February 19, 2012 Delhi Agra Weekend Episode 6
From Humayun's tomb, we proceed to the first great symbol of Muslim rule in Delhi, the Qutb Minar! Qutb ud din Aibak started its construction in 1198. The capital of those dynasties are quite far from the Purana Qila.
On the way, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, easily the most famous hospital complex in India. Sort of a living memorial of several modern Indian VIPs. After the AIIMS comes the IIT of Delhi. While the AIIMS has been attracting patients and doctors from abroad because of its expertise, of the top of my head, I cannot think of foreigners flocking to the IITs for engineering consultancy.
Past the Haus Khaz area with its walled and watchman-towered bungalows, the neighborhood rapidly descends into economic backwardness. Narrowing roads cause close shaves for our car. Santoshji becomes more aggressive. Looks like many drivers think that the rear view mirror is for make up purposes.
The ticket counter and cloak room are across the crowded road in front of the entrance to the Qutb Minar complex. This road, with its incessant flow of taxis, cars, buses, autorickshaws, bikes and bicycles, is more formidable than any moat the sultans might have intended around the complex.
I had read that there are several ancient Jain temples in the area, but in our hurry to overtake a big ground of Chinese tourists, I don't have time to look for them. Besides, Santoshji had told us that if we make it out of this area by 4pm, we can still make it to Indira Gandhi's Safdarjung museum before it closes at 4:45.
But I guess the greatest factor that accelerates our feet is the inexplicable attraction of the stupendous tower we can already see. It rises a lighthouse in the deep and dark sea of Delhi history.
800 years. I gulp trying to comprehend that distance in time. The minarest of the minars.
The structure had withstood a few earthquakes. It underwent repairs. Clearly, anyone who had come under its spell understood the need to preserve it. The collapsed and collapsing structures around it offer the humbling contrast of the sturdy, smooth elegance of fluted sandstone and marble. Even after eight centuries, the chipping away of the carved Arabic and Nagari letters forming the verses of Koran, is not much.
As we approached the minar, the afternoon sun was behind it offering an otherworldly aura. The view from the other side with the stones dazzling in the sun was breathtaking. Since Amma had been here before and needed some rest, she sat on a stone bench in the shade beside the Minar. Achan and I walked towards the collapsed gateway arches (that were intact in sketches of 1835), defaced black domes and mud and stone skeletons of once impressive walls.
I run my hands through the cold, hardened clay and mud between stones. The little pebbles glitter. A million narrow streaks on the mud. A million hands over time?!
Iltumish's tomb is dome-less today. The dome collapsed twice. The inner walls with its numerous niches are richly covered with carving. Majority sandstone used makes the marble niches stand out. A young couple from Tamil Nadu were trying to get their little baby, "Narain", to look into the camera and pose inside the tomb. Without the roof, Iltumish's cenotaph basks in the afternoon warmth.
Outside the tomb, bits and pieces from the collapsed structures have been gathered. History's junkyard. There are pieces that resemble the templar's cross. Dan Brown might get inspired.
Alai Minar, aptly described by Rajeev as "still born monstrosity" comes next. Iltumish intended it to be twice as wide and twice as tall as the Qutub Minar. Death had other ideas. Now it looks like a ruined stupa. Does the word stupendous comes from the stupa? What about stupid?
Informative engraved stone tablets have been erected by the side of each monument. As I reach the entrance to Qawat-ul-Islam mosque, the first mosque built by the Delhi Sultans, I see a young lady use her finger to emphatically underline for her friend the part in the information tablet that says pillars and other structures transported from Hindu and Jain temples were used in the construction of this mosque. Was the India of majority rule planning on corrective action?
After repeated suicide attempts and some success, access to the top of the Minar is now denied to the public. Vayalar writes in his book about the tiring climb of the 379 steps all the way to the top. That was the 1960s. He also writes about his taxi driver who told him that the Qutb Minar was the handle of the mace of Bhima from the Mahabharata which has been left there after the great war by that mythological Pandava prince. The massive head of the mace is underground. When Vayalar laughs at this suggestion, the driver insists that he knows it is the truth because 'learnt', religious,scholarly folks had told him so. After I posted this note on facebook, a friend pointed out that this beautiful song was filmed inside the Qutb Minar.
I had completely forgotten about the "miraculous" Iron pillar till Amma mentions it. It is bang in the middle of the mosque inner yard. This location used to be inside the complex of 27 Jain temples that Qutb Aibak destroyed. The miraculous non-rusting character comes from the phosporus content. But the pillar is ample proof of the incredible smelting skills of Indian blacksmiths who were at least thousand years ahead of the rest of the world. Nevertheless since modern India is more into miracles than science, it was believed that standing next to the pillar and hugging it by bending arms backwards brings luck. Since this was causing problems to the structure, there is a short fence around the pillar nowadays.
Commissioned by Kumaragupta in 4th century AD, the pillar was moved to Delhi from Udayagiri by the Tomar kings who also named the area Dhili in the 10th century. The inscription on the pillar in Brahmi talk about the "moon faced" king Chandragupta. Originally, in Udayagiri, the pillar seems to have served a sundial. Udayagiri, located on the Tropic of Cancer, was famous for its astronomy centers.The Qutb complex does have a smalled sun dial called Sanderson's dial on one of the gardens. It was showing 3pm when we reached. We checked our watches to realize that the sun was one hour late. But it also meant we were cutting it close to Santoshji's deadline.
