Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Comparing the Begampur and Jaunpur mosques

As always, click on image to go to its flickr set

Just a small post to note possible similarities between the Begampur mosque's pishtaq (the protruding central element on the facade) and the oversized pishtaqs of the Jaunpur mosques (such as the Atala masjid used as an example here). Both are Tughlaq era mosques (though Jaunpur is far away from Delhi) built in the mid-14th c. (Begampur) and late-14th c. (Atala). Of course the Atala mosque is much more ornamented and stylistically there are obvious differences, but the side-turret effect is similar, as is the batter effect, and to me the basic underlying design and massing is very similar. Hmm?



Out with the old, In with the new ... Part II

I went back to the site where I'd taken the Out with the old, in with the new photo in Dec '06 to see if the tombs there were still standing and how the area around it had developed, and was pleased to find that the tombs are indeed still there, even though the area around is developing at a pace in keeping with the rest of Delhi! Maybe these tombs are on the INTACH listing and/or are protected by ASI, though that doesn't seem to be much of a deterrent to the encroachment and demise of such monuments elsewhere!

It's an interesting "then and now" comparison, with barely more than 2 years in between!

Here's the Dec '06 photo ...

And here's the same scene in March '09 ... you can see that in the interim I've managed to get a better camera! :)

Here are some wider shots of the changes to the area around the tombs. This site is just beyond the Delhi-UP border on the NH 24 "Bypass" road, so it's in Ghaziabad, just beyond the eastern edge of Delhi, and not on the eastern edge of Delhi as I'd stated in the original post.

Then ...

Now ...

Then ...

Now ...

A brief history of Delhi, to explain it's urban villages

This post explains the development of Delhi's "urban villages" over the past few decades, and is a supplement to the Back to Dilli Darshaning post below.

To understand the idea of the urban village in Delhi, a short primer on the history of Delhi is in order. Some of you might have heard/read this stuff before at various venues, but I love to tell this tale, so here goes!

Unlike many other old cities, Delhi's history is not one of outward growth from a single urban center. Since the 10th/11th c., different rulers shifted the urban/population center from one location to another within the expanse of land known as Delhi, creating new townships, forts, palaces and capitals in the process. In fact during the previous IASTE I speculated on how the new capital was always given a new name (Siri, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Dinpanah, Shahjahanabad etc etc) and the old location then became known as simply "Dilli" (Delhi). The British both formalized this tradition and broke the cycle by naming their new city New Delhi and the old one (Shahjahanabad) Old Delhi.

In any case, what this lead to was the constant shifting of the urban center, leaving in it's wake various built-up locations throughout the area with greatly reduced populations. Over time these locations saw rising and falling fortunes, sometimes becoming urban centers once again and sometimes being completely abandoned. Add to this the fact that Delhi became a necropolis with the tombs of numerous rulers and saints strewn about. If the ruler or saint was popular, a settlement would arise around his (sometimes her) tomb/shrine. Overwhelmingly, this was the case with regard to saints rather than rulers.

As a result, but the time independence from the British came in 1947, there were various urban and sub-urban settlements, strewn all over the landscape. At that time, the main urban and population centers included British New Delhi, Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad) to the north of it, Civil Lines further north, the Sadar Bazaar area to the west of Old Delhi, and the new British cantonment at Dhaula Kuan. Immediately after independence, Delhi began expanding explosively in all directions from this core.

This explosive growth started consuming the smaller settlements that lay in the land surrounding the now ever expanding city. Delhi's planners were in a dilemma as to what course of action to take vis-a-vis these settlements. Should they tear them down, thus necessitating the expulsion and rehabilitation of their residents, or should they let them be as-is within the planned growth of the city. With a few exceptions, they chose the later tact, and gave special status to these "urban villages". Thus, these areas are now "islands" within the planned nature of Delhi, have their own zoning laws etc, and their own characteristics, mostly with dense haphazard streets and dense built fabric.

Due to ever increasing real estate pressures, these urban villages are becoming denser, more populated and more built up, thus the threat posed to the "historic" buildings that so often exist within them, and are so often intrinsic to the reason why the settlements exist where they do in the first place!

