Friday, October 29, 2010

Delhi: The Ridge, The Golf Club, The Mutiny

Raan al Sikander. It's a beautiful thing. Named after Alexander the Great of course. (Sikander himself!)

One afternoon in Delhi, Sheila had a friend over for lunch. He's a history professor at St. Stephen's College in Delhi, one of the city's predominant educational institutions, and taught Rajeev when he was a student there. He was from Australia at one point, (Fremantle, to be exact) but he's been in India for more then 50 years and has taken up Indian citizenship, has almost entirely repatriated himself. Most importantly: when Rajeev fell ill, he was there. Even when he had his schizophrenic breaks, he came to the house and talked to him, kept him company. Although he's pushing 86, he still works as a residence advisor at the university. And he still comes to see Rajeev and Sheila, once or twice a month.She vacillated some on inviting me. "He's terribly old, you see," she said. "He's very old and he might bore you."

(The probable worry: that I might bore him).

"But I have specially ordered raan al sikander, of course, and I know you do like that." She thought. "So perhaps you could put yourself out. Come over for lunch."

And I did. Raan al sikander is, of course, Indian style leg of lamb. Absolutely divine, and Sheila's Guwhati cook does a bang-up job of it. Tender and delicately spiced meat. Served with bhindi masala, just the way I like it.

"Well, I've got something to show you two, and Rajeev," he said, as we sat back in our chairs, in a state of post-feast recuperation. One of his students had prepared a video on the Ridge.

The Delhi Mutiny was India's first great surge against British rule, an immense outpouring of popular anger and outrage. It all started in 1857, when the sepoys - Indian soldiers in the pay of the British - exploded into action against their employers, who had been under the cheery impression that the Indians were perfectly happy with the invasion of their country. The reason cited for the explosion of violence was a religious one; a rumor spread that the bullet cartridges the army was issued - the wrappings of which had to be bitten off to be used - were greased with cow and pig fat. As this was abhorrent to both Hindus and Muslims, the Sepoys revolted in various areas across British India, with action occurring from Meerut to Peshawar. It was a close fight for a while there, and the Indian rebels were only decisively put down with the fall of Gwailor in late 1858. It was the first indication to the previously blissfully ignorant British that India was not willing to humbly submit to the Crown forever - a conflict that would, a few generations later, come to a head under the leadership of Gandhi.

Delhi was the scene of one of the most savage and protracted battles of the Mutiny, and it was the Ridge that served as the East India Company's base during the infamous 1857 siege. The sepoys had, as a nationalist play, decided to attempt to restore the Mughal Empire to its pre-British eminence: they flocked to Delhi to attend the aged (and deeply unenthusiastic) Emperor Bahadur Shah. The rebel forces managed to violently push the British forces and their families out of the city, with a copious amount of bloodshed - much of it civilian - on both sides. British troops were either scattered or unavailable. The future of Britain's ascendency over India lay very much in doubt. As may perhaps be obvious, the British did defeat the Indian rebels. The Last Mughal, Bahadurr Shah - forced to be an unwilling nationalist symbol for the mutineer forces - was captured and taken into British custody. His three sons were captured the next day at Humayun's tomb by East India Company official William Hodson, whose clemency only extended to their father. He stripped them naked, forced them to kneel and shot all three of them dead at the Khooni Darwaza (Bloody Gate). Their heads were, thoughtfully, presented to their father after the fact. The unfortunate Bahadur II died in exile in Burma.

Today, Delhi University and St. Stephen's both abut it the Ridge. The former battleground has become an enormous green space in the center of the city,much of it a biodiversity park that has been allowed to exist in a fairly untouched state. Hordes of large and deeply terrifying monkeys roam the area, as well as Delhi University students looking for a good place to canoodle (as occurs everywhere). The professor's student decided to focus on the Flagstaff Tower in her video, a small building of British origin that served as a refuge for the scattered and mostly civilian British survivors of the May fighting. It's on the Ridge, and very near to the University. But it hasn't been kept up, and almost no one knows what the Flagstaff Tower is, or why it was (at one point) important as a place of a refuge and an important icon of the Delhi Mutiny.

"You have to conclude," the Professor says in the video, sitting in front of the Tower on a hot day. "You have to conclude that Delhites don't care about their history. Even though they've got so much of it around them.

The video couldn't quite play all the way. Even I, the 21st century representative, couldn't repair it. "Ah, well, then," the professor said. "That's that."

"Well, I think I'll have to go to the Ridge, then," I said. "The video makes it look quite interesting."

