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A lake palace, and a lake of tears

Udaipur is one of the must-see cities of Rajasthan, for its iconic Lake Palace situated in the middle of Lake Pichola with its grand series of stone and marble palaces that have been successively added along the shores over centuries. Udaipur’s royals belong to the longest unbroken line of rulers in the world, having endured for more than a millennium.

One of the world's longest ruling dynasties, 1400 years

One of the world’s longest ruling dynasties, 1400 years

The present-day city was founded in the 1530s at around 1000 feet above sea level, close to the cooling influence of the Aravalli range of hills. The aboriginal hill tribes of the Aravallis, the Bhils, were traditionally self-sufficient hunter-gatherers and good archers. Bhil tribesmen assisted Rajput troops in their periodic wars against Mughal armies, and for this reason, the Mewar coat-of-arms portrays both a tribal armed with bow and arrows and a Rajput warrior flanking the shield with a fortress in the middle.

A wedding cake of a hotel on Lake Pichola

A wedding cake of a hotel on Lake Pichola

The lake dries out occasionally when there is a succession of bad monsoons, but a project is underway to ensure a steady inflow and expand the rainwater harvesting systems that were installed in the palaces from the 17th century onwards.

Nowadays the royal barge is only for decor or the occasional VIP hotel guest.

Nowadays the royal barge is only for decor or the occasional VIP hotel guest.

More palaces and bathing ghats along the lakeshore...

More palaces and bathing ghats along the lakeshore...

More palaces and bathing ghats line the lakeshore…

...most are hotels.

…most are hotels.

Pushkar: a holy lake of tears.

Pushkar is one of the holy places for Hindus in India. There is a temple to Brahma in Pushkar, a rarity. There are only six temples dedicated to Brahma worldwide and this is considered the most important. There are several beautiful stories associated with the reasons for Pushkar’s sanctity. One has it that Siva’s wife Sati was insulted by her father (this is a long story in itself, see the URL below for more) and literally burned with shame. Siva was so overcome on hearing of the death of his wife that he wept inconsolably. The pools formed by the tears from his two eyes are the lake at Pushkar and the Katasraj temple lake about 300 kilometers away that lies today in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

There is another story about the reason for Pushkar’s spiritual significance. In this, Brahma saw a demon named Vajranabha killing people, so he killed the demon with a divine lotus flower. In this process, the petals of the lotus flower fell to the earth and formed the lake. Yet another story tells of a mortal, a Rajput king, following a wild boar down to the lake during a hunt. He stopped to quench his thirst and found that dipping his hand in the lake had cured his leukoderma. Whatever the reasons for its perceived sanctity, the town exudes a certain contradictory bustling calm and the lake itself is surrounded by temples and bathing ghats. The biggest attraction for tourists is the annual 5-day camel fair where livestock are bought and sold.
See the stories of Siva and Sati at http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/bhagavata/bhagavata_4.html

Innumerable temples line the lake

Innumerable temples line the lake

A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes while walking around...

A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes while walking around…

...this is holy ground

…this is holy ground

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Blue City: britches, brahmins and battlements

Our tour guide showed us around the impressive Mehrangarh fort and indicated the blue-washed houses in the valley below. All those blue houses, he said, belong to Brahmin families. Further enquiry found many other explanations for the blue coloring, so the jury is out on this one. Other possible reasons: as in the case of imperial yellow in Austrian Habsburg palaces, the color could have been chosen because it was the least expensive. Whatever the real reason, Jodhpur is commonly described as the “blue city” of Rajasthan and, together with Jaisalmer and Jaipur, make up a trio of colored cites in the state. Jaisalmer really is a golden city; golden sands of the Thar desert that spread from its outskirts and the golden sandstone of which the city is built. Seen from the fort, the city of Jodhpur is speckled with blue, the afore-mentioned allegedly brahmin houses. Jaipur is called the pink city mainly because of the iconic Hava Mahal, and because its royal family preferred the colour on all their buildings. But in today’s Jaipur, bustling with handicrafts and industry and bursting at the seams with people, the pink color is lost unless one wanders among the historic buildings and older parts of the city.

Blue-speckled city of Jodhpur seen from Mehrangarh Fort

Blue-speckled city of Jodhpur seen from Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur is probably the most impressive in Rajasthan and well worth a visit of 2 or 3 hours (there’s more than three hours worth to see if you can take it in at a stretch), from royal palanquins to a beautiful collection of swords, and finery worn by royalty in centuries past. A tip: the audio guides available in the fort are excellent and provide concise commentary at every important object on display. In addition to its blue-painted houses, the dominating fort, and riding breeches named after the city, Jodhpur was also famed for its Marwari horses. They are a hardy breed with distinctive ears that point towards each other. They have a regal gait and are descended from local ponies interbred with Arabian and Mongolian horses beginning in the 12th century.Close to Jodhpur lies Mihir Garh, a boutique hotel with only 9 rooms that Lonely Planet listed in 2014 as the most unique hotel in the world.

