Throughout our travels we have met a lot of people, all with tales of how crazy Delhi can be. Some stories were more positive than others however, the common theory seemed to be ‘get in, see the sights and get out’.We always take other people’s opinions on board when going to a new place but for us one of the joys of travelling is walking your own path and forming your own opinions on a place. As the bus took us into Delhi at 3am we were surprised at how developed and clean the city was, the streets weren’t crammed with traffic, there was nobody coming up to us with their hand out, the roads were not lined with rubbish and the few people we met were some of the friendliest we had met in a while but then again it was only 3am. Maybe our opinions would change over the next few days as we explored the sights of Delhi.
We woke the following day and ventured out of our hotel into Paharganj, the area near New Delhi train station where we were staying. The street had transformed during the early hours of the morning and now it was packed with pedestrians, stray dogs, cows, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis and every one of them seemed to want your attention, if just for a moment. Vendors stood at carts full of fresh fruits and vegetables and shops opened out onto the busy street for it’s entire length. Having a pretty good idea of the sights of Delhi we wanted to see, we immediately headed for the New Delhi metro station at the eastern end of Paharganj to begin our sightseeing tour of the Old Delhi area to the north.
Walking down into the metro tunnels was an eye opener, the underground railway system was much more developed than we had anticipated and was almost as clean, efficient and easy to use as the Seoul Metro. What made it even more pleasant was the air-conditioned train carriages which brought a welcome relief from the humid Delhi weather. Interestingly, each train had a special women only carriage at one end, while this may be interpreted as a chivalrous move by the Delhi Rail Metro Corporation, the sad truth is that it is very necessary for travel to be more comfortable for women in the city. When the train becomes full, it almost overflows and people are packed so tightly together that wandering eyes can very quickly become wandering hands. In order to prevent any inappropriate advances, women have the option of following the pink signs to the women only carriages where they can travel in comfort without any unwanted attention from male passengers. In fact it’s extremely uncommon to see women travelling alone on trains or buses at night in India, they are almost always with a man, or if not, they will be with a group of women, this is not so much of a cultural reason as it is a matter of safety. In a country with a population of 1.2billion, a few bad eggs is a lot more bad eggs than in most other countries in the world.
Our first stop was Delhi’s Red Fort, whose surrounding walls measure two kilometres in distance and range in height from eighteen metres to a whopping thirty-three metres on the fort’s city side. In conjunction with the massive walls, enemy forces were kept out by a ten metre deep moat which surrounds the palace. These days the moat is dry and can be crossed by a stone bridge which leads you through the enormous Lahore Gate, so named because it faces the Pakistani city. Inside the fort’s grounds the theme is no longer red as it is outside.
A number of impressive buildings line the eastern wall of the fort. Royal baths are housed inside a beautiful white building consisting of three large rooms with a fountain in the centre. Channels run between the baths and one of the rooms was even set up as a sauna back in the day, lit by a ray of coloured light which passed through colourful stained glass windows in the building’s triple domed roof. Next-door is the stunning marble Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audiences, where the emperor would hold private meetings while sitting in the jewel-studded, solid gold peacock throne beneath a silver ceiling. Unfortunately the throne was stolen in 1739 by Persia’s Nadir Shah and the silver ceiling was removed shortly after. A marble mosque stands just beyond this collection of buildings and is architecturally very interesting in that while it stands in perfect symmetry to the other buildings within the grounds of the fort, the inside walls are slightly askew to align the mosque with Mecca.
After visiting the Red Fort our next stop was the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. Steps lead up to the mosque which sits on top of a small hill looking across at the Delhi Gate, the southern entrance of the Red Fort. The mosque has two incredibly tall minarets, standing forty metres tall, towering over the surrounding narrow streets, home to busy markets. In the centre of the square courtyard is a pool where devotees wash their feet before entering the prayer area. The ground was lined with strips of carpet leading in from each of the three gateways to the pool in the centre and into the massive prayer hall so that people could avoid cooking their feet on the roasting hot stone floor.
There was a real community feel inside the walls of the Jama Masjid with people hanging out together in the shady alcoves in the surrounding walls. When it’s full, the Jama Masjid can hold a staggering 25,000 people but thankfully today it was nowhere near full capacity.A quiet, well maintained garden runs along the banks of the Yamuna River east of the Jama Masjid and we walked through the peaceful surroundings stopping briefly at Shanti Vana, the spot where Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was cremated in 1964. Further on we came to Raj Ghat, where Gandhi was cremated after his assassination in 1948. The spot is marked by a roped-off, black marble platform on which an eternal flame is lighting. A steady stream of Indian visitors were there giving donations and offering prayers to the man who helped bring India it’s independence.
