Thursday, 26 October 2017

Iran II - Yazd, a different feeling

Many people are familiar with the names of Shiraz and Esfahan in Iran - and they are really beautiful cities, and worth visiting anytime. But a visit to Yazd in central Iran ( it is situated between Shiraz and Esfahan) is a different experience. First, its antiquity - Yazd is said to be one of the oldest lived -in cities of the world, which was visited by Marco Polo in the 13th century. Second, Yazd is the centre of Zoroastrianism, with its Fire Temple that boasts of an ancestry going back to the 5th century CE. Third in significance is the architecture: it is one of the few remaining lived-in cities of the world that have houses made largely with mud-baked bricks and chopped-straw and mud daubing. It is the home of the "badgir" or the "wind-catcher" towers that dot the city. Yazd is close to the Dast-e-Kavir desert and temperatures in summer can hit 50-51 deg. C. Hence the need to "catch" the slightest breeze.

These pictures show, respectively, a typical street in Yazd, the "wind catcher" towers next to a square, and the Yazd fire-temple

There are still "qanats" or stone channels that bring water down in some areas from as far as 30-40 kilometres.  There is also the Jame Mosque with its fabulous tile-work ornamentation. But most interesting of all is the appeal of the narrow, winding lanes that lead in all directions, to squares with their carpet shops (Yazd carpets are notable for their weaving in the neighbouring desert areas and the distinctive Zoroastrian style carpets) and souvenir shops, and old homes with their strange, different door knockers for men and women - for the men, the heavier knocker and for the women a much lighter ring, so that the householder may know whom to expect.  These are civilisational aspects that one often loses sight of.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Iran - I, National Museum, Tehran

Tehran is a large, cosmopolitan city with many fine buildings, grand boulevards, etc. It has many attractions for the tourists, one of the first being the National Museum of Iran. In the pre-Islamic Section of the Museum, there is a fine collection of  artifacts dating back to 5000 BC or even earlier. It is interesting that quite a number of Stone-Age tools are on display that are quite identical with stone tools that have been found in India, strongly suggesting that man, in those very early ages, had similar compulsions for food and shelter, across a wide part of the world. Then there is a wide collection of painted pottery-ware dating back to 4500/4000 BC that clearly indicate the time when pottery became widespread in Persia as also the prevailing level of cultural sophistication.


The above is a picture of a spouted vessel of 4500 BC

There are many interesting items of bronze and of stone, including an image of Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC) that show draping of clothes quite similar to that found on statues in Greece and well as in Gandharan art of India.

All in all, the National Museum is an excellent introduction to the history and culture of Iran. 

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Iran - great country, beautiful people

My plans since 2011 to visit Iran finally worked in early October 2017. It was part of my desire to visit historic sites in the world that date back to about 500 BC. It was relatively easy in India with its numerous Indus Valley civilisation sites, and in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan (with its great Elamite site at Petra) and Greece.  It was only with some effort that I could locate and visit the Etruscan civilisation sites near Rome, that are quite out of the usual tourist circuit. That really left Iran, with its history and civilisation stretching back to about 2000 BC.
While it had all begun with the Elamites and the Medes expanding into Iran, the incursions by people from Central Asia,  speaking Indo-European languages,  began soon thereafter. Then came that great sage and preacher, Zarathustra, around 1730 BC or thereabouts, who told the world about the one God, Ahura Mazda, and recorded his thoughts in the "Zend Avesta", that is almost contemporaneous with the Rig Veda in India. By 560 BC, the Achaemedians had gained ascendancy and Cyrus the Great, followed by Darius the Great and Xerxes, extended their empire to the borders of Greece and India. They had left their their stamp in several places in Iran, the most notable being their capital, Persepolis, near Shiraz and the Behistun Inscription further north near Hamadan. With the sack of Persepolis by Alexander the Great around 330 BC, there came the Sassanians kings like Ardeshir and  Shapur around 240 CE who subdued the Roman emperor, Valerian,  in battle and ruled Iran with a firm hand.

(The above pictures are, respectively, of Nasir-ul-Mulk Mosque at Shiraz, a couple at the Siyasopol in Esfahan, and a bas-relief panel at Persepolis)

By the 6th century CE, Islam had emerged and swiftly extended its influence in the Middle East and north Africa and had entered Iran by 642 CE. This was the time of the Seljuk, Mongol and Saffavid kings (notably Shah Abbas the Great) who left their stamp and influence across Iran.
While Persepolis certainly attracts visitors with its antiquity (dating back to about 550 BC), and its excellent sculptures in bas-relief, the lofty columns and the iconic griffins, etc., the Saffavid architecture and art dating back to the 16th and 17th century CE are equally fascinating .Thus is especially true of the Imam Mosque and Sayid Lotfullah Mosque in Esfahan, Jameh Mosque at Yazd as also the Nasir-ul-Mulk Misque at Shiraz, although this is of a later date.  Also very enjoyable are the frescos at Chehel Sotun in Esfahan and at the Fin Garden in Kashan.
But what of the people at large? They are among the most courteous and   hospitable that I have so far encountered in my travels. They were curious to know about us, and at the word "Hind" or "Indians" their eyes would light  up and a broad smile would spread across their face, as if they had found a long-lost friend or relative. They would be only too happy to give a free cup of tea or a special discount on purchases (or even give something for free) or a free entry into a historic site. The fund of goodwill that they had for India has to be seen to be believed. It is my earnest wish that we should be able to reciprocate a little of this.

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.