Chapel of The New Kings

On my last Sunday in Spain I took the short day trip from Madrid to Toledo. This is really worth it, if you have the time, and the inclination to see one of the old capitals of Castile. One of the highlights is the immense cathedral filled with chapels and side-chambers. Apparently the reason why it is so large is that it was established by razing the old mosque, and wanted to build over the full area that it occupied.

I took a ticket with an audio guide and meandered through the place, looking for the paintings by El Greco, Raphael, Murillo, Velazquez and Goya. After finding them, I followed the audio-guide’s whispered commands and came to the chapel you see above: dedicated to the new kings of Castile. The two sepulchres which you see in the featured photo belong to Henry III of Castile and his wife, grandparents of Isabel who, with Ferdinand, were instrumental in unifying Spain. All that is history. What I don’t understand is this business of three pillows. Wouldn’t that be too high for comfort?

The Generalife of Alhambra

From the terrace of San Nicolas church in the Albaycin of Granada, one gets a good view of the Alhambra complex. In the featured photo you can see, on the right, the palace complex which is together called the Alhambra. The white building on the left, nestled into a hill called Cerro del Sol (Peak of the Sun), is called the Generalife today. The word is a corruption of the Arabic Jannat al-Arif, meaning the Garden of the Architect.

Generalife: Patio de la Acequia

We had a ticket which would take us through the gardens and pavilions of the Generalife, as well as the Alhambra. These are on two separate hills. On the burning hot day when we walked through them, these distances looked enormous. I was happy for the water fountains dotted around, where one could refill bottles and splash water over one’s face.

We walked through the gardens. What remains of the Moorish garden is hard to spot. The present design is from the middle of the 20th century. The flowers are chosen for their colours rather than fragrance, testifying to an European sensibility. The main building here is called Patio de la Acequia, meaning the courtyard of fountains. The photo above is a view along this courtyard.

Generalife: Inside Patio de la Acequia

The sultan would retreat here for peace and quiet in the 14th century CE. The building is simple today, although one does not know where ancient arabesques have been hidden under centuries of whitewash. Those decorations which are still visible are similar to the work in the Alhambra. We walked through the passages of this structure, marvelling that a sultan would spend extended times here. Once one of them was here long enough that a rebellion broke out in the Alhambra.

Albaycin viewed from the Generalife

There is a marvellous view of the Albaycin from this hill, as you can see in the photo above. I did not spend too much time in the garden, because I liked this more. The Family was more practical; she figured that we would see grander work inside the Nasirid palace. So she spent more time in the garden, while I sat on a bench after splashing water on myself and waiting to dry out.

The Bañuelo

We walked along the little stream called the Darro on a narrow road. This was the lowest part of the Albaycin in Granada. A tourist bus went by and we had to flatten ourselves against a wall to let it go. I saw an opening next to me and a sign for the old bath-house or Hammam that we were looking for. This is called El Bañuelo, which simply means the bath. We walked in, and just after a little reception found an open space with a little square pool full of water.

Granada : arches inside the hamam

We walked past this into the main baths. This 11th century CE bath would have been lost if it had not become part of a private house. Originally the baths were attached to a mosque called the Mosque of the Walnut Tree. Hammams played almost as important a social role in Al Andalus as mosques. Both were places where people could gather and socialize. Women, who were generally supposed to be inside houses, could go to both these places. A mosque would have separate rooms for the segregation of genders, but in a Hammam this would be done by having different timings for men and women.

Granada: Hamam with skylights

The different rooms were for hot and cold water. The openings which you see in the ceiling were meant to allow light in, and steam out. At the back was a room whose roof had fallen in. Apparently this contained the boilers. The tiles on the floor are original, but the plaster-work has not survived the centuries. When I started taking photos, I found that the light was beautiful. I can imagine the wonderful play of light on the rising steam in a working Hammam.

Archives of the Indies

Although every Indian now seems to know about the bull run of Pamplona, the football clubs of Madrid and Barcelona, and Bunyol’s festival of La Tomatina, until a few years ago a random person in a Mumbai train would not be able to say anything definite about Spain. The historical connection between India and Spain being so low, it is odd to come across a beautiful Renaissance building in Seville called the General Archives of the Indies. It took me a moment to realize that the Indies in question lie across the Atlantic.

We never entered to gawp at the eight kilometers of shelves which hold 80 million pages dating from the 16th century CE to the end of the Spanish empire in the 19th century CE. I doubt that access is permitted to this treasure trove of recent history. However, some of the documents of general interest are on display.

The Family drew my attention away from the cathedral to this building right outside. Apparently it was first built as a market hall for Seville, to draw merchants out from the cathedral, where they had conducted their business till then. King Philip II of Spain got his favourite architect, Juan de Herreira, to design this building. The clean uncluttered lines look beautifully modern.

