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Beyond Delhi; a walk down the ancient sights and sounds of Purani Dilli

 

Yeh Purani Dilli hai mere yaar!

 

I always hated the thought of Delhi; the hyped capital of India, with its grueling pollution levels forever making newspaper headlines, was not a place I could imagine a dreamer like me to settle in. A couple of quick visits in childhood – watching the cacophony of Paharganj, the breath choking traffic at Kashmere Gate, the heat, the self-possessiveness etched in every face one saw – I had decided that Delhi was spiritually dead. Despite the fact that the city had two of the nation’s premier universities, I deliberately chose to ignore them out of my antipathy towards Delhi.

Life, however, has a mind of its own and it will take you wherever it wants to take you. It will be two years soon, that I first stepped into a plane to begin my post-graduate studies from Delhi University. Do I still hate the city? No. I will tell you how and why this ancient space of land, with all its distressing elements (and yes, the pollution too), has crawled its way into my skin and made me feel at home in it.

I always believe that to really know a place you have to fall into sync with the same rhythms that beat in its heart. You cannot hop into a Ho-ho Bus and sight see Delhi in 2 days. This bus service, by the way, gives you a 10 minute-stop-each to see all the famous landmarks of the city – Red Fort, Qutb Minar, Akshardham, etc, etc. By all means go for this fun trip and see the various places of Delhi, but should you have the time to spare and the curiosity to discover, take a moment to realize the stark contrasts between the expansive, green Presidential Estate and the dingy streets around the railway station, the sleek bungalows in CR Park with Jaguars and Bentleys adorning their garages, and the windowless matchbox apartments squeezed into intimacy in Sant Nagar, observe the pale skinned Caucasians at Hauz Khas, the narrow-eyed folks from the East at MkT, and the thousands of other varieties that flock to this city and make it their home.

Each individual comes to Delhi with a dream, as it has been since the time the Arabs first crossed the city’s boundaries to raise its first forts. To tap into the heart of Dilli and not merely glance at “international” Delhi, one will have to discover these dreams, trace them in the invisible spaces between man and monument, and there is a chance that you too will be taken by the city.

Wherever you are putting up in Delhi, stick your head into the air and breathe in. The pollution is a result of the bottomless pits of desire and hunger of Delhiites to own another piece of junk for their garage. And the factories. Under the blank apartments live basement factories that continue to churn out both products and pollution even as new age industries set foot on the city surface. If you follow the smoke trails what you will uncover are stories, traditions that are being passed across generations, the gift of metal work, carpentry, hosiery, glasswork… occupations kept alive only through sheer strengths of legacy.
To appreciate a place thoroughly, one must visit with some knowledge of its history. Delhi, with its recurrent cultural onslaught by invaders from as early as the 7th century, is particularly rife with a deep historical past, and the best way to experience this is through a walk down the cultural hubs of the settlers who left their legacies behind.

Sufi Nights at Nizamuddin’s Dargah

There is something enchanting about the ephemeral glow of yellow light, the flickering flame of a thousand candles and diyas (clay lamps) dancing to the strains of Sufi music in the inky setting of an evening. Chisti Shaikh Nizamuddin Aulia’s mausoleum is one of the most famous shrines in Delhi, which also houses the tombs of the 14th century Sufi poet Amir Khusrow and the Mughal princess Jahanara. People are curiously drawn to this holy place irrespective of faith and creed. While devotees read their evening namaaz at the adjoining mosque, hawkers watch from behind piles of incense, holy shrouds and other paraphernalia, others stare curiously at the Farsi inscriptions on the tombstone, no doubt, bearing some ancient words of wisdom that 21st century is too oblivious to possess. At about 9 every Thursday evening, the area comes alive as Qawwali singers pour out their devotion and love for the lord in strains that at once absorb you into a trance and ignite an atmosphere of deep peace as they sing late into the night.

Tibetan Colony at Majnu ka Tila or MKT

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