Easter Table with painted Romanian Eggs

My husband was posted in Romania as India’s ambassador from 2007-2011.  Romanians tend to preserve some of their  traditions. They follow the Orthodox church so their Easter falls a little later than the other churches.  Good Friday, the day that marks the crucifixion of Jesus and his death, is not a holiday in Romania. However, the Monday after Easter Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, is.

I had the fabulous chance of participating in the Romanian tradition of Easter on Easter Sunday when some friends invited us to be part of the celebration. At midnight, we gathered at the local church, where the priest appeared with a lit candle saying,’ Hristos a inviat'(Christ has risen), and everyone chorused in reply, ‘Adevarat a inviat’ (He has truely risen). Then we lit our own candles from that of the priest’s and headed back home where we simply dived into a feast of roast lamb and excellent local wine. Diving is right, because having become vegan and giving up wine and spirits and generally observing self-denial for the 40 days of lent, it is time to eat and drink ! People also dye boiled eggs in different colours and the tradition is to crack your own egg with that of another’s while saying,’ Hristos a inviat’ and its reply. Enjoying the act, I think I must have cracked at least four eggs !

It seemed, and, as our friends reiterated, as so many festivals across many religions are, that Easter is basically about introspection and then the renewal of the spirit of faith and hope.

In monasteries dotted across Romania, nuns and other craftspeople paint emptied, intact egg shells in intricate patterns which are then sold.

I discovered pictures of a tablescape I had created  later, in Ireland, remembering the Romanian Easter.

Intricately painted eggs from Romania and burlap fleft over from some packaging

I love the texture of burlap and had put some away from a package. I felt it would work.

In  a storm, a few months back, one of the gigantic pine trees that line the boundary wall of the Indian ambassador’s residence,  had fallen, taking down electrical wiring and damaging some of the road. The embassy, in compliance with orders from Dublin municipality, had to cut down those trees–sometimes safety issues are more important than the environment . I got the gardeners to saw slices of the trunk and used some as stepping ‘stones’ in the garden while a few I happily reserved to be used as serving platters or, in this case, as place mats.

Transverse sections of our pine trees used as mats

To go with the feel of rough burlap and wood I tied cutlery in string.

Wood from an old, dismantled dhow(boat)fashioned as a tea-light holder used as a centre piece .Holder is fromTanzania.

Of course, some Khurja pottery kulhads seemed to blend in with the general, textured, rough pieces- and they were a similar purple-blue as some of the painted eggs. And then the blue Fabindia napkins fell into place. A few wooden hens I had purchased from a charity shop years ago in Canada fitted in with the Easter theme– I did not have chicks but I had their mothers !

The mothers of chicks !

The blue marker pen letters on the burlap -not really out of place !

Anthurium plants in reed baskets from Tanzania completed the picture–

—Just sharing, from Lucknow, India.  At home on Easter Sunday we did crack some boiled eggs in remembrance of the beautiful Romanian tradition.

Hope you like this !   See you next time !

 

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A haveli named after a mystic, Waris Manzil, in Saidanpur, Uttar Pradesh

It is the mango orchards that I see first when I arrive in the village of Saidanpur on a morning of May. At 8 am the temperature is 36 degrees. But it is the open countryside and it does not feel hot. We have driven down from Lucknow with Jyotsna, whose family, the Habibullahs own mango orchards and a haveli in the village.

Saidanpur lies in the district of Barabanki, 54 kilometres from Lucknow. It lies on the route to Faizabad, which was originally the capital of the nawabs before they moved it to Lucknow. There is extensive cultivation of marigold flowers, mangoes and licit opium in the region.

