The founding of Amritsar is counted from 1577 CE, the date of the digging of the lake, Amrit Sarovar, at the behest of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. A few years later Harmandir Sahib was first constructed in the lake, connected by a single causeway. His successor, Guru Arjun, placed a copy of the Adi Granth in it in the year 1604 CE. During the years when the Sikhs were in conflict with the Mughals the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure comes from 1830 CE, when the Khalsa emperor, Ranjit Singh, had the marble and gilded copper temple built.
I’d expected to spend a long time in the area, trying to figure out the best light and angles. But I was lucky with the light. Sunset, and perhaps sunrise, are the best light for photography, and my first visit happened to be at this hour. I missed one thing, the daily journey of the Granth Sahib from the Akal Takht to the Harmandir Sahib and back. So there is a reason for me to go back.
South of the Golden temple, a couple of hundred meters away, is a lovely Gurudwara that is often missed. Although the nine storey high octagonal tower of the Gurudwara Baba Atal Rai Ji is the tallest structure in the old city, it is not easily visible from the narrow streets around the Golden Temple. We made our way there one night. It is hard to get a good view of the tower from the ground because of all the structures which hem in your viewpoint, and all the photos that I have seen have the foreshortening that you find in mine.
In the early 17th century this was a cenotaph for, Baba Atal Rai, a son of the sixth Guru Hargobind. About two hundred years later, during the time of Ranjit Singh, it was coverted to a Gurudwara, when the tower and lake were constructed. It is a place worth visiting because of the many late 19th and early 20th century murals that are painted into the walls of the tower. The murals depict the life of Guru Nanak, as told in the Janamsakhi. Some of the murals are badly damaged, and the work of restoration is on. I wish we had taken the time to see this during the day.
The concierge at our hotel told The Family about a lantern festival in the Cheonggyecheon area of Seoul. “All the way in this cold drizzle to see lanterns” the bear in me protested. But The Family refused to let me sit and read. After nightfall we walked down to the stream and joined a large number of people gawking at the lanterns. The rain had stopped by the time we reached the floating barges with lanterns. On that cold November night, the sight felt like a warm bowl of Seoul-eseo on chikin supeu, or chicken soup from Seoul.
I quite enjoyed myself as I looked at the elaborate scenes from life in the Joseon era. The era spanned five hundred years, and life must have evolved during those centuries. But these spectacles are not meant for such nuanced views. I liked the floats that showed normal life: metalsmiths, farmers, school children. We saw the fourth edition of a Lantern Festival which is held in this place every November since 2009. It mirrors an older lantern festival in the town of Jinju in October of every year, commemorating the fall of Jinju Castle in 1593 to Japanese forces led by Hideyoshi.
Where am I? Not a question I normally get to ask, but the featured photo raised exactly that question. Germany? Switzerland? Austria? Bratwurst and umbrellas, could be Bavaria. This day’s photos were sandwiched between some from Regensburg and others from Paris. Bavaria, most certainly. But I had lost all memories of that day. I was definitely going from Regensburg to Paris, and I had stopped for a day somewhere. Other clues?
These two photos did not jog my memory. Nice early 20th century figures, and the windows behind them also look like they are from that time. Most of the large cities in this area were heavily bombed in the world war. These were lucky survivors. The writing on the medallion below one of the figures was a clue. I could search for Schaeffler Eck, but that would definitely give too many hits.
This clinched it. I was in Munich. These lions stand outside the Residenz Museum. At the bottom of the photo you can see a hand reaching up to touch the bottom of the shield. That is a local legend about how touching the lions brings you luck. That little segment at the bottom of the shield is brighter than the rest of the metal because it has been polished by the hands of many Muernchners and tourists. The lion, or at least its photo, turned out to be lucky for me.
Then this door had to belong to the Frauenkirche, now used as the cathedral of Munich. The church was first built in the 12th century CE just outside the city walls. This unusually plain late-Gothic brick building dates from a 16th century rebuilding. It was one of the buildings heavily damaged in the wartime bombings, and its reconstruction was completed only in 1994. Now my memory was back. I’d taken this photo, walked around to the new town hall to see the famous clock strike the hour, walked around the center, and then walked back near the church to find a pleasant place for some beer and a bratwuerst, before going on to catch the evening train to Paris.
I don’t think it was a disagreement over commissioned or guerilla art. They quite enjoy Banksy, but they also loved the works of anonymous Bihari folk artists who’d been commissioned by the state government to paint on certain stretches of walls. It may be that the durability of the piece was an issue. I was unwilling to yield this ground. Durability is a concern in the commerce surrounding art. Insistence on it would leave out the most spectacular works of Cai Guo-Qiang: the fireworks displays which are incredible pieces of street art. There is a documentary called “Stairway to Heaven” on his art which is available on Netflix, and several video recordings on YouTube. They bear the same relation to the work that my photos of murals do.
