Wuhan Art Deco

wuhanconcessionWuhan is a sprawling town which incorporates the three former towns called Wuchang, Hanyang and Hankou. Wuchang is famous for the revolution of 1911 which overthrew the Qing dynasty and eventually gave rise to Kuomintang China. Across the Yangtze river from Wuchang is the square mile of Hankou which was ceded to foreign powers by the 1885 Treaty of Tientsin. I went to see the Wuhan Bund which was built as a flood-protection measure on the Hankou side of the river in 2005. While exiting the Bund on to Yanjiang Dadao, I noticed that there seemed to be several Art Deco buildings on the other side of the road. In the photo above you can see the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank right in the center. In the photo it appears in front of the tall blue tower called the Jiali Plaza, once the tallest building in Wuhan. Next to the HSBC bank is the old National City Bank of New York, now the ICBC Bank. These two buildings are flying the Chinese flag.

wuhanportI crossed the road and realized that the massive building which was once the Port of Hankou was also an Art Deco structure. You can recognize it in the clean curves you see in this photo. I wish I could read what’s written on the facade; I’m still unable to read calligraphic Chinese writing. Other parts of the port have the straight lines and curving flares typical of this style. The discovery of Wuhan’s Art Deco past was a bit of a jolt. I had very little time to explore it. I continued walking away from the Bund and towards a building that I later realized was the Old Customs House. At the street level, shops had put up their own facades, but if you looked higher you could see several buildings with tell-tale Art Deco lines and trim. I was amazed. This part used to be the old British Concession, and I’d expected the heavy late-Victorian architecture of the late 19th century, not the light and playful Art Deco of several decades later. Afterwards, when I thought about it I realized I should not have been surprised. Even in Mumbai there is a mixing of these two architectural styles.

2015-10-09 11.57.38On my ten minute walk I also saw Art Nouveau in many places. One example was this neglected gate: the superposition of the playful vines on the straight lines of the grilles is a lovely piece of Deco. This was almost my last discovery. My walk ended at the Customs House, and the Social Realist style statue nearby commemorating the city’s protection from floods. I realize now, while browsing the net, that this period of Wuhan’s architecture is well-known but ill-documented. Certainly the neglected gate above, with its mixture of Art Nouveau and Chinese styles is an unique, but unremarked heritage. When I go back I must devote more time to exploring this area.

The god of freedom

mukteshwarI visited two temples during my dash to Bhubaneshwar. One was the Rajarani temple. The other is the historically important Mukteshwar temple, built in the 10th century. The next millennium in Odisha would see elaborations of the new style this temple created: a free standing gate (torana), followed by a square outer chamber (jagamohan) topped by a pyramidal roof, and then the inner sanctum (garbagriha) with a spire (deul) over it, everything put on a raised plinth. The succeeding centuries would strip away the low wall around the temple. If the photo above looks so familiar now, it is because this style won acceptance over a thousand years.

toranaThe temple faces west, has a pool at the back, and is still in use. The priest made sure I removed my shoes at a respectable distance, and then stood next to the torana as I took a photo. As you can see from the scale he sets, the temple is small; the deul is perhaps 10 to 11 meters high. He would have taken charge of my visit if I’d not insisted on walking around first. He was fine with that. The arch of the torana is topped by two beautiful reclining female figures, a pair of monkeys and storks. The sandstone used in this temple must have been easy to sculpt, but the friable stone has begun to lose detail.

yakshaThere were nagas wrapped around exterior
pillars, but to me it seemed that these figures were more exquisitely done in the Rajarani temple. One difference was the repeated figures of yakshas hemmed into boxes. They strain to lift the roof and step out of their confinement.pancatantra Their faces are distorted with the effort, their already large bellies swelling as they strain.

Animals and people going about their daily lives share space on the external walls of the temple. I found an illustration of the story of the monkey and the crocodile from the Panchatantra in one column (see the photo on the right). I’d forgotten the story, but the sculptures brought back the memory. I guess that is what they are meant to do: reinforce what is already learnt.

I found two beautiful nature studies: a deer sitting under a tree, and a boar. There were several reliefs of ascetics instructing people. Interspersed with these was a group of figures showing someone walking with others bringing baggage behind him: perhaps a rich man out on travel with his servants. In other parts of the deul were a profusion of the usual standing female figures engrossed in various activities: looking at mirrors, carrying rice, and so on. There was a very nice miniature Nataraja (above the seated woman, in the top right photo in the collage below).

