Kathakali is supposed to be a temple dance from Kerala. I’d heard stories of Kathakali performances where the make-up would take half the evening, and the performance would go on all night. So I was a little disappointed when I found that there was a little show for tourists which would last an hour. The make-up was supposed to start an hour before the show. We arrived half an hour before the performance, and found that the hero’s public make-up was almost done. The man applying the make-up in the photo above is called the chuttikaran, and he is applying the last stages of chutti: the white ridges on the face, to the man who’s lying down. In the next half hour the characters put on their costumes. When they finally appeared on stage, I could understand why this part takes so long.

Kathakali MinukkuThe first to appear was the female character called Minukku. Notice the elaborate costume; it would have certainly taken me more than thirty minutes to put on all this. All characters are played by men. This man gave us a demonstration of the nine basic expressions, navarasam. I’ve forgotten whether this photo depicts bhayanakam, fear, or beebhtasam, disgust. Would you be able to guess?

One of the interesting things about Kathakali is that you can guess who the characters are by the dominant colour of the make-up. Kathakali PachaYellow denotes passivity and is mostly used on Minukku or rishis. Green, pacha is the colour of a noble character, who is also called pacha. The demons are black as their lustful heart and called kari. We saw little play with just these three characters. The story is acted out through a rhythmic dance.

Kathakali KadupputhadiThe ticket cost very little: about half the price of a movie ticket in a multiplex in Mumbai. It is hard for artistes to survive on such earnings. I saw a donation box in one corner of the stage, where we dropped some money. Interestingly, the actors had evolved an interesting method of making a little more. After the play they invited the audience to take selfies with them. This was an incredible hit: families queued up for their photos, and had no qualms about donating significantly more than the price of the ticket for this memento. What a lovely way to use social media!


Kerala meals

If you walk in to a small restaurant in the south of India, the chances are that there will be a "meals" on offer. This is a set lunch or dinner. Some parts of it can often be unlimited. Our first set meal in Munnar was in a place recommended by our driver.

As you can see in the photo above, the meal was not small. The staple in Kerala is rice, so there are enormous quantities of it. For The Family and me half the amount offered was often twice as much as we could eat. This was accompanied by a large variety of things which took us time to identify.

I started with the three things which I could recognize immediately. There was a sambar and a extremely peppery rasam. I had to use the raita to soothe my palate after the rasam.

Then there was a wonderful avial in which we recognized yam, plantain, and, to our surprise, bitter gourd. There was also the usual pair of a dry and a wet vegetable. The dry vegetable, a version of thoran was a mixture of finely chopped beans with grated coconut. The wet vegetable had plantains and pumpkin.

Apart from the mango pickle that left with the job of identifying a dish we had never met before. It was a soupy thing with a dominant taste of coconut milk and tomatoes cooked in turmeric. We later understood that this kind of a dish is called olan. Unlike the other components of a meal, the olan is not very easily available in Mumbai.

Our dinners inevitably turned out to be some version of a meal, often with fish and meat in addition to these lentils and vegetables. It seems that the ubiquitous "meal" is a simplified version of the formal feast called the Sadhya. How this highly refined and expensive feast became a people’s lunch is probably worth a long article.

Kalaripayattu: martial art form of Kerala

Kalaripayattu: staff against dagger

As we drove up from the Periyar river to our hotel, Shankumar told us of a Kalaripayattu show which was held in this area every day. We’d heard that the martial art form of Kalaripayattu is at least 2000 years old. The dating is based on the fact that it is mentioned in the Tamil literature of the Sangam period, which lasted from about 300 BCE to about 300 CE. The form is said to have been elaborated in the 6th century CE. Subsequently it fell into obscurity, and was rediscovered in the 1920s during the Indian reawakening. Our little snippets of knowledge was due to the great interest in this art form generated by the fact that it has been used in several Bollywood films in the last decade or so.

Kalaripayattu: staff against handWe found the show completely engrossing. It is bit of theatre, with set pieces being worked out. The main instruments seem to be the hand, a sword or a dagger, a long staff, and a long piece of cloth. Use of some of these weapons without hurting each other requires collaboration and precision from those involved. The stunning acrobatics and leaps are apparently a feature of the northern Kerala style; the southern style concentrating more on contact and unarmed fighting.

The set pieces showed each of the weapons paired against another. The purpose of the lessons seems to be that no weapon is intrinsically less powerful; the skill with the weapon is what matters. We saw examples of an unarmed fighter disarming a person with a staff. Even more interesting was a long piece of cloth, either a turban on a cummerbund, being used to disarm a swordsman.Kalaripayattu: sword against long cloth The fights took place in a small sunken arena, the kalari.

But eventually, more impressive than the combat skills were the demonstrations of athleticism: the high leaps and the crawls along the ground. There was an exercise where an adept stood on his two legs, holding two swords in two hands, and leaning back to pick up a flower placed behind him in his lips. My abs ached just watching this!

