The Taj Mahal, one of the world’s most beautiful and best known architectural wonders was also a favourite haunt for the Indian vulture.
It was a seeming contradiction, even, profanity, the sight of those vultures circling high above that tomb and its high towers, there in that human representation of Paradise with its gardens and waters and its architectural wonders …..a bird of carrion, a scavenger….yet it was richly symbolic of the splendid contrasts and contradictions of India.
Eight centuries ago, the armies of Mohammed had invaded the subcontinent but failed to convert the majority of the population who remained Hindus and surely the most graphic example of this failure was the Hindus worship of the vulture.
For over two thousand years, the vulture was a sacred bird for the Hindus.
And then a time came when they ceased regarding it as an object of worship and it was a portent of trouble ahead, of dark and pungent clouds gathering over the Taj Mahal….and also the human race….and you and me.….
How did this happen? How did this metaphor of our collective crisis unfold?
There were 12 tombs built on a stretch of land at the outskirts of the city. They were old, the oldest constructed 5 centuries ago and the most recent, 2 centuries. They were built to house the remains of a succession of Moslem shahs (and their wives and children) who had ruled Hyderabad until the arrival of the British in the early eighteenth century.
Each tomb was a scaled down version of the Taj Mahal (which is another way of saying that the Taj was an adaptation of an architectural idea long in existence before it was built). There was a big dome supported by a solid, rectangular building with arches and columns. The size and grandeur of the dome reflected the wealth, power and pretensions of the Shah who reigned at the time. The smallest dome was 20 metres high, the largest, over 40. On the floor inside each building, directly under the lofty ceiling of the dome, there were stone coffins on the floor. In the bigger domes, there were galleries of recessed alcoves.
Most of the inner sanctum of the dome was space, emptiness, shadow and silence. These tombs were classic examples of the genius of Middle Eastern Islamic architecture transposed to India; there was a beautiful combination of elegance and disarming simplicity. They were impressive architectural works especially considering when they were built and the technology available.
I imagine that during their construction, they were cocooned with the same network of bamboo poles tied together with rope which you can see today on any modern construction site in India – and were plied by the same army of workers, emaciated village peons, moving back and forth across the precarious looking structure like ants.
These dome tombs were the relics of Islamic rulers who spent a good part of their lives preparing – and building – for their deaths.
Westerners often romanticised the Taj Mahal and saw it as an expression of love; inside the sanctum were the graves of the Shah Jahan and his favourite wife. But in reality, the Taj was at least as much about death as it was love. It was the most magnificent example of an Islamic tombstone from the hundreds of them scattered around India.
And it cost so much to build that it bankrupted an empire.
To reach Hyderabad’s tombs, I had to get a scooter rickshaw and travel from one side of the city to the other.
It was not a pleasant trip.
Like in every big Indian city, the traffic was chaotic and noisy, and the air pollution was stifling. A day spent breathing the air in Hyderabad was equivalent to smoking a packet of cigarettes. In more than a few Indian cities today, the air pollution is worse.
It took me an hour to reach the tombs.
On the way, I passed dilapidated buildings and apartment blocks, dusty shops and stalls: a chaos of squalid structures of every size and shape devoid of anything remarkable or elegant. I covered my face with a handkerchief in a vain attempt to filter out the pollution.
Sometimes the scooter rickshaw pulled up next to a bus or a truck and I got covered in a thick black cloud of diesel exhaust.
Finally I got there.
There was an ancient stone wall and behind it, trees. The trees were a welcome sight after the urban desert of the city. I found myself in an oasis of green and, relative silence. Following a shady road, I came to a metal box which was the ticket office, where I paid an entrance fee. Rounding a bend, I saw my first dome. There was something mesmerizing in the size and symmetry of that massive half globe, garlanded with carved lotus petals around its base, a spire on top, rising high above the tree tops and illuminated by the bright sun. This was the first tomb – there were eleven others back among the trees. Centuries ago, the domes had been set in a garden Paradise. Between the tombs there had been tended gardens and hedges, pools and canals. It was a different scene today. There were no gardens. The pools and canals were dry. Scattered about was the detritus left by Indian tourists; paper plates, plastic bottles and wrappers, styrofoam cups etc. There were lower caste women whose job it was to sweep away the leaves that fell on the paths and in the immediate area around the tombs. But it wasn’t their job – it wasn’t anyone’s job – to clear away the trash. So it didn’t happen.
It was hot, near 40 degrees Celsius; I took it easy and spent my time walking from one tomb to the other and taking long rests in between.
One tomb which interested me was the first one ever built; it was a good 30 metres high and housed the remains of a certain Sultan Ibrahim. He was a Turk, raised and educated in Persia, who turned up in the present-day Hyderabad (then known as Golconda) in 1520 with an army and defeated the local Hindu kings and started building the fort. He also played a leading part in bringing down the powerful neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Vijenegar, the remains of which are today one of the most famous tourist attractions in southern India. So this Ibrahim was where the Muslim domination of the Hyderabad area began. Dotted on the stone pavements outside his dome were flat black slabs of marble marking the graves on his favourite wives. I cannot imagine that this Ibrahim, despite his classical Persian education, was a particularly savoury sort of character. The Islamic invasions of the subcontinent were extremely brutal. The force he represented was one based on the certainty of his cause, his religion, and his absolute conviction that the infidel deserved to die or be enslaved.
Those who came after him, foreign invaders, built exquisitely beautiful architecture – and administered a reign of terror upon the majority Hindu population including the systematic abduction of their young women to fill their harems. This continued for a good 400 years until the British appeared on the scene. Men like Ibrahim who swept in the from the west and occupied large sectors of India, brought with them an energy and fanaticism which was missing in an India paralysed by the caste system and depleted by endless dynastic rebellions and wars.
In time however, the Moslems fell prey to the same disease – and were easily pushed aside by the British.
Going from tomb to tomb, one problem which I kept running into was young Moslem couples who had chosen a tomb as a lover’s rendezvous. The young men were dressed in short sleeved shirts and trousers and had sports shoes and cool sunglasses. The young women were clad in long black cloaks with a black headscarf – or black burkas.
What was it like wearing a long black cloak and headscarf or a burka in the Indian heat?
In the centre of Hyderabad, I had seen many women wearing burkas. I’d stopped at a few shops selling burkas and related ‘modest’ clothing and noted that they were made from nylon or a mixture of nylon and cotton.
Black Nylon? In this climate?
In Hyderabad the temperatures hovered around the high 30´s – and higher – for most of the year.
Wearing black nylon in that sort of heat must have been, at the very least, uncomfortable – if not outright torture.
Most of the women also wore black gloves.
This garb seemed to me akin to the old Chinese custom of binding women’s feet – or in Europe and America – when women had to wear whalebone corsets, fastened tight, to give them an ‘hour glass’ figure. It reeked in other words of something belonging to another era – the era of Ibrahim, for example.
I continued my trip around the tombs of Hyderabad and as I did so, my thoughts turned to a scene from the day before at the hotel I was staying at.
Suddenly I found myself in the modern world, rather than the ancient, turning over a whole plethora of questions confronting the Moslems of Hyderabad today – and not only them, but the world’s Moslems in general.