I intended to forego the tiresome burden of writing this blog and simply enjoy the bliss of a stress-free, work-free trip in India. But when I revealed this proposition to Grandma, her distraught facial expression compelled me to reevaluate my plans. So begrudgingly, I will again sacrifice countless hours to deliver accounts of my travel exploits; hoping to write in a more succinct manner than previously, but knowing such efforts will be futile.
In total contrast to my characteristic and slightly abnormal custom of excessively researching travel destinations, I flew to India just one week after booking my flight with virtually no plans other than to visit Delhi. However, I rectified this somewhat unsettling situation after fifteen hours straight of intense Lonely Planet study, formulating a loose itinerary that restricted my travels to North India. This was despite the distractions of the requisite outrageous behaviour by nearby passengers onboard both of my flights en route to Delhi. For nine hours to Kuala Lumpur, I suffered through the maniacal cackling of a mother-daughter combination sitting behind me that successfully redefined my idea of what constitutes a total bogan. As they gasped for breath in hysterics over comments of an embarrassingly unhumorous nature, they blew $15 a pop on scotch and coke and subsequently spilled their beverages everywhere – including on my elbow. Needless to say, they failed to respect onboard etiquette by repeatedly grabbing and pushing my seat each time they needed to relieve themselves of their drinks. As a squished 6’3” passenger, I still manage to slither in-and-out of my seat without manhandling any others, so I therefore don’t accept the need for stumpier people to disrupt my comfort! On my flight to Delhi, the petite lady in front of me seemed shocked at the aggressive kneeing unleashed into her seat when she reclined it back – I’m rather territorial about precious leg space and always well prepared for such battles!
India is characterised as a “subcontinent” not only because of continental drift theory, but also because of the country’s extreme cultural and environmental diversity. Indeed, describing India as a singular country is somewhat misleading, because each of its 28 states are remarkably distinct with their own languages, ethnicities, traditional clothing, cuisines and customs. India is therefore comparable to the entire continent of Europe, although its population is more than double the size. As the federal capital and fifth largest megalopolis on the planet, Delhi serves as the melting pot of this vast nation, with its myriad of regional identities and religions present in the city. Delhi was the logical starting point for my trip in India – not least because of the astonishingly cheap airfare I was able to book!
Contrary to popular belief, New Delhi and Old Delhi are not independent cities, but rather staggeringly different neighbouring districts within one humungous megacity. Old Delhi is among the most densely crowded areas in the world, a labyrinth of bazaars stockpiled with every imaginable product (except bottled water!) and congested by flotillas of rickshaws, tuk-tuks and trucks. Conversely, New Delhi evokes space and order with wide boulevards, monumental government buildings, manicured lawns and sterile stores for Western brands. Delhi’s boundless suburbs sprawl in all directions surrounding these two central districts.
Backpackers typically stay in the derelict hotels in the neighbourhood of Paharganj, which is notorious for scams, crime and the occasional tourist murder. However, contemporary hostels have recently popped up in the suburbs of South Delhi; considered to be the “posh” area of the megalopolis (though still a far-cry from our leafy Eastern suburbs). I stayed in a hostel around 30 minutes by metro (outstanding system) from the centre of the city, but enjoyed the relative peace of the area free from the incessant hassling and chaos rampant in Old Delhi. I discovered an expansive forested park near my hostel where local Indians and expats exercised; some strenuously, some not so much. I went for a run each morning through the park and became utterly saturated within seconds due to the 30+ degrees heat and 85-90% humidity.
Exiting the metro into the utter mayhem of Old Delhi was my first proper experience of India – and what an overwhelming experience it provided! Never before have I witnessed such extraordinary traffic; it becomes so incredibly jammed that the wheels of rickshaws and bicycles literally touch that of neighbouring vehicles. Crossing the road is actually rather safe because of the seemingly perpetual standstill. Old Delhi consists of winding streets lined with decaying though architecturally unremarkable buildings. Many of the streets and alleys specialise in particular types of merchandise (such as gift cards) and are overly crammed with products. Old Delhi is ground zero for some of the worst hassling on the planet and I was woefully out of form with dealing with them on day one. Fortunately though, I quickly returned to my impenetrable best the next day, employing my usual tactics of either playful sarcasm or totally ignoring them (I have an excellent face for poker, just not the game).
