Friday, May 20, 2011

A walk through Chor Bazaar

Chor Bazaar
Around 200 years back, Mumbai had several markets like the garment market ʻMarwadi Bazaarʼ near Bhuleshwar - Crawford market road which was famous for all kinds of clothing (sarees, dhoti etc), head gear (pagdi) and mattresses. Then you had ʻAngrez Bazaarʼ located at Meadows street near fort area and the ʻSatta Bazaarʼ which was located on the terrace of a tall building near Mumbadevi pond.
Members of the Marwadi community gathered at this satta bazaar and bet on when it would rain, the quantum of rainfall, duration for which it will rain etc. The cops eventually shut down this place.
Apart from these there were several other markets like ʻBhaaji Bazaarʼ (Byculla market),ʻKaande Batate bazaarʼ (Duncan road), ʻPhool Bazaarʼ (Bhuleshwar), ʻLohar Chawlʼ(hardware market), ʻChira Bazaarʼ (Dhobi Talao), ʻPaan Bazaarʼ (Khetwadi), Crawford Market, Null Bazaar etc were built between 1860s to the late 1870s.
One of the most interesting of them was the ʻBhikaar Bazaarʼ. All the beggars, fakirs who roamed on the streets and went door to door begging for food, frequented this place. These beggars would carefully segregate different food items (food-grains, Dry – wet food items etc) in small bags and at the end of the day sell them at Bhikaar Bazaar. Other poor people purchased these food items. As time passed by, even this market shut down.
Christening of Chor Bazaar
Chor Bazaar (literal translation: thiefʼs market) is one of the oldest markets in Mumbai. Originally this was a clothing & footwear market. As time passed by other items like antique furniture, spare parts, electronics; film memorabilia started being sold here. We met Rehman uncle, an old octogenarian who has spent his lifetime in chor bazaar. He had this interesting story to share about how chor bazaar got its name.
During the British era the erstwhile viceroy was on a visit to Mumbai. His motorcade was passing through Sand Hurst road and from the nearby small alleys near null bazaar he heard some loud noises. The vendors were screaming, “ Be rupaiyah, be rupaiyah joona poorana samaan le lo bhai”, “meetho Khaajo ek aana”, they were screaming at the top of their voice. Due to relatively less population and lack of any vehicular movement, the streets of Mumbai were usually quite. Unable to bear the noise caused by the vendors, the viceroy shouted “ye kaisa bazaar hai, poora shor bazaar hai”. The locals could not understand and interpret the viceroyʼs thick British accent and shor bazaar as he had named it, became ʻChor bazaarʼ.
Years passed by and the talented pickpockets from different areas of Mumbai have contributed to the prosperity and reputation of this market, and are continuing to do so.
Claim to Fame
Rehman uncle told me that during Queen Victoriaʼs visit to the city, a violin went missing from her baggage. It was later recovered at this market; similarly the police recovered actor Rajkumarʼs stolen Rolex wristwatch in this market. Nawaab Ali Yaavar Jung was the Governor of Mumbai. He was put up at his official residence, Raj Bhavan in Walkeshwar. One morning he realized that someone has robbed his clothes from the cupboard in his bedroom. The police were furious to learn this. Imagine a theft occurring at the Governorʼs bungalow despite the highest security cover. The thief was a novice. He had stolen the clothes of a nawaab, the loot comprised some really costly Sherwanis, hats, kurtas etc. There were no takers for such expensive garments at the poor manʼs street market. Out of the loot, he managed to sell only the buttons of the Sherwanis. Carrying the most expensive clothes in a street market led to his eventual arrest.
The Area
The area starting from Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel road (from Null Bazaar) till Maulana Azad road (J.J. Hospital road) covering Mutton Street, cheemna butcher street and mochi gully is referred to as Chor Bazaar. Within this limit there are several small by lanes/areas like mini market, Mughal Bazaar, Chindhi Gully, Bohri Mohalla, Gujar street, Baara Imaam road, Mini Market etc which comprise the chor bazaar area.
Mutton Street & Cheemna Butcher Street
It is believed that a British engineer named Morton had designed and constructed Null Bazaar building. The street opposite the fish & mutton market was named after him.
Members of the butcher community in Null bazaar could not pronounce Morton properly. The name changed from Morton to Mutton Street. The interesting fact is that you wonʼt find a single shop selling mutton on Mutton Street. Next to Mutton Street you will find Cheemna Butcher Street. Despite being named after a butcher, you wonʼt find any butchers/abattoir on this street. You will only find shops selling vehicle spare parts in both the streets. The nearby Mochi Bazaar however has stayed true to its name. You can find all types of footwear in this street.
Hardware Bazaar
The hardware market is located opposite Null Bazaar right at the entrance of Mutton Street, Cheemna Butcher Street & Saifee Jubilee streets. This market is famous for selling all hardware material. You are bound to find all hardware tools right from a small nut bolt screws to power drills, hammers, hacksaws etc. You will also find daily wage workers like painters, construction labor, carpenters etc standing near the ʻDo taankiʼarea.
Long time back, outside Mutton Street, lot of vendors would put up their stalls on handcarts. These vendors sold all types of weapons. You might have only heard the names of weapons like Rampuri, buttonwaala chaaku, do-dhaari talwaar, khanjar, khukri, gupti in movies. There was a time when all these weapons were sold openly on the roads.
It is believed that weapons used by all gangs of Mumbai for any murder/extortion etc were sourced from chor bazaar. Mumbai police banned the sale of these weapons around 15-20 years back.
Long time back these stalls sold all types of traditional headgear (caps). You could get Kahmiri, Iranian, Turkish, Bohri, Parsi, Arabian headgear right on the streets. Till date there are some stores that sell only traditional headgear.

