Delhi is like a palimpsest over which the glory and history of many empires and legends have been written, and yet, none of the dynasties have erased the marks left behind by its predecessors. From the Pandavas and Guptas to the Mughals, Delhi has seen them all. Later, New Delhi – the dream of Lutyens- was born. All these tell many a silent tale, through the monuments left behind. Each brick is waiting to tell a story, provided it gets a patient listener who can look beyond it and sit through a lifetime, noting down its tales of yore in the parchment of hearts.
The Jama Masjid Complex (top); The flight of pigeons in Jama Masjid (bottom)
My journey began from Connaught Place in New Delhi, from where I took a metro and reached Old Delhi, which is flanked by the Ajmeri Gate, the Turkman Gate, the Kashmiri Gate and the Delhi Gate. Purani Dilli is not for mall rats. It is stuffy, congested, polluted and is everything that is the antithesis of the new SHINING INDIA. I hopped onto a cycle-rickshaw and my sojourn through the labyrinthine Old Delhi began. Old Delhi has its own pace. Juxtaposed with the ultra-modern environs of New Delhi, it is one of the rare places where you can always witness a traffic jam of cycle-rickshaws. Every other minute a rickshaw will bump into yours. Meandering through the narrow lanes of Chawri Bazaar, the rickshaw took me to Jama Masjid. From there, we walked to the Red Fort. A paltry sum of Rs.10 will open the gates to one of the marvels of Mughal architecture. I realised that the red sandstone wall of the India postcards is but a facade behind which some amazing structures stand. Half of the fort was destroyed by the East India Company during the Revolt of 1857. The remains are there for posterity. From the Red Fort one can see the Digambar Jain temple, Sisganj Gurudwara and the Sunehri Masjid (all in a line). Sisganj still stands as a testimony to the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur, whose head was severed on the orders of Aurangazeb. A whole century later, Nadir Shah oversaw the massacre of Dilliwalas from the Sunehri Masjid, before leaving the country with Shah Jehan’s famed peacock throne.
The Red Fort (top); the marble palaces in Red Fort
From there, I took a rickshaw to the famous Parathewali Gali. The rickshaw wended through Nai Sarak, where you can get the choicest and the rarest of second hand books in India. Parathewalas is the shack where every dignitary from Jawaharlal Nehru to Cyrus Broacha has had food from. The hot parathas were washed down with a jumbo-sized glass of lassi. If you are a street-foodie, then this is then Old Delhi is ‘the’ place for you. But the vegetarian in me disallowed me to taste the kababs of the Karims- the eat-out opposite to the Jama Masjid. The Karims were the cooks of the Mughal Emperors and still retain the secret recipes of the of Mughal kitchen. Near Ballimaran is the residence of the legendary poet Mirza Ghalib – a must visit for the literati.
I took a rickshaw back to Jama Masjid. As I entered, I saw two foreigners arguing with the gate-keeper over a princely fee of Rs.200 for allowing cameras inside the masjid. This was, when I had freely clicked many photos without any hassle. A fleet of pigeons, which was feeding on the grains scattered on the floor, welcomed me into the masjid. Many devotees were offering their namaz. I sat near them for some time and closed my eyes, deep in meditation, after which I moseyed around the masjid, reflecting on the fine craftsmanship displayed hundreds of years ago. The huge domes stood majestically over the skies of Delhi. One shouldn’t miss a chance here to climb the minaret and have an overview of the entire city from the top. I left the Masjid, walked through Meena Bazaar, carrying the strains of qawallis in my ears all through the way. The whole route is lined with a dysfunctional fountain, the waters from which once sprang up in the air when the emperor walked from the Red Fort to the Jama Masjid. As I boarded my bus, I sensed, I had left my heart in Purani Dilli itself. In the maze of apocryphal tales, the more you try to discover, the more you feel is yet to be discovered.
Best Time to Visit: Old Delhi should be seen in the mild winter of November. Try to visit the Jama Masjid during the Ramzan at the time of sunset.
Best places to eat: Ghantewalas, Karims and Parathewalas
How to reach there: Old Delhi is connected by Metro from New Delhi. A rickshaw can be hired to reach the walled city.
(A shorter version of this blog was published on 30-9-08 in the Time Out column of The New Indian Express)