Red Fort, Jama Masjid
After a wonderful, restoring sleep, I woke up this morning to a sunny Delhi morning, and this time I could definitely notice a grayish haze in the air, even though there were no clouds.
My main objective for today was to visit the Red Fort, Delhi’s main attraction, a sprawling 16th century Mughal fortress with many historical buildings inside.
I decided to brave walking to the fort, as it’s supposedly less than 20 minutes from my hotel -and sure enough, geographically it’s not that far but it’s more work than it would be back home, having to navigate narrow sidewalks teeming with people, occasionally having to find a way to cross a giant six-lane road with no lights anywhere…
Eventually I spotted the red walls of the fort, and from there I just followed them until Lahori Gate, the main entrance, where I found out that it’s the entrance but not where tickets are sold. What the Lonely Planet guide fails to mention is that first you have to buy your ticket (970 rupees for foreigners, including the museums, or €12.30) at the ticket booth in Delhi Gate, which is all the way on the south side, which is where I came from in the first place! Sigh. So anyway, I walked down there, found that the queues are conveniently divided in four categories (Indian gents, Indian ladies, Special Assistance, and Foreign Tourists) with only two people in my line, so I was able to quickly buy my ticket and walk all the way back to the entrance.
Here, there was a giant sign explaining that no bags, bottles or items of any kind were allowed inside, so I transferred my wallet, sunglasses and hat out of my backpack to be able to leave it in consignment -except the guy at the consignment booth looked at my small backpack, said “That’s okay” and waved me away. And indeed I was allowed in with my bag. Not gonna complain!
It was fairly crowded inside, but the complex is so large that people could scatter so it was fine (you just have to accept that there will be strangers in your pictures!). Take a look at this picture I took later on, you can see all the terrain inside the red walls:
There is no one central building inside the fort, rather a variety of pavilions, residences, baths, a mosque… all peppered across expansive gardens. There’s an elephant gate (so called because at the time visitors would come riding elephants and park them there) right across the entrance, and then a building that forms an archway. After that it’s more freeform as to what to visit. On the Eastern side there’s a series of beautiful, white marble pavilions, which served as residences for the rulers and their families. The inlaid decorations are beautiful, and the successive arches and columns are evocative of a time long past. There’s one canal that connects several of these residences; I learned that running water was used as an air conditioner of sorts, to lower the temperatures in summer. It was a pity that it was dry: imagine the splendor of these gardens with the trickling of water and fountains everywhere!
In fact, although the buildings were rather well preserved for how old they are, I found myself wishing they had been restored, as the stone had lost its luster and some were closed to the public (like the stairwell).
To the other side are the two museums, one dedicated to the Indian struggle for independence. Housed in rather hideous Western buildings (formerly the British barracks), the latter recounts the suffering of India during World War I (where it was forced to fight for the UK, as it was still a colony) and the protests and rebellions that followed to regain its independence. The displays here were predictably nationalistic, although the oppression of colonialism fully merits the outrage -and war museums are nationalistic everywhere, as you can tell by going to the Imperial War Museum in London and seeing how positively giddy they are about the Falklands war. The collection is pretty much nonexistent, all the displays are just text, but it was informative and most touching were examples of letters from Indian soldiers writing to their families from the European front.
Lastly, there are gardens to the north, but it’s mostly just lawn and ruins so I just took a cursory look. There’s a stepwell, this classic Indian staple which is a water reservoir with crisscrossing stairs, but it was closed to the public with a fence. I saw an Indian guide and his group walk out of the stepwell and past the fence, but I thought that’s the kind of thing where if I try it I’ll get yelled at by a security guard…
It was past noon and I felt I’d seen everything there was to see in the fort, so I said goodbye and walk out into Chandni Chowk, a big central avenue. The rickshaw touts outside were relentless, and kept following me even while I ignored them resolutely, so I made a show of dodging them and crossing away from them -they won’t make the effort of running after you. This avenue is busy in the best of times, but now construction on the main road has reduced the space to the narrowest of sidewalks; walking here was insufferable, so I turned away at the first opportunity and walked down to Jama Masjid, Delhi’s grandest mosque.
Indians can walk into the mosque for free, but foreigners have to pay 300 rupees (3.8€) for a “camera pass”, i.e. the right to take pictures. You have to pay whether you take pictures or not, so just call it a ticket! You also have to take off your shoes; you can leave them by the gate, but I recommend taking them with you (75% for fear of having them stolen, 25% so you can leave from a different gate than the one you came in from).
Once inside the court, the view is more imposing than expected, with a grandiose façade with domes and minarets facing a large square with a foot bath in the middle. I tried to walk inside but it was closed for noon prayers; the guard at the entrance shooed me away and told me “Come back at two” (it was past one o’clock). This sounded suspicious to me -Muslim prayers don’t take that long- so I went online and saw that they reopened at 13:30. I decided to sit in the shade for a bit, and sure enough at half past one everyone filed out of the mosque and I could take a look at the prayer room. It’s not as impressive as the exterior might suggest, but worth a look if you’re already inside. I also took the chance to go up one of the minarets, which requires a separate 100 R ticket.
The climb was arduous, because you have to go up on the ramparts first and they’re very pebbly (remember you’re still shoeless), and then it’s a long climb up a very narrow, single spiral staircase. There’s no awnings, so whenever you cross someone going in the opposite direction, it gets very up close and personal! Eventually I made it to the top, and although the top of the minaret is also tiny (little more than a cage up a tower) the view really is spectacular. I always like to see cities from above, it helps put the travel into perspective. I could see the endless sprawl of the city, and also the walls of the Red Fort, which looked even bigger from here than from the inside. Did I really walk up and down that entire length multiple times?!
After gawking at the view for a minute, I climbed back down and left the mosque. Funnily enough, they had “cleaned” the floors of the exit, by hosing them down with water, which I guess was no big deal for barefoot people but I was wearing my socks and wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of either exposing my feet or wetting my socks (I ended up tiptoeing through on very long strides). While I was putting my shoes back on outside, an Indian man walked over and asked me for a picture. This happened already inside the Red Fort; at first I was super confused because I am very mistrustful of strangers in my best day, and moreso in places where scams are plenty (I’ve heard some locals will try to tell you stuff about the place you’re visiting and then try to charge you for their guide service), but in the end turns out they really just wanted to take a selfie of themselves with a white guy. I didn’t know what to do so I acquiesced. I am now in people’s holiday photos!
On the way back, it was about two thirty, so I stopped for lunch at Moti Mahal, a restaurant recommended on my guidebook, and had tandoori chicken with a mango lassi. This time I had my meal with rice, instead of scooping it up with bread the local way. I gotta say, not as good as my surprisingly solid hotel restaurant, but the curry was still good and it cleared my nose straight away! (Subpar mango, though)
I stopped at a convenience store, to buy dinner, because I have no intention of leaving the hotel again today. My legs need a rest! So I’ll have my afternoon tea and plan tomorrow’s plan. I’m thinking of going to New Delhi and its sights, such as Humayun’s Tomb. Let’s see!