British comic Eddie Izzard, performing for an American audience in San Francisco, once made the quip:
“I grew up in Europe, where the History comes from.”
In the U.S., where heritage status means something isn’t much older than 240 years, he’s got a point.
However, it’s also more than reasonable that Canadian comic Russell Peters or American comic Aziz Ansari, who are both first generation North Americans from Indian parents, could perform to a European audience by saying:
“My family is originally from India, where the History is older than all the grandparents that you can name by heart.”
(ignore that it’s unlikely either comic would do this, because History isn’t a burning topic in their stand-up)
Some studies have found evidence of humans in India from 75,000 years ago, while India is also considered to have had the first civilization in Southeast Asia starting around 3000BC, a few millenia later than Europe who got a jump on planting things around 7000BC.
Of course, starting points in History aren’t necessarily clean cut – does it start when there’s a sign of civilization (villages), someone has used a tool to kill an animal or maybe when someone’s been eaten by an animal because the poor bastard hasn’t learned to make a tool yet?
I have no idea, and I’m not about to root around to find it. That’s an entirely different debate that belongs in a symposium with scholars confidently striding across stage with great pronouncements while the other scholars in the audience furrow their brow, preparing their rebuttal.
In this forum of a lowly blog, however, I will say this: India is very old. And India is very big. It’s current population estimates are around 1.28 billion people. It’s so old and so big, that Rose and I were both frankly a bit intimidated to visit. All the other countries we’d visited had big populations, and had historical ruins. But none before India had both in such massive quantities.
We’d spoken with people about their experience in India, and it seemed to be polarized: “You’ll either love it or hate it”, most people would say. “It’s Heaven and Hell.”, a woman who we met in Malaysia had said, “It shows all of humanity”. Those that loved India also made sure to add plenty of disclaimers: “You just have to go with it. Don’t fight it or you’ll have a bad time.”
With that advice, Rose and I landed in Delhi – which, to appreciate India’s long history seemed a good place to start. I’d read that Delhi was an amalgam of over 10 cities, which had each been built over the course of 1000+ years according to the taste of each new ruler. As a new dynasty claimed the city, he imposed his design on it, sometimes building off the existing structure of a past ruler or razing it and starting fresh.
11 different “rulers” have had a shot at designing Delhi over time, including the British who were the last to have a kick at the can. Their bid is now referred to as “New Delhi”, which was inaugurated in 1931 and contains India’s parliament and other government buildings.
Before arriving, Rose and I had seen images and videos of crowds, moving around the streets, and honking their way to find room. Now 20 minutes into our ride, firmly ensconced in New Delhi, we were beginning to wonder: “Where are all the crowds?”. There were sidewalks, people were using them, and roads were largely devoted to cars, not people.
But our guesthouse was in Old Delhi, where we’d soon find out, to borrow from Eddie Izzard’s riff: “Is where the Crowd is from”.
Founded by Shah Jahan (he who also built the Taj Mahal), a Mughal Emperor in 1638, Old Delhi contained a massive Red Fort, a popular mosque and a huge open market called Chandi Chowk, among many other things.
But, for us, one of the most noticeable things was people. Yes, this is where the crowds came. And, as a later Indian would say to us while touring around: “This is the REAL Delhi!”.
This point became quite clear when, in our cab about to cross from New Delhi into Old Delhi, a young girl, maybe 6 years old knocked on the window asking for money. That wasn’t the real part: apart from New Zealand and Australia, every other country we visited had major poverty.
It’s a condition of visiting a developing country, which didn’t make it any easier to accept or feel okay about: but, after travelling for the time we did, it wasn’t something to be surprised by.
However, this young girl put that to test. After knocking for a while, I smiled at her and said “No money” – which we were told from our driver was wise, because if we were to open the window, the car would quickly be surrounded by other people looking for money, and it could be a problem.
Instead, I put my finger on the glass and began tracing it left and right, and the girl joined in: matching my finger up and down across the glass.
We did this for a few seconds, and I smiled, while she laughed. Then the girl took a step back from the car, and with a newly mature look in her eye pointed at Rose. I looked over at Rose who was looking over at us at this point then looked back at the girl who, now having got our attention, pointed to Rose and I then made an “O” with one hand and stuck her index finger in and out of it, while leering at us. She then turned around, seemingly disinterested and wandered off, straight faced, back to hustle for more money.
“Shit”, I looked over at Rose, surprised.
In our travels, I tried to cultivate a perspective that was accepting of everything I saw as “the way things are”, and to be non-judgmental about it. I was an observer, I told myself, watching things around me. And it was fine, and it served me well. But after seeing the little girl, I felt a crack in my perspective.
I could tell she was wise, well beyond her years, and had seen things most North American children hadn’t, and was living hand to mouth without any sentimentality. And while orphans have been romanticized in the West from Oliver Twist to Annie, this undercut the entire pretence.
We were only visiting for a night and day, so I can’t say what the “REAL Delhi” is with any authority, but looking back I got the sense that this is what the guy, who I’d meet the following day, was getting at.
Rose and I were both exhausted by this point too. Nevertheless, we still had to eat. So, we moved through the huge crowds, and wandered down some side alleyways until we spotted a place to eat. After a big plate of food for a small price, we checked into our guesthouse and called it a night.
Day 2- Delhi (Aka: where the photographs start)
We’d only planned to spend a day in Delhi, mainly because we heard how crazy the crowds were, not surprising given the population is estimated at 25 million. However, we also wanted to see some of its monuments, museums and other spots, which, after assessing crowds and traffic we realized could only be done in a day with the help of a driver.
Luckily Rose and I met another backpacker at our guesthouse who was in the same boat: he had one day in Delhi, wanted to see the sites, but still felt too jet lagged to negotiate every single ride across town from one spot to the next. We split the fare for a drive and set off.
There’s a ton of things to see in Delhi, so we had to be selective, and decided on a decent cross section where we could see a mixture of temples and monuments.
Our first stop was Laxmi Narayan – a Hindu temple devoted to the goddess of wealth, that kindly didn’t charge anyone to visit, and seemed more interested in promoting its wealth than accumulating it from visitors.
We weren’t allowed to bring in cameras, but the grounds were neat, including this funhouse, carnival piece, which actually had a prayer room inside it:
Next we went to a Sikh temple – Gurudwara Bangla Sahib.
From roaming the streets the night before, people were constantly trying to get our attention, and so when a lady at the temple beckoned us to follow her into an office, I thought it was another hustle. But Rose entertained her for a brief moment, which turned about to be a smart idea, because she then asked us if we wanted to see the kitchen:
As part of their faith, Sikhs provide free meals to anyone who visits their temple. A big-hearted gesture, clearly, but also a big undertaking. The lady explained that the temple serves up to 100,000 people a week ( I think that’s right), which they accomplish by running an industrial sized food production facility. Behind us were three-foot high, bubbling cauldrons of lentils, which we all took turns stirring, on which I couldn’t help saying: “I’ll get you my pretty!”.
Plus, on the other side was a chapati rolling machine that was shooting out, flat round white discs at the rate of a skeet shooting machine. It was amazing. People then took them, threw them on the grill, and once they were cooked, tossed them into baskets that looked like they once belonged to a hot air balloon.
The woman allowed us to flip a few chapatis as well, and have a sample: which were pretty tasty. After pretending to be part of the kitchen staff, we set off for our next spot, a museum devoted to the man who is attributed to have said: “be the change you wish to see in the world”, but in fact it was this:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
Doesn’t quite fit on a T-shirt. So, undoubtedly a copywriter got his or her hands on it to make it ready for sale to roll-out across anything with a flat surface, tattoos included. Given that, who’s to know if these were also his actual words or edited for consumption (seen on the wall):
The museum was also the place where Gandhi lived the last six months of his life, before he was assassinated on the same grounds. An event, which is commemorated by a pagoda at the scene of where he was shot, along with his footsteps there.
Not quite sure the footsteps were necessary – since we know where the spot was where he was killed. It reminds me of a cartoon when a character is invisible but has given away his position after stepping in paint.
