Call me crazy, but I really love India’s capital. My plan of spending a few days in Delhi turned into a week, and it’s only now that I’m writing from a hotel room in Agra.
Like most of the rest of India, Delhi is a colorful jumble of contradictions with some absolutely beautiful historical places in the middle of the madness. People had cautioned me a lot about traveling by myself in Delhi, but surprisingly, I found it one of the easiest places in India to be on my own. Yes, it’s very hectic (12.8 million people live in Delhi and of the world's 7 billion person population, India contains 1/6th). Yes, it’s very polluted and yes, there is a lot of desperation and a lot of poverty which makes it hard to look sometimes. Yes, there is a constant stream of people trying to make money off of you/hit on you/try to accomplish a strange combination of the two. BUT, it’s also a capital city with some beautiful green space, amazing monuments, and a lot of really interesting environmental, social, and educational reforms. There has also recently been a movement to support more cultural activities in Delhi and I spent one lovely evening at a free outdoor sitar concert in Nehru Park. I think a lot of these recent changes in Delhi has to do with the many efforts that were underway when Delhi was hosting the Commonwealth games in 2010.
One of the new systems that was set up then is the Delhi metro system. I could write a sonnet to the Delhi metro system. That air-conditioned tube of joy was my saving grace in Delhi after weeks in India of bargaining with rickshaw drivers. The metro is incredibly efficient, regular (a car arrives every 2 minutes at every stop), and safe (everyone is frisked and their bags put through security before they get on). I also tremendously appreciate that they devote the first two cars of every train to women-only, especially because the metro can be intensely claustrophobic. (Side note: riding the Delhi metro during rush hour is an event. Many men try to sneak into the women’s only cars because often they’re less crowded, so there are security guards at popular stops that sort through the crowds and only let the women and children go through. Sometimes riding the Delhi metro at rush hour makes me feel a little bit like we’re all on the Titanic fighting for life boats).
As I wrote previously, in Delhi I stayed in the Tibetan colony which is in the northern part of the city. It’s a bit unlike any other part of India I’d seen to this point, and is a completely self-sustaining place right on the Yamuna River and is supposedly the commercial center of the Tibetan community in India. (Also, did I mention Tibetan food is amazing? It’s amazing).
Being in the Tibetan neighborhood also meant I had to get around on one of these:
The night before I arrived in Delhi a guy from my graduating class at Swarthmore contacted me because he's been working in Delhi for the last two months. It was kind of ridiculous we had both been in India for five weeks and hadn’t realized it earlier (thank you, facebook). We spent a Sunday wandering around some Delhi sights and talking all things Swarthmore (I cannot explain to you how good it felt to see someone I shared college with after not seeing a familiar face for literally three months).
Highlights of this chaotically endearing city and my week there:
Kotla Firoz Shah: A smaller destination that Dan and I stumbled into. It consists of ruins from monuments that Firoz Shah built in 1354 and includes a mosque (still used today), a well, and the 13 foot high Ashoka pillar.
Purana Qila: Built by Afghan ruler Sher Shah during this reign (1538-45) before the emperor Humayun (see Humayun’s tomb!) defeated him.
Humayun’s Tomb: Quite possibly my favorite Delhi attraction. (Lonely Planet tells me this is the one sight in Delhi that the Obamas were taken to see when they visited…as if I needed another reason to love Humayun’s tomb…or the Obamas…) Apparently this tomb is the first architecture that shows a Persian style in Delhi, but is also consistent with much of the Mughal architecture found in many of the the other sights (and found in Hyderabad as well). People say this tomb had a definite influence on the style of the Taj Mahal.
The scarily polluted sun.
The Red Fort: This is Delhi’s largest and probably most famous attraction. It’s a huge sandstone fort that has been used by many different groups in Delhi over the years. It was built at the peak of the Mughal reign in Delhi, but after that it began to deteriorate and many slums formed inside the walls of the fort. After the 1857 First War of Independence, the British cleared it out to use it for barracks and army offices.
It’s a place where you can easily imagine the utter luxury of these Moghul rulers; their elephant stables and concubines and jewels on the walls.
And then there was also this side of the Red Fort:
I naively thought she was playing with those rocks until I looked closer and realized she was actually doing construction work alongside with her parents for the maintenance of the fort.
Raj Ghat: A memorial that marks the spot where Gandhi was cremated in 1948, inscribed with his final words: “Hai Ram” (Oh God).
The Lotus Temple: This was designed by a Canadian architect in 1986 and the entire building forms a lotus made out of white-marble. It is a Bahai house of worship and their philosophy is one of universality; people of all faiths are welcome to pray and meditate here.
Or, as the above photo shows, turn somersaults.
Qutb Minar: Technically, this monument is just outside of Delhi and it predates all the other Delhi attractions. It was built at the onset of Islamic rule in India in 1193 and is an entire complex of towers and buildings.
Behind this pillar you can see the dome of the first mosque ever to be built in India.
Gandhi Smitri: This museum is in the house where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life. There is a pathway made up of concrete footsteps that mark his last steps and lead up to the spot where he was assassinated in 1948. Similar to when I visited his museum in Madurai, I got chills looking at Gandhi's possessions; the shoes he was wearing when he died, the bed he slept on the night before, his walking stick, his spectacles.
Jantar Mantar: Apparently “Jantar Mantar” is like saying “Abracadabra” in Hindi, but this site was constructed in 1725 for scientific purposes (it features a sundial). I chose to ignore this and treat it as a playground that looks really good in photos.
Sorry this is such a long post (don’t you see why my visit to Delhi kept getting extended?!) My trip there made me realize I really needed to learn more (or anything) about architecture, Indian history, and who all of these rulers were, exactly. It also made me want to persuade future visitors to give Delhi another look, despite its rather dismal reputation. Or maybe, I’ve just given into the chaos.
I was walking around Connaught Place recently, dodging crowds and scam artists with my newly acquired, “don’t mess with me” face on. This young Indian guy came up to me and just started laughing. “What?” I finally asked him. “Nothing,” he said, “You just walk like an Indian.”
It’s been six weeks and I think I’m just figuring out how to be in this place.