Thursday, 17 December 2009

The garden

The entry to our room at the Old Harbour Hotel, at Fort Kochi was through a nice courtyard. The room also opened out on to a lovely garden. What was even nicer, from my point of view, was the fact that one of the windows in the room overlooked this garden, and that there was a writing table placed right up against this window.

It is not often that I get a chance to do a location sketch sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned room, and I did not let this one pass.

We spent the better part of two days at Fort Kochi using the hotel as our base and exploring on foot both Mattanchery and Fort Kochi. Every time we got back to the hotel my wife would put up her feet for a while, and I would rush to the writing table and add a few more lines to my sketch.

Though done in fits and starts, I was happy that I managed to complete it before checking out of the hotel.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Paradesi Synagogue

One of the nice things about Kerala is its long history of religious harmony. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, as well as people of other faiths have lived together, and continue to do so, as very friendly neighbours.

The earliest synagogue built in Kochi was destroyed around 1500, not by the locals, but by the Portuguese. Subsequently in 1568 under the protection of the Hindu king Raja Ravi Varma, and the Dutch, a new synagogue was built on land gifted to the jewish community by him. This piece of land was right next to the king's Mattanchery Palace. In fact, the synagogue and the Hindu temple attached to the palace share a compound wall.

This synagoue is known by several names. It is called the Paradesi Synagogue, the Cochin Jewish Synagogue, and also as the Mattanchery Synagogue (Mattanchery being the name of a part of Kochi (or Cochin as it was called during the colonial rule of India).

The word "Paradesi" means foreigner in several Indian languages. It was therefore used in the early days to describe this particular synagogue because it was originally used only by the "white" jews. The synagogue is still in use and is closed to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

The synagogue complex consists of 4 structures. My sketch shows the clock tower, which was built in 1760. The synagogue proper is a structure to the left and is barely seen in my sketch. In any case, I have found that most people visualise the clock tower when they try to recall the synagogue.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Old Harbour Hotel, Fort Kochi

From the Kumarakom area my wife and I drove down to Fort Kochi for the next leg of our holiday. I enjoy travelling through Kerala. The landscape is always lush and green, and there is so much to see regardless of which part of Kerala one is in. But this time the drive was not as pleasant as I had hoped it would be. Some major pipe laying project was in progress and the road was in very poor shape for most of the distance.

When I was a teenager, and even into my mid-twenties, I used to visit Fort Kochi at least once or twice a year. Since I used to live only a few miles away across the backwaters, these were day trips. I recall that there were very few hotels in the area and it was difficult in those days to get food to my taste over there. That was not the case a few miles away at Ernakulam. This was about 35 years ago. Since then Fort Kochi has transformed itself into a tourist destination with plenty of hotels and cafes.

We stayed at The Old Harbour Hotel, a small but exquisitely furnished hotel, very close to the waterfront. This building was originally built by the Dutch and used as a warehouse. Later it passed into the hands of the British and was used as a tea auction house and also as a residence. Recently it was bought by an Indian and converted into the present hotel with the help of a Dutch architect. My friend, Mohan Pulimood was involved in the project, and it was he who recommended the hotel to me. I am glad I took his advice.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

One final look at Coconut Lagoon

These days many up-market hotels, and most resorts, offer massage & sauna facilities. Coconut Lagoon too has such a facility, but there is a difference. What this resort has is an ayurveda centre with an attending ayurvedic physician. And the massage that they offer is for its healing value tailored to the needs of each individual. Many guests come here specifically for this treatment which can last for weeks. Of course, you can also go in for just one massage. Even then, the physician checks you out and prescribes the type of massage and what you should do before and after to derive the maximum benefit from the massage.

The ayurveda centre, as you can see in my sketch, is also a beautiful, airy structure. The inside is spotlessly clean, and you have a view of the lagoon from every part of the ayurveda centre, including the massage rooms.

The bathrooms at this resort are quite unusual. They are very tastefully designed with modern fittings, fixtures, & tiling, and they all have running hot and cold water. But, they are all open to the sky.

