Archive for the ‘ India ’ Category

Varanasi: Cremation and Resurrection



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.


Context: For centuries, life in India has been shaped by two different religions, Hinduism and Islam. They were not any less divergent in their prescription for the afterlife. Burning in hell is the ultimate damnation in Islam, while the Hindus seek the liberation of their soul in the very fire of the funeral pyre. It was not so much theology as the rituals of India’s religions that, presently, attracted me to its sacred Varanasi. There, the pyres at the holy Ganges are the stage for the rites of cremation in its full elaboration. Varanasi also encompasses Sarnath and Deer Park where Buddha gave birth to his religion in the First Sermon and the First Sangha.  It was also here that millenniums later his devotes attempted to resurrect Buddhism in India. This, after Buddhism and its symbols had been destroyed in the anti-idolatry zeal of the Muslims, thus paving the way for the resurgence of Hinduism which Buddha’s followers had subdued in that land.


Ganga Aarti

On the bridge over a mostly dry creek which we we were crossing, there was a row of fruit and vegetable sellers.  Some also had baskets full of small fish. “This is the Veruna River, a tributary of the Ganges, but the fish are from another river here, called Assi,” our local guide said. “Varanasi was named after those two rivers. It was also called Banaras by the British because they could not pronounce it correctly or, as some say, because that was its name in the Pali language of the early Buddhist texts.”

There were small wood fires on the sides of the road in this city, which did not have marked sidewalks, to keep outdoor vendors warm on a cold December night. “Varanasi is the city of learning and burning,” the guide said. The “burning” referred to the open cremation ritual done at the banks of the Ganges which we were going to see. Our bus parked next to Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, the first college established in 1791 by the British for the development and preservation of Sanskrit, the key to learning Hindu theology. From there we took man-pedaled bicycle rickshaws to Dashashwamedh Ghat. As the guide explained, “ghat is a Sanskrit, Hindi, or perhaps Dravidian word. It means steps leading down to the banks of the river.” Many of the nearly 100 ghats in Varanasi are at the Ganges. The Dashashwamedh  is the busiest at night.

Our several rickshaws, each taking two passengers, moved in a row through streets teeming with people. Occasionally, we encountered other rickshaws coming from the opposite direction. One carried a corpulent woman in a sari with three full shopping bags. The rickshaws were the only vehicles here, except for the two motored tuk tuks which appeared during our entire twenty minute ride. The shops mostly sold clothes  and jewelry . They were busy with customers. The pedestrian traffic kicked up dust in the evening lights.

“We are first going to see an aarti,” our guide said, “which is a form of puja (prayer) that takes place at night, with lights from the candles offered to the Gods.” At the Dashashwamedh Ghat there was “a ceremony of thanksgiving to the Goddess Ganges with a special prayer just for that river.” Therefore, it was called Ganga Aarti. As we approached a platform set close to the water, we saw seven monks standing in front of a bleacher with some fifteen rows of seats, occupied by men and women . “These people come from all over India,” the guide said. Around the Ghat were umbrellas of lights. The monks were chanting, accompanied by musicians on the tabla. The chants were at first in Sanskrit. The monks then repeated the same chants in Hindi, “so that the commoners could understand,” our guide explained. He said that the chants praised the Mother Ganges. One said “How beautiful the Ganges is,” and the next chant said “Anyone who goes to the Ganges will be blessed.”

In the dark, we boarded a small boat that was waiting for us on the river. A woman held candles and flowers ready to hand to us. “We will now pray to Shiva, the God of Varanasi, three times,” our guide said. We followed him and chanted: “Om, Namaste, Shiva!” Then we put the flowers and candles in the water and let them float. These were our offerings to the Ganges. We made a wish and hoped that our wishes will come true.


Dead at the Ganges

We continued our boat ride through the night so that we could watch the burning of the dead at the Ganges. In Varanasi two ghats are dedicated to cremation services. They operate all hours of the day and night. The Manikarnika Ghat, which now came within our sight,  is by far the bigger. In a 24 hour period about 100 bodies are incinerated here in the wood fires made outdoors on a yard which slopes down to the Ganges. In the other Varanasi cremation ghat, Harishchandra, about 30 bodies are burned in similar fashion.

“We believe that when a person is cremated at the Ganges their soul is liberated,” our Hindu guide said. “But only bodies of those who died within 250 kilometers of Varanasi are allowed to be burned here. That is why many people come to reside in Varanasi just to die here.” Our boat stopped in the water not far from the shore. We observed small groups of mourners, each circled around one of the several fires on the shore.  Every fire was for only one body. Our guide narrated the story of the bodies’ last rite: “Within 6 hours after death the body is taken out and washed in water, wrapped in a white shroud and placed on a bamboo stretcher, and moved to the cremation site. It is accompanied by an entourage of mourners, also clad in white shrouds, who chant ‘What is the truth? It is God!’ ” The guide pointed out to a newly arrived body on the ground: “It is put down with the feet facing south, the direction of the God of Death.” In the entourage surrounding this corpse there was a man with a shaved head. “He is the chief mourner.” We watched as the guide continued: “The chief mourner next hits the skull of the dead to break it open. Then he makes five rounds around the firewood and the body. That is for the five sacred elements of nature. Now he lights the fire.”

The mourners have to wait until the body is “reduced to about five inches in size.” That is when it is burned as much as it can be. “The chest in the man and the cheek in the woman are the last to burn.” Then the mourners pick up the reduced remains “by sticks” to throw them in the Ganges“without delay.” The mourners now go to another ghat and take a ritual bath in the Ganges. “Nobody cries at all. Everyone is happy. They go home and mourn 10 days. All the men of the family shave their heads. On the 13th day they have a big dinner.”

We went ashore, got out of the boat, and walked up on the side of the Manikarnika Ghat toward our rickshaws. We passed beggars who, our guide said, “are ‘ real beggars,’ they are not ‘professional beggars’; they come here to die and beg until the day they die.” A woman was selling flowers to be offered to the Ganges. “The garlands are for God Shiva.” Some pilgrims were camping on the streets. “Many of these are the same you saw at the aarti.”  A man was selling branches of reed which “are used as toothbrush .” A few steps farther a woman was selling the same . Another vendor offered bottles of water from the Ganges.  We saw a bull walking right into a street-level store. “Bull is sacred here because this is the city of Shiva, and bull is Shiva’s vehicle.”

Life on the Ganges

“We consider the Ganges which starts in the Himalayan Mountains as Heaven that came to Earth,” our guide said. “So it is a much revered Goddess.” But theGangesis “also the source of Hindu culture and it gives life to many on its banks. The Ganges is to India what the Nile is to Egypt.” The next day we went to see for ourselves.

In the chill of the predawn we drove back to the Dashashwamedh Ghat and walked down to the Ganges. A full moon was still in the sky and it lit a picturesque scene of the boats getting ready to go on the river. “Professional beggars” lined up the steps of the Ghat. At one corner of the Ghat we saw the image of Mother Ganges as a goddess riding a crocodile. “Crocodile is the Ganges’s pet on which she rides,” our guide said.  Two men were sitting on a rug and performing a ceremony. “That is a Brahman saying prayers in Sanskrit over the ashes of a dead person brought by the other man. After the prayer, the man will take the ashes and throw them in the Ganges,” the guide said.

Many of those we were seeing this early in the day were “local people.”  They were “real simple orthodox Hindus,” our guide said. “Orthodox Hindus begin their days by invoking the names of their gods. They do not all agree on a supreme God. Some believe Brahma is the supreme God, some consider Vishnu to be the one, and some say Shiva is the supreme God. The locals here mostly invoke the names of God Shiva and Goddess Mother Ganges. In fact, however, they are really nature worshipers; they come out here for the river and the sunrise. They do puja to the rising sun.” The “pilgrims,” on the other hand, come from various other parts of India for “the Holy Ganges.” They arrive at the ghats later in the morning. “They pay 5 to 10 Rupees for a room to sleep in houses supported by philanthropic donors. Those with shaved heads are here for a cremation event.”

By the time we boarded our little boat there were some locals on the Ganges “offering water to the sun in the east” . An older man was washing himself in the river. We passed several big houses  and even bigger  mansions  on the west bank of the river. Some had been turned into hotels.One building was the Palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur, just behind the Manmandir Ghat. It was here that Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh had built an observatory in 1717, a precursor to his more famous Jantar Mantar in the city of Jaipur.  The Varanasi observatory was for use in viewing the stars so as to make better forecast about the monsoon.

The river’s edge was now getting more crowded. Some more locals were bathing .  A couple had made an offering of candles and flowers to the Ganges and was collecting the river’s water “for drinking and to make tea,” as our guide said. “The water of the Ganges inVaranasi is very polluted,” the guide added, matter of factly. The “laughing club” was also there. They come to the Ganges to begin their day auspiciously by simply laughing hard in a group. “Nothing religious about that,” our guide said. A man was rubbing his body at the lip of the river. “He is putting mustard oil on to warm up the body before going in the water.” We saw a group from thesouth of India. “They are Dravidians, a different race form us Indo-Aryans,” our guide stressed. There are 64 ghats at the Ganges inVaranasi. In addition to the two “burning ghats,” there are “bathing ghats” and “laundry ghats.” At one of the laundry ghats we saw “professionals” washing clothes in the Ganges. “This is their job,” the guide said, differentiating them from others who just washed clothes belonging to themselves.

A few seagulls now flew overhead.  Our guide said they had come all the way from Siberia. Then the sun came out. It was tomato-red , but strangely yellow on the inside. Its reflection in the water was like a fire . On the bank of the river we saw a “holy” man in a red turban . His hair was “14 feet long,” our guide estimated. “He has renounced life.” Just then we passed one of the Sanskrit schools which have givenVaranasi its reputation as a center of Hindu learning. This was in a monastery. Its students , in yellow robes, were standing close to the river. On a platform a teacher was conducting a ceremony with a small group. “These students have a good future as scholars or yoga teachers,” our guide said. “To be a priest, however, you must be a Brahman.”

Next to the monastery, on the other side of a dividing stairway, was a “Naga: a holy man who is usually nude,” standing in a difficult yoga position. On this day, he had a lungi (sarong) on. In his hands he was holding a flame. He had smeared ashes on his face.

A boat passed us with “Buddhist pilgrims,” as our guide said. “Varanasi is holy for Buddhists and Jains as well Hindus.” In the yard fronting Harishchandra crematorium’s ghat, wood had been stacked up ready for burning. On the short retaining walls of this ghat near the river we read this inscription: “Fortunate are the people who reside on the banks of the Ganges. ”

A few steps away, several women of various ages in saris of several colors were getting off a boat at the river’s bank. We were now passing several boats with vendors who proffered souvenirs on the river. Our guide commented: “Not all of  the Ganges is holy. In fact, all of the other side, the east bank of the river, is used for picnicking.”

The fog now rolled over the Ganges, giving the river  and its west bank a dreamy appearance. The Dashashwamedh Ghat looked different from the night before. In daytime, it was a hub of commerce. We soon came to a big building that was the house of the owner of the big Manikarnika crematorium. “He charges 2,500 rupees to cremate a body, collecting 250,000 rupees a day,” our guide estimated. “He is called the ‘Raja of the doms’ who are the untouchables doing the actual burning.” In the “Raja’s”  cremation ghat the burning was continuous. We disembarked from our boat and passed a group of mourners gathered around a burning body .

A woman was washing her clothes nearby. Some men were coming out of the Ganges after their swim and bath.  When our guide asked, one of the men told us he was 85 years old and came to the Ganges for a swim every day.

Doorway to heaven

We began walking up the narrow alleys of the old town that connect the Ganges to the rest of Varanasi. The alley that leads to the Manikarnika cremation ghat is called the “doorway to heaven .” Just past that ghat we saw the big scale  that is used to weigh the wood bought for burning the dead. Because of the cost, it is important to measure the exact amount of wood needed, which depends on the size of the corpse. A lower-caste shudra was splitting some wood. Several kinds of wood are used for cremation. Sandalwood is the most expensive and, therefore, is used sparingly only to add the desired scent.

We came to a monastery. A y0ung  monk with an orange colored skirt was standing at the door. “Orangeis the color of renunciation,” our guide said. Nearby was a Shiva lingam (representation), around which hung an offering garland of flowers. The winding narrow alley was typical of the old town with its overhanging jumble of electrical wires, small shops, restaurants and guest houses, and a cow walking in the middle of the path. There were even narrower side alleys. Through the window of a house we saw two musicians sitting cross-legged practicing with their instruments. A little girl on her way to school paused for us to take her picture.  A woman was on her way to the Ganges to fetch water . A vendor was sitting by the side of the alley selling eggplants which were piled on the ground next to her. She had wrapped herself in a shawl against the cold. Another woman was making offerings of flowers to at a shrine which had been carved into a wall.

We approached the tea house of “Mr. India” who had earned his title as the country’s champion wrestler a long time ago. Our guide said this tea house was “the place to sit and experience Varanasi going by, especially the bodies being taken through the alley for cremation.” Several men were drinking their tea from glasses. We too sat for a glass of tea. We gazed at an equally curious customer looking at us as he leaned against the opposite wall.

At a bend in the alley where there was a mosque, several soldiers were standing guard. This was December 6, the 17th anniversary of the “demolition” of the Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya, which was a major issue in the current Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Police were on high alert in the “hypersensitive areas of the city like Kotwali,” the local newspaper said. This was the district we were traversing. According to the newspaper, a political party had announced that its members would wear black ribbons and “organize a seminar to condemn the forces that were involved in the demolition.” The findings of a national Commission investigating the destruction of the Mosque in 1992 had been leaked to the press. It blamed the then Prime Minister (Narsimha Rao) as a culprit because he could have prevented the damage. The report said that the Prime Minister “did little to urge that they (the mob) stop.” In fact, he was accused of inciting the mob because, just before the event, he had talked about their “movement” as responding to “Hindu hurt,” and promoting “Hindu pride.”


Ironically, according to some historians, it was the destruction of the Buddhist religion by the Muslims who invaded Indiabeginning in the 12th century (symbolized in their anti-idolatry zeal to eliminate all Buddha statues and images) that cleared the way for the resurgence of Hinduism. Prior to that, the gospel that Buddha preached had become the dominant religious belief in India. Buddha began his preaching right here in Sarnath which is now a part of Varanasi.

Varanasi was well-established before Buddha appeared. “It  is India’s oldest city, a contemporary of Damascus,” our guide said. “It existed even before the Aryans came to India 3500 years ago.” The settlement which is today called Sarnath is recorded in Buddhist texts as Issipatana. Its current name is apparently a version of Sarangnath which means Lord of Deer. The reference is to a local Bodhisattva (one bound for enlightenment) who, according to Buddhist legends, offered himself as the prey to a king in place of the doe the king was hunting, so moving the king by this gesture that the monarch created a park here as a sanctuary for deer. The Deer Park is still there. It is in this Park that Buddha preached his first sermon. His audience that day consisted of five skeptical former friends, as our local guide told his version of the story of Buddha:

“Buddha is a title which means enlightenment. Buddha’s real name was Prince Siddhartha. His family name is Gautama. He is also called Sakyamuni which means the Sage of the Sakyas, his ethnic group. He was born in 563 B.C. His father was a Hindu king in northern India. His mother, Mahamaya, when she was pregnant with him, went to her parents’ house in Lumbini, in today’s Nepal, where she delivered him. She died a few days later and Buddha was immediately brought back to India. When he was 19, Buddha left the palace of his father. As he wandered he saw many old and sick people and this shocked him.  While he pondered how to stop such suffering in the world, he met a holy man who told him enlightenment was the only solution and it required renouncing the world. At 29 the Prince left his wife and child and his father’s kingdom. This is called ‘the Great Giving-up’ and it was done to enable him to seek knowledge and to reach Nirvana which is enlightenment, in order to reduce suffering. In Bodhgaya, in northeast India, Buddha spent some time in caves where he fasted. The extreme of fasting was killing Buddha and a girl offered him a bowl of rice. When he accepted and ate the rice, his five friends who had come to believe in his advocacy of renunciation left him, accusing him of hypocrisy. They moved to Sarnath. Buddha resumed fasting and, sitting under a fig tree,  ficus religiosa, which has since been called the Buddha tree, he finally attained enlightenment. To do this he closed his eyes and meditated. He spent 7 weeks, one week each sitting at a different angle. Then he followed his five doubting friends to Sarnath and gave his first sermon here in Deer Park. He converted those old friends; they became his first disciples. Buddha lived to be 80 and preached for 39 years. Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty accepted Buddhism and under him all of India became Buddhist in the third century B.C.  Of the four places sacred to the Buddhists, all are now in India except for Buddha’s place of birth. They include Kushinagar, 200 miles from here, where Buddha died  in addition to Bodhgaya and Varanasi.”

