Delhi: The Ultimate Secret Address

Mark Luscombe-Whyte

Built amid the ruins of seven 12th- to 18th-century cities…Seat of the Raj from 1912 until independence…Today the country’s capital, filled with officials and diplomats…A sprawling and rapidly expanding metropolis of 14 million…Marked by wide, treelined streets and parks...The access point to Rajasthan, Agra, and the Himalayas...

Only recently have some of us Indians begun thinking about living in the older parts of Delhi as opposed to the suburbs,” says Momin Latif, a preeminent French-speaking poet, early Indian jewelry specialist, and consultant on Moghul art who has worked for the Louvre. He divides his time between Paris and his hometown of Delhi, where he owns an extraordinary private house, now available to rent, in the city’s Mehrauli Quarter. “I have three friends who saw what I did and bought here,” Latif adds.

The house faces the Qutab Minar, the world’s tallest minaret, and abuts the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, a 100-acre Moghul-era parkland with a mimosa forest and about 80 Indo-Islamic monuments. While hardly an obvious location—nine miles south of Delhi’s Connaught Place—those prepared to reckon with a different (and much poorer) area of the city will be rewarded by one of the best secret addresses in Delhi. “The place has tremendous mystery, and from the way it’s decorated you can see it reflects a life well lived: someone who has traveled widely and absorbed cultures deeply,” says one past guest, travel writer Mark Shand. “It’s as if the house were built five hundred years ago, yet it’s brand new. Momin Latif has that kind of eye and an obsession with detail.” Prince Michael of Kent also recently stayed here.

The residence, originally built as two milkmen’s shelters, has modest roots. When Latif found the houses in 2000, they were overrun with chickens, cows, and buffalo, and goats sunbathed on the roof. Latif, whose family has owned property in the neighborhood since the early 19th century, set about renovating, employing a structural engineer and some 100 Indian artisans. As a young man Latif studied architecture, and his eclectic but knowing imprint can be felt everywhere. The top two stories comprise a master bedroom, three more guest rooms, and a drawing room, which looks out over the archaeological park. The rest of the house faces inward, onto a central courtyard with a pool and an open hallway featuring 12-foot-high stone columns (two are original 16th-century pillars from a Moghul palace). And the courtyard is planted with pomegranate trees, jasmine, date palms, and a tall and leafy eucalyptus. The house feels not unlike a Marrakechi riad, the front door leading down a dark corridor into an oasis of quiet and natural light.

There are five guest rooms, each different; a personal favorite features a carved lattice-screen balcony, or jali, loaded with cushions and accessed via a worn spiral staircase. Latif salvaged the stairs, which date back to the early 19th century, from on old English house in Calcutta. The walls of this bedroom are covered in hand-block-printed cotton made in Sanganer, outside Jaipur, done in a traditional design in colors chosen by Latif. The property’s bathrooms are done in simple white marble from Makrana, which is also the source of the Taj Mahal’s stone.

The detail throughout is intoxicating and includes a vast collection of Indian textiles. In the ground-floor guest room, adjacent to the pool, walls are covered in camel-bone marquetry—a process that took a single artisan six months to complete. Ninteenth-century mashroo, a finely woven cloth with a silklike sheen made in Aurangabad, about 150 miles from Mumbai, covers the pink queen suite on the second floor; Latif uncovered the fabric in an old textile dealer’s house in Jaipur. The centerpiece of the master bedroom is an 18th-century pottery fireplace from Hala, a town in southeast Pakistan known for its blue-and-white ceramics, above which hangs a mercury-glass mirror.

But it’s the drawing room that is the tour de force, with its 17th-century wooden arched windows from a demolished house in north India’s Haryana; these look out over the parkland’s lush mimosa treetops. A 17-foot-long sofa, which was constructed in the room, runs along one wall and is covered in Grenache-colored velvet. The 19th-century carpet is from Aubusson, the Regency furniture from Paris but reupholstered in Indian silks. And there are glorious gold and marble models of Moghul buildings, commissioned annually by Latif. Decorative 18th- and 19th-century tiles, again from Hala, line the vast fireplace, and an 18th-century Turkish doorway hangs above. “I bought it on a whim,” says Latif. “For twenty years it’s been sitting in a trunk. When I retrieved it and it fit to the last centimeter, it felt like fate.”

The fire needs to be lit only in December and January, of course. For the rest of the year the house is air-conditioned, though frankly its ten-foot-thick stone walls render this redundant. Interiors are immaculately maintained by a resident staff of ten, most notably the English-speaking manager, Wasim Ahmed, and the formidable cook, Abdullah Khan, whose sweets are enough to make you weep and who serves every dish on a different antique platter. The linen in the dining room is elegantly embroidered, collected from everywhere—the backstreets of Calcutta to the hallowed antiques shops of Europe. No detail escapes Latif, not even the teapot, a delicate silver Art Deco vessel from which flows fresh ginger tea, as brilliantly scented as the fruit-laden lemon trees on the rooftop garden. The house sleeps eight and guests must be 16 or older. For more information and rates, contact Latif at mominlatif@sify.com.