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I have been to India more than fifty times, and I never go without visiting Delhi. Many visitors just stop there overnight while recovering from jet lag, enroute to see the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Pink City of Jaipur. What a mistake! Scottish writer William Dalrymple labeled Delhi “City of Djinns” (City of Ghosts) in his travelogue/memoir of the same name. Djinns because Delhi has been burned, destroyed, and rebuilt eight times; the djinns loved it so much they could never bear to see it empty.


Part of Delhi’s magic is about the visible traces left from each past life. Delhi is a multi-layered city with each layer telling a story, not only about the place itself but also about India. New Delhi is so lush and verdant that you might imagine it having been built in a jungle. The occasional monkey sighting confirms such untamed origins. In 1911, enamored of the royal heritage of Mughal India, the British moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi and built what is today New Delhi, where Mughal tombs and mosques are scattered among 1930s British colonial buildings. In direct contrast to the orderly tree-lined wide boulevards and roundabouts found in New Delhi is the gritty labyrinth of narrow streets in the medieval city of Old Delhi.


For every first-time visitor to Delhi, I always recommend beginning in Old Delhi with the seventeenth-century Jama Masjid mosque, followed by a rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk, one of the most vibrant markets in India. Nothing prepares you for the magnificence and madness of Old Delhi. The stench of curry, smog, and unknown unmentionables—as you sit helpless…flying past stall after stall of ribbons, beads, saris, spices, exotic fruits and vegetables, under masses of knotted cables and wires—is an assault on every sense. No words can explain the experience, but the rickshaw takes you through a world seemingly lost in time


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This story appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of MILIEU.