May 26, 2012

Kalighat Temple, Calcutta


Before I commence this post, some dedications and thanks are due. This article is especially for Yashika Katyal, who has been a constant support in my life, in times good and bad. In fact, this article wouldn't even have been possible in this form without the motivation, admiration and constant criticism she provided me with. Following her specifications, I have tried to experiment with the writing style and include more of my experiences about the place than write exclusively about history and cultural/architectural significance. This is how I'll be trying to write from now on and hence the posts are going to be slightly lengthy when compared to the past ones. Please bear with me about the same. Suggestions and constructive criticism are always appreciated.

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"The ordinary daily practices of the cult (Hinduism) are sufficient to place it beyond the pale of civilization.. A twopenny tram will take you from the centre of Calcutta to the "Kalighat", from which some suppose that the city takes its name, where you may see, in the slimy, swarming precincts of the temple, the ground crimson with the blood of sacrifices, while in a filthy but very sacred backwater of the Hooghly men, women and children not only bathe in their hundreds, but drink the yellow ooze in which their bodies and their garments have been steeped. Hinduism has, indeed, a marvellous gift for extracting bad effects from good intentions, actual ugliness from potential beauty. It is always washing and never clean; some of its practices have probably been hygienic in their origin, yet it is innocent, and often bitterly resentful, of sanitation; it professes a superstitious respect for animal life, but it raises no finger to check the most callous cruelty to animals. It is, in short, the great anachronism of the modern world."
– William Archer, "India and the future" (1917)

Possibly amongst the most revered shrines in the city, visited by millions of tourists and devotees (both Indian and foreigner alike) every year, the ancient Kalighat temple, on account of being one of the most poorly managed and organized temple complexes I have visited in my entire short life, failed to register both a spiritually and mentally soothing effect and a visual and architectural inspiration on my mind and the minds of the friends who accompanied me there. Though certainly I would not contend that the complex is not to my liking – obviously because even being shoved by people and struggling against a tremendous wave of unruly, ritual-crazed humanity rushing and pushing others in order to just witness a stone idol for a fraction of a second is also a unique experience! Even now, when I remember the scene, the entire range of emotional confusion and physical struggle automatically comes rushing back to me. So if undisciplined and angry crowds are your thing, read on! Of course, propelled by the popularly imagined mysteriously magical boon-bestowing capabilities of the complex, friends who are residents of Calcutta are totally in awe of the shrine and are especially intrigued by the practice of "Bali" (ritualistic animal sacrifice) that is still observed here to propitiate Goddess Kali (the primordial Hindu Goddess of universal feminine force, sex, death and destruction) who happens to be the presiding deity. Warnings and words of advise about the do's and don'ts had already trickled down to me prior to visiting the complex from friends who had already been there seen that and I would share the same during the course of this article for the benefit of readers who might not be aware of how things function in some of these temples, especially in those that exist in the eastern part of the country.


Kalighat - The abode of the fearsome mother


But first the elaborate history and cultural significance of the complex – the temple is regarded as one of the 51 "Shakti Peetha" ("Seat of Primordial Feminine energy"), that dot most of the Indian subcontinent including Pakistan and Nepal, whose perplexing origin has its convoluted roots in ancient history's numerous tales where myths and legends conspire alongside hard facts to generate a picture of inexplicable phenomena and locations. I copy verbatim the entire legend from the blogpost about Kamakhya Temple (refer Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam) where I have already recounted the same – Hindu legends recall the ritualistic sacrificial worship (“yagna”) commissioned by the mythological emperor Daksha in which his own angelic daughter Sati (Shakti) and her husband Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction, were unwelcome. Sati, though requested not to go by Lord Shiva but persuaded by an unremitting love for her father and maternal family, nonetheless reached her father’s abode only to be faced with an unrelenting onslaught of merciless abuses and insults heaped upon her all-powerful husband, as an anguished consequence of which she committed suicide by jumping into the ceremonial fire; dangerously enraged and unnervingly grief-struck, Lord Shiva picked up Goddess Sati’s lifeless body in one arm and his frightening trident in the other and began the frenzied “Tandava Nritya” (celestial dance of destruction). The entire world was on the brink of irrevocable destruction when all the Gods and deities collectively invoked Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and preservation, who used his “Sudarshana Chakra” (spinning disc weapon) to cleave Sati’s body into 51 parts since an infuriated Shiva had vowed not to stop his terrible dance till Sati’s body existed. Each of the sacred spots where these 51 hallowed parts fell came to be sanctified as an auspicious “Shakti Peetha” where an intent worshiper channeling the said energy would be endowed with immeasurable intellectual and spiritual prowess. The mutilated toes of Sati's right foot are said to have fallen on the exact spot where the temple presently exists (though some state only one of the toes fell here).


Once upon a time - The temple complex with the adjacent bathing ghats, AD 1887 (Photo courtesy - Puronokolkata.com)


The present temple is said to have been commissioned by Raja Mansingh I of Amber (Jaipur) who, as a vassal of Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605), officiated as the Governor of the eastern territories of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from AD 1594-1606; it was afterwards modified with additions and transformed into the present complex some 200 years back around the year 1809 by the renowned and financially affluent Sabarna Roy Chaudhary Zamindar family of Calcutta. But the shrine's history is said to revert back several centuries and it's antiquity could be gauged from the discovery of coins originating during the reign of Chandragupta II (AD 380-413/15) and the fact that it even finds mention in early 15th-century Bengali religious texts – prior to Raja Mansingh's interventions, it existed as a nondescript shrine housed in a mere meager hutment on the banks of the river Hooghly and surrounded by dense forests incorporating in their territories ferocious wild animals and massive branched trees. The river has since diverted its course and the temple has been assimilated within an indescribably dense concrete jungle in lieu of the ancient fearsome natural forest; only a small artificial canal referred to as "Adi Ganga" ("Adi" translates to "natural/initial") now slithers alongside the shrine. It has also been argued that the anglicized word "Calcutta" has its roots in "Kali kutta", meaning the "Abode of Mother Kali". Devotees believe that the area demarcated as "Kalikshetra" ("Realm of Kali") is teeming with such an immense amount of spiritual energy that it absolves the pious of all their previous sins and guarantees relief from bad karma and an entrance to heavens to all those who breathe their last here. Eons ago, the densely forested area played host to terrifyingly powerful tribal Tantric mendicants whose chants of the Goddess' name would reverberate throughout the night through the gruesome foliage, especially on nights when they'd mercilessly sacrifice humans to appease her, thereby prompting travelers and fishermen to give the region a wide berth, especially during night hours. The temple and the area surrounding it also lend their name to the Kalighat school of Bengali folk painting that once, with its vivid hues and bold brush strokes, proved irresistible to the devotees thronging the temple complex and were quickly devoured by doting patrons; sadly however, the tradition met an unavoidable death at the hands of cheap printed posters and imitations and can now only be witnessed in museums and art galleries.

