The gulf

grandfather

In the crowded Yuhua garden I saw this person keeping a tender watch over his sleeping grandchild. He was completely unaware of me as I took the photo, but immediately afterwards he noticed me. I saw a shadow of some doubt cloud his expression, so I smiled at him and pointed to the baby. He seemed to understand, and smiled back.

Now, looking at the photo I see someone my age from China and realize that his youth was wasted in the violent upheavals of the Cultural Revolution. For me these events came as distant stories read, but not understood. It took me many years of reading testaments from people of this generation to understand how they grew up with a feeling of complete uncertainty. For this man looking after his grandchild is not just what you and I would imagine it to be. It must also involve a sense of wonder and relief that those years have ended and his grandchild will grow up in a different world.

Even if we had shared a language, even if the political system had been different, it would have been difficult to talk about these things with a stranger. But perhaps in some suitably round about way I might have been able to get some idea of how he views these changes. But that is two imaginary worlds removed from the one that he and I live in.

The tombs of the Ming emperors

yongle

The third Ming emperor, Yongle, brought the capital back to Beijing and began to rebuild the Wall. Thirteen of the sixteen Ming emperors, including Yongle, were entombed nearby. The site of these tombs is beautiful: mountains behind, water in front, “according to the principles of Fengshui” as our guide explained. We visited Chang Ling, the tomb of Yongle. Even on a weekend the place is fairly calm.

The emperor, his wife, and sixteen concubines are buried beneath the mound at the back of the complex. This is covered with trees, and has not been excavated. A visit takes in the buildings which lead from the gate up to the mound: the gate, the Hall of Eminent Favours, and the Soul Tower. The central road running through this belongs to the spirits, and is not supposed to be used by living humans.

We passed through the enormous gate (photo above) into the spectacular Hall of Eminent Favours. This is an all-wood construction, apparently containing no metal at all. The most impressive element of its architecture are the enormous wooden pillars: apparently built from the trunks of Himalayan deodar trees (cedar, nanmu in Mandarin) imported from Nepal. At the center of this hall a statue of Yongle has recently been installed, and the floor before it is strewn with money from favour seekers. The hall also contains an exhibit of imperial jade, including intricately carved pieces of soft jade.

soultowerYou can exit from the back into the second courtyard, and continue on to the Soul Tower (photo alongside). From this massive tower, which is the most peaceful part of the complex, you can see the tombs of other emperors. When leaving you are supposed to pass through the central gate in front of the Soul Tower in order to leave the world of the dead behind you. Most people do this, but a significant fraction break the convention of not looking back. It is hard to resist the impulse to turn back to take another photo of the complex before leaving.

We usually do not take guides, relying on audio guides, books and reading. Unfortunately, guide books to China, and even blogs, tend to concentrate on the practical, and leave out a detailed description of sights (I understand that the Blue Guide is an exception, but we did not get it before coming here). So, for this weekend he had with us a guide who did a good job of explaining the significance of various details we would have missed otherwise.

He explained to us that traditionally the Chinese associate tombs with bad luck, which is why the crowds are thin. Also, that one does not take photos of each other within the tomb complex. When we saw Chinese families doing this, he explained that they need guides.

The monk of Xi’an

monk

An old imperial capital holds many stories. One of the famous stories of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) is the journey of the monk Xuanzang to India (he is known in India as Huen Tsang). He made this journey in the middle of the 7th century, during China’s T’ang dynasty, and the reign of Harshavardhana in India. His journey followed the silk route west and then turned south entering India through Afghanistan, and eventually took him to Patna and Nalanda. A good account of the journey is given in Wikipedia. He learnt under the master Silabhadra in Nalanda and returned to China with manuscripts which were translated by a team of monks in the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayan Ta) of Xi’an.

