Ugrasen ki Baoli: ancient in the heart of New Delhi

10 02 2013

Middle levels

Such a magnificent stone stepwell was so unexpected in this remote village of mud-brick houses; it raised many questions. Who built it? Were there others? A month later I learned there were many others. Although none were quite like that at Adalaj, many were just as fascinating in similar settings throughout central India.”
Morna Livingston in the preface to Steps to Water

For some strange reason, baolis (stepwells) fascinate me. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the multiple repeat symmetry, or that they are so far from our Western perceived image of a ‘well’, or the simple beauty and variety of the structure, but whatever the reason, they do. In October 2010 we explored our first one, the Ugrasen ki Baoli (aka Agrasen ki Baoli) located in the cetnre of New Delhi and, due to the brilliant photograph, taken in 1976 by Raghu Rai (reproduced below), one of the most famous ones. This photograph is also likely to be a strong influence on my fascination.

Diving into the Ugrasen Baoli by Raghu Rai

The baoli is straight forward to find, being just south east of Connaught Place, with a helpful new sign pointing its whereabouts off Hailey Road. Or at least it was simple for us as it is marked on the Eicher city map and we had an excellent taxi driver who knew where Hailey Road was and found the turn. The nearest metro station is Barakhamba Road.

How to find the baoli

The site was being renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India when we visited with the introduction of new, stone, information plinths, with the period details dating the baoli to the fiftieth century.

this is here

Arriving mid-afternoon we found the site occupied by local teenagers. One of the younger ones insisted that he show me around the site. He was polite and friendly so I said yes. He then proceeded to take me around the site, chatting away as we went, from down the steps up to the higher galleries and around the back to the deep circular tank. He explained that the lack of water was due to the construction site behind the baoli stealing it. He then showed me a photo on his phone of what it looked like when it was full; the 1976 Raghu Rai photograph. Arriving back at the top of the steps he said goodbye and wondered off to talk to his friends, wanting no tip just happy to have told another visitor the story of the baoli.

Steps to hangout

Whilst the image of the baoli is know there is little written about it beyond the repeating of the basic details, well outlined on the site information board above. Lucy Peck’s Intach Guide (2010 update), which we have found the best general guide to the monuments of Delhi, includes the baoli but has little extra detail.

new Delhi, old Delhi

A better impression of the site is given in Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. When he visited it during his exploration-on-foot of the city he is told by the watchman, Bagh Singh, that he is the boy in the Rai photograph (page 47 Viking Edition 2008). Miller’s book is in no way a ‘guide’ to the city in the conventional sense but we have used it as a signpost for visiting some of Delhi’s less well known places. It’s a well-put-together book with hand-drawn maps and small monochrome photos, written with passion and fascination. I would recommend it as the first book to read for anyone planning to visit the city, even before Dalrymple’s City of Djinns.

not wide, but deep

For more about the baolis of Delhi the always interesting The Delhi Walla has an article and we will be writing about some of the others later.

On the middle step

For those who want to know more about the history and construction of baolis we would recommend Morna Livingston’s Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India with excellent photography and plenty of interesting text (although it’s more accurately described as the stepwells of Gujarat and Rajasthan). This book we do want to use as a guide book for a tour around the country.

This is a heritage site

— words by Paul
— pictures by Paul & Elizabeth

An introduction to the Leader of India

14 02 2010

When we returned to the National Museum in Delhi – think a 70’s version of the Bristish Museum – we expected to find a fascinating collection of art and exhibits. What we didn’t expect was to find a boxed set of the Leader of India.

Box of leaders

Whilst hunting through the corners of the museum gift shop we came across a pile of brightly patterned rectangular boxes – each about 30cm long – and tied with a red ribbon. Inside were ten small, painted, clay figures with each box following a theme; soldiers, peasants, musicians etc. At the back was one box labelled ‘Leader of India’. Intrigued, we opened it to discover… ten leaders of India!

