Monday, November 19, 2012

Elephants everywhere!

Until recently, I didn't realize how you can see elephants everywhere in India. In fact, they are so much a part of art and architecture and religion that you almost stop noticing them. But once you stop to take a look, you find that they're all around you!

At the President's house in Delhi, elephants guard the gate:

In the Mughal gardens, an elephant makes for a pretty topiary.

In Udaipur gaily caparisoned elephants welcome you as you go boating in the lake:

In Ranakpur, there is a magnificent marble elephant:

The Elephant God is everywhere, of course. Anointed with vermillion, garlanded with flowers, India's favourite Ganesha guards all thresholds and offers auspicious beginnings to all ventures.

Whether you go east, west, south or north, the elephant is everywhere in India. I started looking for historical traces of India's relationship with the elephant, and found out that it goes back a long, long time. 

The first place I looked at was Bhimbetka. These prehistoric cave paintings are among the earliest evidences of human art in India, starting from nearly 12,000 years ago. Sure enough, I found elephants carved into the walls of the rock shelters at Bhimbetka. This carving on one of the walls shows a human together with an elephant, indicating interactions with the animal. A hunting scene perhaps? 
See the rest of the paintings here:
And there is a wonderful travelogue with photos here:
Other later carvings from the same Bhimbetka area show humans riding elephants into battle. After Bhimbetka, I looked at the ancient Indus Valley Civilization (there was a recent news item that this civilization is now thought now to date from 7380 BC onwards). I found this really adorable terracotta elephant  figurine. 
Tiny figurine, 4.8 cm height, 5.4 cm width, 4.6 cm breadth
Currently at the Harappa site museum, Pakistan
This steatite (soapstone) seal from the Indus Valley civilization has a rope or cloth draped on the elephant's back, indicating domestication:
From the 3rd century BC onwards, we have an unbroken legacy of elephants in art and architecture. They are too numerous to list, but among the earliest is this one below from Dhauli (Bhubaneswar, Orissa). 

This is where at the end of the Kalinga massacre (261 BC), the Emperor Ashoka renounced war and carved an Edict instructing his governors to rule wisely. After reading the Edict, this has now become my favourite elephant statue in India :) :)
Elephant carving at Dhauli, 3rd century BC.
On the north face of this rock Emperor Ashoka says:
"All men are my children. What I desire for my own children,
and I desire their welfare and happiness both in
this world and the next, that I desire for all men.

May our politicians learn a few things from Ashoka!! 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Delhi's Bengal connection

Everyone in Delhi knows that if you want to look for the city's Bengalis, you should head to the fish market at Chittaranjan Park. Bhattacharyas, Basus, Dasguptas, and Sens - they can all be found looking for the freshwater fish that are so dear to the Bengali heart. 
The 2011 Census figures place Delhi's Bengali-speaking population at 208,000. Although most of these have arrived in Delhi in the last 200 years, the city's connection with Bengal is actually very old. To look for its origins, we must turn to ancient history, to the Grand Trunk Road that connects eastern and western India.

Known as "Uttara-patha" or the Northern Road, this highway has existed from the time of the Mauryan Empire (322 BC to 185 BC). At the time, it extended from Tamluk, a port on the mouth of the Ganges in Bengal to Taxila (now in Pakistan) on the West. Trade flowed along this road, across this broad swathe of India, bringing the people of Bengal into contact with ideas and goods from far and wide.

In the 15th Century, the Afghan Sher Shah Suri, who ruled from Delhi, widened and repaired the Grand Trunk road, and it became the key to administering the Suri empire. In the map below you can see the area that the Sur dynasty ruled, and how the Grand Trunk Road must have helped them manage their dominions. When the Mughals defeated Sher Shah, they inherited this road. They also maintained it, by building inns (serais), stationing garrisons, and setting up milestones (kos minars).

Sher Shah's Empire:
Bengal was important to the Mughals, even though Mughal officers stationed there detested the humid climate (and scoffed at the rice and fish diet!). According to this book, by the late 16th century, Bengal was producing so much surplus rice that not only did it supply the needs of the Mughal empire, but also for the first time, rice emerged as an important export crop of the Empire. Even in distant Central Asia, fine muslin cloth was called Dhaka, highlighting the importance of Bengal as a centre for textile production. Bengal also supplied the Imperial court's voracious appetite for luxury goods like raw silk. Bengal’s agricultural and manufacturing boom coincided not only with the consolidation of Mughal power in the province but also with the growth in overland and maritime trade that linked Bengal ever more tightly to the world economy.
Woman wearing fine Dhaka muslin, Francesco Renaldi, late 1700's
It was but natural that the East India Company should seek a base in Bengal. With the decline in the Mughal empire, the Company increasingly grew more powerful, until it replaced Mughal rule completely. While Delhi or Agra had been the political capital of the Mughals, Bengal's commercial importance meant that Calcutta became the capital city from where the East India Company traded and ruled.

With the setting up of the East India Rail, closer links emerged between Calcutta and Delhi and made trade and commerce easier. Between 1882 to 1866, the East India Rail (which originally connected Calcutta to Varanasi) was extended up to Delhi and Agra.

I found this interesting map of the East India Rail, and how it progressed from Calcutta to Delhi, via Varanasi (the rail station in Varanasi is called Mughal-serai, and it was one of the many points along the Grand Trunk Road where the Mughals has built inns).

And here is a photo of the very first train that ran on the East India Railway.

Although the rail link made it easier to come from Bengal to Delhi, the first big wave of Bengali settlers only came in 1919, when the British shifted the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi. The new arrivals were mostly government employees, from the postal department, the railways, the tax collection department, etc. They settled in Timarpur in North Delhi, and near Gole Market, and they eventually went to work in the many government buildings of Delhi.
Gole Market:
The next wave of Bengalis came with the partition of Bengal in 1947. When India became independent, Hindu Bengalis from East Bengal (which became part of Pakistan) arrived in Delhi. The migration was a time of sorrow and despair, as people left behind everything that was dear to them. Government employees were given a chance to swap their posts between India and Pakistan. Others - mostly educated and well-to-do Hindu Bengalis with family and connections in India, also migrated. Most went to Calcutta, but some came to Delhi. 

Some 2000 plots of land were allotted to these families in Chittaranjan Park, which then became the biggest settlement of Bengalis in Delhi. If you read this article on the Bangiya Samaj, you'll see how the Bengali community in Delhi banded together, and how they kept their culture and interests alive. I found it endearing, to read about the attempts to set up a library, organise festivals and meeting places, play indoor games, stage plays and keep the community spirit alive.

Today, the Bengalis are very much a visible part of Delhi. The Kali Bari temple at Chittaranjan Park has expanded to become a major cultural centre. 

Kali Bari, Chittaranjan Park
The market at Chittarajan Park sells not only fish, but also little things that bring a slice of Bengal into Delhi.

Palmyra fans and old-style wooden cutting boards
 And of course, what Bengali market is complete without a sweet shop?  :) :)
A Bengali and his sweets can never be parted!