Sober cold stone

You enter the Hagia Sophia from the narthex on the west, so that the first thing you see when you step into the square naos is the immense apse right in front of you. It is difficult to tear your eyes away from it, but it is worthwhile later to come back to this place and look at what was behind you. The beautiful west gallery above you is fabulously decorated with mosaics and a carved stone railing between elegant pillars (featured photo). The gallery had collapsed in an earthquake in 989 CE, and the portion which was rebuilt has painted plaster instead of the mosaics of the rest of the interior. You can tell this easily by the fact that the paint is beginning to peel.

The details on the pillars are amazing. I brought my camera down to the pillars that hold up this curved gallery simply because it is there. Time and invaders have been kind to this part of the structure. The details are as razor sharp as they would have been 1500 years ago when they were freshly chiseled out. It is hard to remember that the use of regular geometric floral motifs was deliberate: it would be faster to do this repeatedly.

Above the Imperial Door in the middle of the western wall is this small stone inlay panel. I’m fairly certain that this must have symbolic meaning, but neither my audio guide, nor any references throw any light on it. I could remain ignorant for ever, or I could toss this question out to you (o gentle reader). What is the symbolism in this panel?

In the south eastern corner of the naos the light was much better. The carved capitals of the pillars were as breathtaking as the black, white, and red inlay work in the wall next to it. But all this was outshone by the mosaic above the pillar, with its large fields of gold. This is stone on fire, heady, breathtaking; quite the opposite of stone cold sober.

On another wall we came across panels of marble: Afyon marble, white with purple patches, alternating with Carian marble, red with white flakes. Between the panels ran a band of Tunisian marble with its dark veins running through reddish white. The light from the large windows lit up this wall and the gold tesserae of mosaic above it.

The cubicle that you can see in the photo above is the library of Sultan Mahmud I. We looked through the golden grille in the southern vestibule which separated it from the rest of the space. My audioguide did not warn me to spend time looking at the railing above it, which you can see in this photo. This railing is decorated with a repeating pattern of regular nonagons (nine-sided polygons). Constructing regular nonagons with compass and ruler is an ancient problem, and its solution presented in this railing was a statement about the mathematical prowess of the architect, Mimar Sinan. I must remember to take a close look at it the next time I visit this museum.

Let me end this post with a photo taken in the south gallery, one level above this. Again you see the wonderful carved capitals of the pillars similar to those in the featured photo. The complexity of the mosaic above the pillars is astounding for something made in the 6th century CE. Beyond it you can see part of the central dome, with the some of the forty windows which run around its base, and the forty ribs which support it. This was the main innovation of Isidore the Younger when the dome was re-erected in 563 CE, five years after the earthquake which destroyed the original dome.

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Stress and buttress

I was trying to get a close look at the western turrets added to the Hagia Sophia in the 16th century CE by Mimar Sinan (featured photo) when I realized that I was looking at four buttresses to the church. I stepped back a little to photograph them in their entirety (below) and realized that they were actually flying buttresses. I’d thought that they were invented in the 12th century in France, so this surprised me.

Hagia Sophia is remarkably stable, given the frequency of earthquakes in Istanbul. Over 1500 years, the dome has had to be rebuilt only twice. A large part of this stability is due to the geometric design of the dome, with its supporting half domes built atop a central square section. However, recent studies found that the improperly cured bricks and mortar miraculously make the structure stronger than properly cured bricks of the 6th century would have. This is likely to be an accident of the hurried construction of the church, rather than deliberate materials science, especially since this technique was not used in any other Byzantine structure. Even with this fortunate accident, the pressure of the huge dome would have caused the structure to collapse if it were not for buttresses added over the years.

The four flying buttresses on the western facade, which you see in the photo above, are remarkable. They look like they are, at least in part, made of the same material as the rest of the western facade. This was rebuilt in 994 CE, within five years of its collapse during the earthquake of 989 CE. So I wondered whether the flying buttress was invented by the Byzantines before the French. The older view is stated clearly in this paper from 1935, “… we can at once discard any hypothesis which would date these buttresses to the ninth century, for the simple reason that flying buttresses were unknown before the twelfth century”. This paper buttresses this erroneous reasoning with an aesthetic judgement that these four are different from “ungainly masses” which were erected by Byzantine and Turkish architects, and so must have been made by French engineers who arrived here during the Venetian occupation.

