HORN PLEAJ? OK

Mumbai has realised the menace of honking; at least Mumbai Police realised it.  They call Mumbai the ‘Honking Capital of India?‘   Do other cities and towns of India differ in any way??

A few weeks back, I rented a chain-saw from the store to cut a tree. Along with the chain-saw came the ear protection mufflers. On inquiry with the store man, he said that it was mandatory that the ear mufflers be issued with the equipment whose noise levels were higher than the prescribed limit, but it is up to the user to use it or not. My mind raced back to my young officer days in the Indian Army. It was considered not manly enough to wear the ear plugs while firing the heavy caliber guns. As usual, after every firing practice session, one heard a thousand bees buzzing in the ears for the next few days. We all got used to this sound as we got used to the firing, without realising that we were getting into a world of Noise Induced Hearing Loss. The effects of it still continue and I have a hard time listening to whispers or low noises.

horn
Recently I called up an old friend in India and he must have been on the road, I could make out from the ear piercing horn sounds of horns of the vehicles coming through my ears. A sound I missed for the good.

While driving our SUV, this SUV has been with us for the past seven years, our 14 year old son wanted to know where the horn was and how it sounded. I tried to blow the horn and pressed very hard in the middle of the steering wheel and nothing was heard. On reaching home, I pressed real hard applying all the force my body could place and the horn made a feeble noise, when compared to the screeching noises I heard over the phone. I now realised that I had never used the horn in my seven years of Canadian driving and may be that the springs in the center of the steering wheel might have been jammed.

My mind went back to an article which appeared a few years ago in a newspaper here by an old man who had been to Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala, as a medical tourist for a knee replacement surgery. He describes his taxi ride from the airport to the hospital, a 20 km drive which took an hour, with the driver honking twice as many times as what he had done in fifty years of driving in Canada.

Out here in North America, honking is considered indecent. It is done to alert some erring driver who has done some action that might have lead to an accident and you really want to abuse him with all your might. Else its only to attract the other driver’s attention to some thing serious like a not fully closed car door, deflated tyre etc which may lead to a fatality.

While driving in India, one always honked, required on not, or may be that was the only way to get ahead in the confusion that existed on our roads. For some it was a practice set out by the driving instructors in driving schools.

Can you for once imagine the noise pollution being created by the honking of the horn? May be its pretty irritating for me here as I have not been used to hearing this high pitched noise out here.

The rules that lay down the pitch, tone and volume of the horns may be same in India keeping with the world standards, as most car manufacturers provide you with a ‘weak’ horn and the noisy ones are add-ons.   May be in India to drive, the shrillness and volume of the horn may depict the size of your vehicle. That’s why the trucks have their horns sounding like an elephant trumpet.

Air-horns even though illegal is fitted on most of the buses and trucks in India. These shrill horns pose a direct threat to road safety as they embolden drivers to drive more rashly and negligently. Road rage incidents go up as it gives drivers a false self-confidence as they believe they can shove through the traffic and scare away pedestrians. Many bus and truck drivers use it as an effective tool to clear the road.

World Health Organisation in its report has stated that prolonged or excessive exposure to noise, whether in the community or at work, can cause serious permanent medical conditions like hypertension and ischemic heart disease. Noise can adversely affect performance, for instance reading, attentiveness, problem solving and memory. Use of air horn may cause severe physiological and psychological impacts on the pedestrians and can damage the eardrum.

The Indian Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989 specifies that all vehicles can be fitted with an electric horn or other devices, specified by the Bureau of Indian Standards for use by the driver of the vehicle and capable of giving audible and sufficient warning of the approach or position of the vehicle. The rules further specifies that no motor vehicle shall be fitted with any multi-toned horn or with any other sound-producing device giving an unduly harsh, shrill, loud or alarming noise except ambulance or fire-fighting or police vehicles. These rules are often broken and the police merely hear these shrill horns, many not realising the damage it has done to them, that they are welcome into my world of Noise Induced Hearing Loss.

May be that we in India are pretty used to this honking and it may be very difficult to drive on the roads, shared by hawkers, cycles, animals, pedestrians etc with all the potholes and with the density of traffic, without honking. At least you can try and limit the number of honks.

If everyone can reduce one honk a day, may be we will achieve less noise pollution on our roads in India.

Major General Dharmendar Singh Gill – A Soldier Friend


Though Dharmendar and I underwent training together at the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Indian Military Academy (IMA) and having being commissioned together as Second Lieutenants to Regiment of Artillery in December 1982, we hardly ever interacted.  Rather we hardly ever met during our Academy days or during our initial regimental service.

We got acquainted only during our Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1989-90 at School of Artillery, Devlali, Maharashtra.  Veteran Brigadier GM Shankar was my desk-mate, but he was a bachelor then, staying in the Officers’ Mess.  Dharmendar and I were living in Married Officers’ Accommodation close by.


Dharmendar and his wife Babita were the most friendly couple in the neighbourhood.  They were better known as parents of Honey, their chubby chirpy little daughter.  Honey was an adorable kid and every officer in the course knew who she was.  Marina and I being newly married looked forward for their company.

Dharmendar was a honest and hardworking student and he did put in his best efforts during the entire course.  He always admonished me for taking the course ‘cool.’  He often reminded me “You are very intelligent and will top the course if you put in little effort.  Why are you holding yourself back?”

After LGSC, I met him while travelling to India from Canada on vacation in 2015.  I had a stopover at Mumbai and whom will I call up – it was surely Major General DS Gill, then Additional Director General (ADG) National Cadets Corps (NCC), Maharashtra.  That evening he organised a get-together of all our course-mates stationed at Mumbai.  We had a grand dinner that evening.

It is pertinent to mention here that under the premiership of General Gill as ADG, the Maharashtra Contingent of the NCC struck gold in 2015  – the contingent has created history by winning the prestigious Prime Minister’s Banner for the sixth consecutive year at the Republic Day Camp held in New Delhi.  Maharashtra NCC was also adjudged the Champion Directorate from out of 17 NCC directorates in the country.  In 2017, the Directorate bagged the Runners-up Trophy.

Maharashtra NCC also has the unique distinction of winning the Prime Minister’s Banner and the Champion Directorate Trophy 17 times since its inception. The achievement is particularly remarkable since as many as 17 NCC directorates and 2070 Cadets from across the country participate in Republic Day Camp every year.


I am sure General Gill made a difference to many young cadets while serving with NCC.  They stand proof to his dedication and selfless service to NCC.  Performance of the Directorate when he was at the helm is commendable.

Soldiers like General Gill helped many soldiers and officers  to be groomed to be thoroughbred gentlemen and soldiers.   When a soldier as wonderful as General Gill finally hangs his boots, it makes many a heart melt, especially those who benefited under his guidance.   I am sure General Gill will continue to do well or may be even better post retirement.

General Gill , please think about it, now you never have to ask for a day off ever again.  You may presume that you are your own boss, but wait!  You now left your old boss and start a  life with your new boss, your wife.  You are now a ‘Go Getter’ – your wife will now order you to go get something and like an obedient husband, you will go and get it for her – which you never did in your life.

Now that you’re retired you can do all the things you enjoy;  all of the wonderful things in your bucket list – including a visit to Canada.   In reality after retirement only the body grows older, but the heart grows fonder and the mind becomes younger.  You in fact realise that all these years you were trying to be mature, but now  is the time when you can get back to being a child.

Happy retirement General Gill!  Retirement is when you stop living at work and start working at living.  Please also make sure you work just as hard at relaxing as you worked hard soldiering.

You’ll be missed but never forgotten!

The Christmas Tree


Having decorated our Christmas Tree this year, I stood beside it reminiscing about the many Christmas trees that we as children had decorated as we grew up in Kerala, India.  Kerala being in the tropical region is blessed with a cool climate in winter with a temperature of about 25oC and obviously not even the remote likelihood of snow.

Decorating homes with green plants, leaves and branches, mainly to ward off the monotony of snow covered winters, has been a tradition much before the birth of Christ.  In many regions, it is believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.  Even if they did not, it brought cheer and festivity to the otherwise dull, indoor bound, bone chilling winter days and nights.

Germans are believed to have started the Christmas Tree tradition in the 16th century.  German settlers who migrated to Canada from the United States in the 18th century brought this tradition with them.  It became an official symbol of Christmas celebration in the Commonwealth when Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, put up a Christmas tree at the Windsor Castle in 1848.  It then became a Christmas tradition throughout England, US, and Canada.


During our vacation to our native place in Kerala in October 2019, standing next to our ancestral home, I could see in my mind’s eye the front courtyard where once a Guava tree stood, leaning on to the roof.  I narrated to Marina as to how we as kids – I was less than ten years old – used to climb the Guava tree to leap on to the roof, may be to pick up a ball that had got caught on the roof tile or just for fun.  Marina then came out with a story of a similar Guava tree in her ancestral home and how she executed many similar ‘monkey tricks.’

The mere sight of the high roof sent a chill up my spine as I could not even fathom my climbing it now.  The thought struck me that perhaps I would never even have permitted our children the fun of climbing on such a tree and get on to the roof.  The question that intrigued me was ‘How come parents of those days allowed their children such (mis)adventures?‘   After we children grew up into our teens, our father cut the guava tree in 1976 as it was posing a threat to the very existence of the tiles on the roof. Moreover, we children had grown ‘too old’ to climb on the rooftop to clear the fallen leaves, a periodic ritual.

During our early childhood, this Guava tree was decked up by the four of us brothers, to be the Christmas Tree and the decorations were maintained until New Year which coincided with the annual festivity of our Parish Church.  We used to decorate the tree with paper buntings, electric lights and stars, all hand-made using bamboo and craft paper.  The ritual of star-making would begin a fortnight before Christmas.  We had to cut a reed-bamboo (Ochlandra Genera) from our neighbour’s farm, split it into thin veins and then assemble it to form five or six-cornered stars.  The exercise led by our eldest brother often resulted in physical bouts when one of us four brothers would disagree about the methodology or sometimes unintentionally undo the work done.  Whatever it was, it all ended up with the hoisting of the stars that we had painstakingly built, up onto the Guava Christmas Tree.


