August 31, 2011

Jama Masjid On Eid Eve In Mumbai

After an early dinner of Surti Thali for Rs. 80/- each at Hotel Surti located at the intersection of the Bhuleshwar Road and the Kalbadevi Road we crossed the crowded intersection and entered the Sheikh Memon Street in a blaze of lights streaming out of shops on either side of the street, the displays of jewellery in the Zaveri Bazaar enticing shoppers rivaling the bustle of the street on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr as we made for the Jama Masjid in Bhuleshwar, among the oldest mosques in Mumbai.

The Bhuleshwar Road terminates at Sheikh Memon Street while the Kalbadevi Road continues to Metro Cinema adjoining Dhobitalao and across the road from Jer Mahal near St. Xavier College.

As dusk fell, the lighted minarets of the Jama Masjid towered over assorted shops shining brightly, among them the diamond and gold merchants of Zaveri Bazaar on Sheikh Memon Street. Past Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri, among India’s best known and biggest jewelry retailers besides being a trusted name in the jewelry business in India, the minaret grew larger, its features now clearly visible in the lights illuminating it.

Mumbai’s Jama Masjid is contrary to what one might expect. From the street there’s no flight of steps leading to an open courtyard fronting the mosque and reached form three sides like it’s with the Jama Masjid in Delhi. Instead Mumbai’s Jama Masjid is a quadrangular building enclosed by buildings opening into the streets.

Hidden from view of the street, an ancient tank lies behind a gate on the eastern entrance of the mosque and is approached past a courtyard behind the arched entrance opening onto the street.

The Jama Masjid was completed in 1802 after a Konkani Muslim merchant consented to its construction on his land in about 1775 provided the ancient tank located in what was formerly a garden was preserved intact. From this ancient water tank rise arches that support the mosque.

The Jama Masjid is located opposite Mangaldas Market at the intersection of the Sheikh Memon Street with the Princess Street and the Janjikar Street. The Crawford located to the south-east of where the Sheikh Memon Street terminates.

Looking up from the street, with my back to street vendors jostling for customers thronging the shops on either side of the Sheikh Memon Street, the Jama Masjid arrays in a series of angled terraces and balconies distinguished by decorative features. Strategically placed lights highlighted the features in the glow of the bustling night market. The domes of the mosque merged with the night.

The Jama Masjid extended the luminescence of Mumbai’s night street to the skies above.

In another time and context the towering minarets of the 19th century masjid might’ve been an extension of the sparkling jewelry in shop windows but today the minarets pushed against overcast skies under the watchful eyes of the Mumbai Police manning the barricades to the congested lanes while camped by patrol vehicles off the entrance to the Jama Masjid.

These are no normal times.

As the month-long dawn to dusk fasting in the month of Ramzan (Ramadan) drew to a close, Mumbai’s Muslim community thronged the markets largely around Pydhonie, Bhuleshwar, and along the Mohammed Ali Road and Crawford Market for last minute shopping on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr before feasts and festivities kick off on Eid tomorrow. Clothes, bangles, and shoes, including false eye-lashes among other things flew off the shelves.

August 26, 2011

On The Road From Bharatpur To Deeg

Deeg was not on the cards originally, not until we found we had time to spare in Bharatpur on a warm summer day in March some years ago.

Approaching noon, Tom and Anne had gone in search of the Indian Courser the bird-watching guide had promised to show them, disappearing from view along a rutted path that led off the narrow road meandering through the bird sanctuary while we waited under a Peepal tree watching a Tree Pie, its distinctive whites on the tail having betrayed its presence in the lush foliage it shared with a noisy Jungle Babbler unhappy at being abandoned by its six sisters, and an inquisitive Red Vented Bulbul that would turn its head at an impossible angle from time to time to ensure we were up to no mischief, straightening up each time I caught its eye accusingly.

The birds of Bharatpur, I would soon learn, left nothing to chance. With water scarce they could be excused their discretion.

Upon returning to the hotel for lunch halfway through the day following a fulfilling bird-watching trail in the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary it was suggested we try Deeg, the former capital of the Jat kings of the Bharatpur princely state, and under an hour’s drive from Bharatpur along the way to Alwar in Rajasthan.

