Giving Delhi Its Due

Granted my earlier visits had been limited to meetings with modular furniture makers and interior contractors, but charm was still the last thing I expected to find in Delhi. An insidious allure that gets under your skin even as you wilt in the heat and the pollution smothers your lungs.

“Do tourists really get to know a city or its people in one short visit?” asked Meenakshi, my sweet blogger friend, dubiously, when I told her how contrary the grace and hospitality we encountered was to the brash, aggressive Punjabi stereotype we had expected to find.

Perhaps not. We were, initially at least, insulated in the best part of town. The wide boulevards of Lutyens’ Delhi, the magnificent architecture of Rashtrapathi Bhavan (presidential palace), the impressive ceremony of the changing of the guard, and not least, our gorgeous, historic hotel: The Imperial.

A cpolumn of mounted president's guards at the parade in front of Rashtrapathi Bhavan
Changing of the guard at Rashtrapathi Bhavan
Workers dangling on rope harnesses from the rampart of the Red Fort.
Workers at the Red Fort
Interior- The Imperial Hotel
Interior- The Imperial Hotel

And yes, the stereotypes did make more than fleeting appearances as we progressed to the grittier parts. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had underestimated this much derided city.

Populated almost entirely by ‘outsiders’ and having suffered and survived every significant political and cultural upheaval of the past millennium, Delhi is a microcosm of the historic memory of our nation. And just as diverse and complex. Embodying a legacy of carnage and rebirth whose profound influence surely transcends time. 

The brashness and aggression seems understandable. We in the South, and our ancestors before us, have led placid lives in comparison. Hence the brains and none of the brawn! (Might as well lay claim to some of the brains if I am going to be branded ‘Madrasi’ anyway, right?)

Exploring the layers of history, some of the seven cities that are reminders of those marauding invaders who decided to call ‘Dilli’ home, one can’t help ponder the meaning of citizenship. What gives one the right to call a place home? How far back do you have to go to call yourself a resident? How much of collective history has to be shared to prove kinship? And how much retrospective hate do you carry forward?

Most people tend to forget that ‘India’ as a concept did not exist up until the eighteenth century. ‘Hindustan’ – a Persian word rooted in the Sanskrit Sindhu – referred to the people on the banks of the river Indus. Not the religion. The religion, in case you didn’t know, borrowed the Persian/Arabic term much after the 13th century Islamic invasions, to differentiate native faiths from those brought in by the new comers! Common usage began many centuries later.

Ruined tomb of Balban
Tomb of Balban, the last of the Mamluk Sultans, in Mehrauli.
An Artist seated on a stone window sill in Hauz Khas
Artist in Hauz Khas
The twin marble clad sarcophagi of Maulanas Jamali and Kamali in Mehrauli
Sarcophagi in the tomb of Maulana Jamali Kamali, Mehrauli

It was the Mauryas who first cobbled up a confederation of states between 300 – 185 BC that, under Asoka, extended across all of the north and quite a way south of the Vindhyas. Emperor Asoka eventually converted to Buddhism and was instrumental in spreading the Dhamma across South and South East Asia.

Between 320 – 550 AD, the Guptas – the first non Brahmin, Vaishya dynasty – ushered in a golden age with an empire diminished in territory but grander in culture and the patronage of art, architecture and science.

Their decline reduced the region once again into several lesser fiefdoms until the 12th century when Muhammad Ghori arrived from West Asia to set up the Delhi Sultanate, followed by the Mughals from Central Asia. Each dynasty built a new capital city on the shifting banks of the Yamuna (near present day Delhi). And each massacred entire populations in turn.

The English, avenging the Sepoy mutiny, added to the body count with the decimation of the Muslim population of Old Delhi in 1857. It took another half a century, and a glittering show of might, for the capital of India, by then the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British empire, to permanently shift (from Calcutta) to spanking ‘New Delhi’.

