Driving the Prado

Prado is a blank in my camera. With its ban on photography, one of the world’s greatest museums of European art is that enigmatic. The Museo del Prado was the first stop in our visit to Spain, and the five hours we spent there was barely sufficient to get an overview of their collection of Spanish art.

If the Mona Lisa is the most visited painting in the Louvre, Las Meninas by Velazquez (below) is the single most visited painting in the Prado. I was with the majority. When The Family picked up a floor plan, I looked for the quickest route to Las Meninas. The huge painting dominates the gallery it is in, and has an enormous crowd which moves around it. The audio guide at the Prado is very informative, and a large number of people here were using it. One interesting fact, not mentioned by the guide, but visible in the statue of Velazquez outside the Prado (featured photo), is that Velazquez used special long-handled brushes for such large paintings. This made it possible for him to gauge the effect the painting would have for a viewer standing at a distance. Another wonderful painting by Velazquez in the Prado is The Fable of Arachne, perhaps one of his last paintings.

The Prado holds the Royal Collection of Spain. Although this is the nucleus, much has been added over the years. The original building, designed by Juan de Villanueva, has long been insufficient. New wings and galleries were added over the years, three independent buildings now hold gallery space for the Prado, and new space is currently being added. A day or two is not enough to see it all. It is best to buy a ticket on-line fairly far in advance. You are given a 15 minute slot for entry, but you can use the ticket for the full day, and even leave and come back in the same day. The cafeteria is very good and you do not need to leave if you don’t want to. We had a quick lunch in the museum’s cafeteria after taking in the extensive collection of paintings by Goya.

The paintings on display change, some come out of the holdings on to the walls, others circulate around the world. There is a limit to how much art you can absorb in a day. The Prado is immense, and one needs to visit it several times in order to take in all that it has.

The enormous collection

A walk with Carmens

We walked up and down the world heritage district of Albaycin in Granada on a hot day. Narrow paths wound between closed doors framed with tiles. Dazzling white walls of Carmens struggled to hold back flowering trees and creepers. It took me some time to figure out that although carmen means a garden in Spanish, in the Albaycin it has the added meaning of a house surrounded by a garden. Through gaps in the walls one could get a view of the Alhambra. I’d not paid much attention to descriptions of walks through this old Moorish part of the town, but it is one of my most pleasant memories of Spain.

The old houses were made with bricks and limestone mortar. Although there is a tremendous amount of study of the old materials in order to restore the most important buildings, the results are mainly applied to public property. Most of these carmens are private property, with their doors firmly shut. I could see more modern materials used in various places. As we walked between these white walls, The Family and I talked about the name of this area.

Albaycin or Albayzin apparently comes from an Arabic root which means the (place of) falconers. Baaz is a word that we knew. It is the Hindi word for a falcon, a loan word from Persian. That was intriguing. Were there really Persian influences in al-Andalus? I found later that in al-Andalus other words related to falconry, for example, dastaban for a falconer’s gloves, also come from Persian. How did the Moorish kingdoms of the far west carry the influence of Persian?

Temple of Isis in Madrid

The Ptolemic pharaohs of Egypt walked under the two arches that you see in the featured photo and into the temple of Isis (photo below). So did the Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Legend had that the goddess Isis gave birth to the god Horus in this temple. This structure was originally built over the site of a thousand year older temple dedicated to the god Amon. For over two thousand years, until 1968 this temple stood near the first cataract of the Nile. Now you can see it in Madrid, but the story is not the usual one of colonial plunder.

In 1960 when the Aswan high dam was being built in Egypt, the UNESCO made an international call to save many temples and cultural artifacts which would have drowned under the new reservoir. Spain was one of the countries which responded and lent a hand in saving the temples of Abu Simbel. As a sign of gratitude, the government of Egypt presented the temple of Debod, which was one of the smaller temples in this region, to Spain. It now stands in the Parc del Oeste near the royal palace in Madrid.

Reading that it would close at sunset, we reached the park early on a hot evening. For some reason the temple was closed. The guards could only speak Spanish, so we never understood why it was not open. Ancient and recent historical graffiti inside the temple has been studied extensively in recent years, and there are apparently augmented reality tools available to tourists who are interested in learning about them. Since the temple was closed, we could not take a look at these. We walked around the temple, took photos, and then went and sat in the shade along with the many Madrilenos who were trying to cool down.

This was our first afternoon in Spain and our Indian instincts were totally wrong. On a very hot day in India you would spend the afternoon indoors and venture out after five or so, when the sun begins to dip towards the horizon and the air begins to cool. Not so in Spain, as we discovered. It is so far to the north that the sun sets after nine. Five or six in the evening could well be the hottest part of the day!

Mudejar towers

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Mudejar as a Muslim living under Christian kings especially during the 8th to 11th centuries. It also says that the first known use of the word is from 1829. Soon afterwards it was applied to a style of Spanish architecture in the sense that it still carries. The style is seen in all the photos here.

