Saturday, December 10, 2005

Returning from Delhi

Finally, the departure from Delhi is at hand, after nearly two-and-a-half months in India. The blog posts will now be sporadic, till further travels beckon. But before signing off for now, here are some pictures of the Qutab Minar and Red Fort areas of Delhi.

The inscription on the 1600-year-old rustless Iron Pillar of Delhi near the Qutab -- most likely erected to honor Chandragupta Vikramaditya in Udaygiri and later carted to Delhi -- reads:

He, on whose arm fame was inscribed by sword, when in battle in the Vanga countries, he kneaded back with his breast the enemies who, uniting together came against him - he by whom, having crossed in warfare the seven mouths of the river Sindhu, the Vahlikas were conquered, he by the breezes of whose prowess the southern ocean is even still perfumed, he the remnant of the Great Zeal whose energy, which utterly destroy enemies, like the remnant of the great glowing heat of a burned out fire in a great forest, even now leaves not the earth, and gone to the other world, moving in bodily form to the land of paradise won by the merit of his actions, but remaining on this earth by the memory of his fame -- by him, the King, was attained sole supreme sovereignty in the world, acquired by his own arm and enjoyed for a very long time, and who, having a name of Chandra, carried a beauty of countenance like the beauty of the full moon, having in faith fixed his mind upon Vishnu, this lofty standard of the divine Vishu was set up on the hill called Vishnupada.

Friday, December 09, 2005


In the Siwalik hills of the lower Kumaon lies one of the world's foremost nature reserves -- Corbett National Park -- home to over 500 of the 1200 or so animal and bird species found in India. The park is named after Jim Corbett, the famous British hunter and writer, whose Man-Eaters of Kumaon and The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag are still worth a read. "Carpet Sahib" often reluctantly responded to villagers' requests for help to kill a man-eater, but in the end he shot more with his camera than with his gun.

At the forest camp Dhikala deep inside the park, we see the Ramganga river flowing through magnificent stands of sal, rohini and haldu trees -- habitat for wild elephants, tigers, leopards, boars, deer like chital, sambhar, barasinga, alligators and crocodiles, monitor lizards, black bears and hundreds of species of birds.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Old Delhi

In 1675, Iftikhar Khan, Aurangzeb’s governor in Kashmir, was ordered to set about converting the Kashmiri Pandits to Islam by force. Those who would not succumb to the emperor’s pleasure fled for the Punjab. A delegation of the Pandits approached the ninth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Tegh Bahadur and sought his protection. The Guru pronounced – Go tell the Mughal that we Pandits will gladly accept conversion if Tegh Bahadur the Sikh is persuaded to do so.

It is not clear what Tegh Bahadur thought the escalation steps would be, nor how he planned to negotiate with the Emperor. The Sikhs' military might was still quite nascent, and it is quite possible the Guru was carried away by the bravado of Dharma. Teg Bahaur's reply was duly conveyed to Aurangzeb, and orders were issued for his immediate arrest. Installing his son Gobind as his pro-tem successor, and taking leave of his family and followers, Tegh Bahadur began the journey to Delhi with three devoted Sikhs, the Bhais Mati Das, Sati Das and Dayal Das, in order to meet the Emperor. On the way, the Guru halted for the night at a village near Ropar. There he and his companions were taken prisoner and whisked away to Sirhind fort. After some months, they were brought to Delhi in chains. If you are a Guru, his captors asked, show us some miracle. That would amount to an interference with the work of God, Tegh Bahadur replied; He works in mysterious ways, if He wants to get involved He will.

The Emperor ordered torture. Mati Das, Sati Das and Dayal Das were brought to an open space in Chandni Chowk, where now stands a fountain. First, Bhai Mati Das was sawn across from head to loin. Bhai Dayal Das was pushed into a huge cauldron of boiling oil and Bhai Sati Das was roasted alive, with moist cotton wrapped around his body to prolong the agony. A chained, hanging Tegh Bahadur was made to witness the deaths of his companions. Convert and we will cease, he was told. After a few days of refusal, on November 11, 1675 at 11 o’clock in the morning, the Guru was brought to the open space and beheaded. His son Guru Gobind Singh, says in his autobiography Bichitar Natak (Strange Drama):

To protect sacred thread and forehead mark, in the dark age of Kali
He performed the supreme sacrifice, for the sake of Dharma
He gave away his life , without so much as a sigh from his lips
Gave his head, not his honor.

Sis diya par sir na diya. The area is today called Sisganj, and the gold-domed Sisganj Sahib gurudwara stands on the spot of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur -- a stone's throw from the towering minarets of the Jama Masjid and the ochre ramparts of the Red Fort. Nearby is the famous Paranthey-wali Gali, where pure-ghee parantha bars stuggle to survive the onslaught of a new breed of fast foods -- the McDonalds 'Family Restaurant' stands across the street.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Rajdhani Express, Howrah to New Delhi

It is time to leave for Delhi. It turns out that Howrah station is celebrating its Centenary this week. Scenes of Howrah above.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Faces: 4

Friday, December 02, 2005

Calcutta Scene

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Calcutta Sarees

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

India from the Air

Juhu beach area, Bombay; Rajarhat just outside Calcutta; The Narmada River flowing through central India; The Kamtapur province south of Darjeeling; The Ganges Delta; The Himalayas; Mt. Everest, poking out of clouds in the corner.

Monday, November 28, 2005


The mysterious carvings at the Elephanta rock-cut caves, on an island off Bombay about an hour’s ferry-ride away, are thought to be a synthesis of Chalukyan and Gupta art forms dating, it is thought, to the 4th century. We do not know who created them, how they were conceived or executed, why or when they were abandoned. The square pillars with rounded lotus capitals are distinctly Chalukyan, yet the sensuous grace of the carvings are closer to the Gupta renaissance after a thousand years of Buddhist-dominated subject matters.

The towering Sadashiva – Eternal Shiva -- carving in Cave 1 at Elephanta has not been surpassed in Indian art. It is a colossal yet serene representation of the five-faced Shiva, whose three frontal aspects are visible as Mahadeva – the lord of the gods; Bhairava – the destructive aspect of divinity; and Vamadeva – the creative i.e. female aspect of Shiva. The fourth face is hidden from the viewer, and suggested to be a Nandi-borne Pashupati or lord of beasts. The fifth face of Shiva is transcendent, beyond human comprehension, and is never carved in the Hindu tradition.

To your left as you face the Sadashiva is a carving of Ardhanarishwara – a half-male and half-female synthesis of divinity. The other gods pay homage to Shiva in this symbolization of the wholeness of creation – note Brahma borne by a flock of geese, next to Indra mounted on his elephant.

The carving on the other side depicts Ganga descending to the earth through Shiva’s locks. According to the Puranas, the king Sagar held an Ashwamedha Yajna, during the course of which the sacrificial horse wandered to the underworld. Its pursuers, attempting to capture it, disturbed the meditations of the sage Kapila who not only reduced them to ashes in the customary manner, but also cursed their remains. The only recourse for their spirits to be liberated would be for the Ganga to flow down from the heavens and wash away their sins. Sagar’s descendant Bhagirath did severe penances to engineer this, and Shiva agreed to assuage the torrent’s destructive force by filtering it through his hair.

In the carving, Ganga is three-headed, representing the Bhagirathi, Mandakini and Bhogvati tributaries above Shiva. Parvati is turned away a little, resenting Ganga as a rival for her lord’s attention, even as Shiva stretches a hand to reassure her.

The final major carving shows Shiva dancing the awesome Tandava to destroy the universe at the end of a kalpic cycle so that creation can begin anew. His left hand, the only one intact, raises the veil of illusion, so that the reality underneath Maya – Anandam or Bliss -- stands revealed.

