An unfinished story

On our first night in Berlin, The Family and I decided to go down to Alexanderplatz. We didn’t have much planned for the night, so we bought tickets to go up to the top of the Television tower. This left us with about an hour to kill. We decided to spend it walking in the area between Alexanderplatz and the Spree.

It really was a dark and stormy night. We hadn’t paid attention to the news, but there was a storm warning. An intermittent light drizzle would force us inside cafes every now and then, as we strolled around. There was some construction in front of the Rotes Rathaus, so we veered towards the brick facade of the Marienkirche, which is about 900 years old. This was closed. We walked around it, and then went over to the Rotes Rathaus, the city hall. While I was trying to take the photo that you see above, the wind really picked up, and I had to brace myself against a lampost to take photos.

We walked around it and saw the double tower of the Nikolaikirche. It looked interesting enough that we crossed the road to take a closer look. There’s some confusion about whether it is older than Marienkirche, but the area around it is made of restored medieval buildings. Most shops were closed, and we did not have the time to duck in to a pub for a beer. We had to get back to the television tower. So we walked back, meaning to come back to this area one day during our visit to Berlin. We never managed to do it. Yet another reason to go back.


Court View, Mumbai

The elegantly curved first-floor balcony with an eye-catching stucco decoration on it (see the featured photo) always catches my eye when I’m hurrying past the Oval Maidan. I stopped to take photographs a week ago. This is the Court View house, appropriately named since it faces the Gothic-revival facade of the High Court across the open space.

The Art Deco style is clear not only from the elegant shape of the balcony, but also the styling of the facade. The wonderful verticals enclosing the central stairwell are typical of the style as practiced by the three firms which collaborated on this building: Gajanan Mhatre, Maneckji Dalal and Merwanji, Bana and Co. The building probably dates from the mid to late 1930s, when this space was reclaimed from the sea.

The curves of the balconies are repeated in the ironwork of the gate (photo above) and the railing around (photo below) the property. The boundary wall was less interesting than in some of the neighbouring buildings. As you can see from the photos here, the wall and the gate posts are plain, rectangular and unornamented. Since they do not agree with the colour scheme of the building, I wonder whether they were reconstructed later.

The entrance and the lobby are much more spectacular than the facade. The intricate geometric design around the door is typically Style Moderne. Stone and “colourcrete” are mixed in this. Coloured cement was very much a “modern” element of that time, and the architects used it liberally in this building. You see only a little bit of it near the dozing guard in the lobby.

I didn’t walk into the building, so I didn’t get a first-hand view of the stairwell. An article in Livemint contains a wonderful photo down the stairwell. The architects seem to have gone bonkers with their coloured cement inside, in a very pleasant way.

Empress Court, Mumbai

Mumbai has an extensive Art Deco heritage. A building that I pass very often is the Empress court, which stands on Dinshaw Vacha Road, facing the Oval Maidan. It is one of the row of Art Deco buildings which stand to the west of the center of club cricket in India, facing the Gothic revival buildings across the open space. Every time I walk past it, I look at the metal rails on the balconies (photo above). Last Sunday I stepped back across the road and looked at the north facade in its totality. The Art Deco style is clear, when you do this.

As you can see in the photo above, the north facade is plain, except for the vertical lines which enclose the balconies. Gajanan B. Mhatre was the architect of Empress Court, and several other buildings in this area. I suppose these must have been from the early period of his work, perhaps the mid to late 1930s.

I moved towards the entrance, which is exactly at the corner. The lovely scalloped arch above the entrance is detailed in two types of stone. The iron-work of the door is also typically Art Deco. I didn’t enter the lobby, but it is a beautiful space made with coloured stones. You can see a bit of it through the open doors. Instead, I stepped back.

From the corner you can see the streamlined shapes of the balconies massed over each other. This is typical late Art Deco. The gate post in front, and the ironwork gate are details which enhance the building. I guess some of this is the work of Kanga and Co, the executive architects on this project.

I stepped back across the road, scrunched far back into the iron rails of the Oval Maidan and looked at the building as a whole. From this distance the streamlined, faintly nautical, look of the late Style Moderne becomes obvious. It is also obvious that the top floor was added later. A little poking around brought up a few references which claimed that this was added in the 1950s. So that also dates the original structure as being built between the mid 30s and the 50s. The Empress Court remains one of the best maintained buildings in this area.


Eros Cinema

The keystone architectural piece in Mumbai’s Art Deco district is the Eros Cinema. I’d noticed that it has been shut for a few weeks, so I walked up to it last Sunday. The doors were propped slightly open, so I peeped in. Two security guards sat outside the dark lobby. I could see the clean Art Deco lines of the outer lobby; the inner part was lost in the gloom. The senior guard saw my camera and stood up. “I have been asked to prevent people from taking photos,” he said. I appealed to his sense of filmic history, and he softened. “You can take photos of the outside, but please do not take any in the lobby,” he pleaded.

