The garden of peace and comfort

One of the big tourist sights of Shanghai is the Ming-era (16th century) Yu garden. Looking through my photos I realize that I’ve been there in two seasons; once in late spring, 6 May 2015, and once in early winter, 2 November 2018. Did I find it worth visiting twice? In one sense this is a silly question, because gardens are always nice places to spend your time. But we were in Shanghai for only a day; so was it worth going into a garden which we had already seen once?

Take a look through my camera on my second day in China. Everything was new; the world vibrated with possibilities; my eyes were not used to China. The Yu garden is divided into six areas. In the third area we came across a beautiful stage called the Feng wu luan yin (literally Phoenix dance and song). My eyes snagged on the beautiful sculptures on the roof, which you can see in the gallery above. Rectangular windows with circular panels set into it also were new to me. I realized later in the trip that they symbolize the cosmos (tiandi); the rectangle is the earth (di) and the circle is heaven (tian). The almost symmetry of the lattice nagged at me.

Although I could appreciate the artistry of the fired-clay sculptures, I certainly missed the layer of literature and somgs which have gathered around the garden, which many tourists will know. The second view was different, not only because a garden is different every time you pass through it, but also because I’d grown a little more used to China. I found it interesting that this garden was being built at roughly the same time as the Mughal gardens in parts of India. The contrast in styles is immense.

Between the two visits, a chance look at a review of a book called The Classical Gardens of Shanghai by Shelly Bryant, made me decide to read it. This put the garden in a broader historical perspective for me. Standing again at the same spot, did I see different things? You decide.

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Party Office

Kerala encourages a certain romantic view of itself. This picture of the communist party office as a safe place where you can leave children on a Sunday morning while you go to temple or church is one of those, even when its door is locked. The road was not empty by any means. The amma in the shop opposite the office, for example, kept an eagle eye on me as I took the photo. Others smiled as they passed by. It takes a village, of course.

Aladdin’s cave of kitsch

The Family and I walked into a store room full of painted plaster figures ready for shipping. Three people were busy packing things into boxes and did not mind us walking around and looking at things. These were not high art, like some of the statuary we had seen in the Meenakshi temple. As you can see when you look at the gallery below, they are kitsch: mythological figures, figures from popular TV serials, scenes from a traditional middle class Tamil life.

But it is amazing to be surrounded by thousands of such figures. After some time they can begin to look faintly menacing, even with their cheerfully bright colours. While I was lost in fantasies of fighting off hordes of bright blue cats, The Family had made a few purchases and needed my help in having them packed safely for a flight.

Hari Potter

Magic creeps up on you slowly as you walk through the village near Madurai called Vilachery. People who asked us to visit this place told us that it was a potter’s village. Initially that conjured up images of potter’s wheels, and ranks of pots and jugs. Then, slowly, as I began to realize that Tamil visual culture is steeped in clay images, a vague other image started taking shape in my mind. Sathiamoorthy parked the car in a widening of the dirt road through the village, and we started walking. The first indication that something sparkled in the air was the door in the featured photo. Headless angels and a madonna with a hidden face? “The game is afoot,” I told The Family.

I need not have bothered. She’d already found a workshop behind blue doors. “Who’s next?”, she asked. We peered through the door. Nobody was home. The whole row of houses here had workshops attached to them. We walked on, peering at courtyards piled with large and small statues. In a very real sense, this was the heart of Tamil culture, at least its visual expression. I was glad we had decided to come here.

In another lane in the village we came to the workshops of those who use clay. In a little opening around which two of these workshops clustered, we found a smoking heap of straw. In the straw were many different kinds of figurines, but several of each type. Again, economics dictated that multiple copies of each be made.

This row of workshops seemed to specialize in moulded plaster. I guess the ability to make many copies with molds is way to make a steady income. I peered into a workshop and saw a whole battalion of the figures that you see in the photo above. A woman sat near them and was hand-painting them one by one. She had several day’s worth of work ahead of her, I guessed.

I looked through an open door and found a workshop of a slightly different kind. Two large Ganesh sat here. They were clearly individually crafted, since their postures were slightly different. The master spoke only Tamil, but with Sathiamoorthy as an interlocutor I figured that a framework is built first in bamboo and straw, and then clay is applied over it. Similar techniques are in use everywhere in India.

This was a two storied house. I’d assumed that the ground floor was the workshop and the upper floor was where the master and his family lived. As I wandered past the blue Ganesh, I saw the marvelous sight which you can see in the photo above: a large clay statue of Ganesh in a kitchen. Where is the mouse, I wondered. Has it wandered off into the kitchen?

