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.

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.

Court life

Mehrangarh, the seat of the Rajas of Jodhpur contains a gallery of paintings. The ones on show are largely from the 18th and 19th centuries. They show what life at the court was like during this peaceful period in Jodhpur’s history.

A painting by the renowned Mughal artist Dalchand shows Abhay Singh listening to court musicians. The painting contains a portrait of the king, as well as many details of the court. I can recognize the dholak, but the stringed instruments are different from modern ones. The singers have cymbals in their hands. Notice also the lack of tables to hold food, although the wine is on a table. Although Abhay Singh is supposed to have built the exquisite Phool Mahal, this scene is not set in that room.

This painting of a hunt by royal women was extremely instructive. Some women were not cooped up in purdah, but trained in the arts of riding and the use of weapons. I spent a long time admiring the painting of the deer and of the typical Jodhpur horses. The artist’s name is not recorded, unfortunately.

The painting of Holi at the court of Man Singh is an enormously detailed collaborative work by Rai Singh and Shivdas. I found it interesting to compare the portrait of Man Singh in this painting with that of him playing Polo. Notice that Holi is not played by women. Another interesting thing is the differentiation of the troops on foot: some wear white, others have largely bare bodies.

The painting of Man Singh and one of his queens playing polo with other courtiers is by Shivdas. I liked the beautiful geometry of the polo sticks around the puck. The portraits of the king and queen are also executed extremely well. Notice again the Jodhpur horses.

These two portraits of courtiers by unknown artists are separated by three quarters of a century, but shows a nice continuity of cultural style. The courtiers ride with attendants carrying a staff, a whisk, and a hookah. The style of the hookah also remains unchanged. There is little change in the style of saddle cloths too.

I’m sure there are many more paintings with the Mehrangarh trust. I hope they get a curator to put together a larger display at some point. It would be lovely to see such an exhibition. I’m especially looking forward to seeing the very rare paintings which show the life of less exalted people at the court.

Treasures of the Maharajas

Jewel box

The truly posh have always been parsimonious. That’s a conclusion I have come through after roaming through the collections of many major dynasties of the past. The rest of us may agonize over throwing away a jeweled couch to make place for the platinum encrusted sofa, but a royal will just build another palace to house the new.

Mehrangarh is no exception. You can see a collection of palanquins spanning two centuries which is large enough to make you feel that the family has more salted away in various cellars.

In the middle of a large number of decorative pieces I came across the incredibly historical: a sword which is said to have belonged to Akbar the Great. Akbar’s personal armour is in the collection of the museum in Mumbai. The fact that the sword is in Jodhpur is a testimony to the influence that Jodhpur had in the Mughal court during this period.

The oddest thing that I saw was a statue of the local goddess Gangaur. The festival of Gangaur is celebrated even now, and she is said to listen to entreaties of women to keep their men safe. The statue was decorated with enormous pearls.

The Hall of Flowers

The windows of Phool Mahal

Inside the oyster of Mehrangarh is the pearl called Phool Mahal: the Hall of Flowers. Originally built in the mid 19-the century by Abhay Singh, the paintings that we see today come from the 19th century re-decoration carried out by Takhat Singh. I was blown away by the exquisite paintings and the colours of the audience hall.

The central court surrounded by gilded balusters and flutings are derived from the Mughal style of Shah Jehan’s era. The outer part, including the jaali and windows are typical of Marwar. Just below the gilded ceiling is a panel with royal portraits which runs all around the hall. This means that the room was probably used as a private audience hall for the raja to confer formally with ministers and local landholders. Below that is a series of raga mala paintings which use the iconography which had been standardized by the 19th century. This signifies that the place could have also been used for musical performances and less serious business of state.


The Hindi word garh means fort. Mehrangarh, with its sheer walls, is one of the most impressive forts I’ve seen. It was built in the late 15th century by the Rathore ruler, Rao Jodha, who moved the capital here from Mandore, which is about 10 kilometers to the north. The old “blue city” of Jodhpur is contained within its walls, but the modern town lies outside and below the hill on which the fort stands. The estate is managed by a trust headed by the descendants of the old rulers. We found the audio guide very useful.

