Heart of Delhi still the scene of battle

The orange stone that makes up the fortress walls might have looked a little brighter, the area around it might have been a little less crowded, the sky a little less muggy and a little more blue, but that would have been in 1354 when the sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq built the fortress. What remains of it is in ruin.

The once perfectly arched western gate is now just a fragment of what it once was — jutting out pieces of rock make it look as though it is standing on edge, waiting for something to push it over. The passageways, once used mainly to carry secrets, lie fully exposed. The only thing that is still intact from the fifth reincarnation of Delhi, among the remnants of a mosque, is the sandstone Ashokan pillar made in 3BC and brought in by the sultan to adorn his kingdom.

But the Tughlaqhs, who came from Persia, didn’t last long and the Mughals took over. Barely 3km from the site that used to be the centre of the city, they erected a new one — Delhi was torn down and rebuilt again.

The Red Fort was the palace of Shah Jahan, the mastermind behind the Taj Mahal, and his artistic taste was evident. The fort, which incorporated Indian, European and Persian building styles, was the start of a unique style of building that became synonymous with Jahan. Of particular distinction were the gardens, inspired by Islamic drawings of rectangular gardens, amid fountains.

A little further on, beside a ring road, is a far less extravagant structure — a simple black marble platform. It is usually garlanded with flowers and an eternal flame burns there for one of the country’s eternal heroes. A footpath leads to it — the memorial where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes are kept, a site that receives close to 10 000 visitors a day. It is not as humble a tribute as the man himself might have wished for, but it is tiny in comparison with the achievement it symbolises.

Amid all these structures is the cricket stadium where South Africa played the West Indies in their World Cup opener on Thursday. How it fits into this city of forts, palaces and memorials is anyone’s guess, but it should count itself lucky that it is there — the Kotla Stadium is regarded as one of the ugliest structures in New Delhi, unlike the buildings that surround it.

Huge concrete slab
It is a huge concrete slab made more vulgar by the advertising boards that are put up in every open space between walls. Pollution hangs over it like a veil. Even on a clear day, no one would know because the blue sky is seen through a filter of grey.

Before 2005 the stands stood at right angles and at least half the spectators could not get a full view of the field. Six years later there is better spacial perspective and a little less garishness but it is still not a pretty place.

It hasn’t even seen that much cricket in recent times because it was slapped with a year-long ban in December 2009 when a one-day international between India and Sri Lanka was called off because of a dangerous pitch. Batsmen were in danger of getting their heads taken off because of the high bounce the surface caused.

Twenty-three-and-a-half overs were bowled before the umpires decided that enough was enough. The ICC decided that enough was enough for the next year and the stadium was forced to undergo a major groundlift.

The groundsman was fired, the pitch was relaid, the grass was upgraded and in November last year two first-class matches were played. Out of six innings, three scores were above 400, and both games were drawn.

Besides that, the Kotla has always been a site of great contest. It was the place where Anil Kumble became only the second man in history to take 10 wickets in an innings and where Sachin Tendulkar passed Sunil Gavaskar’s record of 34 Test centuries.

The conflict outside is far more interesting. The western gate of the stadium stands opposite the Khooni Darwaza, India’s “gate of blood”. It was there that three Mughal princes were killed during the Indian rebellion in 1857. And as recently as 1947, during the riots that finally saw India gain independence, refugees seeking a place of safety were killed there.

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