Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Purple Rain of the Moulmein Rosewoods – A Photo Essay

Shanti Van - April 2019

If last year cruising down Mahrashi Raman Marg was a passing shower, today the walk through Shanti Van is a hazy drizzle that soon turns into Purple Rain. The weather app early in the morning indicates ‘Hazy’. A few hours later you realize it should have said ‘Purple Haze’!

Moulmein Rosewood (Millettia peguensis)

Moulmein Rosewood (Millettia peguensis) just like it’s pretty name is one of Delhi’s most beautiful flowering trees. Last year, in Lodhi Estate, you saw the charms of the tree for the first time as the main avenue tree. Some of the trees were tall and straight while others looked deciduous with widely spreading canopies. For a brief period in April, the tree becomes bare and gets draped in this diaphanous mauve mist as described by Pradip Krishen. Later you saw a grove of the trees in Mahavir Vanasthali looking as resplendant as 'Jewels on a String', a sobriquet which cannot be more perfect.

Last year as you walked through the scintillating Barna universe in Shanti Van, you knew that you had just missed the purple rain. And as always pre-ordained you arrive on the perfect day this year. Shanti Van probably has the largest concentration of the trees in Delhi. Even as the Palash trees burn orange bright, Pilkhans change colours every minute, the lone Siris perfumes the air; the Moulmeins ripple in the breeze showering the grounds with this this purple and mauve haze.   

There is something absolutely beautiful about the pearl like flowers. Sometimes they seem like porcelain glinting in the early sun. The flowers cascade down like necklaces adorning apsaras, shimmering and swaying in the cool breeze. And then with every gentle gust of the breeze the flowers drizzle down in a dream-like sequence.

Moulmein Rosewood or Jewels on a String is a legume tree species in the genus Millettia and belongs to the family Fabaceae. It is native to Myanmar and Thailand and does pretty well in Delhi’s dry climate. Lately, because of its ease of growing, Moulmein is being widely planted as an avenue tree with its shady canopy and beautiful flowers. Moulmein can be confused with Karanj or Pongam tree but the trees look quite different and Karanj flowers are much less conspicuous and certainly not massed as Moulmeins. The tree does not seem to have any medicinal uses and is probably used for its timber.

On the southern bank of the lake is a large grove. The ground is paved with purple gems. You have walked into the Nizam’s locker. There are necklaces dangling all around. You look up, the sky is a million twinkling mauve stars. You will just sit here on the grass for few moments. The flowers fall like pearl drops pitter-pattering. You are a part of this melodious song of this exquisite movie playing all around you.  

This is perhaps one the most beautiful sights of your city that is mostly reviled for all its modern age afflictions. This is an antidote. This is the elixir that makes the city still beautiful and the best place to be in.

Let’s walk through the Purple Rain and Let It Rain!

Jewels on a String

Shanti Van is full of Moulmeins

The Diaphanous Mauve Mist - Moulmein Rosewood

The Jewel Land - Moulmein Rosewood
The Purple Paved Grounds of Shanti Van

Everyone is bewitched with the jewels

Not just the flowers, even the leaves changing colours are as beautiful

The Fruit Pods of Moulmein Rosewood

Perfect Setting by the lake in Shanti Van, New Delhi - Moulmein Rosewood

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Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The Scorpion Woman of Khajuraho

If you want to see some real action involving amorous couples, and threesomes, and foursomes going rumpy-pumpy, head for Konark, India’s erotic capital frozen in stone. If you want to get knocked senseless by the unidimensional fertility symbol exploding into an explicit femme fatale with in your face oomph and sexuality, come to Khajuraho to seek the Scorpion Apsara.

देखो रे, देखो रे, देखो उतर गयो बिछुआ
टूट के रह गयो डंक, उतर गयो बिछुआ

सैयाँ को देख के जाने

किधर गयो बिछुआ

कैसो रे पापी बिछुआ, बिछुआ
(Song from Madhumati)

The rare pair of Scorpion Apsaras found in the Pradaksinhapath of Kandariya Mahadev Temple - Khajuraho, MP

The scorpion chooses its quarry carefully. The women are all alone, unbelievably voluptuous and sensuous and in various stages of disrobing.

