Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mughal Memories: Exploring history in Delhi and Agra

Adaab saab log!

It is crazy to think how quickly my Urdu program is coming to an end. On Friday I have exactly seven days left in Lucknow. Where did the time go? And since time is short I do not have any more time to digress: now I will finally tell you about the beautiful Mughal monuments I saw in Delhi and Agra these past two weekends. 

Arriving to Delhi

I flew to Delhi with GoAir, reading poetry by Delhi’s most famous poet Ghalib, and articles by Khushwant Singh, one of India’s most beloved writers who recently passed away at his home in Delhi, on the way. I recommend “Not a nice man to know: The best of Khushwant Singh” and “TheLightning should have fallen on Ghalib” for a selection of works by these nationally cherished writers.  In Khushwant Singh’s article “The Romance of New Delhi” he mentioned the saying that Delhi is where dynasties go to die – as I went through all the fantastical monuments built by former rulers of the city, that idea echoed through my mind.

I got the prepaid cab at the airport – 300 rupees for a 45 minute ride in a private cab was totally worth the long wait in the queue! My hosts for the weekend were a fantastic Sikh couple who I had been put in touch with through mutual friends. I love how all the people I have stayed with in Mumbai, Varanasi, Lucknow, and Delhi have been so different, truly representing some of the remarkable diversity of India’s people. My hosts have a beautiful home in the Defence Colony, a large residential area situated centrally in New Delhi, and made me feel so at home.

Red Fort

The first place I went on my first day in Delhi, after a heavy sleep induced by Urdu lessons and Indian planes, was the magnificent RedFort. If you go, you will likely be dropped off at Lahore Gate (the main gate – I thought its reference to Lahore was interesting) and then buy tickets from a small building to the left before the main entrance. There is a separate line for foreigners and tickets will cost 250 rupees for foreigners. Upon entering you first walk through a market, one of the first closed markets in the area that was introduced by the Mughals. After that you cross through another gate-like structure where they have peeled off some of the layers of paint on the walls, so you can see the different stylistic preferences of various Mughal rulers. My favorite was that of a tiger, probably covered up by four or five other layers by the time it was uncovered.

The Red Fort is a huge complex but the buildings themselves are quite small. Gardens and fountains take up most of the space. Marble, floral patterns, and large assymetrical gardens seemed to be Mughal style preferences.

Sis Ganj Gurdwara

After the Red Fort my friend and I were hungry for lunch so we decided to check out a Sikh Gurdwara, which offers free food in their langar hall to anyone of any faith at any time. What a wonderful concept! However, since it was our first time in a Gurdwara we were kind of confused. We went to drop off our shoes at a very organized “shoe store” and then washed our hands, feet, and face before entering, as we observed others doing. Cleanliness, and thus water, appears to be key in all religions. Once inside there was music playing at the front by the tomb of the late Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh. My host had provided me with a magazine before my visit so I could learn more about this Guru. This Guru supposedly stood up against forced conversion to Islam by the Mughals to protect his Bhramin friends, and said that if they managed to convert him then all the Brahmins would convert – he was consequentially martyred. In the Gurdwara you can still see the tree trunk under which the Guru died. We were also given halwa and put flowers in a little hole by the tomb, behind where the group of men were singing and playing instruments. On the top level was a series of reading rooms and a library, with holy Sikh texts, where people also sat on the ground and looked down from balconies at the musical performance while eating their sweet halwa.

After that we realized the Langar Hall was outside the main devotional building so we went outside and came to the right place to have food. There we waited with a huge crowd for a gate to open to let in the next rush of people. Everyone sat in rows on the ground and held up their hands to receive metal trays, roti, daal, cholay, and kichri from volunteers constantly walking up and down the rows offering foods from huge metal containers. We got a little fan club of boys who followed us, although I think they were more enamored with our cameras than us.

Jama Masjid

After our first and very puzzling adventure into a gurdwara, my friend and I went to something more familiar to us both – a mosque. Jama masjid is no ordinary mosque though. It was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite daughter and provides a magnificent view of Old Delhi and the Red Fort. It is a huge space that can accommodate up to 25,000 worshippers during prayer time.