Back to Dilli Darshaning

As always, click on image to go to its flickr set

Chirag Dilli

I'm finally back to my Dilli Darshan project, and so finally went to Chirag Dilli! This is the "urban village" I had posted an aerial image of in November, which was an almost perfect square from that view. On the ground, of course, things were not that orderly.

(In my mind, I wrote that last sentence as a hilariously wild understatement!) :)

Here's the aerial image of Chirag Dilli again

Visiting these urban villages in Delhi is becoming really interesting. The reason why many of them contain such old and historic buildings, is because they were originally settlements that grew around those buildings in the first place. So, many of the sites have been settled one way or another for nearly as long as the historic buildings I go to visit in them have existed. But as these settlements have morphed into so called "urban villages" within Delhi over the past few decades, "real estate pressures" have led to encroachment and destruction of many of the historic buildings, much like a child cannibalizing an old mother it no longer needs.

Click here for an explanation of what exactly an urban village is, which involves a little description of the history and growth of Delhi over the past few decades.

And yes I know that it is problematic to call the buildings I'm visiting "historic" when the settlement/village itself is nearly as old, and that I'm favoring the investigation of specific (locally canonized) buildings over the settlement and it's inhabitants, but since that's what the Dilli Darshan project is all about, I'm giving myself a pass! And anyway, these buildings do deserve to be preserved!

Here are some examples of said encroachments, from Chirag Dilli as well as other places. I'm putting them up not so much as some kind of proof or evidence of illegal activity, but mainly because I find these situations - the juxtapositions of old and new in these ways - quite fascinating, in both a physical/architectural sense as well as a social/cultural sense. In terms of a real expose on Delhi's encroachments, this doesn't even come close to scratching the surface!

Chirag Dilli

Chirag Dilli ... another part of the same monument as from the image above

In some places, the village closely skirts the monument

And sometimes the monuments themselves are inhabited

The village comes as close as it can even to the big monuments, like the Begampur masjid at Begampur

This is/was the Baradari at Shahpur Jat

Each urban village, of course, has a unique history. Chirag Dilli grew around the dwelling and then shrine of the Sufi saint known as Chirag Dilli (literally meaning "Light of Delhi"), who lived at this site in the 14th century. The settlement grew within the 18th century walls built around the shrine. This wall, though now nearly completely destroyed, still gives the urban village it's present shape.

This turret is part of the very meager remains of Chirag Dilli's erstwhile encircling walls

The east gate of the former wall

The north gate with a typical Delhi mini-traffic jam!

This is what the village edge looks like today (now you know what I mean about the extent of "encroachment"!) :)

The Chirag Dilli shrine itself is a collection of old (starting from the 14th century onwards) and new buildings set haphazardly in a small open space surrounded by the village.

Entrance to the shrine

Inside the shrine

It's interesting to imagine what the site would have felt like at different times through the past centuries. The shrine is close to the western edge of the village, next to which would have been the reservoir created by the Satpula I had photographed earlier. So at one point, the shrine could have been close to the edge of the reservoir with a lot of open space around it. Then the village and walls would have grown around it, and that growth has ultimately resulted in the Chirag Dilli we see today! (or something like that) :)

The pulls and pressures of growth, development and conservation that have created these spaces in urban villages and other places are really fascinating, and I'm going to report on them more and more as I continue this project, methinks.

Old and new buildings and spaces within Chirag Dilli

A Delhi Development Authority (DDA) housing colony just south of Chirag Dilli. In the aerial photo above, these are the ordered blocks at the lower edge of the image. This is a typical view of "planned" Delhi, in contrast with "urban village" Delhi

Siri: Encroachment, Development and Conservation

A prime example of the above mentioned pulls and pressures is the fortified town of Siri. Siri predates Jahanpanah (which contains the Begampur and Khirki as well as Chirag Dilli sites), and I had visited it before but lost the photos to a hard drive crash. I went back there again recently and believe it or not lost the photos again, but was able to recover the "thumbnail" versions, which is why the Siri photos are so small.

