If someone had asked me what do I think of Delhi before I had visited it, I would have said – hot pavement, sunny streets and thousands of people dressed in colorful clothing. Delhi was the last stop on our itinerary in India and by then we had already understood what we think and feel when we hear the word “India”. Visiting Delhi was the proof for us that this country is so vast and so different, that every city will surprise you. To be honest, we only had time to visit Delhi because our airline had changed our travel times significantly and in the end we managed to persuade them to change the departure points as well. The two additional days in India gave us just enough time to see more of this incredible country! It’s always worth to keep on pushing!
Now it seems unbelievable that initially we hadn’t planned to come here, as our impression fo India would have been completely different. We did spent one night in Delhi on our way to Darjeeling, which was our primary point of destination, but then we didn’t see much from the city, except from what you see from the cab window. The impression was grand from the start – there is a lot of everything, people, smells and noise. After staying in other cities in India for nearly two weeks, we already felt much more comfortable, when standing at the “Arrivals” sign at the airport, listening to the horns honking outside. We were no longer scared of poverty, garbage and real India! The first purchase in the airport was a bottle of water and a Barbie doll dressed in sari, a gift for my cousin. Visiting other countries always is a great opportunity to find extra special presents!
We used prepaid taxi service in Delhi, and even then you still have to be careful. First, counting the money given back, second, not letting anyone cut you in the line. My favorite TV series Outsourced says about pushing in India that you just have to push back and they will respect you more! So I did, and the pushers left right away. This is not going to be that time when peaceful Europeans will let someone cut the line!
When visiting India, you have to beware of scams, and especially so, in Delhi. Latvian bloggers We Are From Latvia have a good compilation of the most frequent scams in India, so be sure to read the article if you plan to go to India!
The two weeks in India, and especially two days in Kolkata have softened the impression of Delhi. It now seems almost fragrant! Of course, you can immediately feel that there are a lot of people living here. Depending on how many suburbs you count, the number of inhabitants in Delhi is from 16 to 25 million, and it is considered to be the third most populous metropolitan area in the world.
We only have one day to spend in city, and we realize that to do it on our own two legs is not going to be possible, so already in Kolkata we have booked a car with a driver, who takes us to all the important places. This is exactly what we need! He is no guide and only drives us places, but we are fully armed with guidebooks and he does share a fact or two. He drives us for a whole day in a brand new car for only about 35 euros. The itinerary for such tours is fixed, but it’s possible to agree to skip a place and add something else instead, it’s important not to go over the distance and time limit for the day. Of course, tipping helps too.
It’s Tourism day on the day of our visit, and it has it’s pros and cons. First, all entry ticket fees are waived, so we save some money. But everyone who wants to see something is there, and the crowds are just insane, but at least we don’t lose any time waiting in the lines. Seems the most eager tourists are the local Indian girls from military schools, dressed in uniforms, and they don’t pass the opportunity to ask for a picture with us. It’s also the final day of the Ganesh festival, so we see a lot of people with clay sculptures headed to the river to put them in the water. There are people riding in the backs of the trucks, there is music, dancing and of course, the main seat at the back is for the elephant-like god.
What are those places that you should see in Delhi? Depending on the number of days you have, interests and wishes, there are plenty of opportunities. I heard inspiring stories about bike and walking tours, and also going touside of the city of Delhi. In our one-day tour we had 9 spots we surely wanted to see, and there is the 10th one, if you have more than just one day. Many of the tours and sights are of military nature, connected to British and Indian history, but before going there you should be well read on Indian history. My books of choice before coming to India where novels and personal accounts. I read “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts, “Holy Cow” by Sarah McDonald, “White Tiger” by Aravind Adig. These books gave me a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be a white person in India, how is it to live in the slums and how the cast system works in India. Many say “Shantaram” is a mandatory read before you buy tickets to India, in order to understand if you can handle this country. It made me want to go to India even more, since I already had the tickets, all was left to count the days til going.