Although I have grown up in Uttar Pradesh, I am now surprised that I have been to an orchard such as this only twice. The first, of which I have hazy memories, was a visit to my mother’s maasi’s orchards in Maslandpur in West Bengal and the second was when my father organised an ‘Indian village experience’ for a couple of American Field Exchange students, one of who came to stay with us. Turned out, since we had never visited an Indian village before, not counting our farm in Naini, it was as much of a village experience for my siblings and I. This ‘village experience’ visit also included a mango orchard where we were given donkey and camel rides while the entire village came to watch the ‘gori mems.’ Later we all sat around buckets of desi mangoes and feasted on them.

A large, low-branching mango tree in the orchard

It is a treat to be in an orchard. The thick tree trunks start branching out very near the ground. They make a perfect place to sit on and I spot a couple of children perched on them. Branches spread all around, reaching skywards. Looking up from under the trees you can hardly see the sky or feel the heat from the sun already blazing. Many of these branches hold the luscious fruit, some green, others tinged with yellow, indicating they are ready to be picked. A few women sit on the cool, beaten earth sorting a large pile of mangoes which will be later packed into plastic crates to be sold in the wholesale market.

We drive up a kilometre or so to the village nearby. It lies in an open area, meandering to my left. Most of its houses have mud walls with thatched roofs. It is neat and surprisingly quiet. You see, I have just arrived from the cacophony of the city of Lucknow and cannot quite remember quietness. I enjoy it.

Sections of the old haveli lie ahead of the new one.

Ahead of us , set away from the village, telling us stories of the past, lies an old boundary wall and beyond it arches in ruins. Further ahead with a fresh coat of white paint lies the wall of the haveli  with a large wooden doorway set in the centre.

The freshly painted facade of the newer building. The wooden gateway is a classic one.

 

Jyotsna’s father-in-law Wajahat’s ancestors had settled in this area, he says, around the 12th or 13th century, during the reign of Muhammad Ghori. They were made taluqdars of Saidanpur by the nawab of Awadh. Later, Wajahat’s grandfather Sheikh Mohmmad, an anglophile, was given ownership of 13 villages and formally made taluqdar by then British government. Wajahat Habibullah is not sure when the buildings that now lie in ruins were built but the first floor of the haveli, in its present form, was built by Wajahat’s great grandfather, Sheikh Inayat in the late 19th century. Although Sheikh Mohammad spent most of his time in Lucknow he rarely visited his village and haveli .

His son, the eminent General Enaith Habibullah and Wajahat’s father, set up a stud farm in the village in the later years of his life. The orchards and haveli were looked after by his wife, Begum Hamida.

In the style of havelis , the large outer gateway leads to a small covered space that, in turn, leads to an inner doorway that creaks open. And in here lies a large courtyard surrounded by rooms. Beyond the rooms, now padlocked, was the zenanakhana, the part of the house where women lived.

The open courtyard inside the gateway. Rooms surround the courtyard.

 

Another view of the courtyard with its mandatory tree and well

A large door to the left opens to a staircase which leads to the upper floor. We arrive at an open verandah. To the left it opens on to a beautiful, large terrace with rooms on one side. The caretaker and his family live there now. A grass roof covers a verandah on  one side. The fact that it is perhaps periodically remade is heartening . Which means craftspeople in the village still know how to make them!   It is quiet, and, with open skies above, we are in a private, secluded space.

A tiled roof on the right and a grass roof supported on elegant pillars covers a verandah on the terrace on the first floor

The verandah we had stepped into leads into a lobby. An elegant table stands against the facing wall. It has casual chairs on either side. Photographs of family members are arranged on it, almost as if they lived there still.

The European-style lobby that leads from the grass roofed verandah

Unique teak folding chairs with cane woven backs and seats in the lobby. The table has a marble top

There is a large western style drawing room beyond the lobby with chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and a melange of elegant sofas and chairs arranged in a large circle, left alone, exactly as they had been placed perhaps by Sheikh Mohammad.

