18 January 2015


India's capital and one of the world's oldest cities, Delhi is undeniably rich for historical sights. Although many overlook it on the way to the other delights of North India, and while the city can be overwhelming at first, I recommend travellers to spend at least a few days in this massive metropolis.

Delhi is a sprawling city but the major sights of interest are located not too far from each other, in the grand scheme of things. Most places of interest are in New Delhi, Old Delhi and South Delhi.

Weather-wise, Delhi is a city of extremes by Indian standards. Winters can see mild, sunny afternoons with highs from 15 to 20 C, but winter mornings can be terribly foggy, resulting in transport disruptions and can dampen sightseeing excitement too (that's supposed to be the India Gate but I can't see a damn thing!). Summers from Apr to Jun are hot, with temps going to and beyond 40 C in the day. Monsoons from Jul to Sep are rainy and hot.

New Delhi
New Delhi is largely a green area with well maintained roads, roundabouts and important government buildings, as well as embassies of foreign countries.

In the heart of Delhi, Rajiv Chowk, formerly and still popularly known as Connaught Place is one of the capital's most popular eating and shopping destination. Consisting of three concentric circles, the area is divided into many blocks. Come here to catch a meal, look at the colonial architecture or just to people-watch.

Not far from Connaught Place, hidden in the leafy lanes of Central Delhi, is an old baoli (stepwell) called Agrasen ki Baoli, also known as Ugrasen ki Baoli, dating from the 14th century. There is no admission fee to visit.

Agrasen ki Baoli
From Connaught Place, walk down Sansad Marg to reach Jantar Mantar. Built in 1724, the Jantar Mantar complex consists of many architectural astronomy instruments.

An instrument at Jantar Mantar
The complex is typically open from sunrise to sunset. Entry fee is 5 Rs for Indians and 100 Rs for foreigners.

One major road to the west, on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, is the Sacred Heart Cathedral, one of the city's most popular. It was beautifully set up for Christmas.

Sacred Heart Cathedral
One of the main roads leading from Connaught Place to the area around Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) area is called Janpath. Walk south on Janpath, until you reach the Tibetan Market, a great place to shop for Tibetan handicrafts and textiles. 

Keep walking south, and on the junction of Janpath with Rajpath, the grand India Gate looms large on the left. A war memorial to the members of the Indian army who perished in World War 1 and and the Third Anglo-Afghan War, the India Gate is now a popular spot for locals in the evenings. 

India Gate
Keep going south on Janpath and you will come across the National Museum. While the presentation is hardly to write home about, the museum's collection includes priceless exhibits from the Indus Valley Civilisation (as old as 3000 BC), and then on chronologically, Buddhist and Jain works from the Mauryan, Shunga and Satavahana Periods. The museum is also home to the largest collection of Indian miniature paintings, as well as coin collections. 

The museum is open 10 am to 5 pm, and closed Mondays and holidays. Free 90 minute tours conducted by student volunteers are held so ask about these. Alternatively, you can check out the highlights by stopping at each exhibit with a sign saying 'The Museum in 90 Minutes'. While the student who led our tour was well informed, these tours try to cover a wide range of the museum and can be mentally taxing, as there's not much time to digest all the information, or to take a look at other exhibits alongside the ones covered in the tour. 

A section of a tusk depicting Buddha's life scenes at display
at the National Museum. Carved early 20th century
Slightly east of India Gate is Old Fort, better known as Purana Qila. The oldest known structure of any sort in Delhi, this fort is one brimming with legends- it is believed that this was the site of the Pandavas' capital, Indraprastha. What is known is that this fort was rebuilt by Sher Shah Suri, and it may have been incomplete even by his death in 1545, and rebuilt later by his son. Archaeological excavations have confirmed that the site has been continually inhabited from around 1000 BC. 

The fort is located close to the Delhi Zoo, entry is Rs 5 for Indians and Rs 100 for foreigners, and it is open from 9 am to 5 pm. Enter through the Bara Darwaza (Big Gate) and spend time in one of Delhi's less touristy historic attractions. 

Bara Darwaza, as viewed from inside the fort
One of the sights inside the fort is the Qila e Kunha Masjid, built in 1541.

The masjid
The mosque is remarkably well maintained. Next to it is a stepwell, be careful not to fall in it!

Other sights inside the fort include a hammam (bath house) which provided for hot and cold water, as well as steam rooms during the Mughal times. 

Across the Humayun Darwaza are the ruined parts of the fort. You can have a look at the ruins in the outside, but going inside is not permitted.

Some 4 km north of Old Fort is another of Delhi's historic forts, known as Feroz Shah Kotla. Ask Delhi residents about this fort, and they will point you to the more famous cricket stadium next door, which goes by the same name. And while the cricket stadium has some interesting historic feats to it, such as Indian bowler Anil Kumble's 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan, even this cricket fan admits that the fort is pretty amazing too.

Delhi has over the ages hosted 7 cities, and Feroz Shah Kotla was built to house the fifth city of Delhi, known as Ferozabad. Built in the mid 14th century by Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq, who was also a noted builder, who commissioned a number of mosques, forts etc across the Sultanate, the fort, now in ruins, is said to be haunted. Every Thursday a ceremony is held to please the djinns who are said to inhabit the place.

