APTI, Day 15 – Tour Delhi, Drive to Agra

Our schedule for this day was to tour Delhi and then drive to Agra. We me met our guide at 9:00 in the morning and began what we anticipated would be a whirlwind tour. At least this guide was enthusiastic about his job, or faked it very well. At any rate, he was knowledgeable, reasonably articulate, and ebullient, which was a pleasant improvement over our guide in Munnar.

Qutb MinarThe tour began at Q’tab Minar, the tallest brick minaret in India and site of the oldest mosque in India. Q’tab Minar was built in stages over a period of some two hundred years by various Mughal kings. Over the next two days, I was struck by the irony that, in a country with thousands of years of Hindu history, the vast majority of the historical sites we visited were remnants of the 300 years or so of the invading Mughal dynasty. The mosque at Qutb Minar is interesting in that two of its exterior walls are actually remnants of an older Hindu temple. I found it more than curious that Muslims would retain this architecture in a mosque, particularly since the Hindu pillars were absolutely covered in engravings of Hindu mythology and iconography. Yet the only disfigurement the Mughal builders had inflicted on the pillars was to chisel off the female faces. I briefly thought that these must have been a very enlightened group of Moghul leaders, but later I discovered that historians believe the Moghuls destroyed at least twenty Jain temples which had previously occupied the site, and re-used the materials to build the Minar. So much for middle ages religious tolerance.

More pillars at Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque The Iron Pillar Arch detail

Hindu pillars at
Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque

The Iron Pillar,
framed by the arches of
Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque

Arch detail

But Qutb Minar is not a single edifice, but rather the most prominent feature in and entire complex, including ruins of the oldest mosque in India, the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque, and a 4th Century A.D. metallurgical wonder known simply as the Iron Pillar. The Iron Pillar has survived for over 16 centuries without suffering signifcant corrosion or rusting.

From Qutb Minar, we moved on to Old Delhi to view the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, capable of holding 2,200 to 2,500 worshippers. The mosque, commissioned in 1656 by Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, is an open-air courtyard surrounded by arched colonnades and fronted by the large, domed mosque proper. Unfortunately, there was no photography allowed within the mosque, so I will have to settle for some photos stolen from the Internet for this one.

Jama Masjid All mosques include a place for worshippers to cleanse before prayer.

View from inside the mosque

All mosques include a place to wash before prayer/worship.

We didn’t have a lot of time to spend at the mosque, since we arrived within minutes of morning prayers. Perhaps that was one of the most interesting things about the mosque, that it was still an active centre of worship.

From the mosque we moved on to more Mughal architecture, this time, the Tomb of Humayun, the earliest of the Mughal garden tombs and a precursor to the Taj Mahal. As an interesting counterpoint to the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb was commissioned by a wife (Hamida Banu Begum) to commemorate a fallen husband (Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor). I say “fallen” with a touch of irony, since Humayun, who had survived losing an empire and fighting fifteen years later to regain it, succumbed to far less noble demise – a fall he suffered while carrying an armload of books down a staircase.

View of the gate from inside the tomb. View of the gate and gardens from the tomb

Tomb of Humayun

View of the gate
from inside the tomb

The garden from
atop the tomb

The rest of our Delhi tour took on a rather bizarre, frenzied pace which had us questioning our sanity a bit. We drove past The Red Fort, while being prompted by our guide to “take a picture.” We drove past the Presidential Palace, with our guide once again admonishing us to take pictures on the run. We stopped by The Raj Ghat, the cremation site of Mahatma Ghandi, where our guide offered us the choice of viewing the site from above or from ground level. We chose the top-down view, which meant that we didn’t get within fifty meters of the memorial itself.

Why the rush? Well, in fairness to our tour organizer and to our guide, we only had the morning and a bit of the afternoon for touring Delhi, so some shortcuts were inevitable. This would not be the only time that we looked at our intinerary and failed to appreciate the rigors of travel time in India. To a couple of rubes from rural Saskatchewan, the ~200 Km drive from Delhi to Agra doesn’t look that strenuous. Even allowing for some less than perfect roads, that shouldn’t translate into much more than three hours, right? Nope. Our driver informed us we were in for a five hour ride, and that left us far less time in Delhi than we had anticipated.

