Friday, August 20, 2004

Independence Day

Last weekend was a long ‘un (no Saturday working) and, not only that, on Sunday, it was Indian Independence Day. Dire, terrible warnings of enormous and heavy security precautions in advance by the authorities began to drip into the Times of India from Monday, and by Thursday there were tip-offs in the papers of imminent terrorist attacks and violence on the day itself.

These were so serious that they threatened Amisha Patel’s and Amitabh Bachchan’s dominance of Section 2 of The Times – not to mention Preeti Jain!!! The deathless, breathless Times of India tells all:

“It’s a race against time. And the clock is ticking. With August 15 just a few days away, the police is [sic] working overtime to ward off a planned attack on the Red Fort.” The planned attack is from 4 or 5 fidayeen members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed who have entered the city. Say, I was wondering who those bearded fellas were down the hall from me…Naw, they couldn’t be staying at the Y, they’d never get their laundry back on time…and, anyway, “guest houses, hotels, STD booths and cyber cafes are under scrutiny…”!!! It’s no joke!!!

The Times goes on to say that Deputy Commissioner of Police (North) Rajesh Khurana has reassured the public that, “as per the threat input, we are conducting daily mock exercises to enhance our anti-intrusion capacity. We are also working hard to improve reaction time.” Apparently unaware of his own threat input to the English Language, the DC has confused me – does he mean, “we’re trying to get better”? Or perhaps, “we may be crap now, but you just wait until there’s an attack!!! Then we’ll show ya!!!” Perhaps it’s a mock English exercise…

As a responsible paper, The Times is too straight to scaremonger…much. They just carry the Delhi police ads that tell how to identify a terrorist…”clothes unsuited for the time of year…a person who doesn’t belong to the group…anything protruding unnaturally under his clothing which could be arms or explosives.” – well, I donned my normal weekend slothware, combed my hair and looked in the mirror…hmm…not good!!! Wow, perhaps they mean ‘tourist’!!!

With this background of anticipation and impending doom Independence Day dawned. It was Sunday, so everyone got up late. My drain decided to add moaning to its repertoire of gurgling and gargling sounds. The salamanders on the walls outside scattered at my sudden emergence. Everybody at the Y was invited to the YMCA Independence Day ceremony at 10. It sounded like a good idea – better than trooping down to the Red Fort with a million people and being arrested as looking like a possible terrorist! And so it was that your travelspondent braved the threat of the terrorists to attend…the YMCA Independence Day celebrations!

Eight rows of 5 chairs in each sat outside on the tarmac at the main entrance, and the little gathering was about half full so far, even a few minutes before 10. The notices had been displayed (1/2 A4 sheet with an Indian flag background) for about a day at the front desk, and I was thinking that more than a few guests might actually mosey down for the ceremony.

A miniature Indian flag was pinned proudly on my lapel as I sat down. I was made to feel very welcome, probably because I was the only Y resident attending. Two gentlemen came over to shake my hands and thank me for coming. Then the ceremony started: first an introduction by a Mr. O.F. Joshua in English, then a prayer, a long one, in Hindi – 7 or 8 minutes long! Then there was a short speech by an Air Commander B.J. Berry, Chairman of the Y in New Delhi, and a hoisting of the Indian flag, the saffron representing the Hindi, the green the Muslim, traditions.
Despite a number of other flags fluttering brightly nearer to earth, the Indian flag rose slowly and then drooped at the top of the flagpole, unfortunately refusing to unfurl and flutter in the breeze. The National Anthem was then played – martial, stirring, anonymous (to me, anyway) – and Air Commander Berry read a message, in Hindi with occasional English sentences interjecting. It was all very serious, somewhat amateurish, and quite touching as a result and then it was all over!!! You can look at some pictures from the ceremony if you click here.