The "Mahanta" system, where the chief priest chooses one of his disciples as the next chief, is still followed in the temple. Bhubhaneshwar Giri, one of the chief priests, married an illegitimate woman known as Yogmaya and together the two had a daughter whom they christened Uma. When Uma reached a marriageable age, the Goddess appeared in Bhubhaneshwar Giri's dreams and asserted that she no longer wished to be worshiped by ascetic priests and urged him to marry Uma and declare her husband as the next Mahanta – Uma was thus married to Bhabanidas Chakraborty who assumed the position of Mahanta after his father-in-law handed him the entire Kalighat complex as dowry and since then all the "Sebayats" (Goddess' priests) have continued to be married householders.


Commodification of faith and religion


The present state of affairs – The temple is huge, but larger still is the area around its periphery that has been overtaken by shops, both permanent and makeshift, trading in materials required for worship like vibrant flowers and vermillion and religious souvenirs such as trinkets, conch shells, sanctified bangles and small sculptures and photographs of the Goddess and the temple. Engulfing the entire immediate locality are several small shops, predominantly owned by priests ("Pandas") supposedly officiating in the temple complex, selling sweets like peda (thick, semi-soft sweets composed of dried milk by-product, sugar and cardamom flavoring) – visitors are supposedly required to remove their footwear at one of these shops, after payment of a particular sum of money, and walk barefoot from thereon to the shrine. Swarming around these shops are several fraud priests who promise visitors to take them inside the shrine, offer prayers for them and help negotiate the unimaginably crowded interiors, of course for a price that has to be bargained beforehand – not affiliated with the temple but highly organized into a powerful union, most of these priests are charlatans who aggressively ask for large religious payments ("dakshina") and very few of them are actually soft-spoken knowledgeable guides. It is indeed difficult to get into the perennially crowded shrine, but the priests aren't always helpful either – they would take the devotees' money and push them in the crowded sanctum or instead take them to the "Natmandir" (congregation hall) located some distance away from the shrine and ask them to pray from there only. Besides, most of them are pretty greedy and one has to haggle with them to reach a suitable charge. This unbelievable and unforeseen commercialization of religion and the unsurpassably horrible behaviour of so-called priests proved to be a total turnoff and made us want to leave the place immediately. These Pandas continue to harass visitors and earn their livelihood this way, even though their very presence within the temple premises was outlawed several years ago by Kolkata High Court – but like most other laws and regulations in the city, this ruling too is rarely – if ever – enforced. Similarly, animal sacrifice (considered deeply spiritually enriching and minimally agonizing by the officiating priests on account of the single stroke of scimitar employed to finish off the struggling animal) within the precincts as a form of appeasing the deities too was outlawed eons ago, but still continues uninhibited – I might as well add that being a hardcore non-vegetarian who abhors vegetarian food even under duress, I am not really against animal sacrifice as long as the meat is consumed (it is in the temple) and not allowed to waste or rot.


A labyrinth of associated shrines and shops (Photo courtesy - Famoustemples.net)


Instead of paying one of the priests, one of my friends Sunil, who like me is an atheist and detests visiting religious shrines, decided to sit in one of the cubbyhole shops and safeguard our shoes. But the treacherous priests continued to follow us like hordes of irritating flies and deceived us by stating that one isn't allowed within the shrine without a personal priest, which we later found out to be an obliquity – falling for their words, we eventually acceded to hire one for Rs 50 to assist with the worship and supply us with the sweets. Our feet burned as we walked the scorched cemented road towards the main shrine (located quite a walk away from the shops) and some minutes later, the bloody priest disappeared!! Had it not been for Sunil who had decided to stay at the cramped shop, we wouldn't have even got our sweets at the end of the day! Left to our own devices, we reached the shrine, but by now another group of priests had begun following us, trying to impose their unwarranted services. We had already been warned to not let priests accompany us anywhere within the precincts nor assent to their assisting us with the worship, otherwise they would perform some ceremony/prayer that we had not even asked for or even sacrifice an animal in the sanctum in our name and then demand additional money. There are two modes of worshiping the deity ("darshan") here – the first is done from the "Garbha-Griha" (sanctum sanctorum) which encapsulates the idol within its periphery, while the other is essentially from a viewing gallery, known as "Jor Bangla", running around the Garbha-Griha. To our dismay, we noticed that the entry of devotees to the Garbha-Griha is also controlled by priests who would demand money in lieu of letting people in. It is advisable to not tell any of the priests one's name or profession otherwise they would read some prayers in one's name and not allow one to leave without paying up especially exorbitant amounts! And there is no point in arguing with these goons since they would only gang up and create difficulties for the poor visitor who had come seeking spiritual enlightment and mental serenity. For a foreigner visiting the complex, it becomes even increasingly tough and exploitative! With the priests busily engrossed lying to and looting the faithful, the latter were not organized into queues and created quite a ruckus, making it enormously difficult to enter the narrow passageway and even more difficult to protect oneself from the crushing and milling crowds that, themselves eager and impatient to view and worship the fearsome idol, continue to push one around in their bid to have their way even though they too, in the end, are only able to stand in front of the idol for less than a minute before being pushed away themselves! One of my friends Neeraj, a rather weak fellow who had accompanied us to the temple, had more troubles in store for him – the crowd simply carried him out of the sanctum and to the other side of the passageway!


Notice the floral motifs adorning the shrine roof and the numerous cubbyholes shops being run immediately outside. Forgive my bad photography, I don't yet possess a camera.


The Goddess' silver-encapsulated image as depicted in the shrine, possessing three huge eyes painted a terrifying shade of brilliant orange and a thick, excessively long protruding tongue coated with layers of gold, is visually unique and fiercely terrifying, though unlike my friends I somehow found the massive depiction interesting and the dreadful appearance appealing – after all, Kali, despite the alternative projection as the benign mother Goddess granting bliss and blessings to her faithful, is supposed to be the terrible Goddess of death, the primordial feminine punitive deity, dark in color and fearsome in appearance, with disheveled hair, necklaces of severed demonic skulls and a tongue reddened by the quenching of her bloodlust with sacrifices and slaying of demons! The idol, said to have been sculpted by two priests officiating in the temple itself, is said to have been rendered incomplete by them in its original form and the four hands, also made of gold, two of them respectively depicted in aspects of blessing and guidance and the other two holding a scimitar and the severed head of a demon known as Shambhu, were later additions. A small enclosure underneath the sculpture is said to contain the toe fragment of Goddess Sati that fell here and have since fossilized to stone but were said to emit brilliant light when they were discovered in an associated natural lagoon (now transformed into a stepped rectangular water tank) by some saints traversing the area. Many of the female devotees make a shrill cry, called "Hudhudi" and said to the battle cry of Goddess Kali with the considerable ability to bestow feminine fertility and energy to the devotees, with their tongues within the sanctum and I found the incessant shrieking quite horribly ear-piercing till later when some of my Bengali friends explained about it to us.


