Delhi Old and New

In­dia’s cap­i­tal is a mul­ti­fac­eted me­trop­o­lis where an­cient and mod­ern co-ex­ist in ex­hil­a­rat­ing fu­sion

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Delhi is more than just the home of In­dia’s cap­i­tal; it’s a city of cen­turies-old tra­di­tions, evok­ing high emo­tion and col­or­ful rec­ol­lec­tions of a rich past that ex­tends back mil­len­nia, from an­cient times through the Mughal rulers and the Bri­tish Raj to to­day’s mod­ern demo­cratic In­dia. At al­most 600 square miles, Delhi is much more spread out than In­dia’s other me­gac­i­ties. The traf­fic is no­to­ri­ous, and most of the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment is not par­tic­u­larly pedes­trian-friendly. As a re­sult vis­i­tors of­ten end up get­ting to see just one small slice of this city of more than 22 mil­lion people.

How­ever, to­day there are much eas­ier ways to ex­plore thanks to the ar­rival of the Delhi Metro – a gleam­ing, mod­ern, over- and un­der­ground sys­tem that now reaches most parts of the city. In oper­a­tion for just over a dozen years, the metro has grown from a two and a half-mile stretch from Vish­wavidyalaya (Delhi Univer­sity) to Kash­mere Gate to a 120-mile sys­tem en­com­pass­ing 142 sta­tions and car­ry­ing 2 mil­lion pas­sen­gers chock-a-block ev­ery day.

The metro is now the best way of reach­ing these less well-known parts – and an un­lim­ited day trip, with an elec­tronic ticket that costs about $1.60, will take you high above ground level to bustling sub­urbs where few tourists ever ven­ture.

The Jewel in the Crown

Delhi – also known as the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­tory – is a sprawl­ing city com­prised of 11 districts, one of which is the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of New Delhi, the seat of govern­ment. As a na­tional cap­i­tal, New Delhi is a rel­a­tively new­comer to the scene, only as­sum­ing the ti­tle in 1931 af­ter the govern­ment was moved from Kolkata, which had been the cap­i­tal of Bri­tish In­dia.

Planned by its colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tors and de­signed by Sir Ed­win Lu­tyens, New Delhi rev­els in its legacy of wide boule­vards, charm­ing chowks (round­abouts) and tree-lined neigh­bor­hoods, known as en­claves. Lu­tyens’ Delhi is full of stately ar­chi­tec­ture from the early 20th century and boasts the Lodhi Gar­dens lov­ingly laid out by Lady Willing­don in 1930.

Prior to this mon­u­men­tal move, Delhi had been a city in de­cline, full of ru­ins of the Mughal Em­pire and the Mus­lim sul­tanates that pre­ceded it. Most of the land on which Bri­tish New Delhi was built was scrub and jun­gle – they even had to scrape away the top half of a hill to ac­com­mo­date the Vicere­gal Palace, now known as Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van, or the Pres­i­den­tial Palace.

With its vast pil­lared ed­i­fice and Ro­man Pan­theon-in­spired dome, it was built to house the Bri­tish Viceroy and is now the of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the Pres­i­dent of In­dia.You can’t go be­yond

the gates but it’s worth peer­ing through the bars at the build­ing’s per­fect sym­me­try, while in the other di­rec­tion, at the end of Ra­j­path, there is a great view of the In­dia Gate war me­mo­rial and its sur­round­ing lawns.

Ma­hatma Gandhi sug­gested that the vast palace be con­verted to a hospi­tal for the poor, but it has in­stead been in­hab­ited by a suc­ces­sion of pres­i­dents whose largely for­mal role in In­dian pol­i­tics means that its ball­rooms and meet­ing halls get used only on cer­e­mo­nial oc­ca­sions. Once a year, for a pe­riod of a month – usu­ally from mid-Fe­bru­ary to mid-March – its well-kept Mughal-style gar­dens are open to the pub­lic.

About a mile south of Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van lies the spot where Gandhi was as­sas­si­nated less than a year af­ter In­dia gained its in­de­pen­dence. Lo­cated at 5 Tees Jan­uary Marg, the me­mo­rial is now a place of pil­grim­age. A mu­seum ex­plains how the Ma­hatma (“great soul”) came to be of­fi­cially hon­ored as the Fa­ther of the Na­tion, and dis­plays a glass case con­tain­ing his few be­long­ings.

In the gar­dens you’ll find ter­ra­cotta foot­prints in the out­line of the dis­tinc­tive wooden san­dals that Gandhi wore, to mark the path he walked be­fore he was shot at 5:17 PM on Jan. 30, 1948. The spot where he died is marked by a sim­ple stone me­mo­rial. Be­hind this is an unas­sum­ing build­ing – step in­side to see the rich mu­ral that il­lus­trates Gandhi’s life. Visit gand­hism­riti.gov.in

Whim­sies and An­tiq­ui­ties

On the north side of Ra­j­path Road, you’ll dis­cover a bizarre 18th­cen­tury ob­ser­va­tory called Jan­tar Man­tar, op­po­site the Park ho­tel on Par­lia­ment Street. It con­sists of a se­ries of larger-than-hu­man as­tro­nom­i­cal in­stru­ments built out of brick and set in a pretty park. The whole af­fair re­sem­bles a play­ground for the chil­dren of gi­ants. Nor­mal-sized young­sters go there in large num­bers on school field trips, and sci­en­tists show them how to mea­sure the an­gles of stars and plan­ets in the galaxy earth in­hab­its.

