Delhi: City of conquests

By Jim Eagles

The stately Tomb of Humayun. Photo / Jim Eagles
The stately Tomb of Humayun. Photo / Jim Eagles

It's an irony I'm sure is not lost on many Indians that in a country which is 75 per cent Hindu the most impressive sights in the capital city of Delhi have virtually all been provided by Muslim or Christian invaders.

Sure, there are some interesting Hindu shrines in Delhi, like the Laxmi Narayan Temple, built in 1939 by the fabulously wealthy Birla family to honour - appropriately enough - the goddess of prosperity.

And there are several memorials built to honour the country's greatest Hindu politicians, of which the most moving is the simple black marble slab and everlasting flame on the spot where the man who won independence for India, Mahatma Gandhi, was cremated. (As a bizarre sidelight, when I visited the shrine of this famously non-violent man the souvenir sellers outside were flogging off plastic machine guns to eager young pilgrims.)

But almost all the places to which tourists are taken so they can marvel at the wonders of this ancient land were actually created by the Muslim invaders from central Asia who conquered the country 900 years ago.

Even the impressive seat of the Indian Government, New Delhi, was the work of the British, who succeeded the Muslims as overlords around 1800.

The very symbol of Delhi, the majestic 73m tall Qutab Minar tower, was actually built to celebrate the triumph of Qutab-ud-Din - originally the Turkish slave of an Afghan warrior king - who in 1206 made himself the first Sultan of Delhi and ushered in 650 years of Muslim rule.

Just to underline the message, next to it the new dynasty also built the first mosque in India, Quwwat-ul-Islam, the Might of Islam, on a site originally occupied by several Hindu and Jain temples (an inscription over one of the gates proclaims that the mosque incorporated material from "27 idolatrous temples").

Visit the complex today - set in tranquil gardens on the southern edge of Delhi - and you can still see the remains of those earlier temples in the surrounding cloisters with their distinctive square pillars, marvellously intricate stone carvings and defaced Hindu figures.

I happened to be there on a public holiday and the gardens were full of family groups - the males dull in sombre shirts and trousers but the females resplendent in glowing pastel saris - all strolling round, admiring the historic structures, picnicking under the trees and generally adding to the relaxing atmosphere of this fascinating place.

A focus of attention for the holidaymakers was a famous 7.2m high iron pillar with a Sanscrit inscription indicating it was erected outside a temple to Vishnu in honour of a Hindu king who reigned around 300BC.

What makes this pillar special historically is that it is made of extraordinarily pure iron - 99.02 per cent, according to a guide I talked with there, though I have read other figures - causing experts to puzzle over how the ironmakers of 1600 years ago could have achieved such purity.

However, I suspect the real reason for all the interest in the pillar is the legend that if you stand with your back to it and clasp your hands around it your wish will be granted. Unfortunately, the authorities seem to be nervous about what people might wish for because they've put a fence round the pillar to make that impossible.

There are several other structures in the same gardens, in various states of repair, including a couple of notable tombs.

But the most intriguing is surely the stump of the Alai Minar tower started by a later sultan, the ruthless Ala-ud-Din, with the intention of making it twice as tall as the Qutab Minar, presumably to demonstrate that he was twice as powerful as his predecessor. Alas, he died when it was only 27m high, and the tower was never finished.

Most of Delhi's Muslim rulers seem to have been driven by the same desire to demonstrate their greatness in brick and marble and many managed to last long enough to see their projects through to completion.

The result was a city of extraordinary magnificence. The extent and grandeur of the ruins which dot the area today are impressive enough. But they only give an inkling of just how impressive Delhi was at the height of Mughal power.

If you're planning to go there, first read William Dalrymple's majestic book, The Last Mughal: the fall of a dynasty, Delhi 1857 (published by Bloomsbury, $32.99 in paperback), which paints a vivid picture of a city of unsurpassed opulence and beauty, making the remnants of Mughal glory on show today seem even more impressive.

Of course India's most famous Muslim monument, the Taj Mahal, is 200km southeast of Delhi, but the capital is home to the building which inspired it, the tomb of Humayun, the second of the Mughal emperors who swept in from what is now Uzbekistan and stayed to rule.

Unlike the Taj, this was built by a wife for her dead husband, not the other way around, and in red sandstone inlaid with white and black marble, not white marble inset mainly with black.

But the basic concept of a perfectly symmetrical building, built in Persian-style with a central dome surrounded by matching towers, and set in formal gardens with several reflecting pools, is very much the same.

