Afternoon brilliance

Gasps were natural. When the guard unlocked a side door near the queen’s bedchamber, we stepped into a narrow gallery, and a bright jewel-like light hit us. Surely this was the most breathtaking part of Bikaner’s Junagadh, the old fort. The raja’s private apartment was the palace called Phool Mahal, reputedly the oldest part of the complex. It was simpler than I’d expected. But here was the remnant of the opulence that Bikaner’s wealth would have bought. Situated on a branch of the old silk route, this little kingdom had grown wealthy. This wealth had bought, among other things, the beautiful painstaking work that we saw here: both the coloured glass inlay in the jharokha, and the Sonakin style frescoes on the walls and ceilings. These frescoes were much more elaborate than even the ones I’d seen in the private court room downstairs. The narrow corridor ran along the outer perimeter of the queen’s chamber and was absolutely breathtaking. A single door led out to a narrow balcony outside. I suppose the queen would want to see the sky now and then.

After the death of emperor Alamgir in 1707 CE, feudalism had begun to collapse, and Bikaner’s merchants had already begun to rise to the dominating position such families still continue to have in India’s economy. Comparing the cost of the work in front of us to that in the merchants’ havelis made it clear that the raja’s wealth would have been overwhelmingly more if the later British Crown rule had not taken it over. Some part of it made its way into the British crown’s coffers, of course. But British India was notorious for private corruption; it wasn’t only Robert Clive and Warren Hastings who skirted British law. Much of the disappeared wealth found its way into private hands, and thereby into the general economy of the “home islands”. I guess it took two world wars to drain some of that surplus from Britain.

We’d happened on this place at the best time of the day. The afternoon sun slanted through the jharokha, setting the corridor ablaze with colours. This palace is from the early 17th century CE, but the style of frescoes developed about a generation later. If the coloured glass is contemporary with the frescoes then it would also come from the late 17th century, in Alamgir’s lifetime. There’s much writing about Rajasthani mirror technology of this period, so it stands to reason that a lot of experimentation with glass went on at that time. Coloured glass is a much older technology in India, and it would have been easily available.. In the brilliant afternoon light it was obvious that restoration work was badly needed. I wondered what it would cost now.

Side galleries

Until now we’d taken a straight route through the linked courtyards of the main level of Junagadh Fort in Bikaner. I’ve written about the first courtyard, then the one with the fountain and the Diwan-i-Aam, and finally the one with the private court, Karan Mahal. After this we moved to the side galleries. I’ll talk about them in the reverse order of our visit, because they would then come in the same order as the quads.

In the second courtyard, in the galleries opposite to the Diwan-i-Aam is the private royal temple. Niches on the wall contained paintings from the Ramayana. The flat style without any element of naturalistic perspective perhaps indicated that the originals were rather old, perhaps among the oldest that we saw. One alcove held a small but beautiful statue of Vishnu with Lakshmi, another was a statue in the aspect of a warrior, which I could not identify.

In the section with the Ramayana and the statue of Vishnu, the walls and ceilings were painted with rainclouds, corkscrew bolts of red and yellow lightning coursing between them. In the other shrine, the ceiling and walls was painted in the Sonakin style, gold and other colours on a ground of white stucco. All the doors were painted in the Jangali Sunthari style. I think the door that you see above has panels with paintings of scenes from the Ramayana. I can see the celestial elephant, Airavat, in one.

The galleries next to the Diwan-i-Khaas in Karan Mahal have been turned into a small museum, filled with little things from what once may have been a royal treasury. I saw ivory sandals and jeweled buttons. A walking stick had a handle of gold and jade. A little bracket in the wall, quite unremarked, was a wonderful wooden sculpture of a bird eating berries from a tree. Once these barren rooms would have been filled with a hodge-podge of courtly life. We moved on.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Diwan-i-aam Bikaner

Karan Singh’s darbar was reputedly held in this hall. Once the darbar hall would have opened into the courtyard in front of it through enormous arches. But now perspex sheets cut off the courtyard from the covered throne hall. We walked in from a side entrance to view the place where the emperor and his courtiers gave public audience, the Diwan-i-Aam.

