Life is a circle. In Delhi, it is both a circle and a circus. Every moment is experienced as part of a show. Delhi is a live spectacle of bright colors, incenses burning in street corners, stray animals, hard-working people playing tricks on foreign-looking tourists: everything is here. And temples, and beautiful gates, and crowded streets, and dirt, and beautiful parks: this ancient city lives on the edge of extremes.
I flew to Delhi on a northern summer day. I saw the Atlantic Ocean from my window, the evergreen conifers of Europe, and the awe-inspiring deserts of the UAE. All was silent in the clouds once I got used to the airplane’s turbines. Once in India, loud sound and I had to be best friends. Because in Delhi, all people are one, all of us live under the universal and ever-pervading sound of, guess what, car horns. Drivers press the horn for all reasons, or no reason at all. Horning is a fine art in India. And I only with time did I understand why: a car, a bus, a truck, an autorickshaw, a bike, a motorcycle, a person, even cows and monkeys—all can be found on Delhi’s streets. This city takes the motto “Share to Road” seriously.
So I approached Pahar Ganj after zigzagging streets in a tiny Nepalese van from the airport. European and North-American backpackers lined up around the streets and bazaars. They also took in the smells, sights and sounds of the Indian Capital with a mixed of delight and surprise. And so did I. When I arrived, a Sikh receptionist wearing a gray turban and a Hindu man with red dye on his forehead ushered me in. On my left, a little altar with burning incense, signs of om, and a statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity of prosperity. On my right, newspapers in a script I didn’t know how to read. At that moment, I realized, God, I’m in India.
Besides touching me with its noise, Delhi also touched me with its sights. The city barely has street signs, but my new Indian friends, who included me by grace on their plans, made sure I found my places, just fine. We visited temples and had uplifting conversations on the stories of Hindu deities. And the temples of Delhi touched my heart. A Sikh temple (Gurudwara) that offers home, food and shelter for countless people, a Baha’í house of worship shaped as lotus flower (Lotus Temple) welcoming people for meditation, and Hindu (Laxmi Narayan) temple distributing spiritual food for all visitors. All touched me deeply.
While temples become ground for contemplation and mindfulness, streets are perfect places to develop deep compassion. On my first day, an armless woman asked me for alms. I tried to remember the last time I had seen a woman without arms , just as a legless man begged me for coins, and two children barefoot, very thin, looked me straight in the soul: they gestured their hands towards their mouth, and spoke the only word they knew in English–food. You can imagine the six days that followed. Poverty in Delhi is immersive, humbling, touching, heart-opening, and it shook me strongly, in a way it is hard to hold back.
That’s why overwhelm is probably a felt experience by many tourists, and it felt true to me as well. Thankfully for me, Delhi’s temples were here. Without them, I can’t imagine taking in the traffic, the noise, and the raw-and-naked poverty, the men asking for money while giving wrong directions, and the shopkeepers charging eight times the price of rose petals and gift items because I looked foreign. So, under monsoon rains and heat, I visited temples, and visited them often. And it was in a small temple, pictured below, that Delhi gave me its greatest lesson.
Delhi taught me that a city is merely an amplification of the human spirit. That the horns, the noise, the hustling, the poverty, the wish to make profit out of naïve tourists—all are potential states within every human being. And Delhi taught me not to take them so seriously. Because when we look at this city’s history, as when we look into a person’s story, we find invasions by Mughals and British, sadness and difficulties. So as I sat, I remembered that I also experience noise within my mind, that I also hustle at times to just get that ‘one thing’ done, and that I too experience my own poverty of spirit at times. Soon I understood that Delhi’s struggles are the struggles of us all.
I ended my days in Delhi, preparing for my Agra visit, sitting at the ashram’s carpeted floor, where so many men and women come to meditate and find peace amidst the city chaos. And I remembered: life is a circle, and here, also a circus. So smile. Let the spectacle take place. And don’t worry if a clown has an artificial frown on his face. Or if the streets are loud and crowded. Go beyond the streets and the clown and the crowds. Remember: this is a show, a great play. Have fun with it, because in this city, this great circus we call Delhi, everything happens. And be grateful you can see it all there, right in your face, because as a circle, it will be coming back at you again and again, until you embrace it once and for all.