“An Indian driver needs three things,” Brij, our driver, said to us as we set off sightseeing in Delhi early on a Sunday morning. “A good brake.” He put his foot down on the brake twice to demonstrate, lurching us forward in the process. “A good horn.” He stamped the heel of his hand onto the horn to emit a piercing toot. “And good luck.” He gestured to the figure of Ganesh, who sat on the dashboard.
I found this to be entirely accurate on my first sojourn to India. I had travelled with my colleague Kathleen from the UK, visiting the DK India office as part of the DK Exchange Programme, and we agreed we couldn't fly over 4,000 miles without squeezing some sightseeing into our schedule.
For two Brits, however, it was insufferably hot. Our Indian colleagues struggled in the record-breaking temperatures that India was experiencing at the end of May 2016, so our British bodies were doomed from the outset. But we weren't going to let that stop us. Having taken in a few sights with our Indian colleagues during the week, we were excited to strike out on our own at the weekend.
On the Friday evening, after a busy working week, Kathleen and I headed for the Lotus Temple, which we could see from our hotel in Nehru Place. This modern architectural splendour was a real contrast to the imposing 13th-century Qutb Minar that we had visited the day before.
We joined the throng of pilgrims along the path flanked by grass, up toward the Bahá’í House of Worship. It comprises 27 petals that form nine sides, reflected in nine surrounding pools, housing one single hall of worship. Here, all faiths are welcome – there are no religious icons, structures or furnishings inside. The central hall of worship itself was arguably rather unremarkable, the focus being on personal discovery as opposed to distracting grandeur. It offered a calm space, ideal for reflecting on the past week's work.
The following day we set off for Humayun's Tomb, having heard that it was a must-see. Sure enough, each step toward it was more thrilling than the last. It was so impressive, looming through the monumental gateways and pavilions that surround the mausoleum. Upon finally approaching the tomb and its perfectly manicured gardens, I thought it was a flavour of the Taj, which was to come later on in our trip. At a whopping 46 degrees, however, I was struggling, this being double the temperature of a warm day in the UK.
The blistering heat meant we were sadly unable to make it to the Red Fort and Jama Masjid – two sights I hope to visit if I'm lucky enough to return to Delhi.
Early on the Sunday morning, Brij collected us from our hotel and we sped along the Yamuna Expressway in the direction of Agra – a positively smooth and relaxed journey in comparison to some of the roads we encountered in Delhi. Along with the road surfaces, the landscape changed; the buzzing, built-up city gradually transcended into tranquil green plains, with more and more bustle creeping onto the roads as we approached Agra.
Upon arrival, we stopped at Agra Fort. As with all of the sights that we visited in Uttar Pradesh, pedlars congregated at the sight's gates, showing their wares to sightseers, tour guides (some reputable, others not) loitered and children darted about; the historic walls acting as a backdrop to this bustling scene. This would form one of my most distinct memories of sightseeing in India.
Agra Fort was once the imperial residence of the Mughal Dynasty, and was certainly very imposing. This sprawling complex is a mix of red sandstone and white marble, and the detailing of both is breathtaking. Everywhere we looked, Kathleen and I would spot more stunning craftsmanship.
In particular, I fell in love with the arches of Diwan-i-Am, or the Hall of Audience, where the Mughal Emperor would have received visitors after they walked through the charming gardens. They were splendid, and offered a slightly shaded spot (much to my relief).
Having left the Fort, we had a couple of hours rest in preparation for the Mother of all sights – the Taj. We picked up several bottles of water, our cameras, a guide and a rickshaw en route; all that we would need to take in the Taj.
Words can't do Taj Mahal justice; anything I write is futile. All I will say is, it was magnetic – I couldn't tear my eyes from it. It was heaving with visitors, the vast majority seeming to be Indian, which was so wonderful to see – all fiercely proud of their national icon. We had dithered between visiting at sunrise or sunset, having received mixed advice from our colleagues. We settled upon sunset, as the light was meant to be particularly flattering. Sure enough, the Taj glimmered in the evening sun as we circled the monument to love.
Finally, early on the Monday morning, when it was cooler and the roads were relatively quiet, we drove to Fatehpur Sikri, which was my favourite sight of the trip. Set on a hill, we took a tuk tuk up to the imposing Buland Darwaza, the entrance to Fatehpur Sikri.
The capital of the Mughal Empire for just 14 years, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. The imperial complex was wonderful to explore, with so many different structures to duck in and out of. Everything was in excellent condition, as if its inhabitants had all left but a few days beforehand.
And so, reluctantly, we took to the road once more and began our journey back to the UK. This odyssey included a gruelling five-hour journey back to Delhi, in which Brij's good brake, good horn and good luck were put to the test.
India, it might have been short, but it was magic.