New Delhi: Everything I feared and hoped India would be

Jennie Maydew is a junior Art major and is spending one semester in Hyderabad, India.

[Originally posted August 23, 2013]

New Delhi is an area in the city of Delhi and the capital of India. With 22 million residents, Delhi is the fourth-largest city in the world and the largest in India in terms of area. It’s a modern metropolitan city with a punctual metro system and a bustling, busy population. Its architecture and city layout is heavily influenced by the British and the city as a whole differs from Hyderabad greatly. Ambitiously we chose our destinations, and in three days we did Delhi!

In sum, New Delhi was the manifestation of the image of India I had before coming here. It was everything I feared and hoped India would be. Tight and crowded streets lined with shops and homes above them, markets overflowing with people and goods, bicycle rickshaws whipping through the streets. Dirt and dust, color and texture, noise and odor. From spending a few days there the only conclusion that I could draw is that Delhi is a fascinating place.

We stayed four nights in Delhi on the topmost floor of a hotel tucked behind a series of alleyways. Travel publications accurately labeled the area around our hotel a ‘tourist ghetto.’ One of the strangest things about Delhi was to see tourists everywhere (Hyderabad isn’t frequented by many outsiders). Seeing another foreigner is like looking in a mirror, and it really puts my image in perspective. Because New Delhi is a popular destination for tourists, the locals are determined on pushing tourist scams. I’m proud to say never once did we fall for any, but these acts were much more apparent than they are in Hyderabad, and became irritating quickly.

Lotus Temple

Lotus Temple

Our first day in Delhi we arrived early in the afternoon and took the clean and efficient metro to the Baha’i House of Worship. Also called the Lotus Temple, this non-denominational place of worship offers a silent interior space for meditation or prayer, and was nestled around greenery and tranquil pools. Its architecture reminds me of the Sydney Opera House. Afterward we took the public bus to Dilli Haat, a crafts and cultural market. Bargaining at Dilli Haat is critical, especially because tourists are notorious for succumbing to bloated prices. We’ve learned a lot from bargaining at markets in Hyderabad, and regularly get items for less than half of the original offer. But because New Delhi’s markets have so many tourists, the vendors are reluctant to lower their prices, knowing another tourist will come along and pay the price the vendor wants. You never know how far your bargaining skills will get you, but there’s usually another shop down the way selling the exact same product if you don’t get the price you hoped for.

Dried fruits piled high in Khari Baoli; the numbers are the price per kilogram in rupees

Dried fruits piled high in Khari Baoli; the numbers are the price per kilogram in rupees

While in New Delhi we visited the Crafts Museum, a destination I couldn’t leave without visiting. The textiles there were stunning—ikat, brocade, bandhani (tie-and-dye), block prints, embroideries, and kalamkari tapestries that lined entire walls. It was all so beautiful that I took a hundred photos until the staff told me it wasn’t allowed. Oops! Although it was amazing to purely look, almost nothing in the museum was labeled, so it’s difficult to put into context most of what I saw. I’ll be researching Indian textiles for my independent study, so I hope to learn more about the pieces I saw in the museum.

One of the oldest markets in India, Chandni Chowk was a must-see for our Kate, Rhia, Romi, and I. This market has smaller, more specific markets within it that separate off into alleyways. Khari Baoli, the spice market within Chandni Chowk, is a fragrant and vibrant row of spices, herbs, teas, dried fruits, nuts, and specialty foods. It lends itself to some of the most picturesque images of abundant piles of herbs and spices. We rode in a cycle rickshaw around the marketplace to truly experience Chandni Chowk’s colorful and chaotic glory.

On our last full day in Delhi we visited Humayun’s Tomb, a major landmark of the city and one that Obama visited during his stay in New Delhi in 2010. I had difficulty seeing its grandeur, however. Compared to the well-preserved monuments of Agra, the monuments in Delhi appear in much worse condition. Though beautiful from a distance, Humayun’s Tomb was dirty and dilapidated, especially in the interior. There appeared to be some restoration project going on where laborers on scaffolding were casually repainting the building, which seemed sacrilegious and controversial to me. While in Delhi we also toured the Red Fort, which was in a similar state of decay. Some buildings in the complex appeared neglected and in the process of deteriorating, and there didn’t appear to be any plan to remedy this. The condition of these monuments was a sharp contrast to the protected and pristine conditions in which we view historical monuments and artifacts in America. Seeing Humayun’s Tomb and the Red Fort was an uncomfortable area for me to navigate knowing the amazing history behind these sorry structures.

Romi, Rhia, Kate, and me at Humayun’s Tomb

Romi, Rhia, Kate, and me at Humayun’s Tomb

In addition to the above places, we also visited a Tibetan area and a Muslim area situated within Delhi. It was interesting to see the mix of cultures in one city, and how these two places could differ so greatly. The Tibetan area was an oasis in the midst of the bustling city, with quiet shops and calm people. The Muslim area, also called Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin, was a series of narrow alleys winding among tall buildings. We toured this neighborhood with the Hope Project, a nonprofit that provides resources for families and individuals who live in this extreme poverty area.

Some things make more sense after visiting Delhi; I gained a lot of perspective, mostly about India but also about the world and the people in it. I gained a lot of questions, too. We’ll actually be returning to Delhi the first weekend in October with CIEE. There are a few places in Delhi I’d still like to see (like Qutb Minar) so I look forward to returning to this vibrant and intriguing city.