Blessing the Chariot

I went out to buy some milk this evening, taking the shortcut down the alley past the Hindu Temple. A pandit (priest wearing the Nehru jacket) was chanting prayers while he anointed a couple’s new scooter with sandalwood paste. Using his index finger, he painted a swastika design below the headlamp, putting a dot in each of the four quadrants. Actually, he missed one out until the man with the goatee beard drew his attention to the omission.img_20170227_181217

All the time, the bike was running in neutral, balanced on its stand, with the back wheel slowly revolving and the headlight on. The pandit wrapped a garland of marigolds around the wing mirrors. I have often wondered why I see motorbikes with dead flowers attached to their handlebars. Now I know.


The ceremony ended when the couple gave the pandit a box of sweets (special laddoo from Bikanerwala). He removed a pinch from the golf ball-sized sweet and applied it to the centre of the swastika. Maybe it will make the scooter run sweetly.


What do you do with the rest of a laddoo after using part of it to anoint a Honda? You give it to the foreigner who has been watching the proceedings, of course. And it was very good. I put milk jug between my knees and put my hands together in Namaste. Then I added a little prayer, “I hope the scooter will never break down, never have an accident and retain its second hand value.” I thanked them for the sweet.

If an Indian ever gives you something and you say how beautiful or tasty it was, they will immediately press you to take another. I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for supper, so I declined a second sweet, but the pandit gave me a tilak of my own between the eyebrows. That will activate my third eye.



Recently, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, there was a three-day extravaganza rejoicing in the “spirit and eloquence, the beauty and versatility of Urdu”. The festival celebrated everything Urdu – art, poetry, drama, music, cinema and literature.


The ancient name for Urdu is Rekhta (which means scattered and mixed). Most people who speak Hindi can understand Urdu, as it is based on Sanskrit, with Arabic and Persian cultural influences. Hindi is written in a different script, Devanagari, whereas Urdu is written (right to left) in Nasta’liq. It is a delightful language on the ear; some say that even if you are arguing with someone, it sounds like you are complimenting them. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word, but it sounded charming.

I was only able to attend on Saturday afternoon, so I picked a musical event called Hum Bulbulein Hain Iski: Songs of the Progressives starting at 3:30pm. That gave me plenty of time to have lunch at the Food Court and to meander around the other events in the gardens.


There was a wonderful variety of food available. Although I have enjoyed hot, fruity, spiced milk in the past, I decided it was too hot (29C) to drink it. I had a special pista kulfi ice-cream on a stick instead. The tandoori chicken looked tempting, especially as the birds are all free-range and much tastier than UK supermarket fare.


I was also interested in the breaded cutlets, the mutton mince, “blue biryani”, stuffed parathas and bhel puri.

But I chose to have brain cutlets (Parsi style). Goat brains, lightly chopped, spiced with chilli, coriander leaves, ginger, turmeric, peppercorns and garlic, made into patties, dipped in beaten egg, rolled in semolina flour, then fried in ghee until golden brown. Absolutely delicious.


Many of the trees had bells and packages hanging from their lower branches. I understand that people ask God for something, tie a gift onto a tree, and when their wish is granted, they take down the gift. There’s probably nothing perishable in the package. Hindus ring bells in temples to alert God to their presence, but almost all Urdu speakers are Muslim. Life is complicated in India, I get confused in my dotage.


This gentleman looks very smart in his maroon Nehru jacket with matching turban

I managed to get a good seat in the shade to listen to Danish Hussain, the Bollywood film star of Dhobi Ghat and, more recently, Alif, telling amusing stories on stage. The audience really appreciated it and even though I couldn’t understand it, his delivery, diction and timing were excellent. He had them eating out of his hand.

Vidya Shah is a famous singer, writer and social activist in the area of agricultural workers’ rights and making family planning more accessible. In my medical work I have come across two of the agencies with which she is associated, the “Naz Foundation” and “Breakthrough”. A trio of musicians (tabla, harmonium and sarod) accompanied her classical singing.

Afterwards, I felt a bit peckish, so I sneaked back to the food court for some dessert – my favourite Daulat-ki-Chaat, of course. But I should have known better. It is always best enjoyed in the cool of the morning, after the dew has settled on its surface, helping it to firm up. My serving was rather flabby.




Vintage and Classic Car Rally

The Statesman is holding the 51st Classic Car Rally in Delhi this weekend. In the words of the advertising poster,

“Let these beauties charm you one more time,
For, these are classic and sublime.”

