THE KAERU KID: India — Still the jewel, but no longer in the crown

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three part series.

This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of traditions, whose yesterday’s bear date with the modering antiquities for the rest of nations — the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the world combined.
—Mark Twain, “Following the Equator” (1897)

When thinking about India, too many people conjure up visions of Calcutta’s “Black Hole” scenes from “Slumdog Millionaire” or the chaotic traffic scenes in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Yes, such scenes do actually exist, but to apply these images to all of India would be like filming scenes in Los Angeles’ Skid Row or San Francisco’s Tenderloin and having people think that one spot is representative of the city.

India once was considered among the wealthiest countries in the world, and was frequently invaded because of their riches. When Britain occupied the country, it was considered the “jewel” of their vast empire. The purpose of Columbus’ voyage was to discover a shorter route to India because of the lure of their rich resources. This led to the unfortunate naming of the native peoples in the New World as Indians.

I first visited India in the 1980s, hiring a private driver and auto to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Jaipur, New Delhi and Kashmir. I even flew to Kathmandu, Nepal with a side trip to Tiger Tops Resort. Fortunately, in those days, it was inexpensive to have a private driver and reasonable to even stay a few nights in a maharajah’s palace that was turned into a hotel. I recommend all of the above named places for anyone’s first visit to India.

The times and prices have since changed. My goals on this re-visit were to land in New Delhi and journey to Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) with a stop at a National Park to see tigers, and to do it on a frugal budget.

I have been impressed with the many listings on AirBnB.com, and there were a slew of frugal listings in India. The one I selected for New Delhi included pickup at the airport, daily vegetarian breakfasts, private room and bath, all for $50 a night.

The family fed me more than just breakfasts, but it was always vegetarian. Of course, except at Western high-end hotels, beef is not served in India, since cows are considered sacred. Seeing how food was preserved made me leery of any meats or fish products, so I welcomed the vegetarian fare. The spices used made these dishes quite tasty.

The elderly matriarch of the family wanted to accompany me on my first day of sightseeing. We hired a private taxi, and our first stop was the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Mehrauli was one of the old seven cities of Delhi, and is why the present city is known as New Delhi. The park contains many interesting historical structures, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Qutub Minar Complex, many tombs of past rulers as well as architecturally beautiful mosques.

Before visiting India, one should try to read as much history as possible to fully appreciate the places being visited. For example, Qutabuddin Aibak, who first started the Qutub complex, was sold into slavery as a young child to a chief of a small Iranian town. He was treated as if he were a son and given a good education learning to speak Persian and Arabic languages, horsemanship and archery. After the chief’s death, he was sold twice more and ended up in the employ of the ruler of a vast area that included this area. He was able to gain the ruler’s trust and became a general of his army. When the ruler died, Qutabuddin became the first Sultan of Delhi and established a dynasty of Muslim sultans. Qutabuddin started many progressive reforms such as state taxes, land reform, and wealth sharing with other nobles. He died in an accident while playing polo.

Hinduism is the major religion (80 percent), with Muslims coming in second (13 percent), followed by Christians (2 percent), then Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Jews. The Baha’i have more than two million followers, originally consisting mostly of lower caste Indians, but because of the huge population in India, they still only account for about 0.17 percent of the population. We visited the gorgeous Baha’i Lotus Temple. There are seven other Baha’i temples scattered throughout the world, but this one must rank as a marvelous inspiring piece of architecture that incorporates a lotus design. It is a major tourist attraction and probably does more to attracting new members than direct proselyting.

Our last stop was Dilli Haat, where crafts and food from all 28 Indian states are sold and is a good stop to purchase souvenirs. It was nice to have the taxi deposit us at the entrance of these sites and then pick us up when called by cell phone. Driving in this country would be foolhardy for foreigners because of lack of knowledge of unwritten traffic rules. When approaching a busy intersection, our young driver would just honk and keep going headlong into traffic, making for a continuous “E” ticket ride. Traffic police are extremely rare, so drivers drive insanely. When asked about speeding tickets, the driver laughed, and asked how could one speed in this congested traffic. The cost for the entire taxi trip was $26.

