Delhi is a microcosm of India’s past, present and future. Here are the extremes that make India so compelling. A city that encompasses Mughal glory, European grandeur, Punjabi opulence, and the futuristic high-rises and malls of the new satellite city of Gurgaon. Vulgar prosperity and extreme poverty are close neighbours yet a million miles apart. It is polluted and overpopulated, which is why it is not a place to linger for long. But it is also packed with spellbinding sights, extraordinary architecture and breathtaking monuments. The contrast between the rambling Old Delhi and well planned New Delhi is immense, and it’s rewarding to spend time exploring both.
In 1911 King George V decreed that the capital of British India would be moved from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to a newly laid out city next to Old Delhi. Construction began in 1912 at a site about 3 miles south of the old city centre, and the new capital was formally dedicated in 1931. Laid out by architect Edwin Lutyens, the grand avenues, stately buildings and green spaces contrast sharply with the crowded, narrow and winding streets of Old Delhi. It’s worth a visit for the imposing imperial architecture alone, such as the government and parliament buildings and the towering archway war memorial India Gate, at the centre of New Delhi. Here you are not far from the thronging central hub known as Connaught Place, where there are also many museums nearby including the National Gallery of Modern Art and the National Museum.
Ironically one of the highlights of a visit to “New” Delhi was actually constructed in the mid-16th Century. Humayan’s Tomb, towards the southeastern edge of the city, was built in 1570 for the Mughal emperor. This beautiful palatial creation was the first garden-tomb in India. If you think you see a resemblance with the Taj Mahal (built 60 years later), you would not be wrong, because this was the inspiration for the Taj. Beautifully proportioned, with an arched façade inlaid with bands of white marble and red sandstone, the tomb is part of a greater complex set amongst glorious gardens.
Gandhi Smitri, a poignant memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, is in Birla House, where he was shot dead by a Hindu zealot on 30th January 1948. The house is where Gandhi lived his last 144 days. The exhibits include rooms preserved exactly as he left them including his bedroom with his meagre possessions. There are plenty of fascinating photos, texts, paintings and figurines all adding up to a vivid account of his life and philosophy. You can also visit his cremation memorial at Raj Ghat.
There are two temples in New Delhi, one ancient, one modern, that really shouldn’t be missed. The Bahai Temple, commonly called the Lotus Temple, is an architectural masterpiece designed by Iranian-Canadian architect Fariburz Sahba in 1986. It is shaped like a lotus flower, with 27 delicate-looking white marble petals, and belongs to the Bahai faith, which proclaims the unity of all people and religions. Everyone is welcome to pray or meditate here according to their own beliefs.
Two hundred years earlier the Bangla Sahib Sikh temple was built at a site associated with the eighth Sikh guru Harkrisahn Dev. Instantly recognisable by its glinting golden onion domes, this magnificent white-marbled temple and “Sarovar” pool are somehow vibrant yet tranquil.
Until quite recently New Delhi was usually just a brief staging post for tourists on their way to the Taj Mahal or Varanasi a little further east. But now with world-class restaurants, luxury hotels and a burgeoning creative scene, this melting pot of ethnicities and religions is now rightfully regarded as a destination in its own right.