Seven Cities of Delhi by Rajiv Chopra

 

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On my first visit to Delhi, almost thirty years ago, I was overwhelmed by the huge numbers of monuments there, such as the Red Fort and Purana Qila. I found the area around Paharganj to be chaotic and exciting and everything an inquisitive Westerner could wish for – a mixture of smells of food and incense and, yes, sewage. A mixture of ugly concrete buildings and beautiful dilapidated buildings left over from the British Raj and often much earlier. Milling crowds of people and cows and rickshaws and bicycles and autos, and history, history, history.

Chadni Chowk was incredibly crowded, the Lodi Gardens completely deserted. The Jama Masjid crowded by tourists and worshippers alike, the Janta Manta often almost empty.

There is so much history everywhere you turn in Delhi.

Other Westerners I met tended to be highly disparaging of Delhi, which was something I couldn’t completely understand since many of these same Westerners seemed to praise Mumbai and Kolkata for the very reasons they hated Delhi.

Yet Delhi is, I think, one of the most exciting and interesting cities I have ever visited. From a historical viewpoint alone, it has over ten thousand listed monuments.

Ten thousand!

Rajiv Chopra is a Delhi based photographer with a passion for recording both the historical Delhi and the street life he comes across from day to day. In this book, he has combined his photographs with a little of the history of the seven historical cities that constitute Delhi, and also a perspective of the differing processes that photography has passed through from its invention up to the present day.

To illustrate all these factors, his book is split into seven sections – one for each of the historical periods – and in each section he has outlined one of these photographic processes so that, for example, in the section covering the first city, Mehrauli, he speaks of daguerrotypes. And then his own photographs he processes through Photoshop to simulate the effects of these processes.

This is not a long book, but it does not pretend to do more than act as an introduction to the history of Delhi. And in this it certainly whets the appetite for more, and then for anyone with even a passing interest in photography it gives a concise and potted description of these photographic processes. Finally the photographs themselves complement the text perfectly.

I unhesitatingly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know a little of the history of Delhi, and who enjoys photographs that give a real flavour of the history of that magnificent city.

Five stars out of five.

You can find Rajiv’s website and blog here

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The Past in a Foreign Country; We Did Remarkably Similar Things There

Or, following in my father’s footsteps, or something like that.

Putting up some old postcards of Darjeeling earlier this week set me to thinking. And, let’s face it, anything that can achieve that is a good thing!

I have posted before that my father spent time in India, both during the Second World War and in the days leading up to Partition. If you would like to re-read it, the link is here: My Father In India

In this post, I mentioned that when I first visited India in 1989, at least, my first proper visit rather than simply passing through on the way to Nepal, I visited the Red Fort in Delhi, taking plenty of photographs, of course.

Some while later, at home, I was going through some of my father’s photographs, and discovered that I had taken a photograph of a view of the mosque in the Red Fort that was almost identical to one that he had.

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Above: the one my father had. And, below: the one I took.

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Looking at the minaret in front of the dome closest to the viewer, it seems I took my photograph from the archway to the left of the one my father’s photograph is taken from, but otherwise we must have been standing in the same spot. My father would have been quite a bit younger at that time than I was when I visited the Red Fort, and the circumstances very different. But I’m sure that he felt the same sense of awe that I did.

Now there are mature trees behind the mosque, a couple of low hedges in front, and the creepers on the wall have gone.

Otherwise, the view is the same.

And because my father is no longer here, there is an extra poignancy to this; although our footsteps crossed and merged at this place, thousands of miles away, and we both must have lingered in this same spot and, who knows, possibly thought similar thoughts, the passage of time means in reality we might as well have been tens of millions of miles apart.

And this led me to look more closely at his other photographs.

There are not many, perhaps thirty or forty of them, but it is strange that when he was on leave in India, one time, he went with a few chums up to Nainital, and again there appear to be photos taken from spots where I have stood. The images are not the same, this time, but again our footsteps must have crossed.

I think the greatest regret I have about this, other than the obvious one that he is no longer alive, is that I cannot talk about these places with him. But just sharing them is good, even if it does make me feel sad.

