A Wealth Of Local Culture In Delhi

6 March 2016
Read Time: 2.9 mins

I’m hunched over a tiny, weathered cricket bat, guarding a cardboard box acting as stumps, while a seven-year-old boy tells me the rules of our back-alley game.

Most of them are standard cricket regulations except for a couple of notable exceptions – the batsmen must run to the first tuk-tuk and back, and if you hit the ball into the side wall of the Hindu temple you are out.

Simple enough - I figure 15 years of playing in adult cricket competitions should stand me in good stead for an impromptu game against a rambunctious group of Indian kids.

A minute later I’m hobbling out of this Delhi alleyway, my reputation muddied worse than the street, having swung at a ball but instead struck my ankle with heavy force.

With each laboured step I’m followed by the prolonged, raucous laughter of my child conquerors. But it is such random, spur-of-the-moment experiences in which Delhi specialises.

Delhi, India Delhi’s streets teem with activity throughout the day (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

It is one of the world's busiest, most confounding cities. Yet, by walking Delhi's boisterous streets you constantly are rewarded by uncovering the unexpected and wonderfully-curious elements of everyday life in India.

Unlike many of the world's more polished cities, where wandering through an average neighbourhood tends to be uneventful, Delhi's streets offer endless amusement, amazement and enrichment.

Particularly in winter, when daily maximum temperatures are pleasant at between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius, Delhi is a brilliant city to tackle on foot.

So I opted to forego taxis and tuks-tuks and instead meander the streets of Old Delhi – the original heart of the city.

My starting point was the icon of Old Delhi, the ancient Red Fort. This giant complex, with its striking earth-red walls, was built in the 1640s as the palace fort of Shahjahanabad, which was the new capital of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.

It features a row of pavilions, housing private imperial apartments, which are linked by a small water canal known as Nahr-i-Behisht, the 'Stream of Paradise'.

This palace fort is renowned as one of the finest-ever pieces of Mughal construction, synthesising elements of Hindu, Persian and Timurid architecture.

Delhi, India The Red Fort is the icon of Old Delhi (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

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As I walked out of this complex on to the streets of Old Delhi, I was approached by a well-mannered student, Anil, who asked me to share a cup of Chai tea with his parents in their nearby shop.

Despite typically being wary of such situations, there was an honesty to the young man that prompted me to follow him into the lounge room behind their small hardware shop.

An hour on, I had learned a tremendous amount about the history and culture of Old Delhi thanks to my free-ranging conversation with Anil’s parents and grandmother, who all spoke fine English.

They explained how the whole area once was a walled city, which remained the hub of the Mughal Empire until the 1850s. This had been a glorious period, when Old Delhi was a wealthy enclave embellished by opulent homes, manicured gardens and imposing administrative buildings.

Now, Old Delhi is a starkly poor place with a disorderly atmosphere – its dusty streets are jammed with vehicles of all sorts, and its wonky footpaths crowded with street vendors, shoppers, tourists and beggars.

Delhi, India Delhi is filled with fascinating characters and colours (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

But if you’ve come to India, chances are you were well aware of chaotic places like this and, perhaps even attracted by them.

The great advantage of this frenzy of activity is that boredom is an impossibility. You could stand on an Old Delhi street corner for an hour and remain engrossed.

Sometimes, the range of intriguing events or behaviour is so overwhelming your eyes dart in one direction then another trying forlornly to absorb it all.

Particularly manic is the Chandni Chowk shopping area. It spreads off the main road opposite the fort into myriad alleys lined with tiny shops selling everything from traditional Indian garments to household items and children’s toys.

There is respite from all this excessive sensory input just behind Chandni Chowk in the form of the Jama Masjid. While the Red Fort is more famous, this gigantic mosque built in the 1640s is equally magnificent.

Delhi, India The majestic Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

Aspace for silent reflection and prayer for Delhi’s Muslim population, it has an enormous courtyard that can house 25,000 worshippers, making it India’s biggest mosque.

After the noise and crowds I had encountered on my walk, this serene setting was the perfect restorative end point.

I emerged out of its front entrance feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, and decided it was time to rest and hail a taxi back to my hotel.

Old Delhi had worn out my feet, my mind and my heart. It had also left me with a trove of vibrant memories.


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Ronan O'Connell

Ronan has been a journalist for 12 years, including nine years at daily newspapers in Australia, and now is a freelance travel photojournalist. As a freelancer he has contributed to almost 20 different magazines and newspapers across Europe, Australia, Asia and New Zealand, including The BBC, The Guardian, Travel Talk Magazine, For the Love of Travel Magazine, The Australian Financial Review and The South East Asia Globe.