Reflections in a flooded temple

The ruins of Vijayanagara are still being excavated in Hampi. Among the buildings which have been excavated is a structure only known as the large underground Shiva temple. A flight of modern steps leads down to the level of the temple. Since it was buried, the superstructures have disappeared, and not been recovered. Around the main corridor leading to the inner sanctum are the usual pavilions. This has been a year of heavy rainfall. So the water table was high when we visited, and many parts were not reachable. The Nandi statue which faces the innermost sanctum of a Shiva temple was partly under water, so we could not proceed. In spite of the smell of bats, the stagnant water, the gloomy light, the temple had a charming atmosphere.

The Archaeological Survey of India’s booklet on Hampi describes this as an early-type construction because of the shape of the pillars: a square base with an octagonal body. What struck me as interesting here is how slender the columns are. Engineers are fond of quoting a measure called the slenderness ratio, which is essentially the height divided by the diameter of a column. I estimated that this pillar has a slenderness ratio of about 20. This is about the same as that of Cleopatra’s Needles in Paris or London, or the wonderful late 12th century CE Chola temple of Airavateshwara near Kumbakonam. If this is indeed an early temple, perhaps 14th century CE, then it is possible that the thrid or fourth generation descendants of artisans from the Chola heartland further south came here to build this temple. To my eye it seemed that later architecture in Hampi built higher, but had lost the technique of building slender. It would be interesting to try to correlate the slenderness of columns with independent dating of structures in Hampi.

An engine of history

We dropped our bags in the hotel and walked out into the back streets of Kochi. It was late morning. We’d woken up before sunrise to catch a flight which was no longer than the road trips which bracketed it, and now we were impatient to get out into Kochi. Our hotel was in Jewtown, close to the old synagogue, and just off the old spice bazaar.

The narrow street of the spice bazaar was hemmed in with warehouses and mysterious complexes lined up cheek to jowl. I’d imagined view of the port, completely forgetting that port areas, expecially ancient port areas, seldom give you a view of the water. One interesting door was invitingly open.

I wandered in hesitatingly. There was a strong smell of spices in the whole street, and it became stronger in this narrow corridor behind the door. There were scooters parked all along the corridor. As I hesitated, not knowing whether I was trespassing, someone came along, took his scooter and went out of the door. No glance at me; apparently wandering tourists were common place here.

I looked back at the area I’d just come through. A rickety staircase led up, but there was no balcony or corridor up there. The stairs led directly into a room, presumably internally connected with others. It was an odd kind of construction; solid masonry walls and stairs, held up by sturdy wooden beams, but the rest of the woodwork looked rickety. Light did not seem to be planned; the niche under the stairs formed a kind of gloomy entrance lobby just inside the outer door.

Some of the side doors were open. I peeped in. Sacks of spices were stacked up; some were split open to reveal the stuff inside. So these were the warehouses; once the teasure house of the fabulous riches of India. In late medieval times, a handful would have been worth several months of earnings for a master craftsman in the capitals of Holland or England. Spice traders seemed to be pretty careless about such fabulous riches. I could have picked up a couple of handfuls there; enough to last me a few months. I moved on instead, leaving these riches behind.

The handcarts in the courtyard ahead presented a nice photo op; strong diagonals to go with the horizontals of the offices behind. The colours were muted, so perhaps monochrome would be good. As I stood in that narrow space wondering how to compose a photo, a woman came out of the archway ahead of me, carrying a bowl of water. It was too good an opportunity, and I shot without further thought. Later, as I walked past the archway and came to the gate in the sea-wall (featured photo) I realized the logic of this building.

When it was built, small quantities of spices would be carted along the road, through the outer gate and into the warehouses. A set of office buildings above the landward gate would track the incoming dribs and drabs of spice. Material from the filled warehouses would leave by water; and the inner offices would monitor this outward flow. Boats would wait outside this last gate to be loaded, and they would transport the sacks to ocean-going ships waiting at anchor further out. I stood at the heart of an engine of history.

Later years

The Family had seen a temple complex when she walked up Mathanga hill in Hampi the previous morning. Now we took a path along the Tungabhadra river and reached the usual late Vijayanagara layout: an enormous avenue leading to a temple, lined with a bazaar complex, and a tank in the center. The looked at the deserted ruins of the Sulai bazaar. Few people come here in the evening, but we could hear a crowd on top of Mathanga hill. A couple was vlogging from the ruins of the bazaar. In the middle of the bazaar is a large tank, and I squatted to take the featured photo as The Family walked around the periphery. As luck would have it, an egret came flying down to the spire of the mandap in the middle of the tank just then. The peak behind the tank is the Gandhamadhana hill.

When you read about the Deccani empire of Vijayanagara, you might get the impression that the empire fell after the death of the warlike king Krishna Deva. In actual fact the kingdom lasted another 137 years, and fell only in 1646 CE. Achyuta Deva, who succeeded Krishna Deva in 1529, had a thirteen year long reign, waging war to the south against Travancore and Ummatur, to the east with Odisha, and to the north with Bijapur and Golconda. Additions made to the capital during his time lie close to the Tungabhadra river, due north of the central palace complex. We walked on towards the temple named after Achyuta Deva Raja. The path would have been paved five centuries ago; we could still see the paving stones. The place looked picturesque in the fading light.

