Thursday, December 31, 2009

My friend S. A. Hussain

S. A. Hussain (1944 - 2009)

I came to know of my friend S. A. Hussain's demise while on a field trip yesterday. It took a while for the news to sink in. As I was travelling down to Tirthahalli from Hosanagara, it began to hit me. I would never hear his jolly voice over the phone again, never hear that hearty laugh again... In the last 10-odd years that I have been in Manipal, he has been a friend, mentor and guide, ever available for advice and I can't remember a single occasion where he failed to cheer me up when I was down.

I met him for the first time at the Mangalore railway station, where both of us had come to greet a common friend - J-P Puyravaud, who was arriving from Pondicherry to deliver a lecture at my institute. I don't know how we became friends, but in no time we were calling each other regularly and meeting up whenever Hussain Sa'ab was passing by Manipal. I worked out the design for eco-tourism facilities for Harike Lake in Punjab for him, though finally the project did not see light of day. Later we collaborated on the project to rejuvenate Anekere Lake at Karkal.

Through it all, I developed tremendous respect for a man who lived life on his own terms, had great love and affection for friends and humanity in general and could teach you a lot without seeming preachy. I still remember an incident when we were inspecting a farm-house in Jarkal as a model for our Harike project. The owner, whom Hussain Sa'ab knew, was away and we were moving around in the property when two of the guard dogs rushed us, snarling ferociously. While I was terrified, Hussain told me in a low, confident voice not to run, but to stand my ground and not look them directly in the eye. Sure enough, the dogs stopped just short of us, growling. Slowly, they sniffed us over, then decided that we were ok! They didn't trouble us after that, but my heartbeat rate was a lot faster than prescribed!

On another occasion, he demonstrated his sharp understanding of bird behaviour - by slapping his thighs to imitate the display of dominance among cocks by flapping their wings. The cock in question immediately perked up and started flapping its wings and crowing, trying to intimidate its unseen rival. I remember that he could also do a good imitation of the call of a langur.

I last met him about a month ago, when he dropped by with his nephew. I had been waxing eloquent about a new fish joint at Manipal and he wanted to test it out. We had a nice lunch together, with prawns and anjal fry and we parted happy. There were plans afoot that Hussain Sa'ab, Shiva and I would go to Sikkim in February, where he would stay at the forest rest houses we were to camp in, while Shiva and I would go trekking.

Once when I was particularly depressed with the happenings at work, I had told him that I was considering quitting. "Don't you go off without telling me," he'd admonished me. And now he has gone off without telling me... There is a recollection I have about a conversation we had long ago about migratory birds during one of his visits. I remember him saying that he once spent some time with some American who was studying bird migration. He said that, unlike most of our perceptions, most bird migrations don't happen in large groups. The American had found that a large number of migratory birds travel singly and at night, from his studies using radar. Intriguingly, he found large numbers of birds that travel in the reverse direction too. This piece of information, though it didn't strike me as remarkable then, started fascinating me later. I always meant to follow it up with him sometime, maybe work it into a story that I was planning... Somehow, that didn't happen, there was too much for us to discuss whenever we met. And now, sadly, it will never happen.

Goodbye Sir, dear Hussain Sa'ab... I will miss you badly. May your soul rest in peace. I am sure that whichever heaven you find yourself in, there will be plenty of your feathered friends to keep you busy!

Baise, Araga Gate and a dog named Gunda!

A motley crew at Baise!

I'm back from another field trip. The ending of the field trip, otherwise fulfilling, was on a tragic note - I came to know that S. A. Hussain - my close friend and mentor, had passed away in the early hours of December 31, 2009. I will post a separate entry on Hussain Sa'ab after this.

This trip was to photograph the winter solstice sunset at Baise - after last winter's spectacular pictures at Nilaskal, I wanted to repeat the feat at Baise. These sites contain 'menhirs' - free standing single stones, that were thus far assumed to be erected in no particular pattern. Early on, I had a hunch that they were arranged in a particular pattern and after a survey of the site at Baise (there are fewer stones there and so, easier to survey!) and the photograph of winter solstice sunset at Nilaskal, I wanted to furnish photographic proof of the alignments I had predicted at Baise.

