Khan-i-Khanan

In 1598, the wife of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, died. He was a linguistic scholar, administrator, military commander and poet at the Mughal courts of Akhbar and Jahangir. To honour his wife, he built a mausoleum. It is now known as Khan-i-Khanan, Rahim’s official title. He finally joined his beloved wife, being interred in the tomb 29 years later. This was the first time a Mughal noble had commemorated his wife with a magnificent tomb. Perhaps this was the inspiration for Shah Jahan to construct the Taj Mahal in Agra.

P1280674

The mausoleum was built close to Humayoun’s tomb and the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliah, on the Grand Trunk Road. Being buried close to the tomb of a Sufi saint was considered auspicious. Today, the Khan-i-Khanan is in a sorry state. The rot set in when builders pinched some of the marble to construct the tomb of Safdarjung 150 years later. According to photographic evidence, the mausoleum has deteriorated seriously over the past half century. Now it is being renovated using a mix of modern and traditional methods. Lasers have been employed to uncover the underlying structure, while local craftsmen and builders have reconstructed the fabric of the tomb. Carvers, stone masons, plasterers and painters will put in over a half million shifts to complete the renovation over four years.

The lady working in the booth selling tickets was surprised to see me. “You can see nothing here. It is a ruin. Come back in two years,” she said. I told her I was interested in seeing the men at work so she let me in. I photographed the lads watering the dry, barren earth which may once have been a beautiful garden. Another group of young men were working on the perimeter path. One man was halving bricks lengthways to make a low wall. There were slabs of red sandstone stacked in rows to clad the walls once they have been prepared.

An old bespectacled man was crushing boulders with a sledge hammer, not very successfully. I took up a cold chisel and a hammer to try to dress some stone, but I was useless and all the men gathered around to laugh at my efforts. I walked over to the south entrance, but the way was blocked. Some men were carrying material on their heads in wide baskets. They gleefully posed for me.

In the shade, around the corner, a group of women were taking a tea break. They were working on an inlaid pattern on the floor.

By this time, the security guard had become aware of my presence and ushered me away from the building, probably citing “Health & Safety” regulations. At the ticket booth, a chai wallah was doling out small paper cups of sweet masala tea. I accepted his offer of a cuppa in exchange for my taking his picture.

This is Delhi. Courtesy towards foreigners is the norm even in a busy megalopolis. Historical buildings may be ruined, but you can still take interesting photographs and, in this case, witness workers using traditional building techniques.

 

Holi Concert

Holi doesn’t have to be a riot of drunken, drugged up people spraying other drunken, drugged up people with indelible dye. There is a gentler, more refined way to join in the celebrations. Some Indian friends took me to a converted local farmhouse, Mohan Vilaas (sic) to experience an “entertainment with flour” (or was it flower?)

IMG_1478
Mohan Vilaas

There was a buffet dinner, with the usual mix of North and South Indian food, and ushers brought amuse bouche of spring rolls, paneer tandoori and chilli style, spicy soya bites and pakora. The event had attracted some VVIPs, so I had to be on my best behaviour. No “dad dancing” in the aisles to bhangra music – actually I am still rather piqued by one man’s description of me as “Mr Bean throwing some shapes”.

The backdrop of the stage was a massive video screen showing swirly patterns and Holi greetings. I am sure that if anyone in the audience had drunk bhang, which contains marijuana, this would have been hallucinatingly spectacular. The stage lighting consisted of rapidly changing brash colours – well, it is the festival of colour, right? Very tricky to photograph, and time consuming to process in Lightroom afterwards.

First up were a couple of crooners, with an odd backing group of middle-aged moustachioed men. This was not Robert Palmer doing “Addicted to Love”. How about the man in blue who was looking through the lyrics while the backing group did a bit of chorus.

The Mistress of Ceremonies had some startling make up but spoke good English, so I could understand what was going on. Eyebrows are big here in India. I was anointed with sandalwood paste on my forehead by the pandit, like most other people in these photos.

Next up were some lost boys, mates of Krishna apparently, who were generously illuminated.

Radha and Krishna made several appearances, followed by a whirling dervish (he was from Egypt rather than Khartoum) and some Kathakali dancers with flamboyant head-dresses and green faces.

More dancers, more boys, more Krishna, more dervish (with umbrellas attached to his skirt) and then the finale.

Ali Quli Mirza, a contestant on Indian reality TV show Bigg Boss 8, and also on Bigg Boss Halla Bol (which means “Raise your voice!”), came on stage to rapturous applause. He answered a few texts and checked WhatsApp after the first number. His next song was his signature tune and was well known by several elderly Indian gentlemen in the front row, who stood up and danced as though no one was watching.

