an urban monk’s guide to delhi’s spiritual oases

This post is for all those Urban Monks who are not tied to any dogma, are secular, and are more focussed on the spiritual in the chaos of the material. Why do I say this? It’s because that’s what being an Urban Monk is all about. Isn’t it? Finding the sacred, everywhere, in our urban contexts.

This lofty lifestyle goal becomes pretty doable in a city like Delhi. 😊

Tsk tsk. Do I see you shake your head in disbelief? Let me explain.

Delhi’s rich history has been crafted by devout Hindus, Sufi pirs, Sikh saints, secular and rigid Central Asian Muslims, and Christian British colonizers. Add to this mix, ancient creeds like Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Buddhism, and modern religions like the Baha’i faith. They have all contributed to the warp and woof of the city’s fabric, turning it into a melting pot of beliefs.

Surrounded by the chaos of a metropolitan city, some of their places of worship are veritable oases of peace and calm. Silent, deep, and serene. As a bonus, they also ooze of history, heritage, and stories galore.

Next time you need to take a breather, there is no need to go rushing to a retreat or to the hills. I mean, you can, but you don’t have to. There is enough in Delhi to rejuvenate you and connect you with the divine. ❤

Here are my seven personal favourites, in no specific order. What are your favourites? Do share in the comments section.


St. James Church, Kashmiri Gate’s ‘yellow church’ is one of Delhi’s oldest churches. Consecrated in 1836, it is the solemn promise of Indian colonial history’s most colourful yet wistful character—Colonel James Skinner or Sikandar Sahib. When injured badly in a battlefield in 1800, Skinner had vowed to build a church if he survived.

Born to a Scottish father and Indian Rajput mother, Skinner was prejudiced against all his life by the British East India Company for being of mixed blood. Despite it, or because of it, he turned from a mercenary into a soldier and amassed enough wealth to have his own two cavalry regiments, the Skinner’s Horse or Yellow Boys which are still part of the Indian army. And painted his church yellow too.

He was also secular in the truest sense. Baptized a Christian, part Hindu because of his mother and a Muslim convert, he practiced all religions with equal aplomb and had 14 wives of various faiths.

His church is as eclectic in its detailing as his life. Built on a Greek cross plan, the crossing is topped with an octagonal dome, the porch steps embellished with Mughal-styled leaves, and jewel-like stained-glass windows placed in the wrong sequence line the altar wall.

On the more somber side, memorials of entire British families murdered in India’s First War of Independence, or the Indian Mutiny [depending on which side you view it from] fill the inside walls. Skinner and the Christian side of his family are buried in a cemetery in the church grounds. He, himself, lies in the apse.

In all likelihood, unless it is time for Sunday Service, you will find the church deserted on your visit, except for a lone choir singer practicing a lilting hymn.

Travel tip: Service is held on Sundays only. For timings, click here.


It is only apt that one of the world’s newest independent religions has as its House of Worship in Delhi a steel and concrete affair using solar power and natural light. It is also apt that as a religion which promotes unity in religion, it chose a lotus as the design for its edifice.

For the uninitiated, the Baha’i faith was founded in Iran in the 19th Century and is built around the principles of unity in humanity, unity in religion, and unity in God. There are no clergy or rituals, or pulpits or formal preaching in the Baha’i religion. Both, its seat and most sacred sites, are in Israel.

The standard design for its House of Worships worldwide is a tombed building. However, in Delhi, they chose to do something completely different, in keeping with the innate syncretic nature of India. They chose the lotus, a flower sacred to multiple religions practiced in the subcontinent.

Opened in 1986, the edifice, with a seating capacity of 1,300, comprises of 27 free-standing Greek marble petals arranged in three clusters, to form nine sides surrounded with nine pools. The number nine, a sacred number in the Baha’i religion.

Despite attracting some 4.5 million visitors annually, even more than the Taj Mahal, and being listed as the most visited building in the world, it is remarkably quiet inside. Almost uncannily so. Four times a day, brief excerpts from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and the Baha’i scriptures are read out, together. Rest of the time, the place is wrapped in deep meditative stillness.

Travel tips: 1) Timings: 8:00 am – 6:00 pm [April to September]; 8:00 am – 5:00 pm [October to March]; The temple is closed on Mondays. 2) A 15-minute service is held at 10:00 am, 12:00 noon, 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm every day.


Deep in the heart of Nizamuddin Basti is the grave of the Indian Sufi saint after whom the area is named. It is surrounded with the tombs of the rich and powerful, through 700 years of history, all eager to be as close to their spiritual guide as possible in the afterlife.