For the Christmas of 1976, after the guava tree was cut down, it was a Jamba (Eugenia Javanica) tree in the vicinity that we chose to be blessed as our Christmas Tree.  The Jamba tree in Malayalam is referred to as wax apple, love apple, java apple, chomphu (in Thai), bell fruit (In Taiwan), Jamaican apple, water apple, mountain apple, jamrul (in Bengali), jumbu (Sri Lanka) and jamalac in French.  Being rich in fibre, they ease digestion and is mostly eaten with salt to give a better taste.  The tree bears bell shaped pink fruits in early Winter.  With the pink fruits on a green leafy tree making a striking contrast, the Jamba is ideally suited to be dressed up as a Christmas Tree.

This Jamba tree also witnessed many events of our growing up years.  It must have been planted by Amma sometime in the mid-sixties. The tree being a slow grower, grew to about two feet by 1968.  That was when our youngest brother, then aged four, came up with an unusual request. He wanted someone younger to him. It was all because he was invariably at the losing end of our many childhood fights.  At the time, our parents solved the problem by getting him a kid, a real goat’s kid, a female one.  That was how goat rearing commenced at home.

This kid soon thereafter developed an immense liking for the leaves of the young Jamba tree.  Our Father tried every trick in his book to ensure the safety of the young tree.  He fenced the area around the tree with thorny branches, but this kid easily managed to break through and reach the much sought after leaves.  He then sprayed the leaves with cow dung and cow’s urine; come next rain, it would be washed clean and the kid would forage on to it at the next opportune moment.  Thus the Jamba tree was cursed to be a stunted bonsai, but it was stubborn enough to manage a rudimentary existence in the front courtyard.

In 1974, the goats were sold off as we had shifted to rubber plantation from tapioca cultivation. This resulted in lack of forage and grass for the goats.  This ensured ‘Moksha’ for the Jamba tree and it grew in leaps and bounds with a kind of pent up vigour and in 1976 it was about ten feet tall, laden with the bell-shaped pink fruit by early December.  With the guava tree cut, our eldest brother designated the Jamba tree to be the Christmas tree for the year.  Fully decorated with all the pink fruits, it turned out to be the prettiest Christmas Tree that we ever had. As I pictured that decorated Christmas tree of 1976, I couldn’t help being swept aside by a flood of nostalgia.

(Images : Courtesy Google)

 

To Read or Not to

Recently I saw a video clip of Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, quite infamous for his idiosyncratic use of English language, wherein, a high school student asked him to give out a difficult word from his vocabulary which she had not heard.  Pausing for a moment, he said “READ”.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body” said Joseph Addison – essayist, poet, playwright and politician.  Who does not want to exercise his or her mind?  Reading is bound to make you smarter; stimulate critical and analytical thinking; assimilate new information; improve problem solving skills; and the list is endless.

One who does not observe cannot paint, one who does not listen cannot sing and one who does not read can never write.  Shashi Tharoor attributes his vast vocabulary and spelling to his extensive reading.  He claimed that he hardly used a dictionary, but made out the meaning of difficult words, contextually, as it occurred in different passages or paragraphs.

Most students appearing for Medical/ Pharmacy College Admission Test (MCAT or PCAT), Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and admission tests for various management and business schools, the world over, inter alia, generally need to take on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) test. To many, this test is a sort of Waterloo.  It is mostly a test of comprehension based on a passage(s) followed by some questions, which needs to be answered in a very short time. The CARS test is a more advanced form of the good old comprehension question that was (and perhaps sill is) a part of the English language examinations at various levels. While the latter tested only one’s language skills, the former tests ones knowledge, critical analysis and power of reasoning also.

Many students struggle with this section because it requires a certain level of intuition, or some previous knowledge of the subject.  One should be familiar with various difficult words in the passage and more or less know their precise meaning in the context in which it is used; else one is sure to take a lot more time in comprehending the passage.  Most students appearing for such admission tests are quite uncomfortable with CARS, as they are more used to formulas, theorems and theories based on scientific subjects.  Indeed, quite a few have managed to cram the subject matter without really understanding the conceptual aspects.  Unfortunately, the CARS section is not something that you can cram for, but you must prepare for it over time.  Armed with a vast array of knowledge (gained through extensive reading) and lots of practice, a student would be well ready to take on the CARS test.

CARS section is designed to test comprehension, analytical skill, and reasoning power by comprehension and critical analysis of a given passage.  To develop this skill, one suggested way is to read through the editorial page of a leading English newspaper and also any economic news paper.  While reading, even if you can assimilate ten percent of what is written, your knowledge base will increase.  Ultimately it is all about reading.

To become a better reader, the only way is to read more.  One needs to develop stamina for reading and it needs to begin at a young age.  It is obvious that the children of parents who read turn out to be better readers – they surely imitate what their parents do and perhaps the habit gets into your genes.  So, put down your mobile phones and put off your television when you are in the company of your children.  That is the time to take up a book and commence reading.  Everything from books to magazines is good material to build up your reading stamina. Remember that the CARS section will generally not contain passages pertaining to the natural sciences, it encompasses everything else.

While practising for CARS, read the passages like you would read normally.  Never try to skim through it, never skip lines – you may think that you are reading the passage fast, but you are sure to miss out on some essential information.  You are sure to ‘miss the woods for the trees.‘  If you practice ‘normal’ and perhaps a bit deliberate reading, you will realise that you are able to pick out relevant information faster.  Previous knowledge about the passage will help you immensely, but should never become a hindrance in your ability to answer the questions.

Let us take an example of the following simple passage: –

  • “While Nelson Mandela is the father of South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi is our grandfather,” Harris Majeke, South Africa’s ambassador to India, said. “Mandela was inspired by the Satyagraha campaign led by Gandhi. It was a compelling act of passive protest against oppression. This would later inspire the formation of the African National Congress and strengthen Mandela’s belief in our shared humanity.”  It is true that there is a direct connection between Gandhi’s campaign against discrimination in South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement there.  “The African National Congress, which in 1952 launched the first mass movement against apartheid under the leadership of Dr. Albert Luthuli, had been founded in 1912 on the model of the Indian National Congress, with which Gandhi had been closely associated,” writes Claude Markovits in “The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and the Afterlife of the Mahatma.”

A student who is not aware of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Claude Markovits; developments in South Africa; practice of Satyagraha as a passive protest; evils of apartheid and other such concepts will not be able to comprehend the passage well, analyse it and satisfactorily answer the questions that follow.

The best suggested way to practice for CARS is to read for pleasure and entertainment and also to make use of the Dead Time at one’s disposal.  Dead time is the time available at your disposal while you are travelling, waiting for someone or an event to happen, etc.  As Shashi Tharoor brought out, you are bound to pick up on new words and phrases, practice forming opinions, and have the opportunity to reason beyond the text.

As against reading for pleasure and entertainment, when one reads to learn, the ability to grasp the essentials conceptually from what one reads and retain it in memory for ever, is a skill that varies from one individual to another. This skill is a highly developed common denominator amongst all successful people who primarily use their brain for their success. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be acquired, enhanced and fine tuned.

The best seller “Unlimited Memory” by Grandmaster, Kevin Horsley deals with ‘how to use advanced learning strategies to learn faster, remember more and be more productive’. Be that as it may, reading for pleasure and entertainment is primary to all reading; without this habit, ‘reading to learn is nearly impossible’. Reading for pleasure is habitual, a habit that needs to be developed very early in life. Like swimming and cycling, it’s a skill that becomes increasingly more difficult to acquire with advancing years.

Our niece who used to travel by train home (four hours) on weekends from her university in Kerala once complained about ogling and eve teasing by some young male co-travellers, which used to irritate her a lot. Here the victim and the perpetrators, both have no concept of utilising dead time.  I advised her that reading would divert her attention from the ogling Romeos, many of whom, would get intimidated just by the sight of a girl with an English book (for obvious reasons) and she on the other hand, would gain knowledge, improve her vocabulary and enhance language skills.  After a month she reported success.   Now, after five years of my advice, she still continues to carry a book with her during travels and I must say that she has evolved into young woman with good general awareness.

The result of a study by Kingston University, London, showed that book readers were more empathetic than those who mainly watched television.  While watching a movie or a television show based on a book, one perceives it from the angle the director wants the viewer to perceive it, whereas while reading a book one has the liberty to pause when   needed, make assumptions and perceive  it the way  the reader wants.  Television viewers were in fact found to have more anti-social behaviour than others.  It is interesting to note that amongst readers, fiction readers showed the best social skills; comedy readers were the best at relating to people; Romance and drama lovers were the most empathetic and most skilled at seeing things through other’s eyes.

Good readers make great leaders.  Abraham Lincoln had only one year of formal education, but his reading made up for the rest.   Roosevelt was believed to have read two books a day. Thomas Jefferson had one of the most exhaustive personal libraries of his time.  Bill Gates reads about 50 books a year and as per him “Reading is absolutely essential to success.” Even in the military profession, I have observed that those who rise to the top rungs of the hierarchy possess varied qualities of the head and heart, but reading invariably is a common denominator.

  • Coming into contact with a good book and possessing it, is indeed an everlasting enrichment.”    Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam
  • “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man”  Francis Bacon
  • “Books are uniquely portable magic”    Stephen King
  •  “Time is a river and books are boats”     Dan Brown
  • “Any book that helps a child to form of a habit of reading, make reading one of his deep and continuing needs is good for him”  Maya Angelou
  • “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it”  Oscar Wilde

 

Exploring Downtown Montreal

Early in the morning on August 31, we drove to Mount Royal.  This hill at its 233 meters of altitude and 200 hectares in area, quite literally in typical tactical language of a young subaltern, ‘dominates’ Montreal.  Mount Royal owes its name to Jacques Cartier who then turned the name Mont Royal to name the city Montreal!    Mount Royal is nicknamed the ‘Mountain’ by Montrealers.   The park atop the mountain was created in 1876 and designed by the same landscape architect as the Central Park in New York, Frederick Law Olmsted.

