Poetic Police and Snooty Ooty: Speeding and Chilling in the Hills

I enjoy police ingenuity and avoid traffic incidents, look for tigers and find green tea, cool off at altitude and see men with attitude.

Alongside the hawkers of souvenirs and sunglasses and socks who patrol Brigade Road, the tourists and touts and teens, a flood of vehicles pours down the hill, monitored by traffic police officers.  They sport thick black moustaches (better than mine), chevrons on their shoulders like Boy Scouts, and wide white hats, jauntily turned up on one side.  Their warning signs also have a jaunty twist.  “Speed thrills but kills”, “Follow traffic rules and avoid blood pools”, “Every time you drink & drive, you lose choice to survive”.  I heard of an even better one, “Stay Married!  Divorce Speed!”  (I described more traffic signs in 2007 here.)  The police slogan “Don’t use mobile when mobile” was reinforced in Hyderabad by posters of a phone’s ear plug cords outlining a prostrate body, and a revolver with a cell phone for a grip.

hyderabad-traffic-police-signswww.bangaloretrafficpolice.gov.in lists toll free ambulance numbers.  It has a key to traffic signs, including “Bullock carts prohibited”.  And it highlights Bangalore’s growth: between 1997 and 2010, the number of buses increased from 1921 to 6113, and travel speed has dropped to 15 kmph during peak hours.  70% of Bangalore’s 4 million vehicles are two-wheelers.  If riders aren’t struck by the stats – helmets reduce the risk of brain damage or death by 70% – they might be alarmed by the alliteration: “Hell or helmet – the choice is yours!”  Most riders I’ve seen evidently choose the afterlife.

Urging drivers to give way, the website warns, “If every one is jostling for advantage, the results is a traffic mess out of which no one can get out”.  A most precise description.  A friend aptly described driving here as “slow-paced aggressive osmosis” – weaving and squeezing through any gaps you can find.  On one billboard a straight line of baby swans follows their mother: “No traffic police here.  They drive in one lane – why can’t you?”  On another is a line of marching penguins: “If they can follow lane discipline, why can’t you?”

india-trucksI pondered these conundrums as we sped down an interstate highway at 120 kmph on Friday for a teachers’ weekend getaway three weeks into the course.  Lane discipline fell short of the cygnets, and despite exhortations like “You have only one head – protect it”, many motorcyclists are without helmets.  Wife and offspring often cling on too.  Guys hang out the backs of trucks; painted on the rear bumper of one was “I love you but don’t kiss me”.  The asphalt is not a pool table surface.  Most days papers report road deaths and we saw one motorcyclist spilled, though unhurt.  We were slightly reassured to learn our driver had been 14 years without an accident.  After starting at 7am to avoid traffic, we stopped for a South Indian breakfast of donut-like vadas, balloon-like pooris, pancake-like dosas, and rice cake idlis, dipped in coconut chutney and spicy samba soup.

Back on the road, we passed dramatic rock outcrops before the fertile “green belt” of South India.  We tried to identify the emerald crops: lower is rice, higher is sugar cane.  Golden-olive palms, pelicans on a lake, white water buffalo pulling ploughs, bullocks hauling carts – driver aloft on a pile of grass, a lone donkey, a limping dog.  Abandoned colonial bungalows.  The advertisement “Coromandel King: for super cement” referred to India’s south-eastern Coromandel Coast, but reminded us of NZ’s Coromandel Peninsula.  The road went through Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary, where we bumped over many judder bars and saw many signs announcing sloths and tigers.  We looked for the latter among the groves of bamboo and eucalyptus trees, but saw only small monkeys, spotted deer and elephants with bells.   People washed clothes in the river.

ooty-hillsideThen we climbed into the Nilgiri Hills.  Hairpin bends became hair-raising when buses pushed past.  As the temperature fell below 20oC, I opened the window and feasted my eyes on all the green: meadows of horses and sheep and cows, hills forested in pines, ferns that reminded me of home, rolling terraces of coffee or tea, the bushes cropped smooth with narrow channels between them, making a huge mosaic of verdant cobblestones.

