Thursday, 31 January 2013

The ticket scam

Somehow Indian shops and businesses have never heard of the concept of a float. You can never get change – even splitting a 10 rupee note is a problem in Agra. So I wasn't surprised when at Fatehpur Sikri, the Archaeological Survey of India ticket office didn't have change for 200 rupees. Could I come back later for the change?

Well, I thought, I'll trust the guy – but just ask him to write '50 rupees change' on the back of my ticket so we both know exactly how much. (He was as good as his word. When I came back a couple of hours later, he had the note in his hand before I had a chance to say anything. An honest gentleman.)

That's how I discovered the ticket scam. When I handed in my ticket for cancellation at the entrance, I got back a ticket that didn't  have '50 rupees change' written on the back. I objected – and saw my intact ticket, off which the guard now proceeded to tear the stub, before handing me the correct ticket.

Okay, a mistake. Or something. But then I remembered all the children in Fatehpur Sikri who had been asking me for my old ticket – for the Fatehpur Sikri Palace, or the Taj Mahal,  wherever. I'd thought at the time that was rather cute and sad, as if they were collecting Archaeological Survey of India top trumps.
Now I realised what was going on. They were collecting used tickets and presumably selling them to the guard for a few annas on the rupee, so to speak. The guard could then retain visitors' tickets uncancelled, and either sell them back to the ASI ticket office man (if he wasn't as honest with his employers as he had been with me) or to touts who could sell them to tourists at guesthouses or outside office hours.

Of course this means ASI isn't getting the money. And though you can easily criticise ASI – it sometimes seems more concerned with nice lawns and municipal flower displays than conserving the monuments, and its archaeological methodology is stuck not even in the 1950s, but in the 1860s – at least it does a basic job of stopping India's heritage falling into decay.

The same scam is being worked at Sarnath. Only this time, I was asked for "Ticket, madam" by a rather official looking gent at the gate as I went out – at least, official looking till I saw the jogging bottoms under his suit jacket. How sad. Somehow I'd managed to lose my ticket...

The science of mindlessness

I've spent the day in Bodh Gaya. In the process I received not enlightenment, but tea, from the monks of the Bhutanese monastery, who were busy playing with plasticene, or rather making ritual models for a ceremony at their chorten tomorrow, to which I'm invited. You've never seen a happier bunch of monks; like many of the sadhus I've met, they are content, smiling – I won't say jolly, that's too Friar Tuck, but they have a deep, childish enjoyment of life.

As with Kumbh Mela, Bodh Gaya is full of different kinds of Buddhists going about things in their own way. There are Tibetans stroking prayer wheels into action; Japanese Nichiren Buddhists chanting; there are Buddhists who sing hymns, Buddhists who chant scriptures, one solitary Buddhist singing from a sutra with a bell and a small drum. There are those who just sit (seon in Korean, Zen in Japanese). There are monks and nuns in saffron, in red, in white, in grey.; only their shaven heads – such a contrast with the long-haired, long-bearded Hindu sadhus – a common denominator. On one level it's chaos; but there's no conflict. Everyone seems to get along, tolerating other sects' or nations' ways of doing things.

What much Buddhist practice seems to have in common is a science of mindlessness. Trying to distract the conscious thoughts, the conscious cravings of the mind, by occupying the mind with mindless tasks. I saw one monk repeatedly filling a bracelet with beads, setting a little stupa on top, muttering a mantra, and then tipping the beads back into his lap to start again. It's a meditation on the nature of transience, but it also fills the mind; you can't think connected thoughts while you're doing it, so that thoughts flicker across the surface of the mind like swallows over water, and disappear.

Wooden prostration boards are laid out around the Mahabodi temple like sunloungers round a German swimming pool. Devotees – not just monks and not just Tibetans – raise their hands, palms together, to head, then to their chests, and then kneel and prostrate themselves, pushing their hands out towards the temple and laying their foreheads on the ground. Again and again and again and again. Some were even using electronic counters, like pedometers; spiritual exercise in every sense.

The monk with his little hand drum and bell, chanting, had three different rhythms working against each other, two different physical movements to make. Another with a prayer wheel and a rosary, again, had to keep both separate movements going at the same time; on the one hand a trivial exercise, like the old trick of rubbing your head and patting your belly at the same time, but on the other hand, an activity that keeps the concentration from wandering.

A nun was carefully walking on a kerb, placing one foot exactly in front of the other, pacing extremely slowly, drawing out every movement.

