From the glittering port city of Bombay, we wend our way inland, and commence our Grand Tour of the Princely Cities of the Subcontinent.
The first of these cities, is the grande dame of cities herself – Eternal Delhi.
It is said that Delhi is the historic site of seven mediaeval cities, with the eighth being the modern city of New Delhi, established by the British in the 1930s.Our sojourn in the city is too short, however, for us to delve deep into each and every layer of the palimpsest. We begin our journey rather late in time, in the 1200s, at what remains of the city of Lalkot, the seat of the Delhi Mamluk Sultanate.
Today, the area is known as Mehrauli, and is home to one of the most impressive monuments of all time – the Qutb Minar, the tallest free-standing brick tower in the world.
From the Mamluks, we skip forward in time to the Sayyid and Lodi Dynasties, which held sway here in the early-to-mid 1400s and the mid 1400s to early 1500s respectively.
The tombs of their emperors are still scattered in the city today, primarily in Lodi Gardens, where the tombs of two of their emperors – Muhammad Saha (Sayyid) and Sikander Lodi – still stand today amongst others.
Then come the Mughals, who rule from the 1500s to the 1800s. They were one of the greatest of India’s Empires.
Delhi is known for being the final resting place of one of the five great Mughal Emperors. Humayoun, son of Babur and father of Akbar, is buried here, in a great Mausoleum alongside other tombs, in Nizam-ud-din, a residential district named after a 13th century Sufi saint.
Elsewhere in the city sit other monuments that date to the Mughal period, such as Safdarjung’s Tomb at Lodhi Road, an example of late Mughal architecture; and the curious-magnificent Jantar Mantar, a complex of astronomical instruments built by the Maharajah Jai Singh II of Jaipur, who was in turn, commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah.
In 1639, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan – he of the Taj Mahal – decided to move the capital of the empire back to Delhi (it had been briefly moved to Agra in Akbar’s time). He built a magnificent walled city, complete with a stupendous Red Fort and Friday Mosque (Jami Masjid), and called it Shajahanabad.
Shajahanabad is today known as Old Delhi, and it is here – in the expansive courtyard of the Jami Masjid and along the crowded sidewalks of the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, the great Chandni Chowk, that one gets a feel of real life in the city.
Of course, not stay in the city would be complete without a visit to the Red Fort itself, built by Shah Jahan, and home to the Mughal emperors for 200 years.
The British first arrived in Delhi in the 1800s, as officials of the Honourable East India Company. By 1857, they had removed the last Mughal Shah on a pretext, and imposed direct, colonial rule upon India.
The capital of the British Raj being Calcutta, the British kept initially to the outskirts of Old Delhi, in what was then and still known as Civil Lines.
Today, in this quarter situated to the northeast of Old Delhi, one still finds significant monuments of the time, including St James Church, one of the oldest churches in Delhi, and the historic Maiden’s Hotel – once the grande dame of Delhi’s hospitality scene.
In 1911, in a great show of Imperial power, the Delhi Durbar was organised to commemorate the coronation of King George V as the Emperor of India. During the Durbar, it was declared that the Capital of British India would move to Delhi from Calcutta.
Over the next two decades, a gargantuan exercise would be undertaken to build a brand new, thoroughly modern European city in the outskirts of Old Delhi. The architect of the exercise was one Edwin Lutyens, who with his team of architects, designed the urban plan of New Delhi, as well as many of its major monuments.
The most imposing of these monuments was Kingsway (todays Rajpath), with the monumental Viceroy’s House standing like a palace on Raisina Hill to the west, and mighty India Gate to its eastern end.
Elsewhere in the centre of New Delhi, there were rather more modest forms of architecture, including Connaught Place – a large circular “square” that was designed to be the commercial heart of the city; and the many residential bungalows in Neo-classical style, that constitute what is today known as the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone.
Many of these bungalows continue to be the residences of government officials, while others house Embassies and High Commissions.
Contemporary Delhi retains much of that which is historical, even as it has developed a youthful dynamism as India’s new economic capital (having surpassed Mumbai some years back).
Nowhere is this dynamism more evident than in the vicinity of Khan Market, a bustling quarter of boutique shops, restaurants, bars and bookshops in the city centre.
Nearby sits genteel Sujan Singh Park, a cluster of Art Deco-style apartments erected in 1945, and founded and named after the father of Sir Sobha Singh, the eminent Builder of much of New Delhi.
Here at Khan Market, in one of its many cafes, is a good place to settle down to a cup of tea, and to ponder the many cities of Eternal Delhi.