Monday, December 24, 2007

Model, Chandni Chowk

I bet none of the Mughal queens were this skinny.

When I was growing up, it was women like these who set the standard, thank god :)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Why are foreigners charged more?

A lot of people ask me why there are different entrance ticket prices for foreigners and Indians at many Indian monuments and sites, specially the Taj. Here are my thoughts:

If you are not an Indian passport holder, and you buy the combined ticket of EUR 12.5 for Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it works out to EUR 6 or so per attraction.

Here's a comparison with other sites, from a mix of developing as well as developed economies:

  • Tickets to Machu Pichu in Peru are EUR 18.
  • Tickets to Angkor Wat in Cambodia are EUR 10.
  • The entrance ticket to the Colosseum in Rome is EUR 16 for non-EU nationals, and there is a discounted price offered to EU Nationals of EUR 11.
  • Tickets to the Leaning Tower of Pisa are also EUR 16 at the moment
  • Tickets to the Giza Plateau and at least one pyramid - say Khufu - cost EUR 18.
  • Entrances to the Forbidden City in China are only EUR 4 (but that may be because the exchange rate is artificially held by the Chinese goverment).
So - after looking at these prices, my conclusion is - I don't think the Government is significantly overcharging tourists for the Taj / Agra Fort experience.

As far as the differential pricing for Indians is concerned - The Government of India subsidises tickets for Indians to promote our heritage and create more interest / awareness / national pride. Additionally, in a poor country, there is no way the man on the street can afford the kind of the prices that these monuments deserve. This is a dent in the Government coffers, but it is a decision in the national interest which the Tourism department has the right to make.

There is obviously a case to be made for levying flat fees for everyone - Indian or foreign - and I've heard that they're considering flat fees of INR 250 or so. But honestly, if you've been to Taj and seen the number of poor people that come there - none of them could afford this.

In any case, until we hear any decisions, all that I think you should ask yourself as a tourist is - am I paying a fair price i.e. did I get my money's worth at these two monuments for EUR 6 per monument?

I think the answer is likely to be a yes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Shopping in India is a frame of mind

Many overseas visitors to India are taken aback at the kind of street shopping experience they have.

The touristy parts of the country - Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan - are full of pushy vendors trying to sell them things at downright outrageous prices.

I met an American lady recently who said to me, "Deepa, I feel so much at a loss...I'm the outsider, and I feel like I have to constantly watch out so I'm not cheated."

I thought about what she said - and here's my advice: If you're visiting India, and someone quotes you a silly price at the market, my recommendation is - Just smile and say no.

The thing is, if you look prosperous, vendors will always quote you a higher price. That applies even to Indian buyers. Sometimes when someone quotes me a totally wacky price, I just grin widely and say the Hindi equivalent of "Yeah right, go pull the other one". Then we haggle back and forth a bit, and when the price gets to the point where I think he's making a good margin, then I give in.

It's all part of the game.

To treat this overcharging-bargaining game as a personal insult, or worse, to think of yourself as a victim because this doesn't happen in your country, is just totally missing the point. You have to apply a different yardstick when you are in a totally different land. You have to tell yourself that this is how India's shopping culture works. No one is singling you out for extra-harassment...this is just a bunch of fairly poor people trying to get a few extra dollars off anyone who looks like they can afford it. In my MBA school they had a term for it - it was called "what the market will bear" pricing!

India is a both a destination and a journey. It has woven its magic for millenia now, on travellers from all parts of the world. It is a complex and rich culture, with so much to offer - but the rules are different.

To explore this sort of complexity, you have to step out from the comfort zone of neatly labelled racks and polite checkout greeters. You have to embrace the street shopping and bargaining spirit. It can be fun, actually. There's the crafty assessment of what something is really worth, the starting position, the bantering conversation and the give-and-take, the testing of each other's mettle, and the final agreement on how one particular shawl fits into the overall cosmic scene of things!

Travel wouldn't be half as interesting if the world was one big Walmart, right?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

So what's a tandoor anyway?

"Ninety nine per cent of Indians do not have a tandoor", says Camellia Panjabi, author of several Indian recipe books. This may be true of Indian homes, but the tandoor - the Indian clay oven - certainly has pride of place in restaurants all over Delhi.

