Monday, November 30, 2020

Life takes a Full Circle


During the current pandemic, I realized that life has gone a full circle. So much has been redefined and so many things which we once mocked at, have become a new normal. In the current scenario what was once a forte of the IT and telecom world of working from home has become a standard practice almost everywhere except in situations where human interaction is a must. A few things which have once again silently crept back in our lives without our overt realization are worth a mention.

As a small kid, I remember when I visited Mathura the life would suddenly change. From the busy city schedule, it was a welcome change. After stepping out at the railway station from a steam engine- driven train, a ride in a rickshaw or a horse cart(tonga) was at a leisurely pace of life.  I arrived at my grandfather's place where so many aunts, uncles, and their children, all lived together. There was a  great grandmother who had an arched back and would go to the river Yamuna early in the morning for a bath. On her return some of my cousins would deliberately touch her, sending her in a rage. She would shout at them as she had been defiled by the touch and she would return to the river for taking a dip once again,  I notice a similar paranoia among even the elite these days who wash their hands several times a day, take bath more than once in a day and avoid any physical touch especially with unfamiliar people. As kids, we were not allowed to enter the kitchen in footwear and one had to leave all the footwear outside. Once inside the kitchen, no one was allowed to touch the food unless the hands were clean. This practice has returned once again and most people wash their hands before they touch the food.  Even the restaurants, fast food delivery chains and so much so even the e-commerce are portals are making a contactless delivery. 

Everywhere we went, the standard form of greeting was folding the hands and wishing a ' Namaste'. Our much-developed world and even those countries where hugging and shaking hands is a standard practice have adopted the humble ' Namaste' now. Most homes have learnt about home-cooked food and making do with just bare essentials during the current crisis. Over-dependence on domestic help has reduced significantly and most people have got accustomed to perform the domestic chores by themselves.

Whenever we fell sick, the first treatment was a hot water gargle, taking tea with basil and ginger and having a cup of steaming hot 'Kada' prepared with aniseed, ginger, cloves, black pepper and a pinch of sugar or gur, Within two to three days the ailments were bid adieu. The cycle of life has brought back the efficacy of this humble 'Kada' and even the 'Arogya Setu'(app developed by the government) has approved this to boost immunity.

The initiative of promoting the e-banking for the financially challenged masses has proved to be a boon. People have got used to making transactions using the apps and smartphones have provided a ' Midas touch'. Even children are taking their classes via the internet.

The beauty of human interactions has become a casualty but with every challenge comes learning. The urge for rushing out, eating outside and shopping by the upper-middle class has become the biggest casualty. At the same time families have got an opportunity to be together and learn to create a balance of work-life and homelife. One hopes that the dust would settle soon and life would go back on the rails soon. There is always hope and with every patient recovering from this dreaded pandemic the light at the end of the dark tunnel can be seen.

PS: Cartoon kind courtesy Google

Monday, November 9, 2020

A Whiff of Diwali


The festival of lights is just around the corner. No matter what, it is the time of year when one wants to break free from routine and indulge in some fun and merry-making. The times have changed and so have the ways of celebration. In the older times, it was mostly a simple affair though the festivities lasted longer. It would not be incorrect to draw a comparison of a five-day Cricket test match vis a vis a one day limited over- game as in present times. The festivities would commence from Dhanteras, followed with Narkachaturdesi or Chotti Diwali, the grand d-day Diwali, Bhai Duj and culminating with Goverdhan Puja. Depending on the region where one lives in the country, it may get extended to Chaat- Puja in Bihar, Kali puja in East India, Narkachaturdasi in South India and several variations.  

