Moula Ali Gutta

ornategate

Hyderabad is large and chaotic, so I can’t usually get to see anything of interest to a traveller when I go there for work. This time round, before leaving I looked at the map carefully and found a place which I could go to if I had a couple of hours to myself. This was not a one of the famous sights: not the storied Charminar, not the unexpected charm of the Spanish Mosque, not the meandering Salar Jang museum, and not even the unfairly neglected zoo. It was a little hill called the Moula Ali Gutta. A description which I read before leaving was charming.

I did have a little break in the middle of the day, and I hopped into an auto with The Undefeated. It turned out that this was a great strategy: autos are faster than cars on the narrow and winding roads which we went through. Maybe this is the way to see Hyderabad in future.

I accepted the first price bid by the driver, so he was happy enough to stop whenever I wanted take a photo. The gate in this photo was a lovely gem of architecture surrounded by utilitarian dross. Perhaps it will disappear in a few years. Unfortunately there seems to be little we can do about this, except to record what we see. It was the middle of the afternoon. Shops were open and a constant stream of people went about their day’s work. In the short time I took to photograph this gate, I acquired a crowd of kibbitzers, one of whom wanted to know why I found this worth photographing. My sincere answer to such a question is that it is beautiful. This appeal to local pride usually works to stop further questions.

moulaaligutta

The hill lived up to its reputation. It was mid-afternoon, the sun was strong and the temperature was 38 degrees. When the auto stopped at the bottom of the hill, my heart quailed; climbing was not a pheasant thought. The Undefeated lived up to his name. He gave the stairs a critical look and said “We can climb part of the way up”. Once we started up the stairs, they turned out to be shallow and broad. Part of the way up we saw the granite slope of the hill bearing many smaller rocks. They seemed to be poised to roll down the slope, but they had been there long enough for people to have painted names on them. As we climbed we realized that the view would be wonderful at sunrise or sunset and at night. That’s one thing to keep in mind for another time.

moulaalidargah

Apparently, the Moula Ali who gave his name to this dargah was the son-in-law of the prophet. Strangely it is not his remains which the dargah contains, but a “miraculous” hand-print attributed to him. Whatever. The nearly 450 year old dargah was very peaceful. A family had climbed with us, the little boy running ahead, the parents and two sisters following. They went into a mosque attached to the dargah while I took photos outside. I wished the really tall ladder was not there. There were many little brown doves (Spilopelia senegalensis) in the trees around the mosque, and, ironically, none of the blue rock pigeons (Columba livia) which are so common in other cities. There were painted pots hanging from the trees outside the mosque (you can see them in the photo), whose significance was not clear to us.

moulaaligate

We passed a massive gate on the way up. This serves as a place where the locals can sit and chat. On hot afternoons, like the one we were stuck in, it is also a place where visitors can rest for a while. There is a nice breeze, so once you are out of the sun it is cool, and quite pleasant. A Wikipedia article claims that Moula Ali is one of the eleven sites identified for protection by the city’s heritage conservation committee. When you go up there it is not hard to understand why. This recognition has brought state attention, in the form of money to repair the steps a couple of years ago, as a large plaque informed us.

We also saw another hill a little way off, with marks of what seemed like recent quarrying. I read later that this granite monolith is called the Qadam-e-Rasul, and has a mosque which supposedly holds some relics of the prophet. Apparently Moula Ali Gutta also has some temples; we did not see any, but then we did not climb all the way up.

twokids

We climbed down the hill, and our auto was waiting right at the bottom of the steps. Nearby two youngsters were deep in consultation over books which looked like exam keys. Both of them were dressed in black, even on that hot afternoon. They readily agreed to be photographed: no questions about who we were, and why we wanted the photos. If they had asked why, what would their reaction have been to the truth about the quality of light, the colour contrast between their shirts and the surrounding walls, and the paired contrast between their youth and the age of the street they stood in? The weird thing about photography is that only later does one actually look at the faces of people and wonder about their stories.

