Zig zag

Sometimes, on a quiet day, I’ll page through old photos. Looking at 2017 I saw quite a variety of urban architecture. Let me take you through it roughly in chronological order. The featured photo is from Chicago, looking along Chicago River from Eastside towards River Point Park. The river is a feat of engineering, its direction of flow having been reversed at the beginning of the 20th century CE, and its course straightened between 1928 and 1930. I took this photo in February of 2017.

I found an interesting contrast with the ruins of the early modern palace inside Ranthambore National Park. Situated on the banks of the Raj Bagh lake, the middle-Mughal era pleasure palace is now given over to tiger watching. I don’t have the spectacular photos that you see of tigers inside this abandoned palace. The lightly engineered lake with a palace next to it was typical of the courtly architecture of pre-colonial India. I took this photo in January.

From March of that year I have a photo of the 11th century Rajarani Temple in Bhubaneshwar. The dull yellow-red stone called Rajarani in Odiya makes this one of my favourite temples. The 18 meter tall tower has an unusual five-fold symmetry. The clusters of rounded turrets that support the central tower look quite different from the other temple spires nearby. It is said that this style resembles the temple architecture of Khajuraho.

I would like to pair the temple with the image of the 12th century Marienkirche in Berlin which I took in November. However, there is little left of this old structure. What the photo shows is the 19th century and post-war restoration in characteristic red brick. The TV tower of Alexanderplatz looms in the background. The Family and I walked around this area on a gusty and overcast evening. The sky was a muddy brown from the city lights reflecting off it.

Churches in the middle of cities are never more forlorn than in New York. On a grey October day I walked by the Presbyterian church on Fifth Avenue and took this photo of New York’s mid-town towers looming over it. Completed in 1875, the 85 meters high brownstone steeple was meant to dominate the architecture of the city. But its time came to an end within a couple of decades as the invention of steel scaffolding gave rise to the skyscrapers that now dwarf it.

Glass and steel were the fancy new building materials from the end of the nineteenth century on. The new material seemed to annihilate the difference between indoor and outdoor. You see the delight that architects took in it across Europe. A friendly example of it was the San Miguel market, built in 1916. Not only did it allow in the beautiful light of June, it was also a place where you could relax and enjoy good wines and gourmet tapas. We spent more than one afternoon here.

Before steel and glass, and concrete, took over the world, the architecture of a region would be influenced by the material available. If New York was brownstone, the Sahyadris are full of this beautiful porous rock generically called volcanic tuff. Walking about the Kaas plateau in September looking at the strange wildflowers of the region, adapted to the unhospitable thin and metal rich laterite soil, I came across this abandoned colonial era bungalow. It was built from the red tuff dug out of the plateau. The bungalow looks like it was constructed about a century ago, give or take a couple of decades, and abandoned half a century ago. The walls are perfect, and with a little work on the roof it can be easily used again.

Let me end this tour of interesting architecture with a photo from December: the early modern fort of Mehrangarh in Jodhpur. The massive stone walls from the 15th century still show the scars from cannonballs which failed to bring them down. Standing at the base of the fort wall, you can see the wonderful palace loom over you. I was curious about the material used in the palace. It turned out that it used a mixture of granite, sandstone, and brick. A sturdy base, but with light and airy rooms which can soar up. The oldest palaces and forts of India which you can still see are about five or six centuries old, and this is among the oldest.

How do you drink water

Waiting at a rooftop restaurant for an alu paratha is a good reason to watch parrots trying to drink water at a fountain. Most of the birds perch at the end of the bowl below the fountain and drink from it. This one looked puzzled. How do you get at the water. Do you pick at it?

That wasn’t very successful. So it flew up to the top of the fountain and sat on the jet. Squirt? Hmm, not very efficient. Perch on it and bend to drink? Might as well join the band below if I do this. Hop up and down? Not very filling. Ah! Hover over the jet and drink from it! This one was a true Rube Goldberg of rose-ringed parakeets.

Blue city doors

The Family and I started talking about our walks through the blue city of Jodhpur in the December of 2017. The narrows streets were lined with old houses, each closed off by a grand ceremonial door. But these doors were seldom used any more. They had inset doors for daily use which stood open.

Through these open doors we could see that the grand houses had been cut up into little apartments; some perhaps even hold the impoverished descendants of the pater familias who build the original mansion. The citadel of Jodhpur dates from 1459 CE, and the early years were full of wars. So this part that we walked through, just outside the ramparts, must date from the early modern era. It is quite likely that the oldest structures here date from the 17th century.

The blue city is no longer a middle class enclave. You can judge that by the importance of the ration shops (featured photo) and the poorly stocked grocery stores. In this relative poverty, all houses are dilapidated, and look ancient. We peered through an open door into a calm and sunny interior courtyard, shaded by trees (photo above). From the bricks that were visible, I would guess that the house was built in the second half of the 19th century. But the residents of the blue city will consider anything that existed before their childhood to be ancient, and it is not unusual to be told that something is a thousand years old.

