Originally published in Travel + Leisure, October 2008
DELHI HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS AN "UNLOVABLE CITY." India’s capital, so the story goes, is a city of migrants and refugees from all corners of India whose ancestries (and loyalties) are elsewhere, and who still regard Delhi as a temporary home. Every cabdriver here can enumerate the charms of his far-off birthplace, even if he hasn’t been back in decades. But few wax rhapsodic about Delhi.
No single community may call the city its own, nor can any group be said to belong here. “People don’t come because they necessarily love the city,” says my friend Ashok Malik, a columnist for India’s Pioneer newspaper. “Primarily they come to make a name for themselves.”
Mumbai has Bollywood and the financial markets, Kolkata its intellectual life, Varanasi the holy Ganges. But what, besides ambition, is Delhi really about? Once the sole domain of government bureaucrats and babus (clerks), it’s now a global hub for fashion, media, business, technology, and manufacturing as well. With the dozens of languages, ethnicities, and agendas that coexist here, Delhi is impossible to pin down. Even the origins of its name are indeterminate. One possible source is the Persian dehleez, or “threshold”—an apt symbol for a town full of arrivistes. Travelers, too, have seen Delhi as a doorway to be passed through, quickly, en route to more exotic points: Jaipur, Goa, the Taj Mahal. For visitors and residents alike, Delhi was what happened while you were making other plans.
What we’ve overlooked is a singular city, one finally fulfilling its role as a world capital. Home to India’s largest mosque, the world’s biggest Hindu temple, and South Asia’s largest shopping mall, the capital is nothing if not outsize. “The one persistent identity Delhi has always had is that of power, which has been its unique selling point for centuries,” writes Ranjana Sengupta in her insightful new book, Delhi Metropolitan. Power has taken many forms here—from the sandstone forts of the Mughals and the blinding-white bungalows of the Raj to the smoked-glass tech parks and call centers of the present day. But the city can also disarm you with intimate moments: on the tranquil grounds of Humayun’s Tomb, where only the flap of pigeon wings breaks the pervasive hush; in the chilly, shell-like hall of the Baha’i Lotus Temple, from which the clamor of the city seems miles away; in the entrancing Sufi Qawwali singing at Nizamuddin’s Shrine; even in the quieter corners of Shahjahanabad (a.k.a. Old Delhi), where car horns give way to the squeak of an unoiled spinning wheel.
I first visited Delhi in December 1993, planning to stay three days. I didn’t leave for three weeks. Those 22 days still rank among the most soul-stirring of my life. On my second night in town, I walked the entirety of Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s half-mile-long bazaar. A winter chill hung in the air, along with moped exhaust and the aroma of fresh chapatis; I’d brought along a sweater but was soon warmed by the heat of street-grill fires, sputtering generators, and a thousand bodies leaping to avoid bullock carts and pedicabs. Stray cows lapped at the pavement. Visions burst out of the shadows. The mere act of walking down the street was as thrilling as a skydive. It certainly wasn’t easy: the pollution was overwhelming, the squalor so distressing that at times I thought I’d have to take the next flight home. But it was too late: on that night in Chandni Chowk, I had fallen in love with India.
I soon realized that the challenge with Delhi, a sprawling city by any measure—how else to accommodate nearly 17 million people?—was in locating a focal point, because there isn’t one. Delhi’s successive rulers didn’t just rework the same central core, as Sengupta explains; instead they built whole new settlements, often not contiguous with the previous ones. Present-day Delhi contains the remnants of at least seven different cities—from the legendary city of Indraprastha, on the banks of the Yamuna River, to the Mughal city of Shahjahanabad, founded in 1638 A.D. two miles north. When the British resolved in 1911 to move their colonial capital from Calcutta to Delhi, they chose a remote site five miles southwest of Shahjahanabad; here they created a grand, European-style city from scratch and called it New Delhi. (That name refers specifically to the capital district, while Delhi is still used for the city as a whole.)
And Delhi’s centers of gravity have kept right on shifting. As it expanded through the 20th century, the city was organized into self-contained vihars or “colonies” (Lodi Colony, Jor Bagh, Vasant Vihar, and so on), each with its own market, school, and services—and its own distinct character. Moving across the city, you get a sense that it is not just seven but a hundred discrete villages.
