Wednesday, 15 August 2012


Chandigarh was different from the other Indian cities we visited and it wasn’t just the wide, quiet and sometimes tree-lined boulevards,the clean footpaths and streets lined with designer shops coupled with the general absence of noise, cows and trash. Most Indian cities look as if someone had thrown paint at a map and where the paint landed, a building went, a park was placed, a road followed. As a consequence of this, Indian cities are vibrant places but at the same time, they seem to be improvised with fragility and a sense of incompleteness that you don’t associate with cities in the developed world. Chandigarh is different, like a polite version of these cities, without the multitude of people, smells and chaos that test and frequently overwhelm your senses. It’s not a fluke that Chandigarh is the way it is. As Independent India’s first planned city, it serves as the capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana. Its development was headed by Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French modern architect and urban planner, who was interested in providing better living conditions for residents of crowded cities (and India has more than its share of residents living in crowded urban conditions).
Example of Le Corbusier's Chandigarh's legacy, concrete and geometric.
The Indian Punjab capital was a post-Partition response to the influx of refugees spilling over the newly formed border with Pakistan. The refugees were mostly Sikhs and Hindus coming from Pakistan Punjab. Ten to twelve million people were said to have crossed the border between Pakistan and India. Not all of the movement was peaceful, as captured in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, “every day trains are crossing that new border, carrying nothing but corpses……The trains are stopped at the station and everyone is butchered. On both sides of the border”. It’s a theme also expressed in Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children “the mass blood-letting in progress on the frontiers of the divided Punjab (where the partitioned nations are washing themselves in one another's blood)” or in Khushwant Singh’s novel, Train to Pakistan, Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped”. You can add that while Hindus killed Muslims and Muslims killed Hindus, everyone killed the Sikhs.
Indian gentlemen enjoying the lake front.
With the partition just over a decade old and memories still raw for many, Le Corbusier developed a city of planned living that aimed to house a displaced populace, in a style not seen anywhere else in India. The wide boulevards dissect “super-blocks” or sectors, roughly arranged in a way that Le Corbusier’s concepts of living, working, circulation and the care of body and spirit could be achieved. For body and soul, there’s copious parks and a large lake, Sukhna Lake, that was one of Le Corbusier’s gift to the city. Chandigarh’s modernist architectural style also form part of Le Corbusier’s legacy, characterized by geometric structures made from brick and unhewn stone, a style that’s been described as Pyongyang-meets-Lewis-Carroll (that won’t be the only nod to Lewis Carroll in this story). Nehru, India’s first prime Minister described it as “the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you on the head and makes you think. You may not like it, but it has made you think, and imbibe new ideas”. I, for one, liked it. This may be due to the fact that after a month of bumpy bus rides and delayed train trips that linked one chaotic, dusty and noisy city to another, Chandigarh felt peaceful, easy going, relaxed. Of course, despite the order we found here, Chandigarh did prove to be the only place in India where I managed to get mugged, proving that there is always chaos in order. It also marked the first time in a month that we had seen a KFC or McDonalds. McDonalds is limited in India in that they don’t use beef so as not to offend Hindus or pork so not to offend Muslims, so the main burger in Indian McDonalds isn’t the Big Mac, it’s the Chicken Maharaja Mac. After a month of a vege diet, we ate at both, with dire consequences for some of our party (let’s just say Dehli Belly has nothing on the Chandigarh Runs).
Mosaic tribal women.
A couple of days after the Chandigarh Runs and the cricket mugging, we went to visit a rock garden. This is no ordinary rock garden, more of a visit to an alternative universe, a down the rabbit-hole experience (there’s another Lewis Carroll reference). Developed through the imagination of one man, Nek Chand, his Rock Garden spreads out over 40 acres, consisting of a fantastic combinations of waterfalls, of sculptures and statues, of tunnels that lead to hidden delights, through waterfalls and valleys. This is a real-life equivalent of Pan’s Labyrinth, brought to life through the workings of one man’s mind, where inexplicable and improbable objects are built. Furthermore, to add to the strangeness of the garden, it’s made entirely from recycled waste.

