Friday, 19 December 2014

Incredible India: Part 16: Delhi–The National Railway Museum & Indira Gandhi’s Villa

world-map delhi
Greetings!

This post deals with one of my very favourite topics: railways. More than any other country perhaps, India is united by its railways and the national railway company is the largest employer in the land. A lot better that way than the army say, which is the case in North Korea where I’m due to visit soon.
But on the theme of rail adventures, I must admit that I’m rather excited as in two months’ time I’ve got one coming up as I shall be travelling with my son and ex-wife by Eurostar to Paris, our first-ever trip both on that famous train and to the French capital. After years of visiting obscure and far-flung capital cities, I’m finally going to a famous one that’s nearby.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

Part 16: Delhi – The National Railway Museum and Indira Gandhi’s Villa

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From old to new, my next destination was in the heart of Lutyens' New Delhi. I emerged from the bowels of the earth at racecourse Station and then took a tuk-tuk along the broad avenues of the model city to the National Railway Museum. My trip took me past the embassies of a dozen or more countries, something which I found fascinating since one can tell a lot about a country's political history from the foreign embassies in its capital city.[1]

The major countries all had huge complexes in prime locations. I never saw the British Embassy, but its American counterpart was enormous as American embassies always are. Strangely though, one of the largest belonged to Serbia. At first I wondered why an impoverished and pretty insignificant Balkan nation of but several million souls should be so respected in India, but then I realised: Serbia had obviously inherited the old Yugoslavian Embassy and Yugoslavia, along with India, had been a prime mover in the Non-Aligned Movement which dominated Indian foreign policy during the sixties and seventies.

Next up was Pakistan's which was very ostentatious and very Muslim, a declaration of difference and defiance in stone and stucco to its old enemy. My favourites though belonged to Bhutan, (which was built in the style of a Himalayan Buddhist temple), and Indonesia, (which sported a rather fine Balinese gateway).

I am British and I have long held a fascination for trains. Therefore, the fact that a visit to the National Railway Museum was on my agenda should come as no surprise. Arguably more than any other country on earth, the railways – Britain's finest gift to its greatest colony – have held India together, a vast, multi-lingual, multi-cultural mammoth of a state. To celebrate them is both relevant and worthwhile.

And the museum did just that. The collection of locomotives on display was impressive including a working Punjabi engine ('Lion of the Punjab') and a strange monorail engine unlike anything that I have ever seen before or since, with a miniature train to ferry you around.[2] And there were some cool exhibits too: the skull of an elephant that had lost in a collision with a train and some models of locomotives and carriages from days gone by. I left feeling glad, picking up a tuk-tuk to take me the short distance to my next culture stop.

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The Lion of the Punjab

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The strange monorail loco

The name of Indira Gandhi is bandied around a lot by the Sikhs and normally in the same tone that I reserve for Margaret Thatcher. That is understandable for she was the PM who ordered the tanks into the Golden Temple complex during Operation Blue Star. By desecrating their holiest shrine, she has earned their eternal enmity.

But in the peaceful Lutyens villa that I was walking around, quite a different picture of India's first female Prime Minister was being presented, more Joan of Arc than Margaret of Grantham. In the house where she once lived, she was portrayed as a diplomat, a great leader beloved by her people yet humble in her lifestyle, a family woman, intelligent yet sensitive and above all, a martyr. I wandered past her study, the lounge where she entertained world leaders,[3] past her bedroom and the place where she made her daily puja and through the garden where she oft took tea with her family.

It was a picture of domestic and political bliss until we came to the spot in-between her home and the house next door where she was violently gunned down by her own bodyguard. A strange glass sculpture marks the spot and the exhibition dwelt on the immense grief of a nation at her passing. What it did not explain however, was why she was murdered. Having strolled round the Golden Temple and talked to many Sikhs, I knew full well why her Khalsa Sikh bodyguard turned his gun on the lady that he was paid to protect, but the museum itself gave no indication and nor too did it talk of the thousands of Sikhs who were murdered afterwards in retaliation for her death or why her son Rajiv Gandhi was also gunned down in 1991. For me those unanswered questions was one of my lasting impressions of the villa along with images of some of the presents given to Mrs. Gandhi by foreign leaders, (including two incredibly naff glass bowls from Poland and Yugoslavia which I wouldn't look twice at in a car boot), and the sense of a great Indian revolutionary and political dynasty that was slowly corrupting just like the lineage of Jadis, the mythical Empress of Charn in C. S. Lewis' 'Chronicles of Narnia'.[4]

The day being a Sunday, I headed out that evening to the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral. Being in the most British of all the cities in the greatest of our former colonies, I'd hoped to be able to attend an Anglican Communion service at either the cathedral or St. James' Church, the two high temples of the Raj. But once again, my church showed its weakness by refusing to provide anything other than Evening Prayer on a Sunday evening and so, for the second time on the trip, I went Roman.
I cannot say that the Mass was particularly inspiring. It wasn't bad, but after the spiritual superbowls of Amritsar and Pushkar, the oh-so-familiar liturgy seemed mundane and everyday. Keeping one's faith as a Christian might be difficult in India I suspect, and I admire those who succeed.