Rudolph Otto (1869-1937)was a neo-Kantian philosopher, one of the most influential thinkers about religion of the last century, who is best known for his analysis of the experience that underlies all religions. He calls this experience numinous and says it has three components: Mysterium -- the wholly other, so entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life that it evokes a reaction of silence; also Tremendum, that provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power; and finally, the numinous presents itself as Fascinans, as merciful and gracious. Mysterium Tremendum Et Fascinans. Here's an extract from one of Otto's essays:

Eventually one's eyes find their way to the massive, main niche. Here towers an image of the deity that I can only compare with certain works of Japanese sculpture and the great images of Christ in old Byzantine churches: a three-headed form, depicted from the chest up, growing out of the rock, three times the size of a human being. To get the full effect, one must sit down. The middle head looks straight ahead, silent and powerful; the other two heads are shown in profile. The stillness and the majesty of the image is complete. It portrays Siva as the creator, the preserver, and the destroyer of the world, and at the same time as the savior and bestower of blessings. Nowhere have I seen the mystery of the transcendent expressed with more grandeur or fullness than in these three heads. When the little Indian guide who accompanied us saw how much the image affected us, he began to speak. He said (and it's quite believable) that the image changes its appearance according to the amount of daylight that filters into the great hall. Sometimes it's calm and massive, at others frightfully majestic, at still others it's smiling and benevolent. It has stood there like this for perhaps a thousand years, abandoned by its faithful. When one turns around, one looks through the entrance of the cave, across the antechamber, and out onto the gray-blue sea and at the opposing, wooded peaks. Thus, the face of the creator surveys his handiwork. To see this place would truly be worth a trip to India in itself, and from the spirit of the religion that lived here one can learn more in an hour of viewing than from all the books ever written.

[From Rudolf Otto, Autobiographical and Social Essays, ed. Gregory D. Alles (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996). ]

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Friday, November 25, 2005


We ask to be taken to the BKS Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune. It is off the beaten track, and not an easy place to find, housed in a nondescript compound in the residential neighborhood of Model Colony. The auto-driver hears 'yoga', and, mapping it to his customary fares, deposits us by-and-by at the foot of the Rajnish 'Osho' Ashram, where a streetful of Israeli, Japanese and French sannyasins are kicking up a fine old caterwaul -- dancing, spinning arms upraised like dervishes, screaming, yelping and otherwise loudly proclaiming their one-ness with the cosmos. It turns out some elderly Ashram personage has shuffled off her mortal coil, and they are giving her cortege a befitting sendoff. After they pass, peace descends to Koregaon Park, leafy again under banyan trees.

The Deccan Queen leaves Pune for Bombay VT -- Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus -- in the early morning. We cut through tunnels and switchbacks for breathtaking Deccan vistas as we descend to the sea level.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Gooty, Guntakal, Raichur

The dust in the air makes for riotous sunsets, best viewed from the Kurla Express as it meanders through the land -- the last one I remember of this vividness was in Tucson.

The fortress rock at Gooty is about 2200 ft. above the sea level. The Gooty fortress was a stronghold of the Marathas, but was taken from them by Hyder Ali; in 1789 Tipu Sultan ceded it to the Nizam of Hyderabad. In 1800 the Nizam ceded the district of Anantapur with certain other areas to the East India Company in lieu for protective British forces.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Faces: 3

Friday, November 18, 2005

Choudhury Palace -- Ramdeo Hotel

The best dhabas are invariably North Indian. On Karnataka highways, the sons of the soil seem to have struck up deals with state transport buses – the driver gets his jeera-bath for free, the passengers pay; as for retail customers, it is easier to turn them away with a surly ‘illa’ than bother to fry a samosa or two.

What a pleasant surprise, then, to come to Choudhury Palace owned by Danaram and run by Ramdeo from Barmer. It is 5pm, his tandoor is not fired yet; but he sheepishly asks if poor-peoples’ food will suffice – he can make thick, chewy bajra roties on his tawa, serve them with home-made yogurt, perhaps also dab some ghee on the side, dice onions and tomatoes for a salad, and brew up steaming glasses of tea. If you can chat about Barmer, Jodhpur or Bikaner, the meal is free.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Road Hazard

There is one good reason why you don’t drive on an Indian highway at night – the drunk driver behind the wheel of an overladen truck without any lights coming roaring at you on the wrong side of the road. As for driving during the day, there are at least a dozen good reasons why you should Honk Please and remember Hurry Burry Spoils The Curry. Here are the top 12; hang on to your hat, Dorothy, Kansas is gonna go bye-bye:

1. Crowded Roads

2. Thundering Trucks

3. Traffic Jams

4. Potholes

5. Washboard/ No Surface

6. Dust

7. Sheep

8. Water-buffalo

9. Grain-threshing

10. Motorcycles and Bicycles

11. Onions

12. Monkeys and other Mayhem

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Above: Chitradurga milestone; Chitradurga hills; small-holding fields; trees beside the Vedavati river; sunflower fields; papaya-plantation; the Tungabhadra Dam; wind-farm over Chitradurga.

Chitradurga gets its name from Chitrakaldurga, an umbrella-shaped hill which is fortified. It lies in the valley of the Vedavati river, and the Tungabhadra flows to the northwest. In the Mahabharata, a man-eating gaint named Hidimbasura set up shop on the Chitradurga hill and caused general mayhem. When the Pandavas were wandering around during the course of their exile, Hidimba spied them and sent his sister, Hidimbi, to bring him their meat for food. Hidimbi was, alas, smitten by the beauty of Bhima and warned them about her brother. When a hungry Hidimba appeared in person, a battle ensued. Hidimba was killed by Bhima, who married Hidimbi, and had a son named Ghatotcacha by her. Ghatotcacha figures prominently in the plot-line of the battle of Kurukshetra, for to kill him Karna has to use the special astra he'd reserved for Arjuna. Thus the dark and uncouth has to be sacrificed for beauty and fairness.

As we pass through this iron-ore- and forest-rich land, now sprouting on the one hand high-tech BSE-traded corporatized wind farms, vast sunflower fields supplied from the Tungabhadra-Sagar Dam for the Sundrop-branded oils, and papaya plantations, as well as Naxals on the other, one reflects upon the history of power and disparity in these rural areas in the last few centuries.

The Sepoy Mutiny is considered India's first war of independence. While in its broadest sweep it was the greatest armed challenge to colonial rule during the course of the nineteenth century, a close reading of history reveals that following the collapse of the Maratha power and the first 'pacification' of Indian princes, the countryside was almost continuously in insurrection till the conflagration of 1857. 1799-1856 was not a period during which Indians accepted Company rule passively. This was not Pax Britannica, but Tax Britannica, and perhaps Axe Britannica as some historians have said. Numerous uprisings by peasants and tribal communities and princely states confronted the policy of unchecked colonial extraction of agricultural and forest wealth from the region. This period saw tremendous growth in rural poverty in India, which provided tinder for many peasant revolts.

One of the earliest rebellions was the Sannyasi rebellion -- hungry peasants of Bengal and Bihar, victims of a terrible famine in the 1770s, rose in revolt against the East India Company, which had been exacting money and crops from them after Plassey. Another was led by Dhondia Waug of Shimoga who briefly liberated Shimoga, Chitradurga, Dharwad and Bellary in 1799, a few months after the defeat of Tipu. Rani Chennamma led a revolt in the Kittur region in 1824, followed by Sangoli Rayanna's guerrilla war in 1829. In other parts of India there was the Ho revolt of the 1830s; the Oraon revolts of 1820, 1832, 1890; the Kol Uprising of 1831; Sidhu-Kanu's Santhal Uprising of 1855; the Kutch Rebellion of 1816-1832; Titu-Mir's Wahhabi rebellion in Bengal of 1833, and so on.

