Thursday, 19 July 2012

"See"-ing the past...

The clouds were parting, letting some rays of sunshine touch the streets of Aberdeen, Port Blair, as our car pulled up at the top of the hill.

“The sunshine through the clouds is a beautiful sight, Seema. If only in those olden days, the people who were here had that little sunshine in their life,” I told her as she gently got out.

“I still can’t imagine how you can say your most favorite place is a jail, Ruchi,” she told me, managing a wan smile.

“This isn’t just any jail; this is the most infamous one in Indian history. Right now, we’re standing at the main gate to Kala Paani.”

I could tell she recognized the name. My otherwise calm friend gave a sudden shudder.

Cellular Jail, Port Blair (Andaman & Nicobar Islands)

“Through these wrought iron gates, between two majestic towers, we are walking free today. When we fought for our freedom a hundred years back, Indians were pushed in, handcuffed,” I told her, as we entered. I held her hand, and I could feel that she was shaking. I felt the same way whenever I came.
It was a beautiful compound with lush green lawns that housed the big old prison building. The garden did little to soothe our fast beating hearts, but the little that it did helped us.

Garden Inside the Jail
One of the Wings of Cellular Jail

We went toward one of the seven buildings there. On black marble, outside it, was the history very few would know.

“Why are you silent?” she asked, once we had passed it, and we were walking toward a massive central tower. “What’s the matter?”
“To silence our cries for freedom, contain our struggle against the British, they built this massive prison. They made us build it. Two hundred of our freedom fighters made this high security jail to hold even more of us. Nearly seven hundred cells are there here, spread across seven buildings. Each one of them could be monitored by one person standing right here,” I told her as we stood at the top of the tower. The whole compound could be seen, and the city as well. “Those poor souls, no one to talk to either… look out the cell gate, and see the wall of the other wing, not your comrades’ faces…”
I saw her looking down from the tower, and wondered if she could picture it. Her face was pale, and we went back down.

“In these courtyards, our freedom fighters toiled in the sun. When they didn’t work hard, they were punished, whipped in front of the others, made an example of,” I told Seema as we entered one of the wings. We entered one of the cells, and it was very small. “Barely enough for a tall man to lie down properly on a mat on the floor,” I spoke out loud. I looked up at the ceiling. “How the hell did they breathe? There’s only a small opening there. This was torture. Even now you feel suffocated.”  

Cells in Cellular Jail

“These two pots here... near your feet. From one they ate their food, and in the other, they peed and shat. They cleaned it themselves every morning. I can't even tell the two apart. They slept in this hell with the stench of their own blood, sweat and tears as they plotted useless schemes to escape.” I felt her shift from where she stood.

As we were leaving, Seema’s fingers touched the wrought iron grill of the cell, and she stood still for a moment, her face expressionless. “I see them, Ruchi. Those prisoners, their fingers wrapped around this grill, trying to break it open and escape. I can see their hands being hit at with a baton, and blood dripping on to this floor,” she said, a tear in her eye, which I wiped off gently. 

Corridors of Jail

A photo hung in the next cell that we entered, the one of the great Vir Savarkar. As we stood there, an elderly couple entered the room. They were emotional when they saw the photo, and requested me to take a photo as they stood next to it. As Seema walked near the walls, feeling its soul, I talked with them.

“Thank you,” the man said, as I gave his camera back. “I can’t imagine how Baba would’ve stayed here so long.”

Seema stopped in her tracks, and looked toward his voice. “Yes, my father was a freedom fighter. He was imprisoned here for four years for transporting arms to the revolutionaries in Bengal,” he said.

“Can we meet him?”

He shook his head sadly. “Alas, he passed away in 1991.” He thanked us again and we went along with them, heavy hearted but proud for meeting the family of a freedom fighter. We went to the museum in the compound, where pictures of the freedom fighters, whatever could be found, hung. Uncle proudly went toward one picture and pointed. “That’s my father,” and that got tears to our eyes. “No one had an easy life here, but no one surrendered to the pain that was meted out. Their bodies gave in, but not their spirit.”

“Can you tell us more?” we asked him, and he nodded.
As we walked around the compound, he talked. His voice was grieving but remained steady.

