Friday, January 25, 2013

Auspicious beginnings for the Year of the Snake

A dragon-heart mandarin is considered a doubly auspicious plant as its name combines dragon, a symbol for power, strength and good luck, and mandarin, which is a symbol for riches and good fortune. I couldn't resist it, so now it is bearing both flowers and fruit at the same time on my balcony. We'll see if any good luck and fortunes will follow!
On Sunday, February 10th 2013, Chinese people all over the world will say goodbye to the Dragon and welcome the New Year of the Snake, one of the twelve animals inhabiting the Chinese zodiac. While in Western Culture the snake often represents betrayal and evil, in Chinese culture it quite surprisingly is a symbol of wisdom and kindness. According to an old Chinese saying "A snake in the house means the family will never starve" - so the snake is seen as a good omen instead of a horrible pest (maybe it scared the rats away - who knows?). The shedding of snake's skin denotes renewal and rebirth in life, and it is believed that those coming in contact with a person born in the snake year will gain greater vitality and energy. In mythology, the snake represents healing and renewal, so the Year of the Snake is a good time for inward reflection and transformation through release of past blockages.

Small paper packets like these are used to give money as a New Year's gifts to children. In art, still lifes and other arrangements, mandarins and oranges add the meaning of "speedily"; I was told (I can't read or speak any type of Chinese) that with the characters of "luck" (left) and "good fortune, happiness" (right), mandarins add the meaning of "speedily". Mandarins of course, are themselves a symbol for riches and good fortune, and the left packet has even small gold ingots symbolizing wealth scattered around the mandarin fruit. Layers upon layers of meanings to be read, even in the most simple objects as these. 
The New Year is the most important traditional holiday for the Chinese all over the world, and and so for the large majority of Singaporeans who are of Chinese origins. Most families try celebrate the holidays together, often travelling long distances in order to do so. Countless traditions and customs are connected to this celebration: special foods are prepared for the different times and days of the holiday and houses are cleansed and the floors swept to drive away any lingering ill luck and to make way for good fortune. New clothes are worn to ensure a clean, new start for the year, presents are bought and given to ensure prosperous new beginnings, and firecrackers are fired to scare off the evil spirits. 

Chinese lucky charms are no just decorative... The charm in the left has a tiny glass "cabbage" in Chinese is a homophone to cash and money, and therefore symbolizes wealth. An old-fashioned coin above it adds to the auspiciousness. The second charm has a green and a golden mandarin with a gold ingot above them - both are symbols for riches, wealth and good fortune. The charm in the right has a gourd, which represents the power of healing or protection against disease. And the cloud pattern of the fabric under them is one of the oldest decorative motifs in Chinese art; clouds represent the heaven and the word cloud is homophone "good fortune" (are you getting exhausted by now...?)
Decorations for the Chinese New Year are important part of the celebration, and loaded with auspicious omens and symbols to entice the gods and to bring good luck, health and prosperity. Many of them have been chosen as their names are homophones for something desirable, like one of the most common, the mandarin. The Chinese character for mandarin consists of two components that mean "plant or tree", and "auspicious, lucky", so the mandarin is considered as an "auspicious plant" (the Western convention is to translate this to orange, but the plant the character really refers to is botanically a mandarin type of orange). And as if this would not be enough, both its golden color and round form are also considered propitious, and serve as symbols for riches and good fortune. I'm not a very superstitious person, but I went and bought three dragon-heart mandarin plants (including the one in the first picture), so there's should be no end to the auspiciousness in our lives in the coming year. May the Year of the Snake bring prosperity, luck and health to you all.

The local nursery has gone wild with all things orange... expensive arrangements with mandarins fill the ground; to the left, high mandarin plants have been trimmed into eight separate tiers (eight is a lucky number for the Chinese). The plants are decorated with red bows (color red is a symbol of joy and protects against evil), and with symbols for good fortune (fu is the Chinese character) and surplus (the fish, as in having enough to eat with leftovers). The paper pineapple lanterns are symbols for prosperity, and all shops have several of them hanging from the ceilings this time of the year to secure good profit in the coming year. Below, a sea of small mandarin plants - oh, the agony of choosing only one...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Longing for Mumtaz

The picture above is probably my favorite among the many that I took of Taj Mahal in Agra.

