x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

India's capital has the Mughals to thank

My kind of place With old and new coexisting side by side, India's capital has something to offer everyone, writes Tabish Khair.

Lodi Gardens is one of many places worth a visit in Delhi according to the author.
Lodi Gardens is one of many places worth a visit in Delhi according to the author.

Because it has only one serious drawback: men who share the machismo of Italian studs but lack their charm. As for the rest, Delhi has it all: history until it oozes out of your eyes, shopping until nothing is left in your purse, and a feeling of things happening that makes other capitals resemble sleepy villages. It is said that the current Delhi is only the eighth city built on the spot: under it lie the ruins of seven - some people claim 20 - other cities.

Unless you are Indiana Jones, taking buses in Delhi is not a good idea: there are tricks to boarding these madly careening, overstuffed contraptions that take ordinary mortals a few decades to learn. The new metro - one of the cleanest and quietest of architectural spaces in Delhi - is to be preferred. But the best way to get a feel of the city is still by foot. Start from Connaught Place, the British-built core of New Delhi, and walk by the stalls of Janpath to India Gate and the impressive Presidential Residence, thus sampling a Raj-era architectural tour. Or walk in the opposite direction from Connaught Place, cutting across Bengali Market and reaching crowded, noisy Old Delhi, with its hidden Mughal ruins and mosques from an older time.

My absolute favourite is the Bengali Market area, which is very close to Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, the Fleet Street of Delhi, and has cheap eateries as well as a number of museums, theatres and art galleries in the neighbourhood.

It is one of the places where writers, artists and social activists are likely to hang around. The members-only India International Centre on Max Mueller Marg is always a good place for clean, cheap food and cultural events, if you are a club member, that is, or if you manage to spot a member-friend in the bar.

These are my favourites outside the usual five-star hotels. Oh! Calcutta is part of a recent development in Delhi: hotels focusing on specific regional cuisines from within India. Oh! Calcutta in Nehru Place (www.speciality.co.in) offers the most delicious Bengali dishes you can imagine. Go for the prawn malai curry and the bhapa hilsa (steamed fish), served with rice, and try the mishti doi (sweet curd) as a dessert. Main courses cost from $4 to $12 (Dh15 to Dh44). Not Just Parathas in Greater Kailash is the place to go to if you want to sample 120 different kinds of traditional Indian bread, at prices ranging from between $2 and $10 (Dh7 and Dh37) per basket. These days, Karim's, tucked into a crowded alley in Old Delhi near Jama Masjid, provides hearty dishes for the lower-middle class, but the original outlet traces its pedigree to courtly Mughal times. The food here might be a bit too hot and greasy for the uninitiated, but it is surprisingly easy on the non-Delhi belly. Main courses cost less than $5 (Dh18).

If you love haggling, try the hundreds of stalls dotting Janpath. You might get cheated, but the colour and buzz would be worth it. If you want to shop the safe, price-tagged way, find the huge Cottage Emporium on the same road: this shopping centre is government-run and you can have anything from bone-studded furniture sets to silk scarves packed for you without any bargaining. Delhi is indeed a shopper's paradise with shops ranging from those in Connaught Place to huge new multiplexes in the brash suburbs of Noida and Gurgaon.

The National Museum on Janpath deserves a full day. Its exhibits include relics from the Harappan civilisation (5,000 years ago), silk paintings from the time of Jesus Christ and 150,000 other historical exhibits from Central and South Asia. The massive, much-neglected Red Fort, built in 1648 by a Moghul emperor, is a must. The huge building's red sandstone walls rise to 32m and run for two kilometres. A short but crowded walk from it is the impressive Jama Masjid, completed in 1658. The mosque's courtyard is said to be big enough to allow more than 20,000 people to pray at one time. In another, and quieter, direction, one could head for the 12th-century Qutb Minar complex with an exquisitely carved 73m-high Qutb minaret and the fourth-century iron pillar that is made of iron so pure that archeologists still cannot explain it away with reference to technologies of the time. All are worth a visit. But so are so many other places in Delhi, including the Lodi Gardens, the Hauz Khas Village, Jantar Mantar and Humayun's Tomb.

Good hotels need to be booked in advance because the pressure of tourism, both national and international, in Delhi is as great as the presence of bureaucratic and political visitors to India's capital. The best decent budget option would be the India International Centre (www.iicdelhi.nic.in/) at $60 (Dh220) per double room. This is a club, with theatres, restaurants, and regular cultural events, which means that you have to be the guest of a member. Another option, booked heavily in advance, is the YMCA (www.newdelhiymca.org/tourist-hotel.htm), which is excellently located and cheap at $70 (Dh257). For tourists with deeper pockets, there are more options. Le Meridien (www.starwoodhotels.com) is worth a stay for its comfortable rooms and typical five-star furnishings, including towering interior landscaping. Double rooms cost from $375 (Dh1,377). The Imperial (www.theimperialindia.com) on Janpath is a history lesson on colonial Raj architecture and furnishing - from the classical Victorian to 20th-century Art Deco. With its sumptuous rooms and excellent restaurants, this is my favourite among top-price hotels with double rooms costing from $425 (Dh1,561).

In a crime story that I contributed to Hirsh Sawhney's Delhi Noir, I wrote about the most common of Delhi scams: a shoe-polish boy tosses rubbish on your shoes, when you are not looking, thus forcing you to employ him. More serious ones include sham tourism agencies and overzealous or just-plain-bad-tempered policemen. travel@thenational.ae