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Art empowers: How kids from Kanhai urban village tell the story of Gurgaon

I knew something very special was brewing when my friend Swati called me to tell me about the kind of work kids from Kanhai gaon (village) were doing as part of the art project she was mentoring in Gurgaon. She sounded excited about both the process and the outcome. That I had interacted with Shikha from NGO Udaan-ek meetha sapna before through another dear friend Sarika further connected me to the project. And I waited in great anticipation of the final result of what had been titled the Growing Gurgaon Community Art Festival.

What I saw displayed in the public space at Good Earth City Centre in Gurgaon blew my mind. I saw 12 very confident young adults, who not only had original ideas but had put in a lot of research and contemplation into their paintings and installations. Their projects commented on class structures in the rapidly growing city and articulated the acute environmental crisis that residents (humans and non-human) find themselves in. The projects highlighted the flawed model of urban development that Gurgaon is an example of, a model that does not include original residents, that is insensitive to the environmental conditions and that does not anticipate growth well. With the innocence of childhood and the power of art, they were saying important things that the city needs to hear. Read more on what the individual projects are on this media article as well as see more pics on the process and outputs on Udaan’s website and FB page.

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Kids imagine their dream home!

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The artist has made a model of her neighbourhood depicting the condition of water supply. It shows a clear class distinction, with poorer areas getting few hours of water. Second, she superimposes her village pond (that was filled by the govt to create urban infrastructure some years ago) as a way to highlight how the city has swallowed its natural water bodies and now complains of inadequate water

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The star attraction- the cow filled with plastic milk bags. The artist spent time at a gaushala to understand how the process works, had followed a cow around to observe its routine. The irony of the milk-giving cow fated to die because it eats plastic milk packets is too clear to miss here!

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Beautiful collages showing the artists themselves

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The hexagonal box depicted the past (fields), the moment of change (the farmer selling his land) and the future (skyscrapers) interspersed with mirrors. A wonderful commentary on how urbanisation changes places, leaving us with memories and spaces residents cannot often relate to.

As an urban planner and urban researcher, I saw particular value in this endeavor and wish we had many more of its kind. Below are some thoughts I had while seeing the exhibits:

1- We adults need to be told the truth and the clear vision that children have does that very well. As a corollary, we need to listen more to kids and instruct them less.

2- Children perceive the world around them in particular ways. Their observations offer clues to how we should plan and design cities and public spaces. The lack of play spaces was a prominent thought that told us clearly about how urbanisation has impacted children. That public space is shrinking and becoming less accessible must concern us all. Interestingly, the exhibition of the artworks held inside Kanhai village drew hundreds of visitors and intense participation. In Good Earth, an elite space, people were less forthcoming and crowds sparse.

3- The particular background of these children, mostly underprivileged children from governments schools and residents of Kanhai urban village, offered specific insights that are not available to the well-heeled residents of the city. The empathy exhibited by the child artists was rare. In one installation, the artists spent time with the night security guard to tell his story. Their idea was triggered when they saw the guard being yelled at. They wondered why the guard does not get respect instead for helping keep us safe. Their project also highlighted the difficult lives migrants in the city lead, often working two jobs to support their families. This empathy touched a raw nerve in me. I often worry the elite, protected upbringing I am giving my children is causing them more harm than good. I am not sure they will have the depth of observation, empathy and freedom to investigate that I found in the artists. Food for thought!

I was also invited to speak at the festival. I decided to speak about urban villages and the transitions these spaces experiences as this has been a subject close to my heart for years, with much of my research time dedicated to documenting these transitions in Gurgaon.

I’m summarising the main points below, for those who don’t speak Hindi.

Gurgaon has grown rapidly. Urban villages are those spaces that have contributed their agricultural land to accommodate the city but where the spaces where people lived have been left alone. These spaces, and the people in them, have faced several transformations as Gurgaon grew. I describe transformations in governance structures, from rural to urban. I talk about the methods of providing services and in the attitude of the government towards these space, using examples from Shenzhen, China on service provision and redevelopment. Third, I highlight social transformations. I describe the post-agricultural livelihoods adopted by village residents, foremost among them rental housing, which brought in a new type of resident, the low-skilled migrant. Lastly, I highlight that urban villages are filling the gaps that planned development has left, by providing affordable housing, services and even space for small-scale manufacturing. My closing point is that we need to think about the different kind of people that inhabit our city because we essentially face similar issues. Unless we come together to find community-based solutions and hold the government and ourselves accountable, things will not change. We need more spaces like this festival to be able to document what we remember of the past as well as imagine a shared future through collaborative process.