On the way back to the Metro station, I called in at the adjacent Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, one of the holiest Sikh sites in the capital, built on the spot where the Eighth Guru, the child Guru Har Krishan spent some months in 1664 as a virtual prisoner of the Mughals but who gained a saintly reputation in that place for his work amongst the poor and for his healing powers. In that gurdwara, pristine white and spotlessly clean like the others that I had visited, I found a spiritual beauty and energy that had been lacking in the cathedral and as I circumambulated the sacred pool, I felt at peace.


[1] For more on this subject, see my 2007 travelogue of a trip to Berlin where I discuss the embassies in the German capital.
[2] On the trip that I took I was sat behind a fifteen-month old toddler on her very first train journey: one of life's seminal moments.
[3] Ho Chi Minh, one note informed me, once described her as a “sister”.
[4] It should be noted here that the Mahatma Gandhi was not a member of this family; the surname is a coincidence. They are descended from Nehru instead.





















Friday, 12 December 2014

Incredible India: Part 15: Delhi–Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens & the Red Fort

world-map delhiGreetings!

It’s been a pleasant week this week on UTM with the current ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Oswano in Japan, contacting me after reading my articles about my time there. It’s nice to be reminded of good times in good places and good to hear that he is enjoying his time as much as I did.

And there’ll be more coming up on Osawano after Incredible India has all been posted which, I estimate to be around Christmas time. But until then, let’s head back to the Indian capital to peel back another layer of the intriguing Delhi onion…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra – Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

Part 10: Ajmer

Part 11: Pushkar I

Intermission: Hinduism

Part 12: Pushkar II

Part 13: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

Part 14: Delhi – The Lotus and ISKON Temples

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

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Safdarjung's Tomb represents another layer in the Delhi onion; that of the Nawabs, the more decadent descendants of the Mughals whom the British gradually dominated and then replaced. Although far more dilapidated and modest than its more famous cousins in Agra, the Mughal lineage was plain to see: the design was that of a mini-Taj although far less measured and hinting at the corruption and decline of the age in which it was built:

“Safdarjung interested me because his life seemed to encapsulate perfectly the intriguing but cataclysmic half-century that linked the Mughal high noon at the close of the seventeenth century with the decay and disintegration of the Twilight fifty years later. When Safdarjung arrived from Persia, Aurangzeb was still Emperor and Delhi was still the richest, most magnificent and most populous city between Istanbul and Edo (Tokyo); with its two million inhabitants it was far larger than either London or Paris. Its army was invincible; its palaces unparalleled; the domes of its many mosques quite literally glittered with gold. By the time of Safdarjung's death, the Persian Nadir Shah had been and gone, carrying with him the accumulated riches of eight generations of Empire. Three Emperors had been murdered (one was, in addition, first blinded with a hot needle); the mother of one ruler was strangled and the father of another forced off a precipice on his elephant. Delhi, the great capital, was left a city of gutted ruins... The tomb stands today as a telling memorial to the period. Most obviously, it demonstrates the strained circumstances of the age. Compared to the purity of the Taj Mahal – the spotless white marble, the unfussy shapes, the perfectly balanced design – Safdarjung's tomb with its bulbous dome and stained sandstone walls seems somehow flawed and degenerate. Every schoolchild the world over knows the profile of the Taj, and in so far as Safdarjung's tomb is different, it at first sight looks wrong: its lines look somehow faulty, naggingly incorrect.”[1]

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Safdarjung's Tomb

I wandered leisurely around the tomb and then ambled across the road to another place that I very much wanted to see and which tells of yet another Delhian era: the Lodi Gardens.

Imagine this: a medium-sized city park full of trees and flowers, a small river and pool, young lovers holding hands or kissing in the shade and birds singing overhead. It's a pleasant image but not unlike thousands of other city parks across the globe, (although I've never come across one before with quite so many doe-eyed couples), except that this one is different; the Lodi Gardens are also chock-full of UNESCO-standard ancient ruins. Like with so many other sites that I'd visited in India, anywhere else in the world and this would be the city's main attraction; here it is all but ignored.

