The Rajpath

Last summer I read William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. Part travelogue, part love affair with his favorite city, Mr. Dalrymple discusses his six-year sojourn in the Indian capital, Delhi. The city is said to be the eight iteration of a long line of past cities to inhabit this particular spot on the shifting bank of the River Yamuna. Depending on whom you ask, however, the crumbling ruins date back to twenty former cities. “Though it had been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt,” Mr. Dalrymple writes, as “the djinns loved Delhi so much they could never bear to see it empty or deserted.”

I landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport at 17:30 local time following the now-discontinued American Airlines flight 292 nonstop from Chicago. Greatly expanded and modernized for the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the airport hummed with voices, people from across the subcontinent descending upon their once and future capital.

To say Delhi is frenetic would be a mischaracterization. The Indian capital teems with bicycles, rickshaws, beggars, the devout of several religions, the horribly maimed, gaunt children swatting flies from their brows, people selling the distinctive South Asian flatbread naan, wealthy women dressed in silk and lace and gold, dogs, a few chickens, and sweaty men hawking maps and car parts and sweet Indian deserts made of butter, sugar, yogurt, and apricots. And cows. The horns of a thousand cars and of even more tuk-tuks fill the wet and heavy air, smelling of petrol. There is a certain smell in developing countries, the mixture of humidity and gasoline, combusted by auto-rickshaws and chicken buses and cars-that-were-only-supposed-to-hold-five-but-now-seat-eleven. You can smell it in Cairo, in Guatemala City, and definitely in Delhi.

Very few cities can claim as much extant history as Delhi. Tombs of Mughal emperors leave a lasting imprint upon the architecture of the city. Humayun’s Tomb challenges even the Taj Mahal for the most intricate and beautiful mausoleum. Great forts of ages past – the crumbling Purana Qila (Old Fort) and Delhi’s most visited site, the Red Fort – speak of a bygone time when camels and men swept eastward across the Indus Valley, bringing with them the strange things called coffee and Islam. The nation’s national symbol, the India Gate which marks the death of 90,000 Indians who fought for the British Raj in World War I, and the Birla Bhivan, the spot on which Mahatma Gandhi was killed and uttered his final words – “oh Raam” (“oh God”) – mark India’s sometimes turbulent capitulations into modernity. Mr. Dalrymple describes this unusual layering effect of Delhi’s distant past and recent past as “a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic.”

Delhi was not my favorite city upon arrival. It was dirty and hectic to the point of exhaustion. Lately, I have given thought to Mr. Dalrymple’s ardent fervor for this place in north India. Under a copper sky, one can see the illuminations of past visions of Delhi dating back to the famed Indraprastha of the great Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata.  Even in British-designed New Delhi, crumbling mosques and ruins built a thousand years prior obscure a view of the golf course. Delhi is chaotically resplendent, beautiful and bizarre in its own unkempt and unrestrained way. Just as the Hindus believe a body is reincarnated until it becomes perfect, Delhi too has been razed and rebuilt, cities upon cities upon cities, seemingly fated to one day reach its crowning state. It is on its way.

The now discontinued 15-hour nonstop flight from Chicago to Delhi

Almost there?

Landing in the Indian capital

Oh hey, Mohandas

My hostel was right near the Red Fort, Delhi’s most visited site

The exterior

The PM addresses the nation every year on Indian Independence Day (August 15) from the Red Fort


Foreigners pay 250 Rs. (4.5 USD) while Indians pay 10 Rs. (about .18 USD)

Color and human profusion outside the Lahore Gate, the main entrance to the Red Fort

The path into the fort is now lined with (junk) shops

Further in

As the ruins crumbled, at least the lawns were well kept

The fountains are turned off in overwhelming heat of monsoon season

Nice gardens

Taking a rest


This type of Mughal architecture – arched entrances around the sides of a building, inlaid ivory, and understated minarets – came to define classical Delhi

The map of the complex

Making my way out

Outside the Red Fort, trying to find a ride across town

Auto-rickshaws abound in Delhi

Curious onlookers

The driver stopped for water…

…and petrol. Here is a shot of the entire tuk-tuk as we wait for it to be gassed

Made it to Humayun’s Tomb, my favorite site in Delhi

Mughal rulers entombed within Delhi have such elaborate mausolea


Sandstone and ivory

Humayun’s actual tomb; he died in 1556

Me at Humayun’s Tomb

The Lotus Temple is a recently constructed Bahá’í Temple. I have been to the Bahá’í HQ in Haifa, Israel.

Another auto-rickshaw…

Safdarjung’s Tomb is another site of an entombed Mughal ruler, though his mausoleum is far less visited than more famous ones

Small yet stately

Incredible detail

Still, the premises could use some upkeep

The Purana Qila, or the Old Fort, was the inner citadel of one of Delhi’s past incarnations

Grand entrance

Huge, ruined halls

Mosques centuries old that are barely visited today

Ah yes, OK

Again, crumbling ruins set amongst pleasing gardens

The Qutub Minar is a UNESCO site that dates back 800-2000 years ago

The base of the mighty Qutub Minar

It really is gigantic, especially considering the tower was built over 800 years ago

Farsi prayers inscribed on the middle reaches of the Qutub Minar tower

Me at the India Gate, built by the British to mark the 90,000 Indians who died fighting in World War I


Vendors abounded near the base of the India Gate

The Rajpath is the road connecting the India Gate with the President’s house, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the Indian Parliament


The legislature of the world’s largest democracy

A sidestreet market in New Delhi


Connaught Place is a massive roundabout marking the center of British-designed New Delhi

The Delhi Metro is new and comfortable and is absolutely packed with everyone but foreigners

Leaving the Metro, making my way back to the hostel


In my final few hours before embarking on a train to Varanasi in the east, I visited the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque on the subcontinent

Men must wear pants and women must be covered up ever more; shoes are not permitted, either

A dark sky frames the mosque


The devout and the homeless share shade

Me and children

Walking around the Jama Masjid

My hostel was on this street


In a cycle-rickshaw to the train station

I don’t think I’ve ever been as hot as I was at the Delhi Central Train Station

14 hours to Varanasi…

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