By Neha Kirpal
India’s capital New Delhi is steeped in history and culture, and ancient monuments abound every possible neighbourhood, nook and cranny of the city. Right from the iconic India Gate to the historic Red Fort and the Jama Masjid mosque, Mughal architecture specifically is a prominent feature of Delhi’s façade and landscape.
Three of Delhi’s majestic monuments, namely the Qutab Minar, the Red Fort, and Humayun’s Tomb, have been classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While these magnificent heritage structures belonging to India’s glorious past are often forgotten in the humdrum of our everyday lives, their relevance in contemporary times has taken on an altogether new form.
Historically, many of these monuments were used as sites for the celebrated tombs of many kings and rulers from our past. They were, in fact, very much a part of the everyday life of the city and its culture.
Fortunately, most of these spaces continue to be recognised for their historic significance, and draw visitors through a number of immersive heritage walks and audio walking tours filled with historical stories and anecdotes.
Besides the more well-known spots, here are countless other unknown or lesser known monuments that are equally beautiful, and Delhizens may find themselves surprised to discover many of the wonders they behold.
For instance, step wells or subterranean manmade water bodies (traditionally known as baolis) are a fascinating aspect of Delhi’s ancient architecture, and were quite an eye-opener for me personally though I’ve lived in Delhi for a large part of my life.
Historical records reveal that more than a hundred baolis existed in Delhi, out of which less than 15 are accessible to the public today. While ancient civilizations used them as a traditionally devised method for harnessing water for agriculture and daily consumption, today most of them are nothing but dry depressions in the ground.
Tourists from across the country and the world throng to marvel at the ancient architecture that they hold within themselves – bizarrely strong, scientific, and symmetric even back in the day.
Further, the buildings are brightly lit up at night during all major festivals and days of national importance. The Red Fort comes into prominence at least once a year when the Prime Minister of the country annually addresses the nation from its ramparts on India’s Independence Day.
Over a period of time, these monuments have been repeatedly misused, and even encroached upon by city dwellers and commercial establishments. During the Partition and the communal riots, Humayun’s Tomb and Purana Qila became the site for refugee camps, causing much damage to them until they were repaired and restored by the Archaeological Survey of India.
There are also many signs of the infamous graffiti that often adorn the sometimes dilapidated walls of these precious buildings. This is possibly done by people who wish to ‘leave their mark’ on the world, or immortalise their names and themselves in the annals of time – just like the rulers who built these timeless monuments have done several centuries ago.
While they are often used as a preferred backdrop for elaborate film and pre-wedding shoots, these parks are also a place for clandestine lovers to plan a surreptitious rendezvous where they can quietly make love behind a bush, away from the prying eyes of their families, acquaintances, and the larger society in a country that frowns upon any signs of public displays of affection. In a sense, these age-old buildings, with their eternal legends and trivia, often end up becoming the setting for many new stories.
In the heart of a polluted metropolitan capital city, to come across a huge sprawling lawn, complete with lush green manicured gardens, flowers of various hues, and sometimes the odd water fountain, is akin to discovering an oasis of sorts amidst a desert.
And so, naturally, such a picturesque urban sprawl dating back to a time when the city looked starkly different from what it does today, serves as a space of rest, recreation, and meditation – even somewhat of an escape – to a harried city citizen, looking to spend a few quiet moments far away from all the hustle and bustle.
Needless to say, they make great picnic spots, and sometimes, even become a preferred venue for outdoor birthday celebrations – especially during the rare days of Delhi’s splendid winter sun.
On a Sunday morning, try heading to Lodhi Garden, situated in the posh locality of Lutyens Delhi, and you’ll know what I mean. It’s ironic that a garden, which historically served as a burial site, is now teeming with diplomats, housewives, millennials, fitness freaks, toddlers, and dogs alike – all jostling for space, indulging in everything from group yoga sessions, cricket matches to dance rehearsals, and taekwondo classes.
