Monday, December 28, 2009

Delhi to Agra by train

It started, as many trips do, with chaos.

We were taking the 6:15 express train from Delhi to Agra. We got to the New Delhi Railway Station in time, but were met by a crazy mess of cycle-rickshaws and cars and autos and buses, all trying to get to the same place, and weaving in and out of the "lanes". A 20-minute hold up, while we debated how heavy our bags actually were, and if we should make a last dash to the train on foot.

As we neared the station, the mess worsened. Meanwhile a bright yellow board smiled down benignly at us. "Zero Tolerance for traffic law breakers" it said. I simply had to grin. Our car driver was confident. "Don't worry, madam, there is enough time".

The sky lightened while we waited, and finally we entered the station with 15 minutes to spare. The first thing we did was to find a porter. We gave him our bags, and told him our train name.

Inside there was the usual crowd, but the big pink and red board was easy to read. We found our train was on time.

As we walked inside the station, we found people waiting for trains. There are simply not enough seats, so people with long wait just find a convenient place, spread a newspaper and sit down. Most of the pillars were already taken :)

We trundled blindly along behind our porter, trusting him to find our train and coach. That's my husband with his laptop. I hurried behind them, stumbling as I clicked and half-ran, half-walked. In case you didn't know this already, porters in Delhi walk really fast!

Voila! Our compartment! The porter was right as usual, leading us unerringly to it. I got a photo of him as he waited for me to catch up.

We checked and found our names neatly printed on the Reservation Chart stuck near the compartment door.

He helped stow the bags, and smiled his thanks when we paid well.

Meanwhile, other passengers arrived, children, adults, locals, foreigners...everyone settled in for the two hour ride.

In spite of the traffic, we had arrived with some minutes to spare, so I went exploring. The cabins are connected through little gangways, the toilets are near the gangways.

I pushed open the toilet door somewhat gingerly and took a peek inside. It was a Western-style toilet, with toilet paper, but not a particularly nice toilet. I was glad it was a short trip!

I stepped out of the train to click some photos. Several families were waiting for our train to leave, and for the next train to come in.

A railways employee was transferring what looked like the post. Piles of blankets and pillows were on the station, perhaps to be transferred to the next long distance train.

I went back inside the train, just in time for the newspaper delivery. The turbanned "bearer" is a cool idea! The Railways employs 1.4 million people, by the way, but very few of them have turbans :) It is India's single largest employer.

As we settled down, the train moved with a little jerk; and we were off to Agra!

A security guard came round, checking that all was well.

In about 15 minutes, morning tea arrived on a bright red tray, with a couple of biscuits. It was very welcome. For me, the worst part of the Agra trip was having to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and get out of the hotel by 5:30 a.m. without a decent breakfast. I polished off the biscuits but I was still hungry.

Then came the ticket checker, to inspect our tickets.

I was glad to see the breakfast tray. It was a mediocre breakfast at best, but I didn't care. I polished off two slices of bread with jam, and ate my oily cutlet. My husband had an egg omelette instead of the cutlet.

After breakfast, I tried to snooze a bit, since I was still groggy. In any case, there isn't much by way of scenery. We pulled into Agra Cantonment at 8:15, to a pleasant sunny morning. We had pre-arranged to be met at the station, so everything was nice and easy, we had another porter to manage the bags, and all I had to do was walk out, clicking away.

Here's the exterior of Agra Cantonment. It was less crowded than I expected; or perhaps most of the crowd had dissipated by the time we exited the station.

And so ended our train trip from Delhi to Agra. Of the 9000 or so trains that the Railways runs, this is one of the most popular ones on the tourist circuit. If you're taking this train, you will arrive too early in Agra to check into your hotel, so it is better to head straight to the Taj, and then go later to the hotel for check in and lunch. Also, I guarantee you, if you're anything like me, you'll be sleepy after lunch, so plan a little snooze before you head for Agra Fort at 3:30 p.m. And stay the night at Agra if your itinerary will allow it. Heading to Jaipur (5 hours), or back to Delhi, (long wait for the express return train at 8:30 p.m.) can be very tiring.

