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.
It is a running joke between me and my husband Rahul that I’m not really interested in travel destinations that do not involve foraging around among ruins. I vehemently denied this the last time we discussed a possible vacation. I love the beaches and the cruise ships, the road trips and the backpacking just as much as everything else, I said. But I can tell you I was delighted and amused in equal parts when Sumant mentioned a visit to the abandoned ruins of the original Dhanachuli village during the first evening of our weekend getaway to Te Aroha earlier this month!
Our planned excursion was delayed by a day thanks to nightly precipitation that left the path wet and slippery, but we were determined to go. Sunday morning found an enthusiastic group (comprising Vijay, Vibha, Aaditya and me guided by Sumant and a kind and generous staffer from Te Aroha) making its way down into the beautiful valley. Shortly after we had crossed the existing settlement that hugs the road, we got a taste of what was in store for us. An abandoned home, colonial in its proportions and bearing, but with the wooden carved doors and windows characteristic of the original homes in these parts. The stop vetted my appetite for more. I could see from Sumant’s expressions that this was the tip of the iceberg and an excitement gripped me for what was in store further below.
After maybe twenty minutes of walking alongside fields of corn, cabbage and peas, we started seeing the first homes in the settlement below. I was struck by the play of light on the beautiful stone masonry on these homes. Some roofs were caved in and the roofs were overgrown with grass. Hindu symbols like the trishul were clearly visible. Our sense of anticipation heightened and soon we were rewarded with the beautiful sight of the little cluster of original village homes that we had trekked all the way to see.
The story goes that upper caste Hindus from the plains, from areas as far as Rajasthan and Gujarat, escaped forced conversion to Islam and moved into hilly terrain. The homes in the village therefore date back to anywhere between 150 and 200 years. Here, they settled down, amassing large land holdings and building these beautiful homes using local materials and the skills of local wood craftsmen from the Jhonsari community. However, they influenced the craftsmen substantially in the motifs they would use, typically snakes, fish, elephant and various other revered Hindu symbols with hints of Islam-influenced motifs as well. And in the shape of the niches, which are exactly like Rajasthani jharokhas. We could see Islamic influences in the types of arches used as well as in the typical geometric patterns of the carvings on some of the doors and windows. We stared, stitching the narrative of this fascinating time in history in our heads, imagining what it must be like for families who made this drastic move and how they must have hankered for small motifs and icons that served as reminders to what they left behind, that became a fragile but intensely beautiful link to their shared history and identity.
There would have been an archaeologist’s pleasure in walking through these ruined homes, but it wasn’t just history we were looking at. We found occupied homes as well in this little hamlet. Cows tied in the lower level under the exquisitely carved windows. A dish antenna screwed onto one of of the carved panels. This is living heritage, a cultural landscape that deserves attention. The contrast of the abandoned homes, to the ones that were used only for storage and the few that were still lived in told a story of economic change and loss of patience. Families had migrated up the valley towards the road, where livelihoods could be found catering to the tourists that passed by on their way to Mukteshwar as well as to the locals who lived in the village still. These homes still stood because they mean something to these people. Some are even propped up by new wooden pillars in a bid to save the roofs from caving in, but clearly no new investments are being made here.
The pictures clearly show that there is value in this heritage–the value of craft, architecture, a slice of history, a way of life. One way to conserve this heritage is to buy these beautifully carved frames and doors from these owners and cart them off, to be lovingly restored and installed in a swank, elegant and even opulent residence or heritage hotel in Delhi, or Mumbai. The other option is to find a way to conserve these homes in their original location, involving the local community in an effort that would not only augment revenue through targeted tourism and a renewable of the crafts, but also renew their bond with their rapidly disappearing material culture. A culture that spoke the language of wood and stone rather than brick and reinforced cement concrete and one that had space in it for art.
Sumant mentioned he would be happy to support, in part, a group of enthusiasts who could get together to showcase this delightful slice of heritage. Filmmakers, conservationists, artists and people engaged with the concept of responsible and sustainable tourism can join hands to save this hamlet from destruction. I think it is a fantastic seed of an idea that we could develop into a more meaningful pursuit.
Despite being from Goa, I never made it home for Chavath except perhaps one time during my childhood. I grew up barely aware of the immense importance of Ganesh Chaturthi to Hindu Goan families.
In Mumbai, where I stayed through ages 6-11, Ganpati was all about visiting countless pandals with enormously elaborate statues of the Elephant God as well as interesting tableaus telling stories from the scriptures or even commenting on current politics or sports! We sang the evening aarti with great gusto, running from one community celebration to another to catch the aarti and collect the prasaad, usually sweet modak or laadu.
