Thursday, September 13, 2012

Into the Buddhist Vale: Mc. Leod Ganj

There is no doubt that most of the hill stations in India; especially the ones in Himachal Pradesh bear heavy influence of the Tibiten Culture, and Buddhism. However I believe it’s fair to call Mc. Leod Ganj the best place to experience a different culture far away from what we have experienced or heard of general India (After all it’s also the capital of Buddhist under exile and home to the Dalai Lama). People know it for its Monestry and a good summer get away; however there is more and perhaps the best place to run to if frustrated of the routined city life. Movies and novels often show people running away to Tibet, or Nepal in search of inner peace. A cheaper option for cheap Indians is Mc.Leod Ganj also known as upper Dharmashala.

My visit was rather an un-predictable one; where I was expecting Mc. Leod Ganj to be like any other hill-station; though it was after having the lamb Thukpa and Tingmos (rolled breads) that I realized there is a lot more to the place. The place is inhabited mostly by Tibetans and western folks; who come down here to learn the ways of Buddhism, or understand their philosophy. Often you see them interviewing a Buddhist monk in a Cafe. ‘Free Tibet’ flags and ‘rescuing the next Dalai Lama from Chinese custody’ posters are a common sight on the streets. Perhaps one of the most spiritual experiences that I have had is that of the Monastery where devotees have their way of kneeling down, and pushing themselves forward at the altars (Just like any other Buddhist Monastery). However, something that you probably don’t observe at other monasteries in India is Monks having their debates on Buddha’s principles. I found it amusing for some reason; two monks challenging each other with intimidating gestures surrounded by a circle of onlookers. 

There are several treks one can take up from Mc. Leod Ganj; the most famous perhaps being that of the Triund peak, which offers the scenic beauty of Himachal Pradesh on one side of the range and Ice caped rock mountains on the other. Camping there is indeed an awesome experience, by a bonfire and overlooking the lights of various hill-stations in Himachal Pradesh. The trek; however does go on into the mountains to the Indrahar Pass. However due to time constraints one might leave behind the expedition, and wish that some other day he could fulfil his fantasy of taking the expedition and crossing over to Tibet on the other side.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Through the ruins and wilderness: Mehrauli Archaeological Park

It’s had been two years; since I had planned a proper heritage walk for myself. The Mehrauli and Qutub area, was on my list last when I had this idea of filming a documentary. Hence I decided resume my journey from where I left; at the ramparts of Lal Kot (The first city of Delhi) south-east to Qutub Minar Complex. I really thought they go on further; and tried following the walls into the wilderness when finally I stopped after passing through a lot of spider webs and thorns and bushes. Later I realized that the full extent of the ramparts didn’t lie where I was looking; but to the north into a forested area known as the Sanjay Van.
Metcalf's Boathouse
I didn’t realize it until then that there is a back entrance from Qutub Side to Mehrauli archaeological park as well (Most people know it as the Jamali Kamali; though Jamali Kamali is just a small part of the region). So I thought maybe I’ll explore the region which is known for encompassing the entire medieval history of Delhi. So from the Qutub side one comes across the Quli Khan tomb; and found it rather bizarre that the tomb was used as a weekend suite by a British official ‘Metcalf’. Some rumours hold that he desecrated the sarcophagus and placed his dining table or billiards table (Pretty upsetting for the soul of the Mughal Noble, who served Emperor Akbar). Further east as one goes downhill we witness yet another medieval building which was converted to a boat house by Metcalf. One would now think twice before boating in the swamp amidst the overgrown wilderness; it now plays host to spiders, insects, dogs and birds (However once the rains are done; I am sure the depression would be left pretty dry). Perhaps the best thing he did was covert a major chunk of the area to a garden, with canopies where one could lay back and enjoy the view.
pavilion tomb of Jamali Kamali
Jamali (L) and Kamali (R)
The famous Jamali Kamali Mosque; is now a protected monument and hence is no longer operational as a regular mosque (After all, encroaching mosques and temples is a pretty common activity in India). There is a courtyard next to the mosque which hosts several unknown graves sharing the site of burial with the Maulana Jamali (during the reign of Humayun in the sixteenth century). The sarcophagus of Jamali lies in a chamber (pavilion); along with another of a man of whom no one has any knowledge. To make the tomb sound rhythmic they named him Kamali. Probably one could cook up a pretty controversial story between Jamali and his unknown companion. Further east lie the ruins which were perhaps once excavated in 1993; and now are a home to pigs, dogs, and sometimes goats which are brought in by the villagers for grazing. Though, one could consider pigs sniffing graves of Jamali’s disciples pretty blasphemous.
                At a depression from the ruins lie the main entrance of the Archaeological Park and the Tomb of Sultan Balban (of the 13th century), and if observed pretty closely he did spend quite amount of fortune in building it (However the sarcophagus present there is not his; it’s of his son). Though currently in ruins; the walls at some points reveal small patches of blue tiles and plaster which has engravings. Apparently his reign was the first one in India to master the art of building true arches.
Rajon ki Baoli
                Walking further away from the entrance in search of ‘Rajon ki Baoli’ or ‘Masons’ step well’ one comes across a long chain of debris, tombs and structures which all lie in ruins. I guess more than the eagerness to find the destinations; it’s the feeling of time travel to the medieval age that appeals to one. Even though in the busiest areas in Delhi; one feels falling back in past as he/she observes wilderness climbing around abandoned and ruinous structures which covers about seven hundred years of history. Finally ending my journey at Rajon ki Baoli; a step well of four levels I felt I could just sit here forever in the serene environment and perhaps have a few of my friends over for an acoustic JAM (Well; even in the past, step wells used to be pretty cool venue for social gatherings, I believe it hasn’t lost its touch).

