Saturday, November 26, 2016

Koorkai: the Winter Soul Food of Kerala

- By Shobna Iyer

Full name, koorka kazhungu, quite a mouthful, yes? Nickname, koorkai.

The koorkai is a tuber that begins life like others of its ilk, underground. Once dug up, it is quite common to find them appearing as near-perfect rounds which would explain its latin name P. Rotundifolius.

The 'P' may as well stay silent since its presence does little to highlight the shape. It's also called the Chinese Potato though its origin was in West Africa, now figure that cross-many-borders puzzle.
The time consuming part about making koorka is the peeling, a legal shortcut involves putting the uncooked tubers into a jute bag and jostling it until the peels oblige and you know, slip off. If you cook the koorka, this method is illegal. That is simply because the peel comes off easily once pressure cooked. Why would anyone choose the former method? Well, it tastes way better. Deep fried, like chips.

The common koorkai is best in fried form, you know, first fry up the mustard seeds, a dash of white lentil, a few red chillies and turmeric powder to a respectable quantity of oil. It's winter food, fried is good winter food. To this, add the pre-boiled, peeled and cubed tuber to this. Some may cut it long, some add it whole (which involves selecting similarly sized roundelles just to add to the time consumed), to each their own.

As with all highly recommended fried tubers, this is best had hot with rice and spicy rasam. Or plain.


Near perfect rounds, called spheres in polite circles
We'll call the hairs tangents
Geometry session can be had
As you eat, there shouldn't be hairy tangents though
They draw away from the food at hand (pun, anyone?)


The worthwhile outcome
What I like is the greasy no-holds-barred name, mezhuku (oil) varati (tossed till it shrivels to a fraction) 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

New Market Walk: Food and Shopping in Hogg Saheb's Bazaar

Here's the latest addition to our bouquet; a new tour in Calcutta designed exclusively for eating and shopping!

The tour takes you through the lanes of New Market, one of the most popular bazaars in Calcutta. 



 Built in 1874 as a posh “Whites Only" shopping complex, New Market today spills chaotically over to the adjoining streets, selling everything under the sun.


You can sample delicacies from the most iconic bakeries in the city (among other things).


And shop to your heart's content. 


Find out more about the tour on our website
See more photos of the tour on our Facebook page.

Moksha Patamu: The 'Snakes and Ladders' of India

Snakes and Ladders originated in India as part of a family of dice board games. It was called Mokshapat or Moksha Patamu. Like many other things in India, this one also has religious background, and represents the ascent to Vaikunta or Paramapadam, the Supreme Abode of Lord Vishnu. It is most popularly played by people trying to stay awake on the holy night of Vaikunta Ekadasi. You can buy it in shops near Vishnu temples.

This one is from Giri Stores in Mylapore.



The game made its way to England and was sold as "Snakes and Ladders", then the basic concept was introduced in the United States as "Chutes and Ladders".

Monday, October 3, 2016

Food Walk through Adyar

We're very excited to announce our latest food tour in Chennai - Food Walk through Adyar :)

Walk with us through the quiet (and sometimes not so quiet!) bylanes of this neighbourhood.


Sample some traditional South Indian delicacies at iconic, local establishments.


Check our facebook album for more!


Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Story behind Bada Imambara - Lucknow's Architectural Marvel

- By Aishwarya Javalgekar

The Bada Imambara is the most popular monument in Lucknow. It is also called Asifi Imambara  after Asaf-ud Daula, the Nawab of Awadh who is entombed in the Imambara's central hall.
The grand Bada Imambara facade (Photo credits: Wikipedia)
Not only is this Imambara marvelous to look at, it has a back-story, that adds more romance to this beautiful monument. 

In 1785, Awadh was hit by a devastating famine, leaving thousands of people jobless and starving. Nawab Asaf-ud Daula took up the grand project of building this Imambara to provide employment to these people. People were given food in return for work. Thus the Nawab made sure that his subjects did not starve during the famine.
Zoffany's painting: 'Asaf ud-Daula, Nawab Wazir of Oudh', 1784. (Photo credits: The New York Times)
The common people used to work during the day to build the structure, while noblemen and the other elite worked at night and demolished parts of the structure for payment. This brilliant scheme kept the construction in progress for almost a decade! 

It is inspiring to see how a simple project helped thousands of people, saving an entire kingdom from devastation and poverty. And the Bada Imambara remains a living reminder of the Nawab's brilliance and generosity. 

Even today, there is a well-known saying in Lucknow - 
Jisko na de Maula, usko de Asaf-ud Daula
(He who does not receive (livelihood) from God, will receive it from Asaf-ud Daula)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Scaffolding at the Taj Mahal: Update on Sep 10, 2016

August 10, 2016
In August we had posted about the scaffolding put up on the Taj Mahal due to ongoing restoration work by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Here's a small picture of how the Taj Mahal looked in August.