You also realize how shockingly green Delhi is. Riding in a taxi that first visit, mere blocks from Parliament, I stared dumbfounded as we passed a dense and seemingly endless forest. I asked the driver what it was, and he waved his hand dismissively: “That? That’s just jungle.” Jungle, in a city of 17 million! (It was actually the Central Ridge, a 2,134-acre reserve populated with jackals and wild boar.)
Whole swaths of the city are still given over to gardens, parks, and protected woodlands. In New Delhi, each major thoroughfare is lined with a particular species of tree—neems on Janpath, tamarinds on Akbar Road, banyans on Willingdon Crescent. Then there’s Lodi Garden, one of the world’s great urban parks. I suppose New York could compete if Central Park had 14th-century tombs of Afghan emperors or thousands of emerald-colored parakeets. Lodi’s treetops are aflutter with birds: black drongos, Indian tree pies, mynahs, red-vented bulbuls. But the park is also a functional playground: joggers in tracksuits rest on crumbling mausoleum stairs; yogis do sun salutations beside the pond; vendors proffer glasses of cool jal jeera—salty limeade with cumin and mint—while picnicking families keep an eye on greedy macaques. (Wild monkeys are a growing nuisance in Delhi’s parks; the city has hired a corps of a hundred monkey-catchers to solve the problem.)
“Every third day, I travel to my office and see something that wasn’t there before,” says Manish Arora, one of Delhi’s preeminent fashion designers. “It’s changing so fast, and I must say it’s changing for the good.” Flush with new money and eager to impress, the capital is on a serious civic improvement drive. One motivation is the quadrennial Commonwealth Games, coming to Delhi in October 2010. The Indian government is spending $15 billion in preparation: updating infrastructure, expanding highways, spiffing up monuments, even—horrors!—outlawing street-food vendors, which in this town is tantamount to banning water, so beloved are Delhi’s sidewalk chaat stalls. (The ban is enforced only sporadically.) Delhi’s notorious air pollution has been dramatically reduced as well, thanks to a 2002 law requiring that buses, taxis, and auto rickshaws switch to compressed natural gas. The change is visible—and the air, for once, is not.
The first phase of a long-planned Metro system opened in 2002; 1.2 million people rode it the first day. Everybody loves the Metro. Even South Delhi socialites rave , as if riding a subway for the first time (they probably are). So beloved—so exotic—is the Metro that it’s become a bona fide tourist attraction; people ride it to places they have no interest in going, just to say they did. A clear-voiced announcer who sounds uncannily like Judi Dench tells you precisely when the train will arrive, please mind the gap, but a notice board reminds you this is still India: “Traveling on the roof will involve a fine of 50 rupees [$1.16] or imprisonment for one month.”
The Metro’s hub is a sleek, skylit terminal in Connaught Place. “CP” was the nexus of privilege and glamour in the twilight of the Raj. Opened in 1931, it consisted of three concentric rings of white stucco buildings framed by classical colonnades and shopping arcades. Intended to rival Chandni Chowk, two miles north, as the city’s main market, Connaught Place was also the Raj’s deliberate rebuke—a model of European order and sophistication. Here were the glitziest cinemas, the major newspaper offices, the most fashionable tailors and jewelers, and the finest restaurants: Gaylord, Embassy, La Bohème, Wenger’s, Volga, and Kwality (which spawned the national ice cream brand).
After a time the arcades grew dirty and derelict. The well-to-do stopped coming for their saris and suits. Parking became a nightmare. By the end of the 20th century, CP was seen as tacky and down-market, and appeared bound for the same fate as New York’s Times Square.
However, like Times Square in the 1990’s, Connaught Place is in the throes of renewal. Some of the façades are actually white again. The once-vacant dirt lot in the center ring is now a grassy park bedecked with flower beds, directly above the Metro station. Trendy restaurants are returning to the arcades, joined by state-of-the-art cinemas and new coffee-bar chains like Barista. Meanwhile, a few stalwarts soldier on, including A. Godin & Co., the famous sitar shop; and the beloved, 74-year-old Nirula’s—where, as Dilliwallas of a certain age remember, schoolchildren who scored high marks on exams were rewarded with free sundaes.
