Delhi

Tandoori momos, anyone?

Blog, Food and Drink

I wrote this on 22 October, 2018.

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I was taken aback when I first heard this term. My sister was taking us around the market area in Govindpuri in Delhi, when she asked us this question. At first, the term did not make sense, because it seemed to combine two starkly different styles of cooking: tandoori being robustly Punjabi and momos reflecting the softer influence of Tibetan/North-eastern cooking.

Which is why I let out a mild gasp when I saw this. We waited about 15 minutes for our half-plate of tandoori veg momos, but polished it off in exactly 2 minutes before ordering another half-plate!

A half-plate comes for Rs. 30 and has six momos.

Steamed momos are deep-fried before being skewered and roasted on coals. Liberal quantities of Mayo, Maggi masala paste and another masala paste are applied on the momos to make them the riot they are.

This HAS to be my ‘find of the trip’. I can’t wait to go back. In a wild moment, I may even book my tickets only for this. 

An Old Favourite

Blog, Food and Drink

Treat Restaurant in Indiranagar has been serving delicious North Indian food for 25 years! Its quality has remained the same throughout.

I wrote this piece on May 2, 2018.

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Last afternoon, we went to Treat, an old favourite, for lunch. I started going to this restaurant 10 years ago when I first moved to Bangalore. Treat was just a lazy stroll from my office. Since then, I have kept going back to it – perhaps twice a year – even though I don’t work in that area.

Every time I go there, I find the food same and different at the same time, if you get what I mean. This is one of the hallmarks of a great eatery: that the food has the zing of freshness every single time, even while the ingredients and cooking style remain unchanged. It is a tough job to make the familiar seem fresh each time to customers, but Treat has managed to do it for so long.

In the pictures are paneer makhanwala khaas, jeerewalaey aloo, masala anda (chopped tomatoes and onions drizzled on slices of boiled eggs), a basket of small-sized assorted rotis (naans, lachcha parathas, methi roti, plain rotis and kulchas) and a tray containing those essential accompaniments of any North Indian meal – pudina chutney, diced raw onions and pickle.

NOT in the pictures are our groaning tummies and smiling faces. 🙂

In speaking to the owner Mr. Pramod Chaudhry, I learnt that his family hails from Peshawar, migrating to India during Partition. He is an old hand in the hospitality industry, having worked abroad for a while and with Taj Mansingh in Delhi. At the Taj, he learnt from master-chefs who hailed from Lucknow and other places in the North. How well he learnt from them is evident from the rich, authentic flavours of the food served at Treat.

Masalas hand-ground on a mortar and pestle, paneer that is flown down from Delhi twice a week, recipes created by Mr. Chaudhry himself and warm service are just some of the small touches that add up to the Treat experience, overall.

Definitely a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole.

Sidelights: 1) Framed posters of Hindi films, photos of Ravi Shankar and Mohammad Rafi and a recreation of ‘the Indian life’ on one of the walls accentuate the Indianness of the restaurant subtly.

2) Check out the framed menu card hung on the wall. This is the very first menu the restaurant offered, when it opened in 1993: a priceless nugget from the past. Interestingly, the restaurant offered pizzas and sandwiches for a while, before setting cozily in its niche of authentic North Indian food.

 

P.S. We paid for the food ourselves, though we were given a 25% discount (because Treat turns 25), since I am a member of an online group of food-lovers. I have written this review of my own volition.

Colonial Lucknow

Travel and Places

Memories of the Sepoy Mutiny, Chikankari, and something for the palate. 

This story first appeared in Mint on April 13, 2017 under the section ‘Weekend Vacations’.

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Chota Imambara in Lucknow. Photo: iStockphoto

The chota imambara.

Nostalgia is a formidable force when combined with a love for travel. Lucknow had been on my mind for a long time. I had first travelled to the city more than a decade ago and still remember how awe-struck I was.