As small kids, the Dusshera festival used to set us in the mood of celebration for Diwali which was still twenty days away. Lighting crackers now and then, eating endless sweets mostly prepared at home, getting new clothes stitched, assisting in cleaning the house and helping the parents in petty errands kept us busy. In those times getting new clothes was looked forward to as we would get them only on our birthday, or on Diwali/ Holi or maybe on close family weddings. As we grew a bit older, a visit to Paharganj in Delhi became a ritual to buy the ingredients for making our own 'Anar'( the sparkler to be lit up on Diwali night). We would buy small lights from the Bhaigirath Palace in Chandni Chowk to make our own electric string lights. It was a tedious job but the excitement never diminished. After invariably getting a few electric shocks while testing the lights, they would finally light up the house and the balcony or verandah. Sometimes we would be running with a phase tester even at the eleventh hour to fix a defaulting string that would misbehave when least expected. We would also decorate the house with buntings and ' Kandeels'( Wooden decorative lanterns) built with a lot of effort using cardboard, glazed paper and bamboo sticks. In between, we would stare at mom who would prepare, Gujias, Besan Barfi, Kachoris, Dal Samosas, Mathri, Besan Sev, Fried Chana Dal, Gur Paras and many more things at home, while my father assisted. We never purchased sweets from outside, a tradition which my wife and I carried on many years later. In the evening on the Diwali day, a puja with silver coin having an image of goddess Laxmi would be used to offer, milk, curd, puffed rice( Kheel), sugar candy(Batasha). We would then be given some money as a blessing by our parents or grandparents followed with a round of touching the feet of elders. This would be followed by lighting the house with candles and earthen diyas. The sweets would be shared with friends and relatives with gusto. I remember waiting eagerly for the steaming idlis, sambar, chutney, Mysore Pak and other delicacies from our neighbours hailing from Chennai, on the morning of Narkachaturdasi and  Luchis, Aloo Dum and Chana Dal from the Bengali neighbour's post-Kali Puja. They were times with innocent fun. I remember just after my marriage my wife went to give sweets to our neighbours and they, in turn, brought a tray full of sweets to offer to her. She picked up the whole tray and the face of the lady turned ashen realizing that the entire tray would be gone! After my marriage when I was posted out of Delhi while serving the Navy, the tradition of making homemade sweets and savouries was carried out by my wife and often exceeded the varieties I had been eating when I was single! 

On the day of Bhai Duj all cousins, uncle and aunts would assemble at my Bua's place where Bhai Duj and Goverdahan Puja were celebrated on the same day. There would be more than fifty-six types of food ( Chappan Bhog) offered to the lord during the puja in which everyone participated. The food indulgence used to peak on this day with the possibility of missing out on tasting some variety even if one took just a spoon full of all that was laid out. This was the norm every year till my Bua left for the USA to stay with her own children who had settled there. 

Over the years a sea change has occurred and I see families spending many times more than what we could ever imagine. Eating in classy restaurants, endless buying of clothes, and commercial goods from the well-stocked malls, supermarkets, and web portals are the new norm. Very little time is spent in the rituals and pujas and like a twenty-twenty Cricket match, the curtain comes down only to announce the next sale due to commence for oncoming Christmas! As the world has become a global village, chocolates, exotic foods, branded clothes, cars and jewellery have taken the stage. As for everything else in life, 'change is the only constant', so is it for Diwali celebrations and enjoying these in the same manner as simplicity of the yesteryears.

PS All pics are mine

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Great Walls of Dubrovnik

Most of the old Indian cities were built around fortifications like Agra, Gwalior, Old Delhi, to name just a few. The fortifications are always sights that fill us in awe. From childhood times these sights would bring endless joys. Just before the outbreak of Covid early this year, I was fortunate to visit Dubrovnik, the capital of Croatia. It was dusk and the sun was setting when we were headed in the direction of the city from the airport. It was an unforgettable moment to come racing down the hill for miles to vast panoramic views of the Adriatic Sea and a cluster of shimmering lights atop the walls of a huge city. As we approached closer, the huge imposing walls looked even more majestic.

The intact city walls were constructed during 12-17 centuries mostly a double line. This timeless beauty is the price of Dubrovnik. The walls run for approximately length, almost uninterrupted. In 1979 this structure joined the coveted list of 'UNESCO World Heritage Sites'.

These walls have a very interesting history. The first limestone structures began in the Middle Ages around the 8th century. The strength of these walls went the test of time and the ravages of war starting from the 9th century when the city managed to survive a bitter war lasting 15 months. The city spread towards the uninhabited eastern part, near the St John's fortress, called Pustijerna. The Latin name 'Pustijerna' means'outside the town'. The whole city was entirely enclosed in the 13th century, except the Dominican monastery.

