India Backpacking 2017-18

New Delhi

1 Nov. New Delhi
My cold was better in the morning with just a minor sore throat and sniffles. Although I could have visited more of Vrindavan’s temples, it seemed better to just rest awhile, then head to New Delhi. I had a fine Western breakfast—Indians are good at these—at the nearby fancy hotel, Hare Krishna Orchid. When going down the apartment elevator with my host, the power went out, but he pried open the doors with a key, then pulled them apart with his hands so that we could get out. He gave me a ride on his motorbike back to the main temple, where I got an electric autorickshaw to the bus stand, then a shared autorickshaw to the train station in Matura. Here I purchased a 95-rupee ‘super-fast’ express ticket for New Delhi. This could be for any train in the next three hours, but the trick was finding out which trains went there, then get on and maybe find a seat. Eventually I got aboard a train and was lucky to get a place to sit down in a three-tiered air-conditioned sleeper. This was probably a higher class than my ticket was good for, but nobody asked to see the ticket. The train was far, far smoother and cleaner than yesterday’s bus, but took an extremely long time getting through the outskirts of New Delhi. Indian trains encounter traffic jams too! I got off at New Delhi Railway Station and walked down Parharganj’s chaotic Main Bazaar road. It looked much the same as on my last visit two years ago, except that electric autorickshaws had made an appearance. If you hate filth, then Paharganj wouldn’t be your kind of place, but it does have heaps of good-value places to stay and eat. The New Delhi Railway Station and a Metro station are conveniently at its eastern end and another Metro station at the western end.
Of the world’s big cities, New Delhi is a favorite of mine for the incredible amount and variety of cultural programs and art galleries, while having a low cost of living. As the nation’s capital, it has a more cosmopolitan feel than India’s other big metros. Most of my 16 or so visits to India over the decades have passed through here. Air pollution is the big downside, and the air tends to smell dusty. One would think the leaders of India would clean up their showplace city, but that has yet to happen. I will stay eight days, mainly to take in programs of Indian classical dance and music plus visit some of the many art museums and exhibits. International programs will likely be on offer as well.
I made an online booking yesterday with for Yes Please Guest House, which I assumed to be the Cottage Yes Please near the west end of Paharganj’s Main Bazaar, but the name is a bit of a scam and not the same place. This one is far more basic—and cheaper at just 400 rupees—and more toward the middle of Main Bazaar. On the other hand I didn’t have to make a deposit with the reservation and could have simply moved elsewhere if I wished. My little single room lacked a window, electrical outlet, or a shower (just Indian-style bucket bath), but did have a marble floor! Staff rustled up a towel, top sheet, and chair.
One of the things I really like about India is the huge selection of English newspapers and magazine, and at a tiny fraction of what they would cost, in say Thailand. My reading started with The Times of India and the Indian versions of the magazines Better Photography and Lonely Planet
For dinner I had a good thali at the vegetarian Festa Café that’s located across the street from the real Cottage Yes Please. Also I finally got around to buying a sim card for the phone by visiting the same tiny shop I had used in 2013 and 2015. Getting set up required me to make a verification call the next morning, then wait until things went through. Later I bought an inexpensive international call plan that made overseas calls extremely cheap. Indians love their mobile phones and think that anyone without one is a bit strange!
2 Nov. New Delhi
All the rooms at Yes Please Guest House open onto the halls, letting in lots of noise such as loud coughing from a room across the hall during the night and loud talking and music early the next morning. For a better place to stay I moved to nearby Ajay Guest House where I had come four years ago; a large room with hot water, a/c, marble floor, and little bugs cost 900 rupees—not great but better than average in Parharganj. The downstairs restaurant offers a 300-rupee buffet breakfast with cooked-to-order eggs, porridge, juice, hot drink, fruit salad, and a selection of real breads along with lots of spreads to put on the bread. All this filled me up so that I could go until evening. Then back to Festa Café for a little pizza at the end of the day.
