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 Partition Museum

The Partition Museum is part of Amritsar’s old town hall, a British era structure built a little more than half a kilometer away from the Golden Temple. It had been in our bucket list ever since work started about six years ago. In the five years since it opened it has quietly become one of the must-do places in town. The concierge at our hotel chatted with us as we waited to check in. “What do you plan to visit?” he asked. The Family reeled off the three obvious anwers, “The Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, the Wagah border post.” “Don’t forget the Partition Museum,” the Sikh concierge suggested. Perhaps his family is one of the many in which the grandparents still tell you that Amritsar is one half of the twin cities of Lahore and Amritsar, their axis precisely bisected by Wagah.

We asked Anil to drop us a few hundred meters from the Museum and walked the short distance, past a statue of Ranjit Singh, through the ceremonial archway of the Town Hall, and into the forecourt. No mistakes. Signs told us that we were at the right place. There were no queues at the ticket counter, but there were many people inside. We found that those who choose to come here spend a long time on the exhibits, lingering, reading, listening to audio clips, watching oral history on video. It is put together with great thought and definitely worth a visit if you want to put the Golden Temple, Wagah, Jallianwala Bagh, and the wonderful food of Amritsar in its historical context.

A section of the exhibits deals with the musical tradition of Gurudwaras, and the role that muslim musicians, rubabis, played since the time of Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak’s rubabi. This tradition has withered: atrophied in Pakistan as Sikhs were persecuted by the state, and in India from the migration of musicians to Pakistan. The syncretic nature of early Sikhism meant that there was a whole stream of what we now call Sufi music which became accultured to Sikhism. There were record albums on display, some of the music available on audio. I examined them; perhaps one can find more of the music on YouTube or personal collections.

Pigeons perched on an unnamed warrior’s upheld sword outside the Museum. When the Aga Khan met the Viceroy, Lord Minto, in 1906 and pleaded with him, successfully, for a separate political future for muslims in the country, he released a demon. Netflix has a short documentary on Abdus Salam, the Nobel Prize winning expatriate Pakistani. The persecution of his sect, the Ahmadiyas, deemed heretics in his country, forms a recurrent theme in the documentary. As I watched it I realized again that a country based on religion quickly embraces the most dogmatic forms, purging repeatedly those people who do not conform exactly to the central dogma. Ironically, the Aga Khanis are also persecuted in Pakistan today. I’m more simpatico with the lawyer, Ambdekar, whose statue stands in the circle outside the musuem, because he was one of those who argued for a universal and common electorate in the Constituent Assembly after Independence.

The Golden Temple

We stood in a queue to visit the Harmandir Sahib. In spite of the cramped space inside with most pilgrims filing past rapidly, the singing of the rehras, evening hymns, from the Adi Granth imparted a serenity to the atmosphere. We stood for a short while in a corner, and then yielded space to newcomers. Afterwards I found a spot near the lake from which I could take a panoramic shot of all the major buildings in the complex.

In the featured photo the most recent avatar of the Akal Takht is barely visible at the extreme left. In front of it is the ber tree known as the Dukhbhanjini tree, the remover of sadness. Next, you come to the dome of the 19th century Ghanta Ghar, the clock tower. Then is the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple itself. To the right of it are the 18th century watch towers called the Ramgarhia Bunga. To their right you can see the arches which lead to the langar, kitchen and dining hall. Far on the right you see the dome atop the Sikh Library.

This complex is now the center of the Sikh religion. In the 15th century, the first of the gurus, Guru Nanak, preached the end of caste and ritual, pacifism and an end to distinctions between religions. The reformist ideals continued into the 16th century, when the fourth guru, Guru Ramdas, built the lake and founded the temple. The foundation stone was laid by the Sufi Mian Mir. The militarization of the followers began after the execution of the fifth guru, Guru Arjun, in the early years of the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The sixth guru, Guru Har Gobind, founded an army, began carrying two swords to symbolize military power, and founded the Akal Takht, a seat of temporal power. Since then Sikhism has not recognized boundaries between religion, culture, and politics, a philosophy which Guru Har Gobind called Miri-Piri.