Just to the north of Jan­tar Man­tar are the curv­ing streets of Con­naught Place. The for­mal cen­ter of Delhi, it was built by the Bri­tish as a commercial district.

Though the of­fi­cial name of the area, and the metro sta­tion, is Ra­jiv Chowk, Con­naught Place is still widely known as CP. There was a pe­riod when the neigh­bor­hood fell on hard times. But to­day it has re­bounded, its prime lo­ca­tion and the ar­rival of the metro hav­ing helped it re­turn to some­thing of its mod­est for­mer glory. Though air-con­di­tioned shop­ping malls have sprung up through­out the city, CP seems to be hold­ing its own, at­tract­ing a wide range of do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional brands, and re­main­ing Delhi’s most dis­tinc­tive shop­ping district.

Jump on the metro at Ra­jiv Chowk and head south to the Qutb Mi­nar. Con­structed in 1202, the Qutb Mi­nar was for sev­eral cen­turies the world’s tallest tower, and it still dom­i­nates the south Delhi sky­line. It’s in Mehrauli, one of many for­mer “vil­lages” that has been swal­lowed by the re­lent­less creep of the city in re­cent decades. In fact, Mehrauli is the most im­pres­sive of these, con­tain­ing the ru­ins of what was once the first city of Delhi, the an­cient walls of which can still be climbed by in­trepid walk­ers in the large area of park and jun­gle known as San­jay Van.

Mehrauli has build­ings from each of the past ten cen­turies, in­clud­ing a tomb that was trans­formed into a coun­try house (known as Dilkusha – or “Heart’s De­sire”) dur­ing the Bri­tish pe­riod, and a cir­cu­lar mid 20th-century li­brary whose curved walls are quite in­ap­pro­pri­ate for book­shelves. Old houses with court­yards – known as havelis – are be­ing re­vived and the neigh­bor­hood is grad­u­ally be­ing gen­tri­fied, at­tract­ing a grow­ing num­ber of fine restaurants and de­signer shops.

A Metro Ride Back in Time

But as is the case every­where in In­dia, Delhi’s his­tory lies close to the sur­face. To un­der­stand the new, cos­mopoli­tan city, it’s worth tak­ing time for a visit to Old Delhi, a brief metro ride – and a world away – from wide av­enues and grandiose gar­dens of New Delhi.

Here, one makes a mag­i­cal tran­si­tion from the 21st-century sub­ter­ranean steel-and-glass metro emerg­ing on to the back streets of what is, in essence, a 17th-century Mughal city. This is the his­toric Delhi, built by Mughal Em­peror Shah Ja­han and still thriv­ing to­day – to the de­light of tourists and proud res­i­dents – that was the cap­i­tal of Mus­lim In­dia be­tween the mid-1600s to the 19th century.

Orig­i­nally called Shah­ja­han­abad, Old Delhi was a for­ti­fied ci­tadel. While the walls have now largely dis­ap­peared, the in­ner maze of nar­row streets re­mains, and are now home to a mar­ket where you can find al­most any­thing. The trick is to know what you’re look­ing for – if you’re af­ter jew­elry, go to Dariba Kalan, or for col­or­ful trin­kets, try Ki­nari Bazar. There are also ar­eas spe­cial­iz­ing in spices and cam­eras, but be pre­pared to hag­gle. Take some time to ex­plore the area around Chandni Chowk and don’t worry too much about get­ting lost – the friendly lo­cals will point you back in the right di­rec­tion.

Head back to Chawri Bazar Road and aim for the el­e­gant white domes of the Jama Masjid, which rise above the rooftops. It’s the largest mosque in In­dia and hard to miss. Un­like in many of In­dia’s crowded cities, Delhi of­fers plenty of places for pic­nics, med­i­ta­tion or a quiet stroll. The gen­er­ous grounds of the Jama Masjid, just op­po­site the Red Fort, is among them.

The red sand­stone mosque with its del­i­cate mar­ble de­tail has seen daily prayers since it was built in the mid-17th century. Its con­struc­tion took only six years, us­ing a work­force of some 6,000 la­bor­ers and the leading ar­chi­tects of the day. The po­si­tion of imam at the mosque has stayed in the same fam­ily since its com­ple­tion in 1656, with the role pass­ing from fa­ther to son. It has three en­trances, with flights of stone steps leading up from the north, south and east, and is free to en­ter, though there is a RP300 charge to take a cam­era in­side.

The mosque is open from 30 min­utes af­ter sun­rise to 12:15 PM, and 1:45 PM to 30 min­utes be­fore sun­set. It’s also closed for 30 min­utes in the af­ter­noon for prayers. If you have the time, and the in­cli­na­tion, for an ex­tra RP100 you can climb one of the tow­ers for a stun­ning view of the old city and the nearby fort.

As the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural fo­cal point of a na­tion with a pop­u­la­tion of over a bil­lion – 15 per cent of the world’s in­hab­i­tants – Delhi un­der­stand­ably has a strong sense of self. But it’s a city that has seen cen­turies of up­heaval and sur­vived the rise and fall of em­pires, and to­day has taken its place at the epi­cen­ter of one of the world’s most dy­namic economies. Per­haps a cap­i­tal city with such a his­tory – and such a fu­ture – has earned a bit of self-re­spect. BT

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