We parked our car at the base of Mount Royal, next to the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery and then We took a stroll inside the cemetery.  It stands as a celebration of Montréal’s religious, cultural, historical, architectural and environmental heritage.  It is Canada’s largest Catholic cemetery with over 900,000 people buried there since 1854.  Over the years, it has become not only a natural haven for local flora and fauna but also home to some rare tree species.

With the city thriving, a resting place for the departed had to be established far from the city, for reasons of health and hygiene, as well as for lack of space in the downtown area. In 1852 the first cemetery was created on Mount Royal and was used for burial of   Anglophone Protestants.  The Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Catholic cemetery followed in 1854.

We then trekked our way up the mountain, walking through a pine forest to the summit to the Mount Royal Chalet.  This building was commissioned in 1931 by the then Mayor, Camillien Houde to provide employment during the Great Depression.  It was designed by the Québec architect Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne with a stone facade, large windows and elegant doors.  Inside the chalet, are paintings depicting the history of Montreal.  It also houses a food counter and a souvenir shop.


Kondiaronk Lookout located outside the Mount Royal Chalet is the best-known lookout point on Mount Royal, offering an exceptional view of Montreal and its skyscrapers as well as the St. Lawrence River.

Our trek then continued to the Iron Cross.  It was erected in 1924, the cross atop Mount Royal to commemorate the day of January 6, 1643.  The cross stands 30 metres high and when lit, can be seen from nearly 80 kilometers away, weather permitting.

In December of 1642 Montreal was threatened by a dangerous flood. The city’s founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, prayed to the Virgin Mary, vowing to raise a cross to honour her if the settlement remained safe from the flood.  His prayer was answered and the water receded. He fulfilled his promise, carrying a wooden cross to the top of Mount Royal on January 6, 1643, raising it in the Virgin Mary’s honour.

In 1874 the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society decided to raise a new metal cross to honor Maisonneuve. The project was funded by public subscription. However, the project ran into financial difficulties and soon came to a grinding halt.  Ultimately the project was completed 50 years later, in September 1924.  After five years, the cross was handed over to Montreal City.

After walking around Mount Royal, we drove to Parc Olympique, one of the most controversial structures in Montreal.  Built for the 1976 Olympic Games, it remained unfinished until the 1980s.  The Olympics cost $1.6 billion to the city (including $1.1bn for the stadium), 13 times over budget, with a string of officials convicted of breach of trust and the greatest white elephant of a stadium ever built.  The city was left with a debt that took 30 years to pay off.

The city had hosted one of the most successful World Fairs ever in 1967 -the Expo 67 – and the city, to add another feather in its cap, bid for the XXI Olympiad.

During the opening ceremony of the Olympics, out of sight of the cameras and the throng inside the stadium, the staff were frantically working to clear away the building debris. In the final scrambling months before the Games, 3,000 labourers had worked in teams 24 hours a day to make it possible for the Olympics to begin at all. They just about succeeded.

On culmination of the Olympics, the City realised that it might cost a lot to tear down the structure and also cost an enormous amount to operate.  It was also the only time in the history of the Olympics that the host nation did not win a single Gold Medal!


We then drove to St James United Church on Sainte-Catherine Street.  It is one of the city’s religious heritage gems built in 1889 by Methodist Loyalists who left New York City in the late 1700s.  The church is characterised by its spectacular stained-glass rose window, massive towers, gargoyles and High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.

Montreal is a city that quite literally creeps under your skin and into your bloodstream. I had a sense of wanting to stay on and explore a lot more of the city’s history and heritage. But then plans are plans and we decided to stick to our schedule and accordingly, after lunch, we commenced our return journey to Toronto.

Montreal : Expo 67 & 1976 Summer Olympics


(Image Courtesy Google)
After the cruise on Saint Lawrence River, we drove to Saint Helena’s Island  and undertook an electric car ride to explore the island.  This ride traces the history of the island  from 1611 to the present day, highlighting its natural, cultural and military  heritage. City of Montreal came into world prominence with the conduct of Expo 67 and 1976 Summer Olympics.  Let me take you through this trip based on these two events which were mostly held on Saint Helena’s Island, also called Montreal’s baby sister island.


This island was named by Samuel de Champlain – founder of Montreal – in 1611 in honour of his wife, Hélène Boullé.  Located in the Saint Lawrence River, South-East of  the city of Montreal, it was purchased by the British government in 1812.  In 1870, the Canadian government acquired the island and converted into a public park.  Up until the construction of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in 1930, it was only accessible by ferry.  The island was originally much smaller than it is today. In preparation for Expo 67, the City of Montreal consolidated several of the surrounding islands and enlarged it using earth excavated from the river bed and the construction of the Montreal Metro tunnels.


As a good soldier, let me begin with the Saint Helena’s Island’s buildings of military history value.  Above is the Fort built in 1824 by the British for protection against the United States.  It served as a storage and distribution centre for weapons and ammunition.  Today the Fort is home to the David M. Stewart Museum, where historical artifacts from Canada’s colonial past, particularly that of New France are displayed.


This is the Large powder magazine located in the centre of the Island, protected by a wall.  It had a storage capacity of 5,000 barrels of gun powder.


The Military Cemetery is home to over 1000 fallen soldiers. According to the commemorative plaque in the graveyard, there are a total of 58 known soldiers and many unknown buried here. The plaque says that “several wives and many children were also buried here”, but there is no mention whatsoever of 800 unknown soldiers buried in mass graves.

That was the military history aspect and now let me take you through what unfolded during Expo 67.  The name ‘Expo,’ which is simply an abbreviation of exposition, was coined by Montreal, and world fairs since have continued to call it ‘Expo.’  Expo 67 had pavilions from 62 participating nations.  Among the companies, Kodak and  the telephone industry had their own pavilion.  The pavilion visitors liked the most was that of telephone industry, followed by Czechoslovakia.

From the time of Expo 67, various art works were commissioned on the island.  Let us visit some of the artworks that impressed me.


This is the iconic sculpture ‘L’homme’ (The Man), commissioned in 1967 as a gift from the International Nickel Company, showcasing the theme of Expo 67- ‘Man and His World’.  It took five months to complete at a cost of $135,000.  Today it is  valued between 50 and 200 million Dollars.


The Iris sculpture was done in 1967 by Québec artist Raoul Hunter in conjunction with Expo 67.  It has four curved petals made of aluminum sheets.  All the concave surfaces converge towards each other, creating an enveloping effect.


La Ville Imaginaire is a sculpture made out of white granite.  It was a gift from Portugal in 1997 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Montreal’s Metro subway system  and Expo 67.  It depicts reflection as to how humans create mythical spaces, both out of necessity and in response to challenges.


This sculpture, l’Arc, next to the Iris, is made of ultra-high performance concrete.  Inaugurated on September 11, 2009, it was built in honour of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, who died in 1973. It depicts a curved tree with its branches touching the ground.  It was designed by Michel de Broin as a complex symbol whose meaning was to be open to individual interpretation.

Main attraction of Expo 67 was that the visitors had to stamp their passports at the entrance to each pavilion.  It encouraged people to visit more pavilions than they would have otherwise, only to get more stamps in their passport.  Let me take you through some of pavilions as they stand today.


Montreal’s famous geodesic ball, the Biosphere, was the US Pavilion during Expo 67. Instead of using bolts, the structure was welded together due to time constraints and covered with an acrylic shell. In 1976, when the structure was being repaired, welding torches set fire to the Biosphere, completely burning off the acrylic shell in less than 30 minutes, leaving behind only the steel skeleton.  During Expo 67, the pavilion trumpeted America’s ‘Race to the Moon,’ and also the American  entertainment industry. The Biosphere was later purchased for $17.5 million and restored to become Canada’s first Ecowatch Centre on World Environment Day June 6, 1995.


French Pavilion from Expo 67 is now home to the Montreal Casino. According to the original Expo 67 description of the pavilion, it featured ‘aluminum sun-breaker strips, providing an attractive sculpture effect’ and ‘a steel arrow.’


Jamaican pavilion, a replica of a 19th century two-story Jamaican country shop was constructed of thick, sand-colored plaster walls with shuttered upper windows and a cedar shingle roof.  It has been completely renovated and is now a very popular wedding destination, surrounded by trees and nature.


Building off the success of the 1967 Expo, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau wanted to cement Montreal’s place in the world as a truly International City.  Thus the city took on hosting the XXI Olympic Games in 1976.  Montreal Olympics was best known for Nadia Comăneci – the first person to score a perfect 10 at the Olympic Games – and also infamously for Canada becoming the first Olympic hosting nation not to win any Gold Medal.


This is the Olympic Basin which was used for canoeing and rowing competitions during the 1976 Olympic Games.  It extends over 2.2 kilometres in length; it is 110 metres wide and 2.5 metres deep. The Basin’s unique installations and it’s calm waters make it the pride of every rowing enthusiast.  The pavilions of Expo 67 of India,  Germany, Australia, Myanmar, Mexico and Thailand had to be demolished to make way for the Basin.  Today many competitive boating events are held here such as the Canadian Masters Championships and the Montréal International Dragon Boat Race Festival.


Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve is a 4,361-metre long car-racing track which has played host to the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada since 1978. The track is well-regarded for its smooth asphalt surface and the meticulous manner in which the track is maintained. These track conditions contribute to the high-calibre racing performances by the F1 cars.  When it is not hosting an event, the Circuit is where cycling, para-cycling, inline skating and running enthusiasts come to train.

From Saint Helena’s Island, we drove to our hotel in Montreal City for a well deserved rest and to explore the city next day.

A Cruise on the Saint Lawrence


After a sumptuous lunch, we walked down to the Vieux Port (Old Port) of Montreal to embark on our cruise boat – Le Beteau Mouche – meaning ‘The Riverboat.’  This 50 passenger boat is 37meter long and 7meter wide with two decks.  The terrace on top as well as the two decks offer a panoramic view of Montreal.  The Old Port stands at the very spot where the City of Montréal was founded.


