It’s all in the details

We thought we would spend a leisurely afternoon walking through the Topkapi Palace, but it became more hectic than we had expected. The building of the palace started in 1450 CE, soon after the sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul, and continued until the 17th century. The result is that there is a lot to see, and three hours may feel a little rushed. It is hard to make sense of the palace complex as a whole (a feeling I’ve also had in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and also in the palaces of India), so it is best to concentrate on parts separately. Today I thought I would post a few photos of the Imperial Hall (Hünkâr Sofası) in the harem.

The harem was the private palace of the Sultan and his family, and was controlled by the Queen Mother (Valide Sultan). Like in Indian palaces, the Topkapi Palace had multiple throne rooms, and the one here was for private audience. It was built in the 16th century, burnt down in the fire of 1666, and rebuilt immediately after that. The side gallery (featured photo), where the family sat, is an example of this. The Delft tiles and the Venetian mirror in the photo above was added in the 18th century, The gilded sofa was a present from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. I have no idea where the tall Chinese vases came from, and no photo of the gilded clock donated by Queen Victoria.

The central dome of the room is supposed to be the largest in the palace complex. In this view you can see the incredibly ornamental interior of the dome. This is original, from the rococo style redecoration of sultan Osman III, executed immediately after the fire. I looked up at it until I got a crick in the neck. The Family was engaged in a minute inspection of the tiles. This is a room which reflects the aesthetics of the whole palace: a single look cannot encompass it, you really have to examine the details.

In that spirit, I stop with details of two sets of tiles that caught my eye. This trip was my first exposure to Ottoman ceramics. It seemed to me that the first step in recognizing Iznik tiles could be to examine the bright cobalt blue, white, and red colours under a hard colourless glaze. I would get to see more of these tiles in coming days.


Only Connect

If you thought literature doesn’t move society, you should think again. E. M. Forster’s words have been taken very seriously by almost every living human. “Only connect” is now an epigraph to live by. There is now a clear answer to the ancient question, “What does it mean to be human? What sets us apart from all animals?” A cell phone, and a burning desire to post instantly.

This photo was taken an aeon ago (by Instagram time) in the Hagia Sofia. Looking at it I wonder whether the definition of being human has really changed. Isn’t this just another expression of being a social animal? Each of the people you see here is connected to their social network. Connections grow stronger the more you connect.


Still in light sleep, I registered the fact that The Family had opened the door on to the balcony of our room in Göreme. It was just past sunrise, and the room was full of light in spite of drawn curtains. Then my muzziness was gone when The Family’s excited voice called to me to get up and get my camera. I rushed out with my phone in hand and saw a marvelous sight. There were silent presences hovering in the air above us. It was as if we were inside a story by Franz Kafka, and a tenth of the town’s inhabitants had been turned into delicate teardrops which floated above us.

After some discussion we’d decided against taking a balloon in the morning. It would have been a wonderful sight from up there, but the spectacle from down here was stunning. All the movies about alien invasions, where spaceships come screaming down from the sky, fail to imagine what a stunning sight it is to have a hundred huge things silently floating above you. I went back to sleep, and when I woke later, this was like a strange dream. Only my photo remained to prove to me that what I’d seen was real.

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. It is meant to remind us of the problems we need to solve if we are to continue living healthy and happy lives. “Earth Day Network works year round to solve climate change, to end plastic pollution, to protect endangered species, and to broaden, educate, and activate the environmental movement across the globe,” says the web site of the Earth Day network.

In the last few years, every time I have travelled to a wildlife sanctuary, I’ve seen species after species which could be on the road to extinction. The reason is not hunting or wanton killing, it is just our mindless expansion. So, instead of images of magnificent animals, birds or vanishing trees, I thought it might be good to have a photo of consumption. The featured photo is the dregs of a cup of coffee, which I have coloured green and red. Even this little pleasure has consequences. Multiply a cup of coffee a billion times, one for each coffee-lover in the world, and you have cascading effects through the world.

The most haunted mine in India?

While trying to make a list of interesting places to see in Mussoorie I came across a story of the Lambi Dehar mines outside the town. According to various travel sites (who copy from each other) this is the most haunted place in India; everyone who goes there dies a horrible death, the mysterious screams of half a lakh dead miners ring through this valley, the blood-thirsty laughter of a witch can be heard at nights, there are no birds or beasts around the mines. “Exactly the kind of place I want to see,” I told The Family. It was on the map I usually use, so find our way would not be a problem.

