Beauty in a country of contradictions

The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal

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New Delhi is a city of chaos, of antiquity and of beauty.

The first thing you notice when you arrive in the city is the traffic. It’s terrifying.

There are more than 14 million people living in New Delhi and it seems they all drive cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws and mopeds.

The air vibrates with a cacophony of horns, there’s no such thing as lane discipline and in between the traffic queues, in the darkness of the New Delhi night spotlit by headlights, children beg for money to buy food.

And this all happens against the background of Delhi’s magnificent heritage.

The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan moved the capital from Agra to Old Delhi in the 17th century. He built the magnificent Red Fort to live in, and the biggest mosque in the country – Jama Masjid – for worship.

In contrast, New Delhi was built as the imperial capital of India by the British.

It serves as the centre of the government, and in the middle looms the national monument of the country, the India Gate, inspired by Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. Originally known as the War Memorial, it commemorates the 90,000 soldiers of the Indian army who died fighting the British Raj.

India’s antiquity is breathtaking, but anyone who’s seen the film Slumdog Millionaire, or knows about the work of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, will know that India has slums.

What many don’t realise is that these slums are not hidden from sight – they’re right in the middle of housing estates, nestled near the embassy district – and all of them come with satellite dishes as standard.

India is a growing nation, economically as well as population-wise, and its government is doing its best to encourage that growth.

Late last year it hosted India’s first international event to promote its best-known export – Basmati rice.

The rice only grows in India and Pakistan and is known for its nutty flavour and fragrance (Basmati means ‘full of aroma’ in Hindi).

The Basmati for the World event was held at the five-star Grand Hotel in New Delhi, next door to a designer shopping complex and less than half-a-mile from the slums.

A visit to the Jama Masjid was part of the itinerary, as was a rickshaw ride through the narrow streets nearby.

Also on the itinerary was, of course, a trip to see the Taj Mahal.

The stunning mausoleum is in Agra, a five-hour bus ride from the Indian capital. On the way the sights included snake charmers, trained monkeys and street markets.

The Taj Mahal is everything the postcards promise. It is a magnificent piece of architecture, a labour of love built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Within the white marble walls the pair are laid to rest, a stone’s throw from the Yamuna River, which runs into the River Ganges - the most sacred river for Hindus.

As with most places in India, security in public places is tight as the threat of terrorist bombings is fairly high.

Prepare for bags to be searched, you to be frisked, and to pass through metal detectors to get into your hotel, into shopping centres and into many tourist attractions.

India is a country of contradictions, and whilst guns are an ugly addition to any holiday, walking past them is almost a rite of passage to be able to see beautiful places.