You are totally bewitched with the recently seen image of this voluptuous woman with a scorpion on her thigh. A woman whose breasts defy gravity and who will never need a corset, disrobed and exposed. Simona Cohen describes her as ‘full-blossomed young apsarā (Celestial Nymph) figure who is provocatively displaying the sexuality of her ripe breasts and exposed genital area’. You have seen erotica in Khajuraho and Konark and have seen lone women giving pleasure to themselves but you do not remember ever seeing this iconography of a disrobed and exposed woman with a scorpion climbing her thigh.  

This is how hard it is to locate the Scorpion Apsaras!

The woman is apparently from Khajuraho. This will require you to go into the depths. No pun intended. You have always visited Khajuraho without the point and shoot zoom cameras. You are sure there should be something in the projecting rows of images on the exteriors of the temples especially in the Western Group. Entire morning is spent in zooming the photos and hoping to find the scorpion woman. For the first time, you are actually looking at the images that brings tourists from all over the world for their erotic content.

Now that you notice, apart from the few images of Gods and their manifestations, the sculptures mostly capture the forms and moods of 11th century milieu. In most images, the women are shown with their partners dressed in finery and adorned with some fantastic jewellery and hairdos. Others, but very few compared to Konark which has erotica spread over every inch, show amorous men and women, sometimes with multiple partners, engaged, how to put it, in varying and innovative styles of rumpy-pumpy.

While the monkey tugs at her dress on the right, the left Apsara is luckier with the scorpion riding her thigh

Photo Courtesy: Khajuraho & Orchha by Dr Rajaram Panda

You look for the lonesome ones. Wait a minute – finally! But what is this? The woman is undressed but there is no scorpion on her thighs. Instead a little monkey is tugging at her wraparound like dress. And then you see the figure next to her. She too is in in the act of disrobing revealing her genitals. You can make out the disfigured form of a scorpion on her left thigh. This is exciting. More digging and you come up with several images from several places and across temples. There are a total of 22 extant Scorpion Apsaras in eight temples, with the grand Kandariya Mahadev Temple alone having twelve images.

The Apsara from Patan's Rani ni Vav with the scorpion on her robe

This time the scorpion has climbed her thigh and she looks quite pleased - Rani ni Vav, Patan, Gujarat

Hundred years later the motifs of scorpion and lizard will appear in Hoysala temples but not on the thigh as the Khajuraho woman. Does Konark, the erotic haven, has Scorpion Woman? And what about the monkey? It is all getting interesting. Friends have chipped in with photos from Gujarat’s 11th century Rani-ni-Vav in Patan with images of the Scorpion Woman!

The Apsara that started it all - where is she - is she still extant in one of the temples or now located in a museum? Photo Source: Unknown 

In all probability, the prettiest Apsara is the one you have looking for. And you are so happy that she has a head and boy, she is beautiful

And what about the image that got you started in the first place. You are not sure if the image is currently housed in some museum or it is one of the 22 images still extant in some projection of the temples.

The Apsara pleasuring herself even as the scorpion climbs her thigh. Photo Source: Alamy

So, what does the scorpion on the thigh signify and why is only the Apsara associated with the scorpion?
  • Is the Apsara disrobing out of fear of the scorpion?
  • Is scorpion just symbolic?
  • Is the iconography auspicious alankar with fertility symbolism and as sakti or power for cosmic creation?
  • Does she denote the passion of devotee towards diety ?
  • Is this unfulfilled desire?
  • Is the scorpion and apsara combo propitious and apotropaic or both?

While the neighbouring Apsara is dressed and pleasuring herself, our Scorpion Apsara is already disrobing for the encounter

Simona Cohen examines this in her interesting paper which you will try to summarize here:

Apsaras are the heavenly nymphs that came into being during the Churning of Ocean, are grouped with the Gandharvs, live on Mount Meru and have names like Urvasi, Menaka, Rambha, Tilottama, Sukesini, Manorama. The Apsaras can be usually found playing musical instruments and dancing with Gandharvs. Hoysala temples have the musical aspect of the Apsaras. Apsaras are also known to corrupt sages as embodiment of sexual desire and pleasure. No literary evidence exist that explains the iconography of the Apsaras so there is no way of knowing why a scorpion sits on the thigh.

