle can carry three adults or two adults and one to three children, a conventional auto-rickshaw can carry two-four passengers, and specialized auto-rickshaws can carry 6-12 schoolchildren.

Just as moving vehicles create a complex street ecology, parked vehicles take up substantial portions of the public realm. Old Delhi has very few enclosed lots and virtually no custom-designed buildings to serve as parking garages, so streets and alleyways provide the overwhelming majority of parking opportunities. Any wider area creates an income opportunity for someone to watch over parked vehicles and charge a small fee, and many property owners rent out their private alleyways or semi-public spaces in front of their properties for parking. Parking is usually highly specialized, with one area and guardian for motorcycles and scooters, another for bicycles, another for four-wheel motor vehicles, and yet another for overnight storage of street vendors’ carts. In areas where there are fixed stalls and kiosks on the street, a night watchman may keep an eye on the closed stalls so as to ensure that no one breaks in and steals merchandise. Overnight parking of groups of stalls, carts, rickshaws, or motor-rickshaws may indicate a common business relationship, whereby a middleman owns many vehicles and rents them out every day to individual drivers or vendors who use them for their micro-businesses during the day and then return them to storage each evening.

Order in Seeming Chaos

The concept of jugaad, the legendary Indian capacity to find solutions to problems through ingenuity, is crucial in understanding how the public realm functions in a highly congested area like Old Delhi. Most people have business interests in doing what they seek to do or going where they seek to go, but all recognize that the costs of conflict are probably greater than the costs of avoiding conflict. Thus, improvised solutions are constantly employed to achieve objectives and avoid crises. At congested times, vehicle drivers honk almost constantly, pedestrians push and squeeze through, and people cross the streets without waiting for more than a small open space to appear between oncoming vehicles. Even two seconds of hesitation provides an invitation for others to push forwards. At times it seems that sheer bravado triumphs. So when a pedestrian steps out to cross the street the best advice is to do so determinedly, looking the oncoming driver in the eye and assuming that he (or very occasionally she) will stop. Similarly, when drivers want to pass a pedestrian who is walking along the road or another driver of a slower-moving vehicle, they simply assume that s/he will continue at the same pace and in the same direction as s/he is currently moving. The general focus is always on what is ahead, rather than behind or to the side, and whichever vehicle noses in front, has the right of way. Many drivers remove side mirrors to make their vehicles a little narrower and to avoid having them knocked off by other vehicles that squeeze in close. Few drivers pay much attention to their rearview mirrors.

Street vendors combine audacity with common sense conformity, avoiding flagrant and dysfunctional practices like setting up stalls in the middle of the road—things that would attract the attention of the local police, with the possibility of arrest, confiscation, or demands for bribes. Instead they set up on the sides of the street and on the few sidewalks that exist, forcing pedestrians out onto the road. On the few streets with sidewalks, shopkeepers in adjacent buildings may try to force them to the edge of the sidewalk, so that potential customers can pass close to their front windows and doorways, but some shopkeepers adopt an alternative tactic, extending out onto the sidewalk to give themselves more space to display their merchandise.

The jugaad metaphor helps observers understand the extraordinarily competitive environment in which street vendors and rickshaw and auto-rickshaw drivers operate, struggling to find customers who will pay enough to make it worthwhile to sell goods or provide a service. Equally significant though is another metaphor—the rain forest—where plants compete intensely to reach light and maintain water supply, and where different species adapt to forest floor, new forest clearing and forest canopy locations, including vines that wind themselves up tree trunks and branches to reach the canopy, and mosses, lichens and arboreal plants that grow directly on tree trunks and branches. Street vendors work hard to find locations and modes of display to ensure that many passers-by can see their merchandise and find it attractive. In this task they have to pay very close attention to the surrounding ecology of traffic, pedestrians, parked vehicles, and wholesale, retail, and service businesses on private property, and also to competing vendors, many of whom have established locations and respected rights to occupy those locations every day.

The peace of Old Delhi is maintained not just by police presence, but also by complex and reciprocal respect of property rights and of spatial and behavioral rights in the public realm. The area has large Hindu and Muslim populations and significant minorities of Christians, Jains, Sikhs and others, and each religion has its holy days, processions and rituals that cause extra traffic congestion. By established custom, these additional complications to the local environment are respected, and nonbelievers change their hours or routes so as to avoid the ensuing gridlock. 

Survival and success in Old Delhi requires great ingenuity and capacity to adapt, but the complex human ecology provides an extraordinary range of opportunities in a small area.

Survival and success in Old Delhi requires great ingenuity and capacity to adapt, but the complex human ecology provides an extraordinary range of opportunities in a small area. So much more is available within walking distance than in rural India or on the metropolitan periphery. Much of Old Delhi was lost in the aftermath of the 1857-1858 uprising, but fortunately more than half the old city survived. Virtually all the surviving areas of Old Delhi are bustling and fully occupied at the present day. The urban environment is an historic treasure and a demonstration that religious tolerance and high-density mixed-use environments continue to be viable and desirable in 21st century India. 


[1] The largest unit of all, the National Capital Region, includes cities, towns, villages and rural areas spread across three states (Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan), all within 200 km drive of central Delhi, with a total population of over 47 million according to the 2011 census and the 2014 redefinition of regional boundaries.

[2] For information, maps and photographs of Old Delhi see: Narayani Gupta, Delhi: Between Two Empires 1803-1931 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981); Mushirul Hasan and Dinyar Patel, (eds.), From Ghalib’s Dilli to Lutyens’ New Delhi: A Documentary Record  (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014);  Robert Grant Irving, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker and Imperial Delhi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981); Jim Masselos and Narayani Gupta, Beato’s Delhi 1857, 1997 (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal and Orient Longman, 2000); Ajay K. Mehra, The Politics of Urban Redevelopment: A Study of Old Delhi (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1991); and Lucy Peck, Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2005).