Within an hour of leaving the airport, I began questioning why I wilfully chose to return to Delhi. Incessant honking, traffic and people everywhere… What was I thinking? I recalled the shock on my first visit some years ago. Admittedly, I was less stunned this time. On the ride to the hotel, I began searching for that allure that brought me back to Delhi. And so began my two days in the mega city, my head tossing between adoration and annoyance with what it is and what it could be.
Delhi, is not the kind of city that you’d necessarily want to linger in. It has its charms and precious monuments which are worth the traffic hassle. But it’s the kind of city that you are happy to leave behind once you have accomplished your purpose there. But it’s also the kind of monumental city that is testament to the great empires that ruled from it. It is where any journey to India should begin in order to understand its civilisations. On this particular visit to Delhi, I spent time exploring some of the masterpieces of Mughal craftsmanship.
At the centre of Old Delhi, sitting above the bustling streets of Old Delhi, the onion domes of the Jami Masjid are a bold contrast. Amid the chaos below, the 500 year old mosque stands grounded. But with the swarming tourist crowds, it seems to lack the religiosity and harmony one would expect of a house of a worship. Changing focus, I imagine what it must be like during the twice annual Eid prayers, where one of the largest gatherings in India occur. The open courtyards will be filled to capacity and the melodious chants will reverberate against the red walls.
Far from the noise of the city, behind a series of ornate walls, lies the tomb of one of the greatest Mughal emperors, Humayun. The grand mausoleum was the precursor and perhaps practice work of the greatest monument of love – the Taj Mahal, in Agra. Dotting the gardens are a handful of other tombs and mosques, each with their intricate designs.
On the other end of Delhi, the tallest free standing tower in India, Qutb Minar stands guard over the ruins of what was once the Delhi Sultanate’s stronghold. The impressive five tiered minaret, dates to the 12th century and was commissioned by the sultan, Qutbuddin Albaik. It was attached to an impressive mosque, Quwwatul Islam Masjid, which is a fusion of Hindu and Islamic decorative arts. In the same complex, successive leaders added their stamp on history. The intricate carvings surrounding the tomb of Iltutmish are as remarkable as the architectural ingenuity of its time.
To enjoy India, you have to let go of control. A bicycle rickshaw ride through the alleyways of the Old City is just one way of plunging in. The markets are colourful and even if you’re unlikely to open your wallet, it’s a worthwhile experience. I think it was sometime during the ride that I realised that the key to appreciating India’s beauty is accepting it for what it is and not trying to correct everything that is seemingly broken. That’s not to say that things aren’t changing. I came across a bumper sticker, “Do not honk!”, which is part of a campaign to try to reduce noise pollution. But changing attitudes of millions of city dwellers will take more than a sticker. For now, whether economic growth will outpace population growth in India is irrelevant to appreciate the monuments that have shaped its past. Take the dive and experience Delhi for what it is.
Keep following my blog, as I travel through vastly different areas of India, from the verdant foothills of the Himalayas, the hilly state of Sikkim and the peaceful valley of Kashmir. Up next, Darjeeling.