In Buddhism the commencement of Buddha’s preaching in Varanasi is known as dharmachakrapravartana which means that he thus “turned the wheel of law in motion.” As his five disciples also became enlightened by Buddha’s teaching, the first Buddhist sangha, or the community of the enlightened, was founded here by Buddha himself. Accordingly, Buddhists consider Sarnath to be the birthplace of Buddhism. Pilgrims flock here from all over the world.

“Fewer than one percent of the population in India is now Buddhist because Hinduism has become strong in this country,” our guide said. Although Sarnath is also held holy by the Jains as “a site of asceticism,” where their 11th Tirthankara (supreme religious leader) died, for centuries this place was not visited by many people. The archeological work that began in 1789, and still continues, has unearthed monasteries, stupas, temples, inscriptions, sculptures, and other antiquities from the 3rd to the 12th centuries. It appears that the place had been abandoned in the meantime. Our guide attributed this to destruction by the invading Muslims.

On the day that I visited, the hallowed grounds of Sarnath were crowded with Buddhist pilgrims. We walked on the pathway parallel to the field where the ruins had been exposed by the archeologists. A green lawn separated us from the ruins. On the lawn two Buddhist monks sat in their red robes while three Buddhist women moved their arms and went on their knees in prayers . There were five more such women a few steps further. Alongside of us walked two pilgrims who were turning the wheel of dharma. Our guide said that they were among Indian Buddhists visiting from the Himalayan region of Ladakh. There were also some Indian Buddhist women on the lawn at this point . As we approached the stupa that dominated the scene we encountered several grey clad Vietnamese pilgrims. More of them were on the lawn below . One of them told me that they were part of a group of 126 men and women visiting from Vietnam.

The Dhamekh Stupa looked imposing as a solid cylindrical tower rising some 42.6 meters. Inscriptions dated to 1026 unearthed here indicate that its old name was Dharma Chakra Stupa, presumably commemorating the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon. In its foundations an earlier stupa with Mauryan bricks has been discovered . This dates that stupa back to the time of Emperor Ashoka.

Our local guide noted that “Buddhism did not become a religion until 200 years after Buddha’s death,” which would be Ashoka’s time. The teaching of Buddha’s first sermon at this location was “foundational,” the guide said and summarized them in “four points” as follows: “Suffering is a must, it is the noble truth. The reason for suffering is craving. Even if our craving is fulfilled we would then want more. Therefore, fulfillment is not the solution; one must minimize the suffering by minimizing the desire.” The guide then added: “Buddhist Enlightenment is the rightness of speech, thought, and deed; it makes life heavenly.”


Sarnath Museum


The Archeological Museum at Sarnath holds the artifacts excavated there which constitute much of our precious little connections to the early history of Buddhism. The most celebrated of these is the lion capital which once crowned Ashoka’s Pillar. Ashoka was the Mauryan Dynasty emperor who became the first to conquer almost the entire Indian subcontinent, between 269 and 232 B.C. While this feat required a bloodthirsty campaign and reign, later in his life Ashoka became a follower of Buddha’s teaching.

Ashoka’s Pillar records his visit to Sarnath. It now stood almost as a sentinel, 2.31 meters high, in the space that faced me as I entered the Main Hall of the Museum at Sarnath. The Pillar was made of sandstone. It had four parts. At the bottom was a vase, shaped like a bell and covered with lotus leaves. Above this vase was a round abacus, and above that was the capital with four lions which were all carved from one block of stone. On the top was a crowning dharmachakra (wheel) with only four of its original 32 spokes still intact.

The four lions of the capital stood back to back. They symbolized both Ashoka’s imperial rule and the Buddha facing the four directions. The dharmachakra symbolized the dharma or law. On the abacus there were four animals: a lion, an elephant, a bull, and a horse. Between each two was a small dharmachakra. These four animals represented the four sections of the Anotatta Lake mentioned in the Buddhist texts  – and, according to some legends, where Buddha was conceived . The dharmachakras represented the regions among the sections. The lotus with its flowering leaves symbolized creativity.

The four-lion capital of Ashoka’s Pillar has been adopted as the emblem of the modern Indian Republic. The glory of Ashoka’s imperial achievements, especially in uniting India, might have thus been acknowledged; our guide, however, stressed this designation as a sign of a “tolerant” Hindu India honoring Buddhism.

The Sarnath Museum also has some of the earliest statues of the Buddha. I noted three colossal standing Bodhisattva statues made of red stone. Dating back to the first and second centuries, they were from the Kushan Empire period. There were more from the later Gupta Empire period (320-550 A.D.). These were refined and showed passion and emotions in Buddha. They are said to be among the first sculptures of the Sarnath School of Art which produced thousands of such artistic images in this area. “There was no presentation of the person of Buddha until the first century,” our guide pointed out. He noted that the polish of the statues we were seeing in the Sarnath Museum indicated “the influence of Greek art.” More specifically, it was “the influence of the Hellenistic art, including the Egyptian sculptures.” He called the Gupta period “the Golden Age of the Sarnath school of art.”

Buddhist Temple

The old Buddhist Temple of Mulagandhakuti, dating back to before the 12th century and now in ruins under excavation, was the inspiration for the new Mulagandhakuti Vihara (Monastery) which was constructed in 1904-1931 by the efforts of a Sri Lankan, Bodhisattva Anagarika Dharmapala. A sign at the site credited him with reviving Buddhism in India and bringing it to the attention of the West.

As a Buddhist “noble man,” Anagarika Dharmapala first made a pilgrimage to Sarnath in 1891. Finding the conditions of the sites “deplorable,” he determined to restore India’s places of Buddhist worship in an ambitious plan to “regenerate Buddhism” in that country. He was encouraged by the then British rulers of India. In the course of forty years he succeed in establishing centers of the Maha Bodhi Society of India (for the purpose of resurrecting Buddhism in India and of restoring its ancient Buddhist shrines) with the support of Indian authorities and the assistance from kings of Buddhist countries. In 1893 Anagarika traveled to Chicago to participate in the Parliament of the World’s Religions and in that forum, it is claimed by his followers, he “introduced Buddhism to the West.” Anagarika died in Sarnath.

Mulagandhakuti Vihara is now a major place of worship for the world Buddhist community. It enshrines some relics of Buddha discovered in Madras and Punjab. There is also a ficus tree just outside the Vihara. That tree is said to be the growth of a sapling brought from Sri Lanka in 1930 which was, in turn, from a “third generation” sapling of the Buddha tree under which Gautama Buddha had mediated in Bodhgaya. Deer Park is right behind the Vihara’s tree.

Buddhist monks in saffron and yellow robes, including some from Tibet, were strolling in front of the Temple as we entered it. Frescos covered most of the walls inside the Temple. They depicted important  episodes  in Buddhist history.  These paintings are considered masterpieces; they were done in the 1930s by the renowned Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu. That project was financed by the Japanese Imperial Government. As I walked around, I noticed that, coincidentally, on this day a Japanese camera crew was taking pictures of the wall paintings for a program.

Temple to Mother India

Not far from the Buddhist vihara in Sarnath is an important Sikh gudwara. Varanasi also has several Muslim mosques and hundreds of Hindu mandirs. All major religions of India have long been represented here by their respective temples. What was missing, in the opinion of a wealthy resident, Rashtraratana Shri Shiv Prasad Gupta who was also a leader of the Indian Freedom Movement, was a temple to Mother India (Bharat Mata). He set to rectify this in 1918 by building such a secular temple in Varanasi. “This was to honor patriotism,” our guide said. “It was to bring all together in the pre-independence India.” Mahatma Gandhi came to inaugurate it in 1936.

I followed the “HUMBLE REQUEST” of a sign at the temple which must have been posted a long time ago: “With extremely holy sentiments reverent visitors are requested with folded hands to take off their shoes down below the stairs outside the temple in diffference (sic) to the founder’s holy sentiments and dignity of the temple and only thereafter take trouble to enter the same.” Two boys who were washing their bodies with water from a hose just outside the temple watched me as I entered.

Inside there was a man praying loudly. The Bharat Mata in Varanasi is the only temple in the land dedicated to Mother India. It did not have the customary gods and goddesses of Hindu temples, or the furnishings of the temples of other religions. Instead, it housed only a relief map of all of pre-independence India, carved out of marble. The topography of the map showed the elevations of the mountains and depths of the sea. I was struck by the fact that aside from the Himalayas in the north and some mountains in the south and the east, the rest of the vast country was remarkably flat .

Our guide was especially proud of Kashmir. He pointed it out on the marble map and said that “Jahangir (the 17th Century Mughal King) upon seeing Kashmir had declared that, indeed, this was the real heaven!” The guide then recited a line of Persian poetry with a heavy accent to the effect that this was what Jahangir said on that occasion: “Gar ferdos roy-e zamin ast, hamin ast, hamin ast! (If heaven is on earth, this is it, this is it!).’” This was perhaps an embellishment of what Jahangir had said, as he was no poet, but it reflected the King’s famous love for Kashmir where he, in fact, chose to spend the last days of his life.

Our guide continued on the theme of Kashmir with comments about the troubled relationship with Pakistan. “When there is a cricket match with Pakistan all work stops in India as we all want to watch it on TV or follow it on the radio.”  He joked about that rivalry between the two parts of the once undivided India which this Mother India temple, where we were standing, was to honor. “The cricket match is a war,” he said, laughing. On a more serious note, the guide said India helped East Bengalis in their fight (against Pakistan) to divide the land even further, creating a third state of Bangladesh, “because the Pakistani army was raping the Bengali women.”


This article, entitled “Sacred VaranasiCremation and resurrection”, was published on the following website of on August 5, 2011, with related pictures:

Splendor of Khajuraho


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Theinformation contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.


abstract: Khajuraho is famous for its erotic sculptures. The visitor’s initial prurient interest in them, upon scrutiny, quickly changes into an appreciation of their artistic worth. Together with other types of sculptures, and the magnificent architecture of the medieval Hindu and Jain temples on which they are all planted, they constitute the best examples of the arts ofIndia before the impact of Islam. The temples are the houses of thatIndia’s many Gods and the sculptures tell the temporal story of the community which created them. Their value is not just in their splendor but also in their historical legacy.

Now and Then 

Today Khajuraho is a small village. Its main street caters to small-time tourists. There are little stores that sell film for cameras and little restaurants that sell vegetarian dishes over the counter. A disheveled fruit peddler offers only bananas and oranges from his broken wooden cart; another sits on his cart cracking open chestnuts, the only product he has to sell.  Hand-made trinkets are spread on the pavement of the sidewalks for sale as souvenirs. The grounds of “The Archeological Museum” are used to hoist dirty umbrellas over those trinkets. Nobody seems to visit the museum itself. Instead, young men beseech tourists in their buses to buy their guidebooks. Besides these, there is hardly any other service for the visitors in the village itself where a shabby hotel advertises its dark rooms.

Much better modern hotels, catering to the more affluent Western tourists, are located on the outskirts of the village. “The Archeological Survey of India” jumps to action in the compounds located at the other edge of the village. That is where the treasures of old Khajuraho are located. They are highly ornamented Hindu and Jains temples which are considered the best of India’s mediaeval arts: architecture, sculpture, and sandstone carving. They are what is left of a grand city that was once the capital, and religious center, of the Chandella dynasty that ruled in central Indiabetween the 9th and 13th centuries.

The earliest reliable written report we have about Khajuraho is from Abu-Rayhan al-Biruni who came to Indiain the entourage of the Muslim invader Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi (from an area that is today in Afghanistan) in the early 11th century. Biruni (the Persian polymath whose seminal book, Tarikhu-l Hind, or The History of India, established him as the “founder of Indology”) speaks of “Kajuraha” as the capital of the realm of “Jejahuti”. The Chandelas were defeated here by Mahmud Ghaznavi. The major military prize was their fortress. Local tradition ascribes the origin of the Chandelas to a hill fort, Maniyagadh, about ten miles south of Khajuraho. The Chandelas, a Rajput (warrior) tribe, who claimed descent from the Moon through the legendary sage Chandratreya, soon recovered their fortress; and they successfully resisted the next Muslim invader, Muhammad of Ghur, at the end of the 12th century.

Known as Kharjjuravahaka (and Vatsa) in ancient times, Khajuraho was in an area that had played a significant role in Indian culture since 200 BC. Chandella kings were great patrons of arts and builders. They led a cultural upheaval that centered around architecture of uncommon grace. While no secular building from their times has survived, their temples stand to prove their contributions. Chandella ruler Yasovarman built theLakshmanaTemplesometime before 950. TheVishvanathTemplewas constructed in 1002 by King Dhanga who made the Chandelas the strongest power in centralIndia. His son Ganda (1002-17) built thetempleJagadamba.Ganda’s successor, Vidyadhara (1017-29), who took the kingdom to its zenith, built the largest and grandest temple here, Kandariya-Mahadeva.

The Chandelas, weakened by the repeated Muslim onslaughts, could not withstand attacks by their local rivals, the Kalachuri clan. Even on the decline, however, they continued to build temples. Khajuraho remained their religious center for some time. The North African traveler Ibn Battuta who wrote (in his book Rihla, meaning The Journey) that he visitedIndia in the 1330s, referred to Khajuraho as “Kajarra,” near which he saw temples containing idols that the Muslims had mutilated.

After Ibn Battuta, the outside world received virtually no news about Khajuraho for several centuries.  Like some other historic sites I have seen such as Angkor Wat in Cambodiaand Machu Picchuin Peru, Khajuraho had been considered “lost” when it was “discovered” in 1838 by an English army engineer, Captain TS Burt, who ventured into the forest surrounding it, led by a tip from the locals. “The name Khajuraho comes from the local Hindi word khajoor meaning date tree,” my local guide said in reference to that “forest.” Khajoor is in fact the Arabic word for date. Driving by bus to Khajuraho from the town ofJhansi we could still see some palm trees as well as mango and teak trees in a lush countryside which contrasted sharply with the aridity  of much of the rest of centralIndia we had crossed.

Of the 85 temples of old Khajuraho, only 25 have survived. The main Hindu temples in Khajuraho are now protected in a well-groomed park. Only a single small temple, Matangesvara, is still an active place of worship. Inside it there was a large Image of Shiva Lingam (a representation used for worship). Outside theTemplestood a Ficus tree of a type called “religious.” Under it was a statue of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-head son of Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati where, I noticed, worshipers were paying their respects. Matangesvara is one of the earliest temples built in Khajuraho, dating to about 900-925. Correspondingly, both its exterior and interior were simple compared to the elaborate ornamentations of the other temples in the compound. This contrast was especially noticeable with theLakshmanaTemplethat stood immediately to the right of Matangesvara.

Not surprisingly, the tourists were attracted more to Lakshmana]. This is a Vaishnava temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. (In Hinduism Lakshmana is the brother of Rama who is the seventh reincarnation of Vishnu.) A sign outside the temple said that it was built between 930 and 950 by the Chandella King Yasovarman. “This information was found on the inscription on that slab found at the base of the temple,” said our guide as he pointed to the slab.  In front of the temple was a free standing sculpture which our guide identified as “the National Emblem of Chandella Dynasty”. It was a mythical animal resembling a lion with a young boy under its paws. “That boy is the king and the sculpture is to show how brave he is,” our guide said.

Lakshmana is made entirely of sandstone, unlike the earlier group of temples which had been built in part with granite and partly of sandstone. Lakshmana is Khajuraho’s best preserved temple. It is the only one with all of its shrines and platform intact. The platform’s friezes include hunting and battle scenes with elephants, horses and soldiers, and also domestic and erotic scenes. Its wall is decorated with bands of graceful sculptures.

We climbed the steps to the platform where four subsidiary shrines were located on the corners. The sanctum of the temple is entered through an arch flanked by sculptures of crocodiles, “the symbol of theGangesRiver,” our guide said. The doorway consists of seven vertical panels. The central one is decorated with fish and tortoise which are some of the many incarnations of Vishnu. On the lintel was the image of goddess Lakshmi (Vishnu’s consort) between the images of Vishnu and Lord Brahma. Inside the sanctum was a shrine with a three-headed and four-armed image of Vishnu. The central head is a human figure flanked on either sides by the heads of a boar and a lion.

The erotic sculptures of Lakshmana attract the tourists’ special attention. They are mostly located on one lower wall above the basement facing theMatangesvaraTemple. They are valued by experts inIndia’s medieval arts as “classical,” “some of the finest sculptural compositions,” and “impressive in the delicacy of their depiction.” They display their objects from different angles: profiles, three-quarter profiles, and back views. They show remarkable sensitiveness to emotions. Past prurient interest, the viewer is impressed by what they say about the virtual lack of taboos or inhibitions about sex in the age that produced them. They mirror the moral standards of the community then existing in Khajuraho.

