Some days back, I found myself in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic with a day to spare. This is where Christopher Columbus set foot first when he discovered Americas. The city of Santo Domingo itself was founded by Bartholomew Columbus, his brother. It is the oldest continuously settled European city in the New World and hence has the first Cathedral, Monastery, University etc. As is the case with many old cities, Santo Domingo too has a new face and an old face. If we one were to restrict one’s movements just the new parts of the city, one would have no clue of its wonderful history. The new areas look like any other mid-sized South American / Central American city with its rich and poor neighbourhoods, commercial complexes and hotels. The more interesting area is the old city, known as Zona Colonial (Colonial Zone), which was the original Santo Domingo. This was where I decided to spend my day.

First stop was the ruins of the oldest hospital in America, the Hospital San Nicolás de Bari. There was absolutely no information displayed whatsoever in the premises and later, from Wikipedia, I learnt that this hospital was built in the 16th Century and could accommodate about 70 patients on completion. The ruins are quite beautiful with its red brick construction.

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A short walk up the hill from here, are the ruins of the first monastery in America, the Monasterio de San Francisco. Unfortunately, there is no entry into the ruins and I could only see it from outside. This was also built in the 16th Century. Supposedly, the remains of Bartholomew Columbus were discovered here later.

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A short walk down the hill is where the Palace of Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus stands. Christopher Columbus had fallen out of favour with the Spanish Crown in 1500 and all his titles and privileges were taken back from him. Diego Columbus tried to win back these favours and was appointed as the Governor of the Indies (as Columbus always maintained that he had actually reached India) in 1509. He set us his base in Santo Domingo and built his residence, the Alcázar de Colón, between 1510 and 1512. The building itself is well maintained and is actually very small. The audio guide kept referring to it as a palace but is just about the size of an old landlord’s house like a naalukettu. There are many articles displayed in the palace but most are replicas.

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Beds of Diego Columbus and his wife Mary of Toledo; it seems in those days royalty slept in a semi-reclined position and not flat on their backs!

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Sitting room with painting of Christopher Columbus and Diego Columbus

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Replica of the ship Santa Maria, the flagship of Columbus’ first journey to the Americas

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Portraits of the Catholic Monarchs who sponsored Columbus’ exploratory journey with the hope of getting wealth from prospective colonies

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The Catedral Primada de America is the first Cathedral in America and as most of the colonial buildings in Santo Domingo, was built in the 16th Century. The construction was started by Diego Columbus but was finished by its first bishop, Alejandro Geraldini. The ashes of both Christopher and Diego Columbus were buried under the crypt of this Cathedral. Later, Columbus’ remains were moved to a lighthouse built in his memory. When visiting Seville, I had heard that Columbus’ remains were finally brought to Seville and cremated in the Seville Cathedral. The cathedral is quite impressive and has many chapels inside with some beautiful stained glass and wonderful Gothic arches. Francis Drake – pirate to the Spanish and a knighted hero to the English – used the Cathedral as his quarters and ransacked the place during this campaign.

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Oldest European painting in the country, which was rescued miraculously from a ship wreck

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There was a small group of tourists in the Cathedral and once they left, it was quiet empty and peaceful and I spent some time sitting there and looking up at the majestic arches and the altar. As I looked the play of light, bright light coming from the outside and becoming dimmer and dimmer as it neared the altar, I was reminded of an encounter I had with a passionate Christian many years ago. He wanted to me become a Christian and come into the “light”. I was amused by the thought that light was actually receding as it reached the altar…..

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In the Colonial Zone, the country has a memorial for its honoured citizens called the National Pantheon of the Dominical Republic. This was on old church and they still have service there once a month. A guide pointed out some graves but I could not remember any names as I was not very familiar with the history of the country. What impressed me was that he mentioned some of the people were honoured because they had worked hard to bring education to the masses. If a country respects such people, it surely is in the right path. As can be expected, the Pantheon also has an eternal flame in the memory of the Unknown Soldier. This seems to be a universal practice across the world.

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Fort Ozama stands on the banks of the river Ozama and is the oldest fort in the country. My guide insisted there is a lot of history there but I do not know whether it was his difficulty to explain it in English or my inability to understand what he said, it didn’t really sound too deep. The fort was used as prison during the times of Rafael Trujillo, the cruel dictator who ruled Dominican Republic from 1930 and 1961. Incidentally, Trujillo had renamed Santo Domingo as Ciudad Trujillo, but after his death, the name Santo Domingo made a comeback. Trujillo is rumoured to have been responsible the death of about 50,000 people. He made several modifications to the fort as well. The fort itself is reasonably well preserved and looked quite a functional one with its various turrets and rooms. There is an old naval school building also on the grounds but that was closed.

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With the fort, my tour of the Colonial Zone was finished. I spent some time wandering around the streets. There were many nicely painted houses and the whole ambience reminded me of the Jew Town in Mattancherry, Kochi.

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Many of the electric poles had street art painted on them and that I thought that was a very nice idea!

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I had been to Mexico City in May but had forgotten to write about an interesting opportunity I had, to look up their history. Recently, I came across my notes and so, this is a delayed post from the visit on 22nd May, 2014.

I had heard about some pyramids near Mexico City, in a place called Teotihuacan and that had intrigued me quite a lot, especially as I had thought that pyramids were to be found only in Egypt. There are operators that run daily tours to Teotihuacan and the site itself is only an hour’s drive from the city. The tour also included a couple more sites en route and the first stop was at the “Plaza of the Three Cultures” (Plaza de las Tres Culturas).

This plaza is in the city itself and has three cultures – Aztec, Spanish and the modern Mexican – represented there by way of buildings. You can see the ruins of an Aztec, a Franciscan church built in the early seventeenth century and a modern apartment complex – the last being an eye sore.

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The next stop was the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe or the Virgin of Guadalupe. This Basilica is a very important shrine for Catholics and has an interesting story behind it. On December 9, 1531 a peasant of Aztec origin, by name of Juan Diego, was walking on a hill by name of Tepeyac. He saw a maiden there, who spoke to him in this native Aztec language and asked for a church to be built for her at that site. From the conversation, Jan Diego understood that this was Virgin Mary herself and rushed to the Archbishop of Mexico City to convey the news. The Archbishop was sceptical and asked Juan Diego to return to the spot and collect evidence from the lady about her identity. Juan Diego went back to Tepeyac Hill and conveyed this to the lady; she then asked him to gather some flowers from the top of the hill. Normally, the hill would have been barren in December but to his surprise, Juan Diego found some roses there and more surprising was that those roses were not the variety that grew in Mexico but those that were found in Castile in Spain. The lady arranged the flowers in Juan Diego’s cloak and he took it back to the Archbishop and when he opened the cloak there, the roses fell out and on the fabric, the image of the Virgin could be seen. This was proof enough for the Archbishop and a church was built, in due course of time. The original cloak is still preserved in the Basilica. It was interesting to me that such stories seem to be common across the world. Many are the stories I have heard in India about how one god or the other appeared to some king or a pious individual and asked for a temple to be built. In any case, this is one of the most sacred sites for Catholics in Mexico and Juan Diego was canonized in 2002.

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Mexico City was essentially a large lake that the Spanish dried out and they constructed buildings on the lake bed. However, they did not fully appreciate the issue of building on soil which is not very firm and so many of the buildings from the Spanish colonial era are sinking. The original Basilica was also sinking and a new and far more modern version was built between 1974 and 1976 with stronger foundations. This building is quite interesting and does not resemble a typical church and looks from the outside, like a museum. All the glass work on the building has been made by Indians and the light inside is very strange and the overall feel was very, very different from the other churches I have been to.

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Before we reached the pyramids themselves, there was the customary stop at some tourist traps. There, we were shown how important the Maguey variety of cactus was, to the indigenous people. A short grows from the centre of the cactus and when this is cut out, a bowl shaped area of formed and every day, each cactus produces around 4 litres of juice for six months in a year. This juice, when fermented, becomes an alcoholic drink. I tasted it and found it quite like toddy, which we get from coconut trees. At the tips of the leaves of the cactus, you can find a very sharp and sturdy black coloured needle and the needled has a kind of string attached to it and can be used to sew clothes together. From the inside of the leaf, a very thin layer can be removed and it can be used like paper or papyrus. Overall, the Maguey cactus is a very useful tree and almost all of it can be used, much like the coconut tree.

