Friday, 28 August 2015

Walking in the Konkan Rains – Monsoon Mania in Ratnagiri

Konkan knows how to do monsoons. Living in North, you have forgotten the magic of rains. So before you forget what monsoons are all about and before Konkan too forgets what monsoons are all about with the climate changes and all, it is time you went and saw and experienced the monsoons yourself. The trip will have only one objective - enjoy the rains up, close and personal. It is going to be a week of only greenery and flowers and water flowing on the streets, water in puddles, water dancing down from the skies, water gurgling in rivulets, water raining on the sea and water crashing down from the hills.

The Beautiful Snake Gourd Flower (Trichosanches Cucumarina)

You pick Ratnagiri for your first walk in the rains and boy is it magical! Overcast sky greets you on your first day in Ratnagiri. You cannot help smiling. Heritage and other attractions in Ratnagiri are simply going to be incidental. Everything is perfect- or is it?

Allamanda Blanchetii or Purple Allamanda Flower that belongs to Apocynaceae or Oleander family

Tridax Procumbence - a weed

Mimosa Pudica - lovingly called chui mui as the leaves fold when touched

And the rain gods oblige. It is the kind of rain you remember from the days Delhi used to have monsoons. There is a slight breeze that seems to choreograph the rain into that languorous dance that kind of makes you want to sit on a park bench and lose yourself in the performance. After every performance, the rain pauses as if to catch its breath. The pause never lasts too long. And soon enough the dark clouds roll in. The choreographer up there treats you to another exhilarating performance. This pattern repeats itself every hour you are in Konkan. Today as you walk in the general direction towards the Thibaw Palace, the destination is not important. You want to feel the present. It is the delights by the road that interest you.

I could have never imagined the walls, the roofs and even tree trunks completely overgrown with green; there is moss, there are creepers, there are ferns, and there are some more ferns with beautiful coloured veins on them and then there are these flowers with dew dripping, these are flowers that I swear I have never seen before, and all these gold blessed sights leave me feeling lost in this Konkan wonderland and just to be sure I keep checking over my shoulder; yes this is a just a regular road with vehicles and with houses and with students with backpacks smiling and playing hookey with their giggling partners, and there is even garbage here even as the fern leaves try to camouflage it; so ok yes that clinches it, this is a regular road in India and I am here, and I have no idea how this happened that I am here in this heavenly place but I am sure some cosmic miracle took place in the universe and there was this flash of lights, lights that could give me a seizure just looking at them and then there is a clap of thunder and I am here in this gold blessed place

as I balance the umbrella with one hand, and with the other hand I try to put the viewfinder to the eye but the humidity is fogging up my glasses so I try to push up the glasses to the forehead where the cap visor wont let them stay put so I push the cap up and again push the glasses up and again bring the viewfinder to my eyes and try to click but the goddern shutter would not click and I am seized with this panic and invoke God that this could not be happening to me, God how could you do this to me, come on for godsake I am in Konkan after this cosmic miracle and the dern camera wont click and you know god I am not the kind of person who does not care about photos and says it is the memories that I carry home that count, to me it is the photos that I carry back that

help me carry the memories back when my synapses fail to complete the circuit with my memory centre in the brain it is the photos that take me back and help me knit a story and so for a moment I forget the rains, the ferns and the flowers and the love crossed kids who seem to be smirking at me now as I look at the camera as if it is a goddern piece of wood block I just picked up from the side of the road and then I punch the buttons and scroll through the menu and change modes and then that cosmic thing comes back to help one last time and the goddern synapses connect and I remember a friend showing me the manual setting on the lens and I toggle it to M and try to move the little lens appendage and I seem to hear the tiny focus sound, oh god that godblessed sound sounds so sweet so now I hold the umbrella stalk between the shoulder and neck and push the cap up and push the glasses up even as I adjust the lens with one hand and with the other hand press the shutter and this time it clicks and the photo is not looking bad either and I again seem to notice the rain tapping on the umbrella, the ferns with coloured veins, the houses, the towers of local Doordarshan and AIR and  the rain and the flowers are again looking beautiful and I say a quite thanks to the friend who showed me to shoot in the manual mode and who by another miracle has just saved my trip that probably happened because of a gold blessed cosmic miracle when lights flashed and skies thundered.

Stairway to Heaven
Opposite the Thibaw Palace stairs go down to the fishing village below at the foot of the cliff by the sea. The steps covered with moss seem to lead straight to heaven.

