Cart of red carrots
In the Times of India, I spotted a disturbing article. It was about a gang of kidney harvesters who’d been arrested. And they hadn’t been collecting ingredients for chili-con-carne either. Another article was about a man convicted of murder on the hearsay of a dog! The poor bugger had spent four years in jail until a judge had finally overturned the madness. But perhaps the most shocking section of all was the photo of a dead woman. She had been found somewhere in Delhi and the authorities were appealing for identification. The accompanying photo was gruesome. It showed a young woman who looked like she'd been attacked with baseball bats. Her lifeless head showed black eyes, cuts and bruises, and gashes to her chin. Thankfully it was in black and white. Another, a truly horrific photo, showed a road accident victim. The body had been so badly mangled that they couldn't tell whether it was male or female.
“Hello, my name is Dinesh,” said the man in the crisp cotton suit. “I will be your guide for the day.”
Dinesh was in his mid-fifties and Angela and I had hired him the previous day. Better to have an
Dead person in Newspaper
official guide rather than running the gauntlet of touts and beggars, we thought. Dinesh told us he'd been a guide for over twenty years. Before that he'd worked for the government in the Department of Tourism. “Delhi's main employer is the government,” he cheerfully informed us as we set off in the air-conditioned car. “Every government employee gets house to live in until they retire. After that they have to move out.”
“Did you enjoy working for the government?” I asked as we joined the madness - otherwise known as Delhi's road system.
“Yes. The hours were good. Arrive at 11am, finish at 3pm. But I sit in office all time. Now, I get to see the city.”
Outside, lanes were being completely ignored despite road signs saying: Be sane, keep in lane. And the beeping was incessant. High pitch, low pitch, shrill and trumpeting, all played out a discordant harmony as we travelled towards Old Delhi. Cars, lorries, bicycles, auto-rickshaws and even livestock jostled for position in the pot-holed roads. Most vehicles had scrapes, scratches and dents along their sides. A lot had damaged rear lights.
I asked Dinesh about driving test standards in India.
Man with Polio
Dinesh laughed. “Let me tell you how it works in Delhi. A person will go to a government official and pay a bribe. Then he will get license. Or sometimes a person will pay someone to sit driving test for them. This is the system in my country. But there are not many big road accidents in Delhi. Lots of small ones, yes. But the traffic is too slow for anything really bad to happen.” I thought back to the photo in the paper and said nothing.
Eventually we came to a street so narrow that Dinesh told us it would be easier to walk. We stepped out into the heat, surrounded by the humanity of Old Delhi. Auto-rickshaws, bicycles, men pulling carts filled with vegetables, and of course, masses of people, all tried to go in different directions at once. At the edge of the street, dogs lounged in whatever shade they could find while auto-rickshaw drivers sat shouting for custom. At roof level coils of electrical cables hung precariously like snakes in a jungle tree. And above it all soared the kites, riding the thermals in search of food. They seemed to be the most common bird
in the city.
Dinesh told us we were approaching Jama Masjid, Delhi's largest mosque. It had been commissioned by Shah Jahan, the Moghul responsible for the Taj Mahal. “You will have to remove your shoes, and Angela will have to cover up I'm afraid.”
Approaching the entrance, it was impossible not to see the man walking on all fours. His back was contorted into a most unnatural angle and Dinesh noticed our interest. “This man suffers from polio. It is a shame really. Government offers immunisation to parents to stop this happening. But people do not listen. People like this man are the result.”
The mosque itself was quite breathtaking. To cover up her shoulders and legs, Angela wore a long purple robe. We spent half an hour or so wandering around, doing the whole tourist thing.
Our next port of call was a Hindu temple called Lakshmi Narayan Mandir. Built in 1938, it was one of India’s first temples not to have a caste restriction. No photography was allowed inside, which was a real shame as it was a remarkable building. Its interior had shrines to various Hindu Gods. The colours were vibrant and everything
was so clean.
For a break in the proceedings, our guide asked us if we would like to visit one the many cottage industries of Delhi. “You do not have to buy,” he added. We agreed.
A young man welcomed us into his emporium of fine textiles. Quickly, he offered us some tea as refreshment. He then showed us some exquisite carpets, demonstrating how they were made. It seemed a painstaking process, involving many knots per square inch.
“They are made in the Kashmiri part of India,” said the salesman. “A whole family will toil over one carpet for many weeks, maybe even months. And every carpet is unique. Come, sit over here, I will show you some examples.”
