Saturday, December 27, 2014

Malik Ambar: Jehangir's Obsession

Malik Ambar (1549 – 1626) was an Ethiopian slave in India, who rose to become a minister and then an independent ruler with his capital at Aurangabad. The Mughal emperor Jahangir was obsessed with defeating Malik Ambar and wanted to see him crushed at any cost. Unable to defeat him in reality, Jehangir had to be content with fantasy.

The Mughal artist Abu’l Hasan drew a painting of the Emperor shooting arrows into the severed head of Malik Ambar. There are small inscriptions on the painting, one of them says "The face of the rebel has become the abode of the owl." (the owl is a symbol of bad luck, a bad omen). And the other one says "Thy arrow that lays the enemy low, sent out of the world Ambar, the owl who fled from the light." Two owls are shown in the picture.

The emperor is shown as a just divine ruler of the world. The world is borne upon the fish and bull. A Sufi master named Farid al-Din Attar wrote: “God placed Earth on the back of a bull, the bull on a fish, and the fish dancing on a silver spool of light.”

At the top of the painting are two winged infants, called putti, they were believed to influence human lives (because of contact with Europeans in Jahangir's court, elements such as putti came into the painting).

Temple at Satuwa Baba Ashram, Manikarnika Ghat

This is the temple at Satuwa Baba Ashram at Manikarnika Ghat. This ashram follows the Vaishnavite Rudra Sampradaya (a philosophy said to have been established by Shri Adi Vishnuswami in 3rd century BC).

Within traditional Vaishnavam there are four main Sampradayas (philosophies with guru-disciple lineages), each of which traces its roots back to a specific Vedic figure (Rudra Sampradaya, Brahma Sampradaya, Lakshmi Sampradaya, Kumara Sampradaya). Of these, Rudra Sampradaya of Vishnuswami is the oldest. The philosophy of Vishnuswami is called Shuddha Advaita, or Pure Advaita. Rudra or Shiva is said to be the foremost and ideal Vaishnavite, who teaches the Shudda Advaita philosophy to humankind.

The Satuwa Baba ashram was established in the 1800s by an ascetic from Bhavnagar in Gujarat who followed the Shudda Advaita philosophy. It is said that here Lord Shiva appeared to the Baba in the form of an old man and taught him the philosophy. The current mahant is Shri Santosh Das, who is the 7th Satuwa Baba. The previous mahant Shri Yamunacharyaji died in 2012 at the age of 99 years. Apart from being the head of the Satuwa Baba Ashram, he was also the head (Acharya) of the Vishnuswami Sampradaya itself, and a highly respected guru.

Many miracles are attributed to Satuwa Baba, such as bringing a dead man back to life, and miraculously finding gold coins in the river. As a result, the Satuwa Baba Ashram has become famous. Processions of dead bodies stop at this ashram and pay their respects before proceeding to the ghat. After the cremation ceremony the sanskar ghada (clay pot) is also broken here.

There are also ancient legends associated with Satuwa Baba Ashram. The ascetic Vishnuswami who founded the Rudra Sampradaya is believed to have visited this place in person (since the name Vishnuswami actually refers to 3 different people within the Rudra sampradaya, this legend probably refers to the second Vishnuswami who lived around 8th or 9th century, or to the third Vishnuswami who lived in the 14th century). Shankaracharya (8th century) is also believed to have visited this place, and it is said that he was tested here by Lord Shiva in the form of a Chandala.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Beautiful Photos of the British Residency, Hyderabad

Earlier this year I visited the British Residency in Hyderabad. It was an opulent mansion, built from 1789 to 1805 by the James Kirkpatrick, the British Resident of Hyderabad state. It was designed like a palladian villa but has some Indian elements to it - like a zenana (women's quarters) for Kirkpatrick's wife Khair-un-Nissa. It had full lenghth mirrors, large chandeliers, beautiful ceilings and winding staircases.

Now, of course, it's a shadow of its former glamour and lavishness. It was used after Independence as a college. After a number of years, the main mansion was abandoned as a college but the old elephant stables and surrounding buildings still have classes going on.

James Kirkpatrick was steeped in Indo-Persian 'Nizami' culture. He wore Indian dress, smoked hookah, chewed paan, and was fluent in Persian and Hindustani (Hindi). He converted to Islam and married a Hyderabadi noblewoman, Khair-un-nissa. They are said to have been truly in love.

James Kirkpatrick (British Resident) and his wife Khair-un-nissa
During the construction of the Residency, Khair-un-Nissa expressed a wish to see the design of the building. But due to the conventions of 'modesty', she couldn't come to the building itself. So Kirkpatrick had a miniature Residency built for her, 100 yards away from the main building. Now she could see what the residency would be like.

