The welcome face of our tour guide on arrival in Chennai (formerly Madras), who was holding up a sign with my name, was very comforting after an endless journey from Minneapolis to Tokyo, to Bangkok to India. My niece, a travel agent based in South Africa, arranged the Indian tour for us. The whole trip was planned and communicated by e-mail.
As this was my husband Gary’s first trip to India, a planned tour was the best option. The tour seemed like it would be a bit fast paced, yet filled with fun and laughter with so many interesting cities and sites in 16 days.
After a restful night in our hotel, we left Chennai for Delhi. Our tour operator met us at the Delhi Airport to escort us to our hotel. Driving through Delhi traffic was heart wrenching – cars, taxis and tuktuks, little scooters with two passenger seats at the back that are excellent for wading in and out of the mad traffic congestion – with its population of more than 18 million people.
With so much urbanization and mass transit into the cities, traffic overload can only be understood by local drivers. Somehow it miraculously moves, slowly but surely, without incident. In India, it is normal practice for a driver to blow the horn every time he wants to attract the attention of other drivers; it is road courtesy to pass a vehicle or request a vehicle to move to the side by "just blowing your horn." It is noisy and deafening, but one learns to accept it in time.
Cows are sacred in India, and it is quite normal to see cows on the road in between cars and sitting along the road side, totally at peace with the noise around them. My one thought was that perhaps the cows have become deaf with the deadening traffic noise and were totally oblivious of the chaos around them.
About a year ago, Delhi completed its metro system in the hope of bringing some relief to its massive traffic problem. Thousands of people use it daily and it is very well patronized. We arrived at our hotel, away from the city center, in one piece. The next morning after a good breakfast, we were all ready to go.
Delhi, the capital of India, has been rebuilt several times; it is a fascinating city of contrasts. Modern-day skyscrapers dwell alongside ancient ruins. There are luxury hotels, street vendors, shopping malls, luxury cars and cycle rickshaws – and the occasional cow in the streets or on the sidewalk. Delhi is a city filled with diversity of cultural lifestyles, full of life and vibrancy.
Old Delhi is renowned for its red fort, towers, tombs and mosques all built during the mogul rule, plus ancient temples and other archeological and historic sites. Delhi’s origins go back to about 1500 BC. New Delhi, a city of wide tree-lined avenues was built in 1911 to house the government buildings. The Indian Parliament buildings are built in a British colonial architectural style and are very reminiscent of buildings in other former British colonies.
Driving through the Delhi of many contrasts, we saw the past and the present. Tree-lined boulevards in New Delhi featured palatial homes and national embassies. New Delhi, which is very cosmopolitan, also has its fair share of gardens and parks; one can always get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and rest surrounded by beautiful gardens.
The first stop on our tour was at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial, which was spiritually uplifting. The memorial was far from ostentatious – a simple tomb surrounded by beautiful flower bouquets placed by visiting dignitaries who came to pay their respects to the memory of a great man of peace. Gandhi’s practice of non-violence, which is honored and respected in every country, facilitated India’s independence from the British. Many people from across India, including school children in their uniforms on travel excursions, were at the memorial.
It was gratifying to see these happy children, who were always smiling and never failed to greet you with, "Good Morning, Ma’am" or "Good Morning, Sir." The local English newspaper reported the results of a recent survey showing that 96 percent of Indian teens, ages 11 to 15, were very happy with their home life, their friends and environment. I understood the joy and exuberance of these children, who shared it with everyone they met. They expressed joy from their hearts, without realizing how much of an effect their joy and laughter had on those around them.
We then visited the Red Fort, which was built around the seventh city of Old Delhi by Emperor Shah Jehan. A member of the Muslim dynasty of Mongol origin that ruled India for more than 300 years, Shah Jehan was the best-known Mogul emperor and was responsible for restoring the imperial glory of Delhi and building some of the finest Mogul monuments in the city, some of which are now used to house government and local administrative offices. One of the Seven Wonders of the World – "The Taj Mahal" in Agra – was built by Shah Jehan.
We visited several other historical monuments and ancient sites – too numerous to describe in detail. One has to experience all these ancient buildings, which date back to 1200 AD with the Mogul influence, and even as far back as 1500 BC, according to local records.
Next month: We will visit Jaipur, Rajasthan – the state of palaces and kings