Why this blog is called "Gallimaufry".

gal-uh-MAW-free\, noun.

Originally meaning "a hash of various kinds of meats," "gallimaufry" comes from French galimafrée; in Old French, from the word galer, "to rejoice, to make merry"; in old English: gala + mafrer: "to eat much," and from Medieval Dutch maffelen: "to open one's mouth wide."

It's also a dish made by hashing up odds and ends of food; a heterogeneous mixture; a hodge-podge; a ragout; a confused jumble; a ridiculous medley; a promiscuous (!) assemblage of persons.

Those of you who know me, will, I’m sure, understand how well some of these phrases (barring the "promiscuous" bit!) fit me.

More importantly, this blog is an ode to my love for Shimla. I hope to show you this little town through my eyes. If you don't see too many people in it, forgive me, because I'm a little chary of turning this into a human zoo.

Stop by for a spell, look at my pictures, ask me questions about Shimla, if you wish. I shall try and answer them as best as I can. Let's be friends for a while....

28 June 2010

The very form, the very scent, not heavy, not sensuous, but perilous perilous of orchids

I've been meaning to make a post on orchids for a while now. Say the word and you get a range of intriguing reactions from people. It goes from outright delight and wonderment to sheer aversion. William Faulkner goes so far as to say "Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption."

Personally, I am enamoured by their complexity and diversity and above all, their cosmopolitanism! They appear in almost every sort of habitat you can think of. Excepting glaciers and deserts, of course. The largest number of species occurs in the tropics, but is followed closely by countries in the temperate region. Very few orchid-lovers know the startling fact that the number of orchid species is almost twice that of bird species and almost four times the mammal species.

In my hunt for orchids to photograph, I found interesting variation, which I'm going to illustrate in my deeply unscientific fashion. I found two whorls: an outer one with three sepals and an inner one with three petals. The upper medial petal appeared to be much more enlarged and modified, perhaps to aid pollination. There are three stamens whose filaments appeared fused or joined to my untrained eye.

Reading up about orchids, I cam across some interesting facts. Like the one that everyone's favourite flavour, vanilla, is an orchid genus. Or that orchids are used for making hot beverages, for flavouring ice cream and even rum! In Turkey, certain species of orchids are considered to have aphrodisiac powers.

Here in Shimla, I've found the prettiest orchids being grown by Shri Mela Ram Sharma for the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. My friend R's venerable father-in-law also grows gorgeous ones. Orchids which he's brought from Sikkim and Meghalaya and which, miraculously, survive the heat and humidity of Sunni.

For the detail-minded reader, some limited information:
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Asparagales
Family: Orchidacaea

16 June 2010

Sacrifice is nothing other than the production of sacred things

My journey to Ani had been uneventful, bordering on the boring. For one thing, a road-block at Theog had forced me to back-track up to Basantpur and make a detour via Luhri which was hot, hot, hot. Ani itself was unspectacular, constructed along the highway, all it had to show for itself was a row of really unattractive shops. I couldn’t wait to move on to Khanag where the memorial plaque for Penelope Chetwode (I’ve written about this earlier) waited to be explored.

At the guesthouse, I bumped into some men who work for the Public Works Department. Anything interesting to be seen in these parts, I asked them. Well, there’s a little temple at Shamshar. Nothing great, you see. But it’s not bad. Considering that I’d been starved for any sort of cultural relief, I grabbed at this opportunity. The men were headed the same way and agreed to go with me to show me the temple.

I won’t go into a detailed description of the temple as is my wont. It was a typical Himachali temple: chalet and spaceship rolled into one, quaintly attractive, unobtrusive and tremendously colourful. There were two taller structures behind it. One squat, painted white and embellished with the most attractive wood carvings you ever saw. The second was built in the typical “dehra” style. A tall building topped off by a pagoda-style roof, painted in candy shades. This temple was draped with a huge rope whose diameter was thicker than my wrist. Idly, I asked one of the PWD men if Himachal had a tradition of people physically pulling the Gods’ chariots with these ropes. Oh, no, no, he said. And thereby hung a tale. I am going to recount it almost as he told me.

It is said that on the orders of his father Jamadagni, Parshurama had killed his mother Renuka. When asked what boon e would like for this act of extreme obedience, Parshurama begged his father to bring his mother back to life. However, he needed to expiate the sin of matricide, so he donated land to the Brahmins of Nirmand and deemed that a “yajna” every three years and “bhunda” (human sacrifice) every twelve years.

The person who offers himself as sacrificial victim is called “beda” and comes from a community of people which has, for generations, offered one of its members for this purpose. He is required to plait a rope over 500 metres long. This rope will play a very important role in the “bhunda” ceremony. During the fifteen days preceding the “bhunda” ceremony, the “beda” is fed and clothes at the expense of the temple and is associated closely with the goddess as he is no longer seen as one of the human race.

The rope the victim has plaited will be slung out over a cliff and the “victim” will have to slide down this rope. Should he be fortunate enough to survive this slide, his life is spared, but in the old times, death must have been a certainty. Hundreds of devout volunteers carry the rope which has been carefully plaited by the “beda” to the site where the “sliding ceremony” will take place. Meanhile, the “beda” is taken to the temple and formally dedicated to the goddess Ambika. Draped in a shroud, he is carried to the sacrificial site by other devotees. Weighed down by sacks filled with grain and/or sand, he is made to walk on the rope.

As I’ve said above, death is a certainty, but there is insurance for his widow. When the “beda” is dead, his widow is allowed to select any of the items she sets her sights on. Whatever she touches is hers that day. In this way, tradition ensures that she is not left destitute by the demise of her husband.

