The highest point

LAST BUT NOT LEAST on our visit to Mount Abu was a visit to Guru Shikhar, the highest peak of the Mount Abu district. Being a Sunday, the winding road leading to it had heavy traffic. Many of the private cars had Gujarati registration plates, and judging by the general lack of driving skill and courtesy I guessed that many of the drivers had little if any experience of negotiating mountain roads. There is an observatory perched on the very top of the mountain. It is part of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The views from the summit were spectacular especially because the air was uncharacteristically free of mists and heat haze. We were surrounded by lower peaks and in one direction there was a good view of the plain far below us. Mount Abu is the highest point in Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat. We left this peak to visit other sights dotted around on the far from flat Mount Abu plateau.

A short visit to Shankar Math will suffice all but the most devout of Hindus. A modern structure surmonted by an enormous lingam houses a much older and slightly older lingam carved in white stone with bluish grey striations.

Achal Garh has several attractions. There is a large attractive Jain Temple, which looked quite old. It was surrounded by newly carved sculptural fragments which were being used to replace worn out stone elements of the temple. Old parts were being exchanged for newly made replicas.

Close to the Jain temple at Achal Ghar, there is a market place catering mostly to tourists. Beyond the market a well made road winds upwards to Kapoor Tank, a peaceful water body where we saw women washing laundry in its calm water. Little children, including a tiny three year old girl, offered to guide us around the area.

The road continues to ascend above Kapoor Tank until it reaches the gates of an old fortress. It was built in 1452 by a local Rajput ruler, Maharana Khumbar of Mewar, on the site of an older fort. Not much remains to be seen. The area within the fort contains various Jain temples, which I hope to look at on a future visit.

The Jain temples at Adhar Devi, high up on a mountain slope, can only be reached by climbing more than 350 stone steps. I did not feel like doing that, so there is little I can tell you about them except that one of them is called Arbuda Devi Temple, Arbuda being the pre-British name of Abu, as in Mount Abu.

The highlight of our excursion was not the highest peak but an incredibly beautiful lake surrounded by rocks in the middle of a wildlife nature reserve. A badly surfaced road leads from the main road between Mount Abu and Guru Shikhar to Trevor’s Tank. This water body was created in 1897 by Colonel GH Trevor to breed crocodiles. A fading notice on of the huge rocks surrounding the pool advises visitors not to enter the water because of the very real risk of meeting these creatures. Some German hikers, whom we met, pointed at some crocs resting on a rock across the Tank, but I could not see them. The land for the wildlife sanctuary had been gifted to Trevor by the Maharaja of Sirohi, in whose kingdom Mount Abu is located.

The Tank has to be seen to believed. Its smooth water reflects the finest details of the rocks and vegetation surrounding it. Our new friend Dr Sharma told us that one of the joys of Trevor’s Tank is listening to the sounds of nature. During our visit, these had to compete with the sounds made by the excited groups of mainly young trippers. If there is limited time available when you visit Mount Abu, then Trevor’s Tank and the Dilwara Jain Temples should be seen before anything else. But, it would be foolish not to allot at least several days to savour Mount Abu.

We ate lunch in the restaurant of the Jaipur House hotel, the highest of the former Rajputana palaces in Mount Abu . Its windows provide superb views over the Nakki Lake, the Polo Ground and the rest of Mount Abu town. The former palace, now a hotel, is elegant without being flamboyant.

We strolled down from the palace through the town to our hotel feeling sad that on the following morning we would be leaving Mount Abu, which has captured our hearts.

Moore than meets the eye

“HOW COULD YOU SPEND FIVE DAYS IN MOUNT ABU?”, someone asked me, adding that “one day is more than enough – you see the Jain temple, and that’s it”. How wrong this is. Even a fortnight would not be long enough to absorb all that Mount Abu (in Rajasthan) and its surroundings have to offer. I write this not because I was lucky enough to meet the amazing Dr Arun Sharma, but because even before we met him I had that idea.

Dr Sharma, a local medical practitioner, is an artist who expresses his ideas by composing music, painting canvases, as well as writing poetry and dramas. He is also a mine of information about the history of Mount Abu.

