Thursday, August 31, 2017

Destinations :: Khajuraho (1986)

A frieze on one of the wall of Kandariya Mahadev temple
There is nothing much to say about the World Heritage Site of Khajuraho. It is already very well known all over the world for its more than a millennium old group of Hindu and Jain temples. They have within their precincts one of the finest expositions of Indian temple architecture and sculpture. The temples are known more for the erotic sculpture on their walls than for their architectural style. There were an estimated 85 temples in the region but ravages of
Excellent workmanship on the ceiliing
time and human insensitivity have reduced them to the current around 25. Curiously, the sculptures on the walls have survived pretty well during the last one thousand years.

Located around 200 kilometres south of Jhansi in the state of Madhya Pradesh (Central Province) the temples have somehow miraculously survived the onslaught of Muslim rulers who acquired ascendancy in Central India during 15th and 16th Century.
MP Tourism Development Corpation cottage
Most of the temples were destroyed during these hundred-odd years; only a few escaped the Muslim hammer. The Muslim travellers Al Baruni and Ibn Battuta apparently visited Kahjuraho around the time when the temples were being constructed. The temples that were left untouched were saved because of difficult and hard approaches to them and, in course of time, nature took over and the temples went into hiding – overtaken as they were with vegetation. They were discovered
A wall-face
only when in mid-nineteenth century people of the region having knowledge of the existence of the temples took British explorers to them and, lo and behold, they came out of hiding capturing the imagination of the entire world.

Another frieze
Depicting the plurality of the Chandela rulers – the builders of the temples – one finds at Khajuraho both Hindu and Jain temples. They were built around the same time. The entire complex, therefore, is known as Khajuraho Group of Temples. The Hindu temples are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Sun God and Jain ones are likewise dedicated to Jain Tirthankaras (spiritual teachers of Dharma). Kandariya Mahadeva temple is considered the most important, though others like Laxmana and Chaturbhuj, too, are of architectural, historical and religious interests.

 The Kandariya Mahadev temple, is supposed to have around 800 statues and other art works. The temples taken together have several
In the temple complex
thousand sculptures with only around 10% that could be called erotic. The walls seemingly are plastered with them. It is all very mindboggling. One keeps wondering about those remarkable men who conceptualized, designed and executed the construction of these structures taking meticulous care of the minute
The wall that ends up as shikhara
details, keeping in mind the over-all concept and theme. One also wonders how many sculptors and master-craftsmen worked for how many years to create such remarkable array of thousands of statues of such incredible beauty. It is true the temples are known for their erotic content but it seems they are also a kind of celebration of life. Almost all facets of life and every-day living have been captured on stone with fantastic dexterity representing the life and times of the region in the medieval era.

Apparently the area had not come under the influence of Muslims as one finds women of incredible physical beauty without any prudery or
Kandariya Mahadev Temple
inhibition indulging in all kinds of every-day activities, including sexual. They are slim, lissome, ethereal and well-formed whereas the ones in Jain temples are somewhat fleshy and voluptuous. Nonetheless, the temples unfold a panorama of visual art, a kind of serenade, that has perhaps not been paralleled ever elsewhere. The sculptures surely reveal the contemporary civilisational mores which appear to be highly emancipated in character in comparison to what we find today after
An amorous couple
more than a thousand years. Freedom is what the sculptures seem to be screaming all the time rebuffing social and cultural suppression and oppressions that are so familiar to us in our so-called advanced times. No wonder cognoscenti find the temples as something out of this world; some have even called them poetry on stone.

 I am no expert on the art of sculpture and, hence, I am unable to describe the technicalities involved in the presentations that we see in these temples. The narratives of the temples, nonetheless, can be admired as they depict women applying make-up, or fixing their girdles, musicians at making music, artisans at work. At the same time, core Hindu values are expressed in various ways – an unbelievable mix of themes. Perhaps, the more one sees them the more would one be able
Another frieze
to comprehend their significance and symbolism One cannot do that while on a whistle-stop tour.