View of Kajali River and Kajali Mangroves, Ratnagiri

Residences of bureaucrats overlooking the bay of Ratnagiri
On the way to Jijamata Garden the views of the bay are priceless. Mangroves grow thick here seemingly creating islands of water in the greenery. The houses of the district bureaucrats occupy the prime estate on the hill abutting the sea just beyond.

View of Fishing Village in the Kajali River. Bridge leading to Bhatye Beach can be seen in the distance - Ratnagiri

Jijamata Garden under beautiful looking rain bearing clouds

Spot the Butterfly!

No, we are not going anywhere; we want to stay in Ratnagiri

Jijamata Garden is ticketed with the standard tiled fountains that don’t seem to work anymore. But the views of the sea and the flowers and butterflies more than make up for it. There are some children rides here which might start whirring around in the evenings.

Even a cactus can’t resist from flowering in this weather

Yes such houses do exist!

Just looking at these dream like houses you could settle down in Ratnagiri - unimaginable but yes these houses are in middle of the town.

Trip to Ratnagiri is incomplete without riding in the colourful auto rickshaws

I mean I have seen some gold blessed things in my travels but then sometimes even things like auto rickshaws make me wonder if this was all planned in the big scheme of things or one day somebody decides to put these beautiful, I mean really beautiful, curtains in the autos and then the entire fraternity of autos picks it up and here we have all autos in Ratnagiri wearing these wonderful saffron curtains and while it rains outside, the nice driver puts these covers on either doors and spreads these curtains and now as we go rocking these curtains throw such beautiful shadows inside and I feel as if I am in a palace in Jaisalmer or something but it is not this green outside in Jaisalmer or rains so much there but I just want to forget the world outside and want to lie inside even as it rains more and

even if  I want to go see Thibaw Palace but right now I am wondering when was the last time that dern curtains made me so happy and then I wonder is this because of these happy curtains that Ratnagiri has such friendly auto rickshaw drivers, because an auto driver just drove me from Ratnadurg, where he had come to pray to Shree Bhagwati Devi, into the city and did not charge me and which leads me to think if I could talk to the auto association in Delhi and distribute these curtains to auto drivers here so that passengers and the driver themselves could feel happy when they go rocking on Delhi streets but all this thinking is making me miss the present and I am like to hell with the auto drivers in Delhi, let me just soak in this experience for even I am not sure if God intended only the Ratnagiri autos to be this happy so I will assume its one-off phenomenon and that I will have my fill of this godblessed interior even if god does not mean me to sit in another happy auto like this all my life and as I go puddling on the streets I am as happy as all the auto drivers in Ratnagiri with those beautiful curtains.

And this is just couple of hours of rainwalking in the middle of a city in Konkan. In the next few days, rains of Konkan weave magic around you and cast a sweet & wet spell. The rain sings to you all day long, the rain lulls you to sleep, you wake up smiling listening to the falling drops. Meals have never been this leisurely as you sit by the window looking out to the rain outside. You cannot have enough of the heaven's bounty from the skies. You experience it all - rain on the beach, rain on the fort ramparts, rain as you go discovering churches, rain as the train clatters through glistening forests and green fields and misty hills and rain as you sit in the auto rickshaws with these beautiful curtains. Konkan you are beautiful - let this magic continue for ever. And, yes, let it rain!  

Post Inspired by Hirsch who went cycling around India in 2009. He wrote dern delightful accounts of his gold blessed adventures at 

Hirsch bro, wherever you are, hope it’s a special place with lots of marshmallows, ladybugs and dewy flowers

Getting There: Ratnagiri lies on the south west coast of Maharashtra on the Mumbai-Goa highway and is well connected by trains from Mumbai. Ratnagiri is about about 350 kms from Mumbai and 300 kms from Pune. In Ratnagiri you can hire auto rickshaws to take you around the town and to the fort. The Jijamata Garden will offer you spectacular views of Arabian Sea and Bhatye Beach. Other attractions are the Ratnadurg with its Lighthouse and Thibaw Palace, now turned into a museum.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Lokmanya Tilak Birthplace – Monsoons are raining surprises in Ratnagiri

The Tilak-Thibaw Connect

Along with walking the streets of Ratnagiri in the rains, sometimes you take rides in the friendly auto rickshaws here. And one of these short auto rickshaw trips brings you to another Ratnagiri surprise.