Right outside the complex walls, brisk business of lemon soda which comes in thick glass bottles sealed with marbles. Santoshji assures us that we can still make it to Safdarjung road museum. Achan seemed to be obsessed about the spot where Indira Gandhi was gunned down. On the way back, I notice that this original, ancient Dhili is now very poor. An old lady was selling 'Roti-Chole' for Rs. 10. Men were waiting their turn to get hair cuts and shaves from the barber who operated under a neem tree. From the narrow roads of this old capital city, it took us less than half an hour to reach the wide, tree-lined, national capital designed by the British and occupied by the democractic dynasties of today.
We make it into the Safdarjung museum 10 minutes before closing time. Though we were speeding down the roads, we managed to read a few more nameboards at the gates of the identical bungalows: Sachin Pilot, Vayalar Ravi, P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal.
The walls of the front rooms of the the 1, Safdarjung Road house in which Indira Gandhi stayed while she was first the minister for broadcasting and then the prime minister, have been covered with framed newspaper clipping of the significant events of her grand political career. As the curator hurries us through, there is just enough time to recognize that 'Mathrubhumi' is the Malayalam newspaper whose clippings have been used.
In the next room a big glass cube inside which neatly folded the faded, blood stained sari she wore on the final day along with her shoes and a cotton cloth bag. More trinkets in the next room. A beautiful jewelry box that husband Feroz had carved for her, her honorary diploma from Moscow university and so on. Her dressing room, study, library, living, dining, pooja and bedrooms have been preserved. The picture of Bharatmaata (mother India) as the main piece in the tiny puja room looks a bit corny. But then thats what politics is all about.
Lush, spacious lawn with a pond forms the backyard. We walk through the path there to the point where the final path she took towards the gate breaks off. It has no been relaid with fibre glass to give a sense of fluid time. Near the gate, a clear glass square marks the spot she fell after taking 31 bullets.
At the end of the wall, a modern sculptor by Anjolie Ela Menon urging tiger conservation. Along with it is displayed a letter Indira wrote to young Rajiv Gandhi about how she finds the tiger skin in their living room, that they received as a gift, disturbing. She would rather have the skin on its living muscular tissue of the magnificent beast. She urges her son to always stand for protecting the tigers of India.
As we leave the premises, Amma asks, "Doesn't it make you want to enter politics?" "What?! Getting assassinated?" I exclaim. "No, these wonderful homes and surroundings...!" "....where one can live in constant worry of political manipulation and perpetual fear of assassination"
A Buddhist monk in deep red robe walks down the wide footpath shaded by Neem, Gulmohar and Mast trees. A symbol of renunciation and detachment at the heart of corruption and powerlust.
Sunday market at Karol Bagh achieves the impossible. Twice as many people have converged into an area that I thought was pretty much bursting at the seams on Saturday itself. Twice as many cars as well. And they are parked in two and some times three rows on the road itself leaving a narrow lane for thoroughfare. These double and triple parking, obviously illegal, is executed by an army of wallet parking boys. The exorbitant parking fees collected make their way up in the police department and apparently all the way to the top of the political machinery. So not a single policeman to even express nominal concern about such blatant illegal violations and misuse of public roads. People have been used to all these. They curse and spit and take it out on their vehicle's horns. The stray dogs continue to sleep peacefully on the dividers.
We have tea at Saravana Bhavan. The waiter is a Malayalee, so extra helping of chutney with the dosas. Back at the hotel, we freshen up and decide to try some other place for dinner. The "Deal or No Deal" episode starts. A Mary Francis from Alapuzha is the contest hoping to make 50 lakhs.
Back on Saraswati Marg, we decide to follow a line of foreign tourists being led by an Indian guide to a restaurant named Temptations. They have a menu along with an usher outside. One look at the menu and it is clear why the foreigners have been herded into that place. A chapati costs over Rs. 60. Across from "Temptations" is Suruchi restaurant. We are ushered in by a magnificently mustached usher in classic Rajasthani turban. The menu here features on Thaali meals: Rajasthani, Gujarati, Punjabi. Other than that there are only Pav Bhaji and Vada Pav. We are not hungry enough for Thaali. So we decide to explore the area more.
"Spirit: Bar and Restaurant" offers North Indian, Mughalai and Chinese dishes. Foreigner presence in the area clues us about the pricing. Menu confirms our doubt. We begin to wonder if Saravana Bhavan is our sad destiny. Then we notice a white lady walking quickly down the street with what looks like a food parcel. Our eyes retrace her path to land on the board that says "Flavors of Punjab: Take Away". We thank the stars that are invisible in the smog above the thin slice of sky visible through the space not yet occupied by sign boards.
Half chicken curry at Rs. 120 and chappatis Rs. 8 each are ordered to be ready in 20 minutes. They are ready to deliver in our hotel room, but we decline. We walk around the narrow street called Guru Nanak Market in those 20 minutes. A salesman sucks us into a sari shop. Amma asks for cotton sari. He shows us something in polyster and claims it is "Dhaka cotton"! Back on the side alleys, Kannad, Telugu and Tamil voices mingle. A bunch of men stand around outside the rusted gate of a dusty, deserted building and share a small bottle of Indian whiskey.
