In India, People & lifestyle, Uncategorized

In the playground of the snow leopard, I found a sanctuary

The Deban forest guest house

There is a small patch of land with a house on it, I visit so often in my mind. A crystal clear river flows below in front  and behind lies a mountain covered with tropical trees . Tucked away in the land of ethereal beauty, the Deban forest guest house situated within the Namdapha National Park, in Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most beautiful and serene spots I have ever been to.

view of the Namdapha National Park

Namdapha National Park is the third largest park in India and covers a varied range of altitudes. Hence offers a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. It also prides itself for being home to the clouded leopard, the snow leopard, the leopard and the tiger. Lot of birds inhabit this sanctuary that aren’t seen elsewhere.

A map of the park

As children growing up in Digboi, Reema and I always waited impatiently for our parents friends or relatives to visit from out-of-town. Usually , as part of showing the guests around the local spots , a trip to Deban guest house was planned. One had to apply for an inner line permit to enter Arunchal Pradesh as it is a protected area and enter is restricted. We have all hung around the family telephone, waiting for it to ring and confirm the permits .
Much excitement was in the air as 4 wheel drive Willy’s MB (Jeep) were borrowed from friends living in the tea estates. A whole inventory was done of food, beverages, alcohol and clothes etc that would be required for the 2-3 day trip. Meals planned, outdoor gear cleaned and at least four times a day we kids were threatened to be left behind if  we didn’t behave ourselves.

A typical thatch and bamboo hut on stilts that you will pass by

View of the park

We would start of early in the morning, stop at Margherita club or at a friend’s tea estate bungalow for breakfast, then continue. The drive from Margherita to the park is picturesque and at any given time , you are surrounded by 50 shades of green. A friend once counted 12 different types of ferns that we had crossed growing along the side of the road. We would stop on the way at the Miao Carpet factory, an undertaking to increase the income of the Tibetan settlement relocated there since 1974. A tour of the factory always included a small demonstration and selection of a carpet or two, which would be packed and kept ready to be picked up on our return journey. This stop, sorely tested us kids who just wanted to get to the riverside.

Miao carpet factory

My father would again stop at the check post to sign the required paper work, have a cup of tea and catch up on the animal sighting stories with the forest officer on duty. He always sent a car ahead that carried all the ration, the cook and his man Friday to get lunch started, with standing instructions to chill the beer in the icy cold waters of the Neo Dehing river that rapidly flows a little ahead of the guest house. Those days the guest house had four bedrooms, a dining room and a living room of sorts. A basic kitchen use to be there which our cook took over during our stay. There was no electricity and at night hurricane lamps were used. It had a wrap around veranda which was covered in mesh and about a hundred pigeons lived in the roof space below the tin sheets. Every morning one woke up to them cooing to each other in love and hate.

The Neo Dehing river, near the guest house

Once lunch was over , the grown ups would retire for a siesta. We kids would race to the beach, which consist of rocks smoothed by the river, large boulders to tiny  pebbles that felt like glass. I read once an article about an Englishman, who on retiring from an administrative post from the North east of India, took back home a truck load of these riverbed stones. He was so enamored by their shapes, textures, feel and colour. I too have a few small ones around the house and time to time, I love to rub the palm of my hand on these stones. Rubbing stones to start a fire was a favourite activity back then. Running up and down those warm rocks, we would collect anything that caught our imagination  to build whatever shape took our fancy.

After sunset a bonfire was lit, guitars came out and we kids were allowed to roast potatoes on a stick.  The sounds from the jungle  which travel far in the night, kept everyone guessing which animal it might be and how far away . There were no set bedtime on these trips, though I doubt we were awake much longer post dinner. Mornings we use to wake up early , crawl into our outdoor clothes and creep outside to go play on the machan, a platform erected on the trees. We would pretend that we had spotted a tiger or seen a herd of elephants passing by. In reality we made so much noise that no animal ever crossed our vision.