Major General Arthur Thomas Moore (1830 – 1913 or 1923) was a British officer in India. At the age of 26, and serving in the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, he was awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery at the Battle of Khushab in Persia.

Dr Sharma told us that for many years Moore’s whereabouts in India during a period of 3 or 4 years were completely unknown. After he resurfaced and returned to Europe, he died in his native land Ireland, where he is buried.

The regiment that Moore served has been renamed The Pune Horse, but nowadays it uses tanks instead of horses. Since 1947, it has been involved in over 60 skirmishes and battles and never been defeated. The members of the regiment believe that the spirit of the incredibly brave Moore is their guardian angel.

The regiment was delighted when in 2006, Dr Sharma accidentally stumbled on a cave near Sunset Point in Mount Abu. This cave had inscriptions carved in beautiful handwriting by Arthur Thomas Moore. These inscriptions include the date 1901, which was during the period that Moore had gone missing. What Moore was doing in this cave that Dr Sharma discovered we may never know, but at least we now know that Mount Abu was one of the places he visited during his period of disappearance.

Dr Sharma took us to see the cave, whose restoration he instigated, and proudly showed us the informative memorial plaque he created.

This cave and many more natural and man made historical sights and sites have convinced me that Mount Abu has more to see than most people realise.

I wish to thank Dr Sharma for opening my eyes to the exciting history of Mount Abu and its surroundings.

Around the mountain

LAST NIGHT WE MET DR ARUN SHARMA. He was introduced to us by Mr Kashyap Jani, the owner of Hotel Saraswati, where we stayed in Mount Abu. Not only is Sharma a medical doctor in Mount Abu but he is also an accomplished writer, a prolific poet, a composer of music, a keen and well informed local historian, and also a skilful painter. In addition to singing an excerpt from one of his many operas, he told us a bit about the history and mythology of Mount Abu, which he believes is the oldest place on earth. Partly at his suggestion and partly because we had seen some information displayed at our hotel, we decided to take a driver to visit historic places around the base of Mount Abu and its associated peaks.

Our driver, Zakir, picked us up early in the morning and drove us to a food stall next to the Madina Masjid, the only mosque in Mount Abu. We joined some men who were keeping warm around a bonfire and had tea and omelettes. Throughout Mount Abu, locals make bonfires to keep warm, especially after sunset.

We drive downhill from Mount Abu along the winding mountain road, Abu’s only road link to the ‘outside world ‘. The picturesqueness of the landscape was enhanced by patches of morning mist.

Our first stop was at the Badrakali Hindu temple, which is extremely old. We were told it is 8000 years old, but this seems unlikely. We entered the inner sanctum to see the idol depicting the principal deity.

We were followed by a man, who walked over to an enormous speaker and turned it on. We were blasted with incredibly loud music: mostly rhythmic drumming with frequent blasts on conch shells. The volume was as high as, or even greater than most discotheques.

The priest within the chamber with the main idol waved around a smoking censer before lighting several lamps on a metal holder, creating what looked like a fiery comb. While ring a bell with his left hand, he waved the flaming comb around the inner sanctum, up and down the principal idol and other lesser ones. All the time, the loud music thudded deafeningly. Suddenly, he put down the comb of flames, picked up a conch shell and used it to throw water at all of us facing him. As suddenly as it had begun, the music ended. The priest continued chanting while all those attending this ‘aarti’ left the temple. We were lucky to have witnessed this dramatic yet very moving ceremony because it is only performed twice a day.

A short drive, during which we saw wild peacocks and plenty of greyish monkeys with black faces, brought us to another ancient temple, the Hrishikesh, a very peaceful spot. After walking past cattle and a large number of monkeys, we entered thetemple compound. A young boy was cleaning an idol of the ‘guru’ which faced the main idol of the temple located in the innermost sanctum. This chamber was covered by a cloth curtain. The priest llowed us to peer inside, where he was carefully cleaning the idol. He told us that only when the goddess had been cleaned and dressed, could she be revealed to worshippers. The temple and its compound contains numerous finely carved religious stone artworks.

