Friday, 15 November 2013

Travel Diaries: Ahmedabad - Solo - Makassar

The Adalaj stepwell outside Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat is sometimes called ‘India Lite’: everything is easier, due to the superior infrastructure, and the people are laid back (a Gujarati thing).
On my first morning I stole out the heavenly Taj Gateway Airport Hotel at dawn to visit the famous 15th Century stepwell in the village of Adalaj nearby.
I could have slept in — the gates only open at 8 30 — but in the hours waiting I witnessed a traditional Gujarati village going through its morning rituals. I sat with the morning paper readers group by the pump station and had tea while watching the parade of villagers supplicating as they passed the temple adjacent to the well.
Detail of Islamo-Hindu carving inside the stepwell complex, Adalaj

Old men with handle-bar moustaches — all dressed in the exquisite traditional white tunics of Gujarat — fed the pigeons in the temple’s forecourt  with seeds from deep pockets.
I spent some time in the temple marvelling at the mosaic-work, and at the devotions of the morning visitors.
The well itself is a marvel of Hindu-Islamic architecture built by a Muslim King Mohammed Bedga for Queen Rani Roopha, wife of Veer Singh, the Vaghala Chieftain. It was built as a sort of caravanserai and baths for passing travelers. The exquisite tracery  on much of the sandstone carving is of the finest quality. One can see why so many designers copy the patterns of Gujarat for hotel decorative art; even as far as away Bali!

Adalaj villager going through morning prayer ritual at the temple adjacent the Adalaj stepwell, Ahmedabad

Gujarati grand-dads outside the Adalaj stepwell temple

15 November 2013: To Delhi to stay in a Lutyens Bungalow
I love the garden suburbs of Lutyens Delhi — colonial splendour Delhi — with its rows of neat eccentrics living in neat rows of Palladian bungalows. A lot are drinking neat whiskeys too.
Delhi is so Anglophile and there is always so much to do, culturally.

Lodi Gardens, Delhi
I was lucky to be taken on an early morning tour of Lodi Gardens. The park is dotted with romantic tombs from the mogul era — works of the 15th Century Sayyid and Lodhis, a Pashtun dynasty which ruled much of North India during the 16th Century — which make gorgeous landscape follies. Cricket-enthusiasts practice yoga on the lawns;  Delhi grandees in tweed jackets walk dogs.
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From Delhi’s delightful, spacious, clean new airport — brimming with cultural reference — I caught culture-neutral Singapore Airplanes (sambal has been renamed Kris Sauce so as not to freak out the straights) connecting through to Solo, Central Java on Silk Air.
Solo is kind if Dutch-o-phile to Delhi’s Anglophile: the Solonese still love their croquettes and sausages, and still wear socks with their sandals on special occasion.

15th November 2013: Makam Kertasura
At last I get to visit the ruins of Central Java’s last post-Majapahit palace, before the present Central Javanese palace era (the Keraton Pakubuwana was founded in Solo in 1740. (The court moved, in massive procession, from nearby Kertasura).
Only the tall red-brick walls and some 18th Century palace atmosphere survive. The enclosed space is about the size of the old Puri Klungkung. A greater part of the 'fortress' is now taken up with graves of royal relatives and lesser wives of past rulers. There is one winged gate, vaguely reminiscent of the famous winged gated at Makam Sendang Duwur graveyard in East Java, and one large handsome bangsal pavilion in its own court at the entrance to the grave complex. The bangsal is rather like a Balinese wantilan but without a tiered roof.
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From Kartasura I drove to Boyolali nearby, to the royal baths of the Mangkunegaran Palace at Pengging. The springs are still used for important palace rituals but is today more of a public swimming pool, and a very nice too.

The Pengabean section of the Umbul Pengging royal baths at Boyolali, near solo.
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Later in the same day I 'discovered' that two of the columns at the Istana Mangkunegaran’s main pendopo agung (the two that flank the entrance to the Dalem pavilion) are almost exact replicas of the famous columns, rumoured to be from the old 14th Century Kraton Majapahit, now part of the serambi verandah pavilion at the Late 15th  Century Mesjid Agung Demak, the oldest in Java.
14 November 2013; Candi Ceto, Century Java: You really can't win these days: wherever you go there is always a group of Balinese cynics ready to put you down.
Here I am high in the foothills of Gunung Lawu at the 15th Century Candi Ceto, a Hindu-Javanese Temple, minding my own business in matching Harjonegoro batik and headscarf, when a cheeky Balinese spiritual tourist granny from Blahkiuh asks me if I am doing a ‘pre-wedding’ !! (Meaning I am overdressed like a groom-to-be at a photo shoot). Apparently my udeng is too peaked! I mean, really, you can’t win. He he.

Candi Ceto, Central Java
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On the way back to Solo I visit the grave of Mangkunegaran IV nearby. It is a marvel of European decorative design complete with Versaillesque grill-work. “MN IV was very rich,” the custodian tells me. Inside the giant silver jewel box-like vault are three white Carrera marble coffins surrounded by urns of plastic flowers and royal portraits of the deceased on easels.
The grave of Mangkunegaran IV, at Girilayu is inside a steel cungkup imported from Holland in 1860
It’s a bit Napoleonic (Second Empire) and magnificent.
Well worth the detour.

15 November 2013: To Solo’s Taman Bale Kambang for a Ramayana Performance by the Bayu Bajra troupe from Prambanan
The Taman Bale Kambang was once the pleasure gardens of the Mangkunegaran, the second of Solo’s royal rulers.
It is now a people’s part. Its 150th anniversary and the city is putting on a show of traditional dance performances from across Indonesia.
The children dancers are totally wondrous (see photos this page) and the park’s amphitheatre is packed.
There are ketoprak performances twice a week and a Ramayana Ballet every full moon at this delightful venue.

Sumatran tiny tot fan dancer at the Taman Bale Kambang, Solo

Golden deer dancer from Prambanan’s Bayu Bajra troupe performing in the Ramayana at the Taman Bale-Kambang, Solo.
See video: for full coverage.
25 November 2013: To the old sea-port of Makassar in South Sulawesi
Makassar, also known as Ujung Pandang, is the homeland of the Bugis people — famed for their beauty, romantic natures and colourful village architecture.

Phinisi boats in Poteré Harbour

The Monalisa of Poteré.
I visited the old Poteré harbor to admire the tall boats, called phinisi, which ply the islands before retiring to Bali, where they are converted into floating boutique gin palaces.
In a warung there I see a young girl wrapped in a sarong whose beauty and grace blew my socks off (photo above).