Steps of a Fort: 1556, 1864 – By S. Rao

Steps of a Fort

Steps of a Fort

In 1864, a tall British man from Nottingham stood exactly where I was with his crew of coolies and a daguerreotype camera, looking down at the end of the steps, visualizing, like I am, the death of Humayun.

A young couple huddles together on the stone stoop, holding hands as the early January morning sun shimmers onto the last remnants of once a marble dome of ornate Mughal architecture, I wonder if the couple is one of many who would, like other ill-informed ones before, etched their mark on one of the 15th century stone walls, ‘Pinky loves Surinder’, ‘Bobby likes Monica’, ‘Ali and Sohail were here’.

I walk past the couple who stare at me with reserved curiosity, I enter the quiet building, Sher Mandal library of emperor Humayun in Purana Qila, the old fort, in the southwest corner of modern Delhi, I had come through one of the giant metal and brass darwaza, gate, of the fort where I had watched a man urinate near a sign which was painted unevenly in black on a sheet of corrugated aluminum, ‘Keep Delhi’s Monuments Clean’, a thin stray dog looking for another day of survival stood next to the man, vomiting, urination, defecation, is all part of Delhi’s streets as it is part of its antiquities.

A flock of pigeons stare at me hoping for some chana, peanuts, which early morning joggers occasionally throw at them, given Delhi’s incessant traffic noise, the library is uncharacteristically quiet, as if there is a posted sign, ‘Silent, padshah is reading’, I look up at the high dome where I see shades of peeling blue paint, possibly prepared by Persian artists with inks and dyes, now having lost their lustrous brilliance and blackened with age, at the top of the hollow dome sits a large honeycomb as does a copper hook, there must have hung a giant candle chandelier to light up this octagonal structure at night.

A narrow set of stone stairs go up to the upper floor and a small balcony, the mezzanine is distinctively filled with hollow configuration which makes for both windows and shelves with small apertures in the corners to seat candles and lamps, the balcony opens up to the vista of contemporary Delhi, the haphazard structures of a Science Museum where school children line up this morning, neatly dressed in their white shirts, blue blazers and gray pants, very much keeping with the tradition of Thomas Macaulay’s vision of English education for the natives, learning, discipline, obedience, the expansive roads built to accommodate the belly-to-bumper automobile traffic, busy train tracks that meander past the fort, and, in the distance, the large dome of Humayun’s tomb where lies the small, nondescript grave of the padshah.

I walk up the steps and gently touch the shelves, I see slight remains of meenakari, of enameled and decorated metallic surfaces, intricately set by craftsmen and masons who took years to complete the building, books, I imagine, hundreds of emperor Humayun’s books resting on these shelves, historians tell us that he spent hours in this library, he was a philosopher-emperor, they contend, much less interested in the art of Machiavellian politics and warfare and more in philosophical discourses of his times, a ruler interested in the occult and the science of stars and known for his love of opium, it must be here that foreign travelers discovered Humayun’s pursuit of poetry, the lingua franca of the court, as the famous Turkish visitor, Sidi Ali Reis, wrote in his memoir, ‘Even an archer,’ wrote the bashful Turkish general, ‘answered the emperor in couplets and the emperor would answer back with equal jest’, it is here that he lovingly preserved his manuscripts by Persian poets as Humayun was said to frequently quote Sa’di’s Gulistan, the emperor of Hindustan was too much of a dilettante and verse-lover, Reis had observed with disdain.

I imagine manuscripts, strewn around, for padshah’s readings, Persian and Arabic literature, many written versions of the Koran, Chagatay, Turki, Persian, and Devanagari translations of Hindu scriptures and epics, biographies of Chinese travelers like Huen-Tsang and Fa-Hien, and books on astrology.

Here in the library, under the dome, the carpet of mirth, Jauhar, Humayun’s trusted valet and later biographer wrote, was carefully laid out, it was a round lushly embroidered carpet painted with all the paraphernalia of astrology, Humayun sat in the middle, on the sign of the blazing sun, surrounded by his officers and courtiers, who rolled dice showing figures of people standing, sitting, lying down, courtiers were then expected to perform the actions painted on the dice, this thoroughly amused the dreamy emperor.

On serious occasions, I imagine Humayun dictating long renditions of qanoon, laws that would apply to his subjects, half meditating, his eyes closed, with hookah in his hand, to a series of scribes and calligraphers seated in their pillows fiercely writing as the pankha pullers fan their efforts, calligraphy guiding their hands, entrusting them the secret held within each stroke and every character, a hypnotic, emotional, besotted relationship between the scribe and the parchment, dipping their brushes in ink, when the bristles swelled, filling with the exact measure of ink, their hands exerting gentle pressure, a concentration required for stylistic precision and elegance, a technique some Persian calligraphers used, working with a raised hand, without leaning either hand or elbow on the table so that, by suspending the entire arm, the pressure exerted by the point of the brush on the parchment or cloth could be regulated, creating a rhythmic sequence of downstrokes, upstrokes, and sidewaystrokes, the scribes did not always write with accuracy, some words run naturally from the pen as well known words do, some are labored in the writing, as though care must be taken in the copying, in the corner of the library were stacked strong dark chests bound with brass and iron, tall amphoras of oil, inlaid caskets brought from Persia, great piles of linen, silk and fine dyed wools on the marble floors, a painted carriage with curtains of scarlet-dyed leather, drawn by mares with decorated harnesses, waited outside for padshah, the attendants, washed and got up in their best, standing primly with their hands folded in front of them, here and there some courtiers might be reading, sitting at tables or standing by the shelves, sunlight shafted from the mezzanine, Humayun must have looked majestic dressed in linen garment embroidered with gold thread, Arabic letters ran in a band on each sleeves, sheer silk robe, made by Kashmiri artisans, so delicate it was difficult to imagine it being made by human hands, he sat on the silk gaddi, pillow, embroidered shoes, crimson and gold, peeping out from under the flowing robe, the smell of attar and flower pervades the room.

