Delhi 2

 

 

The Indian road system has been described as complete anarchy, but this is far from the truth. There is a distinct and inviolable pecking order in an Indian rush hour. Here, even more than elsewhere, size really matters. Buses are top of the heap, followed by trucks, taxis and cars. (Those with official number-plates, flags, or just a conspicuous absence of dents, take precedence in this last group). Then come the legions of whining mopeds, motorised Bajaj rickshaws, horse-drawn carts, cycle trishaws and rickshaws. At either extreme of the hierarchy are a) cattle and z) pedestrians.


Cows are the only creatures that can hold their own in the Delhi rush hour. A couple of drowsy, cud-chewing bovines, sleeping in the middle lane of Rajiv Chowk, will soon become an island of relative safety for herds of scampering office-workers trying to escape the traffic-bound confines of Connaught Place. Red lights mean nothing, zebra crossings mean less – though there is a tradition that they signify free (ie. government-sponsored) funerals. Amongst the terrifying mayhem of the Delhi rush-hour only cows are sacred.


Travel in Delhi might be slow, noisy, sweaty, polluted and nerve-wracking but it can never be boring. To the newly arrived visitor the streets of the great Indian cities are living museums and, whether you choose to browse them on foot or to be shuttled around by trishaw, the one thing you will need is an ample supply of time. You stop one of the cycle trishaw riders in the ‘backpacker ghetto’ of Pahar Ganj and, after a moment’s cursory haggle for form’s sake (you can always tip afterwards but at least you have established a fair rate) you set off through the back streets towards Chandni Chowk bazaar. This is a ride through the heart of Old Delhi and it constitutes what is quite probably one of Asia’s greatest urban adventures.


The trishaw rider weaves skilfully through the tangled mass of humanity, animals and battered Tata metalwork and you cruise past saffron-robed sadhus, trading blessings for alms in the shade of a venerable banyan tree. A paan (betel nut) vendor sits cross-legged in his box-like stall. Next door a coal fire and a battered aluminium pot are the tools of trade of a purveyor of the deliciously spicy chai masala tea and a roadside barber plies his trade with just a bar of soap and a few old blades. Off-duty trishaw wallahs sleep stretched out across their ‘vehicles’ amid a small herd of similarly off-duty draught oxen.


Shortly after exiting the little narrow alley of Farash Khana the roofs of the shop-houses are split by the minarets of Jama Masjid where the inhabitants of the Muslim quarter petition an improvement to their lot on a wing and a prayer. Further on you pass the Gauri Shankar Temple where the Hindus have done the same for the last 800 years, and the Digambar Temple where the Jains perform charitable works on injured pigeons.


Delhi, like everything else in India, is caught in an endless round of reincarnation and some of the most impressive evidence of previous incarnations lies at the end of Chandni Chowk. Above the bleating taxis and the bobbing heads of rickshaw boys the Red Fort appears like an ancient, rusting battleship left high-and-dry on the banks of the Yamuna River. Built in 1648, at the height of the Mughal Empire, the collection of parks and palaces that are confined within the sandstone battlements offer an escape from the clamour of the bazaar.

In the old days the Mughal Emperor would parade out daily through the Lahore Gate to answer the prayer call. His vehicle of choice was a huge white elephant. It is easy to imagine that, even four hundred years ago, it was only such a creature that could find its way across the hustling traffic of Old Delhi.

 

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh