November 27, 2012

Raj Bhavan, Calcutta


The gubernatorial house of Bengal, Raj Bhavan (“Regal House”), is an essential stop on the itinerary of any heritage enthusiast on a sightseeing tour of the historic British-built BBD Bagh Area (formerly Dalhousie Square) despite being out of bounds for visitors. Strewn with history from the colonial past with Gothic and Victorian edifices, beautiful churches, ancient cemeteries and impressive English buildings complete with exquisitely sculpted Corinthian pillars, ornamental statues, imposing facades and splendid interiors, BBD Bagh is one of the most renowned and endearing heritage zones in the city of Calcutta. As its centerpiece, the skillfully designed and laboriously executed enclave has the residences of the mighty – Raj Bhavan and Writers’ Building (office of the Chief Minister of Bengal, refer – Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building). By the numerous police officers on duty around Raj Bhavan, one is only granted permission to click the lovely cream-yellow facade from the streets afar and from the massive gateway if one happens to be unyieldingly adamant, like yours truly (unlike the superbly visitor-unfriendly Writers’ Building where photography is prohibited even from afar!) and hence one has to rely on old photographs and satellite imagery to achieve an idea of what the Governor’s residence is actually like. The largest and unequivocally the most highly adorned residence of a state head after the President’s House in Delhi (refer Pixelated Memories - Presidential House, New Delhi), the Raj Bhavan sits snugly in a colossal green space measuring 27 acres in the heart of the city and consists of a central domed rectangular core from which emerge four annexes connected to the core by quadrangular curved sections – the dome is not visible from the primary (northern) gateway since the raised triangular facade of the structure supported on six Doric pillars impedes the view from this particular side, however one can observe the giant semi-circular dome from the southern gateway.


The Raj Bhavan. At the bottom of the staircase is a Chinese canon brought by the armed forces following the First Opium War.


Though there are masonry gates along all four sides of the vast lawns housing the palatial building, only the northern gateway has been envisaged as a grand, though simplistic, structure with an ornamental iron gate complementing the thick marble pillars crowned by decorative marble vases; the rest of the gateways possess cement-finished terracotta/brick sculptures of lions (atop central (largest) arch) and sphinxes (atop the smaller side arches) but simply fail to hold a candle to the northern gateway, probably because the statues are undoubtedly unrealistic or because despite their decorative appearance and much adorned surfaces, they are unremittingly not as grand as the intention behind their conceiving might have been. The present form and composition of the statues was arrived upon after much experimentation that continued for over a decade! Photographs depict how luxuriously regal the structure is from within and since I haven’t been inside (but would love to!) I am sharing photographs from the official website to display the same. On the north side, an enormously long gravel-lined walkway flanked by palm and other trees leads to a wide flight of stairs following which the building’s interiors can be accessed. At the bottom of the staircase rests a beautifully decorated Chinese cannon mounted on a winged dragon and brought to India in the year 1842. A plaque fitted on the cannon's plinth reads "Edward Lord Ellen borough, Governor General of India in Council, erected this trophy of guns taken from the Chinese, in commemoration of the peace dictated under the walls of Nan kin by the Naval and Military forces of England and India under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir William Parker and of Lieutenant-General Sir Hugh Gough (1842).", thereby commemorating the victory over the Chinese in the highly unethical First Anglo-Chinese Opium War that broke out as a result of the Chinese emperor’s opposition and punishment with regard to the pushing of massive quantities of illegal opiates into his country but was largely motivated by the British frustration at the Chinese trade framework which limited their influence in the region. The seal of Indian sovereignty – the Ashokan lions mounted on their pedestal and underlined by the national quote “Satyamev Jayate” (“Truth alone triumphs”) – can be seen embossed in gold on the northern gateway as well as the triangular pediment of the main structure – these replace the British coat of arms that once made up the insignia defining the Viceregal lodge, as noted by the renowned painters Thomas and William Daniells –

“Contiguous to the Esplanade is the Government House, a superb edifice, approached by four colossal gates emblazoned with the Britannic Arms” 

As witnessed from vintage photographs, the coat of arms belonged to the British government and the East India Co. (these were later removed in favor of the former) and featured on the triangular pediment as well was emblazoned on the front face of each annex. 


The simplistic yet marvelous northern gate. Notice the Indian administrative insignia emblazoned in gold on the gates.


Completed in 1803 after four years of laborious construction work, the grand building, then referred to as “Government House”, was a brainchild of Lord Wellesley, the then Governor-General of the British East India “trading” Company (which incidentally also owned vast territories and commanded a very powerful army). Prior to the construction of this splendid structure, the Governor-General used to reside in a rented country house that stood at this very spot and was owned by Mohammed Reza Khan, the Nawab (revenue collector/”Zamindar”) of Chitpur but was found to be unfit for regal residence by the Governor-General. Embarrassingly, though Lord Wellesley has been credited with gifting one of the most elegant colonial buildings to Calcutta, he was soon charged with misuse of Company funds for construction and furnishing of this extremely expensive structure and was recalled to England in 1805. Considered to be amongst the finest European architectural legacies in the subcontinent, the structure was designed by Captain Charles Wyatt and inspired by the Kedleston Hall of England (the ancestral residence of Lord Curzon, a later Governor-General and occupant of the Government House). It, however, differs from Kedleston Hall in several key aspects – the latter features only two annexes curving along its front instead of the four elegant pavilions curving symmetrically along each corner of the central building as observed in the former; nor does Kedleston Hall boast of a fusion of several architectural influences like spacious verandahs and colonnaded hallways.


