Tag Archives: markets

Olfactory Overload and Market Mélange

I breakfast on spicy crêpe, follow my nose to market, and cook up Indian aromas; I practice Hindi and bypass heatstroke, dodge dentists and float through floral fantasies.

mavalli-tiffin-rooms-waiterI began my penultimate Saturday in Bangalore at the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, where steam from metre-wide vats of sambar clouded my camera lens as I entered.  It’s been a popular spot since 1924 and the walls are lined with black and white photographs.  It was the first fast food eatery to serve 21,000 customers in seven hours, and I had to put my name down to queue for one of the faux marble tables.  I ordered the classic South Indian breakfast of masala dosa: a thin pancake – sometimes over a foot long – wrapped around a yellow potato-onion curry, with side bowls of cooling coconut and spicy red chutney.

I made way for the next customer, stepped outside, and traversed a very different suburb from my previous weekend in the swept-up city centre of Nike and McDonald’s.  Here in one block were Birla Tyres and Raja Tools, the Hanuman Auto Centre, Sagar Radiators and Sita Tractor.  Hindu deities meet greasy mechanics.  I passed the Eastern Compressors and Pneumatics, Citizen Clutch Center, and Motor Cycle Shrinagar.  A poster over Studds Helmets and Accessories showed a rider performing a handstand and motorbike wheelie, while the Automotive Sales Corporation rhymed, “If you are making a bus, you will definitively need us”.  It was tempting, but I decided not to build a bus just now and moved on towards Bangalore’s City Market.

bangalore-mechanics-streetAlthough I carry map and compass, I could have just followed my nose.  Deepening piles of rotting produce spelt paradise for goats and cows.  A barefoot holy man with dreadlocks reverently touched one cow, then brought his hand to his forehead.  A kitten meandered past with diseased eye and missing patches of hair.  I stepped aside for a woman sweeping rubbish onto sackcloth.  Something didn’t seem right and I took another look: her sandaled feet each had six toes.  Further up the road, I squeezed between a stone wall and a truck delivering vegetables – the driver said he came every day from outlying farms.  Tomatoes were piled into stacks of square plastic crates and the ground was slippery with red pulp.  A front-loader cleared a path through the refuse.

vege-deliverySome months ago a friend asked for a sample of the aroma of India.  After endless experimentation, I have created the Titheridge Smell India At Home recipe, patent pending, to share such experience.  First assemble the following ingredients behind an old car or lawnmower with a dirty-burning engine: matches, perfume, a stick of incense, fragrant flowers, dry leaves, rotting compost, a fresh steaming Indian curry, a fresh steaming cow pat.  Then start the motor, spray the perfume, light the incense stick and burn the leaves.  Swallow a handful of curry, close your eyes and breathe deeply.  Voilà!  You have the olfactory mélange of an Indian market, without the cost of an airfare.  For that extra dash of aromatic authenticity, first go for a run so your shirt is soaked in sweat, then smash open a coconut and pee on the ground.

bangalore-market-workersWhat you won’t experience at home is being so often hailed “Your country, sir?  Your name?” that it’s hard to note your surroundings.  So many people asked for photos I feared my battery would run out.  One guy posed with a Jurassic Park T-shirt and cane basket on his head; two reclined on sacks of onions under a red awning.  A skinny bloke with a short lungi cloth wrapped around his waist leaned against boxes of Kashmiri Fresh Apples, while others sold emerald capsicums or lime peppers, mottled green-orange mangos or small sweet bananas.  Shiny scale pans were balanced by rusty hexagonal weights.

As the heat increased I also feared my water would run out, far from middle-class tourist terrain and 7-11 superettes.  I needn’t have worried.  Akbar was so delighted I knew of Emperor Akbar the Great he gave me a bottle of Indian “Fanta” from a friend’s shop.  He refused payment, proving that the study of history does have pragmatic value.  I passed a woman ladling cold drinks I wouldn’t trust from bulbous clay jars on a cart, then a guy in a singlet soaping and sluicing down his pavement.  He grabbed my hand, pulling me aside.  “Wait!  Wait!”  He sat me on a chair and shot off.  I’d just wiped off the soap suds when he reappeared with a bottle of Thumbs-up, the local Coke.  I don’t much like its liquorice tang.

In a shady side lane with more solitude, flowers were strung over apartment doors.  Drying saris rippled down from balconies like crimson and emerald waterfalls.  I sketched the kolam patterns on the step where I was sitting, traced out by women with a fistful of rice powder after sweeping their threshold at dawn.  These ones resembled a white Celtic knot; others are like multi-coloured flowers.  Most show a mathematical symmetry, like drawings from the Spirograph cogwheels I had as a boy.

