There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Delhi (1) Mainly Old Delhi but some New Delhi too: Part 1 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh

Modern, clean and calm, Indira Ghandi Airport is everything India aspires to be. Once through the airport we were driven to our hotel along streets, some of which were modern, a few of which were clean, but none were calm. Indian drivers do not do ‘calm’, they do ‘horn’.

Usually a hotel’s location is described with reference to the city centre. In Delhi that does not work. Old Delhi and New Delhi are adjacent but very different cities, and New Delhi has separate administrative and commercial centres. Our hotel was in New Delhi - in the suburban sprawl rather than the planned central district - in a middle class residential area near Patel Nagar metro station. It had modernity in the shape of the metro – like Bangkok’s skytrain, it is mainly built over the streets rather than tunnelled under them -...

Under the Delhi Metro, Patel Nagar
...and it had tradition, in the sense that there was a comfortable spot for a cow to lie down.

A comfortable spot for a cow to lie down
Despite persistent suggestions from the local tuk-tuk charioteers that they should drive us somewhere, we insisted on exploring the area on foot. It offered few facilities for a pair of itinerant foreigners, but we did identify a  promising bakery and a couple of possible restaurants. We visited one in the evening, it was a ‘Vegetarian Family Restaurant’ (i.e. no meat and no beer) but the food was good – Gobhi Noorjaimaini (Cauliflower with cashew nuts), and Dhal Makhani, with a couple of naans and Gulab Jamun to follow. The restaurant was cheap and clean, always a pleasing combination.

In the morning Vikram turned up to show us Delhi. A good linguist and very competent guide, he had been a promising cricketer in his youth, opening the batting for Rajasthan under 19s. With that youth not very far behind him, he was newly married and manfully shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood - but not without a little nostalgia for the days when cricket filled his life.

This day, though, was not one for cricket. We were aware that February is relatively cool in northern India, but we had not expected drizzle, nor the biting wind that seemed to follow us round the city.

We drove the 4 or 5 km to Old Delhi through the relatively light Saturday traffic. Less than 1% of Delhi’s 17 million inhabitants are Christians, but along with railways and cricket (and both will feature in subsequent posts) the British left India with a proper respect for Sunday, and to a lesser extent Saturday,  as days of rest – at least for office workers.

We soon arrived at the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque). In the 17th century Delhi gradually assumed the mantle of capital of the Mughal Empire, and although Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor, actually ruled from Agra (where he built the Taj Mahal) he made a major contribution to the move to Delhi when he laid the foundation stone of the Jama Masjid in 1650. His thirty year reign was a golden era of Indian prosperity.

Prayer hall and minarets, Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Capable of holding 25 000 worshippers, the largest mosque in India sits on a low hill on edge of Old Delhi.

Looking over Old Delhi to the Red Fort from the Jama Masjid
We climbed the steps, removed our shoes, paid a photography fee and entered. Lynne had come equipped with a headscarf, but they were not interested in that, providing her, and every other western woman, with a voluminous dressing gown. Heads remained uncovered and many of the dressing gowns lacked fastenings and blew open in the breeze, trailing behind their wearers like Batman’s cape.
Lynne in her flowery dressing gown by the east gate of the Jama Masjid

The courtyard is surrounded by a wall wide enough to accommodate a good proportion of the peak time worshippers. In the centre is a pool for ritual ablutions while the prayer hall, bracketed by two towering minarets, faces Mecca at the western end. Constructed of red sandstone and marble it is an impressive building, but there is little inside. Islam is a religion of sunny regions and praying normally takes place outdoors; carpets cover the flagstones and shade can be arranged as needed.

Inside the Prayer Hall, Jama Masjid
Walking round such places we usually stay off the stone so as not to burn our bare feet. On this day the carpet strips were wet and slimy, the flags stones were cold and the small puddles were too numerous to avoid; not the best day to visit.
The pile of shoes outside the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Handing in Lynne’s dressing gown and reclaiming our shoes, we descended the steps towards a scrum of cycle rickshaws.

