Symphony No.1 – OLD DELHI
The first timer visiting India and New Delhi in particular, might be tempted to mistake the cacophony of noise, bustle and frenetic movement as the epitome of chaos, and disorganisation, but, I would challenge them to look a little deeper, for if they do, they will see something way more symphonic. It is a self-guided masterpiece of flow and movement that seems to be conducted from a collective consciousness that every Indian living there seems to know and share intimately. It is here also where stories connect and their sheer momentum carries their energies to bridge the perceived boundaries of culture and history and none so vividly as that of our host and guide, Sherpa Kuldeep. He is walking us through his living his-story of Old Delhi.
It is 10:30 am and Old Delhi is just starting to come to life. These are our first real steps into India and as we leave Jama Masjid Mosque, one of the astounding and iconic architectural marvels of the Shah Jahan era, our sights and sounds are given life and meaning through Kuldeep’s storytelling.
Walking down the first of many narrow laneways to come, we learn how the same symphonic influence composed these streets, with their merchant-clustered groups, trades handed down from generation to generation. This area is known as Chandni Chowk or Moonlight Square. While built by the famous Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, it was designed by his daughter Jahan Ara, a woman who held such great favour with the emperor as to indelibly influence the direction the empire took.
Chandni Chowk is filled with crowded, narrow and pushed-together thorough-ways. Where the road runs, it was once divided by flowing water canals, from which the place derived its name, as the moonlight glistened on its reflection. I can only imagine what that place might have looked like in comparison to today, because, like so many things in Indian history, it has been washed away by the ever changing tides of rulers and rules. Kuldeep paints a striking vision for us, however, his impeccable local knowledge of all the nooks and crannies bring history to life in a way no documentary can.
Our first stop is the street of the Firework merchants, where all sorts of festive crackers are available for sale. Dad speaks, “Fire Crackers are legal?” and this seems like a bit of a beginner question when considering all the festivities of Hindu life. “Why yes!” responds Kuldeep, almost matter of factly.
Soon we turn left onto a very narrow lane. While it looks like a walking thoroughfare only, we are quickly reminded by the honk of horns and the ‘excuse me-s ’ that there are no restrictions here from the types of traffic traversing these lanes. Wallas of all sorts, selling their wares pull heavy carts through the street, with the narrowest margin for error, being the difference between successfully navigating the lane and running into the shops or people sitting around them.
But there is that symphony again, playing in my ear and we are starting to feel the 3/4 timing of it, as we slowly waltz down the alleyway. The only thing that catches me off-guard is a duck being squashed. No, not literally, but rather from a Moped that whizzes by us and honks. The sound it makes is just as if they had carefully fit and squashed a duck being stood on, into the horn mechanism.
We move on, the silver merchants’ lane proceeds to take us ever deeper into the Chowk. Here we find every type of artistry and artisan quality silver work, so intricately engraved in some instances that you would not be surprised to see a “By appointment of HRH QEII” embossed on their labels. Next, it is the place where everyone in New Delhi comes to Old Delhi to adorn themselves in their wedding pageantry. It is wedding lane and no one shop is the same; each has its own niche of that particular adornment that is necessary for a happy wedding. There are even headdress pieces made of real Indian currency in the form of 100 Rupee notes.
As quickly as we entered, we turn left and before us is Parathe Wali Gali , where every imaginable and even unimaginable variety of roti is being fried up. Yes, fried. Normally roti is cooked in a Tandoor or on a hot plate, but here, the speciality is deep fried roti, probably enough to send cholesterol levels spiralling out of control, but Kuldeep assures us that their extra crispy taste makes it all worthwhile.
Another turn sees us on Balmaran Street and examples of every type of footwear known to humankind hang from the building facades. Here there is no chance for us to be flatfooted as the density of movement seemed to increase the timing of the symphony.
As we walk deeper, Kuldeep shows us the Havelis, the term used to describe the dense townhouses that have been blocked together over time and dynasties, to enclose this highly coveted area of land. In some areas the buildings have been so thick and densely constructed, that no light is left to penetrate the streets of the Haveli. He explains that we can see the age of the Haveli buildings from the thickness of the bricks. The very thin bricks are well over one hundred years old, dating back to construction in the mid to late 19th century while the other ones resembling your standard sized house brick are from the last century onwards.
