Honouring a Hindu hero in London

MI5 WORKS TO HELP protect our democracy in the UK. Its architecturally unflattering headquarters stand looming above the southern end of Vauxhall Bridge. A few yards downstream from it, and directly facing the main entrance of the Tate Britain across the river, there is a small grassy triangle close to the river. In the middle of the green space, there is a bust on a pedestal. The bust depicts a man with a moustache, who is wearing two chunky necklaces and what looks like a bejewelled turban. This is a monument to Basaveshvara, who lived between 1134 and 1168 (actually, these dates are not certain: he might have lived c1106-1167). A panel on the side of the pedestal notes that he was:

“Pioneer of Democracy and Social Reform”

Various people and organisations supported the creation of this monument to someone of historical importance but until now unknown to me and, I would guess, to many other people wandering past the bust. As one of the organisations involved in its creation was The Government of Karnataka (in southern India), I reached for my tattered copy of “A History of Karnataka” (edited by PB Desai), which I picked up in the wonderful Aladdin’s cave of a bookshop, Bookworm, in Church Street, Bangalore, a city which I visit often. It has 8 index entries for Basaveshwara, who is also known as ‘Basava’, ‘Basavanna’, and ‘Basavaraja’, all of these being transcripts from various Indian language alphabets.

Basaveshwar was born of Shaivite Brahmin parents at Bagevadi, which is now in the Bijapur district in the northern part of Karnataka. His name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Vrishabha’, the divine bull, Nandi, who carries the god Shiva. Early histories (the Puranas) described him as an incarnation of the god Shiva rather than a human being, but it is considered that he was certainly a real person. A devotee of Shiva, Basaveshwara was well-versed in both Kannada and Sanskrit learning. He was brought up in a social milieu in which people blindly adhered to the dogmas and rituals of Vedic Hinduism without bothering to understand the true spirit of religion. Desai wrote:

“Basava’s mind revolted against these ills and he decided to defy the existing order of things.”

After receiving the sacred thread, very roughly speaking a Hindu equivalent of the Jewish Bar-mitzvah or the Christian confirmation, Basaveshwara went to the Kudama Sangama, a temple complex at the confluence of the Rivers Krishna and Malaprabha. In 2011, long before I had ever heard of Basaveshwara, we stopped briefly at the Sangama on our way from Hospet to Bijapur (now named ‘Vijayapura’), both in Karnataka. When we were there, the rivers had dried up and we saw signs advising visitors to beware of crocodiles.  

Basaveshwara remained at the Sangama for about 12 years. In his time, as it is now, the Sangama was much visited by people from all walks of life. There, he met many scholars and learned men from all schools of Hindu belief. Eventually, Basaveshwara travelled to Mangalavada, the headquarters of Bijala II (c1130-c1167), the feudatory governor of the Kalachuri family (of the Chalukya dynasty). Soon, Basaveshwara became the Chief Treasurer of Bijala’s court. It was then that Basaveshwara:

“… started his new movement of religious and social reforms, treating all devotees of Siva [i.e. Shiva] as equal in all respects without the traditional distinctions of castes, communities and sects.” (Desai)

After about 20 years, BASAVESHWARA moved to Kalyana, the capital of Bijala, where his reformist ideas gained a great following. Bijala II, who had become suspicious of Basaveshwara, began crushing the movement inspired by Basaveshwara’s radical ideas that seriously threatened the traditional hierarchy that favoured the Brahmins, as well as advocating some hitherto unknown equality of men and women in spiritual aspects of life. For example, Basaveshwara sanctioned a marriage between the son of an ‘untouchable’ and the daughter of a Brahmin. Upset by this, Bijala sentenced the couple to death. Basaveshwara’s followers then plotted to assassinate Bijala, an act of which Basaveshwara disapproved. Realising that he could not restrain his angry followers, Basaveshwara retreated to Kudama Sangama, where he died. Bijala was murdered soon afterwards. Later, Basaveshwara became venerated as a (Hindu) saint.

Basaveshwara believed:

“…that every human being was equal, irrespective of caste and that all forms of manual labor was equally important.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basava).

These ideas sound familiar to those versed in the history of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived many centuries after Basaveshwara.  Yet, Basaveshwara is relatively unknown compared with Gandhi. Basaveshwara was certainly a reformer as is stated on the base of his bust near Vauxhall Bridge and his radical ideas were undoubtedly democratic when considered in relation to the time when he lived. So, it is quite appropriate that from his bust, there is a clear view of the Houses of Parliament, a home of democracy.