Warm and regal - The Throne Room within the gubernatorial house (Photo courtesy - Rajbhavankolkata.nic.in)


The Neoclassical Raj Bhavan building has since housed numerous Governor-Generals, (following the transfer of governance from East India Co. to the Govt. of Britain in 1858) Viceroys, (following the transfer of British administration to Delhi in 1911) Lieutenant-Governors of the territory of Bengal and (following independence) Governors of the state of Bengal – it was only natural that several changes would have to be made to the structure to accommodate the requirements of these illustrious personalities while also modifying it to keep pace with technological and structural developments – thus somewhere around 1805 the metallic dome was added – it used to be surmounted by a sculpture of a female deity holding a spear and shield but it was removed to avoid lightning strikes – the dome has since been repaired and replaced several times, Lord Curzon had a small electric lift installed within even though the building only possesses three floors with a total of sixty regally furnished and tastefully decorated rooms; he also added the ornamental vases, each of which is over six feet tall (a fact not apparent from the gateways!), marking the roof and modified the color scheme from pale yellow to dazzling white, though at present yellow seems to be back in favor (I must point out that in comparison the new supposedly “gentle and soothing” blue and white color scheme being enforced in the entire city by the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) dispensation appears to be a highly garish eyesore, nowhere more apparent than in the elitist, elegant and warm BBD Bagh area). Several more cannons and guns were added as trophies around the main structure as the British established administrative and military control over new territories – Sindh (Pakistan), Mesopotamia (Iran), Punjab (India-Pakistan), Mandalay (Myanmar), Kabul (Afghanistan), Seringapatnam (capital of Tipu Sultan's kingdom at Mysore, from where comes the Governor-General's stunning throne) – I wish public entry to the complex was allowed if only to view these historic artifacts. A lesser proportioned “Garden House” was added in the huge lawns in 1977 when T.N. Singh, the then Governor, expressed unwillingness to stay in the main building citing its massiveness and opulent character. The most prominent of the recent Governors of Bengal, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, a forthright and extremely brilliant writer-columnist whose articles and essays I adore, had several environmental measures taken up in the complex, including solar panels and rain water harvesting systems.


An aerial view depicting the central core topped by the metallic dome, the triangular facade supported by the six Doric pillars and the four annexes (Photo courtesy - Panoramio.com/sandipanoramio)


The richly decorated offices and the lavish residential quarters are accommodated in the four annexes; the complex also maintains, in a corner of its lawns, a small cemetery dedicated to the gubernatorial pets that deceased during the tenure. Besides a “Throne Room” (where once princes and visiting dignitaries were received but today the Governors are administered oath of office), the structure also boasts of several huge and colonnaded banquet halls, visitor rooms and conference chambers, each of which is lined with precious artifacts and magnificent paintings besides rich carpets, comfortable seating arrangement, luxurious chandeliers and expensive wooden furniture thereby completing the lavish royal appearance deserved by the Governor (based on the photographs available on the official Raj Bhavan website, see site link at the end of this post). Of course, one can argue that such extravagant show of splendor and affluence is sick and demoralizing in a poor state such as Bengal where the government makes headway in providing the most basic civic amenities only after receiving millions of rupees worth bailout packages from the central government, but – one, the (nominal) head of the state needs an exclusive, lavish residence in accordance with her/his position, and two, duh, people aren’t after all allowed within the massive structure! (except occasionally, like the recent much written about, open invitation to visitors by then Governor M.K. Narayanan). 


Lavishly luxurious - One of the several drawing rooms (Photo courtesy - Rajbhavankolkata.nic.in)


It is interesting to note that while the British no longer run the country and the Governor is only the titular head of a state with the actual legislative power resting with the Chief Minister, the landmark gubernatorial houses in every state are still referred to as “Raj Bhavan” or “Government House” – definitely a colonial legacy in nomenclature which has been adopted to modern vernacular utilization. The Raj Bhavan at Calcutta has been the site from where some of the foremost personalities of their time legislated over the entire country and several eminent Governors managed affairs of Bengal; it is also the site for the undertaking of several key projects and signing of several important treaties and orders. The majestic structure proved to be a pinnacle of European construction in the magnificent city and has undoubtedly been paid a grand tribute by Lord Curzon (who happened to be a discerning visitor and pro-conservation administrator of several endearing historic structures throughout the subcontinent) through his words – 

“(It is) without doubt the finest Government House occupied by the representative of any Sovereign or Government in the world.” 


Flamboyant! (Photo courtesy - Flickr.com/Chiradeep Mukhopadhyay)


Location: BBD Bagh Area (formerly Dalhousie Square)
Nearest Bus stop: Esplanade
Nearest Metro station: Esplanade
How to reach: Buses and metro can be availed from different parts of the city to Esplanade from where one can walk/take a taxi to Raj Bhavan. One can also take a taxi from any part of the city to Raj Bhavan/BBD Bagh.
Entrance fees: Nil, but visitor entry strictly disallowed without prior written permission from the authorities or appointment with the Governor.
Photography/Video charges: Nil from the outside. Again, prohibited within the complex.
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links – 

November 21, 2012

Alai Darwaza, New Delhi



This article is part of the series about Qutb Complex, Delhi. Refer Pixelated Memories – Qutb Complex for the composite post.


