History

Bridge Monkey

The internet has powered travel like a turbo charger fitted onto an otherwise placid car. This grand marriage of a placid car and the turbo charger is of little use if after the marriage, you gift the car to a chap who firmly believes that flooring the pedal is a new age sin! When God sits on the dashboard, flooring the pedal is a good thing to do. Especially, if its about harnessing the power of the Internet before you visit a place. Yes, before the trip.

Trawling the internet for tidbits about places that I would see gives my wanderlust as much power as it gives the love for waddlesome sloth, a new meaning. Trawling for tidbits about Heidelberg lead me to the ‘Bridge Monkey’. Monkeys (and for that matter, any ape) hold human kind’s (read ‘my’) attention like none else. I leave it to you to mull over reasons.

Heidelberg’s Bridge Monkey I read, was a ‘tourist attraction’. Clangs of the keys on the keyboard absorbed what otherwise would have been a garrulous tirade on ‘tourist attractions’. I continued to indulge in the insoluble appetite for finding more and soon there was a pile of information that showed up on the screen.

The present day Bridge Monkey is a bronze sculpture that took its place at one end of the famous old bridge called Karl-Theordor-Brucke across the pristine River Neckar. The bridge by itself deserves a separate post. Perhaps many bound volumes of an encyclopedia. Any structure that is as pretty, or as resilient ( it was rebuilt nine times since 1742 ) deserves much more than a passing mention. But this post is about the Bridge Monkey. So there.

The present day Bridge Monkey showed up for the first time 1979. The work of Professor Gernot Rumpf . One website talked about the existence of a similar statue in an earlier time. An installation that disappeared as war and bloodshed punctured the pretty sight and the brilliant air. Sometime between 1689-93.

The idea of the ‘Bridge Monkey’, looked like one nice package and as though that wasn’t enough, it had a legend thrown in as well. Now, with a legend, even a passing gap in a mountain or pile of brick amasses a cloak of righteous importance.

One website told me that “..the Bridge Monkey is intended as a symbolic reminder to Heidelberg’s citizens that neither the city-dwellers nor the people who lived outside the city of Heidelberg were better than the other, and that they should look over their shoulder as they cross the bridge to remember this”.

By now, the Bridge Monkey had grown in stature in my mind. It had morphed from a ‘tourist attraction’ to a ‘must-see’

So, on a cold rain-soaked evening in Heidelberg, just as the pebbled streets of the old city radiated their stately presence in luxurious understated elegance, I saw the Bridge Monkey. And was instantly aware of the surprise that enveloped me. You see, the trouble with trawling for tidbits is that it surreptitiously provides for constructing an experience in the mind. Often times, what turns up on the ground, can be quite different to what the mind constructs.

The Bridge Monkey in reality presented itself as a structure that is much smaller and simpler than that one the mind had drawn up. Plus, it is unmarked and shows up just like that, at the end of this street.

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I must hurry to give some context. If at all this was to be in India, signboards which said something like ‘One Kilometer to world famous Bridge Monkey’ would be the norm from 357 kilometers! Stores selling sugar cane juice to Super Computers would carry the name of the Bridge Monkey as their names. Photographers lugging cameras would try and entice you into clicking a snap with the Bridge Monkey and hand it out to you in a jiffy.

A customary board that would say ‘The World Famous Bridge Monkey is closed between 2.00 PM – 4.00 PM. Please queue for tickets’. I would have queued as the Sun bristled and beads of sweat marked their presence and as a listless man from behind a dark counter hands over a ticket to enter, I would already be prepared to soak in for whatever follows with a degree of awe.

As much irritating I may make all of these sound, they provide life to the statue and livelihood to a zillion people in the neighbourhood.

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In forlorn loneliness it stood. Much smaller than what my mind had conjured up. (Can you spot the Monkey’s tail in the picture above? Peeking amongst the umbrellas)?  An average Ganpati mandal organised by a the local auto drivers would have three times the size an infinite quantum of more noise around it and a scale of fervour that is indescribable. Especially so, considering the fact that the Bridge Monkey had its own prowess too.

Legends and myths invariably have a ring of things to do as well. Action items if you will that perpetuate the myth plus, make the visit seem purposeful! The Bridge Monkey is no exception.

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Infact its awesomeness comes three pronged. It is believed that you could run your hands over the mirror to be blessed with fortune, touch the fingers of the monkey for a return to the city of Heidelberg. Plus, touching the accompanying mice, would get you more kids! From whatever little I saw, people go for the mirror and the monkey’s hands, but are cagey about the mouse.

A monkey with a cat face, who can bless you with wealth, travel and kids would be an alluring business proposition. The city of Heidelberg doesn’t seem to think so is obvious from the fact that the Bridge Monkey is left relatively untouched by commerce around it!

In its understated yet active presence, the city seems to showcase its own character. Of a simple, stately and rich presence. A presence that is unobtrusive. And in that unobtrusive solitude, he grew on me.

