The first visit to India is an eyeful. Baskets of ocher-colored
spices, outstretched hands, a rainbow of shawls, and relentless
dichotomies - new/old, rich/poor, ugly/beautiful - pour into the
lens of a hungry camera. It is during my first sightseeing tour of
Delhi that these preconceived fantasies of what India would be
collide with a reality that zooms toward me in the form of a sign
on the bumper of a truck.
"Horn please," it reads.
Our driver plunges a foot to the brake pedal, his vehicle skidding
gently in the dusty road, coming within inches of the truck's
bumper. Then he leans into the horn. Two men digging up bricks 15
feet away barely muster a glance. I exhale.
"There are three things you must have to drive in India," my guide,
Ashoka, says, matter-of-factly. "Good brakes, good horn, good luck.
If you don't have all three, you can't drive here."
The visitor to India would be wise to skip straight to a fourth
item: a driver. There is no place on earth - not even Boston -
where I'd rather drive less. This isn't just a matter of safety (or
sanity); there's so much to glimpse along the sides of the roads
that you'd miss most of it sitting behind the wheel. It's also
worth investing in a good guide - easily arranged through the
better hotels - because India's capital, New Delhi, is a sweltering
metropolis of more than 12 million, a city that resists orderly
exploration, especially for a Westerner unfamiliar with Muslim and
Hindu history and tenets.
"It's hard to get people to visit the first time," Ashoka concurs.
"But it's easy to get them to come back."
Delhi is an excellent place to get a handle on India, a country
that celebrates its past as it feasts on the future. Streets wide
and narrow are still navigated by sacred cows lumbering beneath
slick billboards that announce the opening of the latest Bollywood
epic. The sobering din of crushing traffic is mitigated by a stroll
through the peaceful Lodi Gardens. The impersonal modern buildings
of "New" Delhi are escaped with a left turn into the intoxicating
shanty lanes of Chandni Chowk.
Where to begin? Start with the name: Today's New Delhi is at least
the eighth city to inhabit this dusty plain on the banks of the
Yamuna River. It was first known as Indraprastha, founded in 1450
BC by the Pandava dynasty (the family immortalized in the epic tale
Mahabharata). Successive rulers left their mark, capped in
1911 when Britain's King George V proclaimed that the Imperial
Capital of India would be shifted from Calcutta to this spot, to be
named New Delhi.
Architect Edwin Lutyens was hired to remake the city - into the
"Rome of Hindustan," he proclaimed. Thirteen years of building were
inaugurated in 1931, most visible in the city's broad majestic
streets, the Presidential Palace, and the India Gate, a memorial to
the more than 85,000 Indian soldiers who died in service to Britain
during World War I.
But I didn't come to India to revel in the twentieth-century
architecture of colonialists, so my hotel arranges for a guide and
a driver. Early one morning, we head south past the India Gate to
the city's southern suburbs, to the Qutub Minar, a striking minaret
that has become Delhi's iconic symbol. Completed in 1198 to mark
the arrival of Islam, the 238-foot-high fluted sandstone tower
rises next to the ruins of India's first mosque, the
Quwwatu'l-Islam - or the "might of Islam." But there are some
charming architectural inconsistencies.
"You see the columns?" Ashoka asks, pointing to a series of
intricately carved pillars. "This is what I call twelfth-century
recycling - you can see it's not typical of Muslim design." The
resourceful builders of Qutub Minar took pieces from 27 Hindu and
Jain temples that formerly occupied this site and reincarnated them
into the mosque structures. Even my untrained eye can discern the
difference between stone adorned with Hindu motifs and the doorways
and arches that display elaborate inscriptions from the Koran.
Despite the religious contradictions, Qutub Minar established the
character for India's Islamic architecture for centuries to come,
and the parklike setting is agreeable, with vivid green parrots
flapping through the archways.
Ashoka instructs our driver to head back to New Delhi, and
Humayun's Tomb, which is reached through layers of serene gardens
and fountains that have been lovingly renovated in recent years.
The hubbub of the city suddenly seems far away. I don't put my
finger on it immediately, but the graceful burial place reminds me
of another famous building.
"It should," smiles Ashoka. "Humayun's Tomb was the inspiration for
the Taj Mahal. The two served as the beginning and the end of
Mughal architecture." Built in 1570 for the second Mughal emperor
by his widow, Humayun's Tomb incorporates Hindu design, along with
deep-vaulted recesses that allow the midday light through doorways
to bounce from the floor, illuminating the somber chambers.
