Coin and note

Currently in India, there is both a coin and a banknote worth ten Indian rupees. The banknote exists in two different designs, old and new, both legal tender at the moment.

In Gujarat, we found that no one objected to using both the coin and the banknote. In Bangalore, in the south of India, we hardly ever see the 10 rupee coin.

Drivers of autorickshaws in Bangalore refuse to accept the 10 Rupee coins, but shops will take them.

We were told that the autorickshaw drivers will not take the 10 coins because they are too heavy! Yet, they happily accept 1, 2, and 5 rupee coins.

Curious, isn’t it?

Traditional and trendy

We have made many journeys on intercity public buses in Gujarat. Most buses, especially the ones operated by private companies, pick up passengers at rural locations along the route.

Many of these passengers in rural areas wore traditional costumes typical of the area where they lived. In Saurashtra, many of the women wore tight fitting backless choli (blouse), which are covered by shawls that fly about as draughts are created by the moving bus. Their ears are often festooned with weighty and often complicated solid gold jewellery. They are usually heavily tattooed, with tattoos placed on all parts the body that were visible.

The men who board the buses at rustic spots are usually dressed in white kurtas with white jodhpurs: loose fitting baggy trousers, which are tight around the ankles. I write “white” but these clothes are often stained, the result of working in the fields. These men, often with weather worn faces, wear turbans, which to my western eyes, makes them look quite exotic.

At first, when I saw these country folk boarding the bus, I felt that they looked as if they were stepping out of the Middle Ages and into the 21st century.

Despite their clothing, these country passengers are extremely up to date. Almost as soon as they have found somewhere to sit or stand in the often overcrowded buses, out come their mobile phones. I am not sure where the men store their phones, but the women keep them and their cash stuffed within the tops of their choli close to their breasts.

The close juxtaposition of tradition and modernity is one of the many aspects of India which endear me to the country.

Dot busters

Many women of Indian origin, most but not all of them Hindus, wear a red dot (bindi or tikka) on their foreheads.

Many Indians have migrated to the USA. Some have them have met resentment and even violence against them by their ‘white’ neighbours. From the mid 1980s until 1993, a gang known as the “Dotbusters” operated in New Jersey. They attacked and sometimes murdered anyone, who, in their ignorant eyes, looked “Indian”. Wearing a bindi helped these thugs identify their female victims.

In 2001, some Muslim terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. This fuelled anti-Muslim sentiments in the USA. Ignorant people assumed that anyone who looked Indian might well be an Islamic foe of the USA. However, many people knew that anyone wearing a bindi was likely to be Hindu rather than Moslem.

In the last few decades, there have been serious inter-communal riots in Gujarat, in which members of one community have massacred members of the other. Although many Hindus have been victims of these disturbances, Moslems have suffered even more.

No Moslem woman would normally wear a bindi. Therefore, anti Moslem rioters can easily recognise a woman bearing a bindi as not being a Moslem, and therefore not one of their potential victims.

Recently, we met an Indian woman in a Gujarati city, which has suffered anti Moslem attacks. We knew she was neither Hindu nor Moslem. However, she wore a very large bindi. I wondered whether she wore this as a fashion statement or for cultural solidarity, or to make it clear that she was not Moslem, to protect herself from becoming a target of anti-Islamic violence.

Chilling with ceramics

All over Gujarat, in villages and towns and in between, I have seen concrete benches whose surfaces are covered with ceramic tiles or selected flat fragments of broken ceramic plates.

Fragments of ceramic tiling are also used to cover outer surfaces of buildings. A notable example is the curious Amdavad ni Gufa in Ahmedabad designed by architect BV Doshi.

Also, I have seen floors inside buildings covered with a mosaic of tiled fragments, rather than wood, clay, carpeting, or marble.

Why is ceramic tiling used so much in Gujarat. The answer is related to Gujarat’s usually hot climate. I am not a physicist, but the following seems to be the explanation. Ceramic tiles conduct heat well and dosperse heat rapidly from its point of contact.

A surface feels cool to the touch if heat flows from your body to it. The faster the heat is conducted from your body, the cooler the surface will feel.

Providing that the ambient temperature is below body temperature, ceramic tiles, unlike for example wood or carpet, will always feel cold to the touch. This is because heat flowing from the body to the cooler ceramics does so very rapidly in this material. The heat flows away quickly from the point of contact into the rest of the ceramic. In contrast, when you touch wood or cloth, heat will flow from your body to the material but will be dispersed away from the point of contact far slower than in ceramic. Therefore, touching wood or cloth gives rise to less of a sensation of cooling than touching ceramic.

Furthermore, covering buildings with ceramic as described above helps insulate their interiors from being warmed by the hot sun, which shines in Gujarat.

If my physics is faulty, please help me get it right by submitting a polite comment.

PS Metals have an even higher thermal conductivity than ceramics, but a far lower thermal capacity. This means that at any temperature, it will take far longer to warm a piece of ceramic than a similarly dimensioned piece of metal.