As time sped by in reckless haste, matched only by tiny flakes of snow that the rain seemed to bring, I found my hands involuntarily touch the fingers of the Bridge Monkey.

So far, nothing. Lets see. 🙂

A lady & her passion! At the Heidelberg Castle

There was a mischievous twinkle in her eye that seemed to light up the evening sky, sparkling incessantly the first time I spoke to her. She looked abjectly interested in where I was from and what tales I brought. It was kind of ironic for she was present to tell some to us. Some people have this raw beauty. A beauty that comes from staying genuinely curious about everything and every person they meet. She was one of them.  There were several other pluses. She was beautiful.  She personified passion. Often times she spoke of love and lucre with a sort of equanimity that would cause a balance to ache. I could have spent hours speaking to her. Time can be a cruel spoilsport. Limited time, is even worse.

We were at the Heidelberg castle. She was our tour guide. She did a swell job of guiding us through the ruins. In a cold weather that the insides of my bones were becoming present to, I became more and more aware of the prescience in her stories and the near perfect timing with which she shared them all. It was not as much the depth of the story, but the intensity of her sharing that brought alive a few hundred year old ruin.

More of the lady, later. The Heidelberg Castle first.

 

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Every city boasts of a few places that are a ‘must go’, if you ever want to tell that world that you indeed went to that place. The Castle happens to be that place for Heidelberg. Now there are tons of notes on the internet starting here, about the Heidelberg castle starting here. What follows now is an incomplete recounting from random notes. Standard disclaimers apply!

For one, the castle is genuinely old. The first mention of this structure is circa 1214 AD. That’s a long time, even by Indian standards, where ‘this is a 1600 year old structure’ can be said with a matter of routine matter of fact, monotone. The structure has survived wars, destruction and even a couple of lightning strikes. A second lightning  strike in fact knocking out a structure that was built in place of a structure that was knocked down by the first strike. Some persistence there!

There were stories of Kings and Queens running away. Falling in love. Fighting the enemy. The Vanquished. The Victors. The armies. The victories. The flags. I couldn’t help think of this quip, standing amidst the ruins there : We learn from history that we don’t learn from history!

Irrespective of all the philosophy stuff, the place presents the visitor with some wonderful objects to construct in the mind how life would have been many years earlier. Exquisite art adorns every corner. In an understated quiet, that you would miss if you didn’t have an extra moment or just that extra dash of curiosity. Here is a door handle as proof. Certainty runs amuck in my mind, that I have missed much! Which is reason enough to want to go back there again.

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There were a few moments during the entire trip when I rued not carrying a camera  that would do justice the richness that was there for the taking. Standing amidst the ruins of the castle, hearing the stories that were being told, every crevice, every nook and all corners seemed to heap scorn on my lazy idiocy of not carrying the right equipment. But in the soaking in of the raw beauty, there was an immersion in the moment. That was a bold silver lining.

No trip the castle is complete without seeing the huge oak casks built to house  wine! 130 oak trees, the lady said, as I gawked at the heady number. Just that fact could have well given me a solid hangover, as I surveyed the huge casks. What seems like sophisticated plumbing with pipes and taps dart across the barrels. Wine on a tap, could have been cool stuff! Man’s foresight to satisfy his thirst hundreds of years ago is commendable!

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I turned to check if my good friend, Mark Twain had anything to say about this opulence in inebriation!  Here is his inimitable take. “Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand  bottles and other traditions say it  holds eighteen hundred million barrels.  I think it is likely that one of these statements is a mistake and the other is a lie. However the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense”  – Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad

The castle seems to have been brought down by a combination of natures prowess, man’s greed and neglect! But then, it is said to to be still standing because of the fact that it is a ‘ruin’.  Surviving a full question of whether comprehensive restoration was required or otherwise, the decision was to leave it a ruin. Ruins make some interesting read and conversation.

The castle itself, except for some portions, the rooms and such else are fully in use. There are administrative blocks, restaurants etc. Plus you could get married here. In the Summer Festival (July-Aug), the place is supposed to come alive and adorn a different avatar that the quiet persona that we were introduced to is an inadvertent mistake.

Time, as I said earlier, is cruel. Especially when it shortens the possibility of what seems to be presented on a platter with a flourish. I just wished I had more time. Especially between me and the lady.

Now for the lady.

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I have one gargantuan aggregation of a wish. It is this.  When I am as old as her, if I have a fraction of her passion, a portion of her curiosity, a whisper of her voice, a dose of her knowledge and a cut of her elegant countenance, I would count myself amidst the truly blessed. While the tiniest of quivers in her voice punctuated her sentences, the imprint they left on me, as an example of a life that is truly alive and purposeful, is striking.

My travels often put me in front of people and places. Some people just stay long after the dates of travel recede into the calendar archives. She sure will be one of those for me.

Heidelberg diaries

My travels took me to Germany. Again. Now, if a place beckons you again, sans notice sans fanfare, maybe there is a deeper connection. Who wouldn’t love a deeper connection with Germany anyway?

