December 6, 2008
I shared the train journey with a Sikh couple, a young consultant, who is a Jain, and Jeff Mitton, a 53-year-old Canadian from Nova Scotia, who is a Buddhist and who motorcycles around India and elsewhere. We had some good conversations and I learned something about the different classes of India trains.
We had no sooner gotten settled than a guy came with snack trays and a large bottle of water. Dinner would come an hour of so later. The refreshments were good and included in the price of the ticket.
I slept on an upper bunk between two white sheets and under a blanket. The car was comfortably air-conditioned. I would rate this train as very good except for the squat toilets, which weren’t clean. There was also no place to really wash. It took me a long time to get to sleep. I listened to music on my iPod for a long time.
December 7 Delhi
We were all awake by 7 AM when the chai wallah came by. Breakfast followed; for me a couple of vegetable cutlets between white bread with spicy ketchup.
We finally got to the New Delhi station about 9:30. I accompanied Jeff to a nearby hotel where he had stayed before and where we got a couple of rooms. The Prince Palace is in the Main Bazaar and is a real dump, as bad as any I’ve ever frequented. The room is dirty and its furniture miserable. I’ll sleep in my bag for the next three nights on top of the dirty-looking sheets. The bag will be comfortable, too, because it’s much cooler here than in Mumbai with no humidity to speak of. Rooms aren’t heated, so the sleeping bag will serve me well.
As a first impression Mumbai seems like Paris compared to Delhi. Although the weather is more favorable the air is dirtier and the city more crowded with poor. I spent the afternoon in Old Delhi visiting the Red Fort first and later the Jama Mascid, the largest mosque in Asia. The later was a surprise. After climbing some stairs, taking off my shoes and paying for a camera pass. I entered a huge courtyard. On one side, the mosque building rose imposingly with two tall minarets and a roofed structure with two large onion domes. It opened into a deep porch supported by columns and when I wanted to go beyond the porch and enter the mosque interior, I discovered there wasn’t any. The deep porch is the mosque and the large niches in the rear wall are the mirabs. It’s not the kind of mosque I’m used to.
I paid some extra money to climb to the top of one of the minarets for a view over the city. I was surprised by the lack of tall buildings. The mosque’s minarets may be all there is.
The Red Fort didn’t disappoint because my expectations weren’t high. It’s been stripped of much of its architectural detail and is not in particularly good condition. Its size is impressive, though, as are the proportions and arrangement of its various buildings. The outer walls are 30 meters tall in places. Their color comes from the red sandstone of which they’re constructed. It takes knowledge and a lot of imagination to imagine how some of the spaces might have looked when they were new, and clean, and covered with the original gold and silver trim and accents. The solid gold peacock throne must have been something to see, but it disappeared in the 18th century. Shah Jahan, who also commissioned the Jama Masjid and the Taj Mahal, didn’t do things in a small way.
I let a bicycle rickshaw driver talk me into a ride back to the hotel by having him take me first to the Raj Ghat, the piece of marble on which Gandhi was cremated. It’s set in a large park and is a fitting memorial to the great man.
The bike rickshaw ride was a trip. The driver was thin and worked very hard. He wanted more money than we had agreed on. I find the various sellers and would-be guides more aggressive and harder to shake than in Mumbai. People here seem more desperate.
What a day! Saw an amazing variety of interesting things. I took the Metro to Rajpath, the section of the city containing all the major government buildings. It’s a huge area and I walked a long way to get to India Gate, the great memorial to all of India’s fallen soldiers in WW I, South Africa, etc. Since I wanted to see the Presidential Palace and other principal buildings that lay in the opposite direction from where I started, I decide to hop into an auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled taxi with open sides.
Around these government buildings there are soldiers and police everywhere, and they are all on the alert. No one is sleeping these days. I don’t know how tight security was before this last attack, but now it seems intense. Even entering the Metro, I needed to open my backpack and even my camera case.
After seeing a bit of the government buildings, I took the auto rickshaw to visit a spectacular sight. Humayun was an early Mughal ruler, and his tomb, built by his widow, is extraordinarily large. It’s like a small palace set upon a platform of 12,000 square meters. It is truly a precursor of the Taj Mahal. It’s located in a complex that contains other tombs and structures.
There is Isa Kahn’s tomb, for instance, He was a noble who died earlier than Humayun, and had his own tomb built in 1547, earlier than Humayun’s, dating from 1565-72. These tomb enclosures are peaceful, a welcome relief after the noise and bustle of traffic.
After taking me to Humayun’s tomb, my driver dropped me in Rajpath where I looked around some more. I couldn’t visit the National Museum because it and other attractions are closed on Monday. It was at this point that I met Bhim Singh, another auto rickshaw driver but with a difference. He spoke English pretty well and had a nice easy manner. I made a deal to spend the rest of the day with him, seeing a variety of sites. His fee would be $22.00.
We went first to Connaught Place, the circular area in Central Delhi that contains many stores, airline offices, etc. I’d seen mention of it in books and wanted to get a sense of what it was really like. It didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t want to spend much time there. For one thing, I couldn’t stand still on the street for more than 10 seconds without being approached by some tout. Then, since shopping isn’t my thing, I wasn’t interested in the stores. I was hungry, and, with my guide’s help, found a restaurant called the Banana Leaf where I ate a Bath Masala Dosa, a large crepe filled with lemon rice.
