Delhi does not enjoy a good reputation: the capital of India is considered loud, dirty and chaotic. This may be partly true – but Delhi is much more than that. Delhi is like a highly concentrated India: incredibly diverse and colourful, full of history and culture. If you want to understand India, you will not find a better place to do so than Delhi.
Delhi, India’s History Book
In Delhi, India’s history can be read in the architecture and cuisine, in the languages and religions of its people. Delhi (or Dilli in Hindi) is the second largest city and capital of India. The city was already mentioned as Indraprastha in the Mahabharata – a central text of Hinduism – about 2000 years ago. Archaeological findings prove that the area around today’s megacity was inhabited before 4000 BC.
During the millennia, Delhi has been the center of many cultures, capital of numerous dynasties. The foundation for modern Delhi was laid by the Tomara Rajputs in the eighth century. Around 1200, Delhi was first occupied by Muslim forces. This is considered the birth of the Sultanate of Delhi. For the next 300 years numerous Muslim dynasties were to alternate, coming from Turkey, Afghanistan and Central Asia. From this period dates the Qutb Minar, a 72 meter high and 800 year old minaret.
During this time, Delhi also became a center of Sufism, mystical Islam.
Mogulls and the British
In the early 16th century, the history of India changes fundamentally. The Mughals first conquer Delhi, then Northern India and finally almost the whole subcontinent. The Mughals are descendants of Genghis Khan. Together with Agra, Lahore (in today’s Pakistan) and Fatehpur Sikri, Delhi becomes the fourth capital of the Mughal Empire.
Some of the greatest landmarks of Delhi and India date back to the time of the Mughal Empire – which lasted almost 300 years – such as the Red Fort in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra.
The influence of the Mughals decreases from the 18th century onward. By this time the British had already arrived in India and were beginning to expand their sphere of influence. In 1858, British forces take over the city. A little later Delhi replaces Calcutta as the capital of newly founded British India.
The colonial rulers rename the city into New Delhi and enrich it with numerous government buildings. But before all these can be completed, the fight for Indian independence breaks out. On August 15, 1947, Delhi becomes the capital of independent India. Mahatma (the “great soul”) Gandhi is shot in Delhi in 1948. His memorial is located on the Raj Ghat, near the Yamuna (India’s second most sacred river).
Sights in Delhi
You don’t read about Delhi’s history in books – you experience it in every corner of the city. The sights of Delhi date back to different times and bear witness to numerous dynasties. Kings and emperors are buried here, age-old traditions have remained alive over the centuries.
The Old Delhi
The Red Fort of Delhi was the seat of the Mughals in India for two centuries. It was built in red sandstone in the 17th century by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor. Behind its impressive walls lie numerous luxurious palaces, e.g. the “Palace of Colours” and the imperial audience hall.
Lahori Gate, the main entrance to the fort, is one of India’s landmarks. Since 1947, India’s Pemier Minister addresses his people from this place.
This is the largest mosque of the Indian subcontinent. More than 25,000 believers come to pray here. The Jama Masjid stands in the middle of Old Delhi, only 400 meters from the Red Fort, and is one of the centers of Indian Islam. The Jama Masjid of Lahore (Pakistan) is a slightly smaller copy of this monumental Delhi mosque.
Tomb of Humayun
The tomb of the second Mughal Emperor Humayun is one of the first and most beautiful examples of Indo-Islamic architecture. The geometrically arranged gardens surrounding the richly decorated mausoleum symbolize the harmony of the Islamic paradise. Not far from the tomb of Humayun lies the Nizamuddin Dargah, where one of the most important masters of Indian Sufism is buried.
Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
The largest and most important Sikh temple in New Delhi. In the 17th century, Guru Har Krishan, the eighth of the ten Sikh Gurus, spent some time here. He died at the age of only eight years, making him the youngest of the ten gurus. Every day in Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, 40,000 free meals are distributed to the needy of all religions, castes and nationalities.
A business district built by the British, which is now the financial center of Delhi. Western fast-food chains and luxury fashion shops line up with old Indian bookstores and traditional restaurants. “CP” is a popular meeting place for the young middle class of Delhi.
The triumphal arch is one of the landmarks of New Delhi. It commemorates the Indian and British soldiers who fought and died for British India during the First World War. Today, India Gate is a popular destination for Indian families and foreign tourists. During the day the surrounding green areas are used for picnics, in the evening street food is sold here.
