Monthly Archives: February 2015

The wonderful work of the New Delhi Sikhs.

Unexpected.

That’s a good word to start with.

Moving.

Am pleased with that as a follow up.

Humbling.

There, nailed it.

Three words to encapsulate our entirety accidental visit to the Sikh Temple: Gurudwara Bangla Sahib south of Connaught Place, New Delhi. I working on a fourth word.

A couple of hours previously, we were negotiating an auto-rickshaw ride to the India Gate when the – coincidentally Sikh – taxi man suggested we hire a car and driver for the whole morning. 600INR. (About six quid.) We meet our drive and his weeny Maruti-Suzuki van and set off onto the wide, green fringed, sunny boulevards of Lutyens city. The sheer of grandeur only pretty much completely ruined by the demolition derby driving. (More of which elsewhere.) Our chauffeur – am being charitable now: a scruffy, unkempt, smiling chap – begins to suggest a tour in the way Indians do. IE: here’s what you want to see, now off we go. No actual asking the paying customer, no sab, that’s not how we are rolling. Made of sterner stuff, we insist on a trip to the India Gate. Well worth it as it turns out: the sheer size of it, a place from which to grasp the vision of Lutyens Delhi  and the might of the Empire (rightly/wrongly). Then taking the scale of loss of human life, boggling at the sacrifice in war, watching young soldiers being drilled on ceremonial wreath laying and how fortunate we are to live in more peaceful times. Somewhat traumatised, we are on our way.

Now Sikh Temple” offers drive (accompanied by customary head bobble).

 I confess, faithful reader that I was a careworn Indian traveler at this point: 
a touch arrogant in failing to take our helmsman at face value. 
My attitude was a little "yeah, yeah: whatever." How wrong I was.

Following a standard hairy few minutes journey we are descending through an underground carpark. Sensing my raised eyebrow, drive says “all free, all free” which only serves to increase eyebrow/forehead gymnastics. After some comically precise parking shenanigans, we emerge from the concrete bunker and are dazzled by bright sunlight reflecting off wall to wall white marble. Sikhs of every shape, size and age are busying themselves. It’s a temple alright.

As you may be aware, I have many India miles under my belt, so I know the temple drill. Store shoes, cover noggin and limbs, adopt quiet respectfulness of the goings on. Additionally here I am given a temporary turban and as we are led to the Temple proper we pass through a foot bath. With little pause to take the scale of the place in, we are ushered indoors. Momentarily blinded, eyes adjusting to the indoor light, the beautiful sounds of three faithful (volunteer) musicians offering holy song and accompaniment fills my head. Utterly enchanting, atmospheric and calming. Our guide explains the scene as all around the faithful pay their respects and carry out their religious business. The ceiling is golden, ornate, the holy book revered. We do not feel unwelcome, nor intruding, nor out of place: it is a place of deepest peace and gentle reverence: more so than I have experienced in any – say – church.

Proceeding outdoors to the enormous tank – of water, not armoured nor tracked – there are very many folk sitting in the shade in quiet contemplation. I am with them.

At this point, two things are newly in play. 1) our chauffeur has become the most unexpectedly competent, sensitive and passionate guide. He is Hindi not a Sikh, but – in common with so many Indians – he is hedging his religious bets by joining in. (More significantly) 2) proceedings  take an unexpected turn. Our drive had been offering some explanation of the activities at the temple and we – to my shame – bounced off the language barrier. I really wasn’t fully understanding what was being conveyed to us and – arrogant SOB – thought I was on point when it came to things that happen around here. Wrong!

Dimly aware of the Sikh penchant for charity, I knew they offered food to all comers. Yet when we descended out of the direct sun, the scene awaited us was on another plane. One I didn’t see coming. In a stockade sat around five hundred folk who were clearly of meagre means. Now you might think you know what poor means. But believe me, when you see the poor in India you’d likely have to re-calibrate. For this author, the creeping sensation of discomfort and involuntary guilt leapt to front of mind. “How can I be so effortlessly wealthy when these folk are so very, very poor? How can that be right?”

We walk past the hungry into a cavernous kitchen where scores of volunteers are preparing food.

So many questions. I start off with a simple one: How many mouths do they feed here each day?

“Ten thousand.”

No, that’s not a typo. And yes, I did ask twice.

Dahl, chapatti, a rice-pudding and some vegetables dished up on pressed metal trays with a winning combo’ of fresh cookery and mass produced efficiency. Staring open mouthed at the scale, the industry I am motioned by a gent to pitch in. Smiling broadly I settle cross legged onto a plank to deploy my culinary skills. Task? Fashion chapatti from balls of dough. A whopping flour dusted marble tray set on the floor is attended by around a (bakers?) dozen, er, bakery assistants. I take my rolling pin and we’re in production. An elderly gent opposite forms the dough balls and fires them in short order to each wielder of rolling pin. Not wanting to do wrong, nor let the side down I crack on.

