Ornate is a matter of choice

A mental lament that I’ve got used to calling on when walking through narrow streets in small towns and villages is about the doors. In modern buildings they are so often drab and plain. There is hardly any effort spent on customizing them. If they are wooden, then so often they are just machined pieces joined together with minimum fuss. More often they are metal frames with plain board and glass fitted into slots. But now and then you find a street where each house is carefully distinguished from the next.

Tamil Nadu is a place where every house is a different bright colour. Some of the colourful aesthetics you can extrapolate from the Kanjeevaram silk sarees you may have been. Others, like this wonderful purple, you will have to experience to understand. This example comes from a potters’ village outside Madurai. Embedded into these colourful walls are industrially produced doors and windows, which carry some individuality. You can weld decorations on to the grilles, and you can paint them as you wish. Drab or bright? The choice is yours, after all.

Curios and curioser

I stood in front of a door with the intricately carved hardwood lintel which you see in the featured photo. The figure is possibly a variant of Gajalakshmi, the goddess of wealth in her most royal aspect. In the usual iconography she would have four hands, two in the mudras of abhaya and varada, and two holding lotuses. Here only the pairof hands with the lotuses is seen. The dark wood had certainly been carved more than a century ago, perhaps some time in the middle of the 19th century CE. Once this kind of door lintel was common across Kerala. There was a master carver who served a small group of villages. The large number of master carvers puzzled me. In a pre-consumer economy, you would not expect door lintels to be such hot items. It turns out that the reason has to do with a churn in the Kerala agricultural economy in the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century the economy of Kerala had come to depend heavily on the export of pepper. It was originally grown only in two districts, but the possibility of trade made pepper the primary crop across the Malabar region. Then, in the first decades of the 19th century, the pepper market crashed and the local economy shifted first to byproducts of coconut, and then to coffee. Land belonged to a few, and was worked by a larger number of tenants who would bid for the right to cultivate. In this speculative agrarian economy there was a quick turnover of tenants, and at each turnover the newly prosperous tenants built their own family home. This required extensive woodwork and metalwork (see the ornate handle and lock in the door above).

In the Kochi area you’ll find shops full of old bric-a-brac hiding a few gems. The wooden carvings that you see in this photo also come from that time. It is interesting to see that about eight centuries of cross-ocean trade had already made Kerala a very cosmopolitan place. Local artists drew not only on old Hindu traditions, but also the deep historical connections with the west, the Levant and Arabia, the far west, Europe, and the east, Java, Vietnam, and, mostly at a remove, China. As an amateur I find it interesting to try to trace artistic influences in these everyday decorations from a century ago. I’m sure art historians have been over this territory in great detail.

Post-Delhi Durbar architecture

Architectural styles adapt very fluidly to weather and techniques. This adaptability is so abundantly clear when you compare the architecture of 19th and early-20th century Mumbai to contemporary fashions in England. The Gothic Revival in its late Victorian guise transmuted into the iconic Indo-Saracenic style buildings of Mumbai. I think of this as F.W. Stevens using the medieval sources of inspiration of George Barry, transplanted to India, rather than the details of his style. The sea-front around the Gateway of India was realigned for the visit of George V of England. The buildings in the immediate neighbourhood were built in the 1910s and 20s, and were influenced by the Edwardian style, in the same way that Stevens adapted Barry. The detail that you see in the featured photo marries the Edwardian spirit to an update of the late Maratha style of construction from a century earlier. Notice also the flat terrace, a very Indian feature.

The exuberance of the sea front disappears in the row just behind it. On good days you may call this row harmonized . On bad days you might call it industrially repetitive. I walk through this road now and then with my take-away latte, admiring the solidity of the buildings. To me it appears to be an Edwardian reworking of the basic Victorian style, but quick and commercial. Floors of Gothic arches alternate with the classical. Symmetry is a driving motive. The decorative elements of the Edwardian style are entirely missing. The houses in the row are distinguished mainly by their colour. Notice the top floor; the unadorned cornices for some protection against the rain, and the simple sloping roof, are the only nods to the local weather. I am glad that this style covers only two roads. A city full of these houses would be oppressive.