In a small nondescript eatery, I saw this man making tandoori naans on a quiet afternoon. On his left, you can see the dough rolled out flat and ready for the oven. On his other side is his basket of finished naans.

In the middle is the tandoor, a large curved clay urn. Inside, it's exactly the sort of shape that you imagine from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (remember how the thieves hid in urns and died a grisly death in boiling oil?). Charcoal is traditionally used to fire the tandoor, but dry sticks and dried cowdung are also used. The curved shape of the tandoor makes it blisteringly hot in the middle section of the urn, whereas the top portions are cool.

Traditional Indian tandoors are usually sunk into the ground. In small eateries such as this one, one section of the cooking area contains a raised platform, into which the tandoor is sunk.

The tandoor handler climbs up on the platform, from where he masterminds the entire affair. From below, a couple of assistants roll out the dough into evenly shaped naans. These are then quickly stuck to the inside wall of the tandoor.

The real trick is to quickly slap the naan on the tandoor wall, make sure it's stuck firmly, and pull your hand out before the skin blisters. Temperatures inside a tandoor typically go up to 480°C (900°F). See how thick the rolled naans are? That's what helps to stick it easier. One side of the naan is cooked by the heat of the tandoor wall, the other side is browned by the coal fire. And when it comes to the table, it still carries the wonderful earthy smell of the claypot.

Meats, of course, can't stick to the tandoor walls, so they're placed on skewers. Because there is no braising, sautéing or broiling in this style of cooking, only tender meats can be cooked in a tandoor. Typical marinades used to tenderize the meat are yoghurt and lemon. Here's a really good step-by-step tandoori chicken recipe, if you want to try your hand at it.

They say tandoors evolved somewhere in Syria, although I'm not sure. Among the earliest tandoors that archaeologists have discovered are those from the Indus Valley Civilization, dated around 2600 BC. From the New Kingdom period in Egypt (1539 - 1069 BC), here's an interesting painting showing how bread was baked in tandoors.

In the last 5000 years or so, this style of cooking has spread all over the world and is now among the most popular things going. Delhi is a great place to eat some of the best tandoori food in India. Check out Burrp for Delhi restaurant recommendations.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Future is Here

Palmist and Astrologer, at Hanuman Mandir. The board advertises that he reads palms and foreheads. "Full information" will be provided, for a fee.

The blessings of the Gods are with him. In fact, in one little board, the man acknowledges the entire gamut of Hindu Gods - there is a "Ram Ram" and a "Hari" to mollify Vaishnavites, a "Nama Shivaya" for the Shaivaites, and a "Jai Maa Kali" for those who are partial to Shakti. Very neat. All Gods included, in a religious democracy of sorts.

At the bottom there is "Shri Guru Dev Ji", an acknowledgment of the blessings of his Guru. I wonder who he was, the man who passed on his knowledge and craft to this guy.

Hanuman Mandir is not far from Connaught Place, you can get there easily in an autorickshaw. It is an interesting place, with multiple temples, and lots of little shops and stalls.

If you do go there, check out this guy. And let me know if he's just a clever little fox, or someone who really knows his craft!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

And I saw her standing there...

I found this young lady standing outside a saree shop at Chandni Chowk.

She was wearing an eye-catching green, but it was the hair that drew my attention.

Glossy, long, black hair, tamed into a single braid, a 'choti'.

It is a peculiarly Indian thing, the single choti. There are folk songs dedicated to it. Poets moon about it; the movies celebrate it. The long choti is so strongly associated with feminine beauty that even today, many Indian women are horrified at the thought of cutting their hair short. Me, I've had short hair for the last 20 years, and I can't see myself in braids.

Still, I have to admit, there's something about this girl's hair, the simplicity and the grace of it, the way it falls on her back, that is truly beautiful.

- Deepa

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Longpi Pottery

From Manipur, a little state in the easternmost part of India, comes a craft that is both interesting and useful - Longpi Ham, the lustrous black pottery of the Longpi Village.

Longpi artists make striking pots, mugs and vases. They're all black in colour, simple and almost minimalistic in their design.

What gives Longpi its appeal is the finish. The pots and vases are smooth and lustrous. When you touch them, your fingers glide over the surface, and they leave you wondering if this is stone, ceramic or clay.

