How to Fall in Love With Delhi

Delving into the bazaars and backstreets of the old city.

Photo by the author

There are cities which you fall in love with at first sight, and those that you have to work at to adore. Delhi is firmly in the latter category. It is hot and dusty in summers, cold and polluted in winters. It is in-your-face, busy, jostling with people. But once you do fall in love — which you can’t help but do, if you stay and explore long enough — that love is deeper and more beautiful than loving Paris, or Amsterdam or London.

It’s a shame, because many travellers don’t give it a chance — they stay for a couple of days, feel overwhelmed and then run away to more laid-back destinations, the tourist enclaves of Rishikesh or Goa or Rajasthan. They miss out on Delhi’s sprawling, beautiful parks, its bizarre bazaars, its stunning architecture, its history. The way it brings all parts of Indian society together in one swirling, overflowing city — the population of the Delhi metropolis is more than that of Australia.

If you do get a chance to come, stay. Catch your balance, find your bearings. And delve in. Trust me, it will be worth it.

“Pearl without comparison”

The other day, I went for a stroll through Old Delhi, a walled city founded in 1639 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Around the spectacular Red Fort, the narrow streets are home to busy markets, and architectural gems hidden in the chaos. It is one of the most densely populated parts of the city, and during the daytime, it is even busy, filled with shoppers looking through piles of cloth, jewellery and spices, or stopping to snack on Old Delhi’s world famous street food.

Amongst the most impressive of the bazaars are the “Silver Bazaar,” as it is known to tourists, although its actual name, Dariba Kalan, means the street of the “incomparable pearl,” a phrase I am definitely going to use to flirt in future. All along the street are small shops of intricate silver earrings, necklaces and bracelets. They are open onto the street, with shopkeepers sitting at the front, ready to advise and show their stock. Behind them, the safes are kept open — it is said to be more auspicious to leave the passage free for more money to fly in.

Dariba Kalan leads into Kinari Bazaar, a street filled with garlands, and wedding paraphernalia. It is a riot of colour, filling with jostling crows: women shopping for wedding garb and decoration, design students looking for that perfect piece of braid for their prohect, school kids in uniform being taken home on cycle rickshaws, porters carrying merchandise from one place to another.

All photos by the author

Nearby is the Khari Baoli spice market — a busy street lined with merchants selling everything from dried fruits to chillis, pickles, chutneys and tea. It’s reputed to be the best and cheapest place to get spices, and it’s an exciting place to go. A little way along the road, you can duck through a narrow archway into the Gadodia wholesale market. It’s a beautiful building- three stories around a courtyard, topped with little turrets. It’s filled with sacks of every spice imaginable, and passersby sneeze as the air is filled with the fumes of pepper. Sacks of red chillis bleed out onto the floor, porters lug heavy sacks of spices from the wholesale market to the vendors outside. From the spicy chaos downstairs, you can climb up onto the roof of the market, and get a beautiful view over the nearby mosque. Up here, a peaceful and poetic atmosphere reigns, an odd contrast from the rush below, like stepping into a bubble, empty apart from a few kids playing kites.

All photos by the author

Sprinkled through the bazaars are fabulous old buildings, that you stumble across up a narrow alleyway or a side street. Like the colourful Naughara street, a jumble of colourful houses. They are all falling into disrepair though. A former employee of the Delhi branch of UNESCO, who had been involved in doing a census of these houses to help with their preservation, explained that it is almost impossible to save them. Old family buildings are now divided, through the laws of succession, between so many individuals it isn’t always sure what belongs to who, and no one has enough money for renovation. Especially since these old, crumbling houses aren’t necessarily valued, and Old Delhi is no longer a highly desirable neighbourhood to live in.

It’s sad that such a part of history is crumbling into dust. Although it wouldn’t be the first time one of Delhi’s avatars disappeared.

Old Delhi is barely old at all if you look at the cities long history. Hindus say that the city is the site of an ancient Indraprastha, home of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, one of the most imporant texts in the Hindu religion. Excavations near the Purana Qila found traces of human habitation dating back 3000 years. It is said that there are seven reincarnations of Delhi, from the Mahabharata to an ancient 12th century Hindu Kingdom, through Mughal and British Rule, to the Delhi of today, a city with rich culture and traditions, which reaches as deeply into the past as it does into the future.

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