The modern area of NEW DELHI, with its wide tree lined avenues and solid colonial architecture, has been the seat of central government since 1931. At its hub, the royal mall, Rajpath, runs from the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan, in the west, to the India Gate war memorial in the east. Its wide, grassy margins are a popular meeting place for families, picnickers and courting couples. At the north edge of the new capital lies the thriving business centre, Connaught Place, where neon advertisements for restaurants, bars and banks adorn the flat roofs and colonnaded verandas of the white buildings that circle its central park. Meanwhile, Lodi Road, skirting the new city’s southern edge, is flanked by amazing Mughal tombs and embellished with a park full of ancient monuments.
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Vijay Chowk, immediately in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan, leads into the wide, straight Rajpath, flanked with gardens and fountains that are floodlit at night, and the scene of annual Republic Day celebrations (Jan 26). Rajpath runs east to India Gate. Designed by Lutyens in 1921, the high arch, reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, commemorates ninety thousand Indian soldiers killed fighting for the British in World War I, and bears the names of more than three thousand British and Indian soldiers who died on the Northwest frontier and in the Afghan War of 1919. The extra memorial beneath the arch honours the lives lost in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.
North of Connaught Place and directly west of New Delhi railway station, Paharganj, centred around Main Bazaar, provides the first experience of the Subcontinent for many budget travellers. Packed with cheap hotels, restaurants, cafés and dhabas, and with a busy fruit and vegetable market halfway along, it’s also a paradise for shoestring shoppers seeking psychedelic clothing, joss sticks, bags and oils of patchouli or sandalwood.
There is also a less-visible underside to life in Paharganj, in the shape of the street children. Most are runaways who’ve left difficult homes, often hundreds of kilometres away, and the majority sleep on the streets and inhale solvents to numb their pain. The Salaam Baalak Trust, a local NGO working to help them, organizes walking tours of Paharganj conducted by former street children. Proceeds go towards providing shelter, education and healthcare for the children themselves.
The National Museum, just south of Rajpath, provides a good overview of Indian culture and history. The foreigners’ entry fee includes a free audio tour, but you need to leave a passport, driving licence, credit card or a cash deposit, and the exhibits the tour covers are rather random. At a trot, you can see the museum in a couple of hours, but to get the best out of your visit you should set aside at least half a day.
The most important exhibits are on the ground floor, kicking off in room 4 with the Harappan civilization. The Gandhara sculptures in room 6 betray a very obvious Greco-Roman influence. Room 9 has some very fine bronzes, most especially those of the Chola period (from south India between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries), and a fifteenth-century statue of Devi from Vijanaraya in south India, by the left-hand wall. Among the late medieval sculptures in room 10 is a fearsome, vampire-like, late Chola dvarapala (a guardian figure built to flank the doorway to a shrine), also from south India, and a couple of performing musicians from Mysore. Room 12 is devoted to the Mughals, and in particular their miniature paintings. Look out also for two paintings depicting a subject you wouldn’t expect – the nativity of Jesus. It’s worth popping upstairs to the textiles, and the musical instruments collection on the second floor is outstanding. The Central Asian antiquities collection includes a large number of paintings, documents, ceramics and textiles from Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) and the Silk Route, dating from between the third and twelfth centuries. On your way out, take a look at the massive twelve-tiered temple chariot from Tamil Nadu, an extremely impressive piece of woodwork in a glass shelter just by the southern entrance gate.
Humayun’s TombClose to the medieval Muslim centre of Nizamuddin, Humayun’s Tomb stands at the crossroads of the Lodi and Mathura roads. Late afternoon is the best time to photograph it. Delhi’s first Mughal mausoleum, it was constructed to house the remains of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, and was built under the watchful eye of Haji Begum, his senior widow and mother of Akbar, who camped here for the duration, and is now buried alongside her husband. The grounds were later used to inter several prominent Mughals, and served as a refuge for the last emperor, Bahadur Shah II, before his capture by the British in 1857.
