Saturday, 9 August 2014
“Frogs, ye gather round the pool to honor this day of all the year...”
Rig Veda, Hymn 113, Frogs
The chocolate gondoliers poled furiously, to no avail. The passenger that finally pushed us off the rock was a big man. I kept hoping the rifle he had slung over his shoulder wasn’t loaded. Minutes later we floated to rest, under the Baya weavers nests, hanging like flasks, in the thorny acacias on the far shore.
The waiting bus took us the rest of the way to Khajuraho by mid-afternoon. Two rickshaws cycled us to the Hotel Apsara, name after the celestial nymph, mythological female spirit of the clouds and waters, whose erotic embellishment of the temples here, we had travelled all this way to gaze upon. Apsaras were able to change their shape at will, and ruled over the fortunes of gaming and gambling. My own celestial nymph was using the last of her energy, getting a little bent out of shape, bargaining for the room. I used the last of mine to end the bargaining. We slept through the heat of the rest of the afternoon.
How hot the next morning was going to be could be estimated by the speed at which the hordes of flies raced your corn flakes for the inside of your mouth.
As the sun rose slowly-slowly over the western temples, we came upon a lawnmower, constructed out of half an oil drum cut lengthwise, and pulled by six barefoot men, running in harness. The driver behind the contraption could have been Santa, if he had been fatter, whiter, bearing gifts, and dressed more appropriately. He sprayed a wave of green grass in our direction as he passed.
The landscape of the original 10th century temple setting was nothing like the mowed lawn, rose beds and ornamental treed parkland we encountered on our visit. The Chandela Rajputs, who had taken two hundred years to built these monuments, worked in semi-desert tree gardens devoid of herbaceous plants. The whole twenty-kilometer area was enclosed by a wall with eight gates, each flanked by two golden palm trees. Of the original eighty Hindu temples, we saw the magnificent twenty-five that had survived. Constructed with sandstone megaliths weighing up to twenty tons, the builders used no mortar, but put them together with mortise and tenon joints, and gravity. And then carved a thousand year old orgy in stone.
Balloon-breasted heavy-hipped apsaras ran riot across the wall panels, putting on makeup, dancing, playing games, and knotting and unknotting their girdles. One freshly bathed beautiful celestial nymph had been sculpted arranging her wet hair, from where falling drops of water were drunk by the goose below. And below and within and above the fleshy curves of other bejeweled damsels were carved contortions of Tantric magic. Interlocked lovemaking couples and other numbers of participants and activities had been extravagantly portrayed in sedimentary bedrock.
I felt sorry for one particularly stoic horse, less impressed with the liberating path of the unity of form, than his more voluntary playmates. In India, spirituality came in many hues, usually in orange and white and skin tones. Its portrayal, in the ash gray sandstone temple art of Khajuraho, lifted it beyond the material world. This color of the Supreme never fades. Here, divine ascent was not the removal of the body, but the outcome of engaging it with its sensual organs. Here, sex was divine.
There was a fly in the ointment or, in an approximation of breakfast, at least two. The first was the original name of the place was Kharjuravahaka, scorpion bearer, representing poisonous lust. The original fable of the scorpion and the frog dated back to the 3rd century BC Indian Panchtantra. If the world had been supported by a giant frog, he shouldn’t have been carrying poisonous lust on his back as well.
The second problem was that the ointment was melting in the unbearable Madya middle heat of the day. We needed to cool down. And down was direction along the road where our reprieve waited.
There was a colorful doorman at the entrance of the Jass Oberoi Hotel, both of which seemed to be on another planet, considering our remoteness and recent hardships. A cousin to other opulent Oberoi operations across India, the Jass was still a far pavilion compared to the others. For one thing it had no guests. For another it had a buffet the length of a small town airport runway. Most importantly, it had a swimming pool.
Not the clay colored cholera puddle ponds of Indian prehistory, but a real rectangular large pure crystalline aqua pool. With water in it. That reflected the green around it, and the modern white hotel behind it. With deck recliners, and carpet-sized towels with the plush fuzz still attached.
The manager appeared out of the recesses of the inn. Robyn went into apsara mode, and negotiated a treaty that exchanged fifteen rupees for the afternoon use of the pool and the buffet, with complimentary gin and tonic welcome drinks. Here, divine ascent was not the removal of the body, but the outcome of engaging it with its sensual organs.
So we buffeted and swam, and lay by the pool. And Trevor, with the uniform and the white gloves brought us gin and tonics.
Trevor must have been a little underemployed or bored or both, but the gin and tonics didn’t really stop. We were beginning to feel really, really welcomed, and we knew that Trevor wasn’t going to try to lure Robyn off the pool deck to Abu Dubai, or something silly like that.
I began to do a lot of diving into the pool. This became more competitive as the afternoon took hold. I exhibited all the classical positions, straight, pike, tuck, and free, sometimes simultaneously. The girls would hold up virtual numbers. I was doing so well, I was sure I would eventually end up back on the podium.
Out of the chlorinated corner of my eye, I spied another swimmer. Scooping him up on a diving board pass, I looked into my palm of my right hand, to find a frog. After my learning of the Rig Veda frog who carried the Earth on his back, the Panchtantra fable of the frog and the town’s poisonous lust Kharjuravahaka scorpion, and considering the number of flies around to feed this amphibian, I knew at that moment that I was not in possession of any ordinary frog. This frog could fly. I knew this because, wherever he flew, he landed unharmed in the pool. Here, divine ascent was not the removal of the body, but the outcome of engaging it with its sensual organs. He kept pace with my sidestroke, to the accompaniment of a One Froggy Evening serenade:
‘Hello, my baby hello, my honey hello, my ragtime gal.
