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  11. India: Delhi – Old...

Visiting the atmospheric old part of Delhi to see the Jama Masjid (Grand Mosque), the narrow character filled streets and the iconic Red Fort

New Delhi is distinctive from Old Delhi and is the modern-day capital of India and one of Delhi city’s 11 districts. The foundation stone of New Delhi was laid by George V, Emperor of India during the Delhi Durban of 1911. It was designed by British architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert. The new capital was inaugurated on 13 February 1931, by Viceroy and Governor-General of India Lord Irwin. The design of New Delhi is based on wide roads, elegant homes and large green spaces. In contrast, Old Delhi and is made up of narrow, filthy streets and compact living spaces. It was founded as Shahjahanabad in 1638, when Shah Javan, the Mughal king at the time, decided to shift the Mughal capital from Agra.

We had discovered that the traffic in Delhi is crazy whatever time you are unlucky enough to find yourself travelling. It is surprising that anyone gets anywhere, but things kept moving, albeit chaotically! I am not sure why they bothered to paint the white lines on the road as nobody actually takes any notice of them! Somehow cars squeeze into the smallest of spaces, inching their way through, whilst the motorbikes and scooters, loaded with people, teeter and weave their way courageously in and out. We asked why, in the dusty atmosphere of Delhi, why so many cars are white, and we were told firstly, white reflects the heat, and secondly, everyone owns a can of white paint.

The traffic in Delhi is horrible - not helped by elephants crossing the road

Today, we had hit rush hour, which for India is later than we are used to in Europe and America, with many private companies starting at 9:30 am and government offices starting at 10:00 am. Fortunately one of the nice things about the slow progress of our commute was that we were able to experience more of the mêlé of day-to-day Delhi street lift. Although it felt that all of Delhi’s multitudes had descended on the streets simultaneously in their cars, auto-rickshaws and scooters many do use public transport. The buses, looking tired and battle-worn, their shell pockmarked with a multitude of dinks, were packed with people. Also, Delhi has a metro system that continues to grow. On this very day the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was opening a new metro line; the Magenta Line. Even this was controversial as Mr Modi declined to invite Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who was not a member of his BGP (Bharatiya Janata Party) party. In fact, rail travel is a much bigger deal altogether in India than it is in the USA. Although the USA has much more track it carries far fewer passengers; Thirty million on Amtrack and about one billion commuter travellers. In comparison in India in 2015 eight billion people travelled on India’s trains! It is also the world’s eighth-largest employer, with 1.3 million employees (the largest in the US department of defence with three million. Wow!). During this trip to Old Dehli, we got to see some of the more unusual forms of transport, including an ornately decked wedding horse being returned, and an elephant crossing the road (definitely not something you would not see in Bend, Oregon).

Our first port of call was the Masjid-i Jahān-Numā (World-reflecting Mosque), commonly known as the Jama Masjid of Delhi. This great mosque of Old Delhi is the largest in India, with a courtyard capable of holding 25,000 devotees. It was begun in 1644 and ended up being the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. The highly decorative mosque has three great gates, four towers and two 40m high minarets and is constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marble. Before entering the mosque, we had to pay the 150 rupees to bring in our camera, remove our shoes and Karen had to dress in a rather fetching robe (if you see the pictures you note the heavy sarcasm in this statement!) The façade of the mosque is spectacular, but it is only a few tens of feet deep. We snapped away, getting the most of our 150 rupee camera fee, despite the air quality being poor – this only seemed to add to the atmospheric ambience. Milling around the Mosque was interesting; it was yet another great opportunity for people watching – both the visitors and worshipers.

Great Mosque, Jama Masjid, Old Delhi, India. The haze from the Delhi smog gives the square of the mosque an eerie atmosphere
Lady at prayer
Karen dresses modestly
Karen poses inside the square of the Grand Mosque
A group of men passing the day at the Grand Mosque

The next stop, the Red Fort, was on the other side of Old Delhi and we had to decide our mode of transport. We were offered the chance to go by cycle rickshaw through the narrow streets. This was an opportunity not to be missed. As I climbed in I discovered that I was not ideally designed for the rickshaw of old Delhi, my head resting firmly on the roof. There was no seat belt or much of anything to hang on to, apart from each other, and having any part of your body hanging out was definitely a bad idea if you wanted to keep it attached to your body. Anyway, there was no time to worry about such things as we headed off. The alleys were extremely narrow; probably six to eight feet wide and bustling with pedestrians, other rickshaws and motorbikes and scooters. This was not a ride for the faint-hearted and was as much of a thrill ride as you would find at a Six Flags resort. It was truly exhilarating to speed (relatively) through the alleys dodging oncoming traffic, to the point Karen and I were in a state of nervous hysteria. Karen told me to take as many pictures as possible, which was not as easy as might otherwise be expected as we jerked from side to side. The engineer in me was particularly taken with a spaghetti of power lines running across the tops of the alleys … if anything went wrong with one of those circuits I could not imagine how they would get fixed. Towards the end of our trip, our guide Zupaigh pulled the rickshaws over to point out a couple of things.