The modern view is different. Flying buttresses have been discovered in buildings in Cyprus which were buried in the 8th century CE, well before its reinvention in France. So these buttresses which puzzled me could have been a Byzantine construction from the 10th century CE. In a structure as old as the Hagia Sophia, one seldom has a clear answer to questions of provenance unless there is contemporary documentation. For these four there is none, although the circumstantial evidence is that the buttresses are about a thousand years old. This raises the inverse question, could the egineering idea of flying buttresses, which began to be used from the 12th century in western Europe, have been carried there from Byzantium?

Three views of the Third Yangtze River Bridge

Last week I was in a meeting in Wuhan, a city that tourists overlook. This powerhouse city in central China was the origin of the successful Republican revolution which overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911, and, in succeeding years, became the capital of the nation for brief periods. One of its sights is the Soviet-era bridge across the Yangtze, the first modern bridge to be built across the river. That was in 1957. Other bridges have come up since then. I find the third bridge very photogenic. The featured photo is a view at sunset, just as the lights came on.

Walking between two tall brutalist concrete blocks, I looked up to see the nearest tower of the three and a half kilometer long cable-stayed bridge, lit up by the afternoon’s sun on the day of the summer solstice. This was a lucky shot because it had threatened to rain all day, and the sun had just briefly come out as I walked out towards the bridge. This is not a very famous bridge, having been completed in 2000 during a period of intense construction. Its main span is 681 meters, which makes it only the 31st longest span among cable-stayed bridges today. Still, I liked the looks of it.

It passes right next to the Hilton. I crossed a road and walked out under the bridge where a little riverside promenade has been built up. This was a cheerful place with families walking around. A toddler inspected me carefully as I took this shot, teetering and nearly out of balance. His father smiled at me. In most other countries my bright red phone causes people to recoil a little. In China it does not draw a second glance. Red (红 = hóng) is a lucky colour, and very common. What a strange happenstance that the colour of the French revolution of 1789, found its way through the Paris Commune, and its adoption by the Communist movements of the world to this country where it is the traditional colour of joy and luck.

The biology of bridge-building

When you think of bridges you don’t usually think of biotechnology or gardening. But that is exactly what the Khasis traditionally did. First you have a gorge to be bridged, then you find two rubber trees facing each other across the gorge. Next you coax the roots towards each other, perhaps along poles or planks. Then, when the roots meet each other, you begin pleating them together and, by a process called pleaching, encourage them to fuse. That’s how the bridge that you see in the featured photo was built.

Once the platform is ready, layers of mud are laid down over it to make a easily traversed road. I suppose the weight that the roots can carry is a concern. On the day that we were there a couple of people were standing at each end of the bridge to do some traffic control, mainly to make sure that the platform was not overloaded.

If the general shape of the bridge looks familiar, it is because it is structurally a cable-stayed bridge. The framework of joined roots forms a platform which could sway in a monsoon storm. As you can see in the photo above, branches are brought
down to stay the platform. As an engineering design, Mumbai’s sea link is no different from this. Interestingly, it seems that the whole community which uses the bridge is trained to carry out repairs on it, so that a villager passing by can braid the roots a little and put up a truss to guide a branch.

This particular living root bridge was close to Mawlynnong village. There are many of these bridges scattered across the Khasi and Jaintia hills. I guess it takes time for the tree to grow, but it can’t be many years. I’ve seen other Ficus trees grows roots which touch ground within months. So I guess it might take no more than a decade to make a bridge. Ficus elastica, the rubber plant, is said to live for about 200 years in the wild. So, during its lifetime the bridge would get stronger. If the community plans well, then they can even begin to replace an old tree before it dies. It is said that one of the root bridges near Sohra (Cherrapunji) has lasted 500 years. This could be hearsay, since the earliest documentation of these structures was published in 1844 in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. However, it is not unthinkable that this could happen, given that the technology is widely shared between tribes.

The banks of the river here were not very high. In winter the water reduces to a trickle. So I climbed down to the river bed to take a look at the interesting flat stones along the bed. Much of the clan had already gathered here. The pools and stones were nice and cool after the climb down to the river from the road. I was impatient to get back up. People were selling cut pineapples dipped in red chili powder on the track, and I needed some of that.

Love me two times, baby

Coming in to Shillong from Guwahati the road passed over the dam on the Umiam river. We had a quick glimpse of the enormous lake before the Clan Bus turned on to the bridge. On one side of the dam I could see large pipes threaded through the channel of the old river. They lead to a power generating station (approximately) 150 meters lower down. I was reminded of the time, five years ago, when we’d stood on the far side of the lake and watched the sun go down over a lonely fisherman in his boat (featured photo). The sun was going down again (photo below), although the day was not as spectacular as the previous time I’d come here. This second time round I found the place quite as charming as I remembered.

