Saturday, December 30, 2006

Birds Ahoy!

Isn’t he handsome? Meet Aquila heliaca, the Eastern Imperial Eagle. He comes from Europe and the Middle East, and visits India every winter - clearly, this guy likes to travel.

If you’re lucky, you can spot him in Mumbai -
Sewri Bay is one of the best birding sites along India’s West Coast. Around 150 species of birds winter here, including Mr. GoodLooking above.

Unfortunately for him though, he isn’t the star of Sewri.

What people flock to see in Sewri is Phoenicopterus minor -
the Lesser Flamingo. Pink and petite, flamingoes come to Mumbai in huge numbers in November, and stay until March. Why do they like this place so much? It's because of the sheltered nature of the bay, the gentle tides, and the organic richness of the food.

Sewri is also a winter refuge for nearly half a million waterbirds, including sandpipers, plovers, gulls, stints, terns and several globally threatened species such as the Nordmann’s Greenshank, Greater Spotted Eagle, Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture and of course, the Eastern Imperial Eagle.

If you’d like to visit Sewri, join the BNHS walk on Jan 7.

- Aishwarya

Love stories from the Raj

The pavement bookstalls of Matunga fascinate me.

It's not that I cannot afford to buy from regular bookstores - but how much more fun it is to stand and browse the higgedly-piggedly stacks, to search among the many second-hand titles and stumble upon some hidden treasure!

Yesterday, I stopped in Matunga to run some silly errand - and ended up at the bookstalls as usual. Here is what I bought, after a 20 minute search:

The Inner Courtyard is exactly what its preface says - "a constellation of some of the most dazzling stories" from the writings of short fiction by Indian women. How could I resist it?

Love Stories from the Raj is Pran Nevile's interesting account of money, lust and longing in British India. There are 21 stories, each based on fact, but written as fiction. The painting on the cover is of William Palmer, confidential secretary to Warren Hastings, and his Indian wife Fais Baksh, a descendant of the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan.

I paid INR 120 (less than 3 US$) for the two books together.

I also bought 3 old Tarzan comics and 2 Batmans (INR 25 per book). And regretfully declined two shoddy prints of Laxman's "You Said It".

A very satisfactory morning, all in all.

- Deepa

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Incredible ikat

This morning, my mom and I took stock of our Orissa ikats. We have several in our collection already, but the sale at Chetana Craft Centre was still tempting.

Have you seen an Indian ikat?

It is such an amazing piece of work!
Amazing, not because of the gorgeous geometry, or the bold colours. Or how softly it drapes the body. What makes ikat incredible is all the creative imagination that goes into it even before the cloth is woven.

You see, when an ikat weaver creates a saree, he lines up the raw yarn, imagines the final design, and then colours the yarn differently in different places. And that's what creates the pattern of the saree - the sequence of colours on the thread itself.

Here is how it works:

Step 1: Line up the yarn and measure it

Step 2: Cover up the portions you don't want coloured (he's using a simple black rubberband)

Step 3: Dye the uncovered portions

Step 4: So here's how it looks after dyeing - the red parts are the coloured bits, the black is uncoloured.

The colouring process is repeated, until you've coloured the entire thread with the precise colours you want.

Step 5: Unwind the thread!

Step 6: Now arrange it carefully on the loom, and weave it...the result is magic!

See why we're crazy about ikat?

- Deepa
Acknowledgements: The photos for this post came from,, and the

Monday, December 18, 2006

On a more personal note

Come Monday morning, I am a mass of aching muscles.

It's the weekend dance lessons, taking their toll.

I am learning a mix of vyayama (excercise), sthanas and charis (stances and leg movements) and adavus (steps).

A lethal mix. And one that I should not attempt at 38, perhaps.

At some point in the future, I will, I hope, become flexible, poised, graceful...until then, I can only look at Him, the Lord of Dance, and marvel.

Post Script: If you can straighten your leg out like that statue, let me know. You'll have my warm admiration.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Chinese Connection

If you walk past Kala Ghoda, spend a minute or two to peek into the doorway of the David Sassoon Library.

This is what you'll see inside - a beautiful carved doorway, wooden panelling on the walls, a corridor paved with Minton tiles, and at the end of it, a marble statue of David Sassoon.

The Sassoons were wealthy Jews who migrated to India in 1833 from Baghdad. They were clever businessmen, establishing themselves quickly in Bombay under the British (this inspite of the fact that David Sassoon didn't speak a word of English). I wiki-ed the family, and found lots of interesting stuff.

