Monday, November 1, 2010

The Red Fort And Other Historical Learnings

The Red Fort is Delhi's most distnctive immensity. In that it is, indeed, goddamn enormous. The gigantic red sandstone strecture completely dominates Old Delhi, set as it is conveniently across the street from the Jama Masjid. The Red Fort and the Jama Masjid were both commisioned and erected by Shah Jahan - the man otherwise known as The Guy Who Built the Taj Mahal - and the face of Northern India today is defined by his remarkable good taste.

I somehow managed not to actually go inside the Red Fort on my last trip. And it looked like the same was going to happen this time, too. It's a classic scenario: a massive, beloved tourist attraction that you never quite find the time to go to. And you use a wide variety of excuses to justify it. It'll take a long time. It's hot in there. The admission is expensive.

Then, I cleverly left my debit card in a restaurant. I'd been meeting with a charming old friend from Bangalore, we'd had a couple of drinks, we'd had a lovely time, I had (characteristically) got distracted by some amusing twist in the conversation when the check came - bam. The night before I left on an early train to Amritsar.

I discovered this at 5:30 in the morning, when I woke up to go to the train station. Whoops. Needless to say, I wasn't getting on that train until I found my damn card. Thankfully, Providence (or something) came through for me. The properitor of Defense Colony's Angels in the Kitchen had, upon finding the card, immediately put it in a lock box and had been waiting for me to call. What a mensch. His restaurant has excellent fusion cuisine, a lovely ambience, and an alluring spread of desserts. You should eat there post-haste when you are in Delhi.

So, I got my card at noon, I missed my train, I was stuck in Delhi for one more day with no idea what to do. I got online post-haste and booked a train ticket up to Dehradun, with the intent of returning to the charming Raj-era hill station of Mussorie as a stop-gap measure. There were actually seats available on the train. So far, so good. My blood pressure had spent the entire evening at a level usually experienced immediately prior to a fatal cardiac event. I had to go do something with my day. So: Time to See the Damn Red Fort.

I hailed a taxi and we dutifully made the rather long drive down to Old Delhi and the Fort Area. Halfway there, the formally blue and reasonably welcoming skies entirely erupted. It was apocalyptic rain, the kind only India can really dish out - it felt like that shit would hammer through the car walls and drown us all. Everyone on the street was running crazily for shelter. "Well, uh, we're here," the driver said. I had, of course, not thought to bring an umbrella. I had a brief internal debate: Do I go back to the hotel and not see the Red Fort once again, rendering myself a member of the Crappiest Tourists in Human History society? Or do I man up, square my shoulders, and completely and utterly soak myself in the interest of culture?

I got out of the taxi. Was soaked to the bone in roughly 2.5 seconds, maybe less. I marched over to the ticket counter anyway, where about 60 tourists were huddled under a leaky awning, standing in ankle-deep water. (Delhi and drainage? Hah, don't make me laugh). I sloshed on through and bought my ticket. I was going to see the damn Red Fort if it killed me. I walked through the gates.

A lovely pavilion in the inner compound.

It's hard to express how shockingly huge the Red Fort is. And this becomes an incredibly good thing. If you pay the price of admission to the Fort, you see, you've got an immense, controlled, and quite clean green space pretty much to yourself (in the off season), a place of remarkable serenity and relaxation in the middle of Delhi, one of the planet's bigger clusterfuck metropolises. The rain finally slackened off, to a refreshing drizzle, and I strolled down the path through the former British army barracks inside, headed to the Indian Independence museum within to wait out the last gasp of the rain. It was really quite lovely.

The Independence Museum does do a reasonably through job of explaining the long march of India's freedom from its colonial captors. Indians are very fond of demonstrative dioramas in their museums, which always amuse the snot out of me. Not that the subject matter is amusing at all. This depicts the brutal Jalianwalla Bagh Massacre in the 1919 Punjab. Punjabis, spurred to protest by Ghandi, began to demonstrate throughout the region - especially active in Amritsar. British official General Brigadier Dyer was put in control of the city, and he quickly began to use harsh methods to bring the demonstrators to heel, including random arrests and a total ban on all gatherings. On that fateful April day, a large number of Punjabis gathered at a protest meeting- unaware of the anti-meeting law - and were suddenly confronted by Dyer and his men. The British troops without warning began to indiscriminately fire into the peaceful - and shocked - crowd. Almost a thousand people died. An excellent article on the massacre is here.

Dyer, for his part, wasn't exactly repentant. In his own words:

"I fired and continued to fire till the crowd dispersed, and I considered that this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect, it was my duty to produce if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been greater in proportion. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more specifically throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity...(report to the General Staff Division on 25 August 1919)"

Interestingly enough, Micheal O Dwyer, the official who approved the action, was assassinated by a Sikh -one Udham Singh - in 1940 (Dyer having already kicked off).

