Two views of the Golden Temple

Marble inlay work in Harmandir Sahib

The founding of Amritsar is counted from 1577 CE, the date of the digging of the lake, Amrit Sarovar, at the behest of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. A few years later Harmandir Sahib was first constructed in the lake, connected by a single causeway. His successor, Guru Arjun, placed a copy of the Adi Granth in it in the year 1604 CE. During the years when the Sikhs were in conflict with the Mughals the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure comes from 1830 CE, when the Khalsa emperor, Ranjit Singh, had the marble and gilded copper temple built.

I’d expected to spend a long time in the area, trying to figure out the best light and angles. But I was lucky with the light. Sunset, and perhaps sunrise, are the best light for photography, and my first visit happened to be at this hour. I missed one thing, the daily journey of the Granth Sahib from the Akal Takht to the Harmandir Sahib and back. So there is a reason for me to go back.

Winter’s tales

You don’t have to be standing in this desolate landscape at the roof of the world to be cold this winter. Bleak winter weather has had the western Himalayas in its grip since early in January. The first heavy snowfall attracted Pakistani tourists into a deathtrap in the town of Murree. Things have not been so bad in India, but trekkers reported difficulties in completing their routes. The effects can be felt in Mumbai too. Instead of being comfortable in shorts and a tee, I’m now forced to wear track pants at home. The nearby hill town of Mahabaleshwar twice reported freezing temperatures: zero Celsius. Amazing at an altitude of 1.3 kilometers in the tropics.

Instead of moaning about not being able to visit the Himalayas yet again, I looked for murder mysteries set in extreme cold. I’ve had a surfeit of Nordic noir recently. So when I saw a book which was touted as a worthy successor to Gorky Park, I picked it up. Disappointing, I thought, when I was part of the way through. But the story recalled the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 during the siege of Leningrad. So I finished the rest of the book with Shostakovich playing in my ear buds, and an unending supply of tea at hand. Not exactly a replacement for a walk in the mountains, but what can you do in an Omicron winter? I would have preferred a re-read of John Grimwood’s Moskva. Maybe I can still do it.

This would have been a good year to sit through long concerts of classical music. This is the music season in Mumbai, but the pandemic has put a stop to that. I’ve only heard one live performance in the last two years; that was by Ustad Rashid Khan earlier this year. It looks like Omicron will burn itself out soon, and perhaps there will be time for some music before spring sets in and I finally get to an altitude of 5 kilometers above where I sit. But one doesn’t know. The La Nina winter will shift the west Pacific typhoon nursery westwards, so the east coast of Asia will probably have more rain and storms. Will it affect the weather in the mountains?

The circles of my life

One exposure lasts about a hundredth of a second. Maybe ten times longer. Perhaps ten times shorter. But the objects that are captured by the motion of electrons in the sensor may have lasted a century. That is 300,000,000,000 times longer, give or take a zero. Does it matter if the thing you are photographing is a thousand years old instead? Or only a decade old? Just give or take a zero at the end of those 11 others.

I saw a bubble released by a child, undulating across the sky, trying to achieve that perfect spherical shape in the short life time that it had. Was its shape more important than the shimmer of colour across its surface?

A scatter of painted oil drums outside an artist’s studio was a work in progress. Did I steal his work, misappropriate it by taking a photo before he could pin down his own vision? Would it have been morally different if I’d waited a few years and then taken a photograph which imposed my vision over his?

Catherine Opie said that sunsets and sunrises are the biggest cliches in photography. Ansel Adams said that a good photo is knowing where to stand. Henri Cartier-Bresson said sharpness is a bourgeois concept. David Lynch said that no matter what you mean, everyone is going to get something different from it.

Is an eclipse the shadow of one sphere passing over another? Or is it a rabbit being swallowed by a snake? In your imagination does it matter which is true? Nothing is written in stone, is it?

These photos were taken over three years and six thousand kilometers: a fraction of my life. They share one quality. They are inanimate circular objects which seemed beautiful to me at the time I took the photos. Now I wonder what I captured, the object, or the state of my mind?

