Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan

There are times when I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else than the heart of Mumbai. I like to think that I stalk these familiar lanes all the time, renewing acquaintance with the little things that I love, and frowning disapproval of the new. But I just discovered that I’m wrong. I see two sets of street photos from Mumbai, the featured photo is one of the group which comes from a long walk the day after Diwali 2019, and the photo below from a walk in January this year.

Niece Mbili will finish her long course in architecture this year. When she visited in January I took her for a walk to see the parts of Mumbai she didn’t know. I like this view because you see three completely different styles of architecture standing cheek by jowl: the grandiose tower of the stock exchange looms behind a dilapidated Art Deco building from the 1930s, while a newly painted chawl, probably from the early 20th century, stands off to the left.

I led Niece Mbili to a few of Mumbai’s lesser known Art Deco buildings. The photo above is of the crumbling Lalcir Chambers on Tamarind Road. The beautiful Art Deco front door still remains. The wonderful lettering in the facade is another clear Art Deco feature. If you step back and ignore the inept repairs, the data and electrical cables stapled to the walls without any consideration of aesthetics, and obscure signboards, you can see the clean Art Deco lines emerge. Niece Mbili is an expert at this kind visualization. She was suitably stunned. She didn’t know that Mumbai has almost aa many Art Deco buildings as Miami. Now she plans to visit for a longer while. When she does I’ll plan a good walk.

My earlier walk had brought me to an unexpected sight: this artful wooden door. I was quite surprised by what looked like a street art duel: one artist painting a Picassoesque face, the other replying with Pacman. But equally interesting were the padlocks on the door. I was certain that I could tear the padlocks out of the wood, if I wanted, much more easily than picking the lock. The unthinking things that people do for their peace of mind!

But that day’s highlight was the guard sitting on the road, guarding a building which was under renovation. I like the totally relaxed attitude of the man, his chair blocking what would have been an extremely busy road on a working day, slippers off his feet, knowing that no one in their right mind would walk in through that doorway. Oh, and that doorway! It must have been all the rage in the 1880s to sculpt the most modern things into arches above doors. The locomotive is great: progress and trade, and what not. Some day I should post a photo of my favourite: a sculpted stone representation of a complicated theodolite.

Let me leave you with this song by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt, from the 1956 movie CID, with Jonny Lever and Minoo Mumtaz (I think) in this scene. For many of us, that is the anthem of the city: you can’t bear to live here, you can’t bear to leave.

The center of Jamnagar

The Jamnagar-Junagadh highway passes right next to the now-dilapidated palace of the Jamsahib of Jamnagar. I decided to follow it because it passed through a wonderful two-storeyed curved arcade pierced by a huge ceremonial gate (see the featured photo). I believe that this area was remodelled in the 1920s by Ranjitsinhji, the famous cricketer and then Jamsahib of Jamnagar. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a source for the urban history of Jamnagar, so I can’t really say much about this gate. I passed through it and saw a wonderful, and undocumented, school building.

After that I walked back through the gate, around the curve of the arcade, and then abruptly I came to a narrower side street. This was chock-a-block with scooters, and I had to duck out of their way very quickly. I found myself in another spacious arcade. It was the middle of the lunch hour, so there was space to stand and take a photo. I’m sure that at other times this arcade would be jam packed with shoppers.

I looked for a break in traffic and walked out to take a photo of the elegant arches running down the face of the arcade. Could these have been made in the 1920s? Or were they from an earlier period? I wish I could find out somewhere.

Opposite me was the incredibly colourful Jumma Masjid. I couldn’t find anything about this ornate structure. I gazed at it for a while, and then decided that I didn’t have the time to go in. We had to leave for a birding trip very soon. I’m sure the interior of the mosque would have been worth photographing.

As I moved back towards the palace, I passed a small temple with a very ornate gateway. Again, I would have liked to have gone in and looked, but time was too short. I had to get back. I haven’t discovered yet anything about these structures. Neither the state tourism department, nor the world’s most reliable encyclopedia mentions any of these structures. Since I couldn’t find anything about the palace either, I think these places are all in good company. Unfortunately.

