A temple procession

We reached Rameswaram later than we’d expected. It was fairly dark, and the market around the Ramanathaswamy temple was clearly shutting down. On the other hand, it was the first day of the Ganapati festival, and there were pockets of crowds. We checked in to our hotel, and were out in no time for a circumambulation of the temple. The highest towers of south Indian temples are the entrance gates, gopuram. In the featured photo you see our first view of the temple: the north gate at night. We walked eastwards, towards the sea. Since the east gate is the most auspicious entrance, if there was any activity at this time, we expected it to be there.

We saw little. The bazaar was almost closed. I talked to the security at the gate about what I could take in (almost nothing) and turned to go when a well-decorated elephant slipped by. It was over before I could take a photo. But behind it was a long procession. A nadaswaram started up as the procession neared the gate, along with its accompanying drums. A crowd of umbrellas was advancing towards me down the street. I hadn’t expected anything as interesting as this!

The musicians and umbrella bearers took up position at the entrance, and I had a clear view of the center of the procession. The movement halted for a while, and I had a good view of the main attraction. This was an idol of Ganesha mounted on an enormous lion. The idol seemed to be made of copper, and the lion was probably made of brass. Although the mouse is most often shown as Ganesha’s vahana, a lion is also canonical. He is said to have inherited it from his mother, Parvati. But this is uncommon enough that this was the first time I’d seen this representation.

A crowd had gathered to watch the procession. I saw many other cameras out. The Family had taken up position across the road from me. This turned out to be a better place to take photos from, since she had the light at her back. The photos she took with her mobile phone were sharper than mine, for example that of the priest as he enters the temple (above). I was closer to the action, but shooting against the light.

Finally the attendants positioned the cart so that the wheels could turn in the right direction, and smoothly and without fuss the procession turned into the famous east-west corridor of the temple. Since photography is prohibited inside, this was one of the few opportunities I had to take photos of the corridor. We were happy that instead of flopping into bed we’d counted on Ganesh chaturthi being a special event and come out for a walk.


The old gives way to the new

I held on to this image for several months hoping to be able to work it into a nice story. I couldn’t find one. So before I forget, here is this photo of condemned railway coaches going past a traffic jam on the road. The story I’m tying that to is rather trite, but it is a photo that I like. I used to love traveling by train, but it is hard now to plan ahead to buy train tickets. Flying and driving is not the most eco-friendly way to travel, but given work schedules, there is little else that is possible now.

A neighbourhood temple

In 2006 we drove into Puducherry on Independence Day. In the evening we walked around the town and came across a small neighbourhood temple. I stopped to look at the people inside. There was no crowd. Passersby would drop in, pray, and leave. It was just a neighbourhood convenience. I liked the whole atmosphere. People didn’t seem to mind me standing at the entrance and taking photos.

I’m used to the plain and simple temples of north India. In the south temples are always well-decorated. Stone may be too expensive for these small modern temples, but the gopuram, the tower over the gate, will be full of layers and layers of figures. The featured photo shows some of the plaster statuary from this temple. I love these bright colours.

Dusk in Sarafa Bazaar

We found ourselves walking between the chhatris and rajwada of Indore at dusk on a Saturday. I love markets at this time. The monsoon sky was a beautiful shade of blue, and the lights of the markets were coming on. For a few moments the earth and sky are nearly balanced in terms of light. Looking down a road I could see the Bhumija spires of the chhatris against the century old once-grand buildings of the bazaar. Some of these are in really dire need of repairs, but it is easier to replace them by prefab frontages which attract many shoppers. Some downtowns have escaped this fate, and reached a stage where renovated old buildings are newly fashionable. I hope this part of Indore is not entirely replaced by these cheap 21st century structures.

The mixed traffic was very heavy. The crowds made walking difficult. It was okay with me. I could pause and look at the mansions which may (or may not) become grand again. This lovely building from the early 20th century CE is something that I hope can be saved. I liked the clutter in the sky matching the crowds on the road. We walked slowly past to a rajwada closed for repairs.

The Lord of Time

Mahakaleshwar is the main temple of Ujjain, dedicated to Shiva in his aspect of the Lord of Time. The temple is mentioned in the Skanda Purana, which dates from the 7th century CE. A version of the temple was destroyed by Iltutmish, Sultan of Delhi, when he sacked Ujjain in 1235 CE. The present structure was built in 1736 CE by the Maratha chief Ranoji Shinde. It is one of the few jyotirlingas in which photography is forbidden. I was disappointed, because a few months before I’d taken photos of the beautiful Paramara era sculptures in the nearby jyotirlinga of Omkareshwar.

The Family and I had a tea in the surprisingly quiet interior of a restaurant on the bustling street in front of the temple. “Do you mind if I get my camera?” I asked her. She said, “It’s a busy little street. Lots of photos to be taken.” We walked back to the parking lot and got my camera.

The street food looked good. As I took a few photos, a courteous middle-aged gentleman came up to me and opened conversation. “The poha that Indore claims is actually from Ujjain,” he told me; “Try it here and compare.” I promised to do that. He was a fount of information about small local things. He asked me whether I needed a guide. I declined, and he continued the conversation. My opinion of Ujjain went up after talking to him. This was a wonderfully civilized way to offer a guide’s services.

The conversation showed me how the lords of time must laugh at us. The poha was Ujjain’s, now it is Indore’s. We eat food which we think is traditional, and will last for ever, without noticing how fast it changes. An Oxford Don writing a story notionally set in a fictional early European universe constructed fictitious languages and a cosmic mythology with great scholarship, but had his characters eat “taters” and tomatoes, and smoke tobacco. None of these could have been seen in Europe before the end of the 15th century CE. We really pay little attention to food and its history.

I stood in this highly commercial street. The surroundings of any temple is like this. I loved the invisibility that I got from being an obvious non-buyer. As a result, I could see many little dramas play out around me. I hope you like the small gallery of photos here. As always, you can click on any one of thehttps://anotherglobaleater.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/the-middle-temple/

Ram ghat of Ujjain

We walked up to Ram ghat past a signboard saying “Balmukund Ashram”, through a lane, on one side which were stalls selling religious parapharnelia, and with a tall Maratha-era dharamshala on the other. My imagination of ghats is dominated by those of Banaras, and I was certainly not expecting the sight that met my eyes. Ujjain’s Ram ghat is more subdued, people come here in the normal course of their lives. There are many priests waiting for custom, but the commercial bustle of Banaras is not to be seen. The featured photo shows such a priest, quite relaxed in his silk kurta, but keeping an eye out for custom.

I walked out on the pedestrian bridge connecting to Narsingh ghat on the far side of the Kshipra river, the better to take a photo of Ram ghat. All ghats are made in the form of steps parallel to the flow of the river. In the middle of the monsoon, the river was quite high: about five or six steps led down from the promenade to the river. On the landward side of the promenade there are the main temples and their associated dharamshalas behind high walls. A couple of centuries ago they would have been the last barrier against flood waters. On the river side are smaller shrines, each with its own priests. There were many bathers here, including several extended families. It is hard to imagine the crowds that come here for the Simhastha Kumbh Mela.

The lady whom you see in the photo above had a bagful of bottles which she was filling one by one with the waters of the Kshipra. It is considered to be a holy river after all. Her lightly coloured salwar and kameez, with the white dupatta, perhaps means that she is a traditional widow. If so, a trip to a holy river is one of the few outings that she will treat herself to. She filled many bottles as I watched. I guess most will go to members of an extended family. Some perhaps will also be given to her neighbours.

The Maratha era building which you can see in the photo above dominated this portion of the ghats. It is hard to imagine that the pleasant Ram ghat I saw is the site of a Kumbh Mela held every 12 years (the next one is in 2028). The state transport ministry claims that 75 million people visited Ujjain’s Kumbh Mela in 2016. Even if the number were smaller, it would be a major feat of crowd control. In fact, if one searches for scientific papers on the Kumbh mela, one is overwhelmed by the number of studies of crowd behaviour, biohazard, and other safety issues. I used to wonder about the origin of the Kumbh mela in Ujjain. Kalidasa’s poem Meghdoot, from the 5th century CE, talks of Ujjain but not the Kumbh mela. Maratha sources from the 18th century CE ascribe the beginning of the mela at Ujjain to Ranoji Shinde. Since he was one of the main commanders of the Maratha forces which won Malwa, and he declared Ujjain to be his capital, this is not an unlikely history. It is possible though that many of temples here had their own melas, which they combined into a single mela at the urging of Ranoji. It has grown significantly since then.

Planning a visit to an ancient republic

I thought we could make a brief day trip out of Indore to Ujjain. It is one of the ancient Indian cities, along with Mathura, Banaras, and Patna. There are chalcolithic remains being excavated nearby, and there is no reason why during this period there could not have been a polity which eventually came to be known to history as the city of Ujjain. The earliest mention of Ujjain which I could dig up was purportedly from the 7th century BCE, before the time of the Buddha. That period of Indian history was a time of republics- janapadas. One can read brief descriptions of the form of government they followed in Kautilya’s manual of statecraft: Arthashastra. Some of the formal structures of the republics even made their way into the organization of the early Buddhist assemblies, sanghas. In any case, the walled city of Ujjain was then the capital of the Vidisha janapada, on a major trade route from Mathura southwards, and later was famous for one of the first Buddhist stupas. Nothing of this survives.

The Family asked, “What is there to see?” A little search told me that there was an archaeological dig of a stupa reputed to have been built by Ashoka’s wife, Devi, in the 3rd century BCE. This was the very same Ashoka who later built the largest pre-Mughal empire in India and whose sons and daughter left Ujjain to spread Buddhism across Asia. Ujjain’s appearance in the classical Sanskrit poems and plays of the 5th century CE, the Gupta period, would hardly have left any trace on the ground. They would impose a lens of romanticism on our view of the river Sipra (photo above) which flows through the city.

