Old Delhi

Old Delhi–


In my limited time in Delhi, I figured I’d walk around Old Delhi myself, just a random exploration. Not that I even knew exactly where it was or how I would know I was there. I got a taxi up to Jamma Masjid from my hotel, but soon discovered it was time for prayers. Not being muslim, I would not be admitted. I started walking westward into what I thought would be the old part of town and was approached almost immediately by a 60-ish man who started asking me questions. That’s how they do it. They are interested in you. Then they drop the proposition. “I will take you to see places in Old Delhi you would never find yourself. The real thing,” he says.


I ask how much. He says, well, we can go for 10 minutes and if you aren’t interested you don’t have to pay me anything. I say OK. If we continue, what do you want? He says 1500 for one hour. I say one thousand, which is twice as much as I’ve paid for any tour so far. He says 1200 (~$20). I say OK.


We go. He leads at a brisk pace down into some very narrow paths, narrower than a hotel hallway, difficult even for two motorbikes to pass each other. He stops me and says, “Stand here.” I obey. He points to a doorway and says,”This house is 400 years old.”


He proceeds to tell me that there are three Delhis: one that was built by Shah Jahan 400 years ago (named Shajahanabad), another colonial Delhi built 200 years ago, and the modern city now rising atop the old, officially named “New” Delhi in 1926. The houses of Old Delhi are each owned by one family and handed down from one generation to the next. No one rents in this neighborhood.


Standing outside a doorway, one has no idea how large the house may be, the size of the extended family within, the number of separate residences housing that extended family.


But he had no hesitancy whatsoever about opening the doors and inviting me inside. Most of these houses had three original levels. One or two more levels were added later.


The doorways are carved stone. The upper balconies may also be ornamental. Some houses contain 15-20 families, all extended from the original. One house was the very first English language school in Delhi.

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I see no other foreigners.

After awhile I mentioned that the end of our time was approaching. He did not respond. He kept going, taking turns, giving orders. Explaining everything in heavily accented English. Then he declared that we would go to the roof of a large house to view the sunset, which required a tuk-tuk ride. I asked again about our time limit. He ignored me again.

The tuk-tuk ride followed a Main Street in the Chawna Market area, packed with fabric and jewelry shops, a favorite of tourists from everywhere, especially India itself. Traffic crawled, or mostly stood still. I began to wonder how long it would take or whether we would arrive too late for sunset. But eventually we did stop, hurrying again through narrow wet streets, stone paths, dodging laborers, hole in the wall shops, hordes of shoppers.

This is the sugar market, displaying a half-dozen varieties or more. There are 16 flavors of sugar made from the same source: sugar cane. I tasted 4-5, each one surprisingly distinctive and delicious. We moved quickly to the spice market, where I noticed a special black pepper selling for 800 rupees for 100g. That’s the equivalent of $125 per kilo, or about $55/lb. You have to pay even to smell it.



Jain temple with a marble facade

Then we walked through a winding, climbing tiny alley lined with wholesale spice dealers to a stairway up to the next level. We were on a balcony stretching the length of the building, lined with more wholesale spice merchants. I pass huge sacks of black cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric and chili. The aromas are enchanting. The building is square, enclosing a large courtyard, three stories high. It was the British governor’s residence 150 years ago.



Now up pitch-dark stairways by cell-phone flashlight two more levels to the roof. Here, after chatting and marking the different views, watching the sun set in a clouded sky, I am told we must talk money. Here is where he tells me has has spent 2.5 hours with me and expects to be paid accordingly.

I mention that I told him what I was prepared to pay before we started. He again mentions how long he has spent with me. I remind him that I asked twice about our time ending. We are getting heated. I am pulling out money and handing over 1200, plus a generous tip–but still far short of what he had in mind.



Now, at the completion of an experience I would never have had on my own, I have a sour taste in my mouth about the entire matter.

