It was with immense joy and heightened expectations that Stefje and I landed in the New Delhi airport on a Monday afternoon. Instantly upon stepping out of the metro station we were blasted with a debilitating heat. Summer in Delhi means the temperature can peak at 114 degrees Fahrenheit (36 celsius), so we considered ourselves lucky that it was “only” 97 degrees (36 celsius). The heat penetrated our skin to raise our body temperatures to uncomfortable levels, debilitated our vision with dry gusts that hurt our eyes, and made breathing feel like choking down fumes.
By the time we reached our hotel we were drenched in sweat and both agreed to spend the rest of the evening recovering in the air-conditioning. We braved the elements the next day, heading to Old Delhi to explore. For breakfast we stopped in at a highly touted local parantha restaurant, where we were overwhelmed by both the flavors and the sounds of this hole in the wall joint that’s been family run for 6 generations.
Our fried stuffed breads were served with a spicy potato curry, a pumpkin chutney, and an excellent mint dipping sauce, but halt the experience was watching the other patrons dig in and observing the constant flow of pedestrians down the crowded alleyway.
The streets of Old Delhi were absolutely bursting with life, even at an early hour of the morning. Muslims prostrated in front of an ancient and richly decorated mosque, businessmen sweated through dress shirts, workers hauled huge sacks of construction materials on their heaving shoulders, and we stepped over the extended legs and arms of many homeless families. The roadways overflowed with rickshaws, tuk-tuks, taxis, and even a massive ox in the middle of the street.
We set off for the red fort, taking in the endless stares of locals and trying to navigate what was already the most chaotic urban scene I’d ever laid eyes on. One of the more trying endeavors was crossing the street. Without the aid of stoplights, we had no choice but to throw ourselves headfirst into the madness and hope that drivers stopped in time.
The abomination of the heat and the humanity had us exhausted by the time we arrived at Delhi’s Red Fort. The seat of power for an empire that stretched across modern day India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the complex was built by the emperor Shah Jahan in the 1640’s.
Once every inch of the interior was inlaid with rubies, emeralds, silver, gold and other precious metals, but centuries of looting by Persians and British have reduced the splendor to ghosts of its former glory. Our entry to the fort was graced by the iconic Lahore gate, named after a city which is now part of Pakistan. Standing 105 feet (33 meters) high, the imposing structure was graced at the top by 7 islamic turrets.
The architectural influences of the fort were a unique combination of Islamic, Christian, Greek, Persian, and Chinese, indicating the wide ranging sphere of influence which this kingdom held at different points through history. Once through the gate, we found ourselves swallowed by a construction site followed by a tourist bazaar.
Once the preeminent spot in the Hindu empire to purchase the highest quality silks, spices, and jewelry, the stalls now specialize in cheap wares for the hordes of visitors. Above us were beautifully designed windowsills where visiting dignitaries could observe the market from their private apartments, but everything was now blighted by the constant presence of scaffolding and an intense construction project.
Progressing deeper into the complex, we came across a pillared pavilion from which the emperor could address his court. Here the construction prowess of the ancient civilization was still prominent. The pillars conjoined to form lovely overhanging archways, all the more enchanting when viewed from afar.
Now it was time for us to enjoy the emperor’s attempt to recreate the Quran’s depiction of heaven. The gardens of the Red Fort are perfectly symmetrical, complimented by canals which crisscrossed the grounds and trees swarmed by vines.
We took a few moments to sit under a tree and try to transport ourselves a few centuries back in time to when these gardens were retreats for the royal family, but the oppressive heat and the near constant requests for selfies with us made it difficult to stimulate my imagination.
My favorite building in the gardens was not the most ornate, but rather a simple palace that was once surrounded by a pool fed by four candled streams. It was here that the emperor would hold poetry competitions, competing against the best wordsmiths of the day in the inspiring locale. We explored a few more building where ancient gems had once been laid into the stonework, but then the heat overwhelmed us and we were forced to retreat into the air-conditioned metro.
By the time we poked our heads above ground again, it was like we had teleported to a different country. The oxen, spices, and homeless were replaced by hipster ice cream shops, Ubers, and Western chain restaurants like Subway and KFC. I’m not usually one to enjoy the comforts of home while abroad, but I must say I’ve never been so relieved to step into a Starbucks. An iced coffee and a half hour of air conditioning were enough to remove our headaches and revitalize our bodies.
