The Secret Garden of Nek Chand

We had an evening in Chandigarh before we left for the Falachan valley. On the road from Delhi we talked of what we could see. Although I’d been to the city on work before, I’d seen nothing of it. So, when The Family said she wanted to see Nek Chand’s rock garden, I was happy to go along with the idea. The Young Niece had been there, done that, on a school trip earlier in the year, and she agreed that it was a wonderful place to go back to.

Nek Chand’s story is fascinating. An untaught artist, he atarted creating a dream world exactly sixty years ago, illegally on land which belonged to the city. About fifteen years later, it was discovered, and the works would have been destroyed, had it not caught the imagination of the residents of the city. It remained as a project caught in a limbo between official acceptance and resentment, until the mid 1990s, when a trust was formed to take care of this art project.

“Rock garden” is an inadequate description of this sprawling open art work. I thought of it as an imagined land. Partly landscaped waters and pavilions, partly peopled with fantastic beasts and people made from broken tiles, bangles and other scavenged materials. There were parts of this land which seemed completely abstract, for example the wall made with broken electrical fittings from the 50s. I thought that the nearest thing to this that I’d seen before were Gaudi’s works. This was partly accidental, because Nek Chand’s artistic vision was shaped by nature. But it was also partly because of the medium used: the use of trencadis, for example. The short time we spent here seemed inadequate, and we plan to be back on a longer trip to Chandigarh.


Rickshaw art

The highway to Dibrugarh passed through the small town of Moranhat where we were planning to stop for breakfast. In the little towns of the eastern states, cycle rickshaws are still the main mode of transport. I wasn’t surprised by them, but by the artwork each of them sported. I was itching to jump off the car and take photos.

I had my chance when we stopped for breakfast. I stood by the road and tried to photograph each rickshaw which went past. This was naive art, some better than others, but each made a statement. I loved the rural bias in the pictures, but was happy to see the one modern theme as well. I’d last seen these kinds of rickshaws in Tripura. Rickshaw art must be a genre in all of the north-east.

The center of Muenster

When we arrived at the vast marketplace in front of Muenster’s catherdral, two things were on my mind: there would probably be a Christmas market here in a few weeks, and there is probably a farmer’s market here on Saturdays. I said as much to The Family, and she said “Too bad then. This is just a Sunday in November.” The cathedral is also huge: more than a hundred meters in length. Every meter seems to be well documented in its Wikipedia page.

We entered through the narthex called Paradise, and found that the morning service was in progress. We waited for a while and looked at the Old Choir, which is in the Romanesque part of the church. I like the name “God’s rotary dial” which is sometimes used to refer to the small windows above the Baroque altar here. After a while we left, wandered across the stream called Aa which runs nearby, and came back much later.

The service had concluded, but we found that sections of the church were closed. A famous astronomical clock that we wanted to see could not be accessed. We walked around the huge church admiring the wooden statuary which is so common in these parts of Germany. The elaborate Epitaphs were not a patch on them. But I think what both of us liked was the doorbell in the shape of a dove; not terribly well made, but interesting.

The odd corner where the modern world was born

Even today, the basic laws of the modern world sound very radical: that states have the right to determine the system they live under, that minorities are protected within each state, and that states are sovereign. The small building called the Ratskammer (town hall) in Muenster looks similar to those around it, perhaps a few more decorative curlicues than the ones around it. Maybe a touch more gold. But in the mid 17th century the building in the featured photo was where diplomats representing 194 different European sovereigns gathered to hammer out a detailed treaty based on these principles.

We entered the building and saw many little groups speaking Dutch scattered about the long vestibule. We bought our tickets and walked into a little chamber at the end of the hall. The richly carved wood paneling was the only indication that this room was so important in history. A muted recording looped over a description of the historical events that happened in this room: the haphazard gathering of diplomats, the negotiations, and the signing of two treaties, one of which gave rise to The Netherlands.

I’d been here once more than thirty years back. Then, as now, I had a sense of alienation. Could the rules which govern the modern world have really been negotiated in such a small place? The Family walked around quite bemused. I busied myself taking photos of the wooden panels. Below them were hard wooden benches. I wondered whether the delegates brought their own cushions. Did they also bring their own food? The countryside around here must have been ravaged by a generation-long war. The room did look like the one in the painting by Gerard ter Borch, but that did not give the correct sense of size.

Two of the walls were covered with portraits of the diplomats at the peace conference. I saw many Dutch names, some Spanish, some French, and others whom I could not map on to a modern country. I’m not a historian, after all. We looked at the portraits and tried to imagine the people behind them. I must report utter failure; these were people from a different world who could see that something new was needed, but never lived in the world that they created. What political compromises did they have to make?

Over the centuries a place like this collects other things. One case contained a golden cockerel which predates the negotiations. Apparently it can hold about one bottle of wine. This was offered to important guests of the city as an honour. Muenster was a Hansa town, and could presumably afford these small indulgences.

The really weird stuff was in a different case: one of a pair of slippers and a severed hand. There are no real explanations about why they are there, just a bunch of stories. Eventually you figure out that they are there because no one can make a decision to move them elsewhere. They just make the room look a little more odd. To think that absolutely revolutionary changes were made in a room where such small decisions cannot be made!

