The mother of all sightseeing days

New Delhi Travel Blog

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Red Fort -- a huge group of school children in the building where the emperor would give public audiences.

Another breakfast on the patio this morning in the cool early morning hours, but this time preceded by a short chat with Sanjay, the owner of the guesthouse, who made a quick appearance in the office where I was checking my email before breakfast.  He was a small and clear-spoken man, very helpful and no-nonsense, with a lot of helpful information.  I had a list of questions to ask him, and he didn’t seem to mind at all.  Laundry, room cleaning, ideas about where to go • for everything he had information ready.

 

Today I had booked a tour and a car through an outside source, a woman I found over the internet this summer when I was looking for information on Delhi.

Detailed carvings on one of the emperor's private buildings, Red Fort
  She arranged a driver for me for the whole day, plus a one-to-one guided tour of Old Delhi in the afternoon.  The driver arrived promptly at 9:30, and we were off.

 

The driver was a young guy named Anwar, who was quiet and rather shy, but friendly.  First I asked to go to Red Fort, a huge complex built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.  It was another roasting day, and Anwar dropped me off as close to the entrance as he could.  I walked the approach to the Fort full of unspoken anticipation, its giant, looming walls calling to mind other historical sites in my memory, the spaciousness of the complex already apparent.  Many Indian visitors were also drifting towards the Fort entrance • men, women, and giant groups of school children, as well as the odd tourist, but because it was so huge it didn’t feel crowded inside.

Inlaid marble work, Red Fort

 

It was another enchanting place, this Mughal fort/palace complex, with that particular feeling and style of architecture and aesthetics, a bit like the Alhambra in Granada, but even grander.  Rather than one massive building or castle, the fort contained a series of palace buildings, large and small, including a hamam, a giant, open-air arched space where the emperor could give audience, living quarters for the emperor and his wives, free standing gates, etc.  Everything was spindly, delicately carved stone, including heaps of marble:  crenellated columns and arches, like spun sugar, decorative in and of themselves; inlaid geometric patterns and flowers • oh those beautiful inlaid flowers!; open spaces • no doors • only grilles of carved marble and stone in starburst patterns; etc.  And all this within acres and acres of lush garden/park • waterways and fountains, emerald lawns that seemed to breathe with life in the humid air, bursts of colorful flowers, birds, chipmunks, trees.

Inlaid work on a square column in one of the palaces at the Red Fort.
  Again, it was all so delicate and so beautiful that it seemed fairy-tale like.  Very interesting to feel the architectural style and aesthetic, so different from the equally beautiful European architectural styles that I’m used to, but somehow worlds lighter.

 

Within the complex there was a small museum with artifacts from the palace complex, including a series of small scenes/pictures of the emperor’s lives, executed with very fine brush strokes and brilliantly colored.  Some of the pictures especially caught my eye:

 

“Tanashah in fairyland, 18th c. AD” • a picture of Tanashah sitting thoughtfully under a tree in the background, while in the foreground bare-breasted, winged women cavorted.

Red Fort complex

 

“A lady lute-player, 18th c. AD” • an exquisitely painted picture of a woman holding a lute, sitting cross-legged on a divan.

 

“A love scene, Rajasthani, late 19th c.” • a couple gazing lovingly into each others eyes while seated on a divan on a beautiful patio, a girl bearing a tray beside them, a crescent moon in the night sky.

 

Not to mention “A prince enjoying dance,” and “Prince Aurangzeb’s adventure with an infuriated elephant” (the elephants!  Painted in black and seeming to gallop right off the page!)

 

After Red Fort Anwar picked me up at the entrance (just enough time for half a dozen touts to descend upon me in a swarm, smelling a potential mark) and then took me to the Craft Museum.

Detail -- Red Fort
  Another delightful place which called sharply to mind numerous craft-hunting expeditions with Jen (she would have loved it), with room after room of handiwork from all over India:  wooden totems, masks, puppets, ceramics, jewelry, textiles in all possible colors and weaves (just the textiles alone were so diverse and fine that I almost couldn’t bear it), stone and ivory carvings, even examples of whole rooms of traditional houses.  Some of the highlights: two life-sized textile oxen pulling a cart; a bejeweled textile “caparison” for an elephant (i.e. the shaped, decorative cloth that rests on the elephant’s forehead); a doll-sized and incredibly detailed recreation of a village square, done all in ceramics, complete with birds and even a small monkey sitting quietly on one of the roofs; the central courtyard and mezzanine of a Gujarati “haveli” or aristocratic house. 

