Thursday, 28 July 2011

Sensory overload in Old Delhi

What with all the excitement this week I never got around to posting about last weekend's bit of exploration. It was a return trip this time, to what is commonly know as "Old Delhi", though it is in fact substantially younger than a lot of the bits of the city I have already written about.

Old Delhi grew up as Shahjahanabad in the 17th century, to the west of the Red Fort, and was the last capital of the Mughal empire. It's the birthplace of the Urdu language and in its day was apparently a graceful city full of beautiful palaces and serene canals.

That's hard to imagine these days. After my first visit in January, when I battled up and down the main thoroughfare, Chandni Chowk, and left feeling more sweaty and tense than anything else, I was far from sure that I wanted to go back. But, aware that I hadn't really given the area much of a chance to endear itself to me, I decided to give it a go.

Old Delhi is the very antithesis of it southern neighbour, New Delhi, with its wide open spaces and grand airs. It is crowded, frenetic, intimidating and overwhelming. Everywhere you look, people are engaged in commercial activity. Everything is on sale in Old Delhi, much of it concentrated in highly specific bazaars, so that if you know where to go you can be sure to find what you are looking for. The people are different here: raucous, pushy and occasionally a bit dodgy: this is the only place in Delhi where I have found myself consciously keeping an eye on my bag. The kids elsewhere in the city stare at me; here, they ran after me down the street calling me a rascal (at least, I think that's what they were calling me).

The street layout of Old Delhi is a true labyrinth. There's no point trying to navigate; you just have to wander where your feet take you and trust that eventually you will emerge somewhere near a recognisable landmark. That is if you survive without being run over by a bike, scooter, rickshaw or wagon, all of which career along the narrow alleys like they're on the M1 and only stop when absolutely forced to (usually because they are in each other's way):

The buildings are mostly twentieth century and uninspired, though every now and again Old Delhi taunts you with a hint at the beautiful architecture of its past that lingers in scraps in its present:

There must be a thousand secret routes through the streets of old Delhi. Apart from the alleys and lanes themselves, mysterious flights of stairs hint at first-floor walkways, and countless gateways lead to hidden courtyards. A favourite scam played on foreigners here is to offer to guide them to some sight and then lead them down into the bowels of Shahjahanabad to rob them, knowing that however fast they are they will never manage to negotiate the maze to catch up with a fleeing mugger. Unsurprisingly, this generally works.

In the middle of all of this sits one of the greatest treasures of Delhi: the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque (and given that India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, there are some big mosques here). It is enormous - it takes about twenty minutes to circumnavigate - yet the surrounding streets are so densely packed that finding it proved trickier than I had anticipated. Eventually, though, the alleys gave way to the ochre minarets and white domes of the mosque, sitting serenely amid the maelstrom:

The serenity doesn't last long though, because right outside the main entrance to the mosque is the Meena Bazaar, one of the busiest wholesale markets in the city. The view from the mosque down the wide steps and boulevard leading up to it is like looking at an Indian Where's Wally ("Where's Wali"?):

It was a slow day down the shops.

I have to admit that braving the crowds was a bit of a challenge for me (as anyone who's been on the tube with me at rush hour knows, I'm not all that great with lots of people in close proximity). But once I'd done so there were just too many extraordinary sights, sounds and smells to worry about claustrophobia. I was particularly taken with the stalls selling an extraordinary diversity of nuts, scattered in heaps on cloths spread out on the ground:

And the rather lovely kites on sale, fluttering on lines above the busy shoppers' heads, also caught my eye:

But my absolute favourite was a mystery to me. Slightly removed from the main drag, a rather portly gentleman had set himself up next to a waterlogged parking area. In front of him was a huge bubbling cauldron filled with a reddish-brown sludge, and arranged around him like a defensive wall were around 20 pots of various spices and nuts. Speaking in a gravelly, hoarse voice, he kept up a constant salesman's patter to a crowd of some forty men like some kind of Indian Frank Butcher. Every now and then one of his assistants would get up and add something else to the swampy concoction, on which the eyes of the crowd were fixed like glue:

Sadly, after four classes my Hindi is not quite up to following such rapid-fire hard sell, but I did catch a few mentions of the words for "Indian", "children" and "boy". Given that all the watching crowd were male, I'm hazarding a guess that the pots of goo he doled out when his pitch was over were intended to boost fertility, and in particular to guarantee conception of a son. I could be wrong (if anyone knows any better please enlighten me!) but whatever the purpose of the product was, it was a fascinating spectacle.

Anyway, I left Old Delhi for the second time feeling rather more positively disposed towards it. I would still go back there with a certain amount of apprehension and with a careful eye on my possessions and moving objects in the thoroughfare. But I will go back, because it can't be denied that this Delhi is the most vividly, excitingly alive of all the Delhis I've seen so far. You just have to take a deep breath, dump the map and jump on in.


Anj said...

Was it paan? But then there'd be paan leaves too...

Why don't you try some and let us know the effect? You're the intrepid reporter, after all

Chris said...

Haha, maybe I'll go back when my Hindi is good enough to ask what it is!