The sun has only just peeked above the horizon but I’m already out on the streets of New Delhi. I want to make the most of my time in India’s capital and the golden hour, shortly after sunrise, is a great time for viewing the city’s architecture.
The soft sunlight is painting the stone of the India Gate the colour of honey. Looking up I read some of the 13,218 names inscribed on the 42 metre tall arch, designed by Sir Edwin Luytens and unveiled as the All India War Memorial by Lord Irwin, the British Viceroy, in 1931. It was in that year that New Delhi was officially inaugurated, almost two decades after George V, the Emperor of India, announced his capital was moving here, from Calcutta, during the Delhi Durbar of December 1911.
Exploring Delhi on foot
Delhi, of course, has a far longer history and I see evidence of it within a short stroll of the India Gate. Still within the boundaries of New Delhi, over at the Purana Qila, I take a look at the walls of the old fortress overlooking the River Yamuna and learn how archaeologists have excavated Painted Grey Ware pottery from the site, indicating that people lived here more than 3,000 years ago. The Mughal emperors, who held power from the 16th century until 1857, ordered the reinforcement of the fort’s walls which, in places, bear chatri-style turrets.
I stride onwards to Humayan’s Tomb, the mausoleum of the powerful emperor who died in 1556. The elegant symmetry leaves me in no doubt as to why the tomb is regarded as one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I then visit Safdarjung’s Tomb, built as the resting place for an influential 18th century statesman. Both are topped by vast cupolas and set within well-tended gardens. While I’ve come specifically to see the historic monuments, Delhiites dressed in loose-fitting sports gear are here to take morning power walks along the footpaths.
Cricket by the Rajpath
Countless informal cricket matches are in full swing by the time I’m back on the Rajpath, the broad avenue running between India Gate and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President of India. “Ball! Ball!” comes an imploring shout as a tennis ball rolls by my feet. I chuck it back to a waving bowler and a game resumes.
Up ahead I see the star-topped Jaipur Column rising in front of the domed, Classical style governmental buildings that are collectively regarded as the heart of Luytens’ Delhi, a term honouring the chief architect of the programme to design New Delhi. Yet that name is slightly misleading. Two of the grandest edifices, the Secretariat buildings on either side of the Rajpath, were actually the work of Sir Herbert Baker.
Independence from the British Empire
As I come closer to the buildings I note how traditional Indian elements – such as latticed jali screens, similar to those I saw earlier in the Mughal tombs, and sculpted elephants – have been incorporated into the facades. On columns in the forecourt of the building on the north side of the avenue I see inscriptions, from 1930, recording they were gifts from South Africa and New Zealand. Just 17 years later India had attained independence from the British Empire.
By the ornate gates of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, which was designed to be the Viceroy’s House, an aged Indian man with smiling eyes proudly tells me the building is the largest residence of any head of state in the world and has 360 rooms. Seeing my camera he urges me to take a rickshaw to Gandhi Smirti, the house where Mahatma Gandhi spent the final 144 days of his life. “The Martyr’s Column marks the spot where the father of our nation breathed his last,” he says with a look of sadness.
Star gazing and national heritage
I’m grateful for his helpful suggestion as there’s much to do within New Delhi. One attraction that’s already on my itinerary is the National Museum, which displays artefacts providing an overview of five millennia of the Subcontinent’s heritage. If time allows I’ll also pop into the National Museum of Natural History and the Nehru Planetarium.
First though, I head to the Jantar Mantar, to view the 13 sculpture-like instruments designed so that Maharaja Jai Singh II could make detailed astronomical observations in the early 18th century. The interplay of light and shadow on the steps, curves and arches of the red and white structures proves intensely photogenic.
Delhi’s temples and architecture
So too does the flower-like design of the Lotus Temple, the Baha’i House of Worship designed by Fariborz Sahba. I join the throng of people staring with wonder at the structure and spend a few minutes ruminating within the cool interior, looking towards the nine-pointed star at the centre of the ceiling within the 1,300 seat hall.
I hail a rickshaw and negotiate a price for the ride to the Laxminarayan Temple, which was constructed shortly after the inauguration of New Delhi and ceremonially opened by Mahatma Gandhi in 1939. After taking a look at the frescoes inside I decide to take a walk in gardens holding numerous sculptures.
With daylight beginning to fade I head to the circular park at the heart of Connaught Place, the commercial hub also known as Rajiv Chowk. The real estate prices here may be among the highest in the world but those on the menus of restaurants are reassuringly restrained and sightseeing has made me hungry.
Find out more about the city by visiting the Delhi Tourism website.
For insights into the country as a whole take a look at the Incredible India website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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