I pause at the top of the uneven steps, I imagine the padshah, that cold January morning in 1556, like the day I visit, hearing the royal muezzin starting to say the azan, prayer, bellowing from the mosque’s minaret across the library, and in his careless attempt to kneel, falling fifteen feet below.

What could Humayun be thinking, I wonder.

I have never felt this pain on my skin, my mouth is filled with sand, my throat burns, I hear the murmur of my blood, don’t you think this is death, he must have moaned, inconsolable, the guards, scribes, personal attendants, pankha pullers rush to his side but he only had a few hours more to live, I imagine him lying there, dying, bequeathing an empire to Jalal-ud-Din, his teenage son.

At that moment I imagine Samuel Bourne.

In 1864, a tall British man from Nottingham stood exactly where I was with his crew of coolies and a daguerreotype camera, looking down at the end of the steps, visualizing, like I am, the death of Humayun.

Bourne had arrived in India the year before with the sole purpose of photographing the sites of the sepoy mutiny and India’s decrepit antiquities, Purana Qila being one of many, it was his providence, he believed, his essential duty to the English empire to photograph and document these ancient monuments, and Delhi, he had written to his friends only a few days earlier ‘is a name sadly famous to every Englishman, Delhi can’t fail to be interesting to the photographer’.

The architectural monuments, he assured himself, were bound to engage the heart, the imagination, and the intellect of a Victorian public newly awakened to India by the transfer of colonial authority from the East India Company to the Queen, Purana Qila, built on the ruins of the ancient capital of Indrapastha, must be photographed, he had written to his fellow photographer, Charles Shepherd, who was away on a photographic expedition to Lahore, with a strong concern for comprehensiveness, it is a particularly fascinating structure, he had mused in his letter, Humayun named it Din-panah, refuge of religion, which now lies in ruins, was of immense historical importance.

About Humayun Bourne knew little except to write to Shepherd, somewhat naively, ‘In Babar’s history, Humayun’s esteemed father, the man holds the interest and lifts the eyes over his shortcomings to his excellence, no character demanding admiration attracts interest to Humayun’, yet, Bourne believed, Humayun’s story is one which needed a masterhand to unfold, he had read Thomas Moore’s book-length poem, Lalla Rookh, an Oriental romance with much delight, Lalla Rookh was a love story based on a princess’ journey from Delhi to Kashmir, a story filled with intrigue, romance, and failed revolutions, after reading a poem like Lalla Rookh, the possibility of traveling to India to practice photography appealed to Bourne, but, as he had publicly acknowledged among his fellow photographers in Nottingham, Wales, and London, he was driven to India more for his love of photography than the appeal of its architecture and landscapes.

Here he was, one March afternoon, photographing the steps of Sher Mandal library, carefully documenting the place where once lay the twisted and battered body of an emperor, ‘The day was exceedingly hot, no shady place could be found for my tent,’ he wrote, in his leather bound bulky notebook, sitting cross-legged in his tent, imaginably similar to the scribes of Humayun, with a pen and a camera, in dismay, ‘and I shall not soon forget the roasting I had while labouring indefatigably for six hours depicting every interesting feature about the ruins’.

The wet collodion process of photography was bulky requiring the use of glass plates and a camera often difficult to maneuver, with the help of his coolies, Indians he hired to carry his camera and other paraphernalia, and sometimes even himself, Bourne moved the camera around the building and placed his head under the black cloth, from my backpack I pull out a photocopy of Bourne’s photograph of the steps I had made from the original at Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I hold a single picture consisting of a long oblique view, in it, I see an unidentified man, perhaps one of Bourne’s servants, in his dirty tunic, dhoti, and white pagri, standing somewhat awkwardly next to the steps, the sullen face of the man, the darkness of the background, and the cold stones presents a somber mood, the viewer can see the stairs, and death itself, with as much expressive force as photography could allow.

I walk down the stairs, as the morning mist settles, the steps are treacherously slippery, I hear the pigeons flutter in anticipation of an early morning flight, I could no longer tell which of Humayun or Samuel Bourne had been climbing down the steps.

I take photographs of the steps with my digital camera trying hard to replicate Bourne’s vision of photographic singularity, in the quietness, I hear hurried steps reaching the fallen padshah and gasps as his attendants lift to carry the seeming lifeless body to the nearby palace, a weak sovereign, an intellectual shipwrecked on the throne, a colophon to his father’s history, powerless and feeble, as he was perceived by most courtiers, some stood whispering to each other, his excessive superstition, civilized lethargy, his sentimentality, lack of self confidence, frequently befuddled with opium, childish, they said, his son would make a far superior emperor.

Indeed, his son, Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar, would abandon Purana Qila but the use of the library did not end there, I suspect, endearingly called Jannat-ashyani by his sister Gulbadan who, now sat here, to write the story of Humayun-nama, a simple setting down of what she knew or had heard of and from her brother, it is peppered with verses and anecdotes, in Persian and Turki, it is a written path for Akbar to rule in a way his father did, uniquely Mughal, a settled and centralized way to rule Hindustan rather than the nomadic peripatetic way his forefathers had ruled as Turks and Mongols.

As I leave, the couple outside wave at me. I am momentarily tempted to etch on one of the stone walls, ‘Humayun and Bourne were here’.

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