12:30pm. I arrived at Jaunpur Junction on the Doon Express. As expected, it was really really hot. Well past 42 degrees Celsius. And coupled with the treacherous loo blowing constantly, it was really difficult. After finishing my lunch at the waiting hall, I covered my head with a headscarf I had brought along, and left the station. I caught hold of a rickshaw, which agreed to take me to the Atala Masjid for Rs 30.
1:15pm. I arrived at the Atala Masjid. My plan had paid off. Having arrived on a Friday, I found the masjid bustling with people. The sahn was filled with people of all ages and from all sections of society. Children were running about, adults were standing in groups and chatting, while the elderly were mostly sitting in the cloisters. The prayers were just about to begin. I made my way to a water cooler installed in one of the cloisters and washed my face. The raw grandeur of the mosque somehow acquired a very caring, personal and human perspective because of the bustling activity and people all around. Soon the sound of the azan filled the air, and the people started assembling for prayer. The liwan towards the qibla was already filled with people, and more than five to six rows had assembled on the sahn. The elders in the side liwans assembled there itself, of course facing west. I stood in silence till the prayers were over. I really wanted to capture the whole ambience on my camera, but I didn’t want to look like a freak running around with a camera in the middle of Friday prayers. Once the prayers were over, I moved around the mosque, overwhelmed by the beauty and elegance of the main pishtaq. The Atala masjid was built in the early 1400s, by the then ruler of the Shariqi dynasty. It was commissioned a generation earlier by Sultan Firoz Shah Tughluq. The central pishtaq is replicated on either side, adding to the magnificence of the entire layout. The two-leveled cloisters run around the sahn, comprising of the typical Hindu double columns. I left the mosque after a while, intending to return later for pictures.
1:50pm: Emerging from the Atala, I asked a policeman for directions to the fort. It was a five minute walk that brought to its gates. Being a ticketed ASI monument, the fort is well kept, but there are very few items of architectural interest, or so I felt, coming immediately after the visit to the Atala. A typical Tughlaq gateway welcomes the visitor inside. I walked straight up to a small mosque, but didn’t feel like entering it. It was 42 degrees celcius as I had mentioned earlier. To the left of the mosque is a Turkish Bath, a rare and interesting building, which happened to be locked. So I made my way to the rear walls of the fort, from where one could get a nice view of the Gomti river, the Shahi bridge, and much of Jaunpur town. The Shahi bridge was built by Akbar, and naturally belongs to the Mughal style. It is still in use, appearing to be a part of a major thoroughfare. I tried to take a number of selfies, out of which only one turned out to be worthy of an upload. A young man came up to me and started chatting about his interest in photography, while another mistook me for a professional photographer and asked for a click. After resting beneath a tree for a while, I got up and made my way to the Bardari, an unassuming structure to say the least. On my way back, I noticed that many peopled had gathered to pray inside the mosque. I stood and watched the prayers, and then proceeded to move back towards the gate.
2:40 pm. I walked back to the Atala to take photos. A young boy began to show me around, as I took extensive photographs. The boy said that the mosque often draws tourists, and it would not been impolite had I taken photos during the prayers. My feet burned as I removed my shoes to enter the west liwan. One of the elders in the cloisters called the boy and said something. The boy came back with a disgusted look and said that they were asking him to collect offerings from me. He went on to say that ‘the old people always say that‘ and that he did not listen to them. After finishing my photographic documentation, I bid the boy goodbye and left the mosque.
