Hampstead, Highgate, and the Indian freedom struggle

A MOTHER OF FAMILY-planning and women’s rights, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) lived at number 14 in Hampstead’s Well Walk between 1909 and 1916. I remember seeing a plaque recording her residence in Hampstead. However, I do not recall seeing the plaque to one of her neighbours, the socialist Henry Hyndman (1842-1921) on number 14. It was only when I acquired a copy of an excellent guide to Hampstead, “Hampstead: London Hill Town” by Ian Norrie, the owner of the former Hampstead book shop, ‘High Hill Books’ and Doris Bohm that I discovered that Hyndman had lived and died in Well Walk. Hyndman, a politician, lawyer, and skilled cricketer, was initially of conservative persuasion but moved over to socialism after reading “The Communist Manifesto”, written by Karl Marx in 1848. Although anti-Semitic, he was amongst the first to promote the writings of the (Jewish) Marx in England.

Replica of Highgate’s former India House in Mandvi, India

It is an extremely pleasant walk from Well Walk, across Hampstead Heath, Kenwood, and through Highgate village to Highgate Wood, opposite which the Indian born barrister Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930) lived in self-imposed exile with his wife Banumati. Born during the year when The Indian Rebellion of 1857 (First Indian War of Independence or ‘Indian Mutiny’) commenced, it seems that it was appropriate that he was a keen promoter of India being liberated from the British Empire. Krishnavarma, in common with Hyndman, believed that it was wrong that the British should control and exploit the inhabitants of India. They corresponded and most probably met each other.

In 1905, responding to events in India such as the unpopular partition of Bengal, Krishnavarma, a wealthy man, decided it was time to do something about bringing down the British in India. He did three main things. He began publishing a virulently anti-colonial newspaper, “The Indian Sociologist”; he gave money to create scholarships for Indian graduates to study in England; he bought a large house in Cromwell Avenue, Highgate. He was also one of the founders of the Indian Home Rule Society, whose views were in stark contrast to those of the Indian National Congress, which at that time, put great faith in the supposed benevolence of the British Empire towards its Indian subjects.

The scholarships had several conditions attached. The most important of these was that the recipients had to promise that they would never ever work for, or accept posts from, the British Empire. The candidates for these scholarships were usually recommended by people in India, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who were working actively to end British Rule.

Krishnavarma, recognising that many Indian students faced considerable hostility in Britain at the start of the 20th century, used the house he bought in Cromwell Avenue to create both student accommodation and a community centre, a home away from home for Indian students in England. He called the building ‘India House’, which should not be confused with the better-known India House in Aldwych, the Indian High Commission.

The grand opening of India House in Highgate was on the 1st of July 1905. The inauguration speech was given by Henry Hyndman. I do not know whether he was already living at Well Walk when he opened the student centre in Cromwell Avenue.

Soon after it opened, India House became an important centre of anti-British activity. Under Krishnavarma’s leadership, and given his anti-colonialist views, India House became of increasing interest to the British police and intelligence agencies. In 1906. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), a law student and leader of a secret revolutionary society, became a recipient of one of Krishnavarma’s scholarships. He lived in India House, where he wrote a couple of anti-British books, which were banned in British India. In brief, believing in armed revolution, Savarkar became one of the most dangerously anti-British activists in Europe. When Krishnavarma and his wife shifted to Paris in 1907, Savarkar became the ‘head’ of India House. Under his watch, smuggling of arms and proscribed literature to India was carried out. He encouraged experimentation in bomb-making, and was not dismayed when one of his fellow house-mates, Madan Lal Dhingra, assassinated a top colonial official in South Kensington in 1909. The assassination led to increased police surveillance and India House, which had been opened by Hyndman, closed by 1910.