The pagoda is surrounded by a garden which was full of families with children on the Sunday when we visited. As at all Chinese tourist draws, there were many tourists and large but fast-moving queues for the expensive tickets. Inside, there was the usual temple, busy with young people praying hard to pass their exams. You need to pay separately to climb the seven story pagoda. But the real heart of this place is the museum for Xuanzang. There are three halls, with depictions of his journeys. The journey was not without trouble: he was captured by bandits more than once, as shown in the carved wooden panels (photo above). He wrote about his journeys in a book called the “Great T’ang Records on the Western Regions”. Almost a thousand years later a novel, “Journey to the West”, was written about his journeys, which is probably the source of most people’s knowledge about the monk.

translation

The translation of the buddhist texts Xuanzang brought back to China was a major cultural milestone. In Chinese culture it gave rise to new techniques of translation and accurate scholarship. Its influence on the world’s culture was also remarkable, since it provided texts which were the basis of Buddhism’s further spread eastwards. Later when some of the original Pali texts were lost in India, these translations provided a basis for their reconstruction. The walls of the museum inside the Pagoda grounds also depict this long scholarly work. Interestingly, the scholars are portrayed working at tables piled with fruits (see photo above), which perhaps indicates the support that the T’ang emperor gave to this enterprise.

The story of the monk’s journey to India was an important chapter in school textbooks in India, although it had faded a little in my memory. It is interesting to see that the story is even more well-known in China.

The Tomb of the First Emperor

chinshihuang

Close to the terracotta warriors of Xi’an is another major archaeological site: the underground tomb of the first emperor Qin Shih Huang. Old Chinese records talk of a huge tomb with terracotta representations of his capital and the nearby rivers recreated with mercury. The hillock in the photo above is where the tomb is supposed to lie. All around it excavations have exposed not only the terracotta army, but also terracotta representations of acrobats and entertainers. In one pit we saw the skeletons of real horses with terracotta charioteers. We read accounts which say that mercury levels in the soil near the hill are off the scale. Everyone believes that the tomb really is here.

But when you visit, there is nothing to see. All around the supposed tomb is a garden, where busloads of Chinese tourists come on guided tours. We followed a tour guide and his entourage in the mistaken belief that we had missed the entrance. There is no entrance.

There has been no digging. It was mysterious to us. A kind young man (there are so many people in China who are so very kind to foreigners) who spoke very good English told us that it is bad luck to dig up the tomb, so the government is not doing it.

There it was again. Luck. Does belief in it really play a role in determining minor government policy like this? Or perhaps even major ones? In India there are rumours of various prime ministers having consulted astrologers on policy. Does the notion of luck play the same role in China?

The grand mosque of Xi’an

A city which has been a capital for centuries tends to accrete interesting monuments. This is true of Rome, Kyoto, and Paris. A city which has been an imperial capital for long also has cross-cultural monuments. Delhi is the pre-eminent among these, but Xi’an, at one end of the Silk Route, is also very interesting. Among these, the most interesting has to be the Grand Mosque of Xi’an.

It stands in a warren of streets behind the Drum Tower of Xi’an, its location indicated by a small road sign in English which you can easily miss. If you follow the sign you enter a bazaar full of tourist tat. Walk past them, and after some time you are near the East Gate of the mosque.

carving

The mosque was first built during the T’ang dynasty (around 750 AD) and is strongly influenced by Chinese culture and aesthetics. This makes it different from anything I have seen before. The first difference was that we had to pay to enter. I have never had to pay an entry fee to a mosque, so I guess this counts as a Chinese cultural influence. You enter a courtyard and have to cross two more before you come to the last courtyard with westward facing prayer hall. The buildings all have the tiled roofs with upturned corners of traditional Chinese architecture. There are miniature pagodas and gardens. In most mosques elsewhere in the world you find decorative motifs with flowers and vines only. This has dragons, and turtles at the base of columns.

