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The Marathon Plane Trek from DC to Delhi |

Main| Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, and a taste of Indian bureaucracy

Getting to know Old Delhi

We got up to the sound of street traffic around 9:30am. I felt I hadhad a good night’s sleep, but Susanne argued otherwise – apparently Ihad awoken in the night, completely startled and confused, and thenbegan to talk about the FBI in my sleep. She guessed that it hadsomething to do with watching “The Rock” during the flight. I surmisedit was some kind of X-Files thing.

Susanne didn’t have much of an appetite yet, but I insisted ongetting something to nosh on, so we stopped at Nirula’s sweet shop. Igot a “cheese biscuit,” which I soon discovered was a biscuit ofcheese-flavored dough and hot chilis. Not exactly what I was used tofor breakfast. We walked around Connaught Circus to the Indian touristbureau, where a nice Punjabi man gave us suggestions for purchasingtrain tickets to Agra and Varanasi, as well as what reasonable taxifares around Delhi should be. He also confirmed a rumour I had readsomewhere on the Net – the Taj Mahal was closed on Mondays forrenovations. This now meant we’d have to go to Agra on Tuesday with ourbackpacks, store them somewhere, and then catch an overnight train toVaranasi. I wasn’t looking forward to figuring out the logistics forthat.

We left the tourist office and had a couple of delicious masaladosas for brunch at the Kovil restaurant. From Connaught Circus, wehailed an autorickshaw and headed north to Old Delhi to visit thecity’s Jama Masjid (“Friday Mosque”), the enormous 17th century Mosqueof Shah Jehan, the Mughal emperor best known for building the TajMahal. Our timing was quite poor, though – noon prayers had just begun,and the mosque would be closed for the next hour. We decided to hikedown and across the crowded streets of Old Delhi, through the maidan(Delhi’s equivalent of a Central Park) to Lal Qila, the Red Fort. Thefort is an immense red Agra sandstone complex built by Shah Jehan justbefore 1650. It took us 20 minutes just to walk alongside the fort’swestern wall and moat to reach the main entrance. While Susanne stoppedto tie her shoes, we were accosted by two women in saris who pinnedflags of India on our shirts and demanded a donation for their”school.” Just to get them to go away, I handed them two rupees, aboutsix cents, to which they responded by saying “Americans must pay papermoney,” which I ignored as we walked towards the ticket office.

We purchased our passes and entered through the enormous LahoreGate. Inside we walked through a long covered bazaar, the Chatta Chowk,which was packed with touristy gift shops (interestingly enough, theChowk was a bazaar in Shah Jehan’s time as well). At the end of thebazaar we reached a small roundabout which was followed by another redsandstone building, the Naqqar Khana (‘the drum house’). In the Mughalyears, the khana was a musicians’ quarters, who would perform the theemperor five times a day from its second story. Now, though, it was anempty shell.

I was beginning to wonder when this would get interesting, butfinally we found ourselves exiting the structure and entering anelongated grassy courtyard, at the end of which was the Diwan-I-Am, theemperor’s hall of public audiences. In its prime, the Diwan and theNaqqar Khana were connected by an ornate covered hall, but thecenturies had taken their toll and at that was left was the walkway andthe greenery which graced both sides of it. We admired the Mughalarchitecture of the Diwan, a hypostyle hall nine bays wide and threebays deep. The emperor would use the hall as the place where citizensof the empire could come to redress for grievances and settle disputes.The Mughals prided themselves on their sense of justice, so they wouldalways maintain a Diwan-I-Am at each of their palaces. Eventually, wemade our way round to the back of it, where we found acres of grass andgardens, dotted by several white sandstone complexes. The gardens werein the Persian-influenced charbagh style – square grids of grassbisected by marble irrigation channels. It was a peaceful andrelatively quite place to relax, so we lounged in the grass for awhileto take in the scenery. As we sat there, we noticed the echo of afeedback-riddled PA system that was emanating from a large circus tenton the northeast corner of the maidan. The effect of the soundsfloating over the green pastures of the Fort and its gardens was quitesurreal, but yet seemed totally normal for Delhi – a city of so manycontradictions and oddities.

Susanne and I spent about 45 minutes wandering from hall to hall inthe gardens. At the far end of the fort was the Diwan-I-Khas, the hallof private audiences, where Shah Jehan would sit on his legendaryPeacock Throne- that is, until it was hustled away to Tehran byinvading Persians in the 18th century. As its name would suggest, theDiwan-I-Khas was where the emperor would meet privately with hisministers and members of his court. The interior of the Diwan wascovered with complex pietra dura inlaid engravings of bejeweledflowers. And along the edges of the walls read the famous Mughalexclamation:

“If there be a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

A paradise it must have been, but even today it is an insular one,for just behind the Diwan and beyond the moat we could see an enormousopen-air bazaar crowded with thousands of Delhi-wallahs. We could tellfrom our view next to the throne platform that this bazaar wasn’t thetype hoarded by throngs of tourists; instead, it was a true-to-lifesouth Asian flea market where everything from carpets to camels couldbe hocked for the right amount of rupees.

After a brief visit to a dark and dank museum of Mughal art, wepaused for a couple of cokes at a refreshment stand. We relaxed forabout 20 minutes, which was time well spent for people-watching. Thevast majority of visitors going by were Indian tourists, apart from theoccasional westerner, who could easily be spotted with a copy of theLonely Planet guide in hand and that damn paper Indian flag pinned totheir chests (as an aside, I should probably point out here that Susand I had earlier removed our flags, for we concluded they were theequivalent of us wearing badges that announced to Delhi’s many touts,”We are tourists, please take advantage of us.”)

