A long and winding meal

The Family and I eventually ended the meal with spiced figs and ice cream. I’ve grown averse to ice cream in recent years, but the wait staff was flexible enough to get the ice cream in a separate bowl. The Family puts up with this quirk, especially since she does not consider having to finish my share of the ice cream to be a tiresome chore. The dried figs in molasses was the wonderful deep dark brown that you see in the featured photo. In the few days that we spent in Kochi I grew to love this dark brown taste of sweet molasses. I’m sure it is bad for me, so maybe I’ll eat it only in Kochi.

The route to this bit of sweetness was long. The last bit involved fish. I love the thick coconutty sauce that this always comes in. But this sauce was somewhat special. The slivers of deep fried onions was not something I’d ever seen in this curry before. I wonder why. It goes so well with this that you would expect it to become a regular way to do it. Perhaps it will. Until it does, you’ll have to seek out this harbour-side restaurant in Fort Kochi, or reconstruct it from the photo that you see above.

But wait, that wasn’t all. Before that was the Malabar biryani. Like the dried figs, the idea of a biryani probably came eastweards over the Indian ocean, but here the delicate herbs of the middle east were replaced by the aromatic spices of Kerala. When people talk of biryani these days it is the offspring of the court dishes, the Lucknowi and Hyderabadi versions, which get all the press. I find them a little on the heavy side, and the Hyderabadi, at least in today’s version, is far too full of chilis to suit me. The Malabar biryani retains its charming authenticity, perhaps because it was never a royal dish. In my book it rivals the home-cooked charm of Bohra biryani.

But before we started in on the highlands of Malabari food, we’d sat down in a breezy arbor next to the waterway that separates Kochi from Willingdon island. The day was sunny, and the thought of a cooler was attractive. Scanning the menu, I saw that the place had its own ginger ale. Having just passed a warehouse full of dried ginger, I figured this might be interesting. The Family ordered a lime and ginger combination. They turned out to be just the right things to ease us on the long and winding road to the figs.

An odd bird

While birding in Hampi, I was so focused on a few new species that I didn’t remember taking these photos of the Indian robin (Copsychus fulicatus). It remains common in ruins and edgelands around towns, but rare in both parks and open spaces inside towns, and in dense jungle. In any case I’d seen it so often that I pointed my camera at it, took photos, and forgot about it until I went through my photos later. Then I realized that I’d caught my best photos yet of the southern variety of these birds. The shiny dark back is so much more attractive than the khaki and brown of the north Indian variety. The bird is slender in outline, and this plump shape is probably a territorially aggressive display by a male. Typically I would identify a male by a white patch on the shoulder, which I don’t see here. Perhaps it is hidden when the bird fluffs up. In any case, the bird is so common that I seldom give it much attention.

But perhaps I should, because of a long back story. Most African songbird groups evolved in the northern part, and migrated southwards in eras when forests expanded. Then, when forests contracted again, some of the isolated populations evolved into different species. Successive pulses of expanding forests led to songbird lineages populating Africa from north to south. In several of these lineages one can also trace the founding population to a migration event from Asia and India into Africa, over the Indian Ocean, through the Seychelles, and the “Lemurian” islands, which emerge in eras when the climate is dry and the ocean is low. The Indian robin is a different story. A molecular genetics study reveals that the small group of related birds in the African genus Erythropygia and their Asian relatives in genus Copsychus are odd birds indeed. These non-migratory birds have made the reverse journey from southern Africa to north, and then out of Africa to Asia. A whole clade inside Copsychus, including C. fulicatus, started with this unusual migration in the early Neogene. This is definitely an odd story, first pulished in 2014. I look forward to seeing either verification or dispute in future. In the meanwhile, I look at the Indian robin with more interest.

Who goes there?

