Friday, March 15, 2024

Incredible India - Part 2: Delhi - The Capital City

Exploring Delhi (Old and New)

Tuesday and Wednesday, February 6 - 7

Does International travel scramble your internal clock for a few days?  It certainly does mine! Our journey from San Francisco to New Delhi (including the eight-hour layover in Dubai) took 27 hours, but India is thirteen-and-a-half hours ahead of California, so we left on Sunday afternoon, and arrived on Tuesday morning.  (Of course, one could say that India is 11-and-a-half hours behind California on the clock, and one day ahead on the calendar, but that gets really confusing.)  That extra half hour time difference is because India straddles two time zones, so the government split the difference and put the entire country in between.

The bottom line is that Rob and I would be awake or asleep approximately 12 hours opposite to home on this journey, so we were very grateful to have planned our trip to include a free day before beginning any scheduled activities.  We arranged with our travel agent to be picked up at the airport and taken to our hotel, the beautiful New Delhi Oberoi.  This was the first of the four Oberoi hotels we would call home during this trip, and each one of them was stunning!  I can recommend this hotel chain if you come to India!

My memories of that first day are pretty hazy, but I DO remember that we each booked a 90-minutes massage in the hotel spa, and it was heavenly.

The pool next to the spa at the Oberoi New Delhi

Our tour started in earnest, bright and early on Wednesday morning.  Our guide Raj and driver Ram picked us up at 9:00 and we set out for a very full day of sightseeing in this huge sprawling city of 35 million people.

Our first stops were in Old Delhi.  Jama Masjid, also known as the Friday Mosque, is a huge mosque of red sandstone and marble built by Shah Jahan in the 1600s, the Mughal era. (Shah Jahan is also the ruler who built the Taj Mahal.)  The mosque is still in use and remains one of the largest and best-known mosques in India. 

Outside of the entrance, we removed our shoes - as we would do whenever entering a Muslim temple - and I was provided with a long strip of cloth to wrap around my waist like a skirt. Then we entered the large courtyard through one of the four entry gates.  The main gate stands opposite the mosque and opens to the Red Fort across the road.  The Shah used to enter from his palace through this gate and stand on the balcony over the courtyard, which could hold 25,000 worshippers.  In one corner of the gallery is an ornate white marble structure that serves as a reliquary, as it holds inside a hair of the beard of Mohammed.

Jama Masjid 

Jama Masjid seen through the main entry gate

The large courtyard and one of the entry gates

This entry gate leads to the Red Fort. 
The shah would arrive here and observe the services from the balcony above.

Rob with our guide, Raj

The Reliquary holding a hair from the beard of Mohammed stood
in a corner of the courtyard.

Arabic calligraphy of verses of the Qu'ran is frequently used as a decorative element.
I loved the scalloped arches of the mosque.

Jama Masjid sits on a high platform above Chandni Chowk, "The Moonlight Square," a maze of ancient streets, also built by Shah Jahan, and now filled with shops filled with goods of every type. 

Raj and Rob descend the steps to Chandni Chowk

We followed Raj through the streets, dodging cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and bicycle rickshaws - and the mass of people - to observe the little food stands, tiny shops, the tangle of electrical wires overhead. Above one food stand, there were monkeys swinging on those wires and climbing all over the buildings enjoying handouts of bananas from the vendor below.

The streets of Chandni Chowk

The monkeys of Chandni Chowk. 
(The macaque at the top is catching a tomato thrown by a vegetable vendor.)

After the walk, we enjoyed a bicycle rickshaw ride to the old city gate at the end of the main street. As we rode, I noticed that many of the buildings along the street must have once been very beautiful, with ornate facades and balconies, but that they are now in various states of disrepair.  In earlier times, this must have been an elegant boulevard.  This thought became a recurring observation throughout our trip. 

Rob and Joan with our bicycle rickshaw driver

Hints of the former beauty of these old buildings

Although there certainly were tourists there, Chandni Chowk is not aimed at tourists.  It is a genuine Indian marketplace, filled with local people (mostly men) buying, selling, sleeping in the little squares in the middle of the road, sitting on the curb getting a shave, or chatting with their friends. 

An old city gate leading into the Spice Market

The busy market streets of Chandni Chowk

Our rickshaw ride ended at the largest spice market in Asia.  We visited one of the shops and made our first purchase of this trip.  Masala Chai, curry powder, and turmeric – some of the staples of Indian cuisine.