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“It is about a century more modern than the other buildings of the place, and displays the Pathan style at its period of greatest perfection, when the Hindu masons had learned to fit their exquisite style of decoration to the forms of their foreign masters…This building, though small – it is only fifty-six feet square externally, and with an internal apartment only thirty-four feet six inches in plan – marks the culminating point of the Pathan style in Delhi. Nothing so complete had been done before, nothing so ornate was attempted by them afterwards…Externally, it is a good deal damaged, but its effect is still equal to that of any building of its class in India."
– James Fergusson, 19th century architectural historian and explorer 

After returning successful from his Deccan campaigns, Alauddin Khilji (reigned 1296-1316 AD), the second Sultan of the medieval short-lived Khilji Dynasty that ruled over vast territories extending from North India and Pakistan to Bengal in east and Deccan in south, decided to show his gratitude to God by embarking on an ambitious project to enlarge the mosque built by Qutbuddin Aibak and extended by Shamshuddin Iltutmish, previous rulers who established Muslim rule over India and helped propagate it further respectively. Alauddin’s ambitions had no seams – he planned to expand the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in Delhi to over three times its original size, add ceremonial gateways to the mosque in all directions, provide for a massive madrasa (Islamic school for religious learning) adjacent to the mosque, build more floors atop the already existing Qutb Minar and even add a new minaret nearby that was supposed to be twice the height of Qutb Minar (see links in the end). But the Sultan died soon after initiating his new projects, only a few of them could be completed, the rest were abandoned. The Sultan’s new minaret – the Alai Minar – stands nearby with only its first floor completed, his madrasa which also houses his tomb is in ruins, the extensions he made to the mosque are almost all lost to the ravages of time and nature, of the four gateways he intended to give to the mosque he could build only the southern one. Incidentally this gateway – the Alai Darwaza – built in 1311 AD, is now the prestige of the mosque and the entire Qutb Complex (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) by extension.
 

Chiseled to perfection - Alauddin's ornamental gateway


Noteworthy for its architecture, the gateway, built of red sandstone and furnished with an inlay of white marble in the forms of bands and panels, is actually more of a small square room than a literal gateway. Sitting atop a high plinth, it is pierced by arched doorways on all its sides – the one facing the mosque is slightly circular, while the rest are horse-shoe shaped arches with arrow-like indentations across their curved surface – interestingly, only the face facing the mosque courtyard is devoid of any ornamentation, the other faces are literally brimming with decorative designs taking the form of geometric patterns and Quranic inscriptions in advanced calligraphy. Exceptionally symmetrical, it appears not to be a work of mortal humans. Distinct from the earlier structures within the Qutb complex, it is the first structure in the country to employ true Islamic construction practices, especially symmetry and geometrical accuracy, and was a product of the architectural acumen and skilled handiwork of the Turkish artists whom the Sultan specially brought to India and who shaped the stone with their chisel and blades according to the Sultan’s fancies. Moreover, the gateway is historically one of the most important buildings in the entire complex since the architecture employed in its erection had just made crossroads in the Indian subcontinent – the use of true arches and proper domes as opposed to trabeated arches or squinches supporting the massive domes was a result of the architectural knowledge imparted by the builders brought in by the Muslim overlords of a largely Hindu country with Hindu architectural and artistic practices. On the outside, bands of marble and sandstone add a certain flair to the gateway’s surface – these bands, depicting various geometrical and floral patterns, cover the gateway’s entire surface, even forming a pattern so as to lock with the stairs symmetrically too, the patterns are such exquisitely carved that one is forced to reflect upon the merit and skill of the craftsmen who sculpted these. 


An old illustration of the gateway - Contrast the abundance of vegetation and creepers with the modern, dry, lifeless setting. In comparison to this illustration , the present "restored" gateway looks plastic-like! (Photo courtesy - Columbia.edu)


Travelling through India, the famous 19th-century American orientalist painter, Edwin Lord Weeks, who also happened to be a renowned travel writer and an avid student of architectural history, extolled the magnificent gateway thus –

"A remarkable and rare use of the Moorish horseshoe arch occurs in the building known as the gateway of Alah-ou-din at Old Delhi, erected about 1310. This is regarded as the most ornate example of Pathan work, and...is similar to that of many other Mussulman buildings, resembling in some respects the entrances of the mosque at Cordova, (although) many of the ornamental details and patterns are purely Hindoo, and of course peculiar to India."


The carvings and patterns contrast with the low dome of the gateway, a plain structure devoid of any kind of adornment except a small circular finial. Again, inside the chamber, fairly simple work on the concave surface of the spherical roof contrasts with the wonderfully designed recessed corners and patterned doors. Arching jaalis (stone lattice screens), sculpted with great labor, cover the walls and act as a source of natural light for the chamber.

The high walls, with their embellishments and motifs present numerous photography compositions, and once the sun is high in the sky, the light entering from the jaalis and the doors and the receding shadows inside form supplementary patterns, there for all to see. The various features of the gateway, deteriorated over time, were extensively restored by Major Smith of the British Royal Engineers in 1828. Major Smith also restored the Qutb Minar and the Quwwat mosque and is also credited for the construction of the cupola now referred to as Smith’s Folly (refer Pixelated Memories - Smith's Folly).


The multiple patterned bands ornamenting the exterior walls of the gateway near the base - such is the precision with which  these bands have been carved that they even lock with the staircases!


I was recently reading “Delhi: Past and Present” by historian H.C. Fanshawe, here is how he extols the striking gateway –

“The Alai Darwazah is not only the most beautiful structure at the Kutab Minar, but is one of the most beautiful specimens of external polychromatic decoration not merely in India, but in the whole world, while the carving of the interior may challenge comparison with any work of the kind. Both exterior and interior merit detailed and leisurely examination” 


Inscriptions frame the arched doorways of the Darwaza, and refer to “Abul Muzaffar Muhammad Shah” (Alauddin Khilji) as having been responsible for the extensions and facelift of the mosque. Gazing at the gateway one wonders what striking specimens of architecture the Sultan would have conjured up had he lived long enough to build all the gateways and the intended Alai Minar.


