After the Driver who was meant to meet them didn’t show up, Dr. Jamil and Dr. Idries were left stranded at the airport in Delhi. Thinking of their feet, they made some quick moves, jumped into a cab with the world’s most aggressive cab Driver and explored the capital city’s “Old Delhi” neighborhood.
A long hot day of exploring Mumbai made for a restful night’s sleep in our fluffy king size bed at the Mumbai Airport Hilton. And that’s right folks, we said in “our fluffy king size bed” because while our suite at the Hilton was roomy and comfortable, it also only had one bed. And being as dead tired as we both were, neither one of us was too wild about the prospect of sleeping on the couch. And so we did it old school, like we use to do it as children growing up back in the 1980’s. We shared a bed, and best believe folks we slept like little children. And that was a good thing because little did we know that the next day would see us stranded at the airport in Delhi!!!
An 8:15AM scheduled departure from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport meant that we would have an early start to our second full day in India. And so at 5AM, we both arose feeling fairly refreshed and ready to hit the hotel gym for a quick workout. After our workouts we then showered, collected our belongings and hopped into the private car arranged for us by the hotel. After a short 5-10 minute drive over to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport’s terminal number 2, we checked-in for Air India flight 348 and the scheduled Boeing 787-Dreamliner service 740 miles north to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Three minutes ahead of schedule at 8:12AM, Air India 348 pushed off of the gate. 28 minutes later, at 8:40AM, the state-of-the-art Boeing 787 Dreamliner took to the skies of a smog blanketed Mumbai. The 1 hour and 35-minute flight to Delhi passed quickly as we watched Modern Family over a warm continental breakfast. And then at 10:15AM, with our bellies full, we touched down at Indira Ghandi International Airport ready for a day full of adventure.
With only 56 hours to do as much of Delhi as we possibly could, we knew ahead of time that we wouldn’t have a moment to spare after our arrival in the Indian capital. And so long before heading to Delhi, we made arrangements to have both a private car and a tour guide to pick us up at the airport there. Our plan after landing was to then immediately head straight out from the airport and to tour both Old Delhi and New Delhi. Unfortunately, after making our way to the arrivals hall we quickly realized that our best laid plans had been foiled. There was no driver there waiting for us. There was no car there waiting for us. There was no Tour Guide there waiting for us. And as our predicament began to become apparent to us, we thought, “Oh Crap, we’re stranded in Delhi”. For a lot of people this little setback wouldn’t be a real big deal. But for two full time Doctors who literally have to squeeze every second out of every minute out of every hour; for two Travel Bloggers who are always working against the clock to see as much of the world as they can in as little time as they can, this had the potential to be down right devastating.
Hard charging Independent Travelers don’t dilly dally around though. We aren’t punks and we don’t waste time; and so we quickly devised a “Plan B”. Where the Tourist turns right, the Independent Traveler turns left, and so left we turned. Heading out of the airport and to the nearest taxi stand. And in no time, motivated by the desire to maximize every moment, we found ourselves again in a local Indian taxi. And like the other taxis, this one was also sans air conditioning and sans an English speaking driver. But who cared, after all, we were off and headed into Delhi.
Now for those of you that may not be familiar with Indian black and yellow taxis, these taxis have a somewhat dubious reputation. The vehicles are known for being somewhat loosely maintained, and the drivers are said to sometimes be less than knowledgeable about where things are located and how best to reach them. But hell, if we were going to set out on a proper Delhi adventure without our prearranged driver, well then we were going to set out on that adventure in a black and yellow taxi. And so after prepaying our fare, we jumped into the back of a black and yellow Delhi taxi that looked like something straight out of an episode of Mash. The seatbelts in the car were……well, actually there were no seat belts, they were gone. We only realized that the seat belts were gone though after we both simultaneously found ourselves reaching in the general direction of where they should have been. And what prompted us to simultaneously reach for our non-existent seatbelts you might ask? Well, it was our drivers interesting, or shall we say his novel approach to lane usage. Our drivers strategy as it related to lane usage could best be summed up this way. If he saw a lane, he got in that lane; irrespective of whether or not someone else was already in that lane or not. If he didn’t see a lane, he made up his own lane; even if that meant driving on the shoulder or on the sidewalk. If he saw two lanes and he couldn’t decide which of the two lanes he wanted to occupy, he just occupied both of them; motoring right down the center dividing line like he was King Shit of Turd Mountain. But in fairness to his royal highness, the King did get us to our hotel in one piece, and he did make pretty good time in the process. So all hail the King!!!