"Dhondia belonged to Shimoga though he was a part of Tipu's army he was imprisoned in 1794, having ambitions to set up his own kingdom. On the fall of Srirangapatnam he was set free with the other prisoners. He immediately contacted the other sardars in the service of Tipu and formed an army. He declared himself king of Shimoga. He then went about planning the overthrow of British power in Mysore. The book says: "Starting his military offensives in June 1799 itself, only two months after Mysore's fall, Dhondia gained possession of extensive territory which included most of Shimoga, Chitradurg, Dharward and Bellary districts within a year". His forces grew within a year from 200 cavalrymen to 80,000 at its peak. He never gave battle in the forts maneuvering his forces in the countryside gaining new recruits in the process. "Dhondia was obviously adopting the tactics of mobile warfare, using an extensive terrain that stretched across a few thousand square kilometers of woods, valley and plains; preferring field operations to that of cloistered warfare. Ironically it was the massive growth of his forces that led to his downfall as he was then unable to use guerrilla warfare effectively. On Sept 10, 1800 Dhondia died giving battle to the British on the banks of the Krishna."

The Vellore insurrections was a revolt of the disaffected soldiers of the British army -- most of whom were from the oppressed castes. Tipus sons were incarcerated in the jails there. In the first offensive 14 British officers were killed and 76 injured. It was the first time in India that sepoys had revolted and killed their own European officers. In retaliation the British used extensive brutality massacring over 800.

Regarding the second type of armed rebellions they were mostly of the small feudatories who were deprived of their kingdoms who rose in revolt in Aigur, Koppal, Bidar, Bijapur, and the most famous one of Chennamma in Kittur in 1824. The Kittur garrison had a large force. On behalf of the British Thakeray sought to enter with a force of 250. They were not allowed to enter. Chennamma decided to attack them at the gate itself. In a surprise attack she annihilated the entire force and took 40 prisoners. But latter in battle she was caught and imprisoned, dying at a young age in 1829.

But these wars by the feudatories continued in many places with a notable one being in Bidar in 1852.

But the most significant uprisings were of the third category of the peasants that targeted both the feudals and the colonialists. The book traces three major uprisings -- that of Sangolli Rayanna's guerrilla war (1829-30) again around Kittur area; the Nagar peasant Insurrection (1830-33); and Kalyanaswamy's Armed Uprising (1837) of Kodagu area.

The Kittur principality encompassed parts of Belgum, Dharwad, and Uttara Kannada districts and was covered on its western part by the Malnad forest tract. Sangolli Rayanna had joined Chennamma's army. But his lands were confiscated, and of what remained it was heavily taxed. He taxed the landlords and built up the army from the masses. He used guerrilla methods to attack government property; burnt land records and extracted the loot from notorious landlords and bureaucrats. Finally he was captured and hanged. At the time of being hanged he said "My last wish is to be born again in the country to fight against the British and drive them away from our sacred soil".

The Nagar was a wide scale peasant insurrection that had spread to various parts of Karnataka. From Shimoga and Chikmangalur it spread to Uttara Kannada, Chitradurg, Tumkur, Hassan, Mysore, Mandya and Bangalore. Like with the Sangolli uprising, in the Nagar revolt the peasantry located its anti-feudal anti-colonial aspirations within a political framework. They recognized Budibasappa Nayaka as the heir of the Ikkeri kings and sought the restoration of Ikkeri rule over Nagar.

The struggle took place in three waves: The first was that of mass struggles; the second, of mass action, and, the third, when armed struggle predominated.

The mass struggle started in early 1830 and assumed a host of forms. The most important of these was the "koota" or simply "gathering". The koota was a broad forum to organize the peasant masses. The kootas spread from Nagar (town in Shimoga district) to Bellary, and even as far as Mysore. Budi Basappa, a cultivator was its leader, who claimed the Gadi of Nagar. He appointed Manappa as his "commander-in-chief. As the movement built up on Aug. 23 1830 at a huge rally, a peasant charter was passed and signed by those assembled. It said:

· The peasant organisation must be built everywhere.

· The struggle must be advanced till the demands are accomplished.

· Government officials must be prevented from entering the village.

· Revenue payment to the government must stop.

· The government must recognize that the "tiller is the owner" of land.

· Land must be returned to those tenants who had forfeited it.

And as the movement gained momentum it changed to forms of mass actions -- officials, bureaucrats were attacked. Manappa built up a fighting force of 200 men. As the book recounts: "The mass actions which were directed against the Amildars, corrupt bureaucrats and reactionaries in the villages. Amildars who feared the wrath of the people either fled or surrendered to the groundswell. By the end of 1830, as the phase of mass action began to conclude, they often culminated in the seizure of the Amildar's offices by the insurgent peasants and the collection of all revenue was annulled by the new authority in power."

Then from Dec.14 1830 began the Raja's reign of terror, which resulted in the peasant movement taking the form of guerrilla war. A guerrilla army was built with detachments varying in size from 20 to 200. The norm was 40. They beat back the raja's offensive. They captured the Nagar fort; but retreated into the forests on the night before British troops entered. As a major section of enemy forces moved to other areas of combat, they attacked the fort, killed its occupiers and re-took it. In this way the Nagar fort changed hands six times. Each time they appealed to the towns people who joined them in large numbers. The guerrilla army was given secret training in Brahmagiri, Ulavi, Chennagiri, Chandragutti, Sonale and Sasehwalli. As the battles intensified enemy troops mutinied and joined the guerrillas. Enemy officers were targeted.

The British were unable to stem the growth of the armed struggle. Finally they were able to crush it by infiltration and killing of the leadership. By 1833 the bulk of the leadership were captured and killed and the movement died down."


Tuesday, November 15, 2005


The Chalukyas rose to power in the Deccan from the fifth century and ruled till the eighth; and again in the tenth, to last till the twelfth century. They reigned over the area between the Vindhyan mountain-system and the river Krishna, i.e. western Maharashtra and northern Karnataka. “In the course of his wanderings around India, [the Chinese sage] Hsuan Tsang traversed an area of the western Deccan which he calls ‘Mo-ho-la-ch’a’. The translation of proper names from Chinese back into Sanskrit often stretches credulity, but in this case there is little room for doubt: by ‘Mo-ho-la-ch’a’ Hsuan Tsang meant Maharashtra … [he] found the soil rich and fertile, which in parts it is; the people were honest but implacable, and they included ‘a band of champions’ who, when both they and their elephants were fired up on alcohol, proved irresistible in battle. ‘No enemy can stand before them’, wrote the visitor, wherefore the king was able to ‘treat his neighbors with contempt.’ The name of this contemptuous sovereign was given as ‘Pu-lo-ki-she’, otherwise Pulakesin II.” (John Keay, India: A History.)

Pulakesin II, who was contemporaneous with Harshavardhan and bested the monarch of Kanauj in a defensive war, was the grandson of first great ruler of the Chalukya dynasty, Pulakesin I, the founder of Vatapi (the ancient name of Badami.) The rock-cut temples at Badami were built between 547 and 630. They span four caves on a vertiginous cliff-face. The first (lowest) is dedicated to Shiva; the second and third to Vishnu; a track leading up between the caves contains a shrine to the Padmapani Buddha (now defaced); the fourth to Mahavira and the Jain tirthankars. The caves overlook a lake, freestanding temples built later in Chalukyan rule, and the town of Badami.

The Chalukyas of Badami were defeated by the Rashtrakutas in 743. Another branch from Kalyan arose in the tenth century, and in its time it was succeeded by the Kalachuris, the Yadavas of Devagiri and finally the Sultanate of Bijapur.