Lucknow holds a special place in the hearts of food lovers (think kebabs and biryani but also vegetarian delicacies) and architecture enthusiasts. On my second trip to the Uttar Pradesh capital, I wanted to go off the beaten track and explore the lesser-known aspects of this much feted city.

I took the Lucknow Mail from the New Delhi railway station on a Friday night, reaching the Charbagh railway station early next morning. During the short cycle-rickshaw ride to the atmospheric Heritage Hotel, I watched the city stir into action.

After a leisurely shower and breakfast, I took an autorickshaw to Khadra, a hub for Chikan embroidery. I sought out Sameena Bano, an artisan who works with Tanzeb, a Chikankari label. Over the next few hours, she told me all about the little-known details of this craft—all the while keeping her head down, stitching intricate patterns on colourful fabric. This method of hand embroidery, which has existed since the time of the Mughals, features subtle floral motifs that are best suited for garments of pastel shades.

Lucknow is the global hub for authentic Chikan. At Khadra, women embroider shawls and saris at home while juggling domestic duties. Given the level of detailing involved, it can often take a month to embroider a single sari. But though it may not be obvious, Chikan is battling changing market tastes and a lack of skilled artisans. So much so that from its traditional repertoire of 36 unique stitches, only eight are known today.

Bidding goodbye to Sameena Bano, I headed to some of the signature structures of Lucknow. The Bara and Chota Imambara, Shahi Bouli, Asafi Masjid and Rumi Darwaza, all built by the nawabs, are still veritable icons that made me veer slightly from the “off-beat” nature of my trip. I wanted to quickly swing by these spots and reserve the next day for a tryst with colonial history, one that is often overlooked by travellers.

Next morning, then, it was time to visit the Residency, a complex of buildings that includes the palatial 18th century residence of the erstwhile British resident (an official who oversaw the affairs of the province of Awadh on behalf of the Raj).

The ruins of an 18th century residence of the erstwhile British resident. Photo: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

The ruins of an 18th century residence of the erstwhile British resident.

Paying an entry fee of Rs5, I found myself in a sprawling green lawn. Cutting through the middle was a paved path that led to the imposing Bailey Guard Gate, which gets its name from John Bailey, one of the British residents of Awadh. Emerging on the other side of this gate, I spotted the ruins of several buildings spread out haphazardly. For a moment, they reminded me of giant Lego blocks made of brick and stone. I could see deep scars on the walls and gaping holes where there should have been roofs. Doors and windows were missing.

Lucknow played an important role in India’s First War of Independence (also known as the Sepoy Mutiny) in 1857. A large number of Indian soldiers rebelled against the British, leading to a series of bruising battles. Some of the action took place at the Residency too, with the buildings being shelled heavily. The broken buildings I was looking at were stark reminders of those times.

I meandered from one broken building to another: a memorial dedicated to British martyrs, the kitchen, the house of the resident surgeon, and a banqueting hall. My last stop was a museum that houses photographs, documents and other memorabilia of British rule.

It was 2pm, the time had flown. And all that history-hunting had left me ravenous. Some of the famed Lucknowi tahiri (the local, vegetarian counter to the biryani) followed by kulfiwould do the trick.

 

 

In search of Mirza Ghalib

Travel and Places

Ganesh Vancheeswaran visits the pre-eminent 19th-century Urdu-Persian poet’s house and resting place in Old Delhi, and returns with a couplet on his lip.

This story first appeared in Khaleej Times on August 11, 2017.

