About Puneet Sidhu
Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu, travel enthusiast and the author of Adrift: A junket junkie in Europe is the youngest of four siblings born into an aristocratic family of Punjab. Dogged in her resistance to conform, and with parental pressure easing sufficiently over the years, she had plenty of freedom of choice. And she chose travel.
She was born in Shimla, and spent her formative years at their home, Windsor Terrace, in Kasumpti while schooling at Convent of Jesus & Mary, Chelsea. The irrepressible wanderlust in her found her changing vocations midstream and she joined Singapore International Airlines to give wing to her passion. She has travelled extensively in Asia, North America, Australia, Europe, South Africa and SE Asia; simultaneously exploring the charms within India.
When she is not travelling, she is writing about it. Over the past decade or so, she has created an impressive writing repertoire for herself: as a columnist with Hindustan Times, as a book reviewer for The Tribune and as a contributor to travel magazines in India and overseas. Her work-in-progress, the documenting of colonial heritage along the Old Hindustan-Tibet Road, is an outcome of her long-standing romance with the Himalayas.
Latest Posts by Puneet Sidhu
A tad off-piste for most visitors to Himachal Pradesh, Narayan Devta Temple -– ancient shrine in honour of the local deity – is located in the Nawar Valley of Rohru district. I had made the acquaintance of this little-known nugget through a photograph and was raring for a closer encounter. The opportunity presented itself soon enough during my stay at a farm near Kotkhai.
For those well in the know of Himalayan hinterlands, the partly tarred and partly non-existent country road from Rukhla (40kms), where I was most comfortably ensconced, will come as no surprise. The consequent bone rattling and teeth clattering two-hour ride was rendered less excruciating thanks to expert 4WD steering and the nostalgic chit-chat of long-standing friends. A picturesque picnic stop at Shararru, highest point on our excursion, provided a welcome break to take in the splendid panorama I was loathe tearing away from.
Perched high on the edge of a deodar-engulfed precipitous promontory, the temple’s stunning carved wood and stone structure crowned with slated gambrel roofs comes visible from a considerable distance. A makeover that has lasted many years has accorded the temple a spanking new incarnation even as restoration continues. Given the propensity of those in charge to slather surfaces with ceramic tiles under the guise of shoddy beautification, it was heartwarming to see this one had thoughtfully retained its traditional temple grandeur.
The priest in residence showed us around with justifiable pride, yet no amount of cajoling moved him to allow us a glimpse of the deity–generally a beaten metal mask in these parts, unlike idols elsewhere. “Come back for the mela in April”, he invited instead, unhurriedly escorting us off the extensive premises. As is custom, the devta (deity) will be carried aloft a chariot of sorts sported by brawny men, and accompanied by horn-blowers and drummers to announce his arrival at the fair. In this instance, at Tikkar, one of a smattering of close-by hamlets which believe in and benefit from his benevolence.
On the other hand, is one I have taken countless times since the first trip, thirty years ago. Then, Smitra Orchards, home to a college friend who generously invited me back for summer vacation every year. Now, Himalayan Orchard, still home to a college friend who never rescinded that invite. Following a longish English-teaching spell in Japan, she and her husband returned earlier this year to throw open home and hearth to the discerning holiday maker. That they acquiesced to every one of my demands, including which room to sleep in, what to eat, attractions to visit, does not cloud the least my recommendation to must-go.
Other visitors are unlikely to be treated any different. Except perhaps they may draw the line at emptying out the master bedroom each time! What remains endemic though is waking up to the soft strains of instrumental music, Devanshe pottering around the kitchen, Mike alternating between greenhouse construction, damaging drill bits, and endless refrains of ‘cuppa tea?’. Followed by an eagerly awaited ‘the usual?’ at sundown; sometimes a little before. The cocks will crow at wrong times of day, cows moo as loudly, goats bleat as throatily, while Jack the handsome guard dog will sleep through it all; Rosy’s envy-laden feline hissing included.
On my part, I simply vegetated through my stay. A typical day went something like this: Retiring from hearty breakfast to sun-drenched garden nook, book in tow; breaking for delicious delicacies at lunch (the sidkoos here are to die for, and if you’re not easy on the ghee, of); avoiding afternoon draughts in the sunroom, thoughts in tow. The billiards table and dartboard in the adjoining games room, heated floor and all, tempted only momentarily. It was the well-stocked library that held my attention most. Truth be had, the tranquillity was so complete; it mandated a re-read of The Argumentative Indian to prepare me for reality.
