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.