After that, I decided to make a long overdue visit to Connaught Place, the centre of Delhi and referred to by all Dilli-wallahs by its short form ‘CP’. I had not walked around CP and seen its Lutyens-designed arcades, its sweeping crescents, its ingenious layout. It was intended to be the bridge between Old Delhi and the British New Delhi. It was apparently the centre of fine shopping in Delhi in the 1940s and 1950s. It was constructed of two circles, one enclosing another, with wheel spokes connecting the inner circle to the outer. The inner circle bounded a small park, and along both circles and the spokes were shops and restaurants and a lively, buzzing street life.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, that is. For if I give you one travel tip when you come to Delhi, it is to avoid CP. Like the plague. It is grubby, down-at-heel, and full of persons preying on tourists, natives, everyone. Although every guidebook features it, don’t bother. It may seem attractive to have a change from walking around the ruins that I tramp around but, believe me, there are nicer places. I walked one way. I walked another way. I did not like it at all. It was dirty, filthy, and had no redeeming features.

I got very hot walking around in the sun, so I stopped for a drink. The vendor took an age to serve me and then couldn’t find the correct change, leaving me standing there for a minute or two. Finally, he returned and paid me and I walked on, until someone started shouting at me: “sir, sir!!! Look at your shoe!!! It’s shit, it’s shit!!!”

I looked down at my shoe. On the top of it was the biggest brown mass you’d ever seen, a massive brown seething blob. I’d just been the dopey victim of the “shit-on-the-shoe” scenario – man drops blob of shit on shoe, points it out to you, you pay them lots of Rs. to remove said blob, they go away happy, you feel relieved that they have suddenly appeared from nowhere.

Except that didn’t happen in this case. I started to chase the perpetrator into the subway, him shouting at me, “it’s shit! It’s shit!!! I will clean it for you, sir!” I wiped most of it on a step and, as he ran away, I managed to take refuge in an air-conditioned coffee shop, where it took a number of napkins, intense wiping (it really was shit was well!), and several iced teas to regain my composure...it was hard not to agree with a description of CP in a local newspaper: “paan-stained walls with an overpowering stench of urine, dogs mingling with people, beggars and hawkers who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer; pimps and call girls in its dark alleys, and 70-year-old shops that seem to have lost their customers somewhere.”

Luckily, I had a fallback, which was the Jantar Mantar, about halfway between CP and the Y: it was an observatory park that had been constructed with massive, full-size astronomical instruments by Jai Singh, a courtier to one of the later Moghul courts. It was a peaceful place to be, and the great swooping instruments were fascinating because, although they do not work anymore (the tall buildings around CP have rendered them ineffective), they are interestingly shaped objects in their own right, almost space-age. I spent a lovely hour there, a peaceful tonic after CP and, of course, there are pictures in this week’s gallery.

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So Sunday wasn’t a complete waste of time, but not quite as good as Saturday, when I explored the first city of Delhi, Tughlaqabad. Yes, more ruins, folks – I know, I know, you’re sick of ruins, but these cities are important, and there are so many of them – what city can you go to and find 8 historical cities inhabiting the place?

I hired an autorickshaw to take me to Tughlaqabad and back, waiting for an hour – none of them were too keen, but one said he’d do it for Rs. 350, so we set out to India Gate, then Nizamuddin, Bhogal, out the Mathura Road, then south past the New Okhla Industrial Area, way out to the outskirts, the very edge of encroachment-city in South-East Delhi.

My autowallah decided to cut out the drive around to the Mehrauli Road and instead go into Tughlaqabad village, which was a major mistake. The lanes – to call them roads would be not accurate – were bumpy and pot-holed. The village has either not been taken on by the City, or the City have taken it on in name only, as the water is piped, but the pipes are above ground; electrical cables stick out above ground everywhere; there are open drains in the streets…it was like a little village that time has forgotten, connected to nowhere else, depressingly like a lot of improvised settlements around the city.

I was wondering if the autorickshaw wouldn’t blow its suspension and so offered to get out for awhile, and the driver wouldn’t let me – he had to ask directions about 7 or 8 times to get out of the village, and we finally emerge 15 minutes later after bumping down to Tughlaqabad village, which I would have only tackled in a Land Rover!

Tughlaqabad was no Humayun’s tomb, but a desolate, magnificent ruin in the middle of absolutely nowhere, massive, thick walls (27 metres high in places) stretching along the Mehrauli Road, but enclosing (in its 6.5 km. perimeter) nothing but ruins, and ruins with no guide or pathway, rhyme or reason evident, but somewhat restored at some point in the recent past.

