India: Delhi – Old Delhi; Great Mosque & The Red Fort
Following the trails of great leaders of India from the past: The Great Mosque, The Red Fort, Gandhi’s Tomb & India Gate.
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.
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 which 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 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 is 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 to people watch – both the visitors and worshipers.
The next stop, the Red Fort, was 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 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.
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 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!
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 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 are used by workmen in the US and Europe but were instead were 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.
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. 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.
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.
Exiting the Red Fort, we risked life and limb to reunite with our driver, to continue our journey, stopping next at a memorial to the great Mahatma Gandhi, which marks the spot where he was cremated shortly after his assignation on 30th January 1948.
Born and raised in a Hindu merchant caste family in coastal Gujarat and trained in law in London, Gandhi first employed nonviolent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, where the resident Indian communities struggled for civil rights. After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for various social causes and for achieving self-rule.
Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the 400 km (250 mi) Dandi Salt March in 1930 and later in calling for the British to Quit India 1942. He was imprisoned for many years, upon many occasions, in both South Africa and India. He lived modestly in a self-sufficient community.
Eventually, in August 1947, Britain granted independence, but the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. As many displaced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs made their way to new lands, religious violence broke out. Some Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating in agreeing to the division of India. Among them, was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu Nationalist who assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948, firing three bullets into his chest. Godse was found guilty and executed the following year.
The monument itself is very simple; a black marble slab on a plinth, lovingly decorated with fresh flowers. Many Indians come to this site in reverence to Gandhi, and today was no exception. This was also our first experience of the locals wanting to take a selfie with us, in fact, we ended up taking several just at this monument. This was very much a hit and run visit as we had a couple more photo opportunities stops to make before the end of the day.
Next was the India Gate. Designed by Edwin Lutyens, India Gate is a memorial to 70,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who died in the period 1914–21 in the First World War and elsewhere in the Near and the Far East, and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. 13,300 servicemen’s names, including some soldiers and officers from the United Kingdom, are inscribed on the gate. The India Gate, even though a war memorial, evokes the architecture of the triumphal arch in the style of the Arc de Triomphe.
As it was still school holiday time, the area of the park surrounding us was full of people enjoying themselves, but we managed to run the gauntlet of small kids weaving around in giant remote-controlled cars to take a few photos and hop back into the car and head to our final destination, the Presidential Palace.
Partially set aside as the Indian Prime Minister residence, the Presidential Palace is a truly enormous complex which faces India Gate in the distance along an elegant mall. ‘Enormous’ does not do justice to its size; it makes Buckingham Palace look like a 3 bed, semi-detached house and the White House a dolls house. The Palace is officially known as Rashtrapati Bhavan and was previously the home of the Viceroy of India (how he was allowed to have a larger pad than the Monarch is hard to fathom!). At the far west end is the 340 room, the main building where the President gets to live. In total the Presidential estate extends to 320 acres including a number of large buildings and formal gardens.
By now we were exhausted and were glad to fight our way through the traffic back to the hotel and ready ourselves for our trip to Varanasi.
Lessons for the day:
- Cycle rickshaws are not for the faint-hearted
- Don’t work for the local electricity company
- Still happy eating curry 3 times a day!
- Be prepared to be in selfies with complete strangers