A slim young chap with black beard sat on a scales platform – the LED display read 53 kg.  He invited me over, and was excited to find I could speak some Hindi.  Even a little makes a lot of friends.  A Muslim himself, he introduced his best friend, a Christian, then Hindu comrades, showing off his country’s inclusiveness.  He joked that one friend was the “Shaitan” (Satan) of Bangalore, drumming on the bare belly of a corpulent mate.  Another brandished an iron hook with a cow-horn handle, which he said he used to carry sacks weighing up to 150kg.  At last their chai-wallah pal arrived with a stack of glasses and thermos of steaming tea, for my third complementary beverage that day.

For lunch, I cooled off under a fan with my favourite Muslim dish of mutton biryani: spicy yellow basmati rice with tender meat, and a bowl of purplish eggplant-and-tomato curry.  I amused myself while waiting by identifying menu items in the “culinary reader” of my Lonely Planet phrasebook.

outdoor-market-dentistBack outside was a stand of pirated DVDs: the vendor offered me “Nauty Movie: English Romantic Video”.  Other stalls flaunted photos of dentists holding open their victims’ mouths, and vampire-like close-ups of jagged incisors in blood-red gums.  On their counters were neat rows of molars in glass cases, assorted pink dentures and torture instruments laid out for road-side extractions.

A man in a long purple shirt was combing his chest-length black beard near a booth with shelves of Muslim caps and perfume bottles.  The owner dabbed some on my shoulders and lapels.  I watched a woman praying at a small Sufi shrine, the tomb covered in red cloth and white jasmine with scores of small padlocks fastened to the green bars of the gate.  She held an open padlock and I wondered what she was asking for, but I gave up waiting for her to fasten it on.  Then back through the market farmyard – its aroma overpowered the perfume on my collar.  Pyramids of apples and oranges and limes, then a stack of pomegranates, the top row cut open like stars or flowers.  I declined a grubby handful of the crimson seeds, and entered the breezy but gloomy market building.

tikka-powderCones of powder as bright as a baby’s toys in yellow, pink and red.  I was nervous I’d jostle them in the crowd.  Pedal-driven sewing machines.  A shop of farming implements displayed scythes and sickles, then two wooden coffins leaning against the wall.

bangalore-flower-market-making-garlandsMen and women on the floor were pulling petals or stems off flowers of all colours, threading them into chains or tossing them into baskets.  Some were arranged on frames of lettering with wedding felicitations, or into a deity’s outline, or onto papier-mâché shrines.  A man announced I was from NZ and a young woman rose from the knee-high drifts of blossoms to tug my hand, saying something like “take me with you”.  I was startled.  A middle-class woman might shake hands, but I’d never been touched – or hardly addressed – by one in the market, except for beggars pulling my sleeve.

bangalore-flower-market-sellingEscaping the flirtatious florist, I moved towards the market’s inner sanctum.  Indian idols are often smothered in thick floral garlands; some are all of the same flower species, some have alternating stripes like blown-up football scarves.  In the central courtyard, lit by sunlight through the plastic roof, garlands were coiled in cane baskets a metre wide.  Salesmen drew them out to measure arm-lengths for customers.  Seen from the balcony above, each basketful resembled a huge blossom, or a giant pin cushion, or perhaps a pot of gluggy paint.  On the ground, swimming through the ocean of colour, it was a camera battery-flattening visual overload, the same vibrant explosion I experienced here in 2007 (see here).



Gemstones and Biryani: Stinking Rich in Hyderabad

I travel first class to the Taj Mahal, check what has changed in the City of Pearls, and steal a glimpse of its riches; I melt down in the fatal heat and perk up with a favourite meal.

The trip on Tuesday night from Bhopal (see here) 15 hours south to Hyderabad was my longest single stretch.  Things were less smooth this time.  The electronic signboards at the Bhopal station weren’t going and there was no sign of my train.  The young man in the tourist booth left me to browse brochures in his air-conditioned office while he asked around to find out the score: my train was running 40 minutes late and would arrive at platform three.

The second class seats had all been sold out so I splashed out on first, which was very affordable and not dramatically different.  The seat-cum-beds were maroon instead of blue, and, more significantly, were wider and longer so I could stretch out fully.  The closed four-berth compartments were more private.  My companions were a semi-retired refrigeration engineer visiting his son in Bangalore and an army colonel on leave from the troubled state of Kashmir.  Both were courteous gentleman with excellent English.  The engineer insisted I take two of his wife’s chapattis with cauliflower pickle and a carton of mango juice.

