A Whirlwind of Culture, Joy, and History
12.24.2015 - 12.24.2015 60 °F
In the mid-17th century during the Mughal dynasty, Emperor Shah Jahan built the walled city of Shahjahanabad, the capital of the Mogul empire and later to be known as Old Delhi. Shah Mahan was the fifth Mughal emperor of India, and he also built the Taj Mahal. At it's height, Old Delhi was a beautiful and lush city of the wealthy. It protected palaces, mosques, and gardens. It now is a glorious expression of day-to-day living though utterly dilapidated. The best way to describe it is organized chaos.
There are so many people and their livestock bustling through the streets, one can barely get through. There are markets and street food vendors. Old Delhi is famous for its street food. In fact, there are rarely sit-down restaurants, because people seem to just stop in the middle of the street at a preferred vendor whenever their stomach calls, to share a small bite with any other unknown locals who've stopped at the same vendor to stand and eat the delicatessen. We ate street food all day in Old Delhi and never got sick. Although each vendor was pre-selected by our tour guide, Anju.
It would seem impossible to truly understand Old Delhi or even navigate it safely without a tour guide. We found ours on trip advisor. It's a group of friends born and raised in Old Delhi who've worked and lived abroad and returned to the town that they love. They are clearly passionate about sharing Old Delhi's history and ensuring that visitors see the truly beautiful side of India to balance out the impression many tourists get of the trickery, selfishness, and rudeness related to the experiences we shared in New Delhi. Having a local tour guide made life so much easier and gave us enough peace of mind to really listen, eat, and learn without constant harassment. Anju, our guide, would ensure that we were left alone.
One of the first things we learned about Old Delhi is that it truly is a chosen way of life. Some street vendors make more money than the middle class in New Delhi in addition to not paying taxes, and still choose to live in the small, dilapidated apartment they grew up in with another family. Anju showed us a street vendor that was making approximately 6,000 rupees per day (about US $ 100). That's more than the median income in America, but he lives in a place where a metro ticket can cost 10 rupees (about 16 US cents) and lunch might be 50 rupees (a little less than US $ 1) - so the cost of living is quite low. The man we saw works his food cart every day in the same coveted location, rain or shine, and doesn't appear to spend his money. He wears dirty and tattered clothes and lives in the same small apartment he grew up in. He clearly is comfortable, in fact joyful, where he is and is content to maintain the same life he knows.
Many people in Old Delhi do not pay rent. They are essentially squatters in abandoned Havelis. Havelis are mansions traditionally of the merchant class. They have a central courtyard, usually open to the sky, surrounded by 10 to 30 rooms housing extended family. They are multiple stories high and gated. Over time, parts of the extended families would move away from Old Delhi, not contribute financially to the upkeep, and demand a portion of payment when the dilapidated mansion was forced into sale. In between dilapidation and being able to sell the Haveli, many locals will move into the abandoned location and then become very difficult legally to evict. The Haveli owner we joined for dinner as part of our tour explained that it took over 15 years to legally clear his family's Haveli for full ownership. He restored his Haveli, and it's stunning. He also modernized parts of such as the bathroom and other areas.
A common past time in India is training and racing pigeons. Basically one acquires, breeds, and trains pigeons to fly in groups in the sky and trick/confuse/entice pigeons from other groups to fly into and with their group back to their owner. That owner has now essentially captured the pigeon, usually belonging to someone else who was training that pigeon. Then the pigeons owner has to retrieve his captured pigeon for rupees or wounded pride for having lost a pigeon. We stood on a rooftop and watched pigeons training in the morning. You could see at least five different groups of pigeons flying together and gathering at different locations upon loud calls from their owner/trainer. Kurt said it reminded him of the television show The Wire where drug dealers use pigeon training for communication. The kid version of pigeon training is called kiting, were kids will lace their kite string with small pieces of glass. Two or more kids will get on their roofs and fly their kites 20 to 400 feet in the sky. They will try to ensnare the other kid's kite string with theirs in order to cut the string and force the kite to the ground. They may try to retrieve the kite for themselves, or simply bask in the victory of being the remaining flying kite. We saw kids kiting on rooftops all over India, and they get so much joy from it.
Some of the street food we tried throughout the day was a leavened, sort of whipped egg, Samosas with chili sauce, pure (bread fried in ghee/butter) and dal (lentils in stew/sauce), a sweet cashew and carrot paste, sweet rice porridge served by a lovely woman who invited us into her home, pan leaves with herbal/aromatic sauce (rose, menthol, sometime tobacco), bread with egg (I think it's called piranha), indian nachos (no idea what they are called but they are so flavorful with a tamarind sauce, spicy mint sauce, and yogurt sauce), and an ice cream bar tasting sort of like butter. We ended the day with a vegetarian dinner at Druhv's house who manages the tours. Druhv restored his families Haveli and many years and much work and has collected many artifacts and history in his Haveli to share with visitors.
The newest experience for us was being invited into both a Hindu temple as well as a Sikh temple. Our tour guide wanted to make sure we understood the role of Hinduism in many Indian lives. She took us to an old HIndu temple while people were coming in and out to pray and make offerings. She explained the different mythological deities and walked us through a traditional encounter at the temple. We took off our shoes to enter, of course, received a tikal and blessing from the spiritual leader at the temple. It is our understanding that this is support focus of the sixth Chaka, or third eye. We rang the large bell before leaving.
Later in the day we visited the historic Sikh temple Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib. Many Indians say that Sikhism derives from Hinduism, however Sikhs do not believe that they are Hindus. Sikhism is a monotheistic belief and follows more conservative/strict lifestyle than most Hindus. Sikh men wear a cover over their head to cover their hair, which they never cut. They also carry a dagger on them at all times as part of the 5 main symbols of Sikh values and beliefs. For this reason Sikhs can be confused for Muslims, but they are not. It is a relatively new religion of a little over 300 years. The people of the temple were welcoming. Before entering we needed to cover our heads (men and women), remove our shoes, and then wash our feet in the small pool at the entrance of the temple. While we entered a few men were giving a sermon on a small platform while listeners were sitting on the carpeted floor. Behind the sermon room, was a full scale kitchen. We walked through with our tour guide who explained that Sikhs prepare food every day for anyone of the public who would like it. They use the purest and simplest of ingredients, and through donations and Sikh acts of service hundreds of people are fed each day for free. There were SIkhs cooking food, serving food, and washing all of the dishes. The people eating the food ranged from destitute to well off traveling Sikhs to locals with children. It was an extremely generous and compassionate vibe throughout the temple spaces.
A couple of other highlights from our tour of Old Delhi included a brief and unplanned cow and carriage ride, walking through the fragrant spice bazaar, and Kurt getting to know an Indian Baby.