Delhi - A brief introduction to the capital of India
Delhi, the sages say, has a divided soul. It is a city of incredible contrasts combining the ancient and the modern, Old and New Delhi each reflecting the images of the past and the reality of the present.
Delhi, the capital city of India is a city of significant standing which is evident in the city’s varied diversity. It is the marriage of a modern cosmopolitan complex with India’s diversified antiquity. Elegant restaurants, imported cars, gleaming glass shopping malls and glitzy discotheques share space with the ruins of a bygone era - heritage monuments like the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, that have been witness to history, meandering narrow streets of Old Delhi, the temples and monuments that have seen the rise and fall of many glorious dynasties.
Delhi is also a highly polluted city which is a result of very fast (and chaotic) development and a rapid rise in wealth and buying power in India.
Edwin Lutyens, the famous architect, designed New Delhi and Connaught Place. The central hub of commerce and government in the heart of India’s capital is an architectural wonder in itself. The Rome of Hindustan or Lutyn’s Delhi was added to Old Delhi during the British rule. Broad roads, abundant gardens, tree-lined avenues and sprawling British bungalows now occupied by embassies and ministers replace the chaotic kaleidoscope of temples, mosques, bazaars, monuments and forts of Old Delhi, their architectural style as different as the dynasties that had built them. The contrast that is so apparent in Delhi’s architecture extends to its religion, heritage and culture as well. Art, Theatre, Sufi concerts amidst the well lit ruins of Nizamudin, the serenity of the Lotus temple, the exquisiteness of the Akshardham temple all contribute to make it a fascinating and exotic potpourri of culture. Delhi also has a well-connected system of railways, road and air, ideal if you want to visit the pink city, The Taj Mahal in Agra or travel to the hill stations in Himachal Pradesh. Given the chaotic traffic of Delhi it is best to explore it in sections.
Most of the monuments in Central and South Delhi belong to the Mughal School of architecture. The Mughal building style flourished in India from the mid 16th to the late 17th century and was influenced by Persian and Islamic styles with great stress on symmetry and delicate ornamental detailing. An architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal, Humayun's Tomb was built in the mid 16th century by Mughal Emperor Humayun's widow, Haji Begam and designed by Persian architect, Mirak Mirza Ghiyas. The tomb is famous for its workmanship of exceptional quality and architectural brilliance. Carved archways and globular dome are surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens making it one of the most exquisite Mughal buildings in the city. Built 100 years before the Taj Mahal, it is considered to be its genius; the red sandstone may not be as lavish as the Taj mahal’s flawless marble but lends the monument warmth and charm. Far from the maddening crowd and the honking traffic, the tomb is incredibly peaceful and surrounded by lush green gardens and chirping birds. The tomb is now listed as a World Heritage site. The Lodi Gardens that lie a stone’s throw away are sprawling and well maintained capaciously treed boulevards with cobbled pathways weaving their way through tombs of long gone rulers gives you an impression of being transported back to a bygone era.
Many of the monuments offer insight into the craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into their design. Further towards South Delhi is The Bahai House of Worship which is a modern building that depicts a lotus flower in bloom with its petals carved in white marble. The lotus is a symbol of purity and peace. The house of worship is surrounded by basins of water which give this immaculate building a serene almost surreal feel. The Bahai faith is a reputedly all-encompassing religion that incorporates the doctrines of the main religions and preaches love, equality and peace. The Dilli Haat, an organized local crafts bazaar is centrally located near the Humayun’s tomb. It was set up to provide the rural artisans an opportunity to market their products. One can spend hours studying the rich display of handicrafts, paper, food and textiles from various states in the country. Whether you want to pick up presents and souvenirs or sample the local cuisine this is the place to head to. Another place to pick up reasonably priced handicrafts without getting ripped off is the Handicraft Emporium of local Indian handicrafts. The sober looking building is located in Connaught Place and offers a variety of artifacts like paper Mache, bone jewelry, sandalwood products, marbles, bronze and brass products.
Qutub Minar, an impressive 72 meter high victory tower built from 1199 and finally completed in 1368 marked the fall of the last Hindu kingdom and the site for the first Muslim kingdom in North India. The surrounding ruins of the first mosque in India stated the mosque was built with the material obtained by, “demolishing 27 idolatrous temples”. The magnificent Alai-Darwaza Gate, the masterpiece of Indo-Muslim art which was built in 1311 is a masterpiece in itself.
The columns are exquisitely crafted with intricate detailing and ornamentation on them. The well preserved tower is the perfect place to watch the sunset over the Qutab Minar bathing it in a golden glow.
Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the President of India, perched on the majestic Raisina Hill, was built during the British rule to serve as the residence of the Viceroy. The first viceroy to occupy this 340 roomed mansion was Lord Irwin. Designed by Lutyens, it has a endless impeccably maintained gardens which are open to the public during Spring, when the flowers are in full bloom. The terraced garden is inspired by the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Official functions take place under the main dome in the grand Durbar Hall . The colossal columns at the entrance have bells carved into them, Lutyens designed them with the superstition that since the bells could not make sounds, the British would rule India forever. The Durbar hall also served as a museum for many years before the construction of the National Museum. If you wish to visit the building you will have to ask for permission by contacting the deputy Military Secretary to The President. The only sections open to the public are the Durbar Hall, Ashok Hall, the Dining Room and the Mughal gardens.
The President's house, a magnificent structure dating back to colonial times and India Gate are connected by 'Rajpath', a broad, tree lined avenue, and host to the annual Republic Day parade.