“Those who were put here were tortured one way or another; not by them but by the hands of their own countrymen. The British didn’t want to get their hands dirty by touching our filthy bodies. The prisoners were strapped to a frame and whipped, so there was no escape, no ease in the pain.”

Punishments Given to the Prisoners

He was tearful suddenly, and we didn’t ask him to continue further.

“We better leave now. We’ve to go a long way. Perhaps we shall meet some other day, young friends,” he said, and gave a small smile. When they left, we headed toward a light and sound show that narrated the life of the prisoners. Its power brought to life the struggle, the inhuman conditions of the prison in those days, and the hunger strike of the prisoners in protest against that. The show bore testimony to the songs of the prisoners in their struggle for freedom. It showed that hope, the one thing the prisoners hung on to, was the most powerful emotion in life.

It was with heavy steps and heart that we walked toward the car in the evening.

“Ruchi…” she called, and we stopped under the majestic archway entrance.

“Thank you for bringing me here. The narrative at the end, the show… it wasn’t needed. I could see it all as I walked with you today. It will remain in my mind forever.”

“But how could you see?”

“I didn’t need my eyes to imagine the events. I may be blind, but your words touched my heart, and I could feel every moment of it. After today, I’ll walk with hope, imagining a day when I might be able to see your face again, and come back to ‘see’ this place again. Will you get me back here?”

I just nodded, my words lost once again, this time to the hopeful struggle of my dear friend.


Saturday, 16 June 2012

Andaman Island's Rajan: Ocean-Swimming Elephant

Sometime things are so unimaginable that till the time you don’t see them from your eyes, you don’t believe them. Such case happened with me last year, when I heard about Rajan from my parents who are staying in Andaman Islands. Dad told me that Rajan is the only elephant left in entire Indian sub-continent who swims in the sea. I was surprised that how come an elephant can swim. Dad told me to visit Havelock Islands and see it from your own eyes. Without wasting any time, I booked the cruise for coming weekend from Port blair to Havlock. Havlock Island has its own charm but I was more interested in Rajan.  As Dad said, I went to the Barefoot – Havelock Resort to meet this unusual elephant. 

Rajan - The Swimming Elephant
What I saw was totally outside of the norm. An elephant, swimming, snorkelling! Rajan, the permanent elephant resident of Barefoot at Havelock Resort, knows the water well. At 59 years of age a simple morning or afternoon ritual is a plunge in to the waves along the beach. Using his trunk as a snorkel, he finds his way along the seabed to deeper water, enjoying every moment floating.

Rajan Playing in Ocean
Rajan mahout' or elephant driver told me his tragic story:
Unlike a lot of logging elephants at the time, Rajan was born in captivity in mainland India around 1950. Initially trained using very cruel methods to log the islands of the Andamans, he was forced to swim with massive loads. He was trained on the mainland and bought by a Karen Businessman to work in the Timber Industry in the Andaman Islands. He arrived in the Andaman’s in his twenties & worked in Little Andaman, until about 2002.
But in 2002, logging was banned in the islands and most of the 200 elephants were sent back to the Indian mainland. However, Rajan was kept on by a wealthy owner who had no desire to see him leave Havelock Island, and enjoyed a blissful existence eating bananas and swimming in the crystal clear water.

Rajan with his driver

Rajan- Only Elephant who knows how to swim in Ocean
Five years ago a Kerala temple offered £40,000 for the elephant and Rajan almost had to leave, before a tourist lodge launched a campaign to raise the funds to keep him. Since then Rajan and Nasru have become something of an attraction. At 60 years he is the last of the group to survive. Now retired, he spends his time with his caretaker and now enjoys swimming and walking through the forests he once logged. He is truly the last of his kind.

People at Barefoot Resorts have taken it upon themselves to raise the money required to free Rajan. This amounts to nearly 70 000 USD. It is a mountainous sum of money, and in order to collect it they  undertook merchandising methods, selling Rajan T-shirts, or even offering people the once in a blue moon, exquisite opportunity to swim or dive with an elephant, with Rajan.