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Teotihuacan city is estimated to have been built in BC 100 and it lasted till AD 550, when it was destroyed and burnt down. The major monuments were under constant construction till AD 250. It pre-dated the Aztecs and in its prime, was supposedly the most important city in pre-Colombian Americas. The major sights today are the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon, Avenue of the Dead, The Citadel and the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. These pyramids are built on a geological fault line running from San Francisco to Guatemala and since the architects wanted the buildings to last for eternity (as they were built for the gods) the pyramid structure was adopted and it is earthquake tolerant.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest structure in Teotihuacan and faces west. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the pyramids in Mexico are temples, not tombs. The Pyramid of the Sun represents the god of life and has areas that resemble eyes, nose etc. of a face. It was not clear what the pyramid was originally called this name was given by the Aztecs, that came later.

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This Pyramid is about 246 feet high and is the third tallest pyramid in the world but is only half as tall as the Great Pyramid in Giza. The steps were a bit steep and each step was quite big and so the climb was a fairly rigorous affair. At the top, there was an altar but I could not find any trace now. One can see a major portion of the site from the top with views of the buildings that existed there, pyramid of the Moon etc.

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The Pyramid of the Moon is dedicated to the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan but I could not find much more details about it from the guide. It was interesting to me that there was a concept of a Goddess but all I could find was some information from the internet, which I am not reproducing here. The Pyramid of the Moon was quite beautiful and the walk leading up to this pyramid is called the Avenue of the Dead. I couldn’t get any information as to why it is called the Avenue of the Dead – it was lined with small pyramids with square platforms at the top on either side.

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On one building on the Avenue of the Dead, is a mural depicting a Puma with large claws. Supposedly, this was part of what was called The puma Complex, but further details were not available.

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Next stop was the Citadel, which was the nerve centre of life in Teotihuacan. In those days, there was no currency and trade was completely based on barter system. This raised the issue of how to fix the relative value of commodities being bought and sold and this lead to many quarrels. To settle these quarrels, judges were appointed, who were specialised in the important commodities. These judges could not marry and thus were expected to be corruption free. They sat atop some platforms on pyramid like structures and these structures had no roofs to enable easy connectivity for the judges with the gods.

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Just after the Citadel, is the most beautiful structure in Teotihuacan – the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. This is partly ruined but you can still make out some very beautiful sculptures on the side of the pyramid. Some of these looked quite exquisite and I spent a long time looking at those figures.

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These pyramids are quite majestic and beautiful and these are perhaps the first temples I have seen which have no concept of entering into the structure itself. You just walked on the structure and the altar was on top of it. It seems the ancient people believed that time had a cycle of 52 years and the gods needed to remain strong after each 52-year cycle for the universe to remain intact. Hence, each ruler build a structure over an existing pyramid after a 52-year cycle, thus completely cutting off any access to the earlier structure and this is how pyramids grew in size as well. The Pyramid of the Moon had at least six such renovations.

Somehow I felt that I could not find out enough information about Teotihuacan and that there is much more to be learnt here. So, may be, I will be back one day!

 

 

During a recent trip to Mexico City in May 2014, I found myself with a couple of days to spare and I set off to the Coyoacan neighbourhood of Mexico City to have a look at the Frida Kahlo Museum, otherwise known as the Blue House. Another interesting spot in the area is the house where Leon Trotsky spent his last days and I planned to visit that as well. I had read a bit about Frida Kahlo and was curious to see her house and works and so preferred that over other attractions like the National Gallery.

The house looked plain enough from outside though it was apparent how it got its name.

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Thankfully, they allowed photography inside the house and had an audio guide as well. The moment I set inside, I felt that I am at a place with a different feel to it. The colours were bright and it felt as if you yourself were in the frame of a painting! I do not know whether it was because of the reading I had done on Frida, which made me understand her as a very intense person, I could feel a strange energy in the house and even in the grounds.

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This was where she was born, lived most of her life and died. She had a bad accident when she was quite young and that affected her mobility in her later life and she was often sick as well. She married the famous artist Diego Rivera and they had a tempestuous relationship. Each had various affairs on the side and separated once but remarried after a short while. The house had actually been bought by Diego Rivera to help Frida’s father tide over some financial difficulties but the house is quintessentially Frida. After she died,  a grief stricken Diego decided to make it a museum for her and even though he himself was a famous and important artist in his own right, the place has been maintained as a memorial to Frida Kahlo.

As one set foot inside the house, the first sight is a beautiful fireplace designed by Diego Rivera. Both Frida and Diego had a deep interest in the folk art of Mexico and the design of the fireplace brings out this aspect. The flooring was of a bright yellow, in keeping with the rather bright blue outside. I was wondering how it would be to be surrounded by such bright colours all the time, especially when I contrasted with the pastel shades that I am used to at home.

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Various finished and semi-finished paintings were displayed in the room. Frida was always deeply unhappy about her inability to be a mother and that often affected her works. For instance, the wife of the Mexican President commissioned her to do a painting and she did a still life. However, it was done on a specially made frame the shape of a womb and the fruits were also representative of female genitalia. The President’s wife reportedly refused to pay for the painting!

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There is another unfinished work titled “Frida and the Cesarean”, which also depicts the deep frustration she had on this matter.

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Frida’s father was a photographer and was a big influence in her life. There is a painting in the front room itself.

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Both Frida and Diego were taken up by Marxism and invited Trotsky to Mexico. Trotsky and his wife stayed with them at the Blue House initially and the later on shifted to another house nearby. The photograph below shows Trotsky with Frida and Diego.

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After Trotsky’s death, Frida and Dieg became Stalin’s followers. There were a couple of works that showed her involvement with Marxism.

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DSC_0418                                                                                                                    “Stalin and Frida”

Frida was emotionally quite high strung and was physically unwell as well, many a time. Yet she had a strong will and fought to overcome her adversities. Many of the luminaries of the time were frequent guests of Frida and Diego and they had affairs with some of them as well. Diego’s affairs were all very public whereas Frida was more discreet. I read that Frida was always tormented by Diego’s unfaithful nature but I was a bit amused by that as by all accounts, she herself had enough affairs on the side (supposedly she even had one with Trotsky) as well!

There were many finished and unfinished paintings and sketches all around the house and even the unfinished works held some sort of attraction for me. Overall, I felt strangely drawn to some energy that this woman had left in the house and her works even after sixty years of her death.

DSC_0470                                                                                                                   “Long Live Life”

 

DSC_0475                                                                                                              “Colour Palette”

 

DSC_0458                                                                                                          “Pedregal Landscape”

 

DSC_0468                                                                                                                  “The Brick Kilns”

 

DSC_0424                                                                                       “Portrait of Arija Muray” (Unfinished)

 

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The house is full of bright colours and beautiful objects. There were many traditional utensils and in the kitchen, they used traditional methods for cooking.

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Frida’s studio is on the first floor and I heard in the audio guide that Frida was so unwell many a day that she had to be carried up. The studio itself is brightly lit with sunlight streaming in from all sides.

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Her bedroom is filled with many objects and there is a small ante-chamber that had a day-bed.

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Inside the bed room is an urn designed in the traditional Mexican tribal style. This contains the ashes of Frida and to me it somehow was a bit strange and unsettling to think that her ashes were there inside that urn.

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There were a few of Diego Rivera’s works also in the museum.

DSC_0527                                                                                                                “The Porter”

DSC_0510                                                                                                                  “Landscape”

DSC_0514                                                                                             “Landscape with Locomotive”

DSC_0519                                                                                                      “The Seated Woman”

DSC_0523                                                                                                           “The Alarm Clock”

I stepped out once again in to the garden for a final look around and spent a few minutes contemplating on the life of this very gifted artist and wondered whether she would have been happy in her life. Intense people are often quite unhappy when they are down and reasonably high when they are feeling happy. In the house is a photograph of Frida Kahlo and I felt it captures her intensity very well.

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Perhaps, these extremes are reflected in her work and in the house itself!

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With these thoughts, I bid adieu to the Blue House and walked to the Trotsky Museum, which is quite close to the Frida Kahlo Museum.

If Frida’s house is painted blue, Trotsky’s is all painted red from the outside.

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There is a small but nice garden in the house and the house itself is quite small and very modest. One would never expect that a man like Leon Trotsky, who was a key actor in an event that changed the course of the world – the Russian Revolution – would have lived here.

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In 1929, Trotsky had a fall-out with Stalin and had to leave Russia. Stalin, was of course, in a drive to remove that could be a potential threat to him and his hold on power. Trotsky and his wife lived in different parts of Europe till 1937 and they went to Mexico on the invitation of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They even stayed with them will 1939 and then moved to another house in 1939. In May 1940, an attempt was made on Trotsky’s life, but he survived. The bullet holes from that assassination attempt can be seen on the walls even today. However, a second and successful attempt was made on August 20, 1940 and Trotsky was killed while he sat working on his desk.