Send me a kiss by wire baby, my hearts on fire
If you refuse me honey, you'll lose me then you'll be left alone
Oh baby, telephone and tell me I'm your own.’
I named him Felix, long before Felix the Flying Frog became a western management paradigm for schedules, cycle times, and shaping new behaviors. And long before there were other frogs in the pond. Thirty years after Robyn and Julie and I swam with Felix, after the Jass Oberoi had become the Jass Radisson, a fellow traveler, befittingly named Deepall, wrote a critique of his stay:
‘We found frogs on the side of the pool. We call housekeeping to clean the same but they took ages to even come for help. Even when they came they could do much as frogs were stuck to the sides of the pool and could not be removed with a net. This was very disappointing!’
Deepall should have considered this incarnation a lucky one. He could have been born a thousand years earlier, as a horse.
Friday, 8 August 2014
“There is light at the end of the tunnel for India, but it's that of an
oncoming train which will run them over.”
Navjot Singh Sidhu
The train that threatened to run us over would come along after we left Gwalior. But we were pretty beaten up even before we boarded. A passing truck had taken us to Dholpur from outside the gate of Talab-e-Shahi, through scenes of other ruined palaces and umbrella-toting goatherders. We had hopes of reaching the erotic temples of Khajuraho that day, but nothing is linear or quantum in India. At the bus station in Gwalior, we established that there was no way to get there directly on rubber wheels.
Robyn and Julie and I hired a tonga for the day, and clip-clopped downhill to the train station. After five windows of chaotic head bobbing, the station manager appeared, to inform us that we would have to take an evening train to Mahoba, and then a bus to Khajuraho, whatever day that would be. This would give us time to see Gwalior Fort, for which the town was named.
Our carriage trotted up to the Fort entrance, where we were met by Choti, a twenty year-old science student, who volunteered his services as our guide.
Gwalior Fort had occupied a unique place in human civilization as the location of the first recorded use of zero. Named for the saint that cured the ruling king of leprosy, zero may have been what was left after he lost his other digits.
Most surviving wreckage in India contained antiquity too convoluted and contorted for an average human to absorb. Gwalior was but one prototype. The order that Choti would bring to Gwalior’s historical chaos was only surpassed by the chaos he would bring to Gwalior’s historical order. After a few probing questions, we settled for his entertainment value, and a running review of world cricket rankings. The climb through the four gates, alone, had already sabotaged any taste we had for precision anyway.
Built in the 8th century, Babur had described it as ‘the pearl in the necklace of the forts of Hind.’ Also known as the ‘Gibraltar of India,’ the fort forms a perpendicular precipice of massive yellow-orange sandstone rocks, overlain by basalt, rising over three hundred and forty feet above the plain, three hundred yards wide, one and a half miles long, and an area of just over a square mile.
Choti took us through the Elephant Gate, along the elephant-boarding ramp, past the Jain temples and forty foot statue of Parswanath, to the thousand year old tiles on the Man Singh palace. Inside, he showed us Man Singh’s throne, the screened boxes for his nine wives, dancing halls, underground dyeing vats, and dark dungeons, with their corpse-swinging hooks still in place. Most horrible was the unbelievable profusion of bats, their clickings, and their droppings. The celestial Chinese dragons at the hilt of the pillars below were of no earthly use. To everyone’s relief, however, Choti knew the location of the two wires that sparked a single subterranean light bulb into luminescence. The shadows it created were worse.
It was clear that bad things had happened here. Choti told us of competing family members of Mughal rulers, tortured and killed. Female relatives of the king had been ‘volunteered’ to be thrown into the flames of suttee bonfires. In the 1857 revolt, the bloodiest battle ever fought on Indian soil was triggered by a British calvary charge against twenty thousand defenders of Gwalior Fort, during which India’s Joan of Arc, Rani Lakshmi Bai, was killed. Less than a year after we visited the fort, Sikhs were burned alive where we had walked, to avenge the murder of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards. It was a place of fire and blood, and batshit.
At the end of the tour, the girls were relieved to be trotting back downhill, in the back of another tonga. After a final recitation of cricket test scores, Choti had suggested another route to Khajuraho, via a train to Harpalpur.
We made for the station. I led the charge through the turnstiled maze, to the ticket window, and stepped into a cow pie, laying in ambush, directly underneath it. I looked down at the greenish-black dung discus swallowing my sandals, and up at Robyn and Julie, more amused at my puzzlement, than my predicament. How, I wondered, how did a cow back up all the way through an iron railing labyrinth and baffle gate, to deposit a fresh meadow muffin under the very ticket window to Harpalpur? We had gone from batshit to bullshit in less than an hour. I had stepped into a cow patty portent.
We sat eating bananas on the platform, until the train pulled in, an hour late. It was a hot and muggy night, and the flying insects under the lights vied for landing rights on our eyes and in our airways. The crowds on the inside of our carriage did likewise, and we had to assert ourselves even more than usual, to keep our seats. From under our arms, streams of sweat ran to catch up with down. The thronging masses on the outside of our caged window accelerated into a multicolored blur, as our locomotive cleared the station. We exhaled, out of fatigue and relief, and the little extra breathing room it might provide.
I looked up into the eyes of a head bobbling teenage boy, bursting with something he seemed desperate to resolve. One of his many teenage pimple pals hiding behind him pushed his shoulder from behind, in encouragement.
“What.” I asked.
“Excuse me Sah’b, but perhaps it is possible to answer a question for us.” He said, wobbling like a pressure cooker regulator. His friends giggled uncontrollably, behind him.
“What.” I said again, bracing for it.
“Which one of these ladies are you enjoying relations with?” He asked. And his entire entourage burst into flames.
