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Published: January 29th 2018
Have you ever noticed the magic that happens when your flight reaches its destination? As the aircraft taxis from the runway, a flight attendant broadcasts the local time and weather and instructs everyone to ‘remain seated until the aircraft comes to a complete halt’. Many seconds before it does, a disobedient scramble ensues as seat belts are unbuckled, mobile phones are switched on, overhead lockers are ransacked and weighty bags heaved down. The noisy throng hovers awkwardly and impatiently for ten minutes until the aircraft door is swung open. Weary travellers stumble slowly forward to the cabin crew's fixed smiles and parrot-fashion goodbyes... ...and then the magic happens! The smell of the air outside announces your destination. Breathe in...
Every destination has a different scent, filling your sinuses with something beyond the distinctive tang of burnt aviation fuel. Here at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, a vague hint of chemical fog combined with camphor, body odour and a certain je ne sais quoi
welcomed us on this rather chilly, misty morning.
Yes, we're pleased to be back in India's overpopulated and polluted capital city. It's been three years since our last stay at
the Tree of Life
b&b (A capital with a capital 'C'
). On cue, however, the driver sent at our earlier email request was waiting outside the arrivals hall with his yellow placard announcing our names handwritten in red. He whisked us out of the airport in his little white car and through morning fog along multi-lane carriageways into the gridlocked streets of the city. The traffic here was even worse than last time, moving at snails’ pace for much of the journey and always accompanied by a smog of diesel fumes and a cacophony of car, lorry and motorbike horns.
Later, we sauntered into the busy Saket neighbourhood of southern New Delhi. There we spent the afternoon getting acclimatised, not to just the winter warmth but to the throngs of people, odours and noises, and life-threatening walks among chaotic traffic and disintegrating pavements.
We struggled to obtain cash from ATMs. We bought a SIM card on an Indian network for one of our mobile phones from a vendor whose little tabletop littered with Vodafone envelopes would have been considered highly dubious back home. Then, we enjoyed the relative calm of a complex of restaurants and small shops amid pedestrian courtyards festooned with glittering tinsel decorations.
The presence of McDonald's, Burger King and KFC alongside vendors of traditional specialities like veggie kebabs and charcoal-grilled sweet potatoes seemed to have attracted a young generation seeking Westernised lifestyles. We opted to start our Indian adventure with an overpriced dinner in an Italian café – the food was good, the beer wasn’t. We made a note to ourselves that future meals were likely to be curries and, in Haridwar and Rishikesh at least, the beer non-existent!
Ashwani, the b&b’s businesslike and congenial owner, had organised a taxi for part of our probably too-brief 36-hour stopover en route to the anticipated cleaner air to the north. Our sortie in it took us next day into the heart of New Delhi, former capital of the Raj. Its wide, tree-lined boulevards, open spaces and grand buildings were designed in the 1920s and 30s, predominantly by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, and we were looking forward to seeing them.
The roads had, of course, been planned for the light cycle, rickshaw and rare motorcar traffic of those days. Now, the volume of frequently stationary modern vehicles had transformed it into rush-hour on the M25 during most of the daylight hours.
We’d avoided this area on our previous visit in favour of the more characterful Old City - and, reluctantly, we largely avoided much of it again now. The areas of notable Lutyens’ architecture around India Gate and Parliament had all been temporarily sealed off – apparently, for troops in training or practising for Republic Day parades later in the month – adding to already large traffic jams on diversion routes. Instead, we drove direct (or as direct as the mayhem of roundabouts and chaotic signals would allow) to Humayun’s Tomb
The tomb, an onion-domed structure built in the 16th
century to house the body of the second Mughal emperor, was set amid an expansive, calming estate of well-tended lawns and gardens dotted with now very ancient ficus trees. It was a welcome escape from the nearby pandemonium.
This tomb complex was the first of this type of Mughal architecture to be built in India. It's often considered the inspiration for the famed Taj Mahal, although its buildings lack that monument’s superior beauty and decoration. It had recently undergone extensive renovation and this, together with the nearby smaller, but even older and more elaborate tomb of Isa Khan are
now safeguarded for the future.
A fact worth mentioning here is that, if you are Indian, it’ll cost you 30 Rupees (about 36p) to take a look at these remarkable monuments. If you’re a foreigner, you’ll have to put your hand in your pocket for 500 Rupees (about £6)!
In contrast, the Akshardham Temple
offered free entry to all. This magnificent Hindu place of worship was completed as recently as 2005 - a wedding cake of red sandstone and white Carrara marble intricately carved with thousands of images of people, gods, goddesses, dancers and elephants. There are sprawling gardens too and even a children’s playground and a pleasure boat ride. We didn’t have time to explore it all and certainly didn’t take the Disneyesque boat trip! I have to apologise for a paucity of pictures - cameras and mobile phones were prohibited inside.
