global travel shot: champaner, a 500-year-old indo-saracenic poem in stone

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“Look up, at the ceiling.” I am broken from my reverie, as I drift through a forest of 172 stone pillars, by my guide Manoj’s voice prodding me to halt in my tracks and raise my eyes, heavenwards.

High up, inside a dome above the main mihrab is the most exquisitely carved sculpture I have seen to date. And I find myself gasping in awe. Is this for real? I am not too sure what stuns me more. Its immense size, the fineness of the swirling leaves, or its incongruous placement—I am in a 500-year-old mosque in Champaner, and the sculpture is Hindu-Jain in style and content.

For those new to the eclectic mix of religion and spirituality which makes up India, Jainism, along with Hinduism and Buddhism, is one of the major religions which developed in ancient India.

Built in 1484 by the Sultan of Gujarat, Mahmud Begada, and abandoned in 1535 with the advent of the Mughals, the medieval city of Champaner [Mahmud called it Muhammadabad] is one of India’s finest representations of this eclectic mix. A mix, however, created more by accident rather than any calculated design to propagate secularism.

So how did this happen? Whilst the orders for the mosque’s construction came from a foreign Muslim ruler [the Gujarat Sultans were of Turkish descent], the masons, sculptors and artisans who gave shape to his architectural vision were indigenous Hindus and Jains. The latter, familiar only with their own art, used their personal artistic sensibilities to embellish the structures. The result is a unique style typical to Champaner, later imitated by the British Raj under the name “Indo-Saracenic.” Hence, we have domes and minarets decorated with swastikas and diyas.

The deserted city is now, together with the nearby Pavagadh hill, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its prized centrepiece, Jami Mosque, once the main public mosque crumbles around me under the withering sun, suspended in time, whilst a couple of baboons shriek out at me for trespassing into their home.

With much difficulty, I tear myself away, this time taking a piece of a Hindu-Jain heaven in an Islamic place of worship back with me, promising myself I will blog about it for another kind of posterity. ❤

global travel shot: a sweetmeat shop owner’s gift to pune

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Welcome to my Pune series.

I decided to start my collection of posts on Mumbai’s less glamorous neighbour with the story of the above deity, Dagdusheth [Halwai] Ganpati. It reflects, perhaps most aptly, the depth of Pune’s cultural heritage in its seemingly commonplace everyday places—a heritage which is felt many times over at a pan-national level. Don’t believe me? Read on. 🙂

At first glance the effigy appears to be merely an oversized kindly Ganpati, Maharasthra’s most loved god, and the remover of obstacles. Covered in 8 kilograms of gold, and insured to the tune of US$150,000, the Ganpati is a devotee’s gift to the city and birthplace of the annual Ganeshotsav [Ganesh festival]. Continue reading

global travel shot: my best friend sends her season’s greetings

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Did you have a good year? Was it placid and calm or one roller coaster ride? No matter which, it helps to have a friend to talk to. One you can unburden yourself to, without the “I told you so” or a bunch of preaching.

The lady above has been my closest friend since I moved to Mumbai. I have gone to her with tears rolling down my eyes, bursting at the seams with anger, and starry eyed, in love with every colour and nuance of life. I have had conversations with her where I have poured my heart out or just sat in stony silence, confused to the core with life’s mysterious incongruous ways. And at the end, before I left, I’ve looked at her face, and whispered “Thank you.” Thank you for listening and giving me whatever she felt was best for me.

To a non-believer she is merely a wooden statue of Mother Mary in The Basilica of Our Lady of The Mount, brought all the way from Portugal to Bombay in the 16th Century. To a believer she has miraculous healing powers. Continue reading

global travel shot: remembering german nazi auschwitz, 70 years on

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When the bus dropped me off at Auschwitz II–Birkenau—a former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp on the outskirts of Krakow in Poland—on a summer day in 2012, I was not sure what to expect.

I was no stranger to scenes of debased humanity, having wandered through the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and explored the corridors of Robben Island in South Africa. I knew I would see pain, suffering, and the manifestation of an absolute ruthless version of humankind. But to what extent and how it was mourned 70 years on in Auschwitz II–Birkenau gave me both the jitters and hope. It still does. Continue reading

global travel shot: the unknown 5th century shiva saptamurti in parel

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You may well say, Aah, I have seen this sculpture before. That is, if you are a museum buff. Wrong.

Allow me to make a confession. I often find myself torn between awe at the cultural treasures with which India bursts at its seams with, and angry at the apathy, neglect and state of degradation in which many lie. I know I am not alone in this conflict.

Exactly a year ago I visited the sculpture gallery at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India. Like very many others, I fell in love with one piece. Continue reading

global travel shot: self portrait, persepolis

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Thought I would do a self-portrait for a change. 🙂 The above picture, hence, is of me in Persepolis, Iran. Continue reading