The Capital city of the world’s largest democracy, Delhi is a mix of cultures and a land of extremities. It has a fascinating history and at the same time is leaving the past behind entering the new millennia with all guns blaring.
It is not just the capital of modern day India, but has been the capital of several empires in the past as well. It was a major trade route from the northwest India to the Gangetic plains. Many ancient monuments and structures still remain as a reminder of its glorious past. As the seat of the Government of India, the city also houses important offices including the Parliament house and the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The city has a major influx of immigrants from not only its neighboring cities but also from across the country. The business opportunities it offers lures many and it welcomes all, even though that has resulted in overcrowding and congested streets.
What most visitors, and often even the residents, find frustrating and amusing is the stray cattle on the street. Highly revered by the Hindu population, cows are not be disturbed and are allowed to hold conferences in the middle of the main road with vehicles trying to squeeze past them trying to avoid hurting these creatures.
Although the city has developed considerably in the past few years, it is things like these that remind you, not too subtly, that you are still in the land of spice where anything goes!
The National Capital Territory of Delhi lies in the northern part of India and is spread over 1,483 sq km. Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are its bordering states. Delhi lies in the Gangetic plains and has the holy river Yamuna flowing through it. The Yamuna flood plains provide fertile soil for agriculture, although it is now become a vast dumping ground for the city.
Delhi’s weather is extreme. It gets too hot in the summers when the city faces power and water shortages, and icy cold in the winters with thick fog disrupting air travel. The best time to visit the city is just before the Himalayan chill sets in between October and November, or before the scorching summer heat starts to grip the city between February and March. The monsoon months of July and August also offer respite but rains often cause major traffic blocks making the bad traffic conditions even worse.
Given that the city was so fertile owing to the Gangetic plains and the Yamuna river that runs through it, it is no surprise that many have tried to covet it. This was the main reason for the city’s interesting albeit tumultuous past.
Archaeological findings and accounts show that around 1000 BC, the battleground for the Mahabharata, the epic battle for the city of Indraprastha according to Hindu texts, was fought in what is now the Old Fort. The earliest existing ruins date as far back as 736 AD, when the Tomara Rajputs built Lal Kot around which grew Qila Rai Pithora.
The Tomaras were ousted in 1180 by Chauhan Rajputs, who were in turn forced back to their hometown of Rajasthan by the Turkish slave king Qutb-ud-din Aibak, who built the Qutub complex. His successors ruled over the Delhi Sultanate for almost two centuries. In 1303, they built a second city Siri and the Tughlugs built Tughlaqabad after them.
Around 1327, the Tughlugs moved into the city again, this time between Lal Kot and Siri and named the fourth city Jahanpanah. Just about three decades later, the city was moved again near the Yamuna river and named Ferozabad, and according to legend was one of the richest cities in the world at the time.
Not soon after, Timur drove the Tughlus out of Delhi and though he nor his successors built another city, their tombs are found in the present day Lodi Gardens. They too were defeated by the Mughal emperor Babur who ended the Delhi Sultanate and started the Mughal era. The Mughal empire lasted for over 200 years.
Babur had moved his capital to nearby Agra, but his son Humayun chose to return to Delhi, but was forced into exile by the army of Sher Shah, an Afghan, who rebuilt the city around the old fort and named it Shergarh. Barely 15 years later, Humayun ousted the Afghan and once again took over the reins. His son Akbar again chose to move to Agra and only after his grandson, Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal, did Delhi become the capital once again in 1638. He is considered as the greatest architect of the dynasty and named his city Shahjanabad, which today is referred to as Old Delhi.
After Shah Jahan’s deposition by his son Aurangazeb, the Mughal influence began to fade and with it the importance of Delhi. But not for long. With the advent of British power, Delhi again regained its importance and was declared the capital of the Raj in 1911. The last of Delhi’s cities, New Delhi was shaped by British architects Edwin Lutyens and Baker between 1911 and 1933. Till date, New Delhi is also referred to as Lutyens’ Delhi.
Once again, for the last time, the city changed hands, as in 1947 India gained independence, elected her Prime Minister and Delhi was once again named the official capital of the democracy.
Getting there and around
If you are arriving in the country by air, you will land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI) that serves both international and domestic connections. It is one of the busiest airports in South Asia. And if you arriving in the city by train from other parts of the country, the four main railway stations in the city are Old Delhi, Nizammuddin, Sarai Rohilla and the New Delhi station.
By the order of the Supreme court of India, since 1998, all public transport vehicles have started using Compressed natural gas as fuel, contributing heavily to the much lower pollution levels in the city. The Delhi Transport Corporation, which is a major bus service provider for the city, now operates the world’s largest fleet of environment friendly CNG buses. Buses are the most popular mode of commuting within the city.
In order to meet the transport demand in the state, the government introduced the mass rapid transit system, including the Delhi Metro, which is fast gaining popularity, and more routes are being planned and constructed in an effort to connect the whole city with this efficient and economical mode of transport.