It appears that our Mr. Sassoon was quite the wheeler-dealer. He was in fact, one of the key players in Britan's Opium War with China. Check out the full story here.

Clearly, money talks. And when it does, it is heard.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Complex complex

Guess what this is!
This is a map of the Buddhist caves at Kanheri. A bit like a rabbit warren, don't you think? Kanheri grew over a period of eight centuries to become one of Western India's largest Buddhist monk settlements. As it grew, the monks carved out more and more caves, until the entire hill was dotted with prayer halls, sleeping quarters and water tanks.

ere's the key to the map. As you can see there are over a hundred caves - with lots of tanks and cisterns to store water.

If you ever get to Kanheri, use the map to figure out how to get from cave to cave. The starting point is the Booking Office, which you can see illustrated at the bottom of the map.

It can be interesting. One overseas couple who tried it had this to say: "The map in the guide book looked bizarre. It was simply a series of dots and numbers that resembled a child's connect-the-dots puzzle. However, like so many other systems in India that seem totally illogical or unintelligible on the surface, those amazing little numbers helped us find all the caves we wanted to see in that honeycombed ravine. That was just as well, because there was no one to ask for directions!".

Kanheri is set well inside Sanjay Gandhi National Park, so it is calm and quiet and green, very different from Bombay's usual bustle and noise. See for yourself.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Not just another tree

If you stand at the Police Headquarters on Regal Circle and look towards the Prince of Wales Museum, you'll spot a large pipal tree.

How do I recognise the pipal, you ask? By the leaf, of course! What other Indian leaf has such a perfectly pointed end?

And what other tree has inspired so much devotion? This is the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

At Bodhgaya, the place of his enlightenment, people still worship this tree. And everywhere in India, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists treat this tree as sacred. Women pray to the pipal to be blessed with children. (By the way, the Latin name for this tree is Ficus Religiosa).

In the early years, the Buddha forbade images of himself - so his followers looked to other symbols for inspiration. The pipal tree, the wheel of dharma, the deer recalling the sermon at Sarnath, Buddha's footprints, all symbolized him till about the 1st century AD. This austere form of Buddhism is called the Hinayana tradition.

It was only later, when Mahayana Buddhism transformed the Buddha into a God, that carven images of Buddha came to be made. Legends of Buddha's previous births, the Jataka tales, and episodes from his life, all formed sources of inspiration for Mahayana painters and sculptors. You can still see the austere legacy of Hinayana Buddhist monks at Kanheri Caves in Mumbai.

And because Kanheri was a thriving settlement for many centuries, you can also see how more and more ornamentation crept into this beautiful simple religion as Mahayana became popular. Check out the add-on Buddhas carved into niches in the first four photos on this page. They're so clearly an after-thought! And on the other hand, in the more recent caves, there are large figures of the Buddha hollowed out of stone, very much a part of the planned design.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bombay Beauty

Frankly, I think this is the most beautiful building in all of Bombay.

I know people wax eloquent about Victoria Terminus, but this building is by far more appealing to me. And no - it isn't a church. This is Bombay University, where I got my bachelors degree from. Maybe that's why I like this place, because it is a place of learning...somehow more appealing than a railway station!

This building is the convocation hall of the University.
I wandered into it one day, and was stunned by the interior.

See that round window above the entrance porch? If you view it from the inside, you'll see it's a brilliant stained glass window called the Great Rose. It has the signs of the Zodiac around it (don't ask me why! I haven't figured that one yet).
Sunight streams in through the Great Rose, giving the inside a magical look.

It's a good place to receive a degree from, eh?

- Deepa

Acknowledgement: This picture came from Collect Britain, a lovely site with lots of interesting information and pictures of the Raj.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Duplex living, Mumbai style

I clicked this photo a couple of days ago, on my way to work.

This is P D'Mello Marg,
an arterial road that goes by the docks and is always filled with trucks (which explains that No Parking sign!).

As you can see, every house on this street is two-storeyed, with a ladder stacked up against it. To keep your balance on the ladder
(like the guy in the blue shirt is doing), you hang on a piece of rope cleverly left dangling from the washing line. An ingenious contraption, I thought. See if you can spot the rope for the other ladders as well!

Another thing I noticed is that all doors have numbers on them, marking the legal right of the owner to live there. They are registered with the Mumbai municipality. So the man in the blue shirt is Mr. Somebody, in this city of illegal hutments.

The other type of houses in India where neighbours share walls is at the highest end of the caste spectrum - the houses of the Tamil Brahmins. Here is a Brahmin street (an agraharam). The joining of the houses signifies more than just neighbourly acceptance. It is a sign that they are all the same community and can live and eat together without losing caste.

In the slums of Bombay, the old caste rules are breaking down as people jostle for space. It is a welcome fall-out of the overcrowding that we all moan about so much.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Tea Princess

Here she is - Infanta Catharina Braganza, Princess of Portugal. The island of Bombay formed part of her dowry when she married the English King Charles II.

You see, Charles II had inherited a lot of debts, and run up some more of his own, so a rich wife seemed like the perfect answer.

Catharina brought as part of her dowry, several ships laden with luxury goods which Charles sold to pay off his debts. He
also leased Bombay to the East India Company for ten gold pounds per annum (which led to the development of Bombay as a major shipping and trading centre).

In spite of a philandering husband, and several miscarriages, Catharina established herself well in the English court and became something of a trend-setter.

Her lasting legacy to England was tea (and you thought tea was a British thing?).

The shiploads she got as dowry included a large chest of tea. She was used to tea in her native Lisbon, where it was popular in elite circles.

She introduced tea-drinking to the English court, where it became something of a fad. From there, it spread to aristocratic circles and then to the wealthier classes, and finally acquired its popular status as a British institution!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Legend or fact?

At a temple in Walkeshwar, this illustration caught my eye. Muscled and handsome, this is Parashurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu.

The western coast of India - a long strip starting from Nasik in Maharashtra, down to Kanyakumari in the south - is called Parashuram-Shetra (Land of Parashurama).

The story in the Puranas is that Parashurama flung his axe into the sea asking for land. The sea receded upto where the axe was flung, creating Parashuram-Shetra.

I looked up the history of Maharashtra, starting from the Stone Age. It turns out that in the Upper Paleolithic age (about 25,000 years ago), the climate started becoming arid, and the rivers shallow.

The sea around the Konkan region began to recede and a large land mass did emerge on the Western Coast.

During that period, the people who lived in Maharashtra were hunter-gatherers, using Stone Tools (blades and flints made of silicaceous stones). There is evidence that they had discovered fishing as well.

So - maybe these were the people that saw the sea recede, and wove it first into a tale? Is that why Parashurama has an axe and a bow, because he represents the hunter-gatherers?
If only I could go back in time and find out!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Invisible children

I went to the Spastics Society of India (SSI) recently, and found them in the middle of something new.

They are trying to bring disabled children into the mainstream.

They're working in six Mumbai slums, trying to figure out what it takes to put children with disabilities into existing Government education programmes. That way, these children will not be marginalised, segregated and ignored, they will stop being "Invisible Children".

It's an ambitious effort, to say the least.

But Mumbai has a long history of aware citizens making a big difference, and SSI has the dedication and the professionalism to make this happen.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


If you hang around long enough at the Gateway, you'll eventually see all of India passing by (yes, a bit like Times Square!).

Gujarati, Bengali, Bihari, Punjabi, Tamilian - everyone comes to see India's favourite entrance arch.

I caught the building on a suddenly stormy evening last week. The pigeons had smartly tucked their wings and sheltered under the Taj. They weren't about to risk the breeze.

The sky was overcast, and in the strange light, the Gateway was a shining pale cream-yellow, instead of its usual duller colour.

But I was more interested in cataloguing what the women wore. Deep pink, bright green, several shades of orange, blue and maroon...sarees draped, tucked and pinned, pallus flowing over shoulders, every colour in the world fluttering in the quadrangle.

What makes us so colour-crazy? Is it the sun, driving us mad? Or a stray gene perhaps, that nudges us in saree shops, saying "Go get that electric blue, girl!"

What a difference from my two weeks in London, where everyone wore black and grey and pastels. It must be the sun. Or maybe - hmm - maybe it's the food. Now there's a thought.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

In praise of demi-gods

The Prince of Wales Museum has this sculpture of a yaksha and a yakshi.

In Hindu mythology, yakshas are mythical figures, half-god, half-demon, who live under the mountains, guarding the wealth of the earth.

I was pretty intrigued by this yaksha in particular - because in typical Hindu sculpture, yaksha men are fat pot-bellied dwarves, and this guy was anything but that!

A little digging around gave me half the answer - this is a Jain yaksha, not a Hindu one. But the pot-belly still ought to apply - so how did they become so good-looking?

I looked it up some more - and found a story.

The male yaksha's
name is Dharanendra, and that is his consort Padmavathi. The couple rose from their sub-terranean world, to protect Parshvanatha, the 23rd Jain Tirthankara (Tirthankara = Enlightened One). Dharanendra spread his serpent hood over Parshvanatha, and Padmavathi a diamond umbrella.

In return, they attained godhood and became perfect divine beings (so that explains their good looks!)

Dharanendra's vehicle is the popular tortoise (can you see it, just under his knee?), but Padmavathi has a curious vehicle - a rooster with the head of a snake. Go figure.

And as for the Tirthankara they helped - here is a sculpture of Parshvanath, also from the Prince of Wales museum, with the serpent Dharanendra protecting him.

f you see a similar sculpture elsewhere, minus the snake, it's likely to be Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankar, who founded Jainism.

Who are the Marathas, anyway?

Let's get some facts right, shall we?

The tribal communities of Nags, Munds and Bhils inhabited Maharashtra in ancient times. They were joined by the Aryas, the Shakas and the Huns, who came from the North, as well as by foreigners, who arrived by sea. The Dravidians from the South also settled in the land, joining a group which collectively became known as 'Marathas'.

So 'Maratha' in historical terms refers to an amazing mix of people.

In popular usage, the word Maratha is used to identify a
distinct warrior community which has dominated the political scene of Maharashtra since medieval times. This community has several aboriginal tribal elements - for example, Khandoba (sword-father) and and Bhavani (mother goddess), the two chief deities of the Marathas, are aboriginal in character.

Shivaji, a 17th century Maratha chieftain, brought political prominence to the Marathas. You're sure to spot garlanded statues and photos of Shivaji if you're travelling in Bombay.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Spice Story

My masala box at home always has cinnamon in it - our ritual Saturday biryani is incomplete without this magic bark.

The Romans used cinnamon, so did the Greeks, but until a few hundred years ago, myths about the origins of cinnamon persisted.

I was amused to read this description of cinnamon, by Herotodus, the fifth century BC Greek historian, who thought cinnamon came from Arabia, from giant birds!

Here is what he wrote, in all seriousness :

"Large birds bring those dry sticks called cinnamon for their nests, which are built with clay on precipitous mountains that no men can scale.

To surmount this difficulty, the Arabians have invented the following artifice: having cut up into large pieces the limbs of dead oxen and other beasts of burden, they leave them near the nests and retire to a distance.

The birds fly down and carry off the joints to their nests, which are not strong enough to support the weight of the meat and fall to the ground. Then the men come up and gather the cinnamon, and in this manner it reaches all countries

Apparently, he had heard rumours of edible birds nests, so he put two and two together, and decided the nests were made of cinnamon :)

- Deepa

Monday, October 16, 2006


Banganga in Walkeshwar is dotted with little temples, so it kept my camera busy. Of all the photos I clicked, though, this is the one that made me most curious.

A Shiva temple, with a turtle?

The turtle, of course, is the second incarnation of Vishnu. So what's Vishnu doing in a Shiva temple, I asked myself.

And then I realised - Vishnu is praying to Shiva! This is the legend from the Shiva Purana, when the gods and the demons churned the ocean for nectar. When the sea spewed the deadly poison halahala, the gods despaired and even Vishnu the turtle could not bear the fumes.

Here is the turtle's prayer to Shiva:

"O Creator with Fire in your mouth, the Earth your feet, Time your motion, the Sky your navel, the Wind your breath, the Sun your eyes! Only you can save us from the halahala!".

A persuasive prayer indeed! And as many of us know, Shiva quaffed the poison, which turned his neck blue, earning him the name Neelakantha.

But did you know? A few drops of the poison dribbled from his lips, says the Shiva Purana, to be shared by serpents and scorpions to be their venom. If you'd like to read the original story, try Ramesh Menon's 'Siva - the Siva Purana retold'. It's fascinating.

In the district of Kanchi, near Chennai, there's a village called Tirukkachur. Literally, Turtle Village. The village temple is 1200 years old, and in the temple, there's a sculpture of Vishnu as turtle, praying to Shiva.

Can you see the four-armed Vishnu, with the rounded turtle lower half?

