Gate keepers

Art projects sprouted across Mumbai during the pandemic like moss during monsoon. At the same time architects who were talking about reuse of buildings began to write about revitalization of neighbourhoods. The creep of the revitalizing moss continues with new areas in the city’s decaying core being “discovered”. The latest is the Sassoon docks, built in 1875 on land reclaimed and paid for by David Sassoon. This is a place where many fishermen land their catch, and large retailers and wholesale dealers make their early morning deals. Around it are the usual ice factory, cold storage, a large fish market, and boat-related businesses, and even a couple of small restaurants. Now one warehouse has become an art gallery.

My gentrification alert system started flashing red lights as I saw that the door to the gallery space was controlled by uniformed guards with metal detectors. A detector beeped madly when I walked in, but nobody said anything. In a place like this your clothes matter more than a machine’s chatter. Outside a lift truck backed towards a whitewashed wall with two people on a raised platform ready to sketch out a new mural. Fish trucks and trolleys came to a halt as it created a small traffic jam. A fisherman stopped his scooter outside the gallery space to ask a guard what was going on. Further down the road, fish was being loaded on to a cold truck. Rubble from a dilapidated building was neatly packed into sacks, presaging another reclamation and reuse project.

When stock prices soared in the early 90s, small fish restaurants around the stock exchange suddenly became fancy. One made enough money to grow from a single establishment into a chain. Others sold out to fancier establishments. A kind of equilibrium was reached where you could still find the old regional food in small holes in the wall next to the fine-dining restaurants which could seat walk-ins in the magic moments between happy hours and the late-night sitting. I wonder whether the future of Sassoon docks will be like that, or will it be the contentious route of gentrification that other countries have seen? The equilibrium of the stock exchange neighbourhood is again under threat because the pandemic wiped out many businesses.

But visually there was much to enjoy on my walk around the old dockyard. In my first days in the city I had to hold my nose against the stench of a day old fish when I passed Sassoon dock at night. There is much improvement today. We have N95 masks. With all the talk of reuse and improvement, I wonder whether there is a solution that keeps the fresh catch in the heart of the town but banishes the smell forever.

Public art of Darjeeling

Darjeeling had taken the trouble to make the main tourist drag as interesting as possible. Not content with the charm of the old colonial buildings around the pedestrian section of Mall Road, the town had commissioned local artists to make public art. We stopped at the musical frieze on the large square called Chowrasta. “Is this place known for jazz?” The Family asked. Perhaps not exactly known, but we saw a poster for a jazz festival just past later in the day. And in the evening when we walked into Glenary’s for a drink we heard some live music. It is hard to make a living on music anywhere in the world (the number of concert pianists in the world is perhaps smaller than the number of living Nobel laureates), and Darjeeling is much too small to support a lively local music scene. It is clear from the frieze that bars are the main places which support music here.

The wall with the mural of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways marks the other end of the pedestrian zone. This mural crowds in all the high points of the town, including a portrait of Tenzing Norgay. We were told that the school of mountaineering he set up was worth a visit. But when we called, we found it was open to visitors only once a week and, sadly, not on a day when we were in town. The mural could be better maintained, we thought.

The fountain in the middle of Chowrasta was in much better condition, and we were happy that it was not gushing water in the cold. It had all the signs of being a late colonial structure. “Late 19th century?” The Family guessed. “Quite likely,” I responded, “Either that or early 20th century. Depends on when they built this square.” The Family looked around and said “More oblong than square.”

Tibetan bronzes

Khen Lop Choe Sum is the Tibetan phrase that refers to the religious triumvirate who are said to have founded Buddhism in Tibet. In the 8th century CE the Tibetan king, Trisong Deutsen, requested the Abbot of Nalanda university, Shantarakshita, to promote Buddhism in his kingdom. This move was opposed by practitioners of the indigenous Bon religion. Shantarakshita advised the king to invite the tantric Guru Padmasambhava to Tibet. Padmasambhava travelled through the Himalayan kingdom and preached Buddhism, subduing all adverse forces, and eventually founded the first Tibetan monastery in Samye. Monks from Tibet travelled to Nalanda and brought with them translations of commentaries by Buddhist scholars. The bronze piece shown in the featured photo is of Guru Padmasambhava.

