Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Jatar Ghat and Raja Gwalior Ghat in Varanasi


Continuing the series on the ghats of Varanasi; Jatar Ghat was built in the mid 1800's by the finance secretary of the Gwalior Estate, Balaji Cimadaji Jatar. There is a Laxminarayan temple here, which is in disrepair. The Gwalior Ghat was built by Jayajirao Shinde, the raja of Gwalior. The 1800's was a period when the Maratha empire was prosperous.


This area of Varanasi even today has many Maharashtrians.

The English scholar and architect James Prinsep, who arrived in Benaras in the 1820s, refers to this ghat as Chor Ghat (Thieves Ghat). Apparently in those days it was known for the disappearance of pilgrims's clothes and belongings :)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The songs of Phulkari

Phulkari meri reshmi
Rang na aiya theek
Chheti darshan devne
Main rasta rahi udeek

My phulkari is silken
But the colour doesn't seem right
Come quickly now, my love (let me see you)
My eyes search the road.

Phulkari is an embroidery technique from the Punjab region, and is practised both in India and Pakistan, by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The word 'phul' means flower and 'kari' means craft, thus Phulkari literally means floral work or floral craft. Exquisite and labor-intensive, Phulkari embroideries have been produced by Punjabi and Haryanvi women from at least the early 19th century. Phulkaris are traditionally done in brightly colored silk thread on rough, earth-toned cotton fabric. The cotton was local, but the silk came from far off places via nomads, and was dyed in the Punjab. Phulkaris are deeply ingrained into Punjabi culture and several folks songs sung by women have Phulkari as the motif.

When done for domestic use, Phulkaris function primarily as women’s wraps (odhnis). Originally, they signified a woman’s material wealth and were deemed an important part of her wardrobe. In addition to being worn, phulkaris are also placed on woven cots (charpais) as seat covers for special guests, or draped on dowry chests or hung in the home as decoration during religious festivals. They are presented to temple deities, or to gurudwaras as a cover for the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book).

During colonial rule, Phulkaris became part of gift basket locally described as “dali” that were presented to the British and other high officials on Christmas and also as a gesture of gratification.

Following Punjab’s devastating partition in 1947, many treasured Phulkaris were lost or left behind in the traumatic events of the Partition. The Partition Museum in Amritsar has a Phulkari placed on a well, representing the tragedy of the many women who threw themselves into village wells in attempted suicides. To me it seems as if the death of all that was beautiful in the Punjab has been portrayed very poignantly via the Phulkari.

Today in Amritsar, there are plenty of machine-made Phulkaris, but they lack the beauty of the women's voices that made them unique.

Kawal phool main kadhke
Kardi han ardas
Chheti aa mere sajna
Bhul-chuk maaf

Having embroidered a lotus
I petition you
My love come to me quickly
All is forgiven/Forgive me

In May 2017, the Philadelphia Museum of Art showcased ‘Phulkari: The Embroidered Textiles of Punjab’, with phulkaris from the collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz. The collection contained all types of Phulkaris:

- Baghs (all-over embroidered phulkaris, almost like a floral garden),
- Darshan Dwars (architectural motifs, meant to be presented at gurdwaras)
- Sainchis (narrative embroideries which depicted scenes of routine village life and included human motifs)
- Thirmas (embroidered on plain white khaddars for elderly women and widows)
- Chopes (presented to a girl by her maternal grandmother on her wedding day)

The Museum also showcased two gowns made especially for the exhibition by Indian designer Manish Malhotra, in an effort to highlight the couture culture and the new stories developing around phulkari. With the ace designers employing materials such as velvet and silk, a new set of audiences is being inspired to embrace the warmth of the textile tradition.

Photos Courtesy: Philadelphia Museum of Art, sourced from Architectural Digest

The information and text for this post came from this page, which has more about the show, and different types of Phulkaris is here: https://www.architecturaldigest.in/content/philadelphia-museum-art-showcases-history-punjabs-rich-embroidery-craft-phulkari/

Monday, May 28, 2018

Bazaar Thaterian - The Market of the MetalWorkers



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About 10 kilometers south-east from Amritsar, along what used to be the historic Grand Trunk Road, there is a nondescript town called Jandiala Guru. No one knew much about it until 2014, when it suddenly received international recognition by UNESCO for its metalwork craft. The metalworkers are called Thateras.

If you walk into Jandiala Guru, you can find the Thateras in a lane called 'Gali Kashmirian' (Lane of the Kashmiris). I was a little puzzled by this name. Why were there Kashmiri Thateras in a little nondescript Punjabi town?