On learning the palace at Deeg was worth going miles to see, we needed no further convincing and braced for the bumpy ride to Deeg, a little over 35 kms. away.

The road to Alwar cut through open fields, the landscape alternating between the green of standing crop, the driver pointing them out to be Sarson, and the grey of tilled earth awaiting sowing or one recently harvested.

“The Kharif season is a particularly busy time,” the driver explained, his eyes peeled out for tractors laden with sacks of potatoes rumbling past. “Typically Bajra, Jowar, Udad, Til, Moong, Chaura, and Makkai are planted in the Kharif season, though Makkai is not as favoured as the rest.

We passed more tractors ferrying potatoes piled high, often hearing them before they rumbled into view.

Rabi usually sees Sarson planted though some farmers will plant potatoes and wheat while others will plant Masoor Dal.”

The number of tractors, and trucks transporting potatoes, a long line queuing up outside a storage facility in one particular instance, suggested that potatoes vied with Sarson as the preferred Rabi crop. The distinctive yellow flowers of the Sarson Ka crop lent the ubiquitous green a dash of sprite.

“Along with Sarson, farmers will plant green peas, and Chana, crops that need less water, requiring watering a mere 4-5 times. And usually it rains that much in the winter anyway,” he concluded.

The road to Deeg saw little traffic, made up almost entirely of tractors and trucks ferrying potatoes, and camels carting cattle feed along, their bulging loads chaffing under invisible constraints, inflating the bulbous loads further until the cart-load of feed swelled like a humungous water belly.

The camels nevertheless carried on gamely.

The fields were set back from the road but not by much. If farmers were working the fields they were not easily visible from the road.

However, at many places the fields were dotted by dried dung cakes arranged in circular piles raised waist high, sometimes higher.

The dung cakes the women were stacking high were relatively large compared to those one might see stacked up roadside in Maharashtra or Karnataka, and interestingly they were usually accompanied by kraal-like circular straw structures with tapering roofs fashioned like a toupee using what appeared to be bamboo shoots strung together and covered in dried straw.

Not all roofs tapered, some were rounded, resembling split coconut shells upturned on the floor. Likewise, the shoots strung and strengthened using dung plaster were used in raising the circular walls where bricks were not used for the purpose.

On the roads in the north of India, no driving experience is complete without drivers astride the jugaad smiling and waving out to inquisitive travellers fairly half-way out the window at their first unexpected encounter with the jugaad, that signature improvisation of the pumpset engine, or the one sourced from a 350 CC Royal Enfield Bullet, and fashioned with wheels and a carriage hammered together at a local garage to transport villagers between population centers, its exposed entrails adding to its aura.

We passed many jugaads on our way to Deeg, and I cannot remember seeing any sporting a number plate. A sleeker alternative would've stuck out like a sore thumb in the rugged landscape.

Deeg lay ahead as the heritage of the Jats, and a chapter from India’s history, beckoned.

I lay back in the seat and watched the landscape saunter by as the road slipped between the wheels ever so slowly.

Related Links:

1. Bharatpur's Wandering Waterhen.

August 18, 2011

What Elephants Eat, Dogs Don’t

But What Human Beings Eat, Dogs Eat Too.

So, I could understand what these three dogs were hoping for when they lined up in front of this lady at the Dubare Elephant Camp on the river Cauvery in Coorg.

And each time she laid her hand into the food she had bunched up in a piece of paper, the three dogs stiffened up as if preparation to race each other for the morsel the moment she cast it in their direction. They held their ground, unmoving, concentrating on her every moment as she tucked into the goodies, oblivious to the enquiring presence of three hungry dogs.

And each time she brought her hand to her mouth to polish off a mouthful of food, six alert ears straightened up even further as if to make certain she was prepared to eat it and wouldn’t spit some their way.

And when they heard her munch on the food, the six ears relaxed just a wee bit before the trio cocked their faces to one side, eyes alert, as if to say “Really, you didn’t throw us some!”, not that they saw anything differently from an angle but probably in disbelief that nothing came their way.

And so they waited, and waited, and waited, without luck. For all the lady knew, they didn’t exist. That must be some hunger, I thought, to feel nothing about six eyes watching your every move and not acknowledge their presence in any way let alone share some of it for, this was no ordinary place where they could move on and find a shop to wait by where people stepped up to buy food and hopefully share with them some. This was nearly in the middle of nowhere, bounded by the river at one end, and a forest on the other, with life limited to housing quarters for the forest staff.

