I had a free day in between the day I got my train tickets to Agra, and the day of actually going to Agra. So I decided to join a Delhi walking tour that my hostel organised. It would be nice to see a bit of the streetside sights of old Delhi, with someone who knows what they’re looking at.  

The Walking Tour near the Red Fort of Delhi

The walking tour did not start near the hostel itself. So we first went by tuktuk to a part of Delhi which was near the Red Fort, one of Delhi’s several UNESCO Heritage Sites. The tour was not about the Red Fort itself, but about the spice market area next to it, Khari Baoli.

Going on foot along the main road towards the spice market, we passed by points of history important to the different communities of Delhi. 

To be honest, I’m really quite random at remembering historical facts unless it’s wrapped in a story of some kind. Especially with history as diverse and complicated as India’s. So, unfortunately, I don’t remember much of what our young guide narrated as we passed by such points.

But I do remember having sweet tea in an alley, just chatting and learning about our guide’s student background, and about each other. And I remember crossing the peaceful compound of Fatehpuri Masjid, round the mosque’s open air ablution pool and up the steps of a neglected building, for a rooftop view of Delhi under a clouded sky and wheeling raptors. 

View along a Delhi rooftop looking towards an old domed gazebo, against a backdrop of dark raincloud
Delhi rooftop, area behind Fatehpuri Mosque

Things to get while in India: Spices

Obviously in the spice market, there was an abundance of spices. But seriously, if you can get it past your immigration, this is where to get your souvenir spice shopping done – just sayin’. 

Indian food is famously spicy – and that does not always mean spicy-hot. Rather, it is flavourful, with the blend of many different spices.

If you know what to get, this is where you take advantage of the cheap prices and great range. There are spice sellers in the alleys and sellers in the street shops, and even by the footpaths. If I were to do this over, since Delhi was my last stop on this trip, I’d probably have taken orders beforehand from friends and family. 

Variety of colourful spices on sale on a Delhi street | Delhi walking tour
Seriously, get spices

India is clearly a country that loves colour. And while today many of its urban spaces look washed out from age and neglect, the people still bring colour with them, in their clothing and their food and decorations. 

The Greatness and Trauma of the Mughal Empire

The other thing I remember, was not as benign. It was a piece of Mughal history. 

It was a spot on the street which is remembered for the exceptional cruelty that was carried out there upon the Sikh community by Aurangzeb, son of Shah Jahan (the Taj Mahal guy). In order to suppress the teachings of the influential Guru Tegh Bahadur at the time, he had the Guru’s disciples horrifically tortured as the Guru watched, before finally executing him. 

The spot that commemorated the execution of the Sikh Guru made me remember something I read from the travelogue of the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta. He was not a contemporary of the Mughal court. But he was made a judge in the Tughluq court, a different Central Asian dynasty* that assumed control of the Delhi region prior to the Mughals’ rise to power.

Old blue door in Delhi with repeating recessed diamond pattern

Ibn Battuta and the mindset of medieval times

Ibn Battuta was a travelling scholar from a different time. At the time, the norm was that the reigning king of the land held absolute power, and should never be questioned. This was seen as totally normal back then. The king was second only to God Himself. Even when he was cruel and unjust, the appropriate response by a subject was to endure and pray for deliverance. Because, of course, only God has the higher authority to correct the king.

Much like many manuscripts written for court purposes in medieval times, the travelogue made for laborious reading as a result. This is because the writer will include many passages devoted to describing the complete titles of kings, and to praise them. Not to mention lengthy descriptions of how different eminent people relate to others in a network of eminence within the known civilised world. 

Knowing this is necessary to understand the observation I’m about to tell you.

The closest Ibn Battuta came to heresy

Looking up to a faded blue old wooden balcony in a Delhi side street
I wonder how old this is?

By the time he arrived in India, Ibn Battuta had already passed through numerous lands governed by different monarchs, chiefs, and warlords. None of them shook this medieval commitment to defer to and honour the reigning king, though many of those lands brought customs and ideas that were novel to him and challenged his worldview (as travel would).

But when he wrote about the court of the Tughluq emperor, his writings showed clear conflict. For he was serving an empire that was great and wealthy and powerful, whose Muslim king was the most generous of all he had ever seen or heard of (this empire was probably the origin of the ‘Arabic’ exotic imagery of royal parades with princes on elephants tossing gold into the crowd, and princesses in harem pants, a la Disney’s Aladdin – which is actually not Arabic at all).

