Delhi is the Tale of Many Cities


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2010. All Rights Reserved.
The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

abstrct: India calls its capital New Delhi. The “new” part is in fact only a 1930s addition to the 17th century Mughal metropolis of Shahjahanabad. This was an incongruous grafting of Imperial Britain’s urban concepts of order, space, trees, and quiet onto an Indian city of chaos, crowds, dust, and noise. The integration has been more a process of encroachment by the latter in the midst of the struggle by both parts to cope with the requirements of modern times. In the resulting amalgamation, Old Delhi remains not just as an anthropological museum, but a crucial part of the heart and soul of a community which is now largely Hindu but has evolved from several Muslim cities dating back to the early 13th century. In the monuments and ruins of those cities I looked for the history that might shed light on what is contemporary Delhi.

Chaos in Our Times

From the fairyland airport of  Faro , in the pristine Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, I flew over the lofty white peak of Mount Everest  and landed in Delhi. Under the gray blanket of smog comprised of dust, car fumes, and smoke from the many open wood-fires that served as heaters for the poor on this cold late November evening, the capital of India palpated with the chaotic traffic of buses, carts, trucks, motorcycles, rickshaws , hand-pushed carts, and pedestrians who spilled over into the roads where the broken sidewalks ended unexpectedly. Nobody paid attention to the police at the intersections who flailed their arms to conduct the movements in directions which were blocked anyway. “All this is because of the 2010 Commonwealth,” our tour guide explained unconvincingly. Delhi was hosting the Commonwealth Games in the coming summer, and “the whole system is being revamped.” The guide was referring to the new subway lines being put in. To the newly arrived visitor, he seemed eager to cover up the stubborn vestiges of underdevelopment in a prideful new pretender to world power status. I saw no open trenches. The subway construction was fenced off. Behind the tin fences there were shanty dwellings put up to house those who worked on the tracks.

Traffic was politics here. “The mayor, Sheila, has just been re-elected,” our guide said, “she received much credit for instituting an exclusive lane in the streets dedicated to buses.” The evidence for the effectiveness of this policy was scant. “We call it optimizing the space available,” our guide described the practice of Delhi drivers who allowed alarmingly minimal space between vehicles. “Horn Please!” was the ubiquitous sign on the back of those vehicles. The constant blowing must have helped keep the drivers alert. I went to bed that night marveling that I had seen no accident. Alas, the next morning I was awakened to the reality of a horrible picture on the front page of the local newspaper, Daily News, showing a half-burned car. It had caught fire the evening before on a main street of Delhi where it was stuck in the unmoving traffic. A woman passenger died as her cries for help went unheeded by passerby. The city authorities were quoted as lamenting that such behavior showed “the breakdown of civil society” in the teeming population of 17 million people.

Early History

In the courtyard of Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque an iron pillar stood witness to Delhi’s history. The inscription engraved on it in the Gupta characters of the 4th century records its erection by King Chandra. Since no other relics from the Golden Age of the Gupta Empire (319-510 AD) have been found around here, the pillar had most likely been uprooted from somewhere else. Delhi, of course, had existed for many centuries before. This is the site Indraprastha which we know from the ancient Hindu book of epics, Mahabharata. Historical records indicate that Delhi was inhabited during the Mauryan period (321-184 BC). Located in a fertile land watered by the Yamuna River, Delhi remained pivotal to northern India as it commanded the key trade route from the northwest to the Ganges plains.

King Chandra’s Iron pillar was originally installed to support an image of Garuda, the mythical bird that was the vehicle of Vishnu, in front of a temple dedicated to that god. No old Hindu temple has survived in the Delhi area, although a clan of Rajput ruled here from 736 to 1130 AD, followed by Chauhan rulers from 1150-1170. The Chauhans were overrun in 1192 by a “ferocious horde” of Muslims from Ghur, in modern day Afghanistan. They built the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque on the site that had been the Rajput citadel, according to the Archeological Survey of India’s publication, Qutb Minar and Adjoining Monuments (which I purchased from its store at the site).

