Travel Report: New Delhi.
March 2004. It’s easy to get excited all over again at the mere thought of my arrival in New Delhi over fifteen years ago. I was twenty five years old and at the beginning of my first bout of extended, independent travel. Not that I was actually solo, as I’d agreed to travel with a friendly Scotsman, Allan, who I’d met at the Indian Embassy in Edinburgh while waiting for our visas. Jumping in a taxi together, we zoomed through the vast expanse of New Delhi’s urban sprawl before being unceremoniously dumped at the entrance to Paharganj, a frenetic backpacker ghetto that was so intense it literally left me short of breath. Walking right into the heart of the storm with our backpacks, Allan and I were met by relentless tour touts, shoeless, scampering children and dawdling animals as we passed hotels, guesthouses, shops, internet cafes, travel agencies, bars, currency exchange huts, DVD shacks and an unlimited selection of pungent restaurants and bakeries.
March 2004. I had never seen anything like Paharganj, nor indeed its often unfortunate occupants. There were beggars everywhere, some of whom had amputated limbs and were dragging themselves around in the dirt rattling their tin cups at us.
March 2004. It’s crazy to think that Allan and I had actually chosen Paharganj as our New Delhi neighbourhood. Still, it was something of a relief to get off that infernal street and into the comparatively peaceful Hare Krishna Guesthouse. This was my first taste of India’s rough and ready accommodation scene, back in the days where there was no concept of affordable boutique travel. In fact, if you’d asked me what a flashpacker is, I’d have guessed it was some kind of foldable power torch. Hare Krishna may have been exceptionally basic, with sauna-like rooms and ironing board beds, but hey it was nowhere near as bad as some of the places we ended up at in the weeks that followed.
March 2004. Another thing Hare Krishna Guesthouse had going for it was its lovely rooftop restaurant, where Allan and I would sit most evenings demolishing cheap curries and mango lassies. It also provided a fascinating birdseye view of the chaotic Paharganj. I’m delighted to see that Hare Krishna Guesthouse is still going strong and, on Google evidence at least, it seems much improved. You can take a look a the old joint here through booking.com.
March 2004. Allan and I spent four days in the Indian capital exploring the sights. Our first stop was at the 17th century Red Fort, a Mughal palace known locally as Lal Qila. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan between 1638-1648, this massive, octagonal, red sandstone fortress was the seat of The Mughal Empire for over two hundred years before it fell into the hands of The British. Honestly, I had nothing to do with it.
March 2004. The joy of a visit to The Red Fort is simply wandering around its giant courtyards and halls, such as the grand Diwan-i-‘Am (Hall of Public Audience). Along the way, I bumped into a young local man, Romeo, and his merry gang. We ended up chatting for a while with what turned out to be a bizarre, confusing, heartwarming experience documented here in my shorty story What Do You Think Of Love? For a deeper look into the history and sights of New Delhi’s Red Fort, here’s a solid overview from culturetrip.com.
March 2004. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan left India an amazing architectural legacy. In Agra he built The Taj Mahal for his late wife Mumtaz and also transformed Agra Fort from a military post into an ornate city palace. His crowning achievement in Delhi was Jama Masjid, India’s second largest mosque. Constructed with marble and red sandstone between 1650-1656, its name translates as Friday Mosque, the traditional day for the city’s Muslims to gather for communal prayer. Unfortunately, it was a case of poor timing when we arrived early evening just ten minutes before closing time. Having bought our entrance tickets (one for me, one for my camera), an armed guard then proceeded to aggressively rush us around the main square before shooing us towards the exit so he could close up for the day. Beautiful mosque, depressing experience.
March 2004. Perched thirty steps above street level, Jama Masjid Mosque enjoys a dramatic location over the neighbourhood. The steps are a popular meeting spot and home to a host of New Delhi’s most belligerent beggars. I’ll never forget the intensity of this weeping woman, whose theatrics succeeded in extracting a few coins out of me. For the latest on visiting Jama Masjid, check out trip savvy’s excellent article here.
March 2004. If you’re only in New Delhi for a few days and wondering which sites should jump to the top of your hit-list, you might consider a visit to Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Ghandi, India’s Father of the Nation. Don’t know who Ghandi is? Well, there’s not much I can do for you here, I suggest checking out Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning 1982 movie. Get an extra large tub of popcorn, it’s very, very long. The Raj Ghat Memorial is a simple black marble platform with an eternal flame that marks the spot where the great man was cremated on the 31st of January 1948. Following the long line of shuffling bodies, we eventually got our chance to spend a few moments directly in front of the memorial. Be sure to take your shoes off when you reach the green-carpeted section. There are also memorials here to Indira Gandhi and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
March 2004. On our final day in New Delhi, Allan and I took a rickshaw out to The Lotus Temple, a splendorous Bahai House of worship set in some lovely public gardens. I had never heard of The Bahai faith, a mid-19th century religion founded in Iran that basically states all forms of world religion should unite in a celebration of humanity. I never have been nor never will be religious, but to me this sounded like the way forward! So I was curious to check out the temple and its vibe.
March 2004. The Lotus Temple is an incredibly impressive structure, built in 1986 upon the design of a floating lotus flower, the Bahai symbol of purity. To this day I have never seen a temple like it, with Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists sat side by side observing their varied forms of prayer.
March 2004. While I would hardly call New Delhi Railway Station an attraction, it’s certainly enough of an experience to round off my article. Allan and I had barely scratched the surface of New Delhi during our stay, but alas it was time to head off to the nearby city of Agra. The train station was absolutely mental, the only time I’ve ever seen people actually attaching themselves to carriage doors in order to be the first onboard.
For a deeper, more personalised look at my time in the country, have a look at my short story collection Incidents In India.
I’ve also written a series of travel reports from across India.
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