India: Sign of the Times in Delhi
“Dehli past and present: how to find it, where to stay and what to do when you are there”
Review by Fiona Duncan, published 7th March 2011.
I am standing on the roof of a tall, narrow house, high above the seething interior of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. The house is home to seven families, including an ex-mud wrestler, Mohammed, who is exercising his precious flock of thoroughbred pigeons, dosing them with his secret brew of spices and raisins, and commanding them with hoots and whistles to fly or return.
His dearest wish is to tempt the pigeons of rival kaboortarbaaz (pigeon fliers) away from their flocks; we can see them, along with many eagles, wheeling in tight arcs in different parts of the city sky. Not long after, I am sitting quietly on the floor of a Sikh temple, where beneath a pink silk canopy, a priest gently sweeps the air above the holy scripture, set on a golden altar, with a long-handled horsehair brush.
In a city built and destroyed seven times and filled with a multitude of historic ruins, I visit the great monuments of Qutub Minar, the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Humayun's Tomb – the equal of the Taj Mahal – and Rajghat (site of Gandhi's cremation and memorial). I hear their stories and gradually piece together a picture of Delhi's warrior inhabitants, whose varied faces, whether watchmaker or beggar, car-part vendor or spice-seller, cloth merchant or street-food cook, speak of a centuries-old fusion of different, far-flung peoples.
Later, I play with bouncing children at a charity-run school and health clinic, the Hope Project, and plunge into the colour-soaked, pilgrim-choked all-night bazaar around the Dargah (mausoleum) of Nizamuddin. The ancient stepwell may be full of holy water, but it is also full of sewage, the only outlet for the surrounding neighbourhood, deeply impoverished but engrossing, filled with pilgrims, revered tombs, busy markets and devotional singing (if you are lucky you will catch, as I did, Sufis singing qawwalis, designed to raise the listener to a state of spiritual trance).
I experienced all these things, and so much more, in just three days. Most visitors to India only have days at their disposal before pressing on to other parts of the country, but often want to discover something of the "real" Delhi with the trappings of a spoiling holiday.
With the help of private guides, that can be achieved and sprawling, confusing, impenetrable Delhi becomes instead a many-layered, unforgettable collage of colour and sound, startling beauty and troubling truth.
It was a guide, himself an extraordinary man, an academic and poet who speaks 11 languages and withdraws to a cave for three months each year, who led me onto the rooftops and into the maze of alleys and bazaars in Old Delhi; and it was a guide who took me beyond the firmly closed gates of the President's Palace in New Delhi.
Exactly a century ago, at that British Raj extravaganza, the 1911 Delhi Durbar, King George V was anointed Emperor of India and announced the shift of capital city from Calcutta to Delhi. Soon after, Sir Edwin Lutyens set sail from England and began work on creating New Delhi and its viceregal, now government buildings, along with fellow architect Herbert Baker, with whom he later quarrelled.
It is Lutyens whom we have to thank for the broad, tree-lined avenues and roundabouts, for imposing India Gate and, above, all for Rashtrapati Bhavan, the President's Palace that crowns Raisina Hill.
Lutyens and Baker fell out over the gradient of the approach to the palace at the point where it is flanked by Baker's twin Secretariat buildings: here Baker made the slope so steep that Lutyens's palace suddenly, fatally, disappears from view.
"I met my Bakerloo," Lutyens, famed for his one-liners, later quipped. In the same vein, the nearby diplomats' bungalows, designed by Baker rather than him, were written off as "bungle-ohs".
Climb Baker's notorious slope, reach the delicate gates of the palace, and content yourself with peering through the wrought ironwork at Lutyens's masterpiece of clarity and proportion in the distance, with its equally harmonious, rational and beautiful Mughal Gardens hidden beyond.
Or, alternatively, choose a good tour operator or top hotel whose concierge will, as mine did, secure in advance the special permissions necessary for the privilege of a private tour of both palace and gardens.
The luxurious, gracious hotel to which I was able to retreat and take stock each afternoon, and which organised my itinerary, was the Leela Palace, purpose built in the style of Lutyens and recently opened, with a much-envied central location in the Diplomatic Enclave.
An airy, delicate, Mughal-pretty haven of marble and glass, with touches of pink and gold, it has four restaurants; an intimate library bar; flower-filled terraces and gardens; a secretive, labyrinthine Espa spa; and elegant, superbly equipped bedrooms and divine bathrooms that I could not fault, as well as gentle, attentive, personal service.
Each morning, I set out from Leela Palace for another adventure and a constant slide show of never-to-be forgotten images.
A painted eunuch begs at one set of traffic lights, a child contortionist at another; women in glittering saris perch side saddle behind their husbands on tooting scooters amid whirling traffic; families of four sit in rows astride motorbikes; street food is ladled from vast urns or scooped from deep ovens; astonishing, intricately carved Mughal façades and arches punctuate ramshackle alleys; goats devour plastic and leap onto cars; chickens in cages and groups of little uniformed schoolchildren in carts are towed behind rickshaws; a barber cuts hair beneath a tree, mirror nailed to the trunk; teenage girls and boys slyly eye each other up from the rooftops where the pigeons fly.