Evenings drew us all to the inglenook in the drawing room, cozier and rosier by the minute not least as a result of generous libations. Some credit though must be ascribed to the wood-burning stove. And to a display of mock-angst during several rounds of parlour games; Dudo, a Latin American version of Liar’s Dice, causing the most furore. Broken usually by dinner-announcing wafts from the kitchen; some days Devanshe’s European indulgences, some, her mother’s magical manna. Nightcaps, before calling it a day, were accompanied by guitar-strumming or re-running Monty Python sketches on the overhead projector. Pleasures all born from shunning the idiot box.
Following day? Repeat previous day.
A sorority-of-sorts reunion long in the making finally fructified this summer past. Siblings and school buddies decided to get away from it all for some rejuvenation. Given the relentless May swelter our respective cities of residence experience, an escape to Himalayan havens was a unanimous no-brainer. Besides, I was returning after a scorch proper from Ujjain where I had been parked for two weeks acquainting with the Simhastha Kumbh.
Given, also, the propensity of such gatherings to metamorphose into utter madness, seclusion amidst nature was a mandated qualifier for accommodation. So as not to subject other guests to the expected shenanigans and giggle-fests of a bunch of 40-somethings (one near-60-something) when letting their (salt-and-pepper) hair down. We zeroed in on Tirthan Anglers’ Retreat, new kid on the block in one of Himachal Pradesh’s largely unspoiled valleys.
We pretty much had the place to ourselves when we got there. Squabbles over who called dibs on which of the six brightly furnished rooms was clear indication not much had changed for this lot since school days. Even as our young host looked on patiently while his staff played musical baggage. What finally clinched it was that all rooms, lined-up soldiers-like in a row, were equipped with the same outstanding view, tiny patch of green and stone sit-out.
Also, since none came with room service, proximity to the kitchen was rendered inconsequential right away. A blessing in disguise, really, for the brookside dining space with its massive sun-streaming picture-windows was to become a favoured hangout. When not cooling our heels (and beer bottles) from boulder-y perches in the Palachan stream raging past. When not using the wooden counter of the outdoor bar for a gratifying sun-soak-cum-snooze. When not lost in thought, chants, or print, in some leafy nook.
Another delightful discovery was the no-network sign on our devices. We could chatter, argue, rib and reminisce that much more; we did. We often walked up the short path to the road to grab a quick chai or chat with local folks. One time we trudged to Bathad, the road head some four kilometres uphill from the retreat. It brought on a ton of nostalgia for us schoolmates about a trekking adventure back in the day. In honour of that memory, the caretaker at the British-era rest-house still in use by the alma mater treated us to tea and pakoras. Never tasted better.
Paucity of time, not to mention varying degrees of fitness, dissuaded us from an initial excitement-fuelled and over-reaching plan to attempt the Bashleo Pass trek. We did however manage to throw in an invigorating hike to the Serolasar Lake from Jalori Pass. This required us to drive two hours to the pass one early morning, savour a breakfast of omelettes, buttery toast, and tea at a cluster of dhabas there, before setting out for the lake six kilometres away.
The trail is mostly steady with gentle swells punctuated by a couple of steep, stony stretches where it narrows down considerably. It slices through dense woodlands of birch and cedar before opening into cow-grazing meadows. Where massive rock outcrops support mud shelters for shepherds and sadhus alike. Birdsong trails you most everywhere. The lakeside temple witnesses a fair number of footfalls and we found us overtaken by fervent folk, some barefoot, headed that way.
A kilometre or so short of Serolsar a smattering of temporary dhabas make their welcome presence felt. We ended up spending considerable time refuelling on rajmah-chawal, soupy Maggi, and copious amounts of tea before our leisurely saunter back. Knowledge of a rewarding and boozy BBQ awaiting us at Tirthan Anglers’ Retreat no deterrent for our appetites! The hike generally takes between 4-6 hours both ways with the additional four hours to and from Jalori. You do well to earmark an entire day for this outing should you wish to follow suit.
For a man of his artistic genius and versatility to nearly fade from the narrative within three centuries of his existence is a tad baffling. But for one-line references and the odd paragraph in numerable writings, travel guides, and coffee table books themed around Kutch arts and crafts, little is known of Ram Singh Malam, an incredibly multi-faceted craftsman, today. Were it not for the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), his greatly diminished but still abiding pièce de résistance, Malam could well have been an easily missed footnote in the history of the arts.
