tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Taj Mahal

If the traveller considers himself a pilgrim in Agra then he is assured of joining one of the grandest pilgrimages he’s ever known, for no sooner does he enter the city beneath the government’s propitious welcome sign, beckoning him to the splendor within, than he is joined by a throng of thousands, maybe tens of thousands or—as they say—many lakhs of fellow pilgrims surging inward to the great monument of the world.

And as he enters the mighty gates, and as he lifts his eyes to behold that which is so awesome, the traveller knows he will remember this moment for his mind’s eternity, because it has been for him thus prescribed: Every eye before his to behold the awe of the monument has fallen shut in humility; every description writ before his to express the wonder that is the monument has been ill-formed; every stone kicked aside on the traveller’s road to the monument has done it more honour than words or pictures ever can.

All that stands before the traveller is etched upon his mind and will not leave him. In lines and in shadows, in tones and in textures, in memories and in glimmering white marble, the great monument says everything the traveller must know. The monument defines itself by what it reveals to each traveller. This is the heart of its awe.

{Taj Mahal Photo Gallery}

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On Mathura Road

Leaving behind him two Delhis—the Old and the New—as he makes his way southward on the Mathura Road, the traveller encounters a third Delhi, one comprised of an infinite line of dioramas which disappear into the rising dust with each lost moment.

Shrouded in the foreboding, spine-like shadow of the Delhi Metro—an elevated-train track under construction in colossal volumes of tan-grey concrete—this Delhi in its patina of everyday life is a living monument to all of the Delhis that have come before it along the banks of the Yamuna River. It is what Delhi has long been and probably long will be, a city that spites the traveller’s fleeting gaze simply by existing; for to exist in Delhi is to change.

Here are motor shops and dry-goods stores, and next might come a toy shop, a bank, a row of tailors, a sandal maker. Passing quickly is the ‘Good Luck Furniture House’ and next to it the ‘Sawag Restaurant’ promising Indian and Chinese cuisine. But the next time you pass by, the order will have changed, so quickly does the city of Delhi evolve and reconstruct.

So much brick and stone slab blurs the traveller’s eyes, while every door is corrugated metal sponsored by Vodafone; every shop sign brought to you by Pepsi. The traveller is easily lost; should he linger too long, perhaps the city will transform itself along with him.

This Delhi that constantly changes may be known to the traveller as kal* Delhi—the Delhi not of today, but both of yesterday and of tomorrow. And it remains along the Mathura Road until the city releases its traveller to Haryana.

From Haryana to the boundary of the next state, Uttar Pradesh, is easily mistaken for a blighted hinterland. Then, at the latter’s crossing, the traveller slows to declare himself to border agents, and while he sits in the heat of the morning sun he is startled to be set upon by a scrawny monkey crudely leashed to a master.

But no amusement deters him, for the traveller is nearing the end of his morning’s journey: Agra, alluring city of marble and red sandstone, city of Shah Jahan and his Taj Mahal.

(To be continued...)

* kal is a Hindi word that, depending on its context, can mean ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow.’ Thus kal should never alone be the answer to a question, nor should the traveller ever pose a question whose answer can only be kal.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Traveller departs Delhi for Agra

The alacrity with which the traveller first greets Delhi inevitably—in the subsequent phase of his visit—gives way to a kind of malaise, a result of the combination of heat and foul air, dust and dirt, and public places utterly swollen with humanity, much of it, by appearances, destitute.

It must be said that New Delhi is a sprawling city, a very green city, with wide boulevards under canopies of palm, ashoka and peepal trees, with grid-patterned outdoor markets and gated residential neighbourhoods, and with myriad parks visited by enthusiastic Delhiites, often for vigorous morning exercise, afternoon naps or evening strolls. And where green transforms into glass, the heavily air-conditioned shops and cafés of New Delhi bring the traveller respite from the heat as it ticks upward of thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight degrees Celsius.

