Mohenjo-daro: a Different Vision

A non-artist like me thinks of animals as they are normally shown in photos or paintings. This iconography, the way of representing animals, differs only slightly across the Eurasian continent; cheetahs painted by Delacroix differ slightly from those shown in Mughal miniatures. But when you come across a representation from a entirely different culture, you realize with a shock that there are other ways of seeing. The four and half thousand year old tiny terracotta head of a bull that you can see in the featured photo shocked me, when I recognized what I was looking at. This was, literally, an eye opener.

The Family and I were in Delhi for a baking hot weekend, and took refuge in the Indian Museum one afternoon. I had wanted to go there for long, and The Family wanted to go back and see the Indus Valley galleries. At its peak, this civilization spread far beyond the core Indus river valley, to cover a region from Afghanistan to modern day Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat in India, and supported a population of about five million people. The high period of the civilization is usually taken to be 2600 to 1600 BCE. All the photos you see in this post are of artifacts from this era.

Oxen from the Indus civilization, National Museum, Delhi

The representation of oxen, widely observed farm animals, are beautiful. They emphasize the massive power of the beasts. It is remarkable that this degree of beautiful modelling is visible in a tiny piece which is less than 4 cms in size. That is the larger piece. The smaller one is a little larger than a cm!

If we persist in thinking about the Indus civilization in terms of land area and land routes, it is blindness on our part. The Indus people were sea farers. Water trade between Indus cities played a major role in commerce and full-fledged ports for sea-going vessels have also been excavated in Gujarat. I saw a seal (larger than life sized picture here) with clearly marine motifs: a starfish surrounded by fish, an eel and seaweed.

Two indus figurines, National Museum, DelhiWhen I first looked at the little figure which you see at the top of this image, I thought it was a deer or an antelope. The Family read the label and exclaimed "Rhino!" Indeed it is, as you can see from the horn sprouting from its forehead. The massive body is the second, and relatively minor, clue. The other figure is a farm animal, as you can see from the decorative strips of cloth draped across its back. It took me a while to figure out what the prominent snout and large ears tell us. Do you recognize it?

Another fact about this four to five thousand year old civilization which we may forget is that the towns and villages of that time were situated in the middle of cleared forests. The large-scale clearing of forests in India has happened within living memory. My parents remember seeing herds of antelope from a passing train, or a leopard slinking away from the headlights of a car. The Indus civilization left reminders of its highly forested environment in numerous tiny terra cotta figures of wild animals. The armadillo you see in the photo above is just one example.

The collection of the National Museum is vast, and we spent more than a couple of hours just peering at the tiny terra cotta seals and figurines in the part of the museum which deals with the Indus valley civilization. It will take us the reminder of our lifetime to walk through this museum.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.

Strike a gong

On recent visits to Delhi I’ve managed to catch up with This Niece who’s studying architecture. When I told her about dinners at the India Habitat Center, she said she wanted to come with me the next time I went. So one hot afternoon this weekend we went for lunch at the IHC.

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit
Deplores this stupid habit.
In Hong-Kong
They strike a gong and
Fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who’s in late
—Noel Coward (1931)

While the rest of Delhi was baking in the super-40 temperature, there was a breeze through the linked atria of the centre. As we walked through them, The Family and I looked at the organizations which have their offices there: Housing Development and Finance, The Energy and Resources Institute, the NCR planning Board, are part of an interesting set of environment, planning and development organizations which sit there.

The radical building from the early nineties is typical of the architectural practice of Joseph Allen Stein: the brick facade broken by the tiny accents of coloured tiles whose differences mark which atrium you are in, and the remarkable melding of inside and outside. This Niece walked around exclaiming about this feature and that: the framework with sunscreens which you see overhead (featured photo) came in for several comments. The Family remarked on how that lets in enough light for plants to grow by. We stood and watched a group of young people preparing a stage for a play in a sunken amphitheatre built into one of the atria. Eventually we left when we ran out of water to drink.

Above Delhi

I was so tired of travelling in the last two weeks that I stopped packing my camera. So, when I found myself sleeping on the seventeenth floor of a hotel in central Delhi, I was not really prepared to take a photo of my unusual location.

Why unusual? Because Delhi is largely made of low buildings, which race across two neighbouring states, assimilating villages like the Borg. Only central Delhi grows upwards. The profits involved in building high in this tiny area are such that the stringent rules about safety in an earthquake-prone area do not deter builders.

My hotel room was deep with a narrow floor-to-ceiling window. Many lights needed to be kept on constantly to make it liveable. The thick heat-retaining walls required more electricity to cool it. Like all modern hotels, the structure was completely sealed off from the external world. The yellow and red buildings which you can see in the featured photo seem to be similar in spirit (although window air conditioners in some of them are incongruous). The building with hexagonal openings on alternate floors is a bureaucratic nod to "Indian" design which gone out of fashion.

Every building I could see went up beyond seven floors. I counted eleven floors and more in many of them. I was in one which went up beyond twenty. Delhi is definitely growing up!

Chandni Chowk

Sunehri masjid is linked to Nadir Shah's sack of Delhi

Chandni Chowk was the centre of Delhi after Shah Jahan moved his capital to the walled city in 1639, and before Imperial Britain built a new capital a few miles to the west in the early 20th century. This is the area west of the Lahori gate of the red fort and north of the Jama Masjid. A walking tour of Chandni Chowk naturally starts from the Sunehri Masjid: a beautifully proportioned mosque with golden domes in old paintings, now fallen on hard times. If the story of Nadir Shah standing next to the domes on the roof of the mosque to survey the massacre which he had commanded is true, then at one time it would have dominated the area. Now, as I emerged from the exit lane of the Chandi Chowk metro and looked at the mosque this was no longer the case. Mughal architecture blended use with aesthetics; when the mosque was built the space was surely sufficient for the devout. That aesthetics is completely lost in the extensions made to the mosque in order to cater to the increased population.