Lakshmana is not Khajuraho’s only old temple with erotic sculptures. I saw them also inKandriyaMahadevaTempleand theJagadambaTemple. The collection in Lakshmana, however, was exceptional in size and variety. There was a scene of group sex in which the servants helping their masters were shown in smaller sizes themselves engaged in sexual pleasure acts. Various sexual positions  were depicted vividly, as were masturbation and bestiality.

Erotic visual art was not new to India. An important sensual element runs through various early Indian art forms, including its literature and folk-tradition. It was expressed also in depicting loving couples (mithuna) in sculpture, examples of which I saw  in the several temples of Khajuraho, both Hindu as in Kandriya Mahadeva Temple and, and Jains as in the Parsavantha Temple. The Khajuraho erotic sculptures may be illustration of the erotic postures in the ancient text of kamasastra, which is about pursuit of pleasure (kama). They have been, alternatively, ascribed to certain medieval Indian sects who considered pursuit of physical pleasure (phoga) as a path to salvation, distinguished from yoga (spiritual exercise).

To my Hindu guide the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho were a manifestation of the equality of Indian women with men in active enjoyment of sex which, he said, “was later suppressed by the invading Muslims who forced women off the streets and inside homes.”  He also pointed out that “there are no erotic sculptures inside the temples, because you go there for Nirvana, and leave all outside.” He explained the local folklore: “Hindu life is divided into equal parts of 25 years each. The last is just for being spiritual and renouncing. The same applies to sculptures: the ground floor is for worldly life, the middle is for procreation, and the top is for spiritual.”

Kandriya Mahadeva Temple

The largest and most impressive temple in Khajuraho is Kandriya Mahadeva , built around 1025-1050. According to the Archeological Survey of India it is “the most evolved of the central Indian building style and one of the most sublime creations of Indian architecture.” This accolade is due to “its mature plan and design, symmetrical proportions and superb sculptural embellishment.”

All temples in Khajuraho share a distinct general architectural plan. They have no enclosure wall and are erected on a high platform-terrace.  Above their central zone rises the roof which consists of a series of graded peaks resembling mountain ranges of mythical Kailasa or Meru in Hindu scripture. These temples are planned on one east-west axis. Kandriya Mahadeva shares the essential elements of this architectural plan. There is an entrance porch, a hall, a vestibule, and a sanctum. In Kandriya Mahadeva, however, these are on a grander scale and with much more elaborate ornamentation. Kandriya Mahadeva’s steeple is decorated with an ascending series of “84 smaller replicas of itself.” Furthermore, Kandriya Mahadeva is the only Hindu temple in Khajuraho with projections from the platform on the lateral sides.

The interior of theKandriyaMahadevaTempleis also similar in design to those of the other temples, but it is more spacious and has far more carvings and sculptures.  The centerpiece here is an Image of Shiva Lingam as Kandriya Mahadeva is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The lintel of its Sanctum shows a four-armed Shiva flanked by Brahma on the right and Vishnu on the left.

It is in Kandriya Mahadeva that Khajaraho’s sculptures attain their “maturity.” Kandriya Mahadeva has abundant examples of all five types of Khajuraho sculptures: cult-images  (some formal but others distinguishable from human figures only by their peculiar headdresses ); family deities (apsaras and sura-sundaris, meaning heavenly nymphs ), shown dancing in various postures  and often attired and bedecked in jewelry); secular scenes (rulers , warriors and hunters, acrobats, dancers, musicians, domestic scenes , and teachers and disciples ); animals (camels, elephants , horses; mithunas; and erotic. Like all other sculptures in Khajuraho, the ones in Kandriya Mahadeva were done by unnamed artists.

Kandriya Mahadeva’s sculptures of human figures stand out because they are taller and more slender than those in other temples. Furthermore, Kandriya Mahadeva’s collections of heavenly nymphs are exceptional in their rich variety. They are portrayed expressing emotions and moods and in activities common to humans:  scratching their backs, yawning, touching their breasts, removing thorns from their feet, rinsing water off, fondling babies, writing letters, playing a flute, playing with pets like parrots and monkeys, painting, bedecking, applying eye wash (collyrium), and looking themselves in the mirror. These apsaras and sura-sundaris are deemed to be the finest sculptures in Khajuraho.

Other Temples

Sharing a lofty platform with Kandariya Mahadeva is theJagadambaTemple, built in 1002-1017, and dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It too has some of the most artistic sculptures of Khajuraho. On the day of my visit, between those two temples the flowers of bougainvillaea bushes shone bright red. The temples common platform was uncommonly plain. Jagadamba was adorned, however, with the colorful attire of a woman custodian.

In this park of medieval Hindu temples incongruously stands the Parteshwar Temple, dedicated to interfaith co-existence, built only a century ago by the Maharaja of Chhatarpur, from a dynasty that has ruled Khajuraho since 1785.  Unlike the older temples it is not made from sandstone. It is located next to the Hindu VishvanathTemple which was built in 1002. TheParteshwarTemplewas meant for the followers of all other religions ofIndia, especially Islam and Buddhism. The Jains are the exception; they have their own temples, both old and new, in another park in Khajuraho. I went to see them.

Jain Temples

Two Jain temples are located in a small park. They are part of what is called the Eastern group of Khajuraho temples. The old one is theParsavanthaTemple. It is the largest and best preserved of Jain temples in Khajuraho. The inscription on the doorway to its large hall indicates that it was built about 950 to 970 under the Chandelas. Like Khajuraho’s other mediaeval temples it is of fine sandstone . It also follows the same architectural and sculptural schemes. Parsavantha is most similar to theLakshmanaTemple, only more advanced in a few details from that earlier temple. Among its different features, I noticed the perforated windows and a projection on its side.

The sculptures in Parsavantha had the same finish and grace of the Hindu Temples I had seen. There were sura-sundaris applying eye wash or donning their ankle bells , loving couples, and a man being pulled by two women in opposite directions. I saw, however, no blatant erotic sculptures here.

Parsavantha was dedicated to the first Tirthankara. In Jainism, a tirthankar (fordmaker) is a human being who has achieved enlightenment (perfect knowledge) through asceticism and who becomes a teacher for those seeking spiritual guidance. He has conquered base sensibilities such as anger, pride, deceit, and desire. He is the founder of a tirth (ford), a Jain community which acts as a “ford” across the “river of human misery.”

There have been 24 such Tirthankaras. The entrance to the newJainTemple that stood next to the old temple was dominated by a sitting statue of the last of those Jain prophets: Mahavira. There was another statue of Mahavira inside the temple, this time standing. In both statues the body was idealized, devoid of details. The immobility and rigidity of the statues suggested Tirthankara Mahavira’s “revocation of flesh,” his asceticism.

On the day of my visit, two men stood in prayer before the new JainTemple’s altar which contained the standing statue. They wore white . On the floor behind them were three low tables at which sat three women in colorful traditional Indian dresses on kelims, reading prayer books. Six metal trays and seven metal cups and a few other implements with the ceremonial coconuts and rice were spread on the tables. I asked if any of the two men was a religious leader. “No. Everybody here is our relative,” one man answered in English. “We are here to celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary,” he pointed to his wife, a beaming woman who now joined us. After this “simple ceremony,” he said, “we are going to have dinner with these relatives.” He was generously hospitable: “Won’t you join us?”

Mahavira is the most influential figure among the Jains. He was born in 599 B.C., “attained omniscience” at age 42, and died (“entered into Nirvana”) in 527 B.C. In the courtyard fronting the two Jain temples there were two panels on the walls of the one-story building that served as a bookstore. The writing on them demonstrated the differences between the Jain and Hindu religions. One panel was entitled “Jainism, what it Implies.” Among other things it said: “Jina” is he who has conquered all faults of soul; those who follow the instructions of Jina are “Jain”; each soul can become a Jina. The other panel was entitled “Preaching of Bhagwan Mahavira”. It emphasized the following: every soul is independent, absolutely omniscient and blissful in itself; human beings’ misery is due to their own faults; “there is no separate existence of God, everyone can attain godhood by making supreme efforts in the right direction.” In stark contrast to the Hindu notion of Lords Brahma and Lord Shiva, Mahavira taught “God is neither the creator nor the destructor of the universe,” he is “merely a silent observer.”

Folklore in India’s Villages



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.                   ______________________________________________________

                       abstract: To understand India you have to see its villages! This dictum is often repeated to signify the hold of tradition on Indian society. Surprisingly, I found signs of entrepreneurship in the few villages of central India I visited which seemed to promise the future. These were all the more impressive as the past was still stubbornly strong in the mix of religion and history that was the mainstay of the folklore of these villages. This was the scene of the struggle between individual vitality and the inertia of group comfort.  


Convent for cows

In the small settlement of Nawai, Rajasthan, we went to a “convent for cows,” as our tour guide called it. It was a goshala, a protective shelter for treating neglected cows according to Hindu teaching. This one had cow-sheds built to house hundreds of cows “rescued from being sent to various slaughterhouses across the country” by the non-Hindus. On the day of our visit there were 700 cows   in the goshala

While the milk from these cows was sold, there were more noteworthy products. Cow urine was boiled and distilled and a nectar was made and bottled here . This was marketed as medicine good for a number of diseases, including cancer. Our guide believed that it cured her mother-in-law when she suffered from typhoid. Cow dung  was not just marketed as fertilizer ; it was rolled into incense sticks  . This industry of cow products employed several women who were paid $3 a day, a better rate for jobs that were also less strenuous  than otherwise available to the women.

The women who worked in the goshala may have believed in the medicinal value of the cow urine, but they also wore silver rings at their ankle which, tradition said, would protect them against diseases. There was also a prayer building on the premise marked with a swastika and the Om sign. The swastika was the sign for wishing good luck. The Om (Aum) represented the trinity of God (“a” for the creator Brahmin, “u” for the preserver Vishnu, and “m” for the destroyer Shiva), we were told. A man and a woman were walking around a tree planted in front of this building. “They will circle the tree 108 times, the traditional number of required mantra,” our guide said. They were followers of Sant Sri Asaramji Maharaj.

I asked the manager of the goshala about the Sant. He took me to his office which was a one-room structure and showed me several publications about his guru . Asaramji “is a great yogi, a divine personality, a self-realized Sant,” said a book on his life, Incarnation of a Saint. “Millions around the world venerate and adore him.” The book maintained that the Sant was “the God incarnate for the whole world.” If one reads his “tale (Asaramyan)” with devotion, he will achieve “the four goals of human life –righteousness, just desires, wealth and salvation.”

Asaramji taught that “God is to be experienced in oneself…. God is Truth, Consciousness and Bliss; and is Omnipresent.” He had a universal message: “Remember that all sects, religions, castes, creeds, etc., have stemmed from the one Supreme Consciousness.” Asaramji also proclaimed to be “a staunch advocate of national unity, integrity and peace.” For him this meant that “traitors, who are staining the pious land of India with the blood of innocent people and fanning the fires of sedition in the country … should be taught … a lesson.” The color of his political agenda became more vivid in the testimonials about him listed in Incarnation of a Saint. There were many, almost all from Indian government officials, including two former Prime Ministers. One was by the President of BJP, the political party in which the increasingly hard-line Hindu nationalists began to rise in the 1980s and define its politics. The sole Muslim contributor on the list was the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir who wrote: “our neighbor (Pakistan) cannot take care of its own house and is not letting us live in peace…. We are Indian Muslims. Please bless us so that peace and harmony will prevail in our India.” Asaramji was himself a refugee who had left Pakistan as a result of the Partition of India in 1947.


A few miles from the goshala we ran into several women who were returning from working on the roads. The village women in India are “lean,” our guide said because of “much hard work.” That evening at our hotel I saw evidence of this fact. Two women were carrying heavy loads of cement blocks on their heads for repair work in the yard. It was common to see village women with water containers on their heads which they would fill with the water from the wells that used hand pumps.

In the arid land of Rajasthan which has no monsoon, deep wells are the source of most water. Access to that water required ingenuity. The “Persian wheel” (a converse version of the Persian qanat technology which brought water down from the hills) was introduced to India by its medieval Muslim rulers. The Persian wheel was especially used to supply water to the forts on top of hills in a system of elevating locks. We now saw its application for irrigation on the plain. A turning wheel brought the water up in buckets from a thirty-feet-deep well into a container “reservoir” from which it was then diverted into narrow canals. “With multiple reservoirs which in effect functioned as wells themselves, multiple wheels would step-by-step take the water up to the forts,” our tour guide described what was still called the Persian wheel here. It also had another name, our guide said: “rahat.” The latter name might be a corrupt version of ara-ghatta (rope-pot), but it is as likely the Persian word which means “easy.”

The big Persian wheels used for the forts were driven by elephants. The wheel we saw was driven by oxen, but a woman worked this system . Her work was not easy in the heat of the day. She stopped before us and by bare hand picked up the dung dropped by the oxen on the ground. She set the dung away, put some water on her hand and pulled back her hair that had covered a sweaty forehead. A shack that served as her home was next to the wheel.


Step-well of Abhaneri

Before the Persian wheel there was the step-well (baori). We went to see one of India’s deepest and largest in the village of Abhaneri, Rajasthan, which was built in the 9th century by Raja Chand (or Chandra), a Rajput of Chahmana dynasty. He was from the “clan of fire,” our tour guide said. “There were two other ruling clans in central India, the moon clan that ruled in Khajuraho and the sun clan that ruled in today’s Jaipur.”

Abhaneri (Abha Nagari) means the City of Light. At eight in the morning when we reached it the sun was rising red. Several villagers were sitting at a local café having breakfast. A woman was smoking a clay pipe . A boy looked at us inquisitively . In the village co-operative they were measuring the milk by “lecto-meter” to make sure it was not diluted. Two men were making a fire next to marigold flowers for offering at the nearby Temple Harshat Mata.

The baori’s monumentally impressive thirteen-story architecture highlighted the value of the Persian wheel. Here, to reach the water in the depth of 100 feet, a person had to go down 3,500 steep steps . The task of bringing water up for use was indeed not rahat! The baori which still had water had been rebuilt and turned into a summer pleasure palace, a cool retreat, by the Rajas of Jaipur in the 17th century. They added a pavilion to its upper level.

In the baori’s two niches on the lower story were enshrined the images of Mahishasurmardini and Ganesh. There were many damaged sandstone sculptures collected in the street level galleries. Most were from the 9th century. Some were defaced. “This was done by the army of Mahmoud Ghaznavi in the 13th century,” our tour guide said. “Notice that the Muslims only just defaced the sculpture of Ganesh. That is all they had to do because the Hindus only worshiped perfect statues.” The galleries also had old sculptures of ordinary men and women which had been left untouched; the defacing was done only to idols.



The Ranthambhore Fort

We accompanied a Hindu guide on his pilgrimage to the Ganesh Temple in the Fort on the hills of Ranthambhore. Religious beliefs and selective bits of history combined to produce a folkloric epic in this area of Rajasthan now better known as a tiger preserve. Our guide played out the drama on an appropriate stage. As soon as we went through the gate of Ranthambhore National Park,  and into the forest , we met a man on the pilgrimage to the temple. He had walked a long way but had a big smile and carried a ceremonial flag. Presently, we were joined by a group of young boys and girls with flowers, as though they were the chorus for our guide’s epic. Long-tailed langur monkeys perched on the steps leading to the Fort. A man was offering water to the pilgrims. He was “doing good karma,” said the guide. A lone woman coming back from the temple strolled down the steps that we were about to take.

Our guide told us each to pick up a stone before we began our climb. Then he began his tale. The preface was that at a historic moment in the beginning of the 14th century Indian women living here committed suicide when their king was defeated by the Muslim invaders because they feared that the conquerors would rape them. Thus the guide adopted as a frame for his folklore, the ancient Indian practice of sati, named after the goddess Sati who self-immolated after her father humiliated her husband.

The guide was a good story teller. He stopped at suspenseful points several times just as we reached landings on the long ascent up the stairs. At the end we came to a crude sculpture of the head of a man. The guide told us to throw our stones at this “traitor” . The traitor was a general who betrayed the Hindu King of this ancient Fort. The guide’s story was about the fight between an invading Muslim Sultan and the Hindu King over the refuge he gave to the Sultan’s army commander. The commander had to escape because he had fallen in love with the Sultan’s queen. The Hindu King would not surrender the commander as he was a guest. The Sultan set siege to the King’s Fort, but could not overcome the valiant Hindu King’s resistance until a traitor general enabled the Sultan’s entry into the otherwise impenetrable Fort .