Those eyes! (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)


The temple is famed for the fine examples of terracotta art it boasts of, or rather boasted of since a lot of it has been ravaged by the vagaries of time and nature. The curved, double-layered Bengali-style roof of the central shrine and the associated temple clusters, with their numerous intricate bands of colored pattern work and floral motifs, appear visually enchanting but I couldn't photograph them to my heart's content primarily because photography is prohibited within the complex. Stepping outside the sanctum, there wasn't much for us to do – the extraordinary crowds made us feel intensely claustrophobic and the pushing and shoving wasn't pleasant at all, especially for the womenfolk. The complex offers several additional smaller shrines with their own individual histories, but we neither visited them nor even spotted them, given that every time we stepped in any direction or proceeded towards any feature that even closely resembled a separate shrine, the horribly deceitful priests would begin yelling at us to not go there or not do something, forcing us to leave the premises at the first opportunity.

Some time back, taking into account the damage to and littering of the shrine with flowers, religious materials and earthen oil lamps as well as the allegations of extortion and thievery leveled against several officiating priests (who, on numerous instances, even stooped to the extent of stripping foreign nationals to their underpants when they were unable to pay the exorbitant sums demanded as prayer money!), the honorable High Court at Calcutta decreed a ban on the entry of devotees to the sanctum. But owing to the pressure exerted by millions of faithful and priests, the Supreme Court had to turn the ruling down. One cannot really take a position on this, matters of faith being subjective to say the least especially in a country as endowed with religious and spiritual fervor and multi-dimensionality – an enforced ban might bring order to the otherwise chaotic shrine, but then if the devotees themselves, most of whom behave rather uncivilly within the shrine and yet claim to be at the mercy of the duplicitous priests, are against it, then what can one possibly do? One cannot of course send police down to threaten or chase the priests out – apart from the constitutional and ethical dilemma raised by it, the latter would simply resort to stating that they exist because the devotees demand their services – supply equals demand in economics! Nonetheless, it is gratifyingly heartening to know that the courts are sincerely concerned about the mismanagement and hooliganism that goes on in these temples and also about the spiritual and emotional well-being and physical security of the hundreds of millions of devotees thronging these shrines.


Talk about eclectic lightning! (Photo courtesy - Seetheworldinmyeyes.com)


Festivals like Kali Puja, Navratris, Durga Puja and Poila Baisakh (Bengali New year) are observed with enormous fervor at the shrine and witness unparalleled crowds of devotees who travel long distances to worship the mother Goddess and offer her their humble tributes. Hundreds of foreigners too visit the temple complex to understand the reason behind its renown and also to try to fathom why Hindus so earnestly pray to the Goddess of death and refer to her as Mother at the same time. It is another matter that many of them return with bitter-sweet experiences (predominantly bitter!), especially relating to the high-handedness of priests and unofficial authorities that is so readily accepted as a norm here. Such undesired commercialization of religion and the violence perpetrated in its name is one of the worst things that could have existed in our peace-loving, spiritual and ethic-conscious country and definitely contribute to tarnishing the country's and the shrine's name and also labeling the holy complex with all sobriquets that a temple ideally shouldn't be.

What occurred to me while leaving was that it is indeed regrettable that none of the visitors even look in the direction of, leave alone making philanthropic contributions to, the Hospital for the Dying and Destitute that was set up by Mother Teresa immediately opposite the sacred temple complex and presently exists in an unbelievably decrepit condition. Wouldn't it have been better if visitors to the hallowed shrine performed community service and donated at the hospital instead of paying the greedy and exceedingly vociferous priests? All I can hope is that someone will be, after reading this article, propelled to visit the temple complex to witness the explosive cocktail of religious frenzy, chaotic disorder and uninhibited greed but will afterwards find themselves tracing their steps to the hospital and make voluntary contributions there. Amen.


Souvenirs


Open: All days (Tuesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, Navaratris and Diwali are special days of worship and witness impossibly heavy crowds)
Timings: 4 am – 2 pm and 4 pm – 11 pm
Nearest metro stations: Jatin Das Park and Kalighat stations are equidistant.
How to reach: Buses, taxis and metro can be availed from different parts of the city.
Entry fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Precautions: Avoid paying touts and priests who might approach one in the name of offering prayers in one's name or getting one into the sanctum. Do not carry heavy wallets, excessive cash and other precious items since pickpockets and thieves are active in the crowds. Preferably keep currency notes of smaller denominations separately so that if one is forced to pay any priest one doesn't have to reveal how much cash one is carrying.
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam
Suggested reading - 
  1. Archive.indianexpress.com - Article " SC stays HC ban on entry into Kalighat temple's sanctum sanctorum" (dated May 21, 2012) 
  2. Artnewsnviews.com - Article "Kalighat Pat, a Protomodern Art Tradition?" by Pranabranjan Ray 
  3. Hindubooks.org - The Kalighat temple 
  4. Kalibhakti.com - Shakti Pith #19: Kalighat Kali Mandir  
  5. Telegraphindia.com - Article "The goddess of light " (dated Nov 09, 2007) by Soumitra Das 
  6. Thehindu.com - Article "Calcutta High Court restricts entry into Kalighat temple" (dated April 21, 2012) 
  7. Thehindu.com - Article "Kali Mandir of Kolkata" (dated May 09, 2003) by S. Balakrishnan 
  8. Wikipedia.org - Kalighat

May 20, 2012

Lotus Temple, New Delhi


“In the heart of New Delhi, the bustling capital of India, a lotus-shaped outline has etched itself on the consciousness of the city's inhabitants, capturing their imagination, fuelling their curiosity, and revolutionizing the concept of worship. This is the Baha'i Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, better known as the "Lotus Temple". With the dawning of every new day, an ever-rising tide of visitors surges to its doorsteps to savour its beauty and bask in its serenely spiritual atmosphere..Against the backdrop of a religious milieu which encourages the fragmentation of the Supreme Reality into innumerable gods and goddesses, each personifying a specific attribute of the Almighty, the Baha'i Temple, with its total absence of idols, elicits bewilderment as well as favourable response.”
Eliza Rasiwala, “The Lotus of Bahapur – A magnet for the heart"

The Lotus Temple, or the Baha’i House of Worship, one of the most beautiful places I have visited in the country and perhaps the only architectural marvel that I can visit time and again despite being there several times, had been long on my radar but the visit just couldn’t materialize because of other commitments – that is, till now. Prodded on by my cousin and sister-in-law Prateek and Hitika (pretty accomplished writer-photographers both) who recently hosted a photo walk with our photography club “Strobe Wizards” at the temple complex, finally I did visit the magnificent temple. It was an uneventful sunny day and I had little to do at office where I was interning, so I tiptoed out and got on my way. The temple, also known as "Kamal Mandir", takes one’s breathe away even from afar – in fact, you can see people travelling on Delhi metro's Violet line that zips past on lofty over-bridges turn their heads to gaze at the attractive sight of the pristine marble lotus blooming amidst deep lush greens. The unbridled amazement when one looks at the splendid architectural marvel from up close is indeed indescribable.