John Keay in India: A History calls it “this wilderness of cyclopean ramparts and dungeons…the most far-flung of the dozen-odd citadels which, originally some sultan’s new Delhi, then his successors’ old Delhi, are now decidedly dead Delhis; the howling jackals by night, and by day the mewing kites, could be ghouls at large” It’s very different from the bustle and energy of its construction in under 4 years from 1321 to guard against fierce attacks by Mongols from central Asia, when the enormous boulders and rough-cut stones would have been cut and hauled into place. Now, the parapetted walls and bastions march across a low ridge overlooking a wasteland of scrub and litter.

It was built, according to legend, when after Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s travels with the Khilji Sultan, in whose army he was a commander, he said, “o master, it would be fitting if a city is built here,” and the Sultan replied tartly, “well, when you become king, build it!” Tughlaq became king after a 5 year power struggle that followed Ala-ud-din’s death. Thus his city is a military fortress, for an age where a premium was placed on military power, and surrounded by a moat, an artificial lake, and a sluice-and-lock system! It wasn’t all military might - the roof tiles of the palace within were apparently gilded – but it’s hard to imagine anything else now as it lies wind-swept and ruined…majestic and imposing…

Ironically, it was abandoned shortly after its constuction – Nizamuddin Auliya, the Sufi saint and mystic after whom Nizamuddin is named, took exception to Tughlaq’s laxity in religious matters, and put a curse on Tughlaqabad: “let it either belong to the Gujar [herdsmen], or let it remain in desolation.” When Tughlaq returned from a campaign in northern Bihar in 1324-5, he wanted to prepare for entry into his new citadel, and ordered his son Muhammed to construct a timbered pavilion for temporary accommodation at Afghanpur, nearby on the banks of the Jamuna, where they were reunited. They dined together and, when Tughlaq went to wash his hands at the end of the meal, “a thunderbolt from the sky descended upon the earth, and the roof under which the sultan was seated fell down, crushing him and 5 or 6 other persons so that they died.”

Nizamuddin Auliya had been warned to seek refuge as he was told that Tughlaq was approaching Delhi, but had refused, saying famously that “Delhi is yet far off”, so did he know that Tughlaq was going to have an accident, did he get involved or, as one account has it, did Muhammed Tughlaq order some elephants to begin stamping the ground when most had left the pavilion for prayers, while he had buried the shovels and pickaxes required to free the victims from the rubble?

South of the fort is Ghiyasuddin’s Tomb, with a squat dome and sloping walls across the Mehrauli Road – it used to be connected to Tughlaqabad by a causeway…it’s a warrior’s tomb, different from the garden tombs of the Lodis and Mughal tombs in following centuries and, unlike them, surrounded by massive walls…

Muhammed Tughlaq succeeded his father, and he is a controversial figure, known as “the most autocratic, cold-blooded, power-crazed, and catastrophic of sultans who was yet also the most able, cultivated, philanthropic and even endearing” according to Keay He was a poet, well-educated and intelligent, an authority on medicine and maths, with wonderful penmanship, and a patron of the arts…at the same time as being a relentless and blood-thirsty campaigner, under whom the sultanate more nearly approached the status of an Indian empire.

He famously tried to move the capital from Delhi 1400 km. away to wrong-foot his detractors and opposition, and also move it more out of harm’s way…Delhi people were disinclined to desert, despite compensation, arranged journeys, and an elaborate reception at the new city, Daulatabad…horrible tales emerged of a 90 year old man being turfed out of his deathbed, of a blind man being ordered onto the road tied to a horse’s tail (only one of his legs survived the journey!)…yet the whole scheme was obviously abandoned after awhile as by 1333 Delhi had made a recovery and was repopulated. He should have known that you can never move a city from Delhi, only build a new one atop the ruins of the old…

2 Comments:

Blogger Big Mama said...

Another attention grabber.

August 22, 2004 4:55 AM  
Blogger mrs_jazz said...

I agree with "Big Mama"

August 23, 2004 2:49 AM  

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