Delhi – Agra – Varanasi

Sights of Delhi

Among the peak sights in Delhi is the house and garden (Gandhi Smitri) where Gandhi was killed, with his last footsteps marked in red.

If that interests you, you can also see the Raj Ghat where he was cremated, and the Gandhi Darshan Museum with mementos of him and fascinating dioramas of his life. Also open are Teen Murti House where Nehru lived, with its lovely quiet garden, and the house (Indira Smitri) where his daughter Indira Gandhi lived and the place where she was killed

The Red Fort was the center of Mughal power in India; lots of interesting Mughal buildings remain. Right in front of the Red Fort is Old Delhi, beginning with the vast market called the Chandi Chowk. Explore this on foot ‒ a car can’t get through the narrow lanes.

Connaught Circle is a remarkable place in itself and a sort of epitome of modern British Delhi. Pahar Ganj, my favorite neighborhood in Delhi, is just northwest of there. Any three-wheeler in Connaught Circle can take you to the Main Bazaar Pahar Ganj, and another one can bring you home. There are cows in the roads and interesting street scenes, and you can get a feel for less Westernized India, without going very far from your hotel. You can also stay in a cheap hotel there if you like the vibe. The Jantar Mantar, very close to Connaught Circle, is a bizarre collection of 18C astronomical structures – worth a visit.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan, now the President’s House but formerly the Viceroy’s residence, used to be visitable – if it still is, it is worth the effort. The President’s Garden is open in February and March. The Parliament (Lok Sabha), nearby, can be visited with some string-pulling – in 1987 it took a letter from the embassy, but who knows what it takes now.

There are lots of secondary sights such as the Jama Masjid (main mosque) and the Qutb Minar (Moslem tomb complex with an iron pillar and the tallest minaret in India) that might repay a visit. The American Embassy is a remarkable building by Edward Durrell Stone. There is the Jain place near the Red Fort where you buy birds to release. There are also museums of antiquities, but Indian museums are usually appallingly lousy, so I’d skip these unless you have a particular interest in Indian antiquities.

The best retreat from the madness of Delhi is the Lodi Gardens, a park of almost European elegance with ancient tombs. Galbraith spent a lot of time there when he was ambassador.

A lot of the interest of Delhi is in the part that is not famous, but just the streets you go through, the markets, the scenes of confusion. Delhi is a fascinating city to explore but beware of spending too much time there – the air pollution will start to give you lung problems after a while. A car is useful for sightseeing but is not necessary – you can always find a three-wheeler.

Sights of Agra

In Agra of course the main draw is the Taj Mahal. It is one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Foreigners prepared to pay $15 instead of 40 cents can go to a special ticket window and avoid the long crowded wait – well worth it. Take your time – plan to spend the whole day there. You will not find a better use for a day in your whole life. Especially take some time to go behind the Taj Mahal to see the view over the river.

Visit the Agra Fort also, a magnificent palace and one of the outstanding monuments of India. Akbar’s Tomb is set in a lovely park with antelopes and other animals – a restful interlude is possible there, and you will never forget half an hour spent in the chamber itself. The neighborhood of Taj Ganj is charming and very casual. When I was there you could get around Agra in a horse cart (called a tanga), far above the tuk-tuks and Vespas, and that’s a great experience. See if your hotel can arrange it for you.

Sights of Varanasi

In Varanasi, walk along the ghats (the steps and plazas along the river) from Assi Ghat to Raj Ghat. This is about three miles and need not all be done on the same day. When you’ve had enough for one day, take a boat back on the River. There will be boatmen all along the way for just this purpose. Indeed, the River can be a better way to go significant distances in inner Varanasi than a taxi or rickshaw, as the streets are so crowded and noisy and clogged and chaotic.

Walk around the old town of Varanasi. The main back street is Bangla Tola, with lots of shops and teahouses; it comes out on a plaza near the main ghat (Dasaswamedh). There are more confusing back streets further on toward the bridge (the direction away from Assi Ghat). Always carry a small but powerful LED flashlight with you in Varanasi – it is really dark at night and the streets are full of ordure.

  • I like the Hotel Temple on Ganges because it is right at Assi Ghat, fronting a relatively quiet commercial street with easy access to taxis, tuk-tuks, rickshaws and boats, and backs onto a completely quiet residential district, and the food is really safe to eat.

Varanasi is a center for north Indian classical music. There are schools all over that post handbills and hand out leaflets inviting you to concerts, which are free or almost free. Donations are welcome afterwards.

Visit temples – the main Shiva temple is off limits to westerners, but there is a Hanuman temple with lots of uncaged monkeys. Wander around. If you hear the sound of Indian sacred music, follow the sound and you will probably find an active temple. You can watch (but not photograph) at one of the burning ghats – Manikarnika is the most intense. Persistent hucksters may hassle you there, insisting in outraged tones that their families own the ghat and trying to charge you for watching. This is a scam – refuse firmly and then ignore them.

The moth-eaten palace of the Maharajah of Benares has a museum. It is hard to get to, down a bone-jarring road and equally bone-jarring bridge in a district called Ramnagar. But if the old princely style interests you, you can get a very faded taste of it here. There are much better palaces elsewhere in India (Gwalior, Baroda, Jodhpur), but you may not get to them on this trip.

The main attraction of Varanasi is the River Ganges. Take at least one boat ride from one end to the other. Spend a lot of unstructured time by the River, sitting around on the ghats with your eyes open. DO NOT go in the water, even though Indians are splashing around in it and drinking from it and bathing their babies in it. You will get very sick at once if you try – it is polluted beyond description.