The middle of the 19th century was the beginning of nearly a century of recurrent epidemics of plague which swept across the world. Before the invention of antibiotics, they were quite as deadly as today’s viral epidemic. The narrow streets of the blue city would have been devastated. I guess that is the time when the richer inhabitants left this part of the town for the new town, with its wider roads and better zoning, on the other side of the citadel.

Door with Goats

Walking through Jodhpur, I saw this striking doorway with two goats tied up outside it. The door brought to my mind the story that V. S. Naipaul reports about his father, Seepersad. The father was the first journalist of Indian origin who worked for the Trinidad Guardian. As a confirmed rationalist, in one of his articles he questioned his compatriots’ belief in animal sacrifice. This incensed members of his community who forced him to sacrifice a goat. According to Vidia Naipaul, his father did not recover from this humiliation.

What form did my father’s madness take?
He looked in the mirror one day and he couldn’t see himself.
–Conversation between V. S. Naipaul and his mother
(in Finding the Center)

I’m sure that a clever writer like Naipaul meant something more with this reported conversation than just what one reads. I’m pretty certain that Naipaul the son presents this conversation as a metaphor for Seepersad’s inability to comprehend those in his island who believed in animal sacrifice. I wondered as I took this photo what I did not see here. How strange to find a resonance with Naipaul’s Trinidad in this distant town!

The Luck of the Clock

The Sadar Market of Jodhpur sprawls symmetrically around the clock tower in the center. Most of the market is about a storey high, so you have no problem telling the time, no matter which shop you are in. One of the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Sardar Singh, had caused the market and the tower to be built. I’m usually too lazy to climb a tower. There are several clock towers in the part of Mumbai where I live, and the thought of climbing one never enters my mind. But this was only four storeys high. Not a problem at all.

I could find very little about the tower. I asked the person who was selling tickets for it. He told me to talk to the man who maintains the clock. I never found how high it was, although I guess it is less than 30 meters tall. A local newspaper, Patrika, claims that the tower was completed in 1910, and the clock installed in 1911. The clock was built by Lund and Blockley, the same clockmaker who had supplied the clocks to the University and the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai.

Mohammad Iqbal, the man who runs the clock, did not know much about its history. He said his father had been the first person to maintain the clock, and that he had been appointed to the job in 1968. The newspaper article claims that the the father, Allah Noor, took five years to repair the clock after it broke down in 1991, and was subsequently appointed to look after it. Whether 1968 or 1991, I found it hard to believe that a clock which requires daily manual setting would have run for decades without someone to look after it.

I find it easier to believe that there was a succession of keepers who would do routine work on it, such as winding it, or keeping it oiled. Allah Noor may have come to this job in 1968, as his son claims. It is possible that when the clock broke down in 1991, as the newspaper story would have it, and no one could be found to repair it, Allah Noor took on the challenge. The newspaper story and Md. Iqbal’s version agree that after the father’s death in September 2009, Iqbal inherited the position of time keeper. Lucky as his name, it would seem.

Iqbal was happy to be photographed. He pointed out the three weights which power the escapement mechanism. The tall room behind the clock faces is a little cramped because of the massive wheels, escapements, and gears which run the dials on the four clock faces. The thick stone walls would not have come cheap; I could believe the newspaper’s claim that in 1910 the tower and the clock took Rs. 3,00,000 to complete. It is hard to calculate inflation rates before the founding of the Reserve Bank in 1934, especially since different princely states had their own rupees. If we assume that between 1910 and 1934 the value of the rupee remained unchanged in Jodhpur, then the clock and the tower would have cost about 7 crores and 30 lakhs of 2017’s rupees (that is INR 73 million).

I wasn’t ready to climb up a ladder to the cupola, so Mohammad Iqbal’s place of work was the highest point I got to. The light inside the clock room was challenging, but I managed to take the photos that you see here. Iqbal said that he is helped by his son, Mohammad Shakeel, who, he hopes, will succeed him as the time keeper. I wished him luck, and came down the stairs to meet The Family. She’d found a nice bench on the terrace of the first floor, and was busy watching people in the market below.

Jodhpur’s Old City

Even if you have memorized the map of a new city, you have no feel for its life until you have walked through the streets. I’d left all the planning for Jodhpur to The Family, so I was constantly surprised. It began with my surprise that she chose a hotel right inside the old city, nearly at the base of Mehrangarh. After that the city laid out surprises one after another. We arrived, had lunch and decided to go for a walk. The temperature was twenty five degrees below Mumbai.

The roads of the old city are narrow. Cars will not be able to reach most places, so the default mode of transport is a motorbike or a scooter. Buildings are beautifully decorated. The traditional blue of the “blue city” is a mild colour obtained by adding natural indigo to lime wash. The bright blue of some walls is always a modern chemical paint, and the brightest are those on the walls of cheaper hotels. A surprisingly large fraction of buildings are faced with the local red rock which is often called Jodhpur sandstone. Quite a few use the golden stone of Jaisalmer. The light was wonderful. People and horses were doing their own things. There was something new around every corner. The Family and I were happy to lose ourselves in an unguided walk, occasionally peeping through open doors.

