A place of refuge

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.

The highest point

LAST BUT NOT LEAST on our visit to Mount Abu was a visit to Guru Shikhar, the highest peak of the Mount Abu district. Being a Sunday, the winding road leading to it had heavy traffic. Many of the private cars had Gujarati registration plates, and judging by the general lack of driving skill and courtesy I guessed that many of the drivers had little if any experience of negotiating mountain roads. There is an observatory perched on the very top of the mountain. It is part of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The views from the summit were spectacular especially because the air was uncharacteristically free of mists and heat haze. We were surrounded by lower peaks and in one direction there was a good view of the plain far below us. Mount Abu is the highest point in Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat. We left this peak to visit other sights dotted around on the far from flat Mount Abu plateau.

A short visit to Shankar Math will suffice all but the most devout of Hindus. A modern structure surmonted by an enormous lingam houses a much older and slightly older lingam carved in white stone with bluish grey striations.

Achal Garh has several attractions. There is a large attractive Jain Temple, which looked quite old. It was surrounded by newly carved sculptural fragments which were being used to replace worn out stone elements of the temple. Old parts were being exchanged for newly made replicas.

Close to the Jain temple at Achal Ghar, there is a market place catering mostly to tourists. Beyond the market a well made road winds upwards to Kapoor Tank, a peaceful water body where we saw women washing laundry in its calm water. Little children, including a tiny three year old girl, offered to guide us around the area.

The road continues to ascend above Kapoor Tank until it reaches the gates of an old fortress. It was built in 1452 by a local Rajput ruler, Maharana Khumbar of Mewar, on the site of an older fort. Not much remains to be seen. The area within the fort contains various Jain temples, which I hope to look at on a future visit.

The Jain temples at Adhar Devi, high up on a mountain slope, can only be reached by climbing more than 350 stone steps. I did not feel like doing that, so there is little I can tell you about them except that one of them is called Arbuda Devi Temple, Arbuda being the pre-British name of Abu, as in Mount Abu.

The highlight of our excursion was not the highest peak but an incredibly beautiful lake surrounded by rocks in the middle of a wildlife nature reserve. A badly surfaced road leads from the main road between Mount Abu and Guru Shikhar to Trevor’s Tank. This water body was created in 1897 by Colonel GH Trevor to breed crocodiles. A fading notice on of the huge rocks surrounding the pool advises visitors not to enter the water because of the very real risk of meeting these creatures. Some German hikers, whom we met, pointed at some crocs resting on a rock across the Tank, but I could not see them. The land for the wildlife sanctuary had been gifted to Trevor by the Maharaja of Sirohi, in whose kingdom Mount Abu is located.

The Tank has to be seen to believed. Its smooth water reflects the finest details of the rocks and vegetation surrounding it. Our new friend Dr Sharma told us that one of the joys of Trevor’s Tank is listening to the sounds of nature. During our visit, these had to compete with the sounds made by the excited groups of mainly young trippers. If there is limited time available when you visit Mount Abu, then Trevor’s Tank and the Dilwara Jain Temples should be seen before anything else. But, it would be foolish not to allot at least several days to savour Mount Abu.

We ate lunch in the restaurant of the Jaipur House hotel, the highest of the former Rajputana palaces in Mount Abu . Its windows provide superb views over the Nakki Lake, the Polo Ground and the rest of Mount Abu town. The former palace, now a hotel, is elegant without being flamboyant.

We strolled down from the palace through the town to our hotel feeling sad that on the following morning we would be leaving Mount Abu, which has captured our hearts.

They helped Garibaldi to unify Italy

The Arberesh of Sicily are a group of people descended from Albanians, who left the Balkans in the 15th century to escape from the Ottomans.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, is separated from the rest of the island by a crescent of mountain ranges. After the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs in the 9th century, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat to Monreale, a small hill town southwest of the city. There, he built a cathedral and then, later, after the Arabs had been expelled, the Normans built a Benedictine monastery. Monreale, which overlooks the metropolis, is now a suburb of Greater Palermo but in mediaeval times it was almost 5 miles away from the old walled city.

Albanian refugees landed along the coast of Sicily during the 15th century while the Ottomans were fighting in Albania, ably resisted for many years by George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-68). Some Albanians landed near Palermo about twenty years after the death of Skanderbeg. In 1488, the Archbishop of Monreale granted them some vacant, disused, plague-ravished land across the mountains about 5 miles south of Monreale. They were told to make the most of it, and they did so very successfully. In exchange for this ‘gift’ of land, the Albanian settlers were required to recompense the Archbishop with taxes raised on what they were able to produce.

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The settlers established a town on the south-east facing slope of Monte Pizzuta. Originally named Piana dei Greci, it is now known as Piana degli Albanese (‘Piana’).  With a present population of about 7,000, most of the people speak an archaic form of Albanian known as Arberesh, as their mother tongue. They are also fluent in Italian and Sicilian.

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Bilingual signs (Italian/Arberesh) in Piana

In 2014, I published a book, “From Albania to Sicily”, which describes the Arberesh communities in Piana and several other villages in western Sicily. In October this year, while staying in Palermo, we re-visited Piana for a day and a night.

