Delhi: City of Millions

9 Jun

With a reputation like Delhi’s it was an eerie arrival at the Delhi International airport, all squeaky clean with quietly humming travelators, helpful navigation signage, rubbish bins in convenient locations and no clumps of people camped indefinitely around the place. Oh there’s nothing like a global sporting event to tidy things up! Thanks to the 2011 Commonwealth Games and Cricket World Cup for my smooth and efficient arrival intoDelhi!

Even getting a taxi and the drive from the airport to the city was breezy, none of the expected taxi touts waiting for fresh blood outside the airport doors or the slum lined roads one expects. Ah, see the cynicism that results from a burned-by-India experience? Not to worry, once accepted back into the country without any issues (except the immigration officer reminding me I only have a month and a half left on my visa, yep thanks for that) I was good to go again and back on the ‘I heart India’ bandwagon. It was time to explore the north and I was excited! 

The long travel distances and the temptation to leave the logistics to someone else for awhile were enough to lure me to a tour, so I had booked a two week Intrepid backpacking tour of Rajasthan – but first I had a chance to look around Delhi.

The real Delhi – that is, the absolutely chaotic, sprawling city heaving with 12.8 million people – soon revealed itself in the teeny tiny little bit I saw.

Old Delhi is where the stereo-type is at. Established in 1639, it was previously enclosed within a great red stone wall which has since crumbled down around most of its fourteen former gates.

Walking through the crowded alleys in the bazaars here is an eye-opening experience; whereas a lot of the shenanigans I see in India no longer incite a blink of an eye from me, a result of previous experience in developing countries and having become accustomed to Indian ways over the past three months, Delhi has its own unique head-turners. The electricity poles and wires are absolutely unbelievable. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Looking up to the sky from the streets there is a mass of tangled wire draping from pole to building to pole. I don’t know how they manage to deliver electricity to anything or how they don’t combust into flames in the Delhi heat but somehow it works (intermittent power cuts excused). Amazing!

There is a method to some of the madness. The laneways of the bazaars are sorted for convenience into themes. There’s a laneway of shops selling wedding stationery, a laneway for fireworks, another for bangles, for tassles and so on. The biggest spice market in Asia, Khari Baoli, is also in Old Delhi and well worth a wander. The streets are busy with people, motorbikes, cows, dogs and deliveries of boxes and bags of products via all of the above, and they are fascinating to walk around and watch it all unfolding.

Ducking into the occasional ‘residential’ alley is also a treat; beautiful doorways line either side, symbolising the affluent households of those in the ‘merchant’ castes who make their living in the bazaars.

The towering Jana Masjid was a fascinating first taste of ancient architecture in the north. It is India’s largest Mosque with a capacity for 25,000 people and was built between 1644-1658 in Old Delhi. 

It’s important to be covered up appropriately when entering the mosque, but even if you’re dressed head to toe, chances are they will still make you wear the brightly coloured floral mu-mu’s they dole out to the tourists to wear – on a stinky hot day I dread to think how many others have worn the bright orange garment they hand to me – but oh well, on it goes! My shoes are also handed over and it’s a quick dash to the shade as the white marble floor is scorching! But the mosque inside is beautiful and well worth the effort, as are the views across the city.

One of my favourite experiences in Old Delhi was visiting the Sikh Temple Gurdwara Sis Ganj, which is built at the place the ninth Sikh Guru was beheaded in 1675 by a Mughal emperor for refusing to convert to Islam. It was a unique experience from the start. Firstly we needed to stop by the visitor’s room where we were greeted by a Temple representative who gave us an introduction and head scarves to tie over our hair. We left our shoes outside and then walked towards the entrance stairs where we first stepped through a sort of trough on the ground filled with water – washing the feet of everyone who stepped into the temple. We entered the main worship area where three men were sitting cross legged at the front singing the kirtan (call and response chanting) from the Sikh Holy book which is on display next to them under a golden canopy. It was a very serene environment and I really enjoyed sitting cross legged on the floor with the devotees, listening for awhile.

When we moved on we went outside to the community kitchen, an important part of a Sikh Gurdwara – a place where everyone can eat together without discrimination regardless of gender, race, religion etc. Between 2000-4000 people are fed a hot yummy, healthy vegetarian meal for free here every day.

We were lucky to tour the kitchens and see all the food prep going on. Most impressive was the roti (round flat bread) dough being rolled out by some women seated on the floor and then fed into a machine and spat out all warm and toasty-delicious looking. There was some space around the table so myself and Annabelle, one of the girls on my tour, squatted down next to the women and smiled. They smiled back and rolled us some dough. My first attempt to roll the ball into a perfect circle was amusing enough to them but after a few I got the hang of it and it was a special moment to experience.

Situated south of Old Delhi is New Delhi, which was founded by the British in 1931 but over an area encompassing seven ancient cities so there is still plenty of historic sites in the area, including the UNESCO World Heritage site, 16th century Humayun’s Tomb. This impressive monument was built by the wife of the second mughal emperor and is made of red sandstone and white marble with design elements which were later replicated on the Taj Mahal. It is a very peaceful place to visit in an extremely busy city.

The heat of the Delhi daytime hit well into the mid-forties when I was there, which was pretty intense, so it was a relief to visit the night street market in Karol Bagh during the not-so-hot evening time. It’s a festive affair, with mounds of clothes, shoes, toys, bags and more more more. Anything and everything is available, so even though Delhi is currently at the height of its dry hot summer it was no great effort to pick up a raincoat in preparation for my future trip to the mountains. Even if you’re not buying, the markets are a feast for the senses and a great way to immerse yourself in the city vibe outside of the heat of the daytime.

Apart from these sights, my time in Delhi was spent eating (like everywhere in India there is yummy food galore and I am still a more than willing participant), some requisite shopping and escaping the midday heat with some hotel down time. I enjoyed what I saw in this crazy city but I admit it was with a slight sense of relief that I prepared to leave it for awhile – the sensory overload is a lot to take in for too many days in a row in such heat, however I’d happily come back and explore a bit more next time I come to India!

Next up Rajasthan, a wonderland of things to see and do… stay tuned :)

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