Reluctantly leaving heaven

Some parts of heaven are dangerous now, dilapidated, ready to fall. Still, the magic draws people from across the world. Many have left elaborate artwork on the walls. Perhaps inspired by them, others have sketched outlines of work elsewhere. We walked through the parts of the abandoned Swarg Ashram which were built after the famous visit by the Beatles.

There are two apartment blocks next to each other. They looked dilapidated. Unlike in the bungalows, there were no signs warning us off. But maybe that only meant that the blocks just haven’t been inspected recently? We peered through doors and windows. They are one-bedroom apartments, of a size which is larger than most one-bedrooms in Mumbai. Some of the walls reminded me of the overused word palimpsest. Perhaps a graffiti wall is as good a descriptor. Some of the sketches were good, perhaps the artists could have developed them into paintings if they had materials.

These blocks date from the seventies, when the Maharishi Mahesh yogi’s business venture was beginning to boom. For the pioneer of the yoga and guru industry, he has little name recognition now. For that matter, even the Beatles are fading. I was in a lift a couple of years ago with a older person, when the door opened and a bunch of kids with phones and earbuds came in chattering. “Have you tried out the Beatles?” one asked. Some of the others looked puzzled. The experimenter said “Ancient group, interesting music.” One of the others explained, “Yes a singing group like Abba, with three members. One was called Paul.” The lift door opened, and they left. We two, grizzled veterans, looked at each other, eyebrows raised.

There were a lot of really interesting paintings inside. I inspected the outer walls. There were no large cracks. There could be a danger of falling blocks of plaster, but perhaps we could risk quick forays into the buildings. We darted through the doorways which gaped open. In and out quickly, a few times. Then I noticed that there are no cracks in the internal plaster either, no bulges. We were not going to risk the stairs, but spending a little longer exploring inside may not be dangerous. We found a large number of very expertly executed pieces inside. Some of them really worth your time.

Even apart from the paintings, the remains of the ashram were beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken now and then by the cackling of tree pies, and the deeper calls of hornbills. We were reluctant to leave. The canteen did not have anything other than chai and small snacks. If it had, we would have stayed longer.

In Heaven

Heaven is abandoned. The Family and I walk through the shaded path where immortals once strolled, and speculate about when everyone moved away. There’s still magic here. A small group of hip city youngsters give us lessons on how to take selfies. The Family gives me a warning look, and I behave. I move where they ask us to go, let them suggest how to strike an attitude, thank them as they go away. Human contact with strangers after a year can be disconcerting for everyone, even in Swarg Ashram, which was briefly, half a century ago, the most famous place on earth. That’s when the Beatles spent time here, between releasing the contents of Magical Mystery Tour and the white album.

The bungalows next to the yoga center carry warning signs. I’m used to distancing now, and I manage to peer in, let my camera do the walking. Nice murals. Not half a century old, I think. By far not, The Family agrees. A signboard says this is where “distinguished visitors” stayed. The Beatles would count. So would Mia Farrow. Peter Saltzman talks about listening to George Harrison play the sitar on a rooftop terrace. That would be one of these, I guess.

An abandoned garden and what looks like two apartment blocks lie between this line of bungalows and the distant cliff edge overlooking the Ganga and Rishikesh. Peter Saltzman mentioned a place overlooking the river where the Beatles sat and worked on the words and music for songs which eventually appeared in the white album. The Family has already crossed the garden. I follow. We laugh at a sign that says “Do not write on walls.”

We skirt the apartment blocks for now. I spot a couple come out to the path from behind a little house. “Let’s go there”, I suggest. The Family’s okay with it. Temple, or meditation center, you take your pick. I walk through the door, and some dark chambers to the paved area behind. Beyond it I see an open space overlooking the river. I walk out to stand there. Mentally I subtract the apartments, keep the bungalows. I try to match the description I remember from Peter Saltzman’s interviews. This must be it. This is where the Beatles came repeatedly during those weeks to put words to ob la di. This is where the music for Dear Prudence came together. There is magic here. Briefly the tiny blue flowers on the ground look like the Himalayan Gentian.