A well-paved road leads from Jodhpur to Udaipur, again a city named after its founder Udai Singh in the 1530s, although this dynasty has ruled in the area for more than a thousand years, and represents the world’s longest unbroken ruling line, from the 9th century to the mid-twentieth. More on Udaipur and Pushkar in the next post.

Golden City: More bhang for the buck

Jaisalmer was an important node in the overland silk route and well-connected to the world at the time of Marco Polo. Built from the local yellow sandstone that turns to tawny gold in the evening sunlight, its fortress dominates the landscape, rising with crenellated walls several hundred feet above the surrounding plain. From the 12th century, it was a flourishing trade post for nearly 700 years. Camel trains brought Damascene swords, Afghani carpets from Herat, Persian wines from Shiraz, and “green-eyed Circassian beauties headed for the harems of Hindustan.” The last denominated may be a catch-all term for women from the trans-Caucasus region of Eurasia. The most famous Circassian of all is probably Roxolana who, as Hurrem Sultan, rose from slave to concubine to favourite wife  of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) and ultimately, one of the most powerful figures in his court. Roxolana was actually of Ukrainian or Ruthenian descent, but the wife she ousted from Suleiman’s favour, the beautiful Gulbehar, was undoubtedly Circassian. Contrary to legend, Marco Polo did not visit Jaisalmer. Perhaps he should have. Today, as it did then, Jaisalmer gleams like a golden mirage at the edge of the Thar desert. Approaching the city from the north-east, from the direction of Bikaner, there is endless sunlight and more golden sand. Passing Pokran, the site of India’s first nuclear test in 1974, there is an array of hope for the future, rows of photovoltaic cells that are part of a 40 MW plant set up in 2012 to provide power to Rajasthan state. NOTE: Click on images below for larger view.

UNESCO World Heritage site. Golden city on a hill

UNESCO World Heritage site. Golden city on a hill

Magnificently carved stonework on every street and corner

Magnificently carved stonework on every street and corner

There is something easy-going about the pace of life in the city, unusual in that it is the first inhabited monument in the world to have been declared a World Heritage site in 2013. Around 450 families reside in the fort complex and some of their homes have been converted into hotels, which puts additional strain on the centuries old infrastructure that was designed for a royal household and a few hundred retainers. After a walk around the city lasting several hours, we were totally captivated by the relaxed atmosphere in the city and found a possible explanation when our guide offered us a choice of masala chai or a glass of milk or tea laced with bhang. When asked if it was legal, he turned and pointed to a sign down the street. The offer was tempting, but deterred by the 40-degree heat, I regretfully declined.

Street legal bhang in Jaisalmer

Street legal bhang in Jaisalmer

Bhang has been used since Vedic times in India and both Hindu sadhus and Muslim Sufis use it to heighten their spiritual ecstasy. Bhang is most commonly made by grinding cannabis leaves and adding a mixture of milk, ghee and spices. Sometimes ground almonds and sugar are added to the milk and this drink is called “thandai.”

The handicrafts within were far finer than the orthography

The handicrafts within were far finer than the orthography

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Stairway to nowhere

Easy living: Stairway to nowhere

Disinviting a Hornet

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There was a temporary hiatus in writing activity for more than four hours yesterday because I noticed a hornet building a nest just outside my balcony door. I don’t know much about hornets but this one was large and looked extremely aggressive. Looking up the internet, I found articles about Asian Giant Hornets and their painful (to potentially lethal) venom. The first headline said: Giant hornets kill 42 in China (this was apparently in Shaanxi province in 2013). Deciding that tolerance of nature and the wild stops under my own roof, I asked my landlord for help. He came along and demolished the nest with a broom handle when the wasp was off hunting for more building material. We then poured vinegar over the site hoping to throw the hornet off the scent

Note: this method worked because the hornet was just beginning to build. Definitely not recommended for a larger nest. Get professional help if you have a problem. The hornet returned ten minutes later and began building a second nest a few meters away from the site of the demolition. Off it flew to collect more hornet bricks or clay or whatever for its new home. I demolished this one too, vacuumed the remains and poured vinegar again to throw it off the scent.

Looking for its demolished nest

Looking for its demolished nest

The spot outside the balcony door was obviously well suited because it returned, searched for a few minutes, then began to build a third time. Remembering that firefighters sometimes use a blanket of foam, I covered the nest with a mound of a thick cleaning fluid and shut the doors. The two cats obviously knew that the insect was potentially lethal. They watched with obvious respect through the glass doors as it buzzed about furiously outside before flying off to find a more suitable building site.

Not again!

Not again!

Ah, the joys of living on a sub-tropical island paradise! As in the Bible, there are snakes in this paradise too. According to a book on the local flora and fauna, cobras, vipers, banded kraits and Burmese pythons are to be found here. However, snakes are shy creatures and in the past year of extensive hikes through the many trails on this island, I’ve only once glimpsed a vanishing tail at dusk. However, I’ve been repeatedly told that small animals, especially cats and dogs are at risk from the Burmese pythons.

Stepwells and Johads: Digging into the past

More on Rajasthan. One of the places on this summer’s itinerary was a village called Chand Baori. “Do we really want to go there?” I asked the driver and tour guide. “I’ve never heard of it.” “Very old well, from the 8th century,” he assured me. “If you like we can go.” Which was a roundabout way of saying yes, so we went.