Living in nature

I had (or should that be have?) a great-grand-uncle … No. I woke up very relaxed today, but as I wrote this I got tenser and tensor. Tenses and grammar will be the death of me. So let’s start again. I have had (That’s certainly not right. Yes, but people get the idea by now) a great-grand-uncle who became notorious for building a little hut for himself around an Alstonia scholaris tree. He is quite forgotten, but his hut and tree are still associated with the history of a place more famous for his superstar of a friend and prophet. He and some others of his time were much influenced by that polymath who decided to move away from The City and live in nature. Their children were to be taught in the open, in nature. That experiment became a movement, and was an important cultural moment. Now the place is a crowded little town, and a slogan whose spirit is lost.

Nevertheless, the experiment has a lesson for us today. We may think we are living in an artificial and constructed world, but it is part of the nature we think we have separated ourselves from. Consequences? When we forget that, we are in trouble. The scooters that you see in the photo above pump CO2 into the atmosphere. That tree is part of nature’s balancing mechanism, and soaks up that carbon to build its trunk. If we cut it down, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and heats the planet. Growing and maintaining large tracts of forests is one way to mitigate the coming disaster. Whales are another great carbon fixer, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere into their massive bodies, excreting carbon into the upper ocean where it fertilizes the growth of phytoplankton and starts the oceanic food chain, and finally carrying the fixed carbon to the bottom of the ocean after their deaths, there to feed new life for decades.

Such large re-wilding measures are bound to be effective in their own ways, but perhaps we can help too. My great-grand-uncle’s folly, Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus, and the hotel you see in the photo above, all express a desire to live in balance with nature. But perhaps that is no longer enough to save ourselves. Maybe organic farming with green manure, or neighbourhoods with Miyawaki forests are what we need. Electric cars and scooters create a different pollution, but they could be useful stopgap measures until better transport solutions can be made. Perhaps the pandemic has catalyzed a change. Work-from-home (WFH) allows us to move away from cities; and a distributed population does not need the hugely polluting chains of supply and transport that make up today’s world. Perhaps WFH is another way we can retool a greener world.

Saibachem Goem

The port of Old Goa was founded in the 15th century CE by the Sultan of Bijapur, captured by the Portuguese in 1510, and served as the capital of Portugal in the east until it was slowly abandoned after several epidemics in the 18th century. Of the several churches here, the one that drew me is the Basilica of Bom Jesu, which contains the remains of Francisco Xavier, the accidental traveling missionary who was sent to Goa by the Pope at the request of the Portuguese king, and was responsible for setting up the infamous Goa Inquisition. The local Konkan name for Old Goa is Saibachem Goem, ie, Goa of the saib, Xavier.

The church is a huge building made of the local laterite stone, with several interior courtyards. The large wooden entrance door was rather plain, but set in an imposingly tall doorway made of marble. It was glowing red like newly cut stone, not at all what I’d expected of a church built in the 16th century. I suppose the facade must have been blasted clean with sand and water just before I arrived (I should remember not to visit often, because this treatment cannot be very good for the stone). The ASI has been in charge of the upkeep of the church since it was declared to be a world heritage site, and although the local chapter of the organization has been accused of negligence, they are pretty competent in the matter of preservation.

Looking more carefully at the stone I realized that the cleaning was not too recent. The stone had started weathering again, and moss was growing in the mortar. I suppose it must have been cleaned for the 500th birth anniversary of Xavier, a couple of years before I visited. The rain here is extremely heavy, and even when I visited, at the end of a monsoon season more than a decade ago, it was raining continuously. The amount of moss I saw was consistent with just a couple of years of growth. A service was on, and people kept arriving. All of them came on foot, and I wondered who was the lone person who had come here on a bike.

Except for the very ornate altar, the church was quite plain. After the service was over I admired the altar, but the light was too bad for photos. The gallery of art work on an upper level was closed for the day. I looked in at the crypt of Xavier, and the famous glass casket where most of his body is interred (some parts have been taken to Rome and Macau). The casket bears beautiful work, almost 400 years old, by Goan silversmiths depicting scenes from Xavier’s life. I wished the light was good enough to take photos of the details.

Xavier’s life is well known and very well documented; even his Wikipedia entry is enormous. I find it interesting that he was part of the millennia-long power struggle between the Eastern and Western Christian churches. When he arrived in India and began traveling to convert local people to Christianity, he visited the tomb of the apostle Thomas in Mylapore, and would have been aware of the many sects of older Christians in India, several of which had attended the very early Synods which codified the doctrines of Christian faith. Perhaps this was even at the heart of his championing the establishment of an Inquisition in Portuguese India. I’m sure that there are many studies of the religious and political climate which drove him east to Borneo, Japan, and eventually to China, where he died in 1552. I wonder though whether the urge to travel was not among his motivations.

