Friday, October 26, 2007

Gothic Bombay

Bombay grew as an urban centre under the direction of the British who brought their aesthetic values with them from ‘home’. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, they experimented with the neo-Classical style of architecture, but then, suddenly, the city charted a new course that reflected contemporary European fashions. Gothic architecture of the medieval ages became high fashion, admired for its human scale and the manual construction techniques its appearance evoked.Gothic style buildings express their purpose quite directly on their exterior form. So, vertically, articulated by externally perceptible staircases, large open halls, functional areas, or visible methods of managing load, is observable on the outside of these buildings. This legibility of function is a hallmark of the Gothic.The Classical aesthetic strives to achieve restfulness with an orderly monochromatic presence, whereas the Gothic style is expressive, disturbing and disjointed with lively coloured surfaces. Flying buttresses, lancet windows and stained glass are noteworthy features of such architecture, and its buildings are often embellished with carved and narrative elements.The various Gothic styles employed in Bombay do relate both in appearance and in practice with contemporary structures in Britain. Magazines, photographs and the ease and frequency of travel between Bombay and Britain all contributed to the thorough and accurate dissemination of the latest design theories within India.The buildings of Bombay are, in many ways, unmistakably different from structures erected for similar uses in Britain. Some of these dissimilarities are naturally related to the climate and the construction materials employed, as even Smith had heartily argued that Gothic architecture had to be adapted to the climate and sunlight of the Indian subcontinent.The Victorians first employed science, engineering and imported products to solve their perceived architectural problems in India. But over time, creative architects who chose to work and live in the city became the dominant component that determined Bombay’s appearance. Architects such as Emerson, Stevens, Adams and Murzban adapted the accepted theories of architecture to the particular needs of India.Bombay Gothic’s heyday ended for many reasons. As political events in India became associated with stylistic preferences in architecture and nationalism began to coalesce into a recognizable movement, the architectural profession responded accordingly.The younger architects were actively looking for fresh solutions to stylistic and formal questions in architecture..

(Excerpted from Bombay Gothic By Christopher W London Published by IBH)

Lake Sasaram

The noblest specimen of Pathan architecture lies amidst the artificial lake at Sasaram, the envy of many an emperor.
The tomb of Sher Shah Suri and his son here reflects the life style of a 16th century Afghans who were dubbed in history as usurpers of the Mughal throne. However, the Pathan history discounts Babur and Humayun as interlopers, for they have been important in India for more than 300 years previously to Mughals. Sasaram, although just a medieval basti (village) and a small trading outpost today. It is bifurcated by Sher Shah’s Grand Trunk Road, on which no less than 25,000 trucks pass every day.The Puranas tell a story about Sasaram. The enmity between the Kartavirya Sahasrarjuna (literally thousand hands) and Parasurma led to the death of Sahasranjuna by Parasurma. The followers of Sahasrarjuna settled here calling it Sahasrarjuna-pura or Sahsaram. The discovery of Ashokan inscriptions on a small rock cut cave have eight lines of Brahmi script inscribed on the rocky boulder. This cave, overlooks the town, and is on the summit of Chandan Shaheed hill, named after a saint whose tomb is located close to the cave. Chandan is believed to be one of the Sufi saints who accompanied Muhmud of Ghazni.Bahul Lodi who had encouraged the migration of his countrymen to Hindustan was ultimately disappointed with their disunity. Hasan Khan and his father Ibrahim Khan Suri came to India and were granted jagirs (land lordship) in Punjab. Their fortunes swayed with that of their masters and later Hasan moved to Jaunpur and finally to Sasaram. Sher Shah was born in Narnaul and spent his childhood at Sasaram. Early in the 16th century, Sasaram, under Hasan Khan Sur was a part of the Sharqi kingdom of Jaunpur. Sher Shah developed Sasaram into a successful administrative unit. It was an important trading post and often people came here to buy horses and later Sher Shah built a mint here. His currency reform was followed by the Mughals and maintained by the Britishers. These tombs were built under the genius of Alawal Khan, the master architect. He was first commissioned to erect the tomb of Hasan Khan in 1535. A high compound wall encloses Hasan’s mausoleum with gateways on its sides and domed turrets at the corners. Attached to the tomb is the flat roofed prayer hall and madarsa. There is no plinth. The main tomb consists of a large octagonal tomb chamber surrounded by a wide verandah on all the sides. On each of the eight sides, the verandah is provided with three arched openings and three corresponding domes above it. The main tomb chamber rises higher than the domed roofs of the verandah and supports the larger central dome. Within the tomb chamber there are 25 graves, including that of Hasan Khan Suri in the center. The middle story of the monument appears to have been executed hurriedly with just bare walls instead of the kiosks and jalis. Sher Shah’s tomb is larger than the original model. The tank appears to have been excavated solely for the purpose of providing a quaint view of the tomb. The multi coloured glazed tiles and painted decoration must have added to rich reflection. Unfortunately few traces remain. This three-storied mausoleum rises to a height of 45.7 m and was originally planned to be a typical island tomb with no access to the mainland. There are stairways on each side of the tomb leading to the water, the landing platform on the eastern side and finally a causeway between the tomb and the guardroom. The guardroom or the entrance porch on the edge of the northern side of the lake is flanked by two mosques on either side, and was meant to provide crew and rafts to the serious visitors willing to see the tomb properly. A bridge of arches was provided to link the entrance porch and the tomb. The bridge did not last and the visitors used rafts made of earthen pots until 1881, when the present causeway was constructed.The mausoleum appears to be perfectly symmetrical but its base is believed to have a slight deviation at the cardinal points. However, they have been skillfully adjusted to give the impression of perfect alignment. The mausoleum is built on a large square terrace, the corners of which support the octagonal pavilions with small kiosks between them. The entrance gives way to a wide verandah on all sides, shaded by a series of 24 small domes supported on arches and each corner of the verandah is provided with a cupola. The tomb chamber is plain with traces of faded inscriptions on the western wall. The interior is well ventilated and the light comes through the large windows on the top portion of the walls fitted with jalis. The grave of Sher Shah is surrounded by 24 of his compatriots. The dome surpasses that of the Taj Mahal by 13 feet, and is based on the beam and bracket principle, allowing eight sides to fuse into a circle. The exterior was originally glazed and painted with a definite colour combination of red, blue, gold and white. Traces of colours can still be seen on the parapets and battlements.Sher Shah’s body was brought from Kalinjar after being injured in an explosion during the final assault on the fort. He managed to survive until the news of the final victory. Salim Shah, his son lies in a tomb half-a-kilometer NW of here. His tomb is grand but incomplete. New architectural designs included are - a larger lake, eleven small passages covered by stone beams, minars and pillars at all angles of the outer octagon. Alawal Khan’s tomb lies on the outskirts of the town he was the superintendent of tombs constructed.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sloppy Licks and Shifting Sands