In my life

When you pay your money, walk through gates at the side of a road which winds through a forest, and you see a sign announcing a tiger reserve, you may be a little surprised if you thought you were visiting the ruins of the Swarg Ashram, the place where the Beatles composed large parts of their best album. That was the opinion then, and it remained the opinion of fans when the queen of England was fifty years older. Are you in the right place?

The disorientation persists as you walk up a steep paved path, with a high wall on one side. A large butterfly stares at you as you pass. I haven’t been in a tiger reserve like this. Perhaps you need your elephant and gun. Perhaps, in case of accident, you should always bring your mom. But continue, look around round, look around round round.

Strange. The path leads past a ruined bungalow. No Bill, no children asking if to kill was not a sin. The ruin is full of interesting looking graffiti, so we walked in to look. But it is only a distraction, perhaps a structure built and abandoned by the forest department which now owns this land.

I’m at the top of the slide. I stop and I turn and I go for a ride. “Right?” The Family suggested, and I agreed. Into the helter skelter maze of strange domed structures. A notice tells us that they were built as meditation huts in 1978. We walk into one: a round room on the ground floor, a tiny toilet and bath on one side, and stairs going up the wall to a domed platform, presumably the place where you sit to meditate. The first one we walked into had some beautiful work on the walls. The dome had an interesting piece in colour, which was very hard to take a look at because the stairs were not terribly safe. I stood on one of the safe lower rungs, stuck my phone up, and took a panorama. Unfortunately the phone needed more of a revolution than my precarious perch would allow.

We followed the path through these domed apartments, and saw the Ganga in front of us. Lovely view of Rishikesh on the other side. The place where there river turns is Triveni ghat, where the arti takes place in the evening. We seemed to have reached a dead end. It was time to follow the signs to the canteen and get our bearings.

The canteen was attached to some kind of an art gallery; I like the view through a series of doors which is an unmistakable sign that of one. The displayed work was not a surprise. They were photos of the Beatles in the ashram taken by Paul Saltzman. It was late in the morning, and getting warm. We hadn’t found the Swarg Ashram yet. We had a tea and went is search of Swarg.

Doorways in The Door

Haridwar means the door to Hari. And Hari is another name for Vishnu. Just before the river Ganga exits the Himalayas through Haridwar, it flows past the town of Rishikesh. On left bank of the Ganga, away from the recent expansion of the town, we stood inside the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s abandoned ashram, known locally as the Beatles ashram, and The Family took this photo of Rishikesh. The Maharishi leveraged the visit by the Beatles in 1968 into global stardom, and may well have a claim to be the person who firmly placed yoga and meditation in world culture. The ashram was abandoned some time after his move to Switzerland, and is now in the care of the forest department of the state. There was a coronavirus surge during our visit to this region, and we decided that abandoned open spaces were the safest. There were many visitors to the ashram, but it is large enough that it never felt crowded.

If you are not distracted by the strange ruins of the domed apartments that an entrepreneur built in the 1970s for the hordes of well-heeled peace seekers who never turned up, then the first thing you’ll find are the kitchens and the yoga hall of the ashram. They are full of graffiti and artwork by visitors who ignored the sign which urges them not to write on walls. From the weathering of the works, and some dated signatures, it is clear that people are still using these ruins as a canvas. Others works, especially the ones which give prominence to the Maharishi, are quite weathered, and possibly date from the 1970s. Twitter launched in 2006, so the work you see in the photo above cannot be more than 15 years old. That tells us how quickly the weather affects the paintings.

These four pieces come from the kitchen. The maharishi is painted on to a crumbling wall. I wish the person who’d started the Jai Gurudeva painting had gone on to finish it. I can imagine that the sun will be marvelous in full colour. Given its location, it is almost certainly a reference to Lennon’s 1968 composition Across the Universe.