(Thinking about it now, in the quiet of the Burmese monastery guest house, I recognise quite a few of these exercises from my experience as an actor. Actors do them for a different purpose – but perhaps when an actor talks about 'being in the moment' what they mean is not all that far from Buddhist enlightenment.)

I had another free gift today. I was sitting under the bodhi tree (not the original, but grown from a sapling of the original taken to Sri Lanka but the emperor Ashoka's daughter) when a leaf fell, touching me on the knee before rattling on to the ground. I picked it up. Like tea with the Bhutanese monks, a gift of grace.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Droplets of Ganga

Kumbh Mela is the Ganges. Kumbh Mela, in a sense, is India. Like India, it's utterly diverse; both sacred and secular, human and divine, fantastically organised and completely chaotic. Each droplet reflects a different fragment of India, and only through those reflections does the Kumbh reveal itself, over a period of days or even weeks.

So I can't tell you what Kumbh Mela is. I can only tell my own experiences; the things I saw, people met. Filtered through my lack of Hindi, through others' faltering English, through the lack of signposts (noted in the Hindustan Times) and the fact that I couldn't, no one could, see the whole thing, only parts of it, like the blind men and the elephant.

It's the Norfolk Showground, but not as we know it; corrugated iron corrals, exhibitions on Uttar Pradesh Tourism or exciting agricultural machinery, dusty temporary roads, roped off and fenced off areas, fast food stalls and drinks stands. There are candyfloss salesmen and boys selling toy helicopters which they demonstrate perpetually, sometimes managing to land one on an innocent (and irate) bystander, kids selling toy whistles or balloons or parakeets made of blue neoprene. (Parakeet smurfs?)

There's even a funfair on Triveni Road, with a Wall of Death and two big wheels, waltzers and a monorail and, this being India, a Shaivite temple featuring a Mount Meru made of plaster of Paris, and with a real priest and two white doves inside as well as a massive plaster of Paris lingam that looks as if it's made of varnished Christmas cake icing, entry ten rupees.

Except it's the Norfolk Showground with naked men wandering around. The naga babas are what the tourists go to see. And they are, undeniably, impressive; long dreadlocks (I saw one doing yoga; a disciple had to get the baba's hair out of the way of his gymnastics, as it was twice as long as he was), long beards, their skin white or grey with ashes.

I sat with one naga baba at his hearth – a campfire that doubles as altar, with two huge logs smouldering. From time to time he took his tongs and trimmed the burned ends of the logs, or held a bidi or chillum in the tongs to light it from the embers. But he was most interested in showing me pictures of himself, and even better, his press cuttings; here he was at Haridwar, at Rishikesh, at Varanasi, and here, lighting a huge chillum and wreathed in narcotic smoke.

(A sight in Varanasi: 'government bhang shop'. I can't quite imagine an NHS cannabis outlet in Norwich.)

Anorak. Sandals. Nice wristwatch. Designer specs. An Indian now resident in the US showed me round the akhada where he was staying for two months; he'd taken time off from his real estate business.  He was full of information; how the akhada was organised (run by the maharaja, with his adjutants, sadhus of different ranks – just like the Indian police or army, he said, every sadhu has a rank within the akhada), the mythology of the Kumbh Mela, the division between Shaivite (the majority) and Vaishnavite (the minority) akhadas, the different bathing dates, the event his maharaja was launching that afternoon to protest against female foeticide and infanticide. Another fragment of Kumbh, another distinct fragment of India.

Fog that doesn't clear till midday. My hair wet with the mist. Two elephants sway up the road, looming in fog; a roadsweeper gives one a coin, which it takes gently with its trunk and swings sinuously up to the mahout. A blessing.

The maharajah and his new socks. In one place I was given prasad with another twenty or so people, sitting on the dirt of the main alley through the akhada, food whacked out of tin pails on to the stitched-leaf platters in front of us, scooping the rice and dal up with our fingers. (Prasad is given to all, every mealtime, by the various akhadas; always similar, though details differ - Ram gives jalebi, while Krishna offers no dessert; some serve rice, others roti.) Afterwards I sat in front of the maharaja as he held court, or offered darshan as his devotees would say; he bickered happily with his disciples, laughed, smiled, was in good humour.

