Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Birla Temple, Delhi

Seeing the Birla Temple on a bright day can be quite surreal. The spires silhouetted against the sky remind me of vimanas, the celestial flying cities of Indian mythology. You can almost believe the temple floated down from the clouds, and landed lightly...and that it will take off again.

And then you look at the cars on the road. And the people standing in queues. And your imagination gets grounded with a bump!

So - anyway - why do I like the Birla Temple? Well, for starters, it's hard to dislike something that says 'Everyone is welcome' on its gate. None of Hinduism's upper-caste nonsense here! Anyone can come in, listen to the calming sound of prayer, see the deities, and admire the architecture.

It's a funny sort of architecture, in my view. Red and white and creamy yellow? Where did that come from? If you explore the temple a little, you'll also discover kitschy statues of elephants and monkeys and snakes and goddesses on lotuses.

I can't help thinking wistfully of the stone masterpieces of Orissa. Can you see the stunning architectural style that forms the original inspiration behind the Birla Temple? I guess then, you can also see why the Birla Temple makes me wince a little, every time I pass by.

But I shouldn't be wincing. Birla is a modern temple, for modern times! In the first place, it is clean, much cleaner than most temples I've seen. The cleanliness would have pleased Gandhi, who inaugurated the temple.

As for architecture, the Birla Temple does have a sort of beauty of its own, mainly because its blends Orissan temple style with the Mughal style. Its peculiar fascination with red-and-white is definitely Mughal. And perhaps you've already noticed the semi-Mughal arches at the entrance and on some windows.

Oh, and there's another interesting thing about the temple: although it is dedicated to Vishnu (one of the central gods in the Hindu Trinity), it also has a large Buddhist shrine.

What? You didn't know the Buddha was a Hindu god?

Here's a popular folk toy representation of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, starting with the fish-incarnation on the left. See the orange guy on the right? Surely half a billion people can't be wrong? :)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Business as usual

The day was blindingly hot. In Old Delhi, it was business as usual.
Carts were being loaded with heavy gunnybags.

As one set of carts were loaded, new carts were wheeled in.

Work progressed at its own pace.
Tea was drunk, the newspaper read and discussed.

Some dozed in the shade (Shade? It was still hot as hell.)

Photo-sessions provided amusement.
(Who *are* these silly women and why are they photographing me?)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The women of Delhi

Wandering around Delhi with a camera can be rewarding. These are photos of 'ordinary' women, but I found something arresting in all of them.

At the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. She had the most no-nonsense face I've seen in recent times.

Possibly the girl's mother?

Waiting at Dilli Haat - there was something regal about her.

She turned, saw the camera and smiled. It completely transformed her.

Quiet stubborn face at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara

Check out her confidence! Whoever said Indian women were meek as mice?

This one will break hearts when she grows up.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

And the chilli conquers India

Every Indian woman knows this simple truth: the chilli rules the kitchen. Ground into paste, or sprinkled as powder, red and green chillies are the secret weapons of every Indian cook.

But did you know that before the Portuguese brought it to India, no one in India ever used chillies?

Seems unbelievable - but apparently, before Vasco da Gama came along and changed everything, we used
pippali, long pepper - and not chillies.

Long pepper is a strange looking thing (reminds me of a rattlesnake's tail, actually). It is native to Bengal, and in the sixteenth century, it also grew wild on the Malabar coast. According to the French trader Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, long pepper used to be thrown into Muslim pulaos 'by the handful'. It was used not just in cooking, but also in ayurveda as a cure for impotency (I'm not surprised).

So how did long pepper lose the battle to the chilli? Chillies had several advantages - they tasted similar to long pepper, but were easier to grow, and they weren't subject to mould. What's more, they were really cheap. For the vast majority of peasants, that made the chilli a really attractive proposition. So it was a price war, and at the end of it, long pepper went the way of the dodo. Even ayurvedic physicians supplanted it with chillies in their concoctions.

