December 24, 2013

A Traitor's Tomb - Ghulam Ali's Tomb at Srirangapatna

(This article was published in Deccan Herald - Spectrum on 24-Dec-2013)

We literally asked as many people as possible in Srirangapatna for the tomb of Ghulam Ali. No one had heard of him and almost all pointed us towards either Gumbaz(the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan and his family) or Dariya Daulat Bagh(Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan). Tired and battered we rested for a nimbu-soda(aerated soda with lemon) outside the Gumbaz and asked the soda-wallah if he knew anything about the tomb. And what followed next was the spurt of knowledge from this road-side vendor from whom we least expected.

He claimed that Ghulam Ali or famously known as Langda or Gumchi, was a traitor and no one worshipped, let alone care for him. He was buried under a dome-like structure where pigeons flocked and littered the entire place with their excreta. The soda-wallah was careful enough to point that no pigeon drop would even a spoonful at Gumbaz whereas we would find buckets of excreta at the tomb of Ghulam Ali. He also told us that the place was cursed and no one, not even the muslims, visit there. Nevertheless he was pretty excited about the prospects of we visiting there and asked us to venture there with care. His directions to the tomb were carefully etched in our memories now and our adrenaline levels shot upto new levels, as we picturized the non-decrepit structure housing the remains of Ghulam Ali.

As we drove along the mud road, padded with paddy and sugarcane fields, we soon saw a structure overlooking the paddy fields on the right. The ruins were clearly visible and the large dome clearly demarcated the green fields from the blue skies.  As we drove along the road, laden with crushed grass and dried up sugarcane, we soon stumbled on a gate which was otherwise to be the entrance to the structure. A few dogs came running by and we were too scared to leave our car. The mystery surrounding this place increased as we saw the canines standing between us and our goal. Determined not to back out, we shoo-ed them away and shouted for someone to open the door. A watchman emerged with whom we had to haggle a lot to let us in.

View of the tomb from the kuccha-road

Entrance to the Tomb of Ghulam Ali, Srirangapatna

We were enthralled by the structure that was standing in front of us. Highly decrepited, and shrouded with foliage and an air of mystery, the dome looked imposing despite being in shambles. The structure was built in two levels and had beautiful crafted mini-minarets at the corners. The arches at both levels were classic of Islamic architecture.  It was disheartening to see the overgrowth all over the structure and we had to placate ourselves not entering it for the fear of getting bitten by a snake or some rodent or insect. Parts of structure seemed to have been vandalized or fallen down with the brick work being exposed in what looked like an otherwise very strong building. The dome has a stronger linear demarcation compared to the Gumbaz and also is bigger than the latter.

I was in for a larger surprise when I started doing the post-travel research to know more about Ghulam Ali and why he was called as a traitor and to know more about this tomb. Loads of research on the Internet and the experience of Prof.Karimuddin of Srirangapatna helped in crafting a story around this entire episode and his persona.

Ghulam Ali was the head vaqeel of Tipu Sultan and was also the home minister under his Kingdom of Mysore. He also is supposed to have led a delegation to Constantinople and also faced Viraraja of Coorg in the battle of 1789. He was also to travel to France, but did not end up going. Given all these, he definitely sounds a person of immense importance but what was interesting was the fact that he was called a ‘traitor’ by the locals. It is believed that Ghulam Ali stole many gifts from his travels which were supposed to be for Tipu and the Kingdom. Ghulam Ali was even jailed for it and was released later due to the magnanimity of Tipu. He was also given a substantial pension by the Britishers post their siege of Seringapatanam and hence it is very much possible that he had federated with the British. Locals call this pension as ‘namak-haram’ pension.

Ghulam Ali's Tomb

Next was to understand why he was called ‘langda’. The painting by Robert Home on “The reception of the Mysorean hostage princes by Marquis Cornwallis” depicts Ghulam Ali seated on a silver palanquin while all others are seen standing. Though there is a claim that he suffered from sciatica, Prof.Karimuddin points out that Ghulam Ali did not want to stand during the reception in the court when Tipu approached it, for he believed that Tipu was much younger to him and did not mandate the respect. He feigned a false limp and created an excuse in such a way that he did not have to stand when the King approached.

