The First Mosque of India

The first mosque built in India after the Islamic domination started was at what today is known as the Qutub complex. The Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque is situated right at the based of the Qutub Minar. It is a huge compound with pillared gallieries around it. One one side are huge walls with corbelled arches and the famous ‘rust free’ iron pillar stands at the center of the compound.

 

But if you look closely at the walls and the pillars of the mosque, you can confuse it to be a temple. The place is said to have housed 27 temples which were then destroyed to build the mosque. The evidence is quite visible. Idols are not part of the Islamic religion and these idols are found in plenty in this compound – most of them with their faces chopped off.

The destruction of the temples may have been an act of iconoclasm but the Qutub complex and the Mehrauli area is quite interesting in the way that it has been the favorite of dynasties right from Tomars and Prithiviraj Chauhan to the Britishers.

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Bloemfontein

I was aware of the city before I knew that I had to come here. Of course the reference was cricket.

The city is Hansie Cronje and Allan Donald’s hometown. And it was at this ground that Virender Sehwag hit his first test century in 2001. For the LoTR lovers, this is the city where J.R.R. Tolkien was born.

Apart from that, the city, known as ‘city of roses’ is the judicial capital of South Africa (South Africa has 3 capitals). And like Chandigarh, there is an annual rose festival organized here too.  Another similarity with Chandigarh is the size of the airport.

Travel from India encompassed 3 different size of aircrafts. A moderate Airbus 330 to Dubai. Then a massive A-380 to Johannesburg and then a small turboprop Havilland to Bloemfontein over the huge – many of them exactly circular, farms of free state province. Outside the small airport there was only one taxi. And the first car I sat in, in South Africa, was a Hyundai Santro. Only that it is called Atos here.

The city is of course beautiful – mainly because you can see the huge expansive, dome like sky stretching out 360 degrees around you. There are only 2 buildings which can be called skyscrapers. The weather is somewhat like Bangalore – at least in January. Hot during the day and really cool in the evenings. Or such is the case in the particular area where I am putting up – Dan Piennar.

It is situated on a small hill overlooking the entire city of the Bloemfontein. Sitting in the room, you can even see the cricket stadium far away (or at least the flood lights). The breeze (and it is a wind today) has an inhibited access – from any direction which makes it cool in the morning and the evenings. And like Bangalore, it rains whenever the temperature crosses a threshold and more often than
not you can see a rainbow (though I don’t think that is the reason it is called the rainbow nation).

The sunsets are to die for. Everyday there is a different hue to the sky – Purple, orange, Blue. And the beautiful and rich houses..err. bunglows around the area form the perfect foreground.

Dubai – In Transit

As the aircraft starts its final descent to Dubai and the sun has gone down for the day, the first thing that you see outside the window is a massive yellow line snaking around the terrain below. As the aircraft tilts a bit to maneuver a turn you can see more such ‘snakes’. At this point of time, without the aid of google maps, I am assuming that these must be the lights along the highway which stretches out of Dubai in different directions. From the top it looks beautiful. And ‘street light’ on the highway. Well.. rich country!

The second ‘aha’ moment on this brief transit stop at Dubai came on entering the lift (elevator if you like to call it) at the airport. These were perhaps the largest lifts I have seen.  I think it could easily pack in 50 people. May be more if you pack it like we do in India. The descent is also beautiful – along the water falling along a wall – at approximately the same speed as the lift.

The third amazing thing for me was to see a person in the proper ‘Arab dress’ for the first time. By the Arab dress I mean the flowing white robe with a black round band/ring on the head. When we were children, there used to be a certain fascination with this headgear. I remember we used to have a round ring like thing which used to hold a part of a cloth stretched so that some embroidery could be done on it and we used to imitate the Arab dress using that.

The final thing worth mentioning was the length of the corridor of the hotel – The Millennium Airport hotel where the few hours of night were spent. I haven’t seen such a long corridor in any hotel till now. If you are in a habit of talking a walk after your dinner, you just need to take the room at the end of the corridor (incidentally ours was at the end of it!!)

Quli Khan’s Tomb or Metcalfe’s Dilkhusha

Quli Khan is the lesser known brother of Adham Khan – who was (in) famously thrown from the Agra fort by Akbar.