“Both of them.” I said. May as well make it unforgettable. My little interrogator paused, looking for words of resolution, and a way out. I braced for closure.
“You are a very lucky man.” He bobbled. And, with that, the entire juvenile masturbatory mob of Gwalior high school boys, faded back into the compartment they had materialized from.
I shifted my gaze to the two elderly gentlemen sitting directly adjacent to us. They inquired as to our destination.
“Oh.” They whistled, when I told them. “This train is going to Madras.”
“Madras?!” Screamed Julie and Robyn, and turned their scrutiny on me. I could feel Uncle Albert’s baseball cap, wilting over my forehead. The carriage grew very dark and very hot.
“Better to get off at the next station.” They suggested. We should have, but we were initially too paralyzed, and then too slow, to get it right.
An army chap then advised us to continue on to Jhansi, home of our Rani Lakshmibi. He explained that, the reason she became such a revolutionary figure, was because, when her husband died, before she could produce him an heir, the British annexed Jhansi, and allowed the slaughter of cattle. There would have been no cow pies beyond the turnstiles under the ticket windows in that territory.
If the train we were on was actually going all the way to Madras, it wasn’t going to arrive within that calendar year. It stopped in every hamlet on the way, and some in between. We spent hours cursing and walking up and down the length of it. Finally, around 3:30 am, we pulled into Joan of Arc’s hometown. It had taken five hours to go thirty-seven miles. Yes, there was a bus to Khajuraho. No, there was no space in the retiring room. No, we couldn’t get a refund on the unused portion of our ticket. Robyn and Julie fell asleep on the platform while I stood guard.
Just on daybreak, I fired up my stove, and woke them for coffee. An hour later, we boarded a bus for Khajuraho. It was not deluxe. I asked the driver if it was direct. He told me that the road was washed out. For the second time in twenty-four hours, we established that there was no way to get there directly on rubber wheels. I asked him if it was possible to reach our destination. He told me we would have to cross the river.
The ferry that waited for us didn’t look like it could cross the river. It was jimmy rig veda constructed, with rough-hewn planks and wrought iron brackets, into a shape that barely approximated the shape of a boat. The propulsion system stood on the bank, six tired thin chocolate gondoliers, leaning on their oars.
We boarded the boards. Then the Ambassador arrived. Not a statesman, a white automobile with a bent roof rack, and dice hanging from the rearview mirror. It was pushed onto the barge over four long shaky timbers, and took up most of the available space. Our raft had morphed into a Charon car ferry, except for the hundred passengers scrambling for deck space around the rubber wheels.
The girls wanted off. I convinced them to stay, but I didn’t have their view of the situation. They were looking at the river; I was looking at the shore-based activity. There was more going on in the river, so much more, the English had created a word for it. Torrent.
By the time the girls decided they wanted off again, we had launched. The oarsmen pulled for all they were worth, but that only got us sideways into the raging current. Wherever this river was going, we were going as well. And then we weren’t. Our raft rode ever so imperceptibly uphill, slowed, stopped, and began to revolve around its navel. We had drifted onto a rock in the middle of the river. The spinning car must have looked stupid from either riverbank but, out in the middle of the cataract, it only looked like we had come from batshit to bullshit into big shit.
According to the Rig Veda, the Earth was held on its back by a giant frog. Earthquakes occurred when he twitched and shuddered himself out of sleep. All the loud screams rotating around the rock in the middle of the Betwa River that day, were simply trying to wake the giant frog below.
Thursday, 7 August 2014
Everyone was full of cousin David’s wild boar. It was dark now, and the Milky Way starstream was beginning to fill in the sky.
“So why did people start to think that nature wasn’t perfect?” Millie asked.
“Agriculture.” Said Uncle Wink.
“Why was that?” Asked Sam.
“As hunters became planters, as tribal communities became progressively liberated from an immediate daily interdependence on the natural world (and the word ‘progress’ is sardonic here), culture changed, and spirituality evolved into specialization, the more removed from the immediate consequences of Nature, the more arrogant and elitist.
For planters, the teacher was the plant world, identical in its life sequences with the life of man. There was no such thing as a self-contained individual in the vegetable world. The shamans were out of work. Life came out of rot.
Planter mythology was different than Hunter mythology. The cultivation of the plant, planting the seed, the death of the seed and the coming of the new plant, was inwardly turned. The neuroanatomy was different.
In the Great River valleys, hunting man gave way to goddesses of fertility, and only when the plow was invented did men once again take over agriculture, making metaphorical furrows in the earth.
The rise of agricultural surplus resulted in the birth of Western civilization. The ability to concentrate protein stores, in Semitic goats and sheep, or Indo-Europeans herds of cattle, allowed the beginning of the invasions, in the fourth millennium BC. They were killers, they had warrior gods, and all their cartwheels were for conflict. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob’s tribe exterminated the Canaanite city of Shechem.
Their geography shaped the image of their divinity. Out in the desert, nature was corrupt, and fallen. Under one sky in one world, they only needed, and could only imagine, one deity. In the Garden of Eden, when man ate the duality fruit of the forbidden tree, he was expelled, and Nature was no longer a manifestation of divinity, but a corruption of the world. Plant boy Cain, the crop farmer, killed flint boy Abel, the herder, like it was a range war in the Wild West. Only to the white man was nature a ‘Wilderness’ and only to him was the land infested with ‘Wild’ animals. To us it was tame… When the very animals of the forest began to flee from his approach, then it was for us that the ‘Wild West’ began.
And the problem with Yahweh was that he forgot he was a metaphor. He was a jealous anthropomorphic deity, a gaseous vertebrate purveyor of sword and death. The natural gave way to the supernatural, settled village wastelands where people lived inauthentic lives, directed by functionary clergy, ‘serving the community.’ The shaman experience was regarded as that of a clown.