Just sixteen years after the inauguration of New Delhi, the British Raj was history. But Delhi’s thirst for blood wasn’t appeased yet. The decision to split the country on the basis of religion brought on a fratricide of such magnitude – including a cross border migration of nearly 15 million people – that it filled the skeletal remains of Delhi’s past dynasties with refugee camps. The partition and its aftermath doubled the city’s population overnight and fundamentally altered its character and demographics. Every single Delhiite I know has at least one relative that was a refugee.

It is impossible to ignore the weight of such a convoluted past while ‘doing’ Delhi.

Whether you are a history buff or culture vulture, there is enough here to keep you occupied for more than a week. We spent several memorable days traipsing across storied parks, magnificent tombs and mosques and impossibly crowded (and dirty) medieval streets and bazaars with Chavi Sharma of Delhi Heritage Walks, and Ramit Mitra of Delhi by Foot.

Rain washed out our plans for a Qawwali evening at the Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah. But we still managed to wade through to a couple of Ramit’s favourite eateries, for kebabs, ‘ishtew’ and khameeri roti at five in the evening!

View of Jama Masjid with two wheelers and pull carts in the foreground of a crowded street in Chawri Bazaar
Jama Masjid from the chaos of Chawri Bazaar
Crowds of people in the forecourt of Jama Masjid at sunset
"Ishtew" a meat stew being ladled into a bowl at N Iqbal & Sons in Nizamuddin Basti
“Ishtew” at N Iqbal & Sons, Nizamuddin Basti

But most memorable of all was my meeting with blogger friend (and supremely talented poet) Meenakshi, and a Sunday morning at Hauz Khas with a delightful couple – younger than our daughter, and as passionate about travel as we are – who we met on our boat on the Nile! It is uncanny how we relate to total strangers sometimes. 

Many years ago, on a trip to Southern Spain, we connected with another, much older, American couple and stayed in touch until they both passed away. I was moved to tears when their daughter wrote to tell us we were now family. Our relationship with our younger friends promises to be just as long, and even more special.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

106 thoughts on “Giving Delhi Its Due

  1. Thank you for sharing your discovery of Delhi with your fascinating historical account. India is so vast and diverse, I suspect you could scratch the surface of any part of the country and find memorable history likely to be centred around wealth and power.
    I do want to be in India again soon…

    1. Thank you Tony. You realy should consider moving back here. Everytime I saw a cow on the road – and I saw very many in the smaller towns – I thought of you 😀

    1. Thank you Miya. Delhi can be daunting, but it is worth the effort to get to know her better. I promise to hop over to check out your blog soon 🙂

  2. Madhu this is a brilliant post, so much history shared, thank you. How can one get under the skin of a city like Dehli?
    I understand what you mean about relating to total strangers, I’ve had so many unforgettable encounters that I will always treasure.

  3. What an amazing trip, Madhu, and I can just imagine you in the heat and pollution, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. I had a quick peek at your hotel, and it looks magnificent. 🙂 How lovely to be able to meet up with a fellow blogger.

    1. The hotel – a piece of history in its own right – was a splurge, since our flights were all on miles, and we just about managed the off season rates. We thought it was worth every rupee spent 🙂

  4. Very interesting and informative post, Madhu. I would love to go to India, but fear it is unlikely to happen given my health – heat and MS do not go together, to say nothing of a compromised immune system. But at least I get to see it through your brilliant photographs. I just have to imagine the sounds and smells!

  5. Delhi sounds like a place that has it all, and many more sides than just the grittier parts vs. tourist attractions. I always think that what the tourist sees is equally valid. It is the face that a city puts on for the world. Even if it is a superficial glimpse of that culture, it’s the one they put forth first, and that often makes the first impression.

    1. You are right Juliann. But Delhi seems least interested in impressing anyone. First impressions are almost always bad, and the reason why most people don’t stay beyond a night. That we liked it despite all that is the surprise! 🙂 Pity, because it has enormous potential to become a great tourist destination.