The tomb is lesser known for Quli Khan and more for being the summer/weekend retreat for Sir Thomas Metcalfe – the resident british at the Mughal court. Thomas Metcalfe was instrumental in setting up an arrangement with Mirza Fakhru, one of the sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar – the last Mughal. They signed a secret understanding that British would recognize him as the formal heir after Zafar’s death and Mirza Fakhru would move the Mughal court from Red fort to Mehrauli, thus giving the fort to be used as British barracks. Eventually both Fakhru and Sir Thomas died – allegedly due to poisoning (by one of the wives of Zafar who wanted her son to be the heir to the throne)

But before all that, Sir Thomas Metcalfe made this tomb into a classic retreat home – on the lines of today’s farmhouse and called it Dilkhusha. He removed the grave of Quli Khan and made that room as his dining hall. The blue interiors look magnificent even today and on the outside there was a sprawling garden. Streamlets of water used to flow down from the house towards a dovecote – some of whose bricks are used from ancient temples which were perhaps broken down to build the monuments (like Qutub Minar) that we see today. The whole place gave a tough competition in its magnificence to the Zafar Mahal (Bahadur Shah’s summer retreat) in the same Mehrauli area.

But one thing that still eludes is some information on Quli Khan himself – whose grave has now been restored and who peacefully lies where perhaps Metcalfe’s dining table stood a century and half ago.

Bricks, perhaps used from old temples to be used in the more recent monuments

Shimla – after years!!

Shimla – the queen of hills. No matter how commercial it gets or how crowded it gets, it still holds a special place for some of us friends. On a recent ‘official’ tour there, I tried hard to remember when I was there the last time. It was on a new year’s eve when we were there to inaugurate 2007. There are plenty of good memories before that of course – cricket with a fractured hand, ‘Naldhera’, the super expensive ice cream which was priced at an exorbitant Rs 30 but was compulsory on a cold night, experiencing the snow fall for the first time and sitting beside a warm fireplace at Vishesh’s home on Dec 31st, 2006.

Shimla essentially remains the same – the mall road, the ridge, the church and the famous Gandhi statue. But this time some things stood out. One is a huge statue of lord Hanuman on the top of a hill just behind the church. So if you click the church from certain angles, you will get the orange statue in the background.

Another notable difference was the absence of Barista on mall road. During college days, Barista was an aspirational place and we had hoped to be able to come to the Mall road barista café one day. Sadly, it was not to be. One another expensive eating joint used to be the Baljees, again on the mall road. But when I went there this time, it seemed as one of the cheapest. Times change. Things change. Shimla.. well the same.

Church with Hanuman statue in the background

Maldives

Maldives – a country of islands which are an extension of the Lakshadweep islands in the Arabian Sea. We had a chance to primarily be on one of them and it was undoubtedly beautiful.

At Male, it seems you are landing on the water itself. From the inside (or even outside) it is not a very attractive airport – certainly no match for the beauty of the rest of the place. As you get out of the airport, the first thing that strikes is the clarity of the water. It is almost as clear as in a swimming pool and you can see the bottom of the ocean floor.

A speed boat took us to our island. It was my first ride on a really fast speed boat and as it floated over the waves, it gave that funny feeling in the stomach – the same as you get on a roller coaster.

The island we went to (for the honeymoon) was more famously called the Paradise Island. The waters close to the island were greenish and not deep. Far away you could see it distinctly change to dark blue – indicating a sudden fall in the ocean floor. There were beach cottages along the circumference of the island and the water villas which were right in the middle of the water.

The whole island has been converted into a resort with a wide range of facilities and activities to do. You could take a ride on one of those planes which land on the water (I had seen them in the movies only), go fishing at night, have a private beach barbecue or play a wide range of games at the island itself.

But more than this man-made fun, it was the nature which was at its best. Strolling on the beach with a bright moon light, cool breeze and sounds of the waves was one such experience where the nature brings it all together to make it a perfect moment. Or maybe sitting on the beach restaurant – candle light, staring out at the vast dark expanse in front of you with an absolutely blank mind. During the day you could snorkel for hours together and be close to a range of variety of fish and pick up an assortment of sea shells – right from the sea bed.

