Goodbye, rolling hills of tea gardens and sweeping mountain views of north east India. Hello, madness and magnetism of its capital. Delhi is a name familiar with the world over, steeped in culture that is growing with modern lifestyles as well as maintaining and preserving the traditional values that travellers so desperately seek when they visit India. Given that India is a third of the size of Europe, Delhi is probably overlooked by visitors, shadowed by one of the other states that more often star in Western stories. For the Indian in our multicultural trio, Delhi is her roots and her home; for a short time, it became mine, too.
A city filled with treasure, but Delhi has less of things that are a “must-do”, and more of an opportunity to get familiar with and experience daily Delhi life. The first thing that connects everyone’s hearts is their stomach. Meals are hearty and plentiful, and the values of cooking and home economics are never underestimated. Our daily routine slowed down, moved later than my western habits, and centred on food. Breakfast came at around 10am and was never meagre – if you leave the table feeling hungry in an Indian household, it’s your own fault! At around 2 or 3pm, the family would prepare lunch, perhaps snacking a bit before. When I felt myself slide into a food coma, it was time to rest. As the heat wore off and the sun started to set, we’d wake ourselves up with some tea, some chit-chat and maybe a walk to the local market, sampling some of the fresh local chaats while moving up and down the stalls. Until our heads felt heavy and eyes drooping, we talked and grazed through a supper. Each thing seemed to be more delicious than the last and it was a real test of self-control to not gorge endlessly.
Jumbled across India’s curry-scented capital are long-standing relics and landmarks, some revealing Delhi to be one of the oldest cities in the world. The Qutub Minar was built late 12th century; fast forward in time, the Red Fort was the grand home of the Mughal emperor for around two centuries until the mid 1800s. In its more modern history, the Lotus Temple was constructed almost thirty years ago and contrasts itself with the noise and chaotic charm of the nearby city.
The Bahai House of Worship (or Lotus Temple) is a source of silence, a sanctuary designed for contemplation inside its lotus-shaped architecture. Though the temple narrates the story of the Bahai faith, it concerns itself with the interfaith of its visitors, bringing people who affiliate with any belief or religion together. Twenty seven white marble leaves compose the temple’s lotus shape, surrounded by pools of water. Not only do the pools look cool and refreshing when you’re queuing up in the heat of the day; the pools double up as a natural ventilation for visitors who meditate at the centre of the lotus.
Set in its own traditions, yet open to the ever-changing cultural dynamics from a number of states and countries both neighbouring and far away, Delhi has a lot to offer. Shopping in Delhi is incredibly easy and convenient, bazaars being aplenty and varied from a dusty span of stalls to international fashion in megamalls. Our Indian family recommended the Dilli Haat, an open-air craft market that runs all day, everyday, and at night – unlike other close-by weekend markets. Dilli Haat feels more like entering a village, where sellers in cottages with thatched roofs might interest you in materials and products that originate from all across India. Pashminas, silk and cotton, small ornaments and furniture can all be found at Dilli Haat. I found a kiosk displaying striking paintings that are customary to a particular state and spent a lot of my afternoon flicking through endless designs, each with varying hues of colour in their bold prints.
A large amount of the sellers rotate every fifteen days, so what we saw on our visit will probably be different to what someone sees today. Naturally, a food plaza offers from the most basic of snacks to thali and hearty meals. Unfortunately, I chose the day dedicated to sampling Delhi’s deli to be as sick as the proverbial dog. My wander through the bazaar was more like a feeble crawl from one seat to another, wailing that the passing smells of food might make me see my breakfast once more… This also hindered a lot of our plans in Delhi, since I couldn’t go five minutes without needing the car to pull over. The silver lining is that Delhi isn’t sparkly clean, and not a single eyebrow was raised at retching at the side of the road. What’s a trip to India without the infamous Delhi Belly?
In the gigantic state of Uttar Pradesh is Agra, famed for its spiritual greatness and being the home of three UNESCO World Heritage sites: Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and the postcard-perfect Taj Mahal. Dry and dusty, the roads through the city are winded with wandering men, wild livestock and the sacred cow lying in the middle of the track. The journey from the quiet, pretty suburb of Gurgaon through the city is a visionary glimpse of how yet again, the landscape and environments of Incredible India alters. Getting lost in the state’s diversions and new paths gave something to learn about Uttar Pradesh, but left us decidedly abandoning the plans to see Agra’s Mughal Fort. Still, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.