The view from the hillock that faces the Qutb complex on this side. The small tomb adjacent is that of Imam Zamin, a priest at the Qutb mosque (Photo courtesy - Wikimedia.org)


Location: Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open: Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 10; Foreigners: Rs 250
Photography charges : Nil
Video charges: Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station: Saket Metro Station and Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach: Taxis, buses and autos can be availed from different parts of the city. One can avail a bus/auto from the metro stations.
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Facilities available: Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links - 

November 16, 2012

Imam Zamin's Tomb, New Delhi


In about 1500 AD, during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517 AD), a saint known as Muhammad Ali arrived from Turkestan & began living in Delhi. He came to be called as Imam Zamin (“Imam” literally translates to Islamic priest, perhaps the saint also occupied some position in the adjoining Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, refer Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque) & accumulated enough wealth to build himself a small tomb in a corner of the magnificent Qutb Complex (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It is not clear why he was christened with this new name.


Zamin's Tomb


Standing next to the more famous Alai Darwaza, the tomb is a small square structure built in Delhi’s Lodi-style of architecture. It is surmounted by a sandstone dome that stands on two rows of kanguras (battlement like ornamentation on structures, supposed to look militaristic but is actually not). Twelve square pillars support the entire structure & the space between them is filled with intricate jalis (stone lattice work). 


Crafted for perfection


The tomb, built with white marble & red sandstone with its assortment of jalis houses not only the sarcophagus of the saint, but also a small mihrab (wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims when saying Namaz) for offering prayers. Elaborately carved in marble, the mihrab is a piece of art & contrasts with the brilliant orange roof of the tomb. 


Little wonder!!


Other adornments include floral medallions & stunning calligraphy at the door of the tomb, & the tomb also features small chajjas (roof projections to protect the person standing underneath from direct rain & harsh sunlight – an ingenious Indian architectural innovation). 


Mihrab secrets


The saint saw Delhi pass from the hands of the Lodi Dynasty to the Mughals under Babur, & when he died in 1539 AD Babur’s son Humayun was on throne & building his new capital. Zamin was buried in his tomb, which was simple elegance personified. 


The unique "ribbed" dome-roof of the tomb



Location : Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open : Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee : Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250
Photography charges : Nil
Video charges : Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station : Saket Metro Station & Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach : Taxis, buses & autos can be availed from different parts of the city. The structures are quite a walk from the metro stations & one will have to take bus/auto from there on.
Time required for sightseeing : 30 min
Facilities available : Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links - 

  1. Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar
  4. Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque

November 14, 2012

Kali Puja, Durgapur


Today is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights & crackers. It is believed that on this day, King Rama returned to his kingdom in Ayodhya (in modern day Uttar Pradesh) after spending 14 years in exile in the various forests of the country, & since it was a (dark) new moon night, the people of Ayodhya welcomed him by lighting lamps at their doorsteps & terraces & boundary walls, & at all those places where they could place a lamp. Hindus believe Rama to be an ideal human being – epitomising the qualities of “Dharma” (literally “religion”, but actually meaning “a way of life”), & of course he is also considered by many as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life & preservation. During his exile, which was a result of a plot by his step-mother Kekeyi who wanted to place her own son Bharata on the throne of Ayodhya, Rama travelled as far as Lanka (which is supposedly the modern island of Sri Lanka) to free his wife Sita who was treacherously kidnapped & imprisoned in a garden-orchard by Ravana, the lord of Lanka, often believed to be an embodiment of evil itself & portrayed with ten heads & ridiculously large moustaches. As I had promised in the “Navaratris” post (refer Pixelated Memories - Navaratris if you still don't know what Navaratris are, or just to see the photographs), I shall be covering more of festivities & celebrations in this blog. However this post is not about Diwali – sadly, once again I am struck in Durgapur where Diwali is not celebrated with as much gaiety as North India. Instead, Bengalis celebrate Kali Puja (“Puja” = "worship") on the day of Diwali. Huge pandals (tents made after covering humongous bamboo scaffoldings with cloth & other decorative material) are set up according to a pre-decided theme, wherein an idol of Goddess Kali is housed. Visitors come & go, each one with hands folded & heads bowed reverentially in front of the idol. The pandal theme usually shows one or the other cultural &/or traditional aspect, sometimes seemingly bizarre, for instance I have seen pandals made with jute & coir to promote the local cottage industry, & I have also seen pandals designed to look like the Egyptian Sphinx, complete with varied hieroglyphics & housing a Kali idol where the treasure was supposed to be!!


Pandal - Benachity Market, Durgapur, 2012


While in the rest of the country, Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth & prosperity, & a sister of Kali, is worshipped, Bengalis worship Kali – the dark skinned Goddess of death & destruction, often considered to be an embodiment of time itself. Kali is the consort of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death, & while Shiva himself wears serpents as his neckpieces, Kali wears a necklace made out of severed demonic heads, her tongue jutting out of her mouth thirsting for blood, & her swords & scimitars flashing their sharp blades. She is the annihilator of evil forces, who runs around naked, killing demons & wrongdoers in her wake, & consuming everything around herself like an ever-growing fire. The image of Kali is a fierce one, several of my friends avoid going to even the famous Kali temples (such as Kalighat, Calcutta, refer Pixelated Memories - Kalighat) & idol-making workshops since they are terrified of these images. But not me!! A day before Diwali, & we (that is, me & my friends Kshitish & Aakash) find ourselves standing outside a workshop where Kali idols are made by skilled artisans in anticipation of this day.


The dark one


The workshop is in Benachity, which is a large market place in the heart of Durgapur (which literally means “the land of Durga”, Durga is another sister of Kali). We aren’t afraid of Kali – she is also the bestower of boons, a mother diety, who when appeased fulfils one’s desires & helps overcome all obstacles. She is also associated with sex, lust & tantra (which has come to be associated only with Black Magic & Voodoo, but is also the appeasement of Goddess for financial & health gains, as well as attainment of “Moksha” – independence from worldly shackles & bonds & an inculcation into the “Supreme Being”). Tantra also considers Kali as the primordial deity, who devours everything, even the Gods themselves, at the end of creation. She is Shakti, the bestower of strength & power.