Siri contains yet another urban village, called Shahpur Jat, with it's inevitable encroachments, but is interesting because it was also the site of a major development project for the 1982 Asian Games, and will again be a venue for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Bordering Siri to the south is one of south Delhi's planned "colonies", and the intersection of the fortification and the planned neighborhood creates an interesting edge-space.

Aerial photo of Siri

And here's the aerial again with tags. The different densities and built fabric of the urban village and "games village" (as well as the large forest) within Siri, and the residential colonies surrounding Siri are apparent (Panchsheel Park is directly to the south of Siri) . Siri's walls form an "island" in the urban fabric of planned colonies and neighborhoods of south Delhi

Tohfe Wala Gumbad, on the edge of Shahpur Jat, is an early 14th c. mosque, even though it looks like a tomb at first glance and is also named as such (only the central domed chamber remains intact - the side arcades are nearly completely destroyed). This structure seems to be a predecessor to the style of buildings built by and around the time of Firoz Shah Tughlaq, which are among my favorites in Delhi. This style is characterized by bold massing, clean lines, an austere look, lack of ornament, and slightly battered walls. I especially love the simple and clean arches of this style and time period.

Again, these are really small images, but I hope they can convey what I want to get across.

Tohfe Wala Gumbad

The Baradari is a large building inside Shahpur Jat, but has been encroached upon almost completely. It is only visible at some points, and looks like it's going to vanish completely pretty soon! I wondered what the roof of the Baradari would look like, surrounded by all this new construction but, I think I saw a building on top of the roof as well!

Baradari, or what's left of it

The remaining fortifications of Siri have been used as an excuse to halt the incessant march of Delhi's urban growth. In this way, the walls have again served their purpose of a barrier against outside forces! :)

Half of the space enclosed by the fortifications (other than Shahpur Jat and the Asian Games village) is given over to the Siri city forest. Outside the fortifications, it is interesting to see how close the tony Panchsheel Park colony has come to the walls, with its chauffeur-driven luxury cars parked almost on top of the walls!

Walkway along Siri Fort walls being developed for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi

This part of the Siri fortifications is included in a prominently located park that was developed for the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, and which gives the impression of a well preserved Siri

Panchsheel Park with its middle class housing, middle class cars, and "planned" layout, extends right to the walls

Ghiyassudin's tomb

Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq was the founder of the Tughlaq dynasty, and his tomb (early 14th c.) contains ornamental elements from the earlier Khalji style (especially as seen at the Alai Darwaza in the Qutb complex), but also hints at elements of later Tughlaq architecture.

The tomb and it's surrounding fortifications

Entrance through the fortifications

The interior of a side tomb looks like its from the European/Levant medieval period


I also revisited some sites - the mosques at Begampur and Khirki, as well as the Qutb complex. Here are photographs of the revisits. Some of the Qutb photos are again small in size since they're thumbnails only.

Begampur mosque

Khirki mosque

Qutb complex

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jaunpur/Varanasi trip

As always, click on an image to go to its flickr set

I've wanted to visit the mosques at Jaunpur ever since I first read about them in the second or third year of architecture school. This is primarily for the oversized central pishtaqs (a protruding central element on the facade) on the main courtyard facades of the mosques. Since it makes sense to take a train to Varanasi to get to Jaunpur, I decided to visit Varanasi for the first time as well. Varanasi is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, and since it is such a foreign tourist "must see", I've always been pretty skeptical of going there, but I was completely unprepared for what it turned out to be! Most of this post is dedicated to a description of Varanasi, but I've added a bit on Jaunpur - my actual reason for making this trip - as well as Sarnath, at the end of the post.

Varanasi: Vegas on the Ganges

There is a word in Hindi that very succinctly sums up what I witnessed at Varanasi, and that word is tamasha. I'm not going to translate that word for those who don't understand it, but I am going to replace it with a location - Las Vegas.

Varanasi is one of the most sacred sites in Hinduism. It is also one of the "must see" sites on the tourist circuit. It's on the river Ganges - the most sacred of rivers, and to be cremated here gives one direct moksh, nirvan, entry into heaven or whatever, no questions asked about what your karma score is. A dip in the Ganges anywhere will wash away your sins, but a dip here is extra strong, double action with oxy-burst granules that leave you much more sinless than any other place. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world. It's been a pilgrimage site before anyone knew what a pilgrimage site was. It is the holiest place to be cremated in all of Hinduism.

