A very interesting article on India, by a South African traveller.
October 30, 2005
By Tanya Farber
‘I am fan,” says the driver when I tell him where I’m from, “I am big fan.” We are caught in a snarl of traffic by Delhi’s airport and I have had two hours of sleep, but my toes are curling with excitement. I cannot believe I am in India.
His English is a bag of fragmented words, but when I respond by saying: “Oh, have you been to South Africa?” he flashes a broad smile in the mirror, and says: “No, no. Big fan of Hansie Cronje.”
I get my first sense of the rules of the road here. The fact is, there aren’t many rules. Everybody hoots. All the time. It’s a type of language, a way of saying: “I’m approaching this lane faster than you, so please slam on anchors.”
Motorbikes, rickshaws, cars and buses all jostle for space, and every time we almost collide I imagine a bout of road rage is about to follow. But it doesn’t. Like everything else here, I am soon to discover, the culture of driving is the most sensible result of more than a billion souls living together and striving for harmony.
Nobody glares or swears at the other drivers. You hoot, you cut in or get cut off, you get over it, and you move forward.
Soon we’re in the leafy rind of the city where affluent apartment blocks and embassies line the streets. My driver tells me that the old-style car we’re in is called an Ambassador. “VIP car,” he says, smiling in the mirror.
Central Delhi is a blend of Mughal and western architectural styles. Here one gets a sense of the English stronghold that lasted for so long. It is home to India Gate – a memorial arch built for Indian soldiers who died in the First World War – and various grand parliamentary buildings that were completed in 1929.
My driver later takes me to a magnificent Hindu temple, Laxmi Narayan Birla Mandir. As I cross the road, a postcard hawker begins a one-sided haggling mission. The more I tell him I have no interest, the more he lowers the price and shoves his wares in my face.
Hot and harassed, I find the complete opposite sensation on the other side of the wall. The temple is filled with an atmosphere of quiet spirituality. And so, I begin to learn another fundamental lesson: India is a place of paradox. Teeming streets give way to the most tranquil places; run-down buildings covered in dirt suddenly reveal gorgeous intricate details; and you can step off the burning crowded pavements and suddenly find yourself in a family-run store where rickety old fans swing from the ceilings.
After a mouth-watering lunch, we make our way to Old Delhi. By this stage, my driver and I have begun to laugh together as we struggle over every pothole a conversation can present.
Old Delhi has to be one of the most fascinating and frenetic places a westerner could visit. Once the old walled city of Shahjahanabad, it is still a collection of narrow streets randomly laid out. Here, added to the mix of motorbikes and auto-rickshaws, are carts, bicycles, non-motorised rickshaws, animals of various descriptions, pedestrians, vendors, people taking a nap in the midday sun, you name it. The roads seem to lie under a knotted tangle of electric wires, and everyone vies for a tiny slice of public space.
Once again, paradoxes abound. Amid this poverty, where street urchins beg for anything and dogs without owners steal pockets of shade, lie Delhi’s grandest sights that ooze opulence and wealth from eras gone by.
The famous Red Fort (Lal Qila) is one such place. It was completed in 1648, at the peak of Mughal power, and its glorious sandstone walls extend more than 2km.
Unfortunately, I am destined to admire its overwhelming architecture only from the outside because my driver, for a reason I cannot fathom, does no want me to enter and spins some yarn about recent bomb attacks.
Too tired to argue, I accept my fate, and am soon ensconced within the walls of Jama Masjid, not too far away. This mosque, set in a broad red sandstone courtyard that can hold 25 000 people, is the largest in India. Its architectural extravagance boasts three gateways, four angle towers and two minarets.
The atmosphere here offers a quiet reprieve from the chaos of Old Delhi. Swarms of birds swoop in and around the glorious buildings, while families sit around the courtyard in deep discussion or slumber.
Later, when the heat shows some mercy, I visit nearby Raj Ghat – the humble memorial site of Mahatma Gandhi, where a simple black marble platform marks the spot at which he was cremated after his assassination.
After a much-needed night of rest, I depart – with a new driver – for Agra, the base from which the Taj Mahal can be explored.
Four hours later, we arrive. And this time of day, with its soft sunlight and the odd cool breeze, is perfect for an excursion to the world-famous place of love.
You’ve seen it depicted a million times on postcards or television, but nothing can quite prepare you for its austere beauty. While the area outside the gate is awash with desperadoes trying to earn a living off the constant flow of visitors, the Taj and its surrounding gardens speak of boundless wealth.
It took 22 years to build and 20 000 workers to do so, and was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jehan as a memorial for his second wife who died in 1631 while giving birth to their 14th child. So some cynics dismiss it as an extravagant political statement about the emperor’s wealth, while others focus on its tragic romantic history.
After exploring the main section I take a walk around the small constructs (including a sandstone mosque) along the gardens’ edge and find nobody else is there. From here I can absorb the atmosphere of the place without having to cope with the constant buzz of other travellers.
Despite the driver’s conviction that there won’t be time to see Agra Fort before we begin the long journey to Jaipur in the morning, I make a plan. During supper with the host from the tourism office, I bemoan my fate about not having seen the Red Fort in Delhi. “This time,” I explain, indulging in the delectable meal, “I want to make sure I see the fort, no matter what happens.” He understands the situation completely.
And so, at six the next morning, he and another driver meet me in the lobby of the hotel.
It is a very special time: a small handful of residents begin to prepare for the day. Some cycle slowly through the empty streets on their old bicycles, while others begin to sweep the entrances to their shops.
Behind Agra Fort’s imposing ramparts stands a vast collection of buildings that lead on to one another. Once again, I am gobsmacked by the sheer magnitude of it. Vast courtyards and arches give way to hidden rooms, staircases and window frames overlooking the Yamuna River below.
