Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Stairways to Heaven

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The stunning Rani-Ki-Vav in Gujarat.

While I appreciate the  gift of modern plumbing my gratitude springs from the sheer comfort and convenience of luxuries such as turn-of-the-tap running water and flushing loos.  Beauty is not in the equation.  That wasn’t the story 1000 years ago when stepwells emerged to solve the water woes of India’s desert regions, particularly in Rajastan and Gujarat. No holes in the ground to catch the run off, these stepwells brought glory to their financiers, builders and deities through architectural, engineering and artistic brilliance. Many must have taken years and an army of workers and craftsmen to construct.

IMG_6067 2 The exquisite beauty emerging from centuries of Saraswati River silt.  

Intricate carving decorating the Rani-Ki-Vav

Stepwells –  baori in Hindi and Vav in Gujarati – are unique to the Indian subcontinent. While their primary role was to bring a reliable supply of water to people and animals, the vital life-sustaining properties of water also gave them an important function in the performance of rites and rituals. In Hindu mythology water has a special significance as a boundary between the subterranean, celestial and earthly worlds bestowing the wells with religious significance. Hence their intricate and exquisite artistry.

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Early morning ablutions at the ghat – the inspiration for stepwells. 

Apart from being structures of great beauty the wells were supremely engineered with stone steps in elaborate geometric patterns leading visitors down many levels to the waters edge. The designers drew their inspiration from the structure of ghats – long, shallow stairs and landings along muddy river banks – which allowed locals and trade route travellers to access the water for clothes washing, bathing and religious purposes. The wells were often built within proximity to temples emphasising their spiritual importance.

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Chand Baori in Abhaneri.

Serendipity perhaps, but an Indian travel blogger I follow recently wrote a post devoted to step wells. She was curious, given their beauty and historical status, why so many were in bad states of crumbling decay, full of rubbish and stagnant water. Her research suggested they fell into disrepair during the British Raj because the colonisers regarded them as health hazards and potential sources of infection. So most stepwells, including some we visited, harbour ponds of green, murky liquid floating with discarded carton, plastic bags and assorted detritus.

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Elaborate Sun Temple complex, Modhera, Gujarat, built in 1026. Don’t drink the water!

But all is not lost. The Rani-ki-Vav in Patan in Gujarat, built in the 11 Century for the widowed Queen of Bhimdev in memory of her husband, on the banks of the Saraswati River, was World Heritage listed in 2014 and last year won the title as India’s cleanest iconic place. The extent and beauty of the well was revealed by Archeological Survey of India excavations from the 1960s after being submerged for centuries, the victim of monsoonal mountains of silt which had washed down the river. Another of the Bhimdev dynasty’s stepwells is found at Modhera, also in Gujarat, as part of an elaborate Sun Temple complex built in 1026AD.

The earliest stepwells date to about 550 AD, with over 3000 in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The town of Bundi, roughly midway between Udaipur and Jaipur, alone has over 50. Although many wells have fallen into disrepair, and are boarded off, hundreds remain. We saw examples of various sizes and intricacy, and states of repair, sadly many beyond redemption. Others are in the hands of the archeologists, the Chand Baori in Abhaneri in Rajasthan one of the most impressive and visually spectacular.  A deep, four-sided structure with an commanding temple on one face, its walls step down 13 stories to a depth of over 30 metres. The well and an adjoining temple, dedicated to Hashat Mata, the Goddess of Joy and Happiness, date back to the 10th century.  Both the well and temple have broken sculptures marked and ready to be returned to former glories, a treat in store for both the people of India and overseas travellers to the sub-continent.  Let’s hope the end results could match the description of a stepwell visited by mid-19th Century French world traveller Louis Rousselet: “….water covered with lotuses in flower, amid which thousands of aquatic birds are sporting”.

Stone sculptures waiting for restoration, Chand Baori 

 

 

 

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It’s a wrap

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That big fashion “thing”, zhuzhing a scarf  with panache, has never been my forte.  But having the right touch adjusting a scarf is nothing compared to the artistry of turban tying, a practice executed with ease routinely by millions of Indian men.

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Some of the turban styles found in Gujarat. 

