How Stops Hostel Is Making Delhi Feel Like A European City

Walking tours through interesting neighbourhoods and ancient ruins; mixed dorms with bunk beds and lockers; a shelf full of travel guides in the common room; and running into friendly backpackers in hallways from a dozen different countries – these are experiences I would typically associate with Europe. But here I was, in Delhi – a city arguably better known for its bungalows and boisterousness.

Is It Foolhardy To Be Fearless In Delhi?

Delhi's Feroz Shah Kotla has stories that attract many curious listeners to this haunted fort complex.

Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla has stories that attract many curious listeners to this haunted fort complex.

I had been in Delhi several times before. Yet, this was the first trip that showed me this old city in a new light. Interestingly, this was the first time that I was exploring India’s capital as a solo traveller. I was no longer driven around in my aunt’s sedan, nor did I have my cousins’ expert advice on navigating NCR or avoiding the city’s stalkers. I had also decided not to heed my (overprotective) friend who made me swear I’d carry an electric taser or at least a pepper spray everywhere I went. Was I pushing my luck? Or had I let news reports paint a grave picture in my head? Whatever be the case, I rediscovered Delhi in a way I had never expected to know it.

Stops Hostel – A New Concept In Old Delhi

Embracing my new life as a full-time traveller, I decided to stay with Stops Hostel. The moment I entered, it felt like I’d left the red and brown Old Delhi behind to drown in bright colours. My video above will show you how vibrant the common room is. The hostel aims to attract both the right-brained creative explorers and the left-brained startup-workers. There is free wifi in all the areas, complimentary unlimited breakfast (although basic) in the dining-room-cum-kitchen and plenty of things to keep oneself occupied with – a small collection of books for those who like to cuddle up with a paperback and lie on the floor-cushions; a billiards table for those who can’t get away from perfecting their game; 3 guitars and a djembe for the musically gifted; and some board games for the laidback lounger. I can’t help but wonder whether the founders of this hostel are big fans of European hostels.

Not Too Far From Anywhere

Tuk-tuk - Delhi's only green mode of transport in a road full of cars, buses and bikes.

Tuk-tuk – Delhi’s only green mode of transport in a road full of cars, buses and bikes.

Located right in front of a Metro station, Stops Hostel is easily accessible from most places. Feroz Shah Kotla is a short walk from the hostel, and a few minutes in a tuk-tuk will take you to some of Old Delhi’s famous food streets. Walking around is also a good idea, but Delhi’s afternoons can be a little too hot for comfort, especially in the summers.

A Terrace Garden For Some Fresh  Air

Stops Delhi has a terrace for hostellers to enjoy some sun.

Stops Delhi has a terrace for hostellers to enjoy some sun.

Unlike any of the hostels I’ve stayed at abroad, Stops Delhi has a neat little terrace with potted plants and colourful chairs for the hostellers to chill in the evening. This is a nice way to help your lungs recuperate after they’ve felt the assault of Delhi’s pollution.

Food Tour In Chawri Bazaar

Kuremal's famous stuffed mango kulfi in Old Delhi's Chawri Bazaar.

Kuremal’s famous stuffed mango kulfi in Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar.

Stops Hostel offers some walking tours (which even non-residents can join) – this immediately makes me think of those old-town-walking-tours in Europe. I decide to have a light lunch one day to stuff my face during the Food-gasm tour in the late afternoon. I have 2 other travellers who join me for this walking tour through Chawri Bazaar. Perhaps not as well known as Chandni Chowk or Parathe-waali Gali, Chawri Bazaar hides some of Old Delhi’s best preparations – kulfis stuffed in deseeded apples, pineapples, oranges or pomegranates and fruit sandwiches, for instance.

Coming Home To Dogs & Cats

Stops Hostel's pet dogs - Ginger, Gennie & Pepper nap next to their feeding bowls.

Stops Hostel’s pet dogs – Ginger, Gennie & Pepper nap next to their feeding bowls.

Travelling of late has made me quite fond of pets. The hostel has 3 cuddly dogs and some cats who are mostly in their own world but entertaining to watch. Despite these furry friends around, the hostel premises are squeaky clean. (No cat hair on the cushions! 🙂 ) These pets are not allowed inside the dorms though. After we play with them, we are to leave them in the common room or terrace.

Myths And Mysticism

The imam watches over the coffin of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki at the eponymous Islamic shrine.

The imam watches over the coffin of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki at the eponymous Islamic shrine.

I spent my first evening learning why Delhi is called “The City of Djinns” as our walking tour leader, Mayank, took us to some spooky places during the City of Mysticism walking tour. We strolled through the abandoned precincts of Feroz Shah Kotla and encountered an old woman who uttered unintelligible words aloud, as if possessed by a spirit. We walked past underground rooms full of bats as we heard stories of how a royal family was killed there many years ago. We later visited a temple where (shockingly) alcohol is served to the idol. It took me a while to fall asleep that night.

