‘Meeting’ the Magna Carta at Salisbury #democracy #rights #justice

We swung by Salisbury on our way from Stonehenge to Bath. Walking towards the cathedral, built in the 13th century, I immediately recalled Ken Follet’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’, one of the most enjoyable books I have read about the construction of the first Gothic cathedral in England, set in a fictitious place called Kingsbridge. The author admits himself in an interview that the fictional cathedral he recreates in his book resembled Salisbury closely.

Gothic construction was a new technology in those times and the ability to create tall soaring structure that appeared light instead of the squat, heavy stone buildings they were used to certainly changed the experience of visiting the church drastically. Though I’m sure the Gothic cathedrals in Amiens and Lyon are more impressive, I really liked Salisbury, with its faux cloister and Catholic-turned-Church of England interiors.

But what was really fun about visiting the cathedral was ‘meeting’ the Magna Carta or The Great Charter, which is a document signed way back in 1215. Though the barons who protested the tyranny of King John did so to protect their own property and rights, two tenets from the document became the founding principles for democracy and common law in England, and consequently the world over.Magna_Carta_(British_Library_Cotton_MS_Augustus_II.106)

Consider these two tenets, keeping in mind the context of feudalism at the time they were written:

39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

For the first time, the king was no longer above the law. For the first time, the common man was entitled to justice. For the first time, the King (or Queen, as I remember Alice in Wonderland) could not scream “Off with his head!” and expect someone to carry that order out. It really hit me as I stared at the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta, that many before us have fought hard for the rights we take for granted today!

And yet, so many continue to be unaware of their rights and in many countries, oppressive dictators continue to deny people basic rights and freedoms. That history not only is cyclical but also that different geographies experience their own cycles of oppression and freedom, making the world a hard place to understand.

I focused on the Magna Carta’s simplicity and directness and willed myself to absorb the meaning of those words. Not just in terms of being a citizen of my country but also in how I judge myself and those around me.

The tall Gothic spire of Salisbury

The tall Gothic spire of Salisbury. Tall, slender, pointed arches are distinctive of the period. The arches transferred the weight of the structure to the ground without the need for massive base structures. A lighter looking structure was possible and the eyes traveled upwards in a gesture of praise and submission to God above!

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Reflection of the stained glass windows in the baptismal font

Reflection of the stained glass windows in the waters of the baptismal font

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The mysticism of the past: Visiting Stonehenge

I’ve wanted to visit Stonehenge since the year 2000. Back then, I was pursuing a Masters in Urban Planning at Texas A&M University and taking a course in historic preservation. Professor David Woodcock encouraged me to pursue my interest in cultural landscapes, and with his help (he leveraged his contacts at English Heritage and got them to send me every piece of research they had in their possession!) I wrote a great term paper on Stonehenge.

The mysticism of this circle of stones has stayed with me ever since. It’s the kind of place that evokes in me an unnamed indescribable fascination for history. I wonder how humans in those long bygone days conceived the world around them, how they built their social fabric and how they sowed the seeds for the complexities of existence that we take for granted today.

Stonehenge is a neolithic site created from enormous stones over different period of time probably to understand or pay obeisance to the elements of nature, namely the movement of the sun across the sky around the year. It is part of a larger landscape of monuments scattered around this area, dating from 4000 BC to about 1600 BC. Many of these, and more are being excavated and interpreted even now, seem to be ritual gathering places, burial grounds and they reiterate how important birth and death, religion and rituals must have been to ancient humans. No one knows how they transported these gigantic stones from far away to the site, and its hard to imagine the complete monument today when you see only a ruin from which stones have been taken away or that has degenerated with time.

It is, however, possible to feel the primal energy when you stand there next to Stonehenge. A sense of mystery and strength, of peace even, a dedication to the powers that be! This time, I had only an hour to see it, but it would be fun to return one day to this World Heritage Site and walk the entire landscape that includes Stonehenge, Avebury and surrounding areas.

Stonehenge is now accessed through this beautiful visitor's centre. It is impressive how well heritage sites are managed in the UK.

Stonehenge is now accessed through this beautiful visitor’s centre. It is impressive how well heritage sites are managed in the UK.

Sense of scale!

Sense of scale!

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A very happy me!

A very happy me!

A very happy Nupur too...

