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The splendour of the Silk Road

Uzbekistan day seven


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The Shah-i-Zinda

Exploring Samarkand

We started our first full day in Samarkand with breakfast in the Zarina’s basement dining room, surrounded by all the objects collected by the family – old radios, musical instruments etc. Then it was time for our morning sightseeing tour.

After Khiva and Bukhara, Samarkand seemed big and full of bustle, but unlike Tashkent I felt that it retained more of its central Asian character, even in the more modern areas of the city. As an overall destination it didn’t move me in the way that Bukhara had, but some of the individual sights are among the most striking I have seen anywhere. The first impression of the Shah-i-Zinda will remain with me always, and naturally too the stunning Registan Square, though I was more prepared for that by images I’d seen before the trip.

The Shah-i-Zinda

If, as I’ve said elsewhere on these pages, Bukhara was my favourite of the Silk Road cities we visited, this was by far the most impressive and awe-inspiring individual sight. When our travelling companion Els exclaimed, ‘It’s too much for my eyes,’ I knew just what she meant!

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The Pishtak, Shah-i-Zinda

Entering through the grand entrance of Ulug Beg’s pishtak, which even on its own would be an impressive sight, we were greeted with a long line of mausoleums, many of them decorated in splendidly rich tile-work, mainly of blues but with touches of other colours too. As we climbed up through the complex more appeared, until I truly didn’t know where to look next, and indeed almost wanted the splendour to stop for a while so that I could take in all that I’d already seen.

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Shah-i-Zinda - the 'street'

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Plan of Shah-i-Zinda

This is the holiest site in Samarkand. According to legend, the prophet Elijah led Kussam-ibn-Abbas, first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, to the Afrosiab hill north east of Samarkand's current location. The legend tells how Kussam came to bring Islam to this Zoroastrian area, and was attacked and beheaded for his trouble. It was believed that despite this he continued to live, and indeed is alive still in an underground palace on this site, which now bears his name; ‘Shah-i-Zinda’ means ‘the Living King’.

Many people believed that the closer you were buried to a holy man, the easier your own route to Heaven would be; thus between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries some 30 tombs were built to form this necropolis centred upon Kussam's mausoleum. The earlier ones clustered around the top of the hill and later they were extended down the southern slope, forming the ‘street’ of mausoleums we see today. Tamerlaine buried many of his female family members here, and Ulug Beg built the grand pishtak as an entrance from the city to this holy place. In Soviet times, and even today, this belief about being buried close to holy men has persisted, so that the hill is now crowned by a cemetery.

For me the greatest impact of the Shah-i-Zinda was the sheer multitude of wonderful structures, many of them glowing so richly with the incredible tile-work, and also the sense of awe and sanctity it exudes. However, some parts and some individual buildings did stand out in particular, so I’ll try to do them justice. The numbers in bold in my text relate to the plan above so you can get some idea of the layout, but feel free to ignore them if you aren’t as obsessed by maps as I am!

After passing through Ulug Beg’s dramatic pishtak (18), the first structure on our left was a relatively recent (19th century) mosque (19), and beyond it a wooden iwan (25). Here an imam was greeting pilgrims and praying with them. In a courtyard on the right (23) a girl was butchering meat, a strangely prosaic sight in this holy place.

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Imam ...

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... and butcher

The mausoleums are arranged in three groups, separated by gateways known as chortaks, with steps connecting the lower and middle groups. These steps are known as the Staircase of Sinners and it is said that you should count them on your way up and your way back down. If the two numbers coincide you are sinless – mine did, which probably just proves the legend wrong

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The Staircase of Sinners

Halfway up the Staircase of Sinners is the Qasi Zadeh Rumi Mausoleum (17), dating from 1420-25 (17), the first of Shah-i-Zinda’s treasures. Its twin blue domes seem to soak up the colour of the sky and throw it out again even more intensely. This is the largest mausoleum in the complex, and perhaps surprisingly is the tomb not of a great ruler but of Tamerlaine’s wet nurse. A wet nurse was however considered as a second mother, and loved as dearly, which makes it a little less surprising.

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The Qazi Rumi Mausoleum

Passing through the next chortak we were assailed by the sheer scale and splendour of the complex. A complete street of mausoleums, many of them restored and gleaming with an intense blueness, stretched in front of us. The first four were immediately in front of us; two pairs facing each other across the ‘street’. These were the group that made the most powerful impression on me, because of their proximity to each other – they seemed almost to topple over us, an impression which I tried to capture in my photos.

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The Emir Zade and Emir Hussein Mausoleums

The first on the left is the Emir Zade Mausoleum, dating from 1386 (10), and on the right the Emir Hussein Mausoleum, 1376 (9).

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Emir Zade Mausoleum
- detail of tile-work

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The Emir Hussein Mausoleum

The next pair are the Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum from 1372 (8) and Shirin Bika Aka from 1385 (14). Both of these house tombs of Tamerlaine’s sisters; the first has an inscription which reads ‘This is a tomb in which a precious pearl has been lost’.

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Ceiling of the Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum

Beyond this group and to the right is an unusual 15th century octagonal mausoleum (20). This is anonymous, as are the four unrestored ones on the left. This lack of restoration here came almost as a relief, as it allowed me time to recover my breath (figuratively speaking) and my senses, after the riches that had gone before.

As we continued up through the Shah-i-Zindah complex the ‘street’ widened and it was possible to stand back from the structures to get a different perspective. This photo shows two of the mausoleums in this group, Alim Nasafi (11) and Ulug Sultan Begum (12), both dating from around 1385.