Yet, Nizamuddin Auliya’s own grave is relatively simple. What bit of embellishment there is, is the work of devoted emperors and kings who were determined their saint be given some semblance of a lavish resting place. The current structure, looked after by his descendants, was built in 1562.

Behind the Dargah is a Baoli or water tank, part of the original 14th Century structure, and Delhi’s only functional stepwell. Fed by underground natural springs, its waters are believed to have healing powers and are associated with a legend. The story goes the water was used to light lamps in the absence of available oil so that construction of the stepwell could continue through the nights.

With all the inflows of devotion, one would expect the complex to be noisy and chaotic. But it is not. The pious walk in, pray, and leave in silence. Every evening, qawwali singers sing Sufi poems composed by Auliya’s favourite disciple Amir Khusrau in the courtyard; a tradition which reaches its zenith on Thursday evenings.

Fourth in the line of the Chishti order in the Indian subcontinent, Nizamuddin Auliya [1238 – 1325] was born in Uttar Pradesh. He eventually settled in a village called Ghiyaspur [near Humayun’s Tomb] and set up his khanqah where he lived and taught. Before long, his home became a mecca for the rich and poor, across caste and creed.

After his death, his grave took over that role. People from all throngs of life, from across the country, still find their way to his shrine to sit in contemplative silence and wonder about his lesson: “Love is all you need to reach God.”

Travel tip: 1) Qawwalis are held every Thursday evening in the Dargah’s courtyard.


New Delhi’s grandest church is the Cathedral Church of the Redemption. It is also in equal parts beautiful and serene.

Built to serve the needs of the English congregation in New Delhi during the British Raj, it has since India’s independence in 1947, transformed into a church serving a very Indian congregation. Sunday morning service is carried out in English, Tamil, and Hindi.

The church exteriors give no clue to the wonders that lie inside. Arches and intrados soar over pilasters topped with exquisite Corinthian and Ionian capitals. Sunbeams from skylights dapple over teak pews and a nave marked with its foundation stone. After less than four years since the stone was laid, the first sermon was held on 18 January, 1931.

Henry Alexander Medd, its architect, had been chosen for the task through a competition. A brand-new city was being created to house the British Raj’s new capital. And what’s a capital city without a cathedral? Medd made sure his creation did justice to both the city and the role bestowed on it.

At one end of the Semi-Palladian structure is the imposing High Altar; at the other end the majestic Pipe Organ. In-between are gifts from the British Monarch, the Viceroy and Vicereine, the Diocese, and in an interesting twist, from the Dean and Chapter of the York Minster in England.

But despite all its grandeur, it is still first and foremost an oasis of peace according to the brief given to Medd: the towering structure dwarfing human activity and noise. Walk in any day, except on Sundays, between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm and you’ll most probably have the edifice all to yourself.

Travel tip: Contemporary Sunday Worship is held at 6:00 pm on Sundays by the Church Youth Fellowship.

To know more about the church, you may like to read: New Delhi’s Most Beautiful Church.


Of the nine historical gurudwaras in Delhi, the one perhaps with the most poignant story is Rakab Ganj Gurudwara. A poignancy that is almost tangible.

The year was 1783. Baghel Singh, a Sikh military leader from Punjab attacked Delhi, bringing the Mughals to their knees. He had no intention of staying though. He came to make a deal: that he be given the right to build a series of Gurudwaras or Sikh temples in Delhi associated with the Sikh Gurus.

One site, near Delhi’s present Parliament House, was particularly important.

In 1675, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had beheaded Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Sikh Guru, also known as ‘Hind di Chadar’ or the ‘Shield of India’, in Chandni Chowk. The execution was in response to Guru Tegh Bahadur’s shielding of Kashmiri pandits from forced conversion into Islam. Whilst his head was taken to his son Guru Gobind Singh in Punjab, the headless body was cremated at this site. Two Sikh disciples—a father and son duo—burnt down their own house to enable the cremation.

Over the years, the gurudwara went through a series of demolitions by the Muslims and rebuilding by the Sikhs. The current structure dates to 1968 and was built by a local businessman, Harnam Singh Suri.

It is a beautiful marble edifice with soulful traditional compositions of Gurbani or hymns sung word-to-word, note-to-note as prescribed in the holy book. Sans any touristy gimmicks, it is the real thing, all the way.


Having completed the Red Fort in his brand-new city Shahjahanabad in 1648, it was but natural for Emperor Shah Jahan to turn his attention towards building a mosque where he and his nobles could congregate and pray on Fridays.

A site on a natural hillock outside the fort was chosen and North India’s then largest mosque set out to be built amidst much rituals and prayer. Maybe too many rituals and prayer, for even after six years and a million Rupees it still stood incomplete and Shah Jahan was a tad weary of waiting for it. So, one day he just walked in and said: Times up. I want to pray here tomorrow. The architects and masons had no choice. The site was cleared of all building material and the mosque was officially opened.

