Wednesday 2 December 2015

Kolam Wall Art- Vertical Rangoli.

I grew up watching my late grandmother dexterously decorate the space outside the main entrance of the house, each morning, with 'kolam', the South-Indian term for rangoli. In Palakkad Iyer homes, as well as in some other South-Indian communities, kolams are drawn with rice flour, either dry or wet, and 'kaavi', which is a soft red brick with lends the bright red-oxide colour. Hence kolams are usually white and red. The designs are mostly geometric designs, ranging from simple to complex, doubling up as mandalas, to converge positive energies in homes and keep out dense energies. One variation is the dot kolam where dots are drawn first and then they are either connected or looped across. It symbolizes the interconnection between everything in the Universe. For auspicious occasions like weddings and festivals, kolams run into several feet in length and width, drawn by skilled women, to whom it is second nature. I had to practise this many times in my note book to get the dots and loops right. I wish I had taken an interest when my grandma used to urge me to draw and learn the kolam designs from her. When, at a community centre I was asked to do a wall-art next to the gate, I thought of a vertical kolam/ rangoli on the wall, which blends perfectly with the stone idols of the Gods, reminiscent of temples in South India. That, with the bamboo trees around, to make the setting perfect. :-) I dedicate this wall-art to my dearest Grandma.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Note on the Pottery of Kutch.

Thalis and pans with intricate designs at Khamir.
After visiting the Dastkari Haat in Pune, where artisans from all over the country come to sell their wares, it occurred to me to put together this short note on the art of Pottery in Kutch. My visit to Khamir, in Kutch, had fortunately coincided with a pottery exhibit of the region. I had never known that vessels made of clay and mud could be used for regular cooking. While I lost quite a lot of photos which I had taken of the exhibit due to some error, I have managed to salvage some and I have tried to compile details from my memory too.
Prof. R.S. Bisht giving a talk on Pottery of the Indus Valley Civilization. 
The art of Pottery pre-dates recorded history, as even before the discovery of metals, it was mud and clay that was easily available and used for fashioning vessels/containers for cooking and storing. During my stay at Khamir, I was also fortunate to attend a talk given by none other than the chief Archeologist, Prof. R.S Bisht, who led the excavation of the ruins of Indus Valley civilization, at Dholavira, in Kutch. 
Pictures of slides of the pottery excavated at Dholavira.

The disc with fish motif inspired me. 
He showed us slides and photographs of remarkably well-preserved pieces of pottery, with exquisite designs and patterns which he had excavated. The most interesting part is that the same motifs and patterns are used even till this date in the pottery of Kutch. One thing that particularly caught my attention was a disc with motifs of fish. And the colour of the design was blue. The Prof said that oxygen supply was cut off to the kiln to lend the items that colour. Later during my stay, when the Director of Khamir, Meera, asked me to do a mural in their campus, I incorporated the same fish motif and other patterns of pottery.
The fish motif I used for my wall art at Khamir
The exhibit had vessels for everything, right from kulads for drinking beverages from, to pots and pans for cooking anything ranging from lentils (daal) to rotis (flatbread) in. Even the skillet for making rotis were made in different sizes, the largest being used by the nomadic tribes to make bigger size rotis as they would have to walk a lot before the next break for food. There were pots stacked one of top of the other in decreasing sizes, starting from bottom, used to store grains, cereals, and grocery. Then there were pots for storing buttermilk, curd and other beverages. There was even a particularly shaped pot which could be used for transporting water and beverages during travel. Sorry I don’t have the picture of that.
Different items for various purposes.

Pottery had an important role to play even during rituals and rites of passage. The pots and clay items presented to the bride during the wedding were shaped differently from the ones used during a funeral. But there was one thing common to all the items made, and that was the intricate patterns on the items.
Items used for auspicious occasions. 
You will also notice that different items are of a different colour. Some are whitish, whereas some others are red, brown, and so forth. That's the colour of clay sourced from different places. The choice or colour of the clay used depends on what the end product would be used for and the availability of the same locally. The clay is then moulded into the desired shaped either on a wheel or by hand and allowed to air dry for a while. The patterns on the items are made using a thin brush and using a watered down clay of a different colour, commonly known as a ‘slip’.  Then the coloured slip is applied of the desired pattern and design. This is then baked in a kiln. The temperature of the kiln is also set depending on what the end product would be used for. You must be aware that some pots are used as musical instruments. For such and other purposes requiring durability and strength, the clay items are baked at a higher temperature and for some others not very high. In earlier days people used wood fired kilns, but now-a-days, electric kilns are used, like the one I saw at Khamir. In the electric ones, the temperature can be set between 400 to 1500 degrees Celsius depending on the type of clay and the product.
The kiln at Khamir- the temperature can be set anywhere between 400 to 1500 degrees Celsius. 
Clay vessels and pots are not only beautiful and as old as civilization itself but it’s also the most eco-friendly. In today’s markets, flooded with cheap plastic goods, the potter community is steadily shrinking and also struggling to keep their art and skill alive, as their children move to the cities in search of well paid jobs. As soon as I returned from Kutch, the first thing I did was go and buy an earthen pot for storing and drinking water from, which I had never done before. That was the least I could have done to support the potters of India.
Contemporary designs- Flasks and water jugs made of clay. 