After a lovely drive through very rustic landscape, Zakir drove us along a rough track to the isoated Toda Paladi, a very small Hindu temple. We chatted to the priest, who, after inviting us to sit with him, asked us if we were at peace and content. Then, we looked at the old stepwell (‘vav’) near the temple. It was almost overflowing with water covered with a thin layer of green algae. The priest had told us that the well always received a good supply of water that flowed down from nearby Mount Abu. We left the customary donation to the temple. The priest explained that when enough money had been collected, he hoped that it would be spent on improving the road leading to his temple.

The Sun Temple at Varman was built in the 10th century AD. Somewhat ruined, but maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, it contains carved stone features such as some of those that we saw at the great Jain temples at Mount Abu. The Sun Temple is, even though now incomplete, a gem.

Not far from the Sun Temple, we drove along a very sandy road until Zakir said the car could go no further safely. I disembarked and walked with some difficulty through vey soft fine sand towards a pair of huge banyan trees. Near these are the unguarded remains of Krishna Vat. A passing local with flamboyant facial hair typical of that seen on many Rajasthani men made me understand that the temple had been destroyed long ago by invaders. Despite the temple being a disorganised pile of exquisitely carved stones, people still worship there. For that reason my ‘guide’ asked me to remove my sandals while I prowled around the ruins, taking photos. My companion explained to me in Hindi what I was looking at, but I barely understood what he was saying. However, he did make it clear that a small rectangular patch of earth surrounded on three sides by stones was all that remains of the innermost sanctum of the temple.

After a relatively long drive, we reached the Behra Tarak Jain temple, which was built about 20 years ago. Although recently constructed, this temple, like most other contemporary Jain temples, is designed in the same way as those which were built over 1000 years ago. Thus, this new temple gives the visitor a good idea of how the historic temples must have looked when they were just completed. In all of the modern Jain temples we have visited both in Gujarat and Rajasthan no expense has been spared to create or recreate the perfection seen in the earliest temples.

Another drive along country lanes brought us close to the Karodi Dhwaj Hindu temple. I had to climb about 150 metres up a track too rough for our taxi to reach this small old temple compound clinging to the rocky slopes of Mount Abu. A staircase cut into a huge rock led down to a pool of water deep in a rocky cleft. The temple buildings overlooked this. Although of great beauty, they had been heavily painted with silver and other coloured paints. Some of the finer details of the carved stone idols were also hidden under deep layers of garish coloured paint. This temple almost hidden away in the rocks reminded me of some monasteries I have visited in Serbia. They were located next to the sources of streams at the heads of valleys to make them less accessible to foreign invaders, in their case the Ottoman soldiers.

The Mirpur Jain temple is definitely not concealed. It overlooks the plain surrounding Mount Abu. The mountainside makes an impressive backdrop to this beautiful temple constructed in a rare stone with light blue streaks. Constructed before the better known Dilwara temples, this could well have been the model which inspired the builders at Dilwara. Many of the finely carved features seen at Dilwara, where photography is firbidden, are in evidence at Mirpur. Almost as breathtaking as Dilwara, seeing Mirpur is a ‘must’.

The last stop on our tour was a Hindu temple within a natural rock cave, the Vastanji Shiva temple. This is located above a slope that was covered with litter. We were welcomed by several friendly temple assistants to the cave temple with its low painted rock ceiling. After we had admired the deity, we were invited into a neighbouring building, where men and women were keeping warm around a wood fire in a hearth on the floor. We were given a warm welcome and cups of tea. Pur new acquaintances invited to stay for a night of prayer at the temple. They told us that we would be offered food and bedding. Many people make the pilgrimage to this place and avail the hospitality offered. The sleeping quarters are flattish surfaces below the temple under colourful cloth shamianas. I guessed that much of the litter lying around was the result of the previous night’s pilgrims. All around we saw monkeys busy eating discarded vegetables and flower garlands.

We drive back up to Mount Abu after sunset, and disembarked at the grandiose former summer palace of the rulers of Bikaner, an erstwhile princely state in Rajasthan. It is now a ‘heritage’ hotel. We ate an indifferent meal in one of the dining rooms. The place was so cold that all of the diners were wearing inelegant padded jackets for outdoor use rather than dinner jackets and other fine garments that would have been worn when the hotel was a royal palace.

