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(Thanks so much for the comments on the gunpowder, friends – in the next few months, rather than reply individually to comments, I’m going to respond here on the blog, so do check back in the comments; if you asked a question to the last one, the answer is here.)
A couple of weeks ago, I went to Bangalore to meet a few friends I hadn’t seen in some time. It was a whirlwind trip, but just what the doctor ordered for me. Gorgeous weather, good friends, yummy food, and a mad trip into the countryside to see some sights, singing old Hindi songs all the way. Really, what more does one need, ever? I took some photos of the new, shiny Bangalore, all glass and concrete malls and traffic like you wouldn’t *believe*, but that rant is for another day. This time, it didn’t dampen our spirits at all.
We took a trip in a large van to an old medieval temple dedicated to forms of the lord Vishnu at Somnathpura, built in the 13th century by the Hoysala kings of Karnataka.
Hoysala architecture is more famously represented at Halebidu and Belur, temples with stone carvings of an incredibly rich and detailed texture. Somnathpura is not quite as ornate, but it also doesn’t assault your senses and leave you gasping with the sheer intricate detail of the stonework at these two temples. It is quietly stunning, and is smaller and off the beaten track. Quite literally. Getting there from Bangalore is a challenge, with the ground sullenly arranging itself into a road at some points, and defiantly disintegrating into mud at others. But the quiet temple makes up for the bumpy journey, as does the gorgeous, gorgeous countryside dotted with palm trees and small ponds, especially in the monsoon. Having loony friends along for the ride smoothens it all out. The temple walls tell many stories, of battles, dynastic ambitions, the Dashavatara (Vishnu’s ten incarnations), and feature various gods and goddesses. In and around the temple complex, stone pillars seem to whirl endlessly in place, like potters’ wheels gone nuts.
The inscription at the temple detailing the land grants for its maintenance, in the beautiful Old Kannada script: (click all the small photos to enlarge them – it’s worth it)
It’s funny how you stumble upon an interesting question and then suddenly realise that it’s been buzzing around you for years without your being aware of it. I saw the goddess Lakshmi holding what looked like an ear of corn in her left hand, and was puzzled, because the temple is pre-Columbian, dating to the 13th century. After idle speculation about local grains like bajra and ragi, we left it at that. Googling and chatting with friends later revealed a whole controversy on this, as some scholars have held up these very sculptures as strong indicators of pre-Columbian migration of plants between the Americas and the old world, while others strongly dispute that it is corn/maize at all. Botanists, historians and anthropologists seem to be battling it out, as it has larger implications for our understanding of native American cultures and those of premodern Asia. I confess I don’t know much about the natural or cultural history of that period and have to read up more on the matter; Lakshmi too continues to stand uncaring and resplendent in stone. Any readers here know more about it?
The temple has other unusual representations, such as Narasimha (the half-lion, half-man avatar of Vishnu, fourth out of his ten incarnations) with his consort. Usually we see him emptying the demon Hiranyakashipu of his innards, but here on the photo above to the right he is calm and poised with Lakshmi on his lap.
I could stare at these friezes for ages. But we bundled into the van and headed to Ranganathittu, a nearby bird sanctuary. Lots and lots of storks, pelicans and cormorants in a lush, green park -
and plenty of ghariyals looking supremely bored and unconcerned with all the hoo-haa. We were in a boat much like the one you see in the background and despite the guide telling us they preferred fish to humans, we kept a safe distance from its gleaming teeth.
While we were in the boat, the clouds suddenly descended into a short and powerful rain shower that made everything an even lusher shade of green. You should have seen the looks on the faces of the other boat passengers as two of us burst into spontaneous song, even as we ducked under our dupattas – garjat barsat saawan aayo re… .
We came back to Bangalore tired and hoarse, but clean!
If you’ve eaten a south Indian meal, you have probably come across a variant of what is often called ‘gunpowder’ in Indian English – spicy roasted lentil powders that go as accompaniments to various dishes. The Tamil name is molagaapoDii (literally spice powder, I think), but in Marathi and Kannada we call them chaTNiipuDii, or chutney powders. Each family has some tried and tested way of making them, and there is always one visiting aunt who insists that one lime leaf or lentil or coriander instead of cumin makes all the difference. And so the versions grow. In my family, one combination of two lentils is a favourite. I was sous-chef-cum-photographer for this afternoon’s batch.
1 cup split chana dal (Bengal gram)
1 cup split urad dal (black lentils that are actually white when split)
3/4 cup sesame seeds
3/4 cup dried and grated coconut
A handful of peanuts
approx 6 tbsp red chilli powder
1 small lemon-sized piece of tamarind, soaked and squeezed of all water
approx 2 tbsp of grated jaggery
salt to taste
For tempering - 4 tbsp oil, 3 tbsp black mustard seeds, 2 tsp cumin seeds, a pinch of asafoetida and turmeric, and lots of curry leaves
What to do:
So first, in a heavy-bottomed pan, you roast each of the dals, the sesame seeds and coconut separately, till they’re all nice and brown. You can roast them in the oven, I think (about 10 minutes at 350 deg with a couple of turnovers), but my attempt at doing that in our little electric oven resulted in blackened seeds and a fresh batch in the pan.