An art bookshop in Ahmedabad: Art Book Center

This small gem of bookshop in Ahmedabad is a wonderful discovery. It was recommended to us by Mr Shukla who is the General Secretary of the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners Association, which is housed in a masterpiece by the architectural genius Le Corbusier.

The bookshop, a true life Aladdin’s cave, is on the first floor of a residential building. It is reached by a steep ladder like staircase typical of those found in houses all over Gujarat. The steps lead to a balcony which is festooned with colourful folkloric items. A doorway leads from there into the shop itself.

The walls of the small, cosy shop are lined with neatly stacked book cases. Piles of books rise from the floor. On the walls and in between the book cases, there are numerous folkloric artworks and practical items including beautifully embroidered and printed textiles. We were welcomed by Manarbhai and Ketan, one of his two sons. They invited us to sit down.

Manarbhai worked for many years as a typist in the Mathematics Department of the University of Gujarat. He was no ordinary typist. He was able to type mathematical equations, which was no easy feat in the era before computerised word processors became available.

Manarbhai began his book business as a part time enterprise. In 1970, he converted part of his home into what is now his shop. At first, he only opened his shop on weekends. Now, it is open every day between 10 am and 6 pm.

The shop specialises mainly in books on art and architecture. It contains many books about textiles. Many of the volumes available are rare editions. If what you wish is not stocked, Manarbhai and his sons will do their best to source it, and then send it to you anywhere in the world.

It soon became apparent to us that Manarbhai and Ketan are extremely knowledgeable about books in the fields on which they specialise. They are also sensitively intelligent salesmen. Very quickly, they assessed our particular interests and began showing us books that were in harmony with them. We came away with a valuable selection of books that will help satisfy our curiosity about the fascinating history of the city of Ahmedabad.

This is a bookshop for true book lovers and collectors. It should be on every bibliophile’s itinerary. What Manarbhai cannot find for your bookshelf is probably not worth having.

Address: near Jain Temple, Madalpur, Ellis Bridge, Ahmedabad 380006

Side steps

Here is something I first noticed when visiting the temple town of Somnath: side steps. I have seen better examples of what I am about to describe in Ahmedabad (see photo).

Staircases take up space. In many older Gujarati buildings, internal staircases are so steep that they resemble ladders. Good examples of these may be seen at the birthplaces of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife in Porbandar.

External staircases linking raised entrance doorways to the street sometimes require many steps. If the treads of the steps are parallel to the external wall, a large staircase would have to project far into the roadway, restricting the usable width of the latter.

One solution to reducing the footprint of an external staircase is often adopted in Gujarat. That is to make the treads of the steps at right angles to the external wall rather than parallel. This works well, and reduces the encroachment of private front staircases onto the public thoroughfare.

It might be you one day

All over Gujarat (and in other parts of India that I have visited), I have seen wild creatures being fed in urban areas. Wild dogs are offered biscuits and other scraps. Pigeons and crows are given grain and water, often in special feeding and drinking vessels. Cattle are fed foliage at Hindu temples, and so on.

When I asked someone about this very prevalent public animal feeding, he told me that all of it was due to members of the Jain communities. I was unsure about the accuracy of this response. So, I asked other people about it. One autorickshaw driver in Ahmedabad, a Muslim, assured us that it was not just the Jains who care for the untamed creatures in the city; everyone cared for these animals.

Recently, when visiting a mosque in the centre of Ahmedabad, I spotted three bowls filled with clean water in front of the 15th century masjid. I asked a caretaker what purpose these bowls served. He pointed at the pigeons roosting high up in niches and balconies on the facade of the mosque.

Now, a fanciful idea entered our minds. If you believe in reincarnation, then there is every reason to care for all creatures. For example, that pigeon enjoying grain on one of the many pigeon coops, which can be seen in Ahmedabad and other cities in Gujarat, might be a reincarnation of your great aunt. More worryingly, it might be you or me, who will be reincarnated as a wild dog or maybe a wild pussy cat.

If you do believe in reincarnation or do not totally disbelieve in it, it is best to play safe and look after the urban wildlife around you. You never know, but it might be you one day!

Now, you might object to the above by saying that Muslims and Christians do not believe in reincarnation. And, you will not be wrong. Now I will make a wild conjecture. Many of today’s Indian Muslims and Christians had Hindu ancestors, all of whom believed in reincarnation. Is it not faintly possible that a trace of this belief might not have been inherited by their non Hindu descendants? And, if I am right, might this help to explain the care for animals that is exhibited by members of all of the great religions of India? I am only “thinking aloud”, as my late father in law used to say when he was suggesting something that did not meet with the family’s approval.

Ganesh in the graveyard

One Tree Hill Garden is a luxuriant little park on the shore of Kankaria Lake in Ahmedabad. At one end of the park, there is a small graveyard. The graves, which date back to the 17th century, mark the final resting places of some of the Dutch folk who worked in the trading post that the Dutch East India Company established in Ahmedabad at that time.

The graves are crumbling and most of them have lost their inscriptions. A few stones bear the incomplete remains of now barely legible inscriptions.

