Monday, December 1, 2014

10 Things to see in Delhi that are not in Lonely Planet

The largely forgotten tomb of Roshanara, world's away from the better known parts of Delhi.

For the second half of this list, please go to: 10 more things to see in Delhi that are not in Lonely Planet

First off, let me say that I am in no way trying to disparage Lonely Planet. I would be a massive hypocrite if I did. I have found their titles incredibly useful over my years travelling in India. I think I've all but memorized large sections of text from several of their guidebooks (particularly their 2011 edition of Rajasthan, Delhi, and Agra). In short, having a Lonely Planet can really make travelling easier.

That being said, no guidebook, no matter how well-researched, is truly comprehensive. For example, the two most recent editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks dealing with Delhi, the one mentioned above and their 2013 pan-Indian title, both devote nearly 50 pages to the city, and yet vast swathes of Delhi's history, landscape, and cultural heritage are left out. 

This isn't the staff at Lonely Planet being derelict in their duty (except in those few instances where their information is incorrect, which I'll get to in my next post). Rather, it's a symptom of Delhi's long and exceedingly complex history. The city's unique position as the capitol of (as I figure it) eight different kingdoms and empires over the course of the last 1500 years has left Delhi with an almost mind-boggling assortment of historical sites. Including all of these in a single volume would require a book at least as large as the entire Lonely Planet India title. Every single tomb, mosque, and obscure complex of ruins can't have an entry...

...but, there are several places which really should be in there, and probably will be soon. As time goes on, and new issues are released, many of the blank spaces on the map of the city are being filled in. For example, it was not until the most recent issue that Agrasen Ki Baoli, in my view Delhi's most impressive step-well and one of its classic sights, was included. 

What I'm listing here are 20 things, ten in this post and ten in the next, which Lonely Planet does not, as yet, include. I have them organized by region of the city, starting in the north and moving south.  Some of these places are beautiful, some historically important, and some are just interesting. Some are also difficult to find, hard to visit, or perhaps of interest only to people with a deep and committed fascination with Delhi. But one thing that I've learned traveling in India is this: The sense of discovery and adventure inherent in seeking out that little known mosque, tomb, or temple, hidden down some side street of a side street and barely known even to the locals, can be just as rewarding as a trip to the Taj Mahal.

All pictures are by me, by the way....


Virtually all of Delhi north of the Mughal city of Shahjahanabad (usually referred to simply as Old Delhi), with the exception of Majnu-ka-Tilla, the city's Tibetan refugee colony, is virgin territory as far as tourism is concerned. Yet, with its huge expanses of green  and comparatively empty space, North Delhi contains many of the most pleasant places in the entire city.


The creepy but fascinating Sheesh Mahal of Shalimar Bagh. 

Located near the current northern end of Delhi's Yellow metro line, lending it an Ends-of-the-Earth quality, Shalimar Bagh is a huge garden, first laid out by one of the wives of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan over three and half centuries ago. Now the garden is a surprisingly extensive wooded area that has been surrounded by an upscale residential area of the same name. If you do a Google search for "Shalimar Bagh Delhi", you'll get a number of entries for the neighborhood and not the garden itself.  There are several dilapidated though very interesting Mughal buildings inside the garden, the largest of which is the Sheesh Mahal. The surviving buildings have fragments of paintings probably dating to British times.

Make sure to do your research before trying to get there: It took me three attempts to actually find the damn place....though it was well worth it....

19th century paintings in Shalimar Bagh


Flowers and greenery. Not what one expects out of Delhi.

The Northern Ridge is quite a large omission on the part of the staff at Lonely Planet. I think if foreign tourists knew it was there they would come in greater numbers, but as it is, though I've gone there many times, I don't believe I've ever seen another foreigner unless I had brought them myself. 

The Northern Ridge is a low rocky outcropping, the northernmost extension of the Aravalli Range (which is much more prominent further south), covered in dense, scrubby vegetation, monuments from several different eras in Delhi's history, and by far the largest concentration of Reesus Monkey's I've ever seen. For anyone who has never seen a monkey in the wild before, the Northern Ridge is an incredible expereince: You'll literally see hundreds of them going about their business, prospering (to an almost frightening extent) in the midst of one of the world's largest urban areas. 