DSC_0604                                                                                          Photo of Trotsky reading a book

DSC_0639                                                                                                               Dining room

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DSC_0654                                                                       Trotsky was working on this desk when he was killed

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DSC_0665                                                                             Bullet marks from the first assassination attempt

DSC_0667                                                                                                            Trotsky’s clothes

DSC_0681                                            Trotsky and his wife (who passed away in 1982) are buried in the grounds of the house.

 

In these very humble surroundings, lived a man who dedicated his life to the uplift of the working classes. He was the founder of the Red Guard and I thought about what I had read in John Reed’s “Ten days that shook the world”. In those days when the revolution was actually carried out, two men stood out as the key leaders who made a difference. Without them, the Bolshevik Revolution would definitely have failed. They were Lenin and Trotsky. It was evident that Trotsky had the same impact as Lenin and it must have been true because the book was written in 1919, well before any propaganda regime took over. Stalin is mentioned only twice in the book (and one is just in a list of members in some committee) whereas Trotsky is a presence throughout. Sure enough, Stalin banned the book and any mention of Trotsky soon became anathema in Soviet Russia.

There is a large painting just at the entrance of the museum and it depicts a meeting as part of the VIII Congress of the Soviets of Russia that was held in December, 1920. Lenin and Stalin are both present whereas Trotsky is absent, quite curious as Trotsky would definitely have been present, given his stature in the party. However, a closer look shows an empty chair with a green cap on it – just the one that Trotsky used to wear!

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To me, this painting captured all that went wrong with a noble Revolution. Ultimately, man is greedy and power corrupts; even Stalin, who was a participant in the Revolution himself, was not above it. How right was George Orwell when he wrote in “Animal Farm” – “All animals are equal; bust some animals are more equal than others”.

1 May 2014

I had been intending to visit Lepakshi for a few months but had not been able to make the trip. So, on the spur of the moment, I decided to make a visit even though it is not very advisable to visit this location in summer as the mercury will climb over 40 degrees and since it is a stone temple, it can become a fire-walking exercise. I left early in the morning to beat the heat and as it is only 125 kilometres from Bangalore and along very good roads, I got there in about an hour and a half.

My interest to visit the place had been fired up because of some of the stories I had heard. The village itself is very small and the temple was not crowded at all when I arrived. The temple itself is on a small hill and the entry does not look very imposing or grand, unlike some others that take your breath away at the first sight itself.

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This temple falls under the purview of the Archaeological Survey of India and as usual, they have limited their information providing to one small board at the entrance. It is a matter of constant frustration for me that ASI has never bothered to provide more information to help the tourists. This temple was constructed in AD 1538 and is a jewel cast in stone. Yet, ASI feels it only merits a badly written board. In contrast, even a very small monument is so well projected by westerners. They provide so much information about the place, audio guides etc. Here, we are left at the mercy of the local guides and their colourful and fertile imagination to learn anything about such wonderful monuments.

I think I was a bit early as I could not locate any guide and I wandered around the temple taking random pictures. I could not locate any of the marvels that I had read about, in the internet. The temple itself is gorgeous with wonderful stone carvings, but for me, the stories make a place come alive. Fortunately, just as I was about to lose hope, I was able to get a guide. As is the case with these local guides, they are rely more on their beliefs, myths and what they think will impress the visitor, rather than facts.

The main deity here is Veerabhadra, who was created by Shiva from locks of his hair, in anger, to slay the king Daksha – his father-in-law. Hence Veerabhadra is considered to be a god in an angry mood so, unlike in many temples, you cannot see the idol from the entry point. The door is set a bit to one side so that the angry gaze of Veerabhadra may not fall at the entrance. The temple was finished in AD 1538 and the construction was overseen by Virupanna, a Treasurer of the King Achutharaya of the Vijayanagar empire and the architect concerned was a person by name of Jakkanna Hampanna. There are three enclosures (prakaras) to the temple – the first has lodging quarters for guests and in the second is the dance hall and the innermost one houses the sanctum sanctorum. The guide told me that there were seven prakaras originally but there is no evidence of that currently.

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As soon as I entered, what I noticed were the long corridors that stretched on the four sides of the temple. This was where people who visited the temple stayed. Today, these long empty corridors present a nice sight with wonderfully carved stone pillars in neat rows.

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The dance hall is a very beautiful structure with 70 stone pillars that have wonderful carvings and some very nice murals on the ceiling.

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The actual space for dancing appeared to be a very small space set between 10-12 pillars. On one of the pillars, the apsara, Rambha is dancing and on the other pillars, various gods and other celestial beings are carved out as musicians and on side, slightly hidden, Bhringi the three legged dance teacher of the apsaras is shown. The carvings are all very nice and beautifully done.

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Drum Player

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There is also a carving depicting the “Bhiskhatana” – Shiva’s begging to atone for having cut off Brahma’s fifth head. The guide had got this story totally wrong and mixed it up with the Daksha-Sati story and left me confused. I had heard the Dakhsa story from my grand-mother who was very knowledgeable in all the epics, when I was very young. Fortunately, a quick search on the internet cleared up the matter for me.

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All the pillars in the natya mantapa have beautiful carvings and the roof in the central space has a beautiful flower with 100 petals. Of the 70 pillars, one pillar does not rest on the ground and is a “hanging pillar”. Supposedly, a British engineer tried to find the secret of the hanging pillar and damaged it a bit in the process with the result that one corner touches the ground now. Fantastic structural engineering from the days gone by!

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The roof has many beautiful murals and they look good even today. There were pictures of Shiva, Parvati and also Virupanna (the figure on the right in the first mural below) and various other stories from the epics. Overall, it is a very ornate and rich hall with beautiful sights everywhere.

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The main sanctum sanctorum or garbhagriha has many other deities in addition to the idol of Veerabhadra. The guide was insistent that some of these were commissioned by Sri Rama himself in Threthayuga, which would mean that those idols predate human civilization as we know it! The air inside was very smelly and when I asked, the guide said it was because there was no air circulation inside and hence the smell. To me, it looked like more of a matter of cleanliness as it smelled of animal waste and I did see a couple of cockroaches crawling over one or two idols. There is a nice mural of Veerabhadra here but since no photography was allowed inside this place, I could not capture any images.

Outside and behind the sanctum sanctorum is a huge statue of a seven headed snake protecting a sivalinga. The serpent faces the room that was used as a kitchen by the mother of the sculptor. The story goes that one day when the sculptor came for lunch, it was not ready as his mother had been engaged in some poojas, as it was an auspicious day. The mother asked her son to wait while she prepared food. The sculptor did not want to sit idle and this statue was what he made while he waited for lunch – must have been some superman sculptor to finish such a huge statue in such a short time. In any case, his mother came out, saw the statue and was very impressed by the beauty of it. However, her “evil eye” caused the statue to have two vertical cracks on the coils of the snake and the sculptor was quite saddened by it saying no one would ever notice his work. However, she advised him to put a sivalinga in between the coils of the snake and said people would then pray to it and supposedly that is the story behind this beautiful work. In any case, it is a very impressive statue and is one of the most commonly reproduced images of Lepakshi.

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Right behind the snake is a huge idol of Ganesha, which is slightly pinkish in colour. When I asked the guide whether this was made of some different stone, he said that people had been applying vermillion and oil on the idol and hence the colour change. This practice has been stopped by ASI now.

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Just beyond the Ganesh is the site of the unfinished kalyana mantapa (marriage hall). There are many pillars strewn about the place with fantastic carvings.

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The theme of the kalyana mantapa is the wedding of Shiva and Parvati and the images of all the main guests that attended have been carved on pillars that form a rough square, in the centre. The guests depicted are (left to right in image below): Viswamitra, Eeswara (Shiva), Shiva in wedding attire, Maina Devi (Parvathi’s mother), Parvatharaj (Parvathi’s father), Devendra, Agni, Yaman, Vasishta, Varun, Bruhaspathi, Dattatreya, Vishnu, Vayu and Kubera. The guide also told me that some of these people did not particularly enjoy the company of some others in attendance  (for instance, Viswamithra and Vasishta) and hence, has been placed opposite to each other in the square. It was curious that the sculptor did not feel a need to bring in Parvathi into this mix.

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Now comes the most interesting part of the Lepakshi legend. It seems that some vested interests convinced the then king that Virupanna was squandering the resources of the royal treasury and the king, angered by this, ordered for him to be blinded. Virupanna was standing at the site of the kalyana mantapa when he heard this news and he himself plucked out his eyeballs and threw them on to a nearby wall. On that wall, there are marks with small holes and long stains, to be seen. Supposedly, the eyeballs pierced the stone and the stains were caused by blood. The guide was adamant that recent tests have shown that it is indeed blood and all efforts by the British to wash it away with acid had proven futile.