I went with some goodies for my team of young surveyors at Baise - Santosh, Nagesh, Subrahmanya and Sudhakara - the kids who had helped me last year as well as provided a wonderful environment with their constant enthusiastic chatter. They were thrilled to see me and I was pleasantly surprised to see that even Gunda - their ferocious dog, gave me a warm welcome. In fact, when I sat down to take off my shoes, Gunda ran up to me and licked my face! The kids also took me to Bhootada Gadde - one of their 'secret places' near a stream and a waterfall. It was lovely - the place, the camaraderie and the company of the little ones.

Gunda is made to pose for a pic!

My young friends at the stream

The sad part was that the sunset was clouded out - the best I could get was a shot of the sun several degrees above the horizon near the alignment that I was planning to shoot - between the largest menhir under a tree that the locals worship as bhootaraya and the prominent stone no. 1 in my survey. I spent some time teaching the little ones to take readings on my prismatic compass.

The sun sets behind Bhootaraya

Little Nagesha tries his hand at surveying!

I spent the night at a lodge at Hosanagara and woke up at 4am to catch sunrise at Nilaskal. More disppointment was in store for me - it was misty and cloudy and there was no hint of the sun's presence anywhere in the sky even by 9am. I consoled myself by taking a few bearings of some of the alleged sight-lines and then headed back.

Sharpie - one of the menhirs of Nilaskal against the cloudy sky

On the way back, I remembered that on one of the crazy wanderings with Kailash, we had met an old man (Dharmanna of Hosuru, near Agumbe) who talked about what could only be menhirs at a place called Araga Gate. Since my route was through Araga, I decided to enquire around - but nobody there knew anything about "old stones". By that time I had got word about S. A. Hussain's passing away and I was feeling very upset. So when I saw a promising stone in a plantation off the highway, I didn't stop the car. But when I spied a flash of black granite deeper in the plantation, I got excited. Afer all, Hussain Sa'ab would've wanted me to finsih whatever I'd started. Upon inspection, there were 8 stones inside the plantation in a similar pattern to Baise and Nilaskal.

The largest menhir of the site at Araga Gate

One of the menhirs of the Araga Gate site, showing clear N_S orientation

This region is richer in prehistoric remains than anyone had ever suspected. There is plenty more to seek, plenty more to explore. Already, plans for the next trip are taking shape - Dharmanna had talked about what could only be prehistoric rock art at Hosuru...

Monday, December 28, 2009

The waterways of Kumarakom

Cruising the waterways of Kumarakom

The other day I took a break at Kumarakom with Ajith and his family. It was a nice trip, gliding past houses with canoes parked on the canal much like people park cars elsewhere; passing so many houseboats (too many!) with air-conditioners, the whole works; stopping for tea at a nice restaurant on the waterway; finally watching the sunset from the huge Vembanad Lake where, with a little imagination, one can pretend one is on a boat in the ocean...

A kettuvallam on the waterway

A little musing on the concept of the houseboat: when I was a kid, houseboats were associated with Kashmir. It was after I left Kerala after graduating as an architect that the kettuvallam took on its current avatar as a houseboat. In one and a half decades, the Kerala kettuvallam eclipses its Kashmiri cousin as the image of a houseboat for the average tourist! Such are the ways of tourism propaganda!

Sunset on the Vembanad Lake

Ajith, Pallavi and Sapna

For them, it's a daily mundane ritual...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Meadows Taylor, badang fry and a 2500 year old stupa!

Mirjan Fort

As we sat on the masonry seats in the compound of Taylor Monzzil, watching the night lights of Surpur (Shorapur) far below, sipping rum and coke, we slowly felt the exhaustion of a hard day's travel and work slipping away. And with it, some of the frustration of what had turned out to be a very exasperating day...

We were on a whirlwind trip of several sites, starting with a trip to Mirjan Fort. The fort, which is close to Bhatkal, is under the protection of ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). Kailash was asked by the Superintending Archaeologist of ASI, Dharwad Circle to have a look at it and suggest conservation strategies for the fort. We had formed a team of 2 engineers (Raghuprem M. and Ramaswamy R. N.) and 2 architects (Kailash and myself) to visit the site and assess it.

A view of Mirjan Fort

The fort is an impressive laterite structure, very massive, and has been subjected to the ravages of time and neglect. Parts of it are being restored (though without a sound strategy, I should say) and Kailash has excitedly formed plans to restore the rest of it more scientifically and conscientiously. We spent most of the day going around the fort assessing damage and forming strategies to take up the work in a phased manner.

The team takes a drinks break at Mirjan!

