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 They sit surrounded by piles of newspapers, both current and out of date.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.

With strings attached

 

During my wanderings through India, I have often noticed trees with thin threads tied around their trunks. These are peepal trees with heart-shaped leaves. They are held to be sacred by devout Hindus. Women wrap threads around the trunks in the hope that their prayers will be answered satisfactorily.

On at least one occasion, and this was in an Islamic mausoleum (dargah) in Baroda (Gujarat), I have seen threads tied around pillars within the dargah. Some of these threads had bangles attached to them. We were told by the guardian of the dargah, that Muslim women tie these threads, hoping that their wishes will be fulfilled.

Statues of Christ, the Madonna, and saints in churches in India are often draped with flower garlands. This is done more likely to honour the persons depicted in the statues than to have wishes granted. I have not yet seen any examples of threads tied in churches like I have seen in Hindu and Muslim shrines in India.

Yesterday, I visited St John the Baptist Church (Church of England) in Holland Road, Shepherds Bush, London. At the entrance to this magnificent Victorian Gothic building, there is a wooden crucifix. I was surprised to see that it had something that made me think of India. Two threads, each bearing a small metal medallion with some prayerful words on them, were wrapped around the heads of the nails penetrating Christ’s feet. I have never seen anything like this in a church in the UK. Is this a chance finding or the beginning of a new trend?

Ignorance is bliss

Many decades ago, ‘M’ and his then young wife ‘F’, both Indian Hindus, settled in the UK. F observed Hindu dietary practices far more than her husband. In the early days after their arrival in England, the couple were not well off. Consequently, if they treated themselves to a meal in a restaurant, they chose one which was not costly.

M used to take his wife out to a Wimpy Bar for a treat. For those of my younger readers, let me explain that the Wimpy Bars were fast food joints, rather like a very inferior version of McDonald’s.

M and F used to order hamburgers. F ate them quite happily, believing that they contained ham and not beef, which contravened her Hindu dietary restrictions. M said nothing to disabuse his wife’s misconception about the ingredients of the burgers, as she greatly enjoyed them.

Many years later, M inadvertantly revealed to F that the hamburgers that she had been enjoying during many visits to Wimpy Bars, contained beef rather than ham. She was horrified to learn this.

Nowadays after decades of happy marriage, the couple have become quite prosperous. I guess that now they would not be seen dead in a Wimpy Bar.

Hindu burials

Death is a morbid but fascinating topic, as is disposal of the dead. Many people living outside India, including myself, believe that the corpses of Hindus are only cremated. At least, I believed this until about 15 years ago, when I visited a Hindu burial ground in Bangalore.

In a Hindu Burial Ground in Bangalore

I have visited two Hindu cemeteries in Bangalore, one of them being next door to a major electric crematorium in the city centre. When I have asked about Hindu burials, I have been told that some sects of Hindus favour burial rather than cremation.

Recently, I read an article about Hindu burials (in Calcutta) by A Acharya and S Sanyal in the “Mint” newspaper (Bangalore), dated 24 Nov 2018. Here is a brief digest of the points contained within it.

1. Certain groups of Hindus are traditionally immersed or buried.

2. These groups include:

A. Saddhus or ascetics who perform their own mortuary rites when they become saddhus, and are considered to be dead to the social world, living ghosts one might say.

B. Some young children, especially those who have not yet developed visible teeth. Also, some parents prefer to bury their dead offspring, rather than watching them being cremated.

C. Lepers. It used to be feared that a leper’s body might release an infectious vapour during cremation.

D. Some members of the following communities prefer to bury their dead to avoid the dominating behaviour of the Hinduism of the Brahmins: dalits, Vaishnav, Hela, and Kaburpanthi.

3. Sometimes, burial is cheaper than cremation. In Calcutta, burial can cost half of the charge of cremation.

4. Burial of Marwaris and Vaishnavites is more costly than for others because these two groups bury their dead with lots of salt, which they believe speeds disolving the flesh off the bones.

This newspaper piece has helped me to understand the existence of cemeteries where Hindus are buried. I assume that at least some of what has been written about Calcutta also applies to Bangalore.

On a parting note, I used to believe that the traditional method of corpse disposal amongst the Parsis was to feed their dead to the vultures. A Parsi friend of ours died in Bangalore, which has Towers of Silence for the corpses of Parsis, was buried in a Parsi cemetery in Bangalore. I have visited that cemetery, which is located in the district if Malleswaram and is for Parsis only.

