Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Delhi Journal 2007

This is the concluding part of Delhi Journal 2007 and is divided into two parts. It was penned down long ago, but due to extremely busy schedule (or laziness?) of the author, was lying around unedited. Since I realized that it is time to post my recent experiences in summer 2008, I could not delay any longer.

Part I: In and around Delhi

Last time I had visited the capital city as a tourist, I was 2 and half years old. So I needed to freshen up my memories about the wonders offered by Delhi. It was surprising how we all managed to squeeze in sight seeing schedules in between our busy workplace routine.

The hostel where we were staying was located in Mandir Marg, so named because of the presence of a number of temples on that street. We were flanked on one side by the New Delhi Kalibari and on the other by the Birla Mandir. Visiting the Kalibari in the evening for the sandhya arti (evening prayer) became almost a daily affair, since this place, teeming with Bengalis from all over the city reminded us of our dear old Calcutta. The overwhelming chatter in my language sometimes made me forget that I was in a different part of the country. I was also privileged to witness the Basanti Puja, being celebrated here on the occasion of Ram Navami.
The beautiful Birla Mandir, constructed in 1938, by BD Birla, was a big tourist attraction, always receiving scores of desi and videsi tourists. It was a big landmark too. All we had to tell the autowallahs was ‘Birla Mandir chaliye’ and we would reach our hostel from any part of Delhi.
Another worshipping place near our hostel was Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. This sacred gurudwara commemorates the visit of Sri Guru Harkrishan Sahib Ji to Delhi in the year 1664 at the request of Emperor Aurangzeb and Mirza Raja Jai Singh of Amber. In those days, Delhi was suffering from the epidemic of small pox, which claimed many lives. Guruji, out of love and compassion dipped his holy feet in water and poured it into a tank. It is said that whoever took that water was cured of the disease. Eating at the langar of the Gurudwara along with numerous devotees was undoubtedly a memorable experience.
A quick day at the Supreme Court one day prompted my friends and me to explore the magnifient Red Fort. Its sand stonewalls extend for 2 km and vary in height from 18m on the riverside to 33m on the city side. Emperor Shah Jahan never completely moved his capital from Agra to his new city of Shahjahanabad in Delhi because he was deposed and imprisoned in Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb was the first and last great Mughal emperor to rule from here.
Immediately upon entering through the Lahori gate (so named because it faces towards Lahore), we found ourselves in the Chatta Chowk, selling all kinds of fancy traditional stuff. Inside, we visited an Indian War Memorial Museum, which housed interesting relics from the past.
We then went to Diwan-I-Am, or the Hall of Public Audience, where the emperor used to sit to hear complaints of his subjects. The once beautifully decorated hall has now lost its grandeur, with most of the jewels being looted during the 1857 uprising. The Diwan-I-Khas, or Hall of Private Audience is constructed of white marble, whose central attraction used to be the famous peacock throne.
We also had a peek at the Moti Masjid, the private mosque of Aurangzeb. We overheard the guide explaining to a group of firang tourists that its outer walls are oriented exactly with the rest of the fort, but the inner walls are slightly askew, so that it has the requisite orientation with Mecca.
One Saturday saw us visiting the beautiful Akshardham Swaminarayan Temple, situated on the way to Noida, just beside the site for Commonwealth Games 2010. It is a magnificent structure in pink and red stone, with intricate carvings all over. A terrorist attack on the Akshardham Temple of Gujarat had prompted very tight security and stringent body frisking here. We bought a combined ticket each, which enabled us to attend the Hall of Values to witness attainment of Sahajanand (easy happiness), watch a movie screening named Neelkanth Darshan, on the life and journey of Swaminarayan Akshardham, a boat ride through the history of Indian civilization named Sanskruti Vihar and a stroll around the perfectly manicured lawns among other things. At the end of the experience, my friend rightly summed up the whole thing: “It is a religious theme park”!