The Old Port like most ancient docks around the world fell into decay, but today, thanks to the Old Port of Montréal Corporation, one can stroll, cycle, skate, rollerblade and eat along the waterfront.  Today the port is the starting point for many vessels offering a cruise on the Saint Lawrence River.


Our boat cast off from the Old Port at 3 pm on its journey up North, and under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.  This steel truss cantilever bridge with a five-lane highway is 3,425.6 meter long, across the Saint Lawrence River and allows access to Saint Helena’s Island.  Originally named the Montreal Harbour Bridge (pont du Havre), it was renamed in 1934 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s first voyage up the Saint Lawrence River.


As the boat cruised away from the port, we could see the Old Montreal’s buildings, mainly Notre-Dame Basilica, Aldred Building, etc.


As we steamed out of the port, we came to the Clock Tower, a 45 metres tall structure.  It marks the entrance to the port and is a memorial to the sailors lost at sea in wartime.  The clock is still said to be extremely precise with its legendary accuracy.  The clock’s mechanism was made in England by Gillett and Johnston and is a replica of Big Ben in London.   The Clock Tower was the port’s time keeper in an era when wrist watches were not common.


Past the Clock tower is the Molson Brewery, a relic of the glorious industrial past of Montreal.  In 1782, at the age of 18, John Molson sailed on a leaking ship from England to Canada, with a thirst for a better beer in a new country. In 1786, he founded the Molson Brewery, the oldest brewery in North America, and subsequently, Canada’s second oldest company (the oldest company is Hudson’s Bay Company established in 1670).  Through expansion and rebuilding after Montreal’s Great Fire of 1852, the facility still stands in its original location.  John Molson who also built the first steamship and the first public railway in Canada, was a president of the Bank of Montreal, and he also established a hospital, a hotel, and a theatre in Montreal.


This is the entrance to the 306-kilometer long Saint Lawrence Seaway between Montreal and Lake Ontario, built in the 1950s.  It stands as a symbol of challenging engineering feats in history.  The seaway consists of seven locks – five Canadian and two US – in order to lift vessels 75 meters above sea level as they transit from Montreal to Lake Ontario.  Opening of the seaway diminished the importance of the Montreal Port as ocean going ships could now traverse through the Great Lakes and there was no requirement of offloading Great Lakes going smaller vessels from ocean going larger ones.


As we touched the Northern tip of Saint Helena’s Island, we saw La Ronde (Round)- Quebec’s biggest amusement park with more than 40 rides and attractions.  It was built as the entertainment complex for Expo 67.  (More about Expo 67 in a subsequent post.)


We then sailed to Habitat 67, a much sought after residential complex in Montreal.  It is considered an architectural landmark and one of the most recognisable and spectacular buildings in Montreal.  This housing complex was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie as part of his Master’s thesis in architecture at McGill University and then built as a pavilion for Expo 67.


We then came to Silo Number 5 and the boat took a turn on its return trip.  It was in 1906 that Silo Number 5, formerly known as Elevator B, came into operation.  At that time Montreal Port was known as a hub of the grain trade in North America.  It was built with brick and non-combustible materials to avoid the risk of explosions due to grain dust.  Grain dust which is highly combustible can form explosive clouds.  A fire or an explosion can happen at a large grain-handling facility if accidentally ignited.  The Silo consists of three distinct parts linked together by aerial galleries. Its floating elevators allowed offloading of grain from the holds of smaller lake going ships and the simultaneous loading of trans-Atlantic vessels without ever coming into contact with the quays.  Disused since 1994, the site is today plagued by vandalism and graffiti.


As the boat turned around we could see Bota Bota Spa.  Located on a ship anchored in the Old Port of Montreal, Bota Bota, offers its passengers the healing benefits of a spa while being lulled by the natural movements of the St Lawrence River.  Bota Bota consists of five decks, a floating terrace, restaurant, and a modern garden area which houses the various spa installations.


The Sixty-minute cruise on the Saint Lawrence River was educative and comfortable.  It is surely one of the best ways to learn more about Montreal as an island. Our tour guide gave very many details of all landmarks as we cruised along.  We were amused by many of her fun facts, trivia and anecdotes.


From the church we drove to Saint Helena’s Island, crossing Saint Lawrence River over Jacques-Cartier Bridge.  Our exploration of Saint Helena’s Island is covered in the next post.

 

Major General Sanjay Thapa VSM – My Good Old Friend


Sanjay and I came to know each other during our Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1989-90 at School of Artillery, Devlali, Maharshtra.  In fact it was we both moved into in Married Officers’ Accommodation in the same area.  Thus we became travel buddies, travelling from home to our training classes, he riding his motorcycle and I a scooter.

Sanjay was a honest and hardworking student and he did put in his best efforts during the entire course.  He always admonished me for taking the course ‘cool.’  He often reminded me ‘You have the ability and intelligence to even top the course, but you never put in the best.  Why are you holding yourself back?”

Sanjay was a strict disciplinarian, obviously his Veteran Dad must have inculcated military discipline in him from childhood.  He never accepted any slackness from anyone, even if he was remotely connected with him.  Our early morning ride to the classes always was interrupted by Sanjay stopping his motorcycle to ‘set right’ young officers riding their cycles not befitting proper military discipline.

He was always meticulously turned out with a proper military haircut, even though his hairline had receded.  He was punctual always and that made me punctual too as he expected us to leave well ahead of time to reach our classes, at least five minutes ahead of schedule.  We often found that we were the first ones to reach, even before our Havildar (Sergeant) Major- Assistant Instructor-in-Gunnery (AIG) had even opened the class room.

As expected, at the end of the course, Sanjay came out with flying colours and was rewarded with an instructional tenure at School of Artillery and I returned to our Regiment.  Sanjay turned out to be one of the finest instructors from our course, all because of his dedication and commitment to his students.

After three months of completing LGSC, I returned to School of Artillery for a computer course (ADP).  Whenever I visited Sanjay’s those days, he was always closeted with his books preparing for the next day’s classes he was to conduct or was correcting papers of the student officers.

Then I met Sanjay while he was commanding a Medium Regiment at Bhatinda, Punjab in 2004, prior to me hanging up my military uniform.  He was staying in the Officers’ Mess, in a single officers’ suit.  There was nothing special to call it a CO’s Residence – it had nothing ‘special befitting a CO.’  His residence was a testimony to his concept of ‘Simple Living with High Thinking.’

General Sanjay Thapa, I know you are the most hardworking person and is now time to take a break – even your heart works with pauses, so you also have to learn how to ‘relax’.  Your retirement will make you proud of yourself and also make each one of us associated with you proud.

Retirement does not make you feel that  you are old. It means that you have been working real hard to deserve the longest vacation of your life. Wishing you a lot of beautiful adventures and happy moments with the ones you love.

Gods’ Speed and Good Shooting all the way ahead.

Major General Dharmendar Singh Gill – A Soldier Friend


Though Dharmendar and I underwent training together at the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Indian Military Academy (IMA) and having being commissioned together as Second Lieutenants to Regiment of Artillery in December 1982, we hardly ever interacted.  Rather we hardly ever met during our Academy days or during our initial regimental service.

We got acquinted only during our Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1989-90 at School of Artillery, Devlali, Maharashtra.  Veteran Brigadier GM Shankar was my desk-mate, but he was a bachelor then, staying in the Officers’ Mess.  Dharmendar and I were living in Married Officers’ Accommodation close by.


Dharmendar and his wife Babita were the most friendly couple in the neighbourhood.  They were better known as parents of Honey, their chubby chirrupy little daughter.  Honey was an adorable kid and every officer in the course knew who she was.  Marina and I being newly married looked forward for their company.

Dharmendar was a honest and hardworking student and he did put in his best efforts during the entire course.  He always admonished me for taking the course ‘cool.’  He often reminded me “You are very intelligent and will top the course if you put in little effort.  Why are you holding yourself back?”

After LGSC, I met him while travelling to India from Canada on vacation in 2015.  I had a stopover at Mumbai and whom will I call up – it was surely Major General DS Gill, then Additional Director General (ADG) National Cadets Corps (NCC), Maharashtra.  That evening he organised a get-together of all our course-mates stationed at Mumbai.  We had a grand dinner that evening.

It is pertinent to mention here that under the premiership of General Gill as ADG, the Maharashtra Contingent of the NCC struck gold in 2015  – the contingent has created history by winning the prestigious Prime Minister’s Banner for the sixth consecutive year at the Republic Day Camp held in New Delhi.  Maharashtra NCC was also adjudged the Champion Directorate from out of 17 NCC directorates in the country.  In 2017, the Directorate bagged the Runners-up Trophy.

Maharashtra NCC also has the unique distinction of winning the Prime Minister’s Banner and the Champion Directorate Trophy 17 times since its inception. The achievement is particularly remarkable since as many as 17 NCC directorates and 2070 Cadets from across the country participate in Republic Day Camp every year.


I am sure General Gill made a difference to many young cadets while serving with NCC.  They stand proof to his dedication and selfless service to NCC.  Performance of the Directorate when he was at the helm is commendable.

Soldiers like General Gill helped many soldiers and officers  to be groomed to be thoroughbred gentlemen and soldiers.   When a soldier as wonderful as General Gill finally hangs their boots, it makes many heart melt, especially those who benefited under his guidance.   I am sure General Gill will continue to do well or may be even better post retirement.

General Gill , please think about it, now you never have to ask for a day off ever again.  You may presume that you are your own boss, but wait!  You now left your old boss and start a  life with your new boss, your wife.  You are now a ‘Go Getter’ – your wife will now order you to go get something and like an obedient husband, you will go and get it for her – which you never did in your life.

Now that you’re retired you can do all the things you enjoy;  all of the wonderful things in your bucket list – including a visit to Canada.   In reality after retirement only the body grows older, but the heart grows fonder and the mind becomes younger.  You in fact realise that all these years you were trying to be mature, but now  is the time when you can get back to being a child.

Happy retirement General Gill!  Retirement is when you stop living at work and start working at living.  Please also make sure you work just as hard at relaxing as you worked hard soldiering.

You’ll be missed but never forgotten!

