Somedays I feel a sense of urgency when I think of the road ahead. I have so many places on the list and so many more states to cover. I cannot afford to be at leisure in any single place. In this mood I start the day. My plan is to head to Allahabad. I think train would be a better idea.
‘Can I have a ticket to Allahabad on the Kalka Mail?’ I ask at the ticket counter.
‘Kalka Mail does not come here,’ he replies. I am surprised. My search on www.erail.in yesterday gave me a match for this train. Perhaps the website is not updated. Unlikely. I name a few other trains on my list.
‘All those are via Mughal Sarai, not here.’
‘Which is the next train to Allahabad?’ I ask.
‘Go to enquiry,’ he snaps.
So I go in search of enquiry. There is a small crowd staring at a white board with packed details in hasty handwriting. Train numbers and names do not make sense to me. I need to know if such a train goes to Allahabad. I ask at the counter.
‘Next train is at 10.30 am,’ he returns.
It is only 7 am.
‘Are there earlier trains from Mughal Sarai instead?’
‘You go to Mughal Sarai and find out. We can only tell about trains from Varanasi.’
Indian Railways might have computerized a great deal but service across the counter is pathetic. So I give up on trains and head to the bus station. There are no buses to Allahabad. Who would believe there is no transport to be found between two important cities at a decent distance from each other? Perhaps it is because of Holi fever, not many are travelling. A Qualis was going to Allahabad and that was packed. It appeared to be the only transport to Allahabad.
I strike Allahabad off my list. There is a bus waiting patiently for passengers. It is headed for Jaunpur. I board it. Really, it is hard to say if the bus is more patient or the passengers already in the bus are more patient. Either way, we all wait for ages before leaving Varanasi.
On arrival the town is dead quiet. It is half-eight in the morning. The shops are all closed. Streets are deserted. The festivities of the day are yet to begin. It is Holi.
I find a room easily. I freshen up and ask the reception guy for some directions. He tells me the way to Atala Masjid. It is across the river which can be crossed by a bridge walkable from the hotel.
‘What about Shahi Bridge?’ I ask.
‘That’s the bridge you will be crossing,’ he replies. That’s good. It is not often that you make use of a place that you want to also visit.
I head towards the bridge. It is a stone bridge built in the 16th century. It spans the river Gomti. Its pointed arches are beautifully reflected in the river’s flow. Above, little pavilions provide shelter and aesthetic appeal along the length of the bridge. It is one of the great stone monuments of ancient engineering that is still standing and continues to be useful in the modern age. I stroll on the bridge for many minutes and by the river banks to get different views of this medieval bridge. The pavilions are supported on corbels and brackets, some which indicate unfaithful efforts of modern day restoration of the bridge.
I walk into the old town which is on the other side of the bridge. Boys have formed little groups and are wandering the streets with pistons, powders and coloured water bombs. A boy tries to approach me with one of these packets. I stare at him. He backs off. My shirt is still a clean white. I washed it just yesterday. It is only a matter of time before I get hit.
Actually, I am not trying to avoid the holi colours. I am walking without bother and quite willing to get hit. I only hope the colours come off easily since I have only two shirts and one pair of trousers for the entire trip.
It happens sooner than I think. I pass many gangs without drawing attention to myself. But a clean white shirt is quite an attractive bait. I am looking up the walls of the fort in town. A group of teenage boys approach. One of them splashes some yellows and greens to my face. This is then followed by a chest hug three times. Holi is a festival for the community as a whole, not individuals.
Now that I have some colours, I can walk freely. The colours are however a problem at Atala Masjid.
‘You cannot ruin the mosque with those colours. You bathe and come back,’ tells the caretaker.
‘I just bathed. On the way I got hit with these colours,’ I complain. He finally agrees to let me see the mosque from the courtyard without going into the prayer halls.
Atala Masjid is typical of the mosques of Jaunpur. The central dome is not very prominent. The focus of the facade is in the high pistaque which has beautiful decorative work in stone. Cusping in the arch are decorated with floral pendants. Little arches on the top open up the view to reveal a little of the dome behind. If one wants to see the dome in a proper manner, a high viewpoint may afford one. The central dome is surrounded by four smaller ones and flanked by two companion domes at either side of the prayer hall.