This time the flight landed in Frankfurt and a train ride helped me set my sights on the city of Heidelberg. A wonderful, serene city that offered far more than copious ‘romantic city’ that it gets talked about, on the internet.

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Heidelberg is a beautiful place. It has pebbled roads. The brilliant clean river Neckar. Buildings are bridges that snatch the breath out of your lungs. Plus of course, a picturesque castle tempts the camera like a lollipop would tempt a haggled toddler’s parent! All of that is part of the old city.  And the old city, bristles with pride, shoulder to shoulder with the new city that has all trappings of a developed nation. Add an indelible stamp of a German skyline, where squares, right angles and order have a pervasive presence. Roads filled with cars, buses. Trams. Trains. Traffic Lights and beautiful people with heavy overcoats and other denominations of ‘winter wear’!

Needless to mention, you must have heard about the Heidelberg University, that ranks amongst the best! There are 55 Nobel Laureates that have a Heidelberg connection. FIFTY FIVE! Almost as thought the whole Nobel thing is rigged in its favour.

Here is something else that caught my attention.

In 1907, as a worker was digging up a sandpit, he spotted a jaw. Thankfully, he didn’t view it as a joke and turned it in to a professor at the Heidelberg University. Pretty prescient of him. For that was a fossil of someone who then got named the ‘Heidelberg man’! That fossil proved that the place was inhabited for a very long time. ( The fossil itself is called Homo Heidelberggensis that dates from at least 600,000 years to 1,300,000 years).

The earliest history of Man, having a Heidelberg connection wont have much allure to the selfie clicking-posting-on-facebook tourist, except when there is an opportunity to click a picture with the open jaw in the background! I don’t know if such an opportunity exists though. For some odd reason, the ‘dropped jaw’ as I called it, excited me no end. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to pursue it in person and click a jaw dropping picture of our forefather!

In the meanwhile, here are some pictures of the city.

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I hope to rustle my Heidelberg memories and get a couple of more posts in soon. Of the castle and the city. And before I get drunk on the memory, I must write about the oak cask that was designed to hold wine! If I don’t, please nudge me.

The oldest description of Heidelberg from 1465 mentions that the city is “frequented by strangers”. It is a tourist destination that holds great allure for people around the world. During WW-II, Heidelberg was one of the few major cities in Germany that wasn’t bombed much. America had a base there, that it vacated in 2014! Yes, in 2014! Talk about long stays! Of course, the Americans staying on there, helped spread the word about Heidelberg’s beauty. Now it a busy  global tourist destination with Japanese tourists and American tourists dominating the scene.

Heidelberg has played hosts to a variety of celebrities. From Mark Twain (who wrote about it in The Tramp Abroad ) to Goethe to Victor Hugo and several others.

Such a stunning scenery which caused Mark Twain to remark

“The town lay, stretched along the river, its intricate cobweb of streets jeweled with twinkling lights. Behind the castle swells a dome-shaped hill, forest-clad, and beyond that a nobler and loftier one. The Castle looks down upon the compact brown-roofed town; and from the town two picturesque old bridges span the river. I have never enjoyed a view which had such a satisfying charm about it as this one gives.

One thinks Heidelberg by day—with its surroundings—is the last possibility of the beautiful; but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider upon the verdict”.

That was Mark Twain for you. Now, with my limited prowess, I will only go as far as saying that the city retains the essence of Mark Twain’s verse.

Make your plans people. Its a good place to go!

( Previous posts on the visit to Berlin are here, here, here and here )

Notes from Melaka

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“Melakka (Its also written as Malacca) is a historical place”, they said. At numerous coffee shops and other places. Being this romantic sucker for history and the stories that it tells, it was only a natural that the car found itself making an unplanned detour to ‘check out Melaka’.  Actually, we were famished. I could have given my right hand for some food. That famished.

There is something distinctive to every city. Even the most nondescript ones. Sometimes it hits you in the face. At other times, it envelopes you in a seamless trance. Yet other times, it surprises you.  Here we were, looking forward to set our foot and have some food in a city with history and character. And the first sign board that we saw was this: ‘Dont mess with Melaka’.  Mess with Melaka sounded rhythmic, but also caused the eyebrow to arch.

Dont mess with Texas” was a similar campaign that ran in far away Texas. How a campaign that started out as a campaign against litter turned out to give a deeper cultural meaning to Texas and Texans is stuff that advertising legends are made of. That phrase went on to become a federally registered trademark and later on the motto of a nuclear Submarine : USS Texas!

“Dont Mess with Melaka”, is a similar campaign against litter, “robbers, snatch thieves”. To promote a clean environment. All this information came after a frantic searching the web. Truth be tolda, “Dont Mess with Melaka” caused some consternation. Albeit, a mild one at that.

Now, Melaka has some history to it.  A cursory glance scramble of the fingers on the Malacca’s wikipedia page, will lead you to some interesting facts. It has a Malay-Portuguese-Dutch-English rule to it. A history that dates back 13th century. A diverse population. A size that is less than three times the size of Mumbai. It has the Malaccan straits names after it. But what seemed bigger than all of that to the famished me was this : Melaka city had Restoran Selvam.

