Happy New Year and a great 2015

TBanjara - clap handshis photo of a Banjara Gypsy always cheers me up and I hope it does the same for you. It’s an old  shot (2003) taken at Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire in the Deccan which is a wonderful place in itself even though the Mughals rolled it over and the Empire ended in 1646. There is a lot to see and Hampi is a stunning World Heritage Site.

If you have not been there it is worth a pilgrimage.

Kashmir revisited 4

Typical houses on the river bank 3

Typical houses on the Jhelum River bank and the eagle tree.

I have given no clue as to the distinctive character of Srinagar city itself. It took me by surprise two years ago and I must put this omission right. Anyone who has shares in corrugated iron must be very content as I have never seen so much anywhere in India, and brand new sheets are going up daily as repairs continue. In contrast there are many rather rickety but engaging timber framed buildings lining the banks of the River Jhelum; no doubt these were once bordering on palatial. And they are very practical structures which have outlasted many other buildings of brick or concrete construction.

Here is one snapshot taken from the high water mark of the flood that gives some idea of these unusual structures that seem out of place compared with many other buildings in the subcontinent. Maybe it is a symbol of Kashmir’s singular identity and political complexity.

Kashmir revisited 3

Government flats - high water mark 2Just how high was the water in the floods? On the houseboat it was hard to tell except that it was possible to pick apples from the tops of the trees using a boat. At least 12’ perhaps 15’ ? In November I had to find a marker albeit from elsewhere. After exploring the city centre I came across an area of bland Government flats on the airport road well away from the river. The garden walls had gone and were nearly rebuilt but the tell-tale signs are still on the main rendered walls. The high water mark crosses the first floor windows and there are several lines below presumably as the sluice gates were able to drain away in stages. Incidentally many buildings in the centre are timber framed and flexible enough to resist the water pressure as well as the regular earthquakes. Much has been done and hopefully Kashmir will be back in business soon.

Kashmir: flashback – marooned

The storm - water spouts 2

The rain was like this for 5 days and nights almost non-stop.

Just two months ago I was in a disaster zone. Much of Kashmir valley was flooded including Srinagar when the Jhelum River burst its banks in the city centre. I knew little of this as we were on a houseboat just rising with the water. Back home people have commented on ‘fear’, ‘strain’, ‘safety’, ‘escape’, etc. It was not like that; it was more to do with ‘uncertainty’. Our friends had the strain as their house was flooded, they had to keep the houseboats safe and take care of us. Much of it was fun in spite of the potential catastrophe. The city centre was even worse although we did not know it until TV was restored. Here is a short picture story of our gangplank link to the land that explains itself. What it does not convey is the very strange feeling of being without power and any IT connections, just total reliance on word of mouth.


Continue reading

Kashmir revisited 2

The sides of the valleys are often well cultivated with many apple orchards, pulses, zeera, maize, rice, and the much-prized saffron. Although the heavy rains of September damaged many crops some such as vegetables thrived which is just as well as some 80% of Kashmir’s population depends on agriculture.


Gypsy camp near the Lidder Valley

Gypsy camp near the Lidder Valley

Typical village and hay loft

Typical village, walnut trees & hay loft

Kashmir revisited 1

Lidder valley towards Pahalgam

Lidder valley towards Pahalgam

After the record-breaking floods of September, the worst since 1903, we decided to go back to Kashmir in November. The main purpose was to pass on direct aid to those friends we had made and who had looked after us so well. Many thanks to those friends in the UK who contributed. The help was much appreciated by the families. The water has gone but the house is very damp, panelling warped, windows likewise and there is the prospect of the Chillai Kalan (40 days when the temperature stays between minus 3°C and 13°C), so drying out will take some time. This not a good time for chest infections, asthma etc. particularly for the older ones. The children have the garden back and have a fine time particularly as they don’t go back to school until March because of imminent snow. Continue reading

Kashmir houseboats – craftsmanship

Names such as Leh, Ladakh, Shalimar, Kashmir, and Amritsar arouse, excite, and beckon any curious traveller. Last year our regular agents TransIndus in London put together one of our most memorable trips. We had not been that far north in India and like many others before us were hooked by Kashmir. Through Mascot Houseboats (new website imminent) I learnt about the curious phenomenon of the houseboat born out of Maharajah Ranbir Singh’s refusal in the 1880s to allow outsiders like the British to cool off in the summer months and build on Kashmiri land. Thus this amazing floating tradition was established.

