Saturday, February 21, – Tuesday, February 24
Back in a big city we adjusted to the pollution and noise, especially as we got to take tuk-tuks for the day. By now we had all become a bit de-sensitized to the lack of traffic rules, so buzzing around in our tuk-tuks was a BLAST. Especially since Layne had begun the game of thigh-grabbing fellow tuk-tukers (not the drivers, just the other passengers). She totally surprised Max, which meant she is the high priestess of thigh-grab.
The reason for this began when Max related how a male Berber in Morocco placed his hand on Max’s thigh when I took a photograph. Max, being a bit uncomfortable, was okay but just not used to another man being quite so intimate. Western cultures are so not-thigh-grabbing. Anyhow, whenever he took a picture, instead of saying ‘cheese’, he’d grab the inside of his thigh. Which all leads up to our tuk-tuk game.
You played by stealthily approaching a fellow tuk-tuk from one side or the other, then quickly darting your hand out to grab a piece of flesh… thigh, arm, hand… it didn’t matter where just so long as contact was made.
The three drivers (we had split up into groups of two, two, and three) must have thought we were nuts; yet, you could tell they were getting into the game because it was due to their careful maneuvering that enabled us to swipe at our fellow tuk-tukers.
I must admit I let out a loud yelp when I got grabbed. Did I say it was a blast?!
So, we made our way to our first Delhi site, the Bahai House of Worship or Lotus Temple. This religion is relatively new and, thus, has the advantage of understanding the value of accepting any and all beliefs. It’s the epitome of tolerance, believing in the oneness of God and the spiritual unity of all mankind. This was immediately apparent just waiting in line to enter for Noel pointed out that it was one of the few sites where both locals and foreigners shared the same queue.
At the entrance we saw an unusual site, which was free vaccinations offered by, of all organizations, the Rotary with visiting members from Europe.
After speaking briefly with them, we entered the grounds and were swept up in a calmly moving sea of Indians enjoying a Sunday outing.
The grounds were a green oasis, which we saw was due to an environmental approach to gardening.
This temple is one of seven houses of worship located around the world, each with its own distinctive design. This one is inspired by the lotus, a symbol of purity associated with worship and religion in India. Nine large pools of water surrounding the enclosure not only enhance the tranquility of the site but also cools the building.
The air of spiritualism with which all visitors appeared to cloak themselves was disturbed by an incident involving one of our group. Some guys used the opportunity to briefly isolate Leslie from our cluster as we were snaking our way to the temple doors. Fortunately a man saw her being cut off and quickly herded her back to our group but not before the young guys had snitched her scarf. A few minutes later and she could have lost her wallet. In spite of being a bit shaken by the experience Leslie put it all in perspective. This episode also made me realize how protective my fellow travelers were towards each other as we formed a circle around her and kept our eyes out for other dipping hands.
We had the usual photo-sharing, but I missed one I really wanted to take, which was of a group of young students from the north. They gathered around us like chicks in their bright yellow tees, but, unfortunately, we used one of their cameras to take it. No matter how often we were stopped to ask to be in photos, we never tired of it. It felt like an honor. I mean there aren’t too many places in the world these days that people from the States feels so welcomed.
The rest of our Sunday in Delhi was spent tuk-tuking around this huge city including stopping in at a huge, western mall to see part of a Bollywood film (alas, not much singing and dancing but still fun to try to grasp the meaning as it was all in Hindi) and sample some fare at the new food court. We easily could have been back in the states, although not sure we’d have found yoga food like this.
Back in the tuk-tuks we explored one of Noel’s favorite monuments in all of New Delhi, the Qutb Minar. This site represents the first Islamic rule in India with a 238-foot tower.
The first three stories are out of sandstone while the 4th and 5th include marble as well as sandstone. The first story of the tower was begun by the Muslim sultan Qutb-ud-din in 1193 to celebrate his victory over the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. Later his successors added to it, resulting in the current, five-storey structure.
This complex reminded me of the Roman Forum because it obviously was the heart of Delhi during the Middle Ages. The tower is just one of many structures located here. There is India’s first mosque, The Might of Islam Mosque, built the same year as the tower. And, an iron pillar, which had been standing here possibly as early as the late 4th century C.E. with a sanskrit inscription (scientists are still mystified by how this iron pillar could have been cast using ancient technology)…
Tombs and summer palaces also grace this complex.
There was a ton of history here, a lot of which zoomed right through my head, but the patterns carved into many of the stones’ surfaces are what fascinated me. And, trust me, there were a lot of them.
I loved this guy who just happened to be resting his arm on some ancient sculpture,
and, who can resist kids and animals? :)
From there we ventured to the India Gate, a 160-foot arch commemorating those Indian soldiers who died during WWI, the Northwest Frontier operations, and the 1919 Anglo-Afghan war.
Being a balmy Sunday evening, the grounds surrounding the Gate attracted locals like moths to a light, and we entered into this throng as twilight turned to night. Amazing that this was just a regular night out for folk. And, once again, we were part of the attraction.
Just as Qutb Minar brought to mind the Roman Forum, here I felt I could have been at the Mall in Washington D.C. If you left India Gate and rode down the broad avenue of Rajpath (Kings Way) you’d reach an array of large government buildings, including the official residence of India’s president. The buildings were constructed between 1914 and 1931 when Britain moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, thus creating ‘New’ Delhi. It was dark by the time we arrived in our tuk-tuks, so we just briefly peered at the imposing buildings then left.