On a trip to the ruins of Hampi (1343 to 1565, capital of the Vijayanagar empire) a year ago, we had seen a 500 year-old stepwell that was a work of art. It had not run dry in living memory and had presumably been in active use by the local populace for more than 5 centuries. Hampi lies in a zone that tends to the semi-arid and receives around 400 mm of rain a year compared to ca. 900 mm for a typical Mediterranean city (in this example Ostia Antica, the harbour city of ancient Rome).

Stepwell - Hampi, North Karnataka State

Stepwell – Hampi, North Karnataka State

However, Hampi’s modest rainfall is a veritable flood compared to the sparse annual haul (ca. 200 mm) of the desert area around the flourishing city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Founded in the 12th century, Jaisalmer was an important node in the overland silk route and well connected with Europe. A great deal of knowledge and deep understanding of sustainable living in harsh climates accumulated in this part of the world long before scientific knowledge became codified and PhD’s in hydrology were awarded by the world’s universities.

Anupam Mishra is one of the pioneers of the 20th century revival of ancient water harvesting techniques in Rajasthan and other arid parts of the country. (See a biography here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anupam_Mishra ). A quiet Gandhian and a modest man, he is one of the foremost Water Warriors of the world. Anyone who can spare 17 minutes to listen to a witty and humorous TED talk he gave in 2009 is guaranteed enlightenment on the continued relevance of rainwater harvesting in the world today.  http://www.ted.com/talks/anupam_mishra_the_ancient_ingenuity_of_water_harvesting

Despite the fierce July heat, our detour to Chand Baori was well worth the effort. The stepwell in the village was more ornate than anything we had seen so far. Much more than being a mere source of water, it was obviously designed as a public meeting place and center for social interaction where one could find cool relief by the water’s edge, two or three stories underground.

Ornate carvings adorn every pillar and statue around the well

Ornate carvings adorn every pillar and statue around the well

 

Rajendra Singh is another Water Warrior from Rajasthan who has won awards around the world for his work. Nominated by the Guardian newspaper in 2008 as one of the 50 people most likely to save the planet, he trained as a doctor, and was inspired by Gandhian ideals to set up a practice in the remotest desert village he could find. When he got there, literally at the end of the road, he found that what the villagers needed more than medicine was water. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajendra_Singh

With no money and only hand tools at his disposal, he began with a few friends to dig out an abandoned “johad,” a traditional water catchment reservoir. The rains came. The johad retained a little water. This was the beginning of a virtuous cycle that was copied by neighbouring villages. In the course of a few years, over 5000 earthen check dams or johads have been built in Rajasthan and neighbouring states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra with rising water tables as a result everywhere.

Rajendra Singh is now known as the rain man of Rajasthan, having brought water back to more than 1000 villages and for restoring the flow of all five major rivers in the state. In the words of one of my personal heroes, Amory Lovins, quoting Pogo Possum: “We stand here confronted by insurmountable opportunities.”

It is time for the world to grasp them. Click the Follow button below for alerts to forthcoming postings on this blog and find out how people around the world are grasping these opportunities.

Seemingly built for eternity. The well's depth bears testimony to the long-range vision of its builders

Seemingly built for eternity. The well’s depth bears testimony to the long-range vision of its builders

The Changing Landscape of Religion

Here is a link to the summary of an article on the changing landscape of religions. This is a synopsis of work done by Vegard Skirbekk et al. and was mostly carried out at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), based in Laxenburg near Vienna, Austria.

Religion is a key factor in demography, important for projections of future population growth as well as for other social indicators. A new journal, Yearbook of International Religious Demography, is the first to bring a quantitative demographic focus to the study of religion. The journal is co-edited by IIASA researcher Vegard Skirbekk, an expert in the field of religious demography. The first edition of the journal includes three studies by IIASA researchers:

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-08-landscape-religion.html#jCp

Travels in the Land of Kings

For some people the best journeys are those that take place in the mind. If you have good company and travel in the right frame of mind, an inward transformation occurs with each step and each changing view of the landscape. This was a summer of encounters in Rajasthan that changed the inner landscape of my mind but words are a poor way to show the changes, so I will post a few pictures here instead. This is offered by way of apology that this blog has been inactive for the past six weeks.20140712_161027

Rajasthan is India’s largest state. At 340,000 sq. km, around the size of Germany, it comprises 10% of India’s territory. The name, literally “the land of kings.” is very apt. There are ruins aplenty and reminders of past glory at every turn. But take a moment to look behind the ruins and there are stories behind every crenellated wall and jharoka.

A jharoka is an overhanging or enclosed balcony as seen in this house facade

A jharoka is an overhanging or enclosed balcony as seen in this house facade

This is also a land of stories, a place where myths are born. The stories are a glorious mix of fact and fantasy, like the great Indian epics themselves, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. More about this land and the stories in the blogs to follow.

9th Century cool decorates a step-well in Rajasthan

9th Century cool adorns a step-well in Rajasthan