Not sure what these are.
Nek Chand’s rock garden exists as further allegory of how order can be made from chaos. No material is wasted. Everything from electrical sockets to discarded scrap metal, unwanted pieces of wire, broken glass and glasses, bangles, tiles, ceramic pots and sinks, electrical waste, old toilets and pieces of china are turned into the cartoonish and surreal, an imagined world that at times calls to mind characters from amine movies, at other times Dali-esque or Gaudi inspired sculptures. The garden had its origins during the rush of road construction that accompanied Chandigarh as it expanded. Chand, a road inspector, was amazed by the amount of waste generated by the road-making project, and began collecting waste that he used to create his sculptures, the modest origins of the now sprawling rock garden, recycled into his vision of what the divine kingdom of Sukrani would look like. Chand’s garden is in a forest buffer in a gorge near Sukhna Lake, where he worked on his vision secretly at night, undiscovered and unappreciated for ten years until town planners stumbled upon his work, no doubt perturbed that it was spread out over acres of public land. For a while, it seemed that the garden would go, snuffed out by officious local officers. After all, Chand was effectively squatting but after the very real threat of removal and demolition, some enlightened soul in the territory’s government (no doubt, concerned with public opinion which was heavily on the side of the Rock Garden being preserved), belatedly granted the garden a reprieve as well as conferring on Nek Chand a salary, a title ("Sub-Divisional Engineer, Rock Garden"), and a workforce of 50 labourers so that he could concentrate full-time on expanding the enterprise and reveal the entirety of his vision. This renewed effort has led to a mosaic of creation, of unrepressed expression, a psychedelic journey that can be taken without the need for hallucinogens. This is Wonderland, just not that as imagined by a well to do Englishman.

Normal ways of writing would struggle to capture what the garden is like so forgive me for a temporary lapse into a stream of consciousness: Deformed and demented women in colourful ceramic saris, colourful mosaic tribal people and leering monkeys, armies of workers standing attention above passages that take you from one wonder to the next, inlaid with dazzling fragments of roofing tiles. Extravagant peacocks, animals whose species cannot be determined, men who look part hobbit, part monkey, part man, part bear, some embellished with real human hair. Artificial mangrove roots made from cement intertwine with the roots of bulbous baobab trees. Castles encrusted with glass, geometric structures with cascading waterfalls, mossy retreats accessed by secret tunnels and overlain with arches. A village that that hangs off the side of a hill, complete with houses and temples. Rainbows of electrical wire, umbrellas of broken porcelain, giant swings that can accommodate several people soaring out from huge arches that resemble Roman aqueducts crowned by long-limbed ceramic horses. Real birds take advantage of small nook and crannies as nesting sites, their song adding to the atmosphere, mingling with the cries of bewitched visitors. Small, constricted pathways led to open plazas flanked by pavilions and palaces. Grinning reindeer or antelope with jewelled eyes stare vacantly at the several thousand visitors who come to this wonderland each day.
Army awash with colour

                       Nek Chand himself said he drew inspiration from Le Corbusier, “It is an extension of our modern planning but it wasn't planned as such, in the same way. It was a gift from God, this talent, and when I developed this. I found the items and recycled them to create something new and different”.

He certainly achieved different.

Friday, 3 August 2012


Megalomania may have seemed to have reached its epoch in the 20 century with a plethora from the most horrific and infamous dictators (like Hitler, Mao or Stalin) to the almost comical like Niyazov, the Turkmenistan dictator, who among other things, renamed himself Turkmenbashi (which means Father of the Turk Men), banned dogs because of their odour, banned lip syncing at public concerts due to his hatred of Milli Vanilli and prohibited the use of makeup on news anchors as Turkmen women were already beautiful enough without having to resort to makeup. Gold teeth were outlawed, with Niyazov suggesting that bones should be chewed to strengthen teeth. He also renamed the days of the week and gave bread a new name, Gurbansoltan, which incidentally was also the name of his mother (I guess it wasn’t so funny if you happened to be stuck in Turkmenistan during his reign). But like Stephen Jay Gould wrote, there were probably twenty mini-Hitlers ruling over parts of Europe a thousand years ago. Luckily, instead of being armed with WMDs, the armies of these dictators were armed with bows and arrows and more worried about plunder than planning genocide. It may be fair to say that while the means of dictators have been greatly extended by advances in modern technology, the actual number of madmen may have actually reduced over time with the rise of democracy and limits of power. The point of this long preamble (apart from allowing me to indulge in a little talk about Turkmenbashi) is that leaders with delusions of grandeur have been around since time immemorial. In ancient Egypt, despite the modern fame of a relative no-body in Tutankhamun (now famous primarily through the discovery of his small and almost untouched tomb and its preserved treasures), maybe the greatest of the pharaohs, certainly the longest serving one, was Ramesses II, ruler of Egypt for 66 years, 1300 years before the birth of Christ.

As befitting someone who ruled for 66 years, he commissioned a huge number of buildings, statues and memorials, many that still stand as part of Egypt’s ancient heritage. However, Ramesses wasn’t one to leave his legacy in the hands of chance. Instead, Ramesses engraved his name on a number of structures erected by his predecessors, at times obliterating their connection to the building from history. Ramesses was a savvy man though: he ensured his name was engraved deeply to ensure that he wouldn’t be so easily edited out of history by a few hits of a skilled tradesman’s chisel. As well as getting the credit for the monuments erected for past pharaohs, Ramesses wasn’t adverse to indulging in a little DIY using material recycled from other edifices. Even one of the three pyramids at Giza, the pyramid of Khafre, was raided for supplies to build the base of a temple in Heliopolis.

