A nameless village

Dilsher gave us driving directions. The route took us to Gushaini, where we crossed the Tirthan and took a road which wound high above the Falachan river. About a kilometer from the village which was our destination we found that the road was under repair. We parked the car and walked over the broken stones in the road bed. With the directions, and GPS, I know exactly where the village is; I can find it on maps and satellite photos; but I cannot find a name for it. It was definitely worth a trip, just to see what traditional houses and village layouts are in this area.

As you can see from the photo above (and detail in the featured photo), some of the houses are elaborate. This one had thick mud walls at the lowest level, and steep stairs to climb up two levels to the living space. The lowest level holds livestock, the next is space for feed, and the topmost level is for people. Wood is used extensively only in the area meant for people. I’d seen this kind of overhanging wooden box also in the divisional town of Banjar, where the lower floors were given over to shops. Now I saw where this construction comes from.

Not all houses are equally elaborate. You need space for livestock only if you own some; so the big house belonged to someone who was rich in this village economy. Other houses were smaller wattle-and-daub constructions, as you can see in the photo above. Mats are fixed on to wooden frames, and then covered with clay and painted. Interestingly, the house has two stories, and a balcony running across the front of the upper story. The two nearer structures are sheds to hold hay. Since this was lower, I could easily see the admirable slate roof. I was also quite impressed by the solar panel on top of the pole. Is the need for electricity small enough that a panel like this suffices?

I saw no signs of air conditioning; in this place you don’t really need it. Heating for winter would be an issue, but it wouldn’t be electrical heating. I didn’t see refrigerators, but satellite TV had arrived, as you can see from the dish in the photo above. All in all, the amount of electrical power needed per household would be small. I liked these two houses in completely different styles standing next to each other. The one with the upper floor box is unpainted; the one with the balcony is painted in bright colours. The man who you see here was friendly and curious about us. He gave us a little tour of his neighbourhood, trading question for question.

We did not go inside anyone’s house, so I never found out how the rooms are organized: is it one large living and bedroom? Or are these internal divisions separating kitchen, eating and sleeping spaces? The larger organization was clear. The center of the village was a large open square with an enigmatic temple which I have written about earlier. The village is laid out in a series of linked squares with houses around the open centers. The largest houses stand on the square with the temple; the further you go, the smaller the houses become. In a square adjoining the one with the temple I found a well and two children playing. In this photo they lean over the well.

You can see that the social organization is changing. There are new and fairly large houses at the periphery of the village; they climb up the surrounding slopes. The photo above shows one such house. The house itself looks different: the lower floor has windows, which means it is not used for cattle or feed. The roof is made of corrugated metal sheets, and the wood is painted. But perhaps the most striking non-traditional addition is the brick and mortar outhouse with a plastic tank full of water resting on its cast concrete slab of roof. This seemed like it was part of the government’s worthy push to add toilets to every house. The toilet blocks look identical everywhere in this country; they have been designed in Delhi. Fortunately availability of water is still not an issue here; I saw taps outside many of the houses.

The newer houses often use non-traditional materials. This one stood close to the entrance to the village. Again, I saw windows on the lower floor, indicating that all floors are used by people. This house was elaborate: it had balconies and a box just below the roof. I was struck by the use of corrugated metal sheets for the sides. They can’t possibly bear the load of the upper floors, so there must be another structural part of the wall. Is that a wooden frame or a thick mud wall? My reluctance to knock on the door of a stranger meant that I never found out. Of the many things which I did not know about this village, this was perhaps the least. The main thing that I should have asked the curious guide we picked up was the name of the village.


Mountain mules

I leave cities now and then, but it seems the city never leaves me. I’d taken a mountain path from Gushaini towards Ropa village, which is the starting point of the Great Himalayan National Park. The path follows the valley of the river Tirthan for a while, so I kept looking over to the other hillside, which was full of wonderful slate-roofed traditional wooden houses. You can see one of these in the featured photo. I kept wondering about how they would bring the building materials to the construction site. I assumed that it would be easier to bring the wood and mud to the site than to bring bricks. I completely forgot two things.

The first was that no motorized vehicles come over these narrow mountain roads. The second is that slate tiles are the heaviest part of the material. These two forgotten points passed me on the path in the form of a train of mules carrying slate tiles. My aha moment was prolonged. By the time pulled out my camera, the mules had gone past. I still managed to catch the picture which you can see above. In the mountains everything has to be hauled up. Most of these narrow tracks are too narrow for trucks, so there are no alternatives to carrying them up yourself, with the help of porters and mules. Bricks and concrete are options only when there are roads.

