Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Sun Temple at Modhera

Imagine a prosperous 11th century state ruled by a powerful dynasty who were considered descendants of Surya, the sun god. A forest called Dharmaranya (the forest of righteousness) stood not far from the capital. It was in this forest that Lord Rama prayed and cleansed himself of the sin of killing Ravana (a Brahmin king). The river, Pushpavati flows in this forest, bestowing water, fertility and beauty. Would this not be the ideal location for a temple dedicated to the sun god, a temple of exquisite design and form that symbolized the grandeur and power of the sun and celebrated life itself?

Perhaps this is what the king Bhimdev I (of the Solanki dynasty) and the temple carvers had in mind. One does not know. But this is what the temple (partly in ruins due to successive plundering) seems to convey. At the entrance is an intricately carved step well with 108 shrines (108 being a sacred number, the number of beads in a Hindu rosary). Beyond this lies a large pillared temple hall that is open on all sides. It has 52 pillars, (one for each week of the year)- each uniquely covered with carvings representing scenes from the epics (Ramayana, Mahabharata and Krishna Lila) and some others of imaginatively positioned figures. Some part of the exterior is carved with erotic figures, perhaps representing the sensuously creative ability of the body or just celebrating fertility.

The temple halls leads to a second pillared hall with columns and arches within and 12 niches on the exterior, each niche portraying a different form of the sun god (one for every month). The sun god is the only god to don shoes (akin to riding boots) which indicates a connection with central Asia, so say historians. The exterior walls of this structure also depict smaller forms of the eight dikpalas (gods of specific activities and attributes) and twelve prominent forms of Parvati (the consort of Lord Shiva). Thus it symbolizes an interesting blend of the worship of Surya and the worship of an aspect of Shiva.

The sanctum sanctorum (which is now locked) is designed on an inverted lotus plinth (the opening and closing of the lotus flower follows the diurnal pattern of the sun). In this sacred location was placed a golden, bejewelled statue of Surya seated on his chariot; the chariot was drawn by 7 horses and on the 4th horse sat the charioteer Arun. During each equinox, the rays of the rising and setting sun would fall on the sun god. One can now only imagine the beauty and power that the temple as a whole must have radiated.

The stepwell
The outer hall
Scene from the Ramayana - Hanuman is shot as he carries the mountain with the magical herb
The inner hall
Scene fromthe Ramayana- the killing of the monkey king Vali
Scene from the Mahabharata- Bhima throws an elephant up and it doesn't return to earth
Carved niches

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Trip to Eastern Gujarat

After never having seen this large and prosperous state, I have made two trips in the span of a year- last year, I visited the western most region (Kutch or Kachchh as it is sometimes spelled - the picture on my blog is taken from the western most tip of the country!) and this time I visited the eastern region, around Ahmedabad. This is one of the centres for textiles in the country and I visited the Calico Museum, which has a fascinating collection of woven material from the British period onwards. This is also Gandhi's state, his ashram lay by the Sabarmati river that is so much a part of the city. Memories of Gandhi and the contribution of numerous Gandhians are strewn all over the city. One hopes that this leads to greater peace and tolerance in this state that was scarred by terrible riots some years ago.

I spent a day visiting the outskirts of Ahmedabad, accompanied by family and a state archaeologist. The archeologist showed us his recent dig - a Buddhist site that existed between the 7th and 12th centuries A.D. It was uncovered by digging one of the few unoccupied stretches of land that lay in the walled city of Vadnagar.
It appeared to be a very sacred site, with several stupas and a geometric arrangement of rooms and corridors around them. A small line of workers were still on the site, refilling and levelling certain areas. It is always interesting to see a recent excavation as an intriguing picture rises before one's eyes just based on an arrangement of bricks, stones and stray relics.
Then we drove on to view a couple of old, intricately carved victory memorial gates at the outskirts of Vadnagar (they are called "toran" which means an entrance) to mark successful battles. So much work for a war record!