Domesticated thousands of years ago, tamed and trained by the Frankincense traders to make long journeys, camel became the desert dweller’s primary source for everything -- almost.
They are tall, funny to look at and smell. They tag along and do their own thing where food and water are concerned. They sport a personality, are cute and you might get a sloppy lick in return for a little petting. Their rolling gait and the ability to carry weight has given them the nickname the ‘Ship of the Desert’. You will either love them or hate them. But the Arabs call them Ata Allah, which means 'god’s gift’ for their good temperament, patience and intelligence, contrary to what people think of them.
Camels originated in North America about four million years ago (40,000,000) and about a million (1,000,000) years ago, they had spread across to South America, Africa and Asia. Belonging to the family of camelidae (artiodactyla order), there are only two species, camelus dromedarius (dromedary-one humped) and the camelus bactrianus (bactrian-two humped) which have survived. The dromedary (road in Greek) camel has always been used as a saddle animal, that can cover more than 100 miles a day. They can be found in arid regions from north-western India to the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia and across African deserts and are better known as Arabian camels. Herodotus’s book – Histories has referred to this particular camel. The bactrian are found all over the highlands of Central Asia, from Turkey to Mongolia. In comparison to the Arabian camels, these are able to maintain a steady pace for a longer time, normally averaging 50 km per day while carrying a heavy load.
Indian breed
Camels in India are mostly of the dromedary type. India is listed among the top ten camel countries with 1,520,000 camels. They have a long-curved neck, a deep chest and a single hump; hair is long, falling on the shoulder and hump and they vary in size according to the nutrition intake. Their approximate lifespan is 50 years and wherever you find them, they will be in a group of two to 20. Close to their human owners, they provide these desert dwellers with milk, meat, leather, hair and fuel (dried manure). A few double-humped camels can be found in the valley of Jammu and Kashmir. Major Indian breeds are called bikaneri, which has draft capability, jaisalmeri a racing camel and the kachchhi, which is usually bred for milk. Bikaneri is the most popular and widely-used camel breed in India. Found in the Bikaner district, they are built heavily and have a larger body frame compared to others. Jaisalmeri camels are lightly built and medium sized. The kachchhi have a strong body and long thick neck. Marwari, mewari, bagri and mewati are some other breeds found in India.The Thar Desert stretches infinitely into the horizon and is as harsh as it is beautiful. You may see the footprints of camel or hear the sound of the camel driver’s cry, for this is the transport here, the ship of the desert.In India, when a camel is bought, the first thing you do is peg it. A hole is made in its nose and a peg is put through it -- it can be wood, plastic or metal. This causes very little discomfort to camels if done the proper way. A wooden peg is preferable than a metal peg because in most of the hot arid regions, metal peg heats up easily than its wooden counterpart, irritating the camel’s nostril. A string is attached to the peg and a rope is passed around the camel’s neck (like a bit in the horse’s mouth). Nose pegs are preferred for better control. It took a long time to invent a saddle for the camel and its hump. It was around 500 AD, when somebody in West Asia invented a good packsaddle and after this, they began to use the camels a lot. This saddle was also responsible in a way for the development of trade routes between different countries. Indian camels have been exported all over the world and are highly prized as transport animals in dry regions. Thousands of camels are exported to countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Africa priced at $100,000 to $250,000 for one camel!
Their travel and survival skills help them live nine days without food and water. But this has to be compensated after the journey with a rest for about a month with loads of food and water, till their body fat reserves are built up again. The ability to travel great distances led to the creation of Caravanserais with tight securities for the goods that were brought in. Here, they could rest and eat (both the animal and the owner). With the dawn of the modern age, the ship of the desert is no longer needed to carry goods, but is still a mode of transport vital to this particular region, even in the 20th century.
Over the years
Rajasthan has become the centre of attraction for several camel fairs and festivals held at Pushkar, together with a religious festival celebrated here in October-November, the Jodhpur Marwar Festival in October, Bikaner Camel Festival in January and the Jaisalmer Desert Festival in January-February. These fairs showcase, hundreds of camels – gaunt, well-fed, velvety brown, and sand coloured gather with their respective owners, perhaps waiting for new owners or to perform in various competitions including races. The most popular event is the camel race, where only the quickest camels participate.During these festivals, bedecked camels hover around the sand dunes in ornate saddles with tassels, mirrors and thread work. It is next to impossible to keep your eyes off them. Camel decoration has an important part in any camel festival in India, for the best decorated camel bags the prizes. According to a Jaisalmer-based camel driver and decoration artist, it takes 10 to 12 months to complete the decoration of a single camel. Price of the full decoration varies from Rs 2,500 to Rs 4,000, says an owner of 32 camels. Geometric symbols and realistic motifs are part of their body art. These motifs represent the village they come from and are meant to symbolise a variety of experiences associated with life and death. Camel products are created, marketed and used worldwide. Shoes made of camel leather are very popular throughout India. Camels here work on land, ply fodder, pull carts with material for building, work as a means of transportation, do threshing, oil transport and also lift water for irrigation. The most prestigious job among all certainly is being with the Indian Army along with Border Security Force (BSF) guarding the India-Pakistan border.Indian camels are facing extinction, with many of them exported to Bangladesh for meat. Working on tar roads exposes them to noise and serious injuries. Research is under way to find how these camels can survive on thorny bushes - it has been noticed that they eat from one place and then move on, thus allowing the tree/plants to grow at a faster rate. The idea is to allow the camels to chew cud in arid regions to foster faster growth of plants and reduce the desert and arid conditions.