7 am arrival, so not yet too hot.  I missed the Taj Mahal in Aga but stayed in a “Taj Mahal” hotel here in Hyderabad, although cubic concrete above a highway flyover isn’t quite as romantic as sinuous marble mirrored in tranquil pools.  (And unlike the Moghul love of meat, consumption of non-vegetarian food in this Hindu-owned hotel was prohibited.)  It turned out to be a common hotel name and there’s a flasher Taj Mahal in town which is much better known.  One rickshaw driver took me to the latter, despite my vigorous “No, no, no” (in English and Hindi, with hands and head) whenever he named the suburb, then demanded more money to get to mine.

Hyderabad has about 5.5 million people and, like Bhopal, a higher Muslim proportion than the national average.  There are many more black-veiled women on the streets than a decade ago. This is not due to conservative Islam spreading, I read, but increasing freedom and education for women who were previously secluded at home and never seen.  Many work in the new IT industry of “Cyberabad”.  After the northern scarcity of online connections, I passed many Internet cafes and could see two from my hotel balcony, although the power failed as I was about to hit send.

hyderabad-charminarI spent a week here in November 2007 and saw the major tourist sites. Now I caught an auto-rickshaw to the Old City to see what had changed.  Instead of an electric horn as in other cities, the driver squeezed a rubber bulb for a Donald Duck squawk.  In the central square, motorbikes and rickshaws swarm around the base of the city’s main icon, the Charminar.  It’s sometimes called the “Oriental Arc de Triomphe”, but unlike its Parisian counterpart is square with archways on all four sides, a second-floor mosque, and four 56-meter high corner minarets.

The Charminar seemed a little more drab and soot-stained than when I saw it in 2007 (see here), or perhaps my memory had airbrushed its blemishes.  I recalled the baskets of sparkling bangles and the carts with geometric pyramids of apples and oranges.  The square would be much nicer without traffic; measurements of Respirable Particulate Matter have found it to be the most polluted area in the city.

hyderabad-banglesA network of lanes around the Charminar houses dealers of pearls and gemstones.  Hyderabad is called “the City of Pearls” and the world’s largest diamond, the Kohinoor, came from the mines near Golconda Fort (read about my visit here).  One tourist flyer listed the sacred nine gemstones of the Indian scriptures with their corresponding planets and star signs.  As a Pisces, it seems my gem is yellow sapphire, to be worn mounted in gold (as opposed to silver or copper for some stones) on the index finger.  My planet is Jupiter (for knowledge!) and Thursday my big day.  For Indian astrology, pearls represent the moon (and impart coolness to the body) and rubies the sun. Hessonite and Cat’s-Eye, I read, represent the dragon’s head and tail, or the moon in ascending and descending modes.

hyderabad-dental-clinicsIn a more down-to-earth vein, a row of dental clinics welcomed customers with photographs of perfect toothy smiles and steel-hinged dentures on the counters: grinning pink gums and discoloured incisors embedded in grey clay or lime putty.  Two boys held an injured pigeon, dipping its beak into water for a drink and gently stretching out its wings to pose for a photo.

hyderabad-hurt-birdIn one corner of the Charminar square is the 17th-century Mecca Masjid, a mosque that can hold 10,000 worshippers.  The name is due to a few bricks from Mecca embedded over one arch. I was instructed to either leave my cloth shoulder bag at the gate or roll it up so it looked small.  Actually less security than in 2007 when there’d been a recent bomb attack and riot police buses were parked outside.  (Since then two bombs killed 16 people in 2013.)  In the courtyard, goats and pigeons competed for scattered grain, while I rested alongside tombs of the local rulers in a shady colonnade.  Men read papers in the mosque’s small library.  Arabic titles wound down each book’s spine, their elegant flourishes filling me with nostalgia for a rich culture and a world of scholarship that I’ve never known.

Hyderabad was ruled by the Moslem Nizams and the last (reigning from 1911-1948) was perhaps the richest man in the world – his personal fortune included £500 million of gold, silver and jewels – and one of the most wed: he had 150 wives.  In 1967 he had 14,718 staff and dependants, including 3000 Arab bodyguards, 38 dusters of chandeliers, 28 bringers of drinking water, and several dedicated grinders of royal walnuts.  The Chowmahalla palace alone had 6000 staff.