The professor either could not pick up about 98% of what I said at any given time (which wasn't much - I knew my place) or simply found it irrelevant. "I guess you can, if you'd like," he shrugged. "Why not."

Sheila gently but firmly forced him to take a nap, in the way she forced everyone to bend to her will. I headed back to the International Center by way of Lodhi Gardens, thinking of the past. The professor was not in any way shape or form of this era, had committed himself to history, to drawing rooms in Delhi. I'd asked him about Australia. He'd shuddered. "Ugh. That horrible place. It's so awfully new. No respect for history. No history at all, and no culture either."

"I thought it was all right," I said, a bit chastened.

"You did," he said. A subtle judgement on my character.

I dutifully set off for the Ridge the next day. I corralled an exceedingly proud Sikh driver outside Khan market (but all Sikhs are, aren't they?). I looked at the map he had in the backseat as we drove off. "You have no need for any other cab driver in Delhi, madame," he said.
"Oh?" I said, looking out the window at the Gandhi monument. I keep on not visiting it.
"For I am Mister Delhi," he said.

Here's a photo of a goddamn monkey. I hate monkeys.

"Oh," I said. Forty minutes later, we were at the Ridge. I began walking up the hill. It's a beautiful place, totally unexpected in the middle of the occasionally horrific urban jumble that is Delhi. It feels like a real jungle, full of monkeys and mysterious bird calls.

Populated by a healthy number of my beloved giant mutant snails, as evidenced here.

As expected, the building is not spectacular. St. Stephen's uses it as a storehouse for athletic equipment. There isn't any signage - you have to know what it is you're looking at. Still, you can imagine what did happen here, if you squint a little.

Here's how the Flagstaff Tower looked right after the Mutiny. I suppose the Ridge was massively defoliated by the conflict, but I'm not really sure. The photo was taken by the enigmatic and fascinating photographer Felice Beato, one of history's first war photographers. His eery and stark photos of the Indian Mutiny are incredible and well worth a look if you've any interest at all in the history of the era.

Sheila, Rajeev, and I went off to have dinner at the Delhi Golf Club. This entailed getting dressed up. The Golf Club is society.

One has to wonder what the enraged sepoys of the Mutiny would have made of the Club. There is no sport, no pursuit, more British then golf after all, no recreational activity so obtusely luxurious. A golf course requires an incredible amount of space to build, after all, and then it also requires an incredible amount of effort to maintain.

But then, look at the clientele. All Indian. They've entirely inhabited the Golf Club, and so the club is an entirely Indian institution. It's not like India hasn't put up some of the world's very finest golfers. This is perhaps the end-game of the British colonization. The British left an inordinate amount of things behind, but Indians took them up, tweaked them a bit, and made them entirely their own. (The English language is perhaps the paramount example of this - Indian English having become a very separate but entirely relevant offshoot of the King's own tongue).

The food at the golf club is quite good. A step up over limp burgers, fries, and beer at most American golf clubs. The bar upstairs is convivial in that British Indian way, and you can sit at little glass tables and watch the football (soccer) game and argue over things, over tandoor items and whatever else pleases you. So we did.

They have a servicable fish tikka...

And very nice roomali roti...

And a damn good bhindi masala. God, I love bhindi masala. Why can't anyone make it right outside India? (Well. Other then me).

Like we did two years ago, Sheila and I took out our drinks, our glasses of whiskey, and looked out over the golf course in the night time. An abandoned and lovely red Lodhi tomb sits on the first hole, and spotlights bathe the greens in a rather ethereal, moonlit light. I remember what she told me last time we were here. "There's cobras on the golf course," she said. "It's a bit of an obstacle."

"What's the rules say about cobras?"

"If your ball comes to rest on one - don't ever pick it up."

Duly noted.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Old Delhi: The Bazaar, Moti Mahal, Lots of Photos

Somewhere in the old delhi bazaar.

Old Delhi is the only place I've been in Asia that really and truly scared me. Old Delhi is the nucleus of Northern India, maybe one of the concentric centers of the earth itself. There's nowhere I've been that comes anywhere near it in terms of the throbbing vitality of it, the terrifying largeness of the people, the activity, the chaos that surrounds it. It's a gross immensity, sort of a vortex - you have to go through it you go to Delhi. It's where the main train station is. It's where Delhi began, and where Delhi was sacked (many times over the years), the seat of Mughal power, the seat of British power, a spiritual touch-point for many people and many generations. But, geography. Old Delhi is generally considered to be defined by the Chandni Chowk, the long street that runs through it, and is made famous by the dual Mughal immensities of the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid.