This modern temple was completed in the 1980s. It is one of the eight houses of worship of the Bahai religion which exist in the worl. This religious community was founded in the 19th century and focuses on the unity of mankind. The Lotus Temple is visited by members of all religions and is a sign of religious tolerance.
Other sights in Delhi
- ISKCON Temple: Important temple of the Hare Krishna movement
- Hauz Khas: trendy district with many cafés and medieval buildings
- Lodi Gardens: Beautiful gardens with buildings from the 15th century
- Swaminarayan Akshardham: The largest Hindu temple in the world
- Raj Ghat: Park and memorial on the banks of the Yamuna.
The Best Accommodation in Delhi
Most cheap hostels and backpacker hotels are located in Paharganj, a centrally located district of New Delhi. Paharganj is only a few minutes away from the main train station, and Coughnaut Place is also within easy reach. However, Paharganj, like most train station districts in Europe, is quite unattractive and dirty. A stay in Delhi is spent much more pleasantly in other parts of the city – for example in Hauz Khas. In this trendy district you will find cafes, restaurants and some of the best hostels in New Delhi, e.g. Gypsy’s Shelter Hostel. The Haveli Hauz Khas is a good hotel in the medium price range. Close to the airport you will find luxury hotel chains such as the Radisson and JW Mariott.
The Best Restaurants in New Delhi
Delhi is known for its culinary delights. Delhi’s cuisine is influenced by the city’s history, by the many rulers who have left their mark here. Delhi’s street food is influenced by Afghanistan and Persia, Turkey and Central Asia. The Hindus eat mainly vegetarian dishes, the Muslims also eat meat. Tibetan refugees and Nepalese emigrants sell momos, South Indians prepare the delicious Masala Dosa. Karim’s in Old Delhi is a small restaurant run by the descendants of the Mughals’ personal chef. Here, classic dishes such as Chikken Takka are prepared, but also brain curry.
In South Delhi there are many high class restaurants that combine tradition and modernity. The Olive Bar and Kitchen in Hauz Khas is the best Italian restaurant in town. At Bukhara, guests like Vladmir Putin and Bill Clinton have dined.
Above all, however, it is Delhi’s street food that embodies the city’s culture and traditions. Chole Bhature, a chickpea curry with flat bread, is particularly popular. Samosas and Pakhoras are also available on every street corner for only 10 rupees (13 cents).
From Delhi To…
Delhi with its international airport is the starting point for many trips to India. From Delhi, many of Northern India’s tourist destinations can be reached – by train, bus or even taxi.
Delhi – Agra
Agra was once the capital of the Mughal Empire. It is famous for the Taj Mahal, and together with Delhi and Jaipur forms the Golden Triangle. Agra is best reached by train (two hours from Delhi to Agra). If you go to Agra, you can make a stopover in Mathura and Vrindavan. These two places are especially sacred to all worshipers of Krishna, who is said to have spent his childhood here. The Holi Festival is nowhere else celebrated so enthusiastically as in Vrindavan.
Delhi – Jaipur
Jaipur is the third point of the Golden Triangle. The “Pink City” is home to fascinating buildings of Rajput architecture, such as the Amber Fort and the Hawa Mahal, the “Palace of the Winds. Jaipur is also called the “Gateway to Rajasthan”. Other cities worth seeing in Rajasthan are Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. From Delhi to Jaipur there are many trains, buses and night buses that run regularly.
Delhi – Rishikesh
In the north of Delhi rises the Himalaya. In its foothills lie Haridwar and Rishikesh, two of the holiest cities in India. Rishikesh is also considered the yoga capital of the world. The Ganges flows through Rishikesh and Haridwar, and giving both places a very special atmosphere. From Delhi to Rishikesh it takes six or seven hours by bus.
Delhi, the Key to India
A visit to Delhi is part of every longer stay in India. Only those who have seen Delhi can really understand the country. Nowhere else are India’s history and identity so visible, so interwoven in everyday life as in Delhi. In Delhi you meet the old and ancient India, and you also get to know the modern India.
Delhi has something to offer for everyone: Those interested in history and gourmets, architecture enthusiasts and shopaholics will find everything that India has to offer in this diverse city. That is why Delhi is the key to a deeper understanding of India, a country that will probably always elude complete understanding.