Then, you grind each one separately in a dry grinder very coarsely – first the chana, then the urad, then the sesame, coconut and peanuts together. After the tiny coffee grinder I use in Berkeley, my mother’s large dry grinder (which admittedly gets a lot more use than mine does!) was a treat. Then, you mix all together, and make five equal parts. Eyeball the parts, and add chilli powder the equivalent of one part. This is how my mum does it – you could add less or more depending on how spicy you want the powder to be. One-fifth of the total packs quite a punch, but is quite moderate compared to how some people like it.
Add the jaggery and tamarind and the salt, and mix well. The dry powders absorb the slightly moist jaggery and tamarind. These two, incidentally, are the two gatekeepers of my family’s mixed Kannada/Marathi cuisine. They feature in practically everything. The chef in action:
In a separate pan, make the phoDNii, aka tadka aka tempering – heat the oil, and then add the mustard seeds. When they start spluttering, add the cumin seeds, turmeric and asafoetida, and finally the curry leaves. Set it aside and let it cool. The leaves become nice and dry and crunchy. Then grind the chilli-lentils mix together once more to make it a bit more fine, and finally add the tempering to the powder. Mix well till all the oil is absorbed.
The final texture should be grainy, but not totally fine. In Tamil cuisine and some other parts of south India, the molagaapuDii is often eaten mixed with sesame oil, as an accompaniment to idlis. In our parts, or in our family at least, it’s eaten nearly every day with lunch or dinner as a side dish for pretty much everything. Either with yogurt, or with ghee. With chapatis, rice, dosas, mmmmmm.
I’ve been travelling a bit, and away from my computer, so I hope I didn’t miss replying to anybody from the last post…. more photos of my trip to follow shortly!
Hey, all! Thanks so much for all your good wishes for my trip – here I am, on the other side of the world, recovered from jet lag already.
Plane travel is exhausting, disorienting, annoying and many other things. It also infantalises travellers like none other mode of travel. It’s not just the security staff who speak to you slowly but loudly as if you were either deaf or retarded, barking out orders in elaborate legalese-politese and processing you on a long and complicated assembly line from dangerous unknowns into government-deemed safe travellers. It is also the feeling of being strapped into the small, uncomfortable seat for so many long hours, with food brought to you every few hours. You sleep, you eat, some sort of entertainment hovers in front of your eyes to keep you diverted, and then you sleep and eat some more. This is how babies must feel – slightly out of focus and irritable and trapped. The flight attendants also treat you with a combination of firmness-laced-with-nice that parents whose patience is about to snap use on kids running wild. If the airlines provided diapers with the headphones and acrylic blanket wrapped in plastic, I imagine our regression to infanthood would be complete.
Speaking of actual babies travelling, there seemed to be many more than usual on this flight. Or maybe my claustrophobia was conjuring them up all around me. They wailed and howled throughout – sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, but always in dreadful cacophony. It occurred to me that anyone unsure about whether they want children would do well to travel on a transcontinental flight surrounded by infants and toddlers before they make a final decision. But I do feel bad for the parents, who always have this hunted, apologetic look about them. It must be awful to juggle discomfort and disorientation with a shrieking baby and dark looks from people all around you. I was virtuous, though – in keeping with the whole kids theme, I took refuge in The Sound of Music. (Btw, these are the Regia socks I began on another transcontinental flight in February – 64 stitches on size 0 needles, very plain and simple.)
That’s one point for Continental, I gotta say, even if they do, rather horrifyingly, charge for alcohol on international flights (WHY do American airlines do that?) – they have a whole set of very diverse films for you to choose from on your own little individual screen. Along with Julie Andrews, I also indulged in Jane Austen, with the wonderful, smart Emma Thompson adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and the godawful Keira Knightley adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. If you permit me to rant about this for a second, I wonder what Austen herself would have made of some rather odd moments in this adaptation. I didn’t mind that it took liberties with the dialogue – the S&S adaptation did too, but the ones in P&P somehow didn’t work as well, mostly because they seemed to turn this elegant narrative of manners into a faux-historical teenage drama. “Don’t you dare judge me, Lizzy!” Charlotte Lucas says (after choosing calmly to marry that horrible Mr. Collins), and that wooden Darcy, who looks like a confused, drowned rat with that oddly dishevelled look, unpardonably blurts out “I love you” instead of the glorious “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” to Elizabeth Bennet. She, in turn, yells “Leave me alone!” to her family, slamming the door and running upstairs. WTF?? Ah well. At least the von Trapps were as familiar and saccharine as ever.
It is hot here, and very erratic and strong thunderstorms are allowing the electricity department to cut power even more than usual. But it’s also cool and breezy and deliciously overcast in the evenings, and I started a longue duree lace project to keep me company on my equally long research project. It’s the Beginner Sampler stole from Victorian Lace Today, in Jade Sapphire Lacey Lamb, in tomato red, on size 3 needles. I am already loving it, but expect an FO only sometime around December, I think. My mum is convinced that my eyes are going to get worse from squinting at the tiny yarn and needles.
Oh, and I’m eating a lot of Alphonso mangoes. Mmmmmmm.