India’s Golden Triangle Part 1: Delhi – India’s Historical Capital
Arrival in Delhi
Our first stop in India’s Golden Triangle was Delhi. We touched down in Delhi at 9am. Many friends advised that Uber and Ola, India’s equivalent of Uber, is abundant and very economical. We ordered our Uber while waiting for our bags using the Wi-Fi in the terminal. Armed with our luggage, we exited the airport. An intense smell of smoke which originates from the thick smog that hugs Delhi immediately hit us. I should note that the Uber pick-up location is not as straight forward as the directions from the app. When exiting arrivals from the international terminal, cross the road and turn right. You’ll have a 7-minute walk to a multi-story car park to the pick up point. After a little dithering, we finally found our Uber driver and rode to our hotel located in Connaught Place (~15km). All for just ₹498, or roughly £5.
Although we arrived in the morning to our hotel, Le Meridien had our room ready upon arrival. Feeling grateful and incredibly jet lagged, we snuck in a couple of hours of sleep before freshening up and heading out to explore Delhi.
Two Days in Delhi
First stop – Old Delhi. We flagged down a rickshaw outside of our hotel to take us to the nearest metro station. Getting metro tickets was a bit of a struggle as we only had rupee in large denominations. In the end, we used a bank card to buy our tickets from the machine. The Delhi metro is modern, clean and air conditioned. It is also simple to navigate, and we reached Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi in under 20 minutes.
Old Delhi was once a walled city and the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1648 to 1857. Following this, the British Raj (British Rule) took power over in India for just under a century until 1947, when India gained independence. We walked down the main Chandni Chowk street which leads to the Red Fort. This is where the Indian flag was raised on the first, and each subsequent, India Independence Day. Prior to that, the Red Fort was residence to the Mughal emperors.
Along Chandni Chowk, we were on the hunt for some food. We came across what appeared to be an extremely popular jalebi corner stall – Old Famous Jalebi Wala. Hot, sticky and sweet – it was the jalebi that dreams are made of. Moving on, we stumbled into another enticing looking place to eat. It was perfectly undone. The pink paint was peeling off the walls and the tile floor was slightly grimy and cracked. We couldn’t resist the aromas of cumin and coriander. The menu was in Hindi with randomly translated broken English. We pointed to something that we thought was a dosa (crispy pancake made from a rice and lentil batter) and we were not disappointed. Two piping hot dosas arrived, stuffed with paneer and a side of dahl. I’m not usually a fan of paneer but this dosa turned me! We happily gorged our food with two perfectly spiced and milky chai. Leaving very content and only a few rupee out of pocket, we continued down towards the Red Fort.
Unfortunately, as it was a Monday, the Red Fort was closed so we could only view it from the fence, a distance away. On the way down to Jama Masjid, we walked past all sorts of markets that seamlessly blended from one to another – fabrics to bicycles to barbers to produce and butcher stalls. Jama Masjid was built in the 1600s by a Mughal emperor is one of the largest mosques in India. It was a very congested and loud area with so many rickshaws and cars that it was difficult to cross the street. We arrived at prayer time, so we opted out of entering the mosque out of respect.
On the way back to the hotel, we took a rickshaw to India Gate. India Gate is a war memorial to the soldiers that died during the First World War. On the other end of the boulevard from India Gate is the president’s official place of residence. We reached the monument just as the sun was setting. Although there were crowds, the glowing red stone was peaceful. On that note, we headed back near the hotel for a bite to eat and some rest for the evening.
On our second day, we planned to visit Swaminarayan Akshardham in the morning, meet up with another wedding guest friend in Karol Bagh and then head down to Humayun’s Tomb in the afternoon.
We had breakfast at the hotel before ordering an Uber to Akshardham (roughly ₹150 from Connaught Place). Swaminarayan Akshardham is a Hindu complex located east of the Yamuna River that runs through Delhi. It is stunning. The complex is extremely vast with gardens, courtyards, exhibitions and water features. At the heart of Swaminarayan Akshardham is the Akshardham Mandir. This Hindu temple is made entirely from marble and Rajasthani pink sandstone. Intricate carvings of elephants, lotus flowers and deities fill every pillar, wall, dome and ceiling. Only the floor remains uncarved and is welcomingly cool to touch on a hot day. As you walk through the mandir, the story of Bhagwan Swaminaryan’s life unfolds on the walls and his teachings of prayer, compassion and non-violence are echoed. On the outside of the mandir, the elaborate stone carvings are paralleled to the interior. Almost true sized, lifelike stone elephants hold up the base of the temple – traditionally and symbolically, a mandir stands on the shoulders of elephants.