তুঙ্গাভদ্রার তীরে

The magical boulder-strewn landscape on the banks of the Tungabhadra hosts one of the largest open-air museums of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the 600-year-old ruins of the last great Hindu kingdom – Vijayanagar -- which for two centuries resisted the Islamic conquest of South India.

Vijayanagar – Victory City – was founded around 1336 by Hakka and Bukka, two brothers from the Sangama-Kuruba clan.One version of the founding myth says they were abducted in their youth by the Sultan Muhhamad bin Tughluq, who, after defeating the king of Warangal took Hakka and Bukka as prisoners of war to Delhi, where they were converted to Islam by force. The brothers escaped vowing to preserve Hindu culture and heritage deep in a Southern stronghold, and, under the guidance of the sage Vidyaranya founded the Vijayanagar Kingdom from amongst the remnants of the Hoysala kingdom.

That Hakka and Bukka hailed were legitimate successors to the old Hoysala sovereignty by some organic process is supported by other evidence – they became overlords of the entire communities formerly ruled by the Hoysalas without any clash for the transfer of power; they followed the Hoysala framework in all political and administrative matters; etc. According to another story, Muhammad bin Tughluq made one Harihara, son of Sangama, who was previously a notable of Anegondi, his governor there; the dynasty sprung from this grant. Yet another version states that the brahmin Vidyaranya himself founded Vijayanagar after the discovery of a hidden treasure, ruled over it himself, and left it upon his death to a Kuruba family who established the first regular dynasty. And so on.

The power of Vijayanagar maxed under Krishna Deva Raya (1509-29), who controlled nearly the whole of peninsular India south of the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers. The capital was comparable to Delhi in size and prestige with an estimated population of half a million, deriving its revenues from control of the southern spice and cotton trade. Its busy bazaars were described by European travelers as centers of international commerce. Vijayanagar’s gold coins were current in an arc from Arabia to Indonesia. It ‘seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful’, wrote a Portugese visitor of the capital.

[The] king is of medium height, and of fair complexion and good figure, rather fat than thin; he has on his face signs of small-pox. He is the most feared and perfect king that could possibly be, cheerful of disposition and very merry; he is one that seeks to honor foreigners, and receives them kindly, asking about all their affairs, whatever their condition may be. He is a great ruler and a man of much justice, but subject to sudden fits of rage, and this is his title ‘Crisnarao Macacao, king of kings, lord of the greater lords of India, lord of the three seas and of the land.’ He has this title because by rank he is a greater lord than any by reason of what he possesses … but it seems that (in fact) he has nothing compared to what a man like him ought to have, so gallant and perfect he is in all things.

(Domingo Paes quoted in Noboru Karashima, Towards a New Formation: South Indian Society under Vijaynagar Rule.)

The impact of the Portugese pirates like Vasco da Gama caused a great upheaval in the economics of maritime commerce of spice and cotton, and this impacted the revenues of Vijaynagar. The last king, Rama Raya, tried to divide and manipulate his neighbors, the Deccani Sultanates, to only temporary avail and considerable backfiring. They finally banded together and the forces of Vijayanagar lost the battle of Talikota in 1565 against a confederacy of Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, Ahmednagar and Golconda. The king was beheaded; his city was sacked and left in ruins.

The loss of Vijayanagar resulted in the opening up of southern India for Muslim conquest and its fracturing into smaller states – Mysore was one – that were at constant internecine war with each other, leading ultimately to a successful divide-and-conquer by the British.

The major temples are dedicated to Virupaksha and Vitthala; there are shrines to Pampa and Bhuvaneshwari, statues of Ugra-Narasimha, Nandi and Ganesh; the Hazara-rama temple; the hilltop village of Anegondi across the river, the birthplace of Hanuman and the nearby site where he is supposed to have kept Sita’s jewels for safekeeping; Bali’s funeral pyre; and about 80 other sites maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Above: Boulders and Temples by the Tungabhadra; Woman and Coracle; Cormorant Sunning; Virupaksha Temple; Vitthala Temple; Vitthala Temple pillars; Vitthala temple at night; Vitthala Temple at night (2); Vitthala temple detail; Vitthala Temple Visitors.

Below: The famous Hampi Rath (Chariot); the outer wall of the Hazara-rama Temple; Hemakuta Temple Complex (1); Hemakuta Temple Complex (2); Lotus Mahal ceiling; Elephants' Stables; Parrots on the walls of the Royal Enclosure; Cart selling Sindoor and Puja supplies; Banana Seller outside Virupaksha Temple; Ugra Narasimha statue; Gypsy woman; Mobbing the Ice-cream man.

Next: Badami.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Road Trip

Last weekend we went on a short road-rail trip. First, we took the overnight train from Bangalore to Hospet, which is the gateway to Hampi – i.e. the ruins of the Vijayanagar empire. This is also the historic Kishkinda area -- the kingdom of Bali and the birthplace of Hanuman. The realm was handed over to Sugriva, Bali's brother, by Ram after he killed Bali.

After Hampi, we went by SK’s 4WD up NH-13 and SH-26 from Hospet to Badami, via the Tungabhadra-Sagar Dam, Kustagi and Hungund. The capital of the Chalukyas, Badami is situated at the mouth of a ravine between two rocky hills, into which are hewn syncretic cave temples dedicated to Vishnu, Budhha and Mahavira, the earliest dating to the 6th century.

To return, we bumped over country tracks to Gadag; catching there NH-63 to Koppal and Hospet. ("If you're driving in South India note that NH 63 appears on the map, but does not, in fact, exist" – a helpful note from the indiamike web site.) Finally, we retraced NH-13 to Chitradurg; and took NH-4 back to Bangalore.

Next: Vijayanagar.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Faces: 2

Overlooking the St. John's Hospital complex, I see a constant stream of humanity -- the many races and many nations of India. Here are some more faces from different parts of India.

হে মোর চিত্ত, পুণ্য তীর্থে জাগো রে ধীরে
এই ভারতের মহামানবের সাগরতীরে
হেথায় দাঁড়ায়ে দু বাহূ বাড়ায়ে নমি নরদেবতারে---
উদার ছন্দে, পরমানন্দে বন্দন করি তাঁরে
ধ্যানগম্ভীর এই যে ভূধর, নদী-জপমালা-ধৃত প্রান্তর,
হেথায় নিত্য হেরো পবিত্র ধরিত্রীরে ---
এই ভারতের মহামানবের সাগরতীরে

কেহ নাহি জানে কার আহ্বানে কত মানুষের ধারা
দুর্বার স্রোতে এল কোথা হতে, সমুদ্রে হল হারা
হেথায় আর্য, হেথা অনার্য, হেথায় দ্রাবিড় চীন---

শক-হূণ-দল পাঠান-মোগল এক দেহে হল লীন
পশ্চিমে আজি খুলিয়াছে দ্বার, সেথা হতে সবে আনে উপহার,
দিবে আর নিবে, মিলাবে মিলিবে, যাবে না ফিরে---
এই ভারতের মহামানবের সাগরতীরে

এসো হে আর্য, এসো অনার্য, হিন্দু-মুসলমান
এসো এসো আজ তুমি ইংরাজ, এসো এসো খৃস্টান
এসো ব্রাহ্মণ, শুচি করি মন ধরো হাত সবাকার
এসো হে পতিত, হোক অপনীত সব অপমানভার
মার অভিষেকে এসো এসো ত্বরা, মঙ্গলঘট হয় নি যে ভরা
সবার পরশে পবিত্র করা তীর্থনীরে ---
আজি ভারতের মহামানবের সাগরতীরে

(A rough transliteration of this piece from Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali at the bottom of

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Faces: 1


In their first 200 years, the Wodeyars of Mysore were satraps of the Vijayanagar empire; as that empire disintegrated around 1565, Mysore was among the first to declare independence. About 200 years later, Haider Ali rose through the ranks of the armed forces to usurp the throne, though after the fall of Tipu at Srirangapatnam the Wodeyars recovered the rump state of Tipu around Mysore. Their rule continued till India became independent and the monarchical principalities lost their quasi-sovereignty to be incorporated into the Union of India.

