12/29/10 - Sightseeing in Delhi

Qutb Minar

On our first day in India, we jumped right into a busy day of sightseeing.  Our guide and driver picked us up at the hotel at 8:30 in the morning.  Our first stop was the Qutb Minar, a tower built at the end of the 12th century.  It was surrounded by various ruins, and the walls were covered with beautiful carvings.

Jama Masjid

Next we visited Jama Masjid, a Muslim mosque in Old Delhi.  It is the largest mosque in India, built in the mid-1600s.  It is mainly a large open plaza.  Everyone had to remove their shoes, and women had to put on robes that were handed out.

Rickshaw Ride in Old Delhi

Then we took a fascinating ride in a rickshaw!  Shobhana and I shared one, while the guide and Tricia shared another.  The rickshaws are essentially bicycles with a cart in back, driven by guys who must be super strong.  In these little conveyances, we were able to zip around the extremely narrow lanes of Old Delhi, watching the street life, the bazaars, and the monkeys on electric cables that snaked everywhere.  It was quite exciting, kind of like a roller coaster.

Government Buildings

Next we viewed the government buildings of New Delhi.  They are laid out on spacious grounds, arranged around a central boulevard called the Rajpath.  These buildings and their layout were designed by an English architect, Edward Lutyens, in the early 1900s, when New Delhi became the headquarters of the British government in India.  After Independence, they became the seat of India’s new government.

Humayun’s Tomb

Next we saw Humayun’s tomb.  This is kind of a forerunner to the Taj Mahal – a monument to a departed Mughal emperor, built by his wife in the mid-1500s.  For me, the most interesting thing was that it featured my first Islamic garden – I had been reading about them in The Art of the Islamic Garden by Emma Clark, but had never actually seen one! Such gardens are designed as a 2x2 square bisected by long, narrow water pools in the shape of a cross, with a fountain in the middle.

The Money-Changing Adventure

Tricia and Shobhana asked our guide to take us to a bank so they could change dollars to rupees.  (I had used an ATM that morning, so didn’t need to change money.)  He replied that there were no banks in Delhi that would do this.  Hmm.  OK, maybe a currency exchange place?  No, no such thing was available.  The ONLY place where we could change money was a small tea store that he happened to know about.  He would take us there.

We arrived at a tiny shop whose walls were packed with shelves of elegant-looking tea boxes.  We were greeted by the proprietor and a powerful-looking assistant.  They offered Tricia and Shobhana a good exchange rate, and the currency transactions took place.  Then my friends got interested in the tea and also bought some of that.  I was highly entertained by the whole experience.

Of course there are actually banks and other places in Delhi that do currency exchange.  The exchange rate might not have been quite as good though.

Driving in India

One way in which India is really different from the United States is what happens on the streets.  The streets themselves are in excellent condition.  However, the driving is completely chaotic! There is often a lot of traffic, a crazy mix of cars, trucks, cows, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians running across the street, and sometimes carts drawn by camels or oxen.  No one pays any attention to the lane markings.  Vehicles are constantly darting around each other, wedging into the tiniest space to move forward just a bit quicker.  Sometimes they drive on the wrong side of the road, right into oncoming traffic.  On top of this, the rule is that cars drive on the left side of the road, like in Great Britain.  

Over the course of the trip, I came to enjoy the experience of being on the roads – it provided quite an adrenalin rush.  However, I would never attempt to drive myself – I’m sure I’d have an accident within the first five minutes.  While there must be a fairly high accident rate, we only observed evidence of two accidents over the course of our trip, and they did not look too serious.  I came to have tremendous respect for the skill of the drivers.

All of our drivers had little religious offerings on their dashboards – not surprising given the dangerous nature of their jobs!

Trucks in India were often elaborately painted.  Here are some examples.

Another common sight on the road was families on motorcycles.  The husband always sat in front and the wife sat sidesaddle behind him.  Children were wedged in wherever convenient.

Cows and Dogs

Cows and dogs were an extremely common sight.  Cows are of course holy, so they cannot be disturbed.  While they are not eaten, they provide dairy products for their owners.  The ones we saw often looked scrawny.  The dogs were mostly feral, although some were taken care of by local people.  They seemed quite peaceful, and the ones at tourist sites looked well fed (those were the smart ones).  In other places, they did not always look so healthy.  However, even the poorest people, living in cardboard shacks alongside the road, did not seem to regard dogs as a potential source of food.  Tricia was more interested in cows so she mainly took pictures of those.  Here are some particularly nice examples.