Above the throne was an immense carved wooden ceiling. A hand drawn fan of red velvet hung over it just behind the throne. Red seemed to be a recurrent theme: the wooden throne had red velvet cushions, and the carpet around the it was a deeper shade of red. I didn’t think the naked LED bulbs were part of the original decor. Someone should find lampshades which were used here. But the doors behind, which led to private gardens, were beautifully decorated.

More than the doors, the eye was drawn to the painted ceilings and walls. I would see more examples all through the palace, but these were special. You can see them in the photos above, and also in the featured photo. Karan Singh reigned in the middle of the first half of the 17th century, but the redecoration of this Diwan-i-Aam continued till the end of the 19th century. I believe that most of the decorations we see now come from this later period.

Entering Junagarh Fort

Bikaner was founded just over 500 years ago. The central fort, like the city around it expanded from a smaller core. The earliest extant part of the fort was built about 450 years ago. The temperate regions of the world were then going through what is called the Little Ice Age, but the tropics were nearly as warm as the 20th century CE. The colder polar regions made the world somewhat drier, so the monsoon was weaker. Water and heat were concerns for the architects, just as they are today. The city was founded in an oasis in the desert. The fort was built as palace apartments around courtyards, just like most traditional houses in India.

As we drove in through the outer city gate, I wondered why the fort was so tall. All books said that Junagarh fort was different from other forts of Rajasthan in that it was not built on a hill. We parked, bought our tickets, and walked past the tourist barriers towards the entrance gate. This is called Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) and faces east for good fortune. On one side of the forecourt is a hall, whose door is locked up now. Above it is a stage where musicians would play when friendly royals visited. I’m sure less friendly visitors could find archers there. It was only when I saw the steep and narrow climb to Suraj Pol that I realized why the fort was built high. It was a defensive measure. Elephants trying to ram the entrance could not build up speed on the climb. Also armies would be hemmed into a narrow and steep canyon where they could be shot.

The fort walls were built of red sandstone, the floors of granite. The first courtyard was almost entirely of this local stone. Even so far outside the main court, the jalis and balconies were finely carved. My camera had run out of fuel, so I’d left it in the car, along with The Family’s binoculars, so we couldn’t take a very close look. The carving was elaborate, but did not seem to be very innovative, and consisted of octagonal patterns. The plaster ceiling in the surrounding corridors carried gilded decorative motifs. A single balcony was covered in the blue and white tiles whose technology must have come from China. There have been so many contacts with our neighbour over history that this single fact does not help me date the balcony.

We pushed through a curtain of heavy metal disks hung in chains on the Tripolia gate, and into the second courtyard. This was the diwan-i-aam, the public court. This would have been constructed in the early 17th century. To one side of the gate was a small temple, locked up. There were interesting doors along one side of the quad. “I can use them,” I thought, as I took photos. But the star of the quad was a pool and pavilion, reputedly in Carrara marble. This must have been added a century later. The courtyard must have held people while the king sat on his throne inside the archways. Now they are glassed over. We dithered. Should we proceed into the next courtyard or look at the throne room and then go into the apartments above?

Inside a haveli

We’d spent a fair bit of the morning walking around a single block in the middle of the old town of Bikaner. We had to gawk at every haveli. But every door was closed; we could not look inside. The Family asked “Where’s the hotel?” One of these havelis has been converted into a hotel. We walked about till we found Bhanwar Niwas. The entrance door was beautiful, but the cramped space outside was taken up by a car. I couldn’t take a photo of the door without the car taking up most of the composition. No matter, the arch above it was decorative enough. That’s the featured photo.

We walked past it, crossed a deserted lobby, climbed a short flight of stairs, and pushed open the door to the cramped reception desk. Sorry, they couldn’t let us in. The hotel was fully booked for a fashion shoot, and they were at work. A little discussion, and very reluctantly the receptionist peeked through the door to make sure that the ground floor was not in use. We walked into an opulent corridor. The murals on the ceiling were in the Bikaneri style. But the pastel colour scheme of the pastel walls, and the gold and white furnishings (seriously! Louis XV reproductions indeed!) was more corporate imagination than authentic. Disappointing, I thought. But then the family which owns this wouldn’t give their favourite art works to the hotel.