The Mysore Maharaja’s Palace, built by Henry Irwin in 1912 at a cost of Rs. 42 lakh, has a pleasant Indo-Saracenic profile, but is packed choc-a-bloc inside with ‘art’ almost as hideous as the Buckingham Palace – Belgian stained glass, Czech chandeliers, Italian mirrors, French candelabras, stuffed elephants – all under vaulted ceilings made of a particularly noxious shade of turquoise-and-pink plaster. Over-the-top rosewood walls, marble marquetry, images of gods and goddesses that would do any tea-stall calendar proud – all go to show that whatever 500 years of aristocratic breeding produces, it is certainly not taste.

Above: The Mysore Palace.
Below: The Mahishasura of Mahishuru (Mysore); Detail from the Chamundeshwari Temple; “What should we do now?”; Local cows
Top: Dussera festival merry-go-round lion.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I cannot express how delighted I am
To hear we have taken Seringapatam
The Chancellor look'd like a frolicsome Ram
To hear we had taken Seringapatam.
Dundas fled from bottle, from chicken and ham
To Windsor to tell of Seringapatam.
Will Pitt eat a cake with some raspberry jam
When told we had taken Seringapatam.
The Prince gave a nod to his Porter big Sam
You hear we have taken Seringapatam.
We are happy to find in this Victory sham,
Not an Englishman fall at Seringapatam.
The Vestal it seems had arrived in the Cam
With the news of the taking Seringapatam.
The mighty Tipoo from a battering ram
Got shot in the thigh at Seringapatam.
Pagodas, and cannon, beef, mutton and lamb,
Were found in the streets of Seringapatam.
Lord Cornwallis bestow'd on each Soldier a Dram,
For his gallant attack on Seringapatam.
Great George look'd as sapient as old Abraham
When he heard we had taken Seringapatam
The Stocks were forc'd up five per cent by the flam,
Of our having taken Seringapatam.
Now the People of England most heartily damn
The Wonderful News from Seringapatam!

Srirangapatnam lies on an island in the river Cauvery, and is the site of an immensely old stone temple dedicated to Lord Ranganatha (Vishnu) as well as the ruined capital of Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. The temple was built by the Gangas in the 9th century AD, though the strategic nature of the island had made it into a religious refuge perhaps as much as a thousand years before this date. In the 10th-16th centuries, the temple was fortified and improved upon architecturally by the Hoysala and Vijaynagar rulers, resulting in a medley of styles. Hyder Ali is said to have made endowments to this temple, and Tipu is said to have prayed at the temple himself.

The town of Srirangam near Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu is similar in that it is also on an island formed by the river Cauvery, and is the site of another important shrine dedicated to Lord Ranganatha. Along with Shivanasamudram and Srirangam, Srirangapatna forms a chain of three Ranganatha deities referred to as Adiranga (Srirangapatnam), Madhyaranga and Antyaranga (Srirangam) respectively; if one can visit all three in a day one apparently earns tremendous punya.

The first phase of the British conquest of India was driven by the greed of the officials of the East India Company. After Robert Clive had enticed Mir Jafar to betray Siraj-ud-daula at Plassey in 1757 and set up Mir Jafar on the throne of Bengal, he paid out £1,250,000 to himself and his cronies from the treasury of Bengal. Compounding this at 5% annually, the booty in today’s terms is about $300 billion, or Rs. 1350-lakh lakhs. Clive himself is supposed to have been astonished by his own ‘moderation’ in the whole exercise. Back home, the British people were often scandalized and jealous of these ‘nabobs’, “but in India where revenue extraction was the main business of government and where personal fortunes were not readily distinguished from official receipts, British rapacity attracted much less attention than it did in England.” (John Keay: “India, A History.”)

The second phase was perhaps driven by ambition. Cornwallis had arrived in India in 1786 from the disaster of the American revolution, where through a strategic blunder at Yorktown he had been compelled to surrender to Washington. The state of Anglo- Mysore relations seemed to be right for a reputation-redeeming war.

In the First Mysore War (1767) Haider Ali had driven the British back out of the Carnatic, and a 19 year-old Tipu had raided the very streets of Company-held Madras. In the Second Mysore War (1780-84), the British had attacked Mysore on two fronts, from Madras and from Bombay. The 4000-strong British invading force was annihilated, and its commander had to run away leaving his personal effects behind on field of battle. Into this situation, ripe, it would seem, for a turnaround, stepped Cornwallis. For the Third Mysore War, he stitched together an alliance with two sworn enemies of Mysore – the Marathas of Pune and the Nizam of Hyderabad, and besieged Srirangapatnam with 20,000 troops. Outnumbered, Tipu held out for a year before surrendering to humiliating terms – losing half his kingdom and agreeing to pay an indemnity of over a hundred lakh, and having his sons held as hostages with Cornwallis till that indemnity was paid. Contemporary public opinion in England, however, saw this a personal war of the ambitious and powerful; Richard Newton's satirical print, entitled 'Wonderful News from Seringapatam,' published in 1792 is quoted above.

A Scotsman, Major Dirom, who served in the Third Mysore War, published his comprehensive 'Narrative' of the campaign in 1793. In it, he describes the departure of Tipu’s young sons as hostages of the British:

'On the 26th about noon, the Princes left the fort, which appeared to be manned as they went out, and every where crouded (sic) with people, who, from curiosity or affection, had come to see them depart. The Sultan himself, was on the rampart above the gateway. They were saluted by the fort on leaving it, and with twenty-one guns from the park as they approached our camp, where the part of the line they passed, was turned out to receive them. The vakeels conducted them to the tents which had been sent from the fort for their accommodation, and pitched near the mosque redoubt, where they were met by Sir John Kennaway, the Mahratta and Nizam's vakeels, and from thence accompanied by them to head quarters.

The Princes were each mounted on an elephant richly caparisoned, and seated in a silver howder (sic), and were attended by their father's vakeels, and the persons already mentioned, also on elephants. The procession was led by several camel harcarras, and seven standard-bearers, carrying small green flags suspended from rockets, followed by one hundred pikemen, with spears inlaid with silver. Their guard of two hundred Sepoys, and a party of horse, brought up the rear. In this order they approached head quarters, where the battalion of Bengal Sepoys, commanded by Captain Welch, appointed for their guard, formed a street to receive them.'

'Lord Cornwallis, attended by his staff, and some of the principal officers of the army, met the Princes at the door of his large tent as they dismounted from the elephants; and, after embracing them, led them in, one in each hand, to the tent; the eldest, Abdul Kalick, was about ten, the youngest, Mooza-ud-Deen, about eight years of age. When they were seated on each side of Lord Cornwallis, Gullam Ally, the head vakeel, address his Lordship as follows. "These children were this morning the sons of the Sultan my master; their siutation is now changed, and they must look up to your Lordship as their father.'

Lord Cornwallis, who had received the boys as if they had been his own sons, anxiously assured the vakeel and the young Princes themselves, that every attention possible would be shewn to them, and the greatest care taken of their persons. Their little faces brightened up; the scene became highly interesting; and not only their attendants, but all the spectators were delighted to see that any fears they might have harboured were removed, and that they would soon be reconciled to their change of situation, and to their new friends.