The vegetation

I am not sure what animals the grown ups saw , when they went on a ride or on elephant back into the jungle. Kids were never taken and this suited us fine. We had too many games to make up and play around the guest house and by the broad beach, which must surely be a playground belonging to some god. The sheer beauty of that spot is worth witnessing in one’s life time. During my last visit , which was seventeen years ago, I remember my father pointing out a form on a tree not too far from where we were standing. Soon the form lifted itself up and flew over us. It was a Great Indian Hornbill and the shadow cast by it covered us three adults standing beneath . I have never seen such a large bird before or after.

I should make a special mention of Nitai, our cook of those days. He loved cooking and gatherings bought out the best in him. Apart from the four big meals ( breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner)  he always had a snack to offer every hour or so.  Probably because Nitai  grew up on a tea estate, tea was the most important meal for him . He use to carry crisp starched tablecloths, napkins and even my mom’s silver tea set to these outings. It didn’t matter which location was choose, the riverside or the lawns, it had to be served just right with a cake and a freshly prepared savoury.

the Great Indian Hornbill

Maybe  it was those trips to Deban, were as a child I never had any anticipation of seeing a tiger or a leopard , just the thrill of the sight and sound of the forest , frolicking  in that picturesque setting that now whenever I feel the stress of urban living in my mind I visit my sanctuary, climb up to the machan or just wander by the river. One day I hope to go back , to spot the snow leopard while my children frolic in it’s playground.

During the Monsoons the sanctuary is closed and the river in spate, is like an angry monster tearing the hillside apart. Best time to visit would be between end October to Early March. Now you can book a room in the Guest house via trip advisor and lots of travel companies arrange the tour.

An overview of the river

In this post I haven’t attempted to describe the flora or the landscape. I have downloaded via google, images that tell a far more dramatic story .

Image courtesy – www. google.in

Standard
In India, People & lifestyle, Uncategorized

The illustrious Irani cafes and restaurants of Mumbai – current and bygone

My first exposure to the Irani cafes in the city was in 1992 , when I joined Sophia (junior) college. Limited budgets and the need to get out of the confined space of college saw my fellow students and me, daily in various cafes that were spread from Colaba to Worli. These eateries were started by Zorastrian Irani Immigrants and were very popular. Some still are.

Those days there were no fancy coffee shops like Coffee day or Starbucks. It wasn’t unusual to see 5 or 6 students share two plates of bun maska and three cups of tea or fresh lime soda (depending o the weather) over two hours in one of these cafes. Very rarely were we asked to leave or order more. With all our chatter, we probably livened up the place in the dull hours of business or may be the owners just took pity on us, perched behind the cash register, with big glass jars in front of them displaying the buns, biscuits etc,  is hard to tell looking back now.

Akuri, a spiced Parsi style of scrambled eggs, Mawa cake, Kheema pau , Ice cream soda, Khari biscuit, Parsi style mutton cutlet, Sali boti were added to my culinary palate. Later on when both my taste buds and wallet grew a bit, Mutton Dhansak, Chicken Farcha, Berry pulao and Patrani Macchi added to the list.

My favourite was Cafe Naaz opposite the hanging gardens on Malabar hill. It had a great view of the marine drive and the lush trees of Malabar hill. My friend Gupi and I were regulars. We spend many happy hours discussing the affairs of the world and our own from this fabulous spot. The cafe was on three levels and the top space was our preferred spot. The food was great and all sorts of people use to come there. Quite popular with both the hoi polloi and the celebrities of Bygone Mumbai. You never really knew who would be seated nearby. It was shut down around 1990’s by the BMC when the restaurant’s lease expired. I am sure many people join me in mourning the loss of this precious cafe.

I remember accompanying a friend’s mom for Christmas shopping and it was a ritual for her to visit Yazdani bakery for the Christmas cake and ginger biscuits. It is located near Horniman circle, in Fort. It advertises  itself as a Persian baked goods shop.

Kayani bakery and co , is said to be the oldest surviving  Irani bakery in the city . It is situated on marine lines and I had my first Bun maska here. It was my introduction to Irani cafe chairs that are made with bent wood and I have coveted them ever since. Thanks to my friend Jackie, I am now a proud owner of four of these chairs!

 

For a proper meal  Jimmy Boy in Fort or Britannia and Co in Ballard Estate are the top pickings. On a recent visit after a gap of many years, it was heartening to see that nothing had changed at Britannia. Including the decor and the owner, Boman Kohinoor, who still did the rounds of greeting each table and showing us a picture of him taken with Prince William and Kate Middleton during their visit to Mumbai. Apart from the food, the interiors of these cafes offer a lot of eye candy for anyone interested in vintage decor and furniture.  A sure treat and a must during a visit to Mumbai.

 

Image courtesy –  author’s own and http://www.google.in

Standard
Indian Textiles, Indigenous crafts of India, People & lifestyle, Uncategorized

Back strap looms of the seven sister states

I have a soft spot for back strap looms, as these were the first  looms I ever saw and the brilliant colours that were laid out and woven together  to form a third colour or pattern still fascinate me even after spending 20 odd years as a weaver and designing for the textile market. Sometimes at night when I am sleepless, I recall those colours and my grandmother softly spinning her yarns. It calms me.

There are over three lakh weavers, in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, the seven north-eastern states of India . These weavers are women and practice their craft on a very primitive loom, which are simple in construction and easy of operation. This is in sharp contrast to traditional weaving in other parts of India where weaving is done by the men generally.

Low in cost, these looms have no permanent fixtures and are easily portable. Leather or cloth band is used to fix the loom around the woman’s back to provide stability while weaving , hence the name back strap loom. In certain parts of the world these are also known as lion looms.


In the these states, weaving is more of a traditional custom, than an occupation. Most women get together in a courtyard outside their houses and set up loom once done with the daily house work and the atmosphere is quite relaxed and informal. During the monsoons these women set up loom inside their homes. During planting and harvest season, one rarely sees any weaving happening as everyone is out in the fields pitching in, agriculture is the primary occupation.


The advantage that lies with these looms is the unlimited scope that they offer for designing as replicating abstract geometric patterns are limitless. Also the weaver is not limited by how many colours she can use in the weft, thus creating very striking designs that are timeless. Narrow strips of cloth are woven and then joined to form unstitched garments which they drape themselves in. Also shawls, bags with long straps and broad fabric belts were traditionally woven.

Nowadays most weavers don’t find it practical to weave these long strips of fabric for garments. They are adapting to changing times with the help of a few non government organizations and designers . A lot of them are creating products primarily for the urban markets, where people are waking up to appreciating hand-made products.  Scarves, cushion covers, runners, table mats, napkins are common products that they create, using their old traditional patterns and vibrant colours schemes.

The Bodos, a Mongoloid stock who at some point in history migrated from the Bod, a province of central Tibet to Assam and parts of Eastern Bengal, are divided into many sub tribes , such as Dimasa Kachari, Bodo Kachari, Rabha, Deori and Garo and over time have spread to many parts of this region.  They are the finest weavers of the north-east .

The decorative shawls of the Ao tribe of Nagaland is probably the most striking in terms of its bold colour scheme and is known as Tsungkotepsu and traditionally exclusively worn by warriors who had killed in battle  or offered a sacrifice of mithun , an animal that is held sacred in many parts of this region.

weaves1

One of my favourite design is from Manipur , known as Kudam Manbi and is based on a pattern of beads and cowrie shells made by the Kukis, a tribe that inhabits regions of Manipur and Mizoram.

Textiles of Manipur

 

image courtesy – http://www.google.in

Refrence – ignca.nic.in; http://www.craftmark.org;

Standard
Heritage Architecture, In India, People & lifestyle

Remains of the Raj -India’s oldest surviving cast Iron building

 Mumbai’s  first luxury hotel , had an exclusive whites only  client policy and belonged to  John Watson, an entrepreneur who had come out from England to start a trading shop in Bombay, as the city was then known. The hotel was named after its owner , Watson’s Hotel.

Designed in England by Rowland Mason Odish, a civil engineer.   The building was fabricated in England and constructed on site between 1860 and 1863. The five-storied structure housed 130 guest rooms, as well as a lobby, restaurant and a bar at the ground level. The hotel also had a 30 by 9 meters (98 ft × 30 ft) atrium originally used as a ballroom with a glass skylight.

At its peak, Watson’s hotel employed English waitresses in its restaurant and ballroom, inspiring a common joke at the time: “If only Watson had imported the English weather as well.”

Among the hotel’s notable guests was Mark Twain, who wrote about the city’s crows he saw outside his  balcony and the Lumiere Brothers. The brothers  screened their movie at this hotel in 1896 and that screening is an epic in Indian cinematography , as being the country’s first movie screening.

Rumour has it ,  that Jamshedji Tata opened the Taj Mahal Palace hotel near the Gateway of India,  after being refused entry into this hotel.
After the death of John Watson, the hotel  started losing its popularity to the more grand and new Taj Mahal Palace hotel. It was leased for the terms of 999 years at a yearly rent of Rupees ninety two and twelve annas to Abdul Haq. It closed in the 1960s .

Later  the property was subdivided and partitioned into smaller cubicles that were let out on rent as homes and offices. Thus started the neglect of the building as under the Bombay rent control act, it isn’t worth it for the owners to maintain their buildings and the decay set in.

The condition of  the building was publicized by Italian architect, Renzo Piano.  As a result of his efforts, the building was listed in June 2005 on the  “100 World Endangered Monuments” list by the World Monuments Fund. Currently it remains in a dilapidated state, where a large part of the building is not safe to occupy. The next time you are in the Kala Ghoda area of Mumbai, look out for this illustrious building.

image courtesy – www. google .com

Standard
Heritage Architecture, In India, Indian heritage, People & lifestyle, Uncategorized

A Pre Independence lodge still in business at the heart of Mumbai

Ten bed dormitory, one of the rooms at the lodge

I first heard of this 69 year old boarding house, from artist Allen Shaw . I had gone to Artisan’s in Kala Ghoda to view Allen’s exhibition there and in the course of our conversation he mentioned he was staying in this quaint place right opposite the Crawford market. He had even done a sketch of the splendid market from his room. Sujata, one of the owners of lodge was present at the exhibition and we got chatting.

Narasinh mansion, the century old building with the lodge hoarding put up, outside  the third floor

She talked about how she had got the place renovated in 2014 and used existing material from this century old building to add decor touches to the boarding house. She showed me images of this charming place, a slight modern aesthetic touch to an otherwise traditional boarding house.

The entrance of New Vasantashram

I was intrigued and a few weeks later when a shopping trip to Crawford market came up, I gave her a call and went to the New Vasantashram boarding and lodging, which was established in 1947.

Crawford market, Mumbai

The entrance to the building is surrounded by pavement shops and the ground level entry is grotty, littered with rubbish on one side and I made my way up three floors on this old grand wooden staircase that had history scratched and stained over it. Once I reached the guesthouse that occupies two floors, I went – “wow” as it was a step back into time. This cheerful place that Sujata is so passionate about and has done a nice job revamping, had retained all the old touches that allow a visitor to recapture the past as you walk through the rooms. Large airy well ventilated rooms with Gond and other traditional Indian style paintings framed on the walls. My favourite space was a long corridor that leads into the rooms on one side and has a view of Crawford market on the other. An artist from Bengal who was staying at the guest house got commissioned to paint some of the cupboards, old trunks and drums ( which are now being used as food counters) that provide vibrant colours to a very calm space done in white, distressed wood in hues of sea green and exposed iron pillars. She bought lights off a ship that was being dismantled and had them put up in the common spaces. Old wooden print blocks for door handles.

The renovated interiors

Sujata told me how her father and uncle came from Mangalore, via Madikeri to Mumbai looking for work. They were initially funded by a Gujarati gentleman to start the boarding and lodging house. In those days food was provided too, so one brother use to cook and the other went to the central railway station that is nearby, to source customers.  Since the lodge is located close to Crawford market, it got a lot of traders coming in from Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and other parts of India who came to sell their wares or collect  cash from the markets nearby. It still does – Jayaram Muthuswamy, a jeweller, has been frequenting this establishment since its inception.

However Sujata decided to make changes in the space to cater to a different demographic. She says that with  bank transfers online, paytm and markets moving out of south Mumbai, the clientele is changing to students coming to intern in law firms or attend workshops, young backpackers and foreign tourist who want to experience Mumbai on a budget. She has tied up with Airbnb, Trip advisor etc to attract this segment of clients.

