Saturday, December 25, 2010

Hanuman Mandir, Delhi

Among the most popular temples in Delhi is this one - Hanuman Mandir, dedicated to the monkey god.

As temples go, I find this structure pretty ugly. Look at the incongruous metal and cement structures jutting out from the temple. They are an aesthetic disaster in architectural style and materials. There's a ramshackle plastic-sheet covered structure in the right foreground; not to mention several others to the left of the temple. An electricity tower on the right, and a crooked signboard, detract further from the serene feeling that a temple should evoke. In the photo below, clicked from a different angle, there's also an ugly building on the left with the clothes hanging out to dry.

These photos are clicked during the afternoon, when the temple is closed. If you go during temple hours, the place is crowded and chaotic. Combined with the ugliness of the buildings, I find that Hanuman Mandir has none of the spirituality that I want from a place of worship.

When you look at the astounding beauty of India's older temples, I wonder how we ended up with this kind of ugliness. It's not just Delhi - this is the sort of mess you see all over the country, whether it is Mathura-Brindavan, Haridwar, or Varanasi.

I am tempted to put forth a thesis here - that as long as we were building with stone and wood, and basing our construction on the shilpa-shastras, our aesthetics were exemplary. But when modern materials came our way - cement and glass and plastic - and when we stepped out of proven architectural guidelines, we started to produce extraordinarily ugly and depressing structures.

If you go back to the first photo in this article, you'll see that behind the horrible red and green facade, the temple itself looks nice, because, thank God, it's built largely based on traditional architecture.

So - should temples be static? Should temple design continue to reflect old practices, with no "modernisation"? When you look at the newly built Akshardham, you're tempted to say yes. Akshardham is stunningly beautiful, because the architecture is traditional, and it is executed in traditional materials.

But then again, if you look at the Baha'i Lotus Temple, you'll see that the design is undoubtedly modern, and so are the materials, but the end effect is of serenity and peace.

What this tells me, then, is that it doesn't really matter whether temple architecture is old or modern, Western or Indian. What matters is whether the architecture is coherent or not. What matters is that the people who build and run temples pay attention to aesthetics, or at least, understand better, the relationship between aesthetics and spirituality. Our sages understood this very well, building their retreats and hermitages in places of natural beauty. Kings and emperors built temples on hilltops, set amongst greenery. Even large temples complexes inside cities were beautiful, because they were walled enclosures, that created a spiritual haven inside.

Today, temple trusts all over India lack this sort of attention to beauty. As temples become more popular, their trusts, with a view to creating new amenities, or adding new admin blocs, play havoc with the structural composition of the original temple. Contracts are awarded to local builders, and I am sure there is a lot of graft. The end result is a hotch-potch of downright ugly structures.

Fortunately for temple authorities, the public doesn't care about beauty or cleanliness. People throng routinely to the dirtiest of temples, because they believe in the power of the specific God that supposedly resides there. The area outside Hanuman Mandir, for instance, is home to several beggars and wastrels. Partly-eaten food from roadside stalls is strewn about. There are street dogs, mendicants, astrologers, henna vendors, and stalls selling religious kitsch. It's more like a mela or marketplace than a temple. But that doesn't stop the long queues at the temple, especially on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which are popular days for worship of Hanuman.

Temple timings:
Saturdays: Between 5:00 a.m. and midnight
Tuesdays: Between 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.
Other days of the week: 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

If you plan to visit the temple on a Tuesday or a Saturday, be prepared for a long wait. And when you get to the sanctum for darshan, add a little prayer that some day, our temples become places of beauty once again.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dehati Pustak Bhandar in Old Delhi

If you walk along Chawri Bazaar, then you can't miss this corner bookshop: Dehati Pustak Bhandar.

They're more than just a bookshop, really. Dehati Pustak Bhandar (DBP) is among Delhi's most well-known Hindi publishing houses. They also produce books in English.

Busy mid-morning at Dehati Pustak Bhandar

When I passed by the shop, they were doing brisk business. Several people were crowding with lists of orders, and the sales staff were busy hunting up books.

DPB is nearly 75 years old. The owners are Aggarwals, one of India's traditional business communities. As a first-generation entrepreneur, I admire any family-owned business that can survive for seven decades. It tells me not only that the baton is being passed successfully from one generation to the next; but also that each generation is evolving to keep the business in synch with their times.

