Kolkata is green. I was surrounded by trees. You could hear the sun rise through bird calls. As in all Indian cities, the most numerous were the crows. But the greenery just outside the window meant that you could not miss their activity. In this season it was nesting. It seemed that every crow was in search of long thin twigs with which they build their untidy nests. Crows don’t seem to have a sense of which twig they need, and often try to pull fairly thick twigs out of trees. Continue reading “Bird sounds”
I’m briefly in Kolkata on work. It is always interesting to be in this city. There is an initial shock when you come on to the city’s narrow roads: SUVs share the road with rickshaws, bicycles and forty-year old yellow cabs.
But when you think about it, there’s nothing particularly different about this city. The traffic is certainly no worse than in Bangalore, perhaps even slightly better. There is less aggression on the road than in Delhi. Urban decay is no worse than in most parts of Mumbai. There are malls and coffee shops all over town. But there are parts of Kolkata which look the same as they did 30 years back: narrow roads, lines of shops in single story structures. The shops open late, because shop keepers are of the opinion that having a good life is more important than getting richer.
The combination of the bicycle and the locked door of a shop is quintessentially Kolkata.
Walking in the parks of Delhi felt different from Mumbai. I mentally dialled up the temperature to sweltering Mumbai. I let my mind subtract out the people who seemed to just hang around and soak up the sun. I subtracted the smell of smoke and added in the smell of drying fish. It still felt different.
The answer did not come to me in a brilliant flash. I worried at it until I realized that it was something about bird calls. Delhi and Mumbai both have their share of bird pests: crows, kites, parakeets and pigeons. The ones in Mumbai are Blue Rock Pigeons, roughly like in the photo here. They make cooing sounds when they land next to their mate, but are otherwise quite silent. Even when two of them are scrapping, you only hear the frantic flapping of their wings.
Delhi’s pigeons seem to have escaped from breeders more recently. They are often black and white, sometimes more black, at other times more white. But they call while flying. That’s the harmony of the city which I was not able to put a finger on until I started explaining this to The Family.
A week from now I’ll be in West Sikkim. Time to brush up on my Dzongkha. All I remember from my trips to Bhutan are three phrases: kuzu zangpo for welcome, kadrin chhe for thank you, and tashi delek for good luck. Tibetan also has the phrase tashi delek with more or less the same meaning. Fortunately, the omniscient Google pointed me to a Dzongkha phrasebook. Continue reading “Brushing up on Dzongkha”
I more or less finished a one semester course on elementary spoken Chinese and another which taught me how to write about 50 characters, and build words with them. Now that the end of the course is about two months in the past, I realize that I’m back where I started: I can barely read and write Chinese. Last week I tried to say a few words to a couple of Chinese friends and failed miserably in communicating with them. Almost everything I memorized has disappeared.
So I was happy to read what I understand is a famous article: Why Chinese is so damn hard. If you are struggling with Chinese, it is good to read this article.
This arch is a wonderful example of medieval Indian architecture. It is a true arch, with a cleanly shaped keystone. The true arch paired with the stylized lotus symbol is an example of Indo-Islamic architecture. I liked the slight disarray in this example. The stones are slightly mismatched, and the curtain above the arch is somewhat haphazard. It does not have the overwhelming grandeur of Mughal architecture. You can almost see the hands of the workers. This is the south-facing central arch beneath the dome of Sheesh Gumbad. Continue reading “Sheesh Gumbad”
The entrance to the Lodhi garden from the Lodhi road is called gate number 1. Very close to this, and overlooking Lodhi road is the tomb of Muhammad Mubarak Sayyid. Having become an avid walker-through-Lodhi-garden this week, I found twenty minutes to walk through the garden between breakfast and the meetings, so I walked up to this structure. At first sight it is a simple enough ruin. Once you start looking at the details, it is no longer so simple.
First, you see the glorious full dome. I learnt from Percival Spear the difference between a full dome and a half dome. The outline of a full dome traces out a semi-circle. The outline of a half dome is less than a semi-circle. This full dome sits on a cylinder (called a drum) lying above a building base in the shape of a regular octagon. The dome is surmounted by a lotus flower, and surrounded by smaller domes called chhatris. The purpose of the chhatris is to draw attention from the drum.