So important is this ceremony that Gods of neighbouring areas specially visit Shamshar in full ceremonial regalia. They are taken out in a procession their path lit by huge flaming torches. An interesting aside to this event is that a sacred water vessel belonging to Parshurama is brought out especially for this occasion. Water in this vessel is replenished by a sacred spring in the village. Legend has it that the spring appears only the year “bhunda” is held. It remains dry, indeed, invisible for the entire period when Parshurama is in retreat.

Once the ceremony is over, all ritual articles and the image of Parshurama are taken back to the shrine. The visitng Gods depart for their homes, taking with them the masses of curious, innocent villagers who had come to witness this unique ceremony; the massive doors are bolted, not to be opened for a further twelve years.

The memorial majesty of Time, Impersonated in thy calm decay

I was travelling from Sojha to Banjar, when like my more famous travel predecessor, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, I decided to stop off at Bagi to check out the Shringi Rishi temple. I have repeated ad nauseum my dislike for the blatant and impious skullduggery that is Indian's temples. Shringi Rishi proved no different. Also, unlike Himachal's temples, the keepers of this one allow devotees to climb right into the sanctum sanctorum. What results is a lot of noise and typical filth carried in my human feet, and an all-pervading wretched fragrance which is a mix of human perspiration, cheap incense and decaying flowers.

Exeunt temple. It must have been an attractive one before it went commercial with a vengeance. Sitting outside was an old couple who watched my entry and speedy exit. Would you like to see a far more beautiful jewel, they asked. Of course I would, I replied, somewhat indignant that this pair of strangers should doubt the extent of my curiosity. Right then, you see that trail going up? Just follow it and you will see one of the most beautiful forts in all Himachal.
I am glad I listened to them, or I would have missed this nonpareil, this pearl of a ziggurat!

Chaihni is what Wordsworth would be delighted to call "a hoary pile". Not visible from the main road, this gorgeous castle is a couple of kilometres of walking at an almost 40-degree angle. The walk is breath-taking, and I do not say this with irony. For most part, you have a 360-degree view of dense evergreen forests and a patchwork of step-cultivated farms. Here and there, you come upon picturesque little barns with piles of golden, sweet-smelling hay, here an abandoned loom, there a curving path. This is a tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.

It s not as though there is no toil or strife. But on the whole, a silence pervades. You feel that Nature breathes ease into the lives of those who live here in Chaihni, high up, in steadfast peace.
As you walk up, you are forced to tilt your head to look up at this gorgeous castle, standing there in all its sublime beauty, a picture of fortitude in the face of the ravages Time wreaks on men and material alike.

The fort is 125 feet tall. An architectural marvel of unknown age. Is it a temple, a watch-tower, or a citadel, it is hard to tell. Like forts and castles all over Himachal, in a sense, it is all three. It displays all the attractive features of timber-bonded stone topped off by a chalet-style wooden roof. A little ladder clings precipitously to one wall, the only tiny symbol of a pageantry this imposing hulk seeks to impose on its viewer.
As I've mentioned before, it is not possible for anyone to enter such an edifice, doubling up as it does for a citadel, temple, and village treasury. As luck would have it, I had met the priest or caretaker of the Chaihni fort on my walk up to the village. This kindly old man had, in the span of the thirty minutes it took for me to huff and puff up the hill, developed an amused interest in my antics. It was only logical, he said, that if the Gods had willed me to come thus far, that I should be allowed in the celestial presence. So off we went, up into the fort. The sight was magical and to this day, I do not know if I was giddy from the height or the idea that I was being allowed into the sacred space. But the way that roof rises to the sky in fatastic pride makes blood rush to the head...

The sight was a fascinating one. Gods piled upon Gods. Polished to a burnished gold. Decorated with flowers and Chinese-made baubles and doodads. Up here, the divinities appear content and amenable to being propitiated. The priest asks me if there's anything I want. And foolishly, like a beauty contest participant, I blurt out: world peace!

Go see Chaihni if you are travelling in the southern parts of Kullu. It will surpise and please you yet.

10 June 2010

Thou blushest from the painter's page, Robed in the mimic tints of art...

Still, still my eye will gaze long fixed on thee,
Till I forget that I am called a man,
And at thy side fast-rooted seem to be,
And the breeze comes my cheek with thine to fan,
Upon this craggy hill our life shall pass,
A life of summer days and summer joys,
Nodding our honey-bells mild pliant grass,
In which the bee half hid his time employs,
And here we'll drink with thirsty pores the rain,
And turn, dew-sprinkled, to the sun,
And look when in the flaming west again,
His orb across the heaven its path has run;
Here left in the darkness on the rocky steep,
My weary eyes shall close like folding flowers in sleep.
~ Jones Very ~

I spotted Columbines in the woods of Sheogh in June last year, thanks to Dr. Suresh Nair. This year, they were closer at hand in Sanjiv's lovely garden. In Sheogh, I found it growing in partial shade, whereas at Sanjiv's place, it grows in full sunlight. Its height in both places was about 15 to 20 inches. Sanjiv says the plant is partial to a well-drained soil, but is hardy enough not to require mulching or protection in the winter. She informs that she propagates it by seed.
Elegantly formed and coloured in shades of lilac, violet and white, this flower is very easy to distinguish because of its five backward projecting spurs of the inner petals. A row of inner and outer petals form the columbine, which grows at a 90-degree angle to its stem. The leaves appeared similar to ferns to my untrained eye.
The botanical name of the columbine Aquilegia comes from the Latin word aquila, an eagle, perhaps, in reference to the claw-like spurs which grow at the back of the flower. The name columbine comes from columba, a dove.

Scientific details:
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliospida
Order: Ranunculales
Family: Ranunculaceae
Genus: Aquilegia

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