In the publishing business, with changing customer tastes, I'm sure things can't be easy. But DBP seems to have got it right. At the heart of their business is the huge lower-middle class Hindi speaking populace; for whom they produce not just text books and technical literature, but also religious stuff, detective novels and everything else under the sun.

The primary sales are from technical books. Many of these are useful "How to" books in Hindi, teaching various skills, from welding to repairing tractors to wielding a lathe. Some of these are used as textbooks by those studying for diplomas in engineering. They are not expensive; and prices start at as low as Rs 30, and go up to Rs 300 for some of the fat books.
Three books that each train you for a specific trade

Here's a look at some other interesting books that caught my eye:

Cool stuff, huh? I love the cover design of the gemstones book; it reminds me of old Bollywood posters.

Clearly all these books are designed (and priced) with a specific audience in mind. I'm not sure how their English-language books are faring; but it's obvious that they're taking their skills at producing low-priced Hindi books, and using it to also mop-up the cost conscious segment of English readers. It's good to find a publishing company that knows what it's doing.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Life in Delhi under the Last Mughal

I have been reading Dalrymple again; in particular his description of Delhi in the mid-1800's. What an interesting period it was!

During the reign of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Delhi was a city of learning and arts; there was patronage for poetry and painting, great colleges flourished.

But to me, the most interesting feature is that under Zafar, the citizens of Delhi, both Hindus and Muslims, seem to have lived a life without undue religious coercion and fear.

Upper class Hindus, says Dalrymple "went to the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin, could quote Hafiz, and were fond of Persian poetry". Hindu children from the administrative Khatri and Kayastha classes studied under maulvis. Among the most popular local festivals was the Sair-e-Gul Faroshan (Phoolwalon ki Sair), a festival where Mughal royalty made offerings at both a popular dargah and a temple in Mehrauli.

For many generations, the Mughals had married Hindus; Bahadur Shah Zafar himself had a Rajput mother. He had a team of Hindu astrologers who advised him on many matters; and he followed the old Mughal custom (borrowed from Hinduism) of drinking only water from the Ganges. The Hindu festivals of Holi and Dussera were celebrated in the Red Fort; the burning of the Ravan effigy in the city during Dussera was watched by the Emperor himself.

I do not quite know how to describe this sort of life; a sort of fluid co-mingling of religions. I do not want to use clich├ęs about "harmonious" Hindu-Muslim reality, the two communities led distinct and separate lives, but there was a meeting and coming together; some for fleeting moments and some for longer intervals.

It reminds me of my school biology lessons, where we drew shapes of cell fusion. Maybe that's the best way to describe life in Delhi in those days. Cell A and Cell B lived together, each maintaining a separate identity. But there were meeting points. Some meeting points, like the bazaars, were physical places, where communities interacted. Some were events and festivals, where the populace came together to celebrate something or pray for similar boons. For a short while, then, at these points of contact, there was fusion, and then the cells went back to their original separate state.

But eventually, the two cells started resembling each other in many ways. In matters of food, fashion and clothing, architecture, and ornamentation, there was a great mingling of cultures. Muslim women pierced their noses, after the fashion of Hindus. Muslims lit diyas on the tombs of saints, a practice followed in Hindu temples. They sang songs at shrines, and consulted Hindu holy men and astrologers. Although there was a core that would never change (and even today, these cores remain different), there was definitely a lot of fluidity and intermingling.

This tolerant state of affairs continued with the support of the Emperor, but in parallel, there were also other less liberal influences. A more orthodox form of Sunni Islam, supported by rich Muslim businessmen from the Punjab, had taken root in Delhi.

This version of Islam had found its way into Delhi in the 1700's under Shah Wali Allah; and was propagated further by his sons. Shah Wali Allah was born at a time when the Mughal empire was in a state of political decline; and he believed that this was because the court had become corrupt and debauched (and certainly anyone looking at the pleasure loving folks that ran the Mughal Empire could be excused for thinking so!).

Shah Wali Allah believed that Muslim downfall was because people had stopped adhering to the pure tenets of Islam. So he advocated a simpler, purer life, a "Return to the Koran", so to speak. He translated the Koran into Persian to facilitate its understanding among all the Muslims of India (this is believed to be the first complete translation of the Koran from the Arabic by an Indian Muslim scholar).

