An Evening in Lisbon


After a sumptuous lunch and enjoying some Japanese cultural events, we set out to visit the Monastery of St. Jerome.  The monastery was populated by monks of the Order of Saint Jerome, whose spiritual job was to give guidance to sailors and pray for the king’s soul and success of many explorations the Portuguese explorers undertook.

Commissioned by King Manuel I in 1501, to celebrate Portuguese voyages around the world and in particular to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s voyage and give thanks to the Virgin Mary for its success.  The decorative style of stonework that incorporates maritime motifs such as twisted rope and the armillary sphere (a spherical framework of rings, centred on Earth or the Sun, that represent lines of celestial longitude and latitude and other astronomically important features).

The monastery lies on the site of a former chapel built by Prince Henry the Navigator and dedicated to St Mary where Vasco da Gama is thought to have prayed in 1497 before his epic voyage to India. Construction of this building took a century to complete.


We entered the monastery through the 32-meter high door in the center of the façade of the stunning and exuberant South portal.  The ornate stonework contains over 40 statues set into the pillars that flank the door which includes the twelve Apostles of Christ.


At the centre of the portal, between the two doors, on a pedestal stands the statue of Henry the Navigator.


The Madonna (St Mary) is on a pedestal on top of the arch doorway, surmounted by the archangels.


The Church is made up of three halls with a width of 30 meters of the same height united by a single vaulted ceiling supported by six pillars with a circular base.  This design enabled the church roof to withstand the 1755 earthquake which brought down many buildings in Lisbon.


Hailing from Kerala,  this was what I was in search of during my explorations of Lisbon city – the Tomb of Vasco da Gama.

Vasco da Gama, discovered the sea route from Europe to India, circumnavigating Cape of Good Hope and landed at Kappad near Kozhikode (Calicut), in 1498.  He died at Cochin (Kochi) in 1524, on the Christmas day during his third voyage.  He was buried at the St Francis Church. Kochi (at that time the church was called St Anthony’s.)  In 1538 Vasco Da Gama’s remains were taken to Goa and then to Portugal. This tomb in the monastery is the final resting place of Vasco Da Gama.


From the church, we walked into an open lawn in the centre of the monastery, covered from all sides by the two level of cloisters.. These covered halls of the cloisters were architectural masterpieces and full of so many sculptural details.


The cloisters are magnificent, with each column and arch differently carved with coils of rope, sea monsters, coral, and other sea motifs, representing Portuguese exploration at sea.


From the monastery, we walked on the road that ran along the river.  Here we came across this crane.  This crane is installed at the very site of the Air Base from where the Seaplanes operated to patrol Portuguese coast during World War II.  This was also the base from where two pilots Gago Coutinho and Sacdura Cabral departed in their Seaplane on March 30, 1922 on their first successful trans-South-Atlantic flight to Rio-de-Janerio.


As we walked another hundred meters from the crane, there stood a steel replica of the Seaplane ‘Santa Croz’ which flew the last leg of the trans-South-Atlantic flight.


We continued our walk along the river front to reach Belem Tower.  This tower was constructed between 1514 and 1520 as part of the Tagus estuary defence system. Years later, it was transformed into a lighthouse and customs house.  The tower has two distinct parts – the taller one a keep tower and the other with two artillery levels to house cannons.  There were pits in the lower level where the prisoners were thrown into.


On the western façade of the Tower of Belém, is a rhinoceros head.  How did this rhino find a place on a tower in Lisbon?.

In 1514 Afonso de Albuquerque, the Governor of Portuguese India wanted to build a fortress in Diu, governed by Sultan Muzafar.  The Sultan did not grant his wish, instead gifted a rhinoceros. Albuquerque decided to gift the rhino to King Manuel I.  The animal was shipped to Lisbon and it roused curiosity in entire Europe. It was the first live rhinoceros to be seen in Europe since the 13th century.  The King wanted to gift the rhino to the Pope.  A ship carrying the rhino left Lisbon in December 1515 but sailed into a violent storm and sank, killing the entire crew.  As the rhino was tied up it also died, however, its body was recovered.  The King ordered the rhino to be stuffed and sent to the Pope, as if nothing had happened.


How to convert a tuk-tuk into a piece of art?  A bird skimming on water, standing in front of Modern and Contemporary Art Museum.  This artwork caught my attention as we walked to catch a tuk-tuk from the Belem Tower.


We got into a tuk-tuk on our journey through Lisbon to Kerala Restaurant we chose for dinner.  Lisbonites advice that in case you wish to have a smooth ride, select tuk-tuk driven by a woman.  This ride did prove the saying.