The myths of birth and death were replaced with the resurrection myth of a savior. Someone, rather than some animal, had to die in order for the next generation to survive. The unforgiving monotheistic world of Jews, Christians, and Moslems, had arrived. The entire equatorial belt of the planet became a frenzy of sacrifice- vegetable, animal and human, and Nature was culled from the meaning of life.”
“Is that what happened where you were in India, Uncle Wink?” Asked Sam.
“Oh no, Sammy.” He said. “Nothing like that at all.”
Wednesday, 6 August 2014
“The traveler has to knock at every alien
Door to come to his own, and one has to
Wander through all the outer worlds to
Reach the innermost shrine at the end.”
Rabindrath Tagore, Gitandal I
It was Ali Baba who insisted. He had been clearly under the influence of the full moon and his chillum, but he had been adamant about the pilgrimage.
“You cannot leave without staying at Taleb-e-Shahi. It was the hunting lodge of Shah Jahan.” He had said. “If you are lucky, you will see a tiger directly.”
We asked him why we had never heard of the place. He told us that very few people knew of it. We asked him if it was easy to get to. He told us no, it wasn’t. We asked him if it was safe to go there. He said no, not quite. It seemed perfect.
At breakfast he told us about why it wasn’t quite safe.
“It is because of the dacoity, you see.” He said. We didn’t see.
“You would call it banditry.” He offered. “Groups of armed robbers, and the like.”
Ali Baba told us that, just across the border into Rajasthan, where we would be heading, dacoits were, apparently, thick as thieves. They were taught the art of robbery at a young age, and could hide knives, keys and stolen ornaments, in the recesses inside their mouths, for years. The biggest thieves got the best brides, so village women often carried guns to ward off attacks. Ali went to great pains to point out that dacoits were not thugs. Thugee was a religious cult of assassins, who would join a party of travelers in stages and, only after spending a lot of time gaining their confidence, ritually strangle them with knotted yellow scarves, in honor of the goddess Kali. Dacoits were hit and run. They might kill you, or they might not. We felt relieved.
Ali Baba said goodbye at the Igda station, having arranged us in the front sauna seat section of a crowded crumbling contraption, bound for Dholpur. You could already tell, from the appointments and the aroma, that this was not a ‘Double D’ direct and deluxe destination.
We settled back into the diesel din, and watched the driver turn chaotic wide arcs down straight roads with his defective steering. We crossed into the flat lushness of Eastern Rajasthan, past an elephant pulling down a tree, through sparse market towns, and finally nowhere. The driver indicated our need to disembark, and the direction we were to hike towards.
“Go one kos.” He pointed. We didn’t know how far a kos was, but it found us an hour later. The locals who suddenly surrounded us stared, and left no breathing space. We asked him if it was easy to get to. He told us no, it wasn’t. Normally, I would have been more assertive about the need for respect of our Western personal distance requirements, but some of the locals were armed.
In every multitude, there is a mentor. A balding brown man, with white beard stubble and thick sunglasses, stepped forward, hand on his heart and head bobbling. When he removed his sunglasses, to reveal how cross-eyed he was, it was difficult to know where to look. I focused on his nose. He introduced himself as Mr. Singh, and inquired after our destination.
“Talab-e-Shahi.” I said. The amplitude of his bobble increased, to our relief.
“I, myself, an headed in the direction of the palace.” He said. “I will provide you with your further instructions.” We bobbled back. There were two things we didn’t know about Mr. Singh until later. The first was that he was actually the president of the private bus concessions in the area.
The cloud of dust that careened around the corner stopped just long enough for us to discern the general shape of a bus. It was mobbed. Between what was hanging off the outside, and what was foaming out if its interior, no life was possible. In space no one can hear you scream. Inside this tin of sardines, you wouldn’t have been able to draw enough breath. Mr. Singh sprung into action, hacked his way through a wall of human flesh, and found us room. For some reason, we didn't have to pay the fare. Somehow, I had diffused through to the back, with no view of the girls up front.
“Chalo!” said Mr. Singh, and the dust rose around us.
The scenery was hot, arid and flat at the beginning, and I wondered if Ali Baba hadn't slipped us a fast one.
On into nowhere we roared, until it was almost on top of us, forty kilometers further into the day. We recognized the red sandstone walls first, and the chhatri cupolas second. This was unquestionably a Mughal palace. Mr. Singh touched down with us, and took us around the side, where a huge rectangular lake appeared, dotted with lilies and lotuses.
“There are large numbers of winter migratory fowl coming to Talab-e-Shahi.” He said. “Pintails, shovellers, pochards, ducks, teals, wigeons, fadwalls...many kinds.” I asked him about tigers. Head bobble.
“Shah Jahan hunted them.” He said. Mr. Singh told us that a fort had been built here by Firoz Shah in 1286, but that the Mughal palace and lake were only constructed by Jahan three hundred years later. It was then that the second thing I hadn’t known about Mr. Singh occurred to me.
The most famous Indian dacoit in history, with over a thousand armed robberies, countless ransom kidnappings, 185 murders, and ninety police encounters that had killed 32 policemen, had been named Man Singh. I asked if he had been a relation. Head bobble.
“Uncle.” He said.
‘Sir, what will a dacoit find in this police station?
Why... they can take away your weapons.
Guns and rifles, they have their own. The best ones.’
Mr. Singh took us inside the front gates, and helped us make arrangements for our accommodation. He told us we had to compose a letter of request, which one of the palace wallahs would ride into Bari on his bicycle with, to obtain authorization.
We also gave him rupees and a shopping list for apples, eggs, bananas, beer, and peanut butter, a description of which we also provided. Alas, it proved inadequate. He returned with betel nut.