By the mid-1800's Shah Wali Allah's brand of Sunni Islam was firmly entrenched in Delhi, and it was directly in conflict with Bahadur Shah Zafar's brand of Sufism.

And then - setting fire to the tinderbox, perhaps - in the 1840's and 1850's, a new breed of pious Evangelicals descended upon India. In Delhi, they were represented by the zealous Padre Jennings (an unpopular man by all accounts). He arrived in Delhi in 1852, full of religious bigotry, and famously declared that he would spare no efforts to spread the Christian faith. "A strong attack must be made somewhere," he said, "and I hope we shall see it made here".

For the first few months, he made no headway, but then the first conversions began, and it created ripples of alarm in the Sunni circles. Earlier, the officers of the British East India Company had freely mixed with the Mughal courtiers, and several had married Muslim women. They spoke fluent Hindustani, some spoke Persian as well; and they had close relationships with their sepoys. But the new breed of Company servants were influenced by the Evangelical brand of fanaticism; and soon began to veer away from all ties with "heathens", severing the close relationships they had with their own troops and sepoys.

St. James Church, where the first baptisms took place in Delhi under Padre Jennings

Thus the stage was set for a clash between not just Christianity and Islam in India; but also between the Company Sarkar and its Hindu sepoys, leading to the great uprising of 1857, and the end of the Mughal dynasty. In 1858, the British razed the Al Rahimia madrasa of Shah Wali Allah to the ground, bent on stamping out every trace of it.

But from the ashes of that fire rose the Deobandi movement, formed in 1867. It is an orthodox and strict interpretation of Islam, which continues to influence life in India and Pakistan. The Deobandi branches of Pakistan have traditionally been the hotspots for the jihadi movement; and many of the Afghan Taliban have been schooled in Deobandi madrasas.

And so, the death of the last Mughal ruler was not just the death of an empire, but also of state patronage for a more pacifist, liberal, tolerant form of Islam. More's the pity, I say.

Fortunately, even without state patronage, Sufism is alive and kicking. The powerful mystic call of Sufism remains a common thread that unites Indians and Pakistanis; and can be seen in the many popular Sufi shrines that dot both countries.

Quwwals still sing at Nizamuddin Dargah, which Bahadur Shah Zafar visited often

Here, in these shrines, the sound of music continues to resonate, and the faithful of all religions continue to flock to seek blessings. If you want to hear a fantastic example of the songs of the Sufis, you must listen to the maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Here is one of his live performances; the music is uplifting and appeals across all borders.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

After the Games - the slums of Delhi

The Delhi Commons Website has this humorous (and very apt) badge illustrating the state of Delhi in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games.

Anyone who has experienced the city's nightmarish traffic and dug-up roads for the past few years will tell you how very well this sketch represents what's happened in Delhi. Now that the games are upon us, I can only pray this effort was worth it.

To build all this infrastructure, over 400,000 migrant workers have made the capital their home (see photo series here). No one really knows what will become of these workers once the games are over. Some will go back, no doubt, to their villages. But I'm guessing many will stay back, adding to Delhi's slum population.

The exact size of Delhi's slum population is a bit of a hit-and-miss guess. Of the total population of about 20 million (National Capital Region), there's one scary estimate that says 52% live in slums. Another estimate says that Delhi's slum population is growing at a rate which is 4.5 times that of its non-slum population.

If this continues - with large scale additions such as the Games - we are soon going to see a city that is mostly slums.

Delhi Settlements Classification: Source Economic Survey of Delhi: 2001-2002
This table shows both slum as well as non-slum settlements in Delhi.

According to this table above, slums made up half of Delhi's population 10 years ago, and I can only imagine that it has gotten worse since then.