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The building is one of the many structures on Gali Qasim Jaan in the congested mohalla (neighbourhood) of Ballimaran in old Delhi. At first, I mistake it for a tenement that is being shared by a dozen families, much like other buildings around it are. It is only when I look closer that I notice the differences. For one, this building is made of red bricks and stone, unlike its neighbours that sport the look of modern-day cement-and-paint structures. Secondly, this is the only building on the street that has a uniformed guard at the entrance. And finally, it seems to have a more dignified appearance than the others.
I stand opposite the arched entrance for a couple of minutes and gaze at the building. People sweep past me on this narrow, congested street and cycle rickshaws tring tring furiously. Iron shutters are rolled up as shops open for business. The air is thick with the cries of hawkers and the smells of breakfast being cooked in a dozen homes.
It is just another day in Purani Dilli (old Delhi), but I am oblivious to it all.
I only have one thought: that I am finally about to step into the old residence of Urdu and Persian poet Mirza Ghalib. It has taken me years of planning and wishing and dreaming, but here I am finally. Truly, a pinch-worthy moment.
The first time I heard of Mirza Ghalib was when I was in school. I came to know that our national television was airing a serial titled Mirza Ghalib. I learnt from an uncle, who lived next door, that it was about the life of a great man who went by the same name. He was supposed to have been a wonderful Urdu poet, someone who was feted for his shaayari. Since my proclivities at that age had less to do with high falutin poetry and more to do with games, the serial was of no consequence to me.
It was only in college that I came face to face with Ghalib’s poetry. Cloaked in the melancholic baritone of Jagjit Singh, a noted ghazal singer, Ghalib’s poetry was like a beam of soft moonlight on a hot summer night. In the years that followed, I came to know the man rather well through his writings. And now, after all these years, I was visiting the house where he had spent his last days.
A plaque at the entrance announces this as ‘Mirza Ghalib Ki Haveli’ (Mirza Ghalib’s mansion). I smile at the security guard and enter the short corridor that leads to the house from the gate. There are two rooms: one ahead of me and another to my right. Both rooms are lit by yellow lighting that casts a soft glow. I walk into the room ahead and look around. There is no other visitor at the moment. The guard joins me and tells me that the house was occupied by various people after Ghalib’s death in 1869 and lost some of its original character because of repeated modifications. When the government decided to convert it into a memorial, it had to buy the house from someone who was running a motor workshop here.
Mirza Ghalib was one of the best Urdu and Persian poets. Born Mirza Asadullah Khan in Agra in 1797, he adopted the nom de plume Ghalib (meaning ‘victor’). He spent most of his life in Delhi, though he spent only the last few years of his life in this particular house. He travelled to places such as Rampur, Calcutta, Murshidabad and Varanasi, meeting and exchanging verses with the nobility. His verses are considered by many to be a benchmark in Urdu poetry and loved for their depth of feeling. I recall my historian friend Swapna Liddle, an expert in the history of Delhi, telling me that Ghalib acquired quite a fan following, with scores of fans writing to him regularly.
Though I love Urdu poetry in general, and have closely followed the works of Zauq, Daag and Mir, there is something about Ghalib’s writings that I find particularly endearing. I guess it is a very personal choice, partly dictated by the fact that the themes he wrote about are ones that I am naturally drawn to. Ghalib frequently struck a distinct philosophical tone in his poetry, musing about life, death, love, passion, pain, suffering and so on.
The din of the streets outside is very faint as I walk around the small memorial. The exposed brickwork of the walls lends character to the place. The walls are adorned by pictures of Ghalib and his couplets. One of the pictures, in which he is reclining on a cushion and writing, even as he draws on a hookah, certainly portrays a person of refined taste.
Finding his family tree framed on another wall comes as a surprise, because I hadn’t thought of his family at all. It could be because I had grown up knowing him only through his poetry, which is an entirely personal affair. The family tree traces the family all the way back to the early 18th century. A couple of small chambers lead off this room and contain more couplets and a large tome containing his poetry.
I try to picture life here during Ghalib’s times – a period when the last of the Mughal emperors was still on the throne and when Old Delhi used to be called Shahjahanabad. He lived in turbulent times and witnessed the First War of Independence in 1857. Entering the second room, I see a bust of the poet, a synopsis of his life and a picture of his wife Umrao Begum. Ghalib’s haveli is light on artefacts, but rich in atmosphere. It is a wonderful throwback to his time.
That evening, I go to Nizamuddin, a few miles away from Ballimaran. While Ballimaran gave the revered poet a home in life, Nizamuddin is where he is housed in death. I have come to visit his tomb. A number of people I ask have absolutely no clue about it. Finally, a passing maulvi (Muslim priest) shows me the way.
The arched entrance to the complex is built in Islamic style. Inside, several children are playing cricket. The azaan rings out from the famous Nizamuddin dargah nearby. I dodge a flying ball, cross an enclosed 16th century pavilion called Chausath Khamba (sixty four pillars) and find myself in a quiet courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard, lies Ghalib’s tomb – a simple room constructed in white marble. Through the open doorway, I can see a faded muslin cloth draped on the grave, with a few dried flowers lying scattered on it.
The caretaker of the tomb tells me that, barring the occasional group of ardent historians or lovers of Urdu poetry, not many visit the grave. Much of the city of Delhi seems to be unaware that one of its most revered poets lies buried in its midst. But then, this is hardly surprising in a city that is littered with heritage sites.
I sit on a stone bench for a while, listening to the prayer coming from the dargah. I finally rise, pay my respects to the poet and leave. My pilgrimage is complete.

