Flaming June

She lies there curled up asleep like a comfortable feline, radiant in the golden light of a late summer afternoon. Luscious drapery enfolds her perfect body, so delicate that the sinews of her curves can almost be touched. Behind her an incandescent Mediterranean Sea glistens under the torrid sun’s rays. To the right an oleander flower teases with both beauty and death for in its blossom is a deadly poison.

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A strange immortality indeed. But where are we? Not in a forgotten Hesperidean garden or by a secret cove on a distant Hellenic coast. Instead, we are at 12 Holland Park Road in Frederick, Lord Leighton’s house and studio and where ‘Flaming June’ was created.

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(The artist’s studio with ‘Flaming June’ on the right, as displayed during Princess Alexandra’s visit in 1895. All except one of the paintings have been collected together for the present exhibition)

As artists such as Van Gogh were ignored during their lifetime so for so long after his death in 1895 one of the Victorian era’s most notable painters was neglected – such is the price of fame during one’s lifetime.

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(Frederick, Lord Leighton)

Indeed, ‘Flaming June’ – for such is the title of this ravishing picture – was forgotten, even lost, for much of the last century. It was found by accident, boxed up in a fireplace, by some workmen renovating a house in 1962. Placed into auction it failed to achieve the reserve price of £100. A young Andrew Lloyd Webber, one of the first to realise the immense charm and importance of Victorian painting after its disregard, spotted June but could not persuade his granma to lend him fifty quid to buy her. ‘I don’t want any Victorian junk in my house’, she retorted. Finally, someone from a poor Caribbean island bought it for the newly-founded national gallery. It was Louis Ferre who was enraptured by the picture and bought it for £2,000. It now rests as pride of place in Puerto Rico’s gallery at Ponce.

We were stop-over passengers in Puerto Rico in 2004 on our way to Antigua but unfortunately did not have time to go and see the picture. It was, therefore, a fantastic opportunity to pay our first-time respects to June at Leighton House where she will reside until April 2nd 2017.

‘Flaming June’, for which one of the most beautiful girl in Britain, Dorothy Dene, served as model, Leighton’s favourite (perhaps there was more to this professional relationship but, alas we’ll never know since the artist was quite reticent about his life and never kept a diary) is probably the artist’s masterpiece and was his last completed painting. Indeed, when the funeral procession of the only painter ever elected to the peerage  (ironically just one day before he died) passed in front of the Graphic’s office there, in its front window, was flaming June, her immortal image shining on the painter who had given her artistic breath.

Many years previously we had actually seen Flaming June in the flesh. In a highly memorable scenic re-evocation of social life in this gorgeous mansion and focussing particularly on the relationship between Frederick Leighton and Richard Burton the explorer, (played by my friend David Reid) a latter-day Dorothy Ede posed in precisely the same way with similar aureate drapery, auburn hair and semi-sleeping eyes. (To this day, David regards this as perhaps his most enjoyable acting experience).

As we stepped outside into the overcast Kensington streetscape I wondered how someone who had studied at Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti (founded by Cosimo I de Medici in 1563 and frequented by such greats as Michelangelo and Bronzino) could have been so passed over just fifty years ago…

Anyone who cares about Victorian, indeed, great art, and finds themselves in London must make a beeline to Leighton House for, in addition to the artist’s wonderful apotheosis of Dorothy Dene, it has one of the most extraordinary rooms anywhere: the Arab Hall with its dazzling tiles. So, two journeys can be saved by going to 12 Holland Park Road now – one to Puerto Rico and the other to a palace in the Arabian Peninsula!

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(The Arab Hall at Leighton House)

Finally, there is an important connection between Frederick, Lord Leighton and Bagni di Lucca. Elisabeth Barrett Browning, whose holiday residence has been so meticulously restored in Bagni by Laura Poggi and her husband, had her tomb in Florence’s English cemetery designed by Leighton.

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(Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tomb, designed by Lord Leighton, in Florence’s English cemetery)

 

Brihadishwara Temple



If there is one place in south India that has to visited above all else then it is Tanjore with its Bridaseshwara temple. This building is the supreme glory of the Chola dynasty and represents religious architecture as its celestial summit.

I’d visited this temple when young but when I approached it yesterday after so many years it seemed born anew; reaching the precincts in the late afternoon when the declining sun’s rays began to tinge the building with a glorious honey-dew colour will remain with me forever as a truly exstatic moment of my life.

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In 2010 the temple celebrated its thousandth year of existence with an extensive cultural programme of dance and song.Although we missed that we arrived just at the right time for the temple doors to be opened and to admit the devotees, who had gathered from all parts of India, into the grihasta or sanctum sanctorum of this Shivaite shrine originally constructed for the performance of rituals to confirm the divine right of the chola kings.

