Safdarjang’s Tomb

The last flicker in the dying lamp of Mughal architecture in Delhi.” Anon.

This beautiful red sandstone mausoleum stands in the centre of formal gardens (“charbagh”) surrounded by a fortified wall. It is situated just to the south of Lutyens’ New Delhi, a few kilometres to the west of the other great Mughal mausoleum, Humayun’s Tomb.

It is a masterpiece of design, built by Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula for his father, Mirza Muqim Abul Mansur Khan (everyone called him Safdarjang for short), in 1754. You might think that he must have been a powerful man to warrant such a monument and you would be correct. From being Governor of Awadh (Britons know this province as “Oudh”), he became a successful Grand Vizier to the Emperor, Muhammad Shah. After the Emperor died, his successor Ahmad Shah Bahadur was more interested in wine, women and opium, leaving  Safdarjang to wield the power. He became too big for his boots and the royal family arranged for the Marathas to get rid of him. He only came back to Delhi to be buried.

 

The area is defended by a massive gateway with some impressive nail-and-spike-studded doors. Above is an elaborate, scalloped roof in red, green, blue and cream. As you walk through the gatehouse, past the ticket collector, you get a framed view of the mausoleum. It stands at the end of a canal (unfortunately now dry), flanked by a row of tall palms. It rises from a plinth composed of recessed arches, leading to cells behind ancient locked doors. It reminded me of those dodgy lockups you find in London built into the arches of railway bridges where villains keep victims.

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At each corner there is an octagonal chamber with a veranda. There are flights of steep stone steps up through the plinth onto the upper level. The mausoleum towers above, with two storeys. Minarets guard each corner topped by chhatris and connected by faux battlements. The onion-shaped dome is topped by a finial, covered by a wonky lightning conductor.

In the centre of the mausoleum, there is a marble cenotaph, beneath which there are two tombs, presumably one for Safdarjang and the other for his wife, which are inaccessible to tourists. The surrounding anterooms are in a state of disrepair with several walls defaced by modern graffiti of the “Kevin loves Sharon” variety. The vaulted ceilings are exquisitely and wonderfully carved. The domed ceiling is like the petals of a flower, with a pistil of a chain and hook, presumably from which to hang lanterns.

The floors are stone and marble, with some simple inlay resembling that of the Taj Mahal. There are some white marble pillars with carved decoration, smoothed by grubby fingers over the centuries. Outside, there are marble facings, setting off the crumbling, red sandstone. There may be a reason for this. I discovered that the stone and marble is actually second-hand; it was stripped from another tomb (that of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan) nearby.

There are three white palaces built into the surrounding crenulated wall. The Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), Badshah-Pasand (King’s choice), and the Jangli Mahal (Sylvan Palace), occupy the north, south and west walls. The Moti Mahal has been converted into offices for the Archaeological Survey of India. The gatehouse and the mosque are situated in the eastern wall.

 

Enough of the formal guidebook-style blog tour. What did I see and do? I chatted to a team of student cinematographers who were shooting footage of a famous Manipur film star. I sneaked off a couple of photographs myself and helped to keep a bothersome German lady from getting in shot. I could see that the film star was experienced at being photographed. He was patient, threw some interesting poses, some of which were rejected, others were accepted and developed. He knew how to look at the camera and it seemed to like him. A lady came onto the scene who was dressed in black with an elaborate hairstyle. I thought at one point that they were going to kiss – but this is India, and lip-wrestling on film is banned. She just caressed his cheek with her hand.

The tomb formed a beautiful backdrop to several other photographers,  each with some smartly dressed female models. I was seriously impressed with the ability of one young lady to walk in these red shoes with four inch metal stiletto heels. She agreed to let me photograph them. (I am not that creepy to sneak a photograph without asking.)

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Scattered throughout the formal gardens there were amorous couples, canoodling or just chatting in secluded spots. Over by the walls, behind some bushes, in the arches of the plinth, or in an anteroom of the tomb. I just smiled and walked on, respecting their privacy. You may recall that I have already written a blog on couples at Humayun’s Tomb.

