Thursday, January 28, 2010

Theatre of the Titans-- the story of Agra

Strategically located at the heart of India in the rich alluvial plains between the great Ganga and Jamuna rivers, Agra was a vibrant religious and commercial centre for the last three thousand years. But it matured and perfected itself only when the Mughals chose to make it their home. Agra became the grand theatre in which they played out the entire range of human emotions on a titanic scale: Their loves and passions for which they could kill and be killed, their tremendous energy, their mercurial moods and lust for power which made them drive their armies across vast swathes of inhospitable lands. And yet they can hardly be dismissed as rapacious invaders, or indolent, sybaritic rulers. What elevated them into grand figures that dominated Indian history was not simply their ability to consolidate territory, but their sense of justice, grace and charity, their compassion, refinement, love of nature and, above all, devotion to the arts. This is what has endured.

Earlier, the five raids into India had been but short stabs, pillaging junkets to fill his coffers and feed his army. But in November 1525, setting out from Kabul before the snows blocked the passes of the Hindu Kush, he challenged Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat, who with a hundred thousand troops outnumbered the invaders five to one, and defeated him in a flourish of military genius. One could have expected nothing less: the blood of the Tatar, Timur, and that of the Mongol, Chengiz Khan flowed in his veins. “That very day,” he writes in his memoirs, “I directed Humayun set out without baggage or encumberances, and proceed with all possible expedition to occupy Agra, and take possession of the treasuries.” At Agra the Raja of Gwalior sued for peace by offering Humayun the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The son in turn offered it to his father. Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur, prince of Ferghana, founder of the great Mughal Empire was here to stay.

And yet he was not enamoured by India. “Hindustan is a country of few charms,” he complained. The heat was unbearable and he missed the water, the mountains and melons of Kabul. Once, when the fragrance of an Afghan melon had enveloped his table, he wept as he ate it. To assuage his sense of loss, Babur set about trying to recreate the gardens of his homeland in Agra. It was not an easy task. He scouted along the eastern bank of the Jamuna for a suitable site and found, “those bad and unattractive that we traversed them with a hundred disgusts and repulsions.” With prodiguous imagination Babur transformed the sere lands into beautiful quartered gardens with fruit trees imported from Kabul, tanks, lily ponds with cascading waters running into water channels, with pavilions and pleasure houses cooled by the river breeze, to idle away warm afternoons.

Today most of these have either disappeared under the slums of the ever-swelling Agra populous, or are in bad repair. Resist the overwhelming urge to flee Agra after seeing the Taj and cross over to the eastern bank by way of the narrow Strachey Bridge (1860, and still going strong, thank God). Turn left towards the tomb of Itmad-u-Daula and ask for ‘Ram Bagh,’ a corruption of Aram Bagh, which was originally Bagh-i-Gul Afshan. Built on three levels, this garden is the first of the Islamic Char Bagh or quartered garden in India. The Char Bagh was supposed to be an earthly reflection of the Garden of Paradise, frequently mentioned in the Quran, which awaits those who are worthy of heaven. The four water channels dividing the garden into four parts symbolise the four rivers of paradise: of water, milk, honey and wine; the trees and shade, the abundance in the garden of paradise. Sadly, few trees remain and little has been done to prevent the garden from turning into a dust bowl. Besides the mad cacophony from the nearby National Highway, another jarring note was struck a few centuries ago when the Emperor Jehangir decided to make a few alterations to his grandfather’s garden. Love-struck he renamed it after his new and favourite queen, Bagh-i-Nur Afshan, and comissioned two suites on the left terrace by the river. The suites in themselves are beautifully executed with hansa (swan-shaped) brackets supporting the chhajjas. A large stone tank with a mahtab, or island platform dominates the centre. However, built as it is on the left and not the centre it disturbs the symmetry of the perfectly balanced char bagh. If you lean out far enough and look up river to your right, you will see a ruined tower and chhatri, the remains of Nur Jehan ki Sarai. Jehangir’s exceptionally talented wife had acquired this property around 1612 as her Jagir. Knowing the strategic location she built the Sarai and was entitled to collect duties on goods before they were shipped across the river. 17th c. travellers accounts show that it was spacious enough to accomodate 500 horses and 2000-3000 men with their retinue. Only the brave should venture there today as it has been turned into a garbage dump.

Babur was not only an accomplished general and horticulturist, but also a poet, musician and calligrapher. His memoirs, the Babur Nama is a literary masterpiece, candid and delightful. Where else will one find an emperor confessing that he was so bashful that his mother “used to send [him] once a month or every forty days, with driving and driving, dunnings and worryings...” to his wife’s bed. Equally candid is his description of his mad infatuation with a bazar boy called Baburi, who caused him “to wander, bare-head, bare-foot, through street, lane, orchard and vineyard...”

He was deeply distressed by bad writing and often upbraided Humayun for his obscure prose. But he loved his eldest dearly whom he found a highly cultivated and lovable companion. In 1530 when Humayun fell critically ill, the Emperor brushed away suggestions of offering Humayun’s diamond as a propitiation, offering his own life instead, contending that it was more valuable to Humayun than his diamond. Mughal chroniclers insist that almost instantly the Prince Royal gained in strength as the Emperor’s began to ebb. “For years it has been in my heart to make over the throne to Humayun and to retire to the Bagh-i-Zer Afshan or, gold-scattering garden, (also known as Bagh-i- Hasht Bihisht or Garden of Eight Pardises),” Babur confided to his noblemen. “By Divine Grace I have obtained in health of body everything but the fulfilment of this wish...Now when illness has laid me low, I charge you all to acknowledge Humayun in my stead.” He died on December 26, 1530, and interred in his favourite garden until 1539 when his remains were taken to his final resting-place on the Shah-i-Kabul hill in Afghanistan.

To find the historic site of the favourite garden and temporary burial place of our first Mughal Emperor, take the road on the right just before Itmad-u-Daula. About a hundred yards down a small lane, which doubles as a pissoir runs to the left. Skirt the mud and muck till you reach the rusted gate with the rusted lock. Chances are that the chowkidar has just left on an important official errand and won’t be back, alas, until the evening. Looking through the iron gates you will find a large, wan building, now the sporting place of rhesus monkeys. This was once the Chauburj, the Emperor’s pleasure pavilion when he was alive, and his burial place later. It was once at the centre of a large and beautiful char bagh. The garden is long gone, part of it taken over by a DDT factory. It is difficult to quell the rising disgust.