It turns out that in the late 18th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh invited skilled metal workers from Kashmir, primarily Muslims, to settle in his kingdom. They established themselves in Gali Kashmirian, and began making brass and copper utensils.

Bazaar Thaterian (the Metalworkers Market) became a thriving market for all sorts of utensils, including those for household use as well as for community cooking (have you seen the huge cauldrons at gurudwaras?).

During the partition of India, the Muslim Thateras of Jandiala Guru migrated to Kujranwala in Pakistan (another metalwork town). Hindu and Sikh Thateras from Kujranwala arrived in Jandiala Guru and began practising their craft. Thus, the metalworkers in Jandiala Guru today are either Hindus or Sikhs. But the name of the lane has endured. Gali Kashmirian. The Lane of the Kashmiris.

The Thathera community has a long oral tradition of craft. Knowledge is passed through apprenticeship, usually within the family. Designs are made by skilfully hammering a series of tiny dents into the heated metal. Even the tools they use are handmade.

In spite of being inscribed in 2014 on the UNESCO representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage List of Humanity, the Thateras are struggling to make a living. The popularity of steel, aluminum and plastic has killed the market for brass and copper utensils.

There's a very nice video here, of the Thateras. It appears from the interviews that that Bazaar Thaterian is dying: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SXc7L9d0ds

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Ranthambhore Visit April 2018

My fourth visit to Ranthambhore in the last 10 years, and great sightings of tigers.

Here is one of the young tigresses we saw. Look at her alert face, ears pricked, stalking!

Summer (April-June) is a great time to visit this park, so what are you waiting for?





Saturday, March 3, 2018

CCIE at Temple Towers, Nandanam, Chennai

The government run Central Cottage Industries Emporium (CCIE) is a great place to buy crafts and textiles from all over India. Service is excellent and prices are fixed and fair. 



Bought a lot of block print textiles. Loved their small collection of Bengal kantha work and tant. A very nice ikat section also. Bought couple of sarees. Applique, block printed and embroidered section of bedsheets, bedcovers, pillows also nice; bought white and blue bedspread for daughter. Their section of kalamkari artwork is lovely and they have handpainted kalamkari sarees and dupattas also. A good place to visit if you are in Chennai. Posters of Gandhi and many nowadays "old fashioned" quotes are there.

How to identify CCIE: The logo is the Bankura horse. See website. http://www.cottageemporium.in/ Beware of similar sounding fake names. Too many of those trying to fool tourists and locals! 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Vintage poster, Sarnath

I was looking for vintage posters on travel to India, when I came across this one:

It's from the 1930's, for travel to Varanasi (to the holy Buddhist site of Sarnath). Commissioned by the Railways, it is part of a series designed by the artist Dorothy Newsome. She signs her name as D. Newsome, so of course, true to stereotype, I assumed it was a male artist. You think you're a feminist, and then this sort of thing comes along and trips you. I live and learn. Printed at the Calcutta Chromotype Ltd at Bowbazaar in Calcutta.

The word the poster uses for Sarnath is "Isipatana", the ancient name for the Deer Park where the Buddha preached his first sermon and set in motion the Wheel of Dharma (Dhamma Chakka).

Isipatana is an open space near Varanasi; it is the site of the famous Migadāya or Deer Park. After his Enlightenment, the Buddha joined his friends, the Pañcavaggiya monks, who were in Isipatana. To them he preached his first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, on a full-moon day.

The name "Isipatana" is derived from the belief that sages and divine beings, as they fly to/from the Himalayas, alight here. In the Pali canon, the phrase "isayo ettha nipatanti uppatanti cāti-Isipatanam", means, "the place where the divine beings fly down to and alight/stay, that is known as Isipatana".

Isipatana is not just where the first sermon was preached. It is also the place where the Buddha spent many rainy seasons. Thus, many sermons originated here.

Isipatana was a very large and thriving Buddhist centre. We know from written records that there was a large community of monks at Isipatana in the second century B.C, when at the foundation ceremony of the Stupa in Anurādhapura, Sri Lanka, twelve thousand monks went from Isipatana,  led by the Elder Dhammasena. The Chinese traveller Huen Tsang, in the 7th century AD, recorded that 1500 monks were studying the Hinayana form of Buddhism in Isipatana.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

On visiting the Mahakaal Temple at Ujjain

I'm going through an interesting experience, I am writing a sales brochure for a tour called "Pilgrimage tour to Ujjain". I have never written brochures for any purely pilgrimage tours so far. So this is a new thing for me.

