Delhi is like a dozen cities piled on top of -- and squished between -- one other. The Mughal Empire, the British Empire, and nearly every other seafaring trading nation in the world have left imprints on India's capital city. Turning into a different neighborhood can be like jumping through time. Trying to comprehend the entire thing in a week could give you an aneurism.
While queer life has existed on the continent for centuries, it has accrued a complex history of cultural values that continues to inform its social status.
In Hindu mythology, there's the playful deity Krishna, who frequently changes gender for quite a bit of friskiness that is fun and delightful rather than condemned and sinful.
There also appears to have been a strong tradition of Indian rulers -- like the first-century Mahmud of Ghazni -- and respected spiritual leaders and poets -- like the 19th-century Mir Taqi Mir and the 17th-century Sarmad -- who publicly fell in love with boys. The poets produced some fine, if rather naughty, verses about this, even if the affairs did not always end happily.
Today, homosexuality is illegal, at least on the books. But this parting legislative gift from British colonial rule is messy, too. The foreign notions of gender and sexuality embedded in it are unable to quite cover an entire stratum of society, the hijras.
Sometimes called eunuchs or male-to-female transsexuals, hijras are not by cultural convention clearly male or female. As bearers of some spiritual currency, they are a staple at birth ceremonies, where they must bless the new child lest, some say, the child grow up to be like them. This almost encapsulates the tension around hijras -- at once haltingly revered and anchored to the margins, living in 'family' groups supported by prostitution.
Tips: Sleeping There aren't any out-loud-and-proud LGBT accommodations in Delhi, but most travelers opt for hotels over bed and breakfasts and inns. Queer couples may also feel more comfortable at higher-end lodging here, since familiar notions of privacy will apply.
The Hyatt Regency (Bhikaiji Cama Place, Ring Road; +91-112-679-1234; delhi.regency.hyatt.com; from $340) is a centrally located option that is also the subject of a few gay rumors, with whispers of queer goings-on in the Sauna Fitness Spa between guests and the cosmopolitan set of Delhi's gay youth. Perhaps because of the hotel, the park across the street on Vivekanand Marg is also rumored to be quite a cruisey area.
Finding LGBT hangouts is difficult and naming them can be dangerous. But the same cultural injunctions around family that lend homophobia its suppressive power can also license homosexual acts, at least between young, unmarried men.
With premarital, heterosexual sex pretty strictly frowned upon, many such men engage in maasti (Hindi for "mischief") with each other. This can happen at almost any time, in some rather public places, and does not seem to identify anyone as queer -- it's just maasti. Even the straightest-seeming men have been known to get up to some maasti, but remember to play it safe.
One place pretty rife with mischief -- in the form of young Sufi men -- is Nizamuddin, the area around one of Delhi's biggest sites, the Nizamuddin Dargah (Lala Lajpat Rai Path, near Lodi Road and Delhi Golf Courses), where the city's most famous 13th-century Sufi saint is buried. Thousands of Muslims pay respects here daily, purchasing flowers to toss in the tomb from the adjacent labyrinthine marketplace.
The only indoor spot that is pretty consistently queer, particularly Tuesdays, is Pegs N Pints (Chanakya Lane, Chanakyapuri; +91-011-268-783-2023; www.fortegrand.com), which is part of the Forte Grand Restaurant & Banquet Complex and next to the Chanakya Cinema.
Lesbian life, while part of the potluck found at certain LGBT venues, remains even more obscure, partly due to taboos around female sexuality and unmarried women going out alone at night.
The best way to connect with lesbian life and the queer scene in general is through one of Delhi's LGBT e-mail listservs or social networking sites. It would be dangerous to publish that information, but it is there! Sporadically, Time Out Delhi also has queer nightlife listings.
Criss-crossing the 550 or so square miles of Delhi -- Manhattan is 23 square miles -- can be insane. Taxis (listings for various companies; delhitourism.nic.in/publicpage/transportation.aspx) are good and available around most hotels, sights, and high-end nightclubs, but meters are often left off for foreigners and, if turned on, rigged anyway.
Rickshaws offer cheaper service, if equally variable prices, and can be found virtually everywhere.
Most Delhi denizens use the extensive, 2,500-stop public bus system (delhigovt.nic.in/dtcbusroute/dtc/Find_Route/getroute.asp), which is certainly useful, but kind of a headache unless you know what you are doing or willing to go on an unplanned adventure. Gird your loins, though, boys -- unexpected maasti is common in the rush-hour crush.
Tips: Sightseeing Old Delhi, flooded with remnants of architectural flourish from the 13th-17th century Mughal Empire, is one of the city's few walkable neighborhoods. Still positively humming with open-air life, this is the place to go to see, among countless other things, streetside beauty parlors administering facials to young men.
Jama Masjid (Near Red Fort, Chandni Chowk; delhitourism.nic.in/publicpage/jamamasjid.aspx), a gorgeous 17th-century mosque built by a Mughal emperor, is also near the center. Just in front lies the tomb of 17th-century Persian saint, poet, and mystic Sarmad. Born of Armenian origins, he converted to Islam and then Hinduism, falling in love with a young Hindu boy and writing homoerotic poetry explicit enough to earn a beheading.
Another pretty queer activity to be had in central Delhi is at the Gauri Shankar Temple (near Digambar Jain Temple, off of Bahadur Shah Zafar Road, Chandni Chowk), which is surrounded by an aroma of the flowers sold nearby as offerings. Dedicated to the deity Lord Shiva, the temple centers around an 800-year old lingam, or phallus stone, which is encased in silver snakes and marble.