The day we set aside for this started nice, but there was a prediction of a thunderstorm with hail later in the day. By the time we passed Library Bazaar the sky was grey, and wan light was exactly the kind which is best for viewing ghosts. The road was very good, but completely deserted. Our first view of the remains of the mines was perfect (see the featured photo). The road passes a little above the buildings. We stopped the car there and walked down the slope to the buildings. Nitin was happy to remain with his car. The surrounding forest of Banj Oaks (Quercus leucotrichophora) was slowly changing colour, but there was a spectacular orange tree, which I didn’t recognize, in the little clearing we walked down to.

While I was channeling the Chipko movement, The Family had located the spirit which haunts the place. The soft-spoken young man was a fount of information. “Yes, people do say this is haunted,” he admitted. When The Family asked whether he didn’t feel afraid, he smiled bashfully. “Lots of people come here,” he said when we asked about tourists.

That’s why he was there, of course. He runs the little shop in an auto which you see above. I could see that it would be possible for the auto to drive up to the road where Nitin was parked. He smiled again when I asked him if this was the best place for customers. I thought that the side of the road above this place would be a better location, but apparently he preferred to be here in this quiet place. I could see why. I was beginning to relax into the slow rhythm of the place, the bad light, the little chirps of birds.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The abandoned offices of the mining company had become a canvas for artists, and, of course, lovers. I liked that smoker. The idea of alienation seemed odd in these hills, but the exhortation not to become a robot meant that young people here do feel it. Perhaps it is intrinsic in the society we live in. Looking at the ruins, I realized that words and stories come much more easily to us than images. A few paintings, but so much scribbling!

Behind the buildings, in a secluded area these four young people had spread out a picnic. They did not mind me taking a photo. I asked, “You don’t happen to be ghosts, do you?” Laughter ensued, not at all blood-curdling. “No more than you are,” one of them said. I wondered about the internet-wide story of 50,000 miners dead in these mines. If that had ever happened it would have been an enormous disaster. No mining disaster in this area is recorded. Moreover a mining company which employed 50,000 miners in one site would have to leave a huge footprint in media. So what was the real story? The internet has repliated the false story so many times that reality cannot be found by searching for “Lambi Dehar”. A few drops of rain fell as we made our way back to the car.

I was pointed to the real story by this blog. As I’d suspected, the Lambidhar mines, to give it its earlier name, was one of the many limestone quarries in this area which was forced to close by a decision of the Indian Supreme Court in 1996. There is no record of a disaster. After that this site was taken up as a research station in the restoration of the normal ecology of this area. A seven year long project found that eco-restoration improves soil characteristics and allows the oak forest to get a foothold in the area (for example, see this paper). However, when we looked at the quarry site from the road (photo above), it was clear that more than twenty years after closure, the scars of quarrying are still clearly visible. Sadly, reforestation will not be easy. There may be no ghosts here, but Lambidhar tells us that the ghosts of our profligacy will haunt our children for long.

Three postcards from March

March is the cruellest month in the mountains. We often go for a short holiday to the Himalayas in March. The roads are usually open, but the weather is unpredictable. We found a hotel in the Garhwal Sivaliks where we were the only guests, and our room had a spectacular view. Our last day there had been clear (photo below) but clouds began to come in over the high peaks just before sunset. Sunset and sunrise paint the snow in glorious colours. The clouds muddied the colours.

Dawn had been even more cloudy, but it had cleared up soon after sunrise. During breakfast we kept our eyes on the clear view of the mountains. The day was great and the view was wonderful. We decided to travel along a route which would keep the high Himalayas in our view most of the time. This was a day when our luck held, until sunset.

March is cruel. The weather keeps changing, and predictions are not accurate more than a day in advance. When we arrived at the hotel the view we had was spectacular for a photographer (above) but disappointing for a traveler. Every year we keep telling ourselves “Next year we’ll come to the Himalayas in April.” Maybe next year we will.

Entering the desert

It is late afternoon. A short detour from the highway over a bumpy stretch of land, and suddenly we are in the desert. The Little Rann of Kutch seems to be a perfectly flat landscape. I’m lost instantly. There was no landmark that I can see, but the drivers of jeeps here seem to find their way as if on signposted highways.

