Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sikandra and Agra: Akbar's tomb and the Taj Mahal

We recently drove from Delhi to see the Taj Mahal. On the way, we stopped at Sikandra to visit the tomb of Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors. Here's the trip in pictures.

The sunrise over industrial Faridabad was beautiful, but I'm not enough of a morning person to have taken a picture. Being more of an animals-later-in-the-day person, this was the first pic I took on our trip:

Our driver pulled over at a seemingly random spot along the highway, and this macaque leapt out of nowhere at our car, startling everyone. Of course we fell headlong into the tourist trap, taking pictures :) 

When we gave the monkey's owner Rs 20, he demanded Rs 100 each from the three of us. He got Rs 30 and that was that.

Below: Sikandra. This is the "buland darwaaza" (great gate) leading to the gardens of the tomb of Akbar, the greatest, ablest, and probably the most enlightened of the Mughal emperors. Early 17th century, local red sandstone with ornate marble inlay (including Koranic calligraphy in letters at least a foot high). I can't imagine how anyone can plan and execute a facade as ornate and detailed as this.

Below: A closer look at the main arch of the gate. It's the south gate of the complex. This is not painting or glazed tiles - it's stone inlay, set in stone.

 Below: Because iconography is strictly forbidden, Islamic art relies heavily on geometric and floral motifs, and calligraphy. Chevrons, eight-pointed stars, and octagonal designs are common, but I find the incorporation of this swastika to be an interesting Hindu / Indic touch:

The gate is equally ornate on the other side. I took this picture after walking through the gate, into the gardens. Garden tombs, by the way, seem to be an innovation from around the 15th-16th century. Not really sure about this, though. The gardens at Sikandra are laid in the typical Mughal "chaar baagh" design, which divides the layout into four equal quadrants and is aligned precisely to the four cardinal points.

One of the smaller residents of the gardens. He was excessively bold for an Indian squirrel - almost climbed on my shoe. According to legend, the Indian squirrel got his stripes by helping Ram build the bridge to Lanka and bring back Sita. Ram patted him to thank him, and his fingers left this mark.

Other denizens of the gardens included spotted deer and black buck. On a previous visit, I've seen monkeys, but there weren't any this time. Looking out on the gardens feels like stepping into an 18th century miniature painting (which, incidentally, would likely be painted using a squirrel-hair brush).

Below: The tomb itself looks like a mishmash of architectural styles, with Islamic arches and a profusion of chhatris. Beyond the main arch is an ornate foyer, then a dark passage leading into the chamber where Akbar rests.

Below: Vaulted foyer through which you enter the tomb, with floral designs and calligraphy embossed with gold leaf.

Below: Damaged panel under main arch.

Below: Door leading to Akbar's burial chamber.

Below: Recess in the foyer wall. I suppose this is a recent addition - the wall looks like plaster and the design is too stark.

Below: Carved stone screen off the main foyer of the tomb structure. I am not sure what the symbolic significance (if any) of skylights and screens is in Islamic architecture - given the interdiction to portray god, I wonder there's more to it than beauty / ventilation / lighting.

Below: Akbar's cenotaph in the foreground. In the background is the ramp that leads into the chamber.

Below: The single skylight that lights the chamber.

Sorry this picture lacks drama and romance:

My little camera couldn't capture the ornate lamp that hung over the cenotaph in that dark chamber, so I had to use a flash to show the detail. Must ... get ... DSLR ...

Below: Gold-plated lunch recess for the guard at Sikandra.

Below: Lamp in the foyer. My guess is bronze.

Below: Pottery "store" on the highway from Sikandra to Agra. I took this from the car window - it's on the edge of the road.

Got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam on the edge of Agra. This chai shop was right outside our car:

Back on the road in our tasseled Toyota Innova, with Sekhar at the wheel and Venkateswara on the dashboard:

Below: Cut paper delivery guy stuck in the traffic jam along with us. Maybe he's headed for a bindery?

Below: Paper recycling guy was also stuck in the same traffic.

Below: Another "buland darwaaza", also of red sandstone. This is the gateway to the Taj Mahal. Again, chaar baagh gardens on the other side. The forecourt has entrances from three cardinal directions. We are in front of the gate that faces the fourth direction (north) and leads to the Taj Mahal (like Akbar's tomb, the Taj faces south). This gate is perfectly aligned with the Taj - you can see the pale arch of the Taj through it.

Below: Walking through the gate - view of the Taj from under the arch. It was very sunny, around 1:30 or 2 pm.

Below: On the other side of the gate. The Taj is mindboggling in its perfection and symmetry. I cannot imagine how anyone could even conceive of something so huge, so detailed, so complicated (importing precious materials and experts from so many countries) in the 17th century, much less actually have it made. The whole structure is tiled with marble from Makrana, Rajasthan. The jade, onyx, coral, amethyst, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl and other semiprecious inlay materials came from Persia, China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Russia, and the Indian Ocean. Many of the artisans came from other countries too.

