Monday, December 21, 2015

Murray's Taj Mahal and the death of an empire

With the advent of photography in the 1800's, armchair travellers in Europe could, for the first time, get a true picture of destinations they had only dreamt about. Monuments from the far-flung corners of the British Empire came alive through the work of many talented photographers. 

Dr. John Murray, employed in the medical service of the Army of the East India Company, took up photography in the early 1850s.

Unlike other photographers who depicted the symmetric perfection of the Taj, Murray's photos described the actual context of the Taj. In this photo, the Taj appears as a backdrop to ruins. There's a crumbling parapet above the Yamuna River, and the men sitting are completely ignoring this beautiful monument. The photo, clicked just after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, speaks to me about the death of the Mughal empire.
Photo credit the Met Museum 
Here is another photo,  this one is smaller, but it shows Dr. Murray seated in the foreground. It calls out to the photographer and artist in me :) I want to be that person, sitting with my back to the ruins, and sketching what I see!
At a time when photographic emulsions were not equally sensitive to all colors of the spectrum, most photographers found it impossible to achieve proper exposure of both landscape and sky in a single picture. For instance, if the negative was properly exposed for buildings, the sky would often appear faded and blotchy. 

Murray solved this problem by blacking out the sky on his waxed paper negative so that, when printed, the heavens above the Taj Mahal would appear limpid and radiant. Here is the paper negative itself; you can see the technique here:
Text adapted and modified from:

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Textile tour in Delhi

Last month we had a very interesting textile workshop in Delhi, for a group of visitors from the USA. We visited the home of one of my friends, who is a textile designer. 

The tour began with an audio-visual presentation, an introduction to Indian textiles. We explained many different types of weaves, embroideries and printing traditions to the guests. They also tried their hand at draping a saree. A lovely evening, great conversation, and delightful snacks. Here are a couple more photos from the tour. I'm looking forward to more of these tours in future!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A hand-painted signboard in Old Delhi

I enjoy seeing hand-painted boards, even when they are not particularly artistic. The higgedly-piggedly defects seem delightful, compared to the stencilled perfection of computerised graphics. This one is from near the Jama Masjid, describing the municipal corporation's school for girls.
Photo credit: Thomas Hart, who travelled with us last year
Like all official signboards, it is in four languages, English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu. And, it is also in four different scripts: Hindi is written in the Devnagri script, English using the Roman alphabet, Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script and Urdu in a modified form of the Persian nastaliq script. No painter of signs can be expected to know all of these :) So obviously the man who painted this was only blindly copying squiggly signs. 

My daughter wrote an article about the multi-lingual signboards of Delhi, and the history behind them. It's a very interesting story. Here is the link:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Delhi Durbar, 1911 - without mincing words

They say a picture speaks more than a thousand words. This one sure does!

This illustration is from the famous Punch Magazine, and it was published during the Delhi Coronation Durbar of 1911. 

It shows a beautiful woman - representing India - saluting the British king George V, who came to India with Queen Mary for a grand coronation as Emperor of India. 

All the so called "princely states" came to pay their respects at the Durbar, and Punch gave us a visceral look at it.

The inherent contempt of the British for the Indian "native" is visible in the depiction of the salute: it is uncultured, the fingers are splayed in a laughable bungling rustic way that invites the viewer's scorn. 

The woman is dripping with jewels, but her feet are unshod, she as submissive and inferior as can be. Contrast this with the king's polished knee-length leather boots. You can also see how George V has been represented with the usual crown jewels - the Sovereign's Orb, which shows him as the Defender of the Faith and the Sceptre with the Cross. No doubt he was doing God's will, eh.

A fine depiction indeed, of the times. A nation brought to heel.

Photo credit: Punch

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Subz Burj v/s Nila Gumbad - no they are not the same!