If you’re not familiar with Aina Mahal or where it is, this incredible structure is an 18th-century palace next to the Prag Mahal in Bhuj, Gujarat, India that was built by Rao Lakhpatji in 1761. It was constructed with marble walls adorned with gold lace and glass and the walls of the palace are of white marble covered with mirrors separated by gilded ornaments with shades of Venetian glass. It has a whole lotta wow throughout!!
Above, Aina Mahal, Hall of Mirrors, Palace Hamirsar Lake — Photo credit: www.gujarattourism.com.
If anything has endured, it is the prolific accounts of how he arrived on 18th century European shores to edify himself with the many crafts he undeniably eventually mastered. Hailing from a seafaring family of Saurashtra, Ram Singh is said to have run aground while yawing his way to Africa as a young boy. Rescued by a passing Indiaman, in all likelihood hoisted with VOC colours, he sailed to the Netherlands. His arrival coincided well with a blossoming enthusiasm in the country for decorative arts. Charmed by all the exotica, the lad with a natural talent for using his hands probably stayed on to acquire expertise in glass blowing, enamel work and tile making.
Another version has him sailing to Dutch shores at the behest of Maharao Lakhpatji, a poet, musician, and art aficionado credited with recognising Ram Singh’s creative brilliance. After taking the youngster under his patronage, he sent him off to Europe. Where, in the ensuing decade and half that he reportedly spent there, alongside the afore-mentioned crafts, he also learned to design buildings, make clocks, carve stones, and cast cannons. Most of this information harks back frustratingly to just one source, Black Hills by LF Rushbrook Williams.
It is one of many books that line a wall of the tiny office-cum-shop from where Pramod Jethi, former curator of the palace museum, conducts his guiding business post-retirement. A passionate historian of sorts, having authored numerous articles on Ram Singh Malam, he agreed to meet with me to share his own attempts at tracing the virtuoso. His efforts sadly came to naught despite a helpful consul general, who had in turn detailed a couple of historians to comb through archives in Holland. Yet, not even a malam ni pothi—a considerably creative and artistically illustrated navigational aid that no self-respecting seafarer would be caught without—to his name!
It appears to me equally possible that the enterprising sea merchant got there on his own steam, equipped himself with these skills, returned to set up a glass-making factory, tales of which resonated far, and that he was commissioned to design and decorate the Maharao’s ‘Palace of Mirrors’ in Bhuj. It was a task he went about with astonishing aesthetic alacrity, as I evidenced in the temblor-hit yet proudly upright Aina Mahal on a visit earlier this year.
The crumbling exterior—a consequence of the earthquake in 2001 which near-decimated the region—little prepares you for the sumptuousness, even if of somewhat shabby upkeep and display, within. Ram Singh Malam noticeably employed his creative versatility to swathe every available inch of the royal residence’s marble-clad walls, columns, ceilings, doors and windows with all manner of mirror-work at his call. These range from life-size ones, framed in gilded rococo that line Hira Mahal, the royal bedchamber, to the tiny circlets and squares embedded in the beautiful carved wooden ceiling.
Corridors around the bedroom are embellished with an eclectic mix of royal portraiture, Indian and otherwise, interposed with other paintings and if possible additional mirror-framed mirrors. Indeed, profuse European artwork headed for the Mughal court as gifts from the VOC vying for the Emperor’s largesse found many a discerning buyer at its ports of call en route. Another section houses reverse glass paintings, a difficult European art vastly practised in China, with which Kutch had a flourishing trade relationship. Depicting Indian deities and expectedly the ruler’s likenesses, these are said to be gifts from admiring and grateful tradesman.
Much of the Venetian-and Belgian-glass—favoured greatly by engraving artists in the Netherlands those days—chandelier and candelabra collection strung across the ceiling appears to have been brought back by Ram Singh Malam on subsequent visits. The rest, though styled along European lines, was probably crafted at his factory in Mandvi. Another unmistakeable Dutch influence is found on the floor of the palace. It is laid out with tiny blue-and-white tiles reminiscent of delftware that had gained immense popularity and demand in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Though Ram Singh’s ingenuity and training becomes immediately apparent in the elaborate marrying of local and foreign features, uninterrupted patronage would have irrefutably stemmed from the Maharao’s own appreciation of western technologies and their artistic applications. He graciously supported the talent-endowed youngster on foreign shores when none was reportedly willing to give him time of day in his own backyard.