I remember this very clearly. I'm 19, on my first visit to Delhi. Auntie Sheila has let me use her car and driver for the morning. "You have to see Old Delhi, of course," she tells me, as she packs me into the car that morning. "You have to go walk around the Chandi Chowk." Well, okay, I think, I'll walk around the Chandi Chowk. Having no idea what that entailed.

She set me up. I'm certain of that now. Sheila did it on purpose.

Cushions for sale amid a churning sea of umbrellas. India makes you realize the shocking number of umbrellas our planet harbors. As I have lost upwards of ten umbrellas in three months, I know that of which I speak.

The little Grey ford came out of the green and luxurious embassy district that Sheila lived in, and we turned onto the highway, and we kept going and going. Delhi turned more and more like the India I was most familar with the, chaotic but mostly-conceivable mess of Bangalore. Something I could handle, parse out. Then we got into the Chandi Chowk district, the outskirts of the Center, then we drove down the Chandi Chowk. There were more people there then I could concieve of in the universe, riding bicycles and autorickshaws and horses (yes), all of them wearing differently colored clothes, all of them leaning on their horns at approximately the same time. On either side of me were Delhi's two defining monuments, of course - the shockingly huge red swell of Shah Jahan's Red Fort, and next door, the big mosque, the mosque, the Jama Masjid. People were funneling into the bazaar to the left of the mosque, shoulder-to-shoulder, carrying sacks of things on their shoulders and leading little kids in school uniforms by the hands - every other man or woman seemed to be wearing the requisite garb of the Ramadan season. "I drop you at the clothes market, okay?" the driver said, and I agreed since I didn't know any better. He impossibly threaded the car through stall after stall of men selling fabrics and knock-off North Face jackets.

He ejected me.

The bazaar (a mere iota of it) as seen from the steps.

I was wearing a sundress. I got out, and walked to the steps of the Jama Masjid (about five or six paces). I stood on the steps and looked down them, down to the bazaar and down to the Jama Masjid. Beggars and street kids were already starting to advance on me. Large and odiferous looking vultures picked at the rubbish pile to my right. There were three or four lepers in mats on the sidewalk nearby, and one of them had a little ribbon of white spittle coming out of his mouth, and someone was playing the American Top 40 hits in my ear from a pirated CD stall. I have never felt so astoundingly out of place. Like I had been emitted from an alien spacecraft or something, halting - like my first steps on a new world, testing the ozone for breathability. Finding it somewhat wanting. "You give me change, madame!" a grubby street urchin at my knee said. So it began.

Your friendly neighborhood goat head store.

I survived of course. And wanted to go back soon as I left. Old Delhi does that to you. It scares the shit out of you then makes you want to come back over and over again. There are few places in the world with such an incredible buildup of history, history overlaid upon history, a bazaar and a neighborhood with more stories and more happenings behind it then just about anywhere else on the planet. Ruskin Bond, in one of his books, tells of a mysterious Black Well lurking in one of the closed old haveli houses of Delhi. There are rumors of antiques stores selling things you couldn't obtain for love or money anywhere else. Things people lost all over the place re-apparating in Old Delhi. Probably people, too. I've met a few people on the road who lost a year or two of their lives in this neighborhood. One guy who spent his early twenties playing the black market round about the Delhi of the late 60's. One woman who spends her life as a photojournalist in conflict areas and, insofar as I could determine, comes to Old Delhi for R&R. Tougher then me.

"How'd you like it?" Sheila asked me when I got back. A little smile on her lips. How did I like it? Any response would involve about ten pages and footnotes.

"It was interesting," I said. "Real interesting."

"Uh huh," Sheila said.

The clothes market.

I got out of the taxi this time, and I walked five paces. And then I saw the stick. A bamboo stick, about the length of my forearm I'd guess. Probably some sort of construction site leaving. I picked it up - it was sturdy and strong. Perhaps it is time for a social experiment, I thought. I picked up the stick.

Northern India is tainted by sexual harassment. It's not an easy place to be as a woman - of any nationality - and it's especially hard if you're by yourself. Single women are fair game in Delhi. Single women are probably slatternly and easy, and you should try your luck, because why the hell not? Walking down the street in non-gentrified Delhi usually involves lewd commentary, being followed, and (if you're really lucky) one or two lightening-fast attempts at groping. Far as I can determine, it doesn't really matter what you wear, especially if you're a foreigner. This is the big stain on Delhi, a national shame. Fact is: women can't move about freely here. You are conspicuous, noticed, and to some extent hunted wherever you go. And it pisses you off more and more and more as every day goes by.