To lighten the black mood a trip to another of Babur’s garden is a must. Take a right instead of a left after Strachey Bridge and ask for the village Kacchpura. After a couple of kilometres the road ends at a T-junction with the village on your left. On the right, on the banks of the Jamuna is Babur’s less celebrated Mahtab Bagh. The Emperor could not have anticipated that his great-grandson would one day build the greatest monument to love on the opposite bank! Some ASI official (bless his soul) took it upon himself to breathe life into the garden, and lo! you actually have green turf and fruit trees and Agra’s best kept secret. Indeed, the best views of the Taj are to be had from this garden, without the milling hordes that invade its precincts everyday.

Humayun may have been, as Mirza Haider Dughlat wrote, “possessed of so much natural talent and excellence,” in battle and in conversation. He was also kind-hearted and generous, a skilled mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, but these qualities did little to save him from the terrible privations he had to suffer after Babur’s death. His name will always be inextricably linked with that of the Afghan, Sher Shah Sur, who battled him for three hard years and then chased him out of Hindustan for the next fifteen. Addicted to opium, the prince, and later, emperor, would dull the sharpness of his suffering by imbibing large quantities of it with rose water. When not on the run or doing battle, Humayun was absorbed in astrology and astronomy, manifesting his passion in the most eccentric way. The business at court was not conducted according to excegencies of matter on hand but deferred to the planets: Sunday and Tuesday for government, as the sun regulates sovereignity and Mars is the patron of soldiers. Similarly, Saturday and Thursday was devoted to matters of religion and so forth. He even went as far as dressing himself and his ministers according to the colours of the planets associated with particular days.
A stone’s throw from Babur’s Mahtab Bagh, on the banks of the Jamuna, in a field near a couple of date palms are the remains of Humayun’s observatory. Called Gyarah Sidi , (eleven steps) referring to the steps overlooking the hemispherical cavities in the ground from which astronomical readings could be taken. Though nowhere close to their size, Humayun’s observatory is an interesting, dimunitive precursor to the massive Jantar Mantars at Jaipur and Delhi built nearly two hundred years later. At nearby Kacchpura village, a short walk through narrow, interesting lanes and bylanes will bring you to the handsome Panchmukhi (five-arched) Mosque, now partially in ruins and whitewashed by the enthusiatic local imam. An inscription on the mosque dates 1530.

In a way both Agra and astrology were to become the cause of Humayun’s death in 1556. He was preparing to shift court from Delhi to Agra when he decided to consult his astrologers on the significance of rise of Venus on his affairs. They marched up to the roof of his library and observatory. On his way down he paused as the muezzin called the faithful to evening prayer. As he proceeded his foot caught in his robes, he stumbled, and soon, as they say, he was history. But he may well have fallen out of the pages of history and remembered dimly as Akbar the Great’s obscure father had his wife, Haji Begum, not acted. In 1564 Delhi gasped as the magnificent Humayun’s tomb materialised to become one of the finest specimens of Mughal architecture and an inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

On the 26th of June, 1579, at the age of thirty-seven, Humayun’s son startled his subjects by mounting the pulpit of the Jama Masjid at Fatehpur Sikri to deliver the Friday sermon which he ended with the words, “...Exalted is His majesty, Allah ho Akbar!” The mullahs howled in protest, for what is the common enough invocation of God is Great, could also be read as God is Akbar, or Akbar = God. It was not the Emperor’s vanity which prompted the utterence but a gauntlet thrown to challenge orthodoxy. It encapsulated Akbar’s spirit perfectly: liberal, wise, courageous, resolute and free. It was this spirit which made him abolish the hateful Jaziya tax on non-Muslim subjects, caused him to experiment with religion and philosophy to create the new Din-i-Illahi, prompted him to marry Rajput princesses, and invite hundreds of artists, litterateurs and musicians to his court. Akbar was illiterate, and yet he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, having books read to him from his vast personal library of 24,000 volumes valued at 6.5 million rupees. He maintained a translation department at court, which translated into Persian the Mahabharat, Ramayan and Leelavati, a sanskrit poetic treatise on arithmetic. It was a glorious age for Agra, and the beginning of a veritable rennaisance.

Though tending towards a benign nature Akbar could also be ruthless towards his enemies. One warm Agra afternoon when he reposed in the harem, a great commotion arose outside: Adham Khan, Akbar’s general had just murdered Atga Khan, the emperor’s foster father in a fit of jealousy. Akbar ran out, half-naked, and bellowed at the murderer: “You son of a bitch, why have you killed our Atga?” And before he could answer, Akbar felled him with a blow, which according to a chronicler left a mark like a mace-wound on Adham Khan’s face. Then the emperor ordered him to flung from the terrace repeatedly until he died.

Akbar was the first of the great Mughal builders. Under him Agra became Akbarabad, the old Lodhi fort was replaced by a new architectural style of the Agra Fort, built between 1565-73, costing, according to Abul Fazl, Akbar’s friend and chronicler, three and a half million rupees. Its 2.5 kilometres long ramparts which rise up to seventy feet are cased with perfectly polished red sandstone, its towers and battlements, gateways and enclosures are not simply features of a well-designed fortress but measure up to the proportions of an artistic marvel.
However, the fort seemed to be haunted by poltergeists and was doubly unlucky for Akbar who lost all his children in infancy.

It was this misfortune which made him plead with Salim Chishti, resident saint of Sikri, for divine intervention. The saint obliged, a son was born to his Rajput Hindu wife and a grateful father named him Salim after the sage. Not stopping there, the Emperor ordered a new imperial capital to be built and personally supervised its construction. Monserrate, a Jesuit priest records that Akbar even “quarried stone along with his workmen.” And after his triumphant campaign in Gujarat in 1572 he returned and named the city Fatehpur Sikri (Place of Victory), building the commemorative doorway of Buland Darwaza at the Jama Masjid. An astonishing city took shape: pavilions and courtyards, domes, balconies, terraces, gardens, elegant cupolas, tanks, pools and baths. The architecture sheltered the imperial household from the harsh north Indian sun, but it also allowed for the play of filtered or refracted light and air through latticed windows and doors. The complex has geometry, but it is not severe. Fatehpur Sikri is playful and full of surprises: turn a corner and find an enchanted walled garden; climb out of an apartment and find a tree perfectly framed in a window. There was a time when you could climb up to the Panchmahal and enjoy the breeze on a moonlit night. Alas, these pleasures have been curbed by an overcautious bureaucracy.

