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:

map_india_northwest 8


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.

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.

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

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