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.

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.

Shaking minarets

A pair of minarets is all that remains of a mosque. They stand within the precincts of the main railway station of Ahmedabad. The rest of the mosque was destroyed long ago.

Apart from being attractive, these two minarets, the SHAKING MINARETS, are special. They are able to resist earthquakes. They shake or swing instead of falling to pieces during seismic activity.

The large Jumma Masjid in the heart of Ahmedabad lost its two mighty minarets as a result of movements of the earth long ago.

No one knows why the Shaking Minarets are able to resist seismic disturbances. They are not the only minarets in the city that have this ability. When, long ago, British investigators took one of this kind of minaret to pieces, they were unable to discover the secret of its stability. They were also unable to reassemble the structure properly.

Some suggest that the Shaking Minarets are of Persian design and that their stability has something to do with the sand in their foundations.

I cannot offer an explanation, but would like to make an observation. The Shaking Minarets are constructed with brick like stones that are well separated from each other by something like mortar. Most other minarets that I have seen are made with close-fitting blocks of stone, with minimal gaps between them.

Back in the 1980s, a very violent storm hit the southeast of England, where I was living. As the storm buffeted my house, I could feel it swinging from side to side. I feared it might fall down, but it did not. The house, like the Shaking Minarets, was built of bricks separated from each other by mortar. I felt that the stability of my house was due the fact that the latticework of bricks and mortar gave its walls a flexibility, which absorbed and reduced the impact of the forces hitting it. Maybe, it is the mortar between the brick like stones of the Shaking Minarets that allows them to disperse the seismic energy and by so doing causes them to swing rather than collapse.

I am no engineer. I am just ‘thinking aloud’, but as no one can yet explain the ability of these minarets to resist destruction, I offer the above.

A useful book

If you are planning to visit Ahmedabad or even if you live there, here is a really useful pocket sized book to get to know the city better.

Published in 2017, A Walking Tour. Ahmedabad is by M van Oostrum and G Bracken. Easy to follow walks take you through the history of Ahmedabad. If you do not wish to follow the walks, this is no problem because the book is well indexed. The book is illustrated with lovely delicate line drawings.

I bought my copy at the excellent bookshop at the Gandhi Ashram on the bank of the Sabarmati, where I was charged 595 Rupees. If you buy it in Europe or the USA, expect to pay far more!

I strongly recommend this book as a very readable and practical guide to the endlessly fascinating city of Ahmedabad.

ISBN 9789385360176

Published by Mapin in Ahmedabad

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.

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.

An architect in Ahmedabad

There are many elegant moderns buildings in Ahmedabad designed by the architect BV Doshi. He worked with Le Corbusier in Paris. I feel that his buildings bear the sculptural influence of the famous French-Swiss architect, but they are far more user-friendly. We visited Doshi’s studio, Sangath Studio, in Ahmedabad in late March 2018…

doshi 1

The air temperature had exceeded 40 degrees Celsius when we arrived at the Sangath Studio, the offices of the architect’s firm led by BV Doshi. It is open for the public to view on guided tours conducted at 1.30 pm during the company’s lunch break. We were guided around the buildings by a young intern, not a trained architect. She explained to us that Doshi was influenced by what sounded to us like: “Lecobu and Lukhan”. What she meant was ‘Le Corbusier’ and ‘Louis Kahn’, whose buildings in Ahmedabad help make the city a ‘Mecca’ for enthusiasts of 20th century modernist architecture.

doshi 3

There were many architecture students and architects from other firms on our tour around Doshi’s studio. The students and architects asked no questions but made copious detailed notes. The architectural offices are set in a lovely luxuriant garden with piped music playing. The offices are beneath long white hemi-cylindrical concrete roofs, covered with irregularly-shaped white mosaic pieces like those on the outer surface of the Gufa, a man-made cave which he designed in Ahmedabad. The offices are below ground but lit from windows in the hemi-circular ends of the roofs. Unlike the Gufa, which is only suitable for artistic enjoyment, Doshi’s subterranean offices and studios are beautifully functional. Like Le Corbusier, Doshi designs using modular systems. This is exemplified by a conference room lined with cupboards and drawers whose dimensions vary according to a strict ratio. Doshi also plays with light and shade. Brightly lit rooms are separated by shady ones. The idea being that those who work and design with Doshi should be constantly aware of the importance of light and shade. Sangath Studios provides a visually intriguing and practical environment in which to work.

 

doshi 2

Statue of Unity: larger than life!

The Indian Government has just ‘unveiled’ the world’s largest statue, the Statue of Unity. It is 182 metres high and stands in Gujarat between Baroda and Ahmedabad. It is a memorial to Sardar Vallabhai Patel (1875-1950), who was born in Gujarat.

UNITY
Source: Wikipedia

A close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, Patel was a great fighter for India’s independence. When the British finally relinquished their hold over India on the 15th of August 1947, the territory of India was a complex mix of formerly British territory and the so-called Princely States, which were self-governing.

unity 1
Map at Patel Memorial Museum in Ahmedabad. The yellow parts of the map show the parts of India occupied by Princely States

There were well over 500 Princely States embedded within the boundaries of what is now India. Over 200 of these were within the Saurashtra (Kathiawad) district of Gujarat. India in 1947 was a jigsaw puzzle of independent states each with their own ruler. These states were contained within a matrix that was formerly the part of India under direct British rule. After Independence, the rulers of the Princely States were given the choice of becoming part of India or joining the newly formed Pakistan.

Had the Princely States maintained their autonomy after Independence, the Indian subcontinent would have been as complex, if not more so, than the Balkans, and maybe as troublesome. Some of the states like Hyderabad and Junagadh, both large and far from Pakistan, had leanings towards joining with the new Islamic State of Pakistan. Others like Kashmir were not sure with whom to ally. 

It was the great skill and statesmanship of Sardar Vallabhai Patel that persuaded the Princely States to join India. Even Junagadh and Hyderabad were eventually incorporated into India. The unification of India was achieved under the leadership of Patel and his colleagues. So, it is fitting that the enormous new statue should be called The Statue of Unity.

 

unity 2
A modest memorial to Sardar Vallabhai Patel in central Ahmedabad

Whether Patel would have approved of the enormous expense involved in creating his latest monument, we will never know!