Saturday, July 5, 2008

Visit to Agra and the Taj Mahal

Yesterday (Saturday, the 5th) we took time out from our lectures and discussion of Gandhi and contemporary India to go to some of the great tourist sites near Delhi, the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal (that’s me in the photo, for those of you wondering what the guy who is doing this blog looks like), sites which are about a 2 1/2 hour train ride from Delhi. For a selection of photos I took yesterday, click here. The night before we had a chance to socialize with our speakers and some of their colleagues at a dinner we hosted for them. The talks we have heard have provided us a stimulating and challenging opportunity to discuss some of the crucial problems facing contemporary India, and the dinner provided us a relaxed environment for continuing those discussion. We’ve all found our reading and discussions about Gandhi, his ideas, and his relevance for contemporary India profoundly rich and challenging, and the dinner gave us a chance to extend our exploration. It has been wonderful being able to get to know a range of important Indian intellectuals and activists and, working with them, to consider the paradoxical challenges globalization, economic expansion, poverty, and environmental pollution present to India in the early 21st century.

I say paradoxically because that’s what visiting India and thinking about its growth and its problems is all about. When you visit call centers, drive around parts of New Delhi with fancy new buildings housing transnational corporations, and consider the explosive economic expansion India is experiencing you see first hand where all the talk about this emerging giant (along with China), is coming from. But when you move around other parts of New Delhi, or go to Old Delhi, or visit a town like Agra, and you could be in the 16th century. Shanty towns, people literally dressed in rags living on the streets in makeshift shelters or just sleeping on the sides of the road or the center median, trash piled everywhere and no sanitation facilities, and you understand the economic and social challenges facing the country. Will the wealth developing at the top just naturally trickle down, or does India require dramatic systematic changes instead, changes that will train the unemployed and create jobs to transform India’s infrastructure and redistribute it’s wealth, which is there, but concentrated at the very top. Modern capitalism argues that trickle down will work, but Gandhian principles argue for a dramatic humanizing of the systems of modernity currently ruling India and for social and economic justice to drive change. But how do you convince a county as huge as India to stop simply paying lip service to Gandhi’s importance as the father of the country and seriously consider how his moral and ethical system can be put in service for the good of all? And when this happens how will people deal with Gandhi’s sweeping critique of modernity in a 21st century rolling full steam ahead? Gandhi was committed to the village, to people spinning their own cloth, growing their own food, and living simple, humble lives. How can all of this work in a world of commodification, rapid modernization, technological innovation, and urbanization, the key engines driving development in India? And how will India find a way to be a truly multicultural democracy with the increasing divide between Muslims and Hindus, a divide, by the way, that is not deeply historical but caused by British colonialism, a divide deepening now into fundamentalist nationalisms on both sides? These are some of the vexing problems we’re grappling with on this trip, and it is inspiring to meet with people so committed with social change (some of them have been arrested, beaten, and picketed against, so you can rest assured they are asking the right questions and pushing back against the inequities of the system here).

But back to our trip to the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. We went by bus to the largest train station in Delhi, and for me the walk through the station (going and coming) was as dramatic an experience as seeing the Taj Mahal. When you travel abroad by train you not only see the countryside. You travel along side the people who live there, and they come from all classes and walks of life. The Delhi station was packed with people from all over India. They wait hours together for their train and while doing so take out dishes and pots and dine together on the floor of the station, or just fall asleep together on the floor and benches. Beggars of all ages roam through the crowds, men and women pass by carrying huge loads on their heads or pushing impossibly large loads on carts. I took some pictures in the station, so you’ll see.

We started at Agra fort, a massive palace built by Shah Jahan, one of the last of the Mugal rulers of India, who also built the nearby Taj Mahal. The fort is built of red stone but inside has many structures of white marble. It goes on, and on, and on, beautiful buildings, a dizzying array of courtyards, reception areas, and living spaces. The stone work and decoration (none representational, of course, for this is barred by Islam, just beautiful abstract decorations or script—same at the Taj) are amazing, and we had a wonderful visit there. You can check out the pictures I’ll upload to get a sense of the place.

