Written by phileasfogg on 16 Feb, 2012
Every time my husband and I go travelling in India and we wonder whether we should hire a tourist guide at a major attraction, I’m reminded of an experience at Fatehpur Sikri. Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, is a very major site – it was established…Read More
Every time my husband and I go travelling in India and we wonder whether we should hire a tourist guide at a major attraction, I’m reminded of an experience at Fatehpur Sikri. Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, is a very major site – it was established in the 16th century by the Mughal emperor Akbar. The palace complex, in particular, is the highlight of any trip to Fatehpur Sikri: the palaces are gloriously carved, and have interesting histories to them.
Our trip to Fatehpur Sikri was very impromptu: we woke up one Sunday and decided to go to Fatehpur Sikri for the day. We didn’t get any time for research, so when we landed up, we hired a guide – a licensed Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guide. These guys go through training and exams, so we’d guessed we’d be in safe hands. Almost from the very first structure in the palace complex, we realised how wrong we were. "This," said our guide, waving towards a set of stone cells, each with a stone ring carved into the base of the wall, "were the stables. The rings were used to tether the horses."
We walked on till the end of the ‘stables’, only to find the regulation ASI sign. On it was written the sad truth: "contrary to what most tourist guides say", this was not the stables, but possibly the chambers of the maids. The stone rings were used to probably secure curtains or screens. At nearly every building in the complex, our guide had something interestingly juicy to tell us – which, on examination of the ASI sign alongside, proved to be pure bilge.
Which is why we don’t really trust Indian tourist guides very much. There’s a tendency to play to the gallery – doesn’t everybody love a delightful history? – so delightful histories are cooked up. It’s pretty much the same case in Delhi too. For example, guides will tell you that the massive barbican in front of the gate of the Red Fort was built by Shahjahan to ‘veil’ the fort from public gaze (the barbican was raised by Aurangzeb, long after he had succeeded Shahjahan as emperor).
Your best bet, therefore, is to either spend a lot of time and effort finding a guide who really knows what they’re talking about (not an easy proposition, as there are a lot of charlatans out there) – or to get yourself a good guidebook. Unfortunately, since most travel guides try to cover everything a tourist would be interested in, the amount of detail and explanation you can expect is pretty minimal.
This is where Swapna Liddle’s recently-launched book Delhi: 14 Historic Walks (Westland Ltd; ISBN: 978-93-81626-24-5) is a boon. Swapna’s a historian (her PhD was on 19th century Delhi, so she’s literally on home ground here). Also, she’s been conducting historical walks for over a decade now. I’ve been on umpteen walks with her – in fact, all the information in my numerous ‘Historic Delhi’ journals has been compiled from notes I’ve taken on her walks.
Delhi: 14 Historic Walks covers, as is obvious by its title, fourteen walking routes. These include Delhi’s three World Heritage Sites (the Qutb Minar area, Humayun’s Tomb, and the Red Fort), plus eleven other areas that are rich in historical heritage, such as Lutyens’ Delhi, Tughlaqabad, Hauz Khas, Nizamuddin, Lodi Garden and Safdarjang’s Tomb, and Purana Qila. Each chapter (one per walk) begins with a brief history of the area, followed by a longer description of the walk route. Here, there are clear instructions on which path to follow, what to look out for, and – of course – the history of each structure along the way. Unlike a lot of other comparatively boring tourist literature I’ve come across, Swapna’s book actually takes the trouble of explaining architectural nuances that help you to appreciate a building better. For example, how the arch developed from a clumsy ‘false’ arch (Indian stone workers knew nothing of arches till the Central Asians brought the concept here) to a ‘true’ arch – or how you can tell the difference between the cenotaph of a Muslim male from that of a female.
Alongside are occasional anecdotes. I am a writer of historical books and do a lot of research into 17th century Delhi, so in my self-satisfied way, I’d not been expecting to come across anything new. But there was – interesting legends (and, significantly, specifically marked as legends or stories, not paraded as history) about places and people in Delhi’s history. There are little asides, like excerpts from the memoirs of travellers like Ibn Battuta, François Bernier and Maurice Dekobra. There’s a sadly prophetic couplet by the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah. There are the names of the common bird species to be seen at Hauz Khas. And more.
From the purely practical angle, too, the book delivers. At the back of the book is a map of Delhi, with each walk area highlighted, along with major roads and the Delhi Metro rail network. Each chapter has a detailed route map, including prominent landmarks and roads in the vicinity, plus (of course) the exact route of the walk and the structures it includes. Also provided for each walk are the details you’d need as a visitor: timings of monuments, ticket prices, amenities, parking facilities, difficulty levels, special instructions (for instance, for Tughlaqabad, Swapna mentions that you should wear sensible footwear and garments that cover your legs, since thorny scrub covers much of the area). For each walk, she also specifies the approximate time you can expect to spend on the walk – and suggests an abbreviated walk, with only the highlights, should you have relatively little time at your disposal.
The book has lots of black-and-white photographs of the buildings described, along with the maps. It’s a neat size, so it’ll fit easily in your hand or bag – and, blessedly, it’s a lightweight book that you can actually carry and refer to on a walk. I’d have preferred some nice colour photos, but I can see the publisher’s point of view. Glossy photos and art paper are all very well for coffee table books, but they can make a book expensive – and inconvenient for rough handling (I’ve had guidebooks come apart in my hands during a trip). So, I’ll forgive the black-and-white photos.
If you’re interested in Delhi’s history – even if you don’t have the time to go on each one of these walks – I’d highly recommend buying this book. Even if all you’re interested in is seeing Delhi’s major historical attractions – the Red Fort, India Gate, Humayun’s Tomb and Qutb Minar – this book’s a lot more tourist-friendly and historically accurate than your average guide. And, at Rs 495 (just about $10), it’s a worthwhile buy – look out for it at major bookstores in Delhi, including at the airport. It’s also available online from Amazon.com, and in India from booksellers like Flipkart and Infibeam.
If you can’t get a good historian to lead you on a walk through Delhi, this is the next best it gets.
Written by phileasfogg on 01 Mar, 2011
While rabri, kababs or even puri-aloo are available outside Delhi, Daulat ki Chaat is a very uniquely Delhi delicacy. And both rare as well as unknown even to most Delhiites.Chaat is the name given to a range of tangy and spicy snacks that are widely…Read More
While rabri, kababs or even puri-aloo are available outside Delhi, Daulat ki Chaat is a very uniquely Delhi delicacy. And both rare as well as unknown even to most Delhiites.
Chaat is the name given to a range of tangy and spicy snacks that are widely available across Northern India, served with everything from tamarind chutney and freshly ground mint or coriander chutney, to whisked yoghurt. Daulat ki Chaat, despite its name, has nothing whatsoever to do with chaat. This, instead, is a dessert, a milk sweet that is made only in Delhi during the winter months. And it’s available only in the morning, mainly in and around Chandni Chowk. Daulat ki Chaat is not sold in shops; instead, men trundle carts from which they sell the Daulat ki Chaat.
