Monday, April 16, 2007

King of the World

I spent a portion of the weekend before last reading about Shah Jehan, a Mughal whose very name means “King of the world”. Move over Leonardo. What a sorted tale it is, making my favorite housewives seem a lot less desperate and perhaps even amateuristic. The history of Shah Jehan goes something like this.

Little Khurram was 15 when he impressed his father, Emperor Jehangir with his fabulous redesigns of the Imperial apartments in Kabul. He married Arjumand Banu Begum and they multiplied like rabbits. After the death of his father, both Khurram and one of his brothers wanted the throne, and with the help of his father-in-law, Khurram got the cool chair, became Mughal, changed his name to Shah Jehan and his wife’s to Mumtaz Mahal which means “Chosen one of the palace”. He then celebrated by killing off his brothers, brothers in law and other unnecessary relatives as they were most likely on his nerves and, of course, didn’t want to risk any ugly holiday squabbles about the chair. His wife died giving birth to child number 14 and in his grief decided to decorate Agra with a little white building called the Taj Mahal. He moved the court to Delhi, built a bunch of things like the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, creating an area of Delhi known as Shahjahanabad.

Like all parents, he had children who loved him and children who hated him. One of his daughters, Princess Jahanara, who managed to squeeze enough time out of her busy harem schedule to have the Chandni Chowk constructed, loved her father a bit too much. This caused her most likely less attractive sister Princess Roshana to become very jealous. The son who hated him, Prince Aurangzeb, aided by his sister Roshana who was driven by envy and a lack of sex, managed to overthrow Shah Jehan and lock him away in a fort, but not before he caught his favorite daughter who had a fondness for orgies with a forbidden lover whom she had hidden in a cauldron. He had one of his servants light the cauldron and stayed until it was certain the poor guy was dead. Aurangzeb then tricked a couple of his brothers by getting them drunk and then when they passed out, had them shackled and thrown into dungeons. Talk about a hangover. The others he had murdered. Shah Jehan’s favorite son, Dura was beheaded by some men attempting to win favor with the new emperor and presented Aurangzeb the head on a gold platter. On the advice of his sister evil Roshana, the new emperor sent the head to his father as a gift. The former ruler was not amused. Aurangzeb’s sister Roshana then decided to have some orgies herself which didn’t really bother her brother until he got sick and talk around the water cooler was that he would most likely die. She stole his ring, making Aurangzeb’s 9 year old son the new ruler, thereby securing her power. Her brother got better and when he heard the gossip, was a bit pissed off and went to have a word with her, but caught her in an orgy with 9 men. Instead he had her poisoned and she died a most horrible death.

Yes, I was reading about all of my favorite subjects… Royalty, betrayal, blackmail, indiscriminate sex, elephant parades, greed, lust, closeted homosexual rulers (that redecorating job of the Kabul pad is a dead giveaway), discreet poisonings, flayings, architecture and above all, true love. It was all so touching and heartwarming that I could not resist the temptation to place myself right in the middle of all the action. I grabbed the nearest rickshaw and made a beeline for Chandni Chowk.

Chaos. Mayhem. Pandemonium. While I have heard all of those words describing the famous street that cuts through Old Delhi from the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Masjid. It is a most amazing street that immediately assaults the senses and transports one to another world. I walked a few hundred meters into Chandni Chowk just to swim in the sounds and the smells. There is an electricity in the air that I have not felt anywhere in Delhi and I can imagine for people who spend their lives there, anywhere else must just be downright boring and anti-climactic. The place is absolutely littered with bicycle rickshaws, which seem to be the best way to navigate the street which, when I arrived was bursting at the seams. Traffic seemed to be at a standstill yet moving all at the same moment. The sides of the street where occupied by the flat wooden carts selling slices of fresh pineapple or piled high with citrus fruits for some fresh made juice. In every available space left were people. People standing, sitting and sleeping. And then the site I really love, are the people transporting goods balanced on top of their heads. From baskets of toys to sacks of laundry, I always love the sight. After seeing the massive crowds in Chandni Chowk, I can imagine that the practice was invented out of practicality, carrying lots of things yet for navigation purposes, remaining as small as possible.

