Friday, March 02, 2007

Minareh Zarreen

This was originally written as a presentation for a course on Thing Theory (you might have to scroll down a little after clicking the link to see the course description). It was so much fun that it didn't feel like course work, and hence is up here.

A few translations from the Persian text, the Sirat-i-Firozshahi, composed in 1370 AD (772 AH) -

'O God! How did they lift this heavy mountain; and in what did they fix it that it does not move from its place? How did they carry it to the top of the building which almost touches the heavens and place it there in an upright position? How could they paint it all over with gold, that it appears to people like the golden morning'?

I wish I had better pictures to show you. These pictures do no justice to the pillar which is the subject matter of the above lines. For even now, if you stand next to the pillar and look up at its truncated but still impressive height, framed by the sky, some of its smooth polished surface glinting in the sun, its lustre relatively undimmed by the passing of at least two thousand three hundred years, wonderment/bewilderment is still an immediate reaction. How did they do this? How was it made? How the hell did they get this up here atop this pyramid? Gell's ideas of the enchantment of technology, and the technology of enchantment come to mind. Gell argues that an object acts as an agent when the artist's skill is so great that the viewer simply cannot comprehend it and is therefore captivated by the image. Gell defines captivation as the 'demoralization produced by the spectacle of unimaginable virtuosity', an effect created by our being unable to figure out how an object came into being.

Let us return to the Persian text, describing an event in perhaps 1365, when Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlak, having recently built a new capital, having commenced a new capital, returns with his retinue to the foothills two hundred kilometres north of Delhi, to show them what he had once seen on a hunting trip. This is the first 'eyewitness' account we have of people encountering the pillar -

'... in the village of Topra, by the banks of the Jatan, stood the stone pillar, the like of which in height and circumference had not been seen by anyone... The sages and wise men of the time were simply astonished at the sight, and though they dived deep into the sea of thought they succeeded not in bringing out the pearl of the solution of these secrets – namely whence and how this heavy and lofty stone monolith was brought to this place and what were the exact engineering methods employed in its erection here. Verily such an achievement could hardly have been accomplished by human beings for the simple reason that it is beyond the power of Man.'

There were inscriptions on the Minar, and learned men were brought forward to read them. They could only read the latest ones, in Sanskrit. 'On the pillar is an inscription, the characters of which are unintelligible to the men of this period; but the historians have a tradition to the effect that four thousand odd years have passed since this pillar and a temple were erected at this place. Another inscription on this pillar is only 249 years old and is said to mention that Bisal Dev, Chohan, Rai of Sambhal, who came to worship certain idols on the banks of the Sarasvati River, found this pillar in its present position.'

But the earlier inscriptions incised on the pillar remained bafflingly unreadable. Not only were the viewers dazzled by the 'unimaginable virtuosity' of the sheer being of the pillar, it contained, visible and yet unreadable, the undecipherable mystery of its own origin. Perhaps we could think of it in Godelier's terms as 'sacred'. For as Godelier says, 'ultimately, the sacred must always remain secret, indecipherable, must only hint at a meaning which lies beyond all possibility of expression and representation.'

But to say that something is sacred is also to say that people cease being curious about it, if they were ever curious to begin with. The sacred is unquestionable. But the sacred, I would argue, is only one register of feeling that the pillar invoked, only one form of its 'agency' on people. The other, I would argue, was a feeling of of exasperation, of piqued curiosity. If we go back to that day in 1354, the pillar was not just 'sacred' (and hence transcendent and not to be messed with) but probably seemed to be smirking in smug mockery, at the exasperated Sultan and his retinue, glowing magical, and golden, and baffling in the sunlight. (It had already had a similarly exasperating effect on the Mongol Tarmishrin, who when he raided northern India in 1328, tried to crack the pillar by burning a huge fire around its base. Mercifully, it didn't work.)

Many theories were come up with, stressing the magical (of course) nature of the minar, and its transcendent, mythic origins. The commonly held belief was that the minar was one of the walking sticks of Bhim, one of the five brothers who are the heroes of the epic Mahabharat. There were others. 'Some of the learned infidels, on the authority of their Hindi books, said that the pillars had grown out of their earth and reached the heavens; while others said that underneath the pillar was a magical talisman, and that nobody could remove the pillar.'

The Sultan was having none of it. As we know, the bafflement of the work of art does not stop the collector from desiring to posess it. Captivated by the singularity of the unique object, the antique out of the time, he desires to make it his captive. 'Such were the things the King heard; but as he was determined to remove the pillar he said; “by the grace of the Creator... we shall remove this lofty Pillar and make a Minar of it in the Jumah Mosque of Firozabad, where, God willing, it shall stand as long as the world endures.'

