In spite of being a terrible map-reader, I am a neat traveller. Barring once in Nepal’s lake-studded Pokhara, I have never found myself completely out of my depth after stepping into a new place. I always have an itinerary in place that leaves enough space for getting lost in between ‘must visit’ destinations. For Nesf-i-Jahan, Half of the World, my plan is more firmly drawn-up than ever. Isfahan can’t be left to chances. Yet I know that long after I will have forgotten many of the breathtakingly exquisite edifices, paintings, gardens and bazaars, marked in bold in my list of ‘must visits’, the lasting memory of one of the world’s most beautiful historic cities that I shall carry within me is that of an insignificant chance encounter.
That was in Naqsh-i-Jahan, the world’s largest city square and a UNESCO world heritage site. That story I shall narrate elsewhere. For now, as I head for Naqsh-i-Jahan Square in a taxi, my map tells me it does come close to the Qilas we are used to in the Indian subcontinent: a huge garden, couple of mosques, a bazaar and royal palaces, a complete bouquet within a rectangle. I enter through the Qesariya Gate. The sprawling emerald garden in front of me is abuzz with life, its skyline broken by sparkling blue domes and minarets.
It takes me some time to soak in the macro vista: Naqsh-i-Jahan indeed, a picture of the world, a picture that transports you in a flash to another world.
The bowl-over-effect settles down slowly. I begin to take note: this is Bagh-i-Naqsh-i-Jahan, a copy-book example of what is studied in horticulture as Persian Gardens, more specifically as Chahar Bagh; that surely is the Shahi Masjid; and that one Sheikh Lotfolla Masjid; and if time permits, I shall take a peek into that structure resembling gigantic half-open matchbox, which is the famous Ali Qapu palace.
Time permits more than just a peek. Almost corresponding to the Mughal era in our subcontinent, and therefore much older than S’adabad and Golestan palaces, Ali Qapu doesn’t emanate the stench of opulence. Time has shaken that out of it. What time has left draws me into it through its curiously narrow and difficult but beautifully tiled spiral staircase, and takes me from one level to another till the top-most sixth floor music room. What time has left is stunning art, albeit in decrepit patches. I am left with a strange haunting feeling: unlike S’adabad or Golestan, the march of time here is palpable, as is the struggle of human creation to survive in the face of time’s unsparing swipe, no less tragic for being beautiful.
I am immediately reminded of the Shahi Qila in Lahore, Pakistan. The Makatib Khana or the Kala Burj in the fort’s Jehangir Quadrangle. The similarities between many frescos of the Makatib Khana arches and those in Ali Qapu are unmistakable even to my untrained eyes. So is the open arm embracing of Europe by the finest oriental artists: in Lahore’s Shahi Qila, it is more religious, while at Ali Qapu the legendary artist Reza Abbasi, or maybe one of his worthy pupil, lends the woman in red a hint of erotic bent of her abdomen that attracts without being lurid. With apologies to Bertolt Brecht and his comrade worker who read history, stumbling from one extremely pertinent question to another, standing alone in that room in Ali Qapu, battered by four centuries, it is Reza Abbasi and his pupils who overwhelm my senses rather than the feats of the nameless masons who must have toiled days in and days out under horrendous conditions, surely often at great risk to their lives, to build the enormous structure.
I keep climbing, almost squeezing myself through the exquisite yellow and blue tiled stairs. Many of the rooms are closed to visitors. Restorers are at work. Thankfully, however, not the Talar, a huge open portico, with a roof resting on 18 columns. I walk out on the portico and a drop scene, with the lush Bagh-i-naqsh-i-jahan, the sparkling Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, the grand Shahi Mosque on the right, the cheek by jowl greyish spread of the city merging into the dry hills painted on it, opens up before me.