The rest of these paintings come from the large yoga hall just beyond the utility complex. This is really the central vista of the ashram as it once was, with the main visitors’ buildings placed around a quadrangle with this hall at one corner. The architecture tells us how savvy the Maharishi was; yoga was the magnet to draw people in, but a good holiday in lovely surroundings was what you remembered after you left. Good enough to draw you back, or to have you recommend it to friends. Even though the Beatles left after a spat, their visit was good enough advertisement. I love walking through recently abandoned buildings, and this one was specially inviting, with its vibrant artwork, and the doors and windows reduced to specters which allow the inside to merge with the outside.

As we left the building we heard the squawks of a trio of oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which we had seen flying around. I’m not yet good enough at identifying birds entirely by sound. Just my luck then, not to have my camera when these things were flapping about asking for their photos to be taken. I was reduced to using my phone. The result is not great, but it does allow you to identify the bird with certainty: the cylindrical casque above the beak with a black patch at its tip, the white tip to the tail and the pale blue throat patch. “Nice place,” The Family murmured, perhaps echoing the hundreds of paying customers who came here in the 60s and 70s. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) cackled with laughter as it flew past us.

Once upon a time

Apollo 8. The Mexico City olympics. Martin Luther King Jr. Prague spring. The My Lai massacre. Dakar and Minerva sink. Mauritius becomes independent. The Baader Meinhof gang. Daniel Cohn Bendit. The Beatles learn meditation with the Maharishi. Yes, that’s the most famous yoga center of 1968, fifty three years later. This is inside the ruins of the Maharishi’s abandoned ashram. I don’t know how old these murals are. There are murals from the 1970s sharing space with at least one from a couple of years ago.

Curios and curioser

I stood in front of a door with the intricately carved hardwood lintel which you see in the featured photo. The figure is possibly a variant of Gajalakshmi, the goddess of wealth in her most royal aspect. In the usual iconography she would have four hands, two in the mudras of abhaya and varada, and two holding lotuses. Here only the pairof hands with the lotuses is seen. The dark wood had certainly been carved more than a century ago, perhaps some time in the middle of the 19th century CE. Once this kind of door lintel was common across Kerala. There was a master carver who served a small group of villages. The large number of master carvers puzzled me. In a pre-consumer economy, you would not expect door lintels to be such hot items. It turns out that the reason has to do with a churn in the Kerala agricultural economy in the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century the economy of Kerala had come to depend heavily on the export of pepper. It was originally grown only in two districts, but the possibility of trade made pepper the primary crop across the Malabar region. Then, in the first decades of the 19th century, the pepper market crashed and the local economy shifted first to byproducts of coconut, and then to coffee. Land belonged to a few, and was worked by a larger number of tenants who would bid for the right to cultivate. In this speculative agrarian economy there was a quick turnover of tenants, and at each turnover the newly prosperous tenants built their own family home. This required extensive woodwork and metalwork (see the ornate handle and lock in the door above).

In the Kochi area you’ll find shops full of old bric-a-brac hiding a few gems. The wooden carvings that you see in this photo also come from that time. It is interesting to see that about eight centuries of cross-ocean trade had already made Kerala a very cosmopolitan place. Local artists drew not only on old Hindu traditions, but also the deep historical connections with the west, the Levant and Arabia, the far west, Europe, and the east, Java, Vietnam, and, mostly at a remove, China. As an amateur I find it interesting to try to trace artistic influences in these everyday decorations from a century ago. I’m sure art historians have been over this territory in great detail.