As the temples have become famous, hordes of tourists land up at Khajuraho. There are hotels galore, including the starred ones. We stayed in a Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Corporation cottage. These have been provided with all the modern facilities but are rustic In appearance and yet are light on the pocket. The Tourism Corporation had tried to create a rural ambiance in the temples’ complex creating a chaupal. A chaupal is a central covered area in a village where generally villagers meet after their daily
A rather voluptuous figure from a Jain temple
chores. Freshly cooked food also used to be made available there. This was more than thirty years ago. One wouldn’t know whether the things have improved or have since gone down.

The two-day long experience in the midst of pure culture was worthwhile – far from the busy workaday life. We got the same feeling when we visited the south-eastern temple-town of Konark in Odisha, another World Heritage Site

Monday, August 28, 2017

The neighbourhood bully

Doklam face-off between Chinese and Indian armies
How naïve Nehru was! Soon after independence he asserted India needn’t have an army. He proclaimed there was no use for an army in India as the country had no enemies. This he stated even as the state and non-state actors from across the newly drawn borders were attacking in the North in strength to grab Kashmir. This happened merely two years after the cessation of hostilities in 1945 at the end of what is known as the World War II which had made people sick of war. Being basically a pacifist he could, perhaps, never imagine that after the loss of millions of lives across the world during the World War any country would be foolish enough to embark on a war. He never realised that right next door in the newly created Pakistan they were covetously looking at Kashmir which though opted to integrate with India, they thought, could be grabbed by waging war if not by its own free will.

While the conflict with Pakistani raiders was fought out with great aplomb by the Indian Army despite its unpreparedness, Nehru the pacifist did not allow it to be taken to its logical conclusion, that of throwing the raiders out of Jammu and Kashmir; instead he took the matter of plain aggression ill-advisedly to the United Nations which was not able to solve the manufactured dispute for decades and has since closed the matter as “unresolved”. Nonetheless, the “Kashmir Problem” continues to fester within the Indian polity as a malign cancer till today.

Despite having been unable to solve the Kashmir imbroglio Nehru paid little attention to the immediate need of building up a strong army. In fact, the defense forces were thoroughly neglected and were not given the wherewithal to refurbish themselves with fresh arms and ammunition. In this predilection of his he was ably assisted by his defense minister Krishna Menon. When the Chinese started pushing into Indian territory in various sectors he threw the ill-equipped and ill-prepared army against the Chinese under his newly-devised “forward policy”. A crushing defeat ensued and the heart-broken Nehru couldn’t take the blow from a country which he considered all the time friendly but was proved to be an enemy. His naiveté brought his own demise and a defeat in war for a newly independent country.

 He had always believed that China would never wage war against India. Not only Nehru, many at that time did not know the mettle Mao tse Tung was made of who even picked up a fight with the fellow-communist country, the then Soviet Union. China should thank its stars that the consequences of the conflict did not turn out to be  serious.

To start with, India and China were more or less at the same developmental level. But China somehow was never comfortable with India; there was an element of competition. While India continued to be a lumbering elephant, China brought in economic reforms switching to capitalistic mode to build itself up into an economic giant. While earlier the trade balance with India was adverse but today it is positive for China. While Indian exports continue to stagnate at $10 billion – mostly because of unethical non-tariff barriers – China has mustered a trade surplus with India of $50 billion.

That China was inimical towards India became apparent when it started cozying up with Pakistan and progressively the relations became so close that Pakistan ended up becoming a client-state of China. The whole idea for both of them seemed to be to undermine India’s economic progress and international stature. Both of them are loath to see India as an Asian power. Hence, Nehru’s understanding of the dynamics of international politics in the country’s neighbourhood was utterly flawed.

