Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Picture Postcards from Caorle

The tiny seaside town of Caorle to the north of Venice is a little gem on the northern Adriatic coast of Italy. It comes alive in summers when tourists arrive here from different parts of Europe. With transparent blue sea, history, culture, art and colours, it seems like one big picture postcard.

This part of Italy is dotted with small seaside towns such as Jesolo, Portoguraro, Bibione and Lignano, full of summer tourists. Apart from the seaside holidays, they offer cultural opportunities in the neighbouring cities.

Caorle is one of my favourite places for a day visit during our summer holidays in Bibione.


Caorle is an ancient town, dating back to pre-Roman period. It's name comes from Caprulae (pasture land for goats). Others believe that its name comes from Capris, a Pagan goddess. In the past it was a part of the Republic of Venice.

Residents of Caorle are only 12 thousand, and most of them live in the old medieval part of the town. The houses are painted in bright and give a distinct look to its narrow winding pebbled streets. The image below shows an old house in Caorle.

The most fascinating building of Caorle is its thousand years old Cathedral with a beautiful round-shaped bell tower. The Cathedral built in Romanesque style also has a number of frescoes, beautiful paintings (including "The Last Supper" by Gregorio Lazzarini) and archaeological materials (including an old Pagan altar - Ara Licovia). In the image below you can see the bell-tower of the Cathedral.

A well known landmark of Caorle is the "Madonna of the Angel church" (in the image below) situated at the edge of the sea. It was rebuilt in the seventeenth century. The local people believe that Madonna of this church has saved their city from many floods and natural disasters. In times of difficulty, local people go there to ask for Madonna's help. Thus, if you want to ask a favour from the Madonna of Caorle, remember to light a candle in this church.


A paved walkway called "Lungomare del ponente" starts from the Madonna of the Angel church. It is protected from the sea by a row of boulders. It is a very romantic place for talking long walks. It is also an open-air Art Gallery: a lot of the boulders along the sea have been carved into sculptures by famous artists from Italy and abroad.

Every year the city invites some sculptors to come to Caorle to sculpt a new art work on one of the boulders of the walkway. Thus, if you are lucky, you can see those artists at work (in the image below an artist in 2016).

A distinctive feature of Caorle is the colours of its houses. This gives it a bright and fun appearance.


The new part of Caorle, along the sea beach has a row of colourful hotels along with shops, bars and restaurants, and a wide beach of fine white sands, that seems to go on forever.

The countryside around Caorle is criss-crossed by different canals from the Livenza river that connects to the sea at the Santa Margherita port. Compared to the north-eastern part of the city, this part of the town around the port is less touristy. There are some nice walks along the port and the canals. (Santa Margherita port in the image below)


I hope that you have liked this short visit to Caorle. I love this colourful little city and look forward to returning there.


Friday, 24 February 2017

Angel hunting in Rome

If you ask someone in Rome about where can you find some angels, probably they will advise you to go the Ponte Degli Angeli (the Angel Bridge) near Castel Sant'Angelo, in front of the St. Peter's square in the Vatican.

It is true. Ponte Degli Angeli has a lot of Angels. However, I don't find those statues very exciting. They all look very similar to me. There is another place in Rome where you can find a diversity of angels - at the Verano cemetery. It is full of sculptures and some of them are amazing. It is a free open air museum in the centre of the city. So come and join me in a mini-tour of Verano cemetry, looking for its most beautiful angels.

This post presents my ten favourite sculptures of Angels from Verano. The first image (above) has a boy angel, which is a rarity because most sculptures and paintings show angels as young women or children.

The angel of this image is an adolescent boy, his face still innocent. He looks slightly sad, his gaze far away, mildly curious. In his right hand he is carrying the symbol of Roman republic (SPQR) while his left hand holds the knob of a sword. He is wearing the belt of a warrior. Usually angels are shown in gestures of peace, so this angel is unusual. This sculpture is part of a Marine monument. I love the touch of green moss on the boy's face and wings.


The word "Angel" comes from Greek "Angelos", meaning the messenger of gods. The ancient Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia 4000 years ago had angels as the messengers between the divine world and human world, and also as the guardian-souls looking after and protecting individuals. Zoroastrian cosmology also included the concept of guardian angels.

The monotheistic religions born in the middle east, especially Christianity, inherited these Pagan concepts of Sumerian and Zoroastrian angels and wove them in their own sacred books and mythologies. Old Testament and New Testament both mention Gabriel as the divine messenger angel. The New Testament has a whole world of these divine creatures including Angels, Archangels, Cherubs, etc. who play divine music and help the dying persons to pass into the other world.

Artists, both painters and sculptors, made the angels more ubiquitous by including them in their works, especially in paintings on the Christian religious themes. Some people celebrate 2 October as the "Guardian Angel day".

Some recent American/European TV serials and films are about guardian angels helping people in need, in which both men and women are shown as angels. However sculptures and paintings of adult male angels are less common (except as "Angel of Death").

On the other hand, the child angels are often shown without any genitals and are more common in the paintings than in sculptures. Therefore the word angelic is often used in the sense of sexual innocence. I don't know if Freud ever gave any interpretation about the meaning and significance of these asexual angels.

Angels and Indian Mythology: In India, I had grown up with concepts of Apsara and Pari from the Indian mythology. I understood "Apsara" as beautiful celestial women who were sometimes brought to earth by the Gods, especially to create diversions for the sages (Rishi). The Apasara did not have wings. On the other hand, Pari were magical female figures with wings who could fulfill wishes. There was no concept similar to that of an angle in my childhood mythological stories.