Post-Delhi Durbar architecture

Architectural styles adapt very fluidly to weather and techniques. This adaptability is so abundantly clear when you compare the architecture of 19th and early-20th century Mumbai to contemporary fashions in England. The Gothic Revival in its late Victorian guise transmuted into the iconic Indo-Saracenic style buildings of Mumbai. I think of this as F.W. Stevens using the medieval sources of inspiration of George Barry, transplanted to India, rather than the details of his style. The sea-front around the Gateway of India was realigned for the visit of George V of England. The buildings in the immediate neighbourhood were built in the 1910s and 20s, and were influenced by the Edwardian style, in the same way that Stevens adapted Barry. The detail that you see in the featured photo marries the Edwardian spirit to an update of the late Maratha style of construction from a century earlier. Notice also the flat terrace, a very Indian feature.

The exuberance of the sea front disappears in the row just behind it. On good days you may call this row harmonized . On bad days you might call it industrially repetitive. I walk through this road now and then with my take-away latte, admiring the solidity of the buildings. To me it appears to be an Edwardian reworking of the basic Victorian style, but quick and commercial. Floors of Gothic arches alternate with the classical. Symmetry is a driving motive. The decorative elements of the Edwardian style are entirely missing. The houses in the row are distinguished mainly by their colour. Notice the top floor; the unadorned cornices for some protection against the rain, and the simple sloping roof, are the only nods to the local weather. I am glad that this style covers only two roads. A city full of these houses would be oppressive.

Theft

Decades ago I stood in front of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on show in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna (the featured image is a detail taken from Wikimedia Commons). So, when The Family decided to stream Helen Mirren’s movie The Woman in Gold, I jumped to the conclusion that I knew the sad ending of the story. I had not known that this was piece of art that the Nazis had stolen. George Clooney’s movie Monuments Men had told the story of a platoon of soldiers tasked by the US president Franklin Roosevelt to recover the stolen artworks before Hitler’s orders to destroy them could be carried out. Herman Goering had set up a clearing house for stolen art in the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris. An older movie with Burt Lancaster, The Train, had told the story of how the French resistance had delayed a train full of stolen art from leaving Paris just before it was liberated by the Allies. After watching Mirren’s film, we talked of corrupt governments and stolen art, still residing in museums in Berlin, London, Paris, New York, as well as the 21st century theft of Iraqi heritage.

Anthony Hopkins and others in the Merchant-Ivory film Remains of the Day

Other movies led to other thoughts. Watching Anthony Hopkins as the butler imagined by Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day, I asked myself about the economics of the Nazi era. There is a whole Wikipedia page on the businesses that collaborated in the Holocaust. Goering, Hitler, von Ribbentrop, are recorded as having looted art, and in a government that allows looting of one kind, surely other kinds of theft must have happened. The Nazi era is still under academic investigation, and the wealth of material available today is stunning.

In 1946 the Journal of Business of the University of Chicago carried an article by Arthur Schweitzer which concluded, “In terms of status and privileges, public property of state and party occupied the first place; German big business and hereditary farms as well as quisling owners composed the group of preferred private owners. German small business and non-quisling owners suffered under extensive and deliberate discrimination.” This basic view has held up remarkably well over the last seventy five years.

Further nuance has been added. Germa Bel of the University of Barcelona argued in a paper published in 2009 that the “Nazi regime transferred public ownership and public services to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in the Western capitalist countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s. Privatization in Nazi Germany was also unique in transferring to private hands the delivery of public services previously provided by government.” The paper comes to the following conclusion “Ideological motivations do not explain Nazi privatization. However, political motivations were important. The Nazi government may have used privatization as a tool to improve its relationship with big industrialists and to increase support among this group for its policies. Privatization was also likely used to foster more widespread political support for the party. Finally, financial motivations played a central role in Nazi privatization.”

In Anne Frank House it is hard to tear yourself away from her hiding place

This adds a whole new layer of our understanding of the corruption in that government. It wasn’t just stealing art, or gold teeth from cadavers; the Nazis were stealing from the German people, taking from the general populace, and feeding part of the stream of money into the hands of “preferred private owners” in order to cement their hold on political power. The world war and the Holocaust were so reprehensible that it is hard to look away to see this other aspect which was equally part of the Nazi corruption of government.