The bust on the embankment was erected by Dr Neeraj Patil, born in Karnataka, a member of the Labour Party and Mayor of the London Borough of Lambeth 2010-2011 and Dr Anagha Patil. It was unveiled in November 2015 by the current Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi. It is appropriate that Modi inaugurated this memorial as his parents were members of what was officially recognised a socially disadvantaged community, whose emancipation would surely have been approved by the reformer Basaveshwara.  And what is more, Modi is one of the first, if not the very first, of the Indian Prime Ministers, all democratically elected, who was not from a ‘high’ caste or social class such as Brahmin, Kayastha, and Rajput, and has completed at least one term of office. So, I feel that Basaveshwara does deserve a place within sight of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

A picnic to remember

 

I AM NOT A LOVER OF picnics. My perfect idea of eating outside my home is not squatting on a rug in a picturesque open-air location, but in a restaurant. In contrast, my wife and her parents loved picnics.

Many years ago, when both of my dear in-laws were still alive and healthy, that is well before 2006, we decided to have a picnic at the Big Banyan Tree just outside the city of Bangalore (India). Known in Kannada, the official state language of Karnataka, as ‘Dodda Aalada Mara’ that means ‘Big Banyan Tree’, this huge tree, an example of Ficus benghalensis which is about 400 years old, covers about three acres. It is located about 17 and a half miles west by southwest of the Bangalore Club in central Bangalore.

It is a popular local attraction for picnickers. This being the case and also the fact that I had never been there helped my in-laws decide that we should enjoy a picnic at the Big Banyan Tree. After thermos flasks had been filled, masala omelette sandwiches prepared, blankets packed, puri aloo packaged, bhakri boxed up in cylindrical steel containers with tight fitting lids, we set off: my parents in law, my brother in law and his family, my wife and our very young daughter, and me.

We arrived at the tree, which looked more like a dense, tangled forest than a single tree, but that is what banyan trees become when left to their own devices. After threading our way through the aerial roots hanging down from the tree, we found a small open space that looked nice for a picnic. At least everybody except me, not a lover of picnics, thought so.

We laid out the blanket, and put out the containers of food, and that is about as far our picnic was to resemble a normal meal ‘al fresco’. Moments after setting out the food, swarms of our closely related primates appeared. These monkeys had not come to keep us company or simply to watch their two-legged relatives eating. No, they had arrived to be fed. Their only intentions were far from friendly. They had come to steal our picnic. One by one they dropped out of the trees and approached our food. With great difficulty we were able to ‘shoo’ away these almost fearless raiders. At one stage, I resorted to throwing wet used teabags at them. They were very persistent, in fact so persistent that we decided not to persist with our picnic. We packed everything and made a hasty departure having eaten nothing.

This experience did nothing to remove my long-held prejudice against picnicking. It did the opposite. Wasps and other intruders are bad enough, but monkeys ‘took the biscuit’. Well, metaphorically if not in fact.

If you are there, you must try…

TAHARI blogg

I had always wanted to visit Gulbarga (now ‘Kalaburgi’) in northern Karnataka (India), not far from Hyderabad, because of the richness of its medieval Islamic architectural heritage.

When my friend in Bangalore, Mansour, a great gastronome and connoisseur of fine foods, knew we were in Gulbarga, he said:

If you’re there, you must try tahari

Well, we had no idea what this dish comprised, but if Mansour reccomended it, it must be worth trying. A search on Google revealed that the Limra Tahari was highly rated. We rang to make a reservation and were told that was unnecessary. Also, we learnt that the place only took cash payments.

One evening, we hired an autorickshaw to take us to Limra. However, the driver had no idea how to find it, and eventually dropped us near a different restaurant, saying;

This is a restaurant. You can eat here.

It was a totally unsatisfactory eatery.

Next evening, we were fortunate. A rickshaw driver knew where to find the Limra. When we arrived, he told us that he would wait for us as we would not be long and, also, it was difficult to find autorickshaws in the area in the evening. We wondered why, but soon found out.

The front of the restaurant was unprepossessing, to put it mildly. The place was separated from the street by a pair of ageing red curtains, rather like that found at a theatre stage. The steps leading up to it from the street were littered with old newspaper and other rubbish. I looked at my wife questioningly. She seemed happy to enter, so we parted the curtains and stepped inside. The interior was spotlessly clean.

To the left of the entrance, an old man sat behind a small cash desk. To the right, there were a couple of men preparing food in huge metal post heated by smouldering charcoals. Limra’s dining area was simple. There were several long narrow rectangular metal tables, which were probably screwed to the floor. All of the diners were men, except my wife.

Before we had time to ask for a menu or what was on offer, a boy slid two metal plates across our table towards us. Each plate was laden with tahari. He added a third plate that contained an unappetising looking greasy sauce. We ordered a couple of bottles of mineral water and began our exploration of tahari.

The tahari consisted of spicy yellow rice which contained a few lumps of well-cooked tender meat. The sauce turned out to be delicious and not at all greasy. The tahari was very tasty and delicately spiced – a real treat. Tahari is, I later discovered, an Awadhi dish from the region of India where Lucknow is located. It is typical of a certain style of Mughal cooking. It is, as we saw when we entered Limra, slow-cooked.

When we finished our tahari, we noticed the menu on the wall behind us. It consisted of two items: tahari: full plate, and tahari: half plate. No wonder, we were served our food immediately. There was nothing to choose from here! Our bill for two full plates and two bottles of water came to only 80 Indian Rupees (about £0.90 sterling). It took us no more than 10 minutes to finish our scrumptious meal. We understood why our driver decided to wait for us, and we understood why the restaurant did not accept anything but cash as payment. So, if you are ever in Gulbarga, you must try tahari!

A keen salesman

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Many years ago when we vere on holiday in India, we visited a historic Hindu temple complex in the State of Karnataka.

When we left the enclosure containing the amazing temples with thier intricate stone carvings, we were approached by a little boy, who could have been no more than ten years old. He wanted to sell us some quite attractive miniature elephants carved in stone. Out of politeness, rather than curiosity, we asked the price.

“200 rupees,” he said.

We told him that we did not want the carvings.

“100 rupees,” he said, hopefully.

“We don’t want them, thanks,” we said.

“50 rupees?”

“Really, no thanks”

“25 rupees?”

“Really, no”

“10 rupees?”

We tried to make it clear that we did not want the carvings at any price.

“Have them for nothing,” the little boy offered.

We still did not take them. I often wonder what would have happened next, had we accepted his three elephants as a free gift.

Things go better with Coke

It was the day after the much-loved fimstar Ambareesh died. He was a hero all over the Indian state of Karnataka. To respect him, alcohol sales were forbidden in Bangalore. It was what is called a ‘dry day’. One could not order any alcoholic drink at a bar, restaurant, etc.

So, being unable to order an alcoholic drink, I ordered Coca Cola.

“Coca Cola” the waiter queried, “it’s not available. Today is dry day, sir”

“But Coca Cola is not alcoholic” I protested, adding “Coke, you know”

“Ah, Coke, sir. I can bring you that,”the waiter said, at last understanding what I was trying to order.

Cucumber sandwiches

My late mother-in-law, an Indian living in Bangalore, made the best cucumber sandwiches that I have ever eaten. She used fresh slices of thin white bread with crusts removed. Each slice was spread with a small amount of butter mixed with freshly mixed English-style mustard. Then, finely sliced, peeled and de-seeded cucumber was inserted as the sandwich’s filling. The result was both delicate and refreshingly delicious. Having eaten these superb snacks on numerous occasions, I formed the idea in my head that India is THE place for cucumber sandwiches. This led to an amusing incident.

sliced cucumber on white table

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Some friends of ours from England were spending a few days in Mysore, which is not far from Bangalore, where we were based. So, we decided to drive to Mysore to spend a day with them.

Our friends were staying in an old palace that had been tastefully converted into a hotel. After we had roamed around Mysore with them, they invited us to have afternoon tea in the lovely garden of the hotel. When we had sat down at a table, I said:

“This is the ideal place to eat cucumber sandwiches. The best cucumber sandwiches in the world are made in India.”

Everyone was happy to order a plate of these. When we asked the waiter for the sandwiches, he asked:

“You want vegetable sandwiches, with capsicum and all?”

“No, just cucumber sandwiches, no capsicums,” we replied.