I happened to be walking past Modern School, just off Connaught Place early this afternoon when a poster grabbed my attention. I was hoping that there would be 100 vehicles lined up, ready to be inspected and registered in the rally. There were just two.


One was a beauty, a 1934 Lagonda with sweeping running boards and painted British racing green. The engine compartment was not as polished and gleaming as it would have been at a rally in UK, but I didn’t care. It had been imported to India after manufacture and had never left.


The other was a Standard (which looked like a Triumph to me from a distance, with the front superstructure hinged frontwards like a Herald). It had a soft top which had been specially designed for the Indian summer. The owner was a very proud 83 year old. He had done Naval Training in 1951 at Dartmouth in Devon and was a real Anglophile down to his tweed flat cap.


I chatted to the organisers who were vetting the vehicles. One had a plummy, cut-glass English accent, which matched his cardigan perfectly. I suppose it goes with the position.

Modern School is surrounded by playing fields and a shady, well-kept garden. Why on earth it should have a tank and a jet fighter in the grounds, I have no idea.


Cycling Through the Galis of Old Delhi

It was pitch black when we emerged from Chawri Bazar metro station at 6:15am on a Sunday morning. There are no street lights in the Walled City of Shahjahanabad. But people were awake, huddling around braziers to get some warmth into their bodies before starting the day’s toil. I led my intrepid colleagues down the dark alleys. They had confidence in my inner compass to guide us to the meeting place, because I had been here before. But that was in daylight. So I followed my nose. This wasn’t easy either, considering the stench of the open drains.

It was even too early to buy chai. We stepped over sleeping bodies and dogs, tiptoed around pools of strange liquid, piles of festering rubbish and squeezed past parked trucks. We had arranged to meet the organisers of “Delhi by Bike” at 6:45am at the Delite Cinema (sadly now crumbling into disrepair). Priyanka greeted us and we chose our bikes. They were heavy mountain bikes with chunky tyres – perfect for the flat, partly-paved streets of Old Delhi.

At 7am we cycled Indian file (I couldn’t resist writing that) into the labyrinth of lanes and alleys. The sunrise had tinged the smoggy sky with pink, so we could see where we were going, without using lights. Almost immediately, we turned off the beaten track onto a winding path – what we in Leicester would call a “jitty”. We had to dismount several times to go down some steps. I desperately wanted to stop and take photographs of the old buildings and havelis, but every time I slowed down and looked around, the cyclist behind me nearly crashed.

We rejoined the main drag and I recognised where we were. We cycled past the marigold sellers outside the Fathepuri Mosque (Masjid) on the corner of Khari Baoli and Chandni Chowk, and stopped at the spice market. Men were stooped over carrying large sacks of dried chillies and fragrant seeds down a narrow, dark passageway. (I don’t think the men were bent over because of a heavy load; it was just that the sacks were so bulky that they were best carried on the upper back, rather than the shoulders.)

We followed them and turned to the left, climbing half a dozen flights of stairs to emerge onto a flat roof. To the west was a jumble of shacks in a huge courtyard, where spice merchants stored their goods. To the east, the sun was streaming through the smoke of early morning fires in Chandni Chowk and flooding golden light into the masjid. Photographers’ Heaven.

I walked around the roof, taking pictures of the ramshackle buildings, people doing their laundry, taking a bath, boiling up milky tea in blackened cooking pots, reducing masala to a thick sauce in a shallow pan, or simply checking their messages on WhatsApp.


Charpai bed with reverse air conditioning

The chilli dust in the air had scoured my nasal sinuses, but this meant the fine, pungeant powder had a clear passage down to my bronchioles. The dust made us all wheeze, cough and splutter. We needed our whistles wetting. It wasn’t even 8 o’clock and we still hadn’t had chai.

We cycled north, took a side road past the Lieutenant Governor’s official residence, and parked up outside a popular chai stall, built into the wall of a Hindu temple. The temple had toilets, so we took off our shoes, walked across the concourse and then realised that we would need our shoes again if we were going to use the toilets. The facilities were basic. I went around the corner to wash my hands and saw a massive bowl of cow shit by the sink. Holy crap.


The tea was disappointing, but I gorged on shortbread biscuits with chocolate chips and namkeen from the chai wallah. Cycling boosts your appetite. We cycled south, past the railway station, through the gangs of daily wage labourers waiting to be employed, down by the town hall to reach Chandni Chowk.

It is difficult to believe that this boulevard got its name from the reflection of moonlight from a central canal illuminating the facades of aristocratic houses. Sigh. Even before 9am, it was bustling with activity verging on mayhem.

