PHOTO: Top Sights in Delhi, India Part 2 (Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb, Lotus Temple, Jantar Mantar
As I mentioned in part one of this "top sights" installment, Delhi is a city that really polarizes travelers. Often seen as aggressive, overcrowded, and polluted by foreign visitors, I would argue that while it is all of those things there is a lot that redeems the city and makes it a great place to start an exploration of the subcontinent. After several trips through India over the years I can honestly say that Delhi is one of my favorite cities, not just in India but in the world. There's a lot to see, tons to eat, and with over 16 million residents there's never a dull moment as the city constantly has something going on to keep you entertained.
Even with so much going on as a first time visitor you're likely more interested in honing in on a few choice sights to see before moving onward to Agra or Rajasthan. Which is exactly what this post aims to continue doing - give you a few ideas on the most interesting things to see during your visit to India's capital!
I highly recommend taking a look at the first installment of this series to have a fuller idea of the most interesting options you have for exploration in Delhi. But first, scroll on down to see the four sites below!
First built in 1060 by Raja Anangpal Tomar, the Red Fort has been a fixture of Delhi in multiple constructions and iterations ever since. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, famous for being the builder of the Taj Mahal, repurposed the fort as a palace in 1639. It sits near the banks of the Yamuna River next to the Old Delhi neighborhood, making it an easy place to drop by if you're already in the area to see the Jama Masjid or the Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib detailed in the previous report.
While architecturally significant and quite beautiful, many of the fancier elements you'd expect to find in a former royal palace have been lost to the ages. Much of the art and precious gems/metals were stripped during an invasion by Persians in 1747 and later on much of the marble structures inside the fort's namesake red sandstone walls were destroyed during the Siege of Delhi by the British trying to quell rebelling Sepoys in 1857.
The British Raj also exiled the last remaining autonomous Mughal emperor in India to Myanmar after a "trial" held inside the fort in 1858. As one of many location in the country that featured prominently in the struggle against British rule, it's poignant that the Indian Prime Minister raises the flag over the front gate of the fort and then delivers a speech from the ramparts every year on India's Independence Day.
While not as grand in scope as other palaces around the world, the Red Fort is a relatively calm oasis inside the hustle and bustle of go-go-go Delhi. There's a small market area inside the complex, though you'll find better prices and offerings elsewhere in the city. It's a great location to drop in for an hour or two to quietly wander around the landscaped grounds and take in some of the interesting architectural flourishes of the buildings throughout. This is India so you'll never find yourself alone inside the complex, but it's certainly less hectic than the streets outside the famous red walls.
The Red Fort is a primary landmark in the city and can easily be navigated to by taxis and tuk tuk drivers. If you're using public transit, the Lal Quila stop on Delhi's Violet Line is directly across the street from the Lahori Gate entrance to the fort. The site is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, which charges admission fees for adults, though children under the age of 15 are free. Citizens of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Myanmar pay 30 INR to enter (about .50 USD). All other visitors are charged 500 INR ($7.50 USD).
Another beautiful and architecturally significant site along the banks of the Yamuna River is Humayun's Tomb. Humayun was a Mughal Emperor that ruled over Delhi in the 16th century. The tomb was commissioned by his first wife Bega Begum following his death.
The tomb itself is known as an architectural turning point for India, a change that would spark the use of new building and design techniques in the region that would ultimately culminate in the world famous Taj Mahal. In fact, the similarities between the two structures is quite evident when you first set eyes upon the tomb.
The tomb is surrounded by manicured gardens and a few strategically planted trees. A shallow channel of water feeds through the central walkway and fills a small pool just off the main building's base. There's almost always tourists and locals making their way through the complex but it's still less than you'd find in the streets outside and even fewer still than the multitudes inside the Red Fort.
While the tomb itself is clearly the highlight of the grounds, there are actually multiple other tombs and sites within the complex that make this a fantastic location to spend some time. Don't we all love a buy one get a dozen free deal?
In addition to Humayun's tomb you can also stop by the mosque of Isa Khan, Bu Halima's tomb and garden, the Arab sarai, and Barber's Tomb - all in the same location on the same entrance fee. And that's not even a complete list! You can spend quite a bit of time making your way from building to building taking in the history and watching the architectural progress of decades and centuries as you hop from site to site.
The last time I dropped in on the tomb it was undergoing some heavy restoration under the watchful eyes of the Archeological Survey of India and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, but they've since completed their work so you should be able to take in the beauty of the red sandstone construction without any scaffolding obscuring your view.
Humayun's Tomb is located in southeast Delhi and can be accessed from the JLN Stadium station on the Violet line. Exit the station and head north to Lodhi Road (the first major street) and then head east (right). Of course this is Delhi so if you're not feeling like walking the short distance through the sometimes bewildering traffic you can always hire a motor or bicycle tuk tuk to take you the remainder of the way for a few rupees, but make sure you negotiate first.
The entrance fee is 30 INR for Indian citizens and 500 INR ($7.50 USD) for all others.
I'll be the first to admit that other than the unique and geometrically beautiful architecture, there isn't much to see at Delhi's Lotus Temple. But I love it just the same!