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A ruin in the Lodi Gardens

I, however, did not ignore it. Instead, as the sun was setting, I ambled happily around the tombs of the Lodi and Sayyid rulers who controlled these parts before the Mughals marched into town, wandering freely through the atmospheric mosques and mausoleums. It was marvellous, simple marvellous and the perfect way to complete my day's sightseeing. In the tuk-tuk on the way back though, I was brought back down to a cruder, less romantic side of the Indian psyche:

Tuk-tuk driver: “Excuse me sir, do you like cricket?”

Matt: “Yes I do, particularly test.”

Tuk-tuk driver: “Yes, I also. I like test and other test...”

Matt: “Other test?”

Tuk-tuk driver: “The Pussy Test! Pussy Test is best test man!”

There is one sight on every tourist's Delhi itinerary and that is the Red Fort at the end of Chandni Chowk. I took the Metro there but then got lost and so had to finish off my journey by cyclo. I queued up with the other tourists and then went inside, eager to check out another of the settings of 'Jodhaa Akbar'. Ultimately though, this one disappointed. Still suffering from the fort fatigue that I'd contracted in Agra and exacerbated at Jaipur was one factor but even without it I don't think that the Red Fort matches up to the others.

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At the entrance to the Red Fort

Once upon a time though, it would have done. From its scale and layout, I was sure that centuries ago it would have eclipsed even Agra Fort, but today, sadly not. And the reason behind that was a bitter pill for me to swallow: the British.

By the 19th century the prestige of the fort was a shadow of its former self but the complex was still completely in tact and the puppet emperor held his court there. However, when the population rose in 1857 in what I have always called the Indian Mutiny but what the Indian government these days refers to as the First War of Independence, then he had to choose sides and the Red Fort became the rebel stronghold.

But he could not hold out for long against the mightiest military machine on earth and after bombarding it and destroying many of the fine Mughal buildings, the British moved in and replaced what they had blown up with some of their own edifices or, as Dalrymple puts it, “In the place of the marble fantasies they tore down, the British erected some of the most crushingly ugly buildings ever thrown up by the British Empire – a set of barracks that look as if they have been modelled on Wormwood Scrubs.”[2] Strangely – yet fittingly – it rather reminded me of the Old Fort in Corfu Town, a 16th century Venetian citadel that the British also defaced in the 19th century with barracks.

Morosely, the most interesting part of the entire tour for me was in one of those barracks, the exhibition on the Mutiny which tells the story from a perspective that I was unused to, although the overall highlight for me was taking photos with some Afghani kids by one of the Mughal pavilions.

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Afghani kids in the Red Fort


[1] City of Djinns, p.156-7
[2] City of Djinns, p.222





















Saturday, 6 December 2014

Incredible India: Part 14: Delhi–The Lotus and ISKON Temples

world-map delhiGreetings!

I'm still in Delhi this week, checking out two unusual temples that were, if I am to be be truly honest, not really to my liking. Still, each to their own and the Lotus Temple in particular has many admirers.

In real time I am also putting the final chapters together of the account of my trip around Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh and Georgia with Paul. As always, it shall be featured here first.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai


Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra – Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

Part 10: Ajmer

Part 11: Pushkar I

Intermission: Hinduism

Part 12: Pushkar II

Part 13: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

Part 14: Delhi – The Lotus and ISKON Temples

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

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map_of_delhi

In Delhi's south-eastern suburbs is another architectural talking point which, unfortunately, Dalrymple never bothers to comment upon. Built in 1986, the Lotus Temple is one of only a few houses of worship around the globe dedicated to the Baha'i religion and it is so called because it was designed to look like an enormous lotus flower. It is a distinctive-looking place and since I knew very little about the Baha'i faith, I was determined to check it out.

I'd had two other brushes with the Baha'i prior to my visit to Delhi. The first was in Haifa in Israel, a port city dominated by the Shrine of the Bab, the tomb of of the Bab, the founder of the Baha'i faith and one of the holiest sites on earth for the Baha'i. I recall visiting and finding its cascading Italianate gardens pretty, but annoyingly at the time I was not remotely interested in discovering anything about the religion itself.[1] And my second encounter was during my time as a journalist for the Burslem Local Edition in which I had a column on faith groups in the area. I contacted the local Baha'i representative for an interview and although the chap would not grant one, we did talk informally at great length on the phone and the religion that he described sounded extremely liberal and non-judgemental or, as he put it, “like a group of Muslim Quakers”.