The evidence has accumulated ever since I arrived in India. I am a target (no surprise), that whatever I pay is not quite enough, regardless of the negotiation in question, even if agreed upon in advance; that there are subtle permutations to the negotiation process and intuitions required to manage the financial transactions here is further reinforced by this episode.


On one hand, I must acknowledge the skill, the finesse, the nuance that is employed to convey this feeling on the part of my Indian counterparts. But it’s as if they have been practicing for 200 years for their encounter with me. I must also wonder if they are merely playing a part, learned over at least 70 years (since Independence), whether their outrage is faux or their negotiating skills are honed to perfection to salve a wound not yet healed. Or whether it is via similar interactions with their own neighbors, vendors, service providers and artisans, merely being put to an even greater test with the foreigner, the white ghost representing the entire colonial history in that small moment of verbal jousting.


And I, the self-conscious visitor who wishes to avoid offense, attempting graceful conciliation, now finds offense in the protest and tone of my guide. Am I paying for the sins of others or am I perpetuating the exploitation in the moment? Is it simply the nature of the transaction that recreates the familiar hierarchies of class and race? Or is there something I have not seen, a mistake I unwittingly repeat? And how many other transactions are operating elsewhere, playing out this hidden subtext?

We are both bound by culture and economics and encumbered by the universal pitfalls of attachment to the bias of our individual worlds. Very few items here, save restaurant food, pharmacy items, clothing sold in fashion boutiques and department stores, are marked with a price before purchase, which deliberately invites the scenario I have just mimed. Perhaps I make too much of it, but coming to genuine agreement that is satisfactory for both parties is not so easy or apparent. Even if there is an appearance of agreement, what is the taste that remains for the auto-rickshaw driver, the taxi driver, the tour guide? Is it even possible to step out of our roles, even for a moment?

What I have encountered here, as elsewhere in India, is the Old Delhi, the new Delhi and the city of many names other than Delhi. I’m just a traveler, finding my way and still far from expert-or even comfortable-in this domain.

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri–


Fatepur Sikri is a palace-fortress and mosque complex about 40 km from Agra built by Akbar the Great, one of the Mughal Emperors of the mid-to-late 16th C. Fatehpur means “victory city.” It was completed in 1572 and almost immediately abandoned because of water scarcity and war.


The palace-fortress is of the same style at the Red Fort of Agra, with a few interesting architectural twists. Akbar had three wives, a Hindu, a muslim and a Christian wife. Different parts of the palace were devoted to each wife. Design elements of each culture and faith were incorporated into the structure such as vaulted ceilings, wall and pillar carvings employing religious symbols.


Different levels of this pillar display muslim, Christian and Hindu symbols.


The mosque is one of the biggest in the world. The gate itself is known as the largest entrance to any mosque. Within the courtyard of the mosque, housed in a white marble structure, is the tomb of Salim Chrishti, considered a Sufi saint. The mausoleum was constructed by Akbar as a mark of his respect for Chrishti, who foretold the birth of Akbar’s son, named Prince Salim and who later succeeded Akbar to the throne of the Mughal Empire, as Jahangir.[1]



Akbar allegedly was interested in creating an ecumenical religion, likely under the influence of Salim Christi, his spiritual guide. The exterior designs support this view.


The swastika is the hindu symbol of luck, health and prosperity.




Courtyard and gate


Mausoleum of Salim Christi

Four different stones in the entryway to the mausoleum are from four different nations.


Before going into the mausoleum, I was invited to partake in the traditional offering of flowers and to take a cotton string with me to make a wish. Everyone believes Chrishti, is a remover of obstacles, a powerful healer who grants your wish.

All of the sounded just a little hokey to me and I wasn’t comfortable making a wish for something personal anyway. But I humored them. Took the flowers and the string.

