Helping Heritage with INTACH

Did you know that beneath that luminous marble, is a core of bricks?

Seriously? The Taj Mahal? This fact about the most familiar monument to Indians, and many more such nuggets about our heritage took me by surprise. But then, I should have expected as much since I was at a workshop by INTACH or the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage of the Nilgiris Chapter. The location – the YWCA building opposite the Race Course in Ooty – was itself imbued with historical and architectural significance as Dr. Suresh, convenor of Tamil Nadu INTACH, explained in the end.

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The newly restored Reference Section of the Nilgiri Library

Conducted over two days, 13th and 14 July,  the workshop sought to acquaint school teachers with the need of and skills for starting heritage clubs in their institutions with the ultimate goal of protecting national heritage.On the first day Ms. Purnima Dutt, the resource person conducting the workshop, used an interesting mix of talk, audio-visual media and games to give an overview on the goals, aspects and methodology of running a heritage club while the second day passed in a whirl of activities including a much-anticipated visit to Ooty’s heritage buildings like St Stephens Church, the Nilgiri Library and the Stone House built by John Sullivan, the first Englishman to arrive in Ooty and hence the founder of modern history of the famous hill station. The warmth and bonhomie evoked at the workshop venue served a cheerful counterpoint to the chilly breeze and slate grey Nilgiri sky outside.

 

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Exquisite Stained Glass Paintings at the St. Stephens Church, Ooty

 

Satiated by a hearty lunch, as we began walking out of the dining room, hitherto unnoticed details like a jade green gravy boat on the  sideboard and a piano with candle-holders on decorative hinges caught our attention, taking us back to dining and partying ways of decades ago. This new heightened awareness of heritage took a while to sink in and as we left on our own ways, I am certain many of us were already thinking of how best to pass it on to the younger generation.

 

 

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Table For One

In a Post-Truth world, I am wary of messages on social media. But a recent one has got me thinking for some time now. And having just watched  71 – a hard-hitting independent British movie about a soldier inadvertently left behind on the riot-ridden streets of Belfast at the peak of Northern Ireland conflict, I began to realize the enormous significance of hope in the midst of fear and violence.

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A Still from ’71                                                                                   Photo Courtesy: The Guardian

At National Defence Academy, India’s premier training institution for young military cadets, the dining hall is a prime attraction for outsiders. Officially known as the Cadets’ Mess, it has a seating capacity of 2100 cadets at one time. But little do people know that just outside, stands a solitary table set just for one with its chair tilted forward. This arrangement is in remembrance of all those brave souls either Missing In Action or taken Prisoners of War.

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On the table is a vase with a single rose indicating the love of the families who still hope for their return.  Tied around the vase is also a red ribbon to show solidarity with all who demand a proper accounting of the missing. The candle on the table is never lit, symbolizing lack of light and happiness in their absence.  A slice of lemon placed on the bread plate stands for their bitter fate while the salt is reminiscent  of the tears shed by their loved ones. Finally the glass is upturned indicating that they cannot dine with us tonight.

What a remarkable symbol of the sacrifice of all those who left to do their duty by their country but never came back!

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“Let the chair remain tilted

Let the lonesome table still be set

The candle keeps its dark vigil

lest we forget, lest we forget !”

New Market Matters…

Paisleys, stripes and waves dancing on royal purples, jade greens, ruby reds – a myriad colours, patterns and textures shimmering before my eyes. I lapped up the sensory feast though fabrics were clearly not on my shopping list.

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But then, this was how one of Kolkata’s most popular markets made a lifelong follower out of you. Typical of the city’s paradoxical attractions, New Market continues to be called so, despite the fact that it is more than a century old. Built on the express initiative of Sir Stuart Hogg, then Chairman of Calcutta Corporation, it was inaugurated on 1 January 1874 as the first municipal market of the city and a much-needed destination where the colonial settlers could shop for their stationary from R.W. Newman or Thacker Spink or buy their dresses from Ranken and Company. Later the market was named Hogg Market but eventually came to be known as just New Market.

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New Market in 1945

Today, I was interested in a bewildering spectrum of stuff – leather hand-bags, baking accessories, summer shorts, wine-glasses and finally biscuits from Nahoum and Sons, the only confectioners in India that I have come across who sell the Turkish dessert baklava on a regular, no-frills basis. Smoky Bandel Cheese is again one of the cherished offerings of New Market and might well be among the remaining traces of Portuguese cuisine in India outside Goa; just like delicious pork sausages that my friend tells me cannot be matched elsewhere in price and flavour.

Dripping in the humid heat, nevertheless we plodded on – she rolling her eyes at my “under-developed bargaining skills” and I guiding her through the semi-lit, steaming, maze-like lanes. Eventually when our arms could no longer bear anymore weight, we hailed a cab. Truth be told, I a little reluctantly, since my brain was still ticking off the items I could have still bought to take back to the Nilgiris.

Maybe a slice of hot, smoky cosmopolitan Calcutta to carry to my cool, hill-side home. Yes, I would have liked that !!

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New Market now

Follow the harvest trail…

Today amidst the flurry of New Year wishes, one particular post on social media caught my attention.

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The fact that we Bengalis – as a linguistic and cultural community undivided by international boundaries –  share our New Year with festivals in other parts of India invariably gladdens my heart every time April comes around. As we get ready to feast on kosha mangsho and payesh – must-haves on the traditional Bengali spread – Tamil Nadu is celebrating Puthandu, Kerala is enjoying Vishu Kani, Assam is swaying to Bihu, Punjab is rocking to Vaisakhi and Orissa is marking Pana Sankranti.