The princes were dressed in long white muslin gowns, and red turbans. They had several rows of large pearls round their necks, from which was suspended an ornament consisting of a ruby and an emerald of considerable size, surrounded by large brilliants; and in their turbans, each had a sprig of rich pearls. Bred up from their infancy with infinite care, and instructed in their manners to imitate the reserve and politeness of age, it astonished all present to see the correctness and propriety of their conduct.'

(Tipu's sons leaving to becomes hostages – painting by Robert Home; The Storming of Seringapatnam by Sir Alexander Allan and Sir Robert Ker Porter.)

The Third Mysore War had wounded the tiger without killing him. It was only logical that a Tipu looking for revenge was not a good neighbor to have for Madras, Bombay or Hyderabad. In 1799, Wellesley broke the Anglo-Mysore treaty on the excuse that Tipu was corresponding with Napoleon, and attacked Srirangapatnam with 40,000 troops, and perhaps many times the number of helpers and auxiliaries requiring 100,000 bullocks for transport – “the largest ox-drawn baggage train ever composed”; in three months, “Srirangapatnam was stormed, then sacked with an ardor that would not have disgraced Attila.” (John Keay again.) The defenders amounting to some 9000 were killed, and the body of Tipu was found in the ruins, bayoneted, shot and robbed of his jewels and clothes. The first picture of this post shows the Gumbuz, under which he is buried along with his parents; the pictures below show Dariya Daulat Bagh, Tipu’s summer palace; and the spot where his mutilated body was found.

কি হল রে জান
পলাশীর মৈদানে উড়ে
কোম্পানির নিশান

Friday, November 04, 2005

Black Kite

There are a number of kites in the wooded area around St. John's Hospital; they most likely belong to the Milvus Migrans species. You can see them as specks in a number of the earlier photos below, here are some closer shots. Faced with constant habitat loss, these kites look to be becoming urban birds, they can be seen preying on pigeons now in plentiful supply thanks to all the highrises that are going up. In fact, at times one can see a dozen kites circling and swooping over St. John's Wood.


The garden city of Bangalore has now become a traffic jam city, but some remarkable oases of serenity remain. Lalbagh (‘Red Garden’) was established during the time of Hyder Ali (1722-1782) on the model of gardens laid out in earlier centuries by the Mughals. His son Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), whose envoys were in contact with European and Arabian monarchs, enlarged it by the addition of many different plants, procuring seeds and saplings from Kabul, Persia, Mauritius and Turkey. After Tipu’s defeat and death in the 4th Anglo-Mysore war, the East India Company took over Lalbagh, and it eventually passed to the British Government of India, who in due course elevated it to a Botanical Garden. Successive British and Indian officials added to the park’s collection till today it is a veritable zoo of exotic trees. The garden is now regarded as a guiding centre for research, extension and developmental activities for Karnataka. The waterways and marshes of Lalbagh also attract numerous birds and waterfowl.

Around 1537, Kempe Gowda I had laid out the basic plan of Bangalore. His son KG II had erected 4 watch-towers at different cardinal points to mark the city’s extent. One of these towers still exists at Lalbagh. It is built on a significant geological monument, a rock formation known as peninsular gneiss, which is one of the oldest land formations on earth – over 3 billion years old. Very gneiss.

Remarkable trees I have known: the bignonia family (Bignoniaceae) is a fascinating tropical family containing many vines, trees and shrubs with beautiful, showy blossoms. Perhaps the most unusual tree in this family is the sausage tree (Kigelia pinnata), a native of South Africa, with huge sausagelike fruits that hang down from the limbs on long, ropelike stalks. The ‘sausages’ can be half a meter long and weight 16 kilos.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Living In Bangalore

Some pictures of the living arrangements ... life is settling down to two routines -- of US-time-zoned 'work' and India time-zoned 'family'. We are pretty close to the St. Johns Hospital of Koramangala, whose wooded grounds the apartment balcony overlooks.

For those with low tolerance for the ordinary, a Dalrymplesque exoticum -- Bangalore English, culled from a piece contributed to yesterday's Deccan Herald by a reader Dr. Rajeshwar Singh:

I'm new to Bangalore. I am somewhere in Jayanagar suburb, driving on a longish lane (18th main, I discover later). I'm trying to find my way to Surana College. I have been directed by the college authorities to drive up to 'South end Circle', and ask for further directions.

Like any visitor new to a town, I get out of the car and ask for help from an alert, well-dressed person. These are the directions I receive from this well-meaning, well-informed person:

"Go straight… turn left at the firstttt circle …leave three circles, turn right at the fourth circle, and you will hit South end Circle".

Obediently, I drive on and on, till the 18th main is no more; then thinking that I may have been going in the opposite direction, I take a 180-degree turn, and drive on 18th main again, till it ends at a petrol-filling station. Either way, I come across no circle. At the petrol station, I request a motorcycle-rider for help. By coincidence he too is heading towards Surana College, and asks me to follow him.

The missing-multiple-circles' mystery is resolved by the kindly principal of Surana College: he enlightens me that an intersection or a crossing is called a circle in this part of our planet.

Having driven around all the great circles of India - Mumbai's King's Circle, Horniman Circle, Jacob Circle; New Delhi's Connaught Circus, Gol Dakkhana - I try to seek some explanation for this uniquely Bangalorean geometrical perversion.

All that a few apologetic 'experts' have to say is this: "Sir, the fact is that originally every crossing was planned to be a circle, but for reasons of space, the idea was dropped." I smile: having been warned by behavioral psychologists that most half-truths usually begin with "The fact is…"

But thanks to this early encounter with Bangalori Angrezi - that too in the firstttt week of my arrival - I become doubly alert hereafter to Bangalorean distortions and subversions of the English language … before leaving Bangalore, I did start a compilation, ' A Glossary of Bangalori Angrezi' for the benefit of fellow strangers who keep succumbing to the magnetic pull of Bangalore's job-market or its weather or both.

Mains and Crosses

With rare exceptions, most mains are narrow lanes and most crosses are closer to the width of highways in a smaller town.

Don't Bunk a Pump

A petrol-filling station - Petrol Pump in the rest of country - is called Petrol Bunk.

In other cities, when a street leads no further, it's a dead end: in Bangalore, the road merrily continues but its last turn is called a dead end.

Tinkering - the deepest dent in King's English.

After my car has received the usual welcoming kisses from Bangalore's chaotic drivers, I take it to an upmarket workshop to get the dents smoothened. And of course, I ask for an estimate. It reads:

a) Tinkering Rs. 9,000
b) Painting Rs. 3000

Seeing my horrified face, the workshop manager reassures me that he employs the best tinker in town, and that the charges for dent-beating are reasonable.

Droll? Some additional constructs courtesy of VS Babu (

If you want to clarify a thought, state it and then ask "No?". eg: "Today is Monday. No?".
If you want to present a thought, state it and then add "only". eg: "Today is Monday only".
If you want to agree to an idea, say "it is like that only".
If you want to agree hesitantly to an idea, it follows from previous rules that you say "it is like that only, no?".
If you know one thing and you think there are additional things, say "and all". Eg. "This US and all are in Iraq"; implies US, UK and their coalition are fighting in Iraq. You can say "and all" to fill in the gaps too.
If you want to talk about things that are not known to the audience, prefix each sentence with "actually", "basically" or "generally". For example, "My name is Babu. I am from Kerala. I go there every weekend." translates to "Actually my name is Babu. Basically I am from Kerala only. Generally I go there every weekend."

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय

Diwali in Bangalore. It is beginning to clear up a bit, but it did rain on and off during the evening, making for more than a few damp squibs. Happy Samvat New Year 2062.

From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads:

अस्तो मा सद् गमय
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय
मृत्योन् मा अमृतं गमय्

From Falsehood lead me to Truth
From Darkness lead me to Light
From Death lead me to Immortality.


