Tuesday, November 18, 2008


The 166 km drive from London to Nuneaton in the Midlands takes about two hours. It is the largest town in the County of Warwickshire, and has been made famous by its association with George Eliot the Victorian novelist. In her book “Scenes from Clerical Life,” she refers to this town as Milby. Nuneaton got its name from Nonne Eton – the first part after a derelict Benedictine nunnery, and the latter after Etone or water town as it was originally called.

Though Nuneaton today has turned into a modern city with its shopping malls, leisure centres and sports clubs and bears no resemblance to the town in which George Eliot spent the first 21 years of her life, there are streets named after the places and characters mentioned in her books. As one walks down these lanes and avenues, her characters spring to life.

The novelist was born Mary Ann Evans on the Arbury Estates just out of Nuneaton, on November 22nd, 1819. The Estates are open to the public. Arbury hall with its fairy tale loveliness, its Art treasures and antiques, remind us of Cheveral Manor, her noble house of fiction in ‘Mr. Gilfil’s Story.’

Chilver’s Cotton Church where she was christened, was partially destroyed during the war, but the church registry with her baptismal entry was saved, and is now at the County Records Office at Warwick. In 1972, an oval granite plaque was put up to commemorate George Eliot’s association with the church.
Griff House where she lived for sometime is now a hotel on the Nuneaton-Bedworth Road.
The George Eliot Hospital has wards named after the characters in her books – Dorothea, Lydgate, Tulliver, Poyser.

Though Anglican till the age of twenty one, and living a restricted life with a narrow religious upbringing, her move to Coventry exposed her to philosophically inclined friends, and she became a rationalist for life. She called it an escape from the ‘giant bed of dogma,’ and became a free thinker. This was specially due to the influence of Charles Bray a phrenologist, who was more interested in the conformation of her skull, which was large and out of proportion to the rest of her body, than in her soul.
Bray’s house was the centre of intellectual discourse, and political and religious controversy. Her father detested the company she kept. But Mary Ann said, “I wish to be in the ranks of that glorious crusade that is seeking to set Truth’s Holy Sepulchre free from usurped domination.” In this group also called the ‘Rosehill Circle’ was an old man Dr. Rufus Bryant who turned her completely against Christianity, and became the subject of her infatuation. But her angel proved to have feet of clay, when his wife discovered the affair.

After her father’s death, Mary Ann became very lonely. The sight of an unmarried girl mixing freely in male company was scandalous. Her loneliness drove her into imprudent relationships. Some spurned her, but others like the notorious philanderer John Chapman took advantage of her.

Her search for love ended when she moved in with George Lewis a married man. He was ugly to look at but famous for his wit and exuberance. He admired her intelligence and encouraged her to write her novels. Though Victorian England was shocked by their defiance of bourgeois morality, this was a singularly happy union. If there had been no George Lewis that would not have been a George Eliot. Her pen name ‘George’ stood for her lover, and ‘Eliot’ was a mouth filling word. The reason why she hid behind a pseudonym was because the Literati thought lady novelists wrote stories with trivial and ridiculous plots. Mary Ann wanted to do some realistic story telling, and distance herself from other female writers.

Mary Ann a woman of prodigious intelligence and imagination, now churned out book after book, which received praise from literary circles, and acceptance by the reading public. Surprisingly, in spite of her lifestyle, she was more a moralist than a novelist. She portrayed a traditional England in which simple faith prevailed, and ethics and morals were upheld. According to John Tyndale, her achievements were unparalleled in the history of mankind.
She might never have revealed her identity but for the Liggins controversy. A scoundrel called John Liggins claimed that he had written “Scenes from Clerical Life.’ Mary Ann challenged him and exposed him as an imposter.

Now the Victorian world was truly shocked. Here was a novelist with the name of a man, having an intimate knowledge of clerical life yet was an atheist, and who spent the best years of her life as another man’s mistress.

For Mary Ann, life ceased at the death of George Lewis in 1878. Yet two years later, she married a man twenty years her junior. It restored her respectability, but by then it didn’t matter to her. She died on 20th December 1880 and was buried at Highgate cemetery, in an area reserved for religious dissenters. She could not be buried in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster as she was an atheist and an adulteress. In any case, as Thomas Huxley said, she would not have rested easy in such hallowed surroundings.
However, in 1980, her memorial stone was erected in the Poets’ Corner. Ironically it stands next to the grave of a pious Jesuit priest.

In Nuneaton, an obelisk which once stood on the Arbury Farm now graces the George Eliot Gardens. It stands as a mark of respect to the woman who immortalized this town through her novels. Nuneaton Museum exhibits some of her personal possessions, and the Library has a collection of her books and memorabilia.
Nuneaton is George Eliot town. She was the greatest woman libber of the Victorian Era.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to the Vatican. Though standing in long serpentine queues is daunting, once inside that hallowed building, all is forgotten. It is a long way to the Sistine Chapel via gorgeously painted corridors, galleries, and museums, as the Chapel is not directly accessible from the exterior. Then on to the Basilica, which faces St. Peter’s Square, its silver and blue dome looming into the skies. Under the Basilica is the crypt, where the remains of popes and saints lie in solemn splendour, in their marble tombs.

Here also lies Queen Christina of Sweden, the only woman to be bestowed with such an honour. As in life so in death, she sought exclusivity. One wonders how a woman of her notoriety could have found a place in this hallowed sanctum that houses the tomb of St. Peter.

On the right side of the entrance to the Basilica, is Michael Angelo’s ‘Pieta’ – the famous sculpture of a young mother with a dead son in her arms. Adjacent to this is the monument of Queen Christina of Sweden, between two marble pillars. What irony that the Queen of a Protestant nation is interred in the most famous of Catholic churches! Though she converted to Catholicism in 1655, and was embraced into the faith by Pope Alexander VII himself, it was generally believed that she was skeptical about religion all through her life.

Christina was born to King Gustav II and Maria Eleanora of Brandenburg on December 8th 1626. Even as she was being born, the midwives called out ‘boy’ seeing how hairy she was. She defied the court soothsayers’ predictions that the child would be a boy. Her mother was sorely disappointed. It was probably this maternal rejection that contributed to her erratic behaviour in later life.

Christina was her father’s beloved child. In 1630, he recognized her as his legal heir to the throne. She accompanied him on his journeys, and the sound of gun fir was like music to her ears. She also received a sound education from a select group of tutors, and the subjects she studied ranged from Philosophy to Theology. She mastered a number of European languages in addition to her own mother tongue Swedish. As her father wanted her to be brought up like a prince, she was trained in various sports like horsemanship, and even tactics of war.

Christina was precocious for a young girl. When her father King Gustav died in the Battle of Lutzen, this ‘heir presumptive’ who was only six years old, insisted on being crowned queen, much against the advice of her Regent Axel Oxenstiern. Even while still a minor, she took part in Council meetings and interested herself in the governance of Sweden. In 1644, when she came of age, her status as queen was re-confirmed.

Christina was an intellectual, and engaged herself in dialogue with scholars and philosophers. She was a patron of Arts, Theatre and Ballet, and even considered herself an amateur actress.
But she was head strong and did not heed the advice of her councilors. She was instrumental in ending the 30-year war, before her country could acquire sufficient war booty. The majority of her subjects thought she had acted against the interests of her country. But some considered her an angel of peace.