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It was Deepavali day and all shops were shut. Restoran Selvam was however open and we had a melange of tourists eating out of banana leaves. I was famished and the sight of the spectrum that seemed to be mind numbingly focused on the food increased the hunger quotient by a large number. Taste buds seemed to erupt in some tantric dance as they stayed stimulated by this gastronomic delight. Food that we were used to, but having a different etching to it.

After the food, I wandered the road with the camera in hand and got a few shots of a small sleepy city, caught deep in festive slumber.  Melaka seemed to invite everyone. The ancient seamlessly invited the new. And the new, respects the ancient, not deferentially but taking its place in the modern scheme of things, rather gracefully.

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Across the road from Restoran Selvam, is Discovery Cafe.  It teemed with people who seemed to be visiting Melaka but sporting an air as though they belonged there. Backpackers with beer, languidly conversing is a pretty sight to watch. I made a mental note. Melaka was a place to visit again. With a backpack. Tasty food, history, culture and an opportunity to trade your story for another’s. Thats Melaka.  What more is there to life?

Ofcourse here is a lot more to life, if there are kids with you who are keen to keep you busy. The daughter is one such. We soon drove out of Melaka. Missing the River Cruise, the Dutch & Portugese forts and several other aspects of the architecture that teeming travelers and their accounts on the internet point us to bear in mind while planning the next visit. Melaka City’s city centre got its ‘UNESCO Heritage’ tag in 2008 and that means something.

Thats that Melaka. Or atleast, that was my short visit to Melaka. Ah, there is one more aspect that I accidentally bumped into. The ‘Chitty People’.  People who migrated from Tamil Nadu in the 15th Century and made Melaka their home. Mingling with the Malays, Chinese and the Javanese folks, this is a set of people who have assimilated from every culture, while retaining aspects of their roots. Wikipedia announces that there are 2000 people left of them. That number doesnt add up in my mind.  That is one more reason, I want to go back. Soon.

A King and his kingdom

From as long as I can remember, I have wanted to stop here and stare. A long hard look, if you will. During this trip to Tirunelveli, I did it.

On the outskirts of Tirunelveli, just by the highway, within the precincts of a small town called Kayatharu, stands a lonely memorial. Lonely, because I haven’t seen many people stop here. Further and lip sealing evidence of no one stopping here : there is zilch commercial activity in the vicinity. No aerated drinks. No cigarettes. No parking area. Not even the cursory entry fee.

That doesn’t take away anything from the simple yet elegant majestic bearing of the pedestal, carrying a couple of drawn swords, a shield and a man standing atop, who seems ready to jump at you. I almost missed the ‘fish’, which is the emblem of the Pandyas, sitting pretty between the swords.

This is the memorial of a King who lived from from 1760 to 1799. Katabomman. Or rather, Veerapandiya Kattabomman. His life and heroics, like several others, would have continued to be confined to the dark ravines of apathy, fueled by a concoction of ignorance, a surfeit of history and the monochrome schema of day to day existence.

Thank God for the eponymous Tamil movie, starring Sivaji Ganesan that was released in 1959. For those that don’t know, Sivaji Ganesan was an actor who could get his molars to twitch and incisors to dance, just to bring alive a situation on screen. Well, almost. The film won a slew of awards and contains some searing screenplay delivered by a belligerent Sivaji. Some of those dialogues were part of the paraphernalia for any elocution competition in school. The film world brought a king, his kingdom and his time alive. A couple of centuries after his death. Sometimes, one act can condone many ills. This was one such.

His memorial stood right beside the highway and I wonder why I didn’t stop for all these years.   It is overcast today and the weather pleasant. So, under the aegis of a Sun who is playing truant, like a king who ceded his throne to the clouds, I enter tentatively.

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Within seconds, I become aware there is no one else there. Its just me. Never in my life I have had a memorial all to myself.  I walk, conjuring solemn memories of watching the movie along with dad and my brother. The majestic single pedestal, an array of plants and even a small children’s play area, all stand silent. Wonderfully maintained. Which of course, was a surprise considering the absence of commerce.

In the next few minutes, I discover that the statue has been sponsored by Sivaji himself and opened by the Congress leader and former chief minister, K.Kamaraj. Sivaji sponsoring a statue of the hero of the film, who he played in the film, would sound like the height of astute self propagation, in modern day marketing terms. But, I doubt if that era had already seen the devious depths that we have sunk to now. Who knows!

I spot a line which states clearly that this after all the place where Kattabomman was hanged by the British. So, it wasn’t just a convenient location for a statue, but a place of importance after all.

The story went, as far as I could remember, Kattabomman was a valiant king, who refused to pay taxes to the British and fought them. He had initial wins but was later done in by fellow clan, was captured and naturally, executed in front of his subjects.

