Deirdre Mullins enjoys the chaos that is Old Delhi.

It has been said many times that India is an assault on the senses. But as I walked through the Spice Market in Old Delhi I was living the cliché at its most extreme. Within moments of entering the market the pungent aroma of the spices left me with tears rolling down my face and coughing profusely. Large sacks of colourful herbs were displayed outside wholesale merchants and labourers pushed past me with 50kg bags on their heads. 

My day started in huge contrast to this ancient scene as I rode the metro to Old Delhi. The metro was built in 2002 and is very efficient, despite carrying 1.5 million passengers per day. With Delhi's population nearing 18 million, it wasn't surprising that the carriage was packed, one sweaty body pushed up against the next. The 'women's only' carriages often have more space and were set up so females could avoid unwanted attention from men.

Within five minutes of disembarking from the state-of-the-art metro I was slap-bang in the middle of the sprawling mass that is Old Delhi, with its crumbling buildings, 400-year-old bazaar and barrage of noise, colours and smells. 

Chandni Chowk reflects India's history and religious diversity. On one end of the street is the Mughal-built Red Fort that dates back to 1638. There are places of worship for Christians, Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. Amongst the street hawkers, stray dogs and rickshaws there is a flash of globalisation by way of a McDonald's.

A better place to get a feed is the Sis Ganj Gurdwara Sikh temple, which marks the site of the ninth Sikh Guru who was beheaded for not converting to Islam in 1675. Despite its gruesome history the temple has a peaceful and welcoming atmosphere. To enter you will be expected to wear one of the provided orange scarves over your head; hand over your shoes and wash your hands and feet under the taps outside. 

The main prayer hall is a nice place to sit and watch the bearded, turbaned men come to worship. Musicians play instruments and sing the scriptures in the carpeted room of stunning marbled walls and pillars. Attached to every Sikh temple is a langar, a free kitchen that reflects the generosity of the religion. 

This kitchen serves three meals a day to 10,000 of Delhi's inhabitants. The tradition was started by the first Sikh guru to uphold the principle of equality for all, a radical concept in the caste-ordered society of 16th-century India. The kitchen is run by volunteers and funded by donation. 

I got my hands dirty rolling some chapatti dough with some local Sikh women in preparation for lunch. I didn't stay for the meal but sampled some of the Prasad, a sweet-tasting religious offering which is gifted to everyone on exit. It was a delicious mix of spice, semolina, sugar and clarified butter. 

Along the same street the Jains are practising generosity of a different kind. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion that believes that all animals and plants contain living souls. The Digambar Jain Temple upholds their principle of preserving all life with its bird hospital - it sounds cuter than it smells. They only allow vegetarian birds to be admitted; predators are treated as outpatients. 

The Prasad had whet my appetite for what are renowned as some of the best samosas in Delhi. The street-side stall Jalebi Wala has had time to perfect the art of a good samosa as it has been in business since 1888. Trade is busy and they churn out just two dishes: a spicy potato and pea samosa and an Indian deep-fried sweet made from flour and syrup called jalebi. Delicious, but devilishly so.

From there I wandered into the labyrinth of thousands of alleyways that make up Chandni Chowk market. The market was built by the Mughal Emperor of India Shah Jahan around 1650 for his shopaholic daughters. The laneways were designed to be very narrow to protect the girls from sunlight, and to keep a nice cool breeze running through the market so they could shop in comfort. Princesses indeed!

It's mostly wholesale goods for sale including jewellery, saris, furniture and electronics. It's easy to get lost in the maze, so a rickshaw ride is a good idea and gives a good sense of the scale of the market. I chose to stroll through the crammed chaos, get lost and find my way again. 

I fought for space with cycle rickshaws, motorbikes and labourers carrying, pushing and pulling loads. One delivery man who had my sympathy was distributing blocks of ice which sat bare on his bike carrier. The ice, formed by an element that is then frozen, was changing before my eyes in the afternoon heat. Perhaps a suitable metaphor for this part-ancient, but rapidly-modernising area of India.  

Culture Vulture Delhi has a three to four-hour day tour that covers all the cultural bases of Delhi, from street food and hot chai to Hinduism and Gandhi's legacy. The tour costs €25 and includes chai, a local lunch, entrance fees and an English-speaking local guide. Book at: www.urbanadventures.com or call: (+91) 9717 107864.

Deirdre Mullins

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