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Living Dangerously in Old Delhi (Chandni Chowk)

by Max Lent.  © 2003 Max Lent

Throwing caution to the wind, we said yes to the offer of a rickshaw tour of Old Delhi (Chandni Chowk), the old market section of New Delhi.  For $150 Rupees we were to be transported from the Red Fort, which we had just toured, through Old Delhi, shown the spice market, and India's largest mosque.  It was risky, but it seemed like it would be fun.  It turned out to be the best way we could have chosen to see Old Delhi.

Our driver was somewhere between 25 and 30 years old.  He had a swarthy look about him.  His English was excellent and he was enthusiastic.  He also had the look of a thief or a mugger if you wanted to see him in that light.  We were conscious of the risk. 

The Red Fort is on the bank of a river.  Chandni Chowk is further away from the river and on an incline up a hill.  Our driver earned his pay by having to peddle uphill for most of the tour. 

The population density of Chandni Chowk is high, very high.  We had never seen so many people in such a small space.  Being elevated on the rickshaw and separated from the crowd, we could see everything at a very relaxed pace.  We were also freed from dealing with the crush of people.  Everything we saw was something that we had never seen before.  Tina and I looked at each other and spontaneously repeated, “We are ‘really’ not in Kansas any more Toto.” 

Our driver pointed out shops, historical monuments, and religious temples as he slowly peddled us along.  The bumper-to-bumper traffic and the crush of people crossing the street limited his speed.  Without notice or explanation, our driver pulled his rickshaw to the curb and asked us to get out and follow him.  We were uncertain whether we wanted to give the relative isolation and safety of the rickshaw for the unknown of entering the throng of people on the street.  In an instant, we jumped out of the rickshaw and followed our driver.  He led us away from the main street, down a narrow alley, and into an unlit stairwell.  We hesitated for a second, but followed his lead.  We knew we were making ourselves more vulnerable to danger with every step we took and yet we continued on.  Our driver could have threatened us with a knife and taken our money and passports, but he didn’t.  Instead, he led us into another world that we would have never seen if we had toured Chandni Chowk alone.

The dark unlit stairwell we were climbing was littered with crushed chili peppers.  By the time we had reached the second story we were uncontrollably sneezing and our eyes were watering.  When we reached the third floor, our driver motioned for us to walk out of the stairwell onto a landing above a courtyard.  Everywhere we looked we saw huge burlap bags of peppers and other herbs and spices piled high.  We were in the old spice market.  This was the kind of place that gourmets dream of visiting.  This was the source of spices that would be shipped throughout India and the world.  The smells of hot peppers, ginger, and hundreds of other herbs and spices challenged our senses.  The visual beauty of the colors and textures overwhelmed us.

We were motioned back into the stairwell and led up another flight of stairs to the roof.  When we stepped out onto the roof, we had a panoramic view of Chandni Chowk and its surroundings.  The afternoon light was hazy and golden.  The haze made the surroundings look even more mystical.  We could see the Red Fort down the hill.  To our right we saw Jama Masjid, the great mosque of Old Delhi.  It is the largest mosque in India.  Shah Jahan built it and it became the last of his major architectural projects.  Its two120 foot high minarets and dome were clearly visible from our vantage point.  As we stood on the roof of the spice market we heard the call to prayer from the minarets.  A large segment of the Chandni Chowk population stopped their work and knelt in prayer.  We couldn’t and didn’t want to take pictures of a religious ceremony.  Our driver was patient.  He let us remain on the roof until we were ready to descend the stairs back to the spice market. 

We went down a different unlit stairwell to the next landing down.  We walked by a man sitting on the floor being shaved by a barber.  All of life’s functions were being performed everywhere.  Some people were selling spices others were buying.  Some people were washing themselves using little pans of water.  Other people were smoking, eating, sleeping, or just hauling huge heavy burlap bags filled with product from one place to another.  The scene was similar to a scene in Federico Fellini’s 1969 movie “Satyricon” where the viewer becomes a voyeur as the camera follows characters through ancient Rome. 

India is a nation of shopkeepers.  Chandni Chowk is the perfect example of why the quote is true.  There are thousands of little shops in the bazaar.  Many of them are so small that the owner can put their arms out from their sides and touch the walls.  Every one differentiates its self from every other one through creativity and cleverness.  Business also occurs on the curbs and in the street.  We saw a man doing a brisk business cleaning other people’s ears while seated at the curb.  There is something for everyone to do.  Everyone appears to be doing something to earn money.   

Back on the street, we climbed aboard our rickshaw and slowly made our way further into the center of Chandni Chowk.  We found it interesting that our driver expressed no concern about leaving his rickshaw unattended on the street.  What we observed was that our driver was known wherever we went.  What may look like a totally chaotic sea of humanity random milling around Chandni Chowk was, in fact, a community where all of the members knew and looked out for each other.  The only true chaos was the foreign visitors.  They were such a homogenous group that it was easy for locals to keep track of them.  Like the science of fractals and chaos theory, the closer you look the more structure and organization you see.  We stopped again and explored some shops and took photographs.  The displays of spices, foods, and other goods in the little stalls were impressively varied and beautiful.  Spices were piled in perfect cones of wonderful saturated and pastel colors.   

Back on the rickshaw, we took a downhill route that was different than our uphill route.  This took us by different kinds of stores.  The shops were located in ghettos defined by trade.  Some were selling red wedding clothes and accessories.  Others were selling every day clothes such as saris and salwar-kameezes for women.

