Friday, August 27, 2004

Un Poco Coco Loco

Okay, scholars of Delhi-life, Indian-life, armchair travellers, and transport wonks: your travelsponent is ready to dish the dirt, tell the truth, undermine received thinking, sh-shatter some sh-shi-sh-shibboleths, tear up your standard rough planet travel manuals with the real deal on getting around this incredible nutball of a city.

You will recall that weeks ago I regaled you with On the Buses, weird tales of the wacky and life-threatening of the Delhi bus system. I think I mentioned that some Dilli-wallas thought me strange because I took the buses – smiles play at the corner of mouths, widen into grins, “you take the bus???” I’ve since found out that this isn’t bemusement at some foreigner essaying the Delhi Wild West – that’s just extra funny – but that people feel that about anyone who takes the bus!!!

So when you come to Delhi, the bus is a big nix. Very wise. That leaves you with private car, taxis, autorickshaws, ordinary rickshaws, bicycles, and walking. Unless you count the new Metro, which doesn’t yet go anywhere or have any passengers. All those deserve their own chapters, believe me, but today I wanted to tell you a bit about the autorickshaw.

It’s a bit of a misnomer. The real rickshaw is someone pulling a cart on wheels with someone in it, right? And that’s what obtains here in Delhi. The autorickshaw is not an automated version of that, rather a very basic taxi. It’s like a pint-size Mini, with a squat boxy body on 3 wheels, a skeletal frame over which stretches a yellow canopy, and looks a bit like those little plastic toy car rides that supermarkets have just beyond the checkout into which children rope their parents after the weekly shopping agony into blowing their spare change.

There are no doors, but the entire structure is open to the elements. You can board and disembark on one side only (the other has a tiny bar to provide a simulacrum of some concern for safety), a very basic put-put motor powered by the inevitable compressed natural gas, and is painted yellow and green. The Cubans call them Coco-taxis, the tropical idea being that they resemble partially hollow coconuts. Here, they’re autorickshaws, or autos, driven by autowallahs.

I should mention before proceeding that you can, of course, take a real taxi. They’re generally more expensive than autos, but more comfortable, and are almost always Ambassadors, those Indian knock-offs of 1950s Morrises that are still in production… they’re better if you need room, have luggage, or have lots of money/want to avoid the close contact with streetlife provided by the autorickshaw. You aren’t immune from problems in taxis, I should add – I complained to one resident about the taxiwallah’s invariable practice of covering up the meter with a towel to obscure the starting amount, and he said, “oh, no, you’ve got that wrong, that’s done for two reasons, one legit, one not. The legit one is that the meters get screwed up by the summer heat, so they need protection. The other is to allow the taxiwallahs to rip you off!” Thank goodness for making that clearer! But generally speaking, we’re not talking real taxis here.

A second characteristic that taxis and autos share is a near complete and total absence of any idea of how to get where you are going. Although this varies, generally I have found about half the time that I am directing them, rather than them taking me. They eschew my Big Map, trusting rather to the old stop-and-ask-someone method, sometimes maddeningly 3 or 4 times, during a journey! No London Taxicab ‘knowledge’ required here!!! Of course, I suppose with directions such as “GK II, V-1422”, you have to give them a bit of a break…

Now on to the auto. There are thousands of them around the city, and they’re the way that most people in Delhi get about when they don’t take buses. Here’s how to use the auto.

Finding an Auto. No problem, usually. You can find them at an auto stand (not good – they tend to be more expensive) or, more likely, cruising the streets. In fact, the opposite problem is more usual – shaking off unwanted autowallahs. They have the annoying global taxi habit, when you don’t need them, of swarming like locusts, than evaporating at nighttime or in inclement weather!!!

The autowallahs always go one better, though. They have this really maddening habit of swooping on you when you least want it – you can be frantically waving your arms, hailing a bus, and they suddenly dart in between you and the bus, the driver beaming this ingratiating grin at you, “where do you want to go, sir?”

“I want you to get out of my way so that I can get the bus”

“Yes, but where are you going?”

“Green Park Extension”

“Eighty rupees, sir!”

“I am trying to get the bus. Get out of my way, you pillock!”