Old Delhi—Shahjahanabad—presents itself in all the layers of its history, a panoply of innumerable eras and ages—where mosques ride shotgun with temples, where the same two alleyways might intersect a dozen times in a dozen different bazaars, where classical Sanskrit begat modern Hindu-Urdu—as though it contains both its past and present “like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of steps, the poles of flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”*

Together, the new and the old coalesce into a teeming, sprawling, relentless metropolis that is beautiful and even serene at certain extreme close-ups, but almost impossible to appreciate through a wide-angle lens. Indeed, viewed from the perch of three increasingly insufferable weeks’ worth of stay, Delhi becomes repugnant, albeit through no fault of its own.

Thus, despite the traveller’s eagerness to discover Delhi, the city itself rejects him and sends him away; punishes him for deigning to curse the city for the hellishness of its air.

And so the traveller will reflect upon Delhi from the nearest point of exile, which for most travellers is the city of Agra—the city of the Taj Mahal.

(To be continued…)

* A passage from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; from “Cities and Memory 3,” pp. 10-11.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

India Book Review: The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple

This past week I went to hear the famed Scottish historian and travel writer William Dalrymple deliver a live reading from a couple of his works, including The Last Mughal, at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, on the occasion of Penguin’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

I imagined a charismatic, perhaps forgivably pompous man at a lectern, a master of the subtle arts of storytelling: pitch, tone, pace, gesture, and expression. I was hardly disappointed; even his slight rotundity emerging from his long, white kurta and the beads of sweat on his large forehead fit the prescribed image of a craftsman raconteur.

The flamboyance of Dalrymple’s live performance is exceeded only by the fine tune of his prose. And The Last Mughal, so I am told by those who’ve read him more widely than I, is probably his driest book. It is a deeply practical, well-researched and well-imagined history of the Indian uprising of 1857 (the word ‘uprising’ is often substituted in the history books by ‘mutiny’ or ‘rebellion’ or ‘first war for independence’).

Dalrymple covers the full lay of the land of Delhi in the mid-nineteenth century, from the political court and palace intrigue of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (the title character) to the martial strategies of the British high command.

But it is the depiction of the men and women in between these two poles that really grants the reader a sense of the vitality of historical Delhi: the merchants and tradesmen of Shahjahanabad; the rebellious Brahmin Hindu sepoys; the newspaper editors of the city; the Mughal court poets; the English civilian administrators and their families; the fiery Protestant missionaries.

The full breadth of life of the city is overturned by Dalrymple’s lengthy inquisition into how and why this massive and popular rebellion of the native forces under British command occurred, how the dying embers of the once-great Mughal royal lineage came to reconcile with its almost inescapable fate, and how the vengeful British besieged and finally took down the mighty walls of the great city of Delhi and in doing so altered the course of India’s history forever.

And to credit Dalrymple’s robust sense of place where it is due, his (and as importantly, his many Indian grad-student researchers’) assiduous efforts in the Indian National Archives—poring over the famed Mutiny Papers, which consist of the municipal records of Delhi during the summer of 1857 as compiled by Mughal royal officials and preserved by the British after their victory in the bloody siege—provide, to use an apt phrase, the most fodder for his storytelling cannon.

It is impressive, vivid and exhaustive; maybe not a must-read for all travellers to India (not every traveller is wedded to historical enquiry, especially one so specific), but canonical for anyone who plans to tramp around the historical sites of Delhi, and for any visitor who can’t hope to know this place without understanding one of the most significant events in the history of the Indian people.

Dalrymple is the author of seven books about India, although before I got a hold of The Last Mughal, he was known to me only for his non-India work, a wonderful account of the journey of two sixth-century monks on foot across the Byzantine Empire, From the Holy Mountain (1998).

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857
By William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006
578 pages

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Half a Lakh down and a Crore to go

A month ago, if you’d told me that India has 120 crore people, I might have replied along the lines of, “I’ll be sure to check them out, although if there are only 120 of them in a country of a billion people, I can’t promise you I’ll find one.”

If you’d then told me that India has about 50 lakh rickshaws on its roads, I certainly would have struggled to decipher this mysterious statement, searched for clues in the tone of your voice, called upon the sincerest tone of my voice to mask my ignorance, and concluded that a lakh rickshaw, due to its apparent rarity, must be an air-conditioned sort.

After this, perhaps I would have read in a local newspaper (as I did last week) that over the next 10 years the infrastructure of India’s national power system will need 20 lakh crore rupees’ worth of upgrades in order to provide continuous electricity to all of the country’s inhabitants and institutions.