And so, the stick. Maybe it was paranoia. Maybe I just wanted some agency. If someone grabbed me or got in my space, I could whomp them on the head in retaliation. Perhaps teach them an important lesson, or something. At least there was the visual deterrent factor. Right? Right.

I don't know if I should be proud or not about the stick. It's a bit of a moral quandary. Especially if you're into non-violence. (I'm not. At all. Just so you know).

The fact is? It worked. The stick absolutely, 100% worked. My usual North India experience as a blonde foreigner was turned on its head, entirely neutralized. A few men came at me with hands outstretched or tongues out and flapping around, shouting "HALLO YOU VERY SEXY YOU WANT FUCK," usual routine - and immediately stepped back in shock when they saw The Stick. "

"Whoa, whoa! Okay!" they'd say, giving me a very respectable amount of space. They'd go off giggling nervously to their buddies, hahah, look at that. Damn, that felt good.

What makes me feel better about The Stick? The fact that just about every woman I met on the street - and there weren't many, this is Delhi - smiled at me. A solidarity thing. "That's right!" one large Sikh woman said, as we passed each other. "That's right," she said. The schoolgirls giggled and offered me sly thumbs-up signs.

A later post here should be devoted to what Indian women go through on a daily basis when it comes to sexual harassment in India, and especially North India. Horror stories. "I know women who move to Delhi from South India," a friend of mine told me. "They get a good job, and they relocate. And you know what? They all come back. Because they can't go anywhere without getting grabbed, or followed. Something. They can't live free lives."

But about the Bazaar. Here, have some photos.

Much of the bazaars commerce centers around meat, and most of that meat is mutton. Butchers are rife here. I like seeing them. I'm a proud carnivore, but I'm also a realist. This is where supper comes from. Bouncing, adorable, delicious sheep and goats.

Getting nailed by a motorbike is a very very real possibility here. Keep your eyes open. There's really nothing you can do about the ground. I suggest not looking down ever.

Piles of aromatic something-or-another on the street. LIke most of India, Old Delhi is as much an olfactory experience as a visual one.

I don't think the legal department got consulted on this one.

These are piles of vermicelli noodles, commonly used in dessert dishes. Sevian is particularly popular. It's made with condensed milk, dried fruits and nuts, and cardamom, and it is delicious.

Yeah, there's something I like about butchers. Butchers have been considered the lowest of the low in most cultures in human history. India's no exception. More so, considering its deep vegetarian tradition and antique caste system. But the meat loving millions would be in dire straits without them. And I find a certain visual poetry in the whole affair. Maybe I'm blood thirsty. Those are, in case you were unsure, goat heads.

A man selling biryani on the street. There's some kind of conversation going on here. What do you think?

Hanging out by the red sandstone walls of the Jama Masjid. I've never been in . There's always something vaguely wrong about my dress. And it seems wrong somehow. A week after I left, five Taiwanese tourists were shot (non-fatally) by a supposed terrorist group at the Jama Masjid's gates. Whatcha gonna do?

More red sandstone. It's a damn hot day, but the walls are coolish.

I had lunch at Moti Mahal. The Moti Mahal. It's an absolutely iconic restaurant, considered to be one of the pioneers of the tandoori cuisine that has so efficiently and quickly swept the entire planet. It's said that the restaurant's founder, a Peshawari by the name of Kundan Lal Gujral, actually invented both tandoori and butter chicken. (Apparently, the tandoor oven was previously reserved only for bread, instead of meats). The restaurant began in Peshawar and was moved to its current Delhi location in 1947, after the Partition - and has been plugging on with shocking success ever since, drawing the affection of Indira Gandhi, Nehru, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon - in other words, everyone vaguely important who was sent to India on official business has eaten here.

There was no one there, which was somewhat curious. The interior of the restaurant is a bit 1960's mental hospital. But at least they have lots of fans operating on high-speed. I ordered my usual - tandoori chicken, tandoori gobi (cauliflower) and sat back. The owner of the place came over to chat, in lieu of anything better to do. "Did you know that Gordan Ramsey came and cooked here?" he asked me. No, I did not. But so The Ramsey did come to Moti Mahal. Engaged in one of those celebrity cookoff things that are so popular on food networks. Naturally, the Moti Mahal boys won hands down. The owner came over with a few photographs after I expressed interest. "That's us. When we won," he said, pointing to an image of both himself and Ramsey looking pleased with the universe.

