Steve Muhlberger's

Trip to India

April 2005


Early in March of 2005, I received an invitation to visit India from Dr. Ashok Acharya of the Department of Political Science at the University of Delhi.  Dr. Acharya was acting as a convener for a conference on "The Distinctiveness of Indian Democracy," to take place on April 8th & 9th.  Short notice, but thanks to funding from both the University of Delhi and my own institution, Nipissing University (North Bay, Ontario, Canada), Dr. Acharya and I were able to make the trip happen.

I know a lot of people at Nipissing University and elsewhere who would be interested in hearing about the trip and seeing some images of Delhi and region, thus this page.  I hope you enjoy it.

A note on the images:  I didn't take a camera to India.  All the images here are taken from the Web via Google's "Images" search engine.   They will give you some idea of what I saw, even though it's not exactly what I saw.


To set the mood here are a couple of pictures of the beautiful campus of the University of Delhi, one of the top educational institutions in India.  

The pictures do not lie:  there is lots of greenery -- lawns, trees, gardens -- in Delhi.  The campus is an attractive place.  The second picture has one odd element:   where are all the other people?  Compared to tiny Bonfield, Ontario, small-city North Bay, or even substantial Toronto, Delhi and region were very crowded and I'm surprised that there aren't a number of people in the background here.  Just about everywhere I went, there were plenty  of people going about their daily business.   The U. of Delhi on its website claims 300,000 students (there are two main campuses).  I couldn't find an authoritative population figure for the city, but I think it's over 10 million -- maybe quite a bit over.

So why was I there in the first place?  I'm no expert on current politics in India, but I do have a scholarly interest in the world history of democracy.  Dr. Acharya was particularly interested in my article on ancient democracy in India and thought a paper based on it might add to the conference.   The paper I wrote was called "Indian Democracy and World Perspectives" and owed something to both the essay on ancient Indian democracy and piece I posted last year, "Democracy in World History Today."  The basic point was that one cannot get a proper perspective on the development and nature of democracy without taking into account the history of both ancient and modern India.

The conference was well-attended, even though like Canada the professors and graduate students involved were entering into the end-of-semester exam period.  There was one other Canadian present, Dr. Joseph Carens of the University of Toronto, and like me he gave a big perspective paper.  All the other speakers were from the local area, and  talked about recent and concrete concerns.   There were lots of good questions and friendly discussions between sessions.

For those of you who don't know a thing about Indian politics, the key feature is that more and more people, with more and more distinct concerns of their own, are getting involved in political life all the time. 

Later in the week I did a research seminar  for the Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Political Science, in which I compared the  Greek  and ancient Indian city republics and their significance for the study of democracy.  It was reasonably well-attended despite the fact that it was up against a broadcast of an India-Pakistan cricket match that turned out to be one of the most exciting ever.  (Pakistan won in the last few minutes.)


Trips around Delhi

Among the things I teach at NU are introductory world history and the history of Islamic civilization.  North India is a historic centre of Islamic culture and imperial power.  In my classes I have discussed the Mughal Empire and shown pictures of some of the important sites associated with it.   My trip was an opportunity to see some of those sites and of course I took advantage of the opportunity.   But getting there was half the fun.


My hosts arranged a car to take me to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri.  Here's a map:

Fatehpur Sikri is  not far from Agra.


The variety of traffic was great.   On top of the motor traffic -- buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, autorickshaws, rickshaws -- there were a certain number of  animals to  be seen.  For instance, camels pulling carts:

That wood is being hauled somewhere to be used for fuel.   I saw lots of people carrying branch wood for that purpose, and piles of wood, presumably for sale, in front of shops.



There was also an elephant.  What my elephant was being used for was not obvious.  It looked a lot like this one, though.



Not exactly traffic, but also seen on the road, were captive bears. I saw three of them:



The animal traffic was far outnumbered by motorized traffic.   Here's a sight I was frequently treated to on the highway to Agra:

Yes, it's a great big truck, painted prettily in bright colors, with the English words "Blow Horn" prominently featured.

Why "Blow Horn"?   That signal is a key part of driving in India.  In Canada, almost all vehicles are about the same width, and travel at more or  less the same speed.   There's a big premium on staying in  your lane.  In India, staying in your lane is not practical.   If drivers did that, the country's traffic would be reduced to a crawl, as faster vehicles followed much slower ones.   Faster traffic must pass.   And to make sure that truck, car, or autorickshaw in front of you knows you are there and intend to pass, you blow your horn.   There's no impatience involved in this, like there is here.  The density of India traffic would reduce many Canadian drivers to road rage in minutes, but I saw no sign of it in India.   The drivers all struck me as extraordinarily skillful.



The roadside from Delhi to Agra passed through a lot of countryside, but there was a strip of buildings alongside it nearly the whole way.  Here's an urban scene that gives some impression.