It is a massive mosque. Built to impress. 25,000 worshippers can pray in its courtyard at any given time. The covered section contains 899 prayer mat outlines on its marble floor. Jama Masjid also set the template for future mosques in India: all mosques from this point on were flanked by two towering minarets.

Amongst its treasures are a strand of red hair from the Prophet’s beard saved in a vial, his sandals, footprints, and two Qurans written on deerskin by his son-in-law and grandson in Kufic script. These treasures are housed in a white shrine snuggled in a corner of the immense courtyard.

There’s an uncanny sense of continuity within Jama Masjid’s expanse. The Imam is a direct descendant of the original Imam brought in from Bukhara in Uzbekistan. For 350 years people have prayed here, through good and bad times, and celebrated Eid. Today, people of all castes and creeds are welcome to find a quiet spot inside or partake in its festivities.

Travel tip: There’s a Rs. 300 ticket for entrance before 10.00 am. After which, entry is free for Indians. But it also gets pretty crowded after that.


There are very strict entry rules for Birla Mandir. No shoes, no cameras, no mobile phones. Perhaps that’s the reason why Central Delhi’s largest temple is also the quietest.

Being India’s capital city, you’d expect Delhi to be dotted with countless large Hindu temples. Instead, most Hindu temples in the city are small. The few large ones are magnificent, showy, and also recent. There’s a reason behind this anomaly. Ruled since the 13th Century by Muslims, grand temples with spires had been prohibited in Delhi for hundreds of years.

As Delhi neared independence in the early-20th Century, there was a concerted effort to fill this gap. Especially by an industrialist family—the Birlas. Built in 1939, Delhi’s first large Hindu temple was purposefully aimed to be grand and serve large congregations through its colourful, joyous edifice.

Dedicated to Laxmi Narayan, namely Vishnu [the preserver] and his consort Laxmi [the goddess of prosperity], the three-storeyed edifice in the northern Nagara style was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. There’s a story here too. Gandhi was insistent the temple should be open to all castes, unlike prevalent practices. And so, it has been since.

Pre-recorded bhajans [hymns] echo through the airy structure through the day as Delhiites go about their personal spiritual rituals inside. Come aarti or congregation prayer time, it bursts into life.

Travel tip: Would you still like to take a picture of Birla Mandir? There are two side gates from the main road leading to the temple gardens behind it. They both offer vantage points to take photos of the temple’s vibrant exteriors.

– – –

Having read this far into the post, do you agree with me on Delhi’s spirituality? I found it to be marked with secularism, tolerance, and a world-view. Pretty cool from an Urban Monk’s perspective, what say? 🙂

16 thoughts on “an urban monk’s guide to delhi’s spiritual oases

  1. Ooooh interesting picks!! I haven’t been to St.James Church but will plan a visit there some time soon. I’d also recommend Akshardham Temple, Sis Ganj Gurudwara, Bangla Sahib Gurudwara and Lodhi Road Sai Baba Temple.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Am happy you do. 🙂 Do visit Birla Mandir when you next in town. It is specially relevant being the first large temple in the city and having opened its doors to all castes at a time when the caste system was pretty rampant.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words! Means a lot to me. ❤ There is so much to see and do in Delhi, I had a tough time paring it down to these seven. But these seven are my absolute favourites and am glad they resonated with you too.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s why I called this post spiritual oases and not religious places. 🙂 Religion divides. Spirituality unites. Anyways, that’s just my personal point of view. 😀 Glad you liked the stories!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an interesting compilation of Delhi’s most intriguing places of worship, Rama. I always love cities filled with different spiritual monuments and shrines. Religion, or belief, is deeply personal, and to allow its residents to freely express this personal aspect of their lives shows how much a place is willing to welcome people with open arms.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Perfectly said. That’s exactly how I felt when I discovered these places, and how they coexist within one city. In a way, it is the very essence of this city. A large chunk of Delhi’s population is from elsewhere in the country. And yet, they have all made the city their home. Different languages, cultures, religions–all side by side. Each community expressing their individuality, in a safe space.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. What a great post highlighting the important buildings from various religions. There are few places in the world where such coexistence works. Of these we only visited Jama Masjid and walked by Birla Mandir and I actually didn’t know anything about Baha’i. I had only seen pictures os the lotus. Interesting post. Maggie

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you liked it. Coexistence and acceptance. For at the end of the day we are all the same. 🙂 There is a very large Baha’i community in the US. I was particularly fascinated when I learnt about its Israel connection when in Haifa.



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