From Mirjan, Kailash and I moved on to Sirsi, while the others returned to Manipal. We stayed the night at Sirsi and visited Banvasi the next day. We spent the day at the Madukeshwara temple there and just moving about in the laid-back, sleepy little town and longing on the banks of the Varada river. We also examined the remains of the 30m wide brick and laterite fort walls that once encompassed the town. We also spent some time at the excavated site Gundnapur in the premises of the Veerabhadra temple.

The Madhukeswara Temple at Banvasi

Slicing through history - the fort walls at Banvasi

Kailash inspects the excavated site at the Veerabhadra Temple premises, Banvasi

From Sirsi, we moved to Gulbarga via Hubli. There we had the experience of the most frustrating kind ever. We were to inspect the recently excavated Adholoka Maha Chaitya - a Buddhist Stupa believed to have been built during 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD, at a place called Sanniti. The day started on a disatrous note. The ASI guy (name withheld!) who was to get us there was of the less competent variety, and callous and ignorant to boot. He could not even guide us properly to his own office. Then, after we had somehow reached the place, he made us wait a long period (while he had "tiffin" among other things...) , only to inform us grandly that since no vehicles were available because a jatra was going on, our trip could not happen. We departed in as best civil way we could and found a taxi after a long hunt.

The taxi driver was another poor communicator and between his unenthusiastic approach and the ASI goon's active misguidance, we found ourselves at Sanniti (actually Kanaganahalli) only by 8pm! It was the most frustrating experience going around in the ASI-goon-defined circles while the last of the daylight ebbed teasingly away. However, the guards appointed at the site, with their enthusiastic help more than made up for the by now lost reputation of the ASI with us!

By torch light we saw the very impressive remains of what must have been a most magnificent stupa in its time. The limestone panels depicting the Jataka tales, the life of Siddhartha and his transformation into the Buddha and even one of the Emperor Ashoka with his (female!) bodyguards are exquisite, though cracked and broken.

A panel showing Emperor Ashoka with his bodyguards at Sanniti

From Sanniti, we proceeded to the historic town of Surpur, where a historian friend of ours - Mr. Bhaskar Rao, arranged for us to stay at Taylor Monzzil. The location of the house of this famous British officer and novelist could not have been better. It is at the top of a hill overlooking the town. The large and well planned house built in the colonial style is now a PWD guest house. As we sat for a long while outside the house watching the lights of Surpur, all the tribulations of that frustrating day melted away.

Me pretending to be Meadows Taylor at Taylor Monzzil

Next morning was lovely, as we saw the sun rise over Surpur from Kudremukha - the lookout point at the top of the hill near the house. As we got ready for the next task on the trip, I silently thanked the man who built this lovely house while he was helping the young Raja of Surpur administer his domain and also reported many of the megaliths in this area for the first time.

Sunrise at Kudremukha, near Taylor Monzzil

We took a jeep to the village of Rajan Koluru, near Kodekal. After a brief search, we found what we were looking for - 50-odd dolmens on a flat piece of land near the canal that was built recently. We woked without lunch, surveying each of the 42 dolmens that are reasonably intact. we found that all of them were N-S oriented, a first in our studies. We found 4 more dolmens to the east of the main site, including one in which the port-hole was intact, lending credence to my hunch that these are basically S-facing dolmens.

One of the dolmens at Rajan Koluru

Our friends at Rajan Koluru with Kailash

After working till nearly 4pm, we hit the road again, making a beeline for the nearest watering hole, where we refreshed. A beautiful little place on the highway, marred only by the sight of little boys working as waiters. Our waiter, a boy called Sunil, said that he does not go to school. When we asked for snacks to go with our beer, he recommended "badang" fry. Disdainfully, he explained to us nitwits that, no, it is not mutton fry, but badang! It turned out to be a sort of fried bhel puri with lots and lots of gun powder in it!

Badang Fry!!!

Refreshed by several beers and badangs, we set off for Lingsugur, from where we began the return journey to Manipal, thus ending one more remarkable trip. I know that one needs to return... Lingsugur, Gajendragad, Maski... Several megalithic sites remain in this nucleus of megalithic culture. Dr. Sundara would know...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A mountain sunrise...

Another day dawns
On Kodachadri...
An ocean of cloud below
Lesser peaks hold their summits
Just above...
Prehistoric behemoths
Swimming in a sea of clouds
Soon the Sun rises
Over the distant ridge
And the mountains Awake...
(From the poem "Kodachadri" written in 2005)