Ghosts of Mattancherry

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The best of India is often seen in the slow hours before breakfast, the time of day when the subcontinent’s multitude of people and gods stir themselves in the cool mercury light that follows dawn.

On my last day in India I rose early to retrace steps from a walk I had made the day before. Down to the Mattancherry shore, to the narrow streets of the area known as Jew Town, a small waterside enclave of the port city of Kochi. The name was self-explanatory, although very few Jews now lived in the vicinity as most had left for a new life in Israel in the 1940s.

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In the midday heat of the previous day there had been the usual noise and mayhem, the customary bluster that accompanied daily life in any Indian city: pavements blocked with vendors and parked motorbikes, auto rickshaws tuk-tuk-ing incessantly up and down as their drivers looked for fares and nonchalantly swerved around any pedestrian foolish enough to get in their way. Jew Town lay next to the shore, beyond the compound of Mattancherry Palace. A gently touristified quarter of souvenir shops, Kashmiri-run gift emporia and restaurants serving the appetizing alchemy of rice, coconut and spices that was Keralan cuisine, there were few reminders that this quarter of the city was historically Jewish apart from a pristine, albeit virtually redundant, 16th-century synagogue.

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The sun had barely risen above the coconut palms and low-rise stucco of Fort Cochin as I set off down Mattancherry Palace Road. Even at this early hour the Hindu temple on the corner was buzzing with activity, with bare-chested drummers welcoming a procession led by a dhoti-clad priest clutching an offering of fragrant flowers in a coconut half. Most of the businesses that lined the road were still shuttered but a few shopkeepers were already at work outside their premises brushing the pavement in preparation for the day ahead. There was little traffic apart from a few cyclists determinedly peddling somewhere. Whether they were on their way to work, or perhaps heading home after a night shift, there was no way of knowing. In modern India motorbikes are the preferred means of transport for those wealthy enough to afford one yet here in Kochi it seemed that bicycles still had an important role to play.

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I passed a lorry being emptied of its load of bananas on a side street. It was hard to imagine life here in Kerala without bananas. Or, even more essentially, coconuts, whose flesh and milk flavoured almost every meal, whose oil glistened in most women’s hair, whose swaying palms cooled almost every street. Every street, that is, apart from those close to the shore, where ancient rain trees cast huge penumbras of shade – massive, branching moss-hung trees that looked like as if they had been directly transplanted from a rainforest.

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Curiosity led me down another inviting side street but after about five minutes it ended abruptly and so I turned around to return to the main road to continue east towards the water. I soon reached Mattancherry Palace and skirted its grounds along a road that took me past a jail, a newly built mosque and a post sorting office. This curved round to reach the main waterside drag of Jew Town Road. On my previous visit the road had been busy with gift shops, souvenir hawkers and sunburned tourists coached-in from coastal resorts. At this early hour, though, it was a very different place, a somnolent neighbourhood where the stalls were unmanned, the coach park empty, the touts still deep in slumber. In the sprawling branches of rain trees above the road white egrets were perched in anticipation of the free meal that might come later when the food stalls were set up for business. Below them on the electricity wires pigeons had spread themselves out like notes on the stave – a serendipitous score for a morning raga.

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I wandered down to a deserted quay to get a view to Willingdon Island across the water. Faded remnants of advertising were still visible on some of the walls although a ferry had not run from here for years. Back on the main street I walked south through the small tourist enclave into an altogether more quotidian world that declined in prosperity as I continued. What had once been a prosperous Jewish neighbourhood had since become a less affluent Muslim one. Cavernous godowns – spice warehouses – lay behind peeling sky-blue doors. A few were still operating as such while others had been given over to businesses like motorcycle repair workshops. Some of the walls had been painted with colourful murals – public art with text in Hebrew and curling Malayalam script that celebrated Kochi’s maritime heritage. One building that caught my attention had an open entrance behind a pile of rubble. Inside a half-collapsed porch stood another portal, a ragged blue cloth dangling in the space where a door would once have been. It was a synagogue – or what remained of one – its roof aerated by enough missing tiles to allow light and rainwater to penetrate the interior, a void filled with broken bricks, rotting beams and a thick carpet of guano. The throat-searing ammoniacal stench of pigeon shit was so overwhelming that mere inhalation felt hazardous. This sorry wreck of a building was a long way from the lovingly maintained Paradesi Synagogue I had witnessed the day before – the officially sanctioned tourist sight just up the road beyond the gift shops. Here in this neglected, unloved ruin the sense of wholesale abandonment of a community was tangible: here was a place whose ghosts whispered of sorrow and loss.