And so it goes on. When you get off the bus, they almost run you over, then expect you to hire them. They’re small, so they dart through the traffic. You can’t rely on any traffic, by the way, to go one way or the other way – vehicles emerging from side roads or slip roads cheerfully bump along the verge of the main road, going in the wrong direction. But don’t get me started on Delhi traffic…

Negotiating the Price. All autos have meters and, by law, have to use them. What that means is, 90% of all autos have meters which either don’t work or they don’t use, and they try to charge an above-average price all the time. They ignore the law – and why not? So you have to agree the price/destination before you get in. They will sometimes suggest a completely outrageous price – I was told Rs. 250 to go from G K I to Safdarjung’s Tomb, and eventually agreed a price of Rs. 50, twice what the price should be – or, more likely, a very high, loaded price, say Rs. 80 instead of Rs. 50. Wherever you start, you have nowhere to go but down…

I luckily lost my auto virginity with Dr. Dilli. We’d gone to eye up the fleatraps at the Y and were heading back to Green Park that evening. He hailed 4 autos before finding one that would accept the Rs. 40 he said was standard for the journey. All of them refused to use the meter. 3 of the 4 autowallahs didn’t really get at first what Dr. Dilli, who speaks English, Hindi and Malayalam fluently, was talking about. What hope does anyone else have? Autowallah No. 5 took the Rs. 40, dropped the Doc at the I.N.A. Market, then proceeded to scream and shout his way through the heavy Aurobindo Road traffic to drop me – almost literally – at the Uphaar Cinema, near where I was staying my first week.

If in doubt, it’s a pretty safe strategy to wait until you find an auto with a meter working, who will use it. If you feel a bit braver, you can play the numbers game with them – “80” “80? you must be mad. Try 30.” “30? Ha ha ha. 70.” “Still too much. 40.” “OK, 50” Wow! He dropped Rs. 20! Musta got him…the real price is, of course, something like 25 or 30, but 100% overpayment against 200% is progress, I guess, and if you’re translating currencies, remember: Rs. 80 is £1, or $1.80, or CAN$2.25, so there is a sense of perspective to be retained…

The journey is a body-shaking, back-breaking tour de force, especially when the autowallah neglects to notice the speed bumps in the road, and you jounce up and down on your little seat, hitting the roof (“ow!”) of the auto. Hold on tight…to what, I don’t know, but hold on. Seatbelt? Don’t be ridiculous.

And, because there are no doors and it’s open to the elements, there are special precautions to keep in mind if it’s raining. These are: (i) don’t take the auto, (ii) if you do take the auto, sit in the centre of the seat, avoid the sides, hope that the rain is coming straight down, and try to get one with side flaps to keep off some of the rain, and (iii) don’t go in the auto down any roads that get waterlogged, such as the Aurobindo Road during a cloudburst on Tuesday, 17 August 2004 at 13:32 in the afternoon. The water is over a foot deep. Ordinary vehicles jounce in the lake and make slow progress, because they can’t see the ruts and potholes that will hole their petrol tank. Even moving slowly, they still spray great washes of dirty water into each side of your auto. How do you keep dry in an auto during a rainstorm? You don’t, so don’t even bother trying!!!

The last word on the auto experience I leave with a recent female immigrant to Delhi from elsewhere in India quoted in The Times of India: “every day is a tussle with the autowallah: they never go by the meter and have a ready excuse to overcharge you each time. As for buses, getting on to one in a sleeveless top and tight jeans is asking for trouble.” At least that’s one problem I’ve managed to avoid so far…

The aftermath of Independence Day was relatively peaceful, except if you were in Assam, where there were bombings, or the eternally difficult Kashmir, where there were disturbances…you may wonder about these and whether they are a regular occurrence. Well, sectarian violence is a problem in India, everywhere, and has partly led to the demand for and proliferation of states in the Indian federation. But in Delhi, anyway, things were relatively quiet, which was good. And with the tension reduced, I could get on with my searches for cities…

I went to the remains of the Siri Fort, where a few outer walls are all that remain of Siri, the city built in 1303 by Sultan Alauddin Khilji. Mostly the walls of the city are an atmospheric enclosure for a very nice green park, in which is the shopping area of Shahpur Jat. I guess the rest of the city has, as with other cities in Delhi, been plundered for stone or destroyed in the continual redevelopment.

The same Khalji period yielded the Chor Minar, or Thieves’ Tower, a rubble-built tapering tower on a platform, with a staircase inside (you couldn’t get in). The holes sunk in the walls were where severed criminals’ heads were displayed as a deterrent! During this part of the walk, I stumbled on an old Mosque that had no name, was not on my map, and was not in anyway identified…to see the photographs of Siri Fort, Chor Minar, and the Mystery Mosque, and some others, click here.