‘To Whom it May Concern,
We are 3 commonwealth tourists requesting permission to stay at
Talab-e-Shahi (room#2 and #5) for tonight and possible tomorrow
Thanking you in advance, we remain,’
We remained most of the after with Mr. Singh, who invited us to be his guest, offered to buy the girls watches, and schemed as to how we might assist him to change his South African
Rand into dollars, in Gwalior. We should have looked in his mouth.
It was late afternoon when he left, and we were shown to our Raja rooms. Robyn and I had a capacious bedroom overlooking the lake. We were excited to see the description of ten different controls on the plumbing in the ancient bathroom. I was particularly looking forward to the one that said ‘Rising Spray.’ It was about then that one of the palace wallahs entered with a full bucket of water.
“Ablutions.” He said. My heart sank. The taps were seized shut. The plumbing hadn’t worked for a half century. It didn’t matter. We had twenty comfy chairs in our common room, one of Shah Jahan’s Shalimar Mughal gardens in our courtyard, and authorization to stay.
Dinner was served with a flourish- boiled eggs, delicious ghee-dripping chapatis, bananas, veg curry and cold beer. And we went outside and gazed at the full moon on the reedy lake, captured fireflies and joked in pidgin Hindi.
The power went off as I wrote my diary, and it came on again as Robyn I talked of life, and the different sets of frustrations that traveling and returning home would ultimately entail. She told me I expected too much, and she was right.
And the power went off again, and the large bat that we hadn’t noticed on the ceiling, awoke, seeking his usual flight path through the window we had closed. Maybe he expected too much.
We hid under our sheets, to avoid the bombardment of guano, until he finally located the way out with furious chirping. The echo it made across the lake, returned several paralysing octaves lower, like God had just shuffled a deck of thunder. We couldn’t blame him for creating the tiger, but we were grateful to him, for not having given it wings.
Julie had already risen early next morning to take pictures of our hunting lodge. She had trumped our bat with a scorpion. Robyn and I followed her down to the arcade pagoda, and did likewise.
After breakfast in the courtyard garden, we gathered our packs and thanked the palace wallahs, who presented us with our bill. Two dollars and fifty cents.
It is because of the dacoity, you see.
Tuesday, 5 August 2014
“Pearl-crowned, when midnight airs aside have blown
The clouds that rising moonlight faintly kissed;
-An aspiration fixed, a sigh made stone.”
H.G. Keene, The Taj
“O Noble, O Magnificent, O Majestic, O Unique, O Eternal, O Glorious...” began the Ninety Nine Names of God, inscribed in calligraphy on her tomb inside.
Inside the inside, Mumtaz Mahal, Venus of the East, lay with her face turned right, facing Mecca. She had died in, and from, her fourteenth pregnancy and, in apparent sympathy, the last blood red streaks of the failing sun filtered through the balcony screens and roof openings of the interior, capturing the remaining lapidary gemstones that the British hadn’t chiseled out, while they had been replacing Shah Jahan’s gardens with lawn.
The echoes we made in her darkness were as perfect as the crimson-lit magic we emerged to. Along the paving stone path, our feet hadn’t felt the ground. We stared in wonder, in a heavenly dusk, at a pearl formed of ether, at beauty so profound as to be agonizing. There were no words, but Shah Jahan’s. ‘The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs and makes sun and moon shed tears from their eyes. In this world this edifice has been made to display, thereby, the Creator’s glory.’
The recipe for making a Taj Mahal was simple. Excavate three acres down to 160 feet, above a riverbank. Fill with dirt. Dig hundreds of wells and fill with stone to form footings. Form a fifteen-kilometer tamped-earth ramp, to transport materials to the construction site. Build a marble platform on one of sandstone. Instead of lashed bamboo, erect a colossal brick scaffold to mirror the tomb (and have it easily dismantled overnight by decreeing that anyone can keep the bricks taken). Find a thousand elephants to bring translucent white marble from Rajasthan, jasper from Punjab, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphires from Sri Lanka, and carnelian from Arabia. Recruit twenty thousand laborers from across Northern India, sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, stonecutters from Baluchistan, and inlayers from Southern India. Mix well, and bake for twenty-two years.
I pedaled Robyn and one of the rickshaw waif wallahs back to the Akbar, and Percy and Julie followed behind. We shared our day’s impressions with Ali Baba, who produced late night veg cutlets, a guitar, and a promise to come with us the following night, to reveal the secrets of the Taj.
Sixty years before Shah Jahan, descendant of Genghis Khan, Timerlane, and Charlemagne, began his monument to Mumtaz, his legendary grandfather, Akbar the Great, built a city, twenty miles away. It lasted a year less than it took to build. After fourteen years, Fatehpur Sikri ran out of water, Rajput goodwill, and time.
Our two waif wallahs, with freshly laundered checkered tea towel dhotis, were waiting outside the Akbar next morning. They pedaled us to the Igda bus station by the GPO, for a forty-five minute delay and a three rupee local bus, another hour and a half slowly-slowly, down a track lined with large mimosas, along fields of green corn dotted with white double-chinned cows, and rice paddies and water buffalos, to the ancient deserted city.
Still surrounded by the five mile long wall built during its original construction, we climbed the rocky ridge, and the fifty-two steps to the 180 foot high Buland Darwaza Lofty Gateway, and into the most amazing ghost town in the world. Above us, inscribed in black and white marble calligraphy, inlaid into the red and buff sandstone, was proof of Akbar’s religious broadmindedness: “Jesus, son of Mary said: ‘The world is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no house upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity...’”
