Death

It looked like they were carrying a macabre birthday present, wrapped up in brightly-coloured cloth, adorned with balloons, silver, red and green tinsel, on a flimsy bamboo frame. A man was at each corner and a dozen others were chanting. They were moving quickly but instead of turning right where the the sign said “Entry”, they turned left, through the exit. They were taking a body to be burned.

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“Thank you for bringing me here. I am going on alone,” said the inscription on a mural which depicted the circle of life.

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Along the bottom it says Ram, Ram Ram – invoking God. The signs half way up the orange wall are written in Sanskrit.

Shiva is the god of death, destruction and chaos. He rules over the Nigambodh Ghat crematorium on the banks of the Yamuna, less than a kilometre north of the Red Fort. His image is pervasive, with his pale blue skin, a trident, a snake around his neck and the crescent moon in his long hair.

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The procession stopped, perhaps in contemplation of their dead loved one, or maybe to transact the cremation. About sixty bodies are cremated here each day. It is free, apart from the cost of fuel.The authorities encourage CNG (natural gas) or the electric furnace rather than using a bonfire of wood. For Rs 2,200 (about £25) you can buy enough branches and logs from a warehouse around the back. Would the body be burned on the banks of the Yamuna or under cover in one of the forty or so fireplace/concrete pyre platforms?

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I walked to the riverbank. There were several bodies trussed in white cotton cloth, lying on the sandy mud. There were two cremation bonfires smoking and smouldering away. Their decorative frames were broken and discarded laid to one side, the tinsel fluttering in the light breeze.

Though the surface of the Yamuna was oily and dull, it was still flowing swiftly. A rowing boat on the other side was making slow progress against the current.

One body was surrounded by men, with a pandit chanting prayers. He instructed the husband when anoint his dead wife with ghee or sugar. Her face was uncovered. She still wears her jewellery and best sari. I felt uncomfortable about taking a photograph, but one man was using his smartphone to video the proceedings. Photography used to be taboo, but nowadays, most people have a camera on their mobile phones and want to keep a record of their loved one.

There was no smell of death, no odour of burned flesh. It was very business-like. The cycle of rebirth means that the soul lives on. I saw no one lamenting their loss. Barbers were on hand to shave the scalp of bereaved men, leaving a small lock of hair over the occiput. This is called a chupiya. 

Opposite the raised funeral pyres, there was a large, covered swimming pool. At first I mistakenly thought that mourners may wish to take a cleansing bath after a funeral. It was too cold today, but perhaps during the summer, it will get more use, I wondered. I even had a random thought about using the heat of the cremation fire to warm the water in the swimming pool. Then it dawned on me that this pool contains water from three sacred rivers, Ganges, Saraswati and Yamuna. Mourners wash the bodies here in the pool before cremation.

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On the roof of the pool there were images of Radha, Krishna, a peacock and a cow. In another part of the complex, there was a statue of Buddha. There were other deities in glass cubicles, but it was clear that Shiva reigned supreme here.

Beyond the car park there was a rubbish dump filled with piles of funeral paraphernalia. And beside that, there was a pleasant park, with well-trimmed lawns, colourful flowerbeds and shady places where one could sit and contemplate reincarnation.

Lord Brahma recovered his lost memory (and his books) after bathing on this site. Nigambodh means realisation of knowledge. Perhaps coming to the ghat makes us acutely aware of our own mortality.

 

Masks

Five weeks ago, I marvelled at a collection of masks on display at the India Habitat Centre. Sharmila Sen’s exhibition “Art Beyond Tradition” features ninety masks produced by local craftsmen from Bengal. Her aim is to keep alive the dying art form. The artists use papier mache, terracotta, wood and metal. Most depict characters from the classics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. I thought they were charming.

Cricket

Delhi doesn’t have a decent cricket ground. I was very disappointed as I wanted to see a test match here in India during my mission. Perhaps it was just as well, because the English team did not perform well here at the end of 2016. The Indians drubbed them 4-0. Recently, the Australians won the first test easily in Pune, but lost the second. We don’t have a sports channel on the TV at the team house, so I was “forced” to go to a Bengali restaurant for lunch to see some action. It was all very confusing, because the television coverage repeats the good bits – near misses, great strokes, dismissals, controversial umpiring decisions – so often it was like a UK government spokesman announcing “new” funds for the NHS. As it was a Hindi-speaking channel, I found it difficult to work out if this was a repeat or new incident, being shown from a different camera angle.

