Saturday, 18 February 2017

Bundi (Rajasthan) - A Good Place to go to

Rajasthan is the place to see forts and palaces to one's heart's content. Bundi, a quaint, small town in south-east Rajasthan has somethings more to offer. Made memorable by the poem "Nakal Garh" by the poet Rabindranath Tagore about Bundi's chivalrous past, but somewhat far from the "maddening crowds" the town trundles along carrying its considerable history without much ado. But within the fort walls, in the "Garh Palace", is one of the finest range of paintings that one could expect to find in the Rajasthani miniature style. In the "mahals" of the Garh Palace that rise tier upon tier clinging to the hill-side, these paintings take the place of the inlay work and the pilaster decoratives that one finds in other palaces elsewhere - and is the better for it. Going back 300 to 400 years, these paintings - though somewhat faded in some places with passage of time - still glow with a light and a life all their own. It is one of the finest and largest "art exhibitions" of its type one could expect to see anytime anywhere.

A view of the "Garh Palace", Bundi

 One of the many murals in the Rajasthani miniature style at Garh Palace

But where Bundi really scores over the others is in the wide range of "rock art" that have been found near and around by a local "aficionado", Om Prakash Sharma, popularly known as "Kukki-ji" in the locality. Single-handedly Kukki-ji has explored hillocks and stream-beds around Bundi and today he can rightly boast of having identified over 100 rock art sites within about 15 to 20 kms of the town. Thus with Kukki-ji as the guide, one can literally and metaphorically travel from enjoying 17th century miniature paintings in the Garh Palace to pre-historic paintings by early man in India, possibly 6000 to 7000 years old in the course of a day. It is not an experience easily to be had. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to consider that these 100 odd sites (and still counting) along about a 35 kms. stretch as discovered by Kukki-ji  near Bundi equal the famous assemblage of rock art at Bhimbhetka near Bhopal. 

"Kukki-ji" at one of the rock art sites

A rock art painting of a buffalo, made by early man

All in all, a visit to Bundi can be quite be quite satisfying. The local "kachouris" and "samosa"  are delicious add-ons. 

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Folk Art - Madhubani

Folk art is a fascinating subject: how people of different cultures see themselves and their world in different ways - and yet with a good deal of similarity.
The folk art of Madhubani in North Bihar has been practised for generations by the womenfolk in painting the walls of their humble dwellings at times of seasonal festivities. But it is only in the last fifty or sixty years that Madhubani art has broken out of its regional limits and has come to be accepted all over India and the world as a most interesting art form.
Even today, it is the women  who mostly do the paintings - now done on handmade paper for easy access by all - poring over their work for days, first with the rough outline and then filling in all the imagined images of gods and goddesses that populate their belief systems.

Vibrant primary colours of blue, red, yellow mark out the Madhubani paintings as do the detailed ornamentation of their favourite, Lord Krishna, in his many moods,  at times playing his flute, at times herding cows, with Radha, his consort, waiting in a bower of flowering plants or on a swing. In the midst of the stylization, there are different visualizations, different moods, that makes Madhubani paintings so interesting.

College Street Coffee House

Coffee parlours are to be found in many places  in Kolkata, They offer a variety of flavours to match most tastes. But for the "regulars" - and   I mean regulars who would go to the same place day in and day out - it is the College Street Coffee House that stands out leagues ahead. Housed in what was once the Albert Hall (named after the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria) right in the middle of academia with the Sanskrit College on one side and the Presidency College on the other, with the Calcutta University and the Calcutta Medical College a short distance away, it was here that the students of all hues and interests thronged in their spare time away from the classes and library work.
Approached by an ancient winding staircase, the Coffee House became a focal point for informal debate, discussions, assignments for generations of students for the last eighty or ninety years. Completely unprepossessing, the drab and dingy place provided that essential ingredient for a vibrant student life - freedom: freedom to say what you like, as you like, feel what you like - provided you don't really hurt the feelings of some one else.

A bit of the Coffee House remains with one all the time, once one has sat at a table there, whether one is now working in Australia or in Canada, whether one is forty or seventy. For it is part of one's growing up.