Because of his weak policies and rather confused approach to matters of foreign policy he ceded Aksai Chin to China and is reported to have given the alibi “Not a single blade of grass grows there, why was the Parliament wasting its time” over it. He apparently had no concept of strategy. Finding India weak, China used it as a punch bag and continued to keep the Line of Actual Control (LAC) hot, the dividing line between the two countries over the Himalayas from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. The incursions by China were mostly deliberate and were dealt with by India according to the military understanding of engagements between the two countries. Until the ongoing Doklam stand-off came about. Only two other cases of infiltration were of very serious nature.  The first one was in 1967 when the Chinese used artillery fire to stop Indian soldiers from fencing the border at Nathu-La. The Indian retaliation with howitzers put paid the Chinese attempt to browbeat Indian soldiers. The action lasted for three days and the things quietened down. Again 1986-87 the Chinese crossed the LAC and set up a military camp by the side of a river in Tawang District in Arunachal Pradesh. This time it was the T-72 tanks and armoured personnel carriers which were used by the Indian Army. The stalemate lasted almost for nine years before the situation eased off.

As the reports suggest the Chinese have been brazenly intruding into Indian territory in an effort to bully the Indian soldiers and border guards. Indians have maintained restraint but the intrusions have only been increasingly more frequent. During the two most serious incidents referred to earlier, unpleasant consequences were averted as the Indians had taken the bull by the horn and successfully repelled the intrusions. However, now the situation has changed. China has become big with a giant-sized economy and a giant-sized ego. Its prosperity seems to have gone to its head and has given it airs of superiority. It, therefore, does not care for sensibilities of others, more so of India.

 Hence more such unilateral actions should be expected from it. It thinks that it could bully its neighbours. During the Doklam stand-off while the Chinese troops were slugging it out and exchanging fisticuffs with their Indian counterparts, the Chinese official media from Beijing was spewing fire. Apart from belligerence and anti-India propaganda that kept warning India of terrible consequences, it resorted to bluff and bluster claiming facts that were wholly untrue. But what gets highlighted out of the stand-off is that India is up against a new sinister and assertive bully which is conscious of its economic power and military muscle and wants its neighbours to be wary about it. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, gave the best prescription to counter the bully in a recent interview. He said “don’t get bullied” – a simple and straight-forward prescription where one does not succumb to bullying. A bully mostly backs down if he is stood up to and China, given the strategic environment, is seemingly no different.

To be able to do that, however, India needs to build up its military power to create a formidable border force, cut out the needless Chinese imports to reduce its trade deficit with China. A rapidly shrinking market as big as that of India would hit China where it hurts. Its economy is already on a downswing. The other aspect that needs to be taken care of is to weaken China’s nexus with its side-kick, Pakistan, which needs to be kept engaged in dealing with the brewing turmoil in Baluchistan, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Sindh etc. For India these two constitute the axis of evil who have to be dealt with squarely.

*Photo from internet

23rd August 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Bhopal Notes :: 56 :: The local rent-seekers

The other day a report appeared in the vernacular press that last week a fire broke out in the main plaza of the New Market somewhere near a very popular temple. The Fire Service was summoned which reacted very promptly but could not do anything to extinguish the fire as the approaches were clogged by parked two and four wheelers. Inside the plaza there was utter chaos with hawkers of all kinds occupying every inch of space to display their wares. It was more so because it happened to be a Sunday.

This is not the only place where hawkers create congestion. The Nawabi-era market called the Chowk area also suffers from the same predicament. Numerous efforts have been made to bestow on it an appearance that is in harmony with its heritage status. But no, things were back to where they were soon enough.  The situation in these bazaars is so bad now, leave alone a fire tender, one cannot really negotiate the streets even on foot with ease. The crowds of hawkers with their pushcarts or wares spread on the roadside and the parked two wheelers make shopping a horrendous experience.

Barring a few, roads in Bhopal wear a chaotic look with hawkers running riot. Then there are kiosks (locally called gumties) all over the place by the sides of roads that are nothing but encroachments on public spaces causing hindrance to traffic and people’s mobility. Persistent encroachments have made many roads so narrow that both ways traffic has to move only on half of the total space of what are reasonably wide roads. No city in India, probably, suffers from this kind of acute problem as Bhopal.