Experts regard Safdarjang’s Tomb as inferior, less elegant and incorrectly proportioned compared with the perfection of Humayun’s Tomb. I agree, it has its flaws, but that is what makes it so charming. I appreciate the crumbling, cracked sandstone, the worn designs of lotus flowers, the black stains on some of the walls, the wasp nests and pigeon droppings. I think it gives it more character and it is less sterile and correct than its counterpart to the east, down Lodi Road.

The red and beige sandstone has been eroded by the elements and one can see where some repair work has been done. What struck me was that instead of all the carving being symmetrical and identical designs, there are flashes of individualism. A carved tendril winding around a stem. A leaf which has been folded down. Irregularity makes it more tangible, I think. I like the idea of a stone carver who can add personal touches to his work, which are only noticed if one takes the time to scrutinise it.

I particularly enjoyed the tiny cafeteria, snuggled into the south wall. Apart from sweet masala tea, there were cool drinks available from a Coca Cola branded refrigerator. The cook had a gas ring to rustle up an omelette if you were feeling hungry.

Employees and guards were cycling around the grounds, which gave me the excuse to take some quirky photographs.

The hazy sunlight of late afternoon gave a golden hue to the red sandstone, which I thought was marvellous, but difficult to capture realistically. See what you think.

Diwali

This is going to disappoint Deb, I am afraid.

Here in Delhi, Diwali is dull, crowded, smoggy and very loud. Although Chinese-manufactured firecrackers have been banned, there were intermittent, eardrum-rupturing explosions through the night. I am not sure that this ordinance/ordnance chases away evil spirits, but it certainly kept me awake until 1am.

I went up on the roof to see what was happening while I ate dinner, but the views through the gloomy, polluted atmosphere were uninspiring. There were no firework displays. The exterior lights were just strings of tiny LEDs, hung from rooftops of the smarter buildings. “The Chinese lights are much better, they flicker on and off in patterns. Our Indian lights just go on and off,” said one of our drivers. Even the fancy shopping complex just had some dreary lanterns strung up in the courtyard. In fact, Diwali in Delhi is nowhere near as exciting as it is in Belgrave, Leicester.

Perhaps I don’t appreciate it because I am not Indian. Like Christmas, it is a time when families get together, give presents and eat. I am on my own this weekend, away from my family, with no gifts (apart from to myself from my forays on the Amazon.in website) and I am eating the same rice, lentils and vegetable curry that I eat every day.

I asked someone at work what he was going to do for Diwali and he said that he was going to gamble at cards.”Poker? Texas Hold ‘Em? Seven Card Stud?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “We play whist.” Hmm, whist doesn’t have the cachet that poker has nowadays. It’s the sort of game I’d play with my mother and granny 50 years ago.

The Festival of Lights signifies the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, hope over despair. Traditionally, the lights are small earthenware cups containing oil and a cotton wick. These lamps (diyas) burn until the oil is used up and then the flame dies, signifying that life comes to an end, the message being that you should live life to the full while you can.

Here are some lights on the stairs of our apartment block. And this is an image (rangoli) of a peacock made from coloured powder outside the door.

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The air quality in Delhi deteriorates at this time of the year, mainly because farmers in neighbouring states burn off the stubble in their fields. But the volume of vehicles on the packed roads of the capital and the spontaneous combustion of the mountainous rubbish heaps also contributes. And now we have the smoke from fireworks added to the mix. The air quality index ranges from 0 – 500. The score has been rising in Delhi over the past ten days, with it exceeding 400 in some areas. This is enough to cause respiratory problems even in healthy people. My colleague has stopped jogging in the mornings as a result. Health experts reckon that 50% of heart attacks at this time are caused by air pollution (but I have no idea how they could make that calculation).

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The view from the rooftop of my apartment block at 9am this morning. Poor visibility. But the orange marigolds being sold by the hawker stands out as a splash of colour.

I was on the Metro yesterday and it was very unpleasant because of the crowd. But I was fortunate. In today’s Times of India this article suggests taking a First Aid kit with you if you travel because of the risk of injuries. One man even suffered from broken ribs in the crush to get on the train. It is no better in the ladies compartment, which is equally packed. Women with sharp elbows push and shove as if this is going to increase the space.