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On one side of the kalyana mantapa is the “latha mantapa” which has about 36 pillars and each of these pillars have a unique design on each face of the pillar, thus making up 144 unique designs. Supposedly, Lepakshi is known for sarees and it is these designs that have inspired those saree designs.

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Folklore in these parts say that Lepakshi actually is “le pakshi”, which means “rise bird” in Telugu. Supposedly, this is where Jataayu (the legendary bird) fought Raavana as he was kidnapping Sita. Ultimately, Jataayu lost the battle and fell here. When Rama was searching for Sita, he found Jataayu, who told him the whole story and which direction Raavana had taken. Rama is then supposed to have asked Jataayu to rise and hence the name “le pakshi” for the place.

Right beside the kalyana mantapa, on the rock, is a huge footprint. Supposedly, this is Sita’s footprint. Going by the size of the footprint, she must have been at least 25 feet tall as this one was more than four times bigger than my size 10 foot. The foot print always has some water in it and according to the guide, no one knows where it is seeping from and tis aspectt must add to the mystique and attraction of the whole story. I saw several women touching the water to their foreheads and eyes, in prayer.

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Another interesting sight is a lunch plate (thali) shaped sculpture carved into the rock. The guide said this was the lunch plate of the builder and when I pointed out the plate was at least four times larger than a normal plate, his replied that the builder was a man who was 16-18 feet tall as no ordinary person could have built such a temple! His argument being that if we need huge machines like mechanized excavators to demolish big buildings, how could they have built such a big temple and that too on rock, if they were not superhuman size, as they had no machines. It was an amusing thought and I overheard another guide tell his group the same story but he had cut the builder down to 9 feet!

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The sun was starting to get hot by this time and the fire-walk experience was looking like a real possibility. Even though I had spent about three hours in the temple complex, I was not in any hurry to leave. The place is so beautiful with so many rich carvings that it is such a visual treat!

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Within a kilometer or so of the temple is a huge bull (Nandi) carved out of a monolithic rock. It is 15 feet tall and 27 feet in length and beautifully carved. It faces in the direction of the seven headed snake with the sivalinga. I am not sure when it was made; to me, it looked a bit more recent than the temple.

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That was my final stop at Lepakshi and I started my drive back, satisfied and happy about a day well spent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

26 January 2014

Tucked away in a corner of Bangalore associated with the perishable goods market and a bus station, is one of the most important historic monuments of the town. Not many tourists actually go there and it took me 22 years of life at Bangalore to go there the first time. I was in love with the place from that visit and have been there two more times. To me, it is a fantastic visual treat and looks like a poor cousin of the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain. Of course, the Mezquita is far grander and is older; I guess it is the beautiful arches in the palace and the Islamic architecture that brings out the resemblance.

The construction of the fort was started by Hyder Ali, Tipu’s father, in 1781 and completed by Tipu Sultan in 1791. It is located within the old Bangalore fort (of which only a small portion is still standing), right next to an old temple.  After Tipu’s fall, the palace was used by the British as administrative offices and as can be expected, only a small portion of the palace is left behind.

The palace is built entirely with wood and has an abundance of beautifully carved arches. It was originally painted with vegetable pigments and some portions of the original work can still be seen. However, I was told that the current colour combination is attributable to the Archaeological Society of India, which has done some restoration work.

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View from the front

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Views of main durbar hall

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Pillars and arches

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Works in ceiling and wall

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Views of rear durbar hall

There is also a small museum inside, wherein some objects like a replica of the famous toy that Tipu had (of a tiger attacking an Englishman) and some rockets he used, are kept. It seems Tipu’s army had been able to make and use rockets that could travel a distance of two and a half kilometres, a remarkable achievement indeed, in those days.

There is an Arabic inscription in the palace which says it is the “abode of happiness and envy of heaven”. Even in this day, in its current condition, it is magnificent. One can only imagine how it must have been in its heyday. However, as I sat there among those beautiful arches, a sense of outrage kept tugging at my heart. Here I was in the palace of a very brave king, a truly patriotic king, who was the first in South India to stand up to the British and indeed, beat them in many battles – the only one in these parts of whom the British were truly afraid of. He was a visionary who was a very good administrator and who understood the relevance of international trade and relations and had envoys in faraway places like France and Turkey. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of the South Indian kings who mostly kowtowed to the British to save their power and riches. Yet, today, he is neglected in his own state. There is hardly any monument in his name (in a country where every Tom, Dick and Harry and their families get statues erected in their honour) and even this palace does not get the attention it deserves. It is definitely the most important historic monument in Bangalore. The answer to this neglect, most probably, could be found in the introductory words of a guide that I had hired during one of the visits. “This is the palace of Tipu Sultan, the Muslim king…….”. And thus, another Republic Day went by…

21 May 2013

Seville, the land of flamenco and bull fighters, was also an important port with a river that connected it to the Atlantic, a 100 km away. It was from that Christopher Columbus set sail to East Indies and ended up discovering America. Immediately after the Moor invasion in the Eighth century, Seville was under the Caliphate of Cordoba. After Cordoba fell in AD 1031, Seville became a small kingdom by itself and was ruled by the Almohad dynasty. As with the rest of Andalusia, Seville also was under constant attack because of the Christian Reconquest and finally, it fell to Fernando III of Castille in AD 1248.

As per the guidebooks, the most important sight in Seville is the Cathedral and so that was our first stop for the day. The Cathedral is built on the location of an old mosque, which was demolished in AD 1401. The construction of the new church took more than a hundred years and was completed in AD 1507. The majestic minaret of the old mosque, called La Giralda, was kept intact and is part of the Cathedral. The building is huge and awe inspiring.

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There was a queue to enter the Cathedral and joined up. The square around was already active with many buggies and such, available for fun rides around the town.

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The La Giralda got this name after a weathervane, in the shape of a statue, was installed on top of the minaret in the Sixteenth Century. This statue represents the victory of Christian faith and that must be why it was placed on top of the minaret that represented Islam. A replica of the status is displayed as one enters the yard of the Cathedral.

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This Cathedral was the largest in the world when it was commissioned and supposedly, the authorities wanted such an impressive building that everyone would think they were “mad”! In any case, it is a colossal structure with very many impressive chapels.

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What attracted me the most was the tomb of Christopher Columbus. This tomb is supposed to contain his mortal remains though there is controversy on the subject as he was originally buried in the Dominican Republic and it is said that most of his remains are still there. The four pall bearers represent the four kingdoms of Spain – Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre. The significance of Columbus in Spain’s history is borne out by the fact that the Catholic Monarch, Queen Isabella herself is shown as the pall bearer representing Leon (on the front left with the oar in hand). The other pall bearer in the front holds a spear with a pomegranate, showing the fall of Granada (Granada means pomegranate in Spanish). I was very attracted to this tomb and I spent a lot of time around it. That I was standing close to a man (even if it were the remains) who was such an adventurer and visionary, was a special feeling.

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There are a good many chapels inside the Cathedral and many are very ornate. The one that attracted me the most was the Chapel of Saints Justa and Rufina. They were sisters who lived in Seville in the late Third Century and were ardent Christian believers. They refused to convert to pagan faith and the (pagan) authorities who ruled Seville at that time had the sisters tortured and killed them finally. During one of the pagan festivals, the pagans destroyed the utensils that the sisters had made and in retaliation, they broke a statue of Venus. According to legend, during their imprisonment, one of the sisters (Rufina) was thrown to the lions but the lions refused to attack her and licked her feet. These two incidents are represented in a painting placed in the altar of the chapel dedicated to them. I was wondering whether they would have thought that their story would be remembered 1200 years later and retold when a church was built. Supposedly, the resistance of the sisters represented the resistance of Seville. The La Giralda is also shown in the background in the picture.

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This Cathedral was meant to be a showpiece for Christianity and so is full of pomp and splendour. Many treasures that belong the Cathedral are also displayed. I guess this is to impress visitors as to glory of the faith. However, I could not help feeling that this was quite at loggerheads with what Jesus Christ had imagined.

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The keys of the city of Seville were also to be seen. These were the keys handed over to the Christian conquerors in AD 1248 when the city was captured.

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The La Giralda is about 90 metres high and it is possible to climb up to the bell tower. As can be expected, the views from the tower are fantastic.

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Right next to the Cathedral is the Alcazar, residence of many generations of Kings and Caliphs. This ancient building was first constructed in the Tenth Century and then renovated and rebuilt. Even today, a portion of this palace is used as the official residence of the royal family when in Seville.

