If you are traveling internationally, it’s difficult to bypass Delhi even if you tried. Friends and strangers seemed leery about Delhi, but perhaps that is why we enjoyed it and were surprised and deeply moved by some of the sights we found, food we tasted and people we met along the way.
We stayed in Delhi for two days of our trip, but we managed to pack a lot into two days. It was hard to figure out where to stay in Delhi. It’s a huge and sprawling city. Most of the budget accommodations had bad reviews online. It seems most of the tourist sights are located in Old Delhi, but it also seemed too hectic to stay there. So we decided to stay at a very quaint guest house in New Delhi called Devna. It was located in a quiet, open, gated community with some small parks and boutique shops called Sundar Nagar.
We were quite surprised that New Delhi was nothing like we heard. It seemed clean, spacious, not too much traffic. There were very modern boutique shopping centers and high end restaurants close to our hotel. Tuk tuks and taxis were a bit more expensive in Delhi. However it was Old Delhi that we think everyone was referring to – a whole other world of its own. Definitely more intense as you can see. Luckily we saw it on a walking tour with our guide.
Daniel had read an article in the New York Times over a year ago about the “Delhi Food Walks” tour. Anubhav is a fantastic tour guide. We thought this would be a great way to see Old Delhi and also get a chance to eat some of the local specialties. However the only snag was that we were trying to stay vegetarian throughout our trip to India so we did not chance getting sick. It was not hard to do, but it did inhibit our guide quite a bit. He was kind enough to tailor our tour to strictly veg. If you book a tour though, he promises to take you to places that are clean, we were being overly cautious.
On the way to meet Anubhav, we passed the Red Fort and started our tour at the Sikh temple in the middle of the madness of Old Delhi. This area of the city is more like what we had heard from travelers. It is crazy, somewhat dangerous – in that you may get pick pocketed, but most likely you will get yourself scraped up by a passing scooter, bicycle, rickshaw or guy moving a food cart or some boxes. It can be an overwhelming place.
We spent over 4 hours going down alleys to find hidden restaurants that specialize in one type of food or snack for many generations. It was amazing that our guide could calmly and gracefully walk through the chaotic mess as we felt like we were jumping over obstacles and trying not to die keeping up with him. I asked him how he does it, but he simply replied that he is just used to it.
The Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib Sikh temple was an incredible experience. You must cover your hair if you are a woman, or borrow a covering for your head if you are a man at the front gate. He showed us the inside of the temple, but then took us through their kitchens where people volunteer to cook and clean all day long. They had huge vats of various concoctions and a bread machine that was pumping out freshly baked bread all day. He told us that anyone who comes to the temple, regardless of religion can receive a free meal, any time of day. This was a very moving production. I asked how they are able to pay to feed visitors, but he said the Sikh people donate money and also their time to the community. He said you can find everyone from a wealthy business man to the poorest man eating together there.
Not only do they feed everyone at the Sikh temple but if you leave a pair of leather shoes at the door you can have them cleaned for free! He showed us a back room with volunteers cleaning everyone’s shoes, it was amazing. I had never seen anything like it and the generosity of the Sikh people moved me to tears. This was just incredible.
Another highlight was a Jain temple in Old Delhi down a very quiet alleyway. For a small fee, a guide took us on a tour of the small but very impressive temple with many murals, sculptures and interesting architecture. We learned a little about Jain – a peaceful religion which is similar to a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism in terms of its symbolism. The Jain people do not eat root vegetables, so some of the food in this area lacks potatoes and onions.
After wandering the labyrinth streets of Old Delhi we grabbed a brief rickshaw ride to the spice market, which had us sneezing and coughing from all the chili pepper dust in the air. I don’t think we would have seen half of these sights or even felt like we could have survived in the streets of Old Delhi without our guide. Highly recommend Delhi Street Food tours. He even does a breakfast tour!
Practicing yoga at Sivananda yoga center was a personal highlight. Sivananda institute has been around forever it seems. They are also international. I had practiced with Sivananda in NY and San Francisco before. Their class sequence always stays the same, so practicing in New Delhi felt like visiting an old friend, very comforting. A beautiful center as well, peaceful and surrounded by a nice garden. A blissful respite from the city.
Visiting the major sites of Mahatma Ghandhi was an important and very moving highlight. We visited the Ghandhi Smriti – the house where Ghandhi lived just before he died. There are various exhibits here about his life and inspirational quotes and messages. As shown in the photo above – there is a trail of sculptured footprints that lead from his study out into the back yard where he was shot on the lawn. These were the last steps he took. It was a very sobering experience to follow the path up to a memorial area to the exact spot where he died. A wonderful museum we will not soon forget.
The Raj Ghat – is in another location, in a park and it is where Ghandhi’s public funeral occurred. Here you will find a memorial with an eternal flame burning in remembrance. This was also a very moving experience to visit and pay respects. While we were there we saw many people taking photos at the memorial site and a Buddhist monk praying and chanting while beating a drum. There were people from all over the world visiting.
Nizamuddin Dargah – the temple and tomb of Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya and tomb of Sufi poet and musician Amir Khusro. Qawalli music sessions happen on Thursday nights to celebrate. Although it is challenging to find this location, and chaotic to enter, once inside I felt so happy we made the trek to see it. As a poet myself, I felt deeply moved to see so many people coming to pay respects with a sincere act of devotion to the tomb of the poet and musician. It is a very lively place. This is a Muslim temple although people from other religions may visit, you must wear clothing that fully covers you from the neck down, women and men must cover their hair. As you enter you can pay a fee to leave your shoes, borrow a cap and a plate of rose petals and fabric to offer the tombs. Negotiate a price before leaving your shoes at one of the booths, there are many. Only men are allowed to enter the tombs, women sit outside peeking through decorative holes in the wall. Just enter and “do as the Romans do.” An experience.
The Craft Museum was a nice place to eat lunch and see demonstrations of how local crafts are made as well as see performances of music and dance. There is a very modern and elegant cafe on site with fancy Indian “foodie” dishes. You can enter for free just to eat at the cafe. A nice place to relax and escape the busy city for a rest.
Hotel: we stayed at the lovely Devna bed and breakfast in quiet Sundar Nagar neighborhood.