Here's the beautiful Subz-Burj, at the intersection of Mathura Road and Lodhi Road. Subz means Green in Arabic, Burj means Tower.  The tiles on top of the tower suppposedly used to be green, but were replaced by blue tiles during restoration by ASI in the 80's (or at least that's what I am told). Subz Burj is a tomb. No one knows who's buried in it.
Because of the colour of the roof tiles, there's an unfortunate tendency to mix up Subz Burj (Green Tower) with Nila Gumbad (Blue Dome), which is the name of an entirely different monument near Humayun's Tomb.
Nila Gumbad in foreground. Humayun's Tomb is to the top left. Nai ka Gumbad is in between.
Photo from Archnet: Link here

Nila Gumbad is also supposed to be a tomb. The ASI says it's the earliest Mughal tomb in India, and reflects an architectural style without any Indian influences. It is believed to contain the remains of a man called Miyan Fahim Khan. He was the attendant/servant of the poet Rahim (Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana). What this attendant did to deserve burial in such a grand tomb, I don't know. To top that, there is no structure inside the tomb, no sarcophagus to show that someone is buried there.

Here's a map showing where Subz Burj is, with respect to Humayun's Tomb and Nila Gumbad:

Humayun's Tomb was listed under the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1992. This month the listing was expanded to list several other tombs and complexes in the vicinity of Humayun's Tomb, thereby doubling the area under the heritage list. While Nila Gumbad is now included in the list, Subz Burj is now in the buffer zone.

So - to summarise the differences:
Subz Burj - Originally green and now blue; Nila Gumbad - Always has been blue
Subz Burj - Now a traffic roundabout (Lodhi Road - Mathura Road intersection). Nila Gumbad - Adjoining the Humayun's Tomb complex
Subz Burj - built somewhere in mid-1500's, no one knows who is buried here. Nila Gumbad - said to be the oldest Mughal ruin, but I can't find a date online for when it was built. Later in mid-1600's,  Miyan Fahim said to be buried here.
Subz Burj - lies in the buffer zone of Humayun's Tomb; Nila Gumbad - listed under world heritage site list.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Kahani Kabab Ki - the story of the kabab in India

It is the month of Ramzan now. During the daytime, Old Delhi's Muslim neighbourhoods are quieter than usual, as people stay indoors in the blistering heat, fasting all day long. Not even water is drunk. In the evening, the city cools down, the day's fast is broken, and people gather in large numbers around the many street stalls offering treats.

Crowds outside Jama Masjid, Delhi
The kabab sellers do brisk business, offering skewered, spiced meats to an endless stream of customers. Tangdi kabab, Shammi kabab, kalmi kabab, reshmi many varieties!

Kababs being cooked in a typical iron sigri
I was curious about the origins of the word kabab, so I did some digging around. It turns out that the word kabab is actually very old - its roots go back to the ancient Akkadian language, in which kababu means to fry or burn. The Akkadian Empire, dating to around 2300 BC, ruled over what is now Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and parts of Iran. The word kabab also exists in other old languages, such as Aramaic and Persian, which were spoken over a wide geography. It exists in Arabic, which is believed to have developed into a distinct language somwhere in the 3rd century AD. It also exists in Turkic, which between 6th - 11th century AD spread across Central Asia, covering a vast geographical region.

Thus, starting from ancient Akkadian, it appears that the art of spitting and roasting meats has existed continuously for at least 4500 years. The kabab was thus a familar dish among people spread over a very large region, ranging from Egypt to Mesopotamia to the Middle-East.
Shop selling kebabs in Istanbul, Turkey
In India too, the spitting and roasting of meat was well-known. Meat was a significant part of the diet of the Indus Valley civilization, although we don't know if they called it kabab (because we have not yet deciphered their script). During the Mature Harappan period, colonies of Indian traders were established in the Persian Gulf port cities, and even in Mesopotamia. So it is possible that they had at least heard the word kabab :) :)

Based on the archaeological record, we know that the Harappans ate fowl, cattle, chickens, sheep, goats, deer, antelopes and wild boar. It's reasonable to assume that they knew how to grill and cook meat in various ways. Meat skewers have not been unearthed in any Indus Valley sites. But ovens have been found, both small and large, and we can assume that bread and meats were cooked in these ovens much like modern-day tandoori cooking.
Cooking hearth/tandoor/altar, Kalibangan
Ancient Indian literature also contains many references to grilling, frying and cooking meat. In the Ramayana, there is a passage which describes a meal thus: Cooks, under the supervision of diligent stewards, served large pieces of meat roasted on spits, meats cooked as curries, and sauces made of tamarind and pomegranate; young buffalo calves roasted on spits with ghee dropping on them; young buffalo calves fried in ghee, seasoned with acids, rock salt and fragrant leaves; large haunches of venison boiled in different ways with spices and mangoes, and sprinkled over with condiments; shoulders and rounds of animals dressed in ghee, sprinkled over with sea-salt and powdered black peppers, and garnished with radishes, pomegranates, lemon, fragrant herbs, asfoetida and ginger.   

