Sitting on the Metro in Delhi, I was at a loss to understand the interest I appeared to have created among my fellow passengers. It was only when my wife, Linda, whispered in my ear that I was wearing two different shoes – donned in haste as we rushed out of our hotel – that I realised why so many of the other passengers were giggling.
Embarrassingly laughing it off as “a new trend in London”, I headed up into the Indian evening for a bite to eat in one of the city’s most-famous districts.
This was our second night in Delhi and we were in Connaught Place, a circular shopping and eating area named after the first Duke of Connaught and designed with a series of stately columns to contrast with the down-to-earth hustle and bustle of a typical Indian bazaar, such as the chaotic Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest (17th century) and busiest markets in India where, in the throng of the surrounding streets, you can buy everything from sarees and spices to silver and shoes.
The modern, smooth-running Metro came as quite a surprise after our initial impressions of Delhi, with its 12 million people, colourful street life, green-and-yellow auto rickshaws (tuk-tuks) galore, and chaotic, dense traffic in which it appears anything goes, as lane markings are ignored, cows wander aimlessly, horns blast constantly and those tuk-tuks disregard any normal rules of traffic law.
But while life on those streets might take some getting used to (after a couple of days you take it all for granted), there is no shortage of stunning buildings and experiences to fascinate and beguile in the Indian capital.
The 450-year-old, red sandstone-and-marble Jama Masjid (mosque), with a courtyard that accommodates 25,000 people and domes and minarets that dominate the skyline, is one of the largest in the world. Climb up the 122 steps of the southern minaret and you get a great birds’ eye view of the city.
Across the road, the imposing Red Fort is another of Delhi’s magnificent sights. It was built in the 17th century as the capital of Mughal Delhi by Emperor Shah Jahan (who also created the Taj Mahal) and is where the national flag was hoisted for the first time when India became independent in 1947.
Inside the fort walls, the stalls in the Chatta Chowk covered bazaar are in marked contrast to some of the upmarket shops around Connaught Place.
Next on our agenda was the city’s National Museum (with its separate entries for men and women), where 5,000 years of Indian craftsmanship and history are highlighted through a collection of more than 200,000 pieces of Indian culture, including Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, and a five-tier-high, 18th-19th-century wooden chariot.
Close by, the India Gate, designed by Edwin Lutyens and similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, is probably the most photographed monument in the city and was one we kept passing on our various excursions. It honours the 70,000 Indian soldiers who died in the First World War and has an Eternal Flame burning in tribute to the nation’s martyred soldiers. And, unlike many other parts of the city, there are wide, tree-lined avenues with open gardens and parkland both near the India Gate and the Parliament buildings.
Close to the banks of the Yamina River, Humayun’s Tomb, built in 1565 in memory of the second Mughal emperor, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Set in lush green gardens, the sandstone-and-marble building is part of a complex that also includes the tomb of one of Humayun’s enemies (Isa Khan Niyazi) as well as his favourite barber!
In the south of the city, the impressive, towering (72 metres high) Qutb Minar (India’s highest single tower) was built, astonishingly, in 1193 and features five different storeys. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has at its base the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, the first to be built in India. Also in the complex … a mosque that looks like a temple, a 1700-year-old iron pillar that hasn’t rusted, and an arch that marks the beginnings of Indo-Islamic architecture.
The golden dome and tall flagpole at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib sikh temple, the most prominent in Delhi, make it easy to recognise. The Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is kept on a golden throne on a platform, covered with gilded inlay work. We shed our shoes and covered our heads before we entered the temple and then walked round the huge, holy pond inside the complex.
Finally, in Delhi, we visited Gandhi Smriti, where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life and where, on January 30, 1948, he was assassinated on his way to pray. His last footsteps are marked out in concrete and a small, moving museum focuses on his life and work. Elsewhere, at Raj Ghat, a perpetual flame in a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi marks where he was cremated the following day and where what are believed to be his last words, “Hey Ram!” (“Oh God!”), are inscribed on a black platform,
Our base in Delhi was the Maidens Hotel, which has been on the go since 1903 and was recognised as a Heritage Hotel in 1994. We had a huge, simply-furnished room and enjoyed our stay there.