Indulging in the half chicken curry and tandoori rotis back in the room, we find that Mary Francis has already lost any chance of 50, 25, 10 or even 5 lakhs in "Deal or No Deal". At the end of the episode she manages a little over 1.5 lakhs. Achan and Amma go off to sleep. I check out Comedy Central which has recently started airing in India. Heavily censored content. Even the word 'bra' is skipped in the closed captioning. The ridiculous Indian censoring actually makes SNL hosted by Ben Stiller funnier.
Februay 19, 2012 Delhi Agra Weekend Episode 5
From Red Fort, we dash to Raj Ghat. Santoshji asks us to hurry with the memorials in the area because we have a lot to cover in the day and it is already close to noon.
Inside the memorial garden, we skip Charan Singh's Kisan Ghat and move straight to Mahatma Gandhi's Raj Ghat. Noticeboards urge visitors to avoid noise and maintain the serenity of the place. Not many pay attention. The walls of the enclosure have quotes of Gandhi engraved on them, but we are in a hurry. After deposting our shoes, we move straight to the famous black marble pedestal which regulary provides photo-op for many unworthy politicians.
"Inside, there is pin drop silence" Amma said based on her previous experience. Quite the opposite was true. We walk up hill to get a view of the garden.
Remarkably green patch of land is maintained in the city for these memorials right beside congested brown and cream apartment complexes. Cool morning breeze. We spot Rajiv and Indira memorials to our right and head towards them. As we near Rajiv's memorial, I get a phone call. Saiju wants to see if I know why printed circuit boards are green in color. I had no idea about the original soldering mask coloration then so I couldn't be of help but we discuss his upcoming presentation at a conference. Achan and Amma go into the memorial. I am not interested. Two male and one female guard are posted there. Amma's bag is examined.
From Rajiv's memorial called "Vir Bhumi", we move to Indira's Shakti Sthal. The trees around have labels. Much appreciated. There is a small pond with a smaller island at center. It reminds all of us of the artificial pond at Research Park of Texas A&M. There are few picnickers. Some geese,trying to pass for swans, groom themselves on the island. Three young ladies are busy sharing the week's gossip on their Sunday outing.
The Shakti Sthal monument is a monolith piece. A glittering rough brown. Achan, the old geologist, goes in for a closer inspection. "Take a picture of me with it," he says, " you can caption it as a rock and a fossil'. There are only two guards here. They are having a fun chat. I ask him what is the type of gun he is carrying. He removes headphone from his left ear to hear me better. "yeh tho INSAS he hai" he answers.
At the point where the park walkway turns towards the memorial rock, the spot where the guards ask us to remove our shoes, there is a magnificent piece of quartzite that has been brought from Himachal Pradesh. An organic feel for the smooth, patient handiwork of the river Sutlej over 1500 million years.
We walk among the teak trees to get back on the road to the parking area. Santoshji races as quickly as he can to get us to Akshar Dham. On the way, I notice the building of Indian Standards Institute with the famous ISI logo on its facade. There is also the post office. We recall watching the 'Deal or No Deal' show from the previous night at the hotel. The bonus question in the episode was "Which city in India introduced pincode system first?" Delhi was the correct answer.
Santoshji tells us that we are traveling on a bridge over river Yamuna towards Noida. We take a turnaround exit and get to the temple complex. The board at the entry road informs that it is also where some Common Wealth Games construction was done. All in all a rich area!
After the terrorist attack on the temple, security has been tremendously beefed up. Sunday has brought out thousands of devotees. Lines are super long. We fill up the form to make deposits in the cloakroom. Amma proceeds to the end of a long queue. I don't know if it is called the end of the queue or the beginning of the queue. She stands there for 2 minutes before realizing that it is better if we keep everything in the car instead of wasting time. We find Santoshji in the parking spot.
Back in another line. I try to dissuade my parents. I am not interested in this temple visit. We have only this afternoon and Delhi has a lot more to offer. This long queue will eat into the Qutb Minar, Humayun's tomb and others. More devotees start padding the line which shows no intention of moving ahead. We quit. I am glad. Onward to Humayun's tomb.
We pass by the Purana Qila, the Old Fort, on our way. It affirms its "Purana" status by visible signs of dilapidation. The moat around has been converted to a fun waterway. Plenty of couples taking rides on the paddle boats. Some are shaped like huge swans, the kind I have last seen in old mythological Malayalam movies.
Purana Qila is what Humayun lost to Shershah Suri and regained after a 15 year exile in Kabul via Persia after fleeing with Hamida Begum who was then pregnant with Akbar. This is where he died. Studies suggest the ancient epic capital of Indraprastha was probably inside this fort area. It had continues presence of ruling dynasties till Akbar moved.
When we had passed the prominent glazed blue dome of Subz Burj yesterday evening on our way to the Lotus Temple, Santoshji had told us that Humayun's tomb would be closed by 5:30pm in the evening. But the photo guide book we bought at Red Fort told us that it is open till 8pm. Santoshji asks us to find out for ourselves who is right.
The narrow road leading to Humayun's tomb is always clogged with the heavy duty deluxe tourist buses and the different sized four wheelers. Some men in Khaki stand around with namesake canes. I don't know who appointed them or if they have any role to play in ensuring smooth traffic. They don't seem to do anything. It is the tourist guides and drivers who take the initiative in clearing the jams that happen once every couple of minutes.
