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Delhi old and new

Published: 02/03/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » March 2014 » Destinations » Home » Features » Home » Archive » 2014 » March 2014 »

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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 18th-century 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.  

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