They brought out the industrial blowers onto the stage and emptied sacks of rose petals and marigolds into the hoppers. The stage was several inches deep in flowers. Everyone got onto the stage, grabbed selfies with AQM, flung petals into the air and danced. Even me. Uncharacteristically, I was rather coy about asking for a personal selfie with AQM, but I suppose this is how he earns his money. He was a professional about it. The lowlight performance of the cellphone is poor, so I won’t post the results here.

After the party cooled down, people went back to hit the buffet with a vengeance. I had some great dessert, warm mung dahl halwa with vanilla icecream. Many thanks to my friends, I had a great evening with the stars.

Thursday Doors

Some daunting news. My latest foray into the backstreets of Old Dilli has resulted in seventy-seven door photographs. If I post seven images a week, that will take me to the middle of June. More worrying is that my free allowance at WordPress is almost exhausted.

The theme for this week is blue, or blue-ish doors. Here is a pair of blue doors, one metal with a bit of decoration, and one wood with long thin openings, like black piano keys, allowing light inside. The tee-shirt hung up to dry is almost as old as the doors, and proclaims India’s stance on an arms treaty.

IMG_0036

A paler blue, older, dirtier and more decorative door. Note the flower motif around the doorway and the attempt to make the scalloped edge of the door frame into the branch of a tree, with carved leaves. And the real leaf, hanging down into the tangle of electric wiring. There are three small alcoves to place oil lamps. The doors look solid and dependable, with a loop of chain hanging and metal studs holding the door together. The ramp at the middle of the doorway is to allow a motorbike to be wheeled in for secure keeping overnight. A tile displaying Ganesh is centred over the lintel.

 

IMG_0066

Powder blue, almost lilac, but still blue. Simple, metal, effective. It gives nothing away apart from the Hindu decor and the political poster showing the usual suspects.

IMG_0034

Turquoise blue, with bright orange and dull red decorative surround. Again there is the branch of a tree tracing the scalloped outline, with leaves sprouting forth. I am intrigued by the little grilled window on the right.

IMG_0051

My carpentry skills are so appalling that this is the kind of door I would produce if left to my own devices and power tools. The planks look sturdy enough, but what a bodged up job. Does anyone want to give it some love?

IMG_0041

There is a blue door behind all this crap. It looks a beauty, too. Lal Madno Ram, Iron Merchants, owned this place in 1921. Terrific decoration, with moustachioed faces at each top corner. Is one the sun and the other the moon? Will the door ever open again? Will the old air conditioner housing finally meet its maker?

IMG_0085

And next door to this was a rectangular blue door, showing sacrilegious streaks of yellow in one door post, protected by a couple of sleepy dogs. And a statue guard, wielding a mace. His staring gaze and red eyes suggest he may have been a marijuana user who got truly stoned. I really do apologise for that pun. It was totally called for.

IMG_0087IMG_0086

His brother in arms is so intoxicated that he has to hang on to a palm tree. Out the top of which emerges a crocodilian monster with a brown plastic chair hung upside down. From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Djinn Rummy

Anyone who wants to get under the skin of Delhi should read William Dalrymple’s book “City of Djinns”. A djinn is a genie, a spirit, an angel come down to earth, who can be benevolent, neutral or malevolent. A djinn can appear as an animal or can assume human form. Some say that everyone has a djinn, an evil angel, sitting on their shoulder, whispering temptation into our ear. Unlike humans, who were created from dust, djinns were born from fire.

In order to control a djinn, sufi mystics say you have to pray for forty days and forty nights. Merauli is one of the ancient cities of Delhi, ruled by Rajput kings, dating back to the 8th century. It is thick with djinns. I have done a night walk along the ruined city walls, through a cemetery and a forest, not as a djinn hunter, but just to experience the atmosphere. You can often detect a djinn by their malodorous stench – but we were warned never to say if we smelled anything as it might anger the djinn. Being India, stinky smells are never far away, but my lips and nostrils were sealed.

On a bright and sunny Sunday morning last month, I joined a band of young Delhiites for a walk around the archaeological site and the Qutub Minar complex.

The most haunted of the buildings we visited was the 16th century Jamali-Kamali mosque with its two marble tombs. There is some dispute over the identity of Jamali and Kamali. The former was probably a sufi saint and poet, Shaikh Hamid bin Fazlu ‘llah. Jamal means  “positive aura”; Kamali  means miracle. He was Jamali’s male lover. I suppose being a poet, a rhyming nickname is quite appropriate.

Jamali was a court poet for Sikendar Lodi and when the Mughals defeated the sultan, they were so impressed by the beauty of Jamali’s poetry that they adopted him at court. Emperor Humayoun may have commissioned his tomb. The style is one of the earliest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture. The interior is supposed to look like the interior of a jewellery box. The graffiti spoils this impression. It is more famous for being haunted by djinns.

Some people have felt a physical presence, a cold breath on your neck, or have even been slapped by a djinn, while visiting this mosque. The tombs are off-limits because of the notoriety of the ghostly mosque; trophy and spirit hunters are not welcome here.