I met two travelers from France in their twenties , who rode their bicycles all the way through Europe, Turkey, Afghanistan and were now exploring India.

Another interior of a two bed room

Sujata’s passion for the space goes beyond just the commercials. She has been keen to promote the space for cultural events and has in the past hosted a musical evening, a heritage talk show and has got me thinking of holding a tapestry weaving workshop there. Well, her feel for the place is contagious !

Hope it’s around for another generation to usher in clients.

Sujata in her lodge corridor

All images – courtesy of the internet and the author’s own

Standard
In India, Indian heritage, Uncategorized

Adorning a bride – Mysore Dasara

11MY_LIGHT_1615703f

official buildings decorated with fairy lights

 

Dasara is a 10 day festival celebrated to mark, the day when a Hindu Goddess Durga as she is called in North India and Chamundeswari in the south, killed the demon Mahishasura. It is an important festival in the Hindu calendar.

Mysore,  name of the city has been derived from the name of the demon Mahishasura . Mysore has a long tradition of celebrating the Dasara festival and the festivities there are an elaborate affair and a major tourist attraction. The Dasara festival in the city completed its 400th anniversary in year 2010.

The festivities began with the Vijayanagar kings as early as the 15th Century. After the fall of the Vijayanagar kingdom, the Wodeyars of Mysore continued the Dasara Festival, initially by Raja Wodeyar I in the year 1610 at Srirangapatnam.

Ever since I moved to Bangalore, I have heard about these festivities in Mysore and how spectacular it is. Last year we went to Mysore for the Dasara break. There is a touch of the celebratory fever in the air and the older part of the city around the palace, is dolled up in lights, flowers and banners made of colourful paper, silk and brocades. At night specially its quite lovely to look at.

Women take part in Rangoli Competition as part of Dasara Mahotsav in front of Mysore Palace in Mysore on Monday. –KPN

Women take part in Rangoli Competition as part of Dasara Mahotsav in front of Mysore Palace

A friend once described it to me –  the city is washed, painted and dressed up as a young bride in the finest ornaments, she is meant to be alluring and pleasing to the senses”

The palace is illuminated on all the 10 days of Dasara and witnessing it is one of the highlights of the trip. We went up Chamundi hill before sunset and found a spot to perch ourselves on the parapet wall that offered a good view of the city along with a hundred other people who had the same idea. As soon as the sun set, everybody’s cameras and phones were out in anticipation of the moment and when they turn on the lights, it is truly a sight.

Mysore-palace-in-Dussehra

Mysore palace at Dasara

On Vijayadashami , the last day of the festival, the traditional Dasara procession (locally known as Jumboo Savari) is held on the streets of Mysore. The main attraction of this procession is the idol of the Goddess Chamundeshwari which is placed on a pure gold platform on the top of a decorated elephant. Colourful tableaux, dance groups, music bands, decorated elephants, horses and camels form a part of the procession and is another highlight to witness.

DSC_0613

Scenes from the procession

ELEPHANT_0daya_171010_mngdasr5

We found another little treasure tucked away behind the Lalit mahal, on the way to Chamundi hills. Gitanjali home stay, set in a beautiful lush garden ( the likes of which I haven’t seen outside of a plantation garden) offers a quite peaceful break to recuperate from the festivity. The rooms are set in cottage style with a veranda overlooking the garden. Attention to little details and delicious Coorg cuisine really made the trip worthy.

17119811300007020922300420918604825201904402618619603_w

There are many exhibitions and carnival fairs on at that time. We passed a sand sculpture museum, an artist camp and a country fair with a ferris wheel on our way around town. We decided to take the kids to the zoo one day and that wasn’t such a great idea as it was the day that the Mysore zoo recorded its largest amount of footfalls !

Despite the sea of humanity that flocks Mysore at that time of the year (otherwise a quiet city with lovely old trees and buildings) I enjoyed witnessing the festivity and the thrill of seeing the palace illuminated against the dark of night.

