Connaught Place is the centre of Lutyens Delhi, conveniently pinpointed by an enormous flagpole within a circular “Central Park” from which concentric circles of road and 1930s Georgian-style buildings radiate. The buildings around the rings are grand, colonnaded and white, designed by architects inspired by Bath’s Georgian Royal Crescent and in keeping with the Lutyens-designed bungalows within what is referred to as Lutyens Delhi, the new Delhi created by the British. If I had never visited Delhi before, I would start my hotel search there, seemingly the centre of a radiant sun if you look on a map. But, having been there many times, it is the last tourist area in New Delhi I would ever choose to stay in.
I have stayed in New Delhi (for work but with plenty of downtime) maybe 15 times in the past two years and travelled around the city on foot, by metro, auto rickshaw and taxi, in that order of frequency, mostly on my own. I have walked through slums, amidst mindbogglingly busy tourist sites and temple complexes, around train stations, along very quiet and very busy roads and have very often been the only non-Indian and/or the only tourist. I have only once felt a strong “I shouldn’t be walking here” feeling (a large, unkempt area of scrubland, albeit with some very interesting, very old buildings, around Qutub Minar with very, very few people around), once had a “this could turn nasty” moment (a long and culturally complicated story involving a photograph, but a girl shouting at me in Hindi, which caused a big group of excitable children to crowd round me) but had lots of negative experiences, uninvited attention and general hassle, not of the kind you probably expect, in and around Connaught Place/Connaught Circus/CP.
CP was designed as a central retail and business district for the wealthy residents of a new Delhi. The land had previously been full of trees and wild animals and had been used for weekend partridge hunting. It is now within the top ten most expensive office locations in the world, though the retail rent is a slightly different issue.
Apparently, anyone who rented the retail units before 1947’s independence is still covered by Delhi Rent Control Act, so a unit that went for around 50 rupees then can only ever increase by 10% per year. If the tenant pays their monthly rent on time, the owner cannot evict them. As sub-letting is permitted within the Act, there are some tenants who are earning a fortune by sub-letting to big chains; for once, the property owner is not the one to benefit. If an owner renovates their property, they can increase the rent, but only by 7.5% of the costs incurred, which doesn’t make it worth their while. This brings me on to one of my main issues with Connaught Place.
Connaught Place is dirty and rundown, yet it is a destination shopping and entertainment area with international brands along the lines of Levis, Body Shop, H&M; UK High Street type shops. Unsurprisingly, Delhi has extremes of poverty and wealth which can be seen everywhere you go. Yet somehow, Connaught Place is an area where I feel most conscious of the extremes and where they sit together most uncomfortably and incongruously. The buildings are grand until you look closer and realise they are poorly-maintained and dirty, most of the shoppers are probably middle class Indians and foreigners but the people you see who live in the area are the homeless people sleeping within the colonnades. The shops are genuine international brands and fairly “international” prices, where bargaining will get you nowhere (or maybe that’s just me?!) yet markets around the area are cheap, indeed there is a huge, air conditioned underground market, Palika Bazaar, where bargaining and knock-offs are in abundance. Within the Connaught Circus rings and along some of the radial roads are quite a few five-star hotels (I have learnt the horrible way that there are some truly vile five star hotels around CP – read the reviews; a fairly cheap room in a five star hotel in Delhi is cheap for a reason). To the north west of CP near Delhi station are a lot of backpacker hostels and within CP are a lot of backpacker style cafes and eateries; to think that this area could be some people’s lasting impression of Delhi fills me with horror. I once talked to a couple on the plane back to the UK, returning from their first trip to India, and they said they hated Delhi. My immediate reaction was to ask where they had stayed. Yes, around CP, and that had, understandably, given them a very negative impression of Delhi. I’m also not convinced that a budgeting backpacker would have a positive or healthy impression of Delhi from staying in that area either.
As for eating out, it varies from cheap street food to London prices and the kinds of places I’d eat out at in London for a social occasion (ie rather than a quick, convenient meal out) are only a little bit cheaper.
But I still haven’t got to my main issue, which is guaranteed hassle that I have never experienced elsewhere in Delhi to that extent. It is always men, they have never looked like the kind of people you’d expect to talk to you, they have never been unpleasant and all they do is offer advice. A few of these men (I have “met” maybe 50 men this way, it is not just a few – actually, it would be more than 50) have been fine, other than their interaction with me being completely uninvited, and just ended up walking a short way with me, establishing that I am from the UK, I like India a lot and that their friend/relative living in Manchester/Bolton/Birmingham/London likes it there very much apart from the weather. I’m not exaggerating or over-summarising.