In the past few years, an initiative by the government has also helped in setting up exercise machines at each park, which are open to use by the public. Further, swings, slides, and seesaws are an added attraction for children and their parents alike.
Another crowded spot, particularly on Sunday evenings, is India Gate – long forgotten for its symbolic significance – and the lawns surrounding it. Before the Central Vista Redevelopment Project – which began in December 2020 and is expected to go on till 2024 – halted all leisure activity here, it was the most popular choice for family outings, complete with a smattering of ice cream carts, flower and balloon sellers, and boating expeditions thrown in.
Deer Park, Rose Garden, and the Hauz Khas monuments such as its Fort are contiguous but separate parks stretching from the Green Park area to Safdarjung Enclave to the Indian Institute of Technology, and connected through markets as well as the city’s metro station.
The main attraction at Deer Park is the presence of a variety of animals, including deer, rabbits, ducks, and peacocks that one can almost always see. A favourite among children, many young and old routinely come to this park to feed the animals.
Not too far away, the Garden of Five Senses in Saiyad ul Ajaib has various theme areas, including water lily pools, herb gardens, and even a solar-energy park. The area also boasts of some niche coffee shops, co-working spaces as well as large estates where various publication houses have set up shop. People regularly hold meetings in the cafes in and around this area, and then come to the park to unwind over the weekend.
For years now, these monuments and parks have become a chosen venue for various cultural activities, such as festivals and concerts related to art, music, dance, and literature. The advantage that they provide of a central location having sprawling lawns in the vicinity of an otherwise cluttered center of the capital is unparalleled in this respect.
The Qutab Minar remains one of the top tourist destinations of the country, and appears prominently in the Indian government’s tourism campaigns. Owing to its popularity among travelers, this world’s tallest ashlar masonry minaret and its entire complex have developed a vibrant life, with a number of art galleries, restaurants, designer boutiques, and other hangout places having sprung up around the area.
A few meters away from the famous minaret lies the not-so-well known Mehrauli Archeological village – understandably overshadowed by and so, lesser maintained than its more famous neighbour – which houses among other buildings a mosque, graves, step wells, and the tomb of Jamali, a 16th-century Sufi court poet during the Lodi Dynasty rule and Kamali, rumoured to be the former’s disciple and lover.
Humayun’s Tomb, known as the Precursor of the Taj, is one of the most proportionate and graceful monuments of medieval India. Its complex is surrounded on one side by the Nizamuddin Basti and the Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station, and on the other side by one of Delhi’s greenest belts comprising Sunder Nursery, Delhi Zoo, and the Indraprastha Millennium Park.
For many years, Sunder Nursery, adjoining Humayun’s Tomb, was closed, and only open to visitors who wanted to buy plants from its nursery. In 2018, however, the 90-acre park was freshly restored by The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and has now become a new attraction of sorts for the city’s upwardly mobile.
Every Sunday, a farmer’s market is held at its premises with fruit, vegetable, and food stalls. A café by the lake inside the complex is another recent addition. The central part of the park has a huge amphitheater, where several live music performances and other events are routinely hosted.
The Nehru Park located in the Chanakyapuri diplomatic area also regularly holds jazz music and other festivals from time to time.
Based on media reports, there is a larger plan to integrate Delhi’s diverse histories and geographies – from historical parks, to the zoo, the Purana Qila as well as Pragati Maidan and the National Science Center. So, from history to ecology to science and exhibition spaces, the idea is to have one contiguous area, resembling and possibly even larger than New York City’s Central Park.
Being a contemporary city that links history and green open spaces with modern amenities, this new integrated area will be the epitome of Delhi’s aspirations and testament to the remarkable abilities of multi agencies and citizens such as municipal bodies, the Archeological Survey of India, the Central Zoo Authority of India as well as the central and state governments to work together and overcome the bureaucratic maze that surrounds the city’s governance.
Lead image credit: Canva