Our next stop for the day was the towering Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. It is a fine example of the architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan. It has three gateways, four towers and two minarets standing 40m high and is constructed of alternating strips of red sandstone and marble. We were told that the impressive courtyard of the mosque could hold 25,000 people approximately at a time. The water of the tank in the middle of the mosque was being used for washing hands, feet, face and... also gurgling! (ugh)
I climbed the southern minaret along with two of my friends. The climb was an exhausting one, with people moving both ways in that small circular stairway and in absolute darkness. But the view of the Red Fort and the city from the top was breathtaking. I captured it through the lens while I perched precariously on one foot and balancing my camera with one hand. I was pointed out one of the striking features of Edwin Lutyens architecture – that the Jama Masjid, Connaught place and Sansad Bhawan are in a straight line.

The immensely broad Rajpath where the republic day parade is held always fascinated me since my childhood days when I used to watch the spectacular procession on TV. On the eastern end stands India Gate, a 42m high stone memorial arch bearing names of around 90,000 Indian army soldiers who died in World War I, the North-western Frontier operations and the 1919 Afghan War. The sprawling greenery made it a favourite headway on days of holidays, to laze around and chat with friends. It reminded me of our very own Victoria Memorial and Maidan in Kolkata.

While going to the Supreme Court, we passed the Jantar mantar everyday, but never had the chance to get down to explore. Constructed in 1725, it is one of the observatories of Maharaja Jai Singh II. It has a giant sundial and other instruments to plot the course of heavenly bodies and predict eclipses. It is definitely an outstanding example of India’s progress in science even in those days.

On April 14, we decided to celebrate Bengali New Year’s Day by visiting the Qutub Minar. This imposing tower along with the many buildings, situated in Mehrauli, date from the onset of Muslim rule in India and so reflect early Afghan architecture. The Minar is a tower of victory that was started in 1193, after the defeat of the last Hindu kingdom of India. It is nearly 73m high and tapers from a 15m diameter at the base to just 2.5m at the top. It has five distinct storeys, each marked by a projecting balcony. The first three are made of red sandstone while the 4th and the 5th storeys are made of marble and sandstone. We noticed that it had a slight tilt, but otherwise can be said to have worn the centuries really well.
At the foot of the Minar, stands the first mosque to be built in India, the Quwwat-ul-Masjid. We were surprised to find many elements of Hindu architecture in this mosque. The answer was provided by an inscription, which informed that it was built with materials obtained from demolishing 27 idolatrous temples.
The famous Iron Pillar, with a height of 7 meter, stands in the courtyard of this mosque. A 6 line Sanskrit inscription indicated that it was initially erected outside a Vishnu temple and was raised in the memory of King Chandragupta II. The marvel lies in the iron, which has not rusted even after 2,000 years and the fact that it was cast using the technology of that time. No doubt, it stands as an example of India’s glorious advancements made in chemistry and metallurgy.

Alauddin had plans for a second victory tower, which was supposed to be twice as high as the Qutub Minar. At the time of his death, the tower reached 27 meter but was not completed. The Qutub Minar complex also houses the tombs of Imam Zamin and Altamash, the magnificient Alai Darwaza and other such wonderful edifices.

I also used to pass by the Rastrapati Bhawan, Sansad Bhawan, Secretarial Buildings, all representating Delhi as the political epicenter of India. I had to give places like Humayun Tomb, Lodi Garden, Safdarjang Tomb, Lotus Temple etc a miss due to paucity of time, but definitely hope to visit them next time I am there.

