walls

The background becomes foreground

Our civilization is made of membranes. Thin, makeshift, wearable membranes to protect us wherever we go. Thicker, more solid membranes that shield us from the outside, that create a space of security and warmth. Some are transparent, some, porous.

Photography is an act of remembrance, an aid to recall some fleeting visual memory. Walls allow just that: to stare blankly back while saying whatever you want them to say, to be both foreground and background, canvas and paint. I've seen a fair number of walls over the years, and this page documents some of the more interesting ones.

Walls as history

The Ishtar Gate, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, constructed on the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar II in 575 BCE. Dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, it was constructed using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-relief mušḫuššu (dragons) and aurochs (bulls), symbolizing the gods Marduk and Adad respectively. It's now exhibited in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

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Mural on wall of Tipu Sultan's palace, showing a glorious battle where he kills all the evil British. Notice the white soldiers in various degrees of discomfort.

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However, things didn't work out so well for Tipu Sultan. After the Fourth Mysore War, Tippu Sultan was killed by the British in 1799, and his once formidable fortress of Srirangapatna is now slowly being taken over by tenacious ficus.

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The stone fortress of Chitradurga. Local legend has it that a man-eating giant named Hidimbasura was killed by Bhima here, and the massive granite boulders that dot the landscape were part of the arsenal used during that duel. With the death of Tipu Sultan, Chitradurga fell under British control, its massive walls never seeing action against the British.

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The Hazara Rama Temple Complex, Hampi. Once the capital of my might yet ironically named Vijayanagara (city of victory) Empire, it was besieged by the Deccan Muslim confederacy, and destroyed in 1565. All that remains are broken stones and empty roads. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.

Panorama of carvings on the ruins of the Hazara Rama Temple, Hampi.

A pillaged statue guards what once used to be the entranceway of the Vittala temple. You can still see the red and white vertical stripes that temples are painted with. The breasts of this statue, considered especially obscene by the Muslim invaders, have been cut off.

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Yet life goes on. Despite the entire town being considered a UNESCO world heritage site, and despite literally every rock hiding an archealogical treasure, people continue to live and work here. Kids go to school, and they come back to their thousand-year house, which they consider entirely unremarkable.

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What few people know about are the local trains, which still run through the city, stolidly servicing the people while its flashier, underground counterpart gets all the press. Here, an old man looks out of the window on the local train on the way home.

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Old Delhi

Satellite imagery showing old Delhi.

It is the old Delhi that fascinated me: an accidental turn off the main road, a misread sign leading you to to the wrong bus stop, and you were transported into another world. Here, emerging from the otherwise modern Chawri Bazar Metro station, one is confronted with a scene that has changed little in the last thousand years: the primary mode of transportation of bulk goods is still human carts, and the streets are dense melange of transportation conduit, living room, and industrial floor.

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You can find all sorts of stuff here, in old Delhi, things that perhaps you can only find here. In Daryaganj, a bookseller hedges his bets: lurid posters of Arnold share compete with books on Pleistocene fossils and Corporate Accounting.

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There's a shop that specialises in almost everything. Want some springs? Why not visit the Spring shop in Chandni Chowk?

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There are moments of quiet too, tucked away between the endless rush of the madding crowd. Here, an under-employed watchman enjoys a smoke in the early morning air near Kashmere Gate

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Old Delhi is the home for so many, and sometimes, the stark reality of how people are trapped here is sometimes all too obvious. This is a pedestrian over-bridge in Daryaganj, on a cold winter evening.

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Looking down, one sees a tiny barber-shop, right next-door (so to speak) to a shoe-shop.

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It is hard to remember that Delhi is the home to so many. In yet another nameless tenement, a group of Burmese refugees tries to make for themselves a new life. A mother of three is framed in her mirror in her house:

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Back out of the streets, another man, with another life tends to his livelihood sharpening knives on an improvised contraption powered by his bicycle (which doubles as his getaway vehicle in case chivalrous policemen descend on him to extort from him their fair share).

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The very old Delhi

A map of old Delhi just before the Rebellion of 1857. The city was extensively destroyed, with British capitalists massacring thousands of civilians following the fall of the City.

Then there is the very old Delhi, the Delhi of forgotten kings and crumbling ruins. This is the Iron Pillar, a relic from two thousand years ago, framed by more recent ruins from more recent kings.

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A different king, a different time, but also from the past: the tomb of Safdarjung.

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A brightly painted doorway harkens back to forgotten era when everything was different.

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Another tomb, another king, another forgotten chapter in a history book: a schoolboy looks through a massive doorway at some long-dead man's mausoleum, wondering what his name was.

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