 

The Craft Museum complex is set up to recreate a small, traditional Indian village, so outside the small buildings and courtyards of the museum were more of the same, housing artisans and handicraft vendors.

Craft Museum!
  The whole place was filled with shade trees and was very quiet and peaceful • you didn’t really feel that you were in the middle of a big city at all.  I can highly recommend it.

 

After that we returned to the guesthouse to meet the guide for the tour of Old Delhi.  She arrived promptly at 2:30 and we set off by car for that part of the city, which was back by the Red Fort.  The tour started with the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, another beautiful example of Mughal architecture and style.  It was the first time I had ever been guided through such a large mosque.  (I have a hazy memory of being cursorily shown into some small ones when I went on a walking tour in Morocco, but that was no more than peeping my head round a corner and getting a quick glimpse before being shuttled onwards.

Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. Mughal Era.
) 

 

It was very impressive in its layout, and very busy.  A long shopping street led up to it, filled with vendors selling all sorts of things from shoes to clothing to waterproof watches submerged in a tiny basin-sized blow up pool filled with water (to prove their worth).  As we carefully wove our way through, the Jama Masjid rose up above us, raised up on a higher level at the top of a couple of wide stairway.  After removing our shoes we passed through a gateway into a huge courtyard, at the center of which was a square, shallow raised pool where devotees purified themselves by washing their hands, arms, and faces in the water.  Being barefoot, the cool marble of the pool’s platform was a relief to the soles of my feet, which felt slightly burnt from the tremendous heat trapped in the baking red stone of the courtyard.

A quick glimpse into Old Delhi... and this was a large street, not one of the narrow ones.

 

The guide walked boldly through each part of the Jama Masjid • the square, around the pool, into the mosque itself where men were both praying, resting, and even stretched out sleeping on the cool marble floor.  Had I been by myself I probably wouldn’t have dared, because for some reason I felt uncomfortable in that space.

 

We even were able to climb up inside one of the minarets, ascending a claustrophobically narrow and dark stone stairway up to a tiny platform no bigger than a large rug where we perched precariously alongside the other climbers.  One false move and you would have tumbled right back down the stairway again.  There at the top the whole city of Delhi spread out below us.

Entering the main Sikh house of worship, your head must be covered.

 

After the Jama Masjid the guide hailed a rickshaw driver and paid him to cycle us around Old Delhi for about an hour, during which time we rolled (quite slowly, because it was terribly crowded) through the narrow streets, wild with action.  Many of the lanes specialized in one type of thing, and we saw the ones for handmade paper and wedding invitations, wedding saris, jewelry, pranthas (a type of food), snacks, spices, etc.  There were single cows moving slowly down one or two of the lanes (the first ones I’ve seen) but mostly we were dodging hundreds – thousands? – of pedestrians as well as other rickshaws and even motorbikes.  It was a feast for all of the senses, a sort of coming-to-life of the hazy postcard images I had in the back of my mind of historical “Old India,” except it was very much alive and thriving.

 

At the end of the tour the guide brought me to three houses of worship which were all along the same street, and only a stone’s throw from the Jama Masjid:  the Gurudwara Sees Ganj (a Sikh house of worship), a Jain temple, and a Hindu temple.  I especially liked the Gurudwara Sees Ganj, where a shallow pool with tiny jets of water purified and cleansed your feet before entering, and where inside men and women sat together on carpets while kirtan (music, chants) was played.  The Gurdwara Sees Ganj also has a communal kitchen where free meals are offered to the public, which I found admirable.

 

I think this was the most fascinating day so far, and I would highly recommend a visit to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi to anyone, including visits to all of these religious sites which coexist so close to one another, practically side by side.

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Red Fort -- a huge group of school…
Red Fort -- a huge group of schoo…
Detailed carvings on one of the em…
Detailed carvings on one of the e…
Inlaid marble work, Red Fort
Inlaid marble work, Red Fort
Inlaid work on a square column in …
Inlaid work on a square column in…
Red Fort complex
Red Fort complex
Detail -- Red Fort
Detail -- Red Fort
Craft Museum!
Craft Museum!
Jama Masjid, Indias largest mosqu…
Jama Masjid, India's largest mosq…
A quick glimpse into Old Delhi... …
A quick glimpse into Old Delhi...…
Entering the main Sikh house of wo…
Entering the main Sikh house of w…
New Delhi
photo by: peeyushmalhotra