I am imagining a much larger community project that communicated citizen’s needs and imaginations at a much larger scale. I imagine the urban village as the sootradhaar (the story teller or rather the story weaver), one who is wise and old and yet, new and changing constantly. What these children have done through the Growing Gurgaon project – kudos to Udaan and mentors Swati and Friederike – encourages me to dream bigger, to shatter the false cocoons we live in and take charge of our environment as opposed to being silent, complaining and passive recipients of what can only be termed as poor governance and poor citizenship.

If you want to help raise funds for Udaan- ek meetha Sapna, you can participate in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon under their banner.

Street life at midnight #Jakarta

After two days of meetings that started post breakfast and went on all day, we felt we deserved some beer and decent music last night. And so we headed to the Camden Bar next door. Great vibe, cold beer, lovely music and lots of energy but the food was nothing to write home about. 

On the short walk back to the hotel, I see what looks like a street party. Music from a mobile karaoke vendor was the start attraction from me but also the wonderful idea of claiming a bit of public space to talk, eat, laugh, click pics and even sleep! I was so excited but Greg pointed out it’s not unusual in Indonesia cities at all. Me likes! Me likes a lot….


Click-click under the Flamboyant trees: An afternoon in OCT, Shenzhen

Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!

Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean  companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.

The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.

What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).

thumb__DSC0419_1024thumb__DSC0430_1024thumb__DSC0438_1024thumb_IMG_9546_1024Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.

Feeding the sparrows! Aadyaa’s best moments in #Berlin

Tired after spending the morning inside the Bundestag dome in Berlin (post here!), we picnicked in the lawn outside. We had had a rainy morning and the bright sunshine that followed offered us the sort of bright light that brings the colours alive and makes everything around look like its straight out of the pages of a computer-rendered drawing!

Picture perfect!

Picture perfect! The buildings surrounding the Bundestag greens

In this setting, Aadyaa discovered the pleasure of feeding the birds when she accidentally dropped a morsel of bread on the grass beside her! The eager and clever sparrows, well versed with tourists, began to seat themselves in the bushes and trees nearby, waiting for one of us to throw out  piece of bread or a broken off potato wafer. Slowly they began to wait in the grass beside us, only a few paces away and it would seem that if we had spent the rest of the day there, they could have eaten out of our hands as well!

In the branches nearby, watching us closely though pretending not to...

In the branches nearby, watching us closely though pretending not to…

And then right next to us on the grass, no longer pretending but staring at our food!

And then right next to us on the grass, no longer pretending but staring at our food!

They know that little girls will feed....

They know that little girls will feed….

...and in return, they will make her smile!

…and in return, they will make her smile!

Needless to say, our little girl was thrilled! My intense pleasure of experiencing the Bundestag dome paled a bit in comparison with her genuine happiness while feeding the sparrows. Rahul and me were spellbound by the extreme simplicity of a child’s mind. Sitting there, deliberately not rushing the kids towards another touristic destination, we were able to see, for a bit, life the way our kids see it. Uncluttered and in the moment!

This post is part of a series on our family’s experiences in Berlin and The Netherlands in the Summer of 2014. Some of the more popular travel posts from this series are:

Udai’s Tenth: The best birthday ever!

Dinner at a windmill: How Dutch can we get?

Remembering Haarlem #1: Of music and dancing

Not a brick in this Wall: Profoundly affected by the Berlin’s history

Visiting the Dinosaurs! What kids loved in #Berlin 2/3

Remembering Haarlem #1: Of music and dancing

One of the highlights of visiting my uncle and aunt in The Netherlands is the trip into the heart of Haarlem, the city where they live. Haarlem is a quaint town, the capital of the Noord Holland province and preserved beautifully in a manner typical of Dutch towns.

Haarlem has been in existence since Roman times and grew to become one of the most populated and influential cities in the Medieval times, a centre of trade inundated by Flemish merchants. Haarlem lost its prominent with Amsterdam’s rise during the Golden Age (17th-18th Century). Today, its essentially medieval layout and the visual richness of Gothic architecture is experienced strongly when you walk through it. We enjoyed getting lost in its streets, especially closer to the centre where many streets are quaint, narrow and exclusively pedestrian.

Late 18th century city map of Haarlem from Wikipedia

Late 18th century city map of Haarlem from Wikipedia

Wandering the quiet residential streets in Haarlem, where a surprise is right round the corner

Wandering the quiet residential streets in Haarlem, where a surprise is right round the corner

The explorers, taking it all in!

The explorers, taking it all in!

Our Haarlem expedition was just a couple of days before the FIFA mania began!

Our Haarlem expedition was just a couple of days before the FIFA mania began!

