Saturday, 29 March 2014

A historical link across two weekends

Over two weekends I visited first St Thomas Mount and then the Santhome Basilica. It was mainly because someone in our sketch-group was kind enough to organise sketching permissions at both these places one after the other. But having gone to each place I started reading up about the connections - and was amazed at the variations in the stories that are available.

First off, the basics. St. Thomas Mount is a small hillock near the Chennai Airport. Legend has it that St Thomas, one of the original apostles of Christ came to Kerala in 52 AD and slowly made his way across to Madras where he was killed in 72 AD on the top of that hillock. His body is said to be interred in a tomb in Mylapore over which is built the Santhome Basilica. This is the most popular legend.

There is a Shrine - Our Lady of Expectation - which is a pilgrimage site on the top of the hillock and a winding stairway up to it. Very picturesque and very hot in the mid-day sun. The stairway has resting points and 14 "stations of the cross" along its side which are statues showing Jesus dragging the cross flocked by a small crowd.

As I was there sketching on a sunday, I experienced the full force of the Sunday Mass. As soon as a sermon in English concluded and the people poured out another wave of them would go in and another sermon would begin in Tamil. Once that was over there was one in Hindi and there was one in a European language as well (Portugese? Latin?)

People who came out would walk back down the stairway in groups singing hymns or some would hang around at the top as there was an excellent view of the airport from here. The children especially were endlessly thrilled to watch flights take off and land.

While the legend of St Thomas is questionable, the location is famous for another event which is completely factual and extremely impressive. Colonel William Lambton began the great trigonometrical survey if India from the top of this hillock in 1802. There is a commemorative bust of the great man at the very spot. I felt humbled thinking about the enormity of the task - few dedicated men  holding chain links and spot levels going all across our huge country and coming up with a highly accurate map.

In comparison,  my visit to Santhome was on a saturday and the Basilica was very quiet and peaceful. No matter what the veracity of St. Thomas's presence in India, the building is beautiful and a pleasure to sketch. Oh, and one last thing - did you know that St Thomas is the patron Saint for Architects?!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Trade Fair

The Trade Fair is in town. It's located at the Island Grounds and the official timings are 11 am to 10 pm. When I got there at 11 am not only was the place deserted but it wasn't even open. The ticket booths were not manned and the previous evening's debris was strewn about. It was also baking hot!

 Thankfully this guy spotted the sketching gear which several of us had peeping out of our bags and he came up and said sketch me! Five minutes later the ticketing line opened and in we went.

The main walkway was a sandy path with stalls on either side. First up was a shop selling plastic inflatable balls (and ducks and rabbits) of all colours and sizes. Further on were shops selling just about anything - clothes, hats, underwear, vessels - a completely random selection.

After walking past a few shops I spotted a sugarcane juice stall. Also deserted. I guess the vendors didn't expect anyone to turn up so early - at opening time. But the machine brought back so many memories for me of Ganne ka Ras on the pavements of Ahmedabad as a college student, sitting on low Modas and sipping the juice which was more slushy and icey than actual juice. And further memories of the morning after... which I won't elaborate on here.

After walking for a while down this sandy lane the shops eventually gave way to rides. Hideous odd shaped fibreglass chair-cars resembling helicopters, teacups, fishes, cartoon characters and what-nots in garish colours. Some would move round on tracks while others swung up and down. You get the picture.

And finally at the very end - the giant (or Gaint as they decided to call it) ferris wheels. There were two. These could be seen from the main road as you circle around Napier Bridge and drive to the entrance of the fair. This is what glows with lights in the night, dominating the marina skyline, attracts all the kiddies at the beach to drag their folks over the next day. And it was quite a site, to sit under it and look up.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Kerala Trip - Part 5

A short drive from where we stayed was a place called Chingenachera Kshetram. It was otherwise known as the big Banyan tree temple. You had to drive half an hour away from the main highway and into narrower and narrower lanes passing small hamlets and finally you come to a large pond. On the bank of the pond to one side, rising like a mountain is a gigantic banyan tree. As you approach closer you can make out that it has three trunks or groupings of roots. Its hard to tell whether it is three trees or one large tree taking support three times. But all of them have shrines at their base and upon closer examination you find many many hundred small model houses and huts strung up on the roots like a strange ornamental festoon around the three shrines. I couldn't make out the idol inside the shrine. It was swathed in a white dhoti and garlanded many times over, plus it was inside a deep recess in the tree trunk. But the model houses outside were of all shapes, sizes and colours. Some were roughly made but others even had neat terracotta tiles painted on the sloping roofs.
Apparently, locals from all surrounding areas come to this tree when they plan to build their own home and pray to the tree for good luck and a good house with no hitches. They make a symbolic model of the house they plan to build and during the prayer string up the house. While the prayers are happening the women of that family cook a meal for the gathering and after offering some food to the idol everyone eats together.
The three trees are said to be meat eating, fish eating and vegetarian and so a community worships at the shrine of their dietary preference.
On our ramblings around the country-side we made a brief visit to the forest office at Nemmara to discuss possible camping options and permissions. Nemmara is a much larger town than Kollengode, but still the government office was in a large wooded compound.
The compound is so large that visitors can park inside and this guy was next to our car. See what I mean, when I said the autos here are so roomy? So much bigger and broader too than the autos in Madras.
Close to Nemmara is the Pothundy dam. It is a much larger dam than the Chuliyar and is supposed to be a local tourist attraction. So off we went to see it.
This place was frequented by tourists and had a look-out point (read ugly circular pavilion probably designed by the PWD) . There was a large fallen tree trunk that made for more interesting seating and along came an ice-cream cart. It was the middle of the day and he had something called Mango Duble. A mis-spelt double, it was bright orange mango ice on a stick with a vanilla ice-cream centre. Needless to say, the Mango Duble (doo-blay) became another foodie hit on our trip.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Kerala Trip - Part 4

More sketches of food! Yes. Isn't it obvious. Any good holiday is made of good company, good locations and good food. Murali Hotel was in a little town called Kambrathchala. It was five kilometres from us and we managed to walk there and back one evening. Dinner was light fare like dosa with masala... or dosa without masala depending on whether you got there before 7 pm or not. But lunch was an elaborate affair. After a "meals" at Murali Hotel there was nothing else to do but have a good siesta.

The town of Kambrathchala is actually just a small triangle of 3 streets. Most buildings are houses, a few are shops - hardware, provisions,  vegetables, welding and repairs, bakery, mechanic and there are two or three eating places. In such a peaceful and remote setting we amused ourselves as best as we could. It takes a day or two to slow down from our city life conditioning.

But if you have good company, slowing down and staying away from the city is such a lovely thing. The people are more cheerful and helpful. The air is cleaner, water too. So many birds! You take pleasure in the simple things because you have the time to enjoy them. Like the soda discovery.
The day we arrived, Rajiv declared that we absolutely must try the Narangi Soda. It was a glass with freshly squeezed lime juice and some sugar syrup topped with plain soda. Very refreshing in the heat. After stopping on our way home each day for narangi soda I did this sketch on the third or fourth day. There was a little sign and since I didn't know how to read Malayalam I copied it carefully. Somehow it struck me that neither of those two words could possibly be narangi so I asked the shopkeeper what it was....and that was how we discovered Sambaram soda!
The letters there in the sketch actually say "Milma Sambaram" - milma being the name of the brand and sambaram is the local term for buttermilk. From that day on we forgot all about narangi soda because the sambaram with freshly chopped chillies, ginger and topped with chilled soda became an all time greatest hit!