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Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen

We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration.  After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.

This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.

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The impressive gate and ancestor hall in Nantou remains unchanged. The white blank wall with the UABB signage on it hides a politically contentious painting that caused a furor during the event’s opening. The controversy led to the review and censoring of many artworks, raising queries about the UABB as a space for dialogue, creativity and expression.

Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.

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Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.

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What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.

On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!

Paris: Where grey is beautiful

Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!

Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.

We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.

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Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris je t’aime!

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The perfectly grey sets off the pyramid very nicely. Located outside the Louvre, it is one of the most understated architectural icon in the world

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Inside the lobby of The Louvre Museum

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Looking out

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Looking in

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Art for everyone

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Crossing the Seine in line with La Institut

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We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.

Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!

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In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!

We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!

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Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.

Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.

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Through the door….

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To the narrow court inside

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We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!

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Another serene space in busy Paris

Another serene space in busy Paris

 

Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua

When we found a slice of our Friday free in Jakarta, we seized the chance to walk around Kota Tua, the old city. Located in the northern part of the city, generally considered the poorer part, Kota Tua had a run down but distinctly historic feel to it.

Most predominant here is the old town of Batavia built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early 17th century around what is called the Fatahillah Square. Over the next decades, the Dutch expanded the city to swallow the old Hindu settlement of Jayakarta (the origin of the modern city’s name). From what I could see, they followed the planning style of the cities back home in The Netherlands and built a town square, public buildings, canals and tree-lined streets.

Standing in that town square, I was instantly transported to the many historic city centers I have visited in The Netherlands – Haarlem in particular, because I am more familiar with it. The clean rectangular geometry and scale of the town square and the arrangement of buildings around it were very similar, but while inner city areas in Holland have been carefully preserved even as modern activities fill them, erstwhile Batavia felt neglected and even desolate, with a smattering of touristy activities.

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Disappointed, we moved on quickly, briefly glimpsing the interiors of Cafe Batavia that offered a peek into what colonial life might have been and then moving out from the square to explore a bit more of the neighborhood. The Kota Tua area has had its ups and downs through history, especially because of posher developments in the southern areas of the city even within the colonial period. Independent Indonesia was not quick to recognize the historic value of this neighborhood, giving it an official heritage status only in 1972. Revitalization plans did start up in 2004 and have received particular momentum in 2014 under Jokowi’s governorship of Jakarta, when a public-private partnership called ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR- Indonesian’s LOVE abbreviations) was set up. A section of Kota Tua was cordoned off for restoration work under this project, but to my eyes the scope of the intervention seemed very small.

Greg and I walked along the neglected and dirty canal (Kali Besar), ruing the deterioration of the buildings on either side of it, structures that must have been rather magnificent at one time. Even a building like Toko Merah that have been through successive iterations of renovation and has a rich history stood locked and empty.

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In the lanes behind the mainstreet, we found small factories and godowns, many hawkers and warungs, a quietly bustling working class neighborhood. Walking further westward, we crossed underneath the railway tracks, sensing we were closer to the sea while we were surrounded by dense kampungs on either side. My radar for colonial architecture led me to a set of relatively well maintained structures that had once been part of the VOC shipyard. The shipyard had been shut in 1809, but recently this small group of buildings seem to have been revitalized, housing a cafe, restaurant and a music school (which had intelligently played with the historic acronym to name itself ‘Voice of Indonesia’!). Stepping inside, I felt a distinct vibe. The building felt like a grand old dame, with polished woodwork and manicured landscaping combined with a sleepy old world charm. We sat down and grabbed a beer, taking it all in and gathering our breath before the stressful dash to the airport in Jakarta’s legendary messed up traffic!

We did make it to our plane in time and we’re in Jogjakarta now. Look out for upcoming posts on Borubudur and the special hipster vibe of Jogja!

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1740 map of Batavia (Source: Wikipedia commons)

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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!

