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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Change.

A hankering for change is what people claim got us into the situation in which we are today in the US. BUT that’s not what I’m going to discuss now, not in this post anyway.

Instead, I want to highlight a positive concept which is on the other end of the spectrum from change: Constancy. Steadfastness. Permanence.

This is the concept that comes to one’s mind when they mull over how India has dealt with foreign cultures that have found themselves on its shores through invasion or seeking refuge. India is known for its practice of the tenet “live, and let live.” So it has assimilated the non-native cultures into its own over the millennia, thereby resulting in its maddeningly and gorgeously diverse civilization.

This absorption and amalgamation can be evidenced not only in India’s long and varied history but also in its everyday food scene today. These are the aspects I explore often in my writing both here at the blog and in my novels. And I plan to dig deeper into these in my future posts.

Until then, I’ll leave you all with pictures of Indian food.

Why? Because pictures are fun, and pictures of food are even more fun. But mostly because the most accessible route to experiencing a culture is through its food.

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I’m currently on a culinary pilgrimage, and a darn fascinating one at that. Here’s Part 1 of my quest.

Without further ado, here’s the recipe to the world’s oldest curry. I extrapolated it from this video and adjusted it slightly to my own taste. That’s the best thing about Indian cuisine in all its regional variations: with a little imagination, it’s easy and fun to customize recipes to your liking.

Ingredients:Ingredients-1

  1. Small purple eggplants (the smaller the better for taste), slit: 7
  2. Unripe mango, peeled and flesh chopped into small pieces: 1
  3. Ginger: an inch-sized cube, peeled and grated
  4. Sesame oil: 2 tbsp
  5. Cumin: 1 tsp
  6. Turmeric: 1 tsp
  7. Sugar (used instead of sugarcane powder): 1 tbsp
  8. Salt: to taste

Process:

  1. Add oil to a heated pan, then add ginger, cumin and turmeric to it. Let simmer for a minute, or until the spices give out their aroma.Cooking-Curry
  2. Add the eggplants and turn them over every few minutes until they’re roasted on all sides.
  3. Add the chopped mango, sugar and salt. At this point, you might need to add about ¼ cup of water to help the eggplants cook. Cover the pan with a lid so the steam can do its magic.
  4. Within about 10 minutes or so, your curry is ready.

The recipe is rather simple, as prototypes tend to be, but it’s unbelievably delicious. No wonder it has sustained over the millennia without major upgrades or changes—it bears the hallmarks of a basic preparation from an average Indian home of today:

  • Locally grown/procured vegetables
  • Vegetables in season
  • Basic spices, each chosen with care for not only taste but their beneficial effects on health
  • Cooked with minimal fuss with the most scrumptious and healthy results

Anything else added to this recipe (like chillies, curry leaves, sliced onions etc., which are later discoveries or imports to India) is an embellishment to bring out an appealing variation. There’s no harm in this, because where’s progress without experimentation, right?

I would’ve loved to make the curry in a copper or earthenware pot for authenticity, but because I didn’t have either handy, I chose to go with a cast iron pan (although iron wasn’t available during the Indus period).

Depending on their socio-economic status, sections of the Harappan society would’ve probably used copper cooking utensils, while those who couldn’t afford copper would’ve gone with baked earthenware pots.Rice&Curry

I also cooked brown rice to be served with the curry as Harappans would’ve done. Okay, there are two schools of experts when it comes to domesticated rice and Indus Valley. One school believes that the people of the Indus Valley cultivated rice as a staple food grain and the other (the minority) doesn’t think so. Given this situation, I did what any self-respecting enthusiast does: aligned myself with the school that complies with my own beliefs. (I mean, how can I imagine an Indian subcontinent without rice as a staple?) The alternative carbs at a Harappan home would’ve been wheat/millet flatbread or barley porridge.

So, there you have it, my journey to the heart of an Indus home: its kitchen.

Wouldn’t you like to give this recipe a try? I’d love to hear about your experience, if you do.