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We passed down a crepuscular passageway marked by sculptures of gods and daemons before receiving ashes and a gold coloured chord from the chief brahmin priest. I felt particularly awed by the fact that the ceremonies performed at this shrine were older than those undertaken at ancient Greek temples and, unlike those, had been continuously observed into the present times. Truly a living history!

Tanjore also has a somewhat unkempt royal palace which houses, among other treasures, a precious collection of chola bronzes up to the standard of those in the Chennai museum.

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Tanjore and its great temple was the unforgettable climax of our exploration of India’s Hindu heartland of Tamilnad – a visit to cherish until we too join the mysterious domain of the gods…..

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20170219_14390720170219_14202520170219_141059Chennai, or Madras as it was called until 1996, is often avoided by those who use the capital of Tamilnadu, as just a commencement point for their exploration of India. Less full of highlights than the other three major cities of the subcontinent: Mumbai, Kalkotta and Delhi, Chennai is definately worth looking at and deserves a longer stay.

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The Greatest Temple in India



20170218_10462620170218_101229120170218_11001320170218_11134120170218_10233720170218_09032620170218_091729Tiruchirappali, formerly  known by the British as Trichinopoly, is a city of close to a million inhabitants which lies near the geographical centre of Tamilnadu. It has a long and distinguished history dating from the third century BC when it was part of the Chola empire. Conquered in turn by the Pandyas, tbe Pallavas, the Nayaks it eventually became  part of the British empire in 1801 when they drove the French out. Not as frequented as some other great temple centres of India it remains a stunning place to visit principally because of two main sights.

The first is the rock temple built on top of a precipitious boulder 273 feet high rising above the centre of a maze of narrow streets. The temple has shrines to Ganesh and Parvati among several others. We arrived at the foot of the giant rock by nine am and were able to climb the thousand steps to the top without too much discomfort from the heat. The views at the summit were spectacular but what truly grabbed our attention were the great eagles gliding effortlessy in the thermal laden air.

The other place we visited was the stupendous Sri Ranganathaswamy temple dedicated to Vishnu in his form when lying down on Adisesa the coiled serpent. The temple is one of the eight Sywayambu Kshetra temples dedicated to the direct manifestation of Vishnu on Earth. These comprise five temples in south India and three in the north including the one at Pushkar which I had visited some time ago.

Trichy’s temple is on an epic scale and is the second largest Hindu temple in the world. Only the Angkor Watt which we visited in 2015 is larger. The temple is truly a sacred city with seven concentric walls or prakarams each one headed by a gopuram or gateway, the first of which the rajagopuram is the tallest at just under 300 feet. There are 21 gopurams in all, 39 pavilions, 50 shrines and a sublimely beautiful thousand columned mandapam or assembly hall with wonderful sculptures 

As always, however, Trichy’s great temple’s biggest attraction is crowd-watching the thousands of devotees attending it. The predominant colour of the saris is yellow, Vishnu’s hue, and among the worshipping crowds was an elephant who bestowed blessings by tapping the top of people’s heads with his trunk.Sandra and I received our tilak, naturally.

The lively and noisy scenes at a Hindu temple make a startling contrast to the hushed reverence of western Christian places of worship. Hinduism is such an alive and vibrant way of praying to the unseen godly forces which have formed this planet of ours. I could think of no greater contrast to Evensong at an English cathedral although, clearly, both are different ways of climbing the same mountain.

We really enjoyed our trip to Tiruchirapalli and its sights. We met very few westerners there and found the locals very welcoming and proud of their city which, incidentally, was voted the third cleanest city in India last year. We, indeed, wondered why it was such a pleasure to walk around this fascinating metropolis which is even mentioned in the great Tamil epic we are reading, the Shilapadiaram:

‘On a magnificent bed having a thousand heads spread out worshipped and praised by many in an islet surrounded by the Kaveri river with bellowing waves, is the lying posture of the one who has Lakshmi sitting in his chest.’

 

 

Two Books to Read in Tamilnadu

Two books I’ve taken from my Longoio shelves to read in the South Indian tropics are ‘Shilappadikaram’ (the ankle bracelet) by Prince Ilango Adigal and ‘Last man in Tower’ by Aravind Adiga. Almost two thousand years separate the two works, yet they are both recognizably by Tamil writers.

Shilappadikaram is a third century verse romance which is attributed to a Jain prince. The story deals with the miraculous and the tragic, the often wrought relationship between gods and men and the cruelty arising from karma where actions committed in past lives always return to bear fruit.