Thursday 26 November 2015

Visiting a Temple built by the Pandavas- Hateshwari Mata Temple.

Hateshwari Mata Temple
After my joyful stint at apple harvesting in Ruhil dhar, we boarded a bus back to Kharapathar, where I volunteered for apple grading. The bus was to ply till Hatkoti, from where we had to board another bus going to Kharapathar. That was a great opportunity to visit the famous Hateshwari temple in Hatkoti. My host and I walked for half an hour from the Hatkoti bus stand and reached the temple amidst a slight drizzle of rain.
Main entrance to the temple premises
This ancient temple, built on the banks of the Pabbar river, is dedicated to the Goddess Hateshwari, a form of Goddess Durga. While there are no written records about the construction of the temple, some believed that it was constructed by the Pandavas who spent a considerable amount of time at Hatkoti, during their exile. Some others believe that the temple was built by Adi Shankaracharya. Based on the style of architecture and sculpture, historians claim that the temple must have been built during the reign of the Guptas, between 6th and 9th century AD.  
Exquisite wooden carvings.

Note the intricacy. 

The entire structure, I observed were made either in wood or stone, or a combination of both. I was particularly in awe of the intricate carvings on the wood, especially on the ceiling, inside the temples. And they have been remarkably well preserved, considering that the temple is several thousand years old. Photography wasn’t permitted inside the sanctum sanctorum but I’ll try my best to describe the Deity.
The image of Hateshwari Mata: Photo taken from the FB page of the temple.
The form of Goddess Hateshwari is beautiful with eight arms and is believed to be made of an alloy of eight metals.  It is also said that there are inscriptions in the sanctum sanctorum in the Brahmi script which is yet to be deciphered, but I couldn't spot them as it wasn't very well lit inside. The local people believe that no one has been able to view the feet of the deity, as they believe it touches the river Pabbar, on whose banks the temple stands. Another story which supports this belief is when the Gurkhas, in the early 19th century had established their stronghold in parts of Himachal Pradesh and wanted to move the deity to another place convenient for them. The Gurkhas dug for hours on end and days together, but couldn't move the idol by even an inch, since the feet were buried too deep to be dislodged.
The huge bronze pot tied to the statue of Lord Ganesh
Outside the doorway of the sanctum sanctorum, you cannot miss spotting a huge bronze vessel tied with a chain next to a beautiful idol of Lord Ganesh. Legend says that there used to be two vessels instead of one, at the doorway, but many years ago, a fiery rain storm caused the river Pabbar to overflow and carry away both the vessels. The pujaris (priests) of the temple tried their best to rescue the vessels in the thunder and rain storm but could succeed in finding only one, which is tied near the doorway.
The Shiva temple.

Closer view of the beautifully carved entrance. 

To the left of the sanctum sanctorum is the temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, with exquisite carvings on stone and wood. There is a Linga inside, and somehow the ambience, serenity and the dark interiors transported me 1000 years ago, when it would have been just the same, even then.
The five stone structures or 'deols' representing each of the Pandavas. 

A closer view of the carvings.
Further to the left of the temple premises, there are 5 stone structures, locally called ‘Deols’, representing each of the Pandavas. I loved the carvings of figures and motifs on stone on these too. The two majestic bronze statues of lions guarding the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum made for a lovely capture.
The majestic bronze lion.
Feeling awed by the serenity and the rich history and mystery of the temple, we sat inside the premises for some time, before leaving,  enjoying the landscape dotted with the greens of the forest, whites of the clouds and colours of human habitation.
The view from the temple premises.
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Monday 23 November 2015

The People of Spiti Valley.

