Town Trot: Pre Durga Puja Walk

When the soil is still moist from the monsoon rains, there is a buzz in the air of the Bengali CR Park in Delhi. The most eagerly awaited festival of the community, the extravaganza that is the Durga Puja, is almost here: tents are being set up, clay idols are shaped, handicraft markets are installed.

People with metal pots full of holy water


Nearly two years in India, and there are still religious festivals I’ve never heard of. At the moment, thousands, if not millions of “Kawarias” or devotees of Lord Shiva fetch water from the Ganges River, which is believed to be sacred.

It is the month of Shravan, so they actually trek bare food (or in trucks with loud blaring music) from their towns and villages in Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to the river. Most of the devotees try to get to the Haridwar Neelkanth Mhadev Tempel to fetch the “ganga jal”, and then walk (or drive) back to their local Shiva temple, carrying the often decorated metal canisters on their shoulders. Back home the water is offered, that means poured over a phallus symbol, called the lingam.

Our photographer says never before has he seen so many people on the road for this pilgrimage. The routes are dotted with tents, where volunteers provide food, water, medicines and a resting place. National highways are closed so the devotees can trek along, these days everywhere saffron robes can be seen. “There are too many people who have nothing to do, really, so they go on a pilgrimage,” the photographer added.

For why exactly the devotees are undertaking the journey, what the purpose is – for that I didn’t get a satisfying answer. As always when I stumble upon religious rituals and ask: Why?

World Cup final in the Embassy

There is no publicity option the current German Embassador to India would miss out on. So when the German football team reached the World Cup finals, he opened the gates – literally.

40 minutes before kickoff, a huge crowd had assembled in front of the main entrance to the embassy. It was by invitation only, but someone must’ve sent out a lot of invitations. The head of the press department stood in the middle of it all, his nerves at breaking point, constantly exclaimed there were 80 TV camera teams already inside. Many of them going live.

Whoever was wearing a tricot, was sure to be captured.

Whoever was wearing a tricot, was sure to be captured.

Seemingly over-worked embassy staff tried to form a line out of the throng at the gate, first on the right side, then on the left side, but failed. Some of them hectically went through the printed invitation lists to tick off names, but while finding one person, twenty others had made their way past them already.

Nothing was moving really. Reason being: The ground has a double door, with a thoroughful security check in between. Only one door can be opened at a time. Normally, passport details are taken down. And mobile phones are not allowed inside.

In Germany, we call live  public screenings of football matches "public viewing" (with exactly these English words)

In Germany, we call live public screenings of football matches “public viewing” (with exactly these English words)

But that night nothing was normal. When the embassador came to the gates and saw for himself, that under no circumstances would the crowd be inside in 40 minutes, he weighed the options before him: On one hand a PR disaster, which surely would feature in all the national media, already assembled at the place, as the Germans – with the organisation skill predicate attached to them – couldn’t handle a crowd of a few hundred.

The other option included a security risk. He chose the latter and declared the doors open – while the security staff stood stunned next to him, their head shaking in disbelieve.

Kickoff was at 0.30am, so many people were hungry again after they have had dinner

Kickoff was at 0.30am, so many people were hungry again after they have had dinner

Once in, everybody was munching away the Sauerkraut and Wurstl and Berliner, while grabbing as much drinks as possible. Because during the semi-finals, the embassy ran out of beer ten minutes into the match. Only after a while they again had managed to bring boxes of non-cooled, different German brands (from god knows which cellars in the embassy or staff living close by).

To prevent this, the embassador announced on the mic we should go easy on the beer. Otherwise it wouldn’t last the whole night.

Lucky us, it did. The rest was joy.

a happy lot of South Asian Correspondents

a happy lot of South Asian Correspondents


Old habits die hard

The German embassy had invited to a get-together, because a German delegation was in town. As soon as the speeches were over, everybody bolted for the buffet, to load heaps of rice, roti, daal, and all kind of curries onto their plate, then went back for a second filling  of salad, bratkartoffeln and kässpätzle.

broken plateWhen the feast was over, not enough waiters were around to immediately collect the plates out of the hands of all guests. So I saw an Indian man do what an Indian man does: He threw his plate underneath the next tree. Bad luck he had forgotten that this time it wasn’t made out of paper of plastic, but porcelain.