In the early nineties Nirula’s was one of the few places where you could enjoy a cold drink and functional air-conditioning. Delhi, for all its chaotic energy, felt decidedly provincial back then. “We used to say that the only culture in Delhi was agriculture,” jokes Rohit Saran, editor of Business Today magazine. It was hard to find a beer outside of a hotel bar. There were certainly no massive malls, no multiplexes, and no McDonald’s—just a lone Wimpy in Connaught Place (where, to cater to Hindus, the hamburgers were made with lamb). Neither Coke nor Pepsi had pierced India’s insular economy; the market belonged to local brands like Campa Cola and the charmingly misspelled Thums Up. Indian television ran few Western shows besides Baywatch, which didn’t count—back then it aired in every nation on earth. At that time the lines were clear: there was the rest of the world, and there was India. You left the other behind the moment you passed customs.
Let’s just say that is no longer the case. You can now buy pretty much anything you want. Coke and Pepsi are ubiquitous; Thums Up and Campa Cola have become obscure regional brands. Heroes is a top-rated TV show. Delhi has been globalized, monetized, maximalized: a city in the thrall of cigar bars and Harvey Wallbangers, chimichangas and PlayStation 3’s. Where once was the drone of a harmonium is now the pulse of Finnish lounge music. And where once was a pot of biryani is now just as often a plate of risotto.
“Ten years ago Indians didn’t eat out frequently,” says Ketaki Narain, a longtime resident. “The best restaurants were necessarily in hotels, catering to tourists and businesspeople. Now, as Indians grow wealthier and go out more, we’re seeing more freestanding places.” Delhi has hundreds of restaurants serving regional Indian cuisines, from Maharashtrian to Bengali. But younger Delhiites—some of whom dine out every night—prefer non-Indian food. Tabula Rasa, one of the new breed of restaurant-nightclubs, serves dishes from every continent: African chicken stew, Australian lamb, Brazilian pork chops, Spanish ham, Chinese pot stickers.
At the enormously popular Olive Beach, a whitewashed bar straight out of Mykonos, you can order top-shelf caipiroskas till 1 a.m., while Louis Armstrong warbles “Summertime” and Bollywood starlets preen around the fire pit. The original branch in Mumbai is a film-crowd favorite.
Hold on. Is Delhi becoming… Mumbai?
Like London and Paris, Delhi and Mumbai are forever twinned as rivals and antipodes. The capital is the society bastion and type-A player—competing in every arena from handbags to weddings. As a friend says, “Delhi likes to show.” No wonder all the top Indian fashion houses are based here. Mumbai, on the other hand, is aggressively unpretentious: a city of frayed jeans and T-shirts, not the saris or salwar kameez you find in Delhi. (Rarely do you see denim here.)
“Delhiites have an obsession with the trappings of wealth, status, and very conspicuous consumption,” says Payal Kohli, editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure’s South Asian edition. Ashok Malik agrees: “There’s a grasping, mercenary quality to Delhi that comes from its being a frontier town. Historically it was a gateway for invaders; people here were more aggressive as a result. That’s still the case today.”
Two events defined, or redefined, Delhi’s character. The first, in 1947, was Partition. As India cleaved in two, untold numbers of Muslims left the capital for the new state of Pakistan, and thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fled Punjab for Delhi, changing its demographic mix overnight. The capital would remain for decades a predominantly Punjabi city.
The second event, though not nearly so traumatic, had broader effects. “Delhi’s transformation really began in 1991, with the opening of India’s economy,” Saran explains. Liberalization unleashed a flood of foreign investment. Hyundai, Dell, Sony, GE, and others set up vast office parks and factories around the capital. Deregulation of the television industry inspired a wave of media start-ups. (India now has more than 60 news channels, the majority of them with headquarters in Delhi.) Between 1991 and 2001, as new arrivals poured in from every Indian state—entrepreneurs, educated workers, illiterate farmers seeking construction jobs—Greater Delhi’s population grew by 5 million. Rohit lives across the river in East Delhi, in a middle-class neighborhood that’s 90 percent “outsiders” (his term): Tamils, Gujaratis, Keralites. India’s capital is now a more accurate representation of the entire nation. Of course, the whole idea of what India is has changed a great deal of late, and it is in Delhi that the future is being written.