Like most folk-tales, this one was rooted in a corruption of history. There was indeed a fight here, in 1299-1301, between Sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji of Delhi and King Hammer who ruled in the Fort on Thambhor hill, the oldest in Rajasthan. The war began when a Khalji Muslim commander, Muhammad Shah, helped the ruler of Jalore (in Rajasthan) defeat an invading army of Sultan Ala-ud-din. Muhammad Shah’s motive could have been related to the conflict between Ala-ud-din and the widow of his uncle, the previous Sultan, whom Ala-ud-din had killed to attain power. The widow queen had rebelled and succeeded in putting her son on the throne temporarily, before losing out to Ala-ud-din. Commander Muhammad Shah took refuge with King Hammer. Ala-ud-din attacked the King’s Fort but could not take it. The two sides decided to enter into negotiations. Hammer sent two of his generals to Ala-ud-din’s camp. They betrayed him and the Ranthambhore Fort fell as a result. Of these two generals, Ranmal had a reason for revenge since his father had been hung by Hammer. As to the women, history also has registered instances of those in the courts of various Rajasthan rulers who committed “honorary self-killing” when defeated by the Muslims.


The Ganesh Temple

On the top of the Ranthambhore Fort was the Dulha Mahal . This was where the “Hindu King had his pleasures,” our guide said. There was a panoramic view of the valley below from here. This included a lake  on the bank of which the Maharajas of Jaipur would later build their hunting lodge. Not far from the Dulha Mahal was a seemingly incongruous shrine to a Sufi Muslim. He was “still revered by both Hindus and Muslims here,” we were told. On the vast green field before the shrine peacocks and peahen strolled, and the ruins of many more structures  of a fort-palace  appeared, including its step- wells . “We are not far from the Ganesh Temple,” our guide said as we noticed objects such as bracelets and ribbons which had been hung on bushes as offerings by the worshipers . Some pilgrims were feeding the monkeys which, our guide said, was doing good karma.

As many as two million pilgrims come here in September which is “Ganesh’s birthday.” According to our guide “a statute of Ganesh came here on its own and a temple was built in its honor.” There exists a more detailed legend. King Hammer who was an ardent devotee of God Ganesh saw him in his dream one night during the 1299 war with Alauddin Khalji. The Lord told the King that by next day all his problems would be over. In the morning an idol of Lord Ganesh with three eyes (Trinetra), appeared embossed on a wall of the Fort. As a further miracle the war was over. King Hammer built this temple in honor of Lord Ganesh in 1300. Ganesh’s transportation vehicle, mushak (mouse) was also placed in the temple.  

We went inside the small pink-colored temple. Big rats were running around. Our guide said they are “the rides of Ganesh,” holy because they are such vehicles. He rang a bell that was hanging from a pole and approached the altar where a priest stood in the middle with an assistant on his left. The priest put a few drops of water on our guide’s head as he made a wish and tied a hand band around his wrist. “You tie this protection red band and keep it until it is destroyed by itself, or you put it in the Ganges, or under a Ficus Religious tree,” our guide told us. There was one of those Ficus trees outside.

“Ganesh is the son of Shiva,” as our guide related his story.  “His narrow eyes are for sharp vision, and his big nose for a good sense of smell. Shiva’s wife, Parvati (second incarnation of Shiva’s first wife Sati) begat him without Shiva’s knowledge. She told Ganesh to guard her room and not to let anyone in. Shiva had to kill Ganesh to get in. Distressed, Parvati told Shiva she won’t see him again unless he brought her son back to life. Shiva went to the God of Creation. He told Shiva to go north and kill the first animal he saw and put his head on the dead Ganesh’s body. Shiva traveled north and first saw an elephant. He killed the elephant and put his head on Ganesh’s body.”



Tiger T-17

Our guide did not tell us what wish he made in the Ganesh Temple until it was granted in the incarnation of “T-17″ the following day. Early that morning we set out on our “hunt” for tigers. In the woods where the Maharajas once hunted them, our goal was the benign one of only sighting the tigers. They are now protected in a preserve by the government of India. The ruins of the Maharajas’ hunting lodge evoked only distant nostalgia.

Like his father before him, our “naturalist” guide Davendar was a warden of this Ranthambhore National Park. He knew the area and the animals inhabiting it intimately as he described them in the course of a day I drove with him in a “canter.” That was a small truck, open on the sides, which seated 20 passengers.  We were not alone. There were some ten other jeeps and canters in the park.

Tigers are nocturnal animals and in the early hours of the day we looked for the footprints they might have made on the dusty road, as they went for prey the night before. These could help us find them in the vast 100 acre preserve. Four dirt roads traversed the preserve and we divided them among the vehicles now in the park. Our canter took route Number 3. Only the VIP vehicles had walkie-talkies. One carried a filming crew from the American National Geographic that was making a documentary for the “Animal Channel.” Two others transported visiting government dignitaries. Our paths often crossed, however, and we exchanged information with them and other vehicles on the progress of our mutual hunt.

Within an hour Davendar found some tiger footprints. “This is a female tiger,” he said. “See how the toes are pointed out. She is also young”. We followed the footprints until they disappeared in the woods. They failed to lead us to the tiger. “Tigers are good in camouflaging so as to be able to defend themselves, in compensation for being slow in movement,” Davendar said. We continued our drive through a landscape of limestone and sandstone low hills occasionally covered with termite mounds. Davendar pointed out banyan trees, flame of forest trees, uphor cactus, Ficus, and dhok trees. “Seventy percent of this land is covered with dhoks,” he said. This is a sturdy plant that needs little water. It stays green even in the driest season. It is the favorite food of sambar, the slow and big deer which is, in turn, the favorite food of tigers. “One sambar is enough food for a tiger for a week. Tiger eats for an hour and a half after killing the sambar and then relaxes nearby, only to come back later to feed on it more. This goes on for four or five days. Tigers mark their staked territory with urine and lines on the trees.”

Sambars make a barking call to alarm each other when they hear tigers or smell them. These are sambars’ strong senses. “See their big ears ,” Davendar pointed out. They have poor eyesight. “But the monkeys who co-exist here  help them.” The black-face langur monkeys also make warning calls when they see tigers. “They have much better eyesight and their long tail enables them to balance on high tree branches where they can see farther. Their distinctive alarm calls are understood by the deer.”

We now heard such warning calls from some monkeys nearby. Ranthambhore guides listen for these calls to help them trace the whereabouts of the tigers. “Repeated calls means that there is a tiger or a leopard nearby,” Davendar said. Following them we drove fast to the edge of a pit. Soon this pit was encircled by other jeeps and canters, as they had also made the same decision upon hearing the monkeys’ calls. We waited quietly but no tiger showed up. We dispersed.

Davendar made a sound which he called “tiger noise,” imitating tigers as we approached a lake where some sambars were eating the algae. He did not fool the sambars.  A female sambar and her newborn stayed resting on the shore. “The sambars’ other predator here is the crocodile,” Davendar said. The crocodiles had come out of the water and were laying in the sun that baked the banks of the lake. Three kinds of kingfisher bird and a pink-leg stork were keeping them company. Further inland from the lake we saw wild boars , peacocks, peahen, spotted deer , gazelle, and several of the 400 species of birds which are in this park. We failed to spot any of the sixty leopards who roam on the hills. “They are both very shy and afraid of tigers who are twice their size,” Davendar said.

Around 9:40 in the morning all of a sudden there were commotions around us. We learned that one vehicle had sighted a tiger. We rushed to the reported site. There were now eight jeeps and canters surrounding a sunken space the size of half an acre. It was exposed as there were few trees here. Everybody kept quite. Five minutes passed and then a tiger slowly came out from the rocks which were ten feet below us. It walked regally  right next to us  and passed two other vehicles. She stretched her muscles. We thought she was going to launch for a hunt, but she relaxed her muscles. After a short pause, she resumed walking. We drove fast to see her on a path on the other side of the road, almost hidden in the tree. A big sambar jumped and ran in the direction that the tiger was going, some fifty yards in front of her. The tiger walked calmly toward the lake nearby. She entered the lake and submerged herself in the water. She stayed there a few minutes before going ashore on the lip of the lake. 

It was now 10:05. Davendar said that the tiger had come to the lake for a drink and a dip to cool off. It was 44 degree centigrade. We shed some clothes. Davendar told me that the tiger was a female “as indicated by her narrow face and long neck.”  He recognized her. This tiger was T-17 as her identifying collar would show. “She is three-and-a-half years old and not yet a mother.”  Face marking and body lining of each tiger is different. We saw observation cameras installed on the trees in the park to keep track of the tigers and other animals.

Our naturalist guide said that we were lucky to be able to see a tiger for so long and in so many different postures and motions. Our tour guide now said that he was a very happy man: “God Ganesh granted my wish.” Davendar said “these tigers have become accustomed to visitors since they have been coming here in the last forty years. Now the tigers come out during the day too.” In fact, our sighting was near the entrance to the Park and close to the Fort which gets many visitors.

Tigers and Villagers

The Ranthambhore tigers have been threatened by poaching, sometimes by the Park guards themselves, as in the 1990s. All parts of the tiger are considered to be aphrodisiac –cooked in soup– and fetch substantial prices. The number of tigers had decreased alarmingly due to this “medicine trade” until the government took effective measures to stop the poaching. There are now 40 tigers in the Ranthambhore National Park.

Ranthambhore is one of several protected reserves for tigers under India’s Project Tiger. India has declared the Royal Indian Tiger to be its national animal.  Of the 60,000 tigers in the world, 2000 to 3000 are in India. Tigers die earlier in the wild than in the zoo, at about age 15 compared to 22. This is simply a result of hunger. When they get old, tigers can not hunt. They lose their canine teeth at about age 12 and thereafter can not get enough food on their own. Older tigers also are greater threats to humans. “Only the old ones may eat humans, the younger ones go after swift animals,” Davendar said. “The tigers can come out of the Ranthambhore Park and harm the villagers; they have done this in the past.”

The government of India banned tiger hunting in 1972. It took a local “prince,” Fateh Singh Rathore, to persuade the population of twelve entire villages to move and make room for the Ranthambhore National Park. He appealed to their religious sentiments. He preached that it was the tiger that accompanied the goddess and demon-slayer Durga (who embodies the power of good over evil). Therefore, it deserved protection. Its survival, however, would be compromised in a habitat shared by men. The villagers who were thus deprived of their grazing land eventually became dissatisfied at their material loss. A rebellious mob then emerged, angrily attacking the prince and fracturing his skull.



The walls of the ticket kiosk at the entrance to the Ranthambhore National Park displayed fresco paintings by some local villagers. In white on a salmon background, they depicted what this land meant to them: birds, deer, tiger, crocodile, and plants. Our tour guide called these “tribal paintings”. He said “tribes have their own laws and culture. They practice polygamy and polyandry, which are illegal in mainstream India.”

Our guide did not show us any person belonging to the “tribes.” On the outskirt of a village some distance from here he pointed to an area hidden behind the trees and said “Gypsies live there. They are not allowed in the villages. They are good in Iron-smelting but also are into petty crimes which is the reason the villagers keep them out.” The gypsies also had “their own laws and kings.”

The guide’s knowledge of the Gypsies was limited and outdated. He thought they had come from Egypt, as the Europeans had believed for a long time. In fact, however, Rajasthan was the ancient home of the Gypsy tribes. This is what the guide found when he did a search on his smart phone. As he now read to us from a source: “The Persian Book of Kings relates an incident corroborated by independent chronicles that took place in the fifth century, when the Indian King Shankal made a gift of 12,000 musicians to the Shah of Persia. It is assumed that those musicians were the ancestors of the Roma (the name for Gypsies in countries such as Romania) since after a year the Shah sent them away from Persia.”

There are several groups of gypsies in Rajasthan. Among them, the Kalbeliyas are known as entertainers. The women are skilled dancers and are accompanied by men who play percussion and wind instruments. The Kalbeliyas once were the favorite performers at the courts of maharajas and kings. They might have been the source of the gypsies (koli in Persian) who came to Persia.



We saw a less elaborate collection of fresco drawings on the walls of a house in a nearby village. The lines here were in white against a light brown background. They depicted two peacocks, plants, and flowers in a pot. There were no other animals. Instead there were writings in the Hindi script. A separate plain wall in aquamarine supplied a bright color. In front of it, a woman in a multicolor dress of saffron, purple, and green greeted us with her smile.  

The village was just waking up. Dogs were rummaging through trash on the unpaved street. A woman was filling up her pots with water from a hose that jutted out at the curbside. A man in shorts was washing himself outside his house. The women of the house covered their heads from us. At the adjacent home a woman was making a fire to prepare breakfast. A man was sitting on the porch and shaving. A boy in a uniform of pants and shirt was walking to school. His purposefulness contrasted with the looks on three girls who seemed in no hurry. They were wrapped in a traditional garb against the morning cold. “These girls go to the government school that starts later in the day,” our guide said.

We followed the boy to a model private school established here by a native son who was from the “untouchable caste.” He was the headmaster. When we arrived the students had already come and gathered on a narrow roof of the school building, waiting for us as they had been told about our visit. They sat in five rows and as the headmaster supervised, they sang “patriotic songs,” led by four older students who were seated in front facing them.  Their teachers stood behind the students. The headmaster then held up a picture of the “Goddess of Wisdom .” The students all stood up while the headmaster walked through their rows. Following some more songs, the headmaster blew his whistle. At this clue, the students sang the Indian National Anthem.

After this ceremony the students were sent to their classes. They sat on the floor of small rooms and recited from texts for their teachers. They had taken their shoes off upon entering the school. They all looked well-scrubbed and well-attired. The headmaster explained to me that “personal hygiene and grooming were taught in special sessions after regular classes, followed up through communications with parents.”

Throughout our time at this model school, the government school girls, whom we had seen before, were observing us. They stood outside the school door, and climbed the roofs of neighboring houses for a better view. They could have used instructions in grooming. The day before, not far from this village, we had stopped to look at a government school on the other side of the road. There were several buildings in a big yard. Our guide pointed out the teacher who wore a sweater over his shirt. We could see his motorcycle. On the basis of these, our guide said “he looks prosperous”. The guide was critical of “government school teachers who have job security and, therefore, become lethargic and are often absent.”

The green fields of crops in the village had indicated that there was wealth in this village. One of its richest residents invited us to his house for tea. He sent his children to the model school. He rode on a motorcycle to greet us. But there was also a car in the backyard of his house, where he had parked his tractor. We could see his water buffaloes nearby. His extended family was present, although they did not participate in the conversation with us. Some covered their faces. Others were washing themselves in a fountain fed by a well which was exclusive to this house. The jumble of bed coverings in our host’s small bedroom, and the furnishing in his only other room spoke of a simple rural lifestyle. However, like the headmaster of the model school, our host represented the spirit of Indian entrepreneurship. He had added to his other sources of income the salary from a steady job at the visitors’ facilities of the nearby Ranthambhore National Park. His older son was in college “studying computers.”

A few miles from this village we visited a “women’s cooperative.”  Seven women were sitting on a rug sewing colorful quilts. This was set up by a company called Dastkar (Handicraft). I spoke to its resident director. She employed one-hundred women here. They were paid “120 dollars a month, compared with the government minimum wage of 3 dollars per day.” Their various products were sold in a store on the premises. The director said Dastkar had several branches elsewhere in India.



The villagers of Abha Nagari exercised their entrepreneurship by leasing some of their land to a group of five young men who established a camp there for visitors like us. Furthermore, the villagers put on quite a show for us. We were welcomed to the camp by a reception line of several men, women, and children. A man beat the drum, and another served us a lemon drink. A woman put a garland of flowers around our neck, and a man wrapped the local headdress of turban around our head. Then they invited us to visit their homes in the center of the village. Some of us chose to ride there on camels and others on carts driven by camels. Village kids on bicycles returning from school followed us. More of them were waiting to see us on the sidewalks of the village. We visited a house, thatched and built with hard mud. At a more substantial house with plastered walls, the women were waiting for us outside , while their children lined up inside. Cooking was still done the old fashioned way: in the open yard, on the ground, and with firewood. Vehicles which were creatively jerry-rigged from parts of old cars (juvars) served as a means of transportation.

The men of the village entertained us that night. There were ten of them. Some played the local musical instruments, goat skin drum (noubat), big drum (negara), and brass bells (namira). Some sang and danced. We sat in a circle around a fire in the middle. One man began chanting a song and then all others joined as a chorus, the musicians with their musical instruments. Soon two men started a dance. Then they asked us to join them in the dance and in playing the big drum. When we sat down, I found out that the gentle folk songs they sang and danced to were about Vishnu and Shiva. The director of the camp explained it this was: “It is the story of those two Gods playing hide and seek. Vishnu disguises himself as a baby and is picked by a woman goddess who had just gotten married. People say this wife is corrupt if she had a child so soon. Then Vishnu comes out of disguise and says I am that baby.”

In another central Indian village, Alipur , we had heard another devotional song about the absence of an avatar of Vishnu, Krishna. In the courtyard of a medieval palace which was now guarded only by a red-turbaned ceremonial sentry , two blind musicians played the noubat and ektar (a one-string instrument) and sang from the 16th century Indian blind poet Sant Sudras’ “Ocean of Melody” (Sur Sagar) the complaint to Krishna about his “constant absence.”