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As one steps past the impressive gate, the Alcazar soars in front of the eyes in all its majesty. The façade is very Islamic as care was taken by Pedro I (Peter the First) of Castille, who rebuilt the palace. Pedro I was a Christian king who seems to have been quite an interesting personality. For starters, he seems to be referred to as Peter the Just and Peter the Cruel. The nobility and the aristocracy called him Peter the Cruel whereas the common people called him Peter the Just. Given that he lived in the Fourteenth Century and the subsequent recording of history must have been quite influenced by the nobility, I am inclined to believe that Peter must have been a king who understood the sufferings of the poor and supported them. He also seems to be the only Christian king who exhibited religious tolerance. When he rebuilt the Alcazar, he made sure that he used artisans who were proponents of Islamic architecture and he also used perishable material such as wood and plaster (supposedly, Quran reserves eternal structures for Allah). In some of the doorways, there are Arabic inscriptions that mean: “None but Allah conquers”, “Happiness and prosperity are benefits of Allah” etc. He appreciated the Islamic culture that existed in Seville at the time and it was evidenced in his dress and food. Peter also gave permissions to the Jews to build a synagogue in Toledo. I was quite impressed, especially when I contrasted this against the religious intolerance fostered by the Catholic Monarchs, who were to come later, who ushered in the black period of Spanish Inquisition. Incidentally, a friend told me later that there is still an office of the Inquisition in Seville (it is called by a different name these days).

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This palace is Seville’s answer to the Alhambra of Granada. The rooms are decorated with rich carvings and highly ornate walls and ceilings. I was just lost in the beauty of the place as I wandered from room to room. It was here that the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, spent time while preparing for their conquest of Granada. They used to meet with Christopher Columbus in this palace to discuss his expedition. The beauty of the whole place is breath-taking.

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It was getting late by the time we finished the Alcazar and we decided to visit Plaza de Espana before calling it a day. Plaza de Espana is located in the Maria Luisa Park and was built in 1928 for the World Fair hosted by Seville in 1929. This is a beautiful semicircular building with many exquisite bridges and a very nice fountain in the centre.

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We spent some time wandering around the Plaza and then headed back. Overall, it was a very satisfying day and the personality that stayed with me was Pedro I. He must have been an extraordinary man to have shown such tolerance in those days when everyone else seemed to be headed the other way. I was left wishing how better off we would be if only some of our current leaders could borrow a leaf from his book!

19 May 2013

There is great charm in taking a drive around the countryside and dropping in at various quaint towns you find on the way. I had heard of the white towns of Andalusia and was very interested to have a close look – I also remembered seeing them in some movie. The day being nice and sunny, we decided to explore white towns that day.

The white towns of Andalusia are located to the northern part of Malaga and Cadiz provinces and so we had an hour’s drive to the nearest one. During the Reconquest, the Moors started retreating up the mountains when their main cities in the plains fell to the Christians. They set up small villages in difficult to reach places and that allowed them to hold on much longer even after the major towns had all been captured. However, eventually, these villages were also captured and have now become towns. The walls of all buildings in these towns are white and hence the name “white towns”.

I had charted out a rough course and we set out accordingly. The first stop was planned to be Setenil de las Bodegas, a white town different from others. While others had set up their villages in hills and on the mountains, the people of Setenil had made their dwellings in the deep caves beneath the cliffs of the River Trejo. The drive along the countryside is very enjoyable, especially on a sunny day. The Andalusian countryside is fully utilised with olive plantations all across. We could also see a lot of wind mills on many of the hilltops.

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The drive, being through high country, is very enjoyable and you have great sights everywhere. I was in very good mood as I drove up to Setenil, little realizing the perils that lay ahead. As we approached the town centre, I noticed that the roads were getting narrower. Roads in old towns in Europe are generally narrow and I did not pay this much attention; nor did I notice that most cars on the road were small hatchbacks unlike the full sized sedan that we had rented. Soon, we found ourselves in a spot where the car could just pass and the road seemed to curve on ahead. It suddenly struck me that if the road narrows any further, our car would not pass. In a wave of panic, I had visions of the car being stuck and some recovery truck towing it away, the day wasted and the pocket a lot emptier. However, there was no option but to go ahead and so, we inched along and soon spied a plaza at the end of the road but as always, to get to that safe place, we had to go through a particularly narrow opening! Anyway, after losing much sweat and with the wing mirrors folded in and with great support from Sandhya and a few passersby, we finally passed through, albeit with a small scratch on one of the mirrors. A definite blow to my driver pride!

The effort was well worth it though, as the town was very beautiful with wonderful small walkways and tracks that led up and down various inclines. The cave dwellings have mostly been converted to bars and cafes. It was wonderful to walk around and we spent some time walking around. It was obvious to me that a gym would have no business in this town where you were climbing up or down all the time!

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After some more excitement, which included driving into a dead end in a cave and some hair raising reversing, we drove on to our next destination – Olvera. This one turned out to have slightly wider streets than Setenil and so my blood pressure was in check when we got to the town square. There is a very nice church and castle in Olvera but both were closed when we got there and so could not go in.

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Next on the agenda was Zahara de la Sierra, a white town that seemed to be a must-visit based on what I read on the net. As we drove along, we passed some white towns and they are very beautiful to see, especially from a distance.

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As we approached Zahara, we could see it in the distance and the view was fantastic indeed.

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There is a reservoir in the valley beside the town. The drive was not so difficult as the roads were reasonably wide. There are some beautiful cafes in Zahara and it is a sheer please to relax by the roadside, drinking a coffee or beer. It was just great to wander around this small town and I was wondering how it would be to live in such a small town. The population must have been below one thousand.

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There is also a 12th century castle keep in Zahara and it is a steep 15 minute climb from the town centre. The views from this keep are simply out of the world, especially that of the reservoir.

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By this time, it was growing late and we headed back to our hotel. It was a delightful day and it would have been a great loss indeed, had we not done this drive around the white towns of Andalusia.

18 May 2013

A trip to Andalusia cannot be planned without a visit to Granada. This great city was the last Muslim Emirate that held out against the Christian Reconquest; the famous poet Lorca was born near this town and here rests the Catholic Monarchs. Granada was conquered along with the rest of Andalusia in 711 AD by the Moors but it did not achieve any real significance till the fall of Cordoba in 1236 and Seville in1248, to the conquering Christian armies. The Nasrid dynasty was set up in 1228 and they ruled Granada till its fall in 1492 to the Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. This was the longest lasting Muslim dynasty in the peninsula. Ibn Batuta, who visited Granada in 1350, described it as a powerful kingdom. The decline of Granada began with a civil war that started in 1482 as the prince rebelled against the then king. The Christian armies took advantage of this situation and Granada fell in 1492. Granada used to be a thriving centre for both Muslims and Jews and after capture by the Christian monarchs, the city entered into an era of religious persecution; with Muslims and Jews leaving Granada by the seventeenth century. It was interesting to think of how Spain turned from being a tolerant country when it was under the Muslims to an intolerant one, under the Christians.

After the founding of the Nasrid dynasty in 1228, the founder, Muhammad I al-Ahmar, felt the need to construct a fortress-palace complex and thus started the construction of world renowned Alhambra on top of a hill known as La Sabika, on the site of a fortress. Construction went on till the last decades of the 14th century. This palace complex is a great jewel of Islamic architecture with the Nasrid Palaces being the key attraction. I had read that the number of visitors to the Alhambra is strictly controlled and hence had booked tickets in advance, which meant that we did not have the flexibility to change the date of our visit and unfortunately the day turned out to be a very cold and cloudy day.

The star of Alhambra is the Nasrid Palace complex and we had booked for entry there at noon. So, we decided to visit the beautiful Generalife Gardens (literal meaning being Architect’s Garden) first. This garden has a small summer palace as well.

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The gardens were continuously renovated and some of the fountains were installed in the 19th century. Overall, the garden is very beautiful and enchanting with fountains and water channels everywhere (even on the handrail of a staircase!).

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What intrigued me was how they could have got the water up the hill so that all these water channels and fountains could work! This was a romantic hotspot for the royals and the last King caught his lover with the head of a noble family in this garden. As could be expected, the King was not impressed and soon, the prominent members of this clan were murdered.

Since the garden is on a high point on the hill, there were fantastic views to be seen everywhere.

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Unfortunately, with the temperature hovering around 5 degrees and with us not really properly dressed for that sort of weather (this was Spain after all!), we could not really give the garden the full attention it deserved.

