After saying a fond farewell to McLeod Ganj near the beginning of December, I arrived in Delhi (the main transport hub), debating whether to head north to Kashmir or south to Kerala for Christmas and New Year.
As I was back in Delhi, I decided to visit Chandni Chowk market in Old Delhi. It is the oldest market in Delhi, created by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who laid the foundations of Shahjahanabad which was to be the capital of all the cities that he ruled. In the centre of the market, which is over 300 years old, was a pool that shimmered in the moonlight, and this gives the market its name. The shops were arranged in a half moon pattern around the pool, though sadly both the pool and the original half moon shape have long since disappeared under the many shops, stalls and streets that now populate the area. My imagination runs away in a beautiful riot just picturing what this place once looked like.
Shah Jahan created the market so that his daughter, the Princess Jahanara Begum, would be able to buy whatever she wanted. Wandering and riding through the crowded, bustling streets it was hard, but not impossible to imagine the merchants and traders from all over the country (and further afield) that came to sell their wares at the market. I rode through the ‘wedding stationary’ bazaar, the ‘paper’ bazaar, the ‘vehicle parts and tyres’ bazaar to arrive at the ‘saree’ bazaar. I smelt, but sadly never found, the spice bazaar.
On one edge of the market is the Fatehpuri Masjid, a 17th century mosque, and as I chose to visit the market on a Friday, the prayers that were being sung echoed over the traders and craziness of Old Delhi’s streets. (Sadly I didn’t get any pictures of the mosque as I didn’t want to encroach on the worship taking place, but it is a huge and breathtaking piece of architecture.) On the opposite edge of the market is the Red Fort, which I hoped to see but the market rapidly drained what little sanity I have so it will wait for another day!
Wandering around the market, I was strongly reminded of Ridley Scott’s 2019 vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner (minus the neon and see-through raincoats). The shops and buildings, piled higgledy-piggledy ontop of one another seemed to lean in over the streets (a concept I’d often heard described so much in fiction but never actually experienced) diffusing the noon sunlight which filtered through the smog and tangles of telephone wires (a health and safety nightmare).
There are signs hanging off shop lintels, air conditioning units pile precariously upon balconies that hardly seem able to support their weight. There are people everywhere, suspicious puddles of liquid brooding at the street edges, and traders aren’t confined to the shops, many setting up their wares on sheets on the ground. It’s noisy, it’s an assault to the senses, it’s smelly, and then suddenly you find something quite out of place, like this beautifully ornate door.
It’s an experience of India that I’d definitely recommend for its authenticity, and one that I don’t know that I’d care to repeat for the sensory overwhelm. But that is a part of India – it’s there, right there in your face with no apologies or hiding any embarassing edges, just purely there waiting to be experienced. My bafflement fought with my curisoity, my weariness fought with my delight. I came away with a smile in my heart as it was one of the most exhilarating outings I’d had in a while.
And a part of that exhilaration came from the rickshaw riding. I don’t know how many vehicles there are on Delhi’s streets at any one time. Think of the most that you can imagine and then triple it. And add in a cow or two for good measure. The tarmac of Delhi’s streets is well worn (read: potholes galore). I have been told by taxi drivers and Indian friends that a lot of people (but let me stress not everyone) have a driving license that’s obtained not by taking lessons but by an underhand payment to a government official. There’s also a general impatience on the roads – people want to get to where there going not necessarily fast, but they need to be moving. This includes lots of undertaking into a clear space three lanes over, reversing down a highway because there’s a traffic jam ahead, and going the wrong way around roundabouts. I’ve observed that if you’re a pedestrian using a pedestrian crossing, drivers will very begrudgingly stop but then lean on their horn until the pesky pedestrian has cleared the road. Funnily enough, to counter this, my experience of being a passenger is that I’ve never in my life seen a more vigilent taxi driver – the reflexes needed must rival those of an RAF pilot.
To end this post I’d like to share with you the experience of what it is to ride a rickshaw through the streets of Delhi, but without getting the bruised bottom at the end. Enjoy. Desipte the bruises, I know I did!