Further on to the 11th century sun temple in Modhera, bulit by the famous Solanki dynasty - but more on that in the next blog. It's hard to describe the beauty of its structure and the exquisite carvings that cover every inch of the temples. It was the first temple of its kind built by the Solanki kings and soon after, their empire went into a decline. The temple was partly broken by Mahmud of Ghazni but a reasonable part of it still stands. Its new invaders are now bats - and hoardes of tourists on weekend trips!

We returned to Ahmedabad via the large and extraordinarily constructed and carved stepwell at Adalaj. Built at the end of the 15th century, it was a caravan stop in this water starved land and a retreat for all during the hot summer months when they could sit on the cool stone steps that lead deep into the earth. Many tales are associated with this well and Shakti is worshipped here. No ordinary well this!

And with that, we ended our trip and headed back to Ahmedabad through clouds of dust that the cattle raised as they too slowly made their way back to their shelters.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Delhi International Arts Festival

Being in Delhi implies being caught up in a flurry of events, each day there is so much happening. This year the government has been particularly active in promoting cultural events as we celebrate the centenary of shifting of the capital (by the British) from Calcutta to Delhi (or to be exact, New Delhi). The city was planned by two British architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker and it is in the wondrous 'Lutyen's Delhi', shaded by venerable old trees that many of the cultural events unfold. Now, of course, as the city expands, new venues are identified and some part or the other seems to host a significant programme almost every day.

The Delhi International Arts Festival, organized by the dancer Pratibha Prahlad, has grown enormously over the past seven years and now is a fortnight long event that brings outstanding artists of all ages and countries (the emphasis of course is on Indian artists) and hosts shows that are free and open to all. This time it seemed bigger than ever. We witnessed dance from Spain, Iran, Sri Lanka, Korea, India, music from Egypt, Israel, Australia, India, theatre from Britain, Hungary, Russia, Japan, India, films from Cuba, India, America, art and photography from Hungary, Russia, India and more. Each event was impeccably organized (at least all that I attended). Of course, the international events seemed to draw larger crowds, especially as they were organized in collaboration with various embassies, but what I enjoyed most were a series of classical Indian dance performances held in the outdoor auditorium of Rabindra Bhawan as a tribute to Tagore.

We were seated under the wide open skies with an ancient peepul tree in front that was decorated with garlands of marigold, around which was built a large stage lined with oil lamps that flickered through the evening. Each day had two performances; there was a large repertoire that was displayed and I watched, fascinated to be sitting so close to the dancer. I felt fortunate that I could see both old and young dancers, see a range of styles (many not often accessible outside their own region) and within a style, to be able to compare different schools of dance and see how a dancer's own interpretation and selection of pieces brought about a distinctive stamp of individuality on the performance. I learned a lot.

It is impossible to recreate my experiences through words or through video recordings, they do not do justice to the beauty of the dance and the melody and rhythm of the music. However I am giving a few links below just to show some of the dancers (and dance styles) that are not publicized much. They are not the best recordings but watching them for a couple of minutes will indicate the tremendous diversity of dance that we have in this country.

Bina Devi (Manipuri), looking ethereal (though very small!) on stage-

Sangeeta Dash (who learned Odissi from Guru Deba Prasad Das, one of the masters of this dance who has a different, more direct style compared to the better known, curvy style of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra), in an invocation to the guru-

I also show two snippets of kathak (a popular dance form of north India), performed by two different older dancers, just to show subtle differences between different schools of the same dance.

Rani Khanam, the emphasis is on describing a mood.

Sunayana Hazarilal, the emphasis is on percussion and foot-work.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Making Apple Jam

Nowadays, with ease of storage and transportation, apples are found year round. But much of the time they are not particularly tasty and are often expensive (as they are imported). October is a narrow window (spilling into parts of September and November) when we get fresh hill apples, from Simla and Kinnar. There are two or three varieties, a deep red and a couple of goldens, all crisp and delicious. And so, we are inundated with apples at the moment - apples for breakfast, apple salads for lunch, apple pies and tarts at other times, and still those apples remain, in eye catching piles. Inevitably, my thoughts turn to jam.