Curiously, the only incongruous note is struck by the advice inscribed on the massive Buland Darwaza: “The world is a bridge: pass over it, but build no house upon it. The world endures but an hour: spend it in prayer...” This from a master builder and one who besides prayer also lived life to its fullest. While living with his beloved saint at his hermitage in Sikri in 1571, the irrepressible emperor caused Salim Chishti’s relatives to complain that their wives “were becoming estranged” from them. Unperturbed, the saint is reported to have advised: “There is no dearth of women in the world. Since I have made you amirs, seek other wives, what does it matter!”

Akbar’s final years were not easy. His trusted friends and companions had passed away and his heir apparent was champing at the bit to take over his empire which he had extended to west to Malwa and Gujarat, east to Orissa and Bengal, south into the Deccan and north into Kashmir and Kabul. After Salim’s failed insurrection and capture, Dutch sources at Akbar’s court record how while the emperor had honoured and forgiven his son in public, he had slapped and berated him in private: “You have paid no attention to my commands or letters which I have so often written to you. You raised the standard of revolt against me and made yourself king, which has put me to shame before all kings...You hope to become king after my death; but if you rule in the same manner in which you have acted so far, your empire will not last long.”

Akbar passed away at the age of 63 at Agra. But before he died he designed his own tomb at Sikandra, an architectural marvel of tiered pavilions and elegant chhatris. An inscription on the mausoleum reads: “These are the Gardens of Eden: enter them to dwell eternally.” It is a pleasant resting-place for the great emperor. Even today Black Buck graze peacefully on its grounds. There is not a hint of the violence that took place when irate Jats, revolting against Aurangzeb’s oppression of non-Muslims, in a supreme act of irony, plundered the grave and burnt the bones of the greatest champion of their faith.

Although the building of Sikandra was started during Akbar’s lifetime it was only completed during Jehangir’s. Jehangir talents did not lie in architecture, as has already been observed of his efforts at Aram Bagh. His unfortunate intervention at his father’s tomb at Sikandra are also in evidence: the perfect symmetry of the red sandstone gate is disturbed by the large, incongruous marble minarets. A central dome should have completed the five tiered mausoleum, instead there are marble pavilions, lending an almost incomplete air to the building.
But why must every king be an accomplished architect? Jehangir’s talents lay in extending the peace and prosperity of the kingdom he inherited. He was a prodiguous collector of, and authority on art and a keen naturalist, a designer of his own clothes and scientist. Besides, he more than made up for his lack of building skills by marrying Nur Jehan, who designed and executed architectural wonders of her own.

Nur Jehan was almost abandoned as a new born by her parents who fled Persia in 1577 to find employment at Akbar’s court. The infant howled and shrieked so much that her parents were forced to return to collect her. She showed the same indomitable will throughout her life. Rumour has it that Jehangir had set eyes on her much to Akbar’s disapproval who had her married off to a captain in the army and transferred him to Bengal. They say that when Jehangir ascended the throne he had the hapless captain murdered and took Nur Jehan as his wife in 1611. Jehangir, spent more hours in intoxication than not, which left the empress plenty of scope to govern herself. The emperor, awe-struck, minted coins in her name with the inscription: “Gold has a hundred splendours added to it by receiving the impression of the name of Nur Jehan, the Queen Begum.”

Nur Jehan ruled with the help of her family. Like a skilled chess player she layed her board carefully: Her father, Ghiyas-ud-Din was bestowed with the title, Itmad-ud-Daula and held the position of Lord of the Treasury. Asaf Khan, her brother, was made Prime Minister and further strengthened his position by marrying his daughter, Mumtaz Mahal to the Heir Apparent, Shah Jehan. Her father’s brother, Mirza Ismail Beig she made Commander-in Chief of the army. However, her decline began in 1621 with the death of her mother and confidante, and accelerated the following year with the death of her father and Shah Jehan’s revolt. Nur Jehan was down, but not out. She channeled her energies into creating a wondrous mausoleum for her parents. Situated on the eastern bank of the Jamuna, Nur Jehan first envisioned the Tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula to be in silver, but anticipating the danger of theft, she chose marble instead. It was a radical depature from the architecture of the age, which favoured the more masculine polished red sandstone. Nur Jehan’s creation is entirely feminine and sits like a beautiful ivory jewel case by the river.

It was a burning, sultry June of 1658. Dara Shikoh, defeated in the battle of Samogarh, had fled Agra. Aurangzeb, challenger to the throne, laid a seige on the Fort and now he cut off the channel which brought the river waters into the ramparts. The ageing emperor Shah Jehan, unable to drink well water was desperate: “My Son, my hero!” he wrote in a letter to the man he despised, “Why should I complain of unkind fortune, seeing that not a leaf falls without God’s will? Yesterday I had an army of nine hundred thousand, today I am in need of a pitcher of water! O prosperous son, be not proud of the good luck of this treacherous world!”
Aurangzeb sent the letter back with an impatient scribble: “Karda-i-khwesh ayed pesh”— as we sow, so we reap!
He was not wrong. The Mughals were a strange lot. To stay in power was like balancing an egg on your nose in a pit of vipers. Jehangir set the precedent of revolt. He was also the first to blind his own son, Khusrau, in punishment. Shah Jehan, born Khurram, learnt well. He revolted against his father, and when he became emperor, he had all his rivals executed for good measure. Never before had royal blood been spilt on a Mughal emperor’s accession to the throne, and Shah Jehan would indeed reap the grim rewards of this deed in his dotage.

Born to the Hindu princess, Jodh Bai, and favourite grandson of Akbar, Shah Jehan was an enigmatic ruler. He never wrote his memoirs and the work of court chroniclers had to pass through the emperor’s hands before they were made public. But from European sources a picture emerges of a ruler with poise and authority, a devout Muslim whose orthodoxy was only later tempered by his beloved son, Dara’s, liberal influence.

