Exactly 22 years ago, on 26 January 2001, the continental plate of India stretched a bit, relaxing kinks that had formed during the breakup of Gondwanaland 140 million years ago. The resulting earthquake, around 8 on the Richter scale, flattened the town of Bhuj. When we visited two years ago, the town had built back. Signs of this were in the profusion of metal grilles that stood where wooden doors would earlier bar an entrance. Disasters can accelerate trends, as all of us see today.
Some have gone back to the old style panelled doors which were common across the edge of the Thar desert. More than taste, it was clear that practicality was important. Open metalwork was visible where privacy was not a concern, like blocking entrance to stairs that led up to a flat on an upper floor. In the villages that cluster around the town, doors usually stand open. A locked door, like the one in the featured photo, seems to be more a symbol than actual prevention. That seems to be a nice relaxed lifestyle. What are neighbours if they cannot be trusted?
One exposure lasts about a hundredth of a second. Maybe ten times longer. Perhaps ten times shorter. But the objects that are captured by the motion of electrons in the sensor may have lasted a century. That is 300,000,000,000 times longer, give or take a zero. Does it matter if the thing you are photographing is a thousand years old instead? Or only a decade old? Just give or take a zero at the end of those 11 others.
I saw a bubble released by a child, undulating across the sky, trying to achieve that perfect spherical shape in the short life time that it had. Was its shape more important than the shimmer of colour across its surface?
A scatter of painted oil drums outside an artist’s studio was a work in progress. Did I steal his work, misappropriate it by taking a photo before he could pin down his own vision? Would it have been morally different if I’d waited a few years and then taken a photograph which imposed my vision over his?
Catherine Opie said that sunsets and sunrises are the biggest cliches in photography. Ansel Adams said that a good photo is knowing where to stand. Henri Cartier-Bresson said sharpness is a bourgeois concept. David Lynch said that no matter what you mean, everyone is going to get something different from it.
Is an eclipse the shadow of one sphere passing over another? Or is it a rabbit being swallowed by a snake? In your imagination does it matter which is true? Nothing is written in stone, is it?
These photos were taken over three years and six thousand kilometers: a fraction of my life. They share one quality. They are inanimate circular objects which seemed beautiful to me at the time I took the photos. Now I wonder what I captured, the object, or the state of my mind?
Gertrude, do visit Bhuj to correct your mistake. (You too William; a rose would taste as sweet.) I had heard much about the chain of sweet shops in Bhuj called Khavda. Not being a Kutchi speaker, I assumed that the name was the imperative case of the verb “eat”. So I was quite surprised later when I passed the village of the same name. Apparently the shops are called after the village, because the family which owns the chain comes from there.
My first reaction was “A typical sweet shop.” Their topmost shelf displayed something called roasted barfi (that’s the tray on the right in the photo above). I asked for a sampler. The Family looked at me quizzically. “I’m full. And in this heat I don’t want to taste any sweets,” she said. When it comes to sweets (rather, when I come to sweets) I set no conditions; the antique Greeks called it agape. The barfi was nice, but it couldn’t be what they are famous for.
The Family didn’t want me to do a systematic taste test to figure out what they are famous for. She short circuited the process by asking the friendly young owner of the franchise. He pointed out the rose sweets. Two of them lay in trays side by side, in an obscure shelf. Clearly you don’t need to make a fuss about displaying what everyone knows is your best. The one on the left was the regular rose, and the other was roasted. This time The Family joined me in the tasting. The roasted rose passed muster. We packed a box to share with the bird watching group which would assemble the next day. Watching birds makes you a little peckish, I find.
“Anything else?” I asked Siddharth, the young man. He pointed out the special rose sweet, each individually packed. How long would it last? A couple of days without refrigeration. We couldn’t take it with us on the trip but we would pass through Bhuj again on our way out. Except that we would arrive very late and leave early in the morning. “Not a problem,” Sid told us. “We’ll deliver a box to your hotel.” That was done then. He sealed the deal by offering us a sampler of salties. The Family added a couple of them. She feels peckish too after a morning’s birdwatching.
It was the week of Ganapati puja, the equinox, and the beginning of the festival season. So the countertop was laden with trays of modak. I sent a photo to friends as my way of wishing them. Some are purists. One wrote back “These aren’t modak. They are just pedha stamped out in modak-shaped molds.” That’s right. The true modak is a thin rice-flour shell filled with grated coconut sweetened with molasses, folded into that beautiful shape before steaming. And they are made at home.