The Baha'i Mashriqu'l-Adhkar


The temple is situated in the village of Bahapur (Kalkaji) on a gentle hill on land bought with the money donated by Ardishir Rustanpur of Hyderabad (Pakistan) who gave his entire life savings for the construction of the shrine. It is perhaps the only temple where people go for photography and sightseeing visits rather than for prayers – this has a lot to do with the Baha’i principle of keeping their shrines open for people of all faiths and their strict shunning of advertisement of their religion or forced conversions and indoctrination – this is what makes the temple incredibly popular among tourists, locals and photographers alike. The number of tourists visiting the complex puts it even above Taj Mahal of Agra in terms of popularity index. An important constituent of Baha’i beliefs is the concept of a single creator and the equality of all human beings, and thus their places of worship equally welcome followers of all religions and cults – one can spot Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, old and young queuing up to enter the temple complex and the main shrine and there couldn’t be a sight more colorful, more vibrant and more secular than this. A matter of great pride and interest is the fact that the meticulously-planned 27-leaved lotus figure is one of the only seven Baha’i Houses of Worship spread throughout the world (the other six being in Australia, Germany, Samoa, Panama, Uganda and USA). Architecturally, one of the most accredited buildings in the world, the temple has won numerous awards and distinctions for the same and has been a sensation amongst architects, designers, engineers and laymen alike. Since it was thrown open to the public in 1986, the number of tourists flocking to it have soared, and the proximity to Kalkaji Metro station (just 5 minutes’ walk away) has made reaching the place even easier. The monument was designed by Fariborz Sahba, an Iranian-Canadian architect and a firm believer in the Baha’i faith. He drew his motivation from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, which together make lotus one of the most recurring symbols in the Indian culture. Construction News, a British technical journal, described Lotus Temple as “the Taj Mahal of the 20th Century' in its 1986 issue, a title that has been subsequently used by numerous other publications.


Grace and symmetry


Structurally, all Baha’i Houses of Worship, including the Lotus Temple, share certain architectural elements, some of which are specified by Bahá'í scriptures – the essential architectural characteristic of a shrine is stipulated as its being a nine-sided structure neither displaying pictures, statues or images nor incorporating in its scheme pulpits or altars. Before entering the central hall underneath the lotus structure, visitors are required to remove their shoes – an underground room divided into numerous counters has been constructed midway between the entrance and the superstructure and is manned by volunteers who receive the footwear and provide tokens for the same. Visitors to the central hall are usually amazed at the gigantism of the structure and the striking symmetry achieved through the use of arches and angles – most of them are also confused by the absence of idols, religious symbolism and priests inside the central chamber, but perhaps the biggest jolt is the sheer crushing silence that the massive chamber affords. The hall, approximately 40 meters high and capable of housing 2,500 people at a time, is marked by rows upon rows of benches stacked directly underneath the gigantic roof that features a nine-pointed star (symbolic of Baha'i faith) inset with a sparkling symbol (referred to as “Ringstone symbol”) composed of three patterns – two five-pointed stars (“Haykal”) representing Bab and Baha’ullah and a simplistic line design between them representing to the followers of the Baha’i faith the intersection of the three worlds of God, His messengers and men.


A touch of glitter - The spiritual symbol embedded in the temple roof (Photo courtesy - Flickr.com/Adib Roy)


Only 100 people are allowed at a time within the prayer hall in order to maintain the decorum of the shrine and before entry they too are explained the rules – “No shouting”, “No photography”, “No mobile phones”, “No sitting on the floor” and such – by the volunteers managing the crowds. All volunteers are themselves members of the Baha’i faith and come from different parts of the world; they are friendly and knowledgeable about the religion and the House of Worship and share facts and entertain discussions about the same. I had the opportunity to meet a volunteer from Canada (whose name I never asked!) who answered many of my questions and increased my information base about the faith and its operations. (Edit: On another photo walk (dated September 13, 2014) with our photography club “Delhi Instagramer’s Guild”, we were introduced to the Baha’i faith and the temple by Prashant, a volunteer from Bihar – extremely soft-spoken, Prashant’s knowledge of the faith is exemplar and very updated, and he himself strived to be an excellent human being and motivated us to do the same with his in-depth understanding of his religion and its tenets). There is no time limit as to how long an individual can stay inside the hall; photography is strictly prohibited but most people do click when the volunteers are busy elsewhere – I intend to visit the temple again after obtaining permission to click the hall interiors, until then a photo borrowed from another website shall grace this article. One can sit on the benches, but sitting/squatting on the floor (as one might do in a Hindu temple) is not allowed; also prohibited is the use of musical instruments, preaching of sermons and creating a nuisance. It is generally disorienting for most Indians when they visit the temple since we have become so used to face an idol or a wall indicating the direction of prayers – though incredibly mesmerizing, the hall, with its long rows of benches and utter silence, is slightly daunting for most. Baha’i teachings are occasionally recited in prayer sessions organized at the temple along with extracts from Bhagavad Gita, Quran, Buddhist teachings and Bible.


The volunteer from Canada


The 27 petals, constructed of reinforced concrete, are clad on the outside with pure white marble plates sourced from Penteli Mountain, Greece and stand free from each other in three concentric circles to form a nine sided flower. Nine water pools surround the temple to impart the semblance of the leaves of a lotus flower when seen aerially. As is apparent with the figures employed in the temple’s construction, the number nine is considered sacred in Baha'i faith since it is derived from the word “Baha” (“splendor”). The area surrounding the temple has been beautifully landscaped and efficiently maintained by the authorities – the lush green lawns soothe the eyes and the rows of shrubbery and flowering plants along the pathways frame the temple to lend it an even picturesque setting. Palm trees and small artificial hills adjacent to the main entrance draw a curtain over the temple so that it is gradually revealed in its true majesty when a visitor has walked a little towards it. Numerous security guards and volunteers posted around the temple prevent the visitors from trampling on the grass and keep prodding them to walk only on the designated walk ways. Near the parking lot is an underground information center – drenched in dim orange light and draped with large placards intimating the visitors about the main religions of the world and their association with Baha’i teachings, the Information Center displays numerous books and manuscripts published by the Baha’i publication centers and is manned by numerous volunteers well-versed with the faith and its scriptures. One can also avail of sermon booklets and brief introductory sheets in almost all Indian and most major languages from here. The temple property, inclusive of the pools, gardens and the information center comprises 26 acres.


The Information Center (Please note that photography is strictly prohibited inside the Info. Center and prior permission has to be solicited for the same.)


After exiting from the hall, one can revert to clicking the celebrated exteriors, take a stroll around the complex to admire its construction and layout, or step down the stairs surrounding the lotus structure to reach the considerably cool water pools. Underneath the prayer hall are kiosks selling souvenirs – postcards, plastic models of the temple, key rings and books detailing the Baha’i faith and construction of the Lotus Temple. I bought a rather boring, but delightfully illustrated book “The Dawning Place of the Remembrance of God” – numerous photographs chronicle the construction of the imposing temple and several essays capture the perennial joy one experiences on witnessing the splendor of the blooming marble lotus.

