On Drive with SHAM SAMAROO
(India, October 16, 2023) – Political prostitutes…correction, statesmen engage in shuttle diplomacy while innocent men, women, and children are murdered daily in Israel, Gaza, the Ukraine, and Russia. And just like in the red light district, they only remake the beds for the hoi polloi to lie in. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; one man’s aggression is another’s preemptive strike. Who is right, who is wrong? As a very dear friend recently told me, even after thousands of years of war and destruction, man has learned nothing.
Speaking of the history of wars, destruction, and suffering, my journey to India took me south to the State of Rajasthan and then north-east to Uttar Pradesh. Today, one can still see the remains of architectural wonders, Hindu temples and palaces, destroyed by the Mughals during their 500 year rule. Later under the benevolent ruler, Akbar the Great, the Mughal Empire rose to prominence but wars of succession weakened the empire. First, Akbar’s grandson, Aurangzeb, murdered his three brothers and imprisoned his father, Emperor Shah Jahan. And when Aurangzeb died another war of succession broke out between his three sons. All the while, the Brits, smiling like Cheshire cats, patiently waited in the wings to gobble up the spoils. The British would rule India for the next 90 years until Independence in 1947. Did it matter who was right or wrong?
Strolling through Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, my cricket thoughts naturally strayed to the late Shane Warne, the first captain of Rajasthan Royals and the greatest spinner ever to touch a cricket ball. If you don’t believe me just ask Mike Gatting and company. The cities of Jaipur and Lucknow (capital of Uttar Pradesh), are awash with forts and palaces displaying an interesting blend of Hindu and Mughal history and architecture. Jaipur is world renowned for its incredible hospitality. At the hotel, we were greeted by a welcoming party of three sari-decked young ladies performing a cultural dance to the rhythm of the tassa drums. In 1876 in honour of Prince Albert’s visit, Jaipur’s founder, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh painted the city pink, the colour of hospitality, and Jaipur is since known as the Pink City.
The Hawa Mahal, Palace of Winds, sits in the centre of Jaipur. Built with tiny windows, it allowed the women of the royal court to catch a glimpse of life down on the street without being seen. A major attraction is the 16th century palace of Amber Fort built by Maharaja Jai Singh. Designated a UNESCO world heritage site, Amber Fort is an architectural wonder with its labyrinthine interiors, royal halls, and courtyards. I was literally blown away by yet another UNESCO site, the Jantar Mantar, one of the world’s most accurate pre-modern observatories. Built in the early 18th century, the vision of a scholarly prince Sawai Jai Singh II, it consists of several fixed instruments, among the largest ever built. Designed for the observation of astronomical positions with the naked eye, some are still used today to forecast the weather. I saw a giant sundial that fairly accurately predicted the time of day.
Leaving the Maharajas of Jaipur, we travelled to Lucknow, home of the Nawabs, and the centre of Shia Islam in India. Nawab is the Persian title for prince, and like the Maharajas, ruled their small kingdoms with the blessings of the Mughal emperor. Fans of my generation will remember India’s cricket captain, the Nawab of Pataudi (Mansur Ali Khan). Known as Tiger Pataudi for his cricketing skills, and prince charming for his boyish good looks, The Nawab married one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen, actress Sharmila Tagore of the Tagore dynasty.
In Lucknow we visited the Imambara complex. Imambara is a hall of mourning that houses the graves of the Nawabs. Built around 1785 the Bara Imambara is an architectural masterpiece, a combination of Mughal, Rajput, and Gothic styles. Around that time, Lucknow experienced a severe famine that lasted 10 years. With no work and no crops, the people were starving. The Nawab of Awadh wanted to help his people but he did not believe in handouts. Thus, he commissioned the building of the Bara Imambara. He felt that people needed to work; to earn a living, and not to depend on doles. Oh dear, would someone kindly tell our politicians of this “novel” idea.
The Imambara was a symbol of compassion from the Nawab for his people. The Taj Mahal in Agra is a symbol of love, built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his late wife Mumtaz Mahal. Though one can respect and appreciate the sentimentality, the Taj Mahal practically bankrupted his empire and resulted in one of the fiercest sibling rivalries in history. Shah Jahan’s youngest son, Aurangzeb, coveted the throne. He duly killed his three brothers, seized power and imprisoned his father for the last ten years of his life. Aurangzeb’s actions marked the beginning of the end of Mughal rule of Northern India. Subsequent wars of succession weakened the Mughal armies resulting in defeat to the British in 1857.
Meanwhile on the cricket scene, everywhere I went the talk was only of the India/Pakistan match. When these two nations play, it’s like a war of sorts but without the killing. After the game, it was so wonderful to see the players exchanging handshakes, hugs, shoulder slaps. Perhaps the warmongers may be convinced to trade in their guns for bats and balls. After all, cricket today is as lucrative a business as war, if not more. Let’s play ball!