Monday, 22 October 2018

The Magnificent Ruins of Roha


The name itself is very evocative I thought, even as I was being driven to that hamlet one October morning in 2018, 44 kms south of Bhuj, Kachchh; the plan was a simple, three-day stay at Jeevan Sandhya, one of the oldest ashrams for the senior citizens and inter-action with them.  I came across a small booklet at the ashram, a compilation of articles in Gujarati.

Jeevan Sandhya Ashram

As I read through, I realized the opportunity for doing some of my own research; with an air of expectancy, the ‘simple plan’ turned into a busy schedule!

Centuries back, Roha was a jagir, comprising 51 Roha-hamlets, the best being Roha-Sumri; Sursinhji Gohil was the jagirdar, the Raja of Roha and the district prospered so well under his benign rule. The booklet revealed a land of utmost beauty - both natural and geographic - that must have existed those days. The sparsely populated Roha-Sumri nestles in a depression among surrounding hills, the highest having a table top that became a site for a huge palace for the royalty, with a nearly 5 km fort on either side.

Today, this hill with its historic fort serves as a stunning backdrop to Jeevan Sandhya ashram, established in 1955 by a visionary and renovated in 2000.

The Fort on the hill with the Ruins of the Palace
The Present
Interactions with ashramites who came from all strata of society, sharing meals with them, and of course, the prayer sessions were revealing. Some vented their frustrations with family members; others talked of earthquake, of loosing entire families, them being left alone. One gentleman was into speculating the share market and lost his millions to his brothers who kicked him out! A young resident of the ashram (allowed as a caretaker of his ailing mother) seemed to be highly informed and became my companion and guide.

Sumri: Morning Dew
Every morning and evening, we strolled through the dusty, narrow lanes and by-lanes of Roha-Sumri. One observes a scattering of untouched ruins of once-beautiful small buildings done in by the earthquake, their surviving inhabitants having migrated elsewhere, many to Mumbai; a sudden appearance of an empty house here or a carved dome there, or a well preserved front porch of a long-abandoned dharmashala, speaks volumes of the heritage value of the architecture and design elements of those glory days.

The hamlet offers peace and tranquility 24x7 with hardly any vehicular traffic; the appx. 1200 people of mixed communities look after fields or run small businesses. The open spaces house the cattle. There are several temples and large groups of peacocks strutting about leisurely, their number probably more than the humans!

At least three migrant families, two of them being the Vyas and Sachde families have later re-grouped in Mumbai and established temples of their kuldevis or family deities and kshetrapals on their devastated lands at Roha-Sumri, complete with modern-day holiday facilities housed within the huge bungalows.

The area abounds in dry scrub land forest and wildlife including deer, civet cats, hares, snakes and mongooses; at least three leopards are known to inhabit the hills; occasionally, I am told that they visit the hamlet to drink water from the avadas  or make a killing of a cow!

Back to the Past – The Palace

The Raja jagirdar Sursinh Gohil commissioned hundreds of shilpis (artisans) to begin building of the Palace and a Fort atop the hill. The Palace included a huge Durbar Hall, the Queen’s quarters, the jharokhhas (balconies) and separate quarters for servants, stables, a separate building for mehfils and a huge water tank just to name a few elements. Remnants of the delicate filigree work and carvings with exquisite design exist even today but amidst the ruins; apparently, the quake of 2001 has not caused any further visible damage.

For the mehfils....
..a peep through its window reveals a series of arches

As a result, it’s not all rubble. A one hour walk cum climb to the Palace and a walk-through the ruins leaves one awe-struck. The evidence of all structures is recognizable – the huge nakas or gates, the balconies, walls, rooms, water tank etc. are still visible.

One wonders: If the ruins could be so beautiful, how magnificent must be the Palace itself?

