The capital city of India
– and one of the largest (and most polluted) metropolises in the world. For the dark tourist it's not just the principal entry point for India but also offers a few dark-tourism sights itself.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: Delhi is huge, really huge. At over 25 million inhabitants it's one of the most populous cities in the world. Its historic core is Old Delhi, but India's seat of government is New Delhi. The wider metropolitan area is sprawling far beyond these two kernels, making it also one of the world's largest cities by area. It is a “megapolis”.
Delhi is sadly infamous for its extremely poor air quality. Smog is a persistent problem and is causing plenty of serious health issues. A few years ago the World Health Organization even declared Delhi the most polluted city in the world! It has since dropped a little in that unflattering league table and anyway, that table only includes cities where such measurements are taken at all (and in many of Africa's certainly at least equally polluted cities this is not happening, so take such tables with a grain of salt). In 2016, however, the US Environmental Protection Agency put New Delhi at the top of its most-polluted city table again. So the problem has anything but gone away.
During the Diwali festival in November 2016 air pollution reached extreme heights (partly due to the excessive use of fireworks exacerbating the already heavy winter smog) that it was declared an “emergency situation” … schools were closed, construction works halted and a partial traffic ban imposed.
Delhi has come a long way to becoming the capital of India
– and such a monster of a megapolis. During its long history
(going back to at least the year 600) it has been conquered, sacked and rebuilt several times. What is Delhi today, is actually a conglomeration of several cities that have grown together, with the walled city of Old Delhi being just one of them.
Delhi was an important centre of power in the Mughal
period, capital of the empire of Shah Jahan, who's most famous for having commissioned the Taj Mahal (see under India
). In Delhi his biggest legacy lives on in the form of the enormous Red Fort in the heart of the city.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Delhi was taken by the British colonial
forces of the East India Company. During the “Mutiny
” of 1857
(or “First War of Independence” in Indian terminology) Delhi was taken by the rebels but reconquered by the British in a bloody battle (“the Siege of Delhi”) led by Brigadier General Nicholson (see Nicholson Cemetery
). After this, Delhi came under direct control of the British government.
In 1911, the British (or “Britishers” as they say in India) moved the capital
of their Indian colony from Calcutta to Delhi. Shortly after this the coronation of King George V
as the new emperor of India was celebrated in a lavish ceremony staged at great cost at the Delhi Durbar
venue (the same place that Queen Victoria had been declared Empress of India in 1877). The area on the outskirts of Delhi is still known as Coronation Park (see below
Delhi's role as India's capital was further underpinned with the creation of New Delhi
. The foundation stone to this planned city was already laid by King George V in 1911, but it took until 1931 for New Delhi to be inaugurated. After the end of British
colonial rule in 1947, it became the capital and seat of government of the new independent state of India
Strictly speaking it is actually only New Delhi, now only one of Delhi city's eleven districts overall, that is officially the state capital of India, but I'll continue to refer to Delhi as the capital as well, for simplicity's sake.
Indeed, the Yamuna is India's most polluted river. Yet it, too, like the Ganges and others, is regarded as “holy”. Here in Delhi, though, you won't see much reverence for this alleged holiness. Delhi's air quality may be bad, but the Yamuna is an altogether different level. In fact, it isn't even a real river any more. Its original waters are mostly diverted and used for irrigation further upstream. The water that reaches the Yamuna in Delhi is primarily waste water, much of it untreated raw sewage. As Blackwell mercilessly puts it: the Yamuna is “full of shit”. And that's just the most visible pollution. You don't want to know what all the industrial waste water contributes ...
This may partly explain why there are so few ghats in Delhi. Ghats are cremation spots that are typically found by riverbanks – see also under India. But here by the Yamuna in Delhi cremations take place at much lower frequency than you would expect for such a huge city. Most people have simply turned their back on the “river”, knowing full well its unsavoury nature these days.
In fact, going for a dip in its murky greyish-black “waters” would be a serious health hazard. As Blackwell points out, the level of dangerous microbes in the Yamuna's largely oxygen-free “water” is a whopping 34,000 times above the government's official upper limit for safe bathing. When I visited Delhi I therefore didn't feel any inclination to even take a look at the Yamuna. (And when I went to Etawah via a Yamuna viewpoint – see under India
– the fog was so thick that it prevented me from seeing the river … maybe I'm just not supposed to get any glimpse of it at all).
