How Cherrapunji changed Delhi for me
Nothing demolishes the building blocks of routine more aggressively than a carefully unplanned holiday.
Fade in. Morning. 8 am-ish.
I’m at the backseat of a taxi in Police Bazaar, Shillong, where the cool luxuriance of highland air washes away the vitriol from my last dayjob. The backing instructions by ‘The Ramones’ feel like music to my ears. My personality is making a comeback.
Pan to the rear-view mirror.
‘Hey ho, let’s go. We’ve been parked for 15 minutes now.’. My driver communicates to me non-verbally. His need for a destination is on the verge of ending my reverie.
Deflect to kids by the wayside bubbling uniformly to a school of their parents’ choice.
Throwback to Geography class in school, where I’ve just discovered that Cherrapunji is the rainiest place on Earth.
Snap back to Google which tells me I’m just 53 kms from finding out what the world’s wettest place feels like.
‘Cherrapunji chalo!’ (Let’s go to Cherrapunji!)
Just like that, my driver discovers purpose. He puts the car into gear with an assertion that translates to the way he honks. Look out, Cherrapunji!
Plug in headphones. Cut to daydreaming.
Ok Google, what if it’s not raining there?
Cloudy with a chance of shower.
Maybe, I should’ve planned a little.
As my driver’s winsome Maruti-800 car zigs through the Khasi hills, I can see the city being swiped left through my window. In its place arrives a mise en scene (even the words in my head are turning dramatic) starring a vast, curiously dimpled grassland straight out of India Patagonia.
Pink wildflowers come streaming in too, followed by char-black monoliths, pencil-shaped tombstones and brown-top Welsh cottages, set against spectacular desolation.
As I take off my headphones, the bass effect of the passing breeze whistles into my ears. This journey is transporting me to an arthouse film. Willingly, I suspend my disbelief. I sense the child in me rise.
Cut to my driver (who is named Dhoni like the famous Indian cricketer), who dutifully asks me where I’m from.
As I say Delhi, his face lights up with the longing for a place he’d rather be. Suddenly, there are two children in the car. In fact, he now sets his language as sweet, rundown English for the rest of the trip.
‘Delhi aaah…you see Qutub Minar? It really so tall?!’
He’s trying to show me his version of ‘tall’, but his ambition is limited by the low roof of his Maruti 800.
‘Yes, yes it’s very tall. You must come to Delhi sometime.’
‘My dream trip Sir, saving money for it!’
And to think, I’ve been to Qutub Minar only once in my seven years of working in Delhi.
After another half-hour of roadspeak, we’re in Cherrapunji, where we pull over at a tuck shop for some highway tea.
Dhoni lights up his beedi (a type of Indian cigarette) and asks me expectantly, ‘Ok, we in Cherrapunji, where you go now?’
I sip my tea and try not to exchange an empty look.
He fills the radio silence with a crackle of excitement:
‘Come, I take you to waterfall…’
Must be one of those basic, roadside cascades. Boring. I agree anyway, for want of a less boring idea.
As we motor away to the ‘waterfall’, the landscape seamlessly morphs into steep craggy cliffs, luscious green forests and little mystic rivers. A cracking Monsoon thunder electrifies the atmosphere with impending wonder.
Only one thing can happen from here.
In a few minutes, it does. I find myself at Noh Kalikai, the highest plunge waterfall in India.
The total lack of ceremony makes this experience feel like a happy serendipity. As I take in the bird’s eye view, my toes raise as the ground beneath me slips. The child in me sighs ‘WOAAHHH!’. This is India’s own Angel Falls. There’s also a dreamy blue lagoon at the waterhole. No fabled Monsoon downpour though, despite the overbearing clouds. But, look, someone has left a tap running for me nearby, with no bucket in sight!
Pan to Dhoni to catch his expression. He seems more excited by his next question, ‘Sir, how much flight ticket to Delhi?’
Perfect. Just the way I planned.
Behind every successful day in Old Delhi (7 min read)
They say, if you dig deep enough, you discover portals into the past. If you were to dig deep in Old Delhi though, you’d discover a portal into the future. Of course, you don’t have to, because a brave army of engineers already did that for you in early-2000s. And gloriously materialised India’s deepest Metro station at Chawri Bazaar. This futuristic terminal is buried a good 100 feet in the Delhi underbelly and is a shiny foil to the bustling Mughal-era market that lies above. Quite how the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) managed to make the old and the new worlds meet this way, is a story for another time altogether.
