The Ghosts of Mussoorie

Whose ghost was it that Ram Singh (the Savoy bartender) saw last night? A figure in a long black cloak, who stood for a few moments in the hotel’s dimly lit vestibule, and then moved into the shadows of the old lounge.
“Landour Days”, Ruskin Bond

Mussoorie is a haunted town, as you would know if you ever read books by its most famous living resident- Ruskin Bond. I’d decided to make his stories my guide during our brief stop over in his town. Accordingly, we walked down Mall Road in the evening, to stop and admire the view of Dehradun spread out below us. These towns are relics of the British Empire, whose administrators fled to the hills as soon as winter Marched out. The phrase “Hill Station” for these once-charming little towns dotted across the lower heights of India are clearly a colonial joke (“Which station are you at, old chap?”, “A hill station you know. Taking a bit of rest.”).

What did the English like about these places? Apart from the temperature, it must have been the upredictability of the weather. The day had been nice as we drove up from the valley, but now clouds were gathering. There was to be a brief hailstorm the next evening. But right now the weather was pleasant. We decided to walk on to the Savoy and its storied Writer’s Bar, where the ghosts of Mussoorie gather for their evening’s tipple.

A lot of people who enter the Writer’s Bar look pretty far gone, and sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing the living from the dead. But the real ghosts are those who manage to slip away without paying for their drinks.
“Landour Days”, Ruskin Bond

Charles Dickens wrote an account of Mussoorie’s social whirl in a piece called The Himalaya Club which appeared in print in 1857. I counted that would have been three days short of 162 years ago when we walked into the bar. It was off season. A young couple sat in one corner gazing at each other, far away from a group of men talking on their phones more often than to each other. As a result, the bartender and a couple of other servers hovered around us and plied us with conversation and drinks. (Their special cocktails are a treat, and should not be missed if you are in town.) “Has anyone seen McClintock’s ghost recently?” I asked. I was told that the rooms we sat in once had a piano which was haunted by the said ghost. “But it has been sold off,” the Maitre told me. “But you can still hear the piano sometimes”, one of his platoon said in counterpoint.

After a perfect evening of interesting drinks and food, we were taken on a tour of the Savoy. One major stop was the grand ballroom where, in 1952, the film star Nutan was crowned Miss India. There was some pride in the Maitre’s voice as he said this was the first time a Miss India had been selected. This is almost true, says Wikipedia; you have to discount only the pageant in 1947 held in Calcutta, but that’s easy, because that was before independence. After a walk through the rambling old building, extensively added to in recent years, the Maitre got a hotel car to drop us off at the Library Bazaar.

By now the bazaar had shut down. It had got a little chilly, and it was dinner time. Reason enough for the few off-season tourists to have disappeared. The square was lit up by the headlights of passing cars. I liked that atmosphere; it looked like the ghosts of the past could stroll by us in that bad light. Mussoorie lives with the ghosts of better days, even as, like all the old hill stations, its once charming center slowly sinks into the swamp of cheap hotels.

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When you stare into a jungle the jungle stares back at you

We walked out of the Star Chamber of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT to all of us time-starved people) to admire the decorations outside. When you look up at the capitals of the columns around the station, you see a veritable jungle. The monkey in the featured photo seems to have been startled by the camera peering at it. The rough chiselling of the stone probably shows that a very large amount of stone carving had to be finished in a short time. The artistic innovation is delightful: the texture of the animal’s fur is evoked by the chisel marks.

Inside the ticketing office I’d admired this panel where two mongooses faced off against each other between swirls of Attic vines. Dear Rudyard, east and west do meet, again and again, to produce such wonderful works as these, just a few steps from your childhood home.

I looked up at the tower at this corner of the building. There was a whole line of heraldic devices carved into the stone. They included the cross of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, compasses for navigation, a sailing ship, animals, a cherub and a steam locomotive. Very much a high-Victorian mish mash of symbols. The Family and I looked up at the beautiful facade where four colours of stone are harmonized. This reminded me faintly of Mughal monuments. The jali also seems to be inspired by the similar structures.

Looking up further, we spotted a very decorative peacock above an open window. On closer look I was quite taken aback. It is hard to capture a peacock in stone, since its main attraction is the shimmer of colour in the male’s raised plumage. The artist has done a rather good job of capturing the general idea in monochrome stone.

Closer above our head I admired owls and sundry birds, dense foliage below the paws of a stone lion about to leap on to unsuspecting passers-by. Below the owl I admired a line of ferns, their delicate leaves and spirally unfolding fronds giving the owl a perfect toe-hold.