Scorpion Apsara epitome of Khajuraho erotica - On the exterior of Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Britannica says:
Apsara, in Indian religion and mythology, one of the celestial singers and dancers who, together with the gandharvas, or celestial musicians, inhabit the heaven of the god Indra, the lord of the heavens. Originally water nymphs, the apsaras provide sensual pleasure for both gods and men. They have been beautifully depicted in sculpture and painting in India and throughout areas of South and Southeast Asia influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. Notable examples are the 5th–6th-century frescoes at Ajanta in India and at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka and the sculptures and bas-reliefs decorating the temples of AngkorCambodia.

While the anonymous Apsara is busy getting dressed and ornamented our Scorpio Apsara is ready for some fireworks

Photo Courtesy: Eicher Goodearth Travel Guide

Scorpion or Vrscika (Sanskrit) has been used as symbol of procreation and fertility. Scorpions and serpents are worn as necklace by Shiv in Aghora aspect. The Agni Purana prescribes an herb called vrscika (the Sanskrit word for scorpion) for the cure of epilepsy. So scorpions can be used as apotropaic image on talismans, the body, or the temple.

Virakumari Yogini at the Chausath Yogini Temple in Hirapur Odisha with her Scorpion Vahan

The Fierce Bhadrakali with Scorpion on her belly

Photo Courtesy: Maverickbird and do read her amazing series of stories on Khajuraho

The earliest such iconography was seen on a seal of Indus Valley. A female figure / goddess is seen flanked by two scorpions displaying her genitals. The constellation of the scorpion controls the genitals, sexual passion, fertility and progeny. Bhadrakali, a fierce emanation of Parvati is the scorpion goddess and is shown with a scorpion on her emaciated belly; a total opposite of the Apsara. One of the Yoginis of Hirapur Odisha has scorpion as her Vahana. Four different verses of the Yavanajataka (4th to 6th century), emphasize the association between Scorpio and the genitals. Al-Biruni, in his book on astrology, written in 1029 A.D. just about the time that the Kandariya Mahadeva temple was constructed and shortly after his own trip to India with Mahmud of Ghazna in 1022 A.D., states that in India, Scorpio was associated with the genitals, fertility, progeny and hermaphrodism.

She is most dressed of all - Khajuraho

Are the Apsaras actually wearing scorpion amulets? Tribals around Khajuraho who worship village deities still wear ancient scorpion amulets. In Bundelkhand, the girl in the course of the rai dance, sings that she will die because a scorpion has bitten her. Scorpion here is her lover. In contemporary Gujarat, the women have motif of scorpion embroidered on their ghaaghro. The scorpion is malevolent towards any man trying to steal the woman from her husband. Further, in Bundelkhand, a horny wife is called dankini and in Rajasthan a sex-obsessed wife is called bichchhuri, pointing to the observation that a female scorpion usually kills the male after mating.

Now’s the Time for the Breakdown!

Scorpions have ambivalent characteristics – they both kill and protect. Temples always had erotic imagery as prescribed by sacred literature and shilp texts which had both Propitious - Apotropaic purposes. So, for a brief time in the making of Khajuraho temples, especially during the raising of Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, the Shilp-in-Chief got this idea of putting a scorpion on the thigh of this overtly oomphy Apsara. The sensuous Apsara, breasts filled with amrit, uninhibited and seductive will be the epitome of free-spirited allure that is Khajuraho. The Skunk Works team sat down to decide the iconography. Word is sent out in the neighbouring villages and some voluptuous maidens descend into the studio with live scorpions. The Scorpion Apsara will be clad in this diaphanous sarong like outfit and the sculpture will capture the moment when she sees the scorpion on her dress climbing up her thigh. She will be shown untying the knot around her waist revealing her genitals. 