Amazing, this country of mine, where legends endure in stone...

(Published in the Hindustan Times HT Cafe May 25th)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Of men and ships

Since we seem to be talking about the Portuguese - this is the kind of ship in which Francis Alemida sailed into Bombay port, one morning in 1509. It was large enough to be stable in heavy seas, and roomy enough to carry provisions for long voyages.

Interestingly, the Portguese word for this kind of ship is nao, identical to the Hindi nao, which comes from the Sanskrit nauh, meaning boat. Not only in Portuguese and Hindi - the word for boat or ship is amazingly similar in Welsh (noe), Greek (naus), Armenian (nav), Old Irish (nau), and Old Norse (nor).

Linguists agree that the original source of such common words were the Proto-Indo-Europeans, a group of people who lived 5500 years ago (the time scale is much debated!). They were pastoral nomads, who had domesticated the horse (eqwos).

The cow (Proto-Indo-European 'gwous') played a central role, both in mythology and reglion. Aside: the Sanskrit word for cow is go or gow.

The origin and migration of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is a subject of much dispute - did they migrate from Europe to Asia, or from Asia to Europe? Scholars can't seem to agree. But the history of these words continues to fascinate.

- Deepa

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Vada pao and more...

So... We clicked this photo one evening at Fort. This is Bombay's trademark vada pao. Made of potatoes and bread, it's an Indian burger with guess what, a Portuguese twist!

Huh? Portuguese, you ask?

Thing is, Bombay wouldn't have any vada pao if it were not for the Portuguese. The Portuguese brought both bread AND potatoes to India, having acquired them first from South America.

Pao was actually brought to Bombay by migrant bakers from the Saligao and Siolim, two small villages in Goa, which was one of the main settlements of the Portuguese (long sentence? :D).

Did you know that Pao and Batata are Portuguese words?

Many Hindi and Portuguese words are similar. Ananas (pineapple) and
ananas, almirah (cupboard) and armario, kameez (shirt) and camisa, chaabi (key) and chave...

In fact, Bombay's very name is Portuguese!

In 1509, the Portuguese explorer and trader Francis Almeida's ship sailed into the island's deep natural harbour.

The Portuguese called it Bom Bahia (good bay) because it was b

OK, back to vada pao - here's a recipe if you're wondering what it tastes like. The recipes for the chutneys that go with it are also there.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Speaking of cattle

[Inspired by a bullock-cart sighting at Flora Fountain - see previous post]

The long-legged white-grey bullocks you see in Mumbai are variants of the Hallikar breed. Hallikars or Amrit Mahals were originally military animals, used in Tipu Sultan's army to pull his gun carriages and other army equipage. They were popular because of their stamina, and were reputed to be able to march nearly 50 miles in a day. Hallikars are bred by families which have specialised in them over several generations.
Another long-legged bullock is the Khillar, India's "horse among cattle". Khillars are racing bullocks, and are also used in Maharashtra's sugarcane fields.
But of India's 26 indigenous breeds of cattle, the Ongole and the Kankrej seem the most interesting to me.
The Ongole, for it's roots in mythology - The Ongole has inspired several statues of Lord Shiva's bull Nandi. Here is a picture of an Ongole bull, so you can see what I mean. See the short stumpy horns, the broad face, the ears and the body shape?

And I like the Kankrej for historical reasons - because the Kankrej, a hardy breed from Gujarat, features in the Harappan seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

If you ever go to the Prince of Wales Museum near the Gateway of India, don't miss their Indus Valley Civilisation exhibit.

- Deepa

Friday, October 06, 2006

Bullock carts and cocktails

I saw this bullock-cart at Flora Fountain, in the heart of the Fort business district.

He's delivering sugarcane to the local Rasvanti Gruhs (Juice Houses). My favourite is a small shop near Regal, next to Sachin Tendulkar's restaurant, where you can get fresh sugarcane juice, crushed and iced. Sometimes they add lime and ginger, to give the drink a neat little twist.

If you want something a little stronger, try Ganna Singh - it's an innovative cocktail that one clever little local restaurant has come up with. White rum and fresh sugarcane juice - how does that sound? (Ganna is Hindi for sugarcane).
Personally speaking, I'll stick to rum and coke, but maybe you're more adventurous than I am!

Sugarcane is grown locally in Maharashtra, in co-operatives using contract farming (more on that later).