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Palani – a temple town

 

Palani, a temple town in western Tamil Nadu, barely gets a mention in the guidebooks. Too close to the hill resort of Kodaikanal to be of much interest other than as a transport hub, the town was a necessary stopover on our rail journey between the Kerala coast and the hyperactive Tamil city of Madurai.

We arrived in the town just as it was starting to get dark – enough time to have something to eat and wander around the market stalls that stood at the base of the steps that led up to the hilltop temple. The temple, dedicated to the god Murugan, was clearly a big draw for south Indian pilgrims and all the necessary facilities were in place to service their needs. As well as numerous ‘hotels’ offering ‘Pure Veg’ food and a mass of stalls selling mass-produced trinkets and cheap jewellery, a large sign outside a booth offered an ‘Ear Boring’ service, while another advertised itself as ‘Tonsure Centre’, a place dedicated to providing the correct sort of haircut – head shaven with an application of sandalwood paste – for dutiful pilgrims.

The Murugan Temple – Arulmigu Dandayudhapani Swami Temple to give its full glorious name – stands on a hill above the town. Murugan – aka Muruga, Kartikeya, Skanda, Kumara, Subrahmanya – is a Hindu god of war, a philosopher-warrior figure, son of Parvati and Shiva, who is particularly popular in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent. The temple at Palani is one of six ‘abodes’ (actually, temples) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu that are dedicated to Murugan. A long flight of stone steps lead up to the top, as does a meandering path for elephants and winched cable car that takes a different, more direct route around the back of the mound.

A little too hot in my hotel room, even under the swishing fan, I dreamed that night of Mark E Smith of The Fall, who in my dream was performing a solo outdoor gig in a Norwich back garden. In the dream world, as in life, Smith was as rambunctious and curmudgeonly as you might expect. He also looked painfully thin, as well he might, and before I woke I recalled mentioning this to someone else present, saying, “I know he’s dead so I suppose this is a dream isn’t it?”

We stepped out into the streets at dawn next morning to make our way to the steps that led up to the temple, leaving our sandals at the bottom before we started the ascent. A line of orange-clad saddhus flanked the base of the steps and scattered by the wayside at various stages of the ascent were gift sellers who touted garlands and puja offerings to present of the shrines above. We were the only foreigners, the only obvious non-Hindus present, yet we were welcomed without fuss. Amplified music of devotional singing accompanied our climb, and mobile phones blazed away around us as we made our way uphill with the other visitors. As everywhere in India, there were numerous friendly requests for selfies – group photos that included us in the frame as some sort of Euro-exotica. This seemed fair exchange, and it was pleasing to know that somewhere out there in the digital ether, in a parallel world to this posting, there existed no small number of images on Instagram and Facebook that included our own heat-flushed faces.

The steps to the top – I did not count them but estimates range between 550—700 – are rock-cut into the hillside. For those unused to it, it can be oddly sensuous walking barefoot for any distance, especially on stone that is deeply embedded with the patina of human activity – a layering of daubed sandalwood paste and windblown dust compounded by the devout footfall of countless pilgrims. Heading uphill we passed chalked mandalas, small shrines and intriguing side temples with attendant bare-chested priests. Macaque monkeys frolicked in the trees that overhung the steps; a solitary owlet stood sentinel on a branch overlooking the plain below. Some of the more elderly pilgrims struggled with the effort of climbing, and a few reluctant children dragged along by parents complained noisily, but overall the atmosphere was cheerful and relaxed – more holiday fun than holy day solemnity.