Barely 30 years after Vasco da Gama set foot in India, locals were enthusiastically growing chillies on the Western coast (they were called Gowai mirchi, suggesting that they were originally grown in Goa). From there, chillies spread to South India, and then to the North. Long pepper is now, I suspect, only used in some arcane vegetable pickles. I've certainly never seen it in local markets.

The spice markets, instead, are full of different varieties of red chillies. Try walking into Khari Baoli, and you'll see what I mean. At the spicy end of the spectrum there's Birds Eye from the eastern parts of India, and the cleverly named Jwala (Flame) from Gujarat. There's the Kashmiri Mirchi, which is prized for the red colour it gives to food, and the small fat Gundu from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In general, the rule is, if the chilli is small and sharp and wicked looking, then it's probably hot as hell. Bigger, fatter chillies are less spicy, for example, the Tomato Chilly from Warangal.

The other pepper that was widely used in Indian cuisine - and which didn't lose the battle to Vasco da Gama's chilli - is black pepper, kali mirch.

Black pepper is still a traditional ingredient in several dishes. For breakfast today, I had South Indian rice pongal - rice flavoured with cumin and whole black pepper. If ever you go into a South Indian restaurant, ask for pongal. Remember that it's one of the few 'authentic' Indian dishes that you'll find!

Anyway – authentic or otherwise - Indian food is now booby-trapped with green and red chillies. So here’s a survival tip just in case you bite into one of them. What you've always suspected is right - water doesn't help. You're better off sipping cold milk, or eating an ice-cream, because they contain casein, a protein that breaks down the capsaicin in the chilli.

God save you though, if you grab a bite of this - Naga Jolokia, the hottest chilli in the world. All the ice cream in the world won't help.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Tamerlane and the War Elephants of Delhi

In December 1398, the prosperous city of Delhi saw the arrival of the dreaded Timur-e-Lang, Timur the Lame. He came as a marauder, to loot and pillage.

It was nothing new. The Mongols had been making incursions south of the Indus for almost two centuries. But this time, they were led by a seasoned warrior, a man with a fearsome military reputation.

Timur's army had heard of the legendary Indian war-elephants. Heavily armoured, tusks bound with swords, these giants struck fear into the hearts of Timur's soldiers.

But Timur's battle plans were ingenious. He dug himself into safe trenches, and planted in the ground, stakes armed with metal spikes.

He gave his cavalry caltrops to cripple elephants. The caltrops had four metal spikes, and were designed such that one spike always pointed upwards. His horsemen were taught to engage with elephants, encourage the elephants to chase them, and then drop the caltrops in their paths. The iron spikes would embed themselves in the soft feet of the elephants, hobbling and crippling them.

But cleverest of all was Timur's ingenious scheme to frighten the elephants into a panic. Bales of dry grass were tied to the backs of buffaloes and camels. These were then driven towards the elephants, and at the last minute, the bales were set on fire. The panic-stricken buffaloes and camels dashed madly among the elephants. Infected by their fear, and confused by the heat and smoke, the war elephants went on a confused rampage, causing death and destruction among their own army.

Timur's battle tactics were devastatingly effective. Delhi's huge army of horses, elephants and foot-soldiers was routed in a single day. Mallu Khan, the noble who ruled Delhi under Sultan Muhammed II, fled. So did the Sultan.

The next morning, Timur marched triumphant into Delhi's Jahanpanah Fort. A hundred captured war elephants were paraded and made to bow to him, trumpeting their humility. Their antics pleased Timur; who ordered the elephants sent back to his native Samarkand, accompanied by Delhi's best artisans.

Delhi was sacked; its inhabitants killed and enslaved.
In the Tuzk-e-Timur, the Memoirs of Timur, he himself records the slaughter:
"One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were on that day slain. The sword of Islam was washed in the blood of the infidels and all the goods and effects, the treasure and grain which for many a long year had been stored in the fort, became the spoil of my soldiers."

The elephants arrived in Samarkand, laden with gems, gold and booty. A grand mosque was built in thanksgiving. Since Timur was nomadic and lived in a tent, the elephants, painted red and green, became exotic and grand guardians of Timur's tents.