The European-style drawing room. The painted borders along the ceiling and pelmets are untouched and the colours remain vibrant

An elaborately framed Belgian mirror and coloured glass chandeliers decorate the room

To one side of the drawing room is a bedroom that opens onto a breezy balcony and, on the other, is a room which was used by Haji Waris Ali Shah(1819-1905), the Sufi mystic, whose famous tomb, Dewa Sharif, in the district of Barabanki, near Saidanpur, is well-known and revered by both Hindus and Muslims from across India. Sheikh Mohammad’s father was a devotee and friend of the mystic who frequently visited the haveli and stayed in this room. It lies untouched from that time. The haveli was also named ‘Waris Manzil’ after the mystic.

A bedroom on one side of the drawing room. A fabric,hand-drawn punkha (fan) still remains suspended from the ceiling

 

Haji Waris Shah’s room remains untouched from the late 19th century

The caretaker, Wasi, who lives with his family in a part of the house, serves us hot, puffed puris, aloo rassa, mango pickle and chutney on a table laid out in the front verandah.

The balcony adjoining the bedroom commands a view of open grounds along the village

 

An ideal place for meals-the verandah

Jyotsna, a woman of many talents, takes active interest in the village of Saidanpur. She has organised various training camps for the women and is taking their tradition of weaving forward by marketing gamchas  or cotton towels woven in the village. Her visits to the village are frequent as are her stopovers at the old haveli.

No doubt, the Habibullahs’ ancestors, wherever they are, are happy that the beautiful building stands in good shape, well preserved and looked after.

I have written about the mud-walled, traditional houses in the village of Saidanpur in an earlier post. Read about them here.

The discovery of houses such as this always amazes me. In the middle of the Indian countryside, in villages placed away from arterial roads and highways lie buildings of immense beauty, interest and importance – historical and architectural. And very few people know about them. Think a mapping is greatly needed !

Do keep reading these posts and spreading the word about these gems. Visit them ,if you can. I will be happy to help -write to me on my email or in the’Comments’ section !

Until next time….

 

 

 

 

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Canadian fall and Halloween inspired tablescape

I had actually created this tablescape on the 30th of October. But then by the time I uploaded the images, it was time to go to Allahabad, the city where I was born and brought up, where my sister and two brothers live and where I share a bond of memories with families of friends.

So back in Lucknow, in between planting seasonals, I am writing this post.

Just before Halloween friends from Canada had started putting up Halloween images on Facebook-you know, orange pumpkins on doorsteps, collecting pumpkins from farms, witches and cobwebs in their rooms. And then they shared pictures of the magnificent Canadian fall–trees aflame in reds, oranges and yellows, leaves piled up on the ground,etc. In our garden the dwarf poinciana, an amazing shrub that flowers for almost 7 months, was full of orange blooms.So I felt inspired enough to create a table setting.

The dwarf poinciana with its clusters of orange flowers in our garden

A sabzi wala (vegetable vendor)makes rounds of our neighbourhood almost every day. His cart is loaded with fresh produce. So, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of seeing his cart, I buy at least one or two vegetables every time he comes. He was delighted when I bought all three of his green pumpkins (In India’s cities it is rare to find ripe, orange- skinned pumkins ) that I had decided I would carve.

The sabzi wala and his cart laden with fresh vegetables–inspiration enough for many tablescapes !

I tackled the pumpkin first armed with a couple of kitchen knives. I wonder why my knives never seem sharp enough !

A pumpkin roughly scored with a simple pattern

For those of you not familiar with hollowing out and carving pumpkins/vegetables, I am sure there are better carving techniques but here are my utterly  amateurish ones-                 1) Score a pattern on your pumpkin, the simpler the better.                                                       2) Slice off the top.                                                                                                                                  3) Using a tablespoon, hollow out the pumpkin, removing as much of its flesh as you possibly can.                                                                                                                                               4) Using the tip of the smallest knife you have start cutting out your scored pattern- do be careful to control your knife so as not to slice off a finger !                                                             5) One pumpkin down, just carry on being patient, you have 2 more to go ! Or just abandon the other two and be happy with the one !