Thus, ended a fine day that was inspired by the historical research which Dr Sharma has been doing for years and by the publicity given to it at our hotel by its owner.

Temples and a palace

THE DELWARA JAIN TEMPLE COMPLEX close to Mount Abu opens to tourists at noon. We arrived at about 11 am and our driver, Zakir, suggested we visit the local museum, which turned out to be a handicraft shop.

We were directed upstairs to the fabric department and invited to sit down whilst a salesman told us about the products, which had been made locally, thereby providing employment to about 4500 locals. No obligation to buy, of course! However, we wanted a razzai, a bed quilt like an eiderdown, and after having been shown numerous examples we settled on one. Its price was greater than we were prepared to pay. We were told that the prices were not negotiable. Both the salesman and his manager told us that they could offer us cups of tea or coffee but not reductions in price. We pointed out that as kind as that was, it would only save us about 20 to 40 Rupees.

We had been in the shop, I mean ‘museum’, for almost an hour and I was becoming restless. I think that when the manager noticed this, he felt that there was a real risk that he would lose a sale. He sold us the razzai, having reduced the price by a third.

The Delwara Jain temple complex contains several temples, two of which are well over 600 years old: one dates back to the 11th century AD. Sadly photography is not permitted within the temples. Words cannot do justice to the beautiful intricate stone carvings that adorn these places of worship. Even photographs, if they had been allowed, would only hint at the perfection of the carving and their fine artistry. The precision and sharp definition of this ancient carving done by hand rivals what can be done with the most hi-tech computerised cutting devices. I have never visited the Taj Mahal, but I believe that these temples are even more breathtakingly beautiful than the famous monument at Agra. You will have to see it yourself, and then you will know what I mean.

Mount Abu was the summer resort for the rulers of the princely states of Rajputana, now Rajasthan. Many of them built lavish summer palaces, some of which are now used as ‘heritage’ hotels. Zakir drove us to the Kishangarh House hotel. Kishangarh was a tiny state near Ajmer in Rajasthan. Its population was 91000 in 1901. Its Maharaja built his palace at Mount Abu on sloping ground, which was transformed into terracing and surrounded by terraced gardens. We ate snacks there and were shown the rooms available for hire. Of all the former royal palaces I have seen in India, this looks to be the most comfortable. Even the lowest priced rooms are huge and extremely well appointed.

Zakir dropped us back in town in the town bazaar, as opposed to the touristic market area. There are numerous shops in picturesque winding streets.

Before returning to our hotel for a much needed rest, we bought some socks from a wayside stall. As is expected of customers, we bargained a little. When we agreed on a slightly lower price than the salesman asked initially, he said (in Hindi), maybe hoping to shame us into paying a little more:
“Will you feel better if you buy the socks at the lower price?”
We replied: “much better.”

BUS TO MOUNT ABU

WE SPENT MUCH OF NEW YEAR’S 7 Its driver was a friend of our driver. They were pleased to meet and wanted to chat. The other driver suggested to ours that he drove alongside ours so that he could chat with our driver. This did not happen but I liked the idea. Locating which bus we were to travel on proved a bit hair raising because everyone we asked suggested a different part of the bus station from which our bus might depart.

Much of the first half of the bus journey involved travelling northwards through flat cultivated terrain liberally sprinkles with small factories and large villages. We had a ten minute stop at Himatnagar, a small busy city in northern Gujarat.

Beyond Idar, the road began climbing out of the plain. We had a 30 minute break in Ambaji, an important temple town on the Gujarat side of the border of Rajasthan, which we entered immediately after lraving the town.

After Ambaji, our road climbed steadily and with increasingly tight bends through a mountainous landscape with plenty of trees. I was glad we were on a bus rather than a smaller vehicle like a car or jeep because many of these were driven as if their drivers had a suicidal tendency.

After about seven hours we arrived at the ramshackle, seemingly abandoned bus station at Mount Abu. There have been settlements in this area since time immemorial. It is mentioned in ancient Hindu texts, the Puranas. In the 19th century is was the summer capital of the Rajputana State. Many of the Rajput royalty built summer palaces in Mount Abu.

Our hotel is close to the still used polo ground. A beautiful late Victorian polo pavilion built in 1894 overlooks the vast polo playing field and is now used as a library.