Delhi's slums are not a homogenous mass. Researchers, writers and government departments recognise that Delhi's slums are of different types:

  • Jhuggi/Jhopri settlements - these account for the bulk of the slums in Delhi; they are illegal squatters on public or private land. The primary characteristic is that the houses are makeshift and 'kutcha', since they have no land rights and constantly fear eviction. Unlike Mumbai, where there are dense slum clusters like Dharavi, Delhi's jhuggi clusters are widely dispersed, and can be found near railways tracks, nullahs/streams, parks, river banks, and some roads. The typical squatter settlement has about 100 families; larger ones have upto 300. They are often organised along caste/community affiliations.
  • Slum designated areas - Many of these are 'katras' in the walled city (Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi). The walled city was designed to hold 60,000 people, but it holds several times that number. These areas have been specifically notified under the Slum Areas Improvement and Clearance Act.
  • Urban and Rural Villages - Delhi has several such zones; places that started out as villages but have gotten absorbed into the city as the limits of the city have grown. I have classified these under slums because conditions here are slum-like, with low incomes, poor access to water and sanitation, as well as low literacy levels. There are 135 such villages in Delhi; but not all are poor. The photo below is from Khirki Village, where this family lives in a broken down structure that is a remnant of a village home.
  • Resettlement colonies - these are slum dwellers who have been resettled from their original location to new approved locations such as Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Kichripur etc. Resettlement began in 1961 in Delhi. Earlier, it was easy to resettle slums, because prior to 1970, there were only about 40,000 slum households to be resettled. As the city's slum population has grown, resettlement has become impossible. But the existing resettlement colonies have better access to infrastructure than the slums; and with land rights secured, they have invested in improving their living conditions.
So much for the slums. Apart from slums, we have two more classifications that are very interesting:
  • Unauthorised Colonies - These are not really slums, but they are illegal all the same. There are nearly 1700 colonies where agricultural or forest land has been grabbed illegally; and houses constructed and sold. Typically there is a mafia at work, which is in cahoots with the police and the authorities. These colonies create an unregulated demand for water and power; often borewells are illegally constructed and water tables in the adjoining areas are depleted. There's a whole section of the Delhi Department of Urban Development devoted to managing these colonies.
  • Authorised Unauthorised Colonies - Several of the unauthorised colonies have now been "regularised" in populist moves, leading to this funny-sounding new category.
And then, *finally* we come to the Planned Colonies, which form about 25% of Delhi's population. This 25% then, represents the people of Delhi who live in places other than slums, urban/rural villages and illegal constructions. This 25% is made up of all the government babus, the middle and upper-middle class, as well as those living in upscale bungalows and big condominium apartments.

Scary, huh? To think that 75% of the city is either in a slum or in some other form of badly provisioned or illegal habitation? In all the "prettification" and "world-class-ification" leading up to the Games, this is a very sobering thought.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Let there be light

Living in a city, I take electricity for granted. City roads are brightly lit at night, restaurants are packed with smiling diners, traffic moves busily, and headlights cast shining beams everywhere.

I don't think about "light".

It's just there.

But last month, I spent a night at a desert "dhaani" - a small hamlet, with no electricity. When the sun went down, I realised I was in a completely different world.

Gemar Singh's dhani. No electric poles, no wires anywhere.

See the small solar panel sticking out at the top? It provides just enough to power his cell phones and computer, and to charge the batteries of his 3-4 lanterns. His neighbours are simpler folks, but Gemar - who runs a travel company and a homestay - has learned to harness technology. Unfortunately, the solar panels aren't powerful enough to provide more light than the small lanterns.

Cooking while there's still daylight

We got to the dhaani by 4:00 p.m. After tea, we began preparations for dinner while there was still daylight. We cooked using water frugally - I think we must have used about two litres of water in all, including washing vegetables, cleaning the utensils before cooking, etc.

Spending just an hour with a family in the desert teaches you the value of water like nothing else can. My daughter's school keeps running campaigns to teach schoolchildren to turn off taps at home...but really, what every city dweller needs is to go spend a night in the desert. You'll come back changed.

In Gemar's dhaani, there are no government-laid pipes that bring water. Instead, he arranges for water to be brought on camel carts whenever supplies run low. The water is free, but he pays for it to be transported. Gemar stores the water in a covered underground tank that he has built. Why underground? To prevent evaporation, of course.

As we cooked, the light started to fade.

Rawal Singh, Gemar's little boy (who was also Commander-in-Chief of Potatoes!), ran in and out of the kitchen all through the evening. At the door to the kitchen, you can see the slop pail. Water that we used to wash vegetables and dishes was poured into the pail. Later, this water is not wasted, but is given to livestock, or used to water plants.

Glorious sunset

With the last bits of light going, darkness descended inside our little cooking hut. Meanwhile, we had reached the final stage, the making of rotis. For this part, we switched from the gas stove to a traditional firewood oven.

