A Russian cathedral and a Palladian villa

IN NORMAL TIMES, we would be setting off for a long stay in India around this period of the year, late October, or early November. We would hire a cab to take us to Heathrow Airport, which is best accessed from our home via the A4 and then the M4. The route to the airport passes a sign for the entrance to Chiswick House, which is about three and a third miles from our home as the crow flies. On the way back from Heathrow on our return from India we pass a church tower adorned with a deep blue coloured onion-shaped dome decorated with gold stars about a mile and a half further west from the Chiswick House turning. Until today, the 11th of November 2020, neither my wife nor I have ever visited these two places.

During our current ‘lockdown’, entering Chiswick House is forbidden, but wandering around its grounds is permitted. And, what a treat they offer. The house, completed in 1729, was built in neo-Palladian style. It was designed by, and built for, Richard Boyle (1694-1753), an Anglo-Irishman who was an aristocrat (3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork) and an accomplished architect. Burlington demolished the Jacobean mansion, the former home of an Earl of Somerset, that he had inherited from his father and replaced it with what we see today (minus some newer additions). Horace Walpole wrote that Burlington’s creation:

“… the idea of which is borrowed from a well-known villa of Palladio (that of the Marquis Capra at Vicenza), is a model of taste, though not without faults, some of which are occasioned by too strict adherence to rules and symmetry…”

Yet, these faults, which were apparent to Walpole, do not disturb our enjoyment of the exterior of the building today. John Summerson, author of “Georgian London”, regarded the villa at Chiswick as being “very magnificent” and pointed out that its plan is close to that of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza.

Following the death of its builder and then his widow, Chiswick House was owned by the 4th and then 5th Dukes of Devonshire. In 1806, the politician Charles Fox died in the house and twenty-one years later, the Prime Minister Lord Canning also expired within its walls. The house fell into decline in the 19th century. After 1892, it was used as a lunatic asylum, and then in 1929, the 9th Duke of Devonshire sold it to Middlesex County Council, who used it as a fire station for a while. During WW2, one of two wings that had been added to the house was hit by a German V2 rocket. In 1956, the two wings that were not part of the Palladian villa were demolished and eventually the fine house designed by Boyle became maintained by English Heritage and accessible to visitors.

The gardens of Chiswick House are not overly large, but they are magnificent. The grounds are full of sculptures, picturesque kiosks, garden follies including sculpted columns and a classical temple, long avenues of trees and hedges. The centrepiece of the grounds is a long stretch of water. It has a waterfall at one end and a beautiful masonry bridge crossing it further downstream. The designers of the gardens, Burlington and the celebrated landscaper William Kent (c1685-1748), are supposed to evoke the gardens of Ancient Rome. It was Kent who designed the waterfall, having been inspired by Italian garden decorative features.  The grounds, though compact, are richly varied with different vistas around every corner. The elegant bridge crossing the water body was commissioned by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and built in 1774 to the designs of James Wyatt (1746-1813), a rival of the great architect Robert Adam. Even under the grey skies that accompanied us today, the gardens at Chiswick House are very uplifting.

There is a café a few yards from the Palladian-style building. Its architecture is a complete contrast to the older building but a successful one. Built in a simple but effective contemporary style with stone colonnades between 2006 and 2010, and designed by Caruso St John Architects, this is the most elegant ‘stately home’ refreshment centre that I have seen so far. From the tables placed outside this superb example of modern architecture, one can enjoy beverages and snacks whilst admiring the fine 18th century house close by.

It did not take more than a few minutes to drive from Chiswick House to the building with the blue onion-shaped dome, The Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs in London (‘the Dormition’, for short) in Harvard Road. We have seen the dome on countless occasions but never the simple white coloured church to which it is attached. We parked in the small carpark next to a Victorian house where the clergy lives and hoped against hope, because most churches are closed these days, that the Russian Orthodox church would be open. And it was.

The church was built in an ancient Russian style in 1999 and contrasts with other Orthodox cathedrals in London such as the Serbian, Greek, and Romanian, which are housed in churches that were originally not used by Orthodox Christians. It was by no means the first Russian Orthodox church in London. That honour goes to a Russian church dedicated to the ‘Dormition’ that was built in 1716 and attached to the Russian Embassy in London. The Russian church moved premises several times, ending up at St Stephens Church in Emperor’s Gate off Gloucester Road. This church was leased from the Scottish Presbyterian Church. When the lease expired in 1989, it was decided to build a new church in Russian style, and this is what we visited in Harvard Road.

A monument close to one of the church’s entrances reads both in Russian and in English:

“In memory of the Holy Royal Martyrs tormented and slain by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg on the 4th of July 1918.”

This is the first monument of this kind that I have seen. We entered the church through doors beneath a tower with several large bells. We were greeted by a priest whose command of English was good enough to answer our questions. This kindly man allowed us to look around and to take photographs.

The interior of the church is a complete contrast to its plain white exterior. Every surface of the walls and ceiling is decorated with frescos. A large circular lamp holder is suspended beneath the dome in whose roof there is a portrait of the Pantocrator. The panels of the iconostasis were beautifully painted in that ageless style typical of eastern Orthodox church painting. They were painted in about 2008 by craftsmen from Russia, who based their creations on the Moscow style of the 15th and 16th centuries.

My grandparents, my father’s parents, were born in Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. I wonder whether it was this fact or, more likely, because he had passed away a few days earlier that made us mention his recent demise (at the age of 101) to the priest. On hearing this, he disappeared through a door in the iconostasis and returned with a candle, which he lit and gave us to place in a holder in front of the painted icons on the sacred screen. When we had done this and stood prayerfully, he gave us a small white card and asked us to write my father’s name and dates on it, so that the congregation could pray for his soul on his death anniversaries.  We were moved by the kindness of this man who had only just met us, a man whose ancestors might have regarded members of my ancestors’ religion with far less sympathy, or none at all.

