No non-Indian should register surprise at feeling overwhelmed in this country. The dirt, squalor, noise and poisonous air are extreme. Yet there are also islands of extraordinary beauty and cultural interest. Unlike some cities whose points of interest for the visitor are more or less centered and close together, Delhi’s are more broadly scattered. One needs a form of transportation to visit them.
The means I’ve chosen is the green and yellow auto rickshaw or tuk tuk. It’s really a three-wheeled motor scooter with a tin body, canvas top and open sides. The driver steers with the handle bar while the passengers (it seats two) sit behind him. It rides harder than a cob and wouldn’t pass any safety inspection in the U.S., but then few people in America would want one. Here in Delhi it has multiple advantages. It scoots through traffic almost as well as a motor bike; it’s cheap; and, for me, it’s openness gives the feeling of being a participant rather than an observer.
So, for the last couple days, my driver Bhim Singh and I have made the rounds of the Lodi Gardens, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutb Minar, Lotus Temple, and the amazing Akshardham Temple, where I spent a couple hours this afternoon.
There is no way I could have imagined this combination of religious monument and cultural theme park. Not only has it been built on a mammoth scale, but also to a world-class standard. It’s both very large and very pink, made of sandstone and carved with what is said to be 20,000 sculptures of Hindu deities. And the carvings are eye-popping. I wasn’t able to learn how the creators found enough stone artists in this day and age to render all this magnificence. The principal temple is an enormous structure whose every stone, inside and out, except for the marble floor, is carved with ornament, either selections from the Hindu pantheon of gods or natural and geometric forms. The effect is overpowering. In the center of it all, the pièce de résistance is an 11-foot-high, gilded statue of the saint who inspired it, Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who lived from 1781 to 1830. The religious order founded in his name is very large and obviously very wealthy. I can’t begin to imagine what this enormous complex with its vast colonnade, elaborate gates, manicured lawns, extensive topiary, cultural garden, food court, boat tour, and audiovisual attractions might have cost. Finally, this remarkable creation visited by thousands each day and without an entry fee, is so clean and orderly. Everything seems in pristine condition.
The downside of my visit was getting in. I had my backpack and camera case examined twice before having to check them and my cell phone at the cloakroom. Then, I had to remove my belt and be patted down as I went through a metal detector. One guard even looked inside my wallet. I also had to remove and check my shoes before entering the temple itself. Since I was doing this with hundreds of others, it took some time. Security precautions in India are the most exhaustive I’ve ever experienced. Whether, it has been this way for some time or only since the terrorist attack I don’t know.
Although the size and grandeur of Akshardham would stand out anywhere, it does fit an ancient pattern here. I’ve been visiting other monuments from past centuries, and they too were conceived on a gargantuan scale.
Today, like the Red Fort, the tombs of Humayun and Safdar Jang have lost their luster. Nevertheless, their design and proportions still exist to be appreciated, and one can see how impressive they must have been in their day. This in a land where, as it has always been, a tiny percentage are very rich while the rest are poor to very poor. One senses that Western values of individualism have never meant much here. Yet, in many instances, India honors its famous men and women. It’s a puzzling and contradictory country.