Seeking the Soul of Delhi

Carl Duncan is a freelance writer living on Salt Spring Island, Canada

To my left a vendor sells roasted peanuts, and to my right another toasts cobs of corn as I drift down Chandni Chowk, a river of pedestrians, pedal rickshaws and porters that runs from the Red Fort through the heart of Old Delhi. At the flower market I snap a photo of a man stringing garlands. He smiles and hands me a marigold. Farther downstream, the sacks balanced on the heads of barefoot porters turn from golden marigolds to bright red chilies. I’ve reached the spice market, the largest in Asia.

Following my nose, I enter a narrow alley, hazy with spice dust. Merchants here in tiny cubicles wear bandannas to protect their nose and mouth. I turn to go, inadvertently blocking the way. “Hello please! Hello please!” a porter says as he politely brushes past, dusting me with turmeric.

The morning is gone by the time I emerge from the tide of rickshaws, turbans and saris and mount the stairs to the nearby Jama Masjid. The huge mosque is peaceful. I slip past sleepers curled up on carpets and people on their knees praying in the emptiness. The polished marble feels cool on my bare feet. At the top of a towering minaret, I look out to where I’ve just been. The hazy, congested cityscape below gives little hint of the gentle, soulful beauty it hides. “Only in India,” I think, shaking my head. “And only in Delhi.”


There have been seven Delhis in the past 1,000 years. New Delhi, built by the British, is the last. Old Delhi, originally a walled city erected in 1639 by Shah Jahan, the fifth in a 300-year line of Mughal emperors, is the sixth city. All previous Delhis are nothing but ruins, but Shahjahanabad, as Old Delhi is still called, is very much alive.

Delhi, Old and New, population 12 million, is the capital of India, a new nation (just 52 years old) of a billion people in an ancient land. As the prime hub of international air and domestic rail routes, Delhi is often the first experience an India traveler has. To first-time visitors, the city can appear daunting, even uninviting.

Don’t be put off by its appearance or its pollution. Delhi is a friendly city and can be a treasure trove for sightseers and shoppers alike. Find a good hotel, take metered taxis and dive in.

As many people do, my traveling partner, Maria, and I arrived in Delhi on an international flight, stayed a couple of days adjusting to the time zone, bought our train tickets at the New Delhi train station and departed for other destinations. We knew we’d be back.

In mid-October we return from a month in the mountains, where the passes already have their first snow and highland guest houses are starting to close for the season. Delhi, down in the plains, only 180 miles south of the Himalayan foothills, remains hot and murky. After weeks of bungalows and bucket baths, and wanting to escape the heat and haze, we bypass our usual economy hotel in the city and head for the Oberoi, Delhi’s first five-star hotel. The Oberoi is an opulent oasis whose rooms overlook the green expanse of the Delhi golf course on one side and the historic tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun on the other. Doubles start at $250.

As the uniformed doorman bows us into the marbled lobby, Maria whispers, “Never mind the expenses. Let’s just enjoy ourselves.” She moonlights as an importer and has a plan. “Delhi has great shopping,” she says. “I figure we can recoup our losses with just our checked luggage.” (We arrived with only carry-on bags, which meant we could check through four bags on the way home.)


We’ve visited Delhi half a dozen times, the last time three years ago. Wanting to refresh my memory, I book an all-day city tour (285 rupees, or about $6.80) the first day. Maria, who has an enviable memory of places, goes shopping.

My small, air-conditioned tour bus pulls up in front of the Oberoi at 8 a.m. the next day. Neeraj Sharma, sharp, personable and well dressed, is our tour guide. We are joined by a couple from Vancouver, another couple from Sweden and a woman from Japan.

As we pull out, Sharma explains that we will be seeing the sights of New Delhi first, with its sprawling web of broad boulevards and Belle Epoque buildings. Then, after lunch, we’ll get a taste of Old Delhi. Once a separate city sitting north of its predecessors, it is now a sharply defined, densely packed suburb of New Delhi stretching from the Red Fort about a mile west to the railroad tracks.

The British invented New Delhi in their own likeness, erecting it on Indian soil as the capital of the jewel of their empire (replacing their previous capital, Calcutta, in 1911).

Midmorning we park near India Gate, the 138-foot-high British version of a Mughal arch (built in 1931). The monument pays tribute to the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War I. From under the arch you look down a wide boulevard bordered by green that extends to the president’s mansion (home of the British viceroy before India’s independence in 1947).