However, Christina was a poor statesman. Her arbitrary decisions and extravagant ways created discontent in Court as well as among her subjects. She sold off or mortgaged Crown property to cover the expenses of her imprudence. Her foreign policy was flawed. When things spun out of hand, she abdicated, and in 1654, appointed her cousin Charles X Gustav as her successor.

Now she left Sweden donning men’s attire, and riding a white charger through Europe. She called herself Count Dohna. In Rome, Pope Alexander VII gave her a royal welcome, and the festivities lasted for several days. After she converted to Catholicism she became a favourite of the Vatican. Because of her wealth she was welcomed in high society, even though the ladies despised her for her mannish ways. But the men couldn’t stop fawning over her.

As her wealth dwindled, she was seized with a new restlessness. She moved out of Rome to Fontainebleau, and involved herself in political and religious intrigue. She wanted to become Queen of Naples. Betrayed by her servant Rinaldo Monaldachi, she had him promptly murdered. Europe was horrified, but she justified her action claiming judicial right and sovereign authority over members of her Court. When she returned to Rome, the Vatican cold shouldered her. After the death of her cousin, she tried to retrieve her crown in Sweden, but was rejected by her subjects. So she settled permanently in Rome.

Christina never married. She was more masculine than feminine in her ways, and loved cross dressing. She walked and talked like a man. She preferred male company, unless there were exceptionally beautiful women around. Then she shamelessly wooed them.
In her youth, she was in a lesbian relationship with a woman called Ebba Sparre, whom she called her ‘bed fellow.’ Even after Ebba was married, Christina wrote passionate letters to her. People thought she was a hermaphrodite, and the transgender community looked on her as their icon.

Christina died on April 19th, 1689. For many years she had a platonic love affair with Cardinal Decio Azzolino. She named him her heir before she died. Perhaps it was her wealth that bought her a place in the crypt of the Basilica.

In 1965, her body was exhumed to investigate whether she was a hermaphrodite. She had a normal female body. Perhaps her mother’s rejection of her biological sex played havoc with her sexuality and altered her behaviour and attitude towards the world.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Almost ten years after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, I visited the eastern part of the city. The Brandenburg Gate was now the symbol of re-unification. Hectic reconstruction work had taken place at the end of the Unter de Linden. The Reichstag the seat of the German Parliament which had been damaged during the war, had now been beautifully reconstructed, with an impressive glass dome over the Plenary Hall. We could now visit the Bundestag, and even climb up to the dome.

Somewhere in this region there used to be the infamous Berlin bunker, where Adolf Hitler in his last desperate hour, decided to make an honest woman out of Eva Braun his mistress of sixteen years. As Soviet troops closed in on the Reichstag and Chancellery, Walter Wagner a minor official in the Propaganda Ministry, solemnized the marriage, in the presence of his associates Bormann and Goebells. It was April 29th 1945, just a few hours before their suicide. The marriage document that survived bore the proud signature of ‘Eva Hitler.’

Eva Braun was a Bavarian lass belonging to a lower middleclass family. She worked as an assistant to Hitler’s personal photographer Henrich Hoffman. In 1929, when Hitler visited the studio, this 17 year old girl fell madly in love with him. She was the one who initiated the affair through her love letters. She agreed to follow him to his mountain retreat in Obersalzburg, and become his mistress, much to the dismay of her parents.

But though her material needs were provided for, it was a life of isolation and loss of freedom. In a small wooden house near the Buchtesgaden (Hitler’s office), her only companions were his two secretaries and some peasants who spun linen for him. For most of the time they lived apart, as he was mostly preoccupied with his work. Even while at Obersalzburg he was kept busy, and used her only at his convenience. Eva was aware of her dubious position and kept her distance, especially when members of the Third Reich visited. During long periods of separation she wrote long loving letters to him. In turn his phone calls were full of endearments.

Eva was always well groomed, soft spoken and pretty in her own way. She spent her days reading, exercising and brooding around the house. She was prohibited from smoking, dancing or mingling with other men. She loved sports and was a good skier. Occasionally he would give her a week off to go skiing in Zurs with her friends, but she had to travel incognito. Eva kept a secret diary into which she poured out her feelings of neglect and humiliation.

Hitler thought nothing about belittling her before his friends. Once while she was sitting beside him he said, “A highly intelligent man should always choose a stupid woman. Imagine if on top of everything, I had a woman who interfered with my work! In my leisure time I want to have peace….”

But Eva was not a stupid woman. Her’s was a quiet dignity and inner strength that helped her survive. She was not interested in politics, but she would protest and bring to his notice, the abuses of mean men like Bormann. When Goebells wanted party members to eschew luxuries like cosmetics and perfumed hair in 1943, she demanded that the ban be scrapped. Another time when some stupid official forbade women from going into the mountains around Munich for skiing, she had the ban revoked. Without Hitler’s knowledge she helped many women like Mrs. Hess financially, so that they could escape Bormann’s cruelty.

In 1939, she was assigned a bedroom in Hitler’s Berlin residence, adjoining his room. It was literally a prison, with the limited view of a courtyard. She had to steal in and out by a side entrance, and had no access to the area where he entertained his guests. She was glad to go back to Obersalzburg.

Eric Kempka the chauffer was sure that Hitler loved her in his own way and could relax in her company. Hitler had said, “Fraulien Braun is too young to be the wife of an important leader of the Third Reich. But one day when I cease to be Fuhrer, I will retire to Linz and to a house managed by a small staff, and I will marry her.”

In 1945, when the war had tilted against the Germans, friends suggested that Eva leave Germany. But she stubbornly refused, and flew from Munich to the besieged city of Berlin, and drove straight to the Reich Chancellery. Hitler ordered her to go back but she stubbornly refused.
“Do you think I’ll let you die alone?” she asked.

After the marriage formality, the couple retired to their private room. Both bit into glass vials of cyanide. Eva lay on her bed, and looked as though she had fallen asleep. Hitler sat in his chair and shot himself in the head, making doubly sure he died.
According to his wishes, their bodies were wrapped up in blankets and ignited with gasoline flames in the garden of the Chancellery.

Was Eva Braun a sinner or a saint? Or was she just an immature girl who got caught up in a love trap with a megalomaniac?
What irony that Hitler the anti-Semitic Nazi leader who had put millions of Jews to death, was unaware that Eva Braun his mistress of many years whom he married prior to their suicide, had Jewish ancestry!  DNA samples recovered from Eva's hairbrush showed a sequence within the mitochrondrial DNA (through her maternal line) associated with Ashkenazi Jews. This was highlighted by a British TV documentary.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


The drive along the Rhine between Koblenz and Bingen is very picturesque. There are some thirty odd castles in the area, all built in the Middle Ages and each with a legend of its own.

Bingen is situated at the junction of the Nahe (dirty muddy water) and the Rhine. It once held a strategic position, and was destroyed eight times by wars, over the last 1000 years.
Today it is a quiet laid back town on the banks of the Rhine. One a small island on the Rhine is the Mouseturm (Mouse Tower), Bingen’s special landmark, where Hatto II the cruel Archbishop of Mainz was eaten up by mice. It later became a signal tower for shipping, and a custom’s outpost.