But somehow, of all these images, it's my visit to neglected, almost forgotten Coronation Park that remains most fixed in my mind, especially in this New Delhi centenary year. It was here that the Durbar of 1911 was held in all its elephant-packed pomp and the king made his declaration that Delhi would become India's capital.
Now reduced to a scruffy playing field for numerous impromptu games of cricket, Coronation Park is set around an obelisk declaring George V as Emperor of India.
In a locked garden, poking up through the tangled overgrowth, stands a semicircle of huge marble statues on plinths, including those of George and Queen Mary, the last in a long line of conquerors now consigned to Delhi's blurred and distant history, leaving the people to roll on, apparently accepting their lot.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) flies to Delhi direct from Heathrow from £580 return. The better hotels offer a free pickup service; otherwise there are regular free coaches to Connaught Place; or you can take a prepaid taxi.
WHEN TO GO
Delhi enjoys four seasons. Best both for weather and festivals is autumn and winter, October to March, when the nights are cool and the days sunny. Avoid the heat of summer and the rainy season, April to September.
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2289; www.kirkerholidays.com) offers four nights at the four-star The Claridges from £1,098 per person, including return flight and a full-day tour with driver and guide.
GUIDED DAY TOURS
Amit, the concierge at Hotel Leela Palace New Delhi, can arrange tailor-made tours and private visits for guests in advance of their stay from £30 per person for a half day, or £61 for a full day. Specialist guide Surekha Narain offers tailor-made heritage walks and numerous private visits (www.delhimetrowalks.com). The Salaam Baalak Trust for street children offers unforgettable city walks, guided by older children trained as local guides (www.salaambaalaktrust.com).
THE INSIDE TRACK
- Delhi bookshops are superb. In Khan Market (good for shopping), Bahri Sons has been a landmark since 1953.
- Take in the splendid Connaught Square while visiting India’s largest, loveliest and most fragrant flower market in front of the Hanuman Temple, 4am-9am each morning. Follow a visit with breakfast at Saravana Bhavan. (46 Janpath, Connaught Place).
- On guided tours, dress modestly, and carry a scarf and respectable socks for mosque and temple visits.
WHAT TO BRING HOME
For the finest shawls visit Kashmir Loom Company (A21 Basement, Nizamuddin East; by appointment only on 0091 11 2431 8947;www.kashmirloom.com) and Shaw Brothers (D 47 Ground Floor, Defence Colony; www.shaw-brothers.com) but don’t expect bargains.
If you like “modern ethnic” design, Anokhi clothing is a fraction of what it costs in the UK (32 Khan Market; www.anokhi.com). Atmosphere is excellent for furnishing fabrics (D-19 Defence Colony; 4155 3233;www.atmosphere.net.in), while Rohit Kaicker sells Indian miniatures (originals made by living artists who keep up the tradition) from his Gallery 29 (29 Sunder Nagar; 2435 3061).
Before you go: City of Djinns by William Dalrymple (Harper Perennial); when you are there: Love Delhi by Fiona Caulfield (Love Travel Guides).
THE BEST HOTELS
Amarya Haveli £
Stylish guesthouse run by a French couple. Good food; roof terrace (4175 9267; www.amaryagroup.com; doubles from £93).
The Manor ££
Tucked away in a leafy, upmarket residential suburb, a 15-room Fifties bungalow with slick, contemporary interior and a cutting-edge restaurant, Indian Accent (2692 5151; www.themanordelhi.com; doubles from £130).
ITC Maurya Sheraton £££
Long popular with visiting heads of state, the hotel contains characterful restaurants, a fine spa and an arresting muralled dome above the lobby (2611 2233; www.itcwelcomegroup.in; doubles from £210).
Leela Palace New Delhi ££££
Superbly located; Leela’s latest hotel is set to outshine the competition with its gracious, glamorous interiors, state-of-the-art facilities, including rooftop pool and enveloping service (3933 1234; www.theleela.com; doubles from £342).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
Authentic Mughal cuisine, close to Delhi’s largest mosque (16 Jama Masjid; 2326 4981).
Punjab Grill ££
Dine indoors or out; superb yet informal using the freshest of produce and the finest meat. Delicious (Select City Walk Mall; 4157 2977).
Located at ITC Maurya; Bukhara may be world famous but it’s also great fun, with aproned diners eating superb tandoori dishes with their fingers in rustic, convivial surroundings (ITC Maurya; 2611 2233).
WHAT TO AVOID
- Upset stomachs: consider taking Bimuno powders (available from Boots) before travelling to prepare your stomach – they work for me. Stick to bottled water (drink plenty), and avoid unpeeled fruit, vegetables and salads.
- Beggars: do not give money, however upsetting you find them. You risk being surrounded and it’s best to give to a suitable charity, such as the Hope Project (www.hopeprojectindia.org) instead.
- Running out of baksheesh (small change/notes) – everyone hopes for a tip, from the shoe-keeper at the mosque upwards.
- Losing your driver: take your mobile and keep a record of his phone and licence-plate number.
- Shopping malls: though almost all restaurants and retail stores are found in them, they are Westernised and atmosphere-free.
DID YOU KNOW?
Many Hindus do not eat beef so in Delhi McDonald’s burgers are made from mutton.
The Hotel Guru verdict