My sketch shows the type of cottage that we stayed in. The entire inside was panelled in wood, and fitted with traditional Kerala style furniture. The portion where you see the coconut tree emerging is where the bathroom is located.

And, even though the cottage was air-conditioned, the verandah that you see in my sketch is where I spent a lot of my time sitting in a comfortable chair, drinking tea, and sketching the sights around me.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

A Lazy, Refreshing Holiday

My wife and I lazed, and rejuvenated ourselves at Coconut Lagoon for a couple of days. For those who are interested, the resort does offer several activities. But I was primarily interested only in wandering around, taking in the sights, photographing, and sketching and I did a lot of these. My wife's interests were the ayurveda centre, the curio shop, cooking lessons, and music lessons. Of course, we were also well armed with iPods and enough reading material.

I have always been an admirer of the traditional style of timber construction of Kerala, and it was wonderful to see so many examples of this form of construction, so well preserved, and in such a nice setting.

The cottage that we stayed in had a very comfortable, shaded verandah. I was therefore able to sit and do a detailed sketch of the view outside - a luxury rarely available in a hot, humid, dusty, and crowded land like ours.

During our stay at Coconut Lagoon we discovered that the resort was also hosting a national painting workshop. This was a two week workshop attended by artists from all over India. We were able to go to the venue and watch the artists at work. Most of them were working in acrylic and were quite willing to talk to us about their paintings and the techniques they used.

We also found that Coconut Lagoon had set aside 5 acres for farming. Two crops are raised on these 5 acres - fish and paddy. That's right. For about 6 months of the year the land that has been set aside for farming stays under water and is used to breed fish. At the end of the 6 months, the fish crop is harvested, water is drained, and rice is planted. We were told that the soil is found to be particularly fertile after it is used as a fish farm and that the rice crop is therefore exceptionally good.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Coconut Lagoon, the eco-resort

After a blissful 24 hour stay aboard a houseboat we were dropped off at Coconut Lagoon, a beautiful eco-resort near Kumarakom. This resort is just a few miles outside Kottayam, but can be reached only by boat. Normally the guests are picked up from one of two jetties (piers) and brought by boat right up to the hotel's reception block. But, since our houseboat was too large for the channel leading into the hotel we had to alight a short distance away.

We were received with sandal paste and flowers by a young & pretty lady dressed in traditional Kerala style. She was accompanied by a musician playing a welcome tune on a flute. We discovered later that the musician, when not engaged in receiving guests, was on hand to give the guests free lessons on how to play some of the instruments.

The buildings in Coconut Lagoon are all over a century old, and some even date back to the 18th century. They have all been dismantled from their original locations from all over Kerala and painstakingly reassembled at this resort.

The reception block for example, is a "nalukettu" design with a central four-cornered open courtyard. It was originally built in 1860 and located at a place called Vaikom. It was purchased by Coconut Lagoon in 1993 and was re-assembled at its current location with the help of a master craftsman.

The dining block is a larger and more imposing structure. It is an "ettukattu" design, and has two courtyards. This is the oldest building on the site.

Most of the buildings at Coconut Lagoon are representative of several types of traditional Kerala architecture and have all been reassembled conforming to the "thachu shastra" style of carpentry. All these buildings are very tastefully located amidst coconut groves and a network of irrigation canals.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The houseboat experience

Our houseboat had two air-conditioned, bath attached cabins for the guests, and a covered viewing deck equipped with comfortable lounge chairs, a dining table & chairs, a flat tv, and a ceiling fan. In addition to this was the kitchen and crew area. The crew consisted of three persons - two to take turns at the helm and the cook. They were efficient, courteous, and very eager to ensure that we enjoyed our stay.

 The entire houseboat experience was extremely enjoyable. I am now convinced that travelling for pleasure should be done only at such a sedate pace. It was extremely relaxing to sit on the deck and watch the beautiful countryside slide by.