Bingen however, has been made famous by a woman called Hildegard, a courageous feminist who dared to oppose the powerful Roman Catholic Church’s teachings about women. She defied the Canon Law which prohibited women from preaching, and evolved into a powerful preacher and teacher. She composed music and attested it with her name, refusing to remain anonymous. She studied Botany and became a herbal physician and a healer. She also excelled as a writer of theological books like “Book of Life’s Merits,” and “Book of Divine Love,” which explained her understanding of Salvation History. She even invented her own coded language.

Born into an aristocratic family in 1098, Hildegard was the last of ten children, and was tithed to the Church at the age of eight. She was entrusted to the care of a hermit woman called Jutta of Sponheim, who ran a hermitage. This was attached to the Monastery of Disibod. Here she was provided with minimal education and two meals a day, served at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. She was a sickly child, who suffered from asthma and migraine.

The Disibod Hermitage attracted so many young women that it grew into a large Benedictine Community. Hildegard took her vows in her teens (1114) and lived quietly in this community for twenty years. Her view of the outside world was only through a window, and her only male contact was her confessor Monk Volmar, who became her friend, and eventually her scribe.

By now, Hildegard was experiencing apocalyptic visions. But when she realized that no one else had similar experiences, she stopped talking about them. However, realization gradually dawned that these visions were prophetic revelations. It prompted her to write her most famous composition SCIVIAS. It took ten years to complete. Because she had the approval of Pope Eugene III, it was read out at the Synod of Trier (1147-1148.)

When Jatta died in1136 Hildegard became the Superior of the Convent. But as this community grew, she felt the compulsion to step out of the cloister. Taking fifty nuns with her, she opened a new convent at Rupertsberg. In 1165, a sister convent was opened at Eibingen, eight miles away.

Hildegard wrote many papers. She built up a voluminous correspondence with clergy, rulers and even lay people. Her focus was on Renewal of the Church. She travelled to different places on preaching tours, making known her views on Creation of mankind and Redemption of the World. Popes, Emperors, nuns and priests sent people to Rupertsberg to hear her messages.

Hildegard was a natural feminist. She would not allow the Church to relegate women to an inferior role. She argued that woman was for man and man for woman, thus making them both of equal status. She taught that sexual pleasure was not a sin, and therefore should not be tainted by guilt; that menstruation was not unclean, but the shedding of innocent blood in wars was definitely unclean. She also opposed the Church’s teaching that woman was not made in the image of God. Rather she believed that in the inner being of God, there was a feminine and masculine relationship, confirming the complementarity of the sexes.

The atmosphere in the convents which she established was liberal. She encouraged the nuns to develop their spiritual, intellectual and artistic talents. There was no dull, somber atmosphere that prevailed in most convents. Here they could sing, play instruments and grow spiritually by listening to lectures on Theology. The nuns lived as normally as possible. They were allowed the luxury of warm baths, daily exercises and beer to put flesh and redness into their cheeks.

During the forty years she presided over Rupertsberg Convent, thousands of pilgrims came there for healing of their medical ailments. The Church ordered her to stop these miracles.

Even at the age of eighty, this feisty lady defied the Church authority, by burying a young man excommunicated by the Church, in the cemetery at Rupertsberg. The Canons ordered the body to be exhumed, but they couldn’t find the spot, as Hildegard had removed all the markers from the graves. The Canons retaliated by prohibiting mass, sacraments and music in the Abbey. The case dragged on for some time and was finally lifted in 1179. She died six months later, and was buried in the Eibingen church.

The Rupertsberg Convent was completely destroyed during the Thirty Year War. All that is left is a vaulted cellar.

In 1998, on Hildegard’s 900th birth anniversary, the Hildegard Forum was constituted at Rocher’s Hill. Since then there has been a renaissance and renewed interest in her visions and mystical knowledge.
A historical museum was also opened in her honour in 1998, in an old electricity generating station on the Rhine.

This daring polymath – a scholar, theologian, healer, writer – will probably never be elevated to sainthood because of her radical views. But Pope John Paul II finally conceded that this maverick saint was a “Doctor of the Church.”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

.Agnes Durer- A Shrewd Businesswoman.

Motoring along the Romantic Highway in Germany between the Maine River and the Alps, one drives through picturesque villages, churches of Baroque and Rococo splendour, convents, cloisters and luscious fruit orchards. Nuremberg the ancient city of Imperial Diets was my destination. This city was made notorious by Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Once upon a time, the dreaded swastika adorned not only important buildings but was subconsciously embossed on every German heart.

Nuremberg is steeped in history. But my interest took me to the house of Albrecht Durer the most famous inhabitant of Nuremberg, who lived at 39, Albrecht Street from 1509 to 1528. He was a famous painter and engraver, and the house is preserved as it was during his time.

A young woman dressed in a long billowing skirt and a housewife’s bonnet, with a key ring dangling from her waist, greeted visitors at the door. She was a German actress impersonating Agnes, the wife of Albrecht Durer. She blended into the background, weaving her way through many rooms, and smiling and nodding at visitors.

It was the voice of Agnes which made the audio tour interesting. She related the story of the Durer household, of her husband’s work, of his friends, her daily chores, and her bland relationship with her illustrious spouse. Somewhere through the commentary one discovers a pang of loneliness in that voice, and is touched by the candour in which she confessed that she could come into her own only after Albrecht’s death.

Albrecht Durer had a very charismatic personality. He exuded an irresistible animal charm. His curly shoulder length locks, his blue penetrating eyes, his friendly demeanour made him a very popular figure in the society of that day. But he was vain as he was clever, and was the first man to paint a frontal picture of himself, highlighting his uncanny resemblance to the picture of Jesus.

Durer belonged to an artisan family. His friends were artisans, sculptors and painters, who used his workshop on the ground floor during the day, and congregated upstairs in the dining room at night for a pint of beer, a meal and discussions on politics. These were interspersed with loud guffaws and bawdy jokes. One can visualize Agnes as she went about her job of cooking in that dark and dingy kitchen, to fill the belly of Albrecht’s boisterous friends.

Agnes was the daughter of a rich copper merchant. The marriage was an arranged affair which took place in July 1494. But soon after the wedding, Albrecht took off on his travels, leaving his new wife behind. The job of being mistress of such a Bohemian establishment must have been daunting to the young girl. Throughout their life together Albrecht never expressed any tenderness or affection for his wife. In spite of being an artist,he was unromantic, and just could not comprehend her emotional needs. He referred to her as his house mate, who helped in the sale of his paintings and sculptures.

This attitude must have given his cronies a wrong impression. Though they didn’t openly criticize her in his presence, they considered her a mate unworthy of such a great man, an “incorrigible shrew and skinflint.” She was supposed to be a thorn in his side, who brought about his premature death by forcing him to overwork for money, right into his old age.

Agnes had the exacting job of packing and sending his works for sale all over Europe, some in boxes and some in barrels. Some of those barrels have been preserved, and are on display on the ground floor of the house. Agnes maintained her quiet dignity, while toiling for what was best for her husband and his business. This kept him in good humour, and left him free to pursue his artistry. Ironically, her hard work and patience turned her into a shrewd business woman.