Perhaps a visit to Ujjain would be similar to a walk through Banaras. The city’s history would be hidden by the constant rebuilding of ancient temples, first mentioned in the Skanda Purana, written in the 7th century CE. Only a mindful archaeologist would be able to guide us through the temples rebuilt in the 18th century CE and point out the tiny signs by which you could tell that the site was continually occupied for over a millennium. Everything we see will be old, buildings and customs (featured photo), but nothing but the stories and the river would be three millennia old. So, to The Family’s question I replied “We will probably not have time to visit the archaeological digs. So maybe the only things we will see are medieval mosques and tombs, and the temples renovated by the Marathas.”

Mandu Village

The village of Mandu was barely noticeable when we first visited eight years ago. We saw children swimming in the tank inside Baz Bahadur’s palace. We listened to a singer inside the halls of the same palace. We saw people working in the gardens and in the ruins. We saw a few bicycles, but locals mostly walked around the citadel. We could only get food in proper sit-down restaurants, and I remember feeling impatient at the amount of time it took them to get us a tea. The largest employer seemed to be the Archaelogical Survey, which was in charge of maintenance of the citadel. We saw many tourists, but most were from nearby, and had arrived by bus.

Things have changed a little. Outside the Jami Masjid we saw a line of food stalls. As we had chai standing in front of one, I took the photo which you see above. Motorbikes are now everywhere. We saw lots of tourists who had driven up there. The village now announces itself in rows of shops: we walked into one to look at Bagh printed cloth. The Archeological Survey continues to provide employment to many, but the tourist trade has opened up to accommodate the swelling ranks of the middle class. As a result, there is more money in the village now.

Backstreet Bandra

Take a sleepy neighbourhood. Add some builders. Shake well. Let the lucre float to the top. Let it stand for a while. Then you get Bandra. Hip bars and cafes turn over as fast as the would-be fashion designers’ signature stores. They don’t quite put the car repair shops and vada-pav stalls out of business. On a walk down Waterfield Road I passed Bora Bora, Chocolateria San Churro, Farhan Electricals, Flutter Clothing, Israr Auto Air-conditioning, Zest, Subhash Vada-Pav Stall and other establishments.

Fashions change fast. The shops seem to know they won’t last long, so they don’t even bother to paint both sides of plywood sheets. A shifting cast of characters throng the streets, each looking for the next big thing. Some live there, some pass through. Taking street photos is easy, with everyone’s eyes glued to their cell phones. Now and then you come across a fabulous bungalow which a crotchety old couple still refuses to sell out to a builder. I was looking for an espresso, but didn’t find one on this road.

A surveyed garden

An act of the parliament in 1951 gave over a list of monuments for preservation to the Archaeological Survey of India. It has been doing this job pretty well for over half a century. Some years back it took upon itself the job of planting gardens around monuments. While this is a wonderful idea, it is executed in typical bureaucratic fashion: top-down without a thought to the local ecology. Dhar is one of the places where it is successful. In one particular property, about which I’ll write later, I was enchanted by the Rangoon creeper (Combretum indicum) whose vines had been planted along the fence to make a wonderful hedge. I grew up in houses where this flowering vine had taken over some corner of a garden. The flowers bud white, then turn successively pink and a pleasantly deep red over the next days. The woody vine is a good choice for a boundary fence, since it grows fairly fast and can be easily draped over a wire fence.

A wide lawn was being tended by a bunch of gardeners. The July rain was sufficient to keep it lush and green, although I suspect that in other seasons this is a water guzzler. Under a spreading kadam tree (Neolamarckia cadamba) I found mushrooms sprouting from the lawn. Mushrooms do not feature in my childhood memories; did I not see any, or did they just not make an impression? But with a camera in hand, I love the varied textures that they present. You can see a yellow kadam flower which has dropped on to one of the mushrooms. Unfortunately, I learnt about mushrooms only from supermarkets, so I give them a wide berth in the wild. Is this one of the poisonous false parasols or the edible parasol, or neither?

Two paces on a large mushroom had been uprooted. I took a closer look at the gills. If I were an expert this would have told me which mushroom I was looking at. I’m not an expert. The only interesting fact which I know about mushrooms is that a significantly large part of the mushroom grows underground, or inside rotten material. The buds which are visible in the form of parasols or brackets are just the fruiting bodies. The underground mycelium branch into this body, through the stalk, and are packed into the gills that you see above. Through these gills they release spores into the surroundings. A friend tells me of a spot in his garden where he finds morels year after year. That is because the underground mycelium remain after the umbrellas are harvested, and send up the fruiting bodies again the next year, to be collected again and eaten.