The food was, as expected, excellent. Moti is also known for its Mughali style curries. Delhi is particularly known for curries made from mutton "variety" meats - you can order up goat brain curry here if so inclined. There are Moti Mahal outlets all over India now, although a family argument means that this Chandi Chowk branch bills itself as the One and Original Moti Mahal, Hands Down. I'm not prepared to argue.

The tandoori gobi had the interesting addition of sesame seeds up top. I think it does add a certain nutty depth to its flavor. A delicate yogurt marinade and a lot of spices, heavy on the aromatics. Really addictive stuff - and a lot of it. I couldn't finish it all.

And excellent chicken. Not too heavy on the yogurt - actually, I kinda like that. But juicy, excellent meat with a lot of complexity of flavor.

They talked me into ordering roti. However, missi roti are superb. It's a thin crunchy roti prepared with besam or gram flour, seasoned with fenugreek, ginger, nigella, chili powder, ajwain, and sesame. And brushed with an inordinate amount of butter. They are very savory, and incredibly delicious.

After lunch, I was going to go to the Red Fort. Which turned out to be closed.

So I didn't. But I did the next day.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Eating Stuff in the Car in Delhi: Kakori Kebab, Bhel Puri

Delhi, like the rest of India, is a bastion of street food. And the number one Delhi street food is, of course, the almighty kebab. Kebab functions as a catch-all word for a dizzying array of meat products on a stick here in India, but rest assured: whatever it is, it will be incredibly tasty. India being primarily Hindu and Muslim, kebabs are almost always made with mutton or chicken - vegetarian variants with paneer (cheese), potato, and mashed vegetables do exist.

Al Kauser
Off Sarder Patel Marg, near the Assam Bhavan. (Look for the stall with smoke coming off it, and lots of hungry people sitting on their cars. You can't miss it).

Sheila insisted that we try the kakori kebab at Al Kauser one night, and I was of no inclination to defy her. (I am rarely of such an inclination). Sheila, Rajeev, and myself accordingly jumped into the car, wherein Sheila grandly asked the driver to take us to the Kebab Place, and be quick about it. "It's just a stall, of course, but they are simply the most divine kakori kebabs in town. But it's just a stall, really."

(She was looking for an accomplice, in the dark art of Eating In the Car. We both knew it. And I was happy to oblige).

Al Kauser is a bit of a kebab stall institution, beloved by an entire generation of Delhi-ites for its kakori rolls. The kakori kebab roll, for the uninitiated, is made of ultra-finely cut ground lamb, ground to a fine paste and seasoned with garlic, cinnamon, cayenne, cardamon, cumin, and some other tasty aromatics. The result is an incredibly tender kebab that quite literally melts in your mouth, creating a decadently fatty explosion of flavor in one's mouth. As kakori kebabs are delicate things, they are usually served with ultra thin and buttery roomali roti. Traditional condiments are hyperactively spicy cilantro chutney with green chili, and pickled onions. Mix these elements up together and you've got a work of art. Kakori kebab is a foodstuff entirely suited for eating in your car or while standing up - that's the other beauty of them. And did I mention that kakori kebab is cheap?

Al Kauser is best known for its kakori kebab, but they also turn out a popular mutton burra kebab (mutton on the bone with a coating of yogurt and spices). Chicken tikka is on offer for wusses who can't handle mutton, but there's no real reason to bother. (I don't know why people bother with chicken tikka in general). Watching the cooks slap the kakori paste on the table and form it into kebabs at super-human speeds is half the fun. Must not be comfortable to spend all night working in a flaming inferno of a grill stall, but I'm glad they do it. As are a lot of people.

There is something delightful about devouring kakori kebab in the back of a car with a grand dame, dripping cilantro sauce and bits of roomali roti all over the upholstery. Since that is part of the sacred ritual of eating kakori kebab. It must not be abrogated. "God, I do love these!" Sheila commented after we polished off the last batch. She handed me a paper napkin. We both delicately and in a highly lady-like fashion wiped the mutton grease off our mouths. "You have to eat them in the car, darling," she said, as we pulled away. "It can't be done any other way."

Well, I'd concur.

We ended our casual-style dinner at a nearby shopping center, for bhel puri. Sheila has a bhel puri guy there she likes, and the three of us ordered up plates of the good stuff.

A lovely rendition. Plenty of fresh mango and onion, plenty of chutneys. A pleasant overdose of sev and seasonings. Not too dry, not too moist. Crunchier then most. Christ, I love bhel puri.

We adjourned to Haldiram's - one representative of India's ginormous Bengali fast-food chain - to sip on Diet Cokes and watch the locals sink their faces into thalis, samosas, and chaats. Sheila vacillated with the idea of getting some kulfi or some barfi, something like that, but talked herself out of it. "Too fatty," she sighed. "You know that Delhi is in the throes of an obesity epidemic."

