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Iglesias de Cuenca: Todos Santos, the first church in Cuenca (3/3)

I must confess that I’ve been saving the best one of the three churches we saw for the last. I don’t know whether it because we were lightheaded from getting off a flight and heading directly to see the sights, or whether it was the novelty of being in a new city but it seemed to me that this little church threw open for us its heart and soul in a way that few places in the world have done before. We walked in and bought tickets, expecting a standard walk around the church, but what we got was an involved leisurely tour that allowed us to caress each piece of wood we fancied and linger at each pillar we liked.

It was here that we, once again, had the standard Ecuadorian conversation……

“De donde eres? Where are you from?”


“Eso es tan lejos! That’s so far away!…….Bienvendio a mi paid…. Welcome to my country….”

….but with the extra warmth and pride that Cuencans seem to have.

In Todos Santos, the oldest church in the city, those words came from the lips of a nun of the Oblate Order, which was set up in the late 19th century here and have played a key role in adding to the church structure as well as setting up community infrastructure, chiefly a school in the premises that was the first to permit Indian women to attend (and is still in existence today). Many of the Oblate nuns lived under an oath of silence inside the convent here and continue to be highly regarded in Cuenca. With this conversation began the most detailed tour of a heritage site that I’ve ever had.

In the late 1530s when it was constructed, the Iglesias Todos Santos or the All Saints Church was instrumental in helping the Spanish conquistadors establish the Catholic faith in a terrain steeped in Inca practices intermingled with the pre-Inca Canari culture (many pre-spanish graves were found during restoration). In fact, it is rumored to have been built on a site called Ushno, which was sacred to indigenous people and used for religious rituals by them.Even after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca in 1557 and began to hold their religious services in El Sagrario (read here), Todos Santos continued to be the primary church for the ‘evangelising’ of native people.

Architecturally, like in other monuments we saw of the period, Todos Santos was a curious mix of native technology and art with Spanish aesthetic sensibilities. Originally, the church was built on wooden frames and filled with adobe walls, built with a special mud-brick called bahareque, which the Canaris made with a mix of sugarcane, straw and clay.

Phoenix-like, this beautiful building underwent significant restoration between 2010-12 after being nearly destroyed in two fires in 2005 and 2007. The restoration uncovered the exquisite murals that had been unfortunately painted over in 1960. What we saw, therefore, was a church proud of its second lease of life. Locally made terracotta tiles, the detailed paintings over the stucco walls, the use of bright colors like cobalt blue, gold, red and yellow, the bright blue and gold ceiling tiles all clearly spoke of the influence of local art on this church, perhaps inevitable in those early years.

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Restored painting hanging in its original location


Restored church organ, still played in tune. We know because Kim pulled it out and played it!

As we climbed higher and higher into the bell tower and beyond, we could see the surviving original wooden beams replaced and reinforced by new ones labeled 2009 and 2010. Standing high above the terracotta roofs of the city, with stunning vistas all around us, it wasn’t hard to imagine the awe a religious structure as well-proportioned and intricately decorated as Todos Santos might have evoked in the Canari and Inca people back in the 16th century. After all, even we had our jaws dropping to the floor and our eyes agog!

On a lighter note, I discovered while scouring the Internet later that we weren’t the only ones who had got the full detailed tour of Todos Santos! Many others had given it rave reviews citing the care with which they had been shown around. Far from feeling bad about it, I’ve been feeling delighted that the little church is in such very dedicated hands!


Iglesias de Cuenca : El Sagrario, the Old Cathedral (2/3)

This is the first church we encounter our walk from our hotel to the main city square. Its pretty but unassuming white exterior and well proportioned bell towers does not prepare us for the treasures inside. As we purchase our tickets and enter, it glitters and dazzles, it awes us into silence, just as it did the small congregation in the early years after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca. Built on Inka ruins (I really like this spelling, used commonly in Ecuador, so I’m going to stick to it!) starting the year 1557, the church was likely the centre of religious and social life for the Spanish in colonial Cuenca (it appears indigenous people were not permitted to worship here) and in fact, was built through private donations. It remained the heart of the city till the New Cathedral was built much later in the 19th century (read post).