The Storage Tank for water

Romance in the Air
Sursinh Gohil married his daughter Princess Rajba to a refined, intelligent gentleman from outside Kachchh; he also gave in gift, a maid (dasi) named Monghi to the Princess so that she could be cared for at her new home; the just-married gentleman fell head over hills for Monghi and thus started a life of secret, unspoken love in those days of social taboos and reputation. To give vent to his feelings and pain arising out of unfulfilled love, the gentleman started writing exquisite poems and love songs, often from the balconies in the palace; the said gentleman transformed and Kavi Kalapi was born!

In his poetic outpouring of love, Princess Rajba became ‘Ramaba’, and the other angle of the love triangle, the beautiful Monghi, transformed into ‘Shobhna’. Who lost and who gained thereby? In an ironical twist to the tale, the Gujarati literature today stands enriched by Kavi Kalapi’s poetries.

Essence of Roha-Sumri as an Entity
With such a myriad of facets of history, beauty and the heritage value experienced at Roha-Sumri, how should one summarize the range of emotions so inflicted?

What really is ‘Roha-Sumri’? The answers could be more confounding than the question itself.

Is it just a district of 51 hamlets ravaged by Time? An area further devastated by the recent earthquake?

Or, is it the re-establishment of destroyed landed properties by three now-prosperous families as large and beautiful family temples, fully equipped as holiday homes for their progeny?

Or should one perceive it as a period when it was a royalty with all its glory of nature, wildlife and heady economic boom?

Or perhaps, as a period when there was palace intrigue of silent, unspeakable but heady romance between the three protagonists that led to outpouring of unrequited love through some of the best Gujarati poetries and the birth of a genius, Poet Kalapi?

Was it a period of a renaissance for Gujarati literature brought about accidentally by fate? Whatever it was or is, one thing is certain. Kalapi’s yearning for unfulfilled love turned out to be a gain for Gujarati literature!

An informed visitor is sure to experience and even feel a strange, heady concoction of all facets of Roha-Sumri – love poems, architectural heritage, ruins of built infrastructure and human lives ruined!

From its high perch, the magnificent ramparts of the once-palace, continues to be a mute witness to centuries of history and happenings in Roha-Sumri, even as Jeevan Sandhya ashram in its lap gives hope to those in the evening of human life!

A couplet or two about Waqt, Time, by late Sahir Ludhianvi would probably serve as an apt conclusion to this piece – at least I sincerely hope so!

waqt se din aur raat, waqt se kal aur aaj
waqt ki har shai gulaam, waqt kaa har shai pe raaj

waqt ki paaband hai, aati jaati raunake
waqt hai phulon ki sej, waqt hai kaanto kaa taaj

aadami ko chaahiye, waqt se dar kar rahe
kaun jaane kis ghadi, waqt kaa badale mizaaj.

The Author at the Site

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Saroj D’Villa – Life after Death!

He was always a happy, jovial kind, cracking away with his characteristic kutchhi sense of humour! Sarojbhai was our family priest at Bhuj, one of the many belonging to nagar-brahmin samaj, the community. 

Conducting thread ceremonies, marriages et al constituted Sarojbhai’s livelihood. He lived a very simple, austere life. However, there was a touch of idiosyncrasy in him; charging rickshaw return fare apart from his regular fee  – so much so, that even if we give him a to-n’-fro lift out of sheer reverence for our priest, he would still ask for that ‘rickshaw fare’. I remember my late brother getting into an argument with him once; surely, quite a few others must have fought this rather irritating habit of a priest.

In his last days in 2015-16, Sarojbhai used to plonk himself on a bed outside his large, one-room abode on the ground floor, ostensibly not allowing anyone to enter his home; good Samaritans would pass by to greet, even give him some money. The good man’s austere life ended soon; his wife had already preceded him; and, he had no children, and no relatives – at least in Bhuj.

In October 2017, I was invited for a wedding and accommodated in a beautiful ground + one uttara or guest house that pleasantly surprised me; it had great interiors, fully loaded rooms and a dorm, all air-conditioned, chilled RO water machines, solar heated water supply and clean modern toilets; there was a manager and a cleaner too, with round the clock service. Impressive.

As I slowly craned my neck up towards the top of the entry fa├žade, I saw the sign embossed in concrete: ‘Saroj D’Villa’!