The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Marquis Cornwallis, 26 February 1792 , by Robert Home
Source : BBC

Next quest was to understand the importance of the structure in itself which looked beautiful in this scenery. It is believed that Tipu had this constructed for his parents initially, but the experts pointed out that the architecture had some remnants of Shia style and hence was not suitable for a Sunni Muslim like Tipu. Also, the river Kaveri had almost flooded the structure once. Because of this, Tipu moved his plan for the tomb to the present day Gumbaz and later Ghulam Ali bought this from him.

Closeup of the structure

A note by John Thomas mentions that Ghulam Ali was a Senior Mysorean military commander and lived from 1758 to 1863 and died in 1863 at the age of 105 at Krishnagiri and is buried there. This claim seems to be put to rest by Prof.Karimuddin who did mention that Ghulam Ali did die somewhere else, but his body was interred under this present day decrepitated structure and not in Krishnagiri. Sunni muslims have a distinction between the tombs of male and females and here too destiny seems to have played its game, as the tomb of Ghulam Ali resembled that meant for a female. This theory puts the rest to the fact that the tomb was not constructed by Ghulam Ali for his wife (and hence no resemblance with the love story of the Taj Mahal). We also found three bodies buried in the same compound with no enclosing structure and with no epitaph and sans ornamentation of their tombs. These are the relatives of Ghulam Ali.

Tombs of relatives of Ghulam Ali

The quest for Ghulam Ali and the secret behind his tomb finally seemed to have found an end as the stories and the folklores around him started making sense. The structure still stands isolated from the tourist frenzy and away from any hussle-bussle in a private farm. With parts of it crumbling due to the travails of time and sheer neglect, this beautiful structure will soon be part of the earth.

December 23, 2013

Crater Lake at Lonar, Maharashtra

(This article was published in The Hindu's supplement Metro Plus on 14-Dec-2013)

A meteorite weighing 2 million tones and approximately 100 meters in diameter, travelling at a speed of 18 kilometers per second crashes onto Planet Earth. This impact, in the present day  village of Lonar in Buldhana District, Vidharbha region of  Maharashtra is believed to be equivalent to a 6 megaton bomb. Did this phenomenon obliterate life on Earth during the Jurassic era or was it just one of the many meteorites that crashed into our planet at regular intervals? Scientists claim that this was probably a Martian meteorite that crashed just 50,000 years ago. They classify this crater as a Hypervelocity Impact Crater that has been formed in Basalt rock, a one of its kind with the terrain resembling the Moon’s surface. A recent discovery of a particular bacteria (‘Bacillus Odysseyi’) from the crater site resembles or probably is the same as the bacteria reported by the Odyssey spacecraft on Mars’ surface.

Many theories have been proposed and dismissed regarding the origin of this crater, but agnostic of all, here I was standing at the rim of a crater, gaping at the breathtaking view in front of my eyes, on an overcast day. This should be one of the most important landmarks in the Geological Map of India. Water had collected at the base of the crater and had formed a lake. The greyness of the skies reflected in the water in the lake, and the lush green foliage all around were only the two colors that were visible today. I had managed to sneak past a broken fence and there lay an unobstructed view of this magnificent crater. 

Lonar Crater Lake
Earlier in the day, I had arrived at Aurangabad Main Bus Stand at 3am and took another bus to SIDCO bus stand from where buses operate in the Vidharbha region. Luck favoured me, and even before dawn had broken. Another connecting bus to Sultanpur and I finally arrive at Lonar at 9am after another short ride. I assumed that I would be one of the first visitors given the early arrival but soon was proved wrong as I stepped past the official entrance to the lake. A temple like structure with what looked like a perennial stream of water from a snout greeted me. Many pilgrims were already there taking a quick bath under the clear waters. My first view of the crater-lake was from here, at the Gomukh Temple, as I could see the lake ensconced from all sites by a tapered landmass with rich overgrowth.  Approximately 15 temples dot this crater-lake, near the base and also along the rim and at higher elevations. Looking for alternative higher vantage points I glanced upwards only to see people busy with their morning ablutions. 

Gomukh Temple. Check out the snout at the mid-bottom and the stream gushing out

I walked on the road surrounding the crater rim looking for a vantage point for a complete panoramic view of the lake and this is how I ended up at my interim resting spot. There was nothing else to be done from this point than just soak in it and savour the scenery. The chill breeze was the only companion that I had for the time being, before a herd of buffalos came by and sat under the shades of the bushes. The crater is supposed to be 1.8 kilometers in diameter, 7 kilometers in perimeter and 150 meters deep. It is not difficult to imagine the  whole act of the meteorite crash at this very place given the setting. 