The tranquil environment of the temple proves to be a soothing relief from the chaotic hustle-bustle of the city. As many would attest, sitting on the stairs leading to the pools around the temple is an enjoyable experience, further amplified by the cool afforded by the water and the striking temple for company. Somehow, one tends to forget all worries, reflect on the intricacies of life and experience a calmness spread over every frayed nerve while seated around the temple. The architect indeed triumphed in his pursuit!


Lights and reflections


A brief history of the Baha’i faith –
The year was 1844 and the setting a fiercely Islamic Iran when a 26-year old trader Mirza Saiyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi claimed to be the Shia sect’s prophet (“Mehdi-Khwaja”) whose appearance was promised in the scriptures. He was already renowned as a scholar-writer and soon thereafter his declaration, took up the title “Bab” (“Gate”) and declared that another prophet too shall appear soon after him. Bab was bitterly criticized and opposed by the Iranian Shia clergy who pressurized the government to arrest and physically punish him; nonetheless the Bab movement continued to gain followers and he himself wrote numerous books and letters expounding upon his beliefs and interpretations of the scriptures. He spent several years in imprisonment during which most of the provincial Governors and jail superintendents who came in touch with him were readily impressed by his spiritual knowledge and messianic claims and immediately became his religious followers. Considering his considerable popularity and spiritual authority a threat to the established religious order, the government finally relented to the clergy’s demands and ordered his execution along with a follower who had exclaimed his wish to be martyred with him – interestingly, legend goes that when the smoke from the rifles used to fire upon Bab and his companion settled, it was noted that the bullets miraculously only cut the ropes that had tied the two! Bab had disappeared from the firing chamber and his companion stood there startled but unharmed – later Bab was found in an adjacent room dictating a final message to his secretary following the completion of which he agreed to the execution and tied up again – this time the bullets actually pierced his body and he died of the gunshot wounds. He was only 29 years of age at the time of his demise. Following his execution, a group of his followers (“Babis”) resorted to terrorism and plotted to assassinate the Shah of Iran, but the attempt failed and led to extremely violent repercussions from both the administration and the Shia public who considered the Babis heretics . Almost all of them, numbering several thousand, were arrested and beaten; fearing imprisonment and intensive persecution, many fled and requested asylum in other countries; rioting followed and 2,000-3,000 of the Babis were killed (the unofficial figure is significantly higher – 20,000 killed, the remaining imprisoned). 


Petals


Fettered in a dark underground prison was one of the most notable personalities of his time – an eminent religious scholar and a firm believer in Bab’s sayings, Mirza Hussain Ali Nuri of Iran who was said to have been made aware of his divine inheritance as God’s prophet and Bab’s successor by angels while he was in prison and took up the title “Baha’ullah” (“Glory of God”). Originally an affluent merchant, he wrote numerous voluminous books and religious interpretations after he was freed from prison several months later and travelled to Kurdistan under the alias Darvish Muhammad-i-Irani where he was immediately recognized as an unparalleled intellectual in spiritualism and Islamic jurisprudence. Baha’ullah’s influence continued to grow even though he was exiled and transferred from one distant region to another – in parallel, the Baha’i belief, originating from Baha’ullah’s teachings, too grew as a separate identity within the Babi movement until it finally attained the status of a distinct religion. Observing the propagation of divergent religious ideas by members of the Baha’i faith and the growing disenchantment of several foremost Babi leaders which could lead to disorder and public agitation in future, the authorities again imprisoned Baha’ullah in 1868, subject to which he lived till his demise in the year 1892.

As enumerated by Bab and Baha’ullah, the Baha’is believe in three fundamentals – God is one, all religions are different methods to reach to that same God, and lastly, all humanity was created equal without any distinctions of caste, color, creed or gender. Additionally, Baha’is believe that Bab and Baha’ullah were the most recent in line of God’s Prophets which also includes the Abrahamic triad, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna and Buddha. The Baha’i faith is amongst the youngest of world’s religions, slightly over 150 years old; but it also is amongst the fastest growing religions and there are around 7.3 million Baha’is scattered throughout the world. Following the death of Abdul Baha, Baha’ullah’s son and political successor and an exemplar human being according to Baha’is, the faith has been governed by a partly-elected, partly-appointed administrative council of eminent Baha’is, while Shoghi Effendi, Abdul Baha’s grandson, assumed the position of the first and last “Guardian of the Baha’i faith”.


Another night click. It really is worth requesting permission for a night visit since the temple is beautifully lighted and outlined against the dark expansive lawns.


2.2 million, or around a third of the world’s Baha’i population lives in India – India has been associated with the faith since its inception since four of the foremost eighteen followers of Bab were Indians and Baha’ullah too dispatched numerous emissaries to the subcontinent. As mentioned before, the Lotus Temple is one of the seven Houses of Worship of the Baha’is and acts as an ambassador of their faith. Yet there is little knowledge among the tourists as well as the local population about who the Baha’is are and what is it that they do – this has more to do with the Baha’i principle of not advertising their religion nor attempting to convert anyone. The Baha’is have neither clergy nor any rituals that would bring them public visibility. To become a Baha’i, one cannot just go to the Lotus Temple or other Houses of Worship and demand to be allowed in the faith – instead one has to recognize that all religions are meant for the advancement of human society and that Baha’ullah was a messenger of god, besides undertaking an “independent investigation of the truth” where, if found credible, an elected administrative body of nine members referred to as a “Spiritual Assembly” shall grant admission to the faith and record the personal details. Regular religious meetings are held in numerous Baha’i centers around the world – the center in Delhi is at Canning Street. Other centers are located in Chandigarh and Bihar – Bihar is rapidly converting into a major Baha’i settlement and one of the seven new Houses of Worship to be opened throughout the world is conceived to be located in Bihar.


Behold beauty unparalleled! (Photo courtesy - Mydecorative.com)


The central theme of Baha'ullah's message – all humanity is one single race and the day has come for its unification into one global society – finds resonance in most sane thoughts throughout the world, but from what I have observed, though Hindus are rather easy going about the Baha’i claim of Baha’ullah being the “Kalki” incarnation promised in ancient Hindu scriptures, Muslims generally express shock and disbelief at the claim of his being the promised Islamic prophet “Mehdi-Khwaja” and this might be a major reason for the slow uptake of the faith in Islamic territories. Given the faith’s origin from Muslim Shia sect, most Muslims, Shia as well as Sunni, consider Bahá'is heretics and deserters from Islam, which has led to extreme persecution of the Baha’is in most Islamic nations, especially in Iran, the country of the religion’s origin.


