down memory lane History & Culture

The Egyptian link

INFLUENCE FROM FAR Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra has many traces of Egyptian architecture  

It is quite puzzling why India’s contact with ancient Egypt finds so little mention. In recent times even Bollywood does not seek Egyptian locales though there is vast potential to tap that source. Like shooting in and near the Pyramids or the desert scenes with the Sphinx as the centre of attraction, though India and Egypt have much in common with the Ganga-Yamuna civilization and the one on the Nile (Father Sihor). Over 45 years ago, one met an Egyptian scholar, Mahomet Ali who was staying in the same hotel in the Walled City in which this scribe stayed for a decade.

Mahomet Ali was not a staunch Muslim. He was more interested in the Egyptian gods and goddesses, probably because he claimed to be a descendant of an old family which did not convert fully and stuck to its beliefs of Isis, Osiris, Sethi and Sun god Ra of the land of Khem. Mahomet Ali had come to trace Indo-Egyptian links. The biggest link was found in South India from where women of Malabar were employed as maids in Pharaonic palaces. Cleopatra had several who, besides other duties, also massaged her and put her to sleep with their songs of love and longing. Otherwise Indian interaction was limited, despite museum mummies.

Egyptian effect

It was only when the Delhi Sultanate came into being that Egyptian influence surfaced and continued from Slave, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid and Lodi to the Mughal dynasty. Mahomet Ali had noticed that the fortress of Tughlakabad had sloping walls influenced by Egyptian architecture. Also Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra, Agra had many traces of it. The same pattern was followed in Safdarjang’s Tomb.

One stormy evening in June, Mahomet Ali held forth on Egyptian civilization while sharing tall glasses of beer. Egyptian gods and goddesses have some counterparts in the Hindu Pantheon but otherwise they have their own distinct identity. However, the cult of the Mother Goddess was common to both and so also animistic forms of divinity. His main contention was that the Roman empire, the spread of Islam and earlier Christianity had sounded the death-knell of ancient Egyptian culture. The deep mysteries embedded in the Pyramids were belatedly discovered by British and American explorers, despite the curse of the Pharaohs.

The ancient Sphinx near Cairo

The ancient Sphinx near Cairo   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Once he was caught in a labyrinth in a pyramid and began to despair if he would get out alive. Just then an owl flew in from somewhere and began to circle over his head and then winged away, thereby showing him a way to get out and see the sunlight again. He was reminded after his great escape of a tragedy that befell some of European explorers. Only one man came out alive from the pyramid in which they had lost their way. He pointed out that the bhulbhuliayan of Adham Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli was a labyrinth made on the Egyptian model just as the burial pattern in the pyramids had been followed in Akbar’s tomb. Sultan Ghari’s tomb on the Mehrauli-Palam Road also has Egyptian features because of its subterranean architecture. Even Humayun’s Tomb has traces of it, as does Akbar’s new capital at Fatehpur Sikri. For that matter, said Mahomet Ali, Mohammad Bin Tughlaq built his Bijay Mandal on the lines of a pyramid, probably influenced by the tales of the Moorish traveller Ibn Battuta. Amir Khusrau’s fabled 50-gate palace also had traces of Egyptian architecture.

Conjuring spirits

Ali confided that one night he had conjured up the spirits in Abouthis, resting in the underworld with Osiris, during a hypnotic Khanjeeri (gypsy drum) and scimitar dance by a semi-clad pubescent nomadic tribal virgin, in the mellow light of a half-moon while the shade of the Divine Priest of Isis hovered around the deserted Qutub Minar complex.

Mahomet Ali’s sojourn in Delhi lasted three months. Some of his inferences may be open to question but on that stormy evening he sounded very convincing and the next morning claimed that he heard the ghostly music of the Sistra of Isis over the hotel as though she was still lamenting the end of the Pharaonic cult in the land of Khem, with India clinging on to its old beliefs and Egypt, Greece and Rome losing them, so well described by Alama Iqbal : “Yunan, Misr, Ruma/Saab mit gaye jahan se/Kuch baat hai ke hasti/Mit-ti nahin hamari/Mit-ti nahin hamari”. Soon after Mahomet Ali departed to Jaipur to trace Egyptian influence in the architecture there, initiated in the time of Sawai Ram Singh I. And thence to Bombay where H. Rider Haggard was born and later wrote some of the best books inspired by Egyptian lore. And thereafter to meet the Bene Israel Jews whose ancestors laboured during the building of the Pyramids.


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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 4:42:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-egyptian-link/article18965123.ece

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