Most of Delhi's old mosques and tombs are tucked away deep inside sprawling modern suburbs and slums. The city is growing so fast and haphazardly that maps are often outdated and inaccurate. If you get lost and ask for directions, the locals will rarely have any idea of what's in their backyard. The city authorities may not be much help either: a policeman in the heart of Delhi recently assured a bewildered tourist that the photo of the marble-domed building in a guidebook showed the Tomb of Hanuman, a Hindu monkey god. (It's actually the Tomb of Humayun, a 16th century Mughal Emperor). That's why Lucy Peck's Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building is one of the best things in years to have happened to Delhi's architecture enthusiasts.
This book combines a history of Delhi, a description of its architectural phases, succinct sketches of virtually every interesting monument in the city, dozens of black-and-white photos and plenty of practical getting-around advice. The loving descriptions will help the reader explore world-famous monuments like the Qutb Minar, a magnificent 800-year-old tower, the Lodi tombs and mosques, and lesser-known marvels such as the Jamali Kamali, the tomb of a 16th century poet and his companion. Spanning from the Middle Ages through the British Raj to the present, the book shows how Delhi accumulated history like geological strata. So, following Peck's road map, you can wander through the market of Chandni Chowk in old Delhi, taking note as you pass in quick succession a Jain temple where sick birds are treated, a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara, a mosque and a British-era police station (a McDonald's has also opened on the road). As Peck understands, it's this juxtaposition of the present and the past, of the mundane and the macabre, that is Delhi's special delight for art and history buffs. On the terrace of an abandoned 14th century madrasah in the neighborhood of Hauz Khas, you can stand on the stone steps where Mongol conqueror Timur the Lame walked in 1398, admiring the city whose inhabitants he had butchered (his contribution to Delhi's architecturepyramids of skullshas thankfully been lost). Sitting in Haldiram's, a vegetarian eatery in old Delhi, you can admire the Sunehri mosque, whose roof Nadir Shah, a king of Persia who had invaded Delhi, climbed in 1739 to make sure that the city's inhabitants were being massacred as he had ordered.
You could argue with a few of Peck's opinions. She regurgitates the conventional wisdom about Safdarjang's Tomb, an 18th century structure of sandstone and marble that looks like the Taj Mahal left in the care of a kid with a red crayon, noting that it "has been considered inferior" to the older Tomb of Humayun. This is, in my opinion, hopelessly wrong. With its elongated onion-dome and red-and-white exterior, the tomb provides a much-needed whimsical touch in a city where so many buildings are solemn. But, a few blips in judgment apart, Peck's effort is wonderfully solid and worthwhile.
The only thing this lovely book lacks is a sense of humor. Delhi has probably been ruled by a more continuous string of misfits, incompetents and cowards than any other imperial city, which may be why it has been sacked so oftenamong those who did the honors were Timur, the British, the Persians and the Afghans (at least three times). So many boastful tombs and forts designed for so many third-rate sultans! Know your history, and it's impossible to keep a straight face as you drive down the posh Lodi Road (named in honor of a dynasty that was routed by a small Mughal force in 1526) up to the gorgeous Safdarjang's Tomb (built for a Prime Minister who started a civil war during which Delhi was plundered by invaders), and continue along the even-posher Prithviraj Road (named after the city's last Hindu ruler, who lost his kingdom in 1192). Delhi's kings lost their thrones and heads with remarkable regularity, a phenomenon that is still repeated every few years during India's general elections, when modern India's Prime Ministers discover, too late, just how little protection the city's massive battlements truly afford.