A king and his kingdom. It perhaps was something to become King then. I walk around, imagining how it would have been in 1799, to be a bristling 39 year old fighting the British army, in his own backyard. My faculties that normally facilitate imagination stay unresponsive and I let them be, content with the quiet. For some reason a lump forms in my throat, as the silence grows on me. Vaguely disrupted by passing vehicles on the highway and their blaring horns.

In a bit, I spot an inscription. I read it first with some awe and then with mild amusement. I reproduce it here. It was all in bold letters. That’s one change. And the only one at that.

“Katta Bomman, a great tamizh kind had power and it was visible, tangible and real for ever. A courageous king never bowed before autocracy. A dazzling hero and dashing warrior dissipated hypocrisy.

Among perfidious traitors, Katta Bomman had moving faith, miracle generating faith, situation changing faith, displayed patriotism, pacifism, pragmatism and humanism whipped off the the then calculative, crafty cruel kingdom.

Friends, no, dastardly Ettappans only betrayed him to English royalty, never Katta Bomman deviated from fairness, justness probity and nobility. The lower he fell, the higher he bounced back with vitality, had reverberating, resilient and unshakable, devotion to Lord Muruga only.

Sowed the seed of freedom and earned the eternal fame. Sowed the seed of fortitude and hushed the needless shame. Shimmered as a radiant light and roared as a lion before the then collectors, shone martyr, alas, Katta Bomman was hanged because of the traitors. – D. Chandrasekaran. I.A.S. Chennai. “

I pulled out my white handkerchief, rubbed my eyes and started reading again. To carefully craft in stone stuff of this order, would require inordinate courage of the order that Kattabomman possessed. That was clear. But to go ahead, sign it and tag the Indian Administrative Service, took this to a different plane altogether.

I stood for ten minutes speculating how such words would have sprouted. Perhaps this was literal translation from a speech. Maybe he was high. Or was promoted. Or was going to retire. Whatever.

Right next to the big stone inscription stood a smaller one. By the same D.Chandrasekaran, I.A.S, Chennai.

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It sure looked like ‘adjectives’ were on short supply for a long time and suddenly, they went on a sale!  The granite plaque provides some relief to the sombre mood. After all, it was the memorial that I came for. I train my eyes again on the statue that is majestic and seemed modeled on Sivaji the actor. Perhaps, there were very little of reference points.

I leave quietly. Without saying a word. There was no one to say anything to of course. But Kattabomman’s heroics and the stone inscription by D.Chandrasekaran I.A.S, Chennai, leave me tongue tied that I don’t want to pursue any conversation with anybody, even if someone was around. As I leave, I turn and take a long look. As Kattabomman stands tall, looking at the buzzing traffic almost with disdain. I tell myself he is entitled to that view. The disdain, that is.

Back home, I dig up some history. And read about how Kattabomman and others fought the Polygar wars much before the first War of Independence in 1857! Each page revealed a slice of history that I had abysmal clues about. I read about ancestors, descendants, tax structures and many elements that complete the richness of the picture.  I sit there, sipping my filter Kaapi, thinking of what it must have been like to be a 39 year old king to be hung from a tree, in front of his subjects.

And then I think of D.Chandrasekaran, I.A.S, Chennai. The coffee seeps in to shake my inaction.

In one reflex action, I open my calendar on the phone and on the 16th October, I mark the death anniversary of Kattabomman. Silly, you may think. Some actions cant be explained. So, lets leave it there.

Hope in history

The cities of India are paved with history. Such a surfeit of history with such a pronounced range, splendour and class that most of it is not given more than a passing glance. Take for instance, this Mandapam that sits right in the middle of the Vaigai river. Its supposed to have been sitting on from 1293 AD.  That was almost two hundred years before Columbus landed in America!

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This is a picture from a few years back. Now, though, the river has dried up. Little boys play cricket on what was once the river bed. Scrounging the ground a tad more for it to hold the three bent sticks from a nearby tree, that masquerades as stumps. At spots were perhaps the fish laid eggs or warriors buried stolen treasures. In the words of one famous commentator, ‘ultimately cricket is the winner’!

Allow me to drag your mind from cricket even as you wonder what TV commentators have for breakfast for them to come up with such stellar stuff with such odious frequency and get our sights to stay trained on the Thenur mandapam.

Anywhere else in the world, this would have been earmarked as a piece of heritage, marked with concerted steps to keep it as it is. Maybe weave a few stories around the place. Get a few school children visit it and learn.  Ah, but thats anywhere else in the world. When you have a surfeit of something, you perhaps tend to take it for granted. Architecture that depicts history is one such.  I  am sure most residents and tourists of the city dont have a clue of how old this place is and how much of value we miss by not stopping by to take a second look.

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It has traditions and several stories to run alongside culture that has evolved!  When you are done with this blogpost, find a minute to read its history.

