This novel is a journey of various kinds. For some it is a mystery, a gold heist, for some it is a travelogue, a hike to the Himalayas, for others it is a spiritual adventure, a pilgrimage, a conversation with monks. The journey of the Americans to the source of the Ganges River takes them from the plains of India to the Himalayas and they experience India bottom up. They also face obstacles and suffering of various kinds – some physical, but mostly internal, within themselves. Otherwise, there would be no life experience from such a pilgrimage-adventure.
I plan to write several notes about the places the protagonists in Sacred River pass through in India to reach the source of the Ganges River. The story starts on the crowded plains of India where millions team and progresses to isolated, lonely places above 12,000 ft. in the Himalayas, which are alive only during the summer. We begin with the most prominent city in India, its capital. The characters in Sacred River come here for one reason or another:
The illiterate farmer Jagdish spends a night in a crowded apartment in Old Delhi and sleeps on the flat roof – a common practice in the heat of summer; Mr. Chetti and his assistant Ajit come to the great mosque, the Jama Masjid, to strategize their plans for the gold heist. They view the surroundings of Old Delhi from different perspectives; Jagdish sees a vast field of concrete building roofs – all the way to the horizon – very different from the green fields and farms of his home in Sitamarhi. And, from atop the high courtyard of the mosque, Chetti and Ajit see essentially the same thing but with the perspective of privilege. Pinky and Kayla come to Old Delhi to see the Light and Sound show at the Red Fort, to experience the vast sweep of Indian history. Later, Larry comes alone to the field in front of the Red Fort to learn more about the SMS organization. Sovik, Pinky, Kayla, and Be’ziil go to the Purana Qila, the Old Fort, and learn about Indraprastha, the capital of the Pandavas in the epic Mahabharata.
History of Delhi:
New Delhi was designed and built in the early 20th century when the British shifted their capital from Calcutta (now Kolkata). But ‘Old’ Delhi, a few Km on its north, had been there for 800 years as the capital of the Muslim conquerors. Many Indians also believe that the ancient town of Indraprastha was in this area. It is hard to draw a line between Old Delhi and New Delhi. Old Delhi has centuries old narrow roads and old architecture with forts and mosques; New Delhi has spacious, tree-lined roads and new building architectures. But in between, a crowded area with apartments, factories, and shops has grown up blurring the borders between the old and the new.
Visitors do not normally stay in the older part of town. But that is where you get a glimpse of timeless India—parts of Old Delhi haven’t changed much in the last few centuries. When you near this area, the roads become congested and cars, cycle rickshaws, three-wheeled Tuk-Tuks, hand-pulled carts, lorries, pedestrians, animals, and buses all compete for space. It is chaotic, but captivating. Standing on the roadside, you can close your eyes and imagine old Silk Road caravans passing.
Old Delhi appears in Sacred River first for the Sarva Mangal Society, an NGO that wanted to uplift the poor in India and had their head office in New Delhi.
Street scene in Old Delhi. Photo credit: http://blog.kudoybook.com/new-delhi/
Ajit sat quietly next to his boss. He knew Mr. Chetti always had a purpose in what he did. The auto rickshaw merged with the traffic on Netaji Subhash Marg and went toward Old Delhi. The honks and beeps of buses, cars, and three-wheelers filled their ears. The traffic slowed after some time when they reached the centuries old road to the Red Fort. As they went further, streams of people came in and out of stores on both sides of the road and walked in between the automobiles. Dense, black exhaust from a private bus gushed into their auto rickshaw, forcing Ajit and Chetti to cover their noses and mouths with handkerchiefs. Soon they could glimpse the majestic walls of the Red Fort. Chetti kept on looking at the red structure, as their rickshaw turned left to Chandni Chowk. He stopped the rickshaw and they got out.
“I came here for a reason,” Chetti told Ajit. “We shouldn’t talk about our activities in the office or my house. They could be bugged.” He turned toward the Jama Masjid.
The Red Fort, white Gauri Shankar Hindu temple and the red Jain temple as viewed from the busiest street of Chandni Chowk of Old Delhi. Photo credit: Bijoy Mohan @ flickr
Red Fort, Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid:
Red Fort in Old Delhi: Wikipedia
Starting in 1206, many Sultans have ruled from Old Delhi. Shahjahan, who built the Taj Mahal, created this walled city and made it the capital of the Mughal empire in 1639; it remained so till the dynasty’s end in 1857. Old Delhi was once filled with the splendid mansions of nobles, the royal court, elegant mosques and gardens. It included the Red Fort, with the royal seat of power and palaces, and Chandni Chowk (the main street) with the oldest and busiest market in the region. Tourists can now get a glimpse of the Mughal emperors’ lives inside the fort. Important structures to see are Diwan-i-khas (the Hall of Private Audiences), Diwan-i-am (the Hall of Public Audiences), and Moti Masjid, a jewel-like tiny mosque.