While India is often perceived by the outside world as a nation of Hindus and Muslims, the massive nation is home to worshippers of dozens of religions including the one that the Lotus Temple is dedicated to - the Bahá'í faith. Founded as an offshoot of Shia Islam in 1844 in what is now called Iran, the Bahá'í religion shares many overarching themes with the major monotheistic world religions but differentiates itself with a central belief in achieving a unified world order that ensures the prosperity of all nations, races, and social classes.
With a strong focus on prosperity and equality, all Bahá'í houses of worship (including the Lotus Temple) welcome visitors of any background or religious belief to visit. In fact, people are welcomed to engage in prayer or to read the holy texts of other religions inside the temple as it was designed to be a place of reflection and connection with God. They welcome you to use the space as designed even if you are not practicing the Bahá'í fatith.
Don't bring a non-religious book to read inside the temple and think you can quietly enjoy a leisurely reading session - that's forbidden!
Designed in the shape of a flower, the Lotus Temple features 27 free-standing "petals" that constitute the outer shell of the building. As you approach the temple you'll be funneled off to the side where you'll be asked to drop off your shoes. They'll place your shoes inside a bag and hand you a claim ticket, after which you'll proceed onward on the likely scalding hot brick path leading up to the temple. You can either grin and bear it or quickly hop from one foot to the other. I'm in the "hop" camp myself.
At the base of the temple is a small pool of water, mimicking a pond from which the "lotus" is blooming. Entrance inside the temple is limited to a certain number of people at a time, so you'll likely need to queue up when you reach the front. Once the group inside has finished and cleared out of the central worship area, the next group of people will be let in. The interior is actually rather plain for what you'd normally see in another faith's house of worship, though there's plenty of open seating and the clean architectural lines inside the building bring an oddly serene calm as you sit and contemplate life.
You're welcome to stay to worship or contemplate the existence of a higher power though most people generally come inside, explore for a few minutes, and then make their way back out. Your shoes will be waiting for you on the way out and you can stop inside the informational center for literature on the Bahá'í faith if you are suddenly inspired.
The Lotus Temple is located in southeast Delhi and can be accessed from the Kalkaji Mandir or Nehru Place stations on the Violet line. Both are about a 15 minute walk to the temple though the Kalkaji Mandir stop seems to be the preferred choice for accessing the temple. Entrance to the temple is free of charge for all visitors.
Keep in mind that unlike churches, mosques, and synagogues of other faiths there are currently only eight Bahá'í houses of worship in the whole world. One of those just happens to be in the suburbs of Chicago about a 20 minute drive from my house, but for most people it's likely significantly harder to find a Bahá'í temple close by. Don't miss out on this unique bit of architectural finesse dedicated to a faith with a very small number of sanctuaries.
When it comes to travel, it can be easy to feel a little bit like you're doing nothing but moving between castles, temples, and churches day in and day out. Sure they're all beautiful and interesting in their own right, but it's nice to get something in the mix that's a bit unique, right?
Jantar Mantar - that's your cue! Put on your heels and saunter out here.
Constructed under the eye of Maharajah Jai Singh II in 1724, what seems like a trippy Indian take on "Alice in Wonderland" is actually a celestial observatory and astronomical measuring tools. Tasked by Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah to recreate a more accurate calendar, Singh created this observatory in Delhi as well as four other on the subcontinent to observe the path of the sun, moon, stars, and planets.
Unfortunately the site is indeed quite rundown and unkempt. One of the other facilities in Jaipur (also called Jantar Mantar - in fact all the sites are!) is much better cared for and has been used as a film location for several movies including one of my all time favorites - The Fall starring the sexy Lee Pace.
Don't let the standing water and stained structures fool you though - there's still plenty of beauty to be seen through the grim.
The site itself isn't very big. You can pretty much identify all the structures when you enter. Everything is built of red sandstone and the best thing to do is let your curiosity run wild. Explore. Peek. Peep. Wonder just what the hell the various structures were meant to measure and how they used them. The site has some plaques explaining the various pieces but unless you're particularly intellectually curious I almost feel like it's best to just enjoy the weirdness of it all without commentary on your first go-around.
Unlike the other sites on this list there's significantly fewer people visiting Delhi's Jantar Mantar. It's definitely known as a site in the city but it's much further down on most visitor's lists of things to do. This is likely due to the lack of any real effort to keep the structures presentable, which is quite sad because I see a lot of unique value in maintaining this gem of a site.
Still, it's not entirely abandoned. There are usually a few people inside, mostly young Indian couples looking for a quiet place to relax and perhaps engage in some PDA out of the watchful eyes of society.
Jantar Mantar is located in the New Delhi section of the city and is accessible from the Janpath station on the Violet line (noticing a theme here? Violet line gets you to some great places!). It's a less than 5 minute walk from the station and is also located next to the famous Imperial Hotel and the popular shopping area of Connaught Place/Rajiv Chowk. The entry fee for Indian citizens is only 5 INR but goes up to 100 INR for foreigners ($1.50 USD).
So that concludes my short series on my favorite sites in the vibrant capital of India. As I mentioned above, I think Delhi often doesn't get a fair shake from travelers. It definitely has its issues (like any city) but there's quite a few interesting and unique sites to explore before heading off to Agra or Rajasthan. Don't make the mistake of simply jetting out of town as soon as you land. Take a day or two to explore what this city has to offer!