Monday, 14 September 2015

An Elephant In The Backyard And Other Tiny Tales From Aundh

The trip had been long in coming.We had taken the children there once nine years ago but the museum was undergoing extensive expansion and renovation so it was shut then. Besides, the children had been only eight and two years old so they did not really have any memories. And it was very important for me to take them to see the sleepy little hamlet of Aundh, where a part of their roots lay entrenched. I wanted them to see first hand and understand the legacy left by their great great grandfather, the erstwhile ruler of Aundh, in Satara district, one fifty odd kilometres from our home town, Pune, India.
The children have lived abroad for a large portion of their lives. They are true global citizens, fitting perfectly where you place them, like a well done jig saw puzzle. But I also wanted them to see for themselves the place where one part of their very existence began. I mentioned this to one of my mother's maternal uncles and his son, asking them to let me know if they were planning a trip while I was in India, so I could tail them in my car. To my delight, they were planning a trip soon and after juggling around my tight schedule and my daughter's even tighter one, we managed to free ourselves for a day, as did my grand uncle's family and we were off!
It was a lovely drive, interspersed by rainy squalls, cloudy skies and a cool breeze. We sped down the highway with just a short halt for breakfast and soon found ourselves turning off the main road onto a narrow country road. Here, the trees had grown so high on both sides of the road that the branches had actually merged above the road, forming a verdant, cool canopy. I wondered how long it would be before local politicians took it into their heads to widen this road (to make an extra buck or rather, many extra bucks) and then these glorious trees would be mercilessly chopped down.
A last hilly stretch and we were at our destination, ready to explore and more than ready to let the kids soak in a part of their heritage, visually, aurally and physically. Our first halt was the huge house where my maternal grandmother had grown up. We were truly blessed to have my mother's maternal uncle with us that day as this was the house he had been born in, lived in, grown up in, and who better than him to explain to us the nitty gritties of their life then and to relate long forgotten tales?
The one thing I truly envy my mother are her maternal uncles and I always tell her so! She had six of them, three are no more but each one is/was a gem and we have really fond memories, even as we continue to further strengthen our bonds with them and their families. They actually care about us, though their sister, my maternal grandmother, passed away more than seventeen years ago... Their love and concern for us is tangible. A rarity these days for sure!
The lady who is the current occupant of the house, as per inheritance laws, has built herself a plush bungalow behind the heritage structure, leaving us free to walk into 'my grandmother's house' as we still think of it. An open courtyard, as was the style in those days, greets us and has life size marble statues, one of them being my great, great grand mother's! The children are thrilled to explore the hundred year old structure, though some of it is crumbling and a large part of it has been struck by lightning.
My grand uncle points to a wooden staircase going up to his parents bed room on the third floor. Now the entire structure is too unstable to venture climbing up those steps. He names the various 'halls' that they had. 'Ajanta Hall' is named so because it had replicas of paintings found in the Ajanta caves. My great grandfather had actually camped out at Ajanta with his retinue and did the preliminary sketches there itself, before coming back home to complete the paintings. Next comes 'Ram Hall' as it has paintings from the Ramayana, our famous epic, all painted by my great grandfather, an artiste par excellence in his own right. Those genes speak to me today through my daughter who says, 'Painting makes me happy.'
We move on through the house and come out of the back door. Grand uncle points to our left and says this was where the marble sculptures workshop used to be. His father had trained skilled stone masons to become sculptors, so enamoured was he by the breathtaking statues he had seen when he had visited Europe. He even had an artist in residence and his studio was right next to the marble workshop, though neither structure exists any more. Then, he continues, was the cattle shed, where all the twelve kids used to line up for a glass of fresh milk every morning, straight from the cow! The remaining milk used to be carted off to the kitchen where his mother, the Ranisahiba, aided by the kitchen staff, would immerse herself in creating the most delectable of 'barfis'(Indian sweet meats). Wow, I could almost taste them then and there! And all because her husband liked fresh barfi. Royal indulgences! But he also worked it off by performing a 108 Sun Salutations every single day. The proof lies on one of the tiles in the room where he did these. The tile has worn away and has a slight dip where his forehead used to rest during a particular pose in each salutation or 'namaskar'.
We wander out into the vast grounds and stumble onto a pathetic, shackled elephant in the backyard. No Indian Royal would be caught without an elephant in the India of yore but today we wonder why this poor creature still remains. I recall the story of one of my mother's uncles crawling towards the elephant they had then and even as his horrified care giver followed rapidly, the child reached the elephant. Instead of crushing the child underfoot, the elephant calmly lifted each huge foot in turn so that the baby could crawl on unabated! Another elephant tale was that my own maternal grandfather sat on the royal elephant which then brought him to the temple where the marriage between him and my grandmother was solemnized. It was one of his favourite wedding memories... Later my mother's eldest sister, as a two year old, visited her grandparents and refused to go home without the elephant! Her artist grandfather, on being told the reason for the tantrum , rapidly sketched her an elephant and she happily went home clutching the drawing! And now we were looking at the last of the family elephants and my daughter had tears in her eyes as she witnessed this atrocity of chaining an animal. We silently apologized to it.
As we re entered through the back door, grand uncle looked up and said there used to be lizards around this light and we boys used to try to whack them with cricket bats as we came home at sunset, after a game of cricket in the field behind the house. It underlined the fact that royal or not, today or seventy odd years ago, boys will be boys. He then asked the kids to count the tiles in the smaller, inner courtyard. Eight eights are sixty four! Yes, it was a huge chess board and great grand dad and his chess partner would sit in the balconey above and house help would move huge chessmen on the board down below as per their commands. That's called not lifting a royal finger!
We finally walk out of the house and I wonder what the experience must have been like for grand uncle. In his mind's eye did he still see his parents there, his siblings and his friends? It must be painful to re visit a pale shadow of your once vibrant childhood home...We then walk in into the huge temple that adjourns the house. The government runs a play school in the temple yard and the clamour of little kids spells out clearly that life goes on, though the original inhabitants of these environs are almost all gone. The huge temple hall is dominated by large glass chandeliers and the walls are lined with great grand father's paintings, depicting stories from our great epics. This was the hall where my grand parents got married, where, grand uncle says they all, as children, played on rainy days. He points to mismatched floor tiles and says they were replaced more than seventy five years ago during a great flood when water got into the temple foundations and uprooted the original tiles. Small vignettes that only original inhabitants can recollect!
We seek blessings from the temple Goddess and move out into the main courtyard. Grand uncle takes a last look at 'his' house and points to the first floor. He tells us he toppled down from there while flying a paper aeroplane as a mere four year old! Then they raised the level of the balconey iron grill to prevent further mishaps! He escaped unscathed and lives to tell the tale and it is these fleeting memories that warm the cockles of one's heart.
We drive up to the main temple perched upon a hillock with a bird's eye view for miles around. As family we are given special permission to enter the 'sanctum sanctorum' of the much venerated Deity and we feel divinely blessed. A few steps down the hill is the family tree, etched on a block of marble. I am thrilled to find my grandmother's name there. It's the clarion call of the roots!
At the bottom of the hill is the famous museum. Imagine this small village housing so many precious artifacts and art work from different periods, all thanks to my great grand father's extraordinary vision, artistic talent, fondness for buying and collecting antiques and curiosities. He built it in 1936 at a cost of Rs.70,000 which is slightly more than a thousand American dollars today. It was an astronomical sum in pre British India. He wanted to house the collection that he had acquired mainly during his European tour, his own art work and the art work that he had commissioned other artists to do and this was some thing he was absolutely passionate about!
We wandered, wide eyed, around the museum, dazzled by the paintings, sculptures and great grand mother's exquisite embroidery. It's clear why I adore embroidery myself and am able to flawlessly execute complex patterns. Genes show up, some day, some where, some how! My mother's cousin had arranged for the Curator of all the museums in the district to meet us there. So after a finger licking lunch from one of the local households, we finally entered the 'Strong Room' where the most precious items from the collection are securely displayed.
Sadly, ivory wasn't banned in those days so we see a lot of carved ivory. There are delightful cameos of my grandmother and her five sisters, gold coins which are a few centuries old and ornately carved gigantic silver platters. An unusual item is a pretty, bottle green poison pot with a matching tumbler. The King's food was first placed here. If it changed colour, it was obvious it had poison in it! Court intrigues were common in India and those in power had to take steps to safe guard themselves. Another attraction is what is purported to be Mughal Emperor Jehangir's walking stick. Made of gold, encrusted with deep red rubies, it evokes medieval Indian history at a glance!
I covet a chess board with silver chessmen. But every thing now belongs to the Government of India and not to the family. Even if it did, my aunt helpfully points out, there are far too many claimants! True, so I leave 'my' chessboard behind! Then a lovely Ganesha, our elephant headed God, carved from a humongous ruby catches my eye and I marvel at its detailed features. 'Mother and Child' carved by the famous British sculptor Henry Moore dominates the room and is worth millions of pounds today. Great Grandfather acquired it for just a few pounds!
As we exit this room full of precious antiques that are worth a fortune today, a huge, pure white marble 'chowranga' , ( a squat, flat, four legged table) in the corridor catches my eye. Grand uncle notices me staring at it and quips, 'That was in Ajanta Hall. My mother's marble bust used to stand on it. That is in my younger brother's house now.' I wonder aloud why he didn't carry away this grand piece too!
The sight of that massive 'chowranga', sitting forlornly in that dusty corner, poignantly brings home to me like nothing else did, that we had just spent the last few hours exploring a bygone era. Time had never stopped, India's royals had ceased to exist at the stroke of midnight, on 15th August 1947, when we awoke to life and freedom and all that remained were memories, of people, of places and of things. It was time for us to move on too. We had a long drive back home.

