February 22, 2008

Another break

Mark Twain warned: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

I want no disappointments. I'm all set. Leaving the nest again to reach beyond the east and the sunrise, beyond the west, and the sea! Set to dream, discover and explore. See you all in a few days. Until then, hold the floor!

- celine

February 17, 2008

Akbar, and Cultural Synthesis

Some of you may be aware that last month I have put up a few posts on my visit to:

Following my trips to those splendid places, I have been reading a bit of Indian history and about the Mughals in general, and Akbar in particular, with special interest pertaining to his liberal approach to religion.

As I was browsing, I came across an intriguing post dated February 13, 2008 in which Manish has detailed his experience at the Fatehpur Sikri and his views on the Mughals, and Akbar in particular here:

Manish and I have shared a few comments. One of my comments on Part II of his post dated February 13, 2008 reads as follows:

February 13th, 2008 at 11:20 pm

This is an interesting read and thank you for the details. The sleeping place of Akbar was something new that I learned about for the first time on this post.

With some of your initial description, I do not know if you are trying to portray an image of Akbar as one who led a hedonistic lifestyle. From what I read, Jehangir is more of a thoroughbred pleasure seeker than Akbar. You have pointed out Acharya Chatursen’s philosophy of the Rajput kings lifestyle and their harems, so overindulgence of the royalty was common in those days.

Akbar may have been illiterate but he was not certainly uneducated. In fact, Akbar was constantly keeping himself well informed, and was one of the greatest promoters of music, architecture, art and anything related thereto. The best about him, in my opinion, was his tolerance for other religions but sadly, that trend changed since Jehangir’s reign.

You write about a room “perfectly dark, with no provision for any light” to “emphasize the kind of accommodations women in harem used to live in.” As far as I am aware, the royal women of the Mughals spent a considerable time pursuing art, poetry, literature etc. For example, Noor Jehan, as you pointed out, unofficially ruled the Empire while Jehangir was ruled over by alcohol.

If you have been to the Agra Fort, inside the Fort premises you might have seen the Jehangir P[a]lace which was the zenana for the women of the palace. Inside it is a beautifully adorned white marble structures (my pictures shot there turned out hazy for some reason) and the Shish Mahal whose walls were inlaid with tiny mirrors. This was meant as a dressing room for the women in the harem. No dark rooms there at all. After Jodhabai, Noor Jehan continued to live there. A picture of the Jehangir’s Palace is among the set of pictures here:


Decor inside the Jehangir Mahal
(one of the hazy pictures that I referred to)

Subsequently more comments have been exchanged. My dear reader, if this subject interests you and if you happen to have some time to spare, I would like to direct you to Manish's two posts, and any contribution from you for a further discussion on the interesting topic would be useful to get a better idea on it.

Despite putting up a long comment there, I feel the need to speak out a little bit more of my impressions on the matter, with particular reference to Akbar's tolerance to other religions and hence this post.

Who was Akbar and what kind of a person was he? So much has been documented about him being a great ruler who demonstrated his own capacity for good judgment and excellent leadership. He is personally known to have successfully managed the implementation of his brilliant administrative policies.

Is there a real basis for challenging that?

Akbar was born in the Rajput fortress of Umarkot in Sind where Humayun and his newly wedded wife, Hamida Banu Begum were taking refuge during the interregnum of Mughal rule. At one point, having lost his territories to Sher Shah Suri, Humayun had to flee to Persia leaving his son, Akbar behind. Akbar was then raised in Afghanistan by his uncle, Askari, in the rugged country where he did learn to hunt and fight, but not to read and write.

Later they moved to the State of Rewa (in present day Madhya Pradesh) where Akbar grew up in a village along with Prince Ram Singh, a Rajput, who later became Maharaja of Rewa. Akbar and Ram Singh spent time together in their childhood and they remained good friends forever.

Again, Akbar may have been illiterate but he was certainly not uneducated, as he ensured that he was constantly well informed. There was so much about him to be admired. He was one of the greatest promoter of arts and anything related thereto, with fine taste in music, architecture, had great love for literature and a vision that tolerates other opinions.

There are also references to holding religious debates and discourses in his court where Muslim scholars would debate on religious matters with scholars of other religions including, Sikhs, Hindu, Christians and also atheists. Most of us are aware of Akbar's concept of Din-i-Ilahi, which was created choosing what the best of other religions had to offer, including Islam, Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. Sadly and mainly for lack of cooperation from the religious ulema of his own court, it was not a success and dissolved after his death.

