Using Dawid’s offline map, we navigate our way through the winding roads and hustle and bustle of the Chawri Bazaar, spying the red sandstone minarets of the mosque. We head up some 30 odd steps to a main gate, where we see signs telling us not to pay any money for entrance to the mosque, you only have to pay 300 rupees to take in a camera if you are a foreign tourist. As none of us are carrying a camera, we assume we can enter for free.
We take off our shoes, and are asked for money to watch them, then we are asked to hand over our phones. I’m not entirely sure how it happened but upon deciding that one of us will sit outside with our shoes and phones whilst the other two go inside, suddenly we are told we cannot enter at all without paying. There is some sort of communication breakdown; we motion to the sign saying entrance is free, and we show we have no cameras or phones on us and we are point-blank refused entry, a churlish old man holding his hand to my face and shooing us away from the entrance. When we take our money out to pay for the cameras we aren’t carrying, he becomes erratic and shouts at us in Hindi. We leave, confused and a little annoyed, but walk a few minutes around the outside of the mosque to the other gate, where we have a much more pleasant experience. I pay the 300 rupees to avoid any further confrontation, and Vitor shakes his head at me, saying I am soft and I will get ripped off if I always cave in when asked for money, exclaiming that it seems unfair that foreign tourists must pay drastically inflated prices to enter places that are free or a small fraction of the price to those who appear to be native to the country. I feel a twinge of sadness, as I also feel it’s a little unfair, but similarly, I want to see these things and I can afford to pay the money to do so. “It’s the principle of it” Vitor says. I agree, but I’m inclined to think that I’m going to have to tweak some of these principles in order to make life a little bit easier.
Dawid sits outside the gate on a bench with our shoes, phones and our bottled water. I’m given a brightly coloured floor length kaftan thingy, to cover all of my arms and legs. With my bag underneath. it closely resembles a circus tent. Vitor is given a sheet to wrap around his legs, and we step through the gate into an enormous courtyard, one that we’re told can hold 25,000 worshippers.
There are about 250 or so people here at the moment, so we’ve come at a quiet time, and given the scorching heat of the ground on our bare feet, I can see why there aren’t many people walking around. It is unbearably hot and exposed.
In the centre of the courtyard is a square pool, with men washing, ritual ablutions, some even brushing their teeth. Pigeons congregate across the courtyard, flapping and pecking the ground, and black kites circle above. Glistening marble domes along one side of the courtyard house a long prayer area, with great interior arches and a black and white tiled floor. Children lay on the floor, looking at the mosaic-clad ceiling, and men kneel to pray, their foreheads to the ground.
There is a gaudy chandelier, and some young Indian girls in denim jackets and jeans are taking selfies on the steps up to the prayer hall. I marvel at the mix of old traditions and new and old style clothes and technology; the salwar kameez, the burqa, and the skull caps, the kurta, the Adidas trainers, the denim jackets, the iPhones and the selfies…so many selfies. There’s something awkward about seeing men and women looking to their God in prayer just inches away from men and women looking at themselves in their phones.
On the other side of the courtyard, we stand on a raised platform where many people are sitting, laying, talking, sleeping.. We can see the sprawling streets of below, and the Red Fort sitting majestically in the distance. We remember that Dawid is sat outside and we head back out the gate to swap places. Vitor decides to go in again with Dawid, so I sit with my bottle of now very warm water and attempt to plot a route through the streets of Old Delhi to our next point of interest, neglecting to address the fact that Old Delhi in itself is one big point of almost indescribable interest, of endless fascination and awe.
The clouds of yesterday have dissipated and the skies are brilliant blue. We head back down the scorching steps into a maze of streets, with no real direction. Luckily we have nowhere to be and wandering aimlessly for a bit is a luxury we can all afford.