The mausoleum is white marble with Qu’ranic verses carved into the stone as well as latticed marble walls.When I entered the small inner room with several attendants around the four-poster ebony bier, something happened. The energy inside was entirely different from outside. I formed a clear wish that wasn’t personal, without equivocation or doubt, tied my string to the latticework and walked out. That was a very clarifying moment.


Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal


Commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1632 and completed in 1648.

I’m pretty sure I can’t say anything about this place that hasn’t been said before….except that this is my second visit, the first occurring more than 50 years ago.

Described by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore as “the tear-drop on the cheek of time”,[7][8] it is regarded by many as the best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history.

It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is summer. It is hot. Yet the crowds are large and ever-renewing. They are even bigger in the cooler months. 7-8 million per year.


Main gate

The gate alone is impressive. Around are written in Arabic, in black marble and jasper  embedded in the white marble, mourning verses of the Qu’ran:


O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.

A second gate, across the exterior grounds from the main gate, was dedicated to the workers who built the Taj. They were imported, 20,000 of them from Persia, and took 20 years to complete the main building and all the surrounding structures. The white marble, having a pinkish tint and a unique translucent quality, comes from Jaipur.

The entire structure soars 240 feet from the garden level. The height of the dome itself is 35 meters. The chief architect was probably Ustad Ahmad Lahouri, an Indian of Persian descent who would later be credited with designing the Red Fort at Delhi.


The workers and their families stayed in Agra afterwards, assimilating and continually renewing their status as master craftsman for 40 generations, in marble cutting and inlaying shops, homes and studios throughout the area.

I don’t mean to diminish the experience of the Taj itself. It’s just as thrilling as it ever was. But the crowd control is also more evident now than ever.








Further inscriptions from the Qu’ran outside the main entrance as well as inside.

The tombs of Mumtaz and Shahjahan are in a small space inside. They are actually faux sarcophagi. The real ones lie below floor level.


Groups of visitors are allowed in about 100 at a time. The tombs themselves cannot now be touched, photos are prohibited (a universally ignored rule) and continuous movement is encouraged. We are herded in and out. This rule was no doubt instituted because visitors became ever more inclined to attempt to remove the precious stones inlaid in the walls and especially the sarcophagi.


Jewels and precious stones embedded in the marble throughout the exterior and interior

An identical mosque and guest house border the main building.



The four minarets were deliberately built out of plumb so in case of earthquake, they would not fall upon the main building.

The day after the Taj, I had hired a driver to take me to Fatehpur-Sikri and the tomb of Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor and the grandfather of Shah Jahan. By mid-afternoon, I was tired and ready to return to my hotel. But he insisted on taking me to a marble shop. I decided to go more to humor him than out of authentic interest.


This 14″ plate has over 3200 separate pieces of stone embedded: coral, mother-of-pearl, turquoise, malachite and jasper

But I had no idea what I was about to see: the masterwork handed down over 400 years. The technique is the same now as it was then: grind the stones to make the desired design. Trace the design on the marble, cut the marble to exact specifications to seat the design. Embed the stones. Polish to perfection. All done by hand with hand driven grinding tools. My personal piece of the Taj Mahal.



Each different color in each petal is a separate piece of stone (turquoise and mother-of-pearl)

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When people think of Agra, they naturally think of the Taj Mahal. It’s also a city of 2 million, was the capital of the Mughal Empire 4-500 years ago and has a few other sites worthy of interest.


The Mughals, muslim descendants of Genghis Khan, descended from Mongolia about a millenium ago and established a very significant presence in India from Agra to Lahore. Agra was the winter capital and Lahore was the summer capital.

Before the Taj was built, there was the Red Fort, overlooking the Yamuna river (a tributary of the Ganges), occupied by the father of Shah Jahan as well as himself, his brothers and family.

The Red Fort is a massive place. It was constructed as a defensible palace. So the outside looks like a fort, but the inside looks has many artistic and luxurious features of a palace. The moat was famously filled with alligators and crocodiles, with a ring around the moat occupied by Bengal tigers. The parapets were equipped to throw boiling oil on any intruders. If an invader ever managed to breach the gate, he could expect massive rolling stones hurtling down the narrow walled entry path to the palace level.