Even though the master worked on such large pieces (individually commissioned) the workshop did not disdain the plaster figures that others made. In one corner of the workshop there was a company of figures, made up of small platoons of several different kinds. The history of globalization since the 16th century can be seen in these figures: they bring together influences from India, Europe and China.

Friendly food stalls

Walking about Madurai, I found that people notice you with a camera. Although Madurai is a big draw for tourists, most people are not as blase about tourists as people from south Mumbai. I spotted this trio chatting as they manned a fruit stall and thought I would take a photo quietly. Not possible. They turned their attention to me. It makes for a nice photo, but I can’t decide whether the other photo would have been better.

Nearby was this bakery. I caught this man unawares, but now I’m not sure that this has come out well. I’m a little puzzled by the establishments called bakeries in Tamil Nadu. They are shops which do not seem to be attached to a place where someone bakes. About half the stock is usually unbranded material that a bakery would produce, but the other half is packed biscuits and cakes.

Earlier in the day I’d come across this friendly coffee shop, where several people turned to smile at my camera. I had to be friendly back, so I bought a cup of coffee. It was good.

Gandhi at the Meenakshi temple

A month ago, on the occasion of Gandhi’s one hundred and fiftieth birth centenary, I wrote that I did not have any Gandhi memorabilia. I remembered later that it was not true. I had a photo of a memorial to Gandhi just outside the eastern wall of Madurai’s Meenakshi temple. It is a sign of the very high esteem that Gandhi is held in that this statue is placed so prominently near the very center of tradition in Madurai. At the same time it is outside the temple, and not inside, with statues of gods and goddesses. A very calibrated placement, I thought. I post it a month late, but better that I post it now than forget it.

Slack time

The Family and I walked through the densely packed rows of shops in the streets around Madurai’s Meenakshi temple one afternoon. It was quite hot, and the crowds of shoppers had thinned. This was a relatively slack time of the day, and we saw most shopkeepers in a relaxed mood. Two of them sat outside a brass shop chatting. It looked like Aladdin’s cave. The Family wanted to look for brassware.

As she shopped I walked about a bit. Every one had a little time off. These three were probably street hawkers. They took some time out to finish lunch. I liked the way they are sitting together in a little group at the doorway of the narrow flight of stairs between two shops. I had to take a photo in passing, without giving them time to react. I can see the tiredness on their faces in this photo. If they’d noticed me then that slackness of expression would have been replaced by something else.

Sunset at the west gate of Meenakshi temple

We saw the west gopuram of the Meenakshi temple in the best possible light. It was late in the afternoon, just before the sun dipped below the line of the buildings around it. When we reached, the long shadows of these buildings had begun to creep across the road, and by the time we left they were climbing up the walls of the tower. This 47 meter high tower is the second oldest of the outer gopura, having been built between 1315 and 1347 CE in the reign of the Pandya king Parakrama.

By the time I came to this tower my confusion was complete. I’d expected that this temple to Meenakshi, consort of Shiva, was firmly in the Shaiva tradition. On the other hand, this gopuram has an image of Vishnu’s avatar as Narasimha, and several other Vaishnava images. Later reading told me that, in the south Indian tradition, Meenakshi is Vishnu’s sister. As a result, this temple is important in both traditions.

That certainly put a lot of the imagery in perspective.

Pudhu mandapam

Pudhu Mandapam (literally, new pavilion) stands outside the east gopuram of the Meenakshi temple. Today it is mainly a market full of jewellery, cloth, and tailors. It looked totally incongruous, makeshift shops cluttered at the base of wonderful 17th century sculptures. It was constructed between 1628 and 1635 CE, during the reign of Thirumala Nayakkar, as a place for temple festivals.

My first view of the place was at night just as it was being locked down. We returned the next afternoon to look at it again. We walked through the large 100 meters by 32 meters rectangular structure, held up by 124 pillars. Each pillar is worth looking at. The gallery above contains some of the highlights: the lions bowing to the gods and kings who pass through these corridors, the dancers celebrating the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareswar, Meenakshi with three breasts, in her aspect of nurture. Other sculptures commemorate the Nayak kings. I’m sure a person more well-read than me in Tamil history will be able to identify them by name. The Family took a few photos of the tailors at work, one of them is included in the gallery here.

It seems that the surrounding market spilled into this mandapam in 1902. I wonder how the place looked before it became encased in a nest of wires, haphazardly erected stalls, and oddly placed lights.

Cock fights

I saw a very lean cock strutting about a little village we passed through. It couldn’t possibly be the kind of free range chicken which is good to eat, I thought. There was too little meat on it. Only when I saw its other wing, bloody from cuts, that the penny dropped.

This was a fighting cock. I’d only seen photos of black fighting cocks before; the white variety was new to me. A law passed in 1960 made all animal fights illegal, but a search will immediately yield reports and videos of fights.