Gandhis and the Ganges: Academic Idols in Allahabad

I dust off university memories and swot up ragging, study two prime ministers, follow Gandhi to the Ganges, and watch clay idols diving.

It’s only 150 km from Faizabad south to Allahabad, but the bus took over three hours.  A Leprosy Mission worker queued from before dawn to reserve me the best of the cracked blue vinyl seats, just behind the driver.  Passengers spat out the windows as we passed trees striped white-red-white.  Helpful exhortations were painted on truck rears: “Horn please”, “Keep safe distance”, “Sound horn okay”, “Use dipper at night”, “Don’t fast.”  You know you’re acclimatising to India when the pulse rate “doesn’t fast” too much when you see an oncoming lorry on your side of the road and neither driver slows down.

Straight through a roundabout with Varanasi to the left (the psychedelic sacred city – for a future trip), and Lucknow to the right (my previous stop – see here).  Across the Ganges, India’s holiest river, and into Allahabad, literally “construction of God”.

And into the worst traffic snarl I’ve seen, despite the smallish population of one to two million.  Half the main roads were dug up for drainage upgrades; people were sleeping in the metre-wide concrete pipes.  Allahabad may be the easiest city so far to cross the road, but in places dust billows with each footstep like for astronauts on the moon.  Acrid smoke from burning leaves adds to the haze.  Motorcyclists wore face scarves like bandits, and car headlights at night glowed as if though thick fog.

allahbad-templeOne dark night I was about to step on a pile of sand, and realised just in time it was a recumbent cow.  Bovines seem more common than dogs here, which makes me very happy, and I sometimes pass a line of bullocks.  Like the roading, the electrical infrastructure is also in flux.  Charges for the internet café I used in Allahabad: 15 rupees per hour “by electricity”, but 25 “by generator”.

I stayed for six nights at the leafy nine acre campus of Allahabad Bible Seminary (ABS, founded in 1942).  I began to explore the possibility of teaching theology at ABS over two years ago, before Dad had cancer, so I was excited to see the place at last.  The seminary has lectures in both English and Hindi, in subjects I’ve studied and in Indian topics I haven’t.  The half-hour morning chapel is bi-lingual and there are Hindi courses in town.  All this seemed to give great potential for me to both teach and learn.

But wires had been crossed.  They thought I’d come to teach English and fix their computer networks.  Lecturers were busy with admin and the students (around 160) were sitting exams, so there were no lectures I could sample.  (The state of Uttar Pradesh has the world’s biggest public school exams – at a city temple, Hindu students with their textbooks made offerings to ensure success.)  Despite this confusion the ABS people were a welcoming bunch, from the kid who’d cycle up to say hello, to the smiling guard at the gate who’d pull up a chair when I returned to hear about my day.

university-allahabadFrom the roof of the guesthouse where I stayed I could see the stone tower of the University of Allahabad.  It was founded in 1887 as India’s fourth university, and didn’t look to have been maintained since then.  On a deserted Sunday afternoon, with its overgrown lawns, peeling plaster and cracked domes missing most of their tiles, the science campus felt like a Muslim mausoleum.  I visited the main campus during the week and saw a few more students, some running late for their exams, others staring at the out-of-place white face.  It was very monocultural compared to Auckland.  Stacks of wooden desks looked like relics from my parents’ school days.  India can seem like a Victorian time warp.

Before this trip to India, I’d only heard of “ragging” in old British novels.  I’d seen a simple sign forbidding it at the University of Delhi, but here was a whole list of ragging prohibitions and punishments on a large campus signboard.  “Do not cause to…  Address seniors as ‘Sir’, copy class notes for the seniors, don menial jobs for the seniors” didn’t sound so bad, but it got worse:

look at pornographic picture to ‘shock the fresher’s out of the innocence’,
force to drink alcohol, scalding tea etc,
force to do act with sexual overtones, including homosexual acts,
force to do act which can lead to physical injury/mental torture or death…
(The list is only indicative, and is not exhaustive)

A quick google for “ragging in india” finds some pretty nasty stuff, and it causes several suicides every year (see Wikipedia).  The government even has an anonymous email for victims, helpline@antiragging.in.  Once again I realise how sheltered and blessed we are in New Zealand.

university-allahabad-libraryI flourished my Staff ID card from the University of Auckland, where as a first year I experienced nothing worse than nerves, and was admitted to the library.  After admiring the colonial architecture, wandering the wide empty corridors, and finding only a few out-of-date looking shelves, I began to ask, “Where are the books?”  I’d asked the same question at the University of Madras in 2007 (see here) and surmised that current texts are only delivered on request.