Interestingly, many parts of South and South-eastern Asia also usher in their traditional New Year around this time. Thailand, Laos and Burma are awash in the colours of Songkran, Pi Mai Lao and Thingyan respectively.  The Cambodian Choul Chnam Thmey literally means “Enter New Year” in the Khmer language and the Sinhalese New Year is known as Aluth Avurudda. The official calendar of Nepal, Bikram Sambath too is unfurled around this time. Indeed Bangladesh celebrates Pahela Baishakh  in a most spectacular manner with the Mangal Shobhajatra in Dhaka now being declared by UNESCO as a cultural heritage of humanity.

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Photo courtesy: The Asian Age

There are many ways of explaining this concurrence of festivities. Astronomically, this time marks the beginning of the Aries zodiac known as Mesh in Sanskrit – thus countries which had been influenced Sanskrit/Hindu astronomy historically, for example as a result of invasion by the Chola dynasty, still follow its cultural observations.

What I like to think though is that all these communities are bound by ancient rhythms of seasons and agriculture. Not so long ago and still so in some places, harvests would be gathered in at this time, larders filled and prayers of thanks offered for Nature’s bounty. What else could explain so many rituals associated with rice, water and earth?

Today, with increasing urbanization, many of these harvest rituals are fading away. And yet, the spirit of cultural belonging remains strong. If music, food, art and nature help Bengalis push religious and national identities in the background to come together on Poila Boishakh, young Khmer girls dress up in all their traditional finery half-way across the world in Georgia, US.

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What an amazing place is this world of ours !

Mummies of Egypt – an ancient science and a lasting wonder

Of the original Seven Wonders of the World listed by ancient Greek travellers like Antipater of Sidon and Philo of Byzantium, today only the Great Pyramids of Giza remain. Egypt though continues to draw travellers from across the world for a related attraction – mummies.

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The Egyptian God Anubis attending the mummy of Sennedjem

Ancient Egyptians believed that earthly death was the beginning of the person’s journey into the next world. If the person was to live in another world, the body had to survive and to this end was invented the science of mummification. This was a process of preservation of the body – all the internal organs of the dead were removed and put in canopic jars. The body was next covered with a mixture of salt known as natron to remove all moisture. Then the body was wrapped in thin strips of linen, decorated with protective amulets and placed in mummy case or coffins.

Because of the highly expensive and lengthy – the mummification of a single body could take up to 70 days – the process was reserved only for the rich and powerful. However , all Egyptians in those days would be buried with certain goods essential to make the supposed journey to the other world – these would include food, household objects like bowls, grooming tools like combs and other trinkets. The wealthy were of course were expected to make the journey into afterlife in style and hence were buried with jewellery, furniture and later with certain symbolic objects like shabtis and scarabs.

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A complete set of canopic jars

No matter how elaborate the burial arrangements, the living however could not expect their responsibilities to diminish – they were  supposed to continue to visit the tomb of their deceased relatives with food and prayers –  talk about the dead not giving up !

RUMI – The Mystic

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The other day I managed to beat the alarm.

After lying in bed and staring at the darkness for what seemed an eternity, I decided I might as well enjoy some coffee.

Now fortified with caffeine, I was raring to go. But rather than diving into work, I wanted to do something different – “let me use the early hour”, I thought. As I stared at the wallpaper, I realized a change was long due – soon I was browsing for a suitable replacement.

Rumi has always been a favourite voice for inspirational quotes and images. While I have quite a few of these on my phone, I hunted for an image of good resolution for my wallpaper.

But first a little about the person himself. Jalal-ud-din Rumi was born sometime in first century AD in Balkh – a flourishing centre of arts and learning in Khorasan, north-eastern Iran. Like his father, Rumi became highly respected as a teacher and philosopher, even before he turned 30.

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But soon his life was to be turned upside down. At 37, he met a wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Muhammad bin Ali Malikdad Tabrizi and was deeply influenced by the latter’s mystic teachings. However Tabrizi’s fame earned the jealousy of many and the seer left without telling anyone. Though heartbroken at Tabrizi’s disappearance, Rumi was inspired to write Divan Shams Tabrizi, now considered his greatest poetic work. Eventually all of Rumi’s teachings and philosophy came to be compiled in six volumes of Mathnavi, by his loyal disciple, Hesam al-Din Chalabi.

Today Rumi’s words quite often find their way into lists of inspirational sayings and quotes. One reason why they are so popular could be perhaps that even when taken out of context, they do surprisingly well. Then again their essential mysticism means that they lend themselves to varied interpretations – depending on the inner compulsions of the reader. Finally the natural imagery, fluid verses and a sparse symbolism means that despite being translated from Persian, his words glow with hope and generosity across time and space.

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Why the Republic Matters

Today India celebrates its 69th Republic Day.

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A Republic is understood, technically, as a nation where supreme power is exercised by elected representatives of its people. In India, the President is elected by Members of Parliament and State Legislatures who in turn are elected by the people. Granted the process is circuitous, but at the end of the day, even the highest executive authority in the land cannot govern just because he/she happens to be born into the right family, gender, caste, religion or class.

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If the Republic is the temple of Indian democracy, then its reigning deity is none other than the Constitution. The longest written Constitution in the world, this lays down the fundamental rights as well as the duties of Indian citizens.  The Preamble crystallizes the essence of Constitution, laying down for all time to come in clear, ambiguous terms the core principles of the Republic namely, Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The real message to take home after all the pomp, splendour and self-congratulation is over.