Our destination lay 300 km southwest of Bangalore: Udhagamandalam, or Ooty, the “Queen of Hill Stations”.  At 2240 m asl, the temperature can drop to zero in winter, but was simply blissful in April.  Ooty was an escape from summer meltdown for British aristocracy – thus the “Crown Baker, estd 1880”, and the nickname, “Snooty Ooty”.  Houses are stacked up the terraced slopes, their walls painted lime, mauve, lemon, cream, while corrugated iron glinted on roof tops where the red tiles had fallen off.   The valley floors are chequered with crops.

doddabetta-peak-tamil-naduThe highest point is Doddabetta at 2633m. No view at all from the lighthouse-shaped lookout that day, but I loved the mountain mist and wind and joined local teens in their summit victory dance, just before it poured.  At the top, stalls sold woollen hats, scarves and binoculars, while orange splashes of carrots for sale brightened the wet drive down.  Much more populated than NZ wilderness, but I backed into a prickly bush, turned, and saw the familiar yellow flowers of gorse.  The Brits, bless them, must have imported it here too.

ooty-summit-danceOoty has a Christian school for expats that’s named for the Old Testament city of Hebron.  Teacher Barbara’s sister studied there 70 years ago and we tracked down her sister’s records through three successive school sites.  We stayed at another old institution, the Indian Sunday School Union.  “People growers since 1876” read the sign on the gate.  I woke to a dawn chorus of birds from raucous crows to tweeting sparrows, pulled on a light fleece for the first time in India, and stepped out into a brick-edged flower garden that reminded me of my grandmother’s in Christchurch.  Walkers and joggers passed wearing beanies; people carried metal milk canisters clinking down the hill; women emerged onto flat house roofs to hang out their washing.  On Sunday morning I heard church bells in the valley as well as Hindu temple chants.  Ooty seems to combine an Indian town with an off-season ski resort.  While some Indian chaos remains, it’s more relaxed and easier to tolerate in the cool, fresh air.

Like the police, Indian politicians are also more flamboyant.  At Ooty, red and black flags waved for the visit of a local minister – I thought of pinching one for my Canterbury cousins: red and black are their rugby colours.  Posters displayed the man in diverse poses.  Formal in a business suit, casual in short sleeves, indigenous in a wraparound lungi, then brandishing a sceptre in a maharaja’s costume and flashing a huge jewel on his ring.

bangalore-army-postersPoliticians are widely despised as corrupt in India, but the army is more respected.  Full page ads and billboards in Bangalore seek recruits: “Nation’s Pride”, “Be a winner”, “Arms you for life and a career” – “open to all castes and religions”.  Ooty is still the base of the Madras Regiment, formed in 1748 and the oldest in the Indian army.  We passed the Wellington Cantonment, with memorials to the 1960s-70s wars with Pakistan and China, and saw tight rows of soldiers at rifle training on a field below.  In the overgrown cemetery behind the 1829 St Stephen’s church I found headstones for men from Fort St George, the Madras Artillery, the Bombay Cavalry, the Indian Navy, as well as many plaques for wives who died young.

The cemetery is still used and a class from Hebron School was clearing undergrowth from a path.  One headstone read “I have loved thee with an everlasting love”.  Some plots had a small sign “reserved”.  I wondered where in this wide world, and when in the everlasting Love’s embrace, a grave is reserved for me.


Corrupt Grammar and Apostolic Essays

I arrive at the college and start to teach; I’m confused by seasons, depressed by marks, inspired by students with biblical lives, and make myself at home with peanut butter and books.

I caught my third overnight train from Hyderabad to Bangalore – back in second class, with egg biryani for dinner – and on Easter Monday I was driven 40 minutes northeast from the centre of Bangalore, 5 km past the Outer Ring Road, and turned into a lane that winds past the college.  After 14 different beds over five weeks, averaging 2.5 nights between each set of sheets, it’s good to be settled for seven straight weeks.

Just past the guard house inside the gate a rock displays the verse, “This is the Lord’s doing.  It is marvellous in our eyes.”  Beyond lies the main quadrangle, with dining hall and kitchen on the left, admin and classrooms at right, chapel with small spire and library at the far end.  The buildings are of red brick, with cream pillars and balustrades. Low hedges, flowerpots and shrubs in Bangalore’s red soil edge the central lawn.  The lush green is patrolled every morning by three or four white herons.

