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. Continue reading

a culture vulture’s guide to delhi’s 7 best heritage parks

Culture vulture.
Noun INFORMAL
a person who is very interested in the arts.

Are you one? I like to think I am. Culture gets me all starry-eyed. Whether it be museums, art, or theatre. And somewhere in this mix, for me, is heritage, which places culture in a continuum of time. I see culture and heritage as part and parcel of the same mix, one incomplete without the other.

Luckily for my present location, Delhi oozes of heritage. Both tangible and intangible. And one of the many ways the city protects its built heritage is through heritage parks—a delightful combination of monuments and gardens, each unique and with a narrative of its own.

Here are its seven finest that I came across in my explorations of the city and which I would like to share with you in their historical order. If you are in Delhi, do make your way to them.

I have also included tips on how to add some present-day culture to the visits, to make them that much more memorable. Remember … continuum. Happy exploring. 😊 Continue reading

national crafts museum, new delhi – 90 minutes at the museum

“A glass pitcher, a wicker basket, a tunic of coarse cloth. Their beauty is inseparable from their function. Handicrafts belong to a world existing before the separation of the useful and the beautiful.”
~ Octavio Paz, Mexican poet

I love this quote by Octavio Paz for it captures the sheer ethos of handicrafts.

Whilst art is pure expression, craft on the other hand is purely utilitarian. Shape, proportion, and colour—all serve a purpose. To be useful.

But just because it is useful, it does not mean it needs to be ugly or even plain. The craftsperson, since time immemorial, has imbued craft with a sense of aesthetics, following a deep-seated human instinct to create beauty. Continue reading

in search of rahim das aka rahim khan, the 16th century warrior-poet

Young Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan being received by Akbar, Akbarnama. V&A Museum, London.

Not all men are made the same. Some are soldiers, and some are poets. And then there are some who wield a sword and pen with equal elan.

This post is the story of one such gentleman in the 16th Century who went by the name Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan. ‘Khan-I-Khanan’ meaning ‘Khan of Khans’, a title given to him by the Mughal Emperors he served: Akbar and Jahangir.

Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan portrait. 1627. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan was a man of multiple talents: a statesman, courtier, soldier, poet, linguist, humanitarian, and patron. Befittingly, he was also one of Emperor Akbar’s legendary ‘nine jewels’ or navratanas in the Mughal court.

Born to a Muslim father, Bairam Khan, and a Hindu mother in 1556, he was equally proficient in Persian, Arabic and Turki as he was in Sanskrit and Hindavi, his mother tongue. His Portuguese was passable.

His family belonged to the inner circle of the Mughal royal family, serving as companions and tutors to its princes through generations. Though his childhood was marred by the fall of his father’s career and subsequent assassination, he was straightway taken into Emperor Akbar’s court when he was just four years old. A court where pluralism and aristocratic culture thrived under Akbar’s mentorship. It was, thus, no surprise that Abdur Rahim’s manifold innate talents bloomed multi-fold.

History remembers him most for his translation of the Baburnama, Emperor Babur’s biography, and the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, into Persian and some 300 pithy Hindavi dohas or couplets. The latter, written under the pen name of Rahim Das, ooze with a deep insight into the complexities of life and human nature, and form part of India’s school curriculum, even four hundred years after his death. Continue reading

lodi garden: eleven monuments and 7,000 trees

My earliest memories of Lodi Garden are of me sitting cross-legged on the undulated lawns with a drawing board propped against my knees. I was trying to paint a watercolour of the scene in front of me, with let’s say zero success.

No fault of the scenery. Expansive emerald-green manicured gardens with flowering bushes and looming trees were huddled around evocative grey quartzite stone monuments. It was just my watercolouring skills which were questionable.

Each day of these particular week-long assignments, during my undergrad in fine arts, invariably took the same turn. Sometime around mid-day, I would put my drawing board aside and wander through the ruins, oblivious to the world. Something I still tend to do, but that’s a different matter.

Lodi Garden was magical way back then and it still is so. As I found out last week much to my relief. Who wants lovely memories to be killed by ugly changes.

The stark difference between my explorations back then and now, was not the garden, but me.

This time around, older and a bit wiser when it came to Indian history and heritage, I learnt to love and enjoy it more deeply. May I take this opportunity to share my understanding of this place, an integral part of my college days, with you here? If yes, please do read on. 😊

Continue reading

new delhi’s most beautiful church: cathedral church of the redemption

On a quiet tree-lined lane aptly called Church Lane, a stone’s throw from Rashtrapati Bhawan the president’s estate, is New Delhi’s most beautiful church.

