Written by
Brodie Jackson

Delhi Diaries - Part One: Old Delhi

Published on
22 February 2020

After staying in the city of Delhi for nearly three months, people often ask me what it was like living in Delhi. I'm not sure about anyone else who has lived, visited, or stayed in Delhi for an extended period, but for me, this simple question isn't so easy to answer.

My answer would often boil down to two simple words; constant chaos. Which for me, coming from a small rural city in Australia with a population of 62,000 people to the capital of India with a population of 29.5 million people (WHAT?!). Yeah, it definitely felt like constant chaos!

However, I feel this answer doesn't do justice to this question nor Delhi. So, I guess I should explain my love-hate relationship with this city and why I often struggled to stay there.

There will be several parts to what I am calling the Delhi Diaries where I will explore different aspects of my stay in Delhi.

The initial visit

Let me start by telling you a story from my first visit to Delhi. Now, bear in mind that I really didn't know what to expect. I knew nothing about this city other than it being the capital of India and having a whopping population!

I think this particular afternoon is one I will never forget. This was my first real introduction to what is 'Old Delhi'. Let me set the scene for you.

To me, Old Delhi is like a maze. Narrow streets lined with multi-story buildings that are both shop fronts and homes. The roads are also often lined with smaller stalls of people selling things from their rugs on the ground. You will be surprised what you can find in Old Delhi! From clothing and jewellery to spices and fresh produce, to cages of chickens waiting to be picked out and freshly killed, to automotive spare parts, Old Delhi has it all!

    When you look up you will see a stream of electrical wires intertwined and going in all directions, watch your head! You might need to duck occasionally. But don't forget to watch your feet! Murky runoff water pools in the uneven and broken surfaces and turns the dust and dirt into sloppy mud. Also, watch not to accidentally step in the random piles of cow dung left by the friendly cows that roam the streets.

Old delhi ladder wires

The atmosphere of Old Delhi wouldn't be complete without mentioning the traffic that passes through these narrow streets. You have motorbikes and scooters, pushbikes, rickshaws, and auto-rickshaws, as well as foot traffic including that of the cows and stray dogs all trying to navigate these small lanes to get to where they're going.

Now, I can't forget to mention the sounds. As you step into Old Delhi you become surrounded by the loud, indistinctive chatter of everyday life and business. You can hear the honks of the bikes and scooters in close proximity and the diluted sounds of those in the distance. Mix these in with bells of the bikes and rickshaws along with all the other sounds of the surrounding environment and you get the symphony of chaos!

old delhi busy street

Your sense of smell will also be in for a wild ride! The delicious smells wafting out from the traditional bakeries of Old Delhi will have your mouth watering as you walk past. But just like everything else in Old Delhi, the scents are also quickly changing as you continue walking. Some good, some bad, and many new and undefinable smells arise, especially to a foreign nose!

All of these things combined into a sensory overload the very first time I visited Old Delhi and, to be honest, I wasn't able to take in and appreciate any part of it. I simply shout down and kept walking until it was over.

However, it wasn't just the sensory overload that caused this shutdown. For me, this walk was also very confronting and my first insight into the lives of those less fortunate.

The image of a wounded man, lying passed out on the sidewalk out the front of some business buildings, flys and maggots making home in his wounds, will never leave my memory.

Everybody was passing by like he was invisible or this wasn't anything out of the ordinary. This scene left me feeling many things. Shocked, sad, angry, confused. Why did no one seem concerned? Should I have helped him?

The topic of helping and giving to the less fortunate in India is a big one and a topic that I am still navigating and finding my personal stance on. So, I think that I will write a sperate post discussing this in the future as I would be interested in hearing other's opinions on the topic.

After my first introduction to Old Delhi, it is safe to say that I was overwhelmed, confronted and had a lot to process! However, after the initial introduction, I was intrigued to go back and experience it again now that I had a better idea of what to expect and I had become more acclimatised to India in general.

old delhi head carry

Follow up visits

My following visits to Old Delhi were a lot better than the initial visit. I was actually able to take in my surroundings and appreciate all of the life that happens in these narrow streets. A completely different world than the one I was raised. There are so many stories within the walls of Old Delhi and I am so glad I got to experience this wonderful and chaotic area of Delhi and all the good and bad that comes with it.

Old delhi watch man

I definitely recommend a visit to Old Delhi to anyone who visits Delhi. Love it or hate it, it will be an experience you won't forget!
If you would prefer to experience Old Delhi with a guide and someone who can share the stories of this area then I recommend checking out Delhi By Cycle for interesting and unique tours.

Let me know in the comments if you have ever experienced Old Delhi and what your first ever experience of this area was like.

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4 comments on “Delhi Diaries - Part One: Old Delhi”

  1. Reading this made me feel like I was actually there experiencing Delhi! It sounds totally crazy and definitely chaotic but super intriguing! 🙏🙏

  2. I would love to see Delhi one day, but will wait until my children are older so they are better able to process the culture shock and take it in. I do remember my first encounter in an impoverished area of a country I was travelling in and it was certainly an eye opener and has stayed with me. Having the encounter fairly young, I think has allowed me to be able to see beyond and truly see the people and culture more easily as it is not quite a jarring as that first encounter.

    1. For sure, Katy. The first experience is always the most jarring and eye-opening and certainly sticks with you forever. After the initial shock, it is much easier to see the true essence of the place, people and culture.

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