A random bit of Delhi for the weekend

‘Once I leave, I am back out in noisy, smelly, confusing, squalid, hassling, bright Paharganj. When I first came here, it seemed very strange and exotic, had an unusual, exciting feel to it that was difficult to identify but was certainly the strange, unfamiliar sounds, smells, sights and feel of an unknown culture. Even the bits that were new, still seemed dirty and somehow old, as if something about them owed their existence to the distant, Indian past. This has gone and I miss it most keenly, since I keep getting a hint of it, floating unexpectedly on the breeze with sounds and smells that remind me of when I first came out here. This has been replaced, however, by something almost as precious…I feel completely at home.’ 13th November 2009
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Crowds near the Ajmeri Gate, Old Delhi

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Turkman gate, Old Delhi. One of the gates in the city walls at the time of the Indian Mutiny / 1st Indian War of Independence, it dates from the seventh city of Delhi, Shahjehanabad. More recently, in 1976, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi’s government, it was the scene of another infamous episode, when crowds protesting about the bulldozing of their houses in an effort to clear slum areas and force them out of the city were fired upon by the police, killing several of them.

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Tenements near the Turkman Gate, Old Delhi

 

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Mihrab, or Arch, in a building in the Lodi Gardens, Delhi

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Delhi Gate, in the old city near Chandni Chowk. This photo was taken in 1989. When I passed the same gate in 2009, the traffic was a whole lot worse!

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The great tower of Qutb Minar. The first of the Moslem invasions was by Muhammed, Sultan of Ghur in what is now Afghanistan, in 1192. Having overrun a large part of the Northern Indian plains, he returned to Ghur, leaving his new territory in the hands of his army commander and favourite slave, Qutbuddin Aibak. Qutbuddin decided to leave a monument to his religion that was designed to overawe his new subjects and inspire his own people, and set about building a mosque with a massive tower nearby. The tower itself is almost 73m high and is 15m in diameter at the base, tapering to 2.5m at the top.

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Decorative details of the stonework. Most artistic decoration is, as usual with Islamic craftwork, patterned work and verses from the Koran. At Qutb Minar, there are also plentiful stylised, and sometimes surprisingly realistic, depictions of plants with flowers and buds and long, winding stems and tendrils. To construct the mosque, artisans used stone from Hindu and Jain temples and many stones and panels still depict the original carvings, frequently defaced but still recognisable.

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The famous ‘non-rusting’ iron pillar. This stands in the courtyard of the mosque and was here long before the mosque was built. It was made in the reign of Chandragupta II (AD 375-413), is composed of almost pure iron (99.72%) and shows only the slightest sign of rusting. A sanskrit inscription on the pillar indicates that it probably stood originally outside a Vishnu temple, possibly in Bihar, and was moved later to this site. It would probably have had a garuda, the vehicle of Vishna, on the top. 

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Squinch-arch in Iltutmish’s Tomb. A squinch is a ‘bridging’ structure, used here to support a dome (now gone). Iltutmish was Shamsuddin Iltutmish (ruled 1211-1236), 3rd ruler of Delhi (after Qutbuddin and Aram).

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Brahminical motifs on the columns of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. These pillars were originally part of the Hindu and Jain temples that were razed in the area when Qutbuddin built his capital. It is chronicalled that 27 temples were destroyed. They would have been reassembled by Hindu craftsmen, Qutbuddin using local labour.

 

My First Long Trip to India (2)

And so, fifteen years after my first trip to India, I was back again in Delhi.

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Eventually I felt brave enough to leave the café and go off to do my tasks. First of all, I had to sort out my train ticket, so I headed off to the Tourist Bureau (The Official One!) at New Delhi Station. But as I headed up the steps towards the office, I was stopped by a friendly chap who told me it was closed. ‘But no bother’ he said. ‘You come with me and I take you to Tourist Office where they sell you ticket’.

Before I realized what I was doing, I turned to follow him. By the time that we were out of the station and threading our way through the taxis and crowds on the concourse I had remembered that this was a common ploy to get people to ‘Tourist Offices’. Nowadays I have no problem with using them – in fact I will often seek them out to buy me tickets, but more of that later. I glanced up at my new best friend, who was a few steps ahead of me, and peeled unobtrusively off and headed back into the station.