Akbar is known to have not only abolished payment of taxes by poor people, but also tried to eradicate the practice of sati by issuing general orders prohibiting the practice. He repealed the jizya tax on non-Muslims, discouraged child marriages and encouraged widow remarriage.

Majority of his subjects during those times were Hindus and Akbar was known to have appointed Hindus to high posts during his time. In the polarized society of such times, Akbar tried to create a medium for tolerance for all religions. He preserved Hindu temples, and is one ruler who is known to have tried to remove all distinctions between the Muslims and non-Muslims.

There are references that the organisational development of Sikhism had mostly taken place during the tolerant days of Akbar. It is said that he even helped the Sikh Gurus in various ways and sat with the ordinary and poor people of Punjab to have langar.

Akbar's integration of the Rajput principalities into his Mughal Kingdom may be considered by many to be a shrewd move, but there are the others who view it as an action that was necessary in order to strengthen his relations with the Rajputs so as to avoid wars and bloodshed.

Jehangir Mahal for Akbar's Rajput wives

Akbar's Rajput queen, mother of Jehangir, has been recorded in the Akbarnama of the Mughal period as Mariam Zamami and is popularly known as Jodhabai. According to historians, his distaste for orthodox Islam and his dabbling in other Indian faiths provoked a backlash among insecure Muslim elite of those days. So, Jodhabai's name was kept out of the Mughal records intentionally because the Islamic clergy and the Mughal people could not come to terms with the future Mughal emperor being the son of a Hindu woman.

Akbar is a good example of someone who was tolerant of other religions, Tolerance, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary is "a sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing or conflicting with one's own." Of course, when we say one is tolerant, it does not mean that he holds his own beliefs less strongly. It means that he does not condemn people who have different ideas from his own.

Under Akbar’s rule, Jodhabai as well as the other Rajput wives of the Mughals were free to practice their own religion. It is also documented that Akbar's grandson, Shah Jahan's mother was also a Rajput princess.

Jodhabai and the other Rajput women of Akbar’s time lived in the Jehangir Mahal while in Agra. According to architectural experts, the main feature of this majestic palace is the interior painting work, which is a direct expression of the Rajput style of painting. This is another example where the Hindu art and architecture was incorporated together with Persian (Islamic) to form the Mughal architecture. I would say it's a classic example of cultural synthesis.

What is your opinion of Akbar?

Do you think Akbar is:

(a) a selfish emperor with a hedonistic lifestyle to his credit; or

(b) an able statesman and leader, tolerant of other religions, and a brilliant Emperor as he is widely claimed to be; or

(c) no comments.

To make it simple, kindly choose (a), (b) or (c) with or without any explanation. Thanks for your response.

PS: Now that Jhodaa Akbar is due for release, can’t wait to watch if the alliance between Jhodabai and Akbar blossomed into a relationship of true love between them. Of course, I am aware it is not accurate history, it is a movie to be enjoyed nonetheless. ;)

February 15, 2008

Gurdwara Data Bandi Chhod

Madhya Pradesh-2:

Tourists visiting Gwalior Fort are sure to pass by a super white structure within the Fort premises. It is the Gurdwara Data Bandi Chhod built in 1970 in memory of the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib.

The Guru was imprisoned by the erstwhile Mughal Emperor Jehangir in the Gwalior Fort and it is alleged that upon his release, he insisted that 52 other prisoners be freed as well. To mark the ocassion, the Sikh celebrate Diwali at this Gurdwara and call it the Bandi Chhod Divas.

A priest belonging to the Gurudwara informed me that free accommodation and food is provided to many over there. Tourists also are free to take up the offer. I was invited for lunch as well. For lack of time, I just went around the Gurudwara, took a few pictures and proceeded to the rest of the Fort area.

The Gurudwara is grand and huge. It is constructed fully of marble and the kalashes at the top are made of gold.

When I was visited the Gurdwara, the recital of the Guru Granth Sahib was going on and the surrounding atmosphere was peaceful.

February 11, 2008


Madhya Pradesh-1:

The smooth journey from Agra to Gwalior was covered by the Shatabdi Express and I reached Gwalior at 10 am. Though I had not made prior reservation, a bit of prior search on the internet made me head towards Tansen Residency on M.G. Road that is operated by the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corp. A modest place, reasonably priced, located in decent surroundings; it promised to provide all basic services. That's all I needed and I checked in there.

According to legend, Gwalior is named after a saint, Gwalipa, who cured the local chief, Suraj Sen, of the Kachwaha (ref. Notes 5) clan, from leprosy. Many educational institutions attract students from all over India to Gwalior. Gwalior is famous for the stronghold of the Scindias, the former Marathas rulers, who governed over the Deccan after the fall of the Mughal Empire.

