Sidhpur: City of relief

THERE WAS ALWAYS a tin of pink coloured Isogel granules in the bathroom of my childhood home. One of my parents took a teaspoon of this daily to ensure regularity of bowel movements. An important ingredient in Isogel is psyllium husk, which is extracted from the plants Plantago ovata and Plantago psyllium. Basically, the husk is a polysaccharide gelling agent which, believe it or not, can be used to ameliorate both constipation and diarrhoea. It might also have other health promoting properties, including possible mitigation of Type 2 diabetes, and reducing cholesterol levels in the blood.

Recently, for reasons that need not be detailed here, we have taken to using psyllium husk. We did not buy Isogel, as my parents did, but a product from India called ‘Sat-Isabgol’, which my wife’s parents used in that country. This product is packed in a picturesque box that includes the company’s trademark: an old-fashioned telephone (B.G. Telephone Brand Regd.).  The box we bought recently proudly proclaims that the company is in its 80th year. According to the box, Sat-Isabgol is:

“… the upper coating of Plantago Ovata (Ispagul) which is highly purified by sieving and winnowing.”

Interesting as this is, what attracted me to the box was the fact that the Sat-Isabgol factory is in Sidhur, a place we visited in Gujarat (western India).

Sidhpur is far from being a major tourist attraction, but it is not far from the ruins of the magnificent Sun Temple at Modera, which does attract many sightseers. The main attraction in Sidhpur is a couple of streets lined with mansions decorated with ornate facades and other decorative features. These were built between the 1820s and the 1930s by a successful group of Muslim traders, members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect. The buildings incorporate many features of European neo-classical styles. Many of the houses bear their owners’ monograms in Latin lettering. The streets in this rural provincial town have a surprisingly un-Indian look about them and if it were not for cows and other animals roaming about them, it might be easy to imagine that one was not in India. While I was roaming around taking pictures, local people were extremely friendly to me. I got the impression that few Europeans visit Sidhpur. One exception was at the sad ruins of a Hindu temple, the Rudra Mahalaya, where the security guards were most unenthusiastic about seeing me with a camera. I was unable to photograph it. Constructed between 943 AD and 1140 AD, this temple is was in extremely poor condition when we saw it about two years ago. If it should ever be restored, it would make Sidhpur a fine excursion for tourists staying in Ahmedabad.

I liked what I saw during our brief visit to Sidhpur, but was completely unaware that the town is home to the factory which has been producing something that has brought so much relief to people all over the world, since 1940.

Gift of a Bombay Parsi to London

The Parsis are believed to have arrived in India from Persia, landing on the coast of what is now Gujarat. Some members of this religious community did very well during the rule of the British in India. One of these, the subject of this piece, was a great philanthropist and gave a fine gift to London …

MY MOTHER-IN-LAW STUDIED medicine at the Grant Medical School in Bombay. One of her fellow students, Perin, was her good friend. Perin, a member of Bombay’s Parsi religious community, was related to the Readymoney family, Parsis, who were prominent and successful in Bombay. You might be wondering why I am telling you this and what it has to do with anything of greater interest. Well, bear with me and join me in Regents Park.

Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney

The Broad Walk is a long straight promenade that stretches from the Outer Circle near Marylebone Road at the south of Regents Park northwards through the park to Outer Circle next to the London Zoo. Near the south eastern corner of the Zoo, there is a gothic revival style Victorian water fountain on the Broad Walk. Well-restored recently, it is no longer working. The structure, which is made of pink granite and white stone, looks like a typical flamboyant 19thy century public drinking fountain that can be found in towns all over England, but closer examination reveals that this is not so typical. Amongst its many decorative features there is a cow standing in front of a palm tree; a lion walking past a palm tree; the head of Queen Victoria looking young; and the head of a moustachioed man wearing a cap of oriental design.

