Managing crowds

In the featured photo I wanted to capture a story of resilience in the face of the enormous economic turmoil that the pademic brought. These two women had probably lost their incomes, but, between waves, they had started a new business: catering quick lunches for office goers from the back of their SUV. The womens’ faces are roughly at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds intersect. Horizontal and vertical lines of thirds divide the picture into nine rectangles. The interior of the car sits in the middle rectangle, where your eye first lands, before it is drawn away to the visible faces, and then to the bananas in the lower right rectangle, and finally the off-camera man with his open wallet. There is movement in the photo, but knowing the rule of thirds makes sure you are not distracted by these compositional rules as you take the photo that you want. Rules of composition are always useful. We use a fullstop to tell people where a sentence ends. It makes reading easier. I don’t break this rule, ever, … unless my thoughts interrupt themselves. The rule of thirds is also a compositional rule. You use it as much as you need to. Any rule is meant to make communication easier, not to distract you endlessly. What is important is the message you want to give. Especially in shooting street scenes, you need to do things fast. Practice the rules, but don’t let them distract. Distil the scene in front of you to an image as quickly as possible.

After the first wave most people thought the pandemic was over. Just before Christmas day of 2020 I took this photo in a lovely open space outside Panchgani. Nothing much to the photo if you see it out of context: just ordinary people out having a nice time. But knowing the date gives you a sense of how forced this spontaneous fun was. I had my eyes on the couple and the photographer. As soon as the second couple walked past, I realized that I had my image, and clicked. The rule of thirds is roughly achieved, each couple is aligned along the vertical third. The face of the man in front is at the intersection point of the lines of thirds. He looks back at the photographer, leading your eye there, and from him to the other couple.

A year before that, on a crowded beach in Kochi, I captured two fishermen playing a game of chess. Tourists were busy taking photos of the Chinese fishing nets behind them. I took time off to watch this game. The background was too crowded and busy and I didn’t know how to bring out a sense of two people battling. Then one of them made a move that the other didn’t like, and I got my photo. The man’s open mouth is at the intersection of two lines of thirds. The other person’s hand is at the diagonally opposite intersection. The man’s eyes give you the movement that is essential in a photo. The tension is more important than the rule. Use the rule, but don’t be lost in it.

China is full of people taking photos. I began to develop my ideas on ambush photography in China: it gives you a sense of what life there is like. Here’s a couple on the city wall of Nanjing, posing for their wedding shoot. Standing well away from their photographer and his crew, I got this shot which looks like they posed for me. The photography crew was moving back and forth, the couple were walking. I didn’t have time to measure the picture space (I switch off the guide lines on my viewfinder; they distract) but clicked. The woman’s face is at the intersection of the lines of thirds. The slight fog behind them sets them off from the city, and I was really lucky with the light. November 2019, China. A poignant photo.

A few days later, in Wuhan, another wedding shoot, and another opportunity for ambushes. This spot in front of the Old Customs House was always crowded with photo crews. I had to work quickly to isolate my subjects. I’d spent a few days in the most crowded places in the city, and I was feeling a little under the weather. I put it down to tiredness, as I took this photo. The photography crew takes the center of the photo, but I created a little movement by placing the couple’s faces in the intersection of the line of thirds, and balancing it with empty grey space at the lower right. There’s a personal addendum to the story of this photo. A few months later, when the media was saturated with advise on how to tell if you have been infected, I realized that I’d already been infected when I took it. Too many symptoms matched for it to have been anything else. I spent the next few days feeling very tired, and unwilling to drag myself out of bed. Fortunately, I’d begun to recover by the time I caught my flight back.

I don’t take street photos in portrait mode very often, but this one needed me to turn the camera round. On a visit to Ujjain in July 2018, on the banks of the Shipra river, one of the holiest of places for Hindus, I got this image of the patriarchy which is part of the religion. In the center is a linga, being worshipped by a young, perhaps newly married, young woman. She is in colourful clothes, matching the flowers that she’s putting on the linga. Behind her is an old widowed lady in her mandated white. Without thinking much, I put the young woman’s face at an intersection of two lines of thirds, the other woman’s hand at another. The barge below draws the eye towards the empty third of the photo. Don’t be distracted by rules, use them as you tell the story that you see in front of you.