And this surprise blows you out of the monsoon waters!

Lokmanya Gangadhar Birthplace in Ratnagiri

Ratnagiri is hometown of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar (1856 – 1920) Tilak. Tilak was one of the first assertive nationalist leaders of Indian Independence Movement who coined the slogan “Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it.” Lokmanya’s house where he was born has now been turned into a good looking museum. For a change there are signs, personnel and the complex looks well maintained and pleasing.

Display depicting the freedom struggle - at Tilak Museum Ratnagiri

The architecture is traditional Konkani with sloping roofs and wooden elements and open spaces all around.

Entrance to the Museum

Inside you can see some of Tilak’s belongings along with his signature turban. Photos and newspaper clippings give an insight into his contribution to the freedom struggle. You walk around the small and pretty looking house where the kitchen is and where the family lived and the open verandahs in the front and rear and this wood stairway going up to the floor above. 

Now this house unlike the Thibaw Palace has a nice vibe to it. The little house is cheerful and you can actually imagine sun streaming through the windows even as it rains outside. This house feels like home; your own little refuge in this indifferent world. Who says houses are inert walls and ceilings? Homes, houses or palaces are living beings that watch and feel. They mirror the feelings of people who inhabit them - when the inhabitants are happy they are happy and when they see suffering they suffer themselves. And while the happy and suffering people are long gone to someplace special, the walls and the mantle and the window continue to smile and cry, telling their stories who have seen it all.

The British had named Tilak as the ‘Father of the Indian Unrest’ because of his propensity to write inflammatory articles in newspapers founded by him – ‘Mahratta’ in English and ‘Kesari’ in Marathi. In another instance, Tilak in his paper Kesari, defended the revolutionaries Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki who attempted to kill the Chief Presidency Magistrate of Calcutta and called for immediate self-rule or swaraj.

Rear View

British patience was running low and Tilak was arrested for sedition. In the ensuing trial, Tilak was convicted by a jury and sentenced to a jail term of six years (1908 - 1914) and sent to – hold your breath – to Mandalay! Same Mandalay capital of Burma from where the King of Burma was exiled to Ratnagiri, birth place of Tilak! And in overlapping time frames!

Mahratta announcing Tilak's return to to India - Teen Murti Museum, New Delhi

Tilak spent six years imprisoned in Mandalay in the company of a fellow Marathi gentleman named Kulkarni who would cook for him. It was here that Tilak composed his famous commentary on Gita called Gitarahasya (Mystery of Gita).

The British after plundering the Mandalay Palace had converted it into a garrison called Fort Dufferin. Was Tilak imprisoned here in the palace – this is something that can be looked into?

The British really had some wicked sense of humour.

Harshringar Flowers paying homage to Lokmanya Tilak - Mimosa

Still recovering from the Mandalay surprise you walk to the rear of the house where an endearing garden is laid out. Coconut trees create a canopy. It is calm and soothing and surreal here. You spend some time soaking it up all.

Thibaw and Tilak - two different lives intertwining inexplicably and unexpectedly in Ratnagiri and Mandalay. This is what makes history so powerful and interesting.

Surprises are coming in fast here in Ratnagiri. It is time to go visit Ratnadurg and the lighthouse.

Yet Another Surprise - Four Bharat Ratna (India's highest Civilian Award) awardees were born in Ratnagiri: Dr Dondo Keshave Karve or Maharishi Karve - social reformer; Dr Pandurang Vaman Kane - Indologist and Sanskrit Scholar; Acharya Vinoba Bhave - known for Bhoodan Movement; Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar- principal architect of India's Constitution. Two other Bharat Ratnas Sachin Tendulkar and Govind Ballabh Pant have their ancestral roots in Ratnagiri.

Getting There: Ratnagiri lies on the south west coast of Maharashtra on the Mumbai-Goa highway and is well connected by trains from Mumbai. Ratnagiri is about about 350 kms from Mumbai and 300 kms from Pune. In Ratnagiri you can hire auto rickshaws to take you around the town and to the fort. The Jijamata Garden will offer you spectacular views of Arabian Sea and Bhatye Beach. Other attractions are the Ratnadurg with its Lighthouse and ThibawPalace, now turned into a museum. Take the bus to Ganpatipule Beach to see mist envelope the hills and sun create scintillating light effects on the water.

Photography is not allowed inside the house.


