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Delhi is a daunting city. It sprawls uncontrollably over a vast tract of the Jamuna plain, its population (13.8 million at the last count) is a seething mass of humanity and its poverty and pollution challenge the sensibilities and respiratory systems of even the most hardened travelers. Those who look beyond the squalor that envelops much of the city, the thundering traffic, the acrid smog and the constant demands of the hustlers will find delights at every turn - historical, architectural, floral and culinary - quite apart from the vivid color, eastern eccentricity and restless vibrancy that give Delhi its spirit.

Delhi has been the capital of India since Independence in 1947, but even before that, the British moved their capital here from Calcutta in 1911. For much of its history, Delhi was the center of power of the various Muslim dynasties that ruled swathes of the subcontinent from the 12th century onwards. Modern Delhi is really two cities: Old Delhi, packed into the narrow, filthy streets beneath the Red Fort's imposing walls, and New Delhi, which is its polar opposite, complete with the grandiose Imperial citadel, broad, leafy boulevards and well-spaced bungalows, as laid out by Lutyens and Baker in the 1920s. Old Delhi, built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century, is only the latest of seven cities that have existed in this location since the Muslims first arrived. Around New Delhi, particularly in the area known as Transjamuna, across the river from the Old City, are the suburbs and slums that have sprung up to accommodate a population that has increased, more by migration than by natural increment, by 46% between 1991 and 2001 (latest figure available). This population explosion has brought greater poverty and more wretched degradation in its wake - 45% of Delhi’s inhabitants live in slum accommodation and there are beggars on every street corner. In India, literacy rates are improving sharply, but in Delhi, illiteracy continues, marginally, to grow.

As well as being a starting-point for visiting Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, or the cities and forts of Rajasthan, Delhi itself has much to offer. The architectural legacy of the Islamic conquerors is rich and varied, the colonial center is imposingly impressive; there are some interesting museums and the city’s bazaars and shops offer a bewildering array of goods, from spices and silks to car spare parts. The city’s restaurants tempt the visitor with a wide variety of delicious food, which by Western standards is mostly very reasonably priced.

Summer in Delhi is best avoided. From mid-April, the temperature rises inexorably. For much of May, June and July the thermometer is stuck at around 45°C (113°F), before the monsoon brings some relief. The best time to visit is February or March.

Despite its long history, Delhi as a city is in fact very young. At partition in 1947, Delhi was radically and permanently changed, more or less overnight. With the creation of a predominately Hindu India and an exclusively Muslim Pakistan, there was a mass migration of peoples in both directions and sectarian bloodletting on a horrifying scale. Having been largely Muslim, before 1947, at Partition Delhi became a Hindu and Sikh, Punjabi-speaking city. At the same time, the population virtually doubled, despite the mass exodus of Muslims. This astonishing, artificial demographic change does much to explain Delhi’s brashness and insecurity - in many respects, it is a city that is only half a century old.

   
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