The courtyards, chambers, performance and assembly spaces of the palace are bare now, but at one time were covered with carpeting, the walls painted with gold or silver and the hand carved walls inlaid with precious stones.


Bats live in the walls.

Some of the more impressive features of the fort include the drainage systems as well as methods of collecting water for storage, gravity feeds to keep the fountains operating, architectural features facilitating ventilation (especially useful during hot summers) and, since temperatures varied between 40 C in the summer to below 0 C in winter, there were also ingenious methods of insulation.



The Harem

The Shah had 300 concubines. His most favored wife, Mumtaz, bore him 14 children, 8 boys and six girls. Eight of them died in infancy or childhood, leaving 4 boys and two girls. Mumtaz died giving birth to the 14th child. I think we can assume he hardly ever listened to her.

But he did build the most beautiful mausoleum ever in her honor.



Varanasi III

Varanasi III



Sarees seem to be a major industry here. I never saw so many shops. Some of them advertise their factories as well.

In the middle of all my temple-hopping tour, we stopped and met an elderly small man who guided me through a warren of narrow pathways, dense with saree design shops and weaving factories. One hears the hum and click of the looms behind shrouded windows and wooden doors. It’s a constant presence except on Sundays.



I looked into a small design shop, no bigger than a walk-in closet. On the floor was a worker kneeling over a board used as a backstop for the hole punching process. Holes are punched through thin slats each about 4″ by 15″.

The holes in the slats are code for a specific pattern. Each pattern can involve punching holes in 200-300 slats. The entire set of slats for a particular pattern are attached to the looms, which then weave according to their sequential instructions.

DSC07702It seems both an effective and complex technology that I don’t understand, but is also a primitive and very traditional technology proven for generations.

Anyone familiar with the first generation computers knows that data was first coded onto punch cards, which were then fed into the computer as instructions for operations. Here in the back-alleys of Varanasi, the punch card method is still in full bloom producing sarees.


The weaving operation was magnificent, loud machines packed into close quarters and monitored in the heat by workers wearing only the barest of clothing.





I was also led to a small hand-weaving shop. An everyday sari might cost only 500 rupees, but the complexity, fabrics, the addition of gold threads and the time to produce them can raise the cost of a single sari to 50,000 rupees.


Then, as the coup de gras, I was led to a shop selling fabrics of all kinds, brocades, pashminas in addition to pillow covers and upholsteries. I experienced the smoothest sales pitch ever. I had no intention of buying anything…..that is, until I saw what they had to offer.

small tapestries- not much bigger than a placemat



Brocades–these are about 24″ x 96″

These shops have specialties, pillow coverings, upholstery accessories, brocades, pashmina and sarees. They are sold all over India and in a few foreign countries. In Delhi, if you ask where the sarees come from , they will tell you Banares. A company in Seattle buys sarees (a uniform six meters each) strickly to make dresses.


Wrathful utility deity?

Oh, incidentally, in my limited time here, it’s rare to see Indians smoking cigarettes. I haven’t even noticed places that sell cigarettes. But then I noticed tuck-tuk drivers tearing open small packets and dumping the contents into their mouths. And naturally, they discard the packet without a thought. Then I noticed every single tiny vendor, every hole-in-the-wall shop selling various brands of these packets.


They are some kind of snuff. A tobacco product. A stimulant. The package has a nasty looking cancer warning on it, which of course has no effect whatsoever.

Tuk-tuk drivers, and I presume many others as well, are consuming enormous quantities of this stuff. It’s a mere 2 rupees each. And everywhere the drivers congregate, around busy commercial areas, open markets, large intersections, railway stations, these packets make up a huge percentage of the already enormous amount of litter. In some areas that’s all I see on the ground.