You can buy just about anything
Not sure about the ladder
Catching up with the day’s news
Creative use of transportation
I am not sure how they would fix this if something went wrong!

The first thing was two co-located temples, one a stunning white marble Hindu Temple (much more on Hinduism later), Gauri Shankar Mandir, and the second Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, a Jainist Temple. Jainists form a small percentage of the religious makeup of India (0.4%), which is likely why I have never heard of them. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion. Followers of Jainism are called “Jains”, a word derived from the Sanskrit word Jina (victor) and connoting the path of victory in crossing over life’s stream of rebirths through an ethical and spiritual lift. Jains trace their history through a succession of twenty-four victorious saviours and teachers known as Tirthankaras, the first who is believed to have lived millions of years ago, and the twenty-fourth being the Mahavira around 500 BCE.

Coming back to why we stopped! The second thing to be pointed out was a small group of men standing outside a McDonalds in red turbans. These were not burger flippers or Ronald’s helpers, but were, in fact, a caste with a specific role in life. Their sole job was to clean people’s ears. No joke! A skill that is passed down from father to son – not sure what the prospects are for someone born into that caste!

Our tempestuous rickshaw journey comes to an end!
The caste system throws people into weird professions – the men in the background wearing red hats are professional ear wax cleaners
Here you can order a McFlurry and get your ears cleaned!
Autorickshaws are the locals preferred mode of transport
Jain temple opposite the Red Fort

A few hundred yards further down the road our journey ended at the entrance to Red Fort.

The Red Fort is a large complex in the centre of Old Delhi, and for 200 years, until 1857, was the main residence of the Mughal emperors. In addition to accommodating the emperors and their households, it was the ceremonial and political centre of the Mughal state and the setting for events critically impacting the region. Sadly, the Red Fort today is not what it was once was. The fort was plundered of its artwork and jewels during Nadir Shah’s invasion of the Mughal Empire in 1747. Most of the fort’s precious marble structures were subsequently destroyed by the British following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. The fort’s defensive walls were largely spared, and the fortress was subsequently used as a garrison. The Red Fort was also the site where the British put the last Mughal Emperor on trial before exiling him to Rangoon in 1858.

As we walked up to the entrance I was drawn to a couple of things, the first being the many stray dogs hanging around and secondly the ramshackle framework that was being used by the men working on the renovation of the walls. These were not the solid-looking metal scaffolding that is used by workmen in the US and Europe but was instead made from bamboo (which to be fair is very strong) and lashed with rope. I can only imagine what health and safety would say if you tried to suggest using this type of framework on a building site back home.

Ramshackle scaffold

Feral dogs can be seen everywhere and seem to be tolerated, if not revered, by the locals, who feed them tidbits. It is a part of the culture to give scraps to the feral animals because when you pass into the afterlife these kindnesses will be rewarded. Apparently, there are some 30 million feral dogs in India, which is all well and good, but 20,000 people die each year from rabies, which means that 35% of human deaths from rabies happen in India. That sounds like a problem! On the other hand, cats are thought to be unlucky, by some, so you don’t see so many of those around.

Security at the Red Fort was tight, evidenced by the many armed soldiers and armoured vehicle on the approach to the entrance. The reason for this level of security is the fact the Red Fort is an active military base and reflects the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan – terrorist attacks in India are sadly too common. At the entrance two lines formed; one for men and one for women. The men have to climb on to a platform where you get to be frisked by a gruff soldier, whilst the ladies, to protect their modesty, get to stand behind a curtain, where they are frisked by an equally gruff female soldier.

Security at the Red Fort, Old Delhi, India is very tight after terrorist attacks in recent years

Once inside you get to appreciate the scale of the complex, with elegant gardens and numerous stately buildings. Sadly, many of the original structures were demolished by the British and replaced with barracks buildings. What remains of the original Mughal buildings are the imperial apartments, consisting of a row of pavilions connected by a water channel known as the “Stream of Paradise!” These buildings had been allowed to fall into a bad state of repair, but the government has stepped in to refurbish them. Unfortunately, they are closed to visitors, so we could only stand and admire them from the outside.

Historical marker inside the Red Fort Complex
Extremely intricate carvings
The Murghal royal family public meeting hall
Karen poses at the Red Fort Complex

In Summary … 

  • A cycle rickshaw ride is a must – it is exhilarating and possible dangerous
  • The old part of Delhi is bustling, dirty and fun
  • The Red Fort is a must for any visit to Delhi

Planning the journey

JAMA MASJID (GRAND MOSQUE)

How to Reach Jama Masjid Delhi

Jama Masjid is well connected to the rest of the city. After the opening of the Heritage Line (An extension of Violet line), Jama Masjid now has its own metro station. Another nearby metro station to Jama Masjid is Chawri Bazaar on the Yellow line, only 500 meters away. It is also at a walkable distance from the Old Delhi Railway station and ISBT Kashmere Gate. Auto rickshaws and taxis are also easily available here.

