Monday, 20 December 2010

Nili Chhatri and the Universality of Humanity

I will start with a confession. Living an unstructured footloose life is not always easy. I’m playing a game against inertia, hoping to beat it as often as possible. Every morning I have to get myself out of bed without knowing what I am going to do; Just searching for an inspiration can often mean a wasted day. This particular morning was mercifully different. The night before, like a thunderbolt, the idea of visiting Nigambodh Ghat had struck me. Nigambodh Ghat is the oldest place in Delhi. Well, at least it’s the location of the oldest surviving legend in the city. In antiquity, it is said, the Hindu god of creation, Brahma suffered from amnesia and forgot all the holy texts. After long penance on the banks of the Jamuna, all the holy texts were thrown out of the river bed by the river goddess. Today, Nigambodh Ghat is a Hindu cremation ground equipped with an electric crematorium which handles about 60 cremations a day. I was disappointed to learn that there is nothing antique about it. And when I walked in with an SLR slung to my neck, I could see I was intruding on nothing special. Taking the cue very early, I left the place. Feeling betrayed by the previous nights thunderbolt, I walked towards Nili Chhatri temple. This is where Yudhishtira is said to have installed a Shivling during the Mahabharata.

When I walked into the nondescript blue concrete temple, there was nothing striking about it. It was very small with two sponsor boards hanging from the roof. It could have been any temple on any street of any town in India. But just as I climbed down the stairs into the compound, an old man was coming out:

Present day Nili Chhatri

‘Are you not from Delhi?' he asked.
'Yes and No. I live in Delhi now but am not from Delhi.' I replied.
'So, what are you doing here? How did you hear about this place?'
'I read about it in a book.' Another man, who was perhaps overhearing our conversation joined in, 'Which book?' 'City of Djinns', I said.

And then came a flood of questions. The pride that their favored temple was finding its way into books and inspiring visits from camera holding-outsiders was plainly visible on their faces. The older man, postponing his departure from the temple, sat down on the steps with only one sock on and started telling me his story. 15 years ago, when he first came to this temple, he did not even have enough money to buy himself a cup of tea. But he started visiting it regularly, and things changed. The old man said Shiva took him under patronage and gifted him a Midas touch. Today, he says, he has everything but he still comes and visits it everyday. 'There is a lot of power in this Shivling, son', he said, 'you make a wish and it will be fulfilled. You have rare luck to have heard of it in a book and come here. Not everyone gets to visit here. Make the most of it.' At moments like these, a non-believer like me starts to understand faith. I may not need it, but if it can turn lives around and give people the heart to bless a stranger they met two minutes ago, may it live long!

The ancient Shivling
The younger man gave me a quick tour of the temple. According to him, 'The shivling is 10000 years old and was installed by Yudhishtir Bhagwan. Ever since, people have come here asking for their wishes to be fulfilled, their agonies to be taken away and the god has never disappointed.' I noticed that the Shivling was draped in leaves and fruit, and milk was being poured on it through a curious looking nozzle. Followers were kneeling down in front of the god to pay their respects.
'Can I click photos?' I asked the man.
'Yes, of course, you are our and the god's guest.'
I was touched. When I left to roam Delhi, I had shelved all expectations of humanity in the mountains. The last thing I expected was to be treated like a prince, taken for a guided tour, imparted with the story of an old man's struggles, and having a god play host to me. Humanity exists everywhere, most of all in a city of 20 million. It’s just covered under the dust of daily existence. The moment you are willing to gently dust the surface, it oozes out lovingly.

