Commoners take over the Court

Shaniwar Wada in Pune was the seat of the Peshwas in the declining years of the Maratha empire. The palace complex was built in the first third of the 18th century CE, and burnt down in 1828. A Peshwa was originally the prime minister of the Maratha king, but during these years became effectively the head of the empire, and the position became hereditary. Although the empire was not as strong as it was in the beginning of the 18th century, a large part of India’s politics was transacted in this complex. This former place of power is now effectively a walled garden for Puneris.

As we entered the main gate of the palace, I saw this middle aged man relaxing near the entrance. I wondered whether he was retired and found this a good place to get away from home and do some people watching, or whether he’d had a tiring day at work, and was just sitting here for a while before making his way home. It didn’t look like he was planning to stay here long.

From the ramparts I looked down at the front apron. Families were milling about, each trying to take a photo against the walls of the palace. As I watched, this girl positioned her family behind her and took a selfie. It took a couple of tries, but the one she’s examining in the photo above seemed to satisfy them all.

I positioned myself in front of this arch because the doorway and the stairs behind it made a nice picture. The photo would come to life when someone came down the stairs. I was lucky, the first people to descend were this young couple. I saw many couples like them in the complex. The seat of the Peshwas has now become a garden for couples to spend time in.

This lady was clearly determined to have a little time by herself. She was in a rather nice sari, sitting alone on the bench (it was very pleasant in the shade). She was quite relaxed while watching people around her. But she noticed me taking her photo and stiffened.

In 1818 the Maratha empire lost their final battle against the British forces in Khadki and Koregaon, not far from this palace. Just a short hundred years later, three or four generations, almost in living memory, the court of the Peshwas has become the playing ground of commoners. What could happen in another hundred?


Bricked-up doors

The Shaniwar Wada of Pune was briefly the center of political power in India: from its construction in the 1730s to the end of the Maratha empire in 1818. Strangely, only the northern wall of palace complex is built of stone; the other three walls are of brick. Walking along the walls I was stopped by the sight that you can see in the featured photo: an enormous arch which has been filled up, leaving a smaller off-center arched door which is now barred.

I peered through the locked grille, and found signs of more arches and doorways having been blocked. When were these changes made? The largest arch looks like a ceremonial entrance, large enough to admit an elephant. In the unsettled century when this palace was in use, it is conceivable that such a grand gate became a liability, and was successively reduced into smaller more defensive entry corridors. What we see today is probably the last defensive measure. The corridor behind the grille must be still accessible, since it is relatively free of litter; it was probably cleaned a month or so before I took the photo which you see above. I’m sure there are enough contemporary documents to enable someone to write an architectural history of the complex, although I’m not aware of such a book. Here is niche history waiting for an author.

Food on the go

If you need variety in food when you are traveling, then Kerala seems to be the place for you. Perhaps it is the relative prosperity, or perhaps it is the history of trading across the Indian Ocean, that brings so many small eats to Kerala. The little coffee shop that you can see in the featured photo springs from the legendary smuggling feat of Baba Budan. The story that I know is that 500 years ago this pilgrim to Mecca brought back to his home seven beans from Mocha hidden inside his clothes. This is the origin of the Arabica coffee for the cultivation of which the British laid waste to the Nilgiris 300 years later: converting one of the world’s most bio-diverse rainforests into plantations. This roadside shop, with its lovely kitchen, is just one of the modern links in a deep history which began with the cultivation of coffee in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago.

The humble idli and vada, which, to most of Northern India, is the epitome of Southern Indian food, also seems to have a storied origin. Wikipedia predictably traces the idli back to Hindu kingdoms from 1100 years ago, but admits that most of the modern ingredients of idli are missing from these ancient recipes. The addition of rice, the day-long fermentation, and the steaming are processes inseparable from today’s idli. I found an old book review in The Hindu which claims that the idli, in its modern form, is a hybrid of steamed rice balls brought by early Arab traders to the Malabar coast, and the old tradition quoted by Wikipedia. It is possible that, as K.T. Achaya proposes, the far-eastern trade also brought in the technique of fermentation of food, which got added to this amalgam. The neat little breakfast served on a banana leaf has such a wonderfully mixed parentage!


Jaswant Thada

Jaswant Thada lies on the way from Jodhpur to Mehrangarh. This cenotaph for Jaswant Singh II, ruler of Jodhpur, was built in 1899 by his son, Sardar Singh. The white marble building with its profusion of domes stands above a tiered garden built with red stone walls. We passed the super-sized equestrian statue of Jaswant Singh II, and walked past Devkund before we saw the warm glow of the marble structure in the morning sun.