Stacks of rolled breads are then shipped over to a snooker table sized hot plate before being finished over a flame. The puffing of cooked bread and expert flipping into trays was a sight to behold: simple yet mesmeric.

We place our hands together and bow our thanks for having a few scant minutes behind the scenes. For the humble privilege of helping feed those in need, albeit in a microscopic fashion.

Returning to the shoe locker, something never before seen takes place. Luckily I had a) camera and b) presence of mind to capture it. In case the video is indistinct and to relieve the sheer stress of suspense what happened was this: the virtuous Sikhs moved Granny Pat to tears.

So, that fourth word to finish with:

Stunned.

Hopefully the following video gives you a little of what I've tried to explain.
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Old Delhi Rickshaws: a video blog

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You know you are in Incredible India when…

You are involved in an illegal booze raid on the lunchtime restaurant by the police

You get to pogo (dance) at someone’s wedding on the street and they film you

You are on the lookout for red monkeys stealing your lunch

Stray dogs are sniffy about Waitrose flapjack

You write your own order for lunch for the waiter to hand to the kitchen

You are not just being stared at, your quiet (just being there) presence is making a scene

You hang out of a train door in a devil-may-care stylee only to find about a hundred other folks are doing it too

When you know where you are going in a new town and the rickshaw/taxi driver doesn’t*

It takes an hour. Whatever it is.

When it smells so strong that you’ll never forget it

When bad 80s fashion is a look they are rocking

When WiFi costs at expensive hotels and is free at cafes*

You get off the train at Nowheresville at midnight for a cheeky pee in the bushes only to find half of the passengers had the same idea

When a casual walk is something you take alongside your departing train before hopping on

When Black Kites flock by the score at dusk on the thermals above the city

When a cow traffic jam is a distinct possibility in the middle of a city

When your concerned – about what?! – Mother says “oooh, don’t get the camera out now” just as a train of camels go by

When the taxi is held together by karma*

When every road journey no matter how short brings you the closest you’ve ever been to a head on collision

When in a city of 11 million souls you meet the same local guy twice (and not on the tourist trail).

When you go from unbearable poverty to bling-laden conspicuous consumption in ten steps

When a cemetery becomes a tourist attraction just for being an auld Kolkata cemetery

When rules of the road are just for the other guy

When your vehicle horn is used like a nudge/bark/ahem/Oi!/aaaaaagh/hello

Nought to horn at Kolkata traffic lights is faster than particles accelerated at the Hadron Collider

When they’ve heard of Swansea (because we’re in the Premier League. He was an Austrian.)

When everyone asks if you like Indian food and you explain – patiently – that you eat it all the time

When simply heading out of the door requires a deep breath

When it’s covered in dirt and never EVER been cleaned. Ever. Things have been MADE dirty, no other explanation: that factory finish default setting is “grubby”. (Aside from new cars where it’s ” sparkling AND dented”.)

When you laugh with joy and weep through frustration in quick succession

When each train journey involves food sharing, philosophy and smells of wee*

When hustle and bustle just doesn’t cover it

When your normal isn’t the same as their normal

When you laugh at a gag, the locals laugh. Whereas the Americans wouldn’t. We are very closely aligned in humour, our Indian cousins.

One soaping in the shower isn’t enough. Neither is two.

When you end up making chapatti at the Sikh Temple to feed the legion Delhi homeless. (Alongside many other local volunteers.)

When you’re exhausted, elated, moved, puzzled, befuddled all at once. You sit there, blinking.

The country that made Granny Pat cry.

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Hamami Galatasaray: Istanbul

Forgive me typos dear reader, am not in the swing of these tablet touchscreen keyboards. 😕

Sneaking out of the hotel bedroom in a winter pre-dawn, the only company on the streets were stray dogs and the occasional municipal worker. It was breezy with a little rain gusting in from the Bosphorous. Heading up the hill and along the dimly lit streets I presently found the hamam. It hasn’t moved since it first opened its doors in 1481.

Only its door was not open now. With a reputed start time of 07.00 I was punctual, but not pushing it at a few minutes past. By 07.20 I’m positively self conscious as passing folk suspiciously eye the bald white guy lurking on the dark .street corner. I mouth the word NO to each passing cabbie (who deserve an accolade above keen in this town). I’m also getting cold. A senior local gentleman hobbles up to me and demands “hamam?” I nod. He bustles off, around the corner and is gone. I check after him. Nope, he’s vanished. I return to my station at the door where the brass plaque clearly reads the opening hours. “07.00 every day.” Time in this town is more of a concept than a precision device.

image

The Galatasaray Hamami. Locked.

07.30 and a light comes on from within. Same small man comes to the door and fiddles unsuccessfully with a bunch of keys. He vanishes within to be replaced by a bigger altogether more brusque chap who clearly commands a key and gruffly beckons I step inside, down some marble steps and through to an atrium. In short order I am instructed to choose from a menu and “PAY NOW.”