The pillar displayed the paradoxical characteristics of collectible objects, following Baudrillard, of both absolute singularity and infinite seriality. A similar pillar (said to be one of the pair of the Bheem's walking sticks) was also brought to Delhi from near Meerut, 65 kilometres away to the East. There were more such pillars, further to the East and the South, but at some point, logistics probably won over lust.

For Firoz Shah Tughlak had to deal with logistical problems of a scale that very few collectors have to deal with, and which would still be challenging today. How do you take down, transport over two hundred kilometers, and re-erect a forty foot stone pillar weighing approximately twenty seven tons, and ensure that it stays in one piece? That this was in fact an unprecedented challenge to the mid fourteenth century technical imagination is made clear by the fact that we have a detailed technical account of the the entire procedure, with illustrations.

'... orders were issued to commanding the attendance of all the people in the neighbourhood, and all soldiers, both horse and foot. They were ordered to bring instruments and materials suitable for the work. Directions were issued for bringing parcels of the cotton of the silk cotton tree. Quantities of this silk cotton were placed around the column, and when the earth at its base was removed, it fell gently over on the bed prepared for it. The cotton was then removed by degrees and after some days the pillar lay safe on the ground... The pillar was then encased from top to bottom in reeds and raw skins, so that no damage might accrue to it.

'the felling and transporting of the pillar was accomplished with the help of divine inspiration, in accordance with human understanding... every detail of the work including the tying of ropes and the construction of masonry piers; pulling ropes in all directions and balancing the pillar with their help; the employment of elephants for dragging the pillar, and following on their failure the employment of longer ropes with 20,000 men and their success in carrying the pillar to the banks of the Jamna; then arranging well balanced boats for the pillar, loading the pillar on the boats and floating the same; its journey to Firozabad (Delhi); the making of all the arrangements over again for removing the pillar and carrying it in front of the Jum'ah Mosque, there constructing a large building, raising and placing the pillar thereon with the help of pulleys etc., and re-erecting the pillar according to the laws of wisdom – a gift of the most exalted God.... '

This might not seem remarkable coming from an age and context where victories and defeats, joys and sorrows and pretty much everything else was attributed (at least rhetorically) to the grace of God, but it is still, I would think, a rather rare phenomenon to see winches and pulleys and corvee labour and the mundanity of technical processes brought together with divine inspiration, and the collapse of the Durkheimian duality of the sacred and profane. The sense of wonder attached to the pillar itself is manifest in the (what we would think of as) completely mundane task of transporting and re-erecting it, with no easy separation between the two.

The Pillar, in its new position atop the pyramid adjacent to the Jama Masjid of Firozabad retained its sense of wonder for visitors for centuries to come. Timur (Tamerlane), who sacked other 'cities'/parts of Delhi in 1398, seems to have left Firozabad well enough alone, and declared that he had never seen any monuments in all the numerous lands he had traversed which were comparable to these monoliths. (The other monolith was and continues in the northern part of what is no longer known as Firozabad.) Tom Coryat, whose grand walking tour of Europe extended into India in about 1616, dazzled by the lustre of the pillar, thought that it was made of brass, and dated back to Alexander's invasion of India. A while later, the chaplain Edward Terry thought that it was of marble with a Greek inscription upon it.

The Islamic reception of these pillars from the pre-Islamic past, as highlighted by the responses of Firoz Shah Tughlak and Timur, is interesting because it is not as we would expect, a response of iconoclasm, or iconoclash. Instead, and here I am borrowing a phrase that the much later Mughal emperor (and noted/reviled iconoclast, in popular history) Aurangzeb, uses to describe the spectacular 9th century rock cut Kailash temple at Ellora; they saw them as the works of 'the true Transcendent artisan'. The pillars, pre-dating the coming of Islam to India, were still divine and sacred, outside of history. The Western accounts of the pillars, Tom Coryat's and Edward Terry's, linked the pillars to Alexander and the Greeks, the first moment when India comes into the ambit of 'Western' history, and hence an originary moment. The pillars, whichever way they were looked at before the nineteenth century, were outside of history or at its very beginning. Transcendent, in other words.

