India is a land of contradictions. The new and ancient, the rich and poor and the beautiful and ugly are all tossed up together in a vibrant mix that sometimes makes you gasp in awe and sometimes cringe. After many years of living in Europe, I find myself viewing India with very different eyes when I now travel the country. A recent trip to the heart of Delhi made a strong impression on me, leaving me with an important insight about life.
Although I was born in Delhi, I have never lived there. Up until a few days ago, I had only visited some of Delhi’s historical monuments and famous restaurants as a child, when we visited my grandparents during summer vacations. However, on my recent trip, I was adamant to explore the ‘real Delhi’. This naturally involved a decision to visit the famous ‘Chandni Chowk’, India’s oldest and largest wholesale market built in the 17th century.
If you have never heard of Chandni Chowk, then you’ll have to make an effort to picture the most crowded bazaar (or market) you can imagine, for this is the image that the name evokes. A decision to go to Chandni Chowk is not only brave but also one of the ‘no looking back’ variety.
Reaching the crowded ‘chowk’ or square in the middle of the afternoon, we thought we would catch a fairly ‘lull’ hour at the market. Unfortunately, I didn’t know then that there is no such thing as a ‘lull’ hour in this market!
The market is a truly fascinating array of motley shops selling traditional Indian wedding dresses, pure gold and silver jewellery and a variety of traditional food, all vegetarian. There is also a spice market – a colourful array of piles of yellow turmeric, fragrant cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, pepper and any other spice you can think of. You get the impression that nothing here has changed for hundreds of years, from the times when traders and merchants from all over the world sought India for its spices.
What I found most intriguing about the area though was something quite unexpected. At one end of the marketplace, there is a famous temple of Lord Shiva and Goddess Gauri (the ‘Gauri-Shankar’ temple) that is said to be some 500 years old. As we made our way towards this temple, I heard the call to prayer from a mosque ringing out. It was only when we got closer to the temple that we realised something quite remarkable – there, nestled close to the historic Red Fort monument, was the Gauri Shankar temple, and alongside it, a mosque, a Sikh temple and a church.
Before beholding this scene, I had been feeling quite oppressed by the environment. In the searing Indian heat, I was reaching the end of my patience with the endless crowds and disorganised traffic that clogged the roads. Everyone seemed to be on a personal mission of preserving chaos. Someone was blaring western pop music from his shop, someone else was riding his bicycle in the opposite direction to traffic, someone was walking around selling flowers, someone was insisting I come to his shop to see the latest designer wedding dresses they had and yet someone else was half-heartedly begging for some money, seemingly more out of habit than any real need. For one not used to spending their afternoon in such a way, the experience can range from overwhelming to harrowing.
But seeing the ancient temple surrounded by the church, mosque and Sikh temple, I suddenly realised that I had something to learn from all this. A wonderful insight dawned on me about what India is really about and what it teaches about life. The lesson can be summed up in one word: inclusiveness. Inclusiveness towards other people, their ways, cultures and faiths. And isn’t that how life is? After all, a forest is a wild mess of different types of plants, flowers, insects, animals and birds all doing their own thing.
That is what India’s madness symbolises – just life, raw and free. You can either curse and complain in the face of it, or open up and accept life in all its variety, in its squalor and luxury, in its beauty and ugliness. Just like the air doesn’t deny itself to any living thing, no matter how magnificent or meagre, it is a wise man who lives free and open, without any judgments. As just plain life.To receive newsletters sign-up here. ॐ
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