In 2008, I first attended chavath in Goa, where the festival plays out within the domain of the family rather than in the community or saarvajanik form. I was mesmerized by the numerous ritual and activities that went into the two and half day festival and fell in love with the feeling of family bonding that I experienced. My children were very small then, Udai was four and Aadyaa was a few months old. I felt Goa and family exert an unmistakable pull on my heartstrings and I came back for more, in 2011 and now in 2013. The next few posts on this blog are an attempt at describing the festival as it is celebrated in my ancestral home in Calapur, a few kilometres outside Goa’s capital city, Panaji.
We reached Goa on Saturday, 7th of September. Rahul, the kids and me. All enthused to participate. This was the day the family prepared for the festival. As we entered the home, we saw that the matoli had been put up. On our last visit, we had been in time to actually hang seasonal fruits, vegetables and flowers on the wooden grid (usually made of bamboo or wood from the betelnut palm) that is permanently suspended from the ceiling in the puja room. Ganesh Chaturthi, like Onam in Kerala, is also an autumnal festival, celebrating new life that you can see all around after the three months of rain. Typical items that are plucked (or bought nowadays, the bazars full of these typical seasonal items that would go up on matolis in ancestral homes across the state) and hung are chibud (a cousin of the cucumber), nirphanas, torand (grapefruit), ambade, coconuts, betelnuts, bananas, local yam and bunches of wild fruits and flowers. These are interspersed with mango leaves, considered auspicious in Hindu culture, and tied together using a local vine.
The stage is set for the most popular and fun festival of the year!
It’s something we decide to do every year, but often miss out on. This year, we pushed to catch the tail end of the Ramzan nocturnal revelries at the Jama Masjid in Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi. For Rahul, the food is the primary attraction; for me, it is the vibrant street life and an opportunity to wield my camera and simply see a life so unlike mine!
We went in a group of eight, some who had never been to the old city before. I savored the sights and smells, enjoyed the feeling of being lost in a crowd, the feeling of being welcomed by those who knew we were coming in from the outside to partake in their celebration. There is always an element of nostalgia for me, during these trips. Memories of early explorations of Shahjahanabad when I studied in SPA in the ’90s as well as memories of childhood trips to the older parts of Lucknow, which are similar in feel though not in architecture.
I feel, not merely discomfort, but a profound sense of sadness when Hindu friends make veiled derogatory references to Islam in the context of visits such as these. What we experienced last evening was the vibrant expression of a culture, that extends beyond the mere boundaries of religion. It is akin to being absorbed by the Kumbh or the Pushkar Mela. It is living heritage, one that is constantly under threat from change, yet one that is constantly evolving to absorb change.
The evening progressed. Food and plenty of laughter, random meanderings amid families shopping in a frenzy before Eid, watching a mobile phone thief being caught and mobbed and led away, children manning parantha stalls, youngsters looking for the best food deals, the homeless sleeping on the pavements oblivious of the ruckus all around, and then, a crazy taxi ride back home listening to the non-stop entertaining chatter of a Vijay Singh Rajput, our cabbie who had an opinion on everything and a certain way with words! An evening well spent indeed!
Sharing some images, so you can also take a sneek peek!
A balmy breeze blows at me as I stand at Chandni Chowk watching the world go by. Some of the world is rushing back home, for others the job of unloading and loading goods still goes on and others seem to have just stepped out of home to sample the pleasures of the day. Shouting, bargaining, laughing and daydreaming people all co-exist in this place that is chaotic and timeless at the same time!
We have spent a few hours in Kuncha Mahajani parlaying with a wholesale diamond and gold jewellery merchant. Before that, we meandered through Kinari Bazaar, buying odds and ends. Grand old buildings, dilapidated and yet in better shape, outshine the newer monstrosities here. Glimpses of decently preserved streets tantalise me, but there is a momentum I am loathe to break to the human and non-human traffic that flows through the gales, kunchas and katras of Shahjahanabad.
An empty road in Gurgaon feels stressful, I thought, while a chock full bust full gali here feels restful, so measured and practised is the pace of life here. Even the contractor who stands beside me shouted at his labourer, a wizened old man, with practised ease, ordering him back to work because he stole a few moments of rest.
I imagined the street in its original glory, with a water body running down the centre. In my mind’s eye, I hear the sounds of the Azan, the tinkling of ghungroos and the whispered murmurings of a time long gone by, smell the fragrance of fresh flowers and ittar. I return to the present and smile. My city is beautiful still.
The second of my posts on Mumbai’s eating out experiences, this lunch was very different from the afternoon spent at LPQ. It’s right next to Flora Fountain, this treasure called Kitab Khana, a bookshop and cafe, the best of both worlds of reading and eating, housed inside a 150 year old heritage building.