Below: I turned around and took this picture of the sandstone gate again. It's equally ornate on the outside and inside. Again, not painting or glazed tile but stone inlay.

Below: The gardens are perfect at many levels. First, each quadrant mirrors the other quadrants. Second, the motifs tiled into the quadrants are horizontally and vertically symmetrical in themselves. And the whole complex is perfectly symmetrical and aligned to the four directions, with the Taj facing south.

Below: Satellite view of the perfection. This is how the Taj complex looks in Google Earth - perfectly aligned to the four cardinal points. Mid-17th century!

In the above image, going from south to north, you can see the forecourt with its three entrances to the east, west and south. Tourists enter  from the east. On the northern side of the forecourt are the sandstone steps and the big sandstone gate. Further up, the gardens in front of the Taj, and then the monument itself with its four minarets, flanked by the mosque and its replica.

Below: The main cupola with its crescent finial.

It's very difficult to convey scale. I took the picture below from maybe 20 meters away.

Below: The sides of the Taj Mahal are about as ornate as the front, and the arches built on a similar scale - perhaps the exact same height as the front arch. This calligraphic stone inlay runs around the main arch on the Western face.

Although many people were taking pictures, photography is not permitted in the main chamber where the cenotaphs of Arjumand Bano (Mumtaz Mahal) and emperor Shahjehan are. So I have no pictures of that dimly daylit chamber whose walls are covered with even finer inlay than the outside. The cenotaphs are encircled by carved screens.

Below: Wall of one of the narrow passageways that filter daylight very gently into the building. At Sikandra, a sign by the car park said: हमारी विरासत, हमारा गौरव (our heritage, our pride). Clearly not for some idiots.

Below: The Yamuna river runs by just north of the Taj Mahal. This is the minaret in the northeast corner of the structure. We sat for a couple of hours, I think, in the marble-covered shadow of the Taj, with a cool breeze coming in from across the river. Despite the hundreds of tourists gaping, jabbering and taking pictures, it was relaxing to sit there.

Below: This red sandstone building is to the east of the Taj Mahal, and a replica of the mosque on the other side. It was possibly used as a rest house - can't find confirmation of this.

Below: East-facing arch of the Taj.

Below: Southeastern minaret in the late afternoon sun. Makrana marble tile.

Below: We stopped for coffee at a not-very-clean UP Tourism cafe.

And then the long drive back home. A tiring but fabulous day!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Semaine de la musique arabe / Arab music week - 8

Why did I do it, this Arab music week? Until a few days ago, Arab music for me was limited to Fairouz, a Khaled album that I bought on cassette tape years ago and later bought on CD, and Putumayo's Arabic Groove that I discovered a few years ago.
Pourquoi je l'ai fait, cette Semaine de la musique arabe? Jusqu'a la semaine derniere, je ne connaissais rien de la musique arabe sauf que Fairouz, Khaled, et Arabic Groove de Putumayo, que j'ai decouvert il y a quelques annees.

This week has been my exploration of the living, breathing, modern reality of young people in the Arab world. So no traditional wedding songs and Bedouin folk music - I was looking for rai, rap, rock, hip-hop, and reggae. I feel it's too bad that some people know nothing of it beyond Osama, Al Qaeda and the Taliban (yes, I know Pakistanis and Afghans are not Arabs), and am alarmed at how little I myself know of the culture and everyday life of West Asia and North Africa, despite my own country's ancient ties with that region.
Cette semaine a ete mon exploration de la musique contemporaine de la jeunesse arabe. Pas de chansons de mariage traditionelles ou de la musique bedouine. Je cherchais rai, rap, rock, hip-hop et reggae. C'est dommage que quelques gens ne savent rien de cette culture qu'Osama, Al Qaida et les Talibans (oui, je sais que les habitants de Pakistan et Afghanistan ne sont pas arabes). J'ai ete choque de realiser que moi aussi, je sais trop peu de la culture et vie quotidienne d'Asie de l'Ouest et d'Afrique du Nord, malgre les liens anciens de mon pays avec la region.

The songs I've posted, as far as I can tell, are about love and everyday life, just like pop music anywhere. As far as I'm aware, no song advocates violence (if you discover otherwise, please alert me).
Les chansons que j'ai postees parlent, pour autant que je sache, de l'amour et de la vie quotidienne, tout comme la musique pop partout. Je crois qu'aucune chanson exhorte la violence (si vous decouvrez autrement, s'il vous plait me prevenir).

For me, no language crosses barriers as effectively as music, especially contemporary music. I often used it when teaching world history at an American university, discussing how it was the outcome of a particular region's history.
Pour moi, aucune langue traverse les barrieres culturelles aussi bien que la musique, surtout la musique d'aujourd'hui. Je jouais souvent de la musique quand j'enseignais l'histoire du monde dans une universite americaine - on a discute la musique comme un resultat de l'histoire d'une region donnee.