We donned slippers, and entered the rectangle of the Jama Masjid mosque, for it’s floral watercolors, and central mihrab adorned with an inlaid stone mosaics, glazed tile borders, and golden inscriptions on royal blue. Far pavilions. We left our slippers to rest on the terrace of the palace of Jodha Bai, the Rajput princess who became Akbar’s third wife. When Portuguese pirates captured her ship and refused to release her, Akbar laid siege to the Portuguese colony at Daman.
Less weighted was the house of Akbar’s Hindu court jester, the Birbal Bhavan, described by Victor Hugo as ‘either a very small palace or a very large jewelry box.’
But the most fascinating part of the abandoned city lay in front of the five tapered stories of the Panch Mahal, Akbar’s ‘windcatcher’ pleasure palace of pillars and pierced lattice screens, perfect for playing hide and seek with his harem of slave girls.
The pea-green ornamental pool in the foreground contained an elevated central square stage island, connected by four stone bridges, on which Akbar could direct life-sized games of pachisi, played with human pieces, on the adjacent Diwan-I-Khas.
We made it back to Agra by late afternoon, in time for a stroll through the lanes around the Akbar, and a horse-drawn tanga carriage to Aircon Kwality Caterers, for mutton cutlets and the late apparitional reappearance of Percy, who had eaten at a better, cheaper restaurant.
Then came the finest evening, O Noble, O Magnificent, O Majestic, O Unique, O Eternal, O Glorious... O, the finest evening. It began, continued, and ended with, and because of, Ali Baba. We had been playing guitar until he looked up.
“It's time.” He said, producing a tola of hashish. We looked at him with concern.
“Babur brought it from Afghanistan.” He said. “His great, great grandson, Shah Jahan, also drank opium with his wine. Did you not see the inlaid poppies on Mumtaz’s tomb?”
We moved quietly into waiting waif rickshaws, the cool night down to the Yamuna River, and through the main gate into another world- a bright waxing gibbous moon hung in space, casting the guava dome in its pure silver. The Taj received it and turned it soft, even, diffuse and golden. Topped with it’s own gilded moon finial, horns pointed to heaven and surrounded by lotus motifs, Shiva’s trident appeared alongside the essential symbol of Islam. Ali Baba took us to the right-sided gate and made us walk backwards and forwards, and through the gate the glistening teardrop on the cheek of time floated gigantic towards us as we retreated, and shrank as we advanced.
And around the back we sat and watched as the moonlight spilled over the dome, drowning its quarter-configured projection on the onion's apex; and he showed us how the ‘W’s on the front flattened out as we attacked, how the precious stones in the pietra dura inlay could only be discerned by the light of the full moon, how the front minarets leaned outwards only a touch, and how life could be dark and cool and sharp and, at the same time, illuminated, blood-steamed and serene. It was, to every ghost there, the finest evening. Years later, Thoreau reminded us. If you have built castles in the air... Back in our garden room at the Akbar, however, on that finest evening, infused with the love of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz, we watched the fireflies, dancing on the lawn.
Monday, 4 August 2014
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is
where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Henry David Thoreau
The droning automatism of the chai wallahs penetrated the dingy gray dawn on the platform. Layered between the diesel and the shit were ephemeral passing fragrances of cardamom and sugar and hot buffalo milk. I loved the way they poured it in an aerobatic flourish, giving you your money’s worth of gravity.
As the purgatory of sleeping beggars fell further behind, we emerged from the station, clacking into the sun towards the east. I glanced at my ticket. Taj Express.
Our destination was two hundred kilometers further into Uttar Pradesh, and much further into utter pandemonium. With over 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh, were it a nation in its own right, would have been the world's fifth most populous country, ahead of Brazil, and bereft of samba. We were headed to ancient Agrevana, mentioned in the epic Mahabharata, as ‘the border of the forest’. The Mughals had called it Akbarabad. The train conductor announced our arrival to Agra, late morning.
A bank of cycle rickshaw wallahs were waiting for us outside the station, peddling their pedals. Julie and Robyn and I put our packs in one conveyance, jumped in another, and slowly- slowly began to accelerate towards another one of Smiling Steve’s sanctuaries- the Akbar International, home of owner and sage, Ali Baba, a spacious room facing the garden, all the necessities of life, and some of the absurdities.
One of the latter was loitering in the dining room. Percy was an Aussie primary schoolteacher, Tin Man’s heart, generosity of Scrooge, and Billy Carter’s sense of aesthetics, thirty-eight going on twelve. He volunteered to accompany us on our afternoon touring.
Outside the Akbar, the original rickshaw wallahs from the station had waited, in the hope of scoring more lucrative shop commissions, by diverting unsuspecting passengers from their planned itineraries. We called them on it.
“If you go to four of your sights, you must be coming to four of ours.” One offered. We went down the drive, and hired two younger ones, thin Dravidian waifs with checkered tea-towel dhotis, from an eighteen-year old entrepreneur with a more well rounded understanding of rickshaw market forces. We turned a tight corner on a narrow street, and right into a two white Indian horned oxen, yoked to an overloaded cart of thirty stacked burlap bags, a turbaned driver, and three passengers, riding high in the air. Not France.
We braked at the Amar Singh Gate of the Red fort, two and a half crescentic kilometers of ringed red double ramparts, punctuated by castellated bastions. Commissioned by Akbar, and converted into a walled city palace by Shah Jahan, almost a million and a half builders took eight years to finish it, in 1573. We crossed a wooden drawbridge to the inner ascending right-angled Hathi Pol Elephant Gate, designed to disable any elephant from acquiring the attack speed necessary to crush the fort’s defensive entry. The forbidding Red Fort exterior concealed an inner paradise of marble and pietra dura inlaid minipalaces of pearls and mirrors and pools and fountains, and had once contained the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the Peacock Throne.