In addition to the area's wildlife and its surprisingly well maintained walking paths are its large number of historical monuments. These include several Tughlaq (14th century) era relics, mostly in the vicinity of Hindu Rao Hospital, such as an obscure step-well, a large, strange ruin that may or may not have been an astronomical observatory, and also an Ashokan pillar from the 3rd century B.C., brought to Delhi by Feroz Shah Tughlaq, who during his reign expended a great deal of effort bringing two of the ancient columns to Delhi, despite apparently not knowing what they were...other than very old...and mysterious.... 

More recent additions, were made to the historical landscape by the British, who at the time of the Sepoy Uprising famously occupied the Northern Ridge during the siege of Delhi, using it as their base and fighting off numerous attacks by rebel Sepoys and Jihadis, before their final advance on the walled city. Several colonial era buildings, such as a large signal tower (known as the Flagstaff Tower) and several ammunition storehouses, still stand.

The mysterious Pir Ghaib, a Tughlaq era ruin on the Northern Ridge, which might have been used, at least in part, as an observatory.


Local children playing at Roshanara's Tomb.

Roshanara was one of the daughters of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (Mumtaz Mahal being the woman for whom the Taj Mahal was built). During the exceedingly unlovely struggle to decide which of Shah Jahan's sons would take the throne after his death, Roshanara went against her father's wishes and sided with Aurangzeb, who would eventually take over the empire after killing his brother and imprisoning his father. 

Roshanara is therefore not well remembered. Her tomb is small by Mughal standards, and her garden in North Delhi is now much encroached upon by a British era country club. Yet Roshanara Bagh, or Roshanara's garden, still offers a surreal respite from the bustle of the city. 

There are only two major historical buildings left inside the garden, both them in moving states of disrepair. The old gateway to the garden still stands, and has a few remnants of colorful, centuries old, tile work clinging to it. Inside, Roshanara's tomb is rather a lovely building, despite the dilapidation. However, be warned: Don't expect much in the way of solitude here. The garden is very much a local hangout spot, and if you visit you'll find yourself dodging through at least twenty different cricket games. 

Ruminations near sundown at Roshanara Bagh.


The mosque at Qudsia Bagh

The southernmost of our great green spaces in North Delhi, Qusia Bagh is a fragment of an 18th century garden laid out by Qudsia Begum, a dancer or courtesan in the court of the late Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, who maneuvered her way to becoming queen, and then the mother of the next emperor, which allowed her for a certain time to maintain de-facto control over what little remained of Mughal authority.

The historical buildings in Qudsia Bagh date to an interesting period in the history of Mughal architecture, when the grandest Mughal building projects were well behind them, yet they still commanded enough resources to put up monuments that even to this day project a sort of debased opulence (The much derided tomb of Safjarjung further south being the most famous example of a monumental Mughal building project from this period). The main surviving structures in the garden are a large gateway and a mosque, both of them with remnants of somewhat over-the-top decorations clinging to them.   

The size of the garden today is much reduced from its historical extent, while the few historical buildings that remain are not in good condition, their recent half-hearted restorations having unfortunately contributed to rather than halted their degeneration. The whole garden was damaged terribly during the Sepoy Uprising, when it was situated between the British position on the Ridge and the Sepoy army inside the walled city of Delhi. Yet the garden is still a very pleasant place to visit, and despite their condition the two main buildings are well-worth the effort of reaching them. 

The old gateway in Qudsia Bagh


As far as tourism is concerned, Old Delhi, historically known as Shahjahanabad, is a study in contrasts. Parts of the old Mughal walled city, such as Chandni Chowk and the Delhi Red Fort, are among the most visited places in all of India, but the tangled back lanes of Old Delhi, despite being mere meters from the more famous locations, remain mostly unexplored. 

Lonely Planet lists the major sights, and also a few of the more important bazaars, however the books give virtually no information on what there is to see down the back lanes. This is something which will probably change soon: Exploring the tangled alleys, mosques, temples, and crumbling mansions of Shahjahanabad is one of the most fascinating experiences Delhi has to offer. 


