Dispatch, India: The brilliant sights and sounds of Delhi

India Dispatch series

India DispatchTravel Weekly Destinations Editor Kenneth Kiesnoski is spending three days in New Delhi, India, detailing experiences about his first trip to the country.

DAY 3: Namaskar! My first full day in India dawns sunny and warm -- perfect sightseeing weather.

The Hindustan Times promises temperatures as high as 88 degrees, a welcome change from the chilly and soggy New York "spring" I've left behind. Putting the paper down -- not easy given arresting, otherworldly headlines such as "Baby born with two faces; worshipped as goddess" -- I pick up my Travcoa itinerary.

The plan: A half-day tour of Old Delhi, focusing on top area sights the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid mosque. I go to meet Atin Khanna in the lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Atin is the owner of Travcoa's Delhi ground operator, Rainbow Travels. Charming, young and U.S.-educated, he's the fresh, friendly face of Indian entrepreneurship. Rajiv, my guide for the day, accompanied him.

They debrief me on the game plan and furnish me with my train ticket for Agra for tomorrow. Atin excuses himself, but not before inviting me to join him at his father's home for cocktails at the end of the day.

Rajhiv and I head out of the hush of the hotel and into the din of Delhi. Our driver drops us at the Red Fort. It's 9:45, and it's already hot. Standing in a shady spot, Rajiv expounds, expertly, on the history of Muslim Moghul rule in India while I scan the sandstone structure and the crowds, largely local, streaming toward it.

I marvel at the mix of people. There are Hindu women and girls in blazingly bright saris, and some of their veiled Muslim counterparts close by their husbands. A Nehru look-alike studies a Hindi-language newspaper. Groups of young men, in the ubiquitous designer jeans, weave through the crowds. Some among them, friends, hold hands, which seems odd to a Westerner. There are beggars, hawkers and holy men.

We enter the fort and I marvel at the intricacies of Indo-Islamic architecture. Rajiv and I pause at various signs for impromptu Hindi lessons, sounding out the silky scrawl of the language's Devanagari lettering. We move on, sidestepping a small demonstration that broke out in the street between the Digambara Jain Temple and the fort. The protest is both brief and smoky. They burn an effigy, ignored by passing motorists and pedestrians, but it was a smoldering heap by the time we caught a glimpse of it through the crowd.

indiadispatch3Rajiv hails a colorful rickshaw, and our rail-thin but tireless cyclist pedals us through Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi's historic shopping quarter. I am dazzled by the crowds, the traffic, the crazy tangle of electrical wires crisscrossing overhead and the monkeys atop shop awnings.

We reach Jama Masjid and shed our shoes to shuffle about India's largest mosque. The yawning courtyard, large enough to hold 25,000 worshippers, is filled with the same happy heterogeny as the fort. Contrary to my preconceived notions regarding mosques, people of all faiths wander the sanctuary. Women, both Western and Indian, proceed unveiled.

Later, I am at the home of Atin's father, Pawan Khanna, in the early evening, along with some family friends. Surrounded by Indian objets d'art -- including a "Krishna Room" stocked with artworks depicting the Hindu deity -- I'm asked by Pawan's wife to read from the book "Osho: India My Love," by the controversial mystic Osho (also known as Baghwan Shree Rajneesh during an infamous stint as an ashram leader in Oregon two decades ago).

"India is not a country but a mystery," I read aloud. "India is the imminent and the transcendental manifested simultaneously, leaving deep feelings of wonder and amazement, just as those experienced by a child."

I leave with the feeling that I've taken my first baby steps.

Kenneth Kiesnoski is Travel Weekly's Destinations Editor. E-mail him at [email protected].

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