I then walked through a Ring Road construction site, to Begum Pur, through some incomprehensible backstreets where the map just fades the lines of streets into white space in some expression of cartographic helplessness…”sorry, chaps, we just didn’t figure this one out…” to the Bijai Mandal, which was behind a fence. It was a royal palace where the Sultan, seated on a raised cushioned seat, placed on a white carpeted dais, held public audience and reviewed his troops. It was hard to believe that today, and I couldn’t find a way in!

Next I walked through more backstreets to the Begumpuri Masjid…it was at the centre of the Sultan Mohammed bin Tughlaq’s new capital, Jahanapanah. Remember him, son of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq of our last episode, and his capital, Tughlaqabad? He lived from 1325 – 1351, and gave the Masjid an elevated position and a striking building, that would have been the focus of the community, a place for prayer, a treasury, the place for meeting and transacting business, and a madarsa. Sultans often decreed that the city’s grain market and bazaars be situated just outside the mosque’s portals, thus making it a real centre of city life.

Today there were several men sitting on the ground, legs akimbo, singing or praying, rocking back and forth…then, in the courtyard of the Masjid, a group of kids flying kites, a couple of them with their fathers, amongst the cloisters. Then, a wrong turn or two and a hot walk later, I got to the Lal Gumbad in Malviya Nagar, an isolated tomb that is supposed to be the burial chamber of the Sufi saint Kabiruddin Auliya. And that’s it for this week’s tour – next weekend is a 2-day one, so I’m looking forward to getting in some heavy-duty touristing and sightseeing…

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 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.


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…

Friday, August 13, 2004


Some of your e-mails have kindly enquired about my Delhi existence: where am I staying, what I am doing? You know that I travel by bus every day. You know that I’m volunteering with a not-for-profit. What the hell?

I work on attachment with Butterflies, a Non-Governmental Organisation that has been running projects with street and working children in Delhi since 1989. ‘Street’ children are those that live and/or work on the street, ‘working’ children those that work and stay with their families or whatever. Butterflies is a super organisation with wonderful, committed staff and excellent programmes that make a real difference to these children, such as the Street Educators, night shelters, educational programmes, media (radio – the BBC [‘Butterflies Broadcasting Children’] and a newspaper).

One of these is the Children’s Development Bank, or CDB. Now, you may ask why street children need a bank. Haven't they got enough problems? The reason is that street and working children have a problem with storing anything of value – especially money. Commercial banks don’t want to know (account rules, not of legal age, insufficient ID), and the children end up leaving any money they save (usually not much) with friends or shopkeepers. It often gets ripped off or not returned. Having a place where one can safely store what little one has of monetary value is pretty important.

I’ve volunteered to do some marketing work for them for my 3 months in Delhi, ranging from the Marketing Audit that I’ve just completed, to a Marketing Strategy, to a plan. They’ve expanded the programme this year outside Delhi to 4 other places in India (Bihar, Chennai, Jammu & Kashmir, Kolkata) and 3 outside (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal). It’s a pretty exciting and stimulating place to be, and there’s plenty to do!!! We both get something out of it – I get three months more experience for my CV, they get me (other than overheads) gratis.

Every morning, therefore, I haul my laptop and equipment knapsack to the bus stop and, like the veriest commuter, I wait for a bus – you already know this bit – and take the 520 ‘Wild Thang’ from Sansad Marg to Yusuf Serai Market in Green Park Extension, just after Tughlaq Road, Sardarjung’s Madarsa, the I.N.A. Market, Dilli Haat, the A.I.I.M.S. And I do the reverse in the evening, other than the rare occasions where I accompany my colleague, Dr. Dilli, to one of the Butterflies contact points or something else happens. I fall off at Yusuf Serai, try to steady myself while avoiding swerving motorbikes, autorickshaws, bicycles going every which way, and then dice with death with the brave expedition trying to cross the humming Aurobindo Road, dodging and dipping and weaving to avoid rushes of mad traffic.