The tickets to Humayun's tomb are again different rates for Indians and foreigners. As Amma waits in the queue, my eyes meet those of a vaguely familiar looking foreigner lady for an awkwardly long period of time. A Malayalee tour group arrives at the ticket counter. The narrow entry way with a revolving bar stop allows only one person through at a time.
Humayun's tomb is the first example of garden-tomb which later became the hallmark of the Mughals and culminated in the Taj Mahal. It was commissioned by Hamida Banu Begum, Humayun's wife, in 1563, ninety years before the Taj was completed. The whole tomb complex covers several hectares of land which were once part of Humayun's new capital city, Din Panah. The intention was to make the tomb a landmark for the traffic through river Yamuna. Massive restoration work by the Archeological Society and Aga Khan foundation are in progress to regain the lost glory of the buildings and the gardens.
As we enter the complex, Isa Khan's tomb and mosque comes to the left. He was an Afghan noble under Sher Shah. It is closed for restoration. Since I couldn't find any board that mentioned the opening and closing time for tourists, I decide to ask the gun-less, cap-less watchman outside Isa Khan's tomb entrance.
"Till what time is this place open?" I ask.
"Udhar se andar ki gate hai" (the gate to go inside is there) he replies.
"Kitne baje tak khula hai yahan?" I translate the question into Hindi.
"Sade che" (6:30). Marquis de Sade turns in his grave.
Entering through the West gate, another impressive sandstone gateway rises to the left. Called the 'Serai', this is where the craftsmen and builders who came over for construction from Afghanistan and Persia stayed. The faded grey wooden door shows signs of wear and tear....after 500 centuries, I guess that is okay.
The pietra dura or stone inlaying technique is in its infancy in this monument. But the shape and overall planning of the structure and complex are certainly precursor to the Taj. The domes and minarets eminently forbear the shape of things to come in the glorious century of Indian architecture that followed its construction. A small museum of the restoration work and history of the complex is housed in the gateway.
There is a display of the three step creation of the 'Jaali' from sandstone. Jaali is the artistic lattice window made from sandstone and marble. They are also used as railing structures by the Mughals. At Humayun's tomb, the Jaali was born to satisfy the need to have a chamber that minimized light but maximized ventilation and life of the structure. It was created as a reminder of the story about the spider that protected Propher Mohammad by quickly weaving a web at the entrance of the cave he was hiding in, thereby misleading his pursuers to think that the cave had long been deserted. The word Jaali comes from the word for "web".
23 steep steps lead up to the main mausoleum. On the pedestal terrace several other Mughal family members including the Begum and Dara Shikoh, the popular son of Shah Jahan who was executed by Aurangazeb, are also entombed. Humayun's cenotaph is made of marble with no inlay decorations or carving.From the vantage point of the terrace, we can see other structures in the area like Babur's tomb. The gardens as they are getting restored sure look well on their way to their 16th century verdant glory.
Climbing down, we compare the steepness of the steps with the famous 18 steps that lead to Sabarimala temple. An old lady getting a glimpse of these steps from a distance, quickly rationalizes to the rest of her tourist group, "Uper jaake kya hai? Khaali tomb hi toh hai" (What is there to go upstairs? Afterall its only a tomb!). An young obese American lady lunges towards the monument with two friends. She has a baby face and is visibly happy about the trip. May be a little too happy. Tripping!
Amma wants her photograph taken while sitting on one of the massive niches of the gateway. Becoming aware of our tight schedule once more, we skip visiting the other monuments in the complex like Babur's tomb. As we exit, couple of members of the Malayalee tourist group that had entered after us, loudly shout and scold three others of their group who broke from the group and delayed others. High octane words but not abusive. The three culprits, with their heads hanging down, walk quickly towards the waiting bus. An old man sitting cross-legged on the lawn raises both hands and speaks to his imaginary friend in the sky. I wonder if we will soon start hearing about the Hindu origins of Humayun's tomb. Perhaps soon there will be claims that many ancient temples were destroyed here. Perhaps this will be announced the birth place of Brahma himself. Will there be cross country marches to topple Humayun's tomb? Are monuments safe in a pseudo-secular democracy?
Two cricket matches on side by side pitches are in progress in the grounds outside the tomb. Some foreign tourists get busy taking photographs of the games. This inspires the players. Clearly the older boys have managed to seize the paved pitch which must have been a rock walkway centuries ago. The younger ones play on the hard soil pitch in parallel, hardly five meters away. One wicket is monolithic. The other is an ephemeral tower of stones. The young will get their turn eventually. All towers will eventually return to stones.
I wrote the above on the morning of Feb 24, 2012 Friday. Achan has been running a fever since we returned from the trip. So he has been resting and reading. In the afternoon, he gave me the collection of short stories in Malayalam compiled by the legendary critic Prof. M. Krishnan Nair and asked me to read Anand's story in it titled "Aramathe weral" (sixth finger). It is a fictional account of what happened to Humayun's torturer named Ali Dost who had six fingers on both hands and feet. But according to Tadhkirat-al-Waqiat written by Humayun's servant, Jauhar, it was Ghulam Ali, another torturer/soldier who was called Shash-Angashth because of the six fingers. Thanks to Google books, we can see that Anand has reproduced Jauhar's account of the blinding of Kamran, Humayun's rebellious and inimical half-brother of Humayun. Each eye was poked 50 times. In Anand's short story, Kamran cries out as much as possible though a cloth is stuffed in his mouth and four guards hold him down. In Jouhar's account, Kamran only complains that one of the guards is unnecessarily adding to his pain by sitting on his knee. But he cries out in unbearable pain when lemon juice and salt are applied to the freshly pierced bleeding eyes.
