Thursday 3rd December
New and Old Delhi.
How lovely to wake up in our beautiful bedroom and enormous bed with crisp white sheets, bathroom and swimming pool with the day's itinerary and meals all organised for us...
(Well that's we told ourselves, although we can't help missing New Zealand and the whole Motorhome life style!)
Today's guide was arriving to meet us at 9, so we had a leisurely breakfast at 8. As expected this included all the usual fruits, mueslis and cooked options and also included curries, rice, salads and a number of unfamiliar a la carte options all served 'masala or plain'. We were not very adventurous...!
Uncertain as to the dress code for the day ahead we erred on the side of caution. Covered legs and shoulders seemed to be important. We were relieved to find that the day time temperature would be around 26 and dry, which was a big improvement in Singapore!
We met our Indian guide for the day in the hotel lobby – Kavitar – A PhD in Local Ancient history and children aged 9 & 4 . She told us that she had been working as a guide for 12 years, and she was certainly incredibly knowledgeable.
We were chauffeured in the same gleaming white Toyota, with crisp white cotton seat covers, that picked us up from the airport. We set off out into the dusty smoggy streets of Delhi. Our serious faced driver weaved and swerved with great skill to the sound of much honking and beeping as usual. In New Delhi there were lane markers painted on the road but no one seemed to take much notice of them and the way to turn left from a position in the outside lane seemed to be to simply honk the horn and go for it, rather like wading across a mountain river in spate. In amongst the chaos were pedestrians, cyclists weaving their way through in all directions and mopeds and tuk-tuks loaded with any number of people, bags, boxes, sacks and even piles of steel rods!
Our tour started by passing the presidential residence Rashtrapati Bharwan, and political and administrative buildings in New Delhi. There were armed guards everywhere, but, even so, we were allowed to drive right up to the gates of India's equivalent of The White House, hop out, take photographs and move on.
Our guide explained that of the 125 million people that live in India, 25 million live in Delhi. As Old Delhi became overcrowded a new city was built alongside and thus has become known as New Delhi. The road between the two, on which we were driving used to be the river bed which was diverted. The Ganges, once an iconic river where Kavitar could remember swimming and playing as a child has become something more like a sewer. Part of the reason for this is that custom dictates that when a Hindu dies their cremated remains and possessions are thrown into the flowing waters of the river as part of a religious ceremony celebrating their belief in the afterlife and reincarnation.
We then drove from the centre of New Delhi into Old Delhi and the contrast was quite startling.
The transition seemed to happen in the space of just a few metres. Where there had been crowded pavements of local people carrying smartphones, walking to work, trees, postboxes, benches and all that would be expected in a big city, suddenly there was squalor - there were people sitting, squatting and lying on the sides of the roads under flyovers, and on street corners. There were piles of rubbish, old women picking through them, blankets covering the bodies of presumably sleeping people, just their feet protruding, dirty children performing little dances and begging from vehicles queued at traffic lights. The streets became narrower, shops and bazaars spilled out over the pavements and electrical cables dangled in thick ropes from rooftops. Bicycles and rickshaws were everywhere, most of them heavily loaded with bags and boxes of unknown cargo. We then started out on our of monuments and world heritage sites in earnest! First stop was the Red Fort built in 1638 by emperor Shah Jahan, the seat of the Mughal rulers of India. Built from local red sandstone it was a formidable structure well protected both visually and physically from the surrounding area. In its entrance passageway was a bazaar, built originally by the King for his wives to shop without leaving his protection at the fort. The stalls now sell tourist trinkets and snacks. Inside the fort there remained traces of the original elaborate architecture, although sadly all the opulent jewels and gold decorations long since stolen. The palace for the Kings wives remained, along with the delicate stone carved screens that provided privacy but allowed air to circulate. A series of fountains and channels of running water passed through the grounds and buildings to help keep the occupants cool in summer. The Kings palace and his garden pavilion were all still present, some still bearing the painted floral decorations - some original, some part of renovation work. The internal layout was open plan. No walls, just ornate archways between living spaces. Once again, this was in order to allow cooler sir to circulate. At night, enormous curtains or tapestries would have been lowered to give privacy.