After Albrecht’s death on 6th April 1528, Agnes was very generous to his brothers and their families. Agnes was now a rich woman.

Researchers eventually identified the source of Agnes’ vilification. It was a crotchety old man called Willibald Perkheimer, a life long friend of Albrecht, who coveted a pair of antlers that hung in the Durer’s home. Agnes refused to part with it, and he retaliated by comparing her to the notorious wife of Socrates.

But the residents of Nuremberg still laud Agnes Durer for discharging her duties and privileges admirably, and safeguarding the priceless assets of her incomparable artist husband, even in the face of criticism from his friends.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Ten miles away from the “dreaming spires” of Oxford, is the town of Woodstock, made famous by its Churchilian connections.
Set among 2100 acres of greenery with a landscaped garden and terraced waterfalls, is Blenheim Palace, where Sir Winston Churchill was born prematurely on November 30th, 1874. Blenheim was never his home, though he visited there frequently. He even brought his fiancée Clementina Hozier here in 1900, and proposed to her in the Temple of Diana which overlooks a lake on the property, and has a romantic ambience.

In 1965, he was laid to rest alongside his parents’ grave, in the churchyard at Bladon.
But the story that lingers in my mind is not of Churchill but of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the 9th Duchess of Marlborough, whose enormous dowry saved Blenheim palace from disintegration.
This 17-year old American beauty was forced into a loveless marriage with the 9th Duke – Charles, Richard. John Spencer. She was deeply in love with another young man, but was wrenched away from him by her “socially climbing vulture of a mother.”

In those days, Americans greatly coveted British titles and aristocracy, and were more than willing to part with their millions, for entry into these elite circles. The English dukes and counts were notorious for their high living, philandering ways and sporting pursuits, which left them teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. They welcomed American girls both for their wealth and their charming personalities. Unlike the British women with their Victorian pruderies, these girls were witty, vivacious and attractive.

Consuelo and the Duke were married at St. Thomas Church, New York on 6th November, 1895. They were mismatched from the word ‘Go.’ She was beautiful, elegant and a good six feet tall to his five feet and seven inches. Though he went by the pet name ‘Sunny’ he was apathetic and brooding by nature. Just 23 years old, he too was very much in love with another girl. But due to financial exigencies, he was forced into this marriage.

And so the “dollar princess” crossed the Atlantic in a luxury liner, carrying with her a dowry of 2.5 million dollars for the repair of Blenheim Palace. Her father William K Vanderbilt was one of the wealthiest business magnates in USA. During her stay at the palace, Consuelo spent many more millions to renovate the “decrepit heap” that was Blenheim.

Though they stayed married for many years, it was a loveless existence. Consuelo made her dislike quite apparent in many ways, even to the extent of placing a massive centerpiece of Louis XIV on their dinner table, so that the Duke’s face would be blocked from her sight at mealtimes.
By her estimate, he was an inferior husband. She blamed it on his loveless upbringing first by nannies, and then by strict boarding school masters.
Consuelo’s son was born in 1897, two years after her marriage. Her second son came soon after, and with this, she considered her obligations complete.
“I have borne my husband an heir and a spare,” she said.
They were separated for 12 years from 1907 to 1919, but reunited briefly again, only to start divorce proceedings. The marriage was dissolved in 1921.
Blenheim Palace today owes its splendour to Consuelo, who lived the best years of her life in a ‘gilded cage.’
Though her contribution is rarely spoken about, people who knew her said she was kind and compassionate, and devoted her time and money to worthy causes.

She found true love in her second marriage to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan, a French aviator, and lived for many years in Normandy. But the last few years of her life were spent in New York. She lived to a ripe old age of 87, during which time she penned her autobiography, “The Glitter and the Gold.”

Consuelo was interred in Bladon churchyard on the Blenheim Estate in 1964, as befitting the 9th Duchess of Marlborough. Forced arranged marriages do have the potential for misery especially when they hinge on the amount of dowry brought in by the brides.