Apple jam has a pleasantly old fashioned ring to it and I turned to my trusty 'Cookery Year' to search for the recipe. Sure enough it was there - laced with lemon juice, lemon rind and fresh ginger. And so about a kilo and a half of golden apples were transformed into three very full bottles of jam yesterday.

The method is the usual - cooking to thicken the fruit, adding sugar and letting it cook till setting point. Apples are high in pectin, so this jam is fairly simple to make. Indian apples are not very tart; I needed to cut down considerably on the recommended quantity of sugar. The jam changed colour after adding the sugar - I enjoy this step the most as the colour and texture acquire a certain depth at this time. The mixture eventually turned out to be a lovely amber colour. It now sits in the fridge and I think it should be easy to use - not just as jam but as fillings for tarts and toppings for cakes.

In between I was busy cooking dinner, slicing and frying some brinjal (aubergine), the slices look pretty so I'm adding their picture as well!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Dabbawala's Diary

The famous Mumbai Dabbawalas, who deliver over two lakh (0.2 million) tiffin boxes each day from people's houses to their offices, with a success rate of 99.99%, are now being invited to various management institutes to talk about how their system works. Yesterday they were in Bangalore, to share their 'management module' with students of a local college.

Founded in 1890, the Dabbawala Association has apparently never gone on strike nor been involved in any police case. Literacy is not a requisite but the ability to carry 70 kgs of weight is essential! It is truly an amazing organization, one that takes pride in its roots and the unique and dependable service that it provides to Mumbaikars.

I quote below an excerpt from the visit of two Dabbawalas to London (to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla), written originally in Marathi (the speaker is Raghunath Medge) and translated into English by Shalaka Walimbe (The Mumbai Dabbawala: The Uncommon Story of the Common Man) that I read in part in the IIC Quarterly newsletter. Raghunath Medge and Sopanrao Mare represented the association at the royal wedding.

" From that moment onward we had loads to do. We got busier than the bridegroom himself! We had received the invitation on the 1st and the marriage ceremony was scheduled for the 8th of April. That in effect gave us only six days in hand for preparation. We were worried whether we would be able to manage to put everything together in time.
Our daily routine was already a packed one. My day starts very early in the morning. From home, I head straight to our office in Dadar, then to the Grant Road office, followed by a quick visit to Churchgate station and then off to our cooperative credit society office in Andheri. To add to this hectic schedule , there were now visits to the British Deputy High Commission, the Air India office, Hotel Taj Mahal and several other such places.
We are simple, traditioinal and superstitious people. Earlier, well before we got the invitation, when we had leart that Price Charles would be taking his wedding vows on 8th April, a 'no moon' day, we were quite perturbed. It is considered an inauspicious day by us Hindus. Without making it public knowledge, we dabbawalas had organised a pooja and a special ceremony on 13th March at the Sanyas Ashram temple in Mumbai in order to appease the stars and ward off evil. We had pleaded with the Almighty, 'Lord, though it is the no moon day, may the Prince's wedding be celebrated without any obstacle.'
Just at this time, Pope John Paul II passed away and the wedding was postponed by a day as Prince Charles decided to go to The Vatican to pay his condolences. Reassured by the change in the wedding date, we continued with our pre-departure preparations.