Qutub Minar peaking behind the traffic
It was nearly sunset and my legs finally gave up after walking continuously for about four hours. Reclining back against the stairs of the Reebok Showroom across the Anuvrat Marg Road, the Qutub Minar was perhaps the only archaic structure standing high above the new urban city of New Delhi.

Over the Hills; with KLoD.B

There are two ways of making one’s trip; either as a lone ranger and rediscovering places on your own or find a group of like minded people and make your experience a really constructive one, by sharing knowledge, perspectives and ideologies about the destinations. Coming across a fifteen years old circle ‘KLoD.B: Knowing Loving Delhi Better’, made my walk in Jawahar Lal Nehru University a more insightful one. For me everything is rediscovery since I have been back to Delhi after a long-long period of time; and it’s now that I explore traces of left over Aravali Hills in Delhi. JNU is about a thousand acres campus known for its academia, food and politics. In fact; food and its natural landscape of unblemished Aravalis and greenery is one of the main reasons why it’s on the list of many young Delhites to hang-out. There is another reason as well; but well let’s not highlight that in my blog (Let’s say ‘Sandwich’).
One finds JNU within the cliffs that lie between IIT Delhi and Vasant Vihar. In fact it’s believed that IIT Delhi was established in the Valley of the Aravalies and JNU over the Aravalies. Here you find the highest natural point in Delhi; the Partha Sarthy Rocks and it’s a completely different world from the peak. Amidst the busy, urban and polluted South Delhi, you find yourself over a range surrounded by wilderness on all sides (Thanks to the current season, we often crept through the shrubs and thorns). I found the campus as a pretty good spot for weekend rock climbing and trekking. The Dhaabas; and their food are known to most Delhites for their delicacy and the economic price (I mean really economic). You find them everywhere, whether it be behind the central library on the rocks overlooking the green campus, or the famous Ganga Dhaaba in the valley right opposite to the Ganga hostel. And then, there is one which is operated by an ex-student of JNU because he just didn’t wish to leave the campus; known as ‘Mamu ka Dhaaba’. When one can’t find food anywhere in Delhi late in the night; 24/7 is perhaps the only Dhaaba which serves you delicious food no matter what time it is.
I personally didn’t interact with a student there; however the culture is quite apparent from the ambiance of the place and the magnificent and evocative posters that you find everywhere in the campus. Among common students; it’s here that I first witnessed art inspired by true reason and political and social views. Some of them, I found just loud enough judging by the use of colours and strokes. Other members of the group who had seen enough of JNU then enlightened me that one observes politics whether it be left, right wing, or capitalist in its full swing amongst the students in JNU and indeed some of them later do get a seat in the parliament. And yes; every now then you observe students distributing pamphlets for some seminar, or event.
I almost expected to find the twenty years old history of JNU, from a personal diary of 1993 which was pushed between couple of rocks; but unfortunately only the dirty hardbound cover was left behind with no pages in it. Apparently someone did want us to read; but the rains which might have dissolved the papers over years didn’t. There is yet more to explore, the caves and the haunted house that I was told of further south to the Partha Sarthy Rocks; but I have left them to another visit. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tracing Ancient India - Camouflaged rock edict in Delhi