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Alim Nasafi & Ulug Sultan Begum Mausoleums

Finally we reached the upper end of the complex, and a group of buildings including the Tuman Aka Mosque (16) and Mausoleum (15) which stand side by side, with the mainly 15th century Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque (21) opposite. The Tuman Aka buildings are dedicated to Tamerlaine’s favourite wife – the calligraphy above the entrance reads: ‘The tomb is a door and everybody enters it’.

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Dome of the Tuman Aka Mosque

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The Tuman Aka Mausoleum on the left, and looking out of the Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque to the Tuman Aka Mosque on the right

I found the Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque one of the most interesting structures here. We entered along a corridor to find ourselves in a series of small rooms, including one with brightly coloured tile-work. The same room has a carved wooden frieze from the earlier 11th century mosque that once occupied this site. You can also peer through a wooden grille to see the four-tiered tomb of Kussam ibn Abbas himself, in the adjacent mausoleum, decorated with ornate majolica and the focus of every pilgrim’s visit.

The door of the mosque is of elm, its original elaborate ivory inlay lost but since restored (I have no idea whether ivory was used in the restoration or something else resembling it). An inscription reveals that the door was made in 1404-05 by the master Yusuf Shirazi.

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Locals at the Shah-i-Zinda

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By the time I reached this point in the complex my eyes were saturated with colour and splendour, and I certainly felt the truth of Els’s words: the Shah-i-Zinda is indeed almost too much for your eyes to take in. I took a break in the shade to sit for a while to contemplate the wonder of this place, and also the reverence with which these tombs were constructed. This was the spot where I decided finally that on balance the Soviet restoration of Uzbekistan’s wonders, which some consider to be over-done, was in fact justified; thanks to them we are able to see this place as its builders intended and marvel at their achievements.

The Ulug Beg Observatory

When all of us could finally tear ourselves away from the Shah-i-Zinda we went on to our next Samarkand sight which, while hardly on the same scale, was nevertheless fascinating.

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The Ulug Beg Observatory Museum

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The sextant

Ulug Beg, grandson of Tamerlaine, is often referred to as the ‘Astronomer King’, and here we found out why and learned more about this extraordinary ruler. As a young man he developed a love of learning; of mathematics, history, poetry and music – and especially of astronomy. Under his rule Samarkand became known as a cultured city, and here in 1424 Ulug Beg ordered the construction of this huge (for its time) observatory. And it was indeed ahead of its time. I have some very amateurish interest in astronomy myself and so was fascinated to hear about all his achievements.

Here Ulug Beg worked with other astronomers to record the co-ordinates of over 1,000 stars, to predict eclipses, and most impressive of all measured the solar year to within a minute of our modern, technology-assisted calculations.

The main structure of his Observatory has today almost completely disappeared, to be replaced by a Soviet-constructed series of blocks outlining where it would have been. But below ground you can still see the partial remains (11 metres of them) of his great sextant which was used in many of his observations and calculations. Incidentally it’s called a sextant because only 60 degrees of it were used, but it was actually a full 90 degree quadrant, the largest ever constructed at that time.

It was however only by studying the exhibits in the little museum that I was really able to make sense of what the sextant originally looked like and how it operated. There was also a mural showing Ulug Beg teaching astronomy, and I rather enjoyed some of the paintings too – one of Ulug Beg’s birth and another of a design for a ballet called ‘The Legend of Samarkand’.

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Ulug Beg teaching astronomy, and his birth

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‘The Legend of Samarkand'

As I learned later from Wikipedia, he was rather less good at ruling than he was at science and astronomy. He lacked authority and he was overthrown and assassinated after only a short reign. But his scientific achievements live on – there is even a crater on the moon named after him.

The Gur Emir

Our final stop of the morning was at Tamerlaine’s mausoleum, the Gur Emir.

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The dome of the Gur Emir

Wherever you go in Uzbekistan it is impossible to avoid hearing the name of Tamerlaine. It seems every nation needs its heroes, and when the Soviets left the country and their heroic statues of Lenin and Marx were pulled down, it was Tamerlaine who took their places on plinths around the country and who came to symbolise for Uzbeks their new-found independence and freedom. Observers from outside might question his credentials as a hero – this is after all a man who, in attempting to conquer the world, left an estimated 17 million people dead in his wake. But in Samarkand in particular he left the legacy of great peace, prosperity and splendour.

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Detail of the dome

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The minaret

Naturally then his mausoleum is of a scale to impress. An unnamed poet is said to have exclaimed on seeing it, ‘Should the sky disappear, the dome will replace it’, and you can sort of see what he meant. Built originally for and by his grandson Mohammed Sultan who died in 1403, it became Tamerlaine’s own burial place also, and that of other descendants too, including Ulug Beg. Other buildings would previously have surrounded it (a madrassah and khanagha) but it now dominates its courtyard. Its octagonal shape is crowned by the immense ribbed dome, 32 metres high and covered in turquoise, yellow and green tiles.

We entered down a short passage which was added to the structure by Ulug Beg. Souvenir books and crafts were on sale here, seeming very out of place in this imposing space. From inside the dome is even more overwhelming, and is adorned with gilded calligraphy, as are the walls below.

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Inside the dome

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Gilded calligraphy

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Wall ornamentation

Beneath it lie the tombs, or rather marble cenotaphs marking the spots below which are the tombs themselves – of Tamerlaine, Ulug Beg and Mohammed Sultan, and also of Tamerlaine’s advisor Mir Sayid Barakah, and of several of his sons. A long pole crowned with a flourish of horsehair marks the grave of a holy man whose remains were found here when the mausoleum was built.

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Tombs in the Gur Emir

From here it was a very short drive back to the hotel. As we had two full days in Samarkand, our guided sightseeing was split over the two mornings, leaving us with free afternoons for some independent exploration. For Chris and me that meant, as a first priority, lunch.