Nevertheless I understood why the dogs waited out their time at the lady’s feet as she tucked in her food.

Because What Human Beings Eat, Dogs Eat Too. At least most things, that is.

But What Elephants Eat, Dogs Don’t Eat. At least most things, that is. Surely not, Ragi balls.

So it was all the more reason why I was mighty surprised to find this dog below waiting in front of the elephant as it fed at its eating place.

Because What Elephants Eat, Dogs Don’t.

Ekdantha, or The Single Toothed One, was done with his bath in the river, and it was time for his breakfast of jaggery, and Ragi balls at the feeding area.

He stood still as the mahout fed him jaggery, and later allowed visitors to feed him some, including the large Ragi balls.

And in all that time, the dog stood to attention as Ekdantha ate his breakfast, reaching with his trunk for Ragi balls while lifting it to open his mouth for chunks of jaggery.

What was she thinking wanting to share in the elephant’s breakfast! Not surprisingly, nothing came her way.

Maybe Ekdantha knew that dogs don’t eat what he does, and hence didn’t throw any morsel her way.

Now that would be something.

This wise old dog below stood in silence, gazing at the river, or across it. I couldn’t tell for sure. But he neither waited in hope in front of human beings nor in front of elephants. Only hopeful of somehow finding his way across the river someday so he could have more options to try his luck with finding food.

Now that’s something to wait for and be hopeful about. After all, wisdom from age teaches one of the things to choose to wait for, and the things to be hopeful about.

Interviewed on BlogAdda: In the PART I of my interview they published today, I talk of my early influences in the context of travelling, the move to Mumbai from Goa, my reasons for starting blogging, the story behind the name: Windy Skies, and much more. It's a privilege to be featured by them, and has been a pleasure answering their questions.

Click to read PART I of my interview. Any feedback on the interview you might want to share, bouquets or brickbats, I’d be more than happy to see it on the BlogAdda interview page, and hopefully here as well.

PART II of the interview will be featured the next week. Thanks for reading, and for reading this space all these years.

August 16, 2011

Tiranga, The Indian Tricolour

The Indian flag. The Tricolour. The Tiranga. Tiranga Zhanda.

While some will wear it on their hearts, some will wrap it around their wrists, and seem to embrace it, like they would their own. In colours that bind, emotions of a country run.

Yet others will fly it on their rides about town, letting the breeze make its presence felt as it unfurls the flag for all to see so it can wrap the colours about it and dance in the street. The breeze, ever the flirt.

Still others will grace their glass windows with the Tiranga so that no reflection of those passing by is bereft of an identity, not on this day, never.

Then there’re those who will fill the colours with air, so while they sit together, they threaten mischief should they get in their mind to float away with the clouds.

Until then they’ll sit tight in the breeze the fan whips up in the ceiling.

To be reminded of why we work, some will, like at my place of work from before, adorn the cubicles with the colours of India. Take pride in your work, the country will take pride in you. Not that any of us needed the prompting. But then you never know, not for sure at any rate.

On the street I revel in the flashes of the Indian Tricolour. The streets remember because they cannot afford to forget. Others maybe. But not the streets. No, not the streets.

The history of the Indian flag is like the history of India itself, of choices, and compulsions, in equal measure. The Indian flag evolved with the times, reflecting its times, the struggle for independence from British rule.

From its earliest form in 1906, when it was said to be first hoisted in Calcutta’s Parsee Bagan Square, bearing three horizontal strips of red, yellow, and green, with Vande Mataram gracing the centre, followed by the unfurling in Berlin in 1907 of the flag changed to bearing one lotus instead of eight from before, the rest changing into seven stars denoting the Saptarishi, then the one in 1917 hoisted by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant during the Home Rule movement, bearing five red and four horizontal strips alternately, to the one in 1921 during the AICC session in Vijaywada when Gandhiji advised the youth bearing a new flag design to include white to represent all other communities in addition to the red and green the youth had used to denote the two major communities, Hindus and the Muslims, with the spinning wheel or Charkha at the center, the Indian flag has evolved significantly, events shaping it in as much as it went on to shape events once it became a rallying cry for India's independence from British rule.

It was in 1931 that the flag denoting the three colours, saffron, white, and green, with Gandhiji’s spinning wheel at the center, was adopted by the Indian National Congress party by passing a resolution to the effect, eventually becoming the basis of the national flag that we see today, those I saw on the street earlier in the day.

The only change from then being, Mahatma Gandhi’s beloved spinning wheel, the Charkha, was replaced by the Chakra (wheel) from Emperor Ashoka’s Lion Capital dating back to 250 B.C. The Chakra is also known as Ashoka Chakra. Its significance is central to Buddhism as the Dharmachakra or the Wheel of Law.

Sometimes, when I look at the wheel now, the Ashoka Chakra, in the centre of the flag, a mild tremor runs down the length, for it reminds me of the moment I stood beside the enclosed square in Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh) and peered into the enclosure protecting the original pillar that once held aloft Ashoka’s Lion Capital when he installed it in 250 B.C. in ancient Sarnath, where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon following his enlightenment in Bodh Gaya,.

I remember standing there a long time, gazing at the pillar shorn off its magnificent Lion Capital showing four lions in four directions, now housed in the museum across the road from the enclosure. The base of the pillar, shorn of the regal Lion Capital looked forlorn.

I could’ve reached and touched the jagged edges, remnants of the destruction known to have been wrought over Sarnath by Islamic hordes who rode in to grind into dust India’s ethos and supplant their own twisted one once they had destroyed India's culture, and its civilizational basis derived from an ancient religion. India has lost much. India has survived much. And is surviving much. Now.

I had attempted to make sense of the edicts Emperor Ashoka had issued on the pillar, only succeeding in the translation provided on a board nearby. The edicts on the pillar were in a language I did not understand.

It was hallowed ground, no less, where history, antiquity, and the birth of the very essence of Buddhism intersected to form a glorious memory of our travel to Sarnath.

Later, we had trooped to the museum to admire the Lion Capital. It was a stirring sight, its significance as the National Emblem of the Republic of India was not lost on me. I was not allowed to photograph it. I wish I could’ve.

Make time and visit Sarnath someday. It’s a long way off for most of us, but I’m glad I could. I feel you would feel the same as well. That moment was my tryst with history, antiquity, with Buddhism.

I felt the same way when I meandered in Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, lolling about the cottage where Mahatma Gandhi lived with his wife, Kasturba Gandhi.

It was quiet when we made our way up the steps, across the platform, past the Charkha (spinning wheel) outside the kitchen before stepping into the courtyard flanked by bare rooms, where Kasturba once lived. Sunlight streamed through the window when I stepped into her room, marking the window on the floor, the protective grills slanting across the floor before lengthening as the Sun began to drop anchor behind the horizon.

Make time and visit Sabarmati Ashram someday. Once there, meander, and reflect. Let time wash over you. Many things you know as facts from history today will take on a deeper meaning once you’re there. Take it from me, you will see some things differently.

On our way out I passed the Charkha (spinning wheel) again. The platform was empty. The platform Gandhi would use in his time there to meet with ashram inmates and visitors.

Now when I look back, after Sarnath and Sabarmati, after first adopting the spinning wheel in the Indian flag, then replacing it with Wheel of Law, I cannot help relate the circle of life to the Chakra (wheel). So much of Hindu thought revolves, not only as in a circle, but as a path of return, along the same curve it had set off on. Back to where it had started from. Back to its reason for existence. Yes, back to its reason, even if there’s much that changed along the way.

The centrality of the absolute is so prevalent, absoluteness so desired. And I see it in the initial adoption of the Charkha, the wheel, even if the significance of its role in awakening India lay in self sufficiency it represented and not in any philosophy pertaining to life or the wheel of life. Gandhi believed that self sufficiency co-relates to independence, one reason why he was for including the Charkha in the Indian flag. Charkha, in effect charting your Karma.

The Chakra. Yes. The Chakra that adorns the Indian flag now. Dharma Chakra. The Wheel of Law. Dharma and Law. Potent.

What you see, you understand. What you understand, you do not forget – Sarnath, Ashoka’s Pillar, the Lion Capital, the Wheel of Law, and Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi’s Spinning Wheel, the Charkha.