 We were told that the tourist traffic this year was poor on account of the global recession. It did not seem that way to us. The waterways had plenty of houseboat traffic as the photographs that I am posting will confirm. Of course, in addition to the houseboats, these waterways see a lot of everyday activity just like any busy street in a city.

 While going down the canals of Kuttanad I was amazed to learn that the waterways in this region are actually several feet above the level of the adjoining land. The water is saline for several months, and is suitable for cultivation after the monsoons. Paddy is cultivated in these fields when the water loses its salinity.

 If you would like to , you can read more about it here.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Surprise....a holiday over water

Kottayam is located on the edge of the Vembanad lake, a large waterbody which connects with the Arabian Sea and is therefore in some ways a backwater. The South Indian state of Kerala has many such waterbodies, most of them connected to one another. There are also very many manmade canals. All these are used extensively to transport people and goods.

After resting at the club for a few hours we got ourselves dropped at a boat jetty. My wife was relieved to learn that we would not be holidaying at the club, and quite excited that we would be travelling over water to our holiday destination (wherever that was :-)).

On the way to the jetty we saw that while many of the houses that have direct access to the water have their own private piers and boats or canoes, some of the ones that were not located next to the waterbody had cut canals and brought the water right up to their doorsteps.
My wife expected that we would be catching a ferry or some such means of transport. Imagine her surprise when she saw a houseboat pulling up at the jetty. I had arranged for us to spend the first 24 hours of our actual holiday on this houseboat.

Until the early 90s these boats or barges were used primarily for transportation, and that too mainly to move goods. They were powered by wind (sails) and manpower (oars or poles). About 15 to 20 years ago Kerala realised that it had tremendous potential as a tourist destination and that is when a large number of hotels and holiday resorts sprang up. Somebody came up with the very enterprising idea of converting these barges into houseboats and the idea has really caught on since then.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The first leg of our Kerala holiday

I took my wife on a surprise holiday. The surprise element was the destination. I had to check with her as to whether she could take a break from her work, and for how long. She was able to, and she agreed to leave the entire planning of the holiday, including the destination entirely to me.

The first leg of our holiday trip was by train. We took an overnight train to Kottayam where a friend had booked a guest room in one of the local clubs. Although quite disappointed with my choice of a holiday destination, my wife put on a brave and cheerful face. We freshened up, had breakfast and while my wife listened to some music on her iPod, I went out and made a couple of quick sketches of our first stop.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Lookout post - Senji

This is one of several lookout posts located at various strategic points all over Senji. Most of them have the same character. I found these rock formations fascinating, and the way the man made construction seems to grow out of these rocks is just beautiful.

The one that I have sketched is within the outer walls of Rajagiri, but at the foot of the hill on which the citadel is perched. While my wife and daughter went enthusiastically up the 800 feet climb to the main fort, I found myself a comfortable seat in the shade and completed this graphite sketch.

While I was sketching, I found my thoughts going out to the courageous soldiers who must have manned these lonely outer lookout posts during periods of strife. The citizens and the soldiers in the main fort were relatively safe even during such times, since the main Senji fort, Rajagiri, was considered almost impregnable. But that did not apply to these isolated sentry points.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Sketching holiday - Senji

My wife, daughter, and I are all very keen art enthusiasts. A few years ago we decied that we would try and take a break once in a while to go on a sketching holiday together. The first of these was to Senji. We drove there on a Friday morning and returned to Chennai on Sunday afternoon. The drive was very pleasant. Senji does not have many hotels, but our stay was reasonably comfortable.

Since Senji has three main segments we decided to spend half a day on each segment, and use Sunday to revisit whatever caught our fancy. However, there was so much to see in and around Senji that we soon realised that one weekend was just not enough.

In any case the holiday was a resounding success. We had all enjoyed ourselves immensely and since then, apart from our periodic sketching holidays together, we have also started sketching outdoors whenever the opportunity presents itself.