As recorded in the Mosque’s north gateway, its construction was completed within a mere six years after the Ghurs arrived. Not surprising in such urgent projects, the materials used for the mosque came from 27 demolished Hindu temples, as the main eastern entrance records. Unlike a Hindu temple which is “an abode of mystery,” with a sanctuary to a deity buried deep within, a mosque is a straightforward structure which has no shrine. The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque is a simple quadrangular court surrounded by pillared cloisters . Their arcades were made of columns from diverse Hindu and Jain temples arranged together, sometimes set upon another, in rows to support a roof.

The use of materials from the sacred temples of the vanquished Hindus was the first phase of the cultural history of Islamic Delhi as revealed in the architecture of the monuments in Quwwat-ul-Islam Complex. The next phases were combining the Islamic and Indian styles, introducing innovations and, finally, purifying the Islamic style. I joined a group of students visiting from the rural areas outside Delhi to explore the evidence for this progression of their architectural heritage.

The earliest mosques were austere buildings, making allowances only for scriptural inscriptions and geometric patterns. In the Hindu temples the gaps in the buildings were bridged by means of beams and lintels. The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque introduced arches here. A screen of five arches was erected in front of the prayer hall. Combining the Islamic and Hindu elements, the screen was carved with inscriptions and geometrical and arabesque designs but by craftsmen accustomed to Hindu motifs of naturalistic curved lines.

In a later structure of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Complex, the Qutb Minar (constructed in 1199), the decoration became consistently Islamic in character; features of Hindu origin are practically absent. Qutb-ud-din Aybak, the first Muslim Sultan of Delhi modeled his minar (tower) on towers of his native Islamic Ghazni, which in turn had their origin in the pre-Islamic Persian Sassanian towers. The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque was enlarged by two later rulers, Shamsuddin Iltutmish and Alauddin Khalji in the following century. The screens of these two Sultans are, likewise, carved with exclusively Islamic motifs in geometric patterns.

The calligraphy I saw in the Quwwat-ul-Islam Complex also makes a contribution to understanding the history of Islamic Delhi. The earlier gateways to the Mosque, on the east and north, have inscribed lintels in Naksh, an Arabic script developed in the 10th century. However, the screen across the front of the Mosque built by Qutb’s successor in 1230 used the Arabic lettering which combined the later, more advanced heavy square Kufic and the intricately interwoven Tughra scripts . These are all the first examples of calligraphy in sandstone in India. The architectural scheme of red sandstone and white marble, later much favored by Islamic builders of India also made its first appearance here, in the Alai Darwaza (gate) which was added to Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque by Alauddin Khalji in 1311.

The Persionate Influence

The 14th century Arab traveler Ibn Batuta wrote that the Quwwat-ul-Islam Complex was erected at the site which the Hindus called elbut-khana. While the article el is from Arabic, the name but-khana is Persian, meaning the house of idols. Persian words were in fact common in the names given to the three first cities built in Delhi by its new Muslim rulers: Siri (from sir meaning head) built by Alauddin Khalji (1296-1316), Jahanpanah (protector of the world) by Muhammad bin Tughlug (1325-51), and Firozabad (developed by Firoz) established by Firoz Shah Tughlug (1351-88). Persian names were also given to the two later cities built by the Mughal Emperors: Dinpanah (protector of religion) which was established beginning in 1533, and Shahjahanabad (developed by Shahjahan), the construction of which began in 1638.

The Mughals and the five Islamic Sultanates that ruled Delhi before them might not have been ethnically Persian (who in those times were often called Tajik, meaning little Arab, tazi, a derogatory appellation made current by the ruling ethnic Turks) but they all came from areas where the language of the court was Persian; and when in India, that was the language of their courts. The Mughal (the Persian word for Mongol) dynasty (1526 to 1857) originated from present day Uzbekistan, and the other dynasties mostly from present day Afghanistan: the Mamluk (1206-90), the Khalji (1290-1320), the Tughlaq (1320-1413), the Sayyid (1414-51) the Lodi (1451-1526), and the Sur who temporarily interrupted the Mughals rule from 1540 to 1555. In the more than six centuries of Islamic rule from the beginning of the 13th century, Persian language and many aspects of Persian culture, including cuisine, became dominant in Delhi.