I stepped out and looked at the familiar building. The cinema is only one of the many things in the premises. One side has several eateries and a couple of bars. The other side has a chain cafe, and a gym. The building work had started in 1935, and the cinema opened in 1938. Mumbai’s underground will pass through tunnels below these roads, so much of this area is blocked off. It was hard to step back to take a photo of the beautifully stepped frontage made in red Agra sandstone. I had to satisfy myself with a side view (above).

There is a strange story of litigation between the labour department and the owners of the building which I pieced together from various newspaper reports I’d not paid much attention to. The cinema was shut down on the direction of a labour court which was adjudicating a dispute over unpaid salaries. A later report states that the High Court directed the cinema to be unsealed, since it is a tenant and not the owner of the premises, and it was possibly the owner against whom the labour court had ordered action. Since the cinema has not reopened, it is possible that a counter-suit is in progress. It would be a comedy of errors, if it were not for the tragedy of one of Mumbai’s iconic buildings lying neglected and in need of repairs (as you can see in the photo above).

I walked round to the back of the building. The profile that I could see from here was a typical late period Art Deco profile: If you could mentally subtract the clutter of wires and pipes tacked on over the years, you could see the elegant curves and long straight lines of Art Deco. The details in red over the cream coloured balcony, and under it, were also straight out of the Art Deco design book of the architects Shorabji Bedwar.

Just before I walked in to the cafe for my shot of espresso, I noticed the side entrance with a trio of guards passing a quiet Sunday morning chatting with each other. One beautiful detail caught my eye. The holder for the light above the entrance is outlined in a neat white circle. A nice light touch, isn’t it?



We came into Muenster on a rainy Sunday in November. Muenster is usually very lively, but Sunday is a bit of an exception. Many things are closed. When we came to the beautiful building called the Erbdrostenhof, we found that it was closed. This is the work of the master German baroque architect Johann Conrad Schlaun. The building was completed in 1757. My first reaction to it was that it was much smaller and cramped than I had imagined it to be.

The Family and I admired the three-winged building from outside the closed gates. The central facade is of sandstone, and the two side wings is faced with red clinker. These and the quartered windows are characteristic of the buildings that Schlaun designed. Unfortunately, since the building was closed, we could not go in to see the ballroom, which is supposed to be a marvel of restoration. We walked around to the back, but the walls there were high and did not let us have a good look. I guess we will have to go back to see this again.


The Luck of the Clock

The Sadar Market of Jodhpur sprawls symmetrically around the clock tower in the center. Most of the market is about a storey high, so you have no problem telling the time, no matter which shop you are in. One of the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Sardar Singh, had caused the market and the tower to be built. I’m usually too lazy to climb a tower. There are several clock towers in the part of Mumbai where I live, and the thought of climbing one never enters my mind. But this was only four storeys high. Not a problem at all.

I could find very little about the tower. I asked the person who was selling tickets for it. He told me to talk to the man who maintains the clock. I never found how high it was, although I guess it is less than 30 meters tall. A local newspaper, Patrika, claims that the tower was completed in 1910, and the clock installed in 1911. The clock was built by Lund and Blockley, the same clockmaker who had supplied the clocks to the University and the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai.

Mohammad Iqbal, the man who runs the clock, did not know much about its history. He said his father had been the first person to maintain the clock, and that he had been appointed to the job in 1968. The newspaper article claims that the the father, Allah Noor, took five years to repair the clock after it broke down in 1991, and was subsequently appointed to look after it. Whether 1968 or 1991, I found it hard to believe that a clock which requires daily manual setting would have run for decades without someone to look after it.

I find it easier to believe that there was a succession of keepers who would do routine work on it, such as winding it, or keeping it oiled. Allah Noor may have come to this job in 1968, as his son claims. It is possible that when the clock broke down in 1991, as the newspaper story would have it, and no one could be found to repair it, Allah Noor took on the challenge. The newspaper story and Md. Iqbal’s version agree that after the father’s death in September 2009, Iqbal inherited the position of time keeper. Lucky as his name, it would seem.

Iqbal was happy to be photographed. He pointed out the three weights which power the escapement mechanism. The tall room behind the clock faces is a little cramped because of the massive wheels, escapements, and gears which run the dials on the four clock faces. The thick stone walls would not have come cheap; I could believe the newspaper’s claim that in 1910 the tower and the clock took Rs. 3,00,000 to complete. It is hard to calculate inflation rates before the founding of the Reserve Bank in 1934, especially since different princely states had their own rupees. If we assume that between 1910 and 1934 the value of the rupee remained unchanged in Jodhpur, then the clock and the tower would have cost about 7 crores and 30 lakhs of 2017’s rupees (that is INR 73 million).