Labi Gor Chaikhana

On the main road between the hotel and the Registan we found just what we were looking for. We though this probably the best of the restaurants we tried in Samarkand and was the perfect spot to unwind over a leisurely lunch after our morning’s sightseeing. Be warned though – that was back in 2007 and these days it doesn’t seem to get very good reviews!

The restaurant is quite large and arranged over two floors; the inside ground-floor space looked OK to us but the real delight was the first floor terrace with both traditional and western style seating, and glimpses of the Registan’s madrassah through the leaves of the surrounding trees. The friendly waiter spoke reasonable English and ran through the menu for us, so there was no need for us to worry about any language difficulties.

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At Labi Gor

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Manty

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Samarkand non

I ate some tasty manty (small mutton and onion stuffed dumplings, similar to Chinese dim sum, served with a dollop of yoghurt) while Chris had a large bowl of noodle soup. We shared a round of non, green tea and a big bottle of fizzy water, and found the bill of under £2 very reasonable given the location.

Sue arrived while we were eating and took this photo of the restaurant with us at our table with a view!

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In Labi Gor (taken by Sue)

The Registan

The Registan was on the agenda for tomorrow morning’s guided sightseeing tour, but we couldn’t be this close and not go and take a look, so after lunch we walked along to check it out. Our guidebook told us a bit about what we were seeing. The Registan is Samarkand’s (indeed, probably Uzbekistan’s) most famous sight, and with good reason.

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The Registan

The Registan was the heart of ancient Samarkand. The name Registan means ‘sandy place’ in Persian and it was said that the sand was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from the public executions that were held here until early in the 20th century. This is where Tamerlane stuck his victims’ heads on spikes, and where people gathered to hear royal proclamations. In his time this was the commercial centre of his capital city, where six roads met under a domed bazaar; it must have been similar to the Trading Domes of Bukhara. But his grandson Ulug Beg had grand plans for this space, and nowadays three madrasahs surround the large open space he created: the Ulug Beg Madrasah (1417-1420) which he had built, plus the later Shir Dor (1619-1636) and the Tillya Kari (1646-1660) Madrasahs. These stunning buildings are all constructed on a grand scale, dwarfing the people at their bases.

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Tillya Kari and Shir Dor Madrassahs
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Sculpture near the Registan

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Artists at the Registan


I’ll save more detailed information for my next entry, as that is when we had our more detailed look at the three madrassahs. For now we simply wandered around near the square and took a few photos from a distance, without paying for the tickets that would have given us a closer look, given that admission to the site would be included in our tour tomorrow.

The Bird of Happiness Gallery

In the streets just east of the Registan we stumbled across a cluster of upmarket shops in a small courtyard. I’d been searching for a gift for my mother, who liked scarves (which you can find in abundance in Uzbekistan) but preferred square ones (which you hardly see at all!) Then in this little gallery I found what I’d been looking for.

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Bird of Happiness gallery

The owner welcomed us with tea and sweets and answered (in limited English) our questions about the work for sale. It didn’t sell traditional Uzbek crafts but more modern ones, with a great range of paintings in various media, pottery and hand-painted silk scarves – including some square ones! The prices weren’t cheap - indeed by local standards they were high, and haggling wasn’t an option, but the items were of very good quality and worth what is asked for them, so I was very happy with my purchase.

Next door was another gallery displaying more paintings and very good photos of Uzbek scenery and Samarkand itself, so we enjoyed a browse there too but didn’t buy anything.

In the side street that led to the Zarina B & B were a couple of small local shops, where we had already discovered that we could buy bottled water at a lower price than that sold in the hotel. We stopped off here again this afternoon so that I could buy sweets to take home for work colleagues. This involved a fair amount of miming as I was keen to get a good mix of flavours but at the same time avoid chocolate which wouldn’t have survived in that heat. The shop-keeper was a little bemused at first but eventually we were able to understand each other and the resulting purchase gave me lots of satisfaction. The sweets were pretty tasty too!

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Local shop

Karimbek

Relaxing in the courtyard back at the hotel over a cold drink, we made dinner plans with some of the others from our group. Both Marat (our guide) and our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended the Karimbek restaurant, so we decided to give it a try.

We hailed a taxi on Registan Street and agreed a reasonable fare with the driver for the shortish ride to the restaurant. It was certainly a much better choice than the Marco Polo where we’d eaten the previous evening. There was plenty of choice, and an English-language menu of sorts – anyone for ‘Reach pleasure’, a ‘bird dich’ or 'Fred chicken'? Personally I prefer the meat I eat not to have a name! Note too that 'Payment for broken dishes is in accordance with the price list' - I wonder how many breakages they get if they feel the need to state this on the menu?!

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The menu at Karimbek

We chose a couple of salads to share to start with, one made with mushrooms and another called ‘charm’ which turned out to be a sort of coleslaw. We also had a hot appetiser of potato skins stuffed with cheese and mushrooms – very tasty. The main courses were less successful (my chicken was a bit dry, Chris’s pork chop rather salty) but the beer was good and the terrace where we sat very pleasant.

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Chicken 'Karimbek'

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The bill came to rather more than the other places where we ate in Samarkand but of course was cheap compared with eating out at home. It came on a tiny scrap of paper with just the figure scrawled on it, so we had no way of knowing if it was right or not! Look at the photo below which Sue took of Georgina – the bill is in her right hand, dwarfed by the bundle of cash needed to pay it!