A shrine inside a minor Jain temple in Old Delhi

The most recent edition of Lonely Planet lists only one Jain place of worship in Old Delhi, directly across from the Lahore gate of the Red Fort. However, there are many more in the city, the most interesting examples being tucked away in back lanes between Chandni Chowk and the Jama Masjid. This area is known as Dharampura, and certain parts of it see a steady stream of foreign tourists. Dariba, which is one of the main side streets off of Chandi Chowk and specializes in silver jewelry, is often visited, but tourists rarely go beyond the silver shops. 

However, simply plunge into the back lanes behind Dariba, and you'll almost certainly blunder into a fascinating old Jain temple. Unfortunately, the caretakers usually don't let visitors take pictures inside, but suffice it to say that the interiors of the buildings, covered in two hundred year old murals depicting the lives and exploits of the Jain Tirthankaras (individuals who have attained enlightenment and liberation from the circles of death and rebirth), frequently painted with actual gold paint, are some of Delhi's most amazing sights. See them'll probably not be long before Lonely Planet does start listing them, at which point they'll become one of Old Delhi's top attractions!

It doesn't really take precise directions to find the temples: Just wander around in the streets behind Dariba and you'll find one. One of the more visited examples is the Jeweler's Temple down Kinari Bazaar. From Chandni Chowk, simply walk down Dariba until you see the first major turning to the right. This is Kinari bazaar, and the Jeweler's temple is about 250 meters up the road. It'll be down the seventh side-street on the left.You'll know you're on the right street if you see a line of very brightly painted traditional houses. These belong to Jain jewelers who have inhabited the street for several hundred years and financed the building and maintenance of the temple. 

But the Jeweler's temple is only one of many incredible temples packed into this very small area, and the best way to find more is simply to let yourself get lost!

A line of brightly colored houses, owned by families of jewelers, next to the Jewler's Temple. 


The exceptionally ornate facade of the Masjid Nawab Rukn ud Dawla, one of Old Delhi's classic overlooked treasures. 

Old Delhi is famous for its mosques, first and foremost among them being the superb Jama Masjid, one of the great building achievements of the Mughal era. Lonely Planet lists this, and a few other of the most prominent Mughal mosques in the city, but Old Delhi has countless other Islamic places of worship, and while none of them may be as grand as the Jama Masjid, their smaller, more personal beauty still makes them very worth seeking out. 

As with the Jain temples of Dharampura, one stands a good chance of simply blundering into a mosque if one turns down virtually any side lane. There are literally hundreds of them within the old city, and almost anywhere you go you'll find one. Mostly, unless it's prayer time, caretakers inside the mosques don't mind visitors. 

One of my favorite obscure mosques, which is also relatively easy to locate, is near the Chowri Bazaar Metro Station. After exiting the station, if one goes up the Chowri Bazaar road towards the Jama Masjid, after about 200 meters you'll come across the tiny but incredibly ornate late 18th century Masjid Nawab Rukn ud Dawla on the left side of the street. It's on the roof some shops, which originally would have given up a certain amount of their profit for the upkeep of the mosque upstairs (and perhaps still do). 

The view of the Masjid Nawab Rukn ud Dawla from the street.


The most intact 19th century haveli in all of Delhi.

A haveli is a variety of traditional mansion built for an extended family. They are generally planned around a large central courtyard, with several stories of inward facing rooms, and a large gate that faces the street. The buildings were designed so that they would almost entirely shut out the outside world, and create a totally private environment for the family who lived in them. 

As they were historically the main form of housing for most of Old Delhi's upper classes, the city once had hundreds of these buildings. But now very few exist in their original form, and of none of those which do are listed in Lonely Planet. All that remains of the original grand Mughal havelis of the 17th century are a few crumbling gates. But even of the later, smaller, havelis of the 19th century, very little remains in its original condition. 