So, what were my impressions after this third encounter? Well, the temple grounds were exquisitely maintained and the Lotus Temple did look pretty stunning from the outside, a sort of symmetrical Sydney Opera House, and there were some exceptionally pretty young ladies who marshalled the visitors and gave a brief overview of their faith, but I have to admit that, once inside, I was sorely disappointed.

Of course, I should have expected it from the description “Muslim Quakers”. Quaker theology is pacifist, it is liberal, it is non-judgemental and it emphasises silence and personal devotion. All of which I laud, but the problem is that such a philosophy doesn't make for great religious buildings; our local Quaker Meeting House is a room with a circle of chairs in it. It is bare and functional. In fact, before it was a Quaker Meeting House it was the headquarters of a local lads' and dads' football club.

And so it was with the Lotus Temple, (without the lads and dads aspect of course). Inside it was a vast hall with nothing in it save for chairs and a table with flowers on it. Silent, simple and conducive to meditation perhaps, but at the same time, boring. Quakerism was the product of an iconoclastic Protestant revolution this place drew on similar influences in Iran. It was like on of those naff modern cathedrals thrown up in concrete and glass since the war, and like with Liverpool, Coventry and Clifton, I was distinctly underwhelmed.

And I was even more underwhelmed when I attempted to learn something about the Baha'i faith for there were no exhibitions that told me anything beyond a broad universalist message and no one to ask. In the end all that I could do was purchase a little book entitled 'The Baha'i World Faith: An Introduction' and hope that that could answer my questions. And so it was that I wandered off thinking that the Baha'is get good marks for substance but a very definite “must try harder” for style.
Much like the Quakers I suppose.

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The Lotus Temple




Next door to the Lotus Temple is the Hare Krishna ISKON Temple Complex and if the Baha'is are a lesson in minimalist simplicity, then this lot are a departure off in completely the opposite direction: a riot of sculpture of the cheapest kind, signs telling you where to go in English and adverts for a sound and light spectacular of the Bhagavad Gita, this was Krishna meeting Mickey Mouse, a Disneyesque parody of a traditional Hindu temple.

I've never known quite what to make of the Hare Krishnas as ISKON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) are commonly referred to. Founded in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, they are the most visual of the Hindu groups that headed west on the tides of hippy counter-culturism and gained many notable converts such as George Harrison of Beatles fame whose famous track 'My Sweet Lord' was a hymn to his ISKON beliefs.[2] Like with so many of the New Religious Movements that popped up at that time, it has always struck me as a tad cult-like with its own translations and commentaries on the Gita which its devotees learn off by heart as well as its strict vegetarianism and chastity. But then again, I've never heard any horror stories such as seem to surround groups like the Scientologists or even the more mainstream Jehovah's Witnesses, and all the (non-ISKON) Hindus that I've spoken to have no issues with the sect. Walking around that temple complex in Delhi though, I felt uneasy with the brash plastic Hinduism that it seemed to present alongside rampant commercialism, (the fees to enter the sound and light spectacular were the equivalent of a week's wages to a poor India). However, on the other hand I saw vans and minibuses that took out free food to the slums so some of the money at least was being used for good purposes. In the end I surmised that perhaps my unease was the same as I feel at certain evangelical churches with their cheery slogans and atmosphere more akin to a rock concert than a Gothic cathedral: it ain't evil but at the same time, it ain't me.

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The ISKON Temple



[1] To be fair, I was 19 and in Haifa waiting to sail off to Greece to enjoy a summer of sun and sport on the island of Corfu so it perhaps wasn't surprising that spiritual experiences were not top of my priority list...
[2] And was also a favourite of my grandmother's who mistakenly thought that he was singing about Jesus.














Friday, 28 November 2014

Incredible India: Part 13: Delhi–New Delhi & the National Museum

world-map delhiGreetings!

This week’s offering is the first of those dealing with my explorations of the Indian capital. I was first tempted to travel there after reading William Dalrymple’s excellent ‘City of Djinns’ and although over a decade passed between closing its pages and getting on the plane, the inspiration still stands. So, head down to your local bookshop this weekend and see what they have on offer. You never know, it might inspire something great…?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey
Links to other parts of the the travelogue:


Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra – Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

Part 10: Ajmer

Part 11: Pushkar I

Intermission: Hinduism

Part 12: Pushkar II

Part 13: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

Part 14: Delhi – The Lotus and ISKON Temples

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

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Delhi (III)

And so I was back in the capital, the final stop on my (first?) Indian odyssey, the city that I'd read about in 'City of Djinns', which had made me think that this might just be a country worth coming to.

