A PASSAGE THROUGH INDIA (AND OUT AGAIN)
In this blog post I visit arguably the world’s most beautiful building, a monument to love so enrapturing Rudyard Kipling described it as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”. Before that though, Delhi became the first place I saw someone taking a shit in public.
“I wonder what that guy’s doing behind that wall” I thought to myself. I had just exited Old Delhi’s Red Fort, seat of power of the Mughal emperors for over two hundred years. I’d seen a grey head bobbing suspiciously over the top of a wall as I walked along a path back towards the city. Sure enough the guy was either answering a particularly important call of nature, or staging a private dirty protest. The Red Fort was quickly turning brown.
Delhi wasn’t much of shock having spent the past few days in Kolkata and taken the night train here. The streets were crowded and the alleyways smokey and pungent, but I’d grown accustomed to it, maybe even a little fond. After my encounter with the phantom pooper I’d make sure to thread more carefully, especially around the old spice market, a bustling marketplace strewn through a number of backstreets and small courtyards. With bulging sacks full of chilli, cumin, and god knows what else, this has got to be the laxative capital of the world. And yet…..my stomach felt fine. So far the infamous Delhi Belly had kept at bay and I was almost two weeks into my India trip at this stage. My self congratulation wasn’t about to last though. Like a kid with his finger stuck in the dam trying to hold back the water, the deluge was inevitable. I’m not gonna smear this whole blog post with poop stories, suffice to say that when it starts it doesn’t really stop. Not until you’ve left anyway.
I always feel like I’m being a bit harsh on India whenever I’m retelling stories of my time here. The stuff that instantly comes to mind are the near endless scams you fall – and almost fall – into every day. Usually they revolve around being over charged for things, change not being given back, asking you to pay twice for things you know you’ve already paid for, and rickshaw drivers taking you to the wrong places on purpose and charging you extra for taking you back. Maybe I just have a big gullible looking head on me, but they seemed to think I was an easy target. If I was at the start, than I definitely wasn’t at the end. India became one of the few places I became genuinely pissed off at people. And regularly.
Oh yeah, I went some places too, I should probably tell you about those.
Delhi has a pretty extensive metro system. The only downside being the pushing and shoving for tickets. That and the cheapness of rickshaw rides (even when they try to overcharge you) means it was surprisingly easy to get around a city as extensive and populous as New Delhi. It is incredible hot, so you’ll probably want to keep the walking in direct sunlight to a minimum.
After another tussle with a rickshaw driver who wanted to take me somewhere else, I found myself on the Red Fort road. Just across the street from the stunning Gurudawa Sisganj Sahib Sikh temple, this huge complex was the centre of India for centuries. Then the British destroyed most of it. Entering through the enormous Lahore Gate, the expansive grounds contain numerous smaller palaces including the Diwan-I-Aam, which was the public audience hall for meetings with the mughal emperor. It also contains his throne which is quite flashy.
Most of the interior of the Red Fort is in ruin and neglect, which is a crying shame when you see pictures of how it used to look. There are small restoration projects going on inside, but it’s highly unlikely it will be restored anywhere close to it’s former glory.
After some aimless wandering I found myself in the neighboring Salimgarh Fort. This was no accident though. Even though the fort today is little more than a pale extension of the Red Fort, it has an evil reputation that far outweighs it. This is arguably the most haunted site in India, and in a country where folklore and tradition are still very much parts of everyday life, that’s really saying something. Salimgarh is even older than the Red Fort and was used as a prison and torture chamber by the Mughal rulers. It was then taken over by the British during the time of the Raj, and used for much the same purpose. I guess you can’t really be too shocked that the ruins are saturated with spooks when, according to legend, the very walls of the fort were washed in the blood of the unfortunates that were kept here. Another take tells the story of a hindu demon known as a rakshasa, haunting the ramparts and literally scaring soldiers to death in the middle of the night. She takes the form of a supposedly beautiful woman. At least initially. When she approaches and removes her veil….well it’s like the whole Tinder expectations versus reality thing isn’t it?
There isn’t much left to see inside Salimgarh these days. Nothing physical anyway, a train track even runs through it now, but it’s a sobering reminder of the blood that was spilled during India’s turbulent history. It’s not all romantic palaces and beach yoga you know. Thankfully.
I was beginning to realise there are no short walks in the Delhi heat. India’s largest mosque the Jama Masjid, looks like a hop, skip, and a jump from the Red Fort on the map. Navigating the wide roads and endless traffic is another story. After climbing the steps up to the entrance, I took my shoes off to step into an expansive courtyard, the three looming domes of the mosque straight ahead. The courtyard is paved in stone. Very hot stone. Very very hot stone. Lucklily there is a walkway of carpet laid out on the ground that people without asbestos lined feet can use to find their way around. It’s a pretty cool place, you can even climb the steps up to the top of one of the towers for an amazing birds-eye view over Old Delhi. Just don’t attempt the climb if you suffer from vertigo – or a general will to live – it’s incredibly narrow and steep.
Back down in the courtyard I could have sworn I seen people both drink from, and place their feet inside the same fountain. I’d begun to shrug off little moments like this. India, I kept telling myself, it’s not a real place.
From the mean streets of Delhi populated by random herds of cows (yes it’s really true) to the even meaner streets of Jaipur, populated by random elephants. New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra form what it known in tourist circles as The Golden Triangle. As a city in it’s own right I quite liked Jaipur. It didn’t feel as claustrophobic and oppressive as Delhi did at times. It’s home to the magnificent Amer Fort outside the town, and in the city centre stands the bizarre Hawa Mahal. To get around required spending the day with my rickshaw driver, a friendly guy sporting a Poison T-Shirt, so I’ll call him Brett.
