While Delhi woke up
As a country, India has turned the fast-forward button on. The country’s growth has led to some very busy days for very busy bodies. You’d see this especially in the bigger cities like Delhi or Mumbai. We who stay in the city stop to think about how the city has grown and where the city’s roots lie. The pleasures of walking around or roaming around the boulevards of a city were the first ones to have cut down upon as we started working on weekends and weekdays. Whatever little time was left after all this, was spent recuperating at home from our hectic lifestyles.
But when Tanuja, Rajesh, Sumit, Rahul and I decided to take one wintry morning by its horns, it led to some very interesting experiences. Of course, this was a recce for a trip that is due to be organised this Sunday (18th Jan 2015). But this didn’t stop us from exploring some of the finer nuances of the city.
Our trip started off on Ashoka Road towards the India Gate. Ashoka Road is lined with Jamun – or black plum trees. Jamun has been a widely popular shade tree and its fruit has been used in indigenous medicine to cure diabetes, dysentry and problems with the spleen. It is used as a tonic and is also a preferred part of the diet of jackals and other omnivorous animals. The bark yields a durable brown dye.
Ashoka Road itself, was part of Lutyen and the Empire’s grand plan of Delhi in 1931. Some of these roads had been given Indian names since the time in part to alleviate the growing nationalism of the time. Today, more than 60 years after the transfer of power, the road is known for housing the headquarters of the party that now forms the government, as well as some very economical, delectable and potentially limitless cuisine from Telangana.
Ashoka the Great, after whom the road is named, ruled over the entirety of India between 304-232 BCE. This was a step away from most of the others who restricted themselves to North or South of the Deccan Plateau. From one holding weapons, Ashoka turned into one holding a branch of the fig tree after the conquest of Kalinga – a powerful kingdom in Eastern India – that left hundreds of thousands dead and even more injured. The Emperor then adopted Buddhism as the official religion and spread a uniform civil code and peace. He even sent emissaries to Sri Lanka and South-East Asia and was one of the prime reasons of the growth of Buddhism there.
Ashoka is also one of the reasons for the cow being considered “holy”. While Indians were beefeaters before, the advent of Buddhism and its philosophy of “harm no being” promoted vegetarianism to an extent. India was also primarily an agrarian economy and the cow was more useful (ploughing the soil and giving milk) alive than dead. These two factors combined to shifting India away from beef at that time.
We cycled down this broad and beautiful avenue with manicured lawns towards India Gate – one of the icons of New Delhi. Built in 1911, the complex serves as two war memorials. The gate or the arch itself is dedicated to the 70,000 Indian soldiers who died during World War I. Underneath the arch is the Amar Jyoti or Eternal Flame that commemorates the soldiers who died during the war between India and Pakistan in 1971. A soldier stands guard over the flame at all times and the shift changes every 2 hours. When we had reached, the bugle was being sounded and the change of guard was taking place. As civilians who were born after ’71, it would have been difficult for us to relate to this war – had it not been to these memorials that held testimony to those testing times.
It is also by coincidence that we saw the National Cadet Corps practicing their Republic Day March. Liveried young men and women marching in tune always are a sight to see and the parade was testament to the discipline and training imparted to students of schools and universities.
At the corner where Ashoka Road turns into the road surrounding India Gate lies Hyderabad House – a lavish residence built for by Edward Lutyens for the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Nizam of Hyderabad was rumored to be the richest man in the world at the time and spent nearly GBP 200,000 on this residence. The intent was to have the a grand building. But Lutyens did not want the building to be bigger than the Viceregal House (the current Presidential Palace). Houses of the various princes were built around Princes’ Park at that time. The Princes’ Park now houses the India Gate. The rulers of the princely states wanted to stay closer to the Viceregal Palace. But the British Colonial Government wasn’t very comfortable with that. Eventually, the Nizam did not like the architecture and did not stay long at the Hyderabad House. Today, it hosts official banquets for visiting dignitaries.
From India Gate, we cycled past the Supreme Court of India and the lower court of Patiala House and down the Imli or Tamarind tree lined roads of Tilak Marg. Every street name has a history behind it and Bal Gangadhar Tilak was one of the first leaders of the Independence movement. Born in Maharashtra, he is known for the power he wielded with the pen and his role in the Indian National Congress and the Indian Home Rule Movement.
From Tilak Marg, we move down to Feroz Shah Kotla – at once the site of a famous much-visited cricket ground and the site of a Fort that isn’t visited much. Feroz Shah Tughlaq built it in 1354 as part of the new capital of India, Ferozabad. Feroz Shah Tughlaq was part of the Delhi Sultanate – whose other notable monument was the Qutub Minar. This Fort though, is known for 3 things:
- As a citadel during the time. It housed the mosque, alcoves to stay in and reinforcements
- As a place where an Ashoka pillar was brought and kept. Ashoka pillars were a set of pillars that were commissioned by Emperor Ashoka and laid down a civil code for the citizens. When brought by Feroz Shah to the fort, no one knew what they meant. Only 500 years in 1837 laterdid James Princep translate the inscription. One of the dictats was the planting of fig trees along major roads for shade. It would have been fitting then, had fig trees been planted along Ashoka Road. Of course, this wasn’t part of the British arboculturist’s plan.
- As a place where people come to talk to Djinns (ghosts) and pray for their wishes to be granted. While these activities happen at night, you would see flowers left as offerings and candles left as remnants of the rituals.
They say there are 7 cities in Delhi. Cycling from Ashoka Road, we have covered 2 of them – New or Lutyens’ Delhi and Ferozabad. We were now heading to a third and popular city of Delhi. Shahjahanabad is now better known as Old Delhi or Chandni Chowk and its environs.
While I was getting a bit hungry and impatient to gorge on some delicacies at our very own Champs-Elysees on our very own Tour de France, Sumit was more keen on exploring a bit more. We stopped at a Bird Hospital that is part of a complex that included a Jain temple as well. Jainism, like Buddhism, preaches that no species should be harmed. One of the differences though, is that Jainism is strict-er about it.
The Bird Hospital serves as a rescue center for injured and neglected birds. When we were there, a peahen was enjoying the heat from a radiator after having undergone a tumour operation. The two narrow corridors were line with injured shikras, crows, or chirping budgerigars and lovebirds. It is interesting to see how clean the place was in spite of the fact that most of the services there were voluntary.
We turned left into the famous 400-year-old Chandni Chowk built by Shah Jahan’s daughter. Originally, there was a water chanel running through the middle of the avenue reflecting moonlight or Chandni at night. We cycled down the lanes past old shops, legendary sweetshops and saree showrooms to our piece of heaven – the delectable breakfast at Mahalakshmi.
Mahalakshmi has been around longer than most of its patrons would remember and specialises in food fried and cooked in pure ghee (clarified butter). Do leave your calorie counters outside as a mark of respect to the place. The puris (puffed bread) and the vegetables were a treat and so were the Jalebis (pan fried white flour mixed with yoghurt and saffron and soaked in sugar syrup). We didn’t complain about the chai either.
Indian cities are quite unlike any in the way that they are cosmopolitan. The mixing of the old and the new, the way new adapts to the old, the way in which both are interesting, all make for very interesting stories. In this age when marketing is all about storytelling, it is a luxury to have such cities tell their own stories. All you need to do, is explore them. Hug the city and it will open up to you – showing you colours that you would have never seen before. I have been staying in Delhi for more than 5 years now – and it does not cease to surprise me.