Missing the smells of Delhi

flower seller, market, Delhi, India

Pungent aroma of Delhi as colourful as the city itself

WHEN I ARRIVED back to Toronto after six months in India, the first thing I missed was the smell of Delhi. I came out of the airport and inhaled. “Toronto smells like a parking garage,” I thought.

On the other hand, Delhi really smells. To those of you who’ve been there, or even live there now, that’s not news. Delhi is a huge, sprawling, traffic-infested city, the capital of the world’s largest democracy and a melting pot for people drawn from all over the subcontinent with hopes of a better life. Of course it smells. But the surprising thing was how much I missed the smell of Delhi.

Delhi smells like a lively mixture of acrid pollution, pungent cooking fires, tropical flowers, sewage, incense, animal sweat and heat that has been baked into the earth for eons. The smell of Delhi mirrors the city itself, an Asian megalopolis bursting with life lived out in the open, on the streets, in the markets, on the innumerable lawns and terraces where multi-generational families clad in colourful cottons spend hours together, sipping tea and talking about nothing.

Quatb Minar, Delhi, India, sunset

How do I love Delhi? Let me innumerate the ways ….

I love the pace of Delhi, which is surprisingly slow, and the wide boulevards and open spaces, which are surprisingly green. I love the historicity of the city, the constant reminders that this favoured location on the banks of the Yamuna River has seen at least seven great dynasties rise and fall since the founding of Indrapastha in about 1,500 BC.

I love the way the sky turns pink each evening at dusk because the air is tinged with the pink sand of Rajasthan, the nearby desert state. The first time I noticed this phenomenon I was on the grounds of one of Delhi’s most treasured and historic sites, the Qutab Minar — a tower that dates from the 12th century. I was on a small hill, overlooking an ancient, ornate tomb when the sky began to turn pink and make all the evocative ruins look fantastical. That was the moment I knew I was — finally — in India. After a lifetime of longing.


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I love the way drivers slow down to carefully avoid meandering cows on major streets, and the way someone in our colony feeds the stray dogs. Delhi is surprisingly profuse with wildlife, not just cows and dogs. Wild pigs graze in garbage-strewn ditches; peacocks strut in the park; and eagles fly low overhead on their way home at dusk.

spices, market, Delhi, India

The air smelled like spices

I love the markets of Delhi. Shops and stalls filled with flowing, feminine clothes, ornate jewelry, and hand carved furniture. Each market has a different character. Khan Market has great cafes, book stores and popular clothing stores like Anokhi and Fabindi. My favourite, GK-1 N-block market, is intimate and a touch European in flavour. Lajpat Nagar is a great destination for bargain hunters and Chandni Chowk, in Old Delhi, is an ancient bazaar, criss-crossed with narrow alleys, crammed with a hypnotizing display of goods — heavy wedding saris, gold bangles, bejeweled slippers — and things that smell, like sandalwood soap, rose attar, pyramids of spices, deep fried jalebis.

sweets, market, jalebi, Delhi, IndiaI love the food of Delhi, the crisp dosas at Sagar in Defence Colony, the thick milkshakes at Keventers in CP, the spicy rasam at Naivedyam in Hauz Khas, the sweets at Haldiram in Old Delhi. The foods of Delhi are rich with spicy flavour and the aromas are half the fun.

I love the traditions of Delhi, ice cream at India Gate, Sunday walks in Lodhi Garden, drinking steaming chai and eating biscuits with friends, and celebrating festivals like Holi and Diwali together, with special treats, pujas, and extravagant rituals.

I wonder if anyone, perhaps Godrej aer, could ever create a fragrance that captured the best of the smells of Delhi?

chai, India

Spices: Photo Credit: Carol Mitchell via Compfight cc
Jalebi: Photo Credit: Rajesh_India via Compfight cc
Chai: Photo Credit: Y’amal via Compfight cc

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16 Responses to Missing the smells of Delhi

  1. Sara @ The Let's Go Ladies July 9, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    I can COMPLETELY relate to this! Well, okay maybe not completely but I hear what you’re saying about missing the smell of a place that you love.

    I spent half a year living in a “small” city in southern China called Jiangmen. It’s not like the city had the more beautiful smell in the world (in fact, in many ways it was anything but beautiful) but it was very distinct and I attached all of my memories to it.