At a recent exhibition, I bought a set of 6 beer mugs from A. S. Tamreipam, a Longpi craftsman from Manipur. That gave me the perfect opportunity to ask him about this craft.

"Is this black terracotta?" I asked him. "No", he said, "it is stone." He rapped on it with his knuckles. Yes, it was stone. But stone that looked like clay?

I was intrigued, and looked it up a bit. I found out that Longpi pottery is actually made by crushing stone into powder and then mixing it with clay.

But Longpi craftsmen don't use just any kind of stone. They use serpentinite, a dark black stone that powers the fascinating hydro-thermals of the Lost City in the Atlantic Ocean. When serpentinite is formed, the process releases large quantities of heat. At the Lost City, this has created an eerie undersea world populated by strange invertebrates. (By the way, serpentinite is also the state rock of California.)

So anyway - to make Longpi pottery, you first hunt for serpentinite. Then you pound it into powder with a hammer, and mix it with other materials to form a sort of dough. You shape the dough by hand into the things you want to create. There is no potters wheel, there is only the skill of the artist. When you finish, and it hardens a bit, you bake it in a kiln at 900 degrees Centrigrade.

When it's taken out of the kiln, it is then polished with a local leaf called Chiron Na. That's what gives it that lustre.

Longpi beer mugs, anyone?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Meat eating in Nizamuddin

I have to admit, at the very beginning of this post, that I'm vegetarian.

I've been vegetarian all my life. Anything I write about meat, is therefore totally suspect. Still, these photos speak for themselves, so I should be ok!

This area of Nizamuddin is predominantly Muslim. This is one of the neighbourhood butchers. Check out the wooden chopping block - it's a round tree stump. I wonder what the little boy is trying to buy. Do you know? On second thoughts, don't tell me - I don't *want* to know :)

Some more customers walked in as we were photographing. Their motto seemed to be "inspect before you buy". There was a lot of examining going on, before orders were placed. Meanwhile the butcher was shaving off the remnants of meat from whatever it was that he was holding. Since this is India, it's probably whatever's left of a buffalo.

Further down the street was Mehboob Hotel - for ten rupees you could get a plateful of mutton curry and a tandoori naan to go with it.

Here's a closer look at Mehboob's menu, it had both Hindi and English spellings -
  • Stew - This is written as e-stew in Hindi alongside
  • Chanp - It's written correctly in Hindi, and the English spelling tries valiantly to cope with the nasal "chaap". Here's a recipe.
  • Kaleji - Liver
  • Qeema - Mince
  • Nahari Paaya - Bone marrow and trotters (this is a breakfast dish, originally)
  • Sabzi - Vegetables (finally, something vegetarian)
  • Daal - Yep. I know that one!
  • Bheja - Brain
  • Aalu Anda - Potatoes and Eggs (it's a gravy curry)
  • Karhi Pakora - Lentil dumplings in yoghurt gravy
  • Daal Gosht - Lentils and Mutton
...and so it goes on, the menu, tempting people to stop and eat.

If you walk further along the road, you'll also see this - meat on the hoof. To my vegetarian mind, this scene was both interesting and disturbing. On the left were the sheep, and on the right, a big aluminum handi in which they would later be cooked and served as mutton biryani.

I walked a little further. A goat and kids sat by the edge of the road, cool in the shade. The black kid was shy, but the white one was the inquisitive sort. I said to myself, it's one thing to see meat dangling from a hook, or ladled on a plate. It is something else altogether, to see it look curiously at you!

Walking along this area is difficult for me. I grew up in a family and social circle where almost everyone was vegetarian. Watching these gentle creatures in Nizamuddin, knowing that death awaits them, and knowing I cannot do anything about it, is very disturbing for me.

But I still think it is a good thing for me to see this place - because this way, I learn a very important lesson. I learn that not everyone is the same. Not everyone was brought up with the same beliefs as me. There are other communities and people, with other ways of life, all of which are just as equally valid. The things that seem disturbing to me are perfectly normal to someone else.

Perhaps this is the essence of all travel - it can give us the opportunity to see differences, to acknowledge them, and to accept their validity.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

007 in Delhi

Spotted in Old Delhi, a warning sign on a crumbling building. ABONDONED.
'Maybe James Bond was here', said my friend, laughing. 'And now the building is aBondoned.'
'Click' she went. And that's how this photo got here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Great Indian Tipping Challenge

Overseas visitors to India always ask me for advice on tipping. There is such a bewildering variety of people to tip! 

