This record of a period of my travel has had me in two places: the colonial city, and the temple town. Both, it would seem, are expressions of nostalgia: one in sentiment (mostly my own) and the other in, quite obviously, religion.
The streets of Calcutta have an indefinable charm. Kolkata, Kalighat, the dark goddess’ city, is strangely a city of light: everywhere there are blue and white lights entwined round the street lights, matching the blue and the white of the painted railings, walls and the streetlights themselves. The charm is not just in the light. One cannot say why the streets speak back to you, but when you do hear it, it is a quietly building yell, a basenote of sweetness cutting through the noise of the obviously tattered edges too limp, with humidity, to susurrate loud enough to cover the joy.
Coming in on the train, I was immediately confronted by the Howrah bridge: finding companions for the taxi ride to town, the ferry ghat was closed, and arguing, or collective bargaining, for a decent taxi price ended up in us sweeping across the Hooghly and down into the town. Finding ourselves at a loss for cheap rooms, I proposed to my one remaining companion that we try for the Fairlawn Hotel, an old colonial holdover on Sudder Street, the traveller’s ghetto of Cal. The hotel may have helped contribute to the above sentiments: it was definitely faded in its glory, with pictures of the Royal Family everywhere, newspaper cuttings showing the famous people who had graced the hotel, tribal artifacts from the North East, slowly turning ceiling fans, cheap cold beer, and a dead British hostess whose lingering influence hung over the place like a protective cobra hood.
The food of Bengal is exquisite: bitter vegetables, perfect rice, sweet fresh water fish, boneless sea fish steamed in mustard paste within a banana leaf. Finding a packed family place a stones throw from the hotel was lovely. I spent the rest of the day sweltering in the Indian Museum, which was interesting for its architecture, as the oldest public museum in India, all Ionic columns, and for its excellent and extensive collection of Gandharan sculpture: moustachioed bodhisattvas, Buddhas with their exquisite hair piled on top of their heads, and some very interesting ‘middle class’ sculptures of day to day life rendered into the Jakatas, stories of Bodhisattvas previous lives. The evening was a gimlet at Peter Cat, a bar where the staff all laboured under turbans, and I felt like I was in the opening of the Temple of Doom.
The heat of the next day was almost intolerable, pushing down with humidity. Pushing through, I crossed the Maidan, a large green park made by flattening villages for the guns of Fort William. This piece of colonial heritage, I had not realised, was still an infantry base of the Indian army, and therefore completely closed off. But my efforts were not in vain, meeting as I did some semi-wild horses that were roaming the Maidan; I assume they were normally yoked to tourist traps (ha) but not needed in the summer.
Upon entering the city from its green park lungs again, I spotted a church, paid my 10 rupees entrance fee and almost screamed with delight on parsing the grave stones. Here was the final resting place of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, he of White Mughals, and who I had pursued through Hyderabad a few years ago. Having no one to eulogise to, I was confined to taking a photograph and sitting in contemplation, not of the mysteries of the trinity, but of the strange coincidences of history that would bring me randomly to a man I consider close to a personal hero.
Hiking north, I entered the leafy centre of Calcutta, BBD Bagh, formerly Dalhousie Square, and made my sweaty way round to what I had actually come to see, the Writers’ Building. A squat mass of colonial assertion, it has a quality as of something entirely Roman: here, in the new province, we show what, and how powerful, our architecture is. Fronted by the three column orders, and with sculptural renderings of the standard stuff, arts, commerce, science, complete with both Indian and European practitioners, its statement is undeniable: work with us and we can build these columns, this idea, manage these riches, together, but, but, you always have to remember who is in charge, and its we who brought these columns, this idea, and will ultimately take these riches. Fittingly, the building is currently being hollowed out, having served its present usefulness to the state government, the old offices of the Honourable East India presumably being given air conditioning and more power points. They’ve left the facade intact though, as a reminder, or a curse.
While sitting, sweating, and observing the building, I wrote a poem, and then gandered at its independence history; there is a statue of three men outside, who, in 1930, broke into the building, and shot the, apparently, cruel inspector of prisons. There followed a brief gun battle and the assured immortality of these men. Indeed the square over which Writers’ presides, and hence the neighbourhood, is now named after their initials: BBD Bagh. To be a nationalist is to live forever.