For a different take on this curry and its history, read Ambika Sambasivan’s Cooking Up a 4,000-year-old Curry. While there, be sure to check out and support Yali Books’s commendable efforts at bringing to life books that highlight South Asian cultures.

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I have always loved making connections in my day-to-day life to traditions and routines I’d read about in a history book or heard as a child from my great-grandmother’s stories (as so much of history and tradition is still passed down from one generation to the next in India). I appreciate a deep sense of preservation and kinship in the knowledge that despite all the technological advances, we, as humans today, aren’t at our core that removed from our earliest ancestors. This is also why I explore predominantly historical themes in my writing.

So, when I received a link recently from Ambika Sambasivan, an advocate of South Asian cultures at Yali Books, inviting me to try out an experience, my curiosity was piqued. I clicked the BBC News link open: it was a video explaining how to cook a curry that was routinely made over 4,000 years ago in the kitchens of the Indus Valley homes. I almost swooned from excitement.

See, ever since I was a young child, the Indus Valley Civilization (or Harappan Culture as it’s also called) that flourished over 4,000 years ago in the Indian subcontinent fascinated me no end. Heck, I even wrote a full-length novel set in the Indus city of Mohenjo-Daro during the time period that the civilization was at its peak.

What is this Indus Valley Culture, you ask?

In simplified terms, the Indus Culture was a Bronze-age civilization (3300 – 1300 BCE) that spread over a vast area of what is today northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India. The culture flourished in the fertile basin of the Sindhu River (whose name has morphed into Indus River in modern times) and other monsoon-fed rivers. The culture was highly evolved, and its people are noted for pioneering urban planning—cities that had elaborate drainage systems and one and two-story buildings made of baked-bricks!—and technology for metallurgy and sustained farming among other things.

Unfortunately, compared to how long the civilization thrived, and how successful it had been, we know very little about the culture, religion and day-to-day lives of the Indus people.

During my extensive research for the novel, I learned that the Harappans cultivated, and perhaps exported, grains such as wheat, barley and rice; fruits such as melons, dates and grapes; and produce like sesame, green peas, ginger, garlic and turmeric. However, I had no idea that they knew of aubergines (eggplants) until I watched this BBC video.

And, what’s more, the video gifts us with the recipe for the world’s oldest proto-curry (isn’t that a brilliant word?). Two scientists unearthed this recipe, by use of starch analysis, from the pot shards found at one of the Harappan excavations near the modern-day Delhi. Thank you, Science!

I can imagine a Harappan man or a woman hunched over a cooking fire, fanning the embers to adjust the heat-level, and roasting the eggplants in sesame oil to perfection. This recipe—because food transcends time and place, and nothing draws people together quite like food does—symbolizes the tenuous, yet in its own way tenacious, connection I have with my forebears from so long ago. Just the fact that I can follow the recipe to the last detail and attempt to experience even the tiniest bit of their daily routines fills me with awe and hope.

Because, to me, history and traditions are less about rigid customs and more about deepening ties and understanding.

I’m off, in search of ingredients for the world’s oldest-known curry. I’m going to post here my observations from this compelling exercise of recreating the proto-curry next week. Hope to see you all soon!

P.S: Did you know that “curry” might not even be an original Indian word, at least in the context it’s globally used? Indians don’t necessarily apply that word for their preparations unless they’re using it in a Western/larger-audience context. There are several theories as to what actually constitutes a curry and who originally coined that word. Another post for another day!

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The southern tip of India is a peninsula, and the whole east side of Andhra Pradesh (which is on the south-east slice of India) is a coast, overlooking the Bay of Bengal. I’d left Hyderabad — a completely landlocked city — and clicketty-clacked over in a train to my grandparents’ town, which is a little over 10 miles from the bay.

This town is famous, among other things, for a centuries-old temple that sits smack dab in the middle of town. Its 125 ft gopuram (the tall

This picture honestly does injustice to the temple and its grandeur. It was a festival day when I took this picture and I couldn't get any closer to it because of the mad rush of devotees visiting the temple. Also, the crisscrossing electric wires make a nasty backdrop, unfortunately

cone-shaped tower made of stone) looms over everything else in sight.

