Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Road Trip.

[I know my photo links aren't working. It's taking forever to upload this evening, so check back in a couple of days.]

I did my architectural duty this weekend and took a trip to Chandigarh. The friend who was supposed to go with me got sick at the last minute, so it was just me and the driver, Hukamji ("I will not give orders, Madam," he said when I was writing down his name, "you will give the orders."). He showed up promptly at 8:30, carefully set my bags in the outsize trunk of a shiny, white Ambassador, and off we went. This was a great adventure, as I'd only traveled toward/through Chandigarh on the train, and you can't see much from the train window. One reason I went to the expense of hiring a car was so I could stop and see a few architectural monuments on the way. I originally had a long list, but by the time I left the house, I had narrowed it down to one on the way to Chandigarh, one on the way back, and then three things in/around Chandigarh itself.

Okay. First, let me just say that the drive north out of New Delhi into Delhi is never much fun. The road isn't great, and there are a lot of development projects underway (metro, Yamuna river banks, mela grounds) for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. And then there is just the reality of traffic. My car came with seatbelts, but Hukamji had to slam on the brakes somewhere north of New Delhi, and the fastener popped out of the car wall. So, basically, travelling to Chandigarh with no seatbelt. Don't try this at home, kids! Luckily, Hukamji was a good, attentive driver. We saw one really bad accident, and I think even Hukamji was impressed by the car carnage because he said to me very solemnly that this was the result of "overspeed" and he would drive slowly-slowly.

The one place I wanted to stop on the way up was in Panipat, at the Kabuli Bagh (a few of my photos here), a garden/mosque first built by Babur c. 1527-26, and thus the first Mughal building in north India. And here is where we get yet another lesson on the difference between Seeing Like a State, and seeing from ground level. It looked so simple on the map: turn off the Delhi highway onto State Highway 12, drive straight until you see it. Yeah. Not so much. We must have driven through every bazaar in south Panipat looking for this place. Most of those bazaars were not planned with automobile traffic in mind, either. You would think this would be a somewhat well-known building in the town, but no, it's not. Big city, small building, no one knows anything about it. I admire Hukamji's dedication. Yes, I really wanted to see it, but by the time we followed all the mistaken directions given to us by people along the road, we ended up approaching the place through a swamp. I'm surprised we're not still stuck in the mud, really.

This place was interesting, though. Half the building had been restored, while the other half was left more or less untouched, leaving the structural elements visible. Most of the garden has disappeared. Only the garden immediately in front of the building has been enclosed within a protective wall. Outside the wall, houses have been built, and what must have been gardens are covered in trash and such (what can you expect, it's been almost 500 years since this place was founded). You can see a group of men sitting inside the entrance in some of my photos. When the requisite number of children tried to follow me into the mosque complex, these men chased them away. So, the kids followed me from outside the walls, catching me up at the entrance/exit.

We got into Chandigarh about 5:00, and I was in my hotel by 5:30. My hotel sucked, by the way, definitely not as advertised on the web. Seriously, I need hot water on a rainy, January morning. Really, I do. I won't put the name of the hotel here, because the internet has a way of blowing things out of proportion and I'd hate to put anyone out of business, but if you're going to Chandigarh, e-mail me and I'll give you the name of a better hotel. The television worked just fine, however, so I tried to force myself to practice my Hindi. Hukamji, who has perfect English, made me speak Hindi all day for practice ("If you try hard enough, you will achieve it"), so my head was pretty tired by the end of the day, but I gave it a go for awhile before turning in for the night.

The next day was touring in the Chandigarh area. The real purpose of the trip was to get a glimpse of the Secretariat complex. It is a bit difficult to get into this area right now, partly because of terrorism, and partly because it is just a bureaucratic process in the best of times. On weekdays, you have to take some sort of letter to Sector 9 in the city, and apply for permission. This wasn't possible for me, obviously, so I was just hoping to see the complex from afar. I first went to the High Court Museum (very awesome display on Bhagat Singh's trial), then Hukamji took me to the gate of the Secretariat complex. And this is the stupid part. I don't even like le Corbusier. Reading the Athens Charter or Towards a New Architecture makes me want to put a gun to his head and dare him to say just.one.more.thing. But I was standing there, staring at the Secretariat, and I started to cry. I have no idea what that was all about. Luckily, I had a dupatta with me. Comes in handy for wiping sweat, drying tables, and hiding tears.

Hukamji was off to the side, talking to the guards about how we hadn't gotten permission for entrance, and I was listening and nodding (well, wobbling) my head as he talked, not really looking at them. The guard suddenly realized I was following their conversation. "You have Hindi?" Well, a bit, I admitted. I told him I was an architect (I've given up explaining about the difference between licensed and unlicensed, historian and designer), so Chandigarh is important for me. It was very good to me to be able to stand and look at the buildings.

