Archive for October, 2011

Glimpses of Delhi

October 26, 2011

By Carol

The city of Delhi is the jumping-off point for a tour of many of the points of interest in North India. Last year, in April of 2010, I made a month-long journey to several fascinating places in the north. Previously, I have written about parts of this trip in 3 postings: going to the Maha Kumbh Mela in Hardiwar, visiting the city of Amritsar with the gorgeous Golden Temple complex, and a trip to the Pakistan border at Wagah. This current posting features my whirlwind tour of Delhi itself. 

My friend Gauri and I began our journey with a 33-hour train trip originating from Chennai. Two nights and one day spent on a moving train proved to be quite an experience.

Most of our readers will recognize the usual 2-tier accommodations on an overnight train journey. For the first night I was assigned an upper bunk. It was an unhappy choice for my 61-year-old legs—the straight vertical climb to my “bed” was more difficult than I could have predicted. Thank goodness the next day the lower bunk across the aisle was vacated, so both Gauri and I could stay at floor level.

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I peeked into the First Class section. Looked less rowdy, but probably not much more comfortable. These compartments were more like what I have seen in movies.

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A lot of the scenery across the middle of India looked like this, dry and barren.

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As the capital of India, Delhi has had a long and complex history. The present city consists of at least seven previously acknowledged cities, each a center of power during various periods of rule.

From wikipedia, (where you can find a complete history):

First mentioned in the Mahabarata, Delhi is considered to have been occupied since at least 2,500 BCE. “Extensive coverage of Delhi’s history begins with the onset of the Delhi Sultanate in the twelfth century. Since then, Delhi had been the seat of Islamic and British rulers until India’s independence in 1947. The core of Delhi’s tangible heritage is Islamic, spanning over 7 centuries of Islamic rule over the city… Whatever records exist of Delhi- in the form of scriptures or archaeological evidences, they crown Delhi as the Capital city of some empire or the other all through, with minor random breaks in between, making Delhi one of the longest serving Capitals in the world.”

“Hindu texts state that the city of Delhi used to be referred to in Sanskrit as Hastinapur, which means "elephant-city”…  It is also known as Yoginipura, that is, the fortress of the yoginis (female divinities).”

Coming from Tamil Nadu, I had previously only known Hindu India. I was most struck by the variety of religious and spiritual expression in Delhi, and by the tolerance shown by each for the others.


Finally we arrived at the New Delhi Railway Station. Gauri has spent many years in India, and has perfected the art of budget travel. So she knew that, as budget travelers, we needed to book a room in the Paharganj neighborhood. This area is an easy walk, even with (rolling) luggage, from the train depot. It is a famous place for the “backpacking set,” with many budget hotels packed into small alleyways.

The photo below was taken from our “home” for the next week, the Namaskar Hotel, at the end of the alley named Chandiwalan. Isn’t it scenic here?

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One of the common forms of transport in Delhi were the bicycle rickshaws. They are cheaper than autorickshaws, but quite uncomfortable. The two of us could barely fit onto the passenger bench. And it seemed like such a tremendous effort for the driver to lug us around. For us, the fare ended up being more expensive than with an “auto,” since we always felt guilty for all the work we caused the driver and tipped him extra.

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Like so many Indians I’ve encountered, both in the South and North, our driver really wanted his photo taken. I had snapped him from the back, but was so grateful to capture his dignity with a front view.  You can tell we’re in Paharganj from the rubble all around.

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City Tour

Our first foray out of Paharganj took us to the official Delhi Tourist Office, near Connaught Place. Even though Gauri had been in Delhi many times, she had never taken a city tour. So we booked a tour for the next morning, originating at the tour office.  Below is a photo of Gauri.

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Right outside the departure point was a colorful flower market.

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The first stop on the tour was at the beautiful, modern Lakshmi Narayan Temple, also called the Birla Mandir. It is a modern Hindu temple that was built by the industrialist B.R. Birla. Construction was begun in 1933. The temple was inaugurated by Gandhi in 1939, with the specification that it would remain open to all visitors, regardless of caste or religious belief.

Unfortunately, there was no photography allowed inside the structure, but it was a fascinating temple, spotlessly clean, with shrines dedicated to many Hindu gods and goddesses. The main shrine was to Lakshmi, probably a favorite of rich industrialists all over India, since she is the Goddess of wealth and prosperity.