A very happy Nupur too…

Looks different from every angle. As you move around it, Stonehenge transforms

Looks different from every angle. As you move around it, Stonehenge transforms

Helps understand something of why it was built

Helps understand something of why it was built

How tiny the man is, how huge the stones

How tiny the man is, how huge the stones

Smooth stones, rough stones....

Smooth stones, rough stones….

_DSC7988The reconstruction of neolithic homes near the Visitor Centre really added value to the visit for me, as one could better imagine what life was like back then, bringing Stonehenge back from a monument of mystery to one that was used for specific purposes by real people!

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I miss my kids when I travel without them and here, I was tickled by how differently this one was experiencing the space as compared to an adult!

I miss my kids when I travel without them and here, I was tickled by how differently this one was experiencing the space as compared to an adult!

_DSC8001_DSC8002Also, a mention must be made of how well the site and visitor flow is managed. I was surprised to know that the entire 6500 acres of the World Heritage Site is owned and managed by English Heritage or the National Trust and that even the land around is owned by the armed forces and other government agencies so that the disturbances to the site and the experiences are minimal! It is possible to walk for miles through fields and woods to explore important prehistoric sites.

There’s a lot of fascinating info about Stonehenge online, if you want to read more….

Southwark through a local’s eye: A walk along the Thames in #London

I’ve anticipated this London trip for so long and yet have had little time to plan an itinerary. A work trip for the most part, I knew my touristic experiences would need to be squeezed in. I’ve opted to live with a friend, someone I’ve known since college and so, by default, I’ve been let into her little world. I let her lead me through her neighbourhood on my first day in what locals consider “the greatest and most beautiful capital city in the world”!

We started our stroll with a visit to her local square. Kids kicked a football around, a few stalls were selling trinkets and toys. The residential neighbourhoods we walked past were still and sleepy. A dog barked at us, a baby gurgles, the locals stood out in the sun in bunches, satiated with pints of beer and lazy lunches.

The neighbourhood square

The neighbourhood square

Riverward..on the way

Riverward..on the way

My friend lives in the London Borough of Southwark, south of the Thames and close to the London Bridge. And our walk took us river-ward. An area with Roman origins, the riverfront we walked onto is rich with wharfs and restored warehouses. On a surprisingly sunny yet balmy Saturday afternoon, the place had a zippy, young feel to it. Families out with their children, friends catching a drink at the pubs and restaurants that lined the Thames, that sort of thing.

Posh apartments,  redeveloped from the docks that lined the Thames give this area a unique flavour

Posh apartments, redeveloped from the docks that lined the Thames give this area a unique flavour

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The ramps that took the cargo from the qyayside to the warehouses. Pretty dramatic huh?

The ramps that took the cargo from the quayside to the warehouses. Pretty dramatic huh?

My first glimpse of the Thames...gasp!

My first glimpse of the Thames…gasp!

Love the clutter!

Love the clutter!

View across the river

View across the river

Wine stop!

Wine stop!

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Public art, lots of naval stuff like enormous anchors strewed around for kids to clamber over...

Public art, lots of naval stuff like enormous anchors strewed around for kids to clamber over…

The sun lit up the Thames and the famous landmarks that were spotted out to me dazzled and shone. The Tower Bridge, of course, the City Hall designed by Norman Foster and, as my friend put it, a miniature of the Bundestag Dome we saw in Berlin, and the HMS Belfast right there in the centre of the river. We walked across and around the Tower of London where, along with the swarms of tourists, the sea of ceramic poppies greeted us, a recently installed commemoration of the World War I in its centenary year.

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City Hall, HMS Belfast, the sights and sounds of the river...

City Hall, HMS Belfast, the sights and sounds of the river…

Walking around the Tower of London.  I was here 15 years ago...

Walking around the Tower of London. I was here 15 years ago…

The poppies...oh the poppies!

The poppies…oh the poppies! Blood red and stunning

Caught the Shard between the turrets! It's Renzo Piano's latest addition to London's skyline

Caught the Shard between the turrets! It’s Renzo Piano’s latest addition to London’s skyline

A surprising detour through the upmarket St Katherine Docks where the Queen’s gilded boat rests and where I was amused to see The Dickens Inn, rebuilt in the style of a 17th century timber-framed building and apparently inaugurated by the famous writer’s grandson. That the author spent a part of his life in this part of London is well-known but it was had to reconcile the images of Dickensian London in my head with the extensively redeveloped swank sights before me!