That night in the camp we retired around ten. From my tent , I could still hear the sounds of singing and music coming from the village. That was live music from the puja (the ceremonial worshiping of the divine) performed at homes.  At dawn the next morning, I was awakened by the same kind of music, this time coming from loud speakers of a radio. This was the sound of the traditional puja being performed in a public temple. I went to have the villagers’ breakfast of unleavened flatbread (roti) made from millet flour, being prepared on a hot iron plate which was on a wood fire set on the floor. This was one ancient tradition in India not going to be abandoned anytime soon.


This article entitled, Small enterprises, big future, was published on the following website of on August 25, 2010 with related pictures:

The Maharajas’ Jaipur


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.                   _____________________________________________________________________________________

abstract: Tourists are beckoned by the colors of Rajasthan.  Splashed over gelatin or equivalents, these colors draw the magic of their aesthetics from contrasts.  The women of Rajasthan defy the drab monotone of a semi arid environment by riots of red, green, blue, and orange in their garments [1].  Colorful spices and dried fruit in the markets are the answer to the dearth of fresh, tasty produce and fruit.  The wildly extravagant Maharajahs painted their whole capital city of Jaipur lipstick pink to impress their foreign guests.  The colorful trash generated by their impoverished former subjects mock this folly.  Just the same, the fabled palaces and glamorous life style of the ruling Rajputs resulted from a history of an equal measure of daring by a proud warrior clan and its obedience to the more powerful.  The contemporary life in Jaipur plays against that background.  This is a glimpse into all that drama.                               __________________________________________________

The Road

The main highway from Delhi south leads to mediaeval times.  Just outside of town we were sharing this toll road with camels [2] and bullocks used as common means of transportation.  “Camel and bullock driven carts are exempt from the toll taxes,” our tour guide said matter of factly.  Just beyond the ditch on the side of the highway we could see red-faced monkeys [3] jumping off tree branches.  “This type monkeys are aggressive and could be dangerous,” the guide said.  Some were perilously close to the road.  We also spotted antelopes “with the face of the cow and the body of the horse,” who were “the favorite food of tigers,” as our guide said.

We were now down from the bus on the road, hurrying to have a better look at a special sight along the other side.  A man was sweeping the ground as he was moving up in the opposite direction on the road.  A woman in a saffron-colored robe walked behind of him.  Every few steps she would fall down and crawl a few feet on the road.  A rickshaw carrying their belongings was accompanying them [4].  “They are on pilgrimage to the shrine of Hanuman, the Monkey God, hundreds of miles away,” our guide explained.  “This is to show their gratitude for having been granted the wishes in their prayers.” The guide then added, “in veneration of the Monkey God, Tuesday is a holy day.  It is dedicated to Hanuman, just as there is a holy day for the worship of cows.”  Cows were loose everywhere around us.  “You can’t tie them; they are treated with respect.” The guide said, “A driver will be more easily forgiven for hitting a man than a cow.”

The couple on pilgrimage had just passed a store, where a sadhu with a white turban was sitting outside [5].  He was “a holy man, a worshiper of god Shiva, who has renounced this world,” our guide described him.  “Some sadhuses are very learned.” On our side of the road, not far from here was the shrine to Vishnu built by the industrialist Birla family.  If Monkey God spoke to the reverence for animals in Hinduism, Vishnu was the apotheoses of man. Birla’s Vishnu was a meta-human size sculpture modeled after man. There were two such anthropomorphic divine sculptures. One was Vishnu’s 7th reincarnation as Rama, with quiver and arrows, standing alongside his consort Sita [6]. The other was Vishnu’s 8th reincarnation as Krishna, a cowherd with a flute [7]. The sacred text Ramayana is about Rama, and Mahabharata is about Krishna.  “The 9th reincarnation of Vishnu is Buddha; his earlier reincarnations are not in the literature,” our guide said.

The guide continued, “Vishnu is the Protector in our trinity of Hindu divines, the other two being Brahma, the Generator, and Shiva, the Destroyer who thus makes possible the birth of the new.” Is Sita also a God, a fellow traveler asked the guide?  “I don’t know what to call her, a God, a Mrs. God?” the guide said.  “In fact it is not certain if there is any God like the Christian God in Hinduism.  But Indians are very religious.  They hardly pass a holy place without offering prayers [8], no matter to which God.” Then he showed us the Shiva Lingam, “for male, vertical, and for female, like a saucer [9],” saying this abstract presentation perhaps served better to express the Hindu idea of divinity.

We drove a long stretch of dusty road in the shadow of the Vindhya mountain range of Rajasthan [10].  The severe monotone of the landscape [11] was only occasionally interrupted by the vibrant colors of dresses on women from the nearby villages.  [12]. In the roadside open-door sheds of dhabas cafes the truckers ate, sitting on wooden platform beds.  They drank Kingfisher beer, which has made India’s “liquor king,” Dr. William Mallya, a billionaire, ignoring a sign across the road that advertised “English Wine,” which meant such things as gin, rum, and wine.

We were taken to the village of Chomu for lunch.  On the sidewalk of a street here I observed the rare signs of another religion.  A small group of men were praying on the sidewalk in front of a modest white building that served as their Mosque [13].  They faced Kaaba, the cube-shaped building in Mecca, which according to Islamic beliefs was rebuilt by Prophet Abraham on the foundations of the first building on earth, built by Adam.  This was perhaps as close as the Muslims came to the notion of “lingam,” a physical “sign” of God.

Rajputs’ Palace Hotel

In Chomu the highway shrank to a narrow paved strip in the middle of a wider dirt road.  The cluster of shacks we had seen in a few places on the road became bigger and combined with a few shapeless low buildings [14] to give Chomu the appearance of a market town for farmers.  The goods were mostly fruit and produce displayed on carts pulled by donkeys [15].  The service sector was mostly comprised of motorcycle and bicycle repair shops {16].  Chomu also boasted a hotel.  Its narrow three-story building [17] was a sharp contrast to the grand Palace Hotel [18] reserved mostly for foreign tourists.  The staff welcomed us as guests by the customary planting of a red dot with a rice grain in its middle on our forehead [19].  The entrance gate displayed a carving of Ganesh (the elephant-trunk God of good luck and prosperity) [20], which is customary so as to wish an auspicious beginning for any occasion.  Our one wish appeared about to be fulfilled soon, after a long drive in the hot sun, as we glanced at the main courtyard where a waiter was holding a tray of cold drinks for us [20-1].  A sumptuous lunch was then served in a magnificent room with balconies and painted walls, presided over by a portrait of a Rajasthani Maharaja [21].

The Palace Hotel complex included several well-groomed [22] private gardens [23], and rooms which had elaborately [24] decorated [24] walls [25] and mirror-work ceilings [26]. “At one time there were more than 500 princely states in India,” our tour guide began in his narrative about the Chomu Palace Hotel. “Only Ashoka the Great in 3rd century and the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century were able to establish a united India.  After independence the princes were asked to join the Union in return for a stipend from the government.  Prime Minister Indira Gandhi abolished that stipend and so the princes had to turn their palaces, like this one in Chomu, into ‘heritage’ hotels.”

The fact that in our guide’s opinion only a Buddhist (Ashoka) and a Muslim (Akbar) were able to unite India in the long stretches of its history was noteworthy.  The guide was an ardent Hindu of the Brahmin caste; and this was central India, the heartland of the recently resurgent Hindu pride.  The Chomu Palace indeed reflected parts of India’s history.  It was originally built as a fort (hence called Chomugdth) in the 18th century by the local Rajput rulers and turned into a palace in the late 19th century by their eventual successors.  These Rajputs (sons of Raja) descended from the kings of the Chauhan Dynasty of the Hindu Kachwahas, the dominant clan in this part of India.  The Chauhans’ rule began in the late 7th century.  Control of this area changed hands over time among the Muslim Delhi Sultanates, their Mughals successors, and the Hindu Marathas until the British seized it in the 19th century.  The British Raj’s rule here was indirect, through their overseeing Residency Agency; their local satraps were the Rajas (from the Sanskrit rajan, a cognate of the Latin regis, meaning king) who were mostly related to the Chauhans.

There were 19 such Rajas in this area just before India’s Independence.  They were of various ranks, depending primarily on the extent of their services to the British, which was indicated by the number of gun salutes they could receive.  Valuing status, even the lowliest Rajas preferred the title of Maharaja (Great King).  In 1944 eight of these Maharajas formed the Greater Rajasthan Union; and all 19 eventually joined the Independent Indian Union, creating its largest State, Rajasthan (the Abode of the Rajas) in 1956, with Jaipur as its capital.

City View

In this capital city our arrival was heralded by a ragtag “drum and bugle corps,” accompanied by a man dressed as a wooden horse.  The drum was a version of the Persian dohol, introduced to India in the 15th century, and the bugle resembled another old Persian instrument, the sheypoor [27] of the same era. Together with the musicians’ costumes, their purpose was to take the tourists back to when the Maharajas ruled.

There was a different kind of music coming from the park across the street where two weddings were taking place. We climbed to the roof of the hotel to take a better look. We saw a groom on a white horse in the middle of several wedding attendants and a few musicians. On the other side of the roof the view was that of a sprawling city, which filled up the valley almost all the way to the hills [28]; the smog that the sun burned red covered the spaces that were left empty [29].

Jaipur likes to be called the Pink City. This is because Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II ordered the whole city, as it existed in 1853, painted pink on the occasion of a visit by Prince Albert of England. The monsoon rains on the Maharaja’s legacy every year. It is painted over again every five years, except for the Maharajas’ palaces, which are painted every three years. The new paint on the buildings is salutary because it distracts from the piles of trash that cover too much of the grounds in the city [30].

Jaipur Design

Jaipur also makes claim to the title of the oldest surviving planned urban center in northern India. Maharaja Sawai Jai (Victory) Singh II who named the new city after himself, employed a scholar to design it as conceived in Shipla Shastra, the ancient Hindu architectural treatise. The grid consisted of seven blocks of white buildings separated by tree-lined wide boulevards. It was a walled city with seven gates. arched shop-fronts [31] added the Mughal architectural influence.  That was in 1727. Now those elements can be uncovered only with difficulty in the maze of extraneous additions such as the tangled webs of electricity wires, not to mention the crumbling walls, the street traffic of vehicles and animals of diverse variety (camels [32] , cows, goats, and pigs), and crowds on the pock-marked pavements [33].

One addition, in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, however, has become the landmark of Jaipur. It is Hawa Mahal, a five-story building, only one-room deep, in the center of town [34] where the Maharajas’ women, “languishing in purdah” (according to a local guidebook, Majestic Jaipur, p 16) would come from their sequestered quarters for protected viewing. It was a place for “taking fresh air (hawa in Persian)” as its name implies. The royal women, unseen, could view the everyday life and processions of the city in the streets below through the arabesque of the building’s 956 small windows. One thing we know they saw was another such viewing structure right across the street. On a smaller scale [35], this one was for the commoner women of the town. Today the view from windows on both sides was of tourists looking up and the peddlers they attracted [36], including the emblematic fake exoticism, which is the snake charmer [37]. These cobras were defanged and they were deaf. They did not dance to the music; they moved as they felt threatened “by the movement of the bamboo sticks at the end of the flute,” our guide explained. A few steps away was a milk market. Skeptical Jaipur buyers first dipped their hands into the tin containers of milk to make sure that the sellers had not “diluted it with too much water [38].”

Amber Fort

Before Jaipur, rulers of this area lived in Amber Fort up on the hills a few miles away. They were from the Kachwahas, a Kshatriya caste clan claiming lineage from the Sun Dynasty (Surya), who came here in the 11th century. When the third Mughal Shahanshah Akbar-e Azam (Persian for Emperor Akbar the Great) [39], expanded his empire (1556-1605) south from Delhi, these Kachwaha Rajputs formed an alliance with him to safeguard their territory. This was symbolized by Akbar’s marriage to the daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber in 1562. Henceforth called by her Islamic name Mariam-uz-Zamani (Persian for Mary of this Era), she was twenty-year-old Akbar’s first Rajput wife. With the help of his new father-in-law Akbar then used matrimonial diplomacy to help bring under his control other Rajput rulers in central India. Rajput warriors served the Mughal Empire for the next 130 years until the death of Aurangzeb, the last of the “major” Mughal kings. Aurangzeb bestowed the title of Sawai on Jaipur’s Maharaja Jai Singh II (1688-1743). It meant one and a quarter times superior to other men.  Jai Singh II’s successors have since entitled themselves Maharaja Sawai. They also continued the reception of many elements of the Persionate culture of the Mughals, as reflected in the many Persian names which I noticed in their remaining institutions in Jaipur.

Mariam-uz-Zamani became one of Akbar’s three main queens, but more important, the mother of his son and successor Jahangir. This connection to the Mughal Emperors rewarded the Amber Rajas. Man Sing I who was Bharmal’s grandson and Mariam’s nephew rose to be one of Akbar’s principal generals, as a Mansabdar (Persian for Titled Commander) of 7,000 cavalry, and one of the Navartnas (Sanskrit for Nine Jewels), or extraordinary counselors, in the Emperor’s court. He was given the Mughal title of chief, Mirza (From amirzadeh, Persian for the son of Amir), as Akbar came to call him farzand (Persian for son).

It was Mirza Raja Man Singh I who in 1569 began the construction of the Amber Fort, which I was going to see now. Our guide’s name was Mr. Singh (Sanskrit for lion, denoting warrior caste Kshatriya ties), which he said “means a Rajput warrior.”

The walls of the old Fort [40] looked impressive as they snaked around the surrounding hills [41]. I sat in a Jeep to drive up the narrow climbing road [42], through the streets of the old settlement [43]. My driver was Shoja (Persian for brave) Khan who said he was born and raised in that village; he let me hold the jeep’s wheel [44] while we talked. We arrived in the central courtyard of the Fort as braver tourists were disembarking from their elephants [45]. Our tour guide explained, “We have been using jeeps after an elephant killed his mahout (rider) recently.” He took us to see how the mahouts [46] were tying the new baby elephants to chains so that they “get into a sate of mind not to run away.”

The courtyard, Jaleb Chowk, which was once the Fort’s parade grounds for the warriors [47] , today served as a stage for a colorful [48] carnival of tourists [49] that would have pleased Federico Fellini. The original part of the Fort, built by Mirza Raja Man Sing I was in the back, behind the part built by his descendant Mirza Raja Jai Singh I who became the Raja of Amber in 1614.  The old parts were far more Spartan [50] than the palace of Jai Singh’s creation, a testimony to how dramatically the Rajas fortunes had improved in the seventy years of protection and patronage by the Mughals. The new complex was almost a complete version of  the Mughals’ Palace Fort in Agra (which I also saw that week), but on a far more modest scale. Diwan-i-Aam (Persian for Hall of Public Audience) [51] was the prominent building in the Jaleb Chowk, with white and pink sandstone columns  giving it a stately appearance [52]. Here, the Raja held darbar (Persian for court) with his officials and received petitions from his subjects. The toshakhana (from Persian tusheh-khaneh, meaning “provisions house”), housing government offices that administered the Amber state was next door under a series of colonnaded arches.

As I saw in a picture of a later period, the Rajas’ darbar was only for men [53]. The women in Amber Fort could try to see the proceedings in the Public Audience Hall only through the small openings [54] in the outer wall of the private quarters [55] which functioned the same way as in the Hawa Mahal. There was a special residential section [56], called Zenani (Persian for Ladies) Deorhi (Apartments), for the Raja’s mother, consorts, and their many “attendants” [57]. Man Singh’s Fort had 12 suites for his 12 wives. Thus once a bustling place, this area now looked drab. On the day of our visit the only attendant was a woman from the lowest caste Shudra who stopped sweeping to beg us for money [58].

The Raja himself had more opulent accommodations in the Fort. We entered through the ornate Ganesh Pol (Gate) which had a small painting of Ganesh on the top [59]. Here was the Diwan-i- Khas (Persian for Hall of Private Audience) [60] built by Raja Jai Singh I, which because of the tiny mirrors on its ceiling and walls is also called Sheesh Mahal (Persian for Hall of Mirrors)[61]. In this Hall the Raja received his special guests, including dancing girls who entertained, holding candles which made especially pleasing reflections off the mirrors. Outside, the marble walls were covered with masterful drawings of flowers [62]. Facing the Hall was a sunken garden in the Mughal style of charbagh (Persian for four-sided garden) [63]. On the other side of the garden was Sukh Niwas (Pleasure Palace) [64]. Some remains of its ornate walls were still standing [65], but the water fountain that once ran was now dry. The niches with carvings of musical instruments marked it as the music room [66].

The vast pool that once served Amber was completely empty as there had been too little rain lately [67]. That is a fate that seemed to await the much larger but half-empty Man Sagar Lake [68] down the road, which the Maharajas once used for duck-shooting. Their lodge Jal Mahal (Water Palace) sits there in disrepair with only an illusion of distant romance retained in the elegant symmetry of its architecture [69].