Apart from the hapless love tale between Kovalan and Kannaki the romantic epic offers precious insights into Tamil culture of the third century AD and, frankly, not much has changed. The religious rituals performed in present-day hindu temples follow identical formulas and caste customs have changed not very much. Fishing and agriculture still adhere to the same patterns and village life is still recognisably the same. 

The Shilappadikaram contains wonderful descriptions of music, drama and dance including detailed technical data on the art formd (eg on tuning vinas and mrindagams – south indian lutes snd drums). These are used today in the renaissance of Bharat natyam dance and carnatic music so characteristic of Tamilnadu.

The other book I have brought with me, ‘Last man in tower’ is another engrossing and encompassing novel by Man-booker prize winner Adiga who was born in Chennai, (formerly Madras). The rapid and often uproarous changes which India is now undergoing are vividly described in a story involving a group of inhabitants of an old housing estate in Mumbai who have to face speculative forces from real estate agents. As always the plot gives the author every chance to employ his prodigious descriptive powers. The colours, smells and noises of the semi-organised chaos of an Indian megalopolis are truly felt on one’s pulse.

Two books by Tamil authors which entrap and enrapture the reader with their magic prose – it’s little wonder that some of the best writing comes out of the multifarious, multicultured world inhabiting the sub-continent.

 

The Fire Mountain

Tiruvannamalai is in many ways the ideal place to start one’s temple tour of south India. Our little foursome hired a taxi for the day as we wanted to get back to our seaside haven for evening and buses and trains can be slow and often unreliable. We drove through some magnificently fertile country filled with rice fields and some forest plantations. Suddenly through the hazy morning a steep hill emerged as if it had been a stone cast by some primaeval giant. Unsurprisingly the hill was crowned by a fort. Gingee fort was part of the defences of the carnatic nawabs in these parts before the British annexed their domains in 1761. Known by the Brits as the Troy of the East the fort stands on top of a virtually sheer vertical slopes and must surely be one of the most impregnable places in the world.

After a couple of hours we entered the busy temple town of Tiruvannamalai and headed for Ramana Maharshi’s ashram. Ramana Maharshi is one of the pantheon of Indian sages who have influenced so many aspects of western philosophy and even theology. He changed the lives of several westerners visitors including Paul Brunton (‘Search in Secret India’), Major Alan Chadwick (”A Sadhu’s Reminscences of Ramana Maharshi’) and David Godman (‘No Mind – I am the Self’).

The ashram was a truly peaceful place filled with devotees and other visitors. Here was the great man’s samadhi or cremation slab and here, too, were relics from his life on earth.

Ramana’s path to enlightenment began with his youthful near-death experience whose account was inscribed on a marble slab in the ashram’s entrance hall. How many of us have had this unnerving experience I wonder? Ramaran felt he was observing his own body while floating in spirit above it. This led him to develop his philosophy, particularly

From the ashram a path leads up to the top of mount Arunachal, Shiva’s fire mountain where every year on Shivraatri, Shiva’s night a giant bonfire is lit on top representing the element of fire which is associated with the main Thiruvannamalay Annamalayar Shiva temple of Tiruvannamalai. There are five elements in Hindu cosmology: earth, water, fire, air and space. Each one is represented by a particular temple in South India, an association known as the pancha bhoota stalam. It is the hope of devotees of Shiva to pay a pilgrimage to each one in their lifetime. At least we made a start.

The path weaving its way up the sun-baked  slopes of Arunachal’s extinct volcano to reach the simple room where the guru meditated and received his acolytes. A few of them were there when we arrived and we soaked in the placid atmosphere far away from the city’s bustle below us. From a projecting rock a splendid view spread out below us. 

The principal feature was the strict geometry of the Annamalayar temple with its four shining white gopurams.

We’d made an early start in our trek but the heat built up on our descent. We were glad to drink some much needed water. 

After a welcome biryani rice meal we headed for the main temple but unfortunately were unable to enter it since the access routes were closed and there was a substantial police presence as a political figure had been hacked to death by two attackers. That day the assassins had been found and it transpired that the motive for the murder was the non-repayment of a debt. This is the story from the newspaper and a security video showed the gory details.

Since Shiva is the destroyer in the Hindu trinity of gods we felt that his hand had too been involved here. Anyway, we will certainly return to Tiruvannamalai and hopefully be able to visit this majestic temple st a more peaceful time.

The Heart of the World

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A rich dark red colour impregnated everything around us. The sun was setting over a landscape of red earth; the amphitheatre enclosing us was made up of stone slabs of the same deep red which became incandescent under the rays of the fast descending sun. In the centre of the amphitheatre was a white urn filled with soil from over a hundred different countries. An ambient music suffused the scene. This was the evening time of meditation at Auroville, the ideal city inspired by shri Aurobindo and founded by his foremost acolyte known simply as ‘the Mother’.

