There’s a Zen-like serenity to Delhi at dawn. Before the heat raises temperatures and tempers, the city is at its most accommodating. So, HT Brunch decided to fan out and experience the most enjoyable early morning (5am to 8am) activities the megapolis has to offer. The quest led us from the bylanes of Jama Masjid to the power tracks of Lodhi Gardens and brought us face-to-face with early-bird commuters, students and businessmen.
The result is a chiaroscuro of people, places and experiences. Savour the delectable nihari at Old Delhi’s Matia Mahal, take pictures of the monuments at Firoz Shah Kotla, hunt for bargains at Chor Bazaar, pick up fresh flowers from the Phoolon Ki Mandi, or visit a plant nursery at the crack of dawn. And since this is Delhi we’re talking about, the best way to reach your destination is by the first train in the Delhi Metro. Or on a bicycle – the roads are so beautifully deserted. Good morning, Delhi!
What: Flower-shopping at the Phoolon ki Mandi in East Delhi
A date with history: Build up a sweat, surrounded by monuments at the Lodhi Gardens
USP: Exotic varieties at amazingly cheap rates in the biggest bloom bazaar in town
Closest metro station: New Ashok Nagar
If you like fragrances and colours or if you love having vases of fresh flowers all over your home, head to the Ghazipur Flower Market in East Delhi. This is a wholesale market that supplies flowers to retailers in the city. But there’s nothing to prevent you from going there and stocking up on flowers for your home – at really cheap prices.
Before they were relocated to Ghazipur, the flower sellers used to operate out of Connaught Place, Fateh Puri and Mehrauli. Though October to February are probably the best months for business, the mandi does reasonably well in summer too. Roses, orchids, carnations, lotuses, chrysanthemums, helconia – you get a big range.
The exotic-looking helconia, which could be mistaken for Bird Of Paradise, comes from Bangalore and costs Rs. 80 per stem here. If you buy them from your neighbourhood florist, they can cost anything between Rs. 120-200 per stem. Anthuriums are sold at just Rs. 10 per stem! If you’re fond of lilies, they can be yours for Rs. 10 per stem, almost one seventh the price everywhere else. Orchids, in hues of purple, deep blue and white, are sold in batches of 10 stems, for just Rs. 150. Roses (sold in batches of 20 stems) come in two varieties – Bordo (from Nasik) and Taj Mahal or Tata (straight from Kulu). The former cost as little as Rs. 60 and the latter cost Rs. 170 and come in yellow, orange, pink and white.
Nobody shouts or hounds buyers at this mandi. So don’t bargain like you would at Janpath or Sarojini Nagar. If you just smile and talk politely, you have a good chance of getting 100 Bordo roses for just Rs. 50! That’s the bargaining power of a smile at ever-blooming Ghazipur!
What: Go for a walk in Lodhi Gardens, followed by breakfast at Khan Market
USP: The most stunning setting for a public garden anywhere in the world
Closest metro station: Khan Market
The roads are almost deserted. People smile as you walk past them. You reach Lodhi Gardens and sheer, beautiful greenery hits you! It makes you want to pitch a tent and live there.
But what makes Lodhi Gardens so spectacular is their incredible history. Spread over 90 acres in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, it has breathtaking medieval monuments dating back to the 15th century.
Created by the British in 1936 (it was called Lady Wellington Park then), the garden was re-landscaped by American landscape architects Joseph Allen Stein and Garrett Eckbo in 1968.
As you jog, run, walk, do yoga or just sit quietly by yourself, you can take in the sights – Mohammed Shah’s Tomb, Sikander Lodhi’s Tomb, Sheesh Gumbad and Bara Gumbad.
Lodhi Gardens comes alive in the morning, with ducks quacking away in the tiny lake and birds chirping in the trees.
After a few rounds of the park that could range from two kilometres to ten kilometres, head to Khan Market (literally a stone’s throw away) for freshly baked croissants at L’Opera (the patisserie opens at 8am). They’re melt-in-your-mouth creations, flaky and gloriously buttery. They’re a bit expensive (about Rs. 94 each) but then, everything at L’Opera costs the earth.