Cheesecake

“Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” Freud is said to have said. In the same way, this attractive cheesecake is only cheesecake.

I took this photo two weeks ago, when we met a friend in a deserted restaurant for lunch. I’m happy that this Lebanese restaurant has continued to produce good food even after two years of scarce diners. I saw that there was only one other table occupied for lunch on a weekend. The omicron wave was just beginning then, on the first Sunday of January. “This won’t be good for business,” I thought to myself.

I scanned the menu and the rose flavoured cheesecake seemed to be the most interesting dessert. Not only was the flavour interesting, the cake was also light enough to round off a long lunch. The brass plate, the rosy dessert, the light, everything looked like a photo would come out well. So for once I remembered to take a photo before digging into the food.

For the last two weeks the wave of infections, now tens of thousands of new cases daily in the city, has kept people at home. Traffic has thinned out, shops and restaurants barely have customers. The number of new infections may be levelling off, but the number of deaths has just started increasing; it takes two weeks or more for critical cases to resolve. Hospitalization rates have been low, since the city is almost fully vaccinated. So one expects that deaths will be much lower than in previous waves. That is what the vaccine was meant to do. Nice to know that it is working.

Bling

Merriam-Webster defines bling \ˈbliŋ\ first as flashy jewelry worn especially as an indication of wealth or status, but adds on the broader definition as expensive and ostentatious possessions. We didn’t visit Amritsar to look for things which you can find in any market in any city, but you could not miss the bling. I suppose some people would think that covering a building with gold foil is bling, but we shall excuse the excesses of the past. It is the everyday bling of the middle class that I find especially fascinating. Not just to you and me, but also to a slew of brilliant film makers and cinematographers [1, 2, 3] who defined the look of post-Bollywood-blockbuster 21st century movies.

We’d planned one morning’s walk through the city to take us through parts where we could do some shopping. These streets were lined with shops selling clothes and jewellery. I followed The Family into one which was recommended. After some sensory overload, I took to viewing the street through my phone. Not only easier on the confused eyes, but also fodder for a blog post. It left me free to wonder about the relationship between bling and kitsch (apart from the interesting fact that a person called Kitsch acted in a movie called Bling).

Narrow lanes, wide doors

We lost ourselves in the narrow lanes that lead northwest from the Golden Temple. It is said that Guru Arjun Singh’s favourite spot to view the temple from was a place called Darshani Deori. What he saw in the late 16th century CE would have been very different. It would be another two hundred and fifty years before the present marble and gold building of the Harmandir Sahib would come to be. Nor was Amritsar then a walled city, with houses built up cheek by jowl, and the sky over Darshani Deori reduced to slivers visible over narrow lanes. He would perhaps have looked over open slopes to a small temple in the middle of a lake built by his predecessor, Guru Ramdas.

We’d been looking for the Gurudwara Guru ka Mahal. It marks a spot full of Sikh history. Guru Ramdas, the fourth of the Gurus, stayed in this place while the lake of Amrit Sarovar was dug, so laying the foundation of Amritsar. Guru Arjun, his successor, was married at this place, as was Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the line. Two of Guru Hargobind’s sons, Baba Atal Rai and Guru Teg Bahadur, who became the ninth of the Gurus, were born here. The storied Gurudwara was a little hard to find, until we spotted a sign pointing to a narrow alley which was an approach road.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the time of Ranjit Singh’s empire and the later British takeover, when Amritsar became a walled city, this neighbourhood must have been desirable.The building at the head of the lane was festooned with electrical wires slung every which way, but had an impressive arched doorway, with an immense ceremonial door which had a minor door for everyday use set into it. Above this entranceway was a grand, but decaying, edifice of intricately carved wood. In the post-Mughal, pre-British times, this was a style which seems to have been adopted widely in western India. If I was an art historian, I would have been able to notice the difference between the woodwork of the Khalsa Raj and the Marathas. Sadly, I don’t have those skills.

As I walked down the lane to the Gurudwara, I stopped at every door, taking photos. Right outside the Gurudwara was a later building (you see a part of it in the featured image, and more of it in the gallery above). This had more of a British influence in its construction, but still retained an elaborate wooden balcony. I wished I had more time to spend in this neighbourhood. Maybe another year.

