Thanks to my family living in Delhi, I spent all my holidays in and around the city as a child and even lived here for some years as an adult.
My childhood was spent visiting all the important monuments, playing in the massive parks that dot the city, visiting the zoo and forts, eating in the streets and markets. More recently, I’ve taken guests around to see the famed Qutub Minar and India Gate, and walked the museums as a curious adult. Yet, for all this I’ve never been a tourist in Delhi.
So this winter when my husband expressed an interest in exploring the city, I jumped at the chance. I’ve never seen the city as visitors do, given my “Dilliwala” status, so we decided to be a little touristy. We skipped the usual circuit, though, and hopped on cycles instead, for a bicycle tour of Old Delhi.
I wobbled through Turkman gate (it had been a while since I was last on a bike) and was soon swallowed whole by old Delhi.
Start Here – Turkman Gate
We started at the Turkman gate – one of the few remaining from the original 14 gates – named for the Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani, whose tomb lies to the east. Many of the other gates are named for the cities they face, including the better known Ajmeri, Lahori and Kahmiri gates. I wobbled through Turkman gate (it had been a while since I was last on a bike) and was soon swallowed whole by old Delhi. I jostled for space with the morning vendors, children leaving for school, and cycle rickshaws, the preferred mode of transport by the residents there.
I found my cycling-legs soon enough, weaving through the life that was waking up around me as we explored a completely different world inside with a culture centuries-old and incredible diversity.
The guide stopped often to show us the few remaining havelis that dominated the old city, many with detailed, intricate carvings on the front door with frames typical of Mughal architecture. Tiny, delicate jharokha balconies jutted out above the streets supported by fluted columns and motifs of an age long forgotten. There were havelis that spanned an entire block! While some were occupied, most lay empty holding unknown secrets within. When I was younger I had an insatiable appetite for history – Mughal paintings and miniatures were naturally a part of this diet. And I stood there, sepia tone in real life, with images of royal grandeur flooding back into memory, of an era long gone.
Bustling with life and overflowing with people of all walks of life, the lanes of old Delhi each have a story to tell. As we cycled through the labyrinth of streets, some only narrow in enough to let one cycle through at a time, at times ducking through low arches, our excellent guide Jeswin slowly peeled back history for us, layer by layer.
Pit Stop at Chandini Chowk
We pedalled on, past the Jama Masjid and old and new spice markets, onto the famous Chandni Chowk. We passed the ruins of Haksar ki Haveli – crumbling walls overrun by Pepul trees is all that remains of the house where Nehru and his baraat stayed, before his wedding day, over a century ago. As we neared Chandni Chowk the streets widened and we got our first glimpse of the Red Fort. Jeswin lead us up a nearby building, where we had the perfect bird’s eye view of Chandi Chowk’s main street. It once had a water channel running down the middle, ably reflecting the moon, thus giving it its name of ‘moonlight place’. The thoroughfare is now a frenzy of cars and hawkers and tiny little bazaars; but the Jain, Hindu and Sikh temples, Church and Fatehpuri Masjid are hard to miss. All within walking distance of each other, they are a testimony of tolerant times, and rulers.
We ended our cycling tour with breakfast in an old haveli. There, in the midst of a never-ending jumble of rooms and corridors, we tucked into fresh, hot puris – an old Delhi staple. We settled into a comfortable conversation, and we chatted about Shahjahanabad. The walled city of a once great empire remains, till date, a treasure trove of history and culture. I, for one, was quite happy I decided to become a tourist in my own city.
Know before you go:
There are a number of ways to explore Old Delhi, through walking tours, cycle tours, other packages or on your own. We chose the cycle tour with Delhi by Cycle, a company that has excellent well-thought out routes in many parts of the city with smart knowledgeable local guides. Delhi has over a thousand documented monuments and historical sites and it’s best to plan carefully even if you want to only visit the more well-known 50-odd sites.
The best time to visit Delhi is in winter and spring.