And yet the empire lives on, in my hotel, and in the thoroughly clement experience I had meeting a friend, being taken for phenomenal Bengali food, and then driven to the cathedral, for its pre-Raphaelite stained glass, and their beautiful home. My next stop was Kalighat, the temple that gives Calcutta (Kolkata) its name, a riot of priests, flower throwing, and standing on scaffolding to get a look at the Goddess. It was weird to me that my final experience of the city would be this colourful and baffling Hindu experience (as ever the tikka blessing on my forehead melted in my sweat), but I was saved from poetic strangeness by my hosts: the bus station was close to a club one was interviewing for. And there I was, back on the safer ground of a 150 year old swimming club, sipping a beer, and feeling that colonial nostalgia with full force. But I was to find that the weirdness of Kalighat was also a form of nostalgia too, just not one I could access easily.
Thoughts on the facade of the Writers’ Building, Calcutta
There are so many columns in my head,
I think, propping eyes open,
making my brain a portico,
my mouth the door, to temple, palace, or
sucking in heated air, buildings there to impress,
converse wholly with the oppressive heat.
Do I need to be Samson
to break down the things my head has built,
all Corinthian and fluted,
but only bricks behind stucco,
not marble, and rooted only a few feet,
I hope, not set in concrete;
perhaps shaving my thick hair might help…
I’ve always assumed
great liberation in growing,
the libidinous libationary side
of myself made chthonic
by the creep of my hair
to entangle the columns,
grow thicker than
protrude from cracks
peep round ionic skirts
make doric hazed at the edge.
Thats it – the round column of this certainty
have no edge,
and the edges of things
is where their true nature lies.
I hope I have the strength
to collapse them into each other
make the edged, upright, roman
slide into itself,
made edgeless, one, then nothing.
Puri is Brighton and Varanasi’s very uptight child. The night bus was a little jolty, the roads in Bengal and Odisha not being the world’s best, and I was rudely awoken by the bus attendants realising I was still behind the curtain of my sleeper birth; we were two hours early. I reached a budget hotel, and then conked out for a few hours.
The beach, what gives this place half its fame, is a fascinating blend of Bengali holiday makers and those trying to sell them things: camel rides and candy-floss mostly. I walked the sandy and blustery couple of kilometres down the beach, revelling in cooling my feet in the warm ocean for the first time since landing. My destination was the Jagganath temple, the reason for the town’s strange ambience: a supremely holy site dedicated to a representation of Shiva (as Lord Jagganath, or Juggernaut) turned into a tourist extravaganza. The old part of town is equal doses of sweet shops, tourist handicraft traps, astrologers and endless wee temples, shrines and pilgrim rest houses. I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed into the main temple precinct, not being a Hindu, but I had read it was possible to overwatch the temple from buildings built next to its walls. This however, proved a forlorn hope, the temple square having been recently renovated and extended out (you could see the concrete scars and sheer cut offs on the buildings around). So much for that. The height of the shikhara was definitely impressive, dominating the space above the high walls, but somewhat underwhelming for not being able to see it in the architectural context of it.
I wandered back to my hotel through the town and beach alternately, often accosted by locals: it seems Puri was once a great foreign tourist town, but they have tapered off in recent years. Dinner was a place billed as authentic Odia cuisine, which was excellent: vegetables and papaya boiled into the dal, and salty fish curry.
Stumbled through the heat to Konark the next day, a great sun temple built to look as a simply giant chariot. The main reason I came, the sculptures of the horses pulling this chariot, were very impressive, E B Havell, the greatest colonial art historian, calling them the prime example of Indian figurative, mimetic art. His argument was that the artists of sub-continental traditions strived to extend their artistic vision beyond the merely mimetic, and achieve greater representative clarity by expressing what they could visualise, and not what they saw. Those of the colonial period who claimed that Indian art was inferior to European due to its non-mimetic nature, need only to look to Konark, according to Havell. And he was right. The horses, while a little later than anything from Greece or Rome, are every bit as impressive in their execution as Augustus’ equine statue on the Palatine or the Baroque vision of the Trevi fountain, visibly straining against the bit to pull the huge temple behind them.