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When I’d examined the outside and started to cross the torana and go inside, the priest put away his cigarette and followed me. He pointed out various things so that I could take photos. The quadrangular jagamohan has latticed windows, but the light is provided by compact fluorescent lamps hanging in various places. The inside is also fully carved, but most of the carvings are religious. The ceiling is worth studying in detail: the center is taken up by a beautiful lotus. The south-east corner shows a dance in progress with musicians at the diagonally opposite corner.musicians You can see drums, cymbals, and the flute, all being played by women. In such a performance today, the musicians would mostly be male, and the dancers could also be of either sex. The other two corners show the audience: Shiva in one and Durga at the other. The elephant headed Ganesh and Kartik with his peacock are also in evidence. Above the lintel of the door to the garbagriha is a small Gajalakshmi. The lintel has a relief of the nava graha: the traditional nine planets. These are the sun and the moon, the five true planets visible with the naked eye, and Rahu and Ketu, mathematical constructs used to predict eclipses.

The inner chamber only has the shiva linga. The priest made a small offering for me and asked for a donation. I quickly put down what I thought was appropriate before he could make an outrageous suggestion. He was open to a small conversation. I found he has been the priest at the temple for thirty-one years. He followed his father and grandfather and expects that his son will follow him as the priest. He says his family have been priests at this temple for more than a thousand years. The donations to the temple constitute his only income.

There was a little garden outside and two pairs of lovers were sitting there, both engrossed in each other. I sat in the shade of a large tree and put on my shoes. The complex has several outlying temples which are no longer in use, but the hot and humid Shiva temple had rivers of sweat running down my body. My shirt was soaked, my jeans were wet and heavy with sweat. I had no energy to explore the other temples. Moreover, I was due at the airport soon.

I retreated. The Family wants to go there sometime; Odisha has always been a wonderful experience for us. I looked up the origin of the name Mukteshwar, the god of freedom. It should perhaps be interpreted as the god who gives freedom through yoga: Shiva is the great ascetic.

A temple like a jewel box

rajarani I had to make a trip to Bhubaneshwar on work. I’ve been there before, but never stopped for tourism in the “Town of Temples”. This time I took two hours to visit two beautiful small temples. One of them was the Rajarani temple. It was built in the 11th century, and is no longer in use. As a result, it is looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India. The name rajarani does not refer to a king (raja) and a queen (rani), but, as I learnt from an ASI info-board, to the local name of the sandstone used.

nagaIn the view above you can see that the temple faces east, and has a gate (torana), leading to an outer chamber (jagamohan) with a pyramidal roof, which in turn leads to an inner chamber with a spire (deul). The entrance door is about 2 meters in height, which would make the spire about 9 meters tall; small as these things go. The remarkable thing about this temple are the outer sculptures. You can see in the general view that the sculpture of nagas, women in the shape of snakes, are wrapped around the pillars of the torana. This theme recurs. On the right is a photo of a different column bearing beautiful naga figures.

nagafaceThe faces are beautiful even by today’s standards. Has our notion of beauty really changed so little in a thousand years? This close up of the face of one of the nagas shows the damage done to it. The hoods of the cobras surrounding the head are all damaged, and the woman’s nose is missing. Going by other figures on the facade, it would have been an aquiline nose, unlike that of most people in this region. Either the face is an idealization which came from some other part of the country, or the model was chosen for being exotic.

varunaOne of the most stunning sculptures is this one of Varuna, the dikpala (guardian) of the west. As you can see in the photo on the right, here he is shown in the medieval iconography holding the noose of judgement (pasa) in his left hand. This is one of the most beautiful depictions of Varuna which I remember seeing. The stone used in this sculpture is not the same as the red rajarani used in most of the temple. I wonder whether the stone was specially chosen to give him the canonical white (sphatika) complexion.

yamaThis badly damaged statue, shown at the left, is that of Kubera, the god of wealth, and the dikpala of the north. He should be holding a pot of wealth, but both hands are damaged, so you don’t know what the figure had in its hand. I base my identification on the fact that the statue faces north. Also, the statue resembles the usual medieval depictions of Kubera with the large belly, somewhat ungainly shape, lots of jewelry, and facial hair. The figure stands above an animal which could be a goat.

I spent almost an hour circumnavigating this temple. It is full of other worldly sculptures: women looking at themselves in mirrors, holding branches of trees, men and women in conversation. The incredibly detailed external sculptures are a contrast with the completely bare interior. The nagas and the other figures over the torana indicate that the temple would have been dedicated to Shiva. Otherwise, it would have been hard to say who was the deity when this jewel box of a temple was in use.

The forlorn Chhattar Manzil

chhattarmanzil

I read in a little brochure put out by the Archaelogical Survey of India that the Chhattar Manzil complex grew around the nucleus of a palace built by General Claude Martin for himself. This was sold to Nawab Saadat Ali Khan, who and whose successors built more around it to house themselves and their families. The same brochure tells me that the two connected buildings I see before me when I walk in through the gate marked CDRI are Chhattar Manzil and Farhat Bakhsh. The building with the minaret and round dome above it is the Chhattar Manzil, and to its left, as you face north, is Kothi Farhat Bakhsh. It was not clear to us whether we were trespassing, so we did not explore further.

In 1951 this complex was given to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which established the Central Drug Research Institute in this building. This prestigious institute outgrew the premises and moved out in 2012 when its new campus was ready. When we strolled in through one gate and out through another, the building seems to have been lying neglected for years. A rusty sign over a door proclaims a toilet. We see broken windows which clearly let in the rain. The derelict garden is host to a large number of butterflies. As we watch them, we hear a band of babblers quarrelling in the trees. It is a quiet Sunday morning in the busy heart of Lucknow.

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The imposing complex needs care. It served as a residence of the Nawabs until Wazir Ali Shah moved to his new palace in Qaiserbagh. The building still looks imposing, and it is clear that it can be renovated. A little work on the web led me to this feel-good news item about the state government’s plans to restore the complex and set up a museum and a library on the premises. The intention is good, and one hopes that the work begins soon.

The Lucknow Residency

A palace complex which may have belonged to the sons of the Nawab of Lucknow was given over for the use of the British Resident of Lucknow in 1800. The buildings are made of lakhauri brick and lime mortar, and still show signs of external decoration. In 1856 the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, was deposed by the British East India Company and exiled to Kolkata. The next year, the residency came under siege during the War of Independence. Although the siege was eventually lifted, Lucknow was abandoned until the end of the War.

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The Residency was left as a memorial to the war, and never reoccupied. Even today one can see the marks of cannonball and shot in the brick and plaster. The Archaeological Survey of India has had the complex in its care since 1920. In recent years there have been archaeological digs at one end of the site. Some of the artifacts which have been recovered are on display in the museum on the grounds. The extensive grounds are now well-manicured gardens. There are more lovers than tourists in the gardens: history has a way of forgetting wars.

The architecture of Awadh

Most of the great heritage structures in India are made of stone and some of them have an iron frame within. But in Avadhi architecture, brick and mortar has been shaped into impressive structures. —Vipul Varshney

Lucknow is full of grand architecture: the Rumi darwaza, once the entrance to the city, Chhattar Manzil, initially built for the Wazir, but eventually the residence of the Nawab, Sikandar Bagh, once Wazir Ali Shah’s summer residence, but now remembered as the spot where the Company massacred 2200 Indian soldiers, the immense Qaiser bagh complex, still impressive. However, the defining piece of architecture from Nawabi Lucknow is the Bara Imambara. It was built during the time of Asaf-ud-Daulah, the Nawab who moved the capital of Awadh from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775.

bi-naubatkhana

The Bara Imambara impresses. As I entered through the Naubatkhana with its huge fish symbols, I was prepared for marvels. They are there, but they reveal themselves slowly. You enter a gate, skirt a large garden and enter a second gate. After this there is a long walk to the Imambara.

baraimambara

From a distance the Imambara looks beaten down by rain. As you approach you can make out a line of windows across the top. These are the external windows in the famous maze: the bhool bhulaiya. On the right is the Asafi mosque: its grand minarets and domes the colour of the surkhi which is the mortar binding the lakhauri bricks together.

bi-baoli

Off to the left is the Shahi Baoli: a three story structure above the well which was dry on the day we saw it. We heard a guide telling his group that the well fills up when the Gomti river overflows. Since the baoli is within a few hundred meters of the river, it is possible that the level of the river water has something to do with the well. From the entrance about 50 steps leads down to a gate to the well, locked against visitors. We skirt the steps and walk straight into the second level above the well. This baoli is impressive in the abstract geometry of the repeated arches, and its interaction with the light, not in architectural decorations.

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As we turn to go we see the Asafi masjid framed in the entranceway to the baoli. This is a mellow view: the stark lines of the mosque filtered through intervening greenery. It strikes me then that the Bara Imambara is a statement about state power: the architect, Kifayatullah, is conscious of the distances that one would have to walk from one part of the complex to the other. Only worshippers are allowed into the mosque, so we walk up to the main attraction.

bi-bhoolbhulaiya

The characteristics of Awadhi architecture are the absence of iron and beams, the use of vaulted ceilings, multiple entrances on facades, parapets on roofs. All of these are present in front of us. Below the impressive facade is a kiosk selling water, other bottled drinks, and packets of snacks. It has been a very humid day, and we have used up all our water. We stock up, and as The Family drinks her cola, I look up at the blank arches of the bhool bhulayia right above us. The maze is supposed to have 489 identical doorways, and utilizes the differences in the heights of various rooms below it for part of its effect.

