Tulips and traffic

When I was a young child, probably less than ten years old, we made one of our regular family holidays to Holland. My parents, having studied Afrikaans to varying degrees of competence, felt easier visiting a country like Holland where the native language, Dutch, was not too exotic for someone to comprehend with a knowledge of Afrikaans.

One Saturday afternoon, my parents decided to take us to see the tulips at Keukenhof gardens. I cannot recall anything about the flowers.

However, I do not think I will ever forget the car park at Keukenhof. We had parked our car early in the afternoon when the parking area was fairly empty. When we came to leave, the car park was very full.

Everyone wanted to leave at the same time. A disorderly tsunami of vehicles converged on the exit gates. Nobody seemed to be regulating the traffic. It took us well over an hour to escape from the motorised mayhem.

Sadly, I associate Keukenhof with traffic rather than tulips, and although I love tulips, seeing them often brings Keukenhof to mind.

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.

Letters on a cannon

Not long ago I spotted the old cannon shown in the picture at Golconda Fort. It bears the markings ‘A’ and ‘VOC’. The letters VOC are the abbreviation used by the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the former Dutch East India Company, which functioned between 1602 and 1799. The ‘A’ stands for one of the several distinct groups of Dutch investors, who together comprised the VOC.

Incidentally, I have seen another example of this Dutch cannon marking on an artillery piece on the island of Diu, which is close to the southern coast of the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. The example in Diu can be found in the garden commemorating the Indian soldiers who captured Diu from the Portuguese in 1961.

EUROPEAN HAUNTS ON THE HOOGHLY RIVER: Former European trading posts

PLEASE TAKE TIME TO READ INDIGO SEXY”, so announces a sweet female voice over the public address system in the passenger cabins of aeroplanes flown by Indigo Airlines. Actually, this voice is encouraging flyers to read Indigo’s in house magazine “Indigo 6E”. The November 2029 issue of this well produced monthly had an article about places that I have long wanted to visit: the places on the banks of the River Hooghly that were once occupied as trading posts by Europeans from various parts of that continent.
I knew that, apart from Britain, at various times the following nations had had tiny colonies on the banks of the River Hooghly (north of Calcutta): Holland, France and Denmark. Until I read an article in “Indigo 6E”, I was only barely aware that Portugal also claimed a parcel of land. That was at Bandel.
One day, we rented a car with driver to explore the former haunts of the nations listed above. We commenced at Bandel. To reach this place we drive pat endless numbers of heavy trucks north along the National Highway that links Calcutta with Delhi until we reached a road to Bandel.
To our grumpy driver’s indignation the road to the centre of Bandel was amazingly congested with cycles, tricycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, pedestrians, a variety of motorised three wheelers, dogs, trucks, buses, and so on.

Eventually, we reached the imposing church of the Miracle of Our Lady of Bandel that is separated from the Hooghly by a large garden. The church, which was built on a piece of land gifted to the Portuguese in exchange for military assistance given to a local ruler, was built at the very end of the 16th century.

The original church, one of the oldest in Bengal, still stands but has been heavily restored. It has been buried beneath shiny tiling, both outside and inside. The only original feature visible is an altar piece that looks as if it was created many centuries ago. The church was part of an Augustinian monastery, and is now part of a Salesian institution. The cloisters, like the church, are lined with tiling.

We drove south, following the Hooghly, to Chinsura, which the Dutch had occupied from 1656 to 1825. Apparently, there are several Dutch buildings in the town, but we did not find them. Instead, we managed to see the exterior of the town’s Armenian church, which is the second oldest church on Bengal. It is surrounded by a high wall surmounted by fierce looking spikes. A local informed us it wasonly opened up once a year, and we were not in Chinsura on that day! Later, we learnt that it is open for masses one Sunday in three.

Between Bandel and Chinsura, we came across an elegant house standing next to but high above the Hooghly. It was the place that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) lived for several years. Some say it was the place where he composed the patriotic poem “Vande Mataram” in the 1870s. It was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore. The British imperialist authorities made it a punishable offence to sing in the esrly part of the 20th century.

We drove south along congested roads that more or less followed the Hooghly until we arrived at Chandernagore, which was a French enclave until 1947.