On the other side, I pick my way through the obstacle course known as roadside activity (including some illegally encroaching motorbike workshops, of course), turn down Temple Lane (it has two temples – always a pair of shoes outside, especially in the morning during prayers), try and avoid motorbikes and bicycles (and the passage is teeming with people, food frying, paper sellers, businesses already starting their long day), hang a right at the end, left by the ticking-wallah, swerve to avoid fruit and vegetable carts, pass the press-wallah on the corner, then to Butterflies, the top floors of a typical Green Park Extension villa. You can usually hear it from the end of the road - the kids in the Crisis Centre raise hell early!

So that’s the work bit. The home bit is that, well, I’m living at the YMCA. Please – no music, no singing. It happened like this. Dr. Dilli kindly looked around for a 1 bedroom apartment in Green Park Ex, only to find that the expensive villas around are either big family homes or 2 bedroom flats, for the most part. So I was faced with living in a 1 bedroom out in Vasant Vihar or somewhere like that, right on the outskirts, mall country, and being far away from the sightseeing and work, and spending Rs. 40 on the autorickshaw each way per day; or, living in a 2 bedroom flat, needing to clean and keep it and cook and, even more importantly, I also would need to furnish the damn thing and clear the furniture when I left. But no transport costs. That there were no 3 month lets, only 1 year ones, so I would have to take a lease and then give notice two months later, closed the argument: I decided to go for a guest house.

I’ve ended up at the Y, which Butterflies and I know well from the Planning and Training Meetings. It’s fine, in a grimy, dilapidated kind of way. It’s clean, but you wouldn’t stay here for the décor (“oh, look, Dudley!!! Isn’t that faaaabulous – so rare nowadays!!! Chipped, stained, Formica!!!”). The service is lousy to fair, but the price is right – Rs. 1080 a night, £13.50, including breakfast and dinner!!! And it has a balcony, aircon, TV, en suite bathroom, desk, bed, a swimming pool, all the comforts…

Of course, it also has a few quirks as well. It’s a very cooling place, most important in Delhi – cold, rubbery toast for breakfast; nice cool-to-lukewarm water to wash in…although the last is a bit unfair: I turned on the water heater to heat the water, then turned on the hot – warm – water to find…my foot getting wet!!! The damn plumber had installed the tap so that the dribble of hot water ran directly onto the sink surround, which was then dripping on my sock…I’ve since rigged up a warm water receptacle to gather my warm water over 10 minutes, after which I shave in 2.4 seconds…

The bathroom has some more interesting features. The windows are home to a colony of pigeons that breed and coo outside at all hours of the day and night. These sounds alternate with the loud gurgling and squirting sounds produced by the shower drain. Another advantage is the inch or inch-and-a-half narrow space between my bathroom and the bathroom next door, which means I can hear my neighbour’s morning sounds. All quite fun. The balcony door had been ripped off by the previous occupant, and it only took me a week to get it replaced (thank goodness no rain!)…but the Y’s a bit like that, combining the best traditions of the worst possible service with the most staff employed…

However, the people are nice. I enjoy chatting with Mr. Singh on the desk, I love the Sikh gentleman on the front door who summons your taxi for you and has a curly whirly mustache resplendent on his wide, lined face, and the guys in the dining room are a friendly lot, even if they’re on autopilot and can’t remember what they’re supposed to be doing from one night to the next. At least I had a companion sitting across from me at dinner table – a dead fly!!! “You’re quiet tonight, dear,” I thought…

And it’s mysterious and exciting, unlike all those international 5 star hotels with their boring predictable service that I used to stay in when I worked in banking…for example, tonight I received a phone call, “your laundry sir, is ready!” Ten-hut!!! “Room 303? Fine, sir!” Righty-ho. Over an hour later, where has it gone? Has a member of the Y’s staff got lost? Did the lift get stuck? Will I see someone else tomorrow at breakfast with a vintage classic traditional 1998 Montreal Jazz Festival t-shirt? I am floored by the possibilities…

Last weekend was another short weekend, and so I have only one real Delhi monument to report on, but what a monument!!! It was probably the most impressive and most important thing I’ve seen in Delhi so far – Humayun’s Tomb. Or rather, Humayun’s Tomb complex because, besides the Big Mausoleum, there are several buildings and extensive gardens spread out over a large area, and there are 100s of people buried there.

