Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, yet endlessly captivating

New Delhi Travel Blog

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Delhi family

By any measure Delhi is an assault on the senses. The sound of car horns and auto-rickshaw bells fill the air; these vehicles weave endlessly in a manic dance; people ebb and flow between and all around them. The air is at times fragrant with the smells of spices; at other times choking with fumes. The heat beats down …

After a long overnight flight from London it really seemed as if we had landed on a different planet, not just a different continent. And I loved it! The energy, the colours, the constant buzz. And when we returned to Delhi at the end of our trip, and to the same hotel, it almost felt like coming home.

Delhi is India’s capital, its second largest city (by population) and had a rich history.

Jama Masjid
At its heart is Old Delhi, founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and known originally as Shahjahanabad – the last of seven ancient cities in this immediate area. These include Qila Rai Pithora (the first to be recorded, in the 10thcentury AD), and Mehrauli, built by the first Muslim sultan, Qutubuddin, in the early part of the 13thcentury, whose Qutb Minar still stands and was one of the highlights of our brief visit.

Although we only had a day in which to see something of Delhi we managed to pack in a fair amount, thanks in part to our excellent guide Rajesh and star driver Mehar.

We started our explorations at the massive Jama Masjid mosque. This is one of the largest (some sources, and our guide, say the largest) mosques in India.

Steps to the Jama Masjid
It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (most famous for another building, the Taj Mahal) between 1644 and 1656. It is said to have taken 5,000 workers and cost a million rupees to build, which must have been a huge sum in those days. It is certainly on an impressively grand scale. The huge courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. Its surrounding walls are pierced by three great gates (most visitors enter through the north gate) and on the west side is the main mosque structure, built of red sandstone and white marble, with three white marble domes and two 40 metre high minarets. 

This is a wonderful spot for photography, as is so much of Delhi, so it’s worth paying the camera fee required for this. We were advised not to photograph Muslim women but told that otherwise no one would mind, and in fact that seemed to extend to some of the women too.

In Chandni Chowk
Bowls are set out to feed the many pigeons, and the seed they spill is carefully swept up. Locals and tourists mill around and it could be any city square, until you approach the prayer hall where a more respectful and devout atmosphere prevails. Even here though, a man sitting reading the Koran in one corner saw my camera and beckoned me over with a “welcome to take photos” gesture.

 The mosque lies in Old Delhi, surrounded by the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk market. The name Chandni Chowk is used for a specific street in Old Delhi, but also for the maze of alleys that surround it. This is the market place for Old Delhi, dating back to the 17th century when it was, so it is said, designed by the daughter of Shah Jahan with a canal (long since covered over) running the length of the street which reflected the moonlight.

In Chandni Chowk
But if the mention of moonlight suggests peace and tranquillity, think again. Today’s Chandni Chowk is a complete assault on the senses – narrow lanes strung with electric cables, a cacophony of sound from horns (as everywhere in Delhi), a riot of colour, the scents of perfumes and spices in the air. On the pavements are people washing, cooking, cutting hair. Each narrow alleyway is lined with small shops specialising in certain goods - wedding saris in one, fruit and vegetables in another. Nai Sarak specialises in text books and calendars, Chawri in paper and stationery and Dariba Kalan in jewellery.

We took a cycle rickshaw ride which is possibly the best way to see the madness close-up but without being totally sucked into it. Our driver pointed out some of the more interesting goods on sale, a small Jain temple tucked in an alleyway, even at one point monkeys (macaques) on a roof above us.

Presidential Palace
Make sure you hold on to your possessions as you ride, and keep arms and hands inside the frame of the rickshaw - it's a bumpy ride and your driver will squeeze through the narrowest of spaces. Despite the bumps however, and the need to hang on, I did manage to shoot a few snippets of video that I hope give just a little flavour of the experience.

From Old Delhi we drove to the Presidential Palace, where we stopped briefly to admire the architecture and the views (very hazy) all the way down the Rajpath (the King’s Way) to the India Gate two kilometres away. The palace is the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose original plans were for a classically European building (he had little respect for the local architectural traditions which he once dismissed as “Moghul tosh”).

Presidential Palace detail
Fortunately he was over-ruled and added features such as Rajasthani-inspired sandstone window grilles (known as jaalis), statues of elephants and cobras. He also lost an argument about the placing of the Palace, which he had intended to sit at the edge of Raisina Hill, and had to move it back to accommodate the buildings that now flank it on either side. This means it is not visible from the foot of the hill – something he considered a fault but which I felt gave the building an interesting element of surprise as you crest the hill and see the scale of the complex of buildings that greet you.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the museum inside the palace, this made an interesting photo stop, and came with a bonus.