Rajan Playing in Ocean
When swimming with Rajan you are almost certain he is aware he is being photographed. Rajan is very friendly elephant. He is like a dog paddling when he swims and his mahout swims alongside him and never loses track of him. They are almost inseparable. It was a magical moment to observe – this majestic beast paddling effortlessly through the water.

Rajan in Havlock Island Beach

Rajan at 61 has only few more years to enjoy his life
I was fortunate that I had this chance to do a few dives with him and it is for sure an amazing experience. Very often, when people ask me what is the biggest creature that I have seen underwater, I say – Rajan!

How to Reach Havlock Island:
  1. Ferries are the major way on or off the island. 2-3 arrive daily from Port Blair (2-4 hours) and one from Rangat, one of which comes via Neil Island. Schedules vary according to day and season, so enquiry locally.
  2. There is also an air-conditioned catamaran ferry from Port Blair to Havelock. Tickets are 700, 800 or 1100 (which gets you a leather seat and your own tv). As the ferry is more expensive it is less likely to be full, and its schedule meets incoming flights. Tickets can be booked from a dedicated ticket booking window at Port Blair, thus avoiding the queue barging.
  3. The other option is to fly in. Pawan Hans (+91-3192-233601), which until 2011 operated sporadic helicopter flights to Havelock, now flies an amphibious 8-seater Cessna seaplane from Port Blair to Havelock and back every day except Sunday, covering the distance in about an hour. The standard price is a steep 4100 rupees one-way, but discounts may be available.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ganjifa Cards: Ancient India's Favorite Game

Few days back, I got the chance to visit an exhibition in Pragati Maidain in Delhi. It was an all states art and craft fair where people from different states were exhibiting their art forms. While roaming, I saw some beautiful miniature paintings in the Orissa stall. When I enquired about the painting he told “Madam, these are Ganjifa playing cards”. He explained me that Ganjifa is actually a very old art form of paintings and playing cards. Further told me how some of the families in Orissa and Maharashtra are trying to revive this dying ancient Indian game.

Ganjifa Cards

Painting in Ganjifa Card

Ganjifa’ is the name given to an ancient Indian card game which originated in Persia (modern Iran) and became popular in India under the Mogul emperors in the 16th century. The first known reference is in the diary of Emperor Babur in 1527. The game used to be the favorite pastimes of ancient India, it first became popular at court, in the form of lavish sets of precious stone – inlaid ivory or tortoise shell.  It later spread to the general public, whereupon cheaper sets would be made from materials such as wood, palm leaf, or pasteboard.

Technique to Prepare Cards:
The techniques, processing, designing of ganjifa cards varied from user to user. Artists involved in making Cards for the rich and wealthy used expensive materials. They used to craft on lac wafers, tortoise shells, ivory, engraved brass discs, mother of pearl and decorated with precious stones and metals.

Artists Preparing Ganjifa Cards

Detailed Work on Ganjifa Cards
Common people made the cards using leather, paper, stylographed palm leaves, fish scales and paper machete. Colors were made by hand and they were rich in natural minerals and vegetable dyes. The artists grinded and mixed these natural colors by hand themselves. They used fine brushes including the squirrel hair brushes suitable to the Ganjifa painting technique to paint the cards.

Perception Behind the games:
In Maharashtra and Orissa, Ganjifa was a favorite pastime for Brahmins. Old people are still seen playing Dashavatara Ganjifa near Puri Temples, mainly with 16-suited 192 card decks. The main purpose of the game was to teach, learn and tell stories from our ancient scriptures and holy books. Style was set to stories and shlokas from the Hindu Puranas, stories from the Ramayana, the chapters from Mahabharata and many more scriptures. One of the greatest benefits was that besides a memory test, the game provided a good retention of traditional knowledge.

How to Play with Ganjifa Cards:
Ganjifa cards were circular and traditionally hand-made by local artisans. The standard playing cards of India are usually a set each of 96 cards of Mughal Ganjifa and of 120 or 144 cards of Dashavatara Ganjifa.  The structure and the rules of both the games are the same except that in Dashavatara, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu are depicted.