...In spite of the magnitude of it all, we remained firmly rooted to the ground. While the world outside was busy rejoicing and congratulating us, our families busied themselves preparing us for our voyage. Our wives packed our staple diet of bhakri and chutney for our journey. They also packed us chivda for evening snacks. They were worried, 'God alone knows what they will get to eat on the plane and Hotel Taj Mahal there. Our husbands should not go hungry.'
In the meantime , somebody told Sopanrao, 'I have heard that water is very expensive in London.' Promptly Sopanrao's bag was filled up to half its capacity with bottles of water!
To gift the Prince and his bride, we carried with us til laddoos, a framed greeting card with a tricolour background and a pearl studded magalsutra (the necklace that Indian women wear once they are married) for Camilla. After all, we now looked upon her as our future sister-in-law. Earlier, our association had sent a turban and a green sari for the royal couple - this was before we were invited for the wedding.
Well, food and gifts were taken care of. Then came the question of clothes. What should we wear? Somebody said, 'If you don't wear a suit you will not be allowed to enter the church.' But I was not convinced. Though I didn't say so, I was sure that after we had received such an exceptional invitation, nobody would stop us over a matter of clothes.
Finally, on 7th April, late in the evening, we boarded the Air India flight to London. I wore a shirt and trousers, while Sopanrao wore his traditional attire of kurta-pyjama.

...At eight o'clock sharp, Oliver Brend came to pick us up. Mr. Brend was an official of the Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation. First, he took us to Buckingham Palace. From there we went in a luxurious 28-seater bus to Windsor Palace along with some other members of the royal household. Here, we were to attend the ceremony in the chapel and bless the royal couple.
The organization was excellent. Every chair had a number and a name attached to it. Guests from all over the world, 750 people, had been invited for the ceremony, but there was no confusion or disorder. Everyone was escorted to his or her seat.
Sopanbhau and I were both a little overwhelmed but of course very happy to be there. We were dazzled by the grand sight and felt as if we were in Lord Indra's (the King of the Gods) court!
The glitter and the glamour, the huge chandeliers, the well-dressed gentlemen and the women dripping with diamonds and other jewels left us speechless!
In fact we had been almost silent since we left the hotel this morning. We didn't have an option! There was no interpreter with us today and for the life of us we couldn't make sense of all the 'Yes-Phess' going on around us.
So there we were, sitting quietly, when we heard a voice asking us in Hindi from the seat next to ours, 'May I help you?'
We turned our head and saw an Indian lady, dressed in Indian clothes, smiling at us. She introduced herself. She was the Maharani of Jaipur, Maharani Padmini Devi! We too introduced ourselves. She was very kind and assured us, 'You will not have a problem of language! I will interpret for you!' Once again we were left speechless. There were no words to express our thanks to this gracious lady!

...Prince Charles and his bride Camilla were now greeting their guests. They were smiling and talking to them. We stood out because of our Gandhi caps! They noticed us and started coming in our direction. I immediately took a quick look at my right palm. Do you know why? In the morning, before leaving the hotel, I had written down a sentence there, in English, in ball-point pen, 'We wish you a very happy married life!' There wasn't going to be an interpreter with us at the ceremony and I was not quite sure I would remember the whole sentence correctly at the last moment! I have never cheated during exams but this time I had taken care to see that I don't fail!
I kept on repeating the sentence in my mind and the moment I saw Prince Charles in front of me, I quickly repeated it. Prince Charles smiled and said, 'Thank you.' He then shook my hand and started talking to me as easily as he would talk to a friend, 'We received the gift you sent from Mumbai two weeks ago. We liked the turban and the green sari for Camilla very much. And most importantly, we appreciate the sentiments behind the gift. I will always treasure your gifts as a fond memory of you. Please say hello on my behalf to all the dabbawalas in Mumbai. Tell them I remember them.'
When Padmini Devi translated Prince Charles' words into Hindi, I had tears in my eyes. My throat felt constricted with emotion and I couldn't utter a single word. Madame Camilla arrived at that moment. Prince Charles introduced us to her. She too smiled and said, 'I liked your gift. Thank you very much.' We just nodded our heads in reply.
Now that we had met the royal couple, we could have left. But Padmini Devi said, 'Come, I will present you to Queen Elizabeth, you can talk to her for a couple of minutes.'
A couple of minutes! It was well over five minutes and the Queen was still talking to us. She asked us lots of questions. Padmini Devi, our kind interpreter for the day, answered the questions on our behalf. I felt as if all this was a dream and I just didn't want this dream to end!"
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