As we exited, one of the boys asked me to put my pictures on the social medium of my choice. Here is my pingback to Kalari Kshethra, in Chithirapuram near Munnar.

A small temple festival

Anachal temple festival

We drove through the village of Anachal, near Munnar, in the morning. Shankumar translated the name for us: ana in Malayalam means elephant, so the village is literally an elephant path. There were no jumbos in sight, but the market square had a church, a mosque and a temple. Bright yellow flags were planted along the main road. They were an indication that there was a festival on in this small temple.

anachal2Passing by at night again we saw that the temple festival was ending with a procession. When one thinks of temple processions in Kerala one pictures the big ones: with elephants and drums. This one had no elephants. The percussion section was not restricted to the four traditional instruments. I saw the big edayakka and madhalam and the cymbals called the ilathalam.Anachal temple festival The small hour-glass shaped thimila was missing, and the largest section was the vertically held chenda which is beaten with a pair of sticks.

This band of drummers preceded a series of people dressed up as gods, goddesses and holy men. Preparing them would have taken most of the day. I’d spent a part of the day watching preparations for a touristy show of Kathakali, and wished that I’d spent the time in this temple, watching the preparations for the night’s procession.Anachal temple festivalNo matter. I was happy now to stand on the road and watch.

After them came a bunch of less identifiable characters.anachal5I had the impression of a few saffron clad people carrying tinsel trees on their backs (photo here). I don’t know what this section of the procession is called, and have no idea about its significance. If you do, please leave a comment.

The final section of the procession was a line of village women wearing the traditional Kerala sari, each carrying a lamp. In the dark this was the prettiest part of the spectacle. The procession walked down the road slowly, and an hour later walked back the couple of hundred meters to the temple. After gathering at the temple there was a dance. I watched for a while and then left.

The umbrella stones of Kerala

Kudakkallu: an umbrella stone in Idukki district of Kerala

We landed in Kochi in the morning of May Day and immediately began our drive to Munnar. I looked at the driving directions on Google maps as I waited for the baggage to arrive. So when I met our driver, Shankumar, I was able to suggest that we go off the highway at Neriamangalam, by veering right on to the Neriamangalam-Painavu road. This runs south of the Periyar river. So, instead of crossing the river at Neriamangalam, we would cross it much later, at the Panamkutty bridge. I was so very specific because as I looked at the map I discovered something called the Kudakkallu, which a quick search claimed to be a megalith. Shankumar looked sceptical but followed the map. The picturesque road wound along the south bank of the Periyar river, about a hundred meters above the river bed.

Detail of KudakkalluKudakkallu is a Malayalam word which means umbrella stone. It wasn’t too hard to find. The spot is fairly accurately marked in Google maps. When the GPS showed that we were at the megalith, we asked people about it. Neither The Family nor I speak Malayalam, so conversations were carried out with Shankumar as a translator. Everyone knew about the umbrella stone, and a shop owner said he would show us the path. We waited at the shop for his wife to relieve him. She brought along their two children.

Our guides to the Kudakkallu sitting below the north face of the stoneShankumar was not into such mad pursuits. He decided to have a tea at the stall as five of us started off: The Family and me with the stall owner and his children. We walked a hundred meters down the road and then climbed down to the river. The older child, Alan, knew English and translated for us. The path was steep, and in the muggy weather I was soon dripping with sweat. The last bit involved clambering around a huge boulder. Then as we emerged behind it we saw the giant megalith. The photo at the top is the first view of it: the people near the base provide a scale.

The Periyar river is at the level of the base of the Kudakkallu

The stone is at the level of the Periyar river. I walked around it and clicked the photo of the river which you see above. As I walked around the base of the stone, I found fairly regular markings on it (see detail above); could they be chisel marks? I could not find an easy answer on the Archaeological Survey’s (ASI’s) website. The kudakkallu which the ASI site shows are different in form and much smaller. Those are iron age tombs (variously dated between 1000 BCE to 200 CE). This one is in Idukki district and not listed, except possibly in this Kerala Tourism site. Given the horrible state of documentation, as I discovered later, on prehistoric sites available publicly on the web I’m not surprised.

The south-eastern part of the base of the kudakkallu had these holes well above my headAnother puzzling feature of the stone was these holes high up on the south-eastern base of the stone. Are these natural erosion features, or are they man made? We walked around the base of the stone, taking photos. Both photos of the details here are from the south-eastern part of the base. Our young guides ran off to splash some river water over themselves. When they came back, they sat below the northern overhang for the group photo here. You can see regular (tool?) marks on the stone behind them.

Who made this enormous monolith? Why? I guess the answer is not known, but I wish I could find a little more about it than I have.