Everything was excellent but in hospitality industry often the physical beauty alone is not quite enough to give you an ‘experience’. You need the accompanying service. And that was one downside at this specific island.

The rooms were big and comfortable but there were no soaps in the bathroom. And though only a limited people watch TV while in Maldives, but still the condition of the TV was pathetic – the remote control broken. A bottle of water ordered at the room took hours to come (and not just once). The behavior seemed ‘taught’ and may be did not come from inside.

Well, some of these glitches apart, the place (a one hour flight from Sri Lanka) is worth a visit – especially considering that it is feared that these islands may be under water in few years.

Adham Khan’s Tomb

Adham Khan is a character from history whom many people would now know. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, then he was one of the villains in the movie – Jodha Akbar. He was son of Maham Anga (Illa Arun) and killed Atgha Khan (played by Raza Murad).  Akbar (Hrithik Roshan) then defeated him in a fight and threw him down from his fort. When he was not killed, Hrithik had ordered his servants to bring him up and throw him down again.

The scene depicted is actually true. Maham Anga was Akbar’s wet nurse who used to feed him as an infant (According to customs, the mother who was the queen did not use to do it but a trusted nurse was appointed). Adham Khan, hence became the ‘milk-brother’ of Akbar.

When he was an infant, Akbar was force-ably taken by his uncle (chacha) and kept captive (to be used as a shield in case Humayun attacked). Maham Anga had voluntarily gone along with her own son to take care of Akbar. All three remained captive for nearly 12 months.

Years later, when Akbar appointed Ataga Khan as Prime Minister, it enraged Adham Khan (obviously he was expecting the job) and he went on a rampage killing Ataga Khan in the process. As a result, Akbar threw him down the ramparts of his fort in Agra. Few days later, Maham Anga also died of grief.

Akbar, who had deep sense of gratitude for them, decided to make Adham Khan a tomb. Maham Anga was also later buried along her son.

The tomb lies dilapidated in the midst of the Mehrauli market just behind Qutub Minar.

Balban’s Tomb

Ghiyas-ud-din Balban rests here..
Balban’s Tomb and (in the background) one of the pillars of the now broken first dome in India

Ghiyas-ud-din. The name doesn’t suit a king. Does it?

The first thing that comes to my mind whenever I hear Ghiyas-ud-din is a person jisko life mein bahut Ghisna pada. May be a lowly servant in a king’s palace.  Though there have been 3 kings of Delhi named Ghiyas-ud-din, but Ghiyas-id-din Balban was indeed a servant – a slave. But he was also a king – the last king of the Slave dynasty. (Literally speaking his grandson who became the king after his death but he ruled for a mere 3 years before the start of Khilji dynasty).

Balban was captured by Mongols as a child and later on ‘bought’ by Iltumish (Razia Sultan’s father and a popular king of slave dynasty). Balban rose in power and became one of the nobles in the court and after much Ghisayi became the king at the age of 60.

The place, which may have been Balban’s palace is also known for it being the first instance of a true arch in Indian architecture. Before that Corbeled Arches or Trabeated arches were used. I did not know what a true arch means before this visit and it is quite interesting to find out the differences.

Balban’s tomb is also known for the site of the first dome in India. The dome no longer exists but the pillars on which it stood are visible and you can imagine a huge round structure on top of it.

Also, some ruins of a city have been unearthed near the place which show homes, markets etc – although in complete ruins.

Jamali Kamali: At the intersection of two eras

Jamali kamali tombJamali Kamali’s Tomb

I have recently started reading a quintet on five Mughal emperors by Alex Rutherford. The first one was about Babur. Towards the end it is all about his conquest of India and establishing the Mughal empire here. This he did by defeating the Lodhis. In the Lodhi king’s court, there was a poet – Jalal Khan a.k.a Shaikh Fazlullah a.k.a Jamali (He is said to have the same status as Tansen did in Akbar’s court). Later as the power shift happened, he also was a member of Babur’s son – Humayun’s court.