My sketch shows my daughter busy sketching near the approach to Krishnagiri. I did this on location as a charcoal sketch, and then did a cleaner version in pen and ink. This is the ink version.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

View from Krishnagiri

Senji (or Gingee, as it was known during the British rule) is located about 160 km south of Chennai. It has one of the few surviving forts in Tamilnadu. Originally the site of a 9th century Chola fort, it was intensively modified and further fortified in the 13th century by the Hindu rulers of the Vijayanagar empire. Between then and the mid-18th century it passed through the hands of the Nayaks, the Muslim rulers of Bijapur, the Marathas, The Mughals, the Carnatic Nawabs, and the French.

Senji was so well fortified that Shivaji considered it the most impregnable fortress in India. The British called it the Troy of the East. And, Aurangazeb had to lay siege to the place for 7 years to capture it.

The Senji Fort complex consists of three hills connected by a continuous wall enclosing an area of around 7 sq. km. The entire complex is known as Senji Fort, but each of the three hills has its own self-contained fort. The three hills (and forts) are called Rajagiri, Krishnagiri, and Chandragiri. Rajagiri is the tallest and most formidable. It is about 880 feet high.

My graphite sketch shows the view on a hazy morning from midway up the ascent to Krishnagiri. I sketched it on site and would have probably completed it entirely that morning itself. However, a troop of monkeys seemed to be fascinated by what I was doing and when their inquisitiveness proved to be too much of a hindrance, I closed up shop and completed the sketch at home.

Friday, 10 July 2009


Recently I visited Nashik to attend a wedding. Nashik is one of the more important cities in Maharashtra, a state on the West coast of India. After Mumbai and Pune (formerly known as Bombay and Poona), Nashik is the third most industrialised city in the state. It is also the vineyard of India and enjoys a very pleasant year-round climate, something that cannot be said about too many places in India. It is located about 180 km from Mumbai and is connected by an excellent road.

Nashik is also a very old human settlement and is associated with many of the events narrated in the Ramayana. It has many old and important Hindu temples, and one of these hosts an extremely well attended congregation of devotees, priests and sadhus once in every twelve years.

The Ramayana is one of the two major Hindu epics. It relates the story and adventures of Prince Rama who spends 14 years in exile along with his wife and brother to uphold a carelessly given promise by his father. Most Hindus believe that the Ramayana is based on fact . Many also believe that a major part of Rama's exile was spent at Nashik. In fact there is a place, not far from the river, called Sita Gupha or Sita Cave which is where Rama, his wife Sita, and Rama's brother Lakshmana are believed to have lived. This stretch of the river is also considered holy and there are several temples along its banks.

My sketch shows the narrow street, lined with very old buildings, through which one walks from the river to Sita Gupha. The ladies in the sketch are my wife and my colleague. When I showed them this sketch each instantly identified the other, but not themselves.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

TOMCO, Ernakulam

TOMCO, Ernakulam
What you see in this sketch was once a prosperous soap factory in Kerala, a very picturesque state on the south-west coast of India. My father worked here for many years.
When I was very young, which was more than half a century ago, we lived right next door to this place. A huge amount of my time was spent watching the workers enter and leave the factory. Very few people owned cars then. Most of them either walked, cycled, or rowed to work. Yes, Kerala is ridden with canals and backwaters, and even today the waterways are in popular use.
The long tiled shed to the right of the factory entrance was the cycle shed. The factory and staff housing was flanked by the backwaters on two of its sides, and these had several jetties (piers). The employees who rowed to work would leave their canoes tied to one of the jetties and pick them up again at the end of their work shift.
By the standards of those days, there were excellent support and recreational facilities for both the workers and the residents. My memories of the place and those years are therefore very pleasant.
Unfortunately, this tiny bit of paradise did not survive into the twenty-first century. A few years ago the entire property was sold to a multinational giant who seem to have bought it only for its real estate value. When I last heard, the factory was idle, the staff quarters were lying vacant, and the entire property wore the look of a ghost town.