We visited the Musamman Burj, the balconied tower where, imprisoned by his son for the last eight years of his life, Shah Jahan had a view of the mausoleum he had built for his wife, a mile down the river. Even from here, you could feel its floating magnificence, castle in the air.
The heat, and the sheer size of the place, began to take its toll. Bats, chirping above us in the various interiors, and the rich Vegemite smell of their droppings, encouraged us along. I jumped on an oxen-powered lawnmower, not expecting the reaction I received, from the giant white bullocks collared to it. They burst into forward propulsion, and it took me what seemed forever to gain their control, and guide them into a steady cascading pattern of grass clipping exhaust, in rows of my own making. Steer steering. Robyn brought me a Limca on a wide turn.
Back outside the gate, we found a whip-wielding crazy man, where our rickshaw waif wallahs had been. Percy was just about to teach him some Aussie rules, when they reappeared through the dust. After a brief rest on the terrace of Jahangir’s Palace, our skinny black cyclists brought us across to the Yamuna’s left bank, and into a large cruciform garden, crisscrossed by watercourses and walkways. In the middle stood an alabaster jewel box, with hexagonal towers rising forty feet on each corner.
The Itmud-Ud-Daulah was the geometrically perfect tomb of the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, whose own mausoleum would become the most famous in the world. ‘Pillar of the State,’ it was half way to, and architecturally and historically half way through, the distance from the Red fort to the Taj. It’s Rajasthani white marble, encrusted with lapis lazuli, topaz, cornelian, onyx, and jasper, was carved into wine bottles and cypress trees, fruit and bouquets of flowers, and delicate jali screen latticework, filtering light into the interior. Percy thought it was ‘for poofters.’
He though even less of the Chini-ka-Rauza dome of Persian blue-glazed tiles. Our rickshaw wallahs had trouble finding it and, when we did, it was a mess- the tilework only hinted at its former glory. Screaming hordes of idle kids outside apparently belonged to the sleeping squatters inside.
Nearby was the oldest Mugal garden in India, the Ram Bagh Garden of Relaxation, where Akbar lay without moving for six days, until his third wife, a gardener there, agreed to marry him. We were shouted at, on our way through to admire a peacock, by a gardener who was clearly not prepared for us to lie around for a week.
Our waif wallahs were getting tired, so I switched off pedaling with them, so they could catch their breath. Percy needed ‘tucker,’ so we cycled back across the bridges until he found a name he could recognize. Enter Bob’s Restaurant.
The place was filthy, the service miserably slow, the food slowly miserable, and the electricity, like the charm, came in particles. I tried to warn him, but Percy was determined to have ‘real’ food. He called out for Bob, and met the real owner’s tubercular horking instead. He wanted ‘spag bol’ and got a version thereof. The girls and I had sag paneer and rice, and three fermented Limcas. Percy refused to contribute to the veg cutlets we bought for the rickshaw waif wallahs. The next we heard of him, from Ali Baba the next day, Percy was still in the loo, reaping the karma of bubble and squeak. But that would be tomorrow, and we were about to transcend the day. Any and all days. After hammering the cotterpins back into the wheel of one of the rickshaws, we set off along the river towards a big red sandstone gate. Heaven lay in ambush, just beyond.
Sunday, 3 August 2014
“Delhi came as a shock. There were so many people, and oh, the traffic.”
The night passed slowly, growing warmer and sticky, as we drove through the contrasts of Chandigarh. A child of Le Corbusier, the Fort of Chandi, with its central grid of gardens and mansions, referred to itself as The City Beautiful. It was the first planned metropolis in India, designed to replace Lahore after Partition.
Hordes of untouchable harijans, Corbusier’s other children, milled on the sidewalks and slept in the station. When the sun rose orange over Haryana, and on my left cheek, I realized I had been asleep for about an hour. Finally, about nine am, we arrived down the Grand Trunk Road into a raging rickshaw battleground, and a breathsucking ride to Connaught Place. What had, less than a century earlier, been a tranquil kikar tree-covered ridge, inhabited by jackals and wild pigs and partridges, was now a bustling area of narrow streets lined with shops, bazaars and pandemonium, the high capital of Satan and his peers.
Here, Robyn and I found a closet-sized room on the freak-filled terrace of Ringo’s guesthouse. Our small bed filled up every corner of the space. It was the space. Julie got a bunk in the dungeon dorm for sixteen rupees. The cold water that lived in the shower, some of the time, held out just long enough. We were in the big smoke, and out of money. While Robbie had a nap, Julie came with me to the American Express office, where good fortune smiled. The very last quantum of solace had arrived from the bottom of my bank account. I had twenty-two hundred dollars, to get around the rest of the world, or live in India forever. We woke Robyn and I took us all out to Gaylord’s, for a banana split. Julie saw me wince.
“What is it, Wink?” She asked.
“I just had an orgasm.” I said. Coffee came, with real sugar cubes. I calculated how long I could live in India, if I moved into Gaylord’s. We slept the rest of the day away and, in the evening, Gaylord’s gave way to glory.
The red and white sign we had passed, in our rickshaw arrival, now lit neon above our heads. It rolled off and on our tongues in promise. Nirula’s Salad Bar. After the alimentary agony of the previous weeks, one could well have questioned the insanity of consuming something green, fresh out of Indian ground, without passing through nuclear decontamination first. But, as the Mahatma had said, ‘What is true of the individual will be tomorrow true of the whole nation if individuals will but refuse to lose heart and hope.’ We climbed the stairs.
