Who goes there?

The Virupaksha temple in Hampi is said to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom whose capital eventually surrounded it. The Archaeological Survey puts the earliest dating of the temple to about four centuries before the beginning of the kingdom, but says that most of the structures were built by the Vijayanagara kings. There are two east facing gopura, the outer one having been built in the time of Deva Raya II, in the mid 15th century CE, the inner during the reign of Krishnadeva Raya, in the early 16th century. Armed with a quick reading of the Survey’s booklet on Hampi, I inspected the pavilion on the right of the outer gopuram; it is supposed to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom. I am no expert, so I tried to educate myself by examining the pillars whose style is evidence of its earlier age. If you are confused about which of the pavilions is older, just ask for the one called the new pavilion. That’s so obvious, isn’t it?

The outer gopuram is quite impressive. I noticed beautiful Vijayanagara style relief on its base. The lovely panel with a horse caught my eye, as did one with an elephant. The small blackstone triple Nandi just inside the gate caught my eye. It was the night of the new moon in November, and a minor festival was on. The inner courtyard was lit with diyas, and was really crowded. It was a good time for people watching.

Some people had settled down for the evening and had begun on dinner. Others were clearly here for a short time, and would go back home soon. The visitors spanned a large income range, if one was to judge people by their clothes. There were priests and pilgrims; the latter being men in black dhotis. I had opportunity for much ambush photography. Take a look at the variety of people I saw.

Kochi looks west

Kerala, and large parts of the west coast, has surfed the waves of history throughout its recorded, umm, history. And it has done this admirably, absorbing foreign influences into a seamless culture. Trade with the middle east brought Judaism, and then Christianity over a thousand years ago, coffee and Islam a little before China’s treasure fleets. Spices and gems from the interior of the Deccan kept bringing the world back. The Indian diaspora began here, and the fruits of diasporic wealth and thought are visible everywhere. Walking through the streets of Fort Kochi, the crumbling spice district reminds you not only of this past, but also, constantly, the mutating present.

Today, Kerala looks further west than it ever did before. My auto threaded through the Brazilian football team riding the streets of Kerala on bicycles. I only managed to get a shot of Neymar Jr. Fenandinho and Costa were on the other side of the auto, so I didn’t manage to get their photos. Months of TV punditry have been spent on analyzing why Brazil remains the favourite team in Kochi and Kolkata. When you walk through the narrow winding streets of Kochi the answer stares you in the face. “I have a dream,” every jersey says.

I came across another expression of the same dream one brilliant afternoon as I walked along the spice bazaar photographing the ephemeral street art of this newly emerging art city. A knot of youngsters stood in front of a dilapidated building. The walls of the house were bright with street art. I had to take a look.

The door was worth taking a photo of. The colossal struggle whose end was proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama three decades ago is still waged out of little places such as this. The medieval era peasant struggles of China which ended the Mongol rule, the century old revolutions in Latin America, the convulsions across today’s world as parliamentary democracy is subverted from inside (yet again) finds a classic expression on these doors. The challenge of finding a better form of government has not ended.

I peeped into the little bare office. The influences were clear: 1917 and 1967. The better government of the future may not, probably will not, take the form that these people arrived at, but history has reopened the question after 1991. The youngsters smiled at me and we had a little chat about the carrom board with its makeshift chairs. The place was as much a social club as a party office. I’d lost my opportunity to take photos of them. They were too conscious of my probing camera now. I walked on, Fort Kochi had more to offer.

Lunar eclipses

A lunar eclipse will be seen from Mumbai starting at 10:37 PM Indian Standard Time today, and will last till 2:42 AM tomorrow. The maximum will occur at 40 minutes past midnight. The eclipse will be visible from most of India, and will occur at about the same times. The prediction of eclipses is a routine task today, done with high precision. But positional astronomy is an ancient subject, and was done accurately for millennia all over the world, even when the causes behind them was obscure. In India computations of eclipses involved two entities, which were named Rahu and Ketu, which moved in a cycle which is known as the saros. In modern day terminology of positional astronomy, Rahu and Ketu correspond to the points on the celestial sphere where the apparent paths of the sun and the moon coincide. As a result, these are the only places on the celestial sphere at which eclipses can take place.

In this wonderful low-relief sculpture at the entrance to the Sri Krishna temple in Hampi, Rahu and Ketu are represented as snakes, ready to swallow the moon. As for the rabbit, I looked again at a photo of the full moon I’d taken in March in Mumbai, and with a little squinting I could imagine that the dark patches of the lowlands on the disk look a bit like a leaping rabbit. You can take a look for yourself tomorrow and decide. In any case, I found the gate beautiful. How deeply astronomy is imbedded into all of world’s cultures!

