The National Association of Students of Architecture (NASA), India, holds an Annual Convention towards the end of January ever year which is attended by over 5000 students. The convention has evolved into being an integral part of all architecture colleges of India and other SAARC nations. It’s 55th session was hosted by Gateway College of Architecture and Design, Sonipat, of which, in the session of 2013, I was a fortunate participant as a student of NCA, Pakistan.
Initially, the idea of our participation seemed to have started as just a rumor around our campus. But when it actually came about, I was among the first to volunteer for it. In view of the perennial Indo-Pak political complexities, there were some understandable glitches along the way, but they were luckily all amicably resolved. Eventually, on January 24, over 250 avid Pakistani students representing architecture colleges from all over Pakistan entered India from the Wahga-Attari Border. The armed Indian soldiers waved us by with huge smiles. A huge board there welcomed us to ‘The biggest Democracy in the World’, an interesting topic I leave for other times. India was our sister nation, we were excited to see what made us similar and what didn’t.
The first thing I noticed in India was that the smells of the air, the flora and fauna and the verdant fields were the same as on our side of the border. The buzz of the bazaar made me feel like I was back in Lahore. There were, however, striking differences too. Colorful temples and huge idols were adorned along the way; also, men were wearing vibrant turbans (Sikhs) and women, from young college girls to older housewives, were riding motorcycles! It was interesting to note how two people of the same background can sometimes evolve to have such different social lifestyles. In Pakistan, some men would find it highly unacceptable, even offensive, to see a woman riding a motorcycle independently, whereas here, it seems to be a done thing.
The rest of our journey that day was on road. Their motorway stops are called the Havelli, on one of which we had our first grand lunch. Guilty confession: I bought my first item from there too. And yes, they looted me for a bell and sunglass holder; it was a tourist spot. We were given Indian thaalis, another first. Waiters clad in dhottis served us personally with aaloo bhujiya, amazing dahhi bhallaas, paneer, daal and small rotis.
Our first stop was the Gateway College of Architecture and Design, Sonipats most prestigious institution. Even at 3 am, the Indian students from various colleges were enthusiastically waiting for us with cameras. They ran up to our buses helping us up with our luggage. We were led to the food court where men at a small tandoor were making fresh rotis. The place was abuzz with activity and managed very efficiently; we had fun.
After dinner, we were led to what seemed to be everyone’s favorite spot, the atrium. The local students, who took to us with fond alacrity, informed us that the atrium is always packed with students; it is the hub of all activities. Cards in one corner, guitars and music in the other; school teams cheering, dancing, socializing and the organizers and participants working with keen ardor all night. The atmosphere was electric with excitement.
Interestingly, not a single faculty member of our host college, Gateway, was a key part of the organizing committee. Armed with walkie talkies and other communication gizmos, the students hustled around efficiently. The setup, from the main stage to the lightings and chandeliers hanging in the hallway, and the detailed atrium decorations, was all handmade. The organizers were seen in their trademark jeans and black NASA hoodie every day. One of our faculty members gifted a Khaadi kurta to the chief organizer, Vikas Kumar, who jokingly told us that he could only get the time to shower and change on the third day of the event. And as one of his friends told us, they had been working on this event for a year. Sure, there were moments of frustration, like one just three months before the event when Vikas Kumar just disappeared off the grid because he couldn’t take the stress. But they made it. And they made it quite well. For us, their work was inspiring.
Throughout our trip, the Indians were friendly and warm towards us. On most occasions we found ourselves engaged in long and friendly banter with them about our evident similarities and subtle social differences; always gracious, sometimes, they even gave us their cellphones to call home. They couldn’t swallow the hard fact that we slaughtered their holy cows and ate their meat. “A religious festival?” they gasped. But there were others among my new Hindu friends who relished the thought of beef steaks and beef burgers. The university had a strict ban on chicken, beef, egg, alcohol and cigarettes; interestingly, it was not just us Pakistanis going through a tough time with that one.
They called our Pakistani delegation ‘ateet sundar’. We, in Pakistan, may think of the likes of Sridevi and Rani Mukherjee as “hot,” but—really—the Indians thought we were all beautiful: fair skinned, cute, friendly with an easy smile, all in jeans and boots and very dressed up. Even though simple and devoid of much make-up, the Indian students were charming.
We were taken in with each other’s languages, particularly the use of slangs. “Scene on hai, koi scene nahee hai,” was sort of our NCA thing, and they caught on to it. To our college slangs, the responded with their own: “Yeh tou mast hai yaa”.