We drove home having experienced two wonderful things, the beauty of Chiswick House and the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger.

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.

If you think you have seen the light, think again…

Hoop

 

My earliest memories of Hoop Lane (in Golders Green, northwest London) date back to when I was three or four years old, and therefore are rather vague. At that age, I attended a kindergarten in Hoop Lane. This was in the hall attached to Golders Green’s Unitarian Church (see photograph above), which was designed in the ‘Byzantine revival’ style by the architect Reginald Farrow (opened in 1925). It contains interesting artworks including a mural by Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), which I have not yet seen.

The kindergarten was under the direction of Miss Schreuer, who lived a few doors away in Hoop Lane. My only lasting memory from my time there was when my father appeared at the school with a white beard and a red outfit, dressed as Father Christmas. A few years later, my sister and my cousins attended Miss Schreuer’s. One day while my sister was attending, I was allowed to return to the school to act as an older helper. One of my fellow pupils was the late Micaela Comberti (1952-2003), who was later to become an accomplished violinist. Her German mother and Italian father were friends of my parents.

I am not sure what became of Miss Schreuer, but I heard rumours that the end of her life was unhappy. Today, the hall, where her school flourished, is now a Montessori kindergarten. When I lived in the area (I left finally when I was aged thirty), I often walked past the school and the Unitarian Church. The latter had a panel facing the road, upon which posters with pious messages were posted. One that I will always remember said:

If you think you have seen the light, think again”.

 

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. If you wish to read the whole article, please visit:

https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/48/

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.

Switch it off, please

Over the airwaves,

messages of faith are heard,

evangelising

 

radio

 

‘Mark’, the owner of the first dental practice where I worked after qualifying, told me that it is important to have a good relationship with the dental nurse with whom you work. He pointed out that on working days, the dentist often spends more of his or her waking hours with the nurse than with his or her spouse. During the 35 years I practised as a dentist, I encountered very few dental nurses with whom I could not get on amicably. Let me tell you about ‘Maria’, who was kind, resourceful, and remarkable.

Maria fled to the UK after having had what sounded like a horrendous childhood and adolescence in a troubled part of the world. She worked with me for several years. Sometimes, when needed, she worked as a dental receptionist in our practice. When, as they often did, patients came storming up to the desk, impolitely demanding an appointment without even saying “please”, Maria would calmly reply: “Good morning, Mr X. How are you? And how is your family?” Her polite questioning in a soothing voice quickly ‘civilised’ the patient’s approach.

Once, I was running very late, and the patient I had kept waiting had only 15 minutes left out of the 60 minute appointment I had planned for him. I said to this patient: “I have run so late that I really don’t have enough time to do what we planned.” Before the patient could answer, Maria said to me: “Don’t be silly, Mr Yamey, you can do it in time. I know it.” And she was right. I could not have done a decent job so fast if Maria had not been my assistant. When it came to the time to prepare the dental impression (mould) for the crown (cap) I was preparing, she mixed the two elements – the firm base and the low-viscosity material that picks up fine detail – simultaneously. Ambidextrously, she mixed one constituent with one hand and the other with her other hand. We finished the job to my clinical satisfaction in a quarter of the time I usually needed. “See, you can do it,” she said, “I have faith in you.”

You might wonder why I did not speed up after that when working with Maria. During that curtailed appointment, fortunately everything went smoothly without hitches. I preferred longer appointments so that I would have sufficient time to deal with unexpected problems and to relax the often-anxious patients.

Maria was very practical. In the practice where we worked, equipment often broke down. When this happened, a repair man, ‘H’, would be called to do just enough to get the heavily-used, well-worn piece of equipment to work again. On one occasion, an essential piece of kit stopped working. I told Maria to ring H. She said: “He’s not needed.” I asked her why. “I watched what H did last time the drill broke down. Let me try.” Maria fiddled with the equipment for a few minutes, and successfully repaired it.

Maria was a devout Christian.  She kept a small volume of the New Testament in a drawer in the surgery. Some of the words in it were printed in red. I asked her why, and she explained that the words that Jesus spoke were printed in red. Every now and then, she used to say to me: “All you need to do, Mr Yamey, is to accept Jesus in your heart, and your soul will be saved.”  Out of politeness, not wishing to offend her by questioning her great faith, I would say: “I need more time to think about it.”

We had a radio playing continuously in the surgery. Maria had tuned it to a non-stop evangelical Christian station. Various people speaking with strong North American accents spent hours describing how they had discovered Jesus. Like quite a few of my patients at that practice, many of the speakers on the radio had been locked up in prison. During their long incarceration, the radio personalities had had time to contemplate life, and during this contemplation they had discovered Our Lord and taken Him into their hearts. I found this radio station quite fascinating and listened to it avidly in gaps between appointments. Maria seemed less interested in the broadcasts. She wandered in and out of the surgery when she was not needed to help with a patient’s treatment.

Mr ‘C’ was a regular attender. He had a barely discernible North American accent. On one occasion, just as I was about to begin treating his teeth, he raised a hand, and said: “There are two things I can’t stand. One is coming to the dentist. The other is having religion stuffed down my throat. Maria, please switch off the radio.”

Maria turned it off without argument – she never argued. From that moment onwards, Maria never ever tuned the radio to that evangelical station. She was not only a wonderful assistant, but also sensitive and thoughtful.