We crossed the street and pedalled down Parantha Gali and through the lanes to the Jama Masjid, Delhi’s largest mosque, constructed in 1648. We went on to eat breakfast of mutton curry and Khameer naan bread at Karim’s backstreet restaurant. You might scoff (we certainly did) at having this for breakfast, but it was melt-in-the-mouth delicious. We ate some sweet thick slabs of bread before cycling back to the Turkamen Gate and the Delite Cinema, marking the end of our tour. By now, the streets were filling up with people, donkeys, horses, goats, rickshaws, food carts, scooters and motorbikes. The golden hours of cycling had vanished and it wasn’t even 11am.

We were exhilarated. Our route had taken us back and forth across the Old City. It had whetted my appetite for more exploration and I was already making plans to return with a better camera and longer lens. Cycling is great, but unless you are wearing a GoPro camera on your helmet, you can’t take photos while riding.

Midnight Wedding

The noise was deafening. Even though firecrackers have been banned because of the poor air quality in Delhi, this didn’t stop a score from lighting up the sky. First of all, I went up to the roof, but I quickly saw that I needed to be on the street to get in on the action. I am posting this blog within an hour of it happening.


It was chilly, so I pulled on my winter jacket, grabbed my camera and ran down the stairs. The wedding carriage was just pulling into the local housing estate where the banqueting tent was situated. The groom and half a dozen children were riding in the carriage at the end of the parade. Men and women were walking in separate groups, each with their own set of drummers and trumpet players.



While I was snapping away, the brother of the groom pulled me into a group of male dancers. I threw a few shapes but my camera was bouncing on my chest and nearly hit me in the face. I ducked out, and went over to take pictures of the ladies in their finery. They were dancing too, but in a more refined way, less alcohol-fuelled than the men.

The bride’s brother took my camera and I was dragooned into dancing. The fast drumming was hypnotic and I let myself go, shimmying for all I was worth. That’s the thing about being a white man in India, no one cares if you make a fool of yourself. Everyone thinks that people dance that way in England, at weddings. Maybe they do.

The photographs the BB took are blurry and full of grain. He did his best. I am posting them because they look authentic and I look happy. He begged me to go to the wedding tent and eat, but I said that I had already had supper. Someone pulled on his arm to ask a question and while his attention was distracted, I managed to slip away.

On the way out of the estate, I saw an ice cream vendor. After midnight, in the street, among the cows. India, man.


Thursday Doors

A break from Old Delhi, how about some art instead? At the Indian Modern Art Festival last month in Delhi this surreal painting of a door looks like it has been cut into four slices.


This looks like some of the doors I have been photographing in Old Delhi.


This doorway looks more South East Asia, perhaps Thai or Cambodian. A tiger temple with Buddhist monks.


Enough of this modern stuff, let’s get back to the 18th Century, nestled in the lanes of the Walled City.

And can anyone guess what the little earthenware pots are used for in this picture?


The answer is that they are the Indian equivalent of piggy banks, where children keep save their coins until they need to buy something and then they crack open the pot to access their cash.

And a less than grand finale:


Red Fort

“Lal Quila” means Red Fort, because of the magnificent red sandstone walls. When it was constructed in the early 17th Century, it was known as the “Lal Mubarak”, or Blessed Fort. The Moghuls ruled their diminishing Indian Empire from the Fort for two hundred years before the disaster of the Mutiny in 1857 (known here as the Second War of Independence).

It is a marvel of Moghul architecture. Sadly, when the British troops took over the fort following the siege of Delhi, it was ransacked. Semi-precious stones were prised from their marble settings. Beautiful buildings were torn down to make way for army barracks.

Parts of the Fort are in a sorry state of disrepair. But the quality of the workmanship in the carving of windows and walls of red sandstone is superb.


During May and June, temperatures soar in Delhi. The Moghuls used water and white marble to stay cool. This is a beautiful pavilion with a water feature on the back wall, channelling the flow to the edge of the plinth and into a shallow canal. Lighted candles would have been placed in the alcoves behind the flow of water after dark.


The inlay work (pietra dura) depicting flowers is wonderful. Much of this has been renovated sensitively. The third image below is the underside of an arch. It probably has not been touched for 200 years so it looks a bit forlorn. The cornflower blue still stands out.


The barracks are ugly, but still in use during special occasions when the military presence in the capital is beefed up, at Independence Day, for example. Families must have been billeted here because there are the remains of a school. The walls of the classroom still have remnants of nursery rhymes and the alphabet.


