El Greco City

The choir of the cathedral of Toledo looked so much like something out of Harry Potter that I had to sit down to recover. I’d decided to make a day trip to Toledo from Madrid largely to see the city that El Greco made his own. My first introduction to El Greco, decades back, came in the form of a large format book where each plate seemed to have a picture of Toledo in the background. Not only does Toledo loom large in El Greco’s paintings, I found that El Greco looms large in Toledo’ history.

El Greco, The Disrobing of Christ, Cathedral of Toledo

The Cathedral of Toledo has a room full of paintings by El Greco. It is dominated by this painting of the disrobing of Christ before his crucifixion. The figures are the typically elongated ones that one expects in the middle and late period of El Greco’s paintings. There’s also the wonderful colours of cloth that are such a signature of his style. There’s so much to see in the Cathedral of Toledo that I did not grudge the 10 Euro ticket. The free audio-guide that you get with it actually made the trip very much more enjoyable. I found that it nudged me to see much more than I would have seen otherwise. I spent a full two hours in the cathedral, perhaps twice as long as I would have without this wonderful guide.

El Greco, Burial of the Count of Orgaz,

On the other hand, I did feel a twinge when the Church of San Tome charged me nearly 3 Euros to see the single painting by El Greco that they have. Its the magnificent painting called the Burial of The Count of Orgaz. El Greco painted this for his parish church, and my final charitable thought was that this could be thought of as a bequest by the painter. I wish though that they let you photograph the painting. Since they don’t, and I took one photo before I was told, I converted it to monochrome before posting it. In the roughly twenty minutes that I spent here, the crowds tripled. The church does well from this bequest. Did you notice that there is exactly one woman in the painting?

El Greco, Saint Bernardine of Sienna, El Greco Museum, Toledo

Nearby is the Museo El Greco. It is housed in an old Jewish house which was mistakenly thought to be one which he lived in. Nevertheless, the museum is worth visiting, because if the wonderful collection of about twenty original El Grecos that you can get to see. One of my favourites is this commissioned altarpiece designed and painted by the Greek, called Saint Bernardine of Sienna. This is one of his last finished paintings. You can see the extreme elongation of the figure here. Also notice that Toledo is worked into the bottom of the painting.

El Greco, View of Toledo, Mueseo El Greco, Toledo

I’ll end this post with a wonderful picture by El Greco of his city, Toledo. This alone would make the Museo El Greco worth visiting. Given the nearly twenty paintings by the master collected here, I would not mind paying as much as the entrance to the cathedral. The fact that entrance was free on Sunday was a bonus.

The rooftops of Granada

Few people mention the wonderful views of Granada which you get from the hilltop fortress of Alhambra. The city of Granada is surrounded by mountains, which is the reason for the fanciful name. Someone thought it looks like the crown on top of a pomegranate, called granada in Spanish. The picturesque town nestles in a large and fertile valley between them.

The medieval part of the town is called the Albaycin. We climbed through the twisty maze of little streets in this area. Behind high walls you can see gardens. We found that this kind of single house surrounded by a walled garden is called a carmen. It was hard to get a good view of these from the narrow streets. Closer to the river the houses ran into each other.

This ancient Moorish quarter is visible better from the Alhambra. The river Darro separates the Albaycin from the Alhambra. Since there was a medieval city, a Medina, within the fortress, I wonder whether there was an easily understandable difference between those who lived in the Medina and those in the Albaycin. In any case, the white walls, red-tiled patios and the fired clay tiles on the roofs of the houses in the Albaycin look immensely picturesque when viewed from the Alhambra.

Green, How I Want You Green

Federico Garcia Lorca is one of the most famous poets of Spain. The title of this post is the opening line of one of his most famous poems. The poem was written in 1928, eight years before he was murdered by the right-wing rebel forces of General Franco.