Chandni Chowk

Sunehri masjid is linked to Nadir Shah's sack of Delhi

Chandni Chowk was the centre of Delhi after Shah Jahan moved his capital to the walled city in 1639, and before Imperial Britain built a new capital a few miles to the west in the early 20th century. This is the area west of the Lahori gate of the red fort and north of the Jama Masjid. A walking tour of Chandni Chowk naturally starts from the Sunehri Masjid: a beautifully proportioned mosque with golden domes in old paintings, now fallen on hard times. If the story of Nadir Shah standing next to the domes on the roof of the mosque to survey the massacre of a panicked Delhi which he had commanded is true, then at one time it would have dominated the area. Now, as I emerged from the exit lane of the Chandi Chowk metro and looked at the mosque this was no longer the case. Mughal architecture blended use with aesthetics; when the mosque was built the space was surely sufficient for the devout. That aesthetics is completely lost in the extensions made to the mosque in order to cater to the increased population.

Sisganj gurudwara is a major landmark

More striking today is the Sis Ganj gurudwara which stands next to it. It must have been a special day; the gurudwara was decorated with balloons and buntings. I realized that a large part of the crowd in the Metro was headed here when a young mother of two finely dressed children asked me which exit led to the gurudwara. I’d just read the directions, so I was able to tell her to take exit 5, as I did. A gurudwara was first built here in 1783 CE, in memory of the ninth Sikh guru, Teg Bahadur, who was beheaded here on the orders of Aurangzeb. The present structure was built in 1930. I discovered the news, known to all Delhiwalas, that the gurudwara has become a bit controversial recently by building unauthorised extensions.

Street scene: sardarji and rickshaw

Traffic barely moves in this crowded road, there’s such a muddle of bicycles, cars, rickshaws, carts, three-wheelers and pedestrians. Notions of lanes and priority perhaps never arose in the days when this area was less densely populated, and were never internalised later. The chaos and cacophony gave me ample opportunity to do surreptitious people watching. I liked this forbidding old Sikh gentleman in white striding down the road, ignoring the traffic. Even the young rickshaw-wala in the photo seems to be a little wary of him.

Kinari bazaar: bling market

Instead of walking on to the Red Fort, I turned right on Dariba Kalan. It is not hard to find: the lane runs between a lovely but crumbling red building with a post-office, and the area’s most famous jalebiwala. I’ve already written about this little eatery. I walked through this narrow lane and turned into the longest bling market in Delhi: the Kinari bazaar. Tourist agencies try to push this as a market destination. In fact, only a movie or wedding set decorator would shop here. It is interesting to walk through this crowded bazaar just looking at people and their lives. I’d chosen a time when the sky was beginning to get dark, and the lights in the shops were coming on. Crowds were at their lowest; it was getting close to the time for an evening snack.

Kachoriwala corner

Every few steps there was a little shop selling kachoris and samosas. Judging by the crowds, it doesn’t look like any shop is particularly better than another. Each seems to have a few regular customers and a few walk-ins. The shops don’t seem to innovate either: they concentrate on getting the kachoris just so, for their loyal followers. There are probably neighbourhood rivalries about which shop has better food. As far as I could tell, it would need a lifetime of training your palate to tell the difference between them. This is a world so far removed from that of malls and food courts, that it is a wonder that the two exist in the same city at the same time.

Door in a haveli off Kinari bazaar Beautiful arches in a dilapidated building

If you are a student of architecture, then there are gems hidden away inside these narrow and smelly lanes. I peered past a gate which led off to a side lane and discovered a beautiful building with a blue door (photo above). Elsewhere a grand building with lovely arched verandas (above) was partitioned into tiny apartments. Stylistic differences which are visible even to an untrained eyes like mine would probably enable a knowledgeable person to peel away the centuries and imagine the area as it evolved over time. If someone offers a walk through this area to show such visions, I will queue up to take it. In its absence I go back every decade, after a little more reading.

Eating through centuries in Delhi

A break in frying parathas

2016-04-27 19.16.43Delhi takes its food seriously. The area around the Red Fort in Delhi was populated during Mughal times. It has seen the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739, and again by John Nicholson in 1857. The oldest food stall in this area was reputedly Ghantewala’s sweet shop, which claimed to have been founded in 1790. On my visit to Chandni Chowk a couple of days ago, I was told that it has shut down.

So I walked into a shop selling parathas in the little street called Parathewali Galli. It claimed to have been founded 15 years after the second sack of Delhi. It may not be the oldest establishment in the neighbourhood, but, like all the shops here, it has gone beyond the potato and cauliflower fillings which you get in most towns. This new age paratha comes with fillings that run from karela (bitter gourd) to okra to bananas. I wouldn’t have guessed that some of it is edible, but they were a pleasant surprise. It is definitely worth trying out, especially if you have been eating the old parathas all your life.