Swaminarayan Akshardham is well worth a visit and I recommend anyone travelling to Delhi to visit. Some logistical points, however! You may be wondering why I haven’t shared any photos. Unfortunately, no electronics are allowed in the complex, so I hope my description does justice to the temple. There is a free cloak room and a mandatory security check before entering Swaminarayan Akshardham. The tightened security is most likely due to an incident on another Akshardham temple in another Indian state. There was no point at which I was worried or felt unsafe. The complex is open to all, regardless of your religion. There are also toilets and a food court. In case you’re still curious, pictures and information can be found here at their official website.
At around noon, we headed off for some shopping in the neighbourhood of Karol Bagh. The metro is easily walkable from Swaminarayan Akshardham. With smaller change this time, we rode the metro from Akshardham station to Karol Bagh station. I was on the search for some authentic pashmina shawls and stoles. After some research and validation from a local, we walked down to Ahujasons. We were not disappointed. We were greeted by every colour, design and quality imaginable. Ahujasons sell premium shawls, which can be worn on occasions such as weddings, to shawls for everyday use. After talking to the gentleman behind the counter, I ascertained that a stole (smaller in sizer to a shawl) was more to my liking. I joined the rest of the women and combed through all the colours and designs. An hour and a half later, I finally settled on five (!) stoles for myself and family.
We met our friend shortly after and settled our grumbling stomachs with some momo. Momo is a steamed dumpling with some form of filling. Ours were veggie and served with a side of chilli sauce. Yum!
Hailing a rickshaw, we rode down to Humayun tomb. A rickshaw for three adults is a tight fit but we can’t complain when you see seven locals squeeze into one! Note that rickshaw prices will fluctuate based on the number of people. As a rule of thumb, a reliable local told us that a rickshaw journey should be ~10x less than that quoted for Uber.
Humayun tomb is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun and dates back to 1570. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage site and there are several other tombs along the path to the Humayun tomb. It has been said that the Humayun tomb inspired the architecture of the Taj Mahal. Humayun tomb is distinctly Mughal architecture in style. This style incorporates Indian elements with Islamic and Persian architecture and was developed over the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. When we approached the site, there was a very long queue for Indian nationals and one for foreigners with no people. The fee for foreigners is ₹500 where as Indian nationals pay ₹35. This is common for most of the sites that we visited with an entry fee.
As the sun began to set, we were in search for food again. We wandered back to Connaught Place and found a restaurant in the inner circle. We ordered platters and curries with naan bread. The naan bread was fluffy and fresh. Other than that, it wasn’t much to shout about but maybe we walked into the wrong restaurant. Or, perhaps I’m more fond of street food.
After walking through more markets, my friend mentioned that we were very close to a famous Sikh gurdwara, or temple. Gurdwara Bangla Sahib is one of the most prominent gurdwaras in Delhi, built in 1783. It has a distinctive golden dome, pole and a holy pond within the complex. The water is believed to have healing properties and is often taken by Sikhs back to their homes. On the inside of the gurdwara, the holy book resides in the centre of the room, surrounded by plush carpet and almost everything is gilded in gold. Note that before entering, you must remove your shoes and cover your head. There is also a kitchen, known as a langar hall, where all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, status or age, may eat a vegetarian meal for free.
This brought our two wonderful days in Delhi to an end. We headed back to our hotel as we had to catch an early train the next morning to Agra.
Delhi to Agra – The Gatimaan Express
The train journey from Delhi to Agra might have been one of the highlights of my trip. We caught the 08:10 Gatimaan Express from Nizamuddin train station. Nizamuddin train station is extremely polluted and grimy but I felt a buzz of energy in the air. It was an especially smoggy morning in Delhi. Locals were dashing about from one platform to another with unbelievably large bags filled to the brim with their belongings. When my friend finally arrived (late, as usual), we headed down to our platform. The clunk of metal that was the Gatimaan Express greeted us.
In my mind, I envisioned having to cling onto the side of the train, or worse, the roof of the train, to get a seat. Although I found this somewhat exciting, we booked executive class tickets to avoid any mishaps. The carriage was air-conditioned with large seats and a pull-down table. Mostly foreigners resided in this carriage. As we drew closer to our departure time, my friend and I quickly popped out onto the platform to buy some local snacks. As we were paying, the train started to move. Finally – the moderate excitement I was looking for! We quickly hopped onto the slowly moving train, armed with some local snacks and waved goodbye to Delhi.
You may be wondering why the train journey was one of the highlights of my trip. I think it was the food. I was warned countless times to *never* eat the food on the trains. However, knowing my love for food and trying everything once, we ordered a vegetarian meal each. It was so delicious that I wished I never ate breakfast at the hotel. We were given the Hindustan Times newspaper and a cup of chai to start. Another trolley came through and provided some western food items (bread slices and jam). This was followed by a tin foil container of parantha bhaji, an Indian flatbread with vegetables. It was amazing.
Onto our next destination – Agra!
If you missed the other articles on India’s Golden Triangle, you can find them below. Each report has reviews of the main sights in India’s Golden Triangle and shares the usual tips & tricks!