Independence Day 2023: Old Delhi Sweet Shops & Freedom Struggle
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Every Independence Day, Indians across the nation celebrate the day by cooking up sweets coloured in the hues of the Tiranga and sharing them with one and all as a symbol of community and unity along with national pride. Independence Day 2023 is also likely to be just the same with every home and every sweet shop across the country whipping up Tricolour sweets and goodies. But did you know that before the tradition of Tricolour sweets as a representation of national pride came along post-Independence, sweet shops across India and especially Old Delhi played a huge role in the freedom struggle? 

Yes, some of the oldest sweet shops in Old Delhi were not only meeting and interaction hubs for Indian revolutionaries but also supported their activities, to the extent of providing those on the run with sanctuary and anonymity. Wondering what the role of Old Delhi halwais and mithai shops was in the Indian freedom struggle? Here’s everything you need to know. 

Video Credit: YouTube/Sanjeev Kapoor Khazana

Coded Messages Through Food 

The first fact that everybody needs to understand is that food has always been a common denominator and unifier among the common people of any nation. The American Revolution was founded on a little Tea Party thrown against British rule in 1773, for example. In the French Revolution, the role of bread and bakers was of the highest standing, while salt became a centre of attention for the rebels thanks to unfair taxation. In India too, the tradition of using food to pass coded messages that everyone but the colonisers will understand was accepted as early as 1857. 

In 1857, India united for the first time against British rule and the rebels across the country were believed to engage in what is now called the Chapatti movement by British historians. From Delhi and Kanpur to Lucknow and Mathura, farmers and messengers passed chapattis along to sepoys deployed at British cantonments—and the British were baffled and highly suspicious that these passing Chapattis played a huge role in creating simultaneous mutinies from the North to the East of British India. 

Old Delhi Sweets: Decoding The Message 

A few years back, Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, who is interested in oral history and anthropology around food, said in an interview that Old Delhi sweet shops also passed sweets concoctions around on behalf of Indian revolutionaries in order to spread the word about the progress of the movement. Gorai says that though these coded messages have now passed into orally preserved memories, their exact significance can still be understood. He explains that there were two reasons behind the revolutionaries choosing Old Delhi sweet shops for their activities. 

The first reason is simply that for all Indians, irrespective of region or religion, sharing sweets is the most common practice. Sweets have always been distributed, even to long distances, to celebrate festivals—and adding a few good wishes in the box is also a common practice. So, for the revolutionaries, this was clearly the easiest method of passing along messages without arousing suspicions. Secondly, the British themselves had fallen utterly in love with Indian sweets—some had even played a role in creating said sweets, like Lady Canning in Bengal.  

So, sweet shops in Old Delhi and even other famous hubs like Mathura, Lucknow, Agra and Kolkata were rarely ever raided by the British. Many sweet shops also supplied sweets for British formal occasions, and were able to use this network to subvert the surveillance of the colonial rulers. Sweets therefore passed as messages across the nation, with a box of laddoos meaning a bomb was on the way, a box of Bengali Rasagollahs meaning that a big consignment of explosives was soon to arrive, and a box of barfis meant that cartridges and ammunitions were soon about to follow.  

Old Delhi Sweet Shops As Meeting Places 

Given that Old Delhi was the central hub for Indians as opposed to British-dominated Lutyens—and was closer to the oldest colleges and universities in the city since 1911—it was naturally packed with sweet shops and snack shops. Some of these shops still stand and serve Delhiites today, while others have since shut down. The areas of Chandni Chowk, Daryaganj and Jama Masjid were also places were a lot of student revolutionaries lived and went to eat. So, naturally, the shops here became meeting places for most of them. 

Legend has it that Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad used to enjoy cups of Kulhad chai at Matia Mahal, an area of Chandni Chowk. They are also rumoured to have enjoyed plates of Aloo Puri at Ghantewala Halwai, a famous Chandni Chowk sweet shop that had apparently been established in the 18th century and was shut down in 2015. In fact, Ghantewala was so popular that it even catered to other national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Independent India’s first Prime Minister.  

The area of Kotwali in Chandni Chowk also housed many printers, which is why revolutionaries who lived in Chandni Chowk—like CL Paliwal, NK Nigam, Durga Devi Vohra, Gian Chand Bansal, JM Chatterjee, Yash Pal, Manmath Nath Gupta, Roop Rani, Brij Rani and Memo Bai—all lived in Delhi and frequented the sweet shops of Old Delhi on the way to getting pamphlets printed for the freedom struggle. Parathe Wali Gali and its many sweet shops as well as paratha shops were also frequented by these revolutionaries.