Sunday, 10 December 2017

Assandh - Haryana series

Travel notes:

It was on a crisp cool morning, that I began my journey from Chandigarh with my friend in his car. The journey takes us to through the famous Grand Trunk Road, the national highway to Delhi; a sense of historical awe always strikes me while driving on this road, which is a stretch of the direct descendent of the ancient route that connected the capital of Magadh, Pataliputra to the North Western Frontier Provinces and onward to ancient educational centre Taxila.  I am but traversing a short 140 odd kilometre stretch of a road that originally connected the two distant regions of a civilisation, at either ends of  which were great cities like Taxila and Nalanda similar in cultural and religious characteristics though separated by thousands of miles.
In medieval times, this route is more famous for the arterial road built and maintained by the administration of yet another scion of Bihar, Sher Shah Suri, who established his capital in Delhi, having routed the nascent Mughal empire to oblivions of an unceremonious exile for well over a decade.
I am driving the car, through moderate and dense fog patches alternating with each other, and the cities of Kurukshetra and Karnal pass me by without my having seen their boards. I am passing through the Holy Land for devout Hindus, an area in which is set is the great Epic of the Mahabharata, in which the Holy Bhagwat Gita is Revealed by Lord Krishna to the warrior prince Arjuna. This route also traverses the ancient Harappan sites and Buddhist sites which lie at a few kilometres from the highway on either side. We are heading towards one such Buddhist site, about 40 kilometres from another important medieval city of Karnal.

The site:

I had first known about the site of Assandh Stupa from Charles Allen’s recent book on Asoka. He links the antecedents of his queen Assandhmitta with the town of Assandh, to which we are headed. She was a Buddhist, and in his book there is a picture of the stupa from the highway, towering very high and mighty; it had aroused enough emotional pull for me to take a two hour flight from my home base into Chandigarh and thereafter a three hour car drive to the ancient site. Subsequent readings indicated that it is more established as a Stupa from Kushana times, and the official archaeologically verified description also places it in the latter. However, considering the probabilities that older structures on areas with several cultural phases one above the another, were often enlarged or refurbished it is possible that the connection goes back to Ashokan times.

It is a typical pleasant and quiet village in Haryana, where the dirty pangs of urban real estate development are yet to gain roots. There are open fields, and the small village is actually settled around the stupa. The village stands on an archaeological mound that may give enough opportunities for researchers for decades of excavation and documentation. Haryana has several Harappan age sites as well, and a mix of historical research and tradition place the Rig Veda in the lands of Punjab and Haryana as well. So how old does a site like this can be, is anyone’s guess, but the specific ruins that we are seeking to see, is ascribed to the Kushana age. Given my own personal affinity for the state and my comfort in communication in the locally used vernacular, this was a new connection I was establishing with the past.

The remains of the stupa are contained inside a huge enclosure, with a flimsy yet respected government installed lock. The lock is opened for us to allow us inside. It is a huge mound, containing several layers of brickwork inside, now in ruins and ensconced within the mud and vegetation that has taken over the structure. There seems to be at least three layers to the stupa top, and it stands on a very high platform of brickwork, some part of which is exposed for the curious visitor to walk underneath vegetation to see closely.

This yielded Painted Grey Ware, early historic pottery, Kushana coins, Yaudheya coins and medieval relics. It is easily more than 25 metres in height. I can imagine, if it were ever discovered a few hundred years ago, it could have been saved and rebuilt like Sanchi or Sarnath stupas. No great relics of gateways or iconographic embellishments are found on the site, and I am not aware of any authentic information of their existence of their vestiges in any museum as of now. It has an elongated dome area, and the spokes were of brickwork, while the core was filled of mud and brick bats as was the usual architectural style of stupas. I am not aware of any discovery of relics in the core either.

We stand in awe on the site, as if an invisible connection to a past dating back two millennia had bound us there.

I proceeded to see the rear of the Stupa site, and one has to climb a little protective wall, nudge an unlocked gate open to get into the rear and soak in a better view. The rear view shows the circular perambulatory walkway around the dome of the stupa better. It is not advisable to step on it for fear of disturbing the archaeological finds that may lie unearthed and may inadvertently be lost forever. 

