Shadows of the Mughals by the Red Fort of Delhi
I had a free day in between the day I got my train tickets to Agra, and the day of actually going to Agra. So I decided to join a Delhi walking tour that my hostel organised. It would be nice to see a bit of the streetside sights of old Delhi, with someone who knows what they’re looking at.
The Delhi Walking Tour near the Red Fort
The walking tour was not near the hostel itself, so we first went by tuktuk to a part of Delhi which was near the Red Fort, one of Delhi’s several UNESCO Heritage Sites. The tour was not about the Red Fort itself, but about the spice market area next to it, Khari Baoli.
Along the main road towards the spice market, we passed by points of history important to the different communities of Delhi.
To be honest, I’m really quite random at remembering historical facts unless it’s wrapped in a story of some kind. Especially with history as diverse and complicated as India’s.
But I do remember having sweet tea in an alley, just chatting and learning about our guide’s student background, and about each other. And I remember crossing the peaceful compound of Fatehpuri Masjid, round the mosque’s open air ablution pool and up the steps of a neglected building, for a rooftop view of Delhi under a clouded sky and wheeling raptors.
Things to get while in India: Spices
Obviously in the spice market, is an abundance of spices. But I mean seriously, if you can get it past your immigration, this is where to get it – just sayin’.
India is clearly a country that loves colour. And while today many of its urban spaces look washed out from age and neglect, the people still bring colour with them – in their clothing and their food and decorations.
Indian food is famously spicy – and that does not always mean spicy-hot. Rather, it is flavourful, with the blend of very many different spices.
If you know what to get, this is where you take advantage of the cheap prices and great range. There are spice sellers in the alleys and sellers in the street shops, and even by the footpaths.
If I were to do this over, since Delhi was my last stop on this trip, I’d probably take orders beforehand from friends and family.
The Mughal Empire: History of Greatness, and Trauma
Another thing I remember, was not as benign. It was a piece of Mughal history.
It was a spot on the street which is remembered for the exceptional cruelty that was carried out there upon the Sikh community by Aurangzeb, son of Shah Jahan (the Taj Mahal guy). In order to suppress the teachings of the influential Guru Tegh Bahadur at the time, he had the Guru’s disciples horrifically tortured as the Guru watched, before finally executing him.
The spot that commemorated the execution of the Sikh Guru made me remember something I read from the travelogue of the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta. He was not a contemporary of the Mughal court. But he was made a judge in the Tughluq court, a different Central Asian dynasty* that assumed control of the Delhi region prior to the Mughals’ rise to power.
Ibn Battuta was a travelling scholar from a time when the norm was, the reigning king of the land held absolute power, and should never be questioned. In that era, the king was second only to God Himself. Even when he was cruel and unjust, the appropriate response by a subject was to endure and pray for deliverance.
In fact, like many manuscripts written for court purposes in medieval times, the travelogue made for laborious reading, because of the many passages devoted simply to describe the titles of kings and praise them. Not to mention lengthy descriptions of how different eminent people relate to others in a network or hierarchy of eminence.
Ibn Battuta and the mindset of medieval times
By the time he arrived in India, Ibn Battuta had already passed through numerous lands, governed by different monarchs, chiefs, and warlords. None of them shook this medieval commitment to defer to and honour the reigning king – though many of those lands brought customs and ideas that were novel to him and challenged his worldview (as travel would).
But when he wrote about the court of the Tughluq emperor, his writings showed clear conflict. For he was serving an empire that was great and wealthy and powerful, whose Muslim king was the most generous of all he had ever seen or heard of (this empire was probably the origin of the ‘Arabic’ exotic imagery of royal parades with princes on elephants tossing gold into the crowd, and princesses in harem pants, a la Disney’s Aladdin – which is actually not Arabic at all).
Yet, he could not help but be horrified by the king’s casual and bloody cruelty – also exceeding any he had seen or heard of. I think he was quite traumatised by it. But even though he was writing many years after the experience, safely far away in Morocco, he was still circumspect about criticising the Delhi king. I found it fascinating.
I guess I’m fortunate in not being able to understand it. Perhaps someone living under one of today’s true totalitarian states – perhaps North Korea or China in its Tibet or Uyghur presence – would read the same passages and see only… a perfectly sensible man.
Impressions of New Delhi
At the start of the India leg of my journey, my expectation for Uttar Pradesh was like this: Varanasi would feel crushingly crowded, and Delhi would be the worst part in this respect because of sheer numbers. And Lucknow, because it was the capital of the state, would be the relaxing bit.
The reality was: Varanasi felt unbearably crowded after Nepal. But then, Lucknow was even more crowded. So I braced for the Delhi bit to completely wipe out my endurance.
But actually, it was Delhi that did not feel crowded. By comparison, it felt like there was normal space between vehicles. Motorists did not need to be set apart or prodded on by traffic policemen with sticks. I felt less of the surreal madness, while moving around the city.
Maybe it’s because of where I was – central New Delhi rather than its outlying areas. Maybe I happened to be in the part that was better organised. Or perhaps it’s because it was the Eve of Eid (did I mention we stumbled upon a goat market?), and offices have shut down.
Signs of disposable income
One of the ways in which Delhi was different, was the type of shops you could find. Specifically, shops selling trinkets and curiosities. Things like painted umbrellas and cute stuffed toys – but for grownups, not children. Trendy decorative items, and collectibles.