The city walls have been preserved by the skilled constructors who have maintained these walls befitting their glorious past. Starting from the earliest times these walls have seen invasions by Turks, Venetians and Ottoman Empire.

The parallelogram like structure of the walls has four strong fortresses. Towards the north is the circular Minceta Tower, and towards the east in the proximity of the port is the Revelin Fortress. The western city entrance is protected by Fort Bokar and the St Lawrence Fortress(also called the Lovrijenac). A large complex St John's fortress lies on the southeastern side. In most places, the walls are almost 20 feet thick and about 80 feet high.

The town has four city gates of which two lead to the harbour and the other two towards the mainland. The Pile Gates are towards the main entrance to the Old Town, The Gothic arches make this construction very appealing. Gate of Ploce on the eastern side is near the Revelin fortress, The Gate of Buza is on the northern side and is relatively new construction. The Sea Walls as the name suggests helped to defend the city from the sea attacks.

A visit to Dubrovnik is incomplete without a walk around the periphery of the wall. The walk takes almost two hours to go around and can get easily extended if one indulges in admiring the scenic beauty. The recent wars that have caused the destruction  of some of the structures can be seen as scars marring the beauty of the place. Without a doubt, Dubrovnik is a 'Pearl of the Adriatic'
PS: All pics are mine

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Breathtaking Galleria Borghese

David by Bernini

 Every place is endowed with beauty that makes it unique. While flipping through some old collection of photographs I stumbled upon my visit to  Galleria Borghese in Rome three years back. Italy is a unique country that has more than its share of natural beauty, treats of food and desserts, art and so much more. It would not be incorrect to state that ' God has been overly kind to Italians to bless them with bounties that a few can compare'. Every city and corner resonates with a unique collection of art where one can spend hours without realizing how the time has flown. 

Danae by Correggio
Galleria Borghese is housed in a villa with very beautiful gardens which are a separate tourist attraction. It has a huge private collection of art and paintings begun by Cardinal Borghese who was a nephew of Pope Paul V ( who reigned from 1605-1621). The design sketches of this regal vista were sketched by Borghese himself and brought to life by an architect Flaminio Ponzio on the outskirts of Rome. The striking beauty and the grandeur of the place are very striking. The entire property was sold off to the Italian government in 1902 and has been preserved well. The entry to this place has a steep ticket and needs to be booked in advance with an entry restricted for just one hour to see the place, such is the rush!

The galleria has 20 rooms spread over two floors that house some of the rarest visual treats created by the likes of Bernini, Caravaggio, Canova and Raphael.The classic  portrayal of baroque sculpture and collections is jaw dropping. Gian Lorenzo Bernini  the most renknowned sculptor is what Shakespeare is to literature. His most important creations can be found here in this gallery besides in Florence,  The Vatican and museums spread as far as  New York, Los Angeles. Among the most important works on the display are 'Aeneas,Anchises, and Ascanius'. The Rape of Prosperina', 'Apollo and Daphne' and 'David'. According to Rudolf Wittkover an eminent art historian, these creations ushered in a new era in the European sculpture.

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius by Bernini

Aeneas,Anchises, and Ascanius depicts a group showing three generations of Aeneas family. The young man holding the older man on his shoulder is Aeneas, who is gazing down with strong determination.

The Rape of Prosperina by Berninby Bernini

The Rape of Prosperina on the other hand depicts the abduction of Prosperina by the god Pluto to the underworld. Bernini had achieved via carving in marble the soft texture of the skin, the flying robes of hair and the tears in eyes of Prosperina, flawlessly. This was created when Bernini was just 23 year old.

Apollo and Daphane by Bernini

The other creations of Bernini like David and Apollo and Daphne have amazing stories behind these creations

Pauline Bonaparte by Canova

Pauline Bonaparte the sister of legendary Napolean Bonaparte and her unmatched beauty also finds place here as a creation of Antonio Canova.

Madonna and Child by Bellini

Among other major works of art that feature in this museum are 'St John the Baptist'  and 'Madonna, child and the serpent' both by Carvaggio,'The Last Supper'by Bassano and creations of Bellini and Ruebens.

