Seven cities on the move

Travel Section – Sunday Times

Every conqueror rebuilt Delhi on a different site.  CLARE COLVIN links old and new

The sheer sprawling size of Delhi leaves you feeling, at the end of a week, that nine-tenths has eluded you.  It is like a Los Angeles of the East, in that much of the time is spent getting from one place to another.   This overflowing expansion is part of its history, for it must be the only city that has moved its site with each new conqueror.

The remains of seven cities, built and abandoned over the centuries, are to be found at distances of several miles from each other.  Over the last 50 years Delhi has spread out to embrace these ancient sites with new residential colonies linked by a network of roads and roundabouts.

The final city was the New Delhi of the British Raj.   Despite their length of stay in India, the British only inaugurated Delhi as their capital in place of Calcutta in 1931.  Sixteen years later, like so many previous rulers of Delhi, they were out.   They left behind the pomp and circumstance of Lutyens’s grand design – the Presidential Palace, once home of the Viceroy, its central dome in a direct line along Raj Path with India Gate.   The impression is of warm sandstone carved in coldly imperial lines, and of a complete lack of regard for anyone who has to walk.  Along what looks like a several times magnified Mall are tiny figures lost in the green maidan; as in Los Angeles, only the poor go by foot.

Nowadays New Delhi is as much a memorial to the Nehru dynasty as to the Raj.   Nowhere is this more evident than at 1 Safdar Jang Marg, Indira Gandhi’s home in which she continued to stay after she became prime minister and where she was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.

A spacious bungalow, set in gardens with beds of hollyhocks, phlox and snapdragon, it is preserved as a shrine.  Indira Gandhi’s study is as she left it, with floor-to-ceiling shelves creamed with books and family photographs.   The framed timetable for her last day is British to the core – a BBC interview, tea with a former British prime minister, Jim Callaghan, and a dinner for Princess Anne.  It was on her way to the interview that the assassination took place.

On to Teen Murti Marg, where Nehru lived as prime minister in the former mansion of the British Commander-in-Chief, then to the grandest home of all, Rashtrapati Bhawan, the presidential palace.   You won’t see a great deal of it, because of tight security, but the gardens, open from November to April except on Thursdays, are a nostalgic dream.   Mogul-style water gardens lead to a long walk with loggia, orange trees, and dahlias the size of footballs, and onto a circular garden, the borders of which are a mass of poppies, marguerites and cornflowers.

From the grand design of Raj Path, go along Jan Path, and notice the rows of what look like black bottles hanging from trees.  They are fruit bats, and you will also see vultures, green parakeets, and an occasional monkey – all just a few minutes from Connaught Place, which is the equivalent of London’s Oxford Street, and just as tacky.   If you can’t bear the importunate stallholders, dive into one of the government emporiums such as Cottage Industries where you will find the lack of attention to customers a delightful contrast.

It takes several days to absorb the sights of the markedly different city of Old Delhi.   Most tourists visit the Red Fort, take a quick look at Old Delhi’s main drag, Chandni Chowk, and then flee back to their hotels.  It is exhausting because of the sheer numbers of jostling people, but apart from the Red Fort, where touts and would-be guides lie in wait, it is relatively hassle-free once you get off the tourist track.

Old Delhi is a network of bazaars named after the commodities they sell.  There’s the Kinari Bazaar, a gloriously colourful haberdashery, where they sell metallic thread, sequins, trimmings and wedding turbans.  There is the poultry market, where you can see hens stacked up in metal cages, waiting their turn to be killed and plucked on the spot.  Nearby is the fish market, an obstacle course where you dodge porters tearing through the narrow alleys with fish in platters on their heads.   The less strong of stomach are better off in Khari (pronounced curry) Baoli which sells spices and nuts, or Gali Batasha (sugar street) with its stalls of solid sugar, like icicles, sacks of dried dates, crystallised pumpkin and mango, and cardamom seeds.   The narrow overhanging alleys and the open shops with their primitive weighing equipment carry an echo of 16th-century London.

Among the buildings you will notice some splendid but neglected hawelis, the former homes of Muslims who left at the time of partition.   They are a fine example of traditional domestic architecture.   Just off the Kinari Bazaar is a peaceful street of painted houses, which belong to the Jains, and two temples.   In the same area is the Jains’ bird hospital where about 60 birds, victims of ceiling fans, are admitted every day in the summer.

Getting around Old Delhi by car is impossible.  Take an auto rickshaw or bicycle rickshaw in the larger streets, and walk in the bazaars.  If anything untoward is happening (there was a farmers’ demonstration on the outskirts of Old Delhi when I was there) the whole place seizes up.   We eventually abandoned our bicycle rickshaw after it had been stationary for ten minutes, only to find ourselves unable to move on foot either, hemmed in by bullock carts, rickshaws, lorries and bicycles.

While you’re in the area of Old Delhi, visit some of the pre-Lutyens examples of British architecture, such as St James’s Church which was built by Col. James Skinner, an Anglo-Indian officer who founded Skinner’s Horse in the early 19th century.   Watch the swooping crows while you have a drink on the lawn of the Maidens Hotel, a gracious turn-of-the-century building which, like the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, cultivates a colonial image of rattan chairs and afternoon tea.

The most curious reminder of the British in India is the bleak North Delhi Ridge, once the site of Queen Victoria’s Durbar.   This desolate area was to have been the site of New Delhi, and a foundation stone was laid, but quietly removed after it was decided the area was unhealthy, and re-laid in New Delhi.   The site is now the final resting place of the statue of King George V that once dominated Raj Path.

In an isolated circle are a number of mainly empty plinths, built by the Indian government after independence to take the deposed statues of the former rulers.   In the centre stands the penultimate Emperor, his stone ermine robes flowing to a length of 20 feet.   On either side of him are the unwanted viceregal statues of Chelmsford and Harding, Willingdon and Irwin.   This banishment of symbols of the Raj, together with their careful preservation, is one of the paradoxes that abound in India.