Light falling on graves, Fatehpur Sikri.
Three years ago, I decided to venture out of the warmth and comfort of South India and take a chance with a holiday in the North. My week-long holiday across Delhi, Amritsar and Agra in December of 2009 was an icebreaker on many levels (no puns intended). Before the holiday, I didn’t think it was possible to have fun at temperatures as low as one degree or witness millions of years of history crammed into one city.
I also didn’t comprehend the oft-mentioned distinction between ‘South’ Indians and ‘North’ Indians prior to the trip. I now thoroughly understand the divide. No matter how much I loved North India, I hated the people. I’m not too far off the mark when I say that most of them are uncouth, abrasive, uncivil and carry heavy chips on their shoulders about God-only-knows-what. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.
Delhi, Amritsar and Agra have been cooked in a cauldron of roiling empires, cultural trends, political upheavals and British colonialism, as a result of which the cities are steeped in history and good food. If you can ignore the people (a little hard to do, but worth a shot), you’ll enjoy what Delhi has to offer for the traveller. The capital is the cradle of Mughal Empire, food and architecture. Amritsar is a cold (weather-wise) city with laid-back people and lots of yummy Rasta food. And Agra is a regal place that maintains all its elegance despite the hordes of people coming to see the wonders it has to offer. At least here, the people were nice and approachable.
So what do you need to do to transform into a typical tourist in the three cities? Simple: visit these places.
Waiting for the Red Fort to swallow them whole.
Red Fort, Delhi
Massive, red and still partially occupied by the Indian Army. A remarkable structure that puts you in the shoes of Jack looking up at the beanstalk – that’s how one feels when they see it. You have to crane your neck to take the entire architecture in. The fort is partially occupied by the Indian Army, so access is restricted to the Rang Mahal and a few other structures. Still, the place is huge. Walking around the Red Fort takes almost all day, so there are a couple of restaurants inside that serve food and chai paani.
The eternal home for Humayun and his family.
Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
The architectural ancestor of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum is massive. The structure’s all red with intricate Mogul motifs running along it in white. We hit the place just as the sun was setting, so there was a certain happy-sad dusk light over it. As the sun vanishes, though, you begin to feel a chill creep down your spine because the place is quiet, isolated and more obviously, home to dead bodies that are hundreds of years old.
Crowding for food at Karim’s.
You must have one meal here. At least one. Karim’s is famous for its food and a haven for non-vegetarians. Finger-licking mutton curry, bheja fry and crisp Naans. Be sure to carry a swimsuit, though, because you can dive right into the oil that floats above the curries they serve.
Up, up and away.
Qutb Minar, Delhi
All that noise and popularity that the Qutb Minar has amassed over centuries? I can assure you that it’s absolutely justified. Despite being hit by lightning thrice and suffering damage, it still stands tall as the highest minar, with passages from the Qur’an carved on it. The minar itself is just one aspect of the property, surrounded by palaces, mosques, marketplaces and of course, the Ashoka Pillar.
Two together: the Ashoka Pillar on the premises of Qutb Minar.
It was my favourite among all the ruins. Despite the havoc wreaked by the weather and the emperors who came along every now and then, the place still manages to help the mind’s eye fill in the gaps to remodel a semblance of it in its original form. Also remarkable was the fact that while the Qutb property is essentially Islamic, there are hints of Hindu temple architecture mixed in. We saw pillars that had Ganesha and dancing women – the kind that decorate the walls of Khajuraho – and temple bells carved in stone.
My guess is that the Mughal emperors brought them to their palaces and made them part of the architecture to remind them of their exploits and victories. Other, less cynical people like to believe it was a symbolic gesture towards religious co-existence/harmony. Ah, well.
The surfaces of India Gate hold the names of soldiers who lost their lives in battle during Independence. Makes you not take freedom for granted.
India Gate, Delhi
Commercial, crowded, marginally Indian. The place was full of Chinese tourists taking many, many pictures in front of India Gate. There’s something about the inscription right on top that gives you the heebie-jeebies and roots you to the spot. When your eye finally manages to discover the names of the soldiers who lost their lives inscribed on the facade, you experience the chills all over again.