I headed towards the village wherein I was told of a beautiful temple that also had a record of the cause of this crater. Opposite the village school, Daitya Sudan temple wore a non-descript look and stood guarded by a 2 feet wall and lots of foliage around it. Sitting on top of a pedestal, the architecture resembled that of a Hoysala temple, but the comparison ends there. The roof looks unfinished and there are no ornate pillars inside the temple. A weak wooden door separates the outer world from the inside of the temple. 

Daitya Sudan Temple
Interior of Daitya Sudan Temple
There are three chambers inside, with the first chamber having a naked ceiling with the brickwork visible supported by huge arched pillars devoid of any sculptures. Darkness pervades the sanctum sanctorum and only a torchlight is of help for now as there is no electricity to power the tubelights inside. The ceiling looks like a patchwork of bricks and the walls are devoid of any murals. A 4-foot tall idol of Lord Vishnu sits alone in the darkness inside the sanctum-sanctorum. There are no signs of any worship or rituals being performed to the idol. The entrance to the sanctum-sanctorum has some carving on the door frame made of stone. A small frieze on the top of the ceiling in the middle chamber shows a deity crushing an asura by his foot. And this purportedly was the origin of legends of why this place was called as Lonar. 

Lavanasur(In Sanskrit, Lavana means salt and Asura means demon), a demon, used to terrorize the people in this region. He had a special boon, which made his death to be unlike those of the ordinary. Lord Vishnu took on the responsibility of eliminating him after the requests from the people in the region. Lavanasur hid in a lake covered by a hill. Lord Vishnu kicked the hill away and twisted his toes by placing it on the demon’s navel and the oozed blood became the reason for the saltiness of the water. The crater symbolizes the demon’s navel while the shore is his body.

Though the temple looks extremely well preserved from a few meters away, on closer inspection, one sees that almost all the sculptures on the exterior walls are broken. Most of them have lost a limb or leg, and none of them are in complete shape.  Some of carved figures on the exterior walls are evocative of erotica showing couples in different sexual practices. There are also different deities, apsaras and humans in different forms on the walls, all of which are broken. It was extremely disheartening to see the state of the exterior walls.

Exterior Walls of the Daitya Sudan Temple

The crater-lake place has also been referenced as Panchapsar Sarovar, which was sage Mandakarni’s ashram in the Dandaka forest in Ramayana. The sage stayed in the waters of the lake for 10,000 years and consumed air alone.  Legend has it that Lord Indra, threatened by the sage’s devotion and ascesis, sent five of his apsaras to distract the sage and cause a hindrance in his prayers. The apsaras ended up being his wives and serving the sage. And hence the pond became known as Panchapsarotataka(‘Lake of Five Nymphs’).  
Many broken. Amorousity!

Slaying of the Lavanasur inside the temple - on one of the sides of the ceiling. Was lucky to spot this in the utter darkness inside.

The lake also finds mention Ain-i-Akbari. Ain-i-Akbari is the third part of Akbarnama and records Akbar’s empire, in the form of the modern day gazette, and mentions that Lonar lake with its brackish water was used for making glass and soaps yielding substantial revenue.

In the modern world, the crater-lake has been a subject of immense interest to the geologists and scientists. NASA has conducted many experiments here. Despite being fed only from rains, the water is extremely salty. A plaque reads that the pH value of the water is 11 which is extremely high. But there are fears that the behavior of the water is changing due to the pollution from the village and the water seepage from the nearby farms. Water mixed with fertilizers and chemicals is changing the alkanity of the water, and also the gradual increase in the inlets to the crater-lake is causing the water level to rise, in the lake and changing the behavior even more; not to mention flooding the temples near the lake. The sides of the crater-lake are supposed to be extremely diverse with different birds and animals inhabiting it. Listing the crater at Lonar in a World Astronomical Monuments roster along the lines of World Heritage Sites would be extremely useful in safeguarding and furthering research at this beautiful geological structure.

December 02, 2013

Ship Building Town of Mandvi

(This article was published in the Deccan Herald's supplement Sunday Herald on 1-Dec-2013)

I got down from the bus in the middle of the night to be greeted by a chill breeze. The bus-stand wore a non-descript look in the darkness of the night and there were only 3 passengers along with me who got down from the bus. The small bus-stand with its flickering tubelights and a few people sleeping and snoring on iron benches looked like a scene from a documentary movie. My spine yearned for some rest and I joined the sleeping brigade after I found an empty iron bench. Uncomfortable as it was, getting up was the best thing to do.