Run by the Somaiyas, who own the building as well, the shop was a treat to walk into. As an architect, I was fascinated and proceeded to ask a zillion questions and take many pictures. I learnt about the seepage problems the building has, the problems of renting out heritage spaces and the sheer amount of money and effort it takes to maintain a shop like this. Yet, in the manager’s eyes I saw the pride and the sheer love for what he does. The staff is old-world and affectionate, as I found out from the little chit-chats they had with the kiddos.
The cafe is small, but served an excellent selection of pastas, sandwiches, salads and desserts (couscous salad and blueberry cheesecake recommended). We were catching up with dear family friends and Aadyaa had spent the entire morning with them. Though the lunch was planned so that we could get Aadyaa back with us, she had had so much fun with her new-found friend Radha that she went right back home with them! The cafe at Kitab Khana seemed like an extension of home and the two girls danced, sang and chatted their way through the meal. For the rest of us, it was catch-up time as well. For Udai, it was serious food time and he also had the opportunity to buy the next book in the Percy Jackson series. That one needs his reading fuel to be uninterrupted, or else we are in trouble!
Seeing as we had missed going there last time we visited Mumbai thanks to the rains and because Udai had heard of my childhood visits to these caves, he was raring to go. He had put down his demand to visit Elephanta on Day 1 of his solo Mumbai trip to stay with Rachna, who my kids fondly call Bossy (Bausi actually, which is half bua and half mausi, for those of you interested in the etymology of this strange term). It also sort of fits with her, we joke, but in reality she is a softy and a sweetheart.
Anyway, on a super hot summer day, the kids and us- Rachna, Nupur (mausi to the kids) and me- boarded the ferry boat to Elephanta which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was an experience pulling out into the sea, seeing the majestic Gateway of India and the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel getting smaller and smaller as we headed out. Yes, I’ve been here as a child with my cousins and the ferry ride was the most thrilling part of it. This time, I noticed how many locals there were on board carrying vegetables, corn, coconuts and other goods to the island. These sea-people, for whom now tourism was a lifeline, intrigued me and I wanted to know more…
Anyway, many ship-sightings, lifebuoy-countings and sunburns later, we approached the densely forested island, locally known as Gharapuri but named Elephanta after the stone carved elephant that was discovered here and now stands in the Bombay Zoo, or the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in the zoo premises to be precise.
It’s a hot walk and climb to the caves (you can also take a cute chugging train till the steps), but all worth the effort. Sweat streaming, we enter the dark caves to be utterly fascinated by the sculpture, the architecture, the sheer monumentality of these caves, built between 450 and 750 AD. The trimurti- Brahma,Vishnu, Mahesh is exquisite and so are the several sculptures of dwarpals, shiva, shiva-parvatu, ardhnarishwar, etc that adorn the first large cave.
For Udai and Aadyaa (and perhaps for all who visit), the fact that someone (in this case Portuguese traders) had shot at and maimed the sculptures was the main concern. they had read the Amar Chitra Katha comic about the caves and knew some of the history. So are those who did it bad? No? Then why did they do it? A long discussion on intolerance and how it is routinely practised, to the detriment of the human race, followed. An excellent opportunity for me to drill in my own philosophy of liberalism and tolerance, and appreciation of all cultures. I was to get the opportunity again, with much more impact, up in Mcleodganj in the context of Tibet, but more about that later.
The caves offer many photo opportunities and we took them all! On the way back, we decided to wait for the mini train to go back to the ferry. Sitting there, eating corn, I got the opportunity to converse in Marathi with the locals who run all the touristy knick-knack and food shops on the island. They were farmers and fisherfolk before, but now the monkeys have devastated all the crops and they rely on supplies from the mainland. They still fish and bit, do boat repair work etc, but are largely dependent on tourism fir income. The young do not stay here, leaving the island to study and work. I got the sense of despondency, rather than excitement. Would like to know more. When we declare something of heritage value, how does that change the loves of the people who have lived there for generations? Do they have links with the dynasty that carved the caves or are they later settlers? Is there any other way they can be involved to contribute to and benefit from the tourism that the island attracts? Is there any other way the trip the island can be enhanced? Through cultural interpretation centres, art displays, some non-invasive development around the island’s natural lakes and lagoons?
These were the thoughts going around my head on the ferry ride back. As the magnificent city of Mumbai came back into view, these thoughts faded and the excitement of walking around South Mumbai became more palpable!
My first few visits to Nathupur village were way back in 2004-05 when we drove there all the way often to eat at Italiano’s. At the time, I recognized that this urban village adjacent to posh DLF Phase 3 had the potential to be for Gurgaon what Hauz Khas village is for Delhi today, a place full of boutique shops and eateries, an exotic locale with an earthy feel. I did not know then what lay inside.
In a few years, DLF Cyber City mushroomed in the vicinity. Along with the millions of square feet of office space, came a demand for residences for low-income workers who did not have the options of commuting from afar and Nathupur (along with Sikanderpur and Chakkarpur) became the default absorbers of this burgeoning population of migrants coming in to tap this new opportunity for work.