3 Nov. New Delhi
Today I filled up on art and culture—my main reason to visit New Delhi! With a Delhi Metro Rail travel card (saves waiting in line to buy individual tokens), I rode three stops to Mandi House, then took in the art exhibitions at the gallery in Lalit Kala Akademi on the south side of the big traffic circle. I enjoyed the shows—two group shows of paintings and solo shows of paintings/sculptures, monochrome drawings of nature, and photography—and got to meet a few of the artists.
Just about everybody knows that the English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) wrote the orchestral suite The Planets, but not that he had a “Sanskrit Phase” when he studied the language in order to translate Hindu texts into English and set them to music. He took a special interest in the Rig Veda, a set of more than 1000 hymns that praise gods such as Varuna, Agni, and Indra plus the sacred plant soma. Tonight at the India International Centre, The Bangalore Men along with a pianist performed a selection of these. A European fellow conducted and was also a skilled soloist for a couple songs. None of this was toe-tapping music, but short piano pieces by Beethoven and Chopin and recitations of Kipling and Tagore added variety.
I had a very spicy South Indian thali at a branch of Saravana Bhavan on Janpath, close to the Janpath Metro station. Saravana Bhavan may be the largest vegetarian restaurant chain in the world, and it was so popular tonight that I had to wait awhile to get in. After the thali I cooled off with a chocolate ice cream dessert.
4 Nov. New Delhi
Train travel is super popular in India, so getting a seat or berth can be tough. I walked over to New Delhi Railway Station to make a reservation for my next two destinations, Lucknow and Allahabad. There’s a special booking office upstairs available only to foreigners and can avail extra tickets from a “tourist quota.” Only two people staffed the reservation desks for the crowd on hand, and it looked like a long wait, so I thought of coming back tonight and try my luck. (The office is open a lengthy 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.!)
Back at Mandy House traffic circle, I turned north a bit on Tansen Marg to another art center, Triveni Kala Sangam. Here two women offered very colorful and cheerful solo shows: “Timeless Mountains” by West Bengal artists Sujata Kar Saha depicted landscapes, always with a water element. “Joie De Vivre: Celebrating Life” by Paris-based Maya Burman portrayed barefoot children playing in gardens.
A short Metro hop to Central Secretariat led to AIFACS (All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society Gallery) on Rafi Marg, where two galleries hosted “Grains of Canvas,” a large group show of paintings and a few odd sculptures. Downstairs another pair of galleries presented a photography and video exhibition including a selection of short videos with themes as varied as a young Dutch boy learning to be a wind-miller and a Chinese man encountering the end of the world. Nikon sponsored the exhibition, and also had a display of its SLR 35-millimeter film cameras from the 1959-vintage F1 to the last of the line, along with a couple models developed for use in space.
Then to Saravana Bhavan for more South Indian tastes, this time a tomato uttapam and a pair of ravi idli followed, of course, by an ice cream.
Back at the train station, I managed to get the desired train tickets without any waiting! That’s never happened to me before at this booking office. So I’m heading to Lucknow on the 9h, then on to Allahabad three days later. Both trips go in the morning on fast trains with air-conditioned ‘chair coach’ seating. The only disappointment was that foreign seniors no longer get a discount!
5 Nov. New Delhi
I spent some computer time to post texts of the India travels so far on my personal website. The pages will look a lot better when photos—the next project—have been added.
In the afternoon I headed to the cultural center India Habitat Centre in a striking cluster of giant cube-like buildings that form a series of courtyards. I first wandered through two temporary art exhibitions of colorful paintings, the dreamlike solo show “Interpretation of Memories” by Sumita Maity and the group show of stylized portraits “Different Strokes” A big photo exhibit illustrated the endangered Aravalli Range that begins near New Delhi and extends southwest across Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat states. In the evening I listened to the beautiful singing of Riddhi Bandopadhyay, a woman from Kolkata. She played the harmonium and had a fellow on tabla (drums) and keyboard. Finally I swung by Café Festa for a late and rich vegetable thali.
6 Nov. New Delhi
A three-day Indian classical music and dance festival called Sangeet Samaroh began this evening at the Kamani Auditorium on Copernicus Road, a little south of the Mandi House traffic circle. Music started with a Saraswathi veena concert by Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh, who masterfully played the complex instrument with its distinctly Indian sound. Next Smt. Bombay Jayashri Ramnath offered a Carnatic (southern India) vocal recital, again with great skill, and accompanied by a violinist who seemed to be having a ‘conversation’ with the singing. Nearly four hours had passed by the time I left! This, like most cultural performances in New Delhi, had free admission. Again, I had a late dinner of a thali at Café Festa just before it closed.
