India day one continued
17.10.2015 - 18.10.2015
On a long day out exploring Delhi with our guide Rajesh and driver Mehar we had already visited the heart of Old Delhi, around the Jama Masjid and the chaotic streets of the Chandni Chowk market, seen the grand architecture of Lutyens' New Delhi, and paid tribute to Gandhi at the Raj Ghat. Now it was time to see a slightly more tranquil side to the city.
Our next stop was at one of the highlights of the tour for me, Humayun's Tomb. This, the tomb of the second Mughal emperor, is a must-see sight for a number of reasons. It was the first great example of Mughal architecture in India, the first garden tomb, and the first building to use red sandstone on such a scale. Commissioned by Humayun’s first wife, Hamida Begum, fourteen years after his death in 1556, a hundred years later it would inspire the design of the best-known of such tombs, the Taj Mahal itself. Architecturally it forms a bridge between the mausoleum of the Mughals’ ancestor Timur in Samarkand, the Gur Emir and the Taj Mahal. Unsurprisingly it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993).
You enter on the west side where a small museum (which we didn’t visit) tells the story of the tomb and its restoration, partly funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Among other things, this restoration work removed many intrusive shop stalls etc. from the surroundings and recreated the garden setting of the tomb – a garden designed on the lines of a Persian-style charbagh with quadrilateral form. As you approach the main tomb look to your right where you will see an even older structure, the 1547 tomb complex of Isa Khan Niyazi, an Afghan noble who fought against the Mughals.
Tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi
Humayun’s Tomb itself stands on a massive platform about seven metres high, dominating its surroundings. It is built from red sandstone, with white marble decoration and a white marble dome. It is 47 metres high and 91 metres wide. Like the garden which surrounds it, it was inspired by Persian architecture and is an early classic of the Mughal style which blends the Islamic elements of the homelands of the foreign dynasties that ruled India from the 12th century with local features, mainly originating from the Rajasthan region. Thus Islamic arches are in-filled with carved sandstone lattices or jaalis, and the Persian-influenced main dome surrounded by small chuttris – the elevated domed pavilions seen on so many Hindu and Mughal buildings and as free-standing structures in cenotaphs at cremation sites.
You ascend to the platform up a flight of steps under the central arch, and from there can enter the tomb on its south side. The main central chamber contains one cenotaph, that of Humayan himself – although, in accordance with standard Indo-Islamic practice, his body lies on a duplicate cenotaph in a lower chamber, precisely aligned with this one but sealed off from public view. Both are on a north-south axis, with his head to the north and turned to face Mecca which from India lies to the west. The raised cenotaph in this chamber allows those paying their respects to focus on the point of his burial and ensures that no one walks directly above him. We were to see the same burial style in several other places, most notably the Taj Mahal. And as there, the chamber is ornamented with delicate pietra dura work – a technique in which marble is inlayed with coloured, often precious or semi-precious, stones. Another feature echoed in the later Taj Mahal is the network of smaller chambers that surrounds this central one, containing the burial places of a number of other members of the royal family and nobility, including that of Humayun’s widow herself, Hamida Begum. These chambers, like the main one, have eight sides and themselves have even smaller chambers opening off them. As you explore you have a sense of being in something of a rabbit warren, and yet you are drawn to circumnavigate the main chamber from which all others radiate. Also buried on this site, although not in the main tomb building, is Humayun’s favourite barber - in fact, there are over 100 graves in this complex.
One of the side chambers
When you exit the main structure take the time to stroll around the platform, which provides a bird’s eye view of the gardens and their symmetry. This is also a good vantage point for views over this part of Delhi – look out for a Sikh and a Buddhist temple as a visible sign of the multiplicity of faiths here.
View from Humayun's Tomb
I think however that my favourite of the sights we visited in Delhi was the Qutb Minar, perhaps because we arrived here in the late afternoon when the sun was at the perfect height for photography, making the stones glow and picking out all the details of the carvings.
This is the tallest brick minaret in the world, at 73 metres, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (listed in 1993). It is five storeys high, and tapers from a 15 m diameter at the base to just 2.5 m at the top. The first three storeys are constructed with red sandstone bricks while the top two also incorporate some white marble. The different styles reflect the fact that it was built over a period of time. It was started by the first Muslim ruler of India, Qutab-ud-din Aibak, in 1200 AD, but he only managed to complete the bottom level. His son-in-law who succeeded him, Iltutmush, added three more storeys in 1220, but the topmost of these was destroyed by lightening in 1369, so the then-ruler Firoz Shah Tughlak replaced this with two new ones in red sandstone and white marble.
In 1803 it was badly damaged again, this time by earthquake, and restored by Robert Smith of the British Indian Army in 1828. For some reason he decided it would look better with a cupola on the top, so he added one, but this was removed some twenty years or so later under instructions from Lord Hardinge, then Governor General of India, and it now sits in the grounds.
The minaret is surrounded by a number of other buildings, all partially ruined, most notably the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the first mosque to be built in India in 1192. It was built by reusing stones from Hindu temples so you will see many defaced carvings of faces and animals, because of the Muslim prohibition on portraying living things.
Also nearby is a famous iron pillar, seven metres in height. This is older even than the minaret, dating from the early part of the 5th century AD. It has stood on this site since 1233 but there is a lot of debate, and no firm agreement, on its original location. It is notable for its lack of corrosion. Tradition holds that you will have good fortune if you can stand with your back to the pillar and make your hands meet behind it, but it is nowadays impossible to test that superstition as years of wear and tear have led the authorities to build a low fence around it. Wikipedia has a detailed description and exploration of the various theories that have been expounded relating to its construction and original location: Iron pillar of Delhi
Iron pillar and Qutb Minar
Opposite the Qutb Minar you will see the base of another minaret which our guide told us was to have been twice the height, but this was never finished. I haven’t however found any reference to this in my online research – maybe someone else can shed some light? I did though find some theorising that Qutb Minar could be older than is usually stated, pre-dating Islam in India: http://www.qutubminar.org/. As this is founded on the use of stones with Hindu images, which can be explained by the reuse of the temples, this seems dubious at best but I note it here for interest.
This was the first place on our trip when we encountered what was to become a regular occurrence - local people (in this case a group of young tourists) asking us to pose for photos with them. We were always happy to oblige on these occasions, and sometimes, as here, made sure we got a photo too. It seems likely that there are now photos of us all over Rajasthan and elsewhere in India!
With young tourists at the Qutb Minar
Life lived on the streets
Delhi was our first stop of a tour spent mostly in Rajasthan, and our first chance to observe daily life which, even in this bustling metropolis, is lived much more on the street than we are used to in the UK. Partly this is a factor of the climate, and partly one of culture. On the whole, it seems that Indian people don't have the reservations and need for privacy that we Brits are famed for. Everywhere we went, we found that people were quite open in showing their curiosity about us, which made it easier for us to do the same in return. Here, as everywhere, I enjoyed taking lots of candid street photos as well as others for which people were happy to pose.
Traffic in Delhi
As we were driven around the city by our fantastic driver Mehar I was continually fascinated to watch all the activity and the skill of those who, for the most part, avoided what seemed to me to be inevitable accidents. There are few rules, and those that exist are ignored. It is definitely a case of "every man for himself" - and yes, the vast majority of drivers are men. At every junction or roundabout the vehicle that goes first is not the one with the right of way (an alien concept here it seems) but the one with the most confident or aggressive driver. To misquote another proverb, he who hesitates may not be lost, but he will definitely still be sitting at that junction at nightfall. Signs do exhort drivers to be more courteous and careful – giving way to pedestrians and “no honking”! But these are ignored, and as everyone knows this and is playing by the same “rules” it seems not to cause anything but fairly minor scrapes and bumps.
But of course all this traffic results in many problems for the city. The roads are so congested that to get anywhere takes ages. And worse, the pollution is terrible. When we visited in 2015 we were told that Delhi had overtaken Beijing to become the world's most polluted city - a dubious honour to say the least. The authorities are trying to tackle the problem. The Metro, which is already used by a million people a day, is being extended to encourage more to leave the car at home - but meanwhile it seems that the extension works are themselves adding to the traffic problems on the roads. Diesel cars over ten years old are banned, and all auto-rickshaws must run on clean energy (CNG). And they are considering introducing a congestion charge as in London. But for now the roads remain a frustrating but constantly fascinating spectacle, where mini dramas are played out every minute.
To get just a brief taste of the experience watch my short video, shot from the car.
Train journeys to and from Delhi
After two nights in Delhi we left on an early morning train to Agra from New Delhi Railway Station, one of five main stations in the city. The journey took about two hours. It was dark when we left Delhi at 6.00 AM, but the sun was soon up and we enjoyed the views of the surrounding countryside in the misty morning light. It is a flat landscape so there is nothing spectacular to see, but we found it interesting. Taking photos of the passing views wasn't really an option however, as the windows were both dirty and double glazed, making it hard to focus. However I did manage to shoot another short video.
We travelled in a 2nd class air-conditioned coach. The ticket price includes a meal served to your seat by "Meals on Wheels" but as we had a packed breakfast provided by our Delhi hotel we skipped that. We were also given newspapers (English language) but we were too busy looking out of the window to bother with those either.
Meals on Wheels team waits to board the train at Delhi
The train arrived only a couple of minutes late in Agra where we had five minutes to get ourselves and our luggage off the train - no problem! We were met by a rep from the travel company and our driver Mehar who had driven down from Delhi, and we were soon on our way to our hotel...
Two weeks after we had left Delhi for Agra we returned by the same means, a train, although this time arriving at Hazrat Nizamuddin station. Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.
For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.
I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.
Seen from the train
When we arrived in Delhi we were pleased to find that our “meet and greet” rep was our guide from our previous stay at the start of the trip, Rajesh. And although we were at first a little disappointed that Mehar wasn’t to be our driver for this final transfer, imagine how pleased we were, and he also, when his car pulled up outside the station as we stood waiting for ours! He was there to meet another English couple who had travelled on our train, and hurried over to say hello and ask about our time in Ranthambore. It was lovely to see him one last time, before our car arrived and we headed to our hotel for our last night in Delhi.