Monday, September 29, 2008

Delhi by Metro (A very different kind of tour!)

I am very, very excited. This season, I'm launching a new tour of Delhi...a very different kind of tour. Want to know what's different about it?
For starters, it's Delhi's first tour by Metro! And not just the Metro - this tour uses two additional forms of 'green' transport that are popular with the common man in Delhi - the CNG powered auto-rickshaw, and the cycle-rickshaw.
The guides for the tour are special too. They are a group of youngsters from Manzil, an NGO that works in children's education. The kids at Manzil come from diverse backgrounds, but they are all united by a keen sense of wanting to learn, of wanting to make something of themselves. I was amazed and humbled and challenged by the energy and spirit I saw among them. We've now selected eight students from Manzil, and have started a training program for the tour. We're teaching them history, geography, and speaking skills, using a script researched and written specially for this tour. Manzil's own volunteer team is helping with the training as well.

The tour itself is interesting, and covers both New Delhi and Old Delhi. It starts at Connaught Place, with an introduction to the history of Delhi, and a geographical orientation of the city. From there, we take tourists by auto on an exploration of 'Lutyens Delhi' - the city of grand public spaces designed by the British, which is now called New Delhi. We drive through the Central Business District, seeing the markets and businesses there. We go to the Lutyens Bungalow Zone, Janpath, Rajpath, and visit the President's House, Parliament House, Secretariat and India Gate.

After this, we board the Metro to go to Old Delhi, where we experience the bustle of the bazaars both on foot, and using cycle-rickshaws. We will see the famous Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India), Dariba Kalan (the silver market), Kinari Bazaar (wedding market) and Paranthewali Galli (Lane of Parathas). We'll visit Gurdwara Sees Ganj Sahib, built at the site where Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. We will also see Hindu temples, Jain derasars and churches, all standing cheek-by-jowl.

The final stop at the tour is the legendary Haldiram's for chaat and a cold drink. After that, we clamber on the Delhi Metro again, to end the tour at Connaught Place.
So - what do you think? Sounds good? If you are a Delhi local, tell me if you think I should improve something. If you're an overseas visitor, does it sound appealing? If any of you want to be guinea pigs at discounted prices, let me know!
Here are some photos of the tour training in progress.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The man who lived in interesting times

I was strolling through the Qutb Complex with my friend, when we came across a little octagonal tomb set prettily in a separate courtyard.

There are many grand monuments inside the Qutb Complex - the tall Qutb Minar, the grand Quwwat-ul-Islam (Might of Islam) mosque, and the ornate Alai Darwaza. Most were built in the early 13th century, by the Slave Dynasty. But this small tomb was added later, in the 16th century.
Who was he, I wondered, this man whose tomb lay next to some of the grandest structures in Delhi? Why was he such a big deal? A Sultan perhaps, or some great nobleman? I looked at the inscription - this was the tomb of a priest, a man named Imam Zamin. It took quite some reading before I found out who he was.
Imam Zamin was a Sayyid, a word that is used to describe male descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. The Sayyids trace their lineage back to Hassan and Hussein, the two grandsons of the Prophet, starting from the 7th century.

In the sixteenth century, Sayyid Imam Zamin came to India from Central Asia (Turkestan), during the Sultanate of Sikandar Lodi. In The Delhi that No One Knows, R V Smith says that the Sayyid was appointed Chief Imam of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, and that Sikandar Lodi looked to him for spiritual guidance. The Imam, who was a Sufi, preached disregard for worldly achievements, asking Lodi to strive instead for unification with the divine Oneness.

.Smith also says that Imam Zamin didn't like the political intrigues in the court of the Lodis. I am not surprised. Sufism is the most mystical aspect of Islam, and Sufi saints are renowned for turning their faces away from the material world.

When Babur (the founder of the Mughal empire) defeated the Lodis, he visited Imam Zamin, to pay his respects. Babur's son Humayun also held the Imam in high honour, and it was in Humayun's reign that the Imam's tomb was built. When Humayun briefly lost Delhi to Sher Shah Suri, an Afghan, Sher Shah also came to seek the Imam's blessings.

I find it fascinating that here, in this little corner of the Qutb Complex, there was once a man who saw so many kings rule and die. What an interesting life he must have led! I can imagine him sitting in his dusty courtyard, with the mango trees in the background, listening to the call of Delhi's peacocks, while empires rose and fell and new rulers prostrated before him for his blessings.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Green Delhi

We were stuck in traffic near Kashmere Gate in Old Delhi. But I was surrounded by green. Green buses, that is, running on Compressed Natural Gas.
There was a bullock cart next to us (greener than the bus?). I couldn't resist photographing the white of the bullock against the colours of the bus. Dramatic, don't you think?

"Propelled by Clean Fuel", I read on the side of the bus. I remember how difficult it was to push the clean fuel initiative through. But in 2001, displaying remarkable firmness, India's Supreme Court ruled that Delhi must replace its entire fleet of outdated buses with pollution-free vehicles powered by Compressed Natural Gas. It was a tough move, and although some people kicked and screamed, it got done. Delhi's air quality improved dramatically.

Last year, though, there were studies indicating that the quality of air had worsened again. The Center for Science and Environment (CSE) published a report in November 2007, suggesting that pollution levels had jumped from 115 to 136 micrograms per cubic meter. CSE blames it on the rapid increase in the number of diesel-powered private vehicles.

The Delhi government is fortunately not ignoring these reports. It is doubling the number of CNG buses from 3,000 to 6,000. It has also introduced a new type of CNG bus, a fancier more modern looking version, that is disabled friendly. And recently, it has started air-conditioned buses on some routes.
Apart from buses, there is of course, the now famous Delhi Metro, which has made mass rapid transit possible in Delhi, and is contributing significantly to pollution reduction. While I sometimes despair for India's infrastructure, there's always something positive that ensures I don't lose hope completely!