The Chowmahalla was built in 1750-1850 and opened to the public since my last visit, giving me a taste of Hyderabad’s former opulence.  “It is the Palace of exuding invisible power and stands out for its intrinsic grandeur”, read the entrance sign, and is “compared by the historians as a Palace of Arabian Nights”.  The Nizam’s reception hall was indeed grand, with Belgian chandeliers above a vast expanse of marble before the wide white throne.  There were galleries of family portraits, a painted map of Mecca, and an elephant caparison weighing 25 kg.  The sixth Nizam was a dandy who never wore the same thing twice: his wardrobe was 72 m long, with two storeys.  The Nizam’s cars included a 1912 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, painted yellow.

hyderabad-chowmahalla-clockThe armoury seemed worthy of the Arabian Nights.  There were curved Iranian swords and Indian sabres, a double-edged Hindu sword with a tip swelling like a cobra’s hood, slim-bladed daggers designed to pierce ring mail, curved Arabic daggers with carved hilts, straight Afghan knives, and double-curved “scorpions” to be concealed in the sleeve.  The Nizam tried to remain independent after the British were ousted in 1947.  Despite all this weaponry, the Indian Army rolled in one year later and after five days his princely state (the size of Italy) was part of the new nation.

The next day I felt so exhausted that I hung the “do not disturb” sign on my door and went back to bed after breakfast.  I left early afternoon to revisit the Salar Jung museum that I enjoyed last time (see here).  It’s another Hyderabad hoard, gathered from the four seas by the Nizam’s Grand Vizier, and with 35,000 objects is allegedly the world’s biggest one-man collection.  Chinese tapestries and Japanese vases; Arabic manuscripts and Persian carpets; English china, Italian sculptures, European paintings and clocks; Indian silverware and carvings in stone, wood, ivory and bronze.  I had forgotten the museum lacked air-conditioning and most doorways open onto outdoor courtyards.  For some reason I found displays underneath a fan the most attractive.

biryaniHead throbbing in the heat, I dragged myself along the stinking river to the Hotel Shadab on High Court Road, known as one of the best spots for Hyderabad biryani: spicy saffron rice with chicken or mutton or beef.  It’s one of my Indian favourites and my morale bounced back on a padded seat under an AC unit, tucking into chicken biryani with side dishes of cool vegetable yoghurt and hot gravy.  The serving was so generous I couldn’t finish.  Check out the recipe (from here), drawn by Amrita Mohanty at the delicious site www.theydrawandcook.com.

Chicken Biryani by Amrita Mohanty

Astronomical Playgrounds, Aladdin’s Fort and Sculpting God

I fight off vendors and mark off the heavens, gear up for war and assault a fort, find Aladdin’s silken cave and survey the birthplace of gods.

Delhi, Agra and Jaipur form the tourist “Golden Triangle” so it’s not surprising that in Jaipur I saw many ambulant copies of Lonely Planet, and was more harassed by touts than anywhere else I’ve been.   Walking down the Old City’s main bazaar on my first night brought a constant barrage of “hello… sir!” from guys enticing me into their stalls. Pointy leather shoes and psychedelic sandals, sparkling bangles and gems, orange patterned cushions and rainbow curtains embroidered with flowers, peacocks, elephants.  I could smell the perfume samples dabbed on my wrist whenever I wiped my brow all day.  One hawker chased me down the block jangling his Rajasthani puppets in my face, and I practised saying “I don’t like shopping” in Hindi to several rickshaw drivers detouring to a mate’s emporium.

In the midst of the hubbub, there are impressive sights here.  One palace housed the world’s biggest silver jars, made from 14000 melted coins, 1.6 m tall, weighing 345 kg.  Not trusting English water, the Raja used them to transport 5091 litres from the holy Ganges River when he attended King Edward’s Coronation in 1902.  A metal lattice ball was filled with fire for the Emperor Akbar to play polo at night.  I had a vision of bejewelled courtiers pursuing a flaming orb like a scene from Harry Potter.  In the armoury were punching daggers designed to pierce armour, sometimes with two pistols attached, or scissoring double blades to slice up your intestines for bonus damage inside.

