In hectic New Delhi, time stands still at ancient sites

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Red FortIt's late afternoon, and traffic swirls round New Delhi's Connaught Place at a frenetic pace, seeking a place to stop. Market stalls line the sidewalks, hawking everything from trinkets to books. Interestingly, before 10 in the morning, these streets were deserted; all stalls are taken away at night before reappearing the next morning.

Throughout the capital of India, life pulsates in a kaleidoscope of color: women in dazzling saris; those stalls, laden with goods of all descriptions; numerous cows, goats and dogs wandering through narrow streets; and groups of young men playing cricket on green or dusty patches of land.

The traffic is, it must be said, horrendous: Buses, trucks and cars all vie for space with rickshaws, both motorized and foot-propelled, and laborers pulling carts of all shapes and sizes as they deliver goods to shops.

Getting around Delhi is thus time-consuming and frustrating, but at least taxi and auto rickshaw fares are inexpensive.

Shepherded around the sprawling metropolis by inbound operator Travelmasti, I toured some of Delhi's classical must-sees and must-dos.

Historical panorama

Delhi's long and checkered history with its rulers -- Hindu, Muslim, Mughal and British -- is reflected in its sights, whether in ancient Old Delhi or the much more modern capital, New Delhi.

The imposing Red Fort lies close to the Yamuna River in Old Delhi. Enter its massive Lahore Gate and urban noise suddenly drops away, replaced by the silence and serenity of a covered arcade. Wide, grassy areas lead to the bejeweled Halls of Public and Private Audience, where Mughal emperors once heard petitions.

Across the road, by contrast, lies crowded shopping bazaar Chandni Chowk. It's hopelessly congested, and visitors must keep their eyes peeled to avoid being run down by foot or wheel-driven traffic. Everything's on sale here -- spices are my favorite -- and there are reminders of the area's earlier, residential days; be sure to look for old, carved doors and archways.

At one edge of Chandni Chowk is Jama Masjid, the largest and best-known mosque in all of Delhi. Entry is free, but there is a fee for camera use (a practice found throughout India). I was intrigued by a group studying the Koran, hand-copying pages of the text in a side colonnade. The top of the mosque's south minaret offers great views of Old Delhi.

South of the Red Fort, set in pleasant gardens, is Raj Ghat, which marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated after his 1948 assassination. Also nearby: the cremation sites of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay.

What's new(er)

New Delhi is home to the city's monumental buildings. Major administrative complexes line Rajpath, an enormously wide boulevard stretching from India Gate, a 140-foot stone triumphal arch honoring Indian soldiers, to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential residence. The residence is set in extensive gardens, which are open only in February.

Another road, Janpath, leads north to Connaught Place. This and the streets radiating from it make up a commercial hub of Delhi, packed with hotels, corporate headquarters, airline offices and even an underground bazaar where leather goods and clothing are in plentiful supply. I found it difficult to avoid the salesmen, who tempt visitors with inexpensive goods.

Throughout Delhi, numerous temples, mosques and churches plus tombs and monuments attest to earlier rulers. Not to be missed is Humayun's Tomb, a beautiful building built for a 16th century Mughal ruler.

Farther south, the Qutub Minar complex dates to the 14th century. The Qutub Minar itself is a 240-foot-high, red sandstone tower of five distinct stories; the top two stages also include marble. The complex contains the first mosque built in India.

Equally spectacular is the newish Bahai House of Worship, built in 1986 in the shape of a lotus blossom. It appears to sit on water and is surrounded by lovely gardens. Try to visit at dusk when the building is floodlit.

Where to stay

Delhi is well served by a range of excellent hotels, many of which, however, are geared to the business and corporate traveler. Hotels from brands such as InterContinental, Oberoi, Le Meridien and Taj Mahal are located close to Connaught Place, while others, such as the Radisson, are close to the international airport, a (minimum) 45-minute taxi ride from the city center.

These top-notch hotels offer comfortable rooms, good service and a range of restaurants. However, I found that the food served is sometimes a sort of Westernized Indian cuisine; I suggest trying out local restaurants for spicy curries, tandoori and vegetarian dishes.

The best time to visit Delhi is from November to March, when the weather is pleasantly cool and there is virtually no rain. Avoid summer, as the city is unbearably hot, with temperatures over 110 degrees.

Visit www.incredibleindia.org; for Travelmasti, visit www.travelmasti.com.

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