Australian-born journalist Aarti Betigeri moved to India in 2008 and spent nine years in New Delhi. Here, she tells us how old and new collide in spectacular fashion in India’s intoxicating capital
Its many charms are usually eclipsed by headlines about its woes, but nevertheless, New Delhi certainly ranks as one of the world’s greatest cities. For starters, it is ancient: in fact, eight separate cities have been situated at the same location where New Delhi stands today, stretching back around a thousand years.
Delhi’s history plays a pivotal part in the day-to-day life of the city. Monuments from the Mughal times, dating back up to 500 years, dot neighbourhoods and local parks, where they are still used: people gather to chat, children play games and students sit and study in among the ancient ruins. Buildings in varying states of decay live on, mostly featuring the domes and red sandstone bricks synonymous with the Delhi of many centuries ago, when it was ruled by Muslim leaders, or Mughals, who had travelled across from Central Asia.
Indeed, the British historian William Dalrymple has said that only “Rome and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains.”
Taking the time and making the effort to seek out some of the city’s less-known gems can give you a much deeper understanding of the fabric of the city, as well as a richer travel experience.
For example, in the particularly scenic Hauz Khas Village neighbourhood, groups of college students gather, local kids play cricket and lovers canoodle in among a cluster of 14th-century stone ruins overlooking the local water reservoir, or tank, first built as early as the late 1200s.
Once, after moving to a new neighbourhood, while on a walk to discover my new area I stumbled across an enormous structure, similar in look and scale to the famed Jama Masjid, with rows of Islamic domes overlooking a large internal courtyard. The patina and stonework indicated it to be similarly aged, however it was virtually empty. After much inquiry I discovered it to be the 14th-century Begumpuri Mosque, once a major civic centre during a former regime, but now abandoned, and completely off the tourist trail, but no less impressive.
Another time, I noticed a small, intact structure in a local park, padlocked closed. I discovered it had once been a library, centuries ago. Perhaps it still held books from the time? No one knew, and no one was bothered to find out, as it was simply one of hundreds of similar buildings dotting the city.
The most famous of these heritage structures are true works of art. Humayun’s Tomb, in an inner-city neighbourhood, was painstakingly upgraded recently by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and now looks close to how it would have been when first built. The Red Fort and Qutb Minar, also both in red sandstone, are must-sees. Agrasen ki Baoli is a 600-year-old stepwell which is also worth a visit, to get a sense of how Delhi once gathered and retained its water supplies.
New Delhi also has a thriving contemporary art and design scene: there is the annual India Art Fair, held in late January, followed by the India Design ID festival in February, both of which offer a glimpse into the current state of the art and design scenes. Of the city’s many private art galleries, Nature Morte is one of the more contemporary and exciting ones, while the government-run National Gallery of Modern Art often hosts intriguing or high-profile exhibitions.
Visitors to Delhi can find good accommodation options across all price points. At the top end is the Leela Palace in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, featuring gilt-laden furniture, towering chandeliers and an art collection to rival the national gallery. There is The Imperial, an imposing, stark white Art Deco building that is the city’s finest independent hotel (and home to Delhi’s most sought-after Sunday tea). Bungalow 99 is a new entrant, offering a more boutique experience. After a long day of immersion in medieval Delhi, all are ideal places to help ground you firmly back in the 21st century.