Just then, a lady with an electric voice asks me to ‘Please mind the gap’ and snaps me out of my reverie. My early-hour train has just swished into place at the dreamy Chawri Bazaar Metro stop. As I make my way up the three storeys to the exit, the first note of horsey musk starts making its way inside. I’ve successfully logged into the grit of Old Delhi.
I’ve only logged out of my sweet winter slumber to work on a photologue about Old Delhi before it gets down to the business of the day. The day before the day. How often does one get to see the Old Delhi that lies in the space between its people?
For now, the only people are the early birds preparing to make hay as the Sun prepares to shine. The paanwallah (betel-leaf hawker) is rinsing his stash of leaves, the chaatwallah (spicy Indian streetfood seller) chopping veggies for the chutney (mint sauce), the wayside barbers working on the cutting edges, the sweepers housekeeping the road. As I absorb the scenes behind the scene, the chaiwallah (tea hawker) offers me my cone of tea spiked with just the right spices. ‘Cheers!’, he adds in earnest, rundown English. I’m his boni or first official customer for the day. After that cracking start, my senses too (all six of them) are well and truly open for the day.
Perked from the tea, I move on to the fabled Jama Masjid. As an evening visitor, you can only afford this bulbous beauty continual partial attention. Because among the hordes of the dusk, push can easily come to shove. But it’s only 8.30 am, and I languidly take in the dome and minar ensemble, swathed as it is, in milky winter haze.
The tea has only whetted my appetite for breakfast, and I’m off to Shyam Sweets to quench my hunger. This popular eat-out is known for dishing out the bedmi puri sabzi, a cracking deep-fried bread made from puffy wheat flour and ground urad lentil. Served with aloo sabzi (potato curry), it comes from a closed-door recipe that’s 4 generations old. Yes, polishing this delicatessen can get messy, but that spice-flour camaraderie is worth a lick or five. And you can top that with the daulat ki chaat hawked nearby. A foamy concoction from Moradabad made from milk cream leavened with just the right amount of dark-hour mist. Talk about an overnight success.
Suitably mealed, I dive into Khari Baoli and can sense a very distinct Cairo vibe to the place. Mostly because, it’s the largest spice bazaar in Asia and the air is rent with a heady deodorant of spice, fruit and nut. A nearby rooftop commands a view of an assorted shanty, complete with the public display of dirty linen. Outside their homes, people soak in the low winter sun while poring over the newspaper, curating their beards, chatting about the state of the nation, lavishing their pets or even indulging in a de rigueur game of corridor cricket. Almost like you’ve been teleported straight into a Bombay chawl.
I’m woken from my Bombay reverie by a Caucasian photographer who’s also been shooting the Baoli from the top down. He’s noted my ‘local’ look and asks if I’ve heard of this quaint place in Chandni Chowk that stocks the monsoon aroma. Yes, I quip, come to Delhi in July-August and every kinaara (corner) on the road will be stocked with the monsoon aroma! Jokes apart, I do know about the place. It’s called Gulabsingh Johrimal and apart from the wet-mud or Gul, the good people there can also mimic the fragrance of big-ticket perfumes (think Dior, Dunhill, Bulgari) in bottles of ittar that are pocket-friendly, both in size and price.
As we make our way to the scent merchant, the photographer tells me his name is Alberto and he’s shooting for a Spanish newspaper. Also, have I heard of Naughara of the technicolour Jain havelis fame? I haven’t. We ask around and decide to visit Naughara first, so we won’t have to lug around the ittar bottles scored from Gulabsingh Johrimal.
En route Naughara, we find ourselves in Kinaari Bazaar. Now, I’ve never been here and must say this place is stimulus motherload. The arsenal includes a riot of colours articulating themselves as bangles, sarees, turbans, linen, girdles, pendants, flowers, and basically anything else that doesn’t just come in black and white. Then of course, there are the rickshawmen who stretch their vocal chords like their life depends on it (in that crowd, sometimes it can).
We take a detour from the main street bustle and enter the sanctuary of 18th century Naughara. Jain havelis? Tick. Technicolour? Double tick. The arched doorways of the nine havelis are draped in floral motifs and a luxuriant palette of pink, green and aquamarine. The doors themselves have ornate etchings on them. How’s that for an invitation into an exotic past? The Jain temple nearby is decked in pure white marble and gracefully offsets the exuberance of the havelis.