The main characteristics of the style are brickwork, decoration with tiles, intricate carpentry, and the use of geometrical motifs in decoration. The featured photo is of the grand mosque in Granada, and shows all these features. The mosque was closed because I went there in the afternoon of the last day of Ramzan, so I did not manage to see the interior. Still, the exterior gave a good indication of what the interior would have been like.

In Granada, near one end of Plaza Nueva is the church of San Gil and Santa Ana (photo above), an exemplary piece of Mudejar architecture. Look at the beautiful azulejos (tiles) at the top, above the bells, the woodwork just below it, the beautiful tiles above each of the romanesque arches, and the ornate pillar just below the bells. Again, because I was always there at the wrong time, I could not see the interior.

Notice the beautiful woodwork in these three photos. The one on the left is the exterior of the church of San Nicholas. I climbed up to it on a really hot day, and was too dehydrated to walk in. I sat in the shade outside and drank a lot of water. The other two photos above show the church of San Pedro and San Pablo. Typical Mudejar elements are visible outside. Inside, the ceiling is covered in incredibly beautiful woodwork. A friend told me about his perception of the difference between Islamic and Christian architecture in the Alhambra: that they embody different philosophies of what make something grand. These churches combine these two world views: the high interiors are grand in the manner of churches you see all over Europe, and the beautiful intricate workmanship brings to it the Asian love of detail. One wonders about the missed paths of history; if only the Jews had not been expelled in 1492, and the Muslims had been allowed to stay on after the 25 more years that they did, what kind of new architectural styles would have evolved as engineering improved.

In my mind the Giralda of Seville (photo above) is the grandest of these towers. Technically it does not belong to the Mudejar style, because it was built before the Christian reconquest, and was only converted from a minaret to a bell tower afterwards. However, it has all the elements of this style: brickwork to build up a really high tower and incredibly detailed external ornamentation.

Finally, a moment of duh-ness or serendipity, whatever you may call it. I looked back at the photos I took a year ago inside the Royal Palace of Sintra and realized that I had seen the Mudejar style before. The chapel inside the palace, which you see in the photo above, is an example of this style. And a particularly fine example, one must say.

The big misses

After all that driving around inside Pench National Park, there were still some major species of mammals that we missed seeing. One of the closest calls was a leopard. We heard a cheetal’s alarm call and then saw the deer. We heard a langur’s alarm call very soon after. Then nothing.

The cheetal was still alert, looking in the direction where it had just sensed the predator. You can see its tail mid-quiver in the featured photo. One movement from the hidden beast and it would go up, sending out a white flash of an alarm signal as it made an alarm call again. But nothing happened. We waited for more than half an hour, and then lost our patience. We weaved our way past the other waiting jeeps. Later, in the hotel, we heard that a minute after we left, the leopard had been sighted. That’s luck for you.

Dusk had fallen. We drove to a nearby water body, and saw nothing there. Later we heard that we had missed a shy two-year old tiger cub which was lying in the water where we went, and moved off as soon as a jeep came by. This happened as we waited for the leopard!

Wild boar spooked while crossing a road in Pench National Park

We did not exactly miss seeing wild boars. I managed to take the blurred photo which you can see above. These were part of a sounder which were crossing the road. They got spooked while crossing, and the rest of the group scuttled back into the undergrowth. In Pench wild board come out in such bad light.

We never saw a sloth bear, although there are many in Pench. The only reasonable view I’ve had of these bad tempered creatures was a few years back in Tadoba Tiger Reserve. One of them was demolishing a termite mound behind a copse of trees. I could see it between the trees. The one time I took photos of a sloth bear and its two cubs, they were running away across a meadow well after sunset. A lot of fiddling with the image could give me a recognizable picture.

Another wide miss was the Indian wolf, which apparently had made a minor comeback in this area. We never heard reports of anyone seeing them in the time that we were in Pench. The deer called the Barasingha is in the official checklist, but none of the guides said they had seen one. One of them was quite categorical that there were none here, "Go to Kanha," he said.

A close miss was a sighting of wild dogs. We kept running into jeeps whose passengers would say, "We saw a pack just minutes back. I’m sure they’ll be back if you wait here.". They never came back. The jungle is a chancy thing. You can be sure of seeing trees. Everything else is an extra.

The World’s largest Cattle

We saw a herd of about ten Gaur (Bos Gaurus) and stopped to watch. They looked around, saw us, and went back to grazing. Maybe they are used to humans, but part of the reason is also their sheer size. An adult can weight as much as a ton, so they seldom have to worry about other creatures. Tigers and leopards do attack Gaur, but they usually pick the youngsters. For a tiger against an adult Gaur, I would give them even odds. I’ve seen a tiger unable to drag away a Gaur which it had killed, because it was so heavy. I’ve also seen reports of tigers killed by Gaur.