The church across the water

The Uberwasserkirche in Muenster translates very simply to the church over the water. The name comes from the fact that the cathedral and this church face each other across the stream called Aa. The churches around here are old. This one was first consecrated in 1040 CE. The present building is from 1340. The tower took a long time to build, and was probably first completed in the 15th century. The post-war restoration of the church was completed in 1972, but the restoration of the tower was still in progress when we arrived there.

The featured photo is of a very impressive looking doorway, but it is not the main portal. That was covered up by the ongoing restoration work. I looked more closely at the doors here and found that the design was very modern. The figures seemed to refer to the history of the church as an abbey where aristocratic women came to study.

When you walk into a church in this area you see immediately who lost the war. All of this part was heavily bombed. While the structures of the churches have been restored, the insides are often bare. This large church had very few decorations, but what it had were these two fascinating sculptures in wood. They are really worth looking at in detail.

A grisly church

The headless figures above a trough near the entrance to St. Lamberti’s Church in Muenster (featured photo) seemed all of one piece with the bloody history of this town. The aggressive bicyclists in this university town probably channel the violent history of religious wars which swirled around this region in the 16th and 17th centuries CE. The spire of this church still has three empty cages where the bishop of Muenster had the tortured bodies of Anabaptist rebels left to die.

A St. Lamberti’s church has been here from before the first recorded reference to it in 1189 CE; some say as early as 1000 CE. The present structure was about 75 years in construction, and was completed in 1450 CE. The tower had to be demolished in 1881 and rebuilt. The three cages were hoisted on to the new 90 meter tall tower on its completion in 1898. The bombed church was partially restored already in 1949, and the restoration was completed in 1978. If you have the misfortune to be selected as the Tuermer by the city, then you have to climb the tower every half hour between 9 PM and midnight to mark time by blowing a trumpet. The first woman to be struck by this bad luck is the current incumbent, Martje Solje.

The stone dove near the headless statues was altogether different in nature. I couldn’t find any references to when this sculpture was installed. From the style it seems to be modern, and could well have been placed here during the post-war restorations. This would make it contemporaneous with the modern German pacifist tendencies.

The inside was surprisingly bare. The main decorations were the wooden statues which are common in Westphalia. I looked at the gilded statue of St. Anthony of Padua and thought that anyone who keeps smiling as a child pulls at his scant hair deserves to be called a saint. I could sympathize with Anthony, but I preferred the expression on the face of St. Peter.

We came out of the church and walked around to the main entrance from the square. This side of the building has wonderful Gothic windows and many sculptures. There was a greatly detailed panel which depicts the family tree of Jesus (image above). Apparently, the mid-15th century piece was made in sandstone which eroded in less than four hundred years, and had to be replaced in 1913. The statues of saints also were replaced at the same time. An interesting story about the four evangelists (photo above) is that the restored statues show Goethe as Luke (extreme left) and Schiller as John (extreme right).

I wondered a little about the spikes around the heads of some of the statues. Medieval torture or stylized halos? It took me a while to understand that it was neither, just a utilitarian device to keep away pigeons. The relationship of this church with pigeons is worth pondering. Some saints have pigeons thrust on them, others have spikes driven into their heads to keep pigeons away. Does the city realize how confusing this can be for a foreigner?

There’s a fountain in the square in front of the church. Historically this was the graveyard of the church. Statues of a Westphalian farmer’s family decorate the well. I could not find a dating for this statue, but by the weathering you can see, it may need replacement in another hundred years.

Bird in an airport lounge

I had an early morning flight home. It turned out to be the first flight out of the airport in the morning. As a result, every queue was shorted than I’d expected. In no time at all I was through security and waiting in the lounge for my flight to be called. In the nearly empty lounge I noticed things I might not have paid attention to if it had been full. This unmarked door in one corner, for example. Odisha is becoming a popular destination amongst bird-watchers. Is this art work a nod to that?

Baroque blue

The red brick and sandstone church with the round dome that I was looking at turned out to be St. Clement’s. “Supposed to be Baroque”, I read from my guide to Muenster. It was a church by the architect Johann Conrad Schlaun, whose other famous work we had just walked past. The Family did not mind looking around. Inside was a profusion of colours: blue and gold being the major themes. It left us gasping “Rococo”.

Unfortunately, a grille inside the lobby was shut. The church was closed. We peered up at the fresco on the dome. This painting by Johann Adam Schoepf shows the Apotheosis of St. Clements. That’s the featured photo. The painting seemed to continue into the window above the door which we had just entered. Inside we could see a baroque pulpit: red and blue encrusted with gold.

The blue is apparently the colour of the Wittelsbach family, one of whom commissioned the church, which was completed in 1753 CE. The church was destroyed in the war, and the rebuilding and repainting ended in 1973. Off to our left was the main altar, and the little retrofitted organ was ahead of us. It seems that the organ was refurbished in 2014 to make it easier to tune and use.

I wish we had come at a time when the church was open and the organ was in use. We left unsatisfied by this brief visit.

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.