I wasn’t ready to climb up a ladder to the cupola, so Mohammad Iqbal’s place of work was the highest point I got to. The light inside the clock room was challenging, but I managed to take the photos that you see here. Iqbal said that he is helped by his son, Mohammad Shakeel, who, he hopes, will succeed him as the time keeper. I wished him luck, and came down the stairs to meet The Family. She’d found a nice bench on the terrace of the first floor, and was busy watching people in the market below.


Bricked-up doors

The Shaniwar Wada of Pune was briefly the center of political power in India: from its construction in the 1730s to the end of the Maratha empire in 1818. Strangely, only the northern wall of palace complex is built of stone; the other three walls are of brick. Walking along the walls I was stopped by the sight that you can see in the featured photo: an enormous arch which has been filled up, leaving a smaller off-center arched door which is now barred.

I peered through the locked grille, and found signs of more arches and doorways having been blocked. When were these changes made? The largest arch looks like a ceremonial entrance, large enough to admit an elephant. In the unsettled century when this palace was in use, it is conceivable that such a grand gate became a liability, and was successively reduced into smaller more defensive entry corridors. What we see today is probably the last defensive measure. The corridor behind the grille must be still accessible, since it is relatively free of litter; it was probably cleaned a month or so before I took the photo which you see above. I’m sure there are enough contemporary documents to enable someone to write an architectural history of the complex, although I’m not aware of such a book. Here is niche history waiting for an author.


Temple and Church in Kerala

The little village of Thattekad had a small church on the road close to the beginning of the Salim Ali trail. I’d seen churches like these elsewhere in Kerala. The architectural grammar is close to that of a temple. The ground plan is not a cross like the churches of Europe. Rather, there is a little tower directly over the chapel. There are sloping roofs to direct rain away from the building. Most such churches have a steep cap of a roof standing atop the tower. The flat terrace of this one was a little unusual to my eye. Maybe I’ll see more such if I travel again in Kerala. It looked like an inviting place where a worshipper could duck in, say a quick prayer, and be on her way in a short while.

The Siva temple down the road, next to the Periyar river was a much more grand affair. The tall flag pole (called dwajastambam) stands above all other structures. In large roofed open structure in front of it is the mukha mandapam where, I imagine, devotees will sit during a festival. The main temple, namaskara mandapam, can be seen beyond it. The pyramidal roof of the namaskara mandapam looks like the temple interior is pretty large. The rest of the structure looks a little sketchy. The mukha mandapam is like an open shed, and the elaborate gopuram of most temples is replaced by a simple cast iron gate. Perhaps this is still work in progress.


Waiting at closed doors

If you travel frequently how likely is it that you spend a lot of time in one of the most beautiful airports in the world? I’m lucky enough to live in one of the frequently listed cities. What that means in practice is that I have a good enough feel for the local traffic that I can spend little time in my home airport. The result is that my airport time is mostly spent in other airports, usually in large waiting areas, staring at runways through closed doors, past the corridors that direct travelers from gate to baggage carousel. One may be interesting, but the repetition is deadening.


At the ancient boundary of Aryavarta

5th century Sanskrit poetry already contained detailed descriptions of parts of India outside the Gangetic core of what then was called Aryavarta. Somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries, when the Adi Purana was written, the notion of Aryavarta had expanded southwards till the Narmada river. When my host in Indore proposed an early morning dash to Omkareshwar in the Narmada before the morning’s meeting, I was very happy. This temple town lies just across the southern border of the Aryavarta of the 8th century, and its most famous temple is in an island in the middle of the river. Near the middle of the featured photo you can see the northern branch of the river curve around the island. Beyond it you can make out a cluster of white buildings which is the town of Omkareshwar. Upstream of it, to the right of the photo you can see the barrage built in 2007.

The island was already a place for pilgrimage in the 8th century, when the philosopher-to-be, Shankaracharya, came here to meditate and learn from its scholars. The historical town was certainly here in the time of Ahilyabai Holkar, in the 18th century. It presents an interesting face to the visitor now. Seen from the island (photo above) windows appear high above massive walls. It took me a little while to recall that the level of the river would have been about thirty feet higher until the 20th century, so the windows might then have looked out on the water just below. The road that leads down to the boats must have been built much more recently.

Looking upstream you see the barrage immediately. Newly cut steps in the rock lead from the car park down to the river. Already this early in the morning people were going down for a dip in the water. You can see a small crowd at the water’s edge in the photo above. The level of water behind the barrage must have been about 30 meters higher than downstream.

The sacred island is called Mandhata. One can cross to it from the town using either of the two bridges, or by boat. From the car park it is easy to take the new suspension bridge. As we hurried across it, I paused to take a photo. The boats had already started ferrying people across the river. The morning light was nice and warm on the buildings. It was a comfortable temperature on the high bridge; most people around me had a light sweater on. I realized that there would not be much of a crowd in the temple. Our tight schedule had brought us here at a good time. Unfortunately, the same schedule would take us back much too quickly. I barely had time to see the temple, walking through the town was out of the question. I would have to make another trip in future.