We now scramble towards Chandni Chowk to shop at Gulabsingh Johrimal. As the day waxes, real estate on the sidewalk is beginning to vanish at an alarming rate. Soon enough, we’re at Gulabsingh Johrimal. As we part the plastic curtain, it seems we’ve entered the Indian Monsoon. The Gul or the wet-mud ittar has marked its territory all over. Other ittars that fly off the shelves include the Rooh Gulab (Rose) and the Khus. Of course, you can also ask for bespoke ittars inspired by the essence of your favourite designer perfume. This 7th generation merchant of scents boasts of famous patrons like Indira Gandhi, Sharmila Tagore and more recently Vir Sanghvi.
Just as we step out of Gulabsingh Johrimal, I spot a curious beeline of people rushing to and from some place through a skinny alley. Turns out, the place in question is the swanky Chandni Chowk metro stop, that’s oddly enough buried behind a dated warren of stores. Just then, a cycle rickshawman chides me as I let him pass, ‘Sir, kabse ghanti baja raha tha, phone kyun nahin uthaaya?’. It takes me a while to decipher him. Then I interpret the rather creative rickshawman for my friend Alberto, ‘Sir, I’ve been ringing the bell for you to give me way … what took you so long to pick the phone and get my message?’.
It’s well and truly time to get out of Old Delhi’s way.
Never a flat moment with these 10 throwback Hauz Khas Village domes
(5 min read)
If the 14th century overlords happened to visit Delhi today, they’d probably wonder where all those handsome domes they had materialised have gone. The domes are still there of course, sprinkled all over the First City behind thickets and markets, surrounded by jogging men and rounding cars, within colony gates and factory precincts, under flying roads and rails. In fact, if them overlords went over to Hauz Khas Village, they’d still find Feroze Shah’s tomb on sentry duty by the lake. But, this piece is about the 10 other trippy domes hiding in plain view, surrounded by the bazaar boom of Hauz Khas Village.
DADI POTI KA MAQBARA
Bang opposite the Aurobindo Market, this duo of tombs gets its name because the Dadi (Grandmother) tomb is bigger than the Poti(Grand-daughter). A few good words with the security guard reveal that Dadi+Poti actually refers to Mistress+Maid! Dadi ka maqbara (256 sq.m.) dates from the Lodhi period, is square-based and has 3 levels of ornamental alcoves on its northern and southern walls. Poti ka maqbara (144 sq.m.) dating probably from the Tughlaq era, is a curious entity because tombs generally have an embellished south face and a staid north. Here, that detail is flipped for reasons unknown. Both tombs have unidentified graves inside and are draped in tangerine and violet lights at sundown. Sometimes, the light is white too. But that’s mostly from a fancy car swishing by.
BAGH-I-ALAM KA GUMBAD
Ensconced at the Safdarjung Enclave end of Deer Park, this tomb (Dome of the Tiger of the World) is clearly one of the best Lodhi-era monuments in Delhi. It’s the biggest tomb in Hauz Khas and effuses machismo with its rugged stone and sandstone façade. The arched alcoves and the Kangura battlements (parapet motifs) add ornamental ballast to the tomb. Inside are three unknown graves out of reach for civvies. Next to the tomb lies a wall mosque with mihrabs (alcoves) that point West in the direction of Mecca.
KALI GUMTI & TEFEWALA GUMBAD
Behind the Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad rests the Kali Gumti (Small Black Dome) which possibly dates to the Tughlaq or Sayyid era. It’s plastered with traditional organic mortar which over the centuries turned black and lent the tomb its colour. Nearby lies the Tefewala Gumbad (Dome that was gifted) that dates to the Lodhi era. It sports a sandstone exterior that glows orange in the dusk and adds a dash of tart to the luxe cover of green around.
The dome at Munda Gumbad (Bald Dome) is made from the trees watching over it, as it sits atop a grassy bank watching over the Hauz Khas lake. This Khilji-era edifice which is now a single-decker, was originally planned as a duplex at the lake centre. The tomb is square-based and has four staircases that ostensibly lead to the floor above.
Just after Aurobindo Market lies the Lodhi-era Barah Khamba (12 pillars), a square tomb that stands tall on 12 pillars, 4 large apex ones and 2 small ones on each of the 4 apexes. Each side measures 10.5 metres. At the entry, the ‘Delhi Heritage’ board reads ‘At one time there were several cenotaphs inside…’. Today, there are several dogs watching over the drying clothes in the ramparts.
BIRAN KA GUMBAD
Just behind the Green Park taxi station lies the Lodhi-era Biran ka Gumbad (Dome of the Brother). It’s rather humble, with no perceivable ciphers on the wall to tell us about the grave inside. Could be a cenotaph for that very reason. There is also a thirsty well around, with a sliver of water shining through. A gentle reminder of how scarce water was in Siri, the capital built by Ala-ud-din Khilji in AD 1295. And in whose precincts Hauz Khas (Special Tank) lies.