Post-Script: If you are considering a day trip to Agra, please see this new blog post. I wrote it after the new expressway to Agra opened in 2012, and it has timings and schedules for how to best manage a day trip.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Giant Indian Mantid for company

As I write this, I keep glancing outside at the verandah. About 20 minutes ago, I discovered amongst my innocuous garden plants, a Giant Indian Mantid!!

She is all of 6-inches long, and she's at least an inch wide. This is the biggest insect I have ever seen in my life!

And frankly, this is hardly sort of thing you'd expect on the 14th floor of a city condominium. How did she even GET here?

Can you spot her? She's good at hiding, you know?

Anyway, I ran for my camera, before she moved. She gave me her best praying pose. I clicked and clicked and *swore* at the poor quality of the photos. But here's one of them anyway. It does no justice to the utterly gorgeous creature in front of me, but at least you can see something of her (click on it for a larger view).

Did I say gorgeous? Yep. She is gorgeous.
Check out those spiked forelegs (they're called "raptorial" legs, used to hold prey!)

Yeah, yeah, I know they're related to cockroaches. But this one is a beaut. And she's huge. I can't tear my eyes away. They're cannibalistic, you know? You can't put two mantids together in the same area, or before you know it, you have just one of them!

And the females eat the males during mating, like some species of spiders. There are photos here, go on, click here, it's fascinating!

How do I know this one in the photo is female? Because she has 6 segments to her abdomen, the males have 8. I wonder how long it's been since this one ate her last mate. :D

I'm still watching her. She's moved to the underside of the leaf now. She hiding, waiting for the next unwary insect to come buzzing by. Snap! Crackle! And the lady will feast.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Paranthe Wali Galli

People are always asking me about Paranthewali Galli. What's it like? What do they serve? Is it really as tasty as they say it is?
So here's an inside look at paratha making in Paranthewali Galli - you decide if it tempts you enough to go there!

. . Step 1 - Pre-preparation - grated vegetables for stuffing the paratha.
This guy was sitting on one side of a small shop, grating vegetables. The photo above has grated cauliflower. Other stuffings include potatoes, cabbage, cottage cheese, peas, pulses, dry fruits...even sweet rabri. Very innovative.

Step 2 - A handful of the right stuffing
The ingredients for the paratha are are all laid out in trays. Depending on the order placed, a full handful of the right stuffing is used. In some parathas, the stuffing is a mix of multiple ingredients...I ordered a mix vegetable paratha that had paneer also in it.

Step 3 - Adding spices
Spices are added from the spice tray - cumin powder, red chilli powder, coriander powder, masala. Green chillies and ginger also often added. I didn't see onion or garlic, though. Perhaps because the shop is Brahmin, and this locality has many Jains as well (check out the nearby Jain Naughara if you can).
Step 4 - Rolling the paratha
The paratha is then rolled in a dough that is wheat-based. The stuffing and spices go inside. There was an assistant helping with patting the dough into flat circles. You can also see the green chillies and ginger tray in this photo.

Step 5 - Now comes the deep-frying!
The paratha is then deep-fried in ghee. Instead of a flat griddle, here in Paranthe Wali Galli, they use a curved pan.

Step 6 - The paratha comes out brown and crisp on the outside, steaming hot
More like a puri than a paratha, actually :) Check out the amount of ghee in the pan!

Step 7 - It is served with accompaniments
You can see their interesting mixed vegetable pickle in this photo. Other accompaniments include a potato and peas curry, potato and methi curry etc. There are some chutneys as well, although I don't know what they are.

Step 7 - The runner boy pickups the hot parathas and takes them inside the "restaurant"
Check out the guy in the background licking his fingers!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A portable shrine (and a piece of clever storytelling!)

Have you ever seen a Kavad? I saw one in Udaipur, and I was fascinated by it.

A Kavad is an amazing wooden painted temple, with lots of panels and secret compartments that fold out to tell a story. The Kavadiya Bhats, the Priests of the Kavad, take these around from village to village. The really fascinating thing is, the story doesn't make sense unless you open the panels in the correct sequence. Why? Because a fair bit of tricky carpentry has gone into the kavad - some panels slide out, some swivel on a stick, some open out like drawers, and still some others are fold-outs...And of course, only the Kavadiya Bhat knows the secret sequence! So the audience sits, fascinated, as the Bhat tells the story in song and dance, turns the little panels this way and that. Here's one of the panels:

As the story develops, the Kavadiya too progresses towards the inner-most central panel, and the story comes to its logical climax with the final image of the God or Goddess in full regalia, very much like a temple sanctum.