Fact file
Ghalib’s memorial is in Gali Qasim Jaan, in the Ballimaran area of old Delhi. Given the congestion in the area, it is best to take the Metro to Chandni Chowk and walk from there. The memorial is open from 10 am to 6 pm, and is closed on Monday. Ghalib’s tomb is located next door to the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin, a revered Sufi saint. There is no entry fee for either site.

 

 

 

The Old Delhi food trail – Part 1

Travel and Places

Hidden in the labyrinthine lanes of Old Delhi are some of the best food spots of the city. They are high on history, taste and atmosphere.

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The mere mention of Old Delhi conjures up vivid images of a crowded bazaar (traditional market), old buildings from the Mughal era and wonderful, aromatic food. Take away even one of these elements and the Old Delhi picture will not be complete.

For me, Delhi is home because one half of my family lives there. So, while I live in Bangalore, I definitely end up making a ‘family pilgrimage’ to Delhi at least once a year. During my trip in October 2016, I took time off to explore the streets of Old Delhi. I was especially interested in the decades-old eateries that have been Old Delhi’s pride. In fact, many of them were set up in the early 1900s, making them nearly a century old. Some others are about a hundred and fifty years old and counting. With so many years behind them, you are talking serious history. Each of these joints has secret family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. Every one of them also has one or two signature dishes that they claim will beat competitors hollow. Facts like these add to the allure of these eateries. No wonder then, that they accumulated a large number of loyalists much before social media popularized the concepts of fan base and followers.

Make no mistake, given the character of Old Delhi, these eateries are all dives. Nothing fancy when it comes to ambience here. People throng them only for the taste of their food, their history and the ‘atmosphere’. Without much further ado therefore, let’s attend to business, shall we?

Nathu Ram Kachoriwaala

We got off the metro at Chandi Chowk and exited the station through a narrow gully (lane) that leads deeper into the Chandi Chowk market. A couple of minutes later, we spot a Hanuman temple and right opposite that, under the shade of a large tree, is Nathu Ram’s food stall. The ‘stall’ is actually a large tarpaulin sheet that has been spread under the branches of the tree. Cooks are at work under the canopy, one frying jalebis, another frying kachoris. A couple of attendants are helping the cooks out. A few rickety wooden tables stand desultorily, with customers gorging from small, stitched-leaf bowls known as donney in Hindi.

 

Nathu Ram has been feeding hungry souls for more than seven decades. Nobody (including the guy at the counter) seems to know exactly when it was set up. Frankly, nobody bothers. What they do bother about though, is the food that is being doled out.