The Himalayan Tibet Museum on Gandhi Road in Darjeeling was an unknown gem. Opened in 2015, it concentrates on history, culture, and art, rather than the religion. I’ve seen Tibetan bronze statues before, they are rather common across the Himalayas and trickle down through trade into the homes of people in the northern plains. But these were a class apart. The exquisite detailing on the statue of Tara which you see above arrested my feet immediately. Bronze, two colours of wood, precious stones! The artistry involved was tremendous.

This large statue of Amitayus, the Buddha of Eternal Life, was donated to the museum by the Dalai Lama. This larger than life size statue is another piece which is hard to walk away from. The elaborate forms of the Bodhisattva’s clothing and head-dress are so different from other schools of Buddhist art that I wondered about the influences which led to the development of this form. Some day I hope to run into an art historian who’ll tell me all about this history. Until I meet that guru, I’m content to search the mountains.

This was the single unlabelled piece in the museum. I puzzled over it, and noticing the left hand in the abhaya mudra, realized that it had to be a depiction of a Bodhisattva. I asked one of the staff, and they said immediately that it is a statue of Manjushree, “The book of knowledge on his left, the sword to cleave ignorance in his hand.” The museum is run by the Manjushree Foundation, a Tibetan non-profit.

The old monastery

Ghoom is a small town below Darjeeling which you reach by the Hill Cart Road. We arrived at the old monastery in Ghoom, Yiga Choeling, about an hour after sunrise. An old man sat on a bench outside the main shrine with his rosary. A few regulars went in and came out a while later. A lama came out, greeted the few people around, and disappeared. The Family came back and reported clean facilities. We went in, took off our shoes, and realized that we would have to pay for the cameras. The lama appeared, took the money, and ushered us in. The sunlight streamed through an open window and touched the feet of the giant statue of the Maitreya Buddha. A nice touch, that.

The Gelugpa (the yellow hat sect from Tibet) monastery building was completed in 1850, almost a century before many monks fled from the Chinese occupation of Tibet and took refuge here. The Darjeeling hills have become home to a significant Tibetan minority, just the latest of immigrants in this place. The building is peaceful but in need of repair, and I did not grudge the small payment I had to make in order to take photos. From what I saw, the local Tibetan population does not have a very high income, and the donations that they can make to the upkeep of this calm and peaceful monastery i minimal. The place needs visitors.

The monastery is small but exquisite. The murals are wonderful. The four images in the gallery above are just a small sample. I’m far from an expert in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism. The only one of them I recognize is the fearsome figure of the Mahakala (also called Yamantaka). This lovely panel in orange and blues faces the statue of the Buddha. The figure seated on the lotus has to be a representation of the historical Buddha, Gautama, the Sakyamuni. I cannot identify the other two, although one of them is definitely a benign and powerful being, given his green halo. If you are in the neighbourhood, this small monastery is worth a visit.

Roadside shrine

Walking back to the car, I was halted by the incredible artwork around a roadside shrine in the little lane behind Puri’s Jagannath temple. Odisha takes pride in its living artistic tradition. There is even a small monthly stipend from the state for registered traditional artists provided they attend training courses every so often. As a result, the folk art that you see in this state is often quite competent. I admired the Trimurti: the triad of Brahma with his four faces, each looking in one of the principal directions, Vishu, represented here with dark skin, but clearly identifiable by the conch, disc, mace, and lotus in his four hands, and the bearded ascetic Shiva, wearing a leopard skin. On the perpendicular wall, hidden by the tree were stories from the avataras of Vishu.

In the corner were more stories of Vishnu. He gets more space here in this town which is so closely associated with the worship of one of his two most popular avataras. I love to see the depictions of The One Who Remains: Sesha. Here he is shown as the naag (snake) floating on the sea of milk, with Vishnu reclining on him even as his consort Lakshmi sits on a lotus near him. Below that is a panel showing the ten avataras. I walked on to the car park. I wasn’t able to stop at the artists’ village this time around, but at least I got to see a nice piece of work.