Gwalior’s reminders of the past, the beautiful fort, palaces and temples, splendid monuments, and memories of kings, saints, poets, and musicians all contribute to giving a certain timeless charm to the city.

Man Mandir Palace

I was in an impassioned mode to traverse through Gwalior, and the sight of the Fort dominating against the sky from every nook and corner of the city made me want to climb there first to explore it. For the next few hours I did just that and went to:

  • Man Mandir (Man Singh) Palace
  • Gujari Mahal
  • Saas Bahu Ka Mandir
  • Teli Ka Mandir
  • Gurudwara Data Bandi Chhod

Gurudwara Data Bandi Chhod

I spent the rest of the time in Gwalior visiting:

  • Tombs of Tansen and Ghous Mohammed
  • Jai Vilas Palace and Museum of the Scindias
  • Italian Gardens
  • Sun Temple

Jai Vilas Palace

The highlight of that evening in Gwalior was the fabulous sound and light show at the Man Mandir Palace open air amphitheatre. I loved every bit of it. It was cold and breezy and the view of the lit-up city from the heights of the Fort premises was splendid. It was a marvellous experience.

More details and photographs in subsequent posts.

February 9, 2008

Agra, Hasta La Vista

The magnificent buildings of the Mughal periods have left an indelible mark on my mind. However, the City of Agra is not just about its magnificent Fort, the forgotten city of Fatehpur Sikri and the ever popular Taj Mahal, all of which are famous and World Heritage Sites.

Agra has several other facets to it as well. That evening, while having dinner with a couple of local acquaintances at a small but tastefully decorated restaurant that served delicious Mughlai food, we discussed the pros and cons of life in Agra.

Road on the way to Fatehpur Sikri

Agra, the medieval city on the banks of the River Yamuna, overpopulated with approximately 1.3 million, does not have enough clean water and sanitation is inadequate. Roads are often crowded and one can see clouds of pollution. It is a city where one can become a victim of tourist scams. Sadly this is the state of the same city that houses the architectural masterpieces like the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort and the Fatehpur Sikri.

On the way to Fatehpur Sikri

I also brought up the topic that many steer clear of. Whilst they admit that there is a bit of communal tension hanging in the air, they however, try not to let them affect their everyday life. I, on my part, said what I could to stress on the need of the hour for more peace and better communal harmony and how every single citizen ought to feel responsible to achieve that. At the end of the discussion, I got the feeling that the whole world may be rapturous about the Taj Mahal but not all the people of Agra are!

Outside the Agra Red Fort

Nevertheless, Agra has its own beautiful cultural variety and ethnicity. The Taj Mahotsav (Taj Festival) is a cultural festival held every year in the month of February at Shilpgram, near the Taj Mahal. It is, after all, a place where the legendary musician Tansen is said to have performed at the Anup Talao of the Fatehpur Sikri. Decorated elephants and camels, drum beaters, folk artists and master craftsmen showcase the rich heritage of Agra – all done to recreate a scene that is reminiscent of the Mughal era.

In the area towards the entrance of the Taj Mahal

Agra's climate is sub-tropical and prone to extremes. Summers are extremely hot and the maximum temperature can be as high as 45°C (113°F) while winters are cold and foggy and can go as low as 2°C (35.6°F). Who could vouch for this better than me when I actually experienced both the limits during my trips to Agra in those two seasons!

Near the Buland Darwaza

After dinner, I ventured to one of the popular shopping areas of Agra, the Sadar Bazar in the Agra Cantonment. It was a good hour’s walk in the busy street in that area, and it being a Sunday, I was told that the crowd that day was more than on weekdays. Shortly thereafter, I was willing to taste bits of local delicacies displayed in the shops including a variety of the famous Agra Paetas (a sweet made from pumpkin). I found the saffron Paetas the most delectable.

Agra has both modern shopping complexes and traditional market areas. One can purchase all items from antique souvenirs, to rugs, leather items, gemstones, jewellery, ethnic clothing, to handicrafts from the state emporiums as well. The travel to Agra is incomplete to many without buying at least a small marble replica of the Taj Mahal. Even though I do not usually shop during my travels, that evening I ended up buying, firstly, a cute pair of shoes for me, and then another 10-inch pair, that was so intricately designed and beautifully decorated, for my little niece.