The miniature Residency is now broken after a tree fell on it.
Eventually, Kirkpatrick was removed from his position by the Governor-General Lord Wellesley: partly due to his marriage to a non-European and partly due to his closeness to the Nizam.

Here are some pictures from my visit to the Residency:

The room with the dusty chandeliers and full length mirrors...
The colourful ballroom ceiling 
Close-up of the ceiling
Grand staircase leads to a statue of Gandhi and pictures of Tilak and S. Radhakrishnan
The domed ceiling
Another winding stairwell. At the bottom are chairs from the building's college days.
Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa's son and daughter
Another reminder of the college!
A room full of old notebooks, exam papers, attendance registers...!
The place is full of pigeons!
In fact, not only pigeons but goats seem to live here. Hope this beautiful building is restored and preserved.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Paintings of Y. G. Srimati

Y.G. Srimati (1927-2007) was a painter from Madras. She studied graphics in the Art Student League, New York, in 1964-66. She exhibited her works in various shows (single and group shows). A number of her works are in the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institute and the Library of Congress. Apart from painting, Srimati was also a talented vocalist, and learnt both Hindustani and Carnatic styles. She played the veena, as well as several other instruments.

Here are some of her watercolours: the figures are tall and slender, and reminiscent of the wall murals at Ajanta.
Shiva Nataraja (1945)
Kali (1990)
Eklavya practicing archery (1945-46)

Parashurama (1946)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Somnath Temple: a place of pilgrimage

Somnath is one of the holiest pilgrimage destinations in India - one of the "Char Dham" and the "Sapta Puri". Here, Lord Shiva is worshipped as Somnath, "the lord/protector of the Moon". The temple is beautiful and lies on the shore of the Arabian Sea.

View of Somnath temple
Here are a couple of legends associated with the temple, and the history of the temple:

Somnath temple was first built in ancient times (in the era before Christ, exact date unknown). This ancient temple was rebuilt c.650 CE by the Yadava king.

In subsequent years, the temple was ransacked and destroyed multiple times (in 725 by the Arab governor Junayd; in 1024 by Mahmud of Ghazni; in 1296 by Alauddin Khilji; in 1451 by the Sultan of Gujarat; and in 1665 by Aurangzeb). Each time it was rebuilt (in 815 by king Nagabhata II; from 1026-1172 by king Bhoj of Malwa, and Solanki kings Bhimdev I and Kumarpal; in 1308 by Chudasama king Mahipala Deva; in 1783 by the Peshwa of Pune, Raja Bhonsle of Nagpur, Chhatrapati Bhonsle of Kolhapur, Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore and Shrimant Patilbuwa Shinde of Gwalior). In 1947, it was reconstructed under the orders of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

An 1869 photo of Somnath temple. It had fallen into disrepair once again before being rebuilt by Sardar Patel in 1947.

Saadi's story about Somnath
On a side note, in the 13th century, Iranian poet Saadi Shirazi visited India and wrote the following tale about Somnath. Saadi came to the temple to debate the Hindu priests. First he put forth his points about the merits of Islam. In response, the priests prayed to the temple idol, which opened its arms. Shocked, Saadi came back later at night, inspected the idol secretly, and found a mechanism which controlled it arms! Must be a fake story but interesting nonetheless.

Here is a Mughal-era illustration of Saadi's Somnath story. Saadi's book Bustan (Garden), in which he recorded this tale, remained popular for centuries after his death. Many illustrated copies of the book were made.

Saadi at Somnath

A jyotirlinga (jyoti = light) is a linga where Lord Shiva appears in the form of a blinding column of light. What is the origin of jyotirlinga? Legend has it that once, Brahma and Vishnu challenged each other as to who was supreme. Shiva stepped in to arbitrate. He took the form of a column of light and told them to find the end of the column.

Leaving aside the results of the challenge (Vishnu honestly admitted defeat, Brahma lied and was cursed by Shiva), the places on earth where Shiva had manifested as a column of light are known as "jyotirlinga".

The Puranic king Daksha married his twenty-seven daughters to the Moon (Soma). But the Moon showered only one of the daughters with affection and ignored the others, and so they complained to their father Daksha. Daksha cursed the Moon, saying that his beauty and brightness would fade. Soon enough, the Moon began to wane, lost radiance, and all but disappeared.

Panicked, the Moon prayed to Lord Shiva for help. Shiva undid the curse partially - the Moon would not disappear completely, but would now have a waxing phase and a waning phase.