You remember because you cannot forget; you remind so it will not be forgotten; you remember because you will not forget; you remind because it should be remembered; you remember because you should not forget.

You. Me. I. They. Him. Her. Them.


Saffron. White. Green. The colours of the Indian flag are a construct of the nation. They’re not colours that run. They’re colours that’re resident. Colours that inspire. Colours that remind. Colours that’re reminded.

The Indian flag. A rallying cry.

I’m reminded of my idealism growing up, of school, of the flag hoisting ceremony, of the goose pimples as desh bhakti songs lifted the atmosphere, blanking out the Sun at times, at other times piercing the monsoon clouds, thundering in the head until the ears rang to the unifying cry, and the heart swelled with pride, a time to remember the sacrifices made, of the sacrifices to be made, a time when I recognized my country in the flag, and the flag in the country, and the people in its colours, and colours in its people. That was the time. Yes. That was the time.

School time, a time when the closest we came to cynicism was if we carried the Oxford Dictionary along, else it was an alien concept.

As a symbol of unity, the Indian flag is singularly important.

A flag is the face of the faceless. Like me. In it, the multitudes rally around an idea. The idea of India. Of an India. Of the India.

It is a living, breathing thing. Today of all days. Today. Yes, today.

August 05, 2011

A Raised Hood And Many Folded Hands


The over-bridge connecting the railway platforms one, two, three, four, five, and six at Borivali Railway Station is usually crowded, conveying travelers between platforms in the same rushed manner as conducting them toward the exit to the east where they’ll descend the stairs to platform six before exiting the station.

Anxious to board the trains announced on the speaker or hurrying to exit the station to beat the rush heading for scarce rickshaws or buses outside, travelers will rarely break stride or cast a glance elsewhere before making their way about, unless an exception waylays them.

Cobra Statue Nag Panchami Festival

And today it appeared in the form of a firm voice emerging from the corner of the over-bridge, calling out even as the crowd moved and broke ranks in an age old Mumbai tradition –

“Today is Nag Panchami, today is Nag Panchami”.

It’s just as well she called out because the coiled Cobra (Nag) in her basket was barely visible in the flowers and garlands covering it, the raised hood barely noticeable along the curve of the projection.

Worshipping Cobra On Nag Panchami

She sat with the cane basket holding the Cobra, most likely made from copper, at her feet, her hand at the ready by a tin of milk she served up on the metal Cobra’s hood from a metal stirrer wound with cloth to soak up milk, in the same motion a passing traveler made in bringing up a coin as an offering to the serpent on the auspicious day of Nag Panchami, among the first festivals gracing the month of Sravan.

On Nag Panchami day, devotees offer milk, not necessarily in the belief the Cobra will drink it but more from the symbolic value associated with milk as a revered offering to deities on auspicious occasions.

Feeding Milk Cobra Nag Panchmi

“Today is Nag Panchami, today is Nag Panchami,” she called out each time a rush of passengers made their way up or down the stairs. Some folded hands in prayer in front of the Cobra, revered in Hinduism as much for protection from its lethality as for its role as a protector, depending upon the contexts it’s seen in or assigned.

Nag Panchami Photo

Short of time as they go about their daily lives, it suited many travelers to pay up and have milk offered on their behalf to compensate for their inability to make time to visit a Shiva temple and offer milk to the Nag (Cobra) themselves. Meeting half-way is cultural. The middle path is comforting.

She called out again.

“Today is Nag Panchami, today is Nag Panchami.”

Her voice had begun to crack from calling out all day.

As I took the stairs down, it became apparent yet again how a city bursting at its seams will seek to delegate faith for want of time. And in doing so it reveals how, even when pressed hard consistently, it will seek to hang on to tradition in a desperate attempt to retain what remains of an identity derived from the culture of a people, of a past, for an uncertain future.

Note: Shortly, I’ll post on Nag Panchami celebrated at Borivali’s Omkareshwar temple, and Jogeshwari’s Jagdamba & Kalabhairav temple.

August 01, 2011

A Matter Of Chance

Ahmedabad Boy Flying Kite
Ahmedabad. 2011.

Slung over the shoulder
A kite rides his back,
Where, in another time and age,
A quiver of arrows might have.

Where circumstances offer choices
They’re his to make,
But were destiny to shape circumstances,
It’d be his fate to endure them.