 

At the top, groups of people were scattered around, snapping family pictures on their phones, eating snacks, waiting patiently for their turn for darshan (a view of the sculpted deity) within the temple itself. Large signs carried warnings about thieves and cheats. We circumambulated the temple clockwise, the scent of incense, jasmine and wood smoke permeating the clear, bright air. This intoxicating cocktail – so evocative, so quintessentially Indian – was my madeleine. Here was the India of old that I knew and loved, a deeply felt nostalgia rooted in time and place that touched a nerve, or rather, caressed it tenderly. Here was something that invoked the emotional memory of previous visits made decades earlier: an echo of that indescribable early morning magic when the deep, ancient culture of the subcontinent seemed to manifest itself in a mysterious yet timeless way. To adopt the epithet used by the late John Peel to describe his favourite band, The Fall, whose erstwhile leader I had so peculiarly dreamed about the previous night, India was ‘always different, always the same’. And it was true, despite rampant modernisation in recent years, India at heart was always different, always the same.

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Sacred Fig

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A recent re-reading of Richard Mabey on the ancient and revered Fortingall Yew in Scotland put me in mind of other trees with a well-documented spiritual connection. Such a tree is the sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) or bodhi tree in whose ample shade Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment whilst meditating. The site of this sacred tree is in present-day Bodh Gaya in Bihar state in India. The original tree is said to have been destroyed but a branch of it was taken by Emperor Ashoka to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka in 288BC. A cutting from this descendant tree was later returned to Bodh Gaya thus ensuring that the tree that stands at the Mahabodhi temple complex is, in theory, a clone of the original – a tree historically if not genetically predisposed to spiritual enlightenment.

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I visited Bodh Gaya in early 2008, breaking my journey from Varanasi to Kolkata by way of a detour via Patna and Gaya to spend a couple of nights in the pilgrimage town. Venerated as the most holy place in Buddhism, Bodh Gaya is less a town, more an extended religious complex with temples and monasteries belonging to all manner of Buddhist traditions. Bodh Gaya lies close to the poor, crowded city of Gaya, a scooter-taxi ride through dusty farmland in one of India’s most poverty stricken and politically corrupt provinces. The weather was dank and drizzly, although this being India it was still unremittingly hot and humid; the sky was grey-white without feature, drained of colour, which is something that can rarely be said about India in general. Spoiled for choice for accommodation, I lodged in a friendly Tibetan establishment where I was served hearty dumplings and beer with the meals – as befits a people living on a high arid plateau, Tibetan Buddhists have a tolerant and pragmatic outlook on life.

Buddhists from all over the subcontinent thronged the streets and thoroughfares that linked the town’s numerous temples, and I encountered Burmese, Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims as well as Ladakhis and mountain folk from all over the Himalayan region. The pervading atmosphere was undoubtedly one of gleeful joy, with excitement and piety shown in equal measure. For many of the visitors, poor farmers from isolated mountain villages, this pilgrimage would probably the only journey in their lives that would take them so far away from home. It must have felt much the same in medieval Europe when adventurous folk made long arduous journeys to Rome, Santiago or Canterbury.

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I am no Buddhist but nevertheless I paid my respects to a wide variety of the town’s temples, driven more by curiosity and cultural interest than any sort of spiritual craving. I was particularly interested in the ancient sacred fig that grew at the Mahabodhi temple and so joined the cheerful crowd that repeatedly circumambulated the temple. The route followed a walkway that passed beneath the boughs of the sacred sprawling tree on each circuit. The sacred fig tree, many branched and mature, was protected behind a stone wall along which many saffron shawls had been draped to signal the tree’s sanctity. Such physical confinement seems a characteristic of venerated ancient trees – Mabey had complained in his piece of the Fortingall Yew being disappointingly inaccessible, and even at home here in Norfolk the 900-year-old Hethel Old Thorn, the subject of an earlier blog post, is surrounded by a solid wooden fence fence.