Drive 10 miles southwest of the Qutb Minar (the world’s tallest brick minaret, erected in 1193), past the brand-new Cyber City complex, and you’ll arrive at a dust-choked, 32-acre construction site—the future Mall of India, in the burgeoning suburb of Gurgaon. Designed by the team behind the Mall of America near Minneapolis, and scheduled for completion next year, it will be one of the largest shopping centers on the planet.
In just over a decade, globalization—and the huge burst in the service economy—has utterly transformed Delhi’s perimeter, which readers of Thomas Friedman will recognize as Outsourcing Central. Although fewer than a quarter of all Indians work in the service sector (compared with 60 percent in agriculture), it accounts for more than half of India’s GDP. British Airways’ worldwide call center is in Noida, another futuristic suburb across the Yamuna River, where creepy signs point the way to Biotech City and Sector 12-b.
Gurgaon, which 15 years ago was a rural farming community (gaon means village), is now a full-fledged satellite metropolis. Apartment towers named Magnolia and Belaire tout “24-hour electricity and water” as a selling point, along with the requisite swimming pool, health club, and lily pond. Many residents are fleeing central Delhi for enclaves such as this, with their toll expressways and 10,000-car parking lots. If the story of Delhi in the 20th century was one of ceaseless migration to the city, the narrative of the last decade is that of the long exodus to the outskirts—for those who can afford it.
This wasn’t at all what Edwin Lutyens had in mind.
The London-born architect who created New Delhi remains, nearly a century on, a controversial figure. As Sengupta notes, Lutyens had little affection for Indian architecture, deeming it “cumbersome, poorly coordinated, and tiresome to the Western mind.” When the British decided in 1911 to relocate the colonial capital, Shahjahanabad was considered too unhygienic and dangerous a location. So Lutyens set about conjuring a new city from the slopes of Raisina Hill, well removed from what he termed the “nuisances” of Old Delhi.
Influenced by the fashionable garden-suburb movement, Lutyens envisioned a wide-open plan of sweeping lawns, radial boulevards, and grand monuments—a deliberate echo of Washington and Paris, with India Gate as a sandstone Arc de Triomphe. The manner was decidedly Occidental, but despite his misgivings, Lutyens did incorporate Indian elements—domes, loggias, chhatris (canopied pavilions), and jaalis (latticed screens)—into his classically inspired edifices.
New Delhi was finally inaugurated in 1931; the British enjoyed it for only 16 more years. Yet Lutyens’s plan endures to this day, a symbol of the glory and vanity of the Raj. The writer William Dalrymple calls New Delhi “one of the most elegant urban landscapes anywhere in the world.” High-ranking Indian ministers still reside in Lutyens’s gracious bungalows, with their broad lots and chalk-white façades. New Delhi was conceived strictly as a government town, like Canberra or Brasília, and civilians were kept safely outside; the original plan accommodated just 70,000 people. But with New Delhi’s population now swollen to five times that, the bungalows take up increasingly precious space. In spite of their landmark status, Lutyens’s buildings are succumbing to wear and tear and encroaching development; a significant minority is lobbying to raze them altogether. The World Monuments Fund lists “Lutyens’s Bungalow Zone” among the world’s most endangered cultural sites.
Lutyens’s gently curving parkways, unique in India, made getting around the capital far easier. The problem was that they encouraged everyone and his nephew to buy a car. Delhi now has three times as many automobiles as Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai combined. (In Mumbai even CEO’s ride commuter trains to work. But Delhi is a city of committed drivers, no matter how much traffic they must endure.)
One has to admire the sheer nerve of Lutyens and all the would-be Delhi-tamers who followed. Imposing order on any city is a herculean task; trying to do so here is downright quixotic. Delhi is, as Sengupta writes, “a cityscape that refuses to listen to reason.” Along any street in the older quarters, look up, and you’ll see hundreds of exposed and frayed electrical wires, lashed together with barely a thread. Sparks occasionally shower the sidewalk. No one pays any heed. This ramshackle, improvised power grid is typical of Delhi’s infrastructural anarchy. Sixty percent of the city’s residents live in dwellings that are unauthorized or patently unsafe, and not just in slums and shantytowns—the dilapidation extends even to middle-class neighborhoods. Lately officials have been cracking down on illegal construction, but it’s a futile effort, like those old smash-the-weasel arcade games.