After fortifying ourselves with some hot chocolate, we wandered on to see the palace of Charles V. The Catholic Kings had taken up residence in Alhambra and had made some modifications to the rooms in the palaces to fit their needs. However, Charles V felt the need to construct a new palace and commissioned this in 1527. This is a square building with a circular patio inside. The exterior of the building is quite unimpressive, especially when compared with the other buildings around. The circular patio is quite interesting and has two floors.

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The palace is a standing testimony of the intolerance of the Christian Kings that ruled Granada. The construction of the palace was funded using special taxes imposed on Muslims. However, the construction could not be completed as the Muslims stopped paying the taxes after some time!

The Alhambra complex has many beautiful buildings and some fantastic views all around.

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The entry into the Nasrid Palace complex itself is very nice and is a precursor to the beauty inside. You enter through a narrow courtyard into an antechamber (called Mexuar) where audiences with the Emir were held for the public and others. Even though this is a room meant for business, it is still decorated very well in the Islamic style with wooden ceiling and ornate walls. The patterns on the walls are very intricate and attractive.

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From the Mexuar, we entered a courtyard and then onto the first palace through a highly ornate and beautiful gateway.

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The palace itself is built around a wonderful courtyard, called the Patio of the Myrtles, of breathtaking beauty. This view is very popular and figures prominently in any search for images of Alhambra.

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Next was the Hall of Ambassadors, the largest room in Alhambra. This immense hall has all its walls covered with highly ornate carvings and I am at a total loss for words to describe the beauty of this room; I hope the photographs will help in getting the point across. It was in this room that Christopher Columbus used to meet Ferdinand and Isabella to get sponsorship for his voyage of discovery.

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The next palace was the Palace of the Lions with its wonderful Courtyard of Lions. This is a courtyard laid out in Islamic style surrounded by the rooms of the palace. It is divided into four parts (representing four parts of the world, said the audio guide) with four water channels representing four rivers of paradise. There are about 124 columns supporting the roof and a gallery and these columns represent palm trees in an oasis. The fountain in the centre is supposed to be the Sultan himself providing well-being to all his subjects. It looks like there was a great need to keep stressing on the importance of the King; there was an inscription elsewhere in the palace about how the King was the one chosen by God. There are twelve lions in the fountain and this came from the household of a rich Jew; with the twelve lions representing the twelve tribes of Israel – a powerful testimony to the climate of friendship that existed between the two religions. The courtyard is enchanting and the pillars are very beautiful. To me, this courtyard was the highlight of the Nasrid palaces.

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We passed through some more rooms of great beauty that spoke volumes about the craftsmanship of the people of those times. Washington Irving visited Alhambra and fell in love with the place. He lived in the Alhambra for some time and the result was his book: “Tales of the Alhambra”. We exited the palace through a very green courtyard with orange trees laden with the fruit.

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I feel I am totally inadequate to the task of expressing the beauty of the Alhambra in words. It leaves a lasting impression on one’s mind and I was awe-struck by the craftsmanship and the detail involved. Yet, this gem of great beauty was almost lost in the 18th century when it was abandoned and became a haven for thieves and bandits. During the Napoleonic occupation, it was used as military barracks and was almost blown-up! Thankfully, the Alhambra survived and I am sure this is one of the main earners of tourism income for Andalusia.

With the weather being rather inclement and thoroughly disagreeable to folks that had just flown in from the wonderful (or so it seemed) 40 degree Celsius sun, we decided to cut short our visit and returned to our hotel with plans to come back another day to see the Cathedral and the Royal Chapel.

20 May 2013

This was a bright day and after spending the morning walking around the countryside surrounding the hotel, we decided to drive into Granada to have a look at the Cathedral and the Royal Chapel. The Cathedral is rather large and very impressive as most Cathedrals in Europe. There are many chapels inside the Cathedral and the church organ and the altar are all impressive. This Cathedral is relatively new and was built in the 16th century after the capture of Granada in the Reconquest.

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The Royal Chapel is also part of the Cathedral but has to be entered through an entrance in another street. The Catholic Monarchs – Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon – have their final resting place in this Chapel. Modern Spain is built upon the basis of the conquests led by the Catholic Monarchs. Their marriage brought together two powerful Kingdoms and they were both deeply religious and committed to Christianity. They were constantly on the move and led the campaign against Granada; victoriously marching into Granada in 1492. Queen Isabella died in 1504 and King Ferdinand in 1516. There is a crypt under two marble monuments and in the crypt are two simple lead coffins. It was rather strange to think that two individuals that had such an impact in the history of a country and commissioned so many beautiful buildings and the voyage of Christopher Columbus, lay buried in such simple coffins (it seems the Queen wished for such austerity). Their crown and scepter were also kept on top of the coffins and I found that a bit bizarre – symbols of power and might coupled with symbol of the ultimate; kind of a contradiction, I felt. The tombs of the daughter, son-in-law and the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs are also present in the crypt. Photography was not allowed in the crypt and so I could not take any photo of this, somehow impressive, place.

Right outside the Cathedral is the Alcaiceria, or the Muslim silk exchange. These comprise of a few narrow streets and very colourful shops.

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We wandered around the town a bit, taking in the various sights and then drove back to the hotel.

17 May 2013

My earliest memory of the name “Cordoba” is from the book “The Just Men of Cordova” by Edgar Wallace, which I had read as a child. Of course, I was not even sure whether such a city existed at that time but it came to my mind when I was planning our itinerary for this trip. Cordoba (or Cordova, as it is often referred to in English) was once a city of great prominence in Andalusia. It was the capital of the Roman province that engulfed most of Andalusia and was captured by the moors in AD 711 and thus began the golden period of Cordoba. The Moors made Cordoba their capital and it became a Caliphate by itself later. The ninth and tenth centuries saw Cordoba at the height of its glory. It was one of the most populous cities in Europe at that time and had more than half a million people living in the city (incidentally, the population today is also around that number). It was a centre of learning in Europe and made great strides in political, cultural and financial fields. I read that the library in Cordoba was one of the largest of those times and carried around a million volumes! Guess this must have been a smaller version of Nalanda.

Interestingly during this part of the Muslim rule (ninth and tenth centuries), Cordoba exhibited a high level of tolerance and all religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – flourished in this city of great learning. After the fall of the Caliphate in AD 1031, Cordoba became part of a small region and its decline started. Many such small regions, called taifas, had started to come up in Andalusia with the decline of the Caliphate. These were ruled by some Islamic clans and they all fell to the “Reconquest” of the Christian kings by and by. The Muslim rulers that controlled Cordoba after the fall of the Caliphate were not progressive or tolerant and soon forced conversions started happening. As often happens when fanaticism or fundamentalism takes over, a city loses all its learning, knowledge, grandeur and ultimately, it declines. This was true then and true now as well, as we see this happening around us even today. By AD 1236, Cordoba fell to the Christian King Ferdinand III of Castille and that was the end of its time in the limelight. Today, Cordoba is mostly a tourist destination because of its great mosque and palace but is merely a shadow of what it once was.

We were staying at a place called Loja, just about an hour and a half from Cordoba and drove to Cordoba in the morning. After some adventure, we found a parking garage and started off on foot. The weather was not very comfortable and it was a bit cold, though not raining. Our first stop was the Alcazar de los Reyes Christianos (Castle of the Christian Monarchs) built in AD 1328, on the site of an earlier, small Visigoth defensive structure and later the site of an Islamic fortress. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the Catholic Monarchs, stayed in this castle for a long time when involved in the Reconquest, fighting against the Kingdom of Granada. Christopher Columbus used to visit them here, seeking financial support for his endeavour to discover India.

The castle became the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition by the end of the fifteenth century and this meant that significant changes were made to the castle by converting rooms into cells, demolishing corridors etc. In the nineteenth century, it became a prison and in 1931, it was declared a protected monument. So, while the castle had four towers originally, there are only two that are in a condition to be visited now.

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Entry to the building is through what is called the North Corridor and here we could see a third century Roman sarcophagus in remarkably good condition. The scene represented is that of the dead entering Hades (the nether world according to ancient Romans).

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In the same corridor is also a statue of the philosopher Seneca, who was born in Cordoba.

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We climbed on top of one of the towers and there were beautiful view from there of the Cordoba city, especially of the tower of the Mezquita and other old buildings. We could also see the gardens of the Alcazar and the water wheel, which was used to water the vegetable gardens of the Alcazar.

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There is a chapel inside the castle and it now has a display of some beautiful Roman mosaics that date back to the second and third centuries. These are beautiful works of art, constructed using small pieces of stone and were part of the floors of Roman houses. It was quite amazing to think of the perfection in the work and commitment of the artists in assembling something like this, that too in those times.

