Opening doors

I had a rainy afternoon free in Hefei after my work was over. The Family and I decided to go downtown to the pedestrian Huaihe Street. There were two things to see here, and one of them was called the Former Residence of Li Hongzhang. I learnt that Li Hongzhang (1823-1901 CE) was a farmer’s son who rose to become one of the most important ministers in the Qing court. In charge of home and foreign affairs, he was involved in the humiliating treaties imposed on China in those years, and came to see modernization as a necessity. His “Westernization movement” is viewed in China today as one of the key points in modern Chinese history. I was unaware of any of this when we passed two stone lions and walked into the one traditional house in a row of modern shops.

The complex is now protected as a historical monument of interest by the provincial government. We bought tickets at the gate and passed a courtyard into the front hall (photo above). This was a typical formal seating area, with heavy dark chairs pulled into a rectangular arrangments, with lights placed just above them. I liked the ornate mirror in one corner of the hall. In the gloomy light of a heavily overcast day, this was a bright spot in the black stained wood of the room.

Another courtyard separated this from the central hall. This hall is now the main exhibition hall on Li Hongzhang. The exhibits were labelled in both Chinese and English. I found the exhibits very instructive, and The Family and I spent some time looking at reminders of 19th century life, and the changes that Li Hongzhang tried to bring about. A beautiful screen in the back wall of this hall looked out into a blank brick wall. I was a little puzzled by it.

Crossing this wall we came to the Zoumalou building. This two storied structure seems to be the place where the family lived. We climbed the stairs and peeked into the large bedrooms laid out with period furniture. The halls below had more exhibits. We liked some beautifully embroidered coats, and spent a while looking at the ink-stones in the gift shop.

Behind this a little garden has been recreated. The museum has been careful about restoring the central hall and the Zoumalou building. I don’t know whether equal care has gone into making sure that the garden represents Li Hongzhang’s time accurately. I liked the door in the back wall, with its typically Chinese aesthetic of being overgrown. Much care is needed to make sure that nature does not actually take over.

Exiting from the museum to the busy Huaihe Street was a bit of a shock. But then I realized that this is what the museum is really about: the late Qing period that is on show here is the doorway between the isolated China of the 17th and 18th centuries and the dynamic country it is today.


Armistice day

Today, November 11, commemorates the end of World War I. Traditionally, in commonwealth countries, this is associated with the poppy. I found photos I took of poppies in the island of If, near Marseilles, one summer at the beginning of the decade. In France this day is known as Remembrance Day.

74187 Indian soldiers died in this war, some in East Africa, and others in the Western Front in Europe. At the beginning of the war the British Army had marginally more men than the Indian Army’s 2,40,000. By the end of the war, the strength of the Indian Army was 5,48,311 men. As the largest army in the erstwhile empire, Indians were called on to fight for Britain. More than a million Indians fought in the war. I was only vaguely aware of this history until I read Shrabani Basu’s book called “For King and Another Country: Indian soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18”. Remembrance Day is something that India should keep in mind.

Private audience

At the northern corner of the Swarga Vilasa, a small door connects to an ornate room called Natakasalai. The name seems to imply a theater, but the information that you can read on your way in implies that Thirumala Nayak lived in this area. Other areas in the now vanished palace complex had uses which would need a theater. I could steer a middle step in guessing, and say that this could well be a private audience chamber. It is ornate enough to befit one of the richer kings of the south, whose kingdom encompassed a large part of modern day Tamil Nadu, and some portions of Kerala and Karnataka. The featured photo looks eastwards down the length of this hall.

The center of the room is sunk a little below the level of the Swarga Vilasa, and on the east the space resembles a raised stage. It reminds you of a modern theater with its raised stage and low seating. But in the 17th century the king would not have sat at a lower level. If this was used for dance or theatre, then the performers would have been in the center, with the king seated to the east. If this was an audience chamber, then again the king would have sat on the platform in the east.

The decorations here are finer than those outside. There were the usual winged lions rampant on the finials of the pilars, but below them the ornate leaves and vines were much finer and more delicate than the beautiful work I’d already admired in the outer chamber. I have not seen such fine work in clay before.

