New Delhi: Colour in the chaos

By Liz Light

A changing of the guards ceremony is held near Parliament House. Photo / Liz Light
A changing of the guards ceremony is held near Parliament House. Photo / Liz Light

The sound of a military band joins my dreams then tugs me from sleep. I pull back the curtains. Sun burns through morning mist, women do laundry on rooftops, bee-like yellow and black auto-rickshaws buzz along the road below but, mostly, I look down on to the crown of huge leafy trees. There is nothing military in sight, but the band plays on.

My friend Kath and I follow our ears down Man Singh Rd while the band gets louder and is joined by the low-toned slap of marching feet. Man Singh crosses Rajpath (King's path) and here a regiment of golden-turbaned soldiers emerges from the mist; a past-century vision in soft focus.

The band stops, the soldiers lay down their guns then sit cross-legged on the closed road in orderly lines. They shut their eyes, raise their faces to the sun, join thumb and index finger into a circle and chant Om, long, slow, deep and in unison.

Rajpath is a 4km ceremonial avenue linking Parliament House to the National Stadium, a venue for some of the Commonwealth Games, and India Gate is a massive marble war memorial halfway along it.

It's part of Edwin Lutyens' vision for New Delhi, which was, George V decreed, in 1911, to replace Kolkata as the capital of India. Lutyens had talent, space, Imperial pounds and a grand vision and Delhi-ites have him to thank for wide tree-lined boulevards, intersecting roundabouts, parks, fountains and footpaths.

Parliament House, flanked on each side by the secretariat buildings, rises above the road in Victorian grandeur. The buildings, oversized, and reeking of colonnaded splendour symmetrically stand around a large square. The scene is spacious, surreal and strangely devoid of people. Where are the 13 million or so who supposedly live in Delhi?

We watch agog when a Gurkha regiment, with white puttees and pith hats perched at a natty angle, marches from between buildings and indulges in a bugle-blowing flag-changing ceremony. This is followed by a theatrical changing of the guards. Immaculately groomed and matching horses are ridden by immaculately groomed and matching men. Each wears a Romanoff-style red double-breasted tailcoat, a turban whose end is starched to stand upright, polished knee-high boots and white gloves. They carry a staff holding the Indian flag.

Five minutes of military dressage follows, the guard is changed, the intricate wrought-iron gates to Parliament House are closed and the pageantry is over. A Gurkha, whose job is keeping the small crowd gathered behind a golden rope, says the ceremony is held at 10.30am every Saturday. What luck. We are so jetlagged we hardly know what day it is.

But we do know it's shopping day and take an auto rickshaw to Connaught Circus; the heart of commercial New Delhi. A large circular park is the lynchpin of three equidistant ring roads and from the central circle seven radial roads fan out. The architect, not Luytens this time, had a grand time with a compass and ruler, exploring symmetry and balance but being there is confusing and lost-circle wandering can happen.

The lack of noteworthy landmarks doesn't help. All the buildings are two-storied, heavily colonnaded and Victorian. The formality of Bath fuses with the colour and craziness of India but once we get the hang of it, and the knack of politely sending off touts and beggars, we enjoy the full-on buzz and the upmarket shops and restaurants.

Quite a few of those 13 million people are here and, at times, I clutch Kath's arm to avoid losing her in the crowd. The wide footpath outside Regal Cinema is especially fun; a sea of people swarm in and out of the cinemas, hundreds of stall-holders squeeze together at the edges and finding a gap through the chaos is challenging. But the rewards around the corner, on Radial Rd 2, make it worth the effort.

Here, lined up in a row, the State Emporia offer paradise to those interested in Indian arts and textiles. Many of India's 28 states have an emporium filled with the arts, crafts and traditional textiles of that state. The variety of woven cloth, block-printed fabric, embroidery, brassware, jewellery, carving and basketware is a wonder to behold.

Jantar Mantar, an open-air observatory, where giant white and salmon-coloured stone structures sit elegantly amid lawn and palm trees provides a lull of calm and is only a block away. Constructed in 1725 by Jai Singh II, these colossal but elegantly sculptural pieces track the progress of the stars, mark the lunar and solar calendars and the moving shadow of the Prince of Sundials tells the time with extraordinary accuracy. These vast, majestic and artful devices were used to keep time in India while, in Europe, scientists laboured over little cogs and wheels.

There is no early-morning military band on Sunday and most shops are closed so we go to Lodi Gardens. A sign at the gate claims this as one of the world's most lovely urban parks. I wonder; it's fairly tired-looking. But it grows on me. Squirrels scamper along walls, a 500-year-old stone bridge reflects nicely in a lake, birds tweet in ancient trees, and neat lawns and formal flower gardens complement a backdrop of medieval monuments. An old tomb is capped with a large mogul dome, an unused mosque is cornered by four tall minarets and other ancient arched stone monuments are being admired.

Old men sit under trees and chat, fit folk jog, middle-aged folk stroll, families are picnicking, and young lovers flirt. Balloon sellers are moving apparitions of floating colour, the candyfloss seller has overdone pink and the pan seller has his mixings neatly laid out to quickly tailor-make a wad of pan for a chewer.

The sign reads true. This park is lovely and so are the people in it. It's a privilege to be here, with the people of Delhi, on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The traffic mayhem and fuggy air are forgotten and it's easy to see the beauty amid the crowds and organised chaos and become fond of New Delhi.

IF YOU GO

* Cathay Pacific flies Auckland to New Delhi every day via Hong Kong.

* Stay at The Taj Mahal Hotel where Mogul architecture in the lobby and gardens give the ambience of princely India. Centrally located, the hotel is within walking distance of many attractions.

- Herald on Sunday

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