If you know me at all the following statement should come as no surprise - I love India. Other than Japan, India is perhaps the country that I have enjoyed traveling to the most and consequently I have made multiple trips to that intoxicating corner of the globe over the last few years.
I'll be the first to admit - it's probably not for everyone. When I tell people how much I love visiting India it's usually a polite mix of shock, horror, and disbelief. And this isn't even a distinctly American or Western thought process either. Often when I'm in other parts of the globe and speaking with taxi drivers, hotel staff, or random people I've met, any time I mention that I've been to India many times they'll respond with some version of "Oh, that place is crazy!"
India has a reputation for being unclea, dangerous, and overwhelming and I won't lie to you - it definitely can be all of those things. But I want to emphasize that it is definitely not always those things. Like any country it has it's problems but too often it never gets its chance to shine. Which is why I want to put together some blog posts outlining some of my favorite things I've seen, tasted, and experienced during my trips through India. Sure, there are plenty of other places touting the amazingness of the sub-continent, but I want to help add to that signal a bit.
For those that love India, the capital city of Delhi can be a bit of a polarizing destination. Some folks loathe it and others find it charming despite its traffic congestion, air pollution, and poor infrastructure. I happen to be one of those that enjoys Delhi, and I do so unabashedly. Filled with historic landmarks, religious sites, and atmospheric neighborhoods, India's second largest city has a lot to offer a visitor.
As I mentioned above there will be a handful of articles that will be a combination of photo essay and informational destination posts highlighting some of my favorite things about India. Today's will focus on Delhi, specifically the Jama Masjid mosque, the Old Delhi neighborhood, and Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh temple.
With a courtyard that can accommodate over 25,000 worshippers, Delhi's Jama Masjid mosque is one of the biggest in the nation. Completed in 1656 under the rule of the famous Shah Jahan, the mosque is a focal point for the city's Muslim community and frequently serves as both a house of worship and a place to take respite from the stresses of city living.
This is an active mosque so keep that in mind when visiting. You'll be able to wander around and look at just about anything you like but make sure you're respectful and dressed appropriately. If you happen to have too much skin exposed they do offer clothes you can use to cover up, but I suggest coming prepared with your shoulders and legs covered up on your own. Shoes are not allowed inside so be prepared to part with them at the entrance. Don't worry, everyone else is doing it, too. There's someone watching over the shoes but if you're concerned about shoe theft just make sure you leave your Christian Louboutins in your hostel room for the day.
I've been several times and have never found it overly crowded, but it's definitely lively with people coming and leaving for prayer as well as a sizeable portion of people that are enjoying a corner of shade under one of the many alcoves around the mosque. Delhi can be a seething mass of heat for most of the year, so can you blame them?
If you're the type of traveler that revels in people watching, this is one of the better places in the city to do just that. Whether it's worshippers engaging in abulation (the ritualized cleansing of the body prior to entering a house of worship) or just watching Muslim teenagers huddle together over their cellphones giggling, there's a wealth of observable life happening within Jama Masjid's walls.
As a functioning mosque it does close its doors to visitors occasionally, though generally admittance hours are pretty generous. Posted times state that visiting hours are 7AM - Noon and 1:30PM - 6:30PM, though this is India so take that with a grain of salt. Things change quickly and often with little notice.
Entry cost for Jama Masjid is entirely free, however there is a small fee (a few USD) to take photos inside, which is a fairly common practice at tourists sights within India and the rest of the world. You can also climb one of the minarets on the southern side of the mosque for 100 Indian rupees (~1.50 USD), though I've never found the view particularly inspiring as Delhi's cityscape isn't very distinct in my very humble opinion.
If you're paying for a tour of the city chances are Jama Masjid will be on the itinerary as it's a major sight within the city. Still, it's easy enough to find on Google Maps and as long as you have downloaded a local map on the app for offline mode your GPS on your phone will still work and you can navigate there on your own. Whether or not you want to brave wandering through Old Delhi on your own is another story however!
Which brings me to ......
If you've never been to India and you close your eyes to imagine what it looks and feels like .... it's probably Old Delhi that you're picturing. A meandering mix of chaotic alleyways, jam-packed main roads, street food vendors, chai wallas, and delivery boys, Old Delhi is the cultural heart of the city.
If you're looking for something, chances are you can find it in Old Delhi. The streets snake for what seems like miles with endless cubby holes filled with butchers, flower stores, SIM card hawkers, convenience counters, and snack shops. It feels like everyone is simultaneously standing still and constantly moving, because how else can you explain the constant crush of people with the inability to ever find a good way to make your way forward?
Keep your wits about you and your eyes peeled because life moves fast in Old Delhi, and the last thing you want is to catch yourself on the business end of a delivery cart or the wagging finger of an impatient Auntie trying to make her way home. Chances are when you booked a trip to this corner of the world, this is the neighborhood you envisioned - so drop in and soak it up like your naan sops up that vindaloo!
Food is probably one of the top three areas of concern for just about any traveler to India. Just the idea of eating food cooked in the streets can cause stomach pain in some. But if you're only eating at high end hotel restaurants or loading up on the breakfast buffet to avoid eating anything else, you're missing out on one of the best things about India.
Old Delhi can be an excellent place to find a quick, extremely cheap meal on the go if you're smart. If I'm eating street food in India (or anywhere, really) I look for a few signs that usually indicate risk is low. First - look for the place where locals are lining up. Indians don't want to get a case of "Delhi belly" any more than you do, so they're going to frequent vendors they know and trust. If people seem to flock to one vendor while another one nearby sits idle - there's probably a good reason for that.