A hot winter afternoon

Walking in the ruins that dot Hampi during a hot afternoon, I stopped to see an Indian bushlark (Mirafra erythroptera) putting on its spectacular aerial display. This consists of it flying up to a good height, and then diving with its wings and tails held out. This told me two things: first that it was a bushlark (generally I’m very confused about larks), and second that early winter is the mating season, at least in the middle of parched Karnataka. I managed to get a few photos of it as it paused between displays. The Family and others spotted the female that it was trying to impress while I was busy taking photos. Unlike a skylark, it didn’t pour on us a flood of harmony. Its call was melodious but simple.

On the other side of the path, three horses waited patiently under a tree, ready to be photographed. This looked almost like they were deliberately posed there with a motorbike. It wasn’t a shot that you could let go. Something nagged at me while I took the photo. As I reached into my backpack for a bottle of water, the spark connected. This looked like a scene from the sets of Sholay, the half-century old blockbuster. The incongruity of a motorbike and horses, and the parched landscape. That movie had been shot in Ramnagar, just a five hour drive away.

Upupa epops

I’ve only seen Hoopoes (Upupa epops, aka Eurasian Hoopoe) around human habitation. Apparently waste land around towns is an ideal ecology for this striking bird. It needs broken ground in which to forage for insects and small reptiles, and broken vertical spaces for nesting. One should be able to see it in the wild around broken cliffs, but I can’t say that I’ve ever spotted one near a cliff. I haven’t seen any Hoopoes nesting either, but that may just be because I haven’t looked. They are skittish, so to take a good photo you have to sneak softly and carry a big lens. I’d already practiced sneaky photography on yellow-wattled lapwings, so when I saw this Hoopoe in another part of the same field, I was ready. It turned its back to me, ready to fly, and kept two eyes on me. But I guess the ground it was on provided good food, so it didn’t quite take off.

I’ve never really seen anything else which is similar to a Hoopoe. As a child, I would lump it with woodpeckers, but a little observation tells you that it is totally different; it pecks on the ground and never drills into wood. There are three or four species of Hoopoes, largely in non-overlapping ranges across Africa, Asia, and Europe, but they are the only birds in the genus Upupa. There seems to be an emerging consensus that their closest relatives are the hornbills. Most hornbills evolved in Asia, but a dearth of fossil Hoopoes makes it hard to tell where they evolved. A first search led me to around 15,000 papers on this species, which I’ll try to skim before my next birding trip. I guess I’m not the only one who’s puzzled and fascinated by Hoopoes.

Surprising beach food

We walked along the beach at Kochi, looked at the fishing nets and the catch, and then began to think of a little snack before dinner. A snack is never far away when you are at a beach. But here we found something that was exciting and surprising: fresh fried yam wafers. We’d first encountered this less than half a year earlier in Nairobi, where they are called mogo chips. There they were crisp, and the flavour was just different enough from a potato to be interesting. This looked equally crisp, and The Family and I felt like sharing one helping.

The chips were being fried by a master who was on the phone continuously. The serving was very similar to what we had seen in Nairobi. We god a good amount of the wafers decanted into a straight-sided brown-paper bag. A half of a lemon was squeezed into it, and a bit of chili powder sprinkled on. We walked away with the chips, looking for a beer, exclaiming about how good it was, and how much it resembled mogo chips. In Kerala it is hard to tell whether this exchange happened yesterday or a thousand years ago. I’m glad it happened.

Two bulbuls

One of our targets in Hampi was the yellow-throated bulbul (Pycnonotus xantholaemus). We had our sighting early one morning near a cliff face to the east of the ruins of the 16th century CE Krishna bazaar. The birds sat in the middle of heavy foliage, so that we could hear its melodious chatter long before we could see the crestless bulbul. There was one pair in the tree that we were looking at, and maybe a couple of pairs in the bushes near the top of the cliff.

This is possibly the westernmost population of this bird, which exists in fragmented habitats across the eastern part of the Deccan plateau. It has been suggested recently that range fragmentation makes it more susceptible to local extinctions than its IUCN label of vulnerable might lead us to believe. With the major climate variability that we are going through, I was happy that I have spotted them in a fairly accessible location.

The range of this species completely overlaps that of the more common white-browed bulbul (Pycnonotus luteolus). In the din that the yellow-throateds had set up, I was unable to distinguish the call of the white-browed. Fortunately, we were with a really experienced birder, who noticed the song, and pinpointed the bird. I could get off a bunch of shots in wonderful light. Although P. luteolus is said to be of least concern, I hadn’t seen one before. It has a touch of yellow near the base of its beak. Both this and the P. xantholaemus are said to have a yellow vent (I didn’t manage to see that), but otherwise they are easily distinguished. In particular, the P. lutelous has the characteristic bulbul’s crest, though a small one. It was a happy morning, with two lifers.