Sunday Dinner was a celebration at Veda, one of Noel’s favorite restaurants, and just around the corner from our hotel. It was a spectacular event with one of my newly discovered, favorite foods–fried spinach with cheese sprinkled on top (Carolie, at least the fried item is a veggie and not an oreo like you saw once).
After feasting on those along with other appetizers I hardly had any room for the coming entrees. One of which was, what else, mutton. I must admit it was the one time I felt I had over-indulged. Of course the G&T contributed to the full feeling :)
Our last full day together we once again stepped out into the smog. I can’t say I got use to it, this almost viscous air. You felt you could almost chew it.
For our jaunts around Delhi we now switched tuk-tuks for rickshaw bicycles. The difference here was you were much more on display, and, boy, as a woman you felt it. However, I had heard wearing sunglasses helps, and they did serve well as a shield :)
The other concern was the poor peddlers. I felt I should have gotten out and pushed. Thank god there weren’t any hills we had to ascend. Then I really would have had to get out and push.
We got an up close view of the these streets as we wove our way through the humanity. Spices ready to be shipped, modern appliances for sale, food stalls sending out tantalizing aromas, you name it, you could get it here.
We spotted a film crew and wanted to ask what they were shooting but we were carried away by this tide of humanity.
The reason we were heading to Old Delhi was today was Temple Day, our first being the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid or “Friday Mosque”. The same dude who ordered the construction of the Taj Mahal built this between 1644 and 1658. Reputedly it can hold 25,000 people. Put it another way, almost 1/8 of Maine’s population could gather here for a lobster bake.
The patterns on the floor stipulate where to place one’s prayer rug, and we carefully stood aside in our bare feet as men came to pray.
The mosque sits in a large courtyard overlooking Delhi. Clogged streets, outdoor markets,
impromptu playing field,
all of these you can see if as you check out each side. Here, we did see a lot of other foreigners. No surprise considering it’s one of the top attractions in Delhi.
We made our way through an outdoor market to find lunch, spotting a barber where Max was thinking of getting his hair cut but we didn’t have time.
Lunch was at the Delhi-famous Karim’s. Serving food since 1913, this rabbit (or should I say goat) warren of a restaurant is known for its Mughlai cuisine, and, yes, mutton was part of our meal. We felt a little conspicuous when we pulled out our alcohol wipes for sterilizing silverware. Although, sitting next to the dishwashing, if you want to call it that, made me realize how futile this precaution was. This feeling of futility was compounded by seeing the glasses we’d be drinking out of. But, hey, the food was good! Must have been due to the accumulation of years of seasoning using the same items over and over and over.
Post lunch was our Sikh Temple time at Gurudwara Sis Ganji located at Chandni Chowk, a major avenue of Old Delhi. Here, too, we went shoeless while draping heads with scarves and, for the guys, cute bandanas.
Once we had completed our appropriate attire we stumbled back out to the street, pushed with the crowd, to climb steps at the temple’s entrance.
While prepping a man kindly passed out leaflets in English, Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Telugu (the latter I now knew was the language for Hyderabad’s state) explaining how Sikhism was founded over 540 years ago by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. He opposed superstitions, rituals and hypocrisy and was deeply revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. Skins also earned a fearsome reputation for being courageous warriors, which they say was necessary to protect India and the women folk from all the invaders.
This particular temple commemorates Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji who sacrificed himself in protest of Aurangzeb’s (Shah Jahal’s son) forcible conversions of Hindus to Islam. It’s a fairly involved tale and pretty gruesome considering the tortures some of the other Gurus experienced, but, basically, he refused to convert and was executed on November 11, 1675. His martyrdom caused masses to rise up and, thus, eventually (key word there) led to the fall of the Mughal Empire in 1783.
Inside we tried not to gawk at the brilliance of decorations. Compared to the mosque’s subdued colorations this was Mardi Gras. In spite of the seemingly large number of worshipers in the drop-off-pick-up-shoes-bandana-head room down the street this was relatively empty.
We grabbed a spot at the way back, trying to bend our limbs into modest positions without facing our feet out. A guy was playing music up front as devotees came and went.
After fifteen minutes we stumbled up on our numbed legs and followed Noel to the front of the temple where we queued up to see the tomb made of 100% gold. Like the Roman Catholic cathedrals, all I could think was how many people this could help if melted down. That, and what fabulous pairs of earrings you could get out of it.
Back outside we reversed the process of shoe and headgear then followed Noel to the street where he pointed to a Hindu Temple we could visit. But, he said we’d have to take our shoes off and actually walk through some nasty stuff on the street to get there. That cinched it. We all politely declined and headed for shopping or the Red Fort (seen in the background below).
Well, the Red Fort wasn’t open on Mondays so off we returned to the hotel, R&R for the men and retail therapy for the women.
Dinner was subdued as the first of the group made preparations for catching a 2:00 a.m. flight back to Maine. Morning would complete our leave-takings, with Layne heading to Jodphur to meet a friend, Diana to Mitraniketan to volunteer, Max and me to a homestay outside of Jodhpur, and Noel to Nepal and Bhutan to vet sites for his Fall travelers.
Thankfully we knew we’d be seeing one another in a few weeks back in Portland, which made good-byes not so sad. And, you know me, I positively detest good-byes.
For Max and me it was a bit daunting to think of navigating India on our own. However, we found Noel had prepared us well for exploring the mysteries of this exotic country.
As we waved good-bye we knew there could be bumps and a few bruises on our solo travels but nothing unmanageable and all an adventure.
With a deep breath we began our solo voyage into the inner sanctum of the Indian continent…