A heritage hotel

Would you stay in a 350 years old house? We looked at what other travelers had written, and decided it wasn’t risky. The owner explained that it was not a palace, “We are not royals.” He was very clear about the distinction. “There were only two kings in Marwar,” he explained to The Family, “Jodhpur and Udaipur.” The explanation of the differences between royals and jagirdars, land-holding princes, was a page out of history books. He cannot call the house a haveli either. Those belonged to merchants. He gets around it by repurposing a word which is never used in this context. He calls his place a castle.

We parked in the forecourt of the property and walked in through a grand door. It was probably built to the proportions of an elephant with a howdah. Royals did visit this place in those early days. Like most such old houses, the building was somewhat haphazard. Different wings had been added on at different times. Photos had shown this place as white with red trim. Now it was a dazzling white. There was a complex explanation. The old man, the owner, was full of stories. It was interesting to sit with him over a drink before dinner.

We had a choice of rooms. The manager walked us through the place. The oldest wing was very interesting. A bathroom had part of an ancient painting on the roof. I was told that it was 300 years old. I’m not a student of art history, so I can’t tell. Perhaps you can tell from the featured photo whether this appears to be a Marwari painting from three centuries ago. Apparently maintenance had been planned for early 2020, but then the lockdown happened. During that time a small tremor shook down some of the plaster, carrying part of the painting into history. The owner was quite crestfallen when I asked him about it. “I am told they can use our photos to restore it. But I can’t lie about its age. I have to tell people that parts are modern.”

The rooms in the oldest wing are charming, but small. We chose to stay in a wing which was two hundred years younger. This part of the building has interesting painted terra cotta panels embedded into the external walls. They seemed to have served some ritual purpose, because they flank niches with place for lamps.

Was there room service? “No,” one of the men said, “but I will be outside your room. Call me if you need something.” He stayed out of sight but available, behind a wooden screen with champa flowers peeping over it. We didn’t need much. The room was good, very clean, and the food was excellent Marwari fare. I discovered that the approved traditional way to eat bati and churma is not with dal, but with laal maas.

There was no wifi. Bera has good mobile connectivity. We could live without free broadband for a weekend. The rooms were otherwise wonderful, each a little suite. The furniture was what The Family called antique, but the owner said was just little things which had been in the family. He had stories about how he had to pull them out of storage and have them polished and repaired.

Our room had photos of horses and polo players on the walls. I thought I recognized one of the former kings of Jaipur in a photo taken after a fall during a polo match. When I mentioned this to the owner he said that the team mate next to him was his grandfather’s younger brother. I was treated to a walk through the bar, and a view of treasured photos of his grandfather, a polo champion, winning matches and hob-nobbing with the likes of Prince Philip and other famous polo players. Those times are past, but family stories live on. Although we enjoyed the weekend, he did not manage to make royalists of us.

Cross culture

Court art in Kutch is said to have started suddenly in the mid-18th century, perhaps during the reign of Rao Lakhpatji. This connected with the collection that I saw in Aaina Mahal in Bhuj. One interesting set was called reverse glass paintings. As I understood, the painting is made on a sheet of extremely thin glass, and is meant to be viewed from the clear side. According to the information posted in the museum, businessmen from Kutch who traveled to China in the 18th century brought back the first examples and presented some to the Rao. Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou were specifically named as sources. Little has been written about art in the court of Kutch, and this set of paintings raises multiple questions.

The note in the museum says that businessmen began to commission portraits and mythological scenes. There are only a few of these on view. The features of people have Chinese characteristics, but the clothes and jewellery, even colour schemes, are similar to what you see in Kutchi paintings of that time. I wonder whether there are Chinese records of these paintings, or records (on either side) of the commissioning and execution of some of these paintings. There is a forgotten history here which some one needs to investigate. The context of the paintings reminded me of later Patna miniatures, painted in the Mughal style but featuring English men and women who commissioned them, wearing the formal clothes of the 19th century.

It is hard to photograph these paintings. They are displayed in a tiny room with bright lights which create multiple highlights on the surface. Some of the paintings are clearly damaged. But they are so very interesting that I hope a museum or two undertakes to bring them to a wider audience temporarily.

A desert landscape

Was I looking at the great Rann of Kutch or a microsoft windows display? The Family’s sister had made a film in this area. When she saw the shot that you see above, she said she couldn’t believe it. The peak is an ancient Cretaceous volcanic plug called the Dhinodhar Hill. The area is supposed to be more wet than many parts of the Rann, but the scene before us was definitely an effect of the monsoon. Sharad ritu, the fourth of the six seasons, is a beautiful time in the desert. Blue skies, fluffy white clouds, green fields, and the sight of migratory birds arriving.

