BRIGHT SKIRTS swirling over thick silver ankle bracelets, the women laborers park their babies at curb side and bend to receive their loads. Then, pounds of brick balanced atop their heads, they move off toward the new building rising under a crude shell of lashd bamboo. the Rajasthani women are among 100,000 laborers adding their bit -- at $1.20 a day for unskilled work -- to Delhi's most ambitious construction project in half a century.
For months the pace has been frantic in India's usually languid capital. Now, thanks to the workers' last-minute activity, the city has been given a major face lift in time for the Asian Games, a two-week spectacle that has brought 5,000 athletes from 33 countries to New Delhi.
New hotels, roads and sports facilities have sprouted throughout the city for the event -- a sort of Asian version of the Olympics -- that began, not coincidentally, on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's birthday Nov. 19. Even street beggars, normally omnipresent in Indian cities, have been discreetly exiled to the Delhi boondocks for the occasion. It's been the biggest and most ambitious construction spurt since New Delhi itself was completed, just 51 years ago, as the then-new capital of the British Raj.
In moving their imperial headquarters to Delhi, and building themselves a new capital on a grand scale, the British were following the example of Indian regional dynasties before them. In fact, there have been eight cities where Delhi now stands, the oldest dating back to the 12th century. The ruins of six are scattered about contemporary Delhi, delights for sightseers and connoisseurs of the crumbling.
The seventh and eighth are alive and working side by side--the older Delhi, dating back to Mughal times, and next to it, British-built New Delhi. Together, they offer visitors grand monuments for the Mughal and British empires and an intriguing look at the juxtaposition of old and new that marks life in India.
New Delhi, an atypical city of broad vistas, spacious boulevards and imposing sandstone buildings, symbolizes the grandeur of the Raj. But the British empire used the capital for only 16 years; today the city is independent India's seat of government.
Next to the neatly laid-out new city stands old Delhi, a walled city of narrow lanes, jostling crowds, and the vibrant street life that typifies old urban centers of the East. Between them, new and old Delhi are a splendid introduction to India--and a lure to see more.
Among Delhi's attractions are its proximity and easy connections to some of the most glorious sights of northern India, especially the hauntingly beautiful Taj Mahal, a must for the first-time visitor. Others quickly reached by air are the sculpture-encrusted Hindu temples of Khajuraho and the delightful pink city of Jaipur in the desert state of Rajasthan.
In a town already rich in a variety of places to lodge, dine and shop, the new construction -- including new road overpasses, hotels and five new, and 12 renovated, stadiums -- means an ever wider range of choices.
Sensible visitors pick October through March as the time to visit India, after the season of scorching heat and monsoon downpours. Delhi's winter days are sparkling and warm, invitations to outdoor lunch or tea on sunny verandas. Cold, crisp winter nights mean sweaters and jackets, or an excuse to buy and wrap up in beautiful Indian shawls.
A particularly good time to visit Delhi is late January, when India celebrates the 1950 establishment of its republic with two shows of pomp and pageantry.
To many observers, the Jan. 26 Republic Day parade is simply the best annual parade on earth. Lances held high, scarlet-coated calvalrymen of the President's Bodyguard lead off the two-hour spectacular down the Rajpath, the great green mall that bisects New Delhi. There are crack military marching bands and units in colorful regimental headgear, folk dance troupes, India's latest tanks and rocketry, caparisoned elephants, floats, and the undulating riders and animals of the Camel Corps, fresh from duty on India's desert borders.
The second spectacle comes a few days later. The annual Beating of the Retreat ceremony takes place on a broad plaza on the Rajpath, against the backdrop to the majestic British-built Secretariats, buildings which house the Prime Minister's office as well as offices of India's principal ministries and 340-room president's house, the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
During the late afternoon ceremony, marching bands ply the plaza, while camels standing atop the secretariat walls slowly fade into silhouette against the sunset sky. Later India's latest jet fighters woosh overhead in a display of precision flying, and a fireworks display lights the sky. A flick of a switch ends the show, illuminating lights that outline the secretariat and the nearby parliament house. The visitor is left with indelible images--and a yen to come back the same time next year.