We passed by Monsanto Forest Park, a municipal protected forest in the middle of  Lisbon covering 10 km2.  It offers a well diversified tree-covered area to the Portuguese capital and also acts as the city’s ‘air purifier.’


We then drove through the Alcantara valley passing by the Aqueduct.  Built in 1746 to supply clean drinking water.  This 58 km aqueduct is made up of 109 stone arches, which were the tallest stone arches in the world when they were built. Luckily, it too survived the 1755 earthquake.


We landed at the Kerala Restaurant and we were in for many surprises.  We were ushered in by Thrineesha, co-owner and wife of Chef Vijeesh Rajan.  She is an IT Professional who works during the day, pursuing her higher studies and assists her husband in the restaurant in the evenings.  Every aspect of the restaurant – from decor to the food being served – had her signature.


It was in fact after a long time that we from North America had authentic Kerala food – we had to travel all the way to Portugal for it.  We really enjoyed our dinner and bid goodbye to Thrineesha and Vijesh.

We returned to pack up our belongings and prepare for our return flight to Canada.

The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.”  Tony Robbins, American author, philanthropist, and life coach.

 

Harvest Moon


Today is September 13, 2019, Friday.  You must have read in my earlier blog about ‘Triskaidekaphobia’ the fear of number 13 (from Greek tris (‘three’), kai (‘and’), and deka (‘ten’), and ‘Paraskevidekatriaphobia’ is the term used to describe the fear of ‘Friday the thirteenth’  – (Greek words paraskevi (‘Friday’) and dekatria (‘thirteen’) with –phobia as a suffix to indicate ‘fear’).

There is another astronomical significance for this Friday the 13th  – it coincided with Full Moon.   Last time a full moon appeared on Friday the 13th was in October of 2000.   This Full Moon is also called a ‘micro-moon’  because it is at its farthest point from Earth  – also known as its apogee.  Being at the farthest point, the moon appeared  around 14% smaller than usual and much dimmer than a normal Full Moon.

As this Full Moon fell immediately before Fall Equinox, It is called a Harvest Moon.

The term ‘Equinox’ comes from Latin meaning ‘equality of night and day.’   It occurs twice in a year – one in Spring (22 March) and one in Fall (22 September), that is when the Sun crosses the celestial equator, causing day and night to be of 12 hours each.   In Canada, Fall Equinox marks the beginning of Fall season.

‘Harvest Moon’ is an old European term applied to a full moon that rises closest to the beginning of fall.   In the earlier days when the farmers could not illuminate their farmland, the bright light of the moon facilitated farmers to work a little later into the night to bring in their crops well before Fall set in.

As if to facilitate harvest, the harvest moon rises 10 to 30 minutes after the sun sets, whereas most moons rise approximately 50 minutes after sunset.  In Toronto,  on September 13, the sun did set at 7:31 PM and the moon rose at 7:46 PM. This time gap between sunset and moon-rise was even shorter as one moved closer to the North Pole.

The next Full Moon on a Friday the 13th  will appear in August 2049.

Discovering the City of Discoverers


On the morning of June 22 we decided to explore the Tagus River front of Lisbon.  We walked to the Vasco da Gama Garden on the Northern bank of Tagus River. The garden is a lovely green space situated in one of the noble areas of cosmopolitan Lisbon.  The garden features a wave-shaped lake on the lower level of the garden and a fountain with waterspouts.


The most prominent landmark visible from the garden is the 25th April Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in Europe. The 2277 meter long bridge has two levels, the top level with six lanes is for cars and the lower, which was added in 1999 carries double electrified railway tracks.  The bridge was inaugurated on 06 August 1966 and was named Salazar Bridge, after António de Oliveira Salazar, dictator of Portugal until 1974. After the Carnation Revolution that took place on 25 April 1974, Salazar’s regime was overturned, the Bridge was named 25th April Bridge.


On the Southern bank of the river is the municipality of Almada and there stands Cristo Rei, one of Lisbon’s most iconic monuments. This statue depicts Christ with open arms raised, blessing the city.  Its construction commenced in 1950 in reverence for Portugal being saved from the horrors of World War II.  Lisbon’s Cristo Rei has many similarities to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, and the Brazilian statue was the original inspiration.


In the centre of the garden stands the Monument to the Discoveries, originally built for the 1940 World Exhibition.  It commemorates the achievements of explorers during the Age of Discoveries and the creation of Portugal’s empire.  The monument was only built as a temporary structure and it was demolished a couple of years after the closure of the exhibition.  The monument of today is an exact replica of the original one. It was built in 1960 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death.  Henry the Navigator was a driving force behind the overseas exploration and he financed many of the Portuguese expeditions.