* Camels were important even 7,000-years ago and this can be seen in an old painting found in the UAE. * Camels do not pant and perspire very little. Their body has a unique thermostat that raises their body temperature by six degrees and conserves body fluid. Their body temperature is less than the air temperature around, so they conserve body heat by pressing against each other.* They come in colours varying from brown to almost black.* Their ears are small, but have acute hearing and are fur lined to stop dust and sand from entering into their ears.* Their eyes are large with a doe-like expression and are protected by a double row of long curly eyelashes that keep out dust and thick eyebrows shield the eyes from the desert sun.* Their flat and leathery pads have two toes. While walking the pads spread and prevent their feet from sinking. They walk by moving both legs on one side, simultaneously hence the rolling motion gait. * They can carry a weight of 450 kg and can work 6 to 8 months in a year and need to take rest of the year off.* The gestation period before birth is 13 months and the newborn camels walk immediately on birth.* Camel hair is most sought-after for coats, garments and artists' brushes. They shed around 2.5 kg of hair every spring. Average height is six feet at the shoulder and seven at the hump.* A camel gulps its food without chewing and later regurgitates it in cud form. They can drink 100 litres of water in ten minutes and store it in the bloodstream. However, they need very little water, as camels get the required moisture from the rich pasture they eat. They weigh around 700kg and can run at speeds of 20kph at a gallop. * The hump does not store water but it is fatty tissue. From here, the camel draws its energy. The hump shrinks and hangs to the side on excess usage, which after a rest and good food returns to its normal position.* Their bones are replacing Ivory.