Indian mythology has the concept of messengers of the celestial world. For example, there is Narad Muni, usually shown as an old man wearing orange clothes who has magic sandals so that he can travel where ever we wants. However, even these messengers of Indian mythology are different from the common images of angels. Another divine messaging device in Indian mythology is "Akashvani" or the voice from the sky. For example, before Krishna's birth, his uncle hears the Akashvani that the son of his sister will kill him one day.


Often friends ask advice about visiting some places that are not yet discovered by tourists. Rome has many such places, if you have a little patience to search for them. Verano cemetery is one such place where very few tourists ever arrive.

"Isn't that a kind of morbid, visiting a cemetery?" You can ask.

The old cemeteries are like open air museums. They have sculptures, historical buildings and sometimes even archaeological areas. Verano cemetery is not very old - it was instituted only in the 1800s.

Verano cemetery is located near the Tiburtina railway station, close to Sapienza university in Rome. The nearest metro station is Policlinico (on Metro B), from where you can walk or take a tram (3, 19) and get down at Verano (3 stops from Policlinico).

Verano cemetery is huge and includes different hills. So remember to wear comfortable shoes and carry some water with you. It will be a rewarding but also, a long and tiring walk.

The cemetery has the tombs of some of the most famous Italians - actors, writers and politicians including Vittorio de Sica, Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Alberto Moravia, Roberto Rossellini and Bud Spencer. If you are interested in looking for the tombs of the famous, there are guided tours for the visitors, especially on the weekends.


The angels of Verano can be broadly divided into three groups - the first and the biggest group of Angels has female figures expressing sadness; the second group has adult female figures with other expressions such as peace; and the rare third group, which has child angels.

Let me start with three images of sculptures showing angels shown as adolescent girl or women, expressing sadness and loss. These angels express the feelings of bereavement of the family members.

In all the three sculptures I love the way rain, snow, wind and sun can leave their own marks on the stones. I feel that the discolorations and the moss can bring alive the stones.

The next angel has some artificial greenish-blue leaves flowing down from the basket in her hands. She does not seem sad to me, rather she seems detached, looking at the future awaiting her in the other world.

The next angel is from a military monument. She seems more like an Olympian athlete who is declaring her power and rejoicing in her win. Her wings seem like swords or shields grouped together, softened by the moss. She evokes strong and contradictory feelings in me, not all of them pleasant. I have included this sculpture because of its ability to provoke and unsettle.

The next sculpture of angel seems to express love and desire. She makes me think of a Juliet who is finally going to meet her Romeo after a long wait. Her face is dreamy and her features are soft. She seems to symbolise hope and love rather than the pain of a separation.

The eight sculpture seems to be from Bible, an angel telling Mary that God was going to come to her womb. This angel is a young girl with short hair, she seems to be modelled on some real person. Her right arm is raised, her hands partially open and she seems to saying something. I love her earnest expression and, the white and dark mottling on this sculpture caused by the rains. She makes me think of a nice school teacher talking to small children.

The ninth sculpture of angel is sitting on the tomb and is looking intently at a long scroll, as if reading about the good and bad deeds of the person. Thus, this angel is more like a judgement angel who is going to decide the fate of the person. So she is a working angel, having a specific and difficult role.

The tenth and last image of this post has three child angels, also called cherubs. Cherubs are chubby, beautiful and innocent looking angels usually shown in religious paintings, especially around the figure of Madonna.

This particular sculpture is different since it seems to tell a story - a sad looking baby angel is standing behind a tomb while other two baby angels are talking to him, as if telling him to not to worry and that he will be fine in the new world of angels. Probably this tomb belonged to a baby boy. I love the expressions of the baby angels and their tiny little wings.


Angels are ubiquitous in Rome. There is even a bridge full of angels (Ponte degli Angeli). But the angels in the old part of the Verano cemetery are special. The background of the cemetery with its old decaying graves, stones covered with moss, sculptures eroded by time, they all make these angels come alive.

I love these sculptures because they touch on the most fundamental of human emotions - sadness, loneliness, bereavement and peace. If you think of art as a way of understanding and experiencing human emotions, you can understand why I see so much beauty in them.

Verano is not just about angels. It has lot of other sculptures too. I hope that if you ever come to visit Rome these images will stimulate you to think of visiting Verano cemetery. It is a magical place and afterwards you can tell your friends that you have visited a place seen by very few tourists.

When we say "angels" you somehow imagine them to be all similar. As these images show, the sculptures of angels are expressing the different human emotions felt by bereaved families and there can be so much to see, understand and appreciate in their diversity.

BTW, does the city of Los Angels has any beautiful sculptures of angels?


Monday, 20 February 2017

Portogruaro: The Medieval River Port

Portogruaro is a quaint little town in the north-east of Italy. It is a popular holiday destination in the summer. However it is not just a holiday town, it has its own history and culture. It is worth a visit if you are holidaying in this part of the Adriatic coast of Italy. (Image: The leaning bell-tower and the First World War monument in Portogruaro)

The northern part of the Adriatic Coast of Italy is famous for its summer-holidays towns like Jesolo, Caorle, Bibione and Lignano Sabbia d'Oro. While enjoying the beautiful blue sea and its related charms, holidays in this area can be an opportunity to discover the history, art and culture of some of the smaller towns like Portogruaro.


Portogruaro started as the river port for an ancient Roman town called Concordia, located 6 km away. However, with time it became bigger and more important than its parent town. One legend says that the town was built with the stones of the ruins of Concordia-Sagittaria after the parent town was destroyed by Attila the Hun in the 5th century.