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Georgina with the bill (taken by Sue)

What really made our evening was meeting the group of local ladies at the next table, who were there with their children for what was evidently a ‘girls’ night out’. They were having a great time, with lots of laughter (gold teeth much in evidence) and I’m sure some sips of vodka between the glasses of Fanta! Eventually one of them (the lady standing on the left of Chris’s photo of me with the group) plucked up the courage to come over to us, after several exchanges of smiles, to practice her little English: ‘Uzbekistan good?’ ‘Samarkand good good?’ – not much, but so much better than my Uzbek! A lovely encounter to end our evening.

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Me with our new friends!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:38 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged architecture mosque history shopping restaurants city blue tomb friends sculpture mausoleum science uzbekistan samarkand astronomy registan madrassah Comments (5)

‘The spine of the earth is about to crumble’

Uzbekistan day eight


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The great dome of the Bibi Khanum northern mosque

Today was our last day in Uzbekistan, and like yesterday we had a morning sightseeing tour with the afternoon free for independent exploration. So after breakfast at the Zarina it was into the bus for the short drive to our first stop.

Bibi Khanum Mosque

This is not one mosque, but three: two fairly normal in size, and the third on a truly grandiose scale. This is Tamerlaine’s great work, his attempt to build a mosque larger and more splendid than the Muslim world had ever seen. But his ambitions here overstretched the capabilities of his craftsmen, and the mosque was doomed almost from the start, though not from want of effort. He employed the very best slaves and workers, imported 95 elephants from India to haul the wagons and, when he judged the portal too low, had it pulled down and ordered it to be rebuilt. He himself superintended the work, coming to the site each day in his litter, and arranging for meat to be thrown down to the men digging the foundations rather than have them stop working for a moment.

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The entrance portal

The result was a mosque of never-before seen proportions – a portal over 35 metres tall leads to a huge courtyard, which was originally surrounded by a gallery of 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns. The main mosque on the eastern side has a portal of over 40 metres, and all was adorned with the most ornate tilework, carvings, gildings etc.

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In the main mosque

But this splendour wasn’t to last. Almost from the first day it was in use, the mosque began to crumble, putting worshippers in peril. No one seems to know for certain why this was – maybe the building was simply too ambitious for the technologies of the day. Whatever the reason, this is one ancient structure that has so far defied the attempts of modern builders to restore it properly. Thus when I went inside I was taken aback to see not the beautifully restored interior I’d come to expect by this point in our travels but a semi-ruin held together with great iron bolts. Weirdly though, this seemed to me to emphasise, even more than if it had been restored, the great scale of this monument to Tamerlaine’s ambitions.

Back outside in the courtyard we saw the huge marble Koran stand, designed to hold the Osman Koran we had seen on display in Tashkent.

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The Koran stand

An artist was painting quietly in the centre of the courtyard, his paintings arranged around the great marble Koran stand. These were mostly very detailed watercolours of some of the exquisite tilework on Samarkand’s mosques and other monuments. We watched him at work for a while, then checked out the paintings more carefully.

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Artist at work

The work was very fine, and the prices incredibly reasonable, so it was an easy decision to buy one, though a much harder one to choose which it should be. In the end we selected one that we liked, of an entrance surrounded by blue and green mosaic. For this original watercolour measuring about 15 by 20 cms we paid just $7 – what a bargain, and what a lovely souvenir of our visit to the mosque. It now hangs just by our front door and reminds me daily of the wonders of Uzbekistan’s architecture.

The Bazaar

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In Samarkand Bazaar

Next to the Bibi Khanum Mosque is a bazaar/market, and this provided us with complete contrast to, and respite from, Samarkand’s wealth of blue-tiled splendour. This isn’t, or at least wasn’t back in 2007, a tourist attraction (though tourists do visit) but a real slice of the daily life of this city. People flock here to sell and buy local produce of all kinds – fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, meat and more.

And of course, as this is Uzbekistan, we saw bread in a huge variety of designs – even some decorated with coloured sweets, intended for celebrations and parties. Bread, known as non, holds a special place in Uzbek society. Every region, and indeed every baker, has its own distinctive style, from the flaky pastry-like offerings we had enjoyed in Bukhara to the elaborately decorated loaves in the market here. Patterns are created by stamping the unbaked loaves (you can buy the stamps in many souvenir shops in Bukhara for instance) and the bread is then baked in a traditional tandoor oven – the loaves are slapped onto the walls of the oven, and when they drop off they are ready to eat.

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Decorated non

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Rounds of non

The loaf commands great respect. It should never be served or placed upside down on the table, and if dropped on the ground should be picked up and kissed. Traditionally, when a son left home to fight or to seek his fortune, he would take a bite from a loaf that would then be kept, hung on display in the house, to await his safe return.

Also on sale in the market we saw brooms, caps and other necessities, but it was fresh produce that dominated. There was a separate area for the sale of each, so we walked past stall after stall selling nothing but onions, potatoes, or heaps of fresh herbs. In the spice section we encountered the most enticing smells while in the sections for bread or dried fruits we were offered tempting samples.

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On sale in the market

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Traditional brooms

And of course, as this is Uzbekistan, everywhere we wandered people were eager to greet us, to pose for photos and press treats upon us. In fact the willingness to pose became a bit of a problem – it made it hard for me to capture natural shots of people going about their daily business, not because they didn’t want me to, but because as soon as I raised the camera they would break off from their sale or their conversation to smile at me rather stiffly.

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Market traders

This is also a good place to observe local customs in dress and personal adornment. Gold teeth are very popular here – they are considered a sign of wealth and people will often have healthy teeth replaced if they can afford to, rather than wait for the teeth to go bad and give them problems later. Another striking difference from what we in the UK consider beautiful is the custom of the women of some ethnic groups to draw in the space between their eyebrows to create a single line, as the woman in my photograph on the left below has done.