Perhaps the most disconcerting visual aspect of the mosque is not in the dragons or the tiled roofs, but in the images of plants and leaves. In India, and in most of the rest of the world, decorative figures in Islamic architecture capture symmetries. For example, one marvels at the interleaving of octagonal and hexagonal symmetries of vines and leaves in the friezes of Fatehpur Sikri. In the grand mosque the trees and vines that are depicted follow the asymmetric aesthetic norms of China (see the photo above).

The calligraphy is a mixture of Chinese and Arabic. In the first couple of courtyards I had to search to find the Arabic script. The arches and steles were full of elegant Chinese calligraphy. Only from the third courtyard does one start to see the Arabic script more often. The prayer hall (pictured below) has lovely Arabic calligraphy. To my untrained eye, it seems that there is an attempt here to bind the Chinese calligraphic style within the Arabic.

xianmosque

At first sight the prayer hall seemed like it could belong to any mosque anywhere in the world, but then I saw in places where there would be verses from the Quran there was Chinese calligraphy. Clearly the Quran has been transcribed into Chinese, another cultural innovation which has not recurred in Islam.

The Silk Route shuttled goods, technology and ideas across the known world of its time. I wonder whether it brought Arabs and their Islam to settle in the imperial capital of China, or whether the Chinese converted to Islam elsewhere and brought back the customs of a foreign religion. The architecture of the mosque, and the food habits of the region, a lack of pork and the prevalence of halal meat, could be used to argue for either. However, the range of sweets available in Xi’an seems to indicate an Arabic tradition. Perhaps the persistence of Arabic also points in the same direction. It needs experts to pin this down. I am happy to marvel at the syncretic end product.

The other warriors of Xi’an

Over the last two decades everyone with any interest in travel has become aware of the terracotta army of Xi’an. It is estimated that about 6000 life-size figures were buried, and about 2000 are on display in various places. What I didn’t realize before going to see them is how difficult the process of unearthing them has been. Below you see a photo of one group which is being slowly disinterred. Some time between their construction in 250 BCE and their discovery in 1974, the roof beams had collapsed and mud flowed into the pits. Today the pits are being dug out very slowly, so that the army is not further damaged while being disinterred.

buriedarmy

You can see places where the work has progressed further: a jigsaw of body parts lie together in a jumble, waiting to be pieced together. I guess each figure must lead to the thesis work of an archaeology student doing his doctoral work. When you see the numbers of statues in various stages of being pieced together, you realize that there must be an army of archaeologists at work, along with students and post-doctoral fellows. This must be a really thriving branch of modern Chinese archaeology.

fallenarmy

You can see some statues which are almost at the last stages of being pieced together. A careful look reveals the painstaking solution to a massive jigsaw puzzle. I wonder what happens at the last stage, where one goes from this cracked piece of pottery to the lifelike figures which are most familiar to the world at large.

epiphany2015

Whatever the process, I think these archaeologists are the new warriors of Xi’an. And they have a task no other army has ever done before: to bring back to life a forgotten and buried army.

A first walk in Beijing

birdsnest

The first working day in Beijing was shot because of our late arrival the previous night. I woke in time to get a few things done in the morning, but felt sleepy all afternoon. Finally, I decided to call it a day at four. This is not too early by Beijing standards, where people go to work early, so creating traffic jams at 5 in the morning, and leave a little after five.

Instead of falling asleep at an odd hour we decided to go for a walk at the Olympic plaza. Everyone alive probably remembers the iconic stadiums as a TV staple during the 2008 Beijing olympics: the bird’s nest (above) and the water cube (below). If you look at travel photos at all, you will find wonderful shots of these structures aglow with lights at night. Looking at these photos I’d wondered whether the structures look equally good during the day. Here was our opportunity to check it out.

watercube

We reached a couple of hours before sunset. The vast and windy plaza was full of people. We walked up the plaza to the stadia. They looked beautiful in the light of the setting sun. The bird’s nest is to the east of the plaza, and is illuminated by the sun as it sets. The water cube is to the west, and the setting sun shines through it. Ai Weiwei, the chinese artist, apparently was retained by the architectural firm of Herzog et de Meuron to advise on the design of the bird’s nest. The water cube is a marvel of modern architecture, especially in its use of innovative materials. The two were placed together to reflect traditional Chinese cosmology, so the east-west orientation of the two must be planned.