Coins of Malwa

The Indore museum is not large but has a very interesting collection. The Family and I spent a couple of hours wandering through it. One of the first rooms we entered had a collection of coins. I have seen some wonderfully curated collections, and others which are haphazardly put together. Since I’m not fanatically excited by coins, I tend to pay attention only when the collection is curated well. This was surprisingly interesting.

I’ve written about the history of the Malwa region over several posts. The earliest coins in this collection came from the time that Ujjain was a republic, and after the time of the Buddha. Soon after this time the republic was incorporated into the Mauryan empire. The next coin was strictly not a coin of Malwa, but one which certainly circulated here: that is the golden coin in the featured photo, from the time of Chandragupta II. At this time Britain was a Roman colony. The copper coin of Narvarman Parmara is the next in historical sequence. He ruled around 1100 CE. In the larger world, the Hoysala empire was reaching its peak around then. The next two coins come from the age of Mandu: one from Hoshang Shah, the builder of the citadel, and one from Baz Bahadur, its last Sultan. The last two coins are from the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Maratha queen Ahilyabai.

The coins of the Ujjain janapada are close to the origins of coinage, before the round shape of coins became an established convention. I wonder about the significance of the elephant symbol on these coins. A hundred year old publication says more about the weights and measures of the coins of Mandu. The square coins were common in Mandu, and several other parts of north India, having been adopted from the coinage of Ala ud-din Khilji. Interestingly, the coins of Ahilyabai seem to use the Persian script.

A most supercilious bird

Walking about Ujjain’s Jantar Mantar I was expounding boring theories about the resurgence of medieval astronomy in early modern India when I heard the harsh call of a peacock. The Family clearly found this call electrifying. She broke off towards the tree where the call was coming from. The bird wasn’t hard to spot. It was sitting right there in the shadow below the canopy and calling loudly. It looked down its beak at us for a while, like the villainous Shen from one of the Kung Fu Panda movies.

Peacocks must be terribly common in Malwa. Just the day before, I’d seen one perched on top of a dead tree next to the highway, doing nothing except looking faintly ridiculous. I find them fascinating when they walk about on the ground. When one is up on a tree its exaggerated train looks exactly like out-of-control clothes on a dandy. When all other pheasants I know of are shy creatures, who run away at the sight of humans, I wonder why the peafowl is so indifferent to us.

In fact, when you browse the IUCN Red List you find that most pheasants are endangered due to loss of habitat, but not the peafowl. It has adapted to humans. It cannot be an accident that the peafowl is most closely related to turkeys, another species which has adapted to humans. I haven’t found detailed studies of this adaptation, but one of the most important reasons must be that they do not eat crops, and therefore are not considered to be pests. Are they also able to use the disturbed landscape efficiently to forage in? I’ve seen them in gardens and forests. Are they generalists in terms of utilizing landscape for breeding? I haven’t come across answers to questions like this. Perhaps there are studies but they are hard to find.

The Lord of Time

Mahakaleshwar is the main temple of Ujjain, dedicated to Shiva in his aspect of the Lord of Time. The temple is mentioned in the Skanda Purana, which dates from the 7th century CE. A version of the temple was destroyed by Iltutmish, Sultan of Delhi, when he sacked Ujjain in 1235 CE. The present structure was built in 1736 CE by the Maratha chief Ranoji Shinde. It is one of the few jyotirlingas in which photography is forbidden. I was disappointed, because a few months before I’d taken photos of the beautiful Paramara era sculptures in the nearby jyotirlinga of Omkareshwar.

The Family and I had a tea in the surprisingly quiet interior of a restaurant on the bustling street in front of the temple. “Do you mind if I get my camera?” I asked her. She said, “It’s a busy little street. Lots of photos to be taken.” We walked back to the parking lot and got my camera.

