Incredible !ndia..The tagline from India Tourism. The tagline that you see in every advertisement, be it on billboards, print or television, it never fails to amaze me how aptly it describes India. I have always wanted to visit India and that curiosity started more than ten years ago. I have read many books and watched numerous documentaries about India and it’s because of the fascinating mix of history, cultures, forts, monuments, mountains, deserts, beaches, people and colours. In 2003, I had the first taste of what India has to offer by visiting the heritage sites of Delhi, the mammoth forts in Jaipur and the infamous sonnet of love in Agra, the Taj Mahal. Since then, I have always wanted to return to this enormous country but somehow over the next six years I had been distracted by work and had travelled to Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Bali, Sri Lanka, Hanoi, just to name a few. However, life moments changed unexpectedly and to cut the long story short, I found myself returning to India three times in 2010!
It was thirty-eight degrees Celsius when we landed at nine o’clock at night in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. It was mid-June and summer in India is blistering hot. We were greeted by our driver who was going to take us to Hotel Broadway on Asaf Ali Road. The journey from the airport to the hotel was about forty-five minutes. As soon as we arrived at the hotel, I was immediately pleased and charmed by this three-star quaint lodging. Hotel Broadway is located on the border between Old and New Delhi, and the interiors of the hotel gave me a sense of nostalgia of what Delhi could have been in the early years. However, if you are a Delhi-lite, you may opine that my description of the hotel could have been a little far-fetched but I was just absolutely delighted by the old charm of this hotel. My friend and I checked in to our double rooms, and later headed down to the hotel’s pub for some snacks and a nightcap. The pub is called Thugs, apparently a well-known pub which has portraits of legendary villains of Hollywood and Bollywood. And if I remember correctly, I thought I saw a poster of the Magnificent Seven cast too.
After a well-rested night and a hearty breakfast in the morning, we were ready to face the onslaught of the forty degrees heat in the city. We hired a driver for a day for our sight-seeing. First stop was the President’s Palace and then to India Gate in Rajpath. India Gate is like the local Champs Elysees, an archway built to honour Indian soldiers who died during World War I and on the Northwest Frontier. The area is surrounded by lawns, shady trees and fountains but unfortunately it looked desolate in the heat.
After spending almost forty-five minutes at India Gate, we asked our driver to take us to the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum at No. 1 Safdarjang Road. This was her residence when she was Prime Minister and it was also where she was killed by her bodyguard in 1984. I have read the biography of Indira Gandhi sometime early this year, hence spending time at the museum helped me to recollect the story of her life from childhood days to the last few days as Prime Minister of India. The museum also provided a visual narration of her son, Rajiv Gandhi who became Prime Minister within hours of his mother’s assassination. We wished we could have stayed longer in the museum as it was air-conditioned and offered respite for us from the heat outside but it was time for lunch.
I wanted to bring my friend to a restaurant called Karim’s which serves good quality Mughal food and I have been told that it’s probably the best Muslim food in the city. I have eaten there before in January and loved it however the problem was its location in Old Delhi. Old Delhi is a chaotic maze of tiny lanes, extremely crowded, dusty and noisy. Merchants hawking goods such as spices, bread, religious articles, jewellery, fabric, brasswares, pretty much everything. Driving through the labyrinth of narrow lanes is tricky as you have to maneuver your car around the auto-rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, goats, cows, dogs, you name it. If driving through Old Delhi is difficult, then you can forget about searching for a carpark! Our driver insisted on taking us to another Karim’s branch in Nizamuddin which is air-conditioned, and not to mention, available carpark for him. However, we wanted to eat in Old Delhi to have a feel of the ancient walled city, the bazaars and to visit Jama Masjid, hence our driver had no choice but to take us there.
The only direction I remembered to get to Karim’s (from my previous visit in January) was Gate No. 1 of Jama Masjid, cross the road and walk for a couple yards until coming across a tiny passageway on the left which leads you to the courtyard of Karim’s. The restaurant doesn’t look fancy but the food is mind-blowing! We ordered their signature dish mutton korma which was bathed in a tasty oil slick, seekh kebab which is sausage-shaped kebab of minced mutton with coriander and cooked on flat sewers, and the crepe-like rumali roti. The servings were just right for two persons and though the mutton korma was a little spicy for my taste buds, I enjoyed the food immensely.
