New Delhi is the seventh such city to sit along this stretch of the Yamuna since the twelfth century. The sites range across tens of miles of urban space and they pop up from time to time unexpectedly along the highway and next to railroad tracks and otherwise mangy tracts of parched forests. We visited three Delhis, and only the British one having ever been called by that name. Since there is an Old Delhi (that is, Shahjahanabad), there is, accordingly, a New Delhi, but this is also locally referred to as Lutyen’s Delhi, in honor of the English architect that designed it.
Old Delhi is the Delhi of the Mughals. In 1526, a few years after Babur was dispossessed of his small kingdom in Uzbekistan he settled on India as a base for the reconquest of his grandfather, Timur’s, capital of Samarkand, and for his temporary capital he chose Delhi. Delhi would not be so temporary, and it was from here that the last of the Mughal emperors was deported as a prisoner of the British Empire over three hundred years later.
Old Delhi is a red city, as red as any rock desert in the American West. The sandstone massifs of its architecture palpitate in the noontime sun and then melt away at the onset of twilight…they are too red to reflect any of the ornamental shades of the evening sun. The whole city is vertically silted by rivers of dust and the rays of sun come through like carpets displaying various shades of pinks, reds, and yellows. The city swims in light in the day and swallows it at night. It is the darkest metropolis in the world after sunset and travelling between lighted districts feels like travelling between vaguely signposted villages in some rural vastness.
Our day started with the Cloth Bazaar and proceeded down the teeming Chandni Chowk and Nai Sarak and around to the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), the central focus of the old Mughal city. The sahn was scattered with plots of people and children milling about. Here was an immense stone pasture and the late worshippers were in no rush to push back into the dense canopy of streets. Holding our shoes, which we had not deposited in the leather hillock outside of the gates, we stayed, too.