Sunday, August 30, 2015

A link to the past

A trip to Kashmir is usually with the objective of sight-seeing and going on a vacation. It is often heard people mention, "Why go to Switzerland when Kashmir is here?".  This is only simplifying things.  Switzerland has its own distinct place in the history and geography as well as a tourist destination. The same is true of Kashmir as well. A visit to Kashmir is something more; it is not merely sight-seeing or vacationing, but it is in realizing a link to the past. Time spent in Kashmir not only meets the routine interests of a tourist, but also brings in a realization that our history, culture or literature is incomplete without understanding Kashmir's contribution to them. As the highly respected scholar and teacher Prof Navjivan Rastogi mentions, "The Indian notion of Anadi  (beginningless time) and Ananta (endless worldly cycle) happens to be a great deterrent of any historical activity in the modren sense of measurable time".  The reality of this strikes us when we visit the Avantipura temple ruins.

Avantipura is in Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir.  It is between Srinagar and Anantnag and 29 kilometers from Srinagar on the NH 1A. Avantipura was the capital of King Awanti Varma of Utpal dynasty, who ruled between 855 AD to 883 AD. History has recorded that he was a forward looking King and his rule was prosperous and people friendly. He is said to have got many temples constructed among which a Shiva temple (Awantiswar temple) and a Vishnu temple (Awantiswamin temple) stand out. Tourists are taken to the ruins of the temple on the highway during the drive to Pahalgam.  

The temple site is maintained by Archeological Survey of India (ASI) which also maintains the ruins of other sites like temples built during King Lalitaditya's period. The temples have beautiful stone carvings and structures of that time. It is a reflection of the 9th century Kashmiri Shaivism.  It may be noted that the period of Anandavardhana who is considered as the most brilliant critic in Sanskrit literature and writer of celebrated work "Dhwanyaloka" coincided ( 820 AD to 890 AD) with the rule of Awanti Varma. It was the golden period of Kashmir's contribution to Literature and culture. 

The temple ruins have withstood the ravages of time and the intricate carvings on the stone slabs and decorations can be seen even now. ASI has maintained the sites very well and one can see many salient aspects of the construction of the temple by a detailed study of the temple site. Kashmir's history and literature can be understood better when one links the historical knowledge with the physical presence of the temple ruins. The pictures given alongside show some details of the remains of what once was a magnificent temple.  The layout of the temple as well as attention to even minor details in the carvings stand out as a testimony to the capabilities of the artisans of that period.

Many of the present names used in Kashmir have their roots in its past history. Varaha-mula is now Baramulla and Rajapuram has become Rajouri. Panchals is now referred as Pir Panjals. Present Jammu was known as Jamboo then. Kashmir rulers were patrons of poets, philosophers and artists. They had control over large parts of India and their rule extended to as far as Punjab, Kalinga (Orissa-Andhra), Malwa (Madhya Bharat including Ujjain and Indore) and Gujarat. Doyens of literature like Acharya Abhinava Gupta  have enriched our literature, art and culture.

A trip to kashmir is indeed a great sight-seeing opportunity.  It is truly a place for enjoying one's vacation.  It is also a time to remember its rich cultural heritage and pay our tributes to the contribution made to our generation and mankind at large. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

To Sonmarg, along the river Sindh

Sonmarg is a popular destination for any tourist visiting Kashmir.  Sonmarg is at a distance of 95 Kilometers (about 60 miles) from Srinagar and can be reached by road in a pleasant journey of three hours.  Journey is pleasant though it is through winding and hilly road due to the beautiful scenery all along the way.  The journey from Srinagar to Sonmarg for most part is along the river Sind or Sindh.  The road winds along the banks of this river and the sight of the river valley on the one side and the Himalayan peaks on the other is indeed breath taking.  A view of the winding roads and the river waters can be seen in the picture given below.

The river Sind or Sindh mentioned here is different from the Sindhu or Indus, which is reckoned among one of the seven sacred rivers that we invoke each day during our prayers. This river Sind or Sindh takes its birth in the Machoi Glacier in the east of Amaranath caves and flows for a distance of 108 Kilometers (about 68 miles) before joining the river Jhelum or Vitasta. It merges with Jhelum at Shadipora, 17 Kilometers north-west of Srinagar. As against this, river Sindhu or Indus originates in Manasasarovar in Ladakh and flows through Ladakh, Gilgit, and Baltistan and reaches the Arabian sea near the city of Karachi.  Sindhu or Indus flows for a length of 3180 Kilometers (about 1980 miles).  The only relation between the two rivers is that Sind merges with Jhelum and Jhelum is a tributary of Chenab, just like Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.  Chenab is itself a major tributary of Indus or Sindhu. 

The river Sindh provides a wonderful setting to the sight seeing trip.  The road is just by the side of the river in some places and tempts the tourists to get down and play in its chill waters. River rafting and fishing are popular pastime on the river Sindh. Permits are required for fishing in the river and can be obtained by applying to the Fisheries department. The river flows through Panjtarni, which is a camping site for Amaranath yatra. This is said to be the only river in Kashmir on which hydro-electric power plants are functional.  