I have introduced you to this lesser-known aspect of the history of the Indian Freedom Movement for two reasons. One is to explain my delight in discovering that I must have walked many times past the house in Well Walk where Hyndman lived (and died). For me, Hyndman has assumed greater interest than his deservedly far better-known neighbour Marie Stopes. The reason for this is that about five years ago I was in the town of Mandvi in Kutch (part of India’s Gujarat State). Krishnvarma was born in Mandvi and is now commemorated there. Apart from the modest house in which he was born, there is an unexpected surprise on the edge of the town. It is a modern replica of the Victorian house in Cromwell Avenue (Highgate), which was briefly home to Krishnavarma’s India House. Seeing this extraordinary replica of the house inaugurated by Hyndman in a flat desert setting got me into researching its story. In the end, I published a book about the Indian freedom fighters in Edwardian London, “Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)”, which explores the story I have outlined in far more detail.

[“Indian Freedom Fighters in London (1905-1910)” by Adam Yamey is available from amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and on kindle. Or specially ordered from a bookshop: ISBN 9780244270711]

City of relief

THERE WAS ALWAYS a tin of pink coloured Isogel granules in the bathroom of my childhood home. One of my parents took a teaspoon of this daily to ensure regularity of bowel movements. An important ingredient in Isogel is psyllium husk, which is extracted from the plants Plantago ovata and Plantago psyllium. Basically, the husk is a polysaccharide gelling agent which, believe it or not, can be used to ameliorate both constipation and diarrhoea. It might also have other health promoting properties, including possible mitigation of Type 2 diabetes, and reducing cholesterol levels in the blood.

Recently, for reasons that need not be detailed here, we have taken to using psyllium husk. We did not buy Isogel, as my parents did, but a product from India called ‘Sat-Isabgol’, which my wife’s parents used in that country. This product is packed in a picturesque box that includes the company’s trademark: an old-fashioned telephone (B.G. Telephone Brand Regd.).  The box we bought recently proudly proclaims that the company is in its 80th year. According to the box, Sat-Isabgol is:

“… the upper coating of Plantago Ovata (Ispagul) which is highly purified by sieving and winnowing.”

Interesting as this is, what attracted me to the box was the fact that the Sat-Isabgol factory is in Sidhur, a place we visited in Gujarat (western India).

Sidhpur is far from being a major tourist attraction, but it is not far from the ruins of the magnificent Sun Temple at Modera, which does attract many sightseers. The main attraction in Sidhpur is a couple of streets lined with mansions decorated with ornate facades and other decorative features. These were built between the 1820s and the 1930s by a successful group of Muslim traders, members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect. The buildings incorporate many features of European neo-classical styles. Many of the houses bear their owners’ monograms in Latin lettering. The streets in this rural provincial town have a surprisingly un-Indian look about them and if it were not for cows and other animals roaming about them, it might be easy to imagine that one was not in India. While I was roaming around taking pictures, local people were extremely friendly to me. I got the impression that few Europeans visit Sidhpur. One exception was at the sad ruins of a Hindu temple, the Rudra Mahalaya, where the security guards were most unenthusiastic about seeing me with a camera. I was unable to photograph it. Constructed between 943 AD and 1140 AD, this temple is was in extremely poor condition when we saw it about two years ago. If it should ever be restored, it would make Sidhpur a fine excursion for tourists staying in Ahmedabad. I liked what I saw during our brief visit to Sidhpur, but was completely unaware that the town is home to the factory which has been producing something that has brought so much relief to people all over the world, since 1940.

This time last year

WE MARRIED TWICE. That is to say that Lopa and I had a civil marriage in a registry office in October 1993 in London’s Chelsea Town Hall and then a religious marriage in mid-January 1994 in my in-law’s garden in Koramangala, a district south of central Bangalore. Both ceremonies were memorable and meaningful but the one in Bangalore was more colourful, and far lengthier than that in London.

Between November 2019 and the end of February 2020, we were in India. Just before leaving for India in November 2019, we celebrated our English anniversary with our daughter at a French restaurant in London, the Poule au Pot, where one can enjoy typical classic French cuisine in a dimly lit but pleasant environment.

