Monday, July 14, 2014

Recollections of a Hot Weather Indian Tour of Long Ago: The Allahabad Sequence

Because the weather here today is in the 35-40˚C range, I thought I might display some scenes, chiefly architectural and/or painterly, from my residency in the important city of Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Like many sites in India, the presence of great architecture makes for wonderfully powerful discoveries. In the case of Allahabad, historic in many ways, I sought out those examples of Raj Era architecture I knew to exist, and I was not disappointed.

Aspects of this journey appear in my book, 'The Grand Trunk Road From The Front Seat' (Two editions: 1993 & 2000; HarperCollins)

Click or tap on first colour plate for slideshow (albeit without captions), or click individually, to expand image. Apologies for less-than-perfect reproductions from original slide transparencies, from only slightly after the Victorian Age, all of which have been digitally (but minimally) enhanced, for your viewing convenience.

All photos © by Brian Paul Bach; All Rights Reserved
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Introduction: on the Grand Trunk Road (GTR) in Delhi, many km from Allahabad... I'd better get moving...
(photo of the Author by Anmol Singh)

First: MAPS!; from my all-time favourite cartographer, J. Bartholomew of Edinburgh, Scotland; (before 'Google Earth', naturally); our first overview of the massive Allahabad layout is from the year 1893

Then, from 1909; note differences!

Close-up 1909: A – The wording on the map is nothing short of epic...

Close-up 1909: B – a very spread-out city

Close-up 1909: C – the core area, with sites considered below

Finally, the view from 1931; more changes; Allahabad was always a key city along the Gangetic Plain; I have a Survey of India map from the 1980s, but that's not our focus here; let us descend...

Approaching the city on the GTR from the Calcutta side, it's hard to grasp the scale of things, so massive are they; in this scene, we are crossing over the mighty Ganga

The vast Gangetic riverbed is transformed into temporary farmland during the dry season

Here, on the banks of the great Yamuna at Allahabad, calm poetics dominate; undoubtedly the hottest moments I've ever experienced in the subcontinent; my portable thermometer read 45˚C – perhaps higher...; in the distance, the great railway bridge to Nagpur, the Deccan, Bombay, and points south

Yet, at high noon, strangely blissful, I had the place almost to myself; the painterly scenes were elegant and restrained; the classical landscapes composed themselves; one is compelled to move in slow motion is such heat, and therein lies the secret of doing well in it – not to mention a steady hydration

High noon; there, past Akbar's Fort on the left, lies fabled Prayag, and the Sangam – where the ultra-sacred Ganga (Ganges) and the almost-as-sacred Yamuna (Jumna) join the heavenly Saraswati, and where the tremendous Kumbh Mela ceremony takes place, according to its celestial schedule, populated by millions: the ultimate pilgrimage

Today however, just me and a few talented dhobi-wallahs, attending to minimal laundrette activities; note the 'dhobi rocks' at waterside, for the purpose of 'agitating' the piece goods to be washed

Back in town, the silent remains of the old Raj Era cemetery naturally piqued my curiosity

The cemetery's gate is a wistful Gothic touch in the midst of the bustling city

A quiet hall at the University, seeming forgotten between terms

However, a lone figure, venerated in marble, keeps watch

The artistry of many a sign painter is often deserving of a gallery or art museum's notice

Over there – could that be the... Muir College?

Oh yes, it certainly is; a fantastic pile, designed (1872-8) by Sir William Emerson, whose career would reach its zenith with the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta (1905-21); this one ain't too bad, though; note the distressed tiling on the dome, hopefully restored by now

A world-class interior, I think

A most attractive exoticism; what planet are we on?

The detailing is an ingenious combination of Persian, Gothic, Indo-Saracenic, Moorish and Romanesque design elements; as a bit of a mongrel myself, I quite feel at home with this sort of architectural invention

In this perspective, Emerson achieves an effect not unlike Hagia Sophia or the great Ottoman mosques of Sinan

The classrooms occupy a delightful cloistered quadrangle

For me, a beautifully dreamlike atmosphere...

The Muir skyline in the torrid afternoon – nothing quite like it

Students at work! (Translation, anyone...?); note the niche, perhaps once occupied by some Raj Era worthy... (Muir himself??)

My enthusiasm for the Muir is total; Emerson (1843-1924) also designed the iconic Crawford Market in Bombay

The charm of a bootie-mixie advertisement has its own fun appeal

Another of Allahabad's heritage landmarks, of especial interest to me: the Thornhill-Mayne Memorial, by Roskell Bayne, dating from 1878 

The exterior is exciting and vigorous

The 'official' style may be French Gothic, but this frontage, with its stone, its tone, and its environmental experience, has its roots firmly planted in India

For those of us who are passionate about such things, this stout column is a major discovery; it is tribute to the seminal Victorian architect, William Burges (1827-81), whom Bayne greatly admired; note the beneficent vignette carved in the capital, and the neighbouring gargoyles

The effect is mechanically playful, a puzzle to be popped; the building primarily serves as the Municipal Library; the Reading Room inside is a treasure – naturally

The dedicatees are here honored; Cuthbert Bensley Thornhill! Francis Otway Mayne! – like characters in a Dickens novel set in India; the gargoyle rivals anything to be found in your basic sci-fi blockbuster of today, I think...

A completely satisfying building of much character and interest

How many modern libraries have such an entertaining skyline?