Along the Schwabian Alp highway, we drove towards Nordilingen, through fertile fruit growing villages and luscious green forests. Ruined castles and rich monasteries added to the serene beauty of the countryside. It was surely a favourite holiday route signposted by little boards showing a silver thimble on a green background.
We stopped briefly at a small town called Gingen on the river Brenz. The people here spoke a dialect called Frisian. A traveller once wrote about a ginger bread church in a bakery window, and we drove around to locate it.
But what was of more interest to me was the story of a woman called Margarita Steiff, who became a rich entrepreneur through her brand of soft animal toys.
Margarita was born in Gingen in1847, and lived there till her death in 1909. In her early childhood she contracted Polio, and spent the rest of her life in a wheel chair. But she was not to be discouraged. Her legs might have failed her. But she had two perfectly normal hands and an agile brain.
“I must go to school,” she told her reluctant parents, and wore down their objections through her persistence.
After her basic education, she learnt tailoring. Now she wanted to become economically independent. She considered her disability not an impediment but a mere inconvenience to be surmounted.
“You are a woman, you are disabled and running a business is not a woman’s job,” said her father.
“My determination will help me leap over these obstacles. You wait and see Papa,” she told her father.
She began to make soft animal toys. Her first bear was christened Teddy Bear after President Theodore Roosevelt, who once went on a bear hunt and rescued a bear cub from being shot. Hence ‘Teddy Bear.”
The soft animals she made were cuddly and attractive, and the first batch was sold out at a Christmas Market in Heidenheim on Brenz. This gave her the idea of manufacturing them on a large scale. She founded her business in 1886, giving employment to many disabled people like herself, living in and around that area. Margarita worked till the end of her life.
Worldwide success came to her when an American ordered 3000 animals at the Frankfurt Fair. Someone even made a film about her life called “Against All Odds.”
Margarita’s toys bear her trade mark – a button in one ear. Hence they are called Knopf toys.
Though she died in 1909, the manufacture of her toys continues to be big business even today. They are sold in major toy shops in Germany and all over the world. Many toy museums exhibit some of her earliest toys. However, they have always been expensive. Even today, they sell at comparatively higher rates than other toys.
Next time you hold a teddy bear with a button in his ear in your hand, think of a feisty woman in a wheel chair, who looked ‘disability’ in the eye and turned it into an opportunity to excel.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Vienna is one of the most beautiful and artistic cities in the world. No wonder that Karl Kraus said, “The streets of Vienna are surfaced with culture just as the streets of other cities with asphalt.”
Wherever one turns, the baroque buildings with their ornate facades and voluptuous sculptures, the gardens and fountains, provide a delightful feast to the eyes. Vienna is the home of western classical music. Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms lived here. In season, it is wonderful to hear the best operas being enacted.
But it is the Schonbrunn Palace – the Imperial summer residence of the Hapsburg Royalty that beckons. One of the greatest of European palaces, its 1500 rooms lavishly decorated in the Rococo style, and the rich velvet embroidery embossed with the logo of the pomegranate, reflect the resplendence of a bygone age.
Like all great palaces, Schonbronn has its own scandals and intrigues. One such story is of Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria and wife of Emperor Franz Joseph II. Her portrait adorns one of the palace walls – a woman of rare beauty, tall and angelic! With a mane of wavy hair cascading down her shoulders, she looks like a bird which has broken out of its gilded cage, only to find that one leg is still tethered to the cage, with a long leash.
“Marriage is a preposterous institution,” she said, “You are sold as a child of fifteen, swear vows you don’t understand, and you regret them for thirty years or so, but you can never break them.”
Popularly known as ‘Sissy’ she was the second daughter of Duke Max of Bavaria. But as he had no duties at the Bavarian Court, his family was not restricted by palace protocol. The children grew up in an atmosphere of freedom.
Sissy was born on Christmas Eve in 1837, with a ‘lucky tooth’ on her upper gum. It showed she was destined for great things. Her elder sister Helene was to be betrothed to Franz. But he fell in love with Sissy instead, and could not be persuaded to marry anyone else. Sissy was just fifteen, a free spirit full of boisterous energy. Marriage was nowhere in her thoughts. But her mother insisted, “You cannot turn down an Emperor.”
So despite her protests and much against the wishes of Franz’s mother Arch Duchess Sophie, she was betrothed to the Emperor who was twenty three years old. Between betrothal and marriage, Sissy was put through a rigorous routine of palace etiquette and protocol, under the hawk-like eyes of the Duchess. The study of French and Italian history was boring. Social graces like etiquette, conversation and dancing seemed so artificial to the 15-year old girl, who missed her siblings and her friends who were the common folks of Bavaria.
Though the Emperor was madly in love with his child bride, State duties and politics left very little time for romance. The Crimean War was looming on the horizon. After the week long wedding festivities, it was back to work. The honeymoon was cancelled. Loneliness and homesickness followed, and depression gradually crept in. The ebullient Bavarian lass turned into a tearful melancholic woman.
Two girls were born in quick succession, but until an heir was produced, Sissy couldn’t relax. Rudolph the Crown prince was born in 1858. The rift between the Arch Duchess and Sissy widened over the upbringing of the boy. Sissy’s ability to provide suitable guidance was questioned.
To make matters worse, Sissy discovered that her husband whom she loved, was involved in an extra marital affair. Now to boredom was added emotional isolation. It was the proverbial ‘last straw.’ Sissy fled to her natal home in Possenhofen, with her children and her personal staff. She could not forgive his infidelity.
This was a turning point in her life. Timidity gave place to a progressive self confidence. She became more demanding, and it eventually led to an idolatrous narcissism. Her self centredness made her immune to the feelings of others. The Emperor continued to be generous financially.
Moving first to the Island of Madeira, and then on to Venice and Corfu, she took charge of Rudolph’s training, and threatened to leave her husband if he or his mother interfered. The boy was not an outdoor type. Sissy wanted him to have a liberal education instead of being forced into excessive physical training and royal duties.
Sissy was in her mid twenties now. She stood 5’8” tall and was very conscious of her incomparable beauty. Her wavy copper coloured hair flowed down to her ankles. It took three hours for her maids to comb and braid it every day. She was so naturally pretty that she needed no cosmetics to enhance her looks. Preserving this beauty became her obsession to the point of narcissism. Foreign diplomats paid her court, and journalists from all over the world followed her around.
In many ways, her story is reminiscent of the life of Princess Diana. But there is one great difference. Sissy’s name was never romantically linked with any other man.
Sissy moved to Hungary in 1866, when Prussia threatened Austria. Here she dabbled in politics, showing a preference to Hungary rather than Vienna, in spite of the fact that Hungary had risen in rebellion against the House of Hapsburg. She even befriended a Hungarian rebel called Gyula Andrassy, who had been condemned to death.
Her final act of treachery was to force the Emperor to concede to the demands of Hungary and divide the Empire of the Hapsburgs into two, with two capitals, one at Budapest and the other at Vienna. The high point of her life was when Franz and she were crowned king and queen of Hungary. Sissy even had another daughter Marie Valerie whom she brought up as a Hungarian. The Viennese hated her. She had neglected the traditional duties of an Empress. She was neither a good wife nor mother. Rudolph and his elder sister reverted to the care of the Arch Duchess Sophie, while Sissy set her sights on new worlds to conquer.
Now she wanted to become the best woman horse rider in the kingdom, and spent a major time in equestrian pursuits. As ‘Queen of the Hunt,’ she travelled frequently to England and Ireland. Yet she was totally dependant on her husband for her flamboyant life style.
At his Silver Jubilee as Emperor, she refused to ride in his carriage through the streets of Vienna, but followed in a closed coach, with face veiled. Even their Silver Wedding celebration was treated with disdain.
But with age came insecurities. The myth of her matchless beauty could not be sustained forever. Thoughts of cloistering herself in Switzerland crossed her mind.
Belatedly, she felt remorse for the loneliness and misery she had caused the husband who loved her. At 58, she brought him a surrogate wife named Katrina Schratt from the Hofsburg Theatre.
Rudolph who craved for his mother’s love received only indifference. He was a sensitive timid soul with no king-like qualities. When he committed suicide with his teenage mistress in Myerling, deep in the Vienna woods, it shook her out of her self-obsession.
Premature ageing due to her punishing exercise schedules and excessive dieting drove her into deep depression. While travelling incognito through Europe, she was stabbed by an Italian anarchist in1898.
“The beautiful things of the world are the most useless,” said John Ruskin.
“Beauty for some brings escape,” was Aldous Huxley’s theory.
Did Sissy find escape for her loneliness and frustration in narcissism one wonders?
Yet Vienna has not forgotten their reluctant Empress. Immortalised in marble, she sits with dignity in the Volksgarten in Vienna.


