November 15, 2014

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Delhi

Regarded as one of the holiest Sikh shrines in the city and one of the prettiest Gurudwara (Sikh temple) in the country, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, lined with tons of evocative pearlesque-white marble and surmounted by striking gold domes, was originally the regal mansion of Mirza Raja Jai Singh I, the Rajput king of Jaipur (then known as Amber). In fact, it derives its name too from the word “Bangla”, the Hindi/Punjabi translation of “mansion”, even though it has been transformed into a magnificent shrine and today draws thousands of visitors, including hundreds of foreign tourists, from the city and outside everyday. Dedicated to the memory of Guru Harkrishan, the eighth of ten Sikh spiritual leaders, who, upon being summoned to Delhi by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (ruled AD 1657-1707) and following the invitation of Raja Jai Singh I, briefly stayed in this mansion before his untimely demise at the age of eight caused from getting inflicted with smallpox while serving patients of the disease who flocked to his assembly everyday in the hope of solace and treatment.

In Guru's memory - Gurudwara Bangla Sahib

Much to the unabated chagrin of his elder brother Ram Rai who had him summoned to the royal court, Guru Harkrishan was reasonably declared the Sikh spiritual leader by their father Guru Har Rai at the tender age of five and proved his religious understanding and spiritual and mystical capabilities through several inconceivable episodes that occurred during his short lifetime before succumbing to the disease. Ram Rai himself was disowned by their father on account of his hobnobbing to the Mughal Emperor who was a declared political and religious enemy of the Sikhs. It is said that when the Guru first arrived at Raja Jai Singh’s mansion, the latter’s queen, intent on ascertaining the Guru’s mystical powers dressed herself as a handmaid and hid amongst her servants whom she had lavishly attired and adorned with jewelry, but was astonished when the Guru immediately recognized her as queen and thanked her for the hospitality extended by her household. The gorgeous mansion was converted into the prominent Gurudwara following the Sikh warlord Banda Bahadur’s invasion of Delhi (AD 1783) and was one of the nine mesmerizing Gurudwaras he raised; it was renovated and given this present magnificent appearance few years post-1947 when India achieved independence from British colonial rule. It is extremely difficult to believe that such a massive and unbelievably gorgeous structure was once a mere mansion, that too of a vassal sovereign of a small territory!

The Gurudwara is entered via a tall arched gateway surmounted by five onion chattris (domes raised on pillars) and faced with painstakingly polished, glistening white marble inset with colorful stones embedded in numerous floral patterns and Sikh religious motifs. The area around the Gurudwara bears a rushed, crowded look throughout the day since the shrine is extremely popular, especially amongst locals who come from near and far to pay their respects and also to marvel at the majestic regal architecture. The first thing that catches one’s eye, even before the long streaming queues of devotees waiting to enter, are the stunning pointed domes of the structure – the three gold-plated onions surmounting the building and the single superbly crafted marble onion on either side of the entrance. Other prominent architectural features include chattris, pavilions with curved tops lining the roof and exquisitely crafted, multi-arched hanging windows (“jharokhas”). The courtyard surrounding the central building, accessible from the road level by a flight of stairs, is vast and afterwards most devotees prefer to sit along the sides, especially if the purpose for visiting is photography.

A touch of gold!

The interiors are spellbinding – immediately upon stepping within, one is exposed to a large, mesmerizing shrine built entirely from gold and ornamented with a plethora of floral and religious motifs embossed into the gold work; especially intricate are the peacock figurines and the rounded vases from which emerge numerous convoluting, blossoming vines rising vertically upwards; Sikh symbolism, in the form of the recognizable motif of a vertical spear crossed over a pair of curved swords, lines the marble walls and decorates the patterns in gold; the thick rectangular pillars, each covered in layers of gold and also ornamented with the endearing vases overflowing with a vertical expansion of vines and floral blossoms, are especially admirable; lastly, the golden roof, polished to mirror-like perfection and bathed in a orange-gold glow by a large chandelier, reflects all the visitors, but proves frustratingly difficult to photograph. At the end of the elongated area on either side of which sit devotees, underneath an immensely intricately sculpted curved gold shrine is placed a copy of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy scripture; elderly musicians seated next to the canopied shrine sing melodious sermons and invocations referring to God and the Gurus while a priest continuously fans the hallowed text. The affluent, orange-hued gold extravaganza, rows of flower vases, expensive carpets and the rich canopy overhanging the shrine impart an unbelievably fascinating visual existence that is hard to replicate in photographs and even harder to contemplate in words – it is a sight and an experience that can only be registered on an emotional and visual level – of course, the irrepressible pushing and shoving by other devotees striving unnecessarily urgently to reach the shrine spoils the experience to an extent, but it is nonetheless worth being there.

