Delhi and Agra, India
03.06.2016 - 06.06.2016 109 °F
Danielle and I landed in Delhi with Danielle's friend Wendy accompanying us for the last leg of the journey. We had two sight-seeing days in Delhi planned with a trip to Agra sandwiched in between. With wonderful experiences in Hyderabad, Bandhavgarh, and Jaipur in the books (err, the blogs?) I was excited to see what Delhi had in store.
Delhi is a place that is difficult to describe. It is the Capitol of India and acts as home for 19 million of the country's citizens. It's streets bustle with the frenzy of any sprawling metropolis, but absent are the horns that characterize the chaos of Hyderabad. Its buildings are home to facades of centuries ago but not nearly as many as the ancient city of Jaipur. The wayward oxen that are staples of most streets in other Indian cities are instead replaced with government employees and professionals moving to their next scheduled engagement. If India's countryside is its past, Delhi is definitely a sign of what's to come in its future.
There are few developing countries in the world that I've been to that are actually, well, developing. This term was adopted in reaction to the White guilt of the term "third world" which has a ton of baggage associated with it. The trouble with humans is that we adopt a new term to right a wrong instead of changing the foundation. The underlying problem is that most "developing" nations are still exploited economically by those labeled developed. We've essentially traveled from an ordinal ranking system to the haves and have nots.
India is quite different, you can tell that the country is on the move and breaking the chains of its past. Led by the shrewd Prime Minister Modi, signs are everywhere that India is advancing quickly. Remnants of poverty still exist, but the impressive rail system, the ubiquitous public health campaigns, the thriving tech industry, and the equality of women in India show that India is indeed advancing and advancing fast.
All of this development comes at a steep price. Delhi recently gained the distinction of being the most polluted city in the world. As you will see in most of the pictures below, there appears to be a constant marine layer enveloping the city. This isn't marine layer, this is all pollution. During my last day there, there was an article emblazoned on the front of the local newspaper that said that a new scientific study estimated that the pollution in Delhi decreased life span by an average of 6 years.
The government has made numerous efforts to slow the effects of climate change by banning diesel vehicles that are more than 10 years old, only allowing drivers with certain plate numbers on certain days, and strengthening the metro infrastructure.
Although the alacrity of solutions implemented has been quick, the negative effects are still clear and present. our guide informed us that there were over 1500 cars sold per day and an estimated 9 million cars on the road. Climate change is already a reality and how bad it gets depends on how India, and its neighbor China, ultimately implement and maintain these green solutions.
Our first day, we were on our own navigating the city. We woke Wendy up and slowly eased her into the city, checking out Qutb Munar complex as well as the Lotus Temple. We finished our tour off with a wonderful lunch at Gulati.
The Qutb Minar complex, the tower is the tallest brick minaret in the world
Since its construction in 1199 CE, the tower has been damaged by lightning twice
Pillars of the complex
Hey, it's Wendy!
It was a bit close to the airport
The Lotus house of worship of the Bahai faith
From the side
Appreciating the angles
This actually looks like a fish eye shot, but it's with a regular lens
Definitely a must if you're in New Delhi; try to come during non-peak times since they don't accept reservations
Delicious butter chicken and garlic naan
India gate, a memorial to Indian soldiers who have lost their lives
Eternal flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier
The second day we were picked up by our driver who would take us around Delhi and then shuttle us to Agra. Our guide for the day was a smartly dressed man who charismatically introduced himself simply as Jimmy. Standing in an unimposing way yet still confident, Jimmy was 67 years old but had the energy of a man half his age. This former Navy man, grandfather, and historian would be our guide to the sights, smells, and sounds of the city he called home.
He first took us to the house of the president and told us all about the Indian government. The president's house sits on a plot of 330 acres, and contains 350 rooms, making it the largest presidential residence in the world. He confidently answered questions about international affairs, and it was interesting to hear his perspective on Pakistan.
The manicured lawns of the Prime Minister's residence
The president's residence
After enjoying some traditional Indian chaat, he took us to the National Cemetery to see the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was an Indian expatriate who practiced law in South Africa. As he traveled in a first class train car en route to see a client, an employee told him he needed to move to the car with the colored people. He kindly instructed the man that he needed to do no such thing because he knew the law and that was not in the legal code. At the next train stop, Gandhi and his bags were thrown out of the train. Incensed by his treatment, he resolved to alter the course of his life by defending basic human rights. In 1915, he and his wife traveled back to their native India and begin to promote equality to bring an end to British rule. Through multiple imprisonments and hunger strikes, Gandhi and his followers successful secured independence for their country in 1947. Six months later, Gandhi was assassinated by a radical who was later tried, convicted, and hanged for his heinous crime.
Gandhi was immolated at this spot, but his ashes were spread in the river Ganges in accordance with traditional Hindu beliefs. To give you an idea of his national importance, his memorial is the only memorial in the entire 22 acre national cemetery, all of the currency contains his likeness, and he is spoken about with the same reverence that South Africans reserve for Madiba. Like Madiba, he was a God among men.
Our next stop was Old Delhi for a bicycle rickshaw tour and a walk through one of the world's largest spice markets. The sites and smells were captivating and Jimmy was our tranquil tutor in the sea of frenzy that surrounded us.
