6 o’clock at the Bund

The lights came on all along the Bund at precisely 6 in the evening. The western bank of the Huangpu turned into a bright gold colour which suits all the banks which look out on the river. The Family gasped, and I think a ripple ran through the crowd as everyone turned from looking across the river towards Pudong to behind them. The Family loves this area; ever since I’d proposed a trip to China, she had her heart set on an evening strolling along the Bund.

It’s worthwhile coming by early. We’d crossed Zhongshan East Road just before the sun set and seen the high walls of the bund covered in a vertical garden. The Bund is a flood control wall (as the Hindi word indicates) built in the 19th century at the time that Mumbai’s merchants, Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, and others, settled north of the Chinese town and poured money into developing this new city. This is a history that is slowly fading from the memories of both sides of the Himalayas, but deserves to be remembered.

The green coloured pyramidal roof that you see in the featured photo belongs to the Peace Hotel, formerly Victor Sassoon’s flagship Cathay Hotel. The domed building in that photo (at the extreme left) is the Bank of Taiwan. This stands on Jiujiang Road. Across the road (The nearest building in the photo above) is the Forex trading center, and then the large frontage of the Bank of Shanghai. A few more banks down there is an area full of nice bars with good views.

Across the river lights had slowly come on in the modern high-rises of Pudong. Unlike the Bund, these lights are not coordinated. This is a delightful sight, which The Family and I enjoy every time we see it. The 470 meter high bulb-on-a-stick of the Pearl Tower, the dark bulk of Shanghai Tower (at 632 meters, China’s tallest, and the second highest building in the world), and the bottle-opener shape of the 492 meter tall Shanghai World Financial Center dominate the view. We didn’t want to cross over to that side today. After chatting with groups of Indian tourists who needed someone to take their photos against this iconic background, we climbed down from the Bund.

We walked west along Fuzhou Road for a couple of blocks. This is an interesting part of Shanghai. Most of the buildings date from the late 19th century until the Japanese invasion. It is an urban historian’s delight, with beautiful buildings and interesting histories. Unfortunately, Shanghai’s Museum of Urban Planning does not say much about this area. I would love to walk around this part of the city with a detailed guidebook of a kind that does not yet exist. It would certainly be as interesting as walking around Manhattan south of the 59th street. At the crossing of Jiangxi middle road and Fuzhou Road we came to this interesting set of buildings openings into a circle. We took a few photos and walked north.

Two blocks northwards is East Nanjing Road, the spectacular pedestrian shopping street which is usually so crowded; the lack of crowds indicated peak dinner time. We walked away from the Bund towards the warren of streets with interesting restaurants closer to Renmin Park. Ahead of us, the double spires of Shinmao International Plaza rose almost a hundred meters from the roof of the building to touch the 333 meter mark. This would be tall anywhere else, but in Shanghai it is an also-ran.


Suit of Jade

The short-lived Qin empire, the first empire of China, fell by 206 BCE. Much was happening in India at the time: the Maurya empire was at its peak, the Gandhara kingdoms were rising in modern day Afghanistan, the first kingdoms of South India were being established. The Nanyue kingdom was one of the successor states of Qin, covering what is today Northern Vietnam, and the Chinese provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan. Han, another of the successors of Qin, was in conflict with Nanyue and occassionally dominant. I found this background when I visited the massive museum built over the mausoleum of the Nanyue king Zhao Mo, discovered in 1983 CE in the Yuexiu district of Guangzhou.

The museum is very close to the Yuexiu Park metro station. We arrived an hour short of closing, enough time for the museum, as it turned out. The mausoleum is the usual mound over small burial chambers. We climbed down, and walked through these low stone-lined chambers. Zhao Mo died in 122 BCE. Since the first emperor’s tomb has never been excavated, this is possibly the oldest tomb of a Chinese king which has been examined properly in modern times. All the artifacts found here are in the museum above the digs.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the full-body jade suit in the featured photo. The Chinese belief that jade preserves the body is likely to be the reason it enclosed the king’s body inside his wooden coffin. The rest of the things (and people) in the mausoleum were meant to serve him in afterlife. There was a lot of jade in evidence (the bowl and the belt buckle in the photos caught my eye). Gold and silver were present, but in smaller quantities. The museum of full of beautiful items, but there is little explanation. That’s part of the reason why an hour here was more than enough.

Ceramic socialist realism

During one dinner in China, after much alcohol had been downed with toasts, conversation turned to calligraphy. I was surprised to hear the general opinion that Mao Zedong was considered to have produced very good calligraphy in the classical style. Recently, seeing that the brochure of the Tate gallery’s exhibition of Social Realist art from China quoted Mao extensively, I realized that he was quite strongly aware of the potential of art to subvert or accelerate social change. As early as in the Yan’an conference of 1942, Mao made statements that prefigured the philosophical basis of what came to be called the cultural revolution. This is an example: “The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source.”

A part of the permanent exhibition in the Chen Clan Academy of Guangzhou is a roomful of small glazed ceramic pieces which are clearly made in the Social Realistic style. The pre-communist nationalist movement created a ferment in the art world, with many artists experimenting with western styles. This was carried to an extreme in Social Realism, as you can see in the examples here (notice the fedora carried by the man who takes the bull by the horn). Looking closely at these pieces, I realized that there is an individuality to each. Within the constraints of the system, they are still expressive of the artist’s vision. What else does one ask from an artist but technical mastery and individual vision?

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.