It may not have the exquisite loveliness of the Taj Mahal but it is nevertherless extremely beautiful ... and does have the great advantage that it doesn't attract the same vast crowds as the Taj.

As at Qutab Minar, there are numerous other significant buildings in the same park, most of them the tombs of lesser Muslim lords, including one reputed to be that of Humayun's barber.

Probably the most interesting is the tomb of Isa Khan, built during the short-lived Afghan Sur dynasty which briefly deposed the Mughal Humayun, not least because it provides an clear indication how quickly architectural styles change with different waves of invaders.

Isa Khan's tomb is not unattractive but it is much squatter, and its main dome much flatter, than the tall elegant Mughal structures which followed.

Arguably the supreme example of Muslim architecture in Delhi is the Masjid-i-Jahan Numa - meaning "the mosque commanding a view of the world" - the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan who also built the Taj.

Better known as the Jama Masjid or Friday Mosque - that being the Muslim holy day - it features the same elegant domes, slender minarets and light, airy style as the Taj.

This is the largest and most important mosque in India with a vast courtyard where the faithful gather to pray. The day I turned up the courtyard was rather empty, the main action being provided by small boys chasing the huge flocks of resident pigeons (their flutterings keenly watched by several large birds of prey circling the towers).

Adding to the mosque's importance is the fact the tower in the northeast corner of the courtyard houses several relics of the prophet Mohammed including a hair of his beard, his leather sandal, a chapter of the Koran taken from the original book, the canopy of his tombstone and his footprint on a slab of stone.

When I first went to Delhi 30 years ago, an elderly imam with excellent English proudly showed me the relics - and even for an infidel it was extraordinarily moving to see personal items associated with the founder of one of the world's great religions - but that wasn't on offer during my latest visit.

However, tourists are welcome to wander round the mosque to admire its magnificent architecture and for a small fee you can also climb one of the minarets and get magnificent views over the city.

The area round the mosque is a hive of activity and a great place to walk - or take a trishaw - and get a small taste of the incredible vitality which powers the Indian economy.

Of course these narrow thoroughfares aren't where you'll find the international call centres or software development units which have attracted global attention - they're in the shiny new developments on the outskirts of the city - but they are the home of thousands of small workshops, warehouses and shops producing, distributing and selling everything from spicy pickles to modified laptop computers.

One lane specialises in selling flowers and positively glows with the profusion of blooms and garlands on offer.

Around the back of the mosque is the Car Parts Bazaar with a vast array of stalls selling every possible part for every possible car you could ever imagine. "If your car is stolen and it isn't found within two days you stop looking," an amiable local told me, "because it will be here in thousands of pieces."

A line of trees nearby is fishing central where old men with dextrous fingers sit in the shade and turn spools of nylon into woven nets. Round the corner piles of paper and books signal the home of many of Delhi's small paper merchants, printers and publishers.

The mosque is also close to one of the great symbols of Mughal power, the Red Fort, also built by Shah Jahan. The majestic red sandstone walls still exude an aura of wealth and power even though these days the fort is hemmed in by lesser buildings and its entrances are guarded by countless hawkers and guides.

The interior is also impressive - though nowhere near as grand as in its Mughal heyday, having been looted several times - remodelled by the British so it could be used as an army barracks and even today largely occupied by the Indian army.

As you battle through the main entrance, the Lahore Gate, fighting off the offers of carved elephants, cheap rides and expert guides, it's interesting to recall that this symbol of centuries of foreign domination is today the ultimate symbol of the modern Indian nation.

The Lahore Gate, which once quite literally excluded Hindu Indians from the seat of power, is the spot chosen successive Indian leaders from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh to deliver important speeches and it is where they come every August 15 to celebrate Independence Day.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies twice daily to Hong Kong with regular connections to Delhi. Check with your travel agent for further details or see cathaypacific.com.

Getting around: World Expeditions' 15-day Northern India Highlights trip includes Agra and the Taj Mahal as well as the ancient capital of Varanasi, set on the sacred river Ganges, the modern capital of Delhi; Hindu temples in Kajuraho; the pink city of Jaipur; village life in Orchha and the Swadi Madapur tiger reserve. See worldexpeditions.co.nz or ring 0800 350 354 tollfree.

Further information: For information about visiting India see incredibleindia.org.

Jim Eagles visited Delhi with help from World Expeditions and Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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