India’s capital can really overload the senses but beneath the surface is a city of spirituality and substance.  AMY MACPHERSON reports.

You need three things to drive in India,” our driver explains, swerving to avoid a cow. “Good lights, good brakes and a good horn”. It’s the latter that first strikes you about Delhi’s streets – the non-stop beeping. People seem to use horns instead of indicators. There’s an endless soundtrack of blaring, high-pitched bleats and honks, punctuated by a peculiar motorbike horn that sounds like a flatulent duck. Despite the racket, there’s a miraculous rhythm to the traffic. Cycle rickshaws dart between tuk-tuks and cars and everyone weaves in and out of lanes with merry abandon, seeming to avoid catastrophe by centimetres.

You’d think such barely-contained chaos would be recipe for road rage, but no – people are actually polite and respectful towards each other. Another mini miracle is the discovery that, after a couple of days, the noise blends into the background and becomes normal. It’s just another colourful aspect of street life in a city where cows idle on traffic islands, elephants trudge along the verge and roadside barbers and dentists ply their trade from small mats on the pavement. The frantic activity simply never stops.

A few years ago, scenes like these would have been veiled in the choking smog that forced locals to wear face masks outdoors and gave India’s capital the grim status of the world’s fourth-most polluted city. But thanks to bold clean-air moves by city authorities in 2003, residents and visitors alike can now breathe easy. These days the city’s vast public transport fleet runs on cleaner compressed natural gas (CNG) instead of diesel, and a brand new Metro has given commuters an alternative to cars and buses.

The pollution revolution has come just in time, as the city gears up to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. With plans underway to further improve the city’s infrastructure, now is as good a time as any to discover why Delhi is much more than just a travel hub for inbound visitors.

How bazaar

The city comprises Old Delhi, the historic heart with its colourful bazaars, temples and mosques, and New Delhi – the seat of regional and national government, full of wide avenues, colonial architecture and swanky hotels.

The best way to get a feel for Old Delhi’s unique atmosphere is by taking a cycle rickshaw ride, starting with Chandni Chowk, the main shopping street. It’s the maze of streets running off it that typify the old city’s bazaar, and the rickshaw-wallahs have a second sense when it comes to navigating these narrow lanes crammed with shops and people. The experience comes close to sensory overload – the scent of incense mixes with the aromas of sizzling street snacks and cow manure, stalls are festooned with tinsel and bejewelled saris sparkle in shop windows.

A wing and a prayer

In contrast to the frenetic atmosphere of the bazaar, Old Delhi’s Jain temple is a haven of peace and quiet. Jainism teaches that all life on earth is sacred, and next to the temple (worth a visit for its opulent decoration) is a charity bird hospital where anyone can turn up with a sick or injured bird and have it treated for free. The hospital, which has two resident vets, is run entirely on donations. Inside, folk art murals show the various pitfalls that can befall birds, from cat attacks to hunting by humans. The hospital is open to the public from 8am-8pm and gives a insight into one of India’s ancient religions.

Another peaceful spot in the old city is the impressive Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), the largest mosque in India. Its courtyard can hold more than 20,000 worshippers. The mosque was built by Shah Jahan, the Mughul emperor also responsible for the Taj Mahal. After the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz (for whom the Taj Mahal was built as a memorial), Shah Jahan moved the capital of his empire to Delhi, and the mosque was one of his last building projects. Made of red, white and black stone with marble inlay, it’s beautifully decorated and a fitting setting for some quiet reflection and time out.

Other Delhi highlights

Rashtrapati Bhavan
Travelling up the wide boulevard known as the Rajpath gives a good sense of New Delhi’s spacious imperial layout. It leads to the Rashtrapati Bhavan – once the British Viceroy’s palace but now the home of India’s president. This impressive building was designed by the British architect Edward Lutyens whose grand classical style set the tone for New Delhi’s colonial-era architecture.

Tomb of Humayun
Like the Taj Mahal, the tomb of Humayun is a monument to love, but in a neat role reversal it was actually commissioned by a woman, Hamida Banu Begum, as a memorial to her late husband, the second Mughal emperor Humayun. The tomb even bears a striking resemblance to the Taj Mahal, though it’s made of red stone rather than white marble. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the tomb is surrounded by pleasant gardens and ponds.

Lajput Nagar Central Market
The ordered layout of this market makes it a much more relaxed shopping experience than Chandni Chowk. Browse for clothing and costume jewellery, sunglasses and all manner of nick-nacks. Bargaining is par for the course. Another good shopping centre is Dillihaat, which is open until 10pm and has a range of eating options.

• Amy Macpherson travelled to India with Hands Up Holidays (; 0800-783 3554), a company that combines high-comfort travel and sightseeing with a taste of community development work. The 12-day Taste of India tour starts at £1400 (flights not included) and includes four days’ volunteer work with approved charities in the slums of Delhi, a Delhi city tour and travel to Agra, Jaipur and Fatehpur Sikri plus a tiger safari. Quote ‘TNTHUH06’ when you book online to receive this special price, valid until November 20.