Naked divinity


Kali Puja is one of the foremost festivals in Bengal, & idol-making is a big business here (just like effigy-making is in Tatarpur, see Pixelated Memories - Ravana making in Tatarpur, New Delhi ), with the entire families helping out in the process – which begins with accumulating the proper kind of soil & sand to create the idol’s framework, & includes the designing of frame, painting it in vivid colours, & decking it up with beads, decorative accessories & cloth in dazzling shades. The artists who make these idols are skilled & design these idols in a uniform manner, but with varying colours & an assortment of forms – so there are idols varying in size from 3-30 feet, coloured blue, black, or cream & covered with white, red, or yellow tiaras. Kali is usually shown naked in order to show her transcending the boundaries of consciousness by not covering her femininity, however since many patrons prefer not to take the naked Goddess home, there are even versions covered with beautiful transparent cloth – in shocking red, white & greens.


Spoiled for choice!!


The idols at times do look scary indeed, the blood-red tongues darting out of the black & blue faces, the three eyes, the dishevelled hair, the large headgear shining in the little rays of light that are able to enter the dingy & dark workshops, the waist girdle made with severed hands of dead men, & the neck pendants made of evil-looking heads. Often the Goddess is shown carrying skulls & thigh bones, rather than swords & battle axes, making her even more ferocious. But then, always her two right hands are shown showering blessings & favour on devotees & easing their pain & terror at her appearance.


Is she on our side??


The workshop in Benachity belonged to one Shambo Das, who claimed to be an idol-artist for the past 25 years & believed the Goddess is a harbinger of good luck to him. A modest man, who wanted us to tour the idol-workshops of Calcutta & the rest of Durgapur, before calling his idols stunning, he allowed me to take as many photographs as I wanted to. Here there were even idols of Durga, Shiva, Ganesh (Shiva-Durga’s son, the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of wisdom, beginnings & goodluck), Ganas (the followers of Shiva, shown as short & stubby men with large tummies & cute expressions) – to portray the entire family of Kali. Of course they forgot that Kali had 8 more sisters (some say they are all incarnations of one another – Bhavani, Gauri, Rajeshwari, etc).


All in the family!!


Then there is the prostrate Shiva who lies under Kali’s feet like a mattress, the snakes clinging to his body flinging violently, their aggressive expressions in contrast to Shiva’s calm & soothing face. According to one myth, when Kali was invoked in the war against the demon Raktabija (literally “Blood-seed”, each drop of blood from his body could assume a new demonic form), she appeared in her wild form & drank all of Raktabija’s blood in order to prevent him from producing more duplicates. But she did not stop after slaying him, but went on destroying friends & foes alike who stood in her path, severing their heads, mutilating their bodies & feasting on their blood & flesh. Soon the balance of the world was disturbed by her destructive activities & ruthlessness, & Lord Shiva was invoked to soothe her. Unable to avail of any method to prevent her from more killing & torture, Shiva went & lay at Kali’s feet, immediately calming her. Since then she is shown standing upon her husband’s body & also to this day, meat & spirits are offered instead of the usual sweets at her temple. Kali Puja sees the sacrifice of numerous goats, buffaloes & fowl at the temples & community prayer grounds. Bells are rung, mantras (invocations) chanted, the idols are smeared in vermilion & devotees pray all night long to appease the Goddess. Kali dominates the Tantric texts & iconography, & the Tantriks & Siddhas (followers of Tantra & devotees of Kali) take special pleasure in celebrating Kali Puja – slaughtering goats to propitiate the Goddess’s anger & to win her favour. They decorate their houses with skulls – not just human, but animal alike, & often partake of blood themself. The Tantriks believe in facing Kali in the cremation ground, her home turf, to overcome all fear of her & to be able to look at her like a mother, a source of infinite power & energy. But in non-Tantrik Bengali households, feasts are held, that include a multi-course dinner ending with the delectable Rasogulla. But almost everywhere, the Goddess is offered pure wine (“Soma ras”/”Madira”) which is said to find special favour with her.


& here is another one!!


Before I end this post, I have to tell you about the pandals – they are just awesome, & reflect the creativity of the people who envision them & the skill of the artists who craft them out of seemingly simple material. With nimble limbs, the workers rapidly climb up bamboo poles & scaffolding to cover & decorate them. & decorate they do with much gusto – the simple yet intricate designs reflect their passion & reverence for the Goddess. People visit these pandals from far & near, special prayers are organized here & one can even spot women uttering strange shrieks – said to be Kali’s battle cry, & supposed to bring fertility to women – shrill & fierce, these cries add a fearsome gusto to the proceedings. Musicians playing “Dhak” (large drums fitted with feathers & leaves) reach a crescendo with the prayers & the dance. Wafts of incense travel far to pull one & all to the pandals. & of course, there are beautiful girls in traditional attires to talk to!! 


Seated in a pandal


It is interesting to note that Kali finds little, if any, mention in the ancient Hindu texts, & the festival of Kali Puja came to be celebrated in Bengal only after Maharaja Krishna Chandra (a fief holder of Bengal) popularised it in 18th century & expected the people in his domain to organize it with much fanfare. Before that the Puja was celebrated at a very small scale every year in certain localized areas of Bengal. Later, Krishna Chandra’s grandson Ishwar Chand along with the other landlords began patronizing the Puja, & this influx of money & resources ensured that Kali Puja took enormous proportions & became one of the main festivals of the Bengali community. The Puja is today organized in almost all parts of the country & abroad – wherever a sizeable Bengali community has settled. Also it has become much more inclusive than before, so in addition to the worship to Kali, many pandals also organize large fairs complete with miniature Ferris wheels & food & sweet stalls to provide something for the Non-Bengalis & the kids.


Just felt like posting another pic!!


