Despite writing several journals on Delhi, I still have lots of places I visited before joining Igougo. This journal contains a selection of Delhi attractions from that time.
by koshkha on December 2, 2012
After our visit to the Jama Masjid in October 2012, I took the risk of asking my husband where he wanted to go next. Normally this is a low risk tactic because he almost always says "Wherever you like, dear" but on this occasion he did have an opinion and it was one that quite surprised me. He wanted to go to the Red Fort. Why was I surprised? Because we’ve already been three times and I didn’t expect that he’d want to go again. But if you offer the choice, you have to live with the consequences so if that’s what he wanted, I was going to go along with his choice. Checking igougo I was then amazed to discover that I’ve never previously posted a review of this place despite visiting so many times. So it’s time to set the record straight. This review combines our experiences gained as a result of several visits.In the six or so years since we first went to the Red Fort the prices have shot up. It’s always been one of the ‘differentially priced’ attractions in Delhi – one where tourists and non-Indians pay considerably more than locals. I don’t have a problem with that but in the six years since I first visited the price has risen from just 100 rupees to 250 rupees per person. I think you’ll agree that’s a big jump when very little seems to have changed within the walls of the fort. I loved it the first time we went, loathed the ‘sound and light’ show which we returned to on our second visit and have found that our most recent visits have suffered from just being too hot and too full of people. I will probably resist any attempt to get me in for a fifth visit any time soon.In the middle of the 17th Century, the Moghal Emperor Shahjahan established a new city on the ruins of the previous settlements in the place that today is Delhi and his new city became known as Shahjahanabad - or the city of Shahjahan. Today Shahjahanabad forms the area of the city more commonly referred to as 'Old Delhi' or 'Purani Dilli' in the local lingo. Lal Quila (the Red Fort) is one of Shahjahanabad's best preserved monuments.Shahjahan was the Emperor whose love for his wife Mumtaz and whose distress at her early death led to the building of the Taj Mahal - much admired as one of the most beautiful, expensive and over-the-top monuments to love ever built. Shahjahan was overthrown by his son, Aurangzeb, who imprisoned him in Agra fort, just across the river with a view of the Taj Mahal. It may have been an act of kindness or a punishment depending on whether he was thinking of its beauty or contemplating his overdraft. Lal Quila - or the Red Fort in Delhi- is a monument to something more down to earth - power, wealth and military might. And whilst it will never be as much admired as the Taj or as impressive as Fatephur Sikri (my personal number one most-fantastic-building-on-the-face-of-the-planet), the Red Fort deserves more tourist attention than it seems to receive.~Why don't more tourists go to the Red Fort?~As a tourist, there's so much you could go and see in Delhi - and if you are spending just a day or two in the city it's not easy to fit it all in. Many tour companies treat Delhi as a 'necessary and expensive evil' at the beginning and end of a tour and they will generally not go further than squeezing in a half day run around the city in a hired bus. Most of their customers are either so jet-lagged after a long flight in to India or so keen to cram in some shopping before they fly out again, that the poor old Red Fort gets pushed to one side.I have to plead guilty to having ignored the fort on my first few visits to Delhi, I had never been tempted to venture into Old Delhi and had heard many rumours that it was dirty, smelly and overcrowded. Somehow the relative calm and order of the new city with the lure of good shopping and great restaurants always got in the way. Our first visit was on a hot day in July 2006 - hot in the way that only Delhi on the verge of the monsoon can be. With the temperatures pushing 40 degrees and the humidity at max, it really wasn't the best of conditions to go out and look at architectural marvels. Imagine going sightseeing in a sauna (but without the naked people thankfully). On the plus side nobody else was much in the mood for sightseeing either - so the Fort was not very crowded, the queues were shorter and the touts slightly less persistent.On our first visit we went by minibus provided by the tour company who’d just taken us to Ladakh but any taxi or auto-rickshaw will take you to the fort. The nearest Delhi Metro is probably Chandni Chowk which is about a ten minute walk from the entrance. If you are starting from a point already in the Old Delhi you would also have the option of cycle rickshaws. Regardless of how you go, be sure to agree a price before you get into the vehicle.As you arrive at the Fort you will see high red stone walls stretching out parallel to the road. You'll probably be dropped at the roadside by the Lahore Gate entrance. From here you pass lots of barriers - clearly in the past you'd have been able to drive right up to the gate but India is now exceptionally security conscious and the barriers are erected (my guess) to prevent car bombings. As you walk from