I stood on the embankment of the Bhuki dam and took this photo. On one side was a small cliff created by past quarrying. The stone looked like shale,. If one had time one could look for fossils in there. The sedimentary rocks here come mostly from the Triassic period, after the breakup of ancient continent of Gondwanaland. The volcanic plug in the distance came from the time when the Deccan traps were laid down. These two times bracket the era of the dinosaurs. We had arrived here to see the last shrunken but diversified remnants of the dinosaurs: birds. Weird!

Lights. Camera.

Mornings are dark and blue now, at the end of the monsoon. We spotted the colour in the sky as we walked towards the small turboprop which was to fly us to Bhuj. The tarmac was lit up by bright lights as we entered the plane. The Rann of Kutch was our destination. This is a vast swamp formed in historical times by the geology of India. As the Indian plate continues to sweep north-east at the grand pace of five centimeters a year, it raises the plain of the Indus and the vast desert around it fast enough that historical records tell us of the Rann being cut off from the sea to form first a vast inland lake, and then a salty marsh. Rivers come into being and disappear, the weather changes, wealthy civilizations rise, fall, and are forgotten. This is a marvel of geology that few think of as such.

The town of Bhuj was the starting point of our trip. The Kutch was the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2001, as two geological plates released the stresses due to their movement. Since then Bhuj has not had any buildings more than three stories high. Standing at the edge of the Thar desert, it has had its share of the monsoon rain this season. The place was hot, already 26 degrees as we landed early in the morning. The day gradually became a sultry steam bath. Walking through the crowded lanes of the old town outside the palace walls, we were happy to pass under the shade of huge sheets of cloth hung up overhead to provide shade. The desert sun filtered through them. The vast geographical variety of India spawns varied lifestyles and sub-cultures, more than are dreamed of in some philosophies. We moved from one shade to another, eyes adjusting to new colours at every transition.

The palace complex turned out to be quite fascinating. I had forgotten that this was a rather important kingdom until a hundred years ago. Even sixty years ago it was so rich that the former king bailed India out of crises. My attention was caught by a collection of ancient glass plate photographs. They come from the very earliest days of photography, and are among the first attempts to capture the light of old days and preserve them artificially. I took a photo of the negative on the glass plate. One button on Gimp creates a positive out of it. This image is almost a hundred and twenty years old. The Maharaja, possibly Khemgarji III the Progressive, is seated in the center, flanked by his sons, while his diwan and other ministers stand behind him.

This was planned as a bird-watching trip. We had to leave the city and travel into the desert. This strange land provides a niche for several specialized species. Also, at this time of the year it is a stop-over for several species on their biannual migration. To get there we had to drive. The land is full of nomadic animal herders. Late in the evening flocks of animals, sheep and goats, or cows and buffaloes, or herds of camels would use the road, leaving only a narrow gap for motorized traffic. I tried to catch a photo of such a flock in the scatter of light from our car’s headlights.

The desert is the preferred habitat of scorpions. Most are tiny. All fluoresce under UV lamps. It is easy to walk through the rocky desert at night with an LED torch light set to UV. As you swing it around, any scorpion in the area will immediately fluoresce. Seasoned naturalists will tell you that they even glow in moonlight, but that glow is something I can’t recognize. The UV torch lights that are available in the market are bright enough that you can photograph a scorpion by one.

The scorpion was relatively benign. But the saw-scaled viper, Echis carina, that we nearly ran over on the road later was not. They are among the four deadliest snakes in the country; some say deadlier than the cobra. Our driver, another birder, gently urged it away from the road with a stick. I took a photo in the penumbra of the car’s headlights. You can see the pattern which gives this genus its name. Hopefully this individual won’t be roadkill. It had been a long day. The bird sightings would come the next day.

The bucolic life

Up close, you realize that living in the countryside is hard work. Farming, especially of rice, is famously back-breaking labour. Almost three millennia ago, people were already writing long poems about a past golden age when nomadic people herded cattle. Bucolic poetry, pastoral art, a hankering after a simple life in movies and TV shows saturate culture even now.

Little concern has he with quarrels and courts who has not a year’s victuals laid up betimes, even that which the earth bears, Demeter’s grain.

Hesiod (Works and Days, circa 700 BCE)

There are still some nomadic herders in India, but they are considered to be a little outside of civilized life. Generally, farmers look down on them and their lifestyle. It is a reflection of the way that city dwellers, in turn, look down on “simple” farmers, with an added layer of hostility about their “thieving ways”. In the Sahyadri region there are large tracts of land where the top soil is too thin for cultivation. We saw herds of cows grazing on such fields. I began to wonder whether these are used by nomads.

Later, we were caught in the middle of a traffic jam of a mixed flock of goats and cows. I looked out at the livestock, and revised my opinion. This was a very mixed bunch. They were unlikely to belong to nomads. They usually herd particular breeds of cattle. They are unlikely to have the money to buy new breeds. It was more likely that farmers here supplemented their incomes by raising cattle as well.