Sussana and the elders by Peter Paul Reubens

There are such beautiful pieces of art and the same have been kept in places especially created to enhance their beauty. Suffice to say the collections is able to leave a feeling of 'asking for more' and the time runs out. The added attractions to the museum are the beautiful gardens and 'The Gallery of Modern Art which are adjacent to this gallery. Do not forget to add this lovely gallery to your itinerary if you are visiting Rome

PS- All pics are mine

Monday, October 5, 2020

A Unique Cat Museum

The friendly cats enjoyng sunshine in Kotor

Sounds funny, but there exists one 'Cat Museum'. This was an accidental discovery when exploring the old town of Kotor in Montenegro just before the outbreak of pandemic in March this year! The town of Kotor has always had a fascination for these furry, feline creatures. While going around the town we came across dozens of cats who seemed to be loved by all. This love for the creatures reached a level of obsession and that resulted in the opening of this strange museum as an ode to the cats in 2013. 

The Cat Museum

The history of the museum, though a recent addition is quite fascinating. The International Cats Adoption Centre based in Venice received a huge donation and a large collection of exhibits from Italian Countess Francesca di Montereale Mantica. The Venetians had no hesitation to choose Kotor as the perfect choice to set up the museum for cats, being once a stronghold of Italy and their love for cats.

A number of enticing pictures of cats in almost human form adorn the walls of this museum and 'no live cats ' are in the museum. There are several medals, portraits of people with their beloved cats, antiques, posters and stamps depicting these feline creatures.

Entrance to Cat Museum- Kotor

'A cat has seven lives' is well depicted in certain situations on the walls of this museum where these creatures seem to be getting into trouble and coming out of the same in road accidents , hiticing a ride over a dog and swimming out of rivers in spate.

There are shops in the vicinity that sell cat food for the lovers to feed several of these' purry friends' that stroll fearlessly on the streets of Stari Grad, where the museum is located. 

The experience of visiting the old town of Kotor and its lively 'Cat Museum' is unique. One can carry the fridge magnets or stamps portraying the cats as a reminder of their visit and join the league of likes of Vladimir Putin who is featured in musem with a cat! 

PS- All pics are mine

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Untold Story of Dunkirque

The hourglass that symbolizes the passage of time is also an indicator of reversal of fortunes when turned upside down. I never realized this harsh reality until I stood before a huge hourglass on a cold winter morning. I stood outside the entrance to a very unique museum at Dunkirque, a very small town on the French coast of the English Channel. I had arrived in the town just a few hours back and the freezing winds across the channel greeted me.

As a small child, I was fascinated with war movies and stories of action. I had read a number of books with stories of bravery of Maharana Pratap, Rani Jhansi to the Joan of Arc and many more in my growing up years. Never did I imagine that one day, I will be able to see a place where a major operation was launched to rescue the Allied Forces pittecd against the German forces who had invaded France, the Netherlands and Belgium during the Second World War. The place was Dunkirk, where almost 350000 troops of the Allied forces comprising armed soldiers of the British, French and some other allied partners faced a certain defeat or the possibility of capture as a prisoner of war by the strong German troops of Hilter. It was during  26 May- 10 Jun 1940, when the Germans lay siege around the town.  The situation for the allied forces was akin to facing the devil( German Forces) and the deep sea ( English Channel) on the other side. 

The brilliant strategy of aligning almost 1500 ships and boats to ferry the trapped Allied Forces across the Engish Channel conceived by Sir Winston Churchill not only proved a turning point by saving the troops from jaws of death but went down the history as the biggest known evacuation to date. As enough warships were not available, pleasure boats  and very small vessels owned by the Britishers and French were extensively used to ferry the stranded soldiers.

The Dunkirk War Musem or the Operation Dynamo museum is one of its kind and has been created and preserved ever since at the very spot called the Bastion 32, where the battle was fought and the evacuation carried out. The well-preserved pictures, the armaments, uniforms and replicas recreate the history as it happened. Some of the cars, bicycles, medicines, that were used during the operation have been preserved. The scenes of the mass exodus of the civilians that followed in the wake of the military operation code-named 'Operation Dynamo' have been recreated highlighting the horrors faced by the fleeing populace. A chill goes down the spine to see the pictures of uneaten food lying on the tables and small children strapped on the back of their mothers escaping the war-torn zone. The other pictures of the razed town of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the unrelenting attacks by the German Luftwaffe aircraft, the remains of trucks, and tanks depict the horrors of war.