Which it is. And we know why.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Qutab Minar, The Iron Pillar

I have this thing when I travel now, that I have to go do stuff. This may seem obvious - of course you do stuff, go see stuff when you travel, why else do you go? But I do it with a certain intention now. I have a mission. I have this blog, I have my half-assed online journalistic integrity. Now, I feel that I have to go out and throughly experience tourist attractions for the world.

I don't like being in the same room as myself, either.

The Qutab Minaret. I actually missed this during my last visit to Delhi, and I knew I needed to redress my ancient wrongs. The Qutab Minar is located a bit outside the Connaught Place/Janpath/Lodhi Gardens orbit, and as such, requires a bit of a traffic-heavy haul to get over there. It's absolutely, one hundred and ten percent, worth it.

The Qutab Minar is a truly singular object. It stands as a true anachronism, something that Should Not Be. It's hard to believe that a tower so tall and so strong was built so terrifically long ago. Even harder to believe that it's still standing. It's closest counterpart, is, I suppose, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Minar leans too. Albeit significantly less. Interestingly enough, the Tower of Pisa and the Qutab Minar began construction within 26 years of one another.

The Minar is believed to have been begun by one Prithviraj, the last Rajput ruler to sit on the Delhi throne. The heroic and ill-fated Prithviraj was defeated in battle by the Afghan Mohammed Ghori, who had been making progressively more successful inroads into India from his capital in Ghor - an area that possessed capitals at Ghazni and Lahore. Rajasthani folk songs have it that Prithiviraj, after his capture by Ghori, was asked to showcase his supposedly superior skill at archery. The cruel Ghori then put out Prithiviraj's eyes with hot irons to render the game more interesting for his royal pleasure. Ghori then mockingly shouted, "Go, shoot! Be sure you are accurate!" Little did Ghori know that the clever Prithiviraj was so adept at archery that he could accurately fire his bow by use of sound alone. Ghori was shot through the heart. To avoid capture, Prithviraj and his dear Afghan friend stabbed each other to death.


The historical truth is, I'm afraid, less romantic. It's believed that Ghori, after the capture of Prithviraj, consolidated his power and then appointed Qutb-ud-din Aibak to rule Delhi, rendering him the first Muslim Emperor of India. It was the Sultan who is considered to have completed the first incarnation of the immense project, constructing the Minar to celebrate Ghori's 1192 victory over the Rajputs. (No one is sure if it was constructed on the base of a triumphal Rajput tower, or was an independent invention of the Muslim invaders). The Minar was thoughtfully placed smack dab on the Lal Kot, the former citadel of the desposed Tomar and Chahuan dynasties, the last Hindu rulers of India. Even more thoughtfully, 27 Hindu and Jain temples were broken apart and used to construct the Minar and the buildings of the larger Qutub Complex. Shades of the Ayodah case?

Details from the Qubbat-ul-Islam mosque.

Earthquakes damaged the minar on a couple of occasions in history, but in each occasion, the building was repaired. Firoz Shah Tughlaq pitched in, and Sikandar Lodi did also. In 1794, an earthquake damaged Firoz Shah's pavilion addition. A British engineer, one Major Smith, decided to stick his own pavilion up there instead. The eyesore was eventually removed in 1848 by Lord Hardinge, and is referred to rather contemptuously as "Smith's Folly." It's still on display, if you'd like to have a look.

Nowadays, the Minar functions as a convenient landmark for lost Delhi-ites, and is a justly beloved tourist attraction. No, you can't climb up it. Prior to 1998, visitors were permitted to climb up to the third floor. But in that fateful year, 25 school children died in a tragic stampede due to a panic spurred by electrical light failure. This forced the authorities to close the place up for good. The Minar's unsurprising popularity among Delhi's suicidal population was another extenuating factor.

The inscriptions on the minar - as can be seen here - are mostly selections from the Quaran. There's also notices from the rulers who repaired or added onto the minar as well, including notes from Sikander Lodhi and Firoz Shah.

The Qutab Minar complex is dominated by the Qubbat-ul-Islam mosque, built from destroyed Jain and Hindu temples. It's not in a particularly good state of repair, but it's fascinating to walk through its decaying galleries and try to work out which parts derived from which religious tradition.