Here's another kavad (about ten feet wide when it is opened out fully). And you can see, at the centre of the kavad, the grand finale of the story - the coronation image of Lord Ram!
Here's a closer look at the central sanctum:At this point, the narration ends, and, guess what, the audience is required to put money into the kavad - there's a little box for it, a slit in the kavad, specially designed for this! Ah, what a tricky box of carpentry, and what a fantastic story-telling aid this. I wish we could bring a Kavadiya to the cities, and ask them to fashion this as an aid for history lessons in our schools. How utterly delighted the children would be!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi (9 & 10)...and 11 and 12 and...

So finally, I've come to the last entry in the 'Ten things that define Delhi' series. And of course, I'm in a fix, because when you try to define the essence of a big, ancient city like Delhi, it's hard to stick to 10 specific things.
My friend Sanjaya says it quite evocatively: "(Delhi is) many other things for me... Parathewali Gali in Chandni Chowk (a drunk Sadat Hasan Manto on a tanga near where Ghalib might have lived)... The Delhi Zoo in the Old Fort Complex... next to the tomb steps where Humayun died ("He tumbled through life and he tumbled out of it" in the words of Stanley Lane-Poole)... and DU with St. Stephen's College... not easy to list only a few!"

And thus it is for every dilliwalla or dilliwalli. So many impressions, big and small, come together to create a complex, colourful, emotive picture of the city.

For Kirti, who went to B-School with me (beyond all doubt, the leggiest girl on campus), Delhi is about classical concerts at the park between October and March, with glorious monuments as backdrop. I'll go with you next season, Kirti!

Vandita says she likes the unique student culture of North Campus, with its mix of upscale and downmarket colleges. Sandy says for her, Delhi is all about glorious, noisy weddings. Dimple, bless her, says it's the colourful jhumkies and jutties on sale in the shops. Shobna says it's sinful dollops of ghee in winter. For Pooja, with whom I photographed the city, Delhi is all about glorious monuments that spring suddenly round the corner when you're just driving by.

If you really want to understand Delhi, experience it with someone who loves the city. In the last 15 years, I've wandered through Delhi in the company of many wonderful people, on several different occassions...long days spent working, talking, shopping, dining, photographing, finding snippets of history and art and culture...loving the bazaars, hating the Gurgaon traffic...
Over the years, the city has slowly revealed more and more of itself. But just when I begin to think I know the city well enough, something new turns up, and the discovery starts afresh. I suspect the journey will never end.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi (8)

Shahjahanabad - yeh dilli hai mere yaar...
If you open any Delhi Guide Book, you'll see the city divided into two parts - New Delhi and Old Delhi.
By Old Delhi, they mean Mughal Delhi, Shahjahanabad, the city that Shahjahan founded in the mid-1600's. It was the new capital of the Mughals, a prosperous city of fabled riches, of elegant mansions and gardens.
Two hundred years after it was founded, Shahjahanabad fell to the British. The end came as a consequence of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when Indian troops (sepoys) in the service of the East India Company rebelled and tried to overthrow the Company. Fighting spread across the Gangetic plain and Central India as civilians rallied under local banners and joined the resistance.
Shahjahanabad was the epicenter of the battle. The 82-year old Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II - more a poet than a commander - became the frail figurehead under which Indian forces rallied. Indian rebel troops arrived in Delhi in May 1857, routing the small British force which was present in Delhi at the time.
Over the next 5 months, the British (with their Pathan, Sikh and Gorkha regiments) laid siege to the city. On September 14, they stormed into the city through Kashmere Gate.
The storming of Kashmere Gate
The gate still bears marks of cannon.

After a bloody fight that raged through the streets of Shahjahanabad, the Mughal empire ended.
The fall of Shahjahanabad, and the surrender of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah, had far reaching consequences. The city was looted, its civilians killed, the Red Fort became a ghost city as many of its inhabitants fled.
Today when you walk into Old Delhi, you can still see the ruined mansions and gardens, vestiges of the once glorious Shahjahanabad.

Zeenat Mahal, residence of Bahadur Shah's favourite queen.

