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Delhi Delights with Old and New

Like Washington, Delhi is a city of monuments. Unlike the U.S. capital, the Indian one has been around for centuries. It is an imperial city where each of the nation's eight conquerors built his own stone version of majesty beside or on top of the last one, often stealing carvings, pillars and marble facings from earlier structures. Architecturally it's a show-off city where buildings were put up to make a statement. Its last imperial occupants--the British--created a new city beside the ruins of the old 80 years ago. The effect is part suburban England, part symbol of absolute power.

As you travel around New and Old, you'll find ruins of fortresses, palaces, tombs and mosques in the most unexpected places. That's Delhi's charm. There are probably more international heritage sites in Delhi than in all of the U.S. At the same time, this once-sleepy town of civil servants has exploded over the past 15 years into one of India's fastest-growing metropolises. Today it's a boomtown, with new industries popping up on the outskirts. The downside is hideous pollution, especially in winter. The river Yamuna that passes by is an open sewer. The city's infrastructure--power, water and transport--cannot cope with a population that has grown to 11 million. Despite its charming tree-lined boulevards, which roll out like spokes from central roundabouts, New Delhi is not a place for strolling if you care for your lungs. Instead, negotiate a daily rate with a black-and-yellow taxi or hire a car and driver from your hotel for the day.

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One great escape from Delhi is to hop aboard the Royal Orient Express and ride the rails through the state of Rajasthan

The first stop on any tour should be Rajpath, a stately ceremonial avenue in the city center. At one end stands the enormous India Gate; at the other is the Secretariat, a series of grand colonnaded buildings on a ridge leading up to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the former Viceroy's palace that now serves as the official residence of India's presidents. This is one of the country's most monumental imperial buildings, a 20th century attempt to match the Mughal grandeur of the Emperor Shah Jahan's Red Fort in Old Delhi. Its 130 hectares of gardens, laid out in the Mughal style of formal squares and water courses, are open to the public for 15 days every year beginning on the second Sunday in February. They are well worth a visit.

An eccentric and ironic counterpoint sits on the city's northern outskirts. The misnamed Coronation Park, now a grubby dustbowl, was the site of a grand durbar in 1911 at which the King-Emperor George V announced to the assembled Indian princes and maharajas that the capital would come to Delhi. Today a small junkyard of statues of former viceroys and George himself stand neglected behind a wire fence surrounded by thorn trees.

After you've taken in New Delhi's gardens, check out the city's great Mughal and pre-Mughal structures. Most of Delhi's monuments and buildings are open from dawn to dusk and usually cost about 20¢ to enter. First stop should be the Qutab Minar, an extraordinary 12th century tower still standing among the ruins of what was once one of north India's most important centers of Islamic study. It's about a half hour drive from the center of Delhi. When you return to the city, be sure to take in Humayun's tomb, a striking red sandstone and white marble inlay prototype for the Taj Mahal. It's set in the quietest of private gardens; wild peacocks strut around the lawns and perch like medieval grandees on the surrounding stone walls and gates.

In Old Delhi, be sure to take off your shoes and walk up the steps into the open courtyard of the Jamma Masjid. On one side of the huge mosque is Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi's sweaty, noisy, exotic market. On the other is the Red Fort, which has been well and truly mucked about. The British built barracks inside the compound, while India's civil servants more recently have stripped, cut into and restored in a ham-fisted manner what the British allowed to fall apart. It's a sad mess, but if you make the one-day excursion to Agra to visit the glorious Taj Mahal, you'll find a finer-kept example of a Mughal palace at Agra Fort. The Taj, a memorial to love and beauty, may be a cliché but it can still knock you over at first sight. Also try to get a look at Fatehpur Sikri, a stunning, empty 16th century city 40 km from Delhi that was abandoned by the Emperor Akbar when its wells dried up.

If you are in Delhi for more than two days and wish to disappear into the hidden byways of the old city, contact Nigel Hankin, a former servant of the British Raj who stayed behind when most of his fellow officers left in 1947. Hankin can guide you through Delhi's historic and oddest sites for a negotiable fee. You can contact him only by leaving a note or writing a request in his diary, which is kept at the Mughal Gate of the British High Commission. It's well worth the effort.

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