Entry Fee & Timings of Jama Masjid Delhi

Jama Masjid in Delhi opens from 7 AM to 12 PM and then again at 1.30 PM and closes at 6.30 PM. It is open on all days of the week.

There is no entry fee to visit Jama Masjid. However, if one wants to click any photographs, they need to pay Rs. 300 as the ticket price for photography.

THE RED FORT

Red Fort Timings are from 9.30 AM to 4.30 PM. It is open on all days of the week except on Mondays. The opening time of Red Fort Delhi is 9.30 AM and the closing time is 4.30 PM.

Entry fee of Red Fort for Indian citizens is Rs.35 per person while for foreign tourists it is Rs.500 per person. For the tourists from SAARC countries (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal) and BIMSTEC Countries (Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh and Myanmar), the red fort entry fee is the same as that of Indian citizens, i.e., Rs.35 per person.

Best time to visit New Delhi

While October to March is the best time to visit Delhi because of cool weather. However, some weeks in late November to January should be avoided because of heavy smog cover. February and March have great weather and relatively clean air to travel outside. Delhi experiences extreme temperatures in the summer and winter seasons. The summer months (April to July) are scorching hot in Delhi as the temperature might rise to 45 degrees Celsius. Temperatures fall a little during the monsoon season (August to September) and certain days can be good for roaming around.

Places to visit close by

1. QUTAB MINAR

One of the most popular places to see in Delhi, Qutab Minar (Hindi: क़ुतुब मीनार, Urdu: قطب مینار) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, presenting a glimpse into the grandeur of the past. Owing to its worldwide popularity Qutub Minar has become an integral part of every Delhi Tour.

Delhi Qutub Minar boasts of being one of the tallest minarets in the world as the height of Qutub Minar is 72.5 meters. Built in 1192 by Qutab-ud-din Aibak, it is considered to be first building, marking the arrival of Muslim rulers in the country. Although there are also a few contradicting theories on the same.

2. HUMAYUN’S TOMB

Also referred as Maqbara-e-Humayun, Humayun’s tomb is an architectural masterpiece. It is considered to be the first garden tomb to be built in Indian. It is the tomb of Mughal emperor Humayun. Humayun’s tomb has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993 which further adds to the importance of this impressive structure of red sandstone. Humayun’s tomb is the first structure in India that was built in the Mughal style of architecture.

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3. INDIA GATE

A popular monument in India, India Gate stands majestically, presenting an awe-inspiring sight. Formerly known as Kingsway, India Gate construction was completed in 1931. India Gate Delhi has been a symbol of sacrifice and dedication of India soldiers.

Designed by Edwin Lutyens, it was constructed in the honour of 90,000 Indian soldiers who lost their life in the World War I. Also known as India War Memorial, it also has 13,516 names of Indian and British soldiers engraved on its arch and foundations. These soldiers lost their lives during the Afghan War of 1919.

Amar Jawan Jyoti, which is also an important part of India Gate, was built later as a tribute to Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in the Indo-Pakistan War of December 1971.

4. RAJ GHAT (GHANDI MEMORIAL)

The focus of this open-air memorial to Mahatma Gandhi is a black marble platform marking the place where the peace leader was cremated after his assassination in 1948. It’s a peaceful, beautiful site; memorial ceremonies are held on Fridays.

Where to stay in New Delhi

1. HAVELI DHARAMPURA

Set in the heart of Delhi, WelcomHeritage Haveli Dharampura, awarded UNESCO award for cultural and heritage restoration, is nestled among the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk. Guests can enjoy the on-site restaurant. Free WiFi is available.

Red Fort is 1,000 yards from Haveli Dharampura, while Rāj Ghāt is 1.1 miles away. The nearest airport is Delhi International Airport, 10.6 miles from the property.

A staycation at Haveli Dharampura ensures you experience all of Old Delhi under one roof. A heritage traveller’s dream , the rooms feature traditional interior designs within the shell of modern amenities.

2. MAIDENS HOTEL

Built in 1903, Maidens Hotel showcases 19th century colonial charm and architecture. It has an outdoor pool, fitness centre and features a coffee shop which extends into a charming, open courtyard. Modern rooms include a flat-screen satellite TV. Free WiFi is available in the rooms of the property.

Air-conditioned rooms feature a minibar and free bottled water. Private bathroom includes a shower and free toiletries.

Just 200 yards from Civil Line Metro station, Maidens Hotel New Delhi is 1.6 miles from The Red Fort monuments and Chandni Chowk (market). New Delhi Airport is about a 1-hour drive from the hotel.

3. BLOOM ROOMS NEW DELHI

Situated in New Delhi, 0.9 miles from Jantar Mantar, bloomrooms @ Janpath features accommodation with a restaurant, free private parking and a shared lounge. This 3-star hotel offers a tour desk and luggage storage space. The accommodation provides a 24-hour front desk, airport transfers, a concierge service and free WiFi throughout the property.

Guests at the hotel can enjoy a buffet breakfast.

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is 1.2 miles from bloomrooms @ Janpath, while India Gate is 1.2 miles from the property. The nearest airport is Delhi International Airport, 8.7 miles from the accommodation.

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