The scaffolding will remain for the rest of the year as work progresses throughout the monument. It is mid-September now, and ASI has speeded up the work. The scaffolding is coming off quickly now.
Taj Mahal - Sep 10, 2016
This recent picture shows that from the platform, scaffolding is only visible on the front ride side. The scaffolding on the front left minaret has been taken off now.

Keep an eye on the blog for further updates.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Shankha-kshetra of Puri

- By Aishwarya Javalgekar

The famous Puri Rath Yatra (Chariot Festival) was held this July in Orissa. As I was reading up on the festival, I came across a very interesting image.
A conch shaped map of Puri's places of worship
But first let me give you a short introduction. Jagannath is an important deity of Orissa. The Jagannath temple in Puri is also the abode of his siblings, Baladeva and Subhadra. These three deities are carried in three enourmous chariots during the Rath Yatra.

According to the article I read, the region of Puri is shaped like a conch, and is called Shankha-kshetra. Similarly Bhubaneshwar is called Chakra-kshetra and Konark is named Padma-kshetra, all representing attributes of the Hindu god Vishnu.

As you can see in the picture, the temple of Jagannath stands at the heart of the conch, which acts like a map of Puri itself. Around the temple are numerous temples, shrines, trees and other religious sites.  There are approximately 115 such sacred spots scattered around the Jagannath temple, connected to the temple through a network of roads like a spiderweb.

I am not sure if the places drawn on the image are to scale. It is nevertheless a beautiful
visual of the Shankha-kshetra.

If you want to know more about the Rath Yatra, you can read our article here.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Lucknow School of Miniature Painting

This beautiful piece called 'Ascetics resting in a camp beside a Shrine' is a Mughal miniature painting from the Lucknow School. Created in the 1820s, it currently resides in the Mittal Museum of Hyderabad alongwith minature paintings from different schools across the country.

The Mughal style of miniature painting emerged in India during the 16th century. A blend of Persian, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist influences, the style developed in Mughal courts. It later spread to all courts, leading to the formation of different schools of Indian miniature painting.

The Lucknow School painted in the Mughal tradition, with some Rajput influences. This style of painting was popular till the 1800s, but declined slowly after the demise of the Awadhi Nawab Asaf-ud Daula. Later the school developed with European influences during the reign of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula. By the end of the 18th century, the Lucknow school had become a Indo-European style of miniature painting.

'Ascetics resting in a camp beside a Shrine' c. 1825-30
Even today in many parts of the country, you can see groups of bairagis (ascetics) gathered together. Look at all the skin colours and the costumes that the artist has represented in this painting; showcasing the diversity of the bairagis. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Update - Scaffolding at the Taj Mahal

A few weeks back we had put up a post about the restoration work going on at the Taj Mahal, with a picture of the scaffolding on it pillars. Here's the picture:



We now have been told that this scaffolding would most probably remain for the rest of the year. They are also putting up new scaffolding on the central body of the structure.

Here's a picture of the scaffolding as of 9th August, 2016.


We'll keep posting new updates here. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Veeragallu - The Hero Stones of Karnataka

by Karishma Shah

Hero worship is a popular theme across mainstream Indian cinema. Films typically portray heroes as a saviour of the masses, someone who is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

Such morals and sentiments may seem misplaced in the modern world, but between the 5th and 13th centuries AD, these sacrificial qualities were worthy of commemoration. Memorial stones were erected to immortalise those who selflessly pledged their life for the protection of women, village men and property.

Hero stones (called veeragallu in Kannada) are found all over India. These ornate stones are spread all over Karnataka; many are also found in the neighbouring states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. 
A three panel hero stone at the Kedareshvara temple, Shimoga dist. Karnataka.
Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons
A Hero stone is divided into three sections: the lower portion gives details of the hero and his act of sacrifice (fighting the enemy with a sword or a bow, the army, cattle, or a damsel in distress). The middle panel shows the hero being carried to heaven by angel, and the highest panel depicts him sitting in front of a God, generally represented by the Shiva Linga.

Some have 5 or 7 panels too:

5 panel hero stone with old Kannada inscription
Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons
They often carry inscriptions displaying a variety of adornments, including bas relief panels, frieze, and figures on carved stone. Usually they are in the form of a stone monument and may have an inscription at the bottom with a narrative of the battle.