Only a few people are responsible for this difficult and deplorable situation. They are the rent seekers – the elected representatives in the municipal corporation and the local legislative assembly. It is virtually a racket where they rent out the public spaces for a monthly payment by the encroacher, strangely making money by renting out government land. This is how kiosks are installed on the roadsides and whenever attempts are made to remove them by the municipal bureaucracy they intervene rather violently. After all, most of them are no better than dregs of society.

Likewise, thousands of hawkers who have never sought a license to ply their trade roam the streets or park their carts where they think they would find more custom without any consideration towards the busy traffic. As they have paid rent to one of the rent-seekers who is their benefactors they are sanguine that it is they (the rent seekers) who would ensure that they are not tormented and removed from wherever they have decided to carry on their business. The municipal corporation has provided hawkers’ corners but many would shun them and choose the easy way out to ply their illegal trade on congested roads making life difficult for the rest of the mobile humanity.

The elected representatives to various representative bodies consider it their right to plant anybody anywhere for a consideration and they are utterly unmindful of the law and their enforcers. A municipal councilor or a member of legislative assembly is a powerful person, a big (and mostly corrupt) man, who can dispatch any person coming in his way to oblivion without any questions being asked. These gentlemen act like mafia. When things hot up against the encroachers it is these rent-seekers who raise the cry of deprivation of livelihood against the law-enforces. Livelihood is a very sensitive matter and a seeming attempt to deprive it is more so.

At the back of all this is rural-urban migration. As aspirations increase or as circumstances in rural areas nose dive people move towards cities in search of means of livelihood. The first foray they make is to push some product on a daily wage or on commission basis standing on the streets or occupying a tract of foot path. Gradually they progress to push carts and then on to a kiosk, if at all. In all this the rent-seekers play an important role. Not only do they extort rent from them for plying a trade, they also fix them up with a shanty on a piece of government land. In course of time, in case a mafia don has found a new-comer submissive and prompt in making payments to him he may even have a title issued for the shanty in the name of the new encroacher.

 It is a big unlawful business being carried on by politicians, petty and big, unhindered for decades. None has enough guts to dismantle the whole illegal structure for, after all, the rent-seekers have the backing of the government; in fact, they are the government. They have made encroaching on government lands a source of illegitimate income, at the same time creating a constituency for themselves making migration into the town very attractive. It was the Late Chief Minister Arjun Singh who took the first step by offering titles to the lands occupied by encroachers behind the Governor’s House. Since then it has been virtually free for all. There is not an area in the city which is devoid of shanties. One was surprised to find that they had even used the huge properties of the local collector’s and commissioner’s offices for settling migrants. None of the supposedly powerful IAS officers could perhaps do anything as it was politically sensitive; any effort to remove them would promptly be countered by the argument of dismantling of poor people’s shelters bringing the officials out in bad light.

Whether it is the streets or the government lands, they are not going to be freed of encroachers any time soon. In today’s India rural-urban migration is a fact of life. It appears to be the aim of the government to balance out the rural and urban population at 50:50. But, generally, there has been no preparation by the local government to receive such heavy numbers of migrants. The provisions made under Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) were far too modest and could not have met the astronomical requirements of housing for poor. Besides, many such houses built under JNNURM and Rajiv Awas Yojna have remained vacant while shanties or jhuggis keep multiplying.

In Bhopal even the City Development Plan has not been published after the one brought out in 1995 that expired in 2005. The local city administration has, therefore, got far more than what it can chew and, naturally, things are going haywire. There is no indication of any step to control the oncoming messy situation. In the midst of all this confusion there is only one section of the population, the rent-seekers, who are making not only merry but also making hay.

 Or, maybe, it is they who are obstructing the very process of city-planning. One couldn’t really tell; in this topsy-turvy world that we live in anything is possible.

*Photo: from internet
17th August 2017

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Destinations :: Orchha (2009)

The palace-fort complex as seem from the main road of Orchha
Only 18 kilometres from Jhansi, a major railway junction of the Central Railways on its trunk route between New Delhi and Mumbai, there is a magical place called Orchha. The place is in the Bundelkhand region of the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh and confines within its folds some remarkable specimens of medieval central Indian architecture.