Sunday, October 30, 2005

Wet in Bangalore

We land on a slick tarmac in a bedraggled airport. The NE monsoons have combined with a tropical depression in the Bay of Bengal to deliver record rains to South India. Bangalore averages 900mm of rain a year; so far this year it has received 1500mm or so, with 600+mm coming in Oct alone … in the Oracle elevator the young programmers are excitedly talking about the frights they got having to drive their new cars back through a foot of standing water on Hosur road -- “My clutch was smelling – you know dhobi-iron smell? Like that only.”

A 9th-century inscription found near Bangalore reveals the district was part of the kingdom of Gangavadi until 1004 and was known as Benga-val-oru or The City of Guards in Telugu; this disputes the popular anecdote that the Hoysala king Vira Ballala, while on a hunting expedition, tired and hungry having lost his way in the forest, came across a poor old woman who served him boiled beans. The grateful monarch remembered the location as benda kaluru (town of boiled beans), which eventually got corrupted into Bengaluru. Pottery dating back 6000 years, as well as coins of the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius have been excavated around present-day Bangalore, suggesting it was commercially active long before it got its present name or shape.

Bangalore’s big annual IT showcase named IT.In apparently threatens to become GET.Out because of the havoc caused by the rain. Used to Calcutta inundations, I am struck by how smoothly everything around us has been working despite the downpours over the last ten days. But let there be a wee bit of dampness and the Bangalore noisepapers bemoan how the City’s infrastruture is collapsing. You know a soggy dosa? Like that only.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


It seems that only just scant minutes after moving out of the hot, humid typical north-Indian-plains-town of Siliguri one is greeted by a new landscape: tea gardens, cool streams hurling themsleves out of foggy hillsides, the vegetation changing to firs, pines and ferns. The Queen of the Hills, laid out by the Royal Engineers at an altitude of 2,134 m (7,000 ft), is now a rather decrepit dowager, and it is easy to forget her origins as a Shangri-la in the early years of the 19th century, when she was part of the domain of Sikkim and ravaged frequently by the Gorkhas of Nepal. In 1780, the Gorkha tribes marched into Sikkim, annexed the lower Terai slopes, and advancing to the Teesta and Mahananda rivers, inadvertently trod on the toes of a new waxing power in Bengal, the East India Company. In 1814 a war was fought between the Company and Nepal, the tract ceded, and the Raja of Sikkim reinstated by the Company Bahadur. Sikkim, then including Darjeeling, became a buffer state between Nepal and Bhutan.

Several years later, the then British Commercial Resident at Malta, on a trip to India, set out through the Terai mountain regions, and, reaching the old Gorkha station of Darjeeling, stayed here for six days in 1829. The Resident Grant observed the strategic position of this little spur jutting out to the north, commanding the entrances into Nepal and Bhutan; the weather was a welcome change to the heat of the Delta; and the thought of saving the souls of all the idolatrous Hindoos and Boodists was an added attraction. So the company officials were asked to open negotiations with the Sikkim ruler for the cession of the Terai as soon as a convenient occasion could be engineered:

The Governor- General having expressed his desire for the possession of the hill of Darjeeling on account of its cool climate

I the said, Sikkimputtee Rajah, out of friendship for the said Governor-General, hereby present Darjeeling to The East India Company, that is, all the land South of the Great Ranjeet River, East of the Balsum, Khail and Little Ranjeet Rivers and West of Rungno and Mahanuddi Rivers.

Dated The 9th Maugh, Sambat 1891 AD, 1835

The king of Sikkim was granted an annual allowance of Rs. 3000 by way of compensation for what was then a virtually uninhabited tract of land. There were about 20 mud huts around the Mahakal temple, and the population was scarcely 100.

The tea industry was introduced in 1841, after the hill tribes had introduced the stimulant to the British in Assam and North Bengal. Twenty-five years later, there were already 40 gardens covering 10,000 acres with an output of quarter million kilos. In 1849 the Pankahbari route took shape. Immigrants poured in and the Hill Cart road was also laid out. The journey then took a fortnight was negotiated by boat, palanquin and pony; it cost; in the 1870s, it took three hundred rupees to travel the 663 km (412 miles) from Calcutta.

(Kanchenjungha photo courtesy of Shunya, visit for more.)

Friday, October 28, 2005

"The Ragged Fringe of India's Sari"

The bus from a still-deserted BBD Bag starts at 8:30am carrying a dozen of us extrepid implorers towards Sonakhali and Basanti. The road to Basanti from the EM Bypass was built using ADB funds and is quite good, if you can discount the lack of a median and the tendency of Indian traffic to straddle the middle of any road while traveling at breakneck speed. By noon we are at Sonakhali, ready to board the MV Madhukar, which will take us over the next two days down the Matla, the Vidya and other rivers deep into the Sunderbans.

The area that makes up the Sunderbans National Park is the largest delta as well as the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world. Its name comes from one of the mangrove plants known as the Sundari (Heritiera Minor) tree. The Sunderbans cover an area of 10,000 square kilometers out of which 4000 square kilometers are in West Bengal, the rest being in Bangladesh. The park is probably best known as a reserve of the Royal Bengal Tiger, of which about 230 individuals remain on the West Bengal side. This is the tide country, almost 70 percent of the 10,000 square kilometers of the park is submerged under water at some point of the day, and the altitude of the rest does not exceed a few meters above the sea level. Due to its beauty and richness of wildlife, it was declared a world natural heritage site by UNESCO in 1974.

The Sunderbans delta is cris-crossed by numerous tributaries of the mighty rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra and they empty silt from the subcontinent into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. We will go down several major ones in the next few days – the Matla, the Vidya, the Gosaba. Very few carry fresh water, having been completely cut off from the main rivers due to silting and island formation. Most of these channels are maintained by the diurnal tidal flow, with tidal waves rising to a height of up to 7.5 m.

The area is divided into four administrative zones -- the core zone (i.e. the national park and the heritage site), an afforestation zone, an agri-operation zone and a restoration zone, but these are really constructs that exist only in the minds of the baboos, for “here there are no borders to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea, even land from water. The tides reach more than two hundred miles inland, and every day thousands of acres of mangrove forest disappear only to re-emerge hours later. For hundreds of years, only the truly dispossessed and the hopeless dreamers of the world have braved the man eaters and the crocodiles who rule there, to eke a precarious existence from the unyielding mud.“

We stop at Dobanki, Sudhanyakhali and Sajnekhali. Neither Dakshin Ray nor Dhona can be seen but there are many Dukheys in evidence. And also spotted deer, crocodiles, herons, olive ridley as well as river terrapin turtles.

Monday, October 24, 2005

More Puja Pictures

Scenes from Sindoor Khela and the Immersions at Babu Ghat.

Durga Puja in Calcutta

Travelers can be full of the usual litany of complaints about Calcutta -- that it is poor, polluted, dying, filled with human degradation-- but the Puja joy is tangible in (dare one use the cliche) the City of Joy.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Rajdhani Express -- Delhi to Calcutta

Nothing has changed from my last visit to the New Delhi Railway Station, if you discount the price increases (the porters wanted Rs 500 to cart a few suitcases.) A shabbier Rajdhani Express, still capable of drawing a hubbub of excitement as she drew into the station, left on time; we were left to relate the topography of the Delhi we know by road to the unfamiliar rail track scenes -- is that the bridge near Pragati Maidan that we pass under as trains go overhead?

Even ten years ago, the trackside villages of the doab would have painted on them ads proclaiming the miracles of Yunani medicine -- to say nothing of the specific skills of a Doctor Arora, painted onto every surface from Allahabad to Nizamuddin. Now they are all replaced by GM seeds and pesticide ads, with the odd DVD and pumpset ad.

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse ...