I went back up the steps towards the Tourist Bureau. The first thing that struck me was the silence. Downstairs, all was noise and smells, colour and chaos, but up here was a big, gloomy, echoing corridor, empty as far as I could see. After wandering up and down for a while, I found the Bureau which was, naturally enough, open, and fairly crowded. Inside, whilst I awaited my turn at the counter, I chatted to a fellow traveller from England who decided that it was his task to lecture me at length on how to approach getting a ticket out of Indian Railways. Foremost amongst this advice, he said, hectoring me sternly, was keeping your cool amidst all the provocation, bureaucracy and hassle.

Eventually, he was called to the counter. They went through his application form and documents with him, seemingly finding fault with something. He lost his cool with them, and left without a ticket.

I chortled quietly to myself.

When it was my turn, I found the process fairly straightforward, although long-winded. But I left with my ticket to Gaya stashed securely in my wallet.

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Why Gaya? Gaya is certainly not a tourist destination, but it is the nearest town of any size to Bodhgaya. When I had decided to come to India, instead of limping around Britain in pain, I had come to the conclusion that instead of just travelling around for three months or so, I should at least spend some time doing something worthwhile.

We all like to think that we’re having an existential crisis at times. Okay, that’s probably not true. But lots of us do. What is an existential crisis, though? Is it simply that we are going through a time in our history when more and more of us question our role, our place in our society? Or could there be more to it than that? It certainly would now seem to be a time when many people in the west have come to doubt whether the values that they are taught are actually of any importance, and indeed whether they really have any value at all.

On the other hand, there are just as many members of that society who feel that the whole subject is just bunkum, and that those who complain about these things are merely whinging, work-shy degenerates. Sod your existential issues, mate, I’ve got a family to feed.

Is it really, then, just so much nonsense? Maybe our situation is such that we can afford to have these crises now; that we now have the opportunity to address them. When life is simply a struggle to keep a roof over one’s head and to put food on the table, then one’s priorities are very different from those with the leisure to ponder ‘life’s imponderables’. In past times, we would have had to just carry on regardless, although there were writers then who recognised and explored them, such as Hermann Hesse and Somerset Maugham. The only other realistic option, other than becoming a vagrant, would have been to completely renounce the world and to join a monastery or become a hermit.

India, though, handles these things rather differently. Hindus have a duty to seek pleasure and success and to accumulate wealth, but also, eventually, to renounce the world and seek moksha; liberation, after the discovery that the other three paths give no lasting satisfaction. This is seen in the persons of the many ascetics who wander the land, or live alone or in ashrams, having given up all worldly possessions.

Bodhgaya is in Bihar, the poorest state in India. It is also the place where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. For this reason, there are many Buddhist temples there, attracting a goodly number of Buddhist pilgrims, and, naturally, not a few tourists, and also a number of charitable projects.

And a few rogues.

I was attracted to the idea of spending time there, both to experience the temples and atmosphere, but also to work for a while on one of the projects. I did some research whilst in the UK, and arranged to help out at a project that comprised a school and orphanage in a village on the outskirts of Bodhgaya.

Smugly pleased with myself for obtaining my ticket to Gaya, I then went to find an Internet cafe and e-mailed everyone, then meandered back to a café for lunch.

Two days later, I was in Bodhgaya.

India – my first time (1)

Just a few photos this time, taken on my first proper trip to India. On the only previous visit, in 1988, I had spent a manic 18 hours in Delhi, and then taken a long bus journey to Nepal. That was a journey that really should be the subject of a blog itself, sometime.

On the following year, then, I returned to India, intending to spend rather longer there this time. As it turned out, I had to return to England after a few weeks, but the short time that I was in India whetted my appetite for more. It is said that western visitors to India tend to fall into one or the other of two categories. Either they fall in love with the country, and return whenever they can, or they swear never to go within a thousand miles of it ever again.

I’ve been back about ten times.