Cooking on a traditional firewood "choolha"

The choolha was lit with firewood collected from the surrounding countryside. One large piece of wood provided the basic heat, while smaller sticks were fed from time to time to raise the heat whenever the flames went low. Firewood cooking produces fantastic food, but it also creates a lot of heat and smoke. Much has been written about the potential health fallouts of long exposure to wood smoke inside kitchens.

Gemar Singh sitting in the courtyard outside the kitchen.

By this time, it had become really dark both outside and inside; and I could no longer photograph anything without the flash on my camera. We ate in the courtyard under the moon, a simple, delicious meal, made all the more tasty because I had participated and watched the cooking. Later, Gemar brought out the desserts - the goodies he bought from Jodhpur - and we ended the meal with sweet memories.

And then it was time to sleep - the day ends early when there is no electricity! No television, laptops, no other distracting gadgets - so my husband and I just admired the stars, sent up thanks for the lovely cool breeze, and went to bed.

Little yellow lantern in our hut. Life-saver in the dark!

When morning came, I pushed open the door and stepped out into the daylight. I actually smiled when I saw the sun, and said to my husband, hey, daylight's here, let's make the most of it! And we set off early to see the nearby sand dunes. I tell you, I won't take light for granted any time soon :)

Sand dunes near Gemar's house at 7:30 a.m.

If you would like to visit this part of Rajasthan, and stay with Gemar Singh, please let me know. He runs a sustainable tourism initiative that supports local communities, and it is a great way to understand desert life. He's roped in a local team of cameleers, and they also organise camping. You can choose to stay in a hut like we did (I slept outside the hut for part of the night, under the stars), or camp out in a tent at the nearby dunes.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I discover a world of anklets and toe rings

I'm just back from another trip to Rajasthan, and I've brought back some keepsakes - silver toe rings and a chunky silver anklet. I bought them from the airport shop in Jodhpur. Stupid, I know, because everyone knows an airport shop is overpriced. But they were irresistible, you know?

You see, all through my two Rajasthan trips this month - and through previous trips - I have been looking at the local women and their feet. And their anklets have me completely mesmerised.

Like this Rabari woman, so confidently striding past me with her camels. On her feet she wore torn canvas shoes; but above them were solid anklets of silver. Two anklets on each foot, with a solid-sounding clink.

And check out these women at the "haunted" town of Bhangarh - the older woman wore a thick anklet that was welded together, she said they would never come off as long as she lived. I have never seen toe rings like the ones she wore either, they were on her big toe.

More recently, I found these cute small toe rings peeping from under the skirt of this lady near Osiyan.

At Rohet, I met this Bishnoi elderly woman, with a weather-beaten anklet.

Even the little girls have anklets on their feet. This pair of sisters are from a shepherd's family near Jodhpur.

On the highway from Delhi to Agra, at the restroom of Maharaja restaurant, this sweeper woman had jingling anklets, and shiny toe rings.

Close-up of her feet. They say the French woman announces herself with perfume. The Indian woman, you can hear her presence before you see her.

And check out this woman with the red skirt at the Clock Tower market in Jodhpur. See the anklet on that jaunty foot?

With all that silver around me, clinking and jingling, how on earth was I to resist ? I gave in, and I have to say, I'm delighted with the results.

This little bit of Rajasthan is going to stay with me, folks!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I learn about the Trees of Delhi

Every time I drive past the shady avenues of Lutyens Delhi, I look at the trees lining the roads, and wonder what they are.

Are they local trees, native to Delhi, planted in straight lines along the avenues when Imperial Delhi was created? Or have they been imported from elsewhere? When do they flower? How are they pollinated? What happens to the fruit? A zillion questions; and no answers!

This week, by some blessed chance, I spotted this book at an airport bookshop. Pradip Krishen's "Trees of Delhi" - a fantastic 360-page book of the most interesting tidbits and trivia. I am now a fan.

I discovered, through this book, that the trees in Delhi have wonderfully evocative names. In fact, they're lovely enough to invent an entirely new alphabet string for Delhi's schoolchildren!

A for the golden Amaltas
B for Lord Shiva's favourite Bael
C for the maple-like Chinar
D for the showy orange Dhak...

