Monday, 28 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Delhi Delights

Up & raring to go before the thermometer burst it's bubble, I headed out onto the streets of Delhi  on a mission. Sadly, many museums/sights are only open Tuesday - Sunday so I fitted in what I could and still went by a couple of the others. I can hopefully fit the Red Fort and/or Humayun's tomb upon my return to Delhi after my, not so much Golden triangle (the classic traveling journey) trek, more of a parallelogram trek of Rajasthan, Agra and Varanasi.

The Delhi Metro and I now get along famously. Plus it's air conditioned. Maps are in both Hindi and English, the trains themselves announce stops both via a variety of electronic means and vocally and I've yet to have an issue in buying a token (just let them know where you want to go). There's always cycle-rickshaw, autorickshaw, taxis and busses if you fancy a traffic-hampered struggle around town. Cycle-rickshaws have been banned from several places in New Delhi plus Chandni Chowk (to decrease congestion apparently) but offer an adrenaline ride around some parts of Old Delhi. As a pedestrian you're going to have challenges with all forms of transport above ground when it comes to crossing the roads.

Delhi hasn't always been the Nation's capital but historians reckon the first settlers were 2500 years ago. Old Delhi is believed the correspond to the 17th century Delhi built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. The Brits, in 1911, moved their capital from Calcutta and built New Delhi.  By 1947 they were gone and Delhi became the capital of the now-independent India.

Chandni Chowk, in the heart of Old Delhi, is full of tiny lanes crammed with stores see long everything and anything. You certainly get to smell of the aromas of India here. It was chaotic but fun weaving your way through.

If you manage not to get lost you can get yourself to India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid ('The Friday Mosque'), a fine example of Mughal architecture built between 1644 and 1658. This place can hold 25,000 people! The alternating vertical strips of red sandstone and marble are stunning. You will potentially become quite a celebrity here. Despite wearing my own headscarf and a gown provided my presence didn't go unnoticed. Soon I had people, mostly kids, asking if they could have their photo taken with me. I even got a couple of marriage proposals (politely but very clearly declined). Crikey, this kind of pop star adoration almost made me want to stay here longer! I was not at all bothered about being approached. It was cute (with the kids), funny (when parents asked if their kid could pose with me) and kind of a wonderful way to meet some locals. If nothing else learn how to say "my name is..." in Hindi and may be even how to ask them theirs. They love it even if they laugh at some of your pronunciations and it then encourages them to try some English with you. When I wanted to go off and actually explore the site I was not hassled. There's no charge for the mosque but you pay a camera charge (whether you use it or not) plus a charge for the gown. In the grand scheme of things it's really not that much. You also have to remove your shoes before you enter. The stone and marble you walk on will already be hot and you will likely amuse many people with your skipping across the courtyard like you're walking on hot coals to somewhere that won't give your feet 3rd degree burns.

At the Sikh holy site Sisgani Gurdwara stands at the site where the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded in 1675 on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for refusing to accept Islam. During a time when the emperor was waging a war against Hindus, Guru Tegh Bahadur argued for freedom of worship and was executed as a result. Before his body could be quartered and exposed to public view, it was stolen under cover of darkness by one of his disciples, who then burnt his house to cremate the Guru's body. The severed head (Sis) of Guru Tegh Bahadur was recovered by another disciple of the Guru, and cremated by the Guru's son, Gobind Rai, later to become Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Sikh Guru. Sikhism is the overcoming of the 5 evils - ego, greed, attachment, anger and lust - achieved through rigorous discipline and meditation. Several musicians were playing instruments and singing lines from what I believe were from their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Being able to witness worship taking place and getting acknowledged by several worshippers as I stood to leave was a real honour. Make sure you take a headscarf to cover your head (I don't think a hat would be accepted).

By the time I returned to the main metro hub Rajiv Chowk I had already worked my way through over a litre of water. Directly above the station is Connaught Place. This is the heart of New Delhi. Very obviously Victorian British in architecture, it is made up of several circles with streets jutting out of it like bicycle spokes. I wanted to avoid the expensive restaurants/bars of the circle and managed to find Saravana Bhavan. It appears to be somewhat of a chain, with a bit of a fast food-food court kind of feel but it was anything but. Incredibly excellent value for some really tasty Indian food with things like dosas, idlis, chutneys and traditional sweets. I had some wonderful and fragrant potato (aloo) dish wrapped in a roti with some to-die-for coconut chutney. It wasn't a huge portion but I was absolutely stuffed (the heat isn't helping my appetite either). Note for Vegetarians and Vegans: it appears that veggies will have no problem with food here. Food is usually classed as "veg" and "pure veg". The former won't contain meat/seafood but will usually have ghee, dairy and honey. Pretty much like back home. Vegans are looking for/need to ask about the latter but may be missing onions, garlic and mushrooms (based on Hare Krishna beliefs) or root vegetables/tubers (based on Jain beliefs).

I decided to keep walking albeit with a pit stop at the admittedly very western Costa Coffee for a cappuccino (they provide soy milk) and a street stall to pick up two large bottles of water. I found myself wandering amongst the stalls of the Janpath market, still within the circumference of Connaught Place. I wandered along Janpath southbound until I crossed Rajpath. At the western end of Rajpath is the official residence of the President of India flanked by the two domed Secretariat buildings (Governmental), which I walked by on my return to Rajiv Chowk when making my way back to the hotel. At the eastern end stands the India Gate, a memorial arch for various conflicts including WWI. I continued past several important looking buildings and the closed-on-Mondays National Museum before reaching Motilal Nehru Place, a garden in the middle of a roundabout. It sure sounded noisy in the trees so I took out my zoom lens in the hope of getting a better look at the species of bird making all the racket. Imagine my surprise when I looked up into a beady pair of eyes surrounded by even more beady eyes. Bats! I adore bats so was in a momentary heaven, as well as some much needed shade, snapping shots of them hanging there, trying to cool off and flying from tree to tree. On the ground several chipmunks were running around to boot. After rehydrating and getting photos I continued on. I passed some young school children on my way. The first one who noticed me stared wide eyed and pulled the sleeve of her friend. Soon they were all turned around saying hello.

On 30th January 1948, after 144 days in residence as a guest at 5 Tees January Marg, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated here by a Hindu zealot. This was barely after independence from the British was achieved, something he had campaigned for. Now a poignant memorial, there's a free museum, that includes his meagre possessions on view, and gardens known as Gandhi Smriti. Unfortunately it was closed with it being a Monday but I still had wanted to walk by. The tree-lined street was so peaceful that it was kind of hard to picture someone being murdered here.

After 7 hours of sight-seeing, +3L of water, soaring temperatures, some amazing food it was time to return to the hotel to cool off. Never mind Delhi belly, my Delhi feet badly needed a shower to wash off all the dirt!

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