The Puja goes on all night, & also intermittently on the next two days. On the third day after Kali Puja, the idols are immersed in a stream of flowing water, usually the sea or a river. The Goddess waits in the infinite abyss, waiting for her insurrection the next year, thirsting for fresh blood all that while.

When : Kali Puja coincides with Diwali & falls on Kartik Amavasya (Kartik is a winter month in the traditional Hindu calendar, while Amavasya refers to the new moon night). Usually in late October - early November.
Where : Throughout Bengal.

November 08, 2012

Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, New Delhi


India has seen riots in the name of religion, mosques & temples have been destroyed by one community or the other, either to forward their petty constituencies, or in retaliation. Yet India is perhaps the only country where religion exists in every nook & cranny – films are made on religious issues, TV serials depicting the ancient lore of Mahabharata & Ramayana are household names, political parties are accused of being run by religious groups, or being “pseudo-secularists”, & as a recent Hindi movie put it bluntly “The population going to temples far outsmarts those going to schools”. The Quwwat mosque, literally translating to “the might of Islam”, is perhaps the earliest example where this religious zeal, or fanaticism rather, comes into daily social life & administrative affairs. When the Sultan of Ghur (in modern Afghanistan), Muizuddin Muhammad bin Sam, more popularly known as Muhammad Ghuri, invaded India in 1192, he met a fierce resistance in the form of the troops organized by the Rajput Prithviraj Chauhan. Yet he was able to reroute the “Hindu” army & establish “Islamic” rule over India. But he did not stay long in the country to oversee its affairs, & left for his kingdom leaving behind his slave & army commander Qutbuddin Aibak. Now Qutbuddin was a very loyal servant, he wanted to forward his master’s name & claim even more. Also he was a man guided by his religious zeal, even his name translates to “the Staff of God”. Guided by these two precise reasons, he began construction of the massive tower called Qutb Minar to celebrate his master’s victory over the infidel land, & the adjoining Quwwat mosque to act as a beacon of faith for his soldiers fighting in an unruly land of foreign religion & incessant enemy attacks, & also to send a message of the strength & battle competency of his Islamic forces to his enemies.


The roof of one of the temples that Qutbuddin destroyed, now incorporated within the mosque framework 


He ordered destruction of several temples of Hindu & Jain religions, & 27 of them were razed to provide building material for the Quwwat mosque. Since then has continued the tradition of Muslim Sultans felling temples in the country & occasionally Hindu right-wing groups destroying mosques built by the same Sultans over their religious grounds. In all this conundrum, what I find the most intriguing is the question "why did the Sultans fell the temples in the first place?” What were the reasons, apart from their beliefs & abhorrence to infidel religions, to undertake such extreme steps, despite often being connoisseurs of art & architecture & themselves being learnt scholars well-versed in several arts, languages & poetry?? Qutbuddin destroyed these temples because these were not in accordance with Islamic tenets that forbid representation of deities & humans & other living beings. & yet used the same material that he detested in the construction of his mosque, after some minor disfigurement – just enough to deface the sculptures but retain their overall design & largely Hindu identity. Couldn’t he bring himself to destroy those flawless pieces of art?? Why did he leave the celebrated Iron Pillar standing at its original position despite destroying the temple around it?? Couldn’t he bear the loss of this metallurgical wonder?? 


Another roof left intact. Do observe the well-proportioned stonework in the roof features.


In an aside from this, Feroz Shah Tughlaq, often given the sobriquet of “the architect-emperor”, built several canals, palaces, fortresses, mosques & madrasas, laid roads, repaired existing tombs & other structures (including Qutb Minar), & built his magnum in the form of the huge capital city called Feroz Shah Kotla (refer Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla for more details & photographs of Feroz's citadel), but he destroyed the famous Jwalamukhi Temple in Nagarkot & Jagannath Temple in Jajnagar after successful military campaigns to these kingdoms. However his inconsistent iconoclasm is revealed when he brings the Ashokan Pillars from Meerut & Topra to be put up in Delhi (one of them stands in Kotla Feroz Shah, the other exists near Hindu Rao Hospital). Why did he not destroy these pillars?? Finbarr Flood in his essay “Islam, Iconoclasm and the Early Indian Mosque” argues that these temple-destructions should be seen as political measures rather than religious ones. Mostly the Muslim Sultans destroyed only those temples that were close to the Indian kings, while often systematically preserving & providing financial assistance to other temples. Their only motive in doing so was (Courtesy - Sarson ke Khet - Four Ghurid Mosques) to shatter the relationship between the king & deity, & to disrupt the belief that the king’s authority to rule stems from the divine rights bestowed upon him by the Hindu Gods. Of course, Finbarr doesn’t explain the levy of Jazia (religious tax) on Hindus & other religious sects by Muslim rulers. In the memoirs called Taj-ul-Maasir, Hasan Nizami, Qutbuddin’s chronicler, notes “It was the custom after the conquest of every fort & stronghold to grind its foundations & pillars to powder under the feet of fierce & gigantic elephants”. 


Portion of the mosque, along with Alai Darwaza (the domed chamber) adjoining it.