This is because, unlike tombs, temples, or mosques, havelis are places where people once actually lived, and while they resided in them, they constantly modified them, and continue to do so even to this day. While visiting Old Delhi may seem like a step back in time, its important to note that, as a place drenched in history, it has also been a place of almost constant, and often radical, change. While a mosque may serve the same purpose, in the same way, over hundreds of years, the way people actually live has changed drastically in the last four centuries. Thus, most havelis have long since been torn down, or redeveloped beyond recognition. 

Exceedingly few remain in a (partially) original condition, and they are unfortunately both very difficult to locate, and in appallingly bad condition. Yet, seeing what may be called Delhi's most endangered architectural form is a tremendous adventure, though also a sad one: These buildings, the last of their kind, may not exist by the end of the decade.

 The easiest one to get to is on a side lane just a short distance off of Dariba. Turning onto Dariba from Chandni Chowk, turn left at the first significant alley, and then a large haveli courtyard will be on the right after some time. 

The haveli pictured above, which, despite the fact that its falling to bits, has the most intact courtyard in the whole of the old city, is off of a street called Ballimaran. Frankly, it's almost impossible to describe how to find it, which is one of the reasons why such a historically important building can be allowed to fall to pieces: Nobody knows how to get to the damn thing. However, it is prominently featured in the Old Delhi section of Lucy Peck's guidebook Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building, and tracking that book down is probably your best bet for finding it. There's a reasonably accurate map, and even if you get lost, you'll find something else that's interesting. 

That giant ruinous gateway in the background is one of the exceedingly few remains of a Mughal haveli from the 17th century.


The Archaeological Survey of India marker next to Raziya Sultana's grave...which seems to be aimed at people who already know who Raziya Sultana was, namely, Delhi's only female ruler

Raziya Sultana, the daughter of Iltutmish of the Mamluk dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, ruled the city briefly in the 1230s. She was said to be more talented than the other claimants to the throne, and by all accounts was an able queen, though her nobles revolted against her in relatively short order (in part because they didn't like being ruled by a woman), and she was overthrown.  

In the entire 700 year course of Islamic rule in Delhi, she was the only female to rule from the city, and as such is considered one of the most important female figures in Indian History. It seems odd then that Lonely Planet does not so much as mention her final resting place, an ancient stone enclosure, out-dating the founding of Shahjahanabad by over 400 years, deep in the alleys west of Chowri Bazaar Metro station. 

There are a couple of possible explanations for why this may be. One is that it is not entirely certain that one of the centuries old stone graves is actually that of probably is, but there are other contenders. Secondly, the graves themselves, along with the enclosure, aren't beautiful or particularly interesting in and of themselves. It's their historical association which makes them worth seeking out.

Despite these facts, finding the graves is more than worth doing, and the experience of reaching them, after trekking deep into the tangled heart of Old Delhi, is unforgettable.

The graves can be most easily reached from the Chowri Bazaar Metro Station. Simply walk down Sita Raam Bazaar road (which is the major road directly to the west of the station) about a kilometer until you come to a place where the road makes a sharp turn to the right. There, just ask for directions, and you should be able to make your way through the narrow alleyways to the graves....the locals there seem well aware that the only foreigners who come to the area are trying to find Razia Sultana's final resting place. 

The graves themselves...not much to look at, but it's a worthy adventure getting to them, and the history's interesting. One is (probably) Razia's, while the other may or may not be her sister's...and don't ask me which is which. I don't think anybody really knows....


South Delhi is a vague geographical term which applies to the vast region directly south of Government area of New Delhi. In a way, it is both newer than New Delhi and older than Old Delhi. In the 21st century, it is the city of the recently rich. Most of the posh neighborhoods here are a mere few decades old (by comparison, New Delhi mostly dates from the early 20th century.)  South Delhi is a place of expensive real estate and giant shopping malls, world's away from the tranquility of the North's gardens and the chaos of Old Delhi. It is very much a part of the "New" India.

But hidden in the mazes of recently built upscale housing are remnants of the vast majority of Delhi's pre-Mughal history. Chronologically, the first four out of the seven historical cites of Delhi were built in this area, and while a few of the better known monuments from these lost settlements are mentioned prominently in the Lonely Planet, the overwhelming majority of the sights in South Delhi languish in obscurity, swamped by the 21st century and almost entirely ignored by visitors. 