The first historical document mentioning Portogruaro is from 1140 CE in which the Bishop of Concordia gave permission to some merchants to build a port on the Lemene river. Another document from Pope Urban from 1186 CE also talked about the prosperous Port of Gruaro and its mills, thus by that time the city had already started to grow.

In 1420 Portogruaro came under the protection of Republic of Venice. In 1797 it became part of the French dominion of Napoleon who gave it away to the Austrians. It remained under the Austrian rule till 1866. Some statues of the Venetian lion in Portogruaro were destroyed by the French while during the first World War, some of its buildings and bridges were damaged by the Austrians.


The city stands on the banks of the Lemene river and is also called the Lemene Queen. The Lemene river merges with Livenza river before ending in Adriatic sea. It has different buildings from the medieval and renaissance periods. Its main roads show various buildings in the late Gothic and Venetian styles, marking it clearly as a medieval town. (Image: Lemene river in the city centre)

Republic square with the municipal building of Portogruaro, is the core of city and is visually very striking. The municipal building was originally built in 1265, however the present building is from the fifteenth century and is very beautiful. The square includes the white coloured monument to soldiers who had died in the first world war, known locally as "The Horse". (Image: The 15th century Municipal building & the First World War monument)

The square has an old well like fountain called Pozzetto del Pilacorte - it has two herons that are a part of the city's official symbol (in the image below).

Just behind this square is the Cathedral of Portogruaro with its leaning bell tower. The cathedral is dedicated to St Andreas (in the first image on the top).

The Municipal building, the leaning bell tower peeping from behind the old houses surrounding the square, with their "bifora" and "trifora" windows in Venetian styles, and the white coloured soldiers' monument, all combine to give this square a very distinctive look.

The city has two main roads on the two sides of the river with small streets going out like the teeth of a comb. This means that walking around the city you can frequently meet the river and its canals and see some of the old medieval bridges, that give this town a very distinctive ambiance.

From the bridge on the river Lemene in the city centre, you can still see the water-wheels used for the mills that lined its banks in the medieval past (in the image below).

Portogruaro, has many other buildings of historical interest including the medieval towers guarding the entry to the city. It also has some museums including the City Museum and the Archaeological Museum.

During our short visit, we visited only the municipal square, some bridges and the shopping areas. However, as this brief introduction shows, we need to go back to discover more of this city. (Image: Old houses in the city centre)


Portogruaro is a tiny river town with medieval houses, a lovely square with interesting architecture and a leaning bell tower. If you are on holidays in this north-eastern part of Italy, Portogruaro is worth a visit.


Thursday, 16 February 2017

Assam Tea, Bruce Brothers & Maniram Dewan

A Scotsman, Robert Bruce is credited with the “discovery” of tea in Assam in India. I think that it is anachronistic that 70 years after the end of colonial rule in India, we still continue to use the colonists’ ideas about discovering the world, so that if something was not “discovered” by the west, it did not exist.

And if we want to credit Robert Bruce for having “discovered” the tea in Assam, why do we forget the name of the person, Maniram Dewan, who had made it possible for him to make the discovery? (Image below: Statue of Maniram Dewan at the Freedom Fighters Memorial, Guwahati, Assam)

This is the story of two brothers from Scotland and an Indian. The names of the Scottish brothers are known for the discovery of tea while the Indian is known as a freedom fighter. I think that there were more links between them than is commonly believed. This post explores these ideas.

Discovery of the tea in Assam

It is said that in 1823, a 17 years old boy Maniram Dutta Baruah helped Robert Bruce to find the tea bushes in Assam. He took Robert to meet the chief of Singpho tribal village, who collected wild tea in upper Assam. Unfortunately, Robert died in 1824. The further “discovery” and development of Assamese tea is credited to his younger brother, Charles Alexander Bruce.

History books do not tell, how and where did Robert Bruce come in contact with Maniram and what was the relationship between them. However, later the same Maniram became an important figure in the freedom struggle of India in Assam.

Historical Background

In late 1500, Venetian merchants introduced tea from China to Europe. By 1610, Portuguese and Dutch traders were bringing Chinese tea to Europe. Tea drinking became popular in Britain in 17th century, especially after King Charles II married Catherine of Breganza from Portugal, who liked to drink tea. Import of tea from China increased and became costly.

In the 18th century, East India Company (EIC) started selling opium to China and by 1773, it was their leading supplier. By starting Opium cultivation in India and using this opium to pay for the Chinese tea, the profits of EIC increased.

In the 18th century, the British had started looking for alternate places for growing tea in their colonies. For example, Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society in London, in a letter dated 27 December 1788 to the deputy chairman of East India Company explained that Bihar, Rangpur (in Assam) and Cooch Bihar (in W. Bengal) could be suitable for tea growing in India. He suggested to EIC to “convince” the Chinese tea growers to bring tea plants and start tea plantations in India.

In 1833, the Chinese agreement with EIC about the supply of tea in exchange of opium ended. China informed EIC that they did not want to import opium as it was hurting the health of their population. The British troops with Indian soldiers attacked China, forcing them to continue to accept opium. Well known author Amitav Ghosh in his wonderful trilogy of books starting with the “Sea of Poppies” has explored this issue in some detail.

In the same year, 1833, Lord Bentick of EIC constituted the Tea Committee in Calcutta and charged it with the task of growing of tea in India.

Tea traditions in Asia and Pre-British India

Tea drinking has a long tradition in China. From China it spread to neighbouring countries. Ancient records show tea drinking in Korea in the 6th century and in Japan in the 9th century CE.