The step well of Adalaj

Pigeon in a well

While in Ahmedabad on work, I find a gap of two hours between meetings. This is just long enough to make a quick trip to the closest step well. It is just past the middle of March, but the daytime temperature in Ahmedabad is already in the upper thirties. The sun is bright enough to burn out the delicate earth tones of the local architecture. My tired eyes catch only the splashes of Bougainvillea in bloom, and the bright shades of traditional clothes. As I descend into the step well, called a vav in Gujarati, there is a welcome cool gloom. The heat of the sun does not percolate far down.

Hanging out in a well

The place is bustling. There are the expected few tourists with cameras. But there is an unexpected crowd of young people hanging around, chatting and taking group selfies. Also, there is a constant stream of Ahmedabadi visitors, going up and down the stairs in family groups. In the shade near the upper steps a middle-aged lady sits quietly, occasionally talking to younger people who climb up and down past her. On my last visit here, more than 15 years ago, the surroundings were crowded, and the well was empty. The busy neighbourhood has been cleared away. Around the step well is open space and a park. I expect a ticket booth and an entrance fee, but there is none. A little signboard outside gives the history of the well: it was ordered to be constructed in 1499 by Mohammad Begda for the use of Rani Roopbai, the wife of the local chieftain.

Step wells are found around India, but mainly in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The welcome relief from the heat and sun that I found would have been always been a draw. In the wet plains of eastern India, village ponds are social spaces: places to sit or meet. I imagine that in the past these wells would have served an equal, and perhaps bigger, social function. This seems to be the pattern being re-established here.

A riot of decorations

From outside one sees a low parapet with a single storied “tower” near one end. There are three entrances to the well: from the east, west and north. These three flights of stairs meet in a central landing which is a riot of decorations, as you can see in the photo above. Interestingly the decorations mix recognizable Islamic motifs such as vines and geometric shapes with Hindu motifs such as elephants on the base of pillars and lintels. Most openings in the roof have been covered over with iron grills. A caretaker told me that’s for protection and against pigeons, and to prevent people from falling.

From this first landing, stairs descend southwards for another four stories. Earlier I had walked all the way to the water. Now there is a barrier two stories above the level of the water. You can look down the first octagonal shaft at the iron grill covering the surface of the water. The second well-shaft is no longer accessible, nor are the side niches which I remember as being beautifully decorated with carved stone.

wellcenter

The garden around the well is a startling green in the middle of sun-baked roads. Mud squelches under my feet as I step on to the grass. Large quantities of water must be needed to keep the thick layer of grass so fresh. The little park is surrounded by trees which provide shade for the few lovers I see, each pair sitting close. A gardener tells me that there has been a lot of water in the well in the last couple of years. Maybe that is why the park is so fresh. Perhaps if I come in the middle of a dry spell of years the lawn will look more parched.

I walk the short path around the lawn wondering about the odd changes. I could quibble about the aesthetics of the ironwork, but overall I like the changes: more people, a nice green park. But what happened to the crowded settlement which I seem to remember? Could I be mistaken? Am I confusing this for some other well? Later I call The Family. She does not remember the surroundings of the well. I talk to my brother, he confirms that the place was crowded earlier.

I get back in my air-conditioned car. The driver is talking into his mobile. He finishes his dispute and we leave.

Goa after christmas

Sao Jacinto

I spent the end of last year in Goa and returned home on the eve of the new year. Unlike my previous trips, I stayed entirely to the south of the Zuari. When most people visit Goa at the end of the year, they want to be shuffling in the madness of Sunburn or crowding some other beach in north Goa. If you are sure that you are not a sardine, you could try to head south of the Zuari. It has beaches, and it has more.