No longer serene, but still quaint, St Katherine's is a lovely little marina, apparently the playground of the rich and famous

No longer serene, but still quaint, St Katherine’s is a lovely little marina, apparently the playground of the rich and famous

err....like the Queen, whose gilded craft is on the right side of this pic

err….like the Queen, whose gilded craft is on the right side of this pic

Ceramic panels we walked by...

Ceramic panels we walked by…

Posing in front of the Dickens'

Posing in front of the Dickens’

An aside: A lovely little fountain and a peaceful square. Seeing the city through a local's eye is the BEST way to do so!

An aside: A lovely little fountain and a peaceful square. Seeing the city through a local’s eye is the BEST way to do so!

No, can't wipe the smile off!

No, can’t wipe the smile off!

And thus, after being introduced to this delightful part of London, I dragged my jet-lagged self back at last night, happily tired and looking forward to more good times here!

 

 

Memory tools: A bombed out church turns into urban scale artwork

I’ve seen this sort of stuff before in Germany. Many years ago in Cologne, I remember walking on a street with a giant circle inscribed in it, to remember the Roman structure that once stood there. It was 1999. I had recently graduated from architecture college and the simple memory tool simply blew my mind!

This summer in Berlin, I noticed that the heavy scent of memory and nostalgia, tinged with sweetness and pain, still hangs around every street corner. And so I was particularly struck by this little open space near Checkpoint Charlie.

It’s called Bethlehemkirchplatz. Here, where a Church once stood, stands a metal frame that recreates the outline of the original building in a giant three-dimensional sculpture designed by Spanish artist  Juan Garaizabal (it is a tube structure that plays with light apparently, but we saw it only in the daytime). You walk inside it and you see the plan of the erstwhile church inscribed into the paving in a distinct colour. It urges you to try and conjure up its walls and roof, its interiors, furniture, people. And you cannot, because it is in fact an empty space, filled with memory and emotion.

A 16th C church built for Szech Protestant refugees who came to Berlin at the time of Frederick William the 1st. Built around 1737, the church was bombed during the WWII in 1943 and in 1963 the ruins were brought down. The current artwork was inaugurated as recently as 2012.

We first caught a tantalizing glimpse of the sculpture on our way back from Checkpoint Charlie on Day 1 of our exploration of Berlin (more on that later). But it stayed in my mind and we went back to it another time to feel wha its like to stand inside that shell. Interestingly, the plaza is also known for the building in the background that was designed by well-known architect Philip Johnson and in this way, the place holds more than just memory but is linked to Berlin’s recent history and architectural prowess.

The artwork peeks out at us on a rainy day

The artwork peeks out at us on a rainy day

It fills the space, yet you see forms beyond it

It fills the space, yet you see forms beyond it

We return another day, under a blue sky

We return another day, under a blue sky

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The sculpture next to the church’s frame represents the everyday things the refugees left with. I didn’t take to it much!

 

The explorers are at it!

The explorers are at it!

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This is my favourite view of the plaza. And heya Johnson House now clearly visible in the background!

This is my favourite view of the plaza. And heya Johnson House now clearly visible in the background!

 

Our first glimpses of Berlin

After a congenial and comfortable train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin, we weren’t exactly tired. And so, shortly after we dumped our bags in our hotel room, all four of us were eager to walk around and explore our new destination.

At first sight, I found Berlin hard to read. So much was happening around me visually. Heritage structures abounded, but the skyline was dominated by the slender and modern TV tower, the 4th tallest structure in Europe. Cranes dotted the horizon as well and I could sense the energy of a city that seemed to be in a constant state of re-invention.

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Impossible not to feel the buzz in Berlin

Peek-a-boo TV tower! You see it from simply everywhere

Peek-a-boo TV tower! You see it from simply everywhere

Despite the broad research I had done, I hadn’t dwelt on what it would be like to walk the streets of Berlin and I loved the feeling of taking in a new place, the tingling sense of curiosity, the eagerness to discover. Rahul and the kids seemed to share this feeling as well and we found ourselves walking around the Nikolaiviertel (St Nicholas Quarter) that was adjacent to our hotel.

Aside: We stayed at the Novotel and Aadyaa called it the No-Hotel for two whole days to our utter amusement. A decent place to stay, not luxurious but well located.