While the menu nailed to a wooden pillar announces a dozen dishes, most customers ask for one thing first: bedmi puris. We do the same. A couple of minutes later, we are handed out donnays with piping hot, crisp puris, accompanied by aloo subzi (potato curry).  Bedmi puris are palm-sized fluffy breads made from whole wheat flour (atta). The dough has been infused with spicy lentils and asafoetida (known in Hindi as ‘heeng’). The aloo subzi has small pieces of potato in a spicy, watery gravy. I have had this subzi at various places in North India, but the variant found in Old Delhi has a unique taste and flavor.

 

 

Given the size of the puris, we nail several before drawing a deep breath and taking a break. We are sweating profusely, partly because of the heat, but also because of the spice in the food. Talk of being in sweaty heaven(exclamation).

A pair of puris with unlimited refills of aloo subzi comes for Rs. 24/-. If that isn’t cheap, what is?

 

Kanhaiyalal Durga Prasad Dixit

Next, we wend our way to Gali Parathewali (Hindi for ‘paratha lane’; making it amply clear as to what life here is all about), which lies a short distance away. On the way, we pass Shishganj Sahib, a famous gurudwara.

The history of Gali Parathewali goes back nearly two centuries to the mid-nineteenth century. Though the character and complexion of this street has changed considerably over the decades, a handful of the old eateries remain. They are each run by the sixth or seventh generation of Brahmin families from Uttar Pradesh (especially, the Allahabad belt), a fact they take great pride in. It is to one of these that we head this morning.

‘Kanhaiyalal Durga Prasad Dixit’ announced a large board at the entrance to the humble eatery. The fact that it was set up in 1875 is mentioned prominently. The insides of the eatery have been jazzed up a little with lights that are too bright. The cook is at work near the entrance, making – what else – parathas.  You can play safe by asking for the regular aloo, gobhi, methi and mooli parathas. Or, you could get adventurous by ordering one of the more intriguing variants: nimbu, gajar, mutter, papad, kela, karela, tamatar and mewa.

Our gastric juices start flowing again (never mind that we have just stuffed ourselves with puris). We seat ourselves and order three plates of parathas, which arrive a few minutes later. Each plate comprises two small parathas, accompanied by three curries and some pickled vegetables.  Everything on the plate is delicious. We polish the food off in no time, before ordering a few more plates. The parathas are crisp and stuffed well with the vegetables of your choice.

 

A plate of parathas sets you back by about Rs. 60 or 70, depending upon the variant you choose. The price is steep, but worth it, considering the wonderful taste and the fact that you get repeats of the accompanying curries and pickle. Parathewali gali is somewhat overrated, but still worth a visit once in many months.

Pandit Gaya Prasad Madan Mohan

Deciding that our tummies needed a respite after that overload of puris and parathas, we walk a few paces from Kanhaiyalal to Panditji’s hole-in-the-wall that serves luscious rabdi and lassi (to be explained). The lassi (thick, sweetened, churned curd) comes in a tall, stout steel tumbler, while the rabdi (thickened, sweet milk topped with a thick layer of cream) is served in a small bowl made (oddly) of aluminium foil. While lassi is available in most parts of India these days, you must have it in North India, especially in Punjab or Old Delhi, to savour it in its full, authentic glory. It is refrigerated and served chilled. The drops of moisture on the outside of the steel tumbler could well we a reflection of your thirst.

 

 

 

 

Our thirst slaked and the fire in our tummy doused for the moment, we took a stroll through the Chandni Chowk market with its small, old shops and pavement hawkers. Cycle rickshaws and autos deftly wove through the congested thoroughfare like only they can.

About an hour later, we were ready for our next gastronomical foray. And that’s how we landed up at Kanwarji’s Restaurant.

Kanwarji’s Restaurant

You can’t go to Old Delhi and return without having had the chholey bhaturey. Kanwarji’s Restaurant is a narrow outlet, with sweets arranged in shelves right at the entrance. You can take one of the few seats laid out inside or opt to stand on the pavement and enjoy your food. We choose to do the former.

