Nezu shrine

The Nezu shrine was not at the top of our list. It is said to have been founded in Sendagi, one train station to the north of its present location, and rebuilt by Ota Donkan in the 15th century CE. The fifth Tokugawa shogun moved it to its present location in 1705. His successor, Tokugawa Ienobu, chose it as his guardian shrine. Later, the Meiji emperor worshipped here. Since it remained untouched in the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1945, it is now one of the oldest shrines in the city. Still, we would have dropped it from our itinerary if we hadn’t read about the Tsutsuji matsuri, the Azalea festival which takes place there in the last week of March. So the first thing we did on our first morning in Tokyo was to go there. The azalea festival was petering out; the flowers had begun to wilt; but we were happy to see Nezu Jinja.

You know when you have arrived at the shrine because of the torii with lanterns which leads off the approach lane into the grounds. If you can read kanji, then carved characters on the stone monolith next to the shrine will tell you where you are. The path curves around a tall tree and leads you across a bridge over a carp pond to the big two-storied gate, the romon. The photo in the gallery shows the main hall, the hondo, as seen through the romon. We didn’t enter the hondo. It is said to be a smaller copy of Nikko Toshogu, and we’d been there the previous day. Instead we walked out by the Karamon gate at one side which pierces the latticed wall called the sukibei.

From here a path led uphill. On one side, we could visit the secondary Otomi Inari shrine. Inari is the name of fox god in the Shinto belief system, and he is associated with rice. He could be the most popular kami, god, in Japan, with over 30,000 Inari shrines across the country. Buddhism also adopted these shrines, which can be identified by the vermilion torii which lead to them. In the most interesting shrines, these torii become a tunnel, which I imagine is some kind of a foxhole.

We could have turned into the gate which led to the azalea garden, but The Family said “They are mostly gone. Let’s see what’s on the other side. So we took the fork lined with vermilion torii forming a long and winding tunnel. We walked through it, took a couple of selfies, and emerged on the other side, where two statues of guardian foxes flank the path. Next to the path was a white shrine with red laquered woodwork. Clearly this must have been the Inari shrine. The path continued beyond.

Beyond this we entered a shaded area under trees. A first space was called the Enzuka, and is said to contain the placenta of Tokugawa Ienobu. I was surprised to see reliefs of gods with multiple arms. They did not seem to correspond to any of the Buddhist or Hindu gods that I knew. I guess multi-armed images may represent anyone who is considered powerful. Perhaps this relates to the shogun, but it will be nice to find out for sure. Beyond this is was a space guarded by many statues of foxes.

This is the space called Bungo no ishii, the Stone of the Literary Masters. I was surprised to find that one of the Japanese books I’d read, I am a Cat, is connected to this place through its writer Natsume Soseki, one of the Literary Masters who were inspired by this place. Amusingly, he has been turned into an anime character who wears a bowler hat, and sometimes takes on the shape of a cat. I looked at the light filtering through Japanese maples here. “I could find inspiration here”, I told The Family.

Town, sky, river

Some days are perfect for walks. For a week I’d been afraid that our single day in Nikko would be washed out by thunderstorms. But in the last two days the prediction had changed. When the day broke, I looked out at a cloud flecked sky, sunny and with a nip in the air. It was going to be a long day on foot, and it was the perfect weather for that. By the time the thunderstorm hit in the late afternoon, we planned to be on the train to Tokyo.

We were planning to take a bus to the Toshogu shrine, and then walk back in the afternoon through the town. But the wonderful weather changed our minds. We got off at the bus stop to the shrine, and then walked back along the Daiya river to the 17th century Shinkyo (sacred bridge). Thirty years after I’d first seen it, the bridge has been strengthened and you can buy a ticket to walk across it. We didn’t bother to do that. Standing on the bank of the river I look a photo of the tall grass next to us, the rushing stream, and the beautiful spring growth on the trees across from us.

The village of Nikko grew up next to an area considered sacred in the old Shinto belief, especially Mt. Nantai. Some day we will go back to visit the 8th century Futarasan jinja and hike its god, the mountain. The Toshogu shrine was built with some thought in this spot in the 17th century, thereby associating the godhood of Tokugawa Iyeasu with the other gods of the region. Standing by the rushing stream, in the narrow valley between hills, it was not hard to understand why the whole area must have seemed sacred to the people who live here.

So much of the mood of a scene depends on the light which you see it by. I pointed my phone to one side and caught the sunny sky, with the bright growth of spring. When I turned to take a view on the other side, clouds had slid across the sun, and a dark atmosphere had fallen across the same hills. After looking at the Shinkyo, we walked back up the slope to the Toshogu shrine. The sky remained wonderful throughout the morning.

