First lesson from India. The people here take their hospitality game very seriously. Less than 2 days here, and I have received offers of places to stay in no fewer than 5 of my route’s cities, been fed like an absolute king, and given travel tips and good wishes from all I’ve met. Some were practical, like the small pot of homemade indigestion remedy (‘for when you get the motions’). Other people offered perhaps slightly less helpful input, such as the observation from one man that ‘yes, cycling to Calcutta is stupid, but you need to be stupid in order to finish it’. I think he meant it supportively.
You may have to be stupid to finish it, but when I landed in Delhi, I was just praying that I would be lucky enough to start it. The bags from my flight appeared slowly but surely onto the baggage carousel, people darting forwards to grab their stuff and head on through customs. Patiently, I waited, assuming my over-sized bike would bring up the rear in style. Still no bike and the attendant was adamant that it would arrive. I was less certain. An hour passed and the carousel stopped spinning. Not a good sign. Slightly concerned by now, I asked the attendant again: ‘But of course, Mr Warren, it is over here!’ My cardboard box was sitting in the corner on the completely opposite side of the room. I started enquiring as to how it got there, and more pertinently when I was going to be informed of its slightly surprising location, but it was nearly 6am and I was ready to head on to the hostel. An observation, often made by western travellers but forgotten by me in the four years since visiting India first: there is method in the madness of this country, but you might well go mad if you enquire too much into it!
Arriving into Delhi, the city was shrouded in a milky fog. Alarmed that the smog had got so bad, I mentioned this to my taxi driver, who politely but passionately argued that ‘Delhi has no smog issue, Sir’. The faintly tangy taste of the air certainly led me to an alternative conclusion, but sure enough, the fog did lift in time for me to explore. For that, I would need to rebuild my bike, which to my own utter amazement, went together without so much as a hiccup (contrary to rumours, I did not put the front wheel on backwards first). I was ready to test it out, and the chaotic roads of Delhi were a good first challenge. I slowly progressed from using the bell to wild hand gestures then tried shouting, before noticing that no-one could even hear me over, let alone actually respond to my intentions. The best way was to hug the side, stay tight to one moving vehicle so that no one could fly up from behind, and it seemed to work well.
Heading to the south of Delhi, I checked out the Qutub Minar and the archeological park in Mehrauli, petrified at letting the bike out of sight but otherwise relaxing into the hectic world of Delhi. Built at the turn of the twelfth century by Qutb-ub-din Aibak, intricate Islamic engravings on the Qutub Minar soared high into the sky. Indeed, until the completion of the Taj Mahal some 4 centuries later, it stood as the tallest structure in India (citation needed, because although it was bloody huge, a lot of the information on the boards around the site were contradicted by Google!)
I have been warned at length (ironically) of the need for these blogs to cut the ‘pretentious waffle’ (reference: my dad, about a week ago) and keep it nice and short. However, a large part of the reasoning behind my trip is the unrivalled historical heritage of northern India, so I have decided to leave the ‘pretentious waffle’ to the end of each blog. Check out more about the Qutub Minar and the archeological park at the end of this post! Stay well clear of it if it isn’t for you. Haters gunna hate.
Anyway, onwards. The following day, I visited two of the Homes supported by Save A Child (SaC) for whom I am raising money: the Institute of the Blind (IoB) and the Jain Ashram. These visits were unbelievable. Having met the lovely Mrs Chugh from SaC (and been fed to bursting with delicious chai and breakfast) in her beautiful Panshsheel Park house, I was escorted to the IoB by Uma, an equally lovely lady working for SaC, where we were greeted by two blind boys, eager to impart a traditional tikka/tilak (welcome) with a garland of bright flowers and a red mark on our foreheads.
Through Uma’s translation, I then talked to a group of about 20 young boys about my route, and they wished me luck as they called out places they grew up in that fall along my route across Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Two of their contemporaries are away competing for India’s blind team in the World Cup, and the observation was made by many that they’d already beaten England and were hoping to beat Pakistan in the final (NB they seemed in agreement with various taxi drivers I’ve spoken to that Cook’s resignation of the Test captaincy is a sensible decision). A delicious lunch of South Indian dusa masala later, we headed across town to the Jain Ashram for girls. Greeted in impressive English by a group of young school girls, I then marked my intended route on a huge map with a big red marker. Calling out to the group, many came up to the front to point where their home had been before moving to Delhi, and I was struck by the similarity with the experience at the IoB only hours earlier, where the boys too had come from across Northern India. This provides a fitting reminder, I think, that India is a country always on the move, and that historically so much of life has flowed up and down roads exactly like (and indeed especially) the Grand Trunk Road. Far from just linking distant communities together, the GTR encourages and showcases the interweavings of a diverse population.
That point could hardly be reiterated more loudly than where I type this blog post, on a sleeper train to Amritsar where I start my cycle expedition. People charge up and down the aisle, selling their wares and looking for a chat. The station, rammed with people going to all ends of this magnificent country, buzzes with a people always on the move, and I can’t wait to properly join them in that.
All I hope now is that my bicycle, tagged and loaded on as cargo, makes it to Amritsar in one place, and that if I am to have a repeat of Delhi airport, I can track it down faster, because a day of exploration with my new friend Uttam, a fellow cycling enthusiast, awaits.
‘Pretentious waffle’: Qutub Minar and Mehrauli Archaeological Park
These two sites provide a fitting snapshot of Delhi’s layered histories. As many as 8 former cities lie within, or often under, the sprawling metropolis of today, and the enormous mosque adjacent to the Minar incorporated a handful of Hindu and Jain temples when it was built in the early thirteenth century. The temples themselves reflected the original Rajput city of Lal Kot, and their detailed inscriptions, often of a sensual nature proscribed by Islam, had been amended and made suitable for Muslim worship, rather than erased altogether. My first reaction to this layering was, slightly bizarrely, a reminder of Córdoba, in Spain, where centuries of conquest and reconquest render the main building there a cathedral built on a mosque, built on a cathedral. Layering and adaptation provide a nice symbol for these periods of intense religious syncretism, building religious practices and buildings around the realities of competing religions.
The archaeological remains in the neighbouring park too attest to these complex and shared histories. Beautiful tombs are scattered across this area, and the most impressive of these, housing the body of Muhammad Quali Khan, was used by Sir Thomas Metcalfe in the nineteenth century as the basis for his stately home. The Islamic arches and domes remain, but the landscaped rose gardens reflect the projection of grandeur necessitated by British rule. Together, they provide not one snapshot but many, into the layers within and below Delhi.