Puri, an old temple town, is a hodge-podge of architectural styles from many periods. But the Grand Road, the road along which the massive vehicle of Jagannath passes, is lined with buildings from the last century. Early 20th century architecture is very decorative. Even ordinary houses here have ornate plaster work balconies: botanical curlicues and peacocks are common, as are very bright colours. And what I saw were not ordinary houses.

When it comes to the ashrams, the decorations become mesmerizing. Mythological scenes abound. What could be done earlier in expensive stone or fragile earth, was now done in plaster. Some are executed in the then newly popular westernized style picked up from Raja Ravi Varma and his followers, but others recall temple statuary from the region. But the exuberance of the colours is completely local. Driving through the countryside outside Puri you’ll see modest houses painted in the same bright colours, standing out against the greenery of fields. All of the decorations you see here belong to gateways. In the last picture in the gallery above you see one of the gates, a massive made-to-order cast iron affair (interestingly, of all the gates I saw, this was the only one in which the dwarapala was not a lion). The iconography is largely of Vishnu, of course. The small icon of the Varaha avatara (featured photo) was a wonderful example of this style.

Across the road from these ashrams was a building with totally different aesthetic on its frontage. The colours and the style were imitation British. I wondered why it was so different. There was no clue from its current use. It had shops on the ground floor and a hotel in the upper floors. Quite a good spot if you want to take photos of the rath yatra, I thought.

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 4

On the last day of the Hemis festival, a large thangka was unfurled on the wall overlooking the courtyard. It had the portrait of a holy man in the red hat of the Drukpa Kagyupa sect. I suppose this is a portrait of one of the Rinpoches. The photos I have seen of thangkas unfurled in this place are different, and show the founder of the monastery, Gyalsras Rinpoche. I haven’t been to Hemis gompa on other days of the festival, so I don’t know whether there are different thangkas exhibited on different days. According to Kagyupa belief, all the succeeding Rinpoches are the reincarnations of Gyalsras, so this would perhaps also show him, but in a different body.

In this detail you can see that the portrait is an applique work over a brocade background. Traditionally brocade came from China, but sometime in the 18th or 19th century brocade from Banaras became more common, and priced the Chinese brocade out of the market. I believe this piece is fairly recent, and made with Banarasi brocade.

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 3

A two-storeyed building runs around two sides of the inner courtyard of the Hemis Gompa. It is built in the traditional style. The supporting walls start as a sturdy wooden frame, and are then filled in with unfired clay blocks, plastered and painted. The roof rests on an elaborate carved wooden section which stands on this. The plastered panels contain paintings which tell stories.

These exposed panels probably weather fast at this altitude, with its high UV flux and annual extremes of temperature, and are probably repainted. I saw different panels are in different states of weathering. Even in a heavily weathered state, the iconography of Gautama Buddha in the panel on the right above is clear from the elongated ears. He is shown with his hands in the dharmachakra mudra, which indicates that he is shown teaching.

The Hemis gompa perhaps first became famous in the west after Nicholas Notovich, a Russian journalist, wrote a book in 1894 (titled La Vie inconnue de Jesus-Christ, The Hidden Life of Jesus Christ) claiming that he had visited this monastery in 1887 and studied two scrolls which gave an account of Jesus’ missing years. According to Notovich, the lost gospel was named “”Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men”, and described how Jesus spent time learning about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, before returning to Galilee. In complete disbelief, Max Mueller wrote to the chief Lama of the monastery, who wrote back saying that no foreigner had visited in 15 years. This was corroborated by J. Archibald Douglas of Agra, who traveled to Hemis and spoke to the Lamas. Nevertheless, Notovich’s book sold very well, and went through eight impressions in one year.

Public religious art is always meant to instruct, and is an open book to those who grow up in the culture. When I see paintings of the Ramayana in south east Asia, I have no difficulty following the story, even though they seem to emphasize what are sometimes considered obscure bits of the epic in India. But when it comes to the stories of Vajrayana Buddhism I’m a little lost. The myth of the Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, is unfamiliar to me, even if you start with the story that the Buddha predicted “After my parinirvana, after ten and two years, in the land of Udiyana, a man called Padmasambhava, will come who will be better than me.” The stories of the Guru preaching to Dakinis, purifying the Himalayas, and his return in his various lives are not stories I know well enough to follow the story told in these panels. However, panels of his receiving alms and flying to the mountains are recognizable.