I arrived early in the morning, the sun still rising, and booked into a hostel, (Travellers Guest House at 600 rupees per night), near to New Delhi Railway Station, and then embarked on my quest to get to know India's many-layered capital. And I started that mission by taking the Metro, (which was to become my best friend over the days that followed), to the layer of Delhian delights that was most familiar to my palette, the British layer: Sir Edwin Lutyens' New Delhi.

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New Delhi

New Delhi was the British Raj's magnificent new capital for its Indian Empire, the greatest planned city on earth, built to surpass even Washington, (which I suppose, it was largely inspired by). Whether it succeeded or not I cannot say, never having been to the USA, but most commentators judge that it does. Certainly its long, straight boulevards, majestic imperial buildings and bulky and triumphant India Gate – New Delhi's own Arc de Triomphe – are impressive. It is also an antidote to the chaotic clutter of Chandni Chowk but a mile or so away, with its open spaces and ordered lines, but that antidote is, at the same time, perhaps a little too strong. The scale here is inhuman and incomprehensible and to explain what I mean (and why) permit me to let William Dalrymple speak:

“However many times I revisited the complex, I would always be amazed by the brilliantly orchestrated flirtation of light and shade – the dim colonnades offset by massive walls of sun-blasted masonry. Yet the most startling conceit of all lay in the use of colour: the play of the two different shades of pink Agra sandstone; one pale and creamy; the other a much darker burnt crimson. The two different colours were carefully arranged, the darker at the bottom as if it were somehow heavier, yet with the two contrasting tones blending as effortlessly into one another as they once did in the quarry.

It was superb. In the dusk, as the sun sank behind the great dome of the Viceroy's House, the whole vista would turn the colour of attar of roses. I would realize then, without hesitation, that I was looking at one of the greatest marriages of architecture and urban planning ever to have left the drawing board.

Nevertheless, the more often I came, the more I felt a nagging reservation. This had less to do with aesthetics than with comparisons with other massive schemes of roughly similar date that the complex brought to mind. Then one evening, as I proceeded up the cutting and emerged to find Baker's Secretariats terminating in the wide portico of the Viceroy's House, with this great imperial mass of masonry towering all around me I suddenly realized where I had seen something similar, something equally vast, equally dwarfing, before: Nuremberg.

In its monstrous, almost megalomaniac scale, in its perfect symmetry and arrogant presumption, there was a distant but distinct echo of something Fascist or even Nazi about the great acropolis of Imperial Delhi. Certainly it is far more beautiful than anything Hitler and Mussolini raised: Lutyens, after all, was a far, far greater architect than Albert Speer. Yet the comparison still seemed reasonable. For, despite their very many, very great differences, Imperial India, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany all belonged to comparable worlds. All were to different extents authoritarian; all made much of magnificent display; all were built on a myth of racial superiority and buttressed in the last resort by force. In the ceremonial buildings of all three, it was an impression of the might and power of the Imperial State that the architects aimed above all to convey.”[1]

Yes, Dalrymple was right, for I too had seen this before; in Nowa Huta in Poland, in Milan's railway station, in Ceauşescu's Bucharest and in Mao's Tienanmen Square. Whilst always had a soft spot for a dollop of totalitarian bombast, any architecture, no matter what the political shade of its creators, that is not built on a human scale, ultimately always fails to completely succeed.

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Tuk-tuk in New Delhi

In the heart of Lutyens' capital can be found the National Museum where I headed to try and gain some sort of big picture to all the wonders that I had viewed over the previous fortnight. A couple of hours and several hundred statues later, I managed to start just that, separate one layer of Indian civilisation from the next. I was beginning – though only just – to get a handle on this bewildering Pandora's box of wonders. Any culture is influenced by its forebears and neighbours and it is in those relationships that we begin to understand. Once aspect that particularly fascinated me was when Alexander the Great's incursions were discussed. Although very few concrete traces of his stay were left behind, the statues of Buddha at the time began to be dressed as a Greek noble and so it has continued to this today. It was remarkable but, despite having gazed upon images of the Buddha thousands of times during my years in the Far East, I never once realised – despite the fact that the evidence is there staring you in the face – where his costume came from.



[1] City of Djinns, p.81-2





























Sunday, 23 November 2014

Incredible India: Part 12–Pushkar II

world-map delhiGreetings!
Sorry that this week’s offering is a little late. No excuse really, except that I’ve been busy booking up future travels including next April’s epic trip to North Korea and my first time on Eurostar for a few days in Paris in February. So excited!
Keep travelling!
Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey
Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai


Intermission: Hinduism

Part 12: Pushkar II

Part 13: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

Part 14: Delhi – The Lotus and ISKON Temples

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

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pushkar map

Pushkar (II)

The next day I explored Pushkar, mixing the “real” India with the faux. For example, I breakfasted on falafels, unknown elsewhere on the Sub-Continent yet the meal of choice here, probably because every second tourist seemed to be an Israeli[1] before getting lost in the alleyways where not a backpacker was to be seen and the local women wore gorgeous, colourful Rajasthani dress. I contemplated visiting a shrine perched atop a nearby mountain, (a thirty minute walk my guidebook said), but decided against it; this was a town to take it easy in and so instead I decided to circumnavigate the pool, stopping off anywhere en route that interested me.