The fifty meter tall monument, shaped like a ship’s bow, stands where in 1493 a storm forced Christopher Columbus to anchor here on his way back to Spain after his discovery of the Americas and in1497 Vasco da Gama embarked on his voyage to India.  The monument has thirty-three statues of people who played an important role in the Portuguese Age of Discovery.  Each statue is designed to show movement towards the front (the unknown sea), projecting a direct or indirect synthesis of their participation in the events after Henry the Navigator.


At the tip of the bow stands Henry the Navigator holding a model of a Caravel.  The Caravel was a small, highly manoeuvrable sailing ship developed in the 15th century by the Portuguese to explore along the West African coast and into the Atlantic Ocean.

On the port side of the ship, behind Henry are King Afonso V who supported the exploration and colonization of Africa  and the explorers Afonso Baldaia who explored the coast of Western Sahara, Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral (discoverer of Brazil) and Ferdinand Magellan (the first explorer to circumnavigate the world). They are followed by navigators, writers, missionaries, a mathematician, a cartographer and other figures from the era of the discoveries.


On the starboard side, Henry is followed by Prince Fernando, brother of Henry, and explorers João Gonçalves Zarco who established settlements on the Madeira Islands, in the Atlantic Ocean, South-West of Portugal.  They are followed by a Queen, a writer, a poet, a painter,  chroniclers and pilots of Caravels.


We entered the monument, and purchased the entry tickets.  The monument houses a museum, exhibition halls and other rooms spread over seven floors.  An elevator leads to the rooftop, but I climbed to the rooftop through the stairs.  The rooftop offered a stunning view of the city and Tagus River.


At the foot of the Monument to the Discoveries is a giant 14 meter wide marble wind rose embedded in the pavement – the Mappa Mundi – a gift from South Africa in 1960.  A map of the world at the center of the wind rose charts the Portuguese explorations.  The map shows the most important dates in the history of the discoveries and ships mark the locations where Portuguese explorers first set foot on land.


I was more interested in the exploration of India.  Calicut (Kozhikode), Goa and Daman find a place on the map so is Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama were the first to land at Kozhikode, sailing from Europe, circumventing the Cape of Good Hope in search of spices.  I was fascinated more by the spellings of various places on this map.


We climbed down the stairs of the Monument to the Discoveries and walked to the East end of the Vasco da Gama Garden where the Japanese Festival was being held.  The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Japan in 1543.  Now more than 400 years past that first sparkle of friendship, this event is held in June to celebrate the friendship between two countries and their cultures.  This annual festival is organised by the Japanese embassy and Japanese Trading Commission among others.

We enjoyed various cultural performances by Japanese artists while savouring authentic Japanese dumplings and sushi for lunch.

After lunch, we continued with our explorations of the city of Lisbon.

Quinta da Regaleira : A Mysterious Palace

After exploring the Moors Castle, we set out to the Quinta da Regaleira, an extravagant neo-gothic mansion – also a UNESCO World Heritage protected landscape. There is more to Quinta da Regaleira than its architecture. However, let us understand what is meant by Gothic and Neo Gothic in Architecture. Gothic architecture is from the later Middle Ages characterised by pointed arches, elongated vertical windows, and flying buttresses — the pillars or other supports outside the building to give its walls further lateral support and allow for greater height and larger windows. It originated in France in the 11th century and spread across Western Europe and subsequently petered out by the 17th century, when it was replaced by other styles. Neo-Gothic, also called Gothic Revival, is a resumption of the Gothic style, from the 19th century to the early 20th. It tries to imitate and idealize original Gothic architecture, or more correctly a highly romanticized version of it. The movement was in keeping with a general trend towards romanticism, as a reaction against the intervening centuries of the renaissance or enlightenment which celebrated Reason, science and logic.

The Quinta da Regaleira was constructed in 1910 by Carvalho Monteiro, an eccentric millionaire who made his wealth in Brazil exporting coffee.  The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park. Carvalho was fascinated by secret cults and mysticism, and filled the densely forested grounds of his mansion with symbolic religious icons. This includes the 27m deep Initiation Well, which was used for Knights Templar or Tarot initiation rites

Below the grounds are a series of grottos (a small cave or artificial cave mostly used for religious purposes) and passages, which symbolise a hidden underworld, and there is even a cave entrance concealed behind a waterfall.


The exterior of the mansion is equally intriguing, with creepy wells, ornate pinnacles and gothic architecture.


The Quinta da Regaleira – a decorative 20th century residence is a grand house, split over five floors and has an ornate Gothic façade. The real ‘spooky’ attraction is to the rear with the enchanting gardens.