Stepping into the central courtyard through one of the archways was more satisfying. The decorative stonework of the balconies was more recognizable. The name of the merchant who raised this haveli was worked into the decorations. That seemed in character, but why in English? Was that a late addition? Some of the stone facing was worked in the plain colonial style. Perhaps the haveli was not that old. The receptionist was a recent hire. He didn’t know. It is hard to trace the history of each building. One really needs a historian to write a book about the havelis of Bikaner.

Neither East nor West

Grey light, dusty fields. Dust in the air, dust on leaves. We drove through a dry grassland outside Chhapar village in Rajasthan. We’d passed several pairs of young blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) with horns locked in a silent tussle. Then we halted as one pair paraded past us, their heads in the air, their nostrils distended. I didn’t quite know what was happening, but there was a tension in the bodies of the two young males.

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, // When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Ballad of East and West (1889) by Rudyard Kipling (written under the pen name Yussuf)

They paced each other, as they strutted very slowly past us. I tried to gauge whether they were equally muscular. They looked pretty well matched. Their coats looked equally glossy to me. Their horns were of equal length. I could not imagine either backing down. But one turned. I thought they had disengaged. But no. The other turned too, and they were back to pacing each other.

They stopped and faced off. I had been ready with my camera, but now I tensed for the battle. We war photographers suffer from constant adrenaline. One lowered its head. Were they about to start a battle? But it had moved slightly to the side. It turned, and they were back to pacing each other. The tension was unbearable.

Again, they lowered their heads. And finally, ninety seconds after I’d first seen them, they locked horns. But this was the equivalent of a probing sortie. They disengaged again. But the disengagement was short. In ten seconds they were back in a skirmish.

The next two minutes were a series of engagements and small halts as the two probed and parried. I show you photos of the actual engagements here, but there was a lot of backing off and parading between bouts. I could not see any signs of anyone having an upper, err, horn. But the war ended with one buck lowering its head in submission. Looking through the photos now, I realize that the winner had been slightly more aggressive all the time, forever trying to rise slightly on its haunches and bring its head down on the other’s. You could spot the eventual winner quite early in the skirmish, but it requires some experience and a keen eye. This grassland has no predators for the blackbuck. I wonder whether they would have fought as long and as hard in the days when tigers and cheetahs roamed these plains.

Familiars

Many years ago when The Family wanted to start birding, we discovered that the ship-breaking yard in Sewri was a place where we could watch water birds. We went there every weekend for several months and became familiar with the common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos). Because of its name, I thought it wasn’t of much interest. Later I realized that the name merely refers to how easy it is to spot. And only now I realize that it is a very special species. But before I tell you why, let me just say that when you start watching birds you accumulate many photos of the more common ones, and eventually you begin to see their special beauty. I’m very fond of the featured photo of the common sandpiper which I took in a patch of waste water runoff behind Chhapar village in Rajasthan. I’m equally happy with the photo below of the common redshank (Tringa totanus), another sandpiper, taken in the same place. The redshank’s piping call tells you immediately why the family is called sandpiper. These beautiful waders can be seen across Africa, Asia, Europe, and also in parts of Australia.

Across the American continents one sees the spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius), very closely related to the common sandpiper. So closely related that there is still gene flow between these two species; hybrid lineages have been spotted now and then. It seems that the species split very recently in geological time. Usually when we look at two different species, say a tiger and a leopard, they are not able to produce viable hybrids. However, when you trace them back to their common ancestral population, the distinction becomes less clear. There is a point at which the ancestors of the leopards and of the tigers could not be distinguished at all. A little later they would have been distinct, but still able to interbreed. Only with the passing of time have they come to be as distinct as they are today. The two species of Actitis remind us that the split between species occurs gradually. It amazes me to see this creative act of evolution frozen in time.