That symphony kicks in again as we learn of how partition in 1947 had its hand in the modern composition of this Chowk. Many of the artisans and merchants living here were Muslim, the descendants of the Mughal culture with their Urdu language and its rich Persian script. On one morning in 1947, after countless generations of living there, they are told they have one week to take only what they can carry and leave for the newly formed Pakistan. Many have very little in common at all with the new state, their whole lives and everything that they have known has revolved around these few square blocks of the Chowk. Like so many others, they are forced to leave it all behind and build a new life, so many losing their lives in the violence of this transition. I cannot help but reflect on our journey here for a moment and how little possessions mean to us. This place draws me to the concept of home – being within the loving bounds of my family, who walk with me now. Home is where my family is and I am home now.
We turn again and here Kuldeep’s knowledge gifts us with another surprise as we enter the most famous Haveli of them all. It is the home of the poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, considered by many to be the greatest poet of the written word, perhaps, even more profound in his art thanThe Bard himself. He too speaks of love in a way that captures an essence that seems to transcend the everyday common struggles of life. There, I see it on the wall of his home. One of his translated poems reveals to me the secret score behind the score that has composed this flow that I have continually experienced today.
From here we make our way back out of the maze of the Havelis and into the spice market itself. Spices, the richness of India, one of the reasons it was always so highly coveted, stand before me in every form imaginable. Turmeric, Cardamon, Coriander Seeds, Cumin, Pepper Corns, Sultanas, Dried Mango, Raw and Roasted cashew nuts, almost the size of elephant trunks.
We turn into a very small alleyway and the sting of something unfamiliar starts to irritate my throat. I clear it with a cough, but almost in an instant it is there again. I am forced to cough this time. I am wondering what this is and then I see it. We are in the den of chillies, where chillies of every kind are being vended. As I look down the dimly lit alleyway, the light from the far end reveals a fine dust is floating throughout this enclosed part of the market. Cough becomes splutter, splutter becomes mucus and this signals our need to rapidly exit this capsicum spray alleyway filled with its red colours. Finally a breath of fresh air!
The symphony has taken us over 8 kilometers and three hours to play itself out. Kuldeep, giving all his knowledge to us freely, now has to make his way back to his car. He suggests that we experience our first Tuk-Tuk ride in India and immediately hails one that will fit all four of us and he hops right in next to the driver. It is building. The peak of this symphony is reaching its crescendo as we zig and swerve, zag and sway through the main road of the Chowk.
We are back to the start in almost an instant as if our Tuk-Tuk driver found light speed on his gearbox. It gives us just enough time to visit Jama Masjid Mosque before the faithful are called to prayer. This too is a lesson in some of the greatest advances architecture experienced, with perfect dome based structures with their symmetry drawing the eyes’ admiration.
As we exit, Kuldeep is waiting for us. He is about to head into work now. Leading people through these streets comes from a deep passion and love for sharing living stories and experiences. It is Kuldeep’s passion to be able to make these experiences his full-time work and he is working very hard to make this dream come true. One of the ways it is possible for everyone who visits India to have an out of the ordinary experience like the one we have had with Kuldeep, is through SeekSherpa.com.
SeekSherpa.com is a brilliant peer-to-peer platform that connects people visiting India with genuine local people, who have a keen interest and desire for sharing their experiences, their inside knowledge, their stories, their very own symphonies. Called Sherpas, these guides host people with the intention of showing them Their India and for us today, this experience could not have been a better introduction to the country that has been calling us for many years now. If not for SeekSherpa.com, we would not have made the deep friendship we now share with Kuldeep.
Later that evening we meet up again with Kuldeep and enjoy a meal together at Chor Bizzare, or Thieves Market, a brilliant restaurant decorated with items bought from a thieves’ market. This way, no two items, tables, chairs are the same. One table is a former bed, another is a Singer Sewing Machine, the one we sit at presents has a beautiful relief carving for its top.
It even has its very own 1918 Fiat parked right at the back of the restaurant floor.
But more interesting here is the food. It is not to be missed.
Kuldeep used to work in this very hotel five years ago and it is a testament to the warmth and genuine nature of this man with how much respect and admiration he is received with. The symphony comes to its close just like it started, only in reverse, with the soft lilting strings playing their last few notes, the woodwind and brass descending into Sotto voce and our bidding farewell to our storyteller, our Sherpa, our host, and now our good friend Kuldeep. I can honestly say that I could not have imagined a more perfect first day for India.