Dress code and literature

Many of the smarter social clubs in India have rules about how one should be attired when visiting them. The same is true for ‘elite’ clubs in London.

DRESS CODE

For example, at the Ootacamund (‘Ooty’) Club in southern India men cannot think oof having a drink at the bar if they are not wearing a formal suit and tie. And, at the Bangalore Club, men can where sandals in the Club House providing the sandals have a back strap. Even worse, at the same club the wearing of smart Indian national outfits is frowned upon if not forbidden. This is surely a hangover from the days when the club only admitted ‘white’ Europeans and a few high-ranking Indian military personel.

Once, I was staying at the Kodaikanal Club in Tamil Nadu state. Dress rules were extremely casual there. Many guests wore shorts and sandals even in the bar and dining room. One day, I entered the club’s small library, and the librarian promptly asked me to leave. I was wearing sandals (with backstraps). Apparently, in the library gentlemen are required to wear formal lace-up shoes.  I cannot say why this was required unless the Kodaikanal holds literature in high esteem, and wants it to be respected by library users who have taken the trouble not to be dressed casually.

Renaissance

COVER SMALL

 

Last year, I published a book about an almost forgotten but important aspect of Indian history that began to interest me after visiting an almost completely unknown memorial in western India (Kutch, to be more precise). 

Since then, I have shown the book to various knowledgeable readers and also revisited the memorial. 

Those who have read the book have made valuable suggestions on how to improve it, including changing the title so that its subject matter is far more obvious to a potential reader, adding a preface and a time-line, and re-ordering the subject matter.

When I re-visited the memorial in Kutch, I met people, who showed me things I had not seen or even been aware of on my first visit. They also gave me new information. In addition, I have done further reading of source material, some of which I had not known about earlier. In addition, I have obtained photographic images that I did not possess before.

I felt that since I published my original text, a new expanded and, I hope, much improved version was necessary. My ideas needed a renaissance, so to speak.

I am now awaiting a proof of my new book, and will keep you informed of developments.

 

Tooth powder

tooth powder

 

When I was a child, I brushed my teeth with toothpaste. My parents did not use paste. Instead they used Calox Tooth Powder. A small amount of this was sprinkled into the palm of one hand and then mixed into a paste using the wettened bristles of a toothbrush. The resulting gritty paste was then used to brush the teeth. I have no idea why my parents used the powder, but made us use toothpaste.

Many decades later, this year, I visited the Indian city of Pondicherry, which was a colony of France until 1954. We stopped at a tea stall that in addition to providing tea also sold small packets of paan and chewing tobacco (not very good for oral health) and packets of ‘Gopal Toothpowder’. Seeing the latter reminded my of my parents and their use of Calox. I asked the vendor how the tooth powder is used. He opened his mouth and rubbed his finger along his teeth. In his opinion, no brush is required. I bought a couple of packets, but have not yet been adventurous enough to try to use their contents.

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?

The lawyer and the cobblers

DR BR AMBEDKAR (1891-1956) was a lawyer, who drafted the Constitution of India after the country became independent. He was also a champion of the rights of dalits (‘untouchables’ or ‘harijans’ as Mahatma Gandhi called them). The dalits were excluded from the four caste Varna system of Hinduism, and considered by many Hindus as the lowest of the low, fit only for menial tasks that members of other castes would not deign to consider doing. Ambedkar campaigned actively for the ending of social discrimination against this class of people.

Mochis (cobblers/shoe repairers), who handle leather, are often dalits. The best place to find a mochi is on the pavement beside a road. Sometimes, they sit on the ground surrounded by their tools and footwear awaiting repair. In other cases, they work from little stalls that can be locked up when they are not at work. These stalls often bear images of Ambedkar in honour of the man who did much to improve the social status of the dalits.

(Image shows Ambedkar depicted on a mochi’s closed stall.)

Stitched

PONDICHERRY IS RICH in wonderful attractions, many of them souvenirs of its French colonial past. One of the most delightful of these is the Cluny Embroidery Centre on Rue Romain Rolland, a street named after a French writer and Nobel Prize winner who met Gandhi and was sympathetic to India and its philosophies.The Embroidery Centre is housed in an 18th century French Colonial building (a former residence, which was built by 1774) that forms part of a religious centre under the aegis of the Order of Cluny. It is believed that one of the former owners of the house donated it to help poor women in need. This must have been before 1829, when the Embroidery Centre was established. Every day except Monday and Sunday, at least twenty women of various ages arrive at the centre and take their places at tables in a large room with tall windows that open out into a verandah supported by neoclassical pillars and decorated with elaborate stucco bas-reliefs. The verandah looks out onto a courtyard surrounded on three sides by other buildings, parts of the convent, and the outer wall with a decorative entrance gate.This ensemble of buildings forms only part of a much larger complex of buildings, some of which surround another courtyard filled with a garden.After singing what sounds like a hymn, the women begin working on their elaborate embroideries. They stitch according to patterns designed by artists who work at the centre. While they work away silently with needle and thread, a simple sound system provides background music at a low volume.Dressed in white habit, Sister Agatha, who runs the convent, watches over the ladies at work and organises the sales of their labours to visitors who step into this peaceful sanctuary a few feet away from the noisy outside world.The resulting products are exquisitely beautiful. They embroider everything from coasters to handkerchiefs to napkins to pillowcases to table cloths and bedcovers. Visitors to the centre can purchase these treasures of fine needlework. Or, customers can place orders for specific items they need. The women who embroider at the centre get paid on a piecework basis. Some of them have had a history of mistreatment before joining the centre. Visiting the Cluny Embroidery Centre is a moving experience. It provides a very good example of how a religious order can work for the benefit of the ‘common’ folk.