One of the marble plaques installed in an artificial mound near the temple complex's entrance


Location: Bahapur, Kalkaji
Nearest Metro station: Kalkaji Mandir (500 meters away on a straight road)
Open: Tuesday–Sunday
Timings: Summers: 9 am – 7 pm; Winters: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil (Prohibited inside the prayer hall)
Time required for sightseeing: About 1 hour
One can also visit the ISKCON and Kalkaji temples located nearby (refer Pixelated Memories - ISKCON Temple)
Suggested reading - 
  1. Abhinavgauba.com - Reflections: Service at Baha’i House of Worship (Part 1)
  2. Bahai.in (Official website of the Indian Baha'i community)
  3. Bahai.in - "The Jewel in the Lotus" by Fariborz Sahba
  4. Bahai.in - "The Lotus of Bahapur - A magnet for the heart" by Eliza Rasiwala
  5. Bahaikipedia.org - India
  6. Bic.org - Current situation of Baha'is in Iran
  7. News.bahai.org - Baha'i Temple in India continues to receive awards and recognitions
  8. P4panorama.com - 360° panoramic view of Lotus Temple exteriors and interiors
  9. Thearchiblog.wordpress.com - Lotus Temple, New Delhi
  10. Wikipedia.org - Abdul Baha
  11. Wikipedia.org - Bab
  12. Wikipedia.org - Baha'i faith
  13. Wikipedia.org - Baha'i faith in India
  14. Wikipedia.org - Baha'i symbols
  15. Wikipedia.org - Baha'ullah
  16. Wikipedia.org - Lotus Temple
  17. Wikipedia.org - Shoghi Effendi (Guardian of the Baha'i faith)

May 15, 2012

Birla Temple, Calcutta


I was made aware about the existence of Calcutta’s Birla Mandir (also known as Lakshmi Narayana Mandir; "Mandir" is the Hindi/Bengali equivalent of “temple”) by my friend Kshitish while I was planning for my second visit to the city. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Kshitish is a self-proclaimed authority on all matters related to Calcutta – though hailing from Darbhanga, Bihar, he claims to be in love with the ancient city of Calcutta and returns to it whenever he gets the time or the opportunity. Accompanying me on this journey was another friend Aakash, who despite having visited the city several times remains blissfully ignorant of its charms and has no pretensions of being an authority on any aspect of any city. It eventually always works out to his benefit since all responsibilities of planning and logistics are left to the other people accompanying him, in this case me. But then, planning and managing trips is what I do best, so no qualms.

My initial research about the temple did not throw up much – it’s just another temple, only fairly popular since the industrial Birla Group which financed its construction is one of the largest and well-renowned corporate families in the country and have commissioned numerous temples, philanthropic initiatives and educational and religious institutions throughout the length and breadth of the country. We had already planned to visit the legendary Dakshineshwar and Belur Math temples that day (refer Pixelated Memories - Dakshineswar Temple and Pixelated Memories - Belur Math) and given my general aversion to visiting famously crowded temples where photography options are severely restricted or prohibited, we ended up delaying the visit till we had finished exploring all the other monuments, temples and heritage sites that we had desired to see that same day and by the time we did finally reach the temple complex, dusk had already set in and the evening prayers (7:30 pm) reverberated through the lighted up, glittering frame of the modern structure.


Birla Mandir - Sculpted magnificence


As I feared, photography was strictly forbidden inside the temple complex and the only photos I could click were snapped while standing at the threshold of the temple with waves of devotees submerging us in the forceful flow to enter or exit the premises. And yet, despite the obvious pressures, the photos came out beautiful, which is definitely a testimonial to the ethereal grace of the temple vibrantly illuminated against the night sky and the skilled efforts that the artists and sculptors put in raising the massive marble megalith that seems to attract amazed visitors and overawed onlookers with its three massive cream-colored corn cob-shaped towers rising loftily to a height of 160 meters into the skyline.

Although the entire surface of the temple has been beautifully carved (at an enormous cost of Rs 18 crores (1.8 million)), what I personally liked the most were the repeating elephant and bell motifs along the outer wall – continuing with the Hindu architectural traditions which most commonly employ figurines of elephants and lotuses to adorn shrines as well as palaces and regal buildings, here too a row of miniature elephants embedded in the wall runs just below another impressive line of alternating bells and leonine faces.


Exquisitely traditional, and this is just the exterior periphery!


Since one is not allowed to take bags, cameras or mobile phones inside the premises, I and Aakash were forced to take turns going inside as we had our bags to look after and we couldn’t leave them unguarded outside. A separate area is earmarked towards the right just inside the main gate to leave one’s shoes and footwear. The interiors are intricately carved to depict scenes from several Hindu scriptures like Bhagvad Gita, Vedas and Upanishads. Electric lamps and large chandeliers add further exuberant charm to the place. The presiding deities here are Krishna (a master statesman- strategist-warrior-musician-emperor and supposedly an incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment) and his beloved Radha, but idols of Durga (female embodiment of universe’s forces according to Hindu scriptures), Shiva (the kind-hearted lord of death and destruction) and Hanuman (monkey-faced God possessing unparalleled strength and the ability to fly and swim) are also worshipped here. We just stayed within the unbelievably crowded central hall long enough to see glimpses of the aarti (evening prayers) for around 20 minutes or so and then exited to explore the exterior features of the temple. Despite it being night time, the lightning arrangements within the temple compound are good enough to make out the elaborate sculpted features and the exquisitely layered spires of the three tapering towers.


From across the road (Photo courtesy - Panoramio.com)


Designed by architect Nomi Bose and painstakingly crafted from marble, the temple, constructed to resemble the celebrated Lingaraja temple of Orissa, took 26 years for completion beginning from the year 1970. One should undoubtedly visit the place in the evening when the entire structure is brilliantly lit up and blazes like an enormous beacon of serenity and spirituality.

Later in the year, when I returned to Delhi in vacations afterwards, one of my cousins who had stayed in Calcutta for a few months in association with a job assignment, told me that except for prayer times when the gorgeous temple gets pretty crowded, it is otherwise an extremely calm and soothing place and we (Aakash and me) should have spent a longer time there than the 20-25 minutes we did. Like Kshitish, my cousin too used to visit the temple very frequently. I can’t go back now, but hope the readers who visit the grand shrine find the stillness and spiritual peace they are looking for! Happy exploring!


Elephants!


