Power and Grace

Old Delhi, India. While we do not endorse despots of any flavor, we certainly admire the architectural legacy that the strong-fisted Mughal emperors left behind.

Today we went to Old Delhi, as opposed to New Delhi, where we live among the wide boulevards and the elegant bungalows.

Our target for the morning was the Red Fort, the residence and seat of power of the Mughal emperors from its completion in 1648 through to the 1857 uprising which gave the British a good excuse to take their power away.

The source of the name is clear, but the loveliness of the original buildings still remaining make it feel like anything but a fort, and more like a pleasure park.

The entrance hall – then as now – was a shopping gallery, though the goods have gone down in quality and price since the Mughals’ day. Definitely a tourist trap now, with all the same level of pricey yet cheap souvenirs.

Leaving the entrance hall, we emerged into a lovely landscaped garden of beautiful buildings, with the channels for the original water fountains still in place. The first building was where guests dismounted from their elephants as musicians played in the gallery above. Not a bad place to start your visit.

The next stop was the reception hall where the emperor of the day would receive official visitors. I think sitting on that throne would convey sufficient gravitas and power.

And then, for fun, there was the seraglio or harem. The women’s building is no longer open to tour, but what we were able to see made it seem like a nice home for all the emperor’s ladies. But you can almost still hear the gossip and scheming reverberating around the marble halls.

Conveniently located across the plaza is the emperor’s private apartment. It was truly a life lived large. And then there was his official meeting place for consultations with his ministers. It is the site of the famous bejeweled Peacock Throne, which has somehow left the building for points unknown. (We may be checking the basement of the British Museum for clues on our next trip, however.)

The emperor’s private mosque was the next stop, but we could only peek through the lattice at the marble artistry inside.

A lovely pavilion which was a retreat during the monsoons was our final Mughal building. Again, such perfection in scale and decoration must have been stunning when occupied by the emperors’ courts.

The only jarring note was the row of buildings we came to next. They look out of place, because they were. When the British took over from the Mughals after the 1857 uprising, they occupied the fort and tore down a number of buildings to put up barracks for soldiers. Those barracks are now a museum about the fight for independence from the British, as a bit of irony. The Red Fort is where Prime Minister Nehru first raised the Indian flag on Independence Day in 1947, as it was an obvious symbol of centuries of repression and abuse.

Don’s Food Corner

It feels like we haven’t done justice to the array of food options offered in Delhi. But one thing or another has kept us from going to carefully selected places, instead just compromising by eating at whatever was the handiest and easiest.

So today, I decided to make sure we made it to at least one highly recommended restaurant. The restaurant I was focused on is a place called Karim’s. This 100-year old establishment is touted in several guide books as the one of the best and most authentic of any place in the city to find real Mughali food.

We were the only westerners in the restaurant. But that could be, in part, because if you didn’t have a guide to literally take you by the hand and lead you through a maze of narrow streets in Old Delhi, you’d never find it.  And when you get there you’d be rather startled by the stripped-down looks of the place. If it hadn’t been so highly recommended, I would have just passed it by. Most of the food seems to be made in the alley outside.

But, as longtime readers know, we’re game. We selected dishes both from the recommended lists in the various guidebooks and from our waiter. (All the people working in the restaurant, who were, by the way, all men, are Muslim.)

The dishes, therefore, were two kebabs, tikka chicken roasted in a tandoor oven, and mutton korma, with rice and naan. Our approach to Indian dishes described as “mutton” changed yesterday. Previously, whenever I saw “mutton” on the menu I thought how honest of the Indians to call sheep meat “mutton” rather than trying to pass it off as young lamb. Then I read that more often as not the term “mutton” refers to goat. With that knowledge in hand, Jo refused to eat the meat in the mutton korma, which is just as well because it was mostly bone and fat.  She did like the sauce, however.

Here’s my impression of this meal overall: It might represent a closer historic authenticity to the food the Mughals actually ate and enjoyed, but those recipes have been altered and, shall we say, refined since then for a more modern palate. Everything seemed kind of rough and really greasy. It isn’t how these dishes are served at The Claridges, the Intercontinental, or the Taj Vivanta, that’s for sure.

I’ve had a pretty bad cold and even worse cough over the last few days but I had a touch of “Delhi belly” shortly after eating that meal. I can’t tell if it is part of my general malaise or a reaction to the food. A trip to the pharmacy that we carry around in our luggage has smoothed things over.

One thought on “Power and Grace

  1. Jo, great photos. Hope you also had a chance visit the Jama Masjid close by. And the crazy Chandni Chowk right across from Red Fort?
    Don, sorry you got Delhi Belly and missing out out on one of India’s great culinary destinations.
    Hope you are feeling better now.

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