The Virupaksha temple in Hampi is said to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom whose capital eventually surrounded it. The Archaeological Survey puts the earliest dating of the temple to about four centuries before the beginning of the kingdom, but says that most of the structures were built by the Vijayanagara kings. There are two east facing gopura, the outer one having been built in the time of Deva Raya II, in the mid 15th century CE, the inner during the reign of Krishnadeva Raya, in the early 16th century. Armed with a quick reading of the Survey’s booklet on Hampi, I inspected the pavilion on the right of the outer gopuram; it is supposed to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom. I am no expert, so I tried to educate myself by examining the pillars whose style is evidence of its earlier age. If you are confused about which of the pavilions is older, just ask for the one called the new pavilion. That’s so obvious, isn’t it?

The outer gopuram is quite impressive. I noticed beautiful Vijayanagara style relief on its base. The lovely panel with a horse caught my eye, as did one with an elephant. The small blackstone triple Nandi just inside the gate caught my eye. It was the night of the new moon in November, and a minor festival was on. The inner courtyard was lit with diyas, and was really crowded. It was a good time for people watching.

Some people had settled down for the evening and had begun on dinner. Others were clearly here for a short time, and would go back home soon. The visitors spanned a large income range, if one was to judge people by their clothes. There were priests and pilgrims; the latter being men in black dhotis. I had opportunity for much ambush photography. Take a look at the variety of people I saw.

Kochi looks west

Kerala, and large parts of the west coast, has surfed the waves of history throughout its recorded, umm, history. And it has done this admirably, absorbing foreign influences into a seamless culture. Trade with the middle east brought Judaism, and then Christianity over a thousand years ago, coffee and Islam a little before China’s treasure fleets. Spices and gems from the interior of the Deccan kept bringing the world back. The Indian diaspora began here, and the fruits of diasporic wealth and thought are visible everywhere. Walking through the streets of Fort Kochi, the crumbling spice district reminds you not only of this past, but also, constantly, the mutating present.

Today, Kerala looks further west than it ever did before. My auto threaded through the Brazilian football team riding the streets of Kerala on bicycles. I only managed to get a shot of Neymar Jr. Fenandinho and Costa were on the other side of the auto, so I didn’t manage to get their photos. Months of TV punditry have been spent on analyzing why Brazil remains the favourite team in Kochi and Kolkata. When you walk through the narrow winding streets of Kochi the answer stares you in the face. “I have a dream,” every jersey says.

I came across another expression of the same dream one brilliant afternoon as I walked along the spice bazaar photographing the ephemeral street art of this newly emerging art city. A knot of youngsters stood in front of a dilapidated building. The walls of the house were bright with street art. I had to take a look.

The door was worth taking a photo of. The colossal struggle whose end was proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama three decades ago is still waged out of little places such as this. The medieval era peasant struggles of China which ended the Mongol rule, the century old revolutions in Latin America, the convulsions across today’s world as parliamentary democracy is subverted from inside (yet again) finds a classic expression on these doors. The challenge of finding a better form of government has not ended.

I peeped into the little bare office. The influences were clear: 1917 and 1967. The better government of the future may not, probably will not, take the form that these people arrived at, but history has reopened the question after 1991. The youngsters smiled at me and we had a little chat about the carrom board with its makeshift chairs. The place was as much a social club as a party office. I’d lost my opportunity to take photos of them. They were too conscious of my probing camera now. I walked on, Fort Kochi had more to offer.

The wary mongoose

I was introduced to the Indian grey mongoose (Herpestes edwardsi) by Rudyard Kipling’s collection called The Jungle Book. Soon after I saw one scurrying through bushes. Over the years I’ve seen them scuttling around human habitation, while being extremely wary of humans. When I was a child I’d once seen one of them battling a snake. What I remember of that tussle is that it darts about a lot. The common story of it being immune to snake venom is not completely wrong, but its main defense is exactly what I saw, extreme agility. Its stiff gray hair and loose skin is another line of defense against a snake’s fangs. But in all these years, it was only now, sitting inside a hide in the outskirts of Hampi, that I had my best view ever of this secretive animal.

Mongooses are a very diverse group of species. The 33 known species fall into 14 genera within the family Herpestidae. The Indian grey mongoose is in genus Herpestes along with 9 others of its cousins. It is said to be of least concern for conservation purposes. Perhaps because these intelligent and inquisitive creatures have colonized the edgelands and learnt how to utilize the trash left by humans. They are opportunistic eaters, said to eat almost any animal smaller than itself. Here I saw it pluck a banana off a post where it had been kept for birds, and carry it off to one side of the clearing. It was bold when it thought it wasn’t being watched. But as soon as one of my companions snapped off a series of loud shots with a camera, it looked around warily at the noise. We were well hidden, but it still carried its food off under some trees.

