Monday 13 July 2020

Y is for Yamuna

The great red sandstone forts at Delhi and Agra both lie on the banks of the River Yamuna. At Agra, the riverside battlements offer a splendid vista across the huge waters winding among the blank sandy banks to the distant Taj Mahal. In the Red Fort at Delhi, you are hardly aware the river is there. From place to place India's attitude to water varies so.

Its availability seems to be taken for granted. Which is strange in a nation which receives little rain outside the monsoon. Perhaps the government has been particularly efficient in digging wells. In the countryside, irrigated fields are ablaze with a rich, dark verdancy. In the towns, public gardens are watered endlessly. Especially in Delhi, where the extensive lawns around India Gate and Parliament building are maintained as lushly as any Home Counties gardener could wish. And in the old part of the town, people who live on the streets take turns to bathe at their local standpipe, holding a cloth around themselves like coy holidaymakers changing on a Cornish beach. As they wash themselves in the running water, they make no effort to be frugal. Perhaps such profligacy with free water is the one luxury they can afford.

Rivers have helped shape much of the sub-continent: the Indus gave the land its name, and the Ganges remains a holy symbol. But it is the lakes that are special in India, partly because of their rarity. One of the main attractions of other-worldly Kashmir is its dreaming lakes, typified by Srinagar's Dal Lake. The contrast between the flat dull land of the Indian plains, and this mobile film of water mirroring the encircling mountains and the soft blue of the sky could hardly be greater.

The tranquillity that water engenders has even moved some to create new lakes. The Pichola Lake at Udaipur is a masterpiece of this kind. In its present form, the lake now reaches out to the surrounding soft-contoured hills, like Lake Dal on a more intimate scale. It provides the perfect setting for the palace which occupies Jagniwas island. And its example spurred others to create Lake Fateh Sagar behind it, whose waters answer the complex of lake and reflected land with a further reflection of the whole design like some huge artifice of mirrors.

But the grand ensemble of Udaipur is an exception; Indian architects have mostly been content to use water as a just another decorative element, like an occasional semi-precious stone set as an inlay among the main expanse of marble. For example, the deserted palace at Fatehpur Sikri has a number of small pools with decorative bridges. But water here is no more central to the overall design than the courtyard-sized chessboard nearby, or the small palace built for games of hide-and-seek. For real architectural sensitivity to the magic of water, you must travel to Agra.

The Itmad-ud-Daulah is a modest tomb for the grandfather of the Lady of the Taj. A narrow pool leads the eye naturally to the exquisite pietra dura of the mausoleum, as delicate as lace. The Taj Mahal takes the same idea but realises it on the grandest scale. The long watercourse points like a gleaming arrow to the distant tomb. A marble wraith, it stands silhouetted against the sky, brooding over the slow, silent Yamuna below.

A Partial India A to Z

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