Nageen Lake - Srinagar

Nageen Lake – Srinagar

I have written about the record-breaking floods of September but it never occurred to me that some people would not know about the houseboats of Kashmir. So above is a general view across Nageen Lake that gives some idea. The boats, in varying condition, are big too, anything from 60 to 150 feet long, with two to four bedroom suites and about 14 feet wide. Then there is a small pantry for serving the dining room, a large lounge leading to the num or verandah. A true palace.
It is the craftsmanship that really impresses. I was lucky to see various stages in the restoration of a near wrecked hulk hauled out of the mud and after two years work, a mountain of bureaucracy, permits etc. it is due to be complete and ready for letting this month. Everything is carved and these two photographs just hint at the quality. It may even be the last of such fine work.

Kashmir Garden – unfinished panel (detail) with the carving tools

Chinar tree above the bed

Chinar tree (detail) above the bed.

Dholavira – step well discovery

Dholavira - Large tank from east gateway

Large tank from east gateway 2010

The Archaeological Survey of India has discovered a 5000 year-old step well at Dholavira according to the Times of India. Moreover it is three times the size of the Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro, one of its best known structures. Overall the reservoir is rectangular – 73.4m long x 29.3m wide and 10 m deep. It seems that this discovery shows a deeper excavation with rough steps down to the water level. The superintending ASI archaeologist thinks there may be other reservoirs and wells yet to be discovered and spot analyses will be done in December. And he hopes to find the ancient shoreline when Dholavira was a significant port. This find raises the reservoir to be greatest known ancient example in India.



Dholavira step well - Oct 2014

Step well – Oct 2014

Anyone who has been to Dholavira from Bhuj will know that it’s not a casual outing. An early start, chai at Raipur, a long country drive northwards, then the long causeway across the Rann of Kutch to Khadir Island, which was once a major link to open sea and is now enclosed by salt flats. When I got to the museum no one was there apart from the curator who locked up and showed us round, quite an experience. Even then there were at least 16 large fresh water reservoirs fed by monsoon channels. Only discovered in 1967 Dholavira is acknowledged to be one of the top five Indus Valley Civilisation cities. Now its importance has gone up even further and worth a major detour.


Kashmir: Nageen Lake – leaving

It has taken months of work to rescue the hull of an old houseboat which now lies in a cut and restore it. It’s nearly finished and our friend is very keen that we should see it before we go. The whole boat is made from Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodara) noted for its rot resistant characteristics. The carpenters quickly make a neat bridge between these two boats that parted in the storm.
It is truly fantastic. The num or verandah leads to a huge lounge which will have a chandelier in the ceiling backed by a six-foot diameter ornate dish, then a dining room followed by four magnificent bedroom suites. But the most remarkable feature is the carving, every panel is carved and each room features something special, a chinar tree, paisley design and my favourite the Kashmir garden. The last will have a massive four-poster bed. And there is a suite above. Putting the flood behind them everyone is working flat out to get this unique masterpiece into use. Hopefully pictures to follow.

Nageen lake after the rain

Nageen Lake

The water is going down fast even though the sluices at Dal Gate are damaged. The emotional tension is easing and we have booked a flight from the reopened Srinagar airport. It’s time to get ready which means a bucket bath (water boiled in a giant pan on the roof) and some casual packing. We have got to know this family very well in a short time and feel part of it. But we are leaving for safer places whilst they have to rebuild their lives and business. Several have ant bites that have become infected, a damaged shoulder when saving someone from drowning, spectacles lost in the water just after an eye operation, bruises from a fall and so on. We leave what medication we can. As ever they are cheerful and we are sad to be leaving.