In a while crocodile

THE CROCODILE LYING LAZILY in the hot sunshine with its teeth lined jaws wide open lay motionless as we and many other visitors gaped at it with amazement.

We reached the Crocodile Bank at Semencheri (near Mahabalipuram) after a two hour drive northwards from Pondicherry along the East Coast Road (ECR), which as its name suggests runs close to the east coast of India. We drove through flat terrain with luxuriant vegetation. The road passes many picturesque backwaters and other water bodies, some covered with flowering waterlilies. We also passed a small collection of saltpans, alongside which there were small piles of white salt. This salt gathering area was on a much smaller scale than can be seen at the south eastern edge of Kutch. The road is dotted with numerous hatcheries for edible crustaceans such as shrimps and scampi.

The Crocodile Bank was established in 1976 by Romulus Whitaker and is now being run by his ex-wife, our friend Zai. It was started to breed cricodiles and other reptiles in captivity in order to counter the reduction of their populations in the wild. It is now an important centre for herpetology, education , wildlife conservation, and breeding reptiles. It is open to the public, who gain great enjoyment from seeing and learning about the reptiles.

We first visited the Crocodile Bank about five years ago. When we entered, my first impression was of looking at a sea of grey logs. On closer examination, these ‘logs ‘ were motionless crocodiles. We learnt that crocodiles and aligators are very somnolent unless they are hungry. Therefore, they tend to lie about motionless, basking in the sun or keeping cool in shallow water.

During our first visit, we saw a pair of beautifully coloured iguanas, which Zai and her colleagues were hoping would mate. She told us that they did produce a clutch of eggs eventually, and that some of the baby iguanas were enjoying life at the Crocodile Bank.

We were pressed for time on our visit in February 2020. So, we did not have a chance to have a good look around. On our first visit, Zai arranged for one of her team to give us what turned out to be a very informative tour.

I can strongly recommend a visit to Crocodile Bank. It is not far from the superb archaeological remains at Mahabalipuram and provides an interesting contrast to them. Instead of stones of historic interest, you can enjoy seeing creatures that have survived the passage of time even longer than the ruins.

Make park, not war

BY FEBRUARY, daytime temperatures in Pondicherry exceed 30 degrees Celsius. This combined with high humidity levels drive the wild street dogs to sleep a lot in whatever shade they can find. Likewise, sensible people avoid direct exposure to the strong tropical sun.

When you walk along the paths shaded by trees in the centrally located Bharathi Park, you can feel the temperature drop. This park, a peaceful haven, was an unforeseen result of warfare.

In 1709, the French built a fortress, Fort Louis, in the heart of Pondicherry. It was a typical fortress of the type designed by the French engineer Vauban (1633-1707). Pentagonal in plan, it had bastions at each of its five corners. The fort was destroyed by the British in 1761 and not replaced.

The space left after the destruction of the fort remained a wasteland used by the French for military training and celebration of some French national festivals. In 1854, an elegant neoclassical pavilion was erected in the middle of this wasteland. It commemorates a legendary 16th century woman, who discovered a source of water that became very important for the inhabitants of Pondicherry.

In 1946, a tree was planted on the land where Fort Louis once stood. Eventually, the present Bharathi Park was laid out. In its middle, stands the pavilion mentioned already.

One entrance to the park is opposite the entrance to the heavily guarded Raj Nivas (Governor’s Residence), housed in the former French Governor’s House built in 1766.

At the north east corner of the park, there is a statue of a man wearing a dhoti, a long jacket, and a turban. This depicts Chinnaswami Subramania Bharathi (1882-1921), also known as ‘Bharatiyar’. He was a great Tamil poet and independence fighter and opponent of the caste system. He fled to Pondicherry in 1908 to escape from being arrested (for his ‘seditious’ writing in newspapers) by the British and remained there until 1918. In 1906, he edited a newspaper with MPT Acharya, about whom I have written in my book about Indian revolutionaries in London, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. In Pondicherry, Bharatiya met other Indian freedom fighters seeking sanctuary there, including Sri Aurobindo and VVS Aiyar (also in my book), an associate of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

In 1918, Bharatiya moved back into British India, where he was promptly arrested. He died in 1921, impoverished.

The Puducherry Government Museum, housed in an 18th century French mansion, is a few metres from the park and well worth a visit. It contains exhibits dating from prehistory until the era of the French colonization. In need of a little bit more care and attention, there is a fascinating range of objects to be seen.

One display that interested me greatly was about the excavations made by a French archaeologist and the British Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Arikamedu, just south of Pondicherry. They were following up discoveries made in that location by French scholars before WW2. It emerged that Arikamedu was the site of a port at which Ancient Romans and Greeks traded with the local Indians.

The museum contains a few artefacts dug up including some Roman and Greek coins. A few years ago, I saw many of these in a museum at Calicut.

The ports where the Mediterranean people traded in India are contained in “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, a navigational manual that was originally composed in the 1st century AD. The port near Arikamedu is most likely to have been ‘Podouke’ as listed in the “Periplus”.

So, it is evident that the area around Pondicherry was visited by Europeans long before the British, French, and Danes estsblished colonies there.

We left the museum, which also has a nice collection of Hindu sculptures, and the lovely park to enjoy some excellent French inspired cooking at the Villa Shanti. At the table next to ours, there was a very serious looking group of French tourists, who were listening earnestly to their Indian guide, who spoke to them in French with an accent that probably caused them to wince internally. Incidentally, apart from people from all over India, most of the rest of the visitors to Pondicherry are French. I wonder how they feel seeing the souvenirs of their former empire, now an episode fading into the swirling mists of time.