Inside the Red Fort. From left: Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque), the hamman (baths), Diwan-i-khas (hall of private audiences), Khas Mahal (Emperor’s apartments), and Rang Mahal (Women’s apartments, called the Colorful Palace, so named for its colorful mosaics). Photo credit: CC-by-sa PlaneMad Wikimedia
The place that Chetti takes Ajit to discuss their strategy for the gold heist is on the wide-open courtyard of Jama Masjid where the Muslims crowd on Fridays for prayer. It is one of the largest mosques in India and was built over 350 years back by Shah Jahan (creator of the Taj Mahal).
Front of Jama Masjid. Photo credit: Jama Masjid by Vaqar Ahmed
Old Delhi from Jama Masjid. Photo credit: Wikimedia by Abhatnagar
The market on Chandni Chowk and the street itself are a shocking contrast to orderly New Delhi. But amazingly, life goes on amid the chaos. Its narrow winding lanes are full of inexpensive jewelry, fabrics, spices, vegetables, perfumes, electronics and almost anything you wish to buy.
Chowri Bazar, Delhi. Wikimedia Attribution Teh djinn
Jagdish’s Old Delhi:
The illiterate farmer Jagdish helped Joshi when he was sick in the train station and Joshi invited him to stay in their house in Old Delhi near Sadar Bazaar.
The rickshaw driver took them by Chandni Chowk to Sadar Bazaar street, beeping his horn constantly and shouting at pedestrians to move aside. Nevertheless, people got in the way. Somehow the driver managed to slither in between the cars and people.
“Gupta Lane,” Joshi told the driver.
They went through a narrow road and stopped in front of a three-story brick house with stores on the first floor. An elderly woman came hurriedly down the front steps to meet Joshi. “You came by auto-rickshaw?”
Sadar Bazaar, the largest wholesale market of household items in Delhi
Photo credit: Wikipedia by Shweta1982 CC by-SA 3.0
A visit to Chandni Chowk is a must for all, just for the sheer experience of how people shop. Chandni Chowk is also a place to come to sample some of Delhi’s street food.
Photo Credit: Restaurant-NCR-Moti-Mahal-Delux
Forgetting street food, Sovik, Larry, Pinky, Kayla and Be’ziil came here to taste Tandoori chicken in the courtyard of the Moti Mahal Restaurant.
In the gathering darkness, they found a tiny courtyard filled with tables, dimly lit by electric lanterns suspended on strings. Indians crowded the restaurant’s large room, but the romance of the dimly lit courtyard suited the foreigners best.
“Isn’t Old Delhi amazing?” Pinky said as she inspected the surrounding courtyard walls. “I can imagine traders from the old Silk Road coming down here with their goods.”
“Yeah, except for all the three wheelers and exhaust spewing trucks, buses, and taxis.” Larry laughed.
“Well, the donkey and ox-carts fit in,” Pinky replied. “This is what it must have been like for our ancestors in towns like ancient Rome or London.”
… It was a good feast and a good way to end an evening in New Delhi.
When Sovik arrived New Delhi with his group, he was surprised to see armed security guards on the road. Returning to India after many years, he didn’t expect the changes that had taken place in his absence.
Not so unusual in Delhi. theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/26/end-road-new-delhi-elephants-india
He had pushed away the memories of his life in India. New Delhi had brought the old days back to him with the immediacy of hitting a brick wall—the days filled with struggles, from morning till night. He had succeeded in blotting out those memories until now.
In the morning, however, Sovik goes out for a walk. His spirits are restored at the Jantar Mantar, a 290-year old Indian astronomical observatory with giant structures used to measure the passage of sun, moon, and stars. And there he meets a monk wearing ocher clothes, a volunteer for the Sarva Mangal Society.
Jantar Mantar Delhi
Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
“What a morning!” Sovik thought. One moment, someone had made him feel like a thief and spoiled his mood, and the next, a priest had popped up out of nowhere and opened a door to information about the Gangotri area that he had sought for the last four years. In a renewed, happy mood he walked back to the hotel.