the road young boys will try to sell you postcards, nick-nacks and a shoe shine. Don't say 'maybe later' unless you mean it. These guys have incredible memories and they'll be sure to spot you as you leave. (By the way, if any kind soul can teach me the Hindi for 'my walking boots are very expensive and can only be treated with special Goretex-compatible shoe creams' I'd be very grateful).Tickets are sold from booths down some steps to the left of the entrance to the fort. There are long queues for locals and short ones for tourists who benefit from a shorter wait in return for paying 10 (or more) times the local entrance fee. Thankfully there’s no additional camera fee on top so do please take advantage. Once you have your tickets, proceed to the gate for the security check - men take one line and women the other (usually the shorter one). You will have to go through a metal detector - similar to one at an airport - and you may well have your bags searched and get a quick rub-down as well. Rubbing sweaty tourists on a hot day in Delhi must count as one of the worst military postings.On our first visit we only had an hour to get round the fort. In view of the temperature, I don't think we could have lasted much longer. If you visit in the cooler seasons, I think there would be plenty here to fill two or three hours - especially if you want to see the museums or do a bit of shopping in the bazaar. Our second to last visit was with my sister and her partner and they happily wandered around for about two hours but I have to admit on our last visit we were there for only about an hour and a half. We’d seen everything so many times that we really didn’t need to linger longer.The Red Fort is not the greatest Moghul monument in India by a long way but it's worthy of more attention than it seems to get and if you can combine it with a visit to the Jama Masjid (mosque) it's a good half-day excursion. I definitely recommend getting a guide - preferably for an hour rather than 30 mins so you don't have to run round like a lunatic – or buying a really good guidebook that you’ve studied before you go in.For anyone whose visit is only to Delhi and who isn’t going further afield and who wants to get a taste of the place, I'd say that a visit should be high on your itinerary but if you've done the full ‘Rajastan moghul palace circuit’, you might prefer to head into New Delhi and do a bit of shopping instead.If I had only a day and I hadn't been to Delhi before, I probably wouldn't head out to Old Delhi - I'd stick in the south of the city and do the National Museum, Humayun's Tomb and the Qutb Minar.
Once you are through the security area you find yourself inside a small courtyard inside the Lahore Gate. Every year on Independence Day (August 15th) the Prime Minister raises the national flag at the flag pole in this courtyard. But unless it's August 15th there's not a lot of reason to hang around.Leaving the gate area you pass through a covered bazaar called Chhatta Chowk which is lined with shops selling gifts and tourist curios. You can also buy drinks and snacks. The prices are not shockingly different from elsewhere in the city but I recommend you pass by and see the fort properly and then do your shopping only if you still have energy after your visit. In the Chowk you will probably be approached by registered tourist guides offering their services and, whilst it's entirely up to you whether you hire one, you'll probably get more out of your first visit if you do. No unregistered guides are allowed to ply their trade inside the fort so check that the guide is wearing an official badge around his neck and (most importantly) talk to him for a few minutes to make sure you can understand him. It's going to seem like a really long tour if you can't get past his accent. On our first visit we paid our guide 100 rupees for half an hour but I think the girl who negotiated the deal was too hot and bothered to argue and if she'd been tougher she probably could have got him cheaper or for longer. Today I think you’d be lucky to get off so lightly as prices for everything seem to be soaring. So with 30 minutes on the clock, we set off at a trot to keep up with our guide and his parasol.Leaving the bazaar, you'll take a short walk through the gardens to the Naqqar Khana or welcome room - this is the gate where you will show your tickets to some more security people. I can't imagine what purpose these guys perform other than a bit of job creation. This building has an open arched hall at the top where musicians would have played music to welcome the Emperor's visitors. Today it houses the Indian War Memorial Museum. As you pass through the Naqqar Khana turn around and look back at it. This is where a guide comes in handy. He will point out that the arches of the building are built in a mix architectural styles reflecting Islamic, Hindu and Persian influences. As this building would have been right in the line of sight of the Emperor whilst he was holding public audiences, it's believed that he had the arches built to remind him to treat all the people fairly, regardless of their religion. The next major attraction is the Diwan-e-am or Hall of Public Audience. This is the building where the Emperor held meetings with his public. He sat on a raised white marble 'throne' on a dais of red sandstone in a hall with many pillars. These