My cousin pointed out one of the people collected in the huge amphitheatre’s basin as Manohar, a name bestowed by the Auroville community to someone  once known as Luigi and a friend of one of my acquaintances in Lucca. Originally from Naples he’d been here for over ten years and managed Auroville’s website and much of its media.

A short distance away from the amphitheatre rose a giant golden sphere punctuated on its surface by golden spheres. Above us in the dimming sky rose a full moon. Manohar pointed his camera and took a picture of the lunar and the earthly spheres. We met and he referred to the golden globe as the ‘ferrero rocher’ alluding to that scrumptiously nutty chocolate strategically placed at the check-out point of Italian supermarkets. In all the solemnity of the occasion there was space for debunking humour.

Nights fall quickly in India and by the time we reached the restaurant at the visitor centre the sky was only illuminated by the lustrous silver of the moon which seemed so much larger in the tropical night.

Our coconut, rice and chicken was delicious and we returned to our guest house called samarpan well replete.

I’d heard about Auroville some time ago but never gave it much thought. The idea of ‘the Mother’ gave me a touch of the creeps and, warned off cults, I regarded this community as being of the same league. Yet Shri Aurobindo, the inspirer, had been someone filled with the best of western education at my own college, King’s Cambridge, before turning himself into an Indian Independence fighter and then, eschewing violence, becoming one of that country’s major philosophers and, indeed, poets. Friend of Tagore and many other significant figures, Aurobindo remains a powerful cultural icon, especially in India, to this day.

The mother began as one of his acolytes before Aurobindo entrusted her with the continuation of his ashram in 1926. We’d visited the ashram in Pondicherry’s old French quarter a couple of days previously and touched the sage’s flower bestrewn samadhi or place of his final body-leaving which took place in 1950. It was the mother who founded Auroville in 1968 as a community based on the unity of mankind with its concomitant of generosity, gratitude and cismic love. In 1973 she too left her body and since then her disciples, the Aurovillians, have devoted their energy to turn dream into reality.

Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Auroville’s foundation and those wanting to be there are already booking their accommodation. Among those wishing to be there will be many Italians who comprise over 150 of the two thousand community residents. Over half of these are Indian followed by European Union members. The British number rather less than the Italians.

We shall certainly project a return to Auroville next year, not just to escape from the western winter but to learn more about the extraordinary place that is Auroville.

A Change of Scene

The place where we are at is called Periyamudhaliayarchavadi – a somewhat long name in the style of that famous railway station on a Welsh island. There the resemblance stops for instead of a misty cold climate the temperature here hovers around thirty degrees centigrade during the day and reduces to around twenty at night. Before me is a line of coconut palms and beyond them a sandy beach slopes to the blue waters of the bay of bengal. Occasionally a high-prowed fishing boat traverses the placid ocean and sometimes a hooded crow swoops under the roof of the veranda in which I am writing this sitting on a wicker chair. Apart from the vociferous crows all is tranquil in this mid afternoon in Tamilnadu, India.

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We have just been for a swim and the only thing to remind us that we have escaped from a cold and wet Tuscan winter is my puffy jacket hung in our room which I had to wear to transport me to the airport in the UK.

The south of India, the Dravidian south, conserves better than any other area of this vast subcontinent the millennial elements of Hindu culture. The Tamil language itself predates the Sanskrit derived tongues of northern india. Here the second language is English and not many people speak Hindi. Above all, southern  India is temple land. With the most spectacular religious complexes in the whole country, it is a Hindu equivalent of the great gothic cathedrals of northern France. Although we’ve come here principally to embrace tropical warmth we fully intend to do a temple tour.

South India is also famous for its exquisite cuisine and we have already been gorging ourselves on dosa, pappaya and uttappam.

Our place is a sweet chalet style guest house right next to the beach. It’s run by an italian couple, Donata and Stefano, and is called Samarpan which means devotion in Sanskrit.

It was chosen for us by an amazingly welcomed coincidence. People may say what they like about facebook but it reunited me with a long lost cousin after a very very long time. That was at the end of last year. Realizing that after a mild and sunny January in longoio it would be rain’s pay back time in February I decided to accept my cousin’s invitation to visit her and in one day about two weeks ago i organized plane tickets and visa.

The best holidays are in winter I feel. Why suffer the miseries of the vagaries of European weather ?

My cousin has been living in India for over twenty years in the Auroville community where she is in charge of the accessibility project. It’s great to have someone to reintroduce us to this fascinating part of the world. Already we have visited the old French settlement of Pondicherry and this morning we were admitted to the mystic globe of the Matri Mandir. But that would need another post to describe and already the soft exotic breezes beckon us to the langurous waters at our feet.