Were they trying to distinguish between artistic intent and accident? I wouldn’t disagree with this criterion. Leonardo da Vinci advised: “‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.” But for every artist, including perhaps all photographers, the accident is the seed around which the artist’s intention crystallises. The bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Ku’damm in Berlin has mosaics which are now visible from the street. Is this street art? I believe not. The intention of the bombing raid was not to convert the church into a piece of art. It can’t even be compared to Marcel Duchamp painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It is only in the imputation of artistic intent to works that people might differ.
So let me just stick to a simple definition of art: any deliberate attempt to please the senses. And go with a simple definition of street art: any art that is freely available to a passerby. I give you some of my favourites in the slideshow above.
Would you stay in a 350 years old house? We looked at what other travelers had written, and decided it wasn’t risky. The owner explained that it was not a palace, “We are not royals.” He was very clear about the distinction. “There were only two kings in Marwar,” he explained to The Family, “Jodhpur and Udaipur.” The explanation of the differences between royals and jagirdars, land-holding princes, was a page out of history books. He cannot call the house a haveli either. Those belonged to merchants. He gets around it by repurposing a word which is never used in this context. He calls his place a castle.
We parked in the forecourt of the property and walked in through a grand door. It was probably built to the proportions of an elephant with a howdah. Royals did visit this place in those early days. Like most such old houses, the building was somewhat haphazard. Different wings had been added on at different times. Photos had shown this place as white with red trim. Now it was a dazzling white. There was a complex explanation. The old man, the owner, was full of stories. It was interesting to sit with him over a drink before dinner.
We had a choice of rooms. The manager walked us through the place. The oldest wing was very interesting. A bathroom had part of an ancient painting on the roof. I was told that it was 300 years old. I’m not a student of art history, so I can’t tell. Perhaps you can tell from the featured photo whether this appears to be a Marwari painting from three centuries ago. Apparently maintenance had been planned for early 2020, but then the lockdown happened. During that time a small tremor shook down some of the plaster, carrying part of the painting into history. The owner was quite crestfallen when I asked him about it. “I am told they can use our photos to restore it. But I can’t lie about its age. I have to tell people that parts are modern.”
The rooms in the oldest wing are charming, but small. We chose to stay in a wing which was two hundred years younger. This part of the building has interesting painted terra cotta panels embedded into the external walls. They seemed to have served some ritual purpose, because they flank niches with place for lamps.
Was there room service? “No,” one of the men said, “but I will be outside your room. Call me if you need something.” He stayed out of sight but available, behind a wooden screen with champa flowers peeping over it. We didn’t need much. The room was good, very clean, and the food was excellent Marwari fare. I discovered that the approved traditional way to eat bati and churma is not with dal, but with laal maas.
There was no wifi. Bera has good mobile connectivity. We could live without free broadband for a weekend. The rooms were otherwise wonderful, each a little suite. The furniture was what The Family called antique, but the owner said was just little things which had been in the family. He had stories about how he had to pull them out of storage and have them polished and repaired.
Our room had photos of horses and polo players on the walls. I thought I recognized one of the former kings of Jaipur in a photo taken after a fall during a polo match. When I mentioned this to the owner he said that the team mate next to him was his grandfather’s younger brother. I was treated to a walk through the bar, and a view of treasured photos of his grandfather, a polo champion, winning matches and hob-nobbing with the likes of Prince Philip and other famous polo players. Those times are past, but family stories live on. Although we enjoyed the weekend, he did not manage to make royalists of us.
Ram Singh Malam, the Kutchi polymath, designed a palace for Rao Lakhpatji, a rajah with an equally wide-ranging mind. It was called Aaina Mahal. A literal translation would be Palace of Mirrors. I prefer to call it the Palace of Illusions. When it was built in 1750 it must have been a stunning sight. Faults in the Indian continental plate which developed 180 million years ago during the breakup of ancient Gondwanaland triggered an earthquake of magnitude 7.7 on Republic Day, 2001, in Kutch. Bhuj is about 20 kilometers away from the epicenter, and the palace was badly damaged. It had housed the state museum. In the aftermath of the quake, many of the pieces that remained were stolen. The restoration is slow because of the lack of funds.
Looking at the palace today, you have to work hard to imagine the opulence that impressed people even thirty years ago. Visiting in the early 19th century, a Marianne Postans wrote a travel memoir called Cutch; Or Random Sketches, Taken During a Residence in One of the Northern Provinces of Western India; Interspersed with Legend in 1839, where she describes the palace in these words, “Feeling quite inadequate to the task of presenting the reader with a catalogue raisonné of all the unnamable articles of virtù, which adorn this chosen retreat of luxurious royalty, I must request him to imagine himself introduced, by some wholesale glass dealer, to his sample room, where, amongst jelly glasses, and old vases, are introduced some half dozen antique musical clocks, all playing at once, and the whole display brilliantly illuminated by large wax candles at noon-day!”