Hopeless romantic as I am, I've always found the love story behind the Taj touching. As you probably know, Mumtaz Mahal was the wife of Shah Jahan, the fifth Emperor of the Mughal Empire in India in the first part of the 17th century. She died while giving birth to their fourteenth child, but still managed to inspire her husband to build this shining mausoleum for her memory, filled with intricate stonework in white marble and precious stones depicting delicate flowers. In my eyes, it has always looked more suited for a young princess or empress, instead a a mother of fourteen (the whiteness, the flowers - somehow I connect them with a young bride more than middle-aged married wife...) - she must truly have been loved by him. The sad part of the story is that one of those children, a son who became Emperor Auranzeb, took power in 1658 and locked Shah Jahan into the Red Fort for the last eight years of his life.

I took these pictures from the balcony at the Red Fort in Agra (above) from where Shah Jahan was contained. This was the place he could sit and and look at Taj Mahal, his shimmering monument over Mumtaz and their mutual love and devotion, which he wasn't even allowed to visit. I do wonder what he thought of here in his sad containment, so close and still so far away, while grieving and longing for his favorite wife.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Buried in Paradise: Humayun's Tomb in Delhi

Huge, old sacred figs form a calm, shady oasis at an intersection of the huge grid of walkways and water channels in the garden around Humayun's Tomb.
Entering the paradise gardens surrounding the second Mughal Emperor Humayun's tomb in Delhi is like life in India crystallized. From the trash-filled misery of the begging poor lining the streets of Delhi, you walk through a shady enclosure lined with glossy sacred ashoka trees (Saraca indica) and step via a towering gate into the light, to the 'abodes' of a few chosen who continue to inhabit an earthly paradise even long after their deaths. Contrasts and more contrasts everywhere.
The towering entrance gate, as seen from outside the walled garden, and from the platform of the huge tomb. In Farsi, the walled garden is called "pairi daeza", which evolved into "paradise" in English and to many related words in other European languages.

While Sikandar Lodi's Tomb from early 16th century (see earlier post) was the first walled garden tomb in the Indian subcontinent, Humayun's Tomb was the example for later Mughal rulers to follow. Commissioned by Emperor Humayun's devoted wife Hamida Banu Begam in 1562, it took eight years to complete. The design was so successful that when the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, lost his beloved wife Empress Mumtaz Mahal, he used Humayuan's Tomb as a basis for his design of Taj Mahal, that was to be the crowning glory of huge Mughal mausoleums in India. I find the symmetry here rather lovely: one built by a loving, favorite wife to her husband, the other by a devoted husband to his favorite wife...

View from the gate, and then from the square fountain midway to the tomb. Even without the surrounding four minarets, it is easy to see that Taj Mahal was inspired by Humayun's magnificent mausoleum. Despite being an UNESCO World Heritage site, there were relatively few visitors at the gardens and mausoleum, a complete opposite to the huge crowds by the Taj Mahal.

Built in red sandstone and marble on the bank of river of Yamuna that has since changed its course, this large tomb in its 26-acre garden is surrounded from three sides by high walls (originally, the river formed the "wall" on the fourth side). The tomb forms the centre of this charbagh (or chahar bagh) garden that is divided into four quadrants by four wide pathways. Narrower pathways, with water channels representing the Quranic paradise, further divide each quadrant into grids of eight squares, the ninth being occupied with the enormous tomb on its platform. The central water channel looks like it disappears under the tomb and reappears on the other side, according to a line from the Quran:
But they who believe and do things that are right. We will bring them into garden beneath which rivers flow. Forever shall they abide therein. Truly it is the promise of God.

Details from inside the tomb; carved stone lattice screens called jalis let the wind flow through, the first one shows the direction of Mecca. Two tombs of female family members - tombs of females have a writing tablet on the top of them as here, and tombs of males have a pen case (see last picture of this post). The domes inside were all beautifully decorated and are still being restored after years of neglect. Here, a palm leaves together with lotus flowers form the motif.

The Akbarnāma, or the Book of Akbar, the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar, Humayun's son and the third Mughal Emperor (r. 1556–1605) describes what originally grew in the garden. Hibiscus, a popular plant with the Mughals, formed large clusters along the pathways. Mangoes, that have been cultivated in India for centuries, grew also together with pomegranates, one of the four trees mentioned to grow in the gardens of paradise together with figs, olives and date palms according to the Holy Quran. Humayun's father, the first Mughal Emperor Babur who was a great lover of gardens, mentioned eight different species of citrus in his writings, and it is highly probable that at least some of the species were also grown in the garden grave of his son.
I would have needed a wide-angle lens for these pictures... but they still show a part of the huge grid design of the garden. Some of the intersections have platforms where tents were raised (the first picture above, now a tree grows in the middle of the platform), and some have water ponds.