Tribal communities in contiguous geographical areas of India, China and Myanmar had known tea shrubs for hundreds of years.

The Singpho tribe which had helped Robert Bruce to find tea shrubs in Assam, is spread over neighbouring areas of Myanmar and China. They are called Jingpo in Myanmar and Xunchu in south-west China (especially Yunnan). They call themselves Jinghpaw Wunpawung. They are most numerous in Myanmar in the geographical area of Kachin (and are also known as Kachin), with significant groups in south-west China and some groups in north-east of India (in Arunachal Pradesh and Upper Assam).

The main species of the tea shrub in China is Camellia sinensis while the tea shrubs found in Assam were of its sub-species, Camellia assamica.

The Bruce Brothers and the Discovery of Tea in Assam

Robert and Charles Alexander Bruce were born in Edinburgh, Robert in 1789 and Charles, 4 years later in 1793.

Life of Robert Bruce: In 1807, 18 years old Robert graduated as an army cadet. Soon, he was part of the EIC army. It is not very clear when exactly did he reach India. For a few years, he was in the Maratha regiment and later in Bengal Artillery, for which he received a pension from EIC.

In 1814, the 25 years old Robert was living in Bengal, where he supported one Mr Brajnath’s claim to be the king of Cooch Bihar. Both Brajnath and Robert were arrested by David Scott, agent of EIC Governor General in Assam, but Robert was given a bail.

In 1817, Burmese forces occupied Upper Assam, however this did not stop the fights between different Assamese kings. In 1820 Robert had joined the army of Purandar Singha, in Rangpur (part of present day Sibsagar in Assam), in his fight with Chandrakant Singha for the Ahom throne of Upper Assam. In 1821, Robert was captured by Chandrakant, who asked him to become part of his army. Thus Robert changed sides and became a fighter for Chandrakant Singha.

By this time, he was also the owner of a factory (probably, an opium factory) at Jogigopho near Goalpara (Assam) and he had maintained contacts with EIC.

In 1823, 17 years old Maniram took Robert to meet the chief of Singpo clan village called Bessa Gaum and showed him the local tea shrubs. Robert knew that the British were looking for indigenous tea plants for growing tea in Assam. However, before he could do anything with his new found knowledge, he died in early 1824 at the age of 35 years.

Life of Charles Bruce: Robert’s younger brother, 16 years old Charles Alexander Bruce, had left Britain in 1809 on a ship as a midshipman. In the following years, he was involved in the Napoleonic wars between Britain and France in the Mediterranean Sea. He was captured by the French navy and kept as a prisoner in Mauritius. He was freed when the British took over Mauritius. He also took part in the EIC war in Java (Indonesia).

We don’t know when exactly did Charles arrive in India but in 1824, when his brother Robert died, he was living in Assam. After his brother’s death, he sent the Singpo tea shrubs to the Botanical Garden in Calcutta.

In 1824, EIC decided to launch a war against the Burmese in Upper Assam (first Anglo-Burmese war). Charles was part of this war, responsible for a gun boat. In 1825, British were able to defeat and send back the Burmese. After the war, Charles became the Gun Boat commander at the British outpost in Sadiya to the north of Dibrugarh.

The role of Nathaniel Wallich: Meanwhile there was no news from Calcutta about the tea shrubs Charles had sent there. Nathaniel Wallich, the director of Royal Botanical Gardens in Calcutta travelled to western parts of India in 1825 and to Assam and Burma in 1826-27, coming back with thousands of specimens of plants. In 1828, he went to London with 8,000 samples of plants. Four years later, in 1832, he came back from London and informed Charles that the tea shrubs samples from Assam sent in 1824 were not the real tea plants.

In 1833, when the tea treaty with China expired, a Tea Committee was formed in Calcutta, with G. J. Gordon as its secretary. Nathaniel Wallich was also a member of the committee. Gordon was sent to China to procure the tea plants and expertise for growing tea in India. In the meantime, Gordon’s assistant, Mr Charleston sent more samples of Assamese tea shrubs to the Horticultural society, which confirmed that these were real tea plants. Gordan was called back from China while Charleston was given a gold medal for the discovery of the Assamese tea plants.

Charles' efforts to show his tea-growing expertise: Charles Bruce was based in Sadiya, and he had continued to study the tea plants of the Singpo. His expertise was recognised by the EIC Tea Committee and in 1835, he was given the tea seeds brought from China and asked to grow them. However, the results of growing Chinese tea seeds were disappointing. In 1836 Charles took the Singpo tea plants and started a cultivation in Sadiya, samples of which were liked by the tea committee in Calcutta. In 1837, Charles sent his tea to London where they reached in 1838 and were auctioned with great success in 1839. Finally Charles and his Assam tea became famous.

In 1839, Wallich and Charleston had to agree that the original plants collected by Robert and sent by Charles were the real tea plants and thus finally Bruce brothers’ contribution to “discovery” of tea was recognised by EIC.

In 1839, Wallich accompanied by other botanists visited Upper Assam including Sadiya. Following this visit, Charles was appointed as the Superintendent of Tea Culture in Assam. In 1840, he became the superintendent of northern region of the newly created Assam Tea Company.

In his new role as the tea expert, Charles made different suggestions to the EIC. For example, in his report to the Tea Committee dated 10 June 1839, he suggested to them to involve Indians in running the tea plantations and to bring labour for the tea plantations from other parts of India. He was against the production of opium in Assam and recommended to levy taxes on opium import because opium caused misery and opium addicts were not fit to work in the plantations.

