Author Archives: ipsita20

Fairy tales and Other Daydreams at the Agra Fort


[Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Antoine Taveneaux)]

From the outside, one might imagine the interiors of the mid-16th century Agra Fort to be quite bundled up in its two layers of semi-circular walls and its moat, courtesy the Yamuna. Once you are inside however, you spatially experience the same vastness that you imagine when you read of the decades over which its construction was done and redone (from the reign of Akbar to Shahjahan, and even its pre-history during Lodi reign), and the significant influence of this construction over later Mughal architecture.

The walk from the road outside, up toward the Amar Singh Gate is literally an introduction to the massive size of the structures, unending lengths and breadths of the compound, and legend-studded history of Agra Fort. Arch after arch, slit after slit in those sandstone faces rising over 20 m, window after window from where the women of the zenana would peep onto the buzz of life below, the brilliance of sunshine bouncing off the spotless white marble mosques, pavilion after pavilion and lines of fountains, and room after room that have been passages for the air to travel past in a Venturi effect and cool all the inhabitants.

At one point, you even find an optical illusion by which the view of the Taj Mahal does not shrink but only becomes larger when you move away from it. I guessed, when I saw this, that it probably had more to do with keeping an eye on the enemy across the river rather than any romantic connotations regarding the Taj.

Which brings me to the state of mind I found myself in trying to make sense of the surroundings when I visited here last. The grand spread and symmetry of each specimen, the geometrically painted red sandstone, the meticulously planned Charbagh garden layout, and carved marble that looks like lines drawn and held magically in milk, act as a vast canvas for stories. Stories that the more conscientious would have read from Akbarnama and Shahjahanama besides history books (or even a Goodearth guide), and the very colourful stories that the local tour guide tells you, especially if you are travelling with children.

A story perhaps, of how Shahjahan stared sadly out at the Taj from the copper domed Mussaman Burj after Aurangzeb imprisoned him at this magnificent royal residence. A story of the takeover of the British and the later Independent Indian army over parts of the military genius that this structure is, or a story of Shivaji’s brave escape from the fort precincts. Stories of assemblies held at the gleaming white Diwan-i-Khas and warm red Diwan-i-Am, of reigning supreme from the peacock throne with its glittering rubies and emeralds, of the starry eyed dreams at the Sheesh Mahal studded with tiny mirrors, of women behind jaali screens at the Jahangiri Mahal wondering what battlefields looked like, and of being the emperor of Hindustan who from within the gem-inlaid Khas Mahal strategised his next move as he looked out onto the relaxing patterns of Anguri Bagh.

The description here may seem to be too much all together. One has to be present there to know the layers and range of experience that is only outlined in this little piece, and to feel all of what led the Agra Fort to be declared a World Cultural Heritage Site (in 1983) by the UNESCO.

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Posted by on November 16, 2016 in Uncategorized


Ganga Aarti in the City of Light


Photo credit: Nanda Basu

One evening not long ago, I sailed in a little boat from Ramnagar to Dasashwamedh Ghat. The oars creaked and the Ganga whispered little dreams as a surreal glimmer huddled in the tinkle of bells came closer. Conch shells called out across the water and across its banks, beckoning those like me to the spectacle that was to come.

In a display of the wealth and worth of spiritual light that Varanasi, Banaras, or Kashi, has been known for since time immemorial, the dusk offers its prayers to the holy river, a worshipped deity in herself, in its own distinct style. Holding large metallic diyas in one hand and ringing a bell in the other, a line of priests in bright, uniform silken dhoti-kurtas perform an elaborate salutation in all directions, moving their arms in uniform acrobatic dance in several rounds. A sea of people stood assembled behind them.

In one round, the oil lamps have decorative crowns depicting serpents’ heads; another round is performed with tall layered lamps. It must take a lot of practice to move the huge flame holders about oneself like this, thought the pyrophobic me. They also rotated containers of smoky incense. The fragrance grew stronger, the drumbeats were intense, the gathering swayed to the rhythm of hymns, and the air got more heady.

They say that the way the Ganga loops itself at Varanasi signifies a sort of completion of life, of the point of attaining moksha from rebirth and the worldly sansara. That morning I had seen ashes of the departed floating out into the water. I had seen pyre after pyre at the Manikarnika Ghat. I had seen people taking dips in the river and bowing to Shiv-lingas, their expressions blank. I had seen folks sitting on the steps of ghats shaving their heads to move closer to an answer still elusive.

And in the evening, at the end of the aarti, I saw little diyas lifted from the edge of the ghat and floated out onto the same divine, celestial Ganga, who makes her way down from her home in the Himalayas, on and on for ages and ages as though there was no beginning. Appearing increasingly like stars on an opaque black sky, making their way out of the bounds of those who lit them, the lamps glided away from us. At that moment, all the sounds and the illumination faded. And tomorrow, the whole image would be back- from the beginning, all over again.

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Posted by on November 10, 2016 in Uncategorized