And the surprise turned to shock! WHAT? Good old Sarojbhai? Our kindly, laugh-a-minute, austere priest??

And the story unfolded; his livelihood (including the xtra rickshaw charges over a life-time!) had yielded nearly Rs. 20 lacs, all cash; intriguingly, the cash was discovered right there in his one-room house, stored in various nook and corners, utensils and even a disused commode; it was a wonderful gesture of his community – to take charge of the money and construct a beautiful guest house in his memory, and even manage the same with token charges and some more donations.

For us all now, ‘Saroj D’Villa’ is meant to enjoy even as Sarojbhai must be laughing away to glory in the heavens and mocking a blow to our collective chin, “Cribbing about my charges eh,?? Take that!”



Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Gokarna - Monsoon Destination of Another Kind

It is mid-month afternoon in June 2017, cloudy but cool. As the train that brought me to Gokarna Road station from Bangaluru slowly chugged out and away towards Karwar, we were just a few souls left with an eerie silence. The railway station is small, humble, with no human population around. The IMD had earlier forecast a delayed monsoon over north Karnataka and I was hoping for a warm drenching anytime.

The rickshaw drove 13 kms west and climbed a steep gradient to drop me at Zostel where I was one of the six backpackers sharing an air-conditioned, self-contained dorm. The young backpackers were fun loving and some of them were bikers out to have a quiet weekend. We struck friendship immediately.

Just as I was about to enter the room, the exclusivity and the ambiance of the accommodation suddenly hit me without a warning. I could not believe that we were at a height looking down at Gokarna beach lined with continuously rolling, crashing white waves for as long as the eyes could see; overhead, there were layers upon layers of thick, black clouds about to burst; the scene was capped by the hills in the background. And the pleasure was compounded as it began pouring with stiff winds; at last, God bless, the heavens opened up!

For those religiously inclined, the etymology informs us that Lord Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow (Prithvi, the Mother Earth) here at Gokarna which is situated at the ear-shaped confluence of two rivers Gangavali and Aghanashini. Gokarna is mentioned in the Shrimad Bhagwata Purana as being the home of the brothers Gokarna and Dhundhakari.

To my well traveled mind, Gokarna stands out as a distinctly conspicuous place with the plains of palm fringed Goa to the north and with a similar landscape of the Mangalore-Udupi region to the south. Here though, there are hills covered with evergreen forests all over with a few coconut palms here and there; and the forested hills go down to the beach fronts, sometimes quite sharply; often, the forests overhang the beach! 

The local authorities have done well to provide stepping stones going down to a beach. There are plenty of watering holes, cafeteria shacks and some villas on all beaches. And there are no high rises.
They have paved concrete paths and roads throughout the small town and outgoing stretches. After all, Gokarna is famous for its religious tourism; among the several temples, I visited two showcasing heritage values; the Mahabaleshwar depicting Lord Shiva, and the Mahaganapati temple. They have been preserved well and rich in its wooden architecture and atmospherics. On any typical day, carloads of pilgrims descend on Gokarna. But it is on Mahashivratri day that about 5 lakh pilgrims crowd the small, two-street town. This was monsoon however, a lean season and thankfully, I was lucky to be just one of the few ‘pilgrims’!

I rued the short stay of two nights; of the many beaches (they are never the same and each has a distinct character) that I could visit were Kudle beach and Om beach, the second time on a bike in driving rain!  Kudle, unfortunately, had a lot of solid waste flotsam, the accepted bad habit of the visiting masses! Om beach was beautiful, shaped like a ‘Om’ if viewed from a hill top.

With Gokarna not yet commercialised (but about to it seems), it is being labelled as a ‘poor man’s Goa’; things are much cheaper for a tourist town. One can walk down the concrete path with an umbrella to the town and have a drink or a meal. However and except at Zostel, non-veg meals are not known here.