This, everywhere:


Varanasi II: The Hindu Riviera


Blowing conchs at Assi ghat at dawn

The predominant experience of Varanasi is the permanently precarious nature of it, the common tightrope-walk hardly distinguishing between multiple near-death experiences occurring multiple times a day and the ongoing spiritual restoration. I also notice that I am not worried about my next meal, I feel a little out of place.


Assi ghat at dawn.

The holiest part about being in Varanasi is praying that you reach your destination without bodily injury. Whether it’s tooling along in a tiny tuk-tuk without any cushioning and no shocks traveling at maximum allowable speed along roads that are dangerously punishing on your body, or simply walking the ghats through the tiny alleyways without being hit from behind by motorbikes weaving through, one simply has to grit one’s teeth and pray, or……just relax.

I woke at 4:30 to meet the boatman at 5 down by the river for the morning tour. One could hardly say one has been to Varanasi without doing this. The ride this morning was terrific.

As soon as we were underway, I felt the vibration of the ancient diesel all the way into my teeth. If I wanted to take a picture, I had to stand up to get any stability. The first few pictures were fuzzy because I couldn’t control the camera. When we got to places of interest, I had to ask the boatman to slow down.

morning river 6


The former residence of the Maharajah of Varanasi–150 years ago. Notice the high-water line across the doorway.

Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world–2500 years old. The culture as a whole is 5000 years old and people have been bathing in this holy river for a very very long time. Purification ceremonies are common practices of Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. Where else do we immerse ourselves in the refreshing primal experience of new beginnings then at the edge of the water?


At 5am, the Ganges is glassy calm. The tourist boats are already stirring–heading toward Assi ghat for the morning ceremony. A row of priests wield fire, incense, bells and conch, calling the gods in unison. From there we drift downriver toward Manikarika, the burning ghat.




Crowds at the main ghat: Dasashwamedh


Manikarnika ghat

Manikarika ghat: There seem to be 12 pyres. Each burning takes at least 3 hours. That’s 36 bodies every ~4 hours, or about 200 bodies per day. It takes about 500kg of wood to burn one body. That works out to 100,000kg of wood per day–max.

These ghats are not mansions of the wealthy, of course. We are passing the Hindu Riviera, some of the most valuable holy real estate in the world, where the five elements (earth, fire, air, water and space) meet, focusing and fueling human aspiration.

(see the guy in the 3rd floor window? That’s how high the river was in 1978)

They are the home of ritual, platforms for ceremonial purification, built in the 18th and 19th centuries by maharajahs from various parts of India and each dedicated to specific gods.

morning river 5

The ghats are interspersed with guesthouses, housing for sadhus, and a few luxury hotels, although telling which is which is not so easy.



Housing for sadhus only


A 5-star hotel

morning river 4

Alamagir Mosque built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (17th C).

Ganges swimming club? Srsly?



Varanasi I

Varanasi 5

My train from Kolkata was two hours late. But no matter, I thought. I’m here. Though I had little idea what “here” meant. It was dark. I found my way out of the train station, knowing I would encounter enterprising taxi drivers offering me a ride. Sure enough, I land a tuk-tuk and tell him where I’m going. He knows the place, but says we will not be able to go all the way there. He says I’ll have to walk some. I ask how far? 100, 200 meters? He says 800. I am wondering what I have done. Committed myself to staying in a place that’s 800 meters from a road?

But no. It turns out to be more like 400 meters. But to get there, he is dragging my suitcase behind hm as we trek through darkened narrow winding alleys, taking so many turns I could not possibly remember where I’ve come from, dodging puddles, mud and cow dung, bumping over potholes, passing hole-in-the-wall shops, motorbikes, cows and people. The aromas are, shall we say, earthy.

Varanasi 2

I reach my destination, check in and discover that I am staying in a fourth floor walk-up.  This is a mistake, I’m thinking. I won’t go into detail about the room or the night I spent or how much sleep I actually got. Let’s just skip to the part where I move to another hotel in the morning that’s more my style.