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Though longer a consecrated church but rather a carefully preserved museum, it still feels very much like a place of worship. The elegant, elongated proportion of the building translate into elegant arched hallways, richly decorated. Parts of the original paintwork on the walls have been restored, especially in the elaborate chapels along the sides of the main hall and the richness of colour and the beauty of the carefully crafted human forms are striking indeed. A three-dimensional depiction of the Last Supper now dominates the space before the gilded altar and the paintings in the altar section are particularly vivid. This is also the only place I have seen oil paints done on marble from the 16th century! The quality of the artefacts and the quality of restoration is impressive. Especially striking is the balance between restoration and preservation, with many places where the original paintwork or masonry has been left partially revealed just as they might have found it, giving the visitor a sense of how much changed over time.

Another interesting fact about this Cathedral is that its spire was used by the French Geodesic Expedition in 1739 as a point of reference to establish the arc of the earth. This becomes more relevant when I later visit the monument to the work of these brave scientists at Mitad del Mundo near Quito.


Iglesias de Cuenca : Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción (1/3)

We’ve made the most of the four days in Cuenca, the hub of Ecuadorian art and culture. On the absolute top of my list of sights are three fantastic churches we visited. Each offered a distinct experience and was meticulously preserved.

I’ll begin with the largest of all, the  Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly called the new Cathedral. Cuenca a city made for walking and its only fit that two of the major churches, this one and the older Iglesia del Sagrario are located across each on opposite sides of the pretty Park Calderon that functions as the old city’s main square.

Despite the massive brickwork walls that you see of the Cathedral as you walk around the city, nothing really prepares you for its sheer size. It reminded me instantly of the Byzantine churches like Aya Sofya that I’d seen in Istanbul. And I wasn’t very wrong, for Juan Batista Stiehle, the German Friar who drew up the plans for this Cathedral was certainly influenced by Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The main altar seemed to be more Baroque revival though, perhaps borrowing from the Baroque School of Quito, which in turned emerged from the extreme skill that native Indian communities had in working wood and metal.

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The cathedral is relatively new. Construction only began in 1885 and went on for a hundred years or so. The story goes that when it first threw its doors open, it could accommodate 9000 people, in a town of 10,000! Beyond its grand scale, certainly its most dominant feature, of special note are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazaba, who was invited to Ecuador for this assignment and then made the country his home, going on to design stained glass in prominent churches across the country.

The most exciting part of our visit to the New Cathedral was the climb up the tower to the top to see the beautiful domes clad with blue Czech tiles. The climb also sharpened our appreciation for the exquisite brickwork that still holds this magnificent structure together so well. The view of Cuenca from above, with its characteristic red tiled roofs, was a bonus!

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View of Park Calderon from atop the Cathedral

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Stunned by Quito’s old town: Some night clicks

After winding up our event at the Habitat3 conference here in Quito, Ecuador, we tested ourselves to an outing to the old city for dinner. Of course we had read up about the historic centre of the Quito but nothing could prepare us for the sheer unassuming beauty of it. Chok-a-block with people on a Monday night, families and young people out in full swing, the city showed us its lively, warm side tonight. 

We ate at a ‘cafeteria’, an endearing and affordable place full of chattering people where service was prompt and the elevated revolving chairs and continuous platform tip made for a unique experience. And then we stepped out into the stunning streets to see beautifully lit churches, plazas overflowing with life and the happy sounds of little children, a lovely sound and light show playing on the facade of the old theatre building, endless street grids with the lights of the sloping hills twinkling through in the distance. Mesmerised, all we want to do is go back to see historic Quito in daylight. 

The Maidens Hotel, a sliver of ‘old world’ amidst Delhi’s chaos

A colleague had an amazing idea. To take a bunch of us away from our usual office conference room to an alternate location for a day long brainstorm. A retreat within the city, she called it. In her infinite wisdom, she chose The Maidens Hotel in Civil Lines. And she stuck to her plan despite the flimsy excuses that others offered to escape the imprisonment of a location far from the buzz!

I felt a bit cheated at getting no opportunity to explore this lovely property that was built in 1903 to host guests attending the famous Delhi Durbar. Here are a few hasty shots taken post sunset. I’ll be back for more!


