Full Circle

We flew into Delhi on October 31st by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. Our Air China flight landed in the wee hours of the morning and although eerily quiet by Indian standards the pre-paid taxi stand was an assault on my senses. Our hotel was “close” to the airport but secluded enough to cause a great deal of difficulty for our driver. At two in the morning there isn’t the typical community assistance available. Unbeknownst to us at the time we would repeat this very scenario in Cochin several weeks later. Knocked for a loop by jet lag we emerged for the first time almost 36 hours later. The air quality of Delhi at that time caused us to skip our initial sightseeing plans and head to Agra.

Nearly two full months later we had returned. The smog had lifted and we were now seasoned travelers determined to see all that the Indian capital had to offer. Picking up souvenirs and trinkets for friends and family would also begin in earnest. Plenty of things to do and see and running out of precious time.

Our hotel was close to the rail station but it was dark and had another lengthy trip behind us. We made our way to the pre-paid stand only to discover that we couldn’t purchase a ride…we were too close and the attendants told us to walk. We were hounded by many drivers who wanted ridiculous prices. To the point of Chelle losing her cool and swearing like a sailor. It cleared the crowd though. So we hiked up our packs and started the slow road to our guesthouse. We took a circuitous route and got twisted up and momentarily lost. Our India phone came in handy again. We found an open lobby of a guesthouse not our own, and one of the lads on staff led us to our spot. I gladly thanked him and practiced my palming technique.

Chelle arranged for a tour of some Delhi landmarks. Primarily on this India adventure we were self guided. It is great if you enjoy independence and ample time to wander about but it is challenging and tiring as well. What I had found on one other smaller tour we had taken was the feeling of being rushed. I didn’t like the timetable aspect, a small time here or a short time there wasn’t appealing. We had so much to see and dwindling time that being on a firm schedule was a good plan.

One stop on the tour was the Bahá’í Lotus Temple. The building is composed of 27 free-standing marble-clad “petals” arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides with nine doors opening onto a central hall and a capacity of 2500. Built in 1986, it is one of the most popular tourist sights in Delhi.

Lotus Temple

Having been continuously inhabited since the 6th century through most of its history, Delhi has served as a capital of various kingdoms and empires. It has been captured, ransacked and rebuilt several times, particularly during the medieval period, and modern Delhi is a cluster of a number of cities spread across the metropolitan region. Now with a size of 530 square miles and a population of 25 million.

Shortly after our arrival I found a wonderful book by Shashi Tharoor that I read throughout our trip. It covered the whole history of India through 2004. My optics on this adventure were enhanced by reading “India: From Midnight to the New Millennium and Beyond”. To be immersed in the culture all the while guided in the history by such great writing was a real treat. Understanding India in a way that I never have before. I had bits and pieces but now a much richer and fuller picture. Visiting all these historical sites were great history lessons. Every rail or sleeper bus trip I pulled out my book and devoured the next chapter. Learning about the first Mughal emperor Babur (a descendant of Genghis Khan), Humayun to Akbar.

Qutub Minar

In the Southest district of Delhi lies the neighborhood of Mehrauli which has an array of monuments and buildings at Qutub complex. It is home to the tallest free standing brick minaret. The adjoining area spread over with a host of old monuments, including Balban’s Tomb.


Humayun’s Tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the first of the grand dynastic mausoleums that were to become synonyms of Mughal architecture with the architectural style reaching its zenith 80 years later at the later Taj Mahal. Humayun’s Tomb was built in the 1560’s, with the patronage of Humayun’s son, the great Emperor Akbar. Persian and Indian craftsmen worked together to build the garden-tomb, far grander than any tomb built before in the Islamic world. Humayun’s garden-tomb is also called the ‘dormitory of the Mughals’ as in the cells are buried over 150 Mughal family members.

Humayan’s Tomb

Sri Digamir Jain Lal Mandir is the oldest Jain temple in the capital, originally built in 1658. An impressive red sandstone temple today (the temple has undergone many alterations and additions in the past and was enlarged in the early 19th century), Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir is popularly known as Lal Mandir “Red Temple”. Also home to the famous bird sanctuary. The Birds Hospital, calls itself the only institution of its kind in the world, treats about 15,000 birds a year has been run for 60 years.

Digambar Temple
Birds Hospital

After a day of touring we wandered around Connaught Circus and dining at Lord of the Drinks, a Game of Thrones styled, and rather upscale restaurant. We were the oldest patrons and the food was too western for our taste. Although we liked the wall constructed from wine bottles. Next we meandered along Janpath Road and through the Tibetan Market discovering a shop overflowing with brass door knockers, locks, icons, candle holders and everything Tibetan. Luckily for the shop owner they accepted electronic payment and we fell in love with nearly everything we saw.


Forwards and backwards

Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard once declared that life could only be understood backwards; but had to be lived forwards. A great motivation for me to travel, especially to a country such as India, is the opportunity to step back in time and touch the past. The conservation and preservation conducted by the Archaelogical Society of India (ASI) is instrumental to maintaining the legacy of the country’s cultural heritage. Multiple branches throughout the governmental organization cover a broad range of specialties. It is easy to get lost in the Afghan architectural wonders and the vast grounds of Jahaz Mahal, the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, or the elegance of the Buddhist caves in Ajanta. These monuments across India are a testament to the continued resiliency of Indian people throughout human history. There is significant work to be done.

Jaipur Jantar Mantar

Extreme elements around the world are threatening our collective cultural heritage. Among the human tragedy in Syria is the entirety of that country’s heritage sites damaged or destroyed in their ongoing civil war. Sadly, not a singularity. Mausoleums in Timbuktu to the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus in Iraq and the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. The importance of supporting organizations that monitor theses sites, that promote conservation and hopefully in the near future reclaim some of these monuments and renew efforts to restore what has been destroyed. However, this is not simply a second or third world problem. The people (particularly in the West) who deny the science of climate change or promote increased fossil fuel production and utilization threaten destruction not experienced in millennia. There is much we can learn from the cooperation and collaboration of nations united in preserving our cultural legacy.

While exploring the temple ruins outside Siem Reap in Cambodia, Chelle and I were surprised to discover representatives of ASI working on a restoration project at Ta Phrom. One of many temples destroyed during the civil war in Cambodia or taken over by nature. Luckily the Archeological Society of India isn’t alone in their endeavors.

The UN has a specialized organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The group has a variety of programs and objectives but it’s  international cooperation agreements to secure cultural and heritage areas around the globe through its World Heritage Sites. What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. Sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance. Their dedication in protection and preservation is admirable. Passing on to future generations the irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration is awesome and worthy of support.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) Mumbai

I have given much thought to the impact that India has had on me collectively. It is a visceral response.  I am just beginning to understand the profound nature of my time here. Chelle had a very sad experience today. While exploring the Jain sculptures in Gwalior she discovered a dying dog hidden under a statue. She dug through our bag and pulled out a few morsels of food. As I comforted her she questioned the futility of her actions. My response was simple…comfort and compassion to a life that knew little of either. The intensity of her feelings have been demonstrated throughout our time here whether it was dealing with scourge of poverty or feral animals. For me there has to be more.

I am determined to contribute in some manner after I have returned home. I may return in the not too distant future volunteering on a medical team with Projects Abroad. It may mean financial donations to Amma, or Magic Bus. Contributions to ASI or some other NGO conservation/preservation group. Perhaps becoming a member of the Sierra Club back home. To get on a plane and head back to the US just to plan the next adventure is impossible without first contemplating what comes next to improve my world. Globally, within our community or both.