Delhi, and India seem fairly divisive among friends including those who have traveled far and wide. I love it but others do not.
On my previous trip to India I had barely scratched the surface of Delhi using it only as a transit point to get the train to Jaipur. This time I was determined to see a little more of the capital of one of the most populous countries on earth and try, if possible, to get under its skin a little.
After an overnight flight from London we were collected from the airport by a driver, organised by our hotel, this made arrival easy and it felt a safe introduction to the city. You can also use the prepaid taxi booth in the arrivals hall which I did on my last trip but only after I’d been in the country a couple of weeks. There was a long queue for the e-visa but once that was cleared we were in and our adventures could begin.
Even moving from A to B in Delhi counts as an adventure in my book. The roads are incredibly congested and seem to offer a smorgasbord of dangers to all who may cross their path; on foot, on bicycle, on a cart, in a tuk tuk, in a minivan, in a taxi, in a bus, in a truck – you get the picture – there are an awful lot of ‘vehicles’ all jostling for space. This means you should prepare yourself for at least an hours drive towards central Delhi. The metro has reached the airport and would definitely be a quicker option as long as you don’t have too much luggage and your hotel is close to the metro at the other end.
Arrival at our hotel ‘La Sagrita’ came with an incredibly warm welcome from the owner and his team. Set in the residential enclave of Sunder Nagar the boutique guesthouse/hotel was cool, peaceful and well equipped. Perfect for a couple of days adjusting to the heat, the dust, the pollution and the noise of Delhi.
A quick rest revived us enough to head out and attend to some holiday business, namely getting access to cash, eating and shopping! We walked from the hotel to Khan Market, a cross between a shopping centre and a market which I knew housed some of my favourite Indian shops. It is a no hassle environment and has a wide range of homeware, clothing, stationary and electronics shops. It doesn’t have much in the way of souvenirs for that I would suggest the area around Connaught Place. I made some early purchases from Anokhi, FabIndia and bought some lovely notecards from a stationary shop. We had a very civilised meal at one of the many restaurants and called it a night.
Now we wanted to see some sights; we fancied walking again rather than dealing with Delhi traffic so we picked those closest to us; Purana Qila (a Mughal style fortress) and the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum. Purana Qila wasn’t quite up to the forts of Rajisthan but did provide a fascinating insight into Indian society in that all the other visitors seemed to be young Indian couples on dates! Look too closely into the remoter areas of the fort and there was definitely some heavy petting going on. The Crafts museum was the better attraction of the two as it showcased various handicrafts and architectural designs from around India. Both sites provided a lovely calm environment to wander in. The Crafts Museum had a well stocked, reasonably priced shop and a lovely restaurant where we had the best tikka paneer and chutney I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
From here we headed for the metro and took a train south to visit the Lotus Temple. With an architect on the trip we couldn’t miss Delhi’s most famous modern temple; it didn’t disappoint. Built in 1986 it is a Baha’I temple. I had never heard of the Baha’I movement but the adjacent visitor centre had an excellent display about its work around the world. The temple is free to visit, you have to remove your shoes and will be welcomed to its silent interior in small groups. After some quiet contemplation of its beautiful curves and lines you can head back out into the madness of South Delhi. We had come this far south with two specific purposes; the temple visit and also to visit some of Delhi’s best fabric shops. The area opposite Nehru Place looks a bit ‘concrete jungle’ but it houses many large fabric shops. Visiting them is probably best with a specific project in mind as the fabrics are fairly (rather than cheaply) priced and the variety is mind boggling. Fabrics for our ongoing campervan conversion purchased we headed back to the hotel where a surprise was waiting for us!
On arrival at the hotel on the first day we had noticed a big fair being set up in the gardens opposite; we had enquired of the manager what was going on and he explained it was a mela or party to celebrate Diwali in Sunder Nagar. Thoughtfully he had left us some free passes to attend and so this became our dinner time and evening entertainment. The mela was a real community affair, local food stalls had set up along with local retailers selling gifts. There was a funfair for the kids and a stage which acted as a showcase for local dance troupes. After eating plenty of delicious Indian food, we browsed the stalls and watched some quite amazing dancing. To paint a picture for British readers I can only liken the experience to a summer fete meets Christmas fair but a lot more colourful and with the smell of spice in the air.
All partied out the next day was a slightly more relaxed affair. We wanted to hit up a big Delhi site and chose Humayan’s Tomb, a short tuk tuk hop from the hotel. The entrance fee’s for India’s sites for foreigners can begin to make a dent in your budget if you are travelling on a shoestring but they all need protecting and generally in the West we have the disposable income to support that while locals may not. Here the money definitely felt well spent as the tomb complex features beautiful architecture and a real feeling of old Mughal times.
From here we took another tuk tuk across town to the India Habitat Centre, a modern complex dedicated to culture and the arts. It had a small photography exhibition on which was free and the building itself was worth popping in on. From here more shopping called so we had lunch and browsed the boutiques of 5th Avenue, discovering a few new India favourites to add to the list (Soma and The Shop) . Lunch was a rainbow food bowl in an organic café – something that in certain areas of Delhi is becoming the norm.
Another quick tuk tuk hop across town took us to our final activity of the day; a market visit and cooking lesson with Achal Bhalla from Tastesutra. I had wanted to do a cooking class in Delhi and found Anchal through TripAdvisor. The whole experience was brilliant. We ate streetfood in the market at Lajpat Nagar amongst the Delhites doing their last minute Diwali shopping and then Anchal drove us down to her home where the cookery lesson would take place. This was such a lovely touch, she also has a studio in Lajpat Nagar but only uses this for bigger groups. We cooked a whole range of curries; all made in without the excess butter, cream and ghee that you may find in restaurant and supermarket versions.
Finally, we felt ready to explore Delhi’s Old City. Bustling is a true understatement of this area. We took the metro up to Lal Qila to try and visit the Red Fort. I say try because 1) it was closed on Mondays 2) it is enormous and the 90 minutes we had available would not have done it justice. Instead after battling our way across the road we headed off down Chandi Chowk and then headed into the Old City proper to find the Jama Masjid. Straight down bicycle repair road, left onto coconut avenue and then follow the increasing number of religious paraphernalia shops would be appropriate directions. We entered the mosque and duly paid our camera fee. It was spectacular. Busy, but with a sense of calm in the warm evening breeze. We watched kites flying over the rooftops of the old town and the sun go down behind the towers of the main building. We also posed for many family photos.
Our final old city experience was the walk back to our hotel. Following increasingly narrow alleys due south (compass bearings are pretty helpful) we were caught up in the lively cacophony of early evening errand running and shopping. The pictures below convey just some of the experience!
I love India and I love Delhi. As a city it needs a strategy to avoid being overwhelming but it really is one version of India not to be missed. The rest of our trip was spent in the Himalayas which you can read about here.