Delhi delights

As we celebrate Republic Day today, let’s join Shalini Mitra in exploring Delhi, a merry melange of impressive Mughal structures, teeming bazaars and drool-worthy food joints

Red Fort, Delhi

Delhi, the capital city of India, is intense. Many love it. Some hate it. Few are indifferent. Delhi overloads your senses, tests your limits, and restructures your basic assumptions. The sprawling city has so much to offer that it could take a lifetime to explore, but your best bet would be to divide the city — New Delhi and Old Delhi — and explore. Both parts are two distinct identities completely different from each other, each having its own charms and distinct focal points.

Blast from the past

Start with Humayun’s Tomb near Lodhi Road. The stunning tomb inspired several important architectural innovations, including the iconic Taj Mahal which you may want to include in your itinerary as it’s not very far from Delhi. The double-domed mausoleum is made with red stone with bands of white marble. The building is a World Heritage monument which combines Persian style of architecture with Mughal, and is surrounded by symmetrical Mughal gardens. It also has graves of several other Mughal rulers — a reminder of Delhi’s persistent and unique identity as the ‘seat of power’. Take a stroll in the serene surroundings at dusk and you will realise an all-pervasive hush that is occasionally broken only by the flight of pigeons.

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi
Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

Another World Heritage Site and one of the most visited monuments (nearly four million tourists every year) is Qutub Minar. About 238 feet tall, it is said to be the world’s tallest brick minaret. Built in the late 1100s, Qutub Minar, in fact, is an ancient complex that has numerous structures and many layers of history. An iron pillar in the complex, dating back to the 5th century, is a metallurgical wonder. Having 99.72% iron and weight of more than six tonnes, it has never rusted since the 5th century. Also, check out Alai Darwaza, Alai Minar and Iltutmish’s Tomb for awesome intricate stone carvings. Many of the structure walls are covered in verses from the holy Quran.

“The city is Asia’s Washington, though not so picturesque,” that’s what the famous Welsh travel writer Jan Morris wrote about Delhi. I beg to differ and I am sure so will you if you are on Rajpath. The ceremonial boulevard was of central importance to the plan of British architect Edwin Lutyens who while designing New Delhi wanted a panoramic view of the city from the Viceroy’s Palace. Do take a walk on this avenue and enjoy huge lawns, canals and rows of trees on both sides. It is considered one of the most important roads in the whole of the country. It is where the annual Republic Day parade takes place on January 26. You can even visit the magnificent Rashtrapati Bhavan and the sprawling Mughal Gardens. I have never missed visiting Mughal Gardens when it’s in all its splendour and is opened for public in February. Enjoying the status of one of the greenest capitals in the world, Delhi has many other gardens dotting the city.

The 42-metre-tall India Gate is visible from Rajpath that evokes the poignant memory of the soldiers who perished in World War I. The architectural style of the triumphal arch resembles the Arch of Constantine in Rome, and is often compared to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Evenings at India Gate are very alive as one can watch families thronging the expansive lawns to have ice cream and some delicious roasted corn on the cob.

Museums are a showcase of every city or country’s culture. Some of the best museums in India are in New Delhi. National Museum houses 2,00,000 works of art ranging from pre-historic era to modern times covering over 5,000 years; National Rail Museum displays rare artefacts of Indian Railways’ historic heritage, and National Gandhi Museum has an extraordinary collection of everything related to Mahatma Gandhi, including the blood-stained garment worn by him on the day he was assassinated. My personal favourite is the National Crafts Museum, which is known for exquisite Indian handicrafts and textiles. Here, the craftsmen offer a kaleidoscope of the richness and diversity of Indian handicrafts and artefacts.

Old Delhi or ‘walled city’ has a long, astonishing and illustrious past, glimpses of which can be seen in the disintegrating havelis or mansions of wealthy nobles with elaborate archways, latticework jharokhas and the quintessential chowk in the middle. Mirza Ghalib’s haveli, one of India’s most profound poets, is also here in Ballimaran Street. Always recommended to visitors of Old Delhi, are Red Fort (a World Heritage Site), Jama Masjid (the biggest congregational mosque in India and the seventh largest in the world). During the festive season of Ramzan, people throng the area for prayers, as well as for the lively markets that sell everything from mouth-watering food to clothes to colourful glass bangles.

To hold fort

Red Fort represents the zenith of Mughal creativity. In fact, the Red Fort complex is a layered expression of both Mughal architecture and planning, and the later British military use of the forts. Diwan-i-Khas, Diwan-i-Aam, Lahore Gate, Naqqar Khana and Chatta Chowk are worth noticing for their architectural styles. This fascinating monument also boasts of imposing audience halls, and a bazaar where the royal family used to shop.

Old Delhi offers an overwhelming variety of street food. Aromas are emanating from almost every lane or bylane of Chandni Chowk — India’s oldest, largest and busiest half-a-mile-long bazaar. While winding through its overcrowded markets, temples, ancient churches and mosques, narrow lanes and serpentine bylanes, do enjoy some of the delicacies — crispy jalebis, creamy lassi and freshly made parathas served with tangy pickles ­— that have been passed down through several generations since the times of the Mughal emperors. Dilli ki chaat tosses up several flavours in just one bite.

Shoppers’ heaven

If you love to shop till you drop, you are home in a city which atatracts the best of every region. Multiple emporia representing every state of the country are at the famous Baba Kharak Singh Marg, near Connaught Place (CP). Synonymous with Delhi, CP is a hotspot for entertainment with trendy restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels and fantastic bookshops scattered all over the place interspersed with stores and stories from the bygone eras. Shopping at India’s first underground market, Palika Bazaar, would be a unique experience. Although bargaining is the mantra for shopping anywhere in Delhi, it must be followed here rigorously to buy anything.

A vendor sells 'daulat ki chaat' at Chandni Chowk
A vendor sells 'daulat ki chaat' at Chandni Chowk

Winters in Delhi are an ideal time for avid bird-watchers. Migratory birds flock the National Zoological Park, many of whom come from as far as Siberia. Painted storks, pintail ducks, bar-headed geese and spot-billed ducks are among the unique birds which can be spotted here during the winters. They halt by the zoo’s artificial lakes. Delhi zoo itself is one of the finest zoos in Asia. It is home to more than 2,000 species of animals and birds from Africa, America, Australia and Asia. The serenity of the greens here offers a delightful respite from the humdrum of the city.

Delhi is so overwhelming that long after you leave, you will be gently haunted by memories of a place, a person, even a sound, or a smell.

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