However, taking pictures comes at a price – it costs 300 rupees per camera. It was worth it though, because you can also buy tickets to climb up one of the minarets. From there you have an impressive 360 degree view of bustling and colorful Old Delhi with the tall buildings and large parks of New Delhi on the horizon. What a powerful feeling it must have been for the Mughal Muezzin to call to prayer from this location.

Old Dehli

Old Delhi, especially the area around Jama Masjid, is characterized by narrow winding streets teeming with people and produce and signs in Urdu, of which the latter I got really excited about of course! So we spent a little time getting lost in the sights and smells and adventure of this historical part of the city. I wonder how much has changed in these alleys since Mughal times.

Delhi Metro

After a hot day in Old Delhi it was a great relief to reach the wide empty lawns leading up to India Gate in New Delhi with a quick metro ride, from Chawri Bazaar to Central Secretariat. The concept of a clean and well-functioning metro in a “developing country” probably goes against the common stereotype of India – in my opinion, the Indian metro seems to function even better than the Washington DC metro, and on top of that, each train has a “women only” car. More cities need those so women don’t have to feel at risk in overcrowded metro cars.

India Gate

India Gate, Delhi’s Champs Elysees if you will, is a highly patriotic monument that I had seen in countless bollywood movies before arriving to India. However, from the Central Secretariat Metro stop it was still quite a walk, as we were closer to the Colosseum-like Parliament building. It was so peaceful and beautiful though, as the sizzling day cooled down to evening, so we didn’t mind the leisurely stroll through flowerbeds. We ate mango and raspberry popsicles on the nearly deserted road to the Gate and were thoroughly confused by the automated voices coming every few blocks, reminding people to pick up trash. Is this India? What a drastic change from the other part of Delhi we were just in!

India Gate is inscribed with thousands of names of Indians who died fighting in World War I on behalf of the British. Underneath the gate is an eternal flame for the victims of all of India’s wars since Independence. It is a beautiful tribute. We were also surprised to find a garden of sunflowers by the gate. I had never really though of sunflowers as a particularly Indian flower – then again I don’t really know what my concept of an Indian flower was before I came here.

Lodhi Gardens

The next day we explored the “green lung of Delhi”, Lodhi Gardens. These beautiful gardens used to be the site of two villages before a former British Vicereine commissioned it. It was so refreshing to walk around for an hour or so without being stared at or harassed for being a fair-skinned female tourist. We saw families (both Indian and Western) having picnics, students having classes on the grass, groups singing devotional music on the benches, and beautifully painted trash cans to encourage people to keep the park clean.

The lawns, gardens, canals, and trees hide Mughal treasures from the Lodhi Dynasty, with some of the most magnificently carved buildings I have seen in India so far. If you go you have to see Bara Gumbad.

Law enforcement in Lodhi Gardens appears to be quite relaxed. Read the sign below and then notice the policemen casually ignoring it.

Humayun’s Tomb

Our last destination before my flight back to Lucknow was Humayun’s tomb, which is merely a short rickshaw ride from Lodhi Gardens. The cost is 200 rupees for a foreigner, 210 if you include the ice cream you just have to buy right outside of the entrance to beat the heat. Be careful though – it melts quickly!

Before you reach Humayun’s Tomb, make sure to walk around the Garden Tomb on your right as you enter the complex. It is beautiful and a much more intimate structure than Humayun’s Tomb.

However, Humayun’s Tomb is certainly the highlight and it is clear to see why the tomb was inspiration for the Taj Mahal. It was a small preview of what was to come the next weekend, when I actually got to see the Taj Mahal!


The CLS Urdu Program arranged an overnight trip for us to Agra to see those monuments you cannot leave India without seeing: Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Unfortunately, the mode of transportation was night trains so we were thoroughly sleep-deprived throughout the trip. Nonetheless, we still had energy to pack in a lot!