It is an important place for understanding Moghul and Indian history, a historical crossroads where a lot of events and people meet: Humayun was the second Moghul emperor in 1530 after Babur, deposed by Sher Shah in 1539 (he of Shergarh), then came back in 1555 (which must be a first…and last!). The next year the poor bastard tripped, fell and expired at the Sher Mandal at the Purana Qila, and Humayun’s Tomb was built in 1569 by his widow, Haji Begum at a cost of Rs. 1.5m…Humayun’s bad luck didn’t even stop after his death, as his remains did the rounds of the Purana Qila, to a temporary tomb when Delhi was invaded in 1556, then came back somewhat inappropriately to the bad luck charm Sher Mandal, and finally got buried at his new tomb.

And most of the later Moghul emperors, princes, princesses, and their attendants were buried there…all the graves uninscribed, their final resting places like those of ghosts…it is said that a subsidiary chamber holds Haji and Hamida Banu Begum, Akbar’s mother (Akbar was Humayun’s successor). The headless body of Dara Shikoh, whose bodyless head was left on the Khuni Darwaza (from last week), was buried there, the unfortunate son of Shahjahan who was murdered by the ruthless Aurangzeb…and a string of later Mughal emperors such as Jahandar Shah, Farukkhsiyar and Alamgir I. Finally, the last Mughal took refuge there in 1857, where he was captured during the uprising that year.

The Tomb itself is fantastic, not surprising as it was the model for the subsequent Taj Mahal. It is also the best kept monument I’ve seen so far in India – its status as a World Heritage Site means that it’s had a lot of attention and been restored and relandscaped in the past few years – there are even boards in the entranceways which…amazingly, provide some information (rendering redundant the usual entrance touts who want you to hire them to walk around with you to provide the same information for Rs. 50).

The site also contains the tomb and mosque of Isa Khan, octagonal like the Lodi tombs in the Lodi Gardens, Bu Halima’s garden and tomb, rather strange and flat like a stage, the Arab-Serai Mandi, the Afsarwala Mosque and Tomb, and Barber’s Tomb and the Nila Gumbad. But the piece de resistance is undoubtedly Humayun’s Tomb. Its main features are a radially symmetrical plan; a garden setting; and a bulbous, curling double dome on an elongated drum, all of them with strong Timurid associations for the Moghuls, who were proud of their dynastic descent from Timur. Six pointed stars, or Stars of David, adorn the central elevations of each side of the Tomb – apparently regarded by the Muslims as an ornamental cosmic symbol.

The tomb was a mix of influences, introducing Persian features to subcontinental architecture, but also drawing on the red sandstone and white marble of 14th century Delhi sultanates – first seen in 1311. It rises from a flat, rectangular platform, around which marches rounded arches ending in a point. So it is made even more glorious by not sitting on the ground, but already levitating above (not quite floating like the Taj Mahal!). Sandstone is the main stone used, with marble for the panels and trims.

Chimneys and pavilions swirl to the sky on the roof of the structure, but the dominating feature here is the dome, a double dome like at St. Paul’s – first major full dome ever seen in India (Hindu monuments were typically flat topped or end in a peak). Before this,most tombs had half-domes, and the Lodi ones were the first to describe a full semi-circle. To have a look click here.

Humayun, as you might guess, didn’t have a happy time…after he took over: he suppressed a number of rebellions, secured his crown, and then fell to Sher Khan, an Afghan in 1539…Humayun scarpered, spent 15 years in exile, then returned in 1555 with an army borrowed from the Persians to take out Sher Shah. Apparently in exchange for the Persian hospitality he gave the Shah the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which I guess would dispose you to lend someone an army or so! While he was away, he probably did Indian history his biggest favour by siring Akbar, one of the more celebrated of Mughal emperors.

Tired of walking around among more dead people after my 3 hours at Humayun’s Tomb, I decided to head for Nizamuddin Dargah, across the road in Nizamuddin West, but I found myself short of rupees – and the amount I had was about one Foreign Tourist’s entry charges, so I might squeeze down the narrow, crowded, atmospheric lanes of Nizamuddin for nothing. So I decided to leave it until next weekend, Independence Day weekend. The papers were already leading up to it with heavy promises of terrorist violence and dire safety warnings (“stay inside all day, even if you are staying at the YMCA!”), so it promises to be an interesting full weekend in more ways than one…

Friday, August 06, 2004


Last weekend, I peeled back some of the skins of the onion, some of the cities of this city. This week, the cities of Firozabad and Shergarh, in the guise of their two most prominent remaining monuments, the Firoz Shah Kotla and the Purana Qila. They’re very close together, so close that I could walk between them, two cities of this city tight against each other, meeting across the ages.

