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From Wellesley to Wellington: Auction Sale for Nostalgia Buffs

I recently attended a Vernissage of watercolor paintings by Chennai based artist Vikram Verghese. Several of his paintings caught my fancy and I bought the one pictured below, mainly as a gesture of solidarity with a talented young artist. I also had another thought at the back of my mind. A friend had remarked at the exhibition: “Why don’t you auction it afterwards to raise money for the rural education center you’re helping to build?” It appeared to be a splendid suggestion and that’s just what I’m doing here.

remains of Wellesley House, Fort St. George, Chennai, India, home of the future Duke of Wellington, 1798-1800.

Ruins of Wellesley House, Fort St. George, Chennai, India, home of the future Duke of Wellington, 1798-1800. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

The painting below is on sale to the highest bidder. Floor price €1000 (or US$ 1060/Rs. 72,000).  This should be sufficient to buy almost 2 kW worth of solar panels and battery storage at today’s prices. The excerpt below is from an article by local historian S. Muthiah, who explains why the ruined building shown in the painting is historically significant. It appeared in the online edition of “The Hindu” newspaper on the 13th February 2017.

S. Muthiah

FEBRUARY 13, 2017 00:00 IST

UPDATED: FEBRUARY 13, 2017 03:42

My favourite bed-time reading the past couple of years has been the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, in which he puts his hero in the middle of battles from Seringapatam in 1799 to Waterloo in 1815, Cornwell has Sharpe the foundling rise from private to officer through 16 campaigns the British fought. They’re a fun read at one level, but to me the books are much more. They are brilliant, well-researched descriptions of battles and wars with often a bit more than a nod to the political history of the times.

Throughout the series there is a Sharpe-Arthur Wellesley relationship which began in Madras. In my latest read, the connection cropped up again. Coincidentally there arrived an invitation for a water-colour exhibition,Disappearing Dwellings by K. Vikram Varghese, and on its back cover was a picture of a dilapidated house, a house almost collapsing. That house was where Wellesley had lived from his arrival in Madras in 1798 as the Colonel of the 33rd Regiment (after having bought his commission) till he marched to Seringapatam in 1799 during the Fourth Mysore War.

This building, Wellesley House , was built in 1796 and is one of the 16 Archaeological Survey of India-protected monuments among the 30 or so buildings in Fort St. George.
The portion of the house seen in a state of collapse met that fate during the 1980 rains.
Since then, though the main portion still stands tall, talk of restoring the buildings gets nowhere due to territorial rivalries.
With talk of the Army moving out of the Fort, very likely sometime this year, perhaps the ASI will get around to restoring this historical building as well as its protected neighbours and then make a bid for World Heritage Site status for Fort St. George.

Why ‘historical’? Arthur Wellesley took his first steps to serious soldiering while living in this house and went on from here to eventually become the Duke of Wellington, a military legend who had while in India sworn by the Madras Regiment.

Anyone interested in bidding can make an offer on the E-Bay listing at this link. This auction ends in a week, on the 5th of March, 2017.

Closing the Golden Door

Inside the Statue of Liberty, on a bronze plaque, a sonnet was engraved in 1903. A poem by Emma Lazarus, called “The New Colossus.”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Over the century since the plaque was installed, the last five lines of the poem have become an intrinsic part of the US story. No longer. Donald Trump’s message is clear. The masses can huddle elsewhere, taking their yearning with them.

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South Indian Temples as Guardians of Nature

I was talking to the knowledgeable Tamil Professor about the preservation of traditional knowledge of medicinal plants in south India in general and Tamil Nad in particular. One reason, he explains to me, is that temples have traditionally been the protectors and benefactors of trees in a locality. Every temple has a “Sthala Vriksham” or sacred plant for that temple. A recently published book (in Tamil) gives the local name, the botanical name, and the medicinal value, of nearly 60 temple plants in the state. For example, Patala – Stereospermum sauvealens, also known as Rose Flower Fragrant in English, Padari in Tamil and Podal, Parul, Padala… in various Indian languages is used to treat snake and scorpion bites and also neurological and hepatological conditions. Local names of other sacred plants are Poolai (Aerva Lenatea, or mountain knotgrass), Vanni (Prosopis spicigera, a plant of the pea family that is related to honey mesquite), Thillai (Excoecaria Agallocha, a mangrove species). Mangroves of Excoecaria Agallocha surround the ancient Thillai Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu.

Prosopis spicigera, Shami tree, ayurvedic treatment for intestinal parasitic worms...