Going down to the pool at the Queen Mary or Gandhi Ghat[2] I was accosted by a Brahmin priest who conducted a ritual on me which involved marking my forehead with coloured powder and tying a sacred thread around my wrist. To be honest, it was more a money-making ploy than a genuine spiritual experience since he demanded an exorbitant fee afterwards which I tried to haggle him down from, but the threads stayed around my wrist for many months afterwards until they finally disintegrated, a reminder of my trip to that sacred pool and the eternal presence of the Divine.

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The pool from the Gandhi Ghat

I visited the Brahmā Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god of creation. As another indicator as to how confusing Hinduism can be to the outsider, I thought that this was dedicated to Brahma, the Hindu One God of thousands of faces of whom all the other deities are but aspects of, but no, I later learnt that this was Brahmā not Brahma and the two are different entirely, Brahmā being one of the Hindu Holy Trinity (and thus an aspect of Brahma). Nonetheless, this Brahmā temple was rare, one of but a handful in all India.

This is all due to the legend of Pushkar's founding. Apparently Brahmā was in search of a place for Mahayagna (a kind of ritual) and found Pushkar suitable except that, after a while, a demon named Vajranash started killing people there so Brahmā intoned a mantra on a lotus flower, thus killing the demon but in the process one of the leaves fell to the earth creating the sacred pool. Once the demon had been dealt with, Brahmā decided to perform a yagna to help protect Pushkar from future demonic incursions, but to do so he needed the help of his wife. Alas, Saraswati his consort was nowhere to be found so instead Brahmā married Gayatri, a local Gurjar girl, who then performed the yagna. This act though, made Saraswati furious and she cursed her husband saying that he would be worshipped in Pushkar alone. To this day, the priests at the temple are all Gurjars.

I wandered on round the pool, stopping to listen to chanting in one temple before pausing for a shisha pipe and mint tea at the Sai Baba Garden run by a guy called Shiva Sankar. He told me about his life and invited me to a particularly auspicious Shiva temple in his village of Kharekhari nearby. I would have loved to have gone and partaken in his hospitality but, alas, my schedule was tight and my train to Delhi left Ajmer that night so I had to turn him down.

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Shiva Sankar

After finishing my pipe I moved on, now on the side of the pool with few temples and even fewer tourists. By the side of the road, fenced off and with a sign declaring it to be an historical reserve, were the ruins of an ancient temple. Anywhere else, these would have been the prime attraction yet here they were all but forgotten.

I wandered over the dam and back into the town, listening to a little of the test match commentary that a hawker had blaring from his radio before returning to my hotel to relax awhile out of the midday sun.

Once rested I climbed up to the roof of my hotel which commanded stunning views over all Pushkar and there I made a video. Of course, I'd been making videos throughout the entire trip – the first time I'd attempted to record my travels in such a way – but those had all concerned individual aspects of the journey, but this was more of an overview for quiet and sacred Pushkar was the ideal place to sit back and try to get a handle on all that I'd seen and experienced. I talked about the conflicting emotions that I'd had on my trip – my initial negative impressions, the sacredness of the Golden Temple, sightseeing fatigue in Agra and Jaipur, disappointment in Ajmer and the unexpected gem of Pushkar where, I was beginning to realise I was starting to fall in love with India. I knew that I could have stayed in that little town for weeks if I'd had the time – many people do – and it was with a tinge of sadness that I knew I would be leaving that night.





I went down to the Varan Ghat once more for sunset which was indescribably beautiful again and this time I fell in with Vini from the Krishna School of Music who was teaching a rather spiritually-inclined Portuguese girl some Rajasthani folk singing. I joined in and after the sun had dropped behind the hills we retired to his school, (a room about half the size of my bedroom), where we shared each other's musical traditions in a folk-off; 'Bread and Fishes' and 'Ned of the Hill' interspersed with Qawali and Rajasthani melodies.[3]




Bidding Vini adieu, I decided to kill some time and catch-up with reality in an internet café, not entirely successful though since there was a power cut soon after I arrived. What was more fascinating though was the proprietor who was writing out the word “Rama” hundreds of times as a spiritual exercise.[4] Then I gave my short sojourn in Pushkar the perfect ending by walking down the main street to the 'Rainbow Rooftop Café' for a drink and encountering a rather boisterous and beautiful traditional Rajasthani wedding procession on the way with the groom on a horse and retainers carrying large electric chandeliers. Once again, the word that came to mind was “incredible”.