As well as a warrior – as such weaponry attests – Jaipur’s founder was an astronomer.  At first glance, the Jantar Mantar or “instrument of calculation” resembled a park of abstract sculptures or a giant quirky playground, with staircases leading to nowhere and sweeping curves like deformed slides.  It is now a World Heritage site.  There are hemisphere domes and pits that you get right inside to read star angles and elevations on finely graded scales.  A 90 foot high right-angled wedge forms a huge sundial.  The shadow moves several metres per hour, making it accurate to a few seconds.  Smaller versions are oriented to the 12 zodiac constellations.  In India, astrology still determines dates for weddings, business ventures or political meetings, and planetariums seem very popular.

jaipur-jantar-mantarThe city is surrounded by scrubby hills dotted with old defences and my Jaipur highlight was a daytrip out to Amber Fort.  Elephants with painted trunks carried tourists up the chunky cobbled road to a lemon-coloured palace which was interesting but over-crowded.  I hiked half an hour up the hill above to Jaigarh fortress.  They say it was never captured.  At one end was the world’s largest wheeled canon.  It has a 20 foot barrel, takes 100 kg of gun powder for a single shot, and can drive a cannonball up to 35 km.

I wound my way through dull stone passageways and dusty courtyards, stumbled on a sort of Punch and Judy puppet show, then turned another corner into bright sun and beheld a summit paradise.  I was at a verdant walled garden with symmetrical canals and manicured shrubs.  You could see for miles from its shady corner turrets.  Battlements snaked across the hills like the Great Wall of China, with goats herded between them.  All the courtyards of the palace were laid out below, next to a square island garden in the lake.  Just in front of me two squirrels chased each other, leaping along the wall’s crenellations.  No horns or fumes, no beggars or Americans.  Alone on top of the world, I felt lord of all I surveyed and my spirit soared.

jaipur-fabric-luxuryEven in the city centre, it’s surprisingly easy to escape the tourists and touts.  Just step off the main drag into the network of alleys, and see what you can find!  A lane of pharmaceuticals, crates full of medicines; then electrical and whiteware goods on the pavements.  I could look around as long as I liked, and no one tried to sell me a fridge!  One metre wide woks of hot milk.  Metres of fabric were being drawn out from steaming cauldrons of dye like from a magician’s hat.  Rickshaw repair stalls strewed pumps and parts and wrenches across the path.  In narrow sari shops, their walls stacked with folded fabrics, male assistants pulled down sample after sample, throwing them like silken ribbons through the air to settle slowly before veiled customers until the floor was thick with cloth of every colour.  Their gold and silver threads littered in the hot lights like an Aladdin’s Cave.  Another vender dozed on a thick bed of jumbled fabric, a Maharaja of luxuriant colour.  Further on I heard drumming, followed it around a corner or two, and found women sitting outside a small temple where two of them danced out the divine romance of Lord Krishna and cowgirl Radha.  And then I found the street of idols.

Electric grinders were spewing white dust and artisans in headscarves were chiselling by hand, with unpolished sculptures ranked behind them, metal files jumbled at their feet, and raw blocks of marble on the step outside.  A room of cheerful young chaps, perhaps apprentices, were sanding and smoothing, water splashing from their buckets as their statues began to shine.  One craftsman was colouring a goddess with a fine brush, painting on a golden bangle.  Most of the statues were Hindu deities like the elephant god Ganesh, the sacred bull of Shiva, monkey god Hanuman with an unfinished featureless snout, or multi-armed warrior goddess Durga astride her lion.  I also saw a Buddha, a small bust of Gandhi, a solemn turbaned ruler.  When he learnt I was Christian, one sculptor proudly told me he’d made a crucifix, standing with arms outstretched to show me.

jaipur-idol-makersWhat a contrast between these rows of dusty statues handled by grubby artisans and their gleaming future in temples.  There these gods will be offered plates of coconuts, fruits, sweets and rice; they’ll be washed in milk and clothed every day by the priests.  The nose jewel of a goddess may even be removed before the temple is closed at night, so it doesn’t rub her divine consort when they make love!

I wondered what their work meant to these men.  Just a job to put chapattis on the table, or a noble calling of craftsmanship, or a lifestyle of loving worship?  In Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009), William Dalrymple speaks to a maker of bronze idols in south India, learning that the statue becomes alive and divine when its eyes are carved with a gold chisel, and finding one answer to my question:

“Our workshop should be like a temple,” Srikanda said.  “Every second is holy.  Some people think that what we do is an art, but we think of it mainly as an act of devotion.  For us art and religion are one: only when there is prayer can the artist make a perfect sculpture…. as we work we think only of God, saying the appropriate mantras as we carve and model.”


All the World’s a Stage: Charming Chandni Chawk

I master the Metro and moon around markets; I evade ear invasions and am caught out by cobras, but refuse to be chicken-hearted.

