Tag Archives: history

Bangalore Memories and Beastly Mortalities

I revisit memories of Bangalore and reflect on what has changed, travel back to colonial times and encounter fatal hazards.

Over Easter I stayed at the church guesthouse where I’d been in 2007.  This time the verse on my wall was God’s promise to the Israelites wandering in the desert – and to me as I perambulate this wild land: “My presence will go with you.” (Exodus 33:14)

It’s been good to reacquaint myself with Bangalore five years after my first visit (see my reports on that trip here).  Here was KFC and McDonald’s where I ate my first meals when I was new to India and paranoid about getting sick.  Ullas Vegetarian Restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended so I felt safe – now its breezy balcony was closed.  K C Das, the first eatery I proudly discovered on my own for pooris so hot off the pan they burned my fingers as I dipped them into tasty samba.

Brigade Road is still full of pedestrian-threatening traffic and punchy police signs.  Mahatma Gandhi Road is still full of tourist-trapping hawkers – with the same sunglasses and maps, small wooden chess sets and toy helicopters.  Sellers of bamboo pipes were still playing Titanic.  They all seemed less persistent than I remembered – maybe I’m inured, or now less obviously gullible and green.  The biggest change I’ve seen runs over their heads: at long last the first stage of the Metro is going.

I re-located my favourite stores.  The Bookworm’s sign looked as if it hadn’t been painted since I perused its shelves in 2007.  One bookshop seemed to have recently closed, with clearance sale posters in the window.  Another I couldn’t find at all.  I remembered chatting to its owner about the pirated books spread out on the pavement.  These photocopied bestsellers seemed to have disappeared too, but I saw them after a few days, more surreptitious now.

It was all like meeting an old friend.  I sat on a shady bench in Cubbon Park and reflected.  How has the city changed since we last met?  And what has changed for me?  I’m now a little older.  I’m a little more confident at navigating this vast and fascinating country.  And I’m a little sadder, though hopefully wiser, because I’ve travelled through the valley of my father’s dying since then.  A Bangalore paper had an article on ageing.  It had a line from the Persian poet Rumi that made me think of Dad:

Why is it that the lion’s strength weakens to nothing?  The wrestler who could hold anyone down is led out with two people supporting him, their shoulders under his arms?

bangalore-holy-trinity-churchDad had the British stiff upper lip and was a true scholar and gentleman.  Down the road from my hotel, the 1852 Holy Trinity Church had many such memories from colonial times.  The neoclassical portico is painted brown and cream.  In the lobby I found a page from the Bangalore Mirror: “Churchill Prayed Here”.  He also left an unpaid 13 pound debt at the Bangalore Club.  I went inside, where deflated balloons and dangling ribbons suggested a recent wedding.

The front-left seat still has a plaque, “The Hon’bl Resident”.  Behind are rows reserved for “Commanding Officers” and QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, est. 1902), while front right seats are earmarked for the chaplain and GOC (General Officer Commanding).  On the whitewashed walls are relief sculptures of soldiers and banners and swords, with inscriptions that recall an age of sudden death.

bangalore-holy-trinity-church-plaque-2Some were taken by disease, like the four who died of cholera on the march in 1852.  Sailing was perilous: a Major General was “drowned by the foundering of the steamer Cheduba in a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal” on 16 May 1869; his wife then died at sea between Malta and Gibralta on 28 May 1869.  Lionel Bridge, Captain Royal Artillery, perished “on his homeward journey from Madras, 1866, aged 38 years”.  He caught my attention because, after a Burma expedition, he participated in “the suppression of the Indian Mutiny 1857, & for his services at the relief of Lucknow, he received a Brevet Majority” – only two months ago I saw the bullet holes in the Lucknow Residency myself (see here).

bangalore-holy-trinity-church-plaqueSome soldiers even survived other hazards to die in action.  In 1858, “George King Newbery, captain of the 8th Madras Light Cavalry… fell leading a charge of his men in the attack of Shorapore”.  But I gave first prize to “George Staple Dobbie, Esquire, Mysore Revenue Survey, who died from the effects of wounds inflicted by a tiger near Shemoga, May 6th 1875.  Aged 30 years.”

Mark Twain visited India in 1896 and noted the statistics.  Over the last six years, on average, 45 people had been killed by elephants, 100 by bears, 230 by leopards, 700 by wolves, and 800 by tigers.  Even combined these hardly counted: 17,000 people per year had met their end through encounters with snakes.


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”.


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

Martyring Freedom, Mourning Tigers, and Sikhing Indira

I visit gurdwaras and a Prime Minister’s shrine, compare Joan of Arc to black widows and find a hollow tiger.

I’ve entered two golden-domed Sikh gurudwaras in Delhi, one adjacent to my hotel (see my 2007 introduction to Sikhism here).  After removing shoes, washing hands and stepping through a shallow pool to rinse my feet, the matter of head coverings arose.  In one temple my sunhat was deemed satisfactory; in the other I was lent a headscarf.  In both I found a spot under a fan to sit on the carpet and observe.  Chanting of scriptures was accompanied by drums and accordion.  Worshippers circled the room while a priest fanned their sacred book.

Sikhs are known for distributing free food, and I saw a huge production line making bread: dough ripped into sections, rolled into balls, thrown to the far end of a long trestle for rolling out.  As in nursery stories of witches’ cauldrons, the simmering pots of curry and dhal could have boiled up several children with ease.