The outer walls of the fort are chiseled from the underlying volcanic tuff, so that the fort seems to be a part of the hill. During the incredible five year period when Sher Shah Suri captured the Mughal kingdom, he also attacked and captured Mehrangarh. The tall walls of the keep inside the present-day outer walls were built in the 16th century to the order of Raja Maldeo in response to this defeat. Today a lift takes you up to the top of the keep. We took this, and walked down. The inner palaces and their delicate jharokhas were built in the 18th century during the reign of Ajit Singh. This gallery shows photos of all three phases of this structure.

Re-imagining christmas

A week ago, in Jodhpur I was struck by the frequency with which one could see the coloured glass balls, which are usually used to decorate christmas trees, hung from the ceilings of restaurants and hotel reception areas. Eventually I traced the popularity of this innovative tradition to Maharaja Takhat Singh. You see his bedroom in Mehrangarh in the featured photo. After I tore my eyes away from the profusion of painting on the walls and floor, I noticed the glass balls on the ceiling. The Maharaja lived in the mid-19th century when these balls first began to be made. His interior designers would have been one of the early adopters in alternate uses of this German innovation.

Every year could be an occasion to re-imagine what christmas could mean. Because it has no particular resonance with me, I tend to neglect it and fall into a default mode of year-ending self-indulgence. Standing with a glass of wine in a beach-side restaurant in Mumbai yesterday, I noticed a pair of Santas seek out two poor kids and hand each of them a christmas present. One of the Santas, maybe the Banta, took photos. A photo could just be someone’s private jog to memories, but I thought it was more likely that it meant that this was the work of an NGO.

The two excited children ran off with their gifts to a bunch of others playing cricket on the beach. The game was abandoned as the two teams ran to the Santas and queued up for the gifts. I watched as all the presents were distributed. As the Santas walked off I called after them. When they turned around I asked “Which organization?” They shouted back, “SOS” as they walked off into the sunset. When I googled NGO SOS, only one organization popped up.

A rare find

I’d found a description of interesting geological features called welded tuff just behind the walls of Mehrangarh in Jodhpur. The simplest way to get there is to drive out to the road to Mehran fort, and take the fork away from it just before you get to the parking lot. The visitor’s center for the Rao Jodha Geological Park is well marked. A young man sat there with a ticket book. He explained the layout of the park and suggested a trail which would take us half an hour to walk. When we said that we were interested in birds as well, he livened up.

We introduced ourselves. He was Denzel, a local bird enthusiast. It turned out that we had common acquaintances. The bird-watcher’s community in India is still small enough that two degrees of separation connects most enthusiasts. Denzel told us that the area we were in was not the best for bird watching. We thanked him and left.

On our way back from the walk to Ranisar pond, we heard someone calling our names. We looked around, and found Denzel peering out from behind the thick bushes near the path. He asked “Want to see an Eurasian Scops owl?” Didn’t we? I’m always game for owls, although I didn’t know then how rare this species was in India. I found later that there is a population of this migratory owl which winters in Pakistan. Occasionally some stray briefly off course and are seen in India, although most reports (this, for example) of Otus scops in India probably confuse them with the similar Pallid Scops owl, Otus brucei.

Denzel pointed to a small gap in the foliage of a tree. The Family spotted it immediately. After some searching and fumbling, I managed to take the photo which you see above. Taking a good photo was difficult, since the gap was small and the sun lit the front of the owl. We did not hear the owl’s call, nor did it move at all, to shown other features. Denzel was very excited, and said that he’d spotted a pair here first on 22 September, and expected them to leave soon. Now, on 16 December the pair was still around (one was mobile and did not appear until we left).

We mentioned this to a group of bird enthusiasts the next day, and one of them had heard about this pair. He said that several enthusiasts from Delhi had been to Jodhpur to look at them. Vinod, whom we met later, had recorded this bird on 9 October. My photo did not remove all doubts in Mandar’s mind, but Adesh seemed persuaded. He argued, “If they have looked at this pair for months, then they must have checked and eliminated the alternatives.” That’s a good way of saying Occam;s razor. Nothing is certain, but some things become more and more likely.

After many conversations in the last week, I will mark this sighting down as a lifer, but continue to watch announcements. The long stay 500 kms away from the normal wintering ground of this pair is especially rare.

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