Sisganj gurudwara is a major landmark

More striking today is the Sis Ganj gurudwara which stands next to it. It must have been a special day; the gurudwara was decorated with balloons and buntings. I realized that a large part of the crowd in the Metro was headed here when a young mother of two finely dressed children asked me which exit led to the gurudwara. I’d just read the directions, so I was able to tell her to take exit 5, as I did. A gurudwara was first built here in 1783 CE, in memory of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, who was beheaded here on the orders of Aurangzeb. The present structure was built in 1930. I discovered the news, known to all Delhiwalas, that the gurudwara has become a bit controversial recently by building unauthorised extensions.

Street scene: sardarji and rickshaw

Traffic barely moves in this crowded road, there’s such a muddle of bicycles, cars, rickshaws, carts, three-wheelers and pedestrians. Notions of lanes and priority perhaps never arose in the days when this area was less densely populated, and were never internalised later. The chaos gave me ample opportunity to do surreptitious people watching. I liked this forbidding old Sikh gentleman in white striding down the road, ignoring the traffic. Even the young rickshaw-wala in the photo seems to be a little wary of him.

Kinari bazaar: bling market

Instead of walking on to the Red Fort, I turned right on Dariba Kalan. It is not hard to find: the lane runs between a lovely but crumbling red building with a post-office, and the area’s most famous jalebiwala. I’ve already written about this little eatery. I walked through this narrow lane and turned into the longest bling market in Delhi: the Kinari bazaar. Tourist agencies try to push this as a market destination. In fact, only a movie or wedding set decorator would shop here. It is interesting to walk through this crowded bazaar just looking at people and their lives. I’d chosen a time when the sky was beginning to get dark, and the lights in the shops were coming on. Crowds were at their lowest; it was getting close to the time for an evening snack.

Kachoriwala corner

Every few steps there was a little shop selling kachoris and samosas. Judging by the crowds, it doesn’t look like any shop is particularly better than another. Each seems to have a few regular customers and a few walk-ins. The shops don’t seem to innovate either: they concentrate on getting the kachoris just so, for their loyal followers. There are probably neighbourhood rivalries about which shop has better food. As far as I could tell, it would need a lifetime of training your palate to tell the difference between them. This is a world so far removed from that of malls and food courts, that it is a wonder that the two exist in the same city at the same time.

Door in a haveli off Kinari bazaar Beautiful arches in a dilapidated building

If you are a student of architecture, then there are gems hidden away inside these narrow and smelly lanes. I peered past a gate which led off to a side lane and discovered a beautiful building with a blue door (photo above). Elsewhere a grand building with lovely arched verandas (above) was partitioned into tiny apartments. Stylistic differences which are visible even to an untrained eyes like mine would probably enable a knowledgeable person to peel away the centuries and imagine the area as it evolved over time. If someone offers a walk through this area to show such visions, I will queue up to take it. In its absence I go back every decade, after a little more reading.

Eating through centuries in Delhi

A break in frying parathas

2016-04-27 19.16.43Delhi takes its food seriously. The area around the Red Fort in Delhi was populated during Mughal times. It has seen the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739, and again by John Nicholson in 1857. The oldest food stall in this area was reputedly Ghantewala’s sweet shop, which claimed to have been founded in 1790. On my visit to Chandni Chowk a couple of days ago, I was told that it has shut down.

So I walked into a shop selling parathas in the little street called Parathewali Galli. It claimed to have been founded 15 years after the second sack of Delhi. It may not be the oldest establishment in the neighbourhood, but, like all the shops here, it has gone beyond the potato and cauliflower fillings which you get in most towns. This new age paratha comes with fillings that run from karela (bitter gourd) to okra to bananas. It is definitely worth trying out, especially if you have been eating the old parathas all your life.

2016-04-27 18.08.15Another old eatery in the same general area is the jalebiwallah near the Chandni Chowk post office. This claims to have been in this place since the mid 19th century. It has no lack of clientele. I was in a queue behind a couple of other tourists, who seemed to be Tamilians. While tourists try to make up their minds in the slow queue, the regulars get quicker service on the side. This is a standing only place. The Tamils took their jalebis and rabri off to a parked car. I had my jalebi standing at the corner. There is a drum nearby where you throw the paper plate, and a little tap next to it where you can wash your hands. I loved fact that the food came with this convenience.

Natural Ice Cream is an import from MumbaiWhen it comes to food, the Delhiwala is not insular; he will try out imports. Momos became popular in the 90s. Now, the Natural Ice Cream chain from Mumbai has made an entry into the posh outer circle of Connaught Place. I’ve never seen a Natural Ice Cream store in Mumbai which is half as big. This one sprawls across two floors, and seems to be perpetually crowded. I tried my favourite classic flavours: a scoop of fig and another of musk melon. They seemed to be the same as the Mumbai version. The first Naturals was the tiny hole in the wall in Juhu which started in 1984 and still does business. The franchises in Delhi started only in this decade.

Amazing that you can eat your way through more than a century of food styles in one evening in Delhi.

Sounds of cities

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.

Sheesh Gumbad


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”

A detour through the garden


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.

lodhitomb-domeFirst, 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.

lodhitomb-calliThe 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.

Humayun’s tomb

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.

isakhan-masjidI’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?

buhalimaYou 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.

humayun-screen 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.

reflectionI 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.

humayun-roof 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.

humayuns-grave 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.