Sneezing while browsing India's markets
Toni Mason | DELHI | AAP | June 19 2017
Carrying a small pack of tissues is often practical while travelling but when walking through the spice market in Old Delhi, it suddenly becomes essential.
"OK! Cover your nose and mouth," our guide instructs us, before scurrying off into a narrow alleyway. Hurrying to keep up, I clap my tissue across my face but the coughs are already choking me as we pass huge cane baskets piled with chilli powder.
Spices are an essential part of the assault on the senses that is India. Hindu belief dictates that the religion flows into every part of its followers' lives, so they look to honour their existence with all five senses.
The bright colours they wear and with which they decorate their homes and temples honour their gods through sight. They're generally vegetarian to honour the life of the animals around them. They listen to sweet music, breathe in perfumed incense, flavour their food with a variety of spices and wrap themselves in silk and cotton to honour the natural world.
Taking a tour through markets where local commerce has continued largely unchanged for hundreds of years is to put yourself in touch with historic India, the one that hasn't yet succumbed to the lure of the mall or an online click-and-purchase.
In the southern city of Bengaluru (Bangalore), our walking tour has already taken in tiffin (Indian brunch) and a trip to a historic palace and fort before we're delivered via motorised tuk-tuk to Krishna Rajendra (KR) Market.
Definitely a place where you need a guide, we pass vendors with huge bags full of whole and ground spices before threading our way up and down stairs into a massive courtyard, filled with baskets of flowers and where men carrying huge loads yell sharp warnings for us to dodge out of their way.
Climbing above the crowds past sellers of powdered colours, religious artefacts, pots, pans and mechanical parts we suddenly come to a terrace looking down on the array of hues in the courtyard we've just left.
Our group angles for the perfect picture of the piled flowers below but my attention's taken by a woman who's brought her floral purchases up to a cooler and quieter spot to value-add, weaving tiny white and orange buds into a wreath to be worn in the hair or hung around a deity's neck as an offering. Her fingers flash as she knots wet white thread around the buds, unerringly selecting the right colour for her pattern as she chats with a friend who's dropped by.
This market is fairly new, built in 1928 and the first in India to get electricity, meaning its day begins around 3am, seven days a week, when the growers bring their wares into town for local florists and wreath-weavers like the lady upstairs to purchase before the day gets too hot.
That contrasts with the narrow streets of Old Delhi's market, which was built in the 17th century by Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal.
Covering dozens of blocks with buildings rising three and four storeys, Chandni Chowk (Moonlit Market) was once criss-crossed with canals that glittered in the moonlight, hence its name. We take our tour both on foot and by rickshaw, being pedalled expertly through the narrow streets in a group of three vehicles whose riders occasionally race each other when they hit a wider main road.
On one stop our guide leads us past the choking miasma of spices and up several flights of stairs to emerge on a rooftop where we can see the different regions of the market district sprawling beneath us.
On other roofs, spices, nuts and flowers are being dried on palm matting, while our guide points out the regions where everything's sold - from jewellery to wedding garments, saris to sunglasses, shoes to cookware and some of the artisan inlay work made famous at the Taj Mahal, a few hours' drive away.
In its narrow alleyways, each group of shops is punctuated by a food seller or two, who's there to ensure the vendors are fed during their long days. While the market is officially closed on Sundays, many stalls operate seven days a week and it would be hard to find a time when something wasn't open.
While it's not necessary to employ a guide to take you through Chandni Chowk or KR Market, you'll no doubt have an easier time of it with someone to show you the best spots for a great picture and to give you some idea of the history of the places where India seems truly Indian.
Oh, and to warn you when to get the tissues out.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Jet Airways flies daily to Delhi from Singapore, and Qantas flies direct daily to Singapore from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth
STAYING THERE: The Leela Palace in Delhi is a five-star independent hotel represented by Preferred Hotels and Resorts. It offers every luxury the traveller could imagine, with rooms from around $A350 per night. It's sister hotel, The Leela Palace Bangalore, also under the Preferred banner, offers the same five-star comfort with rooms starting at $A325.
PLAYING THERE: Tours of Bengaluru's markets with Unventured cost INR 2500 ($A55) and can be booked through their website at http://unventured.com/package/bengaluru-markets-pete-walk/ or similar tours can be arranged online from around $A60.
A bespoke tour of the Delhi market can be arranged via the Concierge at The Leela Palace in Delhi while similar tours are available from a number of online operators with prices around $A70.
* The writer travelled as a guest of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, The Leela Palace in Bangalore and Delhi, and Jet Airways in association with Qantas.
(main image credit: akhil-chandran-204546/unsplash.com)