The Institut de Chandanagor, a fine colonial building that could do with a little restoration, was once Dupleix House the former residence of the French governor. It now houses a museum that has many exhibits that recall the history of European trading settlements along the Hooghly. It stands in gardens, where once stood a fortress built by the French. The museum faces a lovely riverside promenade that includes a late 19th century pavilion built with French funding. This edifice is adorned with sculptures depicting elephant heads. At the southern end of the promenade, there stands a house, which Rabindranath Tagore has mentioned several times in his writings. When the river rises, its lower storey fills with water, by design.

The church of Sacre Coeur stands about 100 metres back from the promenade. It was built in the late 19th century, but was first established in 1691. Its interior has recently been redecorated with garish colour paint.

It was a long drive to Serampore on the Hooghly. We drove there along through narrow winding lanes and a stretch of the Grand Trunk Road. The Grand Trunk runs from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh, to Kabul in Afghanistan, passing through Calcutta and Delhi. It has existed for at least 2500 years and is one of the longest roads in Asia (almost 3000 miles).

Between 1755 and 1845, Serampore was under Danish control. The Danes knew it as Frederiknagore. We visited the church of St Olave, whose design resembles that of St Martins in the Fields in London. The internal walls of it plain but elegant interior bear memorials to several Danes who worked either for the Danes or for the British, who inherited Serampore from the Danes, or fir both. Serampore is also the home of Serampore College, which was founded in 1818 by Joshua Marsham and William Carey (1761-1834). Carey was born in Paulerspury in Northamptonshire. This village is the home of friends of ours. It was following a visit to them that we were first alerted to the existence of the former Danish colony on the Hooghly.

Before returning to Calcutta, we had coffee at the recently restored Denmark Tavern that overlooks a lovely stretch of the Hooghly. The tavern was first opened in 1786 and appears in a painting by Peter Anker dated 1790. The original building has been beautifully restored and is still serving its original purpose.

Although we only saw a few of the haunts of the former non-British European settlements on the bank of the Hooghly, our visit has made us want to revisit them in the future.

Climate, cycles, and trees

cycle

 

Undoubtedly, there is much concern about the future of planet Earth’s climate. So much so that children are missing school to go on protest marches because they are worried that they might never complete their lives because of catastrophic flooding or abnormally high ambient temperatures. Whether or not the dire predictions will turn out to be fulfilled remains to be seen, but there is no harm in trying to do something to address and then ameliorate or extinguish the perceived causes of the predicted ultimate disaster(s).

One of many measures being taken in London to reduce the output of gases toxic to the environment is to encourage the use of bicycles instead of motor vehicles. At present, cycling in London is fraught with dangers. There have been many collisions between cyclists and motor vehicles with quite a few fatalities amongst the cyclists. Many attempts are being made to segregate cyclists from other road traffic by constructing dedicated cycle lanes. Countries like the Netherlands have demonstrated very successfully that cycling can be made both safe and enjoyable by means of a comprehensive network of cycle lanes. 

Recently, there was a plan to construct a cycle lane along the tree-lined Holland Park Avenue in west London. From my frequent observations of this thoroughfare, there is only heavy cycle traffic in the morning and evening rush hours. Outside these busy times, there are few cyclists using this stretch of road. I felt that because of this a cycle lane was of questionable value.

To build the proposed cycle lane, planners faced a problem, which they might not have anticipated. In order to construct the cycle lane, twenty mature leafy trees would have had to be removed from Holland Park Avenue. This prospect aroused the anger of protestors in the area, who felt it was wrong to chop down trees to make way for a cycle lane. In a way they were correct.

Trees, as most people now know, help to protect the climate, which motorists (in cars powered by fuels other than electricity) are destroying. One need only look at the recent international protests against cutting down the rainforests in Brazil to understand the perceived importance of trees. Granted, Holland Park Avenue is hardly a rain forest, but chopping down trees does not seem like a good thing. In Bangalore (India), many trees have been removed to accomodate the needs of a rapidly growing metropolis, and the city’s climate and water supply are being adversely affected by factors such as this.

So, we have a conundrum: cyclists or trees? Rather than sit on the fence, let me give you my answer. The object of encouraging cycling and preserving trees is to save the future of human existence. If that is accepted, then saving cyclists’ lives and protecting them from harm has to take preference over saving twenty undoubtedly attractive trees.

All I ask of the cyclists is to protect themselves and pedestrians by obeying traffic signals.

For more about the Holland Park cycle lane, see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-48635369