Hazrat Nizamuddin

Hazrat Nizamuddin is a quarter in Delhi that is definitely different from the rest of the city. Completely moslem in it’s appearance, the main street is dominated by men grilling lamb and goat, baking bread in earthen ovens, and drinking tea.

In many of the labyrinthine alleys, street vendors sell fruits or handkerchiefs, caps, rosaries or religious posters, shops are full to the brim with Qurans or household items, beggars try to get the attention of the passerbys, and blind(ed) boys sing beautifully to get some coins.

In the middle of all the bustle lie the dargas (mausoleums) of Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 – 1325 CE) and Amir Khusrau (1253–1325 CE), as well as the graves of many other people who wanted to be buried close to the Sufi saints. Medieval archways lead to the open space which has a marble floor and beautiful old structures.

long-bearded men talking in front of the mausoleumIt’s close to impossible to pass all the flower-sellers who lovingly pester us to buy a tray of flowers, sweets, or a chadur (cloth) to offer at the dargahs. Once inside, many Sajjadah-nashins (keepers) of the mausoleum ask for money for their blessings and the maintenance of the dargahs. This also includes a daily langar (community meal) for the poor.

I had already been there a couple of times, but always missed the Qawwali, a form of devotional Sufi music, which is supposed to be played ever thursday night (but then, it often isn’t). But this time we were lucky. So we sat down and listened to the men and their instruments until late into the night.

Even the birds run for cover

All is set for the trilateral rooftop terrace fitness therapy to take place this evening. But the weather doesn’t fit our party schedule.

bird taking cover

Things to know about Republic Day parade

Republic Day rocket launcher

Republic Day is when India shows all it’s military might on the widest road Delhi has to offer, and when the nation can boast about it’s achievements. (Originally though it was the day the constitution came into force back in 1950.)

Republic Day, camels

It’s also the day when people applaud stuntmen on motorbikes and soldiers with big funny hats marching in step, swinging their arms simultaneously, resembling rows of jumping-jacks.It might be the only day of the year when the public can listen to marching bands that’s musicians – other than at weddings – actually know how to play – even the clarinet and the bagpipe (the amount british influence is simply unbelievable; I didn’t see any Indian instruments at this day). Another treat for the audience: They can admire at the cultural heritage of the country, jammed on a couple of floats.

Republic Day, culture

But to be allowed to the spectacle at Rajpath in the heart of Delih, one is “requested not to bring” (meaning: DON’T YOU DARE) the following items: bags, brief cases, food (actually, the wrote “eatable”), radios, tape recorders (do they still exist?), palm-top computers (whats’s that? and what about other computers?), remote controlled car lock keys (and how shall we lock the car then?), arms and ammunition, daggers, explosives (oh, really!), water bottles (but no water was available inside, and everybody was sitting there for hours), cigarettes, bidi (as if this weren’t a cigarette), perfume, handicams (???), wires, and so on, and so forth.

Republic Day, pencils rocket launcher But: to “establish the identity”, everybody needs an identity card, like a passport – or a weapon licence. No joke.

Well, anyway, Nikoleta and I got in, with our mobile phones tucked away in the underwear. Unfortunately the big camera had to be left behind, as even all my waving around with my press identity card didn’t help (often it does, as it has a very impressive government stamp, but this time the security guys were unrelenting… well I didn’t try to bribe them).

So after seeing a lot of mitary uniforms and more uniforms and even more uniforms I went back to where my bicycle was standing – but it wasn’t there anymore. With all my Hindi scraped together I asked the policemen who were standing around, and found out they took it away – because someone could have placed a bomb inside! (The frame has diameter of not even 3cm, and it weights less than 8kg, but what to do.)

