Large snakes

The Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara was built for the Gaekwad (Maharajah) of Vadodara in 1890 to the designs of the British architects Charles Mant and Robert Chisholm. It covers an area four times as large as London’s Buckingham Palace. This Victorian era Indo-Saracenic pile is now one of the main tourist attractions of Vadodara. What little of it that visitors are permitted to explore of this pastiche of various Asian and European architectural styles is overbearingly impressive but not of great aesthetic value.

My main reason for visiting the palace was to see the Navlakhi Vav, a subterranean stepwell built in the 15th century. The stepwell has five levels of stonework galleries, all underground and one above the next. I was looking forward to exploring this, rather than the relatively uninteresting palace.

The official at the ticket booth for the palace compound told us that the ticket included access to the vav. He omitted to tell us that approaching this stepwell is now forbidden.

A security guard stands about 50 metres from the domes built above the vav. He told us that he would lose his job if he allowed us to go closer to the stepwells. Although his job was poorly paid, so he told us, it would be difficult for him to find another. He suggested that we returned to an office in the palace and spoke to a young lady whom we would find there.

When we explained my interest in stepwells to her, she accompanied us back to the guard, telling us that we could approach the outer walls of the stepwell but should not enter it. At present, she explained, the vav was not in good condition because stones kept falling from its structure. Additionally, the stepwell is currently infested by large snakes. She told the guard to take us to the structure. Although we could not enter the complex structure of the vav, we were able to see something of it over the low walls enclosing it at ground level. We could hear water splashing deep below us in the well in the deepest part of the stepwell.

The serpent infested vav is separated from where the guard stands by the tee of one of the 18 holes of the Laxmi Vilas golf course. We asked the guard whether the golfers, who had to stand close to the vav, were in any danger from the large snakes.

“No,” he replied in Gujarati, “they are not.”

“Why not?” we asked.

“Because they are members of the golf club,” the guard informed us.

Kites and cyclists

MAKARA SAKRANTI or UTTARAYAN, as it is known in Gujarat, is a Hindu festival held in mid January. It marks the beginning of the lengthening of day length, a month after the winter solstice.

Kite flying is a popular way to celebrate the festival. The kites are either attached to fine nylon strings or other threads sometimes covered with tiny fragments of crushed glass. Some kite flyers like to try to use their glass covered kite threads to sever the threads of other airborne kites.

The trees and ground are littered with paper kites that have escaped their owners. We have seen many of these in Vadodara.

Frequently, kites on long threads descend groundwards. The threads may cross busy roads. They offer danger to speeding motorcyclists. There is a real risk of drivers having their throats and faces severely injured by the almost invisible kite threads stretched across the road.

Prudent motorcyclists attach tall metal hoops from one handle bar to the other. These hoops will sever the hazardous kite threads before they can injure the cyclists’ throats.

Tea makers and politicians

Street tea making stalls are found all over India. They are great places for quenching your thirst and avoiding low blood sugar situations.

I am writing this during a visit to the Gujarati city of Vadodara, where we spoke to two tea makers this morning. One of them was a charming lady, who told us that she manned her stall from 630 am until 730 pm daily. She heats her tea on a gas ring. The gas cylinder contains enough gas for 15 days.

India’s present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, worked briefly as a tea maker (‘chai wallah’) during his childhood. There is a chai wallah in Bangalore, whose shop is in Johnson Market. Not only does he serve excellent tea, but also he works as a local politician. He has his own party, whose symbol is a pocket calculator. He stands as a candidate in elections, but has never yet won any of them. He told us that if one chai wallah could become Prime Minister, there is no reason why another could not do the same.

Gopal , who has a tea stall near the entrance to one of the former pols* of Varodara, works from 10 am to 6 pm. His stall was very busy when we visited it this morning. It faces a peepal tree with numerous Hindu offerings around the base of its trunk. One of the daily offerings to the gods is the first cup of tea that Gopal makes each morning.

Like most other chai wallahs we have visited in Gujarat, Gopal adds fresh herbs and spices to his tea. Today, he had large sprigs of mint leaves and bunches of lemon grass and ginger. He pounds the latter in a pestle and mortar. He told us that pounding the ginger releases more flavour than grating it, which is what many chai wallahs do.

I asked Gopal whether I could take photographs of him and his stall. He allowed me to do so. As we were leaving him, he told his customers proudly (in Gujarati):

“Our Prime Minister has to go to the UK and USA to have his picture taken. See, people from the UK have come all the way from London to Vadodara to photograph me.”

* A pol is an ancient form of gated community, built for protection, found in the historic centres of Varodara and (more prevalently) Ahmedabad.

Indian way of worship

Some similarities in ways of worshipping

yamey

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were…

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Coffee with ginger

Nothing much about Gujarat, but interesting anyway!

yamey

Cochin is a port on the Malabar coast. It provided a haven and home for people from all over the world, including Arabic traders. Now, it attracts foreign tourists from all over the world. This article is about a legacy of the Arab settlers.