In search of the architectural traces of this influence, I went to Isa Khan’s Enclosure. I climbed one of the towers of the wall surrounding the Enclosure’s vast courtyard . Until the early 20th century a whole village existed here, but it had only a few visitors today. Tourists looking to discover Delhi in its history miss this place at their own peril. It contains the earliest still standing building of Dinpanah, Emperor Humayun’s city, dating back to 1547; as such it is the only connection with the earlier cities in Delhi. The Enclosure was built in the short interregnum in the Mughals’ rule, early in the dynasty when its second king, Humayun was defeated by the Afghan Sher Shah Sur and made to flee to the Safavid Persia. Isa Khan Niyazi was a noble in Sher Shah’s court.

The Enclosure’s Tomb  and Mosque are the earliest extant Mughal monuments in India. Nothing is left from the early part of Humayun’s rule (1530-1540) -he would come back after 15 years in exile, mostly in Iran. Babur who established the Mughal dynasty in India (his mother was a Mongol) after defeating Sultan Ibrahim Lodi in 1526, did not like living in Delhi and built nothing now remaining there during his three year rule. Babur’s great ancestor Amir Timur captured Delhi in 1398 and stayed for 6 months only to plunder and take its treasures and artisans to his own magnificent capital, Samarkand, which was already well-endowed with architects, calligraphers, and painters from Persia. Some of Amir Timur’s descendants, the Timurids, then ruled in present day Iran and their architectural heritage influenced the buildings of their cousins, the Indian Mughal emperors.

Isa Khan’s Tomb was an innovation in Delhi with its octagonal shape which shows the influence of the 14th century Persian tombs with a similar plan. Some twenty years later a much grander monument with much greater Persian architectural influence was constructed just next door. Called Humayun’s Tomb, it is the mausoleum built by his wife, Hamida Banu Begum, several years after the death of the Mughal Emperor who had been able to regain his throne in Delhi in 1555 with the help of 12,000 cavalry given to him by the Iranian Shah Tahmasp I. Humayun’s remains were then transferred from a holding station (supurdgah) to this permanent Tomb.

Humayun’s Tomb

Hamida Banu Begum, who had accompanied Humayun into exile in Iran, was especially fond of Persian architecture and arts. As architect for Humayun’s Tomb she hired Mirak Mirza Ghiyas who was of Persian descent. He employed Persian artisans and craftsmen who were housed in an area that has since been misnamed Arab Serai. He was fortunate because Shah Tahmasp, who had been a great patron of arts, experienced a pietistic conversion during a pilgrimage to the Shiite holy city of Mashhad and his resulted, around 1544, in many Persian artists leaving his court, with the majority coming to the Mughal court in India.“But later the Iranian Shah, Nader Afshar, came to Delhi and took everything on many elephants to Iran,” my tour guide said. Some historians have explained that Nader, who was related by marriage to the bankrupt Safavids whom he succeeded, invaded Delhi after his many demands for the return of Tahmasp’s “loans” to Humayun (including the cavalry) were unheeded by the Mughals.

Regardless, Humayun’s Tomb still remains remarkable for its many architectural innovations in Delhi. Two are directly related to the Persian influence: its lobbies and its dome. The lobbies that dominate the exterior of the Tomb conform essentially to “the three-fold scheme characteristic of Persian architecture, the great central arches being flanked by a smaller but emphatic arch in each wing.” The dome, supported on squinches , which roofs the central hall, gave the building

“an imposing exterior height but kept the ceiling of the central hall in proportion with the interior heights. [This was] the first full dome to be seen in India…. The outer dome is bulbous in shape… Earlier domes were not full in the sense that their shape never traced a full semi circle…. Indian indigenous architecture was unacquainted with the dome…. The roofs of Hindu temples were either flat-topped or modeled on mountain sikharas to meet in a peak above sanctum sanctorum,” as stated in Archeological Survey of India’ Humayun’s Tomb and Adjacent Monuments.” (pp. 41-43)

In Humayun’s Tomb the Persian model of the building was modified above its wings and portals by the Mughal chattries which are small umbrella-like pavilions. These kiosk-like Hindu elements diversified the rigid lines of the building. Humayun’s Tomb changed the somber tone of past Indian-Islamic architecture. It is ornate. Red sandstone with white marble inlay was used in great quantity. This architectural scheme which had been first used in the Alai Darwaza of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Complex had been almost forgotten for more than a hundred years. Henceforth, however, it became the Mughals’ standard way of finishing a building, combined, as it was in Humayun’s Tomb, with “lotus bud-fringed arches,” and “perforated stone jali” (lattice) screens.”