City Museum

The Maharajas’ City Palace in Jaipur was a complex of several contemporary buildings [70], all freshly-painted pink [71], and interconnected by courtyards. It covered one-seventh of the original walled city. It now houses not the Maharajas but a Museum [72] of artifacts of their past lives: arms, paintings, manuscripts, carpets, and textiles. The pieces that most attract the visitors’ attention are two bowls in the Diwan-i- Khas [73] which are said to be the biggest objects made of silver [74]. These gangajlis, each with a capacity of 9,000 liters, were made for Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II’s journey to England in 1902. They were filled with water from the Ganges River and loaded on the Maharaja’s ship for his use in daily purification rituals. The picture of this corpulent Maharaja as well as that of the spectacled Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II, who painted the old city pink, are among those hung on the walls of the Palace’s main darbar (Audience Hall).

The ceremonial Retainers (Guards) at the Palace, with their white pants, blue long coat, and red turban invited me to have my picture taken with them [75]. Then they asked for a tip. Unlike Amber Fort, the City Palace had many Indian visitors [76]. Our guide Mr. Singh was not pleased to see two women who were in veil [77]. This odhni (veil) “is not compelled by our religion, whereas Islam compels it.” As he explained it, “Hindu women began to put on the veil to protect themselves against the lust of Muslim invaders.” The veil worn by the Muslim women I saw in Jaipur was different and, in fact, covered less [78] than the Hindu odhni.

Jantar Mantar

Another sight in Jaipur which was popular with domestic tourists [79] was Jantar Mantar (Calculation Instrument), an astrological and astronomical observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1728. That Maharaja was “committed to the ambitious task of understanding the universe.” He “dispatched scholars to the intellectual centers of Europe,” Britain, Portugal, and Greece, as well as to “Arabia” to bring back “the latest treatises on the configuration of the planets” (Majestic Jaipur, p 18) [80]. He built five observatories in various Indian cities, beginning with Delhi. The one in Jaipur was the biggest. The Maharaja himself studied the imported books and used Jantar Mantar for observations.

The Jaipur observatory was renovated in 1901 and again a few years ago. Of especial interest today was “a sundial that can give the time to an accuracy of 2 seconds [81]”. It looked like an unusual modernist sculpture with stairs going toward celestial entities [82]. A sign described another instrument nearby as the “Stereographic projection of heaven on plane of equator. For observing altitudes and thence finding time and all the positiens (sic) of the heavenly bodies” [83]. Next to it was a structure with small chambers for all months of the Zodiac, each symbolized by a descriptive tile [84]. For Pisces, the tile showed a fish. In the chamber for Gemini, the tile depicted duality by a man and a woman who was playing ektar (Persian for one-string) an instrument normally used for sacred music [85].


We fought our way through the jumble of cars and cows outside Jantar Mantar [86] to the immaculately maintained green gardens of Rambagh Palace Hotel [87]. Women gardeners in green uniform were watering the lawns; a man in white uniform and red turban strolled around waiving a flag to shoo away birds [88]. Named after the oldest Mughal garden (Babur’s in Agra), this Rambagh (from Persian Aram bagh, meaning garden for rest) had been the residence [89]  of the Maharaja of Jaipur from 1925 to 1957. If Jantar Mantar was about “technology transfer” from abroad, this Palace was about “glamour transfer”. Its famous Polo Bar was a good example. We sat under the framed pictures of the likes of Jackie Kennedy (in 1962) and Prince Charles and his wife Diana. They were guests of the dashing Jaipur royal polo players [90]. These royals had changed the name of the ancient game from the original Persian chogan (although the Jaipur Chogan Stadium is still called by that name), and substituted horses for elephants which were used in the old Jaipur style of polo.

The Jaipur Maharajas had undertaken a more important political realignment starting in 1803. With the Mughals having become enfeebled, the Maharajas now looked to the British for help against their local Hindu adversaries, the Marathas. They became “devoted to the British royal family until the end.” They stayed loyal during the 1875 Mutiny, India’s First War of Independence against the British, and for that the Maharajas were awarded with knighthood.

Pictures of the gatherings of several princes of India who were the contemporaries of the last Jaipur Maharaja hung on the walls of the corridors leading to the Rambagh Palace Hotel’s Suvarna Mahal. This restaurant boasted of “exceptionally grand ambience; liveried waiters, gold plated tableware, exquisite china and crystal, grand high ceiling, crystal chandeliers and alabaster lamps, original Florentine ceiling paintings and mirrors.” It also claimed that its “culinary masters have meticulously researched the cuisines of the Royal houses of India, … Jaipur, Mewar, Awadh, Hyderabad, Vijayanagar, Kashmir, Patiala” in preparation of the menu that was now put before us.

The world of the mid 20th century took note of the Jaipur Maharajahs’ glamour when Gayatri Devi was included in the Vogue magazine’s Ten Most Beautiful Women list. An avid equestrienne, she was the Maharani, from 1939 to 1970, the third wife of Man Singh II, the Maharaja Sawai of Jaipur. A son from another wife became Man Singh II’s heir.  Bhawani Singh was the first male born to a ruling Jaipur Maharaja for two generations. The occasion, in 1931, called for so many corks of Champaign bottles being popped that the new born was, forever, nicknamed Bubbles, as his nanny first called him.

The age of Bubbles and the Maharani came to an end with Independent India. Jaipur joined some neighboring former princely autocracies to form the State of Rajasthan. The Jaipur Maharaja remained as the ceremonial head of this State until 1956, when that post was eliminated, but he lost his right to tax. The Maharaja died in 1970, on the polo field. Even before that, the Maharani decided to enter politics on her own. She was elected as a deputy to the new Indian parliament by an overwhelming margin, because “she was idolized by the lower-caste Indian,” as The New York Times (July 30, 2009) reported. She served from 1962 to 1975 as a Deputy, opposed to the socialist policies of the Congress Party. In 1975 Prime Minister Gandhi, declaring a state of emergency due to “internal chaos,” had the Maharani arrested, among other political opponents. She was charged with violation of tax laws related to “undeclared caches of gold and jewelry … found buried on the family property in Jaipur.” As a result the Maharani had to spend five months in prison, after which she retired to a quieter life in Jaipur and abroad until she died in 2009.

Bubbles is still alive. His residence in Jaipur is the seven-story Chandra (Moon) Mahal, which we could see from the old City Palace. He failed in his own run for the Parliament, but he made a name for himself in the Indian-Pakistan war. For serving “with gallantry in the armed forces in the true tradition of the Kachwahas” he rose to the rank of Brigadier before retiring in 1974. Like his father who was the first prince hotelier in India, Bubbles now runs many of the former Jaipur palaces, including the Rambagh, as hotels.

The new family business has created a rift in the former royal family of Jaipur. Bubbles, who does not have a son, in 2002 named the five-year old son of his daughter as his heir. Bubbles’ two brothers sued claiming that their father’s wealth should be shared based on his Will. The Maharani also joined to protest the decision in a “Dear Bubbles” letter. At the time, Indian reporters for The Telegraph, London, (December 30, 2002), estimated the “flamboyant” Bubbles’ wealth to be worth one billion dollars. The Times estimated that the Maharani “had almost unimaginable wealth,” while she and her husband “ruled over a fief of some two million peasants.” A half million of these lined the streets when that last Maharaja’s body was taken for cremation. Coincidentally, nearly half of Rajasthan’s population was still illiterate, according to our guide.


The glossy guide book I bought in Jaipur, Majestic Jaipur, traces the increasing fortune of its ten Maharajahs to their “active encouragement of merchants and tradesmen (p 20).” Perhaps of equal importance was the impact of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s decision in 1562 to abolish the jizya, a tax which all non-Muslims were required to pay.

We were taken to see a fabric block printing center [91] “to learn more about the textiles that are so representative of this area,” as our tour guide said. Next was a wool carpet store, because “Rajasthan makes the best wool carpet”. The sales clerk put a lighter’s flame to the fuzz of the carpet to demonstrate that it was so tightly woven that it would not catch fire. I was more interested in the working conditions of two women spinning the yarns; they were sitting on the ground in the store’s backyard [92].

When we climbed our bus we were swarmed with peddlers hoping to sell their cheap souvenirs. Our guide stopped them at the door [93]. He then chose some of their goods to present to those interested among us. This was the guide’s standard practice for controlling the usual rush of street vendors to tourist vehicles. He was also compassionate: “I do this because if we don’t buy from them, they will have no choice but to become beggars.”

On the way to visit a jewelry store “to learn about the gems that India is so justly famous for,” our guide said that “Jaipur was the world’s largest wholesale market in Jewelry. There are 300,000 people working in the jewelry industry. Ten percent of them are actually cutting and preparing and the rest are traders.” The Jaipur’s jewelry craftsmen are especially famous for their kundan (possibly from Persian kandan, meaning carving) and minakari (Persian for enameling). 

I saw some of the jewelry “traders” in Jaipur’s Johari (Persian jawaheri, meaning Jewelry) Bazaar. They stood outside their shops asking passerby “Hello, what do you want? [94].” They, the shop-owners, and the sales clerk were all men. Almost all the shoppers [95] were women [96]; almost all the merchandise they were looking for were decorative [97] accessories [98]. True to its meaning, the bazaar was chaotic [99]. At its entrance, right on the street, a woman ran a laundry business, washing the clothes before your eyes [100].


Shopping malls are new,” our tour guide said, “only from the last five years; and only in some places.” I saw examples in Delhi and Agra [101].  They had only a few shoppers; their quiet made you miss the excitement of the bazaar.  This was also true of the new temples.  The elaborate ornamentation that I could glance on the old Hindu temple of the village in Amber [102] was forfeited for the cold white marble of Jaipur’s new Shri Lakshmi Narayan temple [103].  Not the “merest speck of dust” was to be seen in the huge 1970s air-conditioned building and its plaza.  It exuded “a faintly Orwellian chill,” noted the Majestic Jaipur (p 23).  Its stern protective guards’ crowd control measures at one point irked our tour guide.  I had to pull him away from confrontation.

Like the shrine to Vishnu we had seen some miles outside of Delhi, the Narayan temple in Jaipur was a charitable contribution by the industrialist Birlas.  As such it was a monument to the capitalism that has replaced the feudal rule of the Maharajas who have ceased to build palaces.  The temple’s green gardens pulled in the average extended families of Jaipur.  We were invited by a more prosperous extended family to their home.  They lined up to greet us at the entrance to their spacious garden.  The owners’ son and daughter-in-law (and their children) lived with them, although both had good jobs as proprietors of a private school.

The father showed us his sprawling house of several rooms full of furniture worthy of a respected burgher.  His wife’s traditional status was affirmed in the pictures of their wedding on the walls: she was sitting on a chair and he stood regally behind her.  Two elegant rifles also on the wall connected us to Jaipur’s Rajput past.  A mounted stuffed head of a tiger in between them, however, signified that they were used more in hunting [104].  Our host, indeed, had spent his last working years as a warden of a game preserve.  So he symbolized still another step in the transition of Jaipur’s society.

This family, as it turned out, was even more fully such a bridge between the past and the future.

The owners’ daughter also lived with them.  She joined us later for dinner, having just returned from work.  She was the only one in the family who wore western clothes.  She was a professional, she said, “a clothes designer.”  This was around the time India’s Prime Minister was visiting the U.S. and the American President had just given a State Dinner in his honor.  Indian papers proudly featured the story of the American First Lady wearing a dress designed by an Indian to that dinner.  When I brought that subject up, my young hostess said that she knew the designer.  This hostess was a rare divorced woman in India.  “The rate of divorce in Indian is only 15%,” our tour guide had said.  My hostess was attractive, but tonight she looked tired, maybe even sad, maybe even bored with this business of hosting strangers that her jovial retired father seemed to enjoy.


This article entitled The Maharja’s Jaipur was published on the following website of on July 25, 2010 with related pictures:

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:

Kolkata: the City of Joy and Protest


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.


asbtract: On the flight from Mumbai to Kolkata the CEO of the airline, Kingfisher, personally welcomed us to the cabin. He looked positively swashbuckling on the video, surpassing the proverbial British original. He has indeed the wealth to support such flaunting. The airline is just a part of his personal empire that includes India’s best selling beer of the same name. As a super rich he is part of the small group produced by the free enterprise system that has largely replaced India’s earlier socialism. Only in our destination, Kolkata (Bengal), the statists (Communists) still held on to power. Their rule is said to compound the proverbial poverty of the place. It seemed paradoxical that economic struggle was the emblematic story in Kolkata which had been the birthplace of the intellectual and cultural resurgence of modern India, while in Mumbai, its long-time commercial center, communal strife was far more the subject of conversation.

Art and Politics

In the evening that I arrived in Kolkata, the musician A.R. Rahman was giving a concert in the city’s Salt Lake Stadium. “He is our double Oscar winner,” the receptionist at my hotel said with obvious pride. “More than one hundred thousand people are expected to attend the concert.” Dubbed India’s Mozart, the multi-talented Rahman excels in Hindustani and Carnatic music, as well as Western classics.

Presently, the din of another kind of music attracted me to a night club on the other side of the lobby. In a long and narrow room a rock band was playing. A group of prosperous young Kolkatans were vigorously shaking their arms above their heads to the beat. Soon the band broke “for a smoke.” The room next door was full of smokers. Its doors were open and the smoke whirled into the lobby of the “non-smoking” hotel. The lobby was dimly lit, its floor was shiny black and slick. A tourist from the West complained that she might slip and hurt herself. The doorman sympathized: “this hotel should make up its mind: is it a night club or a hotel?”

Next morning, the local newspaper confirmed the huge turn out at Rahman’s concert. Its lead article reported that the singer “held the city in awe.” Among those awed were the Chief Minister of the State of Bengal and his main rival, India’s Railway Minister. Rahman “was very important in the past election,” the newspaper said, but the two rival politicians did not attend the concert. “They did not want to be seen together,” the article explained.

“Kolkata is called the city of Joy and protest,” our tour guide said. In nearby street-corner rallies which we were now seeing the Congress Party had hoisted its banners. The rival Marxist Party’s hammer and sickles  were stamped on many walls . Several buses filled with its supporters passed by on their way to a large rally site. “They are bussed to the city from the rural areas,” the guide said. “They come because this is their chance for a free tour of the big city.” The Communists have ruled Bengal for the last 30 years. The Party began as a champion of peasants’ rights. It has won elections, which are held every five years, with the crucial support of farmers.

As we drove through the old bazaar, our guide pointed to a large house and, on the opposite side of the street, a large poster of several actors and musicians. “That house is typical of an old zamindar’s home and that poster is of Jantra,” he said. During the British colonial rule, “the puppet Indian princes enforced their tax levies on the peasants through the zamindars,” he said. The Zamindari (land-owning) system of land tenure was abolished in India in 1951 and hereditary ownership rights were removed from the large land holdings. Jantra, a whole-night outdoor theatrical performance that moves from village to village is a major event in the life of villagers.

The group that most shows the influence of Britain’s presence in Kolkata is “the middle class,” our guide said. I asked him how the middle class was defined. He thought for a few minutes and said, “for example, they eat at a restaurant not far from your hotel, called Kwality.” That day I went to Kwality for lunch. It was big and crowded. It was also elaborately organized. There was a manager who stood near the entrance. There were section supervisors at intervals in the long corridor between two rows of tables. They each had an assistant. Finally, there were waiters.

I was seated next to a couple. They were friendly and we began a pleasant conversation. The woman asked me questions, including the inevitable ones about where I was from and what I did. Her husband was in export-import business with the Far East. When I asked him how he thought Kol had changed since the departure of the British, he responded curtly that it was now “too congested.” His wife was more comfortable speaking English. She said that they were soon going to the United States because their “green cards” for permanent residency there required yearly visit for renewal. When I was ordering my lunch, she took out her cell phone. She spoke on it for a few minutes and then handed me the phone. “It is my daughter from Ohio,” she told me. I was taken aback. I said hello to the daughter and exchanged brief pleasantries. She sounded equally surprised. “Is my father bothering you?” she now asked. I laughed and told her that from personal experience I knew how daughters felt embarrassed by their fathers. We had not much more to say and she asked if I could hand the phone back to her mother. Afterward, I asked the proud mother if her daughter was coming back to India. Her answer was unequivocal: “No.”

I stayed after the couple left. Two men and young woman took their table. One man said that he now lived in Delhi where he was an executive with a company. He was critical of the Bengal Communists. “They were fine when they represented the oppressed peasants, but they lost their way and have become a party of workers. They are not realistic in their demands. They made Tata take his Nano car project away to Gujarat by their unreasonable demands on behalf of labor. The Tatas who long lived in the nearby Jamshedabad wanted to give back to this community. They had invested $350 million for that project. It is all politics, instigated by Tata’s rivals.” The man lamented that Bengal which was “the center of industries in the past,” had lost

many of them due to labor problems. He was still too proud of Kolkata not to agree with his friend who now said “but this city is still the center of arts and law and those things.”