Drivers, porters, doormen, car attendants, elephant handlers, tour guides and waiters at restaurants, they're all part of The Great Tipping Challenge.

But never fear - they all fall into a neat pecking order when it comes to tips. All you need is this - Deepa's Official Guide to Tipping. 

Arm yourself with this Guide, and you can waltz in and out of India with a song on your lips, secure in the comfort that you're not over-paying or being downright stingy. 

Let's start with the lowest guy in the tipping spectrum, the doorman. The doorman comes in two varieties. Let's call Type 1 the Moustachioed Turbaned Doorman. You'll see Type 1 Doormen at the Taj Hotel, or the Sheraton, or any of the grander sorts of hotels. They usually open car doors, both when you arrive at the hotel, and when you're leaving. They also open the main door to the hotel.

Type 1 Doormen have perfected several arts:
1 - The Art of Opening Door with a Bow and a Flourish
2 - The Art of the Broad Unctuous Smile
3 - The Art of Greeting Foreigners in English
4 - The Art of Looking As If They Should Be Tipped

These guys are a Grade 1 Challenge. In the first place, they look, um, intimidating. They're tall, broad-shouldered, colourful, and of course, that moustache is nothing to scoff at. What do you tip such guys? They look as if they'd scorn a ten-rupee note. But surely fifty is too much? And when do you tip these guys? Surely not when you arrive tired from the airport at some odd hour of the night?

Deepa's Official Guide to Tipping recommends a 20 rupee note, judiciously kept ready, handed over subtly when you leave the hotel in the morning for work or sightseeing. It will earn you an Extra-Flourish when you come back to the hotel in the evening. If you are staying at a super-posh hotel, make that a 50 rupee note.

And if you want to do that very touristy thing - ask the Type 1 Doorman to pose for a photo - then please be ready to pay a crisp 100-rupee note. Anything less than that is, er, shoddy. Payment is logically made after the photo is clicked, with a pleasant thank you. Women can get away with Payment By Giggle, but honestly? Doorman Type 1 prefers cash.

And what of the Type 2 Doorman? The Type 2 Doorman, like Aesop's fable of the Town and the Country Mouse, is the poor cousin of Type 1. Found at less plush hotels, Type 2 still rush about opening and closing doors, but alas, they lack both the moustache and the turban. The Type 2 Doorman, horror of horrors, is the Doorman with the Faded Uniform And The Whistle.

Type Two has perfected the Art of The Whistle as Weapon. Unerringly and shrilly, the Whistle summons cars, stops incoming traffic, and lets you exit the hotel in a grand if noisy style.

The Tipping Guide recommends 20 rupees, handed over before you get into the car. Your reward? Frenetic whistling and much rushing about to block traffic in person, so that your car can sail forth undisputed like the Queen Mary.

....(to be continued)

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Small is beautiful

If you walk into handicraft showrooms in Rajasthan, you'll usually spot small colourful Mughal or Rajasthani miniatures. Most are faithful reproductions of older paintings, originally commissioned by Mughal or Rajput princes.

Collectors are fond of miniatures - they are small and compact, intricate and colorful, and they allow a rich display even within a limited space.

This original painting of a noble leaning at the feet of a lady is dated 1750, and priced at $15,000. I like the bold use of orange, and the small detailing - notice the fingertips of the lady, her jewellery, her finely arched eyebrows, the pattern on the sash of the nobleman. A replica of this sort of painting, executed by hand, could cost between $35 to $200 depending on the quality of the artist.

Miniatures originated in Persia, where they were used to decorate religious books. When Babur invaded India, the art came with him. Mughal miniatures depicted court life. Elephant fights, tiger hunts and pleasure gardens were illustrated in astonishing detail. The artists used fine paint brushes of squirrel hair, dipped in opaque inks made of natural materials.

As the Mughal Empire collapsed, artists sought patronage in the princely Hindu states of Rajasthan. From 1750 onwards, there was a great Renaissance in Rajasthan, as artists long used to Muslim emperors adapted their style and content to suit their new patrons.