Equally significant is Humayun’s Tomb’s introduction of the great Mughal architectural contribution, the royal tomb garden. Gardens were a favorite of Amir Timur, who built many with watercourses which gained world fame. Babur followed by describing a layout of gardens in his memoirs, Baburnamah (The Book of Babur), which became the design for all future Mughal gardens, known as the charbagh (four-folded garden). Humayun’s Tomb’s garden is distinct as it is the earliest garden in combination with a royal tomb. Here “the design of the tomb and garden were treated in unison.” The idea was living in heaven after death as the Koran described it.

“Symbolically, these were the perfect embodiment of the Islamic ideal, the ultimate paradise garden, with the emperor forever in paradise. The large square enclosure, divided with geometric precision, was the ordered universe. … The paved walkways (khiyabans) with stone edging, with a narrow water channel flowing along the center. .. Eternal flowers, herbs, fruit, water, birds such as those of paradise added further. … Mango is said to have been favored by the Mughals…. Humayun had a liking for oranges and lemons, “ as reported in Humayun’s Tomb and Adjacent Monuments (pp. 54, 57).

Humayun’s Tomb was the model that culminated in Taj Mahal built by his great grandson, Emperor Shahjahan. I found striking similarities between Humayun’s Tomb and Taj Mahal which I had seen a few days earlier, especially in the shape of the building, it lobbies, its dome, its many rooms, its charbagh, its entry portal, and the “symmetry” because of which one could see the building through the double gates of the enclosure. I also noted differences with Taj Mahal: in Humayun’s Tomb there was no calligraphy, sandstone and marble were used instead of only marble, and blue tiles instead of precious stones.

Humayun’s Tomb is the burial place of many more than just Emperor Humayun. It became the “family tomb” for the Mughals. Over a hundred later Mughal kings and their relatives and attendants have been interred here. Among groups of visiting Delhi high school girls and boys in their colorful, blue , green, and red uniforms, I walked inside the many chambers under the Tomb’s dome. I saw several raised tombstones . The woman who guarded the place could not identify them for us. They were not marked except with inscriptions from the Qur’an, in keeping with strict Islamic customs.

This place which started what remains as the Mughal architectural heritage, ironically also became the scene of the Mughals’ last act. On September 22, 1857, Lieutenant Hodson led British soldiers on a ride through the 14 meter high gate of the enclosure to Humayun’s Tomb to demand the surrender of Bahadur Shah II. That last Mughal king of Delhi complied without resistance. As a desperate resort, he had asked the Sikhs for help in fighting against the British in what they called the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and the Indians call the First War of Independence. He was refused; the Sikhs chose to side with the British. The Sikh religion had been born because of grievances against the Muslim rulers. The Sikhs remembered that their 5th guru was burned to death in 1606 on the order of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Some have maintained that many of their other nine Gurus were also murdered by the Mughals.

The Muslim Ghetto

The master builder of Delhi was the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan. He began developing his Shahjahanabad in 1638 and by the time he was finished it was a truly imperial city with a fort, mosques, broad streets, elegant houses, and busy bazaars all enclosed in a wall opened only through a dozen gates. Much of that city is still left and is now called the Old Delhi. We could see parts of its remaining wall as we drove to its heart, the Jama Masjid.

This is India’s largest mosque. Its vast courtyard was built with a capacity for 25,000 worshipers. On this day it appeared near vacant, and largely unused. Only four people were praying in its narrow covered halls, which were adorned with simple calligraphy. Several people were sitting on the edges of the pool in the middle of the courtyard which once served multitudes for the ritual wash before prayer. Most looked sullen, and drained. One man engaged an Irish tourist in a conversation. Defensively, he was associating Islam with other Abrahamic religions: “it is just like Christianity, just another prophet.” The Irish man said “but you claim that he is the last prophet; that he has the last word.” Soon the custodians asked us to leave the Mosque as the sun was setting .

Outside, from the top of the hill where the Mosque is located I could see the Red Fort across Shahjahanabad, its impressive 108 feet high walls a reminder of the bygone power and pomp of the Mughal emperors. We walked down the stairs to the crowded Meena Bazaar where there were as many goats as men. The signs in Urdu read elan-e qurbani (Notices for the Sacrifice). The Muslim Feast of Sacrifice (aid ol azha) was only days away and the goats here were sold for the rite of sacrifice. Lamb, which God allowed Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son, was scarce in this part of India.