One gloomy chamber was wonderful.  Ancient volumes with cracked leather bindings scrawled on bending shelves above dusty tomes stacked on tables.  It was like the library of a fairy-tale castle under a spell of sleep.  A custodian was hovering so I couldn’t peruse the titles, though I spotted a bound collection of 1930s Punch.  Second-hand books are spread along the pavement of University Street outside, a larger outdoor version of the second-hand book stall that used to run in the first weeks of semester at Auckland University.  I bought used physics, chemistry and biology textbooks there in my undergraduate years.

allahabad-book-marketThe University of Allahabad trained many of India’s top leaders and five prime ministers were born here.  The first was Jawaharlal Nehru, who lived not far away.  His house, the Anand Bhavan, is now a museum with the furnishings left much as they were.  Nehru was progressive – he had the first motorcar in town, educated – bookcases of literature from East and West, and eloquent.  On the walls hung photos of independence movement leaders like Gandhi planning their next move against the British, right here in the house.  His daughter Indira Gandhi also became Prime Minister.  After viewing her house where she was assassinated in Delhi, it was poignant to see her birthplace and pictures of her childhood here.  Again I pondered the passing of time, and sadly remembered my Dad.

The city museum had ancient sculptures, Moghul miniatures, modern paintings, and another Gandhi exhibit.  I saw the urn that contained his cremated ashes and the “Gandhi Memorial Vehicle”, the festooned truck that transported said ashes to be scattered at Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers.  A cycle rickshaw carried me there to complete my personal Gandhi pilgrimage.allahabad-sangam-pilgrim-shave

The Sangam is one of the holiest sites in India, where the two geographical rivers meet an invisible spiritual one.  It’s approached through wide open fields that are filled with pilgrims in January-March.  Every six years there’s a special Mela festival.  Over 70 million people came in 2007, making it the world’s biggest ever gathering.  Upon arriving, before I could object, Shiva’s trident was stamped in red on both my wrists and oily paste smeared on my forehead.  I rubbed it off, not wanting sweat to wash gunk into my eyes.  I walked past tour coaches and assorted temples to the riverbank, where men had their heads shaved, leaving one tuft at the back, before taking a holy dip.  No matter how polluted it may look, Ganges water will wash your soul clean.  Long narrow boats lined the shore, with cylindrical awnings for shade, waiting to ferry worshippers out to where the rivers intermingle.

allahabad-sangam-idol-durgaI followed a narrow dirt path between the water and the battlements of Emperor Akbar’s 16th-century fortress.  It’s still used by the army so you can’t enter.  Some men struggled to free a large dinghy stuck in the mud.  Back on the riverside road, a stream of women disembarked from a bus with head shaven bald – pilgrims from Hyderabad in the south.  Then I heard amplified Hindi music and saw a procession of young guys straggling along with around six idols.  These were richly clothed and painted in front, but of rough clay behind.  The employees with their boss cheerfully invited me to descend the steep steps to the river with them.  Once or twice a statue was nearly dropped and I could imagine the Hebrew prophets, saying, “Like scarecrows in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk” (Jeremiah 10:5).

allahabad-sangam-idol-kaliAfter holding up each idol for me to photograph, one at a time was manhandled onto the bow of a boat, rowed a few metres out, and dumped into the water.  Only floating garlands marked the spot.  They encouraged me to join them in cheering “Hail, Ma Durga”, but were understanding when I demurred and said I was Christian.  One guy kept repeating “God bless you” until I left.  An example of the common Indian tolerance that’s sadly not universal – witness Ayodya (see my previous post here) and other sporadic attacks on minority groups.

Myths and Mayhem: Monkeying with Rama in Ayodya

I recount an epic of kings, monkeys and 10-headed demons that hijacks ships and kills thousands today; I condemn riotous Lego, compare rival faiths, note interest rates in a religious bank and sample the Ramayana.

7 km from the Leprosy Mission center in Faizabad (see my previous post) is Ayodya, a small town that I had read a lot about.  Much as the Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey, India has two great epics that tell of battles and adventures between gods and men, interspersed with religious teaching and philosophical reflections: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

ramayana-comicThe latter is set in Ayodya.  Here is the tale in brief.  The divine Lord Ram (or Rama), rightful heir to the throne of Ayodya, is banished through the machinations of an envious royal wife to wander in the forest for 14 years.  His faithful wife Sita accompanies him.  While Ram is away hunting one day, the demon king Ravana, disguised as a wandering sage, kidnaps Sita and whisks her away to his kingdom of Sri Lanka.  Ram of course pursues.  A monkey army led by monkey god Hanuman tracks the fugitives and builds a bridge to the island so Ram can cross over.  He storms Ravana’s fortress, rapid-fires countless arrows to take out Ravana’s 10 heads, and rescues the virtuous Sita.  A popular cartoon series shows the final battle:

ramayana-comic-final-battleIt’s better than American superhero comics, nearly 2000 years older, and unlike Homer still shapes the lives of one billion people today.  In 1987 the Ramayana was broadcast in 78 weekly episodes, becoming the most popular programme ever on Indian TV.  One year later, the Mahabharata epic was watched by 75-95% of the population for two hours on TV every Sunday morning.  Streets were deserted, theft flourished as guards were glued to the box, and even government meetings were postponed.