As I stood there snapping my pictures and taking in the sights and sounds, loud bangs suddenly rang out and smoke filled the air. My first thought (and the thought of a friend who I discovered later during dinner was just a few meters away from me at the time) was that a bomb had gone off. It wasn’t a bomb, but a march around the elections and soon I was able to see the roman candles that had been set off in the middle of the road, causing traffic to move slower still. I decided to go to Red Fort, but instead of walking down Chandni Chowk itself, I decided to snake my way through the slivers of alleys and maze-like pathways that lie behind the storefronts on the main road. Crowded walkways would open up into small courtyards where the focus on that hot day was at the water fountain that always seemed to be present in the middle. Each of the markets seem to have their focus and this one was definitely all about time. Oceans of watches in every imaginable shape and size all spread out, some sitting in the bottom of a water filled bucket to show prove their water resistance. I ended up in a few dead ends and finally came out at the Jain Temple and Bird Hospital right across from the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort.

I needed to cross the busy road to get to the main gate of the fort and being the obvious tourist, I had several new friends, all eager to point me to a hotel, a camera store, a coca-cola stand or help me cross the street. Crossing the street in Delhi is not like crossing in Europe or the US. First, there are almost no crosswalks, and if there are, most likely they are occupied with a swarm of autos, each wanting to be the first to go when the light turns green. Assuming, of course they wait for the light to turn green. Traffic light adherence, like headlights and night, seem to be left to the discretion of the driver. As far as I can make out, when it comes to the rules of the road, there is only one: “Size Matters”. Trucks and busses overpower cars, which in turn intimidate the motorcycles, who drive bicycles off the road who in turn terrorize pedestrians. There is a definite food chain and we mere humans are at the bottom.

In my 3 months in Delhi, I have fallen victim to two diseases that seem to run rampant and untreated here. The first one is Wobbly Head. I wobble my head like I was born in a Haveli during a monsoon. I wobble at any chance I get, and even as I type, my disease being top of mind at the moment, I can feel my head wobbling in pure agreement with myself. The other illness I have is what I call Delhi Hand. Delhi hand is the automatic reflex that occurs when one steps into traffic to cross the street. The hand goes out, palm down toward the oncoming car. The car is never to be looked at or acknowledged. Miraculously the cars stop. If street crossings are attempted without proper use of the Delhi Hand, one will never get to meet the chicken on the other side.

So there I was, standing on the curb at Chandni Chowk, waiting for something resembling a break in the traffic so that I could play the native, wobble my head and pop out my hand. Suddenly, and out of nowhere I hear “Hello…. Hello sir… where you from?” I say “Holland” he holds out his hand and points across the street to the Red Fort and says “Red Fort”. He then grabs my hand and practically starts dragging me across the street. I decline the offer but he tells me it is “no problem, I help you”. This, of course, is all done for money and after telling him 7 or 8 times I don’t need or want the help, we both make it across the street, he smiling like a hero until I walked on without giving any money.

Construction on the Red Fort began in 1638 under the rule of Shah Jehan. From the outside, the Red Fort is an impressive presence, ruling over Old Delhi much like Shah Jehan himself. Once inside, however, it is a different and sad story. After entering via the Lahore Gate, so named as it opens toward Chandni Chowk, which led to the road to Lahore, the first sight to greet visitors is the Chhatta Chowk, the main public market which used to sell things that might have been of interest to the royal house or their endless visitors. Today, it houses the usual trinkets one finds pretty much anywhere else, bangles, wallets, elephants carved in marble and fluorescent painting of Ganesh on black velvet that reminded me of the bazaars in Tijuana, Mexico.

Only a few of the buildings and pavilions from that period have been left standing and those that remain are but a shadow of their former selves. Many of the stones that had been inlaid in the elaborate carvings in the marble columns and walls have long ago been pried out and the majority of the carved screens are broken. The gardens no longer exist and are just lawns of semi-green grass and the ornamented pools and fountains are dry and cracked. It takes quite a lot of imagination to reconstruct the former majesty of the place which was once compared to heaven itself.

And as if the decay, neglect and demolition weren’t enough, shortly after 1857, the British were kind enough to build the ugliest buildings imaginable to be used as barracks within the fort complete with a concrete water tower. An architectural beauty and the beast.

1 comment:

  1. Delhi is like that... I grew up within 5 kms of the Qutub Minar, the oldest example of Islamic architechture in India, and along with quranic verses on the walls, you'll find "bunty was here" or "Amit loves Tina"... we're pretty jaded about our history.

    There's also the fact that most Delhiites are immigrants, and feel no sense of identification with its heritage. Many were refugees of the Partition, and feel an even greater disconnect with history...

    It's sad how little we bother about our heritage... I wobble my head in disbelief.