In an aluminum cigar

Flying during the night is tiring, and in the day it is boring. I finished a hefty daytime shot of whisky and depolarized a window to look out of the Dreamliner flying from Delhi to Shanghai. Some time earlier The Family had spotted the unmistakable profile of Everest poking out of the northern horizon. Now I looked down to see a network of rivers. A quick look at the flight map verified that we were flying over the floodplains of Bangladesh, a little north of Dhaka. Somewhere down there, if I knew where to look, would be the village where my grandmother was born.

A Dreamliner’s pace can seem slow, until you try to take a photo. Then you realize how quickly features in the landscape eleven kilometers below you slip away. After putting down my beer chaser, I found our path had curved past the Shan highlands of Myanmar towards Qunming. We were more than halfway to Shanghai, and sitting on top of a sea of white clouds. Time to click through the movie menu again.

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Party Office

Kerala encourages a certain romantic view of itself. This picture of the communist party office as a safe place where you can leave children on a Sunday morning while you go to temple or church is one of those, even when its door is locked. The road was not empty by any means. The amma in the shop opposite the office, for example, kept an eagle eye on me as I took the photo. Others smiled as they passed by. It takes a village, of course.

Monsoon flora of Eravikulam National Park

The main reason to go back to Erivakulam National Park again was to see the flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes Kunthiana, in the featured photo), which happens once in 12 years. But this time I remembered to take my macro lens so that I could take a few more photos. I managed to take passable pictures of some of the flowers in the rain. Balancing camera and lens while holding an umbrella and making sure that the optics remains dry was a major challenge though.

I’m able to identify very few flowers down to species level. Some of them I can identify up to genus. Many, especially the small ones, whose flowers lie at the edge of visibility, I could not identify even in my many field guides. Please help out if you are an expert.

The very rare Neelakurinji

The weekend that we spent in Madurai was originally set aside to visit Munnar to watch the rare flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus). Over dinner with old friends we talked about having to cancel the trip to Munnar because of the monsoon flooding of Kerala. One of them suggested that we go to Munnar that weekend since the flood waters had drained away. The Neelakurinji flowers once in twelve years, so this was an attractive proposition. All six of us agreed to take the Friday afternoon off, so that we could fly to Kochi in the evening and drive to Munnar the next morning.

As the designated “naturalist”, I had to brush up on my knowledge of the phenomenon. The Neelakurinji is a grassland flower, as media photos of meadows covered with purple flowers show. But these photos came from earlier flowerings. I was not sure how much damage had been done by this year’s record rain. The genus Strobilanthes has several species which have mast seeding: meaning all bushes flower in synchrony after many years. The Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa) flowered in 2016 and will flower again in 2024. The Strobilanthes agasthyamalana is said to flower once in 16 years.

Plants which flower so seldom have to make sure that each flower stands a very high chance of pollination. A study of the 2006 flowering found that the flower was sculptured to increase this efficiency. The mass flowering attracts the Indian honeybee in large numbers (look out for neelakurinji honey later this year). In unfertilized flowers, the receptive surface of the stigma faces the entry path of the bee, and moves away when the bee exits, and the flower remains fresh and produces large amounts of nectar for two days. From the mid-19th century CE there were reports that jungle fowl migrated to flowering meadows to eat the seeds of the plants. This mass migration has not been observed after the removal of forests in the Munnar area.

When we arrived in Eravikulam National Park, the sky was overcast, and the sun, already low near the horizon, was beginning to look decidedly tired of keeping us in light. There were a few flowering bushes, but nothing like the photos and videos which the media were displaying, without telling viewers that they were shot in 2006. The honeybees are most active just before noon, so we didn’t see them at work. It had rained hard since the middle of week, and the rain set in again while we were in the park. We had a sighting of the Nilgiri tahr in a meadow dotted with Neelakurinji. It seemed to avoid the Neelakurinji as it browsed. I wonder whether there are toxins which the plant secretes.

From the point of view of a tourist spectacle, this was a disappointment. As a budding wildflower enthusiast (bad pun, I know) I was happy to have seen this plant which one has so little chance of seeing, since it dies after flowering. I had a good time with my macro lens peering into the two meter high bushes where this flower grows. We later found that there is only one more spot near Munnar where the flowers were visible this year. Because of the extreme rain in August, few bushes flowered, and because of the renewed late rain in September, many flowers were not pollinated. I wonder whether this is a crisis for the species. I guess we will know by 2030, when it is next supposed to flower.