Image courtesy – www. google.in

Standard
In India, Indian Textiles

Indigo Revolt – ‘dye stained with human blood’

Kinfolk_Indigo_Hand_Eye_Coordination_Issue8_.jpg-4 INDIGO-HANKS1

In my last post I had mentioned Indian textiles playing a role in shaping the country’s history – wars and invasion. One such is the Indigo Revolt of 1859.

Indigo is a blue dye which comes from a plant scientifically known as Indigofera tinctoria. The beautiful blue dye is made from the leaves of the plant through a process of fermentation. India is credited for being the oldest center of indigo dyeing where indigo was first domesticated. The Indian indigo industry was described by explorer Marco Polo in his travels in the latter part of the 13th century.
Prior to the opening of trade routes, most of Europe used woad, a plant from the mustard family, to achieve a blue dye. But the dye extract lacked the brilliant hue of Indigo.

Indigofera_tinctoria1

Indigofera tinctoria

For the East India Company (and later the British Raj), it was one of the most profitable commodities that it bought in India and sold in Europe. It was so valuable as a dye that it was called ‘blue gold’.
Indigo planting in Bengal dated back to 1777. As the demand grew so did the expansion of Indigo plantations to Bihar. The indigo planters left no stones unturned to make money. They mercilessly pursued the peasants to plant indigo instead of food crops. They provided loans, called dadon at a very high interest. The profits were shared between the planters , zamindars and the East India Company only.

New-France_4_3_3_Indigo-making

Indigo making 1667 par Jean Baptiste Du Tertre

The conditions for the farmers were very cruel. Once a farmer took such loans he remained in debt for whole of his life before passing it to his successors. The price paid by the planters was meagre,only 2.5% of the market price. The farmers could make no profit growing indigo. They also had to pay a penalty known as tawan for refusing to plant Indigo. The farmers were totally unprotected from the brutal indigo planters, who resorted to mortgages or destruction of their property if they were unwilling to obey them. Government rules favored the planters. By an act in 1833, the planters were granted a free hand in oppression. Even the zamindars, money lenders and other influential persons sided with the planters.

Natural indigo started making huge losses to zamindars. But they passed on these losses to the farmers because they could still collect tawan. This drove the farmers deeper into poverty, as they had to sell their homes and other possessions to pay off the tawan. Many of them became so poor that they abandoned their homeland to become laborers in sugarcane plantations in Fiji, Trinidad and Mauritius. Out of the severe oppression unleashed on them the farmers resorted to revolt. This revolt was called Nilbidroha or the Indigo revolt.

350px-Indigo_factory_bengal2

Illustration of an indigo factory in Bengal

indigo-map

The farmers burnt down Indigo factories, attacked British planters and zamindars. The revolt was suppressed by forces of police and military, backed by the British Government. A large number of peasants were tortured and killed. In spite of this, the revolt was fairly popular, involving almost the whole of Bengal.

The Bengali middle class supported the peasants whole-heartedly. Harish Chandra Mukhopadhyay thoroughly described the plight of the poor peasants in his newspaper The Hindu Patriot. However the articles were overshadowed by Dinabandhu Mitra, who gave an accurate account of the situation in his Bengali play ‘Neel darpan’.
The play created a huge controversy in England were the translated version was staged and the public realized the ruthless methods The British Government was using to procure the dye. After much protest from the citizens in England, a commission was set up to find out the conditions that were used to obtain the dye. In the commission report, E. W. L. Tower noted that “not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood”
In 1897, Johann van Baeyer from Germany, developed a synthetic indigo for which he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1905. The synthetic indigo could be produced in a lab with a consistent quality and a price that was competitive with natural indigo.

In 1916-17, Mohandas Gandhi visited Champaran, Bihar and understood the conditions of the farmers. He immediately went on a satyagraha asking the colonial government to stop the nasty practice. Instead, the British arrested him. Hundreds of thousands of people in India joined his protest, shaking the British government. It finally conceded, abolished tawan and gave more control over land to farmers.
The idea of a non violent movement to gain independence from the Britisher is suppose to have risen from the success of this protest.

2.-Natural-Indigo-dyed-Shibori-sari

Image courtesy – www. google.in

Standard