Home > India, The Veggie Bus, Travel > A Tale of Two Cities; Delhi, Old and New

A Tale of Two Cities; Delhi, Old and New

Numerous travellers we’d met up in the North had relayed various horror stories about Delhi to us; one girl lasted only 3 hours there before she jumped on a random train out, and a young Finnish boy had developed a slight twitch upon hearing the cities name spoken. Subsequently we started to dread our trip to India’s capital and began planning our escape before we’d even set foot in the place.

So yes it is filthy (and apparently the city had been cleaned up for the Commonwealth Games), and yes it is busy in parts (but no more so than London), and yes it is utter madness and common sense seems to have overlooked the Delhites of Old Delhi, but, we kind of liked it. Unlike the many bland and dirty Indian cities we’d encountered Delhi had culture and character; it was a place of history, of the new India and the old, where the lower castes fight for survival and the rich shop for imported goods. For us this was a tale of two cities. Let me start with Old Delhi…

Chandni Chowk and the small crowded streets around it make up the centre of what is commonly knows as Old Delhi. And for a Westerner it really is like turning the clock back to medieval times with an extra million or two shouting, screeching, singing Indians, plus a few hundred rickshaws thrown in for fun. Just walking through these streets is an experience not to be missed in Delhi, but be warned; there is no respite from the chaos and if you get lost, you really get lost. As an Indian would say the streets are ‘same, same but different’. Traders, hawkers, beggars, men carrying 20 kilos of watermelon or bricks on their heads, cows, chickens and browbeaten tourists move shoulder to shoulder in the tiny cramped streets trying to avoid the rickshaws and motor bikes overloaded with people and goods and coming at you doing 50 miles per hour. Carl and I got lost in these streets on numerous occasions and considered ourselves lucky to be witness to such a chaotic circus. We were pushed, shoved, asked for money, asked to buy spices and silks, we posed for photos, shook hands with the local children and shouted at each other when we ended up back on a street we’d already frequented (it was Carl’s fault). Although Carl attempted to use his compass to get us out of the mess we finally had to give into a call. The call through red paan stained teeth of a rickshaw walla. After negotiations we got into the rickshaw and jerked our way through the traffic of people, animals and goods. It wasn’t long before we reached a roundabout. I’m not convinced Indians really know what a roundabout is for. Those trying to come into the roundabout had over taken each other and caused a complete block of all the possible exits. The Indian way of dealing with this situation is to beep as loud as you can, for as long as you can. There was complete grid lock. Carl and I finally decided to get out and walk, but as the Indian drivers had also used the pavements as roads, this entailed a lot of climbing over carts, bikes and rickshaws, much to the amusement of the drivers.
It took another hour of walking and another cycle rickshaw to finally get us back to Paharganj, the backpacker area where we were staying. Here we revelled in the company of other Westerners and the familiar backpacker market and rooftop restaurants. This was the area between New and Old Delhi; a kind of truce which allowed the tourists in. We decided that we’d explore New Delhi the next day as a means of recovery.

From Connaught Place stretching south is considered New Delhi. Spacious streets, wide four lane roads, chain restaurants, Western shops and a new type of middle class Indian dressed in modern Western attire categorised this area. The further south you travelled the cleaner the streets got, the crowds dispersed and trees started to appear pleasantly placed along the wide pavements. The area around the Parliamentary buildings and the Gandhi memorial could have belonged to Paris. I wondered if the traders and hawkers from Old Delhi ever visited this area, or if the upper middle class Indians and expiates that we encountered in New Delhi ever visited Old Delhi. We went into a nice air conditioned South Indian restaurant where we were given napkins and addressed as Sir and Madam. The day before we had eaten street food from Old Delhi where the only communication had been in the form of grunts and our samosas had been served to us in newspaper. This was a completely different world inhabited by a different race. But it wasn’t half as fun as Old Delhi.