Next Birla Mandir – a large Hindu temple. Being a Hindu herself, Kavitar was able to explain the principles of Hinduism. Essentially a very tolerant religion it allows worship of a very large number of gods and idols, although the main one is Brahman represented by Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. Unlike Islam there is no fixed requirement to pray at a particular place, at set times or in set ways and no requirement to dress in any manner, other than to remove your shoes. A Hindu can choose to worship one particular God or several and in a variety of ways. Whilst we watched, people arrived, bringing gifts of flowers for the gods, which they laid next to their chosen icons. There were a number of alcoves containing icons, presided over by priests wearing ordinary T shirts and trousers, sitting cross legged on a cushion above the altar area. The people poured milk and water over a stone - the feet of a god - and stroked it either silently or whilst singing or reciting alone or with others. These acts were overseen by the priest who would then supply a stripe of coloured paint to the forehead of a man, or offer the paint to a married lady to paint herself. There was a place where people could collect a bowl of special water and they could take this home to wash and gargle with. People could also bring gifts of money and this is used to provide food and shelter on request for anyone who is in poverty, regardless of their religion. Although all Hindus will have small temples at home, containing their chosen icons, they are still encouraged to visit the temples and worship all the gods in order to encourage a feeling of community.
The whole atmosphere seemed to be one of earnest bustling, more like a flower market overseen by traders, than a place of worship. As we wandered, stood and watched, the local people ignored us in a friendly kind of way, just glancing/ nodding /smiling briefly before continuing their prayers. It was all rather humbling and we felt quite at ease, despite the strangeness of the ceremonies. We wondered what a couple of Indian tourists would feel if they wandered into a village church in England in the middle of Sunday morning family communion!
After this we reclaimed our shoes from a man in a white cap, there were dozens of pairs of shoes, but they were all handed back individually and personally. We were installed in the back of a bicycle rickshaw and whisked away down the narrow cobbled streets of Chandni Chowk, passing colourful Bazaars, street carts and many other rickshaws.
Was this something laid on for the tourists? Absolutely not. Besides us, the other rickshaws contained mothers clutching young children, two young men carrying a huge hessian sack of vegetables, a serious looking middle aged Indian couple dressed smartly, as if on their way to a wedding or important appointment, an elegant young woman chatting on her smartphone, a sari clad lady laden with bags of shopping, an Indian businessman in a suit with a laptop on his knees, it was very much the everyday way for local people to get about. Like all the other drivers, ours stood on the pedals and stormed madly along the streets overtaking and weaving in and out of the other traffic and pedestrians.
The destination for this bumpy and frenetic ride was the Jama Masjid the largest mosque in India – identifiable by the 3 domes. At the foot of the steps up to the temple there were the usual traders seeking our custom, in this instance for garnet necklaces. They were lovely, and inexpensive, so Bill made use of his bartering skills to negotiate a good price and a deal was struck! We slipped off our footwear at the entrance steps, where they were guarded by the attendant for the duration of our visit for the sum of 20 rupees! This being a Muslim site, the rules required modest dress' and all women were politely requested to cover themselves with a gown, rather like a hospital outpatient gown (provided free) before entering. Head scarves were optional. Although I admit it seemed slightly odd ( I was wearing an elbow length tee shirt and long trousers) it was embarrassing to hear and see several western tourists remonstrating about this rule and making sarcastic remarks. I wonder why they bothered to even come to Delhi? We walked under the arch way and into a huge courtyard dominated by the three domes of the mosque. It was a lovely open space with a central square pool and fountain. Here, the Muslims washed and gargled to cleanse themselves before prayer. It sounds revolting but the pool was huge, the water was clear and sparkling and it was fine. Interestingly there were parties of local school children in their uniforms visiting the site. They were identified by our guide who explained that in Delhi, all the schools are multi faith without any form of segregation and a big part of their cultural education is for all the children to learn about each other's religions. We watched as the Muslim kids showed the others how they washed and prayed and took photos with their mobile phones as they clowned around and splashed each other in the process.
We learnt more about Muslims and Islamic traditions here. Again there was charity for the poor, financial and practical support for those below the poverty line and also assistance for poorer people to be able to make the Haj pilgrimage. The Muslims follow a much stricter pattern in their worship, responding to the call to prayer five times a day, every day. Attendance at the mosque rather than prayer at home, is encouraged, again, to encourage a feeling of community.
Next the the India Gate - a freestanding arch memorial to the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died in the First World War.
