‘Asia is not going to be civilized after the methods of the West. There is too much Asia and she is too old.’ – Rudyard Kipling
After arriving in Delhi via Mumbai in the early hours of the morning the first voice we heard had a brummie accent asking ‘have you arrived on the Lufthansa flight mate?’ Confused by the fact that someone who looked like a local taxi driver was in fact an expat from the midlands we continued to stumble along the broken tarmac to a waiting coach. This encounter I would later realise was typical of the paradoxes that India throws at you, nothing is as it first seems.
Our first port of call in this foreign land would be the Ashok Country Resort in New Delhi. The ‘Ashok’ is neither in the country nor is it really a resort, but it was a welcome sight nonetheless set amidst the madness of Delhi, and in no time at all it would become our own little oasis.
However, we had no time to enjoy its turquoise swimming pool and manicured gardens as we had a new city to discover. Delhi is a city of two parts. New Delhi designed and built by the British Raj in the 1930’s to the exacting designs of Edwin Lanseer Lutyens is classical in form and very English in manner, with gardens, grand vistas and small roundabouts. The tree-lined avenues are dotted with white bungalows containing servants quarters that still manage to exude a colonial elegance of days gone by. We though were headed for Old Delhi an entirely different animal. Our destination the ‘Jami Masjid’ India’s largest mosque.
The Jami Masjid is situated in a bustling, crowded, and smelly area of Old Delhi set back from the main thoroughfare by some distance. A noisy winding street would need negotiating to reach it, a street containing snake charmers, holy men, police and a festival procession in full throw. If I had ever had any doubts or worries that India might not live up to my preconceptions that it was a world away from the leafy green England I had left behind they were being thoroughly quashed at once by the amazing scenes unravelling in front of me. I was at once surrounded by noise, bustle, smells, sights and sounds, in fact a sensory overload was occurring!
The mosque itself was built-in 1656 by Emperor Shah Jahan and stands proudly on a natural rocky outcrop atop a flight of sandstone steps that lead to imposing entrance arches. On the approach to the entrance beggars mingled with shoe minders amongst the steps and around the gateways, here we would leave our shoes out in the sun before entering the sacred areas and inner sanctum of the mosque.
The trouble with sandstone is that it seems to attract heat and when the temperature is well over 100 degrees the last thing you need as a lily white Englishman fresh off the boat, (or in our case flight), is to be walking around barefoot in the 300 ft square expanse of courtyard which characterises the structure. So to much amusement of the locals we hopped around in funny looking overshoes and sarongs which were more ‘It aint half hot Mum’ than uber cool ‘David Beckhamesque’ fashion statements.
Feeling we had given enough laughter to the local community it was time to press on to our next destination Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial Raj Ghat. Here situated in landscaped gardens is a black marble platform which marks the spot of Gandhi’s cremation on 31 January 1948, it is flanked by an eternal flame which burns perpetually beside the memorial. The whole place had beautifully manicured lawns and privet hedges but I could not help but feel it all felt a tad like a set on a Teletubbies episode as it was all too perfect by far, and being situated in a city that is totally chaotic all around it, it just felt…, well, idiosyncratic really.
The sun beat down with great intensity and we did not linger long amidst this shadeless expanse of grass. Upon leaving Gandhi’s memorial we headed back past the ‘Viceroy’s Palace’ still thought by many to be the ultimate emblem of colonial power from a bygone era. Today the palace sits almost alone, yet it still manages to stand resplendent in a city which now amusingly lets gangs of monkeys roam around on its ordered and manicured lawns creating unordered havoc wherever they can amidst this architectural statement – which ironically was built to represent order.
A fitting footnote maybe to Britain’s once deluded belief that it could tame the sub-continent.
Eventually our first day came to a close, a day which had started way back in Essex, and one which had ended at the Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi India. It was becoming blatantly apparent that this trip was going to be both long, hot, and full of surprises at every turn. Welcome to India!