After the mule train had passed I recalled having seen it earlier on the path. I’d failed to get a good shot of slaty-headed parakeets and taken out my frustration by clicking a photo of this mule grazing. A car had been parked nearby, and I’d missed a shot of the birds because it started up, startling the parakeets. So I guess a truck must have brought the stone up to that point, and then transferred the load to the mules. One of our companions on the walk volunteered the information that someone was building a large house near Ropa. That was probably where these mules were going. Every bit of construction on the hills is labour intensive, until a road is built.

A small town in the hills

If Gushaini is a large village, then Banjar is clearly a town. It’s not just the size, other cues kick in too. For example, there were policemen trying to prevent people from parking on narrow stretches of road. The Family wanted to look at a shop we’d been hearing about: it sold shawls and other traditional woolen clothing made by a cooperative of local weavers. Soni was waved on by a policeman immediately after he deposited us at the shop. I walked along the narrow main road at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights. The bright pink hair dresser’s salon was called “New Honey”!

Banjar is built on a slope above the Banjar river, so the main street is rather narrow. The beautiful old wooden houses are now squeezed between brick and mortar construction. I admired the carved wooden panel just below the box windows of the first floor. The new construction always leaves me wondering about the economics: in the plains there is an economy of scale when you use construction material which is widely available. These bricks have to be shipped up to the hills, increasing their cost. So why don’t people continue to use wood? Has the cost of wood increased in recent times? Is that just a question of supply not keeping up with demand?

Just because houses are made of bricks does not mean that the local style has died out. I stopped to look at this three-storied building. The ground floor is a nondescript shop with rolling steel shutters. The upper floors are dazzling gems. Look at the reproduction of wooden carved panels in plaster and cement, and the closed windows which are transplanted from the traditional architecture. I found the upper floors to be quite a statement.

It was a Thursday and I was looking for interesting doors. I found a set in this row of shops. Steel cupboards are quite the rage here. Unlike the old times, these come in interesting colours. I liked these two: one with doors painted the same pink as the hairdresser’s cabin, the other a lovely bottle green. The series of shops has the look of hasty municipal construction. The concrete slabs of the floor and ceiling quickly cast, the walls thin, the doors made of prefab panels which don’t quite fit. The private houses here are built with care, so the town corporation is probably run with a small budget.

Himachal is known for its fruits. Mid-May was too early for cherries, but apples and peaches were in evidence. But the fruit of the season is mango, and that does not grow in these hills. They have to be trucked up from the plains. Everything else looked local and fresh. I wasn’t really checking; Dilsher’s cook, Ram, was doing a wonderful job. The district of Kullu has five divisions, and Banjar is big enough to give its name to one. The route from Shimla to Kullu over Jalori pass travels next to the Banjar river until it falls into the Tirthan. As a result, Banjar is an important town, with a large market, and some low-end hotels for travelers who might be stuck for a night when the pass is closed in bad weather.

Lack of space has an interesting effect on the buildings in Banjar: spiral staircases. All new houses seem to have these curled ribbons of masonry tacked on to the outside. The stairs in traditional houses are more like steep ladders. They don’t bother locals, who are used to such slopes everywhere. The more gentle stairs here are wonderful for city people like us. I think this is also something that people of Kullu can grow to like. I would guess that if I were to come back here ten years later I would find these spiral staircases on almost every building.

There was a temple festival on in Banjar. Apparently villagers carry their local idol across the valleys to another temple once a year. That week the villagers of Bathad had come to Banjar. I kept an eye out for the festival, but the only thing I spotted were the special sweets on display in this shop. The shopkeeper was clearly unhappy when I pulled out my camera after inspecting the sweets. The festival takes place in a field well away from the main road. The morning’s rituals were over, and the evening was far away. We decided to give it a miss. Soni was happy to go; he did not like policemen.


Almost the first thing I saw in Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary was an abandoned railway station. I’ve already written about the railway line which fragments the sanctuary and still has heavy train traffic. Because of my new-found interest in abandoned colonial-era structures, I made a beeline for it even as my companions were stretching their legs. Tall trees rose behind it. Grass and little herbs had taken root on the roof, but the sturdy brick structure was reasonably intact from inside.

The paint was peeling and the doors had disappeared, but the plasterwork inside was relatively undamaged. I could only see two or three places where large chunks of plaster had fallen away. The floor was pretty undamaged, although it was strewn with trash. It was interesting to stand inside and look out at the rain forest and the single railway track which passed by. It is not hard to reel back time in your head to see a slow train come to a halt, while waiting passengers streamed out of the room to board it.

The long cement bench against the wall with windows was also pretty serviceable. At a pinch one could think of dusting it off and settling down for the night. One of the windows was missing its lattice work, but this would be hardly worse than the doorways without doors. The walls were typical Indian Railways dado: darker colour below shoulder height, and light paint above.

Even so far away from civilization, the wall has become a canvas, even a palimpsest, for Amit, Amar, Samrit, Deep, and a few other men. There are loves that dare not speak their names: B+B and D+S were par for the course. I was more intrigued by L+G+D and Amit+3. Something different is developing in these places clearly.