Today all the rich history, stories and the traditions over seven hundred years call out loud only through deep cracks and large gaps in the structure. Enough to seed a frown on you, if you care for such things that is. Your blood will begin to simmer first at the garish colours and then boil at the degree of deep neglect that seems to seep through all the crumble. The blaring horns of traffic threaten to knock your ear drum silly and you wonder if these loud horns and our perpetual preoccupation with ‘development’ has made us so myopic that we fail to hear the silent sobs and tearful sighs from this seven hundred plus year old structure.

There can be spanking new bridges, swanky new cars and technology that captures the world in our palms through phones that sit inside our pockets. Not so long ago, this and structures like these did the same job as people came here and narrated stories they had heard in exchange for stories others had carried with them. A splendid flowing river kept them company and perhaps making its own swirling additions as it sped downstream to the sea!

Today, there is no river. The crumbling edifice reminds us that things are changing. The gaping holes left behind by young boys and the cricket stumps on the river bed indicate that the river is done with the flowing under the bridge. The sands of time shimmer prominently through the cracks on the wall.

Wont someone take notice? You are prone to ask, if such things matter to you, that is. A monument that is standing on its last few legs. In its sepulchral stoic standing, it seems to announce to every other day that it stands, that it has stood for one more day. Even while that announcement gets feebler, as the cracks make their ominous presence more visible,  urgently pointing to an inevitable end. On that day, the landscape of the dry river will forever change.

The world will have other things to focus on. New toys and fancies will continue to grip collective imagination. It will garner a mention in the newspaper. A couple of laments on blogs like these, before moving on to discuss other aspects that dominate our lives today.

But hold on. Perhaps we make a mistake in not shining the light on other minds. Minds who have hope in history. Minds for whom this is not a physical structure but a representative structure.  When this structure and even pictures of this structure brings about a warm fuzzy feeling of a different time. When there was some water in the river. Of a bundle full of memories. When the age was young and conversation was king. To those minds, this structure will continue to be the lasting edifice. Sans cracks. Sans crumble. Sans dereliction .

It is in those minds that this and structures like these thrive. Sometimes the steps of the daily day are powered by an overarching ache that comes from a clutch of memories.  Some edifices provide them with aplomb. This is one such. From new hopes that emerge, there will be new edifices.

Such is life. Always. Well, at least most of the time.

PS : You may want to read this and more importantly, this.

Shooting into the sky! The Pyramids of Giza

So I landed up at looking at the Pyramids and the Sphinx. In the city of Giza located 20 KM south west of Cairo. Now, Giza in itself holds the key to several facets of history. But for the moment, lets stick to the pyramids. 

All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon” said Voltaire.  Which is a pretty good thing to say. But then, there objects that have continued standing for long, that have been the dots for people to weave stories around. The pyramids are one of them. And you hear such wonderful stories and imagination runs riot. All of them seem plausible. You don’t know for sure, but then they just could have been!  

It is a spectacular sight and no amount of reading Wikipedia and Lonely Planet can prepare you to just see the scale, proportion and angles. The scale, proportion and angles are just one part of the story. The beliefs, the time and the thoughts of another age that caused these to sprout in the first place, shake the last remaining lumbering trails of slumber in the mind! 

The mere thought of mans unquenchable quest to soldier on, in this life and in the next continues to reach great heights taking other subliminal forms these days. But those perhaps were the mind was more straight and simple.  As the guide keeps giving story after story, my mind race to connect the dots and leaves it yearning for more. 

There is way too much of history for me to wrap into one post here. I am leaving you to the deep data that Wikipedia provides here

The guide regales me with other accounts. Like why there were not many other pyramids. One plausible theory was that such structures attracted robbers.

  

The Sphinx is nearby. Broken nose notwithstanding. Staring into a far distance with a steady gaze and an arc of stoical presence.  

There is a sound and light show. Of course, in the evening. One of the best I have seen. The narration, the story line and the lights themselves kept me warm with wonder on a rather chill Cairo evening. 

The pyramids are a place where you must go see. For no other reason but this : These are the oldest serving edifices around. Tall, stately and all that.  There is a line in the Sound and Light show that caught my ear and poked my memory. “Man fears time. But time fears the pyramids”.  

It evokes a guffaw first and then realization dawns that hundreds and thousands of people must have come here from 2500 BC to catch a glimpse, stare at the sheer scale of belief, the trust in ‘knowledge’ and the consequent concerted action that an ancient civilization had. 

Alexander to Ceasar to Napoleon and then, of course, every chap that thought of himself as some kind of ruler (or genuinely was one) have come training their steely gaze at the pyramids and perhaps wondered what other fellow rulers did to perpetuate their souls. Albeit thousands of years ago. The modern day Pharaoh has many pyramids built in Swiss banks and who am I to know how tall! 

I too train my eye on the pyramids. The magical synchrony in the construction that shoots into the sky is mind boggling. But the thought that legions of people worked tirelessly for years to put something like this under the command of his majesty reveals about a certain age. Where there perhaps was an innocent air and a firm ‘knowledge’ of now complicated things like life, death and after life. 


