Under my byline

Imperial summitry

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 30 October 2010


Obama meets PM. Sarkozy meets PM. Medvedev meets PM. Wen meets PM. Cameron already met PM. That makes all five heads of permanent Security Council states guests of India within a year. Good thing we did some housecleaning for the Commonwealth Games.

Historically, this is very unusual. Before modern times, rulers rarely ever met except in victory and defeat. Humayun met the Shah of Persia, but only after Sher Shah Suri had snatched his kingdom. Alexander met Porus, rajas and sultans regularly met their usurpers, the British King-Emperor received his subject Indian princes…

A ruler did not leave his realm except to enlarge it, or when he had no choice. Poor John VIII Palaiologos, the 15th-century Byzantine emperor who ruled over not much more than his capital city — he had to tour the European courts to beg for military aid against the Turks. None came, but on the other hand his visit did expose the Europeans to Greek culture and learning (and books), and therefore he helped trigger the Renaissance.

Nothing as enlightened will ensue from this sequence of imperial visits to Delhi. But they are still governed by an ancient, semi-martial script. As in the old days, where the master goes the imperial household and bodyguards follow.

Here comes Barack Obama, in effect to enlarge his realm. He brings with him 1,600 staff.* His people will take over the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, and the Taj Palace Hotel in Delhi. The Maurya’s “Grand Presidential Floor”, where Obama will pitch his camp, according to the glossy PR brochure “instills awe and imparts a sense of divine kingship”.

What is all this but a 2010 version of the imperial Mughal tent city, the one that housed the padshah and his court whenever he travelled outside the cities?

Or, for a nearer parallel, the meeting of Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France in 1520, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Henry still held Calais on the French side of the Channel, so he and Francis shared a land border.

The Field was a shallow valley between the last English town (Guisnes) and the last French town (Ardres). The whole area was prepared and decorated at stupendous expense, down to landscaping so that each king’s pavilion would be at an equal elevation. The local housing stock would not accommodate the armies of nobles, soldiers, officials, servants and camp followers. So the plain was dotted with thousands of tents, some very grand indeed — so grand that all that expensive “cloth of gold” gave the place its name.

For Henry a temporary palace was erected. Here is how the contemporary Englishman, and possibly eyewitness, Edward Hall describes it in his entertaining and detailed Chronicle. It was, Hall writes, “the most noble and royall lodgyng before seen, for it was a palays”. The palace was actually an immense square tent, 328 feet on each side and over 30 feet tall. The canvas sides were painted to resemble stone, the canvas roof to mimic slate.

Inside, Hall recounts scrupulously, were “all houses of offices that to such an honourable court should apperteigne, that is to wete, the lorde Chamberlain, lorde Steward, lorde Thresourer of the household, for the comptroller and office of grene cloth, wardroppes, juell house, and office of houshold service, as ewery, pantrie, seller [cellar], buttery, spicery, pitcher house, larder, and poultrie, and all other offices so large and faire that the officers might and did marueieles [marvel]…”

Not much has changed! The Grand Presidential Floor has its own security control room, microbiological food testing lab, round-the-clock room service — more or less everything a modern court needs.

Hall’s Chronicle tells the reader a lot of things. Among the facts, he lists precisely who was entitled to attend what event, what the exact order of precedence was, how the events were set up and what they cost.

Two things Hall does not say. One, anything about the delightful story that Francis bested Henry in a quick bout of wrestling. Two, that the summit had no lasting effect. The friendliness evaporated very quickly, and two years later England and France were at war — again.

Moral of the story: from imperial summitry, expect only modest progress.

*Various figures have been reported. This is not the highest.

Two’s a crowd, but three’s a gestalt.

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