The next few entries are things to see which do not fall in any of the historical cities of Delhi. 


Inside Mubarak Shah's Tomb

Walking the half kilometer north of  South Ex Market, one of Delhi's fancier upscale shopping areas, to Kotla Mubarakpur, a small village quite literally engulfed by Delhi's rapid southward expansion, is a massively disorienting experience. 

At one time, not very long ago, Kotla Mubarakpur was a rural settlement on the outskirts of Delhi, quite some distance from the city itself. Only a scant few decades ago it would have been surrounded by fields, but these were bought up by the city, and developed, though the villagers decided to remain where they were. What this has resulted in is a bizarre situation where you have very newly built late 20th and 21st century development directly next to a centuries old agricultural village, which, despite the onslaught of concrete and modernity, retains its basic, essentially rural, layout (even if the villagers aren't engaged in farming anymore).

The village sprang up in the tomb compound of Mubarak Shah, the second ruler of the Sayyid dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, perhaps the least successful Muslim rulers of the city, their authority extending barely beyond the borders of Delhi itself. Presumably, the walls of the compound provided some degree of protection. These walls have long since disappeared (except for a few fragments of two of the gates), but their location can still be discerned by a small rise in the ground and by a sudden change in the layout of the streets: Leaving the 21st century and walking over the ghost of the old walls, one suddenly finds oneself in alleyways darker and more claustrophobic than those in Old Delhi. Though most of the traditional housing has disappeared, the street plan of the village remains as it was hundreds of years ago. 

It's therefore a congested place, and beautiful is not the word I would use to describe it. Mubarak Shah's Tomb, the second octagonal tomb built in Delhi, is at the very center of the village, and is quite an impressive piece of architecture, but the village is crowding it in so much that it's almost impossible to appreciate the building properly. It is, however, possible to go inside, and to climb up on the roof. There is also a small mosque, from the same period as the tomb, down a narrow (and admittedly horribly filthy) alleyway. 

If you visit Kotla Mubarakpur, be advised that people there will not be expecting you. However, I found the locals there to be unusually friendly towards me, at least by Delhi standards. The village is miles from anything in the Lonely Planet, and visiting it gives one a genuine feeling of exploration. 

The 15th century mosque at Kotla Mubarakpur, kids flying kites, hideous concrete, satellite dishes, and a plane taking off.


The wonderfully decorated gate to Moth Ki Masjid

Moth Ki Masjid, or "Lentil Mosque" is another important medieval building hemmed in by the urban sprawl of South Delhi. While the environs of the ancient structure might not be quite so claustrophobic as those around Kotla Mubarakpur, the building nonetheless has the feel of a last remnant of the 16th century being rapidly swallowed up by the 21st. The mosque is undeniably beautiful, and while it receives no mention in the Lonely Planet, they might consider making some space for it. It's one of the most aesthetically pleasing, and also best preserved, mosques from its era, and it would be a massive shame if the building was allowed simply to decay in obscurity. 

There are several (conflicting) stories as to why the building was given the odd title of "Lentil Mosque." The basic gist of the more famous story is that one day a courtier of Sikander Lodi by the name of Miyan Bhoiya was given a lentil from the floor of the Jama Masjid by the sultan. Miyan Bhoiya, thinking that such an illustrious bean from such eminent hands should immediately be planted, did so, and from that special bean raised a very profitable crop, the proceeds from which he used to build the mosque. 

Those are only the bare bones the story, and no single account that I've read of the reason behind the mosque's unusual name agrees 100% with another. But, stories aside, Moth Ki Masjid is worth seeking out. It's in an area of South Delhi called South Extension II (south Ex. II). Unfortunately, it's not especially near any metro stations, but if you type "Moth Ki Masjid" into Google Maps, it's location is fairly obvious. 

One of the impressive corner turrets of Moth Ki Masjid

Ten more things to see in Delhi that aren't in Lonely Planet coming soon!

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