The street food looked good. As I took a few photos, a courteous middle-aged gentleman came up to me and opened conversation. “The poha that Indore claims is actually from Ujjain,” he told me; “Try it here and compare.” I promised to do that. He was a fount of information about small local things. He asked me whether I needed a guide. I declined, and he continued the conversation. My opinion of Ujjain went up after talking to him. This was a wonderfully civilized way to offer a guide’s services.

The conversation showed me how the lords of time must laugh at us. The poha was Ujjain’s, now it is Indore’s. We eat food which we think is traditional, and will last for ever, without noticing how fast it changes. An Oxford Don writing a story notionally set in a fictional early European universe constructed fictitious languages and a cosmic mythology with great scholarship, but had his characters eat “taters” and tomatoes, and smoke tobacco. None of these could have been seen in Europe before the end of the 15th century CE. We really pay little attention to food and its history.

I stood in this highly commercial street. The surroundings of any temple is like this. I loved the invisibility that I got from being an obvious non-buyer. As a result, I could see many little dramas play out around me. I hope you like the small gallery of photos here. As always, you can click on any one of the

The God of Endings

There was a short break in the rain when we reached Kalabhairava temple. Bhairava are the destructive aspects of Shiva, and Kalabhairava is one which is supposed to bring about the end of time. This has crossed over to the Tantric Buddhist tradition in various forms, including the Yamantaka, who is supposed to bring about the end of death, through the ending of time. There was already a temple to Kalabhairava at this site when, in the late 18th century CE, the Maratha chieftain Mahadaji Shinde came to pray for success in battle. After winning the battle, now known as the third battle of Panipat, he replaced the old temple by a new one in 1775 CE.

The entrance gate is a typical late Maratha structure. I’d hoped to walk around the temple looking for the remnants of the older Paramara era frescos and the remnants of the old statues of that time. Unfortunately, there were too many restrictions on what was possible, and we gave up on that utopian idea.

The Family noticed something which had escaped me. “Do you see that there are no women here?” she asked. Indeed, now that she had pointed it out, I did. The probable reason is that the standard offering to the Kalabhairava of Ujjain is alcohol. Across the parking area in front of the gate was a line of shops selling things needed in the rituals of the temple. If you examine the photo above, you can see baskets with a ready made kit of all that you need. Nestled among the flowers is a bottle of alcohol. Near the foot of the attendant is the empty cardboard carton in which these bottles had been packed. I couldn’t trace the origins of this custom: could it be due to the Marathas, or is it older?

Ram ghat of Ujjain

We walked up to Ram ghat past a signboard saying “Balmukund Ashram”, through a lane, on one side of which were stalls selling religious parapharnelia, and a tall Maratha-era dharamshala on the other. My imagination of ghats is dominated by those of Banaras, and I was certainly not expecting the sight that met my eyes. Ujjain’s Ram ghat is more subdued, people come here in the normal course of their lives. There are many priests waiting for custom, but the commercial bustle of Banaras is not to be seen. The featured photo shows such a priest, quite relaxed in his silk kurta, but keeping an eye out for custom.

I walked out on the pedestrian bridge connecting to Narsingh ghat on the far side of the Kshipra river, the better to take a photo of Ram ghat. All ghats are made in the form of steps parallel to the flow of the river. In the middle of the monsoon, the river was quite high: about five or six steps led down from the promenade to the river. On the landward side of the promenade there are the main temples and their associated dharamshalas behind high walls. A couple of centuries ago they would have been the last barrier against flood waters. On the river side are smaller shrines, each with its own priests. There were many bathers here, including several extended families. It is hard to imagine the crowds that come here for the Simhastha Kumbh Mela.

The lady whom you see in the photo above had a bagful of bottles which she was filling one by one with the waters of the Kshipra. It is considered to be a holy river after all. Her lightly coloured salwar and kameez, with the white dupatta, perhaps means that she is a traditional widow. If so, a trip to a holy river is one of the few outings that she will treat herself to. She filled many bottles as I watched. I guess most will go to members of an extended family. Some perhaps will also be given to her neighbours.