So much for all that.

The first thing that came to my mind when I reached the business end (and it really is the business end) of Varanasi was another popular tourist site, Las Vegas. And as I kept thinking about it, the parallels just kept coming, till a somewhat serious comparison between the two became apparent. I will lay it out here.

The areas of Varanasi that are important to Hindus and tourists alike (not coincidentally) are the long continuous row of ghats along the Ganges river (ghats are wide steps going down to the water along a river bank, so that the river is accessible to bathers etc no matter what the water level), and the dense urban fabric of narrow, winding pathways just beyond the ghats that are filled with temples, hotels, ashrams, shops and a myriad other "activities".

Aerial photo of Varanasi showing it's ghats and dense urban fabric. Note the Gyanvapi mosque with it's three prominent domes near the top left corner of the image

I reached Varanasi by train in the morning and after pressing through all the touts (the Varanasi railway station, along with the Agra railway station, is said to be the most densely touted location in India!) made my way to the Buddhist site of Sarnath. I returned to Varanasi by midday, and my first view of the ghats was in broad daylight, at the northern-most extremity of the ghats, where they are isolated and least commercialized.

Nearly as soon as I had started walking southwards towards the more popular central ghats, the same feeling came to me as when I had walked the Vegas strip in the daytime - that I was experiencing something at a time of day other than when it was "supposed" to be experienced, that in the daytime this place was laid bare and naked and you could see the exposed skin and flesh that is usually hidden behind the facade of flashing lights and pomp at night.

View of the ghats in the daytime

This is when the ghats are "supposed" to be viewed, in the evening ...

... and in the early morning

As the day and then night wore on, the parallels kept growing and are listed below:

1. Both Vegas and Varanasi are on a "strip": Vegas obviously has it's strip, but so does Varanasi. The ghats are all along the meandering Ganga, and they form the "strip" where all the action takes place. The area around the strip then serves the function of servicing the strip, with hotels, restaurants etc etc, in both Vegas and Varanasi. If looked at closely, both these "adjacent to strip" areas are as indicative of the place as a whole as the strip itself (and which is an entire topic unto itself and will be left out here).

The "strip" in the evening

2. Raison d'etre vs tourism:
Vegas grew from the demand for legalized gambling near the California border, and Varanasi grew as a major site for Hinduism. However, over the past few decades tourism has become an equal if not more important factor. Gambling Vegas acquired a certain atmosphere over time, which attracts tourists there, just as Hindu Varanasi acquired a certain atmosphere over time, which attracts tourists there. These tourists are not there specifically for the gambling, but partaking in it is part of the overall "experience" of the place, and it's the same for Varanasi.

3. Gamblers/Hindus vs tourists: Just as Vegas has it's high rolling gamblers, recreational gamblers and plain tourists, Varanasi has it's hardcore Hindus, recreational Hindus and plain tourists. The hardcore Hindus go there out of pure devotion, completely believing in the spiritual power of the place, in the river washing away their sins, in cremations there leading to immediate salvation, in the special significance of the temples etc. These are the high rollers and "regulars", who don't really care about the setting, they come to Varanasi because it is the place to come to to do what they do.

Recreational Hindus come for both the atmosphere as well as the specific things available there. They aren't as serious as the hardcores about the Hinduism aspect, but it's a place that kills two birds with one stone - being pious as well as visiting a tourist destination. For an immersive experience, they'll join a a meditation ashram, or a yoga ashram, a Godperson's ashram, attend some prayer meetings and poojas, partake in some of the local hallucinogenics and narcotics freely available there etc. The out-and-out tourists come to watch the hardcore and regular Hindus, and to dip their feet, literally, into the proceedings, just for fun.

