Monumental mosques and baffling bazaars, faded grandeur and modern mayhem – dive into the streets of Old Delhi for a glimpse of life at the heart of India’s multi-faceted capital
First, the good news. If you’re flying to Delhi for the first time then you’re about to enjoy an experience that will remain etched on your memory forever. Prepare to have your senses stretched, your pulse quickened, your imagination filled with impressions both magical and manic. And the bad news? That however many times you visit Delhi, you will never get to the bottom of the place. No one ever does, not even the people who live there. It’s simply too big, too baffling – a four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle layered with dozens of different histories, cultures, religions and stories stretching back into the depths of India’s semi-legendary past and forwards into its ambitious hi-tech future. Prepare to be amazed and confused in equal measure. This is Delhi, and you’ll never reach the end of it, however hard you try.
Your first time? Then jump in a rickshaw and head towards the heart of the city. Watch the modern suburbs roll past as your driver weaves through the traffic like some kamikaze pilot on three wheels, dodging trucks and taxis, squeezing through the tightest of spaces. There will be overloaded buses and shiny glass-faced high-rises next to tumbledown shops and lean-tos, and broad streets laid out during colonial times, canopied with huge trees – jacarandas, banyans, peepals – and pavements alive with the smell of sweet milky tea and frying samosas. En route you might catch sight of some of the city’s great British-era monuments – the triumphalist India Gate, or the once-elegant but now increasingly mildewed rings of colonnaded shops surrounding Connaught Place. Glimpses of older tombs and shrines can also be seen – the busy dargah of a Sufi saint, perhaps, or the florid towers of a Hindu temple or Sikh gurdwara, or the domed mausoleum of a Mughal noble now marooned incongruously in the middle of a busy modern roundabout. Already you have the sense of a city divided in time and place, at once ancient and modern, rich and poor, superficially westernised but still quintessentially Indian beneath the veneer. And you haven’t even properly arrived.
And then, less than a mile north of Connaught Place, everything suddenly changes. The streets abruptly narrow. Bicycle rickshaws now fill the roads, jostling for position with hordes of porters pushing handcarts through the ever-thickening crowds. There will probably be cows too, and bullock-carts, and the smell of dung, damp, drains and spices. There will be facades mushrooming a mad profusion of hand-painted signs, and crazy tangles of cables overhead and more people, buildings and vehicles per square mile than you would have believed possible. Your rickshaw fights its way laboriously through the throng, arriving at last at the foot of the great Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque) in the heart of the city. And now you pay off your driver (who has probably spent the entire journey asking for your name and native country and attempting to lure you into a local handicrafts shop or his uncle’s tour agency) and step out onto the packed pavements. And finally you have arrived.
Welcome to Old Delhi…
Into the heart of old Delhi
No one really knows exactly how many Delhis there actually are. Locals count no less than seven cities of Delhi past and present, although this doesn’t include the semi-legendary city of Indraprastha which is said to have stood here back in the days of the Mahabharata, or the sprawling British-era New Delhi, not to mention the modern satellite cities of Gurgaon and Noida whose futuristic skyscrapers now ring the margins of the megalopolis, all of which would bring the total closer to… anyway, you get the idea. There is more of Delhi than you would ever believe possible, its greater metropolitan area now home to a staggering 25 million people, making it the world’s third-most-populous mega city, according to latest reports.
Stepping out onto the packed pavements of Old Delhi, such figures are easy to believe. Climb the steep steps up to the mosque itself. One of Delhi’s greatest Mughal monuments stands before you, with a pair of soaring minarets, a beautiful prayer hall topped with a trio of Persian-looking onion domes, and a huge terrace offering an oasis of (relative) serenity and sweeping views over the hive of streets surrounding the mosque. Old Delhi lies at your feet, stretching away in every direction, a vast sea of crooked rooftops wreathed in pigeons, cooking smoke, washing lines and wonky aerials from which ancient minarets, domes and temple towers shoot up into the sky. To your west is the Car Parts Market, its shops festooned with dangling hubcaps and bits of engine, while spilling out over the mosque’s eastern steps is the fascinating hubbub of the Meena Bazaar. The air is thick with the smoke of thousands of roasting kebabs, its open-air cafes interleaved with stalls selling assorted Islamic paraphernalia – Quranic scrolls, framed photographs of Mecca and (Delhi’s ultimate collectable) the classic plastic alarm clock modelled in the shape of a miniature mosque.
Descend back to street level and head approximately north, into the heart of Old Delhi. You’ll probably get lost – if you don’t, turn around and carry on walking until you do. Here, the mercantile life of Delhi continues much as it has done for centuries: the jewellery shops of Dariba Kalan, their windows a long dazzle of silver and precious stones; or the faintly Dickensian-looking secondhand bookshops of Nai Sarak, stacked to the rafters with dusty piles of old textbooks; or the fragrant alleys and arcades of Khari Baoli, said to be Asia’s largest spice market, its pavements buried beneath bulging sacks loaded with cumin, cinnamon and chilli.