To pick each day's song, I went through several others, and in that process, I made discoveries that
don't show up in the blog, like Tunisian mezoued music. I was surprised, because it sounds to me a bit like Celtic bagpipe music and a bit like the popular folk music from my own ancestral land (where I have never lived, but which is also desert, with lots of tribes and a relatively large proportion of Muslims in the population).
Pour choisir la chanson de la journee, j'en ai ecoute plusieurs. En train de faire cela, j'ai decouvert des choses qui ne sont pas inclus dans les postes - par exemple la musique mezoued tunisienne, qui m'a surpris car elle sonne un peu comme la cornemuse ecossaise, et un peu comme la musique de ma terre ancestrale (je n'y ai jamais habite, mais c'est aussi dans le desert et a une grande population des musulmans).

When I started out on the Arabic Music Week project, it was just to explore a contemporary culture that I knew was out there. As an Indian and a graduate student in the US, I've read, heard and experienced enough stereotypes to know how devastating they can be at worst, hurtful and dangerous very often, and annoying at best. I once wore an everyday cotton shalwaar-kameez to campus (in the US) on a day off and got asked if it was a "ceremonial dress" - does everything that's different from the western norm have to be special and steeped in tradition? Can't it just be another everyday reality? Western men make jokes about women and violence all the time (and they are frequently offensive). If an Arab makes such jokes, should that be perceived as religious politics, then? I think most people are ordinary people in their culture(s), and their thoughts and behavior are for the most part ordinary reactions to the things around them.
Quand j'ai commence ce projet sur la musique arabe, je voulais seulement explorer une culture contemporaine dont l'existence j'etais sure. Comme indienne qui a etudie dans une universite americaine, j'ai lu, entendu et vecu assez de stereotypes qui sont blessant, dangereux, et a tout le moins genant. Une fois, j'ai porte un shalwaar-kameez ordinaire au campus (c'etait le weekend), et quelqu'un m'a demande si c'etait de vetements ceremoniales. Est-ce que tout ce qui est different de la norme de l'Ouest doit etre special ou de la tradition sacree? N'est-il pas possible que ce n'est qu'une realite quotidienne? Les hommes americains, britanniques et europeens font souvent des blagues sexistes, par exemple, ou sur la violence. Ces plaisenteries sont parfois blessants ou de mauvais gout. Quand un Arabe fait une telle blague, est-ce qu'elle est ancree donc dans une politique religieuse? Je pense que la pluspart des gens est ordinaire dans leur culture, et ses pensees et ses manieres sont generalement des reactions ordinaires a leur environnement.

In the middle of my exploration, I discovered that almost at the same time that I posted a Tunisian rap song, CNN posted this report, about the important role of rap in Tunisia:
Pendant mon exploration, j'ai decouvert que quand j'ai poste le rap tunisien, CNN a poste au meme temps un report sur la role politique de rap en Tunisie:

And in my search, I discovered the astonishingly cool MaliKah (sorry, embedding is disabled, but please watch the AFP video!). Below I'm posting another song, just for you to sample - the person who posted it says she's singing about a group that doesn't even understand Islam is spoiling the image of the faith by killing in the name of religion:
Et dans mes recherches, j'ai decouvert la super-cool MaliKah (integration m alheureusement desactivee par YouTube, mais s'il vous plait regardez cette video de l'AFP!). Dessous j'ai poste une chanson ou elle chante d'un groupe qui gate l'image de l'Islam en tuant au nom de la religion:

I've never been a fan of rap, but I'm a little closer to being one after Arab Music Week :)
Je n'ai jamais ete un fan de rap, mais peut-etre mais la semaine de la musique arabe m'a apporté un peu plus près :)

And lastly, an interview with the Palestinian rap group DAM:
Et enfin, une entrevue avec les rappeurs palestiniens de DAM:

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Semaine de la musique arabe / Arab music week - 7

Osiris is a rock group from Bahrain.

Osiris est une groupe rock de Bahrein.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Arab music week / semaine de la musique arabe - 6

Today, a political song. This is the Palestinian group DAM.

Aujourd'hui, une chanson politique, par un groupe Palestinienne qui s'appelle DAM.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Semaine de la musique arabe / Arab music week - 5

Rap tunisien par Balti. (Note: je ne comprends pas tous les paroles. Si elles sont blessantes, je m'excuse et j'espere que vous laissez une note pour me prevenir. Je ne supporte pas la violence et la haine.)

Rap from Tunisia by Balti. (Please note that I don't understand all the words. If they are offensive, I apologize, and hope that you'll leave a comment to alert me. I do not support violence and hate.)