New Delhi Part 2: "Happy Where I Am"

New Delhi

India

February 12, 2007

 

Each morning my driver Suresh and I agree on an itinerary.

Suresh negotiates his way through the traffic to a stop at Lakshmi Naravan, an unusual Hindu temple . . . unusual for its tones of yellow and red- brown. Another stop at Rajghat, a beautiful park with a simple square platform of black marble that marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated following his assassination in 1948. A host of schoolchildren smile and wave to me.

Then, The Red Fort.

Disabuse yourself of any previous idea of a fort. The Western movie fort is a matchbox. European forts, castles and chateaux of stone are comparable. Indian forts are forts, and palatial residences for the emperor and his wives and families, public courtyards and private meeting halls, baths and mosques and gardens.

The red sandstone walls of the Red Fort extend for 2km and vary in height from 18m to 33m. In a word, massive. And, brilliant in its engineering. The fort must withstand a maurade of elephants intent on smashing down the gates, and later, modern artillery and a modern army. And beyond the engineering is the architecture, the sculpture, the painting and remarkable craftsmanship. It is as if the Emperor, Shah Jahan, commanded his designers to build a living museum of the finest art in the Empire. Silks, jewelry, gold and silver and a silver ceiling, and white marble inlaid with precious stones were the glorious trappings of 17th Century Royalty.

The emperor gave daily audience to the public in the The Diwan-I-Aam, a sixty-pillared red sandstone hall.. Private meetings were held in a luxurious chamber. The centerpiece (until Nadir Shah carted it off to Iran in 1739) was the magnificent solid gold and jewel-studded Peacock Throne.

And now, every day, the gates and the walls of the fort are breached by hundreds of admiring travelers. We wander and stare and point and photograph and picnic in this city within a city.

The courtyard of the Jama Masjid, also built by Shah Jahan, can hold a city of 25,000 worshipers. The largest mosque in India is striking and impressive and also built of red sandstone and marble.

"Impressive" and "striking" and "magnificent" and "brilliant" do not prepare me for my first visit to a Mughal tomb. "Stopped dead in my tracks" and "shocked" describe my reaction as I pass through the huge red-walled gate and on to the grounds of Safdarjung's Tomb. Shocked. Amazed.

"This is the last of Delhi's garden tombs and was built for Safdarjung, the powerful prime minister of Muhammad Shah, the Mughal emperor between 1719 and 1748. Marble was stripped from another tomb to construct this rather florid example of late Mughal architecture. Approached by an ornate gateway, the tomb has an exaggerated dome and stands in a charbagh, a garden cut by water channels into four parts. Its fa├žade is extensively ornamented with well-preserved plaster carving and the central chamber has some fine stone inlay work on the floor." And that's all my guidebook has to say. Another guidebook barely gives this tomb a small paragraph. And why is that? Why, indeed. The guidebooks prefer Hamayun's Tomb.

Humayun's Tomb rates a full page with color photos and a large color schematic drawing! It's not just a magnificent tomb. It's a "complex" of tombs and gardens and walkways and . . . and . . . and . . . .

"Humayun, the second Mughul emperor, is buried in this tomb, the first great example of a Mughul garden tomb, and inspiration for several later monuments. Built in 1565 by Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, it was commissioned by Humayun's senior widow, Haji Begum. Often called 'a dormitory of the House of Timur,' the graves in its chambers include Humayun's wives and Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan's scholarly son. Also in the complex are the octagonal tomb and mosque of Isa Khan, a 16th Century nobleman, and the tomb of Humayun's favorite barber."

"The imposing white marble double dome is a complete half sphere; is surmounted by a finial with a crescent in the Persian style. Jalis, fine trellis work in stone later became a signature Mughal feature. The imposing plinth or platform, is decorated with red sandstone arches and consists of multiple chambers."

How many times will I be shocked and stopped in my tracks? I must prepare myself.

The Mehrauli Archaeological Park is best known for the five storey Qutb Minar, (Arabic for pole or axis) a UNESCO World Heritage Monument, India's highest tower, that marked the site of the first Muslim kingdom in North India, established in 1193.

There is much to see in this "park." Again I wander and climb and chat and marvel at the earliest examples of Islamic arched construction and architecture and tile work and painted plasterwork and carved panels with verses from the Koran on the mosques and tombs in this sprawling retreat.

I am beginning to get a sense of India and the days to come.

India is unique. I can't imagine that anyplace else in the world is quite like this country.

India is just "large." Everything about it is large. The geography. The population. The contrasts. The forts, the tombs. The Purana Qila (old fort). The Lodi Gardens. The massive India Gate built to commemorate the Indian and British soldiers who died in World War 1; The Baha'i House of Worship, sitting on 227 acres of green lawns, with its roof of 27 white marble lotus petals, enclosing an open and pillar-free auditorium for 1,300 people: and the Jantar Mantar, a giant outdoor observatory built in 1724. It calculates the planetary movements; a giant sundial can tell the time to an accuracy of 20 seconds.

There is more to see in Delhi. Ancient sites, museums, a sound and light show, markets, parks and monuments. Maybe next time, a yoga retreat. But now I am anxious to move on to Agra. So I will leave, confident that I will return.

Everyone has been friendly and hospitable. I am happy where I am. More than happy, I am excited.

What is, is; and what is, is breathtaking, astonishing and overpowering. I sense that India will conquer me.

Cheers,

Jan

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