2016-04-27 18.08.15Another old eatery in the same general area is the jalebiwallah near the Chandni Chowk post office. This claims to have been in this place since the mid 19th century. It has no lack of clientele. I was in a queue behind a couple of other tourists, who seemed to be Tamilians. While tourists try to make up their minds in the slow queue, the regulars get quicker service on the side. This is a standing only place. The Tamils took their jalebis and rabri off to a parked car. I had my jalebi standing at the corner. There is a drum nearby where you throw the paper plate, and a little tap next to it where you can wash your hands. I loved fact that the food came with this convenience.

Natural Ice Cream is an import from MumbaiWhen it comes to food, the Delhiwala is not insular; he will try out imports. Momos became popular in the 90s. Now, the Natural Ice Cream chain from Mumbai has made an entry into the posh outer circle of Connaught Place. I’ve never seen a Natural Ice Cream store in Mumbai which is half as big. This one sprawls across two floors, and seems to be perpetually crowded. I tried my favourite classic flavours: a scoop of fig and another of musk melon. They seemed to be the same as the Mumbai version. The first Naturals was the tiny hole in the wall in Juhu which started in 1984 and still does business. The franchises in Delhi started only in this decade.

Amazing that you can eat your way through more than a century of food styles in one evening in Delhi.

Walking through Delhi University

I was in an university after a long time. It wass Delhi University. Drifting through the corridors I found the usual haphazardly piled up stuff that labs are not quite certain that they want to throw away. One of these was a steel cabinet. Stuck to it was the beautiful paper cutout you see above. I love the creativity and dedication of these students: they live their science. I just wish we were able to harness this talent better than we do.

Menu in teh Delhi Univ staff canteenOther delightful things in universities are their canteens. In my student days, in another university, the canteen was the hub of daily activity. University life has not changed that much. The canteen I went to was called the staff canteen, but as usual, the staff was outnumbered by students.

I was told that I could not go wrong with the “burgar”. I did not get a chance to do it right; they were over. I settled for the halwa and a coffee. No matter what you have, the prices are incredible. No wonder the students keep coming back. The prices are good enough to attract me back for as long as I’m here.

Window dressing

Airplane cockpit windows being cleaned Aiport cockpit window blinds

Twice in the last two months I’ve paused while boarding a plane to look closely at the cockpit. Once the windows being cleaned with newspaper. The second time cockpit windows had newspapers taped up, presumably to keep out the glare of the sun. What would we do without print versions of newspapers!

And at least one of them is the pink paper: the stock market is flying high.

What can you eat in Lonavala

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Lonavala is full of shops which say “Maganlal Chikki" in large friendly letters, usually gold on red. The Family never fails to tell me that these shops are fake and the original Maganlal’s can be found in the market just outside the Lonavala railway station. In fact, it is on the main road, and not hard to find. (The sadhu in front of the shop is not a fixture).

Peanut chikkiI normally wouldn’t name a brand, but the fact of the matter is that the generic chikki (see photo here) no longer exists in Lonavala. A decade ago you could find several brand names. A1 was the one which nearly lasted till now. But eventually the name Maganlal drove out everything else. The Family believes that all the other shops make their own chikki and sell it under the name Maganlal, and nothing can be done about it because the name was never protected. I’m not a connoisseur of chikki; they all taste nice but indistinguishable to me. My theory is that Maganlal has a large factory which make chikki in bulk and supplies it to all the other vendors. But every old hand from Lonavala says that there is one shop better than all the others, but they can’t agree on which it is.

Cooper's fudge shop in Lonavala

Instead of being involved in these wars of faith, I’ve found the complete cultural antithesis: walnut fudge. There is exactly one shop in Lonavala which makes and sells fudge, and that is Cooper’s. It also stands next to the railway station, and is hard to miss. When I discovered Cooper’s it was presided over by a cantankerous Parsi gentleman who would dispense the fudge with utter randomness. I’ve never managed to get more than 100 grams of fudge from him. The Family has occasionally been handed a quarter kilo packet. He would open at 11 in the morning and close as soon as the small batch of fudge he’d made got over. I was relieved to see that he has been replaced at the counter by his daughter. But she put me in my place, literally. The counter was surrounded by customers. I waited until one left, and quickly slid into his place. The lady gave me a withering look and said “You will have to wait your turn, you know. Just because there is no queue does not mean that I have lost track of who came first.” She did give me a kilo of walnut fudge, though.

Vada pav with dry galic chutney, chilis and slice onionsThe one lovely bit of food which remains gloriously unbranded is the ghat special: vada pav. The lovely sour-dough roll called the pav goes wonderfully with hot batter-fried potato vada. You always get a generous helping of the dry garlic chutney with the combination in the hills. Its just the thing to keep you going on a long walk.