Thursday, March 31, 2011

Delhi – The British Raj

A journey along the northern ridge above Old Delhi gives a taste of the 19th Century British Raj, while the other side of old Delhi sits the 20th Century version with Lutyens’ India Gate and the grand former Viceroy’s Palace and Government Secretariat buildings. The ridge gives a great view of the old city and is where the British forces were encamped for the retaking of Delhi during the 1857 Mutiny. Marking the positions held is the “Mutiny Memorial” or Ajitgarh a large gothic style tower in the local red sandstone.
This was surprisingly difficult to find on my first visit in 2001 with the locals neither recognising the name of Mutiny Memorial or Ajitgarh. The “eureka” moment came with my driver asking AGAIN at some local shops and me getting out to stretch my legs to immediately see the tower sitting on the ridge about a mile away! Each side of the tower carries a marble inlaid plaque identifying the numbers of casualties from the Mutiny.

To the south east of the position the Jama Masjid is easily picked out, with the Red Fort a little further in the distance. The Fort would have been the main target for the batteries of gun on the ridge. To the south can be seen the newly opened Delhi metro and the modern city blocks rising in the distance.

A little further along the ridge is an Asoka Pillar, this being one of the two brought to Delhi by Firoz Shah from Meerut. The pillar dates from the 3rd Century BC and was originally set up here on the ridge at Firoz Shah’s hunting palace (which sadly is now no more than a pile of stones) in 1356. This one I said to have broken into five pieces due to an explosion in the early 18th Century and later had the inscribed portions sawn off for analysis by the Asiatic Society of Bengal.

The pillar shows clear signs of its more recent history having been reassembled here in the 1860’s. Some of the Brahmin script can still be seen with its message from Asoka about the importance of the welfare and happiness of the people.

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Asoka Pillar photo collection:

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There are a number of parks along the ridge although none are particularly attractive as they are really just marked out among the woods and scrubland that make up the ridge. At the highest point on the ridge is the Flagstaff Tower, built in 1828 it dominated the military cantonments below the ridge to fly the British flag. The Tower became the meeting point during the Mutiny for British families before they fled Delhi in 1857.

Beyond the eastern end of the ridge is the Delhi Coronation Park. This was the site for the Delhi durbars and is a huge flat expanse of a “parade” ground. At one end is a raised stepped platform from which the King Emperor and dignitaries could view proceedings and is topped by a memorial column. Adjoining the durbar site is a compound of the busts and statues of the “great and the good” of the Raj that formerly occupied the India Gate area. There is a huge statue of the King Emperor that takes pride of place having formerly been on the now empty plinth seen at India Gate. There are a further 20 plinths but only two statues and two busts remained of the other governors, admirals, general etc. on my last visit in 2004.

Coronation Park photo collection:

Movie footage of the 1911 Durbar:

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The Coronation Park was originally meant to be the area for development for a new complex of Government Buildings for the Raj for the planned move of the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi. This was changed to the current area of India Gate to the South of Old Delhi around the Raisina Hill. On the crest of the hill is Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palace of the Viceroy (and now the Indian President).The Palace was commenced in 1913 and took 18 years to complete. It has 340 room, covers 19,000 sq. metres and is topped by a huge dome for which Lutyens reputedly took his inspiration from the Pantheon in Rome. A grand avenue runs from the Palace through the centre of the India Gate complex of building, gardens and monuments. Flanking this broad avenue at the edge of the hill are the main Government Secretariat buildings. From the India Gate monument the Palace dominates the horizon, a grand symbol of the power of the British Raj.

The red sandstone and granite India Gate is the national monument of India and was designed by Lutyens to commemorate the 90,000 troops of the British Indian army who died in World War One and the 3rd Afghan War. Beneath the arch in black marble is the Indian army’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This being one of the main tourist sites in Delhi there can be a lot of hassle from hawkers here and in 2001 for me the opportunity to do some illegal currency trading! Beyond the Gate is the podium and canopy that until independence in 1947 was home to the statute of the King Emperor George V that now stands in Coronation Park. Among the road grid is laid out an extensive park with a number of grand fountains and ponds that are very popular at weekends.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Delhi – Jantar Mantar, Suraj Kund and The Zoo

In central Delhi on Sansad Margh between Connaught Place and India Gate is one of the five 18th Century Jantar Mantar astronomical observatories built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II.