She is the prettiest Scorpion Apsara in Khajuraho - and who says the Apsara is frightened seeing the scorpion - here she is already fantasizing about the impending copulation

Now you are not sure if she is supposed to throw off the scorpion thus indicating fighting off the lust and desire or if she is actually preparing for the impending copulation; the raised sting signifying ithyphallic scorpion. Some scholars opine that there is a look of fear in the eyes of the Apsara when she sees the scorpion climbing her thighs. But to you all you see is unadulterated delight and excitement on her beaming face. All the longing and yearning for her lover is just about to come to an end.

This was a huge evolution. While other single women mostly indulge in self-pleasure without exposing themselves, the Scorpion Apsara ups the ante; she is one among the anonymous group of Apsaras who has just graduated from the Plain Jane fertility symbol to full blown femme fatale with in your face explicit eroticism. Instead of being almost utilitarian, even as she throws off her robes, she puts on the dress of ambivalence; just like the ambivalent scorpion, who can kill and protect at the same time, as it makes its way up the thigh towards the sweet world of pleasure. This world is again ambivalent – the participants will experience the highs of both life and death together in those few ecstatic moments. The invoked experience of orgasm is like ‘half-death’ – it is almost halfway to heaven.


The Scorpion Apsarās at Khajuraho: Migrations of a Symbol by Simona Cohen published in JOURNAL OF THE ASIATIC SOCIETY OF BOMBAY Volume 74/ 1999 
Simona Cohen (Professor Emeritus), Art Historian at Tel-Aviv University, has published extensively on Renaissance iconography, Venetian painting, medieval and Renaissance animal symbolism and depictions of Time. Her recent books, Animals as Disguised Symbols in Renaissance Art, and Transformations of Time and Temporality in Medieval and Renaissance Art, were published by Brill (2008 and 2014). Indian Art History is her second field of research and teaching.

The Scorpion in Muslim Folklore by Jurgen Wasim Frembgen in Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 63, 2004, 95-123

Erotic Sentiment in Indian Temple Sculptures by Rekha Rao

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Friday, 26 April 2019

The Riotous Colours of Summer in Shanti Van

A Walk Through Trees - April 2018

Delhi trees lately have been the source of joy as they surprise you in different season in parks like Lodhi Garden, Nehru Park, Mahavir Vanasthali and Buddha Jayanti Park. But it is the modern and independent India’s necropolis that provides the ultimate surprise. The trees stand guard over leaders who have been cremated here over the years. Now that you wonder, it does seem that the trees provide shade and succour to the souls resting here who have mostly suffered violent deaths.

The Colours of Pilkhan Trees

On a perfect early summer morning, you are back at Shanti Van, the final resting place of Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. The walk will start from the parking lot. Just like last year when you chanced upon the blooming fairyland of Barna trees, the feeling is quite good that it will be another rewarding morning.

Wild Almond (Sterculia foetida) blossoms and new leaves

Earlier, waking up early in the morning you check the weather app. It says Hazy. They probably forgot to add the word Purple. Up ahead, a tall tree is enveloped in a purple haze. One side of the pathway leading into Shanti Van is lined with tall Wild Almond and Buddha Coconut trees. On the other side, behind the palms, is a whole grove of purple haze. Last year you had been delighted by trees on Maharshi Raman Road in the Lodhi Estate Area. Moulmein Rosewoods are probably the prettiest flowering trees in Delhi. The purple pearl like tiny flowers seem to be cascading down the trees. With every gentle gust of breeze, the flowers drizzle down in a dream like sequence.

The Purple Drizzle of Moulmein Rosewoods (Milletitia peguensis). The lady was nice enough to pose in her matching attire

Look at the purple paved ground - Wonderful Trees of Delhi

The feeling when you witness such sights is difficult to describe. It is of utmost disbelief and of wonder and of gratitude and of delirious swoon. You are not sure if you should just look or try to capture in the camera. The sprinklers are on and you have to time your photography before the swishing revolving jet of water drenches you and the equipment in actual drizzle! It is always difficult to tear yourselves from such sights. But there is lot more ground to cover and more surprises await.
A lucky sighting - will try to catch it early next year - Quickstick Tree (Gliricidia sepium)

Luminescent green leaves of Kapok (Ceiba pentandra) or White Silk Cotton and its fruit bursting into white floss!