Accommodation is scattered around the complex, interspersed with trees and flower beds guarded by big black crows, swings and slides for kids, and dirt clearings for cricket, badminton, soccer, volleyball.  When the rain came, the bare soil turned green almost overnight.  Seasons are different here – as someone said to me, “It’s spring: the leaves are falling.”  Which they were, but trees also dropped yellow and red and lilac blossoms, while three-striped squirrels scampered up and down their trunks.

out-my-window-bangaloreI was at the college during its summer break to help teach a seven-week English enhancement program for the students starting in June who’d scored less highly in the entrance English exam.  Three other Kiwis completed the volunteer team.  Aucklander Dennis, a teacher of high school geography and now English as a Second Language, ran the course last year with his wife Barbara.  Isla from small-town New Zealand taught it before that.  I was the newbie, unsure what to expect, and had only spoken to the others on the phone. Dennis said he had imagined me as short and pot-bellied: I was less surprised at his appearance.

We had 23 students aged from early 20s to 40s.  During introductions, I noted their home states and identifying features: glasses, thick beard, thin moustache, spiky hair, no hair.  Only three girls.  The biggest cohort came from Nagaland and Manipur in the Northeast, where the people look quite Chinese.  The students from southern India were dark skinned, with a few fairer guys from central states.  For the first week, the roll lived in my breast pocket for constant cribbing, and I added a few character traits to jog my memory: laughing or shy, cheeky or serious.  There were easy biblical names: Samuel, Daniel, Thomas, Paul.  Others took longer to memorise: Benjongsenla, Worchihan, Surendra, Srinivas.  My favourite name was “Graceson” (son of grace).  Another student on campus was “Lightson”.

As the names sank in, we settled on a schedule.  At 8:30, a student gave a biblical reflection.  By nine, Dennis, Isla and I headed for our own classrooms, with a different group of seven students each day.  I taught in long trousers, but jandals and a loose short-sleeve collared shirt gave reasonable ventilation.  In the morning we worked on the Academic Writing track of the Cambridge International English Language Testing System (IELTS), used by many Western universities to vet overseas students.  We tackled grammar and structure exercises like rephrasing and connecting sentences with conjunctions, or organising thoughts into a logical flow.

The linguistic workout earned an hour off for lunch, which all staff and students ate together.  As in old monastery refectories, a picture of Christ’s Last Supper hangs on the wall, though it’s not as large or impressive as da Vinci’s in Milan.  There’s always white rice and vegetables, often with chapattis; frequently chicken or beef, and a veg-only table.  Even my Colgate toothpaste read “Always 100% vegetarian.”  Yoghurt to cool the spice, and bananas, watermelon, or jackfruit that hung from campus trees in bulbous bumpy shells and I found a little sickly.  Apart from those I enjoyed the food – especially the biryani chicken – and twice-daily heaped servings of rice and rich sauce tightened my belt a little.  I was surprised that some students found the food too hot to eat.

To work off the meal, two afternoons a week was a trial IELTS writing test.  Task One (150 words) was to summarise graphical or tabular data, such as bar charts of an imaginary survey like “Factors Motivating People to Succeed” and “Irritants for Theatregoers”, or line graphs of company sales.  I brainstormed synonyms on the whiteboard so every sentence wouldn’t repeat that sales that year boringly “rose” or “fell” or stayed the same, but rather “soared/rocketed” or “collapsed/plummeted” or “hovered/fluctuated fitfully/erratically”.  My favourite graph showed the output of four imagined authors from age 20 to death.  For fun we drew curves for Moses and St Paul.  Test Task Two was a structured essay of 250 words, mostly on a controversial environmental or social issue.  I enjoyed discussing Indian examples.

Marking took up to two hours.  It was satisfying when I found an eloquent opening, punchy conclusion, or successful use of a phrase I’d just taught.  It could be depressing, even when I saved the best students till last, and I pity professional teachers.  As I corrected the same mistakes every day, I asked “Am I a lousy teacher?”, “Does anyone listen in class?”, “Does anyone read my comments?”, “Does anyone have a gun?”

