Travels Through India with David Berry

1: Delhi

Punjab & Haryana — Saturday 13 December 1969

The countryside down to Delhi was pleasant – virtually 100% agricultural smallholdings given to cultivation of wheat, cotton, sugar, tobacco and potatoes. Excelled myself pointing out banana and papaw trees which most of the others had never seen.

The Punjab and Haryana districts that we saw were flat – ideal for irrigation – and several very large and dead-straight canals were crossed. What a contrast this green world is from stony, brown Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. There are still camels – single-humped dromedaries instead of the familiar Bactrian camels – walking endlessly in circles pumping water or yoked to a buffalo or bullock and set to plough a field.

In the Punjab we spotted our first elephant, trundling down the Great Trunk Road with mahout straddling its neck and a passenger – I’ll pretend he was a maharajah – in the howdah. And then a pig – the first since Bulgaria!

Most of the people here are Sikhs. There are few beggars and we have seen but a single naked holy man.

Delhi — Sunday 14 December 1969

Chris Slade and I are staying at the YMCA – at Rs20 per night, the more expensive of two in the capital. The rest of the group have gone to a Sikh temple to take advantage of the free accommodation but this is well worth the expense as I’ve had my first English breakfast of porridge, bacon, eggs, toast and coffee since leaving Durban. Long overdue!

We have been told that New Delhi – a parting gift from the British – is the sixteenth and Old Delhi the thirteenth Delhi in a five thousand-year cycle of building and destruction. New Delhi is modern, spacious and – not being a residential area – clean.

Chris and I started off to the west of the YMCA, visiting the modern Birla Mandir temple that had been opened by Mahatma Gandhi who insisted that it be open to all castes (including untouchables) and all faiths.In the temple garden a stern warning: ‘Spitting, bathing, washing, cooking, passing of urine and disfiguring walls strictly prohibited in the garden.’

Later, walked a great distance around the buildings of the Rajpath area; saw India Gate, the Secretariat, President’s Palace and the Dominion Columns presented by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as a gesture of friendship and unity among the dominions of the British Empire. A bronze ship atop each column symbolises links within the Empire.

Later visited the Old Fort and the Mausoleum of Humayun, completed in 1570 by the emperor’s wife and credited with being the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

Delhi — Monday 15 December 1969

I’ve been lazy today, just sitting around in the winter sun – 32 degrees today according to the Times of India which also reports a quarrel between the states of Punjab and Haryana over who should get the city of Chandigarh with some threatening to join Pakistan out of spite (35 years later, chandigarhcity.com would run an Internet poll on the same issue.).

Yesterday I felt awful with curry gut but knocked it out with a good dose of Enterovioform. I’ve bought tin tablets for my boils and water purification tablets from George Calvert [compared with our predominantly twenty-something group, ancient at 60, the age I'd be when I next visited India in December 2004!].

Yesterday, Chris and I overdid the spice and curry so today we went easy with just two meals – each costing a rupee. First, a Coke, four bananas and an orange sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon and pepper; later, another Coke and two discs of bread and a mixture of curried mutton, sambals and odds and ends served on a few leaves. Thirdly – my maths is poor – came four cups of coffee, yet another Coke, a pile of rice, bowl of curry and a plate of salad; this at the Indian Coffee House off Connaught Place for Rs5.

I’ve bought Fodor’s Guide to India 1969 for Rs35 (US$3 at the exchange rate in Kabul) and a book on Khajuraho Wildlife Reserve. This morning I visited the Delhi Tourist Office and got just loads of pamphlets on places to see next year. I am now 90% determined to leave the party in Ceylon, forfeiting a prepaid return trip to London. India cannot be rushed. I’ll spend most of January in Ceylon, February in south India, March in the north and then travel overland to London on my own before continuing to Canada.

Agra — Tuesday 16 December 1969

The Taj Mahal by moonlight! Everyone’s heard the expression and I have now seen the Taj, for my first time, just that way. The Taj is the most beautiful building I have seen, even beyond my high expectation. It is big but simple and bold in conception yet possessing a fastidious attention to detail in its intricate decoration with flowers exquisitely inlaid into the marble. When you have walked the long path between stunted cypresses beside the fountains and ponds, you reach a vast square platform with four great corner minarets – tall, stout and symmetrical – from which rises the Taj, a massive block with arches and domes.

Agra – Jhansi — Wednesday 17 December 1969

Visiting the Taj Mahal is an aesthetic experience. I revisited it this morning and then headed for Agra Fort where I am now, high on a rampart overlooking the wide, sandy sweep of Yamuna River – Jumna to the British. Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum is a kilometre or so away, separated from us by the dry crescent of the riverbed. From here the minarets blending with the main building which is not purest white but putty grey. Hundreds of people are washing on the far bank of the river. Below, a man leads a string of three scrawny camels.

Agra Fort is big and in not too bad a state of preservation – larger and more interesting than the forts in Mombasa and Cape Town visited earlier this year.

Tonight we are just south of Jhansi in sandy country that reminds me of the Makatini flats of Zululand. The red-orange earth is covered in stunted thorn bushes that could be home to every snake in India, not that we’ve seen any yet. Not far from here is Khajuraho which must be visited next year.

I am just beginning to know the birds by name; mynas are old friends – as familiar as the sparrows.