Goodbye to Madurai

Madurai shares with cities like Patna, Banaras, Ujjain and Mathura, the distinction of being among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. I use the word city quite deliberately here, because in every era, starting about 2700 to 2500 years ago, when travelers describe these places, they are called cities.

Although I’d spent a while living in Chennai, I’d not explored Tamil Nadu much. The heart of the Tamil cultural landscape, Madurai, was a whole new experience, and one that I realized I could grow to love. Some of the reasons are the food you get in Madurai. I’ve written about Chettinad food already. Here is another example: a signboard that might be hard to find in Chennai, and, increasingly, in the rest of India: “Sri Balaji Evening Mutton Stall”.

The street food of Madurai has to be tasted to be believed. The Family and I have fond memories of idli and vada with sambar and three kinds of chutney in a little hole in the wall in the old town called “Murugan’s Ildi Shop”, laddu and murukku from a stall inside the Meenakshi temple, coffee and biscuits at numerous stalls across the city, not to mention two wonderful lunches at two different “messes”. In the photo above you see a place where Sathiamoorthy took us to taste Tirunalveli halwa, a mildly sweet and oily halwa wrapped in banana leaves. Many blogs advised us not to miss this, and we are happy to pass on the recommendation.

Part of the fun in Madurai was having Sathiamoorthy drive us up to places we would not have thought to try eating in. We have seldom had the luck to travel with a driver like him.

Aladdin’s cave of kitsch

The Family and I walked into a store room full of painted plaster figures ready for shipping. Three people were busy packing things into boxes and did not mind us walking around and looking at things. These were not high art, like some of the statuary we had seen in the Meenakshi temple. As you can see when you look at the gallery below, they are kitsch: mythological figures, figures from popular TV serials, scenes from a traditional middle class Tamil life.

But it is amazing to be surrounded by thousands of such figures. After some time they can begin to look faintly menacing, even with their cheerfully bright colours. While I was lost in fantasies of fighting off hordes of bright blue cats, The Family had made a few purchases and needed my help in having them packed safely for a flight.

Hari Potter

Magic creeps up on you slowly as you walk through the village near Madurai called Vilachery. People who asked us to visit this place told us that it was a potter’s village. Initially that conjured up images of potter’s wheels, and ranks of pots and jugs. Then, slowly, as I began to realize that Tamil visual culture is steeped in clay images, a vague other image started taking shape in my mind. Sathiamoorthy parked the car in a widening of the dirt road through the village, and we started walking. The first indication that something sparkled in the air was the door in the featured photo. Headless angels and a madonna with a hidden face? “The game is afoot,” I told The Family.

I need not have bothered. She’d already found a workshop behind blue doors. “Who’s next?”, she asked. We peered through the door. Nobody was home. The whole row of houses here had workshops attached to them. We walked on, peering at courtyards piled with large and small statues. In a very real sense, this was the heart of Tamil culture, at least its visual expression. I was glad we had decided to come here.

In another lane in the village we came to the workshops of those who use clay. In a little opening around which two of these workshops clustered, we found a smoking heap of straw. In the straw were many different kinds of figurines, but several of each type. Again, economics dictated that multiple copies of each be made.

This row of workshops seemed to specialize in moulded plaster. I guess the ability to make many copies with molds is way to make a steady income. I peered into a workshop and saw a whole battalion of the figures that you see in the photo above. A woman sat near them and was hand-painting them one by one. She had several day’s worth of work ahead of her, I guessed.

I looked through an open door and found a workshop of a slightly different kind. Two large Ganesh sat here. They were clearly individually crafted, since their postures were slightly different. The master spoke only Tamil, but with Sathiamoorthy as an interlocutor I figured that a framework is built first in bamboo and straw, and then clay is applied over it. Similar techniques are in use everywhere in India.

This was a two storied house. I’d assumed that the ground floor was the workshop and the upper floor was where the master and his family lived. As I wandered past the blue Ganesh, I saw the marvelous sight which you can see in the photo above: a large clay statue of Ganesh in a kitchen. Where is the mouse, I wondered. Has it wandered off into the kitchen?

Even though the master worked on such large pieces (individually commissioned) the workshop did not disdain the plaster figures that others made. In one corner of the workshop there was a company of figures, made up of small platoons of several different kinds. The history of globalization since the 16th century can be seen in these figures: they bring together influences from India, Europe and China.

