Delhi is in one word, overwhelming. In many words, it is loud, disorienting, colorful, energetic, dirty, smoggy, friendly, and so much more. The city is an urban conglomeration. If somebody told me they’d lost themselves for five days in Delhi without a clue where they were, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. It’s one of those cities. And for the naturalist types who try to constantly orient themselves directionally by time of day and the sun (yours truly)…. good luck. A vertigo-like haze always distorts the sun and sunshine. Delhi is in one word, exhausting.
But you have to do it. As the predominant entry and exit point in the country for foreign travelers, it’s the first and last part of most people’s trip. It does have iconic sites; the Lotus Temple, India Gate to name a few, and I didn’t even see either one of those. Like any major metropolis, national capitol, and city of international prominence, you’d be a traveling fool not to spend a few days at least seeing what you can.
Amanda and I stayed in a lovely hostel in a neighborhood called Hauz Kaus in the south of the city. Getting anywhere was often a trek. It was a 10 minute walk to get to the metro, lines for tickets and metal scanners awaited at every stop, and almost every metro ride was a chest-to-back affair.
Our first day in Delhi was a whirlwind. We started easily enough, going to a local market near our hostel to run some crucial errands. We sampled some local food, walked through the neighborhood, and once we felt we were ready to attack the city center, rode a tuk- tuk to the metro station.
We headed for the center of Delhi to see the Red Fort, or Lal Qila, the imperial palace for the Mughal Emperors of India. The fort was expansive on a scale rarely seen, 60ft red sandstone walls continuing for nearly half a mile. Inside the fort is the imperial complex and residence, where for hundreds of years the Mughal Emperors lived and decreed their laws.
After visiting the Red Fort we hopped back on the metro, and to the east bank of the Yemuna River to see the Temple of Akshardham. Finished in only the last decade, Akshardham possessed an unrivaled attention to detail. Every single inch of the building displayed a remarkable amount of skilled carving work, to the point where it felt like only a machine could complete a task so perfectly.
The temple sat in the middle of a beautiful garden and boasted its very own light show after sunset. We visited the temple at dusk as the exterior lights came on, further highlighting the decadent detail of the structure. For whatever reason, photography of any kind is forbidden in Akshardham, and as such I have no photos of it. But do me, and do yourself a favor, and please google it. It is the premier site in Delhi, and for a reason. Just pull open a tab right now. Google it.
The following day was set aside for the Taj Mahal. A six hour round-trip to and from Agra.
The Taj Mahal is beautiful and magnificent and everything it’s supposed to be… and yet in some intangible way it feels slightly underwhelming. I think because it is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world- identifiable by almost anyone- and by people without any other knowledge of India, it starts to suffer from almost unreasonable expectations.
I expect anyone’s first question when they’ve heard that I’ve been to India to be, “did you see the Taj Mahal?”. I guess what I’m getting at, is that for something so prevalent in everyone and anyone’s consciousness, something so immediately identifiable, it is one of those places that cannot escape being over-hyped. And so unfortunately (although not greatly), the Taj Mahal is slightly over-hyped.
Again, that doesn’t for one moment take away from what the Taj Mahal is, a one-of-a-kind wonder created from thousands of sparkling white marble blocks perfectly sculpted and at odds with everything else around. The structure is visible for miles around the Yemuna bank, jutting sharply into the sky. The main building itself and the four minarets that surround it all sit on a 25 foot tall marble platform that makes it look far larger than it is while approaching through the long and beautifully tended garden.
The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built by the 17th century Mughal prince and then Emperor, Shah Jahan to his favorite wife Mumtaz. Because of its time period in Indian history, the architecture seems to draw from equal parts Hindu and Islamic influence, having its very own distinct style, one of the many reasons that the building is so revered.
Our last full day in Delhi was spent wandering through the alleyways and markets of old Delhi. The markets were always compact, with hardly any space to walk for hundreds of meters in any distance, and what little space there was for movement was usually stolen by a tuk- tuk or errant cow. Sitting perched on a pedestal in the middle of old Delhi like a guard on duty is the beautiful Jama Masjid, or Jama Mosque.
The Jama Masjid has distinct eastern Islamic architecture. It looks like the brilliant mosques of Tehran or Samarkand rather than the more well-known western Islamic mosques such as those found in Istanbul or Cairo. The focus was just as much on the front facade as the minarets and domes, the latter of which are more prominent in the west at mosques such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
I might be in the minority for thinking this, but I thought the Jama Mosque was (slightly) more beautiful than the Taj Mahal.
My lasting impression of Delhi is not the monuments I saw and things I experienced, but rather time spent in the metros getting from one to the other or back to the hostel. Delhi seemed to have a severe problem of time entropy; seconds, minutes and hours disappearing into the ether of nothingness and transit purgatory, never to be reclaimed.
At first I found it frustrating, but also realized it’s also a function of the local lifestyle- as I was so frequently warned and reminded. To show up in India and impress your pace and time constraints upon your trip is foolish at best. Delhi is the kind of place where you pick the destination, make sure you know how to get there, and go knowing that the logistics are entirely out of your hands. Instead of letting it get to you, enjoy it as the expression of cultural laissez-faire that it is, a perfect example of the easy pace of Indian live. Do it because you might as well find some way to enjoy it.