No doubt Shah Jehan had a magnificent artistic vision for apart from his monument to love he was also the force behind the delicate marble apartments and the Pearl Mosque in the Agra Fort. He founded the magnificent new capital of Shahjehanabad at Delhi and it was in his reign that the legendary Peacock Throne was created. Made of pure gold and encrusted with the finest jewels of the empire, it didn’t come cheap: Tavernier, the French jeweller, added the sum up to 107 million rupees. The Taj, too, which took 20,000 men working incessantly for 22 years cost a pretty packet. Added to this were Shah Jehan’s expensive military campaigns against Kandahar, which cost a prohibitive120 million rupees. None of these would have mattered if the Mughal administration had not suffered during Shah Jehan’s reign. And though it was true that with the Taj the Mughal sun had reached its zenith, its journey now could only be one of decline.

It was a profligate age. Even minor officials had magnificent tombs built for themselves. On the eastern bank of the Jamuna, not far from Itmad-ud-Daula’s tomb stands the beautiful Chini-ka-Rauza, tomb of the emperor’s favourite poet, Shakrulla Shirazi, brother of the master calligrapher of the Taj. It is worth a visit for its facade of polychromatic glazed tiles— a Persian invention and the only one of its kind in India. Just off the Gwalior Road in the village Tal Firuz Khan, stands the unusual tomb of the chief eunuch and caretaker of Shah Jehan’s harem, Firuz Khan. His personal service had been so exemplary that the emperor had rewarded him with a large jagir and rank of 3000 horse. The Tomb of Firuz Khan is built entirely of red sandstone, and has the unique feature of the main gateway with a broad staircase attached to the eastern side of the building through which one ascends to the terrace on which lies the sepulchre.

The emperor, they say, was completely devoted to his wife, Mumtaz. In the nineteen years that they were married, the exceptionally fecund queen would bear him eight sons and six daughters of which half survived in equal measures. It was in Burhanpur in June 1631, with the long and painful labour of her youngest daughter that the thirty-eight year old Mumtaz died. Her body was temporarily interred until the winter when young prince Shuja brought her body back to Agra in solemn procession. A plot had been acquired on the banks of the Jamuna from Raja Jai Singh and almost instantly the work on the Taj Mahal began.

Tons of white marble was lugged from the quarries of Makrana in Rajasthan a hundred miles away, red sandstone for the foundation and gates was brought from Fatehpur Sikri. Precious stone inlay work required lapis lazuli from Ceylon, turquoise from Tibet, jasper from Cambay, malachite from Russia, carnelian from Baghdad, chrysolite from Egypt, as well as agate, chalcedony, sardonyx, quartz, jade, amethyst, and black marble. Scores of master craftsmen and jewellers flocked to Agra from all over the empire as well as from Constantinople, Samarkand, Kandahar and Baghdad. Twenty-two years later the emperor’s dream materialised.

Or did it? It still shimmers and floats as if in a mirage. Take a guide. It is interesting to have the fruits of Mughal genius listed out for one: the perfect symmetry of the charbagh, the baoli near the masjid, the naubatkhana, the height and width of the Taj Mahal, the perfection of the calligraphy adorning its gates. But then get rid of him and spend an hour or two dallying in the pleasant lawns. Watch in silence and let its poetry speak to you. As it obviously did even to the wretch Aurangzeb who, after his father’s death had the magnificent marble screen built around the sepulchres.

Poor Aurangzeb has been condemned by posterity for his unrelenting Islamic fundamentalism whose reverberations can be felt in the sub-continent even today. So many of us have conjectured idly what India’s fate would have been had Shah Jehan’s legitimate successor not been horribly betrayed by Jai Singh of Jaipaur and Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur, and allowed to ascend the throne. In Dara Shikoh ran Akbar’s blood and passion for the heterodox spiritual traditions of India. Dara was a pacifist, kind, compassionate, generous, erudite. He translated the Bhagvad Gita into Persian and was a generous patron of the arts. His palace has survived the ravages of time and Agra’s people. Just north of the Fort, opposite the Hathi Ghat a congested road leaves the main road by the river. Immediately to the right follow a small lane which leads to a gate, which leads to a courtyard nearly overrun by encroachments. In front is a small handsome red sandstone building built on a tall plinth: Dara Shikoh’s Palace. A small marble plaque proclaims that the British had converted it into the Municipal Hall of Agra in 1882. A larger tin board insists, heritage or not, it is now a higher secondary school. It was here that Shah Jehan often rested on his return journeys before he made the ceremonial entrance into the Fort.

Dara, the ‘Mystic Prince’ was more inclined towards sufis and sadhus. In this enterprise he was joined by his eldest sister, the highly accomplished and cultured Jahanara, both formally being initiated into the sufi Qadariya order. Jahanara became virtual empress after Mumtaz’s death, and apart from skilfully managing the zenana, wrote poetry and an acclaimed biography of the saints of Kashmir. Her architectural skills are evident in the Jama Masjid of Agra, just north of the Fort, with the most unusual chevron pattern on its domes. Sadly, after rebels had mounted canons and bombarded the Fort in 1857 the magnificent gate was destroyed by the British.

Dara Shikoh had scandalised the ulema by his poetry: “With what name should one call Truth? Every name that that exists is one of God’s names”; and more pointedly: “In the city where a mullah resides, no wise man is ever found!” These utterances formed the basis of Aurangzeb’s case of apostasy against Dara, the justification for his war against his father and brothers and their eventual murder. In a letter to the imprisoned Shah Jehan, Aurangzeb protests that kingship had been forced upon him “by sheer necessity and not from free choice, in order to restore peace and the rules of Islam in the realm.” Only thus could he stand before Allah on the Day of Judgement.

But it was a case of protesting too much. In another anguished letter Aurangzeb wrote: “Although I heard that disturbances were being raised...I refused to lend credence to hearsay and remained loyal to you...till I knew for certain that you did not love me....”
Shah Jehan had been unfair. Keeping Dara close to him at court and lavishing honour and wealth upon him while his other sons, Shuja, Murad, and especially Aurangzeb were forever relegated to govern distant provinces, fight difficult campaigns and still be on the receiving end of his censure. Aurangzeb’s letters to his father are a moving testimony to the hurt he had suffered. Was his rebellion, jealousy, and resolute cruelty which ultimately destroyed the Mughal empire the howling rage of an unloved son? On his death-bed Aurangzeb wrote a final letter to his son Kam Baksh: “Soul of my soul...I am going alone...Every torment I have inflicted, every sin I have committed, every wrong I have done, I carry the consequences with me. Strange, that I came into the world with nothing, and now I am going away with this stupendous caravan of sin!...Wherever I look, I see only God...I have sinned terribly, and I do not know what punishment awaits me...”
One almost feels sorry for him.