From Old Delhi we travelled to New Delhi to the magnificent Humayun’s Tomb, a Taj Mahal style building built from red sandstone and marble. The landmark tomb was built in the 16th century and brought Persian architecture to Delhi. A path leads you through some of the surrounding twelve hectare gardens and after passing through a large ornate stone gate the tomb stands up in front of you dominating the skyline. Topped by a massive white dome the two stone structure is fronted by one large pointed archway flanked by two smaller archways of the same design and the entire building is constructed in the two-tone colour pattern of red and white, incorporating the local red sandstone and marble. With dusk creeping in we left Hanuman’s tomb and made our way to another marble building, a shrine to the Muslim Sufi saint, Nizam-ud-din Chisti. Arriving at dusk on a Thursday was no accident as this is the time when you can witness the quawwali. It was our first time ever being present for Muslim prayers and the atmosphere was quite sombre and hushed as prayers were said through a series of kneeling, standing and bowing. It was great to experience this community’s traditions first hand and being able to stand alongside as they prayed we felt very included. After evening prayers were finished though, things really got started. Three heavy-set young men sat down and began playing their instruments and singing quawwali, a crowd gathered around, seated cross-legged and together we all clapped along to the music. The music, though new to us, was catchy and you couldn’t help but tap your foot, it was like a trad session back home, there was no fighting the music, it got inside you and we tapped along with everyone else as the three men sang on. People came dancing up through the middle of the gathering to give donations and one woman even danced her way in on three separate occasions but was quickly moved back out each time much to our dismay as she was quite entertaining. After the singing was finished we ventured back out into the chaotic narrow streets that surround the Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Dargah, there was a sea of beards and white caps in front of us with motorbikes trying to squeeze through the dense crowd. With barely room to breathe we were thankful to reach the main road and head back towards Paharganj for the evening.
Whether it was something we ate or the fact that we were constantly moving in and out of the hot weather and a/c we don’t know, but the two of us fell ill for a few days in Delhi but luckily we recovered just in time for my birthday and our fourth reuniting with Mike and Linda whom we had left Korea with, now almost five months ago. The timing was all pot luck but it couldn’t have worked out any better and together the four of us stepped out into Delhi’s night-life to see what it was all about. We discovered pretty quickly that Delhi’s night-life is based mainly around Connaught Place, an upmarket area where we simply couldn’t afford to eat or drink, especially with the whopping 25% taxes imposed on the already overpriced drinks and so it was to the tourist orientated Paharganj area where we found a busy bar and celebrated my becoming another year older at much more affordable prices for us lowly backpackers.
With one last day for us to explore the sights of Delhi and having lost time due to being ill, we met up with our on and off travel companions and headed to Delhi’s southern edge, where outside the cities main centre was the incredible Qutb Minar, a beautiful complex of both ruined and intact religious buildings which began construction in 1193. Standing almost 73 metres tall, the focal point of this complex is the Qutb Minar itself. The awesome tower is comprised of five stories in total, the lower three are constructed of red sandstone while the upper two, added forty-two years later, are constructed of gleaming white marble. In the shadow of the mighty tower is India’s first mosque, Quwaat-uI-Islam Masjid. Throughout the grounds there are a number of tombs and other buildings featuring beautiful marble lattice screens, ornately carved pillars, enormous stone archways and marble carvings demonstrating Islamic architecture and telling the story of the multitude of rises and falls of Islamic rule in India.
Moving back in towards the centre of the city, Gandhi Smriti was our next stop, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the location of his assassination on January 30th, 1948. His final steps are marked by concrete footsteps from his preserved living quarters to the spot where he passed away. A squat, black column, known as the Martyr’s column is at the end of the footsteps and an excellent museum tells of his amazing life and all he accomplished through non-violence protests and how he brought together a country divided, in ways, by the caste system to work together and win independence for India. Our final of one of the many sights of Delhi visit tied in nicely with what Gandhi stood for. It was a trip to the Baha’i House of Worship, also known as the Lotus Temple. This incredible, modern temple is built in the shape of the lotus flower, a symbol of purity. Twenty-seven white petals, clad in marble on the outside, adorn the thirty-four metre tall, seventy metre diameter building. The Baha’i faith is one which none of the four of us had heard of before but to our surprise it has been in existence for over 157 years and has an established community of 2112 different ethnic groups in over 360 countries worldwide, as well as this the Baha’i literature has been translated into a staggering 800 languages. The Baha’i principles include the oneness of mankind, independent investigation of truth, common foundation of all religions, essential harmony of science and religion, equality of men and women, elimination of all prejudices, compulsory education and universal peace. They welcome people of all faiths to come and worship their own religious beliefs inside the lotus temple, one of seven such temples throughout the world in locations as diverse as Sydney (Australia), Apia (Western Samoa), Frankfurt (Germany) and Kampala (Uganda). The Baha’i philosophy seemed modern and forward thinking and all seemed to make sense but the promotion video with the cheesy American voice over didn’t really do it for us!
With our time in Delhi finished we looked back with mixed views. On one hand we had seen some amazing sights of Delhi, met some interesting people, learned a lot and been reunited once again with Mike and Linda for birthday celebrations. On the other hand, I had had my wallet stolen, we fought with rickshaw drivers over prices, we got ripped off everywhere and generally felt a bit cheated. Delhi is a city that could well be the poster child for ‘a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’.