Last day in Delhi. Last day in India!
Today I took an Uber to a place I’d meant to visit last time, but which was closed: the National Museum!
The first impression isn’t great, because it occupies a rather old and ugly building -uglier still inside, white walls with green white tiles that scream “government building where you need to take a number and wait for an hour to do paperwork”. Plus, like all stations and airports and the metro and most museums, they have this stupid security system where they make you put your bag in an X-ray scanner, then go through a metal detector, and regardless of whether the metal detector beeps or not, the security guard does a patdown of every single person. It’s so inefficient!!
But: the collection is absolutely worth the visit. I spent nearly two hours inside, and several galleries were closed for renovations (including, alas, the Jewelry vault -longtime readers know I like exhibits of shiny things!).
The greatest asset of the museum is its collection of sculptures, of which there are several galleries’ worth. Most of them seemed to date from the 10th through 12th centuries AD, although they also have a section on prehistoric artifacts. Most of the statues and bas-reliefs depict Hindu and Buddhist figures, some in astonishing detail for being a thousand years old. Others were decorated pillars and friezes.
My favorite room was dedicated to bronze statues. The room itself was nicer and less desolate, plus the statues (from around the 16th century I think) were incredible in their refined elegance. Most notably, they have the Nataraja, an enormous bronze cast of Shiva as the Lord of Dance. There are many depictions of Shiva as Nataraja, but this is one of the most iconic. It is much larger than you’d think:
It depicts Shiva, who is the god of Destruction as part of the cycle of death and rebirth of the universe, dancing over the corpses of vanquished demons. The position of his hands (all four of them) and legs is graceful and serene, belying the significance of each mudra (hand gesture) and the overall context of the piece. It is so beautiful, and also kind of imposing, which is surely the intention. There were also many bronze casts of Buddha and different bodhisattvas (something akin to saints: people who are within reach ot attaining buddhahood).
Other halls were less interesting: there’s a fairly big gallery of small paintings, but they blend together after a while, and others on coins and maritime instruments were pretty dire. I was surprised to see, though, a special exhibition sponsored and curated by the French Library (hello!) about India as seen by France. It’s funny how jarring the contrast was between this exhibition and the others: I could immediately tell that it was Western, just something about the graphics and the way the information is displayed looked exactly like the museums back in Europe.
By the time I was done checking out all the galleries (there are three floors! I shouldn’t complain about the closed rooms… although I would have liked to see the armory) it was past noon, so I took an Uber to drop me off at Connaught Place. I didn’t know which address to put, so I used the Jantar Mantar, which is right next to it. I had no intention of actually visiting, but when I saw myself standing right on its doorstep, I said… well, why not?
There’s really not a lot to see, so definitely don’t come here just for this, but it’s an odd place: in the 18th century, the king ordered the construction of several structures meant to work as an observatory. Don’t ask me how exactly, but the buildings are shaped in a way that the sun and the moon cast shadows on specific markings that can be used to measure their position and inclination. Sounds like magic!
I took a short walk from there to Connaught Place, and I was reminded of what a chaotic place it is. It’s packed with people, including the usual annoying men who want to help -including shoeshines, who offered their services to me, while I was wearing sneakers. I ignored all of them but two were especially persistent and kept wanting me to go to the tourist information board (the thing is, in India you can never be sure that a tourist information center is in any way official, as most as just private shops wanting to sell tickets to tourists). One told me that I shouldn’t go down the street I was following because “it’s dangerous and there are beggars who will steal your phone”. I looked down the street and saw one young Indian woman walking alone, phone in hand. I took my chances. It was fine, of course, it’s more upscale than other streets.
