Category Archives: Travel & Experiences

Broadening engagement: amidst the crowds at JLF

Don’t ask my why this is my first visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the literary event that seems to have caught the fancy of the public owing to its curious mix of the eclectic and popular. To be honest, it hasn’t been high on my radar but this year work took me to the Pink City during Litfest week and the coincidence was too much to ignore.

I managed to squeeze in a few sessions, all of them invigorating. Whether it was Pavan Varma quizzing Naqvi on his reading of history or Manu Joseph making tongue-in-cheek remarks about the difficulties writers face putting themselves in the opposite gender’s shoes, the content was rich and engaging. Every single venue was full. The ones with Bollywood  personalities were distinctly overflowing. But sessions on Sanskrit writing and the literature of anger as expressed by Dalit and tribal writers were full as well. I wondered why.

One way of looking at it is that there are simply too many people at JLF and they have to go somewhere and do something! And while this is true, I suspect there’s a lot more going on here beyond the thrill of attending a mela.

I identified a few distinct types of visitors- the artistic and creative community, the must-be-seen-here types, the book lovers, the firangs, the senior citizens and a large number of  school and college students. After a point, I opted out of the sessions and just sat and watched the crowd, overheard the conversations and chatted with folks. I met college kids from Jaipur who had chosen sessions because they were about subjects that were new to them. A friend who attends every year comes here to meet authors and expand his book collection. One young couple told me that it is exciting to be at an event like this where you get a chance to rub shoulders (literally) with everyone from popular Bollywood personalities to your favorite author. For some students I met here, being at JLF was like traveling the world, gaining a new set of experiences. Neither can I complain about passive audiences; I found questions from the floor were very sharp across age groups in the sessions I attended.

Clearly, JLF means different things to different people. All things said, it is certainly a step forward in taking literature, art and academic writing out of its elitist bastion (and may I say, pushing those in the bastion to learn a thing or two from the real world outside!). This is a new world where young people explore many ways to engage with new ideas and fresh content. Our schools and colleges are hard pressed to offer that novelty and excitement and maybe events like this, in some infinitesimally small way, fill that gap. Can we do more?

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#Demonetisation as ritual sacrifice: In light of a recent trip to Inka territory

Anthropologist and friend Durba Chattaraj, in this insightful piece, compares the ‘inconvenience’ experienced by ordinary and honest people as a consequence of Modi’s bold demonetization announcement to the ritual sacrifice of innocents in ancient civilizations across the world. “In many cultures across the world,” she writes, “the logic of sacrifice to expiate collective sin demanded that the purest, rather than the most corrupt, be offered up to the gods.” She goes on to wonder whether this concept is still valid if the majority, and not the symbolic few, are on the sacrificial altar.

Durba’s analogy has appealed to me because I am fascinated by the emotional logic and perhaps habitual hopefulness with which the poor in this country have taken this enormously disruptive move in their stride. And because I had the fortune of spending some time amidst Inka ruins a few weeks ago, I’m equally fascinated by her bid to compare the mores of a territorial and if I may say so, fairly aggressive people to the supposedly civilized and democratic setup of modern India. So let me take the opportunity to recall that journey….

Our journey to Ingapirca, an Inka site in the Canar district of Ecuador in October this year took us through winding mountain roads and fertile terrain. Far less dramatic that Macchu Pichu, the ruins of Ingapirca hug the terrain close but the Temple of the Sun, probably built as an astronomical observatory stands out. These were a people obsessed and vastly knowledgeable about the movements of the sun, which they worshiped as the ultimate power not unlike contemporary and even older civilizations across the world. What makes Ingapirca different though, in a departure from the usual script of war and conquer, circumstances forced them to settle differences with the local Canari people and they ended up intermarrying with them and living peacefully. The Canaris worshipped the moon and the Ingapirca ruins clearly demonstrate that both lunar and solar worship became part of the unique Inka-Canari culture.

We were fortunate to be assigned a passionate guide, whose enthusiasm and knowledge enabled him to surpass his language difficulties. Whenever he was unsure, he didn’t hesitate to take help the lady in our group who spoke both Spanish and English reasonably well. Interacting with him not only revealed the deeper secrets of the site but also offered some insights into the ongoing attempts by Ecuador and other Andean nations to preserve the language and oral histories of the indigenous people; his own attempts to learn Kechwa, the indigenous tongue, made an interesting tale.

Getting back to the ruins themselves, and the starting point in my post today, we had an animated discussion in Ingapirca about the practice of ritual sacrifice. We stared down at the grave of the High Priestess, with whom over a dozen children had been buried alive  to tend to her in her journey after death. Children were considered the purest beings and hence ideal for sacrifice. They were fattened and treated well before the sacrifice and usually drugged to make it painless. In Ingapirca, archaeologists believe they were given a highly intoxicating drink made of coca leaves (we found the plant growing right there on the site!).