Made from the simplest cottons to the richest brocaded and bejewelled silks, from plain colours to the most dazzling of patterns and hues, turbans can be of religious significance, or reflect identity, origin, status, or culture. Different regions have their own style. In Rajasthan they feature a little peak at the front and a long “tail” at the back. A sheep-herder’s headwear obviously differs markedly from that of a mararajah. Turban colours can signify a purpose: saffron, the colour of bravery, might be worn at a rally; pink signifies spring; navy blue war and service. For the Sikhs the turban has religious significance. While turbans are worn almost exclusively by men, Sikh women can wear them too. IMG_5577

The Royal Palace in Gondal opens a window into the splendour of earlier regal times with fascinating collections including a sumptuous display of turbans from across India’s many former territorial regions. Of particular interest is a replica of the luxuriant headwear of the builder of the magnificent Taj Mahal, renowned Mogul Emperor Shah Jehan, who reigned from 1627 to 1658. As befits such an exalted figure the richly brocaded piece drips with pearls and precious stones.

On our travels through Gujarat we were fortunate to have the cultural services of the delightful Durga Singh-ji, a Thakur, or nobleman in his native Rajasthan. He lamented the gradual loss of the art of turban tying in modern-day India but showed us that he had lost none of his expertise, masterfully twisting and twirling some seven meters of sunny orange and yellow patterned fabric into the top-knot and tailed Rajasthan style. Durga-ji explained that in earlier times some nine metres of fabric would be used, usually beautiful quality cotton, georgette or silk. In the past, for the everyday turban-wearer, the elaborate headpiece was almost like a best friend: it protected from the sun and wind; if the wearer was lost his colourful headpiece made him easy to spot; it could be rolled up into a pillow at night; or could be used as a fly or mosquito  net; a flick over the face would render the wearer incognito; all that fabric was a perfect rope to pull water from a well in dry times; for those wounded in battle it was a bandage; and in a fight it protected like a helmet.

Three cheers for the turban!

 


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Change agent

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The revered Mahatma in peaceful contemplation on the lawns at Sabarmati Ashram. 

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An ashram visitor takes a leaf out of his guru’s book.

It’s not surprising that one of the most serene places in Ahmedabad is the ashram founded by the revered Mohandas Gandhi – the Mahatama (Great Soul) or Bapu (Father). In contrast to the outside hustle and bustle, colour and commotion, the ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River opens to green lawns, sandy quadrangles, low-slung, simple, airy bungalows and shady trees. Visitors stroll at ease around the grounds and museum, taking in the so-familiar images and props of the Mahatma – his walking staff, spinning wheel and displays illuminating his innumerable familiar exhortations captured in handwriting and print.

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Bapu’s famous staff and spinning wheel. 

 

Gandhi’s desk; the view from the window.

Mohandas Gandhi was a native Gujurati, born to a middle class family. He studied law in the United Kingdom, returned to India a qualified barrister then was offered a job in South Africa. The racial prejudice he encountered in South Africa spurred him not only to return to India but develop his philosophies. Prime among these was the removal of the British from India and the non-violent methods by which this might be achieved. The peaceful atmosphere of Sabarmati Ashram, established on 17 June 1918 – 100 years ago last weekend –  was the perfect place to contemplate peaceful pathways to change. The venerated Father of the Nation and his wife Kasturba stayed at Sabarmati Ashram for over a decade. It was from here that he began his famous march across India, defied the salt tax and urged his countrymen to spin their own simple “khadi” cloth to sideline the need for British  manufactured textiles.

 

India gained its independence from Britain in August 1947 but, within a year, the beloved Gandhi was dead, cruelly assassinated by a Hindu devotee who was wrongly convinced that the Mahatma was to blame for the partition of the new nation into (roughly) Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan. Relations between the neighbours – and once peaceful co-inhabiters of the one country – have grown increasingly hostile with each passing decade. Hardly the kind of change that Gandhi had envisaged.

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Words of the Guru. 

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Ashram signage (left); Gandhi’s signature in numerous languages.


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The city that Ahmed built

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Ahmed Shah I tomb.