Two Mongolian-looking women came in; stocky, flat-faced, carrying a pair of gaudy knitted socks. Cue disruption. They kneel before the maharajah to touch his feet; that's normal. They then grab a foot each and start pulling his beige socks off and pushing the new socks on. The socks are too tight. The maharajah is laughing still, his beard twitching with merriment. Two of his disciples start pulling each leg. Or perhaps they're  pulling the socks, but there are now so many people kneeling and pulling and fidgeting around his legs and feet that I can't work out quite what is going on. Someone else is holding the back of the maharajah's swivel chair to stop him being pulled away entirely. I see the word 'happy' in pink and yellow paper cut outs above his head. (Happy what? I wonder.)

An English-speaking devotee sits next to me and explains. "Maharajah is loving devotees. They are coming two thousand kilometer to see him. From Manali they come. They are bringing present. Socks are too tight. But Maharajah is wearing them to make devotees happy. When Maharajah gives blessing, he is making only one blessing, be happy."

Another fragment of the Kumbh. Be happy.

I'm surprised, so often, by the sadhus' sense of humour. Their sense of fun. Prahalad Puri puts his arm round his retired police inspector disciple and kisses him – "my little brother," he says, though he's not much more than half his disciple's age.

A young boy leads two blind sadhus. I put a coin in their tiffin box.

At the sangam, a family take a disabled man to bathe. He is supported for the five painful and slow steps from his wheelchair to the water's edge, where he's sat on a plastic chair. A woman brings water in a bucket, with a jug she puts in his hand; he tips Ganga water over himself. She sees me, and smiles, and puts her palms together in greeting. A big, open smile that makes her eyes crease. All heart. I'm touched. (Forty-five minutes later, I pass again. He's having his trousers pulled up, and the wheelchair is brought. What tender care. What love.)

Man and wife light a flame, put marigolds and roses in a little flaming boat and set it afloat on the water. Their heads nearly touch as they squat at the waterline. A little domestic moment. Ten million people at Kumbh Mela but this is their small space. Another drop of Ganga.

The sheer size of the place. Ganga wider than the Thames or the Seine. The speed of the current; it makes a wake behind two men who are standing still, swirls offerings away towards the ocean. Sandbanks that stretch for ever.

A naked sadhu doing push-ups and handstands, like an Olympic gymnast gone weird. He brushes his hands with silt just as a gymnast chalks his palms before pulling up on the bars.

Night falls. On every akhada and ashram gateway lights begin to blaze. A peacock whose fanned tail lights up gradually, a Krishna in lights, revolving wheels. It's the Blackpool Illuminations with added deities. The sangam lit by huge lights like a sandy oversize football pitch. Down on the silt six priests offer aarti, wafting huge candelabra at the river, which is both the river and the goddess they worship. (Everything is everything else in India; there is no either/or.)

Some young Indians dance to the last hymn. They invite me to join them; want their photos taken with me. They are smiling. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is happy. The sun has set. Another day of Kumbh.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The second wife

The Taj Mahal is a wonderful statement of love; love and grief. Shahjahan built it for his wife Mumtaz Mahal; he could not give her life, so he gave her beauty in death – the sheen and translucence of white marble, the perfume of jewelled flowers.
But Taj Mahal is more than this, and more than most tourists see, and more than the books tell you.
Under two matching domes, in the middle of two matching gardens, at the back of the entrance chowk, lie two of Shahjahan's other queens. I might never have found out if someone hadn't left a door open. A door, open, and steps leading up; how could I resist?
There at the top of the steps was a garden – a char bagh, a Mughal garden just like the Taj Mahal itself, though on a smaller scale.  A garden on the first floor, a garden above an arcade, a garden with a fountain in the middle, and a domed tomb at one end. It's a garden within a garden, a monument within a monument.
It's the tomb of Akbarabadi Mahal Begum. Another wife of Shahjahan; the wife no one has heard of.
(I looked at Mumtaz Mahal's picture in the museum – a plump little woman painted on ivory, with hard eyes and a thick neck – and wondered, as Akbarabadi Mahal Begum must have wondered, what Shahjahan saw in her.)
Here she lies in a red sandstone mausoleum, with little ornament, but with a fine white marble gravestone. All its inlays have been ripped away, and when I saw it, it was covered in dust and pigeon droppings. The adjoining buildings have become carpentry workshops for the ASI; a bench with a vice was set up outside the mausoleum. It's a sad place.
Sadder still when I was chased out by an ASI official who maintained, despite a large sign with an arrow and an open door, the place wasn't open. ("Down madam, fast fast!")
Yet this woman must have been respected by Shahjahan; she must have had a high status in the court. The whole area on this bank of the Yamuna is scattered with mausoleums, but hers, like Fatehpur Begum (I may need to be corrected here as I can't read my own writing), is a symmetrical element in this whole great enterprise – a place of prestige – not a separate little tomb elsewhere, like the Saheli Burj in the gardens opposite the East Gate, where a lady now lives under the verandah of the tomb and shares her blankets with her two cats – I met them one morning just after sunrise as the lady lit her fire and the cats stretched lazily. But that's another story.) The missing inlay sockets show her tombstone was finely ornamented; not quite as finely as Mumtaz Mahal's, but I think more poetically – with sprays of flowers that look almost as if someone had scattered them freely on her tomb.
Such it is to be a second wife. Not in the history books. Not in tours. Loved a little, cherished a little, not quite enough.
Though you could take another view. There's a rather disheartening subtext to the romance of the Taj Mahal; when Mumtaz Mahal died, it was shortly after bearing her fourteenth child, and quite probably as a result of that birth. That was, after all, her job. Love was superogatory.
I had no idea how subservient women were in Mughal civilisation. Many people claim that Nur Jahan effectively ran the Mughal empire for years, but the towering height of Shahjahan's grave marker compared to Mumtaz Mahal's shows you the irreparable gulf in status between the two. Women didn't even have the right to their own names; Mumtaz Mahal was originally kown as Arjumand Bann Begum, and Nur Jahan was originally Mehrunissa, renamed Nur Mahal (light of the palace) on her marriage to Jahangir, and Nur Jahan on her promotion to chief wife.
Perhaps Akarabadi Mahal Begum is, after all, quite glad not to have a man about the place for all eternity.