At the Golden Temple, people go about their work quietly. Some sit by the water, some move toward the langar, and some listen to the Sikh musicians play, lulling one into a sense of peace.
The Golden Temple, Amritsar
Every place of religion has an aura of peace within it, and the Golden Temple’s no different. A flotilla of gold in the middle of a placid lake brimming with gigantic fish, people start lining up for darshan as early as 3 in the morning. Apparently, the Sikhs have to volunteer at the Golden Temple once in their life, so everybody inside the four walls of the place (which stretch for miles together) – from those who serve the langar to the ones who stand guard at the Sikh Museum – are people with alternate jobs fulfilling their religious duties.
I would’ve loved to see the place lit up in the night, but it was freezing at night and I was just not ready to put myself through the torture.
Sunset over Pakistan, as seen from India.
Change of Guards, Wagah Border
While the rest of the two nations are a stage for unbridled hostility, the Wagah Border that divides India and Pakistan is pretty peaceful. But then, us being Indians, we have to milk it for what it’s worth. Hence, a well-dressed man with a mike and a booming voice to inspire the crowds to scream bloodcurdling Vande Maatarams, wave the Indian flag in a frenzy and hurl battle cries across the gates; who then goes on to calmly walk around to pockets of non-committals like us and say, “Don’t you want your money’s worth from this spectacle? Let me hear you scream now and add some masala to the occasion.”
My suggestion is to ignore him because the experience of standing at the border is quite emotional by itself. I was close to tears initially, and then when the whole thing went too far, I lost all sense of patriotism – the same soldiers walk up multiple times to the gate, have a face-off with the Pakistani soldiers and come back to loud cheering from the crowd. In all fairness to the Indian masala, the tears returned when the Indian and Pakistani flags crossed over and paused there for a few seconds before completing their journey down the poles and into the storeroom for safekeeping.
The dargah inside Fatehpur Sikri is made out of marble. People tie threads to the windows, so that their mannats come true.
Fatehpur Sikri, Agra
Akbar’s mark on time and by God, what an indelible mark it is.
From the Buland Darwaza, a massive structure of 107-odd feet inlaid with delicate Moghul motifs and now home to tons of honeycombs, to the brick wall behind which Anarkali was buried alive; from the beautiful palaces for Akbar’s three wives – Hindu, Muslim and Christian respectively – to the life-size Pacheesi game on the floor of the palace fort; from the Diwan-e-khaas where Akbar hosted gatherings with his ministers from atop a flat surface of a pillar elaborately carved in Jewish, Moghul and Temple designs, to the carvings of Persian birds and animals – beheaded because Aurangzeb said so; from the first known Meena Bazaar to Akbar’s sleeping chambers with an elevated bed and three separate entrances for three separate wives. There’s so much to see and absorb at Fatehpur Sikri. Turns out that the Diwan-e-khaas was where Akbar founded the Deen-e-Ilahi. Seems to me that he was one of the smarter kings we had – he combined all three religions into one, almost as if he had a sense of the communal turmoil of the future.
A view of the Taj Mahal from the entrance.
The Taj Mahal, Agra
Shah Jahan must have really loved his wife to have built a mausoleum so massive, so magnificent and timeless. Expansive lawns with frothy fountains lead you to the actual structure. The marble’s fast losing its smoothness because of the corrosive substances in the environment, and restorations are happening at a large scale. Flash photography wasn’t allowed inside the mausoleum, but there were people still clicking away.
That’s pretty much what we saw our holiday. In the middle of all this, we managed to experience a bit of night life in Delhi, freeze our tushes off, eat authentic desi food, catch our trains on (or just in) time, shop, meet friends and sleep.
My overall verdict on the holiday? North India is a beautiful place full of secrets. North Indians, not so much.
Adjoining ruins at Humayun’s tomb, where people sometimes go to catch a stunning view.
Getting there: Delhi is well-connected from most places by flights. From there, Agra is a few hours away and Amritsar about six to seven hours. Trains and buses can take you there from Delhi. Make sure you spend at least four days in Delhi, because that’s how much there is to see.
Go if: You love history, shopping, culture and food.
Pictures: All pictures here were shot using my friend’s Canon EOS 400D. This was in the days that i didn’t own a Digi-SLR of my own.