Two things you notice upon arriving in Delhi: chaos and color.
How can the eighth-largest metropolis in the world — with a population of 12.2 million inhabitants in the city proper and many more outside its boundaries — be anything but chaotic? Traffic is, in a word, horrendous. Worse than Rome when the Pope appears at the Vatican, worse than Manhattan at rush hour on a December weekday, worse than Boston during the height of the Big Dig, the congestion in Delhi can stop you cold for hours.
Built upon the walkways of the first human habitation here in the second millennium B.C., Old Delhi’s traffic pattern tern is a tangle of snaking lanes and teeming bazaars. For all its confusion, it is one of the most exotic and interesting collections of multiculturalism: ancient turbaned men riding bicycle rickshaws, the smell of spices and smoke saturating the air, baubles and bangles hanging from tiny stalls, open-air doctors’ offices wedged in next to auto mechanic shops. And everywhere, color.
Something in the dyes of the fabrics in Delhi makes the colors deeper and more intense than those seen anywhere else. Women wearing saris in neon pink or electric blue flash by, and the whole fascinating scene makes you feel you’ve been dropped onto a Hollywood — or Bollywood — movie set.
People in Delhi get around, or try to, by bus, auto rickshaw and the new Delhi Metro rail system. Adding to the traffic woes of Delhi — but making it better soon, every Delhiite hopes — is construction related to the October XIX Commonwealth Games, an Olympic-type event with 72 nations participating in every sport from aquatics, archery and boxing to cycling, lawn bowls and rugby, from shooting, squash and table tennis to hockey, weightlifting and wrestling — just to name a few. A state-of-the-art Games Village will be in place along the east bank of the Yamuna River, one of the most revered rivers in Hinduism (Hindus make up 82 percent of Delhi’s population). The village will accommodate 8,000 athletes and team officials and spreads over 158 acres near some of Delhi’s well-known landmarks such as the Baha’i Lotus Temple, Humayun’s Tomb, Akshardham Temple and India Gate. Much of the $230.7 million cost results from the construction of “flyovers” or bridge roads over existing roads, beautification projects and building a modern metro rail system.
Delhi is only the second Asian city to host the games after Kuala Lumpur in 1998, and the rare honor is considered by all a turning point for Delhi, as a brand and as a sports capital. The city has witnessed an unprecedented transformation in the last four years in preparation for the games, which take place Oct. 3–14. Earlier this year, Delhi successfully played host to the Asian Five Nations rugby tournament.
Politically, Delhi has its own legislative assembly, lieutenant governor, council of ministers and chief minister. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Delhi came under direct rule of the British crown and the British East India Company. King George V moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. Delhi is a traditional stronghold of the Indian National Congress, also known as the Congress Party.
Even though the “New” part of Delhi — built directly south of Old Delhi in the 1920s with wider, more logically planned boulevards — should handle traffic more efficiently, we still encountered an actual parade on the streets at 3 a.m. Our hotel concierge explained that most parades in Delhi are held in the middle of the night because that is the only time they can make their way through the streets.
Gridlocked or not, Delhi today is a multicultural, cosmopolitan metropolis with a relatively comfortable average income ($1,700 per capita), an impressively low unemployment rate (1.42 percent in 2008) and a booming economy, due to its sophisticated technology and telecommunications industries. During 2004 and 2005, the city published 1,029 newspapers in 13 languages. The capital is the largest commercial center in northern India and the seventh-most expensive office hotspot in the world, with prices at $145.16 per square foot. Its historic gems — three World Heritage sites and hundreds of museums, parks, mosques and temples — are well worth braving traffic to see.
Of the scores of historic sites in Delhi, you won’t want to miss the three that are World Heritage sites. The Red Fort is a 17th-century complex constructed by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the same man who built the Taj Mahal for his beloved wife. The largest monument in Old Delhi, it served as the capital of the Mughals until 1857 and is a synthesis of Persian, European and Indian design. The prime minister of India addresses the nation from here every Aug. 15, the anniversary of the day achieved independence from the British. A sound and light show attracts tourists in the evenings. Qutub Minar, at 238 feet, is the world’s tallest free-standing minaret and is situated in a lush park a few miles south of Delhi. It is surrounded by several other ancient and medieval structures and ruins. Humayun’s Tomb, built in 1570, was the first garden tomb on the Indian subcontinent and served as inspiration for several major architectural innovations, including the Taj Mahal.
One of the most beautiful buildings in the world is the Baha’i Lotus Temple, built in 1986 in the shape of a lotus flower. Visitors of all faiths may enter the temple and observe the services. Well worth a three- to four-hour drive or train ride to Agra is the famed Taj Mahal, a simply breathtaking structure that is even more impressive in real life than in photographs.