The ginger house

I’m used to lots of different spices in my food, and I suppose I smell them whenever I walk into our kitchen, without really paying attention to it. Walking through the roads of the spice bazaar of Kochi was a different order of experience; the wonderful smell of spices permeated the whole quarter. It is seldom that you think of the smell of a city, but Kochi engages this sense more than any place I’ve been to. I was clicking photos of the warehouses and their wonderful doors as I walked along, and I stopped here because of the elaborate doorway. But my attention wandered to the workers who were unloading sacks from the truck without breaking a sweat.

They didn’t mind when I followed them into the warehouse complex. As I passed through that grand doorway a wonderfully sweet smell hit me. This was a ginger warehouse, and the large courtyard was being used to dry ginger. That was when I began to realize that the famous spice trade also included things which I don’t even register as a spice; for example, the ginger that I so often throw into a salad or all into a soup. I was to find later that slightly more than a third of the world’s ginger is produced in India, and that is a big reduction from the monopoly it held in the medieval era. Out of curiosity I tried to check how precious it would have been then, and found the answer in a lecture given in the university of Toronto. Ginger was a major part of the spice trade in the middle of the 15th century CE, but the cheapest of them. Still, it would have cost almost 25 times as much as an equal weight of salt. In Antwerp and in London the average day’s wage of a master carpenter would have bought him 300 grams of ginger! No wonder that spices drove Europe across the world.

Ginger is produced in homesteads across the country, and the truck was unloading fresh produce. I guess it would be dried here and then sold. A foreman was happy to chat with me about the daily operations, the process, and the business as he knew it. The warehouse had wonderful light. I hope you can get a feel of it from the photos above. I found over the next days that many warehouses have been turned into art galleries for this reason. As I explored the art-city of Kochi, I got to love the masala chai infused with this lovely pungent but sweet aroma of dried ginger.

The way of the world

That the earth’s axis is tilted around the plane of its orbit was known even to ancient civilizations who had no understanding that the earth moves around the sun. After all, the noontime sun moves polewards in summer and in the opposite direction in winter. As a result, days are longer in summer, and nights longer in winter. Even a layman could see that. It was also fairly easy in the temperate zones of the earth to connect these motions to four distinct seasons. This was the beginning of ancient astronomy, and its off-shoot, which is the modern calendar.

Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.

–Hamlet (Act 2, Sc 2) William Shakespeare

But today, as the world begins another mad celebration of the arbitrariness of this calendar, and the decimal system of writing numbers (the end of the year, and, mistakenly, the end of the decade), I was moved to ask whether any special meaning could be given to a calendar. In the Elizabethan era, even as Shakespeare was writing about the fixed nature of the earth as an eternal truth, the earth was displaced from the center of the cosmos. It was realized that the earth orbits the sun, and that the sun was but one out of many stars. It was realized that the earth moves in an elliptical orbit around the sun. The difference between the long radius and the short is just about 1 percent of the radius, so this difference is not easily observed.

It remains that from the same principles we demonstrate the form of the system of the world.

— Principia Mathematica (Book 3) Isaac Newton

Small it may be, but the ellipticity is there, to mark special points on the orbit: special dates of the year. There is a date when the earth is furthest from the sun, and one when it is the closest. Between January 3 and 4 the earth comes closest to the sun. I will mark the beginning of a new orbit around the sun, a new year, on the coming Friday. How great a coincidence it is that this will come 12 days after the birthday of Isaac Newton, the man who understood that the reason for a ripe apple falling from a tree is the same as that which forces the orbit of the earth to be an ellipse. And what is special about the coming year is that it ends the 4th century after Johannes Kepler’s discovery (by 1619 CE) of the laws of planetary motion; that’s not the end of a decade, it is the end of the century. 2020 CE may as well be called 401 Keplerian Era.

Backwaters by boat

On a morning when others across the Indian Ocean were lugging themselves and their equipment to plac es best suited to view the annular solar eclipse, we decided to drive from Kochi to Vaikom for a morning of boating through the storied backwaters of Kerala. The moon’s shadow had moved away from us by the time we got on to the boat, but the air remained cool for quite a while.

There was activity all around us, but people seemed to have time to stand and chat. Part of the charm of Kerala is this unhurried air, which allows you into interesting conversations. We watched these two boats loaded with cattle feed foraged from the waters. As the two oarsmen went by, they were chatting with each other.