Anand does mention Jauhar and Humayun's sister, Gulbadan, as historians of the time along with Bayyid Biyan and AbuFazl, so I am not sure if Ali Dost Berberi is identified as the six fingered torturer instead of Ghulam Ali by Gulbadan and others. Jauhar is the only one claiming to be an eye witness of the blinding. Anand's terrific short story then briefly encapsulates Humayun's return to the throne of Delhi and in passing provides brief but striking descriptions of the numerous horrific wars that were fought in North India. It is superbly rich in historical details.
When Bahdur Shah successfully lays the siege of Chittorgarh fort, all the women inside the fort, under the leadership of Queen Karnwati, set fire to the gunpowder and immolate themselves while all the men run into the swords and spears of the approaching army. Before committing these suicides, around 3000 children in the fort are thrown into the wells to die.
At the museum in Humayun's tomb, there is a quotation from his sister Gulbadan calling him an ever forgiving saintly person. Somehow the tortures and violence that he ordered, mostly thanks to his great addiction to opium, don't really agree with her assessment. It is true that he forgave his younger siblings several times for their rebellions. Even Kamran, after the blinding, is allowed to go thrice on pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife on the emperor's expense.
But according Anand's story, the same Humayun also had the habit of wearing a red silk shawl when he is angry and intoxicated. This signaled the soldiers to indulge in pillage and rape in the defeated town along with elaborate displays of the captured enemy soldiers in front of the drug-crazed emperor for his entertainment. It would stop only when Humayun changed to a green silk shawl.
Gulbadan with an appealing frankness writes that Kamran was a better poet than Humayun. Humayun finally fell to his death from the steps of his library after having roughly one year of peace in the Purana Qila when he indulged in astrology and occult. Humayun's life was one of extremes, but I believe that can be said about most of the world's emperors in history. Steven Pinker might have a point that we are becoming less violent as a species but then are we also becoming incapable of conceiving Taj Mahals? Like a candle burning from both ends, is our emotional range reducing to a dull optimum?
February 19, 2012 Delhi Agra Weekend Episode 4
My two hundredth day in India, I wake up inside the windowless room 305 of Hotel Clark Surya at Saraswati Marg, just outside Gaffar Market in Karol Bagh, Delhi. Achan reads aloud from Vayalar's "Purushantharangal", the slim volume about his trip to Delhi in the 1960s. It is now a textbook in some schools. Achan reads about the railway stations Vayalar passed through, all named after the military chiefs of the Mughals, on his way to Delhi. Since we had flown in instead of rail, we were mostly struck by the skyscrapers of Gurgaon. Vayalar writes about Jahannara and Aurangazeb. I had read first hand accounts about them from Tavernier's trips in the 1600s. As Achan proceeds to read about the monuments we are about to visit, I ask him to go mute. I don't want Vayalar telling me last minute what to look for.
Amma asks me to buy a bottle of water from the hotel's restaurant. It costs Rs. 44. I wonder why they have cut the one rupee off from what would have been three times the retail price. Breakfast buffet is ready from 6:30am. Poha, Veg noodles (hakka style), bread, butter, jam, boiled eggs, omelet on demand. Achan and Amma order omelets. The paper hatted chef goes to work at the balcony stove. Since we plan to survive on oranges and snacks till dinner, we load up on the breakfast.
Santoshji answers his mobile and agrees to pick us up in half an hour. He stays in Basant Vihar. We head to the lobby. The Sunday newspapers have arrived. I read a couple of interesting articles in the Hindu. Dr. Vijaya Nagaswami, in his fortnightly column, has discussed the gruesome school teacher murder in Chennai. I am happy to see him use the word "knee-jerk" to describe the reactions that have sprung up in the media about the incident. I had used the same description in my email to him last week. Kalpana Mohan writes about her husband's facebook addiction. I notice that the Keshav's editorial cartoon appears in color. I wonder if it is a Delhi edition thing or if it was so during Sundays even in Kerala. I am not sure.
A mom and two daughters join us on the lobby sofas. The mom must be in her early 60s. She looks Caribbean...a mix of Africa and India with the African part more pronounced in her stubbornly curly hair and wide nose. She resembles one of my grandmas. One daughter looks like her and goes off in search of the restroom. The other one is younger but bigger. She has light blue eyelid color on, it stands out from the rest of her make up. She is busy texting. They speak what sounds like Hindi but in an accent I have never heard before. The second daughter follows the first one. "Where are you from?" I ask the mother. She doesn't understand but smiles. Daughter returns.
"What language are you speaking?" I ask her.
"Hindi" she says.
"Where are you from?"
"Originally Suriname, but we live in Holland."
I try to wrap my head around the English and Dutch colonial reach that takes Indians and Africans to South America and then to Holland. The Hindi that has come back to India now on vacation with them has transmogrified.
"Where are you from, Sir?" She asks.
"Kerala. Would you be visiting Kerala?"
"Not this year. Next year, I am coming to Goa, Kerala and Benares".
"Have a nice day, ladies!"