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More market traders

For me it’s as much a part of travel to learn about these cultural differences as it is to see the great monuments, and a market is always a great place to start!

The Registan

But now it was time at last to properly explore the most famous sight in Samarkand (indeed, probably in Uzbekistan) – the Registan. So far we had simply looked at the three madrasahs which surround the square from the road, as it’s necessary to pay to enter the square, so today was our first close-up look.

Ulug Beg Madrassah

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

When Ulug Beg demolished the trading domes of his grandfather Tamerlane’s square, where previously public executions had taken place and royal decrees proclaimed, he changed the emphasis of the Registan from earthly power to heavenly. The first building erected here was the madrassah which bears his name. Built between 1417 and 1420, the Ulug Beg Madrassah has an ornate pishtak (portal) 35 metres high, which is decorated in rich blues and other colours – I found that there was more variety to the colours here in Samarkand than in the other cities on the Silk Road.

Above the main arch is a cluster of stars, reflecting its founder’s passion for astronomy. A Kulfic inscription reads:
This magnificent façade is of such a height it is twice the heavens, and of such a weight that the spine of the earth is about to crumble’.

Either side of this portal are minarets of roughly the same height and framing it perfectly.

The portal leads to a square courtyard lined with 50 hujira, the former students’ cells, which were (like the portal and minarets) largely restored in the mid 1990s and are decorated with the same rich colours – blue, green, gold. They are now, inevitably, devoted to craft and souvenir shops with products of varied quality. One sold cold drinks which were very welcome on this hot day.

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In the Ulug Beg Madrassah

In the NW corner of the courtyard an entrance passage lead us to a small mosque, now used as an art gallery. We enjoyed this – some of the items (both paintings and ceramics) were of a high quality and there was plenty of variety in the styles from traditional to very modern.

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Ulug Beg's classroom

A room opening off this one is known as Ulug Beg’s classroom. This apparently is where he would teach astronomy to the students of the madrassah, seated (unusually for that place and time) on a throne-like chair rather than the floor. The room was cordoned off, so we could peer inside but not enter (or so we were told – when we returned later we did see a small group in there but were prevented from entering ourselves – I suspect that money had changed hands!)

Shir Dor Madrassah

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The Shir Dor Madrassah

Two hundred years after the construction of the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the then ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, decided to complete the ensemble with two further buildings. The first of these to be completed was the Shir Dor Madrassah, which sits directly opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah and is almost a mirror image in terms of size and basic shape, though very different in its decoration.

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Dome and minaret, Shir Dor Madrassah

Interestingly, it obeys some of the rules of Islamic design, while flouting others. So despite being identical in size and shape to its older ‘reflection’, it follows Koranic law in avoiding symmetry. However, like the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah in Bukhara, this one deviates from normal Islamic practice in having representations of living creatures as part of its decoration. The two golden lions that give the madrassah its name (Shir Dor means ‘lion bearing’ chase two white does across the arch. Striped (and thus looking more like tigers), they each bear a sun on their backs, showing the influence of Zoroastrianism. For me this was one of my abiding images of Uzbekistan.

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Golden lions on the Shir Dor Madrassah

The inscription on this portal reads: ‘The skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets.’

Passing through it you find yourself in another hujira-lined courtyard, though less thoroughly restored than that in the Ulug Beg Madrassah. One of these cells houses a shop selling traditional Uzbek musical instruments where the owner had arranged a few rows of chairs in the small space. When enough visitors had gathered (and our group constituted ‘enough’) he gave a demonstration of the various traditional instruments in his collection. These ranged from some simple two stringed ones (which reminded me very much in sound and style of those we heard on a trip to China) to a banjo-style one, Uzbek tambourine and a flute.

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Traditional musical instrument demonstration

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Lute-style Uzbek instrument

Another cell was decorated as a typical Uzbek room with various pieces of furniture and some traditional costumes, supposedly in the style a newly-wed couple might adopt.

Tillya Kari Madrassah

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The Tillya Kari Madrassah

Ten years after the Shir Dor Madrassah was completed the third side of the Registan was filled in by the addition of the Tillya Kari Madrassah. This building is of a similar height but noticeably wider than its neighbours to either side; it was obviously thought more important to give the square harmony and balance than to follow normal practice in madrassah design. Thus the pishtak here is flanked by two-storied rows of hujira facing out onto the square in addition to the single story row which lines the interior courtyard.

Above the western side of this courtyard a stunningly turquoise dome announces the presence beneath it of the city’s main mosque (built to replace an already-ruined Bibi Khanum).

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The dome of the Tillya Kari Madrassah

The mosque has been restored and is full of the most ornate decoration, covered in the gold leaf that gives the madrassah its name (Tillya Kari = gilded). The ceiling is particularly striking – it is almost flat but the trompe l’oeil effect had me believing that I was looking up into a great dome. The mihrab is similarly gilded. A small museum set up in a side room of the mosque shows pieces of ceramic and terracotta from the restoration work and some fascinating ‘before and after’ photos.

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Inside the 'dome'

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The mihrab

Seeing more of the Registan

Our tour of the Registan brought to an end our official sightseeing in Samarkand. We were to leave this evening, but we had most of the afternoon free to explore a bit more, as well as fit in the somewhat less enjoyable task of packing to go home.

Our tickets for the Registan were good for the whole day so after popping back to Labi Gor for a spot of lunch we returned to revisit the Registan’s madrassahs and do a bit of souvenir shopping here.

But before we could start our shopping, we were approached by one of the security guards who offered (for a fee, naturally) to let us climb one of the minarets of the Ulug Beg Madrassah. I reluctantly decided that it would be more than I wanted to attempt in that heat, but Chris went ahead, paid the guard 3,000 som (with the transaction conducted in secret inside the building, as this was strictly speaking illegal) and made the climb. He told me it was dark and steep in places, but well worth the effort to get some great shots.

