Wednesday, August 12, 2009

irony and power

Friend NN told me a story about the Emperor Jahangir. Once Jahangir was passing through the streets of Lahore on his elephant, when he saw a few children playing in the dust by the side of the road. He asked the mahout to stop the elephant, and got down and talked to the kids,asked them what they were doing. Then he started weeping, got on his elephant, and left.

I told him a story in return. Not a story, really, but a fact. On the Buland Darwaza, in Fatehpur Sikri, that aptly named massive gateway, Akbar, Jahangir's father, had this inscribed --

Jesus son of Mary, on whom be peace, said, "The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no house upon it."

While later commentators have found it remarkable that on on the massive ceremonial entrance to one of the biggest and most important mosques in his capital city, Akbar should have a quotation from Jesus; WD here indicates how much this is very much part of the Muslim tradition, and not all attributable to Jesuit influence. However, I'm more intrigued by where the inscription is.

On one of the most massive and permanent structures built in sixteenth century India, the inscription talks about the finitude and transience of human life -- The world is a bridge, pass over it, but build no house upon it. This is such exquisite, finely wrought irony.

What does it tell you about the world we've lost that Emperors could once have such an ironic relation to their worldly power? Crying at their fate at being emperors when seeing the carefree play of children in the dust. Building the biggest gateway on the subcontinent and almost mockingly writing atop it, the world is a bridge build no house upon it. Perhaps Mayawati needs to pay attention :)

not entirely unrelated

Ya mujhe afsar-e shaha na banaya hota
Ya mera taaj gadaaya na banaya hota...

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