Humayun’s tomb in its landscaped gardens was the next stop. A symmetrical palace standing high up in the centre. A flight of very steep steps lead up onto a raised courtyard from where you could see through the intricately carved screens to the interior. The elevated position overlooking the city and river reminded me in a strange way of Warwick castle back home.
We then drove on to Raj Ghat the cremation site of Mahatma Ghandi. This is the site where many other famous people have been cremated and where their memorials stand. In India cremation is usually carried out as soon as possible after death for practical reasons. The wrapped body is left plain for Hindus, decorated for Muslims. The open fire of oiled wood is lit by the eldest son of the deceased. More recently there has been some allowance for a daughter to perform the task. The following day their remains are collected and cast into the river in a further ceremony.
Since Gandhi's assassination and cremation in 1948, an eternal flame has been kept burning at the cremation site and the area is kept decorated with fresh flowers.
Lunch was at a tourist restaurant called 'Yes Minister' at Essex place! It was a surprise to suddenly find ourselves indoors with a substantial menu in front of us but we soon tucked in to chicken stuffed with coriander, simmered in saffron and star anise with butter naan and bhindi.
Next up the Bahai temple shaped like a lotus flower. This is a new temple for a new religion. Established only a generation ago it had a relatively small number of followers but the temple's principles are that people of any or no religion may visit here and pray or meditate or just sit quietly inside. Our last official stop was Qutab Minar – a 72 metre high tower built in 1199AD. This was a very beautiful place with an interesting history of its chequered past. Originally a Hindu temple it was sacked by the Persians. The King then lost interest and returned to Persia leaving his chief slave in charge. The slave destroyed 27 temples and most of the Hindu decorations. He built a huge tower from red sandstone and white marble. What he didn't realise was that a carved iron post that took pride of place displayed a Hindu message.
The final result was a spectacular monument with lovely gardens, full of local people and Indian tourists enjoying a lovely afternoon in the sun, amongst a hotch potch architecture old, new and modern.
We were dropped off at the Ghandi museum just next to our hotel. We stayed until closing time learning more about this remarkable man:-
- his very average childhood education
- his uk training to be a barrister
- his fanatical vegetarianism
- his employment as a barrister in South Africa
- his humiliation at bring evicted from the first class compartment of a train on grounds of race
- his support for the exploited workers in the indigo industry
- his hunger fast
- his worldwide reputation for wisdom and standing up for his principles
-his assassination at the age of 86 whilst on his way to prayers.
We walked back to The Claridges and took tea on the hotel lawn. It seemed calm and peaceful despite the 'city symphony of taxi horns' still audible beyond the walls. We sat near the fountains and watched brown kites with their characteristic forked tails flying over head. Entertainment was provided by the erection, assembly and decoration of the 40 ft tall hotel Christmas tree. Seven men, three wearing hard hats attached branches and then a vast number of baubles of all shapes and sizes to the cone shaped frame and then attempted to connect it to the mains!
As we sat and drank tea and watched, the dusk fell and we noticed the eerie shapes of dozens of fruit bats in the air overhead silhouetted against the sky.
After a short IT interlude we discovered that the pool was due to close earlier than we had expected and we nearly missed a swim in the “Very cold madam” (26 degrees!) outdoor infinity pool, gym steam room and sauna. In fact they were very relaxed on timings and we were not only able to swim in the twilight, but could use all the other facilities too, which was the perfect antidote to a day of history, dust and monuments.
Feeling very rejuvenated after some exercise and fresh air we needed dinner. Unfortunately it seemed that so did everyone else. This was no bad thing as we were able to endure our one hour wait in the Aura Vodka Bar. We were confronted with unnerving array of vodkas in decorated and frosted coloured glass bottles that looked beautiful - like jewels displayed on a mirrored shelf. I chose lemongrass infused vodka with lime juice. Bill played safe with Kingfisher 'ultra' beer...
Our hotel restaurant of choice was Dhaba – described as serving North Indian 'truck stop' food.
The decor was great. No formal traditional hotel restaurant chandeliers, curtains, tables etc - just brightly painted walls with posters, old battered pay phones and posters. Even at 11pm the place was still packed full of couples, conference parties and families with young children. It was obviously and justifiably a popular place to eat out.
We enjoyed butter chicken and Balti lamb shank – the chilli content of which was especially reduced for us on request - according to the waiter - and it was really tasty. We rolled into bed to prepare for our transfer to Agra in the morning…