Exploring Montreal on a Calèche

From the Place d’Armes square, we embarked on a horse drawn chariot (Calèche) ride with our hostess Sue to explore the area of Old Montreal. The city of Montreal has decreed that Calèches will be off the city’s cobblestone paved pathways from the New Year Day of 2020.   There have been cases of horses being mistreated and horses dying while drawing carriages. The lawmakers felt that the resources employed to ensure safe operations of Calèches were causing a heavy drain on its budget.  The city plans to replace Calèches with electric vehicles.

Sue, an incessant chatterbox, kept us engaged throughout the tour with her commentary on the history of Montreal and the significance of each street and building, while simultaneously cursing motorists who blocked our way.  Most of her ‘constant cacophony’ was historically accurate, but every now and then she would come out with something outrageous which indeed needed the proverbial pinch of salt to digest


We rode through Notre-Dame street. On either side were shops selling their wares, mostly to attract tourists.  This is a historic street created in 1672 that runs parallel to the Saint Lawrence River.  The shops have large entry gates – these were meant for the horse-drawn carriages to pass through.


We came to the Old Courthouse, built in 1857, which today houses Montreal’s financial services.


Adjacent to it stood the modern Palais de Justice or Court House inaugurated in 1971.


Opposite to the court houses stood the Ernest-Cormier Building of 1926, from where once the Criminal Court operated.  The building features monumental granite, limestone and an imposing portico of 14 columns. The building now houses the Quebec Court of Appeal.


Next we came to the seat of Montreal’s local government, referred to as the Hôtel de Ville de Montréal – an imposing five-story building, constructed between 1872 and 1878.


We then came to Place Jacques-Cartier.  By the early 1800s Montreal was expanding and it had outgrown the old market square. In 1803 a fire destroyed dozens of buildings. This newly freed-up space became a public market square, Place Jacques-Cartier.  The market operated from here up until the 1950s.


At the North end of the Place Jacques-Cartier stands the Nelson’s Column, about a third of the size of the original.  It was erected by Montreal’s Anglophiles to celebrate Lord Nelson’s defeat of the French at Trafalgar in 1805.  It is also the city’s oldest monument and is the oldest war monument in Canada.  The monument caused plenty of angst and the local government proposed moving Nelson to some far off suburb but newer generations of Anglophiles fought tooth and nail to ensure that the idea was dumped.


Opposite the Nelson Monument is the Francophiles answer to the Nelson’s column, the statue of the French Naval Commander Jean Vauquelin.  He fought many battles in the mid 1750s against the British Navy.  The Francophiles honoured him with a square bang opposite the Nelsons.


The next point that we saw was the Place du Marché – or market place.  Prior to building of the Notre-Dame Basilica and the Place d’Armes square, this was the commercial hub of Montreal and also the gathering spot of the community.


Adjacent to the Place du Marché is the Old Customs House, now part of the Pointe-à-Callière museum. It was called Place du Vieux Marché until 1892.  On the 250th anniversary of Montreal’s foundation, it was renamed Place Royale.


As we rode through the cobblestone paved streets, Sue pointed to this building and said that most buildings in Old Montreal had windows of varying shapes that decrease in size and height with each higher storey.  According to her, it was to avoid the ‘Window Tax‘ being levied by the City of Montreal in those days.  I could not find any reference to any ‘Window Tax’ in Canada, however, a system of window tax, based on the number of windows in a house was in vogue in England and France.  In England this tax was first imposed in 1696, and was repealed in 1851 as it was more of a ‘tax on health, light and air’


This is one of the oldest churches in Montreal, the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, also known as the Sailors’ Church, since many sailors prayed here for safe passage.  In 1655, Marguerite Bourgeoys, a teacher, in return for her unpaid work, requested the construction of a new chapel dedicated to Virgin Mary.  The church was completed 13 years later.  This church burned to the ground in 1754 and the present church was built in 1771 over its ruins.


We then rode past one of the first fire stations in Old Montreal, now home to the Museum of Montreal History. The exhibits showcases the history of the building itself and how it transformed from a stable for horse drawn fire equipment to motorised trucks..


Next we came to the Customs House, erected in 1912, is closely associated with the growth of Canadian trade during the first decade of the 20th century. With Its responsibilities enhanced in 1916 with the introduction of direct taxation, this building gained prominence.


This building caught my attention, more for Sue’s commentary.  The inscription ‘Grand Trunk‘ and the accompanying GT monogram on this five-storied building indicates that it belonged to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad Company.   The building was built in 1902 by Charles Hays, the President of the company.  Unfortunately, he was aboard the Titanic that sank on 15 April 1912, with his wife, Clara, daughter Orian and son-in-law Thornton Davidson.   The materials used are grey granite, beige limestone and chamois sandstone from India.

Sue commented that after the Grand Trunk Company closed down its Canadian operations in 1923 after its acquisition by the Canadian Government, the company moved its operations to India.  Again, I could not find any reference to this claim, but possibly the name ‘Grand Trunk’ being a proprietary trade name, could not have been used by the British-Indian Railway, unless the Grand Trunk Company had some association with it. So, Sue may have a point here.  The Grant Trunk Express, the legendary train in India may provide the link if any.


Thanking Sue and tipping her well for her ‘stories’, we alighted from her carriage and walked to Place Jacques-Cartier for lunch.  While waiting for the lunch to be served, I booked tickets for a boat cruise along Saint Lawrence River, for a story that follows.

Montreal : The Canadian Paris


When my eldest brother and sister-in-law came calling, how could we miss a trip to the great city of Montreal – even though it was my third trip to the city.  Montreal, a Canadian city in Quebec province is the third largest French speaking city.  The first would surely be Paris, but the second, you would not guess it in your wildest dreams!  It is Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It seems virtually everyone speaks French in Kinshasa.


In 1603, explorer Champlain made his first of many voyages across the Atlantic to the St. Lawrence and planted the French flag here in 1603. Then the British and French fought over this land with the British victory in the 1760’s, Montreal was under British control. The French and Brits lived together but anger and warring was never far from the surface.

French was declared as  Québec’s only official language in 1974 when Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Bill 101 was passed by Canadian Parliament.  The primary purpose of the bill  was to encourage non-French-speaking immigrants to integrate into the francophone community.  For a traveller it gets trickier to read the road signs as they are only in French and most staff at hotels and restaurants tend to speak only French.  These were two handicaps I suffer whenever I travel to Quebec province, but has still not managed to learn French.


We set off from Toronto early morning and after seven hours of drive reached  Montreal’s old town, Vieux-Montreal.  Driving through the narrow cobblestone streets with lot of pedestrians, spotted with Victorian lamp posts, accompanied by horse-drawn carriages transported us into a different world, but driving through these narrow roads was bit uncomfortable for me being used to multi-lane roads of suburban Toronto.. Once Montreal’s financial hub, Vieux-Montreal is now home to hotels, restaurants, pavement cafes and art galleries.


How did these Scottish cobblestones came to be paved on Montreal’s streets?  They came over as ballast in the late 1700s in ships that returned to Montreal after unloading its cargo of fur and blubber.


We parked our car and set off on foot to explore Vieux-Montreal like most tourists.  We headed straight to the Place d’Armes square -said to be the heart of the city, though it mostly consists of office buildings.


The square is always bustling with activity, with musicians playing.   The monument in the center of the square is dedicated to Paul de Chomedey, founder of Montreal


In the Place d’Armes square, two tall bronze sculptors caught my attention.  These sculptors have been inspired by two snobs in the novel ‘Two Solitudes’ by Hugh Mac Lennon.  The two snobs depict the cultural distance between English and Francophone Canadians.  On the left is an Englishman holding his pug, staring at the Notre-Dame Basilica, a symbol of religious influence on Canadians.  On the right, two hundred feet away, stands a French lady with her poodle in her hand, giving an offended look at the Head Office building of Bank of Montreal, symbol of English financial power.


On the Eastern side of the Place d’Armes is the majestic Notre-Dame Basilica – built between 1824 and 1829 with two  towers reminiscent of Notre-Dame-de-Paris.  At that time,  the church was the largest in North America and remained so for over fifty years.


Entry into the church costs $5 – a token to help maintain the Basilica in pristine condition.  You will not repent paying $5 for a glimpse inside.  The interior of the church, based on Gothic Revival architecture. is decorated with golden stars, reds, purples, silver, and gold – all on a blue background.  It is filled with intricate wooden carvings and several religious statues.


The stained glass windows along the walls of the sanctuary do not depict paintings from the religious history of Montreal.


Rear top of the church houses a pipe organ, built in 1891.  The organ comprises four keyboards, 7000 individual pipes and a pedal board.


Adjacent to the Basalica is the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, a U-shaped building.  The building was completed in 1687and the clock added in 1713.


As we walked out of the Basilica, on our front left, across the Place d’Armes square, stood the Head Office building of Bank of Montreal,  Canada’s first bank –  Bank of Montreal  was founded in 1817.  This building was built in 1847, designed by British architect John Wells, resembling the Pantheon. On the bottom left,you can see the French lady with her poodle.  The building is in operation today as BMO’s main Montréal branch.


On to our right stood two classical buildings.  The white building called the Aldred Building built in 1931, designed by Ernest Isbell Barott, with a height of 96 metres or 23 storeys.  The building’s setbacks at the 8th, 13th, and 16th floors to allow more light on the square and create a cathedral-like effect, like the adjacent Notre-Dame Basilica.

The red building with a clock tower is Montreal’s New York Life Insurance Building (also known as the Quebec Bank Building) and was built in 1887. It was the tallest commercial building in Montreal at the time.


We now set out to explore Old Montreal on a horse-drawn carriage ride (calèche).  In recent years calèche has drawn the ire of animal rights activists and lobby groups.  The calèche will not be there with the turn of next year as the city has banned them from 2020.

Lavender: The Flower of Purity


On August 07 we visited Terre Bleu lavender farm in Milton, Ontario with my brother and sister-in-law.  Terre Bleu farm was started by Ian and Isabelle Baird who were enchanted by the spectacular fields of purple and the fragrant air that swirled all around, while vacationing in Quebec.  They moved from downtown Toronto, with their young children William and Madeline, to rural Milton and began farming organic lavender.