The source of the river Krishna

When you see the town of Mahabaleshwar, and squint a little, you can still see the colonial layout, the remains of the colonial buildings. A typical British era hill station, you might say. Yes, almost, it was the summer capital of Bombay Presidency, when the Grand Panjandrums would leave the hot and wet city for more pleasant surroundings. But drive a few kilometers and you are in Old Mahabaleshwar, otherwise known as the village of Jor, whose only claim to fame today is a group of temples. Stop at the car park, eat the strawberries with cream, and skulk off in a direction opposite to where the crowds are going, and you will see the true origin of this place: the temple to the river Krishna. Or perhaps not; Acheulian tools have been found in this region, so perhaps humans have been here for 100,000 years.

Decades ago, I’d chanced on this deserted old temple perched on the edge of a cliff, a quiet and peaceful place where nobody comes. It has not changed. I led The Family and three others to the Krishnadeva temple. Built of black basalt, this temple surrounds a spring which is traditionally considered to be the source of the Krishna river. The 1287 Km long river crosses the Deccan plateau, and, with its tributaries, has the largest drainage area in the Deccan. The temple must be ancient, and it is a wonder that the Marathas did not restore it.

I decided to walk around it and look at each of the external walls carefully. The external walls are fairly plain, but also look extremely weathered. There is a single statue on the northern facade. I’d thought it would be a digpala, perhaps Kubera, but I don’t think it is. Instead the figure is in a posture of prayer or supplication. I couldn’t place it.

The western facade was beautifully lit by the late afternoon sun, a shadow of a single tree falling across its bottom. The external stones which made up the wall were dressed perfectly and clearly needed no mortar, but they were weathered and cracked. The upper parts had been shaped once, but had broken and eroded. Moss had found its way into the cracks. I wondered how I could trace the history of this temple.

The carving on the western wall could have been of a digpala. Traditionally this should have been one of Varuna, identified by a noose (pasa) in his hand. This figure had a mace, indicating Kubera, or perhaps a fat staff (danda), which belongs to Agni, the guardian of the southeast. Strange.

The figure on the southern wall was too eroded for me to make out anything at all. I should have expected Yama to be guarding this wall, but the other figures did not make sense either. Perhaps the iconography was different from what I was used to, but is that possible? I don’t know enough art history to be able to figure this out.

I skirted the small tank outside the temple. This holds some of the water of the stream that I could hear rushing down the cliff. The Leafless came to see the tank, and I told her that she could take a walk around the temple to see it from outside. I could hear The Longlived and The Family having a discussion of whether the temple has sunk into the surrounding soil. The Divine Promise was busy taking photos of the surroundings. “Beautiful trees,” I remarked to him.

It is usually an amazing view from here. It was still spectacular for the others, but I’d seen it much clearer in the past. How can such a small stream become such a wide river as soon as it reaches the valley? It cannot. It is joined by four other streams within a few kilometers, but that wide water body down there is created by a dam. As far as I know it is just called the Krishna lake here. The Family and The Longlived joined me at the railing next to the cliff. “What a beautiful place,” The Longlived said, and asked me how I knew about it. I gave her the potted summary of my accidental discovery of the place, and wandered in with The Family.

We admired the large tank inside, where the water of the spring enters through the mouth of a cow carved from the basalt lying under the thin soil. Galleries run along three sides of the tank. The carvings are better preserved here than in the outer walls, so perhaps there was a shikhara above this till historically recent times. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is just the enclosure from three sides which protected them. The Longlived is the second of my nieces who is studying architecture, and she was busy taking photos. We were largely silent, talking softly, unwilling to break the pleasant silence. Eventually we pulled ourselves away towards more strawberries.


As we begin to plan our winter travel in the middle of a patchwork of restrictions and uncertainty, I came to photos of a Winter Solstice trip to a little known attraction in Gujarat. The small town of Kapadvanj, 65 Kms due east of Ahmedabad, was once an important link in the textile trade out of Cambay port, and specialized in mirror-work embroidered cloth. During its period of prosperity, the Dawoodi Bohra community built wonderful wooden buildings. Although most of them were converted to hybrid material over the centuries, a few still stand. We spent two days in this place, entranced by the exuberance of the local architecture.