A visit to Garcia Lorca’s house in Valderrubio, a little outside of Granada, is worth doing, if you are interested in this charismatic poet. The featured photo is of the living room in this museum house. Romance Sonambulo, the collection of poems from which the title is taken was written while he lived in this house. It is recorded that he often wrote at this table. So it is possible that some of the lines of this remarkable poem were written here.

The house originally belonged to his father, who moved here from the neighbouring village of Fuentes Vacqueras when Federico was six. It is an old style house, with thick walls that keep the inside cool even during a hot summer like this year’s. It is still painted a traditional white, with green doors and windows.

Today it is a quiet and peaceful place. I wonder whether it was as peaceful in those days when the radio was putting out news of a country in turmoil.

The first thing we saw in Seville

We arrived at night in Seville and thought it looked charming. It still looked wonderful in the morning when we walked through the centre and joined a long queue of people waiting to buy tickets for a visit to the Alcazar. This is an old palace which was built about eleven centuries ago, and remodelled many times later.

I will write about it in more detail later. The part which you see above was built by the Moors, and remodelled later by Moorish craftsmen who had not converted to Christianity. These craftsmen remodelled the palace, and gave their name, Mujedar, to the style of architecture which you see here.

Such an ornate palace has to be a location where movies or serials are shot. Sure enough, the room you see in the photo above is supposed to have featured in The Game of Thrones. I don’t follow the serial, but if you do, then maybe you can recognize it.

A wonderfully weird railway station

About the strangest thing that we have come to expect from a railway station is that it has a hidden platform which is not a whole number. That could be weird, but a railway station can be even more strange. You might not expect this of Madrid’s Atocha station. From the outside it looks like a simple building, not even a gargoyle in sight.

A garden inside Madrid's Atocha station

We entered through a side door, and exclaimed in surprise. We had expected the usual bustle and crowd. But in front of us was greenery. There were people with baggage waiting on benches. There was some walking about, but overall, there was a sense of peaceful waiting. "Where are the ticket counters?" The Family asked. "Where are the trains?" I tried to question in reply.

Turtles inside Madrid's Atocha station

As we walked around to look for such essentials, we came across something even more wonderful: a pond full of turtles. Who cares for trains when a station has such lovely flora and fauna! This has to be the best railway station I have ever seen,

A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda
Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is "Will it rain in Spain?" In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.

Climbing into the Tiger’s Nest

Taktsang monastery, near Paro, is situated at an elevation of 3120 meters. The first view of it is spectacular (see the featured photo). But when I reached the base of the climb and saw the monastery hanging on a cliff a kilometre above me, my heart sank. My shoes were bad, and I was physically out of condition. I told The Family I would not be able to climb.

She wanted to do it, and The Sullen Celt assured her that it was an easy walk. The start of the climb, Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan I was not convinced, since The Sullen Celt is a trekker and is unable to compensate for other people’s lack of fitness. Someone else said that the group of buildings that we could see part of the way up included a cafeteria with a great view of the monastery. I allowed myself to be persuaded by The Family that I could sit and have a coffee there while the rest of the gang climbed. The first twenty paces were a little bit of steep rock, but then the path became a dirt track, as you can see in this photo. This would become of great consequence on our way down.

Passing time on the route up to the Takhtsang Monastery, BhutanThe initial climb was less hard than I’d expected. Previous travellers had dawdled during the climb through the rhododendron forest. We saw several small stacks of carefully balanced stone. It is reassuring when you see that someone sat down at a point where the climb was beginning to get steep and caught her breath doing something slow. I recently read a diatribe against them, and found myself agreeing. However, Bhutan teaches you the art of balance: the whole landscape of the country is a lesson in how to live in nature without overwhelming it.

View of Takhtsang Monastery, Bhutan

We left behind the forest bright with red rhododendron flowers and climbed higher. This was the realm of blue pines (Pinus wallichiana). As the road steepened, I had a lovely view of the monastery through the pines. It did not seem to be any closer.