All being well you’ll emerge twenty minutes or a couple of hours later at Chandni Chowk, the centrepiece of Old Delhi and once its most beautiful street. The crowds and traffic are at their busiest now, and sights and sounds crowd in with kaleidoscopic rapidity: the red and white towers of temples rising above the streetside melee; grand doorways offering glimpses into the courtyards of marble-walled mosques; the crumbling remains of grandiose old havelis, once amongst Delhi’s finest mansions, now converted into shoebox shops and ramshackle warehouses. Like many parts of Old Delhi, the street is a study in contrasts, its once glorious, steadily decaying monuments half-submerged beneath the hectic life of modern India. The canal that originally flowed down its centre has long since gone, and the imperial elephants that once paraded along it have now been replaced with nippy Maruti saloons, weaving cyclists and the inevitable rickshaws.
Nevertheless, echoes of the old magic remain. Head to the eastern end of the street and then walk beneath the shadow of the Red Fort’s giant sandstone walls, through the triumphal Lahore Gate and into the fort itself. Once the glorious jewel in the crown of Old Delhi, the Red Fort is where the Mughal rulers of Hindustan lived for two centuries and the place from which their last emperor was sent into exile in Rangoon following the Indian Uprising of 1857, after which large sections of the fort were razed, and an ugly barracks built in their place.
Walk through the fort and stand above the muddy and sluggish waters of the Yamuna River below. To either side are the delicate surviving buildings and pavilions of the old palace, clad in cool marble and alabaster, inlaid with lapis lazuli, jade, jasper and turquoise. Ahead, over the river, the heat-hazed outlines of Delhi’s interminable modern suburbs can be seen, stretching away to the horizon and beyond. Delhi – ancient and modern in a single view.
So, exit the fort and jump into another rickshaw and continue exploring. Further Delhis await. The crumbling forts of the Delhi Sultanate and the exquisite Lodi Gardens; majestic Humayun’s Tomb and other Mughal monuments; the imperial bombast of British New Delhi; the fashionable suburbs, boutiques and restaurants of south Delhi; and the new hi-tech satellite cities of Gurgaon and Noida.
Because this is Delhi, and you’ve barely begun.
Doing business in Delhi
1 Be patient. A meeting scheduled for 11am might not start till midday, and if you’re told something will take a week, allow a fortnight (or longer). Mountainous bureaucracy and elastic attitudes to time keeping mean it’s worth building plenty of slack into your schedule.
2 You’ll most likely be dealing with people who speak good, often excellent English – but there’s still a language barrier. ‘No problem’ in India doesn’t necessarily mean the same as in Europe or North America.
3 Delhi is probably the best place to do business in India, thanks to the number of companies headquartered there, as well as the presence of the government. Even so, expect to travel around the country a lot if you want to really make the most of the business opportunities on offer.
Exploring the Golden Triangle
Delhi, Agra and Jaipur make up the three points of India’s famous ‘Golden Triangle’. Home to the Taj Mahal and other Mughal monuments, the sprawling city of Agra is the obvious first destination out of the capital. Slightly further afield, Jaipur offers a memorable taste of the colourful state of Rajasthan. Agra can be visited as a (long) day trip from Delhi, although it’s worth staying overnight to experience the Taj at sunrise. Visiting Jaipur requires an overnight stay, while you could link all three together in a longer trip. Express trains connect Delhi with both Agra and Jaipur, while numerous local operators offer organised tours, try Trinetra Tours www.trinetratoursindia.com
Agra’s undisputed crown jewel is the Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most famous – and arguably most beautiful – buildings, unforgettable at any time of the day or night. Numerous other Mughal monuments dot the city, including the majestic Agra Fort and Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque). It’s also worth making time for a trip out to the haunting, magically preserved remains of Fatehpur Sikri, an hour’s drive from Agra, built by the great Mughal emperor Akbar to serve as the new imperial capital, but abandoned after just a few years.
Capital of the state of Rajasthan, dynamic Jaipur, the so-called ‘Pink City’, is a photogenic swirl of colourful bazaars piled high with every conceivable type of merchandise and dotted with florid Rajput buildings, including the lavish City palace and the iconic Palace of the winds – seven storeys of pure whimsy.
Delhi Dream Hotels
• The Imperial
Famous old Delhi landmark, designed by Edwin Lutyens and still one of the most memorable hotels in the city, with bags of colonial character.
1 Janpath, New Delhi | Tel: +011 2334 1234 | www.theimperialindia.com. | Doubles from around US$400.
• Lutyens Bungalow
In the heart of one of Delhi’s most exclusive residential districts, this beautiful 1930s bungalow has plenty of homely charm and spacious gardens plus pool.
39 Prithviraj Rd, New Delhi | Tel: +011 2461 1341 | www.lutyensbungalow.co.in | Doubles from around US$115.
• Maidens Hotel
First opened in 1903, Maidens serves up an authentic slice of Delhi’s colonial past in a majestic neoclassical building with bags of character at an affordable price.
7 Sham Nath Marg, Civil Lines New Delhi | Tel: +011 2397 5464 | www.maidenshotel.com | Doubles from around US$160.
• The Oberoi
The flagship property of India’s leading hotel chain, offering a smooth blend of traditional and modern including a superb spa and pair of pools.
Dr. Zakir Hussain Marg, New Delhi | Tel: +011 2390 4472 | www.oberoihotels.com | Doubles from around US$350.
• The Leela Palace
One of the city’s fanciest hotels, every bit as plush and palatial as its name suggests, with super-swanky rooms and decor straight out of a Hollywood film set.
Chanakyapuri, Diplomatic Enclave | Tel: +011 3933 1234 | www.theleela.com | Doubles from around US$375.