Ever since we returned to Lucknow, my large table covers had been all but forgotten in boxes which were gathering mountains of dust in a store upstairs. I remembered my Rajasthani , off-white on off-white embroidered cloth and traced it to one of the boxes. It still had a couple of stains from the last table setting it had seen in Dublin, where my husband held his last post. I used this cloth on my table, bunched up. I used the same cloth on yet another tablescape with Cherry Blossom I created in Dublin. Take a look here.

I created elevations with dishes placed upside down, under the cloth and let the pumpkins sit on them.

Carved pumpkin elevated and placed on a large leaf of the Money Plant

Persimmons from Himachal Pradesh, a fruit introduced in India by European settlers are in season and since they come closest to ripe orange pumpkins both is shape and colour, I bought some and used them on the table. Little vases bought at charity shops in Dublin and a couple of shot glasses worked well to hold the Poinciana blossoms.

Shot glasses hold the flowers

Hundreds of years ago, in 1981, my husband, then a bachelor, employed in the Indian Foreign Service and on his language training at Hong Kong (his language was Mandarin), bought his first china tea set at  one of the ‘China Products’ stores in Hong-Kong. China Products, where I , as a newly married woman, on my maiden voyage abroad, was taken to buy my first winter coat before making the 48 hour train journey to Beijing from Canton, was a chain of stores owned by the Chinese government that sold everything Chinese at prices, which, even then,were the cheapest. So you got dried fruit(including apple, pear, pineapple, crab-apple) in dented cardboard boxes, all kinds of tea in pasty green or bright yellow cartons and tins, a huge range of Chinese medicines in large and small boxes with crackling plastic film and gold and black Chinese lettering, steel cutlery-shiny and cheap (many of which I still use !), carved furniture, down jackets in four standard colours, grey and dark blue overcoats (I got the grey one), jade and porcelain figurines and vases- ranging from diminutive to life-sized ones, and, of course, crockery. The last included the almost translucent, beautiful orange flowered tea set.

So I used these tea cups and saucers on my white dinner plates.

Orange tea cup and saucer from ‘China Products,’ Hong Kong.

 

At our second Halloween in Ottawa, by which time I had learnt a bit about how to decorate your front door with a pumpkin or two, and my two kids had gone out trick or treating, I  got kind of carried away by the witch theme and dressed the part with a shawl draped over my head with fake dracula teeth stuck into my mouth. A little boy rang our doorbell and when I opened the door with my basket of treats, the kid ran off in fright to his waiting father. Turned out he was the very handsome father of my daughter, Geetika’s friend ! I suppose it would have been a far better idea to dress like Snow White !

 

 

Hope you liked the tablescape !   I suppose it is possible, with just a bit of effort, to lay out your table, if not with all the crockery and cutlery, then with your favourite piece of cloth, some fruit or vegetables or with a sprig or two of flowers and , in India, depending on whether you have the ceiling fan on or not, a couple of candles or tea lights . Something pretty and elegant for the eyes !

See you next time !

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In Malihabad- A Home from Shah Jahan’s Time

Hello to all of you !

I wanted to let you know that my book, ‘Rehaish—At Home in Lucknow’ was published by Sanatkada in February this year. It is a coffee table book with stories and pictures of 28 old, beautiful houses of Lucknow. Should some of you be interested in getting it- and I hope you will be- I will give you the link to the book shop that stocks copies in my next post. They will be happy to mail them to you.

The last house I went to record for my book was in December last year. So about 7 months passed till I went to see the latest old house. This one is really old and in Malihabad, near Lucknow.