Lunar eclipses

A lunar eclipse will be seen from Mumbai starting at 10:37 PM Indian Standard Time today, and will last till 2:42 AM tomorrow. The maximum will occur at 40 minutes past midnight. The eclipse will be visible from most of India, and will occur at about the same times. The prediction of eclipses is a routine task today, done with high precision. But positional astronomy is an ancient subject, and was done accurately for millennia all over the world, even when the causes behind them was obscure. In India computations of eclipses involved two entities, which were named Rahu and Ketu, which moved in a cycle which is known as the saros. In modern day terminology of positional astronomy, Rahu and Ketu correspond to the points on the celestial sphere where the apparent paths of the sun and the moon coincide. As a result, these are the only places on the celestial sphere at which eclipses can take place.

In this wonderful low-relief sculpture at the entrance to the Sri Krishna temple in Hampi, Rahu and Ketu are represented as snakes, ready to swallow the moon. As for the rabbit, I looked again at a photo of the full moon I’d taken in March in Mumbai, and with a little squinting I could imagine that the dark patches of the lowlands on the disk look a bit like a leaping rabbit. You can take a look for yourself tomorrow and decide. In any case, I found the gate beautiful. How deeply astronomy is imbedded into all of world’s cultures!

The ginger house

I’m used to lots of different spices in my food, and I suppose I smell them whenever I walk into our kitchen, without really paying attention to it. Walking through the roads of the spice bazaar of Kochi was a different order of experience; the wonderful smell of spices permeated the whole quarter. It is seldom that you think of the smell of a city, but Kochi engages this sense more than any place I’ve been to. I was clicking photos of the warehouses and their wonderful doors as I walked along, and I stopped here because of the elaborate doorway. But my attention wandered to the workers who were unloading sacks from the truck without breaking a sweat.

They didn’t mind when I followed them into the warehouse complex. As I passed through that grand doorway a wonderfully sweet smell hit me. This was a ginger warehouse, and the large courtyard was being used to dry ginger. That was when I began to realize that the famous spice trade also included things which I don’t even register as a spice; for example, the ginger that I so often throw into a salad or all into a soup. I was to find later that slightly more than a third of the world’s ginger is produced in India, and that is a big reduction from the monopoly it held in the medieval era. Out of curiosity I tried to check how precious it would have been then, and found the answer in a lecture given in the university of Toronto. Ginger was a major part of the spice trade in the middle of the 15th century CE, but the cheapest of them. Still, it would have cost almost 25 times as much as an equal weight of salt. In Antwerp and in London the average day’s wage of a master carpenter would have bought him 300 grams of ginger! No wonder that spices drove Europe across the world.

Ginger is produced in homesteads across the country, and the truck was unloading fresh produce. I guess it would be dried here and then sold. A foreman was happy to chat with me about the daily operations, the process, and the business as he knew it. The warehouse had wonderful light. I hope you can get a feel of it from the photos above. I found over the next days that many warehouses have been turned into art galleries for this reason. As I explored the art-city of Kochi, I got to love the masala chai infused with this lovely pungent but sweet aroma of dried ginger.

Seven centuries later

I passed over a narrow stagnant canal and then did a double take. I walked back over the small bridge to take a photo, because my phone showed that this was the storied Calvetti canal (alternately Kalvathy or Calvathy). The history of Kochi as we know it starts from a massive flood coursing down the Periyar river in 1341 CE and realigning the coast around where I took the featured photo. That put an end to the port of Muziris, which had been a stop on the maritime silk route, and a center of commerce with the east and west for 14 centuries. But it was also the birth of the new port of Kochi, which would remain an important part of the Indian Ocean trade during the late medieval and early modern era. After 1341, the Calvetti canal was the channel through which an immense amount of East-West trade passed; an earlier equivalent of today’s Malacca Strait.

The proper form of the name is Kalvetti, usually interpreted to mean `a stone cutter’. But Mr. V. K. Raman Menon of Tripunittura, Cochin, who has kindly supplied an exhaustive note on the subject, writes that the name means `Hangman’s Canal or Island’ (kazhu ettuku, `to impale’), impalement, not hanging, being in ancient times the mode of execution.
— Travels in India, Jean-Baptiste Tevernier (footnote in the English translation of 1889).

The Indian Ocean trade, bolstered for a while by Ming treasure fleets, made Kochi a wealthy medieval port town, through which most of the trade of the Deccan flowed. The importance of Kochi becomes apparent from a collection of old maps of Fort Kochi in the Mattancherry Palace (an example above), one from every European trading power. Most of them show the Calvetti canal as a wide watercourse. As I stood on the narrow British-era bridge and looked at the nullah (Hindi for drainage ditch, Wikipedia has it wrong again) that it has become, I wondered when it began to be filled in. Certainly before the bridge was built. At least on this eastern side of Kochi there is a remnant of the Calvetti canal; on the western end it has been completely built over, so that Fort Kochi is no longer an island. What a difference a few centuries can make.