Kathy Hargrove, India

Kathy Hargrove, former associate dean for academic affairs at the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, has received the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship to work in India during fall and winter 2011. She is at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), a young university in Delhi, which is establishing its school of education. Her project, “Unwrapping India’s Gifts,” centers on children and youth with exceptional gifts and talents. She returns to her faculty position after completing the fellowship.

River journey

We have been enjoying new friends and experiences on board a little river vessel on the Brahmaputra River.  Our dinner table conversations were especially interesting.

For example, there is always a lot in the papers about Kashmere.  As you probably know, it is supposed to be very beautiful, but it continues to be a “hot spot” and problem area between India and Pakistan.  This topic brought us to Partition, which has surprised me because of the sense of immediacy about it, even though it happened more than 50 years ago.  It reminds me of visiting England 30 years ago when people talked about “the war” as if it had just ended a week or so in the past.

There is hardly a family that has not been affected by Partition — just mentioning the word will unloose a tale about having to leave Pakistan for India.  And, I’m sure if one were in Pakistan, it would be the same way regarding leaving India for Pakistan.  Of course, we were aware of the event, but we were not aware of many of the details — the terrible loss of life, terrorism, etc., which resulted.  Thousands and thousands of people were killed; both Hindus and Muslims, and so many people were forced to leave their longtime homes.

Village visit

We visited a village while we were on the Brahmaputra located on the mainland.  There were 100 to 150 houses spread around a fairly large area, and the people were very industrious.  They had a large flock of chickens in a “caged egg” house.  In addition they raised sugar cane and ground it, made molasses, and from molasses, made sugar or “jiggery.”  One enterprising man had purchased a big tractor that he rents out to others on the island.

School was out, but many of the children were wearing their uniforms —navy blue shorts or jumpers and light blue shirts.  The children “out of uniform” were very ragged and poorly dressed.  The school has a midday meal “scheme,” which provides a good lunch for all the children and encourages parents to keep them in school instead of putting them to work.  Many of the children proudly brought their schoolbooks to show us.  One little boy who stuck to me like glue had a ballpoint pen fastened to his shirt.  He was very proud of it — he had won it at school as a prize!

The village has electricity and several wells with pumps located around the place.  The houses are huts of various types, some with thatched roofs, others with roofs of sheet metal or palm.  They are mostly plastered with wattle, although there is heavy use of woven bamboo screens or shades.  We saw several handlooms looms working, as well as the agricultural work.  The money crops are bamboo, mustard seed, and wheat.  And in addition to chickens, they raise cows and goats.  The cow dung is very useful to them.  They use it in building their houses and also on “shish kabobs” — 4-foot sticks with lumps of dung attached.  When these are dried, they can conveniently be used as fuel.  The little wood they have is not used unless it is dead.


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Tughlaqabad Fort

Last week we visited still another ruined fort, Tughlaqabad Fort. This was built by Ghiya-ud-di, the founder of the Tughlaq dynasty, in 1327.  Legend has it that on a walk with his Khilji master, the king, it was suggested that he build a great fort in the location.

Just six years later, Ghazi Malik drove away the Khiljis and became the king himself, beginning the Tughlaq dynasty. He planned the huge fort to keep away the Mughal raiders, and in order to build it, he issued an order that all laborers in Delhi must work on the fort.  Unfortunately, a Sufi saint and mystic, Nizamuddin Auliya, resented the fact that there were no laborers to work on his well, and he cursed the fort, saying “May the fort remain unoccupied, infertile, or else the herdsmen may live here.”

While the fort was being built, the king was away at war in Bengal.  He was victorious, but as he made his way back to Delhi, his tent fell on him and crushed him to death.  His son was blamed for this incident.  Now the king is buried in the fort, along with another son, and although the fort was a mighty project, it fell into ruins.  Today the king’s magnificent tomb is across a modern road from the main fortifications, and we saw it only from a distance.

However, the main fort is easily accessible — I say easy if many steps are easy — but I climbed them like a mountain goat with the help of my husband, my cane, and a laborer who insisted on accompanying us from the entrance to the fort. He proudly showed us his ID card from the Archaeological Survey of India, naming him and identifying him as “casual labor.”  He didn’t claim to be a guide, but his limited English plus what we knew was quite sufficient, and he gave me a helping hand up many of the steps.

Even now, in ruins, this is an impressive structure.  It was surrounded by a wide moat, and its walls slant inward.  They are made of huge slabs of stone with the space between the inner and outer walls filled with rubble from the stonecutting.  There is no decoration anywhere — it is just practical and militaristic.  There remain today 13 ruined gates.  From the walls, a viewer in the 14th century would have seen barracks after barracks and stabling for horses and elephants, a glittering lake, bazaars, streets, and a magnificent gilded palace. Legend says that the sultan dug a huge tank and filled it with molten gold so that it was one huge block.  Today, there are a lot of young people having a “day out,” as well as laborers pecking away at the restoration.  The ruins stand on the edge of the city and fulfill another of the Sufi’s curses: “Delhi is still far away.”

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A chance to hear the Dalai Lama

Our friends got us tickets to see the Dalai Lama at the Indian Cultural Center. We arrived about 30 minutes early to find a long line already formed.  The event was supposed to begin at 2:30, but by the time they got as many people in as possible, it was later than that.  Every seat, lower floor and balcony, was taken.  As everywhere in India, there was a lot of security, and of course, the Dalai Lama himself had a big entourage.

His topic was the “Art of Happiness.” He spoke from a podium with a young monk at his side. He spoke without notes. After about 45 minutes, the representative of the sponsor, Penguin Books India, announced that he would take a few questions, but that “no questions about politics would be permitted.” The Dalai Lama and his monk took seats in the center of the stage.