The foliage in this jungle on the pavement is so completely different from that inside the ticketing hall that I found it useful to compare the two. Inside, animals from an Indian jungle cavort through this southern European flora. Outside, the\ese vines are often relegated to the edges of decorations, when an Indian jungle takes over the main pictorial space.

But not always. In the panel you see above, eastern fauna meets western flora again. Artists will mash up what they have spent years perfecting. That’s part of the reason I think that the work of decoration was done by students of the J. J. School of Arts and not by local artisans. The repertoire of classical western decorative motifs would not be available to Indian artists who had not studied them.

Outside, I took a closer look at the part of the structure which holds the offices of the Central Railways. This part of the building has been restored, and it is possible to visit during office hours. We will have to go back to see it from inside.

Victorian Gothic you say? Where are the gargoyles then? You have to look far up, where they jut out of the turrets, puctuating the sky, looking down on the huge stone lions holding steel banners to the wind.

When you stare into a camera the camera stares back at you

Things look different when you point a camera at them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve passed through the ticketing office of the downtown station of central railways, the one called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus now and called Victoria Terminus when it was opened in 1853. Imagined as an Indian palace in the then-current Gothic Revival style by its architect, Frederick William Stevens, the building took ten years to complete. It doesn’t seem long by today’s relaxed standards, but then it was cause for many agonized letters to editors of newspapers. The featured photo shows the recently restored ceiling of the suburban ticket counter.

The odd heraldic bearing that you can see in the photo here caught my attention. Could it belong to the company which built this station, the Great Indian Peninsular Railways? Apparently not. The lower half of the shield makes up the complete arms of the company (a further inscribed shield into the upper left quadrant of the cross has been chiselled away). The upper half of this strange device, the railway and the steam locomotive, threw me. Could it be the bearing of the terminus building? I’m sure someone out there has the answer.

The station is aligned north-south and the ticketing counters are to the east of the road passing in front of it. Just in case you are lost, you could orient yourself by the compass roses in the floor of the hall. The Family and I had walked into this place on a Sunday to avoid the massive crowds which we would have found otherwise. We’d wanted to explore the restored building, but found that it is open to visitors only during working hours of the week. As a result we explored this part of the structure, both familiar through long use, and unfamiliar because we usually hurry through it without looking.

The stained glass windows, in particular, are not things we have paid attention to. Nor did I know that this was called the Star Chamber, and that the marble used here was shipped from Italy. The building was renovated in 1888, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of the coronation of the British queen after whom this station was then named. I couldn’t find a record of who made the stained glass. However, since much of the ornamentation of the structure was done by the faculty and students of the Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Arts, it could be that the glass is also due to them. There are some pieces here well worth one’s time.

The doors are not grand, but in keeping with the place, they are ornate. I’m not sure whether the ones that you see here are original or whether they have been replaced. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken photos before the restoration, so I can’t check now. Maybe one should take photos of the doors of historic public buildings every ten years or so. It would be an interesting project.

As we exited to the pavement outside, I took one last shot of the interior. I’ve tried many times to imagine the events of 26 November, 2008, when two armed terrorists entered the station from the north and killed 58 people. Panicked commuters ran away from them, and many would have exited through these doors. They are always open.

The most haunted mine in India?

While trying to make a list of interesting places to see in Mussoorie I came across a story of the Lambi Dehar mines outside the town. According to various travel sites (who copy from each other) this is the most haunted place in India; everyone who goes there dies a horrible death, the mysterious screams of half a lakh dead miners ring through this valley, the blood-thirsty laughter of a witch can be heard at nights, there are no birds or beasts around the mines. “Exactly the kind of place I want to see,” I told The Family. It was on the map I usually use, so find our way would not be a problem.

The day we set aside for this started nice, but there was a prediction of a thunderstorm with hail later in the day. By the time we passed Library Bazaar the sky was grey, and wan light was exactly the kind which is best for viewing ghosts. The road was very good, but completely deserted. Our first view of the remains of the mines was perfect (see the featured photo). The road passes a little above the buildings. We stopped the car there and walked down the slope to the buildings. Nitin was happy to remain with his car. The surrounding forest of Banj Oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora) was slowly changing colour, but there was a spectacular orange tree, which I didn’t recognize, in the little clearing we walked down to.

While I was channeling the Chipko movement, The Family had located the spirit which haunts the place. The soft-spoken young man was a fount of information. “Yes, people do say this is haunted,” he admitted. When The Family asked whether he didn’t feel afraid, he smiled bashfully. “Lots of people come here,” he said when we asked about tourists.

