'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Delhi - 2

Qutub Minar
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'!

Old Delhi
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).

The Flight
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!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Delhi - 1

Q: What did you do in Delhi?

A: Walked around...

Q: Did you at least see the Taj Mahal?

A: No... but it's in Agra, not Delhi!

Q: And you are a beastly biped, not a human!

(The Q in the above exchange, which took place sometime in early 20th century, was Mohammad Abdur Rahman, Keralan Freedom Fighter and Social Activist. 'A'is a mystery)

I just got back from a state of being jobless and footloose in Delhi - to me, the least known among Indian metropolises. There was no fog and the weather was splendid. The sad part, the spell lasted but two days and a bit.


The Approach: I woke up when our train paused briefly at a small railway station in a scrawny-looking town named 'Gangapur City' on a bitingly chilly morning. The area around (the North-Eastern corner of Rajasthan) looked poorly fertile (although there were some lovely mustard fields) and eroded and riven with ravines. We passed wetlands between 'Hindon City' and Bharatpur and beyond. Saw painted storks with their reddish rumps and a gang (not pair) of splendid Saruses (sadly, I did not know the place enough to look for Siberian cranes). Mathura followed, looking dirty and chaotic, and then a string of industrial townships and suburbs - Kosi Kalan, Faridabad, Tughlaqabad - with their straggling slums and semi-slums (including some with TV dishes sitting atop every single shanty) and ubiquitous and hugely prominent advertisements for a range of herbal and other products that enhance male virility; and finally, what is possibly the most messy station I have seen - Hazrat Nizamuddin.


The National Musuem: Some of the curious bits which caught the eye during a 3-hour run-thru: (1) An embroidered cloth from around 1800 showing a sequence of mythical events: Siva proudly displays a neatly peeled off elephant skin to Parvati and just below, himself running with a wild elephant seemingly in pursuit. (2) An illustration from Razmnama (Mughal production in Persian of the Mahabharata) showing Siva and Vishnu (in his horse-faced Hayagreeva form) embracing like Mid-Eastern friends. (3) ancient Coins showing a pot-bellied female figure said to be 'Lakshmi' (4) a carving of a flabby (but not potbellied or ugly) female figure captioned 'Jyeshtha, the goddess of sloth' (5) some 'leogryphs' (sharabhas perhaps) from Orissa (7) a few wooden, polychrome statues from Kerala, stylistically very similar to the Kerala Murals - one showed Yama riding a chariot pulled by tiny buffaloes (6) a set of chain-mail body armors (17th century types) from North India; wonder if anybody ever actually wore them, for they would fit guys of stature approaching six cubits rather than six feet (7) a very handsome sandstone sculpture with both of its two hands missing and said to be a Gupta period Vishnu - to me, it looks more Avalokiteswara than Vishnu (maybe the one was a forerunner of the other).

The Museum has a rich (indeed pretty awesome) collection of pre-Columbian American artefacts - mainly pottery from Peru-Bolivia and Mexico. Here I have another story to relate so I shall stop with a strong recommendation to my readers: do visit that gallery!

By far, the greatest attraction of the Museum is the Harappa gallery - with pieces from the famous Pakistani sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro and 'our own' Kalibangan (Rajasthan), Lothal, Dholavira (both Gujarat), Rakhigarhi (Haryana), Daimabad (Maharashtra) etc. The 'Priest-king', the famous sculpture of a bearded figure in trefoil printed toga, was not on display. But there was much else.

Among the exhibits is a set of bronzes - including a striking bullock-cart group. Let me quote the Wiki story on them.

The most interesting discovery (from Daimabad) is a hoard of four bronze objects by a local farmer, Chhabu Laxman Bhil in 1974. He found these artifacts while digging at the base of a shrub in Daimabad village. This hoard was later acquired by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The hoard comprises:

1. a sculpture of a chariot, 45 cm long and 16 cm wide, yoked to two oxen, driven by a man 16 cm high standing in it;
2. a sculpture of a water buffalo, 31 cm high and 25 cm long standing on a four legged platform attached to four solid wheels;
3. a 25 cm high sculpture of an elephant on a platform 27 cm long and 14 cm wide similar to the water buffalo sculpture, but axles and wheels missing;
4. a sculpture of a rhinoceros 19 cm high and 25 cm long standing on two horizontal bars, each attached to an axle of two solid wheels.

The archaeologists are not unanimous about the date of these sculptures. On the basis of the circumstantial evidence, M. N. Deshpande, S. R. Rao and S. A. Sali are of view that these objects belong to the Late Harappan period. But on the basis of analysis of the elemental composition of these artifacts, D. P. Agarwal concluded that these objects may belong to the historical period. His conclusion is based on the fact these objects contain more than 1% Arsenic, while no Arsenical alloying has been found in any other Chalcolithic artifacts.