The innocent children of Spiti.
I had travelled to the Spiti valley, in India in June 2013. The splendour and magnificence of the mountains and the place was matched only by the simplicity and warmth of its people. One must go there to believe that such simple hearted people still exist on Earth. I was a recipient of their kindness and warmth right from the first day I arrived in Spiti. 

On my first day in Kaza, the main town in Spiti, from where I was to travel to the villages, I was severely ill with altitude sickness. I had puked 5 times and thought my head would explode. And there was no one to attend to me. But I decided to take one moment at a time and opened the door for some fresh air. And a man staying in the adjacent room asked me if I needed some help looking at my red face. He informed the guest house owner who brought medicines for me. Though the guest house didn’t serve food, he still cooked some dal (lentil)-rice because I was too ill to go out and eat. The food came but I couldn’t get myself to eat more than 2 morsels. When I was to check out 2 days later I asked him for the bill and noticed that he had not included the amount for dinner. I was surprised when he said that he had waived off that amount because I had not eaten more than 2 spoons. I insisted that I pay him but he just refused to tell me. I, of course, tipped him an approximate amount, but here was a man who had not taken into consideration the effort he had put in to cook a meal and whatever xyz costs business demands!! Later I was to discover that all Spitians are too simple-hearted, almost unbelievably so.
The kind woman who invited me for breakfast as I was passing by her house. 
Wherever I went people would greet me with a genuine smile and say ‘Julay’ (hello). From a group of little girls who invited me to join them when they realized I was traveling alone, to women who invited me to come and eat in their homes when I greeted them while passing by their homes, or several others (monks, nuns, shamans, medicine men) who took time out to meet me and talk to me, all of them won my heart.
I noticed that everybody in the villages knows everybody else. I saw children from other homes come and have tea or breakfast. Even when we went out to work on the fields the doors were never locked. Everywhere I went, be in homes or monasteries, I was welcomed with copious amounts of tea. I saw the lady of my home-stay carry extra tea and breakfast/lunch and give it to other villagers working in their fields on the way to her own. After a long trek from Komic to Demul, I arrived at my home stay, tired and stiff from the cold. When the lady of home-stay noticed that, she so lovingly and affectionately wrapped me up in warm blankets, brought a huge flask of hot milk and made sure I rested well .I thought to myself that probably this is how life was meant to be lived on Earth. But somewhere down the way, we have terribly messed everything up.
My hosts at the home stay in Langza.
My heart just went out to the kids in Spiti. They are so innocent and unspoilt, unlike city kids. Everywhere in Spiti, kids greet and smile, just like their elders and also wave out, especially if you are in a vehicle. They are extremely well-mannered and say ‘thank-you’ whenever they are offered something. By the second day, I too had caught the ‘waving bug’, and soon I was waving out gleefully to kids, toothless grannies, shepherds, cows, goats, sheep and bikers, and motorcyclists on Harley Davidsons and Royal Enfields. In Langza and I’m assuming in other villages too, kids return home from school at 4 pm, change over and go into the grazing pastures to fetch the cattle at sunset. Every day at Langza, I accompanied my class 7 host, Tenzing, puffing and panting and pleading with him to go slow (it’s amazing to see how even little kids in Spiti go scampering in a jiffy over steep climbs) to the pastures. There Tenzing introduced me to his other classmates and friends. The kids asked me many questions….where I lived, why am I traveling alone, how it was in the cities…etc. There the kids would simply run behind lambs, chase goats, ride donkeys and do cart-wheels. Such simple pleasures of life. They had no access to toys or games like city kids, yet the fun they had was unmatched. Once I told them I wanted to take a picture with a cute little lamb. The boys chased the lamb for 10 minutes leaving me rolling with laughter on the grass. Whenever I distributed chocolates (Luckily I had carried a huge packet to give it to kids in the villages), they made sure that everyone in their group had received and that really touched my heart.
The loving lady at Demul who took good care of me.
Another incident which moved me happened when I was traveling in a car from one village to another. There was some work happening on the road and so the car slowed down. I looked out to see an old toothless granny with a flask of tea sitting on the side of the road, taking a break from the road work. When my eyes met hers, she gave me the most beautiful smile and asked me to come and join her for tea.  Here was a poor woman earning a daily wage and yet she was rich beyond measure to offer tea to a complete stranger like me. In that moment my heart expanded manifold. Each time I experienced the magnanimity of these gentle, peace loving people, my heart too expanded with love and warmth, which gets rekindled every time I fondly remember them and their kindness.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Wall Art for the Entrance of a Community Center- Pune.