The picture below shows rural/suburban strip development, including both  brick, concrete or stone buildings in the background, and some people living in tents in the foreground (I saw such tents and huts made of branches).  Along the highway I traveled, the buildings were closer to the road, and were mostly shops.   The pile of broken brick or stone in the foreground is a product of the pace of life in India.  Older buildings are ripped down and replaced by new ones at a great rate.  BTW, the lettering on the sign indicates this is not the Delhi region.  I can't read Hindi, but I can tell that this isn't Hindi.



In the Delhi region it was the middle of the dry season, just before it gets really hot.  Temperatures usually reached the mid 30s C in the day time.   It was also harvest time for the wheat crop.   Though I saw some harvesting machines, it looked to me that a lot of the farming was done the old-fashioned way, hard physical labor in the hot sun.  It appeared to me that most of the grain had  been removed.  There were a few piles of grain lying  in the fields waiting for pickup, a sight that astonished me, but the rain or lack of  it is very predictable and so I guess that wasn't lunacy.   Most of the visible work seemed to be hand-gleaning  (picking up the fallen grains from the field) and bundling and stacking of straw:

Yes, that's the Taj Mahal in the background.  More on that later.



Here's a 19th century(?) European painting of gleaning available on several charitable sites on the web, but without attribution:



I saw several "bagged carts," like the one behind this camel, being hauled behind tractors.   The fact that this picture says the bags contain wheat makes me think the ones I saw did, too.



Historic Sites

The most famous Indian site is the Taj Mahal, and it well deserves its fame.  No picture you will ever see will give you an idea of its beauty.   That's because its setting,  the courtyards and other structures that surround it, are as important, and as  perfect, as the building itself.   Nevertheless, I'm going to include some pictures that might give a hint.



First the gateway to the main courtyard around the Taj Mahal.  When you've got this far, you've already passed through a courtyard of breathtaking beauty.



Looking back at the gate from the direction of  the main monument.  If this weren't next to the Taj Mahal, it might be famous.



This shows the distance from the main monument to the gate.



Two generous tourists who posted their picture, showing the Taj Mahal from the ideal distance for photos.  Note on the left the mosque.  There is an identical building on the right, and the two of them, plus the main gate, plus an arcade that connects them all,  provide a brilliant frame for the main monument.



The entrance  into the main monument.

Another picture of the Taj Mahal.



I saw a few horse-drawn carriages at the Taj Mahal and other touristy sites and thought I'd throw in this picture, the only one I could find.   All the horses I saw were grey rather than chestnut (I don't know where  they were hiding this one when I went by), but like this one they were relatively short and of thin stature.  However, they looked healthy and well-cared for, I'm glad to say.



Close to the Taj Mahal, in the same city, Agra, is one of several red sandstone forts made out of local stone by Mughal emperors at the peak  of their power over India.  Like the Taj Mahal, these things are much, much bigger than I expected.   When they were built, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe was advancing to world domination.  Books concerned with world history always insist that Asian empires were hardly in a steep decline, despite European gains.   Now I know what they mean.  The forts are closer to "royal cities" than to most European castles or palaces.

Here's the gate at Agra fort:



I'd guess that the gate above is at the bottom of this map.

The map gives you some notion that the interior of such a stronghold contained a lot of arcaded courtyards, which are large and have beautiful proportions.


This is probably a gate, and is certainly at Agra,

 but some of these medieval and early modern buildings, even those that are not gates, seem to be characterized by an "open style".  Even today in the Delhi region a fancy building may have "hallways" that are roofed but open on one side.  This would make them sufficiently  airy for the hot nights of summer.   What did people do in winter (when it is cold and damp, if not freezing) or for  privacy?  Curtains?  Many doorways show little evidence for solid doors.  Maybe some expert on Indian architecture will stumble across this site and tell me.


Another local palace is Akbar's palace and tomb at Fatehpur Sikri, built by that emperor about the same time that Elizabeth I ruled England.  It's a far bigger complex than anything Elizabeth had.  This picture gives you some notion of the size of these enormous courtyards.   This is just one courtyard, of course.



This shows the arcades and porches that  use heavy stone roofs to keep the courtiers from baking in the summer sun.

I have a picture that I use in Modern World History that shows monkeys at Akbar's tomb at Fatehpur Sikri.  I didn't see any monkeys anywhere.   Lots of gray pigeons, though...



Trips around Delhi

I did not have a lot of time to travel around Delhi, and eventually I got rather tired of being crammed into the back of small vehicles.   Once again, one of the most important impressions was of crowds, traffic, and energy.  Here's a Delhi street at a slow time of day.  Note the temple on the left with the bright banners.   It's probably a new building.



Here's a very crowded street surrounded by some fairly ordinary buildings.



Are there cows in the street?  Yes, occasionally.



To the stranger's eye, small business seems to be a very important aspect of Delhi life.   Here are some food vendors,  backed up by some very typical small shops.  Notice the English language signs:  there seem  to be more of them than there are of Hindi signs.  But it's hard to communicate, even with many people who know English, because Canadian and Delhi accents are pretty far apart.



A barber shop:  I saw one just like it.