4. Spectacular consumption:
Both are sites of consumption and spectacle, and consumption as spectacle. Firstly, all transactions are monetized, and there are touts for everything. In Varanasi, you cannot speak to anyone without it involving a monetary transaction one way or another. I asked a fruit vendor for the way to a hotel in the narrow lanes near the ghats, and a kid standing nearby offered to take me there for a price. While watching the evening "Ganga aarti" (which I've described below) I asked a guy who came and stood right in front of me to move out of the way so I could get a better view for my photography, and he offered me a really good view of the aarti from a boat at reduced cost. People holding out their hands as if to shake will grab your half-extended hand and start massaging it, and then ask for money for the massage (apparently Varanasi is famous for it's massages or something). On the ghats you are constantly asked if you want to go on a boat ride, if you've got a hotel room, if you want some "creamy" or "Manali special" (varieties of marijuana), "haish" (hashish) etc etc. All in all pretty creepy, and not very holy!

For the hardcore and recreational Hindu, heavy donations are asked for at every temple and by every priest, and as soon as you enter a temple you are assessed for how much the priests can get out of you. Aapparently they thought I was good for a few thousand Rupees at the main Kashi Vishvanath temple - I think I left behind a few disappointed priests (or at least people dressed in saffron and white with tikas on their foreheads), though they were smooth enough to extract about Rs. 500 out of me, and considering I had no intention of donating any money at all, that's pretty good! It was the single biggest individual expense of my trip, train tickets and hotel stays included! :)

All aspects of the cremations are completely monetized, right from how adorned with flowers and colored cloth the body is going to be, down to different prices for different kinds of wood for the funeral pyre (sandalwood being the most expensive of course).

I guess these things are par for the course at temples and cremation grounds everywhere, but it all seems a little heightened here. And as yet I didn't even go anywhere near the meditation/yoga/pilgrim circuit for both domestic and foreign visitors!

As for the spectacle, there is plenty of that too! It involves taking in the Hindu bathers and worshipers on the ghats, but also watching the funeral pyres burn, as an experience of Hindu custom and culture (mostly by foreigners), which voyeuristic practice I found utterly creepy. My hotel was near one of the main cremation ghats, so I had to pass the pyres constantly, and there were always a bunch of touts who would keep coming up to me and telling me that I could "watch but no photography". I never stayed around long enough for them to move on to whatever the the next (involving a monetary transaction, I'm sure) topic of discussion on their minds was.

Since I was carrying a camera and stand all over and was traveling "in foreigner style" (alone and in a t-shirt and jeans, not on honeymoon, not with a bunch of friends, nor with an extended family), half of the touts assumed I was a foreigner too. Even a Samaritan US couple went out of their way to warn me to not take photographs as I walked towards the cremation ghat at night (actually towards my hotel) laden with camera and stand. Part of the code of helpfulness among tourists in strange lands, I guess!

The biggest spectacle though, is the evening Ganga aarti (I believe they have one at dawn as well). An aarti is a prayer performed with a flame in front of a diety or person or thing etc. This particular one is as grand and gaudy as any Vegas show. Instead of a small and simple ritual with one priest reciting a prayer, ringing a bell, throwing some flower petals into the river and presenting a flame in front of the river, this is a prolonged show involving multiple youth-priests, elaborately dressed and on an elaborate stage set, performing a 360 degree aarti that nears calisthenics in effort and maneuvers, while holding different types of objects (including a conical mountain of small fires and another huge flame protected by a sliver shesh-nag (the mythical king of snakes), with prayers blurted out from huge and crackly loudspeakers. I was basically left with my jaw wide open. This was'nt an individual prayer to the river Ganga, this was an elaborately staged, daily-recurring show for the accumulated tourists and devotees.

Beginning the Ganga aarti

The Shesh-Nag protected fire

The aarti as spectacle

Here is a video of the Ganga aarti, which I hope will convey the spirit of the event. Video quality is not very good since my internet connection is slow and so uploading larger files becomes a drag. It's about 3:20 mins long.

Click here to go to the YouTube page of the video.

5. Both Vegas and Varanasi have "shows": Vegas of course has it's shows, but as described above the Ganga aarti, the cremation viewing and other assorted "Hindu ritual" viewing are as much shows in Varanasi as anything in Vegas.