On our way to the spice market
Mass of electrical wires that defined the poorer neighborhoods of Delhi
The busy spice market
Betel leaves that are chewed by rural Indians, this is a highly addictive practice that can quickly lead to mouth cancer
Transporting supplies in old town
Enjoying masala chai tea in an Indian spice store
Our final monument stop was Humayun's Tomb, a grave built by the widow of the second Mughal emperor. This temple was built in 1565 in traditional Islamic style with an emphasis for symmetry and no depictions of god, per the prophets teachings. The craftsmen took 9 years to build the shrine and included many six-pointed stars as decorations, and although they resemble the star of David, the resemblance is only coincidental.
Danielle and Wendy were celebrities throughout our New Delhi stop, many children wanted their pictures with the Westerners
Me and Jimmy
A beautiful marble Arabic carving
We relaxed at Rendezvous restaurant for our final respite of the day before heading to Agra. The butter chicken, saffron rice and paneer were absolutely magical.
Cousin of Tony the Tiger?
Everything was amazing, put this place on your must-see list for Delhi
The next day started in the small hours of the morning around 4 am. The ladies dressed in their newfound Indian garb, and I in my typically simple rags, boarded a golf cart to make our way into the East gate of the Taj Mahal. Our guide, Ali, told us all about the Mughal king and the woman who he pined for even in death.
The two were said to be madly in love. During the birth of their 14th child, she died at the tender age of 39. Legend has it that she had her beloved make three promises before her death: marry no other, be kind to their children, and build the most amazing tribute to her the world has ever seen. Upon seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time, I immediately concluded that my previous romantic gestures had nothing on this guy. Most amazing tribute? Mission accomplished.
My first view of the Taj
From the reflecting pool
Danielle and I
The front gate
From the East end
Through the courtyard
The complex took 22 years and 20,000 artisans to build. Legend also states that the king was so depressed when she died that his diligence over his kingdom began to slip. Six of the sixteen children survived to adulthood, and the third son killed the first two in an attempt to seize power and become the next heir to the throne. With the murders complete, he successfully imprisoned his father in the nearby Agra fort with the argument that his father had squandered the kingdom's money on this tribute. His prison cell had a single window that looked out to the monument to his beloved. He was Imprisoned in 1658 and died the same year as the great fire of London in 1666.
The beautiful craftsmanship of the tile work
22 domes were on the main gate, one for each of the years it took to construct
As with the tomb in Delhi, symmetry and placement were key in the building process. The shrine was built facing South so that a mosque could be built facing West. This placement is important because Muslims pray five times a day towards Mecca, a holy site that sits to India's west. To maintain symmetry, the exact same building was built on the other side of the mausoleum, but it acted as a guest house instead of a mosque. The minarets are also built bending slightly outwards so that they would fall away from the mausoleum should an earthquake hit. As you can see in the above pictures, the minarets were in the middle of restoration but one was finished and looked absolutely beautiful (see below).
The mosque at the West end
And the guest house at the East end
With the rising sun
The beauty of the restored tile
The ladies taking it in one last time
The second stop before heading back to Delhi was the fort where the very-in-love-yet-fiscally-irresponsible king was imprisoned, Agra fort. Our guide gave some good information but the heat had climbed to over 110, at 10:30 am no less, and we were more focused on shade than facts. Our planned forty minute stop quickly got cut in half as we retreated to air conditioning and cool bottles of water.
The front of the Agra Fort
The cell where the son imprisoned his father
The view that the father had from his cell
Our evening in Delhi was with friends old and new. Andre and Kimbrie were in India at the same time as us, and we had a one day overlap in the city. We met for drinks, swapped stories and marveled at what we had seen. Andre has visited 46 countries so far (compared to my mere 18), and we agreed that India was one of the coolest places we had ever seen.
Kimbrie got her ice cream, I often have cravings from home that take awhile to satisy
33% of our wedding party was in Delhi!
Dinner was hosted by one of Danielle's coworkers, and up and coming stars at Deloitte, Neeraj. He treated us to wonderful chicken, lamb, and the most delicious paneer on the planet.
Sign in the bathroom, Neeraj said that this translates to "Dude, just stop"
Old and new friends
The last day in Delhi was a sad one as I had fallen in love with the city in such a short amount of time. I made a pilgrimage to Delhi's largest Sikh temple and heard all about the wonderful work the religion does for the community. Founded in the 15th century by their first guru (the work guru is a mix of light and dark, it loosely translates to the one who brings people out of the darkness into the light), the religious text was written over the course of 10 gurus. The monotheistic religion emphasizes equality above all, promotes hard work (symbolized by a steel bracelet worn by each adherent), and does not view life as sinful but a quest to merge with the creating force. This particular temple serves food to over 30,000 people each day, provides free medicine, and claims to have tens of thousands of visitors each day.
The Sikh temple, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
The interior prayer room, the alter is made out of 200 kg of gold - that's over 440 pounds!
The pool that Sikhs believe can cure any ailment. When the first guru was alive, it was believed that he cured the masses of cholera through their immersion in the pool
Volunteers preparing food
Poor and rich alike sit alongside one another to eat free food offered to anyone of any faith
I even tried my hand at making some food
In front of the temple
I also got to see the exterior of Hanuman's temple but could not make it inside since the temple was closed for lunch. The temple definitely has a lot of unique features, but I'll have to wait until my next visit to explore in more detail.
The hanuman statue near the Karol Bagh train station
Probably the coolest entrance ever
The people of India have been absolutely wonderful to us: from Naveen in Hyderabad, Kailash in Jaipur, and Jimmy in Delhi, India had opened itself up to us and shown us its sights, sounds, and smells. There's one more stop in the state of Kerala, but I am sad at the prospect of leaving this wonderful country. One more post to go before heading to Maldives, check in with you all soon.