First, a bit of history. The property originally belonged to Francisco Alberto Guimarães de Castro, who bought it in 1715 when the Regaleira tower was all that occupied the land. In 1800, João António Lopes Fernandes acquired the land and owned it until 1830, when it was transferred to Manuel Bernardo.  A year later Ermelinda Allen Monteiro de Almeida, a wealthy Portuguese businessman bought the property and named the estate Quinta da Regaleira after she received the designation of First Viscountess of Regaleira. The estate was sold to Carvalho Monteiro, a wealthy Brazilian and heir to a successful coffee trade business who already owned land adjacent to the property.


The palace was constructed in 1904 by Carvalho Monteiro, which gave its local name ‘Palace of the Monteiro Millionaire’. The construction of the current estate commenced in 1904 and much of it was completed by 1910.  On the death of Carvalho Monteiro, the house was purchased by Waldemar d’Orey.  It stayed within the family until 1987, when it was bought by Aoki Corporation of Japan for private functions.  Sintra local government reclaimed this monument it 1997 and opened it to the public in 1998.


After purchasing the entrance tickets, we commenced our long trek to the hill top through a walkway adorned with many stone archways.  After about ten minutes of climb we reached one of the most fascinating features located in the area – a pair of wells known as the ‘Initiation Wells’ or ‘Inverted Towers’, spiraling deep down the earth.


The main well contains nine platforms, which are said to be reminiscent of the Divine Comedy by Dante and the nine circles of Hell, the nine sections of Purgatory and the nine skies which constitute Paradise.  At the bottom of the well is a compass over a Knights Templar cross.  Very little is known about how the wells were used and what exactly went on there, though it is evident that great effort went into its planning and construction.


We climbed down the stairs of the well and from the bottom of the well, we walked through a secret tunnel and arrived at the middle of the spiral staircase underground.  We were now at the bottom of a smaller well, called the ‘Unfinished Well.’  It all appeared to be a mysterious place that we thought could only exist in fairy tales.  Looking up we could see a patch of perfect circular sky through the well.


This well contained a set of straight staircases, connecting the ring-shaped floors to one another.  The wells were never used, nor intended for water collection. Instead, these wells were used for secretive initiation rites.  The wells left us bewildered about the events that must have transpired there. For a while we were transported to an ancient spiritual world of mystery and intrigue. One could literally sense restless souls moving about in the dark corners.


Walking through a tunnel from the unfinished well, we landed at the Cascade Lake in the middle of a garden.


From the lake we walked to the Portal of the Guardians, a highly dynamic structure composed of twin towers flanking a central pavilion under which is hidden one of the underground ways to the Initiation Well through the mouth of the Cascade Lake.


We were now greeted by main gate of the entrance of Quinta da Regaleira.


Next to the entrance is the Chapel of the Holy Trinity or the Regaleira Chapel.  It is a Roman Catholic Chapel that stands in front of the palace’s main façade. The interior of the chapel is richly decorated with frescoes, stained glass windows and lavish stuccoes  surrounded by pentagrams. Despite its relatively small size, the chapel has several floors.


Fresco above the altar in the Chapel depicts Jesus Christ crowning the Virgin Mary.  The Chapel is also adorned by scenes of the life of Jesus Christ.  The crypt is linked to the Palace through a tunnel.


We entered the palace through a grand archway with wooden double doors.  We were allowed entry into the first floor of the palace to explore.


The first room we entered past the main portal was the octagonal Dining Room.  A  massive fireplace that supports a statue of a woodsman was the main attraction. The mantelpiece depicts well carved hunting scenes.  Thus the room is also called the ‘Hunting Room.’


We crossed over the corridor to the Renaissance Hall, the drawing room of the palace.  The design of the room was inspired by the Urbino Palace of Italy.  Intricate wooden ceiling will caught our attention.


This Music Room designed for social and personal gatherings.  The paintings depict that it was more appropriate for a feminine type of elegant living.


Now we entered the Kings Room, formerly the billiards room.  Its ceiling is decorated with the portraits of 20 Kings and four Queens of Portugal and the Coats-of-Arms of Four Portuguese cities – Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Braga.

We bid goodbye to Sintra in the evening to catch the train to Lisbon.

Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu – An Ever Smiling Soldier

Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM, ADC, Vice Chief of Army Staff, hangs his boots today.  Do not get carried away by his smile; he is a rare combination of professional competence, inspiring leadership, humility and chivalry.  A quote by John F Kennedy came to my mind As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”    There is no better person than General Anbu for whom the above quote applies as he hardly uttered any words, but always lived by them – for over five decades of life in a military uniform.