The herders were all women. The Family got a few good portraits of the women at work. This tied in with something else we’d noticed earlier. The fields that we passed were being ploughed by men. It was possible that the work is split by gender: women to tend cattle, men on the field. This gets interrupted during the time that the paddy has to be transplanted. Then the whole family, children included, get drafted into the work.

And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men.

Hesiod (Works and Days, circa 700 BCE)

A little further on, an earth mover was standing in a rice field. The farmers here are quite willing to sell their lands to city folks intent on building hotels and resorts for people like us. They’ll take the money and move to cities. In a couple of years the plateau will be filled with city people on a short holiday. About ten thousand years ago agriculture began, and villages formed. It took at least five thousand years for the majority of humanity to convert to a life of settled farming. A couple of thousand years later, a little before the time of Hesiod, the first cities formed. At the end of the twentieth century, for the first time in history, a majority of humanity began living in cities. We are lucky, we live in a moment of unprecedented changes. In our times the cities will begin to retreat from coasts into these highlands.

Relax County Drive

Vaitarna lake is four hours from Mumbai. We started at about eight on Sunday morning because we wanted to reach by lunch. Most of the drive was along the Mumbai-Agra highway: National Highway 3. It takes us more than an hour to leave the city behind. Then it takes another hour to drive through the old industrial belt north of the city. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that it has now turned into a logistics hub. This early in the morning, the trucks were parked in large bays visible from the highway. In two hours we were at our first stop.

Hurry was behind the wheels. He’s wonderful at driving. By that he means negotiating traffic and potholes smoothly and fast. So the navigation was my job. Fortunately, there is good connectivity on the highway, and our stop was well rated. A quick chai, a dosa, and we were off again. The next hour would be take us through the part of the road which is most full of history.

It is also tremendously picturesque, especially in the monsoon. You point your camera anywhere, and you get a beautiful photo of the lush green growth. Structures look weather-beaten. Human effort pales against the force of nature called the monsoon. The best way to live here is to work with it: sow when the weather calls for it, reap when it tells you to. Sell corn cobs by the road, and let the rain and millipedes convert the husk to humus. Hotel Paradise looked like you could meet Norman Bates there. We hurried past.

Soon we were in the part of the road with the steepest grade: the famous Thal Ghat. This was an almost impassable barrier in the medieval times. The ancient town of Thane to the south barely features in history because of it. The barrier also gave the Portuguese and British a safe space to establish the port of Mumbai. The tunnels and viaducts of this section of the roads and rails were built in the second half of the 19th century CE. These marvelous pieces of engineering connected Mumbai to the rest of the country. The advertisement by the road caught my mood perfectly. We were now in Relax County.

The steep grade is negotiated through many curves. I leaned out to look for Ehegaon Viaduct, a historical marvel when it was completed in 1865. It is 55 meters high and 220 meters long. Too bad I couldn’t see it. But soon we were near Igatpuri railway station. I remembered the times when I would wake in the morning up just before a train pulls into this busy station. The loco changes here to something powerful enough to control the steep drop in to Mumbai. That usually gave me enough time to follow the crowd and grab one of the vada pavs that the station is famous for. We stopped on the single lane north-bound section of the road to take a photo of the famous railway track. The electric pylons on the track also make a pretty picture I think. Late that evening the monsoon dislodged boulders which blocked the road and the trains. It was several hours before traffic started again.

Soon we reached the last toll booth we were to see. We’d climbed about 1500 meters from sea level. We were on a high plateau now. Kalsubai peak (1636 meters) dominated the landscape as we turned into a side road. This flat land is the last of the lavascape left over from the breakup of Gondwanaland and the extinction of the dinosaurs. We were nearly at the end of the journey. Four hours in a car, and we had traveled a hundred and fifty million years into the past!

Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

The last lake

Drifting between lakes in Sat Tal, as we tried to extend our day in the area, we noticed some similarities between them. There seems to be little renewal of the waters, and the surrounding activity has made them eutrophic. The green waters of the lakes are a sure sign of increasing bacterial activity, and the lack of fish is apparent. At late as the 1943, I could trace a record of mahseer being fished from these lakes. It seems that the eutrophication of these waters started in the 1960s. These studies are in concordance with my memories of granduncles back from holidays discussing the changing quality of these lakes.

The area around the lakes seems to have been divided up between the state tourism department and something called the Sat Tal Christian Ashram. The latter seems to have been founded in the 1930s by a Methodist missionary from the USA called Eli Stanley Jones and two of his associates. Gandhi had spent some time in the ashram, and seems to have influenced Jones, who became a spokesperson for Indian independence at home. Since he was in regular touch with the US president Roosevelt in the lead up to Pearl Harbor and later, his opinion may have had some influence in Washington. I cannot see any study of the letters between him and Roosevelt, so it seems to me that here is an opportunity for a thesis.