Other modes are the three-wheeled auto rickshaws that zoom past at break-neck speed or crawl along a busy highway, depending on the state of the vehicle. Taxis are not very popular but you can call for one from one of the nearby taxi stands. In some parts of the city, you will also find the age old cycle rickshaws, which are basically cycles with seats at the back for passengers. They are good for short distances and to navigate congested areas like the old city.
What to see and do
The Parliament house in the heart of the city, is a sight to behold, and so is the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the official residence of the country’s President, nearby. It was designed by Lutyens and is constructed of cream and red sandstone and a variety of marble. The adjoining Mughal Gardens are open for public viewing for a few days in March when the flowers are in full bloom.
From here, go to India Gate, built to commemorate those who died in World War I. An eternal flame burns in memory of those who gave their lives in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war.
The city also houses many museums for the culturally inclined. The National Museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Crafts museum are near India Gate. Other museums in the area include Gandhi Smriti, the colonial building where Mahatma Gandhi stayed and was assassinated; the Nehru memorial museum and Library, home to the Nehru family; Indira Gandhi Memorial museum, paying homage to the country’s first female Prime Minister; the National Philatelic museum for stamp collectors; and the National Railway museum which is one of the most impressive given India’s huge railway network.
If you are in the country to find some inner peace, a visit to one of these places of worship might help you along in your path. The ornate Lakshmi Narayan, or the Birla Mandir; the Bangla Sahib gurudwara; the Lotus temple of the Bahá'I faith, which as its name suggests, is constructed like a lotus; the grand Swaminarayan Akshardham temple; and the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) temple which is the centre for Krishna consciousness.
There are 175 monuments in Delhi recognized by the Archeological survey of India as national heritage sites. Architecturally and historically, Delhi is rich in sites to visit. The Red fort, or the Lal Quila, is the city’s main attraction. The massive sandstone walls were built in the 17th century, and the exquisite array of buildings inside once housed Shah Jahan. Visitors can admire the intricate patterns and only imagine how it would have been in its hey days when the walls were studded with precious gems. The emperor is also responsible for building the Jama Masjid. It is India’s largest mosque and can hold up to 25,000 people. Climbing the 122 stairs of the towers at the corner of the mosque, you will be rewarded with magnificent views of the city.
The Qutub minar was built between 1193 and 1369 to symbolize Islamic rule over Delhi and commemorate the victory by Qutab-ud-din over the city’s last Hindu kingdom. The 238 ft tall tower is decorated with verses from the Koran. At the foot of the minar is India’s oldest mosque and in its corner stands an iron pillar, bearing 4th century Sanskrit inscriptions of the period. Erected in 400 BC by Chandragupta II, the pillar has still not rusted after 1600 years. Humayun’s tomb, built by his widow Haji Begum, is one of the better preserved examples of Mughal architecture.
The old city, Shahjahanabad is a totally different city altogether, with its own network of labyrinth streets and shops that line them. The principal street, Chandani Chowk and taste its varied fare and shop in the many by lanes, everything from jewellery and clothes to spices and utensils.
The Zinat-ul mosque and the Feroze Shah Kotla, the ruins of Ferozabad, also lies in the vicinity. The main attraction here is a sandstone pillar from the 3rd century BC. North of the Red fort is St James church, Delhi’s oldest built in 1836.
In the bustling urban jungle, Delhi strives to maintain its green lungs. Apart from the Mughal Gardens, visit the National Rose garden that has rare varieties of roses, and the Lodi gardens.
If you are a shopping buff, you will be spoilt for choice. From the crowded lanes of Chandini chowk, to the well planned Dilli Haat you will find souvenirs from all over the country. Or if you seek to shop in comfort, there are countless malls where you can pick up the best brands from around the world.
What to eat
Beware of the Delhi belly, but the wide and tempting array of food available is well worth a few trips to the loo! Chaat, or the local version of junk food, is widely popular and is available at almost every street corner in its authentic form. To be on the safer side, have it in restaurants that offer better hygiene standards, like Haldirams and Nathu’s. Karim’s gives you the best kebabs and other Mughalai food in the city. Delhi is also proud of its string of ‘dhabas’ or roadside restaurants that offer a mix of all things Indian. People in this capital city love to eat and that is very evident in the numerous eating joints everywhere you look—everything is available, from Indian, to Japanese, Lebanese and American fast food. You are not likely to go very wrong when it comes to food here.
Where to stay
The capital obviously draws many business travelers and diplomats, and there are many quality places that offer great accommodation. If you are in transit, your best bet would be the Radisson Hotel near the airport. The city offers many other 5-star hotels and as well as low budget rooms within the main city, depending on your pocket and need for luxury.
The Republic Day parade is held every year on January 26th showcasing the country’s military might. And on Independence day, on 15th August, do not miss the unfurling of the flag at Red Fort. A proud moment for all patriots.
Delhi celebrates all festivals with great pomp and show, be it the colorful festival of Holi, the festival of lights Diwali, Baisakhi, Id, and the many weddings that take place through the year. Be ready to have a party almost any time of the year.