I really was just making conversation, but they were so delighted with my Hindi they apparently felt the need to reward me. They told me I could walk down closer to the Secretariat, and once I got to the inner gate, those guards were also impressed with my Hindi, and they let me go even deeper into the complex. So, there you go, I accidentally played the "white woman speaking Hindi" card, and it got me into the Secretariat complex. No camera allowed, of course, but it was still awesome. I walked up in front of the Vidhan Sabha toward the High Court (saw the Open Hand), and then back down to the Secretariat on an exterior staircase of the Vidhan Sabha. It would have been good to apply for permission to photograph and explore the complex even more thoroughly, but this was good enough for me, and possibly even more memorable because it was all sort of haphazard and accidental.

It would be very much a crime to go to Chandigarh and not stop off at the Nek Chand Rock Garden (best deal in India for foreigners--10 rupees!). Part of this garden is a later addition to Nek Chand's imaginative creation, but still, it was beautifully green and wet and cool (my photos here). It must be amazing during the rainy season. Some of the sculptures were a little creepy, but most of the animal sculptures sported smiles, so they must be enjoying their stay in the garden.

So different from Aurangzeb's gardens in Pinjore, also a good tourist deal at 20 rupees (my photos here). Pinjore is just outside Chandigarh, at the base of the Himalayan foothills. It's only 20km, but even so, the climate of Pinjore was even cooler and wetter than that of Chandigarh. Since even in winter I am always warm, it was nice to spend a few hours in the cool breeze. As you can see from photos, only the central corridor of the Pinjore gardens has been maintained/restored. The side gardens are less polished, organized mostly around orchard rows of fruit trees and eighteenth-century walls. This was the most interesting part of the garden to me. If you look attentively, you can find traces of original water channels, tanks and paths under the overgrowth.

Sunday, I just walked around Chandigarh. I expected to hate Chandigarh, given my general attitude toward Corbu. It is often said that Chandigarh fails as a city because it was not built on a human scale and space was overly rationalized by the architects. Maybe this is true. I didn't interview any residents, so I don't know it it "works" or not, but as I was walking around, it occured to me that Chandigarh is a much more reasonable place to live than New Delhi. Many of the open spaces in Chandigarh are available for infill and multiple uses. If it is rainy, you can duck under cover in front of the planned shopping areas. Or you can pitch your tent in front of the same over night. You can add to the front garden, or subtract. New Delhi space, at least in the embassy area, is so policed that you really can't adapt it to your needs. If you tried to pitch a tent in front of the Turkish embassy, well, let me just say those fellows at the gates carry weapons. Maybe (probably) it is not easy to move from sector to sector for shopping-wopping if you don't have a car, but I'm not sure why you would need to leave your sector. At first I was all "Goddamit, my sector doesn't have any biscuits!" But then I realized I was only looking at the front line of the shops--the biscuits were at the back! Anyway, I'm not an urban planner, and I'm not a big proponent of massive, planned cities. But if you can plan a city in such a way that it can be adapted to different needs and desires in the future, I think that's the best you can do, really.

On Monday, we went back to Delhi via Sirhind so I could visit Akbar's Aam Khas Bagh. As other Delhiwallahs noted, the fog on Monday in this part of the world was stupendous. You don't know fear until you've ridden in a car with no seatbelts along the Delhi highway in the fog. It could have been worse, I suppose: it could have been night time. Still and all, it was a rough way to spend the early hours of the day. Thank god Hukamji was driving.

Perhaps because Sirhind is a small town with only one major architectural monument (unless you count those enormous memorial gates spanning the entry roads, and of course, the Fatehgarh Sahib gurdwara), we had no trouble getting directions to the gardens from the people standing roadside. Much like everywhere else I went this weekend, I could have spent a lot more time here. This will probably be the only Mughal caravanserai I will be able to see while I'm here, and it will definitely come in handy for the second chapter of my dissertation. I did spend a lot of time taking 125+ photographs (a few of them here), but it was a little spooky and I left before I really needed to do so according to my own schedule. The ruins were pretty much abandoned, except for the two little boys flying kites, and the three teenaged boys skipping school. The roofs to many of the chambers had collapsed, so it felt a little precarious, climbing walls and skirting gaping holes. Plus, there was a chamber of bats (I could hear them from some distance off, and one of the school-skipping-boys told me not to go in because of the animals). Overall, it looked like a good place for snakes to be living, and once the sun came out, I expected the snakes to come out to get warm, too. I thought maybe this was my over-active imagination, but when I ran my idea by Hukamji, he thought snakes sounded like a reasonable possibility.

It took a long time to get back to Delhi from Sirhind, and now I am exhausted. I think I've used up my energy and courage reserves. Even though I took the comfort route by hiring a driver, it's tough to get into a car with a stranger and head off into the unknown for four days. I had intended to go to Chennai for a long weekend in February, but I'm thinking now that maybe I'll just stay in Delhi where I'm comfortable and can sleep in my own bed at night.


Hapto said...


If you get the opportunity, there is a small little book written by a delightful woman at the Chandigarh School of Art/ Architecture about the tapestries in the Courthouse complex... which are *stunning* pieces.

If you are going back there, drop me a line, and I will send along the author's name to get a copy.

Hapto said...

Kiran Joshi -- that was her name.. :-)

Si said...

Excellent, thanks, I'll look it up!