The classification of hero stones is based on the event for which the sacrifice was made. The Karnataka Itihasa Academy has a wonderful section with photos of hero stones. Dr. Devarakonda Reddy, historian and cultural expert, has published a classification of hero stones:

1. Attack on Forts
These depict war scenes with soldiers riding on elephants and horses. Some have a fort wall etched in them. The Begur veergallu (pictured below) is the most notable and can be found at the Bangalore museum.
Begur veeragallu, Bangalore Museum. Photo credit: Karnataka Itihasa Academy

2. Ooralivu (Defending the village)
A hero must be ready to defend the village from enemy attacks at any given time.

3. Gadi Kalaga (Defending borders)
Border disputes among neighbouring villages were common. Defending their territory from encroachment was an honourable way to go.
Photo credit: Dr Devarakonda Reddy
4. Go Grahana (Defending cattle)
Cattle was an indicator of wealth, and cattle lifting was a common practice with the kings of ancient India, as with the chiefs of ancient Greece. In the Mahabharata, the theft of cattle by Duryodhana was regarded as an insult, leading to the Battle of Viratnagar. The hero stones commemorate the men who defended such capture or theft of cattle.
Go Grahana, Hassan Museum
Photo Credit: Dr Devarakonda Reddy
4. Pendirudeyurchu, Penbuyyall (Savior of Women)
These commemorate heroes who sacrificed themselves to protect the dignity of women being assaulted by the enemies.
Protecting women's modesty
Photo Credit: Dr Devarakonda Reddy
5. Bete (Hunting)
Hunting was a very popular recreational game in Karnataka for royalty; and killing a wild beast such as a tiger or wild boar was no mean feat. Dogs were trained to corner the boars, and accompanied the men on these hunts. They hunted deer, crocodiles and defended themselves from a bear attack.

The Atakur inscription (939 AD) is unique, commemorating the death of the favorite hound of a grief stricken king (the hound died fighting a wild boar). Melagani located in Mulbagal taluk, Kolar,  has two memorial stones of 10th century erected for heroic endeavor of two hounds namely Loga and Dhalaga. Loga killed 70 boars and Dhalaga 50 boars.
Handi Bete (Wild Boar)
Photo Credit: Dr Devarakonda Reddy
Huli Bete (Tiger)
Photo Credit: Dr Devarakonda Reddy
If you are visiting Karnataka, a great place to see these stones is Agrahara Bachhali, where they are housed in a temple-like enclosure. Make a day trip from Mysore, which is very close.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Ceramic jars at the Goa Chitra Museum, Benaulim

- by Aishwarya Javalgekar

Ceramic Jars at Goa Chitra Museum
If you go to the Goa Chitra Museum in Benaulim, Goa, you'll see these beautiful ceramic jars, in a uniform white and brown design. These elegant jars were traditionally used in Goan households to store cooking oil.

Goan cuisine is a blend of different culinary traditions; Hindu, Mughal and Portuguese. These diverse traditions are brought together by local ingredients such as vegetables, oils and spices, that given the cuisine its sumptious flavour.

The most important oil used in this cuisine is coconut oil.

Coconut oil is extracted from copra, dried pieces of coconut. The oil, which is usually a clear liquid, turns into a creamy white solid in cold weather. Most of the dishes in Goan and South Indian cuisine rely on coconut oil for their authentic flavour.

Apart from coconut oil, sesame, gingelli, groundnut and sunflower oils are also frequently used in Goan food. Other oils used are castor oil, cashew oil, cotton seed oil, neem oil, clove oil and eucalyptus oil.

I can almost picturize the jars, slick with oil, kept in an old Goan kitchen. Can you?

Padayani: The spirit of central Travancore

- By Aishwarya Javalgekar and Deepa Krishnan

Kerala is famous for its rich cultural heritage, and has many popular art forms to its name. But an art form that is perhaps not yet widely known is Padayani; the worship of Mother Goddess, practiced in the Bhagavathy temples of the central Travancore region.
http://pathanamthittatourism.com/destinations/heritage/padayani.php
Padayani is not just an art form. It is a community gathering to ensure the physical and mental well-being of the entire village. It is a set of rituals that transcends the boundaries of caste and religion, generating a sense of unity.

The legend says that Padayani originated as a form of prayer to pacify the goddess Kali, after she killed the demon Darika. This art form has several important cultural aspects:
  • Kolamezhuthu - These are beautiful and elaborate coloured drawings of folk deities. Kolams individually embody a certain character associated with spirits and deities. They are made from natural materials which comprise spathes (paalas) of the areca nut palm tree. Natural colours are painted on these paalas using a brush made from the stem of a coconut leaf. 
  • Kolappattu - Folk songs with traditional lyrics that include the exaltation of the deities, as well as requests to obtain their grace
  • Thappumelam - Musical performance specially featuring a Thappu, a drum made by covering a jackfruit hardwood piece with buffalohide
  • Kolamthullal - A dance form that accompanies the festival
  • Vinodam - Satire, an essential part of Padayani! This is performed making fun of petty vanities of people, as well as to target areas for social reform.

In this outstanding video below, you can see entire cultural process explained with English sub-titles. The first 3 minutes are an excellent introduction in Malayalam, without sub-titles, but the rest of the video has wonderful sub-titles.