After bidding our renegade black and yellow taxi driver a fond farewell, we made our way into the Radisson Blu Marina Hotel. The Radisson Blu is located in the capital city’s bustling financial district, and after checking in there, we immediately made arrangements with the hotel’s concierge to have a private tour guide and a private driver meet us at the hotel ASAP. Our plan after they arrived was to at least hit Old Delhi. Old Delhi is, as its name implies, sort of old. Having been founded in the year 1639 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, Old Delhi is in fact really really old. For over 300 years, starting in the early 1500’s, the Mughal dynasty ruled large swaths of what are now modern day Iran, Afghanistan and the Indian Sub-continent. The Mughal reign eventually ended in the mid 1800’s, but during the 300+ years of Mughal rule, there were over 20 Mughal Emperors. Perhaps no Mughal Emperor however was more influential than the great Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan ruled over the Mughal Empire from 1627 to 1658, and during his rule he oversaw what many scholars consider to have been the “Golden Age” of Mughal architecture and culture. Not only was the city of Old Delhi established during Shah Jahan’s reign, but so too were many revered modern day Indian monuments including Old Delhi’s Red Fort, Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid and of course, Agra’s world famous symbol of love lost, the Taj Mahal.
Once established in 1639, Old Delhi immediately became the capital of the Mughal Empire. Old Delhi then remained the capital of the Mughal Empire until the empire itself collapsed in 1862. With the fall of the Mughal Empire and the subsequent establishment of British colonial rule in India, the capital in Old Delhi was moved east to the city of Calcutta. The Indian capital then remained in Calcutta until 1911 when the ruling British government decided to move the country’s seat of government once again to the country’s Northwest. This time however, the British chose to establish the new capital in an area just south of Old Delhi. The new capital that was built was appropriately enough called “New Delhi”, and with the establishment of New Delhi, the former capital to New Delhi’s north officially became known as “Old” Delhi. Today, the modern day capital city of Delhi is comprised of both “Old Delhi” and “New Delhi”.
Where Old Delhi was once an area of great wealth and influence characterized by palatial estates, lush gardens, influential houses of government and eye popping architectural wonders, today much of Old Delhi seems outwardly loud, overcrowded and frankly somewhat dilapidated. But much like gazing upon an aging beauty queen, choosing to view Old Delhi with an overly discerning and judgmental contemporary eye is akin to choosing to view her in a simplistic and sophomoric manner. A manner that will ultimately render her deceptively understated elegance invisible to you. And so when you, the Independent Traveler, walk Old Delhi’s streets, when you spend time with her, commiserating with her past and celebrating her present; when you walk among her people and when you view the celebrated landmarks that once made her the Queen of the Mughal Empire, just remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And you my friend are the beholder. As the great writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
Upon reaching Old Delhi, our first stop was the Jama Masjid. Masjids, also frequently referred to as Mosques, are Muslim houses of worship. Construction on the Jama Masjid began in the year 1644 under the oversight of Emperor Shah Jahan. It is said that 5000 builders worked day and night for 12 years to complete the architectural marvel. Today, the masjid’s vast and inviting public courtyard can accommodate up to 25,000 worshippers, and many people in India consider the Jama Masjid to be the country’s largest Muslim house of worship. Reaching the masjid on foot however can be a bit of a challenge. While the masjid has three entrances that all lead to it’s courtyard, one to it’s east, one to it’s south and one to it’s north; it’s the north entrance that serves as the masjid’s main entry point. To reach Jama Masjid’s northern entrance however, you have to run the gauntlet; making your way through one of Old Delhi’s busiest marketplaces, Chawri Bazar.
Chawri Bazar, a marketplace that covers a number of city blocks, represents nothing short of an absolute crush of humanity. While walking the streets and the sidewalks of the marketplace, you feel like a gladiator in competition. Competing on a battlefield where couriers, merchants, customers, cars, vans and rickshaws are all trying to outdo one and other; in an effort to gain a little piece of highly sought after, yet severely limited space. You then add to this mix of feverishly competing gladiators a few random street people begging here, a few superfluously placed and ornery traffic wardens feverishly writing tickets there and then allow this authentic combustible little Indian dish to gently simmer in Old Delhi’s hot midday sun. And what results is Chawri Bazar, a uniquely Indian experience that is as fast paced as it is loud. A uniquely Indian experience that is as colorful and exhilarating as it is overwhelming and intimidating. What you get is an experience that sucks you in like a vortex, spins you around until you feel a slight bit dizzy and disoriented and then spits you right out of its spin cycle and on to the doorsteps of the Jama Masjid.