If hot coffee doesn’t sound that appetising, try the chilled pomegranate lemonade (around R163), which comes in a quirky old-fashioned glass bottle.
Bikers & the babe: Members of the Delhi Cyclists Club hit the road on weekends
– Shreya Sethuraman
What: Cycle your way around the Capital. The roads are nearly-empty, the breeze is pleasant and Delhi seems like a new terrain
USP: A workout that also helps you get acquainted with the city
There could be many reasons you should not get on to a cycle early in the morning – they’re mostly to do with wanting to sleep just a little more. But I can you give you many more compelling reasons why you should get on to that bicycle. It’s a fitness aspirant’s best choice - cycling, especially outdoors, is a great way to build stamina, burn fat and strengthen the legs, back and butt. It’s cheaper than say, joining a gym, or taking up a sport. Even a beginner can try cycling. You see the world around you at your own pace, without any ambient disturbances.
All these sound like textbook cliches till you actually get your a** moving – like I did.
An unearthly 5:30am is the reporting time for most cycling clubs, like the Delhi Cyclists Club which has 2,080 members (www.facebook.com/delhicyclingclub). Membership is free, and if you don’t have a superbike, you can hire one for Rs. 200 per trip, with helmet.
“The group (usually around 60 people) cycles on Saturdays and Sundays,” says founding member Gaurav Wadhwa.
“On Saturdays, we cover around 35 km, but Sundays are reserved for longer rides of about 100 km.”
The routes chosen have few people and minimal traffic. I joined the group on their 35-km ride from Yusuf Sarai to the airport (Terminal 3) and back.
With a cool breeze blowing, about 60 of us set off. The group tries to stay together as it cycles and gets a lot of attention, even at this early hour!
Pit stops are a great way to recuperate for a bit (drink water, take a photo), before carrying on again.
This was a first for me – reaching the airport without a car. But it was a great experience. After I finished the trip, everyone asked how I did it.
Actually, it was simple. Once you are on the bike, all you do is pedal and soak in the beauty of everything around you – the green trees, the undulating flyovers, the quiet roads. Everything seems curiously magnified. And once you start, you can’t help but finish. It’s the best high you can get. So give it a shot!
– Parul Khanna
What: Have a nihari breakfast at Matia Mahal opposite Jama Masjid, from 5am - 7am
USP: The Jama Masjid looks beautiful; and you see Old Delhi in a new light, when it’s buzzy but not too crowded
Closest metro station: Chawri Bazaar
Eat till you drop in Old delhi - Clockwise: Canary-yellow halwa and hot puris; fragrant nihari that just melts in the mouth and the Old Delhi meetha paan with 20 ingredients
So you think dawn is too early to eat? Go to Matia Mahal and you’ll never want to sleep through the morning again. As soon you enter the lane opposite gate number one of Jama Masjid, you’ll be drawn to the canary-yellow halwa and the fresh puris at Shop No. 924 (next to Hotel Bombay Orient), which opens for business at 4am. You can choose to sit inside or wait out in the cool air before you demolish a plate (just Rs. 24).
A few steps away is the Mohd Yonus Milk Store, which serves hot milk for Rs. 20 a bowl (have it with a bun or on its own), lassi at Rs. 25 a glass and the surprising house specialty, a fresh-off-an-old-fashioned blender banana milk shake. But save this for the end, as we did, or you won’t be able to eat anything else, it’s that filling.
As you walk under the wire-meshed sky, don’t balk at the sight of shiny brown, leathery-looking livers, slippery coagulated pink brains and other animal limbs openly displayed alongside. Ask for directions to the several bakeries in the area. You are likely to see one called Golden Bakery and another one right opposite, called Champion. Try the Tabrak, a delicious tawa biscuit baked overnight which you can get only in Old Delhi.
While one of the more famous shops is Kallu Nihari, Shop No. 80, don’t rush there, like we did. It serves the slow-cooked dish from 5pm -7pm and not early in the morning.