With my sincere regard for archaeological conservation, I refrain from climbing onto the stupa core or its dome. I satisfy myself with a few more photographs from different angles, and satisfied, clamber down the sloping path from the mound back to the car.

Several kind villagers were around to help us in case we needed any assistance, offered food and tea etc., and it was a kind of homecoming of sorts, considering my own upbringing was at a place just over a hundred kilometres from this site. Offering the regular salutary routine greeting of Ram, Ram, Tau (Tau in Hindi / Haryanavi means elder uncle), I move back to the car, and we park at a nearby dhaba for a wonderful meal of onion parathas with butter and fresh curd. No better way to sit and soak in the experience we had just been blessed with.

Acknowledgements: Manoj Khurana for the entire trip.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Asafi Imambara, Lucknow

Asafi Imambara

Main hall of the Imambara

The Asafi Masjid and the Asafi Imambara, the latter commonly known as the Bada Imambara, constitute the main attraction for the faithful as well as tourists alike, in the old city areas of Lucknow.

Describing the grandeur of the Imambara is a difficult task,  given its scale in building as well as the intricacy in embellishment. Designed by a Delhi architect, the Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula's contribution to the architectural and cultural history of the kingdom, it continues to serve the community since 1791 except for the interruption of the Great War of 1857-8 and the ensuing decades of occupation by the British forces.

It was also a famine relief project by the Nawab to keep the economy running in bleak times, a medieval version of a welfare state. 

The Nawab is also buried in the Imambara itself. The main hall is over 50 metres long and 16 metres wide, and the 15 metre high ceiling is unsupported by any pillars in between; in fact, it also holds the great labryinth, the Bhool Bhulaiyan which means one could climb to the terrace enroute a maze and keep bumping into blind alleys and corridors without exits. Of late, the guided tours have anyway robbed the tourist of this wonderful experience since the exits are well populated, in addition to some new stairs at the far end to cater to the tourist rush.

The views of the Jama Masjid, and the area that was the erstwhile Macchi Bhawan (now the King George Memorial Hospital) are wonderful from the terrace. 

It is an active place of worship and tourists are requested to please observe decorum in the premises. 

Pic taken by me 1997 in a color film camera, later digitized in restoration

Gateway to the Imambara

Dark alleys of the bhool - bhulaiya

The view from top upto Teelewali Masjid

Kabuli Masjid Panipat

The Kabuli Masjid was built by Babur after his historic defeat of the Sultanate forces, led by Sultan Ibrahim Lodi himself, who lost his life in the battle of Panipat (1526). Kabuli Masjid could have been named after his adopted hometown Kabul (Babur's actual native place being Andijan Valley, Uzbekistan) or after his beloved wife Kabuli Begam. In either case, it is symbolically related to the city he chose even to rest his mortal remains, Kabul. 

This is the historic area where the first battle of Panipat was fought. A modern statue of Ibrahim Lodi stands alongside his grave, a few hundred metres away, now interrupted by modern suburban houses.

Babur had buried Ibrahim with respect as due to a fallen king.  In gratitude for the victory, he built this brick and plaster mosque, in a style not very different from the prevalent style of the Lodis in Delhi, of which one sees several examples scattered all over the capital. However the perch on top of the (high single) dome is different, probably a central Asian imported style. I am not aware of the architect's name either. In recent times the complex has been better maintained and restored from falling into pieces, but a fair amount of damage over time has already taken its toll. 

Western wall of the prayer chamber; mihrab in centre.

Underside of the dome

Ibrahim Rouza, Bijapur

Masjid of the Ibrahim Rouza

Ibrahim Rouza is an exquisite mausoleum of the highly respected Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II (built around 1630). In fact most of the Adil Shahi royals were patrons of a hybrid and eclectic culture, literature and architecture, drawing from multiple inspirations ranging from middle eastern to local Deccani styles. In fact the kingdom benefited from the very liberal and mutually respectful attitude of followers of both the major religions (Hindus and Muslims) towards one another, to the extent that court culture and common public both enjoyed goodwill and harmony. We must remember this culture when we see the Ibrahim Rouza.

The ASI website describes the Ibrahim Rauza thus:

"The Ibrahim-Rauza, built by Ibrahim 'Adil Shah II (1580-1627), consists of his tomb and mosque within a square compound, both rising face to face from a common raised terrace, with a tank and fountain between them. The mosque has a rectangular prayer-chamber, with a facade of five arches, shaded by the chhajja and a slender minaret at each corner. Enclosed within a square fenestration rises the bulbous dome with a row of tall petals at its base. The square tomb with double aisles around it, the inner one pillared, has similar features but is finer in proportions. Two narrow arches, next to the ones at each end, break up its facade. On the interior, each wall has three arches, all panelled and embellished with floral, arabesque or inscriptional traceries. The tomb-chamber has a low curved ceiling made of joggled masonry, with empty space between it and the dome

Extensive calligraphic embellishments adorn the main tomb structure. There is a lot of peace and tranquility in these premises. 

Please do note the beautiful minarets, very distinct than one finds in Western or Northern India. The main domes are bulbous and have lotus platforms, and below them are well crafted arches. Acoustics inside are impressive, allowing a prayer said by one person in a corner softly to be heard and joined in by others across the huge hall. 

People who go to Bijapur only to see the Gol Gumbad, are wasting their time and money. The Jama Masjid and Ibrahim Rouza should occupy the main (or at least an equal) part of attention.

Ibrahim Rouza Tomb 

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad

The Mecca Masjid is one of the most revered places of worship in south India; situated in heart of Hyderabad, it was an important centre around which the great medieval city grew with its great palaces (Purani Haveli, Chowmahalla, and others) residential areas and markets grew.

It was built by Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, in the later years of the Qutub Shahi dynasty. It is one of the best examples of Deccan architecture. Rugged yet sublime in look, it provides space for over 10,000 faithful to offer prayers at any point of time. Some of the bricks for the mosque were made from soil brought from Mecca, hence the name.

Hyderabad passed into hands of the Mughals eventually and then slipped out of their control when their protege Asaf Jahi dynasty took control of what was practically an independent kingdom, soon to grow into one of the most rich, cultured and administratively strong kingdoms of the Indian Empire. 

Teele wali Masjid , Lucknow

The Teelewali Masjid, the mosque-on-the-mound, was built by Fidaye Khan Khoka in the reign of Shahjehan. He was the disciple of Shah Pir Mohammed and  built the mosque near the Pir's mausoleum. The area has several madrasas and hostels around of which everything was destroyed in the great war of 1857-8. 
It is built in an exquisite style and its interior is absolutely stunning.

Masjid at the Residency complex, Lucknow

Masjid of the Lucknow Residency is one of the beautiful ruins that dot the city of Lucknow. The old plan of the city was such that it was an unbroken, well embellished stretch of buildings, small and large palaces from the area of the Residency right up to the city to the the palace areas of the Nawab.

The Residency has this architectural beauty, replete with bulbous domes and minarets, standing on top of a arched platform. Adjacent to it is an Imambara.

The Residency is a well documented building and played one of the most important roles in the 1857-8 war, probably only next to the war of Delhi. 

Asar Mahal, Bijapur

Asar Mahal or Asar-e-Sharif is a revered place of worship constructed in 1646 by the Adil Shahis.  
The portico has four impressive octagonal wooden columns, with wooden panel ceiling. It faces an artificial lake. The walls and ceiling of the hall display landscape paintings. 
It is also said to hold very Holy Relics, though the Lonely Planet guide says it once housed them. Being a topic of sensitive nature, I did not validate the same on site. The caretakers are extremely courteous and very glad to show the visitors around in between the prayer timings.

Khairul - Manazil Masjid,Delhi

This beautiful mosque constructed in Akbar's reign in Delhi, in the Dinpanah area, the capital city of Humayun, is evocative of the phase in history when the young Emperor, having lost his father in a domestic accident, had just been settling his power in an unstable political atmosphere. His gratitude to Maham Anga his wet nurse was significant. Wet nurse was a common practice on royal families where the infant was fed and looked after by a trusted foster mother. In Akbar's case, given the disturbed early life he had due to Humayun's exile and wars, the role of the foster mother would have been even greater.