We will go back again to photograph them at night. The Family also wants to go inside. With my daily schedule, I may not be able to go with her.

High culture: the Shanghai museum

A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon
A Song dynasty jade carving depicts a cow gazing at the moon

When we came out of the Shanghai Museum, we were happy that we didn’t skip it. The Shanghai that we had seen before was the modern China, the city of engineering marvels. This gave us a glimpse of the other China: the old civilization that developed across the Himalayas from us.

The museum is located in People’s Square, and entry is free. It is worthwhile to take an audio guide for RMB 40. The museum classifies its collection by form: furniture, bronze, jade, calligraphy, painting, and so on. Calligraphy is an art form that is hard to appreciate if you cannot read the script. There are also other sections of the museum that we were not culturally prepared for. What we could appreciate was really well selected. I spent a lot of time in the porcelain, jade and painting galleries. The galleries contain a lot; it would be easy to spend half a day in each. We simply did not have the time.

Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
Detail from an enormous celadon vase; apparently one of the first large celadon ware
There are exquisite pieces of jade. The photo at the top shows a lovely piece whose cultural significance I do not appreciate. The only connection I know between the moon and a cow is through a nursery rhyme, or the song in Lord of the Rings. The porcelain is astonishing. I had not realized how much technology is required to execute porcelain; the development of celadon work required precise high-temperature kilns. I understood later when talking to a modern pottery artist that the state of the art is not very much further advanced. Celadon kilns work at a little over 1200 Celcius. Modern kilns can achieve around 1350 Celcius, but the success rate of firing pottery in these can be as low as 20%.

The art form from China that is perhaps most familiar to all of us is painting. We saw wonderful examples in the Shanghai museum. In addition to the individual pieces, walking through these galleries gave me a first understanding of how the aesthetics of China developed in a direction so different from either the Western or the Indian.

We arrived in the museum early in the morning, when there was absolutely no queue to enter. When we left at 1 PM we saw enormous queues, and realized how lucky we had been with the timing of our visit.

A dead white man

Statue of G. A. Carver Marsh (b 13 Aug 1862, d 1st Feb 1934)
Statue of G. A. Carver Marsh (b 13 Aug 1862, d 1st Feb 1934)

Dead white men, dead white males, or dead white
European males (DWEM) are the famous deceased
European males that are often the focus of
academic studies of history and Western culture.
(Wikipedia)

Nilgiri teas are the least aromatic of the Indian teas. On our trip to Valparai I kept coming across the various ways in which the plantations which grow this insipid leaf had devastated the rain-forests of the Nilgiris. We stayed in a bungalow built for the manager of one of these estates, so I keep my complaints a little muted.

But as we left Valparai and began on the 40 hairpin bends which cross the Anamallais, The Family spotted a viewpoint with this statue. Had we found the culprit: the man responsible for this ecological devastation, the Hitler of the hills? The inscription at the base of the statue identified the man as G. A. Carver Marsh. Clearly famous in his lifetime, his memory is slowly fading. I am unable to find his full name. And of the many things he must have been known for in his lifetime, I can only find the following reference in the book Madras Miscelleny by Muthaiah S., “The Anamallais may have been opened up by G. A. Carver Marsh, perhaps the only pioneering planter remembered in South India by a statue (at a road bend near his Paralai estate) but it was three planters from Ceylon, E. J. Martin, O. A. Bannantine and Unwin Maclure, who first planted tea there”.

Such is fame. All the blame I was laying on this dead man must now be redistributed. When you dig deeper, you see that coffee plantations predated tea in this region. So perhaps the blame gets diluted further.