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Pushkar




Next part: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

[1] And I'm not sure why. One reason is that most were youngsters who'd finished the obligatory National Service and were taking some time out before entering real life, but even so you would have thought that they of all people would have had enough of religion in their own country without needing to seek it out elsewhere. However, the easy availability of weed may have been another decisive factor...
[2] So named because Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, bathed there in 1911 and after his death Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were scattered there.
[3] I sing folk music in a local pub most Monday nights and those tunes are two of my staples.
[4] I once attended a Pakistani Sufi session where they did a similar thing with the word “Allah”.















Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Friday, 14 November 2014

Incredible India: Intermission: Hinduism

world-map delhi
Greetings!

This week’s post is a little different, being the second of the two intermissions in ‘Incredible India’ dealing with the country’s religions. And today we tackle the most perplexing, the glorious technicolour drama of Hinduism. I’ve put my own take on it as my personal attempt to understand things. I hope that it works for you but if not, there’s only one thing for it: take a trip to India to see for yourself!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey
Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra - Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur - Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

Part 10: Ajmer

Part 11: Pushkar I

Intermission: Hinduism

Part 12: Pushkar II

Part 13: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

Part 14: Delhi – The Lotus and ISKON Temples

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

Intermission: Hinduism
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Ever find the Hindu faith difficult to get your head around?

Me too.

Of all the world's major faiths in fact, this is the one that I really struggle to comprehend. However, after reading a variety of books – most notably Kim Knott's 'A Very Short Introduction to Hinduism', attending lectures and spending over two weeks wandering around India, here's my take on trying to comprehend it as a faith.[1]

Ok, now I'm going to ask you to imagine an alternative history for a while. The scenario that I'm going to cook up is one that probably never could have happened as it ignores some pretty major historical realities[2] but bear me out, it's the best analogy that I can think of.

Now around two thousand years ago, in the city of Tarsus, which lies in present-day Turkey, there was born a man. He was a Jew yet also a Roman citizen and his name was Saul. After years of persecuting the new Christian cult, he had a transformational experience and became a Christian himself. He felt that his mission from God was to make the faith of Jesus the Christ accessible and acceptable to all the world, Gentile as well as Jew. In doing so he transformed Christianity from just another Jewish sect into a whole separate religion.

Now imagine that that man had never been born. Christianity existed, but only as an expression of the Jewish faith, a form closed to the Gentiles. Thus Pagan Europe remained Pagan.

In Britain the faith had several key features. One of these was the priestly caste of Druids who performed the holy rituals to appease the many gods. They learnt the rites orally, father to son, sometimes even mother to daughter. They were a clean and superior caste who took care of the Divine whilst everyone else saw to more worldly matters.

But the faith was not limited to these Druids. Everyone took part in different ways depending on who or where they were. In the areas untouched by the Romans, different gods were venerated to those more cosmopolitan regions where foreign influences caused the growth in worship of the Roman Pantheon or other charismatic deities such as Mithras.

There was a big sea change though when the Romans left and waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes came over to settle. They brought with them their own Germanic deities and also a belief in race. Whilst the old Druids were still respected, the rest of the original Celtic inhabitants of the islands began to be looked down on. Their lives were worth less under the law for they were inferior. After all, had not the gods themselves proved this beyond all doubt by granting victory to the newcomers?

And so things continued. Although in Ireland Brigit was worshipped and in East Anglia Frige, and their images in the simple temples that were starting to be built, (after the Roman fashion), different, there was also a vague understanding that they were the same, different manifestations somehow of a divine, benevolent female presence, the wife of and counterbalance to the more aggressive male deity, Thunor or Woden or Seaxneat.

This faith evolved too. Brigit/Frige appeared one day to a young noblewoman in East Anglia named Richeldis as a finely-dressed princess and commanded her to build to her honour a shrine. This Richeldis duly did, then miracles began to take place there and thousands across the country and beyond streamed to that place to pay homage to the goddess.

This worship of deities in their shrines emphasised one aspect of the faith. Whilst the ancient Druidic caste still maintained that the gods could only be appeased through rite and ritual (which they controlled), there evolved other, newer and more innovative thinkers who begged to differ or perhaps to clarify matters further.