So we walked to Haji Shabrati Nihariwale Shop No. 722, which is equally famous. Established in 1955, it packs and sends nihari for patrons as far away as Mumbai, Kanpur, Kolkata and even Dubai. The nihari – a very spicy stew dish cooked overnight with the thigh meat of a goat or a buffalo – at Shabrati is fragrant, melt-in-mouth and its spiciness doesn’t hit you until it reaches the back of your throat, because of the ghee tadka they use. Served with soft khameeri rotis, it’s heavenly. The story goes that nihari originated in Shah Jahan’s reign when he had it cooked overnight as a healthy, nutritious dish for the poorer people of the city.
Finish off at the Five Star Pan Bhandar at the entrance of Matia Mahal that is open 24 x7. We had the famed Old Delhi meetha pan (Rs 30) with 20 different ingredients and then went to Jama Masjid for some good old peace and quiet. You?
What: Visit Chor Bazaar opposite the Red Fort on Sunday mornings, 5am onwards
USP: Where else will you find perfectly worn-out leather boots for Rs. 200 or less (depending on your bargaining talent)?
Closest metro station: Chandni Chowk
If you’re squeamish about using previously owned items and think you’ll be greeted by shining, new things here, then go right back to sleep. Chor Bazaar is exactly what the name suggests. Emphatically scrubbed clean second-hand clothes and shoes; local factory-made electronic items, MP3 players, leather accessories, gym equipment, recycled bottle lamps and mugs – these are just some of the things you’ll find here.
The bazaar shifted from behind Red Fort to the road from Darya Ganj to Meena Bazaar in the early 2000s. You won’t get the best of spoils (LPs, old gramophones, even hardware and kitchen equipment) that early in the morning. But as the sun rises, so do the number of people and they are not afraid to push you out of the way. So be all arms and elbows once you reach there.
And if you are a woman like me, be prepared to be gawked at, no matter what you wear. A busybody asked me to “dress better” or sahi se kapde pehno, when I was clad in tattered pajamas and T-shirt.
Most hawkers have been dealing there for at least a decade, so stick to your guns when haggling for a lower price. And they will relent. Don’t be put off if you can’t find anything worth buying. Be patient and look closer, there will be decent jeans with just the right shade of fade and quirky lamps that can up your home’s kitsch quotient a few notches. And who knows, you might even get what you came looking for.
– Yashica Dutt
What: Photowalk with the Delhi Photography Club
USP: Different locations every fortnight. In the last few months, they’ve covered Azadpur mandi, Red Fort, Khari Baoli, Qutub Minar and more
The Delhi Photography Club (delhiphotographyclub.com) organises a photowalk every fortnight. This time it was at Firoz Shah Kotla, the absolutely fabulous fortress (not to be confused with the stadium).
One of the best way to discover the monuments of the Delhi Sultanate is through these kind of events. I’d been to Firoz Shah Kotla once before to watch a play performed against the historical backdrop. But then, I missed the mosque, the Ashokan column, the palace ruins, the lush green gardens.
We met at 7am, a group of 20-odd amateur photographers and a handful of professionals. For 15 minutes, we were briefed about the site – its lost gilded stones, the Ashokan pillar that was moved here by Firoz Shah Tughlaq from Ambala, and the tamarind from the trees that was used to tan leather back then.
We had two hours to shoot whatever we liked and so we scattered around. The idea is not to teach photography but to motivate you to shoot. But help is always at hand. Ritu Sharma, a 27-year-old student, says she has learnt a lot over half a dozen walks in the last year. “You can see how people take shots and discuss their photos with them.” You’ll see people lying down, crouching, or climbing up something – and you’ll see at least three others copying their frames. There’s always someone showing off their photos and someone dispensing free advice.
By the time you’re at breakfast (arranged by the club), you’ll have made a few friends too!
You don’t need to be an amazing photographer, all you need is a camera. My phone is the best camera I have and I’m terrible at taking photos. Yet, this was fun and I got one good photo out too (thanks to Instagram!)
– Saudamini Jain
What: Visit a nursery on a weekend
USP: Pick up your favourite saplings at down-to-earth prices
Closest metro station: Pashchim Vihar
With the luxury of space at their disposal, Delhiites love surrounding themselves with greenery. For many of them, early morning visits to any of the nurseries dotting the city, is the best idea ever.