Takstang monastery was built by the fourth king of Bhutan, Tenzin Rabgye, in a site that was already holy. The legend of this place, called Taktsang Phelug (Tiger’s nest), is that the Guru Padmasambhava converted a Tibetan princess to Buddhism. Forest on the trail to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan She took the form of a tigress and flew with the Guru to this place. There he meditated, and emerged in eight different forms to subdue demons. The tsechu here has been used many times to consolidate national feelings. The first king, Ngawang Namgyal (also known as Shabdrung Rinpoche), performed the tsechu here in 1644 at the beginning of the war against Tibet, and invoked the story of the Guru as a metaphor for the war. His wish to build a temple here was finally fulfilled when Tenzin Rabgye declared the start of the works in the tsechu of 1692.

Clouds were massing over the mountain, and flowing slowly down its sides as we climbed. The light was now worse, but it made the pine forest into a magical kingdom. Many of the trees were covered thick with orchids. Turnoff to the canteen near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan We came to the point where the road to the cafeteria branched off. By now our group of climbers had stretched into a long thin line. If I went off to have coffee I would leave The Family to do the climb alone. Better prepared walkers would have no problem with this, but both of us were terribly out of shape that day, almost exactly a decade ago. So we decided to stick together. At this time I thought that the hard work was done, and it would not be much longer before we reached the monastery. So we went on.

Hand painted shed on the route to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

There was a little temple, a Lhakhang, nearby. I paused to take photos of the four sacred animals painted by a local artist. From left to right you can see a tiger, a snow lion, a Yamantaka, and a dragon. This may have been the first time I saw these guardians all together, but I was to come across this combination many times over the next decade. The most beautiful representation I came to see was in the Dubdi Gompa in Sikkim. At this time I didn’t know that the Yamantaka was a representation of the Manjushri Buddha, and the snake he eats is death.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

I was completely wrong about the major part of the climb being over. The steepest part came after this. I have no record of this long climb because I had to put my camera into my backpack for a bit when I had to use my hands to steady myself. After that I was too tired to take it out again. I did not notice the soft sounds of wind through the pines and water dropping on rocks, things that The Family still remembers at times. I was completely out of breath when I reached the highest part of the route, all I noticed as I sat down on a rock parapet was that we were surrounded by prayer flags. The Family went over to the other side and realized that we were at a special place, where we could actually look down at the monastery. This was a pleasant view indeed.

We stopped here for a long while. The road dips down steeply beyond this, and a waterfall cascades between this mountain and the next one. Dog near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan We would cross between the two over a bridge and then walk up the next one into the monastery. It is not a long walk, but I had to prepare myself. This stage has two packs of territorial mountain dogs. They stand on the two mountains and bark at each other. I haven’t seen dogs with such a curly tail before. I paused to look at the flags when I noticed a moth sitting on one. As I took the photo you see here, The Family pointed out that the flags were full of moths of many different kinds. Moth near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan I was just beginning to learn to identify butterflies, but moths remained out of reach: then, as well as now. There are just too many kinds.

We went on down. The sound of the waterfall soon drowned out the barking of the dogs. There were Redstarts flying about near the water, flitting from stone to stone. We saw these birds for the first time in Bhutan, but were to see them many times later. The climb after this took all my breath away. I reached the monastery panting from the climb and sat down on the steps. Climbing those last few steps seemed too hard.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

The last photo I have is the one above, taken just a little before the end of the last climb. I walked into the monastery, and must have seen some of it, but nothing remains in my memory. There was a major fire which destroyed Takstang monastery in 1998, ten years before our climb. The fire killed a monk and destroyed many old paintings and statues. What we saw was largely rebuilt with material brought up on the backs of men. What tremendous labour that is! Just a climb with a camera and water had tired me out so much.

It started to rain as we were up in the monastery. Someone suggested that we wait it out, but The Sullen Celt said it was not going to let up soon, and we should start off right now. She was right about the rain, but not about the walk. We made our way slowly back down to the waterfall and up again over rocks made slippery by the rain. Then, as we headed down through the forest the skies opened up and a really heavy rain started. The dirt track through the forest became a river of mud as we made our way down. We slid down parts of it and by the time we reached the bottom the rain had stopped and the sun was out. The warm sun baked hard the mud that we were now crusted in. It was a long time before we could get it off. We would do the climb again if we went there now.