The temple of Nefertari, Abu Simbel.
With all of Ramesses’s changes to legacy, a trip around Egypt sometimes feels like a trip around Ramesses’s II private menagerie of structures. Most now lie in ruins. The thing with ruins (and I’m a ruin addict) is that we shouldn’t really be wowed by these skeletons of buildings, these relics standing like bleached elephant ribs in the desert. After all, we live in and see buildings everyday that are more impressive than these shells that we oogle. But there is a power in ruins -they make us think of our past, give us a sense of superiority (who hasn’t thought how did those ancients move that block of rock, a piece that we could easily move) and remind us of how life and dynasties are fragile. It was a statue of Ramesses II, trapped in sand, who inspired Shelley to write his poem Ozymandias (which happens to be Greek for Ramesses II)

 "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
 Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
 of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The metaphorical remains of Ramesses II are the buildings, some that stand, some that lie in ruins and some a combination of standing and ruined, that he left behind. His literal bones now lie in the massive but cramped Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It’s a degrading end for the mortal remains of Egypt’s greatest pharaoh. Now, they lie encased behind glass to be gawped at by a multitude of tourists, one of several mummies on display here, overshadowed by the treasures of lesser men like Tutankhamun. As a curious aside, Ramesses’s II mummy was flown to Paris in 1974 for examination as its condition was rapidly deteriorating. Even though obviously long deceased (you won’t find too many living mummies), Ramesses II was issued an Egyptian passport that listed his occupation as King. The French played the part in the charade, giving him full military honours when he arrived in Paris.
Ramesses's II temple at Abu Simbel

Our first Ramesses’s II experience was the grand buildings of Abu Simbel, two massive rock temples in southern Egypt. This area is the heartland of the Nubian people. The Nubians we meet were quick to point out they were Nubians, as opposed to Egyptians. Their connections seemed to be not so much with the Middle East as was the case in Cairo but pointed more to Africa, to the Sudan, a Sudan with shared language and history with fellow Nubians, history now separated by a line drawn on a map when Sudan became independent from Egypt in the 1950s. Nubia has sometimes been known as Kush, sometimes existed as an independent country, sometimes, like now, been part of Egypt and also at times in its history, was part of Ethiopian kingdoms. The link between the Sudan and Egypt is clear; over 200 pyramids are found in Sudan (more than in Egypt itself) although at a much smaller scale than those seen in Egypt proper.

Nubian gentleman
We flew directly from Cairo to Aswan, a town that seemingly existed as a port for the multitude of tourists who cruised the Nile on large cruise ships that would have seemed over-sized on almost any other river. We would join the cruise scene in a couple of nights but first there was Abu Simbel and a quick exploration of Aswan. Our hotel was the type that would have been nice in the 1950s but hadn’t aged well. It did afford views of the Nile and close proximity to the souq, the busy but friendly market that sold some treasures.

The view of the Nile from our hotel room
Mostly though, it was the kitschy fare you would expect to find in Egypt: the plaster pyramids, model sphinxes, hieroglypic laden sculptures, cheap pharonic knockoffs, T-shirts emblazoned with King Tut’s face. Police were present, symbols of the violence that sometimes happens in Egypt, like the occasional bombing, hijacking or kidnapping of tourists by Muslim extremists or the targeting of tourist sites that happen from time to time, but their presence was not overt. However, chatting to men with guns slung to their sides is always disconcerting, especially when their barrel bobs up to face level every time they laugh. At the souq, there were metal detectors at certain spots that may or may not have been on and even if they were on, were seemingly unwatched. This casualness reminded me that protection for tourists in the developing world is sometimes lip service. Life goes on here even after attacks; time and money to spend on protecting against possibilities is a first world problem.


 Due to the sometimes volatile nature of being a tourist in Egypt, the only way to get from Aswan to Abu Simbel, 300 kilometres to the south, close to the Sudanese border, was to join a motor convoy. Travelling in convoy affords its own danger. Convoys have been targeted in the past and the drivers, who all seemed to know each other, choose to break the monotomy of the three hour drive that they probably did everyday, by playing a high-risk game that combined cat and mouse, chicken and car tag. All of these activities seemed to negate the point that we would be kept safer by travelling in convoy. For the drivers, it was no doubt monotonous but for me, the landscape was captivating. Rocky outcrops punctured through the lonely sands and I had my first experience of mirages, deceptively lying shimmering in the sand as you looked out towards the horizon. Periodically, we would be stopped by armed guards at checkpoints, who had rudimentary sheds for shelter that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Tatooine with Luke selling druids on the sly. Occasionally, we would pass by a few goats, standing nervously on the road-side (I would have been nervous given the quality of the driving) or a mule, with one of those woe is me faces that only a mule can perfect.