We spent the rest of the afternoon taking a long lap around the upscale neighborhood of Connaught Place, which provided a completely different perspective of Delhi. Remote workers hunched over excel spreadsheets in coffee shops, bars and restaurants catered to the happy hour crowd with imported beers, and bookstores were packed with both literature classics and young Indian girls chatting away over cappuccinos.
Delhi Part 2
After a month in the North of India, we made it back to Delhi for a second time, this time with Isaiah in tow.
Having subjected Isaiah to some of the roughest accommodation situations of our entire trip, he returned the favor by treating us to 2 nights of luxury in Delhi to cap our trip together. The LaLit hotel featured a gym, sauce, spa and resplendent breakfast buffet with an endless variety of healthy foods, but the real highlight was the idyllic pool which served as the perfect antidote to consistent 100 degree heat.
Despite the allure of the clear blue waters, I was able to rip myself away from the amenities of the hotel for a few hours to do some sightseeing with Isaiah. We grabbed a tuk-tuk to Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India and a stunning architectural achievement.
The inner chamber was a spot of serene beauty in an otherwise chaotic city, highlighted by men praying and children running around on the cool carpeted floor.
After a thorough exploration of the inner and outer sections, I found my favorite spot nearby the outdoor pool, which afforded excellent people watching. Young men snapped selfies, young children played with exuberance, and women in brightly colored saris bunched in groups on the water's edge.
The day out was capped with a walking tour through the Muslim quarter. The street was mind-boggling, with the highest density of women in full-length burkas I have ever seen. Although both Isaiah and I were at first intimidated by the long stares and tight crowds, we enjoyed our peek into a different slice of daily life in Delhi.
With a few last meals at some of Delhi’s most famous restaurants, we were ready to send Isaiah on his way to Croatia and leave India, but first Stefje and I took one last detour in India to Agra. At 8AM we navigated through the unbridled chaos of the Delhi train station: people of all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds, and classes moved with speed and purpose through the railway platforms.
By noon we were in Agra, where the temperature topped out at 101 degrees (38 celsius) and we were sweating within seconds. Yet no amount of heat, smog, or intensely cramped traffic jams could detract from my excitement as we made our way through the city. That’s because we were here to cap our trip to India with a visit to the Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world!
Within an hour we had laid eyes on it for the first time, the marble domes appearing first through a tiny pocket of archway and then revealing themselves in their full splendor as we worked our way through the outer gardens and main gateway. Construction required more than 10 years and 20,000 people, resulting in the single example that best signifies the height of architecture for the Mughal empire.
From a design perspective, the entire complex is an homage to symmetry. The core building, which was built as the burial place for the emperor’s 3rd wife when she died giving birth to their 14th child (!!), is a perfect 55 meters wide and 55 meters long.
It is adorned by 4 smaller bubbling domes which surround the large central dome. Around the edges are 4 tremendously tall minarets, each one pointed outwards at a minuscule angle so that should they collapse they cannot damage the main building. Each of these 9 structures are decorated with the shape of a lotus flower, just one of the many architectural details which make the building sing with beauty.
To approach the main mausoleum, one must explore the gardens, which are also perfectly symmetrical, forming a quadrangle that is dissected be a central pool. While inching closer to the main building my eyes were drawn to a pair of massive red sandstone structures of incomparable beauty on either side. While one is a functioning mosque with a curved prayer wall which points straight to Mecca, the other is merely a perfect replica to maintain the symmetry of the complex.
Although I originally dismissed the main building as a perfect square, closer inspection revealed it to be octagonal in shape. Four longer sides are each complimented by four shorter ones on the corners, with all eight consisting of massive framed archways that fold inwards.
Each arch’s exterior includes a scripture of the Quran, along with marble inlaid with precious stones to form shapes of flowers and vines. We circled the premises a few times, taking in the magnificent architecture, the wide riverside panorama, and absorbing the vibe of such a storied and ancient location.
By the time we began retreating across the grounds, I found myself walking backward to take in one last view of what is surely the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen.
The following day we bade India farewell by taking one last uncomfortable bus and indulging in one final delectable meal. It was with heavy hearts but deep contentment that we finally said goodbye to this country, full of wild wonders, diverse experiences, and happy people.