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This is an amendment – the fireworks have been relentless this evening, the 30/31 October.Some more photographs.

On the last day of Diwali, people celebrate peace. Every year at the railway border between Pakistan and India in Punjab, the soldiers exchange gifts of sweets. With the continuing fighting across the Line of Control in Kashmir, I doubt that this will happen this year.

From untruth lead us to Truth.
From darkness lead us to Light.
From death lead us to Immortality.
Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

A vedic prayer from the Upanishads

Ajrakh

In Gujerat and Rajasthan there are still a few craftsmen who use the ancient traditional Ajrakh technique to make patterned cotton cloth. It is an incredibly complicated and time-consuming business. There are fourteen steps in the process, but basically, it is a reverse block print, with areas of cloth being treated to avoid dye. The technique is believed to be over 3,000 years old.

Preparing the khadi cloth is extremely important. It has to be washed, steamed in copper vats and then soaked in a mix of castor oil, ash and camel dung. It is bundled up whilst still wet and left until it starts to ferment. When it smells like mango pickle, it is done. The next stage is soaking in more oil and sodium carbonate for twenty four hours, washing thoroughly, and soaked again in a mixture of lemons, oil and molasses. It is finally washed and dried, then pegged out for printing. This is to open the cotton fibres so they will take up the dyes and the colours will be fast.

The artisans make paste of gum, rice flour, fennel, herbs and Fuller’s earth which is applied to protect the areas of the pattern which will be white, red or black. They immerse the cloth into indigo dye and then it is washed thoroughly to remove paste and dye. The next step is dyeing with madder in a copper, and then the cloth is laid out on a river bank. Before it dries completely, it is moistened again, causing the white areas to bleach out as the other colours intensify.

The cloth is covered with the paste again to cover the red areas. They scatter flakes of dried cow dung over the damp areas. Eventually, the cloth goes back into the indigo before being rolled up and washed in the river. Each of these stages takes 3-4 days.

Wood carvers chisel out incredibly precise patterns on blocks, so that when the pattern is applied, it matches up perfectly. Two blocks are made as mirror images. Traditional dyes are used to build up the entire design.

Shelly Jyoti is a textile artist who is campaigning to keep the Ajrakh tradition alive. I visited her exhibition (“The Khadi March: Just five metres”) currently at the India Habitat Centre last weekend. It was superb. I spoke to her for ten minutes about her work. My account of the process is shamelessly cribbed from her description. She has designed artworks depicting the Tree of Life, flags, clothing and patterns. I quite fancied hanging one on my bedroom wall in the apartment, until I learned that the prices start at over £1,000 each.

See more of her impressive work on her website: http://www.shellyjyoti.com/

Almost a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi objected to cheap, mass-produced, British cotton cloth being imported into India, flooding the market and destroying traditional cottage industries. For four months of the year when there is no agricultural activity, farmers could prepare cotton which they had grown to spin and weave into coarse cloth (khadi). This would reduce their dependence on imported goods and give them a source of income.

At one point, it was compulsory for members of the Congress Party to spin cotton thread for half an hour a day in solidarity with the rural poor. The first Indian national flag had a spinning wheel in the centre (this was later altered to a 27 spoked wheel or dhamma). The “just five metres” in the title of the exhibition refers to the amount of khadi cloth each city dweller needs to buy each year in order to revitalise rural cloth production.

Delhi Metro as a Flaneur

Daily Post

I vividly remember the first time I stepped onto a Delhi Metro train at Rajiv Chowk underground station in the heart of New Delhi at Connaught Place ten years ago. It was a shock.

The station wasn’t just clean, it was spick and span. There were no beggars. It was air conditioned. The train was not crowded. And in the carriage, the female voice announcing the stations was speaking received pronunciation, a cut-glass accent, the Queen’s English. Mind the Gap. I remember I went back for another ride just for the sheer delight it gave me. At that time, I think the yellow line was restricted to half a dozen stations on a north-south axis, with the red line running east-west. There are now six coloured lines, over 132 miles of track. And a new pink line will begin service next year.