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A shot taken by Chris from the Ulug Beg minaret, and the minaret of the Shir Dor Madrassah, taken by me!

I waited in the square below, taking a few more photos. When Chris returned from his climb, we went back into the Ulug Beg Madrassah to browse the souvenir stalls in the hujira. While these can detract (and distract) considerably from the impact of the madrassah, we found them convenient we could browse several places before making our selections. We quickly found however that most of the items available were much the same from shop to shop, as were the prices. The standard items in almost every shop included suzanni (embroidery, usually wall-hangings or cushion covers), small pottery or ceramic pieces, silk scarves, knives, pictures, rugs, musical instruments, cheap beads etc.

We bought a small mosaic picture which reminded us of a typical Uzbek scene, a pre-restoration photo of the Tillya Kari Madrassah and a simple cushion cover for my mother-in-law, all of which we found in various hujira here.

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One of the shops, and the 'Museum of embroidery'

The best purchase for us though was another cushion cover which I found in a more substantial shop to the left of the entrance, which proclaimed itself a museum of embroidery. Here a young girl was working at a suzanne, and the quality of the work on display was very evidently superior to much that we’d seen elsewhere. Whereas the first cushion cover we bought had large areas of plain cotton unadorned by embroidery, the ones here were completely covered with beautifully worked silk stitches. You can see the one we chose in my photo below, still looking good all these years later on our sofa at home. Of course it wasn’t cheap, and unlike in the cells haggling was not really permitted, although when we asked if the price of $35 was negotiable (polite speak for ‘can we haggle’) we were told no – but he would let us have it for a discount at $30!

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Our cushion cover

A few more photos and it was time to go back to the hotel to pack. Our time in Samarkand, and in Uzbekistan, was coming to an end.

Dinner in a family home

As it was our last evening in Uzbekistan Marat had arranged for as many of us as wanted to (almost all of us) to have a final farewell dinner in a restaurant run in a family home in the city’s suburbs.

This was a lovely occasion. A long table was set for us on a raised balcony in the leafy courtyard of the house, laden with various salads, bread and fruit. After the salads we were served a selection of samsas, which are an Uzbek version of samosas, little pastries filled with meat or vegetables – I particularly liked the spinach one. These were followed by a soup with chickpeas and then a dish I hadn’t had elsewhere: a roll of a pasta-like dough filled with meat, a bit like a large manty. The meal ended with slices of juicy watermelon and cake. To drink we had bottled water and Uzbek wine – I chose some red but found it bizarrely sweet and not to my taste.

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Our group at dinner

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Me with Sue, Georgina and Els

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With Chris and Sue at dinner

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Farewell from our host

The one downside to this otherwise excellent meal was that we had to eat it rather quickly, as most of us had to leave on the long overnight drive to Tashkent to catch an early morning flight (which ironically was delayed!) But before we left Chris, who had somehow been nominated by the group, presented Marat with the tips we had collected for him, and gave a nice speech to thank him for being such an excellent guide and looking after us so well in his country and here in his home city.

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Farewell from Marat at Tashkent Airport

Dinner over we hurried to the bus which was waiting outside. Thanks to the last minute changes that had had to be made to our flights (from Uzbekistan Airways to Aeroflot) we faced an overnight drive to Tashkent for our 2.00 AM check-in. As it turned out, when we got to the airport our flight was delayed by some hours and for a while we weren’t even allowed to get off the bus as the terminal was crowded and check-in not yet open. Eventually however we were on our way on the first leg of the journey, to Moscow.

There the delay meant that we had only a very short time in which to make our transfer, so we were horrified to see the length of the queues to go through passport control (mandatory even though we weren’t actually entering the country!) Chris and I, with Sue and Georgina who were on the same flight to London, cajoled those in front of us into letting us jump the queue, only to find that our departure gate was the same one in which we had deplaned, and our plane the same one in which we had arrived from Tashkent! It was refuelling and there had been no chance therefore that we could have missed the flight despite those queues – if only someone had told us, or better still allowed us to simply wait in the lounge at the gate!

After this it was plain sailing (should that be ‘plane flying’?!) and we reached home safely, memory cards and brains overloaded with the rich blues of the architecture of the Silk Road.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:31 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged people food architecture mosque history market flight airport shopping museum music tour crafts uzbekistan samarkand madrassah Comments (8)

Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating

Day one India


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Delhi traffic

By any measure Delhi is an assault on the senses. The sound of car horns and auto-rickshaw bells fill the air; these vehicles weave endlessly in a manic dance; people ebb and flow between and all around them. The air is at times fragrant with the smells of spices; at other times choking with fumes. The heat beats down …

After a long overnight flight from London it really seemed as if we had landed on a different planet, not just a different continent. And I loved it! The energy, the colours, the constant buzz. And when we returned to Delhi at the end of our trip, and to the same hotel, it almost felt like coming home.
Delhi is India’s capital, its second largest city (by population) and had a rich history. At its heart is Old Delhi, founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and known originally as Shahjahanabad – the last of seven ancient cities in this immediate area. These include Qila Rai Pithora (the first to be recorded, in the 10th century AD), and Mehrauli, built by the first Muslim sultan, Qutubuddin, in the early part of the 13th century, whose Qutb Minar still stands and was one of the highlights of our brief visit.

