Saturday, 29 May 2010

Rajasthan - Positively Transcendental

One of the most exciting things about India, for me, is the music.  Folk, classical and Bollywood songs that go circling around in your auditory cortex for days afterward, defying definition or interpretation.  From The Beatles to Alannis Morrisette, Western pop stars have flocked to India, seeking inspiration, instruction and Indian rhythms to inform their own musicality. 

India has been a real melting pot of musical styles - Buddhist chanting and incantations not unlike the languid tropicality of the music of Siam and Bali, mixed with the screeching, stringed instruments of Central Asia and the soft, pounding drums of the Qawwali.  Indian classical music has a very long and proud tradition and has produced some of the world's greatest musicians, such as Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

There's quite a lot to learn about Indian music, so I've started with a select range of styles and instruments that are popular in Rajasthan and somehow caught my attention.  I've been listening to lots of Bhajans, devotional songs sung by both men and women and venerating Hindu Gods such as Shiva, Krishna and Ganesh.  It's all about strings, drums and voice and it's incredibly relaxing music, especially for a Saturday morning, after a long and hard week at work!  I found a great album on iTunes called The Best Bhajan Collection.  I was tempted to download the whole album, a mere 83 Bhajans, but decided against it, reasoning I would become more familiar with the three Bhajans I eventually chose. 

The two instruments most associated with Bhajans are the Ektara and Dholak.  The Ektara is a curious instrument, I still haven't quite figured out whether it's a percussion instrument or a stringed one.  A bit of both, I guess.  It's usually made with a single string between two parts of a split cane and with a large gourd-type weight at the bottom, covered in animal skin and functioning as a kind of drum.  What's interesting about the Ektara is that, by compressing the two halves of the split cane, you can change the pitch of the string, which is plucked rhythmically.  It's traditionally an instrument of travelling minstrels.

The dholak is familiar to most people as a typical Indian drum and very much defines our stereotype of what an Indian rhythm is.  I'm sure most people who've been to India, will have walked along the street, at one time or another, to the beat of the dholak.  It has two sides, one side being larger than the other, giving a deeper tone to the overall sound.  It can be carried with a string around your neck, or simply held in your lap, again very conducive to wandering and nomadic lifestyles.  Of course, these instruments are not only to be found in Rajasthan, but are popular all over Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

I also learnt a bit about the Sarangi, a classical instrument which is said to be the instrument which most closely ressembles the wavering tones of a human voice!  The sarangi has been played for centuries in the palace of the Maharana of Udaipur.  The sound reminds me a lot of Central Asian instruments, like the Rubob, which I heard when I was living in Uzbekistan. 

A contemporary master of the sarangi is Udaipur-born Pt Ram Narayan.  Pt is short for pandit, a title that is given to talented musical teachers.  Narayan studied under Ravi Shankar and has been, arguably, just as successful with Western audiences.  He comes from a long tradition of court singers and I love this idea that music is handed down from generation to generation.  Narayan's daughter, Aruna, is also a well-known sarangi master.  Narayan is associated with the Kirana tradition of sarangi, which is more traditional to Utter Pradesh.  The sarangi of Rajasthan, the Jogiya Sarangi, is the music of Jodhpuri and Barmeri snake-charmers.  I can understand the connection.  A morning of Sarangi has me positively transcendental!

I'm going to leave you with a Bhajan devoted to Ganesh, a god I have an inexplicable attraction to.  I was genuinely surprised to see how much devotional Hindu music is available on YouTube, it's well worth an afternoon of exploration, if not for the music, then the stunning religious paintings and imagery.  Enjoy!

Image credits

The photo of the larger drum, the Dhol, is by flickruser Swami Stream a.k.a. Swaminathan.  Swaminathan is from Pune, a city I've visited once and is an amateur photographer with a great eye for detail.  You can see more of his photos at

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Rajasthan - Tyger Tyger, burning bright

As I've been learning about Rajasthan, I've come across Ranthambore National Park, famous as a tiger sanctuary, in the east of the state.  The tiger is India's national animal and, although we usually think of the Bengal tiger and eastern India, there are still tigers in Rajasthan, probably the most western part of Asia that tigers have managed to survive in.