New Delhi Visitors often stay in hotels around Connaught Place with their modern facilities. Connaught Place has become the center of activity in Delhi with its circular design and tall columned buildings surrounding a central park. Tourists and well-to-do Indians gather in the stores, restaurants, and coffee shops behind the columns. There is a modern air-conditioned market under the circular central park. In Sacred River, Larry hung around in this area in a coffee shop where he saw Chetti and Ajit and overheard the whisper of a code 01 35 18 02 25 27 03 15 04 59 that made him wonder if they were conspiring for something.
Street scene in Connaught Place, New Delhi
Overview of Connaught Place (from Wikimedia: CP2)
The Qutub Minar, is a fine example of architecture from the Indo-Islamic period. Nobody has ever discovered why it was built in 1206, but it remains standing to this day. With five story and intricate carvings covering its surface, Qutub Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world. Inside the tower, a circular staircase with 379 steps leads to the top. Chetti takes Sovik to a nearby restaurant in order to request his help to raise money for the SMS organization.
Photo from Wikimedia
New Delhi was hot; even the small walk from the car to the restaurant made Sovik thirsty. He drank slowly and, as he looked around, the colors of the paintings reminded him of the small, sacred cloth his mother had given him to take to America.
He heard Chetti saying, “I’ve a specific item to discuss with you. Let me give you some background first.”
… From the window, Chetti viewed the Kutub Minar Pillar in the distance. He then turned to Sovik. “You have done technical work for many years. Isn’t it time to do something different?”
Purana Qila (Old Fort):
Purana qila old fort (photo by Tourism of India)
Sher Mandal and Hammam, Old Fort, New Delhi
Observing the stark grey walls of the fort, Pinky said, “I’m glad you brought us here. I’m sure places like this will bring back all the ancient stories you read while growing up in India.”
“Indians believe in these stories?” Kayla said. Her voice was skeptical.
“These two epics are like the Bible to the Hindus,” Sovik said. “They mold their lives, right from birth.”
Sovik was pleased that he stood on the site of Indraprastha and did not answer her. Some say the octagonal room in the fort, called Sher Mandal, was the site of the original sacrificial altar used by the Pandavas to worship Surya, the Sun god.
“These stories give valuable lessons for life,” Pinky told Kayla, “for all—Indians and non-Indians.”
The final view of New Delhi in Sacred River comes when Ajit was preparing his final arrangements for the temple Gold heist. While passing by Janpath, he stops at the roadside fair on Janpath.
He saw a big stall displaying colorful hand-woven saris and it struck him that he had not bought anything for Lajjorani for many years. The last time he bought something for her was two years after their marriage.
“A sari for me?” she was amazed. “You went to a store and selected this one for me?” Her face glowed with joy.
“Yes. Do you like it?”
“I’ll visit the tailor to make the blouse,” she said, holding the sari up and admiring the pattern. “I’ll wear it next time we go out together.” She said, kissing him for punctuation.
Fair on Janpath and Tibetan market by Sristhi Mehta
Other notable structures:
Being the capital, New Delhi has all the Administrative buildings, including the Parliament and the Rashtrapathi Bhavan—the equivalent of the White House. A beautiful garden known as the Mughal Gardens is located behind the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
View of Rashtrapati Bhawan. Photo: Wikimedia by Anupom Sarmah CC BY-SA 4.0
Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb, on the bank of the river Yamuna, was constructed in 1570 in New Delhi by Emperor Akbar for his father – the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent. The style has been used in many other tombs all over the country. Many graves of members of the Mughal emperor’s family are there. Later, it was the inspiration for the architecture of Taj Mahal in Agra.
Humayun’s tomb. Photo credit: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.5
Although not connected with Sacred River, there are many fine examples of temple architecture, old and new, in Delhi. One, very beautiful modern temple is the Lotus Temple, a Bahá’í House of Worship.
Lotus temple. Photo credit: Wikipedia by Muhammad Mahdi Karim
A new addition to Delhi is a temple complex known as Akshardham Delhi Hindu temple
Akshardham Delhi Hindu temple. Photo: Wikimedia by Swaminarayan Sanstha
Delhi has played an important role in India through ages; it is no wonder, it was a hub for the major characters in Sacred River: A Himalayan Journey. It is a gateway for outsiders to the Himalayas, the goal of the characters in the novel.
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