It seems to me this was a duo most singular; one that succumbed not so much to political ingratiating but to an insatiable curiosity of other cultures. The Maharao’s once-grand chhatri in Bhuj–a poem in stone, if I may–is perhaps the master craftsman’s final and most grateful flourish for a generous patron. Still, it is Aina Mahal that has stayed its ground as an ode to this winsome-twosome.
Darbar Gate Riad
Old Dhatia Falia, Bhuj
Gujarat 370001, India
Note: This feature has earlier appeared on Holland Meets India.
Prejudice alert. Any place I can wake up to a dog curled up close at hand has an everlasting hold over my heart. I make no bones about it. Nor am I averse to gushing about it. And should that place be set in one of the prettiest valleys of Himachal Pradesh, well then I’m a complete and unabashed goner.
Since my first visit to Tirthan while still in school, I have revisited more times than I can count to soak up the quietude it continues to offer those seeking it. Over these years I have watched it go from sleepy to stirring to stretching to rubbing its eyes to wide awake. The last as a consequence of the Great Himalayan National Park being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
The Tirthan River–springing from a high glacial fount located inside the Park–has remained mercifully unscathed by the polluting ways of hydro-power-generating agencies. Thanks primarily to environment-respecting activism helmed by local residents. Consequently this delightfully remote Himalayan dale has ever only attracted the genuinely devoted to nature and solitude. The number of stay options has increased since but not in the revolting manner witnessed elsewhere in the state.
Nothing could have made those frolicking hovers of trout that call its pristine waters home happier; hordes of resultant anglers, neither. My own claim to camaraderie with aqua-life however is limited to how it’s cooked and presented to me at meal-times. Most wonderfully, I found out at a somewhat off-piste property during my most recent outing only last month. As was all the other fare, vegetarian and otherwise, that I partook over my 3-day stay.
A short drive from the busy (at least by Tirthan’s yardstick) stretch between Sai Ropa and Gushaini, Gone Fishing Cottages is located in Deori village. It’s a happy gurgle away from Kalwari stream, one of the tributaries that splash into the Tirthan River some 500 metres downstream. Accommodation comprises one 3-bedroom cottage and two 2-bedroom ones joined at the hip. I noticed a rather whimsical all-glass one coming up next-door, quizzical onlookers of which included a charm of yellow-billed blue magpies.
Signs of the owners’ judicious recycling practices thrived wherever I looked. Particularly in the utilisation of empty alcohol bottles as light shades, twine-entwined lamps, curtain walls, even. While the drained end-use complemented to a large extent the stark rough-cut stone and knotted wood look of the cottages, I couldn’t help but think about the current employability of certain livers. Be that as it may, on offer here are all the comforts and amenities one would expect of a well-appointed home away from home.
Only after an overdose of doing absolutely nothing did I step out for a long walk into the nearby woods. The trail winds along, up, and across the sloshing Kalwari for as long as you wish to wander in the company of birdsong and your thoughts. Which I interrupted sporadically to chat with convivial villagers as they went about life as usual–cutting, chopping, fetching, herding, milking, fishing, and that ol’ favourite, gossiping.
Even though I have long unsubscribed from a frantic pace of life myself, I almost always return burdened with an unshakeable envy for the unhurried ways in these parts. Solace, on this visit, came from the contents of a stuffed-to-its-gills bar in my cottage. And from the knowledge that Chandigarh is a comfortable eight hours away should I wish to indulge in some highway driving; an adventurous ten hours or so on the scenic route over the Jalori Pass.
Gone Fishing Cottages are located in Deori some 500 metres upstream from where the Kalwari Nullah merges with the Tirthan River. They are within the eco-zone of the Great Himalayan National Park, an unmatched UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hemmed by orchards and step farming fields on one side, pine and deodar forests on another, their cottages are quite literally cushioned in nature’s lap.
GONE FISHING COTTAGES
Deori Goshaini, Kullu
It demands more than just a sturdy pair of legs to consider an expedition such as the one Levison Wood embarks upon in Walking The Himalayas. The promise of a Channel 4 series lessens none the daunting challenge at hand. That it has been done before offers little succour either. Because one man’s trudge across the ‘raised eyebrow over India’ (Michael Palin) could well be 1,700 high altitude miles through five (often hostile) countries over six months, for another. Ergo, it requires you to be a hard as nails ex-paratrooper, inhabitant of African and Asian wilds, globetrotter, photographer, and journalist, all rolled into one. Above all it mandates an old-fashioned notion of exploration to take you through what is irrefutably an endurance test rather than enjoyable tryst.