   
    
 

A sight for sore eyes: Humayun’s Tomb

Visiting a heritage site always gives me a high. I’ve had people roll their eyes at me about my particular enthusiasm for ruins and tombs, palaces and serais, but there is a magic in the texture and aura of brick and stone that has stood there so long and seen so much change. The Humayun’s Tomb complex, so lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, is a real treat to visit. Perhaps ‘the’ showcase heritage treasure for Delhi at this time, as the city struggles year after year to get onto UNESCO’s Heritage City list (this year I hear it’s losing out to Amdavad). It’s a pity, but I do find that a number of Delhi’s important heritage sites are not well maintained, with no information to help visitors contextualize what they are experiencing and with very little connection to the city at large.

On the Saturday morning we rambled through the Humayun’s Tomb complex, we saw long lines of chattering school children, photography enthusiasts, tourists and families, all excited and many in awe. I learn something new each visit at the small exhibition set up at the entrance to the Tomb. This time, it helped me explain a bit of the history, architecture and cultural context of the monument to our visitors from the Netherlands.

Humayun’s tomb never fails to impress; its scale and proportions, its craftsmanship so perfect. But beyond its historical value and perhaps because of it, what Udai and me (we’ve both visited several times before) most enjoyed this time around were the beautifully landscaped spaces that surround the smaller monuments in the complex. Spaces that allow you to sit and contemplate life, spaces that involve a little climbing up and down and offer a sense of adventure. As I pen this post, it does occur to me that this is a metaphor for how in life side dishes are often far more pleasurable than the mains and what we consider the ‘extra’ often adds the best flavours!

Some snapshots from my iphone6.

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The beautiful restored archway is a visual treat indeed

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Isa Khan’s Tomb, particularly the walkable boundary wall, is a particular favourite. This is the ideal place to sit and watch, people and parakeets….

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When your pre-teen does not want to be in the picture with you, you find other ways…

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And then, miraculously, he consents to a twofie!!

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Some 160 members of Humayun’s family are buried in this structure. This row of tombs on the external plinth, without any covering or enclosure, caught my eye….

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Looking outside from inside the jali….there are many ways to put things in focus…

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Not a brick in this Wall: Profoundly affected by the Berlin’s history

Unmoved by Checkpoint Charlie, Udai marched off in the direction he had been told to, looking for tangible remains of the Berlin Wall. We found this spectacular piece of history just round the corner and along with it, an exhaustive exhibition about Berlin’s history starting from the early 1900s until after the World War II. I’m glad we came here that first day in Berlin as it helped set the tone for our experiences of the city.

Exhibit below, wall on top. Ain't that neat?

Exhibit below, wall on top. Ain’t that neat?

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Ruins of a Gestapo building. Poignant, that's the keyword here

Ruins of a Gestapo building. Poignant, that’s the keyword here

Our fellow tourist as engrossed and silent as we were. I saw people shaking their heads in absolute disbelief at some of the stories told at the exhibit

Our fellow tourists as engrossed and silent as we were. I saw people shaking their heads in absolute disbelief at some of the stories told at the exhibit

Trying to wrap our little heads around perhaps the most turbulent phase of European history in recent times

Trying to wrap our little heads around perhaps the most turbulent phase of European history in recent times

The thinker!

The thinker!

Daddy's girl is giving mumma a break now....

Daddy’s girl is giving mumma a break now….

