Saturday, 9 July 2011

Day 151: Bold, Old Delhi (28/06/2011)

Delhi is hot and humid in the monsoon and we roamed the Old City in search of relief.

Purana Qila is a walled complex of what were once mosques, libraries and palaces. Built by the Afghan Emperor, Sher Shah during his brief conquest between 1538 and 1545, he promptly lost control again to Humayan, who he had defeated. Ironically, Shah should have been grateful for his eviction. Humayan slipped on the steps of his re-acquired library, and sustaining a head injury, soon died.

The red sandstone structures stand in parkland, like a disparate herd of grazing giants. They have wonderful detail and inlaid white marble that catches the light. Perfectly preserved despite war and the predations of local people scavenging for building materials, they illustrate several things. They were sufficiently well built to withstand the ages and they were locally respected even when abandoned. There is little of the European and Mediterranean tendency for incoming potentates to deface or demolish a predecessor’s works, mainly because Indian conquerors seem to lack the narcissistic desire to emblazon every structure with their credentials.

Later, as the afternoon monsoon rains deluged onto the marble courtyard, we were taken under the wing of a temple official at the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. Delhi’s largest Sikh temple is an unostentatious marble box, topped by a bushel of golden onion domes. Doffing shoes and donning orange head scarves, we entered the temple and sat absorbing the musical expression of Sikh worship. The Ten Gurus wrote in a musical medium of divine worship, devoid of icons and affectation. The result is an atmosphere in the temple more akin to a bustling community centre than a temple as we might know it, where ragamuffins sit comfortably on the carpeted floor alongside the more well-heeled.

The rain abated and we gazed up at the orange flag pole that towers over the temple to advertise the location, and strolled amiably amongst the bathing devotees at the giant water tank behind the temple. A white heron perched on the low wall around the tank, watching and waiting for the resident carp to surface. Sikhism is a friendly and welcoming faith but it has a severe aspect. The temple is guarded by spear bearers who exercise authority in an old fashioned way. They are the very picture of the 16th century Afghan warrior, with thick grey beards, huge, intricate blue turbans and rough buttoned tunics. The spears are very real weapons and Sikhs carry a ceremonial knife and scabbard. A young miscreant who was misbehaving in the tank received swift and rough justice as the guard cuffed him about the ear, first for the offence, and then harder for the backchat that followed.

Outside, shopping touts offer free rick-shaw rides in the hope of enticing you to one of a thousand different shopping opportunities. The commission that they receive for the introduction has corrupted the natural order of things. Tourists are cash rich, sacred cows, to be treated as a valued commodity and a captive resource in equal measure. There is never a rick-shaw journey or a stroll through the streets that is not accompanied by the hard sell of commission driven drivers. What proportion of their income is derived from commission rather than fares is anybody’s guess, but the stall holders and shopkeepers are in resentful thrall to them and the commission that they pay is a curse that is both self-perpetuating and ultimately a fruitless addition to the price paid by the tourist shopper.

In suburbia the Qutb Mina towers over the residential scene. A free standing minaret and tower of victory, it is a 72m tower of epic proportions. Exquisitely carved in red, golden and white sandstone and marble, it rises  five giant stories into the sky and is surrounded by a complex of arches and corridors and a superlative domed mosque. Built from 1193 onwards it represents the height of Afghan arcitecture at a time when they are regarded as capable of so little. It has survived wars, successive empires and earthquakes and stands like a sandstone version of an Apollo rocket. Like the Afghans, it is waiting to launch.

Rounding off a hot, busy day, we visited the head injured Humayum’s Tomb which is said to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Once again in red sandstone with white marble inlay, the similarities are immediately apparent. From the square block base rises a massive and breath-taking dome. Photographs from the mid-19th century show a haunting monochrome landscape, dominated by the tomb. The gardens were re-instated by the British and the Aga Khan has recently attended to the full refurbishment of the buildings, gardens and decorative watercourses.

You cannot fail but to marvel at Delhi's heritage in a way that leaves Mumbai looking distinctly - something.

New, perhaps?

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