Chholey bhaturey are as much a part of Delhi’s culture as the Red Fort and India Gate. If you ask me to single out one dish you should have on your next trip to Delhi, I would recommend this dish without batting an eyelid. Every area of Delhi has several joints serving this staple, and each has its own taste and flavor.

As if to demonstrate this point, the bhaturey at Kanwarji’s are oval (you get them round everywhere else). The dough of the bhaturey is infused with a mild mixture of asafetida and something else that I could not quite place. The chholey is a dark brown slurry, with chickpeas (channa) floating in it. Onion rings and pickled long green chillies (which are staple accompaniments to dishes in Delhi) complete the ensemble.

 

 

I am recalling all these details for you in retrospect now. At that time though, we just waded into the food. The next time we looked up was fifteen minutes later, after we had picked our plates clean. After that, all we could do for the next few minutes was sit back and sigh in deep contentment.

A plate of chholey bhaturey here comes for Rs. 60/-.

 Pandit Mittanlalji Lemonwaley (aka Mittanlalji Bantawaley)

Banta, as it is known to locals in Delhi, is lemon soda to which a pinch of black salt has been added for that tangy twist. It is much sought-after as a great refresher in the torrid climes of Delhi. A reasonably tall glass of cold banta comes for Rs. 15/-. Since the shop (like all other shops in Chandni Chowk) is actually a crevice on the old wall, there is no shade to stand under. Gulping down the cold drink standing in the glare of the hot sun is an interesting experience.

 

Natraj Dahi Bhalla Corner

And now, for some famous dahi bhalla. Located at the mouth of a lane that leads to Chandi Chowk metro station, Natraj has been dishing out dahi bhallas since 1940. A bhalla is a fried, sour ball of gram flour. After it is cut into small pieces, onto which fresh, thick curd is poured. This is then topped up with generous doses of green chutney (made from crushed mint leaves) and khatti-meethi chutney (sweet-sour chutney made from tamarind) and served to you. I shovel a piece of the bhalla into my mouths and feel a soft explosion of flavours hit my palate. By now, it is well past noon and the sun is high up. Thanks to our prolonged culinary assault since morning, our stomachs are bulging and our knees buckling. We are tottering on the pavement. Much as we’d love to have a second helping of the bhalley, we are forced to keep that for another day.

 

 

 

For now, we just want to head home and crash. But before that, one last stop.

Old Famour Jalebiwala

Several decades ago, Dariba Kalan was famous throughout Delhi for its goldsmiths and jewellery shops. Though many of them remain in business, many others have shut shop. At the entrance to this narrow lane is a shop whose business has nothing to do with gold or jewels. Welcome to Old Famous Jalebi (heck, I am not using these words as adjectives, but as a proper noun. This is the name of the shop, you see?) When your outlet is old and famous, why complicate matters by naming it anything other than ‘Old Famous?’ The shop has been around since 1884.

 

 

Thick juicy, golden-coloured rings of fried batter lie in trays, waiting to be bitten into. A pot-bellied cook is taking out fried maida rings from the cauldron and dunking them into a large vessel containing sugar syrup (known as ‘chashni’ in Hindi). A crowd of about fifteen is jostling for space where there isn’t any. Here, you have to pay first and then take your goodies. Not being in any shape to eat them there, we ask them to pack a kilo of jalebis for us.

 

We will enjoy them in the comfort of home, sprawled on comfortable beds. And then promptly go on the blink.

The vitals

  • Old Delhi is a city within a city, a world in itself. In its warren of narrow streets are several food joints like the ones I have described above. One trip is not enough to do full justice this area. You could therefore make a beginning by visiting the above-mentioned eateries and then come back another day to continue your culinary sojourn. After my next visit to Delhi, I will upload Part 2 of the Old Delhi Food Trail.
  • By and large, most eateries here are open from 8 am to past dusk. You can therefore visit any time in between. The trail I have described here took us about four hours to complete at a leisurely pace.
  • Just keep the heat of the city in mind when you plan this trip. The temperature stays above 40 degrees Celsius for most of the year and the humidity is high.
  • The best way to go to Chandni Chowk is by the metro. Taking along a private vehicle would be a bad idea, because you won’t get a place to park. This area is congested with a capital C.