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Our base here was the comfortable Suryaa Hotel, located in the New Friends Colony area of the city, not far from the Lotus Temple. We stayed here for the first few nights of our tour with Transindus, and again on our last night, and were impressed with their choice. The large marble lobby gave us a good first impression, which extended to our comfortable fourth floor room with a good-sized bed, lots of space, efficient A/C, a flat screen TV, bottled water, tea and coffee-making stuff, mini-bar, safe and plenty of storage. The bathroom had a bath with shower over, a good selection of toiletries and a hairdryer. All the staff we encountered or had dealings with were welcoming, helpful and courteous.

The hotel has a number of places to eat and drink – a buffet restaurant and bar downstairs, and an upmarket pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar on the top floor, plus a coffee shop in the lobby where we enjoyed a coffee and cake soon after arriving. The choice at breakfast is amazing - cereals, pastries, exotic juices, fruits, eggs cooked to order, ditto pancakes and waffles, all the regular hot items (bacon, sausage, tomatoes etc.) plus Indian dahls and curries and even Japanese miso soup, and loads more.

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Our room, and breakfast buffet

The hotel has a pool which we didn’t use but could see from our bedroom window – it looked a good size for a city hotel pool and seemed well kept. There’s also a gym and spa but I didn’t see those so can’t comment.

Even if you don't visit the top floor restaurant or bar it's worth going up there for the views, though it was very hazy when we did so. You don't see many famous sights (the aforementioned Lotus Temple is the main one) but you do get a good look at the circling eagles. A barman told us that these nest on the roof of the hotel, as do owls which can be seen here at night. We didn't get around to eating here but did have a nice dinner one evening in the downstairs bar (murgh malai kebab and tandoori vegetable platter) where the friendly barman let us have the Happy Hour "two for one" deal on our beers despite having arrived in the bar some 15 minutes after the offer period.

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From the hotel roof

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Veda

On arriving in Delhi we learned that dinner on the first night of our tour was included in the cost so that evening we met up with our guide, Rajesh, and driver, Mehar, to go to Connaught Place for a meal at Veda, one of a small (I think) chain of restaurants in India. Well, it may be a chain, but we were certainly impressed by the food here, as well as by the somewhat exotic décor - dark, rich reds, lots of gilt mirrors and ornate light fittings, plus a hammered metal ceiling reflecting the candles on the tables.

The website describes the cuisine as “a contemporary interpretation of classic Indian cooking”. We had a set meal and everything was delicious. The first course was two vegetable appetisers - fried spinach leaves topped with tiny noodles and cheese (a Veda speciality), and cauliflowers fritters. Then two meat appetisers - small pieces of mutton kebab and chicken tikka. The main event was a selection of dishes served with rice and chappattis. There was a chicken curry cooked with spring onion, a lamb curry, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) in a spicy tomato sauce, a black lentil dahl and another Veda special, crispy fried strips of okra (a sort of fusion of that classic Indian ingredient with the Chinese way of serving seaweed). Finally there was kulfi, the rich Indian ice cream. As I said, everything was delicious, but if I had to pick favourites it would be the cauliflower fritters, the fried okra and the paneer - all excellent.

Exploring the city

Although we only had a day in which to see something of Delhi we managed to pack in a fair amount, thanks in part to our excellent guide Rajesh and star driver Mehar.

Jama Masjid

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Steps up to the mosque

We started our explorations at the massive Jama Masjid mosque. This is one of the largest (some sources, and our guide, say the largest) mosques in India. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (most famous for another building, the Taj Mahal) between 1644 and 1656. It is said to have taken 5,000 workers and cost a million rupees to build, which must have been a huge sum in those days. It is certainly on an impressively grand scale. The huge courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. Its surrounding walls are pierced by three great gates (most visitors enter through the north gate) and on the west side is the main mosque structure, built of red sandstone and white marble, with three white marble domes and two 40 metre high minarets.

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Entry is free but there is a fee of 300 IR per camera to take photos and you'll be charged for every camera you are carrying, including smartphones, even if you don't plan to use them all. All visitors, including non-Muslims, are allowed inside as well as out, and photos can be taken everywhere, but the mosque is closed to non-Muslims at prayer time. And don’t even consider a visit here if you aren’t able to climb steps, as the mosque sits on an elevated sandstone platform and there are 39 steps up to the northern gate. You must leave your shoes at this main entrance so wear socks you don't mind getting grubby or borrow a pair of the slippers available. Women in trousers or with short sleeves are also asked to put on a gown.

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Tourists in slippers, and me in my gown (with Rajesh)

Once inside, take your time to wander round the courtyard, which is a buzz of both tourist and worshipper activity. We were advised not to photograph Muslim women but told that otherwise no one would mind, and in fact that seemed to extend to some of the women too. Bowls are set out to feed the many pigeons, and the seed they spill is carefully swept up. Locals and tourists mill around and it could be any city square, until you approach the prayer hall where a more respectful and devout atmosphere prevails. Even here though, a man sitting reading the Koran in one corner saw my camera and beckoned me over with a “welcome to take photos” gesture. So do pay that camera fee, as you will surely get some memorable shots here.

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Chandni Chowk

The mosque lies in Old Delhi, surrounded by the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk market. The name Chandni Chowk is used for a specific street in Old Delhi, but also for the maze of alleys that surround it. This is the market place for Old Delhi, dating back to the 17th century when it was, so it is said, designed by the daughter of Shah Jahan with a canal (long since covered over) running the length of the street which reflected the moonlight. But if the mention of moonlight suggests peace and tranquillity, think again. Today’s Chandni Chowk is a complete assault on the senses – narrow lanes strung with electric cables, a cacophony of sound from horns (as everywhere in Delhi), a riot of colour, the scents of perfumes and spices in the air. On the pavements are people washing, cooking, cutting hair. Each narrow alleyway is lined with small shops specialising in certain goods - wedding saris in one, fruit and vegetables in another. Nai Sarak specialises in text books and calendars, Chawri in paper and stationery and Dariba Kalan in jewellery.