Thanks to Operation Dynamo that 221504 British, 122000 French and 16000 Belgian soldiers were evacuated in the two weeks and almost 40000 Allied troops were captured near Lille on 4June 1940 by the German troops. The entire operation was fraught with danger from the very start and almost 240 vessels including three destroyers of the Allied forces were sunk during the operation. The Royal Airforce and the German Airforce lost more than 200 aircraft on either side. Almost 70000 troops of the Allied Forces were killed and the town of Dunkerque was reduced to shambles like Antwerp and Rotterdam.

In the historic speech in the British Parliament on 4 Jun 1940 Churchill and said' we shall fight on the beaches' and hailed the operation os a 'miracle of deliverance'.

The sequence of events is best described by a British soldier Harry Garret as
" You knew this was the chance to get home and you kept praying, please God, let us go, get us out of this mess back to England. To see the ship that came to pick me and my brother up, was the most fantastic sight. We saw dogfights up in the air, hoping that nothing would happen to us and we saw one or two terrible sights. Then somebody said that there is Dover, that is when we saw the White Cliffs, the atmosphere was terrific. From hell to heaven, was how the feeling was,you felt like a miracle had happened"

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I cherish to have visited a place where the historic evacuation had been conducted not so long ago

P: All pics are mine

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The World of Unusual Places- The Bone Church


The Sedlec Ossuary

Every place you visit has something unique about the place. Most of these places or museums are maintained by the official agencies, or private trusts, in some cases by non-profit organisations and also some wealthy who have a passion to pursue their interests and preserve their collections. There is hardly a place I visited where I did not come across something unique that I did not visit. The well-known museum's world over is the Vatican, the British Musem in London, Louvre in Paris, The Smithsonian in the Washington DC and scores of others where the footfalls are perhaps the highest. These have been visited by most people who have globe trotted and treasured their memories. Also, lesser-known places or museums are those that have kept my curiosity alive. Unable to travel for the last six months I tried to recollect some of the strange places that I came across. Some of these seep in history and need to be shared. Almost two years back I was travelling in the Czech Republic when I learnt about the Bone Church, also known as Sedelec Ossuary.

It was a cold winter morning when we set off from the Hlavni Nadrazi Railway Station in the heart of Prague. The train was very comfortable and at the exact time departed from the busy station. Within a few minutes, it was zipping across the countryside and with small stops at Cesky Brod, Pecky and Kolin arrived at Kutna Hora. There were just four or five people at the station and the town was very quiet. We set the course with the Google Maps to head for Sedlec Osssury, our destination. After walking for about 20 minutes through the wooded area with a few scattered houses, we faced a  huge imposing structure! After purchasing the tickets we were inside one of the world's most queer church. The outward appearance is grossly deceptive and appears like an old medieval gothic church. What awaited us was something one can never imagine! The Sedlec Ossuary as it is known is an artistic collection of more than 40000 human skeletons! It is also known as the Church of Bones or the Bone church

Some of the most fascinating works is a big chandelier of bones that is suspended in the middle of the church. Another impressive work of art is the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family. Then there is a memento mori and several other artworks created by human bones and skulls that will leave the onlooker bewildered. Sometimes an eerie feeling and creepiness crawl up the spine as these morbid skeletal remains come within a touching distance. Some of them appear in decorated forms like wall hangings while others are arranged in form of flower vases.

One is left wondering how so many bones and skeletons ended up in this small remote town of the Czech Republic away from humanity. According to the legend in 1278 the King of Bohemia sent the abbot of Sedlec Cistercian Monastery to Jerusalem. When the abbot returned he brought back a jar of soil from Golgotha known as the 'holy soil'. Soon the people from all over the places desired to be buried in the cemetery here. In the 15th century, a Gothic church was built near the cemetery. The bones from the cemetery stayed here till around 1870 when Frantisek Rint was appointed to place these bones in order, The result was this shocking yet a beautiful masterpiece creation. Those who came with a death wish would never have imagined that their remains would go into the pages of the history of this macabre church

Every year hundreds of tourists converge to this gory yet fascinating site and is a must-visit for the travellers having interests in unusual sites.

PS- All pics are mine,