There must be ways of seeing. This is not barren land, there is life here. Over the next two days I’ll begin to understand its signs. There are clumps of hardy bushes, sometimes even trees. There are insects, birds which eat the insects, and birds which eat the birds which eat insects. There are lizards, jackals, and wild ass. There are scorpions and snakes. Sometimes I can see water in the distance; I will have to learn the difference between a mirage and the water. This is not too hard, it turns out. It is much harder to understand how the drivers navigate.

Now and then there is a hillock. Man made? We come across one near sunset. An imperial eagle rests on top of it. There is dry grass at the base of the hillock, and a white patch, clearly visible even in this failing light. Salt left by evaporated water. The Rann of Kutch lies below sea level, and covered with a sheet of water when the tide is sufficiently high. When the sea level rises this land will be the first to drown.

After the sun goes down the jeep drives around to the east, where there is a thin sheet of water between us and the hillock. The ground must be wetter here than in other places, because there is almost a forest of bushes. I wonder whether the water is permanent. Probably not; there are tyre tracks pointing into the water. Those must have been made when this area was dry. This is a wonderful angle to take a photo from. I’ve never lost cell phone connectivity through the day, so I could share the journey with The Family. Now I send her the last photo of the day.

The Fall of the Python

On our earlier visit to Sohra we’d taken a detour from the Shillong-Sohra road to see the Dain Thlen waterfall. It was a few kilometers away from the main road on a black-top road which was not in perfect repair. There is a interesting story associated with this waterfall. The short version is that Thlen was an enormous snake which would eat every second person who passed this road. It was killed here and cut into pieces (dein is a Khasi word meaning cut) which were thrown over the cliff. The rocks that you see below the fall are supposed to look like pieces of the snake.

Raju drove along the narrow road. We couldn’t see a waterfall anywhere in that flat land, and wondered whether we’d taken a wrong turn. Then we came to the bridge which you see in the photo above, and crossed it. On the far side was a battered board which said “Dain Thlen waterfall”. There was no one in sight. The rocks were uneven and full of large hollows. We parked the car at the edge of the road and walked across the amazing rocks. Where was the waterfall? It struck us after a while that all we had to do was to follow the stream.

Sure enough, the stream tumbled over the edge of a cliff where these rocks ended. There was a safety fence across the edge. We peered over it to look at the stream disappear from view, and appear far away as a narrow river. Now I see from a map that we could have gone another few kilometers down the road, and maybe we could have walked upstream a bit to see the waterfall from below. At that time, without a map, we just followed the fence around to a curve in the tableland. From this other angle I could take the featured photo.

The rocks here were amazing, and I went a little mad taking photos. I guess smaller rocks driven by monsoon waters must have eroded these hollows on the rocks. They are distinctive enough that an alternate form of the story of Thlen refers to them. We left completely charmed by this place, which, at least five years ago, attracted no tourists.

The Door to China

I stood at the intersection between the Shang Xia Jiu pedestrian street and the Kangwang South Road in Guangzhou without knowing that I was at the place which is traditionally accepted as the point where the monk Bodhidharma first stepped on Chinese soil. This was the door through which Buddhism entered China. I wouldn’t have been able to read the full text (Xilai gu an = come-from-west ancient landing-place) even if I had known that there was a commemorative stone here. The nearby Hualin (Flourishing grove) temple which I had visited a few days earlier was called the Xilai (Coming from the West) temple when it was founded in 526 CE, about three hundred years after the arrival of Bodhidharma. The modern name was given in 1654 CE when the temple was expanded.

It had taken us a while to find the temple. I’d followed what I thought was a well-marked road on the map. But the map was not accurate enough, and The Family and I wandered around narrow residential roads for a while before we found a well-dressed lady who directed us to follow her. Trailing in her wake, we walked through the Hualin jade market and reached the gate of the temple. The building inside was definitely modern. It didn’t take too much of a search to find references to the 20th century history of the temple. A part of it was sold off to create housing during the Republican period. All the statues were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and were remade in the 1990s when the temple reopened.

Today the crowds are back. A monk handed us incense sticks as soon as we entered past the two immense dwarpalas who guard the door. Although we are not believers, we took the sticks, lit them and stuck them into the large brazier in the middle of the courtyard. One is polite to one’s hosts. Guidebooks do not mention the fact that the temple is newly reconstructed. Looking at the crowds streaming in, you would not believe that the tradition of going to temples had been interrupted for more than a decade.

