Cows are the only creatures that hold their own in New Delhi’s rush hour. A couple of drowsy bovines sleeping in the middle lane of Rajiv Chowk, are soon an island of relative safety for herds of scampering office workers trying to escape the traffic-bound confines of Connaught Place. Red lights don’t mean much, zebra crossings count for less — though there is a local belief they signify government-sponsored funerals. Only cows are sacred.
For the newly arrived visitor to India, the streets of the great cities are living museums and, whether you choose to browse them on foot or be shuttled around by trishaw, the one thing you will need is an ample amount of time.
Delhi should not be tackled in a rush. Its 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. Travel in Delhi might be slow, noisy, sweaty, polluted and nerve-wracking, but it is never boring.
Rattle down Chandni Chowk (‘Moonlit Avenue’) and you’ll 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. Further on is the 800-year-old Hindu GauriShankar Temple, and at the Digambar Temple 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 previousincarnations lie at the end of the Chandni Chowk road.
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 confined within the sandstone battlements offer an escape from the clamour of the nearby bazaar.
The fort is one of the great sights of India and its lawns and fountains are greatly appreciated by Delhi residents as a refuge from the bustle and noise of the streets. Likewise, the gardens of the nearby Jama Masjid or 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 daily through the Lahore Gate to answer the call to prayer. His vehicle of choice was a huge white elephant and it is easy to imagine that even 400 years ago only such a creature could find its way across the hustling traffic that thronged outside the emperor’s front door.
A moment of calm
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 it properly. Here are some suggestions for escaping the hubbub of one of the world’s most frantic cities:
This 350-year-old refuge of palaces, pavilions and museums needs an entire day to explore. The shady lawns are perfect for people-watching.
The largest mosque in India offers a wonderfully relaxing courtyard (perfect escape from the nearby Chandni Chowk bazaar) and the best views over the city from the top of the 40m minaret.
Buddha Jayanti Smarak Park
The sculpted gardens are popular with couples and picnicking families and neighbouring Mahavir Jayanti Park often becomes the venue for the ubiquitous cricket match.
Just 15km south of Delhi is an Afghan-built temple complex (circa 1193), featuring a 73m minaret and a 2000-year-old steel pillar that inexplicably is so pure it has never rusted.
Ignore the jams and blaring horns around you and just sit back and enjoy the show!
The ‘Aggro Express’
I’d spent enough time travelling some of India’s estimated 95,000km of rail to think I had nothing to fear from a simple 240km jaunt to Agra. But as the train rolled into Delhi Junction I saw it was already full. In India this means bursting to capacity, with people hanging out of doors in great bunches, some clinging on only by their fingertips.
Purely for the experience — and out of some naive feeling of solidarity for the Indian masses — I decided that this time I would travel economy class.
An estimated 13 million people ride on Indian rail every day, but I had not expected I would share a carriage with such a large proportion of those masses. Weighed down by a backpack and camera bag, I realised I had no hope of forcing my way into the carriage. Then a pair of well-meaning strap-hangers stepped aside and, amid great laughter from their companions, took me by the elbows and levered me into the sweating, reeling mass of humanity. The economy carriages on what I was already thinking of as the ‘Aggro Express’ could never be described as ‘cattle class’ because in India cattle are treated with a level of respect afforded to only a tiny minority of the most fortunate humans.
But, even here, there was the humour and companionship common in most aspects of Indian community life. Every face I looked at broke into a smile (a sight that might have caused mass panic at 8am on the Tube).
It was hard to believe there was room for any extra people, but we continued to stop at other stations where still more boarded. Somehow they found a few spare inches to sit a buttock on. The doors had probably been jammed open since the time of the Raj but they still served a purpose: two men could perch on top of each door.
Incredibly, a constant procession of vendors managed to weasel their way through, carrying trays of patties or a giant aluminium teapot of cardamom-scented chai. How you could sip a cup of tea in such circumstances I couldn’t imagine, but a precious inch of extra elbowroom was always found for the drinkers.
As we rattled into Agra Fort, an old man with an impressive handlebar moustache leaned toward me 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.
“One more,” he answered.