There are approximately 500 odd small stalls & shops in chor bazaar. Some of these stalls might be as small as 3Ft X 4Ft, but many of them have store rooms/go downs in nearby buildings. As a rule, these guys never take prospective customers to their go downs. Any material that is requested is brought to the stall. There are roughly around 150-200 odd shops that deal only in antiques. The collection of antiques ranges from watches, furniture, artifacts, film memorabilia etc. We met one guy who specializes only in antique toys. There is a lot of demand for these antique toys. This particular dealer (he is illiterate) sells most of his toys to foreigners using his ebay account. Technology, it seems has now penetrated the narrow alleys of Chor Bazaar as well.
The Entrepreneurs
In the old days the business community here was dominated by the ʻChachasʼ wearing black coats and red turkish caps. Kathiawadi Muslims are the dominant community. Nowadays the Mansuri, khoja, Memon, people from UP & Hyderabad dominate the streets. You can find some Bohris who deal in antique furniture and glass items. The Mochi gully is full of Marathi folks from Sangli, Miraj, and Kolhapur. They are the ones who host the Ganeshotsav celebrations in this area.

Chindi Gully
Chor Bazaar has its own fashion street. Clothes stolen from balconies, terraces of chawls, laundries, railway stations etc are often sold to the cloth dealers here. Some rich people donate their clothes; middle class families exchange the old clothes for some utensils, with the vendors (called as Boharni in Mumbai). These clothes are also sold to dealers at Chor Bazaar. Defective clothes that have been rejected at the factory level are also sold at this market.
In less than 2 days, these old clothes are stitched, Stains removed, washed and ironed. They try to make them look as new as possible. There are a lot of people staying in Mumbai and the outskirts who cannot afford to buy readymade garments from shops or even buy some cloth and get them stitched. Chindi Gully at Chor bazaar is a big boon for such people.
Mughal bazaar
Though this place is called as Mughal Bazaar you will not find anything (no antiques, furniture or any equipment) that is remotely linked with the word ʻMughalʼ. This street is famous for selling all kinds of shipping equipment. You can find old navigation meters, anchors, steering wheels, small meters/gauges, lighting equipment, warning bells etc. Most of these shop owners have godowns in nearby areas where they store all the heavy equipment.
Baara Imam Road
This road is famous for its garages. These garages specialize in buying old / scrap cars, cars damaged in accidents, stolen spare parts etc. My father actually calls this place as the ʻgaadiyon ki Shamshaan bhoomiʼ. The skilled craftsmen in this market dismantle vehicles as surgeons do autopsy in the morgue or butcher cut carcus of beef in a matter of a few hours.
Good useful spare parts are removed while the rest is sold as scrap metal. This is the only area where you can still manage to find spare parts of any cars including some vintage cars.
Mochi Gully
This lane is famous for the different varieties of footwear. Remember how once upon a time someone stole your shoes from the stairs of a temple? be sure that the shoes made it in this lane only to be polished and sold to someone. Loot collected during riots, shop lifting etc is also sold to the vendors at Mochi Gully. Nowadays there is a great demand for branded footwear and keeping up with the latest trends, you will find footwear from Adidas, Nike, Fila, Red Tape, and Woodland etc on these streets. The enterprising individuals from Dharavi design near perfect replicas of these brands and are available for purchase at Mochi Gully. There are chances that if you visit this market in the early hours on Friday morning you might also end up getting original branded shoes for a cheap throwaway price.
Bollywood Bazaar near Gujjar Street
This street is really famous amongst film memorabilia collectors. You will find numerous shops that sell old film memorabilia like posters, photographs, lobby cards, booklets, old LPs and 78-rpm records, gramophones, turntables, cassette players, speakers, amplifiers etc. Apart from these you can also find various POS material like standees, danglers, calendars, and signboards etc that were used for brand promotions in the past. In some shops you will also find antique lamps, watches, old phones etc.
There is a lot of risk in this business. Not every shop owner buys material that is stolen.Some of the shop owners buy material only from genuine owners of the material. In India there are lot of restrictions on possession and selling of items that are more than 100 years old. Officials from the Archaeology department keep a strong check on this market to ensure that illegal items like animal skins, ivory, Statues, old items of historical importance, items from heritage buildings etc are not being traded. Businessmen from Chor Bazaar often participate in auctions held across India. They are the first ones to bid for artifacts from old palaces that are being auctioned, thrown away as scrap, broken furniture that is being discarded etc. These people also purchase some of the old furniture and linen items from star rated hotels.
The Future
There are news that the buildings of this area will be demolished under the SRA/Redevelopment scheme and this once historic market will be replaced by posh air conditioned malls and high-rise buildings. I can only wonder whether does this 250-year old market really need a makeover? It is still operational because it offers the poor and the rich an opportunity to purchase items at throwaway prices on the streets. Will people dare to visit this place if air-conditioned shops replace these stalls and roadside stalls? Will it appeal to people and provide the same experience as it does now? Only time will tell…
Note: A big thank you for my friend Stuti Sakhalkar who has clicked all the photographs for us. Without her help it would not have been possible to show Chor Bazaar as it exists right now. Do visit the link below and check out her work.