Most people in the city, and to the city, are clueless about its existence. Much like I was, and would have been, if it wasn’t for a chance conversation on one of the heritage walks I have been taking since I came to Delhi.

Delhi’s Sultanate and Mughal-era chapters, with their magnificent monuments and dramatic stories, tend to be all-consuming. Yet, the years the British Crown used the city as the capital of their ‘Jewel in the Crown’, from 1931 to 1947, churned out edifices just as spectacular. [Prior to Delhi, Calcutta had been their capital.]

Take for instance Herbert Baker’s North and South Block Secretariat Buildings, Edwin Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House now the Rashtrapati Bhawan, their joint endeavour the Parliament House, and Henry Alexander Medd’s splendid stone church for the Englishman in Delhi—the Cathedral Church of the Redemption. Continue reading

lal mandir to jama masjid: the magic of chandni chowk during ramadan

Don’t these jalebis look mouth-watering! They’re fresh from the boiling sugary syrup they’d been dunked into, at the Old Famous Jalebi Wala in Chandni Chowk. And no, the ‘old’ and ‘famous’ are not adjectives but are part of the street-side kiosk’s name. 😊

It is Ramadan, and I have always wanted to explore Chandni Chowk during Islam’s month-long fasting in which come night, this neighbourhood in Old Delhi bursts into one big celebration. Built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and designed by his favourite daughter Jahanara Begum in 1650, it was the main market of Shahjahanabad, Shah Jahan’s capital city in Delhi.

But I was a bit hesitant. The usual qualms. It’s an unfamiliar area. It’s super crowded. Is it safe? Continue reading

travel diaries: a mughal wazir’s tomb in day and night

Another tomb!

I’d once read that in London, at the turn of the 20th Century when the British Raj was planning to move its capital from Calcutta to Delhi, a British newspaper had called Delhi the ‘graveyard of dynasties’.

It was in reference to the countless tombs of the Muslim dynasties and their key officials, first those of the Delhi Sultanate and then the Mughal Empire, who had ruled Delhi for 660 years. These tombs dot every nook and corner of the city. Some are grand and ostentatious. Some humble and tiny. But they are everywhere.

Many have crumbled over time and been replaced with the fast-burgeoning, steel and concrete ‘New Delhi’. I wonder how many there would have been, say a hundred years ago, or at the closing chapter of the Mughals in 1857, as I gasped in awe at the ceiling inside.

Where was I? In a tomb. Continue reading

global travel shot: baha’i temple, a marble lotus in full bloom

Image

Be like the Lotus. Be the Lotus.

The Baha’i Temple in New Delhi, a gigantic 27-petalled blooming lotus in concrete and marble, is a gentle reminder of a key life lesson at the core of religions that have birthed in India. A life lesson which repeatedly states the importance of rising above the chaos of life and to bloom, like a lotus, unblemished. A popular term being: detachment. Lofty life goals, but one can try.

It is also one of my favourite places of worship in the world. A masterpiece in modern engineering. Peaceful and meditative. Four times a day, brief excerpts from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and the Baha’i scriptures are read out, together. In tandem with the essence of the Baha’i faith that all religions are equally worthy.

There are over 7 million followers worldwide of the 19th Century Baha’i religion which was founded in Iran and has its holiest site in Israel. Its largest number of followers are in India. No surprises, since India is no stranger to syncretism, at times willingly, at times reluctantly, and often unconsciously. Another lofty life goal—syncretism—but one can try. 🙂

sunder nursery: delhi’s loveliest secret

[Updated on 2 June, 2022. This post was first published on 4 April, 2022. I went back to Sunder Nursery for a night heritage walk led by Sair E Hind in May. This updated post includes images of Sunder Nursery at night.]

Red Fort. Check. Humayun’s Tomb. Check. Qutab Minar. Check. A walk through Chandni Chowk. Check … and one gets deluded into believing that Aah, one has seen it all, done it all in Delhi.

Could one be further from the truth?

Delhi’s loveliest secret, hidden from prying tourist hordes, is Dilliwale’s [Delhiites] favourite place to have an uninterrupted yoga session, a picnic with close family and friends, or an organic brunch at a weekend farmers’ market. All in the company of blooming flowers, hundred-year-old wise trees from around the world, and exquisite Mughal-era UNESCO-listed monuments.

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But isn’t that what lovely, best kept secrets look like. Continue reading