Along with others like “Bohot aala”, “Yes karaadou”, “Miss karaadou” and “Fit hai yaar”. We swelled with pride as we felt our ways of speaking getting to be a part of their expression. They loved ours, and we caught on to a lot of their’s too. “Bindaas” was an ultimate favorite; Indian Lays is meant to “spice up your bindaas moments”. There was “bhakchodi” meaning aimless gossip, “jugaad”, “faarruu” meaning just too cool and their famous “yaa” for our “yaar” at the end of each sentence. While we prided in contributing to the richness of their expression, ironically, we all actually began to sound like Indians by the end of the trip: you know, just nod your head a bit more and speak in the highs and lows of their tone. Everything becomes either an exclamation or a question. The fusion of languages and cultures seems to be the natural law of human societies.
Primarily, the convention was a symposium where students were involved in architectural discussions and interactive sessions. There were seminars, conferences, lectures, quizzes, thought papers and cultural trophies, wall of incredible works, workshops (like copper and watercolors) and sports activities. From as early as eight o’clock in the morning to six in the evening, there was always something for everyone to do. All the more scholarly events were followed by late night drama, dance parties, dance trophies, war of bands and modeling contests. Notable speakers were Ar. Christopher Benninger and Ar. Sanjay Prakash. There were deep passionate discussions about women changing India, housing scenarios, mud architecture, organic architecture, IT, photography, rhythmic spaces and heritage conservation, among others. Need I go on? They had pretty much covered everything.
Their issues about the housing scenarios of India seemed very much like the problems we face in Pakistan today, which is why we could understand what they said. Like Pakistan, India has always faced a severe housing shortage. The pre-independence estimate in the deficit was about 3 million units, whereas post-independence estimate is about 19 million units, and that being in urban areas only, whereas an overwhelming population of Indians are of small slums and villages. India is home to a third of the worlds poor. Also, a lot of their problems are due to the tough climate of the country. Natural disasters like unprecedented heat waves, cyclones, floods, salinization of the coastline and effects on agriculture, fisheries and health that ruins thousands of households on a yearly basis.
There was talk about Revathi Kamath, the pioneer of mud architecture In India, who has also won the Aga Khan Award for her efforts. She made houses for slum dwellers at the start of her career and promoted her concept of “Evolving Home”, which focuses on understaffing individual needs in designing a house for a family. Mud structures use back-to-nature construction techniques, locally-available building materials, and are ecologically sensitive. It seemed like a sensible solution to the growing poor rural population of India, and to improve their living conditions. The talks on organic architecture seemed o be along the same lines as people talked about the harmony between human habitation and the natural world through a design approach that integrates the building’s interior with the exterior of the site in a unified compositions. And of course, how can anyone talk about organic architecture without praising one of the greatest architects of American history, Frank Lloyd Wright, who coined the very term and promoted his idea through his buildings, houses and cryptic writings.
The seminar covered the points above and concluded with a brief presentation on newly launched social rental housing projects in Mumbai. It was given by Swastik Harish, researcher from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and seconded to the TU Delft, at the Research Institute OTB on November 14th 2012.
When all the schools entered with their mottos and banners, we entered as the Pakistani delegation. All NCA- Comsats rivalry was forgotten there. We were marching in with cheers of “Pakistan Zindabad”. What a surprise! We, as proud representatives of Pakistan, were in full spirit. There were some teary goodbyes on the morning of the 29th, as the buses were loaded back up with our luggage. I had made some great friends and had some memorable experiences.
Our next stop was Agra, a mere 8 to hours ride from Sonipat. We visited the Red Fort of Agra and of course, the Taj Mahal. Quick fact: Humayun had over 200 unofficial lives that lived in the Red Fort’s “Rang Mehal” and laid down their hair for him when he walked down the stairs. The voluble guide told us this and other arcane facts and vague mythologies of times gone by. We were both fascinated and shocked at the extravagance of past royalty, and their privileges in those times.
Taj Mahal, as most know, is a work of sublime beauty. Its been described by the great Rabindranath Tagore as “a tear on the face of eternity”. A careful chemistry is established between its elements, surface decoration, materials, geometric and symmetric planning and acoustics. It is all this, that we experience physically that can then be felt and translated into religious, intellectual and poetic ideas. For instance, the Taj’s translucent marble reflects the highs and lows of the sunlight falling on it, metaphorically meant to emphasize on the presence of God as light. By using red sandstone (red was the color previously used for members of Kshatriyas: warrior caste) and white marble (white was the color previously used for the Brahmins: priestly caste), the Mughals had very cleverly branded themselves with two leading classes of the Indian social structure and demarcated themselves as rulers. Other than the flowers, symbolizing his good governance and court, the reflective pond and garden, sound was also used to express ideas of paradise: the reverberation time inside the mausoleum is 28 seconds. Thus, the voice of anyone reciting the Quran or a prayer for the soul of Mumtaz would dawdle in the air.
