Delhi - 2
As the south-bound Delhi metro rises from underground to elevated track past Saket station, Qutub Minar appears to the west. From afar, the near-millennium old tower looks stumpy and clumsy of design. A two-kilometer walk from the Qutub station gets one up close and personal with the monument and now, with the higher storeys greatly foreshortened, its proportions turn amazingly graceful. Among the five stages of the tower, the lower 3 - fluted, faced with red sandstone and with balconies, intricate designs and calligraphy - are undoubtedly far more beautiful than the top 2 (those two have suffered from medieval restoration attempts). Indeed, the topmost stages look like a pair of rooks from a cheap set of chessmen planted one above the other; the 4th stage uses marble and adds a further jarring note to the whole composition (*).
The Quwwatul Islam mosque nearby liberally 'reuses' temple pillars of widely differing design and style. Many feature statues. Perhaps, in (partial) accordance with Islamic rules against representation of the human figure, almost every single statue has been systematically defaced (and where applicable, de-bosomed), but otherwise left largely intact. The roof of the mosque is long gone (maybe it never had one) but some elegant archways still stand. The nearby Alai darwaza and Altmash's tomb both have scalloped arches in the 'Alhambra style' (without the central outward point seen in the scalloped arches in later Mughal buildings; I had a post on this here long back. Some of the balconies of the Minar also feature scalloped arches and some of these show evidence of the central outward point - these were done a full four centuries before Shah Jehan's time!).
I had heard plenty about the famously uncorroded 'iron pillar' here. I also 'knew', being able to clasp it with one's arms bestows boons on the clasper; and I was quietly confident I could do it (although am not a particularly big guy, my arm-span exceeds my height by a near-abnormal seven and a half inches). Disappointment - the thing is now fenced off(**)!
In the same area stands a full-fledged mini-mosque - it has two minarets, a courtyard and a west-facing mihrab, the works, but the entire edifice barely exceeds a man's arm-span in size; indeed, it bore a certain resemblance to the little 'snake-shrines' which still stand in some old Keralan compounds. And since no name has been officially assigned to this mosque, let me play Adam and name it the 'Sarpakkavu Masjid'.
Another enigmatic building here is the sad stump of the Alai Minar. Alauddin Khilji had planned it to be twice as tall as the Qutub but the project evidently did not get anywhere much (aside: if it did, Qutub Minar would have become ... well, Qutub Minor!). The massive walls of Alai, to my surprise, have no neat masonry - no proper bricks or stone blocks - only randomly shaped stones embedded in mortar. Maybe the Qutub too has such a chaotic interior within its neat sandstone coat; maybe even the Taj Mahal, for all its marbly splendor. Indeed, if Wiki got it right, this rubble masonry resists earthquakes better than 'unit masonry'!
The area around Jama Masjid in old Delhi is great to walk around in winter. To the south of the Masjid is an incredibly dense cluster of motor spare parts shops, all owned by Muslims and to the north are jewelry and silverware shops almost all run by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. Some of the 'gallis' and 'kuchas' hereabouts are narrower and have more twists than the trickiest pathways I had ventured into previously - in Khar, Bombay. Densely tangled electric cables hang perilously low overhead. The Masjid itself, though vast and monumental (said to be the biggest in India), is probably one of Shah Jehan's lesser achievements; the triad of sharp pointed and marble coated domes that sit atop the mosque's sandstone bulk look particularly incongruous; indeed, nothing here really compares with the few arches that stand at Quwwatul Islam. Even the sheer size of the Masjid fails to have an impact. Footwear is neither allowed to be worn within nor kept outside, so one has to take them off and carry them around as one explores the interior. Visitors can climb one of the two minarets and take in a bird's view of old Delhi.
As I walked around, there was a somewhat ominous announcement made in somewhat flowery urdu, stating something on the lines of: "Believers had requested the government for such and such facilities for prayers and the requests have not been granted. So, the Shahi Imam will soon come up with a public declaration on the future course of action!". A few minutes later, as I sat for a while on the southern steps of the Masjid among a crowd of visitors, a couple of Sikhs came up with a big bucketful of 'Kada Parshad' and started ladling out generous portions to one and all. It was quite reassuring to watch obviously Muslim men consume the sanctified sweet with gusto (eating any 'prasad' is frowned upon by orthodox Muslims, I am told).
I got to more than walk around the swanky and overwhelming T-3 at the Delhi airport. The reason: I had nearly 6 hours to wait out before boarding a 4 am flight to Calcutta. I won't dwell on any of the statistical highlights of T-3 or describe the riches put up for sale in its glittering showrooms(***); but shall mention a single instance of subtlety in this building of superlatives: an an unobtrusive 'prayer room'. Within, there are no obvious religious symbols. But for those who need, the shape and orientation of the room and the alignment of the designs on the floor carpet give a clear indication of the direction of Mecca. In contrast, 'the prayer room' at Calicut Airport in Kerala has Muslim prayer mat designs painted on the floor in the 'correct' direction (that differs from the alignment of the room itself), leaving no doubt whatsoever as to who the facility is really meant for - despite the vaguely general label.
Exhausted after a sleepless night (which had followed a day spent mostly on foot), I boarded the flight and by daybreak, we were describing big circles above Cal, which lay submerged in a sea of fog. Then, came an announcement: "poor visibility; we shall fly back to Delhi and return later in the day" and within minutes, we gained height. And behold, glowing in the morning sunshine, at a distance of well over 400 kiometers, stood good old Kanchenjunga! And for the next hour or so, we were treated to a spectacle of the Great Himalayan range - the Everest cluster, the Annapurnas (from this distance the 'Fish Tail peak' cannot be made out), Dhavalagiri...- indubitably, the Greatest Show on Earth!
(*) - "It was curious to see at the Qutb to see ornament in the Seljuk style carved out of stone instead of stucco. The virtue goes out of it in this other material; it becomes Indian and painstaking, and loses its freedom." - that was the Robert Byron in 'Oxiana'. I have not seen Seljuk architecture; and I can't dispute a Master's verdict. But I loved the Qutub, at least the lower three floors, loss of freedom and all!
(**) Maybe it was just as well that I did not get to try my luck on the pillar. Decades ago, an uncle of mine had managed the feat and his subsequent life was a rather sad story.
(***) The Mahabharata says, the 'Sabha' building and Palace of the Pandavas (said to have been built somewhere around Delhi, more than 3000 years before Christ) was 5000 feet (1.6 kilometers approx) in length and fashioned out of carved crystal and with wonderful works of art on display at every turn. Now, T-3 has just about managed to equal those standards!