Leaders in the box

At least we assumed they were leaders of India as each 7cm figure is more a caricature of a leader which, coupled with our only introductory level knowledge of Indian history, made it difficult to identify them as there were no other labels or key. One was clearly Jawaharlal Nehru, another Indira Gandhi and the figure with round glasses and a stick must be Mohandas K Gandhi but the others? Is the one in a turban supposed to be the current Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh? What about the uniformed figure – is it that guy who’s always in the background in photographs of the independence movement? And the one in a lunghi with a very prominent wristwatch?

Fortunately, that evening we took the box around to a friend’s to see if she could identify them. After a period of silence – followed by hysterical laughter – we had an answer as Ritu could identify them all. Caricatures they maybe but each had just sufficient clues to place the figure in India’s recent history. And a very eclectic selection they turned out to be. Yes we were right about Nehru, Indira and Gandhi but no, it wasn’t Dr. Singh.

We shall be making more posts revealing who the other ‘leader of India’ are, with some background information about each of them, but will be interested to see if anyone else can identify them before we post the details.

Leaders from above

And all this for just R150s!
Bill of sale

— words and pictures by Paul

Interesting links: in memory of the victims of Bhopal

2 12 2009

At five minutes past midnight on the 3rd December it will be the twenty fifth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster when over 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas was accidentally released from the Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing facility in the city. Estimates still vary about how many of the residents died or were injured by the release, but over 4,000 people were killed in the first few hours, and the long-term after effects are believed to take the death toll past 15,000. And the number is still rising.

Smoke and incense

Five Past Midnight in Bhopal by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro

It was hailed as a miracle. A cheap, effective solution to India’s food shortages, the American pesticide, Sevin, promised the world. And Union Carbide’s state-of-the-art factory would provide jobs for the thousands of refugees who came from far and wide to the vibrant, teeming city of Bhopal, dreaming of a better life. But at five past midnight on the night of 3 December 1984, a terrible explosion poured noxious fumes into Bhopal’s crowded slums. The apocalypse had begun. With pace and compassion, Lapierre and Moro bring this disaster and its victims to centre stage: the young Padmini who is to be married that night; the advent of Union Carbide and its mission to rescue the Third World; a Scottish nun who risks her life to save lost children; and a poetry lover who unleashes the tragedy. They weave together these and many other stories to tell this epic of love and heroism, catastrophe and consequence.

Essential reading for anyone interested in the human misery of the disaster. Does try to examine the responsibility of Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster, but is hampered, unsurprisingly, by lack of access to Company papers. Also fails to question the weaknesses of the regulatory system at the time but tells the victims’ story with compassion and respect.

The Big Picture: 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster

A policeman points to the gas tank which vented its contents into the atmosphere in 1984, at the site of the deserted Union Carbide factory on November 28, 2009 in Bhopal, India. Twenty-five years after a massive gas leak at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal killed thousands, toxic material from the ‘biggest industrial disaster in history’ continues to affect Bhopalis. A new generation is growing up sick, disabled and struggling for justice. The effects of the disaster on the health of generations to come, both through genetics, transferred from gas victims to their children and through the ongoing severe contamination, caused by the Union Carbide factory, has only started to develop visible forms recently.

As you would expect from The Boston Globe’s Big Picture column a superb set of photographs both from the event itself and from Bhopal today.

Bhopal’s economy was stalled by the 1984 gas leak by Jorn Madslien and Ben Richardson

The leak, which is often described as the world’s worst industrial accident, also knocked the city’s economic development back years, if not decades, causing widespread and long-lasting poverty well beyond the areas affected by the initial gas cloud.
The gas victims, in turn, fall into two categories: Those who inhaled the gas that night 25 years ago and those suffering ailments after drinking water polluted by the accident.
It might seem incredible that not more is done to help them and to prevent their situation from getting worse, but the gas victims’ fight for attention faces stiff competition from millions of equally poor and desperate people across the state.

A recent study carried out on behalf of the Bhopal Medical Appeal about the on-going effects of the release has lead to much comment and discussion:

Bhopal water still toxic, 25 years on by Agence France-Presse

Groundwater at the site of the world’s worst industrial accident in India’s Bhopal city is still toxic and making residents sick 25 years after a gas leak there killed thousands, a study said on Tuesday.
The analysis conducted by the UK-based Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) also cast doubt upon government-sponsored research into the impact of the disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, where methyl isocyanate gas spewed from a storage tank on December 3, 1984.
Activists say more than 350 tonnes of toxic waste strewn around the site still pollute soil and groundwater in the area, leading to cancer, congenital defects, immunity problems and other illnesses.