The boat going out on the Yamuna
I walked out of the temple with a gleaming smile, reflecting on the satisfaction of meeting good people on the road. I was going to head for Nigambodh Gate, one of the gates of Shahjahanabad. But just across the road was the Jamuna, flowing black and lazy on a winter morning in the haze. I decided to hop over to the dirty banks. So I stood there on plastic and lots of assorted trash, looking over the oily ooze of Jamuna. Far away, in distance, on an island was a huge mass of birds, so many that they painted the island white. Just a few feet away from me, a group of men, sitting on their haunches were getting ready for a game of cards. An old man with missing teeth, grey and disheveled hair, and a vermilion mark on his forehead, walked down to the river bank. One of the card players, a boy, got up and pulled a yellow boat into the water. The old man climbed in and off they went. The young man was singing an old Hindi song, 'Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain jo mukaam, woh phir nahin aate.' (Milestones once passed in the journey of life never come back.) It was so apt a song for the crematorium nearby, where people come at the last milestone of their life and then have their ashes sprinkled on the holy river. The setting was so calm, the young man’s deep baritone so soothing, the river so serene; for the first time, I felt very comfortable seeing death at such close quarters. After a couple of oar strokes, the boy turned back to the shore and got out of the boat. They had forgotten to take matchsticks. I was anyway wondering about their trip, so I walked over and asked,
'Are you crossing the Jamuna?'
'No, we are just going to feed the birds.', the boy replied.
'Can I join in?'
'Yes, of course.'
Without hesitation I jumped in and we were off. Before the feeding started, incense were lit and set to float on the holy river as an offering. Then the food, salted vermicelli, came out and the birds flocked over. One moment, the boat was a lonely farer on the river. A minute later, hundreds of birds were circling the boat. And we three began to chat.

The hand that feeds the birds
They were a strange pair. An old man, will into the second half of his life, coming to feed birds, supported by a young rebellious teenager who claimed he was, '…a free bird, I am only tied to Jamuna Maiya.’ The old man, he told me, has been coming to feed the migratory birds every single day of the winter for the last 3 years and each of these days, this young boy takes him out to the river. What chemistry binds them, I have no clue. It was not money for sure, something much deeper than that, maybe something which is better left not understood.

The feeding ended too early. Sitting there on the boat over a black, silent, river I could have spent the entire day watching the birds come and feed and watching these two strangers interact with the ease of childhood buddies. Behind it all was the falling ashes of many people who had come to the last milestone of their lives, while I was still living mine. The boat was moored to the bank and I walked out to the road, taking a moment to look back at the scene. There was no Hall of Thousand Columns, no big monuments, no geographic discovery. Yet, I’d had the best day of my Delhi walking life. All I did was meet a few wonderful people and listen to their stories. That is why, they say, it is people who make the world what it is and not the other way around. I have belatedly realized that the living Dilli is part of this circle too.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Guest Post: Profile of a Rag Picker

This is a guest post by Rachel Leven, a Fulbright scholar based out of New Delhi. She is currently researching 'Decentralized Waste Management' and as part of the research, travels around Delhi meeting people, NGOs, professors, and companies working in the sector. For more info check out her blog,

As Shalabh touched on in his last post, Delhi is a place where contradictions are piled on contradictions. The ruins which dot the city are the dull carcasses of a gold glittered age. Once home to emperors, in Delhi they are often just another geographic marker in a slum. I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine whether this is a travesty or the romantic march of time. In any case walking in this city it’s good to remain open to anything the might come up. After visiting the unusually clean and ordered Begumpur Mosque we ran into a living relic overseeing her humble empire of trash just a few blocks away. Since my expertise is waste management we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share a bag of peanuts, served in a recycled magazine page, with Maya and her band of sweepers.
Maya by her Trash
At first glance the street is a dump. Goats dressed in old sweaters and chickens wander between the bins and garbage bags on either side of the road, a dusty side street leading to a simple crematorium. At 2:59 pm the site makes a comedy of Delhi Waste Management’s sign claiming, ‘Zero garbage zone 13 to 15 hrs.’ However on closer inspection Maya runs an ordered and cleanly operation. Segregated bags of waste are piled high and covered with a plastic sheet, waiting for the broker’s next visit. Although the day’s un-segregated waste is picked over by the goats, the garbage they dislodge is sure to be picked up soon. Maya sits close to the ground on a short stool. Surrounding her are five lounging men; aside from her husband, they are all sweepers hired by Delhi Waste Management, a city contracted company, to sweep the neighborhood streets and deliver their bags to the dustbins at this location.