A couple who run a community center in Pune requested if I could spruce up and add some colour outside the entrance of their home before Diwali. So I happily did. I painted my own version of giant morning glory flowers and bright orange butterflies. Total painted area was approximately 6.5 feet height x 13 feet width.

Traditional Vegetarian Dishes to try out in Mangalore.

On our way back after a stay in a verdant organic farm in Sullia, we stopped for a day in Mangalore to explore what we could in 24 hours. While I would be writing about Sullia as well Mangalore in the following posts, let me focus on food first. I’ve always enjoyed Karnataka cuisine for its flavours and varieties, and Mangalore was no different. In fact food in Mangalore goes beyond the regular varieties of idli and dosas even for vegetarians like me. If you are in Mangalore next time, do sample these traditional delicacies.
Idlis steamed in banana leaves.
Plantain leaf steamed idlis: Instead of steaming batter in regular idli moulds, the batter is poured into a banana leaf rolled into the shape of a cylindrical holder and then steamed. It was fun to unroll the banana leaf and then dig into cylindrical idlis. We had this as part of our breakfast at New Taj Mahal café.
Mangalore buns
Mangalore buns: This was a true delight to the taste buds. These buns are not baked but are deep fried. Ripe bananas mixed with the dough lend it a mildly sweet taste. These airy, light and fluffy banana puris are served with coconut chutney and sambar. We had this for dinner at a restaurant called Chutney (Hotel Deepa Comforts) and also when are bus stopped enroute Pune.

Biscuit Rotti
Biscuit Rotti: This popular Mangalorean snack is neither a biscuit nor a rotti but an equivalent of a kachori, crisp on the outside and with stuffing inside. The stuffing was made of fried and flavoured grated coconut. We had this as part of our breakfast at New Taj Mahal café.

Ambade: These are fritters or vadas made from ground black gram batter. It reminded me of medu vadas but in a spherical form. It was absolutely delicious, crisp on the outside and soft on the inside and bursting with flavours of curry leaves, green chillies, ginger and black pepper.
Neer Dosa
Neer dosa: This is a melt in the mouth soft dosa with a silky smooth texture. As opposed to the regular dosas made out of rice and black gram, this dosa uses only rice and coconut. This was served with coconut chutney too. Wish restaurants in Pune served this too. This one is surely on my try-out list.
Banana podi
Banana podi: These are scrumptious but very oily banana fritters or bhajjis. This is made from the delicious Nenthra pazham abundant in coastal Kerala and Karnataka. I’ve had this in Kerala and my grandma used to make this too.
Special Gadbad.

Pabba's special.
Pabba’s ice creams: Ice-creams, need I say more. But the specialty of Pabba’s is in the variety of flavours and sundaes and milk shakes they come up with. We had the special Gadbad sundae, which had scoops of butterscotch, strawberry and vanilla ice cream interspersed with layers of jelly and fresh and dry fruit. Another one we tried was Pabba’s special where we chose the chikku, butterscotch and roasted almond flavours of ice creams, topped with black currant, chocolate, honey and dry fruits. Need I say they were lip-smacking!!

Image taken from
Nenthra pazham: If you’ve never tasted this variety of banana, make sure you do in Mangalore. It is typically longer than the green bananas with a fruit that has a slight orange and peach tint of colour. This banana is used for making fritters/bhajjis, halva and even kheer/payasam.

Yellow coconuts
Yellow coconuts: The bright yellow of the coconuts on the road side caught my attention. Although I was told that the taste of the coconut water would be no different from the green ones, I still wanted to taste it for the colour J And I did, and you may too if you like yellow!

Filter coffee

Filter coffee
I never miss a chance to wash down my food with a steaming cup of filter coffee and there were plenty in Mangalore. Coffee tastes as delicious from a cup and saucer as in a traditional tumbler and bowl ! 

We spilt our breakfast, lunch and dinner between two restaurants. One was Chutney, in Hotel Deepa Comforts on MG Road. The place is air-conditioned which could be important as Mangalore could get very sultry. The other restaurant was New Taj Mahal cafe in Kodailbail. It's a no-frill restaurant where there is no menu card. On , people had reviewed the waiters as being very rude, but luckily our waiter was very sweet and even gave suggestions and explained the dishes. I had done some research on traditional Mangalorean cuisine so I knew what to ask for. Or else they would just recommend dosa and idli in the absence of a menu card. Other recommendations for traditional vegetarian Mangalorean cuisine which we got from the locals but couldn't visit were Janata Deluxe, Woodlands, Ayodhya and Kudla Rasa Prakash! Will surely visit these on my next trip if there is!!

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