‘I decided that the aim of this expedition wouldn’t be to climb mountains or to try and break any records, but instead to use this opportunity to meet the people who call the Himalayas their home. For me, travelling on foot is the only way to really explore the back country and villages hidden from the main trails and roads. It is the way people have travelled in these regions for millennia and there is a unique bond that unites walkers everywhere’. To accomplish this aspiration, Levison Wood decides to bookend his ‘walk’ between Afghanistan and Bhutan, two of most impervious Himalayan countries; one a consequence of hostile militia; the other, xenophobia.
From Kabul, he pushes into Pakistan through the Wakhan Corridor set high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. He ambles briefly along the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan with China before reaching India. A limping-back-to-post-temblor-normalcy Nepal–where he busts his arm after a 150m car plunge down a cliff–and enigmatic Bhutan wait after. All along he clambers up ice-walls, traverses avalanches, avoids extremist hotbeds, and finds munificent locals, able guides, and stunning scenery. Apparently arming him with a skill nonpareil, that of the appreciation of risk. He talks fondly of Malang his cheerful companion through Afghanistan, of his friend Ash Bhardwaj who joins him in India, and of Binod Pariyar, his travel buddy in Nepal. Having befriended the latter during an earlier visit that coincided with the massacre of the royal family, the author would return to Everest highs in his company yet again.
Walking The Himalayas is packed with high and low (pun unintended) experiences, an epiphany or two, as well as impressions of people and a constantly varying landscape. Not to mention the socio-political complexities he encounters, and stoically braves. All of this, and some more, the author recounts through a well-documented, well-written–being a journalist helps greatly in that department–and insightful narrative. A quick page-turner, it works well both as a vicarious leisure-pleasure, as well as, a rough guide if you’re looking to walk the world’s rooftop and back. Yet a certain ardour that informs a gratifying travel read is woefully missing. Himalayan jaunts, by definition, are said to leave one wanting more. Walking The Himalayas, on the contrary, is likely to leave you, well, merely wanting.
Note: This review has earlier appeared in The Tribune.
“How about a quickie?” a friend had grinned cheekily, emboldened by Dutch courage brought about by more than a few sun-downers. “Why not!” I’d breezed back similarly high-spirited. “Pick a place then!” came his excited riposte. That was all the encouragement I needed. It’d been a while, and I had really begun to miss that fun factor called spontaneity. Time you summoned it, woman, I spurred myself. Next thing, we’re dashing for his car.
I picked a place I visited about the same time last year. It had included a thoroughly enjoyable ramble through birdsong-replete woodlands I suddenly fancied a repeat of. Never mind it was nearly five hundred kilometres away and would entail daylong drives to and from with a spare thrown in for the hike. But what the heck! Sometimes crazy is so normal.
I’ll skirt all those troublesome details about time taken, distance covered, pit stops and speeds achieved, to save you the ennui even a die-hard road-tripper such as I can experience every now and then. In fact I’ll do better and keep the destination from you as well. Oftentimes, it just doesn’t matter.
It was every bit as pretty as I recalled. The semblance of a stone path played hide and seek with pine-needles cushioning it from view. Mossy boulders and fallen trees presented themselves as rest-a-whiles. Avian chirps from above, crunchy leaves underfoot, cicada whirs, and flitting butterflies, the ambient sights and sounds of forest life, trailed us right through.
Habitation was few and far between–the odd abandoned shelter, a cluster of huts posing as a hamlet, and incredulously enough, a church amidst this entire wilderness. The only other humans we came across were a shepherd tending his tiny flock, a father walking his toddler back from a distantly located school, and a delightful dowager merrily drawing on her hubble-bubble.
Many hours of steady uphill trudging punctuated by quiet talk, companionable silence, content sighs, complaining muscles, and one wrong turn later, we had crested the walk. It was roughly midway and was going to be mostly downhill from here on. A thick-limbed collapsed tree served as timely luncheon furniture.
The solitude was briefly shattered by an agitated sheep dog wary of strangers around his bleating wards. But settled down soon enough once certain of our harmlessness. Besides, it wasn’t averse to sharing our meal.