Goats and Chicken feeding on day's trash

About 65 years old, Maya has been watching over this street for 25 years.  She hails from a rural village just a few hours away from New Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh. After marrying she moved to this slum community of Begampur Harijan Basti in Delhi. Before claiming her corner Maya jumped around the city, working mostly with garbage. She eventually struck a deal with the neighborhood surrounding Begampur. In return for keeping the road to the crematorium clean, she would be allowed to use the space to collect and segregate the area’s waste.
Mam Chand (L) with a sweeper (R)
This was no easy job. Maya says that back then the road was a favored spot for street shitting. “The crap was up to here,” says Maya’s husband Mam Chand, waving his hand by his knee. To break the neighborhood of its bad habits Maya took to sleeping on the crematorium road. When residents snuck out to take care of their business in the cover of the night, she chased them down. She remembers, “I carried a big stick with me and would chase them and then ask them to pick up their mess themselves.”  Although she still sleeps in her makeshift home on the road, after more than two decades of guardianship the street is clear and no one is breaking the rules. However, just off the temple’s main drag and outside Maya’s jurisdiction, we found enough fresh material to convince us that her rule is far from obsolete.

Garbage waiting to be segragated
In exchange for her commitment to keeping the road clean Maya is spared hassling by police and no one is allowed to cannibalize her business. Her presence on the block is so strong that when the municipality built cement dust bins to collect the neighborhood’s trash, they built them next to her operation. When the municipality and then the contracted private firm set up their operations they employed the expert, Maya, to ensure that the area around the dustbins remained clean.  This turns out to be a big task as Mam Chand pointed out to us. Although he had cleaned the bins at the other end of the road that morning, there was already a solid mass of garbage collecting around the half empty metal containers. He says the neighbors used to be better about their trash, but with the coming of plastic bags and other disposable packaging people stopped caring about the value of what they dropped, and where they dropped it.

Maya and her husband live a life with one foot in the formal sector, but with little security. According to Maya, Delhi Waste Management currently pays herself and her husband a total wage of 1000 rupees a month. In addition, they make 2000 to 2500 rupees/ month selling plastic bottles and any other valuable waste they can segregate to a broker from the company. The going rate for an unbroken glass bottle is 1 rupee but they don’t often find such valuable material. Their money is made in thin plastic and plastic bottles, 3 rupees/kg and 50 paise respectively. There is also a little money to be made selling the meat of their goats. And there are the chickens, Maya pulled back the door of what I thought was a stack of card board to reveal a comfortably roosting hen.

Although the prices of materials ebb and flow with the market, Maya says that wages have remained about the same for the last 10 years, and in fact were lowered from 1200 when the city contracted out. Maya and her band of sweepers suspect that much more money has been allocated to them but that it is lost in “brokering,” as she diplomatically referred to Delhi’s corruption. All in all it doesn’t add up to much. Mam Chand says, “we make a total of 3 thousand a month, its barely enough to keep two people going on food, milk costs 22rps a liter so that tells you how well off we are.” Although goat’s milk might help Mam Chand save some rupees, there are also medical expenses to consider, like Maya’s appendix operation which cost them 75000 rps. And there is their one child, a widow supporting three children of her own. Their daughter lives in another section of the city but often returns looking for help. “You have to support your kids,” says Maya with a heavy shrug.

Maya sleeps outside to protect the street and her garbage.

Maya and her men are just a small piece of the many layered and complicated system of waste in India. Getting paid a wage brings them closer to a stable way of life, but it’s hardly enough to get by. Any changes to the system, such as the collection of unsegregated waste for waste-to-energy programs, or even a change in habits like better segregation and consumption habits on the part of residents poses a threat to their stability.