It looks like our ancients were pretty good kababchis themselves :) They liked roasting and grilling spitted meat over flames, as well as cooking it into curries.

Coming back to the word kabab: it is likely that this word made its way again into India in a more recent phase, after we came into extensive contact with the Arabic, Persian and Turkic language.

In 711 AD, the Arabic-speaking Umaiyyad commander Muhammad al-Thaqafi conquered Sind, and thus established the first sustained Indian contact with the Arabic language. The word kabab may have entered the vocabulary of India through that source.

Kabab - a word now understood in all parts of India
India's first sustained contact with Persian language came in the 11th century AD, when the Ghaznavids established themselves in Punjab. The first Turks came to India with Muhammad of Ghor in 1175 AD.

From 1206 AD, when Delhi was ruled by the Ghurids, Mamluks, Khaljis, Tughlaqs and Lodis, Persian was the official language. Turkish was spoken in the bazaars, and Arabic was the liturgical language taught in schools. During the Mughal empire, the official language used was Persian, although both Turkic and Arabic were in use. In the south of India, the rulers of the Deccan Sultanates also used Turkic, Arabic and Persian.

It is my conjecture that between the 8th century and the 18th, the word kabab became widespread in India through these contacts. The entry point was probably "Hindustani", a hotch-potch language which arose in the 11th century AD, through contact between the local Indian population, and various invaders, traders and religious men who settled in Hindustan from the north-west. Hindustani allowed speakers of Turkic, Arabic and Persian to communicate with native Indian speakers. In Delhi, the popular local language was Khadi Boli. Hindustani retained the grammar and structure of Khadi Boli but also absorbed a large number of Persian, Arabic and Turkic words for better cross-cultural communication. It is my conjecture that the word kabab first crept into Hindustani, then established itself over time into both Urdu and Hindi, eventually becoming fully absorbed into the Indian vocabulary.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Hast-Mudra (Hand-Symbols) at Delhi airport

If you fly into Delhi's Terminal 3, you'll see this: a big installation of hasta-mudras (hand-symbols) as you come down the escalator in the arrivals area.
Like all human gestures, these hastra-mudras are primarily meant for communication. Each one has a meaning and a way of usage. 

The language of mudras was once understood by all Indians; but unfortunately, it has now become an esoteric piece of knowledge, understood only by specialists. The typical visitor to the airport walks past these hands thinking, ah, ok, ummm, mudras, yes, very good, very good, great Indian traditions, yes, yes, very good indeed :) :)

But what do these mudras mean?

An explanation for these symbols can be found in the Natyashastra, a classical manual on the theory and practice of Indian aesthetics (theatre, music, dance, poetics, etc). Based on linguistic analysis and references, scholars date the Natyashastra anywhere from 2nd century BCE to 2nd century CE.

Chapter 9 of the Natyashastra explains 67 types of mudras, dividing them into those using a single hand, and those requiring two hands. It also explains general rules regarding their usage, how the arms are to be moved, the "quantity" or extent of gesturing to be done, etc.

For example, the symbol in the photo here is called "tripataka". Pataka = flag, and tripataka = flag with 3 fingers.

The tripataka mudra can be used for crowning a king; for example, with both hands in tripataka, you can depict the placement of a crown on someone's head.

This mudra is used for anointing someone's forehead with a tilaka. This mudra, with the finger pointing downwards and hand moving up and down is used to represent the flight of a small bird, or the movement of a stream or of a snake.

It is used for raising up something; for example, if you are giving blessings to someone who has fallen at your feet, you can raise the person using two hands in tripataka.

With two tripataka hands facing each other, you can represent a door. You can use it to wipe off tears.

It has more exotic uses as well - for example, if you want to depict an underwater fight between two monsters, you can use tripataka! The jumping of monkeys is also represented using tripataka.

As you can see, a single mudra is used in different ways and combinations, to create different meanings. Traditional classical dance performances in India usually use these gestures as part of their vocabulary.

