Holy Cow

 

 

The thrills and spills of  the great Indian Rush-hour by Mark Eveleigh

Dodgin’ through Delhi:

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, motor 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 New 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 local belief that they signify free (ie. government-sponsored) funerals. Only cows are sacred.

 

Delhi is not a city that should be tackled in a rush; the city’s streets are among the world’s most congested and the real soul of Old Delhi only betrays itself to those who take time to entangle themselves in its web. It has been said that if you stand long enough on one of the busy corners in the exotic labyrinth of Chandni Chowk Bazaar the entire world will eventually pass before your eyes. While this may be an exaggeration the Indian capital is certainly one of the most enthralling places in the world for people watching.

One day there might conceivably be a quick way to get across Old Delhi but for now the construction of the metro system does nothing more than add to the congestion. 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. As you rattle down Chandni Chowk (‘Moonlit Avenue’) you cruise past cross-legged betel nut vendors and sidewalk barbers who ply their trade with just a bar of soap and a few old blades. Off-duty trishaw wallahs doze on the floor of their vehicles rather than contaminate the seats for potential high caste passengers and saffron-robed sadhus trade blessings for alms in the shade of a venerable banyan tree.

Eventually, the roofs of the pastel-coloured shop-houses are split by the minarets of Jama Masjid where the inhabitants of the Muslim quarter petition for 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 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 trishaw 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 nearby bazaar.

This Red Fort one of the great sights of India and its lawns and fountains are greatly appreciated by Delhi-ites as a refuge from the bustle and clamour of the streets. Likewise the gardens of the nearby Friday Mosque (India’s biggest and a worthy contemporary of the Taj Mahal) are perpetually commandeered for that other great Indian religion: cricket.

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 and 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 that thronged outside his front.

 

Relaxing on ‘the Happy Ant Heap’:

While the breathless excitement of an Indian city lies in the tangled web of its streets, a quiet refuge is vital if you are going to appreciate them properly. Hear are 5 suggestion for escaping the hubbub of one of the world’s most frantic cities:

•           Red Fort – a 350 year-old refuge of palaces, pavilions and museums that would need an entire day to explore fully. The shady lawns are perfect for just kicking back and people-watching.

•           Jama Masjid – the largest mosque in India also offers a wonderfully relaxing courtyard (perfect escape from nearby Chandni Chowk Bazaar) and the best views over the city from the top of the 40-metre minaret.

•           The sculpted gardens in Buddha Jayanti Smarak Park are most popular with couples and picnicking families and neighbouring Mahavir Jayanti Park often becomes the venue for the ubiquitous cricket matches.

•           Qutb Minar – 15km south of Delhi is an Afghan built temple complex (circa 1193), featuring a 73-metre minaret and a 2000 year-old steel pillar that inexplicably is so pure that it has never rusted.

•           Or take an hour’s tour, sit back in a trishaw, ignore the jams and blaring horns around you and just enjoy the show!

 

The Agra Agro Express:

I had spent enough time travelling some of India’s estimated 60,000 miles of rail to think that I had nothing to fear from a simple 150-mile jaunt to Agra. But as the train rolled in to Delhi Junction I saw that it was already full. In India ‘full’ means bursting to capacity…and way, way beyond. People hung out of the doors in great bunches, some clinging only by fingertips. Purely for the experience – and out of some naïve feeling of solidarity for the Indian masses – I had decided that this time I would travel economy class.

An estimated thirteen million people ride on Indian rail every day but I had not expected that I would be sharing a carriage with such a large proportion of those masses. Weighed down by a backpack and camera-bag I realised that I had no hope whatsoever of forcing my way inside the carriage. Then a pair of well-meaning straphangers stepped aside and, amid great laughter from their companions, took me by the elbows and levered me into the sweating, reeling mass of humanity. To say that they were packed like sardines would not do it justice. And the economy carriages on what I was already thinking of as ‘the Agro Express’ could never be described as ‘cattle class’ either: in India cattle are treated with a level of respect that is afforded only to a tiny minority of the most fortunate in the human race.

But, even here, there was the good humour and companionship that is usual in most aspects of Indian community life. Every face I looked at broke into a beaming smile (a sight that might have provoked mass panic at 8am on the Circle Line). It was hard to believe that there was room for a single extra person but we stopped at other stations and still more boarded. Somehow they found a few spare inches to perch a buttock on the edge of the overhead luggage racks. The doors had probably been jammed open since the time of the Raj but they still served a purpose: on top of each door it was possible for two men to perch, swaying like crows in a gale. Incredibly a constant procession of vendors managed to weasel their way through this mass carrying trays of patties or a giant aluminium teapot of cardamom-scented chai.

How you could attempt to sip a cup of tea in such circumstances I couldn’t imagine but a precious inch of extra elbowroom was always found for drinkers. As we rattled into Agra Fort an old man with impressive handlebar moustaches leaned forward with a twinkle in his eye:

“Here’s a question for you,” he said. “How many passengers can you get in an Indian railway carriage?”

I shook a befuddled head.

“…Answer: one more.”


By Mark Eveleigh