We headed out of the Red Fort and crossed the road to Chandni Chowk,the largest bazaar in Old Delhi. The Chowk ran east-west for about amile, with dozens of tributary bazaars radiating down its manyalleyways. In Shah Jehan’s day, Chandni Chowk was the centralcommercial thoroughfare of Shahjehanabad, the vast capital city hebuilt after abandoning his other great capital, Agra. Today it is stilljust as alive with activity, hopelessly congested with buyers, hawkers,and gawkers, though it appeared that most of the items being sold wereday-to-day things like shoes, mops, even TV sets. Susanne and I hadplanned to work our way west and then southeast back to the JamaMasjid, but first we took a side trip down one of the many alleywaysextending south of the Chowk. The alley was alive with people preparingfor tonight’s Diwali festivities, lighting candles, stringing garlandsof orange carnations onto strings. A woman began to sing and dance as aman drummed a tabla. A crowd soon formed. It seemed like such atimeless moment, reminiscent of the winding alleyways of Cairo’sKhan-al-Khalili or some other eastern market.

As we returned to Chandni Chowk and hung a left towards the road toJama Masjid, I started to develop what I soon realized was a caffeinewithdrawal headache. It became worse with each rickshaw horn blast andwith each cry of the chai-wallahs passing by – a tortuous cacophonythat was devoid of any potential relief. After ten minutes or so ofthis, I noticed that my aches were affecting my concentration, and thatwe were becoming somewhat lost. I felt like we were heading in theright direction, but the distance we needed to travel was much furtherthan I had imagined. Our solution to our dilemma literally ran over myfoot – a bicycle rickshaw. We hopped on board, sitting on a thin rubberpad that clung precariously to the bicycle. As we rode along, I couldtell that my concerns were justified, for the trip to Jama Masjid took15 minutes, even by bike.

At the mosque, we climbed the steps once again and started to walkin when we were reminded to take off our shoes. As fate would have it,by the time we bared our feet, the muezzin called out to announce thebeginning of late afternoon prayers. Once again, we had been beaten bythe tenets of Islam. Before a mullah was able to tell us to leave, wegot a brief look at the immense courtyard inside the mosque, whicheasily held over 25,000 people in prayer. If we had time, we’d tryagain tomorrow.

Now in an autorickshaw, we rode south into New Delhi and intoConnaught Circus. With the passing of each kilometer, we could heremore and more cherry bombs and firecrackers going off as the eveningDiwali celebrations were warming up. Fireworks, candles and otherincendiaries are an intregal part of Diwali, which in Sanskritliterally means ‘a row of lights.’ For Hindus, Diwali commemorates themythical return home of Ramayana hero Rama with his wife, Sita. Ramahad been long exiled in the forest by the trickery of his stepmother,Queen Kaikeyi – these were his wilderness years, or vanvaas. As asubplot during this exile, Sita was kidnapped by Ravana, the evilgod-king of Lanka. After a fantastic battle, Ravana and his troops weredestroyed – it was a pyrrhic victory for Rama. When he returned homewith Sita to take their place as King and Queen of Ayodhya, the streetsof the city were lined with candles and lamps – hence Diwali, a row oflights. Today, Diwali serves as a reminder of the event, as well as thebeginning of the Hindu new year and a celebration of success andprosperity.

Back at the hotel, we decided to nap for a while and then head backout around 7pm to get some dinner. When the time came, our plan was tocross over Connaught Place to the southern side of the circus, wherethere was a string of cheap, yet well-recommended restaurants. Exitingthe hotel, we were greeted with mouthful of sulphur as the smoke ofdozens of firecrackers drifted down the street. Small explosionsoccurred all around us, but we didn’t comprehend the extent of it untilwe reached the center ring of the circus. It was, in all honesty, likea war zone – continuous, indiscriminate concussions exploded in everydirection. Very few fireworks could actually be seen in the sky; onlythe incessant thunder and the billowing clouds of smoke were present.It was like a big-city 4th of July celebration, yet without all thebombs bursting over a centralized point. It was festive anarchy.

All of Delhi, both Hindus and Muslims, were celebrating from therooftops – and that turned out to be a small problem for us. After afull circle around Connaught, we couldn’t find a single openrestaurant. Apart from the occasional small crowd experimenting with a50-foot string of cherry bombs, not a soul was in sights. We did,however, manage to pick up a new friend in the form of a thin black dogthat followed our every step for 20 minutes. It was eventually scaredoff by a poodle that started to bark at me as it was being walked by alarge family.

Having completed the circuit round Connaught, we found ourselvesback at Nirula’s whose four restaurants were open (Nirula’s, it turnsout, is sort of a weird Indian hybrid of Howard Johnson’shotel/restaurant chains, but with better accommodations). The smokycafe of their main restaurant was filled with upper-middle classIndians, enjoying late night beers and dosas. I ate a mixed tandooriplatter, while Susanne attempted to enjoy what had to be the worstFrench onion soup ever made. Her meal was saved with a nice piece ofnaan and some curried dal that had come with my dinner.

As we sat there, eating our dinner and observing the restaurant’sother patrons, we both had simultaneous flashbacks totwo-in-the-morning munchy runs at the local Village Inn or IHOP back inhigh school. Except at this IHOP, the locals munched on samosas and Zenpancakes (regular old pancakes, but made out of lentil flour, I think).The West had arrived with a vengeance in India, and it was beginning togive me heartburn. Time for a couple of Pepto Bismols and a good nightsleep.

Posted by acarvin at November 10, 1996 10:18 PM

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Comments for carvin:you have 2 comments

well
well

21 Jan 2007
me
hi

21 Jan 2007
18 Oct 2011 – start of travelblog

posted Monday April 2007

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