Part II: Destination Agra

It was a Saturday when all eight of us had an off day at office together. We immediately decided to make a one-day trip to Agra. Little did we know then that it was going to the most memorable part of our summer rendezvous.
It was 5 am and completely dark when three of us left our hostel and took an auto for the Nizamuddin station. There we met up with our other friends, two other girls and three guys and got tickets for the Taj Express. At around 9 am, we all landed up at Agra Cantonment and realized to our horror, that Uttar Pradesh elections were being conducted in the city that very day. As a result, there was no mode of transport for us at the station. After negotiation and lots of persuasion, all eight of us squeezed in ONE ambassador car and set off for our sightseeing. Matters worsened when we started feeling the unbearable heat of 46º Celsius later in the day but had no option but to travel in that one car.
We were also informed that the whole city of Agra had been taken over by RAF to combat violence during the elections and the road to Fatehpur Sikri had been blocked. We all agreed that we could not have ben to Agra on a worse day! Despite all such odds, this trip to Agra became one of our most favourites.
Our first stop was the magnificent Agra Fort, the seat of power for most of the Mughal emperors. This massive and breathtaking edifice, built of red sandstone and marble rise over 20m in height and measures 2.5km in circumference. The gates of the fort open into an esplanade, which lead into the different mahals. The noteworthy of them are the Diwan-I-Am and the Diwan-I Khas. The latter had the peacock throne till the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb moved it to the Red Fort. Another magnificent and famous part of the Fort is the Shisha Mahal. It is inlaid with tiny mirrors and was made a household name in India by the Bollywood movie Mughal-e-Azam. Unfortunately for us, it was closed for renovation then. We also visited the tiny and exquisite Nagina Mosque, which was built for the ladies of the court.
We climbed up to the Musamman Burj and Khas Mahal, the white marble octagonal towers and palace where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for 8 years and from where he could look out to Taj Mahal.
The garden Anguri Bagh, in the courtyards of the harem quarters has been restored and looked well maintained. It was the same garden where Akbar and his Rajput wife Jodhabai were shown romancing in the movie Jodha Akbar.
The huge and spectacular Jahangiri Mahal was built by Akbar for his son, and blends Hindu and Central Asian styles of architecture. In front of this mahal, there is a huge bowl, carved out of a single block of stone, which is believed to have stored water for bathing.
A quick stop at a restaurant for lunch refreshed us for the next part of the journey – the Taj Mahal. Described ‘a teardrop on the face of eternity’ by Rabindranath Tagore and ‘the embodiment of all things pure’ by Rudyard Kipling, it has evoked admiration from generations of visitors worldwide.
It was built by Shah Jahan for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631. Its construction started in the same year and finished in 1653, using 20,000 people and spending almost Rs. 3 million.
It ornamental gardens are set out along the classical Mughal charbagh lines - a square quartered by watercourses, with an ornamental marble plinth at the centre. To the west there is a small mosque, which houses original architectural drawings of the Taj.
The raised Taj Mahal with the sky as the only backdrop, along with the four minarets are a sight to behold. We also learnt that the slightly slanting minarets were designed so that in case of an earthquake they will fall away from the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is a perfect exercise in symmetry, the only aberration being the cenotaph of Shah Jahan. The real tombs of Mumtaj and Shah Jahan are in a locked basement room and cannot be viewed by common public.
The excruciatingly hot marble badly scorched my bare feet while I tried hopping around in the Taj Mahal in the afternoon sun. After a brief relaxation in the cool shades, it was time for us to head towards the station and back to Delhi. Despite boarding the train at 5 pm with general tickets, we reached Delhi at around 10 pm sitting in the sleeper compartment! (That was achieved only after paying some 30 bucks per head to the TTE) We had dinner at a tiny restaurant near the New Delhi Railway Station and finally reached our hostel at 11 pm. None of us were carrying our cell phones, for the fear of losing money in roaming. So when we called up our respective parents that late, we all got a piece of their minds. At the end, we realized that we had toured Agra on the day of elections, with RAF all over the city, in 46º Celcius temperature and all eight of us in one ambassador. Well, that sums up our trip to Agra nicely.

1 comment:

What's In A Name ? said...

How could you have remembered so many details ???? Reads like an elaborate trivia.

and yes, regarding the erratic posting..... too little too late.