Across the Corridors of Indian History

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Satcam Boolell

When Shah Jahan grew old, his son Jahangir usurped the throne and imprisoned his father in the Agra Fort. The old Shah who was left with only the memory of his love used to sit alone in a room facing the Taj and everyday would contemplate for hours the beautiful marble mausoleum enshrining the mortal remains of his favourite Begum. During my visit to the Fort I stood for a while to gaze at the majestic monument standing proudly in its immaculate whiteness. The spirit of Shah Jahan seemed to fill every nook and corner of the Fort and the tragedy of his fate seemed to turn the place into a sanctuary.

The name of Shah Jahan would have been lost to history but for the Taj. All his misdeeds are forgiven and his name has become immortal. The builder of the finest monument of all time was but a tyrant.

If you go to India and see nothing else except the Taj Mahal, your journey will be amply rewarded. Built on the bank of the river Jamuna opposite the Agra Fort, the Taj stands in the full splendour of its majestic beauty in a peaceful surrounding evocative of all that is pure and soul-elevating in nature. From the porch the Taj with its Moghul Garden, its fountains and artificial lakes present a view of such enchanting delight that has the illusion of a glimpse into some celestial abode. It is difficult to imagine that the gods did not lend a hand in the achievement of a work of such inimitable beauty. Generation after generation have raised monuments to rival the Taj or surpass it in splendour. But the Taj has to this day remained unequalled.

There is a fascination in its beauty which defies description. Visitors after visitors have tried to do justice to it in terms which have no alternative for a higher praise. Yet, the best description has failed to convey the impact it has upon the visitor who sees it for the first time.

To some it is “a poem in marble” and to others “a dream in marble”. To me it is both and something more.

The Taj Mahal was built as a mausoleum by Emperor Shah Jahan to enshrine the mortal remains of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal born Arjumand Banu Begum. At the entrance is the following inscription in English: “The Taj Mahal contains the remains of Emperor Shah Jahan and his favourite wife Arjumand Banu Begum. The mausoleum was designed by Ustad Isa Afandi and constructed under the supervision of Makhamat Khan and Abdul Karim. It was commenced in 1631 and completed in 1648. Estimated cost from 50 lakhs to 60 crores of rupees”.
I descended into the basement to see the tombs. They bear inscriptions in Arabic from the Holy Koran but there is nothing to indicate which tomb belongs to whom. True to their puritanical tradition, the Moghuls took care to avoid becoming objects of cult after their death. But their objective was defeated by their own deed. The beautiful mausoleums they erected to perpetuate the memory of their dead have become places of pilgrimage.

* * *

We returned to Delhi after spending the whole day in Agra. Before leaving that ancient city, I bought two peacock feathers’ fans from a young boy with a huge live serpent rolled round his naked torso. I was about to tell him that in a more orthodox attire he could have done better business with his fans. But then, without his serpent would the boy represent the East?

After Taj there was not much to be seen during the rest of the voyage. We spent eleven days in New Delhi attending the Conference and during the brief interludes, visiting places of interest like the Qutub Minar, a monument 234 feet high, the tomb of Humayun Kabir, the Red Fort, the Jummah Masjid and Chandni Chawk in Old Delhi. In Chandni Chawk, I visited the “Shradhanand Balidan Bhawan” – a very old building in which the Swami was assassinated. I was sitting in a room discussing with a group of friends of the Hindi Agitation movement in the Punjab when suddenly I was told that at the very spot where I was sitting Swamiji had fallen mortally wounded by the assassin’s bullet.

Chandni Chawk is typical of an old Oriental city. Its congested bazaars, its narrow lanes, its ancient buildings of the Moghul style remind one of places like Anarkali in Lahore and part of Agra. In contrast, New Delhi with its modern planning, beautiful and wide tree lined avenues, up-to-date buildings with spacious courtyards is already one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The first thing we did in New Delhi before the Conference started was to place a wreath at the Samadhi in Raj Ghat, the place where Gandhiji was cremated.

In between the Conference we were taken one day to visit the Bhakra Nangal dam, at the foothills of the Himalayas in the Punjab. The dam still under construction, is a mighty multipurpose project designed to electrify Punjab and irrigate its lands. The completion of the dam, the largest in the world, will enable the harnessing of the water of the unruly Sutlej.

Thousands of acres of land will become cultivable and India’s food problem may be solved in a large measure. It was a whole night journey by train from New Delhi to Nangal. It was in bitter cold that we reached our destination. At the dam, work goes on day and night. A whole state will submerged when the dam will be completed. The Punjabis were very enthusiastic about the project. My friend Vig, one of the top engineers directing the work, told me that with the present rate of progress the dam will be completed ahead of schedule.

From New Delhi we moved south and after visiting Bangalore, the new capital of the State of Mysore, we drove across green rice-fields to the City of Mysore. We put up for the night at Brindaban in Krishnaraja Sagar, a few miles from the summer palace of Tippu Sultan. The multicoloured lights of the Brindaban gardens were put on to welcome us in Krishnaraja Sagar. It was such a gorgeous sight that we had the illusion of having landed into some fairyland. Those who have seen the film ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje’ might be reminded that most of the scenes were shot at Brindaban Gardens.

After leaving Mysore we flew to Madras – the term of our voyage in India. This vigorous City of the South which has been the storm centre of bitter contests between the British and the French for supremacy in the sub-continent is in the forefront of the revolution that is taking place in India. The desire for reform is manifest everywhere. The youths are already getting impatient that things are not moving fast enough. The Congress which still holds the sway has become the target of attack for being too conciliatory with the reactionary Iyers and Iyengars, the ruling Brahmin caste. Some young people in despair are already turning towards the Dravidar Kazhagam movement which is agitating for a Tamil nadu where Iyers and Iyengars will have no better say than the Chettiars and Pillais and in which the imperious North will have no quarter except on terms of equality. The movement is gathering momentum and unless there is a change of heart among the Congress leaders the South will before long become a trouble spot.

* * *

Madras, I noticed, is one of the rare cities to have taken the bold step of obliterating all reminiscences of British occupation. The streets have been renamed after the Indian leaders. Squares and public places have been re-christened to be more in keeping with an Independent India. Statues reminiscent of the old days have been removed.

In spite of the heat which persists throughout the year, Madras is a place bursting with life. The Madrassi is a hardworking man. You can see him walking briskly under the scorching sun always busy about something. For the common man life is not easy. To earn a living, he has to work very hard. There is strict prohibition in Madras and unlike Bombay the city plays the game.

About the language problem, the people I came across – they were a cross section from a Supreme Court judge to a waiter – were most diffident. But the general impression I gathered was that the government will not have an easy task to introduce Hindi among a people so proud of their cultural heritage and so alive to their advantage to compete with other Indians in English.

5th Year – No 192
Friday 11th April 1958

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