Interestingly, this is the oldest residential area in Berlin dating back to medieval times. We circled Nikolaikirche, the oldest church in the city, which was to become a familiar landmark over the next few days. We walked past the ornate Ephraim Palace and the red Rathuis (Townhall). We admired the River Spree and paid our respects to St. George slaying the dragon.

The Nikolaikirch too is hard to miss as you walk in this area

The Nikolaikirche too is hard to miss as you walk in this area

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The quaint church square has been entirely reconstructed as it was bombed out in the WWII, a familiar story in Berlin

The quaint church square has been entirely reconstructed as it was bombed out in the WWII, a familiar story in Berlin

The Rote Rathuis opr Red Townhall. An architectural delight with great detailing

The Rote Rathuis opr Red Townhall. An architectural delight with great detailing

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We ate under the shadow of this gorgeous statue of St George slaying the dragon.. The kids were quite fascinated by it!

We ate under the shadow of this gorgeous statue of St George slaying the dragon.. The kids were quite fascinated by it!

We all find our own interests. While I admired the architecture and sense of history, Aadyaa loved the summer blooms!

We all find our own interests. While I admired the architecture and sense of history, Aadyaa loved the summer blooms!

This is what I mean. You find gems like this unexpectedly all around Berlin. This particular structure fascinated me for some reason

This is what I mean. You find gems like this unexpectedly all around Berlin. This particular structure fascinated me for some reason

Everywhere, I saw the infill new buildings that had been fitted into the fabric of the older city and it took me some time to shake off the visual symmetry of the Dutch landscape and accommodate the more kitschy urbanscape of Berlin. Somewhere in between our wanderings this first evening, we sat down to a hearty German meal of bratwurst and potato salad, beer and schintzel. A good beginning to a packed 4 days ahead in one of the most interesting cities in the world!

Tired and satisfied, sleepy but excited to resume our exploration the next day...

Tired and satisfied, sleepy but excited to resume our exploration the next day…

Remembering Haarlem #2: Admiring St Bavo

I’ve had several encounters with St. Bavo Kerk, a beautiful late Gothic cathedral located right in the centre of Haarlem in The Netherlands. Like many churches in Europe, St Bavo was built on the site of an older church that existed from the 12th century, however it was only in the 15th century that it was altered and expanded into a large cathedral. St Bavo started off a Catholic church but bore witness to the wave of Protestantism, finally becoming a Protestant cathedral in 1578.

Magnificent in size, with an impressive wooden ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows, St Bavo is designed (like all Gothic churches) to awe the visitor. Its Pièce de résistance, however, is its pipe organ, for a long time the largest in the world and once even played on by Mozart in 1766, when he was all of ten years old!

I remember walking to St Bavo way back in 1999, accompanied by my younger mama (maternal uncle) to hear an organ concert. Having recently finished by Bachelors in Architecture, I recall I spent most of my time staring at the church interiors and also at times dozing off (put it down to a limited understanding of Western music and a full stomach!).

This visit though, the rich sound of the organ struck me as soon as I set foot inside the cathedral and I found I could appreciate much better the texture of the sound, the acoustics of the absolutely stunning space and the atmosphere of divinity that the combination of space and sound created.

For the children, who had never been to a cathedral before, it was hard to decide where to look: the paved floors that marked the graves of important people, the paintings on the walls, the ceiling so so high, the shining organ, the hushed demeanour of those who sat in the pews hearing the music and seemingly engrossed in prayer, the statue of Mother Mary with her benevolent expression…..

After having spent a couple of hours out there in the Grote Markt thinking the cathedral was closed, I was just happy to be inside. For, call me old-fashioned or slightly crazy, it seems incomplete to visit Haarlem and not come here once!

St Bavo from outside. At this time, we were out in the square lamenting its closure

St Bavo from outside. At this time, we were out in the square lamenting its closure

When we finally discover this little side entrance, I was thrilled. These three are probably at this point, just playing along with my need to see St Bavo again!

When we finally discover this little side entrance, I was thrilled. These three are probably at this point, just playing along with my need to see St Bavo again!

The enormous pipe organ that takes up nearly the entire height of the cathedral, definitely the focus here at St Bavo

The enormous pipe organ that takes up nearly the entire height of the cathedral, definitely the focus here at St Bavo

It was playing the day we visited and here you get an idea of the sort of atmosphere inside

It was playing the day we visited and here you get an idea of the sort of atmosphere inside

The intricacy of the ceiling, so Gothic!