Music for exhausted souls

A large “langar khana” (“food hall”) behind the Gurudwara accommodates visitors on the floor irrespective of any distinction of economic, social or religious status and daily serves 10,000 meals of simple vegetarian fare free of cost to everyone. Enormous quantities of food, including roti (Indian bread), lentils and vegetables is voluntarily prepared by several devotees themselves as a philanthropic measure from the raw materials charitably contributed by more affluent devotees – the entire idea is that of a large community kitchen where everyone can mingle together with dignity and companionship and partake food free of cost irrespective of any distinction, differences or bitterness. The “karha prasad” (a thick pudding cooked from wheat flour, clarified butter and sugar) served at the gateway of the shrine is blissfully delicious (though my personal favorite remains that served at Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib, Chandni Chowk, refer Pixelated Memories - Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib). Across the expansive courtyard extra servings of the savory prasad can also be purchased from a counter near the entrance gateway – a receipt will be generated at the counter which, upon being produced before the person serving the prasad, will be exchanged for a quantity of it – interestingly, after filling up a disposable bowl for a visitor and handing it over, the person serving will retract a small quantity of it and mix it back in the larger vessel as symbolic of a person sharing from his own plate – this, surprising for me since I had seen it for the first time, made me get a second helping since the first proved less than what I desired to have; I also had some packed separately to take home for my cousins with whom I was staying then. From one side of the courtyard, stairs lead downstairs to another courtyard flanked on all sides by Gurudwara managing committee offices and hostels – here, a massive well, canopied by a wide octagonal roof and an onion dome, is especially revered. Legend is that Guru Harkrishan dipped his feet in its water and ordered his followers to give the water to the diseased and pox-inflicted as a cure for their troubles. He earned the title of “Baal Peer” (“Child saint”) due to his ability to cure the sick and the destitute. Even today, the well is manned by numerous devotees who draw the water into large bowls and offer it to hundreds of faithfuls who believe in Guru Harkrishan’s magical and spiritual sanctity and come to the Gurudwara for a sip of the hallowed water. The only difference between then and now being today water is drawn through taps and not pails! The Gurudwara’s charitable acts do not end here – a hospital, a library and a girl’s school are also run in the buildings adjacent which also house a museum and an art gallery.

Sacred water - The canopied well associated with Guru Harkrishan's healing powers

It is the other side of the Gurudwara that is the most famous – a massive “Sarovar” (water tank) with clear blue water and large, colorful fishes exists on this side and reflects a perfect reflection of the Gurudwara building and its golden domes and colonnades. This frame is perhaps the most famous visual composition when photographing the Gurudwara despite the fact that photography from here is prohibited and requires special permission. The caretakers and cleaners of the Gurudwara keep patrolling around the tank, stopping people from clicking and asking swimmers to step out if they have been in too long. A small rectangular changing room for women exists along one of the corners of the tank too. Colonnades surround the courtyard around the water tank and the corners are domed to appear externally like diminutive towers (“burj”).

It is best to visit the Gurudwara at night when it is lit up beautifully and the lights reflect in the black waters of the tank to generate a mesmerizing image imprinted on the overall darkness of the surroundings. The place also wears a festive look on Guru purab, Diwali and Guru Harkrishan’s birth anniversary.

Advisory – Men and women are required to leave their footwear at the shoe counter located outside the Gurudwara complex before entering within and also cover their heads with handkerchiefs or dupattas (long scarves). Being a religious shrine, it is advisable to dress modestly.

Nighttime beauty!

Location: Jaisinghpura, Connaught Place
Nearest metro station: Patel Chowk (1.1 km away)
How to reach: Walk/avail an auto/e-rickshaw from the metro station to the Gurudwara
Open: All days, sunrise to midnight
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography charges: Nil (Permission has to be solicited for clicking around the tank level, but everybody clicks anyway). Videos prohibited.
Relevant Link - 
Suggested reading - 

November 07, 2014

The Gandhi mural and Abdul Nabi's mosque, ITO Crossing, Delhi

Invisible to the steady stream of pedestrians and motorists alike who whirl around it in uncoordinated patterns, an almost unheard of little gem that retains inappreciably little of its original characteristics to reveal its enviable antiquity and modest beauty to the undiscerning is tucked in at the intersection of two of the busiest roads in Delhi and close to one of the most important landmarks in the city’s geography. Ignored by heritage and history enthusiasts who seem to have irrevocably forgotten of its modest existence, Sheikh Abdul Nabi’s mosque, located at the indisputably well-known ITO intersection and shadowed by the towering buildings that house the headquarters of Delhi Police, Income Tax Department and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), was commissioned and christened as his namesake in AD 1575-76 by the "Diwan" (“Supervisor of Accounts”) in the court of Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). The gorgeous mosque, seated with its back to the traffic intersection that is famed for its traffic jams as well as for being a geographical link between different medieval cities of Delhi, has been transformed into one of the prettiest oases that could ever exist in such close vicinity to the bustling intersection indescribably dominated by pollution, noise and an unabated deluge of humanity by Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind ("Organization of Indian Islamic scholars"), one of the oldest and most peaceful Muslim organizations in the country, headquartered in the splendid structure.

