India Stories Chapter Eight: Glorious Old Delhi


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Chapter Eight: Glorious Old Delhi

Introduction 
Chapter One: A Mass of Humanity 
Chapter Two: A Long Day in Mumbai 
Chapter Three: The Rickshaw 
Chapter Four: A Night Train To Delhi 
Chapter Five: Welcome To French India 
Chapter Six: Into The Light 
Chapter Seven: Light Through A Filigree Lattice

As time passed and Delhi life became comfortable with its Khan Market lunches, Greater Kailash dinners, and the French house, I decided it was time for some exploration outside my usual motor rickshaw circuit. One particularly hot Thursday, Max took the day off and we ventured out of the confines of New Delhi and into the old.

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Founded as Shahjahanabad in 1639, Old Delhi was the capital of the Mughals until the end of the dynasty. Once filled with elegant mosques, gardens, and the mansions of the Royal Court, Old Delhi circa 2009 is an immensely crowded, dilapidated version of that former glory. The train ride from the new to the old is like a time machine transport from the fairly modern to the positively ancient. There were more white cows outside the train station than we'd seen in all of New Delhi combined, and the din and dust of the old city was stifling but strangely enticing. The main tourist attraction, the gigantic Red Fort complex, beckoned from the distance, and though it attracts thousands of tourists a year for its impressive 17th century architecture and extensive grounds, I was drawn to the tiny alleys and crowded streets, and decided to tour the city first.

Rickshaw wallahs shouted “Straight to Red Fort! Only 500 rupees, straight to Red Fort, twenty minute ride!” It took awhile to explain that we wanted the back alley stop-and-go city tour instead. Eventually a boy that looked barely sixteen agreed to the job. I was thrilled, because like I’ve said before in these stories, I love taking bicycle rickshaw rides. Once in the “chariot,” you sit high above the street, and though the seat is usually a bit too vertically positioned and every bump threatens to bounce you into the next guy’s dust-covered lap, the hard-working drivers usually keep a slow enough pace, guaranteeing the opportunity to take some very nice photos.

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Unlike the wide, paved boulevards of New Delhi, the streets of Old Delhi are made of dirt and broken concrete, and about as wide as one and a half rickshaw carts. Locals line these streets on either side, and people dart in and out of the slow moving traffic. Peddlers stare out of their storefronts watching the "procession" file by. It was a very slow journey, and we’d often stall halfway down a street for fifteen minutes or more at a time, move forward a few inches, and then wait a bit longer for traffic to clear. We soon realized that Old Delhi intersections are quite Hobbesian, and if we happened to land behind a feeble old man pulling a vegetable cart while the procession on the other street was led by a motor-powered truck, we’d be waiting awhile.

Through the mazes of people I could make out all kinds of shops. We passed through a paper making district with book binders, wedding stationery specialists, and humble advertising companies. I saw butcher shops the size of closets with men sitting cross-legged under their skinned and bloody catches. We passed an amazing spice market, piled high with every spice in the world, it seemed, and were wheezing and sneezing in no time at all. Men and women scooped their bare hands into the barrels of spice, measuring by fistfuls into their ready cloth bags.

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Old Delhi is home to many more Muslims than the new city, and at some point in the early afternoon we heard the muezzin’s call to prayer in the distance, an intoxicating, beautiful sound. Sensing my delight, our rickshaw wallah asked if we would like to visit the Jama Masjid, the main mosque in Old Delhi. “Of course, of course!” He drove us straight there.

Standing at the front gate of the grand mosque where the sickly, aged, and homeless held out their hands for alms, I felt like a character from an Old Testament bible story. Inside, a large crowd of women in burqas stood silently, drawing me out of my Christian revelry. The mosque itself stood atop a massive flight of stairs, and appeared to me considerably less inviting than, for example, St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. The faithful walked up and down, prayerfully entering and exiting, some pausing for a few minutes to sit and watch or pray, others hurrying on about their days, prayer books in hand.

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Jama Masjid is the best-known mosque in India, and is large enough to hold as many as 25,000 devotees. It has three gateways, four towers, and two minarets, and is built in red sandstone and white marble, making it an incredibly impressive structure. We made our way up the imposing stair, but had to wait to enter at the top since we had arrived mid-prayer. In preparation, we were asked to remove our shoes, and I was given a long robe to put on over my clothing. I had been careful to wear a longer skirt and a modest top with a scarf, but to enter the mosque one was supposed to cover the arms and legs. Thus, I willingly complied to gain entry, and became the  robed pilgrim engulfed in orange.

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After the prayer ended, a throng of men in white tunics filed out noisily, and a group of women walked out behind them. The keeper at the gate told us we had until a half hour before sunset to explore the grounds, and sent us on our way. The first thing one sees upon entering, is the expansive courtyard in the center, the high arches on the prayer rooms to the right and left, and the abundance of pillars, 260 to be exact, scattered carefully throughout the structure. Looking up, one notices the marble domes (15) and the wide staircases disappearing into archways. The halls are covered in heavy red carpets where men sit to talk and pray.

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When Max and I visited, there weren’t many tourists, but some men had stayed after the prayer to converse by the fountain in the courtyard, or to attend scripture class on the porch of the prayer room. We walked around barefoot, quietly observing the practices of the faithful. It was very peaceful with the noise of the city far below, and with prayerful voices filling our ears as we wandered around the holy space.

Eventually we decided to climb one of the towers, and had to ascend several levels before we arrived at the tall stone structure with windows the size of an A4 sheet of paper. From each vantage, we photographed the city spreading out beneath us, and located the places we had just been: the spice market, Chandni Chowk, the Red Fort, and the train station.

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It took us awhile to make it to the top, and at each point, there was a group of people, presumably "mosque staff," waiting to greet us. Some young men waved to us from a rooftop, an older man directed us toward a staircase hidden behind a pillar, and several others pointed at the sun, warning us to be mindful of the time. Once at the top of the tower, we were again greeted by a group of young Indian men who appeared to be idly hanging out. The top of the tower was tiny, and we had to do quite a bit of shuffling around each other and the open staircase to change positions. The young men seemed to be getting a kick out of the situation as the tight quarters made everyone a bit awkward, and also because I let out a little scream every time I had to hop over the giant stairwell hole in my orange robe that was about a foot too long.

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The view from the top was excellent, and it was the first time I'd gotten a real visual of the old city. There is so much life on the streets, and the complex of buildings and districts and quarters buzzed, even from so high above. It didn't look quite so shabby from that vantage, and as the muezzin called out for the prayer after sunset -- we had accidentally overstayed our welcome -- I decided I quite liked Old Delhi.