Ah, when am I going to learn all of them? But I'm determined to make a start! So here's where I'm beginning - with the big line of trees all along Rajpath and India Gate. Quite a fitting start, don't you think?

These beautiful dense green trees are rai-jamun (R for the blessedly tart Rai-Jamun! There! One letter done!).

Wondering what a rai-jamun is? It's a tree from the myrtle family, a species of flowering trees that grow widely around the world, primarily in Asia and Australia. It is evergreen in nature, which might explain why this sort of tree was chosen by the city planners to line this important road. If a deciduous tree had been chosen, it would shed its leaves in the scorching hot Delhi summers, you see? That would not have suited the British planners of Imperial Delhi, who definitely wanted a very green Delhi.

Here's a report from Captain George Swinton, Chairman of the Town Planning Committee, sent in 1912, referring to the creation of Imperial Delhi:

Trees will be everywhere, in every garden however small it may be, and along the sides of every roadway, and Imperial Delhi will be in the main a sea of foliage. It may be called a city, but it is going to be quite different from any city that the world has known.

Quite a vision, eh? So the evergreen rai-jamun found favour with the planners; whereas many other earlier Mughal garden favourites lost out.

Both rai-jamun and jamun were planted by the British. The rai-jamun was planted on Rajpath and India Gate; and the jamun, the most popular of the Lutyen's avenue trees, was planted on Tughlaq, Rajaji, Motilal Nehru, etc. In case you're wondering what the difference between jamun and rai-jamun is, here's a dummies guide :)

So if you walk past India Gate in August, you'll be eating the smaller jamuns! Every year the Delhi civic authorities auction the rights to collect fruits off the avenue trees. Fruits are either hand-picked or more popularly just shaken down (all fruits on a single tree don't ripen at the same time, so shaking makes sense). The jamunwallahs at India Gate sell it with chaat masala. Or is it kala namak? I'm not sure, so if you know what it is, then tell me!

Meanwhile, I'll just head back to my book and look up more trees. I can't think of a better way to spend Sunday :)

Friday, July 23, 2010

The oldest tomb in Delhi

Every time I drive around Delhi, the one thing that strikes me is sheer number of old tombs. Reminders of Delhi's Muslim elite - men and women, now long dead - appear around every corner of the road.

Some of Delhi's dead lie in grand edifices commissioned by wives or sons or faithful retainers; others sleep in humbler structures. Some sleep solo; others cluster together, sharing their resting place with family or even strangers. Some tombs are famous, others have crumbled, and even the names of the occupants have been lost.

Somewhat bewildered by the number of tombs around me, I went looking for the oldest one - and found myself caught up in the strange architecture of a tomb with a fanciful name - Sultan Ghari, or The Sultan's Cave.

Iltumish, the third and perhaps greatest emperor of the Slave Dynasty, built this strange looking octagonal tomb in 1231 for his son Nasiruddin Mahmud. I don't think I've ever seen anything in this shape anywhere else in Delhi, have you?

The local name for this tomb is Sultan Ghari i.e. the Sultan's Cave. The Arabic word ghaar means cave or crypt.

So where's the cave, you ask? It is under the octagon, of course. The body of Nasiruddin Mahmud is not buried in the octagon, but below it, in an underground chamber. The "floor" that you see (on which people are walking) is not really a floor, it is a platform raised of rubble, built to give the impression that the body is under the ground. A complicated lie, basically :) The slab that covers the octagon is the ceiling of the underground chamber. Now you see why they call it the Sultan's Cave?

If the octagonal raised crypt is unusual, so are its surrounds. The crypt sits inside what can only be described as a fortress.

Entrance to Sultan's Cave. If you peer through the entrance marble arch, you can see the octagon. This photo is from Prof Mortel's great collection of Delhi photos. Head over and take a look.

I'm not quite sure why Iltumish built a fortress, really. Maybe those were troubled times, or maybe he wanted a memorial for a victorious warrior son. Nasiruddin Mahmud helped Iltutmish conquer large swathes of Bengal, and ruled for 18 months as governor of Oudh, Bengal and Bihar. He was the oldest son and the heir-apparent. Had he not died, this was the empire he would have inherited.

The Empire of the Slave Dynasty extended from West to East. Nasiruddin expanded, consolidated and strengthened his father's empire in the East.