The themes of the paintings changed - the amorous pursuits of a blue-skinned Krishna, Rajput festivals, processions, animal and bird life all made their appearance in Rajasthani miniatures.

Can you imagine what that period was like? Rajasthan was flooded with artists! In every princely kingdom, a brand new form of painting emerged, showcasing a vibrant intermingling of Hindu and Muslim culture.

Eventually, seven styles or schools of miniature art emerged in Rajasthan - the schools of Mewar, Marwar, Kotah, Bundi, Kishangarh, Amber and Bikaner.

Here is one of my favourite ones - it's called The Sports of Love, and it shows Krishna and the gopis frolicking in a lotus-filled river. His dark skin blends with the river, his gold adornments stand out in contrast. The gopis are bare-breasted, lost in longing. The foliage on the riverbank is lush with detail.

In Kishangarh, an Indian Mona Lisa appeared. Raja Sawant Singh, himself a poet, commissioned the artist Nihalchand to paint his mistress Bani Thani as Krishna's lover Radha. Bani Thani was not her original name - it was a pet-name that meant 'Beautifully Dressed'. Bani Thani's portrait is a highly stylised version of an Indian beauty - the eyebrows are arched, the forehead is high, the eyes are sensuously half open, the lips are thin yet curved. Here is a modern artist's rendition of Bani Thani:

Bani Thani - An Indian Mona Lisa

If you ask me, this woman who inspired Sawant Singh seems sharp and spicy, like a green chilli! Sharp pointed nose, and pointed chin over a long narrow neck...almost a witch! This sort of depiction became the hallmark of Kishangarh art.

Today, most artists in Rajasthan don't execute original miniatures - they make painstaking copies of older ones. Some of them are worth buying - they show an attention to detail, and a lushness which makes them attractive.

I'm not an expert, but if you're travelling to Rajasthan, and looking to take back one of these paintings as a holiday keepsake, then my advice is - look for a certain lyrical quality and delicacy of line. See if the painting has the rich pleasing effect of the originals, or whether it glistens in tawdry fashion. Check what paints are used. Compare with images of museum originals if you can. Also of course, use your common sense - the better paintings sell at a much higher price range.

P.S. Another painting style I like is Basholi, from the Punjab. Take a look at this painting called Leave your anklets behind, and Go. In what seems to me, a scene erotic with expectation, Radha's maid-in-waiting removes Radha's noisy anklets for a woodland tryst with Krishna. (Check out the green emeralds on Radha and Krishna - they're made of shiny beetle wings).

Sunday, September 30, 2007


At the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, I saw this young woman in prayer. She was not a fast reader. Her finger moved slowly, right to left, tracing the Arabic script. Her lips moved silently. In the five minutes that I stood there, she didn't look up even once.

Her copy of the Koran seemed new. I wondered what passage she was reading, and how much of the Arabic she understood. Perhaps it wasn't important to understand, perhaps the sound and rhythm were themselves compelling.

Have you seen the opening lines of the Koran? Even in an English translation, without any rhyme to it, I can sense the powerful cadence of the words:
In the name of the merciful and compassionate God!

Praise belongs to God, the Lord of the worlds,

He the merciful, the compassionate,
He, the ruler of the day of judgment!

Thee we serve and Thee we ask for aid.

Guide us in the right path.

The path of those Thou art gracious to;

Not of those Thou art wroth with; nor of those who err.

When I hear the muezzin's call in the evenings, although I don't understand a word of Arabic, it still resonates inside my body, and I am drawn to the sound. I feel the same way when I hear truly inspiring choir music in a church, or the deep chanting of Sanskrit.

I'm not religious, yet there is something fundamentally appealing in the sound of all prayer.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Giving of Water

All cultures have it - the giving of food and shelter to pilgrims and wayfarers as an act of kindness.

This is Old Delhi's way of doing it - by giving free water to anyone who asks for it. In a hot country, naturally, this is the quintessential act of hospitality. A boy is employed, to sit there all day long, offering water to anyone who asks.
The water is cold - they use big blocks of ice to cool it down. Someone rich sponsors the whole thing, and of course, earns much merit in the process.

Hinduism uses the word athithi-dharma to describe every man's obligations to visitors or guests. It is one of the many dharmas a Hindu has. Others include dharma to your parents, to children, to ancestors, to birds / animals / plants and so on. As part of athithi-dharma, a Hindu is expected to attend to a visitor's needs before attending to his own.