Vik selected us a likely peddler and another for himself – unlike in Yangon cycle rickshaws can accommodate two passengers - and we set off along one of Old Delhi’s wider roads.....
A wider road, Old Delhi
....before diving into the narrow lanes of a bazaar. Not all the shops were open and there were fewer people than on a week day so we were able to make reasonable progress without running anybody over.
Into the bazaar, Old Delhi
I have previously photographed impressive tangles of wiring in the old part of Hanoi, but that was nothing compared to Delhi, even the rickshaw man pointed it out as a local wonder. Later in our trip television news would report a fatal fire in a Calcutta bazaar cause by such wiring. The report went on to list a series of similar fires in recent years. Nobody should have been surprised.

An impressive tangle of wiring
Old Delhi
Whilst considering the possibility of immolation we were able to enjoy the lively ambience and to take a good look at those shops that were open - in this area the main business was wedding saris.

Shop selling wedding clothes, Old Delhi
Eventually we emerged into Chandni Chowk, that ‘marvellous artery of Delhi which epitomises the magic and mystery of an eastern city.’ Or so wrote Lovat Fraser, editor of the Times of India, in 1903. It was then, according to the Rough Guide ‘a sublime canal lined with trees and some of the most opulent bazaars in the whole of Asia.’ It is now, they say, ‘a seething mass of honking cars, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and bullock carts’. That is the description I recognise.

Gurdwara, Chandni Chowk
We turned left towards the Sikh Gurdwara, but went only as far as a gap in the central reservation which allowed our peddler to perform a u-turn. Having survived this manoeuvre we progressed to the end of the street past the Central Baptist church, a Jain temple and a Hindu temple; such is the diversity of India.

Down Chandni Chowk to the Red Fort

Across the T-junction at the end of Chandni Chowk is the Red Fort, the huge sandstone citadel commissioned, like the Jama Masjid, by Shah Jahan.

The Red Fort, Old Delhi
We crossed the moat, now dry but once full of water and crocodiles, and entered, as all tourists do, by the Lahore Gate. Beyond the outer gate there is a right angle turn before the inner gate, to prevent elephant powered battering rams working up any momentum. The risk of marauding war elephants is low these days, but the authorities clearly have other threats on their minds as an army post is sandwiched between the two gates. As we walk through, men behind blast proof shields were pointing their guns straight at us. They are there, we are told, for our protection, but having a rifle aimed at my chest does little for my feeling of security.

Lynne approaches the inner Lahore Gate
The army post is just out of shot to the right
There are a couple of bullet holes in the brass cladding of the inner door, put there when the British took the fort in 1857. We apologised, and passed through into Chatta Chowk, a covered street lined with market stall sized niches. As the ladies of the harem could not leave the fort to visit the bazaar, the bazaar, or at least the cream of the city’s carpet makers, goldsmiths, jewellers and silk weavers came to them.

The Naubhat Khana (Drum House) is the entrance to the royal enclosure.

The Naubhat Khana from the Hall of Public Audience
Beyond that, across a garden, is the Hall of Public Audience where the emperor sat on a two metre high marble throne, currently protected by a mesh screen. A pigeon was trapped inside the mesh, so it may not have provided effective protection but it did efficiently spoil all attempts at photography. Female members of the court could listen and observe from behind a screen carved from a single piece of stone. The public could actually approach no closer than the Naubhat Khana so the audience was conducted by messengers who sprinted back and forth across the garden.

Carved screen from behind which the ladies of the court could see
and hear the Public Audience
Deeper into the inner sanctum are various royal apartments, a hammam and a personal mosque built by Aurangzeb, the sixth emperor, who reversed the Mughal's traditionally tolerant approach to religious diversity. The Hall of Private Audience once held the Peacock Throne, but the fort was sacked in 1739 by the Persian emperor Nadir Shah who carried the throne back to Tehran to be used by the Shahs of Persia. It now resides in the Tehran treasury, where we saw it in 2000.

