Visiting a heritage site always gives me a high. I’ve had people roll their eyes at me about my particular enthusiasm for ruins and tombs, palaces and serais, but there is a magic in the texture and aura of brick and stone that has stood there so long and seen so much change. The Humayun’s Tomb complex, so lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, is a real treat to visit. Perhaps ‘the’ showcase heritage treasure for Delhi at this time, as the city struggles year after year to get onto UNESCO’s Heritage City list (this year I hear it’s losing out to Amdavad). It’s a pity, but I do find that a number of Delhi’s important heritage sites are not well maintained, with no information to help visitors contextualize what they are experiencing and with very little connection to the city at large.
On the Saturday morning we rambled through the Humayun’s Tomb complex, we saw long lines of chattering school children, photography enthusiasts, tourists and families, all excited and many in awe. I learn something new each visit at the small exhibition set up at the entrance to the Tomb. This time, it helped me explain a bit of the history, architecture and cultural context of the monument to our visitors from the Netherlands.
Humayun’s tomb never fails to impress; its scale and proportions, its craftsmanship so perfect. But beyond its historical value and perhaps because of it, what Udai and me (we’ve both visited several times before) most enjoyed this time around were the beautifully landscaped spaces that surround the smaller monuments in the complex. Spaces that allow you to sit and contemplate life, spaces that involve a little climbing up and down and offer a sense of adventure. As I pen this post, it does occur to me that this is a metaphor for how in life side dishes are often far more pleasurable than the mains and what we consider the ‘extra’ often adds the best flavours!
Some snapshots from my iphone6.
I’ve wanted to visit Stonehenge since the year 2000. Back then, I was pursuing a Masters in Urban Planning at Texas A&M University and taking a course in historic preservation. Professor David Woodcock encouraged me to pursue my interest in cultural landscapes, and with his help (he leveraged his contacts at English Heritage and got them to send me every piece of research they had in their possession!) I wrote a great term paper on Stonehenge.
The mysticism of this circle of stones has stayed with me ever since. It’s the kind of place that evokes in me an unnamed indescribable fascination for history. I wonder how humans in those long bygone days conceived the world around them, how they built their social fabric and how they sowed the seeds for the complexities of existence that we take for granted today.
Stonehenge is a neolithic site created from enormous stones over different period of time probably to understand or pay obeisance to the elements of nature, namely the movement of the sun across the sky around the year. It is part of a larger landscape of monuments scattered around this area, dating from 4000 BC to about 1600 BC. Many of these, and more are being excavated and interpreted even now, seem to be ritual gathering places, burial grounds and they reiterate how important birth and death, religion and rituals must have been to ancient humans. No one knows how they transported these gigantic stones from far away to the site, and its hard to imagine the complete monument today when you see only a ruin from which stones have been taken away or that has degenerated with time.
It is, however, possible to feel the primal energy when you stand there next to Stonehenge. A sense of mystery and strength, of peace even, a dedication to the powers that be! This time, I had only an hour to see it, but it would be fun to return one day to this World Heritage Site and walk the entire landscape that includes Stonehenge, Avebury and surrounding areas.
The reconstruction of neolithic homes near the Visitor Centre really added value to the visit for me, as one could better imagine what life was like back then, bringing Stonehenge back from a monument of mystery to one that was used for specific purposes by real people!
Also, a mention must be made of how well the site and visitor flow is managed. I was surprised to know that the entire 6500 acres of the World Heritage Site is owned and managed by English Heritage or the National Trust and that even the land around is owned by the armed forces and other government agencies so that the disturbances to the site and the experiences are minimal! It is possible to walk for miles through fields and woods to explore important prehistoric sites.
There’s a lot of fascinating info about Stonehenge online, if you want to read more….
Seeing as we had missed going there last time we visited Mumbai thanks to the rains and because Udai had heard of my childhood visits to these caves, he was raring to go. He had put down his demand to visit Elephanta on Day 1 of his solo Mumbai trip to stay with Rachna, who my kids fondly call Bossy (Bausi actually, which is half bua and half mausi, for those of you interested in the etymology of this strange term). It also sort of fits with her, we joke, but in reality she is a softy and a sweetheart.
Anyway, on a super hot summer day, the kids and us- Rachna, Nupur (mausi to the kids) and me- boarded the ferry boat to Elephanta which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an experience pulling out into the sea, seeing the majestic Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel getting smaller and smaller as we headed out. Yes, I’ve been here as a child with my cousins and the ferry ride was the most thrilling part of it. This time, I noticed how many locals there were on board carrying vegetables, corn, coconuts and other goods to the island. These sea-people, for whom now tourism was a lifeline, intrigued me and I wanted to know more…
Anyway, many ship-sightings, lifebuoy-countings and sunburns later, we approached the densely forested island, locally known as Gharapuri but named Elephanta after the stone carved elephant that was discovered here and now stands in the Bombay Zoo, or the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the zoo premises to be precise.
It’s a hot walk and climb to the caves (you can also take a cute chugging train till the steps), but all worth the effort. Sweat streaming, we enter the dark caves to be utterly fascinated by the sculpture, the architecture, the sheer monumentality of these caves, built between 450 and 750 AD. The trimurti- Brahma,Vishnu, Mahesh is exquisite and so are the several sculptures of dwarpals, shiva, shiva-parvatu, ardhnarishwar, etc that adorn the first large cave.
For Udai and Aadyaa (and perhaps for all who visit), the fact that someone (in this case Portuguese traders) had shot at and maimed the sculptures was the main concern. they had read the Amar Chitra Katha comic about the caves and knew some of the history. So are those who did it bad? No? Then why did they do it? A long discussion on intolerance and how it is routinely practised, to the detriment of the human race, followed. An excellent opportunity for me to drill in my own philosophy of liberalism and tolerance, and appreciation of all cultures. I was to get the opportunity again, with much more impact, up in Mcleodganj in the context of Tibet, but more about that later.
The caves offer many photo opportunities and we took them all! On the way back, we decided to wait for the mini train to go back to the ferry. Sitting there, eating corn, I got the opportunity to converse in Marathi with the locals who run all the touristy knick-knack and food shops on the island. They were farmers and fisherfolk before, but now the monkeys have devastated all the crops and they rely on supplies from the mainland. They still fish and bit, do boat repair work etc, but are largely dependent on tourism fir income. The young do not stay here, leaving the island to study and work. I got the sense of despondency, rather than excitement. Would like to know more. When we declare something of heritage value, how does that change the loves of the people who have lived there for generations? Do they have links with the dynasty that carved the caves or are they later settlers? Is there any other way they can be involved to contribute to and benefit from the tourism that the island attracts? Is there any other way the trip the island can be enhanced? Through cultural interpretation centres, art displays, some non-invasive development around the island’s natural lakes and lagoons?
These were the thoughts going around my head on the ferry ride back. As the magnificent city of Mumbai came back into view, these thoughts faded and the excitement of walking around South Mumbai became more palpable!