His suggestions were not accepted by EIC. In 1845, Charles Bruce was discharged from Assam Tea Company and he retired to Tezpur where he died in 1871. His wife Elisabeth, continued to live in Tezpur and died in 1885. Both Charles and Elisabeth were buried in the old cemetery of Tezpur.

Dewan Maniram Dutta Baruah

Maniram was born in 1806, his family was employed by Ahom kings in Rangpur. In 1817 when the Burmese occupied Rangpur, Maniram was 11 years old. His family left Rangpur and took refuge in Bengal.

In 1823, 17 year old Maniram accompanied Robert Bruce to Bassa Gaum village of Singpo tribe along the Burhi Dehina river (today it is called Dihing river and is north of Sivasagar town). At that time, Bruce was part of the Chandrakant Singha army.

Initially, in 1825 the British were reluctant to administer the vacuum left behind by the departing Burmese in Rangpur. Wars between the rival factions of Purandar Singha and Chandrakant Singha continued for some years. However, Assam was divided by EIC into two Zilla (districts) – Senior and Junior Khunds. In 1828, Maniram was appointed by David Scott of EIC as the Tehsildar and Shrishtidar of Junior Khund (Upper Assam). He was based in Rangpur, the site of Ahom kingdom.

Due to the wars Maniram was not able to exercise his role of Tehsildar properly and revenue collection for the EIC was not satisfactory. Therefore, at the beginning of 1832, finally Purandar Singha was nominated to be the ruler of Upper Assam and was asked to pay an annual tribute of one hundred thousand rupees to EIC. Maniram became his Borbhandar (Prime Minister).

However, Puruandar Singha did not pay the annual tribute to EIC. In 1838, EIC decided that they needed to control Assam if it was going to produce tea for Britain. Thus they instituted an enquiry. The British claimed that “tribute was not paid because of general system of corruption encouraged by Purudar Singha”. They also claimed that his subjects were oppressed and misgoverned. Thus in 1838, the British deposed Purunder Singha and exiled him out of Assam on a small pension. Upper Assam was then annexed by proclamation. Thus the entire Brahamaputra valley from Cachar in the south Assam to Sadiya in the North came under British control.

In 1839, Maniram was nominated the Dewan of Assam Tea Company (ATC) under Charles Bruce and placed at a tea plantation in Nazira, to the east and south of Rangpur. It is said that he was not fluent in English. However he wrote in Assamese - he had written about history of Assam (Buranji Viveka Ratna). English translations of his writings on the art of gold-washing in the rivers of Assam and on the cultivation of Assam silk were also published.

In 1839 a group of Indian entrepreneurs including Radhakanta Deb, Dwarkanath Tagore and Prasanna Kumar Tagore created the Bengal Tea Association and proposed to take over the Government tea plantations. Later this was merged in the British dominated Assam Tea Company.

In 1841, a letter by an ATC official William Princep praised the work of Maniram. In 1842, the chairman of ATC praised Maniram for having opened new tea gardens and for having increased the income of the company.

In 1845, when Charles was removed from ATC, Maniram also resigned and started his own tea plantations, first at Cinnamara near Jorhat (on the road from Jorhat to Mariani) and then in Singlo near Rangpur. While British plantation owners received concessions from EIC for receiving land, Maniram started his plantations without any EIC support. However, the British planters did not like it and in 1851 his plantations were taken over by the East India Company. (Image below: An abandoned hospital at a tea garden in Cinnamara near Jorhat)

In 1852, Maniram presented a petition to the Sadar Court in Calcutta, where he argued for bringing back the Ahom kingdom by giving back Upper Assam to the descendants of Purundar Singha. He also asked the British to reduce the taxation and to stop the opium cultivation. His petition was rejected by the court.

He joined the son and grandson of Purundar Singha in a bid to install them at the Rangpur throne. On 6th May 1857 he presented another petition asking for reinstatement of the descendants of Purundar Singha as the legitimate heirs of the Ahom kingdom. Four days later, on 10 May 1857, the revolt against the British rule broke out in different parts of India. Maniram made contacts with other Indians fighting against the British and participated in making plans for an attack against the British in upper Assam. However, these plans were not successful.

Maniram was caught by the British at the end of August 1857 and hanged in Jorhat on 26 February 1858. (Image below: Freedom memorial in Jorhat depicting tea planters and the freedom struggle)

Relationship between the Bruce Brothers and Maniram Dewan

Robert Bruce was a mercenary fighting for Ahom kings while Maniram’s family worked for the same kings. Probably that was where they had met and that is why in 1823, Maniram had accompanied Robert to the Bessa Gaum to meet the Singpo chief.

After Robert’s death, while Charles went to Sadiya, he had continued to visit the tea shrub areas. In 1828, the 22 year old Maniram was made the Tehsildar of Rangpur. This must have provided them opportunities for meeting regularly. In 1839, both Charles and Maniram held important roles in ATC and worked closely. In 1845, Charles was removed from his post, soon after Maniram resigned.

The recommendations of Charles Bruce to the EIC in 1839 and the petition presented by Maniram to the Sadar Court in Calcutta in 1852, were very similar. Both touched on similar issues and used similar language.

Even though there are no documents about any links between Charles and Maniram, I think that there was a close relationship between the two. Perhaps, Charles had advised or inspired Maniram to start his own tea plantations. Descendants of Dewan Maniram Dutta Baruah, who have access to his papers and family stories can confirm if they have more information on this issue.