In the morning we are taken by a canoe boat along the lake and slide into the mud bank, climb up to a waiting car. Our journey involves a few detours and the true impact of this disaster becomes clear; a small sunlit vegetable market on dry land is reassuring, a dual carriageway with the wide central reservation full of makeshift tarpaulin and polythene tents, the people look numb. No sanitation, no water, unmanned first aid posts, no local officials etc. Everything seems to have been left to the Indian Army. Two wheels on the kerb and two in deep water but on the road. The Hospital seems just about open, a cemetery washed open and bodies exposed, a sheep wanders about and the stench of death is unbearable. Many housing areas in the city are flooded and these parts are low-lying which will need pumping out. Lots of teenagers wandering around and not knowing what to do, just wait until the floods go down.

After twenty years of militancy and uncertain political power, economic recovery was underway. This catastrophe is a cruel blow. We will go back in November nonetheless.

From my diary – 17 September 2014

Kashmir: Nageen Lake – waiting

Yaseen and me on the HB - Sept 14

Searching for any IT connection

It hasn’t rained for a couple of days, clothes, carpets, shawls dry in the sun on the roof and then are carefully folded and stored with other salvage from the house, which is now a wet wrecked shell. It’s bright and there are things to do but there is a feeling of emptiness, waiting for more rain or perhaps even the waters to go down.

A brother has returned from New Delhi wading for 2km chest high to reach his family, he is shocked. He has seen it all on TV, the aerial shots, submerged cars, rescue centres, makeshift camps, and the rusty red floodwater. We have seen nothing of this and have just heard rumours and a few helicopters. At last the generator kicks in and everyone gathers to watch NDTV News, in silence and disbelief. There are over one million people in Srinagar city and the sinuous Jhelum River has just burst its banks at Lal Chowk and thrust water right into its heart.
Next day Nageen looks beautiful. The chinar tree trunks look shorter, the children’s’ swings on the other bank are missing, some houseboats have rolled over but ours follows the water level. Noah knew about this.

The resourceful cook has found an obscure link to a phone network which can only be reached by sitting high on the ridge of the boat. At last we get a message to one daughter to say ‘we are safe’ and then it cuts out. Satellite is used by the Indian Army only; we are too near the Pakistan border. They are doing a fantastic job though and no doubt this will annoy the militant separatists. At the moment though it is a matter of survival.
Perhaps the water has peaked. There is time for the head of the family to tell us how he is descended from the Muslim prisoner and later emperor Timur and a marriage to a beautiful woman who migrated to Kashmir centuries ago. He talks beautifully.
There is a call “Come on the roof deck”. There is an exceptionally fine full moon in an inky blue sky with puffy clouds sliding past. In England this would be a Harvest Moon but here the crops are largely ruined, apple orchards lost, no saffron fields, and rice paddies washed away.

From my diary – September 2014

Kashmir – from Nageen Lake – Post 2

At 8am there is a single thunderclap. A couple of minutes later there are two more then suddenly the whole valley is rumbling as thunder rolls ominously round the hills. This must mean rain. And just after the water level has dropped two feet down to ten above normal. Things have been just about under control which is to say the house and garden completely flooded and about a dozen of the family are living in a tiny house just above flood level. The houseboat goes up and down with the water and travel is by a paddled canoe boat. This is now Kashmir’s worst flood for a 100 years.

I look out and there are a few expanding rings on Nageen. A moment later there is a deluge and it is impossible to see the other side of the lake. The noise on the roof is colossal, it’s hailstones. The Hanji (boatpeople) have come from the house as the wind whips up and pulls at the steel ties. One of the props has snapped and the new boat thumps into ours which is shunted along; it’s serious now in spite of all the precautions.

New props are placed, both boats re-tethered, and fingers crossed. There are waves on the lake now and the houseboat is starting to roll. After nearly an hour the storm moves east and we are all safe. It is time for breakfast, fruit juice and birthday cake left over from last night.

My admiration for these resourceful, caring and friendly people is beyond words.