A sari is a rectangular piece of cloth, which is five to six yards in length. Through an elaborate process of wrapping and tucking this cloth becomes a beautiful women’s dress.  The cloth may be silk, brocade, cotton, or man-made in origin.  The color range of saris is full spectrum.  A short blouse called a choli is worn under the sari.  Salwars are pajama-like trousers with a drawstring at the waist and elastic or drawstrings as the ankles.  Next door to most sari shops you will find a dupatta or scarf shop.  Women buy dupattas to match or compliment their saris.  Depending on where you are the dupatta may be called an orhni. 

Buying a sari is a lengthy complicated process.  The sari shops stock hundreds or more bolts of fabric arranged in a spectrum of colors.  Since saris are simple rectangles of five to six yards in length and about a yard wide.  There are no sizes in the traditional sense.  Women buy the sari cloth and fold it to fit.  Style is the result of the quality of cloth and the way it is worn.  To shop for a sari one strolls past the shops until a particular color spectrum or type of fabric sparks an interest.  Entering the shop, you are invited to sit and have bolts of fabric unrolled for you.  In nicer shops, a youth is sent out to get tea for the shoppers.  [Drinking the tea is guaranteed to make foreigners sick.  The teacups are often washed by unclean hands in communal tubs of cold wash water drawn from pathogen-infested public faucets.]  The shop owner, with the help of assistants, will unroll every bolt of fabric in their shop in an attempt to make a sale.  The shopkeepers are always courteous, helpful, and cheerful even if they don’t make a sale. 

Buying a salwar-kameez can be a less complicated affair since they are often sold as ready-made clothing.  You go into a shop and peruse racks of them on hangers.   

Some of the clothing requires custom construction or alterations.  For example, cholis are made to order and require precise measurements.  Parts of salwar-kameezes require alteration.  The alterations are often completed the same day. 

The quality of the sari fabrics, and for other clothes as well, ranges from cheap synthetics to wildly beautiful natural fabrics.  The designs can range from awful to spectacularly tasteful.  The designs can range from simple almost austere to complex and elaborate.  You can define who you are by your sari fabric, color, design, and how you wear it.  Your sari can say where you are from, your economic status, your age, and much more. 

We saw what must have been hundreds of fabric shops that we wanted to explore, but didn’t the time.  Our driver peddled us on.   

Next, we passed through the jeweler’s ghetto.  Tina’s eyes lit up when she saw the ornate gold jewelry in the windows of the jewelry shops.  Indians appear to enjoy overt displays of wealth, especially during wedding ceremonies.  One of the ways they display their wealth is through women’s jewelry.  Although the jewelry is attractive and well made, Indian women seem more interested in size and weight.  Necklaces, in particular, seem to be gauged in pounds of 22 carat gold. 

We turned a corner and our driver peddled us up a short incline to the base of the Jama Masjid mosque.  He told us to go up the steps and tour the mosque, and so we did.  Apparently, tour guides were not allowed to accompany tourists into the mosque.  Our driver stood by his rickshaw and waited for us.  

At the top of the steps leading to the mosque we had to remove our shoes and check them with the shoe checker for a fee of a few cents.  Walking toward the mosque, we were approached by an old ragged man who wanted to be our guide.  He was mute, but overcame his limitation through theatrical gestures and great enthusiasm.  We agreed to hire him and worked out a price.  The fee charged by guides is usually extremely low and well worth the investment.   

Our guide led us into the mosque where we paid another small sum as an entrance fee.  The courtyard was huge.  We were the only non-Indians for as far as we could see.  We were led to the entrance to the mosque and shown the elaborate artwork on the walls.  Next, we walked to the gate and looked down on the Red Fort and back at the mosque.  What a spectacular view.  We could imagine Shah Jahan being carried to and from the mosque followed by his courtiers in splendid ceremony.  From that vantage point we were led back toward where we came in and stopped at reliquary where our guide arranged for a priest to show us hair from the beard of Mohammed.  This required opening a vault and a beautiful silver case.  Indians who had been praying in the little side chapel attempted to crowd up to where we were to see the reliquary, but were forcefully and physically shoed away by our guide and the priest.  We later discussed how awkward it was for us, non-believers, to have access to the religious artifact while the devoted were sent away.  We wondered if this was what Mohammed would have wanted, probably not. 

Would we or would we not find our expensive hiking shoes waiting for us outside the mosque.  Our fear of having to walk home in our stocking feet was unfounded.  Our shoes were exactly where we left them.  This would be true for every religious shrine we visited in India and Nepal. 

Our driver was also exactly where we left him.  He asked if we enjoyed the mosque.  We said that we had.  He then peddled us back to the Red Fort.  We arrived at rush hour and had got stuck in traffic.  We asked him to just let us out and we would make our own way back to the taxi stand.  I paid him for our tour and tipped him almost as much for doing such an outstanding job.  The traffic was grid locked, so we had to walk between cars, along side and in between buses as we snaked our way through the traffic.  Once back at the taxi stand we looked around for a taxi, but they were all hired and waiting for their customers to return.  We did find a motorized three-wheeled rickshaw, called a tuk tuk locally, to transport us, for a reasonable fee, home. 

The ride was noisy, polluted, windy, and moderately dangerous, but cheap and speedy.  We passed by a funeral procession where a coffin was being carried on the shoulders of men while a group of men and women followed in procession.  This was our first encounter with death in India.   

We were tired when we returned home.  We were not so physically tired as experientially exhausted.  There was only so much sensory information we could take in before our minds and senses became overloaded.  Returning to the isolated comfort of our hosts’ home and having a cup of tea helped us relax and revive.  There was so much to see, smell, hear, and feel in India that we anticipated that we would be very tired at the end of every day and we were.    


Old Delhi (Chandni Chowk)


Jama Masjid


New Delhi

The Red Fort

Shah Jahan

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