We first went searching for the elusive sweet one February morning. We walked a long way—from Jama Masjid, down Dariba Kalan, Kinari Bazaar, through Parathewali Gali, along the main road of Chandni Chowk, through Katra Neel and Bagh Deewar, then all the way through Khari Baoli, past Lal Kuan and to Hauz Qazi—keeping our eyes peeled for Daulat ki Chaat sellers. We didn’t see a single one.
Next winter, we assured our disappointed selves; next winter we’ll begin the quest in December itself. Coincidentally, two weeks later, at the fag end of February, we decided to take visiting relatives for breakfast to Karim. We got out of the Chawri Bazaar Metro station and had just begun our walk from Hauz Qazi to the Jama Masjid, when we passed a young man pushing a flat-topped cart covered with a sheet of bright red faux leather. On the sheet were arranged piles of little foil-lined bowls, a few large white plastic containers (the type frequently used in India for takeaways)—and a very large metal platter, about 4" deep, containing what looked like paneer, cottage cheese. Paneer is a familiar sight and taste for us, so we walked on—and then the man called out his wares: "Daulat ki chaat!" We were back at his cart before he could call a second time.
The young vendor doled out our orders. A few spoonfuls of the snowy-white sweet (not paneer, but the Daulat ki Chaat itself) were piled into a foil-lined bowl. A decorative scoop of the same creamy stuff, but pale yellow, not white, was added on top. Then, from another bowl beside him, the man sprinkled over it a spoonful of what’s known as mawa: milk cooked till it’s a light golden-brown sold. This mawa had been grated. And hey presto, our Daulat ki Chaat was ready to be savoured.
It was fantastic stuff. Tarun and I quizzed the man while we ate, and though we’d known the rudiments of Daulat ki Chaat, he filled in some gaps for us. The sweet is made by boiling a lightly sweetened mixture of cream and milk (more milk, less cream) again and again. Each time the mixture comes to the boil, the froth that rises to the top is skimmed off and kept aside. It’s this froth, painstakingly collected, that is Daulat ki Chaat. It is, as you can imagine, unbelievably light—I’ve had some light soufflés and mousses, but nothing as light as this. The sweetness is very low, and the grated mawa on top of each helping provides a wonderful contrast of textures.
Our one bowl of Daulat ki Chaat cost us Rs 20, a surprisingly affordable price for something that takes so much effort.
Finding Daulat ki Chaat can be a question of serendipity—for us, it certainly was—but your chances of getting to savour it increase if you go searching for it on a winter morning. The vendors usually vanish by afternoon, and as soon as the weather starts turning warm, they stop making Daulat ki Chaat: the man we’d bought it from told us that another two or three days, and they wouldn’t make it any more this season.
Written by koshkha on 07 Nov, 2010
We found our carriage. We checked our names were on the manifest. We checked the numbers on the side of the carriage – 1 to 72. We assumed that 1 was at the left end of the carriage and 72 at the far right. So…Read More
We found our carriage. We checked our names were on the manifest. We checked the numbers on the side of the carriage – 1 to 72. We assumed that 1 was at the left end of the carriage and 72 at the far right. So did everyone else. We all piled onto the train to find that the absolute opposite was the case. 72 people - almost all of them at the wrong end of the carriage - most laden with big bags, then tried to rearrange themselves into the right configuration. It wouldn't be all that easy anywhere but in India you can start a war out of something like this.We were looking for seats 10-13 which were three rows in from the far end. Coming towards us were all the people looking to reach the higher numbers. We shuffled, squeezed, lifted and prodded and slowly made our way down the carriage. A party of European schoolgirls and their teacher were accompanied by several local guys from an adventure tourism company, dressed in matching green T-shirts. All the girls and their teacher were randomly spread through the train with only a scrap of paper with the seat numbers to help them.At the mid-point of the carriage are a set of facing seats with a long table between them. I suspect these are much prized by family groups as the best seats in the carriage. They're perfect for spreading out the picnic that mother or grandmother has prepared and giving the kids space to bounce around. You can't book these since the train booking system means you get what you're given, but it was clear that the man who'd got them was determined not to lose them. The girls from the school party had all shuffled into the space around these tables to make space for people to pass them. An angry voice was bellowing down the train. "That's MY seat – how dare you. Get out of my seat". The girls tried to explain they weren't stealing his seats, they were just letting people pass. "Get out of my seats NOW" he hollered. My sister and her partner were caught between the mad man and the girls. They tried to intervene, explaining that the girls were just letting people pass, not stealing his seats. They asked him to try to calm down "WHY SHOULD I?" he shouted. Eyebrows were raised up and down the carriage. Losing your rag in India just isn't the done thing and this guy was making a real exhibition of himself. By this time we had our bags on our heads and were nearing our destination. The luggage racks were already full and our only hope was to stuff the bags under the seats. We brushed aside a few small cockroaches to make space and squeeze them in. My sister was still shuffling down, tutting to herself like a true Brit, and rolling her eyes at fellow travellers. Mr Gobby was still sounding off about his seats, the school girls were looking totally baffled at such rudeness in such a normally polite country and their poor teacher was counting her flock to make sure nobody was lost. Eventually we all had our seats and were ready to do battle with the chap in front who wanted the blind down when we wanted it up and to try to keep the over-friendly cockroach out of my bag.The train departed on time and rolled through the city – not that we could see any of it but we knew it was out there. This was one of the Shatabdi trains which are supposed to be the faster and more luxurious options. It was painfully slow and far from luxury. A few years ago we actually got a nice train in southern India running between Mysore and Chennai. It was fabulous. The seats were comfortable, the tickets included food and the staff fed us repeatedly on the smoothest train line in India. Ever since that journey, we've had nothing but disappointment on all the other carriers. This carriage was so-called AC Chair Class. The seats are all pre-booked and there's no 1st class on this particular train. This bedlam of fighting and pushing was in the highest level carriage on the train. One man with a bad attitude had spoiled the beginning of the journey for dozens of travellers.Guide books will often tell you to take day trains rather than night trains. They tell you that they give you a great chance to see the countryside. Fact is that the windows of most trains are so filthy that you'll see India through a thick film of dirt. The only way to see better is to go out in the space between the carriages and look out the windows on the doors. It's best to do this before the train has been going for too long and before the toilets get too stinky. More often than not, the carriage doors will not be closed so you can look through the open door at the world outside. This is not a land that employs too many people in the Health and Safety industry. My sister was horrified at the idea that someone might fall out.Soon after departure the food service started. You cannot go hungry on an Indian train because there's an almost constant stream of people trying to sell you food. On this train the salesmen were employees of the train company but in some parts of India they are just random locals who hop on and off the train. Trying to guess what's on offer is part of the fun. "Sheeps sheeps" turned out to be potato crisps, "dreenks" were obviously drinks but it took some time before we sussed that "Vesh peasah" was vegetable pizza (and very delicious they were too).People did hop on and off during the stops. We had a leper with no nose (cue my sister's bad joke "My leper's got no nose. How does he smell? AWFUL" which may sound callous but is a survival instinct in a country with so many badly deformed beggars). Another chap with no legs propelled himself from one end of the carriage to the other with his hand outstretched completing the journey within the time taken to stop at a station.Occasional glances through the window showed us a lush green countryside of tall sugar cane, something green and low to the ground that was popular with the little white egrets, a village full of boys flying kites off their rooftops and a set of three large effigies about to be burned for the annual Dessurah festival. The only other evidence of the festivities that we saw was a single loud, bright explosion of fireworks. My husband said he thought we'd hit a buffalo.We eventually rolled into Dehradun about half an hour behind schedule with only about a third of the travellers we'd started with. Getting off the train proved a lot easier than getting on had been. This 6 hour journey had covered a crazily short distance of just 240 km but despite the fuss and the frenzy, a trip to India is incomplete without at least one or two journeys by rail.Close