The railing around the drum is beautiful: full of abstract geometrical relief and Persian writing worked out in plaster. The morning sun lit up parts of the railing, throwing the plaster work into relief. I wish I could read Persian/Arabic, so that I could decipher the beautiful plaster work. You can’t call this calligraphy; should one call it plaster writing instead?
The graves inside the tomb are simple affairs: sporting writing which I cannot read. A verandah runs around the octagon. The pillars form lovely vaultings across the ceiling. I noticed that thse vaults are beautifully decorated. I took a photo of one of these decorations, and then decided I had to hurry on to my morning’s meeting.
On my trips out of Delhi I have often been stuck on the outer ring road with a view of red sandstone walls, which my taxi driver has pointed out as Humayun’s tomb. The tomb of this Mughal emperor, the second of the six great Mughals, was the third stop on my slow tour of New Delhi. This is a world heritage site. After rushing though it on a little break from my meetings I think this may be the best example of Mughal architecture, certainly comparable to the Taj Mahal.
Before your come to the emperor’s tomb, you pass a gateway on your right which leads to Isa Khan’s tomb (photo above). This is almost a piece of Lodhi architecture: a dome sits above a building on an octagonal base. The architectural novelty is the remnants of blue tiles on the dome and arches, and the fact that the main dome is a full dome: its outline a complete semi-circle. I walked in, and was very impressed by the lattice work on the windows and the calligraphy and decorations on the prayer niche next to the grave. Isa Khan’s tomb is undergoing restoration right now. The little that has been done looks very nice. I hope it is authentic: in design as well as material and technique.
I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that noblemen and emperors have tombs, when the Quran clearly says that people must be buried under the sky. A guard in the tomb of Isa Khan threw some light on this when he explained that the dome is a representation of the hemisphere of the heavens, so that in a technical sense the noblemen are buried under the sky. Next to the tomb of Isa Khan is a mosque, with beautiful glazed tiles on the arches. The colours seemed too bright to be original. Do you know whether these tiles are original 16th century work or later a restoration?
You exit the way you came in. The path leads through a beautiful white gate. This gate looked too perfect to be a 16th century structure; it is possibly a very recent restoration. When you walk past it there is a wonderful gate on the right. I walked in through it and into a little courtyard with very uneven flagstones. Just beyond the door was a collapsed dome (see photo alongside). Beyond was a little garden called Bu Halima’s garden. The gate has a lovely balcony with brackets.
Before you enter the gates to the gardens surrounding the emperor’s tomb there is another little gate to the right. Percival Spear says that the structures behind this door are the remnants of a little Serai built by Hamida Banu Begum, the wife of Humayun and the mother of Akbar, for Arab pilgrims. In the Oxford India paperback edition of Spear’s book, Delhi- Its Monuments and History, which I have, Naryani Gupta adds an intriguing footnote: " Or [for] Persian architects working on the tomb?" The relevant piece of information here is that Hamida Banu Begum caused Humayun’s tomb to be built.
I exited from Bu Halima’s garden and walked down the path leading to the entrance to the Emperor’s tomb. Although the walk was crowded, I could walk down the center of the path, clicking photos as I went. From here you see the great dome of the tomb behind a sandstone and marble screen. Already you see Mughal architecture in full bloom. This is clearly the tradition which would lead in a couple of generations to the heart-stopping beauty of the Taj Mahal. As you walk down the path you have time to take in the marble inlays which trace out the star of David on the massive screen. It turns out to be an ancient Arab cosmic symbol, perhaps pre-dating Islam and even Judaism. Do you know the symbolism of this six-pointed star?
I stepped through the doorway in the screen and had a heart-stopping reaction which I’ve only had twice before: once when I saw the Taj Mahal for the first time, and then when I saw Michelangelo’s Last Pieta. On those two occasions The Family was with me, and she turned to me and asked “Why are you crying?”. This time I was alone, and I did not have to fumble to explain the immense emotional impact of what I saw before me. The photo above does not do justice to the impact that the monument has on you when you step through the screen and see it for the first time.