Second, take a few minutes to watch the vendor while they're preparing the food. One of the great things about street food is that you can see everything that's happening. Are the ingredients kept in a clean container? Does the vendor keep his hands cleans? Is the food cooked fresh or is it sitting out for long periods of time waiting to be served? You're a smart person so chances are you have a natural instinct about what good food handling and preparation looks like - use it!
Whether you end up with a handheld snack or sit down at one of the concrete cubbies in the wall with a plate full of freshly cooked treats, chances are you're going to have a great meal. Can I promise you that you won't get sick? Nope, sorry, not gonna happen. That's part of the risk you take traveling and going outside of your comfort zone. What I can tell you is that in all my trips to South Asia (five and counting), I've never once gotten sick. The one time I did get sick was in Germany of all places, which is probably one of the most mild travel destinations available with it comes to food.
My point being that it can happen to anyone and it can happen anywhere, so don't let fear hold you back. Explore, taste, and be smart. And if you get sick, I hope you have some antibiotics from your doctor for just such an emergency!
Again, if you're on an organized tour of the city, chances are you're going to end up in Old Delhi at one point in your trip or another. As the historic heart of the city for so many years, dozens of historic landmarks and sights are located within this walled neighborhood included the aforementioned Jama Masjid plus other major destinations like the Jain temple Lal Mandir, the historic Red Fort, and the Sikh temple complex of Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, which I'll be discussing next!
Old Delhi is definitely one of my favorite places to just hop in and wander. If you're not afraid of getting out on your own, it's a very easy area to locate. It's adjacent to Delhi's backpacker hostel "village" in Paharganj and directly northeast of the colonial shopping arcade Connaught Place. There are two Delhi Metro stations located within Old Delhi - Chawri Bazaar (closer to Jama Masjid) and Chandi Chowk (closer to the Red Fort). It's also within walking distance of the Kashmiri Gate metro stop just outside of the walled area and the Rajiv Chowk metro stop, which semi-confusingly is under the aforementioned Connaught Place.
I highly recommend you get in and explore this part of Delhi. Just beware of wandering monkeys on the powerlines above!
GURUDWARA SIS GANJ SAHIB
As of 2011, Sikhs made up less than 2% of India's population but are a vital and prominent part of the nation's history, culture, and landscape. Known worldwide for their turbans, Sikhs are often confused with Muslims in other parts of the world, quite often here in the United States where they're sadly the target of anti-Islamic hate crimes. Founded around 1520 AD by Guru Nanek in the Punjab region of India, Sikhism is one of the youngest of the world's major religions and most practitioners still reside in the Punjab to this day (~75%).
While not as spacious and grandiose as the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib on the other side of Connaught Place, this Sikh temple is a favorite because it's smack dab in the middle of Old Delhi and comes with all the excitement and lived in feeling that defines the neighborhood. Like Jama Masjid this is an active house of worship and you should make your visit with that understanding and give the proper respect while exploring.
Shoes are strictly forbidden inside, but there's a dedicated counter where you can drop your shoes off with a minder and pick them back up without worrying about losing them in the crowds. Head coverings are also mandatory for men and for women so be prepared to bring something to cover your head (lightweight material scarves work well for women in India as a general rule due to the requirement to cover up in many locations). If you have nothing with you to use you can borrow a covering from the community bin near the shoe check. I always travel with several bandanas/handkerchiefs to wipe up sweat so I simply use one of those whenever I visit.
You'll cross a threshold before going up the stairs into the main worship hall where water will be running in a mock river. Worshippers will stop here to cleanse their feet though you don't need to go through the ritual as a visitor, simply stepping into the water on your way up the stairs should be sufficient. If you feel like being friendly (and you should!) just ask one of your fellow human beings through English or gestures to walk you through the process. Chances are you'll discover Sikhs (and Indians in general) are a very friendly, helpful people.
Once you're inside I suggest finding a quiet corner in the back to side down on the carpeted floor and listen to the service being conducted. Sikh temple services are quite musical as devotees perform "shabad kirtan", the singing of Sikh hymns accompanied by musical instruments. Sikhism has a strong focus on achieving tranquility while meditating and it is believed the musical elements added to the scripture helps worshippers achieve this.
Note that technically photography is allowed within the temple by those in charge but some worshippers may bristle if a camera gets pulled out, even if you're only taking photos of the structure and not individual portraits of people. Please be respectful and refrain from photography if someone objects, and always remember to ask for permission before you make someone the sole subject of a photograph. I've only had one issue taking photos inside Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib and I simply had to lower my phone till the person that asked me to stop had finished their devotion and then resumed my picture taking.
One of the more interesting aspects of Sikh temples is the offering of "langar" - free meals for anyone that are prepared in large canteen-style kitchens inside the temples. Meals are almost exclusively vegetarian throughout the year to create a meal that is allowable for all individuals seeking a meal that day. Sikh temples offer meals to all people regardless of their religion, economic status, gender, or any other imaginary divide humans have constructed to separate ourselves into haves and have nots.
Meals are offered to the public for free, so if you wish you can take a seat in the eating area and partake in a meal. The food is prepared, served, and dishes cleaned entirely by volunteers from the community. While meals are basic they are an important connection between Sikhs and the communities within which they live, offering a standard bond of support and fellowship to their fellow human beings.
I've never been able to volunteer in the kitchen on any of my visits to Delhi, though it is on my list of travel goals. I think this would be a great way to spend a day exploring a different culture while also doing something good for the community.
So there you have it folks - a few of my favorite photos from three places in Delhi I consider top places to visit. Keep your eyes peeled for additional posts coming over the summer as I detail even more sights to consider within India's capital and branch out to other areas of this vast and beautiful country as well!