Inside was a buffet berm of tuna salad with green pepper, chicken with pineapple, coleslaw, lentils, macaroni, cucumbers and tomatoes, grated Parmesan, black muffins with butter, and all the good cold water we could drink. There was lettuce we just stared at. It smelled like California. There was a DJ on the sound system. Eyes rolled back and quivered. It was done, and we basked in the afterglow. I looked out the window, through the diffuse lighting, wood paneling and potted plants. And saw rickshaw drivers asleep in the only property they owned, and begging mothers in the filthy deserted streets. Gandhi had also said that India was country of nonsense. We walked quietly back to Ringo’s, and fan blown dreams.
The next three days were pulled by rickshaws, and pushed by errands. The Canadian embassy held a treasure trove of letters, and a cheque from Metro-Golden Meyer in Esbjerg for twenty-nine dollars, in Danish krone. Ever the bean counter. We all put in our applications for Nepali visas, and I left the girls to mail home my Kashmiri folk art. The forms weighed more that the package. I booked a trunk call to my mother for the evening.
“Sorry, no answer.” The operator said.
“Try again.” I replied. Booth number one. She sounded distinctly distant and disassociated, unlike me, only distinctly distant. You couldn’t blame her. She hadn’t seen me in over three years, and didn’t know if it would ever happen. This kind of pain takes decades to ripen properly, bearing the best fruit long after they’re gone. Unsurpassed when they’re dead and gone.
Even on Ringo’s rooftop terrace, Old Delhi’s nights were hot and muggy, making sleep impossible. We spent as much time as possible outside our bed room bedroom, with the other freaks. The second night I played a lot of chess with Aussie Ralph, winning every match.
The third night I emerged from the bed room bedroom, I had to rub my eyes. I had a black beard, Uncle Albert’s red baseball cap, a blue t-shirt, white shorts, flip-flops, and a Kashmiri leather bag. Sitting, beating Aussie Dave in chess, was a guy with a black beard, red baseball cap, blue t-shirt, white shorts, flip-flops, and a Kashmiri leather bag. He looked up, and laughed. Neil worked as a ‘meter maid’ in Whistler, but he didn’t look like a meter maid. He looked like me.
“In a cap she looked much older,
And the bag across her shoulder
Made her look a little like a military man...
Oh, lovely Rita meter maid,
Where would I be without you?
Give us a Wink and make me think of you.”
We played chess. I won. We became friends anyway.
Robyn, Jules and I picked up our Nepali visas on Friday morning, and went on to the five thousand years and two hundred thousand works of art of the National Museum. I particularly admired the Central Asian collection, the Moghul miniatures, and the sacred relics of the Buddha. Like Jesus and Mohammed, he must have been a big man. Unfortunately, the need for luxury and pretentiousness overcame our intellectual curiosity, and we spent the afternoon lounging in the air-conditioning of the Emperor’s Lounge at the Taj Palace Hotel, drinking coffee, eating custard cake, and rereading the International Herald Tribune. Robyn returned from the gold fixtures and marble of the ladies room with a fanfare, and drum rolls of liberated toilet paper. Character is Destiny.
Our last day in Delhi was spent seeing it, for Robyn and I anyway. Julie had come down with Delhi belly. We started at the Jantar Minar, Jai Singh’s 1725 observatory, a palm-lined pink earth-coloured astronomical sculpture playground, still recording time and near space. The pink earth had dropped a little Disney acid to create the pigmented shikhara projections on the Laxmi Narayan Temple, where Robyn and I jumped to ring the bell. We drove on to see the ‘last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture’ through the ornate gate of Safdarjung’s Tomb. One of the snake charmers lost his cobra. We didn’t offer to help him look for it.
The most impressive site of the morning was the Qtab Minar, the chubby 12th century fluted tower, out of the red sandstone debris of twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples, destroyed to construct a Moslem minaret. The tallest in India at 240 feet, no one could hear the muezzin who had climbed the 379 stairs to call the faithful to prayer. I wondered if no one heard him, was God really great? I was able to encircle the nearby Iron Pillar with both arms, the accomplishment of which, according to legend, had ensured me a qualification as swordsman to any emperor, and the granting of a wish. I wished to quench my thirst, and the three bottles of Appella I had under the restaurant fan were an obvious fulfillment of the prophecy. The red earth and black marble slab of Raj Ghat, Gandhi’s cremation site, was devoid of accursed ‘English lawn.’ We walked down the Rajpath King’s Way, under the pink sandstone India Gate, inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. But this was not France.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan had originally been the ‘Viceroy’s House,’ and the largest residence of any Chief of State in the world. The 360 rooms in the five acres of interior floor area, had taken seven million bricks, 3.5 million cubic feet of stone, the eradication of two villages, and twenty years to construct. The Durbar Hall dome seemed to float above the summer heat haze. The chandelier inside it, suspended over a hundred feet in the air, weighed in at two tons. Past Parliament House and back along the Yamuna River, we came to Shah Jahan’s Red Fort, and four more snake charmers. I asked why the last one looked so dejected.
“His cobra has departed.” Said the one with the biggest turban.
“Dead?” I asked.
“Oh Heavens, no.” he replied. “Only missing.”
“How long has he been missing?” I asked, looking around furtively.
“Only this morning.” He said. “But no problem. It is most likely he will be returning.”
I had a mental image of a 35 pound fifteen foot growling King cobra, with enough poison in its fangs to kill an elephant, or the thirty people riding him, reassured that ‘most likely he will be returning.’
The picture of Lord Shiva is incomplete without the cobra around his neck, and Lord Vishnu rests on a seven-headed naga. The Buddhists believed that a massive cobra had spread its hood over the Buddha to protect him from the sun while he meditated.
I told Robyn that, with Julie feeling lower than a snake’s Delhi belly, and the neighborhood wildlife running this free, it was most likely we would be leaving.
“You will trample upon lions and cobras.”