days sadly most of the throne area has been cordoned off with netting which thoroughly spoils your photographs. This hall is the last of the red sandstone buildings before we move onto the white marble that we all associate with the Taj Mahal.The stars of the Red Fort are the elegant white marble pavilions lined up on the opposite side of the gardens to the Hall of Public Audience. These were linked by a channel of water which flowed between them and cooled the buildings which was known as the Canal of Paradise. When the fort was built, these buildings looked out over the Yamuna river and benefited from cool breezes. However, after the British took control of the city in the mid-19th Century, the river was diverted to run along a different course leaving the pavilions looking out over waste ground and roads. The most southerly of the buildings is the Mumtaz Mahal which now houses the Museum of Archaeology. We were being marched around by our guide so there was no time (and to be honest, not a lot of will) to look at this or the other museums. If the weather had been cooler and we'd had more time they would have held more attraction. On subsequent visits my husband has been pretty taken with the museum and wanted to march straight down there when we returned most recently to show me all the goodies stored within. The next in line is the Rang Mahal (Palace of Colours) where the royal ladies would have lived. This was effectively the purdah area where the ladies would have been able to look out through carved screens and watch what was going on around them without risk of being seen. Directly between the Hall of Public Audience and the Rang Mahal is an ornamental pond with a stage in the middle where dancing girls and musicians would have performed for the family and their guests with the ladies watching from one side and the men from the other. At this point our guide stopped to tell off a local visitor for rolling up his trousers and being inappropriately dressed.Next in line is the Khas Mahal (Emperor's palace) which has a beautiful balcony which would have projected over the river. This building has lots of beautiful Jaali screening and semi-precious stone inlay work - similar to what you would see at the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately you can't wander through the palace as it's fenced off but you can look in and imagine how it must have been at the height of its opulence. Next is the Diwan-e-Khas which was the Emperor's Hall of Private Audience where he would have received his most important visitors. This has the finest carving and inlay work of any of the buildings in the fort complex. It is situated next to the Hammam or bath house which in turn is at right angles to the mosque. This would have been the Emperor's private mosque. We weren't able to go inside either building but we did have a peer through the dirty windows and the bath house looked like it would have been fascinating.There is another set of small buildings spread out in the final garden area behind the hammam and the mosque. I have to confess that we viewed these from a distance as we collapsed under a big shady tree and mopped our soggy brows with paper hankies. Here you can also see some very unattractive and more modern buildings, which are completely out of keeping with the rest of the fort. These were the barracks built to house the British Army after they took control of the Fort. Built entirely unsympathetically, these big grey square buildings are best ignored if you can find a way to look in the other direction and are proof if ever it were needed that town planners and people who deal with planning permission are often needed more than we imagine. You’ll also see what appears to be a big ugly concrete water tank which would benefit from being knocked down.~Practicalities~There are public toilets next to the mosque. My husband, who has dedicated much of his travel time to investigating the state of foreign toilets (be glad you don't have the photos of some of them!) claims these were some of the cleanest free toilets he'd seen anywhere in India. There are probably more toilets somewhere in the complex but these were the only ones that caught our attention.At the northern-most end of the complex is a small snack bar and gift shop which was open on our first visit but which we couldn’t find this year.When wandering round the fort the area is mostly very exposed and you really do need to plan for the weather as even as late in the year as late October or early November it can be scorching hot. Bring a hat, bring water and use sun block as the sun can be fierce. On our most recent visit I was feeling a little jaded and I spent a lot of the time under a tree watching the squirrels and talking to the many locals who wanted to take photographs of us. We made the tactical error of going on a Sunday this time which was also the weekend after Eid and it was a bit mistake as the crowds were ferocious in volume. Personally I recommend to avoid the weekends and avoid mid-day and schedule your visit for the mid-afternoon of a weekday. Alternatively if you just want a quick and cheap look at the Fort rather than a really in depth examination of the building, you might find the lazier option of the evening Sound and Light Show gives you all that you need but my personal experience of that is not so great.