Older Gaur calf in Pench National Park

The IUCN Red list considers the Gaur to be highly vulnerable to habitat destruction. If you want to know more about the natural history of Gaur, this is the best document to read. It claims that in the last 50 to 60 years Gaur population worldwide has decreased by 70%. Since it has decreased by only 30% in India, it must have decreased tremendously in the rest of its range. It was found in India and south-east Asia, but has gone extinct in Bangladesh in the last couple of decades. In parts of India, such as Valparai, it is still under threat.

The Bos genus, to which domestic cows also belong, probably diverged from other bovines about a million years ago. Earlier studies had claimed that the European Aurochs (which went extinct in the 19th century CE) are the original stock from which other Bos species diverged. However, recent findings in Eritrea seem to push the origin of Bos back to around 3 millon years ago, and indicate a close relationship between humans and Bos. These studies indicate that Bos and humans left Africa together. Tigers would have started preying on Bos only after their dispersal into Asia. So, the enmity between human and tiger predators of cattle seems to be ancient.

Gaur with young calf in Pench National Park

In a well-managed park like Pench, the Gaur population seems to be stabilizing, and probably also increasing. We saw evidence in the form of small calves (photo above) as well as older calves (photo before that). Interestingly, in the early part of the 20th century CE, observers reported that calves are born in August and September. Nowadays, it is common to see calves at any time of the year. The herd we saw followed the common pattern of having some females with calves, some sub-adults, and perhaps a few males. If you know enough about Gaur, then you would be able to tell the male from the female by differences in the horns. I’m not expert enough.

We stood there and watched the herd graze. It has been several years since we saw these wonderful creatures with brown coats and white socks.

The post-extinct Elephants

I read in a document from the Zoological Survey of India that the Ain i Akbari mentions wild elephants in the area that the Pench National Park now occupies. These annals of the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar were written in the 16th century CE. I looked at my copy. Pench gets no mention, of course, but a larger geographical area around it is said to have these beasts. The ZSI document goes on to say that books from the 18th century about this area no longer mention these animals. The document concludes that elephants must have gone locally extinct in these centuries. It is interesting that the temperature minimum of the Little Ice Age occurred roughly at this time. This caused changes in rainfall patterns, and resulted in a sequence of droughts during the 18th century. Could it have been climate change of this kind that caused the extinction of the local population of elephants in this region?

Elephant patrol in Pench National Forest

So it is a little surprising to see elephants in the jungles of Pench, until you realize that there are only five elephants, and they are domesticated. The forest department uses them to patrol the jungle, especially areas which are otherwise hard to reach. We were in the usual open jeep when this patrol passed by. Our driver asked about tigers, and one of mahouts said that he’d seen one nearby and it might come down to drink water shortly. It didn’t. As they talked, I saw the elephant break one large branch off a small tree and munch on its leaves.

Intrigued, I searched for elephants in Pench and found the following paragraph in a book for a former forest ranger, R. C. Sharma, in a book called "The Wildlife Memoirs, a Forester Recollects".

R.C.Sharma, memoirs

This is a possible clue how climate change could eventually lead to disastrous denudation of flora, which cause large herbivores to die out. I’m sure an event like this has cascading effects through the whole ecosystem. The landscape that we see in Pench today must have been shaped by the climate of three centuries ago.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.

Memories of a far valley

It is now exactly the middle of April. The heat and humidity is killing. I began to search the web for Bhutan where we took refuge from the heat of Mumbai in two successive years almost a decade ago. Flipping through photos of monasteries in remote valleys I came to a stop at photos which looked familiar, yet not.

The name rang a bell: Phobjika valley. In May 2008, six of us had driven away from the tourist triangle of west Bhutan towards the east and north. One afternoon we took a detour into the Phobjika valley. I’d read about black-necked cranes wintering here, and a goemba worth visiting. We spent a wonderful day there and drove back the next day.

I was on the lookout for the Gangtey Goemba. Pema Lingpa, the historical monk who is almost as famous in Bhutan as the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Padmasambhava, is said to have predicted this monastery. His son caused the goemba to be built in 1618. The main gate of the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanIn fact, the head of this monastery is supposed to be a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa; the current one is the ninth.

One of our travelling companions was not very keen on "wasting time" on monasteries. So, when I asked our driver to turn the car off the main road towards the Goemba, I was hoping for it to be spectacular enough to captivate everyone. Unfortunately, it was not. The main gate (which you see in the photo above) looked beautiful but badly in need of repairs.

The inside was no better. External details on the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanThe three-story high central hall was being refurbished. I next saw a similar high atrium (featured photo) in a monastery many years later in Tawang. This kind of construction is not very common. However, the general air of devastation dampened our spirits. The Family can tell very easily when I’m down in the dumps, and she pointed out some beautiful details on the unpainted external walls (photo here). But it was clear that something was very wrong.

The mystery remained with me for years. Why would one of the major Gompas of Bhutan be in such disrepair. Nine years later I am reassured by what I just read: "Much of the interior and exterior woodwork of the 450-year-old goemba was replaced between 2001 and 2008 due to a beetle-larvae infestation." Now I must go back there to see what the place looks like after it has been redone.