    Years later, it’s still amazing how catching even a quick waft of anything that smells similar will bring those memories rushing back in an instant.
    Sara @ The Let’s Go Ladies recently posted..Westward bound: Sara’s Headed to BC This SummerMy Profile

  2. Renuka July 9, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    This is a fabulous take on Delhi. I have lived there for a decade. (Now moved to Hyderabad) Somehow, I don’t like it – I mean I wouldn’t ever want to go back and live there. Hyderabad is so much more peaceful and modest. Delhi is so artificial, so over-the-top and so bustling. Thus, when I read your story on it, I almost slipped into a Delhi that could have been (I know your observations are right, but that’s just one side of it). I mean even I would love Delhi from a tourist’s point of view.
    Renuka recently posted..10 Tips For A ‘Value-For-Money’ Travel ExperienceMy Profile

  3. Dale July 9, 2014 at 2:37 pm #

    I’ve had that feeling for over a year now, ever since we left asia. I miss the smells, the food, the people. Everything.

    Though I’ve never made it to Delhi, I think I’d love it from the way you describe it.
    Dale recently posted..Our Guide To Vegan Restaurants In MadridMy Profile

  4. Katie July 9, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

    I just found out I may be headed to Delhi next April (which is how I found your amazing blog) – so this post is incredibly inspiring!! I felt similarly about Bangkok – I just stepped off the plane and the smell was overwhelming. I knew I’d love it.
    Katie recently posted..Diving and Snorkeling Pemuteran BaliMy Profile

  5. Anita July 10, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    There is nothing I love more than the spices of India so to be in Dehli checking out all the spices they have to offer would be a dream!
    Anita recently posted..Add Some Herb And Spice To The World Cup Final With Our Favourite Argentinian & German Dishes!My Profile

  6. Clay July 11, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    I have this thing for big cities, and I feel like I should experience that thing with Delhi It sounds cool!
    Clay recently posted..The Dreamers ListMy Profile

  7. bengaliceo August 3, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    Beautifully presented ma’am. Loved the way you explained Delhi 🙂

  8. Kan August 5, 2014 at 12:36 am #

    I loved this post. You’ve written so well about all that is so charming about Delhi. There is a lot not to like, as well (and I say this as someone who was born and grew up there). But you’ve captured the beautiful aspects of the city wonderfully!
    Kan recently posted..Joy is…My Profile

  9. Ami August 5, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    I *feel* this post. I so do. It describes everything I love about Delhi, and Delhi is not an easy city to love. I think people and cities have a connection that goes beyond the obvious. That’s the only way one could explain why some people fall in love with a city that many others love to hate. I think you write magically well. 🙂
    Ami recently posted..A Bhutan Visit Stamped on the MindMy Profile

  10. biman bora August 22, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    Delhi is purey described…very nice…a realistic scenerio of a developing country…a place of hope for the people from lower to upper classes..a place for living a life for poverty hit india…

  11. Katie September 28, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

    What an exotic place …. I’ve been all over Southeast Asia, but India seems like an entirely different world altogether!
    Katie recently posted..3 lesser known cities in Brazil not to missMy Profile

  12. RT November 3, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    I’m a Delhi girl living in NY for the past 15 years. But in my heart I’ll always be a Delhi girl. Your blog made me miss home. You mentioned everything and every place that I grew up with. Read your story…very inspiring! Makes me put a lot of things in my life under scrutiny!
    Safe Travels! xoxo

  13. Amrita Mack November 14, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    I love this post – it reminds me so much of India. I really miss it! My favorite memory was walking out of the Bengaluru airport, and when the smell of spices (it’s really not a stereotype :D) hit me. It was wonderful!

  14. AB November 14, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    Ive been wanting to go to India and your post made want to go there even more. Thank you for posting such a descriptive and interesting post.
    AB recently posted..Discovering the sacred spirit of WhistlerMy Profile

  15. Jaya Budholia July 1, 2015 at 10:35 am #

    Hi Mariellen ,

    You are so indian , You described everything just right . You brought a smile to my face with that tea and biscuit pic , i remembered so many chai and friends sessions:) , try Parle G biscuits with your ginger tea next time .

    you are one blonde indian and a good one !
    I love delhi and mumbai alike and really can never decide 🙂
    May you have many more wonderful adventures in India 🙂

    good luck to you .

    Jaya

  16. Ankit Singh February 1, 2017 at 7:21 am #

    Hi

    After returning to Mumbai from my first trip to Delhi, I was surprised to discover I missed the smells of Delhi.

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