Some practical information:
Padayani performances at temples are easily accessible from Cochin, Kumarakom or Alleppey. They are performed at night outside Bhadrakali temples, during the Padayani festival, typically between March and April. If you are visiting India this September, you can attend the padayani at the Neelamperoor Bhagavathy Temple at Kottayam on 29 Sep (photo below). It's only a 2hr drive from Cochin, and a 1hr drive from Kumarakom or Alleppey. 
http://babuscamera.blogspot.in/2008/09/pooram-padayani-at-neelamperoor.html
You can stay overnight in Kottayam if you prefer. The Athreya Ayurvedic Resort in Kottayam provides excellent therapies, so you can combine a detox stay with a festival visit. They also have yoga practitioners who can teach you yoga. 

If you'd like more information about a tour that incorporates the Padayani festival, please send an email to deepa@magictoursofindia.com. Or you can also look up the Kerala Festival Calendar (search for "patayani") to see the schedule. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Scaffolding at the Taj Mahal


This is a recent picture of the Taj Mahal in Agra.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is carrying out some restoration work in the interior and exterior of the structure. As you can see, two of the minarets have been covered with scaffolding. We are not sure of when it will come off. We will post an update as soon as it does.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What is Culture? Thoughts upon seeing the Sarpam Thullal of Kerala

What is culture? It is a way of life, rich with symbols and meaning.

I do not have adequate words to express the many layers of myth, legend, and beliefs that are in this Sarpam Thullal video. This is actually a 3-part video series. Please see it. Look at the number of people involved in it. Look at all the elements. Music, art, craft, religion, food, ecology, environment, people, clothing, all the richness of the land....everything is embodied in this video.


If Sarpam Thullal ends, all of this culture will die. The communities who depend on it for survival will lose a way of life. The musicians will stop singing. The artisans will stop making these crafts. The beautiful sarapakkalams will stop being drawn.

This post is not really about Sarpam Thullal. It is about culture and change. I fear that we are already losing much that is unique about our land. Under our very noses, a whole way of life is being lost through the relentless urbanisation of India. And it's not a slow, gradual change. It is abrupt change, in the space of a single generation.

I agree that change is inevitable. That some of the ways of our forefathers are no longer feasible. But we have much that is good. How do we save this?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Of coconut oil and lighthouses

Coconuts are everywhere in Chennai. If you look at the city skyline, you'll spot some coconut trees for sure. If you wander through the bazaars, you'll find coconuts being sold. And if you peep into kitchens you'll find coconuts in chutneys, sambars, and a zillion other dishes.

But I didn't know it was coconut oil that lit up the beacons of the old lighthouses of Chennai. Man! That must have taken a lot of coconuts! 

Until the 1700's, there were no lighthouses in Chennai. The fisherwomen lit bonfires on the beach, to guide their menfolk back home from their fishing expeditions (I bet they used coconut fronds for the bonfires).

As Chennai became a big trading centre under the East India Company, merchant ships began to feel the need for a 'proper' lighthouse.

The tallest building in Fort St George at the time was the steeple of St Mary's (which you can see in the photo below). But the chaplain didn't want a lighthouse in the church.

So a large oil-wick lantern was installed on the terrace of the officer's mess in 1796, and became the first lighthouse of Chennai.

Fort St George on the Coromandel Coast, Jan Van Ryne (1712–60)
The officer's mess building where the lighthouse was installed, is now the Fort Museum, and you can visit it if you go to Fort St George. The building is not very tall; so Chennai's first lighthouse ended up being only 99 feet above sea level (see photo). 

The old officers mess, which later became the museum
Like I said, the lighthouse used coconut oil for fuel. I was surprised to learn that the light from 12 coconut oil lamps could be seen even 25 miles from the shore.  

It turns out that coconut oil gives a clear white flame. Country mirrors were used as reflectors to intensify the light for signalling ships.

This coconut-fuelled lighthouse continued to function for nearly 50 years. What a lot of coconut oil they must have used up !! :) :) 

Eventually in 1841, a new lighthouse location came up, at what is now the High Court. This lighthouse used an Argand lamp, which was basically a better designed oil-lamp where with just one wick you could get the amount of light of 7 candles. Parabolic reflectors behind the lamp would further boost and concentrate the output.

The Argand lamp provided a smokeless, brighter flame; but its oil consumption was greater. Still more coconut oil :)

Here is a photo of the second lighthouse, which used the Argand lamp.  This lighthouse is now inside the High Court premises and is a protected monument.
Second Lighthouse in Madras, Frederick Fiebig c.1851
The second lighthouse continued to be used for almost 50 years, until 1894, when a third lighthouse was built. The tallest dome of the High Court was used as the third lighthouse, which you can see in this photo:
By this time, electricity had still not arrived. The third lighthouse used kerosene, and thus ended a century of coconut oil lighthouses :)