The Mughal Gardens are the gardens in the President of India’s backyard. The Garden draped with trailing bougainvillea vines, dotted with petals of pink, white, coral, lavender and salmon; and intermingled with eight foot high dahlias leads into an archway of banyan trees. Classical Indian music and several overflowing fountains play in the background. The gardens are in full bloom in from mid February to end of March. The grandeur of the architecture makes a powerful statement of India’s colonial past.
Cross into Old Delhi to visit the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid. An outstanding masterpiece of architecture, Red Fort is frequented by both tourists from India and abroad. The Lal Quila is a poignant hallmark of the glory of the Mughal era, its exquisiteness leaves you spellbound. It is serene and peaceful inside, which transports you far away from the frantic and hurried pace of life outside the walls of the Fort, into another world of existence. Its sheer size which is well proportionate to the magnificence of its execution reflects the grandeur of the Mughal architecture The Red Fort and its surrounding city is perhaps the only large-scale Mughal city planned and built which has survived as a living city. The palace building is empty save for yesterdays ghosts but the city it supported still lives on today, the residents of its narrow streets having lived for generations in the same houses, descendants of traders and artisans who served the emperor and his ministers, practicing the same art since the last few centuries. The red Sandstone fort took ten years to build finally being completed in 1648. The fort has the Diwan-e-am, where the king would grant audience to the public to listen to their grievances. The other hall is the Diwan-e-Khas where the king would grant audience to important people and missionaries. There is also the Rang Mahal, the water-cooled suite for the royal ladies.
The fort has two main entrances, the Delhi Gate and the Lahori Gate. The main entrance opens to the Chatta Chowk, a covered street bordered with doubled over rooms that used to house Delhi's various artisans, jewelers, carpet weavers and goldsmiths. This plaza was also known as the Meena Bazaar, which served as a shopping centre for the ladies of the court. The ceremonious Lahore Gate is named so because it faces Lahore, Pakistan. This gate has a special significance for India since the first war of independence and important speeches have been made here by freedom fighters and national leaders of India. A sound and light show is held every evening amidst elaborately designed gardens giving an idea of the Mughal history, both in Hindi and English. Even today, the fort remains an impressive testimony to Mughal grandeur, despite being attacked by the Persian Emperor Nadir Shah in 1739 and by the British soldiers during the war of independence in 1857.
The largest Mosque in India: Jama Masjid lies in the same vicinity as the fort. Its courtyard can hold 25,000 people. The Jama Masjid was planned as the mosque for both the city and the royal Red Fort, which catered to the court’s ministers. The city's main market street, Chandni Chowk; additional markets, sarais (inns), Hammams (baths), mosques and gardens were all planned by members of the royal family; the grand havelis (mansions) were built by favored princes and courtiers. The havelis have all been reduced to rubble but the markets and places of worship are still the essence of Old Delhi.
Delhi's dining scene is flexible. You can choose to dine at the five star restaurants or one of the many independent restaurants in town. The assortment of restaurants be it Indian cuisine, Southeast Asian or European cuisine leaves you with ample variety. If you are in the mood for some Indian cuisine, the Bukhara at the Maurya is the place to indulge at. Especially known for the murgh malai kebab (boneless chicken marinated with cream cheese, malt vinegar and green coriander), tender sikandari raan (leg of lamb marinated in herbs) and divinely delicious kaali dal (black lentils simmered overnight with tomatoes, ginger, and garlic) the Bukhara is well known internationally for its delicately flavored food. Masala Art at Taj Palace in Chanakyapuri is the perfect blend of native authenticity and cosmopolitan style, known for its Lasooni palak (spinach with garlic), achari jheenga (jumbo shrimp brushed with mango pickle and grilled in a tandoor), paneer makai bhurjee (soft cheese scrambled with corn and spices), and nakti kabab (tender lamb chunks in a mildly sweet sauce).
The food is delightfully delectable. Veda at Connaught Place has been labeled as one of Conde Nast's Traveler's best up and coming restaurants. The décor is stunning with dark red and gold highlights with a rich ethnic touch to it. The place is known for the variety of palatable cuisines it offers under one roof. If you prefer to sample international cuisine then the Thai restaurant at the Oberoi is modeled on a traditional baan thai and offers great traditional cuisine, from thod man koong (crisp golden cake of Thai-spiced prawns, served with plum sauce) to kai phad med mamuang (diced chicken stir-fried with cashews, mushrooms and sun-dried chilis). Big Chill at Khan Market has the best desserts in Delhi. The Oreo Fudge Cheesecake, Mississippi mud pie, Irish-cream cheesecake, and ice-cream flavors like Vanilla Kit-Kat and Banana Walnut Chocolate Chip make it very popular with the locals as well. Centrally located at Khan Market it is ideal for an afternoon snack or a refreshing smoothie. Also worth mentioning are Swagath at Defence colony famous for its spicy south Indian cuisine. Old Delhi is full of culinary marvels. Chandni Chowk is famous for sweetmeats that have been served the same way since the last century. Karim’s is perhaps the best place for north Indian cuisine but its location near the Jama Masjid makes it a bother to visit in the night. However do grab a bite when you visit Old Delhi.
The best time to visit Delhi is between October and February with daytime temperatures of 22 degree Celsius. December and January are arid and chilly with temperature dipping at night time to 2 degree Celsius. Summer months of May and June are sweltering hot with the temperature soaring to 46 degree Celsius.
The landscape of India and the mythology of Hinduism are inextricably bound. This combined with the extreme historical, cultural and religious diversity and the warm hospitability of the Indian people make it an exotic and enchanting experience.