I reflect. Over centuries how this drop scene must have changed. Shah Abbas II (1632-1666), the seventh emperor of the Safavid Dynasty (1502 – 1736) with his royal entourage used to watch thrilling chaugan, from this same portico. Yet another connect with India, and surprisingly not only the India with which we generally associate Indo-Persian cultural ties. Sagol Kangjei, a popular sport in Manipur for several millennia (1) has been often claimed to be the forerunner of Chaugan, of which in turn the modern game of polo is certainly a derivative. Of course we also know about the passion for Chaugan among the Indian royalty since the Sultanate period. The only emperor in world history to have died from severe injuries received at the sports field was Qutab Ud-din Aibak, who was thrown off his horse during an intense Chaugan match.
Even more elaborate was the entertainment that the wealthy French jeweller, stung by wanderlust, Jean Baptiste Chardin, watched from this same talar, in 1673, over course after course of refreshments: marksmanship, Chaugan, wild animal combats so on and so forth. That indeed was the raison d’étre of the palace: Royal celebrations and entertainment of royal guests.
I assume therefore, on the drop scene in those times in place of this meticulous garden, there must have been a vast maydan for sports and other royal entertainments. A mild musty smell hangs in the portico: the odour of time, which contrasts radically with the vista below: the copy book Persian Garden has a freshness about it that is the raw freshness of sparkling dew drops resting precariously on unripe paddy fields laid out to the horizon in an early winter dawn in my country. Both are set in meticulous geometry, which is never apparent. Indeed the Persian Garden, a major school of garden plan designed originally by the town planners of Kurosh the Younger, around 400 BCE, is an arrangement of plants, trees, channels and fountains in a strict pattern that allows the gardener-artist just enough liberty to give each bagh its individual life. I have had the great fortune to visit some of the finest Persian Gardens in the world, almost all of which are UNESCO world heritage sites, Bagh-i-Naqsh-i-Jahan and Hasht-i-Behesht in Isfahan, Daulatabad Bagh in Yazd, Golestan Palace Garden in Tehran, Shalimar Bagh in Lahore, Taj Mahal Garden in Agra, Humayun’s Tomb Garden in Delhi and of course Shalimar and Nishat Baghs, the two great Mughal Gardens, in Srinagar, Kashmir. The crisp air, the changing fragrance from one nook to another, the sound of water flowing through channels and fountains, the myriad shades of green, the colours of the flowers, everything in a Persian Garden mingles in my brain to conjure up the eternal mystery of a woman’s pure existence that can never be explored enough, the obvious boundaries of her skin notwithstanding.
Voices. I return to the Ali Qapu talar. A small group of French tourists. In all my days in Iran the miniscule number of foreign tourists I have seen is not only surprising but sad. How relentless propaganda by the West has dissuaded humanity from exploring one of the greatest civilizations, an amazingly welcoming and safe country today! Propaganda, intricately woven lies, Left, Right and Centre, is increasingly securing a stranglehold on human choices, and therefore on the course of history itself. I pray that these French tourists will go back and tell the Marine Le Pen admirers that no, Iranians are not a bunch of blood thirsty Muslims with the sole aim to destroy everything that is not Islamic. The story of Iran is far more complicated than that, because the story is far more humane.
I move on one more storey. The music hall. What on Earth is this? The walls and arches of the whole room are covered in blue and chocolate 3D designs, the kind of which I have never seen before. Most of the shapes created resemble oriental musical instruments, while some look like very familiar geometric shapes. These are Muqarnas. And what is a Muqarna? The following is a definition taken from the Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, OUP : A muqarna is a “decorative device in Islamic architecture, like a small pointed niche, used in tiers projecting over those below, usually constructed of corbelled brick, stone, stucco, or wood. Muqarnas were applied
to cornices, pendentives, squinches, and the soffits of arches and vaults: with their scalloped surfaces and pendants they present a very rich sight when seen from below, sometimes resembling an effect like stalactites.” Does this throw up a picture in your mind? Well, in mine it doesn’t. The accompanying photograph might be more useful. Modern research has confirmed that these Muqarnas ensured the right acoustic, eliminating unwanted reverberations, for music and speeches.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra
- Polo in India: Jaisal Singh. Roli Books. 2007. Pp. 10