One can see the Taj Mahal clearly from the Red Fort. Of particular intriguing nature in the fort is a nook from where Shah Jahan had a privileged peak of his beloved wife’s mausoleum during his incarceration. I found this to be a sobering reflection on the futility of material achievements, indeed. An interesting optical illusion was that the further away we went, the bigger the Taj Mahal looked. The Taj is massive, and way more beautiful than the sharpest digital representations. We stayed there for over four hours, just looking at it, taking it all in. It will stay with me forever.
What was even more interesting were the clogged narrow alleys right outside of it, obviously planned for cities before the automobiles took over the world. The bustle, the congestion, the overflowing humanity around the Taj environs was not too different from my own Raja Bazaar. Of course, the place was teeming with shops for souvenirs, antique pieces and jewelry, Indian clothes, shoes and shawls and a lot of other tchotchkes. In our quest for bargains and, shall I say, naturally friendly Pakistanis, we always struck friendly conversations with shop keepers. The Muslim shop owners, in particular, were always excited and curious about their kin from across the border with their exaggerated Assalumun Alaikums.
As we were leaving Agra, I caught the glimpse of a board giving a few miles guide to Bharatpur. An intense feeling of nostalgia filled my heart as I recalled stories that my nani had very animatedly told me: both sets of my grandparents and family inhabited those spaces city before the partition had forced them to leave their homes and set themselves up in a new country. The bird sanctuary, its ornate havellis and grassy baghs have been a part of my family folktales.
From Agra, we drove up back to Delhi, a mere five hour fun drive. Brief but frenetic, that was our last stop. Having seen more than its share of ravages of wars and occupation during the last millennia, Delhi is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. It is Lahore’s sister. Just as Akbar ruled from Agra and Shah Jahan ruled India from the fort in Delhi, his father Jahangir did that from the one in Lahore. There was almost too much to do in the three days that we had. The site seeing, the museums, the plays, the music, and, yes, yes, the Chandni Chowk, Suntushti, Janpath, Sarojini, Khan Market on and on shopping, all had to be addressed. The magic of Delhi was paralyzing with its disparate demands on us.
But, still, we did manage to go to the India Gate, built in 1981 by Sir Edward Lutyen, where we took photographs with the Indian soldiers. Originally inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which in turn was inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus, this red and pale sandstone and granite landmark commemorates the 90,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who lost their lives in World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. We drove over to Mahroli to experience the Qutub Minaar, the tallest structure in the world about a thousand years ago. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a huge complex of fascinating ruins erected in 1052 C.E, to honor the dominance of the Muslims and the victories of Qutbuttin Aibak. An interesting fact about the nearby Iron Pillar in the Qutub complex: anyone who can encircle the entire column with their arms, while standing with their back against the pillar, can have their wish granted. Sadly, to prevent damage, the government has built a fence around it.
Jantar Mantar, a remarkable structure built in 1724, is beautifully juxtaposed with Lutyen’s modern Delhi and represents the scientific acumen of ancient India. Jantar consists of fourteen geometric devices used for measuring time, forecasting weather changes, predicting behavior of planets and finding extraterrestrial altitude. It was made by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur as he was given the task of revising the calendar and astronomical tables, by the times Mughal Emperor. Next was the architectural landmark Lotus Temple, a Bahaai gathering place where people of all religions can worship and ponder upon the existence of God without any denominational restrictions. It was built in 1986 by Persian architect Fariborz Sahba from Canada. I found the nine reflecting pools absorbing. They encompassed the 27 free-standing white marble petals of the lotus, which symbolizes peace, purity, love and immortality in Indian culture. Because of its idea of petals, it reminded me of Islamabad’s Pakistan monument from afar; both, however have very different concepts and uses.
Swaminarayan Akshardham is a Hindu temple that stands as the 8th wonder of the world and was consecrated on November 6, 2005. It exhibits 234 ornately carved pillars, nine domes, and 20,000 murtis and statues of Hinduism’s sadhus, devotees, and acharyas. The scale, and as one of our teachers noted, the very fact that it was constructed very recently but was still all hand carved, was fascinating.
Then there was the iconic Chandni Chowk of Old Delhi, which was originally called Shah Jahanabad when established in 1650. We had imagined something out of the movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham or Delhi 6. It was just busier, a lot more chaotic and a shopping paradise, but I noted that it still retains its historical character. It was originally named Chandni Chowk because of moonlight reflecting on its canal. What most people don’t know is that it was designed by Emperor, Shah Jahans favorite daughter Jahanara Begun. These alleys, kuchas and katras, house traditional havelis, mosques, mandirs, gurudwaaras, popular saree markets, and century old eating joints, dhabbas and its most famous resident, Mirza Ghalibs house tucked away gully Qasim Jaan . Notice the building facades; if you look carefully you might find some interesting bit of old architecture like cornices and eaves peeping out from behind the modern hoardings that have swamped the gullies. The Sunheri Masjid faded golden domes still attract tourists from afar. It is said that when Nadir Shah raided Delhi, he stood on this very terrace & watched the massacre of the citizens of Delhi.