My brother David is a keen golfer and, before leaving home, I’d tried to contact the Secretary of the well-known (to golfers) Delhi Golf Club
, hoping to arrange a surprise visit for him - unfortunately without reply. However, we did manage to talk our way into the office of the Deputy Secretary, who reluctantly
but politely accompanied us on a lightning tour of the clubhouse, the practice area and the first tee, the restaurant and other originally-British facilities, emphasising that photography was definitely not allowed. This enormous, extremely well-maintained, very prestigious – nay, elitist - course has over 5,000 members plus their families - and a waiting list for membership of over 30 years. Afterwards, on our way to find our driver (who’d not been permitted to park inside despite spaces in a huge car park), we photographed the club sign!
Later, we were dropped off in Old Delhi at the largest of the city’s Sikh temples, the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
. Here, we were given a very warm and enthusiastic welcome by two gentlemen in the grandly-named Tourist Information Office, each of them wearing the beard, moustache, colourful turban and cheerful smile so typical of many other Sikhs we’ve encountered elsewhere. One of them accompanied us around the gurudwara’s facilities, weaving our way among hundreds of worshippers and leaving us to enjoy the colour and atmosphere in and around the central holy pool.
We then rejoined him for a visit to the temple’s kitchen. The Sikh religion is one of optimism, hope
and tolerance towards all people, supporting everyone regardless of race, wealth or faith. One example of this is the provision of food to all-comers and, on an average day, some 30,000 people are fed by this kitchen.
Volunteers peeled and sliced onions, others prepared vegetables. Giant pans and pots above huge gas flames held lentil and vegetable stews, stirred from time to time by sweating male cooks wearing t-shirts and sarongs. Women sat nearby rolling out dough for chapattis and a machine produced even more of the same.
We were given metal trays and ushered into a vast dining hall, where around a thousand people sat cross-legged on the floor in long lines waiting for the langa
, as this community meal is called. Volunteers carrying stainless-steel buckets containing vegetarian stews from the kitchen moved along the lines, ladling food into depressions on our metal trays. Others dispensed chapattis. Then, as soon as diners finished their meals, they streamed from the room, leaving empty trays at a hatchway to be washed by other volunteers and empty space in the hall for another batch of hungry people already waiting outside. It was an amazing experience, made particularly special as we’d
not been privileged to enjoy this in 2013 when we visited Sikh HQ - the remarkable Gurudwara Darbar Sahib, the ‘Golden Temple’ - at Amritsar in the Punjab (A City of Silly Walks and Sikhs
The city’s modern, clean and efficient Metro took us to our next destination, the Jama Masjid
, one of the largest mosques in all India, capable of accommodating more than 25,000 believers for prayers in its central courtyard. This ‘Friday Mosque’, constructed in the mid-17th
century, was Shah Jahan’s final architectural masterpiece. It’s built in vertical strips of white marble and red sandstone with three gateways, four towers and two 40-metre high minarets. Today being Friday, the Muslim holy day, our visit had to be fitted between prayer times. Time (and, I have to admit, very tired legs) did not permit us to ascend 120 steps for a view of the old city from the top of one of the mosque’s minarets. We always have to save something for next time anyway, don’t we?
Instead, we retreated to the Matia Mahal area
nearby. There, amid narrow, bustling streets with brightly-lit, hole-in-the-wall shops we found two or three unusual restaurants with steaming pots near the entrance and large groups of men
squatting outside. We’d never seen the like of these before. Enquiring of a man who seemed to be the owner of one of these places, I discovered that these unfortunates were hungry but penniless and were waiting for well-wishers to donate 20 Rupees (24p) for the restaurant to feed each of them. My contribution fed 25 men, each one carefully counted by the portly owner with a tap on his shoulder as they all anxiously pushed and shoved into the restaurant for their much-needed sustenance.
In turn, we walked further along the noisy, crowded lane adorned with shops selling all manner of goods, a fishmonger with huge freshwater fish and a butcher selling every part (repeat: every
part) of goats to a larger, more salubrious establishment for our own dinner. Writing this now, I’m somewhat ashamed to think that the cost of our meal for two this night would have fed another 25 of those men.
So ended an interest-filled but exhausting day in which we’d wondered at the sights and sounds of modern and ancient Delhi and of three very different religions. Our journey next day, by 6.45a.m. train north to holy Haridwar, would continue our discovery
of India’s spiritual past and present. Remember to scroll down for more pictures and then click on 'Next' for another page. Double-click on pictures to enlarge them. If you don't already receive email notifications of my blogs, click the Subscribe button in the Blog Options section on the right of this page.
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