In about 2000, a Dutch foundation constructed several attractive Islamic looking concrete shelters over some of the gravestones.

I noticed that someone had placed a plastic model of the Hindu deity Ganesh next to one of the dilapidated graves. We showed this to a couple of the garden’s workers, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim, and mentioned that this is a Christian grave.

The Hindu gardener said that whoever had put the Ganesh there had good intentions, but did not understand what he was doing. My wife said that it did not matter because all people respect the same God and Hindus include Jesus as one of their own. The Hindu nodded in agreement. The Muslim looked doubtful.

The Muslim gardener was reassured when my wife suggested that Christianity and Islam share some common roots.

As we left these two fellows, my wife said she could hardly imagine having theological discussions with gardeners in a public garden in England.

Weaving in Patan

Many people visit Patan in Gujarat to see the spectacular pre 14th century Rani ki Vav, one of the largest stepwells in the state. It was built by the Solanki dynasty.

Patan is also the home of a very special form of weaving called ‘Double Ikat Patola’. The fabrics produced are extremely durable, very colourfast, and display the pattern equally on the front and reverse.

When finished, even the experienced weaver cannot tell which surface of the material is front, and which is back. The textiles are woven to form saris. These are very costly and take many months to manufacture. The method of fabricating this kind of cloth is so complicated that, despite much research, no one has been able to produce a machine to replicate the process that has been done by hand for many centuries in the workshops in Patan.

We were very fortunate to have been shown around one of Patan’s three Patola factories by a member of the Salvi caste, who specialise in Patola making. Although we were given lengthy explanations and demonstrations, I cannot say that I fully understand the complicated process of making a piece of Patola material. However, I will try to explain what I understood of it.

Patola fabrics are woven using the best quality silk thread. That from Japan is preferred, but silk from China, Korea, and Brazil is also considered of sufficiently high quality.

The design for the fabric is chosen and transferred onto graph paper. This coloured diagram will guide the workers towards the desired end product.

Sari length arrays of silk threads are stretched onto frames. These parallel lengths of white or slightly yellow undyed silk are marked with a fine washable black marker to create a grid pattern like graph paper. This will allow the workers to transfer the colour scheme from the coloured diagram to the silk threads.

Next, using the master plan, sections of each thread are wrapped tightly with another thread, which will prevent dye from reaching the covered section. When this laborious task is complete, the whole lattice of parallel threads is dipped into a dye of one colour, say for example red.

After the first dyeing, the lattice is restretched, and all of the dye restricting threads are removed, resulting in a lattice work of threads coloured with stretches of red and white. Let us assume that the next colour on the master pattern is to be green. The stretched silk fibres are then tied with dye restricting threads in all places except where the master pattern dictates there should be green. After dyeing in green dye, the restricters are removed and the process repeated to add yet another colour to the silk. The end result is a set of silk threads with sequences of different colours, a bit like a single strand of DNA or the amino acids in a strand of protein.

A single thread of silk displaying areas dyed in different colours

The weaving takes place on looms that hang at an angle. Both the warp and the weft fibres have been tie dyed as described already. When stretched on the loom the as yet unwoven warp threads, when viewed together, display part of the final pattern.

The weft threads pass between the warp threads in a sequence that is dictated by the master pattern. As the weavers press the woven weft fibres together, the sequences of different colours on each thread begin to reveal the required design of the fabric. The prescribed pattern develops gradually, thread by thread.

How the correct sequence of the dyed threads is maintained during the many stages prior to weaving must involve miraculous organization.

Because of the fastness of the dyes used, the Patola fabric does not fade. The method of weaving results in a fully reversible fabric, which is very durable . The other advantages of such a labour intensive and complicated fabrication process elude my comprehension.Nevertheless, Double Ikat Patola saris are greatly prized and highly priced.

A zoo in Ahmedabad

I was very keen to visit the Kamla Nehru Zoo in Ahmedabad. I had read much about it in a fascinating book, The Book of Esther, by the Ahmedabad author Esther David. She was born into a Beni Israel Jewish family. Her father Reuben David, a self taught veterinarian and keen naturalist, established the zoo on the shore of Lake Kankaria in 1951. The lake is man made and dates from the mid 15th century.

You can explore the zoo on foot or, for a modest fee, you can be driven around it in an electric vehicle. The driver stops wherever you wish and also helpfully draws your attention to cages and enclosures containing interesting creatures. Some of the cages look quite old and a little cramped, but the enclosures are quite spacious.

The reptile house contains a series of generously large enclosures housing snakes, both venomous and not.

Recently, a new part of the zoo has been built a little way around the lake, separated from the original establishment. The new part is called ‘Nocturnal Zoo’. Barely lit corridors connect poorly illuminated cages. Once your eyes have adapted to the darkness, you can view animals who are usually most active at night. Some of these animals seemed to enjoy sleeping in the artificial night. Others, including various bats and beautiful owls and some jackals, were fully awake. The Nocturnal Zoo is well designed and, I hope, would have met with the approval of the very creative Reuben David.