The locale suffix abad attaches itself to cities across Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent. It’s a strong reminder of the influence that the ancient superpower of Persia had on its neighbours. -Abad derives from the Persian meaning “cultivated place” and, according to that go-to source Wikipedia, commonly is added to the name of a city’s founder or patron. Such is the case with the old capital, and largest city, of Gujarat State, Ahmedabad. Or Amdavad as it’s known in the local dialect. The suffix emphasises an essential aspect of Ahmedabad’s personality:  it’s Moghul and Muslim roots.

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Ahmed Shah I Mosque. 

Ahmedabad was established in 1411 by an early Muzaffarid Sultan of Gujarat, Ahmed Shah I. He chose a site along the banks of the impressive Sabarmati River which begins life in the hills of Rajasthan then meanders across Gujarat for about 400 kms, feeding on monsoon waters until it reaches the Arabian Gulf. He named the city for himself,  his spiritual advisor, and two other worthy Ahmeds of his acquaintance. During the almost-200-year Muzaffarid reign, Ahmedabad blossomed into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, graced with a distinctive architectural style encouraged by the sultans that blended Islamic elements with Gujarat’s indigenous Hindu and Jain traditions. Gujarat’s Islamic style was the forerunner of  elements found in Mughal architecture including ornate mihrabs and minarets, perforated screens  of carved stone and cupola-topped pavilions. Many centuries later the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad were to become the site of one of the Mahatma Gandhi’s ashrams.

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Ahmedabad’s elegant Stock Exchange, India’s second oldest. 

Ahmedabad assumed  the capital mantle of Gujarat State when the new nation of India was created in 1948. Then in 1970 the honours went to Gandinagar further up the Sabarmati, though the High Court remained in Ahmedabad.  But significant immovable reminders remain including Ahmed Shah’s mosque, built in 1414, the oldest in the city, and his tomb.  The latter also houses the tombs of his son, Muhammed Shah II and grandson Qutub-ud-din.

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From little things…… Ahmedabad is now a city of over 7 million and makes it onto lists of the 20 fastest-growing cities in the world. Being close to Mumbai, the old Bombay, the city benefitted from its early commercial significance. The decorative Stock Exchange, built in the mid-1800s, is India’s second oldest. As India’s sixth largest city it is an important industrial and economic hub, houses many educational and research institutions, and flourishing heavy and chemical industries. The name Adani, as instantly recognised in Ahmedabad as Australia, has its corporate headquarters there.

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For all its bustling modernity one of the most charming parts of Ahmedabad is Ahmed Shah’s old city.  Tourists happily avail themselves of early-morning walks around the area before the tumult of the day overtakes. Reminders of an ornate and more elegant past can be gleaned from the tumble-down backstreets where the influence of British architecture also survives. Happily, as in other cities around the world, past beauty is being restored in many places.

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Young Jain nuns going to early morning devotions. 

Beautiful Jain temple.

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Completely cowed

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It’s old news that cows get a pretty good deal in India. The term “sacred cow” is a living reality there but seeing the reality is truly believing. To mix metaphors cows are  top dog in India. They casually stroll across two-lane national tollways, move in with their owners in family compounds, are garlanded and bejewelled, pick the best spots in the middle of the road for their afternoon nap (there are fewer flies in the middle of the road), and even have charities at their beck and call across the country.  Talk about bovine bliss!

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Hardworking beasts. 

The cow’s revered place in Indian culture reflects its centrality to traditional life. It is a source of labour; transportation; provides milk for drinking and for making cream, cheese, butter, yoghurt and ghee; dung for fertiliser, fuel, building material, insect repellant and disinfectant; and in the Ayuvedic medicinal system cow urine has many applications. The cow’s gentle nature is said to create a maternal image inspiring affection. Soulful eyes are a definite plus. The combination has given the cow special standing in the Hindu religion leading to its protected status. Best of all for cows Hindus don’t eat beef  and the slaughter of the beasts is prohibited in 24 out of 29 states. Not that that provides complete protection. Beef ends up on many dinner plates and India is a significant exporter of beef. Maybe the male of the species is the one feeling the heat?

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Cow pats lined up and drying in the sun.

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This won’t go to waste!

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Early morning at the cow charity.

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Earning cow charity brownie points. 

