THIS WEEKEND
Delhi

On first impressions, DELHI, with its jam-packed streets, tower blocks and temples, forts, mosques and colonial mansions, can be both disorienting and fascinating. It certainly takes a while to find your feet, as you attempt to weave a path through buses, trucks, nippy modern cars, mopeds, rickshaws, cows, bullock carts, hand-pulled trolleys and even the occasional elephant being ridden along with the flow of traffic. You'll find unlikely juxtapositions are everywhere you look: suit-and-tie businessmen rub shoulders with traditionally dressed orthodox Hindus and Muslims; groups of young Levis-clad Delhi-ites pile into burger joints, bars and discos; turbaned snake charmers tease hypnotizing moans out of curved pipes; pundits pontificate while sadhus smoke their chillums; and ragged beggars clutching dusty children plead for a little help towards a meal.
Delhi's daunting scale becomes more manageable as you start to appreciate that, geographicall as well as historically, it consists of several distinct cities, an amalgamation and expansion of the "Seven Cities" of tradition (seven fortress settlements built at different times here by different rulers). The hub of the metropolis is New Delhi, an orderly plan of wide roads lined with sturdy colonial buildings, which was established soon after the imperial capital of British India moved here from Calcutta in 1911. Many of the city's hotels are here, concentrated amid the colonnaded facades of Connaught Place. A couple of kilometres south, the broad, green eastwest swathe of Raj Path links India Gate and the Indian parliamentary buildings, once considered to be the architectural jewels in the Imperial crown. Old Delhi, Shah Jahan's seventeenth-century capital of Shahjahanabad, lies 3km northwest of Connaught Place. This is Delhi at its most quintessentially Indian, where the traditional lifestyle of its predominantly Muslim population has changed little over two hundred years. A visit to the mighty Lal Qila or Red Fort and Jami Masjid, India's largest mosque, is a must, and should be combined with a stroll through the area's ancient bazaars, a warren of clustered houses, buzzing with commotion, and infused with aromatic smells drifting from open-fronted restaurants, spice shops and temples.
Firozabad, another of Delhi's ex-capitals, is centred around Delhi Gate, while the other five former capitals, further south, are today all but deserted, standing as impressive reminders of long-vanished dynasties. Among them you'll find the towering free-standing twelfth-century column erected by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the Qutb Minar it marks the first capital, Qila Rai Pithora, and signalled the development of the city that visitors see today. Walls and dilapidated pillars survive from the fourteenth-century city of Tughluqabad, and Purana Qila, the sixth capital. Interspersed between these historic ruins are the grand tombs of Delhi's former rulers, plus a plethora of Hindu temples, and domed mosques, introduced by the Muslims, which dramatically changed the conventional mould of Indian cities. Perhaps the finest expressions of the Moghuls' architectural genius were the grand charbagh (quartered garden) mausoleums of Humayun's Tomb, and, most famously, the Taj Mahal in Agra. The major monument of the great Moghul period is Lal Qila (the Red Fort) in Old Delhi.
As befits a national capital, Delhi, with its many museums and art treasures, cultural performances and crafts, provides a showcase of the country's diverse heritage. Shops trade in goods from every corner of India, and with a little legwork you can find anything from Tibetan carpets, antiques and jewellery to modern art and designer clothes. After years of economic isolation caused by India's draconian post-Independence trading laws, Delhi is enjoying a tremendous economic boom. With plenty of spending money and a new sense of confidence among the wealthier classes, the city now boasts a great nightlife scene, with designer bars, chic cafs and good clubs. Its auditoria host a wide range of national music and dance events, drawing on the richness of India's great classical traditions. Smart new cinemas show innumerable Bollywood and Hollywood movies, while theatres hold performances in both Hindi and English.

To see:

Humayuns tomb
An architectural forerunner of the Taj Mahal, Humayun's Tomb was built in the mid 16th century by Mughal Emperor Humayun's widow, Haji Begam, who was also buried there. Its arched entrances and bulbous dome are surrounded by lovely formal gardens, making it one of the most beautiful Mughal buildings in the city. (Plan to spend at least an hour there.)

Qutb minar and its monuments
Built in the early 13th century a few kilometres south of Delhi, the red sandstone tower of Qutb Minar is 72.5 m high, tapering from 2.75 m in diameter at its peak to 14.32 m at its base, and alternating angular and rounded flutings. The surrounding archaeological area contains funerary buildings, notably the magnificent Alai-Darwaza Gate, the masterpiece of Indo-Muslim art (built in 1311), and two mosques, including the Quwwatu'l-Islam, the oldest in northern India, built of materials reused from some 20 Brahman temples.


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