Denmark in the tropics

I HAVE WANTED TO VISIT TRANQUEBAR (now called Tharambangadi) since I first heard of the place when I was a teenager in the 1960s. Danish settlers established a fort and their first trading post in India there in 1620. I had already visited the former Danish colony at Serampore (established by 1770) on the River Hooghly, and was keen to see what remains of Tranquebar.

We drove south from Pondicherry for three hours through flat terrain, passing huge rice paddies, negotiating sprawling towns and villages, and crossing numerous rivers and streams.

Tranquebar, a sleepy little place on the wave washed shore of the Bay of Bengal, contains a sizeable collection of buildings constructed by the Danes during their tenure of the town, which finally ended in 1845, when the Danes sold it to the British.

During the Danish era, there were three main churches. One of them built by the seashore was been destroyed by the sea long ago. The Zion Church, the oldest Protestant church in India, was consecrated in 1701. It is now used by the Church of South India. It was founded by a German Bartholomew Ziegenbald (1682-1719). He was educated at the University of Halle, where my great great grandfather received his doctoral degree in the early 19th century, and was sent (with his fellow student Heinrich Plütschau) by the King of Denmark to become the first Lutheran missionary in India.

Ziegenbald was a remarkable man. During the last few years of his life, which were spent in India, he was involved in Lutheran missionary work (countering the activities of Catholic missionaries), literary work, translating the Holy Bible into Tamil, running a printing press, and conducting church services.

The New Jerusalem Church, larger than the nearby Zion and designed with its nave equal in length as its transept, was consecrated in 1717, two years before Ziegenbald died. He was buried in it. The church remains a Lutheran place of worship. Its parish priest, Mr Samson, guided us around its plain interior and told us that about sixty local families worship there regularly. The church is partly surrounded by a small cemetery, some of its gravestones bearing Danish names.

Ziegenbald’s home, now located within the grounds of a school, contains a small museum. The groundfloor contains a portable reed organ, some manuscripts related to Ziegenbald, and two printing presses that were acquired long after Ziegenbald died. One of these presses, made in London in the 19th century, was being demonstrated to a group of Tamil Lutheran visitors.

I watched as Tamil letters were covered with red ink before being covered with a sheet of white paper. The press was then operated manually. When the paper with Tamil letters was removed and shown to the visitors crowding around with cameras poised in readiness, everyone applauded. Then, the demonstration completed, the group sung a hymn in Tamil, praising God for creating such a technological miracle.

The Ziegenbal house museum is currently curated by a German, Jasmine. She encouraged us to see a small bur lovely exhibition of artworks by two German artists from Halle, where Ziegenbald studied long ago. Then, she introduced us to an Indian artist Asma Menon, who is creating a Cabinet of Curiosities similar to a very old one that is kept in Halle and contains objects collected in India long ago. Her creation that will be housed in a cabinet similar to the one in Germany will contain a series of object that captures the ‘essence’ of Germany, as she found it on a recent visit to Halle and other German cities. We spent time talking with Asma and a young volunteer from Germany.

Aaron Hall, next to the former home of Ziegenbald, is named in memory of Reverend C Aaron (1698-1745). A Tamil, he was the first ever non-European to be ordained as a Lutheran pastor. He was ordained in December 1733. He had been baptized earlier by Ziegenbald. Jasmine told us that when Aaron was ordained, there had been massive objections to this back in Germany, but the ordination took place despite these.

The Neemrana “non-hotel” hotel at Tranquebar is housed in the picturesque former British Collector’s Bungalow close to the sea shore. Unfortunately, its restaurant proved to be rather a ‘non-restaurant’: poor food and very poor service. Most of the other diners were late middle-aged Danish tourists nursing cans of Kingfisher beer. Foolishly, I ordered pasta with “aglio olio”. What turned up was penne drowning in an a virulently bright reddish orange coloured sauce that tasted as if it contained tomato ketchup as its main ingredient.

Lunch over, we strolled along the beach passing a monument recording the arrival of Ziegenbald in India. This overlooks a small harbour surrounded by partially ruined stone walls. Men were bathing in its water which was calmer than the sea around it. From where we were walking, we could see row after row of foam crested waves breaking on the shoreline that stretched away to the southern horizon.

The fort built by the Danes under the command of Admiral Ove Gjedde (1594-1660), Fort Dansborg, is still pretty much intact. It contains a small museum with an odd assortment of exhibits – a bit of a jumble. I was intrigued by several fading Maratha paintings and a 12th century Indian stone carving in good condition.