The temperature at Mount Abu, which is about 4000 feet above sea level, dropped dramatically as the sun set. The air became icy cold and we were forced to purchase warm jackets. These are sold at stalls at the so-called Nepali Market, which is also called the ‘Tibetan Market’. Nepali or Tibetan, whichever it is, is situated amongst trees to which are attached strings of colourful Buddhist prayer flags such as we have seen fluttering in Darjeeling and Sikkim.

We dined at a simple halal restaurant. My wife asked for a soup listed on the menu. At first, the restaurant owner did not seem so keen on serving it. After a while, he said reluctantly : “If you really want it, I suppose I will have to make it for you”

A memorable new year’s eve

Some years ago, we were in Bangalore on a New Years Eve. Our daughter went off to an all night party and we remained at home with my recently widowed late mother-in-law.

We ordered a pizza from the local branch of a well known international pizza chain. It arrived by motorbike, looked delicious, but tasted mouldy.

At about 10 pm, we were all feeling sleepy and retired to bed. At about 3 am we were woken by a telephone call. It was our daughter wishing us a happy new year.

We had slept whilst the old year ended and the new one began. It was the most effortless and relaxing way of ‘celebrating’ a New Year that I can remember.

PS: this year we celebrated the New Year’s Eve in a part of India where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden!

Familiarity does not always breed contempt

FAMILIARITY BREEDS … CONTENTMENT. We have just landed in Ahmedabad. It is our third visit to this city in Gujarat within less than two years. We received a warm welcome from the staff at the small hotel where we have stayed twice before.

After settling into our room, we ate a good meal of Mughlai food at the Food Inn, which is opposite the 16th century Sidi Sayeed Mosque. Then, we travelled to the Gita Mandir bus station, where a very helpful booking clerk arranged tickets for various intercity trips we are planning to make soon.

The noisy, bustling traffic in Ahmedabad is typical of the city’s general feeling of vibrancy and exciting vitality. So bad was the congestion on the roads that our autorickshaw driver suggested that we abandoned our plans to visit the Jumma Masjid near the Manek Chowk. He explained that being the 30th of December, everyone was in a holiday mood and out on the streets spending money.

We disembarked at Khwaja Bazaar, a frenetic market place between the three arched Teen Darwaza and the Badra Fort, where the early rulers of Ahmedabad had their headquarters. We strolled along a street leading away from the market, admiring occasional old looking buildings along it. I imagine that the oldest of these is about a hundred or so years old.

Eventually, we reached a post office just across the road from an ageing Parsi ‘dharamshala’. Apart from a vigilant watchman, who looked at us suspiciously, the place looked rather dead. We took tea at a pavement stall. Typical of the kindness of people in this city, the ‘chaiwallah’ specially prepared tea without sugar for us instead of the very sweet beverage that is usually served. We sat on a bench, sipping tea and watching the world go by. It felt good to be back in Ahmedabad, a city, where kite flying is a popular pursuit. A city that is becoming familiar to us and makes us feel content.

First published on http://www.gujarat-travels.com

Around the market with Mansour

I CANNOT COUNT the number of times I have passed Johnson Market on my way between Koramangala, where my in-laws live, and central Bangalore. The market building stands close to the busy intersection of Hosur Road and Richmond Road. Recently, I went on a guided walking tour of the area around Johnson Market. It was led by my good friend Mansour Ali, who runs a great organisation called “Bengaluru by foot” (www.bengalurubyfoot.com). I had visited Johnson Market several times before on my own, but Mansour’s tour enhanced my experience of it and its surroundings.

Johnson Market was built in an indo-saracenic style in the early 20th century on the site of stables that housed horses, which were imported into India in 1824 from Persia by Aga Ali Asker who was born in Shiraz in 1808. Some of the stables still exist, incorporated into the structure of the market halls. Ali Asker was one of several brothers. While the rest of ghem returned to Persia, he stayed in in Bangalore where he died after carrying out much valuable public work. One of his grandsons, born in Bangalore, was Sir Mirza Ismail (1883-1959), a great Indian statesman.

Johnson Market is for selling food. In addition to vegetables (including exotic vegetables like Chinese pak choi), there is a wonderful fishmongers shop and a beef market.