Today, the plantings are restored after long periods of neglect - at some stage, they were even used as kitchen gardens by the poor of the surrounding villages (now part of Delhi), which is understandable, but certainly destructive for an architectural work of art as this. Large trees, such as neem (Azadirachta indica) and sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) stand in the intersections of the waterchannels. Some handsome palm trees stand in attendance near the platform of the tomb and cypress trees flank the walkways. Only an occasional hibiscus and citrus offer a discreet note of color in this otherwise solemn garden that still so well conveys  reflection of the (at least imaginary) paradise beyond our earthly existence.

 Even the platform contains tombs for the lesser members of the family; this is a tomb of a deceased male, as it has a pen case on the top. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Humayun's Tomb is a serene, magnificent site which is very much worth visiting while in Delhi.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Gardens at the Amber Fort, Jaipur

Early morning sun lighting up the magnificent Amber Fort on the hills behind the Maotha Lake near Jaipur in north-east India.
While in India, I got get a glimpse of a couple of magnificent gardens that I'd so far only seen in books. The Amber Fort in Jaipur was one of the most beautiful, even if the gardens there are only a shadow of what they must have been when they were built to please their original owners. The name Amber Fort (also spelled as Amer Fort) honors the Hindu goddess Amba and has nothing to do with its namesake gemstone, even if that definitely springs to one's mind when the fort glows in the soft morning light.

The Dil-e-Aaram Garden that leads to the entrance route; landscape as seen from an elephant's back on the entrance route to the fort.
Construction of the fort and palace was started in 1592 by Raja Man Singh I, a Kachhawa King of the Rajput clan of the Amber (later Jaipur) state, who also was a trusted commander in Mughal emperor Akbar's army. The work didn't stop until two centuries later, resulting in a huge, magnificent red sandstone and white marble bastion, filled with skillfully painted murals, stained-glass windows, and walls with intricate, inlaid stonework filled with precious stones and cut pieces of mirror. The gardens of the fort and palace are a fusion of Indo-Indian garden art, marrying the Islamic design traditions and iconographies of the Mughals with the corresponding Hindi ones of the Rajput clan. Jodh Bai, a Rajput princess who was one of Akbar's wives, is often mentioned as the creative force behind the gardens, but this is probably a more romantic than true version of their origin.

Elephants working their way up to the fort; they are allowed to make maximum 6 trips up to the fort in the winter, and 3 on hot summer days.
The Amber Fort stands on a steep hillside and rises above the waters of the Maotha Lake, an artificial lake that also worked as a water reservoir for the dry months. Access to the fort goes  through the Dil-e-Aaram Garden, which is - like all the other gardens in the Amber Fort - built in the traditional Mughal style based on the Islamic concept of chahar bagh (originally from Persian and also spelled charbagh), a "four garden" that represents the Islamic paradise garden with its four waterways. These gardens are defined by their central water source and their quadripartite design, in which each section is further divided into a series of geometric beds. 

The elaborate Kesar Kyari saffron garden with its planted star patterned terraces clearly visible from the Fort.
Climbing up the road to the fort, the Kesar Kyari (saffron garden) slowly comes visible, floating like a huge Persian carpet on a large stone terrace rising up from the center of the lake. According to our guide and other sources, the Kesar Kyari was planted with saffron (Crocus) plants so that their scent could waft up to the palace - a strange story for a gardener, as crocuses don't have especially strong scent, and the season of such a planting would have been only very few weeks a year...
Inside the palace, behind a a series of corridors and archways, lies another chahar bagh garden with parterresi built in n white marble that form hexagrams and other complicated patterns. Even here the most dominant motif is a star, a symbol of intellectual powers and life itself for the garden's ancient Mughal and Rajput inhabitants.
The chahar bagh paradise garden inside the palace. Unfortunately, the water works were under maintenance; usually, four sprouts of water rise from the central fountain.
According to our guide, the gardens are under restoration and will some day be planted with vibrantly colored, scented plants are they were long ago. Today, they are filled with low-maintenance shrubs in the most common hues of grey, lime green, darker green and purple. But even as like that, they are magnificent enough to make one's imagination fly to the splendor of the olden days, when the Mughal Maharajahs held their court in the Fort with their countless wives.  

The magnificent landscape seen from the Fort; a wall with several watch-towers on the high hills around circles the gardens in the lake, forming a well-suited, majestic frame for them.