Ergo, I’d have thought, the monetary equivalent of 20 air-conditioned rickshaws from the crore people will solve this problem. (Nice try.)

A month ago, almost everything I knew about India was contained in the remnants of my grade-eleven world-history class (that paragraph on the Indus and Ganges river valley civilizations 4000 years ago; the menu at Jodhpur Club in Toronto’s Baldwin Village; and Slumdog Millionaire.

I didn't even make it all the way through Gandhi.

Having suffered through two university degrees, the Arabic and French languages, Proust, and an absurd amount of sports trivia, my brain has effectively reset itself to a flashing 12:00. I’m like a baby. Or a half-blind old man. I’m a half-blind old baby. I don't know anything, and what little I can see I can barely make sense of.

(Also, have I mentioned that it’s 20 lakh crore degrees Celsius here and my brain actually may have melted?)

Well it turns out that a lakh is equal to 100,000 and a crore is 10,000,000. India’s numerology takes a few deviations from standard base-ten.

Here, you might see the number 50,00,000, which is 50 lakh or 5 million or the number of rickshaws in India.* 1 lakh is 1,00,000 and 99 lakh is 99,00,000, but once you get above 99 lakh you’ve hit a crore.

120 crore is 1,20,00,00,000 or 120-ten-millions or 1.2 billion or the number of people in India. It’s also equal to 12,000 lakh, but you wouldn’t say that.

And finally, 20 lakh crore rupees is 20,00,000 crore or 2,00,00,00,00,00,000 or 20 trillion rupees or (with the current conversion rate of about 44 rupees to the Canadian dollar) about $455 billion.

Everyone got that?

* This figure has not been fact-checked; in three weeks I’ve only seen half-a-lakh rickshaws.

Friday, March 19, 2010

On the hexagram (six-pointed star) of Humayun’s tomb and Mughal symbolism

There are some questions that India poses to its travellers which will always go unanswered, such as How did that cow get there?, and Where is it going? Of course, what fun would travelling be without a bit of mystery, rhetoric and riddle.

But other questions must be answered, like why is the tomb of Humayun covered in hexagrams?

The tomb of Nasir al-Din Muhammad Humayun (1504-1556), usually referred to simply as Humayun, is generally considered to be the first great architectural epic of the Mughal empire in India and a forerunner to the Taj Mahal, built a hundred years later. The Mughals, a Muslim dynasty descendant of Tamerlane and also of Genghis Khan, ruled much of the central and northern regions of the Indian subcontinent from 1526-1857. Humayun was its second emperor.

The tomb was commissioned during the reign of Humayun’s son and successor, Jalal al-Din Akbar (known later as Akbar the Great*), six years after Humayun slipped on the staircase of his personal library and observatory—which he was ascending in order to view the rise of the planet Venus from an elevated position above the city of Delhi—and cracked his head and died.(1)

The massive mausoleum (which actually contains over one hundred graves, the most famous being Humayun’s) was constructed in sandstone and white marble between 1562-1571.  Akbar contracted the Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas to build the tomb, although Humayun’s adoring son was said to have wielded considerable influence over its design and especially its symbols.

Which brings us back to one of the most intriguing aspects of Humayun’s tomb: the prevalence of the six-pointed star, or hexagram, the same which is commonly associated with Judaism today, and therefore which seems particularly striking in Indian Islamic architecture of the sixteenth century and later.

The choice of the hexagram symbol was likely Akbar’s—since there is no record of Humayun’s use of the symbol—as a kind of homage to his father’s infatuation with astrology.(2) Humayun was an avid stargazer; he organized everything from his wardrobe to his court on the basis of planetary alignment.

The hexagram was a potent symbol of astrology long before Humayun, and even long before it became one of the paramount symbols of Judaism. In astrology, the six-pointed star is the perfect alignment of heavenly bodies, rare and divine and auspicious; the symbol thus to stargazers was a connotation of perfection, auspiciousness, balance, harmony, equality.

The hexagram is believed to have been appropriated by various ancient cultures and belief systems—including Hinduism—quite independently of one another.