The intricacy of the ceiling, so Gothic!

The nave is in the centre, with the fabulous ceiling anf the two aisles, like this one, run on either side of the cathedral. The symmetry is pleasing and inspiring

The nave is in the centre, with the fabulous ceiling and the two aisles, like this one, run on either side of the cathedral. The symmetry is pleasing and inspiring. Notice the flooring. Each flagstone is the size of a grave, for easy sponsorship I suppose!

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Trying to fit the many elements of Gothic architecture into a single frame, and the painted ceiling as well

 

A place of refuge & reflection: Christ Church, Shimla

Having been to convent schools for many many years, kneeling in a chapel or a church is almost second nature. I therefore stepped into Christ Church in Shimla on the pretext of sheltering from the wind and rain, but actually to relive the experience of being in a place of Christian worship.

This is the second oldest church in North India after St. John’s in Meerut. The brass plates screwed onto the wall tell the story of the times this structure has lived through. Infants who died of malaria, old British couples who died in Shimla having lived their entire life there, Indian Christians who lived their family life with the Church as their anchor and so on.

Kneeling there with Aadyaa and staring at the familiar altar and the impressive organ, I tried to explain to her the bare essentials of Jesus Christ’s story. I need to tell her more, and add to her collection of religious and mythological heroes among whom Krishna and Balram, Ram and Lakshman, Hanuman and Arjun and of course her namesake Durga are all time favorites!

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An unexpected splash of art and heritage: Gaiety Theatre, Shimla

Heritage always turns me on, but more than pristinely renovated heritage structures that are essentially inactive, it is particularly exciting to see heritage in use. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to walk into Gaiety Theatre in Shimla and see it buzzing with a group of local artists hard at work. We wandered through the small intimate space watching a range of artworks being created in front of our very eyes.

Gaiety Theatre was first opened in 1887, in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year. It was designed as part of the Town Hall complex and was the hub of cultural activity in the city during colonial times. Designed by the well known English architect Henry Irwin, it is a Gothic building and can seat over 300 people. I learnt from another blogger’s post that this is one of six remaining special Gothic theatres in the World! Known for excellent acoustics, the recent renovation of the building is tastefully done and keeps intact the originally designed screen.

Chancing upon the theatre while walking down the Mall Road

Chancing upon the theatre while walking down the Mall Road

The solid stonework is a pleasure to see

The solid stonework is a pleasure to see

Inside

Inside

Artists at work

Artists at work

Niches and artists...

Niches and artists…

The piece I really liked

The piece I really liked

Gaeity theatre is part of the Town Hall complex

Gaiety theatre is part of the Town Hall complex

The art event we came across was being held in one of the side halls and later in the evening we were happy to see a buzzing crowd outside the hall, awaiting the inauguration of the public exhibition of the artworks. The Shimla Summer Festival was just concluding, which hosted several performances in the theatre.

An excited crowd awaits the opening of the exhibition

An excited crowd awaits the opening of the exhibition

 

 

A parting glimpse of the magnificent details of this building

A parting glimpse of the magnificent details of this building

 

 

 

 

Haunted house in Shimla! #fantasy #heritage

Wandering a bit off the Mall Road in Shimla stands a dilapidated rambling huge house. It must have been stunningly beautiful in its hey days and one can see that the owners have tried to rebuild the front porch and one side of the house at some point. But at this time it stands forlorn and abandoned, very much the quintessential haunted house! I’m almost glad they didn’t build further. From what I can see, they would have probably totally modernized the building.

I loved staring at the house, clicking these pictures and imagining the life of this lovely old building. In reality these are two separate structures on what appears to be a single property, but for fantasy’s sake let’s imagine them to be a single haunted house and enjoy the ghost stories running around inside our heads!

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Quick clicks in Jaipur

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to Jaipur for a wedding and while I will take my time to process the few hundred pictures I took of that gorgeous evening, here are a few quick snapshots of a halt we took in the market to buy a few knick knacks.

All the time in the world...

All the time in the world…

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In siesta hour

In siesta hour

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Lovers click each other, man watches them, tourists stroll by...quintessential Jaipur!

Lovers click each other, man watches them, tourists stroll by…quintessential Jaipur!