Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Qutb Complex

October 17th, 2009 afternoon

Everytime we drive around Delhi, it feels like the roadways were planned along the lines of a celtic knot. I think we went in circles nearly every time we left the hotel until the driver eventually found the gap in the loop. The drive from India Gate to the Qutb Complex was like that.
I only just learned the name of these ruins, and I was able to find them (as opposed to the bajillion other ruins around Delhi) because I remembered the pillar.
The pillar has an amazing story, which I will butcher without the help of Wikipedia. So before I start quoting more knowledgeable sources (Wiki), I’ll just say that it might be extraterrestrial. Seriously.
The scholars of Wiki write that the pillar may have been created as early as 912 BCE and stood at the center of a Jain temple complex of 27 temples. Stones from those temples were defaced – literally, faces were scratched out by the Muslim conquerors – and used to build the Qutb complex where the pillar still stands, unmoved. The 7 meter tall, 6 ton pillar is 98% wrought iron and has withstood corrosion for over 1,600 years without shelter. Archaeologists and metallurgists can’t explain it.

And, it was by this pillar that I found out the name of where we went minutes before I put up this post. In my travel journal, it is merely described as “red stone ruins” which do not do it justice. “Indiana Jones level of awesome” is a far better descriptor.

Our tour guide spouts numbers, they all spout numbers. Tour guides may as well be out of work accountants for all the numbers they know. I can’t remember any of them. What I remember are the pillars at the entrance to a large stone courtyard. These stone pillars were built out of stones reused from the Hindu and Jain temples that used to stand at the site before the Muslims came and were offended by depictions of people and foreign gods. They took the temples apart like kids with Lego castles and built their own places of worship and monuments to their own greatness. Maybe it gave them satisfaction to walk halls where conquered gods danced headless around them.

One can’t help but wonder what the carvings looked like when they were new.

The complex is huge with wide open spaces, crumbling walls, and stone steps to grassy lawns that have grown over what used to be there. Families from all over India come to see it. And a few adventurous Europeans. And us: a group of mostly middle-aged white American women. I quickly came to understand that ruins are a dime a dozen, but a bunch of white women – that’s what you want your picture taken next to if you’re a family from rural India.

After being hounded by beggars, taxi wallahs, and pushy salesmen, meeting people who wanted nothing more than a picture was a striking contrast. They were so nice, so entertained to see us. They thought we were great. If you ever want to know what it feels like to be a celebrity, just travel to India where you become the main attraction (no matter what World Heritage Site you’re standing in front of). I’m not saying this to be condescending in any way. It was just strange. And they were so nice about it. Our guide joked that pictures of us would be hanging in every one of their living rooms and they would invite people over to tell them about their new American friends. I still don’t know how to take that.

A funny story about the ruins: There is a giant red tower that reaches far above the highest point of the ruins. It’s called the Qutb Minar. Across a grassy courtyard from the Qutb Minar is a pile of red bricks that used to be a second tower. The story goes that a later conqueror wanted to build a tower taller than the Qutb Minar, right across from it. But when the second tower was almost completed, a massive earthquake leveled it. The Qutb Minar was completely undamaged. India is a humbling experience for everyone.
As our group was leaving, our guide for the past two days offered to take a group picture of us outside the gate to the ruin. He took all of our cameras and just when he was about to shoot the first picture, an Indian family jumped in with their small children, asking without a word of English, if they could take pictures of their kids posing with all of us white women. The mother pressed her baby girl into Susan’s arms (she’s a nurse and loves children). The baby was totally chill with this, like it happened all the time, and they snapped photos of us while our guide snapped photos of us and them. Eventually we all posed together having gained new extended family members. On the street it is easy to forget that a lot of Indian people are genuinely good, kind and not out to take advantage of foreigners. This random family thought it was so cool that we were there, and we thought it was so cool that they were there. So different and enjoying those differences so much.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

India Gate

India, October 17th 2009 Morning

I don’t know which was worse: the traffic congestion on the streets of Delhi during the evening rush, or the rush of congestion that left me with three to four hours of sleep last night. The sheer adrenaline of travel is keeping me upright and cheerful however.

India Gate
Think of a simpler Arc de Triomphe – a giant white marble arch with INDIA GATE etched in large letters at the top. This is the first landmark I remember seeing in Delhi. It’s a war memorial commemorating 90,000 soldiers who fought for the British Empire in World War 1 and the Afghan wars. It is also the first place our large air-conditioned tour bus stopped to let us off for picture taking.

The monument was across the 4 lane street from us, in the middle of a grassy park. To get up close required a game of dodge the speeding Indian cars, running from one side to the center divider, and then running again to the sidewalk of the park. Stragglers faced death. Well, ok, not certain death, but no one dared to test the theory by walking slowly either.

Surrounding the monument were petite, dark, smiling men selling toys. Now, let me backtrack a little…

At UCLA, my Alma Mater, we had Bruin Walk: a path that lead from the dorm side of campus to the class side of campus. Lining and frequently blocking this path were people selling things, handing out coupons, advertisements, and manifestos, asking “excuse me, do you have a minute?” I hated this from the first second and vowed – yes, vowed – to never take a flyer. Ever. It requires discipline to not reach out and take something if it is thrust at you. This might seem silly, but training myself to ignore people who tried to pull my attention and sympathies was vital for India. Thank you LA, you have prepared me to fight off street vendors and beggars in third world countries.

Some of the other women on the trip were softer touches. It was not good. Here’s what happened:

We walked in a group to India Gate, taking pictures, being tourists. The toy salesmen (for lack of a better word – if anyone knows a better word for pesky street salesmen, please tell me because they’ll come up a lot in these posts) – anyways, the toy salesmen came at us like so many seagulls around a beach picnic. Middle aged tourists were their chapatis and ghee (read: bread and butter). Don’t make eye contact, utter quiet “no”s followed by louder, more assertive ones if necessary, they all know enough English to understand “no” and “how much,” though they only pay attention to the latter. They give up on me quickly, but as soon as one woman stops to look at their wares – and then buys a few small cheap plastic toys for the young children in her family, that’s when all the circling seagulls descend.

I’ll map the action in terms of distance from India Gate. Under the gate, the dozen men were displaying their toys, explaining how they worked, offering prices. Each man picked out a target and stuck to her. Twenty feet away from the gate, prices started fluctuating drastically. The women who bought toys under the gate suddenly found they paid three times as much as the current price. We thought the men would give up at the sidewalk of the street, but they braved the traffic to chase us all the way back to the bus, waving toys and tapping at the windows.

It’s one of those stories that you laugh at a few months after it happens, but in the moment, I was out of patience with my bewildered companions. “Ignore pretty much everyone” was ingrained in me from working in L.A. for two years—it’s the only thing you can do to protect yourself. But, treating people (even rude people) as if they don’t exist leaves me with a nasty feeling in the middle of my chest, like a piece of moldy bread is lodged under my sternum. It’s a necessary skill, but I wish it wasn’t.

Once in the bus, Beth and our guide for the day repeated their warnings not to interact with the street salesmen, this time to a group who paid rapt attention and affirmed the wisdom with nods of experience.

 I didn't get pictures of the men - they probably would have tried to charge me for them, but I did get these pictures of a family in the park and a woman employed in raking leaves.