On my last evening in Goa I went with some friends to eat in a popular fish restaurant on the south bank of Zuari estuary, near the island of Sao Jacinto. The eatery is one of the places which runs more on the freshness of the fish than on the skills of the cook. The crabs are enormous and sweet, and the less the cook does with it, the better. After selecting one you have time to drink many shots of the wonderful local cashew feni (I like mine on the rocks, with ginger and lime squeezed into it) while munching on the superb Goan sausages. Unless you are careful you can be full before the crabs arrive. Many of the more popular restaurants will have a crooner who manages to make the angriest rock sound mellow. That’s one thing that Goa has in common with the north east of India.

Fisherman's house

After dinner we walked over the causeway to the charming island of Sao Jacinto. I’ve only been there at night, so I can’t tell you whether it looks charming in daytime. Late in evening, when most of the fishermen on the village have gone to sleep, it is quiet place with a serene charm. The causeway takes you to the church square, from where you can start your walk through deserted village roads. On this occassion, after Christmas and before the new year, all the houses were lit up with fairy lights, coloured porch lights, and illuminated stars.

Fresh prawns in Vasco

Earlier in the evening I’d driven out to Vasco on a borrowed scooter to buy a load of cashews to take home. Goa is as non-urban as a continuously inhabited stretch of beaches can be. Even the town of Vasco looks pretty spread out until you get to the old Portuguese center. I spent a fruitless ten minutes looking for Bebinca. Apparently tourists had bought all the stock, and the factory was closed for the rest of the year. I got my cashews, bought various things at the two bakeries I passed, and then wandered into the fish market. The fisherwoman put us down for cheap tourists, interested only in gawking at the fish they have been eating in restaurants. She was right, we were not there to buy any fish. The moment my camera came out, she stopped talking to us and started chatting in Konkani with the owner of the next stall.

Vasco town center

The central square of Vasco is a noisy and crowded place. If you dodge a lane of traffic to stand under the trees in the middle of the oblong “square” you can forget the bustle and look at the layout. It is decidedly not Indian. It is not hard to imagine that if the surrounding buildings were spruced up and painted, and the hoardings and signboards removed, the whole area could look like a charming European plaza, only with more sun and warmth. Some time in the future I hope people put an end to the blight of multistoried shops which has begun to take over, and put the emphasis back on the remaining street-level shops. That can only happen if tourists were willing to take some time off from beach-shacks and come for a coffee, or a drink and a meal in town. The local economy is not strong enough to make the turn-around on its own.

Fishing in the Ganga

Egret on the Ganga

As the temperature in Mumbai climbs well above 30 Celcius, I remember our last October’s trip north. We left from Delhi around 6 in the morning and took the road towards Moradabad, planning to turn north later. We came to the Ganges at Garhmukteshwar in the middle of the morning and stopped on the road bridge to look at water birds. They were there in plenty. An egret tried to fish in the shallow muddy water, quite unsuccessfully. I wonder how often it has to catch fish in order to survive.

yellowwagtail

We spent a while watching this little beauty wade through the muddy shallows, picking at invisible morsels. The Family followed it with her binoculars, me with my camera. She doesn’t need to crack the Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp to identify common birds like this. I do, but she’s easier to consult. Yellow wagtail, is her verdict, but could be a Citrine wagtail as well. Later I spend some time in study and conclude that her first guess is most likely to be correct.

dhaba

You see the zaniest of sights in Uttar Pradesh. From the bridge we saw a dhaba standing in the middle of the river: a real outlier. This was well after the monsoon, and the river had split into two streams. But around the dhaba, the water was high enough that you would find it difficult to make tea. Maybe the dhaba is accessible between December and June. If someone were to take the trouble to run it when it is under water, I wouldn’t mind wading through the water to sip a chai and take a selfie.

ganga

The strange thing about a road trip through this part of Uttar Pradesh is the small number of people you see. You know that there are lots of people around. This countryside is not empty- you pass village after village. The fields are not exactly bustling with activity, but they aren’t empty either. Between villages, the land seems empty of people. Here, in this vast expanse of land around the Ganga you can see only four people.