Sunday, October 16, 2011

India! North to Delhi

Parliament Building, New Delhi

Blog Entry #31: North to Delhi

Wednesday, October 13, 2011

Perhaps more than any other set of experiences during these four months, Pat and I have been looking forward to our 4 days in northern India in and around the sacred Ganges Rivers.  Tuesday night we gathered our group of 18 at the harbor, made our long and tortuous way through the Chennai traffic to the airport, and headed north the 1700 km to Delhi, India’s vibrant capital.

One arrives by air to Delhi through the Indira Gandhi International Airport, an impressive modern structure where passengers pass by a massive wall of mudra sculptures, the Hindu hand gestures.  A sprawling metropolis of close to 14 million, Delhi merges two cities: Old Delhi, the tightly packed ancient city that served as capital to Islamic India and its 300-year line of Mughal rulers, and New Delhi, spaciously laid out by the British with long boulevards and dominating colonial buildings, designed to be the British imperial capital of India.

Government buildings in New Delhi
India Gate, World War I memorial
But Delhi and northern India long predate both Islam and the British, with settlement in the Yamuna and Ganges River valleys going back several thousand years.  In fact, at one point I quipped to Pat that I will never again sympathize with American students complaining about sitting through U.S. history classes: that time period would make up less than 5% of India’s long and rich history!

Muslim family celebrating a return from the Haj
On our way into Delhi from the airport, we followed for several minutes a pickup truck full of celebrating Muslims.  Shyam, our guide, explained that they likely had just picked up a family member who had completed the Haj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.  For such occasions, he said, the entire extended family goes to the airport both to see off and to welcome back the pilgrim.  In fact, the terminal we entered is officially known as the "Haj Terminal."  They were a delight to see, and the children in particular waved and smiled at our bus of American pilgrims to India.

Humayun's Tomb
Basal Arches on Humayun's Tomb
Humayan's Tomb

In our short time in Delhi, we saw a bit of both old and new.  Particularly impressive is Humayun’s Tomb, built as a mausoleum to the Mughal ruler Humayun by his widow around 1565 CE.  Introducing Persian elements to India, such as its magnificent double dome, Humayun’s Tomb is perhaps best known today as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, which it predates by 100 years.  Similar to the Taj, one enters the grounds of Humayun’s Tomb through magnificent gateways in each of the 4 cardinal directions, that both frame and reveal the monument as you enter the lavish gardens in which it is set, inspired by visions of paradise in the Quran as a series of garden terraces.  Today the grounds provide an oasis of calm in the midst of Delhi’s nonstop energy.

Raj Ghat, site of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation
In quiet but inspiring contrast to both the British colonial buildings and the Mughal’s magnificent architecture is the Raj Ghat, a beautiful park built around the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, following his assassination in 1948.  Gandhi’s presence pervades northern India, and I was sorry we did not have more time to visit some of the museums and memorials set to honor this remarkable man, known throughout India as “the father of the nation.”

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