We were early enough that there were very few other visitors. The place is full of whimsical touches. We passed a memorial to a peacock which is supposed to have flown into the funeral pyre of the king. We walked around the mausoleum and peered into its main hall. There is a silver throne in the middle of the hall, and portraits of the Rathore rulers hang on the walls. Pigeons roost everywhere, passing through the exquisitely carved marble jali. We descended into the small but well-maintained garden to see the three other memorials. There was a great view of Jodhpur from the far corner of the garden. As we walked back towards the entrance we had a great view of Mehrangarh.

It is a nice and peaceful place, and we got in a little unexpected birding in the lake behind the mausoleum. More about that in a future post.


Written in the blood

Fanciful analogies between cities and animals often talk of roads as the arteries of a city. The metaphor is deep enough that if I wrote about an arterial road, you would read on without pausing. So, when I see a plaque set into a path in the center of Dortmund, I could think of it as what’s in the blood of the city. And clearly, as you can see in the featured photo, Dortmund has football in its blood. No matter which records get broken, Timo Koneitzka’s achievement will remain unmatched, because, as the plaque says, he scored the first goal ever in the Bundesliga.

We were in Dortmund on a Saturday to meet The Family’s family and friends. The moment we set foot there, we realized by the number of people in yellow jerseys and high spirits, that the other thing which is in the blood of Dortmund (or, at least, of Dortmunders) is beer. It was the day of a Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund, Timo Konietzka’s club, and Bayern Muenchen. Munich is, of course, the giant amongst German clubs, as you can see if you look at the records of the Bundesliga. But Dortmund is no pushover. It is reputed to be just behind Munich in terms of the money it raises, and is one of the most successful clubs in the Liga.

Hopeful vendors stood around selling scarves of the two clubs. While Achim explained the Bundesliga standings (Dortmund’s eternal rival, Schalke 04, stands well above in this year’s league tables) to The Family, I wondered whether there are reversible scarves. No. Club loyalties are too deep. In a little open square with a fair, I found the Dortmund supporters clustered around tables in a pub (photo above). Across the square, another pub was awash in the red of Munich supporters. There is no fraternizing.

Other information is also carried in the blood. A few days before, we’d met someone who went to university in Luebeck. While talking to her about the city, we’d also talked a little bit about the Hanseatic League. My memory of the Hansa was that it included trading towns along the south coast of the Baltic sea: Luebeck, Rostock, Bremen, Hamburg, Gdansk. I didn’t think of Dortmund, Cologne and Osnabrueck as part of the Hansa. When I looked it up later I was flabbergasted by the reach of this medieval trading alliance, both in time (from the 12th century to the 17th) and in geography (from the Baltic inland to Cologne and Berlin). Dortmund turned out to play an important role as a regional capital of the League in the 15th century. Plaques set in roads and pavements are nice ways of reminding people of the history of a city.


The most beautiful square in Berlin

When you read tourist guides to Berlin they tell you that Gendamenmarkt is the most beautiful square in Berlin. The reason, as we gathered, is that it is flanked by two churches with beautiful domes. What you see in the featured photo is the one called the French church. This apparently belonged to the Calvinist French called the Huguenots, some of whom found refuge in Prussia from persecution under Louis XIV of France. The statue in the foreground is that of the German polymath Friedrich von Schiller. The church was built in 1701, the square built in 1773, and the statue erected in 1871. The companion German church, which was undergoing restoration on the day I was there, was built at the same time as the French church. The main difference between the two was the language the service was held in. The Huguenots used French, whereas the Calvinists and Lutherans across the square had their service in German.

The statue of Schiller stands in front of the concert house. When the former National Theatre was destroyed in a fire in 1817, it was replaced by this building. It’s not very often that you find the statue of a lioness in front of a building, but this had gender balance: with a lion and a lioness guarding the steps. I was able to trace discussions of gender equality in the Prussian parliament to 1902, but maybe these guardian statues tell us that there was discussion of this issue outside the Landtag before that.

We walked around the square. It was destroyed in the war and rebuilt by the 1970s. I followed The Family in window shopping, until we came to a chocolate shop on Charlottenstrasse, just behind the square. I think I was the first through the door! It is a great relief to have a box of good chocolates with you on a day when you intend to walk across a city. As soon as we stepped out of the shop we saw that the clear skies of the morning had given way to threatening clouds. I stood in an archway on the street and took the photo of the other side of the French church which you can see in the photo above.