Written by koshkha on 06 Nov, 2010
~Flying to India~We've previously flown to India by Gulf Air via the Middle East and direct by both BA and Virgin and had issues with all of them. We thought it was time to give Kingfisher, India's only "Five-Star" rated carrier a go. We…Read More
~Flying to India~We've previously flown to India by Gulf Air via the Middle East and direct by both BA and Virgin and had issues with all of them. We thought it was time to give Kingfisher, India's only "Five-Star" rated carrier a go. We booked our flights back at Easter through the Travelocity website which was offering the same prices as Kingfisher's website but a much easier booking process. We paid £480 per person for London-Delhi return. Our outbound flight was the day after the Commonwealth Games ended so we expected it to be busy with all the people who'd put off their travel to avoid the chaos of the big event.~Check-In~Kingfisher fly from Terminal 4 at Heathrow. We easily found the check-in desks and waited about 15 minutes in an orderly single queue. The days leading up to our flight were not filled with our normal pre-flight stress of worrying about online check in because been able to pick our seats when we booked and knew where we'd be. Coming back there was no queue at all in the new Delhi Terminal 3 building so in terms of length of wait to check in, I have to give a bit thumbs up to Kingfisher.On the way to India we got our pre-chosen seats without any problems. Since we were travelling with my sister and her girlfriend, we'd taken care to choose pairs of seats in two consecutive rows. For our return flight we turned up at the airport relaxed that there was no need to rush there because we'd got some nice seats lined up. When the check-in assistant said we'd got 27 H&K I was horrified. I pointed out that the seats were on our booking. They blamed the company we booked through claiming that it's not possible to reserve the bulk-head seats. They were making up excuses and changing them every few minutes. The assistant was calling her supervisor and whispering away to him about us. She then confirmed that they couldn't let us have the seats because they were blocked. OK, I said, then unblock them. Then she claimed the entertainment system was broken on one of the seats. OK, I said, we can live with that. Then she changed the story and said they'd already given someone else one of the seats but we could have the other. I asked why we had to be SO far back and why if they couldn't give us what we'd booked we couldn't at least have something nearer the people with whom we were travelling. It was like talking to the BT Internet call centre in India – eternally polite, utterly incompetent and frustratingly similar to talking to a brick wall. The supervisor was no better. I asked for a feedback form and filled it in there and then. Then to make things even more peachy they told us the flight would be late because the entertainment system had broken down.~On Board – on the way to India~Boarding was through a gate that was very close to the air-side shopping area and was straight onto the plane via an air-bridge. The queues moved quickly and we were soon on board and were there early enough to not have to fight for overhead luggage space. The seats were of a good standard and of a red leather or leatherette. We had pillows and blankets and each seat back already had a 500 ml bottle of water in it. The magazine and shopping guide were also in place. There wasn't a lot of legroom although it was no worse than many other airlines we've used. There's a footrest that might be helpful for shorter travellers but not much use if you have long legs.The seat back TV screens in economy were larger than many airlines put in business class. If anything they were a touch TOO big for the limited distance between viewer and screen. The on-demand video system was excellent when it worked and they started it playing very early on, before we had even taken off which really surprised me. So much for the claims by most airlines that you can't keep your headphones on during take off – half the plane was watching a film long before we started to taxi. The choice was excellent although the touch-screen response was very iffy. Unfortunately my husband's headphone connection wasn't good so he gave up on watching very early on. The socket didn't take my noise reduction headset that I'd brought along so I missed everything but the loudest of dialogue but still enjoyed the film I'd chosen. It's not a lot of fun to sit with your hands pressing your headset against your ears just to try to catch the dialogue.Food was served quite a long time after take off which was strange on a late night flight. If you want vegetarian it has to be 'AsianVegetarian' although the meat eaters get a choice of Asian or 'continental'. The veg meal was a lot spicier than the European airlines would ever dare to serve and the sweet potato salad with kidney beans and pomegranate was particularly hot. The main dish consisted of two small curries and some rice. I ate one of the curries and avoided the other. There was also a yoghurt raita that I skipped and a sweet pudding that somehow disappeared down my husband's throat when I wasn't paying attention.Now onto the big surprise. An airline started by a beer mogul had absolutely no beer on board. We thought the stewardess was joking but it turned out to be true. They also had no diet coke which was almost as surprising and the white wine was disgusting. Breakfast next morning was bland in the extreme and was served almost two and a half hours before landing which seemed way too early on a flight that only took eight and a half hours. On the whole the flight was very smooth and calm and not typical of a flight to India on which people have a tendency to get a bit over-excited. The only 'trouble' came from a few people who were really annoyed that their seat back screens didn't work. Admittedly I think the crew could have done more to placate them (they didn't do ANYTHING) and I could understand why they were frustrated since it's happened to me before. My sister was left without any entertainment on a flight to Australia and Qantas gave her $50 worth of duty free to compensate. If Kingfisher can't fix their screen problems, maybe they need to think about something similar.~Flying Home~After our outbound flight we were pretty impressed but everything went wrong on the return leg. The flight was delayed by over an hour and then they kept us waiting on the plane for another hour and a half. As we lined up to get on board a particularly sycophantic young man was assigned the task of ritually apologising to every customer that the entertainment system was broken. Most hadn't known about this and I had to wonder what was the point of telling people at that point - too late to buy books or magazines. The apology was hollow and completely pointless since no compensation or offer of alternative entertainment was offered. I suspect they were trying to avoid that the flight crew caught all the flak but everyone was pretty peeved by the time they got on. Ironically by the time we eventually took off after sitting on the plane for what seemed like an eternity, they'd managed to fix the system. After delaying us so long, the cabin crew then took an eternity to bring food and drink. Some customers were getting really ratty and one irate passenger went storming down the plane shouting "For god's sake WHEN are you going to feed us". My sister came down to see us half way through the flight to tell us that the people who'd been given our seats were a guy who refused to put the window blind down and upset everyone and someone who threw up after a couple of hours. She thought we were rather lucky to have been able to escape especially since her girlfriend was about to start a diplomatic incident with the window blind man.Again my husband didn't do well with the so-called entertainment system and this time got a distorted screen. The cabin crew were clearly in a collective foul mood throughout the flight and I didn't see a single genuine smile. The food was second rate – especially the bizarre afternoon snack which came at a time that didn't fit Indian or UK time zones. When we finally landed nearly 3 hours late, we were really questioning how this airline had ever got its five-star rating. Close
Written by phileasfogg on 23 Aug, 2009
Last spring, an American friend of mine had come visiting India and stopped a few days in Delhi. I took her shopping, and then out to lunch. When I asked Greta whether she’d prefer Indian food, or something different—like Italian—she chose Italian. "I love Indian…Read More
Last spring, an American friend of mine had come visiting India and stopped a few days in Delhi. I took her shopping, and then out to lunch. When I asked Greta whether she’d prefer Indian food, or something different—like Italian—she chose Italian. "I love Indian food," she said. "And I have no problems with the spice. But after a couple of weeks of eating Indian food in restaurants, I’m finding it difficult to handle the grease."