Roskell Bayne also designed the outstanding East Indian Railway Building in Calcutta, in a completely different style and on a heroic scale; note the rakish awning above the great Reading Room windows – in Europe such an enchanting appliance would be sheer architectural heresy; here, it is unabashedly and proudly subcontinental

This great Edwardian canopy in Alfred Park used to shelter a statue of Queen Victoria (quietly removed after Independence); the detailing has an almost Art Deco-in-terracotta feel

Also designed by the imaginative Roskell Bayne is this imposing erection – the Mayo Memorial Hall (1879) – which , to my mind, is amazingly, unashamedly, and gloriously bizarre; a brick sex toy (or lingam!), more phallic than the Empire State Building, instantly admirable for its oddball audacity!; note the sensuously-curved ('feminine') roof of the adjoining Assembly Hall to the right

Two 'Burges' pillars flank the intriguing tomb-like doorway

The more 'respectable' aspects of the Mayo Hall look collegiate and sincere; the rose window adorns the main Assembly Hall; the students who utilize the building love and treasure it for its astonishing uniqueness

I ascended the tumescent tower and spied out the land towards the Ganga to the north; the vast empty expanse out there is 'Jungle and Waste Land inundated during the rains', as it says on a 1909 map of Allahabad and surroundings

My lodgings were in the Harsh Hotel, (the erstwhile Barnett's Hotel); the name 'Harsh' does not refer to any condition, but to Harsha, one of the great Hindu kings of the hoary past; its appearance (coated in saffron so as to indicate the sacred heritage of the city) is typical of the Bungalow Style, found in many a cantonment and civil lines all over India; Rudyard Kipling, who dwelt in Allahabad in the 1880s as a staff reporter for 'The Pioneer' newspaper, dubbed the style 'bungaloathsome', but I think it's quite super; I think I'll call it 'Bungalow Bill'...

Extraordinary dusk on The Mall, Civil Lines, Allahabad, perfect for taking a dog on a walk; All Saints Cathedral in the distance

Speaking of which, once again, that great eclectic architect, Sir William Emerson, raised a building of consequence in Allahabad: All Saints (1877-87)

The mood of the interior is surprisingly easygoing and pleasant; it is also cooling

Commemorative plaques aplenty, meticulously preserved

I was quite taken with the 'Alfred' script here; Burne Jones also designed splendid windows in St. Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta

Like many a church in Hindustan, the openness of this nave is most clearly defined not by the effects of arches, but by a network of punkahs (ceiling fans), which, despite the relatively cool loftiness above, would be much appreciated on a day like this

Here, amidst Hindu sacredness, is one of the prettiest 13th-century English churches you're likely to see; a touch of Fortified Gothic within Romanesque framing, quite comfortable in its environment, and not as incongruous as might be expected, given Hinduism's additive generosity of scope and spirit; that is, a Hindu temple here, a mosque of Islam there, a Sikh gurudwara yonder, church, chapel and cathedral here, there and yonder

Further afield in Civil Lines, many fine moments of subtropical gloom and drama appear; this is only a corner of a vast complex that served the provincial administrative mechanisms of the Raj – from the United Provinces of Then, to the Uttar Pradesh of Today; to me, there are few more attractive moods than reclining in the upper loggia of some Tropical Gothic palazzo, taking a burra peg of brandy on a long, languid afternoon, and savoring the wonder of it all, into the twilight... 

Another pleasing Bungalow Bill residence; this scene could just as well be in Jacobabad, or Trincomalee, or Seebpoor, or Chittagong, or Rangoon, or Seeonee, or Moulmein, or Singapore...

On the edge of town, further GT Road locales call: Kanpur – the erstwhile Cawnpore – for one, has its own remarkable offerings; note the 'puncture-wallah' at hand, where all things pertaining to rubber on the (GT) road are considered

Allahabad may not have nearly as many Mughal Era monuments as other sites across the onetime empire, but its offerings are choice: the Khusrau Bagh, for one; Khusrau was the future Shah Jahan's elder brother, who attempted to usurp the throne from his father, Jahangir – and failed; regardless, Mughal finery shines here

I find all of Mughal architecture most rewarding and fascinating, but I'm especially fond of Prince Khusrau's tomb (c. 1615 AD), perhaps because it is lesser known than the other Mughal biggies; its variations on Mughal themes are distinguished and of a high æsthetic; the central dome is reminiscent of the Delhi Sultanate style, while the close-in chhattris which flank said dome, the adventurous upthrust of the main mass above the raised podium, and the determined uniqueness of the campus in toto, make for a singularity that perhaps served as a memorable reference point for Shah Jahan, in his subsequent mission to build the Taj Mahal at Agra

On this historic stage, a noontime reverie – the heat is forgotten, and Mughals are rememberéd...

Leaving the demure Civil Lines, the bustling City is where the action is; to my delight, a few intriguing examples of 'my kind' of architecture pop up here and there

In the high heat, energy is efficiently spent; those who are out and about choose their moves wisely; in the shade stands a venerable road sign, a cast iron GT Road marker, pointing to Rewah, Benares, Fyzabad, Fatehpur... magical names all; note the trolley featuring mini cucumbers, a summer specialty

The Grand Chord railway line, the most important in India, appears remarkably quiet this particular morning; note the now-long-gone steam engines, waiting on spur lines, upper right

The GT Road goes ever onward; heading out of Allahabad, I was struck by the fellow just ahead, driving a brand new bare-bones Tata chassis (destined for add-on coachwork, I presume) with all the panache of a Ferrari;  note the senior Tata lorry on the right, in 'elephant grey' (e.g. first colour plate, above), a model once ubiquitous throughout the subcontinent