Shah Jahan, Akbar the Great et moi

The mausoleum of Akbar the Great

The mausoleum of Akbar the Great

We got up at 7.00 and checked out after breakfast. Well, breakfast in India was always a rather dull affair. After we eliminated everything that might potentially lead to food poisoning, we were left with a banana, toast, and black coffee. However, sometimes there weren’t any bananas, and most hotels didn’t attach much importance to the toast being hot, and the coffee was invariably Nescafe instant, but I was generally so stuffed from the previous evening’s feast that I didn’t really care.

Our driver picked us up at 8.00, and we began the long exit from Delhi. Staring through the window of the air-conditioned car, part of me felt guilty for succumbing to this kind of luxury, but most of me very glad not to be facing a prolonged and doomed negotiation with a taxi driver, a long queue in the train station, and then warding off touts when we reached our destination.

With the morning traffic and the sheer immensity of the 17-million strong urban sprawl, it seemed to take forever to get out of Delhi.  As a passenger, you very quickly stop noticing the accidents and near fatalities you see along the way, and before you know it, your involuntary flinch as a motorbike weaves in front of you without warning becomes a twitch, and then it disappears entirely.

I could never learn to drive in these conditions myself, but I had learned to be a passenger in them.

As you leave the outskirts, which still seem to be full of teeming masses, the factories are slowly replaced by lush green fields, occasional buffalos lazily swish their tails and a cow here and there muses philosophically. Breaking up the fields, small groups of trees seem to hold the haze, almost magnetically. Large flocks of birds circle and rise on the morning air, and everywhere you look there is life-bursting from all corners in what may be the most fertile land on Earth.

You pass strange sights on the road: tuk tuks built to carry two which have somehow squeezed in 9 or 10; women dressed in colourful saris walking in the lay-by of the motorway carrying immense sheaves of wheat or other farm produce on their head, ignored road signs telling people not to drive the wrong way down the motorway.

It’s not as strange as the things you see when the car comes to a stop. At one roadside cafe, for example, the car had hardly come to halt before a turbaned man with three monkeys on chains, a snake charmer and a vendor of some old tat were vying for our attention. Picture it: the vendor’s tapping on the window, smiling a toothless grin at you; the monkeys are doing summersaults, and the snake is rising from  its basket as the snake charmer plays something freaky on his pipe.

And this isn’t in some bazaar or other. This is a lay-by 200 metres from a roadside cafe. This kind of thing never happened to me on the M1, and at the time I fervently wished I was back there, as our uninvited entertainers were all beginning to look a bit annoyed by our lack of money for what they considered to be services rendered. The snake was hissing, the monkey jumped at the car window a couple of times, and the vendor’s long filthy nails tapping on the window were growing louder and louder. Our driver had disappeared on some errand or other, but I had no idea where he had gone nor when he would return, as his English had been as incomprehensible as ever.

I wondered absent-mindedly if it would make Sky News if they broke in and murdered us. I could hear the news commentary in my head:

“And this news just in-Two British Diplomats [sic] (you know how accurate Sky News can be) have been killed in their car today in a bizarre attack involving three monkeys, a snake and some picture postcards. Police suspect the snake may have been trained by Al Qaeda.”

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any stranger, a legless beggar hauled himself across the road and joined in the melee. Thankfully our driver reappeared soon after, but the legless beggar wrapped himself around the driver’s legs and wouldn’t let him go until he received some kind of financial remuneration.

The above incident did at least have its comic side, but child beggars tapping on your windows at traffic lights, or any other point where your car becomes stationary, just aren’t funny.

As the possible payoff from touching the heartstrings of a fat white fool are potentially so much greater then anything they could expect from a hardened Indian, beggars always try much harder with Westerners, and they stay for much longer.

