Wednesday, March 09, 2016

India unplugged - Delhi

A couple years ago I was in Beijing and just like every other tourist there, I went to see the great wall. To me, it felt like yet another overpopulated tourist attraction. Don't get me wrong. I love the history of the wall and very much fancy visualizing how it would had been during the times of ancient Chinese dynasties. What I realized is that I cannot connect to it well. Maybe it was the commercialization that took away the authenticity of the place.

There was something else as well, I realized. A deep seeded regret that was hiding for quite a few years. It was the fact that despite growing up and spending major part of my life in India, I had not seen much of it. I mean not even Taj Mahal!!

I decided then and there. The next time I go to India, I am going to take some time out to see at least a part of the huge subcontinent that houses billion plus people, thousands of languages, hundreds of cultures and countless traditions!

Fast forward. January 2016. I was in India for a typical back home trip - attending few weddings, eating a lot of good food, having crazy fun with friends and family and then visiting pristine beaches along the west coast of India that my ancestors called home.

After all the familiar parts were done; I decided to board a plane to Delhi and landed there on a beautiful sunny winter day. To be honest coming from Seattle winter, all days seemed beautiful and sunny except for the obvious and ever-growing pollution. To be more honest, I had some reservations about traveling to Delhi from safety viewpoint (funny how news media plays on your mind); but the moment I landed in Delhi all my fears were washed aways.

Ride from the airport to Connaught place was a (relative) breeze. Clean and majestic roads with sprawling trees on both sides and occasional pedestrians leisurely getting on with their day; seemed idyllic. I was quite lucky to be in town on the days Delhi government was taking drastic steps to curb down the pollution levels (it was ranked the most polluted city in the world, recently) by having only even or odd numbered cars on road on respectively. I made it relatively quickly to the self-proclaimed center of the city of New Delhi. At the center flew the biggest Tiranga - Indian national flag. Twas enough to make me nostalgic about the good old days.

I also started realizing the advantages of having local friend as a tour guide! A dairy I would have normally stayed away with the fear of it not being hygienic, or a chaat stall I would not even have known about which was deep inside an underground market (forgot the name) under the flag - I ended up having a really tasty milkshake and bhelpuri.

After the regular tour stops - Red fort, Chandi chawk; we stumbled upon an eatery that apparently served the kings in Mughal era - Kareems. I think I had forgotten what a good kebab taste like - soft, juicy, delicate to the point of melting in mouth, and fragrantly spiced. After attaining Nirvana we decided to venture into Jama masjid. There's something about the places of worship that catches my attention. Walking from one end of the long corridors to the other, as sun hit the beautifully carved and geometrically symmetrical walls, and the huge pillars at about every ten feet, leaving out the noises; it all made a beautiful harmony of quiet and sound, light and shadow.

Moving on, we decided to spend the evening in Hauz Khas village - a chic urban neighborhood filled with narrow alleys, art galleries, great food and live music.We took refuge in a restaurant that was hymning classic Bollywood gems alongside a keyboard. The whole setup had a feel of a Mehfil. After being in India for about one and half week, I finally felt at peace. Before heading back, we devoured on Momos - delicious Nepalese or Tibetan dumplings that have become integral part of Indian street food now!

The next day started bit early. I decided to visit Akshardham temple - apparently the biggest Hindu temple in the world. I decided to get there on a metro rail and was quite amazed by how well maintained a public transportation system could be. There's hope in India for infrastructure improvement, I thought.

One thing that I started was that my backpack was giving away my not-from-around-here identity. Every place I went, I was bombarded with people trying to sell stuff, until I opened my mouth that is. I suppose growing up in middle class family in Bombay teaches you to be street-smart everywhere in the world!

Akshardham temple is one of the dreams of magnificent architecture, spirituality, storytelling and affluence. It could help you visualize how the ancient temples were in their glory days. Having spent plenty of time in its corridors, I circled  around the temple to complete a pradakshnia; and admired the anecdotes told in the form of elephant sculptures. After this, I made my way back to Delhi haat to meet up with another friend.

The funny thing about why India is called a subcontinent is because every state maintains its unique identity, culture, food, and art. It all makes it feel like a UN of south Asia. After picking up a few novel stone carved Manipuri artifacts; I made my way to Qutub Minar.

Besides the the obvious Minaret; the surrounding architecture makes you realize the influence of multi-ethnic architecture carving a story of time and place on rock. Walls donning aayate from Quran next to ornate lotuses and idols that are quintessential of ancient Hindu architecture; give you a glimpse of what India has always been - the land that everybody (First humans dating back to 55000 years ago) from outside came in to make their own and in the process absorbing its own identity to the point they became indistinguishable from their origins. We all still occasionally squabble to hold on to our own identities and sometimes these squabbles leave scars that last for generations. In the end though, the enormity of the land and hands of time make us all realize what we have become - Indians!

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