Courtyard view, Abdul Nabi's mosque

In the history of Indian freedom struggle, the Jamiat, established in 1919 by some of the most influential Islamic scholars of the subcontinent, was the only Muslim organization that did not align itself with the Muslim League and its unrelenting demand for a separate nation for the Muslim population of the country (later recognized as Pakistan) – following independence too, the Jamiat propounded the theory that by signing the Constitution of India, Muslim elected representatives have entered an agreement (“mu’ahadah”) with the majority Hindu population of the country to establish a secular state and it is the responsibility of all Muslims in the country to honor the agreement. The simplistic, rubble-built mosque of Abdul Nabi, consisting of a large rectangular structure surmounted by a single, plastered over, unproportionally large dome rising from a sixteen-sided drum (base), has been expanded into a massive structure by the Jamiat who have added three wings of triple-floor hostel-like accommodations in front of the mosque creating an enclosed courtyard space in the center. The courtyard, superbly landscaped into a small garden area complete with numerous potted plants, grass-lined cobblestone walkways and fountains brimming with clear water, can be accessed by a flight of stairs emanating from the mosque’s huge front edifice. A gigantic, strikingly handsome screen, composed of stone lattice work (“jaali”) and vibrantly colorful tiles, with three huge arched openings mirroring the considerably smaller arched entrances of the mosque, exists in front of the latter as a modern extension; two sets of thick, towering pillars exist near the older structure supporting the immensely high roof that encompasses the area between the older mosque’s exterior walls and the majestic screens; seminary offices exist along the ground floor.

Unbelievable tranquility in the throbbing heart of the city

The numerous rooms in the wings around the courtyard are sparse and accommodate bespectacled religious scholars with flowing white beards and cataract-veiled eyes – eager to welcome in visitors, they must be at least in their sixties and yet retain jovial smiles, generous talkative attitudes and twinkling eyes. The interiors of the mosque are exceedingly simplistic compared to the modernized exteriors and, except for the marble wall claddings along the base, are close to what Abdul Nabi would have envisioned them as – the large prayer chamber, painted white throughout, has been partitioned into three interconnected sections by means of walls pierced by large arched openings; the central chamber displays squinches along the roof (architectural bridging elements spanning a square chamber’s top corners so as to convert it into an octagonal entity capable of supporting the mass of a giant dome) while the side chambers still retain small, meager floral medallions composed of colorful glazed tiles which, despite their brilliance, appear to be half-hearted attempts at beautification of an otherwise bare structure; a bare line of ornamental arched niches each embedded in shallow individualized rectangular depressions also runs just below the squinches in the central chamber while the squinches themselves are adorned with meager arched patterns and small six-pointed star embossments crafted from stucco.

Clash of eras - The mosque and (background) the headquarters of Delhi Police and CPWD

Abdul Nabi enjoyed Emperor Akbar’s confidence and was sent by him to Mecca in AD 1584-85 to distribute the Emperor’s charity among the poor there, but upon his return he failed to account for the money properly and was imprisoned and executed on charges of corruption and embezzlement of state funds. It struck me interesting that in an unanticipated and unintended artistic decision which would perhaps have been darkly humorous had the correlation between Mahatma Gandhi, the “Messiah of Truthfulness”, and a medieval administrative officer executed for corruption not been subjected to the collective amnesia suffered by citizens of a city that has altogether relegated its intricate history and unsurpassable architectural heritage to a forgotten corner, the recently concluded 2014 Street Art Delhi Festival saw the Delhi Police Headquarters, located immediately opposite and overshadowing the mosque, etched with an impressive, realistic mural of Gandhi, the icon of truth, honesty, non-violence and peaceful coexistence between peoples of different nationalities, religions, creeds, genders and economic realities.

Impressive, right?! All I could say was "Wow"!

The 150 feet high X 38 feet wide imposing mural, dedicated to the city by Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung who inaugurated it, was completed in mere 5 days by Indian graffiti artist Anpu Varkey and German artist ECB Hendrik Beikirch and has since been lauded as a remarkable exemplar of art and a brilliant addition to the city’s streetscape which saw numerous vibrantly-colored and creatively-conceived graffiti patterns and textual messages being painted and splattered in numerous locations, most notably the urban villages of Shahpur Jat, Hauz Khas and Khirki (see links in the end), besides the inconceivably poignant notes blossoming on the walls of the dreaded Tihar jail!

For me, the day wasn’t really going well – a dear friend I just met revealed her plans to shift to Russia permanently and besides the disappointment I did not have a plan on how to spend the rest of the day except roam around in the streets and look at people, buildings and monuments without very much photographing anything in particular – the mosque, with its joyous old men, and the colossal mural opposite, does help uplift the spirits once one decides to just sit down on the stairs and let all worries go and simply adore the artwork and the efforts that must have gone into completing it. For a change, the juxtaposition of the modern and the medieval and the intermingling of the two doesn’t appall me but makes me love this beautiful city just a little more, if that is even possible.


Location: ITO Crossing
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro station: Pragati Maidan
Nearest Bus stop: ITO Crossing/Lala R.C. Agarwal Chowk
Nearest Railway station: Tilak Bridge 
How to reach: Buses and trains are available from different parts of the city – the bus and train stations are just a stone's throw away from the mosque and Delhi Police headquarters. If coming by metro, one can avail a bus/auto plying towards ITO.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil. It is advisable to take permission first before photographing the mosque interiors since it is a seminary's headquarters.
Other graffitis in the city -