Mughal Ganjifa:. The present game of Mughal Ganjifa was introduced by Akbar. The Mughal ganjifa carried eight suited ganjifa pack and had 96 beautiful cards in eight suits of 12 cards each. The twelve cards in each suit comprised of two court or figure cards and 10 numeral or pip cards.

Mughal Ganjifa Cards

Dashavatara Ganjifa :The Hindu Dashavatara (10 incarnations) were different in their composition and construction. In the first order the number of suits and cards were more which made the game complicated . The figures and the suit signs were common to the Hindu players. Each pack of ganjifa carried 10 suits, which displayed one of the incarnations of Vishnu.
Dashavatara Ganjifa Cards

For example in the Mughal Ganjifa set Taj, Safed, Samsher and Ghulam are strong suits while Chang, Surkh, Barat and Qimash are weak suits.  The sequence of each suit is arranged as Raja, Pradhan and serial number ace to ten for strong suits and ten to ace for weak suits.  Each time the trick is to win the round by placing the highest denomination.  Therefore it is beneficial for a player to remember all the symbols and cards played.  By the end of the game, which is played in anti-clock-wise direction, the player who amasses the maximum number of cards is the winner.  Similarly the game can be played with the Dashavatar set, Ashtadikpala, Ramayana and Navagraha. 

Ganjifa Cards
Unlike Chess or Parchisi (Dice), Ganjifa is now close to extinction. Few people know how to play the game and fewer are the artists who make them Orissa is one of the last remaining pockets of this diminishing community.

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Monday, 21 May 2012

Roopkund: Glacial Lake of Skeleton

A good mystery is loved by everyone but for some, unraveling mystery is everything. Roopkund lake is one of the most beguile and enthralling exemplar of mysterious places getting unraveled. The Roopkund lake cuddles in the isolated wombs of the majestic Himalayas at a height of 5029 meters above sea level. This lake is also popularly known as Skeleton Lake. The lake is nestled in a valley with steep sides and no one can inhabit in this area, even passing through the area can prove fatal for normal human beings. Roopkund Trek has an inscrutability and vagueness that has decepted multiple generations of fortune tellers.

Roopkund - Glacial Lake

Roopkund lake is a mystery in itself. This frozen lake which glorifies the beauty of the Himalayas with a mystery is really hard to decipher. Apart from this there is a lot to this side of the story. The Roopkund lake has a lot of traditional myths intact in it and the Pandora's box could only be opened once you visit it.
For long months this shallow lake is frozen. It is beautiful but there is also some menacing feel in this nearly lifeless place. In the summer, as the Sun melts the ice around the lake, there opens dreadful sight - bones and skulls of people and horses lying around the lake.

Glacial Lake of Skeleton

Skeletons of Roopkund
It is not fully clear whether local people knew about these in earlier times or not - but first written reports appear in 1898. In 1942, a British forest guard in Roopkund, India made an alarming discovery. Some 16,000 feet above sea level, at the bottom of a small valley, was a frozen lake absolutely full of skeletons. That summer, the ice melting revealed even more skeletal remains, floating in the water and lying haphazardly around the lake's edges. Something horrible had happened here.
The instantaneous assumption (it being war time) was that these were the remains of Japanese soldiers who had died of exposure while sneaking through India. The British government, anxious of a Japanese land invasion, sent a team of investigators to determine if this was true. However upon examination they realized these bones were not from Japanese soldiers—they weren't fresh enough.
It was evident that the bones were quite old indeed. Low temperature, rarified and clean air helped to preserve the bodies of deceased better than it would happen elsewhere. Flesh, hair, and the bones themselves had been preserved by the dry, cold air, but no one could properly determine exactly when they were from. More than that, they had no idea what had killed over 200 people in this small valley. Many theories were put forth including an epidemic, landslide, and ritual suicide. For decades, no one was able to shed light on the mystery of Skeleton Lake.
Skeleton in RoopKund

Through carbon dating tests, it has been experimentally estimated that these skeletons belong to anytime between 12th and 15th century. It is primarily believed that the deaths were caused by some kind of natural disaster like a blizzard, landslide or any bacterial disease. However, this topic still remains controversial among the residents, anthropologists and paleontologists of modern times.