                                          A lovely day for a drive!
                                          Temple chandeliers!
                                          Courtyard of marble statues.
                                           An elephant in the backyard.
                                         The temple adjoins the more than a 100 years old house.
                                           The family tree in Devnagari script
The Grand Patriarch- from my maternal side.

                                                                     Aundh Museum
                                          Temple Hall where my grandparents tied the knot
Temple on the hillock

Thanks to my Dad for sharing the last three pictures with me so I could use them here! He was the 'Royal' Photographer of the day!


  1. Hi. Any chance I can get higher res versions of your Aundh pictures? I am writing about the Aundh Museum and Balasaheb and would really like pictures of the temple (which has his paintings) and the museum

    1. Hi Kavita. These are the pics we have.But if you visit Aundh you can click some yourself as unlike in the museum there's no restriction on photography in the lower temple.which city are you based in?

  2. Hi. Any chance I can get higher res versions of your Aundh pictures? I am writing about the Aundh Museum and Balasaheb and would really like pictures of the temple (which has his paintings) and the museum

  3. Very nicely written. i was born in a village close by, called Pantanchi Kinhai and have been to Aundh too. The museum is a delight and i plan to go once again now. I too made a trip to the village along with my daughter granddaughter after nearly 50 years and was that a nostalgic visit

    1. Thank you for reading Mr.Kher. So glad you could go back for a visit with your family.


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