Urdu ( meaning army camp), a language written in Persian-Arabic script, began to develop in the 11th century as a result of the interaction between the Persian speaking Muslim soldiers and the local residents of Delhi. Also called Hindavi, it was nearly the same as Hindustani until the mid- nineteenth century, when the Muslim rule in Delhi ended. Now traffic signs in Delhi show the divergence: they are still in the old Urdu script but also in a different script for Hindi, as Hinudstani is called after becoming far more Sanskritized.

We climbed on bicycle rickshaws to ride through the congested alleys of Delhi’s main bazaar, the Chandni Chowk . Vehicles and men jostled for space. We watched monkeys walk on the overhanging jumble of electrical wires and jump to roofs of three-story buildings. We saw merchants sitting on white cloth in their small shops , some stretching their legs. The shops were narrow, open to the street and elevated above it. They sold saris and zaris, jewelry, stationary, and other goods used in the traditional life. The colors and noise produced that certain excitement familiar to eager sightseers. Back in our bus we faced a car that had blocked the road. The driver had locked the vehicle and walked away; no one could find him. Our guide organized a group of idle bystanders to lift the car to the side. We squeezed through.

At the height of the Mughal Empire, Chandni Chowk was world renowned. Now it was the cramped ghetto of Delhi’s Muslims. It was not the loss of power to the British but the Partition that sealed the Muslims’ fate in Delhi. The city was torn by strife in 1947; it was torched. The cross migrations induced by the Partition transformed Delhi, in the course of a month, from a mostly Muslim city of one million people into a city of two million, mostly Hindus.

As the well-off Muslims left, the rest as a group lost in social status. Authorities like to maintain that those who stayed “live peacefully side-by-side” other communities in Delhi, our tour guide reassured us. In fact, however, the Muslims faced resentment for not having left after insisting so much on their own separate state. The defeat of Pakistan in the war of 1971 further eroded the Muslims’ standing: any lingering myth of Muslim superiority engendered by their long rule in India was now wiped out. The religious riots beginning in 1989 are believed to be the cause of the “ghettoization” of Old Delhi. Muslims sought security in the anonymity of the ghetto. The breakdown in cross-cultural interaction has inevitably also harmed the larger Indian community. Instead of enrichment diversity has produced stereotyping and scapegoating.

“Whenever we have a big problem in India you can see the hands of Pakistan,” our tour guide said. “It is responsible for everything, Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e Tiaba, Kashmir. The Sikh extremists in Punjab who agitated for independence in the 1980s were encouraged by Pakistan.” The guide had a simple explanation for all that mischief: “Pakistan wants Kashmir.” To that end, Pakistan “infiltrated terrorists into Kashmir and still occupies parts of Kashmir. As a result there are many refugees here from Kashmir, who have been helped by India to start their cottage industry.” He was now taking us to a “unique Emporium” which showcased their work.

There a polished salesman took over while we were served tea with saffron and cardamom seed. “What we have here is hand-knotted silk rugs. This is different from ‘hand-made’ which could be done by loom.” He also had a history to tell: “In the 16th century a large Iranian family passed through the Himalayas and we were blessed because we learned the silk rug work from them. There are 700 families, all Kashmiris, who are the members of this cottage industry in India now. The silk comes from the south of India. Natural silk does not catch fire.” He demonstrated this by gently touching the flame of his lighter to the fuzz of the carpet that his assistant had spread before us. “These carpets are not made elsewhere because the younger generation does not make them in Kashmir. It is a dying art. Each of our carpet is made by just one family. Our prices are fixed.”

I walked around the gallery with a fellow traveler who had expressed an interest in a carpet the salesman had called a Kashan . We were followed by a sales clerk who kept reducing the asking price for the carpet every few steps in the hope of closing the sale. I saw a carpet with the design of “The Garden of Shalimar” which is in Lahore, Pakistan. Another featured a bearded face with a turban in a drinking party with beautiful women which illustrated a poem in Persian, on its upper margin, by Omar Khayyam . Still the third carpet showcased in ornate calligraphy the words Ali Mulana , the name of the Shiite first Imam. The salesclerk confirmed that he was a Shiite; noteworthy as the Shiites often claim discrimination in Pakistan.