The man portrayed on the drinking fountain was its donor, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney (1812-1878), who was related to my mother-in-law’s friend from medical school. Readymoney was born into a wealthy family that had moved to Bombay from the Parsi town of Navsari (in present-day Gujarat), close to where the first Parsis might have landed in India many centuries earlier. Cowasji began working as a warehouse clerk at the age of 15. Ten years later, he had become a ‘guarantee broker’ in two leading British-owned firms in Bombay, a lucrative position. By the age of 34, he was trading on his own account. In 1866, he was appointed a Commissioner for Income Tax. This form of taxation was new and unpopular in Bombay, but Cowasji made a success of its collection.

In recognition for his services to the British rulers of India, Cowasji became a Justice of the Peace for Bombay and, soon after, was made a Companion of The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India. He was a great philanthropist, providing money for building in Bombay: hospitals; educational establishments; a refuge for the destitute; insane asylums; and decorative public drinking fountains. In addition to these good causes in Bombay, he made donations to the Indian Institute in London. In recognition of his philanthropic works, he was made a Knight Bachelor of the United Kingdom in 1872.

Three years before being knighted, Readymoney financed the construction of the drinking fountain in Regents Park. It is his face that appears on it.  It was, as a noticed affixed to it reveals, his:

“… token of gratitude to the people of England for the protection enjoyed by him and his Parsee fellow countrymen under British rule in India.”

The Parsi community in India, like the Jewish people in that country, was and still is a tiny proportion of the Indian population as a whole. It felt that its survival would be ensured by showing allegiance to whomever was ruling India, the British in Readymoney’s lifetime. The fountain was inaugurated by Princess Mary of Teck (1833-1897), a granddaughter of King George III, under whose watch the USA was detached from the British Empire.

The fountain, which makes for an eye-catching garden feature, was designed by Robert Keirle (1837-1914; https://borthcat.york.ac.uk/index.php/keirle-robert-1837-1914-architect?sf_culture=en), architect of The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Keirle also designed a drinking fountain for another Indian, The Maharajah of Vizianagram. This was erected in 1867 at the northern edge of Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch, but it was removed in 1964 (https://theindiantrip.com/uk/vizianagaram-city/info). All that remains of it today is a small stone memorial, which I have walked past several times.

Usually, we spend several months in India, the country where my wife was born, but because of the current pandemic we will have to delay our next trip, for goodness knows how long. Seeing things in London with Indian association, like the Readymoney Fountain in Regents Parks helps us, in a strange way, to maintain out ties with a country for which both of us have great affection.

Remembering a reformer in mediaeval Karnataka and a Prime Minister born in Gujarat

MI5 WORKS TO HELP protect our democracy in the UK. Its architecturally unflattering headquarters stand looming above the southern end of Vauxhall Bridge. A few yards downstream from it, and directly facing the main entrance of the Tate Britain across the river, there is a small grassy triangle close to the river. In the middle of the green space, there is a bust on a pedestal. The bust depicts a man with a moustache, who is wearing two chunky necklaces and what looks like a bejewelled turban. This is a monument to Basaveshvara, who lived between 1134 and 1168 (actually, these dates are not certain: he might have lived c1106-1167). A panel on the side of the pedestal notes that he was:

“Pioneer of Democracy and Social Reform”

Various people and organisations supported the creation of this monument to someone of historical importance but until now unknown to me and, I would guess, to many other people wandering past the bust. As one of the organisations involved in its creation was The Government of Karnataka (in southern India), I reached for my tattered copy of “A History of Karnataka” (edited by PB Desai), which I picked up in the wonderful Aladdin’s cave of a bookshop, Bookworm, in Church Street, Bangalore, a city which I visit often. It has 8 index entries for Basaveshwara, who is also known as ‘Basava’, ‘Basavanna’, and ‘Basavaraja’, all of these being transcripts from various Indian language alphabets.