Floss of Kapok tree

Hope to identify this tree soon!

Among the Moulmeins, stand a totally bare tree with last few lilac blooms and pod like fruits hanging by the sides. This is a first time seen Mexican Lilac also called Quickstick. The Kapok tree is awash in fresh green leaves with few fruits beginning to explode in snowlike fluff. The samadhi area on this northern side is lined with Earpod Wattle and Kadamb. The wet grass shimmers under the gentle sun. The breeze is cool. An extended family is wrapping up their mats after a yoga session. It is nice to see kids this early in parks. Just beyond, a neat looking tree stands that you have still not been able to identify.

You cut across the dry bed of the artificial lake behind Shanti Van to head towards the wonderland you experienced last year as the largest group of Barna trees bloomed in all their magnificent glory. Today, the trees are bare and buds about to break open. A solitary flower rising towards the sun sparkles under the blue skies, a harbinger of wonder this plot of land will soon turn into.

A Subabool (Leucaena leucocephala) blooming and that is a cluster of about 150 flowers!

United Colours of Pilkhan - just get awed!

You are making your way towards Shakti Sthal when you encounter the Ronjh lookalike flowers of Subabool. Taking the stone path you arrive at a grove of these magnificent Pilkhans. You seem to be here on the perfect day. The five pilkhans are all draped in unique colours as if in a time lapse shot. The tree on the right is delicious green. The next is bronze. The middle tree is has turned dark green. The next to it is still trying to decide if it wants to be bronze or green and in the ensuing dilly-dallying has turned yellowish. The last one is a brilliant copper, the colour that looks best on pilkhan and is so ephemeral that you can actually sense the colour changing with the ticking minutes. Under the brilliant canopy you rest for few minutes as if to delay the pleasure you are just about to experience.

Palash by any other name would be as beautiful

Palash is a Palash is a Palash

Look Mom I have turned into a Palash

On the other side of the pilkhans, is the first of the many Palash trees that will delight you today. Palash trees seemingly have different ways to surprise the viewer. Today the flowers you love keep dropping forming an orange carpet below the tree. A parrot hops on the flowers. You collect some flowers to caress the petals. You are in no mood to leave this spot.

The Quintessential Travel Dilemma

Oh that sweet smelling Kanak Champa (Pterospermum acerifolium)

A Kanak Champa tree blooms. The big unruly leaves always caked with some seemingly oxide dust try to hide those beautiful white flowers with leathery petals. The ground is covered with the brown leaves crunching under your feet. You pick a few flowers from the ground. They smell like a dream. A few days later they are still spreading fragrance in the car and at home.

The most significant ornithology discovery in the last 100 years in Delhi. Either the dude put on too much Fair and Handsome or there is some chemical locha. Now waiting for that Salim Ali Award - phone should be ringing any moment now.

This is a leucistic crow. Leucism is a moderate form of albinism 

The Goolar (Ficus racemosa) figs growing out of the trunk!

Harvesting in Shanti Van
Happy Baisakhi
Amma is not cooperating. She is not answering my questions. She first wants to know what her fayada is if I want to click her. She won't tell me what she is going to use these goolar figs for even as her partner is going through the motions of cleaning them. She even won't part with a single fig so you could see if it is carrying a fig wasp. Nearby Putronjiya fruits dry in the sun. Again no cooperation.
Few minutes ago the CISF constable from Bhuj talked about people coming in the morning and collecting the berries of the big Kamini trees we stand under talking. He says the berries are used for herbal shampoo. Earlier in the season people carried sackfuls of Semals to probably make colour. Two women come and pick the Palash flowers you had minutes ago put in a pile.
Later the man cleaning the lake by Shanti Van helps you locate the mahua grove. He says the mahua leaves are a remedy when afflicted by jaundice. You don't want to hear about something you haven't caught so far with your luck.
For the first time you are learning about the different uses of these trees here in Delhi!