Back to the topic, the Quwwat mosque is the oldest mosque in India, built almost a millennia back, yet it does not show any signs of its old age, & has not lost its aura & grandeur. Enclosing a large rectangular courtyard (65.2 X 45.4 metres), the mosque is built on the site of an existing Hindu temple called “Elbut-khana” (accounts of Ibn Batuta, a Moroccan traveller & chronicler to India & Asia). The entire mosque stands on a high platform, & as one climbs up the stairs & enters the mosque, some of the features that are immediately noticeable are – Qutb Minar standing near a corner of the mosque, the Iron Pillar standing in the centre of the courtyard close to the side opposite the Qutb Minar (see Pixelated Memories - Iron Pillar), giant arches that stand close to the Iron Pillar & give the impression of being one of the sides of the mosque (but without any continuation with any of the existing portions of the mosque), a few graves also lie in the courtyard of the mosque (but I don’t know whom do they belong to), & besides several entrances & latticed windows there is a large gateway called Alai Darwaza situated very close to the Qutb Minar. The mosque constitutes of the open courtyard which is surrounded on three sides by cloisters, the only distinguishing feature of these being that the roofs rest on very intricately carved pillars. These pillars were part of the temples that Qutbuddin destroyed – the pillars from Jain temples have geometrical patterns & lines engraved on them, while those from the Hindu temples are sculpted to show sophisticated Brahminical motifs such as Kalash (a ceremonial pot) overflowing with creepers & fluids (maybe wine & nectar) signifying prosperity, bells, lotuses & other flowers. The fourth side, or whatever is left of the elaborate arches, also functioned as mihrab (wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims when offering prayers). I don’t think I am qualified enough to pass a critique on these terrific sculptures. Hence I would just post (a lot of) photographs of these pillars & cloisters. 


Cloisters surrounding the open courtyard (I was trying to take not-so-cliché photographs!!)


Walking under these cloisters, noticing the rows of these elaborate pillars & their different designs, one also comes across the unique temple ceilings that break the monotony of these simple stone & rubble cloisters. These ceilings are such wonderful pieces of art, orange-red-yellow in colour, one mistakes them for being made of wax rather than stone. 


More cloisters - This one seems a rather cliché image!! Also visible is the cup of one of the temple roofs.


Plaques were installed within the walls of the mosque by Qutbuddin & offer details of the mosque’s construction that went on from 1192-1198 AD under the authority of Muizuddin ibn Sam. Also it has been mentioned that 27 temples were annihilated to make way for this mosque. Qutbuddin calls the Quwwat mosque a Jami mosque (mosque used for Friday congregational prayers), & given that he built his own capital over Prithviraj Chauhan’s city of Qila Rai Pithora (close to Qutb Complex), he might just have appeared every Friday for prayers at the Quwwat mosque. The mosque is so large that one has to spend more than an hour going through its courtyard & observing the various designs on its pillars & screens.


The original plaque installed by Qutbuddin


The screens were a much later addition to the mosque. Qutbuddin initiated their construction & built a large central arch (6.7m wide and 16m high) & two smaller side arches. The screens are carved with borders of Quranic inscriptions & geometrical designs. However since they were carved by Hindu artisans, who excelled in the depiction of life forms, one notices an abundance of floral designs along the length of the screen, even the calligraphic strokes end in beautiful petals & floral bursts. 


The mosque's screens - Sadly only Qutbuddin's original screens & Iltutmish's additions remain now (Photo courtesy - wikipedia.org)


Besides the screens are several sections that clearly show the remnants of Hindu architecture – bell-&-chain motifs stretch across the length of these pillars, while several deities & nymphs look on from the top of these pillars. Although these have been disfigured, yet are very easily identifiable. Since Qutbuddin put Indian artisans to work on his mosque, these pillars simply show the malleability of the artists & craftsmen who simply moulded a mosque from these remains, & that too according to the specifications of their new lord. Even many of the dome-like roofs are directly sourced from Hindu temples, & it is interesting to note how several columns of varying designs were accommodated in a mishmash to create this fairly extravagant mosque with no attention to the uniqueness of these pillars. & yet the symmetry these artists obtained, setting two (& even three) rows of pillars around the courtyard. As Percy Brown in his book “Indian Architecture: Islamic Period” put it bluntly “the first Islamic building in India of dressed stone was, at its best, a patchwork of older material, beautiful in detail, as its arcaded aisles were composed of pillars carved in the most perfect Hindu style, but as a whole a confused and somewhat incongruous improvisation.”. 


Hindu designs on the mosque's pillars


When Qutbuddin constructed the mosque in the name of his master, it was not as large & spectacular as it is today. Qutb Minar was supposed to be an adjoining victory tower. After his master’s death, Qutbuddin crowned himself Sultan of India (ruling from 1206-10 AD) & began what was to be later known as the rule of the Slave Dynasty. Shamshuddin Iltutmish (1211-36 AD) ascended the throne after assassinating Qutbuddin's son & successor Aram Shah, & added greatly to the proportions & might of this mosque & extended it to even include the gigantic Qutb Minar within its courtyard. Iltutmish also added new screen arches in continuation with the ones built by Qutbuddin. Portions of these arches still stand, although in discontinuity, since most of them were destroyed over time. These arches show a difference in design when compared to Qutbuddin’s arches, since by now the Hindu artists too had starts understanding Islamic construction practices & used nature depiction in their sculptures to a comparatively lesser extent. Later another ruler of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316 AD), again extended the mosque & added more screen arches. However Alauddin’s arches are now lost due to the ravages of time & weather. He also added a new gateway to the mosque, christened as Alai Darwaza after him, that still exists & extols the craftsmanship of the artists & sculptors who built it. 


Disfigured deities atop one of the pillars


Ironically, the decline of the mosque began during the reign of Alauddin who shifted his capital to the newly built citadel of nearby Siri & abandanod the previous capital of Lal Kot/Qila Rai Pithor which had continued to be the seat of Delhi sultanate since Qutbuddin established his so-called “Slave rule” over India. Read more about Alauddin's love-hate equation with God here - Pixelated Memories - Alauddin's Tomb & Madrasa Complex


One of my favorite specimens from within the mosque - A temple roof that now surmounts one of the cloisters of the mosque


I would have perhaps advised you to go see the mosque yourself, but then I hope the photographs here did their charm (OK, I concede I am proud of these pics, they came out good, didn't they??).

