Off Season Tourist - India Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
Two weeks in India, 2003 Notes from the Off Season Tourist
Humayun's Tomb Void of Tourists
Third wedding anniversary
Foot burning sight-seeing and a road accident.


Entrance to Purana Quila
May 28, 2003 is our third anniversary. Although we will be officially celebrating in style by staying at the stunning Lake Palace in Udaipur, where the James Bond film, "Octopussy" was filmed, we are planning to end today with a big slap up meal at the best restaurant in town. It is located in one of the five star hotels in which we are not staying. To build up our appetites we will do the greatest amount of sightseeing in any of the three days we are staying in Delhi. Today begins with Purana Quila, Humayan's tomb, a drive past the Parliament buildings and down the main drive to the India Gate. A walk through the B'hai Lotus Temple and a visit to the resting place of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes will end a day of sightseeing that begins and ends with us burning our bare feet on the many stone surfaces surrounding places of worship and respect. No shopping will be done today, although our newly tailored (soon-to-fall-apart) clothes will have to be delivered to our hotel before we go for dinner.

Raju, our guide, meets us at our hotel and we follow his swift pace through winding side streets to the awaiting car. Sanju, the driver, spots us from a distance and times his exit from the driver's seat to open Julie's door before we can reach it ourselves. Once in the car, a/c blowing, Raju asks us, "Where do you want to go?" Anticipating the typical tourist's desires he adds, "Red Fort?" He seems surprised when we announce our desire to see Purana Quila. Although he does not question us, we explain that we do not yet have a great sense of the size of Delhi and had just read in a guidebook that Purana Quila offers a view of the whole city. We ask him if this is the case and his response is simply that not many people go there. We ask if it is worth the visit and he shrugs. Saying only that it is a popular place for couples he does not answer the direct question, so we are off to Purana Quila.

However, before we've gone more than a few blocks, the car stops and Raju leaps out and into a shop. We have an inkling of what is about to happen. They know that today is our anniversary and they have hinted at doing something special for us. A few minutes later, Sanju leaves the car too and soon they come out from the shop, open-mouth smiles across their faces, carrying an envelope that is wider than our backpacks. They present us with what has to be one of the largest anniversary cards designed in the 1970s, along with a rose for each of us. The card has a couple of dirt marks on it but it is touching to have our anniversary recognised by two men who have known us for two days.

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Purana Quila

Driving on to Purana Quila, we are amazed by the prolific use of roadside advertising by the cell phone company 'Hutch.' Repetitive groups of posters are attached to anything vertical on the sides of the street. Often the company has build their own vertical posts because there was nothing onto which they could otherwise be attached. We ask Raju about renting a phone and he says it is simply not possible. We decide we might have to buy one while in Calcutta, as Julie is positively aghast at the idea of living without a cell phone for three months. Foresight: the cell phone would prove to be quite handy and Marcus will eventually be very glad we had it!

As we arrive at the site, Raju does not have the same protective attitude for hawkers he displayed at the Qutab Minar. The only people selling things are selling to the locals; there are no postcards, no peacock feathers or gold painted plastic necklaces to be sold in a place where tourists rarely come. We are able to park the car some distance from the site entrance (giving the car shelter under a tree) and realise, on our longer walk to the payment window, that we have left the camera in a bag in the car. Without hesitation Sanju runs back to fetch it and, as he hands it to me, I feel a touch of colonial abuse - I had not protested his departure too strongly.


The gardens of Purana Quila
Even the entrance fee for foreigners is not high at this site -- only Rps. 100 for all of us instead of the Qutab Minar's Rps. 150 apiece. When we walk through the entrance gate we are delighted by the numerous and well-irrigated lawns before us. There is a surplus of water in what we imagine to be a drought before the monsoon and we soon understand Raju's comment about couples. We have had to adjust to the fact that in public, walking down the street, sitting in restaurants or while on public transport, men and women do not touch. In Purana Quila young couples come to lie under trees together or to wander the grounds with their fore-fingers interlinked. Almost all of these young lovers do so without the knowledge of their families who still see the benefits of arranged marriages. We learn during our time here that love marriages have grown to about 30% of all marriages in India.

