Saturday, June 25, 2016

What is Culture? Thoughts upon seeing the Sarpam Thullal of Kerala

What is culture? It is a way of life, rich with symbols and meaning.

I do not have adequate words to express the many layers of myth, legend, and beliefs that are in this Sarpam Thullal video. This is actually a 3-part video series. Please see it. Look at the number of people involved in it. Look at all the elements. Music, art, craft, religion, food, ecology, environment, people, clothing, all the richness of the land....everything is embodied in this video.

If Sarpam Thullal ends, all of this culture will die. The communities who depend on it for survival will lose a way of life. The musicians will stop singing. The artisans will stop making these crafts. The beautiful sarapakkalams will stop being drawn.

This post is not really about Sarpam Thullal. It is about culture and change. I fear that we are already losing much that is unique about our land. Under our very noses, a whole way of life is being lost through the relentless urbanisation of India. And it's not a slow, gradual change. It is abrupt change, in the space of a single generation.

I agree that change is inevitable. That some of the ways of our forefathers are no longer feasible. But we have much that is good. How do we save this?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Of coconut oil and lighthouses

Coconuts are everywhere in Chennai. If you look at the city skyline, you'll spot some coconut trees for sure. If you wander through the bazaars, you'll find coconuts being sold. And if you peep into kitchens you'll find coconuts in chutneys, sambars, and a zillion other dishes.

But I didn't know it was coconut oil that lit up the beacons of the old lighthouses of Chennai. Man! That must have taken a lot of coconuts! 

Until the 1700's, there were no lighthouses in Chennai. The fisherwomen lit bonfires on the beach, to guide their menfolk back home from their fishing expeditions (I bet they used coconut fronds for the bonfires).

As Chennai became a big trading centre under the East India Company, merchant ships began to feel the need for a 'proper' lighthouse.

The tallest building in Fort St George at the time was the steeple of St Mary's (which you can see in the photo below). But the chaplain didn't want a lighthouse in the church.

So a large oil-wick lantern was installed on the terrace of the officer's mess in 1796, and became the first lighthouse of Chennai.

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast, Jan Van Ryne (1712–60)
The officer's mess building where the lighthouse was installed, is now the Fort Museum, and you can visit it if you go to Fort St George. The building is not very tall; so Chennai's first lighthouse ended up being only 99 feet above sea level (see photo). 

The old officers mess, which later became the museum
Like I said, the lighthouse used coconut oil for fuel. I was surprised to learn that the light from 12 coconut oil lamps could be seen even 25 miles from the shore.  

It turns out that coconut oil gives a clear white flame. Country mirrors were used as reflectors to intensify the light for signalling ships.

This coconut-fuelled lighthouse continued to function for nearly 50 years. What a lot of coconut oil they must have used up !! :) :) 

Eventually in 1841, a new lighthouse location came up, at what is now the High Court. This lighthouse used an Argand lamp, which was basically a better designed oil-lamp where with just one wick you could get the amount of light of 7 candles. Parabolic reflectors behind the lamp would further boost and concentrate the output.

The Argand lamp provided a smokeless, brighter flame; but its oil consumption was greater. Still more coconut oil :)

Here is a photo of the second lighthouse, which used the Argand lamp.  This lighthouse is now inside the High Court premises and is a protected monument.
Second Lighthouse in Madras, Frederick Fiebig c.1851
The second lighthouse continued to be used for almost 50 years, until 1894, when a third lighthouse was built. The tallest dome of the High Court was used as the third lighthouse, which you can see in this photo:
By this time, electricity had still not arrived. The third lighthouse used kerosene, and thus ended a century of coconut oil lighthouses :)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Shrujan Museum (Living and Learning Design Centre) - a labour of love

The Shrujan Living and Learning Design Centre (LLDC) is "the pearl in the necklace of Kutch". Built at a cost of Rs 26 crores, this is a "Living Museum" because there are so many craftspeople in this region actively associated with this museum.
The Shrujan story is known to everyone: how Chandaben Shroff went to Kutch for famine relief in 1969, and then decided that the fabulous embroidery deserved a better market. The first exhibition was of 30 sarees, at Rampart Row in Mumbai. All the sarees were sold out!