Mid-January 2020 found us near the port of Mandvi in Kutch, formerly an independent princely state, a largely arid, desert region, now part of the Indian State of Gujarat. We were staying with Lopa’s cousin and his wife in their lovely remote and spacious 150-year old farm house, which has been in his family for several generations. Informed of our anniversary, they decided to treat us to dinner at a nearby resort close to the sea. After the meal, we walked to the car under a star-filled clear sky and returned home. There, we sat on the veranda and enjoyed a dessert that Lopa’s cousin’s wife, an accomplished cook, had made specially for us.

A year later, a few days ago, we celebrated our ‘Indian’ anniversary in London. Interestingly, the temperature in wintry London was higher than it was when we were in Kutch (at night), but there was far less sunshine. This year, in the midst of strict ‘lockdown’ conditions necessitated by the covid19 pandemic, we celebrated alone, and not at a restaurant. We had a celebratory cup of coffee outdoors and enjoyed a good home-cooked meal prefaced by gin and tonics. Had we been in India as we often are in January, but not in Gujarat, which is teetotal, we would most probably also have celebrated with ‘g and t’ but sitting outside under the stars on a warm evening in southern India.

Little did we know when we were enjoying ourselves in Kutch last January, that a year later, the idea of visiting India, let alone leaving London, would be out of the question. Well, as my late father used to say, rather annoyingly when misfortune struck:

“Such is life”, or “These things happen.”

Illinois Central

A TRAM RIDE IN the northern Portuguese city of Porto (Oporto), home of the drink ‘port’, evoked memories of Chicago in Illinois.

In Porto, we travelled along the riverbank towards the seaside in a very old tram. Most of its seats had reversible backrests so that a passenger was able to choose to sit facing the direction of travel or face the opposite direction. These seats had a mechanism beneath each of them that allowed the seat backs to be shifted manually. On close examination I noticed that the mechanisms had been manufactured in the USA.

Seeing these seats in 2010 reminded me of Chicago in autumn 1963. My father had been invited to spend three months at the University of Chicago. We sailed across the Atlantic in the then almost new SS France (launched 1962). Sadly, this wonderful ship no longer exists. It was sold to be turned into scrap metal by shipbreakers at Alang in Saurashtra (Gujarat, India) a few years ago in 2008.

We had high hopes of Chicago, naively expecting to be put up in ‘swish’ accommodation. The first floor (American 2nd floor) flat we were lent was far from swish. There was nothing wrong with it, but we were expecting something more up to date and in harmony with our preconceptions about America being at the ‘cutting edge’ of living standards. 5608 South Blackstone Avenue was a dowdy two storey house with a highly dubious looking wooden fire escape, which would have been the first thing to go up in flames had the house caught fire. I have recently learnt that our temporary home and its neighbours have been replaced by newer buildings.

At night, the air was filled with the sound of police car sirens almost continuousl and the occasional lengthy rumble of long freight trains passing close by on the railway that followed the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

This railway line near our home was used not only used by freight trains but also by passenger trains, both inter-city and local.

Our nearest station, a few minute walk from our flat was named ‘55th-56th-57th Streets’ and was both close to a superb Science Museum and served by the suburban trains of the Illinois Central Railroad. These rather antiquated trains carried us to the then terminus, Van Buren Street in downtown Chicago. The trains were electrically powered receiving current from overhead wires.
Often whilst waiting on the platform at our local station, trains heading towards or from Indiana, operated by the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad, would hurtle past us.

What interested me then, aged 11 years old, were the backs of the seats in the train carriages. They were reversible just like those on the trams in Porto, which I was to see about 37 years later in Porto.

It is curious the way that seeing one thing can trigger old memories to come to the forefront of one’s mind.

Picture of reversible tram seats in Porto from TripAdvisor

One, two, or three heads?