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The next stop was to the Qutb-Mehrauli complex in the southwest part of greater Delhi.  This area was the first of the seven historical cities of Delhi. The Qutb Minar, a 5-story tower, dominates the site. The “Victory Tower” was erected in 1193 by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the first Muslim ruler of Delhi. Said to be the world’s tallest brick minaret, it is inscribed with verses from the Qur’an.

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The complex includes ruins of India’s first mosque, Quwwat-ul-Islam, which had been built on the location of previous Hindu temples. The structures are a blend of Islamic and Hindu elements, using remains of 27 Hindu and Jain temples and built by Hindu workers.

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Hindu and Islamic motifs coexist peacefully here.

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The tour guide emphasized the importance of the ancient Iron Pillar on the site, pictured below. It is said to have been created as the flagstaff of a 4th century Vishnu temple, brought to Delhi in the 10th Century. Its content is 98% pure iron but never rusts due to the skill of the metal workers’ technique for smoothing the surface.

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The next stop was at the Baha’i House of Worship, also called the Lotus Temple. The structure was completed in 1986. It was built as a “gathering place for people of all religions to worship God without denominational restrictions.”  (From wikipedia)

Inside the Lotus there is a large auditorium that can hold 2,500 people, where we were invited to experience one of the daily 15-minute ecumenical services. It was very moving, with readings from the scriptures of many faiths. Part of the laws governing the temple state that only scriptures (from any religion) are allowed to be read. There can be music in the form of singing, but no musical instruments are allowed, nor are any sermons to be given.

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The Lotus Temple was designed with lovely pools around its exterior.

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After the Baha’i Temple we were taken to our last stop, Gandhi Smriti, the site where Gandhi was assassinated. It is on the grounds of the “old Birla house,” where Gandhi lived for the last 5 months of his life.

Visitors are invited to walk along the very path that Gandhi walked, as he made his way to the evening prayer services, when he was met by his killer.

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A shrine marks the exact spot where Gandhi died.

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The sign below quotes Gandhi’s thoughts about his last words. It turns out that his actual last words are a bit controversial, however. He is reported to have died saying “Rama Rama,” the Hindu god’s name, even though it was hoped that he had been misheard, since saying “Rama Rahim” would have signified that even at the end he died with both Hindu and Muslim sentiments on his mind, symbolic of a united India. I read about the controversy here.

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An exhibition chronicles the Gandhian movement for an independent India.

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Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi

The next day, we made an excursion to the famous Chandni Chowk bazaar in the Old Delhi neighborhood, north of the central area where we were staying.

It’s always really congested in Chandni Chowk.

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The bazaar is comprised of several sections. The Kimari Bazaar is a roof-covered, maze-like warren of tiny shops off the main street. It is known as the place to find various tinsels and sequin decorations. Other side-by-side shops offered all kinds of decorative sarees and dupattas (shawls).

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A street within Chandni Chowk, Dariba Kalam, is known as “gold and silver street.” Each shop window shows enticing riches. Here is a baby Krishna, all decked out with jewelry.

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Jewel-like polished stones.

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In one of the alleyways off Chandni Chowk I was drawn to the charming doorways I saw. Amidst all the bustle of the bazaar, the homes offered some welcoming respite. The colorful Islamic motifs spoke of a warm homecoming.

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We read in a guidebook of a famous restaurant where you could enjoy traditional Islamic Mughlai food while listening to a performance of Sufi Qawwali music. We headed to Moti Mahal restaurant, near the Jamid Masjid in Old Delhi, around the corner from Chandni Chowk. The musicians are pictured below.

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I was captivated by the nighttime colors of the restaurant, and the food was fabulous, also.

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The Garden of the Five Senses

In the Delhi tourist literature I found a reference to a special garden park in the south of the city, called the Garden of the Five Senses. The literature spoke of the Color Gardens, the Herb Collection for fragrance, wind chimes for sound, several good restaurants, and other attractions.

It sounded interesting, so I took an autorickshaw there. To my amazement, the driver had no idea where it was, even though it was touted as a major Delhi attraction. When he finally found it, and I entered, I understood why it wasn’t so well known. The “garden” looked like it hadn’t been watered or cared for in months.  It wasn’t anywhere near as spectacular as the pamphlet had promised.