The dharma of hospitality is not peculiar to Hinduism. There are several stories in the Bible, about men who took strangers into their homes. The Middle Eastern ethic of offering hospitality (and protection) to strangers is well known - in fact, there are elaborate and binding rules both on the host and the visitor. The Greeks were big on hospitality too - the god of hospitality is Zeus himself, and he's called Xenios Zeus (xenos means stranger, in case you didn't already know).

Mankind's long traditions of hospitality are still alive and kicking - for a modern international rendering of athithi-dharma, you really don't have to look beyond the CouchSurfers. Couchsurfing amazes me. What would make someone share their home with a complete stranger? I can understand this sort of thing if you live in a mansion with 20 rooms, with enough hired help to manage guests. But imagine living in a tiny apartment in New York! And waking up to find a guy snoring in your living room - or worse, messing up your one small bathroom. Gross.

Yes, there's the charm of meeting people from all over the world. There's the offchance that you'll meet someone warm and friendly (and clean), who'll tell you funny stories, help cook dinner, and - maybe they'll even like the same authors that you do. But personally, I think you should never get into Couchsurfing with any expectations. Just do your atithi-dharma. Make that leap of faith. And let events play themselves out.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

East is east!

I met a South American lady recently - she was the Technology Head for a large bank, she had studied in the US, and she was taking one of my tours. During the tour, we saw a very young couple, they seemed recently married. The girl could not have been more than 16, the guy perhaps 18 or 20.

"She's very young", said my guest. "Do you think this was an arranged marriage?".

Probably", I said, giving her my stock answer.

"I don't know any official statistics, but I think over 90% of marriages are arranged."

"Does everyone marry this young?"

" No, the national average age is 19-20 for women."

"Nineteen? That's young as well!"

"Yes, but at the time the British left India, the average age of marriage was 14. We've come quite a way from there, especially if you look at the size of our population, and what it takes to change a whole nation's average in 50 years. It's nothing short of a revolution."

She looked at the young bride again. I could see her thinking, how does this girl feel about this? A stranger in her bed, chosen by her parents? What is this relationship really like?

And, seeing the couple again through my guest's eyes, I thought yes, how does this girl put up with this stranger in her bed?

My guest turned to me.

"Can I ask you something personal?"

I could see it coming.

"Did you have an arranged marriage?" she asked me.

"No", I said.

Her relief was palpable.

"I cannot understand this arranged marriage business! How do you put up with it!!", she said.

I could see that for her, being told who to marry was about as medieval as it gets.

I launched into an explanation of expectations and conditioning, and how marriage in India is not between individuals, you marry into a family, so the more similar your backgrounds and religion, the easier it is to fit in. We spoke of East versus West, Hollywood's romantic brainwashing, divorce rates, the caste system, the obsession with fair skin, matrimonials, the revolution, and so on. She was a highly intelligent lady, a pleasure to talk to.

At the end of the conversation, she had heard it all, and it didn't change her mind a bit. The bottomline was - sometimes East is East and West is West, and there ain't no middle ground!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cleaning the Taj Mahal

The newspaper today has an article about the Taj Mahal. Apparently, they're going to clean it - and they're planning to use multani mitti to transform the marble from yellow to gleaming white.

Have you seen multani mitti? It is a sort of fine clay that I've used as a face-pack. You mix it with water, leave it on for 10 minutes and wash your face, and it acts like a cleanser.

"Mitti" means mud, and "Multani" refers to a place called Multan, in the Punjab (now in Pakistan), where this clay occurs naturally. If you draw a straight line from Agra to Multan, it's around 700 kilometers.

They're going to use this face-pack technique on the Taj sometime this year, although dates haven't been announced yet. I hope they won't do it slap-bang in the middle of the tourist season.

It's not the first time this sort of cleaning has been tried. The last time they did it was in 2001, and it was very successful.

Apparently, the Ain-e-Akbari, a 16th century manuscript already contains a reference to this simple method of cleaning marble. Apply multani mitti, layer upon layer, let it dry. Keep doing it until you have a layer of mud that is about an inch thick. Wait for 24 hours. Wash off with water. Voila! All the impurities come off, and the marble is a gleaming white!