A few hundred metres into our downward plod the path turned fairly steep and edgy. It stayed that way for the next hour or thereabouts requiring full concentration. Freshly harvested terraces edged by shady groves, our destination, peek-a-boo-ed from afar. When we eventually eased into them, they couldn’t have come a moment sooner for stubbed toes and wincing knees.
For that matter, nor could have the village teashop. Nothing better than a piping chai to enliven walk-weary forms. Not to mention the enervating joy that springs from an accompanying plate of soupy noodles. All of this and more awaits. Long as you permit yourself that much-needed walk on the wild side!
The sea has its moments, yes, but I don’t much care for Goa’s beaches. Nevertheless I gladly wash ashore ever so often for a change of scene and cuisine. Of which the latter, in my mind, remains her irrefutable raison d’être. Languor permitting I have successfully indulged in a spot of exploration in between meals. This is how I ended up making the acquaintance of three enormously ardent men when there a couple of months ago.
They have a whole lot in common. Other than that they are Goan, they share an unimpeachable love for the place they call home. All three have expressed this deep-seated fondness in a most tangible manner. By single-handedly housing their object(s) of affection, indeed muse, in three extraordinarily distinctive repositories. And all three are self-funded. I talk of architect-conservator Gerard da Cunha, erstwhile medic-turned-installation-artist Subodh Kerkar, and restorer-curator Victor Hugo Gomes.
Houses of Goa Museum
A much awarded professional who pioneered green architecture–think Protima Bedi’s stark-stoned gurukul Nrityagram in Bangalore–Gerard is the man behind a schooner-shaped Houses of Goa Museum precariously balanced on a traffic island in Porvorim. Within, the displays tell tales of the perceptible amalgamation of eastern and western influences in Goa’s structural heritage. From images of imposing mansions to imported 16th century tiles to tulsi vrindavans, this one promises to keep you indoors should you wish to play house with a trellised twist.
Visitors will find embellishing every wall, window, column and cranny of this curious three-storey building, rare photographs, perspectives and sketches of Goan houses. Keeping them company are floor-standing glass-encased models. Doors, windows, palisades, building material and furniture, including altars and shrines, take up the mid-level. The topmost floor celebrates the coming together of two distinct architectures that resulted in the Indo-Portuguese style so unique to Goa.
A happy hop away from here is the Mario Gallery where originals, prints, and related merchandise by the inimitable cartoonist Mario Miranda, of whose works Gerard is custodian, can be viewed and purchased. It fronts the architect’s office where a narrow garden hosts a larger-than-life likeness of one of Mario’s iconic characters. The toga-clad padeiro or village baker, a swiftly disappearing sight, sits astride a cycle bearing a trademark basket of freshly baked bread on his head.
Museum of Goa
Subodh Kerkar gave up a flourishing medical practice to give wings to his passion for visual art by setting up the Museum of Goa (MOG) in Pilerne. In response to queries about why he chose the least lucrative over the most minting, he is likely to quip that he was unwilling, after hundreds of years of it, to take any more scat from the British. A tongue-in-cheek reference to dysentery-struck tourists from England he regularly treated at his hospital in Calangute. Clearly their loss!
The expansive multi-level MOG, which also means love in Konkani, is dedicated wholly to contemporary art, and has no permanent exhibits. It opened last year to a showing of sculptures, paintings, installations, and video art centred on Goa’s history. The ocean, from which Subodh himself derives much of his inspiration, is a recurring motif. He borrows heavily from the resulting navigational history–horses, old boats, oars, peppercorns, chillies–to fashion his prize-winning land art.
Taking up one corner at ground level is a catamaran in the original with a large Maui head affecting a bubblegum balloon. This, the artist’s satirical take on (d)evolution of the human race, going from a senses-led navigating Polynesian civilisation to a gum-chewing American one. Jostling for attention amidst Subodh’s brilliant works are some interestingly executed ones by talented newcomers. A slight departure from the prevailing subject though was found in a gallery dedicated to realist paintings by his father Chandrakant Kerkar.
Alarmed at the growing disconnect of a rich past with an indifferent present spurred restorer Victor Hugo Gomes into setting up Goa Chitra, an ethnographic museum in Benaulim. It is housed amidst a working organic farm and fashioned from architectural jetsam and flotsam from hundreds of traditional houses. The private collection, four thousand strong (and swelling) of restored trade tools, agrarian implements, and articles of daily use is a remarkable labour of love, as much of things antiquated. Holding centre-stage is a humongous, 16 feet high ghanno or oil grinder in wood.
Few years after, Victor wheeled in Goa Chakra. Another truly singular space crammed with all manner of non-mechanised carriages from around India. Some go back a century or so, and include beautifully decorated hand, horse, and camel-pulled carts. Differently-sized cradles, prams, palanquins, hearses, freight wagons, a jinricksha and cycle-rickshaw each, sit cheek-by-jowl with a sizeable number of artefacts related to the wheel. Also seen are a variety of spinning wheels. An elegant Victoria, a fashionable choice of transport back in the day, poses coyly just outside the entrance.
At the time of my visit, Victor was putting the finishing touches to Goa Cruti, yet another section promising cultural cornucopia. This time around it came with a colonial makeover and the curator was more than happy to give me a sneak-peek. This assortment comprises clothes including priestly vestments, jewellery, furniture and crockery on the one hand; firearms, musical instruments, legal accoutrements and medical equipment on the other. It honour’s Victor’s longstanding companion, father-figure, and restorer extraordinaire, the late Jaswant Singh.
For the longest time I had been unable to fathom the fascination a dear friend, nay two of them, have long displayed for the dead. They’re both doctorates; I have often wondered if that’s grounds–and avid travelers, though many decades apart in age.
He, formerly a bureaucrat, currently a graver, plans nearly all his trots across India and the globe around beautiful cemeteries, writes about them even. She, when not teaching English Literature to college-goers, plays tombstone tourist wherever she goes. While I have continually accused them of being macabre for their interest in the interred, they’ve always blamed my immunity to taphophillia on dread of death.
Then I went to Surat. Surat, previously known as Suryapur, is a city in the Indian state of Gujarat. It is the administrative capital of the Surat district. This textile and diamond-cutting hub is home to three cemeteries under ASI ‘protection’. Of which the Dutch and Armenian lots are joined at the hip and one hosting the English is a kilometre apart. All three hark back many centuries with the earliest interment recorded in the year 1579.
Mortuary chapel in Armenian Cemetery
This distinction is held by an Armenian lady called Marinas, wife of the priest, whose remains rest just outside a forlorn looking mortuary chapel, the only super structure amidst hundreds of neglect-laden gravestones. This monument appears to be of later vintage, gleaned from the solitary sepulchre of Kalandar, an obviously once-important personage who passed on in 1695, it hosts within.
Dead Dutchmen (mostly)
In contrast the Dutch Cemetery is teeming with splendid cenotaphs, obelisks and mausoleums. Most note-worthy is that of Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede (died 1691), a top-ranking official of the Dutch East India Company, who also has to his credit the Hortus Malabricus, a 12 volume treatise on the medicinal value of flora along the Malabar Coast from Goa to Kanyakumari.
Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede’s
The handsome octagonal-shaped double-storied structure with solid columns stands on a stepped plinth and has an encircling veranda. A carved wooden door ushers you into a frescoed crypt with a flight of steps leading to an underground vault and another up to a benched parapet surmounted by an enormous cupola.
Where the Oxendens rest
Rivalling this grandiosity are two extremely striking ones still upright in the English lot. George Oxenden (1620-1669) was the Governor of the Bombay Presidency in British-administered India. He had a beautiful tomb built for his brother Christopher in 1659. A decade later, when he himself succumbed to illness, he was buried beside his sibling and a loftier crown was raised in his honour.
Gerald Augnier’s viewed from the Oxendens’ crown
A flight of stairs takes you right to the top for a bird’s-eye view of all the other pinnacle-domed, arched and stucco-embellished sarcophagi dotting the sprawling cemetery. Including that of Gerald Aungier–he succeeded George Oxenden–a mere whisper away. Though much less elaborate in comparison to his predecessor.
Islamic making way for neo-classical (English Cemetery)
When the call (phone, not from above) came I had found it an annoying intrusion. Interrupting as it had an engrossing lesson resplendent with history, art, culture, and astounding aesthetics. It was the waiting cabbie wondering if I still inhabited the living world, unknowingly bringing to the fore sounds of life I had missed not at all.
One of few tomb-chests in the English lot
Not once, in the many hours that had simply flown since I began strolling, peering, photographing, reflecting. The occasional path-crossing with kite-flyers, glue-sniffers, canoodling couples and caretakers notwithstanding, I had up until then been swathed in tranquility so rare that it was almost heartbreaking to have it come to an end. I can’t wait to return. To another. While still alive.