Republic Day, jet

I was told to wait, so I waited, but then other policemen came running towards me, telling me to get out of the roundabout where I was sitting. When I refused to go, as I was told to wait, they pushed me with their guns. We argued back and forth, and finally they made me sit down together with another bunch of people. The armed men guarded us, weapon at the ready, like we were criminals – until the motorcade with the president had passed by, and all the tension suddenly vanished. They very friendly even apologised. “We are only doing out job, madam,” one said. Note: Never come in the way of the VVIPs.

Republic Day, sealOne police guy who spoke some English and made it a point to help me, told me to walk over to Tuqlaq Road Police Station. So I walked there, passing dozens or even hundreds of very bright seals on gutters, locks, lampposts, doors… you name it. The whole area was secured, square kilometer for square kilometer.

At the police station, I was told to go to the “women’s help desk” – mine was not a women’s issue, but well, it helped anyways as the policewomen spoke some English. But first, I had to drink some tea. Then once I had relaxed, she had talked to ten other people, I told her the story of my bicycle again. Her problem was, what held her from filing some papers: I didn’t know the number of the bike frame. It didn’t matter I told her ten times the bike is very colourful and unique in Delhi and I have the key to the lock.

I was lucky once more as a guy walked in who overheard my story and knew about the bike. The traffic police on the spot hat brought it back to the roundabout – and the information to go to Tuqlaq Police Station was actually wrong, I was supposed to stay. Well, now the prpblem was solved. A very senior and gentle policeman, accompanied by a young policewomen (you can’t let a woman alone with a man in India) drove me back in a police car. And I was reunited with my bicycle.

Republic Day, horsesAfter that we lived happily ever after. And the police never demanded a fine from me, even though I parked the bicycle in the security zone. Nor was someone angry about my being so stupid and leaving it there. In fact, I found the police to be very nice (apart from the incident when the men secured the ground for the president – but hey: nothing is more important in India than the VVIPs).

Free tea and pakhoras in front of my house

tea for freeThe Sikhs in my colony were celebrating something (again).They drove from one place to the other, and distributed tea and pakhoras to everybody who passed by. Lucky me I just came from the parkour lesson.

And after the feeding, a special team with it’s own pick-up cleaned the whole area and collected every single paper cup people had thrown on the ground.

The Making of Raavan

During the festival of Dussehra, huge effigies of Raavas,n symbolising evil, are burnt in dozens or even hundreds of places in the city and in towns all over North India.

But where do they come from? Most of them are made in Titarpur in West Delhi, where the sidewalks and traffic islands as well as the space underneath the flyovers and metro stations are turned into seasonal open air workshops.

Here the men (and, sadly, children) chop the bamboo for the frames, cover them with old saris, affix layers and layers of colourful paper, use tar to paint the mustaches black, apply light bulbs to make the eyes glow green – and then load the parts onto trucks, to somewhere put them together to from the 20 meters high figures. Which then go up in flames in a matter of minutes.

Properly poured Weißbier

invitation cardThe German Embassy invited to an Oktoberfest, and I made the mistake to go there. The Brezeln were neither crisp nor tasty and hard to chew, the brass musicians played the most horrible popular melodies to sway to and fro and they stroke false notes when attempting to play other tones, the waiters served chocolate instead of vanilla sauce with the Apfelstrudel, the Rotkohl/Blaukraut was overcooked, the embassador smiled mercilessly, the cameramen were everywhere, the women wore necklines way too risqué, and because of my illness I wasn’t even allowed to drink the Bavarian beer to flush down all that.

beer robotBut there was one German import to cheer me up: a robot. With only one arm this smart guy was able to grab and open a bottle of Weißbier, turn it upside down into a perfectly tilted glass, move it smoothly upwards so that the perfect amount of head was formed, then turn the bottle and veer it to loosen the yeast, pour the last bit in, even shake the last drops out of it, put the bottle away and serve the glass right in front of the customer. Amazing!

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