Sunday, 21 January 2018

"Artful" cities

India has so many beautiful cities, some boasting great antiquity, such as Benaras or Ujjain, or cultural institutions as at Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai, or fine architecture as at Bhubaneshwar, Hyderabad, and  Jaipur and in quite a few others. Almost lost among these numbers are two from Rajasthan that are "artful" in the true sense of the term. As one walks down almost any street in the towns of Bundi and Shekhawati, there are the beautiful paintings on the wall, finely executed and bright in colours that leave one lost in wonder.
Bundi, often overlooked by visitors thronging to Jaipur and Udaipur, lies to the south-east of Rajasthan, close to the industrial centre of Kota..It is a lovely city to go walking about in, with painted walls greeting one almost at every turn of a winding street.

Shekhawati, which lies to the north of Jaipur, is somewhat better known for the lovely paintings in the "havelis" of the some well-known business families, but is not commonly visited, except by the aficionados of the Rajasthani style of miniature paintings.

Some of the examples of the art to be seen at Bundi ( the 3 pictures above) and at Shekhawati (  the 2 below) should perhaps interest more visitors to see these two "artful" towns.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Kenya 2016

There was a very enjoyable trip to Kenya in October 2016. In a short trip of about 7 days we managed to see some of Kenya's finest wildlife areas, the Amboseli naional park, the Nakuru national park (once famous for its flamingo flocks) and of course, Masai Mara national park.
Though Amboseli is some distance from Nairobi, a four hour drive over rather bad roads, the views of Mount Kilimanjaro every morning and evening were exhilarating. Climate change seems to have considerably reduced the crown of snows that Kilimanjaro was once famous for; but it is still there. Wildlife was just great, especially the herds of elephants.
Nakuru was northwards, across the great Rift Valley (that is said to run from north of Ethiopia down practically to Tanzania). Due possibly to some geological changes over the last 8-10 years, the waters of Nakuru lake have deepened and that has put off the great flocks of flamingos that had once garlanded the lake. But the bird life is still quite good there besides sighting of the white rhino, wild buffalo and leopards.
Masai Mara is always exciting - one never knows what one would come across a jeep safari: perhaps a lion pride, or a huge herd of buffalo, or a large number of eland antelopes (quite rare), or a glimpse of a leopard creeping along a gully.

So try and go there some time and enjoy!

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Partition of India, 1947 - another look

For most persons in India over the age of 70 or 75, the Partition of India in 1947 was a traumatic experience. So many people in Bengal and Punjab lost a hearth and home or loss of livelihood or worst, a loved one. There have been many books, highlighting one aspect or the other of that tragic event. The "blame game" has been on now for the past 50 to 60 years; but "finger-pointing" has not helped the people of the sub-continent really to come to terms with the unfortunate developments. For that, perhaps a look inwards into ourselves, as we are with our respective identities, would help.
I have attempted this in my book , "A Partition in the Mind" (published by CinnamonTeal Design and Publishing). But identities do not develop overnight and I had to go back quite a good bit into time and into history of the sub-continent for this purpose. There were many strands of events and experiences to be followed up, some hardly ever thought to be even remotely associated with the Partition. There was, of course, a large "dramatis personae", ranging from social, political and religious reformers, British governors-general and vice-roys and officials, as well as politicians like Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah who played major roles at one point of time or the other.
An interesting aspect  of this work has been the repeated confrontation with "historiography": not only "who" said "what", but also "why".
I am particularly beholden to the many scholars whose prior work - over a 100 books are mentioned in the Bibliography - helped me to get closer to the subject matter in its many dimensions.  Hopefully, this book will interest others also to delve into their pioneering work.

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.