I have occasionally drunk coffee flavoured with cardamom in Arabic restaurants. This drink is identical to Turkish coffee but is subtly tinged with cardamom.

An article, published on 28th December 2018 in the Hindu Metroplus (Cochin edition), alerted us to the existence of Kava Kada, a tiny café next to the Mahalari Masjid (mosque) in the Mattancherry district of Cochin in Kerala (India). The café is literally a hole-in-the-wall in the side of the masjid, a few feet away from the main minaret.

A small, aged glass counter-top display cabinet contains a few fried snacks including batter covered fried bananas. There are a couple of…

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Bare your feet

Footwear and removing it

yamey

In India, I prefer to wear sandals because in so many places it is necessary to remove footwear, and putting on and off sandals is so much easier than doing the same for lace up shoes.

Just in case you are wondering why there is the requirement to bare one’s feet, the reason is to prevent bringing dirt from outside into the place being entered. It is also a mark of respect when entering a religious place such as a mosque, church, temple, or gurdwara.

In some homes, footwear is left by the entrance. This is also the case for some homes that I have visited in the UK. When I went to a junior school in London’s Belsize Park, The Hall School, we left the shoes we had arrived in at the entrance and then replaced them by another pair reserved for use within the school.

When we visited…

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Hindu burials

Some Hindus are buried rather than cremated…

yamey

Death is a morbid but fascinating topic, as is disposal of the dead. Many people living outside India, including myself, believe that the corpses of Hindus are only cremated. At least, I believed this until about 15 years ago, when I visited a Hindu burial ground in Bangalore.

In a Hindu Burial Ground in Bangalore

I have visited two Hindu cemeteries in Bangalore, one of them being next door to a major electric crematorium in the city centre. When I have asked about Hindu burials, I have been told that some sects of Hindus favour burial rather than cremation.

Recently, I read an article about Hindu burials (in Calcutta) by A Acharya and S Sanyal in the “Mint” newspaper (Bangalore), dated 24 Nov 2018. Here is a brief digest of the points contained within it.

1. Certain groups of Hindus are traditionally immersed or buried.

2. These groups include:

A…

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Providing for pigeons

In London pigeons are regarded as a nuisance, as pests. A previous Lord Mayor of the city once described them as “flying rats”. Now, feeding them is frowned upon. Gone are the days when you could buy corn to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

During our long journey through Gujarat in western India, we saw many places dedicated to feeding pigeons. In Bhavnagar, for example, I saw a man scattering seeds, which were being avidly consumed by a large crowd of grey pigeons. The grain was strewn over a large area in which there were several large bowls of water to quench the birds’ thirst.

In Ahmedabad, we saw a fenced off area supplied with drinking bowls as already described. This special feeding area was well supplied with grain scattered on the ground. In that same city, we saw a huge pigeon ‘hostel’. This consisted of a matrix of niches or pigeon holes in which the creatures resided. Feeding facilities were adjacent to the niches. This giant pigeon coop was next to a mosque or dargah close to the Nehru Bridge over the River Sabarmati.

In Rajkot, we spotted a cylindrical concrete pigeon coop mounted on a tall concrete pillar. And, in Porbandar a large area close to the beach is used to feed pigeons and other birds at the end of an afternoon.

During our very recent visit to the metropolis of Hyderabad in Telengana State, we have driven past pigeon feeding areas. On one of the bridges crossing the river, one of these feeding places occupied the whole length of one side of the bridge.

When wandering around the many bookshops in the Koti district of Hyderabad, we found a square surrounded by buildings. The centre of the square is a fenced open space where thousands of pigeons collect to feed on the copious amounts of grain on the floor. This area is overlooked by a cylindrical pigeon coop, which is illustrated above. The area is maintained by The Pigeon Welfare Association of Telengana.

The Lalbagh Gardens in Bangalore have at least one fine large cylindrical pigeon coop. I do not know how many other places in India care for pigeons as I the places I have mentioned, but from what I have seen so far, I can say that India is not devoid of popular concern for avian wellbeing.

Exhibition of Parsi portraits at Ahmedabad

Very interesting exhibition

Zoroastrians.net

Gujarat Mitra of Sunday 2ndDecember supplement on p.8 carries an article re exhibition of Parsi portraits of eminent Parsi men and ladies. Mr. Anil Relia, a serigrapher artist and collector of portraits is displaying his collection of Parsi portraits at Ahmedabad Gufa at Ahmedabad from 4thto 9thDecember. Parsi sethias of 19thcentury who went to China or Britain had their portraits made. Some of the portraits are by Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906). A portrait of Rustom-Sohrab of Shah Nameh fame made in 1620 will be on display. Water colour and oil paintings of famous Parsis will be on display. This exhibition brings alive glimpses of times past.(see attachment to view some portraits)

Marzban Giara

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