Delhi, the capital of the country, is highly romanticised, given it is perceived as the depository of political powers. It is the focal point of media and hub of various institutions. The vibrant colours of the city are reflected in the rich history and artefacts that dot its landscape. The architecture of Delhi, with the noteworthy works of Mughals and Lutyens, echoes a history of lavishness and affluence. Qutub Minar and Red Fort dominate our narratives when we describe the past of Delhi. However, the history of the common people, who live behind these overwhelming facades, are often ignored.
The hafta bazaars (weekly markets) of Delhi are windows to the social and cultural life of everyday people. However, while these traditional markets held weekly at a designated place are considered important markers of the city’s cultural continuity, little focus has been given on their emergence and history. The Delhi–NCR region has thousands of hafta bazaars and it is surprising to see how they survive despite the proliferation of permanent markets, general stores and malls.
History of Weekly Markets in Delhi
Rural markets were a prominent feature of medieval India. What comprises south Delhi today is a culmination of several villages, such as Mohammadpur, Mahipalpur and Jiya Sarai. There are several hafta bazaars in these areas that previously served the local people.
Inter-village trade existed even when Delhi was under the Mughal rule, though the market then was much more segregated than the kind we see today. During the Mughal period, only predominantly Muslim villages could sell sheep, fowl and pigeons whereas flour, rice, vegetables and milk were left to the people from the other religions. Among other commodities available were salt, spices and metalware but they were mostly procured from outside or were made of raw materials that were not available locally. Artisans and manufacturers who specialised in specific items often sold their own products.
Although hafta bazaars usually sell a variety of products, some of them also specialise in particular types of goods. The now-defunct book market of Daryaganj was famous for selling and exchanging old books, from novels and poetry collections to art and educational texts. Similarly, there are markets such as Sadar Bazaar that cater to those looking for household items, and the hafta bazaar of Zamrudpur that attracts cloth lovers.
The Pheriwalla Culture
The history of weekly markets in Delhi took another turn with the partition of India and the arrival of Punjabi and Sindhi refugees from Pakistan. These migrants who were fighting for survival in the new nation had to quickly look for ways for financial sustenance. The pheriwallah (hawkers or mobile vendors) culture was a product of this necessity. The vendors went from home to home to sell or exchange wares, and soon became an integral part of the city’s culture.
Pheriwallahs played a significant role in the day-to-day lives of people in the past. The Manihar community sold bangles and jewellery and were vital for wedding preparations. The Bhisti community went from door to door to supply water. These pheriwallahs eventually set up their first weekly market at Red Fort, a tradition that they later extended to many other parts of post-Independence Delhi. Though hawking as a practice is on the decline, there are weekly markets that depend on their crucial role in the supply chain. For example, there is a mahila (women) bazaar near Civic Centre on Tagore Road, made up of female vendors as the name suggests, that depends on pheriwallihs (female pheriwallahs) who buy utensils from the market and then trade them for old clothes and shoes from households in different colonies in the city. The used apparels are stitched and washed and brought to the weekly market to be sold.
Women as Part of Weekly Markets
Most sellers in the weekly markets are men. Although women form the bulk of the buyers, few markets have more women vendors than men. That is where the concept of mahila hafta bazaar comes into play. While Ima-Keithel in Imphal, Manipur, is the largest all-women market in Asia, Delhi also has its own mahila bazaar, the first of which was set up on Tagore Road by the NGO Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in 2007. This women’s market mostly deals in clothes but also stocks shoes and electronics.
This market like the other less flamboyant, inconspicuous things in Delhi remains in the shadows of the prominent buildings such as those of the Zakir Hussain College in Delhi and the Civic Centre. The mahila bazaar is a largely unnoticed market with a meagre footfall of customers. Each vendor is allotted a place on the pavements where she sets up her temporary shop. The allocated spaces are represented by specific numbers given by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and can be registered only in the name of a woman.
While financial need is a major driving factor for the women vendors of mahila bazaars, there are cultural reasons as well, as many of these women come from families engaged in the same business for generations. A market designed to be a ‘safe space’ for them definitely helps in continuing with their endeavour away from male interventions.
However, it must be noted that women’s involvement in hafta bazaars go beyond these specifically designated spaces. Women have for years played an important role in the hafta bazaars from behind the scenes, in the form of secondary labour by making or assisting in making products for their husbands or other male family members to sell in the markets.
Sociocultural Importance of Weekly Markets
Those involved in operating the weekly markets share economic and social ties that drive them. The camaraderie maintains the balance of the market, with a mutual understanding about respective spots, goods sold and pricing among the traders. Not just the sellers, the buyers who frequent the hafta bazaars also have a special relationship with each other. Often these markets are locality specific, with the buyers being neighbours or acquaintances which gives these spaces the shape of a social gathering.
The hafta bazaar can be seen as an amalgamation of different elements of life. Garments, utensils, food and books are all available within a stretch of a few hundred metres. The space for interpersonal communication that these markets provide is enhanced by cultural flavours that the vendors add with their tactfully crafted pitches and witty slogans. This is in stark contrast to the mall culture which allows minimal human interaction due to its mechanised functioning in restricted edifices. Customers and traders in hafta bazaars often know each other, and the buying price is influenced by the interpersonal relationship that the two parties share. The various people involved in these marketplaces discuss politics and society, and the bazaars often also help in organically disseminating awareness about the immediate environment and beyond. The cultural performances, such as tightrope walking, cockfights and other forms of entertainment, held at these spaces help bring together people from various walks of life.
Markets were once located at the peripheries of villages, eventually moving to areas near temples, mosques and other places of worship. In Delhi, they were set up near historical monuments, religious centres and offices where people gather in large numbers, thus giving them the shape of cultural melting pots with serious tourism potential.
However, the most important aspect of the hafta bazaar perhaps is its role as a provider for a burgeoning city population. As Delhi expands to satellite towns and accommodates more migrants every day, the hafta bazaars, because they are inclusive and accessible to all, not only become their affordable market but also readily absorb them as hawkers and sellers.
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