Delhi was originally founded by Hindu rulers, but a succession of Muslim dynasties stretching for 600 years bestowed upon the city its most impressive architectural wonders. The Qutb Minar Complex, located in the far south of Delhi, is the archaeological ruins of the first Muslim settlement. The site is dominated by a slender 73 metre high Afghan-style tower, which was constructed to proclaim Islam’s victory in North India. The structure and its intricately carved sandstone bands are remarkably well preserved after more than eight centuries. The ruins of mosques, tombs and a madrasa (Islamic university) also dot the site, but the other astonishing feature of the Qutb Minar Complex is a humble iron pillar. The pillar is a metallurgical mystery, because it has not rusted after 1600 years. It has yet to be discovered how the pillar was cast with such purity using the contemporary technology (such technology was not developed in Europe until the nineteenth century).
The Mughals established India’s greatest Islamic empire, conquering most of the Subcontinent and constructing some of its finest edifices. Humayun’s Tomb is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture, a perfectly proportioned and symmetrical imperial mausoleum. The structure is both monumental and serenely beautiful; a red sandstone prototype for the Taj Mahal. Clustered behind the vast ornamental gardens of Humayun’s Tomb are a tangle of crowded Muslim bazaars selling flowers, religious offerings and… kebabs. Hidden within the bazaar tunnels is a marble shrine dedicated to a Muslim Sufi saint. When I visited the compact shrine precinct at sunset, it was heaving with devotees garbed in pristine white Islamic clothing. My entrance was met with warm welcomes and questioning scolds; I certainly noticed I was the only non-believer there! Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor famed for commissioning the construction of the Taj Mahal, was also responsible for the foundations of Old Delhi. He ordered the construction of the Red Fort to serve as the new capital of the empire, with the bazaars and religious buildings of Old Delhi subsequently growing organically to the west of the Fort’s walls. While the imperious red sandstone walls were impressive, I found the interior buildings and gardens somewhat underwhelming.
British presence in India commenced from 1600 with the East India Company establishing trading posts at ports along the Subcontinent’s coastline. Using private armies, the company grew to dominate almost the entire Subcontinent, before the British Parliament transferred the rule of India directly to the Crown in 1857. The British Raj’s capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 because of increasing rebelliousness in the Bengali metropolis. The British constructed their administrative centre south of the rambling and derelict Old Delhi, an overwhelmingly spacious area demonstrative of imperial might somewhat comparable to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Neoclassical government buildings crown a hill overlooking a monumental two kilometre avenue (the Rajpath) leading to India Gate, which commemorates the deceased Indian soldiers who fought in World War One. Fanning out from the Rajpath are well planned districts of wide tree-lined boulevards, colonial buildings, ornate gardens and expensive shops.
I can proudly boast of departing Delhi after four days without acquiring its eponymous “belly”. It was certainly not for lack of eating. As the capital and multicultural melting pot of arguably the world’s most diverse country, Delhi is predictably a foodie’s paradise. Old Delhi is studded with famed centuries-old snack stalls and Mughlai kebab dens, which I hopped between on multiple delicious food safaris. Lassis from a hole-in-the-wall shop were easily my highlight – to think we’re only exposed to mango lassis (the world’s best drink) and salted lassis in Australia! I sampled almond and saffron lassi that was so mindbogglingly luxurious I was compelled to return an hour later for the rosewater lassi – equally extraordinary! While rice is often considered to be synonymous with Indian cuisine, bread is actually the dominate staple of the North Indian diet. The typical breakfast meal is parantha, which is essentially roti bread stuffed with potatoes, vegetables or paneer cheese. I visited a tiny alley in Old Delhi famed for deep-fried paranthas and sampled pea parantha, potato parantha and lemon parantha served with pumpkin curry, potato curry and banana chutney – superb. Dahi vada is a delicious snack food, consisting of fried chickpea-flour balls soaked in yoghurt and topped with sweet chutney. The culinary legacy of the Mughals in Delhi is the obsession with kebabs in the Muslim areas of the city. I feasted on seekh kebabs (spiced mutton kebabs similar to kofta), Mughlai chicken (a rich, fatty chicken curry) and naan bread at legendary Karim’s. Unlike the rest of Asia, India boasts a phenomenal repertoire of desserts and sweets. Probably the most indulgent of their sickly sweet treats are jalebis, which are deep fried flour batter shaped into pretzels and soaked in sugar syrup. Rabri faluda is a traditional ice-cream dish consisting of cold vermicelli noodles covered in a sweet milk mixture spiced with cardamon – a superb flavour addition to desserts.
Delhi has a rather poor reputation on the traveller circuit, as most people attempt to leave the city quickly or avoid it altogether. But I buck the trend because I actually quite like Delhi. Staying in a relatively wealthy residential district probably contributed to my enjoyment of the city, because it allowed me to escape the hassling and crowds of Old Delhi. Or perhaps it was simply because I felt like a celebrity in Delhi, with legions of Indian tourists desiring a coveted photograph beside The Emperor with his much admired hat.
That’s all for now,