Relived of cash I am pointed to a cubicle and motioned to strip off.
!”ALL.”
Inside the teeny changing room is a miniscule day bed, a safe, some wooden clogs and a tea towel. Kit off it is then.

At this point dear reader I should discuss the notion of Turkish Bath, or hamam, with you. Words that spring to mind for many in our Western lives may include seedy, dodgy, dirty (not in the hygiene sense) and so on. For me, in Istanbul, it carries the memes of tradition, purge and I’m a bit knackered and could do with a back rub. There’s certainly nothing sexual about it. In India, the once magnificent Red Fort in Old Delhi has a hamam, or at least its shell. I’m clumsily trying to say it’s cool and historic and okay and not pervy.

Emerging from my cupboard resplendent in modesty hankie and flip-clogs a similarly dressed local beckons to follow him. The atrium is marble and dark (1970s) wood with a small fountain surrounded by chairs at the centre. It has a mezzanine level with more cells around the perimeter. We head though a door into a shower/torture room. He motions to a toilet.
“TOILET.”
I nod appreciatively. On to the next door.

The space is domed and old. The centrepiece is a marble topped plinth about 5M square. The edge has large marble sinks with worn brass taps gushing water. Over a dozen. It’s hot. It is very much a Turkish bath. There is no plunge pool, no ornamentation. It’s functional and has clearly seen much action. [Oh do behave, you have a gutter mind.]

Moustache man puts a vinyl pillow and tablecloth onto the plinth and slaps it. I am to lie down. Clogs away chaps… The slab is cooking hot. I blink in the heat and survey the dome above with its many mini skylights. Morning has broken out there and the room brightens little by little.

Despite my British reserve, I relax into the moment and allow my senses to take stock of the environs. (Not an easy task, forgetting yourself. I recommend Watching the English – Kate Fox – as a text on how our behaviour is so very ingrained. I am attempting to be the participant observer here and it’s difficult to keep my own bias out of it. Also, lying all but butt naked in a sweatbox with a burly local for sole company with no common language and your wife asleep back at the hotel having no clue where you are? Makes you so much more uptight and even more reservedly British, not less.)

Where was I? Ah yes, searing my cheeks on a raging hot marble slab….the only customer on this dank, cool Istanbul January Saturday.

Meanwhile, the sounds are intoxicating. The drip drip dripping of the condensation, the whooshing of the taps, the great sloshing as the attendant violently splashes down all the surfaces, then the echoes left in the ensuing silence. As I revel in the noise I note my heels and elbows – where the blubber count is least – are cooking my bones. I start to figet and the sense of relaxation quickly fades to sweaty discomfort. Not slightly due to a stinging sensation in my eyes where the detergent employed by the attendant has mingled in the atmosphere.

At this moment the attendant transforms from janitor to my, er, washer. Quick as a flash he’s lathered me up. [Come come now. Oh, wait, that’s a poor choice of chastising phrase given the circumstances.] He rearranges my loin-dishcloth and turns me over for a soapy back incident. [!] Now that I surely could not look and feel any more ridiculous he strikes first blow for what subsequently becomes a properly pummelling massage. Starting with a sharp intake of soap-sud swallowing breath I emit a plaintive “aarrruuhhh” followed in short order by a low “wh-oooof” of hells-bells-ness. This man is a bloody sadist. Christ on a bike he’s strong I think as my shoulder blades cave in and my tendons saw over the spiky bone of long ago broken collarbones.

On to my back and he’s leaning over me skin to skin. It might have been a tender moment were he not breaking my arm. Not content with the left he savages the right and then sets about my thighs. This was as subtle as having an earthmoving excavator reverse over ones pins. Slowly yet maliciously. I may have moaned, but only in the sense of “okay, you win: I’ll tell you where the invasion is planned for.”

He stops.

He’s gone.

I sit up and he’s over by a large sink indicating my presence is required. Uneasily, unsteadily, I clip clop over in comedy clogs to sit beneath him on the cool floor.

Digging deep into reserves of malice he subjects me to a splash down with alternate warm, cold, scalding pails of water. With me reeling, he starts to mix up a bowl of lather. The kind a giant might use in having an auld fashioned wet shave. Using a shaving brush-cum-loofer it’s time for another soapy beating. [There’s a sentence eh?] I have soap everywhere including up my nose and in my teeth.

He repeats the jetwashing to a degree that has me fleetingly empathise with cars in carwashes whilst simultaneously wincing for protestors put down by water cannon.

He stops.

I am led through to the toilet room and wrapped in a loin cloth, have a towel draped over my shoulders and he fashions a too-tight turban with another towel. Momentarily I am sat by the atrium fountain and offered a bottle of mineral water.

Despite sweating like a pig, looking like a twat and being all but delirious no one pays a blind bit of attention to me and….and…. And despite it all, I feel GREAT.

Hamams: proudly beating the crap out of punters since 1481.

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