Maham Anga built this large mosque, in what we now recognize as the phase where late Sultanate architectural style merged with early Mughal. A lot of colour tiling is visible in its ruined and residual state. Examples of  well developed calligraphy are also found.  The arched main hall is of similar style as in contemporary mosques as Kalai Quhna Masjid, or the Jamali Kamali, though simple.

Champaner - Jama Masjid

Champaner as a UNESCO World Heritage site holds several gems of a unique style of Gujarat Islamic architecture. The Jama Masjid of Champaner is dated to 1513 by Sultan Mahmud Begada, which makes it even older than the Mughal Empire (1526) in India. The art forms include locally used motifs as well which make it a very hybrid art and architectural innovation (like oriel windows, carved minarets, jaalis etc.).

Jama Masjid, Lucknow

Jama Masjid of Lucknow is one of the most beautiful mosques in the country. A relatively new construction, of mid-19th century origin, the building is exquisitely decorated with coloured stucco motifs. It was started by King Mohammed Ali Shah, and completed after his death by Queen Malika Jahan Sahiba. 

It is best viewed from the Bada Imambara terrace, since a full view of its beautiful facade including its minarets and domes is not possible from close by.

It has a square lofty terrace, a rectangular prayer hall, and a facade on west with eleven arches. The central one is a high doorway which rises above the roof level.

Respecting the board that requests non-namazis not to enter the main precincts, I did not go inside to take pictures of the interior. Another post in my blog by a guest author has wonderful pictures of the interior ( )

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Mumbai series - St. John the Baptist Church, Thane

St. John the Baptist Church is one of the oldest churches in the Mumbai- Thane – Vasai region. The Portugese city of Vasai / Bassein was the base from where the missionaries branched out to Thane for their proselytising efforts. The Portugese were Catholics and several denominations like Fransicians, Jesuits, secular clergy etc. were active in the Thane region.

 The parish dates to 1579 however the current building was not the original one of the St. John the Baptist church. The building that we see now was the St. Anthony church, the only surviving one after the Marathas raided and destroyed all the other churches in Thana and Vasai region in the 1730s.

 The parish has been the one of largest and most important ones since inception. The church was painstakingly restored under the conservation expertise of Vikas Dilawari the highly-acclaimed restoration specialist. Now the church looks absolutely stunningly beautiful and the conservation work ensured its original look was restored to perfection.

19th century references to the Thane Christians (Gazetteer of Bombay Presidency Vol 13 Part 1, p.206/7) state that the Christians of Thana (Thane was called Thana then) were an independent respectable class and were known to be mild, amiable, clean and tidy in their habits, besides known to be hardworking and orderly. The majority of the Christian population fell under the overall administration of the Archbishop of Goa, under whom were the Vicar Generals of Bombay, Salsette and Bassein.

Travel notes: The Church is prominently located in the Talaopali area of Thane, now one of the most populated busy areas of the bustling satellite city. Thane is a completely different city than Mumbai (and with a history of its own), however for purpose of touristy convenience I have clubbed this post under the Mumbai series.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Mumbai series - Statue of Progress

Progress, under the themes of Agriculture, Commerce and Science and/or Engineering was associated with the Victorian age both in UK and in the Indian Empire. The four huge, beautifully carved status on the Victoria Terminus highlighted these themes symbolically. 

The 14 feet high statue of Progress, carrying a copper gilt flaming torch and a winged wheel, was sculpted by the famous sculptor Thomas Earp, for the grand new building of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. It stands on top of the grand dome. 