Ram Singh Malam, the Kutchi polymath, designed a palace for Rao Lakhpatji, a rajah with an equally wide-ranging mind. It was called Aaina Mahal. A literal translation would be Palace of Mirrors. I prefer to call it the Palace of Illusions. When it was built in 1750 it must have been a stunning sight. Faults in the Indian continental plate which developed 180 million years ago during the breakup of ancient Gondwanaland triggered an earthquake of magnitude 7.7 on Republic Day, 2001, in Kutch. Bhuj is about 20 kilometers away from the epicenter, and the palace was badly damaged. It had housed the state museum. In the aftermath of the quake, many of the pieces that remained were stolen. The restoration is slow because of the lack of funds.
Looking at the palace today, you have to work hard to imagine the opulence that impressed people even thirty years ago. Visiting in the early 19th century, a Marianne Postans wrote a travel memoir called Cutch; Or Random Sketches, Taken During a Residence in One of the Northern Provinces of Western India; Interspersed with Legend in 1839, where she describes the palace in these words, “Feeling quite inadequate to the task of presenting the reader with a catalogue raisonné of all the unnamable articles of virtù, which adorn this chosen retreat of luxurious royalty, I must request him to imagine himself introduced, by some wholesale glass dealer, to his sample room, where, amongst jelly glasses, and old vases, are introduced some half dozen antique musical clocks, all playing at once, and the whole display brilliantly illuminated by large wax candles at noon-day!”
A small part of the palace has been restored and is on display, as part of the state museum. The rooms are now overcrowded, and you have to spend time to examine all that is on display. I’m afraid that the time we spent was not adequate. Still, I must make special mention of the doors in this palace. Fantastically decorated doors are a specialty around the Indian Ocean, from Kerala to Konkan, north around the coast in Gujarat and Arabia, and down to Zanzibar and Malindi. Even among them, these are amazing. I wonder which was the door that a colonial Governor General was prevented from taking away as a gift to Queen Victoria.
This is also a good place to say something about the architect, Ram Singh Malam, whose portrait hangs in one of the galleries of the palace. Little is known about his early life, except that he was born in Okha, at the mouth of the Gulf of Kutch. His early life was spent as a sailor. He was rescued from a shipwreck by a Dutch ship bound for Netherlands, where he spent eighteen years learning a variety of crafts: glassblowing, architecture, clock making, enamel work, foundry and gun casting, to name a few. You can see his influence in the cast iron structure of Aina Mahal, and its once-famous mirrors.
The mirrored ceilings were an invention of Malam. The gallery around the room called the Fuvara Mahal, the wonderfully designed music chamber, the bedchambers, and the inner corridor all have ceilings in this style. They require restoration, but given the magnitude of the post-earthquake restoration needed, I was happy that at least they gave some indication of the former opulence of this palace. The Kutchi school of painting developed largely due to the royal patronage given at this time. I was entranced by the painting with the flamingos. It catches the terrible beauty of the Rann very nicely. I was happy to see a portrait of Rao Lakhpatji eventually in a niche in one corner. The tour of the palace would have seemed incomplete without portraits of him and his architect, Ram Singh Malam.
When we left the palace complex of Bhuj, it was definitely time for all reasonable people to sit down to lunch. Our mid-morning breakfast of the local street food had left us too full to think of such mundane things. We walked into the bazaar and old town which inevitably accretes around a palace. A regular grid of narrow streets greeted us. Was this a couple of centuries old, or the result of the reconstruction after the 2001 earthquake? Some of the standing structures looked like they were built earlier than the 21st century. So perhaps the grid of streets is older. That would be in line with the relatively progressive ideas of the old Raos of Bhuj.
We walked along until, as is normal with us, we hit the food market. The municipal market was in an early-20th century style, and seemed remarkably free of earthquake damage. Perhaps it has been repaired. The peaked corrugated metal roof certainly seemed renewed. We’d arrived too late to see the market in full swing, but there were still a few vendors at the stalls. The variety of fresh produce on display was a little surprising at first. This could be a market anywhere in India. I suppose cold chains have revolutionized the transport of farm produce in my lifetime. The only sign of old Kutch was the heap of red chilis laid out by one of the vendors.
The mid-day heat was intense. We were genuinely at the edge of a desert. I was glad to see a tea stall outside the market building as soon as we stepped out. It had a fan, and the man running the place invited us to sit under it. But there was a breeze and shade outside too. We preferred to sit out and watch the street going about its daily life. The hot, milky and sweet tea eventually arrived. It’s strange how refreshing that can be on a day like that.
Prag mahal is possibly the first example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, with its design completed in 1865. I’d posted a quick tour of the darbar hall last week. This week is another quick tour to see the delightful meld of cultures that created this style: spiral staircases desecending from Indo-Greek architecture, clock towers, Victorian Gothic exteriors, and the riotous sandstone sculptures made by local artisans.
Whether you take the street entrance (with its massive door) or the entrance from the century older Aina Mahal, the first view of the new palace is that of an European building transplanted into India. But almost immediately you begin to see the differences. The exterior stonework is more reminiscent of Mughal influence, or possibly the Iberian Mudejar style, than of Victorian Gothic.