7 hidden treasures of Delhi

Travel and Places

Delhi is perhaps the most storied of Indian cities. Much has been written about its conquests and rules, its masters and mistresses, the commingling of diverse influences to create the unique ‘Delhi’ culture and idiom. Still, the fact remains that even now, there are shades of the city that many tourists are not aware of.  Here are seven such. The next time you visit Delhi, try to indulge in these experiences. You will come away charmed!

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 Into the depths of time– Agrasen ki baoli (the step-well built by Agrasen)

North and West India has a rich history of step-wells, which are scientifically designed storage tanks for water. They were built in many kingdoms of medieval India. Agrasen ki baoli one is believed to have been first built by King Agrasen in the 14th century. Subsequent rulers enlarged the well.

It consists of 103 steps that lead down from the top. The steps keep getting narrower as you go down, until you reach the inky depths of the well. For several centuries, this step-well used to store rain water, which was then supplied to neighbouring areas.

The fact that the stepwell is surrounded by busy roads and modern skyscrapers lends it a schizophrenic air. This is likely to rub off on you, making you feel sandwiched between two different eras. For a structure that is seven centuries old, it is in good shape.

Agrasen ki Baoli is located in a narrow alley off Hailey Road, near Kasturba Gandhi Road in central Delhi.

 

 

  1. History on rails – The Rail Museum

The richest legacy left behind in India by the British is perhaps our railway system. The Rail Museum in New Delhi is a repository of some of the finest gems of that legacy. It showcases the best iron steeds that ever ran on rails in India during the British rule. In that sense, this museum is unique among all museums in India. A fascinating way of looking back at Colonial India.

You can ogle at various models of majestic Glasgow-made steam locomotives and the grand saloon cars of the Maharajas (what symbols of vanity!). The smart livery of the iron hulks and the names of the private railway companies they ran for (Rajputana Railway, Souther Mahratha Railway, Oudh and Rohilkund Railway) evoke a very different map of India indeed!

The museum also has an indoor gallery, with many other items and photos related to Indian railway history. A good way to lose yourself for half a day.

 

 

 

  1. Streetside blisss – Parathas at Moolchand

This is gastronomical heaven on the pavement. Delhi has always had a rich culture of street food, and Moolchand Parathewaala is one of the best symbols of that culture. This joint is actually a big cart parked on the pavement, with a few tables and stools laid out for guests. It gets its name from the famous Moolchand Hospital in South Delhi, opposite which it is located. Heavenly parathas with varied stuffings like mooli (radish), anda (egg), aloo (potato), gobhi (cauliflower), dal (lentils), pyaaz (onion) and mixed vegetables are served hot off the griddle, accompanied by the most yummy raita, chutneys, rajma and curd. The mandatory dollop of butter on the parathas will send you into orbit. Moolchand can be a great introduction for travelers to the foodscape of Delhi.

 

  1. Sunday book bazaar at Daryaganj 

Daryaganj is the walled part of Old Delhi, earlier known as Shahjahanabad (the city that Shahjahan, the Mughal ruler, built). Every Sunday morning, the pavements in this area are taken over by books and book lovers of all hues. This fifty year old book bazaar is an institution patronised by book-lover locals. Here, you will find books of every hue. From first folios of literary classics to the latest releases; from computer science text books to Nietzsche and Camus – you’ll find them all here. A great way to spend your Sunday morning. Afterwards, you can celebrate your rich pickings by lunching in one of the old eateries nearby.