That’s what West Delhi entrepreneur Aditya Vij does every few weeks. The nature enthusiast has close to 50 potted plants on the terrace of his Bali Nagar residence and yearns for more. On weekends, Vij visits the cluster of nurseries located at Nangloi, along with his daughters.
Whether it is flowers like roses, sunflowers or gerberas, or plants such as croton or even fruits like guava or grape, everything is available at these nurseries at decent prices. They open at about six in the morning, and get a steady stream of early morning visitors who want to buy saplings and plant them immediately.
“The prices range from Rs. 10 to Rs. 3,000," says Rinku, founder of Saini Nursery, one of the largest in the area.
Plenty of visitors like to pack sandwiches and have chai at the tea-shops adjacent to the cluster of nurseries. Then it becomes like a family weekend outing and therefore, even more enjoyable. Plus, there’s an opportunity to spot some winged beauties such as as sunbird, parrots and peacocks.
– Veenu Singh
What: Catch the coolest public transport in Delhi at dawn
USP: A stress-free ride, it’s the Metro at its calmest
Even the heat wave was taking a breather it appeared. On a hot week-day, when I took the first Metro on the Violet Line, the latest colour in the rainbow of hues which is the Delhi Metro, boarding the train was a breeze.
On most lines (Red, Yellow, Blue, Green etc), the first train starts between 5.25am and 6am (as is the case on the Violet Line). In the morning, smiling CISF personnel haven’t yet acquired the 5,000-yard stare they get after frisking thousands of commuters. The noise levels inside the coaches are tolerable. So, you see a student taking down notes on Modern Indian history and a senior citizen browsing the classifieds section of the Hindustan Times.
Every day, close to 1.5 lakh travellers ride the Violet Line (launched in 2011), taking about 30 minutes to cover the 20-km stretch between the cluster of sarkari offices near Central Secretariat, to Badarpur on the periphery of the city.
Since Apollo Hospital is en route, you come across people carrying breakfast for patients. A solitary cricket player with the intense look of a future Dhoni, deboards at Nehru Stadium station.
A few hours later will be the frantic rush hour, when laptops clang against tiffin carriers, elbows plunge into shoulders and the throng of humanity begins pushing you. But at 5.45am, workers going to the Mohan Industrial Estate patiently wait for the first train. Devotees alight at the Chhatarpur Temple. If you are not so devout, but still want to experience the calm of the Bahai House of Worship at the Lotus Temple, get down at the business district of Nehru Place, the closest station. It is the right time of the day to practice Zen and the art of meditation, Metro-style.
– Aasheesh Sharma
What: Zip down the Expressway and beat the tourist onslaught
USP: A hassle-free, romantic drive to the Monument of Love
The last time we went from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj, we drove for four hours and took another 60 minutes tackling the traffic jams within Agra city. The queues, just to get into the Taj compound, were nearly a mile long! And there was a separate queue at the ticket counter. Plus, we were told there were more than 2,000 people inside waiting to see the Monument of Love. (Well, that’s the way an average day in Agra is like!) We simply turned back towards Delhi.
So, this time round, we drove to Agra in the early morning hours to avoid the traffic. Starting from Delhi at 5am, we zipped down the Delhi-Noida-Agra expressway and were in the Mughal city in about two-and-a-half hours. (Yes, it takes that long and not 90 minutes as the ads claim – if you drive within the speed limit of 90 kmph, that is).
The drive itself is a pleasure. Free of heavy traffic and potholes, the expressway in the morning is every driver’s delight. By 7.30am, we were among the first people standing in the queue at the Taj. Tickets were done in less than two minutes, and we sat down at a dhaba outside the main entrance for an early breakfast of chai and samosas. That done, we went in with only a small group of students for company.
Walking inside the tomb with the sound of birds is both romantic and refreshing. We even posed for the quintessential Taj picture.
In less than four hours, our trip was done and we were back on the expressway to Delhi. This time I really felt like saying ‘Wah Taj!’
– Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi