Saturday, 9 July 2011

Day 150: Red Fought (27/06/2011)

Mumbai may be bigger but Delhi surpasses it in terms of sheer wilful chaos and historical wonder.

Following an excellent Indigo flight we were bustled into a sandwich delivery van and hurled headlong into the Delhi traffic. After another exemplary illustration in the art of improbable collision avoidance, I shook our driver’s remaining hand, called him a lunatic and gave him 100 rupees on top of the fare for getting us to the Wood Castle guest house, both alive and in one piece, which to be fair to him, were not actually stipulated requirements at the outset.

Wood Castle gleamed with yet more freshly laid white marble. In the basement resided the relaxation room and descending the staircase from the heat of the small foyer was like easing into a swimming pool. The cold air conditioned atmosphere had nowhere to go and pooled like water that lapped around our ankles and knees as we took our first steps down into it.

Striking out into the Delhi midday sun, we began to wilt by the first corner but once on the new Commonwealth Games inspired metro, the air-con did more than enough to compensate for the crush of Indians that use it. With 8.5 million passenger movements a day, and a chronic traffic congestion problem, you cannot begin to imagine how the city functioned before the metro.

If Mumbai is the rational, empirical, colonial son, then Delhi is the family's mad uncle. A shaman rattling bones and waving feathers but carrying a silver tipped walking stick and wearing a battered top hat.

Nowhere is the madness more apparent than Chandni Chowk, meaning Moonlight Place on account of the canal that used to run down it. It is a shopping street where anything is for sale. To walk down its roadside colonnades is to be relentlessly engaged in turn, by the casual, the persuasive, the aggressive and the desperate. Stallholders and shoppers of every strata of Delhi society operate in this maelstrom of colour and sound. At regular intervals, the hiss of a gas burner heralds a street food stall. Huge woks of oil fizz with frying samosas and dumplings. Rice is piled high and a pinch of spice accompanies every hand held meal, wrapped in a chapatti.

Eschewing the tantalising but bacteriologically hyper-active street food, we sat down to a 90 rupee, all you can eat Thali at Andhra Bhawan canteen. Technically it is the Andhra Bank’s works canteen but all are welcome and they serve thousands of meals a day. Four plate re-fills later, we squeezed out of the surprisingly narrow doorway and into the afternoon heat to inspect the second greatest work of Shah Jaman, the architect of the Taj Mahal.

The Red Fort, named after its sandstone, the colour of dried blood, dominates the eastern end of Chandni Chowk. Built on an epic scale, its walls are 70 feet high and its gates still seem impregnable to all but the heaviest artillery. It was the scene of the fall of the Mughal Empire, when in 1857 the Indian Mutiny came within a hair’s breadth of expelling the British. The spark was allegedly set by a British officer’s insistence that the Hindu troops bite off a percussion cap on bullets that had been greased with cow fat. The Muslim troops believed it was pig fat. Each group were incensed and British military intransigence triggered revolt.

Whether by design or accident, the rebellion coalesced around an old and unwilling Mughal Emperor, Badar Shah, and drew in 80% of the native regiments. The British were outgunned and outnumbered. A must read on the subject is William Dalrymple’s account, ‘The Last Mughal’. The British were in no position to quell the uprising until internecine squabbles between Hindu and Muslim soldiers divided the movement and the fort was retaken.

In some dilapidation, even by the time of the uprising, the walls of the fort accommodated what had become imperial slums where the numerous and impoverished descendants of the Mughal line lived. The once mighty Mughal empire was in terminal decline and would have fallen in any event, to rival forces from the Punjab or Rajasthan, if not the British.

The moat is empty and the palace gardens are dominated by former British garrison barracks but the mosques, bath houses and palaces remain in reasonable enough order to give an impression of the opulence of the Mughals at the peak of their powers.

One can only imagine the path that history would have taken, had the Indian’s been capable of overcoming their own bitter religious differences, at any time before the Mutiny of 1857 or for that matter, the Partition of 1947.

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