As I relaxed on the porch gazing away at night, exhausted after walking around and trekking the beaches (and pillion riding), it was still raining. Those sounds on the tarpaulin shelter was mixed with nature’s orchestra played out by the waves down below; add to this the uninhibited view of the forested dropping hill and one gets a perspective of the beautiful, surreal ambiance that one can experience only at this beautiful accommodation!

Enough trips to Goa; but one never knows! Next time, once again, and surely in monsoon, it has to be Gokarna, a  destination with a character! 


Note: All photographs by the Author under copyright.

Fact File
Gokarna is about 238 km north of Mangalore 483 km from Bengaluru and about 59 km. from Karwar
Gokarna can be reached by buses and maxicabs from Kumta (30 km) on National Highway 17.

Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) runs long-journey buses from cities like Panaji, Bengaluru and Mangalore.

It can be reached by train on the Mumbai to Mangalore route or Goa to Mangalore route. The railway station (called Gokarna Road) is 6 km from the town. From Ahmedabad, Bikaner Express is one of the few weekly long-distance trains that halts at Kumta (22 hrs).

Both, Goa International Airport at Dabolim and the Mangalore International Airport at Bajpe, Karnataka are the nearest air terminals for reaching at Gokarna.

Zostel (Trade Marked) can be browsed on the web.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Chikkis… by an Arab!

Chikkis by an Arab!

Those were the days, when we as kids, used to gather on our street in Tanzania, Africa.  He should be coming, we would whisper among ourselves, mouth watering incessantly, eyes pointing to the end of the street with great expectations. After all, it will soon be 4pm.

We now hear the distant sounds in a characteristic rhythm - jhum, jhum… jhum jhum. There! The volume, as he nears, increases. The tinkling sounds emanate from the ghoonghroos on his ankles, heavily laden with them; and he walks fast with his body swaying rhythmically from side to side as if in a trance.

He is turbaned, with a typical, printed loin cloth wrapped around his waist up to knees; he has that golden hued, pale brown Aryan face, wrinkled with age and bearded – and yet gentle. As he walks fast, he is pushing a wooden cart full of freshly made goodies for sale.

He is not shouting, no sales pitch, no catch phrases, not a word uttered. But his very personality, the rhythmic gait, and his USP (unique selling proposition) – the sounds of ghoonghroos – has a mesmerizing appeal to our young, craving senses. Soon, we start actually ‘smelling’ the hot, molten jaggery (brown sugar)!

Yes, it is 4pm and time for hot, fresh chikkis!

His til sankli (sesame chunks) was the best-selling item – big, thick chunks of ‘em. The next best of course was the chikki made from huge peanuts – jugu chikki.

The kids, running out of patience by now, would jostle around the two-wheeled cart; there will be a noisy clamour to climb over its metal frame to try to open the wooden lid, if only to have a quick look at the goodies. They would not succeed as the owner politely pushes them off the cart! This day, some with 50 cents would purchase a few chunks and gobble them up; the others would sheepishly look on, fingers in the mouth, in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of saliva!

Today, as I fondly relive this uniquely flavored childhood memory, I can visualize it too – even smell it!  

He was our version of kabuliwalla, not the Pashtun migrant-merchant from Kabul immortalized by Tagore in his short story, but a real skin-and-blood Arab, one who sold chikkis!!

Monday, 16 January 2017

Reliving Mughal-e-Azam

       From Cinema to Theatre – Reliving Mughal-e-Azam 

Anarkali, the courtesan, is in defiance of the angry Emperor; she wants him to accept the unacceptable - come to terms with her love for his son Prince Salim, the future Shahenshah, even as she sings the eternal lyric ‘Pyaar kiya to darna kya’. The dancers twirl around, almost like dervishes, singing while in rhythmic kathak steps under the reflected, twinkling lights of a resplendent aaina mahal! 

For a while, the enchanted audience is magically transported back in memory to the legendary K. Asif’s historical magnum opus ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ of 1960 in all its glory.

Except, that that January evening, we were glued to our seats, watching the musical play, circa 2017, at the Jamshedjee Bhabha Auditorium of the NCPA, Mumbai. Amazed at the transformation of the melody in the film, to one on stage, the audience broke into a feverish applause as the song concluded with a climax akin to a musical explosion!