The Exquisite Punakha Dzong

If there is only one Dzong that you have time to visit when in Bhutan, there is no question that it should be Punakha. The wonderful location at the confluence of the Po Chhu (Papa river) and Mo Chhu (Mama river), the beautiful Jacaranda and Magnolia trees surrounding it, the exquisite woodwork and paintings (featured photo), and its renowned history, make this undisputedly the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. Don’t take my word for it. The present King was married in this Dzong, and all the kings have been crowned here.

Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong was constructed in 1637 at a site where an older and smaller Dzong stood since 1326. Construction was completed in 1638, and the gold dome was added in 1676. In the second courtyard (dochey) I saw several buildings with beautiful paintings. The one above shows a monk with his left hand, holding a lotus, extended in a gesture that wards off evil (karana mudra). I liked the painting because of the detailed study of black-necked cranes at the monk’s feet. I’, not able to identify who this could be. I guess he is a monk and not a celestial being by the fact that he has a halo, but it is brown in colour.

To reach this place we had to climb a steep set of stairs. It seems that this is protection against invaders as well as flood waters. Entrance to the main buildings in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan The ladder that you see in this photo is apparently pulled up at night and the door behind it is locked. The ladder is so steep that I had to hold the handrail to climb up. The height is a protection against floods. Since Po Chhu is snow-fed, melt-water often floods in early spring. Even so, the Dzong has flooded several times in its history. The waters eventually cross the border into India and feed the Brahmaputra river. We spent a long time in the halls around the second dochey, admiring paintings and statues.

Mural in Punkha Dzong, Bhutan The two images here were taken because the light was good. They depict celestial beings of great power. This is clear from the green halos that surround their heads. Apart from that I’m clueless about who they can be. They are neither the Sakyamuni (since they do not hold a begging bowl) nor are they depictions of the Maitreya Buddha (since their feet do not rest on lotus flowers).

They are not Avalokiteshwara (since they are looking forward), nor are they Tara (since they are male). They do not hold a sword, so they are not Manjushri. They are not surrounded by flames, so they cannot be Mahakala or Vajrapani. Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan Both are bearded, so they could be Padmasambhava. But I have no idea whether the Guru is depicted holding a musical instrument, as the one on the left does, or a prayer wheel, like the one on the right. The identified images of the Guru that I have seen show him with the Sakyamuni seated on the crown. That is not the case here. These could be someone else, but I like to think of them as the 8th century sage who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas.

View of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

This was the second time we visited the Punakha Dzong. Both times we arrived in May, and found the Jacaranda in bloom. The beautiful purple colour looks wonderful against the white walls of the Dzong. It would be nice to come back here in another season to see what it looks like.

Pema Lingpa’s stamping grounds

Bumthang district is associated with the founding stories of the Bhutanese state and religion. The first kings arose around the Trongsa region, and defeated the Tibetan kings in the White Bird’s Castle. Padmasambhava is said to have come to mKurje Lhakhang to meditate, and left many treasures which are said to have been found later by Pema Lingpa.

View of Kurje Lhakhang, Tang, Bhutan

We arrived at the massive complex of Kurje Lhakhang late in the day. In the photo above you can see this complex, and in the background you have a view of the nearby Jambey Lhakhang. The two massive buildings you see on the right were built in the 20th century CE. The older, low, building on the left is called Guru Lhakhang, and dates from 1652. Apparently the local king, called Sindhu Raja, called Padmasambhava to help him when he fell ill. On arriving, the Guru meditated inside a cave (now inside the Guru Lhakhang), and realized that the illness was due to a local demon. An imprint of the Guru’s body is said to be found on the stone of the cave. A carving of a Garuda fighting a white lion in the building is said to depict the story of the Guru subduing the deity. The king recovered, converted to Buddhism, and the deity is now supposed to guard the religion. Unfortunately the building was closed when we arrived.

