Dizzy, glitzy Dehli
Share this article:
A huge iron cauldron was bubbling and steaming as I stirred the pot with a ladle the size of a shovel. Thousands of diners waited, their legs - or was it their fingers - crossed in anticipation of my first authentic Indian culinary offering.
Five of us were standing over the vats - I was the only tourist - as another team of men, women and children, aged from about three to 93, kneaded flour and dough for the chapattis to accompany the dal (lentils), which were simmering away.
Complete with a makeshift turban, I was in the meticulously scrubbed concrete kitchen in the magnificent, gold-domed Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, one of the most important Sikh temples in India.
Every day, the kitchen produces langar (food) for up to 35,000 people of every colour, caste, creed and religious denomination. It is (David Cameron take note) the much-vaunted Big Society in action. And tourists are also welcome.
I was in India to mark the 100th anniversary of George V switching the capital from Calcutta to Delhi. The British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens then masterminded the redesign of the city into New Delhi.
Not that there is much affection today for George V, whose son, George VI, was the subject of the Best Picture winner at this year’s Oscars, The King’s Speech.
For decades, a magnificent 15m statue of the King was master of all it surveyed, on the canopy opposite India Gate in the once regally named King’s Way, in the centre of Delhi.
Then in the Sixties, the statue was consigned to Coronation Park on the outskirts of the city. Rickshaw drivers or taxis will take you to the park, which is a monument to British history. It’s where Queen Victoria, George V’s grandmother, was declared Empress of India.
But it’s also home to an overgrown garden with no fewer than 19 derelict plinths that were intended to have some of Britain’s most majestic Imperial figures standing on them. Were the statues stolen? Vandalised? No one seems to know or care.
The park, currently a sea of mud, is, however, about to be given a makeover and turned into an international heritage site to ensure George is back in regal surroundings.
India, legendary for doing things slowly, has still not put up a replacement on King’s Way. The favourite is Mahatma Gandhi, who spent the last 144 days of his life in Delhi before he was shot dead by a demented Hindu assassin in 1948.
As with the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square, it’s impossible to get politicians to agree on a figure to fill the space.
Delhi has traditionally been seen by travellers as a one-night stopover in the “golden triangle” of Agra and Jaipur - the pink-walled city. But during five days here - the warm climate is best between November and March - I ran out of time to do everything.
We dedicated one day to Agra and the Taj Mahal, a two-hour trip on the train - if it’s working properly - or five hours by car. But whatever you do, don’t drive yourself. Hire a driver and suit of armour instead.
Ordinarily, I hate shopping, but in India it’s an extraordinary experience. At Chor Bazaar - the thieves’ market - Imelda Marcos would be in heaven.
There are thousands upon thousands of shoes - most of them removed while people worship at mosques and temples. If you can prove it’s your property, the seller will give the shoes back - with a 50 per cent discount.
On Sundays, visit Delhigate Market or Daryaganj - the book market. With up to 1,000 vendors, you will find what you want, even if you have to look all day.
The trick to surviving Delhi is a relaxing air-conditioned hotel. We stayed at the Leela Palace, which is managed by a Briton. It’s in the upmarket diplomatic enclave a short walk from the Presidential Palace with its exquisite gardens, which are open to the public. There is an Indian, Italian and Japanese restaurant and fantastic spa with massage routines - the perfect way to unwind after running the gauntlet of the ever-present street hustlers.
Our guide Sunil took us to the Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi, the biggest in India, where at least 25,000 people are summoned by the muezzin to prayer five times a day.
If you bribe your way on to the roof (the equivalent of 50p will do the trick) you can enjoy the best views of Delhi.
For a few rupees more, you will be taken to the sacred spot where you can apparently see a hair from the prophet’s beard, a sandal and his footprint. I resisted the offer. Instead, I took a rickshaw ride round Chandni Chowk, the Moonlight or Silver Street market by the mosque.
The overhead wiring strung between properties on the narrow streets gave a whole new meaning to the concept of an electrical storm. There were young men having their ears waxed by weather-beaten old men armed with primitive-looking metal spikes and endless teeth extractions. Car engines being sold alongside saris and meat.
The traffic was a cacophony of chaos. We were stuck behind a herd of deformed goats, two donkeys laboriously pulling builders’ rubble across the congested street, a rickshaw that had toppled over under the weight of dozens of propane gas bottles, and a school bus with 24 smartly dressed eight-year-old schoolboys poking out their tongues, and shouting “Oi, mister” in our direction.
Mark Twain once said India was “the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds”.
He’d obviously been to Delhi.
KUONI, 01306 747 008, kuoni.co.uk offers five nights B&B at the Leela Palace, New Delhi theleela.com from £1,636pp, including flights from Heathrow with Jet Airways and private transfers.
Looking for a bargain? You can buy virtually anything in Old Delhi’s legendary Chandni Chowk market
Teeming streets, golden temples, brilliant bazaars -India’s capital is truly electrifying - Daily Mail