More recently in 2004, a team of European and Indian scientists sent by The National Geographic Channel visited Roopkund to carry on with the probe. Their research has unearthed interesting hints and information. Part of their findings includes anthropological treasures like well-preserved corpses, jewelry, bones and skulls belonging to the dead. Further analysis shows that there were rather diverse people. DNA analysis hints at specific mutations observed in people living in Maharashtra (at Roopkund were found family members of Kokanastha Bramins) as well as few local people. There were found children, women. Analysis shows that these people for weeks were walking without proper food.
All the bodies had died in a similar way, from blows to the head. However, the short deep cracks in the skulls appeared to be the result not of weapons, but rather of something rounded. The bodies also only had wounds on their heads, and shoulders as if the blows had all come from directly above. What had killed them all, porter and pilgrim alike?

Skulls in Roopkund
Local legends have the following explanation
A king of Kannauj (ancient land south from Gharval Himalaya) Jasdhawal was on an important pilgrimage to praise the Goddess Nanda Devi. Somehow he disregarded advice of religious counsellors and behaved in an arrogant way.
King took all his entourage with him including numerous dancer girls, musicians, servants. Also his pregnant wife was with him. As they reached Roopkund lake, queen delivered a child in a cave near the lake (Wondermondo: interesting - could it serve as a shelter for few people during the hailstorm?). Goddess Nanda Devi disliked the fact that dancers and musicians entered her sacred land - local customs strictly forbade it. But the worst violation was childbirth on sacred land: according to local customs newborn and their mothers are considered to be unclean for certain period of time. Thus Goddess sent a terrible storm on poor piligrims and they all were killed on spot.
This legend is well known in Himalaya and there is even traditional song mentioning this event - this song mentions exactly hailstones "hard as iron" raining on the heads of sinners.
Piligrims in Roopkund
The complete mystery is still to be unfolded. The questions related to the origin and cause of death needs more satisfying answers. Geographical location of Roopkund and adverse climatic conditions also making it difficult for research scholars to go for the search of truth. Whatever may be the case the conclusion remains undrawn and this lake is not ready to demystify its existence. But nobody knows when and how we can explore something known out of the unknown. Therefore, a trip to this alluring Roopkund lake is a must.

How to Reach Roopkund
There are different routes for a trek to Roopkund. However, most of the trekkers and adventure travelers travel to Lohajung or Wan by road. From there they reach Ran ki dhar by climbing a hillock at Wan. So, the way is Kathgodam - Ranikhet - Garur- Gwaldam - Debal (1220 m) - Bagrigad (1890 m) - Mundoli village - Lohajung pass - Wan village (2590 m) - Bedni Bugyal (3660 m) - Baghubasa - Kalu Vinayak - Roopkund

Friday, 18 May 2012

Mattur: A Village Where People Converse in Sanskrit

Mattur, a culturally rich village on the banks of the river Tunga in Karnataka, is now famous across India as the 'Sanskrit village'. Here, even the vegetable vendor speaks in Sanskrit. Villagers use Sanskrit here for their day to day conversation and not just during poojas. Yes, Sanskrit is the language of the commoner in this village.

Mattur Village
It was unbelievable for me. In school, I merely use to get pass marks in Sanskrit and in India there is a village where people speak Sanskrit as a native. I still can’t believe till I saw Bajaj advertisment in TV. This is a traditional village with a difference.

Like me, many of majority of Indians may think that Sanskrit, also known as Devabhasha (language of the Gods), is a dying language, but it thrives in a few pockets.
Sanskrit is the language of Gods need not apply to Mattur. Enter Mattur, and your senses are assailed by a host of sights that is eccentric in its fusion of the picturesque and the quixotic. Soft and dulcet, a conversation sounds like a Vedic recital. Though it is a journey, which began about 500 years ago, Sanskrit has been modified as per the modern needs here by Samskrit Bharati. As one enters the village he is greeted with ” bhavatha nam kim? (What is your name?), “coffee va chaayam kim ichchhathi bhavan? (What will you have, coffee or tea?). The pronunciation of “Hari Om” instead of ‘hello’ and “katham asti” instead of ‘how are you?’ are common here.

