A character sketch of Delhi is made up of a thousand heads. And they all jostle on a dynamic canvas. In the process, some pop off while others rush in to take their place. For every old one making way, many new ones come in, thus increasing the tribe. Each has multiple expressions, depending on your point of view. It’s a work of art, a thousand years in the making, layers being painted upon layers. The artists cannot put their brushes away, so seduced are they by the charms of Delhi. Poets cannot but write odes to it.
Yet, Delhi is seen more as a power broker’s casino, where political fortunes are made and lost; means do not matter here. The city has been abused like every ruler’s mistress, but was often rewarded with palaces as befits a Queen. It shed tears every time it was ravaged by those within and from far beyond, but given reasons to smile whenever peace followed. The city flourished in periods of calm – architecture, the arts, music, literature and commerce were pursued by the best in the field. For a millennium now, Delhi has been in a churn, making it a city like no other in the world.
This is the city of the Qutab Minar and Humayun’s Tomb. And, numerous lesser known, but no less worth monuments, each with its tales, legends and grandeur. Delhi’s is the story of seven cities, each adding to the previous. Consequently, history seeps out of every nook and corner, literally; you are rarely more than a few minutes walk from a relic of the past.
It is a rare case of a metropolis where the green cover has steadily been increasing over the years; images from the past show vast swathes of dusty bowls and wilderness. Credit goes to the rulers who had a fondness for the greens, and administrators who have continued the good work. The city gets more beautiful by the day, even if the perils of an overpopulated urbanscape mars it in many ways.
Travellers to the city are usually directed to the historical stuff, and rightly so. But there is much more to this capital of the country. There is the food – like no other in the world. You have the best of chefs serving you cuisines from around the globe in super luxury hotels, but the delight is no less in sampling chola bhaturas and chaat from kiosks and street shops. The shopping culture developed here to cater to princesses; visit Chandni Chowk’s jewellery and saree shops to shop like royalty. From the boutiques of south Delhi to the flea markets of Janpath and Sarojini Nagar, you can literally shop till you drop. And be standing before the count of ten to resume from where you left off. While you are in the city, you can stay in presidential suites fit for a king, or check into a modest guest house or a dharamsala in old Delhi.
There is also the eccentric. Your choice of transport includes swanky limousines, a new Metro, rusty buses, Morris taxis, auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, horse carts, mares, camels and elephants. You can indulge in kite flying competitions, dance or crash into Punjabi weddings, mud wrestle (and get the resulting pains fixed by a wrestler turned ‘doctor’) and dive into step-wells (but not before checking for water levels). Treat yourself to a head or body massage in an open park, or find an astrologer to predict your future. Sundays can be a day to browse the second hand books market in Darya Ganj, or feeding pigeons nearby; be a good Samaritan and take an injured bird to the Birds Hospital opposite Red Fort.
Delhi is a city of extremes, and everything in between. It has an energy that can send you soaring, but sometimes deflate your spirits too. Nay-sayers may be dismissive of its many drawbacks, but that should not deter a traveller. The more you explore, the more you will see. It is a buffet where every course only whets the appetite further. There is no saying: ‘That’s it!’
And if you still don’t hear the invitation loud and clear, find an ear cleaner in old Delhi.