The courtyard surrounding Nasiruddin's octagonal crypt has a corridor, in which Iltumish reused pillars from Hindu temples. During this phase of Islamic construction, it is quite apparent that the builders were in a hurry, working with material already available.

Temple pillars with decorative elements chipped away. The corridor possibly served as a college or madrasa.

In the centre of the corridor is a prayer-niche of marble. The floor of this marble prayer-chamber contains the base of a shiva-lingam, pointing to the destruction of temples during the Sultanate (the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts has photos here in case you want a closer look)

During this phase of Islamic construction in Delhi, Hindu artisans worked on the monuments, and their lack of familiarity with Islamic architectural concepts led to many compromises. For example, roofs continued to be flat trabeate structures, spanned by beams and lintels, just as in Hindu temples. Although the doorways to Sultan Ghari were arched in keeping with traditional Islamic architecture, these were not "true" arches, and the workmen used corbels to create a "fake" arch.

Corbelled arch at Sultan Ghari.
A corbel is a piece of stone that juts out of a wall to carry the weight of something that rests on top of it.

After the death of Nasiruddin, Iltumish nominated his daughter Raziya as Sultan. She ruled for 4 years, before being killed in an uprising by her nobles (who wanted to raise one of her other brothers to the throne).

Raziya's grave, though, is a far cry from Nasiruddin's fortress tomb. For one, nobody is really sure where she is buried, and there are many conflicting stories. Some believe she is buried in Kaithal, Haryana. Others say her body was brought to Delhi and buried by the brother who succeeded her to the throne.

Razia Sultan's supposed grave in Turkman, Old Delhi. See interesting story here.

The site of Raziya's grave in Old Delhi is in a little lane, hemmed in by buildings on all sides. The Archaeological Survey of India has a little tablet here, which merely suggests that this is popularly believed to be where Raziya is interred. A part of the building has been converted to a small mosque. The second grave alongside is said to be that of her sister Shaziya; but local belief is that it is of her slave and lover.

Thus it goes on, tombs and graves in every nook and corner, reminding you that Delhi is a very old city with a lot of history. Indeed, were it not for the bustling noise of 15 million people who now live in Delhi, I would be tempted to label it a giant necropolis, a City of the Dead. I'm looking forward to unearthing more stories and secrets.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sports and other things that push my buttons

What is it with men and sports? :) My life is an unending set of matches these days.

Here I am, watching Vijay Amritraj spouting sage advice on Wimbledon. A little earlier we were watching football. In between there's cricket. It's no exaggeration to say that I'm going completely insane, endlessly watching grown men run, jump, throw, catch, kick, hit, lob, and volley.

Of all the games on TV, though, the one I don't mind watching is tennis.

You know why? Not because it is a more interesting sport. But because at least in tennis, the crowds are *quiet*. There's no hooting and shouting, no crazy humming vuvuzelas, no frenzied whipping up of mob sentiment, no ugly nationalism, and no silly dances by half naked women.

Tennis seems - dare I say it - a pastime for the civilized. There is the quiet announcement of the score, the clapping at the end of each point, the well-behaved boys and girls who pick up the balls with minimum fuss...and most blessed of all, the absolute silence when the serve begins. It all seems designed to ensure you enjoy the beauty of the game itself.

I suppose I am being elitist? So be it. I'm not apologetic. Who wants to listen to this nonsense for four hours in a day?

Actually, the more I look at my adverse reaction to football-mania, the more I realise that it is only a reflection of my intense dislike for mobs.

I. Absolutely. Detest. Mobs. Large groups of people hollering about anything - be it sports or religion - set my teeth on edge. Having lived through the enormous mind-numbing violence of communal riots, I have a deep-rooted hatred and fear of large groups of brainwashed people. Of course, sports fans are nothing like the super-crazy-mobs that religions unleash. But they still make me uncomfortable.

Sigh. Sorry to vent. The tennis match is ending now, and Nadal just won. The prize ceremony was set up with minimum fuss, less than five minutes after the last serve. Here he is, making his little speech.

