Getting to Know Delhi's Multiple Faces

Posted by Peter Beland • Saturday, May 29. 2010 • Category: Crossing Cultures
"Medieval mayhem, opulent metropolis, stately maiden aunt: give it a chance, and this unruly capital will capture your heart. Yes, it's crowded, aggravating, polluted, extreme, and hectic, but hey - nobody's perfect."
- Lonely Planet India, 13th edition

These were some of the first words I read about Delhi. A city officially of 15 million inhabitants, but in reality more like 20 million. A city of djinns and city of dreams for the capital's millions of migrant workers. Mega malls and glittery condos take root next to fields of marigolds where sari-clad farmers lay out their produce on nearby roadsides, hoping to attract Delhi's middle-class suburbanites on their way home from work. One of the world's most polluted cities, it boasts more parks than most Western capitals.

© Photo by Knowledge Must

After living here since January, I agree that Delhi is a chaotic and confusing place. It inspires a cocktail of emotions: awe, confusion, excitement and anger just to name a few. When I first arrived, all I knew of the place stemmed from reading a few William Dalrymple books and chatting with friends who had spent some time in the capital city. I arrived at Indira Gandhi Internationals (IGI) airport at 1:30 am local time after a 30-hour journey from Portland, Oregon.

Dazed and jet-lagged, I hailed an Ambassador Taxi, the iconic tank of a car that I had read about in “City of Djinns”. My driver was one of the countless hopeful souls from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who have now surpassed Punjabis as the majority population in Delhi. Zooming down the highway that connects IGI to Delhi, I am still surprised we did not crash, enveloped as we were in Delhi's notorious winter fog and garbage-fire smoke. We nearly ran into a street cow and had a close call with one of the yellow and green auto rickshaws that ferry many Delhiites from point A to B. When we finally arrived at my hostel one and a half hours later after asking for directions five or six times, I was awash with feelings of excitement from being in such an exotic and chaotic place.

© Photo by Knowledge Must


A week later, I was a confused, frustrated mess, trying to reconcile what I had read about the City and what I was experiencing. But, it is only natural to be confused in a city which is composed of (depending on who you ask) 8 historic cities.

"[Delhi]...is becoming India's dreamtown- and its purgatory."
- Sam Miller, author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity

Delhi can neither be summed up as the exotic city of hijras and hookahs that many Westerns like to elegize nor as the flashy, booming city of the 21st century. In a city where 1,000 year old ruins lay next to shops with the latest in haute couture, it is not easy to make a sweeping definition of Delhi's character. Below are two cases in point.

Delhi's oldest continuously inhabited area (est. 740 C.E), Mehrauli is located on the road that connects Delhi to Gurgaon, Delhi's ultra-modern suburb to the south. It has seen empires come and go, all of whom have left their mark somehow. The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, used to watch the Phool Walon ki Sair, a multi-day flower festival celebrating the area's religious harmony, from the balcony of the Zafar Mahal, a now crumbling Mughal summer palace abutting a cluster of modern apartments. Roughly one square mile in size, Mehrauli contains Jain and Hindu temples, mosques, a Cambodian Buddhist shrine, a church and Sufi saint tombs, or "dargahs." One such dargah, hidden away off the bazaar road, is the resting place of 39 "hijras" - 3rd sex people or eunuchs - and is revered by many Muslim members of India's peculiar transgender and eunuch community. Located ten minutes away by foot is St. John's church, a building that incorporates architectural motifs of a mosque and a Hindu temple and holds an annual morning Easter procession that winds throughout Mehrauli's streets. Mehrauli’s dusty baolis (medieval step-wells) are reminders of Delhi's water shortage, a problem precipitated by the wanton development of Gurgaon to the South and of vacation homes in Mehrauli itself. It is still part of Delhi; still part of its explosive growth.

© Photo by Knowledge Must


Delhi has around five million vehicles on the street and adds 1,100 cars each day. On my trips home from Mehrauli via auto rickshaws, I have endured the accompanying exhaust and frantic honking that goes with the 40 rupee fare. But, in a couple of months, I could avoid it all by taking Delhi's brand new metro when it reaches the Qutb Minar. A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I went to Old Delhi, specifically the hustle and bustle of Chandi Chowk. Instead of taking a rickshaw all the way there from our South Delhi home, we went to the closest metro station (Central Secretariat) and took the metro the rest of the way. We entered the metro from the imperial grandeur of British New Delhi, boarded a train in the pristine order of the 21st century metro of modern Delhi, and exited into the spice filled air of 17th century old Delhi.

© Photo by Knowledge Must


So, this place is complicated. Though I am still confused and frustrated at times, I have grown to admire this city of djinns, this city of hopes and dreams. I have been here a mere four months and know now that it would take a lifetime to truly understand this place. But, that said, any time spent in Delhi is time well spent.

A friend once told me of a comparison her German friend made between Americans and Germans. Americans are like peaches, soft and sweet on the outside, but once you get to the center, you don't know what to do with the pit. Germans are like coconuts, hard and unappealing on the outside, but once you break through to the center, you get refreshing milk and flesh. I suppose then that Delhi, following this fruit fueled string of similes, is like a pomegranate: once you pick away at it enough, you are amply rewarded for all your hard work.
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  1. I always found eating pomegranates a frustrating experience, you do have a lot of work to do before you get to eat.
    Interestingly enough, the indian way of doing that work consists of cutting the fruit in too, and then hitting each half repeatedly with a hammer until the content falls out.

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