One of the major reasons why classical dances lose out to 'modern'  dance is the loss of this vocabulary. Over the years, the audiences no longer understand the gestures, and a vital link between performer and audience has been lost. A painstaking re-education is the only way to revive it. It's either that, or resign ourselves to losing these traditions.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Lodi Friday Mosque

There is some exquisite architecture in the Lodi Gardens. In fact, there is so much beauty that I don't know what to write about, and what to leave out. For example, this gorgeous doorway is just one of the unimportant side entrances of the Friday mosque at the Bara Gumbad complex. 
The lime plaster stucco work that the Lodi tombs are known for.
The mosque was built by Nizam Khan Sikandar II (Sikander Lodi). He ruled between 1489-1517, and was a Pashtun Afghan. The Friday mosque is part of a complex of three buildings, two of which you can see in the photo below. The mosque is the building you see on the right, with the arched bays. The bigger building on the left is the Bara Gumbad.
The arched entrances of the mosque are interesting, because of their proportion. The central ones are very wide, compared to their height. See the photo below; how wide the three arches are! By the time of the Lodis, the practice of putting three domes together in mosques was in place, and the sizes of the domes may have influenced the width of the arches. Or it could be, that the Lodis were modeling their work on the grand Great Arch of Bust, built by the Ghoris in Afghanistan in 1149.
The mound of rubble which is in the foreground is believed to be a burial area. I don't understand what else such a large base could be, which is placed out in the open, and that too in the central path. Did someone want to be buried in the open, without a tomb over his head? Or was it some structural construction that they began and then abandoned? An architectural minar experiment gone wrong? Who knows?!

There are some unusual features in this Friday mosque of the Lodis. The most unusual one being the jharokha-window which you can see on the side of the mosque. The window was obviously needed for the flow of breeze in Delhi's hot summers. But this one has been given a local treatment, similar to those found in temples and homes of Northern and Western India.
In the photo above you can also see a very stocky minaret. I suppose ever since the Qutb Minar (and the even older minaret at Jam in Afghanistan), every nobleman in Delhi wanted to build minarets. The Tughlaqs who preceded the Lodis also built several of these bulky minarets. To me it looks as if the one in Lodi mosque was planned to be taller, but then the idea abandoned later (see how the top segment narrows all of a sudden). 

It's all these experiements - some successful and some not-so-successful - that endear Lodi architecture to me. As I said earlier, the Lodis are Pashtun Afghans. When we think about the Pashtuns, we have this image of a warring tribal people with no refinement. But Afghanistan has architectural remnants of all ages, including Greek and Buddhist stupas, grand minarets, grand arches, and they have superb stucco work with baked bricks and calligraphy; not to mention the amazing blue stonework. The Lodis brought these dreams to India. In this new land, where the Lodis ruled for 75 years - yes, that is a long time - they rendered the beauty of their homeland in whatever fashion they could.  Those of us who have walked in Delhi's Lodi Gardens can see the dreams of these men even today.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

My Kotpad saree from Dastkar Nature Bazaar

There are only 8 families in the world practicing the traditional tribal craft of Kotpad weaving. I was delighted to meet Jema and Gobardhan Panika from Kotpad village, Koraput, Odisha at Dastkar Nature Bazaar. They are both National Award winners for their weaves.

The red colour comes from the roots of the aal tree (Indian Madder). Shades of red, maroon and dark brown can be obtained depending on the ageing of the madder and the way the dye is processed (under the sun, in clay pots). Black is developed by adding powdered kumhar-pathar (sulphate of iron; they buy it from blacksmiths).

This white-red-black saree will be one of my most treasured buys. 

Kotpad weave is done using pit looms, which are at floor level, with a sunken pit where there is a foot-operated pedal. Weaving motifs are geometrical, but also drawn from nature - tortoises, crabs, birds and what not. See the photo below; these are dupattas. You can see the popular axe motif at the bottom, making a proud statement of the tribe's roots in the forest. 

Here is another set of stoles:

They can be reached at +91 9938294630 or +91 09938575524.
Sri Gobardhan Panika, National Awardee
Smt. Jema Panika, National Awardee
Mirgan Street, Kotpad - 764058, District Koraput, Odisha, India.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Chaunsath Khamba - gorgeous after restoration!