Location: Ballygunge
How to reach: Taxis and buses can be availed from different parts in the city.
Timings: 5:30 am–11 am and 4:30 pm–9 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Strictly prohibited
Time required for sightseeing: 30 minutes
Relevant Links - 

May 12, 2012

National Zoological Park, New Delhi


Since its establishment in 1959, the National Zoological Park has become a premier institution, unique in that it tries to provide a habitat as close to natural as possible to the over two thousand species of animals and birds that call it home besides also housing hundreds of plant species. In addition to functioning as an educational-recreational zone, the zoo is also involved in several research study projects, breeding programs for endangered species and the organization of national and international biodiversity and zoo regulation campaigns and seminars. Amongst the most sincere of all its initiatives is the planting of sign boards and information panels throughout its 176-acre compound to educate the visitors about the organism they are viewing as well as provide knowledge about the causes for the decline of the said organism’s natural habitat and the need to maintain ecological balance for conservation of species and natural resources. Established in 1959, the zoo, located idyllically in the shade of the massive fortress christened as Dinpanah (“Asylum of the faithful”, now referred to as Old Fort, refer - Pixelated Memories - Old Fort), is one of the best picnic spots in the city, ideal for a family outing, especially when the weather is right. The fortress and its numerous bastions and curtain walls can be seen from various points along the visitor routes and make for interesting backgrounds while clicking the flora and fauna, more so since there are a number of spots where the bastions project out of absolute wilderness and amaze the visitors. Along one of its sides, the zoo complex is flanked by a railway track and a passenger in the passing train can spot several animal enclosures – many a times the passing trains scare the deer roaming quietly (would have liked to use the word “freely”, but it would have been an oxymoron when referring to their enclosures) who then swiftly dash away to another glade, away from the prying eyes of the visitors. 


The docile Hog Deer (Axis porcinus)


Conceived in 1952 by the Indian Board for Wildlife, the zoo was planned according to inputs from M.E.F. Bowring Welsh (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and Carl Hagenbeck (owner of the famed Hamburg Zoological Park, West Germany) and executed by N.D. Bachkheti (of Indian Forest Service) at its present location with funds from the Indian govt. and gifts of animal and plant species by several state govts.

Within the huge complex, one can take either of the two circuitous routes (marked with color arrows on the ground all along the route) that border the numerous enclosures and mini-complexes that some of the larger animals are provided with. Along the routes, the enclosures have been marked with helpful information panels detailing the organism’s characteristics – even the trees that flank the routes have been pinned with name tags (both local and scientific names) with larger metallic panels affixed to the ground nearby (though even I know that hammering nails in a tree trunk retards the growth, don’t the zoo authorities? The panels could have been affixed on the ground, right?). Signages and the placement of zoo maps (depicting directions, map position with reference to the zoo compound and the route to reach other enclosures) at regular intervals are definitely a positive step to assist the visitors and ensure coordinated movement. We decided to take the left route which led to the bigger animals like caimans, nilgais and tigers – despite spending an entire day in the complex, we left out several of the bigger animals as well as entire sections – so huge is the complex that a day seems less if covering the place in its entirety is the mission! The day didn’t really prove much fruitful for me at least – possibly because I don’t own a camera and it was quite difficult to click the animals that had huge enclosures to themselves and the freedom to retreat to far corners. I might have made do, but my cousins had decided to tag along and they (not being used to photography and sustained walking throughout the day) had to stop every few minutes at one or the other refreshment stalls to get ice creams or cold drinks. 


Much helpful - Every enclosure has at least one information panel; several have three


Because it was summer season and the scorching sun overhead was spreading its terribly hot fangs all over the city, most of the bigger/sensitive animals were either removed from their enclosures and kept in specially air-conditioned and protected rooms to shield them from the dry, sultry winds or had made their way to their dugouts and dark corners – nonetheless, we were able to see several of them – lions, tigers, monkeys, alligators, leopards, panthers, jackals, besides migratory birds of various species. But most of all, the zoo has an abundance of deer – roaming about in their large, heavily-wooded compounds, separated from visitors by wire-mesh boundaries, most of these creatures have become tame – among those that I remember are goral, black bucks, chinkaras, sambhars, Hog deer, nilgai and sika – the Hog deer have become domesticated enough to approach us and feed on leaves straight from our palms! I must admit they posed rather handsomely for the cameras.

The zoo officials do their best to provide the animals comfortable environment in the extreme seasons that Delhi experiences – when the mercury soars, fans and desert coolers are installed in the enclosures with the more sensitive animals being removed from the public enclosures  and placed in shaded rooms to avoid their being irritated by visitors and heat, the fluid intake of the animals is increased and they are supplied with juices (watermelon, wood-apple) and rehydration salts while at the same time monitoring the food and meat intake, special grass covers and nets are also thrown over the enclosures, especially the ones housing the birds; in winters, heaters are employed in the enclosures and blankets are thrown into the enclosures to keep the animals warm and cozy, jute covers are used to cover the bird enclosures. 


Ironically, discolored and dirty - Sambhar Deer (Cervus unicolor)


Peacocks roam freely throughout the compound, however they are quick and it’s difficult clicking them – their counterparts however around the nearby green Sunder nursery-Batashewala complex are relatively calm and can be photographed if one is cautious enough and doesn't make much noise. Migratory birds also flock here in abundance, especially around a huge marsh that was introduced with the purpose of providing these bids with a nesting and feeding site – there’s a Mughal-era canopy (“barakhamba”, twelve-pillared dome) too next to the marsh, possibly a tomb once, today people sit in its shade and observe the birds.

Next we headed to the giraffe and elephant enclosures – the elephants have a large dugout fitted with a deep pool to themselves – the dugout slopes gently such that from one side it appears the elephants are below visitor’s level but on the other side they come level and then one truly appreciates their massiveness – I was on the other side when the three elephants, who were soaking in the pool, eloped towards suddenly, giving a splendid show to the impressed audience. Two of the elephants began copulating then, much to the laughter and shriek of the people present – you have to see an elephant’s penis to believe the size of it – it’s literally like a thick pillar! 


In their own silent world - Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis)


As mentioned earlier, the bigger animals like lions, tigers, rhinoceros and bears have their own separate compounds with lush vegetation, small watering holes and a deep moat separating them from the onlookers. It being desperately hot, most of the animals preferred to dunk down into the shallower section of the water bodies or find some respite under the shade of the larger, shady trees, prompting the disappointed and insensitive visitors to create a ruckus, banging the enclosure walls and at times even projectile water bottles and similar stuff towards the animal – one wonders who is actually the beast in the picture?! The animals do not always oblige the visitors by reappearing; frustrated the unruly visitor moves on to the next enclosure but the entire scene does beget the question – are zoos really necessary? Breeding programs apart, isn’t the display of wild animals in constricted, often times unhygienic enclosures in controlled environments against their natural instincts and in all probability physically taxing and mentally stressing?

The zoo also boasts of a dark and damp underground “Reptile House” where pythons, boas, cobras, lizards & turtles are displayed in glass cages – the low-light condition, though suitable for these creatures, is prohibitive for photography and I had to give up after a few amateur attempts. 