I agree with Greta: the Indian food, especially the North Indian food, served in restaurants is heavy on cream and butter and ghee, and even cast-iron stomachs can’t take too much of that. Even we, who’ve been living in Delhi for years, prefer to eat out at Italian, Oriental or other restaurants.
So here are some suggestions for all those who’re in Delhi and want something other than Indian food.
First, a brief introduction to the type of non-Indian food you can expect to find in Delhi. Although the city has a Russian restaurant, a couple of sushi bars, and some plush French restaurants (mainly in five star deluxe hotels), it’s Mediterranean and Chinese that rule the roost. And though you’ll find hummus, doner kebabs and falafel featuring in most Mediterranean menus, the most popular Med cuisine is Italian: viva la pizza and pasta! Do note, however, that a lot of the food (both Italian as well as Chinese) is often altered to suit Indian palates: don’t be surprised if you find tandoori chicken or chopped green chillies as a pizza topping, or paneer in a spicy garlicky sauce masquerading as Chinese.
Now, where to go and what to watch out for.
If you’re really on a shoestring budget, buy sliced bread, cheese spread, and fruit—all easily available and cheap. If you can afford to spend a bit more, your next best bet is one of the many chain restaurants in Delhi. Some of these are international chains; some are homegrown versions that serve mainly Italian or bastardised ‘American’ food.McDonald’s: Obviously. It’s cheap and abundant (there’s even a store in the heart of Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s main shopping district), so what if the food’s a wee bit plasticky. Note that McDonald’s in India do not serve any beef products; you’ll find a fairly wide range of vegetarian options, plus chicken, fish and lamb. Call 011-66000666 for delivery.Pizza Hut: Not one of my favourites, mainly because nearly all their pizzas have been ‘Indianised’ to the point where the resultant pizza tastes like curry on a pizza base. Not nice, but if you’re feeling adventurous, give it a try. Call 011-39883988 for delivery.Domino’s: Better pizza than Pizza Hut, and they do lovely thin crusts (which Pizza Hut doesn’t). Call 011-44448888 for delivery.Subway: Salads and submarines, both ‘Western’ (tuna, turkey, roasted chicken, BMT, etc) and spicier Indian ones, the latter mainly vegetarian. These guys have a tendency to pile on jalapenos, so if you don’t like that, make it a point to mention it.KFC: Kentucky Fried Chicken is back in India after a hiatus when they ran into litigation. The usual range is available, along with some veggie alternatives (though I’ve never seen anyone at KFC eating anything but chicken). Generally extremely popular—Delhiites seem to love their chicken! (By the way, if you’re around the New Friends Colony Community Centre and you like fried chicken, give Buddy’s Broaster a try: healthier, and not bad.Slice of Italy: A vast range of pizzas, pastas, subs and desserts. These guys are good value for money—my favourite calzone, which comes bursting with mushrooms, peppers, bacon, ham and cheese, is delicious, so big that I always have leftovers—and just Rs 125. A note of caution: don’t order any milk-based desserts like tiramisu or cheesecake: they’re occasionally off. Call 011-41708111 for delivery.Yo China: Not a favourite of mine, though I am listing it, because it’s one of the few Chinese chain eateries in Delhi. The food’s very average, a Punjabi version of Chinese with lots of tomato ketchup and red chillies added. Portion sizes, however, are fairly generous—and it’s cheap.Nirula’s: Long before Domino’s, McDonald’s et al arrived in Delhi, Nirula’s was the place one went for pizza, footlongs, burgers etc. They still do all of those (and Indian food as well), but Nirula’s is best known today for its ice creams: a lot of people still swear by the Nirula’s hot fudge sundae.Costa Coffee: Good coffee (and other beverages too), and a selection of nice sandwiches, salads, pastries and cakes. Their mushroom and cheese pannini, the roasted vegetable and pesto sandwich, the garlic and mushroom tostata and the chocolate twist are especially good.Barista: Like Costa, the Barista stores are basically coffee places that also offer some stuff to eat. Their food tends to be a little spicier than Costa’s, but it isn’t bad, and their selection of chilled drinks—spritzers, shakes, iced teas, cold coffees and more—is unbeatable.Café Coffee Day: In the same style as Barista, and (according to a friend who’s a chef) the best coffee in town. I don’t know about that, but the food on offer is so-so. You’ll find the usual sandwiches, patties (even samosas) and cakes, but the quality varies and most stores don’t restock during the day, so entering a Café Coffee Day any time after 2 or 3 PM, you’re unlikely to find very much in the way of food other than desserts.
Most of Delhi’s mid-range non-Indian eateries are restricted to the many Chinese restaurants across town, and a few other places that do Mediterranean or other cuisines. Among the good Chinese restaurants are The Yum Yum Tree (New Friends Colony); Nanking (Vasant Kunj), The Near East (Basant Lok) and Oriental Bloom (Ansal Plaza, near South Extension). All of these do very good Oriental food, including dishes that are unusual in Delhi. Oriental Bloom has an especially superb dimsum lunch that is to die for.
There are also the more `American’ eateries—TGI Friday and Ruby Tuesday, both offering everything from pork chops and racks of lamb to fried shrimp, Cajun spiced fish and similar food. Also along the same lines is the All-American Diner at the India Habitat Centre. A word of caution: the latter is very popular, and since they don’t accept reservations, you just may have to wait 10-15 minutes for a table at peak hours.
Equally popular is Big Chill, which has stores in Khan Market and East of Kailash. Big Chill has superb pastas, grills, sandwiches, shakes, smoothies, waffles—the works. Or, for a more Italian range of dishes, try Flavors, opposite Moolchand Hospital. Very good Italian food (it’s owned and managed by a Sicilian who left Italy because of the mafia. Good for us!), and substantial portion sizes. Also Italian is Amici (Khan Market), from the same food company as Baci, but more affordable and with a more everyday menu.