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After a few clockwise revolutions around the temple I noticed a small group of Himachali pilgrims on their hands and knees on the paving beneath the tree. I saw that they were gathering some of the tiny figs that had fallen from the tree. No larger than blackcurrants, I wondered what they would do with the fruits – eat them or make some sort of spiritually charged cordial? – but apparently they would be used to create prayer beads. I gathered a small handful myself and over the next few days dried them out on tissue on the window ledge of wherever I was staying.

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Back home a couple of months later I tried my hand at germinating the fig seed I had gathered in India. I planted dozens of the miniscule seeds in potting compost and within a few weeks had half a dozen or so plants. Four of these survived the re-potting process and of these I kept three and gave one to my friend Karin who had expressed an interest in what I had done. One of my plants, clearly the runt of the litter, did not last long but the other two have grown slowly over the years to become decent-sized pot plants.

Nine years later the figs still grace the windowsill of my kitchen – the diffused light and the humidity seems to suit them reasonably well although scale insect is a perennial problem and I have to swab them with diluted washing-up liquid to keep the sap-sucking insects under control. Karin keeps her plant in her living room and it is now larger than either of mine, with larger, if fewer, leaves. Undaunted, I like to think that my little fig trees still have a touch more wildness about them, a little more ecological integrity. A stone temple in a warm sub-tropical climate is, of course, better suited to their natural requirements – they naturally desire to clamber over stone, to bake in stultifying heat, be seasonally soaked in monsoon rain. But they are, after all, strangler figs by nature – forest dwellers that germinate on the wood of other trees before eventually taking over their host — and even a Buddhist temple in India is not the species’ ideal habitat let alone a windowsill in northwest Europe. Whether either of these direct descendants of Buddha’s sacred tree will ever grow large enough for me to be able to sit and meditate beneath is unlikely but I like to think that their presence adds a little oriental wisdom to whatever I get up to in the kitchen.

In the event of my ever moving home – not something that is even vaguely on the horizon right now – I will be looking for a place with some sort of conservatory. It will probably be the plants that dictate such a move, rather than any motive of down-sizing or considerations whether or not I can still negotiate stairs in my dotage. In the meantime I will keep on re-potting and squishing scale insects. Enlightenment is mine for the taking but I must be patient.

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Ghosts of Empire – Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata

IMG_5918One way of looking at this evocative, if mildly disturbing, place is as a hidden enclave populated with the ghosts of colonialism. Situated right in the middle of Kolkata, tucked away purdah-like from the mayhem of the city streets, the Park Street Cemetery seems like another world. It really is another world: one in which time has coalesced to leave a thick patina on the colonnades and obelisks that commemorate the colonists who created this tropical city in their own image. The colonials mostly died young – easy victims of the disease-ridden, febrile climate that characterised this distant outpost of the East India Company. In true Victorian manner, those who were unfortunate enough to die young and never be able to return to their temperate homeland were interred here in magnificent mausoleums among lush, very un-British vegetation – a tropical Highgate transposed a quarter-way round the world. The cemetery is reputed to be the largest Old World 19th-century Christian graveyard outside Europe. It is also one of the earliest non-church cemeteries, dating from the 1767 and built like much of Kolkata/Calcutta on low, marshy ground. The overall effect is one of Victorian Gothic, although there are also some notable flourishes of Indo-Saracenic vernacular that reflect the influence of Hindu temple architecture. IMG_5919Arriving at the gatehouse my name is recorded in a ledger by a lugubrious guard, an action that in itself carries the hint of entering some sort of forbidden zone, a place where the living are only tolerated and should not outstay their welcome. The cemetery seems largely deserted of visitors, although I do inadvertently stumble across a spot of surreptitious man-on-man action taking place in the deep shade of one of the tombs. Despite the funerary setting, there is nothing occult at work here, and I conclude that the young men are simply taking advantage of the privacy offered by the cemetery in this most crowded of all India’s overflowing mega cities. There are signs prohibiting ‘committing nuisance’ attached to some of the trees and I wonder if this is a warning against this sort of clandestine liaison, although in India the expression is usually a euphemism for public urination. IMG_5780There are, of course, those who take full advantage of the cemetery’s concentrated occult power – fakirs who use it for training apprentices by making them spend the night here alone, an experience that could never be a comfortable one however much one was inured to the idea of djinns being hyperactive after dark. Even for hard-nosed rationalists, the sense of the numinous here is quite tangible, and the cemetery is without doubt a thoroughly spooky place. This is true even in broad daylight when the taxi horns and traffic thrum from the manic thoroughfare of Mother Teresa Sarani (formerly Park Street; before that, Burial Ground Road) cuts through the trees to provide a background drone for the tuneless squawks of the urban crows and parakeets that loiter here. IMG_5917Not requiring of any such thaumaturgic rite of passage, a short afternoon visit suits me just fine. I am left alone with just the crows for company – dark portentous forms that swirl and scatter in the trees above, occasionally coming down to perch scurrilously on the sarcophagi as if they were extras from an Edgar Allen Poe film adaptation. Indeed, this would be the perfect location for a Gothic horror film, especially one that required a steamy colonial setting. Park Street Cemetery is the sort of place where dead souls rising from the ground can seem a distinct possibility – an eerie realm where the hubris of the Raj confronted its own vulnerability and the sad ghosts of empire still linger. IMG_5784IMG_5920

