Six pieces from the ancient world

Walking through the wonderful exhibition called India and the World at the museum in Mumbai, I noticed something that everyone knows. The oldest artifacts of humans are stone axes and blades. Then, almost as soon as agriculture is invented, we begin to find almost everything that we use in our daily lives today. What a massive change in lifestyle that was!

When the waters of the oceans were locked up as ice, the lowered sea level created land-bridges across the planet. It is incredible that our most ancient ancestors walked across them, and settled into almost every one of the continents. As the glaciers retreated, humans found themselves in a slowly warming and wet world. In a geological eye-blink, a span of just over a thousand years, agriculture was invented independently many times over. And with agriculture, came the first cities.

The oldest “modern” object I saw in the exhibition was the piece of decorated pottery from Balochistan, almost 5000 years old. The box from Ur celebrated their life; the face that you can see in the photo here shows agriculture and animal herding. The calcite tablet from Egypt, about the size and shape of an iphone, and the limestone tablet from Lagash show the first writing. And you can see the exquisite jewelery of Oaxaca and the Indus valley in the remaining photos. Bowls and boxes, jewelery and writing; truly we live in the shadows of these early civilizations.


Globalization 2.0

A special exhibition at the Mumbai Museum had been talked about for months. Everyone who had gone to see it was raving about it. The Family and I finally found the time to visit it on the last day of the show called India and the world. The exhibits unfolded a story of parallel developments and trade throughout the known world over the last four thousand years. We spent two hours walking through the galleries with our audio guides. At the end The Family said “We should have come earlier.” Indeed, now looking back at the few photos I took, I wish I had the time to go back and examine the works again at leisure.

By many modern accounts, today’s world sprang from the great churn brought about by the Mongol breakout of the 13th century CE. The resulting violent mixing of the Islamic and Chinese civilizations with Europe and India created the dynamics which is still playing out. This is what I think of as the second wave of globalization.

The gallery which you can see above contains a few pieces which resulted from this churn. The traditional Yoruba style carving of the queen Victoria is a wonderful example of this. The Chinese porcelains found in Delhi are proof of old, and underappreciated, trade links. The throne and discobolus are part of an ongoing conversation about global influences.

Agate bull

Every now and then I come across a beautiful piece of art from the Indus valley civilization which I’d never heard of before. I saw this tiny agate bull with curved horns of gold a couple of weekends ago in a special exhibition in Mumbai’s museum. The object was on loan from the Directorate of Archaeology of the Government of Haryana, and was found in Pur village of that state.

The Family and I stood quietly a few steps behind a stream of people who paused and gazed at this 4000 years old jewel. Among a set of well-chosen objects, this stood out for its beauty, and many people stopped for a close look. When the crowd thinned, we stepped in close for a look. The artist has used the banding in the agate to cleverly model the bull with its hump and suggestion of legs. The little bit of gold is curved and tapered beautifully, and bonded masterfully to the stone. The passing millennia have caused slight damages. There was that moment of connection as we looked at this object: the people who crafted it shared our sense of beauty and order. Their essential humanity spoke to us across four thousand years.


Dwarapala photo bomb

In the middle of Munnar’s busy bazaar, I noticed the small temple which you can see in the featured photo. I was amazed by the dwarapalas. I’ve seldom seen a guardian of a temple with such enormous mustaches! I tried to position myself to the left, in front of the guy with the cobra and a mace, but a couple of auto-rickshaws displaced me. So I moved to the right, and found that I could just about get the mace in the mirror placed strategically behind the dwarapala. I took the photo and moved on.

Behind me The Night started laughing: the priest had followed me from one side to the other and positioned himself more or less in the center of the frame. I hadn’t noticed him photo-bombing me. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly that. I think the photo improves with him where he is. Seldom do you get a third dwarapala in front of a temple, and that too with spectacles.


The middle temple

From the car park at the edge of the town you do not see the pearl in the oyster: the temple of Omkareshwar. My host and I walked past a row of stalls selling material that pilgrims may need for their puja, including heaps of sindoor in many different shades. “This place can’t be too windy,” I said, but my companion did not answer. He was too busy fending off assorted priests who promised us quick access.

It was only while we were crossing the hanging bridge that I got my first glimpse of the peaked spire of the main temple (at the right of the photo above). The temple was high above the present level of the river, but would have been pretty far above the historical level as well. The hanging bridge made it possible to get there without any climbing at all. We’d shaken off the priests by the time we reached the place where we had to remove our shoes. From here it was a short walk to the entrance of the temple.

Interestingly, the linga, which is the main object of veneration, is located in a small alcove to one side of the temple. About ten people were enough to make it a tight fit. I began to understand the reason for the crowd control barriers I’d come through. On a day when a large number of people come here, there are genuine problems which could arise. But the fact that there was a female goddess in the main temple, under the shikhara, while the linga is off in a side chamber, made me wonder whether the function of the temple has changed in recent times. Was it originally a temple to one of Shiva’s powerful consorts?

In fact I could not find much historical information on the structure. There is a lot of material on the ritual and religious aspects of the temple and the island. The brackets around the tall pillars are beautifully carved representations of supernatural beings. They are made in a classic style, and my guess is that they were carved in the last millennium. Without the context of who the temple is dedicated to, it is hard to interpret the figures. The four-armed figure on the right holds a mace (gada) in one and a lotus in the other, and has two arms free. Is that an ayudhapurusha of a mace? If so, what is she doing in a Shaiva temple?

The figures belong to a different era in our history. The present management of the temple does not care for them much, as you can tell by the fact that there are electrical panels and cables threaded through them; and fans and lights haphazardly placed without consideration of the beauty of the carvings. I was short of time and could not explore more. I will have to read more and go back.


