Thali and Train Rides
When the time arrived to leave Kerala and head North, and after having calculated the best travel options, we decided to book 2 tickets for the 48-hour train ride up to New Delhi. There was a small mishap here, as generally happens on the road, and we actually missed the first train that we booked tickets for. We arrived at what we thought was the correct departure time, only to find out that the train had actually left like 2 hours before. We spoke with a few people and decided we would try to race the train to one of its next stops. We hopped on the bike and tried to ride as fast as possible through the endlessly congested Indian traffic, only to arrive 5 minutes after our train had again departed.
We turned around and made the hour drive back to our initial train station and bought two new tickets. Ugh. We didn’t wait long before the train arrived and we hopped on board. We lucked out, as it seems most people do, and got 2 of the window seats separate from the longer berths that run down the middle of the train.
We set off in the late afternoon, and not long after our journey began, we received the perfect parting gift from Kerala and Mother Nature: one last heavenly sunset.
The train ride was definitely less painful than one would imagine. We had the constant opportunity for chai and snacks, we weren’t crowded on one of the common bunks, could stretch out as we pleased, and the ever-changing landscape provided us with a non-stop film of Indian countryside that was completely new to my experience.
As we approached our final destination the small towns flanking the railway tracks grew larger, dirtier, and more crowded as the energy of a new city started to stir and mingle in the air.
The Delhi train station was completely different from the small, relatively calm one we had departed from. This station was loud, packed, and seemed to house hundreds of families who were either waiting endlessly for their departure, or simply had no better place to lie down and rest.
Stepping out of the station was no easy feat as every rickshaw, and taxi driver in a 2-mile radius rushed to try and provide us with his services. We diligently declined, and made our way to a little area nearby where we knew there were ample amounts of budget hostels. After walking through dark, winding alleys, stepping over dogs, nasty pools of filthy liquid, and wading through a bit of garbage we came to a large, open-air roundabout flanked by traveller accommodation on all sides. We chose one at random, checked in and immediately tried to wash the grime off of our extremities.
I use this term open-air roundabout lightly, as it wasn’t really ‘open-aired’ but at least wasn’t an alley tucked away like all the other small roads that lead to it. It was the centerpiece of the neighborhood where barbers, fortunetellers, chai wallahs and a few random cows all set up their shops, tents, makeshift kitchens and homes.
In need of something substantial to eat, we roamed the streets for a while trying to decide which restaurant was the safest bet. While looking over the menu from our chosen local our eyes scanned for the cheapest option and decided upon one large Northern style Thali. Thali is essentially a smorgasbord of different curries and yogurt based concoctions served with rice, papad, and maybe a few chapatti or roti. This Thali dish would become the staple of every meal we were to eat, basically until we arrived in Nepal a few weeks later.
We played tourist around Delhi for a week or so visiting the Red Fort, Lodhi Gardens, the Jama Masjid, and various other tombs and temples exemplary of the height of Mughal architecture.
The most beautiful experience of our tourist round was the afternoon and evening spent wandering through the small pedestrian lanes that lead to the Shrine of Saint Nizammudin. The lanes paved the way through a quaint market selling all kinds of Islamic paraphernalia. There were prayer mats of all sizes and colors, various types of prayer caps from a number of different cultural heritages, strings of prayer beads as well as incense and flowers to be carried onward and left near the holy shrine of Nizammudin.
As sunset approached we found a seat in the common area of the shrines premises and settled in amongst families and friends, mothers and children. This gathering ground was calm and colorful, nestled quietly inside the market labyrinth, far away from the noisy hustle of the outside Delhi world. As dusk settled over us the musicians and singers took their seats and all those waiting around gathered near the party to enjoy the devotional music to come.
The songs sung during qawwali are love songs. Love songs to God. They may have been poems in their original form, and are now sung near mosques and shrines all over the world to honor Allah and those who spread his message.