Inside a fig

The edible fig (Ficus carica) was among the first domesticated plants. Their remains, older than 11,000 years, from Jordan tell us that they were used before any of the grains that gave us farming. Between then and 2500 years ago, when Aristotle and Theophrastus opened up figs and described them, many others must have looked carefully at the inside of a fig. So my photos must be the most recent in a long human history of marveling at a thing that we mistakenly call a fruit.

It is an inflorescence, a bunch of flowers turned inside out. When you cut it open you see a pale colored wall, the syconium, on the outside. From this a bunch of female flowers grow inwards. In the photos you can see their long stems attached to the syconium wall. The ovaries of the flower have an organ called the style, some are long, the others short. The long-styled ones (yellow in the photos, shown selectively coloured in the photo on the right, above) can be pollinated to produce fruit. The opening that you always see in the outer wall of the syconium allows entry to fig wasps (Blastophaga psenes) which do the pollination.

About 60 million years ago, just before the time that India had begun to break away from the super-continent of Gondwanaland, these wasps had begun to evolve an unique lifestyle. They began to breed inside the short-styled flowers. So now each inflorescence is home to these wasps. Pollinating wasps come and go, leaving the mother and males to breed inside. A new generation is raised by the time the fruits are ripe, and the parents die inside and are digested by the plant’s enzymes. You won’t see any wasp parts in my photos.

A nice thing about food photography is that you can eat what you photographed. The fig was ripe, juicy, and sweet. The slightly crunchy parts were the achenes, the true fruits.

Amritsari Kitsch

Kitsch finds a hearty welcome in rural Punjab. Every time I’ve driven through the Punjabi countryside I’ve seen it with my own eyes: two storeyed houses with a giant concrete eagle perched on top, a house sporting a helicopter as a headdress, a water tank shaped like an elephant in full ceremonial regalia, a roadside dhaba announced by fibreglass dragons. In cities this is toned down to mere bling. But not entirely.

Surely it is kitsch when a flower stall displays a large bouquet of plastic flowers among the roses and marigolds? Or when the window display at a restaurant leaves you confused about what might be on the menu? Glad to see a warm Punjabi heart beating in there.

Gardens

My plan to take a walk in the garden this weekend came to nothing. We had a scare; a work contact tested positive for COVID. On Saturday we took an appointment for a test, and began to isolate. On Sunday night we found we were negative. Relief and frustration were the theme of the weekend. Relief at escaping the infection once again, and frustration about my plans for flower photography. So I had to search my hard disk for old images.

The featured image and the one above were taken in 2013 in Shillong’s Lady Hydari Park at the very end of October. The flowers are beginning to dry up. Photography made me begin to look closer at nature, and these photos marked a turning point for me. After looking at these flowers I found myself reading more about the structure of flowers. Each of these things, which I had taken to be a single flower should be properly called a pseudanthium, or a compound flower. Each is a collection of many flowers. It turns out that the lovely red and pink “petals” are each a complete flower. They are called ray flowers. Each of the central yellow flowers is also a complete flower and is called a disk flower. Single flowers only ever have three, four, five or six petals. Anything else is a compound flower.

I skip forty years

Lewis Carroll

I can hardly hope to match Carroll’s nonsense, but I skip four years to the next photo. It was taken on a rainy day early in October on the Kaas plateau. The plateau is full of plants which can’t be found anywhere else, and most of them flower in a week or two at the end of the monsoon. What I makes this image special to me is neither the flower, nor the whorls of hairy leaves which protect it, but the way the hairs prevented the rain water from wetting the plant . On this plateau, which is dry for nine months of the year, you can be sure that this is an adaptation which has survival value.

The next one is not a particularly beautiful flower, but three things give it a value to me. First, that it was the first flower I photographed after emerging from last year’s hard lockdown. Simple pleasures like walking in a garden seemed so unusual! I had only my mobile phone with me. But these phone cameras can now capture the delicacy of the light. That’s the second special thing about this photo: that the lovely mild colours were taken with a phone camera. And third, this is another kind of a not-so-simple flower. The large “petals” are modified leaves, and the real flower is the small five-petalled yellow thing.