Kolkata’s delights: Eclectic Fairlawn Hotel

I’d only been once to Kolkata before, a long time ago. And I’d been dying to go. Our team at work had been engaged in a field study on auto rickshaws in Kolkata and a consultative workshop in December was the perfect occasion for us all to go in an engage with the project a bit more.

My colleague Manish, who is never satisfied with the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, bullied us all into booking what he called “a quaint heritage property on Sudder Street”. It’s only when we got there that we realized this was the famous Fairlawn Hotel. With its interiors painted a bizarre green, its walls cluttered with newspaper clips, photographs and paintings, and its rooms full of eclectic curios, Fairlawn is a sensory explosion indeed!

We spent quite a few amused and excited moments recognising famous faces, including Patick Swayze and Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor (who apparently spent their honeymoon here!), several photographs of British Royals (I’m not they ever visited though!) and some very detailed water colours of Fairlawn that I particularly liked. Fairlawn’s infamous owner Violet (Vi) Smith, who was well known as a talented racconteur and host, passed away at the ripe old age of 93 only in 2014! One could see, standing there in those rooms full of atmosphere, that Fairlawn had seen some really interesting times! The building, I gather from news reports online, is over 200 years and was inherited by Vi from her Armenian mother. Through its history, it has been a home, a barracks and mess for Canadian airmen during the World War II and finally, a hotel that was a must-visit for foreign visitors in Kolkata for years. Vi’s daughter Jennifer runs it now.

Amid our busy work schedules, we managed to sneak in some crazy pictures of ourselves in Fairlawn as well as some moments of leisure chatting while standing in its historic corridors.


Manish and Persis lunching in the outdoor area of Fairlawn’s restaurant, a popular hangout for the hip and cool young of Kolkata



The dining area….green is the signature colour of Fairlawn!


Persis, all ready for our workshop, in the hotel’s breakfast room


Post-workshop goofiness! Ming vase? Ooh la la!


And the Bankura horse too!


Lovely water colours, my favourite wall art in Fairlawn


Another one…


The upstairs living room where Vi held court


The stairs going up to the rooms


Outside the rooms, hangout space


The goofy selfie- Moi, Persis, Manish and Shamindra


Grins in the mirror




From dread to delight in Shimla, the Queen of the Hills

It was a rude shock getting back the heat of the plains after a weekend in Shimla and Mashobra. It rained quite a bit while we were there and though it cramped our sightseeing attempts a little, we weren’t complaining about the cold at all! A couple of us had to acquire more clothing, a jacket here, a pair of pajamas there, a small matter in the joy of being in the Queen of the Hills, Shimla.

I’d only been to the famed hill station as a very small child and had no memories of it at all. It seemed strange to me to have lived for so many years in the environs of Delhi and never having been to the most popular holiday destination of my fellow citywallas! So I grabbed the chance.

What struck me most getting into Shimla is the sheer density of the city and how precariously positioned it is on the massive mountains. As my friend Henri said in his comment on my Instagram pics from Shimla, it is a “disaster waiting to happen”! Certainly, it is a city run wild, with its older cramped parts intermingled with the recent multistorey additions, hotels and government offices all crowding together helter skelter.

The sheer density of Shimla hits you as you drive in

The sheer density of Shimla hits you as you drive in

Much of the building stock is old and diaplidated

Much of the building stock is old and diaplidated

The city rests helter skelter in the midst of the most stunning hillside scenery

The city rests helter skelter in the midst of the most stunning hillside scenery

We stayed at the Club Mahindra property in Mashobra, which is a quiet village ahead of Shimla. When in town, we parked and took the elevator up to the Mall, which is the only sensible thing to do! Because is it entirely predestrianized, the Mall in Shimla (despite the summer crowds) has a certain old world charm. I enjoyed the old colonial buildings and the ‘sense of place’ in the city. The weather, which turned from rainy and windy to sunny and bright in the few hours we were there, showed us the city in many different lights. I don’t want to crowd this post with too much info and I’d rather highlight some of our experiences separately. But here are a few glimpses!