This 220 square kilometer lake was created by damming the gorge of the Umiam river in the early 1960s. That was a more idealistic, more naive, time. Little was known about the smaller questions of geology: how much silt is carried by rivers, how future deforestation would affect waters, how often small earthquakes occur. The inauguration of the project, eventually costing USD 15 million, on January 9, 1960 by Nehru signalled the opening of the flood gates of US aid to India, in the form of PL-480 funds. Across the world new dams were being erected. The previous day Gamal Abdel Nasser had inaugurated the Aswan high dam. In those days engineers and planners didn’t think of the rapid silting of these dams, or the incredible amounts of bio-waste which would be discharged, untreated, into the rivers of the plateau. The north-east of India is also geologically unstable, being caught between the Himalyan arc in the north and the Indo-Burmese arc in the west. In 1897 there was an earthquake of magnitude 8 on the Richter scale; the Shillong plateau rose up by about 11 meters (yes, meters!) as a result. A dam would not survive an earthquake of this kind. Smaller quakes, of the kind which happen a couple of times a decade also call for regular maintenance of the dam.

The Clan Bus stopped at a spot designated as a viewpoint. This meant, of course, that most of the view was obscured by shacks and temporary structures built by people who are eager to sell you tea and snacks. We walked down the bank until we could get an unobstructed view of the lake. The calm surface was broken by the wakes of speedboats; apparently the lake has become popular as a sports destination. What a strange thing to do to the water supply, I thought. That was before I discovered that the lake’s water is so polluted that it would require heavy cleaning to be potable. I took this last photo, like the first one, five years ago. I found that I love to stand here and stare at the calm waters of the lake, watching the sun go down. But this calmness is deceptive.

Guangzhou’s new town

We got off the metro at the Zhujiang New Town station and emerged blinking into this showpiece set inside the Tianhe district of Guangzhou. That elegantly curved shell of a building (featured photo) must be the Government Affairs Service Center. The gold building behind it was not a Trump Tower but something called the Nanyue Mansion. Behind that you can see the building which has the Agricultural Bank of China. We gawked, clicked a few photos and crossed the road to stare at a small plaza full of the whimsical public art of China.

It was lunch time, and I’d located a branch of a famous eatery in a building down here. This is the new central business district of Guangzhou. Banks and other financial institutions, government buildings and technology companies occupy the high rises in this new town. We’d first thought of finding a hotel here, before we realized that the Liwan district would be more fun.

The tower that you see above is not one of the tallest, but I found the shape very attractive. I wouldn’t mind an office in one of the flat diamond shapes cut out of the corners. I’m sure the view would be excellent. The tower stands right behind the opera house, and faces out towards the Guangzhou library and the Guangdong museum (below). These buildings together define the heart of the cultural center of the new town. Between them runs a garden (Flower City) which crosses several blocks in its north-south alignment. Below this garden lies the Automated People Mover (APM) rapid transit system. The APM connects the Canton Tower in the south to the Linhe West station in the north. Although the area was designed first in the late 1980s, businesses began moving in only when the APM was completed.

The Guangdong Museum was designed by the firm called Rocco Design Architects, who won an international competition for the design based on a puzzle called the ivory ball carving. To the north of this is the equally impressive Guangzhou public library, which I have written about earlier.

In comparison to these, Zaha Hadid’s design of the opera house looks dull at first sight. TheIFC building which looms behind it catches the eye instead. However, when we walked in, the usual touches of Zaha Hadid’s designs became obvious in the fractured perspectives of the interior. Each view is interesting, and the design creates lots of visual barriers which restrict the view, converting the space into many little nooks which each give an intimate feeling.

There was no show running. This seems to be a bit of a problem. International companies do not come here often enough, and the Cantonese Opera shows never seem to run here. Is there a little bit of a pricing issue at work? We couldn’t figure that out. The Family asked about tours of the interior and found that they are given in the mornings. We would have to come back another day. Our good intentions were not strong enough; we never came back for a tour. We took the APM and went on to see the Canton Tower.

Setting the Zhujiang on fire

Shanghai is the acknowledged party town in China, but Guangzhou is no less. We spent the early part of an evening on top of the Canton Tower, taking a spin in the space pods. The rides here are great fun. I chickened out of the free fall, afraid of the state my spine might be in after a drop, but I regret missing it now.

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And late night, walking back home, there is always street food. China is fun.

Guangzhou from the air

Looking for easy credits in college I came to a course called Photogrammetry. After this I was hooked to aerial photography. Many years later, I walked into an exhibition of photos by Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the Luxembourg gardens of Paris called “The Earth from the Sky”. This was a science made into art. With camera drones this has become easy today, when it is allowed. But for an amateur like me, the only way is still to take a window seat on a plane or to climb a high tower.

Coming in to Guangzhou, I looked past The Family, out of the cramped aircraft’s window, and saw a city where land and water mingled together. The first impression was of low houses in the baked-earth colours of southern Spain, but with flat roofs. The feel of Guangzhou on the ground is nothing like sparsely-populated Spain. This is, after all, one of the earth’s most crowded regions. Atmospheric haze is a major problem in tropical air. Even the cleanest of air will have so much water vapour that the saturated colours of Arthus-Bertrand’s photos are not visible to the eye. One can edit one’s photos to get a similar effect, at the cost of the reality of the tropics. Over a city the air is never clean. Although Guangzhou is not the most polluted city in the world, not even among the top 100, there is a definite haze visible from the air.

The views of central Guangzhou come from the top of Canton Tower. We managed to make it to the viewing platform of the tower in the golden hour before sunset. Looking east you can see the many bridges which connect the Huangpu and Panyu districts. We never managed to explore these two regions, although there are many historically important things to see in these parts of Guangzhou. The modern city is enormous, and includes many districts which historically were separate towns. Panyu was one of these. As evening fell we sat in a cafe in the Canton Tower and watched the enormous traffic jam centered on the nearest of these bridges. I was happy that we had elected to travel mostly by the metro. Looking west (featured photo) towards the posh district of Haizhu, taking a photo against the setting sun was a bit of a challenge. Later we would walk through this area, but for now one of things which intrigued me was the long island with the huge park which takes up much of the foreground of the featured photo.

The photo above is of the Tianhe district in the last light of the day. This is the new town, with all the swanky high-rises and the signature buildings by the world’s major architects. They lie in the shadows at the base of the tall towers. Beyond the high towers you can see the hills which are a special feature of Guangdong province. The Chinese word Tianhe translates into Sky River. The same translation works for the word, Akashganga, which describes the Milky Way in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. Akashganga. Tianhe. Which way did the cultural influence run?

Wild walnut cake

After lunch we wanted something sweet, and a box of walnut cake seemed to be just the thing. Between the two of us, The Family and I polished off a neat dozen of these little cakes. The machine which made them was quite as fascinating as the cakes themselves.

Was the machine as old as the shop? I couldn’t get that question across. If you took Hans Christian Andersen as a historical source, then you would believe that automation in China is very old. Blind faith in fairy tales may be dangerous, though. This robot looked like a Rube Goldberg device, but actually got the job done quite efficiently.

I also liked the sales patter from the man who attends to the machine, and the sing-song patter that you can hear on the soundtrack. That came from another worker in the same establishment.

India’s oldest sea bridge

The two kilometer long railway bridge which you see in the photo above is India’s longest sea bridge, and was completed in 1913. It spans the channel which separates the island of Pamban/Rameswaram from the mainland. I was lucky to be near it when one of the few daily trains from the island crossed the bridge. After seeing a photo in a post by a fellow blogger, I looked up its impressive story. When it was designed in 1911 by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago, the design was very new. The central span of 88 meters (which you can see in the photos here) are designed to roll up in order to allow ships to sail below. In this century it has been expanded to take modern broad gauge rails, and strengthened to withstand the corrosive salty winds which blow across the Palk straits.

The cost of building a bridge like this a hundred years ago must have been considerable. The fact that it was completed in tandem with a port in the drowned town of Dhanushkodi points to commercial interests, all very well documented. At the tail end of the period of European imperialism, when the bridge was built, commerce between India and Sri Lanka was immense. The attempt to connect Dhanushkodi to Mannar in Sri Lanka by a 21 kilometer long causeway or bridge was slightly too ambitious for its time. The solution that was adopted was to have a high volume port in Dhanushkodi and a railway link from there, over this bridge, to Chennai. That solution lasted till the cyclone of 1964 destroyed Dhanushkodi. The Pamban bridge is no longer a vital economic link, but it remains as an interesting piece of engineering history, still beautiful, and in use.