Why don’t we treat markets as the wonderful public spaces they really are? Wandering through a local market in Pune, and speaking to the vendors who run it, architect Smita Patil is struck anew by this question.
I have been drawn to public markets ever since I can remember. Perhaps this is because we’ve moved homes a lot, and visiting markets always gave me a sense of comfort and belonging, even as a child. Colourful, loud, distinct to each locality, choice-giving, and untamed—these markets were quite in contrast to the quiet and disciplined army cantonment neighbourhoods we lived in. For 16 years now, I’ve been exploring markets in and around Pune, the city that’s now home.
Interestingly, a sprawling fruit and vegetable market lies hidden under bright tarpaulin sheets in the Camp area of Pune, just a little beyond the Pune Cantonment boundary. The Khadda Market gets its name from its unique physicality—it sits in a khadda—a pit—about five feet deep. Apart from its physical setting, the market is also unique because of its timings—it is operational only from seven in the morning until four in the evening, unlike most local markets that stay open all day.
I visited this market as an architect trying to understand how people interact with the spaces they inhabit, and how it cements the relationship they share with it. Here, the level difference of the site decides its humble scale and pedestrian character, while the vendors’ creative designs give every stall the visibility it needs to drive sales.
Khadda Market also goes by the names Pul Gate Vegetable Market and Kumbhar Baodi. “Earlier, kumbhars (potters) used to stay in this basti (settlement), the market used to be set up at Bhopala Chowk back then,” says Shaikh Habib, a newspaper vendor, pointing to the centre of the market behind him.
According to Habib, this market is only around 20 years old, and was shifted here “sometime after the Babri Masjid attack”. While at its earlier location, the market got in the way of traffic. Its 350-metre leap away from the chowk was intended to ease the bottleneck.
Habib has been working at the shop, Happy Traders, since 1975. “These days, only people from our generation read newspapers. There isn’t much business. That’s why I rented out our shop to this restaurant in 2020,” he says.
He also informs us that one of the scenes in Richard’s Attenborough’s Gandhi—released in 1982—was shot on this street. “They paid us three days’ rent and asked us to keep our shop closed. These buildings look like theirs,” he says, referring to the colonial architecture.
Take the seven steps down the newspaper stall, and you see the vibrant market to your right. A small square in front of two medhis (shrines of folk deities) welcomes you, with benches on either side. Two old men read their newspapers on one of the benches, pausing to chat, while a woman carrying heavy shopping bags rests on the other.
As you head into the market, yellow light streams in through the tarpaulin sheets, casting a warm glow on the produce on display.
There is something for everyone at the Khadda Market—whether you are rich or poor, interested in cooking traditional cuisines, or experimenting with foreign ingredients. “Everything is pretty cheap here, and fresh too, that’s why people come here. We have the same quality of produce as Shivaji Market, but at a much lower rate,” says Vazeera, who sells a mix of local and imported vegetables.
She adds: “Before Covid, there were so many daily customers that we had no time to spare. To date, customers come to us from as far as the outskirts of Pune, but now the number has dropped. Most people seem to buy vegetables and fruits online, and if not that, from the nearest vendor on the street.”
Vazeera’s cousin Shamshad has a stall right next to hers. Shamshad, like most others in this market, is a second-generation vendor. “This is my mother’s stall. I used to accompany her to the market since I was five years old. She had a stall at the Bhopala Chowk, too, before the market was shifted here. I’ve only seen this one though,” she tells us with a wistful, but bright smile.
Unlike Shaikh Habib, she tells me that the market is at least 40 years old. “I’ve been selling local fruits at this market for around 40 years. My cousin sister, nephew, two cousin brothers, and one of their sons have stalls at the market, too! We come together from Ramtekdi (a nearby locality) every morning,” she tells us while packing the melons.
Shamshad has three varieties of musk melon on sale today. She tells us that while the Kundan variety is available all year long, the other two—Chakri and Bobby muskmelon—which are sweeter, are only around from March to May. I buy one of each.