3:00pm. A rickshaw dropped me off at the Jaunpur Jama Masjid, or the ‘Bari Majid’ as it is called. Sitting on a very high plinth, I had to climb a flight of stairs to reach one of the entrances. I walked in with my shoes on, without realizing that I was directly entering the Western part of the sahn. A boy around my age quickly stopped me and asked me to remove my shoes. He asked me my name, and after learning that I was a visitor, offered to take me around. The Badi masjid has a single central pishtaq, but what makes this mosque unique are the two chambers on either side of the central qibla chamber. Instead of being colonnaded, as in most mosques till its date, the side chambers were spanned with massive vaults, supported by pointed arched ribs. The resultant uninterrupted interior space is magnificent, but the external walls of the chamber supporting the vaults are very thick, and pierced with narrow entrance arches. This isolation from the sahn may have been a functional hindrance to egalitarian congregational worship, as a result of which this system wasn’t seen again in later mosques. The overall dimensions of the Badi Masjid are much greater than that of the Atala. Moreover since I visited the mosque when it was almost empty, the raw monumental scale left a greater impact on my mind. I took a number of photos of the vaults, the pishtaq, the side entrances, the sahn and the cloisters. Another man walked up to me and asked me if I was a journalist. On learning that I was a visitor, he casually asked if I was Muslim. I replied that I was not, but that I am a lover of Islamic Indian architecture, and that I have visited numerous Sultanate and Mughal era mosques in India. He nodded, and replied that ‘my appearance said so’, whatever that meant. I collected my shoes and made my way out.
3:50pm. My next and final stop was to be the Lal Darwaza Masjid, a much smaller, but equally famous mosque situated a little away from the main city. The boy at the Badi Masjid had asked me to take an auto rickshaw to the Lal Darwaza, but none of the autos agreed. I finally asked a rickshaw if he could take me that far. He said he could, and the he would charge only Rs 30. It was bumpy ride of about 15-20 minutes that brought me face to face with the last monument on my list. I asked the rickshaw to wait, and promised him that I would be back in 20 minutes. The Lal Darwaza masjid too was almost empty. The man at the side entrance let me in, and I found myself inside a very tranquil sahn, with a large tree in the middle, next to the ablution tank. The mosque was similar in plan to the Atala, but much smaller, and far more peaceful. What I did not like was that the colonnaded entrances to the west liwan were covered up with an aluminum framework supported glass screen. It looked weird, and separated the liwan from the sahn completely. I took a few photos, and noticed that one of the entrances to the turrets of the pishtaq were open. So I walked up the narrow winding staircase to find myself on the roof of the liwan, behind the pishtaq, at a level near the springing level of the dome. I noticed that the west wall of the mosque had been built around and had almost merged with the walls of the surrounding buildings. I took several photos, and climbed back down, partly regretting that I did not get the chance to climb the turrets of the Atala or the Badi masjid.
4:30pm. I asked the rickshawallah to take me back to the station. It was a very bumpy journey, and at one point, I felt a sudden sharp pain in my spine. I quickly arched my back inwards through the rest of the ride, scared of causing any injury. The man asked me for Rs 100, which I happily paid him.
4:50pm. I bought a general ticket to Mughalsarai junction, and had dal bhat at the station. The train was almost three hours late, so I whiled away my time.
7:40pm. The train to Mughalsarai arrived, and I hopped on to a sleeper coach, despite having a general ticket. Along with me, a bunch of extremely poor villagers boarded the train. They were a group of about 7 or 8. There was an old lady, probably in her mid sixties along with who appeared to be her daughter, and her infant grandson. There was also an old man, a young boy, a little older than me perhaps and a little girl, not more than 8 years old. They had with them a ton of utensils, buckets and baskets, all wrapped up in bundles of cloth. As soon as the train arrived at the platform, the old lady, who appeared to be leading the group, started shouting out instructions on boarding those bundles onto the coach. There were tons of them, and they had just managed to stash them all in front of the gate before the train resumed its journey. But now the gate was being blocked, and the passengers all began hurling abuses at the group. After some reshuffling, they managed to find some space in the first cabin and settled down. I was seated at the window seat, in the direction of travel, with the old lady opposite me, and daughter next to me with the baby.
8:00pm. Two policemen arrived, and on seeing the mess at the gate, began shouting, asking the group to leave at once. The lady opposite me begged with the police to let them stay, saying that they had long journey to make. The police shut her up and moved near the gate, out of my view. It appeared that they slapped one of the boys, because the lady fell to their feet, begging once again to let them stay. Finally the police left, rearranging some of the bundles and making some more space.