The bus from Palermo to Piana winds through the mountains separating Piana from the capital. As we travelled along the sinuous road with its many hairpin bends, I looked at the slopes strewn with greyish boulders and pondered the difficulty of the terrain through which the Albanian settlers had to struggle in an era long before there were decent roads. Then, I remembered the landscape of wild, steep mountain ridges in south western Albania, south of Vlora. Travelling through the wild terrain south of Palermo must have seemed no different to what the settlers had left behind in Albania.

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San Demetrio Megalomartire

On arrival in Piana, I popped into the lovely cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire. This church has an iconostasis such as you would expect to find in an Eastern Orthodox church. It is home to worshippers who practise the Byzantine rites. The first inhabitants of Piana, who originated mainly in south-western Albania and the Morea (Peloponnese) were Greek Orthodox Christians. The Archbishop of Monreale allowed them to continue to worship according to the Byzantine rites, but they had to adopt the Pope in Rome, rather than the Patriarch in Constantinople, as their spiritual leader.

In 2016, we visited Himara in Albania. This beautiful seaside resort was one of the places where the Arberesh lived before escaping to Sicily. The old part of the town, high above the coastal resort, is largely abandoned, but it resembles closely the historic centre of Piana. Incidentally, Piana has a street named Via Himara, and, also, a restaurant called Valle Himara.

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One of the reasons for our recent visit to Piana was to present a copy of my book to the town’s excellent library that occupies two storeys above Piana’s centrally located Extra Bar, which is famed for its fine canoli. We were invited to meet Ing. Rosario Petta, the town’s Mayor, who showed great interest in my volume, and even suggested that it ought to be translated into Italian.

During our visit, we met many people who remembered us from our earlier stay in Piana. They greeted us like old friends, an indication that the Arberesh have not abandoned the Albanian traditions of friendship and hospitality. They have also not forgotten other traditions they brought with them from Albania. Although they dress like other Italians for daily activities, no opportunity is lost to change into colourful, decorated traditional Arberesh/Albanian costumes. This is particularly the case at Easter time, when visitors from all over Italy flock to Piana to see great numbers of people wearing this garb.

Eric Hobsbawm remarked that the people of Piana, “… had a reputation for rebelliousness …” He quotes the words of GM Trevelyan who said that Piana “… was the hearth of freedom in Western Sicily.” I wondered why of all the towns in Sicily, Piana was one of the most rebellious. GM Trevelyan puts it down to some kind of inheritance. Maybe, those Albanians, who preferred living freely rather than under the yoke of the Ottomans and also chose to leave their homes in the Balkans in the 15th century, were perhaps endowed with something, maybe even genetic, which engendered in them a love of freedom and equality. Who can say?

The Arberesh in Piana played an important role in assisting Garibaldi in his invasion of Sicily in 1860, the beginning of a series of events that led to the Unification of Italy. When GM Trevelyan visited the town sometime before 1912, he met leading citizens of the town, “… in their circolo, where a very intelligent and just pride is taken in the history of the revolution of 1860 and the highly creditable part played in it by the ‘Albanians’ of Piana.” Garibaldi, who began his campaign to liberate and unify the Italians in Sicily, proclaimed to the Sicilian Arberesh who fought with him that: “Avete combattuto come leoni” (i.e.: they had fought like lions).

During our recent visit to the library in Piana, we met a group of highly educated librarians, who showed great interest in my book. When we began discussing Garibaldi in Sicily, they, like several people we met in Palermo, displayed unfavourable sentiments about the Unifier of Italy. They all felt that the liberation of Sicily and its incorporation into Greater Italy was a bad thing for the island. What had once been a prosperous part of the Italian lands became impoverished whilst the previously impoverished north of Italy became increasingly wealthier. Many of the people we met in Piana and Palermo suggested that the liberator Garibaldi, a northern Italian, had not only liberated Sicily from the Bourbons, but had also ‘liberated’ much of Sicily’s wealth including the contents of the vaults of the island’s banks. I have yet to check the veracity of these surprising slurs on Garibaldi’s reputation.

Returning to Piana, this delightful little hillside town is an attractive, peaceful place to stay. There is accommodation in the town and in the countryside around it. You can explore the old town with its steep streets as well as the interesting Nicola Barbato Museum, the lake, and several old churches. Energetic visitors can enjoy breathing fresh mountain air on the slopes of Mount Pizzuta and other nearby peaks. If you speak Albanian (or Italian), you will have no difficulty communicating with the hospitable Arberesh. Although the Arberesh language differs from Albanian, Albanian-speakers can easily converse with the Arberesh. If, however, you are hungry for Balkan food, Piana will disappoint.

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Various restaurants in Piana, including the first-rate Antica Trattoria San Giovanni, serve wonderful Sicilian fare. Signor Salemi, who established the Antica Trattoria, was a child in May 1947. He was present at a large public political gathering on the 1st of May at Portella della Ginestra (close to Piana), when members of a gang of bandits led by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano opened fire on the unarmed people, massacring about 12 folk including children as young as he was and a baby. But, that is a tragic story that I will save for another time.

Wherever you go in Piana, you will see the Albanian double-headed eagle and Albanian flags. Road direction signs and other public notices are frequently bilingual: Arberesh and Italian.  In the Cathedral, I noticed a huge poster recording the 550th anniversary of the death of the original settlers’ compatriot, Skanderbeg. The people of Piana retain their ancestral homeland, Albania, close to their hearts.

book cov

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ARBERESH BY READING
FROM ALBANIA TO SICILY

by Adam Yamey.

Available on Amazon and bookdepository.com