Yet, he was horrified by the king’s casual and bloody cruelty, also exceeding any he had seen or heard of. (This is saying a lot, considering the fairly violent era.) He seemed quite traumatised by his experience in the Tughluq court. And still, even though he was writing about it many years after the experience, safely far away in Morocco, his words were circumspect about criticising the Delhi king! It’s like his faith was straining against his culture. I found it fascinating. 

I guess I’m fortunate in not being able to understand it. And it reminded me that there will be things we simply cannot understand, because it’s not the reality we live in. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real or valid. Perhaps someone living under one of today’s true totalitarian states – North Korea, perhaps – would read the same passages and see only… a perfectly sensible man. 

Impressions of New Delhi

At the start of the India leg of my journey, my expectation for Uttar Pradesh was like this: Varanasi would feel crushingly crowded, and Delhi would be the worst part in this respect because of sheer numbers. And Lucknow, because it was the capital of the state, would be the relaxing bit. 

Indian woman sitting on the public footpath in New Delhi selling spices

The reality was: Varanasi felt unbearably crowded after Nepal. But then, Lucknow was even more crowded. So I braced for the Delhi bit to completely wipe out my endurance. 

But actually, it was Delhi that did not feel crowded. By comparison, it felt like there was normal space between vehicles. Motorists did not need to be set apart or prodded on by traffic policemen with sticks. I felt less of the surreal madness, while moving around the city. 

Maybe it’s because of where I was – central New Delhi rather than its outlying areas. Maybe I happened to be in the part that was better organised. Or perhaps it’s because it was the Eve of Eid (did I mention we stumbled upon a goat market?), and offices have shut down.

Signs of disposable income

One of the ways in which Delhi was different from the other places I had passed through, was the type of shops you could find. Specifically, there were shops selling trinkets and curiosities. Things like painted umbrellas and cute stuffed toys – but for grownups, not children. This seems totally banal, for those of us used to a culture with a great deal more retail and shopping.

curiosity shop in New Delhi

But the thing is, I did not see this in Varanasi or in Lucknow. There, you mainly had shops selling practical things, or traditional craft like textiles and wedding finery. 

But in at least two different shopping areas I passed through in New Delhi, I saw shops that sold things that were neither. I think you can use the existence of such shops to indicate the presence of a middle class with disposable income. 

The Red Fort of Delhi

The walking tour was a short one, and we had the afternoon to ourselves. After amusing ourselves by exploring the Eid goat market, we decided to continue our Delhi walking tour ourselves. We decided on the Red Fort, which was nearby. 

Once, I had a thing about defensive structures. Absolutely obsessed with ’em. When I studied in Britain, I tried to see as many of the English castles as I could. (I got out of that phase quite a while ago.)

But the Red Fort of Delhi resurrected that fascination. Large and sprawling and imposing, it was both formidable as well as oddly graceful.

View of the Red Fort of Delhi with a ferris wheel to the right | UNESCO Heritage Site of India
Clearly royal

See, you had to be told whether an English castle belonged to a noble or a king. But merely laying eyes on a Mughal one, and you know. 

Entrance fees to the Red Fort of Delhi

The entry fee to the Red Fort was more substantial than any of the Lucknow monuments, reflecting its status as a UNESCO Heritage Site.

Ticket prices in 2017:

  • Foreigner:  500 rupees
  • India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Thailand, and Myanmar (SAARC and BIMSTEC countries): 35 rupees 

Crossing the Chatta Chowk bazaar on the Eve of Eid

Beyond the barbican of the Red Fort was a bazaar street, Chatta Chowk. The street eventually led to an imposing inner gateway that now houses a museum. There were still many tourists, Indian nationals who had come to see the monuments of their own nation. I imagine the Red Fort might be a lot more bustling if it were not the eve of Eid.

Crossing the bazaar itself was fascinating, even though the shops were closed for the public holiday. Up above were sloping arched alcoves, its access doorways perhaps once manned by the emperor’s archers. Here and there, were remnants of the Mughal painted flowers and geometric stars that once adorned the patterned ceilings of even such mundane places as markets. 

It was clearly a reign that could afford to pour beauty and grace everywhere. You could believe that the Mughal empire produced almost a quarter of the total wealth of the entire world, in its time. 

The Diwans: Royal Halls of the Red Fort

Beyond the inner gateway, a long and lovely path led through a garden to the Diwan-i-Am – literally, the Public Hall. 