6. The place as setting for spectacular consumption: The architecture and setting in both cases are intrinsic to the spectacle and consumption. The ghats, busy narrow lanes, big and small temples strewn all over, and aging buildings are what make Varanasi what it is, apart from the practices performed at the site.

Thus the edifice of spectacular consumption includes the place and setting as well as the events and practices that take place there.

People milling about, taking in the strip, much like in Vegas

There is the argument about the original fake versus the fake fake, with Vegas being a fake fake and Varanasi an original fake - where the place becomes a commodity that sells itself, as a site whose origins and spiritual potency ostensibly go way back into the mists history, myth and legend, and which is now a spectacle of that spirituality, history, myth and legend. However, as an original fake Varanasi is absolutely a fake, where the primary transaction has become a monetary one, as opposed to the spirituality that it is sold as.

I did find some aspects of Varanasi interesting - some scenes were nice, as were the tiny little shrines all over the place, but these were all too few and far between. Just as in Vegas, I found the daytime much more interesting than the night, when the "show" is not yet on.

Bather and vendor

Such tiny Shivling shrines are all over

In conclusion, I was apprehensive of going to Varanasi because I thought it would be too "touristy", but thought that it might have some charm, some atmosphere that would be pleasing. Maybe I went there too much as a tourist, maybe I went there with too skeptical a viewpoint, or maybe I was unimpressed with what Varanasi had to offer because I had experienced everything one way or another already, together and/or separately, and so it was laid bare as a complete spectacle, but in this first visit to Varanasi, what I experienced was a complete tamasha.

Postscript: On a more serious note

I have mentioned my visit to the Kashi Vishvanath temple already, and that place has a more sinister side to it. The fact that the temple and the Gyanvapi mosque are side by side is well known, and I wanted to visit both. As I made my way towards the temple, I had to pass by at least 3 police security checks. Both I and the priest who latched on to me at the temple were frisked inside the temple as well! All this was explained to me when the priest offered to show me the "old temple" (that is what he told me he would show me).

He led me to one edge of the temple complex, and through a barbed wire fence that would rival anything dreamt up for the US-Mexico border, he showed me the mosque, saying that this is where the old temple used to be, and Aurangzeb (that favorite punching-bag of the Hindutva crowd) had razed it and built this mosque over it. The temple and mosque complexes share a long edge, and the fence runs the length of it. When I asked if I could go to the mosque, the guy said I couldn't, and it seemed completely deserted, though well maintained.

If there is anything that screams "flashpoint", this is it.

The adjacent Gyanvapi (with the three large domes) and Kashi Vishvanath complexes marked out


So as I said before, this trip was originally planned as a trip to Jaunpur to visit it's 14th/15th c. mosques, and I visited two of them - the Atala Masjid and the later Badi Masjid. Both were in active use as mosques and madrasas, which architecturally primarily means that there are a lot of modern modifications to both, but they were still pretty interesting, though overall a shade isappointing. However, since they are connected politically and architecturally to Delhi's own Tughlaq and Sultanate architecture, it was a worthwhile trip overall!

Badi Masjid is a bigger successor to Atala Masjid, and I liked it better as well. The main attraction for me is the oversized pishtaqs, which is what these mosques are famous for.

Atala masjid pishtaq

This is one of those mosques that "mixes" Islamic and Hindu architectural elements

Badi masjid pishtaq

A closer view

Badi masjid's interior spaces are pretty unique - instead of the usual array of domes and arcades, it has one big vault

"Hamra photu lijiye"


I also visited Sarnath, 10km from Varanasi and an important stop on the "Buddhist circuit". It's the place where the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. The site mainly contains the large Dhamek Stupa and a monastry/temple complex, but after being to such sites as Sanchi, Ellora and Ajanta, I was not very impressed with this place.

According to some, part of what galvanized the Buddha to seek truth and enlightenment was the corrupted philosophies and practices of the (Hindu) sages and priests of his time, and from the look of things, it seems to me that Varanasi and Sarnath still represent the same poles that existed during the Buddha's time. Am I being too harsh on Varanasi? Perhaps! :)

Dhamek stupa

Devotee circumambulating the stupa

Smaller votive stupas in the monastry/temple complex

Ongoing conservation work ... hopefully!