Delhi is a beguiling conundrum; with my Delhi city guide I’ll give you my personal take on how to unravel some of this city’s secrets. There’s a charm in its chaotic congestion that can at once induce migraines and provoke share wonderment. I’m a fan of any city that can do this, and this Delhi city guide lays down my favourite sights.
Most travellers get pulled into the gravitational nexus that is Paharganj, Delhi’s vibrant backpacker neighbourhood and the first taste of India for many. It’s not to everyone’s taste mind; it packs the usual Indian traits of being rammed with a seething mass of humanity, commerce, touts, promises of adventure and misadventure. Handily placed opposite New Delhi train station, the Main Bazaar is Paharganj’s main thoroughfare. Blessed with more budget accommodation and shops pushing cheap pashminas than anywhere on the subcontinent, a stay in Paharganj is usually a prerequisite to most Indian adventures.
Beyond the shopfronts, travel agents, internet cafes, rooftop restaurants and dusty clatter of the Main Bazaar, side streets and back alleys allow moments of reprieve to be explored.
Main Bazaar, Paharganj.
If you’re a fan of dense, semi-controlled chaos, parts of Old Delhi will deliver an unrivalled morass of people, commerce, cows, rickshaws and general sensory exuberance to savour and salivate over. In its heyday, Old Delhi was called Shahjahanabad and surround by a defensive wall of which only fragments exist. Some are so narrow and enclosed it’s close to dark. Whole areas are dedicated to one thing – moped parts, wedding stuff, bicycles, pashminas, saris. There’s a crumbling grandness to it all that’s uniquely Indian. If you don’t like surprises, a good Delhi city guide can cut through the uncertainty.
Old Delhi’s main thoroughfare, Chandni Chowk, bristles with activity; human congestion predominates, so where you can, veer off into the tangle of back alleys for a slightly less hectic experience. Getting lost and wandering is half the fun so expect to spend some time navigating in and out of various states of lostness.
Semi-controlled chaos of Old Delhi.
Sitting proudly at the epicentre of Old Delhi, on entering Jama Masjid the chaos and pace of Old Delhi slips away, the open expanse of the massive inner courtyard delivers welcome reprise. India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid was started in 1644 and construction finished in 1656. Boasting 40m high minarets, with alternating red sandstone and white marble, the fifth Mogul Emperor Shahjahan lavished over 1 million rupees on its construction.
His bold architectural legacy is still very much alive; Jama Masjid’s impressive 75 meter by 66 meter courtyard and Western hall chamber held aloft by 260 stone pillars still imparts a deep impression on anyone who visits. On leaving, the chaos and confusion of Chown Bazaar can be appreciated from the safe distance of Jama Masjid’s steps.
India’s largest mosque, Jama Masjid.
Sited stoically to the east edge of Old Delhi, the Red Fort bastion was the creation of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1638 and took 10 years to complete. As this was towards the end of my first trip to India, I remember appreciating the large tracts of green grass (which seemed impossibly luxuriant for lying on after the arid rockiness of Rajasthan, a little more than the fort itself.
Once hemmed in on one side by the Yamuna River, the Red Fort was once the residence of the royal family. Its last occupant was the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II who was exiled from India after his involvement in the 1857 Rebellion.
The construction of the Red Fort incorporated the existing and older Salimgarh Fort on the site. Internally the fort is a collection of autonomous buildings, my favourites being Diwan-i-Khas and Diwan-i-Aam. Diwan-i-Khas existed as the official state reception hall and housed the famous Peacook Throne.
Diwan-i-Aam was conceived as a large open pavilion for imperial audiences with the emperor; striking for its elegant columns and stone arch construction, makes for a layered space.
Diwan-i-Aam pavilion within the Red Fort.
Conceived as the administrative centre of India, New Delhi was largely designed by Edwin Lutyens as the focus of Imperial power shifted from Calcutta in the east of the country. The main promenade of Rajpath runs between Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s house) and India Gate. Janpath, the second important axis, starts at Connaught Place and cuts across Rajpath.
Architecturally, the focus is placed on the extravagant Rashtrapati Bhavan. The two Secretariat buildings flank and frame Rashtrapati Bhavan when approaching from India Gate.
New Delhi secretariat buildings, Rajpath.
India Gate commemorates the Indian Army’s sacrifice in First World War and the Third Anglo-African War. Designed by Edwin Lutyens, India’s national monument was built in 1931. After independence, India Gate became the site of the Indian Army’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sited on the Rajpath axis, its striking position dominates the promenade. It’s hard not to feel dwarfed by the size and grandeur of India Gate and Rajpath .
India Gate, Rajpath.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Humayun's Tomb was commissioned in 1565 by the Mughal Emperor Humayun’s wife, Hamida Banu Begum. Set within carefully considered landscaping, the tomb belongs to a tradition of being buried within a paradise garden and is the first example of a garden tomb on the subcontinent.
The complex incorporates the tombs of Humayun, his immediate family and a raft of later Mughal rulers. At a height of 47 metres tall, strong Persian architectural forms have influenced its architecture. A triumph of high arched alcoves, kiosks and capped resplendently with its huge double skinned dome clad in marble, the tomb proper is propelled skyward sitting on its vast plinth; a dais to assert it presence.
Central to Humayun's Tomb is the four square or Char Bagh Garden, highly structured and formal, and is comprised of walkways and bisecting water channels.
On my inaugural visit to Qutib Minar I walked from my house in Malviya Nagar. A minor feat of endurance and since I got lost, a Delhi city guide would have been handy! Qutib Minar is no shrinking violet; at 72.5m in height in can be seen for miles around. Started in 1192 by Qutbu'd-Din Aibak, many Hindu and Jain temples were demolished and pillaged for material to create its impressive fluted and ribbed exterior. Tapering gently from its impressive 15m diameter base, it pointedly towers over the region; a physical proclamation of Mughal rule and power over the populace.
The red sandstone and marble Qutib Minar.
Tughlaqabad was built under the fervent resolve of Emperor Ghiyasud-din Tughlaq. He wished to construct an impregnable fortress in Southern Delhi, robust enough to see off the most stubborn Mongol raiders. Construction started in 1321 AD, Tughlaqabad was never inhabited after the Sufi mystic Nizamuddin Auliya purportedly cursed it, twice!
After a rather public falling out with Ghiyasud-din Tughlaq for diverting all labour in Delhi to the Tughlaqabad project, Nizamuddin Auliya declared ‘Ya rahey hissar, ya basey gujjar’; ‘may it (the fort) remain unoccupied, or else the herdsmen may live here’. And that’s exactly what happened.
Curse number two was slightly more personal and allegedly resulted in the death of the Emperor; crushed by a collapsing tent in 1324 while in Uttar Pradesh. Camping gone bad.
Today 13 of the original 52 gates remain, allowing entry through the impressive 15 meter tall fortified stone walls.
Emperor Ghiyasud-din Tughlaq's Tughlaqabad.
Both Wallpaper* and Lonely Planet produce dedicated Delhi City Guides, both ideal further research to build upon what you’ve read here! Lonely Planet’s publication encompasses Rajasthan, Delhi and Agra. They also produce an app that is a devoted Delhi City Guide.
Use this Delhi city guide as a good starting point for your wanderings. On first impressions, Delhi presents itself as a city to immediately escape, but given some time and patience it will reward the traveller who’s prepared to delve beneath its surface and find a past that still resonates and a present that is full of intriguing change.