The grateful Moon built a great temple where Shiva would forever be worshipped as Somnath, "the lord of the Moon".
Statue of Somnath near the temple
Images from Wikimedia Commons

Buddhist architecture in Ajanta

- By Aishwarya Pramod

Viharas (monasteries) and chaitya-grihas (prayer halls) are the two important structures in early Buddhist architecture in India.

Viharas began as temporary shelters for wandering monks, but were later developed to accommodate the growing and increasingly formalised Buddhist monasticism. Chaitya-grihas (or chaityas) were prayer halls with a stupa at the end. The stupa was the focus of the monks' meditation and prayer.
General structure of a Vihara and Chaitya-Griha

Ajanta caves are prominently Buddhist.

Out of the 30 caves of Ajanta, 9, 10, 19, 26 and 29 are chaitya grihas (places of worship). In the earlier stages the stupas inside the chaitya grihas were plain, with no bodily representation of the Buddha. They were symbolic in nature; with the stupas usually containing a sacred relic. In the later phases, the Buddha began to be featured prominently in the stupas.
Chaitya-griha in Ajanta's cave 26 from the Mahayana period
There are also many Buddhist viharas found in India, such as the one in cave 16 of Ajanta.
Entrance to Ajanta's cave 16 - A vihara

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bangles of Bengal

- By Deepa Krishnan

In Bengal, married women wear red and white bangles. Called ‘Sannkha pola’, the white bangle is crafted from conch-shell while the red is made either of coral or lac.

These days with modernization of the traditional conch shell bangles craftsmen have started using gold on these bangles. Of course, those who cannot afford real gold can buy these popular red and while bangles in plastic.

I photographed this set of bangles in a small streetside shop in Kalighat.

Friday, December 5, 2014

How the Ajanta murals were created

The Ajanta cave paintings (from around 200 BCE to 500 CE) represent India's art at a great height of sophistication and skill. These scenes of the life of Buddha and the bodhisattvas, natural beauty and royal splendour have been called "the birth of Indian art".

So how were these works of art created? The Vishnudharmottara Purana, an encyclopedic text that deals with arts and sciences, gives us insights. The third khanda (chapter) deals with Painting and Image Making. The Vishnudharmottara Purana admits that it is only repeating things from earlier sources. Since those sources are not available, the Vishnudharmottara Purana (said to date to 4 CE) is our best possible guide.

Here are some of the ingenious methods that Indian painters used to create paintings that enthrall us to this day.
Scene from the Jataka Tales depicting king Mahajanaka
Methods of lighting up a dark cave to paint in:
Painters used many methods to light up the interiors of dark caves they had to paint. Apart from using torches lit with vegetable oil, they positioned large metal mirrors to angle sunshine. They poured water into shallow depressions they had made on the floor, to reflect sunlight onto the ceilings of the caves. They would also whitewash the walls of the caves with lime plaster before painting them, which would create a natural halo of light that would help them with their paintings.

The plaster base that enables the painting:
The painters covered the cave walls with two layers of plaster made of mud, vegetable fibre, paddy husk, rock-grit, sand, etc. The plaster was then covered with a thin coat of lime. Then they made their drawings on this.

Materials used to make paints and brushes:
Six pigments were used by the painters. They were mixed with water to create paints.
  • Yellow ochre (from a natural earth pigment containing hydrated iron oxide)
  • Red ochre (the same pigment with a large amount of hematite in it)
  • Blue (from crushed lapis lazuli)
  • Green (from glauconite or 'green sand')
  • White (from kaolin, lime or gypsum)
  • Black (from lamp-black, the soot left over from oil lamps
The brushes used for different types of effects:
They used several types of brushes, of different materials. One brush was a pointed rod made of khachora-root mixed with boiled rice. Another was a thin bamboo rod topped with a cotton swab. A third was made from the soft ear hair of a calf, and fixed with lac. Hair from a squirrel's tail and a sheep's belly was also used.

So there you have it - isn't it marvellous?!
Different pigments used to depict skin colour variations

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Art of Folding Sarees in Bengal

- By Deepa Krishnan

The word for folding of sarees is "bhaaj". In West Bengal the "guti bhaaj" folding system is typically used. In this system, the saree length is halved, then quartered, then made into one-eighth. After this, it is folded width-wise in such a way that the border design is displayed when opened. Then again folded length-wise.
Sarees folded and displayed for sale
Often the whole piece is then knotted with a string (you can see the string in the red saree which the seller is holding). There is also a different flat-folding system, this is used in Dhonekali sarees. It is a broader flat fold, you can see it on the far right in this photo.