There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Delhi (2) Some Old Things Around New Delhi: Part 2 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh

In the morning the Sunday Times was pushed under our door. The Times of India, and  the other national English language dailies, may be a little dull but, unlike much of the British press, they report news stories without twisting them to fit a political agenda and clearly separate news from opinions, which are generally measured, thoughtful and not given to populist ranting. They are also written in delightful Indian English in which criminals are ‘nabbed’, opponents are ‘squelched’ and middle-aged women attend ‘kitty parties’.

The paper also brought a selection of advertising fliers. I wondered if the restaurant calling itself Delhi Belly had fully understood the implications of its name.

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before Vik arrived to show us New Delhi. Driving into town we noticed, not for the first time, that Delhi has far more pigeons than is good for it. This problem is hardly unique to Delhi, but nowhere have we seen so many people intent on feeding the vermin. Small squares were inches deep in bird seed, and we watched a man pouring a bottle of milk into a bird bath like structure. ‘It gives him good karma,’ Vik explained. ‘And ensures plenty of pigeon faeces for everyone,’ I thought.

The weather was still cold and drizzly as we again drove through expensive residential streets before arriving at Humayun’s tomb on the edge of Lutyens’ planned area.

Drizzle at the entrance to Humayun's Tomb

It is easy to feel sorry for Humayun, the second Mughal emperor. His father Babur founded the empire, his son Jalal Ud-din became known as Akbar (The Great) and Humayun… well, he came in between. Ascending the throne on his father’s death in 1530, he lost the empire to the Pashtun Sher Shah Suri ten years later and did not regain it until 1555 when Suri was dead and a clutch of lesser lights were squabbling over his sultanate. A year later he fell down the steps in his library and died.

Humauyun's Tomb

It is probably no consolation that Humayun has the finest tomb of all the Mughal emperors (except for his great-grandson Shah Jahan, who is buried in the Taj Mahal, though that is not specifically ‘his tomb’). Commissioned by his first wife, and designed by a Persian architect, Humayun’s tomb was the first in India to be set in a Persian Garden of Paradise, a style which would reach its peak at the Taj Mahal.

Humayun's Tomb
The outside is as beautiful as the setting, but the inside is plain. There was once much more decoration and colour and a glance at the ceiling by the entrance gives an idea of what it might have been.

Ceiling, Humayun's Tomb
Humayun himself lies some 10 metres below a simple marble memorial. 

Humayun's Gravestone

There is plenty of room in the wings for several of his wives, sons, assorted other nobility and a couple of later Mughal emperors, but this is Humayun’s building. He was, according to contemporary accounts, a decent human being, at least by the standards of late medieval war lords, and although this may account for his not being a particularly successful emperor, the building communicates a feeling that he was genuinely missed. The air of sorrow is aided by the mournful blast of train hooters from the nearby railway; Indian train drivers like their hooters as much as Indian car drivers like their horns (and fans of the double-entendre can make up their own jokes).

In the south east corner of the garden there is a smaller tomb generally called the Barber’s Tomb. Humayun’s barber was clearly an important man – he could be trusted to hold a sharpened blade at the emperor’s throat every morning – but who actually occupies the tomb is unknown.

Looking back to the entrance over the Garden of Paradise
Humayun's Tomb

Delhi is said to consist of eight successive cities. The first, Indraprastha, was founded around 1450 BC and the last (or latest), New Delhi, was built by the British in the first decade of the 20th century.

Although the region has always been overwhelmingly Hindu, there have not been Hindu rulers in Delhi since the 12th century (the modern state of India has a secular constitution). Qutb-ud-din became the first of the Islamic rulers when he set up the Delhi Sultanate in 1191. His dynasty survived only a century, but Islamic rule would last in Delhi, and most of northern India, until the British arrived in the 1800s.

Qutb-ud-din built the first monuments of Muslim India 13km south of the centre of New Delhi at a site known as the Qutb Minar complex.

The 72m high Qutb Minar was built to mark the Eastern extremity of the Islamic faith and to throw the shadow of religion even further east. James Fergusson, 19th century Scottish businessmen turned historian of Indian architecture, described it as “the most beautiful example of its class known anywhere.”

Qutb Minar
From a distance there is something industrial about the tower; as John Keay noted “an unfortunate hint of the factory chimney and the brick kiln”. But close to, looking at the decoration, the fluting and the Quranic inscriptions I would choose Fergusson’s Victorian view over Keay’s modern one.

Qutb Minar close up
Qutb died with only the first story built and it was completed by his successor Iltutmish, who also completed the Quwwat-al-Islam, India’s first mosque. 27 Hindu and Jain temples were raided to provide pillars for the prayer hall, the faces of gods and animals being hacked out of the carvings. The blend of Islamic and Hindu architecture is both startling and surprisingly successful. 

Hindu columns in Quwwat-al-Islam
Qutb Minar Complex
Alaudin Khilji, a ruler (1296-1316) of a later dynasty, enlarged the mosque and built a madrasa.

Alaudin Khilji's madrasa, with his tomb in the central section
Qutb Minar Complex
He also started the Alai Minar, intending it to dwarf the Qutb Minar but he died with only the first story complete. The unfinished stump stands as a monument to the folly of vain ambition.

