The last strains of medieval Delhi’s Sufi poet Amir Khusro’s words vault across the centuries in the honeyed voice of a Ghazal singer at the atmospheric ruins of the Purana Quila. The Purana Qila is said to be the site of Delhi’s beginnings almost 3,000 years ago in the days of mythical Indraprastha, the capital of the epical heroes, the Pandava of The Mahabharata.
Unraveling the multi-layered historical and cultural treasure of India’s great capital standing by the banks of the legendary Yamuna River could take up a lifetime of exploration and wonder…. Legend and history tell us there are 8-9, nay even up to 15 Delhi’s that were razed and raised, phoenix-like time and time again in the wake of warriors and invaders from the northern passes of the Himalayas, with one purpose in mind – Take Delhi.
In the city’s southern limits lies Mehrauli punctuated with a plethora of monuments. A quit backwater of a village till the 13th century it got a new lease of life with the Dargah of the Sufi saint Qutub Sahib becoming a pilgrimage hub. The fall of Delhi’s’ last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, banished from his citadel (Red Fort) at Shahjehanabad after the uprising of 1857, marked the beginning of British rule in India. Today, Mehrauli is known for its posh farmhouses, boutiques and glitzy restaurants. But more importantly, it’s the location of the 72.5 meter-high Qutub Minar, the world’s highest stone tower and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was raised as a victory tower in 1193 by Qutabuddin Aibak, general of the raider Muhammad of Ghur (in modern Afghanistan) with further additions by subsequent rulers. The Qutub, made of red ad buff sandstone and marble has survived several severe bolts of lightning. Nearby lies the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque also raised by Aibak. The confluence of the Indo-Islamic features of the mosque exemplifies the beginnings of a new stream of architectural vision in India. Another important structure in the complex is the 23-feet-high Iron Pillar (4th-5th century Gupta period), a metallurgical wonder even today. Here too lies warmonger’s Allauddin Khilji’s incomplete aspirational Alai Minar built to rival the Qutub. The use of red sandstone and marble for decorative design was a first at the time. You can catch a Heritage Walk tour around the Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
Delhi’s riverside position was an important one for the Mughal Emperor Humayun who quit Agra after the death of his father Babur at the site of the Purana Qila. But Humayun died early in his reign, plunging to his death on the steep steps of his library. Humayun was laid to rest in a beautiful mausoleum at the nearby village of Nizammuddin. Commissioned in 1562, by his queen Hamida Bano Begum, Humayun’s Tomb (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), is said to be an architectural blue-print for the beautiful Taj Mahal at Agra. The mausoleum today is being revived to its former glory by the Aga Khan Foundation. Across the road lies the Dargah of noted Sufi saint Nizammuddin Aulia and the tomb of his devotee, Sufi poet, Amir Khusro. On Thursday evenings stop by to hear the Sufi devotional (qawwalis) at the Dargah. Ghalib, the Urdu poet is buried nearby as is Jahanara Begum, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan.
The Red Fort or Lal Qila, the fortified citadel and place of Emperor Shah Jahan, which originally stood by the banks of the Yamuna, Is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its novel planning and architectural style, along with its garden design, was to play a pivotal role in Indian architecture. The citadel was created as a self-contained world with places, mosques, assembly halls and bazaars. Don’t miss the nightly Sound and Light Show, the Khas Mahal or Emperor’s rooms, Mumtaz Mahal (an archaeological museum), Diwan-i-Khas, the Diwan-i-Khas and Emperor Aurangzeb’s Pearl Mosque. Nearby is the Jama Masjid, the grand mosque commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1656 and one of India’s biggest mosques.
You can also pencil in a visit to the capital on the 26th of January to enjoy the splendor of the annual Republic Day Parade as it heads out from Rashtrapati Bhawan to the India Gate (All India War Memorial), the grand 42m-high, arched, 1931 structure, dedicated to the memory of those 90,000 soldiers of the Indian Army killed in World War I. The Change of Guards ceremony that takes place every Saturday at the Rashtrapati Bhawat is a popular attraction. An eternal flame to the Unknown Soldier burns at the India Gate.
Food and Fun
- The old city offers a fabulous culinary experience. Gorge on rich parathas, mouth-watering jalebis and chaat in the old quarter of Chandni Chowk.
- The Jama Masjid by-lanes and Lajpat Rai market nearby, offer non-vegetarian delights such as succulent kebabs and fragrant biryani.
- For regional food and pocket-friendly prices, visit Dilli Haat – good for souvenir hunting tool.