Our second visit to the Red Fort was with friends who wanted to see the evening Sound and Light Show which is staged almost every evening in both English and Hindi though obviously not at the same time. We'd thought about going in the summer after our first visit but at that time of year sitting outside after dark is like hanging a sign around your neck saying 'mosquito food'. In November a year or two later we decided to give it a go and to head over for the 7.30pm show.Our first mistake was to 'guess' the metro stop and get it totally and utterly wrong. The entrance to the Red Fort is called Lahore Gate which I got confused with Kashmir Gate - they really aren't very near. We overshot by a couple of stations. Our second mistake was not to know we'd got it wrong and to march at breakneck speed along dark busy streets where we couldn't see the potholes or all the nasty stuff on the street to trip over or step in. But notch those up to experience - we arrived just as the show was due to start.First surprise was that as foreigners we didn't get charged extra – at that time everyone paid 60 rupees for the show which was about 75p. I’m not sure what the costs are now but based on the increase in the price of the general entrance feel, it could be up to two or three times higher which is still not a lot. The four of us grabbed our tickets and ran into the Fort. At that time of night there was no queue and little security. Clearly terrorists don't strike at night or when there's nobody around. Running through the grounds we came to row upon row of raised bench seating. An usher with a torch pointed us to some empty seats and we settled down. For the next 90 minutes we sat in the dark, listening to disembodied voices coming and going around the Fort. The show tells the story of the history of the Fort and the buildings are lit up as appropriate to what's being described. Sounds fun, doesn't it? So why was I asleep about 30 minutes into the show? Why was I eventually woken by those around me standing up to sing the National Anthem? It's simple. It was mind-numbingly dull. The entire show runs like clockwork - lights come on, lights go off, voice comes from here, voice comes from there. I needed something to actually HAPPEN - a lady in a sari to run through one of the pavilions, a man in a crazy hat to wave out of a window. I don't know what I wanted but just SOMETHING that moved or did just about anything would have done. I know quite a lot about the history of Delhi and I know the layout of the Fort so I should have been rivetted with excitement. I could blame jet lag and a long day but I'd just be making excuses. It was as exciting as sitting in your living room with the radio on whilst someone ran round the house turning the lights on and off. If you want to spend an hour and a half sitting in the dark, having a quiet nap, this could be ideal. But I won't be going back or recommending it to anyone. If you can only make one trip to the Fort, please don't make it the Sound and Light Show. Go during the day please and have a good look around. Pay some old chap 100 Rp to tell you the history and show you the bits you would otherwise miss - but don't sit in the dark with a bunch of strangers waiting for the anthem. Shahjahan never built this place to be experienced that way.