THE HARRAPAN (or Indus Valley) civilisation existed from about 3300 to 1300 BC. Its existence overlapped with that of the ancient civilisation in Mesopotamia (existed approximately 3100 to 539 BC – the fall of Babylon).

Both civilisations used clay to seal closed vessels containing goods. They made identification marks on the clay before it set solid. To do this, they used seals that embossed identifying patterns or marks on the clay. The marks varied greatly.

It is on the ancient Mesopotamian seals that some of the earliest known examples of double-headed birds can be found. Some other Mesopotamian seals depict double-headed horses and other creatures. Whether or not the double-headed eagle of Abania is a descendant of these middle eastern double-headed creatures on sealing rings, I cannot say.

Recently, I visited the Harrapan archaeological site at Dholavira in a remote part of Gujarat close to India’s border with Pakistan. The small museum attached to the site contains several examples of the carved seals used to emboss the wet clay employed to seal close vessels. Knowing about the double-headed birds on the Mesopotamian seals, I was on the look out for similar on the seals excavated at Dholavira.

I was very excited to discove one seal that at first sight looked like a double-headed creature. It was not a bird but a four legged animal. Two heads, each on their own striped necks, faced in opposite directions just as seen in the Albanian double-headed eagle.

I showed the picture of this seal to a friend, who pointed out a third striped neck with its own head. The neck was curved downwards. If the other two heads had not been present, the creature would have resembled, say, a horse or cattle grazing.

Did the craftsman who carved this three headed animal intend it to be three headed or did he/she want to depict movement, just as can be seen on the multi limbed depictions of Hindu gods and goddesses? I cannot say, but it raises the question whether the symbolic Albanian eagle has two heads or one that moves from side to side vigilantly surveying its territory.

An afterthought.
Did Cerberus, the three or more headed dog guarding the underworld, have so many heads, or do the many heads seen in depictions of him really represent one head in frenetic motion?

From revolutionary to saint

On Sunday morning it was Republic Day, the 26th January 2020. The streets in Baroda were quite. Several of the few vehicles we saw carried Indian national flags that fluttered proudly as they sped past us.

It was also quieter than usual at the Sri Aurobindo Nivas, the home where Sri Aurobindo lived while he was an official in the government of the princely state of Baroda and both professor and vice chancellor of what is now Baroda University. Aurobindo lived with his wife, Mrinalini in this house donated by the Gaekwad. After Baroda, Aurobindo and his wife moved to Calcutta. Later, he moved to the French colony of Pondicherry. After he arrived there, his wife followed him but during the journey to join him, she died suddenly of an infection (https://www.boloji.com/articles/13683/mrinalini-sri-aurobindos-forgotten-wife). I have written a bit about Aurobindo in Baroda in my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped). Here is what I wrote:

“Today, Sri Aurobindo is associated with ‘peace and love’ by many people, especially the crowds of Europeans who seek spiritual solace at his ashram in Pondicherry. While Aurobindo was working as a teacher in Baroda in the early 20th century, he was involved in Indian independence movements. Although he espoused peaceful methods, he was not averse to the use of violence. Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote in his book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, wrote: “It was at Baroda that Aurobindo took the first decisive steps into political life … Aurobindo clearly believed in the efficacy of violent revolution and worked towards organizing secret revolutionary activity as a preparatory stage for open revolt and insurrection…” In a biography, Sri Aurobindo for All Ages, its author Nirodbaran, who worked in close contact with the great man for twelve years, wrote: “When we asked him once how he could even conceive of an armed insurrection against the well-equipped British garrisons, he answered: ‘At that time, warfare and weapons had not become so lethal in their effect. Rifles were the main weapons, machine guns were not so effective. India was disarmed, but with foreign help and proper organisation, the difficulty could be overcome; and in view of the vastness of the country and the smallness of the regular British armies, even guerrilla warfare might be effective…”