While the hotel harked back to the heydays of elegance and European charm, heading out on to the highway en route to Jaipur could not have been more of a contrast as we encountered more of the real India.
Eye-opening coach journey
On an eye-opening coach journey, there were families, including young children, walking along the side of National Highway 8; goats and cows wandering on to the road; cars and motorbikes driving the wrong way on the hard shoulder; two scooters linked by one guy with his foot on the other scooter because it had no petrol; and, at one point, camel-drawn carts laden with logs causing the traffic to slow down to almost walking pace. Quite an experience.
Camels also featured in a stop we made for lunch, when, in a detour from the highway, we visited the 12th-century town of Patan. To reach the 200-year-old Patan Mahal (a former palace, now a hotel) for a relaxing meal in its gardens, we climbed on to carts pulled by camels for a journey through the town, past grazing cows and small children following us, begging for pens.
Back on the highway, as evening approached, we encountered guys selling giant poppadoms as they wandered between traffic at a toll station, drove past two heavily-laden elephants lumbering along the road, and held our breath as our driver jumped on his brakes as a horse-drawn cart appeared out of the gloom as it crossed the dual carriageway
On then to Jaipur – nicknamed the Pink City because of the colour of its walls and buildings – where our hotel was the fascinatingly-quirky Shahpura House, with its sumptuous Durbar Hall and maze of marble-floored corridors.
Our first stop was at the impressive Birla Temple, which is made entirely of white marble and dominates the skyline of that part of the city. Chanting, pre-recorded music and flying pigeons greeted us as we entered and our guide explained about Hinduism’s many gods and goddesses. Sweets were passed out as an “offering from the temple” as we walked, clockwise, round the inside of the building.
But if that temple was impressive, so, too, was the Palace of Winds (Hawa Mahal), which is basically a high-screen red-and-pink sandstone wall five storeys high but only one room deep, with 950 windows so that veiled royal ladies could observe life below in the bustling street without being seen themselves.
Taking our life in our hands, we crossed the road in front of the palace and wandered through the narrow, atmospheric lanes, dodging scooters in the process and resisting the temptation to buy some of the food, clothes and electric goods on sale.
Following lunch at the Surabhi Restaurant & Turban Museum – where a montage of village life and around 100 turbans, from ornate to plain, colourful to fanciful, are on display – the evening saw us have a cooking demonstration and meal at Nokha House, the former home of an officer in the Indian police (and chieftain of Nokha) but now a family home (for 60 years) and guesthouse. The lady of the house gave the demonstration and one of her sons – a voice double for Lord Ralph from The Fast Show – told us about the history of his home.
The magnificent 16th-century, hilltop Amber Fort was the highlight of the following day’s sightseeing. The citadel was established in 1592 (on the site of an 11th-century fort), with various buildings added later.
We clambered into jeeps to drive up the cobbled streets to reach the fort, passing monkeys and elephants on the way, the latter of which take passengers into Jaleb Chowk, the central concourse, which was designed as a parade ground. Inside, one of the highlights was the area designated as the Ladies’ Apartments, with screens and covered balconies to keep them from sight.
City Palace complex
While the Amber Fort was hugely impressive, so, too, was the massive City Palace complex, which was built by Maharajah Jai Singh II in 1732 and takes up almost a seventh of the area of Jaipur’s old city.
In the first courtyard we visited, a collection of carriages highlighted their style and range over the years, while in another there were displays of carpets, miniature paintings and a silver throne. A polo room showed off special outfits for playing the game, while two giant silver urns are recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest silver objects.
Our next stop on a busy day was to the Jantar Mantar Observatory (yet another World Heritage Site), where many of its geometrically-shaped devices may look like giant slices of Cheddar cheese but actually measure time. This is one of five observatories in India built by Maharajah Jai Singh II between 1727 and 1734 and there are 14 geometric devices for measuring time (including the world’s largest sun clock, which is accurate, we were told, to two seconds), tracking constellations and observing orbits round the sun. Nowadays, local astronomers still use the devices, apparently, to make predictions for farmers.