A glimpse

Hearing old hands talk of birds you would think that a day’s walk in a forest would give you hundreds of species. At other times you might think that the only way to see that tiny rare brown bird with a marvelous voice is to crawl through leech-infested jungles. I’m no old hand, but I know that you discard most of what you hear. Still, many of them agree that a white-browed fantail (Rhipidura aureola) is often found near mango trees. My first view of them, a couple of months ago, must then have been untypical. I saw two flying about in a deep well outside the arid sanctuary land of Tal Chhapar.

The bottom of the well held a bit of water, but the walls and part of the bottom had been taken over by the invasive Prosopsis juliflora. Maybe they were nesting there, but it is more likely that the relatively damp cover hid insects, and they were hunting. They flew out now and then, and I got a closer and sharper photo when one sat briefly on a branch of the thorny Prosopsis bush. I never got to see it fan its tail. I thought that might be part of its courting behaviour, but I read later that it could fan the long tail to flush insects from cover. The bird is common and widespread in India and eastwards from Myanmar to Vietnam, so I have no doubt that I will see it more often in the future.

Latecomer

When an auto drops you off at the mouth of the mohalla of the Rampuria havelis of Bikaner, which of the many gems catches your eye first? Location is what matters. Right at the mouth of the lanes, on a slight rise is the haveli which faces you. That’s the one you notice first. It’s not a bad choice. A couple in motorbiking gear and a tripod and camera had set themselves up bang in front of it. I took the featured photo, carefully leaving them out of the frame.

The couple was as fussy as the crew in a fashion shoot. I gave them a wide berth as I walked around the building. The north-west facade had the most even light at this time, catching the reflection off the next building. This wasn’t one of the older, more intricately carved, buildings. I thought the design looked like late nineteenth century CE. The woodwork is more modern, the metal fixtures in them are perhaps still available in some shops, the simple flat faces of the stonework imitates British colonial work, the brackets are simpler, and the white and green ceramic tiles under the brackets became widely available after the China trade brought artisans from Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

The couple was still fussing with the camera. I took a closer look at the paintings on the facade. They had the usual mythological themes in a kitschy modern style adopted by Raja Ravi Varma and his ilk. This remains popular even today, as you can tell by the declaration in his Wikipedia entry that he is the greatest Indian painter ever. The style, iconography, and modeling may be imitations of western art, but they are executed well. The saffron dhoti of Krishna is not the industrial orange that it is today, so the paintings predate Amar Chitra Katha comics. The paintings alone date the building to the late 19th or early 20th century CE.

The couple had given up on the tripod. The man approached me and asked me to take the shots. The two of them posed on the motorbike in helmets and goggles and directed the shots. Satisfied, they left. I was finally free to take a photo of the front door. Not terribly imposing, but interestingly different from the rest of the buildings. Every other haveli had a statue of Ganesha above the main entrance. This one had Krishna. I think I’d nailed it. This was a late addition to the havelis of Bikaner.

Two cisticolas, two grasslands

Cisticolas are easy to photograph once you have spotted them. Like many other insectivores, they like to perch somewhere and watch for insects in the neighbourhood. When they spot one they spring into action, and then come back to perch. If they change their perch, they’ll alight somewhere nearby, so you don’t have to move to sight them again. They are small birds, 9-12 cms in size. If you are photographing them with a zoom, then with judicious positioning you could try to get a nice bokeh.

Zitting cisticolas (Cisticola juncidis) are quite common across India, and found from southern Europe to northern Australia. I’ve been seeing them for several years, but got photos for the first time in February this year at the arid grasslands of Tal Chhapar in Rajasthan. Previously I’d only seen it near lakes; perhaps there was water somewhere close. The day had dawned cloudy but the sun was out when I spotted it. I noticed that it manoeuvres well in the air even though its tail is short and stubby.

My first sighting of a Golden-headed cisticola (Cisticola exilis) came a month later, across the country in the lush green grassland of Manas in Assam. This one is less widespread, but is found right across India, all the way down to southeastern Australia. Like C. juncidis, it is a small and light bird, less than 10 gms in weight, heavily streaked, and breeds in the monsoon. Both lay eggs in nests constructed by tying living leaves together. Off breeding season they are similar in looks, but this one has a golden-yellow band across the back of the neck, and has a significantly longer tail, which has a different shape. I should look out for it in the breeding season, when its head turns golden-yellow.

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