India has been on our travel bucket list for quite some time. Admittedly when we were in the planning stages, there were moments when we wondered what we’d be letting ourselves in for. So many blog posts speak of poverty, slums, squalour, overcrowding, scams and the dreaded lurgies you could pick up. But these same blog posts waxed lyrical about the natural beauty, historical sights and spiritualism of India. It was these evocative images that enticed us most.
Although we knew India was going to be different to anything we had ever experienced before, I don’t think anything could have quite prepared us for the sensory and emotional overload we would be confronted with.
India is definitely not for everyone. In case you were wondering, yes, we experienced all of those things the blog posts warned about (and some) escaping only the dreaded lurgy part! Our lack of Delhi Belly could possibly be attributed to the colourful array of pills we were religiously swallowing on a daily basis. But if you go with an open mind and a fair amount of hair on your teeth, the country and its people have a way of creeping deep into your heart.
After quite a long layover in Dubai (flying Emirates does have its perks though and we made good use of our food vouchers) we arrived at Indira Ghandi Airport, New Delhi. How grateful we were to see “our” man holding up a board with OUR names on amongst a sea of faces as we exited the terminal building.
Everything anyone who has visited India has told you about the traffic is true. Imaginary lanes, tailgating and the endless hooting. All of it. And in every imaginable mode of transport. We found this out rather quickly on our first official ride on the streets of India
It’s not odd to get a tummy eye view of a camel as you stop at a set of lights. Or to have to detour around a huge lump of bovine sacredness. Cows have right of way, and a single cow could cause a serious traffic jam whilst it obliviously chomps away on a pile of litter in the middle of the road.
Cars, buses, tuk tuk’s, scooters, bicycle rickshas – they are all fighting for their little bit of space on the road. And all this while the driver is simultaneously peering over his shoulder and asking you questions (“where are you from? Ah South Africa…good country…Nelson Mandela) intermittently smoking and chatting on his mobile! So after a rather hair raising drive into the city we arrived at Smyle Inn, our home for the next 3 days. A lovely clean establishment with friendly staff and a great breakfast included on the rooftop terrace. Smyle Inn, in a little alley off Grand Bazaar Road and only a few minutes walk from New Delhi Railway station, it is very centrally situated.
You may wonder why we’d choose a urinal for the first photo of this blog post. Well it’s not just any urinal. This one has a story.
We always try to have a telltale landmark to help guide us back to our accommodation when we travel. In this case it was the fast food chicken shop on the corner. But just before our landmark came into view – let’s just say there was also a telltale smell. Alas, do not be put off, it only lasts a brief second and soon your nostrils will be filled with the sweet smells of incense or spices and the urinal is all but a fleeting memory. These open urinals are found all over the city, and is not an uncommon occurrence at all! Just don’t forget to lift up your wheelie suitcase before you get to the small trickling stream emitting from it though. I didn’t. First epic fail on Indian soil.
The area around Grand Bazaar is abuzz with street vendors, auto’s, scooters and bicycle rickshas. It’s fondly known as the “Backpacker Ghetto. There’s loads of shopping to be done here and there are some great restaurants and bars.
Delhi is one of the oldest capital cities in the world, and a goldmine of ancient monuments and heritage sites. It’s bold, it’s brash and it’s utterly chaotic – but you’ll never have a dull moment in this vibrant city.
Say’s New Yorker Dave Prager in Delirious Delhi: ‘Delhi is whatever you make of it. Every person defines Delhi for his or her self, and no two Delhi struggles are the same. At any given point, your experience will be the exact opposite of my experience, and we’ll both be right.’
And so it was that we set off on the metro to discover some of the sites Delhi had to offer. Just outside Chandni Chowk metro station is a gorgeous Hindu temple, the Shani Dev Temple. Shani Dev is one of the nine primary celestial beings in Hindu astrology and is embodied in the planet Saturn. Shani Dev is the Lord of Saturday.
Light is of great significance in Hindu Spiritualism. It is a part of tradition that to create the right kind of atmosphere, the first thing that you do is light a lamp. This is because the moment you light a lamp, a certain etheric sphere will naturally develop. This makes communication better and exudes positivity.
Chandni Chowk is at the heart of Old Delhi. It’s a chaotic and fascinating area. It is filled with alleyways and ramshackle buildings. One could spend hours getting lost here tasting local street food, visiting historical shrines and temples and shopping for bargains.
