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
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
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
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)
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