190394_10152602216550305_1088809421_nBrahmin ritual being performed at Jaipur

One group maintained that the rites were of paramount importance because in essence the Self and the Divine are one and through the performance of ritual then that Godself can be realised and Heaven obtained.

However, another group of thinkers argued that the Self and the gods are separate and instead one reaches Heaven by worshipping the gods. This approach was popular amongst the non-Druids, especially the poor, as it gave them more of a say in their own destiny. It was they who filled the shrine to Frige at Walsingham and those of holy teachers such as the hermit Bertellin in Staffordshire who spoke with the animals and birds in the wild Peak District, Holy Dewi in Wales who caused an island to split from the land and later Mother Julian in Norwich, a spiritual teacher who had visions of Heaven and the future during a time of plague and suffering, and the countless temples dedicated to the ancient King Arthur who sleeps ready to be returned to life through prayer in an hour of need.

The Druids on the other hand, maintained the holiest shrine of them all, the one on the top of the Tor at Glastonbury, the Entrance to the Underworld where they performed their age-old mystery rituals and on which no unclean persons were allowed to tread.

Around all of these were attracted a whole host of other elements. Wandering madmen with straggling beards, cranks who pertained to perform magic spells and foretell the future, players who enacted the stories of Sir Lancelot and Robin Hood, reciters who had learnt the holy texts by rote, some mad, some holy, all colourful.

And so things continued until the cataclysmic events of five hundred years ago when a new religion arrived on the scene.

Islam was everything that the old faith – which was so diverse and eclectic that it didn't even have a name – was not. It had rules, one set holy text, an insistence on one God only and a view that all are equal before that deity. Although the Muslims never conquered Britain – Vienna was the nearest that they got – their influence was felt. In the major ports and cities mosques were built and the proselytising began. With time many began to accept and convert to this new faith, largely those who had been seen as inferior by the old. And the Druids and holy men would not have minded it too much – after all, what problem is there in accommodating one more god, this exotic Allah? - except that the Muslims would not accommodate them in return! Indeed, they went further; they declared the old ways to be wrong, evil in fact! They told people to smash their idols, destroy the sacred images and demolish the tombs of holy men and women!

It was a great challenge but one that the old ways weathered. Yes, many converted, but most did not. More than the conversions though, it caused the Old Faith to re-examine itself. It even got a name – Paganism – even though the Paganism of Wales was almost a completely different religion externally to the Paganisms of East Anglia and Yorkshire.

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The Trimurti: Hinduism's Holy Trinity

Scholars and holy men came up with new ways of understanding their faith. The main Muslim charge was that the Pagans worshipped many gods which was wrong, God was One. Certainly it seemed that way with all their thousands if not millions of deities, from Woden and Brigit right down to the local oak tree or mountain, it seemed like the Pagans were very much polytheists, but in fact some scholars argued, they were not at all. Woden, Brigit, Mother Julian, King Arthur, the oak tree and the mountain, all were in fact mere manifestations of a single divine entity, one nameless, omnipresent God with a million faces, one and the same as the Muslim Allah in fact. For want of a better word, now they started to refer to Him/Her simply as 'God'.

Others worked hard to develop a canon of scriptures, although it has been hard, devotees of one deity preferring one text and those venerating another god, a different one. All however, agree on the importance of the great epics – King Arthur, Robin Hood, Beowulf. Last year the BBC made a fifty-part television epic of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Most of the country was glued to their TV screens, there have never been higher ratings for a show and whilst it was airing, offerings at Arthurian temples and pilgrimages to Avalon rose dramatically.

And so we have the alternative Britain of today, 80% Pagan, 10% Muslim and the rest a variety of other faiths or none, people offering to the gods of their choice at home in their domestic altars and going on pilgrimages to Glastonbury, Walsingham or other blessed spots where they hope that they can find favour with the Divine. In fact, in recent years they've even started to export this Paganism to Africa, Asia and America, indeed wherever the British have settled. The brand-new Pagan temple in Delhi is in fact seen as one of the wonders of the city by the locals.

And that is how I understand Hinduism except that you substitute India for Britain, the Indian names for those of Woden, Frige et al, and understand that the role played by Islam in my alternative historical analogy is that which has been played by both Islam and Christianity in the Hindu story.

And as well as getting a better grasp on Hinduism, maybe you also understand now why St. Paul is seen as such an important guy in the history of the world?

See you on Glastonbury Tor next Samhain.


[1] And I must stress, this is my personal take. What follows will make more sense if you're British as the analogies used are all ones that are rooted in British culture. However, hopefully there will be something of use to everyone in here too.
[2] The main one being the impact of a globalised proselytising Christianity on the form that early Islam took.