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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

New Delhi & Old Delhi, India

Monday | February 9, 2015 (Day 3)


Today was one of the most sensational days of sightseeing of my life!


Staying at the legendary Oberoi hotel in Delhi, the day began with breakfast with a sumptuous buffet at the Oberoi; but enough about that, there are far more important things to tell you about.


We met our guide, Samile, at 9:30 AM. He escorted us to our transportation – a beautiful, new, large bus designed for a dozen people, yet there were only to be the four of us.

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Moreover, not only do we have a guide, but we have a driver and a co-driver. This same team is to accompany us all day today tomorrow and the next day as we tour Old Delhi, New Delhi, and Agra (Taj Mahal) and return to Delhi.


We drove through the crowded streets of New Delhi, a city designed and built by the British in 1911 for a population of 27,000 people. This city now boasts a population of over 20 million people, hence the overcrowding. The general population of India is 70% Hindu, 15% Muslim, 4% Sikh, and the rest an assortment of other religions.


In New Delhi, among the 20 million citizens, are 10 Jewish families who have been entrusted with their own synagogue. 60% of the population of India is vegetarian; 70% of the population matriculate to university. The average income in India is $400-$500 a month. India is a very corrupt society; for example, 40% of the buildings in New Delhi do not have building permits. The same is true with a variety of businesses and professions.


As we drove, we were treated to a variety of sites including many wild dogs, dozens of wild monkeys swinging through the trees and sitting atop walls and buildings, countless peddlers pushing their carts full of dozens of propane tanks, beggars on virtually every street corner, electrical cables and wires strung throughout the city streets like spaghetti and many other icons of a yet-to-emerge society.


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Our first stop was the Jama Masjid, the great mosque of Old Delhi. This historic edifice is the largest mosque in India with a courtyard capable of holding 25,000 devotees.

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It was begun in 1644 and ended up being the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan (“King of the World”), the same fellow who built the Taj Mahal and many famous buildings in India. He was the richest man in the world in his day. But enough of him for today; we will discuss him extensively tomorrow as we visit his masterpiece, the Taj Mahal.


The highly decorative mosque has three great gates, four towers and 240 m high minarets constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marble. My female friends had to don robes at the northern gate in order to be permitted inside.


We all had to remove our shoes – but we had brought our hotel slippers to wear, which were more than acceptable. But there really was no inside – this mosque is an open air edifice that features men standing on platforms mimicking the chants and prayers of the Iman.


Upon leaving the mosque, we boarded our own bicycle rickshaws as we took a tour through the streets, sounds, and smells of Old Delhi.


We saw donkeys, sheep, cows and dogs wandering through the streets. We saw poor people huddled together under blankets on the dirt streets. We saw thousands of people selling their wares – whether they be fish, vegetables, livestock, bread, surees, gold, silver, wedding dresses, and virtually anything else one could expect to find for sale in such an impoverished society.  We had our spines and entire nervous systems shaken to the core with every hole we bounced through – and there were hundreds of them, believe me. We also learned that when men are passengers on motorcycles, they are required to wear helmets, but women are not bound by the same requirement. Their brains are not considered as important!


Undoubtedly, one of the street highlights of the day occurred when we stopped to take numerous pictures of a “street dentist.” There, in front of us, men lined the sidewalk while this dentist extracted teeth from them.


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Our next stop, though, was the true highlight of the day. Samile improvised and took us to a Sikh temple.


The temple had been a palace given to one of the Sikh gurus as a gift because that guru had blessed the ruler (who then had three daughters) with a son. There, we had to remove our shoes and socks and proceed barefoot for the next hour. In addition, the men were forced to wear headscarves, as were the women.


The temple itself is a gorgeous white marble structure whose inside is covered with sheets of pure gold. The center of the temple was the Sikh holy scripture which was begun by the first Sikh guru in the late 1400s.


There were a total of 10 Sikh gurus – each of them expanded and amplified the holy scripture. The book itself is treated like a person, dressed and undressed several times throughout the day. Perhaps more extraordinary, it has its own bedroom, which is furnished with heat and air conditioning. When we saw the holy scripture, it was on the altar, but covered with a blanket of flowers.