Now that I live here, I am a seasoned traveller on the Metro. It is the cheapest way to get around the city, and during rush hour (7 – 11am and 2 – 7pm) it is the fastest. The female announcer’s accent has not changed, but the numbers have. On an average day, 2.8 million people ride the Metro, but this can reach 3.3 million on public or national holidays. Even though I usually join the yellow line train four stations after it leaves the northern terminus at Badli, there is rarely a free seat. Last weekend, at Central Secretariat station, I was actually lifted off my feet in the surge to get onto the train. We were packed in like sardines.

Before I saw the sign saying photography was forbidden, I took this photo of a carriage at “normal” occupancy.

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There is a special “sari guard” on the escalators, to prevent ladies’ saris from being snared in the moving staircase. One carriage is reserved for ladies only. Any man boarding this carriage is liable to be fined. Given the crush of passengers, I can understand that women would not want to be groped by men in these conditions. There are also seats reserved for women in the mixed carriages, as well as for those who are “differently abled” or the elderly or even just people who need it more than you.

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A month ago, I was standing, watching a little girl with her mum and new baby travelling on the Metro. Mum had a seat and the little girl had a problem with her shoe, which she couldn’t fix. Her mum couldn’t help as she had a babe in arms. I reached over and sorted out the lining of the shoe, helped her put it back on, and she smiled at me. A man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “For being such a kind gentleman, I think you deserve my seat.” Chivalry is not dead on the Metro.

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There are very few white men riding the Metro in Delhi. I rarely see any. So perhaps that is why Indians often stare at me. I don’t find this upsetting, I just smile back and sometimes try to initiate conversation. I get out my Hindi cards and encourage them to help me with my pronunciation, or I show them photos on my cell phone. Sometimes I help them with their English homework. It is much more fun than travelling on the Underground in London.

Lots of Indians play Candy Crush or other games on their smartphones as they ride along. The latest craze is for Ludo, with couples or families playing while they travel. I like to watch other travellers sneaking a peek at how the game players are doing. It’s a bit like reading someone else’s newspaper on the Tube. Everyone does it surreptitiously. I sometimes cheat by looking at the reflection in the window behind them.

The carriages are air conditioned and often the air smells of deodorant. However, a recent article in the Times of India said that despite this, the air quality in the Metro can be just as bad as above ground. Sometimes it gets unpleasantly cold and it is a relief when the train pulls into a station above ground, the doors open and a blast of hot, humid air enters the carriage.

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There are health and safety restrictions on the Metro. People suffering from cerebro-spinal meningitis, diphtheria, typhoid, tuberculosis, measles, chickenpox and mumps are not allowed to travel. I’m sure that all patients with meningitis or diphtheria would be too ill to even contemplate travelling anywhere apart from in an ambulance. People suffering from leprosy are allowed, if they get a note from their doctor saying that they are not infectious.

The Metro is incredibly inexpensive. There is a fixed maximum fare and, with a Metro card, I get 10% off this. I usually manage to do about 20 journeys at weekends for about £3 a month. There are plans to increase the prices, so next year this might cost me £4 a month.

Fellow travellers who have struck up a conversation with me always ask what I am doing here. I tell them a bit about my work with the survivors of sexual violence. I wonder if this entitles me to be called a “Metro-Sexual”, but MSF will still not allow me to ride the bus.

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POST SCRIPT – Last night (Friday) was Dhanteras, the start of the Diwali Festival weekend. The Metro was so packed with people that it resulted in gridlock. Two stations had to be shut down for over an hour because of surging crowds at the peak of rush hour.

 

Explosion

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Last week I went shopping in the walled city of Old Delhi to buy fancy boxes of dried fruit and nuts as Diwali gifts. Yesterday morning at 10:45am, there was an explosion a few streets away near the Lahori Gate in Khari Baoli. One person was killed and several injured. Clouds of black smoke blanketed the area and the blast shattered nearby windows. The area was in lock down until the police declared that it was not a terrorist bomb, but a firecracker accident.