My dear friend, Yasmin had long promised me a trip to her cousin, Yusuf Kamal’s house and mango orchards in Bakhtiarnagar in Malihabad.  This materialises at about 9.30 am on a day that the monsoons have decided to break. The skies are overcast with promise and it has started to drizzle delightfully as we drive towards this place. I love the countryside anywhere, but the Utttar Pradesh countryside is what I am familiar with. It fills me with yearning and nostalgia. It took a day such as this one for my father, a busy Allahabad doctor, to take time off in the afternoon and drive with us in his shiny black Ambassador car to our farm in Naini, near Allahabad to eat roasted bhutta or laiyya/chana and drink hot, sweet tea or  go on a long drive to Phaphamau, also near Allahabad, where a roadside dhaba, next to the Ganga, made the nicest langcha and samosas. The monsoons of North India, in case some of you missed the point, are an event to be celebrated !

In the countryside of Uttar Pradesh on the way to Malihabad- a temple and bridge built around 1787 across the river Baeta by the Wazir,Tikait Rai, in the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-daula

 

Malihabad, 25 kilometres from Lucknow, is not only the birthplace of the poet, Josh Malihabadi(to whom Yasmin is related) but also the mango producing belt of Uttar Pradesh. The road snaking through mango orchards finally leads us to the village, Bakhtiarnagar, to the house of Yusuf Kamal and the gentleman himself.

The ruins of an old haveli next to that of Yusuf Kamal’s.

The building is very much a sprawling haveli. You enter it through a large wooden gateway, set in an unimposing wall, a characteristic of a haveli, which opens into a courtyard.

The main doorway of the haveli set , in characteristic haveli style, in an unimposing wall. Thin, lakhauri brick used for the building clearly visible. In the picture are Yasmin, Matloob and Schiraz Khan

A single jamun tree stands at its centre and is loaded with large jamuns, many of which lie on the ground, whole or squashed, staining the earth around purple.  Hens and chicken squawk and move around. They have just laid a couple of eggs( Yes, these are the desi variety !) in their coup and have been released into the courtyard.

A couple of steps lead you to the main house. In a large room, seated on jute-string woven charpais the kind of which you don’t see in our cities anymore, Yusuf Kamal tells us that his ancestor, Sarmast Khan was sent as Nawab of Malihabad by the then Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. Malihabad, he says, was an important town on the route from Delhi to Lucknow. The route was paved with the thin, strong lakhauri brick which, he says, still exist under the more modern tarmac. 1000 villages were placed under Sarmast Khan’s jurisdiction. His headquarters were in what is now the locality of Aliganj in Lucknow. It was his grandson, Muqarim Khan who continued as the Nawab and built this haveli around the late 1600s at the centre of his extensive mango orchards. The entire structure is made of the thin lakhauri brick, the kind that were used in many buildings in India from the 16th to the 19th century.

The room we are in is actually one long room, leading into another through open dars or doorways with scalloped arches. The high ceiling has wooden beams. The fact that there are no doors makes the room airy and feel spacious. In the first room lie the charpais to sit or sleep on.

The first of the two main rooms of the haveli with its open ‘dars’ and wooden beams in the ceiling. In picture, left to right,Schiraz, Yasmin, Matloob Khan and the owner of the property,Yusuf Kamal.

The second has a more modern addition of a dining table and chairs. Doors open into smaller rooms, one of which is the kitchen. In the past there were no doors even to these rooms. The kitchen is filled with the aroma of mangoes that jostle for space in the ‘niamat-khana’ (a wire-meshed, stand-alone cabinet meant for keeping food) that lies in a corner. Garibe, Yusuf Kamal’s man Friday and a lady from the village who is here to help, wait in the kitchen and smile warmly to see us. There is something touching about the genuine happiness and welcome extended to us by people who seem untouched by the artifice that city life can sometimes generate.

The second room with its ‘dars’ leading to the inner courtyard. The floors are of brick.

The second room leads through dars into a large inner courtyard. Yusuf Kamal shows us the pigeon house on the far end of the courtyard. He asks Garibe to release the dozens of pigeons that he keeps as pets. They come out of the door, flutter up in groups, gutur-gu-ing,  and then they descend to strut around the courtyard.