After a slightly shell-shocked start to the capital (see previous post), my first full day was fab.  I escaped Americana with finger-licking fare at Indian eateries, and I mastered the Metro: bag through x-ray, metal detector sweep and pat-down – a separate queue with female officer for women, past a soldier with big gun behind sandbags, swipe my Smartcard and down to the platform.

Signs are in English and Hindi, which is good for reading practice, though different Hindi fonts sometimes confuse me.  They may omit accents, thus changing p to f or j to z, or have a mere curlicue where I’d learnt a closed loop.  When I stop to think about English fonts, learners must have the same problem and my hand written “a” is a different shape from the usual printed letter.

Not all announcements are reassuring.  “Any unattended or suspicious object like briefcase, bag, toy, thermos, transistor could be bomb.”  Metro lowlight: getting caught by the left-hand door at rush hour, when my exit was on the right – frenzied shoving to get out before doors closed.  When a man yelled “zor se” I thought he was telling me off.  I later realised that meant “with force”: he was exhorting me to push harder!  At such times, the women-only carriages are enviably uncrowded.

For most of the day I kicked around Chandni Chawk.  Once upon a time it was one of the greatest bazaars of the East, where merchants from China to Arabia haggled over perfumes and jewellery, embroidery and silk.  The name means “moonlit market”.  A tree-lined canal once ran down the centre of the street and widened into a pool that reflected the moon.  That paints a peaceful picture, but in two words my first impression was “chaotic diversity”.

Stylish executives in pointy shoes barked orders into Bluetooth headsets.  Some wore big rings, bracelets, or a string on their wrist.  Other men clattered past in jandles and dirty white lungis like a sarong pulled up between the legs, balancing huge sacks or piles of boxes or long girders on their heads.   One had six suitcases.  Some were in sandals and short-sleeved woolen vests like Dad’s generation used to wear.

Dusky Muslim eyes peeped from black veils.  Matronly Hindu heads were covered in a fold of vibrant sari, some sparkling with glass gems or floral embroidery.  Their foreheads had stick-on red bindi dots, or a smear of yellow turmeric from a temple.  Some hands and feet were covered with intricate henna patterns, wrists and ankles jangling with bangles.  Younger women had bare heads, mp3 players, and bright stockings.

There were uniformed school kids and police with boy-scout lanyards.  Dignified Sikhs had turbaned heads and flowing beards, their younger brethren with whiskers combed out or tied up in a net.  Muslim men wore white caps and robes, some with hair or beards dyed orange – a badge of pilgrims to Mecca.  Holy men moseyed along in saffron robes and matted dreadlocks.  Local teens slouched along in sneakers, jeans and T-shirts, just doing it like Nike.

Two chubby boys squeezed into an auto rickshaw with their new basketball.  A wizened woman picked up paper scraps beside me into a torn sack.  Rickshaw-cyclists sweated in singlet tops on ancient bikes without gears, jangling their bells to attract tourists waving cameras, standing out in shorts or sleeveless blouses.  Several dwarves and cripples hobbled past with feet twisted 90° to one side.  A chap brandishing a cotton bud offered to clean out my ears for a trifling 30 rupees.

A wagon had solid wood wheels like in movies of the Middle Ages.  Chai-wallahs delivered cups of tea and lime-squeezers dispensed juice from their carts.  I opened my new water bottle, noting the crack as the seal broke: guidebooks warn of bottles refilled with tap water, and some bottles instruct you to crush them after use.  From an upper storey with hanging washing, a metal cup of chai clattered to the ground beside me to lie among broken pottery and marigolds.  A man stepped out of the shop behind with a box of matches, set some crumpled newspapers alight in the gutter, then stamped out the embers.  The smoke rose as urchins, cows or goats picked through odiferous refuse.  There used to be more exciting wildlife.  In 1837 the Englishwoman Emma Roberts wrote in her diary that Chandni Chawk:

…echoed with the shrill roar of many caged cheetahs being sold and also hunting leopards.  There were Persian cats and greyhounds for sale, while the trumpeting of elephants mingled with the sounds of cartwheels and itinerant musicians.

Some suburbs in India have a grab bag of stalls, while others have whole lanes of one item.  South of Chandni Chawk I found the latter.  After racks of western clothing, I found a bazaar of car parts.  Shops specialized in fans, radiators, side panels, hubcaps, horns, ball bearings.  The road was covered in disassembled motor parts – I read that if your car is stolen in Delhi and you don’t recover it within two days, it will all be here, in pieces.

snake-charmer-delhiAs I headed through this mechanics’ paradise, as innocent as Adam, I was hailed by a guy in jeans with three cane baskets.  He placed them on the ground, and opened each one: on yellow clothes were coiled black cobras!  He held them up in his hands saying “photo photo”, then pretended to charm his serpents by waving a bulbous pipe with a few random toots, then demanded 200 rupees.  I gave him 30.  Judging by his satisfied appearance and an on-looker’s grin, I was probably ripped off by Indian standards, but it was all so fast and I feared to offend a handler of live snakes.