A grand school

On a little walk through the old town of Jamnagar, I passed through a triple gate on an arterial road and then suddenly saw some wonderful old doors. Where was I? What was I seeing? The maps on my phone were of no help, and later I found that the famed world wide web was also of no help. All these doors belonged to a grand and ornate but delapidated structure. It was not marked on the map at all, although shops which were set inside some of these doors were mentioned.

The facade was perhaps less than half a kilometer long, but not too much less. I walked along it, bemused. A ceremonial gateway, fit for a four-horse coach was barred by a flimsy mild steel collapsible gate. Children passed through it, and there were scooters parked inside (and outside, of course). Mysterious. I was enchanted by the grand arches, the painted columns, and wished that the shops had harmonized better with the building. The building looked like it came from the last decade of the 19th century CE, or perhaps the first couple of decades of the 20th.

Some of the doors were shuttered, instead of being covered up for a shop. Expansive stairs led down from the level of the floor to the street. These regal stairs were no places for people to sit. I took a photo, trying to avoid the scooters. I lost the stairs (photo above) but not the scooters; a mirror jutting up from the handlebars reached up into the frame. A few more paces I came to the geometrical middle of the facade, and I had a name: Saifee Institution (see the featured photo). Now I could place it; it was a Dawoodi Bohra institution

I seemed to have come to the shop where The Family had told me she was going to spend quality time looking for the local tie-and-dye fabric. I was happy to leave the warm and humid winter atmosphere of the street and walk into a frigidly air conditioned shop. Surprise! The shop belonged to a Bohra. As The Family engaged an assistant in helping her to choose, I asked the owner what the Saifee Institution was. He told me that it used to be a big school, and even now it remains a school, although the number of pupils is much smaller. That explained the children walking in through the gateway.

I left my backpack with The Family and walked back out on the road to admire the building again. Those classrooms then! The corridors would have been wonderful places to run down. And the rooms! So many windows to look out of when you were bored. I could have liked studying in this building. The stucco work on the pediments was so wonderfully decorative. Unfortunately I could not find anything on the net about this building or its provenance.

I could really dive into the details here: admiring the repeating decagonal tiling on the jalis, or the execution of plaster flowers. This was one of my most pleasant discoveries in this town, and fortunately I had a long time to admire it. It’ll take me much longer to dig out its true and compleat history.

The scooters of Jamnagar

I spent a couple of hours walking through the old center of Jamnagar, a part called either Chandni Bazaar or Darbar Gadh. I expect old towns to be full of narrow lanes, but this had reasonably wide streets with rows of shops. I realized later that the present look of the town must be due to the rebuilding by Ranjitsinghji in the 1920s (the very same Jamsaheb of Jamnagar who captained the English test team around the turn of the 20th century).

The roads were jammed with scooters. In trying to dodge the ones in motion, I had to duck behind those which were parked along the sides. I passed a group of Jain temples, dazzling in the mid day sun reflected off the white marble. But the nicest thing about them were the painted walls. I took a photo of the beautiful facade. There was no way to avoid the scooters parked outside, or the security guards parked on them. Across the road was a colourful building, all locked up for the day. The doors were quite pretty, and again there was no way to take a photo of the door without getting a scooter in the shot. If you are in Jamnagar, concentrate on taking photos of scooters, you’ll get a few nice doors in the background.

The Mattancherry Palace

There are many things about the Mattancherry palace of Kochi which one can write about: the integration of European proportions into a traditional Kerala architectural style, the beautifully worked materials used, such as the wood, flooring, and roof tiles, or the artifacts collected in the museum it now is. But every such description is incomplete because the main attraction cannot be shown; you are not allowed to take photos of the glorious murals on the walls. It is a loss in the description, but an opportunity to visit the palace and be surprised. When I stepped over the threshold of the entrance into the long rectangular anteroom, the first detail that I noticed was the intricately carved rosewood ceiling, and, through an arch at one end, the golden glow of the murals depicting the Ramayana that cover the entire wall of the king’s bedchamber

The palace was built by the Portuguese as a reparation to the king of Kochi in the mid 16th century CE, after they previous palace was looted and burnt. The overall style of architecture is traditional, the whole palace being built around a central enclosed courtyard. Visitors can look down at this from a covered verandah that runs around the inside of the upper floor. The materials used are also traditional: dark polished rosewood and fired clay roof tiles. The polished floor is specially remarkable, since it is not stone but a traditional composite material blended from charcoal, burnt coconut shell, egg white, and other ingredients. The arched doors and windows, the elongated rooms, and the external finish of the masonry is European.