After a year’s spell in Alipore prison in connection with his alleged involvement with some politically motivated murders in Bengal, Aurobindo settled in Pondicherry, and from then began espousing a spiritual approach to life. While living in that French colony, he continued to contemplate contemporary Indian issues, including that of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. In late 1909, Aurobindo wrote: “Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists, by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself.” Jyotirmaya Sharma wrote: “Savarkar legitimately claimed paternity for the idea of Hindutva; but Hindutva could lay to an equally formidable patrimony in the thought of Dayananda, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo. What binds these four thinkers together is the systematic marshalling of a Hindu identity in the service of Indian nationalism.” Sharma quotes the following passage, written in 1923, from Aurobindo’s India’s Rebirth (a collection of writings): “It is no use ignoring facts; some day the Hindus may have to fight the Muslims and they must prepare for it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not mean the subjection of the Hindus. Every time the mildness of the Hindus has given way. The best solution would be to allow the Hindus to organize themselves and the Hindu-Muslim unity would take care of itself, it would automatically solve the problem.” And, in 1934, Aurobindo wrote: “As for the Hindu-Muslim affair, I saw no reason why the greatness of India’s past or her spirituality should be thrown into the waste paper basket in order to conciliate the Muslims who would not at all be conciliated by such a stupidity.”

The Sri Aurobindo Nivas, where Aurobindo lived until 1906 while he was an esteemed teacher and state official in Baroda, is a two-storey grand, mainly brick bungalow with European-style wooden window shutters. In 1971, the Government of Gujarat handed it over to Baroda’s Sri Aurobindo Society, which promotes the peaceful aspects of Aurobindo’s teachings and philosophy. The house is surrounded by a well-maintained garden. This contains an outdoor stone shrine, a flat marble table with a bas-relief of a lotus flower in its centre. The lotus was surrounded by a flower arrangement consisting of a circle surrounding a six-pointed star. The star with centrally enclosed lotus is a symbol of Sri Aurobindo, whereas the circle is the symbol of his spiritual partner, the Mother, who settled in Pondicherry in 1920. She was born Mira Alfassa (1878-1973) in Paris, of Turkish and Egyptian Jewish parentage. She became the founder of Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry.

The ground floor of this typical colonial-style bungalow contains offices and a library, which was full of people reading at tables. The upper floor has carpeted rooms decorated with relics and portraits of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. These two people are often depicted in their old age, but here at Aurobindo Nivas we saw a couple of portraits, hung side-by-side, showing both as young people. The rooms on the upper floor are used for silent meditation. People sit cross-legged on the floor and occasionally prostrate themselves, their foreheads touching the floor. Also, they stand up and touch the paintings and photographs of Aurobindo and the Mother in the same way as Hindu worshippers touch idols in temples.

There is a large well-tended lawn behind the bungalow. About twenty-five people were sitting on the grass on rugs, meditating and doing yoga. They were facing a boundary wall on which there is a large outline map of India as it was before Partition in 1947 (including what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh). In the centre of what is now India, there is the circular symbol of the Mother.”

(end of extract).

After spending a pleasant hour in Aurobindo’s former residence, we took refreshments including south Indian filter coffee and dahi vada in the nearby three storey Canara Coffee House (founded 1950). Then we continued our exploration of the Sursagar Lake and looked for picturesque old buildings in the city. Many of the older structures, mostly residential usage, are rich in finely carved wooden decorative features.

By the time we had seen sufficient, the temperature was approaching 30 degrees Celsius – a contrast to the near zero conditions we had encountered earlier on our trip in places like Darjeeling and Mount Abu.

TRAVELS THROUGH GUJARAT DAMAN AND DIU is available from Amazon, lulu.com, and Bookdepository.com

GUJARAT UNWRAPPED , an Indian edition of the above is available from pothi.com (only in India)

Ambling in Ahmedabad

A LAZY MORNING IN AHMEDABAD was just what we needed after a long bus ride from Bhuj the day before. The seat I sat in was uncomfortable.