Nageen Lake, Kashmir, 14 September 2014

Kashmir – from Nageen Lake

The view across the lake is idyllic, coloured houseboats, chinar trees, shimmering willows, vivid blue kingfishers, grebes, calm water with just a ripple from the breeze. Misty clouds and beyond to the mountains, even the sun is trying to get through. But something is wrong.

There are shrill agitated anxious voices and a baby cries from across the water. Small buildings that were fixed yesterday have gone. An elegant canoe passes silently but the woman with her spade paddle is not smiling and the boat is laden with huge knotted bundles of clothes, no lotus flowers today.

Now Kashmir is flooded. Five days and nights of continuous rain have run into the Jhelum River, a cloudburst way upstream has run into Sindh River; the pressure is relieved by sluices that flow into Dal and Nageen lakes. The clay stratum that contains the lakes now stops natural drainage; there is no natural outfall.

Our delightful Kashmiri hosts have had to leave their house, two more feet of water since midnight, some possessions salvaged, no electricity not even the generator, cell phone and Wi-Fi networks cut off, no mains water, and storage tanks empty. The children have long since been moved to cousins, no school of course. Laughter, another canoe goes by and our friend tells us that the cook who yesterday was still working up to his knees in water has been bitten by ants; “God must be really angry with him”.

The rain, the worst for 27 years, has stopped.

Kashmir, 8 September 2014

Vedanta’s refinery: six-fold expansion

Dongria Kondh group

Dongria Kondhs – threatened?

Anyone who has followed my old blog and this news column will know that the Indian Government refused permission for Vedanta to chop 30 metres off the bauxite laden Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha. This was a landmark judgment to secure the forested environment and the future of the Dongria Kondh tribe.
At a recent public hearing Vedanta proposed a six-fold expansion of their large nearby Lanjigarh refinery. This begs many questions and here are just three: Where will the bauxite come from and what about the vast quanties of water needed for processing with resultant pollution? What about the indigenous people?

To read about the long and complex background look at Survival International’s web site. If you feel that Vedanta’s new aggressive proposal is entirely wrong please make your point to the Environment Minister by following the guidance at the bottom of Survival’s page. Thanks and act now.

5000 year-old pots


Examples of domestic pots from the Indus Valley Civilization

Examples of domestic pots from the Indus Valley Civilisation

When I started Pipal Press I was obsessed with the Indus Valley Civilisation and was collecting good examples of pottery from a proper source. Here is an excellent selection of 5000 year-old domestic  pots probably from one of the main sites in Pakistan. The red conical beaker is rare as is the coloured pot (note the lack of decoration below the bulge so it could sit in sand). The other two show the geometric style and the much used blue lines which are symbolic rivers.

Later I learnt that new sites were being discovered in Gujarat and are being excavated now. Dholavira was a major port dating from about 2600 BCE (see p35 in the Kutch book) and now lies stranded apart from a causeway to Khadir Island in the Raan salt flats . There is much more about IVC to come from Kutch and Gujarat.
If this subject is of interest to others I would welcome comment. I can add some more.

Norbulingka Institute

Norling Guest House - Nun on stepsWhen everyone else was tiptoeing nimbly and swiftly up and down this steep wet hill I managed to trip UP these algae coated steps landing on an ear. When I came to I was faced by this kindly Buddhist nun who started spinning her prayer wheel vigorously. Her silent incantations did the trick.

The Norbulingka Institute was founded in 1988 with the aim of preserving Tibetan culture in their Indian settlement. Among other things it is a centre for the arts including statue making, a thangka painting studio, appliqué, tailoring and intricate woodcarving. There is much fine work here and over 400 people taking part.

Not the World Cup

Football match in the hills

Near Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh

Note from my diary: “it was lucky that we had seen the Dalai Lama in Leh as he headed for Thiksey monastery for some peace and quiet. One reason for going to Dharamsala was to attend his public audience, instead we learnt that this place is the second wettest town in India and the monsoon had lingered a month more than usual.
We took to touring the countryside as the mists had dropped and it had started to rain again. In fact it was not unlike a very hilly Cornwall on one of those mizzling days only more so, rather attractive. Lots of trees, scrub, moors, rocky outcrops, ravines etc. and amazing streams. No babbling brooks here but raging torrents bursting over huge boulders and rushing into the mist.