Sonmarg is on the Srinagar-Ladakh highway and means "Meadow of Gold". It is a trekking heaven and enthusiast trekkers find many camping sites around this place. Warm and rainproof clothing is required for trekking and sightseeing and available for hire. Tourists are taken in Jeeps further up in the "Harmukh" range of Himalayas to see the Thajiwas glaciers. Tourists can go further to Manasbal lake on ponies and onwards to Amaranath cave. Baltal is 12 kilometers from Sonmarg and Amaranath cave can be reached in two days from there. Tourists have different activities on the snow clad areas of Sonmarg like in Gulmarg, except that there is no Gondola ride.  Other attractions like sledge rides and skiing are available. 

Sonmarg trip is indeed one of the highlights of a Kashmir trip, just like Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Chandanwari.  If the weather cooperates and you have a sunny day without rains, you are indeed blessed by mother nature.  The white snow clad peaks, green trees, blue waters of the river and the various colors of the flowers take us to a different world of colors altogether. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Gondola ride at Gulmarg

Tourists visiting Kashmir proceed to Gulmarg after their sight seeing trips from their base in Pahalgam.  Gulmarg is a hill station in a cup shaped valley of the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayan mountains.  It is at a distance of about 140 kilometers from Pahalgam and the journey by road takes about 3 to 4 hours, depending the stops on the way.  Gulmarg can also be reached directly from Srinagar by covering a distance of 56 kilometers in about 2 hours.  This place in the Baramulla district is one of the main tourist attractions and a visit to Kashmir is incomplete without a Gondola ride at Gulmarg. 

Gulmarg's original name was "Gauri marg", named after Godess Parvati, meaning the "Fair one". This was later changed as "Gulmarg", meaning "Meadow of flowers", thus indicating several types of wild flowers that bloom in the valley during the spring and summer months. The area is snow-clad in the winter months and is hence a favored destination for skiing and other winter sports. Gulmarg has the world's highest Golf Course at 8700 feet from sea level. The nature's bounty with the background of white snow and greenery around is a treat to the tourists and especially joyous to the children. 

From the base of Gulmarg town, tourists can reach higher levels in the snow clad peaks by taking a ride in Gulmarg Gondola.  The gondola ride can be had in two stages; the first of 400 meters or 1312 feet from Gulmarg to Kongdori and the second of 880 meters or 2887 feet from Kongdori to Aphawat peak. Gondola company charges a fare of Rupees 600 and 800 respectively for the two rides. This is the highest ropeway in the world and travel in the Gondola is indeed a pleasure.  Tourists need warm winter dress to enjoy the cool weather at the top of the peaks and the dresses are available for hire in the town as well as near the gondola station.

The Gondola project was completed about 8 years ago and is a safe and covered travel aid to the higher levels.  One can see the old cable car pillars of yesteryears alongside the new Gondola pillars which provided uncovered two-seater cable rides. The ride up to Kongdori opens up vast snow areas for the tourists to play in the snow and have other attractions like sledge ride, motorized sledge rides to higher levels and similar snow rides. Tourists are mobbed by the local sledge operators and they try their best to persuade even the old and unwilling to take sledge rides.

"Sledge" is usually a vehicle mounted on runners and drawn by animals or horses. But in Gulmarg, sledge is actually a wooden implement that is drawn by a person by pulling a rope tied to the sledge.  It is rather difficult to sit on them for the aged people. The marketing tricks used by the sledge operators makes a wonderful study in "Sales and marketing". They have a ready answer for every query or doubt and never quit at any stage of argument or bargaining. They find the weaker link in the family groups to convince the other unwilling members of the family and almost always succeed in catching their quota of tourists. The tourist is made to sit on them and pulled up to a higher level as agreed for a fare.  On the return journey, the sliding is quite fast and the base is reached in a matter of seconds. 

Tourists coming from other parts of Kashmir cannot use the vehicles hired from there in Gulmarg.  They have to use the horses available locally for traveling small distances to their hotels after returning from Gondola rides, in case they are unable to walk back. A one day trip to Gulmarg is highly rewarding provided the weather is pleasant. Otherwise, an extended day's stay will be required if the schedule so permits. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

19 Porcelain cups, water & 2 sticks

He was sitting among the audience waiting patiently for his turn to come.  He arrived before the start of the first event and his program was scheduled as the third that day. The distinguished elderly man was appreciative of the quality and presentation of the first two programs, expressed through by his generous applause. The Bharatanatyam presentation followed by the Westren Classical Music on Violin-Piano were indeed of excellent quality. The artistes and the audience enjoyed the wonderful atmosphere in the auditorium. The cream of music performers and music lovers that formed the gathering sat through the two events fully engrossed, having been moved into a divine world of music and performing arts.

The three events that were organized on that morning (2nd August 2015) were a medley of diverse forms and the stage arrangements required to be modified to accomodate the requirements for placing the instruments and sound system implements. The veteran artiste climbed the platform and sat in his place for playing his part in the day's scheme of things. It appeared as if he needed help to reach there, but he managed on his own. He opened his bag and took out his wares; 19 porcelain cups and two sticks. A small bucket of water was ready. The 19 porcelain cups of varying sizes were arranged in a semi-circle in front of him. The biggest was to the left and the smallest to the right. He transferred small quantities of water from the bucket to the shining cups and checked the sound that emanated from them using the two sticks. From time to time he would look to the violin accompanist (his son) sitting to his right for confirmation of the sound.  A gentle nod of the head by him was fine; otherwise there would be either addition of a little more water to the bowl or removal of a little water from it. In about five minutes he was ready for the concert.

He started by thanking the audience for their patience and said he is now old and can play for about 45 minutes instead of the allotted one hour.  But as he started his session with the two sticks in his hands, he was a different man.  Impact of age was nowhere to be seen and it was sheer artistry all the way.  Irrespective of the tempo, slow or fast, neither his hands nor the sticks showed any impact of age in their movements.  At some stages he dispensed with the sticks and his fingers were enough to generate subtle movements. He was a transformed man now and nothing mattered to him except his concentration on the performance.  As and when an item was concluded and the audience applauded, he acknowledged with grace and moved to the next item.  He showed his artistry for over an hour and not a soul stirred in the auditorium.  When he concluded, there was a standing ovation.  Lunch was being served in the adjoining place, but many music lovers ignored it and thronged to him to salute him and appreciate his vidwat and artistry.

Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III was the King and ruler of the state of Baroda during 1875-1939.  He was a progressive and visionary King and the state of Baroda developed as a modren state under his rule.  He was the founder of Bank of Baroda (1908) which is one of the premier banks in the country today.  He was a patron of music and fine arts.  Ustad Moula Bux was a well-known musician in his court and founded the "Academy of Music" in Baroda in 1886. The Academy later became a music college and is presently a part of the Maharaja Sayajirao University. This Ustad Moula Bux experimented extensively in music and is credited with the introduction of "Jalatarang" in music concerts. Jalatarang denotes waves created in water. Ustad Moula Bux desired to show his proficiency in Jalatarang to the Mysore King Chamaraja Wodeyar and presented a recital. The recital received high acclaim and appreciation in the king's court. "Vainika Shikhamani" Veena Seshanna who was one of the foremost music experts in the Wodeyar's court learnt playing "Jalatarang" in an astonishingly short time and showed his mastery to the King. Jalatarang was thus introduced in South India. History has also recorded that Veena Seshanna visited Baroda and mesmerized Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad with his mastery in playing Veena. Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad heard the Vainika Shikhamani's concerts on three consecutive days. Maharaja gave a palanquin which was used by his mother as a special gift to Veena Seshanna to show his extreme appreciation.

Anayampatti Subbaiyer was one of the top musicians and Asthana Vidwan in the court of Maharaja Chamaraja Wodeyar.  His eldest son Anayampatti S Kuppuswamy popularized Jalatarang further. His second son Anayampatti S Dhandapani was a highly respected and accomplished Jalatarang player.  

Kalaimamani Anayampatti Subbaiyer Ganesan, whose concert we had the privilege to attend last sunday and mentioned above, is the younger son of Anayampatti Subbaiyer and younger brother of Dhandapani Iyar. Shri Ganesan was basically a vocalist and violin player and worked as a senior artiste at the Pondicherry All India Radio station before his retirement. After the demise of Ganesan's father, the then Paramacharya of Kanchi Mutt advised Ganesan to continue the family tradition of playing Jalatarang. Thus the 19 pieces of porcelain bowls used by his father and elder brother found a new artiste in Shri Ganesan. When Shri Ganesan started playing jalatarang, he was well past the age of fifty years, but his being a vocalist and violin player helped him learn playing Jalatarng very natural. This has made him an acknowledged expert in popularizing and keeping the tradition of Jalatarang alive.

Water levels in these porcelain bowls is the yardstick for determining the wave length and swaras. A minor error can result in huge distortions during a concert. The bowls are made from strong, vitreous, translucent ceramic material that is biscuit-fired at low temperatures and then glaze fired at high temperatures. These are difficult to find and make a set for playing in a concert. I asked Anayampatti G Venkata Subramanian, Shri Ganesan's son who played violin in the concert, whether he is thinking of continuing the family tradition of playing Jalatarang.  He said he is reluctant to venture as he is afraid that breaking any of the bowls that have been used for over hundred and fifty years now.  But the tradition may wean on him one day.        

It was not just a concert; it was a concert with history behind it all the way.  It brought in the names several illustrious veteran musicians and music connoisseurs and patrons.  Of course, the lunch that followed was as tasty as the memories of the concert and other events.  This Music festival arranged in memory of Veena Seshanna and birth centenary of Swaramurthy V N Rao at Bengaluru Gayana Samaja had many such invaluable moments.