Samarkand’s Registon Square brilliantly lit up at night.
Statues of him in regal mien are the centrepieces of many public spaces. His real legacy, though, is in the huge gates, mosques, and other edifices that are the touristic cynosures of the country. While Timur spent much time expanding his empire, he also added greatly to its architectural, cultural, and spiritual life.
Not all of what he built still stands, but significant monuments have been rebuilt or restored and form the spectacular centrepiece of Uzbekistan’s rich touristic banquet. The most famous of the landmarks is Samarkand’s Registon Square, which George Curzon (the same Lord Curzon who was Viceroy of India) once called ‘the noblest public square in the world’. We saw it at night, when it was brilliantly lit up, spread out like a luminous carpet below the vantage point from which we viewed it.
There were four of us on the trip – two friends and my wife Anjali and I. From the very first day, we got a welcome dose of the fascination with which people from India are treated. Walking around in the trading domes in Bukhara – ancient structures that were a fabled stop on the Silk Route a thousand years ago – we were greeted everywhere with the traditional hand-over-the-heart ‘Salaam’ and queries of ‘Hindostan? Hindostan?’ A trio of young college girls came up to us and got Anjali to sing along to Bole chudiyan, bole kangana. The Bollywood references varied with age – where the young girls went gaga over Shahrukh Khan, people from a generation previous raved about Mithun Chakraborty, while for those even older, the adulation was reserved for Raj Kapoor.
The singing college girls caught up with us again on our second night, at the magnificent Po-i-Kalyan (pronounced ‘Kalon’) complex. By the light of the ethereally-lit Kalyan Minaret – till the 20th century, one of the tallest minarets in the world, at forty five metres – they tried out their Bollywood moves on us.
The ancient Ark Citadel in Bukhara.
In between these two encounters, we had seen so much of the ancient city of Bukhara: the massive Ark, the old citadel with its imposing mudwork walls; the Bohoutdin Complex that houses the mausoleum of Sheikh Baha-ud-din, founder of the Naqshbandi order and its adjunct necropolis; the Char Minar, a small but exquisite mosque-and-madrassah edifice with its minarets topped in turquoise.
The place I enjoyed visiting most was the Sitora-i-Mokhi Khosa Saroy, the ‘palace of the star like a moon’. The palace complex was first constructed by Nasrullah Khan, Amir of Bukhara, in the early 19th century and named for his beloved wife Sitorabony. After a couple of cycles of ruin and renovation, the current avatar of the place was built in the early 20th century by Nasrullah’s great-grandson Alim Khan, the last Amir of Bukhara. By then, Russian influence had spread across Uzbekistan and is visible in the architecture of the palace as it exists today, fusing European features with local influences.
From Bukhara, we took the Afrosiyob train to Samarkand. The only high-speed train anywhere in Central Asia, it makes the Tashkent-Bukhara run – a distance of close to six hundred kilometres – in less than four hours, its kingfisher-beak engine slicing through the air at speeds up to two hundred and forty kilometres per hour.
The sense of scale that I spoke of is most palpable in Samarkand. The highlight is the Gur-e-Amir, Timur’s mausoleum complex. A stately gateway, decorated with arabesques in shades of blue and orange, leads into the courtyard within which the mausoleum building stands, flanked by two minarets. Inside, a massive vault-domed ceiling with intricate golden detailing overhangs a chamber in which rest five headstones, those of Timur, two of his sons and two of his grandsons. The graves themselves lie in a crypt below this chamber that is closed to visitors.
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June - October 2020