Location : Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open : Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee : Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250
Photography charges : Nil
Video charges : Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station : Saket Metro Station & Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach : Taxis, buses & autos can be availed from different parts of the city. The structures are quite a walk from the metro stations & one will have to take bus/auto from there on.
Time required for sightseeing : 30 min
Facilities available : Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Alauddin's Tomb & Madrasa Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla
  4. Pixelated Memories - Iron Pillar
  5. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  6. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar

November 06, 2012

Alauddin's Tomb & Madrasa Complex, New Delhi


The ancient lords of Delhi did almost everything at a grand scale – the magnificence surpassed everything else that any mortal might have seen, with the sole objective of overawing their subjects & intimidating their enemies. The grandeur with which the daily proceedings were conducted & the magnitude at which buildings were constructed was perhaps unmatched in the rest of the world. & why shouldn’t it be so – they had all the wealth in the world to spend, all the resources required to leave their imprint on this ethereal world. It is no wonder then that when Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316 AD), of the Khilji Dynasty which ruled over India from AD 1290-1320, returned to Delhi after a successful campaign in the Deccan (Central India – parts of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka & Andhra Pradesh) bringing with him great loot & plunder, he started comparing himself to God himself & wanted to begin a new religion under his name & propagate it through the blade of his sword. However he was placated by Ala-ul-Mulk, Kotwal (police chief) of Delhi. Alauddin then decided to focus on more worldly issues & before furthering his expansionist plans he embarked on several religious projects to propitiate Allah. He expanded the mosque Quwwat-ul-Islam (literally the “might of Islam”) in Delhi, added a new gateway to it (called Alai Darwaza), & even began the construction of a new minaret which was supposed to signify the increase in power of Islam & also of his own. Besides this he decided to build a madrasa (religious school, meant for imparting Islamic learning) next to the Quwwat mosque. The madrasa survives, but lies in a dilapidated condition now. Looking at the ruins one can imagine the grandeur of the place – standing out as an L-shaped building, the madrasa was one imposing edifice. Even today the madrasa stands out from the rest of the buildings in terms of its scale, despite its simplicity. Who could have imagined that once students studied in such huge buildings..must have been pretty intimidating being here!! The madrasa also houses Alauddin’s tomb, though the dome that covered it had fallen long time back. Perhaps as retribution from the God whom Alauddin antagonised. Alauddin was the first Indian ruler to follow the tradition of building the tomb within a madrasa. He also incorporated several Islamic architectural practices & motifs within the Indian style of construction.


Vestiges of what was once Alauddin's Tomb & Madrasa Complex


Shorn of all ornamentation that must have once covered its mighty walls (after all Alauddin would not have left this structure built under his watch unadorned, look how he bedecked Alai Darwaza), the madrasa-tomb complex stands only in the form of massive stone walls around a quadrangular court, fragmented at places, completely ruined at others. At least the colossal gateways still stand & the blackened domes of the madrasa did not fall off!! But then what God stopped short of doing, tourists did to the madrasa – even now one can spot several names & etchings left atop the domes by love-struck tourists. Alauddin certainly must be heaving in his eternal sleep!!


More remains!!



Location : Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open : Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee : Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250
Photography charges : Nil
Video charges : Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station : Saket Metro Station & Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach : Taxis, buses & autos can be availed from different parts of the city. The structures are quite a walk from the metro stations & one will have to take bus/auto from there on.
Time required for sightseeing : 30 min
Facilities available : Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar
  4. Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque

November 03, 2012

Smith's Folly, New Delhi


It lies in one corner of the complex, away from all the tourists, away from all the glitz & the spotlight, its flamboyant color peeling off but yet standing out amidst all the greenery & lush manicured lawns. Referred to as Smith’s folly (a folly is any modern structure that is made to look old in terms of its construction & architecture) after Major Robert Smith of the British Army Engineers who designed it, the cupola was once the crowning glory of the lofty Qutb Minar, but it was an eyesore to then Viceroy Lord Hardinge who had it brought down & shifted to the secluded corner.


Smith's Cupola


Before the interventions of Major Smith, who took an active interest in the conservation & restoration of the Qutb complex, especially the Alai Darwaza, Qutb Minar was crowned with another cupola which was destroyed in an earthquake in early 19th century. Smith while also restoring the entire minaret in 1829 topped it with his Bengali-style cupola (I still don’t know what are the Bengali architectural styles despite living in Calcutta for almost 3 years now!!). This one, with its vibrant red colour, floral motifs, arches & pillars that had floral designs around them but projected to form odd arrow/harpoon like structures towards the roof, would have perhaps looked like a monstrosity atop Qutbuddin’s magnum opus. The cupola stayed there until another intervention by Lord Hardinge in 1848. 


Smith's Cupola, & in the background are its more famous counterparts - Qutb Minar, Alai Darwaza (the large, domed chamber) & Imam Zamin's Tomb (the small, domed chamber)


Now that it is on the ground, I could easily step into this cupola, prance around it, take photographs, feel its peeling paint – all this would not have been possible if it stayed on top of the minaret (since climbing the minaret is now not allowed & its upper floors remain out-of-bounds for tourists). 


Feel the texture!!


The cupola has a hole in its roof, not that it wasn't always there – Smith designed it like that, it is delightful standing under it & gazing at the light & shadow patterns formed by the ornamentation left by Major Smith (visibly different from the patterns on the exterior). Dejected & forsaken (not by me though!!) amidst all the splendid structures within the magnificent Qutb Complex stands this little red cupola.


Light at the end of the, umm, dome!!


Location : Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open : Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee : Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250
Photography charges : Nil
Video charges : Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station : Saket Metro Station & Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach : Taxis, buses & autos can be availed from different parts of the city. The structures are quite a walk from the metro stations & one will have to take bus/auto from there on.
Time required for sightseeing : 30 min
Facilities available : Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  4. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar