Friday, September 03, 2004

Labyrinth Labyrinthorum

Thanks for the title this week to the author Chaman Nahal, who in his book The Triumph of the Tricolour referred to the “labyrinth labyrinthorum of the maze that the old Delhi is”. I met that Labyrinth Labyrinthorum last weekend, and spent time on Saturday inside the boundaries of the old city walls.

After last week’s narrative on the travails of autos and their drivers, there was some demand for close-up shots of Un Coco Poco Loco. You can find these in the album for this week if you click here. It was easy, as it made eminent sense to get an auto this weekend to one of the gates of the old city, then begin a walk or something else from there.

The autowallah today was bluff and friendly, combining his sales pitch with expressions of concern for another tourist throwing themselves into the lion’s den. What is this? Old Delhi, Purana Dilli, Shahjahanabad, are all names for the densely populated central area in Delhi, north east of Connaught Place, next to the Red Fort or Lal Q’ila. “Shah Jahan’s most ambitious creation was another new Delhi. Designed to supersede Agra as the imperial capital, it was…a while new city with processional thoroughfares, bazaars, caravanserais, shaded waterways, spacious squares, and massive stone walls” (Keay, India: A History). It was constructed between 1639 and 1648. There were 27 towers and 11 gates. 400,000 people lived there after it was finished.

To the east, near the River Jumna, Shah Jahan built the Lal Q’ila. No slouch, he also managed to build the largest mosque in India in the middle of Shahjahanabad, the Jama Masjid. These were my compass points as I tried to orient myself.

Which I did with difficulty. My autowallah had finished his rambling sales pitch then, as I alighted, said, “be careful of your wallet and your money and your camera. Just watch it in those little alleyways. Are you sure that you’ll be okay? Fine. Do you want me to pick you up? No – okay. Well, remember my Rs. 500 fee for a day touring Delhi, and see you again…”

I’d asked to be dropped at Lahori Gate as it seemed a good place to start a walk – north in the direction of Old Delhi Train Station, east towards Chandni Chowk. I didn’t realise that I was behind the gate and so took a wrong turn or two before I came back to the Khari Baoli (Baoli means ‘step well’), after which I concluded that I would indeed do best (and as many of the locals seem to) to hire a rickshaw to take me around the area to begin with…though it wasn’t a real rickshaw, but a big tricycle with a seat on the back, and a little canopy over it to shield you from the sun, fine idea until you hit your head on it with every little bump in the road!

Shahjahanabad and New Delhi are the only two historic Delhi cities which can still be discerned reasonably clearly, even with changes, as the settlements that they were intended to be. Shahjahanabad was a walled city originally, but there are very few parts of the wall left…other than some of the gates (Delhi Gate, Lahore Gate, Ajmeri Gate, Kabul Gate, Turkman Gate), themselves named after cities.

It is here that you find the old streets and old lanes (or galis), the old mansions of the Mughals (or havelis), the romance and the vigour, the passion and the sweat, the hard work and the dreams, the dust and the clangor…great Urdu poets have written odes to Shahjahanabad, and many others have told of its charms and its attractions…

So many of the galis have merchants from one trade or one area of commerce gathered together – the booksellers and stationers in Nai Sarak, for example. All the galis are narrow, and there are frequent traffic jams, but you just have to wait, wait, wait, and that’s okay – as long as you keep your wits about you, you are safe in the hands of your rickshaw driver…

It has to be said that there is probably not a lot of the romantic side of Old Delhi left, unfortunately. Chandni Chowk (or “Moonlight Square”) is now a thriving commercial and trading centre. The expansion of Delhi on all its sides and its replacement as the centre of Delhi by the upstart Connaught Place has yet to dent its dynamism and verve. The amount of activity on the street is just overwhelming. In a rickshaw this impression is even stronger as you’re very close to the action on the street, and not low down as in an autorickshaw, but up above where you can see what else is going on, and with no sides or back to obscure the view. You’re also in among the constant traffic, which is good as that’s where the action is, as you can see from the photos!

The streets are a thriving, constant hive of activity, people hauling, carrying, pushing, pulling, waving, lying, walking, running, cycling…it’s amazing what heavy loads people haul, on donkeys, handcarts, bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, etc. The sacks of feed, flower, rice, or whatever, look staggeringly heavy and are hauled around seemingly at will by the tide of humanity, the endless people about in this area

It’s amazingly congested – which is part of its appeal – and has a number of monuments and sights worth seeing (the Digambara Temple has an adjacent Bird Hospital run by the Jains, which sounds quite wonderful!). The rickshaw driver kindly pointed out streets to me, which I took in, but had to either decipher them from the riot of street signs, or look them up later - he gave me an excellent hour’s tour of the main sights, which you can see in the pictures.

I then ended my morning with a visit to the Jama Mashid, a magnificent and impressive sight, largest in India, a three-dome Mughal mosque, which was the example for other mosques in the area and the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan, begun in 1644 and completed by 1658.

You ascend a steep flight of steps on the south side, take off your shoes at that point, and then enter a large courtyard, running the normal gauntlet of hangers-on, cloakroom wallahs, volunteer guides, shoe wallahs, etc. The courtyard has gates on three sides, north, south and east, and the Jama Masjid was on the west side, facing towards Mecca

Crowded bazaars exist on all sides of the mosque outside the walls, but inside it is relatively calm, with few people in and around the courtyard, and quite peaceful (it is outside the time for prayer, however). Red sandstone and marble are the materials in use here again, in alternating strips, with others (such as alabaster) used for detailing and sculpting. There are rectangles on the ground indicating where people should kneel in prayer. You can ascend the south minaret to take pictures of the city, from which you discover that when Lutyens designed New Delhi, he made sure that the Jama Mashid, Connaught Place, and Sansad Bhawan (Parliament Building) were in a direct line.

I enjoyed my visit, but the galis on a first visit just seem crowded and congested, teeming with life, which is wonderful, but you would have to spend a lot more time there, walking through them and getting to know them, their characters and their peculiarities, intimately, to fall in love with them and, as always, there isn’t enough time. I wonder if they ever give up all their secrets.
Oh, and to finish the story of Shah Jahan, he had already distinguished himself by building in 1631 in Agra a paean of love to Mumtaz Mahal, his dead wife. Like many of the Moghul emperors, he came to a bad end: all of his sons rebelled against him, and against each other, and he was vanquished by one of the, Aurengzeb, to lifelong imprisonment in Agra where, sick and dying, he stared at a mirror on his wall above his bed…in which was reflected his gleaming, ever changing masterpiece, the Taj Mahal. He finally expired in 1666, by which time the Stuart restoration in Britain was 6 years old…
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It seems the right time to talk a bit about the street life in Delhi, in India, as this is what a foreigner often thinks about, watches, or reads about. When you plunge in, you find out that there is almost no activity that does not find some sort of form on the street. During the night, in the warm weather, people will be sleeping outside, on charpoys (strung bed frames), on the ground, in the roundabouts (which I discovered when I stayed here before) – and that before you count the numbers sleeping in the makeshift shacks or tents in the encroachments by the roadside, made of plastic, corrugated fencing, tarp.

In the morning, the streets yawn, stretch, wake up…you get a steady procession of persons peddling their specialties of the day…the vegetable wallah…the fruit wallah…the brush wallah…there’s the press wallah, starting his ironing…and there are endless others…collecting scrap and rubbish…selling juice and ice cream…all with their distinctive calls, or shouts, or yells.

Wherever you are, preparations for businesses will occupy the beginning of the day. In the case of someone selling dosas and vadas, they will begin preparing ingredients and readying cooking utensils. In the case of the chaat seller near my bus stop, he first cycles along with some heavy bags hanging off the back of his bike. He parks the bike by a tree and goes away for about 20 minutes. He then returns, bent over, with what looks like an enormous set of scales that he carries with a massive brace across his back. On each of the small platforms sit his bags of chaat, neatly packed and covered. He tops them up from the bags on his bike. He then goes through a morning routine of sweeping the area around his chaatform; cleaning each of the utensils and weigh scales for the chaat with lemon juice and water; erecting netting over the riot of colourful chaat; tidying and shaking out each of the bags and the contents, decanting and replacing all his stock. It takes a long time, during which he is serving the army officers, bus travellers, students, and civil servants going by.

As for other food sellers, I hardly ever come to work in the morning without the frying of pakoras and somosas already taking place, the heating of roti (bread cooked on a hot plate), the stacking of snack foods, the frying of sweets (jalebis), the making of yogurt, the stacking of boxes and packets, the delivering of bales, the drying of peppers, the stacking of enormous rectangles of paneer at the dairy. Add to this all the bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, cows, stray cars, autos, worshippers in temple lane, papersellers, fruitjuicewallas, paan sellers and drinkswallahs, and you can be suffering from sensory overload in a matter of seconds!

Indian street life almost certainly has more variety than I can ever adequately describe. You need to experience it, then withdraw for awhile, then plunge back in again. Adam Mynott, former South Asian (now South African) correspondent of the BBC, recently said in an interview in the Hindustan Times that, “I have a theory about journalism. According to me, every street has a story. But in India, every street has at least 10 or 15 stories. The texture and intensity here is just amazing.” With that in mind, I will take a break from Shahjahanabad next week and discover a very different Delhi…

4 Comments:

Blogger mrs_jazz said...

Again you amaze me with your writing
and the photographs to match. Not
much room for SUV's!!!!

September 3, 2004 10:26 PM  
Blogger mrs_jazz said...

Again you amaze me with your writing
and the photographs to match. Not
much room for SUV's!!!!

September 3, 2004 10:26 PM  
Blogger mrs_jazz said...

Again you amaze me with your writing
and the photographs to match. Not
much room for SUV's!!!!

September 3, 2004 10:26 PM  
Blogger Big Mama said...

I agree with Mrs. Jazz.

September 5, 2004 5:26 AM  

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