Rickshawing Through Old Delhi

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A view of Old Delhi from a moving rickshaw.
A view of Old Delhi from a moving rickshaw. Flickr/Ville Miettinen

The pedal-powered rickshaw puller rammed on the hand brakes as he collided with the motorized tuk-tuk directly in front of us. The screeching noise added to the beeps, honks and shouts rising from the symphony of an Old Delhi traffic jam. I looked behind through the open space of our perch and with wide eyes and gaping mouth waited for a similar impact from a scooter closing the gap.

Exploring Old Delhi by Rickshaw

I heard the spokes of the bicycle’s front tire scraping against the struts of the carriage trying to pass us on the right. A quick purse snatch from the woman riding in the rickshaw alongside ours would be kid’s play. Realizing that she could just as easily lift my wallet, I pressed my handbag into the center crease of the seat. Tucking both elbows snuggly inside the arm rail, I wound my camera strap so tightly around my wrist that veins bulged.

Delivery vans, push carts, cars and contraptions of boards and plastic wired together fought for every inch of narrow road space. Weaving and bobbing through this virtual sea of vehicles, merchants teetering under the weight of bales of fabric atop their heads, snaked across the street. A bump here, a thud there, none of the rickshaw pullers, called lakhs, even flinched at the barrage of assaults. A stray cow sauntering in the opposite direction of the traffic seemed to instinctively know that drivers would rather collide with another vehicle than crash into the animal’s ‘sacred’ hide. Human life didn’t appear to rank quite so high.

Our young, lean cyclist crawled forward unfazed by the organized chaos. He pressed his worn thin flip-flops down on the pedals. A teenager’s day in Old Delhi; riding a bicycle in flimsy footwear, pulling a carriage with two Western travelers. True to the universal distraction he balanced the handlebars with one finger and grabbed his cellphone from his back pocket, checking for messages. Staying connected appeared to take priority over safety in India as well.

Old Delhi. This is not rush hour, this is every hour. Photo by Carol Bowman
This is not rush hour, this is every hour. Photo by Carol Bowman

Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi

Chandni Chowk Bazaar, the busiest market in Old Delhi, was built in the mid-17th century by Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan and designed by his daughter Jahanara. The market’s name, derived from the Hindi word meaning silver, related to the sale of items crafted from this precious metal.

A reflection pool originally constructed in the center of the shopping area had once shimmered in the moonlight. For centuries, this commerce mecca retained the nickname of Silver and Moonlight Square. The silver market has thrived for over three hundred years but the small canals and the pool were filled in with more stores and narrow alleys.

Just outside the walls of India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid built around the same time as the market in 1650 and located on the outer fringe of the bazaar, numerous rickshaws lined the street. Each one had its own unique characteristic and eager lakhs used high pressure tactics or charming teenage innocence to entice worshippers or shoppers into their carriages. The prospect of earning rupees for every jaunt must make pulling a cart full of people and goods through the masses less grueling.

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