The rest of the temple was a riot of intricate and erotic carving, with images of Vishnu dominating the deity quotient, and absolutely fascinating vignettes of daily life, hunting, and much sex. As at Khujuraho many years ago, my guide could not offer a thoroughly convincing explanation of the prevalence of sexual motifs, other than unblushingly saying it was all just for tantric religious reasons. Indeed, we were joined as we wondered round by a baba newly down from Rishikesh, who was intrigued by what my guide was expounding (an entire numerical history of Indian religion, the reason for gates at cardinal directions, the notion of temple as map of the universe etc. etc.) but his English wasn’t good enough for me to question him beyond his commitment to Brahmacarya, or the power derived in youth from celibacy, and his opinion of the frankly acrobatic sculptures going on behind us.
The frankness, and frank joy, with which the sculptures where expressed made me think again on an old chestnut: the puritan morality of India now has many sources, notably Islam and the Victorians, but given the huge emphasis on the rejection of sex, or at least celibacy, as far back as the Upanishads, where did this simple love of its representation, and, presuming by extension, the act itself, come from? The temples that are famous for erotic representations, Konark, Khujuraho and some Nepali temples, bear no geographical, temporal, cultural or political unifiers. The rejection was never the disgust of Mani, though Buddhism’s strange demonisation of the vagina definitely influenced him, but the counterpoise of course is the general sensuality of temple representations, where they are not outright erotic. It must then be a rejection of the rejection, as, if it is just the development tantra it is too public, not the hidden meanings that discipline implies. Call it a last hurrah, before the euphemism and double speak of the times down to today.
Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, is a frankly charming town, which the locals I spoke to were justly proud of. Apparently laid out by a German fellow at the turn of the century, it is quite green, and has impressive roads. But this is not why it is famous. Literally the temple city, it has, in its old part, over 100 temples scattered round, and some being truly gorgeous little architectural gems.
Also it contains some remarkable Jain cave monasteries within the city limits, one carved to look like a lions mouth, but really comes off as something from Indiana Jones.
But that was not what I came for, that was the airport. However, getting a taxi to my overpriced hotel, I was offered a tour, again overpriced, that would take in Dhauli, a place I had kind of given up on seeing. This was the site, apparently, of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, but more accurately it is the site of the ur-rock edict, the one that makes it all fall into place. Here Ashoka decried the necessity of war, and seems, uniquely, to mean it. Of course, the fact that his empire fell apart after his death due to this pacifistic policy should probably be, and has been, taken as an ill omen to chakravartin who hopes that his world conquering would lead to peace. However, this does not deny the sheer epicness of the thought he had, and the idiosyncratic nature of his decision to place it in rock for the world, and specifically those who his last battle was against, to see.
The edict contains two clauses specific to Odisha (or Kalinga, as it was called) about the protection afforded by Ashoka’s state to certain groups of priests, and these replace, in a wonderful epigraphic, archaeologic, and historical symmetry, the clauses in other edicts that speak of his conversion after the war in Kalinga. It was hidden for a very long time, until rediscovered by a British officer, which seems strange, as the rock has a fairly large elephant, representing Buddhism, sticking out the top. But then Buddhism itself was forgot in this land. And thats my nostalgia.
(On the way back, my driver, seeing I was something of a history buff, smiled conspiratorially and asked if I wanted to see yet another temple [this was having passed already many, many of the 100. It was hot, but I agreed. And was pleasantly surprised. A quiet road off the highway led to an even quieter village, arrayed around a pond with a shrine in the centre. Next to the pond is one of very few temples in India dedicated to the 64 Yoginis, female manifestations of shakti, or power. This temple was charming, round, without a roof, and presided over by friendly [male] Brahmins, who became friendlier after I donated 100 rupees for a Durga puja ceremony. All 64 Yoginis are represented as idols around the edge of the temple, and the ASI guide proceeded to name them all for me. A female Ganesh was the weirdest one. I didn’t want to leave, this being the quietest and most interesting temple I had seen in a while, but my driver was waiting, and I had a plane to catch the next morning.)
Hyderbad airport was far busier than I’ve ever seen it, having had to pass through it three times in my life now. It felt more exuberant and lively, even if its marble and Western edges had frayed a little (three plugs I tried were dead); this was, strangely, my first sense of the business India I had been reading about for years, that confident, strutting, cosmopolitan and English-speaking side of the country, so far removed from me, in that it bore both resemblances to a former time in my life, and is never prevalent in the towns of tourists and travellers I end up frequenting while here. Delhi mutes all things, so I couldn’t even feel in Gurgaon what I did in the airport.