Despite this Maya looks over her road with proud resolution. It is her space. One of the young sweepers joked that she was Panchali , meaning a wife to all of them.  Maya was quick to respond, “I live alone here in the night. You come here and I’ll tell you whose wife I am. I have a dagger and I’ll drive it through you.”
With her wit and command it’s not difficult to imagine Maya in another setting, manipulating her self-built corporation from behind an oak desk and far from the grandmother that squatted on the wicker stool before us. But even without the trappings of an empire, she is still the boss and her life will pass on that corner, amongst the trash that is her legacy.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Grand and Forgotten: Begumpur Mosque

Location - Begumpur Mosque (click here for the map location)

Co-ordinates - N28 32.350 E77 12.367

Closest Metro Station - Hauz Khas (Yellow Line)

Landmark - Close to Bijaymandal in Begumpur Village

I first saw it from Bijaymandal. From the top of the Octagonal structure atop Bijaymandal, I could see a series of domes arranged along the sides of a square. It was hazy around but that could not hide the size of the place. I was both intrigued and amazed. Immediately, I got down from my vantage point, got to the road and started walking in the direction of the building. A few hundred metres south, the mosque stood on the side of a narrow residential street. There was the quintessential blue ASI board with white text, somewhat rusting. A flight of wide steps led into the mosque. An imposing gate, partly blackened by the weather loomed above the steps. A partly ajar gate made of iron bars led inside. Before I had even walked up the steps, I was sure no one came here. It just had that eerie look which buildings unoccupied for years tend to accumulate.

The entry gate from the West. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
Walking up the steps, I could partly see the huge courtyard and the plastered wall of the main dome of the mosque. As if to accentuate the feeling of loneliness, a solo man was walking in. Beyond was a huge courtyard, vast empty space and no one else.

From the iron bar gate. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
Whatever I had seen from the gate had still not prepared me for the inside. The moment I walked past the gate, the true size of the courtyard hit me. It is huge. I later learnt it is 75 metres X 75 metres. While I am sure there are bigger mosques around (Jama Masjid is sure one of them), I am also sure there is no larger mosque which lies abandoned. The emptiness inside adds to the aura of the place. The one thing conspicuous by its absence is a water tank where people would have washed their hands and feet before getting into the mosque. There is a small structure in one corner which could have served the purpose but it is hard to imagine why the architect of this mosque who had such grand taste in size would make only a 10 feet X 4 feet ditch for that.

The West and North sides with the 'ditch' in the foreground.

The first thing I did inside was to walk all around the courtyard and feel its size. Later, when I walked in along the galleries formed by the domes, the arches under each dome seemed to enhance the dimensions and the depth.

Arches on the South side.
The plain-ness and the absence of intricate carvings did indicate this to be Tughlaq period structure, a fact that was later confirmed as I searched about it on the internet. The distinctive feature of the structure, and I say this for the nth time in this post, is the size. Apart from that, if I am not mistaken, it is also the number, arrangement and placement of domes all around the mosque. Most mosques in Delhi have domes over and on the sides of the mihrab, right above the arches in the main building. In the bigger mosques, the domes number about 5. Here, they would amount to over 50 (56 small ones), not counting the 3 larger ones over each of the entry gates and the largest over the Mihrab. There are 2 theories about the origin of the structure. Said to be definitely from the city of Jahanpanah and built around the same time as the Bijaymandal Palace, it is variously attributed to Khan-i-Jahan Maqbul Tilangani, Prime Minister of Feroz Shah Tughlaq and to Tughlaq himself. The fact that the mosque does not find a mention in Ibn Batuta's otherwise extensive descriptions leads most people to credit it to the Tughlaq ruler himself. That would put the mosque's contruction to somewhere between 1341 (which was when Batuta left Delhi) and 1351 (the year Tughlaq died).

The domes on the West and South. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
7 domes form half of each side. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
Given how old and unused the structure is, it is a wonder that almost all of it is still intact. Except the Eastern half of the West wall, where almost all the domes have collapsed, all the domes are intact. In a way, the collapsed domes are a bonus because thats about the only thing which lends some credence to the age of the mosque. Beyond the collapsed domes is a hall which does not seem to have any entry from the main structure. I climbed over a 5 feet high window into it. Once inside it, I still could not find any entry to it. To date, more than a week after I first visited Begumpur mosque, I am in the dark about it.

Collapsed domes and domes of the unexplained hall.
From all the 3 gates and from next to the main west wall which houses the Mihrab, it is possible to climb up to 2 levels. The mihrab in itself is not too impressive, just a plain wall with an arch facing west and does not boast of any carvings at all. The main structure outside is also a plain faced plastered wall. A very narrow flight of stairs leads up, first to the roof which has the small domes and further upto the main large dome of the mosque. A small platform at one end is the highest vantage point from the mosque.