Architecture along the mainstreet

Architecture along the mainstreet

This is the sort of image that stays in your mind long after you leave Holland- cycles, people enjoying the outdoors, heritage and very well-designed road infrastructure!

This is the sort of image that stays in your mind long after you leave Holland- cycles, people enjoying the outdoors, heritage and very well-designed road infrastructure!

As you must do in a town like this, we gravitated slowly towards the Town Square or the Grote Markt. We knew we were close to this epicentre of Haarlem as soon as we began to hear the distinct music of the street organs and spot them, positioned on a corner or in the middle of a courtyard, people smiling at them as they walked by while some stood to appreciate their intricate facades. The Dutch street organ is a quaint sight, usually family owned and intricately decorated. They used to be all manually operated by an organ grinder but tend to be automated nowadays. I’ve seen them here and there in the cities of Holland before, but never a profusion of street organs like we saw on the Monday we decided to walk through Haarlem. It happened to be a long weekend thanks to the Christian festival of Pentecost or Pinkster. Through the morning, we watched residents and tourists descend into the centre of the city, and the organs seemed to swell in number too! The pictures below are each of/from a different street organ and all from the streets of Haarlem.

Particularly attractove for children

Particularly attractive for children

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Details are very interesting

Very much a part of the scenery

Very much a part of the scenery

 The sounds of the street organ changes the entire experience of walking down a narrow shopping street

The sounds of the street organ changes the entire experience of walking down a narrow shopping street

Udai spotted the back of one of the organs and thoush we can;t make sense of it, here's the documentation!

Udai spotted the back of one of the organs and though we can’t make sense of it, here’s the documentation!

Taking advantage of the shade under a tree to attract people on a hot hot day!

Taking advantage of the shade under a tree to attract people on a hot hot day!

Haarlem’s Grote Markt is a delight. The beautiful open space is dominated by the towering St. Bavo Cathedral, which you can see for miles around the city, and the beautiful Town Hall or Stadhuis at the other end. When we first reached, we thought the Cathedral was shut because of Pentecost (it wasn’t though and the St. Bavo experience is the stuff of another post!) and so, we sought to enjoy the activity in the square. And I’m so glad we did!

St. Bavo towers over the Grote Markt

St. Bavo towers over the Grote Markt

Lounging around. I loved watching the crowd at the square

Lounging around. I loved watching the crowd at the square

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Plenty of space to eat, drink, dance and hang out!

Plenty of space to eat, drink, dance and hang out! The Stadhuis is in the background

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The most fun thing we did was dance in the Silent Disco. You put on headphones and dance away. Those who watch could think you are crazy and will most certainly have a laugh. The kids and me went in, and then the kids did a second round once more, so kicked were they with the concept and experience! Udai kept wanting to bring the concept back to India (no noise pollution, wow!), only to be told they already have it on the beaches in Goa!

_DSC6315_DSC6317_DSC6316_DSC6325A band was performing in the middle of the Grote Markt, belting out mostly Latino music. As we sat there, sipping our drinks and trying out Poffertjes (A Dutch pancake with toppings, the most popular in summer being strawberries and cream!), a crowd began to gather. And dance! In a jiffy, Aadyaa had dragged me in and there we were, jumping about, surrounded by beautifully dressed couples doing the salsa and the meringue. Udai took the opportunity to polish off some new herring at another food stall.

An animated band

An animated band

With very enthusiastic dancers

With very enthusiastic dancers

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The best thing about events like this at truly public spaces is how genders, age groups and classes mix. Look at the children running freely in between the dancing couples!

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And whats better than dancing with papa?

And what’s better than dancing with papa?

Then came a church visit, a much-needed ice cream and a giant serving of the Dutch frites topped with mayonnaise and a long, long walk back along the canal and the forest till we reached home. A day well spent, steeped in music and dance, sunshine and conversation!

And before I wind up this long long post, here are my two ‘crowd’ clicks that I really like!

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Thoughts and snapshots from Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon

I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!

Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.

Races for kids on at full swing!

Races for kids on at full swing!

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

 

Nupur's expression says it all!

Nupur’s expression says it all!

 

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed :)

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed 🙂

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

 

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

 

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too...

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too…

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 100-watt smile!

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 1000-watt smile!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear....wow!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear….wow!

 

 

And the pooch had his day too!

And the pooch had his day too!

Watching each other...fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society...Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Watching each other…fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society…Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line...safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line…safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Can you see her?

Can you see her?

Do do mobile!

Do do mobile!

Most colourful bystanders!

Most colourful bystanders!

 

All agog, but not yet ready to join in...

All agog, but not yet ready to join in…

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum's shoulders!

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum’s shoulders!