Related links on this blog

Pathos of Thibaw Palace – Monsoon Melancholy in Ratnagiri

Blighty British cannot be accused of being unfair. So what if they exiled the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Burma after finding him guilty in the aftermath of the First War of Independence of 1857.

To even things out, the British annexed Burma, forced the king to abdicate and duly dispatched the Burmese King into exile to Ratnagiri in 1885, a small coastal town in Konkan region of Maharashtra. They take away our Emperor and give us a King! India over the ages had people come in from Greece, Persia, Turkey and Central Asia. Only Burma was missing. You did say the blighty were quite fair!

A version of the story appears in Sakal Times published from Pune on 16th July 2016

Ratnagiri, Rains and Ruins
The Thibaw Palace in Ratnagiri

Thibaw or Thibaw Min (1859 – 1916) was the last king of Konbaung Dynasty of Myanmar or Burma. Honouring the timeless de rigueur, all other claimants to the throne were massacred and King Thibaw at the age of nineteen ascended the throne at Mandalay in 1878 with his scheming Queen Supayalat. The massacre, probably masterminded by Supayalat, was a minor matter where around eighty to hundred royal family members were killed. The British without appreciating Queen Supayalat’s endeavours had other ideas.

King Thibaw - Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

King Thibaw with Queen Supalayat and her sister - Photo Courtesy Wikipedia
The Konbaung dynasty that ruled from 1752 had created the second largest empire in Burmese history which included Assam and Manipur. The royals were treated as demi-gods in the kingdom. France was expanding its influence in Indochina. Thibaw probably tried to seek support from the French to recover South Burma from the British. A Burmese delegation was negotiating with the French in Paris. British were already prohibited from entering the palace since they liked to walk in with their footwear. Things were coming to a head. The British already controlling much of Burma annexed the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 thus ending the last of royal dynasties. Burma will not have another king. Thibaw was forced to abdicate the throne. The British could not have afforded to keep Thibaw in the country in the face of this unpopular action. They had to keep the royals away and out of sight. They had already done something similar 27 years ago. Thibaw and the royal family would have to leave the country.

The Royal Family was taken from the Mandalay Palace, put in a steamer on the Irrawaddy river and taken across the Bay of Bengal to Madras where they could at least visualize their home across the waters. But then the blighty cannot be faulted for their wicked humour either. In 1886 the royal family was moved overland to the other end to Ratnagiri – so no more stealing forlorn looks over to Burma. Again to be fair to the blighty, at least the King and his Queen had visual access to the waters of Arabian Sea.

In Ratnagiri, the royal family initially lived in Sir James Outram’s house, possibly the old collector’s house. Also, the king was given a pension of Rs 100,000 which was further reduced to Rs. 50000. At the time of his death, the pension was just Rs. 25000. In 1910, the British granted permission for a palace which took two years to build and cost about Rs 1.25 lacs.

This is how we do monsoons in Konkan - do you see the wall?!

On a beautiful rainy day, when vegetation seems to have erupted on the ground, on the walls and the roofs, you make your way to the Palace even as rain comes down in delightful torrents. You are loving Konkan - this is the way the monsoons are supposed to be. Living in North you have forgotten the old fashioned rains. The ferns, the flowers, the flowing water is making the progress slow and beautiful. You can’t have enough of the flowers you know you have never seen before. And these are the ones on the side of the road. You can just smack your lips in anticipation as you think of the days ahead when you will make your way south through the Western Ghats.

Gates to Anguish land
Thebaw Palace Ratnagiri

And then you enter the palace grounds. At the end of the driveway, you see the building. The Pagoda style architecture transports you into the exotic and the Orient. Under the darkened skies with rain coming down in gentle swirls you feel a tinge of melancholy. The air seems to be heavy with gloom. So far, walking Ratnagiri’s streets in the rain had made you feel alive and ecstatic. Here on the palace grounds the same clouds seem to be raining sadness.

The twenty three acres of palace grounds sit high on a hill overlooking the sea, the fishing village and the Bhatye Beach down below. The two storeyed palace built with red laterite stone and teak in Pagoda style would have been a handsome and elegant edifice in its heydays. But worn down by the longing and despondency of its condemned inhabitants, even the building seems to huddle down. On a cloud darkened morning, it seems to mirror the mood of the queen sitting in her room with curtains drawn.