The plain mihrab on the west wall.
The east wall from atop the main dome.
At one time, long long ago, the mosque perhaps had a connection with Bijaymandal. It would have seen hundreds of devotees everyday kneel in prayer to the call of 'Allah-u-Akbar'. It may also have been a center of commerce with artisans displaying and selling their wares to their patrons. The Sultan himself, his wives and the who's who of his court would have come and paid obesiance here. Today, it lies abandoned. Time has taken away the audience but the size remains for everyone to be seen.

I was so enamoured by the place that when a couple of days later, a few friends wanted to come see this place (after hearing from me), I gladly gave them company. Despite having heard of its size, they were surprised. In the middle of the congested villaged of Begumpur, in the heart of Delhi, where space is at a premium, there is historical real estate lying vacant, unattended and grand. As we walked out of the mosque on my second visit towards Begumpur Village, we were wondering about why Bijaymandal, a few hundred metres away is so littered and shitted on while the mosque is not. While the mosque is not used for prayer, perhaps its erstwhile status discourages people from littering in. Just a score of metres away however, the story is different. Below is what we saw. Present Delhi is as much about trash, filth and smelliness as it is about historical structures and legends. More on this in one of the future posts.

A man walks past some trash as another cleans.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Marking the Territory: Dilli Gate

Location - Delhi Gate (click here for the map location)

Co-ordinates - N28 38.463 E77 14.433

Closest Metro Station - New Delhi Railway Station (Yellow Line)

Landmark - The gate itself

The Southern-most gate of the city of Shahjahanabad, Dilli Gate links the city of Old Delhi to New Delhi (un the current locality of Daryaganj). At one time, a wall must have run on both sides marking the territory of the imperial city. What remains now is just the gate, flanked by 2 lanes of the road on each side. While the walls do not survive at all, the gate survives as a whole, unlike Kashmere Gate. On the western side, remains of a staircase leading to the gate top can still be seen. As on date, it is enclosed in a green iron fence (presumably put up by ASI) and is not accessible to common public. There is no information board on the gate. The wikipedia entry, however reads:

"The road was also called the Thandi sadak (the cool street) as it was a tree lined avenue. The gate, square in plan, was built in sandstone and is an impressive and large structure. Near the gate entry, two stone carvings of elephants were erected. The Emperor used this gate to go to the Jama Masjid for prayer. The road from this gate passing through Daryaganj lead to the Kashmiri gate. A part of the fort wall to the east has been demolished to build the Old Delhi Railway Station while the wall to the west exists."

Dilli Gate from South - this was the entry to Shahjahanabad
Arch of the Dilli Gate
Side View: The stairs leading up

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Bijaymandal: The Hall of a Thousand Columns

Location - Sarvapriya Vihar/Begumpur (click here for the map location)

Co-ordinates - N28 32.438 E77 12.366

Closest Metro Station - Hauz Khas (Yellow Line)

Landmark - Opposite Sarvapriya Club, Sarvapriya Vihar

If you look at the right nav of this page and scroll down to 'about me', you will see the point about discovering yourself when you travel. Of all things that I have discovered about myself in the last 18 months, the one that stands out is the romantic and adventurer in me. I always thought I was one or maybe I always wanted to be one. Now I know, I am one and I enjoy being it. Its this romantic in me which is jumping guns to post this first. I have 5-6 other posts pending but none as romantic as Bijaymandal.