Gracious Islam

In today's world it's easy to see Islam as a backward looking superstition, an irrational fundamentalism, a narrow-minded puritanism that has no relation to reality. Look back a few hundred years, though, and Islam holds out a promise of modernity, of reason, of grace.

(I can't help being reminded of the way certain Christians have hijacked the forgiving, gracious religion of Jesus – preferring their own righteousness to his admonition, 'judge not that ye be not judged'.)

One of the things I always notice in early Islamic art in India is how often the Tree of Life figures in it. In a little mosque in Ahmedabad, for instance, each filigree screen of the mihrab wall has a fine curving slender tree, its branches alive and waving as if in the wind.  Even the stepwells in Ahmedabad are decorated with these lovely trees. I found them again in the mosque of the Taj Mahal, painted on the spandrels of the great central arch.
These are the gardens of paradise; the Taj Mahal's char bagh, the fine gardens of Sikandra where Akbar has his tomb, the trees and flowers of the mosques. It's a gentle vision; without angels, without a figure of God, simply a garden of rest. Serenity is at the heart of it; the serenity of life without fear.

These are also geometrical gardens, and the architecture – after Akbar's initial use of Hindu styles from Gujarat, at least – is an architecture of geometry, an architecture of reason. The writhing, bulging organic forms of earlier work have been banished; instead,  precision and reason underlie the arts of building, painting, and calligraphy. Each of the flowers on Mumtaz Mahal's tomb is a geometrical work; the fuchsias, if they are fuchsias, hang down in exact curves, leaves are designed on the segments of a circle. This is a world in which God's creation is seen as rational; it's a world where perfection is to be sought, and to be found.
(It's that pursuit of perfection which sometimes makes Mughal work intensely boring. Any damn fool, after all, can take a pair of compasses and a ruler and start drawing octagons. Just as any damn fool can make a concrete box. It takes a genius like Le Corbusier or Shahjahan – or possibly Shahjahan's architect – to make a work of art.)
Am I reading too much into the delights of Mughal architecture? No doubt Akbar, interesting though he is, was not a modern liberal in either his attitude to women (he appears to have collected them as keenly as he did books) or his methods of waging war. But it does seem to me that there's an aspiration behind this architecture which is intensely sympathetic; the desire to make life perfect, calm, and full of ease -  the hope that a life lived in a godly way will be a life lived well and fully.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A vision of paradise

Agra is almost synonymous with the Taj Mahal. Crowded, but still beautiful. I'm staying in Taj Ganj; you can see the Taj from the roof top restaurant in my hotel.

But Agra has another great mausoleum worth visiting; Sikandra, where the emperor Akbar is buried.
Akbar doesn't have such a great story as the love story of the Taj (built by emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal), but his historical importance is far greater; it was Akbar who created the first great Mughal empire, or as the charming language of the ASI information plaque has it:
"He planted his kingship in the Indian soil and made it an indigenous thing... he made a nation out of  a mob, which is why he is style 'Akbar the Great'."

