The Urban Smellscape of Delhi

in Article
Published on: 10 May 2018

Amrita Chattopadhyay

Amrita Chattopadhyay is doing a PhD at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell.

E.M. Forster, A Room with a View (1908)

In a survey of historical studies of smell, Jonathan Reinarz refers to the 'rich melange of olfactory sensations' offered by cities and towns (first explored in Aroma: A Cultural History of Smell, 1994; cited in Reinarz 2004:179). Parts of a city can be identified by the scents associated with the activities carried out there: some are known for foul odours (e.g., slaughterhouses, laundries and hospitals), others smellscapes are pleasanter, like bakeries and aromatic gardens. He concludes that these different odour locales create an 'olfactory map' that allows a city's inhabitants to 'conceptualize their environment by way of smell, with notable concentrations of aromas around marketplaces, food vendors, religious buildings, gardens and other green spaces' (Reinarz 2004:179).


Every city has a unique olfactory identity of its own. For long, cities of Third World countries have been associated with degrading notions of ‘dirt’, ‘filth’ and ‘waste’, and consequently been seen as places of ‘stink’, disease, lacking in public hygiene. Indian cities were no exception. For example, Calcutta was once considered to be the epitome of a dirty city, mainly because of its association with cholera. Rudyard Kipling in his book City of Dreadful Night gives a degrading representation of the urban life:


All India knows of the Calcutta Municipality; but has any one thoroughly investigated the Big Calcutta Stink? There is only one. Benares is fouler in point of concentrated, pent-up muck, and there are local stenches in Peshawar which are stronger than the B.C.S.; but, for diffused, soul-sickening expansiveness, the reek of Calcutta beats both Benares and Peshawar. Bombay cloaks her stenches with a veneer of asafoetida and tobacco; Calcutta is above pretence. There is no tracing back the Calcutta plague to any one source. It is faint, it is sickly, and it is indescribable; but Americans at the Great Eastern Hotel say that it is something like the smell of the Chinese quarter in San Francisco. It is certainly not an Indian smell. It resembles the essence of corruption that has rotted for the second time—the clammy odour of blue slime. And there is no escape from it. It blows across the maidan; it comes in gusts into the corridors of the Great Eastern Hotel; what they are pleased to call the 'Palaces of Chowringhi' carry it; it swirls round the Bengal Club; it pours out of by-streets with sickening intensity, and the breeze of the morning is laden with it. It is first found, in spite of the fume of the engines, in Howrah Station. It seems to be worst in the little lanes at the back of Lal Bazar where the drinking-shops are, but it is nearly as bad opposite Government House and in the Public Offices. The thing is intermittent. Six moderately pure mouthfuls of air may be drawn without offence. Then comes the seventh wave and the queasiness of an uncultured stomach. If you live long enough in Calcutta you grow used to it. (1899:8–9)


This long association of Indian cities with stink and bad odours reduces an urban space to a simplistic binary of foul and fragrant, and restricts the possibility of perceiving the same through multiple olfactory sensibilities. A city is not a single spreadsheet but an aggregation of several spaces, each having a distinct culture, lifestyle, set of habits, and combination of activities. And each of these spaces has its own distinct smell derived from these activities. Thus, instead of homogenising a city in terms of one particular smell, creating a smellscape of the city by integrating the different smells of various urban spaces would enhance our understanding and experience of the city.


India’s capital city of New Delhi, given its great spatial extent, diverse population groups, and wide range of economic and cultural activities that it accommodates in its urban body, may be considered an interesting site for this olfactory experimentation. I went around asking around 20–30 people living in Delhi, both old and new city residents, to associate the city with one particular smell. The answers were as diverse as possible. Some associated it with the intoxicating smell of the flowers of the saptaparni tree, combined with the smell of the fog and dew of the winter months, some with the smell of car exhaust, some with the smell of dust and that of oily food, some with that of smoke, some with cheap synthetic perfumes, some with of human sweat, some with the smell of  sewage and garbage, some with that of burnt butter, some with the smell of old concrete and bricks, some with the smell of chhole bhature or with the smell of roasted meat, and some with that of old rotten wood. For some, the smell of the city is associated with the smell of their lover’s body, with the smell of decomposing grass  of Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, the smell of the wooden furniture at the National Museum and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and for some with that of hostel food or that of the washroom. No one particular smell could thus be identified to define the city of New Delhi.


