I love Delhi. I really do. Most tourists spend only a day or two in India’s capital, rushing madly from sight to sight before heading out to see the rest of India. We’ve been lucky enough to visit twice, which has given us a somewhat deeper appreciation of this chaotic, vibrant city.
Like Jerusalem, Delhi is an ancient city with layers upon layers of ruins representing both Hindu and Moslem dynasties, plus invaders from the north. Not to mention the British Raj taking aim at India from the west.
It is said that the area we think of as Delhi has been home to a dozen cities over two millennia. That’s a lot of history to absorb. The most recent political upheaval was the 1947 Partition separating Pakistan from India, when many Urdu-speaking Muslims, whose families had lived in the old city for generations, fled Delhi for the north. Despite their abrupt departure, the old city remains a majority Muslim neighborhood.
We started soaking up Delhi’s unique atmosphere in Old Delhi, the compact, very-much-alive remnant of the Mughal Empire’s walled Shahjahanabad. Our first stop was Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque, commissioned in 1644 by Shah Jahan, who also built the Taj Mahal in Agra.
The massive courtyard holds up to 20,000 people, though it was blissfully quiet on our visit. As in all mosques, we were asked to remove our shoes.
A cheerful vender at the entry sells topis or colorful Muslim-style hats.
Although India is a majority Hindu country, more Muslims live in India than in any other country in the world.
The serenity of the mosque didn’t remotely prepare us for the din in the crowded streets outside. Old havelis or mansions have been turned into warehouses, shops and multi-family apartments.
Our guide, Janesh (right), got us started by bargaining for a rickshaw ride so we could get the lay of the land.
Old Delhi vibrates with people rushing to take care of business, whether it’s shopping for construction materials, saris, silver, wholesale spices, festival decorations or street food.
The courtyard of an old Mughal-era mansion has been taken over by the wholesale spice market. Wherever chilies are for sale, people are coughing and wiping their eyes from the almost overpowering pepper fumes.
This vender shows his samples in a tiny corner of the old haveli in the wholesale spice market.
And this guy almost ran David down as he carried almonds … wait for it … from California … through the narrow aisles.
From Chandi Chowk, the main drag, we veered off into the tiniest alleys to see the tight quarters where people live and work.
Step right up to buy some hot roasted peppers, one of the many snacks you can buy on the streets.
The streets are full of laborers doing hard jobs that would be automated in the West.
Respite from the crowds in New Delhi
New Delhi is a planned city, courtesy of the British Raj. Its broad boulevards and tree-lined streets are reminiscent of other planned capitals like Paris and Washington, D.C. Even a quick look at Google Maps reveals the basic skeleton of Delhi, with its jumble of streets and alleys in the north and radiating starbursts of margs or avenues in classic New Delhi. Being there offered a refreshing spaciousness that was hard to resist.
The British-built areas include the once modern circular shopping plaza called Connaught Place and the remarkable sandstone government buildings, designed by architect Edwin Lutyens.
One of the most famous shops in Connaught Place is the Rikhi Ram music shop, where George Harrison and the Beatles shopped for instruments on their first trip to India.
Interestingly, the British only occupied their complex of government buildings for 16 years before Indian Independence in 1947, when the new government moved in.
For me, the biggest surprises in Delhi were the broad, shaded tree-lined streets in the diplomatic area and beautiful parks and open spaces, desperately needed and well used in this crowded megacity.
Every monument attracts families out for a stroll or picnic. The massive India Gate was built by the British to commemorate the Indian soldiers who died in World War I. It stands alone at the end of Rajpath, a two-mile long boulevard, which connects the park to the British-built Parliament House and other government buildings. The history is interesting, but I really enjoyed seeing families taking selfies, eating cotton candy or relaxing with a cup of chai.
Lodi Gardens was also built by the British in the 1930s around a collection of fifteenth-century tombs from the Lodi dynasty, the last of Delhi’s sultans before the Mughal conquest.
Today Lodi Gardens is verdant, relaxed and well used for jogging, yoga, family picnics and as a backdrop for atmospheric fashion or wedding photography.
One of the most beautiful areas in the city is Humayun’s Tomb, built for the second Mughal emperor in 1565. After a morning in Old Delhi, being here is literally a breath of fresh air.
It’s not news to anyone that Delhi has a pollution problem. That’s pretty much expected in South Asian mega-cities. When we visited in October 2017, the big news was that the city was experiencing so much pollution, the government cancelled fireworks for Diwali, India’s major festival. That’s like cancelling fireworks for the Fourth of July. It’s. Just. Not. Done.
But headlines called out, No Fireworks, Delhi Breathless. So, what do you do if you sell fireworks and the government bans your product? Sit around and complain in front of your closed shop. That’s what you do.
The reality: Air pollution levels can be quite scary in Delhi. In the fall, farmers nearby burn waste from their crops. The resulting particles collect in the air around Delhi. Once we were home, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Toxic fog turns New Delhi into ‘a gas chamber’ and the New York Times said, India Closes 4,000 Schools Over Dirty Air.
We got a real lesson in Delhi pollution on our 2018 trip. We landed at the Delhi airport seven times (most internal flights go through Delhi), and each time the pollution was worse. When we arrived from San Francisco, we could see major landmarks from the air. By our last flight a month later, we could barely see the runway. It’s such a shame.
The modern Metro connects it all
Driving around Connaught Place, Janesh pointed out the shiny Metro station. It looked slightly out of place among the roundabouts and colonnaded walkways. “Can we take a ride,” I asked, eager to try something new. Janesh thought for a minute and said, “Let’s do it. You want to fix your bracelet (which had broken on the plane). We’ll go back to the Old City and find a jeweler.”
We hopped out of the car and went down broad steps to a modern subway station that could have been in any major city in the world. It was cleaner than any street above ground. There are no cows in the Metro.
The maps looked familiar with their colored lines and dots. Only the names were exotic. Janesh showed us the range of the various lines. He took care of buying tickets and showed us where to line up. He also pointed out the “ladies-only” cars with their pink signs.
After a brief wait we hopped on. Our midday ride was about as crowded as a New York subway car approaching rush hour. The passengers seemed to be middle class office workers. Janesh explained that riding the subway was definitely more expensive than riding the bus for the same distance.
A brief two-stop ride brought us back to Old Delhi, where we started our search for the perfect jeweler to fix the broken chain on my bracelet. But first, just outside the entrance to the Metro, we happened upon a storefront temple, where some of our fellow riders made a quick stop to ring the temple bell and pray for a good day.
Delhi is a truly layered city, in both geography and practice. The new co-exists with the old. The temple sits beside the Metro station. High-rise apartments flank ruins. Ancient rituals are observed amid modern conveniences.
That’s the glory of Delhi.