Above this brew of oily motors and tourist-charming snakes towered the gates and 40-metre minarets of the Jama Masjid.  It was built by the same Shah Jahan who constructed the Taj Mahal and is India’s largest mosque.  The courtyard can hold up to 25,000 people and contained hundreds of pigeons, attracted by scattered grain.  Pinkish sandstone arches framed tourists reading Lonely Planet and gossiping ladies and battlements of the Red Fort.  After visitors were shunted out, as Muslims washed hands, feet and face for their sundown prayers, I sat on the wide steps and surveyed the old city below.  Antennae and water tanks adorned rooftops.  Loudspeakers wailed the Muslim prayer call.  Two goats were frisking up and down, nearly bowling people over.  Women with outstretched shawls begged alms from worshippers.  I gave a little girl one of my last digestive biscuits.  Through a broken fence, I saw boys playing cricket.  Children’s kites flew among wheeling birds in the darkening sky.  Men ran up the stairs, late for their prayers.  An ear cleaner wiped a client’s wax from his little rod.  Does he reuse it each time?  I never saved a better 30 rupees.

red-fort-from-jama-masjidI descended to the restaurant Karim in an alley and ordered a rich mutton korma with rotis.  Bread is more cheap and common than rice in northern India.  It’s fun to watch chefs press out the dough by hand, then slap it onto the clay wall of a tandoor oven.  The Muslim Moghuls introduced many of India’s top meat dishes and Karim was founded by a chef of the last Moghul emperor.  The current owner says vegetarian food is “for the chickenhearted”.  Karim is one of Delhi’s most popular restaurants – top-secret recipes of up to 33 spices outclass Colonel Saunders’ paltry 11 secret herbs – and all the tables were full.  The mutton was tender and tasty, but by the time I’d finished my bowl of broth I found the imperial taste a bit rich, and wished they weren’t so down on veg.

Railway Bazaars and Marketing Marigolds

An emporium on rails and gullible crafts; ominous veges and arty pomegranates; cubes of pineapple and cones of peanuts, pyramids of colour and garlands of carnations.

My stomach recovered for Tuesday’s Chennai-Bangalore Brindaven Express.  When the British commissioner made this trip in 1862, the railway only went part way so he completed the journey, his diary says, with “14 hours of severe jolting in a hearse-like transit carriage”.  By 1895 the line was finished so I went the whole way in six hours.

The seats were hard but the ceiling was studded with fans so the trip wasn’t bad.  I browsed my 5 cent Indian Express paper and was entertained by a stream of entrepreneurs, some blind, who jostled down the aisle like a mobile $2 shop.  They offered drinks – coffee, tea, tomato soup, soft drinks – and sustenance – foil-wrapped breakfasts, Indian snacks, potato chips, avocados.  Wary of re-aggravating my stomach, I bought only safely sealed chips.  Everyone discarded their cutlery and containers out the window, lining the tracks with plastic and paper.

The carriage bazaar also sold ornamental accessories like bead necklaces and flowers, and devotional essentials like wooden gods.  There was in-flight amusement galore – Rubik cubes, story books, plastic kids’ rattles and guns – and if I grew tired of the circus of sales, there was the scenery outside.  Stations sailed past with spray-painted stencil signs canvassing votes for engineers’ unions, some platforms with more dogs or goats than people.  Glinting gold-green coconut palm trees shaded grass huts.  A golden wheat field was neatly trimmed up to a line of bright working saris.

Beggars joined the hawkers on board as we neared Bangalore, so I was doubly glad to have a window seat.  As I queued for a prepaid auto-rickshaw at the station, bystanders restrained two guys from blows – a villainous driver getting his deserts?  I spent three more nights at the church guest house in Central Bangalore.  My room had the verse, “My grace is sufficient for you”.  With lower temperatures, as winter approached and I was back up at Bangalore’s 920m, I dreaded the cold shower but by grace it ran hot for the first time in two months.  (See more Bangalore photos here and here.)