The Lahori Gate leads onto a covered bazaar, where one can buy trinkets, slippers and “antiques”. When British troops entered the fort at the end of September 1857, some mutineers took pot shots at them from balconies above the shops. The British dealt harshly with rebel sepoys who had “taken the salt” (pledged loyalty to the East India Company). On the spot where the mutineers had hacked to death European women and children who had been imprisoned in the fort, Moghul princes were hanged in reprisal.

The Fort originally had a moat, with water diverted from the River Yamuna. There is even a small “river gate” which now opens onto a garden as the course of the river has changed. There is a step well or baoli to provide water for the defenders of the Fort during a siege. There is also a lovely classical bungalow (similar to the Lutyens buildings in New Delhi).

The walls of the Fort have had some tasteful renovation. The crenellations have loopholes allowing defenders to shoot down on attackers at different angles. Some loopholes are covered by a stone cap, presumably to provide additional protection. The merlons are scalloped more for decoration than to protect the defenders.

The neighbouring Salimbagh Fort (which is actually a hundred years older than the Red Fort) has more solid walls. It is a huge mound of earth (which used to be on an island in the Yamuna), clad with stone. It was a high-security prison during the Second World War, housing captured commanders of the Indian National Army.

After the Mutiny, the British built a railway into Old Delhi from the east, passing Salimbagh and cutting a corner off the Red Fort. A footbridge over the tracks has crenellated walls of iron plate. It needs to be painted regularly. I wonder if this man is slapping on “red lead” paint (lead tetroxide and calcium plumbate) to protect the steelwork from corrosion.


Chhatarpur Temple Complex

Almost at the southern end of the Yellow Line on the Delhi Metro at Chhatarpur, there is a temple with a gigantic monkey god statue. I had to visit. Hanuman is one of my favourite gods.

There are half a dozen different temples on the estate, covering 60 acres. Each temple has a different style. The main temple is dedicated to Katyayini, who is an avatar of Parvati, the consort of Siva. She is one of the nine forms of Durga. Young women worship her, fasting for a month, in order to get the husband of their dreams. Katyayini is also related to Kanya Kumari, the goddess at Cape Cormorin, the southernmost tip of India. Confused? So am I.

I didn’t visit at peak pilgrim time, during Navratri, so it was quiet. There was a holding pen for devotees to queue up in the shade while waiting to perform puja. I took off my shoes and stepped onto the cool black and white tiled floor of the temple courtyard. By the entrance, there was a sacred tree, adorned with swatches of red material, red being the colour associated with the goddess.


The temple is only 40 years old. It isn’t as massive as Akshardham, across the Yamuna.  The marble walls have fancy lattice work (called jaali) to allow light and air to circulate. Instead of having stained glass tell the story (as in European cathedrals), there are dioramas depicting scenes. All the signage was in Hindi, so I didn’t have a clue what was going on.

One interesting part of the temple was what looked like rooms from a private house. There was a dining room and a bedroom, with a silver dressing table and leopard crawling past the bed.

Baba Sant Nagpal founded the temple. I think this is his portrait.

I walked through smaller shrines, dedicated to other gods, Radha/Krishna, Ganesh, Siva and Rama. Photography was not permitted, but I was given some sweets and had an orange dot applied to my forehead by one of the priests, perhaps as compensation.

I crossed the main Chhatarpur Road and visited the Shiva Mandir and Baba Nagpal temple. The latter was extraordinary, with a garish colour scheme of cream and rose pink. Around the walls were images of Katyayini/Kali with progressively more arms. She starts off with two in the first image and as you walk clockwise around the upper floor, the images sprout more limbs, ending up with twenty arms. The more arms, the more weapons and severed, bloody heads. No photography was allowed, probably just as well.


At the Shiva Mandir there was a preposterous set of blue doors, bigger than any I have ever seen. I couldn’t open it because it was locked by a massive padlock. But it didn’t seem to lead anywhere.


I walked through the complex to the Hanuman Statue, what had attracted me to the temple in the first place. It is a colossus in orange, on a plinth, with pigeons trying to fly up under his loin cloth to roost.


Across the road is a South Indian temple, the Laskhmi Vinayak Mandir. This was closed so I could only take pictures through the wrought iron gates.


Close by the temple complex there were ashrams, schools of meditation, yoga and a hospital. It reminded me of London teaching hospitals – St Thomas’s or St Bartholomew’s, connecting medicine with religion. There’s a bit of hocus pocus going on, too.