In 1838, James Prinsep deciphered the Brahmi script. This was a part of a long and wonderful Orientalist detective story which (re)discovered and (re)constructed the history of Ancient India, only a very small part of which is important to our story. One of the key elements in Prinsep's decipherment of Brahmi was a sawn off inscribed chunk of the Mathura Pillar, the twin 'walking stick' to the Minar-e-Zarreen, standing on the North Delhi ridge, being shipped to Calcutta. The Mathura Pillar had already been broken into five pieces by a gunpowder mishap in the late eighteenth century. The script was deciphered, the inscriptions were read. The Minar-e-Zarreen was one of a series of pillars dating at least to the time of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (regnal years 270 BC-232 BC), who converted to Buddhism, and had pillars and rocks located at important sites all over his kingdom inscribed with edicts eulogizing his support for Buddhism and his policy of dhamma. This might be stretching a point, but in these photographs from the 1860s onwards, the Minar looks diminished.

Some of the best works by later historian working/writing on the Mauryan Period, like DD Kosambi and Romila Thapar, speak of the pillars as well. They tell us that the smooth mirror polish of the pillars is a characteristic of Mauryan Art and that the stone from which these pillars are carved comes from Chunar near Varanasi. There is no sense of wonder in their matter of fact accounts as to how this mirror smooth polish which has lasted well over two thousand years was achieved in the third century BC. There is no sense of wonder at how the pillars, or even the unpolished stones from which they were subsequently carved, were transported from near Varanasi to Topra, over nine hundred kilometres away. A similar disenchantment is to be seen in the inscription put up by the Archaeological Survey of India in the early twentieth century near the ruined pyramid at Firoz Shah Kotla, which tells us very drily, the the statistics of the height and circumference of the pillar, and its possible date of origin, but omits the story of the pillar being transported down river in the fourteenth century, of it ever having been Bhimsen's Laat, of it being the Minar-e-Zarreen.


The ruins of Firoz Shah's palace complex, and the pillar, are now at the very centre of New Delhi. Though the ruins, and the pillar, are under the jurisdiction and control of the ASI (Archaeological Survey), popular perceptions of the pillar in contemporary Delhi are very different from the history that the ASI signboard tells. The pillar is now at the centre of a practise of writing letters to jinns who are supposed to reside here. (jinns, according to Islamic theo/cosmology, are spirits created by Allah out of smokeless fire, and are found in desolate places such as forests, graveyards and ruins.) From my initial fieldwork it would seem that the practise of writing to the jinns starts in the late 1970s, when a fakir named Laddoo Shah came and started living in these ruins at the end of the Emergency of 1975-77, a year after the demolitions at the nearby Turkman Gate locality, which had once been part of Firozabad. The chief of the djinns is addressed as Laat Waale Baba (the baba of the laat, or pillar) and is supposed to dwell in the pillar, the still lustrous Minar-e-Zarreen. Which leads to such seeming incongruities as seeing a young Muslim girl touching a third century BC pillar extolling the virtues of Buddhist dhamma and asking a spirit of flame to make her father give up alcohol and become a good regularly praying Muslim.

Now though this may seem a little incongrous and may be frowned upon by purists both within and outside Islam, theologically (apparently), there is nothing wrong with it. Djinns are recognised by Islam as created by God at the same time as humans, and having free will, and having powers that humans don't and vice versa. And as the maulvi of the still functioning Jama Masjid next to the pillar said to me, ' A djinn can dwell wherever he wants to.' In other words, the immanence of the spirit present in the pillar has nothing to do with the pillar itself. Or, following, the logic of the weChishanu in Zimbabwe that Matthew Engeleke discusses, the spirit could manifest in a peeble if it so chose, or in Alladin's Lamp; the material is irrelevant.

But the pillar has everything to do with it. Despite, or perhaps because, the history of Ashoka and of the pillars being connected with the historical personage of Ashoka is so well known (the national emblem of the Republic of India is taken from the capital of another Ashokan pillar), people deliberately ignore the historical facts as inscribed on the ASI slab at the base of the pyramid. (It is perhaps easier to ignore non-deliberately because the slab is in English, but I don't think this is the case). One of the wilder stories I've heard from people about the pillar is that it bears the secret alchemical formula of turning base metal into gold; a secret that will only be revealed when there is no evil in men's hearts. Why the desire for a transcendence beyond the 'magic' that the pillar already casts on the viewer in Gell's sense, why the need for it to be outside of history?

Perhaps because in the city of Delhi, the unfolding of history over the past few centuries has not been particularly kind to people. Many of those who petition the djinns at Firoz Shah Kotla are the victims of the history authorised by the Indian State, for example in the infamous demolitions of Turkman Gate. The only hope for escape lies in what is outside of history, unchanged by the passing of time, beautiful because it has survived; to borrow Baudrillard's phrase. And herein lies the paradox where the spirit can only be immanent in what is truly transcendent.

The pillar itself, to use a phrase I am increasingly fond of, is the slippery pole between Transcendence and Immanence.

Note- many of the archival images used here are via Frances Pritchett's awesome website.

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