Delhi (22 – 23 December 2013)
I was not going to spend Christmas moping around and feeling sorry for myself. I always do, every year. Mope around at Christmas and feel unhappy because it is just the right season to be depressed. It is the time of the year when everyone feels warm and fuzzy despite the monsoon season in Singapore. However the warmer and fuzzier I am expected to feel, the more depressed I get. It is as if I need to do things differently from normal people.
So last Christmas I booked myself on a tour of India. It was a Christmas gift to myself and a chance to run away from Christmas.
Although it was winter in India, temperatures were nice and cool and there was hardly any rain. The only problem was that it was mostly foggy especially in Delhi. It gets that way in northern India every December apparently.
As the plane began its descent into Delhi, I might have believed it if I were told that we were being lowered into a giant chimney. I could not see a thing. And then as I was getting a bit worried, the city appeared in my face all of a very sudden. I was hoping to be comforted but not that abruptly. Nevertheless I got off the plane in one piece.
My tour of Delhi started almost immediately after I had checked into my hotel and dumped my bags in my room. I was picked up at my hotel by V and the driver and taken through Old Delhi to reach my first destination. It was fascinating to see so many people walking up and down the street. I know India is the second most populous country in the world but the long street along which I was being driven down was so crowded with people that I felt some incredulity at the sight. Stalls were set up all along the street selling books, clothes, shoes, food, toys, just about anything imaginable. People were walking up and down looking at the things being offered for sale or just enjoying the cool Sunday afternoon.
My first stop was at the Jama Masjid. This is the main mosque of Old Delhi and was built in the middle of the 17th century by the Mughals. I would of course come across a great many wonderful buildings and monuments built by the Mughals on this trip and hear that name “Mughal” being thrown about everywhere.
Everyone of course had to walk about the compound without their shoes, including in the huge courtyard with a whole nation of pigeons flying about. And we all know that anywhere can be a toilet for pigeons. I walked very very gingerly through the courtyard indeed. But I doubt that I was able to avoid every bit of crap on the ground.
As for the mosque, it was really beautiful. Pity about the fog though.
After leaving the mosque, I was put onto a rickshaw and V and I took a ride through Chandni Chowk. The ride through the narrow streets was fun although I would have enjoyed it even more if the shops had been opened. The chowk was rather quiet and only a handful of shops and roadside stalls were in business. It was just not the scene that I was hoping to see. I did not know that they closed their shops on Sundays.
The paucity of human activity in the chowk however made the filth of the streets even more apparent. I tried not to look at the ground as much as I could. However, like a car crash, it was really hard to not stare at the filth sometimes much less not notice it. My ride through Chandni Chowk reminded me that Delhi was the most polluted city in the world. I wonder if the fog was all fog. According to Wikipedia, air pollution causes the death of more than 10,000 people in Delhi every year. That sounds quite scary.
The rickshaw ride ended at the Red Fort. This was something I had looked forward to visiting. The fort had been the centre of the Mughal government for almost 200 years. Even today, on Independence Day every year, the Prime Minister of India will raise the national flag and deliver his speech on the top of the Lahori Gate which is the main gate of the fort. This is in accordance with a tradition started on the very day India became independent.
The next day we went to visit Qutb Minar. This is the tallest brick minaret in the world and towers over a complex of remains of different buildings. It was built to mark the victory of a Muslim general over one of the Rajput kings. The person who built it later became the first Sultan of Delhi and founded the Mamluk Dynasty in northern India way before the Mughals came along.
I have to say that the minaret was impressive.
There was a plan by a later Sultan to build another minaret twice as tall as the Qutb Minar. He died before he could fulfil his dream however and his successor did not continue with the plan. The remains of that aborted project can still be seen today in the form of the huge stump of Alai Minar.
Among the visitors to Qutb Minar that day were a few classes of students. Some of them seemed more interested in taking group selfies with foreign visitors than the monuments though. I myself was approached by one such group and it was really odd to be asked to take a photo with a bunch of strangers. I never thought that I could become a tourist attraction and in a foreign country at that.
Humayun’s Tomb was next on the itinerary. This is the mausoleum of Humayun, one of the Mughal emperors, but the compound within which it stands also contains other monuments. Humayun’s Tomb itself is considered to be the precursor to the Taj Mahal. Its architecture is representative of an earlier stage of Mughal tomb architectural tradition that culminated in the Taj Mahal. It is the oldest remaining example of a Mughal garden tomb.
The emperor has a really beautiful tomb.
Within the same compound lies Isa Khan’s tomb. He was an Afghan noble who had fought the Mughals when he was alive. His tomb is older than Humayun’s and possesses a charm all of its own. I am still not entirely clear why the emperor was buried so near someone who had fought the Mughals although it might have just been that the location was a good one for burials and whether persons had been friends or foe no longer mattered upon death.
I was also driven through New Delhi and I saw wide grand roads. There is an area there specially reserved for embassies and one can drive around there for a long time and see nothing but embassies. It is nice to have a lot of land to spare. Some parts of New Delhi however were built simply to impress and show off the power of the British empire.
The city tour should have ended after the tour of imperial British India but V was very generous with me. I had asked him for suggestions on how to spend the rest of the afternoon and he suggested a museum. Unfortunately it was closed when we got there. He then took me to the Laxminarayan Temple instead and even showed me around in there although it was not part of the tour. That was my first visit to a Hindu temple and it was quite a fun experience.
V later brought me to the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib near my hotel and got someone working at there to show me the dining hall and kitchen. I was impressed to learn that gurdwaras provide food for anyone who wants any. And the free meals are open to not only Sikhs but everyone regardless of race or religion. Even I could have gone for the free meals. To me it is true charity to be able to do good for even people who are different.
After giving me some final reminders on what to see in the temple and how to return to my hotel, V took his leave. However I would later realise that V had forgotten to tell me about one very crucial thing. When in the temple I was required to only walk in a clockwise direction around sacred areas. I walked in the opposite direction around the sarovar. I should have known that there was something wrong with what I was doing since, well, I was the only person doing it. A local pointed out my mistake to me and I was horrified. He sounded a little unhappy. Come to think of it, I had walked about inside the main temple in every direction I wanted. Was that why some people in there were staring at me?
I suppose I could have done worse, like be really clumsy and knock over or step on some sacred object in the temple. But one can never be too careful and respectful in a place of worship. It was my first visit to a gurdwara and I am most unlikely to ever forget the experience now. In any case I got back to my hotel safely on my own with no one running after me with sticks and bonfires.
My time in Delhi ended in a flash. Even though I was brought to the major sights it did not feel like I had done the city justice at all. I hope that I get a chance to put things right in the future.