Everyone has seen pictures of the Taj Mahal and knows it is one of the so-called “wonders of the world” but you have to see it (from afar and up close) to really understand why. It is all about grandeur, symmetry, color and texture. The play of these elements, that is, its grand scale, the aesthetic beauty of its symmetry (all four sides are exactly the same and reading left to right or right to left the structures mirror each other) and for me, the muted play of off whites and light and dark greys that create an eerie soft-focus texture when seen from afar, all combine to make the building what it is. The gardens show it off like a great setting for a beautiful diamond. You’ll see from the pictures I upload, but you’ve seen pictures like this before and you really have to be there to appreciate the place. Adjacent to the Taj on either side are a mosque and a palace. They are, of course, identitical, and I found their interior spaces dazzling. As you’ll see from the photos, I got carried away taking pictures of light and shadow (Jay Boersma are you out there?) and architectural details. A photographer’s feast.

In the town of Agra we experienced a more rural India with a remarkably vibrant set of shops, homes, repair facilities, etc. Here you see the same shocking disparity between the well off and the poor you see in Delhi. We visited a marble workshop where we saw craftsman at work producing the kind of work that went into the building of the Taj Mahal. The owner is doing just fine. His children are headed off to elite universities in the states. They may never return, or if they do, they will live in a world very different from those others we saw in the town who are living in shanty towns and make-shift enclaves with no facilities and little to do but try to grind out a living selling this or that or recycling bicycle tires. I wandered alone for awhile in the back streets of Agra and was able to see the people up close. I’ll post some pictures I took on the walk. By the way, I felt totally safe on this walk and others like it. People are very curious seeing this white guy in a Nehru shirt walking around with a camera, but they are wonderfully friendly in their curiosity and happy to have their pictures taken.

This reminds me of an incident that happened at the Taj I’ll close with. As I’ve said before, there are very few Anglos in the parts of India we’ve been going and we elicit a real curiosity. One Indian woman just walked up to my wife and took her chin in her fingers and wiggled it. At the Taj Wendy (she’s the one in the pictures with blond braided hair) was nearly mobbed by a big Indian family who wanted to take their pictures with her. And not just one big picture. Each family member, it seemed, wanted a separate picture. It was fun to watch, and for someone like me who sometimes feels ambivalent taking pictures of the locals on my trips, it was a little reassuring.


Prof. G. Jay said...

During my recent trip to Indonesia I experienced many of the same contradictions, and came to focus on what I call "islands of infrastructure." Disparities of wealth express themselves through mundane matters of road size, electricity, sewage, sanitation, potable water, laundry facilities, etc. In Jakarta the "islands of infrastructure" include the "super malls," the large hotels, high-rise residential complexes, gated neighborhoods, and government and educational complexes. These all have the basic material infrastructure that supports the cultural physics of modernity. And of course access to them is restricted. What you can see, then, is that the future may be one where the inequalities of wealth and power are very visibly distributed physically, and cities or nations fragmented into these islands surrounded by seas of immiseration. It doesn't seem likely that a return to pre-modern modes of production will become popular or be an effective critique. Instead criticism needs to focus on how the built environment reproduces inequality, and hence on how the most revolutionary struggles may be the ones to extend these basic services horizontally, across all physical sections of the community and castes of population.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Jay Boersma is out here. After your wonderful references to the architectural details, the light and shadow, etc. I was sad to find this link broken:

"Delhi, the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal (that’s me in the photo, for those of you wondering what the guy who is doing this blog looks like), sites which are about a 2 1/2 hour train ride from Delhi. For a selection of photos I took yesterday, click here. "

Will you be able to fix it on location? If not, I look forward to seeing these photos on your return.