Deserted roads with the sodium-vapour lamps greeted me as I walked outside the bus-stand. The deathly silence and the chill breeze were my companions as I walked along what appeared to be a main-road in this town, searching for lodging options for the night. Roaming the streets in the darkness of the night was something that I had taken a liking to during my travels, but I was not prepared to absorb what I was going to witness next. It was a full moon night and as I walked more, silhouettes of some structures with their shadows extending to the road, appeared on my left. The silhouettes were huge and I couldn’t take my mind off them. With not a soul in sight, I wasn‘t sure if I had stepped into Mordor and was to be introduced to the flying Nazguls. Fear was normal under these circumstances and I was no Elf to hide it. Faster strides were automatic, and I soon stumbled on a board that advertised of a hotel. It was locked and I had to bang the door a couple of times before I woke up the caretaker of the hotel who offered me the only vacant room which I graciously accepted and retired.

The morning wake up call came not from the chirping of birds but from a few people talking loudly outside my room. As I stepped outside the hotel, I saw huge ships on the other side of the road, almost touching the road. On the other side, the whole length of the road was littered with huge wooden ships. I had never seen such a scene in my life. Curiosity had always been my best friend and stumbling on this town by chance was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, if not for anything else, I would just watch these ships being built and spend a vacation. A cup of hot chai was perfect to watch the scenery unfold in front of me while the sun slowly rose.

Soft dhokla being sold on a pushcart was an added bonus for breakfast. I gobbled up a few plates, followed it up with one more round of chai as I kept watching this scenery. I crossed the road and stood agape in front of one of these ships. This was the first time I was standing eye to eye in front of a naked ship made of wood. The structure had no decorations or paint, but only planks of wood joined together by what appeared as almost a foot long nails. It was as if this giant pile of wood was commanding me. I circumambulated it and saw an opening by the side. Few workers were working inside the ship and I requested their permission to get inside.

I was transported to a totally different work in here. This was a dreamland made in wood. The huge hollow space inside the ship despite its emptiness had its own aura. Saws, hammers and nails, the size of which I had never seen before, were being used to construct this practical art in wood. A ladder was kept in the middle and appeared to connect to a different world.  I slowly ascended it and was taken to a different level inside the ship. This level, again was completely empty and a ladder alone stood in the middle of this emptiness. I ascended that too and was presented to the deck of the ship. I could almost see the whole ship building yard from here. Many ships were being constructed, while some were being broken down. Some with a rich layer of algae on it looked abandoned. The half-broken ones looked extremely terrifying, as if lighting from Zeus or the hammer of Thor had broken the ship into two.

I stepped out of this ship and walked along the perimeter of the ship-building yard. Small temporary houses next to these ships looked like rats in front of giant monsters. I still had not seen any crane or heavy vehicle inside the ship building yard. A quick chat with a laborer resting there told me that this was a very old ship building yard and primarily ships are constructed out of wood and almost all the tools are used by hands. Despite the outer world using the newer generation of tools, this community was sticking to the age-old tradition of building wooden ships by hand. Though many ships were being used for domestic purposes like fishing in the deep sea, they had an active export industry and were building ships for many foreign clients.

In the evening, I returned and walked till the end of the yard. A watchman suddenly stopped me and told me that I was entering a restricted area in the port and cautioned me not to take any pictures. I promised him and went till the end of the jetty. Sun was slowly setting down along this west coast. There was absolute stillness but for the lashing of the waves on the jetty. I could see a few small boats and catamarans returning back to the shore from here. I felt like the last man standing at the tip of the Earth as the orange and red hues covered the western sky. The watchman signaled me to get back and I found another spot along the yard from where I could see the moon rise slowly and illuminate the whole ship-building yard.

I could remember Soren Kierkegaard’s words when he writes “People commonly travel the world over to see rivers and mountains, new stars, garish birds, freak fish, grotesque breeds of human; they fall into an animal stupor that gapes at existence and they think they have seen something.”  After visiting this town, I am not sure whether I can claim that I had one of the unique experiences ever, but the first sights of the ships casting their shadows in the moonlight was etched into my memories forever.

Did I forget to reveal the town’s name? Well, tucked along the westernmost part of India facing the Arabian Sea, lies one of the most beautiful and uncharted spots, often seen missing on the tourist's map, is the ship building town of Mandvi, in the state of Gujarat.