Jain Festival

There are about seven million followers of the Jain Dharma (religion) in India. It has been in decline since the 6th century AD. The central tenets are non-violence and respect for all creatures. To avoid stepping on ants, Jain monks and nuns sweep the street with fallen peacock feathers; to avoid inadvertently killing or eating bugs, they don’t eat root vegetables or cauliflower; to avoid inhaling flies, they wear a white mask over their nose and mouth.

Last September, the Jain community celebrated paryushana which consists of ten days of fasting and meditation. There was a loud parade on the main road, outside our apartment, so naturally, I took some photographs. Half a dozen bands from different areas of Delhi paraded in front of the vehicle carrying the idol. Jains use the swastika as an emblem of non-violence. An open hand with a wheel on the palm symbolises the relentless pursuit of truth which will end the cycle of reincarnation.


Jains sometimes carry out ritual fasting. Last October, a 13 year old girl from Hyderabad starved for 68 days during chaumasa. After successfully completing the fast, there was a parna ceremony, where the girl rode triumphantly in a chariot, dressed as a goddess. The family took out quarter page adverts in the local newspaper to publicise her achievement. Tragically, two days later, she collapsed and died of a cardiac dysrhythmia (which is a risk for anorexic patients).

Perhaps she had achieved moksha, being released from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Or maybe she was just an impressionable young girl who felt obliged to fast for some greater good.


Thursday Doors

Here are some fine doors from the Red Fort or Lal Quila, in Delhi, about which I must blog when I get time. The fort was designed by the same architect who built the Taj Mahal. It took 10 years to construct and the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan moved his court there from Agra in 1648. It was originally called Lal Mubarak, meaning “blessed” or “auspicious”. But it wasn’t really. Several kings were bumped off in the fort. Most of the treasures of the empire were looted from the fort by the Persian Emperor, Nadir Shah, in 1739, including the Peacock Throne with the Koh-i-Noor diamond. In 1760, the Marathas took down the silver ceiling of the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) and melted it into ingots. During the Indian Mutiny, Delhi was besieged by the British. When the sepoys were driven out of Delhi, the Red Fort was abandoned. The Brits plundered the fort and destroyed some beautiful gardens and buildings. In their place, the Public Works Department erected a dull set of Victorian barracks to house the occupying troops.

There are two doors (ok, they are really gates) to the fort in current use. This is the Delhi Gate. The doors are massive, over six metres high. The spikes have been removed below two metres to prevent tourists from impaling themselves.

In the words of my grandfather, “How the hell did they hang them doors?” Not surprisingly, they don’t move now.

The road to the bastion gate is parallel to the fort’s southern wall, exposing an invading force to fire from above. Beyond this gate there is a courtyard, which would have been a death trap for invaders. Then the road turns through 90 degrees to pass through the fort walls. This would have made it difficult for soldiers with a battering ram (or an elephant) to get up momentum to bash in the gate.

This is Delhi Gate from inside the Red Fort.
This is the other main gateway, the Lahori Gate. It leads to a covered market, hence the “Subhash gift corner” sign. The towering red sandstone walls are almost 400 years old.

It gets really hot in Delhi in summer, so most of the palaces within the fort are pavilions, without doors. This is the door to the Moti Masjid, one of the mosques. I like the way the marble has worn away on the right side of the doorstep. And there is a gap in the doorstep to allow water to run away.

It is disappointing to see the way the door has been secured, with a naff chain and cheap padlock. Surely the Archeological Survey of India (AIS), which is responsible for all the ancient monuments in India, could have come up with something more appropriate for this wonderful door?


This is a carved marble screen, in the Diwan-i-Khas, where the Mughal Emperor would give judgement under the scales of justice. Well, it is almost a doorway…


This impressive set of doors leads to the zenana or women’s quarters. I am taken with the elephant & mahout door knobs, but it is sad that the metal covering has been prised away by souvenir hunters. Neither do I like the bits of paper stuck to the door. This is a Wonder of the World, yet many areas are in a sad state of disrepair.


This is almost a cheat. The white marble throne of the Moghul Emperor has been protected from the public by a glass wall, presumably to stop the inlaid semi-precious stones from being gouged out. But the photograph does have a door beneath the wonderfully carved window.


Two more doors, one just an opening, with a sleeping dog guarding the entrance.

Finally, the Red Fort was used as a prison for the leaders of the Indian National Army, who fought with the Japanese during the Second World War. These are the doors of their prison block, in Salimgarh Fort. This was built on an island in the Yamuna River, but it is now connected to the Red Fort by a bridge.