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.

Singing at the Qutb Shahi Tombs

The fabled Golconda Sultanate lasted from the early 16th to the late 17th century, and was ruled by the Qutb Shah dynasty. During these two centuries an amazing regional culture developed. Now that I rediscovered my photos of this trip, I will probably write another post about it. The beautiful tombs of the Qutb Shahs, their architecture a sophisticated merger of Indian and Persian styles, have fallen into disrepair. But in one of them we found a caretaker who demonstrated to us the beautiful acoustics of the structures.

I had a strong memory of taking this video, and thought I’d lost it. I’m happy that I found it again. The caretaker did not want a tip; he just wanted to pass on a beautiful discovery. I am happy to be able to help.

Raga Bhairavi

I woke early in the morning and watched the sun light change from pink to gold. Two grey hornbills called. I looked out at their favourite tree, but they were gone. This was the time of Raga Bhairavi: two film songs from the last century, one from 1955, the other from 1998, and then a long piece by Bhimsen Joshi.

No maga dog

While wandering around the Mawlai Phudmuri area of Shillong, I was complaining bitterly about our inability to find local music venues in town. The winding road was bounded by high walls. There was a gate in one wall and a sign on it said “Three Little Birds Bistro”. I’m always ready for a coffee, so I stepped through the gate and saw a long low building with a large portrait of Bob Marley painted on it. Could this be what I was looking for?

A young girl behind the counter said that I couldn’t get a coffee since lunch service had already started. The bistro part of the shed was quite empty, but through an open window behind the girl I could see another half of the establishment which was indeed full of diners. There was clearly no more conversation to be had. I stepped back out and found that The Family and the nieces had found props for instagram photos of themselves. I was briefly roped into helping them out, but soon I left to walk around the property.

There was another door to the bistro and this proclaimed reggae even more forcefully. Just as we were about to leave I decided to go in again and ask about music. There was an older lady at the counter now, and she said “Yes, we play music in the evening.” That was promising. I asked “Live?” She said “No, from the computer.” I smiled a goodbye. This was disappointing again. As I was leaving I saw a shed off to one side. I haven’t seen hay drying inside a town in a long time, so I moved that way to take a photo.

There was movement in the hay. As I approached I found a litter of really young pups. They were still unsteady on their legs. The mother looked at me and moved a bit to be able to defend her litter. I didn’t touch the pups, although they were adorable and just the age when you want to pick them up. These were no maga dogs. Nor was there any reggae. I left.

Baz Bahadur’s Palace

If Sultan Nasiruddin Shah of Mandu were alive today, he may not have been very pleased with the name by which the palace he built in 914 AH (1508 CE) is known. It is called Baz Bahadur’s palace, after the last sultan of Malwa, who ruled from 1555 till his defeat by the Mughal emperor Akbar seven years later. The central feature of the palace is the cistern you see in use in the featured photo. It was full of rain water when I photographed it in the monsoon many years ago. But in the past water was raised using a water wheel from the nearby Rewa Kund.

According to a story in Romila Thapar’s book called “Indian Tales”, the Rewa Kund (photo above) is linked to the story of Baz Bahadur and Roopmati. In the story, Roopmati refused to go to Mandu with Baz Bahadur until he could bring the river Rewa (another name for the Narmada) up to the citadel, thinking this was impossible. But Baz Bahadur found a spring in the hill from which water flowed down to the Rewa, or so he claimed. Roopmati’s remaining condition was that she would come to the citadel if she could see the Rewa and her lover from her palace. Roopmati’s pavilion, the Rewa Kund, and Baz Bahadur’s palace are within sight of each other.

A formidable set of stairs led to the central courtyard where the boys were swimming in the tank full of rain water. We climbed this, looked at the inscription above the door naming Nasiruddin Shah and the date of construction of the palace. Unfortunately neither of us can read the Persian script, so we have to depend on translations. The courtyard was full of tourists on the day we were here.

The upper terrace was less crowded and we saw a collonnade which had a wonderful view of Roopmati’s pavilion. On the other side of the terrace were rooms where part of the roof had collapsed. The whole citadel is now under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, which has a reputation of keeping structures sound. The terrace is now completely safe. We sat here and contemplated the enigma of Baz Bahadur, whose story we know only through Mughals accounts. Abul Fazal runs down a defeated enemy in Ain-I-Akbari with the words “Baz Bahadur did not concern himself with public affairs. Music and melody were regarded by this scoundrel as a serious business, and he spent upon them all his precious hours. In the arrogance of infatuation he wrought works of inauspiciousness.” If we saw these works, we did not recognize their inauspiciousness.