I've been to the National Museum twice - once back in 2005 and again a year later in 2006. I wrote most of this review after that second visit but I am unable to reconfirm the current entry prices because the museum website is currently under construction. Therefore prices and specific details relate to that time and you should check before trusting them 6 years later.The National Museum is just off Janpath, the main street running south from Connaught Place, it's down at the 'quiet end' of this famous street, just past the intersection with Rajpath and a block and a bit from the India Gate. It doesn't seem to attract the attention that I believe it deserves. I've had several city tours with various holidays in Delhi but nobody has ever included the National Museum, or for that matter, even mentioned its existence. I always feel a little bit like I discovered it for myself although it is - of course - in all the guide books.If you are going to take a taxi or a tuk tuk to the museum, be aware that it's not a busy area and relatively little traffic passes the museum so you may want to get a driver to wait for you or ask him to come back later at an agreed time to pick you up. Alternatively, if the weather's not too hot, you could take a stroll round to the India Gate where you'll find scores of tuk-tuks to drive you to your next destination.The National Museum is a very accessible mid-size museum with a broad-ranging collection of Indian art, sculpture and artefacts. I liked it so much the first time I visited that I booked an extra day's holiday just to make sure I could go back again. It's not a really big museum like the Louvre or the British Museum - you don't need days to see everything - and in fact, if anything, it's surprisingly that such a great nation has such a relatively modest national collection. I have a sneaky suspicion that we (the British) probably pinched a lot of what was worth having before we left India. The core of the collection was originally put together for an exhibition in the UK at Burlington House in London in 1947-48. Indiaphiles will recognise 1947 as the year of Independence and Partition. After the exhibition, the materials were returned to India and put on display at the Durbar Hall in Rashtrapati Bhawan (the Presidential Palace) for a decade or so until the National Museum was specially built to hold them and was opened in 1960.The museum traces Indian history from all the way back in the third millenium BC through to quite modern times. My Delhi guide book suggests you need a day to see it all but you'd have to be exceptionally interested in absolutely everything - and all the exhibits would have to be open for that to be the case. I have a more than healthy interest in all things Indian (actually, it's bordering on obsessive) and it's still only taken me two hours each time I've been.Opening hours last time I checked were Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm. Like many museums in India it's closed on Mondays. Whereas I usually recommend avoiding big attractions on weekends, in the case of the museum this is the best time to go in order to avoid being swamped by school parties which may find you more interesting than the exhibits. Bags of any significant size - e.g. day packs, holdalls etc - are not permitted in the museum. There's a free bag deposit office round the side of the building on the right hand side as you enter through the gate and pass the temple wagon. Your bag will be put into an individual 'locker' and you get the key - don't fret, it's going to be safe. At this stage it's also worth knowing that if you want to take your camera into the museum you will be stung for and extra 300 Rp (approx £3.50) on top of the entrance fee so if you don't want to pay the camera fee, leave your camera with your bags.As you enter the museum your handbag, wallet etc have to go through an airport type x-ray machine. Gentlemen will be frisked in the open, ladies go into a little booth for a quick rub down with a lady guard. Don't forget to pick up your bags.The ticket counter is directly ahead. At this point, if you are new to India, you are about to discover one of the inequalities for tourists travelling in the country. The entrance fee for locals is 10 Rp (about 12p) but tourists pay 300 Rp (approx. £3.50) (Fees correct in 2006) Some people get ratty about this - and the camera fees - but realistically we have so much more money than the average Indian visitor that I can't see a big problem with subsidising museums and monuments. However, just to put things in perspective, 300 Rp would buy a good lunch for two people in a tourist eaterie.The good news is that the museum curators have worked out that the average tourist walking in off the street probably knows very little about Indian history and wouldn't have a clue what they are looking at so the entrance fee includes a rather good audio tour. To get your headphones and player you will have to leave a deposit - such as your passport, driver's license or a credit card. You only need one deposit to secure the headsets for a group. If you are of a nervous disposition, you might want to think about taking something like your local library card as an alternative but to be fair, you have nothing to worry about; your cards won't go walkies.