Pigeons have always been kept as pets in this household. These are called the ‘Girabaz‘ pigeons, Yusuf Kamal tells me. They are the kinds that fly high , unlike the ‘Gole‘ pigeons that fly low and are used for ‘Kabutarbazi,’ a sport. His collection has quite a few varieties of pigeon called, ‘harey,’ ‘amber-sarrey‘ and ‘kalduma.‘  ‘They provide companionship and look beautiful. In the cooler months when they are released they fly away but always return home either at dusk, the same day or a day or two later,’ says Yusuf.

The two doors at the far end of courtyard lead to the pigeon house. The released ‘Girabaz’ pigeons on the far left of courtyard.

A doorway at the far end leads us out of this section of the house to an open area where, on a mound, is a grass roofed shed. ‘My grandfather and father would spend most of the day under this shed meeting people and watching over our mango orchards,’says Yusuf. He points to a few graves and a maqbara( a mausoleum)which lie on one side and says they were found on the property when the house was being built. A small mosque that stands next to these was built later. He respects how old these structures are and has done his best to preserve them.

The grass-roofed canopy under which Yusuf Kamal’s father and grandfather spent most of their daylight hours.

The ancient maqbara, now painted green, the small mosque and the graves that were found on the property

A doorway in the wall of an adjoining building opens into yet another courtyard with rooms on two sides. This was the mardan khana or men’s quarters in the past. Now it is used for housing cattle.

A section of the separate traditional building which was the mardan khana in the past

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A row of traditional squat toilets in the haveli

Yusuf Khan himself spent 15 years in the United Kingdom where he worked as a chartered accountant. His father, finding it difficult to manage the estate all by himself, asked Yusuf to return to Lucknow and Bakhtiarnagar to look after their property. Those were still the days when children obeyed their parents-no questions asked- and Yusuf found himself here plunged headlong into the matters of this area. He soon became very popular among the people because of his genuine desire and ability to help them and, in 2015, got elected as the Pradhan or the headman of their village.

Yusuf Kamal reclines on a charpai

Back in the house, Yusuf Kamal expertly peels off  a mango. He then slices it into ‘phanki and guthli.’ A shiny, scrubbed old aluminium tashteri (a small plate) receives the fruit which he then passes to us. ‘Try this one,’ he says, ‘ It is the Khas-ul-khas.’ The flesh is a sunshine yellow. It is sweet, juicy and has characteristic fragrance. Then he picks up the famous Dusehri from an assortment of mangoes soaked in a bucket of water. ‘ Do you see how the skin is a uniform pale yellow and the flesh perfect and not over-ripe from the inside? This is the Dusehri of Malihabad!’ he says with understandable pride and continues, with a hint of derision, ‘ What you usually get in the markets are Dusehris with green skin and the flesh is almost always over-ripe. That is the kind grown in Barabanki and other places.’

‘Any indigestion caused by the overeating of mangoes can be soothed by eating two pieces of jamun,’ says the owner of the orchards

Earlier in the morning I have asked Yusuf Khan about the ‘Malihabadi safeda’ mango which my husband Debashish remembered eating as a child but could never find in local markets since our return to Lucknow. He says he has them in his orchards. Just when we are about to leave, Garibe, under instructions from his employer, quietly brings a large bag full of these safedas and puts them in the boot of our car for me to take back.

On our way out, more jamuns are collected and handed to us as are the two desi eggs. Yusuf Kamal has been giving all this to us with so much pleasure that it humbles me. My faltering faith in a gracious world has revived.

Thank you Yusuf sahib for sharing your beautiful house with us and for showing us that grace still exists. Thank you, Yasmin, for so kindly arranging this trip.

If you liked what you just read please do share the post. It could help if more people became aware of old houses around them such as this one !

I look forward to hearing your comments. To post comments click on the box that says ‘Comments’ and follow the simple instructions.

Hope your days ahead are happy !

‘Bye for now.

 

 

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