I can fully understand the emotional response which leads tourists to take photos of each other, and themselves in selfies, in front of this structure. I waited patiently before the central pool for a gap to take a photo of the tomb reflected in the pool surrounding the fountains.
I see that crowds have become more civilized since the time I’d first visited the Taj Mahal. Then there was a great jostling near the pool in front of the tomb. Now the crowd gave each other space to take their own photos. Is this the effect of face book? Does everyone realize that you not only post your photos, but also like others’? Whatever the reason, I was happy that I could spend time composing the photo that you see alongside.
The tomb stands on a platform, like all Mughal structures. I climbed up on this. Then there is a further climb along a steep flight of stairs until you reach the level of the grave. There is a broad terrace at this level. I’d climbed up the western stairs; now I walked to the north and continued in the same way to walk right around the structure. The square structure of the tomb is perfectly symmetric. There are steps leading down from each side, and the gardens below are laid out symmetrically, with water channels leading down a central avenue and then branching out to the garden. I came to the southern face and found an open door to the grave. The roof of the vestibule had the wonderful decoration which you see in the photo alongside.
The central chamber holds the grave of the emperor (photo alongside). I’ve stood next to the grave of the emperor Shah Jahan in the Taj Mahal, of Akbar in Agra, and of Aurangzeb outside modern-day Aurangabad. The grave of the second Mughal emperor of India did not move me as much as the building which surrounds it. I was relieved by this sanity check: when I saw the tomb I was not moved by power as much as art.
I wandered around the interlinked rooms which contain other graves. The lack of an ability to read Persian handicaps you; I don’t know who else is buried here. I walked out and exited through the western stairs. The steepness makes it difficult to climb down quickly: you don’t want to tumble down and break your neck like Humayun did. I exited in a cacophony of languages: I could recognize the sounds of Meitei, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Danish, French, English, Punjabi and Hindi. That’s a lot of tourists, from across India as well as the world.
My walk through this enclosure had taken me somewhat over an hour. I realized that in three days I had covered about a century of history: the earliest were the Lodhi tombs from the late 15th century CE, then the buildings in Purana Qila, dating from the early part of the 16th century CE, and now the beginning of the High Mughal period of architecture, from the late 16th century. There is still a later period that I want to explore in the one more day I have in Delhi.
I took a short break in the meetings to visit Purana Qila. This little mound may have been Delhi’s first entry into history; the archaeological museum inside has artifacts from the middle of the first millennium CE found in digs conducted here. The walled enclosure and most surviving structures come from the time of Sher Shah (1486-1545) and are among Delhi’s final burst of architectural creativity before the Mughal monuments.
The entrance to the Purana Qila is right next to the zoo. This confused the driver of the taxi I was on. With a little verbal prodding I managed to get him out of the zoo and point the nose of the car at the correct gate. There was a short, quickly moving, queue for tickets. From here you walk uphill to the very impressive western gate. A little board just inside of it says that this gate was built by Humayun. Apparently Humayun had just built the ramparts and this gate before Sher Shah attacked and drove him out to briefly become of the Emperor of the country.
The gardens inside the ramparts are blanketed with grass. The most beautiful structure inside the walled city is Sher Shah’s mosque, called the Qila-e-Kuhna masjid. You walk up to it from the back (west) and a path leads you around to the front. This initial sight of the mosque from the back is very interesting. The first thing one notices is that the rubble walls of the Lodhi tombs have been replaced by dressed stone. Next, you see that the built-in minaret no longer mirrors the Qutb Minar. Then, you notice the brackets which hold up the balcony would not have looked out of place in a temple. And, finally, you see the pointed arches in the towers at the corners. This fusion is one of the reasons why Percival Spear called this mosque a flowering of the Indo-Persian style of architecture. Finally, when you follow the path around to the front, you see the breathtaking facade (photo above) and you begin to realize why this was called a flowering.
