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