This was Garur Tal, one of the smaller lakes in the area. I enjoy walking around these lakes, taking photos. Garur Tal was completely deserted in the early afternoon. The light had been gloomy all day, filtered as it was through smoke in the air. As a result the afternoon was not too bright for photography. I took a photo of a leaf floating a few meters away. The light on the water looked oddly like grains on wood. Closer to the edge I found a leaf which had begun to sink into the water, and would be consumed into mulch soon. The stones below it looked like quartz.

Closer to my feet I found stones which seemed to have folded layers. I think this is the stone called a phyllite. It is a slate which has metamorphed into this fine-grained form that you see in the large slab in the foreground of the photo above. I found bees hovering over the water around it, their shadows quite detached from them. In a stronger light the bees and their shadows would have made a nice photo, but then the photo would not have showed the striations in the rock. You gain some, you lose some. I was quite content at the edge of water, looking around, walking with The Family, delaying the start of the journey back home.

Ruins

When you travel in the hills and mountains of India it is not uncommon to find the ruins from the late colonial era. The British tended to gravitate to the cooler regions of these higher elevations when possible. Often that meant that the administrative apparatus would go into very long breaks in the two warm seasons (summer and Indian summer). When the Raj collapsed, they sold what they could and moved back to the Old Blighty. What they couldn’t, slowly fell into ruin as the country reverted to its normal way of life.

Just past the bazaar in Mukteshwar I came to one such set of buildings: a late colonial barracks. Mukteshwar was perhaps at its bustling busiest in the 1920s. There had been continuous growth since the beginning of the 20th century until the Black Tuesday market crash in New York. Arguably, the punitive taxes imposed by Britain on its colonies in the aftermath of the crash led to the invigoration of the independence movement, and Britain’s eventual exit from India. But this past is a prologue to the sunny day on which I took these photos and wondered what could happen to this row of two-room apartments, each separated from its neighbour by just one wall. I suppose it will be torn down, and the stones reused to build something more suited to today.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of these old barracks was the miserly view they gave of the beautiful vistas behind them: the high Himalayas on one side, this lovely forest on the other. I left the ruins behind and followed the road, under the deodars and the firs, into a land full of the sounds of insects and birds.

Old houses in Kumaon

A wooden box of an upper story rests on thick stone walls which make up the ground floor. That is a rather common older style of building from Uttarakhand. There are little variations. Sometimes the shutters on the upper floor look out on all four sides. At other times, as in the example above, there are one or two walls made of stone. I suspect that the older houses use more wood, and as wood became scarcer in this region, you could say that there was less of it to go around.

I could find little written about the traditional domestic architecture of the Kumaon region. Most accessible books and articles concentrate on the temple architecture of the region. Edwin T. Atkinson’s multi-volume tome, The Himalayan Gazetteer, the usual source of information on matters Kumaoni, is pretty silent about vernacular styles of architecture. In the true imperial manner, government buildings and new churches are deemed more worthy of comment. Nor did later official sources bother to record the variety of vernacular expressions. The state Tourism Department’s website references one rather ornate style, hard to see examples of, as the only one worth a comment. I suppose there are detailed studies locked away in architects’ theses, or in architectural journals, which I have no access to.

I have been unable to find articles or books which trace influences across the Himalayan region, or the development of building techniques. It should be a fascinating study. The neighbouring Garhwal region has been important to Hinduism for a long time. Pollen records show that agriculture started in the Kumaon region 500-600 years ago, when it was still part of a Nepali empire. There may have been travellers and pilgrim here before that, but not settlements. The region became independent about two hundred years ago, and was assimilated into British India about a hundred and fifty years ago. The connection with Nepal, and the trans-Himalayan cultural sphere which filtered through it would have created the vernacular style, which would later have been modified by contact with the plains-based cross-oceanic empire of Britain.

I stopped the car when I saw this old building outside of Kausani. The driver informed me that this is a style which used to be common once. A paper by a group of engineers at CSIR documents the style, but dismisses it as “lacking proper light and ventilation”. The Pestalozzis, a Swiss couple, who visited Kumaon a decade ago, became interested in the architecture and documented it, call this style a row house. To my eyes it resembled Mumbai’s chawls. The lower part of the house is given over to storage here, but in villages they were meant to hold cattle. The upper floor has a row of independent flats.

Which way did the influence go? From Kumaon to the rest of India, or the other way around? Notice that the doors to individual flats are not recessed and protected from the weather, unlike the doors of other traditional houses. Based on this, my guess is that the style is imported from the plains. But this is a guess, and direct work on dating these houses will be needed before the question can be settled. Such a wealth of questions exist here, and they connect to the deeper history of the region.