Near to the market, stands ‘Koshys Automatic Bakery’, which was the first mechanised bakery in the city. A stall beside it sells bread, cakes, and delicious filled puffs.

At both ends of the long building housing the Islamic Educational Board of India on Richmond Road, there are gateways leading to Muslim shrines well hidden from the road. One of them is a Sunni shrine, and the other is Shia/Sufi. Soon after the birth of Islam believers in this religion split into two main groups: Sunni and Shia. The majority of Muslims in India are Sunni, a small minority are Shia. It happens that there is a concentration of Shia establishments close to Johnson Market. This might be because Ali Asker and his descendants, many of whom had homes in the area, were Shias. Each of the shrines or ‘dargahs’ are peaceful enclaves, which although close to the main road, feel far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The leafy shaded Mysore Tobacco Company compound is across Richmond Road facing the two dargahs. Surrounded by trees and luxuriant foliage, the main building is a delightful example of colonial Bangalorean domestic architecture. Its windows are partially covered with monkey top woodwork. The large front porch is rich in wooden latticework and rustic carving that hints of idealised quaint country cottages in far-off England.

All Saints Church, founded by the Reverend Pettigrew (founder of Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton School for boys) and designed in Victorian gothic style by the English architect Robert Fellowes Chisholm and consecrated in 1870. It stands at the intersection of Richmond and Hosur Roads, and must have brought feelings of homesickness to Britishers living in pre-independence Bangalore. Stepping inside is like entering a village church in England. The garden surrounding the church contains a rich variety of plants, including a rather spindly olive tree, reflecting Pettigrew’s interest in botany. Tragically, part of this garden is under threat because the municipal authorities want it for use in the construction of a new metro line.

After visiting the church, Mansour took us to see another Shia dargah in a lane leading off Hosur Road. This shrine is connected with the battle of Karbala (600 AD) during which Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was slain by the caliph Yazid I. The shrine, which is revered by Shias, contains fine glass lamps and chandeliers which were probably made in Turkey over a century ago. Unlike mosques, where worshippers of different genders are kept separated, males and females can pray together in dargahs.

The Masjid e Askari is the only Shia mosque in Bangalore. Adjoining it, there is a recently built replica of a mosque in Karbala, the city close to where Hussain, sacred to the Shias, met his death. The replica, which is smaller than the original, is a beautiful construction with amazing mirror work mosaics in which words from the Koran are inserted in black tiling.

After spending three hours with Mansour, I felt that I had learnt much about the Shia branch of Islam and a great deal about a part of Bangalore which I have passed often without realising how interesting it is.

One body with two heads

HAPPY NEW YEAR

THE DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE (‘DHE’) is a creature with a single body, two wings, and two heads each with its own neck. Of course it does not exist in nature but it is used quite widely as a symbol or emblem. I first became interested in the DHE after I became fascinated by Albania. The DHE has appeared as its national symbol for several centuries. It is also an emblem of Russia, Montenegro, Serbia, and the Indian state of Karnataka. In times past, the DHE was associated with the Hittites, several families in Cornwall, and the Byzantine Empire. It has also been used by some people in pre-Columbian America.

The DHE is an unusual symbol because it required considerable imagination to create it. Symbols like the cross, the crescent, the star, the swastika, and the circle are simple geometric emblems that could have easily arisen from thoughtless doodling. Likewise with emblematic animals like the lion, the eagle (with one head), and other creatures are based on observation of nature. The DHE, on the other hand, is neither an accident of geometry nor based on real life. It is, like the multi-limbed Hindu gods and the Egyptian sphinx, the result of human imagination.

The earliest archaeological evidence of the DHE is on rings used by the ancient Babylonians to mark ownership of containers of oils and other liquid goods. These seals have been dated as having been in existence between two and three millennia before the birth of Christ.

It is interesting to note that the DHE was not the only two headed creature conceive by the ancient Babylonians. There is plenty of archaeological evidence that shows that they created emblems depicting other creatures with a single body, two necks, each supporting a head.

In the future, I hope to explore the origins and the distribution of the DHE in far greater detail, maybe I will make this the subject of a book.