Most of the early efforts were all in the form of exhibitions, especially in Mumbai, where the Shroff family is from. But eventually shops were opened. There is now a shop in Bhulabhai Desai Road in Mumbai, and in Safina Plaza in Bangalore. There are also shops in Gujarat (Baroda, Ahmedabad and Kutch). But exhibitions still are a major source of sales.

Shrujan Trust is now close to 50 years old. Over 4000 craftswomen living in 120 remote villages of Kutch and Banaskantha earn a dignified and sustainable livelihood through Shrujan's efforts. An important aspect of this work is that Shrujan sends the textiles, threads, etc to their doorstep and settles payments also at their doorstep as soon as the embroidery is done.

Chandaben says that they don't worry about selling the textiles. Their objective is to provide lielihood. Thus their purchase is always more than their sales! What an amazing woman.

Shrujan also organises eye camps for its women, and provides spectacles. The work that is done is very fine embroidery, and often older women are unable to work due to failing eyesight. See these beautiful sarees, with such fine work, from one of their exhibitions:

LLDC is near Bhuj, in Kutch. The museum complex has three galleries as well as a hands-on gallery. Galleries 1 and 2 will exhibit craft-based shows curated from the LLDC permanent collection. Gallery 3 will exhibit craft-based shows curated from the collections of master kaarigars and private collectors. The hands-on gallery will provide a fun experience in the practice of some of the crafts.

Workshops and short-term courses will also take place in the 125-seat auditorium and 25-seat conference room. These will provide intensive, need-based training to practising craftspersons. Master kaarigars will play a key role as teachers and mentors. They will also have workshops for museum visitors and design/fashion school students.

There's a colletion of photos here, showing the museum being created. Those who enjoy architecture will love the buildings in progress:

Chandaben is now 82. Her daughter Ami now is running Shrujan. Interview with Ami Shroff is here: she is the Director of the museum.

Photos of the museum exhibits/lighting are here:

How to get to LLDC: It is just off the Bhuj-Bhachau highway near the village of Ajrakpur in Kutch. Stay in Bhuj and make the drive. On the way you can visit both Bhujodi and Ajrakhpur, which are major textile centres. Here is a map:

Monday, June 13, 2016

The outstanding Sikandar Nama shawl of Jammu

- by Deepa Krishnan

Sikander Nameh shawl from Jammu, 1852
 "Gulnari rumal", in pure pashmina embroidered with wool
Source: Chandigarh Museum

See this gorgeous embroidered textile? It is a shawl, in soft pashmina, that tells the tale of Alexander the Great.  The shawl is more like a painting than like needlework!

Alexander - or Sikandar as he is called by Indians - came to India in the 4th century BC. This textile is proof that Sikandar's name found its way, not only into Indian vocabulary, but also into Indian textile art. 

The shawl was a gift by a rafugar (an embroiderer) to the rajah of Kashmir in 1852. Perhaps comparing a local rajah with the great Sikandar was a way of subtle flattery? Or perhaps the rafugar was merely showcasing his phenomenal imagination and embroidery skills.

At the corners, the shawl depicts Alexander's life, from his birth to his death. The central figures are influenced by the great Persian epic Shahnameh. At the centre of the shawl, there is a written text, which says:

“This gulnari rumal is submitted to that fountain of all favours and generosity, Maharaja Gulab Singhji, by (the humble) Sayyad Joo, rafugar, resident of the chakla of Jammu in the land of Kashmir on the 15th of the month of Jeth of the samvat year 1909, corresponding to the 6th of the month of Sha’ban of the year (AH) 1268.”

"Gulnari" - what a beautiful word! -  it refers to the red blossom of the pomegranate tree, whose colour is so beautifully incorporated into this embroidery. And "rumal" is a word that is traditionally used for square shawls, not meant for wrapping around the body. This gulnari rumal, then, is a piece for display, rather than use. Samvat 1909 is the Hindu calendar year, and 1268 the Islamic calendar year; the Greogrian calendar equivalent would be 1852 AD.