The plight of tiger populations is so typical of mismanagement and overhunting by humans.  Voted the world's most popular animal, tigers could once be found as far away as the Caspian Sea, Turkey and the Central Asian republics like Uzbekistan.  I remember the very striking image of two tigers on the Registan in Samarkand, unusual in Islamic art for its depiction of animals.  Nowadays all species of tiger are endangered, most of them can be found in India, South East Asia, Sumatra and Siberia. 

One thing the British and the ruling Rajputs of Rajasthan had in common was their love of hunting.  For the Indian tiger, this was an unfortunate alliance of (human) predators.  It was quite common in the 19th century for British officials and Rajasthani princes to go on hunting expeditions together, as a kind of 'bonding' experience.  Many a British stately home and Rajasthani palace is bedecked with the heads of animals killed for sport. 

Young, healthy tigers are not usually a threat to human populations, nevertheless the tiger has a reputation as a fierce animal and kills more humans every year that the other 'big cats'.  Mythologised as wise and powerful kings, tigers are an important part of Eastern mythology.  The Chinese symbol for King looks a lot like the typical markings a tiger has on its forehead.  This is the year of the Tiger, according to the Chinese Astrology.  Durga, a manifestation of the female Hindu goddess Devi-Parvati, rode to battle on the back of a tiger.  Whether it's Kipling's Shere Khan, innuendos about sexual prowress or Frostie's Tony the Tiger, they have entered Western culture and mythology, just as much as in the East.  The title of this blog is taken from William Blake's Songs of Experience and exists in stark contrast to his Lamb, in the Songs of Innocence.

I learned that, unlike other felines, tigers can swim and have been known to pursue its prey across rivers and lakes.  12,000 tigers are kept as pets in the United States.  A group of tigers can be called a streak or an ambush.  In Tibet, tiger pelts were used in traditional Buddhist ceremonies, until the Dalai Lama spoke out against the practice in 2006. 

Like a lot of animals, birds and insects, tigers have 'eyespots', or light circles in their fur that look like eyes.  Most animals/birds/insects use these as a distraction, to keep predators from biting their more vulnerable areas!  Tigers' eyespots are believed to reflect their mood - as solitary animals, when two tigers meet each other (especially males or male/female), identifying which one is more powerful becomes a matter of urgency.  The peacock, which is the national bird of India, is probably the most famous example of a bird using eyespots - this time for mating rituals. 

There are plans to introduce tigers to Africa for the first time ever.  Certain tiger body parts are desperately sought after for the Chinese medicinal market.  The decline of the tiger population in the south of China is so bad that the Chinese government want to use South African conservation expertise to re-introduce tame tigers to a wild environment.  I guess the plan is to recapture them and release them back into the wild in China, but how that's going to work, I can't begin to imagine.

The situation is, of course, incredibly serious and there are many organisations involved in the preservation of tiger populations.  One of them is 21st Century Tiger and, if you're interested in finding out more, their website has a lot of information about a possible future of these amazing creatures. 


A lot of the information I gathered on tigers was taken from Wikipedia, as usual, it's one of the best resources around.

The image of Durga on the back of the tiger is from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free. 

The amazing photo of the tiger is from flickruser Durotriges, who is an amateur photographer and flickr enthusiast from Weymouth in Dorset. You can see more of his photos and find out how to order prints at his flickr photostream

Monday, 17 May 2010

Rajasthan - Ram Ram!

So from Queensland, I'm jumping five and a half thousand miles across the world to the Indian subcontinent.  India is such a massive country, with so many different regions and peoples, that it would be impossible to blog about it all in one go, so I've decided to start with Rajasthan. 