Some minutes later, the waiter returned with A plate of sandwiches oozing with a bright red paste filling.

“What’s that?”, we asked him.

“Miner’s sauce”, came the reply.

“Miner’s sauce? What on earth is that?” asked one of our friends.

The waiter simply repeated the words “miner’s sauce”.

After a minute or two, the penny dropped, and I said:

“He means mayonnaise.”

Now, many non-English people pronounce this word as ‘my-on-nays’, which is closer to ‘miner’s sauce’ than the English pronunciation.

“We don’t want that sauce,” one of our friends protested, “Only cucumber.”

The waiter looked confused.

“What, no bread?” he asked.

“Let me show you what I mean,” said one of our friends, standing up and accompanying the waiter to the kitchen.

The waiter returned after a while with a very sub-standard collection of cucumber sandwiches.

Later my wife pointed out that just because her mother made excellent cucumber sandwiches, this was not necessarily the case all over India, as I had foolishly assumed.

Hitler at Hampi

By the 16th century AD, Vijayanagara in the south of India, located in what is now the State of Karnataka, was one of the world’s largest and most prosperous cities. It was destroyed by a coalition of Muslim rulers in 1565, and since then has laid in ruin. These picturesque ruins, now much visited by tourists, lie scattered around the village of Hampi, which is close to the city of Hospet.

HAMPI 1

We first visited Hampi with our seven-month-old baby in late 1995. We stayed in a hotel in the fairly non-descript town of Hospet and made daily excursions to explore the picturesque ruins of Vijayanagara, which are scattered over a large expanse of rock-strewn, almost lunar, landscape. One day, we stopped for lunch at a state-run hotel, the Mayura, in the midst of the archaeological area. The pleasant restaurant was outdoors but sheltered from the sun by a large canopy. I will write more about this hotel in a future blog.

During the meal, I paid a visit to the toilet. On my way, I passed some of the hotel’s bedroom doors. Each was locked with a padlock. I do not know what made me look at the padlocks closely, but I did. And, what I saw surprised me. Some of the locks were made by a company called ‘Hitler’.

HAMPI 2

Adolf Hitler is far from unknown in India. Copies of his best-known work of literature, Mein Kampf, are to be found in practically every bookshop, often rubbing shoulders with works by less illustrious politicians such as Narendra Modi, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. There is at least one Bollywood film that I know of which has Hitler in its title. It is not a great film, and the Hitler in the film is neither German nor a Nazi. He is a police officer in a jail, if I remember rightly.

HAMPI 1a

I have scoured markets in India trying to find a lock seller with Hitler locks, but in vain. The Hitler Lock Company was set up in 1989. It is based in Aligarh (United Provinces).

One body, two heads

A short reflection on the use and origin(s) of birds with two heads

DHE 2 Blore

On a Hindu temple in Bangalore, Krnataka, India

The earliest archaelogical evidence of the existence of double-headed eagle (‘DHE’) or any other bird with two heads (each with its own neck) is in Bablylonian remains dating back to 3000-2000 BC.

The DHE is and has been used as a heraldic symbol by, for example: the Scythians, the Hittites, the Seljuk Turks, the Kingdom of Mysore (in India), pre-Columbian America, Cormwall (UK), Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, and several states in the Balkans. The Balkan states that use the DHE include: Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia.

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Map showing some of the many places where the double-headed eagle has been employed

I find the DHE to be a fascinating symbol because unlike, forexample,  the cross, Star of David, and swastika, it is not a simple geometric construction, which could be created by random ‘doodling’. Also, it is not naturalistic like the commonly used  such as a lion,  single headed eagle, bear, fish, and hound. 

There is a Hindu mythological creature, a bird with two heads, the Gandaberunda, which has been adopted by the Government of Karnatak (formerly Mysore) as its state emblem. The origins of this creature are obscure, but it has been described in the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas.

The DHE is an imaginary creature, a product of human thought. The Babylonians not only portrayed the DHE, but also other double-headed creatures.

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The Albanian double-headed eagle on the summit of the Llogara Pass in Southern Albania

I would like to SPECULATE that the origin of the DHE was Mesopotamia. From there, I imagine it spread through what is now Turkey to Europe, and across the Indian Ocean to India. If the DHE, or something similar appears in the Vedas, it would be interesting to know if this was by chance or as a result of some forgotten connection between Mesopotamia and the Indian sub-continent.