At the time of my first trip to India in 2007, newspapers were full of Ramayana controversy.  The Indian government planned to deepen the strait between India and Sri Lanka so shipping could safely pass through, shortening the more dangerous trip further south.  Fundamentalist Hindus were outraged.  That underwater ridge, visible in satellite images, was the ancient bridge built by holy Hanuman.  The Archaeological Survey of India announced there was no evidence that said ridge was made by man or even monkey.  They received death threats.  You might as well suggest razing St Peter’s to build a motorway in Rome.

ramayana-comic-monkey-bridgeMany educated Hindus found this silly.  The factual accuracy of the epic is less important than its spiritual symbolism of good triumphing over evil.  But for literalists Ram was a real divine person, at an actual geographical location, at a specific historical time.  Cutting through his bridge was another echo of the great atrocity in 1528, when the Moghul invaders constructed the Babri Masjid mosque on top of – fundy Hindus maintain – a Hindu temple at the site of Ram’s birthplace in Ayodya.

In 1990 the aged president of the nationalist Hindu BJP rode across India in a Toyota “chariot”, brandishing a bow and arrow like Ram and collecting bricks to rebuild his temple.  In 1992, police stood by as Hindus tore the Babri Masjid mosque down stone by stone, assaulted journalists and destroyed their cameras.  (See a BBC correspondent’s eyewitness report here.)  The incident sparked riots across the country, killing around 2000 people, mostly Muslim.  It’s as if the Trojan War still sparked street battles today.  UN worker Shashi Tharoor, a Hindu himself, is outraged at such behaviour:

Hindu fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms, since Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals; there is no such thing as a Hindu heresy.  How dare a bunch of goondas shrink the soaring majesty of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their brand of identity politics?

One of the staff at the Leprosy Mission was from Ayodya and drove me there.  Blocks away from the disputed site of the temple-mosque, motor vehicles were stopped by barriers.  A large woman on a cycle rickshaw struggled to bend low enough to pas underneath.  In 2005, five terrorists attacked with explosives and were shot down.  Now security was tighter than at an airport.  The entrance sign listed even pens as prohibited.  Closing times had changed so I missed the chance to enter, but apparently there’s only a small tent with one statue inside on bare ground, so I didn’t miss much.  Policemen were walking home, carrying bulletproof vests.

ayodya-columnsMy guide knew some interesting spots.  I saw a site of building materials with piles of stone slabs, octagonal drums for stacking into columns, carved capitals.  It was like a huge set of Lego awaiting assembly.  Two artisans were crouched on slabs, chiselling out lotus flowers.  I learnt it was all for a new Ram temple – was this India’s next mass slaughter brewing?  It seemed suspiciously like a Hindu equivalent of the 12th-century “Triumph of Islam” mosque in Delhi (I described it here), provocatively built on the foundations of a Hindu temple.  One Hindu fundamentalist has written a book to prove that a better-known Muslim monument was also blasphemously built on top of a Hindu worship site: the Taj Mahal should be demolished.

ayodya-carvingOne big difference between these rival faiths is in their art.  Mosques are covered in geometric and floral patterns, with Koranic quotations curling around like vines.  On the walls hang clocks and tables listing the daily prayer times and calendars with photos of Mecca.  Islam is a religion of the book.  Niches contain stacked Korans and there are low reading stands for them on the floor.  Nowhere are there depictions of animals or humans, let alone of God.

Hindu temples have little to read but gods or idols are everywhere: sooty black, marble white, or garish as a Walt Disney cartoon.  They are often bathed and dressed in shining garments by the priests every day.  Popular deities suffocate under garlands of marigolds.  Instead of the rhythmic hum as Muslim men prostrate in prayer, you hear the sharp clang of bells before the altar and the raucous wailing of oboe-like instruments during offerings.  The bare-chested priest smears sandalwood paste on the forehead of devotees as they drop money on a tray of smouldering incense sticks, or present offerings of fruit or rice or sweets.

The contrast continues outside places of worship, where cluttered stalls sell devotional trinkets like paperweights and wall hangings.  Outside mosques you find framed Koranic calligraphy; outside Hindu temples are mythological scenes of the gods.  Churches have key rings with Bible verses and paintings like da Vinci’s Last Supper or Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World­.  Catholics buy figurines of Mary or Jesus, instead of Hindu gods.

ayodya-ramayana-templeIn India, however, every stereotype has a counter-example, and one Hindu temple in Ayodya was more textual than any mosque.  In a rectangular two-storey hall, with shining marble floor and floral-painted ceiling, almost every inch of the walls was covered in columns of script: the complete text of the Ramayana.

Mounting the stairs, I passed cubic bundles wrapped in cloth and stacked like colourful sandbags.  From the flat roof I surveyed the town, with temples old and new in every direction.  Here was the headquarters of the International Sree Seetarama Nama Bank.  A white-bearded guru behind a desk passed me a magnifying glass to read on a grain of rice, “Sita Ram”, the names of Lord Ram and his wife.  It’s a popular trick – tourists can likewise get their names on rice.

ayodya-nama-bankAnyone can join this remarkable bank for free.  The guru gave me its English flyer, which explained the bundles: stacks of exercise books filled with the handwritten names “Sita-Ram” – 38 rows by 9 columns make 342 cells on each side.  People post them in as a sort of spiritual deposit.  You can write in any language or script, with any pen, although “red is considered as symbolising devotion”.  The main thing while writing each name is to remain conscious that “the Lord shines in the lotus of my heart”.  The more you write the merrier.  125,000 copies, and you’ll be entered in the bank’s register.  Write 2.5 million, 5 million or 10 million names to receive a nickel, silver or gold medal respectively.  But the real target is 8.4 million repetitions of the sacred monikers, which guarantees you will be “freed from the cycle of birth and death.”  I’m not sure about that, but it puts writing lines at school in a new light.