Ibn Batuta came to India in 1433 and stayed around till 1441. The Tughlaqs were ruling with an iron hand. As he gained favour with the Sultan and was let into the most private of the chambers, observing the idiosyncracies of the rulers, he saw a lot. In his book of travels, he describes what he calls 'The Hall of Thousand Columns', Hazar Sutan. Needless to say, it was grand, it was gigantic and it witnessed exceutions. The expression 'Hall of Thousand Columns' has also been used for a hall built by Alauddin Khilji, the one of Siri Fort fame. Whether Tughlaq built his version on the earlier one or not, no one knows. No one even clearly knows if this site, Bijaymandal is the place where the hall stood. It is all conjecture. That is where the story begins.
Remains of 'The Hall' and the octagonal structure

As you get down at the non-descript location called Sarvapriya club, a rusting iron gate stares at you. Inside the gate is dense shrubbery. To your right are some remains of the wall. 'Wait!!, have I walked into where I wanted to? Could this be the hall of thousand columns described so elaborately by Batuta?', is what you find asking yourself as your senses get used to what lies ahead, the sight and stench of human excreta amongst them. In the middle of the forgotten village of Begumpur, close to nowhere is a patch of land, raised above its surroundings which once was the site of The Hall of Thousand Columns. What survives today is a section of a wall close to the entry gate, an unexplained dome like structure, ruins of a hall (or maybe The Hall), an octagonal observation post on the top and many legends.

Built by Mohammad bin Tughlaq sometime in the second decade of the 15th century, Bijay Mandal lay at the center of the 4th city of Delhi, Jahanpanah. It was from here that the Tughlaq sultan would have conducted the affairs of the kingdom, received travellers (like Batuta), meted out justice (or injustice) to the various petitioners, executed criminals and traitors and issued royal decrees.

The first section surviving to the North is that of a wall, which presumably formed the boundary of the entire complex and had a gate. The surviving structure does show remnants of what could have been barracks for guards on duty. In all, 5 arches survive on the South side of the wall and 3 on the North. Just South of this structure is a Sufi's grave along with a few other graves draped in cloth various shades of green. On the west of this is a short mosque mihrab. The sufi's grave and the mihrab are clearly recent additions and are used as a place of worship.

The wall section from the South
5 arches of the wall as seen from the North
Inside the wall arches
South of the wall is lots and lots of shrubbery, as high as 6 feet high in places. Various earthen paths zigzag away. Most of them, winding in various ways do lead to the main structure, considered to be the remains of The Hall of Thousand Columns. Before you get to the hall however, the path heads west and reaches a large dome structure with 2 arched entries on all sides except the East. According to sources, this structure was added after the original hall was built but its purpose is not clear. However, based on the underground passages (no longer accessible) excavated by the ASI, it is thought this structure was an annex to another set of buildings.
The large Dome with 2 arched entries.
Light streams into the dome like structure. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
Inside corner of the dome.
Just South of the dome is the main structure. The walls of the dome almost touch it. As you stand at the base of the dome and look up the wall, you are effectively looking at what a subject of Tughlaq would have seen before being ushered into the presence of the Sultan. The wall is high and vertical. Given Tughlaq's propensity in meting out harsh punishments to the erring, one can easily conceive a few hundred errants having been hurled down the wall into oblivion. True to the image, the staircase that leads up is narrow and winding and gives an impression of carrying you somewhere unpleasant. As you get to the top of the first flight, there is a large open courtyard. To the left are the remains of the main chamber of the palace, possibly the Sultan's living quarters, possibly a large public hall, possibly 'The Hall'. Of the Thousand columns that once constituted it (though that claim could be easily questioned), less than a score remain. On the South side of The Hall are 2 circular openings, which perhaps served as entrances to the vaults or the treasury.

The Hall from the South (5+1 doors can be seen).
Whatever remains of the 1000 columns!!
From outside the hall, in the courtyard, another narrow staircase leads up to the terrace. The moment you reach the terrace, you realize the significance of the site. There is a clear view of Delhi all around. In those days, when his subjects lived in hovels and hamlets not rising above 2-3 metres and the air was clear, the Sultan would have been able to see clearly for a distance in all directions. Even today, with modern construction and bad visibility, one can see a lot in all directions. Its also from on the way to the terrace that one gets an idea of the magnitude of the structure. From midway up the staircase, the dome like structure which seems huge from the ground is already below you.