7 Dec. New Delhi
I started with a swing through art exhibitions at the Japan Foundation, south of the center and conveniently next to Moorchand Metro stop, to see artwork and videos about Nizo Yamamoto who makes detailed background paintings for animation films. Then I walked half a kilometer east to the Korean Cultural Center for a group show “Interfaces of Being,” but didn’t like most of it.
I made a second visit to India Habitat Centre, where the Aravalli Range exhibits included a photography show that used four early photographic printing techniques and a more contemporary set of videos taken from a drone. A new photography exhibition had just opened that included memorable views of the Indian Himalaya and Ladakh. I also took in a new show of colorful (Indians like color!) paintings.
Alliance Française de Delhi, down a little lane between India Habitat Centre and India International Centre, had a varied mix of drawings, paintings, and wax ‘paintings’ of nature and abstract designs. Next I walked a bit farther down the lane to India International Centre’s Annexe for a look at colored lithographs “Travels of the Prince Waldemar of Prussia to India 1844-46” that illustrate an adventurous trip across the Indian Himalaya to Tibet, then to a dangerous war zone near Lahore where the British overpowered the Sikhs.
With time running short, I hopped on an autorickshaw to Kamani Auditorium for the second day of the Sangeet Samaroh festival. Pandit Vinayak Torvi and his assistants gave an energetic Hindustani (northern Indian subcontinent) vocal recital. Next Smt. (Indian honorific abbreviation for ‘Shrimati’) Priyadarsini Govind presented a series of Bharatanatyam dances that told stories of a woman’s complex love for her man. Although these stories usually come from the Hindu tradition, such as the love of Radha for the god Krishna, one of the dances depicted the sorrow of the Bodhisatva’s (Buddha-to-be) wife when he left her and their baby son at night without saying goodbye. And back at Paharganj, another vegetarian thali at Café Festa.
8 Nov. New Delhi
The air pollution has gradually gotten worse during my week here and today bad enough that schools closed. It’s a mix of dust, smoke from burning fields, smokestack fumes, and vehicle emissions. City authorities aren’t up to fixing the problem. That’s a shame, and perhaps this will be my last visit to New Delhi, at least during winter when conditions tend to be at their worst.
I made a repeat visit to the Nikon photography and the group art exhibition “Grains of Canvas” at AIFACS. The sculpture artist, who displays natural wooden objects, gave me a tour, explaining many details that I had missed on my previous visit. A few of the other artists also told of their works. Hindu spiritualism pervades much of the art.
Over near Mandi House at Triveni Kala Sangam, I took in the new show “Scripting Spaces” by Ritu Bhutani who expresses her feelings about life.
Then I walked north a long block to Bengali Market, a little traffic circle with restaurants, sweet shops, and other stores. At Nathu’s I ordered up a South Indian platter with the four best known snacks from that region—an idly, vada, utapam, and masala dosa—followed by one of my favorite Indian sweets, a kesar rasmalai. This Bengali treat is like a tiny cake soaked in sweet cream.
The art gallery at Sangeet Natak Akademi had closed to change exhibits, so I visited the Gallery of Musical Instruments to see the hundreds from all over India on display. Many of these are played by tribal peoples. There’s also a collection of Indian masks, some very fierce, in the hallway.
And finally I headed to Kamani Auditorium for the third and final night of Sangeet Samaroh, which began with very lively Kathak dance performances by Smt. Gauri Diwaker. Extremely fast bursts of movement interspersed slower dance movements. Sometimes she stood and moved her feet rapidly up and down to ring the ankle bells. Both she and a male singer would give rapid-fire vocalizations at times. Musicians at the side included on tabla drums, another man on a double-ended drum, and players of those many, many stringed instruments, the sarangi that’s played with a bow and the plucked sitar. In the second program the sitar player Pandit Nayan Ghosh, with his son on tabla, gave a fine performance.

On to Lucknow

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