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The Bada Imambara is as impressive as I’d expected. The roof of the central hall is entirely without any support. This is even more impressive when you realize that there is no iron in the cantilevered roof: the 49.7 m by 16.6 m span is made entirely of lakhauri bricks, held together with mortar. A little search led to a paper on the material used written by some members of the Civil Engineering department of the nearby Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. The tomb of Asaf-ud-Daula lies under this impressive roof. This is flanked by two halls: the China hall is square at ground level, becomes octagonal higher up, then is sixteen sided at top, the roof of the India hall is segmented like an orange (although the word watermelon is used in various writings).

All that remained was a guided tour of the maze, and a demonstration of the impressive acoustics of the whispering gallery above the India room.

The Chhota Imambara under renovation

lakhauriarch

The Chhota Imambara dates from 1838, ie, the reign of Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah. The graves of the Nawab and his mother are inside the Imambara. You pass through a large gate before coming to the Imambara complex. Unlike the Rumi Darwaza, this gate is not in great repair, so you can actually see how lakhauri bricks and lime mortar were used to build these enormous arches. I took the photo above so that I could study the technique without putting a crick in my neck. The construction is really impressive.

ci-hamam

As one enters the complex through the Naubatkhana, the hamaam lies to the left. This is a beautiful space with lovely blue and rose coloured walls, elegant tiles and windows with green glass which let in a lovely modulated light. The CFL bulb hanging above the bath was wholly unnecessary during the day. The hamam does not seem to be in use today.

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One of the most elegant parts of this complex is the Jawab opposite the grave of Muhammad Ali Shah’s daughter, Zeenat Algiya. It was attractive in the half-light of the monsoon, when I took the photo above. It remained attractive when the clouds blew away and the evening sun came out to play on the white exterior.

ci-lakhauriarch
The Chhota Imambara belongs to the Husainabad Trust, which has now started on a well-meaning exercise to renovate the main structure. We saw the arches above the lovely carved wooden doors being renovated. The older construction was of lakhauri brick and mortar, as you can see in the photo alongside. The structure of this arch is similar to that of the large arch in the photo on top.

ci-cementarch Unfortunately, these lovely old arches are being replaced by modern ones in reinforced cement, like the one on the left. The new arches are not ugly, they are quite nice and modern; but they efface the history of the structure. I hope that the detailed plans of the old structure remain in some architect’s studies. In future if the Trust wishes to return to a historically more accurate restoration they would come in useful.

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The Imambara contains elegant pieces of Arabic calligraphy in the form of birds. However, what left us stunned was the gaudy collection of lamps. I’ve never seen so many lamps and chandeliers, apparently all from Belgium, collected into such a small space. The effect is overwhelming. The Family asked a caretaker whether they are all lit sometime. We were told that they are lit during Muharram. We were invited to come and join the queue to devotees who flock to see this marvel. It must be, indeed.

Life around Rumi Darwaza

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Rumi Darwaza was built in the time of the first Nawab of Lucknow, Asaf ud Daulah. The monumental structure of lakhauri brick and surkhi mortar was the entrance to the Nawabi capital city, the gate to the fabled hospitality of Awadh. The arch is topped by an octagonal cupola which was originally meant to contain lights. Around the exterior of the arch one can still see the pipes which made up an immense fountain. If this ever worked, then the underlying hydraulics would have been wonderful indeed, so I’m surprised to find no references to it at all. One can see a gallery half way up the interior, and I read that there is a staircase to access it. I did not search for the stairs. I walked through the gate, which now is a conduit for a constant stream of extremely variable traffic.

taxi

On the outside of the gate is a busy road, in process of being widened. At the corner of every road which feeds into it is a taxi stand. The variety of taxis and rickshaws was incredibly large. If you ever need to count how many different kinds of vehicles can be made into taxis, just come to one of these cross roads. I’m sure it will be hard to exceed any count made here.

kachori

One of the most interesting things about the area is the food. Lucknow is reputed to be a place for refined food: kababs which melt before they pass your lips, slow-cooked biryani, figs and apricots in curries, multiply-layered roti. But around this gate I found carts which were full of simpler puri, kachori, and alu tikki, all doing good business at lunch time. Interspersed with them were the carts where you could get grilled corn: bhutta. In the middle of the day they did not seem to attract customers, but the fact that there were several carts meant that later in the day their popularity would rise.

bhutta

There are no tourists outside the Rumi Darwaza, they stay on the Lucknow side of the gate, where the Bada Imambara lies. In spite of the fact that there are interesting buildings on the outside, like the Picture Gallery and the Chhota Imambara, this seems to be the domain of the locals.

Meditation in a Lucknowi Kothi

The facade of Jarnail Kothi (aka General Kothi)
The facade of Jarnail Kothi (aka General Kothi)

The building now known as General Kothi was constructed in Nawab Saadat Ali Khan’s time (1798 to 1814). The first resident was Shas-ud-Daulah, the Nawab’s eldest son and the general of his army. It seems to have got its present name during the time of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (1847 to 1856). His chief of the army, Hashmat Ali, who lived in this building, liked to be known as a General, giving rise to this name, and its variant, Jarnail Kothi.

General Kothi: central hall
General Kothi: central hall

The General Kothi is now undergoing restoration and the museum at the Residency will be moved here once the work is completed. This is being called an example of a new idea called adaptive re-use of ancient monuments. When you think about it, the first example of this idea which comes to mind is the building right next door: the palace complex called the Chhattar Manzil which used to belong to the Nawab.

General Kothi: arched doorways leading from the central hall to the northern gallery
General Kothi: arched doorways leading from the central hall to the northern gallery

In the days immediately after independence, the complex was given over to the Central Drug Research Institute. In retrospect one wonders whether it is wise to re-purpose an important historical space, without providing an adequate budget for conservation. The CDRI gets its funding through the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, under the Ministry of Science and Technology. However, conservation funding is usually channeled through the Ministry of Culture. Looking at the delapidated state of the Chhattar Mazil today, one wonders whether its conservation has fallen foul of the usual turf lines between ministries: Culture does not own it, and Science and Technology budgets cannot be used for conservation.

General Kothi: arches leading from the central hall to the southern gallery
General Kothi: arches leading from the central hall to the southern gallery

The restoration work in the General Kothi brings up questions of its own. The inside looks beautiful. The surkhi colour of the walls looks authentic, the details on the arches are lovingly done. But the bricks stacked up for the work are modern. A building of this age may have been originally done in lakhauri brick. I walked around to the back and found an exposed part of the exterior which still has older plasterwork. In the parts where the plaster has fallen away, the bricks visible are modern. How can this building then be as old as the early 19th century? Was there an earlier restoration which I could not trace?

General Kothi: the northern gallery.
General Kothi: the northern gallery.

I’ll love to come back here when the work is complete and the museum of the 1857 war has moved here. I hope that by then there will also be a small exhibit on the history of this building which answers the questions I now have.

Himeji castle

himejia

Himeji Castle is one of the most spectacular castles in Japan. I was specially lucky to be there so soon after the end of a five-year period of renovation. I first saw this castle in Akira Kurosawa’s movies Kagemusha and Ran. For years I seemed to remember Toshiro Mifune in Ran walk up to the gate of this castle and order it to be opened. Years later, on a second view, I saw that Toshiro Mifune does not appear in the movie, and the person who gives the futile order is Tatsuya Nakadai. The brilliant colours of Kurosawa’s movies were not in evidence today: the sky was heavy with clouds preceding typhoon Nangka, which is supposed to hit this part of Japan tonight. But my first view of Himeji castle was breathtaking.

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The name Shirasagi-Jo, White Heron Castle, seems appropriate to the imposing structure in pure white edged with black. I climbed 40 meters or so to the seventh floor of the main keep (tenshuku). The castle stands on a stone base, but the main structure is wooden. In about 1610 Ikeda Terumasa, who was given the castle by Tokugawa Ieyasu, finished rebuilding it in its present form. It is now a world heritage site, and a national treasure. When you see it, you have no problem understanding why.

himejic It turns out that the world heritage status could have been removed if the renovation had kept less than 70% of the original material, or used design elements or techniques not in keeping with the original construction. Also, several additions made in the 19th and 20th centuries have been removed. The castle is therefore closer to what it was in the 17th century than it has been in the last two hundred years.

However, the two main pillars which hold up the seven story central keep have been replaced during the Showa period. The east pillar is reputed to have been a single fir tree, but it is now certainly not a single piece of wood. The west pillar was originally a single cypress tree. During a Showa era restoration a replacement cypress tree was brought as a replacement, but broke during installation. The joint can be seen today in the third floor of the castle.

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As I left the castle and approached the inner moat I saw one of the local gray herons sitting and looking at the castle. It kept a wary eye on me as I took a close up.