Raju and Sanju find a shady tree to sit under as we try to locate the supposed view of the city. We decide that the walls of Purana Quila are the most likely place to climb high and, as we walk towards them at 10 am, we drink deeply from our water bottles. The temperature is already in the high 30's. Steps in all the sites, and in fact even in modern buildings, are not always a standard height. In renovations the irregular step height has been maintained and even in mountain temples the steps up to the deity are designed to make the short-legged devotee make a strenuous effort to cherish their god.


Julie at Purana Quila's highest point
We climb as high as the renovations allow and see nothing but haze. There is a vague sense that the city is out there, but there is nothing to see except another old building in the close distance. Walking back on the ground level we see a woman filling a bucket using a hand pump. She is surrounded by wasps and does nothing to show concern about being stung. She is barefooted and, when her bucket is full, she simply walks away and the wasps await the next person to ignore. We take a look at the ruins in Purana Quila and they appear very similar to those at the Qutab Minar, large doorways with Sanskrit carved around the edges. There are huge bee and wasp nests hanging from the ceilings that are so old and solid that they could be mistaken as being part of the design.

We read in the guide book that Purana Qila began as a fortified city called Dinpanah, built around 1530 by the second Mughal emperor, Humayun. "Reading can be hazardous to your health" should have been his motto, as he fell to his death while walking down the stairs in his octagonal library, located on the Purana Qila grounds.
Coconut water for sale
Coconut Water for sale outside of Purana Qila
After this quick history lesson, we wake up Raju and leave the grounds. As we walk out, we notice some construction work outside the entrance. Looking at the work in progress sign we read that Purana Quila will soon be the site of a health club. There are more people selling food and drink to the locals and we notice a coconut vendor with massive pile of the green shells scattered around him. For 20 rupees a seven year old takes up a machete and with three or strikes creates a hinged flap at the top off a large coconut. We drink with a straw and the water is very young and sweet. It takes both of us to finish the drink and, once done, Raju asks the boy to cleave the shell apart. He shows us how to take use the lid like a spoon, so long as it has not been washed in the big rinsing bucket, and scrape off the milky flesh. In the meantime, Sanju has brought the car over to us and opens the door as we throw our coconut remains onto the massive pile of empty husks.

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Humayan's Tomb

Humayan's Tomb
The tomb of Humayan in Delhi
Since we are close to a more "proper" tourist site (according to our guide), Raju takes us to the tomb of Humayan. 1) See where the emperor died. 2) See where the emperor is buried. The price of entrance is higher, so Sanju and Raju do not join us, and we walk through the first gate into yet more well-maintained gardens. We learn that there is a two-step process to all tourist sites. There is a first entrance into which anyone can go even if they have not purchased a ticket. Then there is a second gate through which only those with tickets may pass. Walking between the first and second gate at Humayan's tomb we notice a small gate to our right. Although there are a couple of men with brooms squatting the entrance we decide to look through; one of the men follows us and points out the mosque on the other side. He know he expects some money for his service and we tell him directly that we need no guide. He walks away flicking his broom at the brick path.

We walk over to the mosque and, as I walk up the steps to the platform outside the unused place of worship, Julie grabs my arm, pointing at the blue letters at our feet I had not noticed that tell us to leave our shoes here. We start to walk across the stone platform and Julie's feet must have a greater tolerance for heat than my own, for half-way through I start to run for the shade of the open door. There is nothing to see inside. The mosque is adorned with nothing more than bee nests and our feet must once more tackle the hot stone of the late morning.

Walking through the second gate, an 'official guide' with a laminated photo id card strung around his neck approaches us. We decline his services and he moves on to a much younger couple of Western students who accept his offer. No money changes hands because, as with all guides, they will ask you only to pay what you think their service is worth. After you have taken the pleasant tour, the joys of haggling must be fulfilled.

Once again we are impressed by the upkeep of the gardens and the main tomb has a unique feature in that you must walk upstairs to an open-air sandstone first floor in order to get to the tomb.

Walking down steps
Marcus at Humayan's tomb
When we return to the car we ask about a lunch recommendation, asking specifically where they would eat instead of taking us to a fancy restaurant. They think for a minute and drive us to an Indian fast food place at a busy roundabout in Old Delhi. It is the first place that we have seen that advertises Coke instead of Pepsi. We need to wash our hands and ask where the toilets are, thinking there will be sinks there that we can use. There are only the hole-in-the-floor toilets because, outside there are the large stone sinks that everyone uses to wash their hands - another common aspect of the non-tourist's life in the city.

