There was a very long queue for tickets at the Red Fort in Delhi, but we noticed that there was a sign above the desk that read ‘Gentlemen’. It turned out that there was another queue designated ‘Ladies’ with only two people in it, so Bronwyn nipped over to get our tickets.
Although the fort is essentially a series of ruins containing a small museum and some tourist shops, it is guarded by soldiers in sand-bagged machine-gun nests. Once we were past the security check at the Lahari Gate, we found ourselves in a covered courtyard which once housed a silk and jewellery bazaar for the royal household of the Mughal era, but which now holds somewhat more prosaic emporia.
An impressively scalloped audience hall led us out into the main body of the fort, and through another gate under the Drum House, an impressively sculpted building – now a museum – where musicians used to play. Only royalty are allowed to ride through the gate, but luckily we had neglected to bring our horses with us.
Inside the main fort complex are a scattering of harem and palace buildings, all beautifully decorated with carved marble, along with numerous ponds, fountains and channels, one of which runs right through the harem. Although these are currently dry (and now provide seating for security guards), it must have been quite a paradise in its day. In fact a pair of archways to the Hall of Private Audience are inscribed “If heaven can be on the face of the earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”
The centre of the fort is taken up by the ‘Life-Bestowing Garden’, originally 200 square feet of gardens, but these were destroyed during the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion. All that is left is a dry reservoir with a marble pavilion at each end and a red sandstone building, the Zafar Mahal, in the middle.
We were beginning to gasp in the unrelenting dry heat surrounded by all these memories of cool running water, so we retraced our steps through the bazaar, and headed out into Old Delhi for lunch.
What can I say about driving in old Delhi? There are cars and trucks and rickshaws everywhere, all mixed up with pedestrians and bicycles and porters. There are no valid road markings and few signs. Horns sound continuously, but not in anger, just to alert other drivers that you are inches behind them, because nobody uses mirrors.
Bronwyn and I had just emerged from Red Fort with our friends Ankur and Shalu, who had engaged a couple of rickshaws to take us all on a sight-seeing tour of the old town. Our driver was brilliant, pedalling us up and down the tiniest of soukh alleyways, panting and puffing under what I imagined to be the unexpected weight of two tall westerners. However, while waiting at the top of a particularly steep hill, our driver laughed good-naturedly at his colleague labouring along behind us, because neither Ankhur nor Shalu are particularly tiny either.
We visited a thousand-year old temple with hundred-year old mosaics, belonging to a strict Hindu sect that didn’t allow any leather inside. Shalu volunteered to stay outside with our shoes, belts and bags while an elderly toothless monk showed us around. We couldn’t take any photos inside either, but it was an old space filled with kitchen cupboards and old chairs, with occasional rather spectacular mosaics and sculptures. Overall it was a very nice little temple.
We had a good time at the spice soukh, chatting to the merchants who were more than happy to allow us to taste their wares and let us take photos of their produce. We stocked up on chai tea and some really good quality spices.
Our rickshaw drivers then took us up some rickety stairs above the market, past tatty-looking legal offices and stepping over sleeping people (there are sleeping people everywhere) to the rooftops where we had an unrivaled view of the old city. Locals were having a good laugh flying kites from the roof, it was a relatively cool and breezy place to hang out.
We were starting to feel more than a little hungry, so Ankur asked the drivers to drop us at Karim’s, a famous restaurant catering for “non-vegetarians”. Karim’s consists of an open-air triangle bounded by tiny cafes on each side. We were led up a wooden staircase to a balcony above the kitchen, where we were served some of the best Indian food that I have ever tasted. Mutton Queerma (Korma), an incomparable Butter Paneer, and an awesome and apparently nameless rice dish.
As evening drew in, Tanu arrived in her car with six-month-old Amaira, and drove us out to New Delhi to see the nightly water show at the temple of Akshardham. It took us some time to make sense of the mass of milling and excited bodies by the ticket office, being herded here and there by whistling and shouting security guards, before we realised that we didn’t need a ticket at all if we didn’t want to visit the temple building, which anyway was just closing. There was however an enormous list of banned articles, including cameras and phones, food and drink, any kind of bag, and some odd things such as USB drives and, amusingly, ‘drunkards’.
This meant in turn that there was another immense jostling crowd for the cloakroom, with lots of pushing and shoving and shouting as people tried to store their bags. Instead we dropped all our prohibited items back at the car and joined the queue for the queue for the security check. There was still lots of pushing and shouting and attempts at queue-jumping, but in an amiable kind of way with lots of laughter. Every ten to fifteen minutes, the security guards at the head of the queue lifted a rope and everybody surged forward, sprinting to join the back of the next queue.
Here people were separated by whistling guards into separate lines, who maintained order by solidly body-checking anybody who tried to change queues. Eventually we made our way through the scanners and into the temple gardens, which were very serene and scattered with water features and sculptures of mythological figures.
As dusk fell, we were herded gently out of the gardens into the main courtyard of the temple itself, an incredibly impressive recent building built mainly by volunteers from pink stone and white marble.
The courtyard consisted of a wide area of pools and fountains, and we found a place to sit amongst the families perched around the low retaining walls. As darkness fell, the ceremony began with blessings accompanied by a large swinging brazier of flame. Then the music began, synchronised with playing fountains underlit by dancing coloured lights and lasers. The crowd stilled, and we all stared in awe. It was beautiful, haunting and mesmeric, a gorgeous spectacle. There is a short promotional video here which doesn’t do it justice.