The temple was built by Chalukyas in the 1400s. (Chalukyas were one of the most powerful and enduring dynasties to rule over parts of southern and central India.)

Every inch of the tower’s surface is sculpted with gorgeous figures depicting stories from the Hindu mythology.

Growing up, when we went about our daily lives, spending time with cousins or visiting friends, we always passed by the gopuram. It was like the moon: it followed us like a shadow everywhere we went, watching over us.

Picture taken from: manasasancharare.wordpress.com

When I think about it now, never once did I stop then and reflect upon its past and history. I was definitely not apathetic to it: I always wondered at its height (craning my neck to catch the glimpse of the very tip of it) and the beauty of the engravings; it’s just that I took it for granted that it has always been a part of the town and always will be.

Simply put, in India, history is a way of life. That also explains why even ancient structures are not cordoned off from the public and protected.

They have existed, as part of people’s lives, bearing silent testimony to the passage of time for centuries and will continue to do so in the future.

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I had a grand time sharing memories of my vacation with you all in bits and pieces for the past few months in this blog . Thank you for taking this trip with me!

I’ll leave you all with pictures I took as I went about different towns and cities trying to gather together memories of my childhood…

If you look closely, you can see a few monkeys on a couple of the rooftops. It is common for troops of monkeys to descend upon the town suddenly during the day. They sit on top of the roofs or trees with stoic expressions on their faces, observing the activities of their cousins the humans, before moving on as silently as they had appeared

 

Notice the little huts in the back? Isn't that a lovely way to live, so close to nature? Thoreau would probably have loved the seclusion of this spot

 

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An underground tunnel leads from inside the ramparts of the Golconda Fort to the walled compound (at a distance of about 3 kilometers from the fort), where all the seven kings of the Qutub Shahi dynasty (and other important family members) are interred. The tombs within this complex have been built in the time period of mid 1500s to late 1600s.

The structures stand today, weathered, but tall and sturdy. They bear testimony to the lives of the men or women who have lived within the walls of the Golconda Fort and have left a lasting legacy in some form or the other in the area where the current Hyderabad city in India flourishes.

At first glance, each tomb looks similar in shape to the one next to it. However, when you pay closer attention to the details, you see the big and small differences that point to the fact that the architect of each edifice was an individual with distinct visions, beliefs, and interests.

This collection of majestic structures is somber, yet ethereally beautiful.

When I stood in the middle of the circle of tombs, I felt oddly connected with all those people who had stood some hundreds of years ago in exactly the same spot, breathing the air that I did — maybe even aspiring for some of the same things that I do today – and possibly looking about them and willing themselves to remember the moment in time when they came face to face with the fragility of human life.

A map of the complex of tombs outside its entrance

 

This is a fake grave for the visitors. The actual body is, I was told, buried underground in an actual grave

 
 

 

The Assembly Hall at Golconda as seen from the top of one of the tombs

 

The unfinished tomb of Abul Hassan Tani Shah, the last Qutub Shahi ruler of Hyderabad. He died in captivity elsewhere, and hence his body is not interred inside this structure. I learned that the dome on top of the tomb is built only after the interment of the body. Also, interestingly, this edifice stands alone outside the compound wall that protects the rest of the tombs.

 

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Hyderabad — née Bhagyanagaram, the City of Fortunes — has an eclectic personality you’d be hard put to find elsewhere.

Larger-than-life statues of Lord Shiva and his consort, Goddess Parvathi. The size of the people standing at the base of this sculpture should give you some idea of its magnitude

Architecture:

In this city, the ancient Hindu architecture and the architecture influenced by the Islamic culture have jostled each other over the centuries and ultimately settled down into their own grooves. 

Architecture influenced by the Hindu religion is known for its use of color and sculptures. It, in fact, revels in the portrayal of larger-than-life forms of Gods, Goddesses, humans, and animals and their role in the mythological stories. No Hindu temple is considered complete without its share of intricate carvings and murals all along its walls.

A mosque

Diametrically opposite to this, architecture influenced by the Islamic culture favors tall towers and huge domes. Engravings on the walls depict austere, yet beautiful, geometric and freehand patterns, since Islam forbids depiction of humans in any shape or form.