Why Tibet Matters

Considering its size and proximity to our northern border, India is woefully ignorant about Tibet. Some commentators have made passing references to our historic links without enumerating what they are; worse, many have passed judgment on the status of Tibet without the faintest clue of its recent history or its implications for India’s future.

There is a general feeling that our ‘honoured guest,’ the Dalai Lama ought to feel grateful and express his gratitude to India for sheltering him by refraining from ‘political activities.’ The Dalai Lama is acutely aware of Indian sensitivities and has always publicly acknowledged India’s support. While there is reason to feel proud that India extended support when it was still a fledgling democracy— decades before the Tibet cause became fashionable in the west— we are yet to acknowledge our debt to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans.

The first is a civilizational debt. Watching maroon-robed monks chanting in monasteries across India, one may be lulled into believing that Buddhism has always flourished in the land of its birth. Few will recall the sacking of Nalanda, the destruction of thousands of birch-bark books or the fact that Buddhism itself disappeared from Indian soil after the 13th century. Indeed, until the 19th c when archeologists and explorers began piecing together the puzzle, the world was unaware of India’s intellectual and cultural contribution to Central Asia, China, Japan, Tibet, and South-east Asia. Ask an educated Indian whether the names Shantideva, Atisha, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Dharmakirti, Chandrakirti, or Vasubandhu mean anything to them and chances are you’ll draw a blank. Ask a Tibetan teenager and you’re likely to hear the history of the Indian Buddhist masters and the journey of their teachings to Tibet from 7th-11th c. AD.

When the Dalai Lama teaches from the works of the Vikramshila or Nalanda masters, he always prefaces his teachings with, ‘these are Indian treasures. We have only been its guardians in Tibet for a thousand years, and now that the teachings have faded in India we have brought them back intact. This is the gift we return to India.’ It is no small gift.

Nalanda, once the greatest centre of Buddhist learning from the 5th to 12th centuries, and host to many Chinese scholars, including Faxian and Xuanzang, today lives in spirit not amongst its archaeological remains in Bihar, but in the Tibetan colleges of Sera, Drepung and Ganden. These colleges, relocated in Karnataka after the Tibetan exodus of 1959, are modeled on the Nalanda tradition, transmitting India’s ancient treasures to meritorious students, many of whom are poor Indian Buddhists from the Himalayan belt.

The second debt is a strategic one and vital to India’s future. It is disconcerting to watch the Government of India at pains to ‘reiterate’ that they have ‘always’ considered Tibet an integral part of China and the Communists insist that the ‘disturbances’ within Tibet is China’s ‘internal matter.’

The fact of the matter is that the ‘always’ is only five years old. Far from always accepting Tibet’s subjugation, despite its desire for closeness with the People’s Republic of China, India challenged China’s invasion of Tibet in no uncertain terms. In his letter of Nov. 1950, Nehru informed the Chief Ministers, ‘When news came to us that the Chinese Government had formally announced military operations against Tibet, we were surprised and distressed. Immediately we sent a note of protest [to Chou En Lai on 26/10/50] and requested the Chinese Government not to proceed with these operations and wait for the Tibetan delegates…To use coercion and armed force, when a way to peaceful settlement is open, is always wrong. To do so against a country like Tibet, which is obviously not in a position to offer much resistance and which could not injure China, seemed to us to add to the wrongness of this behaviour’ (emphasis added).

India unilaterally ‘recognized’ the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region,’ describing it as ‘ a territory of China,’ for the first time in over 50 years when Prime Minister Vajpayee visited China in 2003. Before this India’s terminology in official documents was deliberately left ambiguous. The 1954 trade agreement between India and China named Tibet as a geographic location, ‘the Tibet region of China.’ In 1988, the Rajiv Gandhi government brought it closer to China’s position, but still kept it vague enough with, ‘Tibet is an autonomous region of China.’ The 2003 declaration toes the Chinese line word-for-word.

What are the implications of saying Tibet is an integral part of China?
First, leaving aside the fact that it distorts Tibet’s long history of independence, the declaration is in contravention of the treaty obligations between British India and Tibet, which we have inherited under the Indian Independence Act of 1947. Two treaties directly affect our territorial integrity: the 1904 Convention Between Great Britain and Tibet, which recognizes the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim and British India’s rights over Sikkim as a British Protectorate, and the Anglo-Tibet Treaty of 1914 signed in Simla, where British India recognized Tibet as an independent nation under the suzerainty (as opposed to sovereignty) of China. In return, Tibet was to respect the Mc Mahon Line, the eastern boundary between Tibet and Assam, now Arunachal. Until the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the agreement held and the border was peaceful enough to be left unguarded.

China refuses to accept Sikkim and Arunachal as parts of India, even claiming the latter as part of China. But China has no locus standi as a third country when India has negotiated the two treaties with Tibet defining its relationship to Sikkim and Arunchal. A sovereign state is one that negotiates and sign treaties with other states. Tibet did so with British India, Nepal and Mongolia. Once a state exists it cannot simply be wished away simply because another nation has invaded and illegally occupied it.

That the world does not wish to challenge China’s illegal occupation of Tibet thus rendering it a de facto (not de jure) part of China is another matter. However, it is pertinent to ask why the Government of India is so solicitous of China’s national interests at the expense of our own. If China refuses to ratify the border agreement because it does not recognize the treaties signed by India and Tibet, why must India recognize the 17-point 1951 agreement that China thrust upon Tibet under gunpoint, and which the Dalai Lama repudiated? China possesses no other legal documents to prove its claims over Tibet.

We have learned few lessons while dealing with China. India unilaterally surrendered its influence in Tibet in 1954 by removing its military personnel stationed in the Tibetan trading towns of Yatung and Gyantse, giving up Indian rest houses and land, and handing over Tibet’s communications to China including the postal, telegraph and public telephone services operated by the Government of India. The trade agreement with the Chinese had a validity of eight years. It is no coincidence that its expiry coincided with the 1962 war. If those who parrot the ‘Tibet is an integral part of China’ line paused to think, they would realize that they are unwittingly conceding China’s claim over 83,743 sq km of Arunachal territory, which it will not hesitate to exercise should its interests so dictate.

The Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ position has been clear since the mid-‘80s: autonomy and not independence. It begs the question why, if China can pursue a ‘one country, two systems’ policy in the Han-majority areas of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, is it so hysterically opposed to Tibetan proposals? The clue lies in a 1999 article published in Beijing by a prominent Chinese intellectual who opposed Tibetan autonomy at the time. Wang Lixion points out the fact that an independent or autonomous Tibet under the influence of the Dalai Lama, ‘would naturally orient it towards India,’ taking 2.5 million or 26% of China’s land mass away from China’s sphere of influence into India’s. To lose this vast swathe of land, he says, would be to ‘expose our fatal underbelly.’ It should be understood that it is not on its merits or demerits that the Dalai Lama’s proposals are being rejected, but because of India.

While one is not advocating India’s lebensraum or hostilities with China, one should be aware that future global rivalries will be less about energy and more about water. India is already facing acute water shortages, as is China. These will only grow as our respective populations increase and global warming stresses existing water supplies. China anticipates this problem and has already begun work on dams on the headwaters of the Sutlej and Brahmaputra. While the ‘thirsty’ provinces of Xingjian and Gansu will undoubtedly benefit by China’s plans to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra, India needs to wake up well before the havoc spreads and our rivers begin drying up.

It is time we recognized that Tibet and India’s destinies are entwined. We surrendered our responsibilities and its fruits in 1954. There is no need to go down that road again, now or in the future.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Making a killing out of war

From the Times of India
1 Oct 2001

If you thought modern wars are fought on a moral high ground, think again. Mostly, they are meant to augment or defend strategic or economic assets. Often, it is pure greed that drives the war machine, says Sonia Jabbar

World War I can be seen as a watershed in the history of the Royal Air Force. It played a minimal role here and would have been disbanded. Instead, thanks to its commander-in-chief, who suggested that Britain could end its long and costly land wars in the colonies by using air power, the RAF was revived. In fact, one week and 77,000 pound sterling later, the ‘Mad Mullah of Somaliland’ who had long defied the British, was driven out into the desert by the bombs and forced to surrender. The government then offered the RAF six million pound sterling a year to take over operations from the army in Iraq. Its services were then used to secure a quick victory in the third Afghan War. The RAF was finally in business. Henceforth, the bombing of civilians could not only be cloaked in fine sentiments such as ridding the world of ‘‘evil empires,’’ and ‘‘rogue states,’’ but the noble, and seemingly reluctant avenger could also make a quiet profit on the side.

The bombing of Hiroshima demonstrated to the US establishment the deadly capacity of the N-bomb, and paved the way for massive investment, $5,800 bn, into the development of nuclear weapons.

The Gulf war is the most recent example. Iraq was pounded into submission. Kuwait benefited and so did the Saudis. But the Americans profited on several fronts. The war provided the US testing ground to demonstrate the efficacy of new weapons but also an opportunity to double its arms exports. It increased arms sales to major oil exporters to help maintain America’s balance of payments. Thus the US share of the global export in arms moved from 28 per cent in 1987 to 58 per cent in 1997. The main importing region was West Asia.

In 1991, Kuwait had the dubious distinction of being the only country which spent more on its military than what its entire economy produced. Saudi Arabia which imported weapons worth only $9 billion between 1985-89, became the leading arms importing nation between 1995-97. It bought weapons worth $31.3 billion — mainly from the US.

Significantly, the sanctions against Iraq, which forced them to relinquish control over their oil (10 per cent of the world’s supply), directly benefited Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s share of three million barrels a day was added to Saudi Arabia’s. Its market share increased from five million barrels a day to eight million. Iraq accused it of sharing the spoils with the US.

Western exploits such as these make the current operation against Afghanistan tinged with suspicion. Is ‘Infinite Justice’ the US government’s attempt to seek retribution for the horrific terrorist acts of September 11, or a golden opportunity to consolidate ‘Infinite Power’?

The US is likely to use the battlefield again to test new weapons and prototype technologies (sensors, UAVs and cave-busting ‘earth penetrator’ bombs). The US Congress put a ‘‘down payment’’ of $40 billion for fighting terrorism, a significant part of which will be spent on ‘‘the highest levels of military preparedness.’’

Analysts expect President Bush to add $50 billion to the 2002 defence budget. Large, new orders for the arms industry may be in the offing. Bush may even use the opportunity to push through any opposition to the NMD or Star Wars. The project will not only translate into huge profits for the arms industry, but pave the way for the US’ complete domination of space.

The September 11 attacks-- where terrorists used paper-cutters costing a dollar a piece to hijack aircrafts-- should have demolished once and for all the belief that grossly-inflated defence budgets can effectively protect the people of the United States.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The alternative to my nuclear Ark

The Times of India, Friday, May 31, 2002
The alternative to my nuclear Ark
by Sonia Jabbar

Somebody, please build me an Ark. It should be large and capacious, able to accommodate not only my family and friends and the chance acquaintance, but also the neem and gulmohur trees in front of my house, a pair of Indian elephants, Bengal tigers, Himalayan bulbuls and rose-ringed parakeets, my books and CDs, my dogs, my friends' dogs, and any other sentient being on this subcontinent wishing to leave.
I don't particularly want to sail away from my beloved land, but at this juncture the alternative on offer doesn't really inspire confidence.

Amidst the sabre-rattling, the battle cries and the glib talk of a limited war, which may escalate into a nuclear exchange, comes this reassuring piece of news: the DRDO [*] has developed a portable nuclear shelter usable for 30 people up to 96 hours, equipped with its own power supply, toilets and water tanks. This is the alternative to my Ark.

We must rank first among the loony nations. Until yesterday we were witness to our government's inability to contain the Gujarat carnage, and today we blindly trust it to navigate us through a possible nuclear holocaust unscathed - assisted by portable nuclear shelters. Naturally, neither the government nor the DRDO elaborates what would happen to the shelter were it to be three to 30 miles within the radius of the blast; whether it would be able to withstand the temperatures rising over 300,000 degrees Celsius? This government has long since abdicated responsibility of answering such questions. Trifling questions, perhaps, when it comes to defending the nation's honour, but which must be answered.

The most honourable, patriotic, nationalistic people were the Japanese; ever ready to die for land and the Emperor until Hiroshima put an end to all that nonsense. Taketa San is a man every Indian should meet. I met him in '98 right after our nuclear tests.
He was barely in his teens when the Americans nuked Hiroshima. They lived out in the suburbs, but his sister was in the city that day and they bundled her home in a wheelbarrow. He spoke to us in Japanese, but from the tears flowing down his cheeks and the eloquent gestures of his hands I knew immediately that his sister was among the thousands whose skin had peeled off and had hung down from raw flesh like rags.