What there is to see: Nothing really major, but there are a few points of interest from a dark-tourism perspective within Delhi's city limits, of which two are given their own separate entries here:
Two further sites within Delhi are also related to Mahatma Gandhi. One is the Raj Ghat
where Gandhi was cremated after his assassination in 1948. It's located within a large park – but I was only able to get a glimpse in from the gate when I was in Delhi because at the time the park was closed to the public due to some state visit (according to my guide). So I couldn't get close to the actual Gandhi cremation spot
, which is marked by a black marble slab. Within the park there are also other memorials to yet more former Indian prime ministers and presidents, including Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984 (see also under Amritsar
Delhi is also home to the National Gandhi Museum (which had been relocated here from previous other locations, including the original one in Mumbai). This has yet more artefacts from Gandhi's life, few as his possessions were, but it includes his famous walking stick, bloodied clothes he was wearing when he was assassinated as well as one of the bullets that killed him. Unfortunately I wasn't able to see this museum either, due to lack of time and lack of co-ordination. (Opening times; daily except Monday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
I did however spot Gandhi's famous face as a huge mural on the side of the Delhi Police Headquarters building. It made we wonder to what degree Gandhi's teachings of non-violent resistance can pertain to the role of the police in India …
The very largest monument in the city is the famous India Gate
. This huge memorial, which is a bit reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe (see Paris
), was erected in honour of the many thousands of Indians who fought on the British side in World War One
(as well as in the Anglo-Afghan War immediately after WW1). Started in 1921 it was, like New Delhi, inaugurated in 1931. After the Bangladesh
Liberation War of 1971 another small monument with eternal flames was added just beneath the Arc.
Some 150 yards behind India Gate, when viewed from the west (cf. the photo
below), you can see the large canopy
which used to be the home of a large statue of King George V. Since that statue was moved to Coronation Park in the 1960s, the canopy has been standing empty (apparently it was at one point proposed that a statue of Mahatma Gandhi should be erected here instead, but that hasn't happened yet).
, the venue of the Delhi Durbars (see above
) lies on the northern outskirts of Delhi. In addition to the relocated statue of King George V
you can find here an obelisk marking the spot where the emperor sat during the ceremony of 1911, as well as a number of further statues of former colonial-era dignitaries (viceroys).
The park was granted some restoration work, but it looked a bit like this had ground to a halt and was left unfinished when I visited the place in December 2016. There was a new marble-clad reception building promising an exhibition (but it was empty and closed) and new pavings and the bottom parts of the statues' pedestals have been clad in red marble as well. There were spaces for plaques on them, but these were still vacant, so we couldn't work out who exactly the statues depicted … except for George V, who has his name engraved halfway up at the front of the old plinth.
My guide also took us to another regal statue, namely of Queen Victoria, in a hidden location in a courtyard of the Delhi College of Art on Tilak Marg. Her left arm is broken off – apparently due to an act of vandalism. Allegedly this caused some outrage at the time and that's partly the reason why the bronze statue has been moved here from its original location in front of the Town Hall.
Also of interest to some may be the ancient stepwell
of Agrasen Ki Baoli
. Stepwells like this can be found in many places in India
, especially in the western parts of the country. They used to secure water supplies in times of drought, but today there is no water left in this stepwell. It is in fact one of the oldest monuments in New Delhi, dating back perhaps over 800 years, though it was probably remodelled in later times.
It's 60m long, 12-13m wide, flanked by three tiers of arches, and 108 steps lead down to the bottom. It used to be an almost forgotten place until it featured in a Bollywood movie in 2015 (entitled “PK”), which brought back awareness of this monument. Once an obscure and quiet haven in the midst of bustling Delhi, it now attracts quite a few visitors, mainly Indians but also some foreigners. When I was there it was actually quite busy, mostly with young people taking selfies like crazy.
So there certainly wasn't anything of the old aura that I found described in semi-dark terms. It's one of those places that are allegedly haunted because there have been suicides here or accidental deaths by drowning (no longer an option, now the water's gone). Hence some more superstitious people claimed there was a “presence” of those dead souls to be felt here (perhaps enhanced by the real-life presence of bats residing in the lower niches of the stepwell).
I'm not very susceptible to such superstitions in any case, and the youthful, convivial atmosphere I found here when I visited the place certainly didn't help in steering my imagination in any such direction. But I thought it should be mentioned here all the same.
Another old monument, but with very real connections to dark history is Kashmere Gate. It was part of the walled city of Old Delhi (facing north, i.e. towards Kashmir, hence the name, in old British Raj spelling). In the “Mutiny” of 1857 (aka “First War of Independence”) the gate was one centre point of the conflict. You can still see the scars from cannonballs and explosions. There are a couple of commemorative plaques (of somewhat dubious English, especially in terms of (absent) punctuation) but otherwise it's a rather forlorn corner on the edge of the Old Town.
The current seat of power in modern India
is the government quarter
of New Delhi
, including the presidential palace
and the parliament
. Both can only be viewed from the outside, of course, but they are quite impressive monumental structures.
Location: in the north-western quarter of India, just north of the country's most popular tourist region Rajasthan, wedged between the regional states of Uttar Pradesh to the east and Haryana to the west.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to, getting around less so; prices vary wildly.