Suddenly we turned a corner and there was a football match. Nine players on each side; the pitch was a flat puddly clay scrap of land on top of a hill, no white lines of course. There was a row of blue tarpaulins on each side for spectators. And some high netting to stop the ball rolling away into oblivion. It was a local Derby between Dharamsala and a neighbouring village – totally surreal.

Open hand – Chandigarh

Open Hand - Chandigarh

Open Hand – Chandigarh

When Punjab was divided at Partition in 1947 India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru resolved to build a new State capital city “..symbolic of freedom of India unfettered by the traditions of the past….. an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”.
In 1950 Americans Albert Mayer and Mathew Novicki evolved a fan shaped masterplan but the latter was killed in a flying accident and Mayer pulled out. In 1951 Le Corbusier was appointed and developed the plan using a grid layout that was carefully planned using Sectors for different uses like a post-war Garden City on a human scale. English architects Maxwell Fry and Jane B Drew were principal members of Corb’s team. The Government buildings in Sector 1 are striking examples of the remarkable architecture. Other Sectors provide self-contained neighbourhoods complete with shops, schools. Great care was taken to use vast louvres for sunscreens and natural airflow, trees, and lakes to give an optimum environment.

Corb used ‘The Open Hand’ (La Main Ouverte) widely as a symbol for “peace and reconciliation. Open to give – Open to receive.” This one is 26 metres high and in addition to its symbolism it pivots and is a weathervane. The open space with the pulpit is for public meetings.


Now it’s time to leave politics for a bit. Apart from improved irrigation, pumps etc. here is a scene that could have been photographed a hundred years ago. Odisha (Orissa) produces vast amounts of rice, one of India’s staple foods. This image is on the way south to Bhubaneshwar.Rice fields 4

Modi sworn in: 26 May 2014

Fifty years after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death India has a new charismatic, strong and controversial Prime Minister. The journalist John Elliott in his blog Riding the Elephant gives an interesting commentary and the latest news about Narendra Modi’s 23 cabinet members. This is worth a look.

I mentioned below the importance of Kashmir’s relationship with Pakistan and India. Just a month ago The Hindustan Times published a report of a ‘war of words‘ between Modi and Kashmir’s Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah. It was OA’s grandfather who chose the secularism of India rather than Muslim Pakistan and suffered twenty years of incarceration. So there are tensions here still and no invitation was sent to Omar to attend today’s ceremony until the last moment. Strange.

Numbers interest me and it is odd that No. 26 marks significant events in India. Republic Day is on 26 January (1950 was the first), on 26 January 2001 Kutch in Gujarat suffered the massive earthquake, 26 November 2008, the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and today the first Prime Minister to win with an outright majority for 30 years.

India, Pakistan and Kashmir

After a week’s careful thought I entered the post below in the early hours today and woke to read leading articles in the Indian Express and Kashmir Times. Narendra Modi had invited Nawaz Sharif to the new PM’s swearing-in ceremony and Sharif has accepted. That is good news.

Kashmir has considerable interest in the relationship between the two countries. Many Kashmiris tolerate or are content to be part of India but there are ‘flare-ups’ within J & K and at the Line of Control but J & K is in effect a buffer between the two nations although ‘managed’ by a large Indian military force. Many suffered due to the 20 year war and seek a resolution. Some still want separatism for Kashmir even though it is landlocked with limited sustainable resources. Others want an easy trading relationship with both India and Pakistan. Perhaps that will happen.

Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah has welcomed this meeting between Modi and his Pakistan counterpart. He says “Maybe Modi meeting Nawaz on the first day at work will be beneficial for us as they are trying to build relations from the first day which otherwise, we have seen, takes a lot of time.” He goes on to say that the time has come that a dialogue between the Centre and the leadership in J & K is started and that the Hurriyat Conference (an alliance of 26 disparate groups that want self-determination for J & K) joins in too. This is a positive start for Modi in a critical part of India.