The day that we made our way through the Chawri Bazar marketplace was an especially busy one, as it fell just a few days before the annual Indian festival of lights, Dhavali. In preparation for Dhavali, the streets and sidewalks of the marketplace were packed with people in search of fireworks and other legal (and probably not so legal) pyrotechnics to be detonated in the coming days. The streets in fact were so packed with people and vehicles that we quickly elected to abandon our plans of tackling the marketplace on foot. Instead we hopped in a bicycle powered rickshaw. Our hope was that the rickshaw driver would be able to get us through the mayhem of the marketplace a little bit more efficiently. And get us through the mayhem more efficiently he did, but not without a few hair raising and sphincter tightening moments. As our rickshaw driver bobbed and weaved in and out of traffic, cutting off cars, trucks, buses and even his fellow rickshaw drivers; we found ourselves amazed by the precision with which he maneuvered his vehicle. At times, he moved from the streets to the sidewalks, offering nothing more than an “eh eh eh” as a verbal warning before passing people on their right and on their left. Even couriers, many of whom were balancing large packages and bundles on either their heads or their shoulders were not immune to our driver’s mission focused aggression. He cut quite a few of them off as well, only sometimes offering a courtesy “eh eh eh” as he listlessly shoed them away like insignificant flies. To their collective credit however, we must say that we never saw one of these couriers drop their loads, nor did we see any of them so much as give our driver even a dirty look. Likely these guys are use to aggressive rickshaw drivers making their difficult tasks that much more difficult; or maybe it was just that their loads were far too heavy for them to actually lift their heads up enough to give our driver the dirty looks that he most richly deserved. Maybe instead, with their heads bowed in forced deference, they said something under their breath, in their Indian dialect of choice of course, to the effect of “eh eh eh…moth*rfu#k, if I didn’t have 100 pounds of sh*t on my head I’d take that rickshaw and stick it right up you’re a@s”. We may never know in reality why they never lifted their heads though, but it sure is fun to speculate. What we do know however is that in no time, our little hellion on bald bicycle tires had delivered us to the steps of the Jama Masjid’s northern gate safe, sound and in one piece. To read another writers interesting take on Chawri Bazar double back here after finishing our blog.
Upon entering the grounds of the Jama Masjid, we encountered fairly tight security that has been in place there since terrorists attacked a group of Taiwanese tourist visiting the site a few years ago. After clearing security, we climbed a large set of stairs that brought us to the northern entrance. There, as is customary at most Masjids, we were asked to remove our shoes before entering prayer areas where people knell, bow and place their foreheads on the ground. Additionally, since we were wearing shorts, we were each given a piece of cloth to wrap around our exposed legs. We were then required to pay an entry fee of 50 Rupees “per camera” or “picture taking device” (smart phones included) that we would be bringing into the masjid. That’s right, we had to pay an entry fee for each of our picture taking devices but not an entry fee for ourselves. Once our fees had been paid, we entered the masjid’s courtyard. The first thing that we noticed after entering the courtyard was how absolutely vast the space was. In the center of the courtyard we found a recessed white marble water reservoir that worshippers used to perform a customary cleansing of the body before going into the masjid’s house of worship to pray. Most striking about the house of worship itself was it’s central dome, a dome that is then flanked on each side by two smaller domes called minarets. In earlier times, before the advent of microphones and sound amplifying technology, men would climb to the top of the masjid’s minarets and sing out the call to prayer. People hearing the call to prayer would then make their way to the Jama Masjid for the prayer service.
The inside of the Jama Masjid’s house of worship features red stone walls and a large red stone dome that is complimented by an ornate crystal chandelier. The floors of the sanctuary are made of an ultra-smooth white and black marble. The marble is etched with patterns that makes it look as though a series of traditional Muslim prayer mats are resting on the floor. While the open spaces of the sanctuary feature a number of rounded colonnades, towering pillars and ornate archways. Visitors to the Jama Masjid are actually allowed to enter the active house of worship, where they share the space with local worshippers. This provides visitors with a unique opportunity to visit a living, breathing and still very functional piece of history.
While a visit to the Jama Masjid is certainly worth navigating the Chawri Bazar marketplace for, beware friends, as some rift raft that tends to amass outside of the masjid will almost certainly try to ransom you your shoes as you leave the facility. Our experience with the unholy finaglers of the footwear occurred as we exited the Jama Masjid’s northern gate. After collecting our shoes (which we left sitting outside of the courtyard, as is of course customary at any masjid), a man approached us with his hands extended and his cracked sun damaged face curled up into an aggressive scowl. He then motioned towards our feet, said something in a hushed but still very unfriendly tone, before then continuing to follow us as we made our way to the stairs of the northern gate. We suspected that he was trying to collect “a fee” for “guarding our shoes” while we were in the masjid, even though we were not told that anyone would be “guarding” our shoes during our visit. And being quite certain of the fact that had we come out of the masjid and found that our shoes were gone; something that we were actually quite nervous about when leaving our shoes outside, that he would not have replaced them or so much as accepted any responsibility for them, we did not want to pay the unofficial “shoe guard” a single rupee in ransom. However, sensing our building frustration with the developing shoe shake down, our guide tried to defuse the situation by appealing to our sense of charity and saying that “this is how these people make their money, they guard visitors’ shoes”. Now, not wanting to come off like the stereotypical boorish, aloof and arrogant Westerners, we just capitulated with the shakedown and paid our ransoms like good boys. But the shoe shakedown did leave a sour taste in our mouths. And unfortunately, we found that that was a taste that visitors to India, especially visitors to the north of the country, should become accustom to when visiting many of the country’s more popular tourist sites.
Red Fort of Old Delhi
After leaving the Jama Masjid and reentering the Chawri Bazar marketplace, we again encountered a large and steadily growing crowd of people, all of whom were still engaged in a feverish and pitched battle for space. Our next stop was Old Delhi’s Red Fort, and to get there we commandeered the services of a “tuk tuk”. Motorized rickshaws, or “tuk tuks” as the locals call them, are powered by little compression engines that make a repetitive “tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk” sound that increases and decreases in frequency when their accelerators are engaged and disengaged. Thankfully because of the Red Fort’s proximity to the Jama Masjid and because “tuk tuks” seem to possess a little bit more street cred than do the bicycle powered rickshaws, we were able to travel the 0.6 miles that separate the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort in just under 10 minutes.
Old Delhi’s Red Fort is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are places that include buildings, cities, geological locations, monuments, etc. that are deemed by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization to be of particular cultural, historical or physical significance. When the Red Fort was constructed in 1648, it built to serve as both the location of Emperor Shah Jahan’s palace as well as the location of the Mughal Empire’s seat of government. The Red Fort is so named because of the large red sandstone walls, towers and bastions that surround the 254 acre fortified complex. When standing outside of the Red Fort, the complex looks just as massive as you would expect a 254 acre fortified structure to look. We got our first gander of the Red Fort after our tuk-tuk successfully negotiated the Chawri Bazar and dropped us off at the fort’s Lahori Gate. The Lahori Gate is located along the fort’s western wall, and it functions as the complexes main point of entry. In addition to the Lahori Gate, the Red Fort also has the Delhi Gate and the Water Gate. The Delhi Gate and the Water Gate are located along the fort’s southern and southeastern walls respectively.
Reaching the Lahori Gate, the crowds outside of the fort were far smaller than we had expected that they would be. And as we advanced towards the gate, a number of self-proclaimed “local” tour guides began approaching us. Each, in varying degrees of broken English, offered to usher us around the fort complex; while sharing their knowledge about the fort, it’s history and some of it’s more celebrated structures with us. Having already enlisted and paid for a tour guide whose job it was to chaperone us around Old Delhi however, we graciously declined the “local” guides offers. After declining these offers however, our primary guide for the day informed us that guided tours conducted “inside” of the Red Fort’s walls are typically only done so by “local” guides who are “approved” to conduct “Red Fort Tours”. Sensing that the tactic of passing off tourists from one “specialized local” tour guide to another might be nothing more than a way for the area’s tour guides to spread the wealth, and still smarting from the great shoe ransoming of the Jama Masjid, we elected to pass on enlisting a “local” guide. Instead, we decided that we would just explore the Red Fort ourselves.
Once beyond the hub bub of the Lahori Gate, the first thing that we encountered was the Chhatta Chowk. The Chhatta Chowk is a marketplace that is set up in the long arched passageway that leads from the Lahori Gate to the Red Fort’s main courtyard. Merchants of the Chhatta Chowk, which translated into English literally means “the covered bazaar”, sell a wide variety of items including pottery, arts and crafts, jewelry, purses and a variety of other Knick knacks. Our first impression of the Chhatta Chowk was that it represented a frustratingly contemporary exploitation of the Red Fort’s rich cultural heritage. The sight of what we initially thought was just another common marketplace located immediately beyond the gates of this UNESCO World Heritage Site just struck us as being a slightly tone deaf nod to a vapid and hackneyed consumerism that conspired to compete with, rather than to compliment, the rich historical texture of the World Heritage Site. However, like was pointed out earlier, we chose not to retain a “local” Red Fort Tour Guide for our independent foray into the Red Fort complex, and so our initial impressions of the Chhatta Chowk were unfortunately formed without a proper context.
As it turns out, rather than the Chhatta Chowk being an exploitative, vapid and hackneyed nod to consumerism gone awry; the covered bazaar is instead a fitting tribute to the Red Fort’s rich history. That is because the long arched passageway that houses the Chhatta Chowk bazaar actually has a history that dates back to the 17th century. In fact, it was during the height of the Mughal Empire’s power and influence in the 17th century that the marketplace that now lies between the Lahori Gate and the main courtyard of the Red Fort was then referred to as “Bazaar-i-Musaqaf”. During that time, the Bazaar-i-Musaqaf market was a very exclusive place where merchants, catering to the imperial households of the empire’s elite, sold high end items like gold and other precious metals, silk goods and velvet. And so the Chhatta Chowk of today, much like the Bazaar-i-Musaqaf of yesteryear, honors the Red Fort’s rich cultural heritage in a very authentic and time honored way.
Once out of the Chhatta Chowk and onto the courtyard of the Red Fort, the sheer enormity of the complex can really be appreciated for the first time. As we looked to our right and to our left, to our front and to our back, a stunning array of Redstone, Whitestone and marble buildings could be seen in every direction. Many with broad sweeping arches, chiseled colonnades, rounded domes and recessed balconies.
As we walked the courtyard, the first building that we came upon was the Redstone “Naubat Khana” building. The Naubat Khana building, also referred to as the Drum House, serves as the focal point of the entire courtyard space. During the height of the Mughal Empire, musicians capable of playing a variety of instruments were stationed in the Drum House. Their duties included playing music to herald the arrival of visiting dignitaries and royalty. They also simply played music just to entertain the Emperor and his companions. In fact, they were charged with playing music 5 times a day, every day, at times that were designated by the Emperor. Today, the Drum House, while still an awesome sight to behold, is in a slight state of disrepair. Nevertheless, the building still cuts a very striking figure. The back of the Redstone edifice is, as one would expect, the color red. However, the front and the sides of the Redstone structure have all been painted white, with just a thin stone border and a few of the window frames retaining their original red coloring. The contrast created between the natural red surfaces and the artificial white surfaces together creates an interesting interplay that looks almost art deco in it’s styling.
The outside walls of the Drum House sport floral carvings, recessed balconies and broad sweeping arches, while the inside of the Drum House features large rooms that have diamond shaped domes that are adorned with kaleidoscopic floral patterns. On portions of the first and second floors of the Drum House, visitors will find the Indian War Memorial Museum. Unfortunately, because of our early morning airport pick-up faux-pas, visiting the war museum proved to be time prohibitive for us.
After leaving the Drum House and leisurely walking the pathways of the Red Fort’s courtyard, we couldn’t help but to feel like we were somehow far far removed from all of the noise and activity that we knew continued just on the other side of the fort’s walls. This sensation of separation and virtual sensory deprivation created a calming effect that made “The Great Jama Masjid Shoe Ransom” of only 20 minutes earlier feel like nothing more than a distant, mildly amusing memory. And as we walked the grounds of the historic fort humorously recalling the ransoming, we next happened upon the “Diwan-i-Am”, or the Hall of Public Audiences. The Hall of Public Audiences was where Mughal Emperors, including the Great Shah Jahan, were able to meet with members of the general public. During these meetings, common citizens were allowed to air any grievances of a civic or governmental nature that they might have.
Entering the Hall of Public Audiences, it looked impressive both in terms of its size and its design. The hall features towering rows of parallel pillars that look almost like ornate candelabras. These pillars are connected to one and other by a series of beautifully grooved, semicircular arches; and when viewed from afar, the rows of parallel pillars and arches create a labyrinthine appearance that seems to gently flow and cascade like waves on the water. Standing tall and strong, the pillars and arches convey a real sense of regal power, authority and influence. The beauty of these pillars is second however to the white marble Emperor’s throne that is housed in the hall. The throne, which is located along the back wall of the hall, includes four byzantine pillars that together support a finely designed, elaborately adorned and smoothly rounded marble canopy. The throne in fact is so striking and unique in its beauty, that it is also referred to sometimes as the Peacock Throne. Of all of the impressive structures that we would encounter while in India, this throne may have been the single most beautiful one to us.