It is so close yet It was only recently that we decided to do so. Jhansi is
The cenotaphs as seen from a distance
only around three hours away by the New Delhi-bound Shatabdi Express from Bhopal Another half-hour’s jpurney in a vehicle on a pretty decent road with patches of good dense forests on its sides brings up Orchha. It was around dusk that we hit the place when the cows were literally coming home into the village raising lots of dust. We had bookings at the MP Tourism outfit that is known as Betwa Retreat and were promptly shown into our cottage where we spent four leisurely and enjoyable days and nights. Betwa is the river that flows by to meet Chambal downstream.

Chaturbhuj temple in silhuette
Founded in the 16th Century, Orchha (meaning a “hidden place”) was conceived by Rudra Pratap Singh as his principality’s capital. Choosing a beautiful site along the River Betwa, he commenced construction but could not complete it in his lifetime. His successors carried on and built some marvellous structures that have retained their beauty until today. Among the successors Bir Singh Deo was more prolific who constructed many of Orchha’s beautiful buildings.

As one approaches the place from Jhansi one comes across an old
Chhatries in silhuette
gate, Ganesh Dwaar, (gate of Lord Ganesh) that signals entry into what is now somewhat of an overblown village. It was once the capital of Bundelkhand. As one progresses further up, on the left is the fort-palace complex on what used to be a seasonal island on the bank of River Betwa. The complex has therefore to be approached through the medieval Athpula Bridge. While straight ahead one gets to the photogenic cenotaphs – chhatries – right on the banks of Betwa, with our Betwa Retreat close by. On the right are the legendary Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja temples and about a kilometre
Jehagir Mahal within the palace-fort complex
away, is, what we felt, the most significant structure of Orchha – the Laxminarayan temple.

The first things we happened to see the next morning were a couple of shikhars (kind of spires) of two cenotaphs through the big, wide glazed windows of the restaurant of Betwa Retreat. Looking like temples and frightfully impressive, they promptly drew us towards them. They are all in a cluster by the bank of Betwa, and are, indeed, built like temples with a square garbhagriha (sanctum) and temple-like shikhars. They look even more beautiful from across the waters of Betwa – several shikhars piercing the
Interesting brackets inside Jehangir Mahal
skies. Only the one of Bir Singh Deo is unlike all of them, built more like a palace. Building chhatries, one might add, has been a tradition in central India and Rajasthan. In Gwalior the Scindias have been building their own chhatries even till today.

Inevitably, next on the itinerary was the palace-fort or the heritage complex. So we headed towards that and crossed the Athpula Bridge. After passing through the massive gates we climbed scores of feet through a well-maintained winding road on an escarpment to land up in front of the tourists’ entrance of Jehangir Mahal. Right in front was the Sheesh Mahal and on the left, far into the
Dome of Jehangir Mahal
distance, the shikhar of Laxminarayan temple was pointed out to us.

Jehangir Mahal (Jehangir’s Palace) is the most admired structure in the fort-palace complex. Reputed to have been built for the Mughal Emperor Jehangir who, perhaps, never stayed in the palace, Jehangir Mahal is a construction of pretty massive proportions. Each side measuring around 70 metres, the palace is of three storeys with more than half a dozen beautifully proportioned domes. Our age and inability to negotiate the stairs prevented us from looking up all the three levels and hence we were deprived of not only the delectable view of the surrounding countryside littered with remains of the bygone era but also the original inscriptions on stone slabs on the third floor depicting Bir Singh’s name and dates of the building. The architectural
Laxminarayan temple
highlights of the Palace are the wide eaves, overhanging balconies with beautifully designed and worked-on brackets, numerous windows with kiosks and jaalies (lattice) to let in lots of light and air. From the east-facing massive ceremonial gate, embellished with richly carved elephants on two sides, one can see the stables that used to house elephants and, in the distance, the one-time royal gate.

