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.