Next day our Taxi driver insisted on taking us to a “shop for Indians,” as the Emporium was “just for Western tourists, and expensive,” he said. This complex of many small stores also offered clothing materials, jewelry, and miniature paintings. Prices were lower, but we heard similar stories about how the shop-owners who were “Kashmiri families” benefited from the Indian government support in the form of “no rent and no taxes.”

Gandhi’s legacy

A simple black marble platform marks the spot in Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. In the same grassy area around Raj Ghat (King’s Bank) on the Yamuna River is the memorial to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She was assassinated by her Sikh body guards. Indira’s son, Prime Minister Rajiv, also cremated here, was still another victim of assassination, this time by Tamil militants. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu extremist so soon after the establishment of independent India that his murder was “the first case of homicide registered” in the records of the new country’s criminal justice system, our guide said.

I sought some context in the earlier history of Delhi. Political killing was equally common in the Islamic period. Nineteen of the thirty-five Sultans of Delhi were assassinated and the Mughal princes were famous for fratricide. So much violence by such diverse groups gave credence to a statement by V.S. Naipaul’s interlocutor as he reported in his A Million Mutinies Now (p 325): “[T]he Ramayana and Mahabharata rule the everyday religious code of the Hindus, just as the Koran does for the Muslims, and these are the books which extol killing for a greater purpose. … Of the many ideals of Gandhi which the Indians did not accept, ahimsa, non-violence, stands out most.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, who was also cremated in Raj Ghat, did not listen to Gandhi either, according to our tour guide. “Gandhi asked Nehru to wait and let Mohammad Ali Jinnah be the first Prime Minister of a united India, but Nehru did not accept because he was an ambitious politician. Jinnah was also at fault because in that case, he said, he wanted to be the President of a separate country. So, personal ambitions of two individuals caused the problem of Partition.” Our guide then amended his conclusion: “There was a third person who bore responsibility. He was Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy. His motive in partition was the old Imperial British policy of divide and rule.”

The New Delhi that the British built as their imperial capital in India, appropriately, had grand tree-lined avenues. The Viceroy’s residence, now used by India’s President, is still the largest residence of any Head of State. Facing it is the Jaipur Column, 145 feet tall and topped by the (glass) Star of India, a gift to the British from the extravagant Maharaja of Jaipur. Down the road is the arch of the Indian Gate, “the national monument of India ,”  a memorial ironically unveiled in 1931 to commemorate the 90,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who lost their lives fighting for the British Raj.

Gandhi, in contrast, spent his 144 days in Independent Delhi in a modest house owned by a friend, the philanthropist industrialist Birla. The Mahatma (Great Soul) was killed here on his nightly walk on January 30, 1948. People affectionately refer to the place as Gandhi Smeriti (Remembrance). The authorities call it Gandhi Museum. On this day pompous guards  were preventing us from entering the museum. “No! You can’t go because the CM (Chief Minister) is coming.” From the outside we could see in the front garden a sculpture of the Mahatma with a little girl and a little boy, who held a dove in his hand, standing on either side of Gandhi . This was said to symbolize Gandhi’s “concern for the poor and the deprived.” The legend at the base of the sculpture had this from Gandhi: “My Life is My Message.”

Castes and Classes

The guard at the Oberoi Hotel where we went for lunch had a sense of humor. He told us that he recognized us as overnight guests at another hotel where he worked in the evenings, and he showed us the wristwatch he was wearing with the logo of that hotel. I complemented him for his impressive uniform with the tall turban, also expressing surprise that he worked in two places at the same time. He smiled broadly showing perfect white teeth under a still more impressive black mustache and said that he will soon become a traffic policeman, presumably a promotion. I said “and then you will stand in the middle of the traffic and waive your arms?” He said emphatically “Yes!” I said “and no one will pay any heed to your orders?” He played along with a big laugh “Yes!”