The background score continues even as the aaina mahal slowly dissolves into darkness; the sculptor of Anarkali reminisces to the audience as a sutradhar; the walls of a Mughal Fort slide in from the wings. Exquisitely carved pillars come down from the top. Steps to the high throne move in somewhere in the back – all set to continue to the next act, next scene!

And therein lays the magic of the two-hour musical play, the hard work that they have all put in to be in sync with the film. The near-perfect dancing and singing live – simultaneously - was a treat to watch! 

The sound track, inspired by the Indian classical music, comprises many of the original 12 songs, with freshly composed music and background score in Dolby stereo. The old-timers would remember the ‘100-piece orchestra’ meaning violins en-mass for any song those days; alas, they are no more in vogue now! This musical surprisingly, uses violins, making one feel all the more nostalgic.

The beautiful sets match scene for scene each time - the drama around the royal confrontation, the simmering mystique of unrequited love, and the insidiousness of treachery within the palace.

Interspersed with beautiful dance numbers, the songs, sung live (with the background track) by ‘Anarkali’ and ‘Bahar’ are absolute sizzlers! Thinking of few, mohe panaghat pe nand lal ched gayo re, mohabbat ki juthi kahani pe roye, jab raat hai aisi matwali fir subaha ka alam kya hoga, be kashke karam kijiye, and zindabad zindabad are enchantingly sung and choreographed in Kathak style. The most entertaining of them all is the quawwali number - teri mehfil me kismat aazma kar hum bhi dekhenge; the two competing lovers vie for the attention of Salim, who is reclining up front on stage with his back to the audience – imaginative stage adaptation and technique, really!

The challenges and constraints of adapting a timeless epic, and one that had a huge, multi-dimensional canvass, to a fixed, limited square of a revolving stage, without compromising the story, dialogues (in chaste Urdu), the original musical score and lyrics, has been a monumental effort, no doubt about that. Director Feroz Abbas Khan must be complimented for the sheer ingenuity in laboriously converting a famous epic into a stage production. The event is a milestone for the show business industry in India. Technology and stage craft have been superbly amalgamated.. 

To be sure, most of the 60+ star cast including actors playing Anarkali, Bahar, Akbar, Salim, Jodhabai, and Mansingh were not even born in 1960, and therefore not exposed continuously to the crazy popularity of dialogues and musical classics of the film that the old-timers swoon over even today. To achieve the atmospherics and pathos of the original, tragic, immortal love saga of the Mughal era by the modern-day actors and technicians must have been a herculean task. 

The credits include, among others, the art direction team, video projection team, choreography team, music team and stage management team.

For all of us on the wrong side of 65, Mughal-e-Azam, the Musical Play gave us a rare moment to cherish, one that should not be missed next time!

Looking back, there have been many comparable once-in-life-time and rare entertainment events, all in Mumbai, and over a period of past 50+years. To remember a few:

- Watching live at Tata Theatre, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta - in India to perform for the first time ….

- Then, we were in a special audience (with Dilip Kumar, Gopi Krishna) of just 50 people invited to a baithak with Ghazal Maestro Ghulam Ali in Mumbai, again performing for the first time in India!

- Evita’, the musical play led by gutsy Sharon Prabhakar under the Direction of none other than inimitable Alyque Padamsee ….. at the Sophia College Hall, a blast of  entertainment…

- ‘Jashma Oden’ a play in Gujarati directed by Shanta Gandhi with Naseerudin Shah and Ratna Pathak in lead roles..

- In 2016, witnessed the unfolding 3-hr, 3-D dance and music spectacle,  ‘Treasures of Archipelago’ at Nusa Dua Theatre, Bali…

Can life be any better??

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Diwali @ Bali

Celebrating the Bali Spirit!

Friends of Bali!
We were six senior citizen travel buffs including wife Uma, and the Mehtas and Kanugas.