The city of Delhi is a curious blend of the old and the new, of the fast and the slow, of chaos and order, of tradition and modernity, of the rich and the poor, and the foul and the fragrant. Dwelling in between such extremes, the city survives with a resplendent character. The dynamic, sprawling and multi-faced character of the city is responsible for transforming the various urban areas into olfactory landmarks. Although, the city is ill-famed for its population density, high level of air pollution, smell of human sweat and sewage, smoke, smell of petrol and dust, and most recently for the smog that engulfed the city to frightening levels, it has more to its urban smell culture, if only one decides to look beyond all the negativities and perceive the city with a little bit of compassion and optimism.


Taking a cue from the heterogeneity of olfactory experiences derived from these oral discussions, I selected a few of the known and popular areas of Delhi, and, borrowing the Western model of smellwalks, I conducted such walks in a very basic form to locate the various smells that the urban space houses. Introducing the concept of smellwalking, Victoria Henshaw (2014:42) describes it as a form of ‘sensewalking’ which one study defines as a method by which we might 'investigate and analyse how we understand, experience and utilise space' (Sensewalking, cited in Henshaw 2014), and 'usually involves focussing on sensory information gained through one or more senses' (Henshaw 2014:42). Henshaw explains that since its introduction in the 1960s, sensewalking has been used by a range of disciplines for research, education or documentation. For a study in Lisbon, groups of people wearing eye-masks were led around the city by a visually-impaired person in order to experience the city through their non-visual senses alone. The walks were conducted  individually by residents of the cities, and supplemented by photographs taken by them prior to the walks. Each resident was assigned a specific route or area, and the walk was followed by an interview of the experience (Henshaw 2014:42).


The practice of urban smellwalks is almost non-existent in Indian cities. However, my first attempt at conducting a smellwalk in Delhi with limited people and opportunities was quite revealing. The smellwalks were conducted in a small group where we first started slowly walking through chosen areas and did ‘smell catching’ (noting down what drifted into our noses). This was followed by ’smell hunting’ (locating the source of the smell). These walks helped us associate areas with distinct and characteristic smells of their own. Sometimes we would blindfold one or two participants of our small group or plug the ears of one or two others in order to perceive the city spaces through non-visual or non-aural experiences. This was supplemented by photo-documentation of the areas. Thus, by borrowing the western model of smellwalks and implementing it in Delhi, the project attempted to create an urban smellscape of Delhi for the first time. 


The smellwalks were conducted in chosen areas such as Lutyens Delhi, the Khan Market area, the Afghan colony of Lajpat Nagar, the Punjabi-settled area of Rajouri Gardens, at the Bengali market of Chittaranjan Park (C.R. Park), in and around Nizamuddin Dargah, at the Hauz Khas fort and in the lane leading to the fort. The smellwalk also ventured into the areas of Old Delhi including Ballimaran leading to Mirza Ghalib’s haveli, Chawri Bazaar, Chandni Chowk, Dariba Kalan, Daryaganj and the area around Jama Masjid. 


Each of these areas could be identified with a distinctive smell. It has been observed that it is difficult to describe smell because of its lack of a specific vocabulary; sensations are usually expressed with the help of analogies and adjectives. This task is in itself challenging but attempting it would probably help us begin to create an urban-smell vocabulary, particularly in the context of Indian cities. Moreover, a smell catalogue could be created that would enable us to understand a city beyond the narrow boundaries of the foul and the fragrant.


The central bureaucratic zone of Lutyens Delhi is covered by great stretches of green with planned rows of trees and manicured lawns. Walking through this area, past India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, the National Archives and other official buildings amidst the urban green, the most distinguishable smell is that of the saptaparni tree, particularly at the onset of winter. The flowers of this tree with seven-leaf clusters dissipate a very strong, exhilarating fragrance, permeating the entire stretch of the bureaucratic area with this heady scent. The smell is so strong that many people acquire headaches and breathing problems if under its spell for long. However, this area can be clearly identified by this heady and poignant smell of the saptaparni trees from the onset of winter. During summer, this area strongly smells of the pleasant and soothing fragrance of the flowering kanakchampa trees.


No one particular smell could be identified in the main U-shaped double-storied Khan Market area. Instead the area wore a mixture of smells of brewed coffee from the posh cafes such as Starbucks, Café Turtle, Barista or the Big Chill Café, of the smell of the kebabs from Khan Chacha, and of the mild and refined fragrances from the fine perfume shops such as the Fragrance People and Good Earth. Occasionally the smell of paperback books drifted in from two old and famous bookstores of the city, Bahrisons Booksellers and Faqir Chand and Sons. This cocktail of fine smells emanating from some of the costliest chains of shops reminds us once again that this area is now one of the most expensive shopping streets of the world, and has moved far beyond its post-Partition days.