For the next half hour we were given the hard sell. Combinations of carpets were laid out before us while three men held more, waiting for a nod or a shake. By my side, I could tell Angela liked the look of one of the carpets, even though they were bound to be hellishly expensive. “That blue one would look great in the dining room,” she whispered in my ear.
The salesman spotted this in a
Jama Masjid - India's largest Mosque
flash. “You like this colour. Let me show you others like it.” He gave a quick nod and the men holding the carpets disappeared, returning moments later with different shades of blue. Suffice to say, that after much haggling, we bought a fine blue specimen, reduced down from an initial asking price of £700 to just under £380.
“You got a very good deal,” said our guide who had watched the proceedings from a polite distance. “They can’t have sold many carpets today.”
With the afternoon sun baking us half to death, we had a spot of lunch (yet another curry) before driving to the south of Delhi to see Qutb Minr - the first major Islamic structure in India. Its tower rose above the complex built from the remains of Hindu temples. We wandered around, admiring the architecture.
On the way to Humayun's Tomb, a well-preserved Moghul monument, we passed by the Lotus Temple. Consisting of 27 lotus petals, and encircled by 9 pools, the white structure before us was certainly arresting. As I snapped off a photo, Angela was accosted by another peddler of bracelets. This time it was a young woman who’d appeared out
of nowhere. “No thanks,” Angela said as we made our way back to the car.
“But only fifty rupees!” pleaded the woman. “Please! I have family to feed.”
We got in the car leaving the woman by the side of the road.
Humayun's Tomb reminded me of a red Taj Mahal. Built in 1570, it took only nine years to build. The dome was also the first of its kind to be built in India. Prior to this, domes were only hemispheres, not the onion shape of this tomb. Humayun was the second of the Moghul emperors and our guide told us that his tomb was actually an inspiration behind the world-famous Taj Mahal.
After this, we were dropped off at our hotel. The total price for an official guide, driver and car (for 7 hours) was £35.
The next day, Angela and I spent a lazy day in our hotel, soaking up the sun beside the pool. The Oberoi Maidens was like an oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle of downtown Delhi. Apart from the occasional beep of an auto-rickshaw, we were in a different world.
That night we arranged
Scrapes and dents on a Delhi bus
to see some traditional Indian dancing. Entering the threatre we were dismayed to see that there were only eight other people in attendance. “You do realize,” I said to Angela as we took our seats at the front, “if the show is bad, we'll never be able to slip out.”
For the next hour we sat and watched dances from various parts of India, all accompanied with music provided by two gentlemen at the side of the stage. One dancer, a woman with heavy make-up, danced on broken glass, and later on, a man dressed as a green god cavorted around the stage like a demonic camp performer. At the end of the show, both of us agreed it hadn't been that bad.
Our fourth day in India involved a hellishly early start. A taxi picked us up from the hotel at 5.15am and drove us to Delhi Central Station. We were going to see the Taj Mahal. I'd arranged this trip back in the UK. The total price for both of us (excluding entrance fees) was £68!
The station was another mass of humanity, even at such at early hour. Auto-rickshaws jostled for position at the
Beggar with stump
edge of the street, beeping incessantly, while drivers shouted: you want taxi? To anyone within earshot. Approaching the main building with the taxi driver, the crowds got even thicker and we had to negotiate our way around the crowds of sleeping people. “Jesus,” I said to Angela. “I'm glad we're with this bloke. We'd be lost in seconds otherwise.”
The man who'd driven us to the station led us to a platform and gave us our train tickets. “You get breakfast on train,” he told us. “And when you come back tonight, you must wait here on platform. I will be here. Do not go through gates. You will get people trying to take you to many places. Please do not go with any of them. Only wait for me.”
Fifteen minutes later, the Shatabdi Express arrived with a great tooting of its horn. Within seconds people began to push forward, all trying to get a good position for boarding. It didn't bother us though; we’d prebooked seats in one of the air-conditioned carriages. Our man made sure we got on safely, then waved us off. We were on our way to Agra.
The train was quite
comfortable, and soon we were served a bottle of water and breakfast, which wasn't half bad. As the train rolled through the outskirts of Delhi and the sun began to rise, we were passed slum dwellings and industrial areas. Ten minutes later, as tea was served, the slums gave way to green countryside. Lone woman tended the fields, or else cattle, and sometimes large, hairy gray pigs, roamed about in search of shade.