ArchesThe arches at the Mosque

Jamali designed the mosque at Mehrauli near the Qutub Minar. The design is similar to that in Purana Quila – the difference being that it is said that this was the first mosque to have such a design. But what is truly amazing is the adjoining tomb. The tomb was designed and prepared (1528) before Jamali died in 1536. There some rare Persian work on the flat roofed structure.

Jamali Kamali - under the shadow of QutubThere was some rare and fine persian work (blue) which has now eroded

The whole place is right now disputed. Right to pray there by the community members on one hand and the archaeologists wanting to save the site on the other. Obviously if people are given easy access to this place, there will be nuisance – as it is there in the rest of Mehrauli Archaeological park (broken signboards, information boards etc).

Due to the dispute, the place needs special permission to visit. It was courtesy Vikramjit (who was leading the photo walk) that some clicks were possible inside the tomb which is worth a dekko. There is a sense of disproportional inside – reason similar to that in the Taj Mahal. Taj Mahal is exactly symmetrical in every way except one. It was designed to have one tomb – that of Mumtaz Mahal but Shah jahan was buried there too thus spoiling the symmetry. It is similar here. The design seems to have been for Mr. Jamali only. But a certain Kamali – supposedly the best friend of Jamali, was buried there alongside (perhaps much later).

The work on the walls is amazing and the roof tops it – literally and figuratively.

Aamazing view for the deadThe inside of the tomb

Mehrauli is full of monuments from a wide range of eras. Jamali Kamali tomb and mosque come from an interesting period. India’s history generally draws a line in 1527 when the Sultanate period ended after around 300 years and ushered the famous Mughal era which was to last another 300 years. Jamali Kamali stand – or rather lie at either side of that line.

On Road in China

It was a short – lasting 36 hours – trip to China.

To be very frank, I expected an India-like feeling on the roads – no traffic sense, people jumping lines and crossing traffic lights, crossing roads wherever and whenever they wanted. But it was exact opposite.

The flight landed in Hong Kong. “The airport is huge”, I thought.  “But what the hell, we also have a T3”.
The proud Indian ego had countered the first impression.
(And why did people complain so much about the thick carpet at T3. HK airport also had a similar carpet adorning its floors.)

But the other impressions which followed were difficult to be countered.

kuch kuch BSE jaise lagti hai...

The taxi which was to take us to Mainland China was called Limousine on paper. It was not that long car we generally have in mind but was a huge MUV – a Toyota Alphard – Pretty awesome. It had run 2,50,000 kms but still was ‘fresh as a daisy’.

One of the major reasons for that was explained by the next impression – the road infrastructure. If they had those kinds of roads why wouldn’t the life of the vehicle be multiplied. And it was not just the highways but all around. It was told that even the villages had same kind of ‘makhan-like’ roads.

Most of the 36 hours was spent on the roads so there were more observations about that. There were plenty of tolls on the way and almost all of them were ‘manned’ by women – even at late hours. And they looked happy doing the job. They smiled, greeted and after the payment was done, thanked and held their hand out in a guiding direction towards the exit. It was a pleasant change from what you see at the Indian toll stops.

One of the tallest building

The most surprising part though was that people had patience and the traffic sense. The pedestrians waited for the traffic light to turn green before crossing the roads. Vehicles generally followed lanes. They were not in a hurry to get ahead on tolls. The height of such behavior was actually observed near the airport where one had to cross a really narrow stretch of road to reach the terminal. There was a light installed which was red for pedestrians. But there was not a single vehicle on that road. Still people stood there for good 5 minutes and moved ahead only when light turned green. I stood there, behind in the line for few seconds trying to understand why so many people were just standing there and was simply dumbstruck when I realised the reason for it.

Another interesting thing was street lights being run by windmills. Small windmill fans were installed on top of the lights along with solar panels which, I guess is an excellent way ‘go green’. Though not sure how viable it is.

Lastly, I found the large bill boards on road sides were a bit banal there (at least along the roads around Shenzhen which I roamed). Unlike India where we have actors and actresses or at least some images along with them, most of the bill boards there lacked such things. May be there is something that India can give China – a Shahrukh Khan perhaps!!

Cheen ka heero

A billboard with a Hero