Overcast skies kept temperatures cool in February, whereas in the summer the heat can be stifling. Terrible air pollution and trash heaps lined most streets. February was considered an auspicious month for weddings, so groups of colorful uniformed bands performing for the wedding parties also slowed traffic. March is considered a bad month for weddings.

One disadvantage of my home location was it took an hour each way to get to the interesting tourist sites. On another day, I took a taxi to India Gate, their equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe. I took a Hop-On Hop-Off (HOHO) bus at this location, but there was minimal narration, so I wouldn’t recommend this option. The departures were every 45 minutes, so missing one required a long wait. Heavy traffic resulted in slow travel. Cheap taxis or tuk-tuks were a better choice to quickly go from site to site.

Humayun’s Tomb area included a complex of many tombs. This UNESCO World Heritage site introduced Persian Islamic architecture, as well as beautiful gardens. Each of the tombs was beautifully designed and worthy of a visit.

The Red Fort is another UNESCO site that the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built in the 17th century. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of his favorite wife. The entrance fee is 250 rupees (less than $5), whereas locals pay $10. The museum was not very interesting and my recommendation is to just take photos outside and spend valuable time visiting more interesting places.

Jantar Mantar is one of five astronomy observatories with the same name scattered throughout India. They were built in the early 1700s and are advanced for its time. The visit would have been more interesting if more detailed explanations of each huge instrument were displayed.

Akshardham Temple, a huge stone Hindu temple that is lit up at night, draws 70 percent of Delhi visitors. It consists of an enormous temple, an IMAX detailing the early life of the head of this particular Hindu sect, musical water fountains, a short boat ride depicting 10,000 years of Indian history, as well as beautiful gardens. It is like a Disneyland for these Hindu sect believers with extra charges for many attractions. The lines to enter are extremely long and the security is worse than the TSA. The long list of banned articles included newspapers. No photos are allowed. I only saw five Anglos among the thousands of visitors.

I was told to avoid the metro because of the huge crowds, but on a Sunday, I decided to experience this form of transportation. I was constantly jostled just waiting in line. There are cars for women only, but these must be extremely overcrowded since there were women riding in my car. One must ask for the metro because asking for the subway will lead to underpasses below the street. Signage is poor for the metro. One buys a token (less than 50 cents to the center of tourist area). There is heavy security with armed soldiers and even a machine gun with sandbag barricades. A poor metal detector is used to screen for weapons, but I entered with a few metal items that did not set off any alarms. I took a photo inside, but a soldier said no photos are allowed.

My destination was Chandni Chowk, Shah Jahan built as a place where his daughter could shop close to the Red Fort. Originally, there were water channels lined with greenery and the finest homes were in this area. A huge mosque, Jama Masjid, is also in this area. Quite a few changes have occurred in the intervening 300 years. The area is now rather shabby, filled with tiny shops selling every imaginable item, food stalls, and some streets so narrow even rickshaws are unable to pass through. One can understand why so many merchants fear Wal-Mart opening stores in India. Finding everything under one roof and probably for cheaper would lead to the ruin of all these shops.

I visited Lodhi Gardens, which was crowded with families having picnics on a Sunday. Raj Ghat, Gandhi’s Memorial site, which has an eternal flame to honor his memory, did not have much else to see.
I observed the patriarch of my host family drinking magnetized water, but others in the household ignored his practice. Yet another observation: “Accha” is an expression meaning “OK,” which is better than the disconcerting practice of shaking their head from shoulder to shoulder to signify “OK.” See http://goindia.about.com/od/greetingscommunication/a/
head-wobble.htm to understand the different head wobble meanings.

Las Vegas Tidbits

Raku is absolutely the best Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas. The description of their specially selected condiments can be found at: http://www.raku-grill.com/quality.htm.
They sell some of these items such as their original soy sauce, green tea salt and Koregusu hot sauce for less than $10 each so if you were visiting Vegas, these would make great omiyage especially for foodies. Raku has an osechi dinner that sells for $300 (plus $20 for the osechi box if you cannot provide your own). They said it could feed eight  people so it is very expensive. They have sold out so it must be good.

The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

 

 

Comments

  1. Correction: Entrance fee to the Red Fort for locals is 10 rupees (around 20 cents) not $10.

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