Two hours later we arrived in Agra station and were met by another car and a guide. “He looks like Morgan Freeman,” mentioned Angela pointing towards the tall, distinguished looking gentleman sitting in the front seat.
“Okay, now we go to the Taj Mahal,” said Mr Freeman. “It will take ten minutes from here.”
We drove through a narrow street filled with all sorts of peddlers and beggars. And the amount of cattle was astonishing. They lazed by the side of the road, or if they got bored of that, they would wander across the road in such a leisurely gait, that traffic would be forced to come to a halt.
As we parked in a car, our guide told us we’d get
an auto-rickshaw to the Taj Mahal itself. “Petrol cars are not allowed due to the damaging fumes.” This was something we had noticed in Delhi too. All buses and auto-rickshaws ran on gas replacement fuel to lower the pollution and smog of the city.
We climbed into an auto-rickshaw for the quick five-minute journey and our guide gave us some background of the Taj Mahal.
“It was built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife. It took 20,000 workers 22 years to build. It is constructed from white marble and completed in 1653. You will have to cover up once inside, and no mobile phones allowed, I'm afraid.”
Though people have said exactly the same thing, nothing can prepare you for the first full-on view of the Taj Mahal. Pictures and movies simply cannot do the building the justice it deserves. And as we walked through the archway leading to the tomb of Shah Jahan's favourite wife, Mumtaz, the structure seemed to shimmer in the morning light. It was magical. Angela later told me it almost brought a tear to her eyes.
In awe, we followed our guide closer to the
tomb, passing pools shimmering with reflections of the Taj Mahal. “Notice the minarets,” advised our guide. “They lean slightly outwards in case an earthquake topples them. They would not fall and damage the great building.”
As we climbed some marble steps we could see crowds gathering by the small entrance. We joined the thronging mass and were soon swept up in the rush towards the door. Behind me, my back was prodded and poked. In front, I had no choice but to press against an elderly Indian lady. She in turn was pressed up against another woman. We inched forward bit by bit. The noise level rose, as did the heat and smell of sweat, but then, with a final push and squeeze, we were through, into the tomb chamber itself.
“The real graves are in a chamber below,” said our guide as we traversed the square room. “They are closed to the public. But these are copies of the graves of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan himself. Come, let us go back outside so I can show you the river.”
The River Yamuna could easily be seen from the walls of the Taj Mahal, and our guide
Old Woman at Humayan's Tomb
pointed out the Agra Fort, also known as the Red Fort. Later we would visit this, but for now we were content to take in the view from a few moments. In the distance, in the middle of the river, was a boat filled with pilgrims. Opposite where we stood was the site that Shah Jahan, according to legend, had chosen for his burial tomb. It was to be a copy of the Taj Mahal, except in black. Sadly, it was never built.
It was only a short journey by taxi to the Red Fort, and then, after lunch, we drove an hour to Fatehpur Sikri, or Abandoned city. Our guide told us an interesting game the Moghul ruler, Akbar, used to play. It was a form of human chess, with the King as grandmaster. But all the pieces were acted out by nubile naked women. A good game for a king.
The car journey back to Agra took us through the India we so often see on TV. Street children rushed up to our car window whenever we came to a standstill. Cattle lazed about, fanning themselves from the late afternoon heat with a swish of their
tails. Women wandered along the side of the street carrying large pots upon their heads, and in alleyways, young boys played cricket. But the colours were vibrant. Bright reds, greens, oranges and blues swirled by in a blur of activity.
In Agra, we visited a Costa Coffee. A touch of Westernism in the heart of India. We sipped our coffee marvelling at what we'd seen over the course of the day. The Taj Mahal - we’d actually seen one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The early start had been well worth it.
Two days later, we left India for Sri Lanka. But for both of us, India had been an unmissable experience. Beggars with stumps, Moghul Temples, and of course, masses of colourful people. And did we catch Delhi Belly? No we didn’t.
Lots to see
Agra is only 2 hours away by train
Lots of colour and activity
The hotels are a refuge from the madness.
Travelling by auto-rickshaw is fun.
The road system is chaotic at best, but an experience nonetheless.
Cheap outside of the major hotels.
Some of the
beggars look truly in need of hospital treatment.
Touts trying to hawk their cheap goods.
Some times Smelly Delhi
Men spitting and urinating in the street.
The feeling that everyone is trying to scam you.
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