Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Delhi: City of relics ready for a new age

History and technology combine as Delhi upgrades its image, writes Audrey Young.

The Jama Masjid Mosque. Photo / Getty Images
The Jama Masjid Mosque. Photo / Getty Images

As we travel through Delhi, the roadsides are dotted with semi-apologetic signs - "Work in progress for better tomorrow".

They are there to foster positive thoughts in motorists and passengers frustrated by the huge infrastructure programme under way that is slowing traffic.

The high-speed efficient Metro is the pride of Delhi, the fourth-largest city in the world but one that has never quite achieved top city status. The city has risen and fallen and risen and fallen again - leaving, however, some magnificent monuments over the ages.

Delhi is charging into the 21st century, but with such speed that the lines between the traditional and modern can get a little blurred.

A renovation project proposed for the 17th-century Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi has recently been approved. Amazingly, the original plans included a basement shopping mall with 3000 shops and three levels of carparking beneath its vast forecourt.

Thankfully, the shopping mall was ruled out during my visit. Although there is palpable pride over the city's redevelopment, authorities deemed burrowing beneath a 17-century mosque to build a shopping centre a step too far. Amen to that.

The Jama Masjid mosque is a popular stop on any conventional tour of Delhi's historic buildings, but it is very much a living museum.

Our guide, Anand Bhawan, took us there early on a Friday about 9.30am because the doors are sometimes closed early to prepare for the thousands of Muslim men who gather there each Friday afternoon to pray.

Like shoes, vanity must be left at the door - for women visitors, anyway. We were required to wear an over-garment a bit like a surgical robe to cover up our bits that might offend, though it must be arguable which bits are more offensive to the eye.

Women visiting the Jama Masjid Mosque must cover up before entering. Photo / Audrey Young
Women visiting the Jama Masjid Mosque must cover up before entering. Photo / Audrey Young

The enormous courtyard is at least the the size of a rugby field and can hold up to 25,000 people.

We were told that begging was not allowed inside. You are allowed to take photographs but if you take pictures of mothers and their children, or kids chasing squirrels, expect to be pressed for a koha (20 rupees is about 60c).

The mosque is the biggest in India and is reminiscent of the Taj Mahal for good reason: it was built in the same era (1650 to 1656) by the same Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan.

The mosque is very near Delhi's Red Fort but if time for sightseeing is limited and something has to be dropped, I would drop the fort.

The sight not to miss is the Qutb Minar complex. What it's missing in vowels it makes up for in magic. I am ashamed to say that I tried to convince our guide to skip the Qutb Minar to take us shopping for famous instant tailoring but in a whistle-stop tour of five historic sights of Delhi, this turned out to be the most fascinating.

Qutb Minar dates to around 1200.
Qutb Minar dates to around 1200.

We got there about 5pm when the heat and light were subdued, and the green parakeets were playing among the pillars.

Building on the tapered 73m tower - now with a slight lean - began around 1200 as a monument of conquest by Qutb-ud-din-Aibak, and it is apparently of Afghan influence. Anand tells us it also features in an Adventures of Tintin book - the cartoon reporter visits the site during a stop-off on his way to Tibet.

The carved columns supporting the main courtyard near the tower are an exquisite surprise - and they are in your face. There are no ropes, no signs saying "don't hug the pillars"; you can literally rub up against the 13th century.

Whether that informality to antiquity is refreshing or negligent, I haven't decided. But there is so much history all around that it would be impractical to take a glass-case approach.

In his new book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, Delhi resident Sam Miller tells an amazing story of coming across the ruins of half an ancient mosque from the 14th century near his home that was opened up by construction work on a new water main.

He tried to interest conservationists but in vain. After returning from a trip to Europe, he found the thing had been bowled for a badminton and squash court for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Hosting those Games was about more than mere sport - it was a chance to show the city's brave new face to a world that has been reluctant to embrace it.

Beggars, hawkers and the possibility of being consigned to a grotty toilet for days are some of the things that have put off people.

But things are improving at a pace in India, from personal experience. On my visit of eight days of travel in a group of six, no one was ill and we came across no truly grotty toilets.

Our hotels had treated water and, although we drank bottled water, you could safely brush your teeth from the hotel taps with no ill-effects, as I did.

The beggars are not what they were, either. It was my second trip to Delhi and, compared with 11 years previously, there was a marked drop in the number of people whose feeble taps at the car window would make a Kiwi tourist feel uncomfortable.

As far as the hawkers go, they are not all bad. The peacock-feather fan I bought from a hawker outside Humayun's Tomb was not only beautiful but useful in the 28C heat, and cost only 350 rupees ($10), bartered down from a starting price of $14.50 for two. (However, on arrival at Auckland it did need declaring, confiscating, fumigating and courier-ing back to me at a total cost of about $20.)

A perpetual irritation and puzzle really is the tolerance of rubbish in the streets. That still offends Kiwi sensibilities, though that is also improving in many areas. As the saying goes, that is a work in progress for a better tomorrow.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has same-day connections from Auckland, via Hong Kong, to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

Details: Adventure World organises customised tours with your own driver. Phone 0800 238 368.

Further information: See incredibleindia.org.

Audrey Young visited Delhi as a guest of Cathay Pacific and Adventure World.

- NZ Herald

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