I better go have dinner. That Wolverine movie is coming up soon. It's the husband's turn to put up with stuff now :)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Veggie heaven

Recently I saw this poster of a tiger for the Incredible India tourism campaign:
(Not all Indians are polite, hospitable and vegetarian)
I burst out laughing, thinking of all the *very* polite, *very* vegetarian Indian IT professionals I know. If you're working in financial services, or information technology, or BPO, chances are, you'll have met some of these guys. Armed with laptops and packets of MTR ready-to-eat veggie upma, they periodically set out to conquer the West, but return gratefully to India (and the delights of home cooked food) at the first chance that presents itself.

I shouldn't laugh, though. Until recently, I was one of them. Every time I travelled, it was bread, fruit and cheese until I came back home to rice and chappati and my blessed dals and veggies. As my forays abroad grew more frequent, I learnt to hunt for Italian, Mexican, Lebanese and other cuisines, gradually becoming more and more successful in fending for myself.

These days, I'm no longer travelling abroad as much. Instead, I watch with interest (and some amusement!) as tourists of different nationalities, tastes and interests, grapple with Indian food.

Almost every tourist is surprised by the sophistication and variety of the vegetarian cuisine they encounter. The most frequent thing I hear is "Lord, I could be vegetarian here forever!" (and the happiest, loudest cries of delight seem to be from American vegetarians, don't ask me why).

The excellent veggie thali meal at Hotel Sunbird in Bharatpur

I confess I am baffled by how widely popular vegetarian cuisine is in India. This is totally in contrast with other countries in the world, where vegetables are something that you force yourself to eat.

The markets here are full of interesting vegetarian options - for example, walk into any market in Delhi and you'll see something like this:

Fresh vegetables arrive daily at the market, and eagle-eyed men and women come shopping in the evening inspecting them with practised easeDifferent varieties of leafy greens are popular - these are chopped and added to wheat flour to make spicy flavoured parathas, or pureed to make saag, ground into chutneys, or simply used as garnish
Sprouts and beans of different types are cooked with onions, tomatoes, garlic, green chillies, ginger and coriander to make amazingly tasty dals
The markets are proof enough - Indians eat a lot of vegetarian food, with sprouts, legumes, vegetables and milk products dominating the meal. Even "non-veg" Indians eat a lot of vegetarian food. The frequency of meat / chicken / fish dishes differs from house to house; in some cases it is once a week, whereas in some houses there is a daily non-vegetarian dish. Most Hindu homes have vegetarian breakfasts, with non-vegetarian food typically reserved for lunch or dinner.

Meat does not comprise the main dish in India in the sense that Westerners understand it - there is really no Indian equivalent of a large steak. In non-veg households, the star of the meal is a meat or chicken side-dish/curry, which is eaten with rice or roti. Or the meat is added to a biryani or pulao.

In comparison with people from other religions, Christians and Muslims eat more non-vegetarian food, including at breakfast. But even their diets have a significant vegetarian component. The only places that do not have a predominantly vegetarian cuisine are our coastal regions where fish is a standard element of literally every meal.

So anyway, where did this vegetable and legume diet come from?

I am told it's plain economics; that Indian diet has many vegetarian elements because most Indians cannot afford a meat based daily diet. But when you look at China, or any of the countries of the Far East that are just as poor as India, you see that their cuisines are dominated by non-vegetarian food. The Vietnamese, for instance, have similar per capita income as India, but have 5 times as much meat in their diet. Clearly there's something else going on in India.

There is a view that this is the influence of Buddhism and Jainism. Pshaw, I say. The Jains and Buddhists make up only a very small number of Indians; and there are not enough of them to create any food trends. Besides, almost everywhere in the world, Buddhists eat lots of meat, fish, and indeed, if the Far East is anything to go by, anything that moves.

Among Hindus, it is only the upper caste Brahmins who have religious reasons to be purely vegetarian. The vast majority are not required by religion to be vegetarian (except on certain festival days and occasions), but they still eat a lot of vegetarian food. Is it religion that drives the daily menu of a house towards many vegetarian foods? In part, yes, but I really don't think it is the full picture.

I think I'm going to settle for a more prosaic explanation, unless any of you can educate me otherwise. We eat so many vegetables and pulses and legumes simply because that's the way it has always been. "We are like that only". Whether we are "veg" or "non-veg", we make the most of the wide variety of veggies in the market. We cook them in interesting ways, cut them into pickles, we roast them, we mix them with dals, spice them up, mash them into chutneys, fry them into finger-licking snacks, and we thoroughly enjoy all of it.