I love Spice Markets!

Flowers are very important in Indian culture. 
We saw them sold in every city. They are used as offerings in Hindu temples

Our bicycle rickshaw returned us back to Jama Masjid. Along the way, we saw the exteriors of the golden-domed Gauri Shakar Sikh Temple and the bright red Sri Digambara Jain Lal Mandir Temple.  The Jain temple includes a bird hospital, demonstrating the Jain philosophy to preserve all life.  I had attributed this belief to Hindus, but it is the Jains who go so far as to wash the road in front of them so they will not injure any small creatures.

Sri Digambara Jain Lal Mandir, the Jain temple
Gauri Shakar Sikh Temple stands behind it.

Gauri Shakar Sikh Temple

At the end of the road stands the Red Fort, a huge complex, also started by Shah Jahan, once surrounded by a moat with crocodiles and still used by the Indian military.  The Lahore Gate is the location of an annual speech by the Prime Minister of India.

The Red Fort viewed from Jama Masjid

The Lahore Gate of the Red Fort

Our next stop was Raj Ghat, the site where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was cremated following his assassination in 1948. The setting is serene, with a park filled with large grassy lawns and trees, and so many flowers that the breeze filled the air with a lovely scent. Plaques along the walk held quotes from Gandhi. There were dozens of both tourists and Indian families coming to pay their respects to the man who is remembered as the Father of the Nation.  We stood on the walkway above the cremation site, which has wreaths of fresh flowers laid upon it every day while our guide shared the fascinating story of Gandhi and the freedom fighter who assassinated him.  Although they both wanted independence for their country, Nathuram Vinayakrao Godse was a Hindu Nationalist who believed that Gandhi gave too many concessions to the British when settling the Indian Partition.  A tragic ending to a noble life.

Raj Ghat

Wisdom from Gandhi and his face on Indian banknotes.

Ram then drove us to Agrasen ki Baoli, an ancient step well. No one knows when it was originally built, but archaeologists believe that it was rebuilt in the 14th century. Raj explained that no one ever used to visit this hidden treasure until Bollywood filmed a movie here. Now it is a popular little oasis in the city. Toward the bottom of the 103 steps, the temperature is cooled up to 10 degrees by the water in the well, which rises and falls with the rainy and dry seasons.  The many pigeons on the old stone walls seemed to enjoy the protected spot.

Agrasen Ki Baoli -an ancient step well, with a ruined building next to it
and lots of pigeons roosting on the old rock walls.

Following the step well, we stopped at a shop that makes and sells Kashmir pashminas and rugs.  The proprietor and an artisan demonstrated the method of hand-knotting and weaving the intricate designs, and much to my surprise, we did actually buy a gorgeous hand-knotted rug.  I had always regretted not buying a hand-woven rug we had loved in Turkey, so this was my chance to remedy that decision.

Our host shares the tools and techniques of making the hand-knotted rugs of Kashmir.
Our new rug fits perfectly in the entryway of our home.

We left “Old Delhi” and headed into the crazy traffic of modern New Delhi, the capital city of India. The traffic was worse than Cairo! No one pays any attention to the lane markings. Drivers of cars, motorcycles, tuk tuks, and donkey or ox carts just push their way into the crowd...a particularly interesting strategy in the many roundabouts built by the British when they ruled India. During our days in the cities, I learned to close my eyes, enjoy the chorus of the endless honks and beeps and toots, and trust in our professional drivers.  (Our guide called it organized chaos, but trust me...It was disorganized chaos!)

We passed by the huge grounds of the Presidential Palace and other government buildings within the complex then stopped at Lazeez Affaire Restaurant for lunch.  The restaurant offered a set menu of about ten different Indian dishes. I guessed from the foreigners around us that the restaurant caters to tourists, so although the dishes were all spicy, they were not too hot for my western palate. (I came to learn that the Indian version of “mild” is my version of “blazing hot.”)

The Presidential Palace and government buildings of New Delhi
stand in a well-guarded compound.

Rob heads into Lazeez Affaire Restaurant

A relatively clear intersection at one of the Delhi roundabouts.
The street signs in Delhi are printed in Hindi, English, Punjabi, and Urdu.