We’d circumambulated the lake and visited the main shrine in the time between late afternoon and dusk. Now, as the lights came on in the buildings, more and more people began to arrive. We later learnt that the Sikh farmers had begun to return from their long sit-in on the outskirts of Delhi and the next few days would be crowded and heated. We walked on to the langar. The tradition that everyone who wants to can eat a free meal in a Gurudwara comes down from Guru Nanak, and is an embodiment of the central pacifist and egalitarian teachings of the guru.

The normal strikes back

Last Friday we went to hear Ustad Rashid Khan sing. It has been more than two years since the two of us sat in a darkened hall full of people. Everyone had to carry a certificate of complete vaccination in order to enter, and even then there was the mandatory temperature check at the gate. The seating was alternate, and everyone was masked. But people mingled in the foyer. In any collection of people there will be those who are more careful and distancing and masking, and those who are not. In recent times we have never been in a crowd except at airports, and there we could keep our distance. Still, this didn’t set our teeth on edge.

Why? I asked The Family after the concert. Perhaps because everyone was vaccinated. Vaccine coverage in Mumbai is very high, with almost everyone having received one shot, and a large fraction being fully vaccinated. The case load has not disappeared. There are between 100 and 200 new cases discovered every day. Even in our moderately large apartment complex there is a case every few weeks. But beds in COVID hospitals and ICUs in the city are now freely available. People have buckled down to work again, although there is more work-from-home than in the November of 2019. The pattern of sickness and mortality has shifted over time. The pandemic began with large risks for people above 60. Now the largest fraction of mortality is for people in their 50s. The number of children, under 10s as well as teens, infected is no longer a negligible fraction. As the pandemic comes under better control, attention has to shift to the less vulnerable population. No one is invulnerable.

Ustad Rashid Khan has perhaps the best voice of his generation of singers. It was good to begin the season with him. We have tickets for the next couple of performances. It was interesting to find that at the end of the concert there was no crowding at the doors. People spontaneously remained in place and maintained a constant trickle at the exit. That is the kind of new normal that I would love. The initial vaccine hesitancy in certain pockets of the city was quickly overcome because all political parties supported the vaccination drive. I came across a very well-researched news story which talks of the slower spread of vaccination in villages. India’s population is immense, and even though it hits new records of the number of vaccine doses given, only about a quarter is fully vaccinated as yet. It will be a while before one can safely gather in large numbers indoors everywhere in the city.

Babool mora

Wajid Ali Shah wrote the words of the famous thumri, Babul mora, in Kolkata, after the British East India Company, then an empire in all but name, exiled him from Awadh. It has been sung by all the luminaries of classical music since. I heard Bhimsen Joshi singing it in the usual Raag Bhairavi when he was considered a future star, but since then I’ve also heard a rare recording of Ustad Faiyaz Khan singing it. The version by Kundan Lal Sehgal is so famous that Google’s AI concludes that the song is due to him. But Kishori Amonkar, Kesarbai Kerkar, Begum Akhtar, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, and even Jagjit and Chitra Singh have wonderful versions available on the net. But it is not that song of loss and parting that this post is about.

I wanted to show you a couple of varieties of babool (Acacia) among the many I saw in Bera. Babool is the typical dry land plant: often a short tree, just over three meters tall, sometimes a mere bush. Of the many that I saw, I seem to have taken many photos of the babool (Vachellia nilotica indica). That extremely widespread plant is what you see in the featured photo. The other is the white babool (Vachellia leucophloea, also called white-bark Acacia). There were numerous other plants of the Mimosacaea family, even the Acacias, but I seem to have missed photographing them. Loss and regret, just as in Wajid Ali Shah’s thumri.

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.