The palace museum contains a gallery of several interesting artifacts including European-style portraits of the kings of Kerala. I was specially drawn to the palanquins on display. The alternation of carved and polished plain panels of the covered palanquin, and the ornate brass end-piece to the carrying-pole, were enough to tell us that this was for royals. The seal of the royal house confirms this guess. In contrast, the open palanquin lined with silk cushions would have seated a functionary. We wandered into the coronation room where the murals were being restored. Seeing us spend an abnormally long time examining the paintings, a gentleman from the archaeological survey interrupted his work and gave us a wonderful tour of the paintings in the room. We learnt from him how this room had been whitewashed in the 20th century, and how the underlying paintings are slowly being brought to light again. I can’t wait for the work to be finished so that I can visit this place again.

Paradesi Synagogue

Many years ago at the other end of the world, I met an Indian expatriate preparing a shabbat meal in a house that I’d been invited to. As the long evening began to draw to an end, just before she left for her own family shabbat, we exchanged a few words. She was a Cochin Jew. The northern lights in the sky that night that evening were no more exotic to me than my first meeting with a piece of India’s past. There is a tradition that Judaism arrived in Malabar after the scattering of Jews following the destruction of the second Judaic temple in Jerusalem by Romans in the 1st century CE. The first European Jewish travelers visited India in the 12th centuries and were surprised by the pre-existing Judaic tradition. After the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Iberia in the 15th century, some came and settled in Kerala, and became known as the Paradesi Yehudi (foreign Jews). When their first temple in Kochi was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, they were given protection by the king of Kochi, and land next to the palace to build what is known today as the Paradesi Synagogue.

One morning we joined a stream of tourists walking down a narrow lane to visit this synagogue. After most of the local Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 60s, this remains the only synagogue in the region which is in regular use. The clock tower that you see in this photo stands at the end of the lane and dates from the 18th century. I would guess that the clock is more recent, perhaps only a hundred years old. We bought entry tickets at a window next to the entrance. I did not realize that the lady who sold us our tickets was one of the last people in this community. It is strange to realize that old customs are coming to an end in front of our eyes, and we are often oblivious to them.

Opposite the entrance to the synagogue was this old gate embellished with stars of David and symbols of the menorah. Perhaps the garden behind the gate also belongs to the synagogue. In any case, it was out of bounds for tourists. At the entrance lobby we were directed to first see a little gallery which gave the history of the destruction of the first synagogue and the establishment of this one under the protection of the king of Kochi. Only after we’d seen this display were we allowed to take off our shoes and proceed to the main synagogue.

Meanwhile The Family had found a famous plaque (featured photo) from the first synagogue to be built in Kochi. Oral traditions say that this was founded three years after the ancient port of Muziris was swept away in a massive flood of the Periyar river. Interestingly, during the colonial period a clear distinction was made between European Jews and others. Cochin Jews were allowed to worship at this synagogue, but not allowed to be members. Descendants of black slaves brought by the Europeans were allowed to sit outside the synagogue during prayers. It was only in the 20th century that these barriers were finally removed.

No photography is allowed inside the synagogue. The floor was tiled with blue and white Chinese hand painted tiles, and a pulpit with brass railings dominated the center. A very large number of chandeliers were suspended from the wood paneled ceiling. A steep staricase, almost a ladder, led up to a wooden upper gallery at the eastern end of the room. The way up was barred. Polished wooden slabs, dark with age, provided benches at the windows. We were glad to sit for a while. The sky was overcast and the air was extremely humid, so the little breeze from the window was welcome. Back outside I took a couple of photos of the simple white-washed building.