Remains of the terrace with the octagonal structure
The dome from the terrace. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven

The terrace is not the end. Perched atop the terrace on its West corner, is a small octagonal structure which can be climbed by narrow staircases on 4 sides. On the inside, the structure has the shape of a plus sign. The staircases leading up are from the outside walls and if one is enterprising enough, it is possible to go around the octagon, even though it involves walking on a ledge for sometime. The octagon was almost certainly an observation post, as much for the Sultan as for his chiefs of army. There is no place with as commanding a view as this in South Delhi except perhaps the Qutub Minar. One can well imagine the Sultan relaxing and basking in the sun on the terrace and making an occasional foray onto the top of the octagon to keep an eye on his kingdom. Not that it would be needed, its just that the feeling of being on top of things (literally and figuratively) was perhaps too heady to be not indulged in regularly.

Looking East from the Octagonal observation post.
Not much remains of what must surely have been a grand palace once. Time has done what only it can do. The ruins do however lend it a romantic appeal. If there is a place to let your imagination loose and imagine what a grand palace must have looked like, if there is a place to stand on and imagine yourself the ruler of Delhi, this place is it.

I had gone there just to see Bijay Mandal. However, once at the top of the octagonal post observing the world around and feeling slightly like the Tughlaq, towards the South, I saw a structure which to say the least intrigued me. Strain your eyes and look at the below picture (click and blow it up if need be). You will see a series of domes and 4 larger domes at the middle to farther end. 'What in the name of god is that!!' I asked myself. More about that later.

The mysterious domes! Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Sunset at Lodi Gardens

My loose feet took me to Lodi Gardens yesterday. It happened to be a clear day, atleast as clear as a day can get in Delhi. The sun was setting in the distance, over the domes of the Bara Gumbad mosque. Some other day, I will write about the tombs in Lodi Gardens. Till then, the sunset. For more sunsets,

From in between the leaves of a palm tree.

Domes of the Bada Gumbad mosque. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven

Friday, 3 December 2010

Skinner's Church: St. James' Church

Location - Kashmere Gate -Delhi 6 (click here for the map location)

Co-ordinates - N28 39.930 E77 13.861

Closest Metro Station - Kashmere Gate (Yellow Line)

Landmark - Near ISBT Kashmere Gate

I first read about this in 'City of Djinns', the book I come to love more and more as I see more of Delhi. Dalrymple gives extensive coverage to a man called William Fraser, a Scot who came to the then Company headquarters of Calcutta as a student of the orient seeking knowledge and turned into a native guerilla warfare leader. As the deputy resident stationed in Delhi, his duties included stamping out the menace of the Mahrattas. He took to the task and the city so well, he never left. Dalrymple ends Fraser's story with his murder and then the burial in St. James Church near Kashmere Gate. Ever since, I wanted to see Fraser's grave.

Adding to the appeal of the church was James Skinner, the man who ordered the church made. James Skinner was what the British referred to as half caste (Anglo Indian) and was therefore switching allegiance because neither parties identified him as their own. Only Fraser, himself a lover of the orient and a maverick appreciated Skinner. The two were brothers in arms. Skinner survives to this day as the founder of Skinner Horse.

St. James from the entry gate on Madrasa Road
St. James has an interesting history. Skinner was lying wounded on the battlefield when he decided he would make a church to honour god if he survived. And he did. That is both survived and had the church built. The construciton was started in 1826 and completed in 1836. Built in Renaissance style to a cruciform plan (the floor plan is shaped like a cross), it has porches on 3 sides and 2 stained glass windows (presumably original Belgian) towards the altar side. The roof has an octagonal dome, right over the crossing (the point where the arms of the cruciform intersect).

The front porch with the portico.
Close up of the dome.
Stained glass windows near the altar (East side)
The church has extensive grounds with well maintained gardens and is still used as a place of worship. The grounds have some beautiful trees and a graveyard. Towards the north of the graveyard is a special section, cordoned off by a fence; dedicated to the graves of the Skinner family. Holding about 15 graves, small and big, plain and elaborate, the only Skinner I could not find here was Colonel James Skinner himself.

At the West edge of the grounds, as far as possible from the church building while still staying in the grounds, are 2 monuments. One of them, an upright memorial cross, commemorates christian killings in Delhi during the 1857 mutiny. The other, a rectangular, slightly raised platform holds the remains of William Fraser, the man whose grave most inspired me to visit St. James.

