Sunday, August 3, 2008

Our first day in Delhi

After six hours of sleep, we were ready. Amit was our guide for a tour of Delhi today as well as Agra on Monday, turning our air conditioned bus into something of a time travel vehicle.

As we embarked on our tour of India‘s capitol and its third largest city of more than 15 million people, the sharp contrasts were evident between New Delhi, the spacious, planned city completed under British rule about 60 years ago, Old Delhi, a centuries-old urban center punctuated by medieval street markets and narrow streets.

Because it was Sunday, traffic was relatively light. Most Indians are given this day off, after working the previous six and a half days. But for some, poverty is a 24/7 phenomenon, such as for those who we saw showing under a water pipe leaking between two buildings.

As we passed through the gate into Old Delhi, most of the stores were closed but thousands of people were on the streets, looking at the many pre-owned items for sale on sidewalks. This is a culture which values knowledge and dozens of booksellers are out with their wares.

The bus carried us through Old Delhi, past its historic Red Fort and around the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India.

Along the way, Amit highlighted the symbiosis existing among Moslems and Hindus in this multi-cultural society. On one side of the mosque, remains a successful Hindu business community that sells spices, textiles and other soft goods. On the opposite side is a thriving Moslem community with business selling autos and auto parts and other hard goods.

Our first stop on this blazingly hot day was at Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, one of the most popular Hindu shrines in Delhi. Built around a central courtyard, the building’s main shrine features an image of the goddess of well-being. Amit, a Hindu, explained his religion’s beliefs such as its trinity of deities. Among its pantheon of other gods include the monkey god, who he says represents many bachelors today.

We continued our bus tour and drove past the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a Sikh temple featuring a golden dome, as well as many government buildings and monuments.

“I like the fact that as much as we’re observing people, they’re observing us,” noted Drew Giovannoli, a student from Connecticut.

After taking a brief walk around a park surrounding India’s memorial to its lost solders, we returned to our bus and drove past places of even deeper meaning to Indians -- cremation sites for Mahatma K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru - the first Prime Minister of India -- and Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (no relation to the father of India).

Called the Raj Gaat, Gandhi’s cremation site is one of the most visited sites in Delhi, along with Birla House, where this hero of bringing social change through non-violence lived for the last 144 days of his life and where he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

The meaning of this place was not lost on students. Here, they literally retraced Gandhi’s final steps, leading up to a garden monument marking where he took his final breaths.

“They had the footprints leading up to the martyrs column. I thought that was really moving -- just to think that’s where he walked and all of the great thing that he had done throughout history,” said Laura Keyton, a student from Kokomo, Ind. “It was sad in what it represented, but at the same time I feel like they celebrate it so well.”

Megan Walsh, a student from Zionsville, Ind., agreed with an observation that Gandhi’s death and its pivotal time in history is comparable to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and how many Americans responded to them.

“It represents a destruction in how things were going and a big change in how they had to handle things,” Walsh noted. “I feel it is very similar because the World Trade Center, when those towers went down, represented a change in what we had to do as a country.

“I think when Gandhi died, the government realized this was a change. He’s no longer here and we have to act on what he wanted because it was so important to him,” she added.

To close out the day, students toured the ruins around the 230-foot-tall minaret, the Qutab Minar, and the mausoleum of emperor Hymayun, a World Heritage site.

Tomorrow, we see the Taj Mahal. Due to the length of the day, our next dispatch will come on Tuesday.

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