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The Plight of the Delhi Beggars

Some 50,000 people live on Delhi's pavements or squalid open lots. These squatters are predominantly from rural areas, following the illusionary notion that once in the city, their lives will change for the better. Tragically, for many, it is just the opposite and by the time the truth dawns on them, it is too late, caught in a web of debt that restricts them from turning back. Those who can secure jobs are saved, but for the rest, the situation is bleak. An entire Beggar Mafia operates in Delhi (as it does perhaps anywhere where there is acute poverty) and it is only a matter of time before newcomers are picked up, and made to undergo horrific ordeals under the pretext that it will eventually aid them in their new job -- begging. This is a job open to all -- the young (children as young as 3 years of age), the sick, the old -- but sadly, with no reward, as money earned goes virtually directly to the gang leaders, who offer "protection" (usually from themselves) as reward. By law it is now illegal to give money to beggars and while many may consider this heartless, there is good reason for it: Each time you give money, you are actually encouraging beggary and keeping it alive. Reasons apart, the heart may still cry out and so the next best thing to do would be to give food -- carry a few packs of cookies or fruit with you; it may bring a smile to many a face, even more than a few rupees would. Alternatively, consider booking a walking tour with Salaam Baalak Trust City Walk (tel. 011/2358-4164; www.salaambaalaktrust.com); these take you through the city's hodgepodge of streets and back alleys and are led by street children, who relish the gainful employment this offers.

A Tale of Seven Cities

Chosen by the strategically astute invaders who attacked from the north, east, and west, Delhi was not only the gateway to the fertile Gangetic plains and watered by its own Yamuna River, but it enjoyed some protection from the west by the Aravalli Mountains that cross latter-day Rajasthan, and by the Himalayas to the north. Despite this, waves of invaders resulted in the creation -- and more often than not destruction -- of at least seven distinct cities. The earliest accounts and archaeological finds date from 1000 B.C., when -- according to the Mahabharata epic, most revered of Hindu religious texts -- the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas battled for the city of Indraprastha, thought to be located under the present ruins of Purana Qila, citadel of the sixth capital. But the earliest existing ruins date from A.D. 736, when the Tomara Rajputs, one of the self-anointed warrior clans to which Rajasthan gave birth, built the fortress Lal Kot, around which grew Qila Rai Pithora, today known as the first city of Delhi. In 1180 the Tomaras were ousted by the Chauhan Rajputs, who were in turn forced back to Rajasthan by the Slave King Qutb-ud-din Aibak, a Turkish general. He built the Qutb Complex, which remains one of the most interesting sights in the city. Aibak served under the Afghani Muhammad Ghori until Ghori's assassination in 1206. Aibak took over the Indian spoils of war, founding the Delhi Sultanate, which was to rule Delhi and the surrounding region for almost 2 centuries. In 1303, the Delhi Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji built the second city, Siri, near present-day Hauz Khas. Then the Tughluqs built Tughlaqabad, 8km (5 miles) east of the Qutb Complex, but this was deserted in 1321 and little remains of the third city. After a brief sojourn in latter-day Maharashtra, the Tughluqs moved the city again in 1327, this time between Lal Kot and Siri, and named this fourth city Jahanpanah. A mere 27 years later it was moved again, this time some distance north to an eminently sensible position on the Yamuna River. Named Ferozabad, this sprawling fifth city was, according to legend, one of the richest in the world. But how the mighty do fall or, according to the Persian prophecy, "Whoever builds a new city in Delhi will lose it." Timur drove the Tughluqs out of Delhi, and while his successors, the Sayyids and Lodis, did not build brand-new cities, their tombs are found scattered in the appropriately named Lodi Gardens. Their defeat by the Mughal Babur signaled the end of Sultanate rule and the start of the Mughal empire, one of the world's greatest medieval dynasties, which ruled the region for over 200 years.

It was Babur who first moved the capital to nearby Agra, but his son Humayun chose to return to Delhi in 1534, only to be forced into exile by the advancing army of the Afghan Sher Shah, who took possession of Purana Qila (literally "old fort") in 1540, rebuilt this sixth city, and renamed the citadel Shergarh. Fifteen years later, Humayun finally ousted the Afghan, only to die an ignominious death a year later, falling down his library steps -- his tomb, which can be seen from the southern gate of Purana Qila, remains one of Delhi's top attractions.

Humayun's son, Akbar -- generally revered for his religious tolerance and diplomacy -- again chose to move the capital back to Agra. Only after Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal for his wife, did Delhi again become the capital in 1638. Shah Jahan, the greatest architect of the Mughal dynasty, rebuilt an entirely new city, using materials from the ruins of Ferozabad (and, it is said, leaving the corpses of criminals to settle in the foundations). Not known for his humility, he named it Shahjahanabad. Shahjahanabad is still very much inhabited, and is today usually referred to as "Old Delhi," home to many of the city's top attractions. After Shah Jahan was viciously deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, Mughal power began to wane, and with it the importance of Delhi. It was only with the advent of British power that Delhi again played a pivotal role in the affairs of India. After the "Indian Mutiny" (or "The First War of Independence," depending on who's talking), a direct result of the racist and exploitative policies of the British East India Company, India was annexed by Britain as its colony in 1858, and Delhi was declared the capital of the Raj in 1911. The last (at least for the time being) of Delhi's cities to be built, New Delhi took shape between 1911 and 1933. Designed by the British imperialist architects Lutyens and Baker, New Delhi's major buildings have a simple, almost brutal classicism and are considered the finest artifacts of the British Empire, their sheer scale symbolizing its fascist ideals. But again Delhi was lost to her rulers, and in 1947 India's first democratically elected prime minister was sworn into power. The bungalows of New Delhi became home to Indian masters. Ever a city of paradoxes, Delhi's jubilation was tinged with tragedy, for this was also for many the demise of ancient Delhi: With the division ("Partition") of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, bloody street battles between Hindu and Muslim broke out, leading to the wide-scale immigration of Delhi's urbane Muslim population to Pakistan, and to an even bigger, reverse influx of Punjabis from what is now Pakistan. Primarily farmers, but with a reputation for hard work and business acumen, the Punjabi immigrants effectively doubled the population of Delhi and forever changed its image of itself as a birthplace of civilization. As William Dalrymple describes it in City of Djinns, Delhi -- "grandest of grand old aristocratic dowagers" -- had become "a nouveau-riche heiress: all show and vulgarity and conspicuous consumption." But if one thing is constant, it is Delhi's ability to reconstitute itself. Indeed, with fierce development in the adjunct metropolitan areas of Gurgaon and Noida, a rapidly expanding Metro system, and a stringent plan in place to drastically develop the city's infrastructure ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, there are signs that Delhi's desire is to become a city of the future, molded along capitalist ideals and increasingly in line with Western expectations for a high-yield international hub. And, with pressure from the Supreme Court, local government has been consistently installing an ever-tightening schedule of laws designed to gentrify and unclog the city of cows, beggars, illegal businesses, and pollution-spewing vehicles. One can only hope that Delhi's historic heartbeat will not be lost in the process.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.