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This is not Mr Mirza, but goodness knows what is in the sack

An itinerant worker, 36 year old Mutalip Mirza, came to Delhi looking for work at the weekend. He was charged with taking a package containing 45kg of explosive caps for toy guns from a go-down to a shop in the Naya Bazar. He carried the sack on his head, while smoking a roll up cigarette (a bidi). According to CCTV footage, as he was passing the mosque on Pattewali Gali (alleyway), he stopped and threw the sack down onto the ground, initiating the minor explosion. It blew him two metres away, killing him instantly. He probably was unaware of what he was carrying.

 

Traffic

There is probably a Latin name for it, kerasophobia, perhaps. The constant honking of car horns here in Delhi drives me crazy. Some drivers blast their horns to signal their approach, so that everything in their path will move aside to let them pass, like Moses parting the Red Sea. Of course, it makes no difference at all. If I am walking down the roadside and a motorist or scooter driver behind me presses on their horn, I can’t really do anything about it. There is no place for me to go to escape. Perhaps the driver wants me to be aware of his presence, so I don’t randomly decide to step further out into the road. Other drivers join a main road from a side street without stopping or slowing down, just blowing their horn. The worst offence is when there is a traffic jam, so everyone gets impatient and starts leaning on their horns. This accomplishes nothing apart from raising my blood pressure.

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Every truck has “Horn Please” painted on the back, together with “Use Dipper at Night” – which means flash your lights when you are about to overtake. Sometimes the spelling goes awry.

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A few months ago, the Times of India organised a campaign to stop needless honking. A few cars now sport bumper stickers saying “Don’t use your horn”. I don’t think it made a hoot of difference. There are places, such as hospitals, which have road side signs warning against sounding horns, but people ignore them, despite the risk of prosecution.

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Yesterday, I was the passenger in a car on my way to the clinic and we were caught up in a traffic jam. It was a very narrow street, with cars and food carts parked on either side. Someone had double parked their car, so there was a bottle-neck. Everyone was vying for position, the cyclo riders, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, scooters, cars and trucks. Pedestrians didn’t have a look in.

Now normally in India, even though drivers often flout the rules brazenly, everyone does this at some time, so people don’t get too upset about it. Patience is a rarity. Everyone wants to get some advantage, everyone wants to squeeze through a small gap or block someone from getting in front of them. Never is there any sense (like in UK) when a driver will say to himself (because it usually is a “he”), “I am in the right, the other person will just have to move/back up/stop.” Everyone just accepts crazy, erratic driving and tries to avoid an accident, usually with inches to spare.

But it was different yesterday. A white car without any special markings was blocked in. A large bearded gentleman got out of the passenger seat cradling a double-barrelled shotgun in his arms. He did have the logo of a security firm on his shirt, but it was the weapon which concentrated everyone’s minds. The cyclo rider reversed a bit, the auto-rickshaw driver pulled over to the side. The security guard beckoned with the barrels of his gun, indicating that his driver should move the car forward. When the car was clear, the guard got back in, and they drove off. Immediately, everyone surged forward and gridlock ensued.

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We had just done a legal U turn on the Grand Trunk Road, heading north out of Delhi, when I saw a man pushing a “tempo”. This is a four-wheeled, open-sided taxi with bench seats facing each other. He managed to get up a head of steam, then he ran around into the road and clambered into the driver seat. He was bump starting a vehicle on one of the busiest roads in the capital. His passengers didn’t get out to help him, either.

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I was riding with two colleagues in an auto-rickshaw in downtown New Delhi. Our macho Sikh driver was gunning the engine as we came up to a roundabout. We needed the third exit. Instead of following the traffic clockwise around the central circle, the driver turned right, dodged a few vehicles coming at us head on, avoided the cars joining the roundabout legitimately on our right, and screeched onto the correct exit road. Hair-raising (for a Sikh?) but very impressive driving in a three-wheeler. Luckily it has a lower centre of gravity than a Reliant Robin.

Shine

Two photos from me on the topic. This is the evening sunlight shining on the ramshackle shops of Khari Baoli (it means a salty step well) in Old Delhi.It was taken at about 5:30pm and the street is packed with people buying and transporting dried fruit and nuts – traditional gifts at Diwali, the Festival of Lights.

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The second photograph is a golden Buddha sparkling in the sun, framed by a papier mache elephant’s trunk. This picture was taken today at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

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Shine