Once we have fortified ourselves with a good lunch, we marched on to discover the next place of interest which was Jama Masjid. Jama Masjid, built of red sandstone, is the largest and well-known mosque in India. As we entered the courtyard, I was struck by how vast the courtyard was and I have read a travel book before that the mosque can hold approximately twenty thousand worshippers in its huge courtyard. I wanted to roam about in the courtyard to take photographs but we have been requested to walk on thin straw mats, strategically laid out leading you to a tank in the centre for ritual ablutions. The mats help to protect your feet from the blazing heat emanating from the sandstone slabs. But I could tell the locals were pretty used to the stinging heat.
The extreme heat was beginning to affect us. Initially it felt like Malaysia, around thirty-four degrees but the moment it was two o’clock in the afternoon, temperatures soared to forty degrees and it became uncomfortable for us. However, since we were already in Old Delhi, we pushed on to see the majestic Red Fort. The Red Fort is a seventeenth century fort built by Emperor Shah Jahan and is the largest monument in Old Delhi. The main entrance to the fort is through the imposing Lahore Gate which then leads to retail shops selling jewellery and crafts. Some of the attractions inside Red Fort are Diwani-i-Aam a large hall with a throne for the emperor to sit and meet the public, and Diwani-i-Khas another pavilion completely in marble, floral carvings and inlay work with semi-precious stones. The travel book stated that there is a Persian couplet inscribed on the walls of the Diwani-i-Khas: “If there be paradise on the face of earth, it is this! Oh it is this! Oh it is this!” Unfortunately I still haven’t seen that inscription. Perhaps I was in another area of the pavilion that clearly stated “No, it’s over there! It’s over there!” After spending an hour or so in Red Fort, we decided to return to the hotel to rest and freshen up before meeting our friends for dinner later.
Feeling rejuvenated after a nice shower and a short nap, we were out again to meet our Delhi friends at Connaught Place. Connaught Place or popularly referred to as CP is merely fifteen minutes away from our hotel hence we took on the challenge of taking the auto-rickshaw to CP. The auto-rickshaw or the Indian equivalent of the tuk-tuk is a cheap way to travel around the city. If you do not mind the traffic pollution and din, it is indeed exciting to experience how locals commute. Our fifteen-minute journey to CP cost us only Rs60 (RM4).
Connaught Place is the commercial and business hub of Delhi, originally designed by the British in the shape of a horseshoe with Georgian architecture. CP has countless restaurants and bars, bookshops, shops, shops and more shops. We met our friends who took us to Blues Bar – a cool place, rock music – it was crowded with fans watching the World Cup football match. We had beer, food and great conversation – what a way to chill out in the evening after a blistering day! Next we continued to have more food at Nirulas, a restaurant nearby Blues. Once again, great food though simple, great conversation with great friends…what a great evening!
I would say our first day in Delhi was perfect even though the heat during the day was at times unbearable. With that in mind, we were ready for the next part of our journey. We were due to fly from Delhi to Leh (the capital of Ladakh) the next morning and everything was set to go…and so we thought…
Himalayan mountains, rugged landscape, monasteries – that’s what I have been waiting for the entire night – probably dreamt about it too. As much as I disliked waking up really early especially at four o’clock in the morning, I was looking forward to this journey. This is because we were going to Ladakh, the eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir where half of its population is Buddhists.
Our flight from Delhi to Leh was at 7:20am and we had planned to be at the domestic airport at 5:30. We arrived promptly, so no issues. However, when I looked at the TV monitor listing all flight departures, I noticed that our flight to Leh – Air India IC445 – stated departure time at 5:45am! I looked at my watch and it was 5:30. Then I checked my e-ticket and it stated 7:20. I asked myself, ‘what the hell is going on…flight number IC445 departing 7:20am, right? Why is flight IC445 on the screen showing departure at 5:45am??’ I mentioned this to my friend and he was puzzled too. We agreed to proceed to the check-in counter hoping there might have been a mistake on the departure time on the screen.
Lo and behold, it was no mistake at all! Our flight to Leh was indeed at 5:45 and obviously we already missed the flight. How could that happen? The e-ticket from the travel agent actually stated 7:20! The Air India ground staff told us to report to the Duty Manager to sort out our flight problems. When we got to the Duty Manager’s office, there were already five passengers in there with all kinds of flight complaints. A guy missed his flight to Hyderabad because apparently he overslept (yeah, like that is the Duty Manager’s problem!), another guy’s e-ticket had a different departure time to a city in South India and a family who also missed their flight to Leh because their e-ticket stated departure time at 6:20. Later I found out that a Japanese tourist also missed his flight to Leh because his e-ticket stated 8:00! It was puzzling – how can an airline issues tickets to passengers with different departure times to a destination where there is only one flight a day?
I spoke to the Duty Manager explaining to him about our situation and requested him to put us on an alternative flight to Leh that morning. He checked the computer system, made several phone calls and at the same time, he kept receiving paperwork from fellow staff and walk-in complaints from other passengers. I saw my e-tickets buried underneath a pile of papers in front of him. I kept reminding him about our e-tickets and after several minutes (which felt like hours to me), the Duty Manager told me that my next flight would be two days later. I asked if he had enquired with other airlines such as Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines but he didn’t. So I requested again that he checked with the other airlines. After another half an hour or so, the Duty Manager said that he was unable to contact the other airlines, therefore my only alternative is the same IC445 flight but two days later.
I felt frustrated. Many thoughts were running through my mind – did the travel agent con us? What should I do about the six-day itinerary in Ladakh? Will there be additional costs incurred for the alternative flight? Why is this happening to me? I don’t know if my travel companion realized what I was thinking – did the frustration show on my face? Well, he said I looked relatively calm. Whatever it is, I told myself, all is well. Be cool. Think zen. Go through options, alternatives, there must be a solution to this.
The Duty Manager led us to the Customer Service Desk where an Air India staff booked us on the next flight. The airlines did not charge us, so we were happy. We decided to return to Delhi city and to stay at the YMCA for the next two nights. YMCA was our accommodation in the original itinerary whereby we were due to come back to Delhi for two nights after six days in Ladakh.
Fortunately, there were rooms available in YMCA. I was so glad. The moment we arrived in YMCA, I suddenly felt a warm rush of relief and calm. It was quiet and clean, away from the traffic outside. YMCA is a hostel but after the mishap at the airport, I just needed that serenity. For the next two hours or so, we had breakfast and were busy making plans with our travel agent who was equally shocked about our bad luck earlier. If we were to maintain the six-day itinerary in Ladakh, we would have to postpone our flight from Delhi to Kuala Lumpur by one day. Unfortunately, since we had booked our tickets online, we could not change the dates. We also enquired the cost of a one-way flight from Delhi to Kuala Lumpur but it was the same cost of a return ticket. As such, we decided to stick to our original return flight date but reduced our Ladakh itinerary by one day. No doubt we were disappointed because the entire two-week holiday in India was mainly to see Ladakh but we remained positive and refused to indulge in self-pity. Instead we just wanted to enjoy our holiday and have fun.
Beauty and Humility
So, here we are, once again in Delhi, we carried on with our sightseeing.
We hired a driver to take us to Humayun’s Tomb which is located in Nizamuddin East. Humayun’s Tomb was commissioned by Emperor Humayun’s wife, Hamida Banu Begum, in the sixteenth century, to honour his death and where he was finally laid to rest. The tomb is set in a thirty acre garden which consists of four gardens divided by walkways and water channels. Although it is called Humayun’s Tomb, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a complex of tombs of other Mughal rulers. Begum was also buried here. Inspired by Persian architecture, this red sandstone structure was in fact the prototype of the more famous and beautiful mausoleum of the Taj Mahal in Agra.
We spent about an hour and a half at this site, admiring the beauty of the gardens, its marble stones and the tombs but I’m unable to articulate well the wonders of this Mughal architecture. I guess you just have to see it for yourself.
It was hot again, another day of forty-five degrees. By the time we were at Isa Khan Tomb, I was just dying to get back to the air-conditioned car. Our driver recommended lunch at Pindi’s restaurant. Pindi’s is a Punjabi restaurant on Pandara Road, near India Gate, and we ordered dahiwali chicken (chicken simmered in yogurt gravy), pindi channa (spicy chickpeas curry) and butter naan. These dishes might be simple but we just loved it. To dip naan with the yogurt gravy or chomping down on the spicy chickpeas was heavenly for us. We don’t particularly care for sumptuous and lavish meals but simple and delicious enough to fill our bellies.
The next place we visited was Lotus Temple. The Lotus Temple is a Bahai house of worship and the reason why it is popularly known as the Lotus Temple is its flower-like shape. The temple is set amongst nine pools and gardens which gives the impression of a floating half-open lotus flower surrounded by its outspread leaves.
The temple is open to all faiths and an ideal place for meditation as it is simply peaceful and tranquil. Bahai laws emphasize that the House of Worship is a gathering place where people of all religions may worship God without denominational restrictions.
Since it was completed in 1986, the temple has attracted more than fifty million visitors making it as one of the most visited buildings in the world and a prominent attraction in Delhi. It has also received recognition from all over the world for its magnificent architecture and design. The temple has nine doors which open on to a central hall and this hall is capable of holding up to 2,500 people. The hall is made of marble, so you can imagine how comfortably cool we felt walking into the hall after being burnt by the relentless heat outside. Silence is observed inside the hall.
There is an Information Centre of the temple – the gallery shows the history of the Bahai faith, its philosophy and the socio-economic development activities undertaken by Bahais around the world – an exhibition in the form of photo panels, written texts and films.
The Lotus Temple experience humbled me. I’m not particularly religious but it was the philosophy of the Bahai faith which reminded me of how alike we are in the eyes of God. What also impressed me about the Bahai faith was the socio-economic development works carried out around the world such as building schools, providing education and medical care to the poor, supplying irrigation to farmers, instilling cultural awareness and values, etc. We are so caught up in our daily pressures of life so much so we forget that there are others who are less fortunate than us. Or the world is so engrossed with war and other forms of differences that we sacrifice peace and harmony. And in the middle of angst, dissimilarities and inequality, here lies a belief whose purpose is to unite all races and peoples in one universal Cause and one common Faith.
Books and Bangles
During my previous trips to India, I have come to realize how cheap books are. Prices of books here are about a third or a quarter of the price of books sold in Malaysia, and the bookshops in Delhi have a wide collection of titles and genres. I came across a bookshop in Connaught Place which has the entire bookshelf dedicated to the novels of P.G. Wodehouse and each book costs only 225 rupees which is approximately RM14 only! Wodehouse books are certainly a rarity in Malaysia and of the few I have seen in Kuala Lumpur, they cost about a minimum of RM70.
We did not stay too long in Connaught Place as we had plans to go to Dilli Haat. Journey to Dilli Haat via the auto-rickshaw was about thirty or forty minutes and cost us only Rs90 (RM6). Dilli Haat is a craft bazaar and food plaza located in the heart of Delhi. This bazaar sells crafts from all over India and from a variety of cultural traditions of India. Products sold here are sandalwood carvings, drapery, fabric, gems and beads, bangles, brassware, painting, just to name a few. Prices of the items sold here are government-controlled, so you can be sure of not being ripped off. I was told that we could taste the different types of Indian cuisine in Dilli Haat but we did not try mainly because we were so busy shopping!
The Next Journey
Our Delhi days have to come to an end as we retired early in the hostel after a long and hot day of Temple-dom, shopping and auto-rides. Furthermore, we had to check out from the hostel at three o’clock in the morning for our domestic flight to Leh at 5.30am. And yes, I did confirm our flights!