While Khan Market no longer smells like refugee settlements, the distinctive smell of areas such as Lajpat Nagar and C.R. Park remind us of the stories of migrants moving into the city in search of food, shelter and rehabilitation. From the Afghan colony in Lajpat Nagar and from Sharif Manzil, Ballimaran, emanate the aromas of kabuli pulao and khameeri roti, the authentic Afghani foods introduced by the migrants from Afghanistan in these areas of Delhi. The smell of Afghani cuisine has been well integrated within the urban space of Delhi as these migrants continue their business with much dignity, politeness and warmth. The ‘little Kabul’ in Delhi smells of their peaceful bygone days in their homeland.


The area of Chittaranjan Park, a colony carved out for the East Bengali refugees who migrated into Delhi during the post-Partition days, is still home to a handsome population of Bangla-speaking and fish-eating Bengalis. The open markets of C.R. Park primarily smell of fish and street foods such as that of phuchka served with fragrant gandharaj lebu and tamarind water. The area also houses a Kali temple, the surrounding of which emits the smell of fresh flowers and garlands along with the fragrance of incense sticks offered to the goddess Kali. Although over the years the area has assumed a very cosmopolitan outlook, it predominantly smells of a continuing presence of Bengali culture. Similarly, an area such as Rajouri Garden in West Delhi, where a large population of Punjabi people migrated from Pakistan during Partition, carries the oily smell of chhole bhature and the smell of ghee-ladden laddus. Such smells have become an integral part of the city of Delhi. They are no longer the smell of a migrant population or of bygone/displaced lives.


The area of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Nizamuddin West can be considered a significant olfactory landmark in the city. The long and winding lane leading to the dargah of the Sufi saint, Khwaja Niamuddin Auliya (1238–1325), is bordered by a number of shops selling roses and also a few small attar shops selling bottles of different kinds of itr and incense sticks. The long stretch of this road starts with the smell of kababs and biriyanis and gradually the aroma transforms to the smell of fresh rose petals mixed with the exhilarating smell of attar emanating from the chains of shops. The atmosphere inside the dargah is kept fragrant with the thick layers of rose petals laid down as an offering on the saint's grave, and with the aromatic incense sticks burnt in reverence to the saint. The incense sticks sent forth thick plumes of scented smoke which blends with the smell of the roses and the fragrance of attars anointing the devotee’s body and clothes, and create a beautiful spiritual atmosphere of prayer, devotion and transcendence for the devotees and worshippers.


Another significant olfactory landmark are the medieval ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla. The historical relevance of Firoz Shah Kotla as a 14th-century palace complex built by Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq is eclipsed by the rituals associated with the place today. This complex too, has a spiritual aroma—it smells of scented candles, incense sticks and fresh fragrant flowers, the fragrance getting most poignant on every Thursday. Unlike Nizamuddin Dargah, this abandoned, ruined space has no shrine but it attracts a number of people seeking divine favours. Most of the people who visit the site come every Thursday and have a firm belief in the miraculous powers of the djinns that are supposed to reside in the palace complex (Sengupta 2016). The visitors believe that these djinns or holy spirits hear their prayers and grant their wishes, and that the offering of fragrance would please the djinns and help people overcome their troubles. The space of these ruins in the lap of the city emits the mysterious scent of spirituality and that of popular beliefs in the supernatural.


The city has a considerable number of old architectural spaces. Over the years these spaces, despite being under the care and supervision of the Archaeological Survey of India (the ASI), have retained a distinctive smell that old structures have—of stones and of other materials. The high ceilings and dark interiors with hole-like structures attract bats and pigeons for nesting. These spaces, as a result occasionally smell of the pigeons and bats, and of their droppings, especially identifiable in Agrasen ki baoli, Purana Qila and Hauz Khas fort. No such smell could be identified during the smellwalk within the internal space of Humayun’s tomb or the Lodi tombs. This is primarily because of the better maintenance and higher footfall in there. However, the tomb complex emits the smell of wet grass and in the winter afternoons, the smell of dew on those grasses keeps growing stronger with the passing hours.