I leave Atala Masjid and head out in search of Jama Masjid.
‘Where is the Jama Masjid?’ I ask at a tea stall. The guy has no idea. Three others at the stall are clueless.
‘There is one in Delhi,’ replies one cheekily. That’s the best he knows. All these guys are Hindus. It is surprising how little one can know about another community living in the same small town. I ask a mullah nearby and he tells me the way.
The Jama Masjid is similar to Atala but much bigger. Its central pistaque is monumental and the dome is made insignificant in comparison. The styles of these mosques are so unlike those of Champaner in Gujarat. While in Champaner the mosques are beautiful as a whole, in Jaunpur it is only the pistaque that is awesome. It perhaps adds to the allure of the mosque but it stays in the limelight. The intricate carvings on the pistaque here are a little less than in Atala Masjid.
One thing unique about Jama Masjid are the two wings that flank the central pistaque. They are not topped with domes as in Atala Masjid. Instead they are covered each by an arched vaulting with a pointed arch. The details of the central dome on the inside are beautiful.
The Jama Masjid has conical buttresses on the outside at the western wall. A narrow street separates this wall from the buildings of town making it difficult to admire it in the right perspective. That’s another thing about Jaunpur. These mosques are all active places of worship. They are relegated pieces of medieval India. They stand hugging the town on all sides. One may say the town stands crowded around it leaving the mosques wanting for breathing space. A little more space around the buildings with a nice lawn and a fence would have been good.
The caretaker shows me around the mosque. ‘Paagal hai,’ he points to a large group of boys playing holi in a street corner few paces from the mosque. The problem is not their dance or the colours they throw but the blasting music that can be heard across many streets. Holi is a strange festival, at least in Jaunpur. In one hand, there is a lack of festivity because all shops are closed. There is no place for a meal or a drink. You cannot even buy water. On the other hand, music is blasting out on streets. These streets are largely empty except for corners where crowds have gathered to throw colours at each other. The drains are running in colours of purple. The streets will carry the stains for weeks.
I visit another mosque at the edge of town, the Lal Darwaza Masjid. This is even farther than the Jama Masjid. I pass another group making merry. An earthern pot filled with coloured water has been tied across the street. A volunteer is blindfolded and given a long stick. Each one is given only one attempt to swing the stick. I hang around for ten minutes but no one comes close to breaking the pot. I continue towards the mosque where nothing interests me. I walk back to the fort. Except for my first encounter, four water bombs thrown by children from balconies miss me completely. My good luck has held for long. It is 1 pm now and the revelry has quietened.
I visit the fort. It is quite plain compared to forts of Gwalior and Jhansi. The really interesting monument within the fort is the Turkish Bath. This is the first time I am visiting such a ruin. With many domes and no obvious scheme or symmetry, it is quite a complex structure. On the inside, one understands a little bit of the complexity. I see arch netting between main arches under the domes. Blind niches provide minimal decoration. I take guesses on what I see – drains, channels, steam rooms, boiler rooms, baths, pools. Without any prior study, the structure keeps much of its mystery.
Back at the hotel, I rest. In the evening some shops around the bus station are open. I buy a packet of chips, some oranges and a bottle of water. These would be my dinner. I also some cornflakes. I complain to the caretaker.
‘Have some of these. I cannot eat so much,’ he unwraps a plastic bag and presents an assortment of sweets. How can sweets make a main meal?
‘Where did you get these?’ I ask.
‘The hotel owner sent me these this morning. These are homemade.’
‘What is this?’ I point to a puffed brown sweet. It contains some filling.
‘It is called ghujia.’
I try two pieces of ghujia. I quite like it but even two is too much for me. I am not particularly fond of sweets but people of North India seem to live on it. I have often spent hours trying to find a restaurant for lunch or dinner and often I have found only “Sweet Houses.”