There was a lot of activity on the roof. I’d never seen anyone trying to replace roof tiles on such a steep slope. We watched the activity for a while, without figuring out whether two people walking across ladders was some kind of safety measure. I’d checked the weather in the morning and it had promised a sunny day. As soon as we left the arcade from where we’d watched the work, it began to rain. It was just two blocks till Unter den Linden, but we were pretty damp by the time we turned the corner and walked into a cafe! So much for weather predictions.


The Reichstag building on a gray day

In the final summer of the last millennium, I was in Berlin and decided to go visit the Reichstag building. One did not need an appointment or security clearance for this at that time. I walked around Norman Foster’s dome and peered down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag. This time around, I’d left it till too late to make the appointment, so The Family and I did not get to go up to the dome. On the cold and rainy afternoon of our last day in Berlin we walked up to this famous building.

As we walked around it we reminded ourselves of the history of this building. The original parliament building dated from the 1890s, and was abandoned after a fire in 1933. The fire was blamed on a Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe, who was found in the neighbourhood. We recalled bits and pieces of the controversy around it. Although the Nazi court sentenced Van der Lubbe to death by beheading (while finding four co-defendants not guilty), there were claims even then that the fire had actually been set by the Nazis. It has been claimed many times that a single person working alone would not have had time to set such a large fire. Goering’s name was associated with the fire multiple times but this was never proved. Historians remain divided over the incident.

What is well-documented is that Hitler used this incident as an excuse to get the then-president, Paul von Hindenberg, to pass a decree which allowed opponents of the Nazi party to be imprisoned (by suspending the right called Habeas Corpus), and to censor and suppress publications which criticized the Nazis (and also allowing the government to examine personal mails). The fire happened 6 days before the German parliamentary election of 1933. So before the election already Hitler arrested many members of the Communist Party, Social Democrats and the right-wing Catholic Center Party. Nazi organizations including the SS and Brownshirts were sworn in as auxiliary police to monitor the elections. We did not remember at that time that the Nazi party still got less than a majority of votes.

A little memorial outside the Reichstag building is devoted to the 92 parliamentarians who were arrested and murdered by the Nazi party. The rain was like a fog which had condensed into drops just large enough to fall. This dreary weather seemed like the right time to remember when large scale political murders enabled the Nazis to seize absolute power and shut down German democracy. The memorial consists of uneven iron plates, about knee-high, on which the names of the murdered parliamentarians are etched along with their party, the prison or concentration camp where each was interred, and the date of their death.

We knew that the parliament never reconvened in this building, but still forget it when we see photos of Soviet soldiers posing in front of it. The restoration work in the 1990s was seen in Germany as the final end to the war. In a sense then, the war which started in 1914 ended in 1989. At least two empires were destroyed during this period, two more arose during it and vanished again in this 75 years long war. Several countries were devastated. Some thought briefly that the end of the war was the end of history.

We walked out on the muddy path that leads to the modern building which houses the offices of the parliament. Signs pointing in that direction said Paul Loebe House. This has the offices of the Bundestag. The inevitable question has a simple answer. The German parliament was called the Reichstag in the 1890s. It is now called the Bundestag. The parliament still debates in the old Reichstag building, but all the offices are in the modern buildings here and across the Spree which seem deliberately low-key.


Free city, Berlin

Our first night in Berlin was cold, wet and blustery. As we walked past St. Mary’s Church towards the Spree, gusts of wind would shake us as we tried to take photos. We’d been warned of a storm, and we later heard that the railways had closed down their service. It was windy enough, but we’ve seen worse because our lives are now marked by extremes of weather. The city hall had closed for the night, but it was nicely lit up. The Family got the featured photo, which shows it looking as red as its name, Red City Hall or Rotes Rathaus, promises. We never saw it looking so red later. We walked around it, and were impressed by the fact that it covered a whole block. But then, Berlin is a free city: its city council is its government. So the mayor’s office, here in the City Hall, is also the seat of Berlin’s government. We later found that the building dates from 1869, and was rebuilt to its original plan in 1956.

The next day we walked past a building where a notice said that the legislature of Berlin sits (photo above). This puzzled us enough that we looked at the government of Berlin as soon as possible after this. The first surprise was that Berlin remained under four power occupation from 1946 right until October 1990! Unified Germany has its seat of government in unified Berlin, although the city itself has its own legislature and executive. The city’s legislature sits in this building: Prussia’s house of representatives from 1899 to 1934 (when the house was dissolved). I didn’t even know about this building although it is extremely close to Potsdamer Platz. When we passed this building we had no idea that it had been used to house the Council of Ministers of East Germany before being given over to Stasi. We also learned too late about the murals and art collection inside. If you do go in, let me know whether you enjoyed it, and whether you recommend that we visit it the next time we are in Berlin.