Relics of the British Colonial Rule

Our conversation continued over coffee. I mentioned the Jantra poster and asked them about the Kolkata film-maker Satyajit Ray. “His type of movie is not made much nowadays,” the friend responded. “Bollywood movies dominate the market.” He continued with nostalgia: “Ray was in the tradition of the big name intellectuals of Kolkata. This goes back to the Tagores, the son in the 20th and the father in the 19th century.” The other man interrupted, “even before them, to Raja Ram Mohun Roy in the early 19th century. They were called the Reformists. But in fact they represented the re-awaking of Indians, especially its middle class.” The other resumed: “To be honest, we owe this to the British. They made it possible through education, especially through the English language. Do you know, it was through the translation into English that the educated Indians gained access to our own sacred Hindu books? Before, only a few Brahmin priests could read those texts.”

I went to see what was once the major center of this intellectual ferment in old Calcutta (the spelling of the name was changed in 2001 so as to better reflect the phonetics). College Street is impressive with its nearly one thousands stalls selling books, old and new. It runs through the urban campus of the Calcutta University Institute which was established in 1891. The academic buildings here show their age. It is not just that they are old, they evoke the past. This was also true of Kolkata’s famed Indian Museum.

Stately with colonnaded halls around a garden yard, the Museum had collections that looked more like relics. A fellow visitor directed me to a cherished item in an old-fashioned cabinet of hardwood and glass: “there are bones of Buddha there.” On the second floor there were twenty eight aging large display windows about various regions of India with models of their habitat, people, and their costumes. At one corner, all by itself, was a small-scale metal model of Parsis’ Zoroastrian Dokhma (Tower of Silence) where the deceased are left to be devoured by vultures. In a room at the other end, there were several statues of Buddha. As I could not find any sign describing them, I asked the two guards on duty about them. They gave me a blank stare. They were sitting on plastic chairs, barefoot. Their sandals were spread on the floor. A little later I heard them walking down the hall shouting that the Museum will close in 15 minuets.

Our city tour of Kolkata emphasized the curio. We were driven over the Howarh Bridge which the guide described “as the world’s busiest with 2 million pedestrians using it everyday.” On the other side, we were shown the Kolkata train station which was described as “India’s busiest.” This was on our way to the Botanical Gardens established in 1786 to develop the newly discovered tea bush but now more famous for its banyan tree with a canopy spread over about 15,000 square meters, which is said to be “the largest in India.”

The tropical fecundity of Bengal has nearly devoured some of the oldest relics of British presence. Job Charnock died two years after he established the first British settlement here in 1690 and began trading on behalf of the East India Company. His mausoleum is almost hidden in the overgrown graveyard  of Kolkata’s St. John’s Church.

The settlement that Charnock established eventually grew into the capital of the British colonial government in the late 18th century. This was not without resistance from the local population. In 1756 Siraj-ud-Daula, the Muslim ruler of Bengal who was concerned about the East India Company’s interference in his domain, protested against the increasing buildup of a British military force in Calcutta. He saw this as a threat to his independence. When the Company did not pay attention, Siraj attacked and captured the British military fort. Some hundred of those he arrested suffocated in the small guardroom where they were imprisoned. This incident made that room famous in history as “the Black Hole of Calcutta.” Siraj held the city for a year but was defeated by another agent of the East India Company from Madras when he was betrayed by an aide who was promised Siraj’s position.

There is now a Tablet commemorating the dead of the Black Hole in St. John’s Church. It attracts busloads of Western tourists, more than I saw anywhere else in Kolkata. In contrast, Indian tourists flocked to another one of colonial Britain’s monuments to itself, the Victoria Memorial which was built to commemorate the Queen’s 1901 jubilee. It looked imposing with its marble dome in the Maidan, a two-mile long, well-groomed park, which is the most pleasant space in the city. “The British claimed that Victoria Memorial was built by ‘the generous contribution of the common people of India and its princes,’ but, in fact, they got the money from their puppet Princes,” our guide said. “The common people you see here don’t even know which queen it was,” our guide continued. He said these tourists come from all over India. He pointed out their diverse clothes: “They are the middle class. Only the middle class wears traditional style Indian clothes: the sari, lungi, kamiz, and shalvar. The lower and upper classes wear Western style.”

Attribution of various defining characteristics to the “middle class” in Kolkata made its definition almost fungible. It is Kolkata’s “middle class” of the late 19th cent which is credited with the Bengali Resistance movement that caused the British to move their capital to a calmer Delhi in 1911. In architecture, however, Kolkata remained the most British city in India. This it owes largely to its colonial era terracotta red buildings, such as the ones around the old Dalhousie Square. The maintenance of those buildings has been neglected. They sit in various stages of crumbling disrepair in an area encroached on by an Indian bazaar scene  complete with rickshaws, idle men, and trash.

The Dalhousie Square has been named BBD Bagh (Garden) , after the three nationalists (Binoy, Badal and Dinesh) who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate the British Lieutenant Governor in 1930. The Tablet commemorating the victims of Black Hole used to be here. The Indian nationalists agitated for its removal, with the Congress and the Muslim League parties joining forces. A student leader of the time, Abdul Wasek Mia, gained notoriety for the physical removal of the Tablet in 1940. A few years later, he moved himself to East Pakistan because of the Partition of India.

Grieving the Disunity

At the same time four million Hindu refugees moved in the other direction across the nearby border. This vast addition to the population of Calcutta crippled the city. The Muslim-Hindu conflict continued unabated. It consumed Gandhi. On the day the success of India’s struggle for self-determination was celebrated in Delhi by the declaration of Independence, Gandhi, its undisputed leader, was in Calcutta, mourning for the Muslim and Hindu victims of its violent religious riots of 1946.

That mantel of grieving in Calcutta was soon picked up by another extraordinary person. Mother Teresa had been in Calcutta since 1928, serving as a teacher and administrator at Catholic schools. The appalling plight of the general population in the city in 1946 led to a dramatic transformation in her. On September 10 of that year, she had a “call within a call”: Jesus asked that she devote herself to serve “the poorest of the poor.” This is what she did for the next 36 years of her life. Mother Teresa’s first Nirmal Hriday (Pure Heart) place left no doubt about who was her primary concern: this was a home for the sick and dying. In 1953 she moved to Motherhouse , her home which I now visited.

Mother Teresa’s own room was up the stairs on the second floor. Small and spartan, it contained a narrow bed, a desk, a stool, and also a table with a few chairs around it for meetings with her staff.  Mother Teresa lived and worked here from 1953 to 1997 when she died. Her simple tomb was downstairs. Next to it was a small room that served as a museum, mostly a gallery of pictures, presenting her as the smartest kid in her class, good looking, the child of Albanian catholic parents who named her Gonxtha (flower bud). She took her more famous name Teresa, after St. Therese of Lisieux, just before she arrived in Kolkata. Based on her legacy thereafter Mother Teresa might have deservedly assumed that she was reborn as a true Kolkatan.

Next door to Motherhouse was an orphanage. On the second floor, set aside for “crippled” children, two women volunteers from the West were helping the regular staff. “They come to work for one or two weeks here,” I was told. Mother Teresa’s ability to motivate others to join her is her lasting contribution. At her death she left 3,842 sisters serving in 594 houses in 120 countries and 363 brothers in 68 houses in 19 countries. Those numbers have increased since.  Mother Teresa’s volunteers have included people of all nationalities and religions. The awards and honors that she received, in addition to the Nobel Peace prize, came from many countries including one from the Soviet Peace Committee.

Yet Mother Teresa’s focus did not waiver from problems of Calcutta. This was made clear in a booklet I bought in Motherhouse, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997); Words of Inspiration. In it she said: “Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our fellow men through the world who are forced from place to place without shelter and food, unwanted and unloved.” Her religion was social service: “The fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love, and the fruit of love is service.” She ignored the boundaries of the secular and religious: “We are not really social workers. We may be doing social work … but we are really contemplative … for we are touching the body of Christ.” She left no doubt that she was a Christian as she juxtaposed her notion of (embracing) suffering to those in the religions dominant in Indian tradition:  “Suffering is not punishment… it is a gift of God. It’s a sign that we have come so close to Him that … we can share the joy of loving with him in … suffering.”

Her God was, of course, alien to the prevailing Puranic Hinduism, with its many deities, mixed with idolatry and animism. Kolkatans went to Mother Ganges for pilgrimage. I joined them. Men and women bathed  in the sacred water in a ritual of purification , “to wash their sins.”  Men shaved their head and beard beforehand. This is “the holiest dip” for Indians, my guide said, because it is in its Kolkata delta that the Ganges ends its long journey into the Bengal Sea. Geographically, the journey begins in the Himalayas, but in legends the river Ganga, the only living Goddess in the Hindu pantheon, flew in heavens and sanctified “gods with her holy waters” before descending on the earth. My guide was now excited and launched into a complex story of a mythological universe inhabited by “King Sagar, his 60,000 sons, a Jealous Indra, a stolen horse, a meditating hermit, and his withering eyes of fire.” This was his version of the fantastic myths surrounding the Ganga, described variously, as the guide said, in the sacred texts, the Puranas, the Vedas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

If the provenance of the Ganges was shrouded in primordial legends that accompany divinities in many cultures, the Ganges munificence was distinctly concrete and reliable. The Ganges’ water has sustained the banks that nourished much of India’s civilization. In Kolkata, specifically, not only did the Ganges supply the city’s drinking water, but at high tide it was piped for public bathing by the residents on the sidewalks of streets.

In Kolkata Mother Teresa might have found company in the great local 19th century reformist theologian, Rabindranath Tagore, whose thought of a universal spirit was rooted in Hindu Upanishadic monotheism.  Mother Teresa’s own trust in the power of universal love was palpable: “To bring peace just get together, love one another.” Her command –this one posted on wall of the museum in Motherhouse — was unmistakable: “So let us be one heart full of love in the heart of God, and so share the joy of loving by sharing, helping, loving and serving each other.” Nowadays not many Kolkatans pay heed to Mother Teresa’s sayings. Motherhouse is usually the first stop for tourists from the West, as it was for us; the pilgrimage to the Tagores’ memorials is left out.  Local critics resent that a Catholic nun should be what most attracts foreigners to their mostly Hindu city, especially a nun whose reputation is based on the abject misery that she found here and tried to sooth.


This article, entitled The City of Joy and Protest, was published on the following website of on April 26,  2010 with related pictures:

Mumbai Showcases India for the World


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.


 abstract: These days India appears especially important to the world. It is an emerging great power with an economy that has been growing remarkably fast; it is regarded as the biggest democracy on earth; and it is a battleground in the world-wide challenge posed by militant Islam. Mumbai has been the epicenter of all of this even though, paradoxically, it is geographically isolated from the rest of the country. On the far western shore, Mumbai has been the gateway to India and the window for India to the world. It has been the financial center of the country and the home of its principal mercantile and industrialist community. It has a claim to being the birthplace of India’s independence movement as well as the most visible target of violent threats by the country’s current foreign adversary. The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai is the unique site that has had connections to all these. I went for a visit.



            I took it as a sign of the times when we were told upon landing in Mumbai that the plane would be sprayed before disembarkation “because some passengers are from the United States where H1N1 flu is an epidemic.” This was November 2009. In the past, Americans had to be on guard about health-threatening sanitary conditions in India.

            The “Arrival Card for Passengers” which we had to fill out and hand to the immigration officer had as item number 6 the following: “NRI/PIO/OCI Status (tick ~ appropriate box)”. A returning Indian passenger who was standing next to me explained that NRI meant Non-resident Indian and PIO was for Persons of Indian Origin. Even he did not know what OCI meant. He said: “Anyway, if you don’t know what it is, it is not for you.” 

            The taxi ride to my hotel gave me my first look at the dense crowds that Mumbai is famous for. The sky was very dark. The city feared a storm so ferocious that, according to my driver, offices were ordered closed for the next day. A little note on my pillow in the hotel had this from Shakespeare: “A little sleep, per chance a dream.”

            The view from my window the next morning was like a dream. Several stories below me was the famous Gateway to India. In the unexpected sunrise there was a picture worthy of a Merchant- Ivory movie . Through the mesh shielding my balcony small figures looked like dots in a painting on the plaza before this monument that was the symbol of Mumbai. Hard-to- catch images of big balloons offered for sale to the milling tourists melded into the background of sail boats, some already away from the wharfs and into the Arabian Sea.

            This welcoming role of the Gateway reversed the famous irony of its history: built as a triumphal arch to celebrate Britain’s empire in the early twentieth century it had ended up serving as the exit portal for its last colonial troops in 1948. The Gateway’s architecture, rooted in the Islamic styles of Gujarat, was matched by the Islamic and Renaissance styles of the dome of the Taj Mahal Palace which I could see just to my right. Workmen were busy repairing the damages from attacks a year earlier by Muslims militants. Security guards were now screening hotel guests at the main entrance, although the attackers had come from the opposite door for workers which opened to the garden. The battle with the gunmen had ended in the Harbour Bar of the hotel’s Palace wing where all four of them were killed. The once popular bar was open again but there were not many customers there on this day. The guest rooms in this wing were still closed. I walked into the old style atrium which reminded me of the design of ancient caravanserais. I brushed past the inattentive guard to examine the grand staircase here.

            I imagined Gandhi in the 1930s, as the hotel literature said, climbing those stairs alone to plead with the British colonial authorities that they were not treating his countrymen fairly. On the landing was the bust of Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata, the man who built this still magnificent hotel in 1903, inspired when one Mr. John Watson refused to give him a room in his then most fashionable hotel saying “natives and dogs were not allowed.” That was how my tour guide related this urban legend. She took me to see Watson’s Hotel a few blocks away. Now an office building, it looked as if it was falling apart. “It is too costly to repair or renovate it because it has been declared a historic building,” the guide said.


            When the Taj first opened its doors some fifty Maharajas of India came to celebrate, one with his live tiger. The display window of the hotel’s more recent guests had a picture of the peripatetic former President Bill Clinton. The place of honor, however, was saved for a 1968 photo of the musician Ravi Shankar who had signed it with this wish: “Long live the Taj mahal Hotel! “An even earlier picture was that of a very young Shah of Iran, uncharacteristically, trailing his second wife, Soraya, who was being led by the then ruling Tata, JRD, the grand nephew of the founder.

            The founding Tata was named after the mythical first king of Persia (Jamshid) and its most just (Adel) ancient king (Anushiravan). A Parsi, Tata traced his roots to Zoroastrian migrants from Iran. “They were refugees who arrived in the 8th century after Iran was conquered by the Muslim Arabs,” my Parsi (from Persia) guide said. Historians may differ with her facts, but I was interested in her version of what her community believed now.

They came by boats to the coast of Gujarat. The local ruler -who was weary of the incursions by the neighboring Muslim King Mahmoud Ghaznavi – sent them a messenger with a bowl of milk filled to the brim. His message was that his kingdom was as full of people as the bowl was with milk; it could not take any more. The Zoroastrians’ priest who was their leader responded by adding sugar to the bowl and sending it back to say that his people will just sweeten the lives of those on land. The Gujarat ruler let them come after they promised to accept one condition: no attempting to convert anyone to your religion and so not allowing anyone into your temple.

            Whatever the ambiguity about the Parsis’ origin –the earliest source, Qissa-i Sanjan (Story of Sanjan), was written at least six centuries later– they began to thrive when they moved from their farming settlements to where the British established their main urban centers in India: to Surat in the early 1600s, to Bombay later that century, and still later to Calcutta when it became the capital of the British colonial government. Education is credited with the Parsis’ success in a special way. Attending English schools enabled them to represent themselves as being like the British. For this reason the British chose to deal with the other local communities through the Parsis. As the article on Parsis in Wikipedia, the electronic encyclopedia, notes: “While the British saw the other Indians, ‘as passive, ignorant, irrational, outwardly submissive but inwardly guileful’ the Parsis were seen to have the traits that the colonial authorities tended to ascribe to themselves.” James Mackintosh, Recorder of Bombay from 1804 to 1811, summarized the prevailing British opinion: “the Parsis are a small remnant of one of the mightiest nations of the ancient world, who, fleeing from persecution into India, were for many ages lost in obscurity and poverty, till at length they met a just government under which they speedily rose to be one of the most popular mercantile bodies in Asia.”

