Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Into the Old City

What a spectacular day.  So many experiences, I hardly know where to begin, so to make things simple, I'll aim for chronological order.

I met my guide at the appointed time.  Well, early actually.  I am pathologically early.  To begin the day, we left the relative spaciousness of New Delhi and drove into old Delhi, stopping first at the Jama Masjid, a mosque built by Shah Jahan, the same man who built the Taj Mahal.  To enter, you must remove your shoes, and all the women were given a slip-on full-body covering, so I found myself swathed in red with tiny white polka dots that was so long I could hardly walk without stepping on the hem.  The architecture is stunning. Apparently, Shah Jahan was a student of architecture himself, and was deeply involved in the planning of his monuments.  The mosque's courtyard is covered with square slabs of red sandstone, each designed to hold one person praying. There are 25,000 squares. That's a LOT of people!

After the masjid came the first true highlight of the day--a bicycle rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk, the ancient market.  Chandni means full moon, and the market originated as a night market, and continues to function quite late into the evening. At the relatively early hour we went through, there were many shops with their metal screens still closed for the day.

I desperately wish that I could transfer the images from my camera to the Kindle.  In the bicycle rickshaw, everything is right there.  I should have thought to take some video footage.  The pedestrians, other rickshaws, carts, motorcycles, and even cars all cram through lanes so narrow I hardly believed that we all fit.  At one point, another rickshaw got its wheel stuck in the one next to mine, but it was quickly sorted and we were back on our way.

Electrical wires hang like spaghetti-inspired kudzu, draping the narrow spaces between buildings and clumped into black-and-gray bouquets of short circuits you can't quite believe aren't happening.  The smells are overwhelming.  This was the first time I had to use my scarf to cover my nose for a few breaths' respite now and then.  Dogs are everywhere.

The chowk is divided into sections by what is sold in them.  We rode through markets of sari trim, chappals (sandals), optometrists, jewelry, and wedding invitation printers.  So many colors everywhere!  At the spice market, we got out and Hitesh took me on a walk among the many spice vendors.  I couldn't begin to recognize most of the merchandise.  I'm so used to spices being jars of ground-up powder.  It was fascinating to see them laid out in open sacks for purchase.  The smells here were overwhelming as well, but in an entirely pleasant way.

I got cut off at one point and ended up a little behind Hitesh.  When I caught up--he'd noticed I vanished and waited--he told me that I should never come to this place alone.  Because I was with him, people were not pestering me, but by myself I'd draw people very quickly.  I'm sure he's right, but honestly I never felt unsafe at any time.  Of course, I was only on my own for maybe thirty seconds, brave traveler that I am.  Heh.

Despite the chaos, I found myself grinning like a fool for the entirety of the rickshaw ride.  Everything just felt so very alive!

Next on the agenda was a visit to the Raj Ghat--the cremation place of Mahatma Gandhi.  The site is an oasis of calm.  Wide lawns, roses, bougainvillea, and eucalyptus trees.  Once more it was time to take off shoes, and this time I left them with Hitesh and went in to see the ghat on my own.  It's a black marble slab, decked with flowers, with an eternally burning flame.  There are words on the stone written in Hindi, and I was proud to discover I could read them.  Hai Ram.  Gandhi's last words after he was shot.

By now it was getting very hot.  I've been trying not to drink too much water, because bathrooms are a bit sketchy for finding, so I was starting to get a bit overheated.  The AC in the car helped a lot, but when we arrived at our last stop, the Qutub Minar Complex, I was afraid I wouldn't have the stamina to do it much justice.  Turns out, the ruins are spectacular, and I couldn't help myself from exploring them fully, and taking lots of pictures in the process.  The Qutub Minar was apparently the first minaret in the region (dated 1192).  It's very tall and impressive and, like many things in the region, made of red sandstone.

The man who built the mosque there (I've forgotten his name--will ask Hitesh in the morning) was in a large hurry to do so, and as a method for speeding things up, he had many Hindu and Jain temples torn down to use for materials.  Hence, we now have the ruins of an Islamic mosque (wherein iconography is forbidden), filled with pillars carved full of Hindu and Jain imagery.  It's an astonishing thing to see.

The ruins of the mosque, and the associated school and other buildings, including a partially built second minar, are captivating.  So many layers of red walls, casting the next into relief.  The shadows and light, the views of the minar through free-standing archways . . . if I hadn't been so hot and lightheaded I could have kept exploring for a very long time.  As it is, it was the better choice to return to the hotel and drink all the water, and recover for tomorrow, when we leave early to head for Agra.  Taj Mahal coming soon!

Two small things today were special highlights, both involving language.  First, at the Qutub complex, after Hitesh bought the tickets, he came to get me and said, "Chalo."  And, of course, I knew exactly what that meant.  "Let's go."  I appreciate that he is giving me the opportunity to make use of my (minimal) knowledge of Hindi.  (New word for the day--nai, barbershop.  About as useful as goli, bullet.)

Second, at the Raj Ghat, I went to use the washroom. There was a line, and several Indian women.  They were very concerned and wanted to be sure that I understood that there was no commode--in other words, no Western-style toilets.  I was able to tell them, "Teek hai, dhanyavad."  ("It's okay, thank you.")  They wanted to know where I was from and were very friendly.  When I left, they were outside and they waved and smiled, and seemed befuddled by this western woman who spoke a little Hindi and didn't mind having to use the Indian toilets.  Really made me happy.  Success!

1 comment:

  1. So did you take a picture of the Indian toilets?

    Seriously, it's such a bummer you can't load the pictures.