A microcosm of cultures and religions, bustling Delhi can teach us a great deal about tolerance. Ignore the chaos and discover a city that stands for India’s unparalleled unity in diversity.
Delhi is not a city that wins your heart so easily. Some have called it filthy, others think it’s overcrowded and noisy. Walking through the busy bazaar lane leading up to Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques, I can see their point. The road is packed with pilgrims, street-sellers, motor scooters, dogs, a few cows, and cycle rickshaws elegantly wriggling their way through the chaos. Endless rows of shops selling prayer beads, natural stones, Urdu calligraphy, and different kinds of homemade natural remedies compete for customers. Relying on the appetite of passersby, other sellers have made a business of frying pakora (a savory onion snack popular across the subcontinent) in oil-filled woks.
It takes a while to make sense of the chaos of Old Delhi. But as I watch life around me unfolding, a realization begins to dawn: could it be that there is some kind of hidden order in all this jumble? After all, everything seems to flow in its own way without leading to any knots, clashes, or tension.
Old Delhi, the historical quarter of India’s capital New Delhi, is a walled city originally founded by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan in 1639. Delhi remained the capital of the Mughal dynasty up to the mid-19th century. The Muslim rulers left behind an array of architectural gems in the city such as the Red Fort or Humayun’s Tomb. Today, Delhi is a sprawling metropolis of 20 million, making it India’s second largest city after Mumbai. The city has two distinct parts: the busy and crammed lanes of Old Delhi contrast with the wide avenues of New Delhi, India’s administrative and political center.
As soon as I step into the courtyard of the red-colored Jama Masjid, the hustle and bustle of the marketplace immediately fall off. Small groups of men are moving their bodies in prayer, while children clad in colorful clothes play tag on the warm sandstone floor. A marble pool filled with water in the center of the courtyard adds symmetry and serenity to the scene. Although most of the huge yard is deserted right now, Jama Masjid can accommodate up to 25,000 people for prayer at a time, making it one of the largest mosques in the world.
Suddenly the call to prayer resounds, causing a swarm of pigeons to leave their resting place on one of the mosque’s onion domes. In coordinated movement, they flutter across the prayer area towards the setting sun. Feeling spiritually renewed I leave the courtyard and make my way towards Chandni Chowk (Moonlight Square), Old Delhi’s most famous shopping street. Delhiwallahs -as the residents of the city are called- don’t only come here because of the endless number of stores and eateries. Chandni Chowk is also a microcosm of India’s myriad religious traditions: it houses mosques side by side with Hindu, Jain, and Sikh temples.
Before too long I find myself pulled into a Sikh gurudwara. Sikh men wear turbans, have long beards, and carry a ceremonial dagger on their belts. More than anything else they are known for their uncompromising hospitality to strangers. Sure enough I receive an invitation to have a vegetarian meal at the temple’s community kitchen called a “langar.” Soon a metal plate with rice, lentils, chapati (flatbread), vegetable curry, and pickles lands on my lap. On my way out I can see a dozen volunteers totally immersed in chopping vegetables, washing dishes, and stirring soup in gigantic pots. “Every guest is sent to us by God,” an elderly Sikh man with a yellow turban tells me with a smile before I make my way out.
The same principle seems to be applied at Lotus Temple, one of Delhi’s most outstanding monuments. Built in the late 1980s, this house of worship has the shape of a colossal white lotus sitting in the center of a neatly laid-out garden. The Lotus Temple was conceived by adherents of the Baha’i faith, a modern religious movement that teaches the essential worth of all religions while emphasizing the unity and equality of all people.
Mesmerized by the architecture of the monument, I decide to join a long queue of visitors from all faiths and walks of life. Chattering in the evening sun they wait to step inside the large structure. After a short introduction by a handful of volunteers that includes a reminder to stay silent, doors open to a large hall. The interior of the lotus looks as simple as it is spacious. Under the vaulted ceiling there are no statues or images, just long wooden benches and a large Persian carpet at the center. Sitting almost under the center of the flower, I close my eyes and tune into the all-pervading silence.
The idea to be equally welcoming to people of all beliefs would have also appealed to Mahatma Gandhi. India’s untiring non-violence advocate and independence hero spent the last months of his life in Delhi. This year marks Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, so a visit to Birla House -the place where Gandhi was assassinated by an ultranational Hindu in 1947- is all the timelier now.
Birla House is a large white residential mansion that was turned into a museum in the 1970s. It houses objects from Gandhi’s life such as his pocket watch that still displays the time of his death, 5:17 p.m. The sparse room where the Mahatma (literally “Great Soul”) lived, contains a modest mattress and a few other personal belongings from his daily life. Out in the garden, footprints recreate the last steps Gandhi took before he was going to lead the nightly prayer.
Standing at the column that marks the precise place where three bullets struck Gandhi’s chest, I marvel at how one small man with a strong will managed to transform history. A larger-than-life statue in the courtyard shows Gandhi with the spinning wheel which became a potent symbol for India’s independence struggle. Taking control of the local textile production which had been monopolized by the British was one of the most important steps towards Indian independence. Moved by what I saw at the museum, I enter the adjacent shop and decide to get myself a typical home-spun kurta, a traditional knee-long Indian shirt.
Dressed in local attire, I board one of the three-wheeled motor rickshaws. I don’t know if it’s because of the new, light clothes I am wearing, but suddenly Delhi doesn’t seem quite as crazy to me anymore. I look at the street-sellers who have laid out fresh mangoes on their shopping carts and smell the incense of a tiny roadside temple. Delhi can be a feast for the senses. It rewards you if you can surrender yourself to it.