The leafy south Delhi neighbourhood of Hauz Khas has had many incarnations. Established as a madrassa and tomb complex on the edge of a man-made reservoir by the Sultan of Delhi, Firuz Shah Tughlaq, in the 14th century, the precinct became known as a prominent centre for Muslim teachings in India.

When, early last century, the domes and imposing stone halls of Hauz Khas started to crumble, bungalows and low-rise apartment buildings sprouted around them. In the 1980s, fashion designers for Delhi’s high society opened swank boutiques. However, India’s upper class preferred the city’s gleaming American-style malls and Hauz Khas fell into obscurity. It’s now moving into the spotlight again as a bohemian outpost for Delhi’s burgeoning arts and design scene.

Initially, indie musicians, social activists and artists attracted by the neighbourhood’s quiet, genteel manner, low rents and evocative history opened studios and offices in the cluster of multistorey buildings known as Hauz Khas Village. Then the designers, gallery owners, locavore chefs and cool kids with punk hairdos and sagging jeans arrived, propelling this halcyon neighbourhood into the gregarious realms of the avant-garde.

It is easy to spend the best part of a day in the area, taking in the splendour of the ruined madrassa and tomb where birds nest in the eaves and lovers canoodle in dark passageways, before stopping to rest in the colonnade of a pavilion shaded by towering trees. There are more ruins in Deer Park, a pocket of native forest flanking the edge of the reservoir, which is cut with walking tracks and has pens of flighty spotted deer. A local tour company, Delhi Heritage Walks (see delhiheritagewalks.com), arranges guided tours of the ruins, narrating the beguiling stories of Firuz Shah and his prodigious empire.

Hauz Khas’s other treasures can be found beneath the jumbling mass of exposed overhead wires, building sites and shop numbers that rarely follow a logical order; and in higgledy-piggledy lanes that make up the village. Khazana India (50A Hauz Khas Village; +91 11 6469 0597) has an extensive assortment of Indian curios and knick-knacks including affordable ’60s and ’70s Bollywood and Kollywood – a nickname for Tamil Nadu’s film industry – posters, vintage advertisements for beer and Leica cameras, elegant art deco-style porcelain lamps, rusting tin boxes embossed with images of Hindu gods, hand-painted clay tiles and flowery ceramic drawer knobs. There is also a stack of camel saddles and harnesses for impulsive expeditions into the desert.

Purple Jungle (16 Hauz Khas Village; see purple-jungle.com) offers a more whimsical take on India’s vibrant film industry. It advertises its eccentric Bollywood bags, pouches and coasters as having been “cooked with love, a dash of craziness and a pinch of masala!”.

The basement gallery Kalpana (1 Hauz Khas Village; see whatsupbharat.in) vaunts a colourful tribe of life-size wooden temple deities from Hampi, an ancient city in northern Karnataka. Take heed of export regulations on antiques if planning to ship home.

Ole Couture (womenswear, 1A Hauz Khas Village; menswear, 30 Hauz Khas Village; +91 11 4609 4141) stocks gowns inspired by India’s traditional costumes: silk and chiffon dresses festooned with Rajasthani mirror work, sequins and gold thread by Rose Tree are glitzy and extravagant; the subdued shalwar kameez-inspired dresses of Samant Chauhan are smart and subtle. Try the small upstairs boutique Bodice (22 Hauz Khas Village; see bodice.co.in) for clean-cut pleated jackets and tailored pants.

Designer Gautam Sinha of the luggage label Nappa Dori (Shop 4, Hauz Khas Village; see nappadori.com) draws his inspiration from vintage India and the glory days of slow travel. His bespoke tin suitcases in primary colours and leather-embossed handbags are elegant, stylish and great buys.

The Kashmir-based Dev family from Weavers (30 Hauz Khas Village; see weavers.co.in) has been manufacturing first-class pashminas and scarves for four generations. The Devs will happily talk shoppers through the process and show exquisite antique pieces from their personal collection. Their smart tartan and candy-stripe stoles are good value for 450 rupees ($8.30), while finely embroidered shawls that have taken more than 16 months to hand stitch are priced from 65,000 rupees.

The cavernous space of the Delhi Art Gallery (11 Hauz Khas Village; see delhiartgallery.com) showcases a museum’s worth of works by Indian painting giants such as M.F. Husain, expressionist Sunil Das and sketcher K.K. Hebbar, alongside 17th-century portraits.

Stacked with breezy rooftop cafes, grungy basement bars and sleek restaurants, Hauz Khas has no shortage of places to recharge the batteries. Laid-back Grey Garden (13A Hauz Khas Village; +91 11 2651 6450) serves decent interpretations of international cafe cuisine – zucchini fritters, lentil burgers and tagine – from its laneway setting, but at a painfully relaxed pace: “slow food, slow service”, the waitress says. More efficient is Elmas (24/1 Hauz Khas Village; +91 11 26521020), a bustling upstairs bakery and tearoom serving English favourites such as shepherd’s pie, bread sausages and pineapple upside-down cake.

But it’s Gunpowder (22 Hauz Khas Village; +91 11 2653 5700) that Delhi’s foodies flock to. This third-floor cafe’s seasonal, organic menu spotlights the spicy cuisines of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the two states flanking India’s southern tip. Toddy shop fish, usually served with a shot glass of palm wine in local bars in Kerala, and vegetable curry thickened with fresh curd and coconut milk and served with tangy tamarind rice, are among Gunpowder’s dishes.

Staying there

Amarya Haveli has six brightly coloured rooms in an old mansion in the residential quarter of Hauz Khas. Double rooms from $135; see amaryagroup.com.

This article appeared in the May 26, 2012 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.