(Published in the Hindustan Times HT Cafe May 25th)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Flour Power

In the side-lanes of Mumbai, you might chance upon this sight - a woman waiting at the grinding mill.

This lady has bought whole grain from the market, removed the stones and chaff, and has now brought it to the local flour mill for grinding. She's sitting there, watching the proceedings and making sure every grain is accounted for. And of course, this way, she can decide how much bran to keep. So chappaties taste different in each household, with varying textures and thicknesses.

I used to buy Pilsbury flour, but my mum's chappatis were always better than mine, so like her, I switched to the local flour mill too (hers are still better, though!).

Before the advent of flour mills, women ground wheat at home, in circular stone grinders called chakkis. Not an easy job, as you can imagine, but good exercise for the waist!

As a matter of fact, there's a yoga posture called Chakki Chalana Asana (Turning the Mill). It is specially effective for women - it tones the pelvis and waist, helps relieve lower back pain, and is recommended as an effective pre-natal and post-natal practice. Want to try it? :)

- Deepa

Saturday at Horniman Circle

They were three sisters, rag pickers.

While my guests were busy admiring the architecture, I coaxed the three into posing for me.
The third sister was camera-shy, but relaxed when I spoke in Tamil.

Where do you live, I asked them. They said, "We live in Matunga Dharavi, and you?"

And in an instant, what started out as an interview, memsahib talking to commoner, became a conversation among equals.

I was going to wear my environmental hat, and ask them about recycling, waste hazards and self-help groups. Instead, we spent the time chatting about our families and roots and life in the city of Mumbai.

I was richer for it.

- Deepa

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Secret Treasure

If, like me, you have driven past the Asiatic Library, admiring the graceful columns, I'll let you in on a little piece of trivia:

The Asiatic Library houses one of the only two known original copies of Dante's Divine Comedy. The other copy is in Milan.

In 1930, Mussolini offered one million pounds for the book, but the society refused. The book is a gift to the society by Monstuart Elphinstone, Governor of Bombay

In 2002, the Italian Minister for Culture visited the Asiatic Library, and confirmed that the book was in better shape than the one in Milan.

- Deepa

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Mumbai cho bomil

On a recent Mumbai tour, we saw this fisherman at Banganga. Guess what he had in his basket?

Bombay Duck. Locals call it bombil, and the fisherfolk 'Mumbai cho bomil', but the British named it Bombay Duck, and that name has stuck.

So why did they call a fish a duck?

There's a theory going around that Bombay Duck is just a corruption of the Hindi 'Bombay Dak'. Bombay Dak (Bombay Mail) refers to the mail train in which the fish were transported during the British Raj. Another theory is that the smell of the drying fish reminded the British of the odour of the wooden railroad cars!

This fish is found only in the Arabian sea between Bombay and Kutch-Gujarat. A large part of the daily catch goes straight for drying, as there are scores of people who relish 'sukat' - dried and salted bombil.
If you take a walk on the beaches of Versova and Mahim, you can see rows of thin bamboo sticks wedged into the sand with salted bombils hanging by their tails, drying in the sun.

If you'd like a closer look here's another photo of this lizardfish. Not a pretty sight, eh?

- Satyen

The Art of Letter Writing

I went to Mani Bhavan recently, and found the original letter that Gandhi wrote to Hitler. The language is simple, the message brief.

I couldn't come away without photographing it.

The Mahatma's birthday is just round the corner, so it's a good time to catch a glimpse of the man.

Click on the photo for a clearer image - you can easily read the text.

- Deepa

Friday, September 29, 2006

Navratri Twist

"Please come for haldi kumkum at our house on Friday", says the invitation.

It's a modern-day twist to a traditional i
nvitation, texted to my mobile phone.

I am constantly amazed at how we are adapting to new technologies and change. I wrote an earlier post on the cell phone and how it's changing the lives of tradesmen. Now here it is, once again staring me in the face, this time from a mother of two children.

The 'haldi kumkum' that she is inviting me to, is an annual feature among Tamilians during the Navratri festival. Tamil women celebrate this festival with elaborate displays of their doll and statue collections in their homes. Women of the community go to each other's houses, admiring the collections and the creativity with which they are displayed. It is a time for chit-chat, much singing, and of course, a time to display your new sari collection.

I went to another haldi kumkum yesterday, here is one photo from that visit. Each doll in the collection tells a story from mythology. I wish I could post all the photos, and tell all the stories!

