It was a few minutes past midnight on Christmas day of 2016 that 77 students, all of them third-years at McGans Ooty School of Architecture, took off to the Coimbatore railway station in five minibuses. The temperature was freezing, under 10 degree Celsius. The students were warmly dressed, but still, could not keep their hands off their mobiles. The students were led by four staff — Senthil Maruthavanan, Arun Davis, Sarika Agarwal and my wife, Dhenuka. I was on the first bus.
The idea was to take the students on a study tour of Agra, Delhi and Chandigarh and expose them to the places of architectural importance in these cities and supplement what they had learned in theory. Hopefully, this would fire up their imaginations and shape them along the way to becoming better architects. I was to tag along and record the trip for the college.
Soon enough, we were winding our way to Kothagiri en route to Coimbatore. Luckily, the fog cover was light. The driver was playing gentle music and soon enough the whoops, whistles and catcalls gave way to the steady sounds of breathing made by sleeping students.
We were well ahead of time at the Coimbatore railway station. Thilakar alias Kutty, the representative from Metro Travels, the agency hired by McGans, shepherded us on to the right platform. He was always closeby through the entire trip and his experience was invaluable to the group during many an occasion.
The compartment on Inter-City Express we had booked was a chair car. We seated ourselves comfortably. Once we were out of Coimbatore, we had plenty to treat our eyes to, as green fields and trees rushed by. A shocker came when Thilakar got a text from Railways saying that Grand Trunk Express, which was to take us to Agra, was late by over 12 hours. We were in Chennai mid-day mentally prepared for the wait.
However, when we reached Chennai, we realised that most students were not for using the waiting rooms in the Central station, but wanted to visit their own homes in the city. Finally, a deal was struck, and after a written undertaking, everyone was let off. They were to return an hour before the train was to depart to Agra.
Much to the relief of the staff, the students were on time the next morning. The train, though late, was seeming to be making good time once we left Chennai behind. The wintery chill gave away to a more warmer climate. Food was bad but edible. We also helped ourselves to biscuits and snacks. The students too seem to be energetic after a good night’s rest.
We reached Agra Cantonment. on the afternoon of December 28, too tired to do any touring. The winter was not intolerable as some of us had feared. Staff and students were able to engage in a bit of shopping.
But we were up early the next morning and visited the Agra Fort. A guide was engaged to enlighten the students. The walled city, built almost entirely of red stone, is a World Heritage Site and was home to the Mughals until the 17th century. It was ensured that the students had more than enough time to tour the Fort and absorb its finer details.
But touring the Taj Mahal was an entirely different story for the sheer splendour of the monument. The first thing noticed was how the crowds gathered at the foot of the structure were dwarfed by its enormity. Despite the huge crowd, a few students were not satisfied by walking around the structure. They snuck inside and took time to come out, obviously awestruck by the inner beauty of the Taj.
We then went to Fatehpur-Sikri, a city founded by Akbar in 1569. It is one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture and has been impeccably preserved. It consists of grand palaces, courtyards, mosques and harems. It was noticed that the local guide spent considerable time explaining Akbar’s relationships with various queens. Many students also took time out to pray at the mosque. Since it was winter, the city was not crowded and we had ample time to take it in the surroundings.
We then hit the National Capital. It was early in the morning when we reached Delhi and had a catch a few winks before heading out. The famous Qutub Minar, one of the tallest minarets in the world, was first on our list. It was maintained well as it is a World Heritage monument.
The Sanskriti Kendra, an extremely well-kept centre, is a tribute to nature with its lotus ponds, ancient trees and shrubs. This was our next stop. The natural surroundings are gently worked into the architecture of the main building, which includes museums and a multi-purpose hall.
TERI University famous for its architecture, which is friendly towards sustainable development, was next on our itinerary. The students were given a tour of the beautiful and green campus and were briefed about its fascinating structure during a session. The varsity located in Vasant Kunj area of New Delhi is recognised globally for its work in energy, environment and sustainable development.
After a productive day, we went back to our hotel to retire for the night. We went to Chandigarh the next morning and reached there in the evening. The students were happy to visit Sector 17 to do a spot of shopping and came back with many souvenirs.
Our first visit the next morning was to Capitol Complex, which was designed by the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. After a tour of the premises, we were ushered into the assembly rooms, where the Punjab and Haryana Houses meet. During the entire tour, we had informed commentary about the campus from a guide.
The Corbusier Museum, which was our next stop, was a fascinating tribute to the genius architect. The intimate relationship he enjoyed with former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was on display in many black and white photographs taken during the time.
The Nek Chand’s Rock Garden was our next stop. It is easy to get lost in this garden and time was too short to take in all its splendour. It is a tribute to the unusual skills and creativity of Nek Chand and the sculpture garden took the master a lifetime to complete.
We returned to the National Capital, where we visited the grand Indian Habitat Centre, and took time to take in a photography exhibition, which was on. The IHC is a premier cultural centre and hosts many superb events happening in the city.
Delhi Haat with its arts and crafts shops and food stalls from all the states in India was our next and last stop for the day. The food was the main attraction as students helped themselves to momos and pani pooris. They were instructed to observe how the various shops were arranged in the limited space in the heart of Delhi.
We reached our hotel as night fell. After a refreshing night’s sleep, we took off to Humayun’s tomb, which is a tribute to the famous Mughal king. The tomb along with its splendorous garden is an early example of Mughal architecture, which reached its zenith with Taj Mahal.
Our next stop was the Lotus Temple, which attracts hundreds of visitors to it every day. People are fascinated by its architecture and the Baha’i faith, which propagates the oneness of God, religions and mankind. Built in 1988, it has been on the must-visit list of tourists to Delhi ever since.
The next visit was Rashtrapati Bhavan, the seat of the President of India. Located at the western end of Rajpath, the 340-room building is the largest residence of a head of state in the world. It was formerly known as Viceroy’s House.
After a spot of shopping, we rushed to the railway station, only to find that the train was delayed again. Coming back was the most arduous part of the trip as the train took more than 48 hours before chugging into Chennai.
We booked two private buses that brought us back safely to Ooty. It was a deeply satisfying and fulfilling trip for students and staff.