Gulab Singh by Charles Hardinge,
British Library
The shawl was given as a gift, to Gulab Singh, the first Dogra Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Originally the Dogras were vassals of the Sikhs, having got the Jammu area as a grant from Ranjit Singh. After the defeat of the Sikhs in the First Anglo-Sikh War, the Treaty of Amritsar was signed in 1846, whereby the British created a new princely state and sold it to the Dogras, for the grand sum of Rs 750,000 nanak-shahi rupees. Thus began the Dogra kingdom. Naturally, the craftsmen in the area sought the patronage of Gulab Singh to ensure the sustenance of their embroidery craft. Especially because the export market for shawls was already threatened in the mid-1800's by imitation products from Europe.

Today, we associate Kashmiri shawls with elaborate and delicate embroidery. But actually, this kind of fancy embroidery on shawls was quite unknown before the 19th century. Surprised? It's true. Earlier, all shawls were woven or brocaded on hand looms. They were called 'kani' shawls.
Kani shawl from the TAPI Collection, with Kashmiri butas
But in 1803, a man called Khwaja Yusuf, on the request of an agent from Constantinople (Istanbul), produced shawls entirely with needle embroidery. These 'amli' shawls changed the very nature of the shawl trade, because they took less time, cost less, and provided a great deal of variety in story-telling. Loom-woven shawls continued to be made and valued, but amli shawls gave the trade an unprecedented boost. In 1803 there were only a handful of embroiderers in Kashmir, but by 1823, there were as many as 5000 of them. And the work they did was so good, that Europeans who encountered the work wanted to spirit away the workers!
Amli shawl from, see this link for larger pic
In 1822, William Moorcroft, an employee of the East India Company who came to the area for trade wrote to the British Resident at Delhi and suggested that "Amongst the many thousands of individuals employed in the Shawl trade, in Kashmeer, it would probably be no difficult task to induce two or three families in a noiseless way to leave that country (for England) …." After all, he said, Louis XV of France had "procured Workmen in Muslin from India"; even though, he added, "through the negligence of his Ministers many of them perished through want". Fortunately these transplantation schemes came to naught. 

Empress Josephine, portrait by Jean-Antoine Gros, 1808
All through the early 1800's, the demand for Kashmir shawls grew, especially in France. In the French court, the Empress Josephine draped herself in colourful shawls, and the buta motif of Kashmir began to appear in royal clothing as an elongated paisley.

Soon, local versions of the shawls began to be manufactured. Factories in Paisley, Norwich, Edinburgh and Lyon began to imitate Indian shawls. In fact, in 1842, the town of Paisley exported 1 million pounds worth of shawls! 

It was the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 which finally struck a body-blow to the Kashmiri shawl industry, because it caused a sharp fall in the demand in France for authentic Kashmiri shawls. Eventually, there was large scale unemployment in the shawl industry of Kashmir, and by the beginning of the 20th century, shawl making had become a small handicraft industry instead of a major revenue earner for Kashmir. 

Even today, embroidered Kashmiri shawls are a very small handicraft industry, patronised mainly by discerning traders for the export market. The extremely fine, high quality work of the past, both kani and amli, is increasingly difficult to find.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Panj Sarovar Yatra - Journey to The Five Sacred Tanks of Amritsar

- by Deepa Krishnan

At the heart of Amritsar is the most sacred tank of the Sikh faith; the Amrit Sarovar. This is the tank from which the city of Amritsar gets its name. In the centre of the sacred water tank is the golden temple.

The tank was excavated in the late 16th century / early 17th century, on land that was already considered to be sacred. The work was done by devotees.

Before the large tank was excavated, the site was a low-lying area with a small pond, surrounded by a large number of shady trees. Guru Ram Das, the fourth guru of Sikhs, had been searching for a place to establish a new Sikh centre. Although Guru Ram Das began the construction of the tank and temple on this land, it was completed by his son, Guru Arjan.

There are many legends about the land on which the Amrit Sarovar has been excavated.