Basaveshwar was born of Shaivite Brahmin parents at Bagevadi, which is now in the Bijapur district in the northern part of Karnataka. His name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Vrishabha’, the divine bull, Nandi, who carries the god Shiva. Early histories (the Puranas) described him as an incarnation of the god Shiva rather than a human being, but it is considered that he was certainly a real person. A devotee of Shiva, Basaveshwara was well-versed in both Kannada and Sanskrit learning. He was brought up in a social milieu in which people blindly adhered to the dogmas and rituals of Vedic Hinduism without bothering to understand the true spirit of religion. Desai wrote:

“Basava’s mind revolted against these ills and he decided to defy the existing order of things.”

After receiving the sacred thread, very roughly speaking a Hindu equivalent of the Jewish Bar-mitzvah or the Christian confirmation, Basaveshwara went to the Kudama Sangama, a temple complex at the confluence of the Rivers Krishna and Malaprabha. In 2011, long before I had ever heard of Basaveshwara, we stopped briefly at the Sangama on our way from Hospet to Bijapur (now named ‘Vijayapura’), both in Karnataka. When we were there, the rivers had dried up and we saw signs advising visitors to beware of crocodiles.  

Basaveshwara remained at the Sangama for about 12 years. In his time, as it is now, the Sangama was much visited by people from all walks of life. There, he met many scholars and learned men from all schools of Hindu belief. Eventually, Basaveshwara travelled to Mangalavada, the headquarters of Bijala II (c1130-c1167), the feudatory governor of the Kalachuri family (of the Chalukya dynasty). Soon, Basaveshwara became the Chief Treasurer of Bijala’s court. It was then that Basaveshwara:

“… started his new movement of religious and social reforms, treating all devotees of Siva [i.e. Shiva] as equal in all respects without the traditional distinctions of castes, communities and sects.” (Desai)

After about 20 years, BASAVESHWARA moved to Kalyana, the capital of Bijala, where his reformist ideas gained a great following. Bijala II, who had become suspicious of Basaveshwara, began crushing the movement inspired by Basaveshwara’s radical ideas that seriously threatened the traditional hierarchy that favoured the Brahmins, as well as advocating some hitherto unknown equality of men and women in spiritual aspects of life. For example, Basaveshwara sanctioned a marriage between the son of an ‘untouchable’ and the daughter of a Brahmin. Upset by this, Bijala sentenced the couple to death. Basaveshwara’s followers then plotted to assassinate Bijala, an act of which Basaveshwara disapproved. Realising that he could not restrain his angry followers, Basaveshwara retreated to Kudama Sangama, where he died. Bijala was murdered soon afterwards. Later, Basaveshwara became venerated as a (Hindu) saint.

Basaveshwara believed:

“…that every human being was equal, irrespective of caste and that all forms of manual labor was equally important.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basava).

These ideas sound familiar to those versed in the history of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived many centuries after Basaveshwara.  Yet, Basaveshwara is relatively unknown compared with Gandhi. Basaveshwara was certainly a reformer as is stated on the base of his bust near Vauxhall Bridge and his radical ideas were undoubtedly democratic when considered in relation to the time when he lived. So, it is quite appropriate that from his bust, there is a clear view of the Houses of Parliament, a home of democracy.

The bust on the embankment was erected by Dr Neeraj Patil, born in Karnataka, a member of the Labour Party and Mayor of the London Borough of Lambeth 2010-2011 and Dr Anagha Patil. It was unveiled in November 2015 by the current Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi. It is appropriate that Modi inaugurated this memorial as his parents were members of what was officially recognised a socially disadvantaged community, whose emancipation would surely have been approved by the reformer Basaveshwara.  And what is more, Modi is one of the first, if not the very first, of the Indian Prime Ministers, all democratically elected, who was not from a ‘high’ caste or social class such as Brahmin, Kayastha, and Rajput, and has completed at least one term of office. So, I feel that Basaveshwara does deserve a place within sight of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

One, two, or three heads?