A tour of New Delhi also includes the city’s oldest ruins. At Humayun’s Tomb (1565) we see the first substantial example of Mughal architecture. When the Mongolian warrior Tamerlane plundered Delhi in 1398, he left behind him political chaos that continued until 1526. That was the year that Babar, King of Kabul, established the Mughal dynasty. Humayun was Babar’s son.


Humayun’s Tomb inspired another Mughal mausoleum, Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal (1654). It lacks only the surrounding minarets. Each uses double domes, one inside the other, to preserve interior and exterior proportions. The carved casket positioned in the middle of the rotunda is a symbolic tomb only. The body lies, Mughal style, casketless and 6 feet underground.

Our last site of the morning predates Humayun by about 350 years. The 240-foot tower known as Qutb Minar celebrates a 12th century Muslim victory over the Rajputs. The ruins surrounding the tower are from the Quwwatul Islam Masjid (1192 to 1198). It utilized rows of richly carved columns taken from older Hindu temples.

“Old Delhi is very different from New Delhi,” Sharma tells us as we start back up after lunch at the Maurya Sheraton, a buffet for $10 that’s typical of offerings at other upscale tourist hotels. “Shahjahanabad has no city plans, is more crowded, and nobody follows the government traffic rules. They have only one rule here: Good brakes, good horn and good luck!”

We stop first at the Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque, which was completed in 1658; we then cross over to the Red Fort, Shah Jahan’s impressive fortified palace.

Our bus parks near Delhi Gate, the fort entrance reserved for the Indian army (which actually occupies two-thirds of the interior), and we stroll around the moated red sandstone ramparts to Lahore Gate, the main entrance for the fort’s 10,000 daily visitors.

Passing under the arched gateways and through a covered bazaar (Chatta Chowk), I stop for a quick soda and rejoin the tour at the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience). Carved sandstone archways here are so symmetrical that they look like a mirror trick.


The Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), the most beautifully ornamented building in the fort (the white marble is decorated with colorful inlaid flowers made of semiprecious stones), was where the emperor met with courtiers and state guests. Here stood the legendary solid gold Peacock Throne until 1739, when King Nadir Shah, having captured Delhi, took it back with him to Persia. Nearby we enter the exquisite Moti Masjid, or Pearl Mosque, of white and gray-veined marble with three domes. This was the emperor’s private mosque. Sharma tells us that water pressure for the many fountains and marble baths in the Red Fort was supplied by a huge elevated tank kept full by an army of water bearers.

Heading back south to the New Delhi hotels, Sharma asks our group which we liked better, Old Delhi or New. He is not surprised to hear New Delhi, which is more orderly and understandable, less chaotic and confusing.

But I prefer Old Delhi, full of color and life and character, Indian through and through and proud of it. Sharma quietly agrees. “For us, New Delhi has no soul. Old Delhi is much more real and alive.”

Now that I am reacquainted with Delhi, we can devote ourselves full-time to one of the great attractions of the city: shopping. Midweek we take a 10-minute taxi ride to Shankar Market, just off Connaught Place. We arrive at the market, an unassuming pod of little shops offering a wealth of traditional Indian cottons and silks. Maria finds the prices here are 30% to 50% lower than at the Government Emporium where she shopped previously (though more fabrics here are machine-made). At less than $4, beautifully block-printed material used to make traditional Indian scarves is a great deal. She buys half a duffel bag full, promising to return for more.

Crossing the street, we come to Connaught Place, a collection of shops, restaurants, offices and parks divided into pie slices by a series of avenues fanning off into New Delhi. We spend another afternoon at the Crafts Museum near the Purana Quila, Humayun’s Old Fort, which has impressive galleries of tribal and rural crafts as well as a reference section of 15,000 pieces, accessible to scholars and artisans. But it’s the section outside, under the shade of banyans and frangipanis, that I like best. Here faithfully re-created village houses transport you to rural India. And in the shade of the trees, dozens of weavers, representing styles throughout India, work at their looms. The traditional pieces are for sale.

We watch as ikat thread, dyed in simple bands, is woven on a loom. Another weaver is making cotton saris (about $17), and yet another is weaving saris of silk and gold thread (starting at about $48). Prices are almost wholesale, and Maria buys some lacework typical of the state of Kerala (about $3.50 for a handkerchief).