I was thrilled to find a free performance of the Ramayana that evening.  I was looking forward to monkeys fighting ten-headed Ravana, then found it wasn’t a short tourist version but the real Ramlila deal: the entire epic recited for several hours per night, every night, over months.  When the red and pink curtains parted that night, I just got a sliver of the whole.  Various machinations between enthroned kings and turbaned courtiers, who visited a forest-dwelling holy man – with the sort of obviously false beard that makes you want to pull it off – sitting before a painted backdrop of trees, birds and monkeys.  The chanting was accompanied by live harmonium, tabla drums and cymbals.  People came up and touched the actors’ feet as if they were temple statues; one guy mounted the stage to prostrate himself before each character.  Religious performers take on the aura of divinity here, putting a new spin on actor “idols”.

ayodya-ramlila

Village Hindi and Leprosy Vocations

I learn about leprosy, enter a biblical world, and chalk up greetings with village women; I meet mechanics and woodworkers, seamstresses and PowerPoint pupils, radiant wrinkles, springing physio, and biochemical remembrance.

My great Auntie Maisie was effectively my third grandmother and spent her life serving The Leprosy Mission (TLM – see leprosymission.org.nz).  My sister and I often stayed at her house in Christchurch during school holidays.  It was full of dolls and puppies and teddy bears, crocheted baby booties and sweaters she’d knitted, scones and cakes and jars of marmalade, all made for the annual fundraising fair.  In her china cabinet were carved elephants and alligators, paintings of women in saris on dried leaves, small brass sculptures and lamps – souvenirs from countries like India and Indonesia where she’d visited Leprosy Mission work.  Her slides and prints caught my imagination.  I was delighted at the opportunity to follow in Auntie Maisie’s footsteps a little and visit the Leprosy Mission myself this year.

A TLM worker picked me up from my guesthouse in Lucknow.  We drove east to the small town of Barabanki where TLM staff placed a floral wreath around my neck in welcome.  An outpatient hospital was founded here around 1968 and now sees on average 250 patients per day.  Around 30% have leprosy, with other conditions also treated or referred.

Over half a million people are still newly diagnosed with leprosy every year, making one new case every two minutes, with over 5 million families affected, mostly in developing countries.  Leprosy is far less infectious than most people fear – it can’t be caught by shaking hands – and is curable with inexpensive drugs in 6 to 12 months if treated in time.  Its social stigma in India has decreased, said a doctor, but many still report it too late to prevent irreversible damage.  He said that Muslim women are often the worst as skin disease isn’t noticed with their bodies fully covered.

village-cowsIn recent decades TLM has expanded beyond medical work.  I was taken to see their Women’s Empowerment Programme in two villages.  The first had a population of 916, with 153 school-aged children.  I was told the other had 500 people and 300 cows.  I climbed out of the air-conditioned jeep and felt like I’d stepped into a Christmas nativity scene, or a Sunday School picture of Ruth gathering grain in the fields.  What I’d glimpsed from train windows (see here), I now viewed close up.

Huts with thatched roofs and mud or straw walls.  Wealthier houses of brick.  Black cows with bony butts roped to stakes, some calves, only a few dogs.  Deep brick-walled wells.  Hand-cranked iron wheels with blades to cut stalks that were then tied in bundles and stacked in golden piles.  Villagers threshing grain and stalks with tiny mustard seeds that reminded me of Gospel parables.  Most people were sociable, some were shy; a few women pulled saris over their faces when I passed.  Children were curious; one lad waved a plastic gun making laser sounds.  No one was in any way grasping or wanted anything from me all day!  What a contrast to the cities.  A few bikes and diesel-powered machines.  The weather was very dry so the air a bit dusty, but it was bliss after weeks of urban congestion – both vehicular and nasal.

Cow dung is dried for fuel just as I saw from trains and as happened in Bible times (see Ezekiel 4:15), or prepared in TLM vermin compost pits before spreading on the fields to improve crop yield.  TLM has built several brick toilets for villagers who struggle to go in the fields, like a blind boy and a lame woman.  Maybe they’d been forewarned that a foreigner was visiting, but these were almost the cleanest loos I’ve seen in India!  Hand-pumped water for washing.  A guy charged his phone with a cable on a mains power pole.

womens-empowerment-programIn a concrete community hall, two dozen women waited patiently on a blue tarpaulin.  All wore clean beautiful saris.  A few men and boys leant against the walls, while the staff and I sat on chairs or a rope mattress.  I was greeted with two more floral wreaths, and had my best Hindi experience yet.  I introduced myself and tried to ask questions; TLM staff clarified my words and translated the women’s replies.  Until recently, most were fully illiterate.  Having learnt to read street signs, some are now confident enough to venture outside their village for the first time.  Some of the most educated women have written symptoms of leprosy on walls, alongside TLM’s logo of Jesus embracing a leper.  Several villagers have read these signs, diagnosed themselves, and reported to hospital in time for treatment.

