Monday, September 9, 2019

A Fortnight in India: Lots of History, Architecture, Artless Cities and Reading Habits of Indians

After nearly ten years I visited India, again, as tourist last month. When I last visited India, for touring, in 2010 Manmohan was into his second term. Though I had made several visits in 2014-15 they were for medical emergencies and involved no touring. Narendra Modi had just then wrested power after a decade long reign by Manmohan Singh. Modi has recently won a massive victory that all but decimated the entire opposition and is set to rule for the next 5 years. What did I see?

Landing in a New India

V.S. Naipaul's trilogy on India started with "An area of darkness", a book that still riles up Indians and continued, slightly mellowed but equally offending to many Indians in "A Wounded civilization" and finally concluded in the now dated but thematically relevant, "India: A million mutinies now". Naipaul, wrote 'A wounded civilization' as India's democracy was under assault by Indira's Emergency. He lamented, "nothing beyond food - and survival - had as yet become an object of ambition". Nearly a half century later India has come a long way from that. The country now can feed itself, says no to foreign aid, even offered a billion dollar finance to Russia, looks to conquer the space, careers for graduates now have multiplied from the binary choice of Doctor or Engineer and the economy can no longer be jeered at as 'Hindu rate of growth'. That is the India of 2019 I stepped into.

Compared to the days when visa application involved a distasteful visit to Indian consulate now I opted for electronic visa that worked like a charm. The application and approval were pretty simple and at immigration check it was a breeze. I feared, this being my first time with e-visa, some serious trouble but there was none.

My travel this time to Jaipur and Bengaluru was made possible by the availability of flight connections. Air travel has been truly democratized in India. Gone are the days when air travel was meant for the high and mighty. The budget airline Indigo really serves well with good connections and good service. For all my bookings I had used the 'Fast Forward' service that promised delivery of checked baggage to be prioritized over others and it was delivered as promised. In 2010 traveling by train was a nightmare due to the stench and cockroaches that ran around. In 2019 I was spared that. Mostly youngsters, girls and boys alike, were the ones doing all jobs. It was heartening to see young girls go around with great confidence as air hostesses and other roles at all hours of the day. However, India's airports, especially the Chennai airports, are completely inadequate to accommodate the fast expanding clientele. Even the business class lounges were ho-hum in Chennai.

Road travel is certainly better than what was possible 20 years ago. There are more highways, by Indian standards, but literally no hygienic rest areas for travelers to use on long trips. On the Jaipur-Agra highway cows literally travel like they own the roads and they're aplenty. My driver, a proud Hindu, said it was because now many are afraid to sell cows for meat they simply let loose cows they cannot afford to continue keeping. The road signs in and around Jaipur in Hindi were just transliteration of English words like 'Lane' etc. In Tamil Nadu English words are more often translated.

The hospitality at the hotels I stayed (a Taj, a Marriott and a Hilton) was beyond exemplary. At these luxury hotels the staff go above and beyond to make the visitor comfortable. Whether it is the chauffeurs or even the ill informed guides I've absolutely no complaint about anyone on a personal level. They were all polite to a fault and many where very aware of online reviews and handed cards requesting good reviews. I did oblige and they richly deserved it. The hotel amenities and buffet choices can make any western tourist feel completely at home. I splurged on Rajasthani and Indian delicacies. I did not come to Jaipur to eat croissants and bagels.

Jaipur and Belur-Halebid

The Amer fort near Jaipur was fabulous. The elaborate courtyards, the exquisite Sheesh Mahal studded with mirrors, the baths and toilets, the harems and their secret passageways transport the visitor to a different era.

The sprawling temples in Thanjavur, Belur and Halebid were breathtaking. Though I've been to the Big Temple in Thanjavur a hundred times the recent study of the Chola empire made me the see the temple anew. Now the fort like structure of the temple became readily apparent and I remembered historians drawing attention to the fact that temples were not just temples but literally fortresses.

The City Palace in Jaipur, constructed by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II in 18th century, is kind of typical with large courtyards and mirrors as stucco in halls elaborately designed.  Two large silver urns, the largest of it's kind in the world, are exhibited in this palace. Those urns, with water from Ganges, were taken by Maharaja Sawai Macho Singh II when he went to attend Edward VII's coronation in 1901, so he could use it daily during his stay abroad. I was reminded of how Gandhi was mocked for taking two goats with him to London when he went for the Round Table Conference because he'd only drink goat's milk.

Silver Urn used to transport water from Ganges
Whenever I travel to a place I try to visit any book store that I come across to find books of local interest. I was immensely happy to grab a copy of a book on Jaipur by legendary historian Jadunath Sarkar. The preface suggested that Jadunath, who wrote the book at the behest of the Rajput royal household, was open to downplaying the collaboration of the Rajput royals with the Mughal regimes of yore. The preface added that such sensitivities are now muted and the book now published is the definitive edition. It is disheartening to see a historian of Sarkar's caliber willing to mute pages of history and it raises, yet again, the question of how much of Indian history has been truthfully told.

As we crossed a posh locality of Jaipur I was informed that that's where the Chief Minister, his cabinet and top state officials have their bungalows. I was suddenly reminded of my own town Thanjavur where likewise the city judge, top police official, public works department official and collector have their bungalows on a prominent highway. Likewise in Chennai. Then it dawned on me that in India feudalism is still alive unlike the US where state officials, except perhaps the Governor, and township officials and elected representatives live amongst their neighbors.

From the hard rock temple of Thanjavur to the soft rock temples of Belur the architecture varies reflecting the era and the material. The Belur temple has intricate architecture made possible by that soft rock. The temples were spell binding if one paused and wondered how such vast acreage was planned out and built. At Belur the sculptures that line up the gopurams are often repeated with little or no variation. If one saw Belur one can skip Halebid or vice-versa. Sure, it's easy to visit both but there's quite some overlap in the architecture.

Vishnu as Half-Lion Half-Man tearing into the bowels. A sculpture at Belur.

Taj and Fatehpur Sikri

The grandiosity of Taj needs no commentary. My guide, completely ignorant of the history of painting etc, pointed with wonder how the Koran inscriptions that run along the doorway of towering structure appears to be of same width throughout but are not. He did not know that the Mughals introduced the idea of 'perspective' in drawing to India. Anyone who has seen Michelangelo's David might wonder why his hands are disproportionate. The statute was to have been installed atop a church and Michelangelo, the genius that he was, was compensating for the viewer's 'perspective' from tens of feet away and below the statue but the statue was instead kept at ground level.

The city of Stratford-upon-Avon depends on the busloads of tourists who come to visit Shakespeare's home and it is a picture perfect town to visit and relax. On the contrary visiting the Taj has to be done business like. The approach and vicinity are an insult to the monument. No wonder Naipaul thought that the Taj is a misfit in India and it appears as only a monument to a wife who bore 14 children. He felt that transported slab by slab to a US state it might have better meaning. I completely forgot having read that passage and honest to god those are my exact sentiments and I was stunned to read that passage tonight.

Akbar's city, Fatehpur Sikri, reflected his catholicism in the building where he held audience. A central pillar fuses Hindu, Christian and Buddhist styles in that hall. Akbar's Hindu wife had her own lavish palace complete with place for worship and even separate kitchen. The man was a complete gentleman. I did wonder, seeing that pillar, if Hindu kings have accommodated other faiths in their palaces? I don't know.

Ziegenbalg, Evangelism and Keezhavenmani

Tamil Nadu was a major port of entry for Christian evangelism in India. Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, a German missionary, landed in Tranquebar (known in Tamil as 'Tharangambadi') as part of a Danish mission on 9th July 1706. Tranquebar was given as a territory to Danes vide a treaty between Tanjore Nayak prince and the Danish delegation on 19th November 1620. The treaty stipulated, amongst other things, that the Danes are free to practice their religion and they'd not be discriminated. It is here that protestant evangelism began in India. An interesting episode, per an exhibit at the Danish fort, was the massacre of Danes by an army sent by the 'Nabob of Tanjore' in June 1756 due to what appeared to be a misunderstanding that the Danes had broken the treaty. Another exhibit spoke of how the right-hand caste people objected to left-hand caste people using a palanquin. Also Brahmins organized a strike and then a revolt when an oil presser of lower caste used a parasol and wore slippers. The first converts were 5 natives in 1707.

A key contribution of Ziegenbalg was the importation of printing press and translating to Tamil the Bible. The Ziegenbalg museum honestly stated that the aim was religious conversion for the printing press and translation. However they incorrectly claim that this was the first printing press in India. Note, even today most Hindu scriptures are only in Sanskrit and if at all translated it is in English by a Westerner. Despite nearly 300 years of active evangelism and proselytization the state of Tamil Nadu and the surrounding areas remain Hindu majority and the town is ringed by venerable temples. That tells us something about the paranoia concerning religious conversions is just that, paranoia.