Travelling through Normandy in France, I arrive at the historical capital Rouen, a city dear to the heart of Victor Hugo, and to many Impressionist painters. From St. Catherine Hill, one has a panoramic view of the city – its buildings, its bridges, its churches and the spire of the Rouen Cathedral looming into the skies. From this vantage point Claude Monet painted 17 different views of the city. He even designed the façade of the Cathedral.
But it was the story of Joan of Arc that got me excited. Little did I dream that I would one day stand on the Square where Joan of Arc was burnt alive at the stakes as a sorceress and a charlatan. She was only 19, a wisp of a girl with the face of an angel. The last words on her lips were “My Jesus!” Legend has it that her heart refused to burn. So it was thrown along with her ashes, into the river Seine, so that no one could erect a monument to her, and turn her into a martyr.
But a quarter of a century later, the Church had to eat humble pie, and declare her trial null and void. She was canonized as a saint in 1920. But it was only in 1979, that a cross was erected on the site of her martyrdom.
On the right of the Square is the Joan of Arc church, built in the shape of a ship. The church’s modern exterior has slate and copper scales, and evokes a picture of the sea. A flight of steps leads down to the worship area, simulating the hold of a ship. The colourful stained glass windows are from St. Vincent’s Church which was destroyed in 1944. In one of the windows, Joan is pictured praying in prison. And in one corner of the church stands a bronze replica of the saint. This church is her memorial. Her feast is commemorated on the Sunday nearest to May 30th. Not only a saint, Joan has become the national heroine, and May 30th is a national holiday.
Opposite the church and across the square, is the Joan of Arc Museum. Here in this vaulted old cellar on the Place du Vieux Marche, her story comes alive through books, engravings, paintings and 50 wax models. Commentaries are in English, German and Italian.
Born on 6th January 1412 at Domremy, Joan grew up to be a humble and deeply religious shepherdess. At the age of 13, she began to hear “voices” of three saints urging her to help the king. Charles VII was a weak man. There were doubts about his legitimacy to the throne. Joan was convinced by the “voices” that he had the right to rule.
Donning men’s clothes and cutting her hair short, she travelled to meet the king, and offer to lead his army against the English. This was an outrageous demand that stirred up a lot of anger in court. The king wanted to test if she was really a mystic. He made one of his courtiers sit on the throne to impersonate the king, and he wore the courtier’s clothes.
But Joan when ushered into the room, went straight up to the king in disguise.
“Give me 10,000 soldiers and I will bring you victory,” she promised.
At the Battle of Orleans which took place on May 8th 1429, she led her troops to victory against the English, and liberated Orleans. In July that year, she stood beside Charles as he was anointed and crowned king, at Rheims.
But the newly crowned king did not appreciate her mission. When Paris came under siege, her request for more soldiers to fight the English, was denied. She was taken prisoner by the enemy, brought to Rouen under military escort, and held in a turret of the Chateau Bouvreuil. Though the chateau is no more, the turret has been preserved as the Joan of Arc Tower, and stands on the street of the same name.
Here she languished for six months and her lament was,
“Oh Rouen, Rouen, It is here that I have to die.”
A visitor to the tower wrote, “The sad history that has occurred in this place still permeates the walls.”
She was judged at the Inquisitorial Tribunal which was presided over by the notorious Bishop Cauchon, under pressure from the English.
Joan was her own advocate. She was fearless in claiming that the “voices” she heard were authentic, and was convinced that Charles was the legitimate ruler of France. She was martyred on May 30th 1431.
One marvels at the courage and conviction of this chit of a girl, who was pitted against a fanatically patriarchal church and State. Though renounced by the church as a charlatan, and ignored by a spineless king who she fought to save, the people were convinced that she was a mystical saint.
Today her memory is consigned to the archives of Time, and the old wooden cross in the Square is merely a tourist attraction. The locals barely give it a second look.


Driving through Cumbria one is struck by the natural splendour of the region. Wordsworth described it as ‘the loveliest spot man has ever known.’
Kendal the principal town in the region, is the southern gateway to the Lake District. It is famous for many things especially its wool. The town’s motto is ‘pannus mitu pais’ meaning ‘wool is our bread.’ The special Kendal ‘green cloth’ is famous all over the world.

Kendal is also famous for its ancient medieval market which dates back to the 12th century. It is open for trade six days in the week. From Kendal snuff to Kendal Mint Cake to Kendal shoes, everything is available here. The town is proud of its Market Charter.

More than the museums, art galleries and castles, what fascinated me was the Quaker Tapestry exhibited at the Friends Meeting Home at Stramongate. This tapestry has 77 panels made of specially woven wool cloth. Each panel is about 25” x 21” and is embroidered with crewel work. It chronicles the history of the Quakers through 350 years. It took 4000 men, women and children from 15 countries to ‘have a hand’ in its creation.

Panel E5 highlighted the work a woman called Elizabeth Fry, who lived from 1780 – 1845. She was a staunch Quaker. The Quakers call themselves “The Religious Society of Friends.” They believe in the “Inner Light” which helps them distinguish between right and wrong. They also recognize the value of silence for religious meditation and for promoting fellowship.

As a young woman, Elizabeth Gurney Fry once visited London’s Newgate prison, and was appalled by the inhuman living conditions. In 1817, she formed an “Association for Improvement of Female Prisoners,” and was instrumental in bringing about many prison reforms. She campaigned for segregation of prisoners according to age, sex, seriousness of crime, and insisted that female supervisors should oversee female prisoners. Through her effort, educational and employment programmes were introduced in prisons. She travelled all over Europe and England, to encourage prison reforms. Prisoners were also given access to religious and secular instruction. Elizabeth said her aim was to build up self esteem and develop their skills, rather than focus on punishment. It is any wonder then, that they called her “Angel of Prisons.”

Between 1818 – 1843, when convicts including women and children were sent off to Australia, she visited every ship that set out to Botany Bay, to ensure that women and children had at least minimum requirements of space, food and medicines, until they reached their destination. Altogether there were 106 ships with a passenger list of 12,000.

Elizabeth Fry must have been a woman near to the heart of God. Loving the unlovable doesn’t come easy. It is a choice that can cost us our time, energy and even money. Yet, we have been exhorted to ‘bind up the broken hearted.’ It is our high calling. To be compassionate is to feel the pain of others. As Jack Canfield said, “You let their pain touch your heart and turn it into compassion. What a splendid way to go through life, bringing blessings to all we touch!”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Though crowds make me claustrophobic, I could not miss an evening at the Putzchen’s Market. It was touted as the biggest folk festival in North Rhineland Westphalia. A sprawling fun world had sprung up overnight at a village in Beuel, in the first week of September, and lasted for five days.
The night was a riot of colour and noise. Twinkling lights in rainbow shades had turned this small village into a wonderland. Streams of revelers pushed and jostled their way through narrow streets lined with temporary shops selling trinkets and souvenirs from Asia to Timbuktu. Eateries were stocked with mounds of crunchy hazelnuts coated with sugar and spice, and yellow heaps of pop corn. The place reeked of beer and fried wurst. (sausages.) Disco tents and giddy roundabouts, quaint cartoon characters blown into gigantic balloons, and the beckoning giant wheel looming into the skies, offering a bird’s eye view of this riotous fantasyland, were what brought in the crowds.
At the turn of the first millennium, this was called the Pilgrims’ Market. But the memory of a saintly lady associated with it, has been lost in the mists of Time. There was famine in Germany. People and animals roamed the countryside in search of food and water, slowly gravitating towards the Rhine. When they reached this village they were so bone weary that many were on the verge of death. A young lass among them called Adelhaid, pleaded with God to give them water. Legend has it that Mary appeared to her, and told Adelhaid to strike her rod to the ground at a particular place. Lo and behold, a spring of fresh water sprouted from the ground. It was called Putzchen (Miracle Spring)
The water was also supposed to have healing properties. So every year thereafter, pilgrims came here to ask for favours. Many of them camped there for days. Their requirements of food, wine, water and sundries were provided by hawkers and itinerant tradesmen, who travelled with them. And so, the Pilgrims’ Market was born.
Adelhaid the pious woman was the daughter of Count Grafmegangoz and Gerberga. Her father built a church here, and she became its Abbess. She belonged to the Benedictine Order. She founded a Cloister School for poor children and personally supervised its running. She also opened a hospital for the poor and disadvantaged. She died on February 5th, 1015, and her body was interred in a crypt in the church. A blind man was said to have received his sight thirty days after her death. Pilgrims flocked to this church expecting miracles.
But during the Thirty Year Warm the church was completely destroyed. So another church was built close to the Putzchen. Today however, there are no pilgrims. Merely revelers and fun lovers who flock to Putzchen’s market during the festival. Traditionally the market is declared open by unsealing a barrel of beer on the church premises. Profits made by the market are donated to UNICEF.