The central arch is breathtaking. The photo above gives just a little inkling of the intricate decoration you see. The red sandstone and white marble are mixed with a grey and a yellow stone to build up the wonderful geometric tessellations which you see. These, together with the balcony and its brackets, and the two lotus decorations: again remind you that this is the fusion known as Indo-Persian style. The beautiful stone work makes the mosque look as bright today as it must have been in Sher Shah’s time.
The prayer niches inside also glow with the natural colours of the stone. They are largely made of marble, and the other three colours of stone are used to create beautiful geometric patterns. The contrast of the marble with the red sandstone would continue to be used in Mughal architecture. But the intricate jewel-brightness of this mosque is not something I have seen in any other structure.
South of the mosque is a two-storied building faced in red sandstone, with magnificent pointed arches. Visitors are no longer allowed inside. This is presumably Humayun’s library. A piece of morbid history clings to this lovely building: the emperor died when he slipped while hurrying down its stairs. Obviously, this happened after he won back his empire from Sher Shah. I haven’t yet found out who built this library building.
I walked around this building and continued south towards the gate called Sher Shah’s gate. An amphitheater has now been built around its ruins to seat people during light and sound shows at night. Some cupolas still remain (see photo alongside). If you go around the seats, and take a few steps up the wall, you can look south and get a view of Humayun’s tomb. I was here on a clear and windy day. I wonder whether you see anything on the typical smoggy day in Delhi.
I turned around and walked to the northern gate: called Talaaqi darwaza. Legend says that Sher Shah ordered it to be closed until his return when he rode away to his last battle against the Mughals. The Mughals won, and this gate remains closed even today. The gate is similar to the south gate, but better preserved. One can still see the plaster and decorations on the inner walls (photo alongside). There is no eastern gate, since the mound overlooked the Jamuna river when it was built. The river has moved away by now. The eastern ramparts are in ruins.
I was not sure whether the trip to Purana Qila would be interesting. It turned out to be the perfect link between the ruins in the Lodhi garden and the exquisite tomb of Humayun.
It’s lucky that I am in Delhi and staying in a place close enough to work that I can walk to my meetings after breakfast every day. I count myself even luckier that I can walk to work through Lodhi Garden. The garden was first laid out in 1936, then landscaped again by a Japanese team in the 1950s, then finally re-designed in 1968 by Joseph Stein and Garrett Eckbo. This garden is not just about geese. It also has some beautiful architecture from the 15th century Sayyid dynasty. In their brief flowering this Afghan dynasty built hundreds of monuments, and this is probably the best place to see some. Yesterday I walked past the Bada Gumbad, and marked it out as a building which I would like to explore later.
At breakfast today I looked through Percival Spear’s book called "Delhi, Its Monuments and History". I’d bought the Oxford India paperback edition of the book a decade ago on my first holiday in Delhi. Now I carry this with me as my personal Guide Bleu to Delhi. Following Spear’s directions I first paused to look at the beautiful proportions of the gateway (photo on top), and to find that the outline of the dome is indeed less than a semicircle. I took a close look at the building materials: the walls were rubble and there was no marble anywhere; the Sayyid dynasty was not rich enough. Then I walked around to the west and saw the remarkable wall whose photo you can see above. The minarets at the corners are modelled after the Qutb Minar! Spear says that this is typical of the architecture of this dynasty. The three domes you see in the photo above stand atop the mosque which is the main part of this structure.
I walked around to the south where steps lead up to the mosque. There was a photo shoot in progress. I looked at the models, and then at the mosque, and decided that I would rather photograph the beautiful arches. You can see the central arch to the mosque in the photo above. I wish I could read the calligraphy worked into the plaster facing. Above the arch is one of those master works of Persian calligraphy: words worked into a circle. One of the circles has been cut away. I wonder where it is now. The flagstones were uneven, and I had to step carefully. Is that the effect of time, or of stonemasons who were not very skilled?
It took me less than half an hour to walk around the Bada Gumbad. Another building in the garden tomorrow morning.