Our newspaper seller and her assistant were sitting in their usual place on the pavement next to the entrance of the somewhat precious luxury hotel, The House of MG. They sit surrounded by piles of newspapers, both current and out of date. When we are in Ahmedabad, which we have visited 6 or 7 times during the last two years, they reserve a copy of the Indian Express for us. When we go to collect it, they have to rummage around to find it amongst the seemingly disorganized pile of newspapers, new and old.

We set off towards the Khwaja Bazaar and the Teen Darwaza, heading towards the Jumma Masjid. Just before we reached the bazaar, we entered a rather run down café/restaurant, named ‘Irani Restaurant’. This was established in 1950 and does not seem to have been redecorated since. The wall of the long rectangular dining hall has several mirrors, all cracked. However, the marble topped tables and the enormous kitchen are sootlessly clean. In addition to hot food items, this place sells freshly baked bun maska. These soft white bread buns have a very slightly sweet taste; they resemble the French ‘brioche’. I had one of these and ordered chhaas (buttermilk). To my surprise and delight, this was served in a used Pepsi bottle.

We proceeded to the Teen Darwaza, a three arched 15th century gate that was built soon after Shah Ahmed founded Ahmedabad in about 1420. Standing amidst a sea of market stalls and noisy traffic, this venerable stone gateway has decorative features that can be found on Indian structures built long before the Moslems arrived in India. This is also true of many if the 15th century mosques built in the early days of the city’s existence.

The Jumma Masjid is enormous and of great beauty. Like other mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat, this Masjid displays many decorative and architectural features that the Moslems have adopted from Hindu and Jain temples that were in existence prior to Islamic invasions of western India.

The Jumma Masjid has more than 15 large domes and many smaller ones. Like the domes in earlier Hindu and Jain temples, the larger domes rest on eight lintels arranged octagonally. The lintels rest on eight supporting pillars. The interior of the mosque contains a forest of over 250 stone pillars, the bases of which have been decorated with carved stone motifs typically found in Hindu and Jain temples. I do not know why the newly arrived Moslems borrowed so many features from the temples which they found (and sometimes demolished) when they arrived in western India. Maybe, they employed local Hindus or Jains to construct the mosques, but surely the conquerors would have had some say in how the mosques were designed.

We spotted several terracotta pots placed by the bases of some of the pillars. These, we were told, are for worshippers to expectorate into should they need to during the prayer sessions (namaaz). This saves people from spitting on the floor, which is so common outside of holy places in India.
The Jumma Masjid has five carved stone mihrab niches, all facing towards Mecca. Each of these is decorated differently, but each of them is topped with a carving of a lamp, a symbol of the holiness of Allah. The central of these five niches is made of white marble inlaid with coloured stones. It is disfigured by the presence of a modern electric fan, which we were told is used to cool the Imam during namaaz.

There are numerous window around the mosque. Each of these is decorated by decorative jali work (decorative perforated stone screens). No two windows are decorated with the same design.

The mosque lost its two minarets during the earthquak of 1819, which resulted in an inlet of the Arabian sea being transformed into an arid salt desert (the Rann of Kutch).

The outer walls of the Masjid that face a huge space enclosed by arched passageways have several stone carvings depicting trees. I imagine these are depictions of the Tree of Life, such as can be seen in the intricate jali work at the Sidi Sayeed mosque.

After a pleasant hour examining the Jumma Masjid, we wended our way through the increasingly busier bazaar back to the Irani Restaurant. I ordered more chhaas, which arrived in used Seven Up bottles. This watery dairy drink, flavoured with cumin and other spiced, made a good accompaniment to my plate of delicious dal fry (dal to which slow fried onions and spices are added at a late stage in its preparation).

By 130 pm, the temperature had risen above 27 degrees Celsius, and it was time to retreat to our air conditioned hotel room. But before that, I made a trip to a local ATM. As with other ATM places in India, all the customers waiting for machines give each other helpful advice, such as “press this” or “remove card” or “enter pin” or “do that”, on how to use the machines. Unlike in the UK, where using an ATM is a very personal affair, in India it appears to be a group activity.