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During our tour of the temple, the man who was conducting the proceedings paused and gave each of the four of us a marigold from the floral blanket that cover the scripture. But much more extraordinary than the building, the scripture, gold or marble, is the Sikh tradition of helping one another in a community setting.


Every day, at this temple, the Sikhs feed 50,000 guests.


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A full-time staff of 400 people is assisted by approximately 1000 volunteers the day. Sikhs who come for meals are not the poor or beggars – they are people from all walks of life – Sikhs and Muslim, men and women, young and old. They all sit cross legged in rows of hundreds, eating off stainless steel trays on the marble floor. They are instructed to take as much food as they can possibly eat, but not to leave any food, because others might go hungry. Then, when a roomful of 1000 people finish eating, they hurriedly exit to the left, while another thousand people are ushered in. Next, Samile took us to the kitchen where the meals are prepared.


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I immediately joined in and help to flip the bread as it was cooking.

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The entire experience was breathtaking, moving and something none of us shall ever forget.


Our next stop was a gallery where people from Kashmir sent rugs they made.

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Kashmir is a province in northern India that has long been known for making the most beautiful silk rugs in the world. There are two attributes to the region that make their rugs especially unique and wonderful. First, the high-altitude is home to thousands of mountain goats and those goats carry the best wool available for rug making. Second, Kashmir is the only place in India that is home to mulberry trees and those trees serve as food for silkworms who build their cocoons in the trees. Since the 16th century, people in Kashmir have been making fine rugs and tapestries, but there is a fear that the art will die because people can no longer go there to purchase them because of the enhanced state of terrorism over the past 30 years. As a result, the Indian government invited 80 families to move to Delhi to pursue their trade in order that the art not become extinct. I spent much time examining one particular round rug I was going to purchase for my apartment on the ship. It was quite glorious and I almost pulled the trigger, but the $12,800 price tag made me think twice – and then a third time. Alas, I left without purchasing it.


Lunch at Pindi (established in 1943) was tasty and plentiful. I could not imagine how we could eat another meal – but six hours later we did just that. We drove around New Delhi for a bit, taking photographs and looking at the ministry of air defense, the parliament building, the presidential palace, the model of the Arc de Triomphe, India Gate (that bear is the name of 90,000 Indian Army soldiers who died in the campaign of World War I), and many sights of India history.


We stooped next at Humayun’s Tomb which was built in the mid-16th century by Haji Begum, the senior wife of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor.


Humayun died after falling down a flight of very steep stone steps and passing into a coma for three days. As a result, the central hall can only be accessed by walking up a steep flight of stone steps that represent those instruments of his death. An early example of Mughal architecture, it features an octagonal building, highlighted by high arched entrances, topped by bulbous domes and surrounded by ample formal gardens. It served as a bit of a model for the later Taj Mahal. Buried in the tomb are Humayun, his wife, his barber – and about 250 other people.


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While there are stone tombs available for viewing, we learned that those tombs are really artificial and the bodies are buried in tombs underneath the building.

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They are not available to be visited by the general public because these people were buried with expensive and expensive jewelry and there always exists a fear of looting.


After a 45 minute drive, we arrived at Qutub Minar, a 72 high tower the dates back to 1050 and is one of the greatest bequest of Islamic culture.


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The Minar was built to commemorate the first victory by Moslem warriors over Hindus in 1172. At its base lies the first mosque in India. A famous iron pillar of the fifth century stands before and has remained rust free for over 1500 years. The carvings and details in the columns and pillars are truly remarkable for the Moslems inscribed the name of Allah many times, knowing that future conquerors would never tear it down because it is a sin to destroy or desecrate the name of Allah.


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After riding back to the Oberoi, we settled in to tend to our affairs (like writing this entry) for two hours before dinner. Dinner was at the Oberoi and it was great fun. We drank too much scotch and wine as we gossiped like school girls about yesterday’s events and our colleagues on the ship. But, in the true tone of the cone of silence, what happens in India, stays in India (except malaria).

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