Even such a clear case of devastation cannot be traced back cleanly to a single original cause. The best one can say now it that it was the economics of a mercantile empire which destroyed this region. What then is Mr. Carver Marsh to be remembered for?

Mysterious Mitawali

The approach road to Mitawali temple, seen from the hill

Somewhere between Gwalior and the Chambal River, off National Highway 3, in the middle of nowhere, is the serene temple of Mitawali. Why do I say in the middle of nowhere? Because even 10 kilometers away, villagers give you blank looks when you ask about this place. We learnt to ask for Morena and Thekari, and drive slowly, keeping an eye out for the completely missable signs. Our attempt to find this place was not helped by the dense fog two winters ago, and the fact that the driver ignored the GPS and got lost inside an industrial area just outside Gwalior.

Eventually we saw an isolated hill with a flat structure on top. Preciousss, who was the only one who had bothered to look at the photos on the web was certain that we had found the place. We drove towards it, and found that we had to leave the tarred road at some point and go on to a dirt track. This track ends at the bottom of the hill. As you can see from the view above, the only road leading to the hill is a dirt track. At least the road was better than the reports we had read of it.

External view of the Mitawali temple

At the top is a strange temple: flat and round, unlike any temple we had seen before. There seems to be a family taking care of the structure. They keep it locked up and open the door for tourists. There is some speculation that the structure was copied in the architecture of the parliament building. There is no evidence for this, and it seems to be a traveller’s tale which joins up the circular shape of this temple with the only other famous Indian building which is circular. When you read that the temple originally had shikharas, the connection with the parliament does seem far-fetched.

The temple is almost bare of decorations, unlike most Indian temples. Around the middle of every major pillar on the outside is a small decorative carving (as you can see in the photo above). They are very nicely executed, but I did not see anything unique about them. The inside is also equally bare of carvings. Perhaps this started off as a reasonably normal-looking temple, but the interesting carvings were stolen over the centuries.

Internal view of the Mitawali temple

The inside looks even less like a temple. The outer circle contains cells: sixty four according to some; I’m afraid I did not count them. They look like bare cells of monks, but may (or may not) have contained idols earlier. Separated from this is an inner circle with what looks like a recognizable inner sanctum (garbhagriha) of a temple. The base of this inner circle is set with intersting carved stone grilles. Could they be meant for drainage? Since there is no other obvious drain, it seems likely.

According to an inscription found here, dated V.S. 1380 (A.D. 1323) the temple was constructed by Maharaja Devapala.
ASI Website

There was no ASI board at the site, so I do not even know how old the temples are (some sources say 9th century, others date it to the 14th century). Some members of the family which stays here claimed that the temple is a thousand years old, but then they also claimed that their family has been here since the temple was founded. The chances of both statements being correct are negligible.

[Note added: The 14th century dating is borne out by the ASI]

Fossil ferns on the stone steps on the climb

Wonderful as the temple is, a discovery on the climb up to it turned out to be as spectacular. The path has been carved into steps, faced with stone blocks which seem to be quarried from the surrounding stone. I saw lovely fossils in these stones. Many of the steps have patterns of ferns and branching leaves. You could be fooled for a moment into thinking that they have been carved there. But then a careful look is enough to convince you that they are really fossils.

Fossil ferns on the stone steps on the climb

There is no way to find out how old the steps are, although the workmanship and wear suggests a recent origin. If the stone was quarried in the same hill, a very likely supposition, unfortunately, then perhaps the hill is full of fossils. The exposed stone on the climb is clearly not igneous, consisting instead of almost perfectly horizontal strata. So perhaps the hill is full of fossils. There are so many mysteries about this place, and so little seems to be documented.

The general lawlessness around this area had allowed the nearby temples of Bateswar to be lost, until perhaps a decade ago. Is the family in residence in the Mitawali temple actually in legal residence, or have they occupied the place? Is this even a protected monument? If so, which part is protected?

[Note added: The ASI website suggests that this is a protected monument under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India]