Bo Tree

Old Delhi in Sacred River: A Himalayan Journey

When visitors come to New Delhi, they do not normally stay in the older part of town. But that is where you can get a glimpse of timeless India – because parts of Old Delhi haven’t changed much in the last few centuries. As written in Sacred River, when you near this area, the roads are congested; cars, cycle rickshaws, three-wheeled Tuk-Tuks, hand-pulled carts, lorries, pedestrians, animals, and even a few buses all compete for space. It is chaotic, but captivating. And just when you start to feel exasperated, suddenly the walls of the Red Fort are before you and you know you have arrived at the center of the old city. Standing on the roadside, you can close your eyes and imagine old Silk Road caravans passing.

Although Old Delhi, about 5 Km north of New Delhi, is extremely crowded and dilapidated, it has a long 800-year history; many Sultans ruled from here, starting in 1206. Shahjahan, who also built the Taj Mahal, created this “new” walled city and made it the capital of the Mughal empire in 1639; it remained so till the dynasty’s end. Old Delhi was once filled with the splendid mansions of nobles, the royal court, elegant mosques and gardens. It included both the Red Fort, with the royal seat of power and palaces, and Chandni Chowk (the main street) with the oldest and busiest market in the region. You can get a glimpse of the Mughal emperors’ lives inside the fort. Important structures to see are  Diwan-i-khas (the Hall of Private Audiences), Diwan-i-am (the Hall of Public Audiences), and Moti Masjid, a jewel-like tiny mosque.

Photo credit: Inside the Red Fort CC-by-sa PlaneMad Wikimedia
(From left: Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque), the hamman (baths), Diwan-i-khas (hall of private audiences), Khas Mahal (Emperor’s apartments), and Rang Mahal (Women’s apartments, called the Colorful Palace, so named for its colorful mosaics)

The market on Chandni Chowk is a shocking contrast to the orderly streets of New Delhi. Cars, cycle rickshaws, hand-pulled carts, busy shoppers, and animals all compete for space. But life goes on amid the chaos. Its narrow winding lanes are full of inexpensive jewelry, fabrics, spices, vegetables, perfumes, and even electronics.

A visit to Chandni Chowk is a must for all Westerners, just for the sheer experience of how people shop here. Chandni Chowk is also a place to come to sample some of Delhi’s street food. Forgetting street food, Sovik, Larry, Pinky, Kayla and Be’ziil came here to taste Tandoori chicken in the courtyard of the Moti Mahal Restaurant.

You will see many religious buildings and historic mansions in and around Chadni Chowk. The most famous is the Jama Masjid, built in 1650, the largest mosque in India. Among other sites are Delhi’s oldest Jain temple, the Lal Mandir, and the place of Ghalib, a renowned Urdu and Persian poet

Almost all the characters in Sacred River come to Old Delhi. The illiterate farmer Jagdish spends a night in an apartment; Mr. Chetti and his assistant Ajit come to the Jama Masjid to strategize their plan of gold heist. The characters view Delhi from different perspectives; from the roof of an apartment building Jagdish sees a vast field of concrete building roofs – all the way to the horizon – very different from the fields and farms of home. And, from atop the high courtyard of the mosque, Chetti and Ajit see essentially the same thing but with the perspective of privilege. Pinky and Kayla come here to see the Light and Sound show at the Red Fort. Later, Larry comes alone to the field in front of the Red Fort to learn more about the SMS organization.


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