That’s why he was there, of course. He runs the little shop in an auto which you see above. I could see that it would be possible for the auto to drive up to the road where Nitin was parked. He smiled again when I asked him if this was the best place for customers. I thought that the side of the road above this place would be a better location, but apparently he preferred to be here in this quiet place. I could see why. I was beginning to relax into the slow rhythm of the place, the bad light, the little chirps of birds.

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The abandoned offices of the mining company had become a canvas for artists, and, of course, lovers. I liked that smoker. The idea of alienation seemed odd in these hills, but the exhortation not to become a robot meant that young people here do feel it. Perhaps it is intrinsic in the society we live in. Looking at the ruins, I realized that words and stories come much more easily to us than images. A few paintings, but so much scribbling!

Behind the buildings, in a secluded area these four young people had spread out a picnic. They did not mind me taking a photo. I asked, “You don’t happen to be ghosts, do you?” Laughter ensued, not at all blood-curdling. “No more than you are,” one of them said. I wondered about the internet-wide story of 50,000 miners dead in these mines. If that had ever happened it would have been an enormous disaster. No mining disaster in this area is recorded. Moreover a mining company which employed 50,000 miners in one site would have to leave a huge footprint in media. So what was the real story? The internet has repliated the false story so many times that reality cannot be found by searching for “Lambi Dehar”. A few drops of rain fell as we made our way back to the car.

I was pointed to the real story by this blog. As I’d suspected, the Lambidhar mines, to give it its earlier name, was one of the many limestone quarries in this area which was forced to close by a decision of the Indian Supreme Court in 1996. There is no record of a disaster. After that this site was taken up as a research station in the restoration of the normal ecology of this area. A seven year long project found that eco-restoration improves soil characteristics and allows the oak forest to get a foothold in the area (for example, see this paper). However, when we looked at the quarry site from the road (photo above), it was clear that more than twenty years after closure, the scars of quarrying are still clearly visible. Sadly, reforestation will not be easy. There may be no ghosts here, but Lambidhar tells us that the ghosts of our profligacy will haunt our children for long.

Ecology destroyed for an “Eco Park”

In Sohra one morning five years ago, The Family went off on a trek down a steep slope to see a living root bridge. I gave up on that walk quickly and asked Raju to suggest an alternative. He suggested a short drive to a point where there was a good view of Bangladesh. We parked on the road, and then followed a narrow track through overgrown bushes and around a thicket of trees to reach the edge of a cliff.

The Shillong plateau fell into the plains of Bangladesh below us. There was a sturdy fence at the edge of the cliff. Raju and I leaned on it and looked down at the enchanting landscape of the country of shifting waters. British imperialism had created a disaster here, and, in ebbing, left a permanent scar in the form of borders which cut off both Raju and me from our ancestral homes. Neither of us knew Bangladesh as anything more than grandmothers’ tales and old songs, genocide in a generation-old war, and tales of floods and natural calamities. It was a typical early winter morning in Sohra, overcast and foggy one moment, clear ten minutes later. In the hazy distance we could see a braiding of rivers, and no sign of humanity except for forests cleared for agriculture.

Before we left I spotted several species of butterflies. The common sailer (Neptis hylas, featured photo) was everywhere in this area, as were several species of tigers. I took my first photo of a red lacewing, Cethosia biblis, here (photo above). I did not realize then that the part I paid little attention to, the trees and the tumble of bushes, would not be here when I came back. My only record of that ecosystem full of butterflies, insects, and the birds which feed on them, are the few photos where the vegetation is the background.

Five years later, after some of the clan had left for the same trek that took The Family away that long-ago morning, the rest of us piled into the Rath of the Clan and the driver took us to an “Eco Park”. This was exactly the same place. The vegetation had been totally cleared. Now there was a large parking lot full of vehicles, a gate and tickets to see a leveled field of bare earth at the edge of which was the same fence where Raju and I had stood and tried to spot villages in Bangladesh. There was a desultory attempt to make a garden here with marigold and rose bushes. There were no trees, no butterflies, no birds, but an amazingly large number of humans and shops.

A fellow blogger who grew up in Shillong has been shadowing the blogs of my trip through Meghalaya, and, through her comments, adding a very welcome perspective. In one of her comments she said that she hoped that Meghalaya would follow Sikkim in developing tourism, not Darjeeling. Unfortunately, this “Eco park” was Darjeeling transplanted to Sohra, destroying precisely what people earlier came here to see. Five years ago, as we walked back to the car, Raju pointed out to me an underground stream which you could see through an opening in the rocks. He recommended the water for its taste and coolness. The opening was now covered with an iron grille, and the rocks around it were littered with empty packaging, the detritus of civilization.

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.