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There is a beautiful courtyard and a very nice garden in the Alcazar and there were orange trees everywhere. The garden is very beautiful with a series of pools laid out. Life in this castle must have been good as it seems to have been built for comfortable living also and not just for warfare.

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Since Cordoba was a thriving centre for Judaism, the existence of a Jew Town is but to be expected. This is a beautiful section of the town with narrow, winding streets with whitewashed houses. It is a wonderful feeling to wander through these narrow medieval streets and I have always enjoyed that experience. This Jew Town is well preserved and many houses had nice boxes of flowers on the windows.

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There is also a synagogue that dates back to medieval times – one of the only three surviving synagogues dating back to those times in Spain. There is a synagogue in Kochi and my two earlier efforts to visit that synagogue had come to naught as it was closed both times I went there. So, I was determined to visit this one. Unfortunately, it turned out to a little bit of a disappointment, with nothing much to see. The walls and the construction did look nice but there was nothing to indicate anything about the rituals, about which I was very curious; perhaps because this is not a practicing synagogue.

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One of the greatest Jewish philosophers ever, was a teacher called Maimonides who was born in Cordoba in AD 1135. During the later period of Muslim rule, religious persecution forced many Jews to migrate from Cordoba and Maimonides also left Cordoba. Finally, he settled down in Egypt in AD 1166 and rose to prominence as the head of the Jewish community in Egypt. Interestingly, Egypt was under Muslim rule at that time! So, to be tolerant or not is an individual choice or mindset and not imposed by any religion. We came across a statue of Maimonides in the Jew Town.

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Next stop was the star attraction of Cordoba – the Mezquita or the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba.

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This was the site of a Visigoth church and the construction of a mosque started in AD 785. It is fascinating to see how each conqueror established the temples of his faith on the very site that the vanquished prayed. Damascus was the beacon for all Muslim kingdoms of that period and Cordoba was part of the Caliphate of Damascus before it became a Caliphate by itself. So, it was no wonder that this grand mosque was inspired by the great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. When we visited the mosque I did feel a resemblance to another mosque I had seen before and when I read about this, I realized it must have been the Umayyad mosque as I had visited it a couple of years earlier. The mosque went through four stages of expansion, growing in prominence as Cordoba excelled as a centre of culture and learning. It was not only the most important mosque for Islam in the Western world, but also a place of social, cultural and political practice. After its fourth expansion, it was so large that it could accommodate 40,000 people!

All this history is completely wiped off your mind as you enter the mosque, because you get blown away by the beauty and grandeur inside. It is made up of a series of columns and arches. There are 856 columns with two layers of arches of alternating sections of red and beige colour between these pillars. In the first phase of construction, red came from the use of brick and beige from stone but by the time it got to the last phase, paint was used. An overwhelming sense of awe struck me as I wandered through the mosque. It was so beautiful to look at with ornate wall work and colour everywhere. This is truly a very, very beautiful building and also very peaceful. Muslim architecture in its fullest glory and pomp is seen here. To anyone who is interested in photography, this place is at once a place of great excitement and great frustration. There are colours everywhere but light is very poor. I did not have a tripod but found a convenient bench, the backrest of which came in handy.

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In all mosques, there is a semicircular niche in the wall, called mihrab, which indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. The mihrab in this mosque is beautifully done that it is breath taking. The roof about the mihrab is a dome with some fantastic ceiling work.

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In AD 1236, after the Reconquest, the mosque was turned into a church. This led to various parts of the mosque being destroyed to accommodate Christian features; for instance, the minaret became the bell tower. Monarchs that followed added their own modifications with the most significant one being the insertion of a renaissance Cathedral nave installed right in the middle of the mosque with permission from the then King, Charles V. However, when the King actually saw the completed work, he was quite unhappy with the result and remarked: “they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city”. Bang on! The altar and the choir look exactly like what you find in any Roman Catholic cathedral in Europe – ornate and rich.

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The courtyard used for ablutions by the faithful before they prayed in the mosque, has been converted into a courtyard with orange trees. The minaret could be seen from the courtyard but there was no access to the minaret itself.

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As I stepped out of the mosque, I could not help feeling a sense of loss. A sense of loss for a brief period in time when men were tolerant and accommodative, when religion was understood to be path to salvation and not one to be used for spreading hatred and division. This exalted structure is a remnant of those times and then it fell as man’s morals fell. This fall was jarringly evident in the commentary provided in the audioguide that we had rented. The commentary consistently stressed the fact that the original location was that of a church (the Visigoth one) and that the mosque was an intrusion and the insertion of the current cathedral only set right the wrong (without saying it in so many words). The culmination was the comment when we got to the altar: “the roof was broken open to let in light as Christianity is all about light as compared to the shadows of Islam”. I may not have got the words exactly right but this was the clear message conveyed. What a sad state of affairs! No religion today is free of this evil as the high priests have all forgotten the fundamentals and are only focused on enhancing their power and strength.

The author of “Don Quixote”, Miguel de Cervantes, lived for sometime in Cordoba and there is an inn which actually figured in the novel. The inn exists even today and we had planned to visit it but rain gods had decided otherwise and we got back to the parking garage and drove back, still overwhelmed by the impressive Mezquita.

13 May 2013

Spain is a country with a very different or even unique history in Europe and my earliest recollections were what I had read about the Spanish Civil War or the unrest in Basque. In the last few years, I had also developed a taste for Spanish food, especially Tapas. So, this time around, we planned a holiday to Spain. However, it is impossible to cover all the important parts of Spain in 10 days and so we decided to restrict ourselves to Madrid and Andalusia, with plans to visit Cordoba, Granada, Seville and Toledo.

Spain’s history dates back to about 1000 BC when Phoenician traders arrived in the Southern and Eastern parts of Spain. Later, like most of Europe, Spain too came under the Roman rule from about 200 BC to 400 AD. Romans called the peninsula “Hispania” and as was customary of them, developed infrastructure in the country with roads, aqueducts, temples, theatres etc. They also brought in Christianity which became a very important aspect of Spanish life. Most of Spain was covered by forests at that time and it was the Romans who started to cut down the trees for timber. So, deforestation is not a new theme, it started 2000 years ago! As the Roman power waned, Visigoths – a Germanic tribe – gained the upper hand and controlled Spain till the Eighth century. Visigoths seem to have been people who were not as culturally developed as the Romans and left very little impact on the country. Their main contribution seems to have been in creating a fighting mindset, which made a few kings withstand and ultimately overthrow the Muslim invasion and rule.

The Visigoths were not very good rulers and so the country was strife torn and in generally poor shape when Tariq ibn Zayid, the Governor of Tangier, a province in Morocco, landed in Gibraltar with 10,000 troops, in AD 711. The troops were mostly of North African origin and the Moors captured most of the Spanish peninsula and the territory they controlled was called Al-Andalus. This included main cities of the time like Cordoba, Granada and Seville and even Madrid to the North. It was first part of the Caliphate of Damascus which controlled most of the Muslim world and later a Caliphate was established in Cordoba in 929 with the then ruler Abd ar-Rahman III giving himself the title of Caliph. This was the peak of the power and glory of Cordoba.

One kingdom, called Asturias, had held out against the Moors and they started what was called the “Reconquista” in AD 722, to recapture the territories lost to Muslims. This war lasted for 800 years and ended with the fall of Granada in AD 1492 when all of Spain came under Christian rule. I am not sure whether the war was fought on religious grounds or for the then rulers to gain power, but it is portrayed as a war between the believers of Christianity and Islam. An interesting point is that the Christian kingdoms were also fighting amongst themselves while fighting the Muslims. Christians gained the supremacy with the marriage of Queen Isabella, the Queen of Castile, to King Ferdinand II, King of Aragon, in AD 1469, which brought together two powerful kingdoms. They were very faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and managed to expel Muslims and Jews from the country. This royal pair is considered to be responsible for the unification and founding of modern Spain. By all accounts, they seem to have been astute rulers, who understood the great power of combining religion with the state. From whatever I read, I understood that Isabella had significant say in how the country was ruled and was not just a decorative queen. They set up the Inquisition, which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of “non-believers”. This even had repercussions in far away India (we had our own Inquisitions in Goa). When they took control of Spain, there were huge populations of Jews and Muslims in the country but in short time, they banned Judaism and persecuted Muslims and Jews so much that these religions became non-existent in the country. Fittingly, they are referred to as the Catholic Monarchs. I was amused to read that when the Moors ruled Spain, Jews flourished and that all religions were allowed to practise their beliefs and worship their gods. Christians had a bit of a tough time as they had a tax applied on them, but nothing that had any resemblance to Inquisiton, with its inhuman torture and cruelty, was ever applied. Medieval Christianity had very little tolerance as they strove to bring “light” into the life of people. The only exception seems to have been the Christian king Pedro I, who was the king of Castile and Leon from 1350 to 1369.