Seen at a museum at the Harrappan archaelogical site at Dholavira (Kutch, Gujarat)

yamey

THE HARRAPAN (or Indus Valley) civilisation existed from about 3300 to 1300 BC. Its existence overlapped with that of the ancient civilisation in Mesopotamia (existed approximately 3100 to 539 BC – the fall of Babylon).

Both civilisations used clay to seal closed vessels containing goods. They made identification marks on the clay before it set solid. To do this, they used seals that embossed identifying patterns or marks on the clay. The marks varied greatly.

It is on the ancient Mesopotamian seals that some of the earliest known examples of double-headed birds can be found. Some other Mesopotamian seals depict double-headed horses and other creatures. Whether or not the double-headed eagle of Abania is a descendant of these middle eastern double-headed creatures on sealing rings, I cannot say.

Recently, I visited the Harrapan archaeological site at Dholavira in a remote part of Gujarat close to India’s border with Pakistan. The…

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Died in vain

This is not really about Gujarat, but it concerns a part of London, where many Gujaratis live…

THE FOCAL POINT OF GOLDERS GREEN (in north west London) is where Finchley Road meets Golders Green Road and North End Road. Here, there stands a monument to those inhabitants of Golders Green who lost their lives in the two World Wars.

The monument’s basic design is typical of many British war memorials erected all over the British Empire during the 1920s. Standing on a square base, this type of memorial resembles a tall obelisk, truncated by not rising to a point. The monument, which doubles up as a clock tower, in Golders Green, was erected in 1923. It includes lists of the names of those who were killed during each of the two World Wars.

A similarly designed memorial (but without clocks) was erected in Bangalore in 1928. It stands on a triangular traffic island at the intersection of Residency and Brigade Roads. It commemorates members of various battalions and regiments of the Madras Pioneers, who fell in the following campaigns: East Africa 1914-18; Mesopotamia 1916-18; The Great War; and The North West Frontier 1915.

The monument in Bangalore bears no names, but only numbers. For example, in Mesopotamia the following fell: 1 British officer, 3 Indian Officers, and 69 “NCOs and Pioneers”. For each campaign the statistics are given in both English and Tamil scripts.

Most of those men of Golders Green, whose names appear on the memorial there, were most likely volunteers, who believed that the British Empire had to be defended. I wonder if the same could be said for the Indian soldiers who are commemorated on the monument close to one of the busy shopping streets in central Bangalore.

Many Indians sacrificed their lives for the British Empire during the two World Wars and other military campaigns designed to maintain British dominance in the world. Unlike the men of Golders Green, many of the Indian victims were fighting for a cause in which they had no interest and from which they could expect little or no benefit, especially during First World War.

A great tragedy, which accounts for much loss of Indian life during WW1, was the belief amongst many Indian leaders (including MK Gandhi during the last months of the War) that by helping Britain to fight they would be rewarded with reforms that would bring India closer to self government. Indians had been as good as promised increased freedoms in exchange for fighting in the First World War. Although, many Indian lives were lost in WW1, these sacrifices were not considered by the British to merit any loosening of their grip on India, the jewel in the crown. Indeed, the opposite occurred. One needs only remember the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919 to see what I mean.

I found it sad that whereas in Golders Green, the dead are remembered by their names, in Bangalore the monument only records statistics. In 1928, the individual Pioneers were, apparently, not important enough to be remembered as individuals, members of families like those in Golders Green.

A Gujarati in Bombay

MAHATMA GANDHI TRAVELLED much during his life. I have visited several of the places in India, which were important landmarks in his life: Porbandar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Ahmedabad, and Bombay. The latter saw much of Gandhi both before and after he had lived, worked, and campaigned in South Africa.

Mani Bhavan, a mansion in Laburnum Road in the Gamdevi district of Bombay, was owned by Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri, a friend of Gandhi. It became Gandhi’s headquarters in Bombay between 1917 and 1934. Now, it is a popular museum dedicated to the history of Gandhi’s eventful life in South Africa, India, and elsewhere.