Learning more about India cheered me up.  In an essay on corruption, caste or dowry, one student wrote: “Justice has become a strange word for the people of India because of corruption” – which most of my class named as India’s biggest problem.  “The caste system is a poison to Indian community life”, wrote another.  It “has wounded the hearts of the people”.  “Marriage is becoming a business entity” and “even today… thousands of women have committed suicide because of dowry problems.”  As we read a booklet of Old Testament studies, I discovered how similar rural India can be to the biblical world, as I’d seen a few weeks before (see here).  Students told of pastoral festivals and rites which echoed Scripture, such as thanksgiving at harvest times, or sending a scapegoat into the wilderness.  More gruesomely, one had seen village priests decapitate a goat and drink its blood from the neck.

Some of our students had almost biblical lives.  Speed-climbing thorn trees when wild elephants charged during a jungle trek; nearly dying from malaria; being beaten for their faith by Hindu fundamentalists – one was left for dead much like St Paul.  Some came from poorer backgrounds; others had surrendered careers in IT or banking or business to study theology.  All were great people, and as time progressed we laughed more in class, shared more in the evenings, met some of their families, and enjoyed the Friday night games – rock-scissors-paper recast as Samson-Delilah-lion – or movies like Oliver Twist, where I noticed that 19th-century London market lanes look like India today.  (Extra entertainment from the cracks of mosquitoes frying on an electric racket.)  Two had studied in Dehradun in the Himalayan foothills, near one of the oldest and most recommended Hindi language schools.  The steep snowy streets in their photos resembled a ski resort and suggested my next India destination!

my-kitchen-bangaloreTeaching finished at 3:30 pm and we went back to our own flats, which all had names.  My door read “William Carey” (my office was “Jerusalem”).  Grey stone cladding, with window bars shaped like diamond lead lights.  As I’ve learnt to do when arriving in new Indian accommodation, I immediately inspected the insect mesh on all windows, opening shutters for a breeze where they didn’t leave cracks.  In a few budget hotels I’ve taped over holes in the mesh.

Staff in red sari uniforms delivered a jug of creamy boiled milk every day, as well as eggs, small sweet bananas, tea and coffee, bread and muesli for breakfast.  After finding ants in my cornflakes, I found the airtight pots.  I even had a toaster, with peanut butter and Bournvita chocolate milk powder from the supermarket.  I swapped a photo on the cream-painted wall for my Tramping New Zealand calendar, lined up my books on the shelf under the Readers Digest miscellany, and the place felt quite homely.  Especially once I visited the library, where filling out borrowing cards by hand took me back to schooldays.  After teaching all day, it was good to relax on my cane lounge suite.  The geckos on the walls were peaceable companions, mostly darting behind a cupboard or picture frame when I approached, although I feared squashing their babies on the floor, especially at night in bare feet.


High Security Easter: Hanuman, Cops and Christ

I remember the death of Christ and encounter the birth of a monkey god, cross barbed wire beset with flags and escape the clash of orange and green.

On Wednesday evening, sudden gusts whipped dust into my eyes and gloom descended over the Charminar, before the first rain I’d seen in weeks.  I took shelter in a second-floor air-con café, grabbed an ice coffee and an easy chair overlooking the square, and enjoyed the show for an hour.  As twilight deepened and the floodlights came on, the Charminar glowed purple, then rose, then yellow.  Lightning flashed behind it, though I heard no thunder.  The wind whipped flags.  Pyramids of fruit gleamed under bare bulbs.  Stall holders pulled tarpaulins over their carts and bag-sellers hurried off between showers.  Looking at headlights to see whether rain was still falling, I noticed how few vehicles had their lights on.

The weather seemed to herald the gloom of Good Friday, when darkness fell over Jerusalem as Jesus was crucified.  On Google I found Baptist Church Hyderabad was 10 minutes’ walk from my hotel, with a service at 11 am.  It sounded ideal.  Four policemen sat at the gate in front of rows of overflow seating under an awning.  There was an English bulletin and worship songs from Hillsong Australia were playing as I entered.  I also heard them in Korea and Kyoto years ago: the popular Protestant equivalent of the Roman Catholic mass in Latin.  The familiar tunes warm the heart of the homesick traveller and I hummed along with almost a tear, but it’s a shame more peoples aren’t praising God in their own style and tongue.