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We took a cycle rickshaw ride which is possibly the best way to see the madness close-up but without being totally sucked into it. Our driver pointed out some of the more interesting goods on sale, a small Jain temple tucked in an alleyway, even at one point monkeys (macaques) on a roof above us. Make sure you hold on to your possessions as you ride, and keep arms and hands inside the frame of the rickshaw - it's a bumpy ride and your driver will squeeze through the narrowest of spaces. Despite the bumps however, and the need to hang on, I did manage to shoot a few snippets of video that I hope give just a little flavour of the experience.

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Presidential Palace complex

From Old Delhi we drove to the Presidential Palace, where we stopped briefly to admire the architecture and the views (very hazy) all the way down the Rajpath (the King’s Way) to the India Gate two kilometres away.

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Presidential Palace

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The palace is the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose original plans were for a classically European building (he had little respect for the local architectural traditions which he once dismissed as “Moghul tosh”). Fortunately he was over-ruled and added features such as Rajasthani-inspired sandstone window grilles (known as jaalis), statues of elephants and cobras. He also lost an argument about the placing of the Palace, which he had intended to sit at the edge of Raisina Hill, and had to move it back to accommodate the buildings that now flank it on either side. This means it is not visible from the foot of the hill – something he considered a fault but which I felt gave the building an interesting element of surprise as you crest the hill and see the scale of the complex of buildings that greet you.

You approach along a wide avenue, Rajpath (the King’s Way), which links the palace to the India Gate two kilometres away. Either side of this avenue are the north and south buildings of the Secretariat, designed by Herbert Baker. It was these structures that caused Lutyen’s design for the plateau to be modified and the palace moved back from the edge. Today they house various government offices and ministries including Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Since 1950, when the first President of a now independent India took up residence here, it was renamed as the President’s Palace or Rashtrapati Bhavan. In area this was the largest residence of a Head of State in the world until the Presidential Complex of Turkey was opened on 29th October 2014. It has 340 rooms spread over four floors and covers 200,000 square feet (19,000 square metres).

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Dominion Column

Like the Palace, Baker’s designs for the Secretariat buildings include Indian elements and are made from the same cream and red sandstone. The columns in front of these are known as Dominion Columns and were gifts from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. At the time it was expected that India would, like these countries, soon become a British Dominion, but instead it was to win independence within 18 years from the date of the buildings’ completion.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the museum inside the palace, this made an interesting photo stop, and came with a bonus. Although Chris has never owned or ridden a motorbike himself, his father was great biker and Chris has inherited something of his affection for the great makes such as BSA and Royal Enfield – the latter being originally a British company but made in India since the 1950s and exclusively there since 1971. He was very happy when the owner of a classic Royal Enfield bike, parked in front of the Presidential Palace, let him pose with it for some photos – and no, this wasn’t a “pose in return for payment” staged photo opp! We were also interested to learn that the beautiful ornamental iron gates in front of the palace were copied by Lutyens from some he saw in Chiswick, very near our London home.

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India Gate

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At the opposite end of the Rajpath to the Presidential Palace, and two kilometres away, is the India Gate. This was built in the 1920s as a war memorial to commemorate the soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In all, more than 13,300 names are inscribed on the gate. Like the Presidential Palace it was designed by Edwin Lutyens (who also designed London’s Cenotaph and 65 other war memorials in Europe on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission which also commissioned this) and has the appearance more of a victory or triumphal arch than a memorial.

The gate is 42 metres in height and has a shallow bowl at the top which was intended to be filled with burning oil on anniversaries although this is rarely done. Near the top on each side is inscribed “INDIA” and beneath that, all in capitals,

“TO THE DEAD OF THE INDIAN ARMIES WHO FELL HONOURED IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA EAST AFRICA GALLIPOLI AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NEAR AND THE FAR-EAST AND IN SACRED MEMORY ALSO OF THOSE WHOSE NAMES ARE RECORDED AND WHO FELL IN INDIA OR THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER AND DURING THE THIRD AFGHAN WAR”

Beneath the arch (added in 1971) is a small black marble plinth with a rifle capped by a war helmet, and bounded by four eternal flames, which serves as India’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In my photos you can also see the canopy that stands some 150 metres further east, which was also designed by Lutyens and once covered a statue of George V in his coronation robes. This was moved in the 1960s to Coronation Park. The canopy has since stood empty, although there was talk at one point of installing a statue here of Mahatma Gandhi. This never happened, and it seems to me unlikely now that in will, given the ambivalent attitude that we were told now prevails in India towards the once universally acclaimed hero.

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By day and by night

Raj Ghat

After our brief photo stop at the India Gate, we drove to Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, which serves as a permanent memorial to him. A black marble plinth marks the actual spot of the cremation, at one end of which burns an eternal flame. It is set in peaceful gardens with paths that allow visitors to walk past and pay their respects, although when we were there the peace was somewhat disrupted by the several groups of boisterous schoolchildren visiting the site. Several other memorials to prominent figures are located nearby, including former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but we only visited this one.

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Indian visitor, and souvenir stall

We were somewhat surprised to learn from our guide that Gandhi is not so much respected among Indians these days. Many feel that his policy of non-violence was too restrained and they admire more active revolutionaries such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. But from what I observed, many more Indians than foreigners seemed to be visiting this shrine and doing so with great respect, so it seems opinion may be divided on this, as on so many political matters.

With so much to see on our packed day out in Delhi it makes sense to continue in a second entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 10:13 Archived in India Tagged buildings people mosque market city tomb delhi street_photography Comments (5)

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