Somehow, the poshest restaurants in Delhi seem to focus on Continental food—typically Mediterranean, though there’s some fusion as well. The most expensive restaurants (not necessarily the best!) are in the deluxe hotels, and there are some standalone eateries that are also very stylish and very expensive: the sort of place where you’d pay an average of at least Rs 1,500 per person. Some of the best standalone restaurants are Olive (at the Hotel Diplomat), Diva (M-Block Market, Greater Kailash Part-2), Ivy (New Friends Colony Community Centre) and Baci (Sundar Nagar Market). All of these specialise in Italian/Mediterranean food, and use fancy imported ingredients. One of my favourite upmarket restaurants is the stylish Smokehouse Grill in Greater Kailash Part-2: superb food and a luxurious feel to the entire experience. They do eclectic and innovative dishes: beefsteak with wasabi, John Dory with smoked Shimla chillies, even pimento cheesecake—with plenty of dishes using ingredients that are smoked on hickory, apple, maple or other woods.
If you’re looking for more ideas, buy yourself a copy of the Times Food Guide, easily available in most bookstores in Delhi: it has a listing of Delhi’s best restaurants, including brief reviews of what’s good and what’s not.
Written by phileasfogg on 25 Feb, 2009
The last Mughal Emperor was the ill-fated Bahadur Shah II, an accomplished poet who used the pen name `Zafar’, Bahadur Shah `Zafar’ had the misfortune to be the de jure ruler when, in 1857, the Mutiny broke out. Once it was quashed (and very violently…Read More
The last Mughal Emperor was the ill-fated Bahadur Shah II, an accomplished poet who used the pen name `Zafar’, Bahadur Shah `Zafar’ had the misfortune to be the de jure ruler when, in 1857, the Mutiny broke out. Once it was quashed (and very violently too), Bahadur Shah was summarily pensioned off and exiled to Burma, where he later died.
Bahadur Shah lived at a time when the grandeur of the great Mughals had dwindled away into a sad and tawdry echo of its past magnificence. The British had, in effect, become all-powerful and Bahadur Shah was given a mere Rs 1,00,000 a month to meet all his expenses—which included all the expenses of the 5,000 people who lived with him in the Red Fort and were dependent on him.
So, where two centuries earlier the wealthy Shahjahan had built his magnum opus, the Taj Mahal, and followed it up with the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid and the city of Shahjahanabad in Delhi, Bahadur Shah could barely scrape together the funds to make himself a retreat away from the crowded Red Fort. Since he was short of money, Bahadur Shah ended up simply adding to an existing palace: what is today known as Zafar Mahal. Bahadur Shah’s father, the Emperor Akbar II, had built this palace but it was Bahadur Shah who added the gateway to it and made it a retreat, where he and his family would come to stay for days at a time.
There’s an open space—a sort of square—in front of the Zafar Mahal—which is used as a vegetable trading centre of sorts. As we weave our way gingerly between the lorries laden with vegetables, young men deftly package cauliflower, broccoli, cabbages, radish, spinach and carrots in large plastic bags. Ahead of us, behind a high iron railing, stands the gate to Zafar Mahal. A small stone plaque, inscribed in English, contains a brief description of the palace.
The gate is an impressive one, made of red sandstone and embellished with white marble. It has two especially ornate medallions in the form of large lotuses on either side of the main arch. Below, just above ground level, are two shallow oriel windows or jharokhas, both looking more Rajasthani than typical Mughal. The gateway is closed with a weatherbeaten wooden door; in the right leaf is a small wicket-gate, through which we step into a dark, high passageway. One section of the passage slopes up ahead, flanked by arched recesses which still retain traces of ornately painted plaster: we can see brightly coloured fruit and flowers decorating the edges of the niches. Another section of the passage slopes up to the left. All of it smells of bats, but only for a few yards: once we emerge from the passage into the small courtyard beyond, it’s fine.
It’s impossible to give precise directions on navigating Zafar Mahal: it is by far the most eccentric building I have ever seen. It’s a maze of different levels, small dingy cells, high crumbling staircases, and strange nooks and crannies which appear to have no earthly use. Partly, it’s because Zafar Mahal consists of bits and pieces built up over a long time. For example, towards the front of the courtyard is a structure of heavy grey Delhi quartzite, roughly hewn and with square-sided columns and a plastered dome. This is probably a 15th century structure made during the reign of the Lodhi dynasty, but no-one’s quite sure who made it, or why.
Beside this building is a broad staircase which leads up to the top of the gateway. We go up, and here’s another interesting discovery. A pretty arched balcony with fluted Shahjahani columns fronts the gate, offering a view of the neighbourhood beyond and below. The columns at the front—the ones between which the Emperor would ceremonially have stood every morning to show himself to his subjects—are good white marble; the columns at the back, which wouldn’t have been visible to the general populace, are sandstone, covered with lime plaster and polished to resemble marble. Rather sad, really.
Back down the staircase, we make our way across to the chambers on the left. These contain traces of the colonial architecture that had started becoming popular in the latter half of the 19th century. Bahadur Shah’s sons had begun experimenting with Western concepts, and some of these can be seen here: there is, for example, a fireplace high up in one wall (this was originally a two-storied chamber, but the floor of the first storey has since collapsed). There’s a chimney above it, and on the other side, a panel of painted plaster which looks more Italianate than Mughal. The broad, low-stepped staircase we’d descended is also definitely colonial: in traditional Mughal (and even pre-Mughal) buildings in Delhi, staircases were very narrow and steep affairs built within walls.
Beyond this is a small and distinctive three-domed mosque made of white marble. Known as the Moti Masjid (the `pearl mosque’), this sits in its own little enclosure, separated from the rest of the palace. It was built by the Emperor Bahadur Shah in the early 18th century and though it’s made completely of marble, it’s very austere: there is almost no decoration to speak of. Even the mihrab that marks west—the direction of prayer—is, uncharacteristically, unadorned. On the south, a little border of floral carving marks the top edge of a dado, but that’s about it.
Above this dado and outside the mosque is a roofless enclosure screened off on all sides by carved panels of white marble. There’s one opening, though, and we step in to see four cenotaphs. One, tucked away in a corner by itself, is relatively plain and is the cenotaph of Bahadur Shah’s son, Mirza Fakhroo, who died in 1852. The others are all cenotaphs of the later Mughal emperors. There’s a marble-rimmed grave covered with earth, the cenotaph having disappeared; this is the grave of Bahadur Shah I. Beyond that is an empty plot of earth, and then two very ornately carved cenotaphs, one of white marble and the other of black marble. These are, respectively, the cenotaphs of Shah Alam II and Akbar II. The empty plot of earth is believed to have been earmarked by Bahadur Shah II as his burial spot, but is unlikely, since the earlier emperors died long before him and could hardly have generously decided that they’d leave a spot vacant for their descendant.
Zafar Mahal is right next to the western gateway to the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki. There’s no entry fee—in fact, Zafar Mahal is more or less a free-for-all. On the day we visited, there were groups of men sitting around and playing cards; there were boys playing cricket, and some hangers-on who seemed to have nothing better to do than just laze around in the courtyard. If you want the place to yourself, try to go a little early: around 8.30 A.M should be a good time to beat the crowd.