We ask our guide to order our food, thinking that things will go more smoothly if a native orders and we are introduced to the dialectic problems of this country. The server does not understand Raju's dialect. We get our meals in pieces, Julie is served first, then Raju and Sanju and throughout the process there seems to be only problems with getting a simple vegetable pakora to me. When it comes finally it has been overcooked; a fact that Sanju confirms in determining if it is just my sensibilities that make it unappetising. After 45 minutes we finally leave the fast food joint, still hungry, and discover that there is a man on the roundabout who takes payment from everyone who parks there. We can't tell if this is a city job, equivalent to a parking attendant, or if it is an extortion racket.

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The Lotus Temple

Marcus outside the Lotus Temple
Marcus outside the lotus temple
The next item on Raju's agenda is the B'Hai Lotus Temple that, from the standard tourist shots of the building, looks like an advanced version of the Sydney Opera House. The white painted concrete arcs of the temple have been designed to resemble a giant lotus flower, a symbol of enlightenment. Unfortunately Raju has chosen to drive and we are glad that lunch was so light. Raju is not a person who likes to wait for anything, and he especially does not believe that any rules should apply to him and so he drives us, honking and swerving, not to the parking lot for the thousands of devotees coming to the nondenominational temple, but to the staff parking lot which allows us rapid access to the temple path.

The path is made of a deep red tile that perfectly absorbs the heat of the midday sun. When we reach the point at which we must remove our shoes we see a burlap carpet that has been stretched out for over 200 feet to the temple entrance. After a few seconds on the red tile we are glad of the slight protection the rough cloth provides. However, we must battle the devotees who are coming and going in total disregard for the wants of the westerners.
Julie below the lotus temple
Julie below the lotus temple
We have noticed that temples are about the only place where we do not become the centre of attention.

The interior is cool and all is quiet inside. Although the B'Hai faith bills itself as being for all religions, it does have services of its own and it does have its own scriptures. At this moment, there is no service, people are simply here for silent worship; but as we leave teenagers dressed in western clothes approach us. They remind me of the young Jews in New York or the young Mormons who approach people in public to discuss religion. They give us entrance tickets to the B'Hai gift shop, conveniently located close to the staff parking lot. After another burlap hotfoot stroll, we opt not for the gift shop and try to find our driver. The parking lot is filled with private drivers who obviously know one another well. This is after all one of the typical haunts for the tourists that they shuttle from one place to another.

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Mahatma Gandhi memorial

The day is not quite over. We have one last place to visit before we return to the hotel and relax until our 3rd anniversary dinner. There is a strip of land that has been set-aside as memorials for the important political figures of India. The first on this strip is for Mahatma Gandhi. These are open-air memorials with gardens surrounding them. Once again we leave our shoes with an attendant and walk onto the path that takes us to the site of Gandhi's cremation; it is covered by a thick slab of black marble and, at the foot of the marble is a badly crushed black box with a massive padlock. This is where the cremains are kept. There are knee high walls that surround the marble and box. These walls cast a tiny shadow a foot width long onto the hot ground and we are not the only ones who hugs the walls to keep our feet in the shadows. We do not feel a deep need to visit the cremains of Nehru or Indira Gandhi on this trip and we decide to pick up our clothes for this evening's dinner.

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Anniversary dinner

The clothes are not ready. Only one of Marcus' shirts is complete, and Julie's salwar kameez badly need cleaned and ironed. We complain and explain our need to look good for our anniversary. They promise to deliver everything to the hotel.

Julie at Bukhara with Anniversary Cake
Julie at Bukhara with Anniversary Cake
We return to the Gold Regency and relax until the clothes arrive an hour before we are due for dinner. The work is disappointing and the delivery man, who also did the sewing, tells me that if we have any problems we can come back to the shop when we return to Delhi the following Wednesday (little did he know we would actually take him up on the offer). Placed in a bad mood from the clothes Marcus is not in great anniversarial spirit and is a bit pushy (uncharacteristically-so) with the overly service oriented staff at the five star restaurant. However, the dinner at Bukhara was quite nice. I chose Tandoor fish and dahl makhani, instead of the recommended "Bill Clinton" special. Apparantly, the Clintons had dined there in 2001. But I bet the Clintons didn't get the special pineapple cake that the staff gave us for our anniversary. An entire cake! It was a nice end to a great dinner.

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