This area is used as a somewhat haphazard museum. Some of the sculptures on display are interesting, but perhaps the most interesting are the pillars with epigraphs which are kept in a small and bare side chamber.

At the court

My first sight of Thirumal Nayak’s palace knocked the breath out of me. When I recovered I walked along the side gallery of the audience chamber, called the Swarga vilasa. When you do this you cannot help noticing how closely the thick pillars are set. If I hadn’t known it already, this would have been my first realization that the palace does not use stone. Stone pillars could be more slender. These pillars are made of clay, excavated from the teppakulam of the Vandiyur Mariamman temple.

I walked down the corridor and looked up at the cupola in the corner. Using clay as a building material has its constraints. Walls and pillars are thick, and getting enough light into a space requires different solutions. The syncretic architecture that had grown after the incursion of the Delhi sultanate into Madurai offered the beautiful solution which you see in the photo above. A cupola in the roof allows space for a whole series of windows which let in light. I admired the technicality and the beautiful design on the roof.

The light filters easily down, lighting up a large pride of lions which looked down their noses at me. This was more work in clay. Madurai is not very far from mountains, and transporting stone would not have been out of the question. A professional historian would be able to shed more light on the choice of building material: was it economics, or familiarity with the material which led to the use of clay here? After all, the Meenakshi temple, rebuilt during the preceding century uses stone. Why not this?

I walked down the side gallery to the space behind where the king would make his appearance. The space is vast, but broken by pillars. The vistas that greet you inside the Meenakshi temple are absent. The pillars are said to be coated with a plaster made from powdered sea shell bound together with egg protein. The smooth white finish has attracted a generation of people to express their thoughts in pencil and ball pen, in defiance of notices which request people not to do so. If you thought that the internet is where you see the most interesting opinions, you could be wrong.

The largest dome on the roof lies over the center of this space. Every tourist stops below it to gape up at the interior of the dome. I decided to go with the flow. It is worth it. The ceiling is beautifully decorated, and there is enough light to admire this by. The complex is maintained by the state archaeology department. Typically departments such as this are starved of funding; even more so than health and education. In spite of that, I thought that they have done a fair job of maintenance.

Next to the central dome there seems to be a smaller cupola. I looked up at the painted ceiling; it looked coffered. Was it trompe l’oeil? I walked around below it and saw from the change is perspective that it really was coffered. I didn’t see any structural reason why this part of the ceiling needed strengthening. Perhaps it is something that is only visible from above. The design was spectacular, what ever the reason.

The area where the king would have sat is architecturally interesting. A series of cupolas and domes let in a lot of light, so the king would never be in darkness. The central cupola and the arches could also have been designed for its acoustics. I could not test that, but it seems possible given the shape of the area. Just in front of this is a vestibule and steps leading down to the courtyard. The vestibule is crossed by rods which could have held fans meant for ciruclating air through this whole area.

At the bottom of the steps were two beautiful stone sculptures which at one time would have shown horses with riders. The riders had been cut off quite expertly. It looks like planned plunder. The balance of probability is that the busts of the riders are gracing a collection somewhere in the wider world.

Heaven’s Court

After the fall of the Vijayanagar empire, their viceroy in Madurai, Vishvanatha Nayak declared himself king of Madurai in 1529 CE. Thirumala Nayakkar became king almost a hundred years later, in 1623 CE. His palace is one of the stops on a tourist circuit of Madurai. It didn’t look like much when we came to it. So our first view of what we saw when we entered the door (see the featured photo) was a shock.

That wonderful soaring facade stood at the end of a large courtyard. The place felt like a court, a place where a king can make a ceremonial appearance. My guess was not incorrect. This part of the palace is the audience chamber, known as Swarga Vilasam, which one can loosely translate as Heaven’s Court. One reads that the rest of the palace was destroyed in the 18th century CE. I could not find the circumstances in which this destruction took place, but it would be interesting to read more about it.

There is a sound and light show every evening in this palace, and the courtyard was filled with rows of chairs for the show. I sat in one and admired the clay images which decorated the facade. During this trip I began to realize that a common cultural thread which runs through medieval and modern Tamil society is the wide use of these decorative clay images. Th winged lion, whose photo you see above, is a particularly nice example.

I was initially a little surprised to find a representation of an angel in this court. But on a little reflection I remembered that the first Christian churches were built in Madurai with the permission of Virappa Nayak, Thirumala’s father. Since I’d seen the cathedral decorated with clay images, it was clear that local artists had already learnt to use Christian symbolism. A winged human is not so different from other imaginary winged creatures after all.

The Makara recurs throughout the palace. This one caught my eye because of the two parrots which float in its beard. The decoration on top of the arch and the supports above it are incredible. I was astounded by the wealth that this symbolized. A pity that a large part of the palace is gone, taking much human ingenuity and artistry with it. I must remember to try to find out when and why the rest of the palace was pulled down.

Finally I shifted my attention from the arches and pillars to the decoration in the top layer of the facade. These are equally complex. Lions and snakes separate groups of three warriors. In our machine age we fall into an assumption that if a pattern is repeated, then every repeat is identical. But in the early modern age, when this palace was built, this was not true. Every bit of the pattern received individual attention. So the groups of three warriors are all different. In these two groups, see how individualized each warrior is. Even the stances of the warriors are slightly different, somewhat individual.


We did the drive from Aryaman beach to Madurai in the hottest part of the day. The car air conditioning laboured hard to keep the metal box warm as it sped across a hot plain next to the Vaigai river, swollen with the waters from the fringes of the weather pattern which flooded Kerala in the previous week. I was fighting a losing battle with sleep when I spotted the temple gopuram which you can see in the featured photo. I sat up and asked Sathiamoorthy whether we were in Madurai. He said “Yes. This is the Vandiyur Mariamman temple.”

The temple tank, called a teppakulam, is historic. I’d read somewhere that the Nayak kings’ palace of Madurai was built with bricks made from mud dug out from here. The pit was then remodelled into Tamil Nadu’s largest temple tank. In a festival which begin in January, the idols of Meenakshi and her consort are carried from their temple in the center of the old city to this place. I’d seen photos where the tank was full of water. The game of cricket being played in the grassy bottom of the dry tank was not something I’d expected to see.

Tamil Nadu is in rain shadow during the Indian Ocean summer monsoon. It gets its rain in a later pattern which starts in late September. We’d got an early shower or two. I wondered whether the tank would be full by January. I’m sure the festival is colourful. Maybe I will come back to see it one day.

Church of coral

The drowned town of Dhanushkodi was big. You can still see the railway station, a post office, a big school, and a church. I saw the front of the church with its niche for a bell from the road. We’d just wandered through the ruins of some houses, but Sathiamoorthy was happy to stop the car. I walked up to the church wondering whether the bell tolled as the Christmas super-cyclone of 1964 approached. Maybe they had tied it down against high winds earlier.

More than half a century, two generations later, there is no sense of tragedy here: only a romantic ruin standing on a clean beach. There’s a steady trickle of tourists. I waited for families to finish taking their group photos in front of the gaping doorway of the church. The last family was large, and apologized for the long time they were taking. I was happy to wait, I assured them. When they went in, the grandfather said to me, “I can’t walk any more.” I told him he was not in the way. I liked him sitting there to give a scale to the photo. So many tourists stop here that a large cluster of shops in shacks has sprung up around it.

I walked around the structure and looked in through a hole in the wall to find that the altar is fairly undamaged. It would have been raised fairly far above the pews, but it is now level with the sand. I realized that the hole that I was looking through would have been a window, possibly raised waist high above the floor of the church. That is a lot of sand, but then it has been many years since the church was abandoned.

There was something interesting about the wall. I stepped forward for a closer look. The church walls had been built of blocks of coral, brick was only used in arches. What an amazing thing to do. The church must have been for the use of the British functionaries here. Stones had been transported to make the railway station and the port. Bricks had been used in houses. It must have been a conscious decision to make this church out of coral. You can see three different types of coral in the photo above. The storm of 1964 killed the reefs here. I wondered whether the previous half a century of work in the surrounding waters had depleted the reefs so much already that the storm just struck a last blow.

