It was half-past three one hot August afternoon when I surfaced from the Chawri Bazar metro station in Old Delhi to join the “Street foods of Delhi” walk. Kanika Singh and her husband-to-be Awadhesh Tripathi would lead the group.
Chawri Bazar is a bustling place. All of old Delhi is. It’s a good idea to walk on the footpath, whenever you can — providing there is one — so as not to impede the motorists, scooterists, cyclists, tongawallahs or rickshawallahs.
Eye for beauty
Our first stop was a delight. Down a lane and through heavy wooden doors then up a steep flight of stairs is the 18th-century masjid of the Nawab of Rukn ud-Daula. Lord knows who he was, but he did have an eye for beauty. We stepped out onto a small terrace with intricate floral stone carvings, latticework and arches. Nuruddin, the elderly imam, was the only inhabitant that afternoon.
At street level once again, it was a one-minute walk to another hidden find called Jain Coffee House in Raghu Ganj where they have been serving fruit sandwiches to the locals for ages before their hideout was busted and made them famous: Two slices of white bread, a layer of cottage cheese and jam, and sliced fruit of your choice.
Our next stop was the Jama Masjid. It was the holy month of Ramzan and the day-long fast would be coming to an end. The courtyard outside the masjid was packed with families waiting for iftar to begin. Children were their irrepressible selves.
Having whetted our appetites, we headed towards the main course of the evening, chicken and fish fry at Haji Mohd. Hussain’s roadside establishment is a three-minute walk from the Jama Masjid. Overlooked by the Michelin pundits, Mr Hussain nevertheless does roaring business. I have no idea what the vegetarians ate.
Over the following months, I signed up with Kanika & Co. for the remainder of their schedule. New Delhi is home to over 20 million people. Some of the public transport is so crowded there is a 10% chance of one bumping into a long-lost relative. Just kidding. It is a 20% chance…. But seriously, in Delhi’s urban sprawl it is still easy to come across traces of one’s past.
Of the 3,650 ancient monuments and archaeological sites listed across the country by the Archaeological Survey of India no fewer than 174 are in Delhi itself. And these do not take into account other innumerable unlisted structures — small tombs, dargahs and graves — scattered around the city.
Tale of seven cities
Sometime in the 11th century, a chap by the name of Qutubuddin Aibak built the second city of Delhi (it has seven) and named it Mehrauli. Today it is a densely populated neighbourhood in the southern part of the metropolis. The Qutab Minar, the dargah of the 13th- century Sufi saint Bakhtiyar Kaki, the mosque of a 16th-century poet Jamali Kamali, the Jahaz Mahal, the tomb of Adham Khan, son of Akbar’s wet nurse, and Balban’s tomb are all located here. It is also the venue of an annual procession of flower sellers the Phoolwalon ki Sair.
Early morning in Chandni Chowk
Later that same August I joined a walk in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi. I had been on the street-food walk which had started in the afternoon in the same area. Usually, during the day, Old Delhi’s narrow streets teem with people and vehicular traffic of all kinds. It is the business heart of Delhi. Wholesale and retail markets that trade in hardware, books, silver jewellery, electrical goods and electronic items, clothes and spices are to be found here. Early in the morning, though, it is a very different place. You can see the sidewalk, for starters.
In 1675, Guru Tegh Bahadur of the Sikhs was executed by Emperor Aurangzeb for leading a resistance movement against the Mughal Empire’s forceful conversion to Islam. Sometime in the 18th century, the Sikh community built a gurudwara on the site of his beheading, the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib at Chandni Chowk.
Hauz Khas is a locality in south Delhi, the name of which is derived from a royal water reservoir that once fed the city. Today, the former village is an ethnic market crowded with cafés and restaurants in its narrow lanes. Surrounding the reservoir is the district and deer parks. Within the grounds are several monuments dating from the pre-Mughal period.
In September of that year, I joined the group on the “1857 Uprising: Kashmere Gate walk.” This would be my fifth heritage walk in Delhi. It was still monsoon season and the summer heat had yet to abate. It was hot and humid. But you know the saying, no one cares how hard you worked to take the photograph…
Cooler, dry ochre
I did the Kashmere Gate walk again in November. The air was cooler but by then the lush green had given way to a dry ochre. By now, Kanika & Co. were used to my wandering off and just so long as I wasn’t too behind the main group I was left to do my thing.
The Archaeological Survey of India manages a museum on the site of the Dara Shikoh library in Kashmere Gate. The building is a converted Mughal mansion. Bought by the British government in India, considerable pains were taken to convert it into a suitably British-looking structure. The most striking aspect is the row of Ionic columns and panelled glass windows reaching up to the high ceiling.
In December of that same year, I signed up for a heritage walk to Tughlakabad Fort and Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s tomb in south Delhi. Built by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq in 1321, it is now in a state of ruin. However, only he is to blame for this.
Ghiyasuddin’s own goal
As the tale goes, Ghiyasuddin was so taken up with the idea of building a great fort in his name that he dictated that all labourers in Delhi should work on the fort and leave whatever else they were working on. That mightily peeved off no less a saint than Nizamuddin Auliya, whose step well came to an abrupt halt. The saint put a curse on Ghiyasuddin’s fort and, as they say, the rest is history.
The following year, the family and I made a visit to the famous and yet to be magnificently restored, Humayun’s Tomb in the neighbourhood of Nizamuddin. Today it stands in a garden complex dotted with smaller tombs. Close by is the Sundar Nursery and the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, whom we briefly mentioned earlier.
Not far from Humayun’s Tomb is the Khair-ul-Manazil. Constructed in 1561 by Maham Angah, Emperor Akbar’s wet nurse, it stands opposite the Purana Qila on Mathura Road.
Earthen pot saint
A ten-minute walk from Khair-ul-Manazil is the Dargah Matka Pir. Matka Pir roughly translates to earthen pot saint. Sometime in 1257, Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakar settled at this site from Iran. The story goes, he kept a silver pot filled with water by his side as he meditated. He used the water on anyone who approached him with a problem. Word soon spread that the Sufi mystic cured people of illness and troubles with the water from his pot.
I’ll wrap up this photo essay with what is a favourite spot for many denizens of Delhi – Lodhi Garden. Spread over 90 acres, it is popular with morning walkers from all walks of life. Some come to meditate, others to hold their “prabhat shakhas” or morning meetings, some come to do yoga and yet others to walk their pets.
Most of these photographs were taken between 2012-15 with the Panasonic GF1 and a 1.7/20mm lens. The photograph of Adilabad was taken with a Panasonic LX100. Lodhi Garden photos were taken in 2005 with a DSLR system.