To me fell the task of explaining the entire exhibit to Aadyaa. She can’t yet read, but she won’t be left out either! She patiently waited for me to read each panel and then listened to my translation. The exhibition (strategically set up amid the ruined foundations of one of the Gestapo’s important buildings and right alongside the Berlin Wall) affected all of us profoundly as it chronicled the peculiar circumstances behind the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Against the backdrop of an economic slowdown, it seemed to be that the German people did not quite grasp the danger that was to come when they fell under the spell of Nazi thinking. The stark and totalitarian methods that Nazis used and the impacts of their fascism are hard hitting. It wasn’t the systematic extermination of the Jews that hit me so much because the Holocaust has been a significant part of fiction and non-fiction reading over the years. What really hit me is that the Nazis classified a whole bunch of people as out of the bounds of normal and these included the gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals and even the elderly and those with mental disorders. In their definition, a German had to not just be the correct race but also needed to be able-bodied citizens that contributed to their economy and power. One couldn’t help but see some parallels with some of the right wing talk around the world, not just in India where we have recently emerged battle-scarred after an emotionally exhausting election process (no, I’m not convinced about the ‘achhe din’ tag just yet!). The children’s reactions to this harsh narrative was notable. Udai was silent and thoughtful. Aadyaa’s interest and her clear identification of Hitler as the ‘bad guy’ both impressed and amused us.

Catching tourists do the touristy thing at the Wall

Catching tourists do the touristy thing at the Wall

We climbed up from the exhibition to finally walk alongside a section of the Berlin Wall. As an architect, I was taken aback by its thinness (it is built in concrete, hence the title of the post!). It appeared almost flimsy to me and yet must have been so formidably strong in the eyes of Berliners during the Cold War. The symbolism of the Wall makes visitors to it walk real slow. At intervals, you see holes in it, and its easy to imagine the crowds on either side tearing it down on the fateful November 9, 1989. It is an event I remember from my childhood, seeing the images on television and not quite grasping its full import. But now, seeing it in flesh and with the sun having come out and shining bright, I could appreciate a lot more. Most of all, the day’s experiences helped me admire the resilience of this amazing city and respect Berlin’s embrace of multiculturalism that I now understand as a way to counter its sordid, violent and divisive past.

More pics of The Wall ahead…

MADNESS....Bang on! That's exactly what the wall represents, the craziness of the human race

MADNESS….Bang on! That’s exactly what the wall represents, the craziness of the human race

Gaping holes offer a view to what's beyond, particularly love this shot!

Gaping holes offer a view to what’s beyond, particularly love this shot!

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People walk by real slow, staring at The Wall

People walk by real slow, staring at The Wall

My touristic shot with the Wall

My touristic shot with the Wall

Dragging the reluctant Rahul into the frame, the Nikon positioned in Udai's able hands!

Dragging the reluctant Rahul into the frame, the Nikon positioned in Udai’s able hands!

And this is my favourite shot of my two darlings posing in their Greek tees, my Poseidon and Athena, always inspiring me to do more and better, my constant admirers and critics. Love you kiddos!

And this is my favourite shot of my two darlings posing in their Greek tees, my Poseidon and Athena, always inspiring me to do more and better, my constant admirers and critics. Love you kiddos!

Freedom is precious. Let’s value it, not abuse it! #Elections2014 #VoteSmart

Last week, I found myself at Teen Murti House in the heart of New Delhi. This is where the Nehru Planetarium and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library are located. I was here to attend a talk, a couple of hours too early. On impulse, I decided to stroll through the museum, a great alternative I though to sitting under a tree and scrolling through my phone!

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, lived and died in this house. The grand building witnessed not only many important moments of a young nation’s history, but also absorbed the vibrations and echoes of many meaningful debates and reveries, I am sure. I had heard terrible things about the museum, of how badly the great photographic collections was displayed, how much more is possible, etc. But I am a sucker for museums and I set that sort of negativity aside during my time there.

A grand colonial building!

A grand colonial building!

Kushak Mahal, Tughlaq's hunting lodge is inside the Teen Murti campus, just opposite the Planetarium building

Kushak Mahal, Tughlaq’s hunting lodge is inside the Teen Murti campus, just opposite the Planetarium building

A lovely spring afternoon!

A lovely spring afternoon!

Inscription next to Jawahar Jyoti, the eternal flame that burns in his memory

Inscription next to Jawahar Jyoti, the eternal flame that burns in his memory

An aside: It is a sign of the times that Cambridge educated Jawahar wrote to his father in chaste Hindi, something that the most of us English-medium folks would find hard to do today. I felt a bit ashamed!