Before 9am on a Sunday, Gaffar market is barely waking up. We can drive faster but need to be more careful about the sleepy cycle rickshaws that appear out of nowhere. Both the traffic lights in the market have been cleverly hidden behind lamp post. I wonder if the light poles came first or those hiding lamp posts. I try to check if the towering red Hanuman has managed to open his chest any further. Brisk morning activity in the temple under his legs. The anatomical detailing of his knees are well done.
The long row of Delhi metro rail pillars follow us along the road. Massive 'unshrugging' Atlases rising from the ground balancing the metro on their hand-less mighty concrete arms. Remarkable engineering feat, the metro, that was pulled off with minimum disturbance to the existing road infrastructure.
Santoshji readily agrees that Red Fort must be our first destination. He is in a reconciliation mood. We participate too. He says he had no idea about the "ishtrikknayss" at the Mughal Garden. Earlier, cars were allowed well into the garden area. Now all the "strikk" security measures have been put in place.
Traffic is less since it is a Sunday morning. But it is quite busy at the Gole market circle. Santoshji races to 60-80 kmph as soon as he finds a chance. He shows us Connaught place. Everything is "kostalee" here, he says. So we have been told too. We pass by the Statesman building, the Press Trust India building and Reliance India. The shiny towers of Pragati power corporation and the famous Pragati maidan. The world book fair commences there next week.
We stop at the traffic light of Daryaganj, the street whose name is familiar from novels set in this city. Daryaganj separates Old Delhi from New Delhi. A young disabled beggar woman in a yellow sweater and sari's pallu covering her head sits on the road by the pedestrian crossing. I don't remember seeing traffic lights with a bicycle red and green signal before.
The road narrows into Old Delhi. Some dilapidated monument right at the entrance of the road. The famous sunday book market of the footpath is getting ready. It is almost a kilometer long. Footpath covered in books. If I ever lived in Delhi, this is where I would be on sundays, without question. After the book market, a series of musical instrument shops with interesting names like Rama Krishna Hare Hare. One called Surbhi has a rather curvy tanpura painted on its sign board. Across the street, a doctor's office announces charitable ultrasound for Rs. 300 only. The shoe market on the footpath comes next and it runs on either side of the Jama Masjid gate. Shoes, tshirts, belts, wallets. Incredibly crowded market.
The Red Fort appears on the right. The crowd grows as we enter Chandni Chowk. The Digambar Jain temple with its deep maroon and white towers on the left. We take a U-turn. Santoshji drops us off. He can't park anywhere near by. We will call him when we are done. Though Santoshji has rapidly transformed this morning into a good guide, Achan and Amma buy a Delhi and an Agra photo guides that are peddled at the entrance of the fort.
In the vast paved ground that leads to the entrance of the fort, people from all over the world posing for the obligatory "was here" photograph. An enormous tricolor Indian flag flutters on top of the fort. I wonder what flags the Mughals flew? Or if Nadir Shah and the British later flew flags there?
The ticket rates for entrance are different for Indians and foreigners. Indians get in for a cheap Rs. 10 with another Rs. 5 for the archeological museums inside. Foreigners pay Rs. 250 and more. Some Chinese tourists at the ticket window for foreigners. I stand between some Kannadiga men in the desi queue. A man tries to cut in line. They are always there. Did the Mughals cut off those hastily and slyly inserted hands into the ticket counter in front of others in the queue?!
The 'rghese' part of what must be 'Varghese' surname of the guard on duty is visible just out side the shoulder belt of his mini-Uzi. Another gun totting guard tells Amma in Malayalam to get into the ladies queue for security check. Since he produces a smile along with the instruction, we talk to him in Malayalam. The pat down checking is quick.
Into the circular fortified enclosure at the gate. Grand entrance. Surely many a head have rolled off their necks in this area. There is a projected balcony just enough to seat the emperor himself perhaps. The tall, heavy metal gates that seal the arch entrance way haven't lost their sheen.
The "Chaatha Bazaar" or covered market comes first. It used to be two storeyed from 1648 when Shah Jahan finished the construction that took ten years. Today, there are shops only in the ground level. The painted floral and lotus patterns on the roof have nearly faded to extinction. The shopkeepers are not aggressive. "One price. No bargain" boards in front of a few of them.
Through the arched tunnel of shade and coolness of the market into the bright, warm open area that leads to the Naubat or Naqqara Ghana, the drum house. Ceremonial drums announcing the emperor's and other dignitaries entrance were played from here. The Naqqaras Ghana also played music for the five Muslim prayer times of the day. The market side facade of the building is white while the other side towards the garden and Diwan-i-Am is sandstone red. Some restoration work is in progress on the faded painted panels.
In the second floor of the Naqqara Ghana, the archeological society runs the war museum. The indoor stairway leading up to it is steep and narrow. Weapons from the 16th and 17th century are on display. It is interesting that by the time Babur marched into Delhi and send Humayun to secure Agra after the first battle of Panipat on 21 April, 1526, Vasco da Gama had already established Portuguese presence in Kerala for 28 years! The rising Mughal influence in North India coincides with the European one in South India for the next three centuries before everything goes under the East India company.
The museum showcases arrays of swords and knives. The deadly jaw like Zulfikar reminds me of Jurassic age monsters. Some of the 'khanjar' knives resemble those used by Kalaripayattu martial artists in Kerala. There was even a two-in-one Zulfikar. Chainmail armour, various guards, helmets and other gears were on display. Some samples of better evolved versions of the famous "Matchlock muskets" that powered Babur's way into India from Uzbekistan via Samarkhand. The art work that went into some of the swords is fascinating. There was an embossing of a tiger hunting a deer on one, beautiful golden damascend hilts on others, elephant head handle on yet another.