So bovines enjoy a charmed existence until they grow old, infirm and beyond use when some crafty owners set them loose around markets or other public places. Even then society comes to the rescue through cow charities, or gaushalas, where they’re fed and cared for. The devout can score good points through donating to the charities or playing their part in caring for the animals. Or by giving safe passage to the many itinerant beasts which meander blissfully across the roads and highways. Sadly, a rise in militant Hinduism is resulting in the murder  of those accused of eating beef or killing cattle. Surely time to remember Mother Cow’s reputation for gentleness.

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No flies on these cows. 

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Move over cars!

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Decorative bird feeder – and cows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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No stone unturned

An ’80s’ movie etched in my memory is Costa-Gavras’ chilling Missing, the story of an American family’s search for their journalist son who had disappeared in post-coup Chile. The 1973 toppling of Chile’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, ushered in an era of bloody repression under the CIA-backed military dictator General Augusto Pinochet.  The Palme D’Or-winning Missing centred on the search for left-leaning reporter Charles Horman by his businessman father Ed, played by the legendary Jack Lemmon, and Charles’ wife, played by Sissy Spacek. Ed at first blames his son but slowly discovers the complicity of the American Government. The Chile coup shocked many Australians, maybe because Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party had recently won office after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party Government rule.

Three years later Argentina suffered the same fate as its western neighbour when a military junta ousted Isabel Peron. Argentinians woke up to find their parents, sons, daughters, husbands, wives – everyday men and women – “disappeared”. These commonplace tragedies are given ongoing focus as now-grandparents continue to search for missing grandchildren, many of whom have ethereal status without a confirmed existence. I have just put down the gripping 2016 novel The Memory Stones by Australian journalist-turned-author Caroline Brothers, a fictionalised telling of one such generational search. Brothers worked as a foreign correspondent for media organisations such as the  International Herald Tribune, including stints in Mexico and Central America. She told an Avid Reader gathering last year she chose a fictionalised format for Memory Stones because the non-fiction version had “already been told” through extensive reports over decades in the foreign media.

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The choice of style was effective: fiction allowed the creation of characters who brought life to the events of the period and allowed the reader to suffer the anguish of all those who experienced devastating loss, through disappearance and death.  It’s estimated that between 1976 and 1983 up to 30,000 Argentinians vanished or were known to have been killed. The book also brings life to the courage, tenacity and ingenuity of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo –  the Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo – which still works relentlessly to find the the babies born to “disappeared” or executed young mothers and adopted out to junta officials. The abuelas’ efforts have recovered 122 grandchildren, seen 1000 of the dictatorship’s torturers tried and 700 sentenced.  No stone unturned indeed.


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The classic touch

For 15 years I’ve been an enthusiastic subscriber to the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Masterfully lead by the energetic and creative Richard Tognetti the ACO captivates with its eclecticism and daring scope.  While performing under an Australian flag Tognetti has brought together a virtual united nations of performers with orchestra members hailing from French Canada, Japan, Finland, Ukraine, Slovania, Singapore and Romania. Tognetti is not your average chamber orchestra director and conductor, roles he has played at the ACO since his 20s. Still youthful at 52, and until recently sporting a trendy brush-up hairstyle, the world-acclaimed musician likes to take his followers on musical “magical mystery tours”.

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Concert-goers know to always expect the unexpected. During my  time I’ve experienced a full-screen movie of the keen surfer’s wave-hunting expedition to remote Western Australia with the orchestra performing the Tognetti-composed score live; a collaboration with Whitlams lead singer and keyboardist Tim Freedman; an evening of Bell Shakespeare Company readings with ACO accompaniment; and a Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret evening with the world-famous comedian joined by award-winning performer Meow Meow. Tognetti, with or without the full orchestra, is just as happy performing in ski village clubhouses in Hokkaido, and small outdoor sound shells in rural Australia, as the Sydney Opera House or grand concert halls in world capitals.

But for the ACO’s concert at QPAC concert hall last week it was a return to the classics, a sublime evening of Bach violin concertos rounded off with a Haydn symphony. For the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major, Tognetti was joined by long-serving and accomplished lead violinists Helena Rathbone and Satu Vanska. Then they were joined by Vanska’s Finnish countryman Timo-Veikke Valvo for a solo performance of the Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 4. No wonder the ACO is often referred to as an ensemble of soloists. Which is exactly what the orchestra’s next national tour is titled – ACO Soloists.