Temples for Tourists

I wake up this morning completely unrefreshed from my five hours sleep (darn that jet lag). Good to know that 4:30am looks the same in America, Hungary and India. I love finding commonalities in countries.

Getting ready is no easy task. I showered last night as you must turn on your hot water tank for a half-hour before showering, but you shouldn’t leave it on. In the morning, I have to, at least, wet my hair (curly-haired girls will understand). Unfortunately, my toilet flushing knob got stuck late last night and it has emptied all of the water out of my storage tank which has left me with no water. Yes, this is India.

My host fixes the problem and I walk downstairs for a nice breakfast (included in the price of the room) of a potato-filled Indian bread (carbolalicious), some yogurt, banana and mango slices, and eggs.

I have a car reserved today. This is a common way for even locals to get around, but especially for tourists. For about $20, he’ll take me most anywhere I want in the eight hours he’s with me. I’ve invited Dann, who I met at my guesthouse last night, to come along. We have a general plan for her to join me at two sites she’s not yet seen and then she’ll leave to go to the National Museum. As you know, plans are meant to be changed.

We begin by traveling to the Lotus Temple. While not very old (opened in 1986) it’s known as one of the most beautiful in Delhi. Surrounded by crystal-clear ponds, it’s made from white marble and shaped like a lotus flower. Run by the Bahāʾī Faith, it sits in twenty-six acres and rises to a height of more than 130 feet. From the entrance, we walk up the beautiful red, sandstone walkway until we reach the stairs at the front. From there we’re instructed to remove our shoes, there’s a lot of shoe removal here in India and, unfortunately, as rain was predicted today, I wore tennis shoes which requires lots of shoe-tying time (but at least I painted my toenails a pretty red). We’re instructed to step into four lines at the top of the stairs. I look around and notice that we’re two of the few non-Indians here. While this feels a bit touristy, it’s Indian touristy which means that it’s a big attraction for Indian people from other regions to come see (sort of like Disneyland still draws Americans). We’re led inside where we’re instructed to be silent. It’s clear that the number nine is important in the Bahāʾī Faith as I count nine arches, windows and just about everything that there’s more than one of. We’re invited to sit down and observe our fairly simple surroundings.

Lotus TempleWithin about four minutes, we’re motioned to get up and led outside where we’re sent off to wander around the ponds surrounding the building before walking back down the sandstone walkways and outside. Um, is that it? I now understand nothing more about this place than when I walked in and I’ve seen an impressive outside structure with a fairly plain inside (kind of like a guy I once dated)

Temple

Photo courtesy of Akshardham.com

We get back in the car and head to Akshardham Temple. Again, opened in 2005, it’s nothing old. It was built to honor Bhagwan Swaminarayan, a spiritual leader who lived in the late 1700’s-early 1800’s. We’ve been told that bags aren’t allowed here so we’ve left them in the car. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that cameras and phones aren’t allowed. When we see the signs, we debate what to do about them, as the options are to leave them at the coat check (um, not feeling real great about that), to go back to the car, or to leave them in our pockets and hope we get in. We see a metal detector up front and decide that leaving them in our pockets isn’t an option and we head back to the car asking the young lady in front of us to hold our place. We run to the car and, when we return, she’s right up front almost at the security checkpoint.

We pass through security and notice signs about 200 Rupee fines for every piece of electronic equipment you get caught with. This temple dedicated to a man of peace is serious. We enter and walk through a pretty temple that’s nice but, for some reason, perhaps because it’s not very old, it’s simply not that impressive to me. Before long, we arrive at a ticket counter where we buy a ticket to a series of venues within the complex. We enter the first, the Hall of Values which is the Indian version of the animatronic, Hall of Presidents, at Disneyland. Instead of Honest Abe talking to us, Boy Bhagwan is talking to fisherman telling them that killing fish (or anything) is cruel and they should change their ways. We’re led through movies, more animatronics, and finally a boat ride. If the Hall of Values was the Hall of Presidents, the boat ride is It’s a Small World.

As we take the fifteen-minute ride through the history of India, we learn that India invented many things, including math and rocket-ships long before any currently recognized inventors of these things. I have doubts about some of this. There’s a section on war strategy and weapons which I find odd at a temple dedicated to a man who preached peace. All-in-all, it was fairly disappointing.

After a couple of hours, we get back in the car and decide to head over to the Craft Museum as Dann has said it’s nice and there’s a great restaurant there. Our driver insists it’s closed today but, as it’s not Monday (when most museums around the world are closed) we tell him we’ll chance it and go.

Craft MuseumWe arrive to find that the museum is open. Starving, we head over to the restaurant only to be told that the wait is at least an hour. After a few minutes debate, we put our names in and walk around the museum. This one is fairly interesting with a pigeon house, a carriage and large variety of textiles. It’s a peaceful retreat from the crowds of Delhi and the tourist sites.

Forty-five minutes later, Dann’s phone rings and lets us know our table is ready. We sit and enjoy a wonderful meal of Indian-style fish and chips, a crepe spinach wrap, some amazing ginger chai tea and a sweet, fried, apple-cinnamon Indian dessert.

Next, we head over to Khan Market, about as close as you get to a mall in India. It’s outdoors, but has some high-end shops, as well as some affordable clothing. (This is nothing like a Western shopping center and, as this is India. Still, it’s one of the world’s most expensive retail spaces as rated by Cushman and Wakefield.) We try on various pants, skirts, scarves (I buy two) and, after a couple of hours, head over to Sodabottleopenerwala Restaurant where we’re meeting Dann’s friend Ritu.

Restaurant SignSodabottleopener is a restaurant with a sense of humor as quirky as mine. Serving a combination of Parsi and Bombay street-style food (only I probably won’t get sick from this “street food” as it’s a real restaurant). The sense of humor includes a bunch of “No’s” as you climb the stairs as well as posted all around including “No Picking Nose” and “No Flatulence.” There’s also a fake family tree on the wall with photos of famous Indians.

Dann’s friend Ritu arrives and it feels like a normal night out at home with the girls. Ritu used to be an accountant when, four years- ago, she chucked it all in and opened a rickshaw tour company named When In India, with her sister. Two women opening a tourism business in India, neither had any tourism industry experience and, being women, it was tough for them to get drivers as the men don’t want to work for women. Yes, it was destined to fail. But it didn’t. Now drivers approach them to work with them as tourists tend treat rickshaw drivers with more respect than locals do.

By the end of the evening Ritu has offered to include me in her group tour in the morning. I accept her gracious offer, we say our goodnights and Dann and I catch the metro back to the guest house. So much for the rumors that women can’t go out in Delhi at night.

Tomorrow – Rickshaw rides and seeking out Sikhs.

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