But its inquisitiveness kept bringing it back. Its favourite spot was on top of a flat stone where the morning sun illuminated it well and gave me a good opportunity to take lots of photos. It sunned itself, scratched its fur, brushed out its tail with the white patch at the tip, but never settled down to some sunbathing. It is too wary and cautious to sleep in the open. Good for me, I thought, since I managed to take several shots of it in leisurely activity. I like the photo above, with a hind paw raised to scratch itself with.

Red Adavadats

I thought this was a lifer, since I would have remembered seeing such a colourful bird before. But apparently it wasn’t. The name red avadavat (Amandava amandava) or red munia rang a bell, and it turned out that we’d first seen it almost a decade ago. It is very common after all. Still, having forgotten it completely, I will consider this sighting of one resting on a cactus at least partly a lifer. For purposes of identification, one has to remember that the bill can change colour, and turns from an orange yellow to a bright red to a dark brown or black according to season. I wondered whether this is due to a changing diet. But then birds which are bright red often are sexually dimorphic, with the female a bright yellow. That is certainly true of this bird. So the change in colour could also be due to the activation or disactivation of a gene. By the time I took a photo of the male, the female had hidden itself, and came out in the open only fleetingly.

This one inspected the surroundings from its perch high up on the cactus, and then, only after figuring out that the coast was clear, did it descend to the ground. It feeds on grass seeds, and was not attracted to the grains that had been left outside the hide I sat on. I mentally cheered, because its behaviour cannot be manipulated simply by leaving grains out in the open. Why did it visit then? Random chance, or because the company of many other feeding birds can help to warn it against preddators even when it is not looking?

The palace temple

I was jaded when I walked into the Hazara Rama (or Hajara Rama) temple in Hampi, but this little jewel box instantly brought me to life. We saw it very briefly late one afternoon and decided to come back the next morning. This was one of the best decisions we’d made, because the morning’s sunlight was beautiful on the granite which was the material of choice for builders in the Vijayanagara empire. The temple is in a square enclosure in one corner of the royal palace area. As we reached the eastern entrance (photo above) I realized how lucky we were with the light.

The Vijayanagara architectural style is modest. Like all medieval Tamil temples, they are part stone and part brick. The stone structure is a flat roof supported by pillars. The Vijayanagara pillars are moderately slender, with a slenderness ratio of 12, broken into two boxy pieces joined by slender necks. The boxes are canvases for the lovely low-relief sculpture which Hampi is famous for. The roof may carry a brick shikhara (spire) decorated with clay images. The temple plans are simple: a square sanctum, with surrounding bays (ardha mandapa) and further recesses. Often, the general impression is that a circle is filled in with a series of squares. In Vijayanagara, there are always separate mandapas (pavilions) for the goddess, which may obscure this plan. This temple contains all these elements, as I discovered as I walked around it. The photo above is of the northern porch, and shows one of the side mandapas scrunched into the courtyard. Perhaps it was a later addition.

The pillars in the eastern ardha mandapa were made of polished blackstone. This was so unusual that I wondered whether it had been brought from elsewhere, but a culture which has the tools to sculpt granite will probably be able to polish the softer blackstone. A wonderfully informative booklet from the Archaeological Society of India, available with every vendor who pursues you through Hampi, tells us that Hajararama should not be confused with the Hindi Hazara Rama (which would mean a thousand Ramas), but actually comes from the Telugu Hajaramu (meaning audience hall). The blackstone reliefs show Vishnu in many aspects. The depiction of Vishnu as Kalki, seated on a horse (photo above) was unusual and caught my eye.