The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has chapters all across India. The Delhi Chapter has its work cut out: Delhi has over 2,000 listed historical structures, many in constant danger of being razed, encroached upon, used as a garbage dump, or…Read More
The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has chapters all across India. The Delhi Chapter has its work cut out: Delhi has over 2,000 listed historical structures, many in constant danger of being razed, encroached upon, used as a garbage dump, or being put to other highly inappropriate uses. Although a large part of its work involves carrying out restoration projects, the Delhi Chapter also does its bit to educate people on Delhi’s history, and the need to conserve the city’s heritage.
As part of this drive, INTACH regularly organises public walks—anybody who registers for the walk and pays a fee of Rs 50 is welcome to join. All through this month, the Delhi Chapter’s done weekend heritage walks across the city, in Daryaganj, Hauz Khas, Lodhi Gardens, and Mehrauli. This one, in Mehrauli, is being conducted by my sister Swapna, a historian.
I carpool with Swapna; the walk’s to begin at 8.15 AM, and we arrive at the rendezvous—the Mehrauli parking lot—by 8 AM. Opposite the parking lot is the gateway to the Jogmaya Temple: an ancient Hindu temple, but now completely renovated. Mehrauli, unlike colourful, exotic Chandni Chowk, is little known, so the number of people who’ve registered for this walk is relatively small: there’s just about fifteen of us.
Mehrauli is extremely interesting, in that it is Delhi’s oldest continuously inhabited locality. Delhi is old—it’s been around for over 30 centuries—and some areas, like the Purana Qila, show signs of habitation from ancient times, though with populations coming and going as the years passed. Mehrauli is different; it’s been constantly occupied since at least the 8th century. Such a long history translates into a vast number of old buildings and structures, dating as far back as the 12th century, and right up to the end of the British Raj.
We begin our walk, strolling up the easy slope to a crossroads, the Mehrauli Bus Terminal on our left. This is a busy area, with the Delhi Transport Corporation’s buses racing along at full speed as they move in and out of the terminal. Just before the terminal is a judicial department of some sort. Outside the office, on the pavement is a long row of ramshackle desks, each of them with its own little board: Notary. Litigations filed. Property and tax cases handled. And so on; all of these are advocates whose practice seems to be restricted to doing paperwork.
Beyond them is the first of Mehrauli’s interesting buildings: the Public Library. It’s a circular building, fringed by a verandah of pleasant arches, all of it topped by a dome. A small, obviously colonial building, newly whitewashed and in thankfully good condition. We walk on, up to the top of the hillock, on which stands the prominent Tomb of Adham Khan. We walk up the stairs and into the tomb, where we spend a while looking at it and taking photographs. Once we’re done—and Swapna’s explained the history of the tomb—we emerge from the tomb and cross the square opposite, taking the lane which leads downhill approximately opposite the tomb. (There are a lot of lanes converging here; ask for the road to the dargah if you’re confused).
The dargah, the shrine or tomb of the 13th century Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, is one of Delhi’s most important centres of pilgrimage. Though much of the shrine is now so modern you can’t see its original form, it’s still worth visiting. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of time (a walk, as Swapna says, of its own). So we won’t be visiting the dargah, but we do stop by on the way to admire the Gandhak ki Baoli and to offer a heartfelt thanks to the Archaeological Survey of India, which has recently had it cleared and cleaned.
We walk on, passing two tall stone structures on either side of the lane. These, Swapna tells us, formed the Naubat Khana (the drum house) to the dargah. Musicians would sit in the balcony of the drum house, and play on kettle drums to welcome visitors to the shrine. The structure on the left has been taken over by a local gurudwara. They’ve whitewashed it, so you can’t really see much. The structure on the right is more or less intact, made of good solid stone with beautifully carved oriel window supports on the sides. Past the Naubat Khana, we come to the doorway of the dargah. There are shopkeepers here selling chadars of green cloth embroidered in glittery golden tinsel; rosaries; roses; and other votive offerings. We turn right and walk on till the lane opens out into a square, with the red sandstone-and-white marble gateway of the Zafar Mahal opposite.
Zafar Mahal is large and historic, with lots of intriguing features, so takes up a good bit of our time. When we emerge, Swapna turns left and takes us up a narrow lane past two old tombs, both with four-sided, somewhat conical domed roofs. One’s been turned into a grocery shop; the other appears to be a home. The lane—by now less than four feet across—slopes up slightly and joins the main road of Mehrauli Village. A man is selling raw sugar here in its myriad forms: large discs of orange-gold gur; sacks of pale yellow shakkar; heaps of brown bura. All of it smells gorgeously intoxicating, but with the dust of the road right there, I wonder how hygienic all of this is. Further down the road, past shops selling gaudy polyester saris aglitter with sequins and tinsel, a man is selling large bunches of brown tobacco, hung upside down from the rafters of his shop. Below stands a row of earthen chillums and gleaming hookahs.
Even though this is the main road (and was once the main Mehrauli-Gurgaon road) it’s narrow: two cars coming from opposite directions can cause a traffic jam if there happens to be a slow cart moving along in front of one of them. And there are slow carts here by the dozen. Behind us, a man pedals a cycle with a large barrow loaded with vegetables. Ahead of us, a sewer-cleaning crew is hard at its smelly work: they’re manually lifting filth out of the open drains and piling it into a deep-sided cart pulled along by a large and patient bullock. We hold our noses and race past—only to run into the mother of all traffic jams: a consignment of large steel pipes has spilt across the road, effectively choking half of it off. There are cyclists, men on motorbikes and scooters, cars, a small lorry, and us.
We squeeze past, walking intrepidly over the pipes till we’re the past the jam. Swapna leads us further down the road, pointing out traces of old architecture: semi-circular arches, Greek columns and shuttered windows in one building; traditional dripstones with sandstone supports in another. We go past the Jamaluddin Building—conspicuously labelled, its name and date (1940) spelt out in plaster below the ornate facade—and the Kali Prasad Haveli, a much more typically Indian mansion. Swapna tells us that, through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, Mehrauli became a popular retreat for the rich and powerful of Delhi: those who could afford it invariably built a mansion here where they would come now and then from north Delhi for a holiday.
The road opens out at the Jahaz Mahal, beside which men sit selling spices: huge yellow heaps of turmeric and bright red dried chillies contrasting with the dull red and grey bulk of the building. We wander around Jahaz Mahal, admiring the carving on the pillars and braving the treacherously narrow, steep staircase to climb up onto the roof and look out over the Hauz Shamsi beyond.
Back downstairs, we cross the road and walk down to the Jharna. Someone seems to have been plucking chickens here: the ground’s littered with white feathers, enough to stuff a couple of mattresses. But the only people around are a bunch of children from the neighbourhood. They’re all equally grubby but cheerful, playing happily by themselves until we come by. They realise this is a good opportunity to get photographed, and they pose for us once Swapna’s finished with her explaining of what the Jharna is all about.
It’s a long walk back to the parking lot, but Swapna manages to ensure that for the last five minutes of the walk, we use a different route—so we see some interesting new features. There’s a clinic housed in what looks like an old tomb; there are late colonial buildings which are now shops; and there’s a quaint old plaque inserted in the main wall along the road. All it says is that "From the zails [districts or quarters] of Mehrauli and Badarpur 1261 men went to the Great War 1914-1919. Of these 92 gave up their lives."