It's hard to reconcile the incongruity of the crowded city gainst the magnificant backdrop of the majestic Himalayas beyond

It’s hard to reconcile the incongruity of the crowded city against the magnificent backdrop of the majestic Himalayas beyond


Christ Church


The Town Hall and the Mall

The Town Hall and the Mall

The most darling little buildings in the Mall

The most darling little buildings in the Mall

The charming hustle bustle of Kanpur

Once an architect, always….

For the first time since I have been associated with the city, I had the chance to get out and roam the streets of Kanpur and I was charmed by it. Living in the heart of the city meant that in any direction I went, I saw glimpses of its history. Monuments of Islamic, colonial and industrial architecture are strewn across this area, lending it a unique character and the crowds add to its bustling yet relaxed feel. Most of these pictures are taken from cars and cycle rikshas as we were in transit running various errands as part of the wedding mood.

The highlight of the visit was the trip to the famous Shivala that I had heard of from various family members over the years but never actually experienced. The site of an ancient Shiv temple. the area is better known for being a paradise for buying items of shringaar like bangles, costume jewelry, bindis, make up, slippers and jootis, etc. I could think of many many friends and cousins who would have lost their mind shopping here!

The trip had piqued my interest in this less known and even less appreciated city, once the Manchester of North India and major industrial hub, where some of the most prosperous families in Uttar Pradesh still reside. How little we value this sort of heritage, I kept thinking through the trip and grand visions of adaptive re-use of some of these absolutely stunning pieces of architecture kept swimming through my head!

Jewels of colonial architecture dot Kanpur city

Jewels of colonial architecture dot Kanpur city

The sprawling compound of the lal imli textile mills, now defunct...

The sprawling compound of the Lal Imli textile mills, once a hub of industry, now defunct…

Getting close to Shivalay

Getting close to Shivalay

An old well and ruins in the middle of a crazy market

An old well and ruins in the middle of a crazy market


Reading the morning papers as the customers begin to pour into the market

Reading the morning papers as the customers begin to pour into the market!

The pro bangle seller, a master of his craft! Only my lighter purse is testimony to his skill!

The pro bangle seller, a master of his craft! Only my lighter purse is testimony to his skill!


Snapshots on the riksha ride back home...wonderful streets, still retain their old flavor

Snapshots on the riksha ride back home…wonderful streets, still retain their old flavor

A typical Kanpuria scene, haggling with the riskhawalla!

A typical Kanpuria scene, haggling with the riskhawalla!

Love the relaxed hustle bustle of small town India. Of course, that is a misnomer considering Kanpur has over 3 million people!

Love the relaxed hustle bustle of small town India. Of course, that is a misnomer considering Kanpur has over 3 million people!


Old institutions, towering structures

And suddenly this...the contrasts are fascinating

And suddenly this…the contrasts are fascinating

And the crowds!

And the crowds!

Busy streets, quiet insides: Peeking into chawl life in Parel, Mumbai

Obviously, I didn’t do much thinking about the architecture of Parel and other parts of central Bombay when I grew up there. Bombay of the ’80s had a distinct flavor about it. I remember it as very working class. The mills were still functional and I have memories of visiting people in the chawls that the mill workers lived in. Now, you drive through a city of dead, decaying mills and tall glitzy (mostly ugly too!) skyscrapers. But what I absolutely love about this part of the city is the street front mixed-use architecture. It epitomizes all the good stuff we keep elucidating about mixed-use. Because the ground floor has street-facing retail shops, pavements must be in good order and there are always people around and about.

Mixed use main road in Parel, built in the European tradition

Mixed use main road in Parel, built in the European tradition

Built concurrent with the industrial age in Europe, iron was widely used as a structural material to build these chawls and mainstreet mixed-use structures

Built concurrent with the industrial age in Europe, iron was widely used as a structural material to build these chawls and mainstreet mixed-use structures

Intricate details!

Intricate details!

Parel was one of the original islands of Mumbai and came up as a business and industrial district starting the late 18th century all the way upto the beginning of the 20th century. The mills prospered and chawls were built by both the government and the mill owners to accommodate the men and women who worked in these mills. The chawl typology meant sharing a common entry passage as well as street areas and life was lived as much on the street as inside the home, which was usually overcrowded and dingy.