The Delhi version was built in 1724 and while the brick and plaster “instruments” are in reasonable condition there is significant pollution damage to some of them, such as on the Jai Prakash Yantra. This instrument shows the time, the sun’s declination and the sign of the zodiac.

The impressive Misra Yantra indicates noon in four different locations around the world, the meridian altitude and when the sun enters Cancer.

The Ram Yantra sits at the southern end of the Jantar Mantar like two giant wheels. The instrument has graduation markings on the floor and walls to provide readings for azimuth and altitude. The Samrat Yantra can be used to calculate the time correctly to within half a second and the declination of the sun and other stars.

The Suraj Kund on the outskirts of Delhi is a reservoir dating back to the 10th Century and the time of the Rajput Tomar dynasty. The reservoir was built by King Surajpal in a semi-circular design with a temple on the West side. The Tomars first settled in this area before going on to establish the “second” city of Delhi – Lal Kot. Extensive repairs are believed to have been carried out by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in the 14th Century using a lime “concrete”. The Kund includes a large ramp to give easy access to the water for elephants.

Also here is the site for an annual “mela” which is a major crafts festival held every February. The access to the site (which is not open outside of the festival) is via a number of ceremonial gates illustrating the craft of different regions of India. The Danteshwari Devi Gate has the eponymous Madhya Pradesh mother goddess and her retinue of other deities depicted in the dhokra metal craft tradition.

The Hoysala Gate depicts the style of 12th Century temple building in Karnataka in South India. The gate has the Hoysala emblem at its centre and depictions of mythical animals.

The Delhi Zoo is located between Humayun’s Tomb and the Purana Qila but slightly confusingly is often referred to as the Aviary (due to the large bird collection) which made it hard to get directions when I first visited in 2001. Built in the 1950’s the zoo covers 176 acres, and with the entrance/exit at the north end almost separate from the grounds it is a long way around especially in the heat.
There are two white tigers, one “proper” one and one that is actually an albino Bengal Tiger. The enclosures are large for these cats who seem quite at home, although some of the lesser cat species are in smaller pens and look a little sorry for themselves as a consequence.

In spring 2001 the highlight of my visit was the Black Bucks fighting which was spectacular and at times seemed really quite vicious although there were no serious casualties. There are several large enclosures for different deer species.

The 2004 highlight though was the elephants as there was a baby elephant playing in the elephant enclosure pond with mummy elephant.
The Giraffes seemed very shy of visitors but also rather curious, perhaps they don’t see many short fat hairy Welshmen!
It wasn’t clear if there was more than one otter in residence but the one on show was very “talkative”.

I had an interesting visit to the Vivarium in 2004 as I arrived just after feeding time. Dinner was at that time untouched though as in the smaller snake tanks the chicks pecked around happily and in the larger ones the rabbits hopped around looking for something to nibble. I’ve not seen this approach to feeding live food in any other zoo and was thankful that it wasn’t very busy as I was concerned that if dining had started any bunny/chick lovers would have been badly traumatised! There are a number of small islands to encourage the birds and the largest one has a colony of storks with on my visit in 2004 a lot of young birds still to develop their normal plumage.

The bears despite being in large open compounds were a pretty sorry looking lot, the Sloth Bear pacing up and down at some speed and looking very agitated. I can only conclude that his dinner was running VERY late.

Delhi Zoo photo collection:

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Delhi – To the North, Kurukshetra and Thanesar

Around 160 kilometres north of Delhi Is Kurukshetra which is another important site in Indian history having been the site of the great battle of the Mahabharata and where Krishna is said to have preached the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna.
There is an interesting Krishna museum here and a large Panorama and Science Centre.

Although there are lots of small temple sites they tend to be difficult to access and nearby Thanesar has much more to offer visitors.
There is a very impressive Mughal era tomb here for a Sufi Saint, Sheikh Chilli set in a large walled compound.

The marble tomb complex buildings sit on a raised sandstone platform and while not large are certainly impressive.

The Tomb building itself is raised on a small marble platform and is octagonal in design.

To one side is a walled garden courtyard, and on the other a madrasa compound
Next to the tomb is the Pathar Masjid, a small early mosque from the Tughlaq period.