Located at the Green Park- Hauz Khas intersection, the Lodhi-era Chhoti Gumti (Small Dome) is a relatively low-roofed tomb with an area of just about 8 square meters.
Made from plastered rubble, this edifice has surprisingly stood the test of time. Not least because of the ace restoration efforts by ASI.
Very close to Chhoti Gumti lies Sakri Gumti (Narrow Dome), a Lodhi dynasty building which was possibly a gateway to somewhere. With a floor area of just 4.6 square meters, it’s one of the smallest monuments in the area.
If you’re saturated with flat modern rooftops, the open-secret domes around Hauz Khas Village are a well-rounded change for the eye. We recommend you crank up your internal GPS though, for the Deer Park is a maze waiting to happen. The upside being, if you do get lost, you could stumble on an unseen dome. And add to this list!
Locations: Hauz Khas Village, Green Park Market, Deer Park
Nearest Metro: Green Park (~ 2km)
Dubai- the city that’s now a verb
(Words circa 2007 / 5 min read)
Back in the 20th century, Dubai was a stopover on a time-bending trans-world flight. Today, it’s a famous destination. Behind this revolutionary escalation lies a steely resolve to keep moving and never stay still.
As the Airbus descends to Montgolfier heights, the first thing that strikes you about the city is the symmetry. You can’t help but notice the shimmering lights in the distance, eerily similar to the opening frame from that Lynch flick, Mulholland Drive.
Whooshing past the nightlights, it takes a giant 180-degree sweep of the neck to fully appreciate the Dubai road. Plus, speeds touch 100 in city limits easy. So, no look-left-look-right sprints across the road for the Indian tourist here.
If it’s surreal by night, the Dubai day is no less a Dali exhibit. What with Arabesque domes hobnobbing with mod high-rises at most nooks, you begin to see how this cosmopolis is a cusp of the East and the West in more ways than many.
Sure, Dubai is a visual palette. But it’s also aural ecstasy for the Indian ear, with the jarring city din conspicuous by its absence.
Arriving as I did in winter when the ambience is decidedly more forgiving than the burning Gulf summer, my notions about the city may seem a bit prejudiced. Then again, this piece is Automne Hiver. You may want to wait for the summer do!
Dubai is a throbbing transfusion of worlds. Peoplewatching the natural outcome. Right from the inspired Arabic couture to the kaleidoscopic Filipino wardrobe, this Arabopolis is a living pastiche of what’s trending in the world today.
One thing that a gimlet Indian eye instantly picks is the crazy number of cars on the road. And breathe easy as there are no (ob)noxious autorickshaws. Only well-waxed taxis, buses and the post-Shinkansen Dubai Metro.
Lonely wander and you also see a warren of department stores, hair salons and restaurants in most neighbourhoods. In fact, walk through any bylane for a few minutes, and you’ll meet most of your day needs.
Of course, Arabia is never complete without the mystic sea. The Dubai creek, which opens into the Persian Gulf, cleaves the metropolis into Bur and Deira. Small boats called abras motor across the choppy waters, affording cheap mass transport. And then there are floating restaurants fashioned out of traditional Arabic boats or dhows, which shape the mobile dusk silhouette. The high-fashion local markets or souks on the creekshore offer choice bargains on most modern wants.
Dubai is Mall City. Period. Be it the colossal Mall of the Emirates or the visual fiesta Ibn Battuta, or the Renaissance-style Mercato or the Wafi Mall, most malls are adrenalin central for extreme shoppers on most open days. However, the retailers are happiest during the season-ending Dubai Shopping Festival in January-February. With delicious sales at most stores, the math isn’t hard.
The Dubai sky+shoreline is changing so fast, you could be playing SimCity. Except, you’re not. Burj Khalifa at 828m, is already the man-made roof of the world. Other unreal estate gigs include the Palm Jumeirah and the World islands, the new barometer for the very, very, very rich. And, of course, the tallest hotel in the world, Burj Al Arab. With a devilish gate fee of USD 50-75, you can almost hear the doormen ask, “In or out?”. And there’s only the deep blue sea around.
With the desert at Dubai’s backyard, the virgin sands are a great place to go Wadi and dune surfing. And maybe even name some routes after you. Of course, it’s sand. So, they won’t last long anyway! If desert-hopping is not your thing, there are places enough for your next bungee yank, parasailing leap or just a nice hot-air balloon sortie.
Anything else you seek about this Arabian misfit, google audacious. You won’t be disappointed.