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The Inka Temple of the Sun looms up in the background but in the foreground are Canari vessels for lunar rituals

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Grain storage

 

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Granaries, residences, and sacrificial spaces

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The sacrifical stone, aligned with solar solstices

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Nestles low amid the spectacular Andean mountains

 

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The Temple of the Sun dominates the valley

 

The Temple of the Sun

Walking away from the Temple of the Sun

In present day India, the poor may well be the innocents who have made sacrifices post-demonetisation, losing work and wages for sure, and the state has indeed ordered rather than requested that they make it. While the Inka fattened the innocents for sacrifice, the poor have been promised redistribution or reward at a later date. The parallels make me want to question a bit our belief that choice, rationalism, debate and dialogue are hallmarks of the modern era we live in. In evolutionary terms, the span of time between the Inkas and us is only a blink and maybe as citizens we are still very much in that psychological space: content to not have a choice, accustomed to the powers taking our fate in their hands, always placing the survival of the clan above our own, happy for the rewards we might get but not necessarily assuming they will come….

59, Rivoli: A glimpse of the alternative in Paris

Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.

In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.

On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!

59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?

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Paris: Where grey is beautiful

Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!

Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.

We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.

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Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris je t’aime!

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The perfectly grey sets off the pyramid very nicely. Located outside the Louvre, it is one of the most understated architectural icon in the world

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Inside the lobby of The Louvre Museum

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Looking out

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Looking in

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Art for everyone

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Crossing the Seine in line with La Institut

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We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.

Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!

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In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!

We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!

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Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.

Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.

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Through the door….

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To the narrow court inside

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We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!

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Another serene space in busy Paris

Another serene space in busy Paris

 

Ooh-ing and Ah-ing at the renovated Rijksmuseum

I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012! 

This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place. 

Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work. 

Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings. 

Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred! 

Iglesias de Cuenca: Todos Santos, the first church in Cuenca (3/3)

I must confess that I’ve been saving the best one of the three churches we saw for the last. I don’t know whether it because we were lightheaded from getting off a flight and heading directly to see the sights, or whether it was the novelty of being in a new city but it seemed to me that this little church threw open for us its heart and soul in a way that few places in the world have done before. We walked in and bought tickets, expecting a standard walk around the church, but what we got was an involved leisurely tour that allowed us to caress each piece of wood we fancied and linger at each pillar we liked.

It was here that we, once again, had the standard Ecuadorian conversation……

“De donde eres? Where are you from?”

“India!”

“Eso es tan lejos! That’s so far away!…….Bienvendio a mi paid…. Welcome to my country….”

….but with the extra warmth and pride that Cuencans seem to have.

In Todos Santos, the oldest church in the city, those words came from the lips of a nun of the Oblate Order, which was set up in the late 19th century here and have played a key role in adding to the church structure as well as setting up community infrastructure, chiefly a school in the premises that was the first to permit Indian women to attend (and is still in existence today). Many of the Oblate nuns lived under an oath of silence inside the convent here and continue to be highly regarded in Cuenca. With this conversation began the most detailed tour of a heritage site that I’ve ever had.

In the late 1530s when it was constructed, the Iglesias Todos Santos or the All Saints Church was instrumental in helping the Spanish conquistadors establish the Catholic faith in a terrain steeped in Inca practices intermingled with the pre-Inca Canari culture (many pre-spanish graves were found during restoration). In fact, it is rumored to have been built on a site called Ushno, which was sacred to indigenous people and used for religious rituals by them.Even after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca in 1557 and began to hold their religious services in El Sagrario (read here), Todos Santos continued to be the primary church for the ‘evangelising’ of native people.

Architecturally, like in other monuments we saw of the period, Todos Santos was a curious mix of native technology and art with Spanish aesthetic sensibilities. Originally, the church was built on wooden frames and filled with adobe walls, built with a special mud-brick called bahareque, which the Canaris made with a mix of sugarcane, straw and clay.

Phoenix-like, this beautiful building underwent significant restoration between 2010-12 after being nearly destroyed in two fires in 2005 and 2007. The restoration uncovered the exquisite murals that had been unfortunately painted over in 1960. What we saw, therefore, was a church proud of its second lease of life. Locally made terracotta tiles, the detailed paintings over the stucco walls, the use of bright colors like cobalt blue, gold, red and yellow, the bright blue and gold ceiling tiles all clearly spoke of the influence of local art on this church, perhaps inevitable in those early years.

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Restored painting hanging in its original location

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Restored church organ, still played in tune. We know because Kim pulled it out and played it!

As we climbed higher and higher into the bell tower and beyond, we could see the surviving original wooden beams replaced and reinforced by new ones labeled 2009 and 2010. Standing high above the terracotta roofs of the city, with stunning vistas all around us, it wasn’t hard to imagine the awe a religious structure as well-proportioned and intricately decorated as Todos Santos might have evoked in the Canari and Inca people back in the 16th century. After all, even we had our jaws dropping to the floor and our eyes agog!