The museum is laid out on three floors with a small circular garden in the middle. The exhibition rooms lie off a circular corridor. You start on the ground floor with the oldest exhibits and work your way round and then up the stairs. Temporary exhibitions tend to be on the upper floors. The layout isn't entirely logical and it's easy to miss some rooms if you aren't paying attention. When rooms are undergoing renovation (and it seems like renovating the museum is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge) the access can be confused so it's worth keeping an eye on the floor plan that you'll receive with your ticket. At the moment the ground floor is about 80-90% open whilst the first and second floors have more areas that are closed.Some of the renovated rooms are cooled whilst many of the older rooms are relying on noisy fans for patchy cooling. Whilst this wouldn't be an issue in the winter time, it does make the museum sticky in the height of summer. You may want to take a fan with you - I know it sounds daft but getting hot and bothered could get in the way of your enjoyment of the museum.There are toilets on each floor. There's a gift shop on the first floor which has a few interesting books and odds and ends of gifts but nothing that's really strongly linked to the exhibitions. There's another 'publications' store on the ground floor behind the ticket window which sells academic pamphlets about the collection as well as some absolutely dreadful plaster cast facsimiles of articles in the collection. There's a vegetarian cafeteria on the top floor. The easiest way to avoid missing anything is to try to follow the audio tour circuit - if you find all the numbers then you won't miss anything important. The audio tour does a good job of picking out some of the most important pieces in the collection but there will be times when you'll question why some of the items are included. You can skip anything you aren't interested in - just pick the numbers of the items that you want to know about. The tour starts in the central corridor in front of the statue of Vishnu and then leads into the pre-history section. There are 55 stops on the tour but not all of them will be in the open galleries. Good news about the commentary - the narrator doesn't go on for too long about anything.Your tour starts with my favourite section - the one on Harappan Civilisation. Now I'm not generally very interested in really old stuff and have seen so many flint axes and oil lamps in my time that they leave me cold. However, the Harappan exhibition got me totally fired up. In part this was because I knew nothing about the Indus Valley cultures despite them existing for longer than the Romans, Egyptians or Ancient Greeks. The first cities excavated back in the 1920s were Harappa and Mohenjodaro and I just don't know why these cities aren't more famous. Actually, I'll take a crack at an explanation - much of the area covered by the Indus Valley cities now lies in Pakistan which falls a little short of most people's ideal holiday destinations. Anyway, back to how amazingly clever these folk were. The civilisation dates back to earlier than 2700 BC and was very sophisticated. They cast exquisite bronze figurines - the most famous is a tiny dainty dancing girl - carved detailed human busts, made lots of cute little animal figurines that must have been for decorative purposes, threw pots on a wheel, made toys and statues of ladies kneading bread and doing their chores. They also had a sophisticated system of weights and measures that were standardised across a wide geographic area. That sort of stuff just fries my brain. They also have a skeleton in a shallow grave complete with beautiful pots to help her into the next work.After you leave the Harappan gallery you enter a series of galleries with sculptures made from stone and bronze covering the Mauryan period (3rd Century BC)the Sunga Period (2nd Century BC), the Gandhara period, the Gupta period (4th - 6th C AD) on through medieval carvings and so on. The ages don't mean a lot to me but I love the figures and can appreciate them without necessarily understanding them.Also on the ground floor are examples of late medieval art, Buddhist art (including relics of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha), a fabulous collection of Indian miniature paintings, and a couple of rooms of general decorative arts including a stunning ivory miniature palace. There's a bizarre collection of transparencies on the evolution of Indian scripts and coins that holds no appeal to me whatsoever and finally some fantastic jewelleryThe galleries on the first floor include special temporary exhibition space, lots of manuscripts, two rooms of central Asian antiquities, Coins, more paintings, a section on Maritime heritage and quite a lot of office space.The highlight on the second floor is the renovated section on arms and armour. Being a girlie I'm not big on the whole 'dressing up to go out and kill people' vibe but I do enjoy the costumes, especially for the horses and elephants. This floor also has galleries of decorative art and textiles, some tribal costumes from the north eastern parts of India and some interesting musical instruments. If you've got this far without flagging, it's probably time for a cup of tea in the cafeteria.There's a programme of special exhibitions and these can be quite variable in quality and interest. When I visited in November 2005 there was a splendid exhibition on the textile trade between India and Europe - full of great old chintzes and exploring the influence of Indian fabrics on European fashions. In June 2006 the 'special' was an exhibition called 'in the Footsteps of the Buddha' or something like that. Frankly it was full of photographs, very few actual exhibition pieces and worth a five minute look at most. You'll probably have realised that the bulk of my favourite areas are on the ground floor. Perhaps I start to lose the will to pay attention on the higher floors or maybe I'm just 'culture fatigued' after the ground floor - I can't give you a good explanation.In theory there is disabled access but I'm not sure where the special entrance is. The main entrance has a lot of steps plus the security gate to get through and I'd double they'd be easy to manage in a wheelchair. If you need help, I'd suggest to ask the guys at the baggage store and I'm sure they'll point you in the right direction.By Indian terms it's a bit pricey but I really do recommend this nice little museum as well worth a look and I hope that if you get the chance you'll go and explore for a couple of hours - you could be very surprised by some of the treasures inside.
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