Bible Translated and Printed in 1713.
I also visited Keezhavenmani, a sleepy village near Thanjavur. It was the site of a horrific massacre of 44 Dalits on December 25th 1968 when women and children taking refuge at a hut were burned alive. A dilapidated memorial stands there. A man claiming to be the younger brother of the owner of that hut, called 'Ramiah's hut', showed me around and shared a few words. I'll return to this topic in the last part of my series on the travel when I discuss caste and religion.

Artless Cities and Intellectual Vacuity

Whether it is Sheesh Mahal in Amer fort or Fatehpur Sikri's palaces or the temples the artistic heritage is breathtaking and a depressing reminder of the current artlessness of the cities. One has to wonder how did such a civilization decay and become so artless? The cities are completely bereft of aesthetics. Whether one travels in the countryside of England, even a not so affluent quarter, or the many quaint downtowns of US or the many cities of Europe there's a sense of beauty and aesthetics whereas Jaipur, Chennai and Bengaluru are an assault on the senses with not just the ubiquitous squalor but how neighborhoods lack any character. There's no sense of a neighborhood. You've money you build to suit your whims. The colors are jarring. Chennai roads are literally overrun with chrome plated railings and road signs. It's an eyesore. Metal just criss-crosses the city like gashes on a body.

V.S. Naipaul had similarly wondered why a civilization with a tradition of art in contemporary times created buildings and monuments that were artless. He reasoned, "The British pillaged the country thoroughly; during their rule manufactures and crafts declined", "a biscuit factory is a poor exchange for gold embroidery. The country has been pillaged before. But the continuity had been maintained. With the British, continuity was broken. And perhaps the British are responsible for this Indian artistic failure". We should remember that Naipaul was a doubly the subject of a British colony, India and Trinidad. He further added, "It was a clash between positive principle and a negative; and nothing more negative can be imagined that the conjunction in 18th century of static Islam and a decadent Hinduism. In any clash between post-Renaissance Europe and India, India was bound to lose" ('An Area of Darkness' by Naipaul)

Sheesh Mahal - Amer Fort
In 2010 traveling on Trichy-Madurai highway I was appalled by how many vehicles travel on the wrong side with impunity and how blessed we were not to have been in a fatal accident. In 2019 even small towns in Tamil Nadu, like Thanjavur, and cities like Bengaluru and Chennai literally had walls as median dividers, in let alone highways, in local roads too. It was such a revolting sight to see brick walls erected as dividers. When the dividers were small enough to prevent vehicles cattle and people behaving like cattle would happily cross over and these higher walls became necessary to avoid that.

A decade who while visiting Madurai Meenakshi temple and Nayakkar Mahal I felt that the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments organization (HR &CE) and the Archeology Survey of India that maintain those respective places insult and deface history. I felt the same at Parthasarathy temple at Triplicane in Chennai this time. Indians often lament about treasures of India being smuggled to Western countries but I wonder if, the illegality notwithstanding, it is better than letting the treasures rot in India. Western museums showcase Indian art with respect and regard that Indians have never showed to their own treasures. Note, this is not to argue in support of nefarious illegal acts but to drive home a point.

The HR&CE department has practically created an office inside a smaller temple in the Big Temple premises and walled off a section with the divider rudely cutting into a pillar adorned with a sculpture. It's almost as if it is the mistake that the temple, built a 100 years ago (this part was recent addition) did not anticipate this need. See picture below.

Here's what I wrote, ten years ago:
I think back with lots of pain about the immense pleasure I got out of visiting historical landmarks in the west. When Indians react with smugness looking at 'stolen' treasures in British museums I say "at least the treasures are where they are respected".
My sentiments remain the same a decade later.

Two years ago I visited Italy and the many beautiful cathedrals of Christendom. In almost every church we could get finely produced brochures, for a price, that detail the history of the church and the biblical myths associated with a place. Whether it is Amer Fort in Jaipur or Taj Mahal or Fatehpur Sikri or Parthasarathy temple such brochures were completely absent. At Jantar-Mantar, an 18th century observatory, there's literally a crying need for better information about the instruments. At Taj Mahal the ASI had a depot that was dilapidated, dusty and a sleeping attendant with shoddily produced brochures of, not Taj, but Fatehpur Sikri.

The guides were mostly just hawkers who know where to get your tickets, the way inside and out. Beyond that they should be awarded a legal punishment for the butchering of history. At Amer fort the guide pointed to the toilets, with drainage system, and beamed that no one else in the world had something akin to it. I did not have the heart to tell him that probably the Roman baths that predated Amer fort had something similar. I've been to Bath, England too. At Halebid, Karnataka the guide bragged, pointing to a sculpture, that it was a binocular and it shows we invented binoculars before Galileo. Pointing to a sculpture of a warrior raining arrows he helpfully explained that it was the precursor of scud missiles. And when my lady friend stepped away he pointed to an erotic sculpture and whispered, conspiratorially in my ears, "you can take photographs". I did not.

