I landed in Delhi’s international airport, took a deep breath, steeled myself for what I knew awaited me beyond the walls of the airport, and left the haven of international nomansland via immigration.
If you haven’t visited India, it is very difficult for me to find analogies to give a idea of the onslaught on the senses. The closest simile from my own life is that it’s like teaching a class of boisterous teenagers: if you are prepared for chaos and are well-rested it can be enormously rewarding. If you are tired or seeking a semblance of order then it can be a draining.
One thing I had noted on each of my previous two visits was that tourists are often viewed as fair game where prices are concerned. (Even in the airport, I was quoted circa £60 for a SIM card and 5GB of data which I secured the following day for less than £10.) Whilst this is initially frustrating, once you get the hang of it, you can minimise expenses and stress. I will write a separate blog on this as I really think it can improve one’s time here immeasurably.
Luckily, I had arranged for a taxi to meet me in advance. Unluckily, it turned out he was charging four times the price of a standard airport taxi.
It was late by the time I arrived at my hotel so I hit the hay in order to be well rested for my day exploring in the morning. I met my guide, Arvindh, in the lobby and we formed a plan of action.
Our first port of call was Qutab Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret and a UNESCO world heritage site.
This extraordinary structure, built in 1193, stands next to the first mosque ever to be built in India. Many of the pillars are from plundered Hindu temples and therefore the Islamic architecture also bears some Hindu features when one inspects it more closely.
Next on the list was the Lotus Temple, a house of worship of the Bahá’í faith (who believe in some very worthy ideals, if you ask me) however, it being India Day, it was closed to the public so I had to peer over a fence for a glimpse.
Thankfully, Humayun’s Tomb – the final resting place of one of the Mughal emperors, built at the behest of his grieving widow, was open. Both the gardens and the mausoleum exhibited the perfect symmetry typical of the Islamic architecture of the epoch.
We had planned to explore the labyrinthine Old Delhi streets the day after India Day when the daily hustle and bustle (but mainly hustle) would once again preside, so, after a quick selfie in front of the India Gate, I made for my hotel and a fitness centre of ineffable crapness.
Fueled by dhosa and shambar (breakfast pancake and spicy sauce) I was ready to take on the world the next morning. Little did I know that the world in general, and Delhi in specific, was ready to take on me!
As Arvindh and I entered Old Delhi, we were hit by wave upon wave of humanity: street peddlers, delivery men, mendicants, businessmen – all interacting in a sort of chaotic dance to which only they could hear the tune. And vying for space with the homo sapiens were other species: dog, cat, cow, rat and monkey all made appearances, as if the Chinese zodiac was having a Delhi street party!
On rounding a corner, the deep red sandstone walls of the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques, rose above the urban hubbub. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century at the cost of a million rupees, the courtyard can accommodate a congregation of 25,000!
From here we entered the maze of alleys and markets that give the old city its character. A family religious ceremony had taken up one of the major roads and traffic was at a standstill and backed-up for quite a distance. Arvindh chuckled at my questioning look: “In India tradition comes first. Everything else is secondary.” he explained.
Lunch consisted of a stuffed chapati from a dingy hole-in-the-wall restaurant. And was perfect. Delicious! A little bowl of grated and stewed heaven (or carrot) served as dessert and I lolled, comatose, in the back of the car until we arrived at another vast place of worship; this time a Sikh temple: Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
Sikhism requires that one cover one’s hair as a mark of respect so I was given a bright orange headscarf and made my way into the temple complex. Inside the temple itself gold leaf corruscated from floor to ceiling and even the scaffolding that was in place for renovation had been painted gold so as not to spoil the appearance.
The temple was fairly impressive, but I’ve seen hundreds of impressive buildings. What really amazed me was behind the temple: the kitchens. A quite beautiful tradition of Sikhism is that they regularly prepare food for anyone and everyone that wishes to eat. Normally this means the less fortunate, but literally everyone is welcome. How do they do this? All the food is bought with donations and everyone working in the kitchens is a volunteer. Some chop, some cook, some wash dishes. I watched an old man chopping onions at finger-threatening speed then went inside where a throng of people were tucking into simple yet hearty fare.
On seeing this altruism a wave of happiness washed through me and left me smiling contentedly for the remainder of the afternoon.
Now, starter for 10: what does every tourist to ever visit India do?
That’s right! Visit the Taj Mahal.
A pilgrimage was, therefore, a necessary part of my time in India so, intent to combine it with another of life’s great experiences, I went to the railway station to board a train bound for Agra.
Sadly, my hopes that I would see people sitting on the roof of the carriages and hanging out of the windows proved wildly outdated – whilst basic, the sleeper carriages were not uncomfortable and a steady stream of venders carrying water, tea and assorted snacks through the train kept us all in good spirits.
I woke very early the following morning to beat the crowds at the Taj Mahal. On arriving at the ticket barriers I was pounced upon by salivating “guides” all offering me extortionately ” good price” to show me the monument. I demurred.
One, pointing to the fairly long queue for entry, suggested he could walk me through for 500 rupees, otherwise I would be queuing for two hours. I pointed out that the gates were not yet open and I thought his prediction on queuing time was wildly inaccurate. 10 minutes later I was inside, my 500 rupees in my own pocket.
The penalty for beating the crowds was that I had been beaten by the clouds. Nevertheless, shrouded in mist though it may have been, my first glimpse of this labour of love still took my breath away. Commissioned by Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, on her passing, the Taj Mahal is both monument and eulogy.
The structure and its exquisite gardens are perfectly symmetrical (scaffolding notwithstanding), as with most Mughal designs. I stood still and admired.
And then tried to be artistic…..
As I drew closer to explore, I was shaken from my lofty thoughts and romantic musings by this little tribe of mischief-makers:
Most visitors to Agra will have you believe that, once you have visited the Taj Mahal, you should leave immediately and, although I’ll admit the city was my least favourite location in India by quite some distance, I’d argue that the Agra Fort is worth a quick visit before you make your getaway.
This has become a longer post than I’d intended so I’ll tell you my next post is about Rajasthan and includes castles, temples and an unexpected wedding invitation (that should pique your interest) and will bid you au revoir.