To the market...

To the market...

To the market...

Interaction with the vendors at Samarkand markets in Uzbekistan is as interesting as the spices and other food items they have on sale, writes Sudhamahi Reghunathan.

The city of Samarkand or Marakanda or Afrosiyob, as Uzbekistan’s second largest urban centre was called in an earlier era, was the hub of trade. Being a major stopover on the legendary Silk Route, it was also the confluence for every religious and cultural concept that wafted through Asia to Europe.

So, when I went to Samarkand, I decided to pretend I was tracing the footsteps of my ancestors who would have traversed these regions and headed straight for a market. Interestingly, the ancient trading centre, Chorsu, lay just before the market began. It is now a renovated structure and adjoins the famous Registan Square with its cobbled paths, well laid out gardens and fountains.

Trading roots

After paying my obeisance to the trading centre — it was commerce that had motivated people to traverse difficult terrains and climates to discover new places — I walked on. You will note that I am choosing to overlook a history closer to the present. It was, in fact, the very place from where Timur had emerged to cause such ruin and havoc, not just in India but in the entire region around present-day Samarkand. Here, however, he was known as the ‘Wise Timur’ or Amir Timur, for he was generous, brought in wealth and patronised the arts and education.

After tarrying at Registan Square, I walked towards the market. It was September and the Sun beat down on me, but a pleasant wind made walking quite pleasurable. As I walked on, admiring the broad streets and the beautiful gardens, not to mention the neatness of the city, I passed by a kindergarten, a secondary school and a small clinic. All along the street were sophisticated showrooms selling the souvenirs of Samarkand, but I decided to resist their siren call and head straight for the market.

I thanked the almighty for that decision because it got me to a magnificent tomb built for Bibi Khanum, Timur’s favourite wife, or so went the legend. Just across from this monument lies the organised market. The ingenuity of Uzbekistan is that it succeeds in creating the ambience of an old-fashioned exterior but one that is so neatly laid out that it is convenient for the modern visitor.

The market made me feel that I was a trader of yore and, not surprisingly, public discourse in this stretch is all about dollars, euros and, yes, even rupees. Traders here speak far more languages than the average person one would meet in Samarkand, and everybody knows about ‘Hindoostan’! People speak about India fondly. I wondered: could it be because they were grateful for the riches that Timur could take away. It was while I sauntered through this fascinating space that I discovered the reason — the Indian connection.

The market began with toffees, sugar-coated dry fruits and items of this kind. The dry fruits stalls had many Indians who could go berserk because of good prices — a kilogram of crispy walnuts was available for about Rs 500 and dry apricots cost around Rs 300.
The quaint looking salesmen and women seemed to combine the best of Islamic and Russian cultures and were tough salesmen. They pitched their prices very high and enjoyed the bargaining. It is as if they appreciated a good bargainer! One of them, Mohammad Ali, refused to lower the price of walnuts he was selling but suddenly asked me, “Are you Seeta or Geeta?”

I couldn’t help but smile at this, explaining that while Seeta and Geeta were common Indian names for females, my name was neither. But he kept insisting that I must be one of them; later, I realised he was referring to the Bollywood film by that name. Another hawker, this time selling roasted cumin seeds, asked me if I knew Mithun Chakravarty. He was persistent and wanted to know if his house was close to mine. In yet another shop I heard songs of a Shah Rukh Khan movie playing. The coin then dropped, Bollywood was the reason why ‘Hindoostan’ was so close to everyone’s heart here!

Meet the stars...

While at one level I basked in the popularity of Bollywood heroes and heroines, at another I found myself wondering why we in India cannot have such clean markets. There was no garbage on the streets in spite of so many vendors and shoppers. It was also very large. You could get anything here, from clothes to cooking utensils; from wool to silk; from local breads to melons of every shape and size. There were also, of course, seasonal vegetables and fruits. I got to see luscious tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh water chestnuts, melons, plums and pears. Locally they also grow apples and grapes — the grapes were large, sweet and juicy; the apples were small and crisp, with a little tanginess in their sweetness.

Then I came to a row that only sold spices, including saffron, and another row where readymade salads were on offer to the hungry shopper. Carrots seemed to be a favourite here and so mounds and mounds of grated carrots spiced with lemon, some salt, sugar and olive oil mixed into them, were available to snack on. There was also a lot of local bread — ‘non’, as it was called. They emerged fresh and warm on trolleys and sold like hot cakes.

The shops were predominantly managed by women. Quite a spirited lot, as I learnt later that the government had tried to impose the wearing of burqas on them and they had protested so hard that the idea was dropped. Women could be spotted everywhere, even in the little shops on the sides of streets that sold embroidered clothes, pottery and terracotta figurines. If you go to Samarkand, make sure that you shop. It is only then that you understand how charming the people there truly are!