Varanasi 4

I settle in. I venture forth, walking the alleyways, finding the river, meandering through  the streets. Unfortunately, this is as I pictured it: impossible traffic with no rules, dust, fumes, the incessant honking of drivers, every moment a narrow brush with death as people, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, rickshaws and carts weave and dodge in an omni-directional dance.


Occasionally there is true gridlock here because virtually everyone is loath to yield to anyone else except under the most obvious death-defying moments. Drivers play chicken here to make a macho statement. So there may be no movement whatsoever, but everyone is honking because it’s someone else’s fault, someone else must move to effect the breakthrough.

Varanasi is known as the city of learning and burning. It is a center of higher education. There are billboards everywhere touting programs, schools, test prep.  Today, as part of my daylong tour I passed through a vast campus, the Banares Hindu University, with dozens of identically-styled colonial  buildings housing university departments. It is the city of burning because one could spend 24 hours of any day attending (being careful–as a foreigner–to maintain a respectful distance) the cremation ceremonies along the banks of the Ganges. People come from all over India at the end of life to be cremated here on the banks of the Mother Ganges.


The burning ghat: Manikarnika

To my great surprise, after a couple of days, and by the smallest of increments, I notice I am acclimating to the impossible cacophony of Varanasi, where the sacred rises from the filth. I think what better place to experience the dissolution of edges than here. It’s not a place I would wish to occupy on a permanent basis, but it’s a good reminder that the comparative sterility of the developed world (even the Indian developed world) is a combination of sophisticated technological masking and (as we well know) the illusion of being able to banish the costs of that development. Our shit is getting in our way. Here, that truth is literal.

My tour started about 9:30 in the morning, going first to Sarnath, the place of Buddha’s first teaching, the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, and the location of a small but impressive museum housing the archeological remnants of Buddhist culture that existed before the Muslim invasion about 1000 years ago. The museum is only 100 years old, holding a collection of Buddhist statuary dating from the 4th to the 10th century. It’s impressive. I stayed long enough to cool off.

The rest of the day was spent visiting a collection of the most important temples in Varanasi. It was a Sunday, so the streets were thankfully much less crowded than they would be on a weekday, but it is also a Shiva festival time this month, so there were big crowds at the temples.


Shiva and girlfriend (one of many)

Varanasi tour 1

Photography is not permitted inside, but I visited a beautiful Durga temple in which women make offerings to the goddess Durga,


a monkey temple of Hanuman that was even more crowded than either of the first two, monkeys roaming the grounds fed daily with offerings of beans and bananas, and in which hoards, I mean ten deep, men and women separately, pushing and shoving to get to the altar and touch their clutch of flowers (marigolds and roses) and leaves to the stone so they can return home with blessings to share.

Varanasi 3


The best and last temple was a thoroughly modern chamber of coolness. I mean literally, the entryway was an arch-covered stairway with fans spraying cooling water. At the top, one enters a chamber filled with flowered decorations on the walls and ceiling.


Varanasi tour 2

Yes, a real person.

The centerpiece was a shallow rectangular pool with fountains around the inside perimeter. The walkways, the central pool and the displays on the periphery are bordered by blocks of ice. The floor is awash with an inch of chilly water from the melting. There are chandeliers made with flowers and rolled currency, wall decorations made with flowers and more rolled currency, ceiling decorations made with, you guessed it, flowers and…money. It is seriously hot out, like 90, with high humidity, so this was the most refreshing, aromatic and, well, also the most seriously crowded “temple” of all. A special occasion. Hinduism with a touch of Disney.

Neighborhood shrines?…Or London phone booths? You decide.


Ma boyz at the barber shop.

Note: many photos from my first week in India, especially the tour day, were lost when my computer crashed.





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Ganden & Norbulakhang


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