The old part of the city, particularly the areas such as Chandni Chowk, Chawri Bazar, Ballimaran and Dariba Kalan and the areas in and around Jama Masjid, present themselves with a cocktail of a range of interesting and captivating smells. The mouth-watering and irresistible smell for any meat-lover would be that of roasted meats and kababs fused with the smell of oily and fried paranthas coming out of Paranthewali Gali of Chandi Chowk. This is a typical identifying feature of Old Delhi or that of the Chandni Chowk area. Added to that, is the distinctive smell of a typical Mughlai cuisine spreading out into the street, and leading to Jama Masjid from the old and famous restaurant of Karim’s. Besides, there is a more elusive smell of attar radiating out of the lane of Dariba Kalan from the legendary attar shop of Gulab Singh Johri Mahal and a number of other street vendors selling attar in small bottles in and around Jama Masjid. 


A range of other smells can be identified in the Chandni Chowk area. The fragrance  of sweet-smelling frothy milk with saffron will now and then brush your nose while walking through Old Delhi as several street vendors prepare and sell delicious Daulat ki chaat. The buttery smell of naan khatai often adds to the aroma. The sweet aroma of ghee-soaked, deep fried drum rolls or jalebi from the famous old jalebiwala shop in Chandni Chowk is a major olfactory delight. The enticing smell of rabri falooda made of condensed milk, flour, yogurt and vermicelli, near Fatehpuri Masjid is another unavoidable aromatic sensation of Chandni Chowk. Amidst such mouth-watering smells, the soothing aromas of flavoured kulfis such as that of paan, badaam, pista, chickoo, gulab, radiating from the old shop, Kuremal Mohan Lal Kulfi Wale, in Chawri Bazaar, are again a major temptation.


Moving through the dusty, crowded roads towards the Ballimaran, the area smells typically of dingy streets, sweat and urine where a crowd of labourers can be seen pouring in. The area caters to a big metal and stationery (of papers and wedding cards) market and carries a distinguishable smell of smelting metals and cardboard and plastic-coated papers. While the lane travels through the fragrance of dense-milk chais (tea), the smell of flavoured paans, the aroma of local breads and other confectionaries, it also absorbs the nostalgic and beautiful essence of 18th-century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib’s haveli. 


Old Delhi is thus a unique blend of captivating aromas, and a major olfactory landmark for food-lovers, city explorers and people keen to smell and experience its old world charm.


The last pit stop of the smellwalk was the Hauz Khas Village and it revealed itself with an aromatic cocktail of old and new, a blend that the city of Delhi itself stands for. Walking through the famous lane of the urbane, affluent neighbourhood in South Delhi, all that could be smelt and identified were the smell of beer, cigarettes, disinfectants and sometimes, coffee. Heading towards the medieval tomb complex of Hauz Khas overlooking a wide lake and a green park, the architectural ruins smelt primarily of wet earth (petrichor) amidst which many lovers sat and enjoyed the crimson-coloured setting sun.


The urban smellscape of Delhi would remain incomplete if we did not consider the smells of the increasing number of shopping malls in the city. Famous shopping malls such as the DLF Promenade in the Vasant Kunj area of South Delhi, smell of typically pleasant and sensational expensive perfumes of Chanel, Forest Essentials and Fragrance People, combined with the sweet aromas of caffeine and caramels. This is a unique elite, urbane smell, very new to the cityscape but slowly becoming integrated into the urbane smellscape of Delhi.


There is the looming anxiety across the world that every city in the world will lose its individuality and start looking like any other under the forces of globalization. The anxiety is not limited to visual but extends to olfactory sensations. Instead of falling prey to this eventuality and mourning it, all we can do is try and preserve the olfactory identity of each city, the heterogeneous smell experiences that contribute to the overall smellscape of the city.


The project is at its very beginning and many more places in Delhi and other Indian cities remain to be covered in greater detail. The methodology of conducting smellwalks can also be further developed, fine-tuned and supplmented by a technological dimension. This however remains the first and elementary attempt at creating an urban smellscape of Delhi, and the scope of work remains to be explored and expanded further.





Forster, E.M.  2011.  A Room with a View. Norfolk: New Directions.


Henshaw, Victoria. 2014. Urban Smellsacpes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments. London: Routledge.


Kipling, Rudyard. 1899. The City of Dreadful Night. New York: Alex Grosset & Co.


Reinarz, Jonathan. 2004.  Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell. USA: University of Illinois Press.


Sengupta, Chandni. 2016. ‘The Socio-Religious Significance of Firoz Shah Kotla: A Synthesis Between the Supernatural World and the Real World.’ South Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies 3.2.