Elsewhere I found another unusual depiction of Vishnu, as Buddha. By the medieval period the absorption of Buddhism into Hinduism in India would have been far advanced, but finding this image here made me wonder about the dating of this temple. Strangely enough, with all the literary and epigraphical analyses of Vijayanagara that one can read about, datings of structures are remarkably imprecise. The ASI booklet points out that stylistically it is transitional, with added elements from later, and mentions an epigraph which attributes the temple to Devaraya. There are two Devarayas, the first ruled from 1406 CE to 1422 CE, the second from 1424 CE to 1446 CE. Another epigraph could be interpreted as the name of the queen of the second Devaraya.

The amazing thing about this temple is the profusion of imagery, the beautiful relief work. There are panels which tell the story of the Ramayana, including early chapters such as Dasaratha killing Sharavan Kumar by mistake and then being cursed by his father to living his life without his son. The story of Surpanakha, Rama’s swayamvara, Vali and Sugriva, the abduction of Sita, the war, and the return to Ayodhya are all laid out in carved granite. The clothing, court scenes, and arms tell us much about the times of the Vijayanagara empire. I was also charmed by the little touches: monkeys, elephants, birds. We must have spent well over an hour in this little temple.

One image that stays with me is the one above: a little decoration in a larger panel. I’ve seldom seen knots depicted in temples before. This one, with two snakes intertwined is a nicely complex shape. You can see that each snake can easily wriggle out of the knot. But the shape can be turned into a pretty problem if you imagine each snake curling to bite its own tail. Then you have two circles which seem to be hard to disentangle. Are they really? If each snake bites the other’s tail, can the resulting shape be untangled into a single circle? I spent some happy hours thinking about this, and I leave you with this puzzle, if you like such things.

The Kerala Breudher

When I first heard about a dutch-origin bread called breudher available in exactly one bakery in Fort Kochi, I was very intrigued. I noted down the name of the bakery; a very forgettable name, Quality Bakery. On Christmas Eve The Family and I walked down there to look for a loaf of the bread. Business was brisk. A warm bready smell filled the place, and hot bread was selling like, umm, hot cake. It was a while before my turn came. I spent the wait taking photos of the very creamy cakes that they had on display. It turned out that breudher is made only on weekends, or to order. Luckily they could make a single loaf. We paid an advance and agreed to come by the next day at about the same time to pick it up.

Wikipedia notes that breudher (pronounced broo-dhuh) is found in Sri Lanka, Malacca, and Kochi. Digging a little further into this story I found more information in a book on the history of Asian cooking. Charmaine Solomon, who migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka, apparently popularized this bread in her adoptive country in the 1970s. Her father’s family was Dutch, but settled in Sri Lanka in 1714. Her mother’s family was Tamil, but with Irish, Dutch and Goan blood thrown in. Her husband was a Jew from Malacca. Although Wikipedia’s description of breudher as being derived from “a Dutch cake traditionally eaten at New Year” is taken verbatim from one of Solomon’s books, the bread perhaps has a history as convoluted as Solomon’s family.

When I went to pick up my order on the evening of Christmas day, there was no other customer at the bakery. One of the brothers who ran the place (featured photo) disappeared upstairs to bring the bread while the other chatted with me about how bad business had been in the past year. Unfortunately we spoke each other’s languages too badly for me to interview him about how they came by the recipe. The breudher looked like a loaf of plain bread, smelling mildly of spices. I was a little disappointed that it hadn’t been baked in a fancy mold. But all the disappointment vanished when I bit into a slice. The yeasty, spicy, sweet bread was not a taste that I’d encountered before. Do I now have to travel to Sri Lanka and Indonesia to taste their versions of this bread? I wouldn’t mind it at all.

The last temple

We walked up the central avenue of what is today called the Sulai bazaar to the Achyutaraya temple. During the time of Achyuta Deva Raya (1530-42 CE), when this was built, the bazaar was called Achyutapete, and the temple was called after its deity, Tiruvangalanatha. The shops in the bazaar were well-ordered, placed in cubicles that line the avenue. We reached the area by walking along a paved route by the southern bank of the Tungabhadra. The axis of the temple faces due north, to the river. To its west is the Mathanga hill, from which a path leads down, and behind the complex, to the south, is the Gandhamadhana hill.