The tradition of exchanging money for luck is much more easily visible in China than anywhere else in Asia. I was getting ready to take a photo of the lion with money stuffed into its mouth when the gentleman you see in the photo above came by to complete the picture. The tall metal urn in the courtyard, which you see in the companion photo above, is full of coins. You toss coins into it for luck. Young and old vie to toss coins into the upper level of the urn, presumably you gain credit by doing that.

We entered the hall of the 500 arhats. Temples in China are bustling and cheerful places. The first view was quite stunning, with long cases full of statues of the arhats and the central aisle dominated by the usual Chinese Buddha. For me this is always a little disconcerting: to find representations of an ascetic who preached an end to existence as the ultimate spiritual aim converted into a delighted gourmand. But why not? The Buddha ate kheer after enlightenment. The paintings on the ceiling seemed to have been done on paper and then mounted on the masonry. They were as interesting, and possibly as modern, as the statues in the hall.

An unexpected sight was of the Emperor Ashoka being worshipped in a temple. Ashoka’s lion pillar is a symbol of the Indian state today; identity cards of government functionaries will have this seal on them. In China the lion pillar is a symbol of the Buddhist religion. Ashoka was responsible for the spread of Buddhism through Asia, so it makes sense that he should be held in some esteem. Borrowing from Taoist practices, I suppose he can become a Buddhist god. In any case, this explained why some monks asked me where I was from, and on figuring out that I was Yinduren, remained alert and helpful during the time I spent here.

One corner of the temple was set up with tables and many older men and women sat there eating. I wonder whether this is common, or something that happens on special days. The previous night was Diwali, and often temple festivals are tied to the phases of the moon. So I could not rule out a special event. This twenty-armed goddess stood in a nearby altar. I still haven’t figured out what role she plays in the pantheon.

One of the interesting things about this temple is that one of the arhats is supposed to represent Marco Polo. That’s the one you see in the round hat in the photo above. Since this is just folk belief, I hesitated to ask a monk. The Family cut short my search by taking the bold step of asking one of our friendly monks about this statue, and he led us there. Marco Polo was so taken up by Guangzhou, and gave it such glowing reports, that I’m not surprised that local sentiment favours him.

The most wonderful thing about this place are the 500 arhats. We wandered through the aisles of these larger-than-life statues, occasionally getting a little instruction from a monk in some special aspect of one or the other. I was a little surprised at finding arhats here. Theravada Buddhism holds that the highest level of attainment that a person can have is an arhat, whereas Mahayana Buddhism, prevalent in China, holds that every person should aim to attain the state of a Bodhisattva. This is one of the main doctrinal differences between these two schools. Bodhidharma founded Zen Buddhism, which is a part of Mahayana tradition. So finding arhats in this temple is strange. I was happy to take photos anyway, even knowing that these statues are considerably younger than me. We realized that we’d spent a long while here, and it was time to see the rest of the temple complex.

India’s oldest sea bridge

The two kilometer long railway bridge which you see in the photo above is India’s longest sea bridge, and was completed in 1913. It spans the channel which separates the island of Pamban/Rameswaram from the mainland. I was lucky to be near it when one of the few daily trains from the island crossed the bridge. After seeing a photo in a post by a fellow blogger, I looked up its impressive story. When it was designed in 1911 by the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago, the design was very new. The central span of 88 meters (which you can see in the photos here) are designed to roll up in order to allow ships to sail below. In this century it has been expanded to take modern broad gauge rails, and strengthened to withstand the corrosive salty winds which blow across the Palk straits.

The cost of building a bridge like this a hundred years ago must have been considerable. The fact that it was completed in tandem with a port in the drowned town of Dhanushkodi points to commercial interests, all very well documented. At the tail end of the period of European imperialism, when the bridge was built, commerce between India and Sri Lanka was immense. The attempt to connect Dhanushkodi to Mannar in Sri Lanka by a 21 kilometer long causeway or bridge was slightly too ambitious for its time. The solution that was adopted was to have a high volume port in Dhanushkodi and a railway link from there, over this bridge, to Chennai. That solution lasted till the cyclone of 1964 destroyed Dhanushkodi. The Pamban bridge is no longer a vital economic link, but it remains as an interesting piece of engineering history, still beautiful, and in use.