The Kings’ Step Well, Rajaon Ki Baoli, was built for the use of all the stonemasons and builders who worked in Merauli over the years.

I wandered around the Qutb Complex, which contains the massive Qutub Minar, (too big to be called a minaret) 73 metres of red sandstone. Construction began in 1192 reaching the first storey. Rajput sultans added three more storeys but in 1369 it was struck by lightning and severely damaged. The Tughlaqs repaired the tower adding a fifth storey.

The iron pillar of Delhi is 1600 years old. It was brought to Delhi 700 years ago and erected in the Qutb Complex. When I came here in 1978, you could try to encircle the pillar with your arms behind your back. All your wishes would then come true. I managed it then, but now it is fenced off. It is resistant to corrosion and rust, though there is some damage.

Three years after I first visited the complex, there was a tragedy when 45 people were crushed in a stampede on the inner staircase when the electricity supply failed. Most of the dead were children. The tower is now off limits to the public.

Outside the complex, some of the ancient monuments were modified by Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, the Governor General’s Agent to the Mughal Court in Delhi. He converted the first floor of the tomb of Mohammed Quli Khan to a pleasure house, “Dilkusha” – delight of the heart. He also constructed a swimming pool and a folly. A man after my own heart.

P1190888

He was poisoned by one the wives of Bahadur Shah II and is buried in St James churchyard, near Kashmiri Gate.

P1280827
Metcalfe is buried close to the Skinner Family tomb in the churchyard of St James’

 

Nicholson Cemetery

This is the main resting place of the British community of Delhi after the disaster of the Mutiny in 1857. It was originally a Mughal garden. It is named after its most illustrious resident, Brigadier-General John Nicholson, “Lion of the Punjab”. He began his career as an ensign in the East India Company Native Infantry. He had a reputation of being courageous, fearless and a brilliant swordsman. Although he was considered just and fair, he also had a furious temper and showed little mercy to his enemies.*

During the Mutiny, Nicholson led a mobile column from the Punjab to relieve the besieging British troops on the Ridge north of Delhi. Some considered his presence equivalent to a thousand additional troops. He bitterly criticised the incompetence of his superiors and was glad to be given the task of leading his troops through the breached walls at Kashmiri Gate. Inside the city, his troops were exhausted and stopped to rest. Nicholson didn’t. Wielding a sword and a pistol, he charged a gang of mutinous sepoys down a street, but was shot in the back by a sniper. He died nine days later from his wounds.

P1280851

It is a forgotten wonderland of dilapidated tombs, toppled headstones choked with spiny vines, tangled weeds, and outrageously draped with a riot of red bougainvillea.

There are some graves prior to the Mutiny, with marble headstones set into the red wall of the gatehouse. One plaque was by the 8th, The King’s Regiment, commemorating three lieutenants, 41 non commissioned officers and men, who lost their lives during the siege of Delhi. (The Mutiny Monument on the Ridge (which looks like the Albert Memorial) contains the names of all the British troops who lost their lives during the siege.)

Lots of young British soldiers are buried here, their rank and regiment displayed on their headstones. It is interesting to read the inscriptions: “Erected by his colleagues and friends,” and explaining the cause of death – enteric fever (typhoid) or pleurisy. Sadly the commonest religious message is the fatalistic, “Thy will be done.” I was touched by the gravestone of Herbert Jackson, C Battery, Royal Horse Artillery,  whose age was given as “23 and 11/12”.

Elizabeth Badley Read, of the American Methodist Mission in Lucknow, lies beneath a stone slab which reads, “She loved India”.

P1280848

The western half of the cemetery is modern, orderly and well kept. There are rows of marble slabs, beneath which Anglo-Indians are buried along with those who “stayed on”.

P1280840

The Moghul Emperors left behind magnificent mausoleums, some of which have been restored to something resembling their original grandeur, others have been allowed to crumble to dust.

The Hindus, Buddhists and Jains believe in reincarnation of the soul, so their dead are cremated to leave nothing behind.

The entropic Nicholson Christian Cemetery is a poignant reminder of the fragile tenure of a century of British Raj. But the legend of Nicholson lives on. There is a tiny cult of tribesmen on the North West Frontier who still revere “Nikal Seyn – the Lion of the Punjab”.#

Et in Arcadia, ego

 

* During the Mutiny, one evening Nicholson appeared in the officers’ mess at Jullunder and said, “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting for your supper, but I have been busy hanging your cooks.” He had received word that there was a plot to poison the officers’ food with aconite, so he asked the regimental chefs to taste what they had prepared. They refused. He fed the food to a monkey, which promptly expired, so he immediately had the cooks hanged. He then ate dinner.

 

# For an amusing, account of Nicholson’s life, if you can stand the profanity, look at the website “Badass of the Week”.