As we neared Mughalsarai, I parted the curtains into the darkness outside, fireflies glistening on bushes, the slanting moon on the waters of a hushed Ganga. Gaya in the wee hours, Dhanbad Jn and warm puris with aloo dum in the morning.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Mall Rats of Gurgaon

Two well lit malls which rival in decor, merchandise and facade anything in Singapore or Hong Kong. A congested road jam packed with autos and cars in the middle. An elephant ambling along. Here's an extract from an article in Time magazine from about an year ago:

" The glass and metal facade of the Sahara Mall in Gurgaon, a thriving township southwest of New Delhi, looks like a perfect emblem of the new India. Emblazoned with logos of clothing stores, gift shops and fast-food restaurants, the mall's glistening exterior seems to capture the exuberance of India's economic boom. Inside, however, except for a busy restaurant and supermarket, business is sluggish, and many shops are slathered with signs proclaiming SALE.

"The customer response has been far below our expectations," says Atul Kaushal, owner of Threads & Toes Mart, a shop that sells jeans and shoes. "Many people come to the mall to look around, but very few actually buy anything." Kaushal says he's just about breaking even, but in another part of the mall, the manager of a shoe store is even more downcast. "We've been here for a year and a half, and we're still not making a profit," he says. He points to his signs offering discounts of up to 50%. "We came to a mall to be a retail store, but instead we've turned into a discount shop," he says. Both for locals and for visitors from abroad, nothing seems to symbolize India's transformation from a stagnant third-world country into an emerging economic super-power as much as its sparkling new malls. American brand names like Levi's and McDonald's clutter the air-conditioned interiors, teenagers in low-cut jeans hang out in groups, cappuccino is sold at kiosks, and everyone appears to be having a great time. Eager to cash in, India's real estate developers are in a frenzy: up to 600 malls are likely to be up and running in India by the end of 2009—up from 20 malls this year—according to KSA Technopak, a New Delhi-based consulting firm. The capital is the epicenter of the boom, with as many as 100 malls—some estimates put the number at 150—planned for New Delhi and its vicinity in the next three years. There's only one hitch: many of these malls will struggle to make money.

"If all the planned malls do come up, 70% of them will fail," predicts Vikram Bakshi, managing director of McDonald's (Northern India), which is a prominent attraction in numerous Indian malls. Bakshi, who says McDonald's won't be present in 70-80% of the capital's new malls, points out a fundamental problem facing malls that are already operating around New Delhi: a lot of people come to see them and to enjoy the air-conditioned luxury, but not many spend money there. Usha Varadharajan, owner of The Next Shop, which sells gift items like crockery and soaps in the Centrestage Mall in Noida, another township near New Delhi, knows the phenomenon all too well. "Most people just walk in and walk out without buying a thing," she says. Standing outside her store, 17-year-old Ankur Malik, a teenager hanging out in the mall with a friend, agrees: "Eighty percent of young people come to a mall just to waste time. Actually, we're doing the same thing."

Scenes from the class struggle in Gurgaon: At the street lights, women and children beg from the cars. Shunya asks one where she is from. Kota, Rajasthan. No water in anymore in the village, a group has come to Delhi to make money selling plaster Ganeshes, working odd jobs as construction workers, and making a little extra cadging at night. There is only one civil hospital in Gurgaon. Shunya took Shorifa's husband there to treat his peptic ulcers -- you join the queue at 8:30 and if you are lucky the doctor makes a 15 minute appearance at noon. In despair you go to the Dr. Bengali or Dr. Rajasthani who caters to the regional migrants. Saline packs are apparently a great favorite of the people -- and being given a drip is a true sign of getting western medicine. Irrespective of requirement, Dr. Bengali orders 5 saline pouches for the rickshaw-pullers and domestic workers -- Rs. 2500 in all. Added to that is a curious mish-mash of antibiotics, antihistamines, distilled water. No one has heard of cimetidine for ulcers. The power of belief systems -- allopathy -- no different from the blind faith reposed in 'organic.'

In a few hours, we leave for Calcutta on board the Rajdhani. More on the Doab next.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

On route

SQ 001, somewhere over the Taiwan Straits, being buffeted byTyphoon Longwang at 38000 ft.

I had a curious book on hand thanks to Chheroshi -- Rabindranath's Europe-travel letters written to the magazine Bharati (edited by his brother Dwijendranath), covering 1878-79 (Rabindranath was 17), first published in 1881, now long out of print. Here's a gem from the book, written in the Sanskrit Shikharini-chhanda meter, ostensibly sent to Rabindranath by a 'friend' (probably his other brother Jyotirindranath, to whom the book is dedicated):

বিলাতে পালাতে ছঠফঠ করে নব্য গৌড়ে
অরন্যে যে জন্যে গৃহগবিহগ প্রাণ দৌড়ে

স্বদেশে কাঁদেসে গুরুজনবশে কিচ্ছু হয়না
বিনা hat-টা coat-টা ধুতি-পিরহানে মান রয়না

পিতা মাতা ভ্রাতা নবশিশু অনাথা হূট করে
বিরাজে জাহাজে মসীমলিন কোরতা বুট পরে

সিগারে উদ্গারে মুহূ মুহূ মহা ধূমলহরী
সুখস্বপনে আপনে বড় চতুর মানে হরি হরি

ফিমেলে ফি মেলে অনুনয় করে বাড়িতে ফিরিতে
কি তাহে, উত্‍সাহে মগন তিনি সাহেবগিরিতে

বিহারে নিহারে বিবিজনসনে স্কেটিং করি
বিষাদে প্রাসাদে দুঃখিজন রহে জীবন ধরি

ফিরে এসে দেশে গলকলর বেশে হটহটে
গৃহে ঢোকে রোখে উলগতনু দেখে বড় চটে

মহা আড়ি শাড়ি নিরখি, চুল দাড়ি সব ছিঁড়ে
দুটা লাথে ভাতে ছরকট করে আসন পিঁড়ে

Bilatey palatey chhatphat kare nabya-Goure
Aranye je-janye grihagabihaga pran doure

Swadeshe knaade se, gurujanbashe kichchhu hoyna
Bina hat-ta coat-ta dhuti pirhaney maan royna

Pita mata bhrata nabashishu anatha hoot kore
Biraje jahaje masi-maleen korta boot pore

Cigare udgare muhu muhu maha dhoomlahari
Sukhaswapne apne boro chatur mane hari hari

Female-e fi mail-e anunay kare barite phirite
Ki tahe, utsahe magan tini sahebgiri-te

Biharey neeharey bibi-jan-saney skating kari
Bishaadey prasadey dukhijan rahe jiban dhari

Phire eshe deshe gala-collar beshe hot-hotey
Grihe dhoke rokhe ulagatanu dekhe baro chatey

Maha aari sari nirakhi, chul-daari shab chhnirey
Duta laathey bhatey chharkat kare aasan-pnirey

Blighty flighty antsy pantsy nouveau-Gour
As winged caged birds’ dreams be in bower

At home he moans, stifling duty elders expect
Sans hat or coat in dhoti piran no respect.

Pater frater newborn mater forswearing
On boat he floats inky suit-boot wearing

Toking smoking cigar puff puff chimney
Eager beaver thinks he’s clever, By Jiminy!

Female per mail: please, won’t you come back?
Fie! With glee he imbibes the whitehood faq

How nice on ice with belle-bevies to be skating
While in sorrow for morrow his family lives waiting

Back in country now gentry collar wearing, buoyed
At home mouth foams seeing naked bodies annoyed

Very angry seeing sari, tearing beard and hair
Bawls, squalls, kicks rice pots careening here and there.


More later from Gurgaon.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Getting ready to go to India

SO. We're ready to go to India for a bit. Stay tuned to this page for status updates and impressions.

Monday, July 05, 2004


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