Lives here revolve around the water and its rhythms. We’d started moving south along the broad watercourse at low tide, and would return north as the tide came in. We passed a bunch of people lifting nets full of mussels. The shellfish are separated into meat, to be sold, and shells to be processed. The meat is quickly moved to markets, but the shells are heaped up into pyramids which will be loaded into trucks to yield lime for the building industry.

The waterways of Kerala are places where a natural process has slowly been recovering land from the sea. The mangroves, which you can see all around you, are the central engine driving this generation of land. Around their edges are a variety of aquatic plants which aid in this process by fixing the mud and building it up. Lily pads are the most recognizable of these species, but the ones I couldn’t name are actually more widespread.

One useful plant was pointed out to us. It is called a water pineapple locally. One has to be careful of its uprights serrated leaves as you glide past stands of this inedible plant. The leaves are harvested to make mats. The roof of the covered boat we sat in was made from these leaves. These long covered boats are rare; we sat in one which had sixteen comfortably large cane chairs laid out in two rows. The cover protected us from the sun, and the cool breeze came through the poles which held it up.

These boats are now used only by tourists. These long boats are poled along by two boatmen, one at each end. We stuck to the edge of the broad watercourse we’d started from, until we came to a large island where the course bifurcated. There we were poled across to the other side, and then through narrower and narrower channels (see the featured photo, for example).

A cormorant glided in front of us, occasionally diving down to catch fish. Cormorants have adapted to humans here. They know that in the narrow channel a boat will drive fish ahead of it, giving them an enhanced chance of successful foraging. The boatman told us how in China cormorants are used for fishing. In Kerala everyone reads; everyone has some knowledge of the wider world.

After an hour wending our way through these narrow green channels, we were back in the main watercourse. The air had warmed up and I was very happy to have the mat overhead to protect us from the warmth of the sun. The humidity was intense, and I marveled at how the boatmen could keep pushing us forward at a steady pace for the next half hour.

We stopped once at a little village. In Kerala it is very hard to make out where one village ends and another begins; it is a densely populated, but not fully urbanized countryside. A lady demonstrated the weaving of mats, and the making of ropes. I wandered off to take photos of butterflies. I’d noticed many of the common ones while gliding along the water. I managed to get a photo of the grey pansy (Junonia atlites).

Garden plants abound; every cottage has a little patch of garden around it. To my city-bred eyes this looks totally unnecessary, since all of the backwaters looked like an immense garden to me. As I examined a familiar flower, I saw large red ants crawling over the blooms. I’m no expert at ants, and my identification of these as red fire ants of the species Solenopsis geminata may be entirely mistaken.

The warm and humid air pulled me into a deep nap. When I woke up we were about to pull into our jetty. Some powerlines stretched across the watercourse. As I scanned along it, I had a great sighting of a blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus). It flitted about, but in true bee-eater style, always returned to its perch. It was time to return to ours.

Cochin biriyani

Kochi, a center of Indian Ocean trade since the 14th century is so sure of its identity that it does not worry about being called Cochin. So I take the liberty of using the spelling which is more evocative in the language this blog is written in. And its Biriyani? An Arab import, localized over centuries, redolent of the spices of Malabar, has gained wider popularity since the 2012 movie Ustad Hotel. The Malabari version of the Biriyani is made in the dum style, with the vessel heated from above and below, and the dum pottikkal, breaking of the dum, is an expert’s job.

In search of the perfect biriyani, we walked into Kayees Rahmathulla Cafe for our first lunch in Kochi. It was highly recommended, easy to locate on my map, and within an easy walking distance of the Mattancherry Palace. As The Family and I walked into the cafe, I looked around the small, cramped but clean place, and knew that I had made no mistake in choosing to eat here. We were greeted with smiles, and two glasses of yellowish water were put in front of us. The Family was not quite sure whether to drink it, but the waiter explained that it was jeera water: water warmed with cumin. We liked the flavour, and guessed that the rest of the food would be brilliant.

The place setting for the biriyani (featured photo) is interesting. Three side dishes are laid out: first a dish of onions (not a raita), then a wonderful jaggery and tamarind sauce (this looks black in the photo, but to the eye is a wonderfully deep brown), and nearest to you, a hot and sour chutney made with pepper (the red colour does not come from chili). A plate of thin papad comes with the food. I admired the look of the biriyani before eating it. The beautiful short grains of rice do not stick together, and the uneven colour is a reminded of the layering which gives the biriyani its special flavour. It is hard to look too long, with the smell of Malabar’s spices seeping through the air. The meat was soft and perfectly cooked: coming easily off the bone. This was a biriyani to remember. There was no taste of yoghurt in the meat, this biriyani is cooked with ghee. By the time we finished eating, the place was full, and there were people waiting for tables.