The tomb’s sombre, Persian-style elegance marks this as one of Delhi’s finest historic sites. Constructed of red sandstone, inlaid with black and white marble, on a commanding podium looking towards the Yamuna River, it stands in the centre of the formal charbagh, or quartered garden. The octagonal structure is crowned with a double dome that soars to a height of 38m. Though it was the very first Mughal garden tomb – to be followed by Akbar’s at Sikandra and, of course, the Taj Mahal at Agra, for which it can be seen as a prototype – Humayun’s mausoleum has antecedents in Delhi in the form of Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq’s tomb at Tughluqabad, and that of Sikandar Lodi in Lodi Gardens. From the second of those it adopted its octagonal shape and the high central arch that was to be such a typical feature of Mughal architecture – you’ll see it at the Taj, and in Delhi’s Jama Masjid, for example.
Within the grounds southeast of the main mausoleum, another impressive square mausoleum, with a double dome and two graves bearing Koranic inscriptions, is that of Humayun’s barber, a man considered to be important because he was trusted with holding a razor to the emperor’s throat.
Just across the busy Mathura Road from Humayun’s Tomb, and now engulfed by a busy road network and plush suburbs, the self-contained mahalla (village) of Nizamuddin, with its lack of traffic, ancient mosques and tombs and slow pace of life, is so different from the surrounding city that to enter it is like passing through a time warp. At its heart, surrounded by a tangle of narrow alleyways lined with shops and market stalls, lies one of Sufism’s greatest shrines, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, which draws a constant stream of devotees from far and wide.
Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
The marble dargah is the tomb of Sheikh Nizam-ud-Din Aulia (1236–1325), fourth saint of the Chishtiya Sufi order founded by Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti of Ajmer, and was built the year the sheikh died, but has been through several renovations, and the present mausoleum dates from 1562. Lattice screens and arches in the inner sanctum surround the actual tomb (closed to women), which is surrounded by a marble rail and a canopy of mother-of-pearl. Sheikh Nizam-ud-Din’s disciple, the poet and chronicler Amir Khusrau – considered to be the first Urdu poet and the founder of khyal, the most common form of north Indian classical music – lies in a contrasting red-sandstone tomb in front of his master’s mausoleum.
Religious song and music play an important role among the Chishtiyas, as among several Sufi orders, and qawwals (bards) gather to sing in the evenings (especially on Thursdays and feast days). Comprising a chorus led by solo singing accompanied by clapping and usually a harmonium combined with a dholak (double-membraned barrel drum) and tabla (paired hand-drums), the hypnotic rhythm of their qawwali music is designed to lull its audience into a state of mast (spiritual intoxication), which is believed to bring the devotee closer to God.
Jamat Khana Masjid
The oldest building in the area, the red-sandstone mosque of Jamat Khana Masjid, looms over the main dargah on its western side. It was commissioned in 1325 by Khizr Khan, the son of the Khalji sultan Ala-ud-Din. Enclosed by marble lattice screens next to Amir Khusrau’s mausoleum, the tomb of Princess Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, is topped by a hollow filled with grass in compliance with her wish to have nothing but grass covering her grave. Just east of the dargah compound, the elegant 64-pillared white marble Chausath Khamba was built as a mausoleum for the family of a Mughal politician who had been governor of Gujarat, and the building, with its low, wide form and elegant marble screens, bears the unmistakeable evidence of Gujarati influence. The compound containing the Chausath is usually locked, but the caretaker should be on hand somewhere nearby to open it up should you want to take a closer look.
The two-storeyed tomb of Safdarjang was the very last of India’s great Mughal garden tombs. Built between 1753 and 1774, it dates from the period after Nadir Shah’s sacking of the city, by which time the empire was reduced to a fraction of its former size and most of the capital’s grander buildings lay in ruins. Safdarjang was the Mughal nawab (governor) of Avadh who briefly became vizier before being overthrown for his Shi’ite beliefs. Emblematic of the decadence and degeneracy that characterized the twilight of the Mughal era, the mausoleum sports an elongated, tapered dome and absurdly ornate interior filled with swirling plasterwork. In City of Djinns, William Dalrymple aptly describes its quirky design as “blowzy Mughal rococo” typifying an age “not so much decaying into impoverished anonymity as one whoring and drinking itself into extinction”. Facing east, it’s at its most photogenic in the morning.