An aside: It is a sign of those times that Cambridge educated Jawahar wrote to his father in chaste Hindi, something that the most of us English-medium folks would find hard to do today. I felt a bit ashamed!

I walked through pictures from Nehru’s early life without much interest, but the fascinating perspective of the freedom struggle that the display offered got me thinking. Few of us realize what a long way we have come and how precious our freedom is! I read the names of hundreds of people on those walls, brave people I didn’t even know about who had dedicated their lives to a cause, because of whom we can dream the dreams we have today.

Even fewer question what we are doing with this freedom? Are we choosing to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes that our colonial masters reinforced for political and economic gain or are we working to create institutions and processes that set our nation on a new path of change (Historian Romila Thapar talks about this)? In fact, are we really free?

Isn’t that a great question to ponder over today, as our nation goes to polls. India is the largest democracy in the world and its relatively high voter turnout astounds the West repeatedly. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, this puts a great responsibility on each of us to vote intelligently and to vote for change and NOT vote for people who reinforce the old stereotypes and continue to play us against each other for narrow political gains.

I’m not even getting into how we abuse our freedom everyday (break traffic rules, bribe the cop, have differential rules for others and none for ourselves!). I’m not going to ramble about how we need to become better citizens and better people, find ways to work with each other, contribute to our own community and neighborhood, etc. To me, these are no-brainers! We know all of that, but we choose to ignore it because we believe the future of our country is in the hands of THEM, corrupt politicians, stupid egoistic bureaucrats. Perhaps it’s time to think differently and take that future in our hands, in whatever way we can!

We are fortunate to live in a democracy. The wise men (and some women) who wrote our Constitution and set up our democratic processes gifted us many powers we don’t bother to use. I’ve been reading up and thinking deeply about these issues and only beginning to understand what these powers are. I’ve made many friends in Gurgaon (you know who you are!) because I’ve been curious about these issues and I laud the dedication of those who take up citizen activism at sometimes great cost to themselves. And I see great hope for a country that has people like these as its citizens. I’m learning everyday that citizenship is as much about GIVE as it is about TAKE; it is as much about our relations with EACH OTHER as our relations with THE STATE.

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The hidden jewel of Dhanachuli #heritage #architecture

It is a running joke between me and my husband Rahul that I’m not really interested in travel destinations that do not involve foraging around among ruins. I vehemently denied this the last time we discussed a possible vacation. I love the beaches and the cruise ships, the road trips and the backpacking just as much as everything else, I said. But I can tell you I was delighted and amused in equal parts when Sumant mentioned a visit to the abandoned ruins of the original Dhanachuli village during the first evening of our weekend getaway to Te Aroha earlier this month!

Our planned excursion was delayed by a day thanks to nightly precipitation that left the path wet and slippery, but we were determined to go. Sunday morning found an enthusiastic group (comprising Vijay, Vibha, Aaditya and me guided by Sumant and a kind and generous staffer from Te Aroha) making its way down into the beautiful valley. Shortly after we had crossed the existing settlement that hugs the road, we got a taste of what was in store for us. An abandoned home, colonial in its proportions and bearing, but with the wooden carved doors and windows characteristic of the original homes in these parts. The stop vetted my appetite for more. I could see from Sumant’s expressions that this was the tip of the iceberg and an excitement gripped me for what was in store further below._DSC2261

Eave detail

Eave detail

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Exquisite door

Exquisite door

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesnt quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesn’t quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Detail

Detail. I would surmise this is a relatively newer home and the carvings aren’t as intricate as the older ones. Perhaps the type of wood available changed, perhaps the better craftsmen were no longer available…

Port hole?

Port hole?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top...great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top…great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into....

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into….

