The advertising slogan touts India as “incredible,” but that description barely covers it.
India is magical, electric and totally insane.
We spent over two months traversing the action-packed country and remained constantly amazed by what we experienced. While waiting in line at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, a Canadian traveler told us, “Once you visit India, you’ll compare it to every other place you visit.”
It’s true. India is like nowhere else in the world. To some degree, the same can be said of any country. Certainly every place has aspects that make it unique and memorable. But for us, India’s extraordinary elements are exponential.
India is more colors, more smells, more people – more everything.
After a surprisingly luxurious nine-hour flight on Kingfisher Airways from Madrid, Spain, chaos awaited. It began with a harrowing taxi ride to the city center. We couldn’t see any lines on the multiple-lane highway. Cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes –anything with wheels – weaved in, out and around one another. Horns honked. Music blared. And we tried not to look (or scream.)
Closer to the city, the traffic came to a standstill. Stuck in gridlock, a young boy approached us, tapping on the car window asking for money. Street vendors seized their opportunity to offer up everything from fresh flowers to car sun shades.
Eventually, we made it to Hotel 55, located in the business and financial hub Connaught Place (Rajiv Chowk). We had intentionally avoided lodging in Paharganj. We figured the city’s main backpacker area would hamper our immersion into local life. But seeing the dingy exterior of the uninspired concrete building immediately made us question our decision.
Upon entering, a staff of several men rushed towards us, smiling and welcoming us to the hotel.
They grabbed our backpacks and offered to carry more, but we had nothing else. Accompanying us up the stairs, they showed us the way to the front desk (which was literally right in front of us.)
After checking in, they followed us to our bare bones room and proceeded to point out the lamp, the end table, the chair, and other “amenities” all free of charge.
When they left, we looked around at our sad room – our home for the next week. But as it goes, like most all of our travels, we were out and about on the town. The week flew by and what Hotel 55 lacked in ambience, it more than made up for with its amiable staff. Every time we left, they said goodbye and when we returned, they greeted us with genuine enthusiasm.
New Delhi is just one of 11 districts that make up Delhi, a massive city with a population that exceeds 26 million.
To make the best use of our time and have some control over the chaos, we designated one area of New Delhi and its sights to explore each day.
In Connaught Place, in addition to the sprawling circular market, we visited Central Park (not quite like its namesake in New York City.) After picking up a veggie samosa from a snack stand, we made our way through the one entrance/exit, which interestingly enough, involved an outdoor metal detector. Once through, we wandered aimlessly around, feeling a bit out of place among the throngs of Indian families seated in the large grassy area.
Afterward, we split a thali at Saravana Bhavan. This traditional food platter from Tamil Nadu (southern India) comes with a variety of dishes including dal (lentil), rice, vegetable curry, roti (flat bread), dahi (yogurt), papad (cracker), salad, a bit of chutney (or a pickle) and a little something sweet. It would be the first of many delicious vegetarian meals during our stay in India.
Every day in India felt like an adventure into the unknown.
Chandni Chowk (also known as Moonlight Square) is a busy shopping area and one of the oldest markets in New Delhi. It dates back to the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, best known for his remarkable architectural achievements (most notably, the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra, India.)
Grabbing lunch at popular restaurant chain, Haldiram’s, we sat for a moment to watch the world go by. Motorized tuk tuks and cycle rickshaws zoomed through the dense crowds. An endless line of vendor stalls sold fresh fruit, spices, cane juice and more. And the people… so many people.
Men shaved and trimmed beards of customers seated in barber shop chairs along the sidewalk. Pedestrians transported large bags on their heads. Someone carried a goat. Another steered an ox-drawn cart. A trio of women in elaborate saris strolled by in perfect unison. At one point, a crowd gathered as a ten-year old boy hammered a horseshoe onto a horse.
From the market, we took a harrowing rickshaw ride to the Red Fort. The former main residence of the Mughal Emperors is another of Jahan’s architectural masterpieces. In the last decade, conservationists discovered the structure was originally white and likely painted over by the British. Over the centuries, it’s become a symbol of Indian power, sovereignty and independence.
At the Red Fort, we encountered our first phenomenon of Indians, both local and tourists, asking to take our picture.
As we wandered the grounds, men would stop us and ask if they could get a photo – usually with them or their entire family. On occasion, they’d ask us to pose with their children or even hold babies.
