Ghantewala: Why did Delhi's 'oldest sweet shop' shut down?

Image caption Ghantewala was set up in 1790

A 225-year-old sweet shop in the Indian capital, Delhi, recently shut down after its owner said it was no longer profitable to run it. The BBC's Geeta Pandey visits Delhi's "oldest sweet shop" to trace its history and legacy.

When the Ghantewala sweet shop was set up in 1790, George Washington was the US president, Mozart was performing in Vienna, France was in the grip of French Revolution, Britain was ruled by King George III and Shah Alam II was the Mughal emperor who ruled Delhi.

It was at the time of such momentous world events that Lala Sukh Lal Jain, a small-time sweet maker from Nagaur in the western state of Rajasthan, arrived in Delhi to earn a living.

"He knew how to make sweets and always used the finest of ingredients," says Sohail Hashmi, a writer and documentary filmmaker who conducts heritage walks in the city.

Image caption In 1954, Indira Gandhi sent boxes of Ghantewala sweets to Indian troops based in Korea
Image caption For the 1954 Bollywood film Chandni Chowk, a replica of the shop was created on the set in Mumbai to give the film an authentic feel

"He would arrange the sweets on a brass plate, balance it on his head, and go selling it from street to street, while ringing a small brass bell to attract attention. That is why the shop is called Ghantewala - the bell man," Mr Hashmi adds.

As his popularity - and sales - grew, Lala Sukh Lal Jain graduated to a pushcart and by 1790, his business had grown so much that he could open up a large shop in the bustling Chandni Chowk market, close to the Red Fort, the seat of the Mughal empire.

Sushant Jain, the current owner of the shop, is the scion of the Jain family who had to make the "really tough decision" to shut the shop.

"I've been receiving calls from old customers every day, they are very upset. Some of them are even angry, they've been telling me 'how dare you close the shop'?"

From the beginning, Ghantewala's most popular sweet has been Sohan Halwa. "It was the favourite of Mughal emperors, it was loved by India's presidents and prime ministers and it was also much in demand among the ordinary residents of Delhi," says Mr Jain.

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Media captionSushant Jain on his shop's history and its possible future
Image caption The shop was famous for its Sohan Halwa sweet

"We've served sweets to generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi [both prime ministers] bought sweets from my grandfather. My father supplied sweets to [former PM] Rajiv Gandhi and I supplied sweets at [his daughter] Priyanka Gandhi's wedding," he says.

The shop found mention in the 1912 Delhi Gazetteer which said their sweets had "a pre-eminent position in Delhi's gastronomic art". Going through Mr Jain's files and family album is like a lesson in history - there are letters of appreciation from Nepal's former king Birendra, a senior United Nations official, Indian politicians and celebrities.

A photograph taken in 1954 shows Indira Gandhi standing next to boxes of Ghantewala sweets. "She was flagging off a consignment of our sweets for Indian troops in Korea," Mr Jain explains.

He shows me a letter his grandfather, who ran the shop then, received from the prime minister's office a few days later saying how much the sweets were appreciated.

Image caption The Jain family has run Ghantewala for eight generations
Image caption Their celebrity clients included India's most famous artist MF Hussain

Ashok Arora, who owns a sari shop next door to Ghantewala, remembers how during the annual Hindu festival of Diwali, the shop owners would have to call the police to manage the long queue of customers that would form outside from early in the morning.

Today, however, the customers are all gone and the once thriving shop wears a deserted look.

One of Mr Jain's employees lifts the shutter for us to peek in - the floor is covered in dust, cardboard boxes and disposable plates are strewn about, and there is a no-smoking sign on the wall.

In recent months, the shop has been facing legal problems and licensing issues and Mr Jain says that changing tastes have brought the curtains down on Ghantewala.

"People nowadays are reluctant to buy Indian sweets and traditional snacks, they now prefer chocolates and pastries. Even my children prefer burgers, pizzas or cakes," Mr Jain says.

Moreover, Sohan Halwa - the melt-in-the-mouth hard, crisp, disk-shaped sweet made from refined wheat flour, sugar, almonds, pistachios and dollops of pure desi ghee (clarified butter) - has fallen out of favour in a country that has a growing cholesterol problem and where more than 63 million people suffer from diabetes.

Mr Jain says by closing the shop, he feels like he has done "something wrong" and is "letting down my forefathers".

But with business consistently declining, he says, he is left with no choice: "We are no longer getting the footfall we require to keep this shop going."

Mr Hashmi, who was first introduced to the "joys of Sohan Halwa" at a friend's house in Chandni Chowk in 1973, says Ghantewala is a mere memory now.

"We have made no effort to save the living heritage of our city and it is slowly dying. Ghantewala has also now become a lost slice of the city's heritage," he says.

A witness to Delhi's history

Image copyright AFP

During its 225-year existence, Ghantewala has "witnessed all the joys and sorrows of Delhi", says Sohail Hashmi. Here, he lists some of the historical events that took place between between 1790 and 2015:

  • Collapse of the Mughal empire
  • The rise of the British Raj
  • The 1857 Mutiny against British rule
  • Durbar move in 1912 when the Indian capital was moved from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Delhi
  • Independence in 1947, partition of India and creation of Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim riots, the exchange of population
  • Emergency rule imposed by Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977
  • Assassination of Mrs Gandhi in 1984 and anti-Sikh riots
  • Economic liberalisation in the 1990s