I recently stayed 12 nights in the area, at The Lalit. On around day seven after maybe the eighth “helpful man” of the day, I am sorry but I started snapping a bit, along the “yes, I know there are other shops, I have been here many times, I know where I am going” lines. I resented my doing that as I don’t like feeling rude but, seriously, having someone walk with you, asking you questions (and I hate lying) about where you’re going, what you’re doing, how long you’re staying and then suggesting you don’t go to the shops there but to the craft shops there (despite repeatedly emphasising “I’m not going shopping, I’m just going for a walk”) or “there are protests that way”, which to date has always been completely unfounded/untrue, “go [usually to other shops]” or “don’t eat there, it’s closed/not good/big queues/too expensive, go [usually somewhere they know], come, let me take you there” or “you don’t want to go that way [where all the middle class locals and non-hippy tourists are heading], it’s dangerous” or “be careful, people will try to take your shoes, don’t go that way, go to the handicraft shops [over there]”. Incidentally, a lot of people offer to clean your shoes, mine usually being knackered old Sketchers, and I have heard stories of people having poo dropped on their feet followed by the offer of paying to have them cleaned.
I could go on. However, because I love Delhi other than Connaught Place, I am now going to list nine reasons to ignore my CP and Janpath (to me the worst of the roads leading into/out of CP) rants and head there anyway:
- Jantar Mantar, a small (pay to enter) park area full of amazing, photogenic 18th century astronomy instruments. These constructions are well worth seeing, especially if you’ve never seen old astronomy instruments before and are thinking of being dismissive of something unknown. Very, very cool.
- Janpath Lane, off Janpath, is home to a row of stalls selling beautiful handmade Gujarat crafts, mainly bright coloured bags, rugs and fabrics, at very good prices. Friendly people, lots of colour and covetable bags.
- The Nepalese market on Janpath by Janpath Metro Station sells a lot of interesting Nepalese handicrafts and curios, a major bargaining opportunity.
- On Baba Kharak Singh Road, opposite Shivaji Stadium Metro Station and up to the Outer Circle of CP, there is a lovely row of State-run handicraft emporia. Prices are fixed and reasonable and you can spend hours exploring shops representing different states of India and getting an idea of how varied each state is in terms of available resources (eg different woods, brass, silks, techniques, etc). It is a very good area for buying souvenirs as well as an almost museum-like introduction to different regions of India.
- Farzi Café serves tasty, contemporary Indian food, some of it tapas-style.
- The Embassy Restaurant and Bar is old school Indian food in an environment that appears only minimally changed since the 1940s but with more modern hygiene.
- Cha Bar in the lovely Oxford Bookstore has a very nice light food menu (though a lot of dishes on the menu are unavailable) and I dream about their amazing cutting cha (perfectly spiced black tea with not too much milk or sugar).
- Wenger’s, founded by a Swiss couple in the 1920s who brought French bread, Swiss chocolate and pastries to the wealthy British, foreign diplomats and Indian high society and served as a venue for expat weddings, balls and official dinners, is still running and still well worth a visit, particularly to take away their savoury pastries (my preference, but everything, sweet and savoury, I’ve had from there has been excellent). The Wengers sold the business to one of their Indian employees in 1945 and it is run today by his grandson.
- Rikhi Ram’s small, full-of-character sitar and stringed instruments shop and workshop along the outer circle. Not only have The Beatles, Ravi Shankar and many other famous musicians bought instruments there, it is a beautiful shop and lovely to see sitars being made, repaired, tuned and even played.
- Central Park. I have never managed to actually get in. Two of the aforementioned men told me you can only get in if you are in a couple or have a free ticket/invite from a tourist information office; I am not convinced by this. I did once fail to get in after circumnavigating the park, by which time I had lost all will to persevere or concentrate on the logistics of so many people already being inside with seemingly no way in after a few men stopped me for a “chat”. Apparently, the couple thing and the lack of entrances is for security purposes after bombs, which did explode, were planted by two men in dustbins in the park in 2008. Anyway, if you fancy a mission, the reason I wanted to visit the park is that behind the fountains are some windows, through which you can see down into the centre of Rajiv Chowk Metro Station, one of Delhi’s busiest metro stations.