As we came to the main gateway, the gopuram, it became clear what a grand temple this was. There were two gateways leading in, so there must have been two rectagular prakaras completely surrounding the temple. Inside the inner rectangle we could see the ornate outer maha-mandapa. One of the characteristics of the Vijayanagara style is the brick and mortar super-structure over the granite gateway. Religious architecture tries to build upwards, and the southern Indian style has been to build impressively tall gopura surrounding significantly lower temples. Although much of the upper brick structure of this temple is now gone, we could see the ruins of this style here.

Only fragments of the outer prakara now remain. The inner prakara seemed quite complete, as you can see in the photo above. Apart from the northern gate, which we entered by, it has gates to the east and west. From a path worn through the grass it is clear that a large number of people reach the temple by climbing down from the Mathanga hill, and entering from the western gopuram. Interestingly, the worn trace of human feet leads straight from the western gate to the northern. So it seems that most visitors just come for a walk, and not to see the still-beautiful ruins of this once-grand temple.

I’ve remarked on the oddities of Vijayanagara architecture before: for example the roughly dressed stones of imperial works versus the perfectly shaped blocks seen in temples. Another oddity is the change in the slenderness of pillars. The early Vijayanagara temples had pillars with slenderness ratio of 20, about the best that you can do with stone. Tis late era temple had pillars with slenderness ratio of about 6, comparable to Stonehenge! I don’t know what caused this change. But these squat pillars present a large surface for the low relief sculpture that you see everywhere in Hampi. These have a preoccupation with certain themes: yogis and dancers, elephants and cows, chimeras and ducks, celestial dancers and scenes from daily life.

One reason could be the landscape forced architects to work with granite. Granite is one of the hardest of stones, and requires corundum or diamond to work it. Vijayanagara had extensive diamond mines, so finding flawed diamonds to sculpt stone with may have been possible, but cutting and shaping it would have been hard, even with high quality steel. Materials could easily have shaped the architectural style. As I was lost in these thoughts, The Family spotted a pair of spotted owlets (Athena brama) nesting in the hollows in the brickwork of the gopura. The light was beginning to fail, but the owlets still looked sleepy. Sadly we could not finish exploring the full complex; we did not visit the shrine to the goddess at the back, preferring to go back before it became completely dark.

On the way out I paused to take a photo of the outer gopuram. Even without its top, it looked really impressive in this last light of the day. You can see the ruins of the orderly rows of shops in the Sulai bazaar beyond it. There was a guard outside, excitedly telling everyone who passed by about a leopard which he’d just come face to face with. It didn’t look like he was telling a story to hurry visitors away, and in any case we were in open country near a protected forest. Even if he had made up the story, the lack of lighting in this area was enough to drive us away.

Reflections in a flooded temple

The ruins of Vijayanagara are still being excavated in Hampi. Among the buildings which have been excavated is a structure only known as the large underground Shiva temple. A flight of modern steps leads down to the level of the temple. Since it was buried, the superstructures have disappeared, and not been recovered. Around the main corridor leading to the inner sanctum are the usual pavilions. This has been a year of heavy rainfall. So the water table was high when we visited, and many parts were not reachable. The Nandi statue which faces the innermost sanctum of a Shiva temple was partly under water, so we could not proceed. In spite of the smell of bats, the stagnant water, the gloomy light, the temple had a charming atmosphere.

The Archaeological Survey of India’s booklet on Hampi describes this as an early-type construction because of the shape of the pillars: a square base with an octagonal body. What struck me as interesting here is how slender the columns are. Engineers are fond of quoting a measure called the slenderness ratio, which is essentially the height divided by the diameter of a column. I estimated that this pillar has a slenderness ratio of about 20. This is about the same as that of Cleopatra’s Needles in Paris or London, or the wonderful late 12th century CE Chola temple of Airavateshwara near Kumbakonam. If this is indeed an early temple, perhaps 14th century CE, then it is possible that the thrid or fourth generation descendants of artisans from the Chola heartland further south came here to build this temple. To my eye it seemed that later architecture in Hampi built higher, but had lost the technique of building slender. It would be interesting to try to correlate the slenderness of columns with independent dating of structures in Hampi.