Amma shows me the back-scratcher that is attached to an arm guard. In some parts of India, it is called "the second wife" apparently relieving the real wife of her back scratching duty towards her husband. A bunch of school kids thunder through the museum in a hurry. Namesake field trips that don't offer any academic benefit even for the teachers. Travel agents profit.
The world war one section of the museum showcases arrays of guns, pistols, fuzes. Couple of well decorated marble powder kegs. Infantry uniforms, measuring instruments, portable telephones and more.
The Diwan-i-Am (Hall of public audience) where the emperor presented himself before the commoners is a dazzling example of archways. Shah Jahan used to give audience thrice a week which Aurangazeb stopped because he thought it was akin to the Hindu devotional concept of "darshan". Right in the center of the huge pillared hall, the emperor's canopy in the white marble inlaid with semiprecious stones. Similar art work on the marble wall panel behind him which also has the door leading to inner chambers. Below the canopy, a marble platform for the minister who took petitions.
The famous peacock throne with 108 rubies and 110 emeralds along with the largest diamonds in the world, that according to Tavernier was valued at Rs. 100 million in 1665, was once housed here. Nadir Shah of Persia carried it away in 1739 along with over 200 kg of precious stones , 1100 kg of pure gold. The throne was lost, dismantled or destroyed after Nadir Shah's assassination in 1757. I will always be suspicious of wealthy Iranians! A wire net now covers the canopy and the mable pedestal. If only Nadir Shah had fallen into something similar.
Behind the Diwan-i-Am comes the Diwan-i-Khas for the special folks and the emperor himself. Hundreds of pigeons flutter about the building landing and taking off from its shiny white roof. The curtains that separated the massive chambers of the building including the king's bedroom have gone long ago. Today it is an open structure, a catacomb of arches. Stone art work continue to dazzle. The bathing house, Hamam, is near by.
Three tourists who look like they have stepped out of history catch my eye. A grand old man with an Afghan turban on his bald head and a long flowing muslim beard inspects the garden while leaning on his long walking stick. He tries to to lift the cordoning rope and go inside while the two others, a younger one with shorter beard and flat Muslim cap and a darker, African looking one with still shorter beard and colorful cap, stop him.
The richly carved door alone retains the only copper that is left in Aurangazeb's mosque. The copper that covered the domes and minarets have been plundered long ago. Some restoration work is in progress. The mosque has a dull appearance without the copper cover. May be the frugal emperor Aurangazeb would have preferred it this way.
White has becoming the predominantly surviving color of the queen's palace called Rang Mahal, the palace of colors. The artificial channel that flowed through it with a marble lotus fountain in the middle are now dry. Next door, a museum of priceless Mughal artifacts. Manuscripts, books and sketches from the 17th century. Proclamations, astrolabes, china, curtains, canopies. A copy of the Delhi Gazette from 1857 reporting the first war of Indian independence. Artifacts from the last Mughal rulers, Bahadur Shah and Zinat Mahal.
The gardens inside the fort are very well maintained. The same cannot be said about the pay & use toilet that operates on a relative charge. The price depends on the looks of the visitors. If they are not locals, it quickly climbs. If they are not Indians, it quickly jumps into dollars and pounds.
Outside the toilet stands a double tree.
A Peepal or Indian tulip is growing out a Neem.
A mix of cultures with each retaining its distinction while having the same root.
Delhi life of all colors and shades and speeds continues to flow in cars, on rickshaws, on buses, on scooters and on foot, between the Red Fort and the Jain temple, day after day.
February 18, 2012 Delhi-Agra Weekend Episode 3
Santoshji drives us to the other side of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. En route, Amma excitedly points out the Reserve Bank of India building with the big Yaksha and Yakshi statues at the entrance. Achan and I remember the statues from old RBI calendars. Amma tells us that this was one of the original multi-storey buildings in that part of the city for which special permission was given by Nehru.
Since cars cannot be parked at the gate of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Santoshji suggests dropping us off while we take pictures and coming back in a minute to pick us up. Amma prefers to stay in the car. She has been there before and taken photos. Before she starts a story about a bigger, better Presidential Palace in some other place that she has been to, Achan and I get out of the car. Achan wants the obligatory "was here" photo. I snap.
We look down the majestic road. Faintly, in the distance we can see the India gate monument. The grand road has the deserted weekend look.The nerve center of the country's administration.The powerhouses of external affairs and home ministries in the North and South blocks on the side. The unassuming looking Prime Minister's office. Who will sit there next?
We head to the India gate. The park on either side of the road remind me of the Mall in Washington DC. The temporary stands provided for spectators of the republic day parade have been piled up on the side. The brick structure erected for dignitaries on the occasion is being dismantled. It resembles an Indus Valley ruin.