Totally banal, for those of us used to a culture with great deal more retail and shopping.
The thing is, I did not see this in Varanasi or in Lucknow. There, you mainly had shops selling practical things, or traditional craft like textiles and wedding finery.
But in at least two different shop areas I passed through in New Delhi, I saw shops that sold things that were neither.
I think you can use the existence of such shops, to indicate the presence of a middle class with disposable income.
The Red Fort of Delhi
The walking tour was a short one, and we had the afternoon to ourselves. After amusing ourselves by exploring the Eid goat market, we decided to continue our Delhi walking tour ourselves. We decided on the Red Fort, which was nearby.
Once, I had a thing about defensive structures. When I studied in Britain, I tried to see as many of the English castles as I could. I got out of that phase quite a while ago.
But the Red Fort of Delhi resurrected that fascination. Large and sprawling and imposing, it was both formidable as well as oddly graceful.
See, you had to be told whether an English castle belonged to a noble or a king. But merely laying eyes on a Mughal one, and you know.
The entry fee was more substantial than any of the Lucknow monuments, reflecting its status as a UNESCO Heritage Site.
- Foreigner: 500 rupees
- India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Thailand, and Myanmar (SAARC and BIMSTEC countries): 35 rupees
Crossing the Chatta Chowk bazaar on the Eve of Eid
Beyond the barbican of the Red Fort was a bazaar street, Chatta Chowk. The street eventually led to an imposing inner gateway that now houses a museum. There were still many tourists – Indian nationals come to see the monuments of their own nation. Although I imagine the Red Fort might be a lot more bustling if it were not the eve of Eid.
Crossing the bazaar itself was fascinating, even though the shops were closed for the public holiday.
Up above were sloping arched alcoves, its access doorways perhaps once manned by the emperor’s archers. Here and there, were remnants of the Mughal painted flowers and geometric stars that once adorned the patterned ceilings of even such mundane places as markets.
It was clearly a reign that could afford to pour beauty and grace everywhere. You could believe that the Mughal empire produced almost a quarter of the total wealth of the entire world, in its time.
The Diwans: Halls of the Red Fort
Beyond the inner gateway, a long and lovely path led through a garden to the Diwan-i-Am – literally, the Public Hall.
A red open structure like the stones of the fort encircling it, the hall is many-columned, with daintily scalloped arches overhead. It was where the emperor held his audiences with the people. A view down the rows of columns reminded me a little bit of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba.
But the VIPs had their meetings with the emperor not here, but further in. The Diwan-i-Khas – the Special Hall – is next to the emperor’s own quarters in the inner fort. This hall and the imperial apartments are made of carved and inlaid white marble, and even more graceful than the Public Hall.
You had to hand it to Shah Jahan. He may have been outrageously opulent, but at least he had incredible taste. Too bad his son had to be a despot and ruin the show.
Thoughts in the gardens of the Mughal Red Fort
Even though it was but a ghost of its original splendour, the structures of the Red Fort are still impressive.
I read once, in a book I have forgotten, that this was the difference between the kind of woman who stays beautiful as she ages, and the youthful beauty whose charm fades with time. The first is beautiful because of the very bones of her face, and the latter owes it to the blooming flesh of her youth.
That is the way of superlative architecture – their very skeletons are beautiful. Ungilded, shorn of her ornaments, pillaged and abandoned – still not ugly.
We tried to see Humayun’s Tomb after the Red Fort. But it was closed. Some kind of VIP was visiting, so they closed the entire site to receive him. I was ok with that. Let the VIP have the tomb. I would rather remember Delhi by the Red Fort, where people lived.
Although the Red Fort ended up being the only UNESCO site of Delhi that I visited on this trip, I am oddly glad. It reminded me of why I had a thing for fortresses, but not for lone palaces and tombs.
You see, within the shelter of a fortress’ walls were often layers of living society. The soldiers on the walls, sharing it with the merchants and artisans behind the gates, sharing it with the nobility and commoners all come to petition the king, sharing it with the king and his consorts and their servants and entertainers and officials and scholars.
A mixture of the martial and the sensual, the practical and the decorative, the ordinary and the lofty, the holy and the common, yet all struggling to live, despite their different niches.
* One of the oddest epiphanies I had some years back, was to realise something in common between the people that civilised nations in the Middle Ages held in terror.
The Chinese had ‘the Mongols‘, and Genghis Khan went on to terrorise the civilisations of Persia and the Arabs, resulting in poetry from that period which can only be described as Arabic ‘the blues’. There was Tamerlane, and there were the Tughluqs and Moghuls who, despite a high degree of civilisation, still left memories of trauma in the native Hindus in the Indian subcontinent. Even Europe’s deep-seated phobia of ‘the East’ can be traced beyond the Turks all the way back to the trauma of Attila the Hun, whose people had come to Europe from ‘the East’.
But really, despite blaming their national traumas to different specific groups, all the old settled nations – Han Chinese, Caucasians, Persians, Arabs, Indians – were actually traumatised by basically the same people – Central Asians! It’s just that, being a nomad people, they tended to absorb the trappings of civilisation of the conquered people and then you don’t notice that they have the same steppe roots! (Blown your mind yet?)
I have no idea what the heck was up with them, to be so recurringly horrible across hundreds of years. Maybe the steppes were boring and harsh and they weren’t loved or something. And how did they churn out so many military geniuses?