The Maratha era building which you can see in the photo above dominated this portion of the ghats. It is hard to imagine that the pleasant Ram ghat I saw is the site of a Kumbh Mela held every 12 years (the next one is in 2028). The state transport ministry claims that 75 million people visited Ujjain’s Kumbh Mela in 2016. Even if the number were smaller, it would be a major feat of crowd control. In fact, if one searches for scientific papers on the Kumbh mela, one is overwhelmed by the number of studies of crowd behaviour, biohazard, and other safety issues. I used to wonder about the origin of the Kumbh mela in Ujjain. Kalidasa’s poem Meghdoot, from the 5th century CE, talks of Ujjain but not the Kumbh mela. Maratha sources from the 18th century CE ascribe the beginning of the mela at Ujjain to Ranoji Shinde. Since he was one of the main commanders of the Maratha forces which won Malwa, and he declared Ujjain to be his capital, this is not an unlikely history. It is possible though that many of temples here had their own melas, which they combined into a single mela at the urging of Ranoji. It has grown significantly since then.

Enigma, wrapped in Mystery

Every travel blogger, whether hunched over a keyboard or relaxing with a drink, is a little Amundsen struggling across unmapped ice fields, or a closet Schliemann dynamiting a way to their own Troy. But sometimes one fails. Sometimes, one is a luckier Scott, one who lives to tell the story of one’s failure.

My attempt to visit Rumi ka Maqbara in Ujjain was a failure, which resulted in a single photo, the one you see above. When I saw this name in Wikipedia’s list of places to see in Ujjain, I was intrigued enough to search for more. Very little is written about this tomb, and sources even differ on the century of its construction. Is it from the 15th or 17th century CE?

And this Rumi, who was he? Certainly not the Sufi poet Jalal ud-din Rumi, because he is buried in Turkey. After some search, I found a description of late medieval Sufi traditions, called silsila, which lead to something which might be closer to the truth. I knew nothing about Sufism, except for their increasingly popular modern remnants: the songs. Could this be the tomb of Khizr Rumi Qalandar? The Qalandari sect was founded by a Spanish muslim in the 13th century CE, and the Anatolian, Rumi Qalandar, appeared in Delhi in the 13th century CE. He and the Chishti saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki instructed each other in the mysteries of their own Sufi traditions. Khizr Rumi began the Qalandaria-Chishtia tradition of India. He could well be the Rumi whose maqbara I was reading about, because this kind of syncretic Sufism was a very popular alternative to the state supported Islam of Malwa in the 14th century. I can’t be certain about the connection without knowing more about the history of the structure I wanted to see. But if all this speculation is correct, then the tomb could be from the late 13th or 14th century CE.

Google maps has a pointer to this place, and even a photo of the tomb. It looks completely different from the usual Indo-Afghan or Mughal tombs that I have seen. So we decided to drive there, and promptly lost our way. The place is not accurately mapped in Google (the photo is correct), but we came to a Muslim cemetery at the place that Google puts the maqbara. People there knew about the tomb, and gave us precise and correct directions to it. Following their directions, we came to a mound on top of which the tomb, not visible from the road, sits.

Later we found a signboard which correctly points to the tomb. But first we turned to a motorable road up the mound. This was a mistake. We should have parked the car and walked up the mound. After much fruitless searching and querying of locals, glimpses of the tomb from a distance, we came to a very well-maintained farmhouse on top of the hillock. Across fields I could see the tomb. There was no one to ask permission from, so I walked into the farm as far as I could go. A wall and another farm lay between me and the tomb. I clicked the photo that you see, and got back to the car just before it started raining. We decided to circle the mound once more, and this time we found the signboard and the right path. But it had started raining hard, and this muddy path between fields had turned into a gummy slush.

So close! Very reluctantly we gave up. Another time I have to return to take photos of the inscriptions in the tomb, and find someone to decipher for me the riddle of the enigmatic Rumi whose mysterious tomb this is.

Time bound

When I was a young boy I read a story called Intangibles Inc, in which a corporation sells intangibles, such as a purpose to your life. Our trip to Ujjain turned out to be similar. Ujjain has a history older than Rome or Xi’an. One of the most ancient pieces of lore about the city is that it lay at the intersection of the prime meridian and the Tropic of Cancer. This prime meridian is one of the many intangibles that dogged our half day in Ujjain.