Jama Masjid is one of the biggest mosques in India. Building it in the 17th century cost over a million rupees (one euro is seventy six rupees today) and Bukhar imam was the one to consecrate it. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who ordered for this mosque to be build, is the same emperor behind Taj Mahal. Mosque is grand, and purchasing a separate ticket lets you go up the tower where you can see nearby streets – small buildings and markets. Nearby the mosque there is a men’s market – hundreds of sneakers, men’s t-shirts and pants are there on the display.
This is the first mosque we enter in India and although I have a long skirt almost til the ground and covered shoulders, I still get a blue robe (it’s free, if someone wants money for it, it’s a scam). I read that shorts are a no-no for men too, as knees have to be covered in any case. For this purpose men get something between a scarf and a towel to cover them up. You have to leave your shoes at the entrance, and you can purchase slippers. Disinfecting wipes will come in handy, as there are a lot of pigeons at the mosque! Since the ground is extremely hot even in the morning sun, it’s recommended to use the carpets for walking. It’s interesting that the man who guards the shoes, hands us ours once we exit the mosque. I wonder, how does he remember which tourist has which shoes? Of course, he wants a payment for this service. We also meet the first child who wants to take a picture with us, and she wants some money for this too. First half an hour in Delhi teaches us that the level of obtrusiveness here is much greater than in Kolkata, and here they ask money for everything. Of course, them asking doesn’t mean you have to give it.
Red Fort is a complex that symbolizes the creativity of Mughal empire. For almost 200 years, until 1857. this was the place that the empire was lead from. Now it is included in the UNESCO world heritage list. The same architect was also responsible for Taj Mahal creation. Red Fort was build using stone of two colors – red and white, the two favorite colors of the emperor. Unfortunately the buildings suffered through the British rule, as all the valuables were stolen, furniture destroyed and two thirds of buildings torn down. In the beginning of the 20th century some renovations begun and now this place is definitely worth to visit.
You should come as early as possible, as there is no shade in the vast gardens, and plan two hours for the visit, as this is the biggest monument in Delhi, visited by thousands each day. Many buildings have a fence around them and you cannot come in, but a few are open for visitors and one of them has an interesting exhibit with old planet models, furniture and clothing.
It might sound unholy, but the easiest way how to describe Swaminarayan Akshardham is that it is a mix between a temple and Disneyland. Why so? Firstly, it does look very grand and old, but in fact it’s almost brand new – opened for public in November of 2005. Once I was there, I couldn’t describe it in any other way as commrecialized. To enter the temple, security is stricter than at the airport. It’s absolutely strictly forbidden to take pictures inside, you cannot bring in even a phone! Unless you have a watch that takes pictures, forget about photography.
Why commercial? The believers can not only pray, but also attend the IMAX theater and see a movie about Swaminarayan (the primary god in this Hindu branch) teenage years, watch a light show and eat at the food court. Almost 70% of all tourists coming to Delhi visit the place, so be prepared for crowds. It’s a beautiful temple, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it just isn’t the real deal.
Lotus temple that does look like a flower, is a temple where people can pray irrespective of their belief. You can sing here, but it’s not allowed to hold services or play musical instruments. Opened in 1986 and since then it has become one of the main attraction in the world, some years surpassing the number of vistiors at the Eifel tower or Taj Mahal.
You can spend a really long time waiting at the queue to get in. There are no parking spots, as the streets are full of cars. Our driver let us out a few hundred meters before the entrance, we saw the line and decide to skip this place in order not to waste the time.
India Gate is a war memorial to 82 000 soldiers who died in the First World War. Although it’s a war memorial, it looks a lot like a arc of triumph (like in Paris or other ones in Europe). 13218 names of those who died are inscribed in the gate, but due to security reasons, it’s not allowed to see them up close.
There is a large park around the gate, families with children spend time here, guys play cricket, and you can see a rat or two and some larger animals as well, we saw something that looked like a mongoose.