After leaving the Hall of Pubic Audiences we next made our way over to the Hall of Private Audiences. It was at the Hall of Private Audiences that the Mughal Emperors would meet with visiting dignitaries, royalty and other celebrated heads of state. In some ways oddly enough, we found the Hall of Private Audiences to be less visually impressive than the Hall of Public Audiences. While the Hall of Private Audiences was built using a fine white marble and the Hall of Public Audiences was built predominantly using a simple Redstone; the Hall of Private Audiences lacked the massively flowing labyrinthine quality that we felt made the Hall of Public Audiences look and feel so unique. That being said, the decorative marble inlay featured throughout the Hall of Private Audiences was undeniably beautiful, but it just wasn’t that unique. Similar inlay can be found among many of India’s more celebrated historical sites.
Before leaving the Red Fort, we made the “Rang Mahal” or the Palace of Color, our final stop. We arrived to find that the Palace of Color, which ironically enough was not all that colorful, had basically been reduced to a shell of its former self. During the height of the Mughal Empire however, The Palace of Color was an immaculate building that housed concubines of the Imperial Haram. During that time, the domicile’s marble walls were embellished with colorful paints and designs, leading to the name The Palace of Color. In it’s hey day, The Palace of Color also featured a shallow man-made canal that had been built into it’s floor. The waters running through this canal were coined “The Stream of Paradise”. While the present-day Palace of Color fails to live up to its picturesque moniker, the time that we spent there was still time well spent. Thinking of The Palace of Color leads us to again consider the words of the great Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said, “though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not”. So while some of the buildings and structures housed behind the walls of the Red Fort are closed and while others are in various states of disrepair, it is still a VERY cool thing to walk the grounds of this UNESCO World Heritage Site at your leisure. The history is rich, the architecture is stunningly beautiful and elegant, and the realization that you are walking where Emperors once walked and ruled from is both humbling and inspiring.
Leaving the Red Fort, we walked quickly back through the Chatta Chowk covered bazaar before passing through the Lahori Gate. Once through the Lahori Gate and back out onto the crowded streets of Old Delhi, we scanned the sea of people moving around us as we looked for our tour guide and our driver. Eventually we located them, both with their backs leaning against the car, both with their arms crossed about their abdomens and both with their heads hanging down towards their chests. As we neared them, we could see that the driver seemed to be daydreaming as he fidgeted aimlessly with his belt buckle and his right trouser leg crease. Our guide on the other hand seemed to be typing away feverishly on his mobile phone. As we moved even closer towards them, in something that looked like a strangely choreographed scene right out of a 1960’s B-rate horror movie; or maybe something from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, they both lifted their heads up simultaneously and gazed in our general direction. And then, as they both recognized that the two guys that they had been patiently waiting for were only mere steps away from them, they quickly straighten up their posture. The driver then moved towards the back passenger side door and opened it for us while acknowledging our return with a slight nod of his head and a smile. As we each bent down to get into the back seat of the car, the driver placed his free hand just above our heads and remind us to take care not to bump them as we negotiated the door frame. Once back in the car, we were both thankful to discover that our guide had placed two chilled bottles of water on the back seats for us. Well we reasoned, if he couldn’t take us around the fort, then at least it was nice of him to have cold water waiting for us. Feeling quite thirsty, we quickly drank the water and settled in for the short ride to our next and final stop of the day.
Raj Ghat (Gandhi Memorial)
After a quick 5 minute ride, we arrived at the Raj Ghat. The Raj Ghat, which translated into English means the “Kings Gate”, is a memorial commemorating India’s “National Father”, Mahatma Gandhi. The memorial was built at the site where Gandhi’s body was cremated after his 1948 assassination. The memorial features a simple large square black granite stone that is adorned with colorful fresh flowers that are arranged in symmetrical patterns. We found that these patterns, created using red, orange and white flowers, added a degree of visual complexity to the memorial that stood in contrast to the simplicity of the large black granite stone that they cover. At the head of the centerpiece black granite stone sits a perpetually burning eternal flame. This flame has remained alight since the day of Gandhi’s cremation; and it is shielded from the elements by a rectangular lantern. Directly opposite the eternal flame, sitting at the foot of the black granite stone, is a pedestal that is also adorned with colorfully arranged flowers. In the center of this pedestal’s floral arrangement sits a brass container that holds burning sticks of incense. Just above the pedestal, on the front of the black granite stone in raised brass lettering is the phrase “Hey Ram” or “Oh God”, the last words spoken by Mahatma Gandhi immediately before he died.