The questions were interesting, as much for the questioners as for the questions.  The first person called on was an Indian; the next a young man; the third a physician from Spain, evidently there for a conference. Next came a neuroscientist from London, who wanted to know whether there had been any advances in viewing the brain while meditating (he shows a video to his classes of the Dalai Lama and a CT scan).  Next was an Indian woman right behind us who wanted to know how one could be happy when she had to watch a loved one suffer.  Finally there was a woman who wanted to know who had put the prohibition on the political speech.  This part of the program was interesting – my husband wrote down some of his pithy remarks:

“There will never be a universal religion. Only science is universal.”
“There is no definition of God; it is a mystery.”
“Replace hate with compassion.”
“Even a lie can be compassionate; remember the hidden Jews under Hitler’s regime.”
“Find the ‘spot’ of compassion even in hate, and concentrate on that.”

The most interesting thing about him was his sense of humor.  At the end of every answer, he made a quip or a joke.  For example, he said that whenever someone asked him about China, he said, “I don’t have an answer; I am retired.”  He has a deep belly laugh that is contagious.

The young monk by his side supplied an English word when he couldn’t bring it forward.  For example, he gave him the word “inconceivable,” which the Dalai Lama obviously knew but couldn’t recall.  It was amazing how the young man sensed what he wanted to say.

The speech was wildly popular with the audience, both those inside and the 300-400 people outside viewing the presentation on video.  He stayed until the last person had left the auditorium, mingling with the crowd.

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Journey to Safdarjung’s tomb

With the faculty at Ambedkar University

Our destination today was Safdarjung’s tomb, erected by his son, who begged permission to bring him back to Delhi, if only in death, in the early 18th century. We have driven past this monument a number of times, and as it is on the list of “must-sees,” we decided to take a look. In City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, author William Dalrymple says that Safdarjung’s life “encapsulates perfectly the intriguing but cataclysmic half century that linked the Mughal high noon with the decay and disintegration of the twilight fifty years later.” One of the information signs calls the tomb the “flickering light of a dying lamp,” expressing a similar idea.

Safdarjung was a Persian nobleman from Iran who came to India in the late 17th century, earned a post in the Imperial Army, married a Mughal noblewoman, and succeeded his father-in-law as the Nawab (governor) of the state. This was at the peak of the Mughal empire: Delhi had a larger population than Paris or London, the army seemed invincible, its palaces were magnificent, and the “domes of its many mosques quite literally glittered with gold” (Dalrymple). By the time of Safdarjung’s death, however, the last Persian Shah, Nadir, had come to India and then gone, taking with him the immense wealth that had been accumulated over 8 generations.

Safdarjung's tomb

This was a dangerous time to be a leader! Three emperors were assassinated; the last one was blinded with a hot needle before his execution. The mother of one emperor was strangled, and the father of another was forced over a precipice while riding his elephant. The city of Delhi, once so magnificent, was in ruins. However, during much of this time, Safdarjung was the de facto ruler. He had consolidated his holdings to include the richest land in India from Bengal across the rich plains of North India to the eastern borders. While the Imperial family played and amused themselves, Safdarjung increased his power. When the last emperor died, he seized the office of Vizier or Prime Minister. But he overplayed his hand; his arrogant bullying offended everyone, and the Imperial family called in the armies of the Hindu Mahratta. In the civil war that followed, Safdarjung was driven out of Delhi, not to return until his body was placed in his tomb.

The beauty of the Taj Mahal is familiar to all of you who have no doubt seen it in pictures if not in real life. That memorial is spotless white Agran marble, balanced in design, and simple in its elegance. The tomb of Safdarjung is almost its opposite. Instead of white marble, it is built of what marble could be cannibalized from other Delhi tombs. When that ran out, there was no more marble available; the Agra quarries were not yielding as much stone, and in addition, the road from Delhi to Agra was controlled by wild and hostile Jat tribesmen. So the tomb had to be finished in a patchwork of Delhi sandstone.

After paying Rs 100 for an entrance fee, we walked through two lines of beggars waiting for the noon prayers in the attached mosque to be finished. Whatever the mosque’s architectural weaknesses, the acoustics are excellent, and the men’s voices followed us through the gate and into the tomb’s precincts. The gate, wide enough for a car to get through, leads to a beautifully laid out Mughal garden centered by a fountain (not working) and a reflecting pool (almost empty). This is India! But it would be like the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument being empty.

The walkways are in good repair, though quite rough, and the grass is green, tempting at least 20 men to take off their shoes, make their clothes into a pillow, and curl up for a nap. I have never seen a woman do this, although the men are a common sight in every park. The walk leads up to the tomb itself, an eccentric building topped by a patchwork dome. Two sets of stairs lead to the second level. The steps were at least 10 inches high, and there was no rail. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my cane, so I sat on the fountain coping and just looked around. There wasn’t much to see, because like many other buildings here, it has been allowed to decay considerably. The rococo building was more like a drooping old lady with a fraying petticoat showing under her skirt and with runs in her stockings. Here’s how Dalrymple describes it — and I can do no better:

“Like some elderly courtesan, the tomb tries to mask its imperfections beneath thick layers of make-up; it’s excesses of ornament are worn like over-applied rouge. Even the little mosque to the side of the gate has a whiff of degeneracy about it; it’s three domes are flirtatiously striped like the flared pyjamas of nautch girl; there is something voluptuous in its buxom curves.”

It is easy to envision the tomb collapsing in a cloud of Delhi dust, as the once sturdy pillars of the Mughal empire collapsed while the court amused itself with music, poetry, opium, and harem girls.

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