Looking around the fort
Today the ruins are expansive, with well-maintained gardens. You can see the mosque, as well as the ruins of the soldiers' quarters, stepwell and the jail. Look interested, and a guard will offer you a short tour around the place.

Feroz Shah Tughlaq was a cultured man and appreciated history. This is shown by the Ashokan Pillar, dating from the 3rd century BC which he meticulously brought from its original location in Ambala. This pillar rests on top of what was a pyramidal structure.

The Ashokan Pillar

The expansive jails... at least Feroz Shah Tughlaq reduced the
brutal punishments such  as flaying often meted out by this
predecessor, Muhammad bin Tughlaq.  
South of India Gate is Khan Market, another very popular shopping and dining destination in the city, with among the highest rents.

A bit further south are the Lodhi Gardens, which contain many tombs, most of them of the Lodhi dynasty. The garden, free to entry, is a popular walking area for locals and its 90 acres make it good for sightseeing too.

Interior of a tomb in Lodhi Garden
Just down the road from Lodhi Gardens' south western corner lies the complex of Safdarjung's Tomb, one of Delhi's lesser touristy but equally worth visiting sights. Built in 1754, this houses the tomb of Mirza Muqim Abul Mansur Khan (popularly known as Safdarjung), the ruler of Awadh. The layout of the compound is very similar to that of the more famous nearby Humayun's Tomb.

Safdarjung's Tomb
If you go east on Lodhi Road, you will come across the compound of Humayun's Tomb. A large complex, it has other tombs besides a mosque. One of Delhi's most popular sights, expect crowds and avoiding visiting on weekends and holidays, if you want to avoid crowds.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the perfect symmetry of the tomb and the sheer elegance makes it one of the most beautiful structure in Delhi. The surrounding lawns, which if you turn away from the main path can feel like a forest, are pleasant to stroll through.

The other monuments are accessible from gateways on the sides; continue straight to reach the main building of Humayun's Tomb.

Humayun's Tomb
Climb to the upper level to gain access to the tomb.

Some of the other sights in the compound include Isa Khan's Tomb and a mosque facing it.

Isa Khan's Tomb
Old Delhi
Located north of New Delhi, Old Delhi was founded by Mughal emperor Shahjahan (and known as Shahjahanbad) in 1639. The city was walled, with 14 gates. One of the pleasures is just roaming around and witnessing the chaos of the area, and you can do this by walking or from the top of a rickshaw, which are ubiquitous throughout Old Delhi.

One of Delhi's most famous attractions is the Red Fort (Lal Qila). Built by Shahjahan, the Red Fort was the home of the Mughal emperor for nearly 200 years. Majestic from the outside, I frankly found it a bit disappointing, with closed-off areas, and relatively poor maintenance. If you're visiting Agra too, the Agra Fort is much more extensive and in better shape.

Red Fort

Inside are some museums, such as Museum on India's Struggle for Freedom. Historical sights inside the fort include the Diwan-i-Aam, where the emperor gave public audiences. One of the more elaborate halls is the Khas Mahal, the emperor's private palace.

Detail in the Khas Mahal
Another of Old Delhi's sights is the Jama Masjid, one of India's most well known mosques, built in 1656.

Stairs leading to Jama Masjid
You have to remove your footwear to enter. Carrying cameras inside will entail a fee of Rs 300- most people just use their cellphones to take photos of the beautiful compound. 

One of Delhi's prime market areas, particularly for street food is Chandni Chowk, the centre of Old Delhi. A small lane branching off from the main road here, called Gali Paranthewali, is renowned for eateries serving paranthe.
Mehrauli is a district in south west Delhi, also known for its historical sights.

The most famous of them are clustered in the Qutub Archaeological Complex. Getting in can be a hassle- you buy your ticket from across the road, and then come back to join the entry queue- expect loads of crowds on weekends/holidays.

Qutub Minar

The complex is home to Qutub Minar, a minaret built in the end of the 12th century.

Detail on the Qutub Minar
Among other structures in the complex include gateways, mosques and tombs (yes, more tombs!).

If you want to escape to another historically-rich area nearby with very few crowds, visit the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Read a page on it by me here.

We have stayed in several hotels in Delhi including:

- Le Meridien Delhi. Located conveniently in New Delhi, walking distance to Jantar Mantar, India Gate and National Museum.

- Hilton Delhi. Not too close to any major attractions but close to the metro.

Undoubtedly North Indian cuisine is the best to try here. Go to Chandni Chowk for street food and paranthe. Connaught Place, Khan Market and Delhi's malls have options for sit-down, including fine dining restaurants.

One of Delhi's street food specialties is shakargandhi, which is nicely spiced up sweet potato. You can find this just about everywhere, such as in Janpath market.

Delhi has received a lot of bad press recently, however as a tourist, Delhi does not pose any extra risk provided you follow typical big-city precautions. The metro can get very crowded in rush hours, and as in any crowded place, watch your pockets and bag. Scams and touts can be the biggest annoyance.

Within Delhi, the metro is of some use to tourists. However, within a smaller area, autos (3 wheelers) or rickshaws are more useful. Taxis cannot be hailed.

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