It began when he was all of nine years old, as a cadet at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in June 1969. As a cadet, two years our senior, he was identifiable by his cheerful smile, his omniscient trademark insignia. He often walked away with a lion’s share of medals in most sporting activities at school – athletics, swimming, boxing, football, hockey and so on.  He was adjudged the most technical boxer while at school and his gymnastics skills were invariably on display during our School Day Pageants.

He graduated from school in 1976 to join the 56th Course at the National Defence Academy (NDA).  In his final year at school (1976), he was Chera House Captain – Cadets were divided into four houses – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava- named after the great ancient Tamil Kingdoms, which somehow paled into insignificance in the History of India as devised by the British.   It may be a coincidence that the present Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM from our batch too was  the Chera House Captain in 1978.

His smiling, soft spoken demeanour concealed a firm, no nonsense attitude – no wonder he was appointed the Cadet Sergeant Major (CSM) at the NDA as well as at the Indian Military Academy (IMA).  He was awarded BLUE in Athletics and Physical Training and Merit Card in Basketball – an envious record for any NDA Cadet.  As a young officer he continued to excel in sports and competed with the soldiers at the highest level.

General Anbu was commissioned into 14 Sikh Light Infantry in June 1980.  He served in all operational environments – Siachen Glacier; Counter-Insurgency Operations in Kashmir and Manipur; Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka, United Nations Peace Keeping in Namibia, etc.  He was awarded the Sena Medal for a very daring operation, showing exemplary leadership and gallantry during operations in the Siachen Glacier.

During my visit to Hyderabad in 2001, he organised an impromptu get-together of all our school mates that evening.  There I met Mrs Gowry Anbu – a down-to-earth and compassionate lady who mirrors the very same qualities of her husband.


He was in command of his battalion during operational deployment in Rajasthan deserts and that is where I met him in 2002.  At that time I was commanding a Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment in the same Division.  One day I walked into Colonel Anbu’s battalion and was received by Subedar Major Swaraj Singh, a smiling smart confident soldier. The way the Subedar Major interacted with me was indicative of  how the character of a Commanding Officer flows down the chain of command to all ranks of the Battalion.


Colonel Anbu was busy with some official commitment and the Subedar Major and I got into a conversation.  My query to the Subedar Major was as to how Colonel Anbu with his quiet and pleasing manners was commanding Sikh Light Infantry soldiers so well.  That was when I got a significant military lesson from the Subedar Major Swaraj Singh who said “It is a myth in the Indian Army that Sikh Light Infantry soldiers need tough handling in a language filled with profanity.  They are just as sensitive as other soldiers and their sensitivity needs to be respected.  Our Commanding Officer from his Lieutenant days (1980) believed in respecting the soldiers under his command and we all respect him immensely for that.  The performance of the Battalion under his command amply proves the equation.” Subedar Major Swaraj Singh also said that his Commanding Officer neither drank alcohol nor smoked in his life – another Indian Army myth busted.

I must relate an interesting story about Brigadier Devraj Anbu when was posted on deputation as the Commandant  of the Assam Rifles Training Centre (ARTC) at Dimapur, Nagaland; a first hand account narrated by another colleague of mine.  At the time he was on the upward trajectory of a very impressive career graph. This posting was his first exposure to the Assam Rifles and prudence dictated that he swim with the tide.  Right from his first day in office, all ranks got a feel of his sincerity of purpose, steely determination, no nonsense attitude and genuine concern for the welfare of his Officers and Soldiers.  One soon learnt not to mistake his self effacing modesty and courteous demeanour for weakness.

Like most Indian Army Regiments, the Assam Rifles too has very strong traditions rooted in their rich heritage, the foundations of which were laid by Gorkha Troops who formed the nucleus of the Force.  One such tradition was the conduct of animal sacrifice on the ‘Vana Devta Pooja‘ celebrations to propitiate the Gods of the forest.  Over the years, many  General Officers,  Commanding Officers and Religious Teachers had done their best to sensitse the soldiers about the regressive nature of this tradition, quoting examples from the scriptures,    None issued orders prohibiting this practice as it was felt that such an order would cause deep resentment among the rank and file. As all Army Officers were posted to the Assam Rifles on deputation, most were not keen on risking their careers by ‘rocking the boat’.

He was barely few months in the saddle when it was time for the Vana Devta Pooja.  A traditional ‘Havan’  (where oblations are offered into the sacred flame) was conducted by the Priest and the principal participants were Brigadier Anbu, his deputy, a nominated officer, the Subedar Major and some selected representatives of the soldiers in the presence of all personnel of the organisation except those on essential duties.  The ritual was to conclude with the sacrifice of a goat with a single stroke of the Khukri (a Gokha’s machete), wielded by a chosen soldier.