Court life

Mehrangarh, the seat of the Rajas of Jodhpur contains a gallery of paintings. The ones on show are largely from the 18th and 19th centuries. They show what life at the court was like during this peaceful period in Jodhpur’s history.

A painting by the renowned Mughal artist Dalchand shows Abhay Singh listening to court musicians. The painting contains a portrait of the king, as well as many details of the court. I can recognize the dholak, but the stringed instruments are different from modern ones. The singers have cymbals in their hands. Notice also the lack of tables to hold food, although the wine is on a table. Although Abhay Singh is supposed to have built the exquisite Phool Mahal, this scene is not set in that room.

This painting of a hunt by royal women was extremely instructive. Some women were not cooped up in purdah, but trained in the arts of riding and the use of weapons. I spent a long time admiring the painting of the deer and of the typical Jodhpur horses. The artist’s name is not recorded, unfortunately.

The painting of Holi at the court of Man Singh is an enormously detailed collaborative work by Rai Singh and Shivdas. I found it interesting to compare the portrait of Man Singh in this painting with that of him playing Polo. Notice that Holi is not played by women. Another interesting thing is the differentiation of the troops on foot: some wear white, others have largely bare bodies.

The painting of Man Singh and one of his queens playing polo with other courtiers is by Shivdas. I liked the beautiful geometry of the polo sticks around the puck. The portraits of the king and queen are also executed extremely well. Notice again the Jodhpur horses.

These two portraits of courtiers by unknown artists are separated by three quarters of a century, but shows a nice continuity of cultural style. The courtiers ride with attendants carrying a staff, a whisk, and a hookah. The style of the hookah also remains unchanged. There is little change in the style of saddle cloths too.

I’m sure there are many more paintings with the Mehrangarh trust. I hope they get a curator to put together a larger display at some point. It would be lovely to see such an exhibition. I’m especially looking forward to seeing the very rare paintings which show the life of less exalted people at the court.


Treasures of the Maharajas

The truly posh have always been parsimonious. That’s a conclusion I have come through after roaming through the collections of many major dynasties of the past. The rest of us may agonize over throwing away a jeweled couch to make place for the platinum encrusted sofa, but a royal will just build another palace to house the new.

Mehrangarh is no exception. You can see a collection of palanquins spanning two centuries which is large enough to make you feel that the family has more salted away in various cellars.

In the middle of a large number of decorative pieces I came across the incredibly historical: a sword which is said to have belonged to Akbar the Great. Akbar’s personal armour is in the collection of the museum in Mumbai. The fact that the sword is in Jodhpur is a testimony to the influence that Jodhpur had in the Mughal court during this period.

The oddest thing that I saw was a statue of the local goddess Gangaur. The festival of Gangaur is celebrated even now, and she is said to listen to entreaties of women to keep their men safe. The statue was decorated with enormous pearls.


The Hall of Flowers

Inside the oyster of Mehrangarh is the pearl called Phool Mahal: the Hall of Flowers. Originally built in the mid 19-the century by Abhay Singh, the paintings that we see today come from the 19th century re-decoration carried out by Takhat Singh. I was blown away by the exquisite paintings and the colours of the audience hall.

The central court surrounded by gilded balusters and flutings are derived from the Mughal style of Shah Jehan’s era. The outer part, including the jaali and windows are typical of Marwar. Just below the gilded ceiling is a panel with royal portraits which runs all around the hall. This means that the room was probably used as a private audience hall for the raja to confer formally with ministers and local landholders. Below that is a series of raga mala paintings which use the iconography which had been standardized by the 19th century. This signifies that the place could have also been used for musical performances and less serious business of state.



The Hindi word garh means fort. Mehrangarh, with its sheer walls, is one of the most impressive forts I’ve seen. It was built in the late 15th century by the Rathore ruler, Rao Jodha, who moved the capital here from Mandore, which is about 10 kilometers to the north. The old “blue city” of Jodhpur is contained within its walls, but the modern town lies outside and below the hill on which the fort stands. The estate is managed by a trust headed by the descendants of the old rulers. We found the audio guide very useful.

The outer walls of the fort are chiseled from the underlying volcanic tuff, so that the fort seems to be a part of the hill. During the incredible five year period when Sher Shah Suri captured the Mughal kingdom, he also attacked and captured Mehrangarh. The tall walls of the keep inside the present-day outer walls were built in the 16th century to the order of Raja Maldeo in response to this defeat. Today a lift takes you up to the top of the keep. We took this, and walked down. The inner palaces and their delicate jharokhas were built in the 18th century during the reign of Ajit Singh. This gallery shows photos of all three phases of this structure.


The Northern Style

When you walk into a church in northern Germany, one of the most striking things about it is likely to be the absence of large paintings or mosaics. I don’t know whether this is a result of the bombing raids in the late stages of World War II. Certainly the absence of old stained glass windows is due to this. Instead of the golden mosaics and paintings of southern Europe, here you find incredible altarpieces. We saw one in St. Petri’s church in Dortmund which is called the Golden Wonder of Westphalia (featured photo). It seems that it was delivered in 1521 to Franciscan monks from a workshop in Antwerp. This was brought to St. Petri in 1809, sent away during the war, and brought back in 1954. I saw it in its completely open state, with wonderful wooden pieces in the panels showing the life of Jesus.

More common are little figures like the ones you see above, beautifully carved, unpainted but polished (click on one to go to a slide-show). I loved that piece showing Luke, with the ox looking on as he reads his book. Apart from the reredos and these carvings there is little decoration in the church. It was completely restored in 1981, and it has been bare every time I’ve peeped in over the years.