India: Pray, enter

By Rosemarie North

A walking tour takes Rosemarie North to often unseen parts of Delhi, including an ancient mosque in which religion is now forbidden.
A performer on  Darwesh walking tour of Delhi.
A performer on Darwesh walking tour of Delhi.

Behind us are three sparkling shopping malls where Swedish clothing giant H&M recently opened its first shiny store in India. In front is a mess of motorbikes, dogs, veiled women and moustachioed men, surging in and out of the narrow lanes that are Khirki village. There's tooting and dust.

We're about to enter a hidden - and still controversial - part of Delhi's past.

It's a walking tour of about a dozen: architects, students, a feminist geographer now working in New York, an app developer and HuffPost blogger now commuting between India, Nepal and Minnesota, a journalist who tells me she's prepping for the apocalypse, a grandmother, a film-maker, a Russian couple and me. We're here for a tour called Old Constructs, New Constructions.

Construction is an apt theme. There's evidence of human habitation in Delhi going back 3000 years. Empires have risen and fallen, at least seven times, razing the city, recycling material from previous monuments or, lucky for us, simply ignoring what went before, allowing it to gently age.

One such relic is Khirki Masjid (or mosque), built in the 1350s by a prime minister keen to show the Tughlaq dynasty that he was true to Islam, to which he converted. Our guide leads us between rundown houses, some with bricked-up windows and doors, and over a path of stones pushed into mud. Without a guide, you'd never know it was here. The first glimpse is through a steel fence - bent out of shape in one section - with a large blue sign on it. More on the sign later.

The mosque is like a baddie's fortress in a Disney movie. Huge rock walls hunch inwards. Turrets squat at the four corners. Slits in the rock squint down at us - it's not hard to imagine arrows shooting out. There's a moat - now dry. The steepest entrance steps you can imagine - definitely no wheelchair access. What's the opposite of welcoming?

Inside, it's a different story. Colonnades recede right and left in ever-decreasing symmetry. Four courtyards open to the sky create shadows behind dozens of archways.

Apart from the guard, a few pigeons and some unseen but squeaking bats, we're alone. There's peace and order.

An internal stone staircase leads to the roof. Scattered on its flat surface, like Moeraki boulders, are the roofs of domes from the floor below. It would make a great setting for a sci-fi movie, I tell a young woman who turns out to be a film maker from Varanasi. Meanwhile, the architects in our group peer into some domes that have cracked open like dinosaur eggs and speculate about their construction.

From the roof, you're surrounded by apartment blocks. You feel you could reach out and touch balconies, washing lines, air-con units and satellite dishes. I wave to an old man and small boy standing on a terrace. The boy smiles and waves back. Through an open balcony door I see a man towelling his bare torso. I look away.

In theory, no building is allowed so close to important monuments. In practice, there's enormous pressure for space in this city of 17 million.

"People from the neighbourhood, which is mostly Hindu, used to bring their washing here to dry on the roof," says Yuveka Singh, our guide and co-founder of Darwesh, a walking tour company that offers "experiential journeys" at incredibly reasonably prices. Darwesh's walks often have a performance element that brings Delhi's culture and history to life. There are few things more spine-tingling than listening to Urdu poetry sung in an ancient tomb.

"Then there was an incident in the middle of 2015 when some people broke through the fence and started to worship at the masjid again. Some Hindu families claim the fort was built by Hindu kings from the Chauhan dynasty and therefore they feel threatened the moment they see or hear of Muslims offering prayers there," she says.

Worshipping at the mosque was a step too far for the authorities. On the sign attached to the fence outside, the "superintending archaeologist" says people from a "particular community" forced their way into the masjid in June 2015 and "unauthorisedly offered prayers". The archaeologist asks the police to ensure the masjid remains a secular historic monument, not a place of worship.

Does it matter? After all, who can tell if you're praying or not? Surely one of the great pleasures of travelling is soaking up the atmosphere of places of worship - chaotic and family-friendly Hindu temples serving sweet sludge on a dried leaf, cathedrals where only a handful of grey-haired people sit in contemplation, austere mosques with polished marble floors. And offering up a sneaky prayer if you want. The dispute is a part of the ancient to-ing and fro-ing to construct Delhi's identity - and India's too.

The 12th century Khirki Masjid (mosque). Photo / Varun Shiv Kapur
The 12th century Khirki Masjid (mosque). Photo / Varun Shiv Kapur


The tour ends at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, in one of the fancy malls nearby. There, in an exhibition called Constructs/Constructions, artists reflect on urbanisation and built structures - slums, birds' nests, apartment blocks and pantheons. A poem by artist Nataraj Sharma stays with me:

Cities of constant churning and expansion / Become Machu Picchu, Fatehpur Sikri, Angkor Wat./Consumed by time, by forests. /Huge vanities, they lie in ruins. / System errors, fatal miscalculations.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Cathay Pacific flies daily from Auckland to Delhi, via their hub in Hong Kong. Economy Class return tickets start from $1359. cathaypacific.com

DETAILS
For information on Darwesh's range of walks, go to darwesh.in.
Delhi Heritage Walks also offers excellent guided walks. They're at delhiheritagewalks.com.
The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is free to enter. You'll find them online at knma.in.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 27 Sep 2016 19:25:40 Processing Time: 1003ms