Wading through the hordes of people stressed me out, but I wanted to check several stores to do my final shopping. I also wanted to eat; I walked into Haldiram’s, as recommended by the guidebook, but found it too authentic for me: it’s one of those canteens where you have to tell people how you want your order and they make it for you, and I had no clue where to even begin to know how to compose a menu there, so I walked right back out and merrily went to the pizza shop next door. That’s right! I’m not ashamed! Hilariously, when they gave me my order, the waiter brought it to me and showed me the receipt, pointed out the name Martin on it (I had to give my name like at a Starbucks) and asked me, “Name?” I said, “…Martin” to which he said “All right! Here you go”. It was my order all right, and I was the only white guy in the restaurant, but still as far as security measures go I think I see flaws in this one!
After lunch I headed over to Naturals right to the side, the ice cream place, and had myself a mango ice cream that was okay but sadly nowhere near as good as the one I had in Jaipur. I am so glad I went for seconds! Connaught Place, you are not winning me over.
For the afternoon, I hit the spots I had saved on the map. I checked out Oxford Bookstore, an extremely hipsterrific bookstore with lots of people hanging out at the cafe but only me browsing the few books they have. One cool thing: they have French and Spanish-language sections curated by each countries’ language institutes. I poked my nose into Khadi’s, which is kind of a general store that I didn’t like very much. I also double-dipped into a Fabindia, which was bigger than the one I went to in Varanasi: I got myself a beautiful cushion cover and some organic Darjeeling tea. I may not have been able to squeeze Darjeeling in this trip, but at least I’ll get to drink the tea!
Lastly, I walked south of Connaught Place (the horror, navigating the radial crossings of the circle, every block a new subterranean crossing or a crowded corner) to the strangely named Central Cottage Industries Emporium, which is a giant souvenir shop of all things India. It’s kind of like the Oriental Bazaar in Japan, only less fancy. The quality is not mind-blowing, but it’s cheaper than other places, and with its five levels at least you’re sure to find what you’re looking for. I was able to fulfill my very last outstanding omiyage needs here. All in all, for Indian crafts, I say Fabindia is the way to go.
One downside of the emporium is its inexplicably archaic purchase system: you see, you might think that you can pick an item, take it somewhere, pay for it, and then walk out with it. You’d be mistaken! When you have picked something you want to buy, you have to take it to a desk in that floor, where they will take it from you (!) and give you a receipt. So if you want to buy anything else, you go check with your receipt and maybe get more receipts that way! Then, when you’re done, you have to go to the ground floor to the payment desk, and show all your receipts, and pay there.
I gave the clerk my receipts, and took a box of tea that was on display right there. “These receipts, and this tea, please”, I said. “For the tea, you need to get your receipt”, the man said. So I had to take my tea, walk over *to the desk that was right there next to him*, hand over my tea, get its corresponding receipt, then walk over to the previous desk to pay for it. Then, once all was paid, I had to take one different receipt over to the pickup counter, where they handed over all the things I’d picked up. Does this make sense to you? Is there any universe in which this is the most efficient way to run a shop?
Anyway… that’s more or less it for my afternoon. Connaught Place is a hellhole, but I got to buy all the things I wanted. I came back to the hotel, to pack and prepare for my flight back to Paris tomorrow.
This completes my trip to India. It’s been exhausting, and I can’t wait to get back home, but in terms of stress and hardships, it’s honestly not as bad as people seem to think, or as I was warned before I came. I wasn’t mugged, or pickpocketed, or scammed, at any point in the past two weeks; ripped off, as in paying more than I should have, well, sure! But that’s inevitable, and amounting probably to a few euros. I didn’t even get food poisoning. For sure India should not be your first visit to a developing country: it is definitely harder than Vietnam, Thailand or Cambodia; but after having been there, this was one step further, manageable. And while I can’t wait to breathe clean air and walk the streets alone and just be quiet, I’ve also enjoyed incredible experiences. The Taj Mahal alone was worth the trip, seeing Varanasi was unreal, I learned so much from walking ancient royal palaces… and the food! Curry has been ruined for me, the way Japan ruined sushi forever. Maybe I should stop traveling to countries whose food I like.
That’s a wrap for this trip. Where shall we go next?