Brett dropped me off first at the Amer Fort that morning. This sprawling royal residence come fortification reminded me of the palace from the “wildly racist” Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I put wildly racist in quotations because nowadays everything is considered racist until proven otherwise. In the morning time you can get an elephant ride up the hill to the fort entrance. I arrived a little late for that. Apparently you can also see snake charmers here. I also didn’t see that. I definitely was here though.
After stumbling through the enormous complex I headed further up the hill to the ruined Jaigarh Fort. This was built as an overlook to protect the Amer Palace below it. There are some great views up here of the extensive fortifications and palaces. Jaigarh also houses the worlds largest wheeled canon called the Jaivana. I’m not quite sure how they worked this. To me it looked like the recoil from this beast would do more damage to the fort itself than to any potential enemies. It looks cool though, and they’ve decorated it with some nice floral garlands. In Indian culture floral garlands are said to invoke the protection of hindu gods. Maybe this was their answer to the recoil problem.
Later back in Jaipur city I stopped at the bizarre Hawa Mahal, commonly known as the Palace of the Winds. Instead of being named after a ruler with a flatulence problem, the palace was designed to hide away princesses who wanted to spy on the streets outside without being seen. It’s sprawling, flat edifice is pock marked with dozens of tiny windows, perfect to facilitate the world’s nosiest royalty. I have an aunt I know would love to live here. Normal sized, ground floor windows just don’t offer enough protection against people who have the nerve to look back at you.
At the Jaipur City Palace the sudden sound of trumpets reverberated around the brightly coloured walls. As I slowly turned the trumpets were replaced by a different sort of thumping, the sort you feel rattling your ribcage. This was Jurassic Park and I was that cup of water on the dashboard. Glistening in the Indian sun they turned the corner and lumbered towards me. I shielded my eyes from the harsh glare. Richly adorned elephants, camels and snow white horses slowly approached me. How did they know I was here? Had the local royalty been reading The Wandering Boo and decided to lay on the mother of all welcomes?
Ah wait no it was for a bunch of fat american tourists. Do I sound bitter?
Once the zoo had gone home (or been eaten by the tourists) I stopped to admire the henna tattooing of the local women in the inner courtyard. It’s a fantastic artform, and the best thing about it is if you change your mind you can always wash it off. You’re not always going to be stuck with Bugs Bunny eating carrots off your ass for life. Yes it was hilarious at the time but we’ve all moved on. Even Warner Brothers.
So how did I get on with my 80’s rock loving tuk tuk guy? The same as pretty much every other one. He wanted to take me places I didn’t want to go when I was finished, then bizarrely claimed the day was too long and that he needed more money. He also acquired a few more children since I had talked to him that morning. I don’t want to focus on the negatives here too much. It was a great day filled with some amazing stuff. In India it just seemed that everything is up for renegotiation at anytime despite previous agreements. It was something I was getting used to. Or so I thought.
For my final stop on my Golden Triangle trip I jumped off the train in Agra, a few hours south of Jaipur. Saving the best until last Agra is better known as the home of the Taj Mahal, iconic symbol of India, and one of the new seven wonders of the world. Agra itself is far from a pretty city. My hostel was nice though, even if it did have a dying man in the dorm room. A very frail older german guy had been telling me how he had been very sick here for weeks. The hostel staff had only checked in on him to ask for the money. Every day he dragged himself out of the bed to journey down the road to the hotel to get some “safe food”. I don’t know what happened to him after I left. If I were him I’d do my best to get on the first flight home as soon as I was strong enough.
I don’t know what I can say about the Taj that hasn’t been said already. I had been expecting a nightmarish, crowded hell hole thronged with millions of tourists. Instead what I got was quieter than the actual city streets. Maybe it was the time of year that I was there? The Taj Mahal is the world’s most romantic graveyard, a perfectly crafted, and blindingly pale mausoleum created by Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaj Mahal. One thing you notice in person is how big it actually is. You are issued with slip on covers for your shoes so that you don’t damage the delicate marble floorings. Outside the Taj is adorned with quranic verses and beautiful carvings. Inside there is a single chamber containing to remains of Mumtaj and the Shah. Pictures and videos aren’t allowed.
Outside the surrounding red mosques are impressive in their own right. They’re also home to monkeys with the reddest arses I have ever seen on a warm blooded animal. Seriously what are these guys eating? I actually can’t point fingers considering my own Delhi belly was now in full swing. People in glass houses something something….
The long promenade leading to the Taj is the selfie capital of the world. 65% of all selfies being taken world wide at any one time are being taken here. It’s like the great migration on the Serengeti. So many of the same species moving together as one organism. Its beautiful. The only thing you can do to mark such a momentous occasion in nature is to take a selfie to remind yourself , and others, that you were there.
Down the road is the Agra Fort. This is where the story of the Taj Mahal reaches it’s bittersweet ending. Shah Jahan was eventually deposed by his son who locked him up here, forever doomed to look across the Yamuna river towards the eternal monument to love that he had created.
It’s a metaphor for life really. You pour your heart and soul into something, creating a flawless masterpiece and then STUPID WORDPRESS WONT UPDATE MY STUPID CSS CODE AND NOW MY SITE LOGO IS WAY TOO BIG AND THE WHOLE THING IS RUINED!!!!!!!!
I mean – cya next time when I finally manage to escape India’s sweaty embrace, and I reflect on what I learned (don’t worry it doesn’t take long)