On a lighter note, I discovered while scouring the Internet later that we weren’t the only ones who had got the full detailed tour of Todos Santos! Many others had given it rave reviews citing the care with which they had been shown around. Far from feeling bad about it, I’ve been feeling delighted that the little church is in such very dedicated hands!

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Iglesias de Cuenca : El Sagrario, the Old Cathedral (2/3)

This is the first church we encounter our walk from our hotel to the main city square. Its pretty but unassuming white exterior and well proportioned bell towers does not prepare us for the treasures inside. As we purchase our tickets and enter, it glitters and dazzles, it awes us into silence, just as it did the small congregation in the early years after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca. Built on Inka ruins (I really like this spelling, used commonly in Ecuador, so I’m going to stick to it!) starting the year 1557, the church was likely the centre of religious and social life for the Spanish in colonial Cuenca (it appears indigenous people were not permitted to worship here) and in fact, was built through private donations. It remained the heart of the city till the New Cathedral was built much later in the 19th century (read post).

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Though longer a consecrated church but rather a carefully preserved museum, it still feels very much like a place of worship. The elegant, elongated proportion of the building translate into elegant arched hallways, richly decorated. Parts of the original paintwork on the walls have been restored, especially in the elaborate chapels along the sides of the main hall and the richness of colour and the beauty of the carefully crafted human forms are striking indeed. A three-dimensional depiction of the Last Supper now dominates the space before the gilded altar and the paintings in the altar section are particularly vivid. This is also the only place I have seen oil paints done on marble from the 16th century! The quality of the artefacts and the quality of restoration is impressive. Especially striking is the balance between restoration and preservation, with many places where the original paintwork or masonry has been left partially revealed just as they might have found it, giving the visitor a sense of how much changed over time.

Another interesting fact about this Cathedral is that its spire was used by the French Geodesic Expedition in 1739 as a point of reference to establish the arc of the earth. This becomes more relevant when I later visit the monument to the work of these brave scientists at Mitad del Mundo near Quito.

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Iglesias de Cuenca : Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción (1/3)

We’ve made the most of the four days in Cuenca, the hub of Ecuadorian art and culture. On the absolute top of my list of sights are three fantastic churches we visited. Each offered a distinct experience and was meticulously preserved.

I’ll begin with the largest of all, the  Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly called the new Cathedral. Cuenca a city made for walking and its only fit that two of the major churches, this one and the older Iglesia del Sagrario are located across each on opposite sides of the pretty Park Calderon that functions as the old city’s main square.

Despite the massive brickwork walls that you see of the Cathedral as you walk around the city, nothing really prepares you for its sheer size. It reminded me instantly of the Byzantine churches like Aya Sofya that I’d seen in Istanbul. And I wasn’t very wrong, for Juan Batista Stiehle, the German Friar who drew up the plans for this Cathedral was certainly influenced by Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The main altar seemed to be more Baroque revival though, perhaps borrowing from the Baroque School of Quito, which in turned emerged from the extreme skill that native Indian communities had in working wood and metal.

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The cathedral is relatively new. Construction only began in 1885 and went on for a hundred years or so. The story goes that when it first threw its doors open, it could accommodate 9000 people, in a town of 10,000! Beyond its grand scale, certainly its most dominant feature, of special note are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazaba, who was invited to Ecuador for this assignment and then made the country his home, going on to design stained glass in prominent churches across the country.

The most exciting part of our visit to the New Cathedral was the climb up the tower to the top to see the beautiful domes clad with blue Czech tiles. The climb also sharpened our appreciation for the exquisite brickwork that still holds this magnificent structure together so well. The view of Cuenca from above, with its characteristic red tiled roofs, was a bonus!

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View of Park Calderon from atop the Cathedral

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The women of Cuenca

The more you travel, the more you admire the industry and hard work of women. In Cuenca, we saw women carry things and sell eats, flowers and knick knacks on pavements and in street markets. Women manned the entries to churches and museums, sold us tickets and showed us around. Women served us in hole in the wall eateries, scurrying between kitchen and table even as their menfolk cooked inside. Here are some clicks of the beautiful women we met today, many of them clearly from native tribes of the region (like the Otovalos and Canari), distinct in their facial features and ethnic attire.

 

Cuenca, Ecuador: Night walk

Another city in Ecuador, quite different from Quito. Nestled in a wide valley and not that high altitude-wise, this is a laid back city and a haven for retired expats. That means many more people speak English and it’s rather small, so it’s much easier to get around. We landed here early in the morning and ended up wandering the city for hours waiting for check in time. More on those wonderful and crazy wanderings later. 

After check in and a much needed afternoon nap (call it stone-dead slumber!), we walked to the city centre. Breathtakingly beautiful and full of unexpected sights, Cuenca has stolen my heart in a way that few places have. In addition to the gorgeous churches and squares, endless colonial facades and graffiti, there’s an earthy reality to the city and a sense of pride that is very endearing. 

Here are my shots from our walk around town tonight. Consider them placeholders till I get time to blog in detail about what we are seeing and doing. Much love from Cuenca, Ecuador…..

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