It sounds a bit funny to me to read that tea was discovered by Robert Bruce. I think that the term “discovery” should relate to new knowledge. In this case, the knowledge about tea plants was known to persons like Maniram who had taken Robert to the Singpo village. The Singpo tribals had known the tea plants for many centuries.

Instead of saying that the Bruce brothers discovered tea in India, it would be more appropriate to say that Bruce brothers and East India company played a key role in setting up of tea plantations in Assam and in the commercialization of tea.

History books mention only the name of the Bruce brothers while the role of Maniram is limited only to as someone who had accompanied Robert Bruce for his first meeting. In reality, the role played by Maniram was much bigger.

The spread of tea plantations in Assam and West Bengal also had a negative aspect, about which so little is known - millions of indentured labourers, who were told lies and brought to work in dismal conditions in the tea gardens from other parts of India. This exploitation lasted almost a century.

Unfortunately, even Independent India did not stop this exploitation of tea garden workers and even today, the conditions of many of the them continue to be very dismal. But then, that is a completely different story. (Image below: Tea garden workers doing maintenance work in a tea garden near Tezpur)

Note: Though I consulted a large number of documents to piece together the different parts of this story, I would specifically like to acknowledge the following: An account of the manufacture of the black tea as now practiced in Suddeya in Upper Assam, by C. A. Bruce, Calcutta, 1838; Tea in Assam and the Bruce brothers, by Derek Perry; Impact of Bengal Renaissance on Assam 1825-1875, by Amalendu Guha.


Monday, 13 February 2017

A Zen Walk in the Golden Mountain

It was supposed to be a nostalgia trip but it ended in a wonderful zen walk. It was completely unexpected, so that made it even more enjoyable.

This post is about a walk in a forest and my understanding of a "Zen Walk".

If you are visiting the tiny but charming city of Schio, about 30 kms from the better known Vicenza in the north-east of Italy, you might want to visit this wonderful forest around the hills known as "Monti D'Oro" or the Golden Mountains!

Zen Walks

For me, a "Zen Walk" means a walk where I am focusing on where I am going and what surrounds me. From personal experience, I can say that a good zen walk can take you to a state of meditative bliss, it decreases your stress and makes you feel refreshed.

Normally when we walk, we are often lost in our thoughts, thinking or talking about other things and not really looking around us. On the other hand, the zen walks are characterized by mindfulness. However, it is difficult to ensure intense focus on something for a long period. Thus, it is important after some time, to change the objects of your attention.

Personally I find photography with a zoom lens, as a useful tool to help me focus on specific things in the surroundings. However, just clicking random pictures left and right, without stopping to focus on and think about, can become a distraction.

I hope that by looking at some of the images from this walk shown below, you can get a sense of what I mean by "mindfulness".

Discovering the forest of Golden Mountain

In Italy our home is in the tiny Alpine town of Schio, under the shadow of the imposing Pasubio mountain. A few km from our house is the tiny suburb of Torre Bel Vicino, where my wife used to go as a child to her maternal grandparents' home.

On one summer day we went to visit Torre Bel Vicino. After visiting that old town and listening to her childhood stories, I suggested that we should look for some place for lunch.

"Let's go to Trotta. As a child, I used to go there for eating out with my father", my wife suggested. That restaurant was famous for their "trotta" (trout) fish.

So we crossed the bridge over Leogra river and then took the Rillaro road. From here a narrow road goes up in the mountain-valley. We went up this road, with a mountain stream on our left side and an occasional mountain house. We reached the end of this road but didn't find the "Trotta" restaurant.

The road ended at a small group of houses called Carolla. Beyond, we could see a path going along the hill. A tiny board informed that this was a bio-geological reserve area. Even though we were hungry, we decided to take a short walk along that path.

It was really quiet in the forest and we did not see any other person. With a tiny mountain stream running along the path, creating small waterfalls at every 5-10 meters, the only sound we could hear was of the running water.

As we ventured inside the forest, I was struck by the quantity of bright green moss, almost phosphorescent, on the rocks all around. This meant that there was a lot of humidity in the area, almost like in a tropical forest though we were in a temperate mountain zone. According to my wife, every time it rains upstream in the mountains, the tiny mountain stream running through the forest becomes a thundering torrent and thus the rocks get wet.

I felt as if we were in some magical place, the only human beings alive in an abandoned world.

The Zen Meditations

I want to share with you four images that represent the "Zen-ness" of this walk. Even now, many months after that walk, observing the details of these pictures brings back the feeling of joy and calmness, I had experienced during this walk.

(1) The sight of dead and decaying leaves floating on the still water: it made me think of the circle of life that goes on, passing through the trinity of creation, growth and destruction symbolized by the figures of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in the Indian mythology. At a more ecological level, it must have had a distinct bio-sphere with hundreds of life-forms that grew and lived in this place.

(2) The play of light and shadows, accompanied by the gentle sounds of the leaves moving in the breeze, insects buzzing around and the rich smells of the humid earth, flowers and leaves: It was like an intoxicating poem written by the wind and sun on the trees. It was as if the whole forest was alive, whispering to me.

(3) The gentle sound of water as it flowed around and carved the stones into round smooth pebbles: It was mesmerizing. It made me think about the briefness of life - nothing was static, everything moved and changed with the flow of the water, creases opening and closing on its silky surface. It also made me think about the continuity of life with those rocks that were gently caressed and shaped, their jagged edges smoothed over periods of years if not centuries or millenniums.