A bit of mid-morning dango, and grilled fish on a skewer kept us going through the long walk inside the shrine. When we emerged, the storm clouds were peeping over the surrounding mountains. We walked to the neighbouring Rinno-ji, and the play of sunlight and clouds gave us a wonderful view of the main hall. The weather eventually broke with a crack of thunder and instant downpour, immediately after we’d boarded the train on our way out of Nikko. The sky and the gods of the mountain had been good to us.

The blue hour in Asakusa

Fire, earthquake, war and growth have ensured that looking for ancient buildings in Tokyo is a fool’s errand. Still, Senso-ji is worth a visit; it is the temple with the oldest tradition in Tokyo, and already had a thousand year history when Tokugawa Iyeasu designated it the main temple of his clan. Shops which always spring up around temples were organized into rows around the street called Nakamise-dori in the late 19th century CE. In 2012 the Asakusa Culture and Tourist Information Center was built at the other end of this street to a design by Kengo Kuma. By contriving to look like, and function as, several old-style buildings piled on top of each other, this high rise blends into the neighbourhood, in line with the architect’s philosophy.

Thoroughly exhausted after a day of walking, we sat in the observation deck of Kuma’s wonderful high rise and waited for the sun to set. As dusk fell, the area came alive with lights. I took a few photos of shoppers in Nakamise-dori as The Family concentrated on the fascinating spectacle of the Tokyo Skytree on the other side of the Sumida river. We’d waited long enough, and it was time now to walk to the temple and see it close up.

But as I stood at the road waiting to cross I saw something that is hardly ever visible in the tropics: the wonderful blue hour of spring. When the sun is sufficiently far below the horizon, the sunlight scattered through the ozone layer is absorbed to give the lovely colour of the sky that you see in the gallery above. The sun hits the horizon at a slant, and the ozone layer is thicker, away from the tropics, giving a long period at dusk with this beautiful sky.

As the sky grew darker we passed the first gate, the Kaminarimon, with its single giant lantern, walked through the Nakamise-dori, where the shops were closing, past the double-storied second gate, the Hozomon, with its three lanterns and two giant sandals, into the forecourt of the temple, where tourists were busy getting their fortunes told. There was a queue of people still waiting to get to the temple. We walked around, looked at the five storied pagoda of the Asakusa shrine next to the temple, the lovely small garden to one side, in front of which two young men did a wonderful synchronized dance as a girl took their video against the lit-up temple, and the panels on Nakamise-dori which told the story of the founding of the temple. There is a lot to see here, and you need to either keep some time aside for Senso-ji, or come back again and again.

Modernism in Hiroshima

After the end of the war, the writing of its new constitution, and the re-establishment of a Japanese civil government, the city of Hiroshima decided to build a memorial to the atomic bombing of the city. The competition for the design was won by the architect Kenzō Tange. A beautiful element of this design was to align the axis of the cenotaph memorial to the dead with the remnant of the Genbaku dome. That is the remnant of a dome built in 1915 to the design of the Czech architect Jan Letzel. The cenotaph brings to my mind torii, the doors which lead to spiritual spaces in Japan. So I was delighted to find that Tange attributes the hyperbolic paraboloid shape of the structure to some of the earliest Japanese religious structures.

In the photo above you see the long axis of the Peace Museum. This is aligned to the same axis along which the view in the featured photo was taken. Tange later won the Pritzker Prize for his design of the St. Mary’s Church in Tokyo. But this modernist museum is my own favourite. Perhaps that is because it reminds me of the building in which I have been fortunate enough to spend most of my working life. In a certain sense modernism is not foreign to Japan; its traditional architecture uses the clean lines and repeating elements of modernist architecture. But more importantly, by using pillars as load-bearing elements in a building, modernist architecture can open up the walls and melt the separation between inside and outside of the building. This approach parallels the sliding panels of some traditional Japanese structures.

Opening up the walls of a building, or making it of glass, makes sense only when the outside has the kind of light and appearance which you want to bring into your living. The open park-like setting of the Peace Memorial and the Peace Boulevard that connects it to the rest of the city is exactly the kind of view that you might want modernist structures to open into. It brings to mind Japanese gardens with their viewing pavilions and tea houses. When we walked through it, the space was green. Azaleas were blooming everywhere, and among the green leaves of momiji I could spot a couple of lovely Japanese red maple trees. The curtains of paper cranes draped on various shrines inside the park express a sentiment which echoes Einstein’s reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: “The time has come now, when man must give up war.”

Wordless in Ginza

The oldest surviving building in Ginza, the Hattori clocktower, now with a Seiko store, faces the Matsukoshi department store across Ginza square.

But the area is full of extremely modern buildings by some of the world’s top architects.

Naya Sadak, Cuttack

A major road in the middle of Cuttack, formerly the capital of Odisha, named in Hindi? Naya Sadak may have been new in the 19th century, but must have certainly been renamed more than a century later. We wandered along the road, The Family looking at the jewellery shops and silver filigree that the town is famous for. I kept an eye on the big houses lining the street. The decorative facades with a medley of themes, dragons, peacocks, zig-zag lines, rippling curves, picked out in mortar, marked them as mid to late 19th century constructions. These would have been the homes of the upper crust, the merchants and jewellers. The first support for political self-determination, within the legal framework of the British empire, would have come from here.

The dilapidated state of the two houses that were the most grand told me that the family that built them probably sold the properties piecemeal, perhaps first the shops on the ground floor, and then, one by one, the flats that the upper floors would have been converted into as the joint family disintegrated. In the shadowed verandahs of an upper floor I could see a row of pillars with wonderful segmental arches between them. Some of the arches contained riotous decorations in mortar and plaster, echoing the ornamentation of the capitals of the pillars. Others had large fanlights. It looked like the whole building had changed function; it seemed unlikely that anyone lived there.

I wondered what these rich merchants thought when the political movements they supported turned against the empire and started demanding independence. The fieriest opponent of the empire was born five lanes away, in an area where the lawyers and doctors had made their (less) grand mansions. Subhash Chandra Bose was a divisive figure who disagreed with the tool of non-violence and raised an army to fight the empire. From the mass of documents from that time, diaries, letters, government dispatches, and memoirs, it is clear that the merchant families were divided. On one extreme, some retreated even from their earlier timid demands, and some at the other extreme, covertly supporting the armed movement.

Another grand mansion stood across the road. I had a little difficulty taking its photos because I was shooting against the light. Where did the dragon finials come from? They could be saying that this family’s money, now clearly vanished, came from the opium trade with China. It was quite as devastating for India as it was for China, since rice and wheat farmers were forced to grow opium by the agents of the East India Company. Famines and mass addiction followed, but merchants who dealt in the drug grew rich. It is quite remarkable how much moral ambiguity can be discovered in the wrack line of the world left as the tide of the first capitalist empires ebbed.

Bindu Sagar

Bindu Sagar is the focus of most of the religious activity in Old Bhubaneswar. This rectangular spring fed tank is perhaps the oldest existing structure in the vicinity, predating the current form of the Lingaraj Temple with which it is associated. I’m pretty certain that keeping the water clean would be a big job, although going by the number of people swimming and taking a bath in it, the water is safe enough for an occasional dip.

The temple in the center was the first thing that I noticed. I’ve heard it called the Brahma temple, but it is more properly called Jagati. Every May the images of Lingaraja, Parvati, Rukmini and Basudeva are taken to this temple every day in a ritual called the Chandan Yatra. Going by the sweltering heat of late March when we visited, the crowds here in May would be rather unbearable. The photos that I’ve seen are so colourful that I’m still inclined to do the trip one year.

After exiting the Ananta Basudeva temple I stood near the tank and looked around the tank. The embankments and steps were made of dressed blocks of the local laterite, bound in dry mortar. People were sitting in the shade around the tank, or going up and down the steps to take a dip. There was a constant stream of activity around the tank.

I heard some chants from nearby. Looking over the parapet I saw a small ritual going on. A priest (with his back to the camera) was performing some puja for the man in front of him. Their voices, when they spoke, was a murmur, and I could not figure out what the rituals were.

We walked around to the Mohini temple on the southern bank of the tank. From there The Family took the photo that you see above of the place we had come from. You can see some of the deuls (spires) of the Ananta Basudeva temple in this photo. It was still too early to go back there and eat the prasad that we’d seen being cooked in the kitchens of the temple. I was pretty sure that the food would be wonderful.

Love and war

Chāmunda is the reigning goddess of the Mohini temple. This small temple on the south bank of the Bindu Sāgar tank is usually overlooked by the visitors who walk between the Lingarāja and the Ananta Vāsudeva temples. We had to walk down some steps from the road to the path around the tank, and then climb a short flight of stairs up to the area of the temple. I’d read two blogs, one from 2015, and another from 2020 which implied that the temple was surrounded by houses. They are now cleared, and a unimpeded view of the northern elevation greeted us. It is a small temple, just the jagamohana in the east (the lower spire in the photo alongside), less formal and religious in purpose, and the sanctum behind it, with the high spire. The temple is said to date from the 9th century, and is ascribed to the queen Mohini Devi of the Bhauma-Kara dynasty. Perhaps the history is more complicated.

We walked around it looking at the sculptures on the exterior. There were lovely carvings of Ganesha and Kārtikeya. But my eyes snagged on the sculptures of the dikpālas, the vedic gods who guard the various directions. Varuna, identifiable by the noose (pāsa) faced east, instead of the traditional west. Indra (armed with lightning and riding an elephant) and Ishāna (armed with a mace and riding a bull) faced west. They are usually seen facing east and northeast respectively. On the northern side of the temple was a sculpture of Yama riding his buffalo. I would have expected him to face south. It looked as if the temple should have been rotated 180 degrees. Had I made a mistake? I looked at the sun. I looked at my watch. I confirmed with the GPS on my phone. No I hadn’t. The dikpālas facing in the wrong direction is a great mystery about this temple, and someone with a much deeper knowledge of history than me is needed to solve it.

This photo shows another woman’s figure on the northern side of the temple. I was struck by the beautiful modelling of the figure. The figures from the frieze at the base of the temple seemed to be less well modelled than the ones on the outer wall of the jagamohan. You can see an example in the shown in the featured photo. I found this bit particularly interesting— the figures of the people making love are twice the size of those engaged in war. If people had built around the haphazardly, then possibly the base would have been subject to more damage than the upper parts. Perhaps that’s what I saw.

The Family had found the sculptures above the entrance door of the jagamohan. The nine figures represent the navagraha, the nine planets. These include the five visible planets, the sun and the moon, and the two mathematical entities which are called Rāhu and Ketu. Interestingly, the first seven figures looked the same to me, but Rāhu and Ketu were quite different. The two represent the points at which the orbit of the moon crosses the ecliptic (the path of the sun in the sky). The point at which the moon enters the northern hemisphere is called Rāhu, the one where it crosses going southwards is called Ketu. Eclipses can only occur when the moon is at these two points, which gives rise to the associated story of Rāhu and Ketu being two demons who try to swallow the moon and the sun.

I’d grown up with stories of these demons even before I understood the science behind it. It strikes me now that this conversion of mathematics to stories is a wonderful way of preserving scientific knowledge. These days when the love of knowledge is being overwhelmed by a war against it, perhaps this could be adopted as a deliberate strategy for passing hard won knowledge down to the future.

Krishna forever

Translating Ananta Vāsudeva (ଅନନ୍ତ ବାସୁଦେବ in Odia) required a little thought. Vāsudeva (sanskrit: वासुदेव) is Krishna of course, the son of Vasudeva (sanskrit: वसुदेव) and ananta exactly translates into endless. The title of this post is a close translation into modern English. That’s the temple in Bhubaneshwar which you see in the featured photo. The temple’s genesis is known precisely due to a carved stone tablet which says that it was dedicated in 1278 CE by the queen Chandrika Devi, daughter of king Anangabhima 3 of what we call today the Eastern Ganga dynasty. The tablet can be seen in the Royal Asiatic Society collection where it was taken after it was hacked out at the behest of Major General Charles Stuart of the British East India Company. It is believed that the current temple was built over the foundations of an earlier temple to Vishnu. It was extensively renovated by the Marathas in the 17th century.

Although it is nearly as large as the nearby Lingaraj temple, it is not as popular with worshippers and tourists. That made it ideal for a short visit. The date of construction of the Ananta Vāsudeva temple makes it a contemporary of the more famous Konarak Sun temple. It was not a far stretch to imagine that some of the same artists could have worked there. In fact the human figures that I saw on the base and on the walls of the temple were equally well modelled. I will probably post later with some more photos of the figures on the exterior. There was an interesting, and very visible, difference between the stone used for the base (gallery above) and the spires (gallery below). The strength and weight of building materials are always considerations for an architect.

We spent much longer at this temple than we’d thought we would. It is a working temple, with granite sculptures of Krishna, his brother Balarama, and sister Subhadra in the garbagriha. I’m glad that we stayed longer, because we noticed the enormous amount of food being cooked in the kitchens, and got to taste some. But that is a story for later.

Behind a railway crossing

Just before we came to the highway we had to cross the railway tracks. The gate was closed and we queued behind a couple of motorbikes. This is where I’d seen an interesting tree, so I got off to take a photo. I meet these lopsided trees now and then and I always wonder about the individual history of the tree: how did it come to take that shape. In this case I also wondered about why the tree didn’t just topple over. Presumably that trunk is so thick that it can take the weight of the lopsided canopy.

I saw a small cluster of buildings around the crossing. I suppose that this cluster had started as some small kiosks to serve people who were waiting to cross. Then perhaps the people who set up the kiosk decided to avoid a two kilometer walk and instead make a house here. In these back roads there is no public transport at all. You either walk or have a bicycle or motorbike. Few can afford cars. And there is also a gender divide in mobility.

The brightly coloured walls of the houses indicated that the settlement was very recent. I like the local custom. When a couple gets married they make a little house and announce their wedding on its wall with a lovely painting. So much nicer than the name plates that we have in cities. All the buildings were built to the same pattern: a longish single storied block with a single metal door to one side, with a roof corrugated metal. The individuality was in the colours the family had chosen.