And, in fact, they were here.  The service turned out to be hours of incomprehensible Telegu.  For each of Christ’s seven last words from the cross there was a full sermon, prayers and bracket of songs.  Although I’d grabbed a pew under a fan, by 12:30 I’d emptied both my water bottles.  I slipped outside, heard shouting at the end of the street, and found out why the police were there.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-motorbikesYoung men zoomed past on motorbikes or an occasional truck.  I switched my camera speed to ISO High.  They waved bright orange or red pennants.  The cloth triangles showed a black silhouette of a jumping monkey wielding a mace.  The Christian Good Friday was also the Hindu Hanuman Jayanti, the birthday of the monkey god.  In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman and his simian hordes helped the divine Lord Ram recover his kidnapped wife (see my post here).  From a lamp post hung a political banner, showing party members alongside the blue-skinned Ram embracing Hanuman.  When motorcyclists shouted “Jai Shri Ram”, or “Hail Lord Rama”, the crowd responded with the same words, especially to the mighty hollering of a zealot standing on a motorbike.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-political-posterI remembered the headline in The Times of India at breakfast: “Blanket of Security for Rally Today”.  “Heavy bandobust arrangements are in place” and “10K Cops Deployed”, including 32 battalions of Special Police and four companies of Rapid Action Force, with peace committee volunteers also on vigil.  In British times the ruling Nizams were marked by religious tolerance, but Hyderabad has since become known as a riot-prone city.  In 2010, Hindu flags in Muslim areas sparked stone pelting and communal clashes at the Hanuman rally, leading to several days of curfew.  This year an inflammatory leader of a fundamentalist Hindu party was allowed to speak publicly.

“Police is geared up to handle any situation proactively” assured the commissioner, with police pickets near mosques and churches “to prevent any untoward incident.”  One building the size of a shed was encircled by coiled razor wire and covered in a tarpaulin.  Through a crack I glimpsed green, the colour of Islam: it was a Muslim shrine.

Ebbing and flowing, the stream of flags on wheels seemed endless.  Organisers had expected the bike rally to attract over 200,000 participants.  They were officially requested “not to cover their faces and not to hide the vehicle registration numbers with stickers”.  Many shops were keeping security roller doors down until after the Muslim Friday afternoon prayers.  Further along the street, youths danced to pumping Hindu music.  A lad waved a banner far longer than himself.  Small plastic pockets of water were distributed to sweating devotees.  No doubt many had downloaded the Hanuman ringtones advertised in the paper.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-flagsTraffic piled up behind police barricades on side streets and to get back to my hotel, I had to climb through barbed wire strands and weave through the gridlock.  I recalled the Passover festival in Jerusalem two millennia ago, when the presence of Roman troops was pumped up to make sure religious excitement didn’t turn to revolution.  The tensions between idol-worshipping Romans and monotheistic Jews were not unlike those between Hindus and Muslims here today.

I read of the aftermath a few days later, once I was safely in Bangalore.  There were a few jitters as the procession passed a mosque and a few Muslims with slogans, but no real trouble and the cops were relaxed.  Later on, however, riots broke out.  People were stabbed.  Dead animals and dog parts were thrown into places of worship.  For much of the week the old city around the Charminar where I’d been in the previous days was completely closed.  Tourists were frustrated.  Shops lost revenue.  Residents were running out of medicine and milk.

O come the day when the Prince of Peace, killed in darkness at Easter and risen in new life, will complete his work and break down every wall of resentment, religion and race.

Gemstones and Biryani: Stinking Rich in Hyderabad

I travel first class to the Taj Mahal, check what has changed in the City of Pearls, and steal a glimpse of its riches; I melt down in the fatal heat and perk up with a favourite meal.

The trip on Tuesday night from Bhopal (see here) 15 hours south to Hyderabad was my longest single stretch.  Things were less smooth this time.  The electronic signboards at the Bhopal station weren’t going and there was no sign of my train.  The young man in the tourist booth left me to browse brochures in his air-conditioned office while he asked around to find out the score: my train was running 40 minutes late and would arrive at platform three.