Konarak, or more correctly, "Konark", or the Place of the Sun, in Odisha was one of the first places of historical interest  that I visited over the last fifty years or so.It was way back in 1967.  The great Sun Temple fascinated me not only for its great size but, equally, for the intricacy of its carvings. The marvellous wheels of the "Chariot of the Sun", as the temple resembles, are masterpieces, as are the finely carved figures of dancers.

But for an inveterate nature lover such as myself, it was the wondrous frieze of elephants right at the bottom of the structure that completely fascinated me. For possibly one hundred metres this frieze ran around the base of the Konark temple, each metre depicting elephants in different poses and postures, in the most natural way that told of the long association of the sculptors with the elephants and their ways. It is not only great art, but a study in natural history. 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The "toy" train

Some of the childhood memories and impressions stay on for ever. One such were the trips to Darjeeling in North Bengal in the 1950s, when the journey was quite difficult - certainly for a ten-year old child. One had then to proceed up to Sakrigali Ghat on the south bank of the Ganga (where it enters West Bengal from Bihar), go over by steamer from there to Manihari Ghat on the north bank of the river, board another (metre-gauge) train that would take one to Siliguri, reaching only early in the morning. But all that strain and hardship were forgotten as soon as one boarded the "toy" train, the narrow-gauge "Darjeeling Himalayan Railways".

Then one entered into a dreamland of sights and sounds: the child of the flat-lands of Calcutta was treated to great forested ridges, the "jhoras" or the leaping waterfalls that sprinkled water over the train coaches, and the chug-chug, chug-chug-chug of the engine as strggled past the "zig-zags" and the loops, stations with names like Tung, Sonada,  Ghoom, and people jumping on and off the train as if  it was a tram-car, before chugging into the railway station at Darjeeling.
The ten delicious days that followed, with hot water bottles under the rugs, sitting up in bed watching through the open window the morning sun light up peak after peak of the Kanchenjungha range, pony rides around the Mall, sweet current buns from Glennaries and Plivas, would be only too short.

The Siberian Cranes

For most bird-watchers the name Siberian Crane conjures up images of an elegant  snowy-white bird that never fails to fascinate amongst the rare species to watch out for. This opportunity came for me one morning in 1988 at the famous Keola Deo Ghana Sanctuary at Bharatpur. I was then walking down a "bund" near Sapan Mori and the trilling call of the cranes in flight reached my ears. Looking up I saw the cranes flying over, appearing brilliant white in the early morning sun. They circled down and landed quite close to the "bund" where I had taken cover behind an Acacia tree.

So, the dream of most bird-watchers happened, and Bharatpur Sanctuary gave me the Siberian Cranes to remember for all time to come.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Some more on Bastar

Thee was so much to see in Bastar in the 1970s, then a huge district all by itself in Madhya Pradesh. Now a part of Chhattisgarh, it has been split into several smaller districts. There were the Muria and Maria tribals each with their own distinctive dances and songs and life-styles. Thee villages were scattered amidst the hills and forests and one had mainly to walk from village to village carrying one's own rations to visit these places.
Strange to say, there were a number of temples in Bastar, such as in Dantewada, or Bara Dongar or Barsur, that spoke of an old non-tribal civilisation that had apparently flourished there at one time. This was apparently the Kakatiya dynasty from Warangal in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh who had migrated into Bastar due to wars.

This picture was taken at Barsur and shows the typical Andhra-style of temple architecture and sculptures. Most of these temples have fallen into disrepair or have just collapsed, with delicately carved columns and lintels ans sculptured pieces scattered about in the forests. 

Wildlife in the 1980s

If Palamau Tiger Reserve was the focus of my travels to wildlife sanctuaries in the 1970s, it was more of Kanha, Bandhavgarh and, after 1986, Corbett national parks in the 1980s. It may sound strange but at times I was the only tourist at Bandhavgarh and Corbett in those days. One could easily reach Bandhavgarh by rail via Umeria or Katni and then by a dusty bus journey to Tala. Again, strange as it may seem, the Forest Rest House was the only accommodation available at Tala. in 1980-82 - the numerous lodges and resorts were still far away in the future. It was the same in Corbett National Park in 1986-87 and a budget traveller could get to Dhikala by a bus leaving Ramnagar at 3.30 pm every day. And Kalaji's canteen at Dhikala was there to look after the inner man.