The Glass Palace at Mandalay - Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

Looking at the photos of the royal palace in Burma's capital Mandalay, this building is a seriously scaled down version in both size and grandeur. Maybe the British thought spending piddly amount of money is fair after looting the Mandalay Palace and grabbing all the gems and rubies and shipping them to London and getting a new colony under Union Jack. At least they got the setting right - Thibaw Palace is also built on a hill and instead of moats and river, we have sea for company in Ratnagiri.

The setting of the palace could not have been more idyllic - away from the town, on a hilltop, with gardens all around and just beyond the Arabian Sea stretching out in lungfuls of greenery. All this could not alleviate the pain and sadness of being driven away from your own home to a foreign land. From a riches-full life of demi-gods, to a life of humiliation; to being unrecognised and marooned with no outside contact with the world does things to your well-being and mind. And that despondency permeates through the air, seeps through the broken walls and weighs heavily on the visitor.

The Royal Family spent their 31 years of exile in complete social isolation. The Queen fell into depression. The King regularly wrote to the Viceroy to get his kingdom back and for raising his pension. The British did not oblige. Later he just wanted to participate in the Delhi Durbar of 1903 like other princes of India. No luck again: the plea was rejected.

The Afflicted Queen Supayalat lies inside with window closed and curtains drawn

So while Bahadur Shah Zafar was old and lived for four years in exile pining for Delhi, the young King aged 27, spent the next 31 years languishing in exile longing for homeland before dying in 1916. These long years were full of anguish and despondency. What happened to the princesses was even more tragic.

The despondency is everywhere

The first and the oldest princess named Hteiksu Myat Phayagyi married Gopal Sawant, a palace gatekeeper, who was already married. They had a daughter and the princess rejoined Gopal in Ratnagiri when the royal family had left long after the king’s death. Gopal installed the princess and the daughter in a separate home. The princess died a destitute and the people had to collect money for her funeral. The daughter named Tutu also married a local mechanic named Shankar. The king’s granddaughter lived a commoner’s life raising a brood of children. In 1999, at the age of 93, Tutu, who made a living selling paper flowers and selling cow-dung patties for fuel was evicted from her land and had her house demolished. Tutu died a few months later.

The second princess married a Burmese courtier in the palace and eloped with him to settle in Kalimpong. The King who could not take this, suffered a heart attack and died. The third princess, who was born in Madras and was also called Madras Supaya, returned to Burma with the Queen. The youngest and the most qualified princess also returned to continue her family's fight with the British.

Today the palace is in a state of disrepair. Maharashtra ASI has a museum in the back. On a Monday, you find the museum closed. The department is making some half hearted attempts to repair the structure. Seeing the skills and methods being used your pain goes up a notch to realise that the monument does not stand much chance. The forts and other heritage across Maharashtra are witness that it’s pure bad luck to have Maharashtra ASI as your protector.

In the rear you walk through the forlorn verandahs. It seems there are two distinct blocks - one in the front and the second in the rear connected with colonnades. The rear section houses the museum. Peeping through broken windows you see ruined rooms. You are beginning to get despondent yourself. You come out in the front porch. Now you really wished the rain would stop and the sun came out to spread some cheer on this godforsaken place.  

Melancholia Unlimited

Would you have felt the same sadness had you walked in without knowing the history? Probably yes. There is something poignant and deeply sad about the palace. It is as if the walls have imbued the melancholy of the hapless family and now echo the anguish across the grounds. The air still bears the grief and loneliness of the King and the Queen and their four daughters. Not all palaces have fairy tale lives and endings.

Getting There: Ratnagiri lies on the south west coast of Maharashtra on the Mumbai-Goa highway and is well connected by trains from Mumbai. Ratnagiri is about about 350 kms from Mumbai and 300 kms from Pune. In Ratnagiri you can hire auto rickshaws to take you around the town and to the fort. The Jijamata Garden will offer you spectacular views of Arabian Sea and Bhatye Beach. Other attractions are the Ratnadurg with its Lighthouse and Lokmanya Tilak’s birthplace, now turned into a museum. Take the bus to Ganpatipule Beach to see mist envelope the hills and sun create scintillating light effects on the water.

The Glass Palace, a Novel by Amitav Ghosh
The King in Exile – The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma, by Sudha Shah

Related Posts on this Blog
Lokmanya Tilak Birthplace
Monsoon Magic in Ratnagiri

A version of the story appears in Sakal Times published from Pune on 16th July 2016

Ratnagiri, Rains and Ruins