India Gate
Although Chris has never owned or ridden a motorbike himself, his father was great biker and Chris has inherited something of his affection for the great makes such as BSA and Royal Enfield – the latter being originally a British company but made in India since the 1950s and exclusively there since 1971. He was very happy when the owner of a classic Royal Enfield bike, parked in front of the Presidential Palace, let him pose with it for some photos.

After a brief photo stop at the India Gate, we drove to Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, which serves as a permanent memorial to him. A black marble plinth marks the actual spot of the cremation, at one end of which burns an eternal flame.

Raj Ghat
It is set in peaceful gardens with paths that allow visitors to walk past and pay their respects, although when we were there the peace was somewhat disrupted by the several groups of boisterous schoolchildren visiting the site. Several other memorials to prominent figures are located nearby, including former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but we only visited this one.

We were somewhat surprised to learn from our guide that Gandhi is not so much respected among Indians these days. Many feel that his policy of non-violence was too restrained and they admire more active revolutionaries such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. But from what I observed, many more Indians than foreigners seemed to be visiting this shrine and doing so with great respect, so it seems opinion may be divided on this, as on so many political matters.

Humayun's Tomb

Our next stop was at one of the highlights of the tour for me, Humayun's Tomb, considered the first great example of Mughal architecture in India, the first garden tomb, and the first building to use red sandstone on such a scale. Commissioned by Humayun’s first wife, Hamida Begum, fourteen years after his death in 1556, a hundred years later it would inspire the design of the best-known of such tombs, the Taj Mahal itself. Architecturally it forms a bridge between the mausoleum of the Mughals’ ancestor Timur in Samarkand, the Gur Emir and the Taj Mahal. Unsurprisingly it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993).

It stands on a massive platform about seven metres high, dominating its surroundings. It is built from red sandstone, with white marble decoration and a white marble dome.

At Humayun's Tomb
It is 47 metres high and 91 metres wide. Like the garden which surrounds it, it was inspired by Persian architecture and is an early classic of the Mughal style which blends the Islamic elements of the homelands of the foreign dynasties that ruled India from the 12thcentury with local features, mainly originating from the Rajasthan region. Thus Islamic arches are in-filled with carved sandstone lattices or jaalis, and the Persian-influenced main dome surrounded by small chuttris – the elevated domed pavilions seen on so many Hindu and Mughal buildings and as free-standing structures in cenotaphs at cremation sites.

But possibly my favourite of the sights we visited in Delhi was the Qutb Minar, perhaps because we arrived here in the late afternoon when the sun was at the perfect height for photography, making the stones glow and picking out all the details of the carvings.

Qutb Minar

This is the tallest brick minaret in the world, at 73 metres, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993). It is five storeys high, and tapers from a 15 m diameter at the base to just 2.5 m at the top. The first three storeys are constructed with red sandstone bricks while the top two also incorporate some white marble. The different styles reflect the fact that it was built over a period of time. It was started by the first Muslim ruler of India, Qutab-ud-din Aibak, in 1200 AD, but he only managed to complete the bottom level. His son-in-law who succeeded him, Iltutmush, added three more storeys in 1220, but the topmost of these was destroyed by lightening in 1369, so the then-ruler Firoz Shah Tughlak replaced this with two new ones in red sandstone and white marble.

The minaret is surrounded by a number of other buildings, all partially ruined, most notably the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the first mosque to be built in India in 1192.

Qutb Minar - mosque pillars
It was built by reusing stones from Hindu temples so you will see many defaced carvings of faces and animals, because of the Muslim prohibition on portraying living things.

This was the first place on our trip when we encountered what was to become a regular occurrence - local people (in this case a group of young tourists) asking us to pose for photos with them. We were always happy to oblige on these occasions, and sometimes, as here, made sure we got a photo too. It seems likely that there are now photos of us all over Rajasthan and elsewhere in India!

Delhi was our first stop of a tour spent mostly in Rajasthan, and our first chance to observe daily life which, even in this bustling metropolis, is lived much more on the street than we are used to in the UK. Partly this is a factor of the climate, and partly one of culture.

At Raj Ghat
On the whole, it seems that Indian people don't have the reservations and need for privacy that we Brits are famed for. Everywhere we went, we found that people were quite open in showing their curiosity about us, which made it easier for us to do the same in return. Here, as everywhere, I enjoyed taking lots of candid street photos as well as others for which people were happy to pose.