Then someone suggested a movie and of course, I was game for it. By the time we reached the nearest multiplex cinema, there was a delay of almost half hour, however ended up watching Aa Ja Nachele. After that it was a late night ride back to the hotel through the almost freezing and misty weather that made me grit my teeth and shiver like a helpless goose caught up in a raging hurricane!

I must have fallen asleep almost immediately after reaching Mansingh Palace, for the next thing I remember was waking up to my alarm ringing. It was morning and I had to get ready and rush to catch the 8:15 a.m. Shatabdi Express to Gwalior.

See you in Gwalior soon.

February 3, 2008

Taj Mahal

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, the Taj Mahal (meaning, Crown Palace) was built by the great Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, in memory of his beloved queen, the Persian princess Mumtaz Mahal who died after giving birth to his 14th child.

The Taj Mahal, built between 1632 and 1654, is one of the most well-loved, well-preserved and architecturally beautiful structures and is so popular that it needs no further introduction.

The Taj Mahal consists not just the monument containing the cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal and tomb of Shah Jahan but includes an integrated complex of structures and gardens that extends over several acres and in it are subsidiary tombs, waterworks infrastructure, the small town of 'Taj Ganji' and a 'moonlight garden' that is presumed that have repeatedly gone under water during the flooding of the Yamuna river.

The Taj Mahal is a crowning jewel of the Indo-Islamic architecture. Specific design credit is uncertain, however, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri is generally considered as the principal designer of Taj Mahal. The calligraphy found in Taj Mahal is believed to be created by Persian calligrapher, Amanat Khan, who has signed his name at several of the panels. The calligraphy is made by jasper inlaid in white marble panels.

The white tomb, flanked by four tapering minarets, is raised on a terrace and first seen reflected in the central canal. It is entirely covered in marble, but the mosque and counter-mosque on the transverse axis are built in red sandstone. Within the dome lies the jewel-inlaid cenotaph of the queen.

Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar, was deposed by his son and imprisoned in the great Agra Fort for eight years, cared for by his eldest daughter Jahanara. The great emperor that he was, surely Shah Jahan had not expected that his last days would be so utterly mournful. According to the legend, when he was on his death-bed, he kept his eyes fixed on the Taj Mahal which was clearly visible from his place of confinement.

After his death, he was buried in the Taj Mahal beside his queen, Mumtaz Mahal. Probably as an afterthought Shah Jahan's tomb was built along side it, and that is why it is the only assymmetrial object in the entire Taj Mahal complex.

No words or photographs of the Taj Mahal can do justice to describe the beauty of the place, so I will not even make an attempt to do so here.

I have heard much about the Taj Mahal sparkling in moonlight when the semi-precious stones inlaid into the white marble on the main mausoleum catch the glow of the moon. The moonlight viewing has been resumed since about 2 years after a gap of 20 years and is, I believe, restricted to 400 people per night in order to avoid overcrowding.

Therefore, thinking that few things would be more romantic than viewing the Taj Mahal in the moonlight, I set off to Agra, only to learn upon reaching there that the moonlight sighting can be done only on 5 days in a month, i.e., on the full moon night plus two days each preceding and following that. May I suggest hidden 'moonlight effect' kind of floodlights to simulate the moonlight and allow viewing throughout?

Anyway, the city of love, Agra, can never be disappointing. I was, in fact, delighted with my visits to not just the Taj Mahal on that misty day in December 2007 but also got another opportunity to visit the Fatehpur Sikri, Mosque and Palace complexes in addition to the Agra Fort.

My suggestions to anyone wishing to visit the Taj Mahal are:
  • for night viewing, check the full moon dates and make reservations in advance.
  • for day viewing, start early in the morning. The gates open at 6 am. So reach there early to enjoy the beauty of the monuments with a few early-risers rather than with the crowd that fills there later throughout the day.
  • allot a good amount of time to enjoy the place as I feel the Taj Mahal reveals its subtleties when one visits it without being in a hurry.
  • once there, for some time at least, keep your camera aside, choose a corner and "feel" the beauty of the place. Allow nothing to come in the way between you and the awe of the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is said to be appearing pinkish in the morning, milky white in the evening and golden when the moon shines - probably depicting the different moods of a woman. To admire its full glory, one needs to also appreciate the fact that the architecture and its adornments are associated to the passion that inspired it.

There is nothing like viewing the Taj Mahal with your own eyes and being embraced in its ethereal beauty. As I said earlier, no words or photographs can fully convey the magic of the place.

It was a misty day when I reached the Taj Mahal. The above are just a few photographs shot during my delightful visit to the Taj Mahal. If you wish to see the rest of my pictures of one of the world's most admired masterpieces, they are here.