The shop keepers recognized us to be from Pakistan, called us “Didi”, gave us special discounts and absolutely loved all our dresses and long kurtas. The area is so popular that a rhyming Indian tongue twister was made after it that dates back to the 1950s and became even more famous after being mentioned in movies:
Chandu ke chacha ne
Chandu ki chachi ko
Chandni Chowk mein
Chandni raat mein
Chaandi ke chamach se
We took a ride on the metro train from Chandni Chowk. Oh, how I missed the traffic of our very own IJP road. Another short bus ride, and we were at the Nizamuddin Dargah, the mausoleum of one the most famous sufi saints, where we listened to some beautiful qawwaali and also paid our respects to the tombs of poet Amir Khusro, Nizamuddin Aulia’s multifaceted protégé, and Mughal princess Jehan AraBegum which were located within the Nizamuddin Dargah complex. The area around the Dargah complex had a lively market dominated by Muslim vendors, I felt like I had stepped into a typical Indian Muslim movie. My heart felt tight as a rubber band as I stood in front of the spectacular genius Amir Khusros grave, the architect of the sitar and tabla and oldest known printed dictionary(Khaliq-e-bari) and the father of qawwali and songs that are still sung throughout India and Pakistan. His poetic presence, still hovering over the world, symbolizes that great and powerful ideas don’t really need time or space to hinder their growth.
On our ride back to the border, we stopped by the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It’s also known as Harmandir Sahib which literally means The Temple of God and was built in the 16th century. Instead of it being on high land, it was built at a lower level than the surrounding so that devotees would have to go down steps to enter it. We were given orange head scarves and had to take off our shoes. There was also a small pool of water, to purify the feet before entering the temple. It was around 7 in the morning, and a little foggy; the sun was just coming up, reflected in the huge pool of water surrounding the Temple.. The picture and mood was perfect.
The Sikhs were all very humble and every time one of them figured out that we were from Pakistan, they became even warmer. An old lady hugged us and thanked us for honoring them with our interest. Another lively Sikh told me exciting stories about his family, that was settled in Lahore. There was a special love and affection for us in Amritsar.
Exhilarating and inspiring as the trip was, I felt like I could smell Lahore in the air. We really were a mere hour away from the border. As we then crossed the Wahga-Attari again, I felt nostalgic as I pictured the glorious Taj Mahal and the labyrinthine alleys of Delhi. But please give me my Bhaawra Bazaar and nihaari dhabas of Raja Bazaar. From the rivers of Ganges, I was finally heading back to the plains of Kallar Kahaar and the Margallas, my heart was fluttering with excitement.
The love I felt in India was honestly not what I had expected. I still remember parents of friends urging us to re-think about the trip: India was far away, what if something happened?
After the trip, I feel that Indians and Pakistanis should take a step back and think about all of the things they have in common. They are cut from the same cloth; that was a pleasant surprise. The ill feelings that do exist are mostly ornamented for political gain and have been there for decades. We have a lot to learn from them, as they do from us. It was interesting to note that their cities were cleaner than I had expected. In my 10 days there, I didn’t see a single Indian tossing rubbish out of car windows or polluting the streets. In the Delhi market places, items purchased were handed in bags made out of cloth instead of plastic. Smoking was considered immoral, and there was barely anyone smoking a cigarette out publically on the streets. Sure, there were old parts of cities too where all this was not followed so rigorously, but one could feel the shift in social morays.
After this brief but incredible trip, I plan to go again someday. I hope I get to spend a dreamy evening at Ghalibs tomb in Delhi; his words might feel more intense and divine as I sit just feet way from where he’s buried, the image in my head gets a bit more romantic as I picture birds around me and a book of his words in my lap. Perhaps another day or two at their museums and art galleries, a night at the theaters of Cannaught Place and a day for just their famed masjids, mandirs and gurdwaras; honestly, I don’t know if I do believe in it or not, but I do want to get my kudli written, in a mandir setting with a pandit; oh, the fascination of the unknown and the desire for the undone! I want to see the desert plains of Rajasthan, their gorgeous women and vernacular architecture of the pink city of Jaipur; Haridwar and Varanasi, to finally witness the Hindu pilgrims who come to take a dip in the holy waters of the fast flowing Ganga River and wash away their sins; Bodhgaya to see the ancient Bodhi tree place under which Lord Buddha became enlightened and also perhaps take a meditation course or two for some enlightening of my own; Hyderabad, the city of pearls, the beaches of Goa; and obviously Chandigarh, all for the famous architect Le Corbusier’s manifestos. Aah yes, all just part of my never ending list of plans.
When do you plan to go now?