Thinking of my fabulous pre-Covid trip to India, hoping all the wonderful people we met are safe and well.
Nov 26, 2019
The sun rose red in a lead-grey sky, the horizon smudged with Delhi’s famous smog. At least our photos would be atmospheric, I’d joked. What I didn’t expect was how green the city would be, starting with the swath of tropical greenspace spread out below our seventh-floor window at the Taj Delhi in the heart of the city.
Palatial it is, from the marble staircase and massive display of fresh flowers in the lobby to the smartly-uniformed staff at every corner rushing to open a door or swipe a key card in the elevator. The Taj’s breakfast buffet is so sumptuous you could graze all day, moving from fresh-squeezed OJ and freshly-made omelets to stir-fried Chinese noodles with vegetables, rice-flour pillows of idli from South India to dip in soupy sambar.
I also didn’t realize that seeing even two sites in this sprawling city of nearly 20 million requires half a day, most of it spent snarled in traffic. Drivers of every vehicle, from motorcycle to tuk tuk to delivery van to other tourist buses, appear bound and determined to pull in front of you with inches to spare, horns blasting their intention, on six-lane streets where the lines don’t count.
Our first stop was Akshardham, a Hindu house of worship made of red sandstone from Rajasthan and Carrara marble from Italy. With the help of modern technology and more than 300,000 hours of work by more than 8,000 volunteers from around the world, it was built in just five years, opening in 2005.
Reaching the temple from the vast parking lot requires a long walk through various lines which divide into male and female as you near the security checkpoint. The women’s side has a curtained room where you can be frisked in private. It took us about 30 minutes to get to the airport-like metal detector now found at many sites and hotels. Our guide Ashish said he once waited three hours to get in during a Hindu holiday.
Inside, visitors walk barefoot on the cool marble floors as life-size stone elephants cavort, gods and goddesses dance in pairs up and down columns and stone peacocks preen in fountains. Unfortunately, no photos allowed. The highlight is the giant gold statue of Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781- 1830), who espoused Hindu values including the power of prayer, compassion and non-violence.
Back through six lanes of traffic to the Lotus Temple, built by the Bahai faith in 1986. The temple rises at the end of a long path through a park. Inside, the circular sanctuary is completely bare except for 1,300 seats set in a semi-circle for worshippers or anyone who wishes to sit and meditate. Before entering, visitors are asked to be silent. The hush under the high vaulted ceiling is both powerful and soothing.
Last stop, a medieval tomb in Lodhi Garden, one of the city’s 14,000 gardens and parks, a lovely surprise. The silence of its cool, dark interior was broken by the cawing of crows and the eerie cry of kites hunting for dinner, sending the (surely millions!) of pigeons into a frenzy.
By 6 pm it was so dark I was happy to be part of a group. Our driver dropped us off at a small plaza near the hotel, where I tasted the best Indian food of my life at non-descript Pindi. Butter chicken, the house specialty, fresh hot garlic naan bread, spinach paneer with cubes of soft mild cheese and curried chickpeas. And it’s only our first day!
Day 2 – our Explore India tour begins
Today’s our big chance to experience Old Delhi. After another long bus ride, the wide avenues suddenly shrink to narrow, car-free laneways. Overlooking the scene is the Jama Mosque, the royal mosque built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1656. Through one gate we could see the Red Fort, one of India’s many UNESCO sites.
As we wandered the wide courtyard, where 45,000 people gather for holy festivals, locals began pushing their kids forward to get a selfie with the foreigners wrapped in bed sheets, two of whom were tall and blonde. It was fun for awhile, the kids were adorable, everyone smiled and it was an easy way to take photos of the women in colourful, billowing saris. But it became overwhelming, we were soon reluctantly turning them away so we could concentrate on Ashish’s detailed commentary.
As we left the mosque, five bicycle rickshaws awaited to take us for a ride through Old Delhi’s narrow lanes. The small, wiry drivers didn’t seem capable of pedaling well-fed Canadians a few feet, let alone ferrying us expertly for nearly an hour through streets so clogged with people, goods for sale, delivery carts and other rickshaws honking and trying to cut us off it’s a miracle we all survived.