Just a quick post to say how stunning Chaunsath Khamba is looking these days after restoration.
This is what it looked like a couple of hundred years ago:
Painting by William Daniels
Chausath Khambha is the tomb of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, Mughal emperor Akbar’s foster brother. It was built in 1623-24 AD. This is the largest open space in Nizamuddin Basti. There are three parts of the complex:
  • Chaunsath Khamba (tomb of Mirza Aziz Koka)
  • Urs Mahal (hall, gathering area, courtyard)
  • Ghalib’s tomb (famous Urdu poet Ghalib)

The restoration of Chaunsath Khamba was done by the Aga Khan Trust, with funding from the German government. If you go there, you'll see the posters showing "before and after" comparisons.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How to visit Taj Mahal by moonlight (or not!)

Many tourists tell me they're super excited about visiting the Taj at moonlight. It sounds fantastic, doesn't it? I usually talk them out of it, because I don't think its a good idea (see end of article for my advice). But if you do want to go, here are the details:

When is it open
The Taj Mahal is open for viewing by moonlight for 5 nights each month. These 5 nights include the full moon night, as well as two nights before and two nights after the full moon night. 

If any of these 5 dates fall on a Friday, there will not be any moonlight viewing on that night. In addition the Taj is also closed in the daytime on all Fridays.

There is also no moonlight visit during the month of Ramzan.

The full moon dates for Apr 2015 - Mar 2016 (the Indian financial year) are below:
  • Saturday April 4
  • Monday May 4
  • Tuesday Jun 2
  • Friday July 31 
  • Saturday August 29
  • Monday September 28
  • Tuesday October 27
  • Wednesday November 25
  • Friday December 25
  • Saturday January 23
  • Monday February 22
  • Wednesday March 23
I'll say this again: Please note that you can view the Taj 2 nights before, and 2 nights after these dates. But if any of the 5 days falls on a Friday, you cannot view on that day. So for example, in April, the full moon night is Saturday April 4, so you can view on April 2, 4, 5 and 6, but not on April 3 which is a Friday.

In the list above, there is no viewing date in first week of July due to Ramzan (which is celebrated between 19th June to 18th July).

How does the viewing happen:
Only 400 people are allowed to view the monument per night.

Entry is allowed in 8 batches of 50 people each, beginning at 8:30 p.m. and ending at 12:00 midnight.

Each group has only 30 minutes.

You cannot go up to the famous big white tomb building. Access is allowed only until the Red Sandstone Platform of the main gate. I have shown in the picture below, what this main gate looks like.
Source: Air Pano

Video cameras, tripods, mobile phones, cigarettes and hand bags are NOT permitted. Only handheld still cameras and binoculars are permitted without any extra charge. Security is very strict, and there are full body checks

Buying tickets:
Tickets for moonlight viewing are issued a day in advance, from the counter at the Archaeological Survey of India Agra office (22, The Mall, Agra 282001). They cannot be bought on the same day.

The counter is open from 10 am until 5 pm, however tickets are sold on a first-come-first-serve basis and get sold out pretty quickly. As I said earlier, only 400 tickets are available for a day.  To avoid crowds and security issues, there is a rationing system. They allot tickets starting with the first batch (8:30 pm batch).

To buy the ticket, you have to fill an application form. For overseas visitors to India, this includes providing a scanned copy of the id page of your passport with Name, Gender, Passport Number, Age, Nationality. For Indian visitors, the form asks for scanned copy of any valid ID Proof, as well as details such as Full Name, Age and Gender. Tickets are non-transferable. They are computer-generated and include these identity details.

The current rates for entrance tickets (as of Feb 2015) are below:
  • Adults: Foreigners Rs  750/-, Indians Rs  510/-
  • Children (3 to 15 years):  Foreigners Rs 500/-, Indians Rs  500/-
If you are going with a licensed guide, then there is no free ticket for the guide. The guide also needs to buy a ticket. If you wish to cancel a ticket, you can do so before 1 p.m. of the date of viewing. There will be a 25% cancellation charge.

You are supposed to show up at the Shilpgram Parking 30 minutes before the timeslot allotted to you. Your documents and ticket will be inspected and then you will be taken by battery-operated vehicle to the Taj. There is no charge for this vehicle ride.