A red open structure like the stones of the fort encircling it, the hall is many-columned, with daintily scalloped arches overhead. It was where the emperor held his audiences with the people. A view down the rows of columns reminded me a little bit of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

But the VIPs had their meetings with the emperor elsewhere, not here. The Diwan-i-Khas – the Special Hall – is next to the emperor’s own quarters in the inner fort. This hall and the imperial apartments are made of white marble, carved and inlaid. It was even more graceful than the Public Hall. 

You had to hand it to Shah Jahan. He may have been outrageously opulent, but at least he had incredible taste. Too bad his son had to be a despot and ruin the show. 

Thoughts in the gardens of the Mughal Red Fort

Even though it was but a ghost of its original splendour, the structures of the Red Fort are still impressive.

I read once, in a book I have forgotten, that this was the difference between the kind of woman who stays beautiful as she ages, and the youthful beauty whose charm fades with time. The first is beautiful because of the very bones of her face, and the latter owes it to the blooming flesh of her youth.

That is the way of superlative architecture – their very skeletons are beautiful. Ungilded, shorn of her ornaments, pillaged and abandoned – still not ugly. 

Remembering why I like castles

We tried to see Humayun’s Tomb after the Red Fort. But it was closed. Some kind of VIP was visiting, so they closed the entire site to receive him. 

I was ok with that. Let the VIP have the tomb. I would rather remember Delhi by the Red Fort, where people lived

Although the Red Fort ended up being the only UNESCO site of Delhi that I visited on this trip, I am oddly glad. It reminded me of why I had a thing for fortresses, but not for lone palaces and tombs. 

You see, within the shelter of a fortress’ walls were often layers of a living society. The soldiers on the walls, sharing it with the merchants and artisans behind the gates, sharing it with the nobility and commoners come to petition the king, sharing it with the king and his consorts and their servants and entertainers and officials and scholars. 

A mixture of the martial and the sensual, the practical and the decorative, the ordinary and the lofty, the holy and the common. All struggling to live, despite their different niches.

A microcosm. 

Notes:

One of the oddest epiphanies I had some years back, was to realise something in common between the people that civilised nations in the Middle Ages held in terror.

The Chinese feared ‘the Mongols‘; and Genghis Khan went on to terrorise the civilisations of Persia and the Arabs, resulting in poetry from that period which can only be described as ‘Arabic the blues’. There was Tamerlane, and there were the Tughluqs and Mughals who, despite a high degree of civilisation, still left memories of trauma in the native Hindus in the Indian subcontinent. Even Europe’s deep-seated phobia of ‘the East’ can be traced beyond the Turks all the way back to the trauma of Attila the Hun, whose people had come to Europe from ‘the East’.

View from within a neglected building in Delhi, through an arched window, looking to a rooftop domed gazebo
The right framing?

But really, despite blaming their national traumas to different specific groups, all these old settled nations – Han Chinese, Caucasians, Persians, Arabs, Indians – were actually traumatised by basically the same people – Central Asians! It’s just that, being a nomad people, they tended to absorb the trappings of civilisation of the people they conquered, and then you don’t notice that they have the same steppe roots! (Blown your mind yet?)

I have no idea what the heck was up with them, to be so recurringly horrible across hundreds of years. Maybe the steppes were boring and harsh and they weren’t loved or something. And how did they churn out so many military geniuses? And when is that region going to cut it out? 

Carbon offsetting information to Delhi, India

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,114 lbs CO2e. It costs about $16 to offset this.

On this trip I travelled to Delhi from Varanasi by train. The train travel portion produces carbon emissions of approximately 133 lbs CO2e. It doesn’t even cost $1 to offset this.


Did you enjoy my reflective, semi-historical take on Delhi?

10 Responses

  1. Beautiful photos along with wonderfully crafted stories of your experiences. I loved experiencing the history of India throughout your post. I felt like I could smell all of the spices and walk through the corridors and hallways you describe.

  2. Manouk says:

    Beautifully written article Teja. Few people realize ‘Central Asia’ had had such an impact on the world in early days. Glad I discovered your blog :)

    • Teja says:

      Haha yeah! I first realised when I noticed, huh … Khan in Mongolia, Khans in Pakistan, Attila the Hun… what are the odds… hang on a minute! ?

  3. Dagney says:

    These photos are stunning! I didn’t see enough of Delhi when I lived in India, we were always just passing through, but this post has made me want to revisit the city properly!

    • Teja says:

      That does tend to be the case, doesn’t it? You take for granted the places that are near, because you can go ‘any time’. And then end up never doing it.

  4. Madhu says:

    Wow loved that blue door .great post.

  5. Historical facts are best remembered with stories and songs so you are not alone when it comes to not remembering them,