Rajasthan is one of those places I've always wanted to go to.  I've been to India before, in 2002, doing a three week trip Delhi-Mumbai-Poone-Kolhapur-Goa-Mysore-Bangalore-Delhi and I absolutely loved it!  Coming from Uzbekistan, where I was living at the time, India was a riotous explosion of colour and noise.  It was like my life before I went to India had been lived in black and white and with the volume turned down.  I didn't have any of the culture shock you would expect of a European, but then I had been living in Central Asia for more than a year.  Also, the cotton seed oil in Uzbekistan had made me Delhi-belly proof, so my trip to India wasn't characterised by having the runs! 

I got a real sense in India, more than anywhere else in the world, of a country that is self-contained.  With a billion people adhering to a centralised government, India is a world unto itself.  Events outside India might be vaguely interesting, but there is so much going on inside India, that the rest of the world seems barely relevant.  It's also the noisiest place I've ever been, except Goa, which is pretty tranquil, in comparison to the big cities.

And of course during those 20-40 hour train journeys crossing the land, you meet other travellers and listen to their stories.  Everything I heard about Rajasthan conjured up an image in my head that may be a little bit more than romantic!  I don't know a lot about Rajasthan, but in my mind it's a place where men in turbans ride horses across scorching deserts seeking sanctuary in the ancient citadels.  The names of the places conjure up even more romance - Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Udaipur - they sound like memories more than cities made of stone and earth. 

So that's where I'm starting my learning journey.  I have several books lined up, I'm going to learn about Hinduism and learn how to cook a Rajasthani dish.  I want to listen to some traditional music and, if possible, watch a famous Rajasthani movie.  I'm still not sure which music and movies are best, so any advice is welcome.  I'm also going to start following some Rajasthanis on Twitter - so if that's you, hello!

Above all, I want to lose myself in the exoticism of this journey - to be transported to a place beyond this damp English May.  I hope you'll join me as I embark on my learning journey. 


To calculate the distance between Brisbane and Jaipur, I used a website called

The amazing image of the nomads with camels in the Rajasthani desert was taken by flickruser Spyros P a.k.a. Spyros Petrogiannis.  Spyros has shared this image with the world using the Creative Commons License. 

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Queensland - See ya later, mate!

The time has come to say goodbye to Queensland and Australia (for now).  I must admit I've been (mostly) envious of the weather Brisbane has been having since I started this blog.  There's certainly logic behind Queensland's popularity as a holiday destination and as a place to retire.  We always think of things being 'upside down' in Australia and in that respect, the Gold Coast and beaches of Queensland are the equivalent to Spain for British holidaymakers and retirees. 

I've blogged about aspects of Queensland's culture that have appealed to me.  I read no less than three novels by Queensland's writers (I didn't blog about the last novel, The House at Riverton by Kate Morton which, although it was really interesting, was set in England and didn't have anything to say about Australia.)  I also watched movies such as Swimming Upstream and Praise.  I cooked kangaroo meat and went on a nostalgia trip with Savage Garden. 

As usual though, there was so much more that I didn't have time to blog about.  As is becoming a traditional in my final blogpost, I'm going to summarise some of the other things I learned about Queensland.

I learned that Queensland is three times the size of France, but has a similar population to Ireland.  I learned that the state was almost called Cooksland, as some people felt one Australian state named after the British queen (Victoria) might be enough.  Queensland's flag used to contain a portrait of Queen Victoria, but this was changed when Queenslanders complained that it was too difficult to reproduce.  I learned that the crown on Queensland's flag is changed with every new monarch. 

I learned that Brisbane was originally called Edinglassie, a combination of Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I learned that approximately 95,000 Brits live in Brisbane and that a million US soldiers were stationed there during the Second World War, this precarious 'colonisation' being described in the famous phrase 'they're over-paid, over-sexed and over here'.

I learned that thousands of Kanakas, workers from the Pacific Islands were deported from Queensland in the early 20th century, as part of the new nation's White Australia policy.  I learned that the name Moreton Bay was the result of a spelling mistake and should have been called 'Morton Bay'. 

I learned that Australian swans are black and that the term semelparous refers to any creature that only lives long enough to reproduce once.  I learned about Queensland's state bird, the Brolga, which is known for its elaborate mating dances, aspects of which have been reproduced in the dance and culture of the native Australian tribes.  I learned that just 1.5% of Australia's land surface produces 95% of its agricultural yield and that most of this is located in the Darling/Murray basin. 

I learned about Macademia nuts, eskies, XXXX beer and Tim tams.  I learned that you can go helmet diving in Cairns and that it takes 28 and a half hours to travel from Brisbane to Cairns by bus.  I learned about the wizard of Kuranda and the Min Min lights of Boulia.  I learned that the small outback town Quilpie has named most of its streets after birds. 

I learned that Cape York peninsula is about the same size as Belarus, but has a population of 16,000 people. 

I'm sure there's even more to learn about Queensland and I look forward to visiting for real one day :-)

Image credits:

The photo of the Brolga is by flickr user anthonycramp who is from Dulwich, which is a suburb of Adelaide (not just London!).  Thanks Anthony for sharing this with us using the Creative Commons License. 

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Queensland - The Shire of Barcoo, Qantas and Waltzing Matilda

No experience of Queensland would be complete without reference to what is probably Australia's most famous song, Waltzing Matilda.  The words were written by bush poet Banjo Paterson and the song has been, at times, controversial - most people assume that it was a political anthem, a scarcely-disguised retelling of an incident that took place in Queensland during the Shearer's Strike of 1891, others believe that the song has been misappropriated and politicised by the left. 

Whatever the truth may be, the song is a classic.  The tune is believed to be based on a traditional Scottish song called Craigielee, although others believe that the words and the tune more closely resemble a traditional English song known as The Bold Fusilier.  There are many awful versions of both on YouTube, if you want to compare them. 

I remember learning this song in school and it was one of my favourites, being fascinated by exotic words like billabong and jumbuck.  Apart from hats with corks in them, kangaroos and koala bears, Waltzing Matilda was the only 'cultural' knowledge I had of Australia as a child.  Well, until Neighbours came along!  And to think that the song might have languished in the back of beyond in Queensland, were it not for a popular radio jingle for a tea company, which made the song popular all over Australia.  Apparantly, they had to change the words somewhat, as the tea company didn't think references to drowning conjured up an appropriate image of their product!

Banjo wrote the song during a stay in Winton, Queensland.  Ever since I blogged about Mongolia, I've been determined to find a Bayan-Olgii for each state I've blogged about since - Bayan-Olgii meaning that part of the state/country which is physically and/or culturally removed from the rest.  I've decided that the Shire of Barcoo, where Winton is located, should be Queensland's Bayan-Olgii (I also like the Tolkienesque quality of the name:).  Not only did Winton give us Waltzing Mathilda, but it was also the place where the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service Ltd., aka Qantas, was founded.  I guess the motivation to fly was high in Winton, a remote outback town, with massive distances to cover if you wanted to get to the big smoke. 

Modern-day Winton proudly hosts the Waltzing Matilda museum, probably one of the few museums in the world dedicated to a single song!  As well as Waltzing Matilda, in my adult years I came to love another song, often played by folk bands in Ireland, called And the band played Waltzing Matilda.  It's very poignant and, if you haven't heard it before, give it a listen (link to YouTube video below). 

The song was written by Scottish-born Eric Bogle and deals with the young Australian soldiers who were killed and injured in Gallipoli during the Great War.  He plays around with the tune of the original song and tells the story of a young man, disabled by a Turkish attack, then sent home to Australia, where he will never be able to waltz again.  It's also a very political song, being written around the time of the Vietnam war. 

Image credits:

The image of the swagman has been provided by the State Records of New South Wales - they have published a whole lot of images on flickr, you can follow their stream at I think it's great that a government body has done this - old photos can tell us so much about history and it's really enjoyable browsing collections of old photographs like this - especially from the other side of the world!

In keeping with State Records NSW's request, I'm pasting in the following information about this image, so you can properly source the historical record:

Description of the photograph:  A Sundowner, Riverina District

Dated: by 11/05/1908

Digital ID: 14086_a005_a005SZ847000022r


Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Queensland - Leichhardt and 45 million years of separation

Apologies to my regular readers, as I've had a flu these past two weeks and not had a chance to update this blog, or move on to a new country this month yet.  I still have a couple of posts to do before I can justify moving on from Queensland, so bear with me for another few days :-)

In my learning about Queensland, I've come across the 19th century explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.  Born in Prussia, a country that no longer exists, he made his way via Britain to Sydney of the 1840's and Australia, a country that barely existed in most people's minds at that time, large parts of the outback being un-charted and blanks on the map.  I've always been curious as to the motivation of the 19th century's great explorers.  I can understand the need to go where no man has ever gone before, but I still find it hard to imagine, in our globalised world of package holidays and itineraries, what it was like to head off into the unknown and beat your way across a hostile landscape, with an uncertain destination. 

The name Leichhardt is probably more familiar to Australians today, as the suburbs named after him, in Sydney and Ipswich (Queensland), but there was a time in the mid-19th century when his exploits caught the imagination of an emerging nation barely coming to terms with its physical geography.  For the first Europeans coming to Australia was like stepping into another world.  With mammals laying eggs and trees shedding their bark rather than their leaves, it must have seemed as though their whole world had, literally, been turned upside-down.

Australia has been separated from all other land-masses for no less than 45 million years, allowing its flora and fauna to develop in a completely unique way, unrelated to or influenced by the evolutionary changes that the rest of the world was experiencing.  Australia in the 19th century was quite possibly the closest a European explorer could come to seeing alien life forms!  From a geological point of view, the importance of soil in Australia shouldn't be underestimated.  The land in Australia is very, very old.  Whilst other continents have been undergoing geological processes that have renewed and re-fertilised their soils, Australia has been in, what is the equivalent of, a geological coma.  The earth there is incredibly fragile, leached of all goodness, the soil can literally be blown away in the wind. 

I guess for that reason, more than anywhere else on our planet, native Australians learned to live in a symbiotic relationship with the Earth, nurturing the fragile landscape that they inherited.  Native Australian culture respects the land in a way that the new European arrivals could barely comprehend.  What little I know about aboriginal culture, I'm impressed by this relationship with the Earth - it reminds me somewhat on the deep reverence native American peoples have for Mother Nature.  In stark contrast to other parts of the world, where mankind has tried (not entirely successfully) to master the environment and make it conform to the needs of the human population, I get the impression that human culture in Australia is defined by the landscape, rather than being part of a landscape defined by man. 

You can read all about Leichhardt's first (successful) expedition in his memoir, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia, from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a Distance of Upwards of 3000 Miles, During the Years 1844-1845.  Catchy title, eh?  Thanks to the Gutenburg project and an iPhone application called Wattpad, I was able to download Leichhardt's journal and dip into the enthralling world of a 19th-century adventurer! 

It's not the kind of book you would necessarily read from cover to cover (all 659 pages of it), but that's the joy of having so many obscure texts published free online.  I didn't have time to read the whole thing, but at least I could get a sense of what the journey was like, from an original source document.  His first journey wasn't particularly well-funded, although he had no shortage of men volunteering to accompany him on his adventure.  His companions included a man who was released from prison for the journey and an Aborigine called Harry Brown (I can see Michael Caine in the film version!).  Before they even started their journey they travelled from Sydney to Brisbane by boat, a journey that normally took three days but, because of inclement weather, took them almost a week. 

Leichhardt was a natural scientist by profession, with a keen interest in botany and his journal is a world of plants and flowers.  The Brigalow tree features highly in his descriptions of the landscape, as does the Bastard Box and a peculiar animal that he calls the rabbit-rat.  The name rabbit-rat makes me giggle a bit, it's obvious they couldn't make up their minds exactly which animal it was most similar to, so they settled for this double-barrelled moniker! 