  6. This is a wonderful post, Madhu; your historical narrative is superb, as well as the photos. You’ve introduced a lot of history to me here, thanks!

  7. No a tourist only gets to know what a tour leader wants them to see. You have to live in India a long time to pick up on the most interesting things about Bharat Mata. I’ve visited Delhi many times and each time a new facet of life and people appears as a fresh insight to sample and take on board. India is not a single experience as presented on TV ads, it is a multiple complex experience that is best explored without a tour guide delving at will.

    1. You are so right Ian. And that is the reason we eschewed tour leaders a long time ago. Yet, there is only so much one can experience in one visit, unless you get to live there of course. I used to be a Delhi hater. I have always maintained that stereotypes should not be the basis of one’s judgement of a city or its people, but I guess I forgot my own rules! I already have plans for a return visit this winter 🙂

  8. One of the best things about traveling is meeting and connecting with new people. I was thinking how your elementary school history lessons must have been so much more interesting than ours in America. 😉

    1. Strangely, I hated history in school Ruth! There seemed to be an endless list of dynasties and dates to mug up! It all came alive here in Delhi though. I was thinking how fortunate Delhi students are, to be able to visit these ruins and experience all that history first hand 🙂

  9. Another fine post. Especially for us stay at home travellers who dream of making it to India, but who in the meantime must rely on television travelogues and blogs like this one. Your photos and commentary are always intersting.

  10. Dear Madhu, many thanks for this warm mention here. Indeed, to meet you was like meeting an old old friend – the conversation flowed, streaming from one to the next level – and the warm afterglow tells me we have met before, perhaps on a bend before memory.

    You have done justice to Delhi too. Delhi is the city of djinns – changing face and form every season. Come again, in the winter, and Delhi will be the maiden kings fell in love with.

    Take care! Hope you are done with your babysitting duty.

    1. Ah, you say it way better than I do Meenakshi! It certainly felt like we had known each other all our lives! My plans for a return in Jan stand. Look forward to exploring more of Delhi’s secrets with you.
      Yes just handed the children back to their parents. Will be returning home on Wednesday. The house is going to feel awfully quiet and lifeless, but I am looking forward to getting back to my boring routine 🙂

  11. Colourful photos, with your vivid and succinct commentary make Delhi seem very alluring, although I did notice ‘dirty’ once … so many old inner city areas are just that … what an extraordinary history Madhu, thanks for telling us, now I just need the long version! Delhi sounds like a hotspot in the pulse of life!

    1. Perhaps, I should have stressed the ‘dirty’ more Christine, for dirty it is. But i was trying to urge people to look beyond. Not easy I know. I didn’t succeed myself in Varanasi 🙂 The history is beyond fascinating. Wish I had the time to read all the fascinating accounts I have unearthed.

  12. ” An insidious allure”- your descriptive lured me in! I will savor your blog as intended just not tonight. Thanks Madhu!

  13. Madhu, all of this sounds strangely familiar – the cycles of destruction and rebirth over such long periods of history, the pervasive smog and wilting heat, even the perceived differences between north and south. We laugh at the lack of refinement (in art, architecture and cuisine) up north while northerners view us as being short and weak. It seems to me that India and China have far more in common than people realise!

    I had no idea about the seven cities either. Thank you for giving us a taste of Delhi, from the monumental, wide-open spaces of Jama Masjid and Lutyens’ creation to its bazaars bursting with life, colour and boundless energy. And what a joy to meet up with local bloggers and old friends; they add that extra (and often missing!) dimension to any visit. Not to mention the lifelong relationships that are sometimes forged… 🙂

    1. Ha you caught that little aside 🙂 I think it is a universal tendency James. But I agree that India and China have more in common than is generally known.
      And yes catching up with friends was indeed a bonus and enhanced our trip manifold.