After some rest we headed for Sheesh Mahal, a palace that was built
Wall painting inside Laxminarayan temple
much later – around early 18th Century. It was built after Orchha had lost its vitality and was used mostly as a country retreat by the local somewhat powerless Raja. Though named Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), it never had any mirrors. It was named as such, it seems, because of the green-blue glazed tiles and the early morning light that used to shimmer in through the jaalies.  It has been stripped of all its valuables – Persian rugs and antique pieces. The MP State Tourism Development Corporation now runs a heritage hotel using the building, the upper floor rooms of which provide some stunning views of the surrounding countryside, particularly
Shikhara of Laxminarayan remple
after the rains.

The two temples, Chaturbhuj and Ram Raja, are located right on the main road. Both are steeped in legends. It appears that the present Ram Raja temple was originally the palace of Rani of Madhukar Shah, one of the successors of Rudra Pratap Singh. It became a temple when the Rani brought an image of Lord Ram from Ayodhya and, finding the neighbouring Chaturbhuj temple dedicated to Ram still incomplete, installed the image in her palace. She, however, forgot the condition that the image, once installed, could not be relocated. Hence, her palace became the temple and the structure meant for it has remained unutilised. Ram Raja temple with light-coloured paint on it looks somewhat out of place and, but for its embellishments and domes, it doesn’t appear to be a medieval
Another wall painting in the temple
structure. It houses a living deity and attracts large number of devotees from the surrounding areas during Ram Navami (Birthday of Lord Rama) celebrations. My wife made her humble offerings to the deity.

Laxminarayan temple had some well-kept wall and roof paintings. Built by Bir Singh Deo, the Laxminarayan temple is unique in many ways. From outside it looks like a triangular structure but inside it has a rectangular plan. Unlike other medieval temples it also has slots for cannons in its upper reaches and windows that have jaali – a phenomenon that is rarely seen in temples. Besides it has some fine
One more wall painting
specimens of Bundeli art on its walls and on the roofs. Themes are as varied as from life and times of Krishna to scenes from Tulsi Das’s Ramcharitmanas. A 19th Century addition also shows Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi leading her forces against the British during the 1857 War of Independence. Colours are bright and styles skilful, blending the Mughal and Rajput styles, producing something uniquely native – of Bundelkhand.

It was incredible to see so many Westerners at Orchha. Obviously, it is a popular tourist destination for foreigners, more so because it falls on the way to Khajuraho. We met two German boys who were seemingly on a flying visit to India of around ten days but stayed on for a couple of days in Orchha. They seemed to be pretty at-home with the food
Betwa Retreat
dished out by the wayside eating joints.

Although it is only slightly better than a village, it has acquired all the accoutrements of modernity. There is a veritable Jan Path, an arcade of sorts, with shops selling ethnic garments and other knickknacks. There is hardly anything of interest to tourists that is not available in these shops.

 With so many foreigners visiting the city right through the year the local Panchayat perhaps could keep the place little cleaner. Cow dung strewn all along the main thoroughfare may not upset us but it does jar a person who is not used to seeing it. We may venerate it but others, used to a cleaner way of life, find it somewhat revolting. We did not notice any civic effort to keep the village clean. It appears to be the fault of our system. Pickings from tourism are never ploughed back into the place for its upkeep. The Tourism Development Corporation should
Mural on Betwa Retreat cottage wall
find ways and means to help keep up the sanitation and hygiene of the place.

A word about the Betwa Retreat, where we spent four wonderful days, is a must. A remarkably well maintained property, it has well-appointed cottages and helpful staff. Its restaurant produced some delectable fare. What is best about the Retreat is its ambience – ethnic and green with remarkable bird life. Sitting inside the restaurant one can watch them flitting undisturbed from one tree to another. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Destinations :: Pachmarhi (1983)

Su setting at Dhoopgarh, highest point of the state
The lilting tunes played by the massed bands on Vijay Chowk at New Delhi every year as part of the Beating the Retreat ceremony during the Republic Day Celebrations have deep and, shall we say, enduring connections with Pachmarhi. All the players are from the military band school of the Army Education Corps (AEC) located at Pachmarhi. Not only does the school effortlessly make vibrant as well as sombre music it also
Lovely setting off a Pachmarhi walk
impeccably trains its pupils for the demands of various formal and non-formal occasions. Its fame has spread far and wide. It has its alumni spread over several countries of South, South-East Asia and some of even Africa. It has also helped the Indian Army get into the Guinness Book of Records by organizing a performance by a massed band of as many as 4459 musicians forming

An old Protestant church
the largest military band ever under one conductor when they played “Amazing Grace” some years ago.

Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh is known for this school but is better known as the only hill station of the Central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh and a touristy place. It is situated on the Satpura mountain range at an elevation of around 3000 ft. The mountain range rises somewhere in Gujarat and stretches across Madhya Pradesh only to dissipate into the plateaus of Chhota Nagpur in the East. It runs parallel to Vindhya Ranges creating a basin in which flows the mighty River Narmada which originates from its forests in
A plantation near Dhoopgarh
the east runs west to empty into Gulf of Khambat.

Most of the Satpuras were at one time heavily forested and were very rich in wildlife, more so toward the east around the origin of Narmada. The range, therefore, hosts a number of wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Pachmarhi is perched on and around the highest point of Satpuras supporting a climate that is by and large equable, though with progressive deforestation and general warming of the globe temperatures in summers sometimes manage to compete with those at lower elevations.

Painted glass windows of the Protestant church
Discovered sometime in the mid-nineteenth century by the British, like numerous other hill towns it started off as a place for physical rehabilitation of the East India Company workers/soldiers. As had happened elsewhere, it too started off as a sanatorium town for the army. Despite efflux of time Pachmarhi has a well-maintained cantonment to which was added the Military Band School in 1950 at the instance of the first Field Marshall of India, Gen. KM Cariappa.

Named after “five caves”, i.e. “Paanch marhi”, the place is associated with several legends, including from the Epic Mahabarata. The forests around the place, however, are highly regarded as they have numerous rare
Another beautiful natural setting
species of plants and plenty of wildlife. UNESCO, therefore, declared it as a Biosphere Reserve covering around 5000 square kilometers. The Biosphere Reserve comprises as many as three conservational nature parks, viz. Bori Sanctuary, the oldest wildlife sanctuary of India, Pachmarhi Sanctuary and Satpura National Park.

Lunching out in the open
The town is small and has remained so over the decades. There are some old churches, a few temples in the neighbourhood and several sites like natural water falls, deep valleys thick with vegetation and rugged rocky outcrops. Many of the sites are difficult to take in for people advanced in age but, I should think, it is a trekkers’ paradise. They can trek and explore the Satpuras around the town and visit the places hallowed by legends.

Others can enjoy a retreat in pleasantly hospitable climate in lodges and hotels that are modestly priced catering especially for middle class pockets.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Missing the gold at Lords' and yet ...

Skipper Mithali Raj leads the team back to pavillion
It was just phenomenal. That the Indian women’s cricket team would be playing before a sell-out crowd at Lords’ in England at the Finals of the World Cup 2017, was really nothing short of a phenomenon. Though cruising well on the way to victory, the young team seemed to have come under the grip of nerves only to collapse within sniffing distance of a well-deserved victory. But, for this match winning or losing was not an issue. It was enough for their countrymen to savour and celebrate their entry into the finals after some very good cricket that they played.

There were sterling performances at the match by at least three of its members, Poonum Raut and Harmanpreet Singh with the bat and in the bowling department the old campaigner, Jhoolan Goswami, returned commendable figures accounting for three of the English ladies. The skipper, Mithali Raj, a consistent scorer, was unfortunately run out when only on 17 held back as she was by her spikes that dug into the ground while running a single. Despite a seeming collapse, contest-wise it was a close and thrilling finish.

It was a queer quirk of fate that the team lost to England in the Finals, a team which it had defeated in an earlier face-off. Likewise, it rode into the finals over a convincing win over Australia against which it had lost in a preliminary round. Obviously the team progressively raised the level of its performance during the tournament that took it to the finals for the second time but after a hiatus of more than a decade. A number of centuries were scored at the tournament, including an undefeated swashbuckling one of 171 (not out) off only 115 deliveries by Harmanpreet Singh in the semi-final that received appreciation from the world over and eventually saw her being included in the team of International Cricket Council.