Colours In The Common Room

Charging sockets hang from the ceiling of Stops Hostel's common room.

Charging sockets hang from the ceiling of Stops Hostel’s common room.

Stops Hostel does its bit to go green by turning off the air conditioning in the dorms during the day. They encourage guests to spend time in the common room or the terrace. This is a great way to meet new people! The commmon room is inviting and warm with its coloured wooden tables, benches and couches. And there’s always some music in the background – a great accompaniment to good conversations! 😉 While I stayed with Stops, I made friends with:-

  • a blue-haired girl whose fetish is to change her hair colour to match the mood of every place she visits
  • a Gujarati diamond merchant from Russia who is spending this year travelling around the world
  • an Egyptian solo traveller who never forgets to kneel and pray before she hits the sack
  • two medical students from the UK who are stoked about mehendi and spicy food in Delhi
  • a Nepali roommate who lunches on smoothies so she can drink all night

I’ve always met interesting people whenever I’ve stayed at hostels in Europe. I honestly underestimated the scope of meeting quirky backpackers in Delhi. I’m glad I was wrong!

Take A Taxi To Tibet

One of the narrow alleys of Majnu Ka Tila - Delhi's Tibetan ghetto.

One of the narrow alleys of Majnu Ka Tila – Delhi’s Tibetan ghetto.

Not many are aware of Majnu Ka Tila – an area exclusively reserved for Tibetan refugees. This (almost) secret little hangout has the best places to get your Tibetan food fix! A couple of the night tour experts at Stops took me to this food haven in an Uber. Barely a 30-minute drive from the hostel, Majnu Ka Tila offered me a bowl of laping (a Tibetan street food made of mung bean flat noodles with a spicy paste), a tingmo (Tibetan steamed bead), sha phaley (vegetable stuffed fried savoury shaped as gujias) and some fried wantons. I was elated to find that the restaurants here serve Korean, Japanese and even Bhutanese cuisine!

Crash In Your Comfy Bed

My bunk bed is cosy, with cushions, a duvet and a wall full of mythological comic strips.

My bunk bed is cosy, with cushions, a duvet and a wall full of mythological comic strips.

After my day-long adventures in haunted forts and eclectic eat-streets, I would be glad to come back to a cosy room, a soft bed and a comforter to keep me warm. The reading lights for each bed are quite convenient to stay up without disturbing your fellow roommates. Our room had an ensuite bathroom which was also very clean and furnished with premium bath fittings. This bit felt luxurious in a hostel which is so pocket-friendly.

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Disclosure: I was hosted by Stops Hostels. Nevertheless, all views are entirely my own.

Gurdwara Etiquette – Observations from My First Visit

I had often heard stories of Sikh benevolence from my friends who visited Gurdwaras. These friends were not just Punjabi Sikhs but also Bengali students who looked forward to the free langar in Rome when they found Italian restaurants a tad too heavy on their pockets.

I first visited a Gurdwara last winter on my trip to New Delhi. Delhi was just a stopover destination on that trip and I did not intend to do much sightseeing in the capital. While I scrolled through Foursquare for suggestions of good eateries in the city, I came across Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. I was surprised to see a house of worship on a list that otherwise only had restaurants and cafes. Instantaneously, I decided to visit the Gurdwara. This was my chance to unravel a mystery I was often fascinated with as a child.

The majestic Guru Bangla Sahib Gurudwara throws its resplendent reflection in the pond

The majestic Guru Bangla Sahib Gurdwara throws its resplendent reflection in the pond

Gurdwara Bangla Sahib is a palatial structure built of white marble with gold finishings. Four of its largest domes are wrapped in gold and exude the brilliance of the sun in the daytime. I learnt later that this opulent edifice was indeed a palace four hundred years ago – the abode of Raja Jai Singh.

Gurdwaras continue to welcome visitors without questioning their faith or religious loyalties

Gurdwaras continue to welcome visitors without questioning their faith or religious loyalties

The Gurdwara experience is quite an interesting one, especially for first timers. There is a sequence to how you proceed once you are inside a Sikh house of worship:-

Step One – Deposit Your Bags at the Luggage Counter

The first thing you do at a Gurdwara is take the weight off your shoulders. When your body is light, you focus better on taking the weight off your mind.

Step Two – Deposit Your Shoes at the Shoe Counter

In India, most places of worship will require that you remove your shoes. It is the same with Gurdwaras. Guru Bangla Sahib has several counters for devotees to hand over their shoes for safekeeping. Remember to collect your token and keep it safely. Your shoes will be handed back against the token.

Step Three – Cover Your Head

It is mandatory for everyone to cover their head inside a Gurdwara. Women generally wrap a dupatta over their head and men are expected to knot a headscarf to cover their forehead. You will usually find baskets of reusable headscarves which look like large handkerchieves in various colours and prints. Be mindful of this custom. Your headscarf or dupatta must never slip off as that is considered disrespectful. If it does, the volunteers point it out to you.