In 2011 the Bairds planted their first 10,000 lavender plants. After years of careful planning and cultivation the farm opened to the visiting public in 2014. Today, this is the largest lavender farm in Ontario and is home to over 50,000 lavender plants and many other herbs and flowers spread over 160 acres. Thousands of visitors throng Terre Bleu every summer to share the experience of sustainable organic farming.


Lavender is believed to have originated from the Mediterranean, dating back some 2500 years. It is a flowering plant of the mint family known for its beauty, fragrance and its multiple uses.  Today Lavender is cultivated across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America.

Lavender is amongst the world’s most ancient documented plants. Hieroglyphic texts from Ancient Egypt mentions the use of lavender in embalming and cosmetics.  When the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened, jars filled with ointments resembling lavender were found.


The ancient Greeks called Lavender Nardus (commonly called Nard), after the Syrian city of Naarda. Nard, or ‘Spikenard,’ its Greek name, is referenced throughout the Bible.

“While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof” (Song of Solomon 1.12)


Lavender derives its name from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’. The Romans used lavender to scent their baths, beds, clothes and even hair. They also discovered its medicinal properties.  In ancient times, bundles of dried lavender were given to women in labour for squeezing during contractions as the fragrance released was known to alleviate the pain and facilitate an unencumbered birth.


On reaching the farm we embarked on a farm tour.  Our tour guide was a smart enthusiastic young lady pursuing her university degree in life sciences.  She said she loved working on the lavender farm for the fresh scented air she could breathe as it rejuvenated her and also that she could put into practice what she learned at school.  Obviously, it did provide her monetary benefits, especially during her summer vacation.


Walking through the farm we saw women harvesting lavender flowers.  At Terre Bleu, they harvest the flowers manually.  Here they grow the French and English lavenders. Both are lookalikes with the French lavenders a bit taller than their English counterparts.  English lavender in comparison produces less oil, but is more in demand due to its aroma.  French lavender has more camphor in its oil which has a soapy taste. Hence, English lavender oil is preferred over French lavender oil in cooking.


Enjoying the aroma filled air of the farm as we walked a few minutes, we entered the distillation plant.   Lavender oil is distilled here by steam distillation.  This copper still (pot) distillation plant was imported from Portugal to facilitate distillation through the age old European traditions.  The still is packed with lavender flowers to the top avoiding air pockets between the lavender and water at the bottom.  The top of the still is connected to a condenser.  The still is heated and the water boils to form steam.  The steam rises and passes through the still stuffed with lavender flowers.  As the steam passes through the lavender, the pressure inside the sealed kettle along with the high temperature of steam causes the buds of the lavender to release its oils.  The lavender buds hold most of the oil and not the actual flowers.

In the condenser, the steam gradually cools down and turns to liquid that drips out.  As oil and water do not mix, oil floats on water because water is denser.  Oil is drained out from the top spout of the condenser and lavender hydrosol (mixture of oil and water) is removed from the bottom spout.  Hydrosol is used for removing makeup, and in the manufacture of body sprays, deodorants, linen sprays etc.


We then walked to the Apiary being maintained by the farm. The relationship between flowers and bees is only too well known.  Terre Bleu promotes organic cultivation, free from pesticides that are harmful to the bees.  This ensures many healthy bee colonies in the farm.


Lavender is definitely more than just a pretty purple bloom. It has many health and wellness benefits.  Lavender is a good sleep aid and can calm your stress and anxiety.  It is naturally anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and anti-bacterial and can cure dandruff.  It fights congestion and can relieve sore muscles and headaches.

Our farm tour ended at the farm-store where we enjoyed lavender flavoured ice-cream.

The Fall Equinox

 


This Fall Equinox was very special. We were honoured to host for lunch Air Marshal Manvendra Singh, AVSM, VrC, VSM, his wife Ambika and their elder son Abhijith. The Manvendras, proud grandparents, had come to Toronto to be with their newborn grandchild.


Air Marshal Manvendra is the highest decorated serving officer from our Course (61 NDA). He is presently Senior Air Staff Officer of Southern Air Command, Thiruvananthapuram. He has clocked over 6600 hours of flying and for him the glorious moment was on October 1, 2016 when he flew a MI 17 Helicopter with his younger son Flight Lieutenant Siddharth Singh as a co- pilot – a record of sorts.

After lunch as our esteemed guests left, on the social media I posted a photograph with a caption ‘Honoured to have hosted Ambika, Air Marshal AVSM, VrC, VSM and their son Abhijith for lunch on the last day of Canadian Summer – 22 Sep 2019.’ The response from our course mates was overwhelming. One read ‘The man speaks for himself. Some people need not be named. The whole world knows that.’

It was then that I noticed that I missed Manvendra’s name in my post. How did this blunder creep in? Like a good NDA course mate, I initially wrote ‘Manvendra (F/61)‘, but then some how felt that it was inadequate, as I thought that I got to honour his rank and his well deserved decorations. Finally, when I rewrote it, I missed the obvious – his name. So I was missing the proverbial woods for the trees. In Indian Army terms, my Minor Staff Duties (SD) was correct, but I missed out on the Major SD – a cardinal sin in military values.

You cannot take out the Indian Soldier in me despite 15 years of my Canadian citizenship. The virus lies inconspicuously, deep within, ready to erupt when you least expect.


The Fall (Autumnal) Equinox is when the Sun is exactly above the Equator and day and night are approximately equal all over the globe. It falls on September 22 or 23. The word ‘Equinox’ is Latin meaning ‘Equal Night.’ In reality, it isn’t exactly equal on an Equinox – for Torontonians the Sun rose at 7:04 AM and set at 7:17 PM. The spring Equinox is on March 22. Of course for those in the Southern hemisphere, the Spring/ Autumnal Equinoxes are reversed.

I love my astronomy – so let me elaborate. For most of us the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. In reality it does so exactly in the East/ West on only two days in the year, on the two Equinoxes. The phenomenon of the apparent Southward/ Northward movement of the Sun is caused by the combined effects of the revolution of the Earth and the tilt of the Earth’s axis (the plane of the ecliptic). Ancient Indians called this apparent Northward/ Southward movement of the Sun as Uttarayanam and Dakhinayanam.

As the days progress to Winter Solstice marking the beginning of Winter on December 22 with the longest night, we lose daylight everyday. From now on every day Torontonians lose about 3½ minutes of daylight. The Sun will rise a tiny bit further South-East everyday until it reaches a maximum South-East position on the day of the Winter Solstice. Then on it will rise a tiny bit Northward everyday, commencing the Uttarayanam.  On March 22 (Spring Equinox), it will again rise exactly due East and we will experience nearly equal day/night. From then on the Sun will move a tiny bit North-West everyday until it reaches its extreme North-West position on the day of the Summer Solstice on June 22, a day when we experience the longest day and shortest night of the year.   Dakshinayanam commences thereafter.

There is a Chinese myth that it is easier to balance an egg vertically on its end on a flat surface on Equinox than on other days of the year. It is believed that the Moon and Earth are in exactly the right alignment on Equinox and the celestial bodies generating the perfect balance of forces needed to make it possible. In reality, it is a myth and the position of the Moon and other celestial bodies will vary from Equinox to Equinox. You can perhaps balance an egg just as well on any day of the year.


This loss/gain of daylight and the change of the seasons is less significant for those living closer to Equator like my kin from the God’s Own Country. In Canada and the extreme latitudes, the changes are very significant and results in daylight saving time setting, changing our clocks twice a year. The Autumnal Equinox marks the beginning of Fall with the leaves turning yellow, later red and falling off. In Canada the maple tree will assume different shades of yellow, orange, red and pink during the autumn as the photo depicts, before they finally fall off. This phenomenon can be experienced in Kashmir as well.

 

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 ten years old, as a cadet at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in June 1970. 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, when 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.

As we waited for Colonel Anbu to get free, I asked the Subedar Major something that had intrigued me about the soldiers in Sikh Light Infantry: How does Colonel Anbu, with his quiet and pleasing manners, command the fierce Sikh Light Infantry soldiers so well?

That was when I got a significant military lesson from Subedar Major Swaraj Singh:

“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 – busting another Indian Army myth!

I must relate an interesting story about Brigadier Devraj Anbu when he 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 that 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 sensitize the soldiers about the regressive nature of this tradition, quoting examples from the scriptures, but 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 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 selected soldier, 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, this needs elaboration. 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 SainikSchool) 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, the 79ers, my batchmates from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar had our annual meet 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 be in 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.

Article 370 and Kashmir


Kashmir could better be defined as a paradise in turmoil. Persian poet Amir Khusruhad said “Agar Firdaus bar roy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast” meaning “If there is a paradise upon earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”.

In August 1947 the British divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan based on religious lines. British India consisted of about 565 princely states and their rulers had the option of joining either of the two new dominions, India or Pakistan.

The princely state of J&K, had three geographically distinct areas – Leh in the North and East with many Buddhist, Jammu in the South mostly Hindus and the Kashmir Valley in the middle with a Muslim majority. The state was ruled by a Hindu Ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh. Under British rule, J&K had its own army, police, post, telegraph, transport, etc, akin to many other Indian princely states then.

Maharaja Hari Singh did not want to accede to either and wanted to remain independent. In order to gain time, Maharaja signed a ‘standstill’ agreement with Pakistan so that trade, travel and communication would be uninterrupted. India did not sign a similar agreement. Pakistan believed that Kashmir would accede to them as it had majority Muslim population, was geographically contiguous to them and the area had better road and rail communications with Pakistan than India. As the Maharaja kept delaying his decision, Pakistan imposed a trade embargo on Kashmir resulting in a lot of misery for the people of Kashmir.