(4) Everything seemed so rich in colours and details: The different hues of the flowers, the blood red berries shining like red beacons, different shades of the moss, the diverse textures and colours of rocks telling stories about rivers and torrents that could arise suddenly - there was so much to look at.

For example, just look at the leaf fallen down over the rocks and observe the shapes and colours it carries. I can see pigs, flying eagles, standing bears and so much more in those shapes.


It was a short walk in the forest, but I loved it. I am curious about going back to explore "our moss forest", as I have started calling it. It is a protected nature-park and does not have many visitors, so it is particularly suitable for zen walks.

And I also want to explore the mountain stream better. Perhaps in the next spring, the forest will be different. I can't wait to find out!


Friday, 10 February 2017

Discovering Redipuglia & Palmanova

This post is about exploring two little-known small towns, full of history and culture, located in the north-east of Italy - Palmanova and Redipuglia (pronounced Redipulia).

Adriatic coast of Italy, is a well-known summer-holiday destination. Every year, between June to August, towns like Caorle, Jesolo, Portogruaro, Bibione or Lignano, get full of tourists from different parts of Europe.

If you are holidaying in any of these places, you can also explore some of these neighbouring towns that are so rich in history, to add a touch of culture to your seaside holidays. During our holidays the Adriatic coast, one day we went to visit Palmanova and Redipuglia.

We started this trip in Bibione where we were staying for holidays and our first stop was Villa Manin, a fifteenth century villa near Codroipo. The journey through beautiful countryside and gentle hills took about an hour.

Stop at Villa Manin

The tiny town of Codroipo was first built in the Roman times. Villa Manin is in Passariano, a suburb of Codroipo. Though parts of this building are a thousand years old, it was mostly built in 17th and 18th centuries. It was the residence of the last Doge (head of state) of Republic of Venice, Ludovico Manin.

The king of France, Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine, had stayed in this house for about 2 months in 1797 when Napoleon's troops had come to "liberate" this part of Italy from the Austrians and the Papal rule.

The day we visited it, it was getting ready for a music concert by the famous American music group called "Kiss". Crowds of young persons were sitting outside its gate blocking the whole area. Thus it was not possible for us to visit it. So we continued our journey to Palmanova.

The Octagonal Square of Palmanova

Palmanova, a tiny town in the north-east of Italy was a part of the Republic of Venice. In 16th century it was the site of war between the Venetians and the kingdom of Haspburgs from Austria. Thus big fortification walls were built around the city.

The most important place to see in the city is its huge octagonal (eight-sided) city-square, adorned with the statues of its valorous generals and other authorities. Near some statues there is a small description about the person. A walk around this square will introduce you to the history of this town. As Palmanova had lost the war to the Austrians, the Austrian army had cancelled most of the names from these statues, so you can not identify all of them. Still I think that the Austrians were very civilised, because they left the statues intact and only removed the names!

On one side of the square is the cathedral of Palmanova built with white stone, that is worth a visit. The street surrounding the octagonal central square has many bars and coffee shops.

It was good to sit there, drink something (we had a lovely mojito with fresh mint) and watch the slow easy life of a small town pass you by.

Military monument at Redipuglia

Our last stop for the day was at the monument for the Italian soldiers who had died here during the first world war.

The hills near Redipuglia had been the theatre of a bloody battle that had taken the lives of thousands of soldiers. This monument was built during the years of Fascism in 1938 and was inaugurated by the fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

The imposing monument has one hundred thousand (one lakh) graves and is built in the fascist style, as a pyramid with rectangles, squares and clean lines. About 40,000 graves carry the names of the persons buried there, the remaining 60,000 bodies were not identified.

The geometric shapes and the symmetry of this monument attract photographers in search of new angles to click its images.

Across the road, there is a military museum. On the side of the museum, on a small hill there are other memorabilia from the first world war, including the statue of an eagle that usually represented the fatherland in fascist mythology and canons used during the war.


Both the places visited during this trip, Palmanova and Redipuglia, were linked to wars. Palmanova was the site where it had all started with the expansion of Haspburg Austrian empire, and Redipuglia, where the Austrian empire came to an end in the First World war.

 I hope that my brief descriptions will help you to decide if these trips are worth your while! If you decide to go there, do tell me about it.


Monday, 6 February 2017

Blurring the gender boundaries

Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar’s film “The skin I live in” (2011) is inspired from the 1984 French novel "Tarantula" by Thierry Jonquet.

Almodovar is known for his complex themed films that remind me of complicated jigsaw puzzles where the things are never what they seem and a new surprise is just waiting for you at the next turn. His films also are about sexualities, especially alternate sexualities, and usually have a generous dose of shocking sex scenes. This film also follows these rules.

I have to confess that often Almodovar’s films make me squirm and feel embarrassed. There are times when I wish I could fast forward them.

Recently I watched “The skin I live in”. I found it deeply disturbing and provocative, forcing me to rethink on many issues.

Just a warning for those of you who have read so far – Almodovar specialises in being politically incorrect. Thus if you get easily excited or upset, you might not like to continue reading this. If long and crude sex scenes embarrass you, avoid this film. And finally, if you intend to watch this film, then be warned that this article contains a lot of spoilers.


Robert (Antonio Banderas) is a plastic surgeon. His wife was having an extra-marital affair with a man called Zeca. In a car accident, his wife had severe burns while Zeca manages to escape. Robert manages to save his wife but her face and body are severely disfigured. One day she sees herself in a mirror and disgusted, commits suicide.