After maybe twenty minutes of walking alongside fields of corn, cabbage and peas, we started seeing the first homes in the settlement below. I was struck by the play of light on the beautiful stone masonry on these homes. Some roofs were caved in and the roofs were overgrown with grass. Hindu symbols like the trishul were clearly visible. Our sense of anticipation heightened and soon we were rewarded with the beautiful sight of the little cluster of original village homes that we had trekked all the way to see._DSC2305

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

The story goes that upper caste Hindus from the plains, from areas as far as Rajasthan and Gujarat, escaped forced conversion to Islam and moved into hilly terrain. The homes in the village therefore date back to anywhere between 150 and 200 years. Here, they settled down, amassing large land holdings and building these beautiful homes using local materials and the skills of local wood craftsmen from the Jhonsari community. However, they influenced the craftsmen substantially in the motifs they would use, typically snakes, fish, elephant and various other revered Hindu symbols with hints of Islam-influenced motifs as well. And in the shape of the niches, which are exactly like Rajasthani jharokhas. We could see Islamic influences in the types of arches used as well as in the typical geometric patterns of the carvings on some of the doors and windows. We stared, stitching the narrative of this fascinating time in history in our heads, imagining what it must be like for families who made this drastic move and how they must have hankered for small motifs and icons that served as reminders to what they left behind, that became a fragile but intensely beautiful link to their shared history and identity.

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs.

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya :)

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya 🙂

Sumant...Framed!

Sumant…Framed!

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

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Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Living heritage!

Living heritage

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

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Notice the geometric patterns like the floor patterns in Mughal architecture

And this arch....

And this arch….

Delightful nuances of life

Delightful nuances of life

There would have been an archaeologist’s pleasure in walking through these ruined homes, but it wasn’t just history we were looking at. We found occupied homes as well in this little hamlet. Cows tied in the lower level under the exquisitely carved windows. A dish antenna screwed onto one of of the carved panels. This is living heritage, a cultural landscape that deserves attention. The contrast of the abandoned homes, to the ones that were used only for storage and the few that were still lived in told a story of economic change and loss of patience. Families had migrated up the valley towards the road, where livelihoods could be found catering to the tourists that passed by on their way to Mukteshwar as well as to the locals who lived in the village still. These homes still stood because they mean something to these people. Some are even propped up by new wooden pillars in a bid to save the roofs from caving in, but clearly no new investments are being made here.

The pictures clearly show that there is value in this heritage–the value of craft, architecture, a slice of history, a way of life. One way to conserve this heritage is to buy these beautifully carved frames and doors from these owners and cart them off, to be lovingly restored and installed in a swank, elegant and even opulent residence or heritage hotel in Delhi, or Mumbai. The other option is to find a way to conserve these homes in their original location, involving the local community in an effort that would not only augment revenue through targeted tourism and a renewable of the crafts, but also renew their bond with their rapidly disappearing material culture. A culture that spoke the language of wood and stone rather than brick and reinforced cement concrete and one that had space in it for art.

Sumant mentioned he would be happy to support, in part, a group of enthusiasts who could get together to showcase this delightful slice of heritage. Filmmakers, conservationists, artists and people engaged with the concept of responsible and sustainable tourism can join hands to save this hamlet from destruction. I think it is a fantastic seed of an idea that we could develop into a more meaningful pursuit.

Change is a challenge, in every age

History is a magnanimous teacher. You can sit in your armchair and read about times gone by, people long dead and wonder how their lives were similar or different from ours. And it is fascinating that there is always a situation or a person you identify with.

I just finished reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. Set in the early 16th century, it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, who traversed the unthinkable trajectory in a single lifetime starting as a blacksmith’s son and becoming Henry VIIIs closest aide. At a time when England challenged the ubiquitous power of the Catholic Church, Cromwell is a man of commerce, almost a disbeliever. A cynic and a liberal. A man who educates his daughters and involves them in his business, a man who is unafraid of negotiations, who makes discipline and duty his ultimate religion.