The horse carriage that you see in this photo will be visible on any day I guess, standing in that particular patch of shadow. This spot is one of the "stations" where tourists can hire a carriage. Why is Seville full of these antiquated and expensive things? They seem to have something to do with the April Fair in this region.

The oldest parts of Barcelona

We had a quick look at the the most ancient part of Barcelona near the Metro stop called Jaume 1. On one side is the busy Via Laietana, on the other, the remains of the old Roman wall. Barcelona existed before the Romans built the fortified town of Barcino around 15 BCE, during the time of the Emperor Augustus. These walls are not visible at street level now. What one sees is the Roman wall from the 4th century CE and later additions.

Barcelona: part of the Roman wallWe walked along via Laetana until we came to the Placa de Ramon Berenguer el Gran (featured photo). The Roman wall has been used here to prop up the medieval Chapel of Santa Agata. The arches and windows that you see here belong to the chapel, which dates from the early 14th century CE.

We walked along the impressive walls looking at the mixture of old stone replaced by later brick filling. Doors had been cut into the wall at some time, and one of these was impressively decorated in the modern street style (photo here). We walked along until we came to the remnant of what must have been an aqueduct supplying water to the walled town.

A longer walk would also have been interesting. It is also possible to visit the extensive archaeological discoveries under the Barri Gotic. We saw the entrance near the cathedral, but, regretfully, had too little time to do this.

In the rest of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona it is hard to tell true history from fanciful reconstruction. The Roman wall anchors you to real history: the founding of Barcino, possibly by the Laietani, the arrival of the Romans a century or two later, and the eventual fall to Visigoths in the 5th century CE.

After the deluge

While walking from Madrid’s Atocha station to Plaza Mayor, we came to an interesting sculpture in a small plaza. A look at my phone told me that the triangular space was called the Anton Martin Square. Public sculptures in Mumbai are all polished stone and bronze, so the relatively new medium of oxidized iron catches my eyes. The attitudes of the figures seemed to suggest either resistance or a resolve to work together, like in a team huddle in the middle of a match. We crossed the road and walked up to the pedestal. A plaque was installed there. As I puzzled out the Spanish, I got a lesson in recent Spanish history.

On January 24, 1977, in an office of labour lawyers located at number 55 on this Calle Atocha, four lawyers and one trade unionist were murdered, and four more lawyers were injured. All were members of the PCE [Spanish Communist Party] and CCOO [Worker’s Commission].

This sculpture reproduces the painting of Juan Genoves called The Embrace, a symbol of the restoration of freedom.

It was inaugurated by the Madrid City Council on June 10, 2003, as a tribute to those who died in that violence. It is an homage to those who died for freedom in Spain.

On January 24, 2007, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of this sad event, this explanatory plaque is installed, for the knowledge of the people of Madrid and of those who visit us.

— Plaque on the Monument in Anton Martin Square

The plaque told us the bare facts of the assassination of lawyers working for a labour union in the years immediately after the death of the dictator Franco. My notion that there was a quick and peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1975 turned out to be mistaken. Perhaps it was quick and relatively bloodless compared to the reverse transition in the 1930s, which is remembered in many works of art, including Picasso’s Guernica. But for people who lived through the 1970s, it must have been chaotic.

After we walked to Plaza Mayor I googled the Atocha atrocity and found the story in a small article in Wikipedia. Remnants of Franco’s parties, allegedly aided by an Italian neo-fascist party and perhaps the remnants of a secret anti-communist cell inside NATO, rounded up labour lawyers, lined them up against a wall here, and shot them. Four survived. The resulting public revulsion led to a legalization of the communist party, and informed the liberal new Spanish constitution.

Attorneys Of Atocha

We found flowers tucked into the monument (see the featured photo). The Family asked me to find out why. As I searched, I found that Spain celebrates the constitution of the new decentralized state on June 8 and 9. This was two days before we chanced on this sculpture. The drying flowers are testimony to the fact that the events commemorated in this square are considered to be a part of history of the constitution.

In the daily life of people, the monument provides a little island where you can park a scooter. This reminded me of a saying attributed to Mulla Nasiruddin, "A book may be used as a pillow".

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 Geometry Wars

In Seville we visited the cathedral, reputed to be the world’s largest. Before my feet gave up, we chanced on the ornate catafalque (see the featured photo) which holds the remains of Christopher Columbus. This reminded me of the wars of geometry which Portugal and Spain fought across the world.

The background to this is well-known. In 1486 Bartholomew Dias had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and opened up the sea route to Asia for Portugal. Unable to compete in the east, Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain decided to finance the harebrained scheme of Columbus to find a westerly route to India after the fall of Granada in 1492. Spain hit gold, literally, when Columbus chanced on the continents now called the Americas.