Most foreign visitors will come to India
by plane, and most likely through Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport, one of the busiest in all of Asia. It has countless connections to hundreds of destinations worldwide. International arrivals (and departures!) are slowed down by immigration (see under India
for the issue of visas!), so that has to be factored in.
Coming from other parts of country you'll either be arriving by plane too at the same airport's domestic terminal – or by train (e.g. from Agra, Amritsar
, Jaipur and places further away). There are several large stations, so orientation and logistics can be complicated by this.
Getting around within Delhi can be the most challenging part. For short journeys there are always tuk-tuks and, especially in Old Delhi, rickshaws, but for greater distances on your own you'll either need to use taxis, or organize a guide with car & driver. That obviously costs more but takes a lot of hassle out of the equation.
The alternative is braving the public transport system. Delhi has a vast, fast, efficient and safe metro system, but the bus network is likely to be too confusing and challenging for foreign visitors. Also, buses too get stuck in traffic, unlike the metro.
And road traffic in Delhi is a nightmare (and in large parts to blame for the city's atrocious air quality) … do not even think about getting behind the wheel yourself. Traffic jams can seriously slow down any getting from A to B. On one occasion it took me over an hour and a half to get from New Delhi to Old Delhi (a mere 5 miles or 8 km).
The sheer size of Delhi makes walking mostly a non-option – the distances are just too vast, and long walks in that polluted air is not something I'd be particularly keen on, even though I am normally quite a keen city walker. So I was glad I had all my touring prearranged with a private guide and car & driver (see under India
for more on this!).
options run the full breadth, from grubby hostels to top five-star hotels, with prices to match. Prices for food & drink
vary similarly, i.e. vastly, from dirt-cheap street food (which can be good, if a bit greasy) to pretentious luxury restaurants that are for fat wallets only (that said, though, even the most expensive restaurants in India never charge anywhere near as much as their equivalents in the West often do).
Time required: Three, maybe four days could suffice for everything listed here if you do it by private transport with a guide. Going it independently will add significant extra time for negotiating Delhi's various forms of public transport, so you might need up to a full week to do everything mentioned here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Delhi is the principal springboard to all other parts of India
, be it by train, bus or plane.
Within fairly easy overland reach is Amritsar
, a mere 5-7 hours away by express train, and from there it's not far to the Wagah
In the other directions, Kanpur
are a similar distance away south-east of Delhi, and can also be reached by train (ca. 8 hours).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Delhi's cityscape is full of enormous contrasts: from sprawling slums characterized by utter deprivation and dirt, to the polished embassies and villas for the well-heeled along the leafy, wide boulevards of New Delhi, and to the chaos of alleys and passageways of Old Delhi. Modern, gleaming shopping malls and faceless apartment blocks are offset by some grand old architecture.
In the latter category there are plenty of noteworthy structures, impossible to list them all here. But the main attraction of the lot is surely the famous Red Fort
: a vast complex built during the reign of Shah Jahan (like the Taj Mahal – see India
). It's just east of Old Delhi and is surrounded by an iconic red sandstone wall that it derives its name from.
Within Old Delhi
the main landmark is the big Jama Masjid mosque
, also built from red sandstone. My guide claimed it's the largest mosque in India – but I heard the same claim made in both Bhopal
, so it's doubtful.
Much of Old Delhi is a warren of narrow, winding alleyways with a bustling trade going on and famous for its street-food stalls – some of them going back several generations. As an outsider you'd probably get completely lost in this maze very quickly, but I went on a guided street-food tour through Old Delhi, partly by rickshaw, which was quite an experience: gliding through all the hustle and bustle as if in a film, and here and there getting off and diving right into the action … and sampling the food. Much of it is in the greasy deep-fried titbits category, with some stalls specializing entirely in just parathas, say, or samosas, or kachoris, … (look it up if your Indian culinary terminology lets you down here).
- Delhi 01 - presidential palace
- Delhi 02 - parliament
- Delhi 03 - India Gate
- Delhi 04 - George V statue now
- Delhi 05 - Coronation Park
- Delhi 06 - partly refurbished
- Delhi 07 - weathered colonialist
- Delhi 08 - damaged Queen Victoria statue
- Delhi 09 - stepwell
- Delhi 10 - Gandhi cremation site
- Delhi 11 - maybe the police follows the non-violent model here
- Delhi 12 - Kashmere Gate
- Delhi 13 - Tibetan refugee quarter
- Delhi 14 - old gun house
- Delhi 15 - Red Fort
- Delhi 16 - big mosque
- Delhi 17 - the city by night
- Delhi 18 - peeking into a house in Old Delhi
- Delhi 19 - heritage
- Delhi 20 - munching street food in Old Delhi
- Delhi 21 - famous parathas being prepared in Old Delhi