And on that note, we walk up to Adham Khan’s tomb beyond, and then to the parking lot.
Written by phileasfogg on 15 Feb, 2009
The Qutb Minar, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, Alai Darwaza and the tomb of Iltutmish are the most striking of the monuments in the Qutb Archaeological Site complex, but that doesn’t mean these are the only structures here. There are other buildings here as well, not as beautiful…Read More
The Qutb Minar, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, Alai Darwaza and the tomb of Iltutmish are the most striking of the monuments in the Qutb Archaeological Site complex, but that doesn’t mean these are the only structures here. There are other buildings here as well, not as beautiful or historic as the others, but worth stopping off and looking at anyway.
Among the most imposing (not necessarily attractive!) is the massive rubble heap known as Alai Minar. This was supposed to be a replica of the Qutb Minar, built opposite the more famous tower on the other side of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Sultan Alauddin Khalji (the same man who built the exquisite Alai Darwaza) commissioned the construction of the Alai Minar in the early 1300’s, but ended up abandoning the project. What’s left is the stump of what could have been an even more impressive structure than the Qutb Minar. Today, it provides a good idea of what the Qutb Minar would look like if you took off all the decorative stone cladding.
Behind the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque is another of Alauddin Khalji’s projects, a series of very plain single-storied buildings made of rubble and dressed with plain grey Delhi quartzite. This was the madarsa (in modern India, a madarsa is synonymous with a school of Islamic learning for children; in medieval India, a madarsa was an institution of higher learning. Other than the Quran, other subjects, such as medicine, logic and jurisprudence would also be included in the curriculum). The madarsa is very stark and unornamented: do, however, look at the arched doorways. You can see that the arches by now were true arches—keystone and all—but the trabeate beam, which in Aibak’s time had been used to hold up the weight, is still there, now used for decorative rather than functional purposes.
The madarsa of Alauddin Khalji surrounds three sides of a grassy rectangle behind the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Part of the madarsa complex, at right angles to the mosque’s screens, includes the tomb of Alauddin Khalji himself. Like the madarsa, this is very plain: just a square platform of rubble, sitting in a roofless square chamber made of the same rubble. Whether or not this is Alauddin’s tomb is also disputed; some feel that something so plain could hardly be the tomb of a sultan. On the other hand, a plain, unornamented tomb would conform to the tenets of Islam. What’s more, the rubble of the tomb was probably once covered with cladding or at least painted plaster, which may well have been fairly heavily decorated.
One tomb that does present a more ornate picture is the tomb of Imam Zamin,, a religious man who hailed from Turkestan but settled in Delhi in the early 16th century. He was, at least for a while, the head alim or scholar of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Imam Zamin built this tomb within his own lifetime, and was buried in it when he died in 1536 AD. It’s a small domed building standing just outside the eastern gate of the Alai Darwaza. Built over two hundred years after the Alai Darwaza, the tomb shows signs of how architectural fashions had changed in the intervening years. The intricate horror vacui has disappeared, giving way to more extensive use of carved jaalis (`filigree’ screens of pierced stone); the dome is more rounded than on the Alai Darwaza and is topped with a finial; and a chhajja—a dripstone or overhang—projects between the dome and the walls below. You’ll see two finely carved medallions in the shape of lotuses on either side of the doorway into the chamber: these too are a later development, more characteristic of Mughal architecture. The tomb of Imam Zamin has another example of a decorative element that evolved from a functional one: ornamental battlements, which were typically used on the ramparts of fortresses as defensive structures, form a pretty edge all around the base of the dome.
As you emerge from the complex, past the sarai and out of the main gate, keep a lookout on your right. Outside the complex, but within a fenced enclosure of its own, stands a very awkward looking structure that looks like a squat pyramid, steps and all. Beyond it, in another enclosure, stands a similar structure of about the same size, but in the shape of a spiral: it looks a bit like a periwinkle seashell sliced in half and placed on its broad end. Both structures are made of plain, unadorned stone and look utterly out of place. These are together known as Metcalfe’s Follies. Thomas Metcalfe was the Commissioner of Delhi in the mid 1800’s, and although his work was centred round north Delhi (Shahjahanabad—the area today known as Chandni Chowk and its environs), he made his weekend home in Mehrauli. The home he made is known as Dilkusha—it was in a tomb that he purchased and had renovated—and Metcalfe spent much time and effort in sprucing up the neighbourhood. Part of the `beautification’ he undertook was the building of the follies—false ruins—that were at the time popular in English landscape design. If Metcalfe had erected his follies in a more subdued part of Delhi, they might just have been interesting and quirky features; in the vicinity of something as awesome as the Qutb Minar, they stick out like a sore thumb.
Walking past the sarai and then the Alai Minar, the first building you’ll come to is the Quwwat-ul-Islam (`might of Islam’) Mosque. This name appears to have been applied to the mosque only from the 19th century onward, but the mosque itself is much, much…Read More
Walking past the sarai and then the Alai Minar, the first building you’ll come to is the Quwwat-ul-Islam (`might of Islam’) Mosque. This name appears to have been applied to the mosque only from the 19th century onward, but the mosque itself is much, much older. It is, in fact, the oldest mosque in Delhi and one of the oldest in India, construction having begun around 1191 AD.
The Quwwat-ul-Islam owes its creation to a man named Qutbuddin Aibak, the first of the Slave Sultans. The Slave Sultans were literally that—slave succeeding master, rather than son succeeding father. Aibak’s master, Mohammad Ghori, had invaded Delhi, ousting the Chauhan rulers of Delhi; when Ghori retreated, he left Aibak behind to rule. Aibak, in his stead, was succeeded by one of his slaves, Iltutmish. But while he was in power, Qutbuddin Aibak did his bit to leave his stamp on the landscape of Delhi, and this mosque is part of that grand plan.
Since religion was (still is, for that matter, at least in India) an important aspect of political power, one of Aibak’s priorities was to emphasise the fact that Delhi was now under the sway of Islamic rulers. Also, Delhi has had a long tradition of recycling building material. These two factors together resulted in the use of existing masonry to build the new mosque. And where did Qutbuddin Aibak find building material? In twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples in the vicinity, from which his builders happily picked out elements—pillars, lintels, oriel windows, etc—which they used to construct the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque.
The intriguing features of the mosque begin at the main gateway to it. This, you’ll notice, is in the form of an arch with a triangular `filling’ of stone in the upper part, with a broad beam of stone below. They’re two very distinct elements: the arch (which made its way to India from Central Asia, where it had arrived with the Romans) and the trabeate beam (an indigenous technique). Unfortunately, at the time the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque was built, the arch was too new a concept for local masons to grasp. They were probably shown illustrations of the arch the Turkic Aibak was familiar with—but they didn’t understand the logic behind the keystone or the structure of the arch. What they created, therefore (which is what you see in the gateway) is a false arch—it looks like an arch, but it’s actually a series of stone blocks placed one above the other in the shape of an arch; there’s no keystone. And, since there isn’t a keystone, a substitute was needed to hold up the weight of all that masonry. The solution? A trabeate beam: a heavy stone lintel lying across the top of the two gateposts, bearing the weight. Amusingly enough, even after Indian masons mastered the true arch, the combination of arch and beam continued to be used, now as a decorative element.