Ram Ghat after sunset, on the Kshipra River, Ujjain
As some of you probably know, Ujjain is an ancient city which used to be the capital of Avanti, one of the Mahajanapadas, the great 16 Republics of India (6 BCE). The poet Kalidasa talked about the beauty of Ujjain (in his famous poem Meghadoota, The Cloud Messenger).

But now I need to write about Ujjain from a purely religious angle, and I find myself a little stumped.

You see, I cannot bring myself to write religious "facts". In India all major temples have a 'sthala-mahima' or story associated with that place. For example, so and so maharishi did penance here, such and such God automatically manifested here, so and so Goddess sat right upon this very spot... These stories are not historical, they are legends, and I can't help thinking that no doubt some clever temple priest made them up at some point. And I simply don't have the necessary religious belief to make a sales-pitch extolling some imaginary sthala-mahima!

How do I write a convincing spiel for something that I don't quite believe in? Naturally, I'm going to have to write this in the third person, for example, I've got to say something like, "Legend has it that..." or "It is believed that ...". A cop out, really :-)

And yet, when I went to the main temple in Ujjain, the Mahakaal temple, dedicated to the Shiva the Destroyer of Time, and heard the chanting, it affected me immediately. I was crying and had goosebumps. They were decorating the lingam with a thick paste of bhaang leaves. Never seen anything like that, so fascinating. People were shouting Mahadev! Mahadev! and Om Namah Shivay! And I heard many powerful descriptions of Shiva's name, Neelkanth, He of the Blue Throat and Gangadhara, He Who Holds the Ganges. One man would shout it out, and others would pick up the chant...I sat there with goosebumps and tears, perhaps it was the faith of the people that moved me, and perhaps it was the energy around me.

One thing I know for sure - whether I'm religious or not - this country has got me in its grip. I am connected viscerally to the people, the temples, the stories, the words, the sound of Sanskrit. The very soil of Bharatavarsha talks to me.

Now - off to write that brochure.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Hamaam in a necropolis?

The Qutb Shahi Tombs Complex is one of the most significant historic medieval necropolises in the world, with 70 structures within its complex. It has been nominated for the World Heritage Site listing.

It contains 40 mausoleums, 23 mosques, five baolis (water structures), several pavilions and gardens. These structures were built during the long and stable 170-year reign of the Qutb Shahi Dynasty in the 16th – 17th centuries.

It also contains what is popularly called as the Mortuary Bath. In the photo alongside, you can see a photo of this building. Water was supplied from the baolis, and it was used to ceremonially wash the bodies before burial.

Experts at the Aga Khan Foundation (who are doing restoration work at the complex) now believe that this is actually a bath-house or hamaam, similar to the ones found in modern day Iran or Turkey. The bath house is simply too large and it would have been too wasteful, for it to be used just once in a while during burial ceremonies.

But it's really unusual to have a hamaam in a necropolis. One possible explanation is that the hamaam actually pre-dates the tombs. Yashowant Purohit, conservation architect says, in this interview, “We have archaeological evidence of habitation at the site. We found remains of a mosque and of a sarai (rest house). The habitation could have predated the necropolis. But if it is at the same time, it could give us an answer to the use of the hamaam. The next season of archaeological work should help us uncover more,” he says.

I'm looking forward to more news about this. Here's another photo:

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Scaffolding at the Taj Mahal - June 2017

Here's what it looks like now; with the Western side under scaffolding, and one eastern side minaret also under scaffolding. Photos thanks to Sunil Gupta!


And here is the view from the Western side, where the scaffolding of the main monument is present:

And here is a view taken from the south-western side:

If you are visiting in 2017, you will encounter scaffolding in some part or the other. But it is a huge monument, so many angles are possible for photography without scaffolding.

The cleaning work is really helping the monument. Here's a "before and after" picture. See how the marble sparkles? It is cleaned using Fuller's Earth, an old process that has traditionally been followed in beauty treatments in India.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Traditional granaries for storage of rice - West Bengal

When you travel in rural Bengal, you will come across traditional rice granaries. After the harvest, rice is stored in these structures.

The granaries are of different sizes, but typically they stand between 10-20 feet tall from base to roof. They are built on raised platforms; a sensible way to protect them from flooding during the rain.