With nowhere to go in these times of tough economic choices, touring Bali turned out to be a most exciting trip. Nothing could be more memorable than celebrating the 2016 Diwali in a country steeped in Hindu mythology and religious ethos – a veritable island within the realms of Islam! 
Bali is a province of Indonesia. It includes the island of Bali and a few smaller neighbouring islands. It is located between Java to the west and Lombok to the east.
With a population of 4,225,000 as of January 2014, the island is home to most of Indonesia's Hindu minority. According to the 2010 Census, 83.5% of Bali's population adhered to Balinese Hinduism, followed by 13.4% Muslim, Chritians at 2.5% and Buddhism 0.5 percent.
It is renowned for its highly developed arts, including traditional and modern dance, sculpture, painting, leather, metalworking, and music.
Bali is part of the 'Coral Triangle', the area with the highest biodiversity of marine species. In this area alone over 500 reef-building coral species can be found. For comparison, this is about 7 times as many as in the entire Caribbean.
Nusa Dua Beach, South bali

With 12-13 hours of road trips every day for 5 days, we would travel a range of scenic beauty - from the beautiful beaches of south Bali to the rain- and mist-swept mountains in the north; the sights in a dust-free Bali were so diverse, and yet, refreshingly untiring. 
The scenic Mount Batur with Lake Batur in its laps, and the coffee estates around with its rich volcanic soil was an exhilarating trip among the highlands in the north. 

Imagine home-cooked, delicious lunch, downed with chilled Bintang while sitting on the edge of the rim of an extinct volcano - of course we did that too! 


Riding thro' Ubud fields

A one-day itinerary took us to a three-hour eBike excursion among the rice fields of Ubud followed by a vegetarian dinner; those who could not balance the bike were in a buggy to travel along. The busy day was capped by the mesmerizing Legong and Trance Dance with live Balinese instrumental music at the Ubud Palace.

Legong & Trance Dance, Ubud Palace

And there was always a temple visit en-route, whether it was taking a holy dip in Tirta Empul with its fresh water springs, the Banjar Hot springs, the most photographed temple in the sea, Tanah Lot, and the Lake Bratan temple in the highlands up north.
Lake Bratan & Temple
Holy Dip @ Tirta Empul
Tanah Lot - Sea temple
Lake Bratan
Elephant Caves Temple
Tegenungan Waterf
Yes. One cannot forget the several waterfalls along any route in North Bali - e.g. sitting at the bar overlooking the Tenegunan Falls and quietly sipping drinks or getting under the cool waters of the Munduk waterfalls after sweating out on a good 2 km hike down a forested valley!
Tegenungan Waterfalls

Munduk Waterfalls
A lasting memory that would always remain fresh was a lingering, slow walk at sunset along the 70 meter high cliffs overlooking a frothy ocean below at Uluwatu temple, and later, as the orange-red glow of dusk settled in, the fantastic Kecak Fire dance with interpretations of Ramayana in the open air amphitheater overlooking a stormy sea in the background, awash in the colours of a setting sun! 

Not satisfied with the incredible experience, we had time to visit Uluwatu a second time! 

Kecak Fire Dance

Portrait at Uluwatu

Walk along Uluwatu cliffs
..and the setting Sun!
The tour revealed some interesting facets of life in Bali – expensive, imported packaged food and cars, unpolluted oceans rich in marine life, the professionalism in tourism industry, highly developed arts, including traditional and modern dance, sculpture, painting, leather, metalworking, and music, the absolute cleanliness and green vistas, the polite Balinese people,  and a discipline borne out of true Hinduism.
One thing is for sure; a tour of Bali teaches a refreshing lesson in what could be the true meaning of be ing ‘secular’.

A minimum group of four persons is recommended for a November first week visit, the beginning of off-season tourism - hot and slightly humid, with a few evening showers but nothing intolerable. Taking dry food packs helps as food could be slightly expensive but then there are food courts that cater to the economy-conscious tourist. Transportation and hotel stay could be as cheap or expensive as in India.
Photo Credits: Yashesh Anantani

 Bali Art & Craft: Photo Gallery