25 years on: Bhopal still contaminated by NDTV News

“We find very high levels of chemicals and pesticides in the UCC factory. These are the same chemicals and pesticides that UCC was manufacturing when it was operating its plant. What is even more worrying is that we found presence of the same chemicals and pesticides in the groundwater that we tasted in the city, clearly showing there is contamination of the site and that contamination is leaching into the ground water and is creating slow poisoning for the people who live in those localities,” said Sunitha Narain, director, CSE.

Bhopal water still toxic 25 years after deadly gas leak by Randeep Ramesh

The Indian government has also drawn fire for trying to pass the disused factory off as a tourist spot – with local politicians last month proposing to build a Hiroshima-like memorial there depicting a detailed account of the disaster. Adding insult to injury, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh mocked activists on a visit to the city by picking up a fistful of waste and saying “see, I am alive”.

Interesting links: on the assassination of Indira Ghandi

31 10 2009

Today, 31st October 2009, is the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Indira Ghandi in her residence in Delhi by two of her Sikh security guards.

Parliament Buildings along the Rajpath

On this day 1984: Indian prime minister shot dead (BBC)

Initial reports suggest the two attackers were guards at her home who were then shot by other security officers. No exact motive is known but it is believed the pair were Sikh extremists acting in retaliation for the storming of the Sikh holy shrine of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June.

Indira Gandhi: The legacy (NDTV News)

She was India’s iron lady, her first woman prime minister, and one of her last mass leaders. Even 25 years after her death, Indira Gandhi is regarded by many as the country’s best prime minister. Her extensive agricultural and financial reforms are still relevant. Yet, she is equally remembered for bringing Indian democracy nearly to its feet with her high-handedness.

Sonia Gandhi: She was at her best when faced with challenges. If she was pushed to the wall, there was pressure on her, she would come out and really fight back.

Garden murder that sparked a Delhi pogrom by Ian Jack (The Guardian)

But Delhi was my first full-scale communal riot. Pogrom might be a better word. To belong to the 8% or so of the city’s population which was Sikh was to know terror during those days in late 1984; in terms of civilian bloodletting, India had seen nothing like it in almost 40 years. Not to be known as a Sikh, not to be bearded and turbaned, not to be carrying a ceremonial dagger, not to be wearing orthodox underpants; all these negatives made you safe.

Father didn’t kill Indira Gandhi to make Sikhs happy by Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa (Sify News)

Papaji and his colleague Satwant Singh had gone to Harmandar Sahib to pay obeisance after the Blue Star incident. On learning the exact motive of the attack, the way in which it was actually executed and on seeing the devastation of the place and plight of Sikhs, both of them decided to assassinate Indira Gandhi on their own.

25 years after Indira Gandhi’s assassination (Times of India)

Indians on Saturday flocked to Shakti Sthal to pay homage to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on her 25th death anniversary. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the slain leader’s daughter-in-law, were amongst the first to pay tribute at her memorial on the banks of the Yamuna river. An all-religion prayer was also organised on the occasion.

Assassination in India: A Leader of Will and Force by Linda Charlton (New York Times obituary 1984)

Strong-willed, autocratic and determined to govern an almost ungovernable nation that seemed always in strife, Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister four times and the dominant figure in India for almost two decades.

floating dome

Interesting links: William Dalrymple

10 10 2009

viewing lutyensNine Lives by William Dalrymple reviewed by Ruaridh Nicoll (The Observer)

Yet at its best travel writing beats fiction, firing the imagination with tales of foreign peoples drawn close by our common humanity. If I had read Nine Lives as a boy, I would have felt that desire to strike out. That this book also makes its political points more powerfully than any newspaper article, while quietly adjusting a reader’s attitude to faith, builds its importance. It meets Dalrymple’s own criteria as set down in his recent article, displaying a deep knowledge of the culture, yet is intimate with each interviewee. This is travel writing at its best. I hope it sparks a revival.