    1. Thank you Eric. Hope I didn’t bore you too much 😉 The history was meant mainly for my Western readers.

  14. The account of your visit makes me yearn to visit for myself, Madhu. Thanks for providing those links to the tours you took, and for the history too. I had never heard of the seven cities. I love that you met up with Meenakshi, a place becomes that much more special when you get to experience it through the eyes of someone who calls it home. xxx Ailsa

    1. Hope you visit someday Ailsa. Delhi, like the rest of India is not easy to like. But I certainly think it deserves more than a day. The people who run those walks do a great job. Appreciate your taking the time to comment 🙂

  15. Dear Madhu. thanks for opening our eyes to the complexity of India’s history and culture. Your account makes the rest of us curious to visit now and to keep an open mind about India.

    1. An open mind is the key to visiting any place in India Mary Ann. I neglected to do that too, on my earlier visits 🙂 Thank you for dropping by.

  16. I recently read the book ‘City of Djinns’. I’d been meaning to read it for a long time, and then finally bought the book a few months back. I read about a Persian quote that roughly means that whoever builds a new city in Delhi is destined to lose it! And looking through the 3000 year old history of Delhi, well, that quote is so true! So glad you enjoyed ‘our’ City! 🙂

    1. Quite a prophetic quote that!! I read ‘City of Djinns’ on the flight in and loved it, although some parts seemed a bit stretched. Like the allusion to Shajahan’s incestuous relationship with Jahan Ara! Not all historians agree on that one, but he makes it appear like fact. ‘Twilight in Delhi’, that Darlymple recommends in the book was equally fascinating. Yeah, most surprised to have liked ‘your’ city 🙂

    1. Thank you David. If you like history you will enjoy Delhi. Otherwise you will find it hard to see beyond the heat and the dust 🙂

  17. So much to learn! It took me awhile to go through your links. I had no idea about the
    Maurya Empire and the conquering done by Chandragupta followed by the peace and Buddhism of Ashoka. So much interesting history to learn. Thanks for todays lesson Madhu!

  18. What a heartfelt post, Madhu. The history of Delhi is so complex and understanding it takes more than a brief encounter, as unfortunately we will be experiencing. Our trip will include Agra, Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi, Mumbai, Chennai, Pondicherry, Madurai, Trichy, and the Kerala region (March 2014) or thereabouts. Still working out details. We will celebrate our 50th anniversary in this incredible, diverse county. My first time and I am so looking forward to it. Your posts always open my eyes to the world. 🙂

    1. Wow, that sounds exhausting even to me Lynne! I hope you aren’t planning to do all of that in one month. Do shoot me a mail when you finalise your dates, particularly for Chennai. Would love to meet you and Ron 🙂

      1. This is a daunting schedule to say the least and will probably morph into something less exhausting. I’ll keep you posted. We’d love to see you. 🙂

    1. Oh no, a fairytale it isn’t Bente!! It is as muggy and crowded and dirty as any third world capital can get.Or worse. I was just trying to highlight its good points considering all the bad press it has got of late 🙂

  19. Your gallery from Delhi, stunning and so colorful, just as I have imaging it to be. One spend a night at a hotel in Bombay .. all I have seen and I didn’t really like what I saw .. all the beggars and so much people everywhere. This was in the late 70’s.
    Have friends that have to India and they have all come back .. with fantastic photos, films .. and stories – not at all as I remember it.
    You have some history to fall back on too. My favorites is the 2 street life photos. Colorful and vibrant – I can hear the traffic and noise all the way up here to Sweden.

    1. Thank you Viveka.
      Yes, the noise level in old Delhi is unbelieveable! The photos seem more romantic than the reality on those streets. Bombay is far worse. Both cities are not for the faint hearted. Heck India is not for the faint hearted. But there is good if you care to look for it. And that can’t happen in one rushed visit as I learnt myself 🙂

      1. Okay, I can understand that … it has to grow on you – because I was nearly knocked over by all the people, noise and the beggars was the worst, absolute everywhere, specially the women with their small child in their arms. I didn’t feel comfortable at all .. felt guilty in away. I think that was really bothered me most.