The Humayun Darwaza of Old Fort looming above a portion of the zoo complex (Notice the info panel (foreground right) detailing the aspects of the fortress)


Among the facilities that the zoo provides efficiently are wheelchair access and open-roof mobile van service to tour the large complex – personally, I prefer to walk and would suggest against availing the van as one tends to miss out on some of the less promoted but nonetheless beautiful and momentary scenes – magnificent peacocks strutting over trees and enclosures, fierce hornets building their nest in the rotten and crumbling wood work of a tall watchtower, lush vegetation and moss overtaking some of the secluded corners of the compound, colorful, multi-varietal mushrooms rearing their heads on dead and rotting logs here and there, big red ants swarming in and out of their deep burrows – it is these smaller events, individual but interconnected, that make one feel as if cradled in the heart of nature, close to both life and spirit that makes one experience a oneness with these tiny souls. To escape the freezing cold of their original countries, migratory birds like pintails, shovelers, teals and storks too come from as far as Europe and Russia and make the zoo their second home during the winter months (mid-Oct-March).

Food articles and drinks (except for water bottles and infant milk) are not allowed within the zoo premises and the same can only be bought at a small refreshment kiosk that stands in the middle of a glade close to a tall Kos Minar (for details about the communication-espionage system that the Kos Minars facilitated as mile markers, refer – Pixelated Memories - Kos Minar, Faridabad). I did photograph the tapering tower, one of the tallest I’ve seen in Delhi-NCR, perhaps because it faces no danger of being buried under asphalt during laying of roads or of being brought down under pressure from urbanization-commercialization lobbies, but the photos didn’t come out so good and were mostly burnt out – I’ll perhaps visit the place sometime again with a camera and do a separate post about the tower and the Mughal tomb and link them back to this and the larger post about Kos Minars. Within the zoo there's also a Mughal-era serai (inn) referred to as Azimbagh Serai, the largest such structure amongst the entire network that existed in Delhi along the historic mega-highway Grand Trunk Road – am doubtful if visitors are allowed access to it since it falls within the precincts of the complex’s residential quarters, will try to gain permission the next time I visit. The serai will soon be given a facelift in a monumental restoration-conservation project being undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) as part of the larger Humayun’s Tomb Complex – Sunder Nursery – Nizamuddin Basti revival initiative. Situated close to the administrative block is the zoo complex's library stocking books and research material about the life forms and natural systems. 

 
Kos Minar - A medieval "mile marker" (Photo courtesy - Wikimedia.org)


Though it has been designated as the model zoological park for the country, the zoo does suffer from several organizational and animal care issues – newspaper reports have in the past pointed to the lack of hygiene in the enclosures and the murkiness of the water bodies where the animals drink as well as find shelter during the heat; deaths too have been reported with the causes varying from stress, animal-animal conflict, lack of sanitation and most recently the flow of sewage water in the open grounds; I felt some of the animals like the sambar deer and blackbucks were living in over congested spaces. However, the zoo does deserve credit for its successful breeding and conservation programs for rhinos, swamp deer, Asiatic lions and most notably, the Manipuri brow-antlered deer which also feature in the zoo’s logo.

Highly endangered, the brow-antlered deer were gifted by the state of Manipur to the zoo in 1962 and since then the zoo has shown remarkable progress in breeding and nourishing these rare animals and even distributed many to Kanpur, Ahmedabad, Junagadh, Hyderbad, Lucknow and Mysore zoos. 


Manipuri brow-antlered deer on the zoo's logo (Photo courtesy - WWFIndia.org)


One of the most horrifying and inescapable facets of a visit to zoo and life in India in general is the insensitive nature of the visitors and a complete lack of basic manners and education – littering is common despite there being a ban on importing food substances and cartons/packs/polythenes within the zoo complex as well as placement of dustbins throughout the compound; harassing the animals when they are sleeping or in their cave/dugout; shouting (usually at animals but not restricted to the same) is another common observation. Given that the zoo sees a footfall of 5000-6000 visitors on normal days and 12000-13000 on weekends and holidays, even a fraction of them acting as miscreants becomes a significant number that all the stakeholders including the zoo guards, other visitors and most importantly, the animals have to cope with. 


Calm but highly dangerous - Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)


By the time we came out of the zoo complex it was already evening; the numerous shops at the zoo periphery that dealt in stuffed toys, cheap picture books (suitable for kids only) and costly coffee-table books had begun their business; so had the vendors on foot or cycle selling thin booklets about animal/plant/insect lives, balloons, key rings and animal-shaped toys. For the sake of posterity I too bought a thin booklet even though it was marked “Ages 10-15”. Definitely an experience worth reminiscing about, now I know why a lot of old people state that visiting zoological parks and botanical gardens with their grand/kids bring back memories of their own childhoods. I shall visit again, have to document the kos minar and the serai too – but then it would be with a camera and hopefully in winters when the animals aren’t removed from their enclosures to protect them from the summer sun. Till then.. 


One of the large maps that are placed strategically along the pathways throughout the complex 


Nearest Bus stop: Purana Qila (Old Fort)
Nearest Metro Station: Central Secretariat
Nearest Railway Station: Hazrat Nizamuddin
How to reach: The zoo is situated right next to Old Fort (refer link - Pixelated Memories - Old Fort). The bus stop is immediately outside the larger fortress-zoo complex while one has to avail the facilities of an auto if deboarding at metro/train station (will cost around Rs 40 either case).
Open: All days, except Friday
Timings: April 01-Oct 15: 9am-4.30pm; Oct 16-March 31: 9.30am-4pm
Entrance Fee: Indians: Rs 40 (adults) and Rs 20 (children upto 5yrs of age and senior citizens); Foreigners: Rs 200 (adults) and Rs 100 (children upto 5yrs of age)
For concessions related to school visits, refer page - Nzpnewdelhi.gov.in - Timing and Tariff
Photography charges: Rs 100; Video charges: Rs 1000 (For other charges refer page - Nzpnewdelhi.gov.in - Timing and Tariff)
Facilities available: wheelchair (free), mobile van, luggage room, ATM facility
Not permitted within: Eatables (except milk and infant food), tobacco and alcoholic products, inflammable materials and matchsticks, polythenes/cartons/tetrapacks, firearms and sharp objects (scissors/knives), musical/sound instruments, bags (except purses, laptop/camera bags)
Relevant links - 

Suggested reading - 
  1. Archeolognewsaround.blogspot.in - Mughal-era serai to be conserved
  2. Business-standard.com - Article "Coolers, sprinklers help Delhi Zoo animals beat the summer heat" (dated May 11, 2014) by Shradha Chettri and Rupesh Dutta
  3. Dailymail.co.uk - Article "Saving the last white tiger cub" (dated Jan 29, 2014) by Sunanda Ranjan
  4. Dailypioneer.com - Article "Something to roar about: Delhi zoo will get a facelift" (dated April 21, 2014) by Sweta Goswami
  5. Deccanherald.com - Article "Delhi zoo in crying need of attention" (dated May 27, 2014) by Neha Das
  6. Hindustantimes.com - Article "ASI-protected monument comes in way of zoo expansion" (dated Feb 24, 2013) by Nivedita Khandekar
  7. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Zoos: India's wildlife ghettos" (dated Feb 02, 2013) by Chetan Chauhan
  8. National Zoological Park, Delhi official website
  9. Thehindu.com - Article "Delhi Zoo hikes charges" (dated Oct 02, 2010)