The Iron Pillar is another one of those delicious historical mysteries. It's considered a wonder of the metallurgial world, mainly because no one is entirely sure how it was made, or how it has managed to withstand corrosion for so long. The 22 foot high pillar is a deep, light-consuming black and is positioned incongruously in the middle of the Qutab complex, about where it used to function as the centrepoint of the Jain temples destroyed to build the Minar. It may have been fashioned around AD 375-413, but it may derive from as far back as 912 BC. At 98% pure wrought iron, its incredible ability to withstand the stressors of rain, weather, pollution and idiot tourists is truly remarkable. It's believed to have been erected by one Chandragupta Vikramaditya - the inscription on the pillar indicates that it was put up to honor Lord Vishnu. Among Chandragupta's sentiments:

" He, on whose arm fame was inscribed by the sword, when, in battle in the Vanga countries (Bengal), he kneaded (and turned) back with (his) breast the enemies who, uniting together, came against (him);-he, by whom, having crossed in warfare the seven mouths of the (river) Sindhu, the Vahlikas were conquered;-he, by the breezes of whose prowess the southern ocean is even still perfumed..."

It has a nice ring to it. I intend to have a really bitching triumphal pillar put up before I die.

Legend has it that if you can wrap your arms around the pillar backwards, you'll be granted good luck. Tragically, they've built a fence around it so you can't try your look. Seems like a great way to throw your back out to me. Unless you happen to be an NBA player with nightmarish orangutan arms.

This is the Alai Darwaza or main gateway to the Complex, built by the second Khiji Sultan of Delhi around 1311 A.D. It's a remarkably lovely thing, decorated in sandstone and marble, with delicate stone-working around it. It's thought that this was the first building in India to use the heavy influence of Islamic (Turkish) architects. It certainly has aged gracefully. And is quite photogenic.

The dome of the tomb of Imam Zamin, on a very rainy day. Imam Zamin is thought to be a Turkestani Sufi saint who emigrated to Delhi around 1500 AD - during the time of the Mughal ruler Humayun. He had the foresight to build the tomb before he kicked off in 1539. He obviously must have had some impressive pull with the top brass to warrant such a memorial. (Another mysterious figure, who rates little mention even on the all powerful Internet. This is like catnip to the aspirant historian. Catnip).

Someone's getting Told here, methinks. As for what this is? Probably part of Alauddin Khilji's tomb and madarsa (Islamic religious school).

More pilfered and/or re-appropiated columns. That's an argument waiting to happen.

I was quite keen on the small and forgotten Mughal Mosque, tucked away to the right of the complex's entrance. As the name indicates, the mosque is a product of the late Mughal period, though the exact ruler who ordered it built is not indicated on the signage. It was apparently restored in the late 90's by a Britsher - it's unclear if these were the 1990's or the 1890's. There is next to no information about the pretty little mosque or its origins online, which almost adds to the appeal. I came upon it on a wet day, and the mosque's mossy exterior and the quiet drip-drip-drip of water off the palms surrounding it created a mysterious and lovely ambience. I waved to the sweeping woman inside, who waved back. And then I left.

The Delhi Wallah has a superior post to my own on this little hide away.

Milling around the complex.

The Qutab Minar is a popular tourist attraction, and hosted an unfortunate infestation of that common Indian species, the Sexually Frustrated Teenage Boy. A brief bit of sociological research will reveal the sad truth: Indian teenagers are even more sexually frustrated then teenagers in Western countries. And you thought you had it bad at age 16, you decadent westerner. At least you didn't have to put up a dowry, a couple of goats, and a pledge of eternal fidelity to get some action in the backseat of Mom's minivan. Furthermore, Indian entertainment often promotes the idea that all European women, especially blondes, are sex-crazed minxes who will dispense erotic favors beyond the reach of human imagination to anyone who asks. They ask.

This massive store of sexual frustration often manifests itself, curiously enough, in stealth photography. Whenever I'm taking a picture of something at an Indian tourist attraction, there will generally be at least four or five giggling young men taking photographs of me. They rarely ask me, of course. I think they really believe I don't notice. I found out during my last visit that it is not a good idea to agree when a young Indian guy asks for a photograph with you. This provides a handy excuse for putting their hand on your shoulder and then slowwwwllyyy working said hand south down to one's boob. Fooled me once. You get the picture.

If I'm in a bloody-minded mood, I wheel around and demand 10 rupees a picture. They almost always refuse, but at least it sends them skittering away again. For at least three minutes or so.

I always wonder what the boys do with those pictures. Are they actually getting an erotic thrill out of cellphone pictures of a sweaty blonde girl with a camera in a modest outfit, muttering to herself about the Lodhi sultanate and aperture speed? Is that really hot-hot-hot?