The marriage hall

Most major temples in the Vijayanagara kingdom have a pavilion outside the main temple which was used for the ritual marriage of the deity and the consort. This kalyana mandapam in the Vitthala temple is quite as impressive as the main temple. When you climb a set of stairs to the east, you see a wonderful open pavilion with 32 pillars. As outer set of 20 make up a square with six pillars to a side (including the corner), and there is an inner square with 12 pillars, 4 to a side, including the corners. These are beautifully decorated.

The Vitthala temple was built in the first half of the 15th century CE during the reign of Devaraya II, with many additions made during the reign of Krishna Devaraya in the early 16th century. I don’t know which period this kalyana mandapam comes from. The Family and I spent a long time here, examining the pillars in detail. The gallery above contains a selection. Many of the sculptures represent couples from the Ramayana, or stories from the 12th century poem about Krishna and his affairs with gopis. Others depict musicians and dancers, and the festivities surrounding a wedding. Several still have traces of paint; I saw a green pigment for the first time in the featured photo. Imagine, if you can, all these sculptures bright with mineral and vegetable paint, lit with oil lamps at twilight. It would have been a sight.

The Vitthala Temple

The Vitthala temple was built by Devaraya II who ruled over the Vijayanagar kingdom in the first half of the 15th century CE. By his time the elements of the kingdom’s temple architecture were all in place, and they can all be seen in these ruins. The main area of the temple, the maha mandapa, stands on a plinth which is about one and a half meters in height. The outer pillars are made of single blocks of granite carved to resemble a group of more slender pillars. You can see a few examples of these in the featured photo.

The plinth is highly decorated. There are lines of horses (Vijayanagara was a major center of horse trade, you may recall from some of my earlier posts, with merchants bringing horses all the way from Arabia), of ducks (the hansa, with its multiplicity of meanings), and of the avatars of Vishnu. I spotted Balarama, Narasimha, and, of course, Krishna in many aspects (as the youngster stealing cream in the photo in the gallery).

From inside the mandapa I could get a closer view of the fired brick superstructures which make up all the shikhara in Vijayanagara. The bricks I saw here looked like they had a long square base, with a height which was about 2/7 of the sides of the square. That’s quite a different shape from the bricks that we use today. It would have been interesting to look more closely at more than a couple of the bricks to check whether these were standardized dimensions, and whether the dimensions changed over the centuries. I’m sure some historian of art and architecture has written about this, and I just need to dig a little deeper to find more about medieval Deccan’s brick-making.

The sanctum itself contains nothing any longer, but you can descend into a dark corridor that circles it. Above and around it are the more interesting things. The boxy pillars of the Vijayanagara style were designed to carry relief sculptures. We saw again the typical examples of Vijayanagara art- the studies of animals (the monkey was special), gods and goddesses, and purely decorative elements. The profusion of images takes time to absorb. I had begun to get the familiar numbness of mind that comes on you when you walk through a museum: too many beautiful things to see in too short a time. I walked out and sat on a bench at the entrance to the mandapa.


The doorway I’d just come out of was beautifully carved, with traces of paint still lingering on it after nearly six centuries of exposure to the weather. I got up to admire the sculpture around it. The door was topped by a wonderful relief of Gajalakshmi, Lakshmi flanked by two elephants. A cool breeze blew through this porch. I leant back on the stone backrest of the bench. It was an engineering marvel! The granite back had been carved just so, and was a relief to lean back on. This granite bench was unbelievably comfortable. Why is there no mention of this marvel in guidebooks?

Entering the temple of Vitthala

We reached the ruins of the Vitthala temple in the late morning. The day was building up to be hot, and I was very happy that there were golf carts which would take you along the long, dusty, and shadeless road from the parking lot to the entrance of the old temple complex. The entrance did not give you immediate confidence in the declaration on the information board which said “The Vitthala temple is the highest watermark of the Vijayanagara style of art and architecture.”

The massive gopuram, the gateway, was in the usual south Indian style- intricately carved stone pillars and a stone lintel above it holding up a towering shikhara of terra cotta, decorated with stories from the life of Krishna. Most of the temples in this vanished city were dedicated to aspects of Vishnu. I looked at the shikhara and tried to imagine it painted and colourful as it must have been in the early 16th century CE when it was added to the complex during the reign of Krishna Devaraya. It would not have been painted in modern colours, and until I found more about the pigments that were used, it would be hard to imagine.