The construction of this massive red-sandstone fort and palace was begun by Emperor Akbar in 1565. Several structures were added as they passed from the hands of one leader to the next, until the maze of buildings within began to resemble a city within a city.
Later, after breakfast, I could easily climb back into bed and reclaim the sleep I have lost. But, as I say to the host, I can sleep at home in Johannesburg. Here and now I want to see more and more and more.
The road from Agra to Jaipur is far more rudimentary than the Delhi-Agra route. It is very narrow, full of pot-holes and lined with thick vegetation. But, the driver navigates with aplomb, and once again I find myself staring out the window into other people’s lives – wondering about their routines, their homesteads, their plans for the future.
The six-hour trip is broken by a scintillating visit to the Phantom City, Fatehpur Sikri. This fortified ghost city was the Mughal Empire’s capital, but only from 1571 to 1585.
The theory – hotly disputed by some – is that the area suffered from a dire lack of water and was thus abandoned so soon after its labour-intensive construction during Akbar’s reign.
The fortified city is replete with mosques, palaces, endless rooms, staircases and various other ruins that are best explored with no set agenda.
Soon I am enclosed in the cool interior of the car once more, ready to face the random collection of people and animals strung along the road to Jaipur, the Pink City.
Arriving at the hotel in the late afternoon, I am ready to begin a shopping spree with two journalists from Montreal, Quebec. But first, we must see the heart of the city.
Once again I face a delicious assault on the senses. Spices, colours, sounds, animals, vendors, children, saris, motorbikes, beggars. All come together in the city’s crowded streets where crossing the road is a life-changing experience, and any sense of personal space must be abandoned on arrival.
The sun goes down, but the bazaars are abuzz with activity. Each open street-fronted store is crammed to capacity with shoes, shirts, jewellery, textiles, puppets and saris. We get swallowed up in every shop, trying things on and haggling for hours. By 11pm, weighed down by our purchases but with wallets somewhat lighter, it is time for a late supper.
Next morning, we visit the historic sights of this otherworldly city. These include Amber Fort, the Wind Palace and the City Palace.
The fort and its adjoining palace, the ancient capital of Jaipur state, are stunning examples of Rajput architecture. Just like so many of the sights in this part of the world, they defy description. One must simply explore, for hours on end.
The City Palace is a blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture and still home to the maharajahs, although today most of it is a living museum with the residential part cordoned off.
The Wind Palace (Hawa Mahal) – Jaipur’s most distinctive sight – was constructed in 1799 to allow ladies of the royal household to watch the life and processions of the city without being visible to the outside world. Its honeycombed ethereal façade rises five storeys up.
After another day of mind-boggling history, I fall fast asleep on my late-night flight to Mumbai. I have one more precious day and night before I must head back to South African soil.
Early the next morning, my guide meets me in the lobby of the hotel. She is the first female guide I have had since arriving in India, and I soon discover that she knows every inch of this city which is home to some 15-million people.
We begin with a one-hour boat trip out to the Elephanta Caves. As we sit on the boat waiting to depart, I see a group of out-of-town villagers who have come to bathe themselves in the salty waters to be at one with the many sea gods and goddesses of Hinduism.
Many of them, my guide explains, might be seeing the sea for the first time. They are as excited as children as they splash the water all over themselves, and laugh with enthusiasm every time a small wave knocks them off their feet.
Unlike the ornate temples and palaces of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, the intricate carvings within the caves on the island are mysterious and understated. They date back to circa AD 500.
One must first climb more than a hundred stairs to reach the caves (which are a World Heritage Site) and, once inside, the atmosphere feels sacred, so visitors respect this by whispering in hushed tones. The carvings depict the life of Shiva and his beloved Parvati, as well as Brahma and Vishnu.
As we wait on the boat two hours later to return to the mainland, hundreds of sardines jump out of the water onto the concrete pier. A group of men start cheering with excitement and immediately rush down to the water where they grab as many fish as possible.
On the boat ride back, I begin chatting to an Indian man who sometimes sleeps on the island despite its having no electricity or homesteads. He tells me that he loves Herschel Gibbs and, though I trawl my brain for any information about any Indian cricket player, I have no luck.
My guide later takes me to a Jain temple, the Hanging Gardens and a bustling market. The temple is as tranquil as the market is chaotic, and at the Hanging Gardens she points out a low wall behind which the Parsee sect allow their dead to be eaten by birds as burial and cremation are not allowed. This is seen as a holy act befitting death’s solemnity and purity.
Before we part company after a busy day of endless chatter, she takes me to a massive outdoor laundry in the poorest part of town. All the workers here are men. Amid the huge patchwork of concrete basins, they wash endless piles of clothing before hitting them against the concrete and finally hanging them up.
The world of the dhobi wallah is full of washing lines which display the vast array of clothes that people wear here. I wonder about each item of clothing. Who owns it? Where do they live? What do they do? But, before I get carried away with this bout of philosophy, my guide must head home as the sun is sinking in the sky.
I am due to leave for the airport at 11pm to catch the 2am flight. Before returning to the hotel for one last scrumptious Indian meal, I ask the driver to take me to a place where I can blow my last few rupees on something special. An hour later, I climb back into the car with a new shirt and benumbed feet.
Reluctant I may be for the experience to come to an end, but I must resign myself to this fact. I eat and take a bath at the hotel, squeeze everything I have with me into my now bulging suitcase, and begin the long drive to the airport.
It is Saturday night and the humid air is thick with festivities, but I must leave it all behind. As I sit waiting at the airport, I can barely wait to return, but now my mind begins processing a cavalcade of impressions. Every night during my first week home, I dream of India.