He was also an enlightened monarch. Every guide (official and unofficial) at Sikandra will tell you he had three wives – a Muslim, a Hindu and a Christian – and the ASI again has a charmingly old-fashioned way of referring to his multiculturalism:
"His state functioned on the sacred principle of peaceful co-existence  with his non-believing subjects."

Your first sight of Sikandra is from a busy highway, full of trucks with 'please horn' signs on their back bumpers and plenty of motorists and motorbike riders taking full advantage of that invitation as they weave anarchic paths around each other, and any cyclists, cycle rickshaws or horsecarts that happen to be in the way. The sight of four tall marble minarets is unexpected. Even less expected, the fact that they belong not to a mosque but to a huge gateway: Buland Darwaza, the Gate of Magnificence.
Every inch is decorated; there are panels of curving flower patterns, and panels of star patterns, and even two panels in which Islamic geometry is created with the Hindu swastika (sign of good fortune here, long before Hitler coopted it) at its centre, a syncretism of which Akbar presumably approved. And then there's a long strip of fine Persian calligraphy in white marble, which reads; "These are the gardens of Eden: enter them and live forever."

That's the clue to Sikandra. This is a garden of Eden, a garden of Paradise; for Akbar, the garden of his everlasting life.

This is perhaps the best of the Mughal char bagh; gardens of the four quarters, visions of paradise. The ones I've seen are gardens with a mausoleum at the centre, such as at Safdarjang's or Humayun's tombs in Delhi, or Itmad ud Daulah and the Taj Mahal here in Agra. Every such garden is a square, divided into four quadrants by watercourses; Eden, with the four rivers flowing to the four cardinal directions – four rivers of milk, honey, wine and water. (Wine, apparently, is allowed in heaven; Omar Khayyam and Rumi would have allowed it on earth, too, but I suppose many more orthodox Muslims would call them heretics.)

The geometrical perfection of such gardens would have contrasted with the movement of the water and the natural curves and colours of the plants and trees; but most such gardens now are devoid of their water, and have only dusty earth where once there would have been vegetation.

Sikandra has lost its water. But the lawns in front of the central mausoleum are grazed by antelope and deer; parakeets fly shouting from tree to tree, and mynahs chatter, and unusually silent peacocks strut the grass. (I found a breast feather from one on the red sandstone paving, and pressed it into my notebook, a better souvenir than any the postcard and marble elephant salesmen could have offered.) Close your eyes at Sikandra and you hear only birdsong.

In the slowly dispersing mist of a January afternoon, this was truly a vision of paradise.
How wonderful it would have been with the waters; flowing down the centre of each of the high causeways out from the centre; lying still in the great tanks in front of each of the iwans (the entrance gate and its three mirror images); and leaping and dazzling down the waterfalls. How wonderful it would have been to listen to those liquid sounds as well as the birdsong. In a dry country, how much the more a paradise; lush lawns and plentiful waters.

And Sikandra has depth; the causeways stand six feet high above the surrounding gardens, so that no tree can grow half as high as the mausoleum or the gates. You're looking down on to the gardens; everything is contained, so though the gardens are huge, you have a feeling of their boundedness. Everything is bound together – a haven, a place set apart.

In the centre stands Akbar's mausoleum. A strange construction; the bottom bulky and square, with huge red sandstone gates reflecting those of the outer garden wall – power was Akbar's keynote. But the ensemble is topped by a fantasy of small cupolas at different levels, and on the very topmost floor a fine white marble pavilion with delicate screened windows – the single use of white in the whole building, and what an amazing vision it is.

That same contrast of delicacy and power is evident in the tomb chambers. Akbar's daughters are buried to each side of the main vestibule, in roomy tomb chapels where delicate jali screens dapple the light; but Akbar himself lies deep in the centre of the mass, in a plain vaulted chamber lit by a single slanted window to the east. His marble grave marker is quite plain; no carved ornament, nothing but simple rolled mouldings and the gleam of a single massive piece of marble. Three incense sticks at the bottom wafted their smoke into the gloom.

Perhaps Sikandra lacks the Taj's romance? But then, I saw many living romances at Sikandra – it's a place where Indian couples come, holding hands, sitting side by side on the steps or in the great gateways' alcoves, or feeding the tame squirrels with namkeen. That's as much romance as you need when you're in Paradise.