Topping any sightseeing agenda in Delhi's old city are the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid. Both the fort and palace complex and the great mosque were built during the 17th-century reign of Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Behind the red sandstone walls of the Red Fort on the banks of the Jamuna River are the Diwan-i-Am and Diwan-i-Khas, richly-decorated pavilions where Mughal rulers held their public and private audiences. Just a short walk from the fort is India's largest mosque, the Jama Masjid, a delicate harmony of massive marble and sandstone.
A short ride south of the Red Fort are two contemporary Indian memorials -- the cremation sites of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the two great leaders of India's epic struggle for independence.
At this point most tourists leap back into buses or taxis and miss one of the most interesting experiences of old Delhi. That's the Chandni Chowk, a one-time avenue of imperial processions that leads directly to the Jama Masjid. Now a crowded, busy shopping street, Chandni Chowk and its tiny bylanes offer one of the most colorful strolls in India.
Up one lane is the silver street, lined with shops selling silver jewelry and serving pieces at prices well below world markets. Both weight and a customer's bargaining skills determine the prices, and long haggles over cups of sweet tea are the order for serious shoppers. Come equipped with the going daily price of silver, published daily in Delhi's leading English-language newspapers.
Nearby is the wedding street, where Delhi residents outfit themselves with glittery garlands and other marriage paraphernalia. Another lane is lined with gold merchants; in yet another, poori shops compete to sell the puffed balloon-like Indian bread. Back on Chandni Chowl, Indians line up at Delhi's oldest jalebi stand to buy the crisp pretzel-shaped sweets hot from the vendor's perfumed syrup. Cars, trucks and three-wheeled motor rickshaws do their best to maneuver around slow-moving bullock carts, men laboriously pulling loaded hand carts, and passenger-laden horse tongas. For sheer street spectacle, there's nothing in New Delhi to match it.
But back in New Delhi there are more sights to be seen -- including what many visitors consider the city's loveliest monument, Humayun's Tomb. Built by the widow of the second Mughul emperor, the domed mid-16th century tomb set in spacious gardens is an early forerunner of the Mughul epoch's greatest masterpiece, the Taj Majal. Although close to a major road, the tomb remains a calm, peaceful oasis -- to this visitor's mind, a perfect spot for a quiet stop at twilight. About a mile away are the high ramparts of the Purana Qila (Old Fort), built during Humayun's reign; from there it's a quick walk to see the white tigers at the Delhi zoo.
Fine examples of India art can be seen at the National Museum off the Rajpath; visitors shouldn't miss the huge, richly carved temple cart outdoors on the side of the museum to the left as they exit. For modern art fanciers there's the National Museum of Modern Art, also just off the Rajpath. The works of India's Nobel laureate in literature, Rabindranath Tagore, and of painter Amrita Sher-Gill stand out in a collection many westerners find imitative rather than innovative. Visitors interested in India's independence struggle will have a rewarding visit to Teen Murti, Nehru's offical residence as India's first prime minister and now his museum.
Shopping for arts and crafts is a highlight of any visit to Delhi, because selections from throughout India are brought to the capital and sold -- at fixed prices -- in shops run by the central and state governments.
The leading store is the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on the Janpath, a major shopping street stretching southward from New Delhi's circular commercial hub of Connaught Place. Rugs, brassware, jewelry, silver, silverplate know locally as white metal, Kashmiri papier-ma che', toys, fabrics and apparel are among Cottage Industries' attractions, and Indian shoppers usually outnumber tourists. A back room behind the silver and art collections offers old but not antique, carved wood, sculptures, fabrics and decorative pieces at prices well below those of private shops. Items are often one of a kind, and should be snapped up if the price is appealing.