A small part of the palace has been restored and is on display, as part of the state museum. The rooms are now overcrowded, and you have to spend time to examine all that is on display. I’m afraid that the time we spent was not adequate. Still, I must make special mention of the doors in this palace. Fantastically decorated doors are a specialty around the Indian Ocean, from Kerala to Konkan, north around the coast in Gujarat and Arabia, and down to Zanzibar and Malindi. Even among them, these are amazing. I wonder which was the door that a colonial Governor General was prevented from taking away as a gift to Queen Victoria.
This is also a good place to say something about the architect, Ram Singh Malam, whose portrait hangs in one of the galleries of the palace. Little is known about his early life, except that he was born in Okha, at the mouth of the Gulf of Kutch. His early life was spent as a sailor. He was rescued from a shipwreck by a Dutch ship bound for Netherlands, where he spent eighteen years learning a variety of crafts: glassblowing, architecture, clock making, enamel work, foundry and gun casting, to name a few. You can see his influence in the cast iron structure of Aina Mahal, and its once-famous mirrors.
The mirrored ceilings were an invention of Malam. The gallery around the room called the Fuvara Mahal, the wonderfully designed music chamber, the bedchambers, and the inner corridor all have ceilings in this style. They require restoration, but given the magnitude of the post-earthquake restoration needed, I was happy that at least they gave some indication of the former opulence of this palace. The Kutchi school of painting developed largely due to the royal patronage given at this time. I was entranced by the painting with the flamingos. It catches the terrible beauty of the Rann very nicely. I was happy to see a portrait of Rao Lakhpatji eventually in a niche in one corner. The tour of the palace would have seemed incomplete without portraits of him and his architect, Ram Singh Malam.
Prag mahal is possibly the first example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, with its design completed in 1865. I’d posted a quick tour of the darbar hall last week. This week is another quick tour to see the delightful meld of cultures that created this style: spiral staircases desecending from Indo-Greek architecture, clock towers, Victorian Gothic exteriors, and the riotous sandstone sculptures made by local artisans.
Whether you take the street entrance (with its massive door) or the entrance from the century older Aina Mahal, the first view of the new palace is that of an European building transplanted into India. But almost immediately you begin to see the differences. The exterior stonework is more reminiscent of Mughal influence, or possibly the Iberian Mudejar style, than of Victorian Gothic.
A closer look confirms this. The facade, with its regular spacing of arches, surmounted by stones in contrasting colours, and grand mosaics with geometric motifs, is redolent of the Iberian blend of east and west which goes by the name of the Mudejar style. The clock tower and its spiral staircase became a fixture in the Indian monumental architecture of the 19-th century, and is a British influence carried here. So are the cast iron railings on the staircases. The lancet arches and the massive pillars had already developed in early modern times, diffusing through the Mughal court into Indian architecture. The decorations on the ceiling are in a local style. The effect of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake are clearly visible. Some of the stone work on the facade and in some of the minor arches are visibly damaged.
One historical artifact that was not stolen in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake were the cannons that are displayed at the entrance. A plaque told us that it was a present from Tipu Sultan to the Rao.
For me one of the highlights of the building are the sandstone sculptures on the capitals of the numerous columns in the palace. Whether it is frogs standing in for the three wise monkeys, herons swallowing fish, a caterpillar being harried by a bird, a rat looking for a pigeon’s nest, or simply horse heads and foliage, each capital is unique. The local sculptors preferred working in sandstone. This is a relatively simple medium, and, since it comes from neighbouring Rajasthan, would be cheaper than transporting harder stone from further afield. However, sandstone also weathers faster. Already, in just over a hundred and fifty years, you can see the exterior-facing parts of the capitals are more eroded and the parts which face in.
Court art in Kutch is said to have started suddenly in the mid-18th century, perhaps during the reign of Rao Lakhpatji. This connected with the collection that I saw in Aaina Mahal in Bhuj. One interesting set was called reverse glass paintings. As I understood, the painting is made on a sheet of extremely thin glass, and is meant to be viewed from the clear side. According to the information posted in the museum, businessmen from Kutch who traveled to China in the 18th century brought back the first examples and presented some to the Rao. Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou were specifically named as sources. Little has been written about art in the court of Kutch, and this set of paintings raises multiple questions.
The note in the museum says that businessmen began to commission portraits and mythological scenes. There are only a few of these on view. The features of people have Chinese characteristics, but the clothes and jewellery, even colour schemes, are similar to what you see in Kutchi paintings of that time. I wonder whether there are Chinese records of these paintings, or records (on either side) of the commissioning and execution of some of these paintings. There is a forgotten history here which some one needs to investigate. The context of the paintings reminded me of later Patna miniatures, painted in the Mughal style but featuring English men and women who commissioned them, wearing the formal clothes of the 19th century.
It is hard to photograph these paintings. They are displayed in a tiny room with bright lights which create multiple highlights on the surface. Some of the paintings are clearly damaged. But they are so very interesting that I hope a museum or two undertakes to bring them to a wider audience temporarily.
A simple piece of artwork that I saw on a little walk around town last week is a pointer to a long story of trafficking. The short version of it is here. Or you can read the complementary long version here. As more people die of the pandemic, more children are orphaned, and the problem is bound to grow, unless action is taken.