Prosopis spicigera, Shami tree, ayurvedic treatment for intestinal parasitic worms…

Aerva Lanatea, used to treat kidney stones, Alzheimer, etc.

Aerva Lanatea, used to treat kidney stones, Alzheimer, etc.

Thillai Chidambaram temple. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Thillai Chidambaram temple. Image courtesy Wikipedia

As someone who is allergic to the shrill lessons preached by adherents of some religions, it is very refreshing, in this ecologically endangered world, to see the practical and common-sense benefits of devotion.

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Saving the Tiger

Ranthambore National Forest and Tiger Reserve is a stunningly beautiful place that spreads over 450 sq. km. Writers like Jim Corbett and Rudyard Kipling have painted vivid portraits of Indian jungles for readers in the English speaking world. On a recent visit to Ranthambore, sitting in an open jeep, slowly winding its way along rutted jungle trails, tales of Mowgli, Bagheera and Balu the bear seemed to come alive. She expected to see a barefoot boy in a loin cloth peering out from among the tall grasses. Instead, she came face to face with …Shere Khan.

Shere Khan. Her real name, said the guide, is Noor...

Shere Khan. Her real name, said the guide, is Noor…

...or Mala, or more prosaically, T-39, the mother of 3 healthy cubs

…or Mala, or more prosaically, T-39, the mother of 3 healthy cubs

The moment was so unexpected, so pure, so anti-climactic that there seemed to be magic in the air. Noor is also known to the park rangers as Mala, a name that means ‘necklace‘ for the decorative, beadlike stripes on her flank. She had apparently just fed at dawn, the remains of the kill lay somewhere in the grasses nearby, her belly was full, and she was tired and too sleepy to investigate the little open jeep with three occupants parked at a respectful distance.

These magnificent animals are under threat from us humans. Ironically, one way to save them might be to bring more humans to visit them in their natural surroundings, just like the passenger in the jeep who watched her in awed silence for nearly two hours. For every tourist who comes to see them here, there are perhaps two or three locals who earn a livelihood, people who have been displaced from their own natural habitat in the jungle, displaced by the need to preserve wildlife. The villagers who used to live in Ranthambore forest were relocated when the tiger reserve was set up. These displaced people had to carve out a new existence in small settlements surrounding the jungle that was once their home.

We met one of the displaced people, a Rajput by the name of Dharamveer. He was proud of his forbears who had built forts and castles in these hills and jungles, and today he was one of the lucky ones; someone who had done well by doing good. When he was displaced from the forest, Dharamveer had trained as a tiger painter, painting iconic portraits of Shere Khan with the finest of strokes using delicate brushes that were a mere three or four hairs thick. This fine work gave the tigers in the paintings a lustrous lifelike glow that seemed to move as they caught the light. Buoyed by this success, he assisted widowed women to retrain in other handicrafts and has created a thriving business selling their work.

A Rufous Treepie

A Rufous Treepie


the entrance to the reserve is through the old Ranthambore fortress gate

the entrance to the reserve is through the old Ranthambore fortress gate…

the sambhur belled, once, twice, and again... (Hunting Song of the Seonee Pack)

…the sambhur belled, once, twice, and again… (Hunting Song of the Seonee Pack)

We visited his store after the safari and were welcomed by the artisans who proudly showed us their wares. There was exuberant patchwork art, as well as many other fabrics, woven on rural handlooms, carvings, tribal paintings and animal protraits. As usual, there was more than one person could buy, but an American friend is exploring the market for these attractive products outside India. More on that will follow in a later posting.

Exuberant patchwork, handloom fabrics, carvings and nature paintings

An exuberant patchwork of Hathi the elephant; handloom fabrics, carvings and nature paintings


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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


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.

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


Badami: 7th Century Cave Temples

There are 4 cave temples on a rocky hill above the town, all carved out of the giant rocks that form the hillside. The first two caves are dedicated to Shiva, the third (and grandest) cave is dedicated to Vishnu. Shiva and Vishnu are the second and third members of the Brahmanical Trinity, the first being Brahma, who is traditionally accepted as the creator of the entire universe.20140205_145309 20140205_13585120140205_135835The fourth cave is a Jain temple, adorned with an image of Mahavira, the last of twenty-four teerthankaras, or spiritual role models in Jainism. Mahavira was born into a royal family around 540 BC somewhere in today’s Bihar state in India and he reputedly lived till around 468 BC. This makes him a contemporary of Gautama, the Buddha, who lived from around 563 to 483 BC according to the latest reckoning of historians and scholars. Further coincidences in their lives abound. They were both born into princely families. They both lived traditional family lives until they left their homes at the ages of 30 (Mahavira) and 29 (Gautama) and wandered in search of spiritual truths. Interestingly, although Gautama was born in today’s Nepal, he reputedly achieved enlightenment while meditating under a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, where Mahavira was born. The present day state of Bihar is relatively poor, but was a great center of learning and spirituality at the time. One of the earliest universities in the world existed at Nalanda, from the 5th to the 11th century AD.and lies just 90 km from Bodh Gaya. The Badami cave temples are in Karnataka state, not far from the scattered ruins of Vijayanagar in Hampi. 20140205_142435