There are multiple rice crops during the year. It is the local practice to plant different varieties of rice. So a prosperous household with large holdings may have multiple granaries, or may store only 1 crop in the granary and the others in jute or synthetic gunny bags. I photographed these granaries in a Santhal village. These are typically small holdings, with not much surplus available for sale in the markets. The granaries are in the inner-courtyards, where the cooking is also done. You can see in the photo below, the grinding stone and the big wok.

These granaries are made with paddy straw, which is the by-product of the rice growing process. Once the rice is harvested and threshed, there is plenty of paddy available. Paddy straw is twisted into rope, and then used to build the walls of the granary. Rope making is traditionally the job of women, although these days there are machines to make these ropes.

Here is a closer look at the rope weave:

The inner walls of the structure are treated with clay and cowdung; this keeps away insects. The structure is then lined inside with more paddy.

The thatched roof is also made of paddy straw, which is available in plenty after the harvest. Many layers are used, in order to prevent rainwater from entering the structure. Those who can afford it also buy plastic tarpaulins as cover. The family invests money every couple of years in repairing, plastering and maintaining the granary.

After the harvest, the rice is sun-dried for preservation; and then it is put into the granary. Usually neem leaves are mixed along with the rice, to keep insects away. This photo below shows the open area used by one family for sun-drying their crop. Their paddy has also been neatly stacked away, for feeding cattle.
Sun-drying is a very important part of the preservation and storage process
These traditional methods of storage have stood the test of time and continue to be used even in modern era. We have much to gain from understanding and appreciating these sustainable methods of harvest storage. Of course, in spite of the precautions taken, the rice is under threat from infestation as well as rodents. Farmers monitor the stored grains; they remove insects and destroy infested grain from time to time. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Travels in rural Bengal - visiting a large household

I posted a photo previously; of a woman in a white saree milking cows. She was wearing the "inchi paar", the plain saree with a small one inch border in blue or green or brown. That type of saree is meant for widows. It never has red in the border. Red in Bengal is the colour of auspiciousness.

Contrast that with this other family I visited. They are landed gentry with several bighas of land.

The lady in white and red is the female head of this household and her husband is next to her. She is a tiny Jaya Bhaduri to her husband's tall Amitabh figure. The house where she is standing is an old one.

Her "laal paar" (saree with red border) is brand new and it is crackling stiff like tissue. The red of the saree along with her shakha pola (red and white bangles), and the sindoor on her forehead, announce her marital status as a shoubhagyaboti. Her husband is alive and kicking, she is blessed.

She has 10 sons! Her prestige is therefore doubly high. In one of the many inner courtyards of her house I met with two of her bahus. They were wearing the printed cotton that seems to be a big favourite in the villages. Batik is locally done in this district and is also very popular.

With me is Dr. Sarah Lamb an anthropologist who is studying aging in different communities in Bengal. Sarah lived for 2 years in a small Bengali village called Mangaldihi; she speaks fluent Bengali. We came on a nostalgia visit to meet an elderly aunt, whom Sarah had met a couple of decades ago.

The elderly aunt was relaxing in the sun when we saw her. She is more than 90 years old. You can see her in white blouse and petticoat with her back to the camera.

She was widowed at the age of 31 and had no children. She came back to her maternal home when she became old because she felt her in-laws house was not the place where she could get care. The tall gentleman in the dhoti is her brother.

She inherited land from her husband and in exchange for looking after her, she has willed the land to her brother. Within 5 minutes of meeting, she explained this to Sarah and me. She wanted us to know that she was not freeloading on her maternal home. A girl never belongs in her mother's house, you see...

I learnt a lot about rural society and structures for the survival of the elderly through this visit. She has come to her maternal home because this is where she still has more comfort. She wants to die here. Although she said clearly to us that she will hit a century before she dies!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Couple milking cows, Birbhum, West Bengal

I have been travelling in rural Bengal, and have visited many villages. I saw and learnt many things, and I hope I can find the time to post at least some of the pics. Here is the first one. In a little village in Birbhum district, about 4hrs from Kolkata, I came across this couple and their cows. 

As soon as you drive away from Kolkata, you start to see women wearing cotton instead of the hideous synthetics that dominate city markets. I loved the contrast of her pure white taant shadee, against the skin and the brown hay...isn't it lovely? And here still, the British imposed modesty of the blouse has not made its way to the older generation. I wish we could all be like this, but now that Victorian prudery is well established, there is not much hope. Strangely, the modern Indian woman seems to be going back to the choli-less state! With halter necks, thin straps etc! But we are yet to see in the city memsahib, the casual nonchalant grace of this woman.