Very cool, huh? They're trying this out in Italy now, I hear.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Remembering the Mutiny

If you're in Old Delhi, take a rickshaw ride past Church Mission Road. Amidst the dilapidation and chaos, you'll spot a brick-red building, neatly painted and maintained.

This is St Stephens Church. It is all of 140 years old, but wears its years lightly.

The church was built ten years after the 1857 'Sepoy Mutiny', in memory of Christians who died during the Siege of Delhi. It is in a rectangular Romanesque style, but to truly appreciate its real beauty, you have to view it from the side (which is kinda hard, given how crammed the sides are, with other buildings!).

The inside of the church has surprisingly high ceilings - the decoration is baroque, and the stained glass circular Rose Window is beautiful. The interior is still in good shape. If you want to take a look, go on a Sunday morning, when the church is open.

Here is what St Stephen's looked like in 1872: see what I mean by having to look at it from the side? The arches are elegant - they're made of yellow sandstone and are beautifully carved. I also like the pleasing proportion of the really tall bell-tower.

The Mutiny - also called The First Indian War of Independence - was the first wide-spread uprising against the British East India Company. The rebel forces gathered under the banner of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Fighting was concentrated primarily in North India.

Delhi saw a great deal of violent bloodshed, and indeed, marked the turning point in the war. When the rebels lost the Siege of Delhi, it brought about the end of the Mughal empire.
Bahadur Shah's sons and grandsons were killed, and he was exiled. In 1858, control over India was transferred from the East India Company to Queen Victoria, thus marking the beginning of the British Raj.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A lesson in paan counting

Sure, you've counted currency notes many times in your life.
Ever try counting leaves?
I saw this man in Old Delhi, his fingers were flying from one paan leaf to the next.
What arrested my attention, actually, was how gentle he was with the leaves.
The photos can't capture that...the finesse and care with which he handled them.

When the counting was done, the leaves went into little baskets.
They were covered with damp cloth, to protect them from the sun.
And from this wholesale market, they went to little retail outlets all over the city.

If you're wondering what a retail outlet for paan is like, look no further.
I found this paan-wallah opposite Red Fort. See the leaves, hidden in damp red folds of cloth?
Next to the paan-wallah is a chai-wallah - with his trademark aluminum kettle.
These two guys are cultural icons of sorts, so this photo is almost a Delhi cliche.

Enough and more has been said about paan. Bloggers blog about it; paan aficionados dedicate websites to it. Bollywood celebrates it in song and dance. Mouth freshener, palate cleanser or digestive - whichever way you look at it, you either love it or hate it.

Me, I'm a firm hater. I don't like the sharp raw taste of the leaves. The lime irritates my mouth. And if that's not enough, here's the final decider - I'm so not into bright red lips. I
f you peer into my purse, all you'll find is a sensible brown lipstick for day time wear, and a sultry purple for the evening. I'll leave the bright paan-red lips to the Noor Jehans of the world.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Birla Temple, Delhi

Seeing the Birla Temple on a bright day can be quite surreal. The spires silhouetted against the sky remind me of vimanas, the celestial flying cities of Indian mythology. You can almost believe the temple floated down from the clouds, and landed lightly...and that it will take off again.

And then you look at the cars on the road. And the people standing in queues. And your imagination gets grounded with a bump!

So - anyway - why do I like the Birla Temple? Well, for starters, it's hard to dislike something that says 'Everyone is welcome' on its gate. None of Hinduism's upper-caste nonsense here! Anyone can come in, listen to the calming sound of prayer, see the deities, and admire the architecture.

It's a funny sort of architecture, in my view. Red and white and creamy yellow? Where did that come from? If you explore the temple a little, you'll also discover kitschy statues of elephants and monkeys and snakes and goddesses on lotuses.

I can't help thinking wistfully of the stone masterpieces of Orissa. Can you see the stunning architectural style that forms the original inspiration behind the Birla Temple? I guess then, you can also see why the Birla Temple makes me wince a little, every time I pass by.

But I shouldn't be wincing. Birla is a modern temple, for modern times! In the first place, it is clean, much cleaner than most temples I've seen. The cleanliness would have pleased Gandhi, who inaugurated the temple.