Desert Storm

When the wheels of time turned, empires rose and fell. With the end of kings and kingdoms, the new generation of the royal families adapted to change, instead of remaining glued to the solemnity of past gory. They have moved on. Look to Raj Mahal Palace, feel it for yourself.Many former palaces have been successfully turned into hotels after the government abolished privy purses of the royals. This has proved a successful venture, saving many of the imposing royal structures from sale and destruction. One such palace-turned hotel is the Raj Mahal Palace Heritage hotel, near Jaipur. Smaller than the Rambagh Palace, it holds its own.It was on a short three-day trip when I got the opportunity to stay at Raj Mahal. Now a Taj property, it has maintained its grandeur after conversion to a hotel and the addition of many modern facilities.
History of Raj Mahal, Jaipur
Raj Mahal was originally known as Ranawatji-ka-Bagh and it was home to HH Sawai Bhawani Singh. Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, builder of the Pink City of Jaipur, also built this Bagh (named Maji-ka-bagh) and a palace here for his favourite queen Maharani Chandra Kumar Ranawatji (daughter of Maharana of Udaipur) in 1729.The birth of a son -- Madho Singh -- after 20 years of marriage in 1728 fuelled a power struggle within the family, leading to many palace intrigues. Finally, this forced Maharani Chandra to permanently shift here. The throne was denied to Madho Singh again in 1743 and his elder brother Ishwar Singh was installed after the death of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh. Madho Singh finally ascended the throne after Ishwar Singh killed himself in 1750. But his mother continued to live here, which is still known by its second name - Maji-ka-Bagh. In 1821, this palace was converted into the official residence of the Resident Political Officer of the Agent General of Rajputana. The year 1821 also saw cricket being played for the first time on its lawns. The British government had started tightening its grip on the state administration. After this, a prolonged spell of insignificance followed for Raj Mahal., when it became a mere guest house. Only when the last Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II moved back from Rambagh palace to Raj Mahal did it regain its lost glory. The palace was converted into the royal residence and renamed Raj Mahal. In 1958, Rambagh was converted to a hotel and the Maharaja moved into Raj Mahal making it the official residence of the king. Many additions and alterations later, Raj Mahal was fit to be occupied by the royal family.
The Raj Mahal Hotel in Jaipur
It was in 1980 that Raj Mahal was converted to a deluxe hotel when the royal family moved out to live in other palaces. Today it is classified as a Heritage hotel. The original building forms the southern line of the present group and faces the Shahan Chabutra and an imposing gateway of the Amber Palace. Within its high walls, it covers an area approximately 10 acres and has 23 rooms that depict the royal history, and are well-furnished. The imposing gateway sports an old-fashioned fort doorway with a canon looming above..The path opens up to the huge lawns, which are provided for functions and ceremonies. When I was there, there were weddings and music performances in its lawns. The hotel has been divided into three categories with two royal suites (Maharaja and Maharani suites), three suites, eight superior rooms and ten standard rooms.My room had a picture of Maharani Gayatri Devi on the back wall. Though I had reached at night, I remember feeling intrigued and switched on every light in the room to get the feel of the place. Beautifully laid out, it had a settee near one of the windows, and a sofa and table close to the fireplace. There was also a TV and tiny fridge to contend with. But what I liked most was the writing room, which had a small table and chair with letter pads, envelopes and pen lying on the table away from a window which overlooked the same lawns that held the first cricket match in Jaipur. A beautiful site, I would open the curtains everyday early in the morning to see the peacock walk in the lawns, hear birds sing and breathe the fresh and cool air that blew across. With its authentic royal furniture and looks, Taj has maintained the feel of the palace in its original state with modern amenities.A poolside restaurant and a lush green garden sit-out are ideal for those who would like to enjoy their tea, breakfast etc. out in the open under the azure skies. Food can also be had at the inside restaurant which is quaint and quiet, with mirrors on both sides, the Maharaja’s painting on the right above the fireplace and a fantastic 200-year-old chandelier hanging from the ceiling. There is also an in-house library bar with rosewood panelling, which stocks a wide range of beverages, conference and healthcare facilities. Just outside this bar lined across the corridor are polo pictures of the Maharajas of Jaipur. The east wing rooms and the billiard room were added at different times and have a modern feel to it. Climb the stairs to the top-most level and walk onto the terrace, and an eagle's eyeview greets you. You can see the entire complex from end to end. You come away from Raj Mahal with the feeling that it was a truly royal experience. I would love to go back any day.This palace was also witness to lavish receptions and hectic political meetings with historical figures like Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, Lady Diana, Prince Charles and Lord Mountbatten attending them.
Jaipur Factfile
The nearest airport is Jaipur, 11 km away. The railway station is 3 km away. It is located on the Sardar Patel Marg. Places to visit in Jaipur:Amber Fort and Palace, City Palace and Hawa Mahal, Raj Mandir, Rambagh Palace, Jal Mahal. Experience the desert on a jeep safari, get a camel ride. You can also book for a private taxi from the reception to take you sightseeing. Things to buy in JaipurBlock printed clothes, camel skin accessories, wooden toys and puppets, kundan jewellery, blue pottery, silver jewellery and cotton fabrics of all types.