There is something about the topography of land when you view it from above. Like carefully placed miniature tiles, the brown and beige of tilled farmlands is like an obscure piece of art as you view it from the sky. Flights can give you the immense joy of watching the world from the point of view of the creator, if you believe in one that is. Along the periphery of these tiled lands, lie channels of tributaries and water bodies, those at certain points dry out and meander around rock formations on the bed – making them look like an old lady’s wrinkled arm. An arm, that gently seems to wrap itself around neighboring landscape. As Delhi approaches, the topography changes to planned townships, clover shaped fly overs and steel and concrete high rises. The lower the flight gets, the denser the city gets. Through my window I spot the Qutub Minar and I have to silence the glee that is beginning to pour out. Touch Down!
It’s never a good feeling that the flu decides to become your constant companion just as you are about to embark on a journey! That depressing situation is exactly how my trip to New Delhi began. A photo festival offered me the perfect opportunity to run away and explore Delhi. I have been there a few times through the last 30 odd years, I had shopped in its endless markets and stayed there for long stretches of time on work, but never have I truly seen Delhi. Around every corner, history comes alive in every iota of Delhi. How does one begin to understand and unravel a city that is over 15 centuries old? A city that is believed to have been the capital of the Pandavas and is well documented as the capital of the Mughal Empire. There is no way to trace the history of the world without tracing the history of this city. It’s the capital of India, the political hot seat of the world’s largest democracy. A thriving, throbbing metropolis, that for years has seen this nation develop from tiny empires to a teeming and unified nation. Oh, if only she had a mouth on her, the secrets she could tell….
Looming large on my agenda was the Delhi Photo Festival, after all this was the main reason to visit Delhi. A festival spanning two weeks, replete with workshops, panel discussions, portfolio reviews, artist talks and exhibitions at the India Habitat Centre. Two weeks was too long a stay and I really only wanted to attend certain specific sessions and exhibitions. The festival did not disappoint on that count, there was brilliance in the works of Raghu Rai’s – Backdrop Series, Amit Madheshiya’s – A Tent Theatre near You, Kannagi Khanna’s – Hollywood and there was quirkiness in Lucida’s Visitor studio. But that was only one part of the work I had intended to achieve whilst in Delhi, the other was to try and capture the history through the lens. Unfortunately, the flu got the better of me and I was left with hardly any time to even begin to cover any ground. What I did cover however, is now very clearly etched in memory and print.
If you were to ask my husband, it definitely would not be a good sign that our hotel is conveniently located a stone’s throw away from Connaught Place and Palika Bazaar. But luckily for him, I was more interested in the signboard opposite the hotel that said “Jantar Mantar”, that to me was the sign I was truly looking for. This wasn’t to be another shopping expedition; this trip was to immerse myself in history. I had just completed the book “Early India – From the Origins to 1300” by Romila Thapar, and I could not wait to sink my teeth into a piece of a city that has been the common thread between the Mauryan, Chauhan and Mughal dynasties. It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that this city has been around for centuries. There are countries on earth that aren’t that old! I can’t figure this out on my own, because I don’t even know where to start. I had an idea of what I wanted to see and just a day to see it in.
First stop – Humayun’s Tomb. Situated at Nizamuddin East, the tomb was commissioned by Hamida Begum for Emperor Humayun. Right there, those names are enough to send chills down the spine of any history geek. Humayun was the son of the Great Emperor Babur and the father of Emperor Akbar. He was the second Mughal king who on the eve of his death had amassed an empire that was more than a million square kilometers in size. So on this day, 448 years later, under the mid afternoon sun – I stood there staring at the gates to the tomb complex. Gleaming in the sunlight was a red sandstone structure with minarets and pathways leading off in different directions towards other tombs in the same compound. If you have ever had a moment, where you stand on the footsteps of history’s greats, sometimes just sometimes, it comes alive in your mind’s eye. You can for an instant, picture the Mughals traversing those path ways regally, a very Dan Brown moment. You are standing on the very same ground that Akbar once walked to see his father’s tomb in construction – how does one begin to define that feeling?