There were handy guides to other customs of the era. On the flagstones at the gate were carved signs which told you where to stand and genuflect. There seemed to have been separate lanes for families and single people visiting. I was struck again by the coincidences which determined the technology of the kingdom. The abundance of granite in this area meant that it would always have been used for construction, no matter what tools the civilization developed. The coincidence of diamond mines being discovered and worked meant that tools could be developed to carve granite. Without this combination Vijayanagara’s art would have taken a different form.

The first thing that you see in the immense forecourt inside the walls is the iconic stone chariot of Garuda. This is apparently a reproduction in stone of an older wooden processional chariot. Images of this chariot appear in the fluorescent blue currency note for fifty rupees which was released in 2017. The image on the note does not do justice to the actual chariot. It was amazing that this had been carved out of granite. This single object could well represent the “highest watermark” of the kingdom’s art.

If you look closely at the details, you realize that the chariot would have been brightly painted when the temple was in use. The red mineral pigment still clings to surfaces which are not protected from rain. If I hadn’t bent to take the photo you see above, I would have missed the line of warriors carved into the sides of the slab of stone on which the whole chariot rests.

The whole thing is enormously decorative of course, and you can spend a long time looking at it. But once I bent down, I realized that it was also a good idea to bend, kneel or sit near the chariot. The lower part was as exuberantly decorated as the rest of it, and also retained some of the original pigments. I suppose that as usual the colours that were used would have been white, black, red, yellow, and green. The lower surface retains red, some of the yellow, and traces of green.

There is a recess in the chariot on the side which faces the main temple, and I looked inside. An image of the Garuda, Vishnu’s vahana, is carved into this recess; hands folded in prayer to the reigning diety of the temple outside which the vahana waits. Colours have lasted much better in this niche, and you can see the predominant red and yellow natural dyes. The dark patches seemed to be either a moss or a fungus. We had this chariot to ourselves for a while now, but more people were coming to look at it. It was time to move on.

Where the first anti-colonial revolt happened

We had our first sight of this interesting Syrian Christian church when we walked into Kayees for a biryani for our first lunch in Kochi. We passed the St. George church of Mattancherry several times during the next few days. Finally, one morning The Family stopped at this place and led me in. Even then, we did not realize how important this site is in the history of anti-European protests in the world. It is a lovely modern structure, open to the air like so many of the traditional churches of Kerala. It was only later, when I started reading about it, that I realized that this place should be in every guidebook.

Bear with me for a moment while I paint in a background history which is not part of anyone’s textbooks. Christianity took root in the Deccan in the 1st century CE, the tradition being that it was brought by St. Thomas, who was one of the twelve disciples of Christ. The church of India was represented at the Synod of Nicea in 325 CE, which was the first gathering of Christian churches across the then-known world. Jesuit priests arrived in India with the Portuguese and began to Latinize the Malabar church, starting with the foundation of a diocese in Kochi in 1558. The revolt called the Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu Sathyam), refers to a public oath taken by the Malabar Christian community in 1653 that they would resist the Latinization of the church, and would not recognize the authority of the Pope.

While I was still fussing about the coconut trees and the framing of the featured photo, The Family had discovered a cross at one side of the forecourt which seemed to be special. In retrospect I wonder whether this was the famous cross which was the famous leaning cross in front of which about 200,000 Christians took the oath of revolt against the Portuguese priest. I had discovered a dedication in another part of the forecourt which said that the foundation stone of the new structure was laid on 29th October 2005, and the church was consecrated on 3rd January 2006, to commemorate the 353rd anniversary of the oath.

I walked into a chapel with a large cross at its center, presumably the historic Coonan cross. A medallion at the center of the glass window behind it held a representation of the Turkish-Roman soldier who is today called St. George. This church holds some relics of the saint, and therefore could be considered to be among the most important churches dedicated to him. It is interesting that the stories of St. George had wide currency in the east, and even entered into Islamic theology as a prophet, but was carried to western Europe only after the crusades. This church overturned many of my assumptions about Indian, and the wider Asian, culture and history. I do wish that more people stop by here to see this site of the first Indian rebellion against European colonialism.