A city in itself, Fatehpur Sikri was briefly the capital of the Mughal Empire. In the 16th century in its glory, this “City of Victory”, would have been something stupendous. Now, it falls victim to a daily rife of beggars and sellers that pester visitors into giving in and providing money, just to be free of the hassle, without the want for what is being sold. The imperial complex is otherwise an enchanting yet sobering site, the tombs and graves of dozens dotted around the quad. Centred in the middle of the complex, known as Jama Masjid, is the eternal home and tomb of Sheikh Salim Christi, a Sufi saint. Many consider Fatehpur Sikri to be the finest example of Mughal architecture, combining elements or both Islamic and Hindu influence.
It isn’t Fatehpur Sikri that people would seek the state of Uttar Pradesh for. Forever it will live in the shadows of something greater, something that might just be the most beautiful building in the world. The Taj Mahal is extraordinary. It’s prodigious. For the sake of its iconic symmetrical image, it’s incomparable to any photograph. It is probably the largest declaration of love and devotion to another – Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century commissioned its construction after the death of Mumtaz Mahal, his third and most-loved wife. 20, 000 workers from predominantly Persia built the mausoleum, using around 1000 elephants for labour. One of India’s famous passed-down stories is that once the Taj was finished, the emperor has the workers’ arms cut off, so nothing so beautiful could be built again elsewhere.
Moving closer, the Taj Mahal stops being just “white”. It starts to glimmer and shine. Closer still, the white marble is adorned with inlays of semi-precious stones, including turquoise, tiger eye, jasper, malachite green and onyx, which is also used in the arabic script that frames the door of the mausoleum. Aside from the majesty of the Taj, something that left me dazzled was the orange carnelian inlay. I’d never heard of this stone, and didn’t think much about it until a worker inside the mausoleum took a small torch and pressed it to the inlaid floral pattern made by the precious stones. While many of the stones stayed the same, the carnelian let the torch light pass through, and glowed as the same colour as the orange from a fire. These small touches aren’t known by many before they go and without the help of a guide or someone in the know, many visitors pass on by without learning about them. The torch light moved from the floral embellishment and onto the white marble – the entire area started to glow. Even 400 years ago, it came to the minds of the people behind this immortal ode to love that in the moonlight, the Taj Mahal will glow. An everlasting love, even in death.
India has one of the largest indexes of festivals in the world, and towards the end of our adventures the country celebrated Holi, the Festival of Colours. On our journey through Uttar Pradesh, there was evidence that celebrations had started a day early, villagers caught multi-coloured handed throwing powdered paints at one another. In Gurgaon, Delhi, Holi is observed comfortably with family and close friends, and perhaps the next door neighbour. I felt blessed and fortunate to be part of the family’s day, learning and gaining an experience I could never have had on the chaotic coloured streets with strangers. The day began with a prayer to the shrine in the family home, each person taking a turn to sprinkle figurines of Hindu deities with colour. Soft halwa was served for breakfast, a sweet paste made of semolina and raisins that often occurs during festivals (and is a personal favourite).
Colour, laughter and food dominated our day, enjoyed by four different generations as we joined the neighbours. We snacked, we laughed, I learned a lot. We listened to the youngest member of the family sing “Beat It”, playing along on his new guitar. Sometimes stuff happens that makes you so happy you feel your heart get full. This was one of those moments. From the 6 year-old so full of beans he is the apple of everyone’s eye, to elders we met that day, who showed years of laughter in the lines on their face, and had stories that inspired like imparting tiny pearls of wisdom. One elderly couple sat together, hand in hand, married for decades and clearly still doting on each other. The same heartwarming feeling made me think that perhaps getting old won’t be so bad after all.
All things leading up to Delhi felt like we were dipping our toes into Indian culture – observing from the outside, admiring it, but staying dry in our own comforts and culture all the same. Going into the house of an Indian family’s home is like jumping in. It’s foreign, it’s different and if there’s a six year-old involved there’s a chance you will have 0% privacy… But the love in that family is so strong, it’s everywhere and in everything. It’s in the food you eat with them, in the clothes they dress you in, the countless cups of tea they make and the comfy bed they made for you to sleep in.