Delhi is a city of polarities. It is as much modern as it is ancient. It is as much a child as it is a withering old man. No, not an old man—it is a grand old dame, one who has seen much splendour in her salad days, one who has had lovers flock to her balcony like moths to a flame. Now in her twilight years, she still exerts much charm and power. Though her voice is feeble and her hair grey, young men still stop under her balcony to look at her with admiration when she stands sunning her chapped skin in the morning sun.
Delhi is the darling of North India. She has danced under the light of the Mughal lamps, wept at the death of Nawab culture, has been decked and re-decked over and over again; and she has moved on every time which is why she has so many stories to tell.
If you want to explore the city in and out, mark off five days from your calendar. Here is a list of things you need to check out before you make that tall claim of having seen Delhi:
Shah Jahan’s Delhi
Chandni Chowk + Red Fort + Jama Masjid
Old Delhi is where you begin your Delhi affair. This should be your checklist:
- Lal Qila i.e. Red Fort. Besides its sprawling gardens and awe-inspiring structure, the one thing to watch out for is the light and sound show. Sit in the open under the night sky and witness the golden world of kings and courtesans unfold before you amidst the sound of tabla, ghungroos, and booming voices. Get yourself checked if it doesn’t give you goosebumps.
- Make your way through the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk and take in the colourful sight adorned with clothes, jewellery, and antique pieces. Buy itar (exquisite Lucknowi perfume) bottles, if only to keep sniffing them like an addict.
- If the sight and smell of kachoris being fried in the open or matka kulfis being popped out from deep freeze containers doesn’t lure you, nothing ever will. Follow the foodie’s trail:
a) Gorge on the phenomenal dahi bhallas and tikkis at Natraj Dahi Bhalle Wala. (Parathewali gali is not the only foodie’s delight here).
b) Elsewhere in Chandni Chowk, try the poor-bhaji, or the kachori-subzi. In winters, it’ll be the famous daulat ki chaat.
c) The lavish langar at Sis Ganj Sahib Gurudwara. After the halwa drowned in desi ghee, you can also indulge in some chilled rasmalai or kulfi from the nearby shops.
d) The morning azaan in Jama Masjid (though you’d have to get up really early for that).
e) If you have time, visit Rajghat on an early dewy morning.
Best time to visit: Winters. You’d be really lucky if there’s a slight drizzle, and really unlucky if there’s a heavy downpour.
Free advice: The sights, sounds, and smells of old Delhi are best witnessed on a rikshaw.
Delhi’s Historic Beginnings
Qutub Minar + Iron Pillar + Hauz Khas Complex + Tughlaqabad Fort
The Qutub Minar was the first Islamic monument Delhi saw. The structure still stands strong (save for the two floors that were destroyed when a plane crashed into it a couple of decades ago). Your checklist:
- Try and hug the iron pillar and see if you can cover it . If you do, you’ll be famous, it is so believed. Not many can do this. Oops but now they have put a metal fence protecting the pillar. It wasn’t taking all that intimacy too well.
- Adjacent to the minaret is the Mehrauli Archaeological Park which should also be on your day’s itinerary.
- Nearby is the Hauz Khas complex, more aptly called the Hauz Khas ruins, comprising the remnants of a mosque, a water tank, and a tomb tracing their history back to the Khilji dynasty.
- End the day at Hauz Khas Village sipping beer at one of the many rooftop cafes there. Also, buy some kitsch stuff at the funky stores around.
India Gate + Rashtrapati Bhavan + Connaught Place + Mandi House
Like Taj Mahal is to Agra, India Gate is to Delhi. A tribute to the Indian soldiers killed in World War I, India Gate has now become an emblem of national pride. And as all things of national importance are concerned, the Gate witnesses either protests or picnics. Connaught Place, another gulp-how-expensive-parking place, is where the whole of Delhi meets. It’s our town square. It’s where we go to do nothing. With its colonnaded white structure, it is a sight to behold on a rainy day. Your checklist:
- At India Gate: Buy pink candy floss, sit in the gardens, eat ice cream.
- Feel a lump-in-my-throat proud. Helpful when you are feeling absolutely vella and worthless. Let national pride be your misplaced sense of self-importance.
- Stroll around the white pillars of CP. Peep in the showrooms, buy a book from the pavement and sit down for a cup of coffee at the India Coffee House.
- Purchase a suede coat at an incredibly cheap rate in Paalika market, Connaught Place.
- End the day by watching a play at Mandi House. Eat raj kachori at Nathu’s in Bengali Market.
The Song of the Sufi
Nizamuddin Dargah + Humayun’s Tomb + Purana Qila + Lotus Temple
The dargah of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya is arguably the most celebrated hub of Islamic worship and culture in Delhi. If you are a Sufi enthusiast, have always loved Khusro (or Mir or Ghalib or Urdu poetry in general), and have an evening to spare, come here.
- Sit on the floor, close your eyes, and let the music pervade your being. Kun (faya-kun).
- Stroll around Khan Market. Bump into small-time celebrities or designers. Dine at one of the many hangout places.
- Watch the light and sound at Purana Qila. In winters (December usually), the site hosts numerous cultural events—folk/classical dance and music programs.
- Meditate at the Bahai (or Lotus) Temple, an architectural marvel. Or suddenly start laughing loudly when everybody else is meditating.
In order to complete the Delhi experience, you have to visit the colourful (exploding with colour actually) and noisy (you will find yourself shouting at the top of your voice in order to be heard by the shopkeeper). They are as much Delhi as the monuments. It’s okay if you are not a shopaholic (they all said so before stepping into the markets). But if you are so stuck on it, don’t buy anything; just roam around. Some must-dos:
- Bargain at Sarojini Nagar, and buy kurtas for 80 bucks each (yes, in the year 2013). You might never wear them, but the purchase will restore your faith in humanity.
- Order veg thukpa at the Mizoram stall in Delhi Haat, INA. Or the famous pyaaz kachori at the Rajasthan stall. Trust me, you’ll bless me.
- Buy kolhapuri chappals and jute bags from Paharganj. All in 200 bucks. And then wonder what you’ll do with them because you never really needed them.
- Pour over the designer kitsch stuff in GK-II. You can consider buying it too.