A serene structure in sandstone designed by Lutyens, the India gate was originally the memorial of the Indian soldiers who died for the British in the first world war. After independence, it has become a national monument for "the unknown soldier". Continuously burning torches mark the "amar jawan", the immortal soldier. Guards in ceremonial attire and in camouflage stand at the monument. The three flags of the armed forces flutter in the evening breeze. The guard stays in attention. What does he think while on such a duty for hours? Do they allow women soldiers to stand guard? I find no answers in the hustle and bustle of the vendors and hawkers. Achan buys tea. I see a young man gulp down one glass of water and ask for another from an old man who is selling water out of a sizeable aluminium pot. Plenty of picnickers on the ground surrounding the monument. Despite seeing my camera, couple of men approach me with sample photographs the likes of which they promise to provide in 15 minutes. The empty canopy that originally had King George's statue stands at a distance surrounded by more picnickers. Will a Gandhi statue ever relieve its emptiness?
Santoshji drives us next to the Lotus temple. A rather old security guard runs a mirror at the base of a pole to check the base of our car at the gate. A security ritual at the temple, indeed. With the evening sun behind it, the lotus structure is striking. Lawns with chinese orange trees full of fruits on either side of the walkway that leads to the temple. Plastic sacks are provided to remove shoes. The crisscross pattern created by the marble slabs becomes visible as I get closer. Plenty of pigeons around. Long queue to get inside the temple. We skip it and walk around. What are intended as petals of the lotus look like sword blades from some angles. Sometimes they resemble some eerie space ship.
Plenty of other Malayalee tourists in the area. Disproportionate number considering the small size of the state. Or may be I am assigning an unjustified prominence simply because I identify the language readily.
On the way back, a strikingly beautiful woman in a simple ghagra choli. Her eyes are straight out of a Rajput painting: slender, shapely, dreamy. Hers was the skin that is apt to be called: rain cloud color. It was a bluish black. I have never seen that quality in real before. With stunning features and that complexion, she looked like a painting that had come to life. She was sweeping the dirt left behind by the shoes dumped at the locker.
"Where to next, Santoshji?" we ask as the sun was beginning to set. "You want to see some handcrafts?" he asks. "We can go to Haat shop." he says. I get excited thinking we are about to visit the huge permanent crafts carnival known as Delhi Haat. Major disappointment when he takes us to a small shop named Haat. Exorbitantly priced trinkets with very aggressive salesmen. Amma contemplates buying some bangles for Tara. The salesgirl there has a tshirt that says "Let me be myself". She could easily find a Hooters job. I walk around looking at price tags. Couple of salesmen have a quick quarrel. We leave the shop in 15 minutes. Sweet smell of masala tea from a tea stall beside the shop.
Santoshji takes us to the Birla temple next. We feel hungry.
"Can you take us to some reasonable place to eat?" we ask.
"KFC?" he asks.
"Aapko soudh Indian chahiye?" (Do you want South Indian food?)
"Hotel ke paas hi kuch mil jayega" (You will find some restaurant near the hotel itself)
He drops us right in front of the Laxmi Narayan or Birla temple. I have no intention of going inside. After Mughal gardens, walking around devotional architecture seemed like a let down. We decide to go back to the hotel. But Achan wants to visit Indira Gandhi's house that has been converted to a museum after her assassination. Santoshji says it might be closed by now but we decide to try.
Driving through wide, tree lined roads that house the bigwigs of Indian politics and administration, I try to read as many name plates outside the homes as possible. Markandeya Katju and Gen. V.K. Singh's names, I manage to spot. Santoshji was right. The Indira museum at Safdarjung road closes by 4:45 pm.
We head back to the hotel. At the end of Mother Teresa Crescent, the famous Dandi March statue that appears on the Indian currency notes. At the other end of the road, the 'M' has fallen off to make it "other Teresa Crescent". We travel by the Presidential estates and Parade grounds. Some folks on the walls of the grounds collecting dry firewood. I had not expected to see such an abundance of trees in Delhi. These tree lined roads instantly affirm the city's capital quality.
Back at the chaotic Karol Bagh, we inch through the traffic. Totally oblivious of all the frenzied human activity around him, a stay dog takes a long relaxed dump on the road divider. Perhaps this is the fertilizer that maintains the green in the plants on those dividers. There are two other man-made forms of irrigation in the city: Spit irrigation and Piss irrigation. Considering the size of the population, both are largely productive operations.
We had asked Santoshji to take us some place where could find fruits. He stops by the two carts parked at the end of Saraswati marg. As soon as the fellow hears Amma's English, the price of oranges go up to Rs. 100 per kg. We drop the fruit idea and relieve Santoshji for the day. He would be back to pick us up tomorrow morning at 9:00am. Saraswati marg has several eateries. There are some boards in Tamil, Kannada and Telugu as well. We skip the Udupi restaurants and pick Saravana Bhavan. Ghee roasts, paper roasts and onion uthappams. The price same as that of Thiruvananthapuram.
While walking back to the hotel, a young man approaches, "Saar, aapko pen drive chahiye?" (Sir, would you like to buy a pen drive?). I am glad he wasn't pimping or selling drugs. USB drive soliciting after sunset on a congested narrow street next to the city's big, old market is a mark of the times, a sign of the new India.
We sleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows. But not before we bitch about Santoshji. We brand him a slacker. Obviously, he is not going to find us good restaurants. He is too lazy to even take us to a fruit market. We fondly recollect Murugan, the guide and driver at Munnar. We determine to stump Santoshji next day by making clear our demands about places we want to go in the sequence we want to go.
Sound of footsteps in the upper floor wake me up around midnight. Some unidentifiable unbearbly loud machine roars from 12:15 to 12:45. The life of those who barely make ends meet in this city is tough indeed.