Finally, we popped into the small, quaint Albert Hall Museum, with its paintings of maharajahs around the walls, a mummy from 322-330BC (complete with x-rays of the body), and a collection of clay models in various yoga positions. Prince Albert laid the foundation stone of the building in 1876, hence the name.
That evening, back at the Shahpura House on the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, we had a demonstration of Indian dancing and the opportunity to join in. Great fun.
The following day gave us our first experience of travelling on an Indian train as we drove through the dark, early-morning streets to Jaipur Railway Junction for the first part of our journey to Agra.
Our train to Bharatpur, where we would pick up our coach, was so long I gave up counting the number of coaches. Once on board, everyone received a litre of bottle of water, followed by a copy of the Hindustan Times and a little plastic tray containing a teabag, two Marie biscuits, creamer and sugar, as well as a solid plastic cup and a solid plastic Thermos with hot water. Later, during the two-and-a-half-hour journey, we were given more food – two slices of white bread, two spicy, sausage-shaped croquettes and some carrot – and a cup of lemon juice. An inspector, with large sheets of paper containing the names of all the passengers on the train, checked us off and then a cleaner followed to clear up from our snacks. All very efficient.
Cacophony of noise
Off the train to a cacophony of noise at Bharatpur Junction Station, we boarded our coach for Agra, stopping off en route for brunch at the luxurious Laxmi Palace Hotel in its impressive dining room with arches, chandeliers and portraits of maharajahs hanging on walls.
Finally, we reached Agra and made for the hilltop walled city of Fatehpur Sikri, which, for 14 years, was the nerve centre of the giant Mughal empire in the 16th century. The main complex comprises three courtyards – a public one for ordinary people wanting an audience with the emperor, a private one for the emperor and his pals, and the third for the ladies of the harem. Abandoned, we were told, because of a drought, Fatehpur Sikri’s restoration started under the guidance of the conservationist Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905.
We then moved on the massive, red sandstone Agra Fort, built around seven years before Fatehpur Sikri, and just as impressive. The moat used to be filled with crocodiles, but it was monkeys that we saw climbing all over one gate as we passed through. Inside, the fort has a huge range of buildings, from dungeons and accommodation for the harem to two golden pavilions, royal baths and the emperor’s private mosque.
Then it was on to our hotel, the ITC Mughal, set on beautifully-landscaped grounds but located close to a road so busy that, after dining in a restaurant on the other side, we had to ask a couple of policemen to stop the traffic simply for us to get back across.
An early rise the following morning saw us more than ready for the highlight of our trip – a visit to the Taj Mahal. But even at that time the crowds were out as we passed through the separate men/women entrance towards a towering gateway to view one of the great wonders of the world.
And despite the crowds, it is still a breathtaking sight. Built entirely of marble, it was created by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, his favourite wife (he had three), who died in 1631 during the birth of their 14th child. Such was the strength of the emperor’s grief over her death that he went into secluded mourning for a year and, when he reappeared, his hair had turned white.
Described by our guide as “the most symmetrical building in the world”, the Taj Mahal (which means “Crown Palace”) was constructed over a period of around 20 years, needed 20,000 workers to complete and cost nearly 41 million rupees.
The “Diana seat” in front of the Lotus Pool (designed to reflect the Taj Mahal), of course, is a major attraction there and, with hordes surrounding it to get their iconic shot with the Taj Mahal in the background, we gave up and headed for a close up view of the magnificent marble edifice.
The four 131ft-high minarets framing the tomb are, our guide told us, all angled at 92 degrees from the tomb so that, in the event of an earthquake or other disaster, they would fall away from the main building.
Close up, the scale and workmanship involved is even more impressive. We donned white overshoes to go inside to view Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph, which is raised on a platform next to Shah Jahan. Their actual graves, in a crypt below, are closed to the public.
The best times to view the Taj Mahal are at sunrise or sunset so, later in the day, we looked back over the Yamuna River for our final view of an amazing testament to love. Unforgettable.