My later visits to Nathupur were more related to this new economic reality. At one point, we tried to look for office space here for Minerva in a bid to be located closer to some of our clients. At another point, I had a frustrating encounter with a placement agency for domestic help located here. I then perceived Nathupur as a messy warren of human habitation, dense and disorganized.
Today, as I explored Nathupur in the company of team members from Agrasar, an NGO working to assist migrants in Gurgaon, these disparate perceptions came together in a climactic realization of Nathupur as a hapless victim of rapid urbanization and changing realities. In the part of the village where we conducted our community interactions today, I saw strewn many stately old havelis, rock solid and beautiful. I saw proud villagers inhabit old homes fashioned in a colonial style. I also saw the old homes half knocked down, making way for higher builder-style construction that would house migrant families, shops and businesses. Amid the buffalo-ridden lanes of this clearly old village, change was evident. The few who are clinging on to their old life of open space and rural habits (we saw women drying grain in the sun, men smoking hookahs and chatting) would be eventually outnumbered. But for now, these older homes in the context of rapid change seem like moments snatched out of a tornado of sweeping transformation.
I am wondering if it would be possible to preserve some of this older lifestyle and architecture. Some sort of adaptive re-use perhaps?
A heartfelt piece by Nipesh, who has been a colleague and a dear friend whose enthusiasm for Delhi and its culture is infectious indeed!
Originally posted on ...deep within...:
The famous haveli at Gali Qasim jan at Ballimaran, whose resident at one point was the epitome of Urdu poetry, is one of the many mute witnesses of the Mughal tehzeeb. Like with many, Delhi have made Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan also its own, to an extent that ‘Ghalib ki Dilli’ is a common phrase now, even though technically Ghalib is not from Delhi. The way Ghalib and Badshah Zafar used to live is usually referred to as the true Dilli’s tehzeeb…. Love for poetry…. Witty prose….. complex flavored food….. an amazing language….and much more including nawabi shauks like shataranj (chess), Chausar, kabootar bazi etc. After the mutiny of 1857 everything fell apart, many fled the city or were killed…. Major portions of Old Delhi were erased to ground to be rebuilt with new residents…. The patron badshah was kicked out of his of his own city… This…
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Obviously, I didn’t do much thinking about the architecture of Parel and other parts of central Bombay when I grew up there. Bombay of the ’80s had a distinct flavor about it. I remember it as very working class. The mills were still functional and I have memories of visiting people in the chawls that the mill workers lived in. Now, you drive through a city of dead, decaying mills and tall glitzy (mostly ugly too!) skyscrapers. But what I absolutely love about this part of the city is the street front mixed-use architecture. It epitomizes all the good stuff we keep elucidating about mixed-use. Because the ground floor has street-facing retail shops, pavements must be in good order and there are always people around and about.
Parel was one of the original islands of Mumbai and came up as a business and industrial district starting the late 18th century all the way upto the beginning of the 20th century. The mills prospered and chawls were built by both the government and the mill owners to accommodate the men and women who worked in these mills. The chawl typology meant sharing a common entry passage as well as street areas and life was lived as much on the street as inside the home, which was usually overcrowded and dingy.
To put some figures in, in 1865 there 10 mills in Mumbai employing 6500 workers. At the peak of the textile boom in 1980, the mills employed near on 300,000 workers. And then they shut down in 1982 after the Great Bombay Textile Strike.
The residential areas are entered through a street that branches off the main roads creating small self-contained residential enclaves. Similar to the katras of Delhi and the pols of Amdavad, you step inside a world of quaint silence and domesticity, a world in which people know each other and your foreign footsteps break the comfortable humdrum of lives.
I got curious stares when I entered Krishnanagar in Parel. It’s beautiful gates beckoned me in. At the entrance, I saw a group of men sitting and reading papers, their red tikas displayed proudly as caste marks, denoting that this as a Hindu neighborhood. There is a temple inside the enclosure, people seem to know each other. Old ladies sat out on the common verandah talking, stitching, some people were getting ready to go to work, a young man was brushing his teeth while staring down at me, a young housewife in her trademark cotton printed nightie was walking her dog…It was a bustling middle class neighborhood with homes that proudly displayed plants, pictures, ornamentation of all types.
One gentleman stopped me to ask why I was taking pictures. He was reassured by my reasonably fluent Marathi and accepted my explanation that I had lived nearby as a child and was revisiting the neighborhood out of sheer nostalgia. His attitude was not threatening, but clearly voyeurism wasn’t going to be tolerated here!
Uncharacteristically, I decided to enter the little temple and pay my respects to the Gods within. Perhaps that’s what helped me make it to my flight later that day, despite many obstacles, just in the nick of time!