Going to Delhi without visiting Chandni Chowk, the heart of the smoking, smelling, colourful, and chaotic Old Delhi, is like travel to Athens and missing out on the Acropolis. This is where the real street life of Delhi take form, so different from the New Delhi the Englishmen built around Connaught Place. But it’s not until you take a walk behind the scene of the busy market that things get really interesting. In the most surprising ways.
I arrived to Delhi an early morning in February. The mild spring weather made it warm enough for a T-shirt, yet pleasantly cool for a day spent in the city. The air was surprisingly fresh in a place so often clouded by a thick layer of smog. I was on my way to Chandni Chowk, the oldest market in Delhi, and eager to finally see the chaotic kind of India that so often pop up in mind.
As I arrived to the market, I was unexpectedly approached by a man. He instantly made me a bit nervous, as he looked like a mix between a hot-tempered Indian salesman and a Russian torpedo. One of his eyes looked straight at me, while the other one, being slightly misaligned, seemed more interested in the brand new camera dangling around my neck.
I looked him in the eyes. He hesitated for a while, as he was going to tell me a secret. “I’ll show you the hidden market”, he whispered. It was a strange interaction. “What do you mean by hidden?”, I asked, suddenly a bit curious. A big smile appeared on his face. “Follow me”, he said.
My self-declared guide waved his hand towards a myriad of people. He was right. This was the real Delhi.
I was taken to a part of Delhi completely invisible for an outsider. Into the alleys behind the market, a mish-mash of street vendors, bicycles shops, hairdressers, food stalls, bicycle shops, and small cafés under laundry decorated balconies opened up a world of its own.
“This is the market behind the market”, my self-declared guide proudly explained. “It’s where the locals meet, eat and spend their days. This is the real Delhi, not a facade constructed for the tourists”, he waved his hand towards a myriad of people. He was right. This was the real Delhi.
As the day went on I eventually got the question I somewhat had dreaded for. “Are you hungry?”, my escort asked, in an almost aggressive way. It was a rhetoric question with only one answer. A decline would be an insult and probably ruin the friendly relationship I finally established. On the other hand, getting food poisoned in India is something you don’t even wish your worst enemy.
I was a textbook example on how to avoid diarrhea in a country where everyone gets diarrhea. I even held my breath during showers to avoid water in my mouth.
After all, I had spent the previous days on a strict diet; no ice, no salads, and definitely no street food. I was a textbook example on how to avoid diarrhea in a country where everyone gets diarrhea. I even held my breath during showers to avoid water in my mouth. Fortunately, I didn’t had time to answer before I was taken on a culinary journey beyond imagination.
The food lingo streamed out of his mouth as we walked along the street. Panipuri, a crisp fried snack with chili and tamarind chutney, Aaloo Tikki, boiled potatoes in curry, and Vada Pav, a popular vegetarian street dish made of dumplings. Not to mention the line of people who were queuing up in a street corner for a cup of fresh…milk. It was a show without ending.
The next door neighbour had a complete kitchen constructed in the street, ready to cook for friends, family and the occasionally stranger walking by.
I passed a man with a bunch of tennis balls on a table. Or so I thought. Known as Ram Laddu, the yellow balls were filled with split gram and served with radish and green chutney. Spicy and salty. And the next door neighbour had a complete kitchen constructed in the street, ready to cook for friends, family and the occasionally stranger walking by. A street kitchen. Literally speaking.
November to February is the peak wedding season in India. And with weddings come flowers. A lot of flowers. Something I experienced first hand on the attic of an old warehouse. I was met by a pile of flowers on the floor, surrounded by a circle of men. Seemingly at ease, discussing the last night’s cricket game, they were simultaneously producing complicated flower arrangements. With clinical precision.
A short ride from Chandni Chowk, in a much more quiet area, lies a peculiar place definitively worth visiting. It’s one of those fascinating places that surprisingly is bypassed by most visitors. Surrounded by a large and green park, it’s also the perfect place to relax after a busy day in Old Delhi.
The Jantar Mantar, a giant astronomical observatory designed for such a simple thing as measure the time of the day, is one of the largest sundial in the world. Without context, the sand coloured main instrument, the Samrat Yantra, or “supreme instrument”, is a 21 meter stairway to nowhere. Constructed over three hundred years ago, it’s almost as old as the city itself. And yet another chance to be surprised Delhi.
All images © 2020 Erik Ekberger.
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