Unlike the Jains and Mahatma Gandhi who disavow all violence (see previous post), Sikhs are famed for their military prowess – they still form much of India’s army and police – and believe it’s right to wield arms in defence of their faith.  After reliving Mahatma Gandhi’s final days I moved to the house of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation), who ran aground on this faith.

I was surprised to find her memorial house far more crowded than Gandhi’s.  Busloads of Indian tourists were filing through the whitewashed bungalow, where security guards even banned water bottles.  It was like a pilgrimage temple, kept much as it was when she died.  Through glass walls you could see floor to ceiling bookcases, old leather armchairs, framed photos on side tables, and presents from around the world, like a Chinese dragon rug on the floor and an African mask on the wall.

indira-gandhi-houseI saw the same Royal Doulton Bunnykins china plates and bowls that I had as a child, and hundreds of photos, including Indira as a six-year-old girl with Gandhi, who knew the family well.  Her father Jawaharlal Nehru was frequently arrested during the independence struggle and he once telegrammed: GOING TO OTHER HOME.  I enjoyed this account from Indira’s aunt of their bookish upbringing, with its fateful premonition:

Perhaps the love of books all of us had and the well-stocked library at Anand Bhawan [their house in Allahabad] was as good a school as any.  From prison Jawaharlal would periodically order a number of books for Indira and she would read fairy tales, children’s editions of Shakespeare, Dickens, Shaw and many classics…  Indira had her favourites.  She was fascinated by stories about Joan of Arc…  One day I saw her standing at the balustrade of the veranda with outstretched arms – she said, “I’m practising being Joan of Arc.  I have been reading about her, and someday I’m going to lead my people to freedom just as Joan of Arc did.”

It seems Indira was devout like Joan of Arc.  In her Puja Room or prayer closet was a Virgin Mary with a halo of stars, a slim Thai Buddha, a vessel of Ganges water, a chain of prayer beads, and incense sticks in front of statuettes of Hindu gods.  On the shelf was a Bible, Koran, Hindu and Sikh Scriptures, and cassettes of devotional music.  Indira liked to light an oil lamp before the garlanded Mother India.

Her publicity machine portrayed her like Mother India herself, proclaiming “India is Indira and Indira is India”.  Many foreign accolades that she received were on display: the Dutch Order of the Golden Ark, the Lenin Prize, the Dag Hammarskjold award.  Countless newspaper clippings documented her great achievements, but I saw no mention of the Emergency rule she declared in 1975 – after being found guilty of electoral malpractice.  Joan of Arc may have led her people to freedom, but Indira threw thousands of opposition politicians into prison and gagged the free media (cutting off electricity to independent printing presses), while her son bulldozed slums and force-sterilised the poor.  All this led novelist Salman Rushdie to call her the “Black Widow” in his novel Midnight’s Children.  In her study was a photo of poet Rabindrath Tagore alongside a famous verse from his Nobel prize-winning Gitanjali (which I introduced here).  It echoed the noble Joan of Arc and after the Emergency seemed most ironic:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Maybe my view has been overly shaped by westernised liberals like Rushdie, because Indira was clearly respected here and the Emergency did have some positive effects.  Many socks were quickly pulled up.  Power cuts, strikes and inflation were curbed.  Trains ran on time and government workers actually came to work – there were not enough desks and chairs in many offices when all staff showed up.  It’s joked that queues were last spotted at a Delhi bus stop in February 1977, just before the Emergency ended.

Just as for Gandhi (see previous post) I followed Indira’s final steps outside.  Glass covers the footpath up to the spot where, as a sign said, she “fell martyr to the bullets of two assassins” in 1984, shot 30 times by her Sikh bodyguards.  Her blood-stained sari was on display.  Although it all recalled Gandhi’s memorial, she was hardly an innocent pacifist like him.  Her death followed her invasion of the holy of holies for Sikhs, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The museum also celebrated Indira’s son Rajiv, an engineer and pilot.  His first laptop was on display – a chunky 1980s Toshiba – and a radio he’d assembled, which reminded of my Dad.  He loved electronics and I’d often smell his soldering iron as a kid.   Rajiv was killed by a Tamil Tiger bomb in 1991.  The tattered remains of his shirt and sneakers hung in a glass case.

indira-gandhi-tigerOn the way out I caught a glimpse of an eco-conscious compassionate Indira.  A life-size statue of a glittery gold-striped tiger had a transparent belly, showing a stuffed toy tiger inside.  Between 1919 and 1972, tiger numbers in India dropped from 35,000 to 1872.  Alongside this plastic-looking beast was a typed letter from Indira to her son on September 7, 1965:

Darling Rajiv,
We have received a huge tiger’s skin.  The tiger was shot by the maharaja of Rewa only two months ago.  The skin is lying in the ballroom.  Every time I pass it I feel very sad that instead of lying here he might have been roaming and roaring in the jungle.  Our tigers are such beautiful creatures, so graceful.  You can see their muscles rippling under their skins.  Such a short time ago he must have been king of the jungle – striking terror in the hearts of the other animals.
I am so glad that nowadays more and more people prefer to go into the jungles with their cameras instead of guns.  It seems such a shame to deprive anything of the joy of living just for our pleasure.