Strike a gong

On recent visits to Delhi I’ve managed to catch up with This Niece who’s studying architecture. When I told her about dinners at the India Habitat Center, she said she wanted to come with me the next time I went. So one hot afternoon this weekend we went for lunch at the IHC.

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit
Deplores this stupid habit.
In Hong-Kong
They strike a gong and
Fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who’s in late
—Noel Coward (1931)

While the rest of Delhi was baking in the super-40 temperature, there was a breeze through the linked atria of the centre. As we walked through them, The Family and I looked at the organizations which have their offices there: Housing Development and Finance, The Energy and Resources Institute, the NCR planning Board, are part of an interesting set of environment, planning and development organizations which sit there.

The radical building from the early nineties is typical of the architectural practice of Joseph Allen Stein: the brick facade broken by the tiny accents of coloured tiles whose differences mark which atrium you are in, and the remarkable melding of inside and outside. This Niece walked around exclaiming about this feature and that: the framework with sunscreens which you see overhead (featured photo) came in for several comments. The Family remarked on how that lets in enough light for plants to grow by. We stood and watched a group of young people preparing a stage for a play in a sunken amphitheatre built into one of the atria. Eventually we left when we ran out of water to drink.


Dhochu La is the pass to the whole of central and eastern Bhutan. We drove east from Thimphu and reached the pass in the mid morning. The road was sunny, but the view was obscured by dense clouds. When the weather is good one expects to see Bhutan’s highest mountain, Masanggang with its peak at an elevation of 7158 meters, from this pass.

Druk Namgyal chorten, Dhochu La, BhutanThe previous year we had seen a little pavilion hiding a small party of the royal family who had stopped here for tea and the view. This year we only saw the 108 khangzang chorten which were built in 2004. They commemorate the Bhutanese army’s victory in a fight against Assamese insurgents who launched attacks on India from a presumed safe haven in Bhutan. Travellers on the road stop here often, and one can observe a cross section of Bhutan wandering among the ranks of chorten.

The Emmet’s Inch and Eagle’s Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile
— William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

The road which descends from the pass is beautiful. It hugs a hillside full of deodar (cypress) trees. As we travelled along it we found ourselves looking at a beautiful rainbow over the road. I guess rainbows are not uncommon in spring, but to us it looked as if this was an augury of welcome: the weather had opened a gate for us to enter Bhutan. It turned out that this was quite an accurate reading of the weather for the next week.

Above Delhi

I was so tired of travelling in the last two weeks that I stopped packing my camera. So, when I found myself sleeping on the seventeenth floor of a hotel in central Delhi, I was not really prepared to take a photo of my unusual location.

Why unusual? Because Delhi is largely made of low buildings, which race across two neighbouring states, assimilating villages like the Borg. Only central Delhi grows upwards. The profits involved in building high in this tiny area are such that the stringent rules about safety in an earthquake-prone area do not deter builders.

My hotel room was deep with a narrow floor-to-ceiling window. Many lights needed to be kept on constantly to make it liveable. The thick heat-retaining walls required more electricity to cool it. Like all modern hotels, the structure was completely sealed off from the external world. The yellow and red buildings which you can see in the featured photo seem to be similar in spirit (although window air conditioners in some of them are incongruous). The building with hexagonal openings on alternate floors is a bureaucratic nod to "Indian" design which gone out of fashion.

Every building I could see went up beyond seven floors. I counted eleven floors and more in many of them. I was in one which went up beyond twenty. Delhi is definitely growing up!

Memories of a far valley

It is now exactly the middle of April. The heat and humidity is killing. I began to search the web for Bhutan where we took refuge from the heat of Mumbai in two successive years almost a decade ago. Flipping through photos of monasteries in remote valleys I came to a stop at photos which looked familiar, yet not.

The name rang a bell: Phobjika valley. In May 2008, six of us had driven away from the tourist triangle of west Bhutan towards the east and north. One afternoon we took a detour into the Phobjika valley. I’d read about black-necked cranes wintering here, and a goemba worth visiting. We spent a wonderful day there and drove back the next day.

I was on the lookout for the Gangtey Goemba. Pema Lingpa, the historical monk who is almost as famous in Bhutan as the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Padmasambhava, is said to have predicted this monastery. His son caused the goemba to be built in 1618. The main gate of the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanIn fact, the head of this monastery is supposed to be a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa; the current one is the ninth.

One of our travelling companions was not very keen on "wasting time" on monasteries. So, when I asked our driver to turn the car off the main road towards the Goemba, I was hoping for it to be spectacular enough to captivate everyone. Unfortunately, it was not. The main gate (which you see in the photo above) looked beautiful but badly in need of repairs.

The inside was no better. External details on the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanThe three-story high central hall was being refurbished. I next saw a similar high atrium (featured photo) in a monastery many years later in Tawang. This kind of construction is not very common. However, the general air of devastation dampened our spirits. The Family can tell very easily when I’m down in the dumps, and she pointed out some beautiful details on the unpainted external walls (photo here). But it was clear that something was very wrong.

The mystery remained with me for years. Why would one of the major Gompas of Bhutan be in such disrepair. Nine years later I am reassured by what I just read: "Much of the interior and exterior woodwork of the 450-year-old goemba was replaced between 2001 and 2008 due to a beetle-larvae infestation." Now I must go back there to see what the place looks like after it has been redone.

Forgotten kings

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

My Ozymandian moment came as we walked through the mangrove forests of Bhitarkanika. We passed a shallow swamp with dead trees standing in them. Then we crossed a field where a monitor lizard was being harried by green bee eaters. The huge lizard crawled into bushes. We skirted the bushes, and as I looked at the little rise, I saw an abandoned building. It wasn’t too old, but disused and fallen into ruin. Bijaya said it belonged to the Rajah.

Who was this? He had no explanation, but it seemed that it was the local zamindar. The system of zamindars was abolished by the state of Odisha in 1952, so my guess is that the structure is about a hundred years old or less. As I walked around it, I saw a lotus pond where two bronze-winged Jacanas walked on the lily pads pecking at the water delicately. An Indian pond-heron sat apart from them on another lily pad, seemingly withdrawn into its inner landscape. From the pond one could see little slits along the walls of the structure. It was clearly a blind where the zamindars of old could sit and decimate birds which came to the pond. Much research was needed to excavate the names of the family. In sixty years the Kanika family which owned this forest once is almost forgotten.

We skirted the pond and walked into the next clearing. A small plaster Nandi shows that this is a Shiva temple A simple temple in the Odisha style stood under a mango tree (featured photo). Amar tried to bring down a couple of mangos, and was fairly satisfied by the unripe green fruits he got. The temple was not much older than the blind; the two structures used the same kind of mortar. But whereas the hunting blind was like Ozymandias’ statue, the small temple was kept alive by the traditions of neighbouring villages. I walked around it to see a little mortar Nandi facing the niche where a diya burnt in front of a tended shiva-linga inside a little locked screen door.

We walked on past these little remnants of a history now forgotten. The forest was alive with birds, and our hour’s walk was over too soon.

Walking past Odisha’s oldest temple

On every trip that I make there are things really worth seeing that I miss. But perhaps nothing could be as bad as walking past the oldest temple in Odisha, noticing that it is different from the rest and beautiful, and not stopping for a close look. This was the Parasurameshwara temple. There seems to be a consensus that it was built in the late 7th century CE, although variant opinions place it as early as the early 6th century or the middle of the 8th century.

I walked past this temple to take photos of the Mukteshwara temple in the last golden light of the day. I saw that the temple had the two parts of most Odisha temples: the outer room for people to gather in, called the jagamohan, and the spire of the main temple, called the deul. The jagamohan was low, and seemed flat-topped to my quick glance, without the usual pyramidal roof. The latticed window caught my eye first. The carvings that I saw on the southern outer wall of the jagamohan (see the featured photo) were beautiful and different. Later, I realized that the sculptures of figures seated in meditation were of an aspect of Shiva, but modelled after the iconography of the Buddha. If I’d paused to think, this would have told me that the temple must be ancient. The wall also had representations of what seemed to be Shakti, the goddess of power.

The colour was fading from the sky, and the golden light was beginning to bleach out of the air. East-facing walls were already looking grey. I took a record shot of an empty niche (photo here) and hurried on without examining the sculptures in detail. Now, looking at the form just above the niche I realize that it shows Shakti in one of her aspects. She is two-armed, and rides a fierce tiger. Could it be an early representation of Parvati? Probably, since the figure just above seems to be of her consort, Shiva. The temple is eclectic: named after an aspect of Vishnu, with sculptures depicting aspects of Shiva and the Shaktis in the exterior. I made a mental note to come back, and I did. But then it was quite dark, and I did not walk around the 1400 years old temple. I will just have to leave this for another trip.