  20. This is a part of the world I so want to visit, although my husband has been very reluctant. I am passing along your post for him to read. I love the history you provided Madhu, along with the stunning photos. It is very interesting to me as well, the kinship I feel towards many bloggers from around the world, those I have yet to meet and a few I have been fortunate enough to cross paths with.

    1. I understand Terri’s reluctance LuAnn. India isn’t an easy destination even for us. Hope you do make it here sometime though 🙂

  21. Stunning shots as usual Madhu and thanks for the lovely tour hon. It’s always great to see it through your eyes and makes me wish I was there. Thanks for sharing hon. 😀 *hugs*

  22. Looks and sounds like an amazing trip. to visit someplace with so much history, culture, people, and everything would be an experience and just scratching the surface of what it has to offer would be fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yes, an assault on the senses like all of India, but worth making the effort to understand. Thank you for reading TBM 🙂

  23. A fascinating post, Madhu! A little history, philosophy, some remarkable shots (the workers in the Red Fort, my favourite) and a sentimental ending. Couldn’t ask for much more. 🙂
    The Brits have major problems, too, in deciding where immigrant ends and national starts. Such problems this world of ours has. Thank goodness for the simplicity of blogging friendships.

  24. Your travels and the drescriptions of them always leave me in awe. You always five us many things we normally wouldn’t think of inquiring about. The photo of the 3 little girls brought a smile to my face. They are precious.
    You have many memories from this trip and it looks like there will be many more to come. Super enjoyable post …. gracias.

  25. A fascinating insight into Delhi, thank you Madhu! Funny to think that some people can live somewhere forever and never get to know different parts of their own city!

    1. I might be guilty of the same Patti! in fact the walks we took in Delhi, has inspired me to register with local heritage groups. But life takes precedence at home somehow 😦

  26. This was a fascinating read. I had no idea of any of it. YOu gave me more interest, & appreciation, for India. Thanks Kathryn 🙂

    1. Makes all the effort of blogging feel worthwhile to receive a comment like that Noeleen! Thank you for reading 🙂

  27. Sorry I called you Kathryn! I was just on VastlyCurious’ blog & clicked on you because of your interesting comment…. Sorry.

    1. I hated it myself, before I returned as a tourist Nandini. But it does have a lot of redeeming factors that are worth checking out.

  28. Your travel reflections are just incredible. Your eloquence is praiseworthy. As much as I want to nod at it, I don’t think you can know an area in a short visit. Even 6 months here in Okinawa, I still don’t think I will get to fully know and understand it. I guess you really have to live to a place, be with the locals, read about their history and way of living, and do the routine they do.
    Your images of Delhi is remarkable. Loving the arches and curves to their architechtural designs.
    Ow, sad but endearing ending.

    1. But you forget that I am Indian. But regardless I am not claiming to understand the people of Delhi at a fundamental level. I am just saying I liked it better than I expected to, considering the bad image I had been carrying around in my mind. Perhaps it was because of it! Always a pleasure to hear your thoughts a Rommel…..thank you 🙂

      1. Oh I knew. I was speaking in general.
        The south of Philippines is like the terror area of pur country. I know I’m going to love the places there if I ever go. But yeah, I can’t weigh my expectations on how their political system operates, their beliefs or way of living there. You cannot really tell unless you actually work the way they work.

  29. I have been living on and off in and around Delhi for around a decade. I am so much fascinated by the culture, history, and architecture of this city that it never leaves me amazed.
    I would love to spend the same time in Jaipur and Kolkata as well.

    1. Oh so would I Rajat. We meant to return to Delhi the very next year to catch up with all that we missed but my blogging and international journeys picked up tempo and we never made it back. Hope to include more Indian destinations in the next couple of years.

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