This set of three images of the same flower come from the new camera I bought last year. It’s a great tool for flower identification. As I began to learn more about flowers I realized that identifying wild flowers is much easier when you pay attention to the whole plant. That’s why a wider view like the first is useful. But when you go close, those details require focus stacking; the image on the left is a composite with several different focal lengths. It also needed a digital equivalent of an ND filter to even out the light across the photo. The middle is a crop with one of the exposures, chosen to keep the focus on the yellow pollen sacs. The final photo is a closer crop of another exposure, which emphasizes the soft texture of the petals, and the way they repel the rain.

I wish I’d been able to walk out into a garden this weekend, but dipping into these old photos, especially viewing them in the different ways suggested by multiple challenges, was also quite a treat for me. It’s also a nice way to say thanks to people who have been trying to create communities from bloggers.

Some dhabas and restaurants in Amritsar

Amritsar is a food lover’s destination, as I wrote in an earlier post, when I took you on a tour of its street food. I’ve also written about the langar ka khana at the Golden Temple. Let me whisk you through lunch and dinner today. Our stay was too short for us to try out a larger number of places. I had short listed a few eateries before starting, based on reading other travelers’ stories, but it was too long. Coincidentally, a couple we know were traveling at the same time, and, by exchanging notes with them, we eliminated a couple of places where their experience was not so good, or very close to what we had already tried. We didn’t only go by what other travelers recommended though. There’s nothing like the advise of locals, and we incorporated them.

Paratha

There are several places which people recommend for parathas, but I’d read about Kesar da Dhaba in old memoirs of Amritsar. It dates from well before Gandhi’s Salt March, and its location in the very atmospheric lanes east of Darshani Deori added to its charm. We wandered through those lanes, and picked up some local achar, before reaching the dhaba. We were not at all disappointed by the butter-soaked parathas and the dal (featured photo). It was not easy to have that plate and finish our superbly creamy lassi. The dal is cooked for twelve hours, we were told, but the paratha is absolutely fresh from the tandoor.

Amritsari Fish

The locals agreed with travelers about Makhan’s Fish. The Amritsari style of fish is either baked in the tandoor or lightly fried. Two kinds of fish are commonly used, Sangara (red snapper) and Sohal, which, I was told, is a local fresh water fish. Our server advised a fried Sangara and a tandoori Sohal. The preparation was typical of genuine Punjabi cooking, light on masala, and emphasizing the freshness of the ingredients. I overdid things a little by adding on a plate of the mutton tikka. This was an amazing dish, the pieces of mutton cooked in ghee until they were soft and melting. The Family went light on the mutton because she wanted to end the dinner with a kulfi. We hadn’t had kulfi in Amritsar before, but I could only have a little taste of their delicate saffron infused version.

Kulchas and Puris

Amritsar Kitchen is not on any traveler’s list, because it opened in early 2020, just before the lockdown. But their food is amazing. The Family had kulchas for breakfast, but I tried out their puris. They came with a choice of one of four accompaniments, but the servers were happy to let me taste all four: the usual potato sabji, another of pumpkin (sweet from the pumpkin and a slight sourness of amchur), one of chana, and one of sprouted moong. Anirudh gave me a taste of something they were trying out: a masala gur. A nice accompaniment.

Paya and mutton paratha

We almost didn’t get to what I consider the high point of this trip, as far as food was concerned: Pal Dhaba. We arrived for dinner on a Tuesday, when it is closed. So we went back for lunch the next day. I’m glad we did. They have a superb paya (goat’s feet, it’s called kharora here). Its rich taste told us that it had been slow cooked for a long time. Another delight was the keema paratha. The old man who served us sat down at the next table and told us about the keema. The minced mutton had been slow cooked till it yielded up its fat, then cooked until it had been absorbed again. I fell in love with it, and ordered a second one. I did not need a dinner that night.

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