Many years ago when I was a teenager, someone looked into my palm and said,
“Hey, you’ve got some fantastic travel lines. You’re going to be a globe-trotter some day.”
At that point in time, Travel was so impossible that I laughed it off and said,
“Perhaps I shall be another Jules Verne, an arm chair traveler who voyaged sixty thousand miles under the sea, or journeyed to the centre of the earth, or like his hero Phileas Fogg, circumnavigated the earth in eighty days, in a race against Time.”
“I’m dead serious,” he said, “You mark my words. One day you’ll know I predicted correctly.”
If the lines in my hand could predict my future, then I should have reached the stars by now. It’s just that travelling has become so easy these days, that even Verne could not have envisaged a day when it would be possible to have breakfast in India, lunch at Amsterdam, and dinner in New York.
And yet, it is not that kind of travel that excites me – not the overexposed tourist destinations touted by travel agents. Cities all over the globe have begun to have an uncanny resemblance to each other. It is the towns or villages less frequented, different cultures and life styles, stories of unusual people especially women, who have left their “footprints on the sands of Time, that truly fascinate.” These are the things that enrich minds and broaden horizons.
Travel can be both educative and enlivening. It makes us more tolerant of the values, laws and practices of other societies, and more adaptable to unfamiliar situations. Curiosity, a keen sense of observation, an enquiring mind, and like-minded companions
make travelling enjoyable.
Summer is always the best time to travel through Europe. The race to exploit every sunlit moment creates an incredible frenzy of activity. Colourful costumes against sun-burnt skins provide a gorgeous visual spectacle. As we motored through Picardy in France, we kept away from the bustling cities and drove through shady winding roads and cobbled streets, with quaint half-timbered houses dotting the landscape. We soon arrived at an old Gallo-Roman town called Beauvais. The park in the centre of town was crowded with children playing on swings, or hurtling down chutes or whirling around carousels.
But what caught our attention was the bronze statue of a beautiful young girl towering over the park. Her features were exquisite, her hair cascaded down to her shoulders, and the pleats of her flowing gown swirled daintily around her feet. And yet, she wielded an axe, as though ready to strike.
“Who is she?” we asked a gangling youth slouched against a tree.
“Who knows and who cares?” he said, puffing on his cigarette. “The statue is probably purely decorative.”
An old man resting on a bench hailed us.
“The youth of today have no pride in their history. She is the heroine of Beauvais, and if you had come a week earlier, you could have witnessed the annual ceremony held here, on the “Rue du 27 Juin” to commemorate her bravery. It is held in June.”
“Tell us more,” I said.
The man was eager to fill us in with details. Beauvais was under the Romans from 4th to 10th century. It was a fortified town with ramparts 10 metres high. But in the 11th century, the Roman Catholic Church assumed both military and civilian office, and the people were very happy and contented. The town was famous for its textiles and tapestry industries, which provided employment for many poor women. Among them was a young wool spinner called Jeanne Laisne.
In 1472, Charles le Temeraire the Duke of Burgundy besieged the town with an army of 80,000 soldiers. Jeanne, supported by a few women, threatened the Standard bearer with her axe, and wrested the flag from his hands. This act of courage inspired citizens to take up cudgels against the Duke’s army, forcing him to withdraw his troops. For her bravery, the girl was re-christened Jeanne Hachette (Jeanne of the Axe.)
Such extraordinary women live in many parts of the world. Many are unsung and unhonoured. But they are worth their weight in gold.
“Happy is he who dares courageously to defend what he loves,” says Ovid.
We may not be called to defend ourselves on a battle field. But life itself is an arena of challenges, be it in the home or in society. Do we love ourselves enough to stand up to forces that attempt to rob us of our dignity? Or do we react passively, and turn the other cheek?
Courage has no sex. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face,” says Eleanor Roosevelt.
Empowerment must come from within; from confidence in our self worth and self esteem. We need to shed our sense of inertia, overhaul our attitudes, and take up our hatchets against forces that seek to demean and devalue womanhood.
Let it be now!