The second class seats had all been sold out so I splashed out on first, which was very affordable and not dramatically different.  The seat-cum-beds were maroon instead of blue, and, more significantly, were wider and longer so I could stretch out fully.  The closed four-berth compartments were more private.  My companions were a semi-retired refrigeration engineer visiting his son in Bangalore and an army colonel on leave from the troubled state of Kashmir.  Both were courteous gentleman with excellent English.  The engineer insisted I take two of his wife’s chapattis with cauliflower pickle and a carton of mango juice.

7 am arrival, so not yet too hot.  I missed the Taj Mahal in Aga but stayed in a “Taj Mahal” hotel here in Hyderabad, although cubic concrete above a highway flyover isn’t quite as romantic as sinuous marble mirrored in tranquil pools.  (And unlike the Moghul love of meat, consumption of non-vegetarian food in this Hindu-owned hotel was prohibited.)  It turned out to be a common hotel name and there’s a flasher Taj Mahal in town which is much better known.  One rickshaw driver took me to the latter, despite my vigorous “No, no, no” (in English and Hindi, with hands and head) whenever he named the suburb, then demanded more money to get to mine.

Hyderabad has about 5.5 million people and, like Bhopal, a higher Muslim proportion than the national average.  There are many more black-veiled women on the streets than a decade ago. This is not due to conservative Islam spreading, I read, but increasing freedom and education for women who were previously secluded at home and never seen.  Many work in the new IT industry of “Cyberabad”.  After the northern scarcity of online connections, I passed many Internet cafes and could see two from my hotel balcony, although the power failed as I was about to hit send.

hyderabad-charminarI spent a week here in November 2007 and saw the major tourist sites. Now I caught an auto-rickshaw to the Old City to see what had changed.  Instead of an electric horn as in other cities, the driver squeezed a rubber bulb for a Donald Duck squawk.  In the central square, motorbikes and rickshaws swarm around the base of the city’s main icon, the Charminar.  It’s sometimes called the “Oriental Arc de Triomphe”, but unlike its Parisian counterpart is square with archways on all four sides, a second-floor mosque, and four 56-meter high corner minarets.

The Charminar seemed a little more drab and soot-stained than when I saw it in 2007 (see here), or perhaps my memory had airbrushed its blemishes.  I recalled the baskets of sparkling bangles and the carts with geometric pyramids of apples and oranges.  The square would be much nicer without traffic; measurements of Respirable Particulate Matter have found it to be the most polluted area in the city.

hyderabad-banglesA network of lanes around the Charminar houses dealers of pearls and gemstones.  Hyderabad is called “the City of Pearls” and the world’s largest diamond, the Kohinoor, came from the mines near Golconda Fort (read about my visit here).  One tourist flyer listed the sacred nine gemstones of the Indian scriptures with their corresponding planets and star signs.  As a Pisces, it seems my gem is yellow sapphire, to be worn mounted in gold (as opposed to silver or copper for some stones) on the index finger.  My planet is Jupiter (for knowledge!) and Thursday my big day.  For Indian astrology, pearls represent the moon (and impart coolness to the body) and rubies the sun. Hessonite and Cat’s-Eye, I read, represent the dragon’s head and tail, or the moon in ascending and descending modes.

hyderabad-dental-clinicsIn a more down-to-earth vein, a row of dental clinics welcomed customers with photographs of perfect toothy smiles and steel-hinged dentures on the counters: grinning pink gums and discoloured incisors embedded in grey clay or lime putty.  Two boys held an injured pigeon, dipping its beak into water for a drink and gently stretching out its wings to pose for a photo.

hyderabad-hurt-birdIn one corner of the Charminar square is the 17th-century Mecca Masjid, a mosque that can hold 10,000 worshippers.  The name is due to a few bricks from Mecca embedded over one arch. I was instructed to either leave my cloth shoulder bag at the gate or roll it up so it looked small.  Actually less security than in 2007 when there’d been a recent bomb attack and riot police buses were parked outside.  (Since then two bombs killed 16 people in 2013.)  In the courtyard, goats and pigeons competed for scattered grain, while I rested alongside tombs of the local rulers in a shady colonnade.  Men read papers in the mosque’s small library.  Arabic titles wound down each book’s spine, their elegant flourishes filling me with nostalgia for a rich culture and a world of scholarship that I’ve never known.