Ascend the short flight of steps up through the gateway and you’ll enter a pillared cloister that surrounds a vast paved courtyard. The intricately carved pillars are evidence enough of the origin of the Quwwat-ul-Islam: all of them, at least on this side of the mosque, are carved in patterns that are very obviously not Islamic. Orthodox Islam forbids the depiction of any living thing, but you’ll find plenty of human figures—musicians, dancers, demons, etc—carved into these pillars. Interestingly, none of the pillars here follow the same pattern: each is unique.
In the centre of the courtyard (known as a sehan in Islamic architecture) is a tall iron pillar surrounded by a railing. This was, till a few years ago, a major attraction: popular belief had it that if you stood with your back to the pillar and folded your arms around it—and you were able to clasp your hands together—your wishes would be granted. Everybody who came by tried their hand (or arms!) at it, because of which the pillar suffered. Thus the railing, which cordons it off.
Do take a look at the pillar, though. It’s very historic, since it dates back to about the 3rd century BC and was cast at the orders of King Ashok. The pillar bears an inscription praising the bravery and other virtues of a king called Chandra (nobody seems quite sure who this could be, since India has known many Chandras). The iron contains a high level of phosphorus which is supposedly responsible for protecting the pillar from rust—it’s been standing for a good while now, braving the elements, and there isn’t a spot of rust on it.
How the pillar came to be in the sehan of the Quwwat-ul-Islam is anybody’s guess; but there was once a legend that anybody who moved the pillar (not an easy task, since it weighs six tonnes) would lose his kingdom. Perhaps Aibak found it here when he began building the mosque, and didn’t want to take any chances by shifting it—who knows?
Beyond the iron pillar is my favourite part of the Quwwat-ul-Islam: the huge sandstone screens that mark the west. (A brief word of explanation here: the function of a mosque, at its very basic, is to mark the direction of prayer, i.e, the direction of Mecca—which in India is the west. A mosque, therefore, can be as simple as a wall with a marking on it to show that it points west. This marking, known as the mihrab, is invariably an arch which is often profusely decorated). West, in the Quwwat-ul-Islam, is marked by a series of magnificent carved screens in the form of huge, soaring arches (again, like at the gateway, false arches). These are of rubble dressed with sandstone in a myriad shades: buff, grey, gold, red—fitted in haphazardly, all of it very striking rather than higgledy-piggledy. And the carving is breathtaking: huge tendrils, lotus buds and flowers fill broad panels, interspersed with bands of Quranic inscription. This is a prime example of what is known as horror vacui decoration—a `horror of empty space’—every single inch is carved.
Once you’ve admired the screens, move off to your right (if you’re facing the screens), through the doorway and out of the sehan and its surrounding cloister. Here you’ll find more screens, an extension of the ones inside. Although they look similar, these (unlike the inner screens) were erected not by Qutbuddin Aibak but by his successor, Iltutmish, about 35 or 40 years down the line. Have a closer look at the carving, and you’ll see that Islamic influences had begun creeping into decoration: the flowing calligraphy of the inner arches has been replaced by more angular calligraphy, and the flowers have given way to more conforming geometrical shapes. The Hindu stonecarvers were beginning to learn!
The `Qutb Minar and its Monuments’ (as listed in the UNESCO World Heritage sites list) were designated a World Heritage site in 1993, conforming to the criterion that it is "an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which…Read More
The `Qutb Minar and its Monuments’ (as listed in the UNESCO World Heritage sites list) were designated a World Heritage site in 1993, conforming to the criterion that it is "an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history".
Whew. Let me put it the way I see it.
This is a place of soaring, splendidly carved medieval monuments with some delightful quirkiness that puts them in a class by themselves. There are lush green lawns, shady trees and flocks of bright green parakeets peering down at you, squawking cheekily from high ledges. There are, at least early in the morning, pleasantly few people around—a rare blessing in a country as crowded as India. And there is the chance to see one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in all of India: the grand victory tower known as the Qutb Minar.
The Qutb Minar and its surrounding monuments lie within the area known as Mehrauli, which has the distinction of being Delhi’s oldest continuously inhabited neighbourhood—people have lived here at least since the 8th century AD. As a result, you’ll stumble over a tomb, a mosque, a grave, a sarai or some other structure every few steps. An important landmark of Mehrauli is the dargah (tomb or shrine) of the Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, much venerated even today: his shrine is a major point on the Delhi pilgrimage circuit. In Islam, there’s a belief that the presence of a saint’s tomb confers sanctity on the area around it—which is why those who could swing it (typically the rich and powerful) would be buried near a saint’s dargah, in the hope that some of that sanctity would rub off on them. Mehrauli, thanks to Kaki’s dargah, is rich in tombs, and two sultans are buried next to the Qutb Minar itself.
Mehrauli is large, and the Qutb complex is a fenced-off section on the edge of Mehrauli. Although it’s called the Qutb Archaeological Site, don’t expect to see any digs; this is just a series of very interesting structures, all in close proximity to each other, standing cheek-by-jowl with the imposing Qutb Minar looming above. The first buildings appear just beyond the main gate: a series of arched cells on your right, with a domed mosque further on. These once formed part of a sarai, a traditional inn or rest house for visitors: a small mosque, stables and a well were integral parts of any sarai.
Beyond the sarai, the road curves to the left. At the corner is a small plastered building with a curved whaleback roof, and beyond it is the rather uninspiring rubble heap known as the Alai Minar (more on this later). Go on to the left, and you’ll come to the focal points of the complex: the Qutb Minar, the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, the Alai Darwaza, the madarsa and tomb of Alauddin Khalji, and the tomb of Iltutmish. These are the biggies here, and having a good look around, with some loitering to take photographs or exult over interesting little details, will take probably between an hour and a half to two hours.
The Qutb Archaeological Site is officially open from sunrise to sunset but it’s best to arrive a little after that, since the ticket counter may not be open! In winter (always the best time to visit Delhi) 8.15 or 8.30 A.M. is a good time to get there. The ticket counter is situated across the road, along with rest rooms, a perpetually closed and dingy souvenir shop, and a left luggage room where you can leave backpacks etc (women can carry handbags into the complex, but backpacks or other large bags aren’t allowed). Tickets cost Rs 10 for Indians and Rs 250 for foreigners. Still cameras are allowed free of charge, but you’ll need to pay a couple of hundred rupees if you want to do video photography.
A small eatery with plastic chairs sells aerated drinks, mineral water, potato chips and the like just inside the main gate of the complex. Outside the gate is a shop that sells film rolls and memory cards for digital cameras—both at highly inflated prices. Note that the Qutb Archaeological Site is accessible for wheelchairs.
One last tip: try not to go on a weekday if you can help it: the complex is often inundated with hordes of noisy schoolchildren who seem to treat the place more as a picnic ground than anything else.