I took an autorickshaw to Delhi Gate early on Sunday morning and got to Firoz Shah’s Citadel (kotla) at 10. This is the same Firoz Shah whose tomb is at the Hauz Khas. There is really nothing but ruins left over, but they’re kept in a decent condition, and it was a very peaceful place on a Sunday morning. There was groundswork going on, while various people were dotted about relaxing, lovers in hand, 4 men sitting cross-legged on the ground playing cards, a woman lighting a candle for a loved one near the mosque, and a few children (a constant at archaeological sites).

The Citadel was built by Firoz Shah I in 1354 as part of his massive city of Firozabad. It incorporates Ashoka’s Pillar, a famous artifact of Indian history with Ashoka’s edicts on it and over 12 metres in height and 27 tonnes in weight, from the 3rd century B.C., which originally stood farther up the Jamuna River – a contemporary account describes how it was toppled into a capacious pillow, manoeuvred into a 42 wheel cart and hauled to the river by 8400 men…lashed to a fleet of river transports, it was brought to Delhi in triumph and included in the Citadel.

Ferozabad was erected several km. to the north of Tughluqabad, the first city of Delhi, and it “has long since been engulfed by more recent Delhis; below its ramparts, where once refreshingly flowed the Jamuna, heavy traffic now eddies in a sluggish fog of exhaust” (John Keay, India: A History, 2000). It extended from the Delhi Ridge in the north, where he had a hunting lodge, to Hauz Khas in the south.

There is a baoli or step well with water in it, and a turtle bathing in the morning sun. Indentations in the walls of the well contained garlands of marigolds left by pilgrims, and these attracted swarms of bees everywhere.

The mosque, the Jama Masjid, is in ruins, with only a domed gateway and south/west walls left. All 4 sides of the mosque have underground rooms inhabited by hundreds of bats. Crows fly everywhere around the ruins, as you can see when you click here. The mosque is still revered if not used, as there were several shoes and sandals left on the ground, and a woman lighting a candle nearby.

Hard by the citadel is the Khuni Darwava across the road, or “blood-soaked gate”, now in the middle of a busy highway, believed to have been the northern gateway of Sher Shah’s capital, Shergarh, the second city of Delhi I was viewing today. Dara Shikoh’s head was apparently displayed here after beheading by his brother, Aurangzeb – and the British displayed here the bodies of the 2 sons and a grandson of the last Mughal emperor that they shot in 1857. Nice.

The southern gateway was the Lal Darwaza, also called the Sher Shah Gate, which was believed to be the southern gateway. This was across form the Purana Qila, or Old Fort. In front of this was a lake containing Delhi-ites and their children frolicking in pedal-boats, and a pleasant park hugging the lake and surrounding the Fort.

The Purana Qila was built by the Emperor Humayun in 1538. He was the son of the first Moghul, Babur. He laid the foundations of a new city (does this sound familiar?) called Dinpanah, or the Refuge of the Faithful. The inner citadel (does this sound…) was the Purana Qila. Within 6 years, Humayun was shafted, thrown out by Sher Shah Suri who renamed the city Shergarh, and added many buildings to it.

The earliest reference to the site was made in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, which says that the Pandavas founded a city called Indraprastha beside the Yamuna and, indeed, pottery has been found on the Purana Qila site dating to the first century B.C.

The walls are 18 metres high in places, indented with small spaces in intricate patterns for birds (parrots/pigeons) to nest. The mosque is one of the longest and most magnificent that I’ve ever seen so far, merging the red sandstone and white marble…unfortunately I couldn’t go in – the doorways and ceilings are grand and magnificent, highly decorated and beautiful. But that’s not all. The Sher Mandal, in the grounds, was the place where Humayun, who regained the throne, tripped on the staircase and fell to his death in 1556.

The Purana Qila was very well maintained, for the most part, with plenty of people there taking the air on Sunday, unlike Firoz Shah Kotla – lots of kids playing in the water sprinklers…I sat down and had a rest under a tree and watched the dragonflies and bees swirling about in the heat.

I met someone for lunch before coming to Delhi who knows the city well. He assured me that the population was about 9, 10 million – that the 14 million that I’d heard was much too high. He hadn’t been there for a few years, but he was pretty sure that he was right.

Well, I have news for you: it is 14 million. Or perhaps more – nobody really knows. How could this be? In the last official census in 2001, it was 9.4m - how can there be such a discrepancy? How could it rise by ½ in a mere 3 years?