 

And Raahgiri Day goes on...Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

And Raahgiri Day goes on…Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

 

 

 

 

 

Upset by the death of MG Road, thrilled by a night bus ride in Bangalore- May 29, 2012

After a day full of site visits and meetings, I did not see myself cooling my heels in an obscure hotel in the middle of nowhere, an apt description of Electronic City in Bangalore. I took the opportunity to ride with someone into town and found myself at that familiar intersection between M G Road and Brigade Road. Right next to me was the Cauvery Emporium where as a child I remember buying Mysore Sandal Soap with my grandmother and staring at the bronze statues and silk carpets that my uncle Gopal would sometimes buy (he was passionate about these and they appeared super expensive to us).
I decided, for the sake of nostalgia, to walk down M G Road. It was about eight in the evening and the stretch that used to be the heart of the city with people jostling for space was a deserted, sad place with no pavements to speak of, a clattering ugly overhead Metro line and lots of traffic. Even after several malls came up in the city, this used to be a vibrant space. The metro seems to have sucked whatever life it had out and I was sorely disappointed.
Brigade Road was more like what it used to be, though it also seems to have relinquished it’s status as a prime shopping location. Even so, I enjoyed watching the passers by and marvelled at the wonderful cosmopolitan mix this city now is and the sheer feeling of youth and casual confidence here as compared to say Connaught Place in Delhi.
A good meal later, we (my colleague Nipesh did his own city trawl in the meantime) topped off a the evening with a small adventure we greatly enjoyed- we yapped away while riding in a City bus to Electronic City and then savoured a long walk to our hotel in dark deserted but beautifully tree lined streets escorted by a street dog!
Images below: The overhead metro has ruined the heart of Bangalore, followed by two shots of Brigade road at night.

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Open spaces in the heritage context- A sunny afternoon at the Qutb Minar- Jan 15, 2012

Delhi offers its residents numerous opportunities to enjoy open air recreation in a heritage context. Lodi gardens, Purana Qila, Lala Qila, Qutb Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Safdarjung Tomb…I could go on, and these are only the most obvious places to visit.

Mum, me and the kids decided to celebrate the last weekend before school begins again by taking a stroll in one of these. We opted for the Qutb Minar, despite anticipating the tourist hordes, merely because its closest to Gurgaon. We did meet the tourist hordes, but we regretted the outing not a teeny weeny bit!

We had low expectations at the outset. We had all been here before, so it wasn’t a touristy thing to do; rather, we approached it in the manner of paying a casual visit to an old friend. A warm, sunny winter afternoon it was, getting there and parking were not a hassle, ticketing and entry were organized (except that Udai’s bat and ball were politely confiscated and kept safely until we returned) and the crowds were convivial and relaxed as well.

I was struck by the merry atmosphere here and the myriad ways in which people were enjoying the space. Many were viewing everything through the lens of their cameras–from serious enthusiasts armed with digital SLRs (how I missed mine today! It’s being repaired!) to those who recorded their visits on mobile phone cameras, capturing the frame and moment was the order of the day. Others merely lay around the vast lawns–families watching kids play, friends chattering, lovers in silent communication. Tourists listened avidly to guides belting out history lessons in English, French, German and Japanese. We saw a very elegant pair of English (perhaps) ladies, dressed in their pearls and well cut pant suits asking an equally dressed set of Pakistani lady tourists to pose with them for pictures!

Amongst us, too, each person’s agenda varied slightly. Aadyaa clearly viewed the complex as a very interesting obstacle course, constantly looking for appropriate spaces to jump over, climb up and slopes to run down! Udai was willing to get the occasional history lesson, reading the plaques and asking us questions; but simply loved exploring the ruins that comprise Alauddin Khilji’s tomb. For mum, it was partly walk down memory lane thinking about many previous visits, and mostly relaxed observations about the place and the people. As for me, I whipped out my little sketch book and doodled a bit, besides taking pictures and running around with the kids.

Pure family fun, while soaking the sun! Mum and the kids

Exploring the ruins

Aadyaa's giant obstacle course!

Udai gets a history lesson from Nani

I whip out a sketch pad for a 5-minute doodle

The 5-min doodle of the Alai Darwaza- as Udai says, the dome isn't quite right 🙂

Most visitors simply clicked away!

For me, these experiences are an integral part of Delhi’s charm and what bind me to this city despite its many frustrating contradictions. I love the strong backdrop that heritage provides, that adds to our lives a sense of history, art, architecture, proportion…in short, beauty packaged in an easy-to-enjoy form!

I came away imagining toothless skeletal smiles inside the graves of good ‘ol Qutb-ud-din, Iltutmish and the rest of the Mamluk, Tughlaq and Khilji clans who created the wonderful complex over time!

The mandatory touristy pose!

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