New Delhi

Times Staff Writer

With broad tree-lined avenues, the city is a place of impressive garden gates and palatial mansions, consulates and foreign embassies. Garden rooftops in the private sector blossom with vines, plants and tropical flowers. There appears to be no sense of order in the teeming streets: Traffic patterns are only vaguely defined and pedestrian patterns--as people surge one way or another--don't seem to exist at all.

I doubt that any other city in the world has so many first-class hotel rooms with so few visitors making use of them.

While official figures seem impossible to come by, unofficial guesses put the vacancy rate at from 50% to as high as 80% in the top hotels of this teeming city of 7 million people.

When New Delhi hosted the ninth Asian Games in 1982, a kind of regional Olympics involving 3,500 athletes from 35 nations, half a dozen new hotels were built, along with three major stadiums, road improvements and housing tracts for the participants. This in spite of India's cultural indifference to sports.

Nearly 2,300 new hotel rooms were built for the games, giving New Delhi a total of 6,400 rooms in four- and five-star categories. On top of that, these new and magnificent structures are fully equipped with conference rooms, convention halls, several restaurants each, and other attractions for business travelers.

Everything but the business.

Nor are the tourists beating a path to the door of New Delhi, either, in spite of India's interest in attracting them.

The Indian Consulate in San Francisco, which processes visa applications from 18 Western states of the United States, reports that it issued 11,400 visas in 1984, down from 19,000 the year before. India's political turmoil has certainly been a factor. (Still, the consulate reports that the number of visa applications so far in 1985 is running about 20% above last winter, so there is hope of a turnabout.)

Our midnight arrival was in the steamy, sweltering airport, crowded with people. Mobs surged and swayed toward the square luggage carrousel; luggage cascaded from it in growing piles at each 90-degree angle. A guide met us, paid a waif to grab our bags, and muscled a way through the crowd for us, toward a taxi that would take us into the city.

While ours was an ancient cab, most of the cars in New Delhi, new and old, had the same look. That's because they are still being manufactured of heavy metal, using 15-year-old molds of Ambassador cars. There are advantages: Every cabbie can fix anything that goes wrong, because for 15 years or longer there haven't been any changes in design, and parts are widely available.

We stayed at the government-owned Ashok Hotel, a newly renovated deluxe hotel with a grand lobby of marble and gilt, large air-conditioned rooms and attentive service from every quarter. The Ashok is surrounded by acres of well-tended lawns and gardens. The imposing structure has been painted white, obliterating the beauty of its natural pink sandstone.

A morning tour of the hotel took in several finely appointed suites and a number of convention facilities, ready and waiting.

A similar cavernous quietude greeted us at other five-star hotels, although the newer ones did seem to have a bit more activity going on. The Hyatt Regency (550 rooms), Hotel Kanishka (318 rooms), Centaur Hotel at the airport (376 rooms), Holiday Inn (500 rooms) and Hotel Taj Palace (440 rooms) are among the new facilities.

The Taj Palace was particularly impressive. One of its restaurants is a replica of the Orient Express; diners board the mock luxury train to enjoy a formal and fine French dinner.

Favorites with Americans are the Oberoi Inter-Continental (350 rooms) and Hotel Maurya Sheraton (300-plus rooms). The five-star hotels cost $70 to $100 double.

India's own "Tourist Information" booklet has this information for visitors: "India has three major seasons: winter, summer and the monsoon."

The best time to visit is winter--November through March--usually pleasant with sunny days, evenings cool in December and January. Summer (April to June) in New Delhi is very hot; even the locals head north to the mountains if they can. The rains come in late June and continue through September.

I mentioned one day to my guide that I felt people staring at me constantly, and when I smiled at them, they continued to just stare.

"Perhaps they were smiling in their hearts," he said.

Another guide--this one the fellow who met us at the airport--refused to worry about our temporarily lost luggage. His reckoning: "No hurry, no worry, no curry, and you be OK. Don't worry about anything. It only makes you unhappy."

Even during times of political unrest, American visitors have generally reported that they felt safe during their visits to India.

Local Tours

The easiest way to get around in New Delhi is to head for the Indian Tourist Office in centrally located Connaught Place and arrange for a tour. Hotels can also arrange local tours. These will take in the Red Fort, built in the 1630s by the Mogul Emperor Shajahan; India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid, and the Raj Ghat, the marble cenotaph marking the site of Gandhi's cremation, surrounded by gentle hills.

Shopping is good in the stores around Connaught Place, in the government-controlled Central Cottage Industries Emporium and in many of the little shops in the hotels. An underground shopping mall near Janpath and Connaught Circle is worth a quick look.

I could discern no sense of order in the chaos of the city. Traffic patterns were only vaguely defined, and pedestrian patterns did not exist. People just surged one way or another, the most determined pushing through to their destinations.

The numbers of people who spent the night sleeping in any given street of Old Delhi must have easily exceeded the total number in all of the five-star hotels in New Delhi put together.

Wherever we stopped to take photographs, crowds gathered to watch us. Generally, the person we had chosen as our subject was proud to pose.

Two Sides

New Delhi with its broad, tree-lined avenues is a place of impressive garden gates and palatial mansions, consulates and foreign embassies. Old Delhi is a labyrinth of slums and hovels, rickety shops and clapboard food stalls. Each slum seems to have its specialty: the manufacture of motorcycle parts or the handcrafting of doors, for example.

Babies loll on their mothers' shoulders by day and sleep on rags on the sidewalk at night. People lie in doorways and squat under roofs. I don't know where they go when the monsoons hit.

Where there is dirt, everything grows. Garden rooftops in the private sector blossom with vines and plants and tropical flowers. Little gray and yellow birds come to feed, and the trees are alive with their songs when evening comes.

On our last night in New Delhi we heard before we saw a strange little parade coming down the dark street near Embassy Row. Drums, horns, voices in a singsong chant. It was a wedding procession. The bridegroom was seated on a white horse, his face covered with strings of beads. His costumed friends led him along and danced all around him, those in the rear playing horns and drums. They had obviously been partying for some time and, close to midnight, were on their way to the home of the bride.

Delhi: Pretty estates behind wrought-iron fences. Tropical heat. Fine hotels. Dark, crowded alleys. Beggars. Little mobs of underfed children. Blocks of ice melting under burlap. Rice cakes sizzling on a sidewalk grill. Peanuts. Glaring sun. Jewel in the side of a girl's nose. Tinny cassettes playing Hindu ragas. Flames of metalworkers, cooking grills, incense, herb cigarettes. Staring eyes. Turbaned Sikhs. Women in saris. Chicken curry and peppery white rice. Wine as stout as ale. A sense of timelessness.

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