In parts of Delhi it seems as if the mold of a metropolis has been abruptly slapped down over a rural village. Here and there the old world pops up from the rubble to carry on its business: a farmer steers his cart across six lanes of traffic, a barefoot girl draws a bucket from a well beside a water park, an ox chews the lawn at a five-star hotel. Yes, the country dwellers came to the city, but the city also came to them, and in most cases swallowed them whole.
It’s this perpetual collision of what is and what came before that makes Delhi so compelling and, it must be said, so challenging for travelers. Delhi isn’t “for everyone,” though I have a feeling we’d all be better off if everyone on earth could see it, in all its ragged glory.
And, what, meanwhile, has become of Old Delhi, the most ragged and glorious place of all? Thankfully, it endures—as beguiling as ever, with much of its peculiar charm intact. This is one area where a Western visitor can still be totally ignored; Shahjahanabad’s denizens are too consumed with their work and errands to notice a stranger in their midst.
The walled city built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century has been touted as the Rome of Asia. Some of India’s most dazzling sites are found here: the imposing Red Fort; the Jama Mosque, India’s largest; and of course, the thrill-a-second boulevard of Chandni Chowk, still teetering on the brink of chaos. At the street’s western end, in the warren of the Khari Baoli spice market, thousands of burlap sacks overflow with gorgeously colored powders. At the eastern end, the Kinari Bazaar spills over with glittering garlands, tinsel, and other wedding accessories. In an alleyway too narrow to walk down two-by-two, determined teenagers eke out a cricket game—the ball ricocheting off stone walls, laughter echoing down the lane. A baby goat dodges a man on a moped with a hundred badminton rackets lashed to the backseat. A girl rushes by carrying 20 chickens in a two-foot-square cage. Look out for that mango cart! That burbling cauldron of oil! Curd vendors, hair-tonic vendors, car-door salesmen, and ammunition dealers occupy the minuscule storefronts that line these mazelike streets. Flimsy bicycle rickshaws groan under the weight of 10 uniformed schoolchildren, on their way home for lunch, balanced precariously atop their book bags. Particularly after a rain, the air carries an acrid, metallic tang not unlike the smell of a Teflon pan left on the stove all day. It mingles with joss smoke and propane fumes and the sugary stench of fried jalebi batter.
But just when your senses are thoroughly overloaded, you spin around a corner and onto a tranquil lane of 19th-century mansions whose upper levels are framed by wrought-iron balconies and ornate cornices—a reminder of an era when Shahjahanabad was a pinnacle of Muslim society, a paragon of courtly refinement and grace. This is where Mirza Ghalib and the other great Urdu poets found their inspiration (Ghalib’s house still stands here; it’s now a museum). In the exodus of Partition, however, as much of the city’s Muslim population left for Pakistan, Urdu poetry virtually disappeared.
British administrators never had much love for Shahjahanabad; its twisting, congested lanes were impossible to police. (The Indian Mutiny of 1857 made this explicit.) But even after Independence, a 1962 report by the Indian government took a similar attitude toward the old city—labeling Shahjahanabad “socially and culturally stagnant” and too filthy for the common good. The “problem” of Old Delhi has been around almost as long as Old Delhi itself.
What a conundrum that the very places travelers are drawn to—for being so eye-opening and transporting, so Other—are often what the local powers-that-be desperately want to fix or shake clean like a dirty old rug. Beyond the ramparts of Shahjahanabad, the new Delhi rushes ever-forward to meet the world and reflect it back upon itself. Yet in these dusty overlooked corners, and along the footpaths of Lodi Garden, and among the faithful at Nizamuddin’s Shrine—despite chimichangas and PlayStations and all the vain efforts to change it—India is still India, at least for now. •
When To Go
October through March are the best months to visit northern India.
Continental Airlines flies nonstop to Indira Gandhi International Airport from Newark, New Jersey.
