He took Obamas down the passages of history

By Devirupa Mitra, IANS
Sunday, November 7, 2010

NEW DELHI - As US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama strolled around the sprawling Humayun’s Tomb complex, it was archaeologist K.K. Muhammad who guided them through the history of the red sandstone monument on whose architecture the Taj Mahal is said to have been modelled. Muhammad has done this tour for numerous foreign heads of states over the last two decades.

Muhammad, superintending archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), was there to receive the US first couple as their limousine drove up to the west gate of the World Heritage site complex.

Muhammad has been a chief guide to visiting leaders and heads of state when they go for sight-seeing to historical monuments - most famously, for former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf at Taj Mahal in 1999. The first head of state he took on a guided tour was German chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1989-90.

For the US first couple, Muhammad did not have to do much homework. We know about the monument as it is part of the job, Muhammad told IANS.

He began by explaining to the Obamas about the significance of Humayun’s Tomb, pointing out that this was one of three World Heritage sites in New Delhi. According to Muhammad, the monument is also the first time that “gardens have been integrated into the tomb complex”.

The US president, dressed in white shirt and black trousers, stood to read a stone plaque at the tomb complex, which had been spruced up for their visit. He wanted to know how long it took to build this place. Seven years, I told him, said Muhammad.

Later, when he was leaving Obama mentioned this fact to the reporters, and added on a lighter vein, If you had to build this in US in seven years, it would be tough. Good contractors.

The senior ASI official noted how the US president was interested in learning about the strands of different cultures that had resulted in the ‘melting pot’ architectural style of Humayun’s Tomb.

He wanted to see how the different strands were used in the architecture, Muhammad said. .

So, Muhammad pointed out how the dome was an import from Central Asia, the ancestral land of the Mughals. Persia was represented through the various arches and India made its presence known through the various decorative motifs and the ‘kalashs’ or pot on the top of the dome.

The US first lady was especially struck by the decorative motifs of lotus flowers embedded in marble on the sandstone structure. Lotus has no significance left either in Islam or Christianity. This is a specific Indian motif which has been assimilated in the architecture, said Muhammad.

Muhammad explained to a curious Obama that the Humayun’s Tomb was a precursor to the Taj Mahal. Obama then wanted to know how many years later the Taj was built. Muhammad informed him, 70 years later. The archaeologist explained to the US president that if the entire Humayun’s Tomb structure is made of marble, including the minarets, it will look exactly like the Taj Mahal. “Obama seemed to like the idea very much,” said Muhammad.

He also stoked the president’s curiosity when he made the linkage between Dara Shikoh, a Mughal prince buried in the complex, and American transcendental poets like Walt Whitman and Ralph W. Emerson.

He really was interested in the linkage. Dara Shikoh had translated the Sanskrit Upanishands into Persian, which were then translated into Latin by a French orientalist. This inspired a German philosopher’s work, which then further inspired American transcendentalist philosophers, he said.

(Devirupa Mitra can be contacted at devirupa.m@ians.in)

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