The Priest used the ashes of the Havan to anoint the sacrificial goat, the soldier selected to conduct the sacrifice and the sacrificial Khukri.  The soldier then positioned himself near the head of the sacrificial animal with his Khukri ready and  formally requested Brigadier Anbu for permission to carry out the Sacrifice.

In a steady clear tone, Brigadier Anbu replied “Nahin Hai”  (permission denied).  For the benefit of those unrelated to the uniform, let me elaborate this a bit. In the army when permission for conduct of a troop related religious act is ceremoniously sought, it is simply expected to be ceremoniously granted. If not, it is deemed to a serious attack on troop sensitivity and could culminate in loads of trouble.

Everyone was stunned and the Priest, assuming that he had heard incorrectly, repeated the formal request only to get the same reply from the Commandant.  Jaws dropped in astonishment and emotions could have flared at the perceived sacrilege.  However, Brigadier Anbu remained unmoved despite gentle hints from his Deputy (who was his senior at School) to reconsider his decision.

Without batting an eyelid, Subedar Major Arjun Thapa, a Gorkha from Nepal where ritual sacrifices are held sacred, supported his Commandant’s decision and ordered that the goat be set free. A Lauki  (Bottle Gourd) was produced and ritually chopped in two by the Khukri in its place.  Not one dissenting murmur was heard from any quarter.

That’s obviously a classy example of what is meant by courage of conviction.  It is a testimony to the immense respect and affection earned by Brigadier Anbu  across the organisational spectrum, that  too within a few of months.

Brigadier Anbu’s brief tenure at the ARTC  is still remembered for the immense progress made in training, administration and welfare at the premier establishment of the Assam Rifles.

In April 2017 our batch-mates from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar had a get together in Srinagar (J&K).  I reached Srinagar three days ahead to spend time with soldiers who had served with me.  I travelled to a remote locality to be with the boys and that evening I called up Lieutenant General Anbu,  the Army Commander Northern Command over the military telephone circuit.  Typical of the Corps of Signals’ way of doing things, the duty officer at every successive military exchange came on line and fussed around for ever as the call was being directed to the Army Commander.  He finally came on line and spoke to me for over thirty minutes, bantering about the good old days and expressing his inability to fly down to meet his school mates at Srinagar as he had to attend the Army Commanders’ Conference at New Delhi next day.

It is said that a soldier has no holiday in life; but retirement makes every day one for him.  Knowing General Anbu, I am sure that he will make the rest of his days more rewarding and entertaining as he is a man of great versatility.  He is bound to enrich the life of those around him in a meaningful manner.

Great soldiers do not retire, they just fade away – surely he too will fade away and be rarely seen under the television spotlight, as is the wont of so many retired senior defence officers these days!! Perhaps he will pen down his thoughts covering a momentous half century in uniform.

 

Bathing Nude


Few years ago an Indian Army Officer undergoing a course at Canadian Forces College, Toronto came over for dinner.  During our conversation he said that one evening he walked into the sauna in the gym to find the Commandant, a General, sitting nude, enquiring his welfare.  He said that he felt a bit embarrassed to face a nude General.  I asked “That means you are surely not an ex-NDA (National Defence Academy)?” And I was dead right.

Bathrooms at the NDA are all open ones with neither any cubicles nor any shower curtains.  There are only shower heads, all in a row.  It is mandatory for all cadets to shower before breakfast and in the evening after games.  As time is always at a premium for any military cadet, the ritual had to be as short as possible, with many waiting in queue – hence an elaborate bath was near impossible.  The highlight of the bath was not its brevity, but by tradition implicitly enforced by the seniors, the cadets are not allowed to wear any clothing – it’s all nude and pretty natural. `

I cannot really say with any great emphasis that bathing nude is hygienically a huge plus as compared to bathing with a small brief on. However, it is more than a century old tradition in many military training institutions the world over. The open shower system meant that a large number of cadets could use the facility within the limited duration of time available.

To my mind, bathing nude has two distinct advantages. It helps one to overcome one’s inhibitions about being nude in the presence of others thereby developing a sort of self confidence about one’s own being and physique. When one learns to overcome this pretty strong inhibition, one automatically develops the capability overcome a lot of other inhibitions of less intensity.  The second is that with everyone down to his skin it builds a sort of camaraderie with the fellow trainees.

There is no awkwardness, nobody made any stupid dick jokes and nobody stared. There was just complete utopian nonchalance about the whole thing as cadets from all regions, religions, castes and creeds bathed under the same shower. In everyone’s consciousness he was down to mother earth, a sort of nude common denominator. The act was indeed a great leveler.  The common Indian mentality is that public nudity is obscene and vulgar and therefore should be abhorred. I do hope that as a nation we can learn to tolerate public nudity, no matter what our personal inclinations are in this regard.