Parliament and the Secretariat
Two largest government houses of India are located in Delhi – Parliament and the Secretariat. Stopping to see these places we can again be happy that we have a driver who just lets us out to see the place, as parking is prohibited here.
There are four pillars in the front of the Secretariat symbolizing Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada and the sea roads that connect India with other British dominions.
The highest brick minaret in the world is located at the Qutb, and Qutb Minar minaret with the nearby structures is in the UNESCO world heritage list since 1993. The complex has several ancient buildings, the mosque was ordered in 1193, and the minaret in 1199.
Special attention should be given to the iron pillar, which was transported here in 1233. It is an artifact showcasing the skill of Indian blacksmiths, as it was build in 402 from a special rust-proof alloy. Again, huge crowds gather here, in 2006.this place had more visitors than the Taj Mahal (3 million versus 2.5 million).
Connaught Place is one of the main shopping and entrepreneurship areas in Delhi. It is know as a large circular area where several streets meet, and one of the largest flags in India is here. There are a lot of shops, cafes and restaurants around, and a lot of obtrusive street sellers. When they see us, they switch to Russian immediately, offering us scarves, jewels and books. While we take the pictures of all the places and streets, some of the come to us even five and more times, or start trailing us. Then we get angry and tell them to finally leave us alone, and at last it works and they stop disturbing us.
There are street markets in this area too, and even Indian people come to buy clothing and souvenirs here. Of course, you have to haggle to get the best price. Unfortunately the quality of clothing is very low, both the color and the seam. The seller will try to persuade you that all is cotton or even silk, but it doesn’t say so anywhere on the label. Same goes for “silver” jewelry, no proof of alloy. You can also see that people in India read a lot, as there are many bookstalls full of books on entrepreneurship, same goes for every market and even the airport – I have never seen so many books on entrepreneurship anywhere else.
The Humayun’s tomb
One of the most beautiful places in Delhi is the Humayun’s tomb, which is also part of UNESCO world heritage list since 1993. After the death of the emperor Humauyn, his wife Bega Begum made it her life mission to build the most grand tomb in the empire. The building was finished in 1570 and cost over 1.5 million rupees, which was an unbelievable sum for the time. All was paid by the empress. The architect was the Persian Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, brought here from Afghanistan, he had worked on several buildings in Uzbekistan before as well.
Not far from here is also the tomb of Isa Khan Niazi, a member of the high court, finished in 1548. This man lived to be 95 and the tomb was begun to build while he was still alive. The Humayun’s tomb was the only place where we saw the snake charmers in India. This is a forbidden profession nowadays due to stricter wildlife protection laws brought into force in the nineties.
If you have more than just one day for Delhi, definitely visit Agra! This city is located 220 km from Delhi and many famous landmarks (not just the Taj Mahal) are located here. If you stay there at least two days, you can see the Agra Fort, the abandoned Fatehpur Sikri city and mosque, and the Baby Taj or Itimad-ud-Daulah tomb. Taj Mahal demands a visit at various times of the day – sunrise, sunset and the full moon. The color of the facade then changes from yellowish to pink and bright white.
It’s the easiest to reach Agra by train, and there is even a special train that is called Taj Express, which leaves Delhi early in the morning and comes back late in the evening. You can see the Taj if you take this train, but not much more. Unfortunately also the biggest crowds are there during the time of arrival, and it’s going to be especially hot if you visit between May and September. Many car tours are offered from Delhi, but the roads are really unpredictable in India, although the distance is not that big, it can take significantly longer than expected. The trains can be late too, and then you will have to wait for your train, the piss from the rails in the air, in the company of monkeys and the homeless.
But it’s still interesting to see how people run from the passing trains to the food stalls and then rush to get back, as there is no warning horn when the train is departing. It’s all part of the Indian experience!
As we stayed two days in Agra, then there will be a separate article on our experience there very soon!
As always, all photographs by my husband Jekabs Andrusaitis.