One legend is about the Amrit Kund (Spring of Nectar). Mentioned in the Puranas and the Hindu epic Ramayana, the Amrit Kund is believed to have been an ancient place of worship that lost its importance due to the rise of Buddhism.

Another story is of Guru Amar Das (the third guru), who found near the pond a herb to cure the skin ailment of Guru Angad (the second Guru). Yet another local story is of Rajni, whose husband was cured of leprosy after taking a dip in the pond.

Whenever you visit the golden temple, you will see pilgrims take a sacred dip in the Amrit Sarovar. It is believed to be the holiest of experiences.

But Amrit Sarovar is not the only sacred tank in Amritsar. You can do a pilgrimage walk, the "Panj Sarovar Yatra", covering 5 important tanks, including Amrit Sarovar.

The other four tanks are:
  • Gurudwara Shri Santoksar Sahib - the oldest sacred tank in Amritsar, and said to be the first sarovar in Sikh history
  • Gurudwara Shri Ramsar Sahib - the smallest of the five sarovars, marking the spot where the Guru Granth Sahib took form
  • Gurudwara Shri Bibeksar Sahib - the sarovar built by the sixth guru, who introduced martial arts and weapons
  • Gurudwara Mata Kaulsar Sahib - named after a holy lady who was the follower of the sixth guru  
The tanks are nearby and you can explore the area on foot and rickshaw. On the way, you will also see several historic spots of Amritsar, such as the Jallianwalla Bagh and the Baba Atal Sahib.

Please write to if you want more information about the Panj Sarovar pilgrimage.We would be happy to explain the sites and the sequence.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Jeep Excursion to Kolukkumalai

- Guest post from Patricia Brown, Canada, who visited Kerala last December 
(with edits by the Magic Tours Team)
All photos by Patricia Brown
Kolukkumalai is not a familiar name, even to those who have toured Munnar before. 

It is home to the highest tea plantation in the world, with the tea grown here possessing a special flavour and freshness because of the high altitude. 

Technically, Kolukkumalai belongs to the state of Tamil Nadu. It is a small hamlet in Bodinayakanur Taluk in the Theni District of Tamil Nadu. Although we begin the drive from Munnar in Kerala, we enter Tamil Nadu in order to reach Kolukkumalai.

The journey up to the hamlet is extremely rough. The real climb starts past Suryanelli, a small town 23 kms east of Munnar.  The bumpy ride through the rocks is an understatement.  The distance up is less than 10 km; but it takes about one and a half hours to reach the destination.

The tea factory is old and still uses machinery from the British rule.

The travel is through some of the most scenic places one will ever see:

The Plantation workers' houses

The ride back down:

Gyan-Vapi, the Well of Knowledge, Varanasi

- By Aishwarya Javaglekar

The Gyan-Vapi (Well of Knowledge) in Varanasi lies near the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb and the present Vishwanath temple, the Golden Temple of Varanasi.
An old photograph of the Gyan-Vapi
The land around Gyan-Vapi has been considered sacred since historical times, and has had an eventful past. The original Vishwanath temple was destroyed by Qutb ud-din-Aibek in 1194 during a raid of Varanasi. In its place, he built the Razia Mosque. The temple was rebuilt in 1585 by Todar Mal from Akbar's Court, and was destroyed once again by Aurangzeb in 1669. He used the materials from the temple to build a mosque, calling it the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb. The Vishwanath temple, built once again under the patronage of Queen Ahilya Bai Holkar in 1776, still stands next to Aurangzeb's mosque.
Incorporation of the second Vishwanath temple in Aurangzeb's mosque
While the Gyan-Vapi lies in the mosque precincts, legend says that the original Vishwanath Shiva Linga (an object of worship personifying the god Shiva) is hidden inside the well. During the British period, the Gyan-Vapi was a pilgrimage destination for many Hindus, who believed the well water to be more sacred than the Ganges itself.
A view of the Gyan-Vapi mosque (left) and Vishwanath temple (right)
While some consider the well to be a testament to the tumultuous relations between Hindus and Muslims, standing on ground sacred for both religions and surrounded by Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Buddhist iconography, the well manifests the diversity of Indian culture and the city of Varanasi.