No trip to Dresden is complete without a cruise down the River Elbe. It was cold on the deck of the steamboat Meissner, and the grumpy captain proved to be a poor tourist guide. But the scenery along the one and half hour long boat ride was something to cherish.
Even at such an early hour, artists had set up their easels on the banks, and were busy at work; hippies lolled about on the sands while sandpipers dodged and darted between their feet and the water; Lovers strolled hand in hand oblivious of the tourists staring at them. Vineyards quilted the hillsides in stripes of green, and high above the level of the river were the three famous castles of Dresden – Albrectburg, Linger Schloss and Schloss Erkberg. From the river, a cable car reached 211 metres high to the castles.
But our destination was the Pilnitz Castle – a beautiful Water Palace that abuts the river. A majestic staircase looms up from the water to the castle, and is decorated with sphinxes. Surrounded by peaceful pavilions, pleasure gardens, lilac courtyards and baroque orangerie, this Water palace was the home of the angelic woman Countess Anna Constansia von Cosel, from 1713 – 1715.
The castle architecture shows a distinct Chinese influence with sloping roofs, decorative chimneys and façade paintings. Behind the Water palace is an exact replica called the Hill Palace, which was built by her son years later. The artifacts, paintings and porcelain displayed in both palaces are priceless.
Constansia loved the gardens. The charmillen that grows there today and stretches on either side of the chestnut avenue, were planted by her. It’s a pity that she could live here only for two years.
Constansia was the youngest mistress of Emperor Freidrich Augustus II. Though he made out that Pilnitz Castle was his gift to his most famous mistress, records show that she had paid 60,000 florins out of her own money for it. She had the misfortune of being the mistress of a whimsical, frivolous megalomaniac, whose unbridled libido and virility earned him the nickname of August the Strong. She fell from grace in 1715, and fled to Brandenberg.
There were several reasons for her banishment. Augustus had taken on a new mistress, and Constansia was cast aside. But a more plausible reason was that she harboured political ambitions. She was critical of his administration, and the ruthless way he imposed burdensome taxes on the common people, to support his extravagances. She also opposed his anti-Protestant stance. The Emperor, who couldn’t brook opposition, soon banished her from his presence.
In certain ways, she resembles Queen Vashti the wife of the Persian king Xerxes, who refused to be treated like a common courtesan. She paid for her strength of character by suffering divorce and banishment.
Countess Cosel was imprisoned in Stolpen Castle from 1716 – 1765. It was a heavy stone prison with no adornments. In the 49 years of her incarceration, all she could see from her windows was Bohemia and a little strip of Switzerland (Sachsische Schweiz) Her tomb in the castle grounds is stark, and reflects the desolation she must have suffered during the best years of her life.
The Countess bore August two children, a son and a daughter. Her son Frederick August Count Cosel built the Hill Palace. Her daughter Augusta Constansia was married at the Pilnitz Castle in 1725, even while Constansia was languishing in the Stolpen prison.
Being mistress to an egocentric temperamental Emperor is surely a very dicey business.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Along the Pacific Coast in Oregon and Washington States is the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which extends on either side of the mouth of the Columbia River. The Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition had just been celebrated in December 2005, and there was renewed interest in that important journey they made across North America. Louisiana, then an area covering 830,000 square miles, had been bought by the Americans from the French, and President Thomas Jefferson wanted a route to the Pacific Ocean from the east coast.
The expedition calling themselves the Corps of Discovery, set out along the Missouri River, and then across miles of unchartered territory, negotiating mountain ranges, daring wild animals and hostile native Indians. They covered 4000 miles in a year and half, and their last winter encampment before returning home, was Fort Clatsop. Here they stayed from December 1805 to March 1806.
Fort Clatsop today is a famous tourist attraction. Though the original structure collapsed after the explorers went away, a replica of the log cabin was built in 1955. Unfortunately, it was burnt down in October 2005, and volunteers immediately rebuilt it in time for the Bicentennial. Set in acres of forest land, the smell of cedar wood as one enters the Fort is arresting. It is built of uniform logs placed one over the other, to form a sturdy stockade.
The Visitors’ Centre adjacent to the Fort has a well documented history of the expedition. There is a striking cut-out of an Indian woman carrying a child. Clothed in her native colourful costume, a demure smile on her face, she stands there proudly, the acknowledged heroine of the expedition! She was the only woman in a group of 31 men.
Sacagawea’s story is fascinating. It has been romanticised, fictionalised, and her contribution to the expedition has been debated by doubting Thomases. Yet the records of Lewis and Clark bear ample testimony to the fact that she was an indispensable member of the team.
Sacagawea was born in the Shoshone tribe. At twelve, she was kidnapped by another Indian tribe called Hidatsa. She was bartered several times, and finally sold to a Canadian fur trader called Charbonneau, who made her his squaw. He then offered both their services as interpreters, to the Corps of Discovery. The girl was pregnant at that time, and later in their journey, was delivered of a boy, by Lewis who acted as midwife.
Sacagawea had her work cut out. She pointed to various landmarks in her homeland of Montana and Idaho; she was interpreter between the Corps and the natives; she used diplomacy to negotiate safe travel through hostile Indian territory. Her crucial role was to procure horses for the expedition from the Indians. She also helped them identify edible roots and vegetables for food, and herbs for medicinal purposes. Though the Corps was heavily armed, the locals knew they came in peace, as they had a woman with a child in the group. Sacagawea was their ambassador of peace.
During their travels, there was a sudden squall in which one of their boats capsized. It was carrying important documents, and this girl barely seventeen, retrieved their invaluable cargo from the water. Captains Lewis and Clarke were so grateful that they named a Montana stream after her, calling it Bird Woman River.
When the expedition was about twenty miles from the Pacific Ocean, there was a debate as to whether they should set up camp at a place they named Dismal Nitch, or travel across the Columbia River to find a suitable site nearer the ocean. The matter was put to vote. Sacagawea not only claimed voting rights, she insisted on accompanying the party that would scout for a location. And so Fort Clatsop came into existence.
When the Corps of Discovery finally returned home, Sacagawea and her husband bid them goodbye at North Dakota. Clark later wrote to her husband Charbonneau, “Your woman who accompanied you on that long, dangerous and fatiguing route to the Pacific Ocean and back, deserved a greater reward than we had in our power to give her.”
They say that there are more memorials to Sacagawea than any other woman in American history. Lewis and Clark wrote much about this teenage girl’s courage, fortitude and resourcefulness.
Sacagawea was a super woman though she didn’t know it. An unlettered seventeen year old native Indian girl saddled with a small baby, she felt no sense of inferiority, neither did she lack confidence in herself. Self confidence and self respect are the most desirable qualities in a person, and she had both in no small measure. Everybody however lowly, is ‘Somebody.’ When we become aware of our own potentialities, it is often possible to achieve the impossible. As Norman Vincent Peale said, “You can if you think you can.”

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Piro – The Dancing Girl Of Ajantha

The Ajantha and Ellora caves in Aurangabad are favourite destinations on every tourist’s itinerary. Yet very few people know of the poignant love story that was played out over 27 long years, in the dark, dank Ajantha caves, towards the middle of the 19th century.We travelled by road from Pune to Aurangabad. From there it was a good 106 kms, in the sweltering heat, and through arid planes, until we stood at the rim of a deep semi-circular ravine. In its depths were the 2000 year old Ajantha caves, hewn into the mountainside. The entrance to these twenty nine caves that looked desolate yet spell binding, made a gorgeous spectacle.

The caves were the labour of Buddhist monks, who spent 800 years between the 2nd to 8th century A.D, first creating them, then decorating them with paintings that recounted the life of Buddha, before and after his enlightenment – A vibrant world of princes, princesses, foreign dignitaries, celestial nymphs, dancing apsaras and the presiding presence of the smiling Buddha. Ironically, they were neglected and forgotten after the decline of Buddhism. The chaste and celibate monks would never have imagined that their work of dedication to their Lord would be the scene of a touching love story.

But the caves were rediscovered in 1819 by British soldiers. The discovery was accidental. The cliff face was obscured by overgrown trees and thick foliage. The officers hunting for tigers might have by-passed the ravine had it not been for a wild looking tribal boy grazing his buffalo.

“You want to shoot tigers?” he asked, “Come, I’ll take you to the lairs.” As they hacked their way through the ravines, they came upon these caves with sculptures, gorgeous frescoes and the overpowering presence of Buddha smiling down on them.” Up until 1824, the frescoes in these caves were more or less intact and well preserved, except for small areas of seepage through cracks in the rocks. As news got around, curious British visitors and treasure hunters came to see the caves, leading to much vandalism and destruction of these invaluable frescoes. An ignorant but greedy man called James Bird used a knife to scrape off as many paintings as he could.

So in 1844, Major Robert Gill an artist with a Madras Regiment was sent by the East India Company, to take photographs and make colored drawings of the frescoes before they were completely ruined.

The artist fell under the spell of these enchanting frescoes, and for 27 long years he labored in these dark and forbidding caves, completely isolated from civilization. There he sat, a bearded hatless Englishman clothed in white, bent over his easel, meticulously transcribing each delicate feature on to canvas, in the light of a small magnesium lamp. He was oblivious of the danger from wild animals and hostile Bhils.

And then, there entered into his life a dancing girl called Piro. She had defied her family to befriend this lonely hermit of the caves. Dressed in her traditional finery and bedecked with tribal jewels, she danced like a dream, bringing to life the dances that had been passed down through generations, from the very beginning of the Ajantha civilization. She was his inspiration, the moving force that kept him plodding at his drawings, the fay that brought to life through her dance, those frozen paintings on stone. In the eerie blackness of night, she infused warmth into his bones, and diffused his loneliness. Piro the considerate wife, the ardent lover!

Yet in death, they lie separated, he in a marble tomb at Bhusawal cemetery, wreathed in jasmine and bougainvillae boughs, and she in an unmarked, forgotten grave, somewhere on the edge of this plateau, at a spot overlooking the caves. The locals say that on moonlit nights a wraithlike figure dances on the rim of this crescent rock, and the tinkling of her anklets echoes through the desolate hills.