Kapadvanj is a town of verticals; small plots were built over as prosperity increased, and the only way to go was up. Most buildings are now three or four floors high. The exteriors are idiosyncratic mixtures of styles: beautiful traditional woodwork coexists with intricately carved pseudo-Corinthian capitals. Inside, the layout is a vertical development of the traditional internal courtyard surrounded by corridors leading to rooms. The courtyard becomes a tall atrium, lined with galleries connecting rooms across the opening. Steep wooden stairs connect floors. Most families left for Mumbai in the 19th century CE, and maintain their holdings sporadically. I saw beautifully painted facades, cheek by jowl with others which have fallen into near ruin (the earthquake of 2001 did its bit for entropy). Sometime, I should go back to look at the place more closely.

The painted doors of Bhutan

Earth colours against stark white strike you as you approach any Bhutanese Dzong. The brightness of local red earth is the dominant colour, with touches of yellow ocher, contrasting with the pigment from ground black earth. After weeks of travel, separated by a year, I didn’t tire of photographing the same repeated motifs, painstakingly done by hand.

Bhutan is in the middle of large changes. When I traveled through, the monarchy had just imposed democracy on the country. One year I traveled just after a “practice” election, the next, just after a real election. During the monarchy giverning power seemed to be in the hands of bureaucrats, although, in some way that was not clear to me, dzongs played a role. Now the balance of power has shifted.

The old elite was educated in India, traveled to India frequently, reminisced about their times in Kolkata and Mumbai. The businessmen that we met were less enchanted. They were modernists in their country, and set themselves apart from the monks and the bureaucrats in every small way that they could. Even a decade back, when I traveled, the distance between the people in towns and villages was growing. The dynamics will have accelerated by now. It will be interesting to go back to see what has changed. The wooden doors have to be renewed every decade or so, and new artisans come to paint them. How fast will their tools and pigments evolve?

Ghost city

At 6 in the evening, the center of Mumbai was like a ghost of itself. In the blue hour, I caught Flora fountain looking like a funeral, a few mourners standing and gawking. Niece Moja has taken the day off from counseling and spent the day with us. After her partner finished an interview (you can carry your work with you when it moves online) we drove out for a coffee and this funeral. The fountain was built in the 1860s, when the British built Fort George was finally demolished, at its former Church Gate. The antennas belong to the Central Telegraph Office. Ugly constructions like that belong to the 1960s.

Another change is coming now. The new Mumbai metro will have a station at the fountain. Metro stations everywhere have the same construction: either a single cylinder with platforms on two sides, or two cylinders passing a central platform. When that hole in the ground is filled up, this station will have a central platform, and a first underground level for customer services. The city is slowly changing. Niece Moja is one of the small fraction of millennial Mumbaikars who actually knows south Mumbai; she spent her college years haunting cafes and restaurants here.

But even she was surprised that a desirable property just next to the fountain had been entirely taken over by Zara. The blaze of lights from its open doors showed us a cyclist and a person parking a scooter. I don’t think the shop’s had a customer in a while. Mumbai has split so visibly into the two cities that it always was: the service providers who must brave the horrible lengthened commute every day to open shops which the service takers are too afraid to go into. The corona virus will become endemic, we have to learn to live with it. Care, not fear, is the future.

A door to the world

Walking about South Mumbai on Sunday, I came to a taxi rank. These are slow days for taxis, and Sundays must be even slower. One of the drivers had left his taxi to lie down in the closed doorway of the Bank of Baroda. He looked quite relaxed as he read something on his mobile. Sitting in a car seat for hours must be quite tiring, and he looked content to be where he was.

While framing the man, I realized that the building whose steps he was lying on was rather well known. This is the Lakshmi Insurance building, which was constructed in 1938 for a company of that name. The company was owned by Lala Lajpatrai (a famous freedom fighter), Motilal Nehru (the father of India’s first prime minister) and Pandit Shantaram (a famous actor and film producer). It is an iconic Mumbai Art Deco structure, designed by the Bombay architectural firm of Master, Sathe, and Butha, with an 18 foot bronze statue of Lakshmi on top of what once was a clock tower. I decided to include the Art Deco gate into the photo.