Step Four – Wash Your Feet

Washing your feet is an important step before you climb the stairs to the Gurdwara. I thought it was particularly intelligent of the builders to place a shallow water-tank right at the foot of the staircase.

Step Five – Buy Prasad

Guru Bangla Sahib has a structured way of accepting sponsorship for prasad (holy food). Prasad is usually a halwa – a sweet dish. You can buy a coupon for a nominal price and hand it over to the Gurdwara-worker designated to collect it. This step is optional, so those who cannot afford to pay can just skip this one. I suggest that you buy prasad if you have a big heart. Gurdwaras work mostly on charity and do a lot more charity in return!

There are queues for everything inside a Gurdwara and the proceedings are highly organised. After you collect your prasad-coupon, you exchange it for a bowl of prasad. But you cannot eat it just yet!

Step Six – Share Prasad and Enter the Shrine

This step is perhaps the highlight of my Gurdwara experience. There are two queues right outside the main building – one for those who have bought prasad, and another for those who haven’t. If you are in the first queue, you are supposed to hand your prasad-bowl to the Gurdwara worker. He scoops half of your prasad off your bowl and transfers it to a large drum of prasad (collected from more devotees like you). You take your half-filled bowl back and enter the building.

The people in the second queue (who come empty handed) are given a bowl of prasad from the same drum. This ritual brought tears in my eyes. Never before had I seen such a beautiful and structured way of sharing food. If only we could emulate this technique in our daily lives! This would solve the problems of hunger and poverty in the world.

At the centre of the gilded shrine, the Granthi reads the Sikh scripture

At the centre of the gilded shrine, the Granthi reads the Sikh scripture

Step Seven – Listen to the Granthi

The interiors of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib is even more grandiose than its exterior. The central place of worship gleams in its gold coloured carvings. The hall is large and peaceful with a high ceiling. The Granthi sits at the centre and sings prayers into the mic or reads the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book for Sikhs. I am told that the Granthi in Sikhism is unlike a priest as in other religions. He has the same status as any other person visiting a Gurdwara. Anybody can be a Granthi and Granthis keep changing. This is a strong lesson in equality ingrained in Sikhism.

Hundreds of devotees either stand outside the railings that surround the Granthi’s pedestal, listening to the prayers, or sit under one of several hanging fans. The floor is either carpeted or there is cool marble to sit on. There is a separate seating area with chairs and sofas for the aged and those with problems of arthritis or mobility.

I watched a pair of pigeons quench their thirst as I ate the halwa

I watched a pair of pigeons quench their thirst from the Gurdwara-pond as I sat in the courtyard, quenching my thirst for peace.

Step Eight – Walk About the Gurdwara Courtyard as You Eat Your Prasad

You can either finish your prasad inside the main building or carry it outside into the expansive courtyard. I found me a nice shaded area on the white marble to sit on. The suji-ka-halwa, a semolina preparation, is the best I have had till date. Perhaps because it is generously swathed in ghee, or maybe because it is made with love…

The courtyard borders a serene body of water and I see the reflection of the impeccable Gurdwara floating on the deep blue waters of the pond. This pond is out of bounds for people. It is not meant for holy dips as I imagined it would be. I realize how my Hindu upbringing has conditioned me to expect things to be a certain way.

Step Nine – Relish the Langar

Gurdwaras are arguably best known for their langar. Langar is the main meal which is served all afternoon to every visitor, irrespective of their social standing or religious affiliation. Everyone assembles in a spacious dining hall – the langar hall, and takes a place on the floor in one of the multiple queues. Steel plates are provided to all and several volunteers (also known as Sevadars) take turns to serve all the dishes for lunch.

During my visit, I remember enjoying a wholesome meal of khichdi with ghee, makke-di-roti, aloo-subzi, papad and tomato chutney. These meals are cooked by volunteers and anybody can choose to volunteer. You need not be Sikh.

The meals served at gurdwaras are delightful not just because of the culinary skills of volunteers but also their devotion to serve

The meals served at Gurdwaras are delightful not just because of the culinary skills of volunteers but also their devotion to serve

Step Ten – Quench Your Thirst

There are water stations at several locations and you can drink to your heart’s content from bowls of water. My Gurdwara served water in bowls and not tumblers, which was very interesting.

Step Eleven – Collect Your Things and Spread the Love

After your visit is done, don’t forget to deposit the headscarf (if you borrowed one) and collect your shoes and bags from the designated counters. I know this is a long list of steps to remember. So, when you are confused, just do as the Sikhs do! Before I left the Gurdwara, I dropped some money in one of the donation boxes and took with me memories of a wonderful afternoon.

I was an observer throughout my experience inside the Gurdwara. If I have misunderstood any practice or gotten any step wrong, kindly correct me by leaving a comment below. If you too have had a Gurdwara experience, share your account with me. I am all ears! 🙂