There were a few interesting sculptures there, however. Pictured below is one of the wind chimes.

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Chimes in the foreground, figurative sculpture in the background.

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“Blowin’ in the wind…”

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The main purpose for the garden park, as far as I could tell, was to provide a secluded place where young lovers could engage in some PDA (“personal display of affection,” still frowned upon by Indian culture) away from the prying eyes of their elders.

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Aurobindo Ashram

Another stop that we made was to the Delhi branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.  The owner of the land on which the ashram sits, Shri Surendra Nath Jauhar (Chacha ji), had visited the Pondicherry Aurobindo ashram in 1939 and was very affected by Sri Aurobindo. On his return to Delhi, Chacha ji offered to donate his farm for a Delhi branch, where his land “could contribute to the freedom of humanity from the ignorant half-awake consciousness under which it has been labouring for millennia.” (From

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In 1957, with the blessings of The Mother, some sacred relics of Sri Aurobindo were transferred to Delhi.

We had a peaceful meditation in the well-kept ashram, far from the bustle of the city.

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More Qawalli at the Sufi Tomb

Gauri had read about a location in the city where we could hear some more Qawaali music. After asking around, we were directed to the site of one of the Sufi tombs that exist in Delhi. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the place.  However, it was a touching excursion for us. We entered a complex where holy men were tending various lamps.

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Inside the shrine was a men-only area. We women were allowed to peek through the partition.

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When we arrived, Gauri asked about the music concert. We were told that we were there on the wrong day. However, the people in charge made some calls and were able to gather some musicians to play just for us. Wow, what a memorable treat. Gauri thought that the music was much more authentic than what we heard at the restaurant.

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Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Old Delhi

On our next foray back to Old Delhi, we visited one of the Sikh Gurdwaras in the city, the Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib.

This was my first experience in a Gurdwara. I have reported visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, but that occurred after this experience in Delhi. Gauri had previously visited other Gurdwaras, so was able to guide me through and make sure I didn’t do anything stupid.

Before entering the Gurdwara, we deposited our shoes and then walked through a water bath to cleanse our feet. We walked on the mat shown below to avoid slipping.  

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On entering, everyone, both men and women, needed to cover their heads. I used the dupatta of my salwar camise to do this.

First we saw the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture that is the final Guru of the Sikhs.

I didn’t take any photos of the interior of the Gurdwara, not sure if it would be disrespectful. The photo below is taken from the website

After honoring the Granth Sahib with pranams, we sat cross-legged on the floor and listened to the beautiful sound of kirtan chanting.  During the kirtan, officials continuously tended to the scripture, fanning it to keep air circulating around it. In Sikhism, the adoration expressed in song is the highest form of devotion. It was a wonderful, meditative experience.

After a while we got up to leave. On exiting the Gurudwara, we were given Karah prasad—a handful of sweet, tasty “sacred pudding.” Everyone who comes to the Gurdwara leaves with some sustanance.

As I would continue to discover while visiting Amritsar, the contact with the Sikh culture is an amazing, intense experience.

The Red Fort

While we were in the neighborhood of Old Delhi, we visited the Red Fort, a “must-see” tourist excursion. Unfortunately, we arrived late in the afternoon, and visiting times for tourists was over. I took the photo below from the outside, but we didn’t enter the complex. The fort played a major role in India’s history. Reading about it now, I wish I had explored the site. Maybe next time. I learned about the Red Fort from wikipedia.

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It was our last night in Delhi. Back in Paharganj, I had explored some of the numerous restaurants in the neighborhood. One memorable place was a second-story eatery from which I had a great view of the nighttime scene.

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I was able to capture an image of the urban dairy that made its home in the middle of the street.

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After a week, our time in Delhi was over. The next stop was to Rishikesh. The train only went as far as Haridwar, and we needed to find transport to Rishikesh, where we had a room waiting for us. I snapped the photo below on the platform waiting for the train that would take us on the four hour trip to Haridwar. We didn’t realize how overwhelming the crowds would be. We got our first taste of this on the train.

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The month-long trip was really just beginning. Many more adventures awaited us. The next stop, Rishikesh, provided so many new, powerful sights and sounds. I’ll post about that next.


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