Most of us know the legend of indraprastha or how it is associated with the old fort. It is said that the city of the pandava lay here; as its ancient name and archaeological excavations prove thus. However my journey lies south near Kailash colony and Kalka ji temple. There is a hypothesis that the temple is ancient and sacrifices were predominant here. Also Delhi lay on the ancient highway to the northwest. So what better place could emperor Ashoka find to inscribe his notion of peace on the rocky ranges behind the temple. I arrived there one day to have a look at the minor rock edict myself. Thanks to the insistence of the Buddhist communities, the edict is now a protected heritage site. It's tough to identify the locality as a part of the Aravalies though; the urbanization has lead to eclipsed natural landscape. So there is just one part of the range that remains here and at its peak is the sheltered ashokan edict.

Just like most of the sites in Delhi the enclosure is locked and I had to persuade the guard to unlock the railings for me. India shares another interesting aspect; where guides are missing local security guards of the heritage site take up the task of enlightening you about the site. Sometimes you don't doubt there knowledge for they have been here for such a long time assisting tourists and often have a good story to tell. According to him the place is usually visited by Bhuddhist groups from Japan, Nepal, Korea; Thailand in the summers and they light incense sticks or candles and kneel down to the edict. They recite their hymns and tie Buddhist flags to the railings (which were still there). What amused me was his description that 'they worship Ashoka next to Lord Buddha as we worship dau Balram next to Lord Krishna'. He had quite some knowledge of the inscriptions and told me of the Dharma Chakra which even though not clearly visible, could be traced by the fingers and how to take the photograph of the inscription such that they are visible in a camera.

The edict resides in an urban colony however from the peak of the ridge one can identify the pinnacle of the famous ISKON temple to the west and a few other temples here and there. And indeed my next interest there lies the massive ISKON temple and Buddha Vihar inaugurated by Shiela Dixit.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Rediscovering Shahjahanabad I – From the Kashmiri Gate

Often things turn out to be different from our expectations which we develop through books. I underwent a similar experience; during my walk to Kashmiri Gate and the remains of Shahjahanabad and British colonization. I wondered how history is so densely camouflaged here, and how is it that the ramparts of Shahjahanabad were hard for me to trace. Most of the British buildings are now continued in use; such as the old British Deputy Commissioner’s House (A white mansion with a central dome), which is currently being used as an office for Northern Railways.
As we walk down to the double arched Kashmiri gate which bore its importance as northern gateway to Sahjahan’s Delhi; we find its remaining ramparts which were breached by the British to seize control of Delhi in 1857. Eight thousand British soldiers fought against thirty thousand mutineers at these gates. If we look in closely at the fragments of past still present there; the story does feel alive even in the crammed old city. The history there brings in a fresh perspective; that of the British. Nicholson and Lothian cemeteries host uncountable graves of British soldiers who faced the blow of 1857. As an Indian we were told that the mutiny was subdued by the British tyrants; but today I realize that they died too and they too were soldiers fighting for their empire even if its purpose was ambition. The former cemetery is named after brigadier general John Nicholson; the man who led the assault on Shahjahanabad, and died in the process of annexing Delhi from the mutineers. Demolished British Magazine provide us an insight into how the British avoided their resources being annexed by the Mutineers, when they were taking over Delhi; and the obelisk, the telegraph memorial holds testimony to the officers and engineers who just managed to call for British reinforcements from the north.
My enthusiasm towards the British soldiers grew as I came about Colonel Skinner. Col. James Skinner; was the son of a Scottish Officer, Hercules Skinner in East India Company and a Rajput Princess. He wanted to join the British Army; however due to his Indian lineage his plea was rejected. Hence he went on to fight for the Indian forces at the young age of eighteen as a junior officer; and soon grew to fight for the Maratha Chief of Sindhia. After facing defeat in an Anglo-Maratha war; he went over to the side of East India Company and raised his own cavalry regiment which were also known as the skinner boys, or yellow boys (since they uniformed in yellow). At the young age of 22; he vowed to build a church when he was heavily wounded in one of the battles. We know it today as St. James Church; opposite to the Kashmiri Gate and I managed to attend an early Sunday morning prayer session during my walk. The cemetery in the Church complex hosts graves of those in his family. Col. Skinner’s own grave is present at the altar of the Church. (However, I do recall a funny incident: A religious Baba with a ‘serpent’ tried to mug me right outside a Church.)
My walk insisted me to go on till to the red fort. But rains as usual have a way of changing one’s mind.