The black granite Raj Ghat memorial is nestled within a large bucolic green space that is located along the banks of Delhi’s Yamuna River. The lawns of the memorial’s green space, which are meticulously maintained, are dotted with a number Ficus trees in various states of maturity. Many of these Ficus trees were planted by visiting dignitaries and heads of state. Leaders including U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitman and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh have all planted Ficus trees on the grounds of the Raj Ghat to honor the memory of Gandhi. Unlike the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort, the Raj Ghat was the only location that we visited in Old Delhi where we were far out-numbered by locals, many of whom consider a visit to the Raj Ghat to be something akin to making a pilgrimage.
After leaving the Raj Ghat, we returned to the Radisson Blu Hotel for the evening. Our plan was to have an early night. After all, our second full day in India had been a busy one. It started out with an early morning flight from Mumbai to Delhi aboard the celebrated Boeing 787-Dreamliner. It then continued with us being rather unceremoniously abandoned at Indira Gandhi International Airport before we finally made our own way into the city with the help of a Taxi Driver that we affectionately referred to as “King Shit of Turd Mountain”. Slowly getting back on track, the day then saw us make arrangements with the help of the hotel’s concierge to still tour historic Old Delhi. And while in historic Old Delhi, the day saw us survive a few hair raising Rickshaw and TukTuk rides while also overcoming the “Great Jama Masjid Shoe Ransoming”. Perhaps most importantly however, the day saw us living out our passion as we used the time afforded us to live for a living rather than to work for a living. The day saw us tour a celebrated UNESCO World Heritage Site, walk among the grounds of India’s oldest Muslim house of worship, navigate the hustle and bustle of the one and only Chawri Bazar and mingle among the Indian pilgrims of the Raj Ghat.
Night Market of Connaught Place
Yeah, our second full day in India was a FULL day indeed, and as we reflected upon it over dinner at one of the Radisson Blu’s two restaurants, we found ourselves feeling less and less tired and increasingly more ready for round two!!! And so after dinner, we washed our faces, changed our socks and shoes and then hit the streets of Delhi once more. Stepping out of the hotel shortly after nightfall, faces cleaned, tummies full and socks dry, we felt refreshed and ready to go at least another 12 rounds. So, as we left the hotel, we began to walk the streets of the capital’s financial district in an area known as Connaught Place. There we found a number of local night markets that were in full swing. By and large though, we didn’t find too much at these night markets that we felt was worth the aggravation of dragging back home with us to Chicago, and so we didn’t make any purchases while at the markets. That really didn’t matter though. Just taking some time to be among the people, in their environment, was satisfying enough for the both of us.
The Delhi night markets of Connaught Place featured uniquely Indian sights, sounds and smells. The types of sights, sounds and smells that remind you that you are far far away from home. The streets surrounding the markets were packed with families, lovers and single individuals alike, some of whom were buying things, but most of whom were just meandering about; eating food from local street vendors, drinking sodas and teas and seemingly just enjoying the thin, cool night air.
After bouncing around the streets of Connaught Place for a while, the two tall black guys from Chicago caught the eye of Jamal, a Tuk-Tuk driver who knows a tourist when he sees a tourist. And like some soothsayer, or like some modern-day Indian Prophet masquerading as a inconspicuous Tuk-Tuk driver, Jamal seemed to sense that we were not too impressed with the merchandise on offer along Connaught Place. And so as he sidled up to us, with his cellphone in one hand and a pair of Tuk-Tuk keys in the other hand, he quietly said “hey my friends, I can take you guys somewhere where you can find the really good shopping deals”. Well, having just yesterday been scammed into buying India’s most expensive bag of rice and container of condensed milk while in Mumbai, and after having had our shoes ransomed back to us earlier in the day at the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, let’s just say that we were a little bit wary of any more shenanigans. But at the same time, we wanted to see, smell and taste as much of India as we possibly could; and The Prophet of Connaught Place presented us with an opportunity to go on an unplanned little adventure through Delhi’s backstreets. And one thing every Independent Travelers know is, it’s not so much the destination one is travelling to as it is the journey getting to that destination that provides the real opportunity for adventure. So “what in the hell” we figured, let’s see where this journey takes us. Casting any mistrust aside, and figuring that together the demure Tuk-Tuk driver presented very little threat to us, we hopped into the back of Jamal’s magic little motorized mystery machine. Next stop? Who knew?