Indians love cricket, perhaps even more than West Indians. Anywhere there is a piece of flat land, there will be some boys playing cricket. It can be on a green field next to India Gate in the centre of Lutyens’ New Delhi, on some flat dusty wasteland in a northern suburb or among the trees in a public park in Shalimar Bagh.

They use a heavy tennis ball and chuck, rather than bowl, it at the batsman. The wicket is usually three sticks, but it can be anything, from the trunk of a tree to a wastebin. They don’t play in teams – who wants to hang about in a non-existing pavilion, waiting for a turn at bat? Everyone gets to field, and they take turns batting. If numbers are lacking, they play French cricket. Guess which of these two is the fast bowler?

This week, for the first time, I saw lads wearing cricket pads. Perhaps they were using a proper hard ball and needed some protection. They never have an umpire.

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When I am interacting with Indian officials and a foreign cricket team is touring (we have had New Zealand, England and Australia here in the past six months), I can “break the ice” by talking about cricket. They enjoy being able to speak with passion about something other than work. And it beats discussing the weather.

Thursday Doors

Yes, more cracking doors from Shahjahanabad, the walled Old City of Delhi. This is a slim selection of doors, all tall and thin. First a lilac lovely, looking a bit worse for wear with rot setting in at the bottom. Someone has bodged a patch up, but it really needs seeing to. The bricks on either side are painted gold-ish fawn and silver grey. Doesn’t really set off the delicate shade of lilac of the door itself. Check out the decoration above the door, too.

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How about a more modern door for the Old City? Woven steel ribbon, steel flowers, bars for a fanlight and a marble surround.

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Not your usual style of Post Office, this Mughal Mail is pretty unique. It has seen better days. I like the sandwich style of blue/green marble with white marble at the top. They gave up lower down and just used grey-painted blocks. Security is tight – note the CCTV camera pointing at me. BTW the Jama Masjid is the biggest mosque in Delhi.

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What can I say? Hotel Delux.

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Or the boys outside the entrance to the Hotel Taj. What on earth is behind the door on the left? It looks like a hoard of black plastic-bagged rubbish.

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Now how about going here for some Beauty Care, ladies? In the heart of Darya Ganj, you have a stairway to heaven…

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Even the most wretched doorway boasts a CCTV camera above.

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I really like the contrast of salmon pink with azure blue. It reminds me of Nepali jewellery of coral and turquoise. I don’t think that this actually qualifies for a door as it seems to be barred.

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Holi

What’s not to like about Holi? It is a festival of love. It celebrates the end of winter and the arrival of spring. Good triumphs over evil. It is the time to rekindle old friendships. It starts in the evening with a bonfire and the following day, people spray each other with coloured powder and water. Alcohol and bhang (a drink containing marijuana) lubricate the festivities.

It has its roots in Hinduism. The bonfire symbolises the ordeal of Prahlada, a young devotee of Vishnu. His father, King Hiranyakashipu,  declared himself to be a god, but Prahlada would not worship him. The king decided to kill his son, but boiling oil, poisonous snakes and rampaging elephants didn’t do the trick. So he got his sister, Holika (who had an asbestos cape), to walk into a bonfire with Prahlada. She was burned to a crisp, and he survived. This explains the ritual of bonfire. Vishnu took the form of Narasimha, half man-half lion, and eviscerated the king.

Krishna was poisoned by the breast milk of the demon Putana, so he became a “blue baby”. As he grew up, he thought that no fair girls would fancy a blue bloke. He told his mother, Yasoda, and she suggested he paint the face of the girl he fancied, Radha, all the colours of the rainbow. He did this and true love blossomed. We are all equal on Holi – we can splash colour on our friends, our neighbours, our elders, our enemies and even on strangers (that’s where I come in). There are no rules. And we are making a fresh start after washing it all off.

The newspaper gives advice about the etiquette of using water bombs, avoiding indelible paint, rubbing coconut oil into your skin to facilitate removal of coloured dye or powder. Some people daub themselves with the colours they prefer, to show willing, but on their terms. At the end of last week, the children coming out of school were completely covered in dye. It was intense.

So, some photographs to go with the words.