Ferdinand and Isabella ruled Spain together and one of their important acts was to commission the voyage of Christopher Columbus. This led to the colonization of much of the Americas and brought a lot of wealth to Spain by way of gold and silver. This wealth was soon frittered away and by the time Spain arrived on the twentieth century, it had lost much of its glory. A series of inept rulers had squandered away its strengths and the country was in tatters. In the 1931 elections, a government comprising of socialists, republicans and centrists came to power and the King left on an exile. In 1933, this government was toppled by right-wing parties but in 1936, a left-wing government took over with the Communists leading the government. However, Spain was split down the middle by this time and soon, the Civil War erupted. This was between the elected government on one hand and the right-wing groups led by the Spanish military on the other. The leader of the military was General Franco and he was supported by Nazi Germany. It is believed that half a million people lost their lives in the Spanish civil war; my own personal recollection of the brutality of that war having been acquired when I read Hemingway’s “For whom the bell tolls”. In 1939, Franco became the Dictator of Spain and he ruled till 1975. He had groomed a royal to take over power on his death and Juan Carlos I, became the ruler of Spain when Franco died in 1975. The King was a supporter of democracy and by 1977 Spain had its elections and became a democracy with Juan Carlos I continuing as the King of Spain (he is the current King as well). Somehow, I felt it a bit strange that such an important country as Spain could have remained a dictatorship till as late a period as 1975; especially in Europe; a continent that had democratic leanings as early as 1215 with the signing of Magna Carta.

It was early evening when we got to Madrid and as it was still daylight outside, we went out for a stroll. We were staying in the city centre and so we could walk to Puerta del Sol; this is a busy plaza in Madrid and is considered the central point of Spain. Hence, this is the centre of the radial network of Spanish roads and considered KM 0. The square was very lively with a lot of people walking around. We could also see the statue of King Carlos III (called Charles III in English).

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From Puerta del Sol, Plaza mayor is a short walk away. This looks like Piazza San Marco in Venice; no, it looks like a poor cousin of Piazza San Marco. It seems this was a location where bullfights were held in the past as also executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

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14 May 2013

We set out to Musee del Prado – the most famous museum in Spain – first thing in the morning. This is a huge museum that has about 7,500 art pieces of which only about 1,500 are exhibited. Since we had only about three hours planned, we decided to focus our attention on the most important 50 paintings as defined by a pamphlet provided in the museum. These included works by Goya, Velazquez, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio etc. What struck me about these paintings was how these artists had full mastery over lighting and composition. The masters seem to stand out in this aspect. Most of the paintings were on religious matters as the works were commissioned by the rulers, noblemen or the clergy. Hence the leeway available for the artists to paint other subjects was pretty limited. However, artists being artists, they did pull out some tricks by painting the holy figures like normal people or adding some impish point or the other in the painting, wherever they could get away with it. I think Caravaggio was a definite influence on this front. There were only few still life paintings produced in Spain at that time and this could be the reason for that; of course the Inquisition must have been going on for the most of the time and it would have been good strategy to just toe the line. Yet, there were some that were very different and what remained in my memory were the “black paintings” by Goya and “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch. The latter looked almost like modern art and it is a triptych. In the third panel, there is an image of a monster that eats men in hell and I am very sure that I have seen that image used by some painter in India recently. I could not recall the exact work though. A famous painting by Velazquez, “Las Meninas”, is also part of the most important 50 and is quite interesting. This shows the image of the artist (shown holding the brush) making a painting of the king and the queen (reflected in the mirror behind the princess’ head) with the princess and her friends dropping in to visit. Photography was not allowed in the museum and the few photos given below are sourced from the internet.

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Caravaggio: David Victorious over Goliath; Source: Internet

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Sanchez Cotan: Still life with game, fruit and vegetables; Source: Internet

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Bosch: The garden of earthly delights; Source: Internet

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Velazquez: Las Meninas; Source: Internet

Three hours were nowhere near enough and I could not do justice even to the 50 paintings. I would have loved to spend some more time with the black paintings of Goya; he painted these towards the end of his life and by that time, he had a pretty bleak view on humanity and the human race.

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Goya: Saturn devouring his child; Source: Internet

After lunch, we set out to see the stadium of Real Madrid football club. What struck me the most was their ability to sell their history and make money off it. The various trophies won by the club were exhibited and one could also see the players’ area and also get close to the pitch. It must be awesome to stand there on the field with a stadium full of fans howling and cheering.

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I got a good picture of some boots the club had used when they started about 100 years. This is my “still life”!

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By the time we were done with the stadium, it was drizzling a bit and we retired to our room.

15 May 2013

One of the most important attractions in Madrid, for me, was the Reina Sofia museum as that hosts a display of Salvador Dali’s and Picasso’s paintings, including “Guernica”. This was a keenly anticipated event and we set out for the museum in the morning. Alas, when we arrived there, we found that the museum was closed because of the local festival of San Isidro, who is the patron saint of Madrid. The museum had its weekly holiday on Monday and with this closure on Tuesday, it meant that we had miss out on it altogether. I was feeling a bit down and vowed to myself that I would make some time during my next visit to the city and make it there.

Fortunately, the palace was not closed and so we hopped on a taxi and drove there. The morning was cold and rainy and quite unlike what one expected of Spain. It is called Palacio Real (Royal Palace) and is built on the site of a 9th century fortress that was built by the ruler of Cordoba, when Madrid was still under the Moors. Later, a castle was built on this site in the 16th century and it burned down in 1734. King Felipe V ordered it rebuilt and the castle as we see it today was constructed between the years 1738 to 1755. As a result, there is not much by way of historical significance in this palace. The palace is used only occasionally for official functions as the royal family resides in another, smaller palace. This is a huge palace (supposed to be the largest in Europe by floor area) with around 3,000 rooms (thankfully, only a few are open to the public), many of which are very ornate and rich. One room called the Salon de Gasparini, stood out for its exquisite stucco ceiling and silk embroidered walls. The Throne Room was also quite impressive. Photography was not allowed inside the palace. The most interesting aspect of the palace was the variety of clocks that one found all over the place. Spanish monarchs seemed to have had a fascination with clocks and they even set-up a factory to manufacture clocks. In one room, there was a display of five Stradivarius violins. Stradivarius family made these violins in the 17th and 18th century and these are supposed by many, to be the finest stringed instruments ever made. It is amusing to think that even in this age of such technological development, instruments made three centuries ago are still unmatched. Antonio Stradivarius was the leading practitioner of the trade and his violins fetch millions of Dollars in auctions today.

There is a large courtyard as one enters the palace it offers a very nice view of the palace and a wooded area beside the palace. When looking at the wooded area, you feel that you are somewhere in the countryside and not the middle of a large, bustling city.

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From the palace, we walked to a monument, which one can arguably say, is quite out of place! This is Templo de Debod, which is an ancient Egyptian temple that dates back to the 4th century BC. When the Aswan Dam was being built on river Nile, many temples were under the threat of being submerged in the waters and this was one such. The Egyptian government donated this temple to Spain, in gratitude for the help offered by Spain in saving the temples of Abu Simbel.  The temple was taken apart block by block and rebuilt in Spain in 1968. It stands on a beautiful park looks very beautiful, surrounded by water. There are two gateways and then the temple itself. There were Egyptian hieroglyphs on the inside walls of the temples and it led to a sanctum sanctorum. The light was very poor and so I could not get a good photograph. There was not much explanation provided and so one could not get much information on the temple. Overall, it was good to see the temple and I am sure that sunsets would be great here and when the light is right, a great photo location!

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As it was rainy and a bit cold, we went back to our hotel. With this, our tour of Madrid had ended and we were to leave for Andalusia the next day. One thing that struck me in Madrid this time as compared to my previous visits was the increase in number of people begging on the street. While this is, in no way comparable to what one sees on the streets of any average city in India, the numbers were much larger than what I had encountered any time before. A sign of the hard times that Spain is going through, I am sure. I had read somewhere that during colonization period, Spain frittered away all they wealth they plundered from the colonies, in construction. Centuries later, when Spain became part of EU and got access to large funds, construction boomed once again. Today, unemployment in Spain is at a depressing 27% and it is said that 50% of the youth are unemployed. A bad situation indeed and I hope that this great country finds its way out of these problems soon.