My advice
Avoid the moonlight viewing, unless the ASI changes their rules and actually allows access to the white marble building. The beauty of the Taj is best seen in daylight, in my view, when you can get close to the monument, and go right into the building.

Source: A blog by Clayfied College students
In winter, visibility is poor at night, it is foggy and you cannot see much. It is also very cold. In the monsoons, rain may result in poor overall moonlight experience.

This is not a particularly romantic experience, especially the security process and being herded together with 48 other people on the platform. If you go with high expectations, you will be disappointed.

I've included a real-life view of what the Taj looks like by moonlight. It's from a trip report by some college students from Australia. There are lots of (photoshopped) fancy photos of the Taj at moonlight on the internet.

If you do want go for the moonlight view, then the important thing to note while planning your trip is that you still need to go again the next day to actually see the Taj. So plan to spend more time in Agra (ideally 2 nights) and make sure you are ready to spend again on the ticket.

If you have to buy the ticket yourselves:
Day 1 - Delhi to Agra (4hrs) by road. Buy the moonlight viewing ticket, visit Agra Fort, Itmad-ud-daulah's Tomb, Sikandra. See sunset view of Taj from Mehtab Bagh on the other side of river.  Overnight Agra
Day 2 - Visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Return and rest. Visit Fatehpur Sikri. Return and have dinner. Go for the moonlight view. Overnight Agra
Day 3 - Late breakfast and depart from Agra

If you have someone to buy the ticket for you:
Day 1 - Delhi to Agra (4hrs) by road. Visit Agra Fort, Itmad-ud-daulah's Tomb, Sikandra. See sunset view of Taj from Mehtab Bagh on the other side of river.  Moonlight view of Taj. Overnight Agra
Day 2 - Visit the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri; depart from Agra.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Cannabis / Ganja in India

I saw these cannabis leaves in the flower market at Chhatarpur. It was "Shravan Somwar", a Monday in the Shravan (monsoon) month. This day is dedicated to Lord Shiva, so probably the leaves were in the market for worshippers to offer at the temple. It is currently illegal to cultivate cannabis (except by special license, for medical / restricted use).
Cannabis leaves, Chhatarpur Flower Market, Delhi
In India cannabis grows wild in the Himalayan foothills. While cool high altitudes are ideal, it is a very adaptable plant, and I've seen it growing wild in the Thar desert. It even grows well in the warm and moist lands of south India (as you can see from the photo below). 
Ganja confiscated in Tamil Nadu by police, photo by The Hindu
Although cannabis cultivation is illegal now, it was not always so. Under Mughal rule, cultivation of marijuana was not restricted, and cannabis was grown throughout the country. People often grew it in their homes, or just collected it from places where it grew wild. 

The British decided to control and tax cannabis (good source of income!). So they passed an act in 1881, allowing cultivation only under license. Imports were restricted, and everything that was grown in India was put in bonded government warehouses. From there, it was sold to licensed vendors after duty had been imposed and levied. Thus the government coffers were enriched by something which was otherwise widely and cheaply available. 

In 1893, to study and understand the effects of cannabis better (and under pressure from the Temperance movement in Britain), the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was formed. The commission investigated the usage of cannabis in India, and produced a 3000+ page report in 1894, after interviewing and studying responses from 1,200 "doctors, coolies, yogis, fakirs, heads of lunatic asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers, smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja palace operators and the clergy". 
Some of the people studied by the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission
The first thing that emerged from the study was how widespread and common the usage of cannabis was.

Fakirs with their evening preparations of ganja and bhang
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK

In Delhi, the IHDC observed that "both the rich and the poor among Hindus indulge in this narcotic, whereas only the lower class of Muhammedans partake of it. The habitual indulgers are to be found in saises (horse handlers), dhobis (washermen), faquirs (holy men), labourers, kahars (palanquin bearers), and halalkhors (sweepers / scavengers). They may be found in groups of 20 or 30 from three to five in the afternoon in the Kerdun Shuraf, Panch Kua, Eed Ghar or on the banks of the Jumna, clubbing together for a smoke [costing] from a dumrie to a pic (low value copper coin) or two. The pipe is passed round until they become merry or angry and too often quite intoxicated. Brahmins (priests), mahajuns (merchants) and bunyas (traders) generally smoke charas at their own houses every day in the afternoon." 