8:15pm. The lady took out some utensils from one of the bundles. The container had a little rice, and there was some dal or rajma in another smaller bowl. The lady and her daughter ate some of it, and packed the rest back in the bundle. They washed their hands in another large bowl, and also washed the small bowl in it. Now, the lady, intending to throw the dirty water out, clumsily emptied the bowl outside the window. The train was travelling at full speed, and most of the dirty water flew back in through the window and wet my face and shirt. Being the polite gentleman that I am, I calmly wiped my face with a piece of cloth that I was carrying, and continued staring out of the window. They had expected an outburst on my part, and were really taken about by my subdued reaction. The daughter made a violent gesture towards her mother for being so clumsy. The mother looked really scared and continued to look at me, still expecting a reaction. I realized that they were so used to being slapped, shouted at, and abused, that my calm composure was beyond their comprehension. After almost fifteen minutes, the lady very softly apologized to me. She asked me where I was going. I replied. She gathered the courage to carry on the conversation and asked me if I had eaten. When she heard that I had not, she instantly took out the bundle and offered me the little food that was left. I politely declined the offer, but this small gesture on her part really touched me. These people were the poorest of the poor. Had they been living any of the cities, they would have been pavement dwellers. And yet, this woman didn’t think twice before offering me the little food she had probably set aside for someone else. I was moved.
9:15pm. The train chugged into Varanasi, and I stepped out onto the platform to catch some fresh air. The train was due to change it’s engine here, with the diesel engine being replaced by an electric one. There was some glitch I guess, because the process took almost two hours. The heat was oppressive, even at night. I bought an ice cream and waited on the platform.
10:45pm. The train started it’s journey once again, and I stood by the door. I didn’t want to sit amidst people in that heat. I reached Mughalsarai junction at 11:30, and went straight to the enquiry office to ask about retiring room availability. Mughalsarai, being one of the busiest railway junctions in the country, remains bustling with people 24 hours a day. The enquiry counter was filled with people shouting out their enquiries, and the officer answering on a loudspeaker. I awaited my turn and asked about a retiring room. The officer looked perplexed and asked me to come back at midnight. So I waited for a while and went back at 12 am. He looked at my ticket and said that all the servers were jammed, and he could not make reservation under the new online system. So I asked for a dormitory bed. He replied that reservations could only be made between 8am and 8pm. I asked him if there was a bed free. He avoided the question, and said once again that all the servers were jammed. I was too tired to argue. I had seen a nice little seating slab near the RPF garrison. There were two people sleeping there, and there was plenty of space. I rested my head on my bag, kept my shoes and bottle of water near my head, and quickly fell asleep.
6th June 2015
3:00am. I woke up to the sound of a train speeding by. It was a Rajdhani. Not sure which one. Wasn’t sure if it had stopped at Mughalsarai either.
4:00am. I woke up feeling sweaty. I decided to change my sleeping location. So I crossed the over bridge onto platform 3. There was a stone sitting area, which was empty. I checked the railways website. My train would not arrive till at least 6:30am. I fell asleep again.
5:15am. I woke up for good. I returned to platform no 1, and made my way to a public toilet, which I had located at midnight. I took a much-needed bath. The toilet was quite dirty, but it didn’t matter. I needed the bath.
6:38am. The train was due by now, but there was no announcement. I checked the website again. It showed that the train had not arrived the station before Mughalsarai. I continued waiting. It was an irritating wait, as train after train passed the platform, but there was no sign of the Ajmer Sealdah express. All the while, the website showed the train to be standing at the previous station.
9:20am. The train finally arrived almost 4 hours late. I hopped on and took my seat. It was a day journey. I would not reach Sealdah before 7 in the evening. It was going to be hot. But I was prepared. I settled down and soon fell asleep.