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In Iran Episode 13

About Nilanjan Hajra

Nilanjan Hajra, 49, is a poet, traveller and gourmet. He earns his living as a journalist.

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EPISODE-13

Opulence repulses me.

It’s very difficult to explain. Opulence, I have noticed, evicts the natural bustle of life. It evicts “everything loud with big voices”. It evicts the “deep baying of feet and hands swelled in the streets”. And the deep hollow left by that eviction, opulence fills with measured nature, tranquillity, beauty and luxury. I was an avid trekker in my youth. I have had occasions to be in areas bereft of any human activity within hundreds of square kilometres. That is vastness of peace against which you measure-up the insignificance of the turbulence of your existence. The Himalayas puts you in your place. But I have no use for the serenity in which I have invariably found palaces planted all over the world. I don’t belong there. I detest the whispering politeness of five-star hotels.

S’adabad Palace at first confrontation appears to me as an enormous five-star polite fragrant whisper. S’adabad is not one palace, but a complex of 18 palaces. It has eight gates. Taxis ply within it to take you from one ‘attraction’ to another. When they are gone, you have a soundscape of your own footfals, rustle of falling leaves, cawing of crows, chirping of birds, bubbling of streams and spatter of fountains. In the midst of that, here and there, are tucked the buildings. The rest is filled with trees and plants. These palaces were built by the Qajar kings in the 19th century. Later they were occupied by Reza Shah Pahlavi and his Shahenshah son, and modified to their taste.

Here’s a room, for example, where Mohammad Reza had thrown his last party for visiting US president Jimmy Carter. I watch from the other side of the glass wall: the luxurious carpet, wine glasses and crockery that must have cost an

earth, so on and so forth. Nothing registers in my memory. Colourful opulance, period.

This particular palace is suitably named Kakh-i-Safid! White House. I am told it is in this same room that once while throwing a party for a US general the Shahenshah suddenly paniced at the thought that the whole room was probably bugged. He promptly drew a table in the middle of the huge hall, jumped on it, forced the US general to jump on it too and whispered important secrets in the general’s ears amid a room full of stunned hoity toities. Stories about the antics of eccentric monarchs apparently lend glory to their exceptional characters. May be. I am not particularly interested.

There’s a music room on the first floor, which has a 1539.4 SqFt carpet, the kind of which has apparently never been woven in Iran before. Tourists flock to see the kitchen in one of the palaces. Such a state of the art kitchen is rare in the world even today. Then there is the royal car collection. In Shahband Palace is the mirror studded bedroom of Reza Shah. The story goes that after the palace was occupied following the eviction of the Qajar king, Reza turned this into his bedroom, spent sleepless nights on the sinking soft bed and finally decided to sleep on the floor for a year, until his muscles and nerves adjusted themselves to royal opulence. That’s interesting, the journey of an ordinary Iranian mind and body to royalty!

There’s a music room on the first floor, which has a 1539.4 SqFt carpet, the kind of which has apparently never been woven in Iran before. Tourists flock to see the kitchen in one of the palaces. Such a state of the art kitchen is rare in the world even today. Then there is the royal car collection. In Shahband Palace is the mirror studded bedroom of Reza Shah. The story goes that after the palace was occupied following the eviction of the Qajar king, Reza turned this into his bedroom, spent sleepless nights on the sinking soft bed and finally decided to sleep on the floor for a year, until his muscles and nerves adjusted themselves to royal opulence. That’s interesting, the journey of an ordinary Iranian mind and body to royalty!

In-Iran-13-Image 1-GOLESTAN PALACE

Sayad is busy showing me around, pepping the sights with anecdotes. I don’t want to disappoint him and am all ears and eyes. Tehran has two more palace complexes: Golestan and Niavaran. The latter, I don’t know why, wasn’t in Tehmineh’s dressing mirror list. Golestan Palace is not as huge, but the dazzle of opulence is no less. Indeed, for the interested there’s much to be interested in: the colourful wall-tiles, amazing stained glass windows, antique furniture, paintings and what not. But soon I begin to tire.

Golestan Palace

In-Iran-13-Image2-GOLESTAN PALACE ARCH TILESYet I have spent days, not hours, in Sultanate and Mughal forts. The Qutub Shahi Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, Sher Shah Suri’s Purana Quila, Ghyasuddin Tuglaq’a fort in Delhi, the Shahi Quila in Lahore, Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri fort complex haunt me. God knows how many times I have visited the ones that are in Delhi and Agra. I never tire. Do I like ruins then? Does the sense of loss, the sense of the ominous footfall of time enthral me? Perhaps. That haunting song of Rabindranath: Aar ki kakhono kabe, emono sandhya habe / Janamer moto hay hoye gelo hara! (Will such an evening come again, ever? / Oh! Lost it is forever). You can actually touch the raised stone platform in an unbelievably small room and muse that one of the greatest statesmen in the 5000 years of Indian history actually slept on a bed made on it. And you shudder at the starkness of the room, of the harem corridors, of the vast courtyards that Akbar the Great actually walked. I guess that’s it. That starkness allows your imagination space, unlike the crowded opulence of S’adabad or Golestan.

I also guess that is what enables me to spend much more time in the two other major palaces I visited in Isfahan: Ali Qapu and Chehel Setoon. I’m also intrigued by the fact that while Qila is a Farsi word, I never came across a single Qila in Iran that resembles anything like the Qilas of the Indian subcontinent. It is difficult to translate Qila. The common usage is fort. Lahore Fort, Agra Fort, Red Fort so on and so forth. But there’s a significant difference between a fort and a qila. Oxford identifies a fort as ‘a fortified building or a strategic position’ as an example the lexicon cites the sentence: ‘the city was guarded by a ring of forts’. Well a qila, on the other hand is a city in itself, albeit heavily fortified. A qila would have within it royal residences, the royal courts for the public and the ministers (Diwan-e-am and Diwan-e-khas), at least one mosque (in many cases more than one), kitchen, winery, orchards, gardens, stables, and even weekly meena bazaars (make-shift bazaars). Besides the emperor and his immediate family, many of the ministers and even senior-most servants lived inside the qila. Indeed it used to be a vast arrangement spread over hundreds of hectors. Such huge, for example, that a stream from the Yamuna river had to be diverted and run through Shah Jahan’s Lal Qila (Red Fort, 1648) to keep the royal residential quarters cool and feed the pools and fountains with constant water supply.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra

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