Lessons of History and Zoology at Tuglaqabad

Of course I had been to Tughlaqabad, these huge ruined fort that once was the fifth city of Delhi, back in the 14th century. But other than that the sheer size of it blew me away, I couldn’t really make much of the stones. This changed when I went on the tour with Sohail.

From him we (the two couchsurfers Fabian and Dania and me) learned about the lake that once covered the whole area between the two forts so that the mausoleum would rise on an island in the midst of the blue.

Sohail also explained to us the difference between a true arch (semicircle, with wedge-shaped stones, from Mesopotamian) and the Indian way of putting a long stone on top of the pillars to form an entrance. Apparently the 14th century builders of Tughlaqabad didn’t trust the newly introduced true arch much, so in the walls they never had to bear the main weight.

Our guide got very exited when we spotted the rare Egyptian Vulture soring over the ruins and he showed us the plants that are offered to God Shiva because they’re poisonous. He also shared the story about a bird species that leaves many unfinished nests on palms. This is because the male starts to build a nest, but when the female bird doesn’t like the outline of it, she complains and the poor fellow has to start all over again.

Together we looked down into former storage houses for grains that are square sized at the bottom but had a round dome – the architects installed walls in the corners to form an octagon, then they divided the sides again into a shape with 16 corners, and so on, until they could start building the doom.

And Sohail let us down into a stepwell, where we saw the most poisonous snake around (real, not in a carving). While we were at the bottom, a kingfisher and a woodpecker looked down on us. More wildlife awaited us a little later: Indias biggest antelope enjoyed the shade of some ruins.

And finally we even understood why there is mughal architecture to be found in a fort that dates back many more centuries: someone used the existing structures for his later settlement.

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Urban village: Shahpur Jat

There are structures in Delhi that look like old villages: crumbling walls, lower houses and smaller streets than in other parts, traditional handicraft everywhere. And, as our guide Himanshu pointed out: the people there have their own rules and structures.

That’s why in these urban villages encroaching is a problem – monuments that in other areas would be heritage sites are not protected, and new houses sometimes only stand centimeters away from them.

Shahpur Jat is in South Delhi, surrounded by green parks and lush residential areas. Inside, where the lanes look like time stood still for centuries, is also one of Delhi’s fashion hubs. After the heritage walk, we plunged from one trendy boutique into the next, seeing fashion clothes, accessories, home decor items and furniture.

 

 

Seeing the city through the eyes of former street children

Paharganj: Delhi’s cramped backpacker area behind the biggest train station, where hundreds of cheap and cheapest hotels are wedged between textile shops that sprawl onto the road, internet cafés and souvenir shops. But Paharganj is also home to countless street children who walk around with big bags, ready to pick everything up that  could bring some rupees at the recycle shop and often with a handkerchief in their little hands, ready for the next line of glue to sniff.

Salaam Baalak Trust runs homes here, some for kids that only want to pop in for some medical help or a game, others more temporary with school lessons and mattresses on the floor, and some as full-scale children’s homes. Some of the former street kids have finished college – and several of the teenagers run tours through the area no one knows better than they do.

It’s an amazing insight into how much money someone gets for a kilogram of collected plastic, where the police doesn’t find sleeping children, what sense of freedom they have and how important cinemas are.

Fake fake and plush plush

Mira in front of the "Kingdom of Dreams"

Europe is – rightly so – preserving a lot of its old grandeur buildings. Theaters, opera houses, churches, town halls, bell towers, castles, palaces and what ever else is left of former times gets restored nicely (if there is money) and often is still used, at least by the people who can endure four hours of opera singing.

The ambitious Indian middle class – so it seems to me – also loves to go through huge double doors and sit in multi-storey, richly decorated halls. But they don’t have the old structures (apart from what the British built in some places). So they just built it nowadays  – and by doing so follow European styles of the past centuries. Well, at least they try.

But the feel of grandiosity didn’t come upon me when I entered the “Kingdom of Dreams” in Gurgaon. Because the plush looks cheap. The carvings are fake. The elephants are… well… not really European. So are the lotus flowers and the deities with six arms. Plus it’s all too glittery and shiny. And it looks: too new.

The musical show nonetheless was great! Dozens of dancers swirled and whirled and jumped and formed amazing figures. The set design, mostly done by lasers, was super colourful and stunning. It even extended to the sides of the theater house. The singing of “Zangoora” was in Hindi, but that didn’t matter. Mira and I had to look at so many things that we didn’t mind we weren’t able to understand the words.

colours!

This is how Indians show their love?

(the smallest note available)

(the smallest note available)

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