I don't know, either.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dinner at the Assam Bhavan, Notes on our Assamese Pals

The Assam Bhavan in Delhi is Assam's official point of representation in the city - sort of like the state's official embassy within the capital. It is of interest to me primarily because it has a restaurant, specializing in Assamese specialities difficult to find outside of the homeland. Jakoi is a restaurant that has gained some popularity among the capital's foodie class. Unlike most Bhavan canteens, it's decorated in a reasonably upscale fashion, and has a rather extensive menu with some pretensions of grandeur. Most people go for the special thali, which provides a reasonably extensive overview of Assamese food for a reasonably low price.

You'll be out 350 rupees for the Paranpara special thali as pictured above, which includes fried fish, fish (hilsa) cooked in banana leaf, a choice of pigeon or duck curry, a couple of vegetable dishes, some Assamese style condiments, and a dessert. Well, in theory.

I sat outside, braving the inevitable depredations of doubtlessly malaria-carrying mosquitos. It's nice out there. Cushions, ambient lighting, and some pleasant decorative accents.

The fried fish in tangy curry (fish tenga) was pretty good, albeit exceedingly bony. The crust was crispy and not too heavy, and it didn't seem to suffer from over-frying as some other reviewers have reported.

The fish in banana leaf with coconut milk and spices might theoretically have been good, but was so filled with tiny bones that I about a nibble or two of edible meat off the sucker. I gave in after a minor but disquieting choking incident. The duck was also a bit tough, though I liked the rich ground spice flavored gravy. Plenty of bones, as is typical with Indian curries. I happen to adore poultry bones, so no complaints from me.

I really enjoyed the pitika, or mashed vegetable, which tasted like an Assamese riff on America's bland and beloved mashed potatoes. The daal and the interesting, semi-powdered Assamese condiments were quite good. I've certainly never tasted anything like some of these Assamese chutneys, which included two variations on kahudi or mustard paste (one with sodium bicarbonate?!), a kind of grated, fermented bamboo shoot (kharisa), and mahor guri, made with powdered gram lentils and chili. Unusual little nuggets, and quite tasty. I'd like to try these again in different contexts. The fried vegetable d'jour was a kind of stir-fried Indian melon whose name escapes me, which I am very fond of. It has a delightfully squashy texture, that crunches with seeds when you bite into it.

I was a bit peeved as I did not actually receive the promised "gooseberry welcome drink" or the dessert as listed on the menu. There was an awkward moment after the main thali plate was removed where I anticipated the arrival of some exotic dessert - and got the check instead. Not so pleasing. If you list a food item on your thali, sirs, you'd best bring it out.

Verdict? Jakoi is worth a visit if you are, like myself, a commited food adventurer who is always up for sampling something entirely new to the ol' palate. However, it's a restaurant with some considerable kinks to work out vis a vis service and food prepration. According to some other online reviews, the kitchen has an unfortunate tendancy to flake out some nights and be fine and dandy on others. If I return, I might give the forgettable meat dishes a pass and go with the vegetarian thali - the kitchen seems to know their way around a legume and a bitter melon a spot better then they do a cut of innocent waterfowl or fish. And ask them point-blank to bring out the dang dessert.

Many of the state Bhavan's have canteens, specializing in foods particular to the state. Not all of them allow outsiders in, but some do. Check before you amble in. If they're amiable, you'll get a cheap and undeniably authentic meal at a very reasonable price.

You may now be asking a fairly simple question. Where in the hell is Assam? And what is it?

Assam is a state in India's Northeast, occupied mostly by the Assamese people, who have their own language and a culture distinct from that of the rest of India. It was a contested region for most of its history - occupied by the Tai people, the Moghuls (briefly) and the Burmese - until the First Bengal War of 1824 to 1826, when the Indians occupied the territory and claimed it as their own. The people of Assam share Tai origins with the peoples of Southeast Asia, and are not related ethnically to the people of peninsular India. (Ever wonder where the word "Thailand" came from?)

Like many of India's northeastern states, it's been the scene of separatist violence in recent years, as groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom attempt to secure some margin of self-determination for their land. And nice land it is. Assam's a lush and heavily forested state, with a monsoon climate, incredibly biodiversity, and one of the last remnant populations of the one horned rhinoceros. You may also have hear of Assam before because of its justifiably famous variety of tea. I had hoped to visit one of Assam's superior national parks on this trip, but it was not to be. They were closed for this year's Eternal Monsoon. And as Assam is one of the world's wetter areas, I wasn't eager to test their resolve on the matter. Not interested in swimming to see equally aquatic rhinos. Not really.