The psychological strain of the journey begins to show after the first month or so and one of the expeditioners, Mr Gilbert, has some kind of falling out with the servant boy Charley.  Charley is given the option of leaving the expedition and making his way back to Brisbane, but without any supplies, one month into their journey - understandably he apologises to Mr Gilbert and the voyage continues.

For better or worse, Leichhardt's first voyage across the northern part of Australia, setting out from the Darling Downs in what is now Queensland, was a great success, securing further support for repeat voyages, including his third voyage when he and his entire party mysteriously 'disappeared', melting into the landscape, as though they had never really made an impression on it in the first place.

Image credits:

The image of Ludwig Leichhardt was painted by Friedrich August Schmalfuß and is used as the main image for the Wikipedia article on the great explorer.  The copyright for this image has expired and it is deemed to be 'in the public domain' 

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Queensland - How to eat Kangaroo

I decided to use the word 'eat' in my title, rather than 'cook', as I didn't want to give the impression that I really know how to cook kangaroo.  This was my first time to try, so I'm sure I would have different ideas about how to cook it next time round.

It's not a specifically Queensland dish, as such - but I thought blogging about Queensland would give me a chance to do something more adventurous and try to source kangaroo meat, rather than substituting with something more familiar, such as beef!  The adventure began with finding the meat.  I imagine you can find most things in London, if you know where to look, but you won't exactly find kangaroo at your local supermarket or in your local butcher's. 

So I had a butcher's online and found They do all kinds of exotic meats, including kangaroo - everything is kept in big freezers, you place your order online and go to pick it up the next day, or a few days after.  They also do deliveries around the UK, if you don't live in London.  Their office is very close to Queenstown Road station, which is in the heart of Battersea, South London.  I'd only ever passed through Battersea before and I felt incredibly important striding along with my kangaroo meat in hand, between a myriad of railway lines, in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. 

I must admit, it felt strange handling this meat that had been flown from the other side of the world - not a very green thing to do, but all part of the experience.  I really wanted to cook kangaroo steaks, rather than burgers or steak pieces in a casserole and I found a recipe online with a nice mushroom and white wine sauce.

I kind of did the menu back to front, making the sauce first and then cooking the kangaroo steaks.

The ingredients included:

Rice, kangaroo meat (two steaks at about 250g each). Mushrooms, one onion, some flour, butter, vegetable oil, dry Australian white wine, coconut milk and a big handful of coriander. 

I started by preparing the rice.  Then put the onions and mushrooms into a pan, fried them for a few minutes before adding the white wine.  I let them reduce until most of the wine had evaporated, then added in the coconut milk, sprinking in some black pepper (you can also use salt, but I tend to avoid it in my cooking). 

I've eaten kangaroo before, but only in burgers and I don't think I ever really understood the texture of kangaroo meat.  It seemed totally different to beef steaks, the feel of the meat was more like tofu or something, it's hard to describe.  Also, the colour, as you can see in the photograph, was an almost luminous red, unlike any meat I've ever seen before.   

Kangaroo is considered to be a game meat, which should be eaten rare to medium rare and this was the most difficult part of the experience - ie. knowing how much I should actually cook the meat.  I guess the reason the recipe demands that you coat the steaks in flour, is to stop you from over-cooking the meat.

I like my steak medium rare in any case, so it wasn't a problem for me and I don't mind a wee bit of blood on my plate!  My partner Zhenya, on the other hand, likes his steaks well-done so, even after frying the meat, we had to pop his in our George Foreman grill to cook it a little bit more.

Again, although I've eaten kangaroo meat before, this is the first time that I really tasted it properly.  I'm convinced that you lose a lot of the flavour from game if you cook it too much, which is why the kangaroo burgers I've had previously didn't really taste of anything. 
The meat I had last night was delicious - really tender and almost sweet.  It was incredibly filling as well.  I don't actually eat a lot of meat, I usually stick to veggie food during the week and have some meat at the weekend, so it really felt like a feast!  Not sure I could eat kangaroo steaks all the time :-)

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me.