Mom later mentions how figs were eaten as sweet fruits during her early days. Take that Amma. The harvested goolar fruits are sold to the pansaris who in turn sell it to customers who want to make ayurvedic medicines at home.

On the boundary of Shakti Sthal, an entire grove of Palash trees greet you resplendent in their fiery orange. This is the first cluster of Palash you are seeing this season. There is something about Palash that draws you to the blossoms. The tree, the trunk, the branches, the leaves; everything is crooked and unruly about it. But once the orange blooms appear, the tree is the most beautiful and desirable sight. And it is just not us humans. Birds and bees and squirrels too get sucked into absolute delirium. Sunbirds and mynahs and crows join in in the bedlam. But you have eyes only for these beautiful flowers. On the ground, fallen, they look like a congregation of monks kneeling in prayers.

The Ultimate Summer Afternoon Nap Spot

This is perhaps the most picturesque setting in this necropolis. An artificial lake has been created that gathers the rain runoff. Aquatic birds of different varieties swim, paddle and float. There are a few people out here today, some lovers and some just sit watching the glimmering water. Quacks ring out giving company to the general kooing and chirping in the air. A man naps under the shade of a pilkhan. The ducks or the geese do their duck walk around the napping figure. To the prone man, the discordant quacks seem like lullaby.

You go around the lake skirting Shakti Sthal to land at the northern bank. Under swaying bottle brush trees, you settle down for some soothing views giving company to two dogs. You try to befriend the dogs by offering them your biscuits that keep you going on these sojourns. They would have nothing of it. One dog lumbers away and the other settles down for a lap totally disinterested. Pigeons circle over the lake. In the distance, the orange palash and purple moulmeins present unseen before scenes. It is time to move. A crow takes off with the biscuit.

You will circle the lake. Here there are scores of Moulmeins cascading with these purple jewels. Walking through them is like walking in a drizzle without getting wet. You are wondering why you did not discover the joys of walking around this lake before.

There are more Palash blooms on the eastern side, this time juxtaposed with yellow blooms of Caribbean Trumpet trees. On the eastern side, the park grows progressively wilder. Maybe one day soon you will walk on the wild side. 

Those fragrant powder puffs of Siris Tree (Albizia lebbeck)

The surprises are not over yet. Away from the path that circumambulates the lake, just next to the copper pilkhan, a siris tree is in full bloom. These past years you have grown to love siris. This year you are discovering that siris blooms twice. First during the summers and then in the rains. The delicate fragrance has turned the surroundings into a pleasure garden. The puff like flowers with white and green stamens glow in the sun. This is a nature’s miracle. Only a few days back the Siris trees were bare with these golden pods hanging from the branches. In a matter of few days, the tree has been transformed into a lively green wonder with this heavenly scent.

One More Time

Shanti Van

You walk under the palash trees once more taking in eyefuls of the voluptuous sight. This is Ephemeral Delhi. These are the last few days before the flowers depart. The multi-hued pilkhans wave back at you; they seem to have changed colours in the last few hours. Jawaharlal Nehru’s samadhi, nestled in undulating green lawns with trees standing sentinels all around, reposes; perfectly still in the peaceful surroundings. You pay a silent homage. Reading his epic ‘Discovery of India’ has helped you discover what a remarkable man he was. The moulmeins continue to drizzle covering the ground with the purple dust. The walkers and yoga practitioners have left. It is warm now. The parking lot is empty. The birds’ chirping is muffled. A perfectly green pilkhan glows in the sun. A lone bright yellow Caribbean Trumpet blooms. Summer is here. Another season has arrived. Something goes empty inside. These are Summer Blues. Life goes on. It is time to head back home.   

Last dance with Mary Jane, one more time to kill the pain
I feel summer creepin' in and I'm tired of this town again
I'm tired of screwin' up, tired of going down
Tired of myself, tired of this town
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

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