A tribute to the grand Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad
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Public Monument? Public Convenience
If you join the hordes of determined walkers thronging Lodi Gardens on a sunny afternoon, you might be tempted to wander through the tombs of the Lodis. Bring along nose plugs. Far more insistent than the faint odour of bats that hang around most derelict monuments is the pungent, unmistakable smell of turd. On the rare turdless day, the aroma of human pee will make up for its absence. That old familiar odour also envelopes visitors to the Qutub Minar, where the only structure that doesn’t smell strongly like an impolite tomcat is the Iron Pillar (presumably because it’s (a) in the open and (b) circled by a protective cage). The little mosques behind the Qutub Minar smell of eau de latrine. The main avenues smell ditto. The area, except in patches of whifflessness, makes you think of hundreds and hundreds of humans every day tirelessly scent-marking their claim to be part of history. Monuments in use escape, by the skin of their teeth. The dargah in Nizamuddin is refreshingly free of any aroma, though the surrounding lanes do their best to make up. The Kalkaji Mandir smells of incense; but circle round the back and the wall smells of, well, you know what. The Purana Qila and the Red Fort don’t just smell like urinals but are used, quite casually, as such. The stench from the Purana Qila competes successfully with the odours from its neighbour, the Delhi Zoo. The Baha’i Mandir, that fabulous lotus-shaped structure, has escaped the general taint. Guards will direct visitors in need to the nearest loo. It doesn’t take much effort, and it proves what to the average Delhiite is a near-impossible proposition: under pressure and given the right circumstances, men who can apparently only release their bladders in the presence of a historical building are actually capable of using a standard-issue bathroom.
When In Doubt, Whitewash
Every year, government housing colonies in Delhi receive a mandatory coat of sarkari-issue paint; and every year, the luckless inhabitants cross their fingers and pray. The prayer goes along these lines: please, not the leprous green paint that goes snot-coloured in the rain. And dear god, not the seedy orange that peels off in two months, and whatever you do, not the ugly blue that makes unsuspecting visitors reel back several paces in horror. All the colonies needed was plain whitewash; what they got was another matter. The big question is: what happened to the whitewash? I think I have the answer. Every can of sarkari whitewash is sealed on delivery and handed over to the ASI and other bodies engaged in restoration work. Nothing else can explain why ‘professional restorers’ would decide that the best way to repair the cracks in marble slabs at the Red Fort is to fill them with white cement. Or why the Madhi Masjid in Mehrauli is now parti-coloured. Built in the 16th century, the masjid has some of the same characteristics as the tombs in Lodi Garden, the same flavour of the period. In his book on Mehrauli, Karoki Lewis describes it as “impressive” and “spectacular”. At the time he was writing, the blue tiles that formed a long row under the frieze were set off quite well against the red sandstone structure. It was reported that the ASI had stepped in to ‘restore’ the structure. What they’ve done is to paint it with lime, but only in patches. The resultant mess is faded red, dirty white and blue. When I visited, no other repair work appeared to be in progress; crumbling arches had been painted over, also in patches, so that the mosque now looks as though it’s been bandaged by an inept nurse. So there you have it. The Madhi Masjid isn’t the first monument to be lazily whitewashed instead of being properly restored, and it won’t be the last. Two choices face the average ‘heritage building’ in India: face the assault of the white-washers, or face the graffiti artist. Renu loves Salloo on a thousand brick façades, and you know what? If you whitewash over graffiti, it shows up even more clearly. Combine the two, and we have our very own, patented Monument Magic.
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
I still remember a hallucinatory visit to Plassey, site of one of India’s key battles. It was a remarkable place because there was absolutely nothing to indicate that Mir Jafar had once betrayed India here. It was a filthy town, unaware of its own historical significance, where even the tea looked washed out. Walking around Old Delhi, you see signs of the same phenomenon. In the presence of so many signs of the past, indifference rules. And sometimes a place can disappear without a trace. In Bithur, a few hours drive from Delhi, Sankarshan Thakur describes finding... nothing. His guide launched into the spiel: “Here is the fort of the Peshwas, built by Baji Rao Saheb the Second, and expanded by Nanaji Rao. A huge palace it was, with a hundred private rooms and a high view of the Ganga. Here is where Rani Lakshmibai grew up, here is where she became an expert rider and swordswoman, here is where they fought a great battle against the British in the summer of 1857...”. Where? Manoj Dixit, dhoti-clad, bare-ribbed, severely tonsured priest-cum-historian-cum-guide, bares his paan-ridden teeth and points to a crumbled piece of masonry almost ready to be spread-eagled under the weight of vegetation. “This is it,” he says, fully aware of how ludicrous he sounds and fully enjoying its effect, “This is what the fort is, this piece of wall.” Later, a boat ride promises to take Thakur to 52 ghats. He can see only three. Bithur promises a lot: it was the playground of Luv and Kush, it’s where Sita descended into the earth, it’s where Laxmibai learned how to be a warrior. And, like far too many other places, it has no way to back up those claims. There is nothing to see here, just the traces of a heritage never claimed, never loved, finally eroded by neglect.
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