Nature Observations (lockdown 2021)

leaves

 

We often talk about time as if it is real, yet according to Albert Einstein and many scientists, time is only an illusion. Time is subjective and personal, and everyone has their own concept of time. In Zen Buddhism, the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), also wrote about time or ‘uji’ in Japanese, which is usually translated as ‘Being-Time’. The most common interpretation of the two kanji characters is: “time is existence and that all existence is time.” According to Dogen, we are time, and time is us. Time is a complex subject, and I don’t intend to dwell on it here, but personally, the lockdown has made me become more aware of my relationship with time.

During the pandemic, my digital calendar and paper planners were mostly blank for about 2 years. I had no work events or social engagements to attend, and no upcoming holiday to look forward to. I am sure that many people experienced some sort of anxieties when all the short and long term plans suddenly came to a halt. And with so much ‘time’ on our hands, how were we going to spend it?

Perhaps for the first time in life, I did not have to check my watch, clocks and calendar frequently. I stopped planning, and after a while, time became ‘insignificant’. I could ‘waste’ it day after day without feeling guilty about not being productive enough. When I finally let go of ‘time’, I felt liberated. I learned to slow down and live each day as it comes.

Instead of obsessively checking the clocks for time and calendar for dates, I began to observe time through plants and flowers when I went out for walks during the lockdown. Nature became the measuring device for me.

 

Winter

Perhaps it is a misconception to think that flowers do not bloom during winter. In fact, there are many evergreen shrubs and flowers that thrive in the winter like Snowdrops, Hellebores, Eranthis, Primrose, and Viburnum tinus Eve Price etc. During my lockdown walks, I would come across some blooming flowers despite the cold weather. With less distractions and stimulations, I found joy in identifying unknown plant species during my strolls around London.

 

Hedera colchica  Algerian iris

Hellebores

japanese skimmia  Iris foetidissima

First left: Hedera colchica/ Persian Ivy; First right: Algerian iris; 2nd row: Hellebores; bottom left: Japanese skimmia; Bottom right: Iris foetidissima

 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of winter plants or flowers are the array of vibrant colours. There are bright pinks, reds, violets, and yellows – these are colours normally associated with spring/summer, yet they can be seen during the winter too. Time passes quickly when you place your focus on the surrounding nature rather than on yourself – the lockdown probably created an environment for introspection, yet too much of it would make us too self-focused due to less interactions with the outside world.

 

Red twig dogwoods  red maple leaves

img_5079

Eranthis   Mahonia

 Viburnum tinus Eve Price

Viburnum tinus Eve Price  Hellebores

First left: Red twig dogwoods; First right: maple leaves: 2nd: snowdrops; 3rd left: Eranthis; 3rd right: Mahonia; 4th & Bottom left: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; Bottom right: Hellebore

 

Euonymus europaeus  Chaenomeles

Chaenomeles

WEIGELA PINK POPPET

Magenta Hebe

First left: Euonymus europaeus; first right & 2nd: Chaenomeles; 3rd: Weigela Pink Poppet; last row: Magenta Hebe

 

Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant'

Erica carnea, the winter heath

Clematis armandii

Primrose – Primula vulgaris

First: Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’; 2nd: Erica carnea/the winter heath; 3rd: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; 4th: Clematis armandii; Bottom: Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

 

My favourite time of the year is autumn and spring. Around late February and early March, the day light hours would last longer, which means spring is in the air. The gradual increase of sunshine and day light makes a huge diference to the ecology and humans. We start to notice daffodils blooming everywhere, and seeing the golden yellow colour covering the parks immediately uplifts our moods and spirits.

 

daffadils  daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

daffadils

Daffodils

 

On the grounds, there are daffodils, and when we look up, we would see seas of sumptuous white and pink magnolias over our heads. Magnolia shrubs seem to be ommonly planted in people’s gardens in London as I tend to see them a lot when I walk around my neighbourhood.

 

Magnolia  Magnolia

pink magnolia

Magnolia

White and pink magnolia

 

For those (including me) who yearned to go to Japan but couldn’t for the last few years, the joy of viewing cherry blossom seemed to have become a distant memory. Yet London is also a good place for sakura viewing; even though it is not as spectatular as Japan, the number of Japanese cherry trees being planted in the U.K. have been increasing over the years. As far as I am aware, there is only one white-flowering cherry tree (Prunus x yedoensis) standing alone the middle of an open field in Hampstead heath, and when it blooms, it is quite stunning. The next obvious place to view sakura would be Regent’s Park, both inside and on the outer ring.

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

A white-flowering cherry tree/ Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) in Hamspstead heath

 

cherry tree

cherry blossom

cherry trees

cherry blossom

Cherry trees in Regent’s park

 

The lesser-known sakura viewing spot is the residential neighbourhood, Swiss Cottage. The open space in around Hampstead theatre and Swiss Cottage library features rows of white-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis) and pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’). When the flowers are in bloom, they do look quite spectacular and make you feel you are in Japan for a second. Since it is a recreation space, it may even be possible to have a viewing picnic party there (weather permitted).

 

cherry blossom

cherry blossom  cherry blossom

cherry blossom

cherry blossom

The stunning pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’) in Swiss Cottage

 

In spring, we would often see a lot of beautiful camellias in various colours, especially Camellia japonica, which is the predominate species of the genus. Besides that, we might be able to spot some ravishing rhododendrons or azaleas ( particularly at Kew Gardens) blooming in people’s gardens.

 

Camellia Japonica  img_5512 

camellia

img_5643  img_5321-min

img_5727

Camellia – Top & 2nd rows: Japonica Camellia

 

rose

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

buddleia

primrose

First: rose; 2nd & 3rd: Rhododendron; 4th: buddleia; botton: primrose

 

If you are not a fan of showy ornamental plants/flowers, there are plenty of wild spring flowers that are captivating too. Personally, I am quite fascinated by gorse/ulex (commonly seen around the UK especially in Scotland), which is an evergreen shrub with bright yellow pea-like flowers and spiny leaves. The flowers are eible and can be used as a medicinal tea, as well as a natural dye, producing a yellow colour on the fabrics.

 

Forsythia

gorse

Top: Forsythia; Bottom: common gorse

 

Spring is also the season to enjoy various lilac/blue/violet flowers like Ceanothus, Periwinkles, wisteria, lavender and bluebells. Ceanothus are popular garden shrubs in the UK, and their lilac flowers are particularly impressive.

However, when it comes to popularity, wild bluebells certainly rank quite high up on the list. Besides cherry blossoms, the bluebell seasons are highly anticipated by many too. It is quite easy to spot bluebells in spring, but the best places to view are still in the woods. Whenever I see a stunning carpet of blue in the woodlands, I would feel instantly quite ecstatic. There are two main types of bluebells in the U.K.: the British bluebell, (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and the native ones are being protected by law as they are under threat now.

 

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Ceanothus Yankee Point

Periwinkle

bluebell

bluebells

bellflower

Top & 2nd: Ceanothus; 3rd: Periwinkle; last three: bluebells

 

When I immerse myself in nature, I could see the cycles of nature and life. Flowers bloom, wither, and are replaced by other species as the seasons change. When there is a beginning, there will be an end… though the cycle will continue to repeat itself indefinitely. It does not matter if we can’t figure out what ‘time’ is, the more important thing is to live in the present. We are now living in a more precarious and unpredictable world, hence we ought to enjoy each day as it comes. If you feel down/ stressed/ anxious, why not head outside and spend time in nature to get lost in time? I highly recommend it.

 

Lockdown walks in London (Winter/Spring 2021)

hampstead heath

Hampstead Heath, 28th Dec 2020

 

It is January 2023, and I have not updated my blog for about 2 years. Although a lot has happened in the past three years, everything seems like a blur to me now. How did I pass my time during the lockdown days? When did the lockdown end? I don’t recall much now. Luckily, I did take many photos during that surreal period, and now I am looking at them trying to recall my weekly activities. After being stuck in Hong Kong for most of 2020, I returned to the U.K. at the beginning of Dec 2020, just days before the second/ third lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson. In hindsight, I would not have returned if I had known that there would be another lockdown. However, I was lucky to have missed the initial lockdowns in 2020, and only had to endure four months of lockdown in London, which turned out to be not as challenging as I had imagined.

 

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath  hampstead heath

winter

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

hampstead heath

Hampstead Heath from winter to spring

 

For months, I did not take any public transport and I walked everywhere. I walked to Camden Town, Hampstead Heath, Paddington, Oxford Street, Regent street, Covent Garden, Kings Cross etc. I saw a London that I have never seen before – deserted. Yet it enabled me to appreciate the city’s beautiful architecture, especially around Oxford Street. Perhaps the hardest part for me during the lockdown was not being able to meet up with friends (apart from a couple who live near me), and I had to rely on the weekly farmers’ market for some human interactions (not via zoom or Facetime). And over the few months, I became rather obsessed with cooking – though as much as I enjoyed creating new dishes, I was completely sick of eating my own cooking by the end of the lockdown.

 

primrose hill

primrose hill

primrose hill

primrose hill

Primrose Hill

 

Walking around London during the lockdown made me notice the surroundings more – I started to see all the architectural details that I had missed in the past. Usually I would not look up while walking down Oxford Street as I am more concerned with avoiding the crowds around me. Yet without crowds or heaps of tourists, I was able to saunder down the streets and appreciate the historic architecture in the city.

 

Regent's Park

Regent's Park  Regent's Park

Regent's Park

regent's park

Regent’s Park

 

Oxford Street and Camden market are places that I would normally avoid as I don’t really like crowded places. However, during the lockdown, it gave me joy to wander through the empty (and rather eerie) Camden market. Meanwhile I also felt sympathetic towards the shops and businesses, and was particularly sad to see my favourite eateries/cafes in the neighbourhood close down due to the pandemic.

 

chalk farm

camden town  camden town

camden town

regent's canal

camden tow

camden town

camden town

Camden Town and Regent’s canal

 

At the end of winter, Hampstead Heath and Regent’s park were becoming as packed as Bond Street before the pandemic, and I started to change my walking routes. Instead of going to parks, I did more walks along the Regent’s canal. I headed east towards Kings Cross and west towards Paddington along the canal… these walks lasted only a few hours but they were uplifting especially on a clear and sunny day.

 

kings cross

kings cross

Kings Cross’s Coal Drops Yard

 

Two years on, it seems unlikely that we will experience another lockdown soon (fingers crossed), and what I miss most about that period is the sounds of nature ( like birds chirping while walking down the streets) and cleaner air. The pandemic made many of us (city dwellers) evaluate our relationships with nature and our cities. It is hardly surprising that many Londoners decided to move to the countryside during/ after the pandemic. Nature has healing power, which is why so many of us turned to nature during an anxious and unpredictable period.

 

abbey road  abbey road

covid

Little venice

Little venice

paddington

paddington

paddington

Top: Abbey Road; Second: Maida Vale; 3rd & 4th: Little Venice; 5th to bottom: Paddington

 

According to a report commissioned by the City of London Corporation, London is the greenest major city in Europe and the third greenest city of its size in the world. The metropolis contains 35,000 acres of public parks, woodlands and gardens, hence 40% of its surface area is made up of publicly accessible green space. Our public green space is precious, and I hope Londoners will continue to cherish and protect it.

 

london  bbc

regent street

carnaby street  carnaby street

oxford street

riba  riba

Regent Street, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street; Bottom: RIBA

 

mosque

img_5138

img_5153

img_5162

img_5169

Top: The London Central Mosque; Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle

 

covent garden

covent garden

Covent garden

 

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

chorley wood

A long walk around Chorleywood and Hertfordshire in spring

Munnar: Greenland spice & Ayurvedic garden

greenland garden

 

Munnar is not only famous for tea, you can also find abundance of spices here, and prices are much cheaper than Kochi. I asked the driver to take me to a spice garden, and he said he knew just the place. Greenland spice and ayurvedic garden is located in Thekkady, and it is one of the few spice gardens that is approved by the government.

Out of all the places I visited on the day, this was my favourite. It was fascinating and educational – I highly recommend it. The entry price includes a guided tour (you will need someone to identify and explain all the spices and herbs here) of the garden, which resembles a mini jungle.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden salvia L

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Thunbergia mysorensis

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Musa velutina  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden torch ginger flower

3rd row: Salvia; 4th row: Thunbergia mysorensis/ Mysore trumpetvine; Bottom left: Pink banana (Musa velutina); Bottom right: torch ginger flower

 

Many of the spices and herbs in the garden are used in ayurveda, which is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, and in sanskrit, it means ‘The Science of Life’. Plant-based treatments in ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds. Aside from ayurveda, many spices are commonly used in South Indian cooking e.g. cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, cumin, turmeric and mint etc. Interestingly, many of the ayurvedic plants can also be used as natural dyes, so they are extremely versatile.

South India is world-renown for its ayurveda retreats and centres, and many Westerners would spend weeks or months getting detox and wellness treatments here. After I left Kochi, I spent a few days at a yoga and ayurveda retreat before heading to Munnar. Upon arrival, I had a doctor’s consultation, and was given some plant-based tonic twice a day along side with massage treatments daily to restore body balance. It was an interesting experience, and I particularly enjoyed the healthy and flavourful vegetarian/ayurvedic meals.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden jackfruit

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden peas

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden black pepper

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden murikooti

2nd row right: Jackfruits; 3rd row: peas; 4th right: black pepper/Piper nigrum; Bottom row: Murikooti – a wound healing plant with leaves that can be turned into a paste

 

The most exciting part of the tour was seeing cocoa trees and tasting cocoa pulp for the first time. I love eating dark chocolates but I have never seen a cocoa fruit (Theobroma cacao) before. Inside the fruit lies a cluster of cacao beans surrounded by a thin layer of white pulp. The guide opened the fruit and let me tast the white pulp, which was surprisingly juciy and sweet. While some cacao pulp is used in the fermentation process of cocoa beans, most is simply thrown out as waste. It was only recently that cacao pulp is being used as a substitute for refined white sugar. Not long ago, Nestle released a 70% dark chocolate bar in Japan under its KitKat brand that has been sweetened with cacao pulp instead of refined sugar. Yet historically, cacao pulp has always been drank as juice by cacao farmers, and their immediate communities around the world.

 

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  cocoa

cocoa

nutmeg seed  cardamon seed

1st to 3rd rows: cocoa fruit, bean and pulp; Bottom left: nutmeg seed; Bottom right: cardamon

 

Like most tourist sites, there is a shop located by the exit to avoid you leaving empty-handed, Apart from different varieties of spices, there are also ayurvedic medicine and skincare range available. I went for the mixed spice packs as I think you can’t get much fresher spices than the ones being sold by the spice garden.

 

 

Munnar: KFDC Floriculture Centre & tea museum

KFDC Floriculture Centre

 

In Munnar, there are many botanical gardens, and KFDC Floriculture Centre/Munnar rose garden is one of them. Run by Kerala Forest Developerment Centre, KFDC Floriculture Centre is built on a hill slope, and has a nice view of the nearby tea planation. I think the term ‘floriculture centre’ is appropriate because it is not really garden. There is, however, a lovely rose garden within the centre. It is rare to see rose gardens in Asia but here you can see a variety of species in shades of red and pink covering the hill. Besides roses, there are many beautiful dahlias and other native flowers, as well as herbs, medicinal plants, cacti and bonsai.

My advice is to come early as it can get quite crowded. Luckily, I arrived soon after it opened, so I was able to avoid the crowds.

 

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

KFDC Floriculture Centre

 

Tea factory visits are on the itineraries of most day tours, and Kannan Devan Tea Factory is one of the most popular in Munnar. There are English guided tours throughout the day, but it does get very busy. Since I missed the tour and couldn’t be bothered to wait, I decided to visit the KDHP Tea Museum instead. Both tthe museum and factory are owned by the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company (KDHP), a plantation estate that dates back to the 1880s. It is under the Tata group, which seems to own everything related to tea in Munnar.

KDHP/Tata Tea Museum is a small museum that traces the history of tea-making in Munnar. It exhibits many old photographs, curiosities and machinery; visitors can also watch a short documentary on the Munnar’s tea history. In a larger room, visitors can learn about the various stages of the tea processing – Crush, tear, curl – and the production of Kerala black tea variants.

A mandatory tea shop awaits you at the end of your visit, so you can shop til you drop. There are many varieties of tea, including black, white and green; meanshile prices are very resaonable too. It is a good place to buy your souvenir here.

 

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

munnar tea museum

 

To be continued…

Autumn/winter wild food foraging in Hampstead Heath

hampstead heath

 

Although wild food foraging is nothing new, it has become quite popular in recent years. I think this is due to our growing interest in sustainability and back-to-basics lifestyle after decades of consumerism. As we know, endless purchase of consumer goods and fast fashion does not fulfil our lives, nor does it make us happier.

Yet how can we change our behaviour/lifestyle living in metropolis like London? Besides buying less, recycling more and shopping at the local farmers market, we can also attempt wild food foraging. After a fascinating funghi foraging workshop in Hampstead Heath a few years back, I was keen to learn more about foraging but never managed to do so until I enrolled onto a wild food foraging course with Jason Irving from Foraging Wild Food.

Jason is an experienced forager, herbalist and ethnobotanist. He used to work as head forager at UK’s leading supplier of wild food, Forager Ltd, for two years. Next year, he will be doing his PHD research in Central America, and our one-day course was the last one of the year.

 

hampstead heath

lime tree  lime tree

Lime tree (Tilia spp.)

 

The sun and blue sky made us feel slightly better for being out and about on a cold late autumn/winter’s morning. Since I live not far from Hamsptead Heath, the heath is like my back garden where I would visit in all seasons. However, I had no idea about the vast array of wild food available here besides funghi. The 3-hour walk around the heath was flabbergasting for a newbie like me. I learned a lot about the usage of many seeds and leaves, which not only can be used as herbal medicine, but also in cooking and beverages. Jason also made us a cake and hot drink from wild fruits and herbs, which was surprisingly delicious.

 

Hog weed seed  common sorrel

Left: Hog weed seed; Right: Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

 

Although I made some notes and took photos on the day, I don’t think I would be able to differentiate all the edible plants and seeds after just one course. There is still much to learn, and I guess getting a foraging book would be a good start. Since there are many foraging courses available in London, I probably would do another one in the summer when more herbs and ripe fruits are ready to be picked.

 

Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata)  Hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo)

Left: Ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata); Right: Hedge bedstraw (Galium mollugo)

 

Although wild food foraging can be fun, there is also the danger of picking poisonous plants without knowing (we often hear that with funghi-picking). Therefore, it is important to do more research or pick with someone more knowledgeable at the beginning.

 

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)  Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Left: Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) Right: Elder (Sambucus nigra)

 

The issue of global food shortages reminds us that we cannot take our food supply for granted anymore. What if one day we find ourselves in supermarkets full of empty shelves? If this happens, then how would we survive? Wild food foraging is not only about survival skills, it is also about sustainability and reconnecting with nature. If we undertstand the origin of each ingredient that goes into our food, then we are likely to appreciate it more.

 

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioca)  img_4958-min

Left: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioca); Right: Beech (Fagus sylvestris)

 

Sadly, over-foraging has also become an issue in recent years. I was told that many Eastern Europeans would mass pick edible funghi and sell them to restaurants for commercial gains despite the fact that it is illegal to do so. Even the head chef of Noma –often voted as the restaurant in the wold– was accused of illegally picking wild mushrooms in Hampstead Heath 10 years ago.

 

sweet chestnut  yarrow

Left: Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa); Right: Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

 

Wild food foraging can be a satisfying and uplifting experience, but if we disrupt the eco-system by over-picking, then we are doing more harm than good. At the end of the day, it is crucial to find a balance. If we don’t respect our environment, we may regret it one day when it is too late.

 

hampstead heath

hampstead heath  hampstead heath

hampstead heath

 

The splendid Dale Chihuly exhibition at Kew Gardens

sapphire star dale Chilhuly

Sapphire Star, 2010

 

I am not sure why it took me so long to visit the ‘Chihuly – Reflections on nature‘ exhibition at Kew Gardens, but I finally managed to catch it a few days before it ended. It was not the best day to visit Kew, but the autumn foliage made up for the grey and drizzly weather.

I was glad that I made it because I thought it was was the best U.K. exhibition I saw this year. American artist Dale Chihuly‘s stunning nature-inspired glass sculptures did not look out of place at Kew, in fact, they undoubtedly enhanced the gardens in many ways.

 

img_4079

img_4077

img_4089

Chihuly at Kew

 

With a map in hand, I wandered around the gardens in search for his 32 sculptures installed at 12 different locations. Aside from the Rotunda Chandelier at the V & A entrance, I don’t recall seeing a lot of Dale Chilhuly‘s works in the U.K., so this exhibition was a fascinating opportunity to see an artist who has spent the last 50 years perfecting and experimenting on a skill/craft/art that he loves. Even on a grey day, Chihuly‘s glass sculptures still looked magnificent, and it was hard not to be gobsmacked by the intricate craftsmanship and dazzling colours.

 

Temperate House Persian

Temperate House Persian  Temperate House Persian

Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew  Chihuly at Kew

Fiori Verdi

Chihuly at Kew

 

Besides the outdoor sculptures, the indoor ones looked marvelous too. The Temperate House Persians – a new artwork specially designed to be suspended inside the world’s largest and newly restored Victorian glasshouse could be admired from below and above. Meanwhile, some of his other works inside the glasshouse appeared to be camouflage e.g. ‘Fiori Verdi’ among the exotic plants, which was quite a pleasant surprise for the visitors.

 

‘Summer Sun’, 2010

Opal and Amber Towers, 2018

Lime Crystal Tower, 2006

 Scarlette and Yellow icicle tower

Top: ‘Summer Sun’, 2010; 2nd row: ‘Opal and Amber Towers’, 2018; 3rd row: ‘Lime Crystal Tower’, 2006; bottom row: Scarlette and Yellow icicle tower, 2013

 

One of the most conspicuous outdoor sculptures at the exhibition was ‘Summer Sun’, a bold piece consisted of 1,483 separate elements. Yet the most complex one is ‘Scarlette and Yellow icicle tower’, which has 1,882 separate elements.

Out of all the installations at the gardens, my personal favourites were the ‘Niijima Floats’ and ‘Ethereal White Persian Pond’ inside the Waterlily House. Named after a volcanic island in Tokyo Bay, the ‘Niijima Floats’ installation at the Japanese rock garden was made up of brightly coloured glass spheres in various sizes, some of which weigh up to 60 pounds (27 kg). A series introduced by Chihuly in 1991, the colourful spheres looked unexpectantly harmonious with its surroundings; I especially liked the Chinese pagoda backdrop. I felt a sense of tranquility and balance looking at this installation, and it was unfathomable by intellect – you could only feel it, which probably made it more powerful.

 

'Niijima Floats' (1992 - 2008)

'Niijima Floats' (1992 - 2008)

'Niijima Floats' (1992 - 2008)

‘Niijima Floats’, 2019

 

‘Ethereal white persian pond’ inside the Waterlily house was another breathtaking installation. As soon as I entered the glasshouse, my eyes were captivated by the extraordinary white and translucent striped glass flowers supported and rimmed with steel standing on the surface of the pond. Again, I felt that the glass flowers belonged there, in the pond with the water lilies and lotus leaves. The reflection of the glass sculptures on the water created a dreamlike/surreal effect, which made me believe that these flowers are part of nature and that there is no difference between the sculptures and nature.

Chihuly has said that he wants his work “to appear like it came from nature, so that if someone found it on a beach or in the forest, they might think it belonged there.” And I believe that he has certainly achieved this.

 

'Ethereal white persian pond', 2018

'Ethereal white persian pond', 2018

'Ethereal white persian pond', 2018

‘Ethereal white persian pond’, 2018

 

The last location I visited was the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, where visitors could see his sketches, drawings, smaller glass sculptures and a film detailing Chihuly’s creative process. It was interesting to see many artisans working alongside with Chihuly in the production process, hence the collaborative efforts are essential for his final pieces.

 

Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew  Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew

 

Although I have visited Kew Gardens almost annually (usually with a friend who lives locally) for the last few years, I have never been able to cover the entire area. There is always something new to discover here, and on this visit, I spent almost an hour inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory examing the carnivorous plants in a maze-like glasshouse.

 

kew gardens  kew gardens

KEW

kew plants  kew plants

kew

kew gardens

 

Although Kew is popular with visitors all year round, I personally love coming here in autumn. I enjoy hearing the rustling sounds of autumn leaves being blown in the wind, and the crunching sounds produced when my shoes made contact with the leaves. Perhaps it is due to global warming, but I feel that autumns here have become shorter, and if this is the case, then we need to cherish this season before it vanishes altogether – which will be almost unthinkable but not impossible. Watching the autumn leaves fall onto the ground is a reminder of our fleeting lives, although it comes with a sense of melancholy, there is also much beauty in it. I think nature is our best teacher, and maybe this is the reason why I will always want to return to Kew in autumn.

 

Chihuly at Kew

autumn foliage Kew  autumn foliage Kew

autumn foliage Kew

autumn foliage Kew

autumn foliage Kew  FOLIAGE KEW

FOLIAGE KEW

autunn foliage

 

 

Colchester: The Beth Chatto Gardens

beth chatto

 

In the last few years, I became very interested in English gardens, and I tried to visit as many as possible during the summer/autumn months when the weather is more pleasant. Since I don’t have a car anymore, I would have to plan ahead and constantly check the weather forecast. I am no expert in gardens nor gardening, but I do enjoy visiting different gardens which enables me to gain more understanding. Besides, being surrouneded by plants, trees and flowers does make one feel uplifted and it is a good way to de-stress from living in the city.

 

   Beth Chatto Gardens

The iconic Gravel garden

 

One of most renowned and respected gardeners of our times is Beth Chatto OBE (1923 – 2018), an award-winning plantswoman, garden designer, author and lecturer.  Her Beth Chatto Gardens near Elmstead Market in Essex is considered as one of most inspiring gardens in the U.K. In 1960, she started to work on an overgrown wasteland of brambles, parched gravel and boggy ditches, and eventually transformed it into an informal but wonderful garden using a large collection of unusual plants that could thrive under different conditions.

From London, I took a train to Colchester, followed by a bus ride to Elmstead, which was fairly easy. It was sunny and not too hot on the day – perfect for strolling around the gardens. Since the garden is family-run, the entrance fee is lower than gardens run by the English Heritage or National Trust. There is also a tearoom and nursey selling a wide range of plants.

 

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Lunch at the tearoom

 

The garden is divided into five main areas: Gravel, Water, Woodland, Reservoir and Scree. The most famous one is the car park-converted Gravel Garden (which is never watered), originally set up by Beth and her team as an experiment. Despite the poor, free-draining soil, it features a spectacular display of drought-tolerant plants. As I was walking around, the garden reminded me much of Derek Jarman‘s garden at Prospect Cottage; interestingly, I later found out that it was Jarman who inspired Chatto to work on this garden after an encounter with him at his Prospect Cottage in 1990.

 

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Gravel garden

 

The lushest gardens of all is the Water garden, which includes a series of ponds and moisture loving plants. I love the lotus ponds and beautiful trees in this garden.

 

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens   Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens   Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

beth chatto garden  beth chatto garden

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Water garden

 

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens  beth chatto garden

beth chatto garden

Scree garden showcases a large collection of easy aplines

 

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth chatto garden

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

Reservoir garden is an open sunny area, redesigned recently in the Beth Chatto style showcasing many colourful flowers and plants

 

The most serene one is the Woodland garden, which is full of shade-loving bulbs, perennials and shrubs planted underneath a dense canopy of tall oak trees. I felt like I have enetered a natural woodland as I walked around this garden.

 

Beth chatto garden

Beth chatto garden   Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth chatto garden   Beth Chatto Gardens

Woodland garden

 

It was quite amazing to find five distinct gardens within one garden and they all blend well together. What I love about these gardens is the organic feel; they are not over-designed and showy… this is certainly one of the most authentic and enchanting gardens that I have visited in the U.K. Since it is not far from London, I would want to return again in the future.

 

 

William Morris’ Red House in Bexleyheath

bexleyheath

bexleyheath  bexleyheath

Architecture in Bexleyheath

 

Although I live in London, there are still many areas of the city that I am unfamiliar with or have never been to. I have long wanted to visit William Morris‘ former residence Red House in Bexleyheath, but somehow never got round to it. Since August is a quiet period, I decided to venture out to the SE part of Greater London on a sunny day.

To my surprise, the town centre of bexleyheath has some interesting historic buildings like Trinity Baptist Chapel (1868) and Christ Church (1872–7), and it feels more ‘Kent’ than London. After a 15-minute walk from Bexleyheath train station, I reached the National Trust-run heritage building and garden in a quiet residential area. With my National Art pass, I was able to get free entry and arrived in time for the guided tour.

 

red house

red house william morris  red house william morris

 

Commissioned in 1859 by William Morris, founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, Red House was designed by his friend and architect Philip Webb which completed in 1860. At the time, Upton was a hamlet on Bexley Heath, a largely picturesque area dotted with cottages, medieval ruins, and Tudor mansion (Hall Place). Intended as a post-wedding house for him and his new wife Jane, Morris financed the project with money inherited from his wealthy family, and dreamed of the house becoming a ‘Palace of Art’, a place where his artist friends could decorate the walls with stories of medieval legends. Influenced by Medievalism and Medieval-inspired Neo-Gothic styles, the building was constructed based on Morris‘ ethos of craftsmanship and artisan skills, which later became known as the Arts and Crafts movement.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

 

Summer is definitely a good time to visit the house and garden, and since it was during the week and summer holiday period, there were very few visitors during my visit. Before entering the house, I spent some time walking around the north side of the 2-acre garden, and it made me feel at ease immediately.

Red House garden was first laid out over 150 years ago and successive owners have put their own stamp on the garden. The garden was important to Morris, hence he and Philip Webb put a lot of thought into the design of the garden. They wanted it to ‘clothe the house’ to soften the effect of the startling red brick. Little of the original garden design remains, so Red House’s head gardener Robert Smith and his team embarked on an ambitious project to re-introduce some of the spirit of Morris’s ‘lost garden’.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

 

Inside the house, it was Philip Webb who designed most of the furniture, while Morris, Jane, and his friend/painter Edward Burne-Jones designed all the furnishings including windows, wallpaper and tiles. Their collaborative works paid tribute to medieval craftsmanship, for example the glass in the gallery features flowers painted by Morris painted flowers, birds painted by Webb, overlaid with Burne Jones‘ work depicting Fortuna. On some windows (see the round one below) and tiles, inscriptions of Morris‘ motto: ‘Si je puis” (if I can) can also be seen.

Another notable piece of furniture is a settle-cum-cupboard in the landing designed by Webb, with door panels painted by Morris which depict a scene from Malory entitled ‘Sir Lancelot bringing Sir Tristram and the Belle Iseult to Joyous Gard‘. The picture features Edward Burne-Jones offering cherries to his wife Georgie and Janey Morris and with Morris’ servant, ‘Red Lion Mary’ in the background.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

img_0523

Orginal architcetural plans and belongings of Morris are exhibited in one of the rooms on the ground floor.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

Dining room

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

 

As visitors walk up to the first and second floor, they can admire Morris‘ patterned wallpaper which covers the ceiling suppored by wooden beams. In a small room on the first floor, there is a catalogue of Morris & Co‘s archive wallpapers. In 1862, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co began to design woodblock-printed wallpaper for the house, thus Morris & Co was born, a company still exists today producing wallpaper and textiles based on Morris‘ designs and ethos.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

 

On the second floor, there is a drawing room which showcases an original built-in settle, and a fireplace painted with Morris’s motto: “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” (Life is short, art is forever). On the sides of the settle are murals painted by Pre-Raphaelite artist/his friend, Edward Burne-Jones depicting the 15th century marriage feast of of Sir Degrevan.

Although the structure of the house was not altered, many of the original furnishings and wallpaper were either removed or painted over. Hence, the wallpaper in some of the rooms are simply reproductions of Morris‘ original designs. Since there is a sharp contrast between the murals and the surprisingly ‘modern-looking’ yellow polka dot patterned wallpaper on the ceiling, it made me wonder if the latter was added on during the restoration.

 

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

 

In 2013, the National Trust discovered a mural hidden behind a large built-in wardrobe on Morris‘s bedroom wall. The near-lifesize figures on the wall are believed to be the joint efforts of Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Ford Madox Brown and Morris. The figures are from the Bible, which include Rachel, Noah holding a model ark, Adam and Eve, and Jacob with his ladder, and they were painted as if hanging on fabric.

 

red house william morris

The rediscovered mural by William Morris, Jane and other young pre-Raphaelites

 

Sadly, after five years living in their dream house, Morris, his wife and his two young daughters had to sell the house due to financial difficulties. Morris never returned to visit the Red House again, but described the five years as being “probably the happiest and not the least fruitful of his life.”

Over the years, the house changed ownerships quite a few times and was threatened to be demolished until it was designated a Grade I listed building by English Heritage in 1950. Since the National Trust took over the house and garden in 2003, research and efforts were made to restore and conserve the house to its original condition.

 

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

 

Besides the house, I particularly enjoyed spending time in the garden surrounded by flowers and fruit trees and vegetables. After touring the house and garden, I had a coffee at the cafe’s outdoor seating area and left feeling jolly and energised. Maybe good design and nature are two of the elements that we need in our lives to make us happy; though Morris did not get to spend much time here, thanks to him, we are now able to appreciate his vision and legacy as a revoluntionary designer and entrepreneur.

 

LCW 19: Creative Inspiration Walk – Text in the City

black friar pub

 

How many of us pay attention to the text and typography around us in the city? When we are rushing around the city, we tend to miss what is right under our noses. During the London Craft week, I joined the “Creative Inspiration Walk: Text in the City” organised by The Goldsmiths’ Centre and City of London. The two-hour walk explored the city’s lettering heritage and craftsmanship focusing on engraving and carving of text.

Our meeting point was Blackfriars station, and right opposite the station is the Grade II listed Art Nouveau The Black Friar pub built in 1875, and remodelled in about 1905 by the architect Herbert Fuller-Clark. Much of the internal decoration was done by the sculptors Frederick T. Callcott and Henry Poole. I have always been fascinated by the facade of this pub, especially by the mosiac y the mosaic type and wonderful metal signage outside. Although this stop was not part of the walk, I thought it is apt to include it here.

 

The Blackfriar pub

The Blackfriar pub

The Blackfriar pub

The Blackfriar pub

The Black Friar Pub

 

The first stop of the walk was located in the new concourse of the station. Fifty four stones from the original Victorian station, each engraved with destinations served by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR), have been preserved and relocated. The stones list destinations as diverse as Bickley, Marseille, Gravesend and Venice, as the LCDR advertised Blackfriars’ links to towns and cities of the south east, and the business capitals of Europe via cross-channel steamers. These blocks were removed from top to bottom, one-by-one, by chiselling the mortar joints between each stone. The lightest stone weighs 54 kg and the heaviest stone about 120 kg. The lettering on the sandstone was gilded with 24 carat gold leaf before it was rebuilt in the new location.

 

The 54 inscribed stones inside Blackfriars stationThe 54 inscribed stones inside Blackfriars station

The 54 inscribed stones inside Blackfriars station

 

From one of the station’s platform exits, we were led to a rather grey and gloomy concrete square outside of the brutalist British Telecom owned office building called the Baynard House. Surprisingly, in the middle of the empty square stands The Seven Ages of Man, a 22-foot cast aluminium sculpture by British typeface designer, stone letter carver and sculptor, Richard Kindersley. The sculpture was commissioned by Post Office Telecommunications and unveiled in April 1980.

Inspired by William Shakespeare‘s pastoral comedy As You Like It, in which a monologue is spoken in Act II Scene VII Line 139. The speech compares the world to a stage and life to a play and catalogues the seven stages of a man’s life, sometimes referred to as the seven ages of man.

The high column features seven sculpted heads, stacked in totem pole fashion, on top of each other. The youngest is at the bottoms and it gets older as you progress up the column; on the pedestal, Shakespeare’s verses are inscribed around it.

This is a fantastic piece of sculpture, but its odd and hidden location is unlikely to draw passerby’s attention (unless they look up from the street level). It is certainly a hidden gem in the City of London.

 

The Seven Ages of ManThe Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of ManThe Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man

 

We then walked towards the river bank, and under the Millennium bridge stands The Millennium Measure designed by British sundial maker, hand-engraver & sculptor, Joanna Migdal in 2002. The Millennium Measure measures is the gift of the court & livery of the Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers to the City of London in commemoration of the millennium. It comprises a 3 sided, 2 metre (2M = 2000MM) rule depicting two thousand years of history of the City, the Church and the craft of scientific instrument making. The initials ‘MM’ stand for ‘Millennium Measure’, ‘millimetre’ and ‘two thousand’ in Roman numerals.

 

london river

sundials

Millennium Measure Millennium Measure

Millennium Measure Millennium Measure

Millennium Measure

The Millennium Measure

 

Although I have walked past St Paul’s Cathedral many times before, I have never paid much attention to the public art outside of it. To my surprise, on the pavement at the western end of the churchyard is a floor-plan of the pre-Fire Cathedral with an outline of the present one superimposed on it. Designed by Richard Kindersley (see above), the 7m long installation is made of various Purbeck marbles and Welsh Slate. The outlines were created through the use of waterjet technology, which enabled the stone to be inset in a manner which would either be impossible or prohibitively expensive if done by hand. The inscription around the border was hand carved into the stone, noting the Great fire of London in 1666 that destroyed much of the medieval City of London.

On the other side of the Cathdral at the west end of the Festival Gardens, there is a bust of the English Poet and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne by the sculptor Nigel Boonham. Underneath the bust feature lettering by one of UK’s foremost letter carvers, Andrew Whittle.

 

st paul's cathedral

Richard Kindersleyst Pauls cathedral Richard Kindersley andrew whittle

andrew whittle

st paul's cathedral  st paul's cathedral

 

On the northside of the Cathedral, there is another installation by Richard Kindersley called People of London. It is a memorial to the people of London who died in the blitz 1939 — 1945. Carved from a three ton block of Irish limestone, the memorial has large carved letters and gilded around the edge reading: “REMEMBER BEFORE GOD THE PEOPLE OF LONDON 1939 — 1945”. On top is a spiral inscription written by Sir Edward Marsh and used by Churchill as a front piece to his history ‘The Second World War’.

 

People of London

People of London

People of London memorial 

 

Not far from St Paul’s, we visited the enchanting Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden, which is situated on the site of the Franciscan Church of Greyfriars, established in 1225. Destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 it was rebuilt by Christopher Wren, but later destroyed all but the west tower in WWII. It was decided not to rebuild the church and some land was lost to road widening in the 1960s. The present rose garden was laid out on the site in 1989 with rose beds and box hedges outlining the nave of Wren’s church, with wooden towers representing the pillars that held up the roof.

At the garden, a new public art installation (2017) was created to commemorate Christ’s Hospital School’s 350 years presence in the City of London, 1552-1902. The installation is a 2.4m long bronze sculpture by renowned sculptor, Andrew Brown, casted at The Bronze Age Foundry in London. It was selected following an open competition organised by the City of London Corporation, and it is positioned close to where Christ’s Hospital was originally founded in Newgate Street.

 

img_4388-min

img_4393-min

img_4394-min  img_4391-min

 

Nearby, there is another well-hidden small garden called The Goldsmiths Garden. It is located on the site of the churchyard and medieval church of St John Zachary, which was damaged in the Great Fire. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (also known as the Goldsmiths’ company) had acquired land here in 1339, and built the earliest recorded Livery Hall. After part of the Company’s property was demolished in WWII, the site was first laid out as a garden in 1941, redesigned in later years. A central fountain was installed in 1995 and the ‘Three Printers’ sculpture (1957) by Wilfred Dudeney was relocated from New Street Square in 2009 in the sunken garden.

Commissioned for New Street Square by the Westminster Press Group, the sculpture represents the newspaper process, with a newsboy, a printer and an editor. The printer (the figure on the left) is holding a “stick” which contains the metal type spelling out of the sculptor’s surname. This piece is Britain’s only public monument to newspapers. However, when the area was redeveloped, the sculpture was removed and ended up in a scrapyard in Watford. Luckily, It was rescued by the writer Christopher Wilson, who persuaded the Goldsmiths’ Company to reinstall the sculpture.

Another interesting feature at this garden is that several golden leopards heads can be seen at the entrance. The leopard’s head is actually the company’s symbol. There is also an arch presented to the Goldsmiths by the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. Designed by Paul Allen, the arch incorporates the London Assay mark for gold in the shape of individually made leopards heads.

 

The Goldsmiths Garden

The Goldsmiths GardenThe Goldsmiths Garden

The Goldsmiths Garden

The Goldsmiths Garden

'Three Printers' sculpture formerly in New Street Square, installed in St John Zachary Garden, May 2010.

The Goldsmiths Garden

 

A large (but easily-missed) metal memorial ‘Aldersgate Flame’ stands outside of the Museum of London was erected in 1981. On the face of the memorial are enlarged facsimile extracts in cast bronze of Anglican clergyman, evangelist, and co-founder of the Methodist movement in the Church of England. John Wesley’s account of the events of Wednesday May 24th 1738, as described in his original printed text of the first edition of John Wesley’s Journal. On the back of the Memorial are the names of the three local tradesmen concerned with Wesley in the production and marketing of the Journal.

 

Aldersgate FlameAldersgate Flame

Aldersgate Flame

 

I am not sure how many Londoners are aware of the competition-winning sculptured stone bench (erected in 2006) at the circular Smithfield Rotunda Garden. Designed by Sam Dawkins and Donna Walker from Edinburgh University, the bench is inscribed with text and quotes relating to the history of the area, and the carving process was managed by apprentice stone masons from Cathedral Works Organisation in Chichester.

However, it is hard to read the inscribed text, and the bench looks out of place here. Most passerby would ignore it and choose to sit on the wooden benches instead, which is a shame.

 

img_4427-min  img_4428-min

 

Finally, before finishing at the Goldsmiths’ Centre, we stopped at Turnmill Street in  Farringdon, outside of a building to look at the inscribed letters above. Built in 1874, the building was formerly the premises of Ludwig Oertling, whose firm ‘manufacturers of bullion chemical and assay balances and hydrometer makers’ remained there until the 1920s. Although the premise is now occupied by Spanish restaurant, the inscribed lettering remains above it.

 

long lane

farringdon

farringdon station

Farringdon

 

As always, I learned a lot about London’s history during the two-hour walk, which is why I love joining guided walks in different parts of the city. It also encourages us to observe more as we wander around the city. There is so much to explore in London, and all you need is curiosity and awareness.

 

 

Mumbai’s ancient Kanheri Buddhist caves

Kanheri caves

The view of Mumbai’s highrise from the top of the hill

 

Before my trip to Mumbai, I was told by my friends from Mumbai that there isn’t much sightseeing to do in the city, yet it is up to the visitors to find out what this city really has to offer. And they are right. In fact, I never would have believed that 109-129 ancient Buddhist caves exist right in the middle of this mega city.

Originally I had planned to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Elephanta Caves – a collection of Hindu cave temples located on the Elephanta Island just off Mumbai. But when I learned about the lesser-known Kanheri Buddhist caves located in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, I was deeply intrigued. Since I had insufficient time, I decided to visit the Kanheri caves instead, and splashed out on a private guided tour. This, later turned out to be well worth it.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Monkeys everywhere up in the forest area…

 

The 109-129 Kanheri Caves, are part of a monastic complex that expanded over 1,000 years, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 11th century AD, located up on a hill in the middle of Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the city’s northern edge. The word kanheri comes from the Sanskrit Krishnagiri, which means black mountain; meanwhile the caves are carved out of black basalt rock. These caves saw the rise and decline of Buddhism, so they are hugely significant as they provide us with insights into the development of Buddhism in India.

After about an hour’s drive from the hotel, I met up with an elderly female guide who was looking rather distressed. She informed me that the officials were forbidding cars from entering the park (no reason given), and that she had just spent the last hour arguing with them. We then wasted another 30 minutes reasoning with them, and eventually they told us that the only way to visit the park/cave was by a shuttle bus, followed by a short hike up the hill. My guide was slightly reluctant, but I told her that I really wanted to see the caves, and was willing to take a bus and walk up.

The bus ride up the hill took about 15 mins and then we had to walk uphill for another 15-20 mins, which was not as bad as I had expected.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Cave 2, along with cave 1 & 3 were closed on the day of visit

 

I was really grateful that I had a guide with me as she knew the caves like the back of her hand and her knowledge (she studied ancient Indian history) helped me to understand the caves’ history, the sculptures, and how the site evolved over the centuries.

It annoyed me when I read some negative comments online written by tourists who complained about the caves for not being ‘spectacular’ enough. Many of them visited the caves independently without much understanding of the caves’ history and significance. I have to stress that if you visit these archaeological sites without a guide, you may be disappointed, so it is worth getting a proper guide to explain things that are not written guide books.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Cave 3 is a Chaityagraha or prayer hall

 

Since there are over 100 caves altogether, with no map to guide visitors, my guide picked some important ones that she felt was worth visiting and in doing so, we did not ramble like other visitors.

Sadly, the most prominent cave near the entrance – Cave 3 – a Chaityagraha or prayer hall with stupa was closed on the day (as well as cave 1 and 2). My guide was bewildered by the closure and told me that she has never seen them closed before! It probably was not my lucky day.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

Buddhism reached its height in India during 268 to 232 BCE thanks to Emperor Ashoka, an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, who promoted and spread Buddhism across India and Asia. Throughout the history of the complex, the schools/traditions evolved from Hinayana to Mahayana and then Vajrayana.

Located between three ancient ports, Sopara, Kalyan and Chaul, the Kanheri caves were not only a monastic complex, they were also part of a trade route where merchants would pass by and stay while they were on their ‘business trips’. Over time, the complex developed into a residential educational complex funded on the basis of ‘Dana’ (Donation) by merchants, traders, rich brahmins and members of Royal families who were lay devotees.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Unfinished painting on ceiling of cave 34

 

In the early days of Buddhism, the Buddha was never represented in human form, but through aniconic symbols like footprints and Bodhi tree etc. Hence, the earliest caves here are either simple single or multiple-cell viharas, devoid of decorations and sculptures, and they are used for living, studying and meditating. The stark contrast between the earlier unadored caves and the later ones which feature some stunning Buddhist sculptures and paintings reveal the development of Buddhist art and culture over the centuries.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

Since the monks were in contacts with the Chinese monks through the Silk Road, and these cultural exchanges subsequently influenced the art and architecture of the caves. In some of the caves, the Greco-Buddhist art style is discernible. Greco-Buddhist art originated from the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250 BC- 130 BC), located in today’s Afghanistan due to the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. This art form is characterised by the strong idealistic realism of Hellenistic art and the representations of Buddha in human form, which differs dramatically from the earlier aniconic style.

The unique blend of Classical Greek Art and Buddhist culture flourished in Gandhara (present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan) before spreading further into India, and to the rest of South-East Asia. Later, it also spread northward towards Central Asia, China, and eventually Korea, and Japan.

 

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

dsc_0174

 

As we meandered up the rock-cut steps passing by cave after cave, I struggled to imagine how the builders managed to cut into the massive basalt rock up on a hill surrounded by forests over a thousand years ago. While the earlier caves tend to locate near the water streams, the later and higher caves feature water-cisterns outside that collected rainwater for the dwellings.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

Aside from carved sculptures, statues, reliefs and wall paintings, there are also numerous inscriptions in Brahmi, Devanagari and Pahlavi scripts, and some of which have yet to be deciphered.

While most visitors (including myself) admire the beautifully carved statues and sculptures of the Buddha and Avalokiteshwara, my guide told me that what is more important are the grid patterns assigned to individual deities, since these grid patterns are laid out according to different mandalas.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

 

Thanks to my guide who knew some of the guards well, we even managed to get into a locked cave because she wanted to show me some important features inside. And what is also interesting is that each cave has a stone plinth for a bed, while some have benches outside.

In some of the caves, the empty deity spaces indicate that the statues were removed, but the whereabouts of these statues are unknown.

 

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves  

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

The colours of the volcanic breccia can be seen on the Avalokiteshvara sculptures above

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

The last cave we visited was cave 90, which is one of the most important and famous caves here due to its oldest preserved mandala dating back to the early 6th century AD. I was completely blown away by the carved statues that covered the three walls. The walls feature The Buddha seated in Padmasana (lotus throne) with attendants that are often seen in the Mahayana style, and they are surprisingly well-preserved.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves   Kanheri caves

Cave 90

 

As we headed back down, we were able to enjoy the wonderful view of the city in a tranquil setting that seemed impossible in Mumbai. Despite the closure of the three important caves, I was glad to have visited this site, and wish to return again some day. I felt slightly overwhelmed by all the information provided by my guide, and I probably needed more time to linger and absorb the true beauty of the art inside the caves.

Before we parted, my guide also informed me that there are numerous Buddhist caves in the Maharashtra State and urged me to visit them in the future. One of the famous one is the Ajanta Caves, a 30 rock-cut Buddhist cave complex which dates from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE, and it is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I do hope that I will get a chance to visit this site in the future.

 

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

Kanheri caves

 

 

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