Life must have been good. If after many thousands of years later, the pyramids not only firm stand but offer livelihood to thousands of people, well, they souls of the Pharaohs have continued to bless the place. So my mind thinks.  

“ 2500 years before the birth of Christ!” says the guide.  

He says, to make it amply clear that this isn’t another monument that some airbrushing on Photoshop can transform into a monumental piece of ‘heritage’ on a tourist brochure. “The only surviving wonder of the seven wonder of the ancient age fame” he adds. With a remarkable sense of satisfaction.  If you were slightly tipsy, you would think that he was taking credit for building them in the first place.   

‘Jesus Christ’ I say. In exclamation. 

The guide catches that. And says, ‘Yes. 2500 years before him” Looks at me and smiles. And adds “much before that expression”. 

20-20

These days I open Facebook with a mild trepidation thinking of all the stuff that show up on my social media timelines. Ranging from the inane to the insane. From the incredulous to the ridiculous. Very rarely is there something that is truly incredible. Stuff that people post that make me go back in there. Like this video below. 

A fascinating piece that the Films Division has released in 1967. A montage of people that were born on 15th Aug 1947. Something like a 20-20. They turned twenty when free India turned twenty. The visual collage weaves their hopes for the future and gives a snapshot of what it was to have lived in 1967! 

I have watched the video a few times over now and hope you would snatch 18 minutes of your time to do so, once!
Lodged firmly in it are the reckless confidence of youth. The seemingly unsurmountable challenges of then and how they continue to haunt us now. And in the twinkle in the eye you can almost see the promise that ‘the tomorrow’ held for them.  In the assertive confidence, pale quiver in the lips or in the obscure dream of making it in the future, I see the present day sitting and smiling too. 

Only now it is all in a HDMI supported colour with more jazz. How much has life changed for the ordinary man on the street? Tom Brokaw, in a commencement speech put it eloquently : “It will do us little good to wire the world if we short circuit our souls”
What will the tomorrow hold? How different will that be?  I wonder if we have let a promise slip by. More importantly I wonder what it will take to keep the promises we made to ourselves when we were younger! What will it take for the twenty somethings of today turnaround and say, we have moved on? 
Do give the video a dekho. The wheel of time spins with remarkable alacrity. As much as things change, the scale of stuff that remains the same is just incredible. A truly remarkable piece, I must say. 

An old gate opening a new Window : The Brandenburg Gate

a gate
 
Having come so near to the earlier post, its only fitting that I continue to linger a while longer. To what can possibly be called the Gate which threw up so many new windows to the world : The Brandenburg Gate. 
 
Please allow me to explain. 
 
Gates and arches often hold more history than mere architectural splendour. They catch a symbolic strain and colour the ground they stand on, in myriad ways.  A visit to the Brandenburg gate is de rigueur when one visits Berlin. (Or so I am told and would automatically believe now, given what I have experienced). It has truckloads of history, poignant appeal and a remarkable pageantry in the present day to complete a colourful ensemble. 
 
But, History first. Built in the late 17th century, the Brandenburg gate has stood as a gateway of sorts for victory and peace.  To date, the Quadriga atop the gate, representing the Goddess of Victory (or peace) on a four horse chariot is a fetching sight and provokes free thought. 
 
Years after it was built, Napoleon marched in, had his victory parade here and even took the Quadriga and the Goddess of Victory, all the way back to Paris!  In a few years, when the wheels of fortune turned, Napoleon was defeated and the Goddess with her four horses reclaimed their place.  
 
The Germans thought it fit to add, when they were reinstalling the Goddess of Victory atop her old perch, a new iron cross and the famed Prussian eagle to her lance.  That one addition to the Goddess of Victory, kind of gave her a German stamp! 
 

 

Of the six large columns that the Brandenburg gate has, passing through the inner most ones was reserved for the royal family. Common citizens could use the passages between the outer columns if they willed. The gate has seen sways in political powers after Napoleon too. Hitler rose. His Nazi party even adopted this as their symbol. The allies bombed. 
 
People died. Victors were defeated. And the defeated arose again. The gate just stood on. That very thought made me feel vulnerable. Days later, when I was thinking of the place and researching all the tales that it probably held in it, the internet threw up some pictures and videos. Some pictures like the ones below from the annals of history make what it is today, a far cry by many miles. Yet, it is remarkable that it continues to stand the way it does. 

 

 

 
 
The three pictures above are obviously not mine. I dont have rights over them. Showing them to here to make a point on how much the place has transformed.
 
Through later years, much of the cold war happened on either side. The Berlin wall ran very close to the gate and Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech of “Tear Down this wall” from somewhere close by.  
 
Theres a plaque on a footpath nearby, that everybody tramples on in their aimless saunter or vigil filled gaze of the gate. 

 

Enough of history. Lets cut to now. Every visiting leader and commoner comes to the gate to get a window into what was once, and what the ‘once’ is now! 