Rain

Lying in bed this morning with the curtains still drawn it was obvious enough that it was raining outside, the thrum of workday traffic softened to a watery swash. Soon the hum became augmented by the unmistakeable sound of running water on the street – the drains temporarily overloaded such that a little stream was flowing downhill along the kerbside for a brief minute or two. This soothing sound was soon interupted by the piercing screams of a group of girls on their way to school – ‘Aaargh! Oh my Gaaaad’ – more an exclamation on the shock of suddenly getting wet than any profession of faith. Extreme weather like this tends to provoke a reaction but we are lucky – this is about as extreme as it gets in dry, temperate East Anglia. This year, though, it seems hard to believe that this is the driest corner of the country.

We had been warned: last night kindly TV weathermen had promised a month’s rain in a single day. This, on already saturated soils in many parts of the UK, did not bode well but at least here in Norfolk there would not be any major problems other than temporarily hazardous roads. It is all a matter of proportion, of course. To find really wet weather one has to venture much further east, to Meghalaya state in northeast India where the Cherrapunjee district holds the claim to be the wettest place in the world (although its soggy crown is challenged by neighbouring Maysynram, which likes to assert that it is just that little bit damper). Either way, it is wet: in excess of 12,000 mm per annum, and nearly 25,000 mm back in 1974, which is as much as some of us see in half a lifetime. I spent a happy week in this region a few years ago (admittedly in the dry season). You can read an article I wrote for Geographical magazine about the wonderful living root bridges of the Cherrapunjee region here.

Really wet days like this often put me in mind of places I am especially fond of – the English Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, monsoon India, Meghalaya. I remember washed-out camping holidays with long hours spent peering out of tents looking for a break in the clouds; taking shelter from the monsoon to drink sweet chai in an Indian teashop while the street outside turns into a muddy culvert; the sour smell of city pavements after heavy rain. I am also reminded of my favourite Beatles track, which features Ringo’s finest drumming, superb McCartney bass and a psychedelic backwards-vocals coda for good measure: Rain.

Crossing the Bridge

A little south of Ipswich, the vast concrete span of the Orwell Bridge stretches across the eponymous river like a conveyor belt to Hades. Well not Hades exactly, but the Port of Felixstowe. A constant rattling procession of lorries shunt to and fro the port, their drivers barely aware of the river they are crossing or the county town they are skirting by. The ciphers that identify their payloads have become household names — Maersk, China Shipping, Cosco – those magic metal boxes that contain the necessities of 21st-century life. Well-travelled, and more often than not coming from the Far East, the containers are the camels of the latter day Silk Road: a trade route, which, as any historian will tell you, was about a lot more than just silk.