All of this goes to show that making generalisations about India is inadvisable. So, before you assert that Hindus do not eat beef, hold your tongue! Some sects of Hindus have eaten beef since time immemorial. If the present government in India bans the consumption of beef, it will not be only Christians and Muslims who will be affected, but also several million Hindus.

It began with a bang

First experiences of India

My wife, Lopa, and I flew to Bangalore in India in late December 1993 to celebrate our marriage with a Hindu ceremony. This was the first time that I had ever travelled further east than Cyprus.

COCO 3

We flew from London on a ‘plane operated by the Sri Lankan line, Air Lanka. The flight was memorable because the food served on board was superb. It was not the bland, insufficient fare usually provided when airborne. What we received on our trays in large metal foil containers was delicious Sri Lankan food, which tasted as if it were home-made by a cook who injected his or her love of food into the flavours.

Our first stop was at Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. As we descended for landing during the slowly brightening dawn light, I could see acres of palm trees below us.  This was the first time that I had ever seen groves of palms. This exotic sight made me feel that at last I had arrived in Asia.

After disembarking, we had to wait for our next flight for several hours. In those days, we took anti-malaria tablets. That morning, the only liquid we could find to wash them down was tea. Until that moment I had always drunk tea without milk. The tea stall only provided sweetened milky tea. I found it to be sickly and no help for ingesting the evil-tasting tablet. Now, after many visits to India I quite enjoy Indian milky tea.

My wife and I waited in a room along with other passengers, all of them from the sub-continent. Suddenly, one of her eyes began streaming with tears because some foreign body had entered it. Lopa began dabbing her eyes with a tissue. All the people around us glared at me. They thought that I had upset my wife!

On landing in Madras (Chennai) after walking across the tarmac from the ‘plane to the terminal, Lopa became nervous about the Indian customs examination. She told me that the officials could be very awkward. In those days, very little in the way of foreign goods were imported into India. Visitors or returning Indians were often laden with goods that then attracted high import duties at the customs. Smuggling was rife, and the customs’ officials were eagerly on the look-out for hidden treasures such as electronic goods, booze, and so on. We were not carrying anything of dutiable value. Nevertheless, Lopa was anxious.

As we approached the customs’ officials, the gods blessed us in an unusual way. Lopa’s nose suddenly began bleeding profusely. Despite using a handkerchief there was blood all over the place. The custom’s official, whom we were approaching, took one look at the bloodstained woman approaching him, and waved us through the customs barrier without stopping us.

At this point, let me tell you another thing that surprised me during my first visit to India: women police officers dressed in saris, albeit plain khaki saris. Another ‘plane took us from Madras to Bangalore (Bengaluru).

Lopa’s family met us at the airport (this was the old HAL airport east of the city, which has now been replaced by the newer Kempe Gowda Airport north of the city). After fighting our way through a crowd of taxi touts, we scrambled aboard the family’s ageing Maruti van, through its sliding side door.

By now, it was late at night, and dark. When we reached the family’s house, we disembarked, and stood in front of the main entrance. The top of the front door was decorated with leaves attached to a thread, a ‘toran’ (तोरण). Instead of entering, we all stood in front of the door. I wondered whether the front door key had been mislaid.

After a few minutes, there was suddenly a deafening sharp cracking sound, a loud bang. I thought to myself: “Oh no, we’ve been in Bangalore for just over an hour, and someone is shooting at us.” The noise that had startled me was no more than someone cracking open a coconut with an axe. Cracking coconuts is a part of Hindu traditions, especially at weddings. Amongst other things, the coconut is associated with fertility.

COCO 0

Some days later, we began the three-day long series of events connected with our Hindu wedding ceremony.

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After the blessings by the priests, Lopa and I, connected together by several flower garlands and scarves, struggled into the back seats of a small Maruti car (not the van!). As soon as we were aboard we were driven a few feet forward. The purpose of this short journey was to drive over and thereby crack a coconut placed beneath one of the car’s front wheels.

COCO 2

I can truly say that my experience of India began with a bang.

Arab or Norman, Hindu or Muslim…

The Normans took over Sicily from its Arab rulers. The early mediaeval church architecture adopted by the Norman builders shows the influence of Arab design.

In Gujarat (India), the Muslim invaders began building mosques in the style of local Hindu temples, just as the Normans built in the way that they found when they arrived in Sicily.