Hyderabad was ruled by the Moslem Nizams and the last (reigning from 1911-1948) was perhaps the richest man in the world – his personal fortune included £500 million of gold, silver and jewels – and one of the most wed: he had 150 wives.  In 1967 he had 14,718 staff and dependants, including 3000 Arab bodyguards, 38 dusters of chandeliers, 28 bringers of drinking water, and several dedicated grinders of royal walnuts.  The Chowmahalla palace alone had 6000 staff.

The Chowmahalla was built in 1750-1850 and opened to the public since my last visit, giving me a taste of Hyderabad’s former opulence.  “It is the Palace of exuding invisible power and stands out for its intrinsic grandeur”, read the entrance sign, and is “compared by the historians as a Palace of Arabian Nights”.  The Nizam’s reception hall was indeed grand, with Belgian chandeliers above a vast expanse of marble before the wide white throne.  There were galleries of family portraits, a painted map of Mecca, and an elephant caparison weighing 25 kg.  The sixth Nizam was a dandy who never wore the same thing twice: his wardrobe was 72 m long, with two storeys.  The Nizam’s cars included a 1912 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, painted yellow.

hyderabad-chowmahalla-clockThe armoury seemed worthy of the Arabian Nights.  There were curved Iranian swords and Indian sabres, a double-edged Hindu sword with a tip swelling like a cobra’s hood, slim-bladed daggers designed to pierce ring mail, curved Arabic daggers with carved hilts, straight Afghan knives, and double-curved “scorpions” to be concealed in the sleeve.  The Nizam tried to remain independent after the British were ousted in 1947.  Despite all this weaponry, the Indian Army rolled in one year later and after five days his princely state (the size of Italy) was part of the new nation.

The next day I felt so exhausted that I hung the “do not disturb” sign on my door and went back to bed after breakfast.  I left early afternoon to revisit the Salar Jung museum that I enjoyed last time (see here).  It’s another Hyderabad hoard, gathered from the four seas by the Nizam’s Grand Vizier, and with 35,000 objects is allegedly the world’s biggest one-man collection.  Chinese tapestries and Japanese vases; Arabic manuscripts and Persian carpets; English china, Italian sculptures, European paintings and clocks; Indian silverware and carvings in stone, wood, ivory and bronze.  I had forgotten the museum lacked air-conditioning and most doorways open onto outdoor courtyards.  For some reason I found displays underneath a fan the most attractive.

biryaniHead throbbing in the heat, I dragged myself along the stinking river to the Hotel Shadab on High Court Road, known as one of the best spots for Hyderabad biryani: spicy saffron rice with chicken or mutton or beef.  It’s one of my Indian favourites and my morale bounced back on a padded seat under an AC unit, tucking into chicken biryani with side dishes of cool vegetable yoghurt and hot gravy.  The serving was so generous I couldn’t finish.  Check out the recipe (from here), drawn by Amrita Mohanty at the delicious site www.theydrawandcook.com.

Chicken Biryani by Amrita Mohanty

Bollywood, Buddha, and the Stupas of Sanchi

I bus through golden fields and climb a pilgrim’s hill, I trace out carvings of Buddha’s life and fly through Delhi at the flicks.

Centuries before the great Hindu epics were written (see my Ramayana post here), the Buddha lived in northern India (see my introduction to his life here).  In 262 BC the emperor Asoka, horrified at the carnage of his latest conquest, renounced violence and became a follower.  He sent missionaries as far as Sri Lanka to spread the message and for 1000 years Buddhism was practised across India, before Hinduism re-absorbed it.

Not unlike the emperor Constantine when he converted to Christianity six centuries later, Asoka introduced some compassionate reforms, carving edicts commanding kindness to women and animals and beggars, yet was unable to fully relinquish his imperial ways and maintained tight control through his military and secret police.

sanchi-buddhist-great-stupaThroughout his empire Asoka erected polished columns topped by four outward-facing lions, which are now a state symbol of India and printed on banknotes.  He also built a brick dome or stupa for Buddhist relics at Sanchi, near the birthplace of his wife.  It’s the oldest stone structure in India, now a UNESCO World Heritage site (see whc.unesco.org), and only 46 km north-east of Bhopal.