Signboard in Sanskrit

Everybody-men, women, children, literate or illiterate-freely speaks Sanskrit. Even the Muslim families speak Sanskrit without hesitation and as comfortably as is spoken by the Hindus. Their children are found in the streets reciting Sanskrit shlokas. Even while fighting and playing cricket in the grounds children freely speak Sanskrit. When one walks down a few places from the school where one touches the ratha veethi (car street) and graffiti on the walls what grabs the attention is: “Maarge swachchataya virajate, grame sujanaha virajante” (Cleanliness is as important for a road as good people are for the village). Other slogans like ‘keep the temple premises clean’, ‘keep the river clean’ and ‘trees are the nation’s wealth’ are also written in Sanskrit and painted on walls reflecting ancient values. There are families who have written on their doors-‘You can speak in Sanskrit in this house.’ This is basically to tell the visitors that in case they are fluent in the language they can talk to them in Sanskrit.

Sholkas Written in Sanskrit on Walls
Yet another surprise is that many domestic articles at home are all identified with Sanskrit names – something very common in all homes in Mattur. So is the case with grocery stores, where all bottles and bags bear Sanskrit labels.


The village preserved its legacy, handed down by Vedic scholars, who were the original settlers at Palghat in Kerala. They decided to move north and found the banks of the river Cauvery and Tunga most suitable to continue their rituals and traditions. A few settled down in Hassan district, while some reached Mattur and Hosahalli. History has it that the Vijayanagar emperor gifted Mathoor and neighbouring Hosahalli, known as centres of learning for Sanskrit and Vedic studies from time immemorial, to the "people" in 1512. The gift deed inscriptions on copper plates have been preserved by the archaeology department. The journey back to its Vedic roots started for the village in 1981 when Sanskrita Bharati, an organisation that promotes the classical language, conducted a Sanskrit workshop in Mattur. It was attended,among others, by the pontiff of the Pejawar Mutt in nearby Udupi. Inspired by this village where Sanskrit survived as a spoken language, the seer reportedly exclaimed, “A place where individuals speak  Sanskrit, where whole houses talk in Sanskrit! What next? A Sanskrit Village.

Mattur Village Mentioned in Newspaper

Study of Sanskrit in Mattur begins at the Montessori level, where children are taught rhymes and stories in the language. Sanskrit is a compulsory subject in both primary and high schools of the village. A Sanskrit school has been set up to teach the language to a large number of outsiders who flock to the village to learn.
Apparently, it has given birth to more than 50 software engineers, most of who had come back from the 6 hour journey to their new homes in India's silicone city, Bangalore (Bengaluru). Mathoor has produced over 30 Sanskrit professors who are teaching in Kuvempu, Bangalore, Mysore and Mangalore Universities, besides many software engineers. Among the illustrious personalities from the village are Mathoor Krishnamurthy of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bangalore, violinist Venkataram, and gamaka exponent H.R. Keshavamurthy.

Isn't it amazing Mattur is in Karnaataka and people speak sanskrit instead of  karnataka's local language Kannada. That's the reason we call our country as " Incredible India".

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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Parsi Embroidery: A Fading Art

Parsi embroidery is yet another example of how a century-old art can be so relevant, without putting up with those bleeding colors. Parsi embroidery is a unique part of India’s diverse textile heritage. This unique artistic tradition has its roots in Iran during the Bronze Age but with time it has drew influences from European, Chinese, Persian and Indian culture.

Parsi Embroidery

A very famous example of Parsi embroidery is the Parsi embroidery sarees also called as Grara embroidery sarees. Parsi embroidery sarees have been renowned since last bygone centuries for its striking beauty and also demonstrates a cultural Parsi tradition of embroidery and ethos. These saris come in many colors, are offset by delicate embroidery in pastel shades and pale white, and are testimony to the superior craftsmanship of the Parsi embroiders. Realistically pictorial, lyrically composed, aesthetically colorful and delicately embellished Parsi Gara embroidery is an emblem of style and elegance.