To me, Shahjahanabad is the very heart of Delhi. If you explore Shahjahanabad on foot, then amidst the crazy noise and chaos, Delhi's history will still call out to you. There are so many buildings here, each with a story to tell. You just have to stop and listen.

Previous post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (7)

Next post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (9 & 10)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi (7)

If you're like me, and you love all things green, then Delhi can be a delightful city. Just driving along can be a pleasure, with wide tree-lined avenues, each home to many varieties of trees. .
Delhi, City of Trees
Tamarind, jamun, neem, pipal, banyan...all of them provide shade in the Delhi summer, and are refreshingly green in the rains. And it's not just trees - there are parks and gardens, beautiful restful places where you can sit down and enjoy the peace.
Yes, that is indeed a peacock strolling by casually
Gorgeous greenery at the Hauz Khas tank
There are many large garden areas - the beautifully landscaped Lodhi Gardens, the Mughal Gardens at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Buddha Jayanti Park, the Zoological Park, Nehru Park, the Delhi Golf Club...these are home to over 250 species of trees.
But although the large public gardens and parks are lovely, for me, the real heart of Delhi is in the small gardens that dot residential 'colonies'. In these gardens, the elders of the community come for their morning walks, some walk their dogs, some jog, and the children play cricket in the evenings. There are small benches where recipes are exchanged, gossip traded, matrimonial matches made, and much knitting accomplished. I still remember one summer morning when I sat on a porch with my chai, idly looking at the flowering trees of the neighbourhood garden. The coral tree was in bloom, and I watched the mynahs and sparrows hopping around chattering to themselves...what a blissful way to start the day.

- Deepa

P.S. Okay, now that I have defined seven ideas, how about suggesting what 8, 9 and 10 should be?

Previous post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (6)

Next post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (8)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi (6)

A very Mughal city

Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi – a relaxing Char Bagh-styled Persian garden area that served as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal

To me, Delhi has always been the city of the Great Mughals.
Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, was descended from the Mongol invader Ghengis Khan on his mother's side and on his father's side the infamous Timur (Tamberlane). The word Mughal itself is derived from the word Mongol.
Babur was succeeded by his son Humayun in 1530. But Humayun was only 22 and soon lost his territories to the Afghan Sher Shah Suri. He regained them with Persian aid ten years later, returning with a large retinue of Persian noblemen.
Humayun's return with a Persian entourage signalled an important change in Mughal Court culture. The Central Asian origins of the dynasty were now largely overshadowed by Persian art, architecture, language and literature.
The Persian influence is still visible today, not only in the monuments of Mughal Delhi, but also in the Urdu language and Mughlai cuisine of Delhi.

Previous post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (5)

Next post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (7)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi (5)

.Dilli ki shaan - The Metro!.

The Metro is more than just a Mass Rapid Transit System. It is proof that change can happen, that things can work, that a few good bureaucrats can make a giant difference. Take a Metro ride today!

Previous post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (4)

Next post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (6)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi (4)

The Qutb Complex - a place where history comes alive.

The Qutb Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site that marks the arrival of Islamic rule in India. Built by the Slave Dynasty who ruled India for nearly a century, the complex is a grand cultural statement marking the beginning of a new religion that transformed the country.

In the initial phases, the new rulers demolished Hindu and Jain temples, but reused the pillars and stones, creating structures unique in the Islamic world. Later, Hindu craftsmen and artisans learnt how to work within the Islamic artistic framework. In the Qutb Complex, the lucidity and economy of Islamic architecture meets with the richness and exuberance of Hindu art, to form beautiful and arresting structures.

Go see the pillars of Quwwat-ul-Islam (Might of Islam), the first mosque in North India, and you'll feel like you're in the middle of a dramatic story.

Previous post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (3)

Next post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (5)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi (3)

Number three on my list (perhaps it should have been number one?)

Food ! Finger licking, scrumptious, fattening food!

Whether it is hearty butter chicken, Moghlai cuisine or just roadside chaat, Delhi truly has some amazing food on offer.

This photo is of a very 'standard' meal - butter naan, paneer in butter and tomato gravy, and buttery daal (yes, everything has butter or ghee!). Washed down with a tall lassi.

This is the kind of meal where at the end of it, you sit back a little glassy-eyed and look at the world in a very kindly sort of way.