Hampi: On the banks of the Tungabadhra

A city of well-preserved temples, palaces, elephant stables and elevated viewing points; the remains of a wealthy 14th-16th century empire scattered over 350 square kilometers of sparsely populated countryside; the vibrant Virupaksha temple, still being used and worshipped in by thousands every year. All this lies on the banks of the Tungabhadra river that flows, deceptively serene, nearby. Swimming in the still flowing waters is strongly discouraged by large signs that warn of treacherous whirlpools and undertows caused by the rocks in the water. The signs forget to mention a further disincentive, the occasional crocodile that floats sluggishly by.20140204_112038

Domingo Paes was a Portuguese traveller who visited the Vijayanagara Empire around the year 1520.
About the ports under the rule of Vijayanagara, Paes writes: “The said kingdom has many places on the coast of India; they are seaports with which we are at peace, and in some of them we have factories, namely, Amcola, Mirgeo, Honor, Batecalla, Mamgalor, Bracalor, and Bacanor.
Writing about the irrigation, “The land has plenty of rice and Indian-corn, grains, beans, and other kind of crops which are not sown in our parts; also an infinity of cotton. Of the grains there is a great quantity, because, besides being used as food for men, it is also used for horses, since there is no other kind of barley; and this country has also much wheat, and that good. This country wants water because it is very great and has few streams; they make lakes in which water collects when it rains, and thereby they maintain themselves.”20140204_130811

About the marketplace, he writes “Going forward, you have a broad and beautiful street, full of rows of fine houses and streets of the sort I have described, and it is to be understood that the houses belong to men rich enough to afford such. In this street live many merchants, and there you will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and cloths, and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy. Then you have there every evening a fair where they sell many common horses and nags, and also many citrons, and limes, and oranges, and grapes, and every other kind of garden stuff, and wood; you have all in this street.”20140204_145014

20140204_152217About the city “The size of this city I do not write here, because it cannot all be seen from any one spot, but I climbed a hill whence I could see a great part of it; I could not see it all because it lies between several ranges of hills. What I saw from thence seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight; there are many groves of trees within it, in the gardens of the houses, and many conduits of water which flow into the midst of it, and in places there are lakes; and the king has close to his palace a palm-grove and other rich-bearing fruit-trees.”

“This is the best provided city in the world, and is stocked with provisions such as rice, wheat, grains, Indian-corn, and a certain amount of barley and beans, MOONG, pulses, horse-gram, and many other seeds which grow in this country which are the food of the people, and there is large store of these and very cheap; but wheat is not so common as the other grains, since no one eats it except the Moors.”

Hampi’s ruins are today a UNESCO World Heritage site and well worth a visit. It might be best to reserve 2 or 3 days for the visit, because of the extent of the site, the magic of the rocky landscape, and the many beautiful views along the river. There is also a sloth bear sanctuary nearby.20140204_153556Coracles and small boats are available for tourists who wish to cross the river to see the ruins on the far side.

Sravanabelagola: Stairway to Heaven

Ask any mountain climber why they climb mountains and there is often a touch of the mystic in their replies. Although their replies might be couched in intellectual terms, or even though they might write whole books to explain why, the reason can often be condensed into a short sentence; to be closer to God; to feel an overwhelming sense of peace; to transcend the self for a brief moment,or; it’s simply out of this world.

20140206_163439The impulse is an ancient one. Emperor Chandragupta Maurya is said to have meditated here after abdicating the throne in 298 BC. Sravanabelagola, the white pond of the Sravana (the colossal monolithic statue on the hilltop), is a site that exudes an undoubted sense of peace and sanctity, some of it induced no doubt by the need to rest after the strenuous climb to the top.20140206_160451 20140206_154555Various inscriptions have been found at this site and are dated from 600 to 1800. The statue itself was erected around 981 AD. Some of these inscriptions attest to the rise and power of a succession of regional empires, including that of the Vijayanagar kings who ruled in nearby Hampi from around the 1300s to mid-1500s. More about Hampi in the next post.