Wednesday, March 14, 2007

M&D's BIA Part 2: The World’s Smallest Eggs and the World’s Largest Chandeliers

The other day, when looking in my cupboard, I found, most extraordinarily, underneath a pair of pants, what looked like two tiny birds eggs. Knowing that the hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world and that a) they are not indigenous to these parts, b) I would surely have noticed one hovering above my underwear and c) even these eggs looked too small to have come from the not enormous HB's bottom, I dismissed the idea that they were eggs, but couldn’t at all figure out what they were. Being a collectomaniac, I put them to one side and every now and then would contemplatively pick them up and roll them between my thumb and forefinger, wondering what the hell they could be. They looked a little like those mints you get in small decorative tins with an aniseed at the centre, but again, a) there was no minty smell and b) I definitely hadn’t been secreting sweets amongst my smalls. For four days, I gazed at these peculiar objects, half hoping, I think, that they would hatch and a fairy would emerge. Finally, yesterday, while trying to tidy a few bits and pieces on my desk, one of them rolled off and landed on the floor. Bugger me, it WAS an egg. A tiny, weeny splattered egg, with microscopic fragments of shell around the spilt yolk. I was, and remain, mystified. I did recall that reptiles lay eggs, but theirs are usually soft-shelled, I thought, and this egg had a shell just like a grit-eating, dolls-house bantam. Completely amazing, perhaps I have discovered a new species of Underwear Bird, which lives amongst gussets and lacy seams and is all but invisible to the naked eye. I fear that I may have disturbed the nest of the only breeding pair in the world and that my discovery will never gain recognition. If anyone else has any experience of eggs in their underwear, I would love to know.

As for the remainder of my parents' trip, it was wonderful, although it already seems an age ago. We left Ram at Agra and found Ram II at Jaipur, who was a slightly bigger toothpick. He too was very nice, but laughed less enthusiastically at my jokes. He was also frustrated because, unlike Ram I, he actually knew a thing or two about the history of Jaipur and was keen to show us around and tell us, but we spent most of the time at the local tailor so Dad could replenish his wardrobe. This meant that, whenever Ram II said, “ Where next?”, no matter what our intentions to visit monuments, sites, forts and palaces (and we did squeeze a few in) were, the answer was invariably, “Back to the tailors.” He would roll his eyes, no doubt wondering what we had brought with us in our enormous suitcases if we were so short of clothes. Shamefully, as we emerged for the last time from the tailors with 14 carrier bags full of suits, shirts, a dress or two for me and Mum and a couple of outlandish waistcoats, we gave the reputation for the profligacy of foreigners an unnecessary boost.

Before Jaipur, we visited Gwalior, which has a history spanning 1000 years, is named for a legendary hermit, Gwalipa, who cured the founder of the city, Suraj Sen, of leprosy. Not much of a reward for a good deed if you are an isolation-loving hermit, having someone found a town on the previously empty, inaccessible place you lived, but perhaps being remembered for 1000 years is some consolation for that.

Gwalior is most famous for its spectacular fort, perched high on a 100m basalt outcrop above the plain. The walls are 10m high at the edges of the rock, resulting in a sheer drop to the dusty, busy town below, scintillating through a haze of reflected sunlight and an orchestrated symphony of horns, hooters and whistles, music, shouting and laughing. The fort has been the scene of centuries of conflict between Hindu rulers - such as the Tomars; the Mughals - Babur, Shah Jehan and Jenangir all have fought battles here and the British who acceded the fort to the Maratha Scindias, still bigwigs in the town today. A Tomar Ruler, Raja Man Singh, in the fifteenth century built the majority of the fort as it stands, although there have been defence structures on the same site since Ol’ Suraj’s times and whenever the fort was taken over by new rulers, new palaces and structures were built to make their mark, resulting in an architectural timeline reflecting it’s history.

In the town, the nineteenth century Jai Vilas Palace was built for the Maharajah of Gwalior (one of the aforementioned Scindias) by his Architect, Sir Michael Filose, who is notable for having the riskiest technique for establishing roof strength. The maharajah, in a typical display of Nouveau Riche pretension, wanted his palace to house the largest chandeliers in the world. He ordered, from Venice, two enormous glass constructions of 13m width and weighing 3 tonnes each. When they arrived, although not stated exactly, we can guess that Sir Michael felt a little queasy at the prospect of dangling these gigantic objects from the ceiling. I expect they were a little pricey and would be worth considerably less if reduced to a pile of shattered glass. Luckily, he had a brainwave. He would test the strength of the roof before hanging the lights. Brilliant. Using only the best local tools and equipment, he built a ramp outside the palace and marched several of the least vertigo-suffering elephants up to the roof to ensure it could take the weight of the chandeliers. Fortunately, although we can all see how utterly flawed and foolish this plan is, the roof held and the elephants, Sir Michael’s reputation and the chandeliers were safe. Unsurprisingly, this technique did not become common architectural practice.

The rest of the trip through the North was a feast of stunning palaces, majestic forts and brilliant shopping. An unexpected delight were the step wells, unique to Gujurat, of which I had neither heard nor seen before. These step wells, called Vavs or baolis in Gujurat, are a highly decorative and ingenious way of ensuring cool water in this arid region. They tend to be built by women of high birth and serve as places of recreation as well as a source of water. Unlike the more traditional well, which is simply a shaft down to the water table, they are huge structures. One enters the Vav at ground level, then descends 30m down a series of steps and platforms in increasing coolness to the subterranean tanks of refreshing water. The different levels, all beautifully carved, serve as shady areas of recreation away from the burning Gujurati heat. Adalaj Vav, a little out of town, built by Queen Rudabai in 1499, is exquisite and is still in use today for the locals who come and sit, chatting amongst its decorated pillars and galleries.

Exhausted by all our sightseeing, we flew south to spend Dad’s 69th birthday relaxing by the beach at Mamallapuram, with which I was now thoroughly familiar, but, having saved my tour guide energies for relatives’ visits, I had yet to revisit the fabulous Pallava temples since I had been in 1989. These are a series of magnificent, naturalistic carved temples dating from the 6th century. I had been quite anxious about Mum hating the heavily stylised and over decorative Hindu sculpture, vastly different from Western European art, but these temples were so fluidly carved and lacked the grapefruit-breasted, sinuous Apsari dancing girls which abound in later temples, that she was smitten. We managed to fit it all in: shore temples, elephant sculptures, lobster, birthday cake, swimming in the sea and a bit of a tan. Not bad for 3 days. It was lovely.

Finally, they spent a few days at RUHSA seeing what I had been spending my time on for the last 7 months. The next entry is going to be a full RUHSA update so you’ll hear all about it then.

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