DelhibyCycle – Started by a Dutch biking enthusiast who believed the best way to explore the sights, smells, and sounds of the city was by bicycle! I love sightseeing, and I love trying new things, so I was convinced. I registered for the tour, and at 6:20am the next morning, I awoke, brushed my teeth, and went to Delite Cinemas, the meeting point for the tour.
It was 9 of us: 3 men from France, 1 from Scotland, 2 girls from Delhi, me, 1 tour guide, and another employee whose job was to keep us all safe. We were given our bikes, no helmets of course, and within a couple minutes, we were led, single file, through one of the most crowded streets in Old Delhi.
I had opted for their most popular tour: a tour of Shahjahanabad, the original name for Old Delhi. The same Mughal emperor who had contracted the Taj Mahal established Shahjahanabad as a capital that he deemed worthy of his vast kingdom. And it was. Shahjahanabad was a beautifully and carefully planned city. Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in South Asia, was at the center. The four major streets of the city all led to the masjid. The Red Fort and a thick wall protected the city.
Two hundred years and fifty years of unplanned urban capitalism have transformed the city. It quickly became established as a trading hub for hardware, which then expanded to dry fruits and herbs, and now, it’s a major wholesale market for every type of good imaginable: engineering parts, flowers, books, spices and more.
It took a trained eye, or at least knowledge of what to look for, to separate Shahjahanabad from the Old Delhi that exists today. This was the first contrast I encountered: the contrast between old havelis turned into shops, courtyards turned into shops, and historical streets turned into….shops. The carefully planned Shahjahanabad transformed by frenzied capitalism, where the only rule is to sell, sell, sell.
After about 30 minutes of clumsy cycling, nearly running into auto rickshaws, and almost making a wrong turn, I finally gained my footing. Soon I was cruising through the gullies, streets in between buildings that were only wide enough for two people at a time. I was weaving through the traffic with confidence. But as soon as I mastered bicycling through the most crowded market in Old Delhi, we entered a new neighborhood: quiet, green, and void of all the chaos I had just grown accustomed to.
After a revolt in 1857 against the British, The British in Delhi migrated out of the old city and established a residential area they named Civil Lines. In true British fashion, this neighborhood has large, gated mansions and an upscale hotel. Now, it is home to several of Delhi’s government officials. This was second contrast: the contrast between posh residence and urban slum. Shahjahanabad slowly crumbling. Civil Lines standing pretty. But I can thank the British for the delicious chai we had in Civil Lines (the British brought tea to India in the early 1800’s).
We reentered Old Delhi and rode past Jama Masjid and the Red Fort on Chandni Chowk Road, the most historic street in Delhi. It has experienced all of the history of Shahjahanabad. Towards the end of the street is a Baptist church next to a Sikh gurdwara next to a Hindu temple next to a Jain temple and all nearby Jama Masjid. And we couldn’t help but notice the sixth religion represented on Chandni Chowk road: McDonalds. The architecture, the city layout, and the few remaining structures point to a capital city fit for a king in the not too distant past. Over the years, Shahjahanabad has had to accept the chaos of the free market. It has learned that unplanned, urban development, though chaotic, can work just as well as carefully laid out streets. It has seen dynasty, colonialism, and democracy. And thus, Shahjahanabad lives on.