The wars to control the sea-routes east and west went on for another couple of years. By 1494 Portugal and Spain involved the Pope in finding a political solution to end these skirmishes. It was agreed that everything to the east of meridian 46 degrees west would belong to Portugal and everything to the west to Spain. The agreement clearly did not consult geographers and geometers who could have told their political masters that you cannot divide a sphere into two parts by one line of latitude.

The result of this error, you might say, is history. In 1513 the Pacific Ocean was discovered by Balboa and his crew. Within years Spain crossed the Ocean and skirmishes broke out on the eastern edge of the Pacific. The new wars between Spain and Portugal were eventually halted by political recognition of mathematical facts. The meridian of 142 degrees east was the chosen as the second dividing line. In 1529 Portugal and Spain agreed that part of the world between these two meridians which included the Americas would belong to Spain, and the rest to Portugal.

It was hot in the cathedral, and I decided to sit down while The Family walked about. I slipped into my siesta which ended only when she came back to say we could go.

Green, How I Want You Green

Federico Garcia Lorca is one of the most famous poets of Spain. The title of this post is the opening line of one of his most famous poems. The poem was written in 1928, eight years before he was murdered by the right-wing rebel forces of General Franco.

A visit to Garcia Lorca’s house in Valderrubio, a little outside of Granada, is worth doing, if you are interested in this charismatic poet. The featured photo is of the living room in this museum house. Romance Sonambulo, the collection of poems from which the title is taken was written while he lived in this house. It is recorded that he often wrote at this table. So it is possible that some of the lines of this remarkable poem were written here.

The house originally belonged to his father, who moved here from the neighbouring village of Fuentes Vacqueras when Federico was six. It is an old style house, with thick walls that keep the inside cool even during a hot summer like this year’s. It is still painted a traditional white, with green doors and windows.

Today it is a quiet and peaceful place. I wonder whether it was as peaceful in those days when the radio was putting out news of a country in turmoil.

Pema Lingpa’s stamping grounds

Bumthang district is associated with the founding stories of the Bhutanese state and religion. The first kings arose around the Trongsa region, and defeated the Tibetan kings in the White Bird’s Castle. Padmasambhava is said to have come to mKurje Lhakhang to meditate, and left many treasures which are said to have been found later by Pema Lingpa.

View of Kurje Lhakhang, Tang, Bhutan

We arrived at the massive complex of Kurje Lhakhang late in the day. In the photo above you can see this complex, and in the background you have a view of the nearby Jambey Lhakhang. The two massive buildings you see on the right were built in the 20th century CE. The older, low, building on the left is called Guru Lhakhang, and dates from 1652. Apparently the local king, called Sindhu Raja, called Padmasambhava to help him when he fell ill. On arriving, the Guru meditated inside a cave (now inside the Guru Lhakhang), and realized that the illness was due to a local demon. An imprint of the Guru’s body is said to be found on the stone of the cave. A carving of a Garuda fighting a white lion in the building is said to depict the story of the Guru subduing the deity. The king recovered, converted to Buddhism, and the deity is now supposed to guard the religion. Unfortunately the building was closed when we arrived.

Mist in the Tang valley from Kurje Lhakhang, Bhutan

We had a lovely view of the surrounding valley from the Lhakhang. It was evening and mist was settling into the valley. There were occasional gusts of rain. We walked around the complex and met a young monk who could speak Hindi well. He told us the story of the place. He told us that we could walk either to Jambey Lhakhang or to Tazhing Lhakhang. We’d not read about Tazhing Lhakhang. When he realized this, he told us a little about the place, and about Pema Lingpa.

The Bhutanese name Pema is a cognate of the
Sanskrit word Padma, meaning lotus. Men and
women can have this name.

Pema Lingpa is one of the biggest names in Bhutanese Buddhism, next only to Padmasambhava, who brought Buddha’s teachings to the Himalayas. He was born in the Tang valley of today’s Bumthang district in the year 1450 CE. I learnt that he practised as a blacksmith till he was in his mid-twenties, and then turned to discovering religious scriptures. He is now known as a terton, a treasure hunter, because of such discoveries. Numerous sites in Bumthang district are connected to him. We’d already visited the Mebar Tsho the day before.

View of Tamzhing Lhakhang, Bhutan

Tamzhing Lhakhang was built between 1501 and 1505 CE at the behest of Pema Lingpa, who lived and taught there until his death in 1520. Following the monk’s advice, we crossed the river and walked to this Lhakhang. This was also closed, and we did not see the paintings which are now, a decade later, apparently in dire need of restoration. Our two days in Bumthang resulted in three hits and four misses. I thought that was not very good. But The Family looked at our bird list and declared that it more than made up for the art work that we missed. Not so bad, I guess. This gives us a reason to go back.