This is the structure that was to set the precedent for all Mughal architecture that was to follow, including the Taj Mahal. It sits on the banks of the Yamuna as well, close to Nizamuddin Dargah. The main mausoleum is simple and symmetrical on the exterior compared to the complicated interiors. It is an octagonal masterpiece, which sets the tomb of the Emperor on a North-South axis. Although the actual tomb is in the basement, the white marble cenotaph stands alone in the main chamber with the symbolic cut out mihrab facing west towards Mecca. The jaali work all over the mausoleum is similar to the work done on the Taj Mahal. It is difficult to imagine the brilliance in execution at a time when engineering was still a nascent science. The conception of this monument by Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, the architect of the tomb, seems unthinkable given the age and times – and yet there it is in front of my eyes, glistening in the sun while undergoing some tender restoration by the Archaeological Survey of India. As I bid farewell, a sense of pride gushes over me, for once history in this country is preserved and nurtured in the way it should be and for that its hats off to the ASI who are protecting these monuments with kid gloves.
Stop two is no less mind boggling than the first. After all, the Qutub Minar is far older than Humayun’s Tomb. It’s been around since 1193 BC and was commissioned by Qutb-ud-din Aibak after he won over Delhi from Prithviraj. The minarets of fluted red sandstone are covered in verses from the Quran. But as I reached the Qutub Minar, the gates closed for the evening. So I stood there watching the monument against the backdrop of the evening sky, wishing and hoping for a miracle. My taxi driver informed me that there is an iron pillar in the courtyard that one is meant to hug, and if you did get your arms around it then it would bring you good luck. Now, if only that pillar was in the outer courtyard! So much for wishful thinking!
But I had one more place I had to see in Delhi. Delhi is the capital of the world’s largest democracy and the seat of power rests firmly on Rajpath road. A befitting name for the imposing structures that dot its sides. Designed by Edwin Lutyens , the Rashtrapathi Bhavan is a four floored, 360 room beauty. Grand in scale it sits on top of Raisina Hill overlooking India Gate at the far end of the mall. It is majestically flanked on either side by the Secretariats which house major ministries and the Prime Minister’s Office. Each is spread across four levels, have 1000 rooms and more space for future expansion. Built by Herbert Baker, who fought tooth and nail with Lutyens on keeping these two buildings on the same level as the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, these are also red and cream sandstone structures with a dome on top that is highly reminiscent of Indian architecture of those times. When you stand on top of Raisina Hill at the gate of Rashtrapathi Bhavan and look down Rajpath road, your eyes will automatically lead down the symmetrical lit road and descend on India Gate. The whole thing seems like the inspiration for Capitol Hill in Washington DC, which seems to have been laid in exactly the same fashion.
India Gate on this Sunday evening bears a festive look. It has been lit up with the tri-colors and there is an Air Force Band playing to a packed crowd of officers and common folk. Perhaps it is a sight that is common during the weekends, I wouldn’t necessarily know, but it bears some semblance to a parade ground. There are chaat vendors filling gol-gappas, makeshift bicycles selling hot steaming momos, children hawking postcards, men selling rudimentary flutes and people hunkering down to eat their freshly charred bhuttas. A bunch of foreigners suddenly break into a dance as the band plays along and there is a smile on everyone’s face. A cool, crisp Sunday evening with a thousand of your closest pals from Delhi, I suppose that’s what was on their minds!
We closed out our evening at Connaught Place, looking to satisfy a late night dessert craving. One thing is unmistakable; CP is the nerve center of Delhi both literally and figuratively. It is the culminating circle of several major roads and is the shopping mecca for millions of Delhiites. It is also a change over point for several lines of the metro rail – the official pride and joy of the city. The Metro Rail is clean, efficient, cheap and air conditioned and was meant to decrease traffic, which is the only thing it doesn’t do. There is an air of change and modernization over the colonial circle, the metro rail is rapidly expanding underneath the crisp white façade of CP, while on the surface it remains quite the imposing colonial structure it has always been. Quite like Delhi itself – there is a rumble of modernization all along the city and yet its centuries of history cannot be erased, the city thrives on it!
Imaginably, this is the reason that attracts tourists by the boatloads to arrive at this city as the starting point for their journey into the experience called India. The city is the perfect primer for what is to come.
All material on this blog are copyright of Shruthi.V. Please DO NOT reprint or reuse without the author’s explicit permission. Do click on the pictures to see an enlarged version of it. If you do wish to purchase any of the prints, do message me. Enjoy!