I asked for a piece of their halwa, to try to check whether there could be any truth to the apocryphal story that the British mistook it for meat, and therefore coined the word sweetmeat. Halwa changes when you travel across the country, and there may be no region except the Malabar which retains the clarity of the connection with the middle-eastern origin of this dessert. When I bit into it, the first thing I thought of was Tirunalveli halwa, and only after that did Turkish halwa come to mind. No tongue which is even slightly familiar with the taste of halwa would mistake it for a meat, but history is full of unrepeatable mysteries. Just across the road was a cool bar which had an interesting menu. If you ever stop by and taste the gul gullah, please drop me a line telling me about it. I couldn’t think of ordering anything more before a long walk.

Weightless weekends

I’m always amazed by how much of a dedicated following kites have in China. Kites are a children’s pastime in India, and kite fights the ultimate competitive sport for some. There is esoteric school-kid knowledge about how to coat the string with ground glass, saw at another fighter’s string in the air, escape traps, create them, which kept some friends fired up. But most people outgrow them as they grow up. Budgets being limited to a school child’s allowance, Indian kites have not grown beyond basic paper squares stabilized by a tail, and the cane spinneret has certainly not evolved since my childhood. So when I saw the sleek gadget that the man in the featured photo holds in his gloved hand, I was entranced.

But then, on further thought, this evolution is natural. Kite flying is a big thing in China too, but here it is an adult pastime as well. The money available for innovation and attention paid to kites is a different magnitude. The kites are large and can be complicated. I watched a group of enthusiasts gather in the garden in Nanjing which used to be the Ming palace six centuries ago. They came with their big kites, heavy gloves, and other paraphernalia. I watched as they put together the equipment. Telescopic metal frames, and lightweight fabric for the kites, comfortable spinnerets, nice gloves, a little game of cards (always a must in China), and then they were ready to fill the sky with darting and colourful shapes.

Chinese tradition says that kites were invented by two Confucian scholars, Mo Zi and Lu Ban, in the time of the Warring States (5th to 3rd century BCE). Tang-era (7th to 10th century CE) stories talk of flying kites for pleasure, and Ming-era (14th to 17th century CE) documents talk of the art form that kites had become. I was happy to dedicate a little part of my afternoon to watching an ancient Chinese custom.

The Emperor’s Tomb

The final decades of the Mongol reign over China were turbulent: dissident religious sects revolted, peasants were restless, military adventurers calling themselves the successors of ancient dynasties rose. A penniless orphan from Anhui province, Zhu Yuanzhang, was adopted by one of the Buddhist sects (the Red Turbans) and rose to become a successful warlord, and eventually the founding emperor, Huangwu, of the Ming dynasty. 1368 CE is taken to be the beginning of his thirty year reign.

He established his capital in Nanjing, and, in 1381 CE, began constructing a grand tomb for himself in the Purple Mountain (Zijin Shan) to the north east, just outside the walls of the city. I walked down part of the imperial Spirit Way in the company of many of the descendants of the emperor’s subjects and reached this stgone archway at its end. The only thing I can read in the calligraphy above the gate is the word “gate”. When I compare this gate to the weathered stone of the statues along the Spirit Way, it is clear that this is a recent structure.

The Ming Xiaoling is still a little way down the beautiful sun-dappled road. In 1382 CE the Empress Ma died and was buried in this tomb. Her name Xiao Ling, is now part of the name of the tomb. The Ming part of the name Ming Xiaoling refers to the emperor, who was also buried here. The weather was perfect. I’d walked for about an hour, and I sat on one of the benches along this road and sipped some water. I could hear some birds, but my eyes were too dazzled by sunlight to see them properly as they hopped around in the shadows under nearby bushes.

The road rose a little, and then there was a little brook, with a bridge over it. From the bridge I took the photo that you see above: my first view of the major structures remaining of the tomb. The feng shui was perfect: water in front, mountain at the back, on a perfect north-south axis, facing south. You don’t expect an emperor to cut stint on his spiritual eternity, when a little bit of geo-engineering can fix it.

The great triple-doored gate, Wenwu Fangmen (文武方门 pinyin: Wénwǔ fāng mén) is a great attraction all by itself. There was a queue of people waiting to take photos, of themselves or friends, in front of one of the impressive doors. I was happy to have this opportunity for ambush photography. The imperial yellow of the roof, the line of tiles just below, and the honour guard of guardian figures at the ends of the roof (featured photo) were all worth pausing to see.