The number of requests was overwhelming, but we felt flattered and endeared by their excitement. We realized that many of them hadn’t seen Westerners in person before. While mostly motivated out of curiosity, the picture taking also seemed to be a gesture of good will – perhaps seen as a symbol of international friendship.
Near the Red Fort, Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), is one of the largest mosques in India and the principal mosque of New Delhi. No surprise, Jahan build this enormous Islamic complex as well. Among many theories, noted historians believe that Jahan built the mosque to promote world unity.
To enter, women must wear a full-length clerical dress and cover their heads. At the entrance, guards supply these gowns and scarves, along with lungis, a type of skirt/sarong that’s knee-length or longer to anyone wearing shorts. Appropriate attire, as well as ablution (washing or ritual purification), shows respect to the religion of Islam, as well as to Allah.
Both men and women must remove their shoes – a rather unpleasant task given the plethora of pigeons and their subsequent excrement everywhere. However, it was nothing compared to the Rat Temple in Deshnok, India we’d experience later.
While Islam makes up 14% of India’s religious practice, Hinduism is by far, the most dominant of all religions.
Visiting our first Hindu temple, Shri Lakshmi Narain (Birla Temple) was a feast for the eyes. The aesthetic alone was a stark contrast to the elegant, subdued designs of the Jamy Masjid.
The temple’s exterior was fascinating – multiple layers of ornate windows and balconies. Inside, bright, colorful statues of exotic gods came in all shapes and forms. There was Ganesha, the elephant-headed god and remover of all obstacles. Hanuman, the divine vanara (monkey), beloved for his courage and selfless service. And Vishnu and Shiva, two individuals considered the same entity – easily recognizable by their bright blue skin and multiple arms.
Like India, Hinduism is magical, electric and totally insane.
Hinduism is not just a religion, but a philosophy – one that’s evolved over centuries. In its simplest form, it is the belief in the existence of one infinite “God,” worshipped in various representative forms – hence, the fantastical characters. It’s not difficult to understand why Bollywood, the country’s biggest entertainment industry, continues to make a huge impact on Indian society and culture.
We couldn’t help but notice several themes that Christianity likely borrowed – from the usage of holy water to the word “Amen,” derived from the Sanskrit word “OM.”
One thing we quickly learned: respite is few and far between in India, especially on a budget.
However, Lodi Garden proved to be an exception. This oasis amidst the Delhi frenzy is popular with locals and tourists alike. Spread out over 90 acres, the park contains notable historical structures – specifically the tombs of past Lodhi dynasty rulers of the 15th and 16th centuries. The Indo-Islamic architectural style makes for a dreamy backdrop while relaxing among wildflowers, birds and butterflies.
The last area we visited was the Rajpath (formerly the Kingsway), one of India’s most important roads. This ceremonial boulevard connects the Presidential Palace and the India Gate war memorial. Along with these sites, the National Museum offers over 200,000 artifacts on display representing 5,000 years of Indian cultural heritage.
Unfortunately, mthe day we visited the Rajpath, many sites were closed due to Holi. This Hindu holiday, also known as the Festival of Colors, takes place in March, and celebrates the triumph of good over evil, as well as the seasonal transition from winter to spring. Part of the celebration involves people covering themselves in vibrant gulal powder (made up of mostly cornstarch.)
Who needs museums when you can witness people covered in assorted bright colors everywhere?
Again… magical, electric and totally insane.
We had an early morning departure on our last day in New Delhi, leaving Hotel 55 at 4am. Knowing we probably wouldn’t see our dutiful friends again, we left an envelope of rupees on our lone end table, thanking them for their assistance throughout the week.
As we tiptoed down the steps, we were shocked by what we saw next in the hotel lobby. The entire staff of men lay single file, side by side on the floor – they were sound asleep. Stunned, we wondered… was it possible that they never left this hotel because they had nowhere else to go? That they ate, slept and lived their life here?
In just one week, we’d seen a lot in India. More than we could’ve conceived.
In seeing those men, we recognized the dynamics that were at play. The caste system is a huge part of Indian life, ingrained in their culture for over 2,000 years. It provides a social order, giving privileges to upper castes and suppressing rights to lower castes. Ultimately, it traps people into a system they can’t escape – not by working, marriage or any other means.
Even from the perspective of a budget backpacker, Hotel 55 wasn’t really up to standards. But to these men, it was home. And for the next two months, India would be our home. We realized how fortunate we were in so many ways. From being able to afford traveling to India in the first place to dining out every night. It was a reminder to be grateful for everything.
Especially grateful that India is magical, electric and totally insane.