Post 5 – Day 1 ‘There, and in between’ (Pt 3)

Post 5

However, there were some parallels with my home country that I found myself pondering that night. Both New Delhi, the capital of India, and Canberra, the capital of Australia, are both divorced from their respective adjacent states by virtue of being located in specially designated national capital territories. A minor claim to sister-ship maybe, but the foundation for New Delhi was laid in 1911, much the same time that the site for Canberra was selected in 1908. New Delhi was ‘christened’, if you will, the capital in 1927 the same year that the Australian federal legislature moved to Canberra from its temporary accommodation in Melbourne. Calcutta, now renamed Kolkata, until 1911 was the capital of India during the time of the British Raj, however, prior to this Delhi had served previously as the capital of empires, in particular that of the Mughal Empire that lasted from 1649 until 1857. Delhi is also believed to be the site of Indraprastha, the legendary capital of the Pandavas, heroic combatants in the massive Indian epic the Mahabharata.

Apart from the absence of a singularly monumental Australian foundation epic, there are several distinctions between the two capitals, not least of all that whilst Canberra can lay claim to a population less than half a million, that of metropolitan New Delhi is beyond 14 million, and is rumoured to be still growing. Those conscious of social class will also note that New Delhi was planned by the laudable British architects Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker. Australia, unintentionally foreshadowing perhaps a later distancing of allegiance to the mother country, found recourse to suitable city planning designs with the post-colonial architects of then lesser note, the untitled Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin. They maintained a modest office in Chicago, in the United States of America, a land that had the audacity to shrug off imperial patronage well before the general rot of empire set in following Indian Independence in 1947. However, Marion seems to have suffered being generally written out of the later Australian rejoicing over the team’s grand planning vision. Walter seems to have captured all the popular kudos. Marion became an historical footnote.

The foresight of the design aside, some will be quick to add that Canberra can claim little yet in the nature of momentous world history. There is just no race here for it to enter. Canberra’s contemporary architecture, regardless of its merits, nor its short moment in time, has not been etched sufficiently by events of a grand and terrible scale. New Delhi has layers of it, with some seven major cities being found by archaeologists below its streets. Plus it is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun and the Qutub complex.

Declared a world heritage site in 1993 Humayun’s Tomb was inspired by the Gur-e Amir, the mausoleum of fearful Tamerlane located at Samarkand, in Uzbeckistan. It was commissioned by Humayun’s wife Hamida Banu Begum, not to be confused with his first wife Haj Begum, in 1562 CE, begun three years later and completed in 1572. Hamida found later burial within the red sandstone walls of her husband’s mausoleum. The tomb set an architectural precedent in India that would see a future climax in style in the form of the Taj Mahal at Agra, yet it was within the stately confines of Humayun’s Tomb that the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar sought refuge from the British during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, India’s first war of independence, and otherwise known as the Indian Mutiny; a subject I will no doubt find myself pondering further during my journey.

Given the date of the tomb’s construction, I was not surprised to learn that no British architect, neither of high repute nor otherwise, was involved in its design and construction. Rather, its building is attributed to the Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas. Upon his untimely death the work was completed by his son, Sayyed Muhammad ibn Mirak Ghiyathuddin. Reflecting on the magnificence they achieved, and who am I to question the achievement acknowledged by its world heritage status, the choice of architects was obviously a smart one. Looking at what most London-based Tudor period firms had on offer at the same time, mainly thatched and white-washed manor houses prone to termite attack and rodent infestation in a tropical environment, and the occasional brick or masonry-clad stately home with barely a water closet worth the name, it was opportune that history was running a course that was yet to allow the nascent British Empire a chance at tendering for the construction contract.

It is just a pity that its current furnishing apparently represents a retreat from the rich interior reported by the English merchant William Finch in the early 17th century. And the splendour of the original ‘paradise’ garden, the ‘Char Bagh’, reportedly and variously approximated at 13-30 hectares, within whose surrounds the tomb was set, progressively placed a heavy burden on the waning Mughal Empire’s capacity to upkeep. Sadly, by the end of the 18th century the Char Bagh had devolved to that of a large vegetable plot, the subject of cultivation by villagers who had settled within its walls.

Its demise did not end there for with the end of the Mughals the British replanted the gardens in the style of that to which they were more familiar. Basically lots of regular flower beds, these often circular, and a good handful of water ponds. Fortunately, the Indian Viceroy, Lord Curzon, later intervened to restore the Char Bagh to something resembling its original design and grandeur. However, the terror and trauma of the 20th century partition of India into two sovereign states brought many Muslim refugees to its grounds, and for the five years that these camps prevailed considerable damage to the Char Bagh and its infrastructure occurred. Though restoration, including the replanting of thousands of trees, has once again brought repair to the site it serves as an introductory example as to the fate of much of India’s architectural and cultural heritage. And that whilst the forces of nature ultimately erode the pretensions of the momentarily mighty, much of the destruction I was to later see represented the vandalism of man – several iconoclasts of particular notoriety among them.

But threats to Humayun’s Tomb have not fully abated. Their extent and kind span the risk of terrorist attack, with its resultant decline in tourists and the revenue needed for upkeep of the monument, ill-considered urban planning, and the discarding of plastic waste within the tomb’s protected area. The ever-confronting vision of orphaned plastic was to loom large in my travel.

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