We were waiting for our taxi at the doorway of the hotel. Presently, two of the ladies from a group who had lunched in the hotel came out. Like their friends they were middle aged, plump, clad in sari, overly made-up. We had watched them order from the menu, although the buffet spread here was the attraction. They were served by twice as many young waitresses. Soon, a BMW 700 series pulled up, the driver came out and was joined by the hotel guard to open the doors of the car. One of the women entered it to sit in the back, disappearing behind the tinted windows. Then a bigger Mercedes drove up to take and enclose the other lady. Its license plate read DIL 1. I asked the guard if he knew whose car it was. “A big industrialist,” he said.

“In India, if you make over 20,000 U.S. dollars a year, you are considered upper class,” my guide said as he categorized economic classes in the country. “Those with annual income less than 2,000 dollars are considered economically weak and are exempt from income tax; those with between two to six thousand are middle class and pay 10% income tax; those with from six to nine thousand are ‘middle middle class,’ and pay at least 15% income tax and escalating, depending on annual earning; those with annual income of ten to twenty thousand dollars are upper middle class.” To my guide economic mobility in India was possible through education. Of all professions “medicine and engineering are the most coveted; after them is a career in management and then there is the military.”

We were chatting in a café in Gurgaon near the Delhi airport where a huge complex of high rises housed the headquarters of many major corporations. “The outsourcing call centers are sitting here,” the guide told me. He had made a career training the operators who provided the outsourcing services for American companies. “The youth use it as a launching pad, work nights which are days in the US. They are trained to be patient and polish their accent.” According to the charts I saw in that day’s local newspaper, the outsourcing by five largest companies constituted 90% of the total sales in India’s high tech services in 2008-09.

To have some understanding of the meaning of these facts for a family I went to dinner at a couple’s home in Delhi. This was perhaps not a typical family. Their house was an inheritance from the man’s father who had received an MBA from Harvard. They shared the house with the man’s brother who lived in the unit downstairs. The husband was a graphic artist. The wife said she was “teaching art” which meant giving painting lessons at home to a few older women “once a month,” according to the husband. It was their son who had become a more successful painter at age 26, had even had a show in “Chelsea, New York City,” and currently was exhibiting at “a prestigious gallery in Delhi which the Chief Minister of Delhi attended.” There was a picture of the CM Sheila with the artist’s sister, who was the manager of the gallery. “Secured jobs in India are those of lawyers and doctors,” the husband said, but “I support our son’s decision to be an artist.” We were shown the third floor of the house where the artist son and the couple each had their small studio. The walls were decorated with their eclectic paintings in different styles. The husband gave me a brochure that he had made for the son’s current exhibit.

We were served beer and soft drinks and a meal of vegetarian dishes, which had been made by the wife. The wife did not eat with us, but she was a full participant in our conversation. The couple were both college graduates. Someone asked how they met. They said that their marriage was arranged by their families. “This is now done with the help of the personal advertisements in the Matrimonial Columns of Sunday newspaper.” The husband had a current copy ready to show us. The advertisements by women as well as men listed qualifications offered by the candidates. Caste was among the first, followed by the astrological sign. Using the information in these advertisements, “the man’s family contacts the girl’s family,” the wife said, “and asks for a resume with pictures.” Then an “interview is arranged which is a visit to the man’s house by the girl’s family.” The couple said that the final choice was theirs. They each had “rejected four or five prospects.” She said she chose the husband “because the two families could talk to each other easily, they clicked.”

The “house boy” now served us tea. He was from “a village” and stayed in the house where he had his own room, we were told. “He leaves twice a year for his home village, and may not come back.” The house boy was silent. The expression on his face was that of resignation. He looked sad.

The long-standing pattern of social classes in Hinduism is the caste system. The basic castes are called varn.a (color). There lingers an expectation that higher caste people will have lighter skin. This has its roots in the belief that the Indians are from the original “Aryans” from Central Asian who invaded this land many centuries ago. The people already here were quite dark. The sacred books of Hinduism ascribe different functions to each caste. The Bhagavad-Gita of the Mahabharata says this:

“The works of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras are different, in harmony with the three powers of their born nature…. The works of a Brahmin are peace; self-harmony, austerity, and purity; loving-forgiveness and righteousness; vision and wisdom and faith…. These are the works of a Kshatriya: a heroic mind, inner fire, constancy, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and noble leadership…. Trade, agriculture and the rearing of cattle is the work of a Vaishya. And the work of the Shudra is service.” (Penguin Books, 1962, Chapter 18)

Today the Shudras are said to constitute 58% of the Hindus. They do all the “cleaning works,” our tour guide said. “In the beginning they were not considered inferior, but gradually the members of other castes started to feel superior. They would not do any cleaning work. The Shurdas became untouchable because they dealt with dirt.”