Led by example by a consummate batswoman, Mithali Raj, the team was not expected to do so well in the tournament as it did. But Mithali herself scored 408 runs in this edition of the World Cup, only one run short of the highest scorer from the English side. She, however, went on to top the scoring charts by crossing the 6000 mark in Women’s Cricket, the highest ever by a woman. That was an individual accomplishment as it was indeed of her tall team mate, Jhoolan Goswami, who stood out with the figures of a total of 36 wickets – at the third position among the bowlers. Her 3 in the finals for 23 had almost snatched the match away from England

Goswami stated after the match that none of the cricketers had ever thought that the team would reach the finals. They knew it was underprepared and against seasoned campaigners they would be up against difficult and frustrating contests. But as the tournament progressed things started looking up. Smriti Mandhana who missed a century in the first match scoring 90 helped to win it against England. She showed great poise against a tougher team consistently lofted the ball to fly over close-in power-play fielders, That she did not do as well in subsequent matches was a surprise, Then Poonum Raut was in sublime form scoring a century. As expected Mithali Raj too chipped in with healthy scores including a hundred. It was the scintillating innings of Harmanpreet Singh against the Australians in the semifinals that captivated the supporters back home. The media literally went wild giving extensive coverage with photographs in print media. Harmanpreet’s innings was being likened to those of Sehwag in his hey days. Her 171 n.o with 20 fours and seven sixes was what sent supporters rooting for her. Incidentally, one never imagined that women cricketers could hit sixes. Hermanpreet had hit one at Sydney while playing in a professional league match that made the Australians to check her for any drug and her bat for some mysterious power.

Despite the fact that they lost the trophy, the team’s performance at the run up to the finals made them celebrities. Never before did women’s cricket was followed in the way it was this time and never before did women cricketers become the objects of such adoration. Receptions and celebrations followed on their return and the team members were lionized and feted all the way.  What was more remarkable was Mithali being named the skipper of the International Cricket Council team because of her cricketing qualities. Two more girls, Harmanpreet Singh and Deepti Sharma, were also included in the team. 

This is, perhaps, for the first time that the women’s cricket team has won laurels at an international competition and won so much of respect, love and affection. Even the Board of Control for Cricket in India was gracious in holding a reception for the team and giving a purse of 50 lakhs to each member of the team. As Mithali happened to note that it was a “revolution” that was taking place and only better efforts would justify the great love and affection showered on them by the countrymen.

 The Indian women have had relatively greater successes in Field Hockey and have won gold medals at several international tournaments because of which they came to be known as the “Golden Girls of Hockey”. A film was too made on them by the noted producer/actor Sharukh Khan. On the other hand, the Indian women’s football is in total disarray. It has somehow lost its way after a bright opening. But one presumes, it is politics that did it in. However, with the recent stand out performance of the women’s cricket team and adulation showered on it things are likely to change and efforts seem to be already afoot to improve matters in other games including football and hockey.

For those of us, who have seen the whole concept of women out on the playing fields slowly evolve, cannot help marvelling at the change. When we were in schools and colleges 50 to 60 years ago girls playing field games was unheard of. A stray athletic event would have a few girls competing, but field games were, apparently, a no no. At the most, they would play less strenuous kho kho or Badminton, otherwise they would confine themselves to in indoor games like carrom and occasionally table tennis.

 Slowly, things seemed to have picked up as the middle classes expanded and the conservatism regarding women “indulging” in manly sports was shaken off. The socio-cultural change brought in a fresh approach. Even the thinking in the governments changed and greater opportunities and sporting facilities were progressively made available for girls. This must have commenced about three or four decades ago. But while in other Asian countries, like Korea, China and Japan, women’s sports had a runaway success, we took time over matching their feats.

 Currently, however, we have distinguished female players in Tennis and Badminton and even in boxing who now are among the best in the world. God and governments willing, soon we are likely to have world beaters in other sporting events too.  

29th July 2017
*Photo from internet

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...