The sight and sound of child beggars tap tap tapping on the car window, and their whining cries for assistance, will be one of my lasting memories of India. Of course, you are an even bigger target out of the car, but I’ve found endless repeating ‘No, thank you’ in an increasingly snarly and venomous tone, combined with walking away quickly, usually gets rid of them after a while. The catch is you just have to keep moving, look like you know where you’re going and what you’re doing. This can be rather difficult when you don’t really know where you’re going or what you’re doing. Nevertheless, you must keep moving. Stability would draw every beggar and hawker in a 500-metre radius toward you, vultures drawn to carrion.

Let’s get back to the trip. Just outside Agra, of the Taj Mahal fame, we visited the mausoleum of Akbar the Great, often hailed as the greatest Mughal leader of India. The Mughals, distant descendants of Genghis and Kubla Khan, were to exert a strong Muslim influence on northern India and what is now Pakistan. Indeed, without the Mughals, the partition of India might not have even taken place, as Pakistan would probably have remained Hindu.

Akbar was the first Mughal emperor of the Delhi region, sweeping down from the Afghan mountains, and at his death in 1605, he ruled an empire stretching over 500 million acres. He is remembered nowadays for his tolerance of non-Muslim minorities, who made up the vast majority of his subjects. He held regular debates with experts from other religious faiths (Hindus, Sikhs, and even Jews and Christians), and tried to stress what was common to all faiths, rather than what divided them. He argued that all faiths lead to God, a philosophy the world could still learn from.

However, it would be wrong to see him as the world’s first great humanist. For example, shortly after coming to power, after retaking Delhi, he made a ‘victory pillar’ from the decapitated heads of his defeated enemies. He advocated a state of permanent war and constant expansion, and he was not averse to destroying Hindu temples and replacing them by mosques and mausoleums, and in the siege of Chittor he showed his bloodthirstiness when he massacred 30,000 unarmed and defenceless peasants in cold blood. But by the standards of the day, he was a liberal humanitarian. Such were the standards of the day.

Religious conflict was on my mind. On the previous night, rioting had broken out again between Muslims and Hindus in Ahmenabad, as it still periodically does in northern India. Most of the time, only a few people die and it doesn’t even make the western news. You need real blood and carnage to make the International news. You need something quirky, savage and entertaining, like diplomats savaged to death by Al Qaeda monkeys and blood-sucking snakes. However, reading Indian newspapers and watching Indian news channels showed me that religious conflict and violence is an everyday event in India-either that or I was there during a very violent month.

I had thought that after independence and partition all Muslims went to Pakistan and all Hindus came to India-ethnic cleansing on a truly massive scale. While millions did move, and millions more died in religious clashes which the army was unable or unwilling to control, Islam is still a powerful force in modern India. While there are certainly few Hindus in Pakistan, less than 1 % of the population in fact, a significant minority in India are Muslim-13%, to be exact, and most of them live in the north.

But to get back on track, the mausoleum itself was an early example of what was to become known as the Mughal style; large onion domes, minarets and immaculate gardens. Inside the building, as in all Islamic buildings, idolatry in the form of statues or images is completely absent. Instead, one’s attention is held by shapes, by intricate patters and inlays.

Forgive my gross simplification, but picture the mausoleum as being like the Taj Mahal, except made of red sandstone instead of white marble. It was a very impressive sight, and if it wasn’t for the 40-degree heat and the 90-plus humidity, I would have stayed longer.

We reached Agra in the early afternoon, and went straight to the hotel, as I was beginning to suffer India burnout, and needed to feel something bland and innocuous, like a hotel room. As I lay on the bed, even the sound of the building renovations on the floor below me and the endless honking of innumerable cars flooding through my window couldn’t keep me awake. I fell into a strange sleep and for the first time I could remember, I didn’t dream of work. I dreamt of India. On day four I had done it. I had arrived in India.

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Older comments on Shah Jahan, Akbar the Great et moi

Eleni Tzika
25 April 2009

Indeed a trying experience to be in Delhi. Not easy to learn how to be a car passenger being a westerner, let alone drive one… Yet so fascinating, once you get over the shock of the first couple of days. I’ll definitely go back for more of this magic country…