Back on MG Road, my snake vendor friend recognised me, and the same eternally hopeful hawker still flew his boomerang helicopter.  It never returned to his hands but crashed among parked cars every time.  A bronze Shiva danced on shop steps before a larger statue of his consort Parvati, alongside store dummies modelling the latest Indian blouse-skirt-scarf combos.  Fleeting fashion and eternity: does filthy lucre or Shiva’s dance make the world go round?

With home-coming and Christmas approaching, I catalogued craft shops.  Assistants pulled a fine Pashmina shawl through a finger-ring, or revealed the secret mechanism to open magically-locked wooden caskets.  They showed me carved lattice-sided elephants or camels, “pregnant” with a smaller copy inside, sometimes a third “baby” nested inside that.  One claimed I was his first customer after two months holiday, drawing a finger along dusty shelves as evidence; if I didn’t buy it would bring bad luck.  An entertaining story, so I bought a wooden triplet of see-hear-speak no evil monkeys.  (I mostly purchased from fixed-price emporia to avoid rip-offs and bargaining hassle.)  Another entreated me to buy something, anything!, as he had no money for his bus fare home – he raised his arms and invited me to verify that his pockets were empty.  Unlike with street hawkers, in a shop you can enjoy such performances and then leave when bored without being followed.

Striped prayer mats dried on a white mosque balustrade, archways reflected in the courtyard pool.  A bearded man in dark skullcap and white baggy pyjamas sat on his motorbike conversing by cell phone, in front of a “no entery” sign on the one-way street.  As I ate lunch, two women gossiped and giggled at the next table, then finished their meal, rose and tied on black veils.  I was taken aback by their sudden faceless anonymity.  On the street I was warmed again by a wrinkled smile, remaining teeth stained dark red with betel juice.

In the older part of town the whole sidewalk was an emporium.  Shoe shining.  Crumpled clothing smoothed with a coal-filled iron.  Names engraved on a grain of rice.  Rows of water bottles, cigarettes, jars of sweets below fluttering silk head scarves or magazines.  Gleaming brass or silver lamp stands, single, double or triple tiered, topped with spikes or peacocks.  Blankets, tables, carts were spread with a medley of trinkets: combs, hairclips, tooth brushes, razors, nail clippers, cotton buds; underwear, socks, sweaters, beanies; cell phone covers, mirrors, padlocks, pens; colonial coins, fine bead necklaces, brass pots and idols; neat rows of rings and jumbled polished stones.

There were plenty of snacks.  Bread rolls with jam, a cart of potato chips.  A woman in a crimson sari scooped peanuts from a sack as big as a toddler’s paddling pool into cones of rolled newspaper.  Bicycles bulged with coconuts like bunches of huge hairy grapes, the tops deftly lopped off by machete and replaced with a drinking straw.  Sugar cane rods were fed into grinding cogged wheels and the juice trickled into a glass.  Slices of tomato, cucumber, pineapple and melon looked refreshing, but I saw the vendor rinsing them with water to prevent drying and, I feared, add fresh bacteria.  (See market shots here).

It was fascinating stuff, but my goal for the afternoon was the Bangalore produce and flower market.  I had broken my compass in Chennai and it was too overcast to get my bearing by the sun, so I wandered off track into an industrial neighbourhood.  Overall-clad workers were loading trucks, arc-welding or cutting metal with gas torches.

Despite such side trips, I soon found the veges.  I edged through the river of haggling customers, rushing saris, munching cows, trying not to stumble over artistically piled carrots, carefully balanced avocados, overflowing hemp sacks of rice, grain or fiery red chillies.  Pomegranates were sliced in flowering polygons of shiny crimson seeds.  Rows of stainless steel bowls with vibrant pyramids of tikka powder, for cosmetic decoration or ritual anointing, presented every tint of the rainbow like a kindergarten poster of colours.  I was nervous of bumping them in the crush.  Dull square tins held half-excavated cones of ochre, olive, orangey-brown – what a friend called the “masculine range”.

Workers posed for photos with their basket hats, like Mexican sombreros with high upturned edges, as I entered the concrete building.  I passed people sitting in piles of petals, threading buds with nimble needles.  Then I found the mezzanine floor that ran around the vast hall and overlooked an ocean of blossoms.

Piles of orange marigolds, crimson carnations and white jasmine, heaped and scooped onto scale pans.  Garlands coiled in baskets that could hold a man.  Some monochrome, of uniform species, others striped like candy cane.  Men drew them forth like botanical snake charmers.  It was the psychedelic zenith of my India trip, a temple of the spectrum, a saturated summa of colour.