What happens is that the nation’s capital – with its own territory and National Capital Commission – is one of the richest cities in the country. The civil service and bureaucracy and attendant armies of salarymen make the city one of the best paid in the country and also the one with some of the highest prices. It thus keeps attracting vast numbers of people into it from all around, and there are few ways of halting or slowing this explosive growth.

That’s the basic reason for the water, and the power, and the traffic, and all the other crises that Delhi is besieged by, according to The Times of India. You might reasonably ask why this is inevitable.

Delhi is officially 1483 square miles large and 239 meters above sea level. It has a population density of 6,139 people per square mile, and a literacy rate of 76.1% (all 2001 figures). Look at a map of Delhi and you see lots of things called Colonies (strange in a former colony), Enclaves, Extensions. I work in a place called “Green Park Extension”. Suburbs seem to have grown up as planned communities, each with their own name, and then rapidly get absorbed into the enormous mass of the city. Lodi Colony. Defence Colony. South Ex. Greater Kailash. Vasant Vihar. Civil Lines.

And everywhere in the city there is encroachment. What the hell? Encroachment is when someone who has rights to do one thing in the city, does something more than what they’re supposed to. Or someone has no rights just decides to grab what they can. So it is that in most places in the city, you will see people living in the street, next to well appointed houses and streets. Often there will be some derelict land owned by the city – and people just set up tents, lean-tos, shacks, shanties, corrugated metal, tarp or plastic sheeting, wherever it is. Against a fence is a favourite place – you already have one of your four walls in that case!

But apart from trespass, shopkeepers encroach on roads, shop fronts, tiny alleyways, with their goods. Give people a centimetre, and they’ll take 10 kilometres.

The blame for this is kind of shared – between the City, the politicians, the people themselves, and I guess various shadowy figures, such as the land mafia. The City has regulations but not the people to enforce them and, when it has the people, still allows them to be bribed to waive regulations and turn a blind eye. The politicians pander to whatever constituency will give them the most advantage. The people themselves either decide to move to the City in search of work or have no work in the rural areas so move to the cities in desperation – there’s a lot of that. The land mafia are illegally, and continually, indulging in land speculation by buying land near the city and populating it as fast as possible, charging the people they illegally cram into their microdot of space.

Bribery is rife. For example, this Monday, it rained a lake in Green Park, and I had the bus ride from hell in the evening. Draughty bus with a windscreen missing, part of the roof missing, and it was pouring with rain. Then, to top it off, we had a maniac driver driving faster than I’d seen a bus go in this city. Fearing for my life, I was relieved when we slowed down and came to a stop in Tughlaq Road, then puzzled when the driver and two conductors got off for about 10 minutes. I looked quizzically at one of my fellow passengers, and he said, “the police have stopped them, that’s all.”

Me: “It’s because the driver was speeding, right?”

Him (pityingly and amused at my Western viewpoint): “Oh, no, it’s not that. You see, the Traffic Police stop them every week, or every month for…their payment.” Ah.

Lanes, streets, pavements, everything gets encroached upon. That’s why everyone walks in the damn road – someone or something is always on the pavement, except in the wide avenues of South Delhi. People sleep by the roads, on the pavements, on the roundabouts, anywhere. Too many people!!! And, of course, they bring their children and livestock with them – we have a couple of cows in the street outside. No wonder the services of the city are creaking, straining, stretched to the limit.

Doesn’t anyone do anything about this? Yes, of course: in a spectacular drive, the Development Authority removed, between 21 and 26 July, a mass of encroachments, especially in the meat and poultry, the baans-balli, and the fruit and vegetable markets, in Noida, a town just outside Delhi. Then, interference and influence of local political leaders led to about half the timber market, 1/3 of the meat market and sabzi mandi, and nearly all the cloth market returning. “Some political leaders have been inciting the encroachers, who form a strong vote bank for them,” explained one official.

You see, the city sprawls, spreads out over the plain, organic and constantly growing, a gigantic monster from some science fiction film, engulfing everything in its wake, the Delhi blob, a molten lava of people, dwellings, services, shops, enveloping everything. No sooner has a line been drawn in the sand (literally) than another one gets drawn.

14 million. Larger than London. Half the population of Canada, in this one spot on earth. And increasing at 1.5m – 2m people a year.