In the Old Delhi district of Chandni Chowk stands a vast red wall surrounding one of Delhi’s most popular tourist hot spots, the Red Fort. We decided to visit on our first full day in India.
The Red Fort
The Red Fort, (Lal Quila) was the home of the Mughal emperors from 1639 to 1857, It was the centre of the Mughal empire until the British Raj put the last emperor to trial and exiled him. The architecture shows hints of the entire sub-continent; Hindu, Persian and Islamic. After the British moved in, they used it as a garrison and built their own buildings in there too. They also destroyed many of the original structures, stripping the ones they left of their valuables. They did, however, save the gardens and these green spaces are still very lovely despite the water features being left to ruin.
Visitors enter through the Lahore Gate on the fort’s Western side. There is two-tier pricing, something common to most Indian sights. Indian nationals pay far less than foreign visitors. Once you have paid the entrance fee, you pass through the covered bazaar, now full of tourist tat, and come out into the fort proper.
Through the gates, we started to meander down the central main path. I noticed a couple of girls walking past us and smiling in our direction.
“Everyone in India is so friendly.”, I mused. Karl smiled wryly
“Well if you like that, you’ll love this. Turn around”.
I looked behind me and saw a group of girls in their teens gathering, giggling and whispering. The group had very dark complexions and so we guessed that were tourists from South India, not so used to the hoards of British backpackers and bucket-listers making their way around India’s golden triangle every day.
We decided to try and avoid the attention and so we peeled off to the right to look at an exhibition of children’s artwork housed in a small building.
The exhibition space was cramped, hot and incredibly humid; a thoroughly unpleasant place to be sardined into. The school girls didn’t seem to mind. Into this room they squeezed; all of them. They didn’t so much as glance at the art work lining the walls but kept their gazes firmly on Karl and I. We had to take pigeon steps due to the crush and so it took five whole minutes to edge our way around. By the time we forced ourselves out, we were gasping for fresh air.
Quickly, we made our way down to look at a carving. We stopped to look at the intricate work and marvel at the sun-baked preservation. It was then that I felt a small tug at the back of my head. Someone was stroking my hair. It was the bravest of the school girls. As I turned to see what was happening she quickly withdrew her hand and then gave me a small head wobble as if to say “It was only a quick rub!”.
I must admit, this freaked me out a little bit. My hair isn’t that special, in fact, its tendency to go a bit ginger in winter means that I can either love it, or loath it from day to day. I smiled at the girl but tugged Karl away subtly.
We realised, the slow chase had meant we failed to take any photos so when we stepped through a large nicely carved gate, we paused to take a quick photo. At least, that was the idea. Instead, the school group emerged and so began a seriously awkward photo shoot. People joined in, people who would never see the photos but could now tell people that they did.
It was like being a celebrity, but with discernible talent. Maybe this is what Big Brother contestants feel like!? A lady even tried to give me her baby to hold. I had never held a baby and the idea of dropping one that I was just borrowing filled me with apprehension, so I encouraged her to join in the photos too.
We made our excuses and moved off. As we slowly wandered around the ruins of the main area towards the back of the fort I noticed a couple of teenage boys filming up and trying to be subtle. I stuck my tongue out and moved in the opposite direction.
I still hadn’t quite grasped the scale of what was going on. We sat in the gardens at the back of the palace for a rest. Slowly, behind us, teenage boys started to congregate. It was like a scene from The Birds. Camera phones in hand, they snapped away without the slightest embarrassment. I didn’t really know what to do. Should I tell them to stop, soak up the attention or just move away? I decided to let it whoosh over my head. It was so hot, and what would I gain from trying to run away?
I was just as bad in the end. We walked behind a baby that made me smile as she couldn’t take her eyes off Karl and I. I took my turn and grabbed a sneaky photo.
“Just one photo”, was probably our catchphrase from our time in India. People asked us for photos several times a day. I sometimes marvel at how many mantelpieces around the subcontinent must have a picture of an Indian family smiling away with two slightly confused, bright white strangers in the middle.
And with that thought, I leave you with a chipmunk, a complete stranger that lives in my photo album…