It is quite common in this city to come upon a temple with its intricately sculpted images painted in riotous colors just around the corner from a solemn mosque, with its towering turrets and domes.

Sculptures on the face of a Hindu temple

 

Carvings on the walls of a mosque

Clothes:

You can’t leave Hyderabad without losing yourself in some shopping, especially for women’s clothing. It is one of the centers in modern India for eye-catching designs, colors, and fashions in ethnic wear.

Women in Saris

A six-yard sari (pronounced phonetically as: saa-ree), a timeless example of “less is more” in terms of exposure of skin, used to be the original choice of apparel for the majority of women in India. Unfortunately, it is not the most convenient of fashions, owing to its several layers that hinder free movement and also the amount of time and skill required to drape it in the proper style. As a result, a sari is losing its popularity as an everyday wear among the modern and younger generations. It has become just one ethnic choice among many, depending on the occasion and time and place.

A chudidar or a Punjabi Suit (a style that is the descendant of the traditions and

Punjabi Suit

 trends from parts of northern India mixed with those of the Muslim culture) is the most usual style of choice among women in all of India now. It is easy to wear, cheaper than a sari (usually) and stands up to the busy and demanding life of today’s woman.

Hyderabad has brought the trends from North-and-South and Hindu-and-Muslim cultures together and come up with a chic — yet ethnic – and traditional — yet immensely convenient — wear for women.

I realized on this trip that, these days in shops, there are as many style choices in chudidars as there are stars in the sky. (Okay, may be an exaggeration, but only slightly so.) They come in several prices ranging anywhere from $10/- a set all the way up to hundreds of dollars. Depending on the time, money, and energy you are willing to spend, you will find a style to suit any occasion, however big or small.

Food:

Dosa with Chutney, Sambhar, and a cup of piping hot coffee

The food in Hyderabad reflects the marrying of not only the two major religions of the region, but also several cultures from around the country (and beyond).

From roadside food vendors’ carts on the streets to small cafés on the curbside (with names like Irani café or Punjabi Dhabha) to posh five-star hotels, each carries a menu that can only be described as a delightful medley of tastes and flavors.

On the same menu, you see items such as: Hyderabadi Biryani, Gosht ka Salan, and Khubani ka Mitha that are examples of the gastronomic gems that are born of the Hyderabadi Muslim culture, followed by true South Indian specialties such as: Dosa-Chutney-Sambhar, Chicken Korma, and Payasam, with Indian-Chinese items like: Chicken 65, Chilly Chicken, and Hakka Noodles nipping closely at their heels, and Aloo Parantha, Kheema Naan, and Ras Malai, mouth-watering delicacies from various regions of North India, not too far behind. (See below for translation/explanation of the names of each of the dishes mentioned here, if you’re interested :-).)

Gosht ka Salan

Language:

The same ease and acceptance exists in their general outlook on life among the city’s populace. Telugu, Hindi, English, and Urdu — all with an accent/dialect unique to the region – are only a few of the languages you hear exchanged on an average day in Hyderabad.

For all its journey full-speed ahead into the 21st century and its willing immersion into true globalization – which has brought materialism and dwindling ethics and values with it, unfortunately – Hyderabad (and all of India, for that matter) still retains a flavor, an other-worldliness if you will, on a day-today basis that dates back to centuries of tradition and culture.

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Glossary:

Hyderabadi Biryani: Fried rice/Pilaf using chicken or mutton cooked in a style unique to Hyderabad.

Gosht ka Salan: A spicy curry of goat or lamb.

Khubani ka Mitha: Khubani is Urdu for apricots. This is a dessert consisting of dried apricots in a thick syrup, served over a thick cream or custard. 

Dosa: Crepes made out of lentils and rice. One of the most common breakfast items in southern India.

Chutney: A spicy ground mixture made of peanuts or some kind of lentils to go with crepes.

Sambhar: Yellow lentil soup.

Chicken Korma: Chicken curry made using yoghurt and several spices.