Parsi Gara Saree

Classisc Parsi Embroidery in Saree
These sarees are indeed worth a treasure and take almost 9 months for completion as the embroidery work is crafted on all the four sides of the saree making it one of the most tedious and intricate task. The khaka stitch is so fine that women who do the needlework start suffering from failing eyesight, which has given it the name of the forbidden stitch. Mostly the threads used for embroidery are violet and pink combination. Parsi  sarees are comparatively more costlier but their appeal and style are so immensely enchanting that it overcomes all the hurdle of price tag for a avid buyer.

Parsi Saree in White Color
The rich gara embroidery, originally considered a Parsi family’s heirloom, has become rare, collector’s items because of the intricate work and beauty. Since it’s not a machine embroidery one of the most prized possessions of Parsi families (read women) is their Gara saree or sarees! Not only are they possessions of pride and boy, these beautifully embroidered sarees are often worth more the rest of the entire family wardrobe put together!

A Prized Possesion for Parsi Family

Parsi embroidery incorporates motifs that have deep meanings. The reverence of the Parsees towards nature is evident in their embroidery work.  The fleeing Parsis brought Persian symbols like the cypress tree, chakla chakli or contradictory birds, represented with delicacy. A tree called the divine fungus is used as a symbol of longevity and immortality. Lotus and peacock brings the fragrance of the Indian soil in which Parsi culture blossomed. Raj flavour incorporated floral baskets, the Chinese pheria stitched in vignettes of Chinese court life, beautiful gardens and flowers such as peony, rose, and chrysanthemum. Some or all these motifs fill up a typical gara or jhablawith an overriding feel of harmony, richness, grandeur and delicacy.

Parsi Embroidery Work
Parsi Gara Embroidery
Although Parsi embroidery traces its origins to Bronze Age Persia, the garaitself is not more than 150 years old. Its concepts and symbolism, which lay in the Zoroastrian psyche coupled with an innate sense of aesthetics, were translated into embroidery on sari and apparel by Chinese master embroiderers. In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was brisk trade between Parsis of Western India and China.  Back then, Chinese pherias, or craftsmen, travelled with big chests of embroidery across the seas to Persian lands and sold them to Parsi women. Some of the Parsi women were also taught the craft by these pherias, and the women later skilfully interwove the new style with their own.

Salwar Suit with Parsi Embroidery
However, this unique and magnificent art is facing dangers of fading into oblivion. With mass produced clothes readily available nowadays, the interest in traditional hand embroidered clothing has steadily dwindled over the decades and is a constant threat to the livelihood of many craftsmen. Moreover, the decline in the Parsi community is another cause of worry.

Parsi Desgin in Cushions
Organization like  Parzor Foundation has been working, since 1999, with the support of UNESCO and the Government of India to revive the craft. Some breathtaking garas have been reproduced under its aegis. An attempt has also been made to contemporize gara embroidery by creating products like cushion covers, bags and scarves while being sensitive to the original embroidery form.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Orchha: New Found Bollywood Destination

Orchha literally means “the hidden place” or  “hidden treasure”. Its grandeur has been captured in stone, frozen in time a rich legacy to the ages.  On the banks of river Betwa in MP, Orchha, is a charming village. The temple town of Orchha has become a hot destination for Bollywood stars and filmmakers.
Orchha Monuments

High spires of Chaturbhuj temple at Orchha
 My introduction to Orchha happened just that way. It was not a place I had heard about in text books, glossy tourist brochures or magazine covers. Last year, I had seen a picture of Orchha in one of the photo contests which made me to pause and take a second look. It appeared so attractive and amazing that it remained on the back of my head since the day I first saw the photographs.
This year, I finally got the chance to visit Orchha. It was a conventional little town in the middle of the forest – one of the places where life goes at its own pace without worrying about what is happening in rest of the world. Orchha has an array of surprises for pilgrims and also the vacationers alike. This small size town allows all the ancient structures – the palaces in the fort, the very tall Chaturbhuj Temple and the cenotaphs of the kings to dominate the landscapes.