One of the major themes of our time in India was that we found most people to be very friendly, very open and very curious about who the two black twins were and where they had come from? Jamal of course was no exception. And so as we sat in the back of his Tuk Tuk, bobbing in and out of traffic, we each talked a little bit about ourselves and about our families. The wives of course came up during these conversations, they seemingly always do don’t they? Some truths about the wives were spoken. Some jokes about the wives were shared and some laughs about them were had by all. We will just leave it at that. But most of our time in Jamal’s Tuk-Tuk was really spent talking about our children. Jamal shared that he was the proud Father of two young daughters. Between the three of us riding around in that magical mystery little Tuk Tuk we had a total of 10 children. And as we talked about our children, we all couldn’t help but to laugh when recounting some of the silly things that they so often say and do. And at that moment together in that Tuk Tuk, we were all just Husbands and Fathers. We were all just men without assigned nationalities, men without religions and men without even a hint of geopolitical leanings or bias’. We were just men being men and human-beings simply being human-beings. So in hindsight, that ride really was a magical mystery little Tuk Tuk ride of sorts. But alas, the good times and even magical mystery Tuk Tuk rides must come to an end.
And then it happened. Anyone who has ever travelled as part of an organized tour group or with a private tour guide no doubt remembers that part of their tour when IT happens. The “IT” that we refer to involves your guide taking you to an “authentic, government certified (you fill in the local product name here) shop”. In reality, the authentic government certified shops are just authentically over-priced private businesses, and the guides that bring you to them are just hoping to get an authentic cut of the proceeds from whatever authentic goods you may buy. In South Korea, it was an authentic government certified Ginseng shop that we encountered. In Egypt, it was an authentic government certified papyrus shop. In China, it was an authentic government certified silk shop. Oh, and in Morocco, it was an authentic government certified rug shop. And not just any authentic government certified rug shop. Oh no, it was an authentic government certified rug shop that had sold “top quality Moroccan rugs” to none other than the likes of Kobe Bryant and the late great litigator Johnny Cochran. “If your story doesn’t fit Mr. Moroccan Salesman then you need to quit” we thought when he told us of these supposed celebrity clients of his rug shop. But instead, not wanting to offended our guides or the shop keepers that they had served us up to, we just nodded our heads and said “wow, now that’s authentic”!!!
This particular night however, Jamal, our intuitive little soothsayer, our Tuk-Tuk driving Prophet of Connaught Place, had brought us to Cottage Industries. Cottage Industries is a name that as it turned out we would see again and again during the coming days in Delhi and in Agra. This particular Cottage Industries store, one of the chains many locations in India, didn’t specialize in any one specific thing. Instead, this store specialized it seemed in all things “authentic” and “Indian”. From clothes, to scarfs, to rugs, to sculptures, to paintings, to jewelry. If it was authentic, and if it was Indian, and of course only if it was “government certified”, then it available at this Cottage Industries location. “Damn” we thought, as we milled about the multistory shop with salesmen doubling as our “authentic Indian shadows’, following us at every turn, “Jamal served us up to the vultures”!!! Now don’t get us wrong, we really do believe that we made a true connection with Jamal in the back of his magical mystery Tuk Tuk. But we also realize that people are people, no matter where you go and no matter what you do; and that business is unfortunately business. And we recognized that Jamal the human-being connected with us as fellow human-beings in large part because he, like us, was a proud Father and a proud Husband. And we also recognized that Husbands and Fathers providing for families needed a rupee or two. So Jamal if you’re reading this, we aren’t mad at you brother.
After making good our escape from Cottage Industries, we asked Jamal to take us to some “authentic” Indian shops. We told him that we wanted to go shopping where the locals went shopping and not to another one of the “government certified” shops that seemed to be around every corner. And we’ll be damned if Jamal didn’t take us around every one of those both proverbial and literal corners and into one “government certified” tourist trap after another. After leaving the second of these tourist traps we again told him to take us to a “real authentic Indian store”, to a place where “the locals would shop”. So where did he then take us? Why to another “government certified” tourist trap of course. Once done at this fine establishment we then asked him again to take us to a “real authentic Indian store” where “the locals would shop” one more time. And where did he then take us again? You guessed it, to another “government certified” tourist trap. Sensing a trend, and realizing that with Jamal at the wheel we were going to probably visit every “government certified” tourist trap this side of Delhi, we finally told Jamal that we would just do some walking around the district by ourselves and then meet back with him in 30-minutes or so. We then set out in search of the “real” Indian establishments where “the locals would shop”, but found none. It seemed that Jamal had taken us to a section of town with shops that target tourists whose rupees might be burning holes in their pockets. Somewhat defeated, we met back with Jamal 30 minutes later, hopped back into his not-so-magical mystery Tuk Tuk and headed for home. Once back at the Radisson Blu we paid him 20 rupees, shook his hand and headed in to get a good night’s rest.