Vazeera’s sentiments around the dip in customers are echoed by others in the market. Like Aziz Sheikh Suleiman, a lemonade vendor whose stall is older than the market itself. “I’ve been here from the start. I had a stall at Bhopala Chowk for two years, then the market was shifted here, so I came, too. It’s been more than 40 years now, I think.”
According to him, the market used to be bustling with customers around 20 years ago. “People used to throng to this place from all corners of the city! It used to be so crowded that you’d have to fight for a place even to walk!” he reminisces, offering us a glass of chilled lemonade.
Even though the customer base has dwindled “by 40 per cent at least” as another fruit seller, the 50-year-old Abdul, tells us, all vendors agree that they have loyal customers who return.
Sharmine Paul is one of them. “I come here every weekend—you get everything under one roof. I mainly come here for the fruits, they are really fresh and cheap,” she says, holding a bag filled with fruits and vegetables, while her husband carries another. “And the people are also very kind,” she’s quick to add.
I have to agree. We have already been offered coffee, tea, and lemonade! “The coffee? You’ll have to pay, um, 300 for that,” Farukh says with a laugh when I ask him how much it would be. He is a fruit vendor who is having his second cup of coffee for the day, and has offered me a cup too. It’s around 1:30 p.m., and he has sold out most of his stock today. The last batch of dragon fruits is purchased as we both sip our coffees.
A truly resilient market filled with hardworking vendors, Khadda Market offers a wide array of options for anyone who walks in; there’s celery and jackfruit, fig and dragonfruit, homemade masalas and packaged ones—all sitting side by side. And if you’re tired or overwhelmed by the options, there’s always tea and snacks. Or, coffee and lemonade!
By around four thirty in the evening, the tarp has been pulled back, and the stalls are packed up. The unsold produce gets stored in godowns, or neighbouring houses acting as godowns—a system devised by the community. The wandering cows and goats from the nearby dairy have left after eating the scattered vegetable and fruit peels, and the premises are cleaned by the authorities. There are robust systems beneath the outer chaos; you wouldn’t even realise that this was thrumming with activity until a few minutes ago. But the liveliness continues in another way.
In the evenings, the place transforms into a playground for gully cricket and a walking track for the neighbouring residents. The square in front of the shrines fills up with the chatter of people—a larger crowd in case there’s a festival celebration. It’s ephemeral magic, the capacity of a place to transform to its people’s needs. Choice, activity, warmth, conversations, and food—what more can you ask of a good public place?
Historically, too, across cultures, markets have been important centres of public activity—whether you look at Greek agoras or Delhi’s Chandni Chowk Bazaar. Apart from being sites of trade, markets are also spaces for social, cultural, and community interactions, and in many ways, shape a place’s identity. And not to forget, how the vendors at a local market like Khadda are a treasure trove of knowledge about regional produce.
We rarely view markets as the wonderful public places they really are; even architects and urban designers seldom see them this way. While the chaotic environment and poor hygiene at most local markets such as Khadda Market are quickly noted, we fail to see the easy accessibility, and the diversity of fresh produce available at such affordable prices at these very markets.
Markets are entire ecosystems—behind the apparent chaos, there are well-functioning systems and communities that look out for each other. If we could just help improve the basic maintenance, there’s a lot to be learnt from Khadda Market’s creativity, resilience, and ephemerality. And, the city and we would be better for it.
Smita Patil is an architect and writer interested in understanding the dialogue between people, architecture, and the city. She wants to shift the narrative of architectural writing to a more accessible and people-friendly space by breaking down walls of heavy jargon.
Markets carry the pulse of the communities that they serve, and act as a window to diverse cultures. Market Archives aims to document as many markets from around India as possible—small, sprawling, vanishing, noisy, up a hill, tucked away in a corner of the city—every one of them. Join us as we speak to different sellers, see what’s in season across varied geographies, taste the familiar and unfamiliar, and soak in the sounds and scents that define each market.