A walled city and two caves

THE FAR WEST OF KUTCH (once an independent kingdom, now part of Gujarat) is very close to India’s border with Pakistan. We made an interesting day trip from Bhuj to this relatively wild and less inhabited part of Kutch.

The countryside west of Nakhatrana becomes hilly and dry with many rocky outcrops. It contains many large sites where lignite is excavated and a huge industrial plant that Gujarat Electricity use to convert it into electricity. The area is also liberally dotted with electricity generating wind turbines and pylons.

We left the main road and wound through undulating dry landscape to reach the Siyot Caves. These rock temples were carved into the cliffs to create Hindu temples sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They were later used by Buddhists and are amongst the 80 Buddhist cave temples in the Indus Valley noted by the 7th century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. Today, they are the abode of bats and there walls and pillars are covered with graffiti scratched into the red stone.

Our driver drove us through a sandy landscape with scrubby plants along dirt track with many potholes. We reached a small temple enclosure, where we stopped in order to visit another cave temple. This one, the Guneri Gufa Shiv Temple, was carved out of the living rock by a holy man, whose “spirit left his body about five years ago”, according to the present priest, a Sadhu from Hardwar. The temple, which is faintly reminiscent of the Amdavad ni Gufa (in Ahmedabad), contains a large Shiva lingam. After we had looked around, the picturesquely attired Sadhu prepared tea for us, which we drank from small metal bowls.

Lakhpat was our next stop. Surrounded by intact 18th century city walls, seven kilometres in length, this once thriving port used to be on an inlet of the Arabian Sea. Following an earthquake in 1819, the mouth of the River Indus changed its course and Lakhpat was no longer close to the sea. Rapidly, Lakhpat lost its importance and became depopulated. Today, the impressive city walls enclose a huge empty space with a few houses, a mosque, a few Hindu shrines, and a working Sikh Gurdwara. Staircases allow visitors to reach the ramparts. The view from the top of the walls is of an endless flat sandy area extending to the horizon. Before 1819, what is now the flat Rann of Kutch would have been a seascape with trading vessels.

One of the gates into Lakhpat, the Katha Nako, is still intact with one of its huge metal studded doors hanging on its hinges. The outer wall of the archway leading into the city has a sculpture of a guardian in European garb, such as can be seen at the Aina Mahal in Bhuj. The city wall and this sculpture are evidence of the influence of Ram Singh Malam, who lived for a decade in Holland in the mid 18th century.

Lakhpat is close to the Indian border with Pakistan. The road from the former port city to Narayan Sarovar runs parallel to the frontier. All along the road, there are signs to tracks leading to various Indian border patrol posts.

A causeway leads from the mainland to an island to the west of it. On one side of this is an inlet of the Arabian Sea and on the other there is a freshwater lake, the Narayan Sarovar. According to Hindu mythology this is one of the 5 Sacred Lakes and therefore an important pilgrimage sites.

We stopped near the Koteshwar Temple, which overlooks a pier that reaches out into the sea. We walked along the pier passing a small temple and an enclosure containing sculptures of various Hindu deities. Just over two thirds of the way along the pier there is a barrier beyond which members of the public are not allowed. At this barrier there is a Border Force sign and a smaller one on which is written: “Fishermen frisking point”. Beyond the barrier I saw small buildings in which soldiers were sitting. Several pairs of soldiers’ green trousers were hanging out to dry on a washing line between two small huts. A fleet of small fishing vessels were moored near the part of the pier beyond the barrier. As the tide was out, they rested on the shiny mudflats that glistened in the afternoon sun.

I saw several long legged birds, not flamingos, searching for food out on the damp mudflats. Near to the pier there were lots of amphibians, rather like fat newts, wriggling and scuttling about in the film of water covering the mud.

