Even though the traveler is often far from home, in search of the new, the fundamental challenge that presents itself to this individual is how to understand the varying sights that confronts her. Over time, the collection of a greater store of experiences allows the traveler to compare new situations with a diversity of experiences from across different worlds. In the beginning however, the traveler is restricted to understanding the new, by comparing the situation before her to situations experienced in her natal environment (what some people would like to call home).
There is something of this familiarity that assails the South Asian traveler when in parts of southern Europe, in particular the lovingly restored remains of the Moorish presence in the Iberian Peninsula. Take for example the responses of so many South Asians who have traveled to the Alhambra palaces in the Spanish city of Granada. What is an overpoweringly exotic location to visitors from either Europe of the Americas, is vaguely reminiscent of home to the traveled South Asian. This home is the idiom of Mughal architecture, and following them the Indo-Saracenic edifices raised by the British Raj. Both architectural idioms combine similar vocabularies, encompassing pillars and arches, rooms around courtyards, flowing water within these rooms, and pools within these courtyards. Where the Mughals would employ pietra dura, the Andalusians, and the Iberians who followed them, use azulejos, brightly coloured tiles to animate the walls of the rooms.
There is however a difference between the palaces of the Alhambra and the Mughal palaces in Agra and Delhi. This difference pertains to the spaces between the monuments. In the case of the Alhambra the caretakers of these edifices realized that the palaces consisted not merely of the built structures but of the garden spaces that not only enveloped the buildings but gave life to its very heart. A great deal of effort has gone into detailed historically accurate reconstruction of the gardens of the Alhambra, and the results are spectacular. Indeed, walking around these gardens, and armed with the details that we know about the Mughal palaces, one can then re-imagine what the Mughal palaces would have looked like in their splendor. This experience is somewhat strange, because it compounds the experience of being vaguely at home, with another experience, that of filling in the gaps, and imagining what “home” must have been like!
Unfortunately for us in India, the garden spaces in the Mughal fort-palaces are now animated by British Raj inspired gardens, rather than the gardens that the Mughals would have walked through, and taken pleasure in. Of course, this is not to say that we should sweep away these Raj-era gardens. On the contrary, like the controversial British constructed barracks within the Red Fort, these gardens speak of the historical evolution not only of the buildings in the Red Fort, but of the subcontinent and its people as well. In any case, while the gardens of the Mughal palaces have not been restored, there are attempts in other spaces, like in Humayun’s Tomb, and more interestingly in the Mughal inspired palaces of Jaipur’s Amber Fort.
As the traveler would know, the home is not merely where one grew up, but location of the familiar, and where the unfamiliar is made personal.
(The Itinerant Mendicant is the name of the column that appears in The Goan. This post was first published on Aug 30 2012)