I had not been aware that a significant Indian independence movement existed among Indian Americans (mostly Punjabis) in the early 1900s. Pretty cool story, that. Check out the Ghadar Movement here. The Ghadarites published journals and newsletters extolling Indian independence, but were tragically (and often fatally) repressed by the British.

The Mughals were very keen on water features. You would be too if you lived in the hell that is April in Delhi.

On to the main attraction, the Red For itself. Well, if I could find it. it's really easy to get lost in the countless paths of the Red Fort. There's usually helpful soldiers carrying fearsome looking weaponry to give you directions, but these directions (as it turns out) are usually wrong. I ended up walking over a small green bridge that connected two parts of the fort to one another - now divided by a highway.

A train was going by under me, a coal train. For a moment, I had ab brief and utterly surreal feeling that I was standing on a railway bridge somewhere in North Carolina and that a hobo carrying a ruck-sack and a banjo might manifest magically out of the bushes. Thankfully, the feeling passed.

I turned myself around and finally found myself in the main fort complex - in other words, the old stomping grounds of the Great Mughals themselves. It's an incredibly beautiful place, full of graceful Mughal architecture - and what architecture style really tops it? - and old British buildings, water-features and garden areas. Sadly, the Fort is poorly maintained, and little to no restoration or reconstruction work has been done. This place could be reasonably easily restored to its former majesty...but I suppose the 15 USD or so entry fee isn't going into the upkeep of this superb piece of human history. Can't say I'm shocked. The actual living quarters of the

This is the Moti Masjid or the Pearl Mosque, erected by the hyperactively religious Emperor Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb did not share the rather relaxed and hippie-ish religious notions of his forefathers, and imposed a new era of strict Muslim rule on India. To his detriment: his disinterest in tolerating minor Indian cultural elements like, I don't know, Hinduism, ended up diminishing the influence and popular support that the Mughal Empire had previously enjoyed.

At least the rather dreary and startlingly uncharismatic Aurangzeb could appreciate a decent building, as evidenced by the graceful Masjid. (Aurangzeb is also the guy who deposed and locked up his father - Shah Jahan - in the Agra Red Fort, allowing him the smallish dignity of being able to view his Taj Mahal from across the river. Whatta mensch).

The Hamman, or Royal Baths, are definitely the crown jewel of the Red Fort Complex. This incredibly ornate and lovely white marble structures are where the Mughals abluted, shot the shit, and consorted with their armada of concubines in their off time (and being a Mughal emperor, hey, it was off time whenever the hell they felt like it!). Official business was supposedly conducted here on a regular basis.

Like every tourist attraction in India, the Fort is perennially full of roving packs of bored teenage boys. I find myself wanting to yell GO AWAY AND GET A JOB whenever they hit on me, though doubt this would really achieve much.

This strikes me as a bit awkward - being naked in a royal bath with your boss and a couple of concubines - but I guess cultural norms change. Fast. The complex and highly advanced water system sprayed both hot and cold water, and basins of rose-scented liquid were thoughtfully set out for the sweaty. It is nice to know that the Mughals probably smelled pretty good.

Built in a similar style, the Diwan-i-Khas was the Emperor's personal quarters and also served as an official receiving room (presumably for folks who didn't warrant a full rub-down and a toe tickle by some Kashmiri babe). This is the place where the iconic Peacock Throne of the Mughals sat- and is the place where the great Persian warrior Nadir Shah took it in 1739. There really was an artificial river that ran through the holy baths and this area, nicknamed (somewhat grandly) the Nahar-i-Bihisht or the River of Heavenly Peace.

These rooms were used and abused by the British after the exile of the Last Mughal, Bahadur Shah II after the Delhi Mutiny - soliders were quartered here and doubtless had boozy drinking parties and other carryings-on in what were formerly sacred and incredibly closeted environs. As is the case with all successful invading parties, isn't it?

There's a small museum kept up in the sadly shabbily-maintained Mumtaz Mahal, the old residence of Shah Jahan's beloved wife.

Mughal armor.

The Diwan-I-Am was the spot where the Emperor engaged in public activities of state. Inaugurations and other show piece events happened here - as evidenced by the epic and imposing scale of the building. It's hard to imagine, but the building was originally coated in burnished white plaster, and was trimmed with real gold. If you were inordinately lucky, you might get invited here for a state event, doubtless involving elephants and other awesome things.

I ambled back outside the Fort now. What a pleasant respite from the constant sensory fist-to-your-face assault that is day to day Delhi. A tourist outside the gates was being shaken down for money after foolishly photographing some charming local boys. Rickshaw drivers were calling at me from behind the metal security-gates, as soon as I emerged. The sky was electric blue and the weather almost cool, post-rain, and the Fort was redder then I'd ever seen it before. Such is life, such is life. If there be a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this....

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