Sullivanesque, or Lost on Ontario Street

One evening I walked down Ontario Street in Chicago looking at the buildings around me. Some seemed to belong to an earlier generation of skyscrapers. The one in the featured photo seemed to be special. Unfortunately, I did not mark the crossing it was on, so now I find it hard to figure out its name or research its history.

There are many reasons it stands out. First, it is only fifteen stories high, a dwarf amongst today’s buildings. But more than that, it has a red-brick and plaster exterior, the kind that I associate with Louis Sullivan, the originator of modern skyscraper architecture. Is this building by Sullivan or his firm? I can’t check, since I didn’t note the address, but I guess it is not likely. But notice that the bottom two stories are plaster clad. This is certainly a deep homage to Sullivan’s style. So are the decorations around the windows on the top floor. The white vertical lines emphasizing the height of the building are also typical elements of his style.

I am a little distressed at not being able to place this building, and would appreciate hearing from you if you know more about it, or are able to identify it.

Fort Dearborn

I pushed open the doors to the gilded lobby of the London Guarantee Building and was taken aback by the glitter. My faint earlier acquaintance with this building was due to its connection with Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, who played in the Chicago Jazz Nightclub and Steakhouse which was once situated in this building. Looking at the lobby I found it easy to understand why one would move to the Vanguard in the Greenwich Village.

But the building itself is historic, as old as the storied Wrigley building. I walked out to find a plaque which said that Fort Dearborn was situated roughly here, at the mouth of the Chicago River. The area came to be part of the USA in 1795. The fort was first built in 1804, and became the nucleus around which the city of Chicago eventually grew. The Neshnabe native Indians defeated the army in a lightning strike and burnt down the fort. This is commemorated in a plaque at the head of the bridge across the Chicago river on Michigan Avenue, just across the road from the London Guarantee Building. The fort was rebuilt in 1816.

In a sense, I was standing at the historic beginning of Chicago when I entered this lobby.


I passed by a wall of shiny black granite on Michigan Avenue and looked up to find that it was the facade of the Carbide and Carbon Building. It reminded me of an interesting conversation I’d had the previous evening about things to see in Chicago. At dinner with a group of colleagues, all visitors to Chicago, someone asked about art in Chicago. There was a discussion of museums and famous public sculptures. Someone brought up blues. But in my mind the major art form of Chicago is architecture.

The Carbon and Carbide Building is an example. The lobby, which you see in the featured photo, reminds you of Flash Gordon comics. This is not an accident: this is how the future was imagined in 1929, when the building was finished. This Art Deco future influenced the look of the Flash Gordon comic strip of the 1930s. The vertical bank of video screens added to the lobby adds to this retro-future look.

When you step back a long way, the upper part of the building comes in view. It is an interesting burnt green in colour, with gilding at the top. The whole thing is mounted by a golden structure which is supposed to be a battery, but has led many people to think of the whole structure as a bottle of champagne.

Why a battery? Because this was the headquarters of the infamous Union Carbide, a company which was responsible for the world’s worst industrial accident in 1984. I remember the shock with which I read the headlines about a poisonous gas leak from its plant in Bhopal which affected about half a million people. The company got away lightly, some say with the collusion of the Indian government, paying a compensation which came to a little less than one dollar per affected person. Responsibility was diluted even further when the company merged with Dow Chemicals.

The building is now the Hard Rock Hotel. I prefer to think of this Chicago Landmark as a bottle of champagne.

Marshall Field aka Macy’s

Many years ago I came across a wonderful exclamation in a film whose name I’ve completely forgotten: “Ce n’est pas une chateau, c’est patisserie.” When you try to describe the Chicago establishment called Macy’s on State Street or the Marshall Field Building, patisserie is a word which comes easily to mind.

I’m not a great shopper, and when confronted with miles and miles of shopping racks, my neocortex shuts down. I head for the toilets. I bring you happy news from the trenches: the building has clean and usable toilets. The rest of the time I stood near the Lancome and Estee Lauder counters, gawking at the five storey tall atrium topped off with the piece of pattiserie you see in the featured photo. It is called the Tiffany’s mosaic ceiling.

Clock at the corner of State and Washington, Chicago

Exiting on State Street near where it meets Washington Street, I saw the signature clock of the building. Its said to be 6000 Kgs in weight, and is a popular landmark to meet at. I hope it is well anchored. The mural on the wall behind it celebrates Black History Month. That’s a wonderful tradition. I wish in India we had even a week dedicated to the history of the less-advantaged sections of society.