Most of the exhibits in the Mani Bhavan are photographs, many of which I have seen elsewhere. However, I had never before seen a photo of the Mahatma with his famous admirer Charlie Chaplin. There is also a photograph of the letter that Gandhi wrote to Adolf Hitler on the 27th July 1939, encouraging the German dictator to adopt peaceful methods rather than going to war. The British authorities did not allow this letter to reach Germany, let alone leave India.

There is a room on the second floor in which Gandhi used to spend much time spinning. It contains several of the spinning wheels that he used daily.

On the second floor, there is also a gallery with a series of dioramas, each one illustrating a different episode in the life of Gandhi. One of them shows the future Mahatma being thrown out of a first class railway compartment in Pietermaritzburg Station in Natal, South Africa. Another, shows him at a public burning in Bombay of cloth and clothes imported into India. This occurred in 1921. Gandhi was by no means the first to burn foreign cloth in India. Many years earlier, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a father of Hindutva, supervised a bonfire of imported cloth in Nasik.

The well made dioramas reminded me of those I had seen at the Godra Ambe Dham temple complex near Kutch Mandvi. The ones at Ambe Dham are moralistic in content, chronicling the virtues of a healthy Hindu life and the awful consequences of straying from it.

The Mani Bhavan had plenty of foreign visitors, most of whom seemed very interested in what is on display.

Of all the Ghandhian sites I have visited in India so far, the Mani Bhavan has impressed me least. If pressed to say which have impressed and moved me most, I would choose Gandhi’s birthplace in Porbandar, his classroom in what used to be Samaldas College in Bhavnagar, and his first ashram in Ahmedabad, the Kochrab Ashram. Had I not already visited these three places nor seen the superb collection of Ghandian photos in the Gandhi Smrti in Bhavnagar, I think that a visit to the Mani Bhavan would have been more interesting for me than it was. I am pleasrd that I have visited the place because I enjoy following in the footsteps of the life of one of the most intriguing personalities in the history of India, nay the whole world.

However great or small your interest in Gandhi might be, visiting Mani Bhavan brings you to a part of Bombay rich in elegant mansions built by prosperous citizens over 100 years ago.

A road of Indian patriots

MADAM CAMA ROAD IN BOMBAY is so named to commemorate the Indian pro-independence Mme Bikhaiji Cama, a Parsi who was born in Navsari in 1861 and died in 1936 in Bombay. Some of her bold exploits are described in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.

It is appropriate that in the street named after her, there are statues of two men who played significant roles in India’s fight for independence: Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarharlal Nehru.

A third statue in the street depicts another eminent Parsi born in Navsari: Jamsetji N Tata (1839-1904). Though not a freedom fighter, he did much to revolutionise industry in India. Starting with the cotton business, he soon became known as “the father of Indian Industry”.

In 1903, Tata opened the now famous Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. His successors, members of his family, established the variety of industries now known as the Tata Group. His family also fulfilled his ambition of creating educational institutions in his name with Tata money, for example The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

It is appropriate that the statue of Jamsetji Tata is close to that of other important players in India’s independence movement, Gandhi and Nehru, because Tata was a keen supporter of the Swadeshi movement. That is to say, he encouraged the production of products made in India to reduce or prevent the need to import these same products. In Tata’s case, he set up cotton mills to produce cotton fabrics in India, reducing the need to import them from Manchester.

A plaque at the base of Jamsetji’s statue records that it was unveiled in 1912 by George Clarke (1848-1933), Governor of Bombay between 1907 and 1913. He was a liberal, but became a supporter of fascism later in life (in the 1930s). I wonder what he thought about the Swadeshi movement as he unveiled the statue.

Madam Cama Road is not very long, yet it commemorates four people who in different ways helped India throw off the yoke of the British Empire.

Immigrants from Iran

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.