A closer look confirms this. The facade, with its regular spacing of arches, surmounted by stones in contrasting colours, and grand mosaics with geometric motifs, is redolent of the Iberian blend of east and west which goes by the name of the Mudejar style. The clock tower and its spiral staircase became a fixture in the Indian monumental architecture of the 19-th century, and is a British influence carried here. So are the cast iron railings on the staircases. The lancet arches and the massive pillars had already developed in early modern times, diffusing through the Mughal court into Indian architecture. The decorations on the ceiling are in a local style. The effect of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake are clearly visible. Some of the stone work on the facade and in some of the minor arches are visibly damaged.
One historical artifact that was not stolen in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake were the cannons that are displayed at the entrance. A plaque told us that it was a present from Tipu Sultan to the Rao.
For me one of the highlights of the building are the sandstone sculptures on the capitals of the numerous columns in the palace. Whether it is frogs standing in for the three wise monkeys, herons swallowing fish, a caterpillar being harried by a bird, a rat looking for a pigeon’s nest, or simply horse heads and foliage, each capital is unique. The local sculptors preferred working in sandstone. This is a relatively simple medium, and, since it comes from neighbouring Rajasthan, would be cheaper than transporting harder stone from further afield. However, sandstone also weathers faster. Already, in just over a hundred and fifty years, you can see the exterior-facing parts of the capitals are more eroded and the parts which face in.
Court art in Kutch is said to have started suddenly in the mid-18th century, perhaps during the reign of Rao Lakhpatji. This connected with the collection that I saw in Aaina Mahal in Bhuj. One interesting set was called reverse glass paintings. As I understood, the painting is made on a sheet of extremely thin glass, and is meant to be viewed from the clear side. According to the information posted in the museum, businessmen from Kutch who traveled to China in the 18th century brought back the first examples and presented some to the Rao. Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou were specifically named as sources. Little has been written about art in the court of Kutch, and this set of paintings raises multiple questions.
The note in the museum says that businessmen began to commission portraits and mythological scenes. There are only a few of these on view. The features of people have Chinese characteristics, but the clothes and jewellery, even colour schemes, are similar to what you see in Kutchi paintings of that time. I wonder whether there are Chinese records of these paintings, or records (on either side) of the commissioning and execution of some of these paintings. There is a forgotten history here which some one needs to investigate. The context of the paintings reminded me of later Patna miniatures, painted in the Mughal style but featuring English men and women who commissioned them, wearing the formal clothes of the 19th century.
It is hard to photograph these paintings. They are displayed in a tiny room with bright lights which create multiple highlights on the surface. Some of the paintings are clearly damaged. But they are so very interesting that I hope a museum or two undertakes to bring them to a wider audience temporarily.
Hot fafra with a handful of papaya chutney, a couple of quick-fried green chilis, and some jalebis to balance the taste. All wrapped up in a cone of old newspaper. And chai. That’s the breakfast we’d looked forward to when we arrived by the early morning flight to Bhuj. We refused the breakfast buffet in the hotel and asked Sikandar (oh yes, the name is the equivalent of Alexander) to take us to his favourite roadside breakfast place. He looked a little taken aback as he said “It’s a little late for breakfast, but let’s see.”
It was late, but not very late. We could get the breakfast cart to fry up some fafra. I love this breakfast. Everything is fried. A nice change from our usual yoghurt and fruit, or toast and cheese breakfasts. But Sikandar had a different muqaddar in mind for us. As our driver for the day he’d appointed himself the representative of overwhelming Bhujio hospitality. Before we’d finished, he dumped a couple of paper plates on the table. And then the cart chap slapped another packet wrapped in newpaper on the table, along with a plate of syrupy chutney.
At other times we love dhoklas. These were hot, fluffy, steamed pieces. We wouldn’t have minded them at all. But in the streets of Bhuj you don’t just have dhokla. You have a plateful of loaded dhokla: drenched in savoury and sweet chutneys, topped with spiced yoghurt and sev, and with fried green chili on the side. The other newspaper packet unfolded to reveal crisp dal pakodas. We were busy sending photos to friends and family, and getting more suggestions for things to eat in response. The only sensible statement came from an old college friend, “Seems like a lot.” I would remember it the rest of the day.
Since we had a very short stay in Bhuj, I tried to create a shortlist of places that we could see in half a day. The palaces and the old town around it kind of select themselves. There were some warnings that the palaces had been damaged in the earthquake of 2001, but others assured us that some of the damage had been repaired. A palace complex with some buildings dating from the early modern period is not something you pass up.