Communal bathing and spas have been around for thousands of years, especially in the Indian context. However, the concept of modesty is a relatively recent one and was mostly dictated by the Victorian British norms.  Many indigenous people still  play sports without any covering and athletes in ancient Greece competed naked. In fact, the Greek word gymnasium means ‘a school for naked exercise,’ but in English it means only athletic exercise.


Men and women bathed nude in Roman baths of first century.  Emperor Hardin is believed to have issued many decrees against co-ed bathing.  There were baths of varying levels of luxury and also at varying levels of propriety. At one extreme were the ones for prostitutes and at the other the ones for royalty.  These baths showcased  Roman architectural expertise where new and innovative building styles were tested.


Bathing complex of Friedrichsbad Baths, Baden-Baden, Germany, opened in 1877, catering to European aristocracy.  It is still open to all and visitors who indulge in a 17-step Irish-Roman bathing ritual – a sequence of hot air baths, steam rooms, showers, pools, and massages, soaking in curative mineral waters. Here on some specific days of the week and on holidays, it is co-ed nude bathing and on other days it is gender specific nude bathing.

It was mandatory for students to swim nude in Chicago high school swimming pools till 1970’s.  In those days filtration and chlorination techniques were not as advanced as of today.  Nudity ensured that the swimming costumes they wore, mostly cotton or wool, did not leave any fibres that would clog the pool.

In most gym and swimming pool locker rooms for men in Canada, the baths are all open without cubicles.  Cubicles are provided in family locker rooms used by children and parents.  It is natural for people to have differing standards of modesty, based on their cultural/ religious background and upbringing.  Some are comfortable striding around the locker room naked and some prefer to change their clothes more discreetly. People around are neither stealing glances nor are they being judgmental.  I generally go to swim in the afternoons which is the time designated for adult swimmers.  I surely do not have a body to flaunt and no six-packs to flex.  Everyone around me also passes the same muster with respect to their masculinity.


One has to shower before entering a swimming pool to keep dirt and germs out.  Post a swim-session, it is meant to rinse off salt, chlorine and other harmful chemicals.  You cannot do this well with your swimming costume on.  It is said that the concept of the open bath came to Canada with soldiers returning from World War II when most able bodied Canadian men got enlisted to fight the war in Europe.  The only country where it is a rule to have a nude bath prior to entering a swimming pool is Iceland.  Here the bath may be in public or in a cubicle.

Nudity in public bathroom may offend some people, but most will not react to it though they may avoid it.  The argument that nudity is natural may fall on deaf ears to the puritans who refuse to accept their ties to the natural world.

Sleeping without underwear is another military tradition proven to be good for one’s genitals as per many medical studies.  Underwear tends to trap moisture, creating a breeding ground for bacteria.  For sure, allowing that area to get some air helps to keep it dry and clean.  Royal Marines tend to sleep naked for a similar reason and also to ensure they don’t hold all the juices and skin flakes emitted from their bodies in their clothes.  From this came the expression ‘going commando‘  which means going without wearing any underwear.

In Western militaries where men and women serve together the bathrooms are shared.  Here too there is hardly any awkwardness or sexual discrimination.  In 2011, a woman soldier of the Norwegian Armed Forces complained about being asked to bathe naked with 30 men and in front of other male officers during a field exercise.  The Norwegian Armed Forces initially gave the male officer who ordered the bath a harsh disciplinary warning for his behaviour and a fine of 2,500 Kroner, but cancelled the official reprimand after the officer appealed the decision.  After two separate internal reviews, Norwegian Military ruled that it would not make any changes to its bathing policies, meaning that other female soldiers could find themselves in a similar situation due to Norway’s gender-neutral military conscription policy.

I must here quote from the book ‘Immediate Action’ by Andy Mcnab.    He was a member of 22 SAS Regiment and was involved in both covert and overt special operations worldwide until he retired in 1993.  Teaching young infantry soldiers as an Instructor at the Regimental Training Depot how to bathe, he writes ‘We had to show them how to wash and shave, use a toothbrush…  Then I had to show them how to shower, making sure they pulled their foreskin back and cleaned it.

To be NUDE or not to be – it is your choice – rules permitting. 

Sintra – A Portuguese Fairytale City


On June 21, early morning we walked from our hotel to Rossio Railway station to catch a train to Sintra, a picturesque town that boasts of extravagant palaces, ancient castles and stunning scenery. Located about 25km West of Lisbon, is connected by a regular train service.