Our guide also had his own explanations about gender inequality. According to him arranged marriage started in India in medieval times due to Muslim invasion. “Before that women had equal status with men, and showed beauty and sexuality and sensuality in dancing and drinking with men in pictures and carvings. Islamic invaders from the northwest started raiding and taking women for their haram. So women started hiding behind veils. In the villages they still wear veils. Because now women were hiding behind veils and in houses, men had to have arranged marriages.”

Someone mentioned the argument by Indian Muslim woman politicians that women in Islam have the right of inheriting from her parents, whereas Hindu women do not. Our guide did not respond, but instead said that there are fewer women in India than men, “87% women to men,” and attributed this to the fact that they still “kill female fetuses.” He connected this to the rite of cremation, without which “your soul will suffer.” Cremation must be done by “your closest male relative; so boys are wanted.” He said ultra sound was still used to test the gender of the fetus, “although the government has made it illegal.” To encourage “girl children, the government has also made their education totally free.” As another measure, “there is now an upper age limit for girls than boys for entering government service.” The guide continued, “however, many women are not aware of these policies because they live in rural areas.” As he saw it the solution was in spreading education. In the requirement that students wear uniform in school, he also saw the way to undermine the caste system.

The problem was that India does not have compulsory education and, noticeably fewer women attended schools than men. The anomaly in gender relations in India was the fact that a few women politicians have played a very significant role. “Our President is a woman, but the most important woman politician is another person, Sonia Gandhi,” the Italian who became an Indian when she married Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son. Indira herself indeed broke another barrier when she married a Parsi. To gloss over the ban on inter-religious marriage, however, they had to ask Mahatma Gandhi’s help: “he adopted the Zoroastrian Feroze Khan, giving him his own name,” according to our tour guide.

All these are changing, our hopeful tour guide said as he pointed to the flower shop near our hotel . This is where boys get flowers for their dates, which is a practice “gaining popularity among the educated youth in Delhi, who also increasingly ignore the barriers of caste if not religion.” Inside the hotel another practice which had recently gained popularity was on display: the Ring Ceremony. It started in the 1960s, according to our guide. The sign at the event being elaborately prepared in the hotel called it the “Tilak and Godh Ceremony.” Tilak is the red dot and uncooked rice placed on the groom; and Godh is the name of the ceremony in which the groom’s family formally accepts the bride to be “its daughter.” As our guide said, “it is the public announcement by the couple that we are going to get married.” Two well-dressed men on the way to the event in the hotel told me that “500 guests” were expected to attend the dinner which was paid for “by the groom’s side.” Our guide said “this is a very wealthy family,” as he calculated the cost in his head.

At the departure lounge of the Delhi airport I shared the long wait for the flights near midnight with a young bride with wedding henna on her hands. She said that she was from Punjab and had left home around four that morning in a taxi with her mother and brother to come here for the flight to Melbourne, Australia. Her would-be husband was a student there. They were in the middle of the wedding ceremonies, which began by her family giving its share of parties. About a hundred people attended. The groom did not come. There will be in a party in Melbourne, which will complete the process. She expected about forty to attend that one, but none from her family was going.

This was her first flight and the first time traveling abroad. I noticed that she was in contact by repeated calls on her cell phone with her mother and brother who stayed just outside of the airport lounge until her plane took off. She told me that she was excited but not concerned. She was a lecturer at a college in “commercial subjects.” She had a Master’s degree and intended to study for a Ph.D. while her husband finished his studies. She had met her husband through her mother who was a friend of his mother.

The bride told me that the wedding season was determined by astrologers. “They decide on the basis of some stars being in the right place. It varies in different years. This year it was from August to the end of December. Most people believe them but they could have their wedding at other times if they wanted to. Most astrologers agree on when it is a good season.” The astrologers obviously had an uncanny sense for the weather, as this was a good time in between the heat of the summer and downpour of the Monsoon in Delhi.


This article, entitled Tale of Many Cities, was published on the following website of on June 3, 2010 with related pictures:

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