Different cultures use different prime meridians, and the one that used Ujjain’s longitude is the ancient Hindu culture, whose computational apparatus is still embedded into the religious calendar. The computational recipes can be found as poems in a text called the Surya Siddhanta (which would translate as Solar Treatise). The oldest version of these algorithms comes from a manuscript written before the birth of Alexander, and probably collects together recipes known from significantly older times. This book places Ujjain at the center of its computational cosmos. The standard day, for example, began at the time of sunrise in Ujjain.

As a practical matter, I knew that Ujjain would be like Banaras, full of medieval rituals and 18th century temples located in a city which is older than recorded history. The oldest sites that we know of are ancient temples, and even these are only at about the midway point between us and the oldest known version of the Surya Siddhanta. I had read about parts of temples which were a little less than a thousand years old. I created a detailed map of these locations, although I did not expect to be able to access these spots. I was right. Eventually, walking through Ujjain gave us only an intangible connection to the oldest history of humanity.

So I was happy to walk into an observatory built here by Sawai Jai Singh in 1725 CE. He was a Mughal courtier, the king of Amber, the founder of the city of Jaipur, an avid amateur astronomer, and a scholar. He assembled a team of astronomers from three cultures: those who knew the Hindu astronomical texts, a set of people who knew the Islamic texts on astronomy, and a company of Portuguese Jesuits who knew European astronomy. He sent delegations abroad to collect books and learn about astronomy from foreigners. Eventually he built five observatories in various parts of India, driven by a perception that accuracy is important. The time-keeping instruments in the observatory in Ujjain would connect this 18th century structure to the most ancient text that we have regarding Ujjain.

The computations of the Surya Siddhanta were clearly incorrect by the early 18th century CE. Many of the numbers in the treatise are correct only to 1% by modern standards. This is true, for example, of the statement that Ujjain is on the Tropic of Cancer. If that were correct, then Ujjain should have been 57 Kilometers north of its position. This is an error of almost 1%.

Sawai Jai Singh’s instruments are built in masonry, as you can see in these photographs. All four photos show what he called the Samrat Yantra of Ujjain, something that we would call today an Equinoctal Sundial. It is built large in order to gain accuracy (this sundial gives an accuracy of about 2 seconds in the measurement of local time). The photo above shows the gnomon which casts a shadow on the dial whose photo you can see below. In the featured photo you can see how the gnomon and the dial are placed.

The huge gnomon points towards the true north. So the staircase makes an angle to the ground which is exactly the latitude at the spot where it stands. This is the principle of the equinoctal sundial. At the base of the staircase which is this large gnomon you can see a barrel with two smaller sundials. These are oriented in such a way that on the days of equinox you can tell the time by either. In summer the south-facing one (visible in the featured photo) will be in shadow, and in winter the north-facing one (visible in another photo above) would be unusable because it will be in shadow. We walked around this instrument on the birthday of Alexander the Great, when weather conditions in India generally render any sundial useless.

This gave us time to consider the greatest mystery about Sawai Jai Singh. Although he assembled a stellar cross-cultural school of astronomers, how did he miss out on the most important advances in astronomical history? Why did he continue to improve an outdated medieval astronomy? Galileo had invented the telescope in 1609 CE. Copernicus had published his treatise on the heliocentric system in 1543 CE. Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published in 1687 CE. And Sawai Jai Singh was eager enough (for a king) to learn about the most advanced work on astronomy from across the world. What went wrong? I asked The Family these questions as we walked around the observatory.

The answer that I find most believable is given by Prof. Virendra Nath Sharma (a copy of his paper is here, and a refutation is here). Prof. Sharma holds the Portuguese team of Jesuit priests responsible for this. He thinks that they followed the church’s proscription against teaching the Heliocentric system and Galileo. But this does not explain why Jai Singh’s team did not learn about the Vernier scale, which were invented in 1631 CE. The intangibles keep adding up.

