Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Portuguese Church Bells of Maharashtra

This week I read a story in Hindustan Times about Portuguese church bells, which are being used all over temples in Maharashtra.
Temple bell at Naroshankar, Nashik. Photo Credit: Hindustan Times
The bells were acquired by the Marathas from various churches, during their conflicts with the Portuguese. The 17th and 18th century were full of many conflicts, with the Marathas, Siddis, the French, the English and the Portuguese, all jostling for supremacy on the Western coast of India.

Fr. Francis Correa, a priest based in Vasai (Bassein) says discovering the bells has broadened his view of India. He says: “Seeing the bells for the first time, I initially felt like it was my community’s property and that I should work on restoring them to the church. But over time I’ve realised that in Hindu temples, they’ve been given a new life, with new missions to perform. They are our shared heritage.”

When I read this quote I couldn't help thinking that if more of us had such enlightened views we would be living in a much happier world!

For many years now, we have been sitting on this Ayodhya mandir-masjid controversy. Was it originally a temple or a mosque? Now that the mosque is broken, what should we build there? Whose monument is it now? ... All these questions could be more easily resolved if we thought of it as our country's shared heritage!

Whether we like it or not, we cannot wish away history; nor can we turn back the clock. If more politicians had the guts to celebrate the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb (cultural diversity) of this land, India would be a different place. Come to think of it, every time we eat a biryani, it is a Ganga-Jamuna celebration. Every time we wear a salwar-kameez, it is the same celebration. The notion of India as belonging only to only one community is really impractical, not to mention immoral.

Magar yeh ghanti kisi ke dimaag mein bajti hi nahi!
(but this bell does not ring clear to anyone!)

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Rajsamand and the Golden Age of Flying Boats

Have you been to Rajsamand Lake? It is just an hour north of Udaipur, past the religious centre of Nathdwara.

Rajsamand Lake, Wikimedia Commons
Rajsamand was built in the 17th century by Raj Singh, the ruler of the Mewar kingdom. Not surprisingly, he named the lake after himself (I like to believe it was not megalomania, but the desire to be permanently remembered for a great dharmik task of religious and social significance).

Raj Singh rather poetically used the word 'samand' (ocean or sea) to describe the lake. If you visit the lake, you will see why. It is a large lake, about 6 kms long, and 3 kms wide, with a depth of 60 feet. In a land-locked state that receives only 1% of India's total rainfall, the lake does seem like an ocean.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the lake was a blessing to the local populace, for irrigation and as insurance against drought.

But in the late 1920's, Rajsamand suddenly became a very glamorous place. Seaplanes of the Imperial Airways began landing in Rajsamand, on their way from London to Singapore or Sydney. They carried the rich and famous of Europe. After the horrors of WW-I, wealthy Europeans travelled around the world in luxurious seaplanes, celebrating life. It was the Golden Age of Flying Boats. Seaplane flights were long and slow, but offered passengers lots of space, comfortable beds and 5-star service. The all-male cabin crew were usually poached from luxury steamships and knew how to pamper their clientele.

Poster for Imperial Airways, 
Imperial Airways seaplanes had very little fuel capacity. On a typical trip from London to Sydney, there were 31 stops, and the journey took 16 nights. To make each stop worthwhile, Imperial Airways tried to find lakes that were not just fuelling stations, but also beautiful and exotic. Landing in Rajsamand, passengers were ferried to the shore by boats, and then took the train to Udaipur, where they stayed the night. Meanwhile, the plane refuelled and took in fresh supplies.
Seaplane at Rajsamand
The "airport" at Rajsamand had a passenger lounge, a weather station, a wireless station, fuel depots and two residential bungalows. Planes were anchored to the lake (one of the anchors was found a couple of decades ago, when the lake dried up, but it was then tossed back into the water and now no one knows where it is).

For nearly 2 decades, Imperial Airways seaplanes flew into India, stopping at Karachi, Udaipur, Gwalior and Calcutta. In those days, there were not many long runways, so the seaplanes, which could land pretty much anywhere with a nice stretch of water, became hugely popular.

But after WW-II, there were a lot more long runways available in military bases around the world. And there were many military aircraft too, that became available for passenger use.

In nearby Jodhpur, Maharaja Umaid Singh created a small air-strip in the 1920's, which was expanded and used in WW-II by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Umaid Singh himself was a Level A certified flyer, and as Air Vice Marshall, he was in command of the Jodhpur base during the war.

After the war, when passenger flights resumed, Jodhpur became the airport of choice for Imperial Airways, and Rajsamand's glamorous days came to an end.

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:

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:

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. 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.