Amar Grover writes about his ritual walk through Old Delhi.
Almost every time I pass through Delhi I try and set aside a couple of hours for my ritual walk. Old Delhi is by no means beautiful and only an eccentric could find it relaxing but it perfectly attunes me to the mad yet enthralling turmoil of India.
I turn right out of New Delhi Railway station opposite Main Bazaar, dodging the urgent calls of rickshaw wallahs and the pungent smells of chicken tikka wafting from dozens of cheap eateries. There’s a fleeting stretch of urban hell passing beneath a large flyover but continuing north along Qatab Road, little enclaves of cheap hotels and guesthouses give way to earthy hardware stalls and cubbyhole workshops.
The first hint of Old Delhi ‒ the 17th-century walled city originally known as Shahjahanabad ‒ comes with a section of medieval gateway or caravanserai standing in the middle of the road by a small playground. Nearby lies a tatty yard used to park hundreds of cycle rickshaws and within a few minutes I’ve reached a neighbourhood called Sadar Bazaar. It’s always crowded but in the week before diwali it’s utterly insane – a virtual gridlock of shoppers, hawkers, porters, bullock carts, trapped rickshaws and the odd mournful motorist who’s realised he’s in for a long, slow crawl.
I turn right at an intersection and cross a bridge over the railway. It’s lined with fruit and clothes vendors (I once found my best cheapest shirt here for Rs120). Not so long ago you could also drop by al fresco dentists with garish cartoon pictures of cut-away jaws, creepy piles of discoloured molars and shudder-inducing pliers.
The road briefly twists and turns down towards the Old Delhi Heritage Museum – possibly the country’s most dysfunctional museum ‒ and Khari Baoli Road. In medieval times the old city’s Lahori Gate and a step well stood here. They’ve now disappeared but the dense web of lanes and alleys off the main drag comprise what is reputedly Asia’s largest wholesale spice market which has thrived since the 17th century.
There’s no mistaking the aromatic, nose-twitching smells. Labourers stagger past with vast bales on their heads while hand-cart wallahs manoeuvre their long carts in pairs or simply lounge on them between jobs. I’m getting peckish myself so by the T-junction with Church Mission Road I duck into Gole Hatti, a local ‘greasy-spoon’ cafe for delicious samosas smothered with chickpeas and tamarind chutney, all washed down with good strong chai.
Round the corner stretches Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s famous and once-grand bazaar that leads directly to the Red Fort. But I fancy one more treat. Just a short stroll down Church Mission Road stands Giani di Hatti. It may sound like an Italian gelateria but this famed local institution – it’s always busy ‒ specialises in rabri falouda, a wonderful reduced-milk dessert mixed with rice-flour noodles. You may want to avoid the optional crushed ice. I join the small crowd and spoon down a glassful. It feels a bit like my own unconventional welcome drink; now I’m ready for India.
Amar Grover is a London-based writer and photographer. He has travelled through much of the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, China and Australia, yet it’s the Indian subcontinent – from Chitral to Assam and Ladakh to Tamil Nadu – that repeatedly lures him back more than anywhere else. He likes hiking and is obsessed by Indian forts. Visit his website at www.pictographical.co.uk