To put some figures in, in 1865 there 10 mills in Mumbai employing 6500 workers. At the peak of the textile boom in 1980, the mills employed near on 300,000 workers. And then they shut down in 1982 after the Great Bombay Textile Strike.

The residential areas are entered through a street that branches off the main roads creating small self-contained residential enclaves. Similar to the katras of Delhi and the pols of Amdavad, you step inside a world of quaint silence and domesticity, a world in which people know each other and your foreign footsteps break the comfortable humdrum of lives.

I got curious stares when I entered Krishnanagar in Parel. It’s beautiful gates beckoned me in. At the entrance, I saw a group of men sitting and reading papers, their red tikas displayed proudly as caste marks, denoting that this as a Hindu neighborhood. There is a temple inside the enclosure, people seem to know each other. Old ladies sat out on the common verandah talking, stitching, some people were getting ready to go to work, a young man was brushing his teeth while staring down at me, a young housewife in her trademark cotton printed nightie was walking her dog…It was a bustling middle class neighborhood with homes that proudly displayed plants, pictures, ornamentation of all types.

Life inside Krishnanagar had the humdrum pace that was familiar from my childhood in these parts, even though I never lived in a chawl like this

Life inside Krishnanagar had the humdrum pace that was familiar from my childhood in these parts, even though I never lived in a chawl like this

Another shot! Just because I wanted to think about how this might have been a long time ago!

Another shot! Just because I wanted to think about how this might have been a long time ago!

The entrance: Shot from inside Krishnanagar

The entrance: Shot from inside Krishnanagar

Pride in their home is something I distinctly remember. Manda mavshi who looked after me when I was a child had relatives who were mill workers. Their homes were always pretty, clean and organized

Pride in their home is something I distinctly remember. Manda mavshi who looked after me when I was a child had relatives who were mill workers. Their homes were always pretty, clean and organized

The gleaming two-wheelers in front of that stunning entry arch made a statement

The gleaming two-wheelers in front of that stunning entry arch made a statement

One gentleman stopped me to ask why I was taking pictures. He was reassured by my reasonably fluent Marathi and accepted my explanation that I had lived nearby as a child and was revisiting the neighborhood out of sheer nostalgia. His attitude was not threatening, but clearly voyeurism wasn’t going to be tolerated here!

Uncharacteristically, I decided to enter the little temple and pay my respects to the Gods within. Perhaps that’s what helped me make it to my flight later that day, despite many obstacles, just in the nick of time!

Enjoying the environs of Kashmiri Gate: Multiple experiences in one city- Sep 17, 2012

I am always up for a jaunt to Old Delhi. Today’s trip was made possible by an opportunity to interact with third year students of architecture in Guru Gobind Singh University that is located inside the Ambedkar University campus at Kashmiri Gate.
Perched atop a cycle ricksha from the Metro station to the campus, I took in this quaint part of the city with unabashed curiosity. St James Church, sections of the old city wall, run down but still beautiful buildings replete with rounded edges and the wrought iron details stared back.
Inside the campus, I saw structures that are quainter still. Including the building that houses the archaeology department and the Dara Shukoh library that had a colonial facade and Shahjahani cusped arches inside!
The interaction with the kids was invigorating and layered, and I was satisfied that I could provide some valuable inputs. The walk back to the station through back lanes revealed some decaying structures, the underbelly of the city and some interesting stray dogs! All in an afternoon’s work!
On the ride back, interestingly, I struck up a conversation with a European lady who had lived in this city for six years. We discussed whether Old Delhi would get gentrified soon, how the redevelopment process could be managed to conserve its unique character and how lucrative property values could simply ruin its fabric once the old structures started falling down! Urban redevelopment is what the kids I had just spoken to were also addressing in their studio project. How complex and unresolvable the problems appear and yet, there is a need to take a stand, have a vision for different parts of the city. The sheer enjoyment of the experience of the trip to Kashmiri Gate today and the sharp contrast from the urban fabric of Gurgaon underlines the need for us to conserve older and historic parts of the city. So we can experience the past in the present and take pride in our ability to enjoy multiple slices of time in our city.






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