Stevens placed Urbs Prima De Indis the allegorical figure representing the commercial and marine character of Bombay populace, opposite the CST, on the BMC. The statue of Engineering was placed on the grand edifice of the head office of what is now the Western Railway (opposite Churchgate station). Thus the theme of Progress is to be understood in its entirety. The Victorian age was marked by relative political calm given the new political order of Maharajas / Rajas falling in order in the Imperial structure and resulted in reduced localised/regional battles. The resultant prosperity, buttressed by the first ever institutionalization of an universally applicable, secular criminal law, the establishment of modern judiciary (High Courts being established and founding of modern judicial process), the legislation supporting "modern" banking/commerce (the Negotiable Instruments Act), and railways, was actually a leap forward in the Indian milieu. Infrastructure and administrative developments like Bombay Municipal Corporation, set-up of mills, expansion of docks and urban areas all happened mainly in the Victorian age in Bombay.  

So next time you pass by CST, please remember the spirit she stands for; from Victorian concept of Progress to eternal spirit of Progress of an average Mumbaikar in current context ! 

Incidentally, the actual statue of Queen Victoria, which was placed on the facade wall,  under the clock, disappeared a few decades ago without trace or any record. 

Bombay, even over a hundred years ago, signified a city of Progress, and of marine, commercial and industrial effort and the resultant prosperity. 
I am sure Mumbai based readers of this post would agree that even now this is a city, where we not only dare to dream, but also a place where our dreams come true!

Reason I never put up this post earlier was that I believe this is common place information for history and art enthusiasists. However in the recent past I came across a few well educated people who were ignorant on history aspects, confusing this statue for a depiction of the Queen herself. Hence I thought of putting this post up for benefit of the city audience. 

Travel notes: It is on top of the CST building itself.

Mumbai series - The Urbs Prima de Indis

She is an allegorical figure that represents the progressive and mercantile aspect of the city, and adorns the monumental Bombay Municipal Corporation building as part of its original design by Stevens. 

The Municipal Corporation was created in the High Noon of the Victorian Age, where a lot of commercial progress, industrial investments and significant expansions of the marine and railway connections were made, for expansion of trade and commerce. 

Notice the ship held aloft in her hand. The sculptor was Hems, and it represents the motto devised by the visionary governor Sir Bartle Frere and later adopted by the BMC. (BMC was completed in 1893)

This innovative sculpture faces the traveler tumbling out of the train at CST local hence it is understandable that it gets missed in the chaos of local travel. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Nashik Caves

Nashik caves, popularly known as Panduleni are in Ambad area which is an industrial township just outside the city area. The fastest way for any site to be made popular is to link them with either Mahabharata or the Ramayana, and in Nashik one finds example of both; the Panduleni and the Sita Gumpha. The caves are in no way related to the epics but a popular disposition.
These caves represent a phase of continuity in the overall spread of Buddhist monastic establishments between the 2nd century BC and the 5th century CE, when the great cave habitations spread far and wide in the Indian subcontinent were carved. Within the Mumbai and nearby regions itself we find Kanheri, Mahakali, Jogeshwari caves, and nearby are Karla (Lonavala) and Nashik caves. So these need to be viewed in holistic perspective as an art and civic infrastructure form common to the spread of Buddhism.
I have attempted to take pictures of the caves which highlight the artistic aspects. The caves also have good water retention reservoirs and hence suited to long term habitation. Dwelling in one place was advised to the monks during the rainy season, and the caves would have served thesir simple needs adequately.

More on the descriptions of the pictures once the second set also gets appended here.

Travel notes: Nashik caves are in Ambad area which is on the Mumbai Nashik highway, and if one is travelling from Mumbai, they fall on the right side of the road, necessitating an U-turn at one of the traffic intersections. It takes about 2 hours 10-20 minutes of drive from the Thane area. The nearest famous landmark is the Gateway Hotel (still commonly known as Taj Hotel given its parent brand). There is a modern stupa on ground level which is in no way related to the caves; however, as a result of the institution of the park around the stupa, there is reasonable tourist interest in the area. The walk to the caves takes about 12-15 minutes of walk on an incline that includes broad and convenient steps. It is an ASI protected monument.
The common websites say it is north facing but it is more east facing is what I concluded after my trip. Hence it is advisable to go there by 9 am if one wants good photographs in natural light, because by 11 am the zenith sun light is adversely positioned to allowing good photographs.
Place of my stay: Gateway Ambad (Taj Group), Nashik
Mode of transport: Private car. Other modes like public buses are also available.
Time spent in site: About two hours.