Next my driver took me to see Lodi Gardens, a very large city park-cum- forest with some scattered tomb ruins that give the place an exotic feel. Again, it was very peaceful in the gardens.
Men sat on the grass playing cards. There were young couples and mothers with young children. Walking past an ornamental pond filled with lily pads, I passed out to the park through a stand of bamboo. The place had a tropical feel. One thing I’ve noticed is that there are very few public benches in Mumbai and Delhi. There were a few in Lodi Gardens, making it the exception. I suppose if there were benches, the poor would colonize them.
Safdar Jang’s Tomb is another enormous monument to a dead notable. He was a governor of the State or Province of Oudh who died in 1757. His tomb is very impressive and in a different style from Humayun’s. It’s square, with each side almost identical. Radiating away from the structure on each side is a long ornamental pool, empty now, but in the day, they must have been very beautiful. The architects who built these monuments, mostly Persian, I think, were great lovers of symmetry. Everything about their design and setting is symmetrical. On a plaque at Safdar Jang’s Tomb I read the following: “This is the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture at Delhi.”
Like the Red Fort, Delhi’s other monuments are constructed primarily of red sandstone, Safdar Jang’s Tomb tomb has yellow sandstone intermixed for contrast. There are also marble inlays.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at a Mughal archeological site named Qutb Minar. It’s the tallest minaret I’ve ever seen, as tall as a large factory chimney, which its tapering form reminded me of. Contrasting brick patterns complete its unusual design. It’s also very old, having been built between 1191 and 1210 by Qutbud-din Aibak, who died before it was finished.
Surrounding the minaret are the ruins of a large mosque with some beautiful carved ornamentation. Another extant part of the complex is an exquisite gateway known as Alai-Darwaza. According to what I’ve read, this is one of the most treasured gems of Islamic architecture.
At the time of our visit the place was over run with school children in their uniforms. They were delighted to use their schoolroom English with me, saying ‘hello’ and the eternal question. “Where are you from?”
The light, never really bright in the soupy air, was failing by the time we arrived at our last site, the magnificent Lakshmi Narayan Hindu Temple known as Birla Mandir. It’s huge and kept in magnificent condition. I had to check my shoes and camera before entering. For a while I padded around in my stocking feet looking at the idols representing Lakshmi, Narayan, Durga, Shiva and Ganesh. Finally, a man took hold of me and led me around pointing out nuggets of Hindu thought lettered on marble panels. At one point I was given a bright red tikka on my forehead.
December 9 Deli
Slept well enough but still tired. Today’s my last day in Delhi, and I have a date to be picked up by my tuk tuk driver, Bhim Singh. Today’s also the first day of Eidm, the big Muslim holiday we call Kurban Bayramı in Turkey, the Feast of the Sacrifice.
Saw three sites today with my driver. First, we went to the Lotus Temple, home of the Baha’i Faith in India. “The Baha’i Faith recognizes the unity of God and his prophets . . . condemns all forms of prejudice . . . teaches that the fundamental purpose of religion is to promote concord and harmony . . . and equal opportunity, rights and privileges for both sexes.”
The temple is strange and beautiful. I’ve seen three Baha’i temples in my life: the one in Chicago, the one near Frankfurt in Germany, and this one in Deli. It’s constructed of concrete in the shape of a giant lotus flower. Inside there is no ornamentation or imagery. There is not even an altar, only a small Plexiglas lectern facing the curved rows of bench seats. There is silence; every visitor obeys the injunction not to talk and to keep his cell phone off.
Think of to this interior as the petals of the lotus flower. At the top, they form a nine-pointed star, and within that space is a metallic symbol with nine rounded points. Low, triangular-shaped windows or light bays in the outer petals let in plenty of light. The atmosphere is serenely spiritual. Extensive grounds, beautifully manicured, surround the temple.
I was totally unprepared for our second stop, the Swaminarayan Aksharham Temple, built to honor Bhagwan Swaminaryan, an early 19th century Hindu holy man. Inside the temple proper there are illustrations of some main events in the Bhagwan’s life. As a very young person, he walked 12,000 k throughout India, suffering the greatest austerities while taking a stand for the elimination of injustice and evil living.
Peacocks and elephants proliferate among the sculpture. The base of the platform on which the temple stands has a frieze of 125 elephants, large and small, shown from every side.
My last visit of the day was to the National Museum. For a country of India’s size and cultural heritage, their premiere museum seems underfunded and neglected. It does contain a large collection of Indian Miniatures painted in the 17th and 18th centuries that are quite beautiful. To appreciate them fully one needs to know the stories they portray. My audio guide helped with a few.
Part of the museum is devoted to explaining and illustrating the Bronze Age Harappan Civilization, which flourished in the Indus Valley (between today’s India and Pakistan) from approximately 3500 until 1500 BC. We know that these people were accomplished city builders, who constructed their cities on grid patterns. Another fact that struck me is that, unlike other civilizations of the time, among the Harappan, common people lived in good houses.
Jeff and I had a farewell beer and dinner at the Green Chilli restaurant where I ate alone last evening. It’s been fun hanging out with him. I wish him well on his five-month motorcycle tour of South India.