When I drove in through the gate of Prag Mahal I had not expected something which looks like the nearly contemporaneous Mumbai’s CST (the erstwhile Victoria Terminus). This palace was built in the mid-19th century CE, at a time when the Gothic Revival was all the rage in England. Fusing this style with the local craftsmanship yielded something we should definitely count as one of the earliest examples of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The design by Henry St Clair Wilkins predates F. W. Stevenson’s design of the Victoria Terminus and other buildings in Mumbai by more than a decade (construction of the palace started in 1865). For this reason, one could view Wilkins as a possible originator of the Indo-Saracenic style. I will return to the palace again, but I wanted to post about the darbar hall separately.
After paying for our entry, we entered a corridor which led up a flight of stairs to the darbar on the first floor. The tiled floor and the arches looked European in sensibility, but, on a closer look, turned out to be Indian. You can see the luxurious details of animals and vegetation of the jali in a photo above. It was executed in Rajasthani sandstone. The floor of the darbar, on the other hand, used Italian marble. The look of the darbar was much more European than the rest of the building. This was probably a response to colonial British pressure on rajas to conform to European norms or lose their nominal independence.
I noticed one detail just as we were about to wander off. If you look at the view of the door at the top of the stairs in one of the earlier photos, you might notice a smudge in the glass. These turned out to be beautifully executed etchings. You see two examples in the photos above. Like the medallions on the arches in the darbar, this was another piece of art executed entirely in an European style. The design was the visual equivalent of code switching, long before the term was invented. But the resulting fusion of two different artistic styles gave rise to interesting architecture with a long life.
Mornings are dark and blue now, at the end of the monsoon. We spotted the colour in the sky as we walked towards the small turboprop which was to fly us to Bhuj. The tarmac was lit up by bright lights as we entered the plane. The Rann of Kutch was our destination. This is a vast swamp formed in historical times by the geology of India. As the Indian plate continues to sweep north-east at the grand pace of five centimeters a year, it raises the plain of the Indus and the vast desert around it fast enough that historical records tell us of the Rann being cut off from the sea to form first a vast inland lake, and then a salty marsh. Rivers come into being and disappear, the weather changes, wealthy civilizations rise, fall, and are forgotten. This is a marvel of geology that few think of as such.
The town of Bhuj was the starting point of our trip. The Kutch was the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2001, as two geological plates released the stresses due to their movement. Since then Bhuj has not had any buildings more than three stories high. Standing at the edge of the Thar desert, it has had its share of the monsoon rain this season. The place was hot, already 26 degrees as we landed early in the morning. The day gradually became a sultry steam bath. Walking through the crowded lanes of the old town outside the palace walls, we were happy to pass under the shade of huge sheets of cloth hung up overhead to provide shade. The desert sun filtered through them. The vast geographical variety of India spawns varied lifestyles and sub-cultures, more than are dreamed of in some philosophies. We moved from one shade to another, eyes adjusting to new colours at every transition.
The palace complex turned out to be quite fascinating. I had forgotten that this was a rather important kingdom until a hundred years ago. Even sixty years ago it was so rich that the former king bailed India out of crises. My attention was caught by a collection of ancient glass plate photographs. They come from the very earliest days of photography, and are among the first attempts to capture the light of old days and preserve them artificially. I took a photo of the negative on the glass plate. One button on Gimp creates a positive out of it. This image is almost a hundred and twenty years old. The Maharaja, possibly Khemgarji III the Progressive, is seated in the center, flanked by his sons, while his diwan and other ministers stand behind him.
This was planned as a bird-watching trip. We had to leave the city and travel into the desert. This strange land provides a niche for several specialized species. Also, at this time of the year it is a stop-over for several species on their biannual migration. To get there we had to drive. The land is full of nomadic animal herders. Late in the evening flocks of animals, sheep and goats, or cows and buffaloes, or herds of camels would use the road, leaving only a narrow gap for motorized traffic. I tried to catch a photo of such a flock in the scatter of light from our car’s headlights.
The desert is the preferred habitat of scorpions. Most are tiny. All fluoresce under UV lamps. It is easy to walk through the rocky desert at night with an LED torch light set to UV. As you swing it around, any scorpion in the area will immediately fluoresce. Seasoned naturalists will tell you that they even glow in moonlight, but that glow is something I can’t recognize. The UV torch lights that are available in the market are bright enough that you can photograph a scorpion by one.
The scorpion was relatively benign. But the saw-scaled viper, Echis carina, that we nearly ran over on the road later was not. They are among the four deadliest snakes in the country; some say deadlier than the cobra. Our driver, another birder, gently urged it away from the road with a stick. I took a photo in the penumbra of the car’s headlights. You can see the pattern which gives this genus its name. Hopefully this individual won’t be roadkill. It had been a long day. The bird sightings would come the next day.