Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A Ride into Delhi's Past

The architectural relics - and the modern Metro - of India's capital

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 18/05/09

The early sunlight is falling on the salmon-pink sandstone of Qutb Minar, a monumental victory tower that looms some 73 meters into the hot white sky of south Delhi. The dust-coated trees of the surrounding parkland are full of squawking green parakeets.
The tower was built at the end of the 12th century by Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, the first Muslim conqueror of Delhi. It was meant as a mighty symbol of the victory of Central Asian Islam over the plains of North India. It is still a stunning building, but there are traces of at least eight ancient cities within India’s national capital, and according to a legendary prophecy, whoever builds a new Delhi will lose it before long. Within a couple of centuries Qutb-ud-Din’s dynasty had collapsed and his capital and his tower were left to the ghosts, the parakeets and wandering tourists. On this steamy May morning I am setting out to explore 800 years of Delhi’s monument-studded past — by means of its most strikingly modern aspect.

First, though, I hop into a waiting auto-rickshaw — the familiar three-wheeler known in Jakarta as a bajaj — and head north. Delhi generally makes Jakarta look like a bastion of order and modernity. The gridlock is worse, the potholes deeper, the pollution more choking. But all this mayhem is being mitigated by a new development in public transportation — one that leaves Jakarta very much in the shade. And after this rattling rickshaw ride I will turn to this modern miracle to complete my journey.
The auto-rickshaw drops me at India Gate, another triumphal monument at the heart of the most recent of new Delhis — the British-built imperial capital. British colonialists held sway over the Indian subcontinent for two centuries, but they only shifted their administrative center to Delhi from the humid swamps of Calcutta in the early 20th century. New Delhi, a vast mesh of interlocking boulevards, was designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens and inaugurated in 1931. The new capital was meant as a definitive statement of British power over India, but Lutyens and his masters had also either forgotten or paid no heed to the legendary prophecy. Within two decades the sun had set on Britain’s Indian empire. Today, India Gate, an arch of yellow stone originally a memorial to fallen British-Indian soldiers, is the central icon of New Delhi. This morning, as a pale sun creeps up into a blazing sky, it is crowded with Indian sightseers, snapping photos and eating candy floss.

From India Gate I set out west along Rajpath, the grand avenue of New Delhi. Lutyens clearly had the carriages of kings, viceroys and maharajas in mind rather than humble pedestrians when he planned this city. I am glad when I spot a blue sign in the shadow of looming government buildings. “Metro,” it says, and I slip down polished stairs into icy air-con, away from Afghan triumphalism and British colonialism, and into 21st century India. The Delhi Metro is a miracle in a city that so often seems on the brink of structural collapse. The first eight kilometers of the network opened in December 2002 and by November 2006, three lines comprising 65 kilometers were operational. The Metro carries some 800,000 passengers a day and made a profit from day one. I pay my eight rupees (about 14 cents) and all thoughts I have been harboring about Jakarta’s modern superiority fade. As the train slides into the spotless platform and a bilingual voice-over announces its destination, the Trans-Jakarta busway suddenly seems rather underwhelming.

Two stops and four cool minutes later I am in Connaught Place, New Delhi’s commercial hub. Here flaking neo-classical columns shade designer boutiques. It’s still a far cry from Jakarta’s shopping mall glamour, but that counts for nothing as I slip back down into the Metro. Soon Connaught Place will be the heart of a vast metro network. All over the city cranes are at work. In Indonesia they would be building yet another mall; here they are extending the Metro at a cost of $4.25 billion. By the end of next year you will be able to ride from the airport to the city center, and even out to the Qutb Minar.
By 2021, a vast spider’s web of Metro lines will enmesh the capital. If chaotic Delhi can do this, I wonder as an escalator bears me down to the platform, why not Jakarta? Another eight rupees, another two stops, and I have slipped back some 400 years. Emerging from the Chawri Bazaar station I am greeted with a scene of colorful chaos. This is the heart of the medieval city of Old Delhi, a tangle of narrow alleyways and crumbling Islamic architecture. I pick my way through the mass of pedicabs and horse carts, dodging a wandering cow. Overhead, behind a tangle of wires, is a first-floor cityscape of delicate balconies crumbling under centuries of grime. At the end of the street I spot the onion-shaped domes of Jama Masjid, the great mosque of Old Delhi.
The Mughals, Muslims descended from Genghis Khan, ruled much of India for three centuries. The greatest Mughal builder was Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal and constructed the walled city of Old Delhi in the 17th Century. The Jama Masjid was his finest mosque. The floor slabs of the courtyard are searingly hot underfoot. Flocks of pigeons swoop around the triple domes. The mosque is a beautiful blend of white marble and red sandstone. In the shade at the back of the courtyard I chat with three teenagers from Bangalore in southern India, visiting Delhi for the first time. What do they think of the city, I ask. “Breathtaking,” they say.

From the mosque I pick my way through the bazaars to another breathtaking relic — the Red Fort. This was the seat of Mughal power in India, and its rust-colored wall falls like a theater curtain across the old city. Inside it is all dusty gardens and white pavilions. This is some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world, a style of latticework, inlay and blind arches. But many of the Red Fort’s treasures have disappeared. The Mughals too were victims of the prophecy that condemns the builders of new cities. In 1857 the British captured Delhi, sent the last emperor into exile in Burma, leveled many of the fort’s halls and turned it into an army barracks.
The heat outside is intense now, as I make my way along Chandni Chowk, once the fabled Moonlight Bazaar of the Mughal princes. Today it is an anarchy of traffic and cloth merchants. This is Delhi at its most overwhelming, colorful and disordered. After stopping at a stall for a refreshing glass of lassi — a cool yoghurt drink — I lose my way in the old spice market, a warren of chili-scented alleys. Lean men pulling handcarts hurry by and all modernity slips away. I begin to wonder how exactly I will find my way home. And then, emerging on a slightly wider street, I spot that familiar blue sign, of a kind that you will soon find all over Old and New Delhi. Slipping gratefully into Chandni Chowk Metro station I can’t help but wonder if the builders of this newest of Delhis will end up going the same way as British, Mughals, Afghans and all the others. I hope not, as the doors slide shut, the air-con dries the sweat on my brow and the train slides away, back toward the 21st century.

© Tim Hannigan 2009


M. Monique said...

I've never been to India myself, but have heard so many things about the vibrant colors of the country. Your post, even it was only on one tiny part of it, it confirmed the illustration I have had in my head. One of the places to go definitely!

I am an Indonesian, a proud one, someone who will miss her hometown whenever she's away from the country even for 2 days. But have to agree with you. Our problems with traffic, pollution, chaos, etc are nothing compared to this single thing: mentality. And I believe that's the reason why we will not be having any decent and reliable well maintained public mass transportation in the near future. Not until people stop littering irresponsibly (in any ways you can think of!) whenever there are no other eyes watching and certainly not before traffic lights have a meaning, too.

Hartini said...

Old Delhi is very interesting, chaotic and charming at the same time. I have never seen that many people at one time in one place :) The metro was so full even on the weekend.