The women filed up to chalk their names on the blackboard: Sangeeta, Sunita, Shrikanti.  Some proudly wrote their whole address, or added up a simple sum.  It occurred to me that I could join in.  After quietly confirming the spelling, I grasped the chalk and wrote in Hindi, “Hello.  My name is David.”  Such fun!  We come from different worlds, they are native speakers and I just know a few phrases, yet we can both only stumblingly, messily write the script.  I think I was maybe better.  Already having the concept of letters and the motor control in my fingers, I just had to change the font.  The surprising human connection was a highlight of my trip and I went to bed buzzing that night.

I asked their favourite time of year and they said Holi, for new clean clothes as well as the colours.  (In my experience clothes didn’t stay clean for long at this festival: read about my Delhi Holi here)  The hardest time of year is the rainy season, when thatched huts leak.  That’s a contrast to city-dwellers who long for the rains to cool the scorching summer.  The women and girls sang for me: folk tunes honouring one’s mother, devotional songs to their gods, easily remembered ditties about vaccination.  TLM also performs street plays and puppet shows to teach about disease prevention and child care.  As we left I gave the wreaths to two girls who’d sung.

I’d heard that educating women or girls is the most effective means to fight poverty – for example, read the article “One solution to many problems: Educate girls” by Shashi Tharoor.  The TLM work here was a living illustration.

village-folkYesterday we drove for two hours to a larger TLM complex in Faizabad.  They’re doing fantastic stuff here, but the recession has reduced Western funding, and the crooked state government doesn’t help.  They have 8 hours of power on a good day and diesel for generators isn’t cheap.  When I asked whether things might improve under the new government, they appeared optimistic.

I spent the morning meeting students from leprosy-affected families at the Vocational Training Center, which was founded in 1992.  A poster read,

All we teach them is self-reliance.  Look how God makes their lives productive.  They can sew, they can sow, they can reap.  They can spin, they can learn, they can teach.  They can fix almost anything and have great selling skills too…

I saw the evidence.  Boys in blue overalls were learning to repair car engines, or TVs and phones, or refrigeration systems, with posters of the physics on the walls.  Woodwork pupils construct beds and cupboards, some for outside contracts, and metal work students repair insect mesh.  An old man was spinning thread to be woven into cloth.  Girls in tidy red-checked uniforms sewed stuffed rabbits and dogs, kids’ clothing and bags – the sort of things Auntie Maisie used to make back home, though here they used pedal-powered machines.

Another class of girls was learning computer skills and showed me the PowerPoint slides they’d made of friends and movie stars.  Their course builds up to simple programming in C.  After lunch we visited a craft fair where the TLM girls had a stall displaying their sewing.  They borrowed my camera to photograph each other with me – now I’ve got some teenage girl fans here too!

joyful-leprosy-patientIn a home of thirty elderly men there were radiant smiles as they clasped my hands between their gnarled fingers.  A blind man sitting cross-legged on his bed seemed profoundly content.  Another with missing teeth and shirt stained with the oil that treats his skin jumped up with a shining face to sing me two choruses.  I didn’t get much beyond a few words like “Jesus” or “love”, but it didn’t take much to see his joy.  Although crippled and owning almost nothing, with little more to do than sit and talk and grow onions in their garden plot, they were richer in gratitude and happiness than most of us who have so much more.

The Faizabad hospital was established in 1938 and I had a little tour.  In the physio ward patients held up their hands.  Some were clawed, awaiting surgery; other patients were post-op and could straighten their fingers.  They demonstrated their rehabilitation exercises of compressing springs and picking up blocks or beads.  Many return to work and quickly damage themselves because they have lost sensation in their limbs.  Before they leave they are taught to protect themselves by wrapping sharp or hot implements in cloth, and are given leather sandals with custom insoles.

leprosy-physiotherapyThe doctor said some don’t finish their course of medication and in the past the hospital sent postcard reminders, but is switching to text messages as most patients know someone with a phone.  In the biochemical testing lab, a diagram of blood cell development was flanked by photos of G Armauer Hansen, who discovered mycobacterium lepra in 1875, and a classic painting of Jesus that I’ve seen throughout India (see here).  The same picture used to hang above my holiday bed in Auntie Maisie’s spare room.

leprosy-hospital-posters

Shiite Chandeliers and Under Siege in Lucknow

I’m assaulted by squadrons of mosquitoes and chatty locals, flee a labyrinth of exhaustion and find a crystal fairyland, stiffen my upper lip with heroic memories and capture a comic prize.

In past centuries the city of Lucknow was a centre of courtly poetry and Shiite culture, ruled by the Muslim Nawabs from Iran.  Now it is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and the heart of the Hindu “Cow Belt”, where the holy Ganges River flows past crowded pilgrimage sites.  Over half of India’s prime ministers are from Uttar Pradesh, and the state recently held elections.  On the six-hour train ride southeast from Delhi, I read in the paper that the percentage of candidates facing criminal charges increased from 28% in the 2007 elections to 35% this year.  Legislators actually elected who have “tainted” backgrounds dropped from 122 to a mere 14.  This sounded encouraging, until I read that the current minister for prisons faces eight criminal charges himself.

steripenI arrived at the Lucknow Homestay to find my room was a flight training ground for mosquitoes.  The toilet and shower were outdoors – even more insects in the very place that the most flesh is bared.  And they had no bottled water.  Pitiful as a hotel, but once I switched to tramping mode I could see it was a lavish hut!  There was even a languorous Rosetti dame on the wall.  I purified a bottle of water with my UV Steripen and tied a cord between curtain rails to pitch my mosquito net.  That night I climbed inside, folded the net over the opening and tucked it under my mattress.  Then realised I’d left my torch on the table, so untucked the net, clambered out and fetched the item.  I re-entered my tent, re-tucked the opening – and discovered I’d forgotten my earplugs… then my eye mask…  At last I was organised and the net worked well, granting a sound sleep without buzzing or bites.

Simple Indian meals – rice or chapatis with spicy vegetables and cooling curds – were prepared by the family’s cook and eaten with the other guests.  Most were long term: an Indian girl soon to be married, an American studying Urdu for her literature PhD, an English guy learning Hindi – he’d just found a tutor and gave me a few tips.  A laid-back American was off to Varanasi for two weeks of relaxing with yoga and pot.

mosquito-netI’m in need of relaxation myself: travel is a stimulating but stressful drug.  Especially in India.  Especially for an introvert bombarded by constant conversation from those who think Westerners are walking cash flow machines, those eager to show off their English, or those simply curious.  I’m starting to resent anyone who approaches.  Indian interlocutor: “Your country, sir?”  David (sotto voce): “Bugger off!”

I wasn’t cheered up by the elderly cycle-rickshaw driver with zero English who headed the wrong way, stopping again and again to ask directions to Lucknow’s number one tourist site.  Imagine a Parisian taxi driver who can’t find the Louvre.  I felt sympathy as his balding head glistened with sweat and was even considering an additional tip – until he charged ten times what I thought we’d agreed.

The Bara Imambara was an impressive structure that apparently had a marvellous labyrinth to explore.  I sat in the courtyard for a while, but the place was full of cheesy tourists and chatty teens and I couldn’t face any more.  I left and staggered along, wilting and wondering if it was worth it, psyching myself up to cross each road, and collapsed onto a step outside the Chota Imambara.  “Bara” means big, “chota” means small and thank God this was small enough to be overlooked by the tourist coaches.  Hallelujah!

I’d often seen kites in the sky, but not yet their owners.  Now I heard a rippling crackling noise just above, looked up, and “Yes!  I’ve found them!”  I could see the boys flying their kites.  Simple constructions of two crossed sticks with paper taped on.  Faded shreds flutter from trees and cables throughout the city.  One lad’s kite snared in a power line, then came loose, before I stepped through the archway and – o bliss – was alone!

chota-imambara-lucknowLucknow’s Imambaras were the fruit of 19th-century famines.  The ruling nawab avoided insulting his subjects with charity by employing them to build; nobility worked at night to veil their shame.  An “Imambara”, according to the tablet inside the gate, is “a centre for mourning and sorrow, established for commemoration of the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussain… the grandson of the Holy Prophet Muhammed” – Hussain is especially venerated by Shia Muslims.  A long pool lay before me, lined with pots of neatly trimmed shrubs.  On either side were small replicas of the Taj Mahal, the corner minarets topped with crescent moons and reflected in the water.  At the far end was a façade of arches and curly Arabic calligraphy, below double balustrades and a brown bulbous dome.

Inside was a sort of Yuletide fairyland.  Tiers of crystal chains dangled like stalactites from chandeliers, set among coloured globes hanging like huge Christmas tree balls: yellow, maroon, turquoise; some studded with stars, others shiny smooth.  There were metal mirrors with heavy bronze frames and paintings of famous mosques.  I couldn’t identify strange structures like pedestalled monuments made from tinsel Christmas paper.  I later found out they were replicas of Imam Hussain’s tomb in Karbala, Iraq.  As I left, minarets and domes were silhouetted against the setting sun, like a movie set for the Arabian Nights.

chota-imambara-lucknow-insideThe atmosphere was less Middle Eastern at the Residency compound next day.  During the Indian uprising of 1857, 2994 men, women and children, many Indian, only half military, were besieged for 147 days here.  2000 of them died, more from scurvy, cholera and tetanus than from gunfire.  (I’d been vaccinated against the last two so hoped I’d survive.)  The Residency has been left as it was: bricks chipped by bullets and walls flattened by cannon balls.  The ruins are half overgrown and the bushes shaded courting couples.  The cellar where the English sheltered from gunfire is now a small museum.  I used it to shelter from the heat.

The unrest was sparked when Indian troops were issued with new cartridges for the 1853 Enfield musket.  They had to bite off the caps, which were allegedly greased with beef and pork fat: anathema to both Muslims and Hindus.  For the British, the ensuing revolt was the Indian Mutiny, a barbaric assault on a higher civilisation.  Indian historians now call it the “First War of Independence”, the opening move of the freedom struggle that Gandhi led to victory in 1947.  From any perspective it was a striking event.  “There doesn’t stand in the annals of war”, wrote the Governor General at the time, “an achievement more heroic than the defence of the Residency at Lucknow”.  Charles Dickens wrote sermons on the siege and in his poem “The Defence of Lucknow” (read it all here), Tennyson lauded the plucky Union Jack:

Never with mightier glory than when we had rear’d thee on high
Flying at top of the roofs in the ghastly siege of Lucknow—
Shot thro’ the staff or the halyard, but ever we raised thee anew,
And ever upon the topmost roof our banner of England blew.

Throughout the siege British class distinctions were maintained.  Wealthy officers hoarded their own luxury supplies.  Upper-class ladies invited each other to supper in the higher lighter rooms.  Servants and common soldiers starved in the cellar.  The residential buildings hadn’t been constructed for defence, so the banquet hall became a hospital, the Treasury an arsenal.  British tin miners counter-mined the enemy tunnels.  Breaches in the walls were barricaded with furniture, packing cases, billiards tables and a Welsh harp.

There was brutal conduct on both sides.  When the British retook the city, their soldiers plundered like barbarians themselves, shattering china and jade, burning brocades and paintings, melting down silver and gold jewellery.  In Delhi the civilised colonisers killed thousands of Indians in revenge, even firing many from cannons.

siege-of-krishnapur-j-g-farrellAfter a long and pleasurable hunt through assorted Delhi bookstores, I found and purchased The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) by J. G. Farrell.  The novel won the Booker prize and is based on diaries and letters written during the siege.  It is a horrifying and hilarious book, both showing the suffering and sending up the pretensions of the defenders and their faith in rational progress.

Cavalry officers vault sofas in the banquet hall and water their horses with liquor: “you can keep your Calcutta champagne. I only drink Todd and James, my horse drinks that rubbish.”  Marble busts of Plato and Socrates are knocked off the facade to shield a cannon on the roof.  As ammunition runs out, cannons are loaded with marbles, clocks, silver cutlery, cut-up candlesticks, false teeth and the metal busts of Europe’s literary heroes.  The head of cynical Voltaire gets jammed in the barrel, displaying the worth of French Enlightenment, but English skulls are more use:

And of the heads, perhaps not surprisingly, the most effective of all had been Shakespeare’s; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing in single file through the jungle. The Collector suspected that the Bard’s success in this respect might have a great deal to do with the ballistic advantages stemming from his baldness. The head of Keats, for example, wildly festooned with metal locks which it had proved impossible to file smooth had flown very erratically indeed, killing only a fat money-lender and a camel standing at some distance from the field of action.

Mouldering Might: the Fallen Cities of Delhi

I remember Rome and meditate on mausoleums, get lost in the Middle Ages, find myself in Paradise and reflect on ancient poems.

Delhi has been called a “City of Cities”.  It’s like an old house with multiple layers of wallpaper peeling off to reveal past generations or, in Hindu terms, former reincarnations.  At least 8 cities have been built here over 3000 years. The map is dotted with ruined gates and palaces and tombs from ancient empires, like a city-sized graveyard.  William Dalrymple wrote in City Of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, “Though it has been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt, each time rising like a phoenix from the fire.”

purana-qila-ruinsDelhi is also called the “Rome of the East”, and I’ve often noticed the resemblance.  As I roam a labyrinth of narrow market streets, I’ll turn a corner and find a decorated gateway or latticed window from a once-elegant haveli, the mansion of a merchant or noble.  Now flagstones are cracked and façade discoloured.  Plaster reliefs flake off to reveal the brick beneath and the edifice is half hidden behind grimy signs, cobwebs of wiring, bamboo scaffolding or washing.  As India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said:

Delhi is the symbol of old India and new…  Even the stones here whisper to our ears of the ages of long ago and the air we breathe is full of the dust and fragrances of the past, as also of the fresh and piercing winds of the present.

The Delhi Metro Museum described Delhi’s deepest station as a “Time Machine”.  From an air-conditioned underground platform you ascend 20m to emerge in the Chawri Chowk market where, bar vehicle motors and horns and electric lighting, the vibe has changed little in centuries.  Unlike Europe’s old city walls, Delhi’s former battlements still overlook peasants herding cattle and selling farm produce much as in the Middle Ages.  In the courtyard of one old mosque I entered, the hands had fallen off the entrance gate clock.

qutb-minar-delhiThree spots where I warped back in time are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The Qutb Minar is a 73-metre stone tower – short of the 93m Statue of Liberty – begun by an invader in 1193 A.D. and leaning much less than Pisa’s 56m Tower.  The fluted minarette tapers skyward through five balconies – like a collapsing telescope said one writer – with alternating bands of red sandstone, white marble, abstract carving and Koranic inscriptions.

At its base is the oldest mosque in India, constructed on top of a Hindu temple and named “The Might/Triumph of Islam”.  An inscription boasts it was built with the materials of “27 idolatrous temples”; Hindu figures on the columns have been de-faced.  It’s now less mightily triumphant.  Chattering school classes on cultural outings file through its weathered courtyards where the roof has fallen in, and tourists frame shots of the tower through crumbling arches.  Nearby is a 27m pile of rubble: all that remains of a failed attempt in 1316 to build a tower twice as high.  The echoes in Delhi go back to Babel.

Touts are the worst at tourist traps and the Taj Mahal is probably the worst of all, so I’m giving it a miss this trip.  I saw its 16th-century precursor here in Delhi.  While the Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, the tomb of the emperor Humayan was built by his grieving widow.  It has a graceful white dome over multi-arched storeys of – once again – white marble and red sandstone.  Inside is a stone sarcophagus in a cool, echoing chamber, the floor dappled with sunlight through lattice grills.  It’s surrounded by a symmetrical grid of fountains and water channels reflecting the tomb, landscaped gardens and palm trees.  A peaceful spot at dusk that I enjoyed at leisure.  I doubt the Taj experience would be as serene.

humayuns-tomb-delhiRumours of lost empires are whispered throughout the city and other parks have smaller, more dilapidated Muslim mausoleums.  Their builders hoped for immortal fame, but in some cases even the owner’s name has been forgotten.  Grass grows from the cracked domes and stray dogs rest in their shade.  Former empires are now ruled by monkeys.

On my first day in Delhi I saw, beyond the market chaos of Chandni Chawk (see here), distant red battlements beneath an Indian flag: the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort.  It was constructed by the Moghul emperor Shah Jehan, who also built the Taj Mahal and planned to move his capital here from Agra.  It was finished in 1648, when the Thirty Years War in Europe came to an end.  I crossed the empty moat and entered the Lahore Gate beneath chunky 30m ramparts.  The flag of independent India was unfurled here in 1947, 90 years after the 1857 anti-British mutiny which was brutally beaten down.  After dutifully noting the bullet holes from that uprising, I came face to face with a sandbagged military post and heavy-duty gun – the fort is still defended!

red-fort-gate-delhiOn the far side is the Jumna River, where queens watched elephant fights on the banks, and inside the 2 km walls are a private court mosque; museums with engraved weapons, royal garments, unearthed ceramics; pillared audience halls once covered in jewels and still inlaid with coloured stone pictures of birds and flowers.  The palace buildings were once cooled with water channels and on the wall is a Persian couplet: “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”  The gardens were meant to evoke the Koran’s description of heaven.  The absence of vendors was indeed paradisiacal, until I realised my bottle was almost empty and there was no potable water before the exit gate one sun-beaten km away.  I began to fear I’d entered the other post-mortem destination.

red-fort-detailThere’s an old prophecy that every ruler who founds a new capital here at Delhi will lose it.  This has held true for the builders of triumphant towers and forts of paradise, marble mausoleums and mighty mosques.  The last great statement of imperial power took 17 years to build from 1914-31 and its masters were driven out 16 years later.  British New Delhi is a big contrast to the cramped alleys of the old city, with the spacious wide tree-lined avenues around my hotel and neo-classical colonnades of Connaught Place.

Most impressive was the 42-metre high India Gate archway.  It’s one end of Rajpath or Kingsway Avenue that processes in triumph, flanked by water canals, fountains and flowerbeds, up to the presidential estate.  It reminded me of the Arc de Triumphe and Champs-Elysees in Paris.  Historian William Dalrymple likens the architecture of New Delhi to that of Hitler’s Berlin, which was built in the same period and for much the same purpose: to showcase racial superiority and might.  The mood was less pompous now.  The India Gate was surrounded by refrigerated ice cream carts, vendors of popcorn and balloons, picnicking families, and kids in paddleboats on the ponds – the future builders, perhaps, of Delhi’s next incarnation.

Nine days in Delhi will only scratch the surface of this archaeological dig, just enough to whet my appetite for more.  There are so many worlds on one map.  I was shown around the University of Delhi where this city’s history almost intersects my own: my dad spent a few months at the Department of Physics here before I was born.  Campus signs warned that ragging could end in jail and notice boards advertised student performances of Shakespeare.  Then I was taken to dinner in the Tibetan colony for spicy dumplings.  The Dalai Llama’s picture hung in the corner, a purple-robed Tibetan Buddhist monk ate at the next table, and it seemed a different world again.  Historians tell of many Delhis that have existed through time; sociologists tell of many Delhis that exist right now.  The Middle Ages and the Space Age jostle cheek by jowl.

purana-qila-detailWith its layers of forgotten history and fallen empires Delhi often reminded me of the saying, “India is an ancient civilization in an advanced stage of decay”.  And I thought of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

I’ve also remembered a prayer that’s about as old as Delhi, said to come from a prophet who walked the sands of Egypt when the pyramids were young:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night….
Our years come to an end like a sigh.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Psalm 90