- Deepa

Monday, September 25, 2006

Mother Goddess of Mumbai

The Mumba Devi temple, where the city gets its name from, is in a crowded street in Bhuleshwar. Every Tuesday, there is a large gathering of devotees and you will have a hard time getting inside the temple during Navratris (The Festival of Nine Nights, towards the end of September).

Although the locals worship this goddess, the deity primarily belongs to a caste of Hindus called char-kalshis (water carriers, char = four, kalash = waterpot; 'they who carry four waterpots') and the fisherfolk of the island.

Initially the temple was near Phansi lake next to the Victoria Terminus station. In 1737, the 'Company Sarkar' - East India Company - planned to expand the Fort of Bombay, and ordered that the temple be shifted.

The new temple was built in 1753 by a goldsmith named Pandu Sonar. The wealthy and prosperous family of Pandu Sonar and his heirs became the caretakers of the temple.

A water tank in front of the temple was built by a wealthy Baniya named Nagardas Navlakhia - his surname literally meaning a man worth 9 lakhs of rupees.

Near the center of the west side of the temple wall is the five foot high stone image of Mumba Devi in orange colour. On normal days, i.e. not the festival days, the goddess is dressed in a white saari and blouse with a gold necklace and a silver crown. However, on special occasions she wears a special handwoven silk saree and several ornaments from the temple's custody.

To her left side is the goddess Annapurna on her vehicle, the peacock. Anna (food) purna (fulfilment) is the goddess who ensures everybody gets to eat in the city. For a city that has 50% of its population in slums and illegal hutments, where trains loaded with people from other states pour in every day, this is quite a task!

The vehicle of Mumba Devi is the tiger himself. This tiger is made of pure copper. This tiger was humbly gifted to the temple authorities by Vithal, a pearl trader in 1890.

The temple also houses other gods such as Sri Ganesh, Sri Hanuman, Sri Balaji (a form of Vishnu).

- Satyen

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Pigeon Chronicles (3)

[The last of 3 posts on Bombay's pigeons, inspired by a visit to the Gateway of India - see previous posts]

The only time that pigeons get into trouble in Bombay is in January during Makara Sankranti, when the kite festival begins.

Kite flying originally came to India from China. Kite fighting, where you cut 'enemy' kites, was an annual feature of my childhood in Bombay. To help cut better, the manja string is coated with crushed glass powder. I remember going to shops and carefully, very carefully, selecting the kite and the string. We'd come back, run to the terrace, and fly our kites with glee. The older kids would swagger around, showing off their skills. And then someone would spot a strange kite in the sky, and the contest would begin. The two kites would dance in the sky, their strings in contest. Victory brought cheers and jubilation, and defeat sent us running down the steps, chasing the lost kite.

I read recently, though, that kite fighting has one unexpected fallout - bird injury. Several pigeons are badly injured every year. It's the sharp kite string - manja - that does it.

PAWS is an animal welfare organisation in Bombay that rescues and treats injured birds. I couldn't find their website, but Nilesh Bhanage can be reached on +91 98201 61114, if you spot an injured bird. You can also write to them at

- Deepa

The Pigeon Chronicles (2)

Perhaps the next time you see Bombay's pigeons, you'll think of this story from the Puranas.

The story made its way into the Buddhist Jataka tales, and travelled the world. There's a wonderful Buddhist site near Hyderabad - from around 225 AD - where this story is carved on a stone slab.

And if you ever go to China, you will see the Chinese version of this story in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas (the Mogao Grottoes in the Gobi desert).

- Deepa

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Pigeon Chronicles (1)

We were at the Gateway of India on a bright sunny morning, and I knew it was going to be a good day.

Even the pigeons were having a rollicking time, what with the water and the sun, and all the attention from tourists.

I read somewhere that pigeons figure in Mughal miniatures, and Emperor Shahjahan, when he was not busy building the Taj Mahal, also had time to raise fancy pigeons.

A few years ago, the Indian press was talking about the last surviving Police Pigeon Service in India. I think it was Orissa, and they approved the closing of the service because they thought $10,000 per annum was too much to spend on 300 pigeons. A pity, don't you think?

I wonder where Bombay got its fascination for pigeons from. There seem to be kabutarkhanas everywhere. And at each kabutarkhana, there is always a chana-wala selling pigeon-feed. My childhood memories are filled with watching pigeons being fed near my school, and hearing the flutter-chutter of wings as they took flight.

- Deepa