Alai Minar, Qutb Minar Complex

Ironically, perhaps the most interesting part of this Islamic complex is actually Hindu. The 7.2m high iron pillar standing in the mosque precinct is a god pole from a Vishnu temple, though it has lost the image of Garuda from the top. Sanskrit inscriptions date it from the rein of Chandragupta II (375-414 AD) and it is unclear how it came to be where it is. The iron is 98% pure, a purity which could not be
replicated until the 19th century and it is also rust free due to its high phosphorus content. Whether this is an intentional result of Chandragupta technology or just luck is unknown.

Iron Pillar
Qutb Minar Complex
 Tradition states that if you can stand with your back to the pillar and encircle it with your arms then your wishes will be granted. My friend Brian who visited the site in the 1970s says he failed by a distance. My arms are considerably shorter, but as the authorities have now surrounded the pillar with iron railings I never had a chance.

Lack of wish fulfilment apart, I liked the Qutb Minar Complex. I liked the iron pillar, I liked the mix of Hindu and Islamic architecture and I liked the Qutb Minar itself. I also enjoyed the wild life: stripy Indian squirrels skittered hither and yon, myna birds hopped about pretending to supervise and bright green parakeets swooped between the two huge rain trees outside the mosque. As I was watching the parakeets the drizzle stopped and the sun struggled out from behind a bank of cloud.
Squirrel, Qutb Minar complex
We drove back to Connaught Place, the commercial centre of New Delhi, and said goodbye to Vik having agreed that we would choose our own restaurant for lunch and then find our way back on the metro.

Connaught Place consists of two concentric circular roads around a small park. The name was correctly applied only to the inner circle, but that is now known as Rajiv Chowk after Rajiv Ghandi. The outer circle is Indira Chowk after his mother. 

Tuk-tuks in Connaught Place

We wandered round just to have a look, but with an eye out for lunch. Despite its spectacular growth rate India is still a poor country and most of it remains rooted in the third world. Connaught Place is where India can be seen grappling with what it will become; it is a long journey from poverty to affluence but India is on that road and seeking the best route forward.

Finding a café or bar was easier than finding a restaurant. On one of the radial roads we passed a branch of Starbucks with a queue outside. Either young Indians are developing a taste for weak coffee or Starbucks has a social cachet that had previously passed me by.

Queuing for Starbucks, Connaught Place
Eventually our search for lunch became serious. On Rajiv Chowk itself we let a man waving a menu entice us through a door, up a flight of stairs and onto the roof terrace of a hotel. Despite the weather’s steady improvement it was still too cool to eat outside, but there was an indoor bar/restaurant which provided a beer and a very satisfactory vegetable thali. It was not cheap – by Indian standards – but reasonable seeing as we were eating in the very centre of the capital city.

After lunch we walked right round Rajiv Chowk, leisurely completing more than a full circuit. We had difficulty telling how far we had gone, so we took a fix on one distinctive shop and stopped when we came back to it.

The park in the centre had high railings and queues at the access points. We joined a queue and shuffled forward as everyone was frisked and ushered through the metal detectors. When it came to our turn we were waved through; apparently middle-aged* European tourists are not the terrorist demographic. Beyond the metal detector was the most formidable set of ‘Do Not’ signs I have ever seen; ‘NO FUN’ would have been shorter and easier.

There were, however, lots of people sitting on the grass, groups of teenagers sprinkled in amongst the family groups. In the centre, concrete terraces and grass banking overlooked a small amphitheatre. There was no show, but that did not stop people sitting on the terracing and carefully watching a space where nothing was happening.

Watching nothing in the park, Connaught Place

After a stroll in the park we made our way to one of the many entrances to Rajiv Chowk metro station. It is only here in the centre of New Delhi that the metro dives underground, and we descended into the huge station at the intersection of two of the city’s three metro lines.

We worked out where we wanted to go and acquired a ticket, or more precisely a plastic token with a magnetic strip that opens the barriers, and descended into the bowels of the earth.

Efforts have been made to educate Delhiites in metro etiquette and to persuade them not to push onto a train as soon as it arrives, but to wait at the side for people to get off first - a distinctly unIndian way to behave. Our train arrived full to capacity, if not beyond. Rajiv Chowk is the place to see and be seen on a Sunday afternoon so there were maybe a thousand to get off and a hundred to get on.  It would have been a bigger test the other way round, but the education does seem to be working.

The trains are modern, there are announcements for every station and a map which lights up to show where you are and where you are going. I had to stand all the way, it was only five stops and no great hardship, but a Sikh man got up and offered Lynne his seat, so there are gentlemen still in Delhi, even if they are thin on the ground elsewhere.

We had several hours to kill before heading for the main line station and the overnight train to Varanasi. We did a little shopping to equip ourselves with a picnic for the evening, visiting the bakery we had identified the day before. We spent some time in a coffee shop and explored the local park, maintained by the neighbourhood’s senior citizens’ forum.

The Park, Patel Nagar

Later Mohammed – who had made all our ground arrangements – arrived with a car and took us to the railway station. Last year our guide Joe had warned us that Hanoi station would be ‘chaostic.’ Actually it was relatively calm, but we liked the word, and New Delhi station gave us a chance to use it. Thousands of people were eddying around in the concourse, and once Mohammed had ascertained the platform, we joined the torrent pouring through the barrier, not that there was a barrier as such, the great tide of people had swept it aside, along with its metal detector.

We were soon installed in our compartment on the Magadh Express, which left at precisely 20.10, right on time, for the scheduled eleven and an half hour trip to Mughal Sarai, a small town some 20 km from Varanasi.

* elderly begins at 70, dammit, and I reserve the right to change that upwards in a few years’ time.

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