            The Tata family is now the second biggest employer in all of India. Only the government with its vast bureaucracy and state enterprises is bigger. The Tatas are just one of the famous Parsi industrial families. “There are others,” my guide started to name them. The list is long. In the last 200 years it has included these families: Sorabji, Modi, Cama, Wadia, Jeejeebhoy, Readymoney, Dadyseth, Petit, Patel, Mehta, Allbless, as well as Tata. “But we are a dying species,” my guide lamented. She was referring to the fact that in the last decades the number of Parsis has been steadily declining. Eighty percent of this decline has been attributed to the low birth rate. “Parsis are patriarchal; so if the father is not a Parsi then the children won’t be Parsis,” my guide said. As it turns out nearly twenty percent of Parsi men do not marry, as compared to ten percent of the women. “There are about 70,000 Parsis in India now,” the guide said. At the current rate of decline, it is estimated that in ten years the Parsis in India will number only 23,000; and thus will no longer be considered a “community” but will be called a “tribe,” a change with impact on their rights as a group.

            Dying is also getting harder for the Parsis in India. The Parsi tradition prohibits cremation and burial because they defile earth, fire, and water which are considered sacred. Instead, the dead are left on the roof of Towers of Silence to be eaten by vultures. As we passed the only such tower in Mumbai, my guide pointed to the overgrowth of the trees that “prevents the sun needed by the vultures.” Others have blamed urbanization, including, especially, the use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac by humans for the decline in the number of vultures. “The matter of breeding vultures has been controversial,” my guide said “and there is now a crisis because other birds have not worked as a substitute either.” Residents of homes close to the Tower have also begun to complain about the Parsis’ unusual funeral practices. Their view is influential because this area, Malabar Hill, is now the city’s most exclusive neighborhood. Ironically, the Parsis have contributed to its development; the pretty hanging garden that covers the slopes of the hill, established in 1880, is named after its Parsi benefactor Pherozeshah Mehta. The Parsis are famous for their philanthropy. The Tatas are believed to give more than sixty percent of their profits back to the community.


            In Malabar’s Kamala Nehru Park which is named after the late Prime Minister’s wife, children were playing in a serene setting. The views of the Arabian Sea shore through the well-attended gardens were quit pleasing. There was Marine Drive, “the most popular promenade” of the city, and Chowpatty Beach, everyone’s favorite location for outing in the fresh air. “Unfortunately, the water is polluted,” my guide said.

            Two young women in colorful garb were mixing traditional medicine at the foot of the stairs to Malabar’s Municipal Park, which they sold as a cure for “sadness”. Earlier the “laughing club” had gathered in this park: “they come here every morning and just laugh the loudest they can, believing that this is therapeutic,” the guide said.

            High rises dotted the outer boundaries of the vast park. The spaciousness in Malabar was in a sharp contrast with the reputation of Mumbai as one of the most crowded cities in the world. Fifty five percent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums and shanty-towns.  My guide pointed to one of the high rises and talked about another equally astonishing fact: “that building was recently finished at the cost of one billion dollars to house just one very wealthy family.”

            The “tensions” that are talked about in Mumbai are not caused by economic disparity. They are “communalist tensions.” Some trace this to the riots that followed the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in central India. Those and other riots and bombings that have followed have caused many deaths among the Hindus and Muslims of Mumbai. The roots are much deeper. The author V.S. Naipaul, who spent some time investigating this matter in Mumbai in 1989, reported in India: A Million Mutinies Now that “The large communal mood” in Mumbai was “the conflict between Hindus and Muslims”. Alienation “was the common theme.”  Everyone felt that “the other group was laughing; every one lived with the feeling of siege.” The dominant militant Hindu group, the Shiva Sena started and grew because of the feeling of ‘discrimination’ against Maharashtrians.

            Even before the Shiva Sena movement, the Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians insisted on splitting Bombay from Gujarat on “linguistic lines” to establish the new state of Maharashtra with Bombay at its capital in 1960. Shiva Sena won power in 1985 and in 1996 their linguistic pride led to the renaming of Bombay –the name the Portuguese had given it in the early 16th century because of its bom bahia (good bay)–- to Mumbai (Maiambu in Marathi for the Hindu goddess Mumba-Devi. It is claimed that this was the place’s earlier name.

            Since then the city’s international airport, its main train station (Victoria Terminus), and its biggest and best museum (Prince of Wales Museum) have all been renamed after Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Maratha leader of the middle of the 17th century. As I read in the Mumbai newspapers, Marathi politicians were still emphasizing the need for continued promotion of Maratha language in the city.

            The Muslims also have a claim to the history of Mumbai. The Mappilas in Malabar were probably the first community in India to covert to Islam in the very early period of missionary activities by Muslims along the coast in the 7th century. On the Malabar Hill I could see a much more recent manifestation of Islamic influence. The 19th century Haji Ali’s Mosque, almost floating on the Arabian Sea and connected to the land by a narrow pathway, enshrines the body of a Sufi sage which was swept ashore after he died on the sea in an unsuccessful attempted pilgrimage to Mecca. “People of all religions now go on pilgrimage to the Haji Ali,” my guide said. The Sufis are credited for having softened the image of Islam in India. They especially attracted followers form the untouchable classes. Thus they played a major role in bridging the gap that separated Islam from local traditions.

            As we walked into the Jains’ Walkeshwar Adinath temple in Malabar, my guide said that the secret to the co-existence of various religions in India was “tolerance.” She said “religion is a personal matter here except in Abrahamic religions which are communal.” She summarized her view of the two major reform movements in Hinduism: “They both said that there were too many rules in Hinduism. Jains also said man should forgo all desires; Buddhism advocated moderation.” This Jain temple gave a prime place to the idol of the demi-goddess Parmavati. She is believed to have “rational perception.” Two commands from the Jain prophets in display on the walls attracted my attention:  “Every man is the architect of his own fortune,” and “Common sense is not so common .”

Making a Nation

            In the Gandhi Museum in Mumbai a saying by Einstein reminds the reader how uncommon Gandhi was: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth. ” Naipaul believes that it was Gandhi who made Indians “a nation.” He could do so because living “among the immigrant Indians of South Africa,” he could break from “the idea of clan or region,” and instead develop “the idea of the kinship of Indians, the idea of the family of India.” Gandhi who was born in Porbandar, Gujarat, not far from Mumbai, frequently visited here, especially in the time of his “nation building”. It was from here that he launched both the 1932 Civil Disobedience campaign and the 1942 Quit India movement which achieved India’s independence from Britain. The house of his friends, the jeweler R. Jhaveri, where Gandhi stayed is now a museum; his room remains untouched. I stood for sometime at its portal. A small mattress doubled as Gandhi’s work place. His charkha (spinning wheel) was next to it. It was here that Gandhi learned to weave and develop his related philosophy of Satyagraha based on the principles of truth, non-violence, and self sacrifice. “The spinning of wheel is for India’s starving millions the symbol of salvation,” Gandhi’s words were posted on the wall:

“Not on the clatter of arms but on the Reintroduction of the spinning wheels depends the economic and moral Regeneration of India…. It is not enough that one wears Khadi if he surrounds himself with VIDESHI … Khadi has been conceived as the foundation of and the image of AHIMSA … A real khadi wearer will not utter untruth, will harbour no violence, no deceit, no impurity.”

            I ran into several distinguished non-Indian (videshi) guests wearing various contemporary versions of khadi (handloom cotton) clothes that night in the lobby of the Taj Hotel. They came to hear the historian Ramachandra Guha who drew examples from his book, India after Gandhi, to show how “the Indian democracy has been a great success,” as the Mumbai newspapers reported. The occasion was a special gala at the Aquarius, the outdoor lounge located by the pool of the hotel, organized by “the New York based company of India-born Indra Nooyi who wanted to showcase ‘the glory of India and its issues.’” More specifically, she wanted to bring the board of directors of PepsiCo to Mumbai so that they may propose solutions for those “issues.”

            Some of India’s issues were visible just outside. The huge amount of trash and garbage only a few yards from the hotel was still being handled by the “untouchables” who used only ancient brooms . Within view of the city’s great landmark, the Victoria Station, was another symbol: on a filthy and torn banner Gandhi’s famous saying, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” looked desecrated.

            The laundering technology has not changed in Mumbai for generations. I stood on the overpass across from the Mahalaxmi Racecourse to observe clothes being washed by hand in concrete sinks and then left to dry in the sun at the Dhobi Ghat. It was not just the laundry of the plush Racecourse’s members. My guide said “ten thousand workers live right here. They handle one million pieces of clothes this way every day. This practice continues because it is cheaper than using laundry machines.”

            A few minutes later we saw a man on bicycle carrying lunch boxes as he wove through Mumbai’s traffic. “That is a Dabbawala,” my guide said:

“He is taking lunch to office workers, mostly from their homes far away. The workers do not bring their lunch because the trains are too crowded in the morning rush hours –sometimes the passengers have to hang out of the doors. Dabbawalas can bring their lunches when the trains are not crowded. From the train station they use bicycles to take the boxes to the offices.”

There are some five thousand such dhaba (snack bars) workers in Mumbai who deliver about 200,000 lunches everyday. Mostly illiterate, they use a system of colors to match the home sources of the boxes with their office destinations. 

            Dabbawalas make less than ninety dollars a month, but they were the subject for praise by India’s tycoons at the glory of India reception at the Taj. This was because their system, established in the 1890s, was awarded the “Six Sigma process efficiency and supply chain management,” for achieving “99.99% accuracy” in delivering all those lunch boxes. No less a figure than Ratan N. Tata, the current head of the family, reflected on the work of the Dabbawalas when he talked about his own strategy of “exploring the bottom- of- the-pyramid opportunities,” with a slide show on his two-thousand dollar Nano, the world’s cheapest car.

Political Economy

            Ratan Tata, who replaced JRD Tata in 1991 after his reign of 53 years, radically changed his predecessor’s policies in accordance with the new, market oriented economic policy of the government. This adjustment to changes in politics while shunning political office has long been the key to the Tatas’ enduring success. Ratan’s first target was to oust the socialist era men who dominated the family’s four major companies: Tata Tele, TCS (Consultancy Services), Tata Chem, and THOC (Tata Housing Development). The last company, characteristically, is now pioneering low-cost homes in India.

            Ratan is the great grandson of the founder JN Tata but leaves no children. In his 70s now, he has never been married. A taxi driver told me that he “once liked a woman who was a receptionist at the Taj Hotel.” She declined “his offer of marriage, because she chose another man.” My Parsi guide said that Ratan lived not far from the Taj, he was practically her neighbor. “I see him drive his car with his dog. He is a quiet man, a shy man.”

            The Coolie who approached me in the Crawford Market was not shy. He explained with pride that, “licensed” since 1952, he was not a Broker -another position also dating from the British colonial era when it was bestowed on the likes of the Tatas. A Coolie was simply a porter who arranged for the delivery of what you purchased. Today he proposed himself also as my guide to this market, named after the city’s first “municipal commissioner” in 1865, which had once been the center of commerce in the old Bombay. Now it was just an old bazaar, like the ones you see in Middle East cities. What the Coolie seemed to consider as points of interest here — the Kipling’s Fountain and the bird market –- looked out of place. Other merchandise was more familiar: fruit –mostly apples, oranges and watermelon –, produce — cauliflower, eggplants — meat, canned foods, Boxes of Kellogg’s Special K and other cereals,  and toys. Signs were in three languages, English, Hindi, and Urdu, but occasionally also in Arabic . Not that it mattered: at the flower shop with the sign Abdulkarim va Olad Abdulkarim & Son I asked the shopkeeper what the sign in two languages said. He did not know; he just said his name was Rashid.

            The Crawford market spilled into the surrounding streets. On these streets I also saw the sign for the new type of brokers, trading in Mumbai’s stock exchange which is India’s most important. In handwriting, the sign on the half-open iron door of the small storefront office said: “Kindly read the Risk Disclosure Documents carefully before investing in Equity.” Other types of trade took place right on the sidewalks of Mumbai streets. Make-shift restaurants   were far busier than the MacDonald’s in their midst. Nearby, scribes were occupied writing on old typewriters what their illiterate clients dictated.

            My memory of the pungent smells of the streets was overcome by a different smell in the hotel lobby. I thought some kind of insecticide had been used. I asked the fashionably dressed clerk at the reception desk about this. She said it was sandal-wood oil. Behind her was a large painting that seemed inspired by various cubist masters. She told me that it was a masterpiece by M.F. Hussein, India’s famous painter who had “exiled himself to Kuwait because his depiction of nudes met protests in some quarters.” The smell continued in the hall of the floor where my room was located. The attendant there told me that they had painted parts of the hall in preparation for the glory of India event. In my room the smell was overpowering. When I called the front desk they explained that the room across from mine had been painted, apologized, and arranged to change my room.

            On my pillow that night the little note read: “Some of the nicest people I know have insomnia. – Anonymous.” Now wide awake, I opened the drawer of the night stand and found two books, Gideon’s Holy Bible and Bhagavad Gita As It Is. I began reading the latter. When I took it with me to breakfast the next day, the Maitre d’ was surprised. It was a slow day and he began a conversation by asking me what I thought about the book. From the little that I had read, it seemed that the book claimed to be about how the majority of Indians today understand the Gita  (Song of The Blessed Lord): “the first contact with the true India, the ancient India, the eternal India.” It made an almost a monotheistic god out of Krishna (the eighth reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu)  and presented the author,  A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,  as the only disciple through whom you could understand Krishna.

            The Maitre d’ said the author had many followers, famously including those in the Hare Krishna movement, “but only forty percent are serious, the rest are fake followers.” He continued: “All Indians have a holy book of their own at home. The hotel uses this one in the rooms because it is open and neutral.”  The Maitre d’ also said: “This book is taught at Taj’s management classes, for its 80 hotels, on the subject of how the ruler can manage from behind the scene. Like Alexander the Great who said one of his father’s oldest advisers should be the king and Alexander himself ruled from behind the scene.”

            Compared with ruling India, Alexander’s task in managing Macedonia must not have been difficult. The reason for this thought was a column that I read by a memorialist in that day’s Mumbai newspaper. He recalled that the Indian parliament deputies from the South had begun a serious attempt to secede just before the Chinese invasion of 1962. He argued that this was prevented only by that invasion as it united the Indians. In the picture of the then Prime Minister Nehru, which I saw later that day in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, he was smiling avuncularly. Students were playing cricket in the park where Chacha (Uncle) Nehru was memorialized as a “Passionate advocate of Education for India’s children and youth, believing it essential for India’s future progress.” In another part of the park grown ups were still protesting against China.

            The occasion this time was the Dalai Lama’s week-long tour of the border province of Arunachal Pradesh, a visit to which China had vociferously objected.  (This province was the sensitive area that the Chinese had temporarily occupied in 1962.) As I approached a group of thirty men with banners and a bullhorn, one of them came up to tell me that they did not belong to a party but, inexplicably, to an “NGO.” He continued, “our President is here” and asked me if I wanted to meet him. Before I could answer, he went to a man in the middle of the crowd and said something. He came back and took me to him. We shook hands as the President took time off from talking into the bullhorn. He asked me where I had come from, and upon hearing that I was from the U.S., he said that “America shared with India the threat from China.” Then the President repeated the same in the Bullhorn. Now he asked my name and invited me to say something into the bullhorn. I declined. He insisted. I said “I just want to wish the Indian people luck and happiness.” Someone was taking pictures.  I thanked the President and left.

            On the walkway near the Arabian Sea the focus was another foreign adversary that unifies the Indians. This was just a few days before the first anniversary of India’s “26/11 (November 26),” the day of the attack on the Taj Hotel for which India blames Pakistan. A television crew was filming the nearby Hotel as the background while a reporter spoke into the camera. Bollywood was not far behind. Posters about a new movie called Kurbaan were plastered all over Mumbai. It was about terrorism. The star was India’s latest heart-throb, Saif Ali-Khan. In interviews, he denied any connection between 26/11 and the film, saying that the movie had been in the making earlier, and the time of its release was “sheer coincidence.” Apparently of almost equal interest to the Indian audience was the fact that, according to movie critics, Kurbaan had “already made waves with its steamy promos featuring the longest Bollywood kiss” between Saif Ali-Khan and his co-star, Kareena Kapoor. Indian movies, it turns out, are prudish by Hollywood standards.

            The Regal Cinema is a Mumbai institution that predates Bollywood’s fame. It is located on yet another new memorial to Shivaji, whose statue is nearby, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Marg (Road), but the Regal Cinema is so venerable that the locals still refer to the area as the Regal Circle. The chaos of the crowded and noisy circle, which is crisscrossed at irregular angles by several streets full of daring drivers, exemplifies Mumbai. I gathered my courage and crossed the hazardous streets in the direction of the Regal Cinema. Posters all around promised the typical armies of Indian dancers and singers in the featured film of the day. It was late in the afternoon but I was denied admission by the dour salesclerk at the ticket window because the show would not begin for another hour. I could only have a peek into the elaborate mirror work interior of Regal’s famously art deco building. It occurred to me that this was indeed how Mumbai was: it allowed me a glimpse but remained yet to be fully unveiled.


This article, entitled Showcasing India for the World, was published on the following website of on March 24,  2010 with related pictures: