Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Fantasy Rock Garden and a Second Helping of Delhi

I'm in Nepal for two weeks, and very late (a month!) posting the final edition of my last trip. I probably won't post this Nepal trip until I'm back in Canada. My Rajasthan-Agra trip ended in Delhi to visit Nishant, another PhD student at my university in Canada, York University. The main tourist area, Pahar Ganj, had a totally different face, since the street had been gutted in preparation for the Commonwealth Games this year, and was under construction.

But first, I took a looooooong day trip to Chandigarh, the shared capital of Punjab and Haryana. Nek Chand started the Fantasy Rock Garden in the 1970s to express his artistic energies using industrial waste. The garden is a maze of imaginative landscapes, walls of mosaic art, and populated with whimsical people and animals. At times it reminded me of the Spanish artist Gaudi, but it was entirely unique at the same time. I loved it!

With a little time left before my train back to Delhi, I stopped at the High Court, and took a few photos of the Open Hand sculpture.

Back in Delhi I spent the day with Nishant. We visited the Dr. Ambedkar National Memorial, built on the site where Ambedkar died December 6, 1956, and took a brief tour around the Delhi University campus.

Next we stopped at Delhi's main gurdwara. I'm a big fan of Sikh temples; I find them very welcoming. We sat to listen to devotional songs for a while, and talked about our religious inclinations.

On to Firoz Shah, which includes a ruined mosque where people still come to pray. An Ashokan column is perched on the top of a hill which was converted into Muslim shrines. The ruins make an interesting contrast with the new sports facilities across the road under construction for the Commonwealth Games.

The light was fading fast, and then the monsoon hit with a huge force! Torrential rain flooded the streets, and my waterproof jacket was hardly any use. On top of that, our autorickshaw broke down, so we had to find a new one. Even that autorickshaw had problems navigating the flooded streets, so we had to walk a few blocks to reach the train station, sometimes through knee-deep water! A good experience of the power of the monsoon, before heading back to Pune once again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Abandoned City

The Mughal Emperor Akbar built the city of Fatehpur Sikri, but abandoned it soon after it was built because of water shortages. It was really interesting to explore the palace complex, and the city ruins behind the palace.

The Great Gate leads into Jama Masjid, which is an active mosque. It was the single worst location for hassles in India. Shopkeepers pose as "not-a-guide" or "practicing-my-English" or "foreigners-are-required-to-have-an-escort-in-the-mosque" and they will do anything to get you to talk to them. Once you talk to them, it's almost impossible to get rid of them. "Leave me alone"; "Go away"; "I want to be alone"; and "Stop bothering me" are all useless, regardless of your level of rudeness. The only thing that works is a firm "Goodbye." It's best to just ignore them in the first place no matter what.

Once I figured out these basics, I could explore the beautiful mosque in relative peace. It's filled with regular people worshipping, intricate relief and lattice carvings, and is the site for a shrine with the tomb of Sufi Saint Salim Chisti which has amazing lattice carvings and colourful mirror and glass inlays. The saint predicted that Akbar would have a son, so people still come to pray for children here.

Inside the palace complex there are many unique buildings, including the Panch Mahal, a five-story building for keeping cool. Most of the buildings were open to the air. Some of them had fantastic carvings, especially the Khwabgah or Khalwat Kada-i-Khass, which looks like a library.

The exit to the city complex leads through the Elephant Gate, and not many people visit here, because it's not well-indicated. The elephants' heads were knocked off because representations of people and animals are forbidden in Islam. (Which allows for the development of such gorgeous geometric, floral, and calligraphic art forms in many Muslim societies.) Akbar wasn't very religious, but the later emperor Aurangzeb was fundamentalist, and he destroyed a lot of the representational artwork when he was in power, aside from doing a lot of harm to Muslim-Hindu relations.

Behind the palace is a strange-looking tower covered in stone elephant tusks, where the emperor and other dignitaries shot wild animals, after someone else flushed the game toward the tower. There were also interesting tanks, and a very nice baoli, or step-well. Here I met Katsu, a Japanese traveller, who encouraged my interest in eventually visiting Pakistan.

Agra, Finally, and a Lesson in Fashion

I'm back to blogging after moving out of my flat amid two health problems... long story, but I'm mending.

The Taj Mahal, the world's great monument to death... er, love, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for one of his wives, Mumtaz Mahal, is just as beautiful in reality as its reputation. I finally understood why people take so many uninspired photos from the front. I prefer to capture the essence of such a huge monument through detail, and use a part to represent the whole. The Taj Mahal, however, is most beautiful as a whole; it is greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, it's impossible to capture that beauty on film. If you like my photos, just imagine how much more amazing it is in reality!

My attempts started at sunrise, and in the outtakes, I've shown some of the different lights reflecting from the white marble. The mosque to the west of the Taj, and the guest house to the east, are both beautiful monuments in themselves, and nearly identical, to maintain the symmetry of the Taj as a whole.

Photos are prohibited in the tomb interior, but it has the finest latticework carving, and pietra dura--or marble inlay with semi-precious stones. It also has the most incredible acoustics I've ever heard. This room had an echo of at least 15 seconds; it was difficult to tell, because the echo feedback created by the murmurs of visitors created something like a jet-engine roar.

Chini-ka-Rauza is the tomb of Allama Afzal Khan Mullah. He was the court poet for Emperor Jahangir, and the tomb is a sadly decaying example of the lost method of Kashikari tilework.

Itimad-ud-Daulah is the tomb Jehangir's wife built for her father. The carvings are lovely, and you can see some of the inspiration for the Taj Mahal in the all-white marble construction, the symmetry, and the marble inlay.

Agra Fort was rebuilt by Mughal Emperor Akbar, and is surrounded by a moat. Apparently they used to keep crocodiles, but now the water's smell is enough to keep away invaders. The second photo shows the Zenana, a courtyard surrounded by the women's apartments, and a central meeting pavilion. Genealogy note on the Mughal Emperors: Humayun - Akbar - Jehangir - Shah Jehan - Aurangzeb. Akbar was generally awesome, Aurangzeb was usually awful.

What Not to Wear! Most important: no matter what a shopkeeper says, and no matter how many places sell these pajama pants, they are not "Indian dress;" they are "ridiculous dress." They are meant to be worn with a knee-length kameez (long shirt), but this pant style is not in fashion right now. They are certainly not meant to be worn with any Western top, and definitely not meant to be tied at the knee! Secondly, both women and men should cover their shoulders and wear long pants or a long skirt. Thirdly, wear loose clothing. It's not just modest, it's actually cooler.

I fully support dress codes for all religious sites and other tourist attractions in India. If modest dress, from shoulders to ankles, is required to visit St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the same requirements in India are reasonable. Foreign women who dress immodestly reinforce the unfortunate stereotype that Western women are "easy," and make it way more difficult for people like me, who hope to be respected (and not propositioned all the time) while living here. It only takes one person dressing immodestly to get their photo in the newspaper and come to represent all Western women.