The bridge might appear to be no place for pedestrians, but they are tolerated, and walkers intent on completing the Stour & Orwell Walk between Languard Point and Cattawade, and wishing to avoid the extra six or so miles of the alternative ‘Ipswich Loop’, are obliged to cross it on using the walkway on its southern side. The approach on foot from Orwell Country Park is intimidating – the noise, speed and volume of traffic all contributing to the inevitable feeling that this is an unnatural place for hikers to be setting foot. The 30-metre drop to the Black Ooze (yes, it really is called that) of the River Orwell below is held at bay by just a concrete ledge a little more than a metre high. This is certainly not comfortable strolling territory, nor a place to suddenly become aware of a hitherto undiscovered acrophobia.

Steps lead up sharply to the bridge walkway, past a Samaritans sign that bears a short but kind message and a phone number. Like steps to the gallows, the certainty that you are shadowing the last steps taken by some desperately unhappy souls is chilling. At the top is a free phone, proof that someone cares, although the lorries flying by seem wholly indifferent. The views along the Orwell estuary are pleasing – green fields, houses snuggled in woodland, little boats bobbing in silver water – but the constant thrum of the traffic, and a tangible sense of alienation, do not encourage lingering. The walk across takes around 15 minutes.

Bridges are powerful metaphors for the journeys of life, for transformation. The novelist Ian Banks wrote an entire novel – The Bridge, no less — using an enormous industrial super-complex of a bridge as the dream environment of his comatose crash victim protagonist. Religion and mythology make good use of the bridge as metaphor too and the crossing of a body of water — the River Jordan, River Styx — is ascribed a spiritual meaning. Most of the time though, our concerns are more mundane: if crossing the Orwell Bridge on foot is disturbing then it is because of its height and heavy traffic as much as its psycho-geographic imprint.

Elsewhere in the world, where health and safety concerns are not held as sacred as they are here in the West, dodgy-looking footbridges have been used daily for generations without much fuss. The one illustrated here is over the Hunza River in the far north of Pakistan. To be honest, it is a little nerve-wracking to traverse, especially when local villagers join you and the bridge sways nauseatingly above the rapid rock-filled glacial river beneath. More alarming still is to cross halfway only to discover a missing slat and the necessity of making a jump to the next complete one.

In contrast, this footbridge feels much safer; nurturing even. Perhaps it is its solid organic nature that reassures, and also the surprising realisation that it hardly sways at all? This remarkable feat of bio-engineering, which resembles something that Frodo might have encountered in The Lord of The Rings,  is one of many living root bridges found in the deep, rain-washed valleys of Meghalaya, northeast India. Fashioned from the living roots of fig (Ficus elastica) trees that grow alongside the region’s turbulent monsoon streams they take decades to build but last for centuries. You can read my article on them in Geographical magazine here.

Returning closer to home, to the Waveney Valley in fact, here is a short extract from Slow Norfolk & Suffolk that describes an encounter on the bridge across the Waveney at Mendham on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. Perhaps bridges do affect us psychologically more than we might credit?

This is classic Waveney Valley scenery — the sort of thing Munnings might have painted if he had not concentrated on horse fairs or attacking modernism quite so much. It’s the kind of landscape that brings reverie. The iron bridge crossing the Waveney seems like a giant staple attaching Norfolk to the Suffolk mainland. Brown cows wandering the meadows contentedly graze and flick flies away, keeping their eyes on a pair of locals fishing beneath the trees and catching nothing. As poplars rustle in the breeze, the very English sound of an accordion drifts down from the Munnings pub. It could almost be the 18th century, if it wasn’t from the fishermen’s car parked by the road. As I am taking all this in, a man who is clearly the worse for drink ambles down the road towards the bridge. He stumbles exactly halfway across, pauses for a moment, then goes back the way he has come. It is as if he is fearful to place his feet on Norfolk soil, or there is some sort of invisible barrier. Two minutes later, a sleek Jaguar arrives from the north to pick the man up. Then it turns around and ferries him back across the bridge… into Norfolk.