A short way from Koteshwar is the temple compound at Narayan Sarovar. Surrounded by high castle walls, this walled enclosure contains two large mandirs. A small gate leads to a tiny jetty projecting out over the freshwater lake on which we spotted a moorhen swimming. Some steps led from the outside of the temple compound’s enclosing wall into the lake to allow people to bathe. We left Narayan Sarovar, pleased that we had made the long journey to reach this beautiful, peaceful spot.

We made a brief stop at the popular pilgrimage place Mata no Madh, home of the Ashapura Temple that was first established in the 14th century AD, but completely rebuilt after the 1819 earthquake.

Back in Bhuj, we ate dinner at Noorani, a restaurant that serves good non-veg food. Many of the servers are young men. Out of the blue one of them asked my Indian wife, who speaks fluent Gujarati, whether she was Japanese. We were taken aback; she has no features that make her look Japanese. I had noticed that a couple of Japanese women had occupied a table in another section of the restaurant and wondered whether seeing us, a European with a woman who was clearly not a local, made the boy think that we were as ‘exotic’ as the two Japanese ladies.

From Europe to Asia

I NEVER IMAGINED THAT I WOULD SEE THE VENETIAN WINGED LION of St Mark in Bhuj (Kutch, western India), but I did. A carving of this well known symbol of a once powerful European empire stands at the entrance to the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Bhuj, which was built during the reign of Maharao Lakhpatji that lasted from 1752 to 1761.

In 1742, Ram Singh Malam, aged about 16 left his native town of Okhi in Saurashtra (Kathiawad), now a part of Gujarat, and set out to sea. His boat was shipwrecked and he was rescued by passing Dutch vessel, which took him to Holland. Ram Singh remained in the Netherlands until about 1760.

During his stay in Holland, Ram Singh Malam learnt various skills including: clockmaking, mirror making, glass making, ship building, cannon manufacturing, tile making, enamelling, tool making, and more. When he returned to Saurashtra, he offered his skills to various local rulers, but to no avail. Then, he travelled to the Kingdom of Kutch, where his knowledge was recognised and employed by its ruler, Lakhpatji. The latter was so pleased with the technical advances that Ram Singh had imported from Holland that he was sent back to that country two more times. During his trips to Europe, Ram Singh also visited Austria and the Republic of Venice. No doubt the Lion of Venice sculpted in Kutch and placed at the Aina Mahal was designed after Ram Singh had been to Venice.

The Aina Mahal contains tiles and mirrors that were made using the knowledge acquired by Ram Singh. Statues that decorate both the inside and the outside of the Aina Mahal and the adjoining Rani Mahal depict men wearing European clothes, such as Ram Singh would have seen people wearing in 18th century Europe.

In 2001, Bhuj was struck by a huge earthquake, which caused much damage to both the Aina Mahal and the Rani Mahal. Their neighbour, the 19th century Victorian Gothic Prag Mahal, suffered considerably less damage.

The former curator and archivist at the Prag Mahal, a keen researcher of the history of Kutch, is Mr Pramod Jethi. He told us that after the earthquake the Dutch government were apparently considering assisting in the restoration of the damaged Aina Mahal palace, provided that documentary evidence was provided to prove that Ram Singh Malam had really been staying in Holland. Apparently, despite many accounts by various writers that he did spend years in Holland, this did not constitute evidence that would satisfy the Dutch.

Anyone, who arrived in Holland on a Dutch ship in the 18th century must surely be recorded in a ship’s records or registered in the books kept by Dutch port authorities. However, it is likely that quite a few ships arrived in Holland at the time that Ram Singh disembarked there. Dutch ships sailing in the vicinity of Gujarat were most probably connected with the Dutch East India Company. If someone has the enthusiasm and energy to search through the Company’s records, maybe the evidence that the Dutch government requires will be found. Regardless of whether or not the Dutch government can be satisfied, it is clear that Ram Singh was a very remarkable man who greatly advanced technology in Kutch and brought the winged lion of St Mark to India.