Private audience

At the northern corner of the Swarga Vilasa, a small door connects to an ornate room called Natakasalai. The name seems to imply a theater, but the information that you can read on your way in implies that Thirumala Nayak lived in this area. Other areas in the now vanished palace complex had uses which would need a theater. I could steer a middle step in guessing, and say that this could well be a private audience chamber. It is ornate enough to befit one of the richer kings of the south, whose kingdom encompassed a large part of modern day Tamil Nadu, and some portions of Kerala and Karnataka. The featured photo looks eastwards down the length of this hall.

The center of the room is sunk a little below the level of the Swarga Vilasa, and on the east the space resembles a raised stage. It reminds you of a modern theater with its raised stage and low seating. But in the 17th century the king would not have sat at a lower level. If this was used for dance or theatre, then the performers would have been in the center, with the king seated to the east. If this was an audience chamber, then again the king would have sat on the platform in the east.

The decorations here are finer than those outside. There were the usual winged lions rampant on the finials of the pilars, but below them the ornate leaves and vines were much finer and more delicate than the beautiful work I’d already admired in the outer chamber. I have not seen such fine work in clay before.

This area is used as a somewhat haphazard museum. Some of the sculptures on display are interesting, but perhaps the most interesting are the pillars with epigraphs which are kept in a small and bare side chamber.

At the court

My first sight of Thirumal Nayak’s palace knocked the breath out of me. When I recovered I walked along the side gallery of the audience chamber, called the Swarga vilasa. When you do this you cannot help noticing how closely the thick pillars are set. If I hadn’t known it already, this would have been my first realization that the palace does not use stone. Stone pillars could be more slender. These pillars are made of clay, excavated from the teppakulam of the Vandiyur Mariamman temple.

I walked down the corridor and looked up at the cupola in the corner. Using clay as a building material has its constraints. Walls and pillars are thick, and getting enough light into a space requires different solutions. The syncretic architecture that had grown after the incursion of the Delhi sultanate into Madurai offered the beautiful solution which you see in the photo above. A cupola in the roof allows space for a whole series of windows which let in light. I admired the technicality and the beautiful design on the roof.

The light filters easily down, lighting up a large pride of lions which looked down their noses at me. This was more work in clay. Madurai is not very far from mountains, and transporting stone would not have been out of the question. A professional historian would be able to shed more light on the choice of building material: was it economics, or familiarity with the material which led to the use of clay here? After all, the Meenakshi temple, rebuilt during the preceding century uses stone. Why not this?

I walked down the side gallery to the space behind where the king would make his appearance. The space is vast, but broken by pillars. The vistas that greet you inside the Meenakshi temple are absent. The pillars are said to be coated with a plaster made from powdered sea shell bound together with egg protein. The smooth white finish has attracted a generation of people to express their thoughts in pencil and ball pen, in defiance of notices which request people not to do so. If you thought that the internet is where you see the most interesting opinions, you could be wrong.

The largest dome on the roof lies over the center of this space. Every tourist stops below it to gape up at the interior of the dome. I decided to go with the flow. It is worth it. The ceiling is beautifully decorated, and there is enough light to admire this by. The complex is maintained by the state archaeology department. Typically departments such as this are starved of funding; even more so than health and education. In spite of that, I thought that they have done a fair job of maintenance.

Next to the central dome there seems to be a smaller cupola. I looked up at the painted ceiling; it looked coffered. Was it trompe l’oeil? I walked around below it and saw from the change is perspective that it really was coffered. I didn’t see any structural reason why this part of the ceiling needed strengthening. Perhaps it is something that is only visible from above. The design was spectacular, what ever the reason.

The area where the king would have sat is architecturally interesting. A series of cupolas and domes let in a lot of light, so the king would never be in darkness. The central cupola and the arches could also have been designed for its acoustics. I could not test that, but it seems possible given the shape of the area. Just in front of this is a vestibule and steps leading down to the courtyard. The vestibule is crossed by rods which could have held fans meant for ciruclating air through this whole area.

At the bottom of the steps were two beautiful stone sculptures which at one time would have shown horses with riders. The riders had been cut off quite expertly. It looks like planned plunder. The balance of probability is that the busts of the riders are gracing a collection somewhere in the wider world.