The Raj-era art collection, clubby bar, and neatly clipped lawns are reason enough to visit this 1936 Art Deco icon. Janpath, New Delhi; 91-11/2334-1234; theimperialindia.com; doubles from $532.
The city’s top business hotel sits in a quiet corner of town, overlooking a nearby golf course and Humayun’s Tomb. Dr. Zakir Hussain Marg, New Delhi; 91-11/2436-3030; oberoidelhi.com; doubles from $426.
Great Value The future to the Imperial’s past: a pulsing, 220-room hive of hypermod design (by Terence Conran & Partners, among others) whose flashy restaurant, bar, and dance floor draw Delhi’s chic young things. Rooms are a bit small but stylish in a cool, Ian Schrager–y way. 15 Parliament St., New Delhi; 91-11/2374-3000; theparkhotels.com; doubles from $377.
Beloved by Delhi society as a see-and-be-seen spot, the landmark Taj Mahal (a.k.a. the Taj Mansingh) is all about bling, with its glittering Mughal motifs, opulent fountains, and zardozi domes. 1 Mansingh Rd., New Delhi; 91-11/2302-6162; tajhotels.com; doubles from $512.
Delhi’s best South Indian food (dakshin means “south”) is served thali-style, with no silverware. Use spongy appam bread to scoop up crisp spicy prawns or pan-fried mutton with coconut and ginger. Sheraton New Delhi, District Centre, Saket, New Delhi; 91-11/4266-1122; lunch for two $47.
Hotel Diplomat, 9 Sardar Patel Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi; 91-11/4604-0404; drinks for two $21.
A gimmick that works: almost every dish on the contemporary European menu is cold-smoked to often brilliant effect—don’t miss the smoked- tomato–and-lemongrass soup. VIPPS Centre, Masjid Moth, Greater Kailash II, New Delhi; 91-11/4143-5530; dinner for two $117.
This smart upstart at the Oberoi has dazzling interiors and an extensive, mostly surefire menu: from sushi and yakitori to wood-fired pizza and a knockout butter chicken. Dr. Zakir Hussain Marg, New Delhi; 91-11/2436-3030; dinner for two $85.
Square One Mall, C2 Saket, New Delhi; 91-11/2956-2666; drinks for two $29.
In Delhi, the best shops tend to be clustered together in outdoor marketplaces or glitzy malls. Here are a few not to miss.
Greater Kailash I
South of LSR College, in South Delhi. Expats and Indians alike have been known to furnish entire houses and buy a whole year’s wardrobe at Fab India (14 N-Block Market; 91-11/2923-2183), a superstore of cotton clothing, wool kilims, duvet covers, lamps, furniture—you name it—spread across several showrooms.
Near the Taj Mahal Hotel. Ogaan (Shop 17; 91-11/4175-7302) began life as a boutique and is now a media group as well, publishing the Indian editions of Elle and Elle Decor. Highlights include opulently embroidered dresses from Gaurav Gupta, silk chiffon tops from Gauri & Nainika, and Pashma cashmere stoles and sweaters. Ranna Gill (Shop 53A; 91-11/4175-7770) has Western-friendly Indian-style women’s fashion. Silverline (Shop 7A; 91-11/2464-3017), a 30-year-old, family-run wholesale jewelry firm, offers outstanding quality and value. Silver is the focus, along with precious and semiprecious stones like amethyst, tourmaline, and rose quartz. Good Earth (Shop 9; 91-11/2464-7175; goodearthindia.com) has chic, often whimsically designed furniture, kitchenware, and china, as well as delicious-smelling bath products. Anokhi (Shop 32; 91-11/2462-8253; anokhi.com), one of India’s most celebrated brands, offers Rajasthani block-printed linens and clothing in tasteful florals and paisleys at ridiculously low prices: soft pure-cotton tunics are just $13; cushion covers, a mere $3.
Race Course Rd., Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. Visit the most elegant “mall” in town for ethereal scarves by designer Neeru Kumar (Shop 19; 91-11/2687-0339) and for brightly colored shawls made of kashgar, a fine sheer cashmere gauze, at Noor Jehan (Shop 23; 91-11/2611-2971).
3 Lodi Colony Market; 91-11/2463-8878; manisharora.ws.
1 Regal Building, Parliament St.; 91-11/2336-2809.