Sunday, 11 November 2007

Sightseeing; Agra and Delhi

We spent most of the Friday (2 November) travelling back to Delhi. First the flight from Bagdogra to Delhi and then an hour taxi trip from the airport (trip takes less than 15-minutes in no traffic) to our hotel The Ashok. This is a lovely 5-star hotel (the only one) in New Delhi, surrounded by embassies (thank you India Tourism).

I was now with another 4 journalists, Britta, Mane, Klaus and Duncan, (hosted by India Tourism) and we would be going the next morning on a sightseeing trip to Agra (nearby city) to see the Taj Mahal. We would leave the hotel at 07h00 and had been told that the trip would take 4-hours.

Correction friends... in this overpopulated place with more traffic than I have EVER seen in my life it takes 6-hours. The secret to travelling in these places is to travel between 23h00 and 05h30... An alternative is to take the train, which leaves Delhi at 06h00. The trip takes 2.5hrs. BUT, it only leaves Agra at 21h00. The runners were booked on this option and like us, they were exhausted when they finally got back to the hotel.

We slept a lot of the way but when awake there was lots to look at; crowds of people, overloaded bicycles, overloaded tuk-tuks, camels pulling massive loads and crazy drivers.

The Taj itself is suitably impressive, especially when you consider the years (22 of them) of construction and the manpower required to build this massive mausoleum. Taj is a symbol of love, built in memory of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan's favourite wife (she died giving birth to their 14th child). What is interesting to know is that this wife was one of 4; in addition he also had some 750 concubines... Construction started in 1631.

This favourite wife is buried in the centre of the Taj. Two others wife are buried in other mausoleum's withing the Taj complex. Our guide said the 4th is buried elsewhere.

We only got there around 13h00 and were swamped by other tourists. It is best to be at the gates at the crack of dawn. Yes, the sky is as hazy as it looks in the picture. I asked our guide whether they ever see the sun. He said this was fog and that it is worse towards December. I'm betting on it being mostly pollution.

We were then taken to a place to see how the semi-precious stone is inlaid into the white marble (a la Taj). When we were taken into the show-room we were told, "No pressure to buy". These people don't know what no pressure is. While I can admire the handiwork, a big marble inlaid tabletop for US$6,000 is not my thing.

Our guide then took us to another place with carpets, pashminas and more inlaid marble. Surrounded by more "No pressure" salesmen we all turned around and walked out, keen to start travelling back to Delhi. The trip back took about 5-hours and we were bombed.

On Sunday morning we were booked for a sightseeing trip in Delhi.

Our first stop was the massive Jama Masjid, the principle mosque in Old Delhi (we were not allowed to take photos without payment). The mosque was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (same dude as the Taj Mahal). Construction was completed in 1656.

Next we went to the Delhi Fort (aka Red Fort - completed in 1648). Again we see the name of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The fort was the palace for his new capital (old one was in Agra). This is an impressive red sandstone walled construction that encloses the palaces. There used to be a hundred-odd palaces within the walls. Although they were looted in the 1700's, four-fifths were destroyed by the British in 1857. They built ugly baracks within the walls, which still stand.

This photo shows one of Shah Khan's palaces. As it stands it is a plain, white marble structure with some inlaid floral designs. Go back 350-years and you would have seen ceilings covered in gold leaf, gem stones and mirrors. Interior fountains were fed by perfumed water channels (which also cooled the palaces in summer) and the water would have reflected off the ceiling.

Carpets would have hung over the big arches, replaced by the finest muslin fabrics in summer. Picture colourful carpets and cushions inside... Then add a few hundred beautiful concubines and you've got quite an establishment.

Next stop was Humayun's Tomb, a complex of buildings of Mughal architecture in New Delhi. Humayun was a Mogul Emperor (before Sher Khan) and his tomb was built on orders of his widow. Construction was started in 1562. There are also other tombs within this complex.

We stopped briefly at the Ghandi memorial, where an eternal flame burns.

Next we went to another World Heritage Site, the Qutb Complex. This complex contains numerous monuments and buildings. The most famous is the Qutub Minar, a 72.5m tall brick tower, "the tallest brick minaret in the world, and an important example of Indo-Islamic Architecture".

A mosque, built in the late 1100's is also within this complex. The mosque was built on the site of a Jain temple, which was destroyed; only the iron pillar was left and the new mosque was built around it. This makes for quite interesting reading (click on the Qutb Complex link).

The pillar is a metallurgical curiosity as it has withstood corrosion for the last 1600 years. "The pillar is made of 98% wrought iron of pure quality. It has been confirmed that the temperatures required to form such kind of pillars cannot be achieved by combustion of coal. The pillar is a testament to the high level of skill achieved by ancient Indian iron smiths in the extraction and processing of iron. The pillar's unusually good corrosion resistance appears is due to a high phosphorus content, which promotes the formation of a solid protective passivation layer of iron oxides and phosphates, rather than the non-protective, cracked rust layer that develops on most ironwork."

These World Heritage Sites (Delhi Fort, Humayun's Tomb and Qutb Complex) cover substantial land areas in Delhi and they are truly located in the heart of the city. It was also very encouraging to see a lot of maintenance and restoration happening at each site.

As for Delhi... the city is crazy. There are almost 18-million inhabitants, some 8 million cars and it is a busy, dirty place. Litter, spitting, ablutions... I don't even know where you'd start to clean the place up. While it is certainly interesting, I don't think I'd like to spend any amount of time there; the quieter mountains are a far more pleasing place to me.

All in all, India is a fabulous place and I've only been to a fraction of this large country. The run is a gentle initiation to India and the mountain areas and my brief city tours were good introductions to the Indian cities. My trip to India was a wonderful experience and I'd definitely go back.

Finally, my thanks and appreciation to Mr C.S. Pandey (www, Mr Shaw from our India Tourism office in Joburg and Mr. Sidharat Bodwal from India Tourism in Delhi. Your warmth and hospitality enriched my experience of your country.

Lisa, with journo friends, pictured in the ruins of the Jain temple in the Qutb Complex.

I have posted photos on Flickr,with descriptions.

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