Just after Wenwu Fangmen was a lovely area which was in full use by photographers. This was my idea of heaven: so many opportunities for ambush photography! It seems that fallen maple leaves, perhaps fallen leaves of any kind, have become important cultural objects. I wonder whether this is just modern day photo posts, or is there an older resonance to it? When you start photographing photographers and their subjects, you start noticing the tropes that are local favourites. Another obervation: one of the wonderful things that a truly ancient civilization realizes is that people need to use toilets. The Zijin Shan area has many, and there’s even one inside the tomb complex.

Just beyond this was a Tablet Hall with a stele bearing an inscription by the Kangxi emperor of the Qian dynasty attesting to the greatness of the Ming. The turtle which bear the stele is in great demand by photographers, so I moved out to take a photo of the structure. This one has a slate roof with finials in the form of a fish. The fish finial is very common in Japanese architecture, but I haven’t noticed too many in China. An emperor uses the dragon and its sons as motifs, so maybe the combination of the fish and a slate roof seemed to indicate that this structure was not built by an emperor.

Beyond this was an area desolate in terms of architecture, but converted now into a beautiful garden. I understand that there were old structures here which have fallen into ruin. A few small structures remain: like the altar in the photo above. A gusty breeze had set in, shaking leaves off trees. It was a charming sight, to stand under these tall trees and watch showers of brown leaves. Unfortunately, you need a wide-angle and a zoom simultaneously to capture the feel of such a place, so I downed my camera and stood there magicked into stillness.

You exit this area through another triple gate. The shadows of trees on this great wall somehow captured, for me, a sense of this magical square: the crisp weather of a late autumn, the sunlight, the beautiful tall trees slowly losing their leaves, and the calmness of a constantly visited tomb. I was happy to have chosen to take a long walk on such a beautiful day.

I was almost at the heart of the tomb now. I was boxed into a narrow open space with the final Spirit Tower, called the Ming Lou. As I took a photo of the two-story tower, a dry leaf slowly dropped in front of me: close enough to be clearly visible in the final photo, far enough to be in focus. Chance favours the prepared camera. It was now time to climb.

It was a warm time of the day. After climbing up to the huge parapet of the Spirit Tower I rummaged in my backpack for the little package of oranges I’d bought the day before. I love these little juicy oranges. Eating oranges in the mild sunshine of an Indian winter are some of my best childhood memories, and sitting on that sunny parapet on this autumn day, finishing off the oranges brought me to a happy place. The northern side of the Spirit Tower faces the mound under which the Emperor Ming Taizu, ie, the Hongwu Emperor, and his consort Empress Ma, called the Xiaoling Empress and buried. I walked around to take a photo of the mound.

The light was good enough for me to try to take a photo of the top of Ming Lou. I like the intricate woodwork of the roof, and I must sit down and educate myself on this some day. Nothing about imperial tombs are accidental, and there must be symbolic meaning to each detail. I wondered how often this tower and its roof have been renovated. Certainly once after the Taiping Revolution, but perhaps several times again since the century and half after that.

On our first visit to China, The Family and I had taken a guided tour to the tomb of the Yongle emperor, son of the Hongwu emperor. On that tour, near Beijing, the guide told us many things which we would not have otherwise known. Among them is the ancient custom that when you leave a tomb you take a side path, and you don’t look back. Following that custom, I discovered a lovely thing which I would have missed otherwise: a forest of steles carried on the backs of Bixi. A bixi is the son of a dragon and a turtle, has the qualities of a dragon, and also the life and strength of the turtle. One of them looks like it could be a Ming-era sculpture. The other looks like a modern concrete replacement.

People-watching on weekends

Weekends in China turn out to be pretty hectic for me, since I tend to plan to do much too much during that time. Sometimes it is a relaxed hour in a park. Others also seem to have the same idea. It is nice to see a bunch of pensioners soaking up the mild winter sun in the Minggugong park of Nanjing. But most of China seems to work at a different pace.

The crowd outside Fuzi Miao was a little denser. The age distribution was typical of such places in China, mostly young people, some a little older. That soundtrack is very useful when you are practicing the language. Try picking out the snatches of conversation you hear. I fail this kind of test pretty comprehensively. Still, a person from Mumbai can feel pretty comfortable in the middle of a crowd like this.

Metro stations are usually full of people in a hurry. And Xinjiekou station in Nanjing does have long corridors to hurry down. You don’t expect to see someone doing something worth taking a photo of. But I can’t pass up an opportunity for ambush photography, can I?

On the subway, hanging on to a strap, I feel as sleepy as this pair. Just a few stops, I tell myself. And then a few steps, and then I can hit the bed. Looking forward to it, now.