Soon Pakistan’s patience ran out. They covertly sent in Pathan tribals to capture Kashmir. These Pathans were lured with a promise of loot, plunder and rape. The invasion commenced on 20 October 1947. Kashmir was then defended by the state forces and many Muslims from the force rebelled and joined the invaders. Despite the desertions, the state forces fought many pitched battles and were successful in delaying the attackers. The invaders reached Baramulla on 26 October. The Pathans now let loose a savage orgy of loot, rape, murder and abduction of girls. The local Muslims could not believe that a force that had come to liberate them could indulge in such barbarism even against fellow Muslims. Raping, looting and plundering at Baramulla in fact delayed the raiders from reaching Srinagar, thus saving the capital.

As the raiders were knocking at the doors of his capital, Maharaja Hari Singh first sought urgent military aid from India on 24 October. The Indian cabinet under Governor General Mountbatten refused to send troops unless the Maharaja acceded, arguing that the Indian Army could only defend Indian territory.

By about 11 PM, the Maharaja sent another request specifically asking for Indian troops to be sent to Kashmir. The Indian cabinet agreed to the request and on 26 October Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession joining India.

The decision was taken on 27 October to launch the First Battalion of the Sikh Regiment (1 Sikh), located at Delhi, to be flown into Srinagar by Dakota aeroplanes of the Indian Air Force. As there were no administrative echelons of the Indian Army in Kashmir, the battalion had to be self-contained, meaning it had to carry anything and everything – from rations to ammunition. Landing a heavily loaded Dakota on a poorly maintained airstrip at an altitude of around 5000 feet was a feat in itself. Neither the pilots nor the soldiers had any experience in operating at such altitudes and were not equipped to do so. The soldiers had only a thin sweater to beat the cold. Biju Patnaik, who later became the Chief Minister of Odisha State, was one of the first pilots to land in Srinangar that day.

The soldiers of 1 Sikh fought many a bloody battles against the raiders and threw them back to Baramulla and then beyond up to Uri. By November 1948, the Indian Army was in a strong position. They were in fact ready to defeat the Pakistani forces and occupy the entire Kashmir. Yet the Indian government requested United Nations (UN) mediation to resolve the conflict. After protracted discussions at the UN, a cease-fire was agreed to by both countries, which came into effect on 01 January 1949. Why India called in the UN to resolve the conflict when the Indian Army was on the brink of achieving victory remains a mystery.

The terms of the cease-fire as laid out in the UN resolution of 5 January 1949 required Pakistan to withdraw its forces, both regular and irregular, while allowing India to maintain minimum strength of its forces in the state to preserve law and order. On compliance of these conditions, a plebiscite was to be held to determine the future of the territory.

Pakistan claims that a plebiscite must be held to determine whether the people of J&K want join India or Pakistan as stipulated in the UN resolutions. India blames Pakistan for failing to withdraw their forces from the area held by it as stipulated in the very same resolution as a reason for not holding the plebiscite. This simmering bone of contention between two nations resulted in the beautiful state of J&K being divided along the Line of Control (LC) as Azad Kashmir on the Pakistan side with India calling it Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and India Held Kashmir (IHK) as Pakistan calls the Indian part of J&K.

Raja Hari Singh meanwhile appointed Sheikh Abdullah as the Prime Minister, who with three other colleagues joined the Indian Constituent Assembly to discuss provisions of Article 370 of the Indian constitution under draft.  In 1950, the Indian constitution was adopted with its  Article 1 defining J&K as a state of India and Article 370 conferring it a  special status.

Article 370 allowed J&K to make its own laws in all matters except finance, defence, foreign affairs and communications.  It established a separate constitution and a separate flag for J&K and denied property rights in the region to the outsiders.

The events and turmoil thereafter only complicated the existence of the state within Indian Union with all political parties fishing in the troubled waters for a few more votes. This situation led to rampant corruption in all spheres of life.  Even though Indian government was pumping in lot of money, it never reached the grassroots level.   It only alienated the local population from India and they called themselves as Kashmiris and others Indians.

First time I landed in Kashmir was in 1987 as a young Captain and I observed that the most effected due to rampant corruption was basic primary education and healthcare. When I visited the state in 2017, the tale was not different.  When these two basic facilities the state must provide is absent, the area becomes an ideal breeding ground for political extremism.  Now add religious fanaticism to it, it becomes a real Molotov’s cocktail.  This is what has happened in J&K and a similar game is being played in some other areas of Indian hinterland also.

In my view, Article 370 has not served the part it was intended by the authors of Indian constitution, but has led to extreme corruption and difficulties to the common Kashmiri.  Lack of education, coupled with lack of employment opportunities encouraged  Kashmiri youth to take up weapons, with support and facilitation by Pakistan.

Article 370 though gave a separate identity to Kashmiris, it failed to amalgamate the state and its people with the Indian union.  Abolishing it was a mandatory step to ensure the very existence of Indian union.  It had to be done now or later and that must have been what the authors of the very same Article 370 intended.

Like many other such ‘special rights’ articles in the Indian Constitution like  reserving jobs for the under-privileged castes – Article 338, the number of castes were to be reduced each passing year to ultimate removal of the article from the constitution.  The political parties have played hell with this article that the number of castes swelled and beneficiaries have overtaken the normal citizens.

The present Indian Government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the strength and support in the Parliament to move any constitutional amendment.  Removal of Article 370 is the first step in the right direction.  It must be followed by constructive steps to ‘Educate, Employ and Empower’ the Kashmiris.  This will help them to amalgamate with the Indian union and also quell extremist forces fighting for independence or cessation.

When the common Kashmiri finds economic and social upliftment as a result of removal of Article 370, they are sure to amalgamate easily with Indian union than when the article was in force.  If necessary steps to improve the lives of a common Kashmiri is not taken up on a war footing, removal of article 370 would prove to be catastrophic.

Lisbon: Lisboa – Meaning a ‘Safe Harbour’


On June 20 we landed at Lisbon Airport and drove off to our hotel.  After lunch we decided to explore various landmarks of Lisbon on foot.  Our first stop was Rossio Square.


On reaching Rossio Square we were greeted by Tuk-Tuk (Auto-Rickshaw) drivers who carry passengers through the cobblestone paved narrow twisting alleys of Lisbon.  From 2017, by law, all Tuk-Tuks had to be electric and could operate only until 9 PM.  Obviously, they are unpopular with the city’s taxi drivers who see them as a threat to their livelihood.


Rossio is the liveliest square in the city, where people stop to sit and relax, or for a drink at the several cafés with outdoor seating.  The Praça dom Pedro IV is the official name of the square after the inauguration of the statue of Dom Pedro IV in 1874 but Lisbon’s residents have never taken to the name and still refer to the square as Rossio meaning ‘common land.’


On either side of the square are two baroque fountains, and in the center is a 27 meters high monument.  It consists of a pedestal with marble allegories of Justice, Wisdom, Strength, and Moderation – qualities attributed to Dom Pedro IV – whose statue stands on top of the monument.   It is widely believed that the statue in the centre of Rossio is of Dom Pedro IV but legend has it that the statue is that of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Maximilian was assassinated soon after completion of the statue and the unwanted statue was sold to Lisbon at a fraction of the cost as both Dom Pedro IV and Maximilian were near lookalikes.


On the North side of the square is the Dona Maria II National Theater, a monumental neoclassical building built in the 1840s. The portico has six Ionic columns (originally from the Church of St. Francis, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake), and crowning the pediment is a statue of playwright Gil Vicente.  The theatre was built in 1846 on the site of the old Palácio dos Estaus palace, initially constructed in 1450 and was used by the Portuguese royal family to host foreign dignitaries.

The wave pattern stone paving was added to Rossio during the 19th century and was designed to resemble the oceans but more often disorientates late night revelers. The two baroque fountains, imported from France, were installed at the same time as the statue of King Pedro IV (1870).


From Rossio we walked to Praça do Comércio, (Commerce Square), Lisbon’s central point. It was built on the site where the old Royal Palace destroyed by the 1755 earthquake stod.  It is said that one of the motivations for the monumental sculpture’s prominent location was to honour King Joseph’s reconstruction efforts after the earthquake of 1755.

The 14-meter-high monument consisting of a bronze equestrian statue that depicts King Joseph I riding his horse, with several snakes at its feet on a large, richly decorated, lime stone pedestal.  The statue is the first cast bronze statue in Portugal and is the oldest public statue of Portugal.


The King’s statue stands on a pediment, flanked by sculptures of Triumph and Fame, which symbolise the submission of four continents to the Portuguese.  On the left is Fame driving an elephant – representing  Asia – over a human figure – representing Africa.  On the right is Triumph, leading a horse – depicting Europe –  over a human figure – depicting America. The depiction is strongly suggestive of Portuguese domination of the world during the middle ages.

The southern end of the plaza is open and looks out onto the Tagus River. The other three sides have yellow-coloured buildings with arcades all along the façade. When the square was first built,  commercial ships would unload their goods directly onto this square, as it was considered the ‘door’ to Lisbon.


Our next destination was Santa Maria Maior or Se Cathedral, a twelfth century Cathedral.  Surprisingly it survived the 1755 earthquake, which left only a part of it in ruins. The solid and imposing Se Cathedral is Lisbon’s most important and iconic religious building. The exterior of the grand old church resembles more that of a military fortress than that of a church, with massive solid walls and two imposing clock towers.

Inside Gothic arches extend to the faulted ceilings and medieval statues and decorative altars fill the alcoves. To the rear  are the ancient cloisters, which were constructed directly on top of a ruined mosque built by Arabs, dating back to the period of the Crusades.


Every year in June, Lisbon honours St. Anthony of Padua, the city’s patron saint.  Lisbon almost entirely shuts down for one month, with locals decorating the street and plazas in bright colours.  In rest of Portugal however, he is considered the ‘matchmaker’ – a patron saint for singles.  Some people also call it the Festival of Sardines.

In the month of June, the smoky scent of grilled sardines fills the Lisbon air and in every corner one will find someone cooking a batch of sardines on a grill.  People also gift pots of basil to their beloveds.

We were lucky to witness the horse parade of over fifty well manicured horses, with men and women riders dressed in traditional Portuguese attire.