Traffic in Delhi

As we were driven around the city by our fantastic driver Mehar I was continually fascinated to watch all the activity and the skill of those who, for the most part, avoided what seemed to me to be inevitable accidents. There are few rules, and those that exist are ignored. It is definitely a case of "every man for himself" - and yes, the vast majority of drivers are men.

Rickshaw driver
At every junction or roundabout the vehicle that goes first is not the one with the right of way (an alien concept here it seems) but the one with the most confident or aggressive driver. To misquote another proverb, he who hesitates may not be lost, but he will definitely still be sitting at that junction at nightfall. Signs do exhort drivers to be more courteous and careful – giving way to pedestrians and “no honking”! But these are ignored, and as everyone knows this and is playing by the same “rules” it seems not to cause anything but fairly minor scrapes and bumps.

But of course all this traffic results in many problems for the city. The roads are so congested that to get anywhere takes ages. And worse, the pollution is terrible. When we visited in 2015 we were told that Delhi had overtaken Beijing to become the world's most polluted city - a dubious honour to say the least.

Traffic sign
The authorities are trying to tackle the problem. The Metro, which is already used by a million people a day, is being extended to encourage more to leave the car at home - but meanwhile it seems that the extension works are themselves adding to the traffic problems on the roads. Diesel cars over ten years old are banned, and all auto-rickshaws must run on clean energy (CNG). And they are considering introducing a congestion charge as in London. But for now the roads remain a frustrating but constantly fascinating spectacle, where mini dramas are played out every minute.

To get just a brief taste of the experience watch my short video, shot from the car.

Train journeys to and from Delhi

After two nights in Delhi we left on an early morning train to Agra from New Delhi Railway Station, one of five main stations in the city.

Traffic sign
The journey took about two hours. It was dark when we left Delhi at 6.00 AM, but the sun was soon up and we enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside in the misty morning light. It is a flat landscape so there is nothing spectacular to see, but we found it interesting. Taking photos of the passing views wasn't really an option however, as the windows were both dirty and double glazed, making it hard to focus. However I did manage to shoot another short video.

We travelled in a 2nd class air-conditioned coach. The ticket price includes a meal served to your seat by "Meals on Wheels" but as we had a packed breakfast provided by our Delhi hotel we skipped that. We were also given newspapers (English language) but we were too busy looking out of the window to bother with those either.

The train arrived only a couple of minutes late in Agra where we had five minutes to get ourselves and our luggage off the train - no problem! We were met by a rep from the travel company and our driver Mehar who had driven down from Delhi the previous evening, and we were soon on our way to our hotel.

New Delhi Railway Station, early morning

Two weeks after we had left Delhi for Agra we returned by the same means, a train, although this time arriving at Hazrat Nizamuddin station. Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.

For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.

Agra station

I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.

When we arrived in Delhi we were pleased to find that our “meet and greet” rep was our guide from our previous stay at the start of the trip, Rajesh. And although we were at first a little disappointed that Mehar wasn’t to be our driver for this final transfer, imagine how pleased we were, and he also, when his car pulled up outside the station as we stood waiting for ours! He was there to meet another English couple who had travelled on our train, and hurried over to say hello and ask about our time in Ranthambore.

At the Jama Masjid
It was lovely to see him one last time, before our car arrived and we headed to our hotel for our last night in Delhi.

mountaingirl says:
Congrats on the featured blog :)
Posted on: Apr 22, 2017
Toonsarah says:
Thank you everyone for your very kind comments :-)
Posted on: Apr 22, 2017
HORSCHECK says:
Sarah, congrats on your featured blog. Very well written and outstanding photos.
Posted on: Apr 22, 2017
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Delhi family
Delhi family
Jama Masjid
Jama Masjid
Steps to the  Jama Masjid
Steps to the Jama Masjid
In Chandni Chowk
In Chandni Chowk
In Chandni Chowk
In Chandni Chowk
Presidential Palace
Presidential Palace
Presidential Palace detail
Presidential Palace detail
India Gate
India Gate
Raj Ghat
Raj Ghat
Humayuns Tomb
Humayun's Tomb
At Humayuns Tomb
At Humayun's Tomb
Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar
Qutb Minar - mosque pillars
Qutb Minar - mosque pillars
At Raj Ghat
At Raj Ghat
Rickshaw driver
Rickshaw driver
Traffic sign
Traffic sign
Traffic sign
Traffic sign
New Delhi Railway Station, early m…
New Delhi Railway Station, early …
Agra station
Agra station
At the Jama Masjid
At the Jama Masjid
On the streets of Delhi
A rickshaw ride in Old Delhi
By train from Delhi to Agra
Qutb Minar - mosque detail
Qutb Minar - mosque detail
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photo by: spocklogic