When we arrived to our hotel in Agra after arriving by train at around 9am, three of my friends and I chose adventure over rest. The so called “baby taj” was 15 kilometres away and we were determined to make the most of our time in Agra. We caught an autorickshaw from our hotel, Karan Vilas, to “Baby Taj”, which we found out is actually called “Itmad ud-Daula”, for 100 rupees. The Baby Taj or Choti Taj is a small structure on the banks of the Yamuna river that runs through Agra. However the entire building has the most incredible mosaics and carving. Each room, although small, was stunning. There was also a beautiful place from which to watch the river swiftly flowing by. I read somewhere that the beloved monuments of Agra are intimately connected with this river – if the river dies, they will meet their demise as well. Since river issues are my research interest, this ran through my mind as I observed more beautiful frames through which to see the river at each monument.

Taj Mahal

After lunch it was finally time for the real deal. They have cleverly made it so that you have to walk down a road so peddlers have a chance to sell things to you. Camel-drawn carriages are also a selling point. My friend cleverly responded to one “Oh I already have a camel at home.” It has become a new game to come up with the best comebacks to incessant peddlers.

There is a building blocking the Taj Mahal from view before you enter, which makes the moment you see it all the more dramatic – like seeing your lover enter the room after a long absence, to use an appropriately cheesy analogy for this monument to love.

However, the pure and much-loved beauty of the building wasn’t completely reflected in the behavior of all of its visitors. As I walked up to the Taj Mahal I had to avoid hordes of Indian boys trying to take my picture, and once inside, by Shah Jahan’s beloved Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb, both me and my friend were groped, which really ruined the experience. After retreating from the building we went to sit down in a corner of the gardens leading up to the Taj Mahal. Even there hordes of boys kept coming up to us requesting our photo. I was thoroughly exhausted by the time I left the Taj Mahal and wrote this poem:

Do not build me a tomb of marble
Of guilded guilt and stony beauty
Rather build me a Taj Mahal
In your heart
And imprint my memory
With your most gentle deeds
Seeds for a new generation of lovers
Not crying over the love lost under stones
But rather the stories that run
Like water
Down that polluted yet pretty
River of our frisson
Past the boulders
Of past betrayals
To the resting place
Of our eternally bound souls

In the intimate history of humanity
Love is not a building, but a home

Agra Fort

Agra Fort is much bigger than you first expect and I actually preferred it to the Taj Mahal, probably because I like getting lost in relatively empty places to discover startlingly beautiful views of surrounding countryside from intricately embellished rooms. Here are some photos of the beauty that won me over at Agra Fort:

As evening fell we had chai and biscuits under the trees by the drawbridge to the fort, while waiting for the Sound and Light Show. I didn’t know what to expect from the Sound and Light Show and was pleasantly surprised. It gently and cleverly soft yellow lighting on the exterior of the buildings from within the Fort’s main courtyard, combined with beautiful music from Mughal times and voices telling compelling stories of the Mughals. I was worried that it would be too dramatized to suit the setting, but it was actually really cool, at least for a history buff like me. I recommend it, but if you do it, bring the bug spray!


The next day we went to Sikandra, a town just outside of Agra where you will find Emperor Akbar’s Tomb. The front gate of the complex has religious symbols for Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, reflecting Akbar’s famed religious tolerance. Inside the complex are sprawling lawns with meowing peacocks and gracefully grazing deer. As you walk past the fountain to the actual tomb, you will enter one of the most beautiful rooms I have seen so far in India. The detail and patterns were stunning! In contrast the room for the tomb itself is very simple, with light shining down from a single high window creating an auspicious space of shadows and whispers.

Gomti Express Train

After Sikandra we had lunch and then went off to catch the train back to Lucknow. But being India, the train was two hours late. We were shuffled into a VIP waiting area but the electricity was out so the AC didn’t work. While we waited on the train platform I saw fat rats crawl on the tracks and out from the cafĂ© carts. I couldn’t wait to get on the train. The train wasn’t much better, crawling with bugs and so bumpy I couldn’t utilize the time to do my Urdu homework. Watching movies on a friend’s laptop was a welcome distraction! Once we arrived at Lucknow I had some more waiting time, spent appreciating the city's pink train station - a famous landmark of the city that I hadn't photographed yet!

The above photo is a tribute to my featured friend's favorite bollywood movie, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. See the scene here.

Now I'm off to bed so I can be fresh for another day of Urdu classes and a planned visit to the Lucknow zoo. Shab bekhair everyone!

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