One and a half billion lives

Today is the 68th Republic Day. So I thought I would post pictures of some citizens of the country. These are not faces which appear on TV or in newspapers. They lead ordinary lives like you or me. My life intersected very briefly with theirs. I cannot imagine a thousand different lives, but there are almost one and a half billion different ones in this one country. Can you imagine yourself into the shoes of these few?

The photos were taken within a few days in Rajasthan. But for all you and I know, they could be a fairly representative cross section of the whole country.

Birds of Rao Jodha Park

Little cormorant

We were trundling along a dusty semi-desert countryside when suddenly two birds flew across the road. The Family and I said simultaneously “Black-headed Ibis.” We stopped the auto and saw that behind the rocky wall on the left was a large but shallow lake. This was full of birds. Northern India, even the arid region of Jodhpur, is full of winter visitors. We got in an unexpected bit of bird watching, with multiple lifers.

The lake was Devkund, a part of the Rao Jodha desert park. Later we had an interesting lifer elsewhere in the same park. My lifers are marked in bold-face in the list below. Amazing that we had two lifers in a place where we were not aware that there was birding! Our bird list would have been longer if we had binoculars with us.

  1. Black-headed Ibis
  2. Common coot
  3. Gadwall
  4. Eurasian wigeon
  5. Mallard
  6. Common teal
  7. Great cormorant
  8. Little cormorant
  9. Common pochard
  10. Knob-billed duck
  11. Black-winged stilt
  12. Little grebe
  13. Egrets
  14. Red-wattled lapwing
  15. Red-vented bulbul
  16. Jungle babbler
  17. Indian robin
  18. Purple sunbird
  19. Black kite
  20. Long-legged buzzard
  21. Blue rock pigeon
  22. Eurasian scops owl

Rao Jodha Desert Park

Ranisar lake, Mehrangarh, the blue city, and red welded tuff

We hadn’t heard of the Rao Jodha Desert Park before we looked at a map of the area around Mehrangarh. Nor, it seems, had the auto driver. We had to coax him along the well-marked road to the visitor’s center. An enthusiastic young man called Denzil then marked out a short route for us on a map of the park and explained what was special about the place.

The 700 acres within the old city wall of Jodhpur was painstakingly freed of an invasive species of plant, and local species were planted into the holes left by the deep roots of the invader. Repairs to the city walls were completed in 2005, and the process of recovering the desert ecology was started the very next year. The unlikely banker behind this army of eco-warriors was the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Mehrangarh, the fort which Jodhpur grew around, stands on a hill of volcanic rock made of hard rhyolite, the mineral which also forms the volcanic plugs called the mesas of Arizona. Here, they stand in flat slabs which you see everywhere. Around this is a softer rhyolitic rock called welded tuff, which is made of volcanic ash pressed together while still hot. There is a red coloured welded tuff which is commonly known as Jodhpur sandstone. Our walk took us down an ancient aqueduct quarried out of the crack which formed between a face of the welded tuff and the hard rhyolite, so we got a good look at both (see the two photos above). You can easily see the difference in the photos here. The path led down to Ranisar lake (featured photo). Very logical for an aqueduct to drain into a lake, I thought. The blue city and the fort can share this water. Wonderful planning against sieges which seldom happened.

We passed many different kinds of trees and bushes. Over the next few days I learnt to recognize the cactus-like bush of thhor (Euphorbia caducifolia), the leafless spurge. This was also my first view of the tangle of leafless stalks called the kheer khimp (Sarcostemma acidum) or rambling milkweed. The kheer is added to the name because of the milky sap it exudes from a broken stalk. There were stands of geedar tambaku (Verbascum chinense) and many other shrubs and herbs which I still cannot recognize. You can see some of them in the photos (do let me know if you can help me identify them). Many of these can also be found deeper in the Thar desert.

The desert park behind Mehrangarh with red welded tuff

Later on our walk we met Denzil again, when he showed us one of a pair of vagrant Eurasian Scops Owl which had nested in a thicket of trees. Walking back with him we learnt a little more about the effort involved in restoring the ecology of the area. That’s a story which newspapers have carried, so I won’t tell it here.

Jaswant Thada

Jaswant Thada lies on the way from Jodhpur to Mehrangarh. This cenotaph for Jaswant Singh II, ruler of Jodhpur, was built in 1899 by his son, Sardar Singh. The white marble building with its profusion of domes stands above a tiered garden built with red stone walls. We passed the super-sized equestrian statue of Jaswant Singh II, and walked past Devkund before we saw the warm glow of the marble structure in the morning sun.

We were early enough that there were very few other visitors. The place is full of whimsical touches. We passed a memorial to a peacock which is supposed to have flown into the funeral pyre of the king. We walked around the mausoleum and peered into its main hall. There is a silver throne in the middle of the hall, and portraits of the Rathore rulers hang on the walls. Pigeons roost everywhere, passing through the exquisitely carved marble jali. We descended into the small but well-maintained garden to see the three other memorials. There was a great view of Jodhpur from the far corner of the garden. As we walked back towards the entrance we had a great view of Mehrangarh.

It is a nice and peaceful place, and we got in a little unexpected birding in the lake behind the mausoleum. More about that in a future post.

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