Landing in Chennai was hot. Really hot, I, having forgotten what humidity was, wearing boots and socks. I spent my time there pushing round what remained of the old fort, it again having been transformed into an Indian Army base, but this time with a museum! The only artefact of real interest was a medal awarded the city of Madras for weathering a Japanese bombardment, something I didn’t know had happened. Most of the fort was closed off, and its old, and very Anglican looking church, was closed. But I was to get my dose of churches.
My host, a good friend and Shia Muslim, acquiesced to my strange wish to see everything associated with St. Thomas in the city, notably his tomb (body unfortunately somehow in Italy), the church over which, Santhome, made a big deal about its relation with Santiago and St Peters, also built over apostle’s graves, and the site of his martyrdom. This is a big pilgrim’s hill in the south of the city, whose stairs I climbed in the early evening fug, and, it cannot be denied though dehydration was definitely an issue, it did have some kind of feeling about it that I have only experienced at Christian sites, like Peter’s, or the ruins of the strange octagonal church said to have housed St Phillip the Apostle’s body at Heriapolis in Anatolia. Perhaps its because I came up in the tradition, and had the rituals laid out, if not substantiated, for me from a young age. This belies the harsh feeling of incomprehension I still get when trying to test Christianity for its clarity, but when it comes to historical interest, there is none more fascinating or thrilling. Maybe its my nostalgia for the certainties of childhood. Thomas’ particular site was made the more interesting by its immaculate night time views of the megacity spread below, and the hurried faith of those piling into the shrine for a quick prayer before it closed up.
I took a cab to meet my host and was shown one of only two Shia mosques and Imambara in the city. Getting out of the car was interesting, I was arrested by the smell of roasting meat and the uncomprehending stares of those denizens of the few dense alleys I had to walk to reach the mosque. My hosts family where lovely, fed me excellent food, and, I think and hope, appreciated my endless questions on Shiism. But there’s another for our nostalgia, to rerun the heat of Karbala, to think of what the world could have been, what the Imam might have done. And, in a twist, nostalgia for the future when the Hidden Imam makes himself known again.
From Chennai I raced across Tamil Nadu, first to Tanjore, or Thanjuvur, as it goes by now. Here is a temple, the centre of an ideology, and something I have thought about a lot: aryanisation. From here, a thousand years ago, spread an architecture and religion, two thousand years old by then, that has influenced polities from Madurai to the Philippines. Why, or more precisely, what power does this creed have. Sure, the Chola state at its apogee, the building of the main Tanjore temple, was a naval and administrative power unrivalled, but why exactly this version, this religion, this veneration of a holy land some hundreds of dusty kilometres north?
Unfortunately Tanjore was pretty short on answers: I had my impressions of Chola power firmly retrenched by the scale and beauty of the temple, but the answers I sought remained locked in the heat haze. The palace, the other attraction of the town, held fewer answers still, but to its own enigmas: why was there a huge whale carcass in the attic of its old arsenal? (No clue) How many tiny museums of creepy rows of European porcelain figures did it contain? (2, both for some reason on different tickets to the main entrance ticket) Can I get bored of South Indian bronze galleries? (No, unless they are unventilated) I moved on.
Swiftly, as it turned out. Madurai was a another temple town, but this time the temple was behind high walls, and its history was less important than Tanjore. What it was though, was an entire city, surround the shrine, with covered shopping colonnades, repair masons and a giant hidden cow shed I discovered out back. But I had decided, given that I could store my backpack for two rupees in the temple left luggage, that I would push on out that evening, waiting many, many hours in the bus station for the government bus to Ooty, a hill station.
The bus was something close to a hell, with hellishly loud Tamil songs played to keep the driver, and all the passengers, awake. The lights may have gone out, but the sound system keeps on running. I also had to change buses in the middle of the night, despite it being apparently a direct bus, and this driver kept the tunes off. Until we were twenty minutes out of town of course, and then they were on again in full force, on a speaker system with much greater decibels. And then the bus started rising in the hills and I began to freeze in the linens I had had to wear to keep from boiling earlier in the day.
But Ooty, a place of supreme rest and beauty, was worth it to reach. I could cook food, have a cheap hostel bed, and company for the first time in what felt like a while. It is one of the beautiful places of the world, and it looks like a tropical Scotland. And there again is my nostalgia.