As for architecture, the Birla Temple does have a sort of beauty of its own, mainly because its blends Orissan temple style with the Mughal style. Its peculiar fascination with red-and-white is definitely Mughal. And perhaps you've already noticed the semi-Mughal arches at the entrance and on some windows.

Oh, and there's another interesting thing about the temple: although it is dedicated to Vishnu (one of the central gods in the Hindu Trinity), it also has a large Buddhist shrine.

What? You didn't know the Buddha was a Hindu god?

Here's a popular folk toy representation of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, starting with the fish-incarnation on the left. See the orange guy on the right? Surely half a billion people can't be wrong? :)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Business as usual

The day was blindingly hot. In Old Delhi, it was business as usual.
Carts were being loaded with heavy gunnybags.

As one set of carts were loaded, new carts were wheeled in.

Work progressed at its own pace.
Tea was drunk, the newspaper read and discussed.

Some dozed in the shade (Shade? It was still hot as hell.)

Photo-sessions provided amusement.
(Who *are* these silly women and why are they photographing me?)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The women of Delhi

Wandering around Delhi with a camera can be rewarding. These are photos of 'ordinary' women, but I found something arresting in all of them.

At the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. She had the most no-nonsense face I've seen in recent times.

Possibly the girl's mother?

Waiting at Dilli Haat - there was something regal about her.

She turned, saw the camera and smiled. It completely transformed her.

Quiet stubborn face at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara

Check out her confidence! Whoever said Indian women were meek as mice?

This one will break hearts when she grows up.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

And the chilli conquers India

Every Indian woman knows this simple truth: the chilli rules the kitchen. Ground into paste, or sprinkled as powder, red and green chillies are the secret weapons of every Indian cook.

But did you know that before the Portuguese brought it to India, no one in India ever used chillies?

Seems unbelievable - but apparently, before Vasco da Gama came along and changed everything, we used
pippali, long pepper - and not chillies.

Long pepper is a strange looking thing (reminds me of a rattlesnake's tail, actually). It is native to Bengal, and in the sixteenth century, it also grew wild on the Malabar coast. According to the French trader Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, long pepper used to be thrown into Muslim pulaos 'by the handful'. It was used not just in cooking, but also in ayurveda as a cure for impotency (I'm not surprised).

So how did long pepper lose the battle to the chilli? Chillies had several advantages - they tasted similar to long pepper, but were easier to grow, and they weren't subject to mould. What's more, they were really cheap. For the vast majority of peasants, that made the chilli a really attractive proposition. So it was a price war, and at the end of it, long pepper went the way of the dodo. Even ayurvedic physicians supplanted it with chillies in their concoctions.

Barely 30 years after Vasco da Gama set foot in India, locals were enthusiastically growing chillies on the Western coast (they were called Gowai mirchi, suggesting that they were originally grown in Goa). From there, chillies spread to South India, and then to the North. Long pepper is now, I suspect, only used in some arcane vegetable pickles. I've certainly never seen it in local markets.

The spice markets, instead, are full of different varieties of red chillies. Try walking into Khari Baoli, and you'll see what I mean. At the spicy end of the spectrum there's Birds Eye from the eastern parts of India, and the cleverly named Jwala (Flame) from Gujarat. There's the Kashmiri Mirchi, which is prized for the red colour it gives to food, and the small fat Gundu from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In general, the rule is, if the chilli is small and sharp and wicked looking, then it's probably hot as hell. Bigger, fatter chillies are less spicy, for example, the Tomato Chilly from Warangal.

The other pepper that was widely used in Indian cuisine - and which didn't lose the battle to Vasco da Gama's chilli - is black pepper, kali mirch.

Black pepper is still a traditional ingredient in several dishes. For breakfast today, I had South Indian rice pongal - rice flavoured with cumin and whole black pepper. If ever you go into a South Indian restaurant, ask for pongal. Remember that it's one of the few 'authentic' Indian dishes that you'll find!

Anyway – authentic or otherwise - Indian food is now booby-trapped with green and red chillies. So here’s a survival tip just in case you bite into one of them. What you've always suspected is right - water doesn't help. You're better off sipping cold milk, or eating an ice-cream, because they contain casein, a protein that breaks down the capsaicin in the chilli.

God save you though, if you grab a bite of this - Naga Jolokia, the hottest chilli in the world. All the ice cream in the world won't help.