We all jumped on the bus, working our way through a small gathering of women and children asking us for money – something that caught our attention but would with time would develop into an immunity. The well-known New Delhi Fog held strong during our time in the Indian capital. Despite the bus driver’s best attempts and repeated drive-by’s, we were unable to see much from the bus windows. We did, however, manage to see the gleaming faces of men as they haggled their way into being proud owners of some of the Sunday Market’s cheap goods. Sellers stood on tables and chairs to elevate their merchandise into the line of sight of potential buyers. Food vendors anxiously stirred pots of rice, the action simultaneously cooking and creating wafting spice-filled aromas into the hazy air.
Browns, oranges, yellows and reds parted ways as a glistening white bus the size of a semi truck slowly inched along the small streets. Much of the crowd to stopped to stare as if a Bollywood star were gliding down the red carpet rather than a tourist bus. Waves crossed through the bus’s window panes, and we each left the Sunday Market without having spent a single rupee, something that would’ve been impossible to say, had our guide decided to stop and let us wander!
Stretching our legs, we filed off the bus at Jama Masjid Mosque, a red sandstone mosque completed in 1656. Arriving with a few minutes to spare before Call to Prayer, we found India’s largest mosque churning with a mixture of tourists and worshippers, and more birds than people combined. We walked briskly through the open square within the mosque’s gated walls, and made our exit just as the pair of minarets sounded an afternoon prayer.
A trip of two kilometers can take ten times longer than expected if traffic decides to let it. Our next stop was Raj Ghat, a large open park marking the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation following his assassination in 1948. In the park’s center, an eternal flame burns in a vibrant orange, surrounded on either side by carnations of the same hue and set upon large contrasting marble slabs. Had I visited the tomb alone, several hours would’ve easily been spent absorbing the tranquility of a space surrounding Gandhi’s life and attainments. Places like this are powerful in their own right, and tell stories without muttering a word. Since his birth nearly 150 years ago, his voice has inspired populations worldwide. From his lifelong works encouraging India’s freedom to his inspirational quotes, Gandhi’s voice remains just as powerful today as it did when the public was able to hear it with their own ears.
Waving goodbye to Gandhi’s memorial and the slews of school children visiting alongside us, we relocated to a touristic yet authentic Indian restaurant for lunch. Waiters made room inside for our large crowd and we patiently waited outside. The smooth flute-like sound of a pungi drifted to our listening ears, bringing our attention to the far corner of the restaurant’s lot where a man dressed in tan linen, a brown suit coat and a matching mala sat on the ground playing the wooden instrument. Atop his head was wrapped a red turban, and lying in front of him was a basket made from woven reeds. As he continued to play, a small head peaked out from the basket’s opening. We stood in awe as the head darted in and out, and eventually reached sky high, revealing the full body of a cobra dancing to the hypnotic melody of his snake charmer. Several of us stood in disbelief, contemplating whether the snake was real or simply a toy created to draw in gullible tourists such as ourselves. While we stood, one of the women of our group separated herself and sat next to the charmer to get a closer look. The snake charmer willingly grasped the slithering creature’s head and pulled it from the basket, revealing a snake larger than we’d imagined could fit inside its homely tub.
After succumbing to the smells and tastes of tandoori chicken, dal fry, and paratha which wafted outside and proved strong enough to pull us away from the one-man show, we all loaded our bellies with a seated buffet. Throughout the trip, these types of buffets were often the most convenient and satisfying way to get a full meal. We would stay seated, while waitstaff brought in a few dishes at a time, and we each helped ourself. If we ran out or really enjoyed a particular dish, they’d simply replace the empty dish with one full of steaming hot goodness.
Bellies full, we boarded the bus and continued to our final adventures of the day. The Qutb Minar beckoned us with its multi-tiered stature towering 73 meters high above the surrounding grounds. Incorporating both Islamic and Hindu cultures into the designs, the minaret was created with both red sandstone and marble. The sandstone itself is said to have come from ruins of a city which once laid in its place nearly a millennium ago. As my knowledge of the Islamic religion grows, I wonder if perhaps the five tiers of the Qutb Minar are symbolic of the Five Pillars of Islam. If not, perhaps other connections might be made, and I imagine they’d be of utmost importance to New Delhi’s Muslim population. As tourists, we found the open spaces surrounding the Qutb minar, the stone buildings and the mosque (said to be the oldest mosque in all of India!) to provide a grand contrast with the bustling of tourists. In the starting of a ritual, we separated into smaller groups there, and began to learn more about each other as we explored. “Those first day of school jitters are finally starting to wear off…”
Barefoot we walked up the stairs to our final destination. The ice cold marble bit at the soles of our feet as we tiptoed up the glossy stairs toward a building cloaked with lemon chiffon and wine. Before us, bathed in golden hued lights stood the Laxminarayan Temple, a magnificent Hindu temple with white room upon starkly white room decorated in marigolds and echoing the sounds of ritualistic prayers. Cameras were not allowed inside, which made it that much more captivating and memorable. As we entered the main room, we were serenaded with nearly fifty voices chanting the evening Aarti in synchronicity. Each voice belonged to a beautiful soul whose eyes stayed fixed on a being in front and whose feet stood on top of their neighbors in an effort to stay within the boundaries of a burlap cloth, a shield from the bone chilling flooring.
Equally important in everyday life as when traveling, each day should be remembered with one cherished event. On this particular day, the bow was placed on top of the day’s perfectly wrapped present just as it were nearing its end. While many of us busily moved about the main rooms of the Laxminarayan Temple examining small shrines dedicated to Laxmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, one of our tour mates was exploring elsewhere within the temple. Walking briskly back, he caught our attention and motioned for us to follow him. Three of us took note and quickly walked across one of the glistening balconies and into another room. Here, kneeling in silence and strict concentration, was a single man. His peacefulness filled the room and was as stunning a site to see as to feel. This was our day’s bow: an articulately draped ribbon placed upon an already perfect day. Three of us, one of him, and the voices of the evening’s Aarti seeping in from a room nearby.