 

  1. Theatre by the students of National School of Drama (NSD)

Delhi is the nerve-centre of Hindi and English theatre in India. And the NSD is largely responsible for helping Delhi earn this status. The institute is a crucible of rich acting talent. Throughout the year, it stages a wide range of stimulating plays, giving the audience a fascinating insight into the socio-cultural realities of India. Plays are staged in English and regional languages, though very few travellers to Delhi know about them. The plays are staged in the open air amphitheatre of NSD itself, apart from auditoria around the city. For more information, visit the institute’s website: www. http://nsd.gov.in/delhi/

  1. Shopping at Shankar Market 

Literally and figuratively, Shankar Market lies in the shadow of the hyped-up Connaught Place. This small, cozy market offers a mix of excellent Indian-style clothes, North Indian snacking joints and book shops. All at good bargains. Shankar Market lies close to the Barakhamba Station on the Metro line, and is a favoured destination of the more discerning shoppers.

 

 

  1. Qawwalis at Nizamuddin dargah

The Qawwali is a form of Sufi devotional music, dating back 700 years. Its hallmarks are the verve and abandon with which the musicians sing, transporting the listener to emotional heights. Qawwalis stress the love of Man for the Divine (or the oneness of Man with the Divine). The effect of the songs is amplified by the robust beats of percussion instruments like the dholak and tabla.      

The dargah (shrine) of the 13th century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya vibrates to the notes of joyful Qawwali music every Thursday evening, making for a rousing experience. As the shadows lengthen, a group of sufi singers come together and invoke the Eternal. They are accompanied by harmonium and dhol players, who infuse the tunes with boisterous rhythm. And the crowd goes into raptures.

 

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Into the depths of time: Agrasen ki baoli

Blog, Travel and Places

 

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The auto turns off Hailey Road, and into a small lane lined with old buildings on one side and an older wall on the other. It stops at a small opening in the wall, which is meant to be the entrance. Curiosity heightened, I walk in, eyes scanning the high, curving wall around me. It looks pockmarked and weather-beaten. A red board announces the name of the place and a bit of its history. I ascend a few more steps, bend a little and go yonder through a short arch.

And find myself on the other side of time.

Over a startled minute, I take in the steps that go down a long way. I count nearly a 100 of them. Punctuating the steps at either end are walls marking the periphery of the structure. They are adorned with niches, arches, chambers and narrow passages. As they go down, the steps get progressively narrower and finally disappear into the inky depths. The atmosphere of the place grips me instantly.

I am at Agrasen ki baoli. Baolis or stepwells are well, wells with steps.  In the northern and western parts of India, they were a popular way of storing water in ancient and medieval times. These enormous wells were built to save up for the long, harsh summers when ground water levels ran very low. Also, because of the water and the shaded environs of such wells, people in the neighbourhood were kept cool during the blazing afternoons.

 

Maharaja Agrasen (also called ‘Ugrasen’), who built this particular stepwell, was a ruler of the Agrawal community of North India.
Most accounts trace this well back to the 14th or 15th century. For a structure that is seven centuries old, it is in good shape.
Around me, a few clumps of people – locals and tourists – are sitting on the steps. Some have sought refuge in the shade of a couple of trees along the fringe-wall. Some others are gazing at the stone work on the walls. I go down the steps, entering a few passageways and niches, before returning to the mouth of the well and sitting down. The mood is langorous.

I have a schizophrenic moment when I raise my eyes and spot the skyscrapers. I wonder anew at how this baoli lies in the midst of busy roads, offices and posh flats, and yet is hidden from sight and collective memory.

Agrasen ki baoli may be less than a kilometer from Connaught Place and Kasturba Gandhi Road in Central Delhi. And yet, it is far, far away. Really, a visit to this place is like a descent into the bowels of time.
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How to get there: The best way is to take a taxi or an auto. While some drivers know this place, others will need directions. Tell them to take you to Hailey Road, off Kasturba Gandhi Marg near Connaught Place. Agrasen ki Baoli is in a small lane off Hailey Road.

When should you visit? While the place is open from 9 am to 5 pm, it is better to avoid visiting in the harsh afternoons of summer. In winter though, you can visit any time of the day. The place gets crowded on weekends; so, weekdays are best.