It was here that the Mughals first attempted the monumental scale
that would define future imperial building. "There are four
qualities found in Mughal architecture," Ashoka says. "The perfect
symmetry, the high double-onion domes, inlay work, and char
bagh, the formal gardens and fountains that depict the Koran's
description of paradise." I am primed for a visit to the Taj Mahal,
where these elements are said to have been perfectly harmonized
about a century later, but first there are a few other stops in Old
Delhi necessary to follow through on the historical chronology.
it's always rush hour in Delhi, so the traffic inches along
frustratingly, but eventually we arrive at the Red Fort, the
imperial residence of Shah Jahan, the emperor who founded the
seventh Delhi. Completed in 1648 and surrounded by thick red
sandstone walls, more than a mile and a half in circumference, the
fort has seen its riches plundered through the years. A bejeweled
"peacock throne" now resides in Tehran; the British pulled up the
gardens and added barracks. It feels more stubbornly militaristic
rather than like the opulent seat of Mughal power that it once was,
but there are still examples of Shah Jahan's wealth. I find
beautiful craft work and lush carvings, especially once inside the
Diwan-i Aam, the hall of public audiences, infused with pietra
dura, fine inlay work imported from Italy.
Outside the fort's Lahore Gate, Ashoka negotiates for a bicycle
rickshaw driver to take us down Chandni Chowk and the crowded
narrow alleys of Old Delhi. We could hire an auto rickshaw - motor
powered and suitable for covering much of the area - but the old
city is best navigated in a human-powered cycle rickshaw. We've
barely sat in our seats before the driver plunges his leg to a
pedal, and we're off.
Ashoka gamely attempts to narrate the tour, but I am so distracted
by the cacophonous energy that I hardly pay attention. On the left
is the marble courtyard of Delhi's oldest temple for followers of
Jainism; on the right a heated argument is being conducted on the
street amid swirls of clove-cigarette smoke. Ashoka motions toward
the Sikh temple, Gurudwara Sisganj, cloaked behind flower sellers,
but before he can explain the difference between Jains and Sikhs,
we're heading down a tiny lane - too small for any car - zooming
past tiny storefronts stocked with hordes of wedding goods, silver
and gold antiques, garlands of flowers, and even a store selling
Now and again, our cyclist is forced to a halt - a traffic jam
composed of rickshaws, sack-laden laborers demanding right-of-way,
and, yes, an unyielding cow wandering aimlessly. We're stuck for a
minute in front of a ramshackle food stall, and the fragrance of
simmering spices adds another dimension to this sensory excursion,
one that takes it beyond your average amusement park e-ticket
The mayhem is astonishing, and when we pass Khari Baoli, one of the
largest spice markets in India, I ask for a breather. Here, bags
brim with ground turmeric, ginger, tamarind, chilies, cinnamon
bark, nuts, and dried fruit, the merchants imploring me to sample
the treats, with no obligation.
And then it's back down the convoluted lanes. Ashoka explains how
much of Old Delhi is still enclosed by degenerating city walls, and
in many ways remains separate from the rest of Delhi, its sizable
Muslim population rarely heading beyond the walls. It is a place of
not-infrequent unrest - we are advised to avoid Fridays, when the
faithful clog the streets with trips to the mosques - but it is an
intoxicating immersion into old India, an essential Delhi
We exit the labyrinth at the foot of stairs leading to Jama Masjid,
India's largest mosque and the last building of Shah Jahan's reign,
finished in 1658. I look toward the outdoor courtyard, but first I
must remove my shoes and cover my legs with a sarong (women are
also expected to cover their shoulders and head with a scarf).
The courtyard is large enough to accommodate 25,000 people, and an
immense vaulted recess faces the direction of Mecca. It's not
prayer time, but the courtyard strikes me as a stage of sorts, with
men carefully studying newspapers next to the central fountains -
used for ritual ablutions before prayer - and families touring the
site, usually with a mother-in-law in tow, her neck ringed with a
brilliant sari. A man swings a giant mop from a rope, perhaps to
keep pigeons away, perhaps to sweep the birdseed in their
Minarets rise from the corners of the courtyard. We climb the
southern one for a breathtaking view of Delhi through the smog and
fading light of day.
No one makes a trip to Delhi without a side trip to Agra for visits
to two vital monuments. The Taj Mahal I knew of, of course, and I
approached a visit with the enthusiasm of a dowager looking to
cross a monument off a life list. But the second site, Fatehpur
Sikri, was new to me.