As I stood by the well in the large central open air courtyard of the Fort with the afternoon sun beating down on me at the temperature well in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the Danish settlers and soldiers coped with a climate so different to what they were used to in Denmark. I was able to dive back into our air conditioned taxi after a few minutes in the sun. This option was not available in the centuries when the Danes and Germans spent months and years in Tranquebar. Even the interior of the Fort, with its thick walls, was not greatly cooler than outside.

The Fort is separate from the former British Collector’s Bungalow and the former Danish Governor’s House by a spacious sandy maidan. The Danish Governor’s House neighbours a smaller and more recent edifice named “Danish Indian Cultural Centre”. This contains a library and a small museum. Amongst the exhibits, there are several drawings and paintings by the former Danish Governor Peter Anker (lived 1744-1833; governed 1788-1806). All of his attractive artworks on display are of Indian subjects.

The former Danish Colony of Tranquebar is in Tamil Nadu. About ten kilometres or less the coastal road leading south from Tranquebar leaves the state of Tamil Nadu and enters a part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry separated from the city of that name by over a hundred kilometres of Tamil Nadu. Like Mahe, a tiny part of Pondicherry on the coast of the Arabian Sea and Chandernagore in West Bengal, this southern territory, containing the town of Karaikal, was a French colony. Yanaon, surrounded by Andhra Pradesh, was yet another French colony and is now part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.

Karaikal became a French colony in 1674 and remained as such until about 1954. At first sight, it looks like a typical, unexceptional modern Tamil urban area with a few decaying old buildings stuck within a mass of architecturally unexceptional buildings. However, our driver, a Tamil named Pierre, drove us to see what little remains of French colonial Karaikal.

The most notable souvenir is the former French Governor’s mansion. Well conserved, the Governor lived on the first floor and his administration used the ground floor. This building, which is well over 200 years old, is now the Collector’s Office of Karaikal. Nearby, there is a French war memorial commemorating those who died in the two World Wars. The monuments single out campaigns in Algeria and Indo-China. Near this, there are a few architectural details that might have existed during the French era, but little else.

Unlike Pondicherry, which has retained its colonial charm and attracts many tourists, there is little to attract the average tourist to Karaikal. I am glad we went there because I find places like this, which hint at their largely forgotten history, very evocative and fascinating.

While I would not reccomend a visit to Karaikal, a few hours or more spent in Tranquebar will be very rewarding both to those interested in history and to lovers of the seaside.

Islands of worship

IN HYDERABAD, BOMBAY, and Calcutta I have seen mosques or large dargahs (mausoleums) located on islands in the middle of roads. Traffic flows on both sides of the places of worship like river water flowing around a rock.

I mentioned this to my wife, who reminded me that London has at least two churches that stand on islands around which traffic flows. Two of them are on the busy Strand: St Clement Danes and St Mary le Strand. This got me thinking about other places where a place of worship stands in a position that forces traffic to move around it. Only one place springs to mind as I write this. There is a small church in a street leading off Syntagma Square in Athens (Greece) that stands on an island in the middle of a street ( or, at least it did when I last visited the city in 1980).

Why are these places of worship on traffic islands? Maybe, the shrines were built before roads were laid out or perhaps a road was widened leaving the holy places stranded in the middle of the enlarged thoroughfare.

Temples and a palace

THE DELWARA JAIN TEMPLE COMPLEX close to Mount Abu opens to tourists at noon. We arrived at about 11 am and our driver, Zakir, suggested we visit the local museum, which turned out to be a handicraft shop.

We were directed upstairs to the fabric department and invited to sit down whilst a salesman told us about the products, which had been made locally, thereby providing employment to about 4500 locals. No obligation to buy, of course! However, we wanted a razzai, a bed quilt like an eiderdown, and after having been shown numerous examples we settled on one. Its price was greater than we were prepared to pay. We were told that the prices were not negotiable. Both the salesman and his manager told us that they could offer us cups of tea or coffee but not reductions in price. We pointed out that as kind as that was, it would only save us about 20 to 40 Rupees.

We had been in the shop, I mean ‘museum’, for almost an hour and I was becoming restless. I think that when the manager noticed this, he felt that there was a real risk that he would lose a sale. He sold us the razzai, having reduced the price by a third.

The Delwara Jain temple complex contains several temples, two of which are well over 600 years old: one dates back to the 11th century AD. Sadly photography is not permitted within the temples. Words cannot do justice to the beautiful intricate stone carvings that adorn these places of worship. Even photographs, if they had been allowed, would only hint at the perfection of the carving and their fine artistry. The precision and sharp definition of this ancient carving done by hand rivals what can be done with the most hi-tech computerised cutting devices. I have never visited the Taj Mahal, but I believe that these temples are even more breathtakingly beautiful than the famous monument at Agra. You will have to see it yourself, and then you will know what I mean.

Mount Abu was the summer resort for the rulers of the princely states of Rajputana, now Rajasthan. Many of them built lavish summer palaces, some of which are now used as ‘heritage’ hotels. Zakir drove us to the Kishangarh House hotel. Kishangarh was a tiny state near Ajmer in Rajasthan. Its population was 91000 in 1901. Its Maharaja built his palace at Mount Abu on sloping ground, which was transformed into terracing and surrounded by terraced gardens. We ate snacks there and were shown the rooms available for hire. Of all the former royal palaces I have seen in India, this looks to be the most comfortable. Even the lowest priced rooms are huge and extremely well appointed.

Zakir dropped us back in town in the town bazaar, as opposed to the touristic market area. There are numerous shops in picturesque winding streets.

Before returning to our hotel for a much needed rest, we bought some socks from a wayside stall. As is expected of customers, we bargained a little. When we agreed on a slightly lower price than the salesman asked initially, he said (in Hindi), maybe hoping to shame us into paying a little more:
“Will you feel better if you buy the socks at the lower price?”
We replied: “much better.”

Hindu reform in Bangalore

IN AN AREA OF BANGALORE FILLED WITH TRADITIONAL HINDU TEMPLES, I STUMBLED ACROSS A CENTRE WHERE A REFORMED VERSION OF THE RELIGION IS PRACTISED.

FINDING SOMEWHERE THAT I HAD NOT NOTICED BEFORE IS OFTEN FASCINATING. I have often been driven past this particular place in central Bangalore at speed. One day, I walked past this compound, located close to RBANM’s Ground, at a leisurely pace and discovered that it contains three buildings arranged around a rectangular garden. The two side buildings are typical old Bangalorean structures with verandahs and monkey-top woodwork as well as other typical traditional architectural ornamentation. The central building facing the street but separated from it by the garden has a simple facade supported by four plain pillars with Doric capitals. A stone embedded in the outer wall of the compound reads “Brahma Mandir 1879”. This compound contains the buildings belonging to the Bangalore Brahmo Samaj.

The Brahmo Samaj is one of the attempts to reform the practise of Hinduism. Founded in about 1828 in Bengal, it was a monotheistic form of Hinduism. The Brahmo Samaj was not the only reforming movement in 19th century India, but, like Arya Samaj, it became one of the better known and enduring attempts to reform Hinduism.

In my recent book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets, I have tried to show how the two sets of reformers differ:
The Arya Samaj, in common with the Brahmo Samaj, strove to reform Hinduism, but differed from the Brahmo Samaj in many respects. Members of Arya Samaj had no faith in the goodness of the British Government, whereas the opposite was true for the Brahmo Samaj. Arya Samaj believed in the superiority of Hinduism over other religions, whereas the Brahmo Samaj put Hinduism on the same level as other religions. Another of many differences between the two movements was that Arya Samaj wanted to revive Vedic traditions and to reject modern western culture and philosophy, whereas the Brahmo Samaj accepted western culture and ideas.”

I have yet to stumble across an Arya Samaj place of worship in Bangalore, but I feel sure that there must be at least one in the city. The Brahmo buildings I saw are good examples of beautiful Bangalore architecture, much of which is being callously torn down to make way for ugly new structures.

If you think you have seen the light, think again…

Hoop

 

My earliest memories of Hoop Lane (in Golders Green, northwest London) date back to when I was three or four years old, and therefore are rather vague. At that age, I attended a kindergarten in Hoop Lane. This was in the hall attached to Golders Green’s Unitarian Church (see photograph above), which was designed in the ‘Byzantine revival’ style by the architect Reginald Farrow (opened in 1925). It contains interesting artworks including a mural by Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), which I have not yet seen.

The kindergarten was under the direction of Miss Schreuer, who lived a few doors away in Hoop Lane. My only lasting memory from my time there was when my father appeared at the school with a white beard and a red outfit, dressed as Father Christmas. A few years later, my sister and my cousins attended Miss Schreuer’s. One day while my sister was attending, I was allowed to return to the school to act as an older helper. One of my fellow pupils was the late Micaela Comberti (1952-2003), who was later to become an accomplished violinist. Her German mother and Italian father were friends of my parents.