Something I didn't see a lot of in Delhi:  Arabic writing.  This may be Urdu, a language related to Hindi which  is written with the Arabic alphabet.  The picture shows Old Delhi by the Red Fort, an old Muslim neighborhood.  I didn't visit the Red Fort, having already seen two red forts in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri.

You'd think that with all those people and all that traffic, the pollution would be intense.  Actually the air smells  less of gasoline and diesel than Toronto's does.  Thanks to a Supreme  Court decision, diesel has been  banned and trucks, buses, and some smaller vehicles have been converted to the cleaner fuel:

That's "compressed natural gas," and now that I know it exists, I find that sites promoting it in many countries, including the USA, are all over the Web.   It may do nothing whatever about carbon emissions or long-term sustainability of the petroleum economy, but I was impressed.  In India, at least, it is cheaper than gasoline



If I missed the Red Fort, I did see a few other of the  many, many sites that Delhi has to offer.  One was the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, the Gandhi Samadhi, which is specifically the site where he was cremated.   The monument that has been constructed on the site of the pyre is surrounded by greenery and a wall, giving much the same effect of a beautiful "space apart" that the old Mughal courtyards do.  When I was there, there was a bearded holy man beating a drum, which Dr. Acharya, who was showing me around, said was very unusual.  As you would expect, it's usually a quiet place.

There are other similar memorials to Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi,  and other national leaders.

At the Samadhi, as at the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, and other solemn or holy places, you are expected to check your shoes at the entrance.  If you are going to India, this might be worth knowing in advance!



Another monument I was glad to see was Qutab Minar, or minaret, a 12th century tower in a pre-Mughal Muslim complex.   The minaret is about 73 meters high, of the local red stone.

Nearby is the unfinished base of a minaret that was built by a successor of the first builder, who wanted to make one twice as big.   I wonder if they called this one "the mad sultan"?   Certainly no one else has ever felt any compulsion to finish it off.



In the same complex is a famous pre-Muslim monument from the 4th or 5th century:  The Iron Pillar of Delhi.  It is a very large (6.7 m. high) piece of iron work by ancient standards and rather mysteriously has resisted corrosion over the last 1600 years.  You can read about it here.



The rest of my tour of Delhi consisted of visits to two shopping districts in the city.   I won't show you any more pictures of traffic, but I will include an aerial view of India's World War I memorial, India Gate, which I passed in a cab.

Yes, it's big!

I found trying to shop in Delhi absolutely overwhelming.  Part of this was the heat (I'd come to high summer weather from the tail-end of winter), part jet-lag lack of sleep.   But there was so much stuff for sale!  One day while walking in Connaught Square I was picked up by an English-speaking guy from Rajasthan who directed me to some exclusive emporia on back-streets where there were luxury goods for sale.   The prices were not that high, just more than I could afford at the moment.   I was particularly taken with some paintings of royal polo and hunting scenes, most of them modern versions of classic genres, but very, very good.   I also liked the silk Kashmir tribal rugs.   Oddly, there are many rug merchants in India, Canada and other countries with Web sites, but few of  them show really good pictures of what they sell. 

Here, though, is a picture of someone getting the sales pitch I got.

These rugs are flopped down before you on marble floors in air-conditioned basements -- a sensuous experience all by itself.



Exciting Times in India

The particular week that I spent in India was full of interesting and exciting events, which I read about in the English-language press and saw on TV at the International Guest House where I stayed.

Very significant for the prospects of peace between India and Pakistan was the opening of a commercial bus service between the two halves of  disputed Kashmir.   The trip went ahead despite a fire-bombing attack by terrorists who wanted to derail the initiative; the bus was full of people who have not been able to visit family who live a few miles away for five decades or more.



At the same time there was a major cricket series taking place between India and Pakistan.  It was pretty exciting for all sports fans on the subcontinent.  This  is the India cricket team on an earlier occasion.

People from non-cricket playing countries often consider it to be an odd, stodgy sport, but it looked as exciting as baseball on TV.  Whether that's good depends on your own view of baseball.



A final big event was a visit to India by the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who made a particular point of visiting India's hi-tech centre, Bangalore (nowhere near Delhi). 

China and India have been mostly hostile to each other for almost half a century; there have been border disputes, a little fighting back  in the 60s, and general coolness about any kind of relations.   There are limited trade and transportation contacts.  Now, there is a real will to cooperate.  The  Chinese brought maps to India showing a border between the two countries very much in line with Indian ideas, and Wen expressed some support for India having a permanent seat on the Security Council.  The official comment on the latter issue sounded kind of non-committal to me when I read it in the paper, but it is a huge change in attitude nonetheless.  And  I bet it got very little attention in the Western Hemisphere!


It's hard to say how  to sum this up.   I never expected to be able to visit India, but now I've seen at least a little bit of that vast country.  It was a good trip, and Dr. Acharya and the Department of Political Science at Delhi University took very good care of me.  My thanks to them, and to Nipissing University as well.

Contact me at:   stevem AT


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