Delhi is also home to one of the finest and largest zoos in Asia. The National Zoological Park (tel 91 11 2435 9835) features some 2,000 species of animals and birds from Africa, America, Australia and Asia, including lions, tigers and elephants.
Connaught Place (now called Rajiv Chowk) in the heart of New Delhi is the city’s premier shopping destination. Built in 1931, it is a British colonial equivalent of a shopping mall, with lots of upmarket shops and a metro museum for train fans.
Check out Delhi nightlife at The Other Side (8 1/3 Adhchini, Sri Aurobindo Marg, basement, tel 91 11 2685 3896). The couples-only basement bar features eclectic music with an emphasis on rock and attracts a good crowd, particularly on Wednesday “media” nights. F Bar & Lounge (The Ashok Hotel, 50-B Chanakyapuri, tel 91 11 4615 0844) is a trendy bar and nightclub that claims to be the largest bar in Delhi. The $42 cover charge is redeemable toward drinks on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; $22 cover other days.
Info To Go
Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL) is about 14 miles from the center of Delhi. The easiest and safest way to the city is to arrange transport ahead of time through your hotel. A taxi to even the most distant hotels should cost no more than $12. There are buses, but they are not widely used. The Delhi Metro is scheduled to be finished by October.
Just The Facts
Time Zone: GMT+5.5 winter; +4.5 summer
Phone Code: 91 India, 11 Delhi
Currency: Indian rupee
Entry/Exit Requirements: U.S. citizens require a valid passport and a valid Indian visa, obtained in advance, toenter and exit India for any purpose.
Official Language: Hindustani is the principal spoken language; English is the principal written language.
Key industries: Information technology, telecommunications, hotels, banking, media and tourism, construction, power, health and community services, real estate, retail
Le Méridien New Delhi
This city center hotel a mile from the Presidential Palace features the Amatrra Spa, blending Ayurvedic therapy with 21st-century technology. Windsor Place, tel 91 11 2371 0101, $$$
Shangri-La’s Eros Hotel, New Delhi
Enjoy 5-star service, excellent restaurants and good security in this elegant oasis set among landscaped gardens in the historic government district. 19 Ashoka Road, Connaught Place, tel 91 11 4119 1919, $$$
Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi
Experience the ultimate in luxury, food and hospitality at this distinguished hotel set among six acres of lush greens within the Diplomatic Enclave. Sardar Patel Marg, Diplomatic Enclave, Chanakyapuri, tel 91 11 2611 0202, $$$
This hotel restaurant regularly tops the charts as India’s best, with legendary roast lamb and dal Bukhara. Be sure to make reservations. ITC Maurya, New Delhi, Sardar Patel Marg, Diplomatic Enclave, Chanakyapuri, tel 91 11 2611 2233 $$$$
Very popular with Delhiites, this market eatery serves great roomali rotis, mutton kebabs, chicken tikkas and aloo rolls. Flat 50, Lodi Estate, Khan Market, tel 91 11 4368 0449 $
Punjabi By Nature
One of Delhi’s most acclaimed Punjabi restaurants is known for its gol guppas, puffed balls filled with a tangy, spicy tamarind sauce. Raja Garden, MGF City Square Mall, tel 91 11 4717 8000 $$
Checking In With Vinay Maheshwary
Director, Tourism International
What Are The Strongest Businesses In Delhi Today?
The service industry is doing quite well, and the technology and business process outsourcing sectors are booming. The biggest advantage to us is the language — English is taught at most of the primary schools, enabling us to conduct business in English. Call centers all over Delhi are a very strong source of employment for Delhi youth.
What Is The Current Economic And Development Climate In Delhi?
There is an economic boom due to a thriving middle class. The buying power of the middle class and the younger generation is quite strong. The city is laying new metro lines to facilitate commuters and constructing flyovers everywhere for better traffic flow in preparation for the Commonwealth Games. Delhi routinely hosts international cricket matches, which are quite popular, but the Commonwealth Games are bigger.
Some people believe construction of the stadiums and flyovers and the beautification of the city are all taking too long and that the cost has escalated too high. During the construction phase it is quite a mess — it makes you wish the games were taking place on some other planet! — but in the long term the games are good for the city because Delhi is getting a very strong infrastructure set up. New hotels are being built for the guests. The city is being completely redecorated and renovated. Delhi is moving toward becoming one of the best world-class cities.
How Is The Tourism Industry Faring In Delhi?
Tourism was low due to the global economic recession, a very strong heat wave throughout the summer and the Soccer World Cup not taking place in Delhi, but these circumstances are in the past and we foresee tourism picking up.
What Is Your Favorite Site In Delhi?
I enjoy the Karol Bagh shopping area, which has literally hundreds and hundreds of shops selling anything and everything. It is a shopping paradise where Indians normally buy clothes, electronics, jewelry and almost anything else they need. The place is full of restaurants offering all cuisines.
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