In the centre of Akshardham, an enormous temple and cultural complex in Delhi, is an eleven foot tall, solid gold statue of revered Hindu teacher Swaminarayan, set on a diamond-white plinth. Behind, around and above him, the walls are completely lined in jewels of every colour imaginable, gleaming gold silver pink blue as the sun filters in through the high ceiling. On the outer walls of the temple, impossibly intricate carvings and statues line every inch of free space, with so much detail you can see each deity’s fingernails.
It’s an awe-inspiring sight, and one that set the precedent for the last stop on my Indian adventure: a week in the nation’s capital. I arrived into Delhi after a comparatively short train journey of just a few hours, which was uneventful except for the discovery of a small mouse living underneath my train bunk. After an evening planning my week’s itinerary and transitioning into full tourist mode, I set off the next morning on the metro and arrived at Akshardham.
As I walked through the shrine doors, the entire room felt infused with spirituality in a way few places I’ve ever visited have. There was a palpable sense of wonder and reverence which, even as an atheist, I felt strongly as I walked around. Although I don’t subscribe to any religious views, the beauty and intricacy of Akshardham was a reminder of just how important a role religion still plays around the world, and how strong is the faith that inspired it.
The more I explored India, the more it seemed the only place that could have given birth to a body of mythology like Hinduism. The chaotic streets, the speed and colour of life…it all reflects, and is reflected in, the seemingly endless array of gods, deities and stories. And Hindu gods are fascinating: flawed and complex, creating and destroying at one and the same time, giving in to temptation and displaying actual emotions. I was glad to have the opportunity to learn about these things as I walked around the peaceful halls of Akshardham.
Unfortunately, my visit to the Lotus Temple the next day was considerably less peaceful. The building itself is stunning, both from the inside and out, and I managed to catch it at a picturesque moment of sunset. But almost the entirety of my visit was spent in long, single-file queues, cooking alive in the last of the afternoon heat. It took close to an hour to get inside, and when I finally did I was so annoyed at being jostled by tourists and herded like cattle that I found it impossible to be even slightly thoughtful or spiritual, and didn’t stay for long. As I left, I put on some angry hardcore punk music to channel my frustration at shitty crowds.
“I felt like Nathan Drake in Uncharted“
On my third day I went to explore the Qutub Minar and surrounding ruins. This is the largest minaret (tower, like those in each corner of the Taj Mahal) in India – 73 metres tall and 1000 years old. The tower itself is immaculately preserved and so huge that you can’t even see the top when you look up from the base. As I wandered around the sun-baked gardens and crumbling relics of ancient civilizations, I felt more than a little bit like Nathan Drake in Uncharted, and was half hoping to discover a secret lever which would lead to a cryptic puzzle and some buried treasure.
I’m sad to report that I didn’t find any secret treasure, but I did manage to catch a cold. A cold, of all things, in Delhi! It flattened me for a whole day with a terrible headache, blocked sinuses, a chesty cough and a very sore throat, which I suspect was caused by air pollution. I decided I needed a break from tombs, temples and the sun, and spent my next day paying a visit to the National Museum of Delhi and the National Gallery of Modern Art, where there was (at last!) air-conditioning and the sweet sound of silence.
Here I learned more about the artists who made the first visual representations of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, essentially creating the long-haired, blue-skinned image of divinity that has become the standard today. And I was amazed by the Tanjore and Mysore paintings, which use real gold, silver foil, beads and powdered metals mixed with paint to create bright, jewel-like colours. In the National Gallery was a huge variety of incredible modern art, with bits of cubism, Japanese art, twisted sculptures and abstract expressionism.
The City’s Second Face
Up until this point I had only been exploring New Delhi, given that my hostel was based quite far in the south of the city. Of course, ‘New’ is relative: even here there are hundreds of ancient tombs and temples, so frequent that you could run into one just walking down any random street. But these sites are in the middle of carefully manicured parks, or between wide highways, or just around the corner from huge malls full of Western brands. The conquest of capitalism, which is still in progress around most of India, feels almost complete in New Delhi.
Old Delhi, as I discovered on my last day in the country, is almost entirely untouched. When I got off the metro in Chandni Chowk, just a handful of stops on from the central plaza of Connaught Place, I felt like I’d gotten off in a different city. The roads are narrow and dusty, the brands replaced with local businesses, the cars replaced by opportunistic tuk tuk drivers all quoting me prices for a lift to the spice markets and Jama Masjid.
I turned them all down, as I wanted to wander the streets on foot and see it for myself. I made my way down the main road and towards the Red Fort, another of Old Delhi’s main tourist attractions. Unfortunately, I found the Red Fort pretty disappointing after seeing the Agra Fort: it was much smaller, and large parts of it were either fenced off for repair work or covered in ugly scaffolding. There were officials in fluorescent jackets everywhere, and they obviously took great pleasure in blowing their whistles at tourists, exercising some tiny modicum of power in their boring jobs.
As in the Lotus Temple, being told where to go when all I wanted to do was explore annoyed me quite a bit, so I decided to scrap the rest of my sightseeing plans for the day and just get lost walking around the markets of Old Delhi. I was glad I did: once I stopped looking for tourist attractions and things to do, I felt like I saw a more authentic side to the city.
The narrow, maze-like market streets were bustling with life in every inch of space. Vendors were shouting, gesturing and spitting, sitting hunched over circuitboards and tiny batteries in phone repair shops, frying parathas in sizzling pans of oil beneath colourful strings of packaged tobacco. Rumbling motorcycles were careening wildly around people and potholes and dangling wires, while brightly coloured storefronts shouted KAPOOR JEWELLERY AND KRISHNA SECURITY SYSTEMS. Turning a corner, I stumbled into a large open area where hundreds of expensive TVs and radios were stacked on top of each other, all for sale. And then around the next corner a scene of pure chaos as traffic came to a complete standstill in the most narrow road I’d ever seen, and people dogs cows tried to weave their way through the cars.
I had lunch in a local restaurant, paying just 100 rupees (about £1) for some of the best food I had in the country, before eventually arriving at the entrance to the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot into the sandstone courtyard, then sat down cross-legged in the shadow of the mosque, listening to Ravi Shankar’s ‘A Morning/Evening Raga’ for an entire hour.
The End of a Journey
Watching the setting sun and the flocks of birds and the Muslim families eating picnics while their children ran around playing tag, I had another moment of international freedom – a slightly out of body, how-did-I-get-here feeling, but mixed with a sensation of total independence and self-reliance. I was sad that my journey through India was coming to an end, but as it did I felt a newfound desire to explore the world, and a confidence in my ability to meet the challenges of travelling.
That day was my last in Delhi: a fascinating city with two faces, one Old and one New, where the convergence of history and modernity is more pronounced than anywhere else I’ve ever visited. And it was also the end of my six week adventure in India, as I packed my bags and got myself ready for the long flight back to London Gatwick. There are many places I still want to travel to – Japan, Canada, South America, Germany – and I hope I can continue to share some stories from future travels with everyone who reads this blog. But for now it was back to the UK, where I got off my plane into driving rain and a snowstorm.
I guess some things never change.