Her death many hours later had been excruciatingly painful. Taketa San keeps the memory of that tortuous day alive, like a festering wound. Even though it must cost him physically, mentally, emotionally to do so, he recreates it afresh each time for a new audience so that we must feel what he felt, must feel the horror of it in our bones, so that we never, ever allow it to happen again.

For those who lack a sense of history to temper their bravado: The American A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a prototype, a crude and smaller version of the kinds of nuclear weapons we have in our possession today, and yet it killed over 200,000 people, many instantly, and many more slowly and painfully.

A recent study conducted by Dr M V Ramana and his team at Princeton showed that a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, using only a tenth of the weapons in their possession, would kill or injure over four million people. Many would die in the immediate blast. Others would suffer slower deaths from burns and radiation. The truly unfortunate would take their lifetime dying slowly, a lifetime searching vainly for water in the sere, treeless nuclear wastelands.

Admittedly, one good thing about the bomb is that it is perfectly democratic. So whether you're the Raja of Race Course Road or the Leper of Lodhi, you get fried and no money in the world can bribe your way out of this mess. Also, it is perfectly incurable. One small dose of radioactivity - and there's much of that around with the mega-bombs - and cancer with impressive keloids could be your lot. As for your children, should they survive, and their children's children, factor in the radioactive lifespan of Plutonium 239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and then hedge your bets. India, as we know it, would be over. This wonderful, mad, exuberant civilisation, which took over 5,000 years to build, could be destroyed in under five minutes.

On second thoughts I'm not so sure I'd set sail on the Ark after all. What if half way across the globe I'd suddenly remember the smell of the earth after the first monsoon showers, and know I'd never smell that smell again. And if I were to recall Phooli, my cleaning lady, who for some reason couldn't come along, who bore her poverty with dignity and a toothless grin... or Humayun's tomb or the Sal forests of the Terai which would surely be no more, I know my heart would shatter into a million irreparable pieces.

No, I think the alternative to my Ark would be to figure out where exactly the first bomb was going to drop and then to set up camp right there in the middle of it. Chances are, I would be vaporised immediately. And you, who will still choose the path to the DRDO shelter, consider this: that as your 96th hour draws to a close you may just envy me my fate.

[*] Defence Research and Development Organisation (India)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Politics of Pilgrimage

Until two weeks ago, the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in the high Himalayas bore testimony to the symbiotic relationship between Kashmiri Muslims and the Hindus of the plains. The continuing communal tension, bandhs, demonstrations, stone-pelting mobs, and retaliatory fire by the CRPF and police that have taken the lives of four lives so far, threaten to overturn it.

For once the Government of India cannot blame Pakistan. The credit for the chaos that recalls the vitiated atmosphere of the 1990s must firmly be placed at the feet of a few key players in the state, some of who have tried to gain dubious advantage in an election year.

The first on the list of honour is the head of state, Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha (retd.). Due to retire on June 4 this year, the octogenarian governor nonetheless insisted that the state government, in a wholly illegal move, transfer 100 acres of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) of which he is the president. This was done ostensibly to build permanent accommodation for the pilgrims en route to the cave.

Correspondence between the concerned departments reveal that the Forest Department had strongly objected to the transfer, citing the fragile environment and the downright illegality of taking over forest land, but the Forest and Law Ministers had pushed it through regardless. Was it cussedness, corruption or a sheer slide into dementia that prompted these gents to do what they did? One will never know, because the former Governor has retreated into a stony silence, and the ministers in question are too busy doing gymnastics to appear as the injured party.

Once the information of the land transfer was leaked, and the concerned Forest Minister, Qazi Afzal of the PDP questioned, his party turned tail and placed the blame squarely on the Congress. The Congress blackmailed the PDP into obliging the governor and would have blocked the construction of the Mughal Road, which is to link the Muslims areas of Rajouri and Poonch with the Valley. Or such was the breathless claim of a personage no less than the Deputy Chief Minister, Muzaffar Hussain Beig. The Valley erupted. The Congress was accused of communalizing the atmosphere and the PDP threatened for the nth time to pull out of the government. In a stunning revelation, the PDP accusation turned out to be a complete hoax, but by then no one was listening.

The Hurriyat, that had been unemployed the last few years because of Pakistan’s internal problems suddenly woke up to an ‘issue’ and declared that the land transfer was the first move towards a demographic change in Kashmir. No one bothered to ask the venerable leaders how many million ‘outsiders’ would fit into 100 acres of land at an altitude of 10,000 ft. Though the leaders have been at pains to state that this was not a communal issue, the fact is that neither the 700,000 kanals of land that have long been occupied by Indian security forces nor the several thousand kanals of land given to projects like the rail link to Kashmir have generated a similar response.

Across the Pir Panjal in Jammu, in a move mirroring the Hurriyat, the BJP, Bajrang Dal, VHP and sundry Hindu groups organized a strike to oppose the Kashmiris. How the people of Jammu should be affected by the building of permanent structures or not on the Amarnath route no one stops to ask because passions have been inflamed and everyone is out on the streets screaming blue murder, and all of this helps thugs to substantiate their claim of being the sole custodians of Hindu interests.

It takes a particularly diabolical genius to manufacture a crisis out of thin air. In a secular state the government has no business getting involved in religious affairs, whether it is meddling in Hindu pilgrimages or providing an entirely questionable Haj subsidy to Muslims— one that only bankrolls a bankrupt Air India.

The Amarnath pilgrimage, compared to ancient Hindu tiraths is a fairly recent affair, and came into being only in the 1850s when the cave with its ice lingam was discovered by a Muslim shepherd. His descendants, together with Hindu sadhus, continued to be involved in the organization and logistics of the pilgrimage until 2001. From all accounts the pilgrimage ran smoothly for a hundred and fifty years, even at the height of militancy, until the J&K Government stepped in.

If there is a case of fixing something that ain’t broke it is this. Ever since the government took over, the SASB has been mired in controversy. In 2004, the Governor decided to extend the pilgrimage from one to two months. Why, when the ice lingam has a life of a month, don’t ask. A second route, bulldozed through fragile mountains via Baltal from the north, 30 km shorter than the traditional route, was regularized. All kinds of new and ‘improved’ facilities, including a helicopter service to the cave were advertised. The result was an increase in traffic from a few thousand pilgrims to 400,000.