In those days, digital cameras were not even thought of, and one had to make do with film cameras and lenses up to about 200 mm, with film speeds of up to  400 ASA. Still it helped to keep the interest alive. The above picture is of a large tigress photographed near Kisli in Kanha.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Bastar tribal life in 1970s

Bastar is today more widely known for the wrong reasons: the extremist violence that at times disrupts life in that part of India. But in the 1970s Bastar was a much happier place, with its large population of the Muria and Maria tribals and their associated Bhattra, Poroja, Ghasia, Gharwa and Lohar friends. They were quite content to till their small pieces of land in between the hills and forests, or to go hunting, or gathering forest produce in the jungles surrounding their villages. It was no doubt hard work; but they had their seasonal fairs and festivals in honour of the village gods or singing and dancing at marriages in the village. It was a simple, at times harsh, but overall an acceptable way of life.
A reading of "The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin" and other books on Bastar and on tribal life triggered  an interest to see this part of India that was then hardly known and was not visited by any one other than for purely official work. After two visits in 1970 and 1972 that sort of whetted the appetite but brought little more, the visit in 1973 coincided with one of the spring festivals. Given below are two pictures taken at this festival called a "marhai". That was when a gathering of the local gods takes place.

The top picture depicts "Bison-horn" Maria ( so- called because they usually wear headgear made with bison horns) at the festival. They carried long drums that had a decidedly low, throbbing tone. The lower picture shows the Muria tribals with their god "Anga" made of dark-coloured logs decorated with silver strips and peacock   feathers. During the festival "Anga" used to come "alive" and drive those bearing the god on their shoulders to run hither and thither scattering the crowds.
Does "Anga" still come "alive" nowadays?

Friday, 16 September 2016

Hieropolis in Turkey

Our search for historical sites that existed earlier to 500 BC took us to Hieropolis in Turkey. But we missed the threshold by about 200 years, as this came into existence only in the 3rd century BC, in succession to the Phrygian Empire. It is associated with the name of Attalus, a king of Pergammon.
The site is close to the spa town of Pamakkale, which has been known for more than two thousand years for its hot water springs.
What attracted us to Hieroplois was the "necropolis" or the burial sites of the Pergammon kings going back almost to the 3rd century BC.

This picture shows the landscape at Hieropolis and the typical "mausoleum" style of the burial of the kings. This consists of a box-like room with a small entry door and a flat roof. This looks very much like the "mastaba" style of burials in ancient Egypt that were seen at Saqqara, mentioned in another Blogpost.
In addition to the "mausoleum" style, there were also the simpler, but possibly older, "sarcophagus" type, being a stone-made coffin for the dead.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Wildlife in the 70s - The first tigers

For me, in the 1970s, "wildlife" began and ended with tigers. It became a passion to see tigers in the wild and I tramped for days on end in the Betla area of Palamau National Park to see a tiger in the wild. So many times one could see the tracks of a tiger on a game track or a nullah bed in Betla, but actual sightings by forest staff were few and far between, and for tourists even less. Even then, it was a great occasion that in April 1974 I saw my first tiger in the wild, sitting at the base of the Hathbajwa tower in Betla - it was a glorious sight. The experience will forever remain with me.

My next sighting of a tiger was more unusual - it was in a forest rest house! This was in 1976 and Simlipal National Park in Odisha had become well-known for the attempt being made by Mr. S.R. Choudhury, then the Field Director of Simlipal, to re-introduce a tigress cub  captured in the forest back to the wild. It was with a mixture of fear and wonder that I first saw Khairi, the tigress, who was more than one year old at the time at the Joshipur Forest Rest House, that also served as the residence of Mr. Choudhury. It is not easy to remain unmoved when there is a tiger sitting next to one at a distance of just two feet or so, with no fencing or bars to separate the two of us.  Khairi had a natural grace and dignity that accepted an unkempt nature lover from Calcutta without any concern. She was great friends with "Bagho", the pariah dog that Mr. Choudhury had at the time. The above picture shows Khairi in a typical pose with Bagho at Joshipur FRH. Khairi died in tragic circumstances a couple of years later. Simlipal was not the same after that.