This was clearly the waiting room. The ticket office was next door: inside the massive prefab container. The counter was still open. The corrugated metal sheets still held their paint; there was no obvious sign of corrosion. Even the net over the window did not look badly rusted. There must have been a little platform of wood in front of the window. Part of the support is still there, but the plank above it has been taken away.

I peered in through the window into the large hollow space beyond. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a photographic exhibition on wildlife? I thought of hanging my photos here, with bright LEDs spotlighting each. I suppose the space still belongs to the Railways, and if I want to have an exhibition here, I’ll have to apply to them.

The center of Muenster

When we arrived at the vast marketplace in front of Muenster’s catherdral, two things were on my mind: there would probably be a Christmas market here in a few weeks, and there is probably a farmer’s market here on Saturdays. I said as much to The Family, and she said “Too bad then. This is just a Sunday in November.” The cathedral is also huge: more than a hundred meters in length. Every meter seems to be well documented in its Wikipedia page.

We entered through the narthex called Paradise, and found that the morning service was in progress. We waited for a while and looked at the Old Choir, which is in the Romanesque part of the church. I like the name “God’s rotary dial” which is sometimes used to refer to the small windows above the Baroque altar here. After a while we left, wandered across the stream called Aa which runs nearby, and came back much later.

The service had concluded, but we found that sections of the church were closed. A famous astronomical clock that we wanted to see could not be accessed. We walked around the huge church admiring the wooden statuary which is so common in these parts of Germany. The elaborate Epitaphs were not a patch on them. But I think what both of us liked was the doorbell in the shape of a dove; not terribly well made, but interesting.

The church across the water

The Uberwasserkirche in Muenster translates very simply to the church over the water. The name comes from the fact that the cathedral and this church face each other across the stream called Aa. The churches around here are old. This one was first consecrated in 1040 CE. The present building is from 1340. The tower took a long time to build, and was probably first completed in the 15th century. The post-war restoration of the church was completed in 1972, but the restoration of the tower was still in progress when we arrived there.

The featured photo is of a very impressive looking doorway, but it is not the main portal. That was covered up by the ongoing restoration work. I looked more closely at the doors here and found that the design was very modern. The figures seemed to refer to the history of the church as an abbey where aristocratic women came to study.

When you walk into a church in this area you see immediately who lost the war. All of this part was heavily bombed. While the structures of the churches have been restored, the insides are often bare. This large church had very few decorations, but what it had were these two fascinating sculptures in wood. They are really worth looking at in detail.

Just another medieval house

We wandered about Prinzipalmarkt in Muenster looking at the pretty buildings. Muenster had been a German army headquarters during the 1940s, and was heavily bombed by the US Air Force in 1943. So most of what we saw was rebuilt. The style is of the gabled houses common in this region from the 15th century CE onwards.

The ridge line of the gables is perpendicular to the street, and the end that faces the street is built up over the roof into a high decorative front. We stopped at the building which you see in the photo above. The upper three stories are clearly post-war reconstruction, but below that was the exuberance of a town flush with Hanseatic trade. Look at the lion heads at hip-height, supporting the front columns! The featured photo is a close-up of the columns: a mermaid and a merman, over whose heads hang carved flowers and fruits.

The heads which decorate the lintel above the tall windows on the ground floor are also very interesting. They probably show how well-off people of that time dressed. Interestingly they follow a convention which you can see on TV news shows even today. When a man and a woman appear together, conventionally the man looks out at the world, whereas the woman looks at the man. How hard it is to evolve out of that convention.

A grisly church

The headless figures above a trough near the entrance to St. Lamberti’s Church in Muenster (featured photo) seemed all of one piece with the bloody history of this town. The aggressive bicyclists in this university town probably channel the violent history of religious wars which swirled around this region in the 16th and 17th centuries CE. The spire of this church still has three empty cages where the bishop of Muenster had the tortured bodies of Anabaptist rebels left to die.

A St. Lamberti’s church has been here from before the first recorded reference to it in 1189 CE; some say as early as 1000 CE. The present structure was about 75 years in construction, and was completed in 1450 CE. The tower had to be demolished in 1881 and rebuilt. The three cages were hoisted on to the new 90 meter tall tower on its completion in 1898. The bombed church was partially restored already in 1949, and the restoration was completed in 1978. If you have the misfortune to be selected as the Tuermer by the city, then you have to climb the tower every half hour between 9 PM and midnight to mark time by blowing a trumpet. The first woman to be struck by this bad luck is the current incumbent, Martje Solje.

The stone dove near the headless statues was altogether different in nature. I couldn’t find any references to when this sculpture was installed. From the style it seems to be modern, and could well have been placed here during the post-war restorations. This would make it contemporaneous with the modern German pacifist tendencies.