We then toured some more around this spot, including a room that had his likeness, meditating, in front of his likeness, which I suppose is helpful for people who forget what museum they’re in.
Our next stop on the whirlwind was India Gate, which was built to commemorate the 90,000 Indians that died in World War I:
Nearby, now in New Delhi was Indian Parliament and the home of the Indian president called, Rashtrapi Bavan (I know these names are probably unnecessary to the story, but I looked them up, so they stay).
One of the highlights of the day was our next stop at Humayun’s tomb. He was a Mughal emperor after Shah Jahan, and after his death, his wife completed this ode to his greatness in 1570.
I thought it was a pretty impressive structure, which UNESCO had also long ago determined, and anointed it with their: “Oh we really like what you’ve done here” stamp of approval:
We toured around here for a bit, which took time, considering the tomb is essentially a mansion with other buildings within it.
The architecture was interesting, borrowing from Persian style, which Rose patiently stood in front of while I snapped:
The scale of the Tomb, India Gate and the Sikh Temple are immense. But our next stop would take the crown:
The Red Fort, part of Old Delhi, built by Shah Jahan is a huge complex with walls that feel like they go on forever – 2.1kms in total – which contain a group of palaces within grounds of 250 acres, each the size of the tomb we last saw.
We wandered around for a long time, seeing more palaces with intricate artwork:
It was also here that we were first asked to pose in a photo with complete strangers. Or, more accurately, I was asked to pose in a photo. Two guys came up to us, motioned me in to the shot, where I smiled, not knowing what the hell was going on, and they walked off, seemingly happy about things.
I later spoke to people about this, and they explained that it was a way for Indians to establish some prestige, whereby they could show off a photo with me (a white guy) in it and say to their friends or someone they just met: “Oh this guy? Well, he’s my friend from America/Europe/Australia etc.”.
It was odd, and would happen a few times in our time in India.
We ended the day by taking a bicycle rickshaw farther into Old Delhi to visit Jama Masjid, an old mosque. The bike trip was bananas. We spoke with one bike guide, which then attracted three other bike guides who began arguing about the price, offering better than the original guy.
We eventually carried on with the first guy, and he pushed us slowly but surely through the market streets where we got to the steps of the mosque (no cameras allowed inside):
And kicked off our shoes, and ran inside before the afternoon call to prayer, managing only to take a shot of the outside:
Next, it was time to take part in an Indian institution: train travel.
As a first-timer, booking a train is notoriously complex. There are, I think, eight different classes of train in all. And, when you book one, if you aren’t given a spot immediately, you are tossed into a waiting class system, which has as many levels as Dante’s Inferno.
Lucky for us on this trip we managed to secure two spots on the Sleeper class, which means two bunks up top for overnight travel.
Guidebooks suggested this class was only for “the most adventurous”, and I was leery of what we were getting into – especially once we had settled into our seats and I noticed Rose appeared to be the only female on the train car. There had been a lot of stories before we arrived in Delhi of women being abused and mistreated by men, which set me a bit on edge and I felt like I didn’t want to go to the bathroom on board, leaving Rose on her own.
It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution – we chatted with two brothers who shared the lower bunks of the car:
And they insisted we visit his town on the way home, writing out his address and name. It turned out the biggest menace was the weather. Still in the North, temperatures were around 8 degrees, and the Sleeper car was at the mercy of the elements with no insulation or temperature control.
At this point, of course, we didn’t know that:
But in the morning on the train, there are vendors who walk up and down consistently for 15 minutes carrying steaming canisters of tea, shouting “Chai. Chu-chu – Chai”, which were sweet words for our cold ears and bleary eyes after little sleep.
Lack of sleep, however, proved fortuitous, because in our next stop – Varanasi – we’d experience a combination of wildly incoherent things that nobody seemed to bat an eyelash at. Considering that, showing up with a skewed perspective from lack of sleep, might be the best way to be introduced to the place.
It was a nice thought. But, as it turned out, it really didn’t make a difference.
Next stop, the holy city of Varanasi, India.