Mist in the Tang valley from Kurje Lhakhang, Bhutan

We had a lovely view of the surrounding valley from the Lhakhang. It was evening and mist was settling into the valley. There were occasional gusts of rain. We walked around the complex and met a young monk who could speak Hindi well. He told us the story of the place. He told us that we could walk either to Jambey Lhakhang or to Tazhing Lhakhang. We’d not read about Tazhing Lhakhang. When he realized this, he told us a little about the place, and about Pema Lingpa.

The Bhutanese name Pema is a cognate of the
Sanskrit word Padma, meaning lotus. Men and
women can have this name.

Pema Lingpa is one of the biggest names in Bhutanese Buddhism, next only to Padmasambhava, who brought Buddha’s teachings to the Himalayas. He was born in the Tang valley of today’s Bumthang district in the year 1450 CE. I learnt that he practised as a blacksmith till he was in his mid-twenties, and then turned to discovering religious scriptures. He is now known as a terton, a treasure hunter, because of such discoveries. Numerous sites in Bumthang district are connected to him. We’d already visited the Mebar Tsho the day before.

View of Tamzhing Lhakhang, Bhutan

Tamzhing Lhakhang was built between 1501 and 1505 CE at the behest of Pema Lingpa, who lived and taught there until his death in 1520. Following the monk’s advice, we crossed the river and walked to this Lhakhang. This was also closed, and we did not see the paintings which are now, a decade later, apparently in dire need of restoration. Our two days in Bumthang resulted in three hits and four misses. I thought that was not very good. But The Family looked at our bird list and declared that it more than made up for the art work that we missed. Not so bad, I guess. This gives us a reason to go back.

The White Bird’s Castle

In the mountains and valleys of Bhutan every major spot has a story associated with it. We were told the story of Jakar Dzong by a gentleman we met at dinner in our hotel. When the first king of Bhutan, Lam Ngagi Wangchuk, came to Jakar from Trongsa he looked for a place to build a temple. His monks saw a white bird circle in the sky several times before landing on a ridge. This was taken to be a sign, and the king built a temple here in the year 1549 CE.

When we drove to the Chokhor valley from nearby Ura, this large Dzong dominated a ridge, but was itself dwarfed by the high peaks behind it (see the featured photo). It seems that the Dzong was constructed in the year 1667 CE.View of the garden in Jakar Dzong, Bhutan It was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1897, and was repaired.

From the distance we saw that the central tower of the Dzong is part of the external walls, unlike all the others that we had seen till then. It is said to be the largest Dzong in Bhutan. The car had to be parked a little below the walls, and we walked up over a stone-flagged pathway.

We had earlier visited one of the famous monasteries in Bhutan and been disappointed there, since it was under restoration, and the woodworm infestation was being rooted out. Woodwork in Jakar Dzong, Bhutan This Dzong showed what the intricate woodwork may have been like. The sequence of square butts above the windows looked like lap joints from several cross beams or a single finger joint from a wide piece of wood. I would have liked to go in and look, but the rooms were closed. We admired the beautifully painted woodwork and moved on.

The Dzong is huge inside, and we passed the various buildings and looked at the gardens within the walls. This particular monastery-fort played a role in the wars against Tibet, and was the site of a significant military victory in the 17th century CE. Tower in Jakar Dzong, BhutanIts official name, Yuelay Namgyal Dzong, celebrated this history. The watchtower which you see in the photo alongside has a clear military purpose. A tactical asset was the presence of fresh water inside the walls. We walked down to see the spring and had a view of the beautiful valley outside the walls (see the photo of the gate above).

The wars of previous centuries seem to be forgotten now, and the Dzong and its surroundings look very peaceful. Later, during dinner at the hotel we started talking to Bhutanese traders and bureaucrats, and realized that there is still concern about the stability of the border between Tibet and Bhutan. But Jakar Dzong’s contribution to military history is quite definitely done.