We came back later before sunset to walk on the beach here. The sand is very clean. There aren’t even the remains of sea shells. From the number of shops here which sell things made of sea shell, I guess there must be beachcombers busy at work after every high tide, picking up whatever has been washed ashore. I walked out towards the incoming tide to take this photo. The salt wind and water must be at work to wear down this remnant of a short lived port. The atmosphere is gently corrosive. No lichens or moss grow on the walls of this church. We were on the verge of a bad sunburn as we walked away.

Kalam’s memorial

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi, but I don’t have any Gandhi memorabilia to write about. Instead I have a photo of the memorial to the 11th President of India: A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. He started as an engineer, became the chief of ISRO, and after retirement was elected the president for a single term in 2002. When the memory of the Mahatma is fenced into the little boundary of keeping your house clean, it is good to break out of it to look at the country which he was partly responsible for creating. This is a country in which the son of a fisherman could become a president.

Kalam is buried in Pamban island, a few kilometers from the site of the house where he was born. We walked through the memorial built around his grave. From outside the building looks blocky and closed, but the corridors inside with enclose little gardens. From inside the structure is full of light and air, not at all like its forbidding facade. I wish I could find out which architect designed it.

Ancient neighbourhoods

The area around the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram is full of shops, and some of them are open fairly late at night. I liked roaming these streets trying to take photos of people going about their lives. It is amazing to think that in the 7th century CE the Skanda Purana listed the temple and the Agni Teertham ghat nearby as holy places which one should go to. The island would have been a couple of kilometers out to sea. Getting here would not be as simple as it is today.

The temple of Rameswaram has grown in the last 14 centuries. I counted three layers of corridors around the central shiva linga. The outermost was created about three centuries ago. By the looks of the sculptures on the next corridor in, it must have been made about a millennium ago. Life around the temple would have been recognizably similar through these centuries. Shops would have sold flowers for pujas, others would have keepsakes. Electricity came in the last century or slightly more, before that there would have been oil lamps. The shops would have huddled as close to the temple as possible. It was interesting to walk here at night trying to imagine how the place could have looked a thousand years ago.

Drowned town

I had read up on the Christmas cyclone of 1964 before travelling to Dhanushkodi, but nothing had prepared me for the sight of the town which was destroyed by what we would now call a super cyclone. This was one of the first such storms to be imaged by satellite, and the largest storm which has ever straddled the equator. On the bright and sunny day when The Family and I walked through the destroyed town it was hard to imagine the storm.

A low pressure zone was spotted in the Andaman Sea on December 15. This grew as it traveled west-northwest towards Sri Lanka. Satellite imagery was at its infancy at that time, but the storm was unusual enough to attract attention. It developed peak steady winds of 240 Km/hour, with gusts estimated at 280 Km/hour, just before it hit Sri Lanka on December 23. The storm surge peaked in Dhanushkodi and reached 7.6 meters, completely drowning the town. A train was submerged killing 200 passengers.

The port of Dhanushkodi was an important link with Sri Lanka since 1914, with a busy custom house. Over 800 people drowned in the town, and many fishing boats were lost. A single road now passes through a narrow spit of land. We saw a row of broken houses near the old railway station and decided to walk up to them. They looked like colonial bungalows, the kind that would house the families of high-ranking railway staff.

The Family and I walked separately around the lonely building. The sea was slowly reclaiming it. Buildings of this kind had tiled roofs. They must have blown off right at the beginning, and the storm surge would have engulfed the whole structure. If there were people inside, they had no chance of survival. There is nothing here any more. Empty doorways gape at the sand and sea.

I had expected to find moss and growth. There’s very little of that. The tides wash up high fairly often these days. The coral reefs were destroyed in the storm, and the sea and sand have been shifting ever since. The plaster over the bricks is slowly falling away. The exposed bricks were wet and bright red. The tide was now at its lowest, but the bricks had not dried since the last high tide.