There’s a grey-white haze that’s been covering Delhiy since October 28. We arrived just in time for it. It’s a toxic cocktail of poisonous gases. A safe limit of particulates in the air is 100. On November first and second it ranged between 638 and 1440. And hasn’t yet improved. It’s the worst smog ever in Delhi. Oh joy.
Day two in India: A tour through Old Delhi with Dhruv Gupta, whose family has lived here for many generations. This part of Delhi used to have many mansions known as havelis. Dhruv’s haveli is the only one left that has not been divided up into apartments, or torn down. It has seventeen rooms. But I’ll start at the beginning. We met at the centre of Chawri Bazaar – the largest wholesale market in Asia that covers acres – a rabbit warren of crowded narrow streets. Dhruv points out a street-food vendor and asks us to guess how much money he makes per day. I make a wild and completely wrong guess at about $6, Don says more, Julie guesses a hundred I think. It turns out it’s closer to $300. Per day. Seven days per week. That’s over $8000 per month. Staggering. The guy selling chai makes even more per day. It’s phenomenal, and opened our eyes to a completely different way of seeing the seething crowded dusty industrious mass of humanity all around us.
Nearly one and a half million people pass through this part of Delhi every day carrying out their business. If only 8,000 of them buy just one glass of chai (and Indians love their chai) at 5 rupees, that’s 40,000 rupees (approximately $US750), less expenses. And he would probably need help to churn out that many glasses of chai over, let’s say, a ten hour day, but still, either way, these guys make a good living. They live well, if not in the way a westerner would do it, and they send money to their relatives in the villages. It’s a whole different way of doing life. They don’t take days off. It probably wouldn’t occur to them to do that, but clearly they are not living in the poverty we imagined. In this part of Delhi anyway.
We wandered around the maze of streets, poking our noses into various shops, trying the delicious street food, riding in a rickshaw, and finally ending up at Dhruv’s haveli for a tour of the mansion. From the outside it’s just another building down a narrow dusty alleyway. Then you walk inside to a whole other world, serene and quiet and beautiful. And a fabulous meal. This was a good day. One of the best. Enlivening and enriching and informative and fun. I don’t usually do plugs, but if you’re ever in Delhi take this tour. It’s listed on Tripadvisor as one of the best tours in Delhi, and deservedly so. Look for Masterji Kee Haveli.
Here you can see the remnants of one of the original havelis
Walking home from school
Inside the haveli
The central open-air courtyard
We’ve been exploring all over Delhi – down the crowded narrow alleyways of the wholesale spice market, in the crush amongst the thousands pouring through the metro on a day when a political rally was being held, down through more crowded narrow alleys to the tomb of Nizamuddin on a night of special tribute and prayer, then through areas of crushing poverty, and always crowds, and the traffic endless, and horns blaring and loudspeakers blaring, and the thick smog hanging over it all. It’s a kind of madness really. Delhi is a kind of madness. We’re in what’s probably a lower middle class residential neighbourhood, and it’s reasonably quiet, and our hotel room is an oasis of calm. I think I’d go nuts without it. At the same time to experience Delhi is breathtaking, mind blowing, mind numbing, exhilarating and exhausting. It’s overwhelming, and at the same time so extraordinary and exciting that every day we head out into it for more.
We took a ride to see two of the great wonders of Delhi: Humayun’s Tomb, which looks a lot like the Taj Mahal only brown, and the shrine of the great Sufi saint Nizamuddin. Humayun’s Tomb was a wonder to behold, but the highlight of the evening was our visit to Nizamuddin’s shrine. We’d read that there would be Sufi chanting beginning at sunset so we hurried there from Humayun’s Tomb, right across a busy main road. Just getting across on a marked cross walk, even with a police escort stopping the onrushing hordes of cars and rickshaws, was stimulating to say the least as we played chicken all the way across.
The entrance to the mosque is down an alley filled with vendors and beggars. After running that gauntlet we arrived at the beginning of a maze of alleyways that leads into the shrine. We were commanded to remove our shoes, and no we couldn’t just put them in our packs, we had to leave them there with dozens of other pairs of shoes. I was ready to turn back at this point, but my valiant companions would have none of it, so saying a silent goodbye to my shoes, we pressed on.
The very next moment my brother-in-law, Robbie, and I were each handed a pile of beautiful cloths, interspersed with cardboard plates of rose petals, and had white skull caps jammed on our heads. Meanwhile Alison and Julie were given head scarves to wear. After that we were allowed to proceed along past dozens of stalls on both sides of the crowded alley selling a wide variety of religious objects. On and on we went until eventually we came to the shrine itself. A man then came up to us and directed the ladies in one direction and us guys into a room containing what was probably the tomb of a saint. We were directed to spread our cloths over the tomb and sprinkle the rose petals on top of them, layer after layer of cloths and rose petals. Men only, praying, walking around the tomb. Once back outside we were given more cloths and more plates of rose petals and directed to a second tomb, that of Nizamuddin, where we repeated the same procedure. The women could watch us through the stone grid-work, and do their own circumambulation of the tomb on the outside.
Sufi men in white robes and skullcaps, Sufi women and children dressed in their finest clothes: what a feast for the eyes and the camera lenses! Somewhat to my surprise there were no restrictions on taking photos, and many people welcomed being photographed, even women dressed completely in black from head to toe with only their sparkling eyes showing.
In front of the tomb was a large space to sit, so I sat and watched the passing parade. Every now and then a man with a green flag on the end of a long pole would come through the crowd sweeping the flag through the air creating a great wind that felt as if he was sweeping away the evil spirits. He had great energy and enthusiasm for what he was doing. There was another man going through the crowd making sure that no-one was pointing his or her feet at the tomb: cross-legged sitting or tucking the feet under was all that was permitted.
We gradually came to understand that we’d happened to arrive on an evening when there was not going to be any Sufi singing because it was a special celebration, the nature of which we never did discover. By about 8:30pm we were ready to leave, and in urgent need of sustenance. We asked around and were directed to Karim’s, an excellent restaurant close to the shrine, where we dined sumptuously. By that time we were all pretty tired so we found a real taxi with four wheels, windows and a roof and for 500 rupees ($10) we were transported back to our hotel, with only three stops along the way for the driver to get directions! That’s India darling!
We plunged in here
Leading to here
Then here – it’s getting very narrow and crowded. We are swept along by the crowd. We have no idea where we are going, or to what. We just keep moving forward.
Finally it opens into a big crowded space in front of Nizamuddin’s tomb. Here are the men in the inner sanctum, right at the tomb, laying down the cloths and rose petals.
And in the space all around are people talking and praying and laughing and playing. So colourful and such rich beautiful energy. Don took this photo of me – I felt right at home, my heart over-flowing with joy. It was as if we’d all discovered something secret and magical.
And I took these photos of all the beautiful people all around me
Next post: The madness of the wholesale spice market, the Phool Waalon Ki Sair festival, and a visit to the Red Fort.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.