There's something about Delhi that evokes a feeling of warmth, like a big strong hug. Maybe it's that hearty Punjabi joie de vivre, combined with tangible layers of history at every corner that create a heady mix of warmth and familiarity. Or perhaps it's the hustle and bustle that gives the atmosphere a perpetually festive feel. Pedestrians, gangly cycle rickshaws, green and yellow auto rickshaws, motorbikes, scooters, cars and trucks decorated with flashy garlands all clamor for attention at the same time. Yet, to us, the resulting din sounds more like a celebration of life than the cacophony one may imagine.
The first time we visited Delhi, we were overwhelmed by what we saw. All five of our senses were assaulted at the same time, and we did not know what to make of the city. On each subsequent visit, we learned that Delhi is a city of layers, with many stories to tell. The outermost layer is the chaos, which can only be penetrated by those who embrace it.
A bit of background for the uninitiated - Delhi comprises new and old. New Delhi is the capital of modern India, while Old Delhi is famous (among other things) for once being the seat of the Mughal Empire. Delhi is sometimes referred to as the City of Djinns, a city that has lived many lives, survived many sovereigns and witnessed many changes in culture and society. Each life has left its mark on the city, whether it is the Mughal influence on food and architecture or the monuments celebrating the British Raj or the neighborhoods that were once shelters for refugees of Partition.
The streets of Old Delhi are a successful union of opulent with derelict, a testament to glorious times gone by, yet still managing to eke out a modern existence. If this doesn't epitomize rustic chic then we’re not sure what else would. The elaborate architecture of ancient temples, mosques, and homes is juxtaposed with tangled electricity cables and posters advertising the latest in technical gadgets. It feels like we are in two different time periods simultaneously.
Our favorite way of seeing old Delhi is at eye level. On foot, we become one with the sea of shoppers, hawkers, vendors and fellow travelers. Alternatively, a cycle rickshaw tour is the ideal way of gaining that perfect vantage point, from which we can peek into the lives of the old city's narrow gullies, elaborate havelis and mystical shrines. The red domes of Jama Masjid, a spectacle built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the 1600s, are ever present in the background, almost like guiding stars. As we ride along Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s main thoroughfare since the 17th century named for the brilliant moonlight that shone on it when it was first built, we imagine ourselves transported to a bygone era. At the end of Chandni Chowk, the brilliant Red Fort greets us with its stately presence.
Leaving Old Delhi, we make our way to Qutub Minar and Mehrauli Archeological Park to immerse ourselves in yet another era of Delhi’s existence. On the way, it is hard to miss historical landmarks and ancient ruins that dot the city’s landscape. The transition from the throbbing energy of Old Delhi to the serenity of the Jamali Kamali mosque is pleasantly refreshing. But the air here is intriguingly eerie, and it makes our hair stand on end. Our echoing footsteps are louder, more pronounced in the silence. A lonely pigeon flaps its wings in an alcove guarding old Korans wrapped in colorful cloth. The mosque’s caretaker lazily shoos us towards sites he thinks we will find more interesting. Rumor has it that this abandoned mosque is haunted.
Wherever we go, we must shop. Delhi has much to offer the traveling shopper. From the kitschy shops at Hauz Khas Village, the luxury brands of DLF Emporio, the casual cafes at Khan Market or the open stalls on Janpath, there is something for everyone in this city. Bahrisons Bookstore is one of our favorite places to shop. Iconic for its historical roots (its founder being a survivor of the Partition), it is a treasure trove of books written by local authors, which really make for the best souvenirs.
There is no doubt that a day out in Delhi, while thrilling and enchanting, can also be overwhelming. Walking into the Taj provides much-needed reprieve for the weary wanderer. Even here, that same sense of warmth pervades. It's a different world behind these doors, one in which we are certainly more comfortable, yet still foreigners. The fragrance of jasmine and sandalwood mixes with tunes of the sitar, lulling us into a trance of peace that is so opposite to what lies outside. People-watching at the Taj is another eye-opening experience. Within these luxurious walls, Delhi's swish set, in their designer saris and suits, their flashy handbags and elegant jewelry, show off yet another layer of the city's personality. They tell us that there is still more to this city than what its exterior surface reveals. In their own unique way, they display the exquisite handiwork of their land, whether that is in the form of lush hand-woven pashminas, hand-embroidered kurtas or hand-loomed saris.
Delhi always leaves us yearning for more. Each experience here exposes a new facet to this city. The more we see of this place, the more of it we want to see. On our next adventure, we are looking forward to a picnic at the Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb and jogging in Lodhi Gardens, a park peppered with ancient tombs and mosques dating back to the 15th century reigns of other states, celebrating yet another of this city’s lives.