The inside was surprisingly bare. The main decorations were the wooden statues which are common in Westphalia. I looked at the gilded statue of St. Anthony of Padua and thought that anyone who keeps smiling as a child pulls at his scant hair deserves to be called a saint. I could sympathize with Anthony, but I preferred the expression on the face of St. Peter.

We came out of the church and walked around to the main entrance from the square. This side of the building has wonderful Gothic windows and many sculptures. There was a greatly detailed panel which depicts the family tree of Jesus (image above). Apparently, the mid-15th century piece was made in sandstone which eroded in less than four hundred years, and had to be replaced in 1913. The statues of saints also were replaced at the same time. An interesting story about the four evangelists (photo above) is that the restored statues show Goethe as Luke (extreme left) and Schiller as John (extreme right).

I wondered a little about the spikes around the heads of some of the statues. Medieval torture or stylized halos? It took me a while to understand that it was neither, just a utilitarian device to keep away pigeons. The relationship of this church with pigeons is worth pondering. Some saints have pigeons thrust on them, others have spikes driven into their heads to keep pigeons away. Does the city realize how confusing this can be for a foreigner?

There’s a fountain in the square in front of the church. Historically this was the graveyard of the church. Statues of a Westphalian farmer’s family decorate the well. I could not find a dating for this statue, but by the weathering you can see, it may need replacement in another hundred years.

A shotgun marriage

When we reached the gates of a building which I later realized was the historic Nana Wada, the man whom you see in the featured photo offered to give me a guided tour through it. I asked him whether I could try to take a look without his help. He smiled pityingly and held the door open for me to enter. This was a mistake, because the building now holds a municipal office which was about to be shut. I was escorted out by a genial pot-bellied policeman who could easily find a role in a Bollywood slapstick. The self-professed guide had disappeared. Opportunity knocks only once, as they say.

While walking around the high walls of Shaniwar Wada, I came to a little square called Jijamata Chowk and saw the unlikely structure which you can see in the photo above. A colonial style facade was tacked on to a beautiful 17th century Maratha-style building. This is Nana Wada, the offices of the famous Nana Fadnavis, the minister who held the Maratha empire together in its last flowering. A decade after the death of Nana Fadnavis, the Maratha empire was defeated, and the British East India Company became the undisputed power in India. So this merger of styles is literally a shotgun wedding.

I walked up to the colonial part first. This style of building is common in Mumbai. The grey stone with white borders, and white painted woodwork over doors and windows is typical of 19th century colonial architecture in this part of the country. My companion on this walk was from Kolkata, and he was enchanted by the colour of the stone. This stone is not often seen in other parts of India. I found later that this part was built to house a school by a charitable trust which operated out of Nana Wada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What is most remarkable about the structure is the rest of it. The part that we could see from the road is a two story structure, with unevenly spaced windows. The elaborate woodwork signified that the building housed someone important. The strong afternoon sun drew beautiful red colours out of the dark wood. When we ducked through the door, we saw that this was the outer part of a quadrangle. The inner buildings around the open garden were taller. The woodwork continued everywhere inside. The policeman who stopped us from going further was still proud enough of being associated with the history of this building that he let us admire the beautiful carvings overhead. I suppose I will go back to look at the interior more closely.

The entertainment mill

My first sight of Kamala mills came many years ago, when I went to the then-new passport office in the compound. By then the place was already a big media hub. I finished my work at around lunch time, and walked around a bit trying to locate a place where I could get a quick bite. There were already several restaurants and pubs there, although the main entertainment hubs were then a couple of other mills nearby.

Mumbai’s enchanted years started during the American Civil War, when its cotton exports boomed. The cotton mills expanded until the beginning of the last century, and collapsed after the Japanese industrial resurgence in the middle of the century. The Govani brothers bought the moribund Kamala Mills in the 1990s when the government stopped trying to revive the mills and decided to allow redevlopment.

Now this is a landowner’s paradise. Decrepit buildings have been retrofitted into acres of restaurants. It is amusing to walk around a tall block which looks wonderfully swank from the front. The back is a crumbling post-industrial dump-yard (see the featured photo). Kamala mills comes alive in the night when the young arrive in droves to the water holes hidden behind each of the windows that you can see. The back is dark and invisible at night.

Look around and you find other lucrative reuse of land. Part of the parking lot has been turned into a go-kart track. Just next to it is what looked like a mini bungee-jumping set up. Opposite to that is a paint-ball hall. Is all of this legal? This remains a matter of debate even after last December’s fire. Still, the rentals are expensive, and restaurants have to make very large profits to survive. There is quite a turnover, as you might expect. Behind the mills stand the stalled towers of mid-town, brought down by the sluggish economy. Everything here seems to be marking time for an upward turn in the economy. But at night it does not look like the economy is doing too badly.