But it’s not just all mincing around; Delhi has some good sights too. The main reason people visit Old Delhi is to see the Red Fort, and the Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India where tourists are made to wear silly outfits to the delight of the local Muslims. These were both lovely places but our favourite ‘sight’ within Old Delhi was undoubtedly the Bird Hospital situated inside the Jain temple just outside the red fort; in fact, we went there twice. The Jain religion developed from a strand of Buddhism in the 6th century and one of the defining principles is it’s respectful and equal approach to all walks of life. No harm to any animal, big or small. The bird hospital situated inside the Jain temple proved to be a fine example of this. It was also a useful tool in helping me re-establish Carls vegetarianism. The ‘hospital’ was actually a rather small and depressing room filled with cages large and small that housed sick and injured birds; some had been paralysed by their injuries and lay motionless in their cages while those further along the path to recovery flew freely around the room. Bandages adorned feet, wings and necks. There was one falcon in particular who lay on his back looking very stiff. We originally assumed that it was dead and we were about the alert the staff when we noticed a slight blinking. Unfortunately the second time we visited we learned that the falcon had died from his injuries. With reliance on donations the bird hospital often has to make do as a hospice, caring for the animals as much as they can but ultimately nursing them to death. So if you’re on your way to Delhi please visit and make a donation!

Many other sights were scattered around New Delhi; the Gandhi memorial was particularly striking and gave a full account of India’s struggle for independence which included many British atrocities committed in India. The spot where Gandhi died was encircled by a peaceful garden and a monument to peace and non-violence. The memorial grounds also included a multimedia type museum which was great for both children and Carls. After reading and playing through the Indian history and non-violent struggle for independence I found myself asking if new or old Delhi were what Gandhi envisaged for an Independent India, or whether either conformed to his principles?

Probably the most aesthetically pleasing ‘sight’ of new Delhi was Humayun’s Tomb. After once again grumbling about the high entrance prices for foreigners we entered one of the most serenely green spots in new Delhi. Within these spread out gardens stood many tombs housed in the typical Muslim style buildings built with a satisfying symmetry and curved ceilings made famous by the Taj Mahal. The centre piece being Humayun’s Tomb built here in the 16th century from the contrasting materials of red sandstone and white marble. Humayun was the second Mughal emperor and the tomb was one of the first pieces of Mughal architecture to appear in Delhi; it remains a popular place for young Muslims to wonder round today. And if you’re in Delhi, we very much advice you join them. The sun setting over the serene buildings was particularly beautiful.

We had planned a quick get away but funnily enough our two night stay soon turned into four and four into six. As I write this blog I can still smell the streets of old Delhi in my nose and I still carry around some filth from those very streets on my feet. The image that summed up Delhi for me was thus; outside Connaught Place some new free toilets had been erected, probably for the Commonwealth Games clean up. The toilets are clearly labelled in both English and Hindi and are free to use. They are all empty. A man approaches, stands outside the toilets, unzips his fly and pisses freely onto the bank of toilets. Another one follows suit. This is Delhi; where old meets new.

We also undertook a Delhi street food, street crawl, which is probably the reason Carl had typhoid, but it was very tasty. Read about our street food antics here.

  1. Uncle G.
    March 8, 2011 at 4:47 am

    Uncle G. aka ESL pedant here,

    Now, consider this:

    “The Jain religion developed from a strand of Buddhism in the 6th century and one of the defining principles is it’s respectful and equal approach to all walks of life. No harm to any animal, big or small.”

    its! No apostrophe. And no blaming Carl.

    And we give “advice” not “advise”.

    Come on Niece H. Get it together.

    Uncle G.

    • cockmans
      March 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm

      Uncle G I really think my apostrophe use is the least of your family English grammar worries… I recently received an e-mail from a certain sister containing the following phrases…

      ‘got to rinse it on a sledge up north’ and ‘When I got home from Yeovil there was a letter for me from this company in Reading (the same one that I went to interviews at last year) offering me a SIIICK job!’

      Yes Uncle G you are definitely reprimanding the wrong niece. Alas, I will double check apostrophe use in future posts (apart from the one about Jodhpur I just posted).


  2. Uncle G.
    March 8, 2011 at 4:48 am

    Want a follow up…

  1. February 9, 2011 at 10:44 am

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