Sunday March 20th 10:05 PM
I found myself stumbling in my boxers to the door of our room in Delhi at 3:45 AM this morning to answer what sounded like the world’s tiniest machine gun. A boy of about 16 entered the room with a tray that he set on our table. "Coffee, sir".
Slack-jawed, I ran my fingers through my hair as I realized that this was our wake-up call. What a whirlwind the past few days have been.
Thursday and Friday I spent working. On Thursday a long-time colleague was kind enough to invite me to dine with him at his home in Noida. I was treated to some of the best food I’ve had in India so far: ultra-thin homemade dosas with chutney, dal, and and a spice mixture that he referred to as "gunpowder". Whether or not this gunpowder contributed to my later illness, I can’t say, but it sure was tasty.
I got off to a rough start on Friday as some sort of minor intestinal ailment had set in. I imagine my total lack of care when it comes to food had a big part to play in that. Suffice it to say that Friday was rough, and I fasted a good part of the morning to try and reset. At 11:30 PM on Friday Cary arrived and the vacation portion of the trip officially started.
Akshardham – Saturday AM
We both slept like stones on Friday night, and woke Saturday morning ready for our 8:00 AM pickup. First stop: Akshardham.
Akshardham is a temple complex constructed in the modern age to replicate ancient Hindu temple styles. Built by followers of Swaminarayan Hinduism, it is the largest of it’s kind in the world. We actually have a much smaller Akshardham close to my home in Georgia that I intend to visit when I return.
Akshardham is referred to as India’s Spiritual Disneyland by many guidebooks, and in that capacity it doesn’t disappoint. There is a boat ride featuring animatronics that was described by several co-workers as being equivalent to "It’s a small world after all" at Disneyworld. We didn’t see the boat ride, but we did stroll the vast gardens, the outer wall, and of course the temple itself. Following some basic rules regarding an examination of a Hindu temple, we walked clockwise around each of the three levels, taking in first the Elephant plinth around the base. From there we ascended the stairs onto the cool marble floors of the second level (did I mention we were required to go barefoot), examining the sandstone walls of the temple, intricately adorned with hand carved statues of the gods and goddesses, not to mention tight filigrees and hundreds of tiny elephants, all of which are unique. From there we wound our way into the temple itself, which is carved entirely of marble.
I really don’t know how to describe the temple. It’s overwhelming. The style of architecture, a mixture Vastu and Pancharatra Shastra is an Ikea designers worst nightmare. It is literally tiring to look at; the enormity of the structure had me straining to see figures carved on every wall and ceiling, and my eyes could not keep up with the visual barrage. The experience was exhausting. To describe it would not do it justice, you would have to make the journey yourself to see what I mean, especially since no cameras are allowed inside.
After leaving the temple we walked the grounds in search of refreshment and instead came across a small temple behind the main temple. Cary encouraged us to step inside, where we found ourselves in the middle of ceremony called Abishehk. The experience lasted about twenty minutes, and involved first having the characteristic "red dot" thumb printed on your forehead. Then, after sitting cross-legged on the floor with a hammered copper bowl of water in front of you, a youth sings a song after which you’re invited to pour your bowl of copper water over the head of a statue in the likeness of Swaminarayan. It was an experience; Cary and I both agreed we left the short ceremony feeling relaxed and ready for our next stop, Jama Masjid.
Jama Masjid – Saturday AM
We climbed through the crowded streets of Old Delhi making our way through and sea of single-speed rickshaws, extremely dangerous electrical junctions, and and tiny shops packed so close together you couldn’t tell where one began and another ended. We arrived at the base of Jama Masjid, just as a half dozen tour buses arrived. The smell of rupees to be made mingled with the scent of smelly feet (you have to take your shoes off to go into Jama Masjid as well), and the site guides were lining up to catch a whiff.
A Note about Site Guides
When you arrive at a tourist site in India, there are always "official" guides there, with some sort of credentials ready to walk you through the site, explain historic points of interest or provide anecdotes from a knowledgeable local. They can actually be quite talented. They can handle a crowded bus of foreign tourists, speaking whatever language the group happens to speak (I’ve heard Japanese, French and German in addition to English so far), and they seem to know what they’re talking about. Depending on who you are and how you like to travel, they can come in handy, but it goes without saying that you should know what you’re going to pay this fellow before he tags along with you. We got into what could have been a bad situation at Jama Masjid when a guide, after showing us the site, said he is paid no less than 500Rs. That’s about $11 USD, for less than 15 minutes of work. I know expertise is priceless but when you start to add that up over a full 8-10 hour day that’s quite a bit, and I knew I was being ripped off. So we refused to pay him more than half that amount.
Jama Masjid was quite a site. Sitting at the top of a very crowded street in Old Delhi, you can peer over the ledge and see markets for miles. The mosque itself is still in operation, and several thousand locals visit regularly to wash their feet and face with the original well water, and pray. While we were there the enormous chandelier was being cleaned in expectation of the arrival of a renowned imam, who was to deliver a service from the famous Mosque.
Another observation: There seems to be an obsession with object association in India. This means anything a famous religious figure touched, wore, wrote, or was otherwise attached to during their lifetime. The most benign of these objects might be a page from a book they wrote. There are some real stretches though, and if you want to see such a stretch feel free to have a private look at the small marble treasure trove of artifacts stored at Jama Masjid that are associated with the prophet Muhammad. You’ll be treated to a look at his camel-hide sandals, a marble tile he stood upon, and a hair from his beard. You heard me. At Akshardham we were exposed to similar artifacts related to Swaminarayan, such as skin flakes and nails. I’m not sure what the obsession is, and I certainly hope that nobody boxes up my old nail clippings in order to view them from behind a VIP rope barrier when I die. At least at Akshardham the viewing was free; at Jama Masjid you will be asked to make a "donation", and that donation better not be less than 200 Rs.
Speaking of donations, nothing in India is free. I’ve heard stories about how cheap it is to travel in India, and I assume that these people must have spent their entire vacation in their hotel rooms. Besides the guides and donations to view strange objects, you’ll find yourself being asked for tips for everything from the guys watching your shoes outside a monument to even the smallest tidbits of information about a site. At one point an official guard told me that there was a tunnel that goes from Delhi to the Red Fort in Agra, after which I was asked to pay 50Rs for the information. No, it was not worth $1 for you to tell me something I already know. Thanks though. The warning here is that India appears cheap, and the cost can certainly reduced be if you know how to wave a hand and firmly say "No". If you don’t have the ability to do that before you arrive, or don’t develop it quickly, India will quickly feel like death by a thousand cuts as tourist traps nickel and dime you into bankruptcy.
Cary and I learned some lessons at Jama Masjid, but all irritation aside it was well worth it and a fine site to see. With some experience under our belt we headed over the the India Gate. Our strategy here was simply to take some pictures; There isn’t a whole lot to see on site other than the gate itself. If you time it right and the Delhi haze has burned off, you’ll get some fantastic shots with the president’s house in the background, showing off some of the more modern Indian structures. We took a quick trip to the gates of the president’s house for some more photography, grabbed a bite to eat at a local restaurant, then headed to Qutub Minar for the afternoon.
Part II cover our Saturday afternoon in Delhi.