Monday, July 7, 2008

Jama Masjid and Qutub Minar, Part II

Last night I posted a quick note about our last day in Delhi and now, on the plane flying to Ahmedabad, I want to fill things in a little bit. Well, maybe more than a little bit. (Please click here to look at the pictures mentioned in this post.) We were met at our hotel in the morning by a young guide hired by our group leaders to take us on a tour of some selected sites in Delhi. We started out by walking around the corner to the metro station, which we hadn’t been in before. I’ve written earlier about the vast gulf in India between the well-off and the poor, indeed, this is probably the thing visitors from the west remark on most when they talk about their time in India. This gulf couldn’t be more stark than when you descend from the hurried, rough streets of Delhi into the wide, clean, marble stairway down into the city’s new metro system, built to accommodate the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Entering the station complex is like walking into a sparkling new mall in the U.S. If you’re from Chicago, think The Water Tower or Northbrook Court. The place is cavernous, sparkling new, and extremely well lit, with small food courts and other services. Because of ethnic and religious divisions in India, particularly between Hindu nationalists and Muslims, there have been bombings and attacks throughout India, and security is much more pronounced than in the U.S. (for example, our plane is currently sitting on the tarmac at a stop half-way to Ahmedabad and military personnel just came on the plane and searched all carry on baggage to make sure no one deplaning left an explosive device on board) so when you descend the escalator to the train you have to go through security, and you won’t see any pictures of the system because cameras and filming are prohibited. The train cars themselves are huge and comfortable, and there are no dividers between each train (they were made in Korea). This is simply a state of the art system that puts every metro station I’ve been in around the world to shame (but to be fair, it is brand new).

When we got off at the stop for Old Delhi we emerged to find ourselves in a narrow little street full of trash, garbage, and beggars. On our right was a Hindu temple built in a little square of the shopping area (indeed, Old Delhi seems to be one big shopping area with residents living above and behind the shops). An old, darkened man with long, stringy grey hair was bathing in a tub adjacent to the temple (the Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim temples all have some facilities for ritual bathing before entering) . You’ll find a few photos of the temple on the web gallery I posted. Leaving the temple we moved through the streets of the Old City, which I’ve described in an earlier post. We stopped to listen to our guide tell us how street vendors put together something called betel, which is a leaf folded over some paste and a seed which people chew on. The betel juice aids digestion but produces lots of saliva, and often the sides of buildings (inside and out) are stained with its juices. Again you’ll see pictures of the betel vendor in my web gallery, along with other shots of the street life along the way to the mosque.

You get to the mosque, an imposing sight from the street below, by walking up a steep, wide stretch of stairs, then through a gate into an expansive and breathtaking courtyard. Here you take in the full sweep of human activity at the mosque, which is not at all like a church where you file into a room full of pews, hear a sermon, sing, pray, and leave. People seemed to be spending the whole day here, lounging around with friends and family in the shade of the walls around the courtyard, washing in the large, square pool in front of the mosque itself, or in the entry to the mosque itself, which is a kind of long, pillared portico of shiny marble. There is space inside to accommodate over 200,000 people, but it wasn’t open during our visit (it’s open for prayers on Fridays). The play of color from the clothing of the worshipers against the cool, marble stones and the muted light filtering in was beautiful (again, see my photos, where I tried as best I could to capture the feel of this space). The play of color against marble, tile, water, walls, and the sky beyond in the courtyard where people were bathing was also quite beautiful. Looking back across the courtyard from the mosque you see a gate, and beyond the gate are stairs that spill down into a huge marketplace below. The mosque, by the way, was built by Shah Jahan (and designed by his daughter), the same Mugal emperor who built the Agra fort and the Taj Mahal (which, I learned from the guide, was an exact replica of a smaller building already in existence—so much for originality).

Our guide was really helpful in explaining the history of the place. We gathered around him in a circle and, as I listened, I began to notice Indians in the courtyard beginning to mill around behind us. Soon we had a very large crowd, 7 or 8 deep, ringing our circle. Young men with cell phone cameras were taking our pictures as we took there’s, another example of how our tourist’s curiosity about Indians, who seem in many ways to look so different from us, is matched by theirs. It’s all relative.

After our visit to the mosque we drove across town to some ruins that were part of the first city of Delhi (according to our guide there have been seven). This complex, called Qutub Minar, is dominated by the ruins of a mosque and a beautiful, quite massive decorated minaret. The mosque was built in part by pillars and stone taken from Hindu temples, a striking example of how the conquering Mugals established their authority. The catch, of course, is that pillars in Hindu temples contain figurative carvings, and these are strictly forbidden by Muslims whose mosques are decorated only with script and abstract designs. How did they deal with this? By scratching out, flattening, or obliterating the images. We spent a lot of time just wandering around this place, which is quite beautiful and was full of Indian families (it was a Sunday) and some tourists. There are some pictures on the web gallery, of course. The place reminded me of the forum in Rome, actually (which for centuries was simply used as a salvage heap for building supplies, especially when Christians took to building churches in Rome, all of which have a variety of pillars that often don’t match and that originally stood in Roman temples and government buildings). The look of the grounds here is very much like the look of the current forum, though on a much smaller scale and done in red stone rather than white marble.

We ended the day at a crafts museum. Our guide, Ranjith Henry (more about this extraordinary fellow a little later, for he deserves a long post all to himself) insisted we go here because we’d spent the whole day looking at monumental architecture produced by the elite ruling classes of India, and we ought to spend some time with art and craft produced by ordinary people in the villages of India. He was right. Although we got there too late to see the entire collection, the carvings (huge and tiny) and tapestries we did see were extraordinary, and the grounds, which contained authentic reproductions of typical villages throughout India, were quite beautiful (tropical, like Hawaii, and at one point we heard a huge peacock scream from atop a towering tree). Quite a sight. Quite a sound.

I’m leaving out the food for the day, a south Indian lunch and a farewell dinner at our hotel, but I’m written out. I’m sure you’ll hear from your friends and family about it. We eat a lot of Indian food because our home is just north of Devon Avenue in west Rogers Park, a very large Indian-Pakistani neighborhood, but the versions of the dishes there we are getting here (especially the uttapams and dosas) are much richer in variety and dramatically better. And of course we’re coming across food we never get there. More on that later in the trip.

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