In ancient Hinduism the hexagram symbolized a perfect meditative state between man and God which results in moksha. It is also said to signify the union of Shiva and Shakti, or more generally of man and woman; a kind of Hindu equivalent to yin and yang.

For Akbar, calling upon ancient astrological beliefs on behalf of his father Humayun, the symmetrical six points of the star represented “the conjunction of opposing forces,” or in other words, divinely guided justice and righteousness.(3)

Furthermore, since the Muslim Mughal (Timurid) dynasty ruled over a vast Hindu-majority population in India, the cogency of the hexagram symbol among Akbar’s subjects likely would not have hurt his own popularity or legitimacy as ruler.

Throughout his reign, Akbar maintained the use of the hexagram symbol, as a result of which from the construction of Humayun’s temple throughout the Mughal era, the six-pointed star remained a recognizable symbol of the dynasty. Akbar was certain to associate himself with the legacy he was constructing for his own dad around the symbol of the hexagram, which evolved to constitute a symbol of the divine guidance of the Mughal emperor.

“Akbar’s need to associate himself with his father may have been a reflection of his belief that through Humayun he possessed a divine light that distinguished him from all of his rivals, including his brothers… In order to establish Akbar’s divine nature it was necessary to show that he was descended from a line possessing spiritual powers.”(4)

Put concisely, Akbar was keen to cement the nascent Mughal royal line, which he inherited partly through conquest of his rival kin, around the righteousness (i.e. divine predetermination or at least ordination) of his own throne. The Mughal hexagram, ostensibly homage to his father, seems to have become the enduring symbol of that self-ascribed virtue. By turning his deceased father Humayun into a kind of posthumous saint-king, Akbar made himself the heir of divinity.

But I'm still not sure how that cow got there!

[Click here for the full photo gallery of Humayun's Tomb]

(1) Glenn D. Lowry, “Humayun’s Tomb: Form, Function and Meaning in Early Mughal Architecture.” Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture, vol. 4 (1987), pp 133-148. Click here for JSTOR (sub req’d) or here for Google Scholar.
(2) ibid., p. 143.
(3) ibid., p. 144.
(4) ibid.

* akbar ( اكبر ) is, of course, Arabic for "great" (as in allahu akbar; "God is great"). So in a wry sense Akbar the Great might be called "Great the Great" or "the Great Great" (if you were to speak to him in Arabic, though his native tongue was Persian).  However in Arabic he would not be Akbar al-Akbar but rather al-akbar al-kubara; "great" better translated as kubara ( كبرى ) in this sense of so-and-so "the Great." Akbar was allegedly named after his maternal grandfather, Shaykh Ali Akbar Jami.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Bookseller of Khan Market

At Faqir Chand & Sons booksellers in Khan Market, New Delhi, you can taste the sandalwood at the back of your tongue the moment you draw your first breath. The musty single-room shop is three times as high as it is wide, and five times as long as it is high.

And in this literary warren each and every book is individually wrapped in plastic--likely in defence against the volcanic ash of the incense--and stacked horizontally on the metal shelves, which is to say the books like flat stacked one on top of the other at least eight or ten volumes high per shelf, troublesomely necessitating both hands as well as a bit of stretch and muscle to retrieve any book not on top of a particular stack.

Authors are grouped together in coveys of their work. However, there is no discernible order or organization to the arrangement of the authors (you'll find Salman Rushdie one shelf above Bill Bryson and one shelf below Danielle Steele, e.g.), a result of which the visitor should not expect to spend less than half an hour rummaging through the shelves on tiptoes and haunches looking for great reads, unless of course you ask the plump old woman with the corrugated face sitting behind the desk hogging most of the fanned air; she'll find anything for you in under ten seconds.

With great, ascetic restraint I limited myself to two book purchases: Inhaling the Mahatma by Australian journalist Christopher Kremmer, and Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga, the former a travelogue and catch-up on the last twenty years of Indian news, and the latter a short-story collection by the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The White Tiger.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Ach, ya wee Lassi

To make the lassi, which accompanied my breakfast parantha at a hole-in-the-(literal)-wall restaurant in Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), the young barefoot man carefully cut open a small plastic bag of yoghurt with a pair of scissors whose blades were no bigger than his thumbnail.