The colours in these paintings may have faded but they remain extremely attractive. They are painted on a dry wall, but there are several layers to the colours. The underpainting serves to intensify the colour of the outer layer, an effect that is easily visible in the paintings one sees inside shrines. As the outermost layer weathers, its effect on the underpainting gives a wonderful luminosity which one does not see otherwise.

Leh Palace

One of the few dates that I found about the history of Leh is that the Leh Palace was constructed in three years during the reign of Sengge, of the Namgyal dynasty. So the palace must have been built between 1616 and 1642 CE, and definitely predates the beginning of the construction of the Potala palace of Lhasa. The architects who built it were clearly already accomplished. The level floors of the palace built on a slope, the inward tilt of the massive outer walls for stability, and the use of mixed materials, dressed stone, dried clay blocks, and several different kinds of wood, speak of previous experiments and practice. The palace was in continuous use till it was sacked and destroyed during the Dogra invasion of 1834. The restoration started in this century and has been proceeding fitfully.

The palace dominates the modern city of Leh, visible from most of the center. It seems to straddle a large part of a peak behind the town. I was glad to see an exhibition on the restoration project inside the palace, in particular the architectural drawings which showed the structure as a whole. Without this you are lost: the palace has nine floors (you enter at the third level) and each floor has multiple rooms. A look at these drawings gave me an overall feel of the structure. I decided to climb up to the terrace on the seventh floor and then walk back down. This was the second visit for The Family (she’s been here once when I was still battling altitude sickness) so she decided to be more relaxed.

You have to park your car a little distance away. The walk to the palace is lined with cheerful women knitting scarves, socks and ear muffs which they sell to tourists, even in the height of summer. I find that women are much more natural when The Family takes their photos. I would never have got these friendly smiles and eyes meeting the camera. Each person in this cheerful bunch had an umbrella. There’s no rain here, but the sun is pretty fierce. These are really parasols.

The main entrance in impressive with its four huge columns and the carved heads of lions decorating the lintel over the ceremonial door. This is the singe-sgo (Lion gate, singhadwar in Sanskrit-derived languages). I realized at this point that the king who ordered this palace to be built was also named lion. Maybe this was an appropriate name for a king who took on the Mughal empire; although he could not win Kashmir from them, he did protect the frontier.

On the fourth floor I looked out of a window at a great view of the town of Leh. I’m sure the window is a restoration, but it is done by local craftsmen who follow traditional practice. I wonder about the glass though; I am aware of traditional paper to cover windows. Did 17th century Ladakh make glass. The silk route would certainly have brought many craftsmen here for two and a half millennia, so I’ll reserve my judgement. I climbed half a floor to an internal terrace outside the memorial to the Namgyals. Photography was forbidden inside the memorial, but I was happy to take a photo of the very decorative door outside that led to the fifth floor. From there, I passed further terraces with clearer view of the modern city.

There are terraces and courtyards at every level. The dressed stone was really impressive, with the sharp edges still intact. The ceremonial courtyard where the Namgyals had state banquets was warm and protected from winds by surrounding walls. Further up the view was better but the wind was pretty strong. I listened to the clear and calm sound of azaan reaching up there from the wood and plaster mosque which I’d seen in the market below.

The result of the sacking of the palace and its long abandonment is that the murals which once decorated the walls are not in good shape. There are parts of many of these artworks still visible, and work to preserve them is on. The conservation of the palace and the old city below it has barely begun. It attracts many students of architecture who spend a semester surveying and documenting these buildings. I would have been completely unaware of this effort if Niece Mbili had not done a semester project here. But being sensitized to it now, I could see people at work. New papers are being written by engineers on the techniques used in Leh. Historians have been reasearching Ladakh a little more than they used to before. Perhaps in a couple of decades the palace will be restored to something closer to how it might have looked in the centuries when it was in use.