Spot the art project!

The Family had followed the cold war at a distance. Now, she was busy reading at the wall of history which lines Friedrichstrasse as you approach the site of Checkpoint Charlie from what once was East Germany. This spot is a condensation of that chilly history. If you have lived through those years, even at a distance, your eyes will not be caught by the tourist trap of fake military memorabilia, crumbling pieces of concrete sold as part of the True Wall, or the creperie, KFC and MacDonald’s which are signs of something which was once called the end of history.

While The Family viewed history through the posters which line the road, I fancied that I saw it in the pair (father and son?) in the photo above. The older man looks like he would be old enough to have similar memories of the cold war and its end. The younger one has grown up in a world with new problems. I hope that these also come to a clean end.

As I looked around me, I saw art projects all around. Berlin is built on sand. The water of the Spree percolates into the sandy soil beneath the city and has to be pumped out constantly. The pink pipes which you see in the featured photo carry this water. You could call it an art project, but Berliners think of it as just background.

The building with the funny roof was certainly a much-talked-about architectural project of the late 80s, called by the astoundingly inventive name Checkpoint Charlie Apartments. The design team included Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis and Matthias Sauerbruch. The civil engineer associated with this project was the famous Stefan Polonyi, whose students are even now changing the shapes of structures in Germany. The building on the left was designed by Peter Eisenmann (who also designed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews) as a residential building at the same time.

The art installation really stands out in the middle of the road. It is the light box, of which you see one side in these photos. The face that looks out to the former East Berlin is of an American solider. Looking towards the former West Berlin is the face of a Russian soldier. Both photos were taken in 1994, just before the troops from these two countries finally left Berlin. This is an untitled work by Frank Thiel, commissioned in 1998 by Berlin’s Development Commission.



The vast Alexanderplatz has changed a little since I first visited it more than twenty years ago, but the change is superficial. Then, I’d started walking towards the TV tower (see the last photo below) from the Museuminsel, and reached a windblown square surrounded by grey concrete. My imagination was rife with Doblin’s book named after this square, and in comparison to that, the place looked colourless. I descended to the U-bahn station and left.

The gray concrete structures are now dressed in neon, and surrounded by young people doing exactly what they always do in Germany. On reunification, the property around Alexanderplatz remained in the hands of the East German company Treuhand. Kaufhof bought up GDR’s retail company Centrum-Warenhaus, and part of the deal was its property in Alexanderplatz. This is the building you see in the photo above. Redesigned by Paul Kleihues, it dominates the north-western corner of the plaza. We walked past the spray from the communist-era fountain to get to it, feeling too cold to take a photo. Diagonally opposite is a multistoried Saturn shop. I had forgotten my gorilla pod, and had marked this down as the place to buy one.

We walked past the clock showing time around the world to look at the buildings across the road. There was the Alexa, a large modern departmental store (featured photo). A little further down was the ministry of education (photo below), with its restored Walter Womacka mural from the time this area was still part of East Berlin. Next to this tower is the shallow dome of the Berlin conference center. Both were made by Hermann Henselmann. We turned back into the windy square. The storm was on us. A light rain had begun to fall. It was time to move on.

Alexanderplatz was built in the 19th century. By 1882 the S-bahn station had come into existence. You can see this as the horizontal tubular structure in the photo below. The U-bahn was built in 1913. The square has been reconceived thrice. Once in 1928, an architectural competition was held to build a new square for a metropolis. The de-facto winner was the influential architect Peter Behrens. Only two of his buildings were finished before the global crisis of the 1930s brought the development to a halt. Photos taken immediately after the was show that the two, Berolinahaus and Alexanderhaus (the buildings on the left edge of the featured photo), were heavily damaged during the war. They were reconstructed later.

Photos from that period also show that the S-bahn station was badly damaged. It seems that during the Battle of Berlin, a Soviet T-34 tank drove into the underground tunnel since it did not recognize the entrance to the train line in time. This may have given rise to rumours of Soviet tanks trying to outflank German defenders by driving through tunnels. The war damage was not repaired for a while. Then, in 1964, the DDR made everything over again, in the shape that you see it in now. In 1993 there was yet another architectural competition, and the winning design would replace everything here by ten high rises. These have not got off the ground yet.

For architectural sarcasm you could do worse than read this or this. A little search led me to an interesting article on the maze of unfinished construction below Alex.