Having emptied its contents into a broad-lipped stainless-steel bowl, he proceeded to add no fewer than five heaping cups of sugar along with an imprecise measurement of water plus the milky dregs from the bowl of the previous batch.

Then he turned on a droning, hand-held electric mixer (the modern utensil) and stirred the concoction to a frothy finish.

Fortunately, one batch of sweet lassi, it turned out, serves four or five customers at once as, though delicious and refreshing, my cup still gave me more of a sugar buzz than I'm accustomed to in the morning.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

You load 16 lakh tons, and what do you get?

From the Editorial of The Sunday Guardian, a popular English-language weekly in Delhi, extolling the work of so-called 'workers-rights' advocate and Bollywood songstress Asha Bhonsle:
"Freedom is more than adult franchise, secularism, free speech and linguistic identity, vital as they are. Freedom also means the right of free internal trade for the manufacturer-producer, and right of migration for the working class...
"This is the spirit of emerging India: seek opportunity wherever you can find your horizon; work hard and the future is yours...
"Whoever is willing to work from 9 in the morning to 12 in the night will be successful."
(Emphasis mine.)

I know little about India at this point; in under two weeks here I've managed to graduate from kindergarten to grade one in Hindu culture, politics, identity and modernity (I'm in grade four in history, grade six in cuisine, and nursery school in language!)

While workers' rights and especially freedom of movement, access to markets, micro-financed community development and the like will be very much a part of the world in which I'm going to be working during the coming year, I can't help but find in this editorial a stark contrast from the democratically socialist India of the modern textbooks, where everything and everyone is in its place, whether by bureaucracy, hegemony, society or tradition.

Food for thought; insights to follow. Wonder if I'll be working from 9 in the morning till 12 at night?!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Day One for a new Delhiwallah

Early reflections of the traveller in Delhi: 

On (quite literally) the inimitable auto-rickshaw...
No matter how one judges the comportment, the swiftness and the unbridled combustion of Delhi traffic, the efficacy of the diminutive auto-rickshaw within all that menacing congestion defies all attempts by logic and reason to prevent me from boarding one.

On the cow...
The only thing--machine or organic--on Delhi roads that is by all perceivable evidence not in a hurry to get somewhere is the indomitable cow; so lazily does it move along as to seem almost graceful. From the vantage point of the auto-rickshaw passenger, the complacent cow on the road can only be revered, which is to say that I revere its already established reverence; for I suppose only after many centuries in the rank of honour has the cow earned its own lane in traffic. (I'm also quite jealous of the cow; it's the only thing out on the road not being honked at.)

On a visit to Old Delhi...
The sheer vitality of Shahjahanabad is astounding. Possibly the only thing thicker than the swaths of energetic humanity pouring through the alleyways of this old Mughal city is the invisible cloud of pepper dust emanating from the spice market. To sneeze here is to engage in a perfectly local and ancient tradition!

On shopping for a kurta...
The kurta is a shirt of cotton, linen or silk, presenting itself with the distinctive rounded 'Chinese' collar, available in various lengths, with sleeves to the wrist and buttons to the sternum. It has the unfortunate tendency to make its wearer appear pear-shaped, when in fact that wearer is I. Blue and orange seem to be the colours of the season.

On a brief excursion to a Jain temple...
For a man--in this case a monk--of such girth to spend so many years sitting perfectly cross-legged is suggestive proof of a divine presence. I am sore just reminiscing about his posture. The temple itself is as exquisite as it is secluded; its various shrines are ornamented daily with saffron and rose petals, while its milky marble floors are somehow soft and gleaming. The overall aura is somewhat subdued, for the visitor, by the overpowering and barely sustainable aroma of sandalwood.

On attempting to learn 'Bollywood Dance' my first night out...
'Walk Like an Egyptian' meets a circa-1985 Jazzercise video. Alas, we all know I'm better suited to eating than dancing.

On the culture of food in India...
As explained to me by a new friend here, "Anything which can be eaten, should be eaten, whether by human or by animal. Food is God."

On eating Indian food at least three times a day...
(Can't type; too busy growing fat on paneer, tandoori roti and butter chicken.)