The bus station was a few blocks from my hotel.  The bus looked rather dilapidated – the door said “EL OME” – but had comfortable new fabric seats.  I grabbed one at the front left, i.e. west, i.e. shade.  As we waited to depart, sellers of water, bananas, peanuts got on and off.  Then a veiled Muslim woman, and a Hindu holy man with a tray of incense, both soliciting alms.  Chains of plastic flowers dangled over the driver; Lord Shiva with his trident and holy bull stood on the dashboard.  One and a half hours later we reached Sanchi, a town of about 7000.

sanchi-columnThe stupas are on a small hill along with small Greek-like temples and the ruins of Buddhist monasteries.  Only knee-high walls demark the individual cells and some structures are still being excavated.  I stood on a stone wall to survey the view and took a deep breath of clean air that refreshed my spirit.  Golden wheat fields striped with parallel lines – straight or gracefully curved.  Patches of emerald green rice.  A tractor puffing smoke.  Distant hills.  I hired an audio guide with atmospheric Buddhist chanting, climbed past a modern temple for Sri Lankan pilgrims, met a laughing group of Vietnamese monks and nuns, and approached the Great Stupa.

Asoka’s original dome was later surrounded by a stone wall, balustrade and gateways, and crowned with a triple stone parasol.  It subsequently lay abandoned for around 600 years.  The gates fell over and foliage grew over the rest, until it was rediscovered in 1818 by a general in the Bengal cavalry.  A few decades later, stone boxes were found with bone fragments from two of Buddha’s first followers.  One historian compared it to finding the graves of St Peter and Paul.  Exactly 100 years ago, the jungle was cleared and the main structures rebuilt.

sanchi-column-buddha-feetThe Great Stupa now stands 16 m high, 37 m in diameter.  Stone elephants, lions and potbellied dwarves hold up triple architraves on the four gateways.  Every surface is covered in carvings.  There are scenes of bravery and compassion from the Buddha’s birth after his mother dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb.  There’s his life of renunciation, and his other lives.  When incarnated as an elephant, Buddha helped an ivory hunter saw off his own six tusks.  As a monkey king, he gave his life to save his companions.

In this early art Buddha wasn’t shown in human form but represented by a lotus flower, bodhi tree, empty throne, footprint or umbrella.  Statues of the Buddha came centuries later.  There’s a whole menagerie here: herds of elephants, lions (some winged), bulls, horses, camels, cobras, peacocks.  Busty wood nymphs lean down to welcome visitors, and there’s all the human comedy from armies to artisans.

In 2007 I bought wooden souvenirs of Asoka’s lion column to give to friends, so I sought out the original third-century BC capital in the museum before returning to Bhopal.  Loved the ride back: by an open window with a cool breeze, people waving to me as we passed, and the fields totally gorgeous in the setting sun.

buddha-agent-vinodTo balance out Buddha’s nonviolent serenity, today I played my best heat-avoidance card: a midday movie.  Two and a half hours of air-conditioning in a padded seat!  “Agent Vinod” was a recent Bollywood thriller that my hotel clerk said had flopped.  Indeed the cinema was near empty.  From front to back were bronze, silver, gold or platinum tickets. I went for the gold: at Rs.100, twice the cost of live theatre a few days ago.  They still have an intermission here, when I bought a pastry veg-puff.  It tasted like it had been sitting out all night, and I started to imagine stomach-rumblings in the second half.

I understood disappointingly little of the dialogue and the plot seemed overblown, but I enjoyed the chase scenes in Indian auto-rickshaws.  Best was the helicopter view of central Delhi where I was two weeks ago, as Vinod desperately flew a ticking nuclear bomb out of the city, fare-welling the heroine on his phone as she expired from gunshot wounds, whispering with her last breath the password to deactivate the detonator with only seconds to spare.  No melodramatic cliché was spared.

agent-vinod-filmI’d entered the cinema through a spacious foyer, but was shunted out through a narrow passage and brusquely deposited in a dirty parking lot behind the building.  It was a rude transition from chilled-out illusion to hot smelly reality that would test the detachment of the Buddha himself, but nicely encapsulated this country’s contrasts.