The above note (which hints at a dispute as to whether Daimabad was a Harappan site at all), fits into a much larger and on-going story with two interrelated themes, nationalistic and religious/communal: (1) What was the relative share of Pakistan and India in the geographical spread of the Indus Civilization? More importantly, (2) How Vedic (and hence, Hindu) were these mysterious Indus people?

Every descriptive caption in the gallery revealed a clear pattern - their collective gist and drift is as follows: (1) after Partition, Indian archeologists searched hard and found hundreds of Harappan sites in the sadly-shrunken borders of this country; Pakistanis presumably did precious little. (2) The civilization was not an Indus civilization at all in the first place - the greater share of its territory lay in India and our own (long gone) Saraswati river had just as much of an enriching share as the Indus, so it was an Indus-Saraswati or better, Saraswati-Indus culture that really existed. (3) there was clear continuity between Indus-Saraswati and later Vedic(proto-Hindu) cultures (no Aryan invasion and stuff ever happened); the city-dwellers from Harappa et al, after a few centuries of increasing urbanization, found it wiser to migrate to and settle down in idyllic villages and perform fire sacrifices - but they retained memories of their ancestors and their cities, allusions to which lie scattered in their (Vedic) poetry.

Indeed, fire sacrifices are claimed to be no Vedic period innovation but a Harappan one - on display is a 'sacrificial fire altar shaped like the base of a Sivalingam', unearthed from the allegedly Harppan urban site of Rakhigarhi. Pictures painted on an earthen jar from Harappa are stated by the accompanying description to depict scenes from life after life in a manner closely matching the popular Hindu picture - the treacherous Vaitarani river, fierce dogs attacking the newly liberated spirit and finally the virtuous enjoying an eternal life in a sort of Elysium, teeming with fish and fowl and game (I did scan the jar with some care; there were plenty of fish and fowl but the connection with the description was not really clear).

There is a major fight on between factions bent on Saraswatifying the Harappan culture and in vehemently asserting the total non-Hinduness thereof. Standard academic wisdom is clearly on the side of the latter faction. Even attempts to pull the geometric center (if not the epicenter) of the culture towards modern India by sheer weight of archeological evidence have not been particularly successful - for instance, no major reference on Harappan culture seems to even mention the (admittedly remarkable but allegedly much later) Daimabad bronzes. It is also quite surprising that nearly a decade after the BJP lost power, the descriptive boards in the National Museum have not been purged of the H-word.

Note: Here is an extract - from comments made by an expert from the other side (available online):
"The problem with the Indian scholars is that they live in the world of their own imaginings and judge the affairs of the world in the semi-light of their ideas which are mostly faulty. .... The people of the Indus Valley have given ample evidence of their culture and history but instead of judging them in the light of that evidence, scholars have recourse to post-Indus culture in India and draw inferences.... The fact that no temple was found in the Indus Valley Civilization suggests that they were practical people, the concept of other­worldliness, if not unfamiliar, was secondary to them and their attitude towards life was more utilitarian than anything else."


New Delhi: Walking west down the Rajpath from India Gate began as an impressive visual experience - indeed, not much less in terms of impact than walking up to the St.Peters Square and into the embrace of Bernini's colonnades. One could even imagine the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the two flanking blocks(*) as the proudly raised head and massive shoulders of a colossus. However, as opposed to Vatican and its Basilica which grows within as well as in front with every stride of approach, the Desi edifices begin to underwhelm; finally, viewed from its gates, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, with a dome that seems to imitate the Sanchi stupa, is almost dull. I don't mean to say the nerve center of Indian political power has bad or even uninteresting architecture; it is just that it makes a strong initial impression and fails to sustain it.

By Indian standards, New Delhi probably *does not* have its share of statues of political leaders. I saw just two - both were of overweight, tired men with dopey eyes and bored faces. I would rather not name them.

(*) it is a mystery why North and South Blocks have remained just that - not renamed after politicians (even in Hindi script, they have been named 'North Bloke' and 'South Bloke' - Mallus of the World, please note!). The (as of now) slick and sleek Delhi Metro has revived the once-tried-and-shelved renaming of Connaught Place - 'Rajiv Chowk'. It is pretty sure the various lines of the Metro (now neatly marked with colors, Blue, Red, Yellow...) as well as the 2 kilometer Terminal 3 at the airport (more on that in the next post) will soon be due for political rechristening.