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The Red Fort (1989)

I arrived in Delhi with a copy of Lonely Planet’s ‘West Asia on a Shoestring’. In those days, the Lonely Planet tomes really were aimed at backpacking budget travellers, with their recommendations for rooms tending to be dormitories and really cheap hotels. My flight arrived in the late afternoon, so that not only was I weary from the long journey, but the light was already fading when I walked out of the airport. In the chaotic maelstrom outside of passengers and taxi drivers fighting over them, I managed to remain calm enough to locate the corner where the buses of the Ex-Servicemen’s Air Link Transport Services waited. I think they are still in operation today (I’m sure someone will tell me), with their yellow (I think) buses providing a cheap link into the centre of Delhi where I was heading.

I was dropped off near the hotel I had decided to use, the Ashok Yatri Niwas, which stood at the junction of Janpath and Ashoka Road. It has long gone, now; a great concrete monster of a place with cement beds and lifts that seemed to take half a day to do the full journey up to the top floor. I don’t think that many people mourn its going, but I was reasonably comfortable there for a couple of nights. It was where I had stayed the previous year for the one night I was in Delhi. There was hot water in the bathroom, as long as you rose early enough, and I remember the cafeteria being fairly basic, but adequate. For someone on a tight budget, it was fine. Back then, it was a case of turn up and hope there was a room, especially if you had just arrived in the country. There was no email in those days. But it was pretty big, and there was room for me.

Unlike my previous flying visit, I now had time to wander about and savour everything around me. And for the first time, it really did seem an alien and exotic society. I had enjoyed browsing in the souks (bazaars) when I had lived in Oman, and also out in the little villages there, but my first taste of India seemed to me to be as exciting and exotic as it got. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by the noise of traffic and the odours of exhaust fumes. But the traffic was different; the buses appeared to be almost falling to pieces, loud and fierce, with people hanging off the outside as well as being crammed inside behind open, barred, windows. I saw tuk-tuks everywhere; the little three-wheeled taxis that buzzed like wasps through the traffic, squeezing through every available gap. Amongst this impatient, petulant, hooting traffic, carts pulled by horses or buffaloes plodded. Motorbike riders forced their way through, and cyclists cautiously weaved their way along. Everywhere, pedestrians took their lives in their hands to cross the roads, but the traffic all swerved out of the way for the cattle that wandered imperiously through the streets, ignoring it all.

Incredibly, through the traffic pollution so thick that you could grab handfuls of it out of the air, there were dozens of other smells assailing me everywhere I went. I was tempted every few steps by cooking foods, and then I might pass a doorway and a strong smell of incense would waft out. Seconds later, I would suddenly wrinkle my nose as I passed a pool of sewage on the sidewalk, but then immediately I might pass a fragrant flower stall.

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Delhi Gate, in the old city near Chandni Chowk. (1989)

There were temples everywhere, and a shrine of some description every few steps. Here and there were green and white mosques, stalls of old sacking and weathered boards set up outside gleaming new metal, glass and concrete shops. There were holy men jostling office workers, great hump-backed cattle and pariah dogs in corners or in the middle of the footway, beggars, shoe shiners, touts and hustlers, people in a hurry and idlers passing the time of day. I was urged to discretely change money, buy drugs, see pornographic videos, have a massage, change hotels, visit ‘my brother’s’ shop or book a trip to another part of India.

It was dirty, colourful, loud, exciting, and different and I loved it.

I walked everywhere I could, not just because I was on a tight budget, but it is always how I have got to know a place. I went to the Red Fort, on my first full day there, enjoying the relative peace and quiet inside, and it was here that I discovered Mogul architecture: The beautiful soft red stone and the marble, the carvings and inlay, the arches and columns…the only time I’d seen architecture that beautiful, before, was in Grenada, in Spain.

And now, looking at the photos I took, I am struck by an odd discrepancy. In my memory, one of the defining things about Delhi when I arrived was the incredible press of traffic. In my photos, though, there are comparatively few people, and even less traffic. Is my memory at fault? Is it just that there were obviously far fewer people in India 30 years ago? Perhaps it is chance alone.

But I think I’ll return to the architecture at a later date.