The tomb complex includes a museum of artifacts from the excavations of the Bhagwanpura mound adjacent to the tomb, and from Kurukshetra.

There is evidence of pre-Harappan and Harappan culture dating back to the 1st Century AD including a unique type of pottery known as Painted Grey Ware.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Delhi – To the South, Ballabhgarh, Narnaul, Neemrana and Sohna

Ballabhgarh is in the Faridabad area just 30 kilometres south of Delhi on the Agra highway and has a fine small fortified palace.
Construction was started in the 18th Century by Rao Balram and completed by Nahar Singh in the 19th century.

The gatehouse is well presented having been entirely restored and there is some excellent decoration particularly to the upper floor.

There is a small neat courtyard with at one end the Diwan I am and a complex of rooms at the opposite side that have now been converted to a modest hotel.
There is a terrace area that serves as bar, restaurant and hotel reception opening onto the courtyard.

Raja Nahar Singh was a minister at Bahadur Shah II’s court (the last Mughal ruler) and was hanged for his role in the 1857 Mutiny.

Ballabhgarh photo collection:

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Narnaul is an old town situated 150 kilometres south of Delhi that has a number of interesting historical sites dotted around it.
Most spectacular on the outskirts of the town is the Jal Mahal which was built by the local Governor Shah Quli Khan in the 1590’s. It was not easy to find though and we spent the best part of an hour driving around and having spotted the domes finding a route to it.
The Mahal sits in a large square tank that looked like it had seen very little water for some years when I visited. Access is via a gatehouse and a long arched causeway.

There is a square central chamber and four outer ones (one at each corner) connected by corridors.

The interior is lime plastered and decorated with floral and geometric patterns; one of the outer chambers has some well preserved decoration.

Nearby is the tomb of Shah Quli Khan although nowadays access is by walking across several fields. The tomb is unusual and quite striking with its octagonal design in blue-grey stone inset with red sandstone raised on a blue-grey stone platform.

The interior is quite plain but lined in white marble with white marble graves at the centre.

The tomb was place at one end of a large garden complex and although now the land here is all farmed the walls are still largely in place as is the Tripolia Darwaza (gateway). This was built in 1589 and on my visit was home to the farmer now working the former gardens.

The main attraction in the town is the palace of Rai Bal Mukund Das who was governor of the town during Shah Jahan;s reign. The town is not easy to navigate with the older areas a mass of narrow alleyways that meant the car had to be “abandoned”. Unfortunately it was not much better on foot and the search for the palace was given up after finally getting into the right area I was told that it was not able to visit as the whole complex was occupied by local families.
It was interesting to get a look at some traditional Haveli’s in the streets but having got back to the car we then got stuck with one wheel down a drainage channel when turning around. Still it meant all the evening sessions in the gym came in handy and the locals enjoyed the entertainment of watching me trying to lift the car out of its difficulties!

At the north end of the town on a small hill is the Chor Gumbad, This is the tomb of Jamal Khan and dates from the time of Feroz Shah Tughlaq. Although impressive in its size it was in very poor repair in 2004 and certainly wasn’t safe to enter.

Narnaul photo collection

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Sohna is 50 kilometres south west of Delhi in the Arravali hills and is a spa town due to its sulphur spring.

There was a small fort on the hills above the town but nowadays it is little more than assorted piles of rubble. It does give a good view out into the plain back towards Delhi though.

A little further into Rajasthan at 120 kilometres south west of Delhi is the Neemrana Fort Palace. Built in 1464 it sits high on a hill just off the Delhi-Jaipur Highway and is now a hotel.

The town below the fort became the Chauhan capital in 1467 under Raja Dup Raj. The entrance to the fort is through a large gate that turns into a large tunnel with a steep ramp to the main gate. The tunnel is lit by a large chandelier and is wide enough to permit carriages.

The Inner Gate is flanked by statues of Rajput warriors and the surround is decorated with paintwork. The facing wall has a large frieze of a Rajput mounted warrior with carbine.

The Palace is something of a hotch-potch of small rooms and courtyards as it is built up the side of the hill. Rooms tned to be arranged around small courtyards.

Aside from the usual bar, restaurant and hotel pool one unusual facility is an outdoor theatre.

Neemrana photo collection:

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Sohna photo collection:

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