Previous post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (2)

Next post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (4)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi (2)

But of course, Delhi is all about its women - the gorgeous dilliwallis.
The girls of Bombay may have that oh-so-cool attitude, but it is the women of Delhi who have made formal dressing into a fine art.

I was sitting at the bar at the Maurya Sheraton with two English colleagues a couple of years ago, when we saw a high profile society wedding in the hotel. For nearly an hour, as the who's who of Delhi came for the wedding, the three of us just sat there fascinated. We saw what must be some of the most beautiful women in the world, wearing some of the most outstanding wedding costumes ever designed.

That evening has become one of my enduring images of Delhi. All those gorgeous women, swishing past in exquisite wedding lehengas, expensive jewellery, fancy purses, and was Delhi at its swankiest best.

Previous post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (1)

Next post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (3)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Ten things that define Delhi - (1)

Here's the first one:

All those glorious government buildings

(And outside them, the white Ambassador cars of the babu-log!)

Raisina Hill and it's surrounds are the most visible symbol of sovereign India. When someone says "The Indian Government", I'm guessing many of us see visions of Rajpath, Janpath, North Block, South Block, Parliament House, and so on.

I don't know about you, but this is an image that evokes mixed reactions in me.

On the one hand, there is pleasure at the image of broad roads and beautiful buildings. On a sunny day, you walk up Raisina Hill and see Rashtrapati Bhavan or the Secretariat silhouetted against a blue sky...the breeze blows through your hair and you feel like you're on top of the world.

On the other hand, there is despair at not being able to change the slow-moving and corrupt system. Through its sheer size, the bureaucracy towers terrifyingly over me; I feel dwarfed and impotent. It is like a mysterious machine that wields enormous power. The machine is inexorable, it holds the lives of a billion people in its grinds on, driven entirely by political intrigue and favour-trading.

Next post in this series: Ten things that define Delhi - (2)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine, Schmalentine

At breakfast yesterday, my daughter put down the newspaper in irritation.
"What's all this fuss about saving 'Indian culture', anyway?", she said. "Shouldn't we be more worried about poverty and hunger?"
She was referring to the ongoing brouhaha over Valentine's Day. The press is full of it - there are those who say festivals like these are foreign transplants, which destroy Indian culture. There are those who stoutly defend the right of people to adopt whatever culture they like, whether it is Western or otherwise.
It's not just Valentine's Day, but also other Western influences that irk many Indians. Many of us are bewildered by Bollywood videos of near-naked women gyrating to 'disco' songs. Where did these come from, we wonder, these images that are almost soft porn? Take a look at this one - Isqh Khudai, Rab ne Banai. While the lyrics are in Hindi, the setting is undoubtedly Western. The actors toss down tequila shots, the music has strong Western influences, and there's not a salwar kameez in sight.
Parents and teachers are also coping with the spread of McDonalds, the increasing absorption with skinny bodies, the new mall culture, the alienation of children from their traditions, the growing incidence of divorce, the popularity of chat sites...somehow, all of these are perceived to be the results of the increasing influence of the West (read America) on the world.
My husband looked up from the sports section that he was reading.
"I can see why they want to stop this Westernisation", he smiled. "I half want to stop it myself!" (this from a very liberal man who loves jazz and the blues and thinks no party is complete without scotch whisky!)
"Oh?" I said, vastly amused. "And why is that?"
"Cultural exchange is great", he said. "But this is all so one-way! How come so little of Indian culture gets exported in the other direction?"
I thought it was a very interesting perspective. If the West celebrated Indian festivals the way we celebrate theirs, perhaps people wouldn't feel so threatened? Perhaps if Holi became a popular world festival, we'd learn to take Valentine's Day in our stride!
Anyway, this whole conversation went on and on, the three of us argued the merits of preserving and documenting culture, the rate at which cultural change happens today, historical trends, and all sorts of other interesting things. Finally, we all agreed, like the sensible family we are, that change is inevitable, and we must change with the times; adopting some changes and ignoring some.

Last night, my husband boarded a flight for Chennai, where he is spending this weekend with his parents. Today is Valentine's Day. I haven't wished him, and he hasn't wished me. Looks like I'm not changing my ways on this and neither is he!
No Valentine-Schmalentine for THIS couple!