Sri Digambar Mandir is the oldest Jain temple in New Delhi, originally built in 1658. Whereas Hindus offer worship to many forms of one God, the creator and preserver of the world, Jains do not believe in the concept of an eternal God or a creator of the world. Jains regard the world itself as eternal. Instead they worship and offer respect to the great souls who have achieved enlightenment and attained salvation, freeing their souls from the cycle of birth and death and serving as role models for the faith.
Construction on the Red Fort started in 1638 when Sha Jahan decided to shift his capital from Agra to New Delhi. The length of the wall is 2.5km and is 33m high. Every year on Independence Day, the Prime Minister gives a speech here and hoists the national flag. This tradition has been continuing since the first Independence Day of India.
The Jama Masjid is one of the largest mosques in India. The mosque was completed in 1656 AD. It has three great gates, four towers and two 40 m high minarets constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marble. The courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshipers.
Chawri Bazar has an illustrious past. The word ‘Chawri’ derived from a word meaning meeting place. Back in the day it was a good spot if you were in want of a courisan. Nowadays Chawri Bazaar is a very busy market with toiling laborers, crowds of people, a large number of scooters, cars and rickshaws.
Agrasen Ki Baoli is a 60-meter long and 15-meter wide historical step well. It has 103 steps with a series of carved chambers and passages. These stepwells were developed in India, mainly to cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability, the steps making it easier for people to reach the ground water, and to maintain and manage the well. It is considered to be one of the most haunted places of India. It is said that it used to be filled with black water once. Rumor has it that it attracted the depressed hearts towards itself and hypnotized them to jump into the water. Every time when it absorbed someone, the water level raised.
Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is a Sikh Temple. We had to remove our shoes and put a covering cloth over our heads to enter. The Sikh religion is over 500 years old. There are no idols, statues, or religious pictures in a Gurdwara, because Sikhs worship only God, and they regard God as having no physical form. There are also no candles, incense, or bells present. Sikhism believes that everyone is equal and that there is only one God. The term Gurudwara means ‘Doorway to God.’ It is important to walk in a clockwise direction as it is believed that the Lord is always on your right hand side. The waters around the Gurudwara are thought to have sacred or curative properties capable of healing both body and soul.
The Lotus Temple is open to all, regardless of religion. It is a monument dedicated to the unity of God, unity of all religions and unity of humankind.
The temple gives the impression of a half-open lotus flower, afloat, surrounded by its leaves. The Lotus is a symbol of love and purity. It gives the message of immortality. Each component of the temple is repeated nine times. The geometry was so complex that it took two and a half years to complete the plans for the temple. The petals of the Lotus are built with concrete and the exterior is clad with white marble panels.
The Lotus Temple is the first temple in Delhi to use solar power. Since it’s inauguration in December 1986 an average of 10,000 people visit this Bahai Temple each day. The queues to get in were pretty insane.
The Qitub Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world. It along with the historical buildings surrounding it have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a unique blend of Indo-Muslim architecture.
What a perfect blend of old and new. The Hauz Khas complex houses a water tank, an Islamic seminary, a mosque, a tomb and pavilions built around an urbanized village with medieval history traced to the 13th century. It originally formed part of one of the ancient cities of Delhi. It has morphed into a great place to feel the pulse of India’s creative scene. Musicians, designers, travelers, foodies, readers of journals and little books, art and poster-collectors, map makers, social activists and the Delhi LGBT community have set up homes and shops here.
Travelling by train is a quintessential Indian experience. India’s rail network is one of the largest and busiest in the world and Indian Railways is the largest utility employer on earth, with roughly 1.5 million workers. There are around 6900 train stations scattered across the country. The total length of track used by Indian Railways is about 115,000 km.
Our first introduction to Indian train travel was at Old Delhi Railway station. Never ever have I wished more to be teleported to somewhere else. We gave up counting rats, and the final straw was a killer attack from a mob of mosquitoes. Besides the poverty it is just downright filthy and disgusting.
It was from here that we caught our first overnight train. Luckily we had booked all of our tickets ahead of time. So it was just a matter of whiling away our time (if you watch the coming and going of rats for a long enough time, they actually start developing a character of their own. Soon I was imagining myself as part of their cruel little kingdom.) Come to think of it, I was probably just high on train fumes, sweaty bodies and sewerage.
The total slum population in India is around 65 million. More than 70km of rail track in New Delhi is made up of slums. The slum dwellers live in deplorable conditions characterized by diseases, malnutrition, and high infant mortality. It truly was a depressing site.
Don’t think I have ever been this happy to close my eyes and try to absorb everything we had experienced in the last few days. Good bye New Delhi, Hello Shimla!