The Jama Masjid is one of the biggest mosques in the country(Getty Images)
The Jama Masjid is one of the biggest mosques in the country(Getty Images)

Travel: Yoginis, Yamuna and urban legends; Exploring Old Delhi and discovering its untold tales

Whether you live in Delhi or visit often, here’s a gem of a city with treasures waiting to be discovered.
By Aditya Vikram | Hindustan times
UPDATED ON JAN 27, 2019 11:27 AM IST

Even the sun is taking a Sunday break this early morning and I find myself groggy, sleepy and hangry at Lal Quila. The fort is resplendent in red and glistening with a night of rain, ready to take on the world. At least someone is having a good weekend.

A guy in a red tee and an annoyingly-earnest smile introduces himself as ‘Gaurav from GoInTheCity’, recognising me as the grudging SoBo Snob who has not only never walked the filthy lanes of Old Delhi, but has never even seen a sunrise since... yeah. Some days be like...

Lady of the night

Do you know that there are no old Vishnu and Shiva temples in Dilli? But we have some rather intriguing Tantric temples here. So many, that this city was once called Yoginipura. Hmmm.

“You understand, Yoginis?” And my mind is thinking Tantric sex, aghouris, ash smeared bodies, sacred chants. He’s got me.

There are no old Vishnu and Shiva temples in Dilli, But we have some rather intriguing Tantric temples here

He’s got me interested in a city that, for me, only stands for politics, intolerance, traffic, pollution, gun-toting ruffians and neglected historical monuments. He knows how to read what makes me tick, yeah.

And so he describes the ladies who sold themselves for the night and ferried people across the Yamuna for the day. And unassumingly teases me to sign up for yet another walk on the tawaiifs of Delhi. But that’s fodder for another Sunday. And then he carries on, getting more historic.

For a city that’s been settled seven times over, he unravels the mysteries of Delhi layer by layer. And gives perspectives on the better side of rulers oft-deprecated by politicised textbooks. Interesting how he explodes a few myths on Aurangzeb, often labelled as a fanatic who hated the arts. And describes with sensitivity the military prowess of Alauddin Khilji that kept the dreaded Genghis Khan at bay, thus protecting Indian culture.

A present from Syria

Now I am getting restless and want to see more, so we stroll past the ironically named Urdu Jain Mandir. Urdu comes from the word ‘horde’ he announces. The Jain Temple was named after it because it stands on what was once the camping ground of the army hordes.

The temple, called Urdu Jain Mandir, gets its name from the word “urdu” meaning “horde” as it stands on camping grounds for army hordes (Getty Images)
The temple, called Urdu Jain Mandir, gets its name from the word “urdu” meaning “horde” as it stands on camping grounds for army hordes (Getty Images)

Urdu seems to be a strong presence as we pass by a church where morning mass is being read in Urdu! What is with Dilli and its beautiful Urdu tongue? Why does it get forgotten on the roads of Gurugram, where they scream expletives in Haryanvi? Do we forget our culture as we move away from the epicentre? Shouldn’t expansion lead to improvement?

We stroll across to the Old Famous Jalebiwala at Chandni Chowk as Gaurav parallels the impressive rule of Sher Shah Suri and the short Maratha reign. I feel proud that the Marathas of my parts captured and hung around Delhi for a bit. Cool! And just a brief thought of aamchi Mumbai and lo, the rains come pouring down at what I think is an inappropriate time as I bite into a jalebi.

The fat golden juicy jalebi of Old Delhi is a gift from Syria, the guide says, the “invaders” brought it with them
The fat golden juicy jalebi of Old Delhi is a gift from Syria, the guide says, the “invaders” brought it with them

Fat crisp golden juicy jalebi. No space for commas and full stops. Just a continuum of sweet sin. It is a gift from Syria, Gaurav explains, and I am like, No way. Nothing can be more Indian than jalebi. Liar.

I would go to war over it but then he engages me in a more complex debate on whether I want to try aloo samosa or matar samosa. I can’t make such tough decisions while I’m inching away from the rising tide of the gutter. So I opt for both. This rainy stop has shaved 30 minutes off our walk and so we eat and chat. And surprisingly, I’m not complaining.

Lost in time

The Mughals were not invaders. They settled here and didn’t loot the country to send back riches to their homeland. But the British were invaders. They did just that. Never thought of it that way, but that explains why we change cities, roads and monuments with British names like Bombay, Hughes Road and Victoria Terminus, but let Aurangabad, Akbar Road and Taj Mahal stay. Hmmmm. And so, are Apple and Google invaders? They use our people as their back office and sweatshops, sell their products to us and send the profits back home to America, don’t they?

Gaurav Sharma is a historian whose anecdotes of Old Delhi are worth a listen
Gaurav Sharma is a historian whose anecdotes of Old Delhi are worth a listen

Before I can dwell further on that, the rain finally stops and we stumble upon the home of Shah Jahan’s Jain CFO. The khajanchi’s home with secret tunnels to the Red Fort. How much of this is urban legend? How much of it is lies? How much of it is true?

Crazy. Crazy. Crazy. So many myths shattered. So many new stories and perspectives to mull over. Such beautiful descriptions. Delhi truly lives up to its rarely-used, long-forgotten title, the city of souls.

Hungry again, we stop by to tuck in bedmi roti at Shyam Sweets just like a hundred others on their usual Sunday morning ritual. Like we have idlis at home in Mumbai.

Even though it’s been renovated, Haveli Dharampura retains its old world charm what with intriguing sights and sounds of Old Delhi
Even though it’s been renovated, Haveli Dharampura retains its old world charm what with intriguing sights and sounds of Old Delhi

This day looks special. Too special. And it still isn’t done. Gaurav has kept the best for the last. Sensing my need for a little luxury before he asks for a rating on TripAdvisor (yeah, we all need some positive cyberstrokes), he offers spicy masala chai at the grandly renovated hotel Haveli Dharampura, 20 rooms and a terrace café with intriguing views of Delhi 6, the Jama Masjid and rooftops interspersed with the cages of courier pigeons and towers of cellphones. Same job, different era.

The two-hour tour has become four hours. Neither of us looked at our watches. That is the way of Purani Dilli. Time stops here for a Dilliwala and a converted dilwala. Walking through the small dirty smelly lanes of Old Delhi, smothered with images of a fascinating past, the morning now seems brighter, more interesting and actually fun.

Aditya Vikram is a SoBo snob, who isn’t always averse to adventure.

From HT Brunch, January 27, 2019

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