At the bustling New Delhi train station, Ashoka leads me past
porters in red uniforms carting luggage piled high atop turbans, to
board the six a.m. Shatabdi Express. The train speeds to Agra in
two hours and 15 minutes, depositing us into the station, where a
driver waits to collect us.
Our morning visit to Fatehpur Sikri, located about 25 miles west of
Agra, proves revelatory. In 1571, Emperor Akbar decided to transfer
the capital of the Mughal Empire from Agra to this spot, building
elegant palaces from white marble and red sandstone. But he
abandoned Fatehpur Sikri after just 15 years of habitation, due to
lack of water. The result is a ghost town so beautifully preserved
it's as if, just prior to our arrival, it had been deposited by
Fatehpur Sikri is divided into two sections, residential and
religious, and ramparts enclose three sides while the fourth faces
the dry lake bed that proved to be the city's doom. The palaces,
mosques, and tombs are finely carved and lack the wear and tear of
some monuments. Of note: Diwan-i Khas, a small private audience
hall dominated by a remarkable carved column that leads up to a
balcony with four bridges extending out to an upper gallery. This
one-of-a-kind building alone could have been justification for
Fatehpur Sikri's inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage
Following a gentle surprise like Fatehpur Sikri, could the Taj
Mahal, the world's most beautiful monument, be anything but
Well, it helps to have a poignant story line, one famously called
"a teardrop on the cheek of time" by poet Rabindranath Tagore. The
Emperor Shah Jahan conceived the Taj Mahal as the ultimate monument
to love for his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who had died during
childbirth. Twenty thousand laborers constructed the buildings over
a period of 17 years. After its completion, the emperor's son
Aurangzeb deposed Shah Jahan and imprisoned him in Agra Fort (also
worth a visit), leaving the overthrown emperor to spend the rest of
his years gazing past the river at his wife's tomb.
We arrive at the Taj Mahal in late afternoon, and there is the
expected clamor of bodies and outstretched palms, but after
security checks, we pass through the main gates and immediately
encounter the trademark view of the exquisitely symmetrical
arrangement. Visitors angle patiently to take photos of loved ones
against the backdrop.
A plaintive water channel lined with cypress trees focuses my eyes
on the monument, the pool reflecting the domes and minarets with a
shimmer. There are scads of people making the trek through the
gardens, and yet somehow they don't detract from the scene -
everyone seems so happy to be here. As I make my slow approach to
the mausoleum, the light begins to soften, the pearlescent
buildings still gleam against the graying sky. Closer still, the
detail of carving and exacting inlay work begin to appear - ebony,
coral, carnelian, and semiprecious stones, with 43 different gems
alone adorning Mumtaz's tomb.
By the time I reach her tomb, I realize the Taj Mahal is beyond
words, ultimately stunning me to reverence. The notion that I
arrived with - that it might be some mere tourist pit stop -
The transcendence of the Taj Mahal lies in the sum of its parts: a
sweetly sad tale, an architectural masterpiece, and the theater of
its visitors interacting with the monument.
Something like India itself.
When to go:
October through November, when the summer monsoon rains have let
up, is ideal - the landscapes are green, but the crowds haven't
arrived. The weather is good in December and January, but this is
prime honeymoon season and you'll need to reserve well in advance
for good hotels. Most museums are closed on Mondays.
Booking a trip:
First-time visitors will appreciate the services of a tour
operator. There are a number of high-end tour operators. Geographic
Expeditions (800-777-8183, www.geoex.com) does varied trips that
appeal to adventurous spirits, while Travcoa (866-591-0070,
luxury to the demanding traveler. Moderately priced group trips
are handled by SITA World Travel (800-421-5643, www.sitaworldtravel
.com). Pallavi Shah of Our Personal Guest (212-319-1354,
offers bespoke, individualized tours to India.
Where to stay:
Opened in 1931, the Imperial Hotel (011-91-11-2334-1234,
marks the arrival of New Delhi while capturing the elegance of
the colonial-era city. Located near Lodi Gardens, the Oberoi
(011-91-11-2389-0505, oberoihotels.com) is surrounded by golf
courses and is a favored haunt of celebrities. Run by the
country's largest hotel chain, the Taj Mahal Hotel
.tajhotels.com) is a relatively modern facility that's steeped in
ethnic decor. With several price categories, the 501-room ITC Hotel
Maurya Sheraton (011-91-11-2611-2233, www.sheraton.com) caters to a wide
range of travelers and is convenient to the airport and to the
city's diplomatic enclave.
For more information, call (800) 953-9399
(U.S. office for India Tourism) or go to www.incredibleindia.org.