On our last day, Maria has her duffel bags full and accompanies me back for some simple sightseeing to Shahjahanabad. Halfway up Chandni Chowk, however, she is drawn to a shop with rows of crystal bottles in the window. The sign over the entrance simply reads: “Gulabsingh Johrimal, Manufacturers & Exporters. Estd. 1816.”

“Attars,” Krishan Mohan Singh says. He’s sitting behind a wooden counter pouring a viscous liquid into a tiny vial. He places a dab of ruh chameli on our wrists. The rich jasmine scent smells just like a tropical summer evening. He explains that attars are pure essential oils steam-distilled from herbs or spices and especially flowers. Singh chooses a crystal decanter and lets a drop fall on Maria’s forearm. She rubs the oil in, and her expression goes blissful. “Ruh gulab,” he says. “Attar of roses!” It is an attar that Noojahan, favorite wife of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, apparently first discovered. She had the oily film floating on her rose-water bath distilled. It turned out to be the costliest attar of all. Half a teaspoonful here, where it is made, costs about $190.

As Maria checks the exchange rate on her calculator, a turbaned man in crisp whites and pointy slippers enters. With a soft word he passes a stack of 500-rupee notes across the counter and is handed a sealed aluminum flask of attar in return. He wraps this in a veil and melts back into the crowd, carrying his treasure, like a secret, in a city that has a million of them.


From Jewelry and Silks to Carpets, Delhi Has It All Here is a sampling of shopping in Delhi:


Connaught Place: Probably the city’s best known marketplace. Wander around to find all sorts of shops (most closed Sundays).

Central Cottage Industries Emporium in Jawahar Vyapar Bhawan, Janpath (across Janpath from the Imperial Hotel): Silks, jewelry, pottery, carpets, paintings, carvings, exotic furniture. Air conditioned, accepts credit cards. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.


State Emporia: On Baba Kharak Singh Marg, handicrafts and hand looms. Prices fixed and reasonable. 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Dilli Haat: Craftspersons from different parts of India set up booths for two weeks at a time. Authentic crafts without a middle man’s commission and Delhi’s best place to sample foods from every region. 11 a.m to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Hauz Khaz Market: Urban village mixing the old and the new. About 100 studios and outlets offering carpets, old silver, furniture, high fashion. Near Qtab Minar, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Crafts Museum: Pragati Maidan, Bhairon Road (opposite the Purana Qila off Mathura Road). Buy from the weavers and in the museum shop. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Shankar Market (off Connaught Circus near blocks L and M): Dozens of fabric shops and tailors with unbeatable prices. M.A. Tailors, Stall No. 6, Block 4: expertly sewed Maria a pair of pants and a dress for about $5 (and in only two days).


Chandni Chowk: Have your taxi wait for you in the Red Fort parking lot, then walk across to Chandni Chowk, the main market street.


* Khari Baoli for spices.

* Katra Neel for silk, cotton, muslins, brocades, etc.

* Dariba Kalan for gold and silver.

The attar and perfume shop: Gulab Singh Johrimal, 467 Chandni Chowk.

Don’t miss the Sunday Bazaar below the eastern ramparts of the Red Fort. Delhi’s own flea market.


Delving Into Delhi

Getting there: Connecting service from L.A. to New Delhi is available on British Airways, Air France, Swissair, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa. Round-trip fares begin at $1,810.

Where to stay: Delhi has a range of accommodations from five-star hotels to sub-budget tourist lodges and guest houses. Among them:

* The Oberoi, just south of India Gate, telephone 011-91- 11-436-3030, fax 011-91-11- 436-4758 (and 430-4084). Doubles start at about $250.

* The Imperial, centrally located near Connaught Place, tel. 011-91-11-334-1234, fax 011-91-11-334-2255 (and 336- 8141). Doubles start at $170.

* Hotel Indraprastha, formerly the Ashok Yatri Niwas, just off Janpath, 19 Ashok Road, New Delhi 110 001, tel. 011-91-11-334-4511, fax 011- 91-11-336-8215. Doubles from $16. Cash only.


Where to eat: Most upper-end hotels in Delhi offer extensive Western-style buffets, about $10 for breakfast or lunch and $15 for dinner. Our favorite within walking distance of Connaught Place is the Hotel Inter-Continental (previously the Hilton and before that the Holiday Inn).

For more information: Government of India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles, CA 90010; tel. (213) 380-8855, fax (213) 380- 6111, Internet https://www.tour