Above the laneways hung tangled piles of wiring to run the internet, landlines and other communications essential for modern life. Perched on thin hard red vinyl seats, we reached for something to hold onto as every bump, manhole and hard turn threatened to throw us into the street. Yet it was thrilling to pass the open-air shops on either side, each not much bigger than a shoebox.
Several streets held shop after shop of wedding cards, piled to the ceiling in colours that echo the vibrant colours of the women’s saris … red, vermillion, gold.
Vendors in another laneway sold bangles in every colour, while another area stocked dainty womens’ shoes. Then there was food, of course, carts of fall vegetables, red carrots, small cauliflower and shiny wee eggplant. One cart displayed giant papayas, another small pomegranates. As the snack carts geared up for lunch we peered down at deep-fried balls and small foil pie plates piled with mysterious hot dishes ladled from weather-beaten cauldrons.
It was a relief to stop for a break and give our turbo-charged senses (and sore bums) a rest as we walked to the spice shop Ashish recommended, a family-run business operating since 1917. We were soon deluged with choice as young men with perfect English began tempting us with packets of masala (mixed) spices for every Indian dish, from biryani to chicken tikka. We were soon piling metal trays with spice mixes and whole spices – coriander, black pepper, even the long pepper I’d seen in US recipes but never used. I bought a small plastic bubble of saffron, some of the best in the world, apparently. I smelled samples of tea infused with mango and ginger before settling on a bag of the famous Indian masala chai, which tasted different in every restaurant and fancy shop we stopped at.
As I perused the tea cabinet, master blender Anshu Kumar encouraged me to buy all three types of Darjeeling tea, a robust flush for breakfast and different blends for afternoon and after-dinner tea. I chose the first flush of silver tips, which promised a delicate cup for the afternoon tea that remains a lovely idea. My spicy haul came to an alarming 5,000 rupees, or $100 Canadian … I wonder what locals would have paid?
The next stop put our capitalist ways to shame, the park-like estate where Mahatma Ghandi was shot in 1948 while walking from his spare whitewashed bedroom – futon on the floor, the small spinning wheel he used to spin thread for his clothes, the familiar round glasses — to the small temple on the property.
Ghandi’s words were everywhere, advocating peace, harmony and justice for all. It was sobering, beautiful and sad as the current Indian leader seems bent on dividing his people, not for the first time as history shows.
Of course there was more!! Sustained by a bag of potato chips, we pressed on to Emperor Hamayun’s Tomb, another must-see landmark set in a leafy green park. The exquisite tomb was commissioned by his first wife in 1570 and designed by Persian architects – no wonder I kept getting flashes of Iran! Back on the bus at last and a quick stop at the hotel before heading out again for our welcome dinner.
Our welcome dinner (more butter chicken and other delicacies) took place at a gloomy, high-ceilinged restaurant in Connaught Place, a lively ring of white, two-storey Georgian-style buildings built in 1929 when the British Empire (1920s-1940s) decided to move India’s capital from Calcutta to Delhi. One of many places I would have loved to explore. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the new government district, called New Delhi, keeping a third of the area as green space. There’s a walk from Connaught Place to India Gate which looks promising … perhaps next time.
On our way to the airport the next morning for the flight to Amritsar, we had time to explore more ancient buildings. The Qutub Minar is magnificent, a five-story minaret of red sandstone and marble standing 73 metres high. It was built in 1193 to signify the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu kingdom. At the foot is India’s first mosque, apparently built with material obtained from demolishing 27 Hindu temples, sigh.
An enthusiastic security guard led us to the perfect spot and happily took photos with our cameras. Money wasn’t mentioned but I supposed he would have appreciated some … it’s all rather awkward. According to a map we picked up several days later, the Qutub Minar is part of the Mehrauli neighbourhood of South West Delhi, near cool shops and restaurants. Another spot for next time! Perhaps Delhi’s subway system would get us there quicker than driving.