Saturday, 9 July 2011

Pomp and circumambulation

I did quite a lot today. Having decided on another "tourist Saturday", I hopped on the Metro and headed up to the heart of New Delhi, the Rajpath, at the centre of the bombastic capital designed by Lutyens for British India and still the heart of power in India. Over the course of the day I ambled up and down the Rajpath and Raisina Hill (which leads up to the home of the Indian president), carried on to the National Museum, and then walked through the leafy avenues of New Delhi to lovely Lodi Gardens, through the park and on to the India Habitat Centre for dinner at the (impressively accurate) "All American Diner", before hopping back on the Metro at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (the one built for the Commonwealth Games).

That's not a bad walk for this climate, and I have to admit by the time I got to the park I was flagging. The inhabitants of Delhi think I am bonkers for wanting to walk anywhere at all. My landlord, who is lovely, tried and failed this morning to hide his view that my tendency to walk the 10 minute journey from my flat to the Metro station to get around town was a plain indication of my lunacy. In Delhi, the only people who walk are those who have to (this is still, it should be added, an awful lot of people). Everyone else is either in their car, on their bike, sitting in a tuk tuk, taxi or rickshaw, or driving them. And if you're white and anywhere NEAR a road, however much you think you are just pottering along minding your own business, what you are actually doing (as far as all the tuk tuk and rickshaw drivers are concerned) is carrying a large sign that says:


The thing is, Delhi is actually for the most part quite a walkable city - especially the parts I visited today. Admittedly crossing some of the roads can be a hair-raising experience, but with a decent map navigation is unproblematic and it compares favourably with walking in a lot of other Asian mega-cities (I still shudder a bit at my memories of trying to walk round Bangkok).

But try telling that to the people who live here. I'm not the first person to experience this bafflement in the face of someone who actually enjoys being able to walk around the city at my own pace - Sam Miller's book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity is based on his experiences of doing just that for a year (nice life these journos have) and I'm pretty sure he had to fight off legions of rickshaw wallahs every day.

Anyway, enough about walking. Having packed in a lot of stuff I have a lot to blog about, so I am going to be sneaky and use a lot of it as ammo for future days when I can't think of anything decent to write (see Tuesday and Wednesday this week). So for now I'll just talk about the Rajpath and New Delhi.

I think of all the bits of Delhi I've seen so far, the Rajpath is far and away my least favourite. Don't get me wrong, it's very impressive. The buildings are magnificent and suitably awe-inspiring; the scale of the broad mile-long avenue running from the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President's home, formerly home to the Viceroy of India) to India Gate is as immense as anything I've seen anywhere else in the world and makes the Champs Elysee look like a back alley. But the whole place just feels wrong.

Part of it is that there's just too much space:

The Rajpath and its surrounding lawns are so wide (I'd say at least 120 metres, though I'm not much good at estimating such things) that walking there, even when the sun is not too bad, makes you feel kind of like this traffic light (which is situated at Vijay Chowk at the bottom of Raisina Hill):

That is, isolated, exposed, and liable to get utterly drenched should the monsoon rains make an appearance (they did, but I was rescued by a friendly tuk tuk driver who - bless him - offered to take me somewhere for free as "it is a human right to stay dry". I got him to take me round the corner to the National Museum and paid 20 rupees for a 45 second trip).

The second thing is the lack of people. I know this was a Saturday and I'm sure it's busier during the week, but I can't quite believe that enough people ever come here (except for the big parade on Republic Day) to fill that yawning vacuum of space. Today there were a few lacklustre guards, some underwhelmed-looking tourists, a few families lounging in the grass, and a lonely ice cream man (I bought an ice lolly and then came back for another). Combined with the self-important architecture and the vast expanses of tarmac and patchy grass, the lack of people gives the place an austere, desolate air quite unlike the rest of the city.

In fact, although the Indians have taken the colonial infrastructure here and made it their own, that's the problem: it doesn't fit. It looks and feels like a massive colonial folly (I don't include all of New Delhi in this, by the way, a lot of which is really quite lovely) and is at odds with the packed, hardworking Indian city around it that is by turns elegant and squalid in equal measure. I don't blame India for doing this: in fact they are to be praised for embracing history and taking charge of it, rather than seeking to erase it (as in Seoul, where Japanese colonial buildings were torn down without regard for historical or aesthetic value). I just find the whole ensemble rather alienating (come to think of it, maybe that was the idea).

(On a side note, all my guide books tell me that Lutyens wanted the Rashtrapati Bhavan to be visible all the way up the Rajpath, and was really annoyed when he realised it only comes into view when you get towards the top of Raisina hill. Having been there, I have this to say: Lutyens was a bloody idiot. If you stick a big building on top of a hill but set it several hundred metres back from the summit edge, it's going to have an impact on its visibility from below. It's not rocket science. Greatest British architect, my aunt Fanny.)

Anyway, here are a few more photos of the Rajpath area if I haven't totally put you off (by the way, the National Museum and Lodi Gardens were both amazing, so subsequent posts will get a lot less critical...)

The Viceroy moved out, the President moved in. If you ask me, it's hard to see why either of them would need so much space.

*Insert metaphorical caption about Indian democracy*

No presidential residence is complete without pachydermal topiary.

Get out of the road, crazy white man!

I was going to upload a couple more but the connection speed has just dropped through the floor, and this post is probably long enough already anyway. Don't worry, lots more to come!

1 comment:

AR said...

I just stumbled upon your blog today and really enjoyed reading it. Even though this post is a bit old, I couldn't stop myself from saying two things:

1. It is, in fact, very much possible to fill up that vast space at Rajpath quite easily however unbelievable that may seem. I suggest checking it out on a late night (=10pm by Delhi standards :D ) And if its a weekend, it will be teeming with people! It feels like a giant picnic with families, children, a nicely lit up India Gate and many, many ice cream and balloon sellers!

2. An auto-rickshaw driver offered to drop you somewhere for FREE??!!! Wow...I cant wrap my head around that, I have never had such a privilege and I never thought it possible. As they say here, you must have done some great deeds in your past life to deserve this! ;)

Happy Holi!