An even wider selection of arts and crafts is found in the three solid blocks of state-run emporiums on Baba Karak Singh Marg, another spoke on the hub leading into Connaught Place. Some standouts are the Karnataka emporium for silks by the meter and sandalwood soaps and oils, Assam's shop for cane basketry, the Rajashtan emporium for the distinctive "Jaipur blue" pottery and for pichwais, delicate gold-trimmed paintings on cotton or silk. For applique'd and embroidered home furninshings and clothing, and colorful and imaginative decorative items, the Gujarat Emporium shouldn't be missed.
In the basement of its otherwise dreary emporium, Bihar state sells Madhubani paintings, among the most delightful--and inexpensive -- folk art in India. For centuries, women in one district of the state have drawn their own highly stylized versions of Hindu legends on their walls and floors. Now they do so on paper, with home-mixed inks and dyes. Buy before they're "discovered" at embarrassingly low prices -- under a dollar for a small black and white, about $7 for a large multi-colored work.
Among the best private shops are Khazana, at New Delhi's Taj Mahal Hotel; Kui, for embroidered and applique'd clothing; and FabIndia, for an excellent selection of bed and table linens. A personal favorite is "The Shop" on Parliament Street, with its reasonably priced selection of women's clothing, bed and table covers, dhurries, table appointments and hand-printed fabrics by the bolt. Gourmet cooks also will seek out saffron and cardamom, high-priced spices in this country but plentiful and relatively inexpensive in India.
After sightseeing and shopping it's time for good eating -- an adventure for tourists who are willing to bypass "continental" food. Most large hotels and restaurants offer mediocre western food; the best is at the Taj Room at the Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel. But novice eaters should know that northern Indian food is mild compared to the throat-searing southern Indian cuisine. It's highly seasoned with spices and herbs but not very hot, and that's a big difference.
The finest, most subtle Indian food from a variety of regional cuisines is found at the Haveli, the Indian restaurant at the Taj Mahal hotel. Most nights it's jammed with diners, both Indian and western, so reservations are necessary.
A longtime tourist favorite, the Moti Mahal restaurant in old Delhi, serves scrumptious butter chicken -- slowly cooked in a clay tandoor oven and lavished with buttery tomato sauce -- and thick nan bread in an outdoor setting. The atmosphere is untidy and noisy, but most diners get too busy scooping up butter sauce with nan to notice.
For tandoor chicken and kabobs, both the Tandoor restaurant in old Delhi's President Hotel and the Bhukara Room in the modern Maurya Sheraton Hotel excel. The Dasaprakash restaurant in the Ambassador Hotel and the Woodlands restaurant in the Lodhi Hotel vie for top place in vegetarian cooking. Both serve delicious marsala dosas -- large crisp rice flour crepes stuffed with potato and vegetable curry, to be dipped in spicy sambar sauce.
While the adventurous -- and the broke -- travelers can still find small cheap hotels for a few dollars a night, most visitors seek out hotels with western-style facilities. For them there's a wide range.
Budget travelers, for example, pay $13 for a single or $22 for a double room with bath at the YMCA Tourist Hostel, and get spartan but clean accommodations and a good central location in downtown New Delhi.
Also conveniently located on the Janpath, a few blocks from Connaught Place, is the government-run Janpath Hotel at $28 and $39 a night for singles and doubles respectively. Prices zoom for Delhi's five-star hotels, but so do the services and amenities such as swimming pools, a choice of in-house restaurants, and travel booking and car rental offices. The Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel prices its singles at $82.50 and doubles at $93 a night and remains a personal favorite for attentive and friendly service. The Maurya Sheraton, closest to Palam Airport, is priced at $78 a night for singles and $91 for doubles. CAPTION: Picture 1, Old Delhi's Red Fort, photo courtesy of the Embassy of India; Picture 2, Cattle and traffic in the streets of New Delhi, by UPI; Illustration, no caption, by Carol Porter; Picture 3, The Jama Masjid, Indian's largest mosque, by Gordon N. Converse, Copyright (c) 1972, Christian Science Publishing Society