Planning a visit to an ancient republic

I thought we could make a brief day trip out of Indore to Ujjain. It is one of the ancient Indian cities, along with Mathura, Banaras, and Patna. There are chalcolithic remains being excavated nearby, and there is no reason why during this period there could not have been a polity which eventually came to be known to history as the city of Ujjain. The earliest mention of Ujjain which I could dig up was purportedly from the 7th century BCE, before the time of the Buddha. That period of Indian history was a time of republics- janapadas. One can read brief descriptions of the form of government they followed in Kautilya’s manual of statecraft: Arthashastra. Some of the formal structures of the republics even made their way into the organization of the early Buddhist assemblies, sanghas. In any case, the walled city of Ujjain was then the capital of the Vidisha janapada, on a major trade route from Mathura southwards, and later was famous for one of the first Buddhist stupas. Nothing of this survives.

The Family asked, “What is there to see?” A little search told me that there was an archaeological dig of a stupa reputed to have been built by Ashoka’s wife, Devi, in the 3rd century BCE. This was the very same Ashoka who later built the largest pre-Mughal empire in India and whose sons and daughter left Ujjain to spread Buddhism across Asia. Ujjain’s appearance in the classical Sanskrit poems and plays of the 5th century CE, the Gupta period, would hardly have left any trace on the ground. They would impose a lens of romanticism on our view of the river Sipra (photo above) which flows through the city.

Perhaps a visit to Ujjain would be similar to a walk through Banaras. The city’s history would be hidden by the constant rebuilding of ancient temples, first mentioned in the Skanda Purana, written in the 7th century CE. Only a mindful archaeologist would be able to guide us through the temples rebuilt in the 18th century CE and point out the tiny signs by which you could tell that the site was continually occupied for over a millennium. Everything we see will be old, buildings and customs (featured photo), but nothing but the stories and the river would be three millennia old. So, to The Family’s question I replied “We will probably not have time to visit the archaeological digs. So maybe the only things we will see are medieval mosques and tombs, and the temples renovated by the Marathas.”

Indore plans

Some years ago, The Family and I went for a very short holiday to Mandu. The way lies through Indore. We spent only a couple of hours in the town on the way back. I remember seeing some cenotaphs (chhatris) of the 19th century Holkar rulers (photo below). We walked through a place called the Sarafa Bazar and found it interesting but less than spotlessly clean. Today Indore is ranked the cleanest city in India. There’s an interesting story behind this transformation. It is also something that made us think of going back to see the city.

Perhaps as a result of this clean up, the street food scene in Indore is something that gets lots of attention on blogs. I saw blogs by Selcouth Explorer, the former Dilliwali Taste Memory, the local expert Megha and the wonderfully named Follow the Eaten Path rave about street food, but naming very different things to eat. There is clearly a lot of variety when it comes to street food of Indore. Two places which crop up over and over again in stories about food in Indore are Sarafa bazar, which is apparently open till two in the morning, and Chhappan dukan in New Palasia, which has 56 different food stalls. I guess the question of where to eat will become an issue in Indore.

Historically, Indore rose with the Maratha empire. In the first third of the 18th century the Nizam granted rights to the Malwa kindom over to the Peshwa, who then handed the town of Indore and the district of Malwa to the Holkar chieftains. Indore remained the main garrison town although Ahilyabai moved the capital to nearby Maheshwar thirty years later. The palace complex of Rajwada was built in 1866, after this move. I discovered some photos from our visit (the door above, and the featured photo) which turn out to be of Rajwada. The Family and I have no independent memory of having been here: so I guess we will go back to see it. The Lalbagh Palace, which also seems to be one of the major sights, was built by a Holkar well after the final defeat of the Marathas in 1818. We have certainly not seen this. Nor have we seen the Jain temple made of glass, the nearby Jama Masjid, the three century old Khajrana temple, or the less well-known British era red and white churches.

Indore is the gateway to several interesting places nearby. The Family and I have already been to Mandu and Maheshwar. I visited Omkareshwar a while back. So there are few other places to see nearby. Is Dhar interesting enough to make a one and a half hour drive? If we have to take one trip out of Indore, would we rather go to Ujjain, which has been continuously inhabited since 700 BCE? This means that I have to read a lot more.