Robert’s daughter Norma sees the suicide of her mother and becomes emotionally disturbed. She is admitted in a psychiatric hospital. One day when she is slightly better, Robert takes her to a party, where she meets a good looking young man called Vicente (Jan Cornet) and they go out in the park. Few minutes later, Robert worried about his daughter goes out to look for her and finds her unconscious. His daughter is in shock, is afraid of men and thinks that her father had raped her. Soon after, she commits suicide.

Robert kidnaps Vicente, keeps him as a prisoner, does surgery on him to remove his genitals, gives him female hormones to make him grow his breasts, gives him facial remodelling surgery to make him look like his dead wife and tortures him psychologically till Vicente agrees that he is now a woman called Vera (played by Elena Anaya).

Robert’s old time governess Marilia (Marisa Paredes) is the only one who knows about the existence of Vera and has some contact with her, though even she does not know that Vera was actually Vicente and was kidnapped. Vera is deeply unhappy and tries to commit suicide many times.

One day Marilia’s criminal son Zeca, who had had an affair with Robert’s wife, comes to meet his mother. When he sees Vera looking exactly like the woman who had died in the car fire, he ties his mother and enters Vera’s room and forces her into sex.

Robert comes home, sees Zeca in Vera’s room. He kills Zeca and throws his body in a swamp. However, seeing Zeca with his wife’s look alike Vera, reminds him of the past and he also seeks sex with Vera. (Image below: Zeca is surprised to see Vera's face)

Vera now starts acting like a woman, wins Robert’s confidence and then when he starts believing in her and is disarmed, kills him and Marilia.

Finally Vera can leave the prison created by Robert and go back to her family.


I don’t think that it is useful to look for realism or believability in the plot, because that is not the point of the film. However, while you watch the film, it does manage to make it seem believable.

The film does not unfold in the way I have shared its story. It starts with Vera, a prisoner in Robert’s house, on whom he is experimenting a new kind of skin made from pig cells that is resistant to burns. The understanding that Vera is Vicente, comes after about 2/3rd of the film.

However, the film is very provocative and I would like to share some of the things it made me think about.

The punishment for rapists: I am against death penalty, because I don’t think that a state has to kill people like criminals and murderers do. However, for serial rapists and paedophiles targeting young children, I confess that I am in favour of surgical/chemical/hormonal castration.

The film shows a castration punishment given by a father to vindicate his daughter and I have to say it made me very uncomfortable. The film muddies the things about good and bad in different ways – first Vincent is shown as a good looking guy; secondly, he does not rape Robert’s daughter but their sexual encounter is only a misunderstanding because initially she is shown willing for sexual adventure and when she says that she does not want sex, Vicente leaves her. However, since the girl is mentally unstable and emotionally fragile, the whole episode has a big negative impact on her.

Thus, while I watched the film, I felt that castration was a disproportionate punishment for this guy. Perhaps, if the guy was shown as someone older and uglier and had actually raped the girl, perhaps I would have felt differently?

So the film did made me aware about our biases, in the sense that good looking young people are seen differently from older, uglier looking people. Norma's mental illness was another area of bias, it made me look differently at what happens to her in the film.

Identity and gender: The film is about cancellation of the gender identity of a person.

I have read a lot about transgender issues and I have met a few transgender persons. Often, their life stories are about their feelings from a very young age that they do not belong to the gender given to them at birth. They also talk of how this dissonance gives rise to suffering and they strive to look physically and become the gender they feel inside themselves. For this transformation they face society and family’s ire, undergo hormone therapy and surgery. Not everyone understands their desires and needs.

The film touches on these themes from another angle. A guy born in guy’s body and happy being a guy, is kidnapped and forced to undergo hormone therapy, surgery and psychological torture till he breaks down and accepts that he is a woman and is willing to accept sex as a woman. I think that it is much easier for people to understand his suffering. (Vicente in the image on the left)

So does the film help us to understand the sufferings felt by transgender persons by forcing us to look at it from another angle? I am not sure.

Sexuality as a learned behaviour: All the debates about gay and lesbian rights are based on the premise that it is natural to be heterosexual or homosexual, that we are born with our sexual orientation and it cannot be changed.

However the film touches on this issue in an ambiguous way. Vicente, the guy who is forced to change his body, face and voice to become a woman called Vera, does not like to be a woman sexually till Zeca forces him. After this episode, the depiction of Vicente changes in the film – he decides to use his female body to break away from the prison.

But is his sexual use of his female body just a ploy or is it because his gender lines are blurred and he starts feeling like a woman and likes the woman’s sexual role? The psychological change in Vera is shown by her immersion in yoga, both as an exercise for body postures as well as meditation to deal with her trauma - thus yoga is part of his femminisation exercise.

When the film ended, I was not sure if Vicente/Vera would continue to live like Vera or would like to go back to being Vicente (at least in clothes and behaviour, if not genitally) or may be both - be sometimes Vera and sometimes Vicente?

This confusion is reflected in deciding the pronoun to be used while talking about Vicente/Vera – are we talking of a He or a She and if there is blurred boundary between these two as well.


As I have written above, the film is very disturbing because it touches on taboo issues in an unconventional and politically incorrect way. Even after a few days of watching the film, I continue to think about certain aspects of this film.

If I watch it again, probably I would understand it better because knowing the backstory about Vicente’s kidnapping and forced surgery would give a different meaning to the whole first half of the film.

However, I don’t think that I am going to watch it again, though the film was premiered at Cannes festival in 2011 and it won different awards. Probably they did not find it as disturbing, as I did. Perhaps one can just watch it in a superficial way, as a horror film with surprises and twists in the plots without posing any of the questions I have posed above.

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