The Moti Masjid, Aurabgzeb's Mosque
To the north is the last surviving formal garden, once quartered by channels of running water pumped from the River Yamuna which ran below the fort’s eastern wall. The river has since moved and the fort now overlooks a rather more prosaic ring road.  Marching across the front of the garden is a line of buildings constructed as barracks for British soldiers. Shah Jahan, meanwhile, revolves quietly in his grave.

In the formal gardens, with the British Barracks behind
With the drizzle continuing, we left the Red Fort, pausing only to buy a model tuk-tuk (a gift for our grandson) from an itinerant vendor. A short drive south brought us to the Raj Ghat near the Delhi Gate to the old city. Ghat means river bank, but the River Yamuna has moved away from here too and the Raj Ghat is actually a garden. It was here, the day after his assassination in 1948, that Mahatma Ghandi was cremated.

It is as peaceful a place as can be created in the heart of this noisy city. We walked through the garden and onto the walkway which looks down on the eternal flame. Vik suggested we should stay there rather than descend to the flame itself as we would have to remove our shoes and the carpets were wet and slippery. At the time we agreed, no one likes the feel of wet carpet beneath their feet, but I have since regretted that I did not insist on taking a closer look. The flame stands beside a low black plinth inscribed with the great man’s last word ‘Hai Ram’ (Oh God) - a statement of great piety or, perhaps, surprise.
The Raj Ghat, Delhi

In 1911 the capital of British India was moved from Calcutta to the shiny new purpose built city of New Delhi, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. We had set out to see Old Delhi, but from the Raj Ghat it was convenient to head a little further south and then drive down what was once the Kingsway, the central avenue through the administrative heart of British India. Now called the Rajpath, it performs the same function for independent India and grandstands are erected along the side of the road for the Republic Day parade.

We started by the India gate, built in 1931 to commemorate the 90 000 Indian soldiers killed in the First World War and now the national memorial for all India’s war dead. Although not part of the original design, it is also by Lutyens (as are the Cenotaph in London and the Thiepval Monument on the Somme). Having designed the Kingsway/Rajpath with more than a nod in the direction of the Champs Elysée, Lutyens could not resist putting an Arc de Triomphe at the end (see Four Arcs de Triomphe, none of them in Paris). The empty canopy behind the gate once housed a statue of King George V

The India Gate, New Delhi
We drove up the Rajpath in the opposite direction to the parades, passing the Indian Parliament building, a circular construction set back from the road…..

The circular Indian Parliament Building, New Delhi
… and various secretariat buildings….

Government buildings beside the Rajpath, New Delhi
… until we reached the Rashtrapati Bhavan at the end of the road; once the residence of the British viceroy and now India’s Presidential Palace. India is a parliamentary democracy, power lies with the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the role of the President  is largely ceremonial, but in compensation President Pranab Mukherjee gets to live in one of the country's finest houses.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan, home of the Indian President
For lunch we were taken to the sort of restaurant guides think tourists will like, and perhaps some do. Clean and bright, the clientele consisted entirely of westerners, mostly tour parties sitting at long tables and eating set menu lunches. The à la carte was overpriced and probably underspiced, certainly our soup was, and that was all we chose to eat. The place’s one redeeming feature was that it sold beer, though at a price; a bottle of Kingfisher costing as much as in an English pub.

Returning to our hotel we drove along some wide roads lined with large houses in well-kept grounds; the Delhi elite certainly live in pleasant surroundings, though once outside their compounds there is no escape from the city's angry, snarling traffic.

In the evening we walked from our hotel to the other restaurant we had identified. The Chowra Chick-Inn looked a touch forbidding but at least promised meat, though again we had to wash it down with a glass of water. We ordered garlic chicken and another cauliflower dish. Five minutes after we had ordered the waiter returned and said quietly ‘the garlic chicken is very spicy.’ ‘Good,’ we said and he looked at us, shrugged his shoulders and went off to the kitchen. In fact it was spicy but not very spicy. I have eaten hotter garlic chicken in Stafford, but I have never eaten better garlic chicken anywhere. The meat was tender and succulent, the subtle spicing enhanced the flavour and there was a pleasing blast of chilli. It was one of the best meals of the whole trip.
Delhi and Uttar Pradesh
Part 4 Varanasi


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