After extensive study, the Committee finally concluded that "the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all." They also acknowledged the plant's usage for medicinal / therapeutic reasons. 

I found it very interesting to read this summary of the Commission's findings:

"Viewing the subject generally, it may be added that the moderate use of these drugs is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional. The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases, the injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable. 

The excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked. The injury done by the excessive use is, however, confined almost exclusively to the consumer himself; the effect on society is rarely appreciable. 

It has been the most striking feature in this inquiry to find how little the effects of hemp drugs have obtruded themselves on observation. The large number of witnesses of all classes who professed never to have seen these effects, the vague statements made by many who professed to have observed them, the very few witnesses who could so recall a case as to give any definite account of it, and the manner in which a large proportion of these cases broke down on the first attempt to examine them, are facts which combine to show most clearly how little injury society has hitherto sustained from hemp drugs

It sounds as if the Commission, after all its investigations, decided that the whole cannabis thing was quite harmless :) See full report here if interested.

But the Commission's report was ignored, and cannabis has since then continued to be treated as a dangerous drug. In 1925, India became a party to the International Opium Convention, which also contains provisions relating to the international control of cannabis, its derivatives and preparations.

Currently there's a piece of legislation called the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, which came into effect in 1985. Under this act, it is illegal for anyone in India to produce/cultivate, possess, sell, purchase, transport, store, and/or consume any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance, cannabis included. In 2014, this law was amended to allow some medical exceptions.  But for the large part, it is illegal to cultivate cannabis, and any attempts are met with raids and confiscations.

In spite of the law, there is still cultivation taking place, mostly illegally. There is wide social acceptance of cannabis due to cultural reasons (being associated with Shiva) and also due to its long standing and well established therapeutic properties (it is used in traditional medicine).

There are three forms of cannabis drugs in India - Bhang, Ganja and Charas.

Bhang Lassi, in Jaisalmer
Bhang is made from the dried matured leaves of the cannabis plant. The narcotic principle is best when the plant is mature, so leaves are plucked at the peak flowering time. Generally in the plains they harvest in summer (May and June). In the hills, July and early August are the collection time. The dried leaves are then sold in the market. To make bhang, a paste of the leaves is made, and then mixed with something nice to make it edible. For example, cold milk or yoghurt and spices are commonly added to make a bhaang lassi. But the sadhus and babas who are used to this stuff on a regular basis often just chew the leaves (especially when on the move and when they have no time or proper location to make any preparations).

Unlike bhang, Ganja is smoked, not eaten or drunk. Ganja is made from the dried flowering tops of female plants and twigs, so during the cultivation process, the male staminate are clipped by a 'ganja doctor' (yes, I kid you not, there is such a guy!). The ganja doctor is a guy who has expertise in identifying male/female flowers, he goes through the field cutting down all male staminate to ensure that there is no fruiting.

Charas is a sort of resin which is secreted by the leaves, young twigs, bark of stem and even the young fruit of the female cannabis plant. Indian varieties don't yeild much resin. In pre-British days, excellent charas came from China, from what is called Chinese Turkestan. It was one of the important items of trade between central Asia and India. But that trade has ended, and now if you want good charas, you have to go looking for it in the remote hill villages of Himachal Pradesh, where they make a hand-pressed version that is said to be among the best in the world.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Rickshaw wallah woes

It's a fine art, the stacking of cases on a rickshaw: there are no ropes to hold it in place. Only gravity, and a fine sense of balance. It's a mild winter sun, making it easy for the rickshaw puller. In summer the same trip will be gruelling.
In this photo, you can see the license number of the rickshaw. I wrote earlier, about the rickshaw wallahs of Delhi, and their never-ending fight to earn a living, given the artificial restrictions on getting a license (confiscations of unlicensed rickshaws are a good source of income for officials).

In 2012, the courts ordered the Delhi Government to treat Non-Motorized Vehicles (NMVs) as an integral part of city traffic (instead of treating them as an unwanted nuisance). Rickshaws were to be legalized by providing a system of open registration. This has been happening now, and I hear from the Manushi website that random confiscations of rickshaws have reduced.

In Sep 2014, the Union Urban Development Ministry has ordered the Delhi Government to create lanes for NMV vehicles on all arterial roads without delay. Let's see how long that takes!