In my first blog entry from India, I’ve decided to relay my experiences in Delhi because the next six posts about Samaj Pragati Sahayog will probably get a little repetitive. For my first few days in India, I spent time sightseeing while staying at the India Habitat Center in Delhi, where Penn’s Institute for the Advanced Study of India is based. Luckily, most of my time at the hotel overlapped with other CASI interns’ stays. In a total of four days in Delhi, I was able to see a lot.
The first afternoon, I compiled all of the information about Delhi I had from the CASI survival guide and my Lonely Planet guide book and picked a few destinations. I was a little apprehensive because of the 111° heat and my lack of a local cell phone, but reminded myself that being independent was something I’d have to get very comfortable with this summer, and that I should not waste my precious time in Delhi. I walked to Lodhi Gardens, and was underwhelmed. The gardens themselves were dried up from the summer heat and the park seemed more of a go-to destination for star-crossed teenage lovers escaping parental patrol more than a foreigner looking for something spectacular. It was more of a central park feel than the majestic ruins I’d expected. I triumphed in finding Kahn Market from there on my own, and considered nearly fainting from heat only a minor defeat. There, I found some refreshing water and some modest Indian clothing.
On Sunday, I explored Delhi by rickshaw with the Aravind interns, but the real highlights of my Delhi Days were Monday and Tuesday, when we rented cars to take us around. On Monday, we saw the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, and the “Baby Taj” in Agra, which were magnificent. The guide we hired was eager to tell us all of his exclusive insights and take all the perfect pictures of each of us at each site (he was of course an “amateur photographer”). At the Taj Mahal especially, I was surprised to see that the majority of tourists were Indian. This is probably because unlike us, most tourists will make a point not to visit during the hottest few weeks of the year. The Taj Mahal, although majestic and iconic from afar, can only be fully appreciated from the inside, where photographs are prohibited. From there, the intricate inlaid stonework can be fully appreciated (each orange carnelian flower is comprised of 64 pieces of stone!), as can the delicate marble screens surrounding the graves of Shah Jahan and his wife. While the Taj Mahal is more famous, the Agra Fort is even more enchanting. Because it was constructed over different times by different rulers, it has a greater variety in its architecture styles. There are red sandstone buildings with complex carvings, white palaces with golden roofs, marble bath houses with the same genre of masonry as on the Taj Mahal, and a secret chamber covered in thousands of tiny mirrors that glisten in the candlelight, if you can bribe a guard to show you in. Watching the sun sink over the river at the Baby Taj was the perfect end to the perfect day.
If you have the chance to go to Delhi, but not to Agra, my top recommendations from my limited Delhi repertoire are Qutb Minar, Humayan’s Tomb, and India Gate. While the Jama Masjid temple in Old Delhi was beautiful, we felt out of place as the only tourists in a mosque where hundreds of people were worshiping. If you want to buy crafts from different regions of India in a traditional bazaar, Dilli Haat is a key destination. We bargained for scarves and had henna done on or hands, and although we could not negotiate a lower price, we were able to each get a free henna tube to practice with. It was my first time getting henna, and each time I looked back at my hand, I was impressed by how pretty it was! India Gate was like an Eastern version of Independence Mall meets L’Arc de Triomphe, bridging the gap between my native U.S., India, and Paris, where I’ll be studying abroad in the fall.