“No, no no”, exclaims the immigration official at Delhi airport, shaking his turbaned head, “this simply will not do!” I am trying for the third time to have the fingers of my right hand scanned but, for him, the result is far from satisfactory. He leans back in his chair, his shirt buttons straining across his ample stomach, and passes me the hand sanitiser as if this will help produce a better result. Beside me, in the adjacent Tourist E-Visa desks, other tourists are having exactly the same unsatisfactory result. Finally, we achieve an acceptable reading. I press my two thumbs to his scanner, he returns my passport and murmurs, “Welcome to India, sir”.
When we awake next morning, the city is blanketed in fog. It is so thick that from our window on the 16th floor, we cannot see the street, or even the buildings across the street. And it’s clearly very cold. Welcome to Delhi in winter. At 9.30am our guide collects us from our hotel and we head out into the Saturday morning traffic. There are 23 million people living in Delhi and it seems as if all of them are on the road this morning. There is a dress rehearsal somewhere for the Republic Day parade on Tuesday and parts of the city, including the Red Fort, are shut down for the rehearsal. We grind slowly in the mid-morning traffic eventually reaching Chandi Chowk and the Jama Masjid mosque.
It’s still foggy so we forgo a climb to the top of one of the minarets for an “unparalleled view of Old Delhi”, and instead marvel at the array and diversity of visitors to the mosque. We white round faces are clearly in the micro-minority. It’s an impressive mosque, but its claim to fame is its age and the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi knocks it into a cocked hat in terms of style and presentation. Maggie is wrapped in a borrowed abeya that makes her look a little like a large Christmas parcel. There is pigeon crap everywhere and we have bare feet. When we feel we have seen enough we leave the mosque and disappoint the shoe minder who bravely holds out for a tip. A quick rickshaw ride through the laneways of Chandi Chowk is colourful, but rickshaw seats were not made for people of my height, and I watch the passing parade through the tattered fringe on the rickshaw roof.
Another 30 minutes battling with the traffic brings us to Humayun’s Tomb in the lovely Mughal Gardens. Fortunately, last night on the long flight from Sydney we had both watched a documentary on the restoration of this magnificent mausoleum, built in the 1500s and recently restored with a grant from the Agar Khan. It’s both a beautiful and impressive structure and demonstrates the strong influence of the Moghuls in this part of the world.
But the highlight of the day comes with our last stop at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a temple of great reverence for the Sikhs. Whilst the temple is impressive in terms of both size and style, with its soaring golden dome, what makes this place amazing is the Gurudwada or kitchen, where anyone, (provided you have covered your head and removed your shoes and socks), can eat for free. Volunteers staff the kitchen and the food is all donated, and each day, up to 40,000 people are given a meal. Our guide took us backstage, into the kitchens, and the scale of the production was enormous. The photos show what must be the largest wok in the whole world, but the smell in a room where 40,000 people have removed their shoes and socks will be remembered only by us.
For dinner we brave the aggressive touts and thieves around Connaught Circle and find a restaurant specializing in Rajasthani Thali. There’s a performance when we arrive at the restaurant as we are given a cardboard hat resembling a turban and a splash of colour on out foreheads. The meal is theatre too, with the various dishes splashed liberally onto our Thali plates. The delivery of the food is so enthusiastic that we are glad we are both wearing black and I try to ignore the fact that we are the only people in the crowded restaurant wearing the cardboard hats.
Next morning, we are guide-free until we leave for the train at 6pm, so, taking out life in our hands, we set alone onto the Delhi metro. This subway system, which carries 2.4 million people each day, is packed even on a Sunday morning. We squeeze into a car, protecting our valuables as we travel half a dozen stops to Swaminarayan Akshardham. This unique complex of buildings spans 100 acres and here, as in much of in Delhi, security is very tight. The signs tell us we cannot bring into the area obvious items such as guns and alcohol, but cellphones, cameras and usb sticks are also banned, as is surprisingly, soap. After checking our bags, we pass through security, receiving a full frisk and I am treated to a gentle squeeze of the genitals to ensure I am not secreting any soap, then we are let loose in the Akshardham. You will have heard us say that we believe the mosque in Abu Dhabi to be the richest, most spectacular religious structure we’ve ever been in, but in SA it meets its match. As beautiful as a mosque is, Islam requires there is no idolatry or images to distract from prayer, but in Akshardham Mandir, built of pink stone and white marble, the carvings of over 20,000 superbly sculptured figures, make it one of the most beautiful religious buildings we have ever seen. There is much to see, (and a food court) and the day passes quickly. It is midafternoon before we leave SA and enjoy a stroll through the Lodi gardens, watching the young lovers cavorting behind the trees. We grab a quick coffee in the Turtle café inside a bookstore at the Khan markets and note that books are generally only 2/3 the cost of ours in Australia. There is a poster for a new book by a French writer. The blurb reads, “(Her) world is vast: inhabited by smells and throbs like a tropical western…” I’m sure the august publisher George Weidenfeld, who died this week, would have felt there was something lacking the translation.
We run back to our hotel to catch the 6.55pm overnight express to Varanasi.