One of the fancy Skinner graves towards the North.
The raised rectangular plinth in the foreground is Fraser's grave.
Fraser's tombstone.
In a city otherwise full of ancient, unkempt ruins, St. James gives an almost modern feeling. A crisp, painted building, its less than 200 years of existence and European architecture feel like today's, which is perhaps fitting for it lends an air of antiquity to all the previous rulers of Delhi.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Marking the Territory: Kashmere Gate

'Marking the Territory' is a series of posts which will physically mark boundaries of the various cities/forts/citadels of Delhi on Open Street Map. The initial idea was to mark only the gates or locations of erstwhile gates of Shahjahanabad but I have extended it to marking pretty much all fort walls, gates etc which remain, can be traced or seen. It starts with Kashmere Gate and will hopefully extend to many more.

Location - Kashmere Gate -Delhi 6 (click here for the map location)

Co-ordinates - N28 39.996 E77 13.746

Closest Metro Station - Kashmere Gate (Yellow Line)

Landmark - Near ISBT Kashmere Gate

Finding Kashmere gate, like most things in Delhi, is not easy. I started off at 7 in the morning, got into an auto and asked the auto driver 'Kashmere Gate?'. In today's parlance, it either stands for the big bus station or at best the locality around, which was part of the old walled city of Shahjahanabad. When I asked him if he knew about the old Kashmere Gate, after which the locality has been named, I drew a blank. 'The St. James' Church'? Blank again. So we decided we will reach the area and ask around. I had already given up the idea of asking for Kashmere Gate because it means too many things and unfortunately, they were not the same for me and for those answering. So, we settled for asking for the church. St. James' was an easy find. It was not even 8 when I reached and the church would not open till 8:30.

As I set off in one direction to look for Kashmere Gate, I was pondering on what line of enquiry should I take. I called a friend and requested him to check it up on the internet. Meanwhile, my line of enquiry started as 'Kashmere Gate?', changed to 'remnants of an old wall from the time of Mughals?', 'extension of red fort', 'a gate, an arched gateway'. I was directed towards Old Delhi railway station, was asked to walk past it. While Kashmere Gate was hard to come by, I saw this interesting looking mosque called 'Lal Masjid' (Red Mosque). It was red, on the first floor and had a variety of shops below it.

Lal Masjid in Kashmere Gate. I know nothing except the name.
Finally, after a long circuituous route and multiple failed and semi-failed enquiries, I landed up at a place with a gate. An old morose looking caretaker had just let in a group of foreigners and was closing the gate. I asked 'Kashmere Gate?' 'Yes, the place this locality is named after' came the reply with the frown on the face replaced by a proud look and a gleaming smile. The place I was standing at was just 200 metres away from where I had started half and hour and 2 km ago.

Kashmere Gate! Finally!!
Kashmere Gate was built as part of the Red Fort walls by Shahjahan in 1638 AD. The northernmost gate of the walled city, it was so named because the road to the north led to Kashmir. While I have nothing to substantiate this, Shahjahan was so much in love with Kashmir that I dont find this far fetched. Any gate leading slightly to the north would have been christened such in those days. What remains now is a gate with a double archway, some barracks on the sides and some enclosures to house guards on duty. The wall encircling the old city is nowhere to be seen. Quite how much of what remains was part of the original structure is difficult to ascertain with the British and ASI restoration.

The insides of the gates with niches.
At a later stage, the gate played an important role in the mutiny of 1857, with a face off between the East India Company troops and the Indian rebels. As a result, the gate was extensively damaged, ostensibly from cannon balls fired by both parties. The damage can still be seen on the face of the structure, though a lot of it has been covered by the recent shoddy ASI restoration.

The back of the gate-clearly less restored than the front. The original damage is still visible.
After the mutiny, Kashmere Gate served as a posh locality with British officer's quarters marking the area. With Lutyen's Delhi planned and executed, the area lost its importance, sheen and walls to time. What remains today is just a feeble reminder of what once was.

Part of the erstwhile barracks