Another Egyptian goose

When I hear about Egyptian geese I think of the species Alopochen aegyptiaca, native of the Nile and sub-Saharan Africa, and considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians. I saw them for the first time when we visited Kenya a couple of years ago. The featured photo was taken on the banks of the Mara river. The coloured patch around its eye makes it instantly recognizable, although the rest of the colouring varies a little. But now, in a paper which will appear in April in the paywalled Journal of Archaeological Science, Anthony Romilio of U Queensland has identified another extinct goose from ancient Egyptian paintings.

The panel in the picture above is part of a larger painting which was originally on the north wall of the chapel tomb of Itet, wife to King Sneferu’s vizier, Nefermaat, and likely to have been the king’s daughter-in-law. The original is now in Cairo Museum, and a fascimile can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. A description in the website of the Met says ” The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.” It is this level of detail in the paintings from the tomb which set Romilio thinking about the species. A series of measurements convinced him that it is not a living species. The red breasted goose, Branta ruficollis, seems to be the closest in appearance, but it has not been spotted south of the Mediterranean, nor have remains ever been identified in ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.

“Artistic licence could account for the differences with modern geese, but artworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals,” Romilio is quoted as saying in a press release from UQ. It is interesting that the Sahara was a lush landscape about 10,000 years ago when Nile-dwelling humans began to move into this landscape. The process of desertification began at about the time of the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms, in around 3100 BCE. Romilio has worked on reconstructing taxa of extinct animals of ancient Egypt from ancient Egyptian artwork, and is an author of a book on this subject.

Don’t get fooled again

The eye is so easy to fool! I’d posted the featured photo in colour before. Just for fun I decided to convert it to black and white. I was surprised that it works. Perhaps because the yellow of the tiny flowers is so luminous that although the whole plant is in shadow there is enough contrast there. That got me thinking about decomposing it by colour. I dialled down the saturation of everything except yellow, and the eye still saw it as not very different from before. You really have to put the two next to each other to remind yourself what the difference is. And even then you may not notice that in one photo the leaves are not green.

Are we thinking right in our response to the pandemic? The world locked down again and again to flatten the curve, to prevent hospitals from being overrun. Wuhan was absolutely locked down at the beginning, and that stamped out the disease in that city completely. In other cities we thought it wouldn’t hurt to go for a walk, and perhaps talk to the people we see. Surely meeting one acquaintance in a couple of weeks would not change things, we reasoned. Was that right?

June Almeida was the first scientist to image a human coronavirus (for bio, click on pic)

If the disease spreads evenly, that is every infected person has the same chance of passing on an infection, then even very mildly leaky lockdowns do not prevent a single death! When you study the total number of deaths, it seems to make no difference whether the lockdown was leaky, or whether there was no lockdown. The only difference is the availability of health care, and whatever that implies. Strange!

So lockdowns were thought of as a tool to “flatten the curve”, not as a long-term solution. But that step involved an assumption. It turns out that if you have epidemics (like the flu or COVID-19) which depend on super-spreading events, then the situation could change. The simple expedient of closing every place in which, say, more than 20 people can gather, can cut the transmission of the disease by a large factor. This saves many lives. Strange!

John Snow is widely regarded as the founder of the field of Epidemiology (for bio, click on pic)

It seems that the maths works out. Not quite as transparent as 2+2=4, but apparently quite as definite. But I am always left a little doubtful by mathematical arguments in which every assumption cannot be tested in real life. Maths is a bit like that photo in yellow; an approximation of the real world. Some scenes can be captured in yellow, others not. Believing blindly in mathematical models of the world led people to theories of the aether once. It leads others to believe in market economics today. Both could have been right, but without extensive testing we would not have known better. You don’t want to make the same missteps again with epidemics. The world is stress-testing epidemiology now. I wonder how the subject will change in a couple of years.