Maybe if we’d been there during the night we’d have felt the presence of the spirits, but as it was seeing the Agresen Stepwell in the soft morning sunlight, you’d hardly know you were in one of India’s most haunted places. They say that the murky water at its depths attracted depressed and saddened souls to the well, though in reality it was the life source for many in the Mogul kingdom. As a tourist spot it’s a little piece of well-preserved history near Delhi’s thriving centre and for locals, a sacred little getaway where couples sit lovingly together on the steps of the well looking into the depths of each other’s eyes.
When you’re a foreigner in Delhi it’s somewhat of a mixed bag, some things work in our favour, some not; but it’s probably fair enough that we pay a higher ticket price for entry into tourist spots. So there we were, standing happily in line at the Purana Qila, behind throngs of eager tourists when a guard called us out and immediately fast-tracked our entry. A little confused as to why we headed to the ticket counter and were given diplomatic status to jump the queue. Perhaps it was our matching cargo pants and converse sand-shoes, all the hallmarks of official status. We were in; 200 rupees for me, 20 for her.
Unlike many forts across India with their imposing high walls, Delhi’s oldest fort, aptly named the Old Fort, invites you along a corridor lined with tall palm trees towards Humayun’s Gate. Walking down this avenue I realise there’s something about the light in Delhi that I love; it’s a soft watercolour like mist that stills the air and against the afternoon sunlight, softens the contours of an otherwise rugged garrison outline. Though the fort is breaking down and the rounded stones in the wall seem to have just rolled onto the ground, the delicate towers with their spired domes and Arabic arches resemble two bell towers; perhaps once they were. This fort is the legacy of Emperor Humayun and another of his bold architectural tributes that sing of his craft and creativity.
Many historic monuments capture the moment where two kingdoms merge and this rambling old fort in Delhi has highlights of its pre-Mogul days before the Mosque was built. But for almost 500 years the Qila-i-Khuna mosque has stood out for its intricate style and size. It’s not overwhelming at all but rather small enough that it really sits at the congregational heart of the fort. It looks like it belongs in a little snow dome that you can shake and watch the snow flutter over. In beautiful Afghani style, its flourish of calligraphy and inlaid recesses tells the story of a faraway time and place and I love the allure of its mystery. In them I see their history.
Today I see the flurry of young families and kids snapping selfies and suddenly we realised that we too were starring in the pics. In the flash of an iPhone we’d gone from diplomatic status to celebrities, with fathers asking us to pose with their kids and shake our hands. Eager smiles and bright eyes smeared with kajal liner running up and saying hello, grownups asking to take my picture and pose with all the flair of a Kardashian. It never ceases to amaze me how fascinating foreigners are here. Though they clearly overstayed their welcome, it was more than 200 years of British rule and as many opportunities to overcome the novelty of a fair face. The other gal thought it was hilarious and eventually gave way to the peer pressure of the paparazzi and starting shaking hands too. These sweet exchanges were the highlight of our day not the other way around.
Spending time at a place like the Old Fort is at the heart of what I love about Delhi; a staunch and fascinating history, a layer of rich culture with a sprinkle of pampering like sweet icing on a cupcake. I say this because after ambling around the fort, a lunch stop in a gorgeous little cafe and a quick foot massage is a matter of course. The afternoon light is wistful, the experience of the day settles comfortably and my heart is happy.