William Dalrymple on the new generation of travel writers (The Guardian)

For nearly 10 years, travel writing was where the action was. It re-emerged at a time of disenchantment with the novel, and seemed to present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the techniques of the novel – it was possible to develop characters, select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum – yet what was being written about was true. Moreover, unlike most literary fiction, it sold.

Mahraja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts by William Dalrymple (The Guardian)

The V&A’s new exhibition is a serious attempt to put the myth of the maharajas in its proper context, as part of the history of courtly India, and to explore at the same time the visual and artistic expressions of Indian kingship both before and after the maharajas’ Victorian heyday. Nevertheless the show is haunted by the sad story of the princes and the British, telling how the British first bullied the princes into submission, schooling them in western tastes, then both laughed at, and envied, the monsters they had created. Finally, they quit India, leaving the maharajas to be abolished. At the V&A from 10th October 2009 – 17th January 2010

Sitting. Waiting.

— Photos by Paul & Elizabeth

Baby’s first book

31 05 2009

Everything in India is turned up to 11. To encompass the enormity of the country, the culture, the architecture, the food, the possibilities requires a particularly hefty guide book. A couple of years ago we decided that the only practical thing to do was to slice up our Lonely Planet guide and just carry the relevant sections, but we needed stationery supplies to keep the pages together and the used sections got rather dogeared in transit.

In just a few weeks we’re off on yet another trip to India, this time to Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab, and for this trip we’re better prepared. First we dissected both the Lonely Planet and the Footprint guide books, and then we reassembled them with blank pages for note-taking and a printout of our trip itinerary.

The bits we don’t need this time:

Book making 1: gather the information

Having consulted the internet and learned how to stitch loose pages to make a book, we drilled holes in our proto-guide book and then stitched the whole thing together.

Book making 2: stitch the signatures

So far so straightforward, but it needed a cover. After a lot of measuring, a little cutting and some simple sewing, we had a fabric cover into which the book slips. The addition of a tie made with ribbon purchased at the tailor’s market in Madurai and a print from a discarded wood block purchased in Jaisalmer brightened things up and fitted it for its destination.

Book making 3: sew and print the cover

— words Elizabeth
— photos Paul

Our new guidebook: A Journey to “Little Tibet”, May 1951

10 04 2009

During a recent trip to a second-hand bookshop Elizabeth came away with a large pile of cheap issues of The National Geographic Magazine. It was a random selection from the 1950s and the intention was to use some of the pages in various art projects. Serendipity, however, has intervened as volume XCIX number five from May 1951 contains an article on a journey undertaken by Mrs Enakshi Bhavani, her movie-producer husband and their son across Northan India from Srinagar to Leh: an area we’ll be travelling around later this year.

Cover, May 1951

Below are a selection of pages from the substantial article. The coloured plates were taken by Volkmar Wentzel, who worked as a photographer for the National Geographic for 48 years (his obituary from the Washington Post makes fascinating reading). The black and white photographs are not credited but from the text it is apparent that these were taken by Mrs Bhavani’s husband. My descriptions are adapted from Mrs Bhavani’s text.

Pages 606 and 607

Library and map of Ladakh
These show a map of the journey, drawn by Irvine E. Alleman, and a photograph of the Lamayuru library which stacks sacred books like shoe boxes with the end tags bearing the titles. The volumes were hand printed in Lhasa from wood blocks carved by Tibetan monks.

Pages 632 and 633

Himis Devil Dancers
The top picture is of Himis devil dancers wearing death’s-head hats and shields and the bottom one of the same dancers this time described as with “fiendish howls, masqueraders chase souls in purgatory”.

Pages 628 and 629

Buildings and people of Ladakh
The plate on the left is of Pituk monastery in the Indus valley which at the time was the headquarters of the Yellow Hat or reformed lamas. The women at the base of the hill are winnowing barley. On the top right is a chorten (sepulchral monument) near Leh with each cavity containing the ashes and relics of holy lamas.

As we travel around the area in July, we’ll be curious to see how much these places have changed in the intervening 58 years.

— Words and pictures by Paul


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