This morning, I feel like staying around my neighborhood. I have a strange headache and do not want to overdo it. My new driver Gurdyal Singh — known also as Bopa Rai — is waiting for me at the Oberoi’s entrance door. As I do every day, I pass the usual routine security checks almost as if I am going to take a flight to Israel. Except today, crossing narrow alleys filled with traffic jams of holy flower vendors, cows, and tuc-tucs, the flight is to the grand Mosque Jami Masjid.
This grand Mosque, built in 1695 by the emperor Shah Jahan on a natural rocky outcrop, took six years and 5,000 workmen to construct at a cost of nearly a million rupees. My flight continues onto a magnificent escalation of red sandstone steps leading to the great arched entrance that will certainly lead me to one of the city’s most beautiful marvels.
Mr. Gurdya-Singh-Bopa-Rai the driver leads me to an old and toothless man who looks both at my feet and shirt, stating in a loud voice without looking at my driver that I must take off my sandals and wear a flowered blue long cotton Kaftan on top of my clothes.
Hoping to find “that thing” clean, I don’t speak with any of them. I pay for my entry, get a shoe ticket, and tour access ticket. Without further impediments, I walk barefoot onto a very cold stone floor in the direction of where — once upon Aurangzeb‘s times — horses were sold and jugglers were said to perform.
I find no jugglers around but several sweets sellers and shoe minders, very popular professions around tourist sites nowadays. According to my guide the huge 28 m (300 ft) square courtyard accommodates up to 20,000 people at prayer times, especially during Friday prayers and on Eid, when it looks like a sea of worshipers.
Next to the ablution tank in the center is the Dikka platform where, before loudspeakers took over, a second prayer leader echoed the imam‘s words and actions for worshipers too far from the pulpit.
Mr. Gurdya-Singh-Bopa-Rai tells me it’s time to get ready for the ‘escalation’ to the main tower. Mind you, I am still barefoot, the floor is very cold and apparently it’s a must I extend my visit to the top of at least one of the two minarets.
Still 10 hours jet lagged and nursing the remainders of a headache, I agree to Mr. Gurdya-Singh-Bopa-Rai’s proposal. I understand after a few minutes that this is the only way I can visit the tower anyway, for being a woman I am required to have a male escorting me. I wonder why…
Off I go, climbing stair after stair. Groups of people are coming down and there is hardly space for two people on the same step.
I have to admit I am a little claustrophobic while I climb. This long — too long — Kaftan, my hat, the dark space, people’s voices and smells in the tiny space make my head spin around. I am breathless. Mr Gurdya-Singh-Bopa-Rai suggests I rest a little before reaching to the top, promising me I won’t regret the climb once I get to see the beautiful view.
After 20 minutes of steep climbing, we finally make it to the top. I feel I am going to die. I had no idea I was so out of shape. From the top of my minaret, I can clearly see the imposing black and white marble domes surmounting the enormous prayer hall, framed by the great central arch. The view of the Old Delhi roof line giving way to the high rises of new Delhi is absolutely remarkable.
An interesting panel on the wall on our way back to pick up our shoes captures my attention: It’s the time schedule for the prayers. I love it. I’ll just come back and watch this spiritual performance into what I called previously my flight. I’ll just need to fasten my seat belt next time on my way to the sky.