A heritage hotel

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.

The palace of illusions

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.

Ram Singh Malam’s Aaina Mahal seen from the entrance of St. Clair Wilkins’ Prag Mahal. The cannon presented by Tipu Sultan is in the foreground. Details of Aina mahal on the right. Click to expand.

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.

The exuberance of Prag Mahal

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.

Cross culture

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.

Light and dark

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.

Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.


Like many others, I went through the usual art classes at school. But even before I took my first such class, someone may have told me that you mix yellow and blue pigments to make green. These joyful discoveries were made systematic in the art classes where we learnt how the primary colours of pigments are red, yellow, and blue. This was so ingrained in my thinking that I completely ignored the writings of Seurat even after I discovered his pointillist techniques later in school.

Spring leaves, Naukuchia Tal

I could have paid attention when my science teacher tried to tell us that the primary colours of light are different: red, blue, and green. When I did not, it was a steep learning curve for me as I grew interested in the stage during my years in college. I laboured at producing colours of light for plays using a completely wrong model for colours. I remembered the great surprise I had in producing a cold grey light for use in a play by mixing floods and spotlights. It was around then that I discarded the theory which worked for pigments.

Drying leaves in spring, Naini Tal

Now, of course, as we learn to use software for editing photos, the use of RGB colours has become so widespread that Seurat’s discoveries about colour seem commonplace. Still, when I discovered this spring that leaves use the same method I felt the pleasant tingling of discovery. The underlying colour of many leaves is red. The green colour is due to chloroplasts that the leaves produce to perform photosynthesis. When leaves die and the chloroplasts begin to decay, leaves turn yellow. If they don’t rot quickly you see them turning red as more and more chloroplasts die. In spring you see this in reverse. New leaves start out red, and grow chloroplasts, first turning yellow, and then green in a reversal of the changes that autumn brings. The first two photos in this post are of this transformation in new leaves. The photo above shows the changes in dying leaves.

Shikanji by the lake, Bhim Tal

An old friend, once an artist in his spare time, took a job which involved printers and the design of colours. As he worked with software and printers, trying to reproduce the colours produced in one domain in another, his interest in colour vision and reproduction grew. I listened to him talk about how subtractive schemes like CMY correspond to the print experience better, and what happens if you add on black ink. Now he spends much more of his time on his art, but spared some time to talk about what he found.

Fruits in a market stall, Bhowali

Colour vision is a property of human physiology and perception. So the fact that our eyes have receptors, the rods and cones, is part of the story. But behind this is a layer of computational nerves, a neural network, which combines the signals from these, and feeds it to yet other nerve cells which then transmit the information, through our optic nerves, to specialized areas in our brains. It is hard to believe how we see! Birds and insects see the world very differently. Photos of flowers or butterflies’ wings taken at wavelengths invisible to us show incredible patterns. This is an indication that in the ecology in which they exist, markers visible to non-humans are important. It is amazing how much detail the world shows once you zoom in to any part of it.

A long long long long drive through Kumaon

Another long drive after breakfast, another day of watching Kumaon pass by without being in the place. If we go to Munsiyari again, we will plan a longer stop there to balance out the travel time. But for now I had to work at connecting to Kumaon as it sped past me. The camera is a traveller’s best friend. After lunch I began to photograph everything, milestones, trees, trucks, people.

All across Kumaon schools were open. Such a big difference between that and most states. It is good to go to school; most youngsters like it, and it serves a purpose. As long as COVID case counts are very low, I think this should continue. But it is hard to enforce masking discipline on teenagers, as you see in this photo. I don’t know whether it is possible to keep schools open once case counts rise.

With the pandemic job losses, it is common to see scenes like this. Young men who would otherwise been at work sit idle. The old lady in the featured photo is perhaps lucky in her own way. She carries a bagful of vegetables, meaning she has money but no help at home. I guess her sons are away in a city, still earning money and sending some home for her.

I can try to read small towns, but I have a harder time reading villages. All I could notice here was a public tap where people gather to fill water. Doesn’t the local administration run water pipes to individual houses? How could you then have individual toilets, as the government has been trying to encourage for a few years? The guy across the road from the trio looks uncomfortable. Why? I can’t answer these questions.

I can read even less into work places like this. Terracing for agriculture, is that cooperative work or individual? Do landowners convert their own sloping pieces of land to terraces, or do villages do the terracing together, and different people have different sections of them? is the stone wall a property boundary or something a terrace in the making? Why is hay not always stacked near the house? After all you are hardly likely to let your cattle loose around your wheat fields.

Houses raise other questions. In this cold place why would you want an exposed verandah on an upper storey? The wind must be strong because the main door is sheltered behind a jutting wall. There is a garden to sit in during these months. The part that you can see from the road seems to continue past the corner of the pink building which you see behind.

The road opens up now and then, and from the speeding car I can get a glimpse of larger vistas. You can see briefly the topography of the region, how villages and fields cling to the sides of small hills protected by higher cliffs. No one want to live next to a river. They can flood unexpectedly, and then the surging waters and the huge boulders they bring down from mountains can be dangerous. I find it easier to read terrain than the organization of villages.

We passed through a land which was quite literally burning. There was smoke in the air, which made it difficult to take sharp photos. I took this frame anyway; it is hard to compose from a moving car, and the light was low. But I liked the low buildings. They seem to burrow into the earth for warmth.

In Bageshwar we stopped to fill the tank. I welcomed this opportunity to stretch my legs. I wandered a few steps forward to photograph this large gate. It must lead to a temple. The jugadi mix of styles that you see here would not be visible in Tamil Nadu. Religious art in southern India has a very refined aesthetic, constantly evolving, but it would not do this. I don’t know which will remain vital three hundred years from today.

Reluctantly leaving heaven

Some parts of heaven are dangerous now, dilapidated, ready to fall. Still, the magic draws people from across the world. Many have left elaborate artwork on the walls. Perhaps inspired by them, others have sketched outlines of work elsewhere. We walked through the parts of the abandoned Swarg Ashram which were built after the famous visit by the Beatles.

There are two apartment blocks next to each other. They looked dilapidated. Unlike in the bungalows, there were no signs warning us off. But maybe that only meant that the blocks just haven’t been inspected recently? We peered through doors and windows. They are one-bedroom apartments, of a size which is larger than most one-bedrooms in Mumbai. Some of the walls reminded me of the overused word palimpsest. Perhaps a graffiti wall is as good a descriptor. Some of the sketches were good, perhaps the artists could have developed them into paintings if they had materials.

These blocks date from the seventies, when the Maharishi Mahesh yogi’s business venture was beginning to boom. For the pioneer of the yoga and guru industry, he has little name recognition now. For that matter, even the Beatles are fading. I was in a lift a couple of years ago with a older person, when the door opened and a bunch of kids with phones and earbuds came in chattering. “Have you tried out the Beatles?” one asked. Some of the others looked puzzled. The experimenter said “Ancient group, interesting music.” One of the others explained, “Yes a singing group like Abba, with three members. One was called Paul.” The lift door opened, and they left. We two, grizzled veterans, looked at each other, eyebrows raised.

There were a lot of really interesting paintings inside. I inspected the outer walls. There were no large cracks. There could be a danger of falling blocks of plaster, but perhaps we could risk quick forays into the buildings. We darted through the doorways which gaped open. In and out quickly, a few times. Then I noticed that there are no cracks in the internal plaster either, no bulges. We were not going to risk the stairs, but spending a little longer exploring inside may not be dangerous. We found a large number of very expertly executed pieces inside. Some of them really worth your time.

Even apart from the paintings, the remains of the ashram were beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken now and then by the cackling of tree pies, and the deeper calls of hornbills. We were reluctant to leave. The canteen did not have anything other than chai and small snacks. If it had, we would have stayed longer.

In Heaven

Heaven is abandoned. The Family and I walk through the shaded path where immortals once strolled, and speculate about when everyone moved away. There’s still magic here. A small group of hip city youngsters give us lessons on how to take selfies. The Family gives me a warning look, and I behave. I move where they ask us to go, let them suggest how to strike an attitude, thank them as they go away. Human contact with strangers after a year can be disconcerting for everyone, even in Swarg Ashram, which was briefly, half a century ago, the most famous place on earth. That’s when the Beatles spent time here, between releasing the contents of Magical Mystery Tour and the white album.

The bungalows next to the yoga center carry warning signs. I’m used to distancing now, and I manage to peer in, let my camera do the walking. Nice murals. Not half a century old, I think. By far not, The Family agrees. A signboard says this is where “distinguished visitors” stayed. The Beatles would count. So would Mia Farrow. Peter Saltzman talks about listening to George Harrison play the sitar on a rooftop terrace. That would be one of these, I guess.

An abandoned garden and what looks like two apartment blocks lie between this line of bungalows and the distant cliff edge overlooking the Ganga and Rishikesh. Peter Saltzman mentioned a place overlooking the river where the Beatles sat and worked on the words and music for songs which eventually appeared in the white album. The Family has already crossed the garden. I follow. We laugh at a sign that says “Do not write on walls.”

We skirt the apartment blocks for now. I spot a couple come out to the path from behind a little house. “Let’s go there”, I suggest. The Family’s okay with it. Temple, or meditation center, you take your pick. I walk through the door, and some dark chambers to the paved area behind. Beyond it I see an open space overlooking the river. I walk out to stand there. Mentally I subtract the apartments, keep the bungalows. I try to match the description I remember from Peter Saltzman’s interviews. This must be it. This is where the Beatles came repeatedly during those weeks to put words to ob la di. This is where the music for Dear Prudence came together. There is magic here. Briefly the tiny blue flowers on the ground look like the Himalayan Gentian.