The road from Delhi to AgraThis time the road wasn’t the problem, at least not in the way the serpentine, gut-sloshing jaunt from Cochin to Munnar had been. The road from Delhi to Agra is a proper highway, four lanes, divided. This time the delays arose from the traffic on the highway. I’m not speaking of North American style gridlock. No, this traffic has a uniquely Indian flavour: slow-moving trucks, tractors pulling wagons, auto rickshaws loaded beyond belief with human cargo, buses loaded beyond belief with human cargo, trucks loaded beyond belief with human cargo, bicycles, pedal rickshaws, carts pushed by humans, horse carts, ox carts, camel carts, yes, and even elephants. The road to Agra was nothing short of a marvel, a place where the 21st Century and the Middle Ages roll along side by side.

That’s the thing about India; just when I would think that I was beyond surprise, India would smack me upside the head with some stunner that forced me to confess, “Didn’t see that one in the tea leaves.”

I had seen rickshaws packed pretty tightly in Pune and thought I had some sense of a rickshaw’s physical limits. I didn’t have a clue. Now, granted, the Piaggo Ape rickshaws on the road to Agra are slightly bigger than the Bajaj models more common in Pune, but that difference doesn’t begin to account for the way that the people of northern India are able to cram bodies in, on and around a single rickshaw. Remember when you’re reading this that a rickshaw isn’t much bigger than a Smart Car and only has three wheels. Here’s the basic configuration for making the most of a rickshaw’s capacity (front to back):

  • Place three to four passengers on the driver’s seat with the driver.
  • Behind the driver is a cross bar. Place a board on this crossbar and then have four passengers sit on it, facing toward the back.
  • Place four adult passengers on the regular passenger seat, facing forward. Children can form a second layer here.
  • Open the back “window” and have four passengers sit in the window with their lags dangling out the back of the rickshaw.
  • Out of space? Not yet. Allow one or two passengers to ride on the canvas top of the rickshaw.
  • Or, have them gain any purchase they can for at least one foot and have them hang on to the roof to keep from tumbling off.

If you’ve been doing the math, that’s anywhere from sixteen to twenty people. And we didn’t just see that once; we saw it over and over again, for it would appear that, in this part of the country, rickshaws are used in the same way as tempo cars are in Pune, rather like a miniature bus that picks people up as it goes along, rather than a private, taxi service.

I had marvelled at the way that people packed on to the buses in Pune, so full that people were standing on the steps of the bus, hanging partially out the door.  But, in Pune, the people were at least in the bus; on the road to Agra, they were on the bus.  We passed busload after busload, with packed interiors, and stacked exteriors, at least forty or fifty people riding on the roof of the bus. Dump truck boxes would be packed so full of people that those on the outer edge had to link their arms to form a containment barrier to prevent everyone from spilling over the edges.

I had been bemused by the heards of goats and water buffalo that wandered the streets of Pune, but that never prepared me for the travelling menagerie on the road to Agra: ancient, two-wheeled carts  pulled by bedraggled little ponies, forelorn donkeys, lumbering dejected water buffalo, and lumpy camels.  Along the Pune-Mumbai expressway signs along the shoulder warn that bicycles, pedestrians, and ox carts are forebidden.  If the Delhi-Agra expressway implemented similar policies, two thirds of its traffic would disappear.

An enormous, beautiful Hindu temple graces the shoulder of the Delhi-Agra expressway near its half-way point.  On our return trip, the road was choked with throngs of worshippers and those shopping at the neighbouring markets, all numbering in the thousands.  Inching our way past the temple probably added half an hour to our travel time.

So it was, then, that 200 Km took us five hours, and we once again arrived at our destination with just enough time to squeeze in our supper meal before the hotel restaurant closed.

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