Elsewhere in the Ain-I-Akbari, Abul Fazal made a list of singers, claiming that “a detailed description of this class of people would be too difficult.” The list starts, as expected, with Mian Tansen of Gwalior, whose like “has not been in India for the last thousand years.” But Baz Bahadur, ruler of Malwa comes in ninth amongst the thirty five names. Abul Fazal contradicts himself by describing him as “ruler of Malwa, a singer without rival.” We found a local singer who demonstrated the acoustics of the palace by standing in a niche in one of the halls around the courtyard. His voice filled up the hall. I did not recognize the song, but the man said that it was composed by Roopmati.

When I try to refresh my memory by looking at the photos I took that day I seem to recall a long and leisurely morning spent walking around the palace. I have photos of arches and rooms, an Indian robin hopping from parapet to terrace, spider lilies in the rain, and of The Family and me in the palace, with Roopmati’s pavilion in the background. The Family was in blue, and I have several photos of her against the dusky pink sandstone of the palace.

For me, the photo that sums up the charm of this later group of buildings in Mandu is the one you see above. The pink stone of the building, the dome over the terrace, and the rain water pooled in the cistern at the center of the courtyard. The full domes of Indo-Afghan architecture, the plaster work and arches, the care with water, are all part of the charm of Mandu.

Jazz in Berlin

Every night in Berlin one has a wide choice of jazz to listen to. I sifted through what was on offer and decided on a completely German choice. The actress Heide Bartholomaus was collaborating with the well-known Berlin pianist Hannes Zerbe and saxophonist Dirk Engelhardt to read the poetry of Gottfried Benn. Apparently they have been improvising like this for a while.

I was not familiar with the work of Benn, an influential poet before and after the war, whose brief dalliance with Nazism had clouded his life. Zerbe was also a well-known pianist whom I’d not heard before. So The Family and I got our hands stamped for the show. We nursed a couple of drinks through the nearly two hours’ performance. My German is not good enough to keep up with spoken poetry, but the piano and sax were certainly good. I agreed with The Family when she remarked that even without being able to follow the poetry, one had to admire Bartholomaus’ delivery. We walked out into the cold happy with the evening and wishing we had the time to explore Berlin’s jazz scene in more depth.

Still standing in the doorway

Often a writer will be known for years to a small readership before she writes that one novel which makes her known to the rest of the world. While walking uptown in New York, I came across the moral equivalent of such a history, set in brick and mortar. I wasn’t quite thinking of the route when I looked ahead at a crossing and saw before me the southwestern end of Carnegie Hall (see the featured photo). In 1961 Bob Dylan broke out of an already charmed circle of listeners in a concert at this place. It is not everyday that you walk past a place where a Nobel Prize winner was born to the world’s consciousness.

New York City: Carnegie Hall and tower

I came back to look at it again. When the million dollar hall was inaugurated in 1890 it was considered to be almost in the suburbs. When Tchaikovsky conducted his own composition on the opening night, structural steel had not yet been invented. The building was made of brick. It looks heavy and squat in spite of the Renaissance design of the facade. I wanted to take a photo of the stylish and simple foyer which was part of the overall design by Willian Tuthill, but the doors seemed to be locked. I don’t mind having to go back there. The next time I’ll make sure to select an interesting concert to go for.

Noon Beneath the Underdog

I had too little time in New York to listen to new music. I passed by the New York Public Library, but it may require prior arrangement to look at the papers of Charles Mingus which it holds. In any case, I did not think of it until I passed the stone lions guarding, among other things, the life’s work of a musical genius (photo below). I do not really think of Mingus and his music in terms of geography, but if I had to, I would associate 42nd street with it. Sure enough, I met up with Charles and Sue Mingus outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminus (featured photo).

New York City: public library

The low curved roof at this junction of passageways is held up by four pillars, some of which you can see here. They form a whispering gallery. I found travellers pausing to try this out: one of a couple would stand at one of the pillars, and the other would go to another and whisper something. It works, because they would then go off laughing together.

It is said that Charles Mingus proposed to Sue through this elaborate long-distance method. I haven’t found this story in Beneath the Underdog his rambling book which we have to count as his autobiography. Perhaps it is there in Sue Mingus’ memoirs, called Tonight at Noon. I should read it.

Just for that I walked up to 10th Avenue on 42nd Street. Another block north, and I could have gone to stand at the address where Charles Mingus last lived. I did not have the heart to do that.