 

The transformation is gargantuan at many levels. First off, there is no traffic. No cars. No bikes. Only people on foot, and a few horse carriages. The sombre spectre of war, persecution and division, replaced by joy and a certain bouncy vibrancy in the mood. 

 

Just in case you wanted to see how the Soviet stamp on the passport was like, 
there was a man and a post to this too!
Right underneath the Brandenburg Gate a variety of perpetually alive fancy dress kind of stuff is on. Soldiers in uniform carrying flags of different countries play to the gallery.  It is a sight to see people have a good time in the name of a flag and under the covers of uniform. Uniform of the past, became sort of a fancy dress outfit for today.  And that singular thought held both the astonishing silliness of war and the beguiling hope for the future.  
 
It was sheer delight to watch the sense of humour. No one is “taking offense”  that some sensibilities are affected etc!  There are many ways to look at flags, nationalities, uniforms, symbols and the like. One way is to just look at them as artifacts and leave them at that.
 
There is so much happening at the Brandenburg Gate of such order that it completely eclipses the suffering, the separation and pain it has seen. People seem to be at ceaselessly working to turn all the sorrow that war and loss left behind in the quest for victory and supremacy.  Commerce, pluck and pageantry hold centrestage. 
 
The Goddess of Victory extends her steady gaze from atop.  I wanted to stop and just look at her intensely too and hoped my intensity will catch her attention and that she will entertain me in person with a story or two from a time that only history books and the internet bring alive

 

And then I looked at the people having fun. The horses neighed. Flags unfurled. Artists performed. Giggles of joy all around. I turned away from the Goddess of Victory. Some other time, the history bit, my heart tells her. For now, I was going to soak into the simple joys that people were having here.   

War and Peace

There were all kinds of moments in Berlin. A couple of poignant ones for this post.  Berlin packs enough and more of history in the most modern of settings that the contrasts are not just obvious but rather arrestingly present their friendly coexistence in every crevice and corner.
 
Somewhere close to the Branderburg Gate are two relatively small places ( read as ‘less opulent’) that held my attention and fetchingly sought my thinking going.
 
One was the “Neue Wache” or “The New Guard House”.  The twists and turns of time stood firmly etched in poignant detail here.  Think about this. A building starts out as a Guard House in the early 18thcentury and gets transformed into a war memorial in the 1930s. Going on to get bombed in World War II, surviving to see a revival and continue to serve as war memorials of some kind through the cold war era and now in the Unified Germany era as well.

 

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There are no guards there now.  Behind the huge pillars that welcome you well, I could imagine guards walking about. There are none of them now, but the iron in the gates could let you know how it was. For now, there sit a  statue of a Mother and her dead son by Kathe Kollwitz.  It is an impeccable work of art and if you stare at it for long enough and soak the wrinkle and the despondency of mother and son, and the uselessness of war will almost call out your name. 
 
In the middle of a large hall, the mother and son sit there and implore you to think. An opening right, a circular, and well done opening above them, shows the sky.  No glass. The statue has the sky as the ceiling. On the day I was there, a stream of light hit the statue with masterly elegance but then, it didn’t take me long to realise that the elegance of streaming light could stand replaced by the harshness of rain. Or snow, for that matter. 
 
And then I learnt that it was done to symbolise  the suffering commoners go through during times of war.  It couldn’t be more appropriate. 
 
The steady shuffle of the tourist footwear accompanied by incessant clicks of digital cameras and mobile phones didn’t for a minute cause the mother or her dead son to flinch. As people took pictures of themselves before the statue. A few of those perhaps would have made it Facebook or to other albums showing off a visit to Berlin!  
 
I would have preferred a trifle more of sombre. A moment in reflection.  Perhaps some silence even. But me and my preferences stood engulfed by the sepulchral mother and her dead son even as natural light continued to shower all its attention on them!
 
Speaking of silence, down the road, right under the noses of the horses of the God of victory, atop the Brandenburg Gate is the “Room of silence”. An incredible place of quiet.  In the thoroughfare of all the commercial cacophony that envelopes what was, until a few decades ago, a place of great history, stands this simple room. 

 

 
A room bereft of everything but a a couple of chairs, a large painting and a some amazing silence. Its website reads
 
“…provides an opportunity for everyone, independent of background, colour, ideology, religion and physical condition to enter and remain in silence for a while to simply relax, to gain strength for the daily life, or to remember inside this historic place the dark but also hopeful events, to meditate, to pray..”
 
I sat there for a while, noticing the number of people that came in and went out initially. But shortly, I didn’t notice anything beyond the peace that enveloped me. There were some details like the fact that the UN has a similar room like this in New York and Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary General of the United Nations had it built and used to get there often to just sit in silence, were consumed later. 
I don’t think of a better, bigger time than now, for this room to scream ‘silence’ down your ear drum.  Poignancy personified, in the most delightful and delicate of ways. Its a small room. But if you are in Berlin and standing under the Brandenburg Gate, well, this room can be missed easily. 
 
And so, watch out. Step in. And be still. For a while. It is helpful.