The trains to Sintra are operated by the national train company of Portugal –  Comboios de Portugal (CP).  The train passes through non-descript residential housing areas that surround Lisbon


As we alighted from the train and exited the station, we were swarmed by touts selling tuk-tuk tours, guided tours, and other means of transport to explore the hills of Sintra.  We opted to catch the 434-tourist bus.

From where the bus dropped us, we could visit the Pena Palace and Moors Castle, but we decided to visit only the castle as we had planned to visit Quinta da Regaleira.


Pena Palace boasts of painted terraces, decorative battlements and mythological statues.  The restored palace reflects its decor of 1910, when the Portuguese nobility fled to Brazil to escape the revolution. The palace sits atop a rocky outcrop surrounded by forested grounds. The base structure of the palace is formed around an abandoned monastery, and remnants of the original structure is still visible.  In 1996 the palace underwent an extensive restoration and its exterior walls were restored to its original colours.


Moors Castle is located atop the hills of the Serra de Sintra and is a very challenging up-hill hike to reach its top.  It is a classic ruined castle with high fortified stone walls, treacherous ramparts and massive battlements.


The vantage points of the castle offers wonderful panoramic views over the hills of the Serra De Sintra and the plains stretching West to the Atlantic Ocean.

The castle dates back to the 8th century and was built by the invading Muslim Moors from North Africa. The castle dominated the area as it provided a suitable vantage point over the River Tagus and offered protection to the town of Sintra.

During the Crusades in 1903, King Alfonso VI managed to capture the castle, but held on to it for a year only.  The castle flourished between the first and second Christian crusade and this was regarded as the high point of the castle’s history.  The fortifications of the castle were greatly enhanced but were not tough enough to repel the second much larger Christian crusade of 1147.


Significance and importance of the Sintra castle reduced over the centuries and by the 15th Century the Jewish settlers were the only inhabitants. When the Jews were expelled from Portugal,  the castle was completely abandoned. In 1636 a lightning bolt caused a massive fire that wrecked the central keep while in 1755 the devastating earthquake leveled much of the walls and battlements. The Moors castle in this era was so insignificant that it was not even considered in the plans to rebuild after the earthquake.

King Ferdinand II, King of Portugal, obsessed by art, drama and the good life, transformed the entire Sintra region.  The castle was reconstructed in 1840 so that he could view it from his beloved Pena Palace.


As we climbed up the pathway to the castle, out first stop was at the Silos.  These are secret caves cut into the rocks to store grains and pulses.  These silos were built by the Moors who built the castle.


We then stopped at the site of Islamic Houses.  These remains are of the foundation of houses and silos on the South-Eastern slopes of the hill occupied by the Muslims.  During excavations, typical artifacts from 10th to 12th Century Islamic culture were discovered.  Some remains of Neolithic (5000 BC) occupation were also identified during the excavation.


We then climbed up to the Church of St Pedro.  This was the first parish church of Sintra constructed by King Afonso Henriques on recapturing the castle in 1147.  In 1840, King Ferdinand II transformed this church into a romantic ruin.  It now houses the Interpretation Centre of History of the Castle and houses artifacts recovered during the archeological excavations.


In the process of transforming the church in 1840, the cemetery was damaged.  King Ferdinand II built this tomb to lay the remains that had been unearthed.  Its headstone bore the engravings of a Cross and a Crescent with an epitaph ‘What man has assembled only God can set apart‘ meaning that it was impossible to distinguish whether the human remains were that of a Christian or a Muslim.


We then climbed up to another excavation site.  This was a Christian tomb excavated from granite alongside a Muslim silo.


Our next halt was at the Cistern of the castle.  This vaulted reservoir had a storage capacity of 600 cubic meters of waters.  The masonry signs on the granite blocks indicate that construction commenced in the 13th Century.  The water in this cistern has not dried up ever as per records.  The myth has it that a Moorish King is buried underneath this cistern.


We then moved to the Castle Keep, the strategic centre of the castle.  As it stands on one of the high points, it is visible from the surrounding plains and also from the Atlantic Ocean.


We walked  to the Door of Betrayal – a small gate that allowed discreet access to the exterior during a conflict or to be used as an escape route.


After five minutes of steep uphill climb, we reached the Royal Tower.  This tower offered a privileged view of Pena Palace and would have been one of the favourite locations of the art-lover King Ferdinand II.


From the Royal Tower we commenced our descent to the base of the hill.  On our way  we came across the Second Circle of Walls, much below the main castle walls.  As the castle offered security to the locals from invaders, many settled on the slopes of the hill.  In order to protect the people, their animals and crops, this second wall of defence was built.  The extent of the wall indicates that a sizeable population inhabited these hill slopes.

From the second wall we walked 15 minutes to the bus stop to take the bus to Sintara and further to Quinta da Regaleira Palace.