I always thought cows were milked at dawn, but I came across this couple a little after noon (as you can see from the shadows). I realised that the milk is probably being used for their own consumption, and they are not taking it to market. That's why they have the flexibility to milk at any time.The cows here don't have the oversized udders which you see in commercially reared cattle. A more natural state, perhaps.

From what I can tell, these are the indigenous Gir breed of cattle. There is some misguided effort by the government to cross-breed these with foreign breeds for higher milk yields, but it's a myopic policy. By improving feed and care, the same Indian breeds can produce much more milk, and they are in fact, doing so very successfully in Brazil.

Cows and bullocks are valuable and are usually housed in little sheds. On this shed, we saw the harvest of masur dal (red Bengal lentil). Bengali Comfort food = rice and pyaj diye moshur dal :)

Some people earn their livelihood by taking animals to graze. The man in this photo doesn't look like he is the owner of these calves; he is probably on some kind of wage.

Every village you visit has walls decorated with cow-pats. Cows provide much of the fuel used for cooking.
And of course, no meal is complete without some milk sweets! On the menu: a sort of bread pakoda, bread dipped in an egg wash (duck's eggs, because the Brahmins here don't eat chicken), two types of milk sweets (sandesh), a ghugni with motor (peas), and a delicious salad of cucumber tomatoes and onion.
Dr. Sarah Lamb is an anthropologist, who spent 2 years living in a village in West Bengal. We were on a nostalgic visit to meet one of the families. What a lovely day.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Adyar Food Walk - Filter Coffee

In large parts of south India, the best part of the day is the early morning cup of filter coffee :) 

It is drunk in a 'tumbler and davarah'. The tumbler is the glass, and the davarah the bottom container. An important part of the process is pouring the coffee back and forth, between the tumbler and davarah. This helps to mix the sugar, milk and coffee decoction; while also cooling it to the right temperature. More importantly, it aerates the coffee to produce froth, without introducing any additional water into it (Western-style espresso machines use a steam wand to produce froth). 

Coffee is not native to India. It came from Yemen, smuggled into south India by a Sufi mystic named Baba Budan. He planted them in the Chandragiri hills of Karnataka (in the Chikmaglur district). The hills have since then been renamed in his honour.

The southern Indian states of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamilnadu account for most of the coffee grown. Coffee is usually inter-cropped with pepper, cardamom, banana, arecanut, orange and vanilla. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Koorkai: the Winter Soul Food of Kerala

- By Shobna Iyer

Full name, koorka kazhungu, quite a mouthful, yes? Nickname, koorkai.

The koorkai is a tuber that begins life like others of its ilk, underground. Once dug up, it is quite common to find them appearing as near-perfect rounds which would explain its latin name P. Rotundifolius.

The 'P' may as well stay silent since its presence does little to highlight the shape. It's also called the Chinese Potato though its origin was in West Africa, now figure that cross-many-borders puzzle.
The time consuming part about making koorka is the peeling, a legal shortcut involves putting the uncooked tubers into a jute bag and jostling it until the peels oblige and you know, slip off. If you cook the koorka, this method is illegal. That is simply because the peel comes off easily once pressure cooked. Why would anyone choose the former method? Well, it tastes way better. Deep fried, like chips.

The common koorkai is best in fried form, you know, first fry up the mustard seeds, a dash of white lentil, a few red chillies and turmeric powder to a respectable quantity of oil. It's winter food, fried is good winter food. To this, add the pre-boiled, peeled and cubed tuber to this. Some may cut it long, some add it whole (which involves selecting similarly sized roundelles just to add to the time consumed), to each their own.

As with all highly recommended fried tubers, this is best had hot with rice and spicy rasam. Or plain.


Near perfect rounds, called spheres in polite circles
We'll call the hairs tangents
Geometry session can be had
As you eat, there shouldn't be hairy tangents though
They draw away from the food at hand (pun, anyone?)


The worthwhile outcome
What I like is the greasy no-holds-barred name, mezhuku (oil) varati (tossed till it shrivels to a fraction) 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

New Market Walk: Food and Shopping in Hogg Saheb's Bazaar

Here's the latest addition to our bouquet; a new tour in Calcutta designed exclusively for eating and shopping!

The tour takes you through the lanes of New Market, one of the most popular bazaars in Calcutta. 



 Built in 1874 as a posh “Whites Only" shopping complex, New Market today spills chaotically over to the adjoining streets, selling everything under the sun.


You can sample delicacies from the most iconic bakeries in the city (among other things).


And shop to your heart's content. 


Find out more about the tour on our website
See more photos of the tour on our Facebook page.