After the half-hour show, the main temple opened to non-ticket holders, so we left our shoes at the front desk and wandered in. It is very impressive, and to my Western eyes reminiscent of walking into a large cathedral but with the statues of saints replaced by swamis. The temple was built by the richest sect in India, and it shows. Every surface is intricately carved and gilded, and instead of a golden Buddha, there is a statue of the man himself. Around the walls, colourful mosaics depict scenes from the Swami’s life, revealing a pleasant man doing a lifetime of nice things before dying peacefully of old age. Compared to other religions, his is certainly a pleasant and refreshing story.
We planned to do a circular tour around Northern India, and our Punjabi friends Ankur and Tanu wanted to come too, because they’d never had a chance to be tourists in their home country. In true hospitable Indian fashion, Ankur instantly arranged a car and driver to take us all on a huge arc through Rajisthan and Punjab.
After a full day of exploring Old Delhi, we woke refreshed at our hotel. I was keen to have dosa for breakfast, a traditional South Indian pancake, but the chef, aware that I am a coeliac, warned me that his version contained wheat flour. Then he cheerfully made up a new batch from pure gram flour, and served it with spicy potatoes and a fiery sambar soup.
After this most excellent start to the day, we caught a taxi to meet our driver, Happy, who would be doing all the hard work for the next few days.
Together with Tanu, Ankur and five-month-old Amaira, we piled into Happy’s people-carrier and hit the road for Agra.
Actually it wasn’t quite that simple. There are few road signs in India, and the accepted method of navigation is to shout questions out of the window. Even then, it seems to be part of the Indian psyche to make something up or to tell you what you might want to hear, rather than to admit that you don’t know. We therefore took a straw poll of half a dozen rickshaw drivers before finding two answers that matched.
Eventually we found the toll road, and apart from the regular police checkpoints (security fencing across the road that constrict the traffic into a slalom but which are otherwise ignored), we seemed to be the only vehicle moving, something of a shock after navigating the crowded streets of Delhi.
On either side of the highway, boggy land was being drained and the clay dug out and fired into bricks in the hundreds and hundreds of little kilns spread out across the landscape.
The clay was being dug to a depth of about a metre, with walls left standing around every square acre or so. It looked as if water (and perhaps night soil) was then being pumped into each rectangular plot, which was then being planted with crops. The produce was later stored in thatched and mud huts.
Eventually we arrived in Agra, where the traffic was just as chaotic as in Delhi. All we had was the postal address of the hotel, so Happy navigated by asking people every few miles if they’d heard of it.
The randomness of the answers intimated that nobody had, but we passed many miles of shack hostels leaning up against local shops, before passing through an area of impressive government offices, which opened out into a sprawling confection of turrets and crenellations which turned out to be our hotel, The Grand Agra.
As well as the now familiar check for car bombs (a mirror on a stick under the chassis, and a poke around under the bonnet), we also had to pass through a metal detector in the foyer, and watch as our luggage was unloaded through an airport X-Ray machine, before being allowed to check in. Once Inside, the hotel was impressively palatial, and indeed at one end they were building a ‘presidential suite’ with its own helipad and views over the Taj Mahal.
We had originally intended to visit the Taj at sunset, but we would have had to rush to get to the ticket office before it closed, so we decided to go at dawn the following day, giving us the excuse to relax with some pleasant beers in the bar as the sun went down.
Later we ate a splendid meal at the restaurant, which we had to ourselves apart from a legion of waiters and a sitar player. Very very stuffed, we waddled out into the darkness and through the water garden to our rooms, surprising a trio of men with rifles who are presumably the night watch.
We were up and out at half past five in the morning for the short drive to the Taj Mahal. Although they were clearly geared up for large numbers of tourists, there were only a few dozen people in sight, and no queues.
Touts for rickshaws, tuk-tuks and tongas clustered around, insisting that the entrance to the Taj was over a kilometre away, which of course it wasn’t. We took a tonga anyway, a carriage drawn by an old and skinny horse with an uneven gait,and were relieved to find that the journey was only a few bone-jarring hundreds of metres around the next corner.
After being frisked and scanned through yet another security check, we ran a small gauntlet of prospective guides and photographers. In the end we allowed a particularly persistent photographer to attach himself to our group on the grounds that he didn’t want any money unless we chose to buy his photographs.
It was first light, very humid and sticky. The Taj loomed mysteriously from the mist. It is obvious why it’s regarded as one of the Wonders of the World. It really is quite beautiful.
The Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) is a mausoleum, built in the early 17th Century as Emperor Shah Jahan’s monument to his late wife. It stands in an elaborate garden containing four reflecting pools, and is flanked by a mosque and a guest house. It has a beautiful dream-like presence that can only be hinted at in photographs.
Our own photographer had us posing here, posing there, with madam, without madam, standing up here, sitting down there, hands in front, hands behind… Until both Ankur and I cracked at the same moment and cried “Enough!”
After we’d got rid of the photographer, we had a pleasant and uninterrupted wander around the grounds. As we approached the Taj itself, we realised that it is much bigger than its ethereal looks convey.
The interior, while encrusted like everything else with inlaid semi-precious stones, is a simple dark open space containing the sarcophagi of the king and his wife. It has an amazing echo, and although there were only a handful of us moving quietly and respectfully around the tombs, the dome amplified the sound to a multitude of hundreds. It must be really loud in there during the peak tourist season.
As the sun started to beat down and the tourists began to flood in, we took our leave. On the way out, we dropped into the photographer’s stall and discovered to our surprise that his pictures were rather good, so we bought them. Then we ran the gauntlet of marble trinket salesmen and, avoiding the clamouring tonga touts, made our way back to the hotel for a pre-breakfast nap.