Our final destination for the evening was The Miradouro de Santa Luzia (Saint Lucia’s Viewpoint), one of the best places to view the city on a clear day.  We enjoyed the view caressed by a cool breeze from the Tagus River. Shady trellises and bougainvillea  provide protection from the intense sun.


The red-tiled roofs of the old downtown area below us, in the backdrop of the Tagus River meeting the Atlantic Ocean and visiting cruise ships provide a picturesque setting.


Near the viewpoint is the Church of Santa Luzia with blue pictorial tiles depicting the city’s Praça do Comerçio (Commerce Square) dating back to the 1755 earthquake.

From Saint Lucia’s Viewpoint, we walked for about 25 minutes to reach our hotel for a much deserved rest and dinner and also to prepare for a long journey to Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 30 km North-West of Lisbon.

The Journey of Port


In this travel episode let me take you into the intricacies of the fascinating world of port wine. Let me submerge you in wine as it were. For the wine buffs amongst you, it would be particularly interesting.

On reaching Pinhão, we drove straight to Croft Winery founded in 1588.  It is the oldest firm still active today as a Port wine producer. The company is renowned for its Vintage Ports as well as for its range of wood aged wines.


We were ushered into one of the ‘Lagares’ where a Croft Associate briefed us about Port and how it is bottled from grapes that grow on their vines. A ‘lagar’ is simply a wine press.

The grapes are harvested by hand in the second half of September.  They are carried to the winery where they are crushed to allow the fermentation to start. Fermentation is the process whereby the sugar in the grape juice is converted into alcohol by yeast.


Once fermentation is under way, care is taken to ensure that the grape skins are kept in contact with the fermenting juice so that their colour, tannin and flavour are released into the wine.  Traditionally this is achieved by treading the wine by foot in wide granite tanks called ‘Lagares’.  Foot stomping to tread wine is employed nowadays only by some wineries like Croft. In most others, foot treading has been replaced by mechanical methods.


Foot stomping ensures that the grape seeds do not get crushed.  Pressure from human foot is gentle enough so that the seeds do not break, which can adversely affect the taste of the wine.  In the most wineries around the world, foot stomping grapes for wine production is not resorted to as they do not seem to like mixing feet with wine. However, during various festivals, foot stomping of grapes is resorted to, but the end product is not used for wine production.   When about half of the natural sugar in the grape juice has been turned into alcohol, the treading stops and the skins are allowed to float to the surface of the ‘lagar’.

The fermenting wine is then drawn from under the skins into a vat.  As the fermenting wine runs into the vat, grape spirit – a colourless, neutral spirit distilled from wine – is added to it. This raises the strength of the wine and stops fermentation. As a result, much of the natural grape sugar is preserved in the finished Port.   This technique of adding a small amount of grape spirit at some point in the wine making process is called fortification.  Hence, Port is a fortified wine. When you want the wine sweet, the spirit is added earlier and when the desired product is required to be ‘dry’ the spirit is added later so that there is little or no residual sugar.


Port houses own cool dark ageing warehouses called ‘lodges’.  In Pinhão, the temperate climate of the coast ensures that the wines age slowly and harmoniously. One of the unique properties of Port is its ability to gain in richness and flavour over very long periods of ageing in wood. This is partly because it is fortified and partly because it is a wine of extraordinary concentration and aromatic potential.


Broadly, Port falls into two categories: Wood-aged and bottle-aged. The vast majority of Ports are wood-aged, meaning that they are fully matured in oak casks or vats and are ready to drink when bottled. Bottle-aged Ports, are those that spend only a short time in wood and then continue to age in bottle. Vintage Port is by far the most important category of bottle-aged Port, as it represents only the finest wines of the best years and the amount produced is very limited.


Vintage Port is the finest and rarest of all Ports, the most sought after by wine lovers, collectors and investors. It is a selection of the very best wine from a single exceptional year and represents only a very small proportion of the crop. A bottle of Vintage Port must always be stored lying down so that the cork is in contact with the wine and does not dry out.

Port is declared a ‘Vintage’ by the wine regulator Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) when they feel that the wines which were produced in a given harvest year possess the characteristics of a Vintage Port.  IVDP ensures that the wine is produced, aged and bottled according to the regulations which define Vintage Port.

Vintage port remains in wood for only two years, usually in a large vat. It is then bottled and continues to age for many years or decades in bottle, gradually developing the aromas which are the hallmark of a great mature Vintage Port.

During the ageing process a sediment or crust will form in the bottle. Before serving a Vintage Port it is often necessary to decant it to separate the wine from the crust. Decanting also brings the wine in contact with the air, allowing the aromas of the wine to open out after the long period during which the wine has been enclosed in the bottle.


The tradition of ‘laying down’, or putting away some bottles of Vintage Port for a child when it is born derives from the fact that a declared Vintage will last for the child’s entire lifetime, reaching maturity when the child is old enough to appreciate and enjoy it.

A bottle of wood aged Port must be stored upright in a dark, cool place, if possible away from direct light.  There is no need to decant a wood aged Port. It will remain in good condition for six weeks or more after the bottle has been uncorked for the first time.


After the briefing, we were ushered outside to the egg shaped concrete vats.  These vats provide temperature consistency for fermentation.  Fermenting grape juice in concrete is a pretty ancient practice.  The minuscule little air pockets across the surface of concrete allows the fermenting juice to breathe much in the same way that oak does, but without borrowing any flavors.


We were then taken to the wine tasting gallery to devour three special Port wines: Croft Pink, Ruby Reserve and a Ten-Year-Old Tawny.  Even though none of us were wine connoisseurs, we learnt a lot about wine and had lots of fun.


We then drove to the jetty on Douro River for a cruise in a small boat.  The boat sailed under Pinhão’s famous bridge, designed by renowned French architect Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, best known for the world-famous Eiffel Tower.  We sailed along admiring the patterns weaved by the vineyards on the terraced hill slopes.

We returned to Porto by late evening, had dinner and retreated to our hotel room to prepare for our early morning flight out of Porto to Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal.

Vineyards of Douro Valley


Day 2 of our Portugal trip, June 19, early morning we set out from Porto to visit Douro Valley, in Northern Portugal,  It is the first demarcated and regulated wine region in the world (1756), known mainly for Port.  The name Port is obviously derived from their homeland Portugal.  Port is a sweet, red, fortified wine most commonly enjoyed as a dessert wine because it is rich and sweet. Wine production in Douro Valley is regulated by Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP).  They control the quality and quantity of Port wines, regulating the production process.  This region also produces some of the best wines in the world, other than Port, and also olives.


On our drive to Douro Valley, we halted at picturesque Amarante town, on the banks of River Tâmega, known for the São Gonçalo  (Saint Gonzalo) Church.  Amar in Portuguese means ‘to love.’

The granite bridge above was built over the Tâmega River in the late 18th Century. The original bridge, believed to have been built in the 13th Century, collapsed in a flood in 1763.  The present one was completed in 1790. A plaque on one of the obelisks (in Greek meaning a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top) guarding the bridge entrance on the left bank commemorates the victorious resistance of General Silveirea, on the 2 May 1809, when he confronted Napoleon’s troops led by General Loison.


This Church, built in 1540 houses the tomb of São Gonçalo who died in 1259.  São Gonçalo, the patron saint of Amarante, is believed to be a wedding facilitator for older women. As per legend, in order to find the love of one’s  life, one must touch the statue of São Gonçalo on New Year’s Eve.


This lady was selling ‘Doces Falicos‘ or ‘phallic sweets’, a sugar  glazed phallus shaped cake, also known as ‘Little Gonzalves.’  This phallus cake originated in from pre-Catholic times, with roots in pagan fertility rituals. The cakes are handed out together with locally-harvested dried figs at ceremonies held each January (on the anniversary of São Gonçalo’s death) to usher in a ‘fertile and favorable’ year.  It is also used in June street parties, by local singletons who believe that it could bring them true love and a happy family.   The cakes are much sought after by old spinsters in search of a husband, where the ‘old spinster’ are often single woman in their late twenties or early thirties, keen to settle down and start a family.

In the 1930s, Portugal’s fascist Second Republic outlawed the cakes as being obscene, but the villagers of Amarante continued to make and exchange them secretly. After the dictatorship fell in 1974, the Bolos de São Gonçalo came back out of the closet.

From Amarante we drove crossing the Marão ranges through a tunnel to Douro Valley.,


The Douro Valley lies about 100 kilometres inland from the coast and is protected from the influence of the Atlantic winds by the Marão mountain ranges.  The oldest vineyards are planted on traditional terraces supported by dry stone walls. These walls were built by hand on the steep hillsides and then filled with soil.  Most of them are narrow, often bearing only one or two rows of vines.  These historic walled terraces rise up the rocky slopes like the steps of the Pyramids.  Today, they form one of the world’s most dramatic and inspiring vineyard landscapes.  A vineyard estate in Portugal is known as a ‘Quinta’.

Vines of Douro Valley are not artificially irrigated.  The vineyard soil is very stony and is rich in nutrients but is free draining.  The roots sink deep down in to the soil in search of water and the grapes produced by such vines is said to be of better quality to produce Port.


The art of creating a terrace has died down due to hard work and costly labour involved and also availability of earth moving equipment.  The cost of terracing has become prohibitive and they are no longer built today. Only the old vines grow on terraces.  These wines are planted in closer rows as no tractors are used.


Patamares
are modern terraces cut into the mountainsides using earth moving equipment.  They are not supported by walls but are separated by tall earth banks.  Near the vines, they grow lavenders and roses.  The health of the flowers of these plants are indicators of the quality of grapes growing on the vines.


Relatively inexpensive and quick to build, Patamares may cause soil erosion.  Many vineyards plant olive trees to bind the soil.  The vines are planted in rows with a wider gap to allow tractors to move between the rows.


In places where the gradient allows, terracing is replaced by vertical rows of vines running perpendicularly up the hillside.  Vertical planting also provides better leaf canopy exposure.


After about thirty minutes, we reached Pinhão, a small sleepy town near Spanish border, the heart of Port wine country on the banks of Douro River.  From here we set out to visit Croft Winery followed by a cruise on Douro River.