"Together with the triviality of Indian thought on most subjects", wrote Naipaul in 'India: A Wounded Civilization", "the intellectual deficiencies of the archaic civilization finally revealed during this Emergency". Nowhere is this evident even today than in the book stores of a city like Bengaluru. Chennai is even worse when it comes to book stores.

Aside from visiting Belur-Halebid in Karnataka I spent a morning at one of the well known bookstores of Bengaluru, Gangaram Book Store and few others in Church Street. An elderly store assistant was thrilled to help me. He literally embarrassed me by running around and hauling books for me based on my preferences. I told him to stop but he persisted saying, "it's rare to see anyone ask for the books you did". As a fellow bibliophile he was just plainly excited. I had decided not to buy books that I'd get in US or through Amazon in general. I wanted local publications on local topics.

While I came across some gems like M.C. Chagla's autobiography, a book on India's churches etc the majority of the books were by hobbyists and not by academicians. Rajmohan Gandhi is now considered a historian and that's the high bar the rest are really scary. A starry eyed biographer of Sardar Patel had a chapter titled, "Lenin and Bardoli". I duly kept the book back in the shelf. Religion sells, by the bushels. Savarkar has become the subject of two recent biography. I bought one by Vikram Sampath and in 20 pages he has managed to make me puke with thinly veiled caste pride and hollow high praises. And that's a Penguin publication. Sigh. Sardar Patel clearly has become a good selling subject. India's academicians rarely publish for the common reader and maybe, given their quality, it is a blessing. The number of books on international topics are slim picking and its a usual reflection of the insular intellectual taste of Indians.

A visit to a book fair in Thanjavur was a windfall for me for all the books I bought from Kalachuvadu (Footprint) and few other publishers. However I am sure the publishers themselves had no windfall as most stalls were visited by window shoppers. High School children from pricey private schools came by the bus loads and most shopped for coloring text books or books less than Rs 15-20. Of course, no book was available at that price. Cinema tickets don't sell at that price level. Being a publisher in India is a Karmic punishment perhaps.

Whether it was at Bharati's memorials at Triplicane and Pondicherry or at Kalakshetra one is pained that Bharathi and Rukmini Devi Arundale still lack good definitive and academic biographies. Bharathi signified the birth of modern Tamil verse and prose and Rukmini Devi midwifed a classical art. Yet, we only know stories about both of them.

While India proved Naipaul wrong on the lack of ambition it, sadly, continues to vindicate his chiding of the intellectual backwardness of the country in 1976. "India's intellectual second-rateness, which is generally taken for granted but maybe the most startling and depressing fact about the world's second most populous country".

That intellectual second-rateness and the current political state of India are intricately braided with great consequence for the world at large and for India. That takes me to the question of how did Narendra Modi win such a thumping victory? As is my habit I indulged a bit in local news magazines and newspapers. Just one issue of India-Today, a news magazine published since the 1970s, with a cover story on the fiscal woes of the automobile sector provided enough material on the state of India today. About that, in the next blog.


Diamond and Pearl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The ugly Indian said...

Mr. AK on his high horse,came to India for his once-in-a-decade assessment..
He declares, "Oh the roads are good, the modernization has made things a lot more easier and accessible.. but the people and their refinement is still as bad. West is great and nowhere near is us"

The ugly indian says, "Is getting access not the first step to discover, deep-dive and document? We are in early stages and we shall improve.. Don't persecute us yet, high lords..
We are in a place where people are everywhere, not plush and rich.. Survival is a bigger issue than art. Exposure to means is uneven & unfair. Where petty politics, so-so administration and poor discipline comes alongwith like elsewhere.. Education is still superficial which is in the process of a change.. So ignorance is bliss and we peddle it to all undiscerning listeners. When I am happy, they get happy and there ends the insight. The discerning ignore and move on with hopes of change.
It will take time to lose our existing heart and souls. To look pretty and neat to the observers, supervisors and auditors.. The raw emotions, sweat, bond and energy are visible now (only if you have the inclination to see, forget liking it). It is required to ensure we survive.. We are striving to try and get that western glaze (in our eyes and surroundings), where everything looks great as per books.. Written, read and further written on a recursive loop. Wait till we get there to get homogenise and become a cheaper version of Europe as Indope. Lots of time is required though as my kinds are more.. Then pass your verdict, highness my lord, if it is within your times"