What fascinated me about the book was the conflict between belief and religion. King Henry challenged and sought to bring down the confluence of money and power that vested in the officials of the Church during his time, primarily because the Catholic Church did not readily give in to his idea of divorcing Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell crafted around the king’s whim a web of laws and statutes that made him the head of the kingdom and the Church in England. And while he did this, powerful people warned of a downfall of morality, an end of truth, none of which happened because it was already an anarchic situation in what we know as Europe today- Turks attacking at one end, a dead Pope’s body being paraded around Rome and Munich being ruled by an autocratic tailor some among many crazy stories we know of now.

What is telling is how Cromwell manipulates the relationship between the citizen and the forces in power. On one side, he believes that citizens must have basic amenities and security of life, on the other he must work with the vagaries of the King’s mind. When push comes to shove, Cromwell sends his law all over the land and asks citizens to swear upon the Bible to accept their King as head of the Church, thus justifying all Henry’s actions. Cromwell knows what he does is wrong, asking innocents to swear upon an issue they barely understand, but he has no choice if he (and England) must survive!

These are the difficult compromises those in power and those close to them must make. Many of their decisions, when viewed in isolation, seem hard, unjustified and unethical. Yet, if we see the web of inter-related matters these men (and women, going by the formidable forces Katherine and Anne were!) must consider, one wonders how decisions get taken at all! In the end, strategic decisions are taken to keep the balance so that the machinery of State keeps running and the people, those poor citizens who know not what is at stake, can continue to lead their contented or wretched lives….

So what has changed, through history? At this point I look at the political situation in India, Egypt, Turkey…and many other places and I see that the citizen is still marginalized from the loci of power. I also see that citizens are given to rather myopic visions, overrun by their immediate concerns and that democratic gathering of opinion is not always possible because information, understanding as well as the well to be informed and understand is not equal among citizens. If we believe democracy to be the best solution for the modern State, we need to develop consensus building skills and powers of negotiation of a very refined and evolved nature. In parallel, citizens must have the means to be aware and involved in decisions that impact their lives. Most of all, we need systems that can wait till these processes of negotiation are complete and this is where I think democracy fails, repeatedly. As KC Sivaramakrishnan, eminent economist and Chairman of Delhi-based think tank said in the context of a recent workshop to support incrementally built neighborhoods in the informal parts of the city, “Every so often, there is an urge and impatience to do something world class and grand” that impinges on this patience. In an instant, we abandon the slower democratic processes to make sweeping changes without worrying about who they benefit. Later, when sense returns, it seems inappropriate to feel remorse, so we justify and we use sellotape to patch the fissures and so on, till things fall apart and a new age is ushered in…

Loving the feel of Chandni Chowk

A balmy breeze blows at me as I stand at Chandni Chowk watching the world go by. Some of the world is rushing back home, for others the job of unloading and loading goods still goes on and others seem to have just stepped out of home to sample the pleasures of the day. Shouting, bargaining, laughing and daydreaming people all co-exist in this place that is chaotic and timeless at the same time!
We have spent a few hours in Kuncha Mahajani parlaying with a wholesale diamond and gold jewellery merchant. Before that, we meandered through Kinari Bazaar, buying odds and ends. Grand old buildings, dilapidated and yet in better shape, outshine the newer monstrosities here. Glimpses of decently preserved streets tantalise me, but there is a momentum I am loathe to break to the human and non-human traffic that flows through the gales, kunchas and katras of Shahjahanabad.
An empty road in Gurgaon feels stressful, I thought, while a chock full bust full gali here feels restful, so measured and practised is the pace of life here. Even the contractor who stands beside me shouted at his labourer, a wizened old man, with practised ease, ordering him back to work because he stole a few moments of rest.
I imagined the street in its original glory, with a water body running down the centre. In my mind’s eye, I hear the sounds of the Azan, the tinkling of ghungroos and the whispered murmurings of a time long gone by, smell the fragrance of fresh flowers and ittar. I return to the present and smile. My city is beautiful still.

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