Can high altitudes sustain large populations, even if it is for a short period? The State Pollution Control Board complained bitterly about the sheer quantity of garbage and human waste that was generated during the yatra, and which flowed straight into the pristine Lidder River. The SASB’s response to this environmental disaster of its own making was a promise to build more toilets. In 2005, on a hike in the sylvan Betab valley soon after the yatra closed, I walked straight into the lies and realized to my horror, that the 400,000 much preferred a lota and the woods to the sarkari latrines.

In 2006, the mahant who had been involved in organizing the yatra all these years, Deepender Giri, resigned from the SASB in disgust, accusing the Governor of creating an artificial lingam. The ice lingam had begun to melt earlier than normal because of unseasonal heat and the unreasonable number of pilgrims entering the cave. In a move to stem the melting lingam and the howl of protest by the pilgrims who felt they’d been cheated, the Governor, without consulting the board, had ordered bags of dry ice to be placed around the lingam. Another howl of protest…

In all this cacophony the wise pilgrim should pause and consider the object of pilgrimage. In this case it is Shiva. Once, a long time ago a Bengali babaji who lived in the Khir Bhavani temple in Ganderbal reminded me, ‘Places that are associated with Vishnu are calm and peaceful. Kashmir is always in ferment because it belongs to Bhairav and Kali.’ Shiva is the creator, preserver and destroyer. In the skandas he is constantly called upon to maintain order, to restore the balance of the universe. This he does sometimes by dancing the tandav, the dance of destruction. The wise pilgrim should ask why it is that the lingam has begun to melt.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Polo Club

Sometimes a city conceals its secrets in a place so public that nobody notices. Between Dhaula Kuan and West Delhi, on a forested swathe of the Ridge called Nicholson’s Range lives the Delhi Polo & Riding Club— some paddocks, some stables, some horses, and miles and miles of trails scored through acres and acres of rough jungle.

Here there is pleasure in all seasons: high grass and thick, kikkar forests, the easy rhythm of the horses interrupted by the startled cries of partridges and peacocks. In summer the air is decidedly a few degrees cooler. In winter, the ground mist muffles all but the soft clicks of the mallet and ball from the emerald-green polo fields. Once during the monsoons we got lost, crossing ravines now turned into rushing streams, and trails overgrown with thick Lantana.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Riding the Ridge

©sonia jabbar

I’m glad they insisted I wear the helmet. As long as we were cruising swiftly and silently through the forest on the flat I could be forgiven for considering this an unnecessary cosmetic. But now perched as we were on the lip of a crag with a perilously steep and rocky decline before me I considered a prayer to fortify the helmet. Then I released the brakes. The bike bucked as spiritedly as a young filly as we bounded down the slope, but I survived the trip. Looking up, I saw the others silhouetted briefly against a brightening sky before they came down gracefully, negotiating the boulders and dodging the inch-long thorns of the low branches of kikar trees with skilled expertise.

This was not the formal mountain biking club I had been led to believe; just a bunch of friends with a passion for cycles and the outdoors. But they had organized themselves admirably. Their bikes were sturdy, lightweight imports, their gear impressive. On weekends they rode on the Ridge or did longer road trips: along the Jamuna to Noida, or from Gurgaon to Faridabad. Once in a while they rode their bikes in the Simla hills, and now they planned to do Ladakh. It was clear from their easy camaraderie that this had as much to do with friendships as with exercise. My reasons for agreeing to forgo the pleasure of sleeping in on the weekend had primarily to do with nostalgia, of renewing my relationship with the city I felt I had lost.

I had forgotten how beautiful Delhi looked at dawn, slumbering on peacefully under a gossamer blanket of fog. I drove south in the soft, lilac light, to my rendezvous at the Ridge, passing the Gurudwara where dogs still slept, tight as commas, and young turbaned acolytes swept the street clear of leaves with brooms twice as tall as themselves; passing too the grand bungalows of Lutyen’s Delhi where mali’s worked discretely at lawns. Emptied of people and cars the city reminded me of another Delhi, one to which I had eagerly arrived so many years ago, excited and impressed.

Like most people going about their business in this vast, sprawling metropolis I don’t really belong. Unlike the others, though, I don’t curse Delhi; this city that has sheltered uncomplainingly for so long. And though it is true that I have consumed my share of smoke, particulate matter, abuse, viruses, thugs, and the barely filtered sludge, which comes out of the Jamuna and lodges in the gut, I have also eaten its salt, and so beholden I must remain. This isn’t blind loyalty. It springs from the early love affair we had, the city and me, when we were both younger and full of optimism not just about life but our lives together.

Two factors contributed to the passion. The first was a membership procured at a pittance, to the President’s Estate Polo Club, which allowed me to explore the Ridge on horseback. And the other was my bicycle, a blue light-framed Hero with drop handlebars, upon which I glided through streets as yet uncluttered by the debris of flyovers and road rage. And yes, the third, most vital element of all, was time, unchecked by a job or deadlines, insouciant, stretching out as endlessly as the long road from Jungpura to Qutub, where I would spend afternoons watching the minaret appear miraculously, trembling upon the damp paper under the careless strokes of my paintbrush.

All this ended abruptly. The city grew up and I suppose I did too, albeit more reluctantly.

But here I was again on the Ridge— that marvelous, rugged country of ravines and kikar scrub forest, packed red earth and peacocks. Time had rewound 15 years. The forest closed around me quickly, snuffing out even the most occasional of traffic noises. All I could hear was the light scrunch of dry leaves under my tires. Above the sky was a vast, luminescent, rose-tinted dome across which an occasional aircraft would silently appear and disappear in slow motion, mirage-like. Turning a corner, I had come upon the shattered battlements of an old fort, a few minutes later I am startled by a covey of partridges that whirr out suddenly in front. I pass a few morning-walkers with their overbred German Shepherds and old mustachioed men with twigs of neem and brass lotas. Then, a small temple painted red, tucked away in a thicket, and later, in a clearing of the forest, an old saint’s dargah. The Ridge, I realise, is a secret, parallel universe in the heart of the city, the same city that reveals only its squalor to lesser mortals. It beckons and reveals itself only to the most ardent and persistent of suitors, those who would approach on foot, on horse, or on bicycle.

©Sonia Jabbar

To join the mountain biking enthusiasts contact:
Vishal: 9810273377;
or Ranjit: 9811018748;