I am not sure what became of Miss Schreuer, but I heard rumours that the end of her life was unhappy. Today, the hall, where her school flourished, is now a Montessori kindergarten. When I lived in the area (I left finally when I was aged thirty), I often walked past the school and the Unitarian Church. The latter had a panel facing the road, upon which posters with pious messages were posted. One that I will always remember said:

If you think you have seen the light, think again”.

 

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. If you wish to read the whole article, please visit:

https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/48/

St John’s finger

finger

It might have been in the Bargello, or more likely in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, both in Florence (Italy), that there was (and probably still is) an exhibit that captured my imagination when I was a young child. Amongst a collection of holy relics housed in elaborately crafted silver and glass containers, there was one holy relic that looked a bit like the stub of a discoloured cigar. It was, so the museum label stated, a bone from the index finger of St John the Baptist. Whether it was or was not, this item fascinated me, and even haunted me.

Many years later when I was looking into the story of St Appolonia, the patron saint of dentists, I read that one of the miraculous properties of the body parts of dead saints is their ability to reproduce themselves – a feature that must have been useful for those who used to sell such things. I am glad that I had not known this when I used to stare fascinated at St John’s finger, which I then believed to be exactly what it claimed. That would have spoilt my amazement, which I always felt when I saw that piece of bone in its ornate container.

 

Photo from flickr

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.

Bare your feet

In India, I prefer to wear sandals because in so many places it is necessary to remove footwear, and putting on and off sandals is so much easier than doing the same for lace up shoes.

Just in case you are wondering why there is the requirement to bare one’s feet, the reason is to prevent bringing dirt from outside into the place being entered. It is also a mark of respect when entering a religious place such as a mosque, church, temple, or gurdwara.

In some homes, footwear is left by the entrance. This is also the case for some homes that I have visited in the UK. When I went to a junior school in London’s Belsize Park, The Hall School, we left the shoes we had arrived in at the entrance and then replaced them by another pair reserved for use within the school.

When we visited Gulbarga (in North Karnataka, India) recently, we visited what purported to be an Arabic restaurant, Al Makki by name. Its floor was covered with carpets, and guests had to sit on cushions that surrounded very low tables. The owner took one look at my wife and me, and took pity on us. He provided us with a normal height table and chairs. The food was delicious. We ate a mutton “handi”, which is a pilaff flavoured with dried fruit, fried onions, nuts, and mild spices. By now, if you are still reading this, you might well be thinking that I have strayed from my topic. But, you are mistaken. We were not allowed to enter Al Makki until we had removed our footwear.

To conclude, my advice to people visiting India is: wear footwear that is easy to remove and replace.

The writing on the wall

India is a country with many religions. This sign advertises a store that gets in new stock for Ramzan ( Muslim ), Christmas ( Christian ), Diwali ( Hindu ) and New Year ( which one is not specified ).

Sadly, inter-religious tolerance is being challenged in today’s India.

Pilgrim on a ‘plane

 

While I was practising as a dentist, people at parties often asked me what I did for a living. Telling them what I did often brought the conversation to a quick conclusion.

MARY

Medjugorje is a small town in Bosnia and Herzogovina. Between 1942 and ’45 during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, over sixty Roman Catholic friars were killed there, allegedly by Communist resistance fighters. In 1981, when this area was still part of the former Yugoslavia, some six children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Despite opposition by the Yugoslav authorities, Medjugorje rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. The authorities softened their opposition to this during the last few years leading up to the country’s tragic disintegration.

I used to visit friends in Belgrade often during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. I flew back and forth, often on flights operated by Jugoslovenski Aerotransport (‘JAT’), one of Yugoslavia’s two major airlines, the other being the former Aviogenex. A friend of mine in Belgrade was once looking after some visiting German bankers, when he told them:

“Yugoslavia has two state airlines. Germany only has one … now that the Luftwaffe has been closed down.”

Many of the JAT flights between Belgrade and London touched down at Zagreb to pick up passengers. In the ‘80s, Zagreb was an airport used by pilgrims visiting Medjugorje. I was travelling back to London with a friend from Belgrade. We had occupied two of a set of three seats. We used the middle seat, which was free when we boarded, to store some of our hand-baggage. Many people boarded at Zagreb, including a man who occupied the middle seat. He told us that he had just been to Medjugorje, and asked my friend:

“Do you believe in the Blessed Virgin Mary?”

“I would love to discuss that with you,” she said, “but not now because I have a terrible headache.”

The pilgrim turned to me, and then asked me something.

Not having heard it properly because of the noise made by the ‘plane’s engines, I replied:

“I am a dentist, actually.”

After that, our initially chatty pilgrim neighbour did not say a word during the flight to London.