View from Lakshminarayan Temple

Climb up on one of these buildings and you see the other structures standing so high that they make everything else in the vicinity look like miniature models. The views suddenly give the idea of being in a lost country ruled by kings living in a magical, opulent world .Orchha is known for its elegant architecture and its unique sequential development of domes, brackets, pillars, arches and ledges. Exteriors & interior of Orchha Fort, temples and cenotaphs is a remarkable example of Bundela art, which is reflected in the gently flowing water of the Betwa River.
The unspoiled beauty of this small town by the Betwa stems from its eclectic mix of nature, history and architecture and is only now being widely recognized.
A couple of years ago, star couple Abhishek Bachchan and wife Aishwarya Rai Bachchan visited Orchha for a film shoot. They had stayed in the town for about two weeks for the shooting of important portions of Mani Ratnam's Raavan.

A scene from song 'Kata Kata' with Chaturbhuj Temple of Orchha in the backdrop

A scene of Song 'Kata Kata' over the low bridge on Betwa River with the Chhatris in the backdrop in Orchha.

Yet another film, Singularity, by noted Hollywood director Roland Joffé was shot here. The shooting was cancelled midway over a row over vulture deaths in the region. It was alleged that the crew violated the rules and regulations of the permission they had received from the State archives department.

A Still from Singularity which has been shot in Orchha

A few months ago, Katrina Kaif shot for Slice commercial in Orchha, which is still quite unknown to Bollywood filmmakers and commercial ad film companies.

The Orchha Fort is one of India’s most spectacular. Orchha fort is pretty huge with amazing architecture and views. Orchha use to be main center and capitol of the mighty Bundela dynasty during 15-16th century. The Orcha Fort is the primary attraction that has spectacular palaces like  Raja Mahal, Raja Praveen Mahal and Jehangir Mahal that is built with an open quadrangle.  Jahangir Mahal, is a fine example of perfect symmetry, it provides a breath taking view of the river side and the chattris. There are various fine paintings on walls and ceilings using vegetable colors. Next to Jahangir Mahal, is the Raj Mahal (King and Queen’s Palaces).

Jahangir Palace

Open Court of Jahangir Palace

Ramayan Scene Painted on walls
The entrance of Raja Mahal shows fine stuccowork and stone designs and carvings .These have some fine paintings of Hindu Gods, including Lord Vishnu and His 9 avatars, exquisitely done on the ceilings of the halls inside the palace. The palaces here stick out in the others for getting fortress-like walls. Now, area of the structure has become been changed right into a Heritage Interpretation Centre’.

LaksmiNarayan temple
The town is also famous for temples like the Raja Ram Temple, the Chaturbhuj temple and the Laxminarayan temple. The Raja Ram temple and the Chaturbhuj temple are associated with the legend of Lord Rama. The Laxminarayan temple is popular for its temple and fort architecture. There are frescoes in the temple depicting various aspects of human life. The interesting thing about it is that the color of these frescoes is still there.
Also interesting may be the prominent cenotaphs of Orchha around the river banks. The cenotaph of Jaswant Singh, who ruled the city from 1675 AD to 1684 AD is of prominent importance. The sanctum sanctorum, placed using the rectangular passage with arched doorways, decorated shikars and also the inverted lotus on top of the domes are typical options that come with Bundela architecture.
Orchha was founded in the 16th century A.D by Bundela ruler king Rudra Pratap. The Bundelas were a warrior tribe who traced their ancestry to a medieval Rajput prince who sacrificed his life for the mountain goddess, Vrindavasini. In return, the goddess proclaimed that the prince and his descendants would be known as ‘Bundelas’, literally means ‘who gave blood’. The Orchha Bundelas are said to be chiefs of the Bundela clan settled all over the plains of North India.
For me journey to this amazing place can not be described in words. I felt like I have reached to medival era where Mahals (palaces) and chhatris are spread all over the region. Its a worth visitng place.

Reaching there
Located 460 kilometres from Delhi on the Agra-Khajuraho route on national highways 25 and 26, Orchha, is approximately an eight-hour drive from Delhi. The area is a half hour's drive from Jhansi, which is well connecting with the rail network. Since, Jhansi is centrally located; people may visit the place on a short journey plan only. From Jhansi, Orchha is only 15 km, which can be travelled by taxis, auto-rickshaws or other local transport. Though Orchha has a railway station, it is not well-connected. The nearest airports to Jhansi/Orchha are located in Gwalior and Khajuraho.
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