Payasam: Traditional rice pudding.

Chilly Chicken: Chicken cooked in Chinese style (steeped in Indian spices) and garnished with lots of green chillies to make your eyes water along with your mouth.

Hakka Noodles: Also an Indo-Chinese specialty, crispy noddles that taste sweet and savory/hot at the same time.

Aloo Parantha: Unleavened bread stuffed with spiced potatoes.

Kheema Naan: Flat bread with several light layers, stuffed with spiced ground goat meat.

Ras Malai: A dessert made of paneer (somewhat similar to cottage cheese) and thick cream.

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Has this ever happened to you? You have been thinking about a movie or just a concept for some time. And suddenly you keep seeing references to it everywhere you turn. It’s like déjà vu!   

Why does this happen? I can think of two reasons:   

a)      We tend to pay attention to the topic, which is at the top of our head currently, more than before. So, obviously, references to it that we would have missed or ignored before get highlighted for us now in neon.   

Additionally, humans are good at attribution and association. We attribute and associate even oblique hints to the topic at hand – even those clues that are not really related to it in the first place.   

b)      There definitely is a higher power at hand, watching our every move, sometimes rapping our knuckles for our misdemeanors, and  at other times lauding our efforts with big or small signs of encouragement.     

And there are still other times when the higher power is just itching for some fun and so teases us with hints and references – as a child would a favorite pet kitten with a sprig of catnip – and chuckles away in delight at our confusion.   

At least, that’s how I feel.   

Here’s where the speed-reading in today’s title comes in.   

I love history, and I am currently working on novel(s) for children set in history. Hence a lot of my time is spent not only in writing but also in research.   

Research is half the fun of writing for me. However, it loses some of its charm if you’re working against a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise.   

And there are tons of data readily available for any and every subject under the sun, what with internet and everything. However much you research a subject there is still more to do. And at most times, usually at the last moment, you end up learning that there’s a whole new angle you have managed to overlook. Not a good feeling!   

 Hence, I have been thinking on and off about speed-reading lessons for the past two months: Does it really work? Will it help me in my current situation? Or would I be just wasting time and money?     

Then … suddenly, last Thursday, sitting in my mailbox I find a brochure from a local university. I open it and what do I see? A list of summer classes for speed-reading. Yes.   

It had the following information, among other things:   

Speed-Reading helps you with:   

a)      Quadrupling your reading speed and comprehension   

b)      Finishing your homework at a greater speed and accuracy   

c)       Researching topics much faster and with a higher efficiency   

I almost fell over backwards when I saw the last point. A mere coincidence?   

And get this: I had never taken any classes from that particular university. I hadn’t even driven by its campus before – I don’t know where exactly it is located. Heck, I hadn’t even ventured through their portals on the net!   

How did they get my address? They didn’t even address the pamphlet to “The Resident at so-and-so number”. They addressed it sure as anything to “Mrs. Hema P.” – I’m not making this up!   

Meet ‘Blue Billi’, an amateur detective. Does she remind you of another feline in bubblegum pink? She should! They’re cousins, you see, and sleuthing runs in the family.

 

I immediately looked around me, a la Blue Billi, and then quickly darted to the nearest window. I was hoping to catch whoever was spying on me in the act.   

Obviously, no such luck — I didn’t espy any glimpses of a trench coat being hastily pulled behind the tree in my backyard. Neither did I catch the sharp glint of a binoculars suddenly muted.   

Unless the snoop was blissfully dozing away somewhere because of the immense boredom induced by the subject under surveillance, there was no one really checking me out.   

Are you thinking that I had looked closely at the pamphlet, instead of chucking it right away, only because the topic had caught my attention?   

Well, it’s a possibility… but I’m a firm believer of ‘Opportunity knocks but once’. So, I’m in the habit of perusing any piece of paper – brochures or advertisements or coupons – closely, before I put them in the trash.   

Now, don’t you agree that it is someone up there playing a trick on me and watching to see how I get all rattled up and begin to run around in circles?   

P.S: Does speed-reading really work? Anyone willing to shed some light on how useful you find/have found it?

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