After the delicious lunch, there were still two more stops.  Lakshmi Narayan Hindu Temple, also known as Birla Temple for the family that built it, is dedicated to Vishnu the Protector and his consort, Lakshmi. The outside of the temple was lovely with ochre and red walls, but sadly, no cameras were allowed inside, so I bought a little book with pictures of the Hindu gods we saw inside the temple.

Lakshmi Narayan Hindu Temple exterior

I have always loved Greek and Roman mythology and their pantheon of gods.  This trip gave me a much better understanding of Hindu mythology as well.  However, unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Hindu religion is alive and thriving.  Raj bowed reverently before the statue of his patron god, the monkey-faced Hanuman.  He explained that each god is associated with a particular day.  Hanuman, who is usually worshipped on Tuesdays, is know for love, compassion, devotion, strength, and intelligence.  No wonder he is one of the most popular gods.

For those of you who are as ignorant of Hindu religion as I was, here is a little primer on some of the most popular of the many gods of Hinduism, using photos of the statues inside the temple taken from my purchase.

These are the three gods of the Trimurti, the trinity of supreme divinity in Hinduism.
       Brahma, the Creator                Vishnu, the Protector            Shiva, the Destroyer 

Each of the three primary gods has a consort. 
Here are Vishnu and Lakshmi, to whom this temple is dedicated.
Brahma's consort is Saraswati, and Vishnu's is Parvati

Here are Hanuman, the monkey-faced god, and
Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati.
I have a soft spot for Ganesha, a god who removes obstacles.
And I was surprised to learn that his father, Shiva the Destroyer,
doesn't rain down destruction.  
Instead, Hindus can pray to him to destroy the bad qualities within themselves.

Speaking of destruction, this temple was quite new because the Mughal Empire had destroyed many of the Hindu temples around India.  We saw more evidence of this at our final stop for the day, the wonderful Muslim complex at Qutub Minar. This UNESCO World Heritage site in south Delhi was filled with ruined buildings from before the 12th century. The ruins are still covered with gorgeous carvings and Arabic calligraphy, but Raj pointed out that the stone carvers were Hindus, and they had incorporated Hindu designs into the carvings.

Some of the gorgeous ruins in the Qutub Minar complex.

Notice the floral designs woven into the Islamic script by Hindu scuptors.
This created a new Indo-Islamic style of architecture.

The Tomb of Shams al-Din Iltutmish, the second sultan of Delhi in the 1200s.

Ruins of the madrasa, an Islamic school, in the Qutub Minar complex.

The Iron Pillar is a notable part of the Qutub Minar complex.  It is considered one of the world's foremost metallurgical curiosities. 
It was first erected in around 402 A.D. in front of a Vishnu temple in Udayagiri. 
It was moved to this location in the 10th century.
The ancient pillar of iron weighs 6,511 kg (14,354 pounds!)

The highlight of the complex is the 73-meter tall Qutub Minar, a brick minaret built in the 12th century. It is gorgeous, with six sections of red brick, each with a unique design.

Each segment of the Qutub Minar was unique

Joan and Rob - and the obligatory tourist photo!

The tower was beautiful, but my favorite sight was the ruin of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque beyond the tower. Dating from 1193, it was the first mosque built in Delhi after the Muslim conquest and was built on the grounds of a destroyed Hindu temple.  The intricately carved pillars of the original temple were used by the Muslims to hold up the mosque. The faces of the Hindu gods had been defaced, as Muslim art does not include animals, humans, or gods, but the columns were still gorgeous.

Ruins of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque

Carvings on the ancient Hindu pillars used to support the roof of the mosque.

There was one final sight at the Qutub Minar complex - the Alai Minar of Alauddin Khalji.  This ruler expanded the Quwwat ul-Islam mosque and wanted to tower two times higher than the Qutub Minar.  But after his death in 1316, the project was abandoned, and the only thing left is this immense cone of stone.  It was pretty jaw-dropping, in spite of its lack of completion.  But my favorite sight were the Indian ring-necked parakeets roosting high up on its rocks!

Alai Minar

Pigeons and an Indian ring-necked parakeet on the ruins of Alai Minar.

What a spectacular start to our trip!  We returned to the Oberoi with a head full of new sights and information, but completely worn out, so we cancelled dinner reservations, packed for our journey to Varanasi the next day, and went straight to bed.

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