Mary trying to decipher the 'glyphs

After the three-hour drive to get there, you have to wait a few more minutes to see the complex. All you can see at the back of a large earthen hill and the usual shops selling statues and t-shirts, more of the same stuff that we saw at the Souq, the tacky souvenirs that you see all over Egypt. Abu Simbel was carved out of a mountainside in the 13th Century BC, by Ramesses II himself (this wasn’t one of the buildings he hijacked) at a time where Egypt had sway over Nubia. It was built to commemorate a victory and perhaps to intimidate or impress the Nubians (a case of my building is bigger than your building). The construction of Abu Simbel, built as a tribute to Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari, took twenty years. It has to be said it is more a tribute to Ramesses II than his wife. Four twenty metre statues of the pharaoh decorate the fa├žade, with statues of Nefertari, his children and mother-in-law standing no higher than his knees. Apparently this snub was all too do with royal etiquette but the esteem that Ramesses II held Nefertari in can be seen at the smaller temple that lies about one hundred metres away from the larger temple. 

Temple of Nefertari
Here, Ramesses and Nefertari have statues of equal size, said to be the only represention in Egyptian art where the king and queen were drawn equal in size. If the scale of Abu Simbel wasn’t impressive enough, there was also finesse in the finely carved statues in the interior and astronomical wonder. The axis of the temple was believed to be positioned by the architects to ensure that on October 21st and then again on February 21st, the rays of the sun would penetrate into the sanctuary. On these two days, 61 days before and 61 days after the Winter Solstice, light illuminates the sculptures on the back wall, all the statues apart from the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld, who always remains as a mysterious figure in the dark.
Forbidden capture inside one of the temples.
Abu Simbel may be an impressive set of temples but that didn’t stop them from falling into disuse, forgotten about and literally covered by the times of sand. Even the original name of the complex had been lost- Abu Simbel refers to a local boy who guided explorers to the temples, although this tale may be apocryphal. If Abu Simbel did exist, he may have aided in the rediscovery in 1813 by a French explorer, the first of a succession of explorers who took (or stole) everything that wasn’t tied down. But after almost 3000 years of existence, sometimes famed but long forgotten, the temples of Abu Simbel faced their biggest challenge in the 1950s. Egypt, and in particular Egypt’s president, Nasser, were at the vanguard of a pan-Arab movement. Nasser’s popularity in the Arab world was initially derived from his decision to nationalize the Suez Canal, followed by then successfully countering the claims of France and Britain and capped by some success when Egypt successfully tangled with Israel. However, Nasser wasn’t just popular in the Arab world. He was a hero of the non-aligned third world (the true third world, when this term was coined, it didn’t mean developing countries. Rather, it referred to countries that were not aligned to either the U.S.A or U.S.S.R, the two superpowers at the time). Nasser wasn’t just outward-looking, he was also concerned about pushing Egypt ahead, through a program of modernization and reform. A key feature for this modernization was the construction of a dam, a dam that would allow Egypt to control floods (floods being both a boon and a bane for Egypt). By controlling the Nile, they could minimize the impact of flooding, provide water for agriculture along the Nile and generate enough hydroelectricity to energize Egypt’s growing industrialization.

View from the High Dam
 It was the construction of the Aswan High Dam and its accompanying Lake Nasser, pointing like a finger down into Northern Sudan.  (and maybe forging a tentative megalomania link between the old and new rulers of Egypt, Ramesses II and Nasser) that threatened to forever conceal Abu Simbel under its newly-made waves. Much of the lower Nubia region was flooded, forcing a number of Nubians to be resettled, sometimes far away from the Nile Basin. While this humanitarian problem was real and caused some long-standing problems, there is one advantage that people have. At least, people are mobile. How does one start to move a thirty-century old monument to prevent it from being lost forever? That was the problem faced in 1959 when international groups worked with Egyptian officials to think of ways to save Abu Simbel, soon to be engulfed by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Not every one believed that it should or could be shifted. Some were in favour of making it an underwater temple, a type of Egyptian Atlantis that could be enjoyed by divers. Another scheme was to build a clear fresh-water dam at the same height of the Nile, with underwater viewing chambers. Eventually though, it was decided Abu Simbel would be shifted with a crack team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators entrusted with the $40 million operation. Over four years, the entire site was cut into large blocks, dismantled, lifted, carted 200 metres back from the Nile and reassembled in its new location, safe from Lake Nasser, preserved for tourists to visit.

Lake Nasser
Luckily for us, the effort was made and Abu Simbel was saved. Egypt, like Italy, seems to have so many attractions that even major sites can become mundane, be underappreciated. Abu Simbel was one site that wasn’t underappreciated or diminshed in my mind-in fact, being the first major site we saw in Egypt, it has a special place in my internal travel cinema.