10 of the Best Historic Sites in Delhi
With a history dating back to the 10th century, and the 3rd largest city in the world today, Delhi remains a popular starting or finishing point for travellers exploring Northern India. Beyond the chaos and the smog, Delhi is crammed with rich and varied historic sites which help tell the story of this remarkable city.
India’s capital city is steeped in history: some even argue the modern city is built on eight previous ones. There’s plenty to explore here, even for the most jaded of travellers, and it’s well worth taking the time to explore some of the remarkable social, cultural and political history of Delhi through some of its most famous historical sites. Go from sultans to viceroys, Mughal to Neoclassical, imperial rule to communism as you see the sites.
1. Lodi Gardens
The Lodi Gardens are a 90 acre city park in New Delhi, India. Named after the fifth and final dynasty of the Delhi sultinate, the Lodis, the gardens were founded in the 20th century.
The Lodi Gardens became the park they are now in the 1930s, when the wife of a British expat, Lady Willingdon, cleared two villages in order to landscape a park in the area containing Lodi era (late 15th/early 16th century) tombs. The gardens were originally named after her, but after Indian Independence in 1947, they were renamed the Lodi Gardens,
The most notable of these tombs are the twin tombs of Bada Gumbad (Big Dome) and Shish Gumbad (glazed tomb): the identity of those buried inside are not confirmed, but it is suggested they belong to one of the senior families at court during the Lodi dynasty.
2. Chandni Chowk
The area was first established in the mid 17th century, designed by the favourite daughter of Shah Jahan (he of Taj Mahal fame), Princess Jahanara Begum. The name Chandni Chowk itself refers to a half-moon shaped square which once had a pool of water in, that would itself reflect the moonlight – the name Chandni Chowk literally means moonlight square. The pool was replaced by a clock tower in the 1950s.
The bazaar she originally designed had shops also built in a half moon shape, and they were originally known for their silverwork. Some still call the main street Silver Street in memory of this. The streets would have also originally been tree-lined, adding an air of calm and sophistication to the area.
Princess Jahanara had the entire area carefully planned, with a network of three bazaars, havelis (mansions), kuchas (streets) and katras (houses). More recently, temples and mosques have appeared in the vicinity, including the Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, a Jain temple which has a bird hospital attached.
3. Humayun’s Tomb
Humayun was the second Mughal Emperor, who ruled over swathes of modern day India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Following his death in 1556, his widow and chief consort, the Persian born Empress Bega Begum (also often known as Haji Begum), commissioned a magnificent tomb for her late husband.
It cost 1.5 million rupees, and took seven years to build, designed by the Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas. The majority of the tomb is red sandstone, inlaid with white marble: Islamic geometric designs are predominant throughout the architecture.
The tomb is said to have inspired the Taj Mahal (which was built 60 years later) and was the first garden tomb in India at the time. The style of garden, known as a charbagh, was a typical Persian garden, the likes of which had not been seen in this part of the world before
4. Red Fort
The Red Fort (Lal Quila) in Delhi, India was originally built by the fifth Emperor of India’s Mughal Dynasty, Shahjahan in 1639, when he moved India’s capital from Agra to Delhi.
The Red Fort, which derives its name from the red sandstone bricks which make up its protective walls, was built as Shahjahan’s new palace and as a defensive structure. The walls of the Red Fort are an imposing sight, rising up to 33 metres in places, with ornate carvings, domes and minarets. In addition to the Red Fort itself, the historic Red Fort Complex is made up of palaces, gardens, halls, monuments, mosques and even another fort, Salimgarh.
The Red Fort Complex took almost a decade to complete and covers a staggering 120 acres, at one time holding a population of 3,000 people. Its architecture is considered to be a testament to the creativity of the Mughals, enriched by Persian, European and Indian imagery.
5. India Gate
Commissioned as part of the Imperial War Graves Commission to remember the 70,000 soldiers from the British Indian Army who lost their lives during the First World War, the foundation stone for the memorial was laid in February 1921, by the visiting Duke of Connaught.
Designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who had worked extensively both in New Delhi and on war memorials in Europe, it has been described by some as a reworking of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It is 138 foot tall and 38 meet wide, built on a base of red Bharatpur stone.
In 1931, the memorial was inaugurated by Lord Irwin, and remains an important focal point in the city today. It is often used as a focal point for contemporary protests, and several have started at the India Gate in recent years.
6. Hauz Khas
Hauz Khas literally translates as the ‘royal tank’ in Farsi, and the large water tank was built in the late 13th century by Allauddin Khilji so that the inhabitants of the surrounding city of Siri would have a year-round water supply. The tank would have collected water during the monsoon to effectively supply people throughout most of the dry season. The original tank is believed to have spanned over 100 acres, and was roughly 4m deep, providing a huge area to collect water in.
In the 14th century, a mosque and madrasa were built by Feruz Shah overlooking the tank (although it really looks like a lake). Only the ruins of the madrasa are still standing today, although during its heyday, it was regarded the largest, and possibly best Islamic seminary in the world, especially following the Sack of Baghdad.
7. Gurudwara Bangla Sahib
Originally, the spot had a bungalow on it known as Jaisinghpura Palace. Built by Raja Jai Singh, a 17th century ruler, the eighth Sikh guru, Guru Har Krishan stayed there whilst visiting Delhi in 1664, giving aid and fresh water from the well at the house to people who were suffering in a smallpox and cholera epidemic. As such, the waters are reputed to have healing powers. Guru Har Krishan himself then fell ill, and died in the same year.
The Sikh General Sadar Baghel Singh first built a small shrine on the site in 1783: at the same time, he constructed a small tank over the well to protect the sacred water: even today, Sikhs across the world collect it and take it home to benefit from its healing powers.
8. National Rail Museum, Delhi
It’s almost impossible not to end up on a train on a trip to India: they remain a vital network of arteries across the huge country, and by far the best way to travel in comparison to the roads, which are often in a state of disrepair and downright dangerous.
Roughly 23 million people use Indian Railways daily (the company employs over 1 million people, and is the 8th biggest employer in the world), and there’s around 123,500km of track and 7,349 stations across India – making it very much worthy of a museum in its own right.
9. Rashtrapati Bhavan
Rashtrapati Bhavan is the house of the Indian President. Located in Delhi, India, access is via pre-booked guided tour only: you’ll need to bring your passport as ID to gain entrance.
For the majority of the 18th and 19th centuries, British power in India centred around Calcutta. It was only after the Delhi Durbar of 1911, when it was decided the capital of India would be relocated to Delhi: as a result, a new palace for the Viceroy was included in plans for New Delhi. This palace was given an enormous amount of prominence in the plans, to the extent that 4000 acres were acquired prior to construction. Two villages and 300 families were forcibly relocated in the process.
10. Swaminarayan Akshardham
Swaminarayan Akshardham is the world’s largest comprehensive Hindu temple. Opened in 2005, it is located on the outskirts on New Delhi, India.
Hinduism is the religion with the biggest following in India: approximately 80% of the population are adherents. The temple complex of Swaminarayan Akshardham had been planned since 1968: it was originally a vision of the Yogiji Maharaj, the spiritual head of a Hindu denomination known as BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha. Little progress was made on completing this grand temple before in death in 1971.