Inside India #13: The Queen in India… Gaffes, pageantry, and political intrigue

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

Imagine that you once presided over an empire that encircled the globe, an empire that brought you untold riches and influence, empowering your little island nation to global dominance.

And the jewel in that colonial crown, a land that couldn’t be more different to your own, a place where the people, the culture, the food, the very air is beyond the pale… India. Or, more correctly, the subcontinent, an estate now divided, in the messy death throes of your reign, into disparate nations: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (once East Pakistan), and Sri Lanka (once Ceylon).

It can’t be easy going back.

I expect it’s a bit like going to a high school reunion, a school where you were once class prefect, and you’re not sure what your peers really thought of you. They were too afraid you’d pull their pants down and give them a jolly good thrashing.

(Picture accreditation: Young Queen by Lee Hayward Creative Commons )

Unlike her immediate predecessors, Queen Elizabeth II has never reigned as Empress of India. That title was self-bestowed by Queen Victoria, who had an eye for an Indian, inviting many to her court to regale her with tales of the ‘wonders of the Orient’. (She never visited India. Victoria never made it further east than Tuscany.) 

Following her death in 1901, King Albert VII became Emperor of India until his death in 1910. The title then passed to George V, who held it until 1936. 

George visited India in 1911, to attend the Delhi Durbar where he was proclaimed Emperor before every nabob, nizam, maharajah, and princeling in the land. Fed up of the endless kowtowing and formalities, George followed up his coronation by setting off on a 10-day big game hunt in Nepal, where, by all accounts, he managed to slaughter half the local wildlife. (Bombay’s Gateway of India monument was built to commemorate his visit, so that’s some consolation.)

George was succeeded by Edward VIII, who barely warmed the throne before running off with American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. After Edward, came the last of the King-Emperors, George VI, Elizabeth’s father.

George Mark 5 presided over the dissolution of the Raj, officially relinquishing the title of Emperor of India in June 1948 to become the Head of the Commonwealth.

And it was under these auspices that Queen Elizabeth II first visited the subcontinent in 1961.

That first visit took place at a time when India was still establishing her presence on the global stage. Following Independence, Nehru’s Congress Party – the party of Gandhi – had helmed the nation, Nehru himself in the fourteenth year of what would eventually prove to be a seventeen-year term (ended only by his death in 1964). 

This was an India in transition, burdened by something of a colonial hangover, manifested in a deference towards the royal couple that harked back to the Raj. In Jaipur, for instance, the Queen entered the City Palace mounted on the back of an elephant, swaying cosily inside a gold-studded howdah with the Maharajah of Jaipur, thousands cheering in the streets, nobles waiting to pay court in the durbar hall. 

Later, the royal party visited the site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, a sobering and poignant moment. Standing before a memorial to the man who led the fight for independence from British rule must have been jarring. 

In 1983, the Queen returned to the subcontinent. This time the visit was billed as the ‘meeting of two Queens’, the other being Indira Gandhi, daughter of Nehru, India’s first female Prime Minister, and instigator of the 1975-77 Indian constitutional crisis known as the Emergency.

With Indira setting out to impress, the trip generated razzamatazz on an unprecedented scale. The Queen and Prince Philip were initially barracked at Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly Viceroys House, in New Delhi. For six months, a crack team of four, led by future Indian PM and Indira’s daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, refurbished a series of suites, lavishing the sort of fortune usually pocketed by corrupt state officials in cattle fodder scams. Not to be outdone, in Hyderabad,an inter-city flyover that hadn’t seen a brick added in over two years, was finished in three months flat. 

As the Queen set off on a series of carefully curated visits – a solar energy factory, a crop research institute – royal outfit-watching reached fever pitch, with national speculation about which hat the Queen would wear on any given day. An army of cameramen and headline hunters trailed behind the royal entourage like lovesick boyband groupies. A visit to a village for a spot of local colour generated plenty of photo opportunities and not a small degree of bemusement. The village had been given a Bollywood makeover, inciting India Today journalist Sunil Sethi to observe that it had been “dressed to look like no village in India’s past, present or future.”

Fourteen years later, in 1997, the Queen made her way back for a third (and, possibly, final) time, to commemorate the fiftieth year of Independence. This time there would be no love-in with the Indian press. 

The trip, made in the shadow of Diana’s death, was plagued from the outset. 

A chance comment by Robin Cook, Secretary of State, at a formal dinner in Islamabad in neighbouring Pakistan, where he told the Pakistani Prime Minister that he would be happy to step in, Solomon-like, to mediate the Kashmir issue, incited eye-popping fury across the border. 

The diplomatic gaffe refused to lie down, pursuing the Queen around the subcontinent like a bailiff, as more skeletons came tap-dancing out of the closet.

In the Punjab, the Queen visited Jallianwallah Bagh, a gesture of atonement for the massacre that took place there in 1919. A thousand Indians – including women and children – gathered for a peaceful protest, were gunned down inside a walled garden, without warning, on the orders of Brigadier-General R.E. Dyer. As the Queen laid a wreath, and murmured comforting words, Prince Philip remarked that he thought the Indians had their facts incorrect. His eye had been drawn to a placard stating that two thousand had died that fateful day. Philip confidently declared that the total was “vastly exaggerated”. How did he know? His old chum, the son of the man who had led the massacre, and with whom he had served in the Royal Navy, had told him so. 

Cue furore. Teeth gnashing. Accusations of insensitivity and a callous disregard for the sensibilities of a nation. 

In Amritsar, the Queen visited the Golden Temple (against the initial wishes of the Indian government), the holiest place of the Sikhs, entering the site wearing a pair of wonderful white bobby socks. But the gesture was hijacked by those who had long called for an independent Sikh state, and led to yet more unsavoury headlines. 

By now the Indian government’s nose had been put out of joint so many times it resembled a boxer who’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.

Unsurprising then that the visit ended on a sour note, with the Indian government suggesting that the Queen refrain from making a farewell speech at a banquet in Madras, as ‘protocol’ forbade two speeches from the monarch. (The Queen didn’t bother to point out that she already had two birthdays, so there should be no earthly reason why she shouldn’t have two speeches.) Some newspapers called this a snub, though the Queen herself seemed unperturbed. 

In truth, Britain and India continue to share a close bond. 

English culture is embedded in the Indian psyche: language, political and judicial systems, the very infrastructure. Having lived there for a decade, I witnessed, first-hand, the deference with which Brits are still greeted. Bad memories of colonialism have been relegated to textbooks and the occasional agitation for the return of looted treasures such as the Kohinoor diamond.

Conversely, England still remembers (sometimes a little too fondly) its time in India. Witness the success of documentaries featuring English ex-politicos in brightly-coloured trousers chugging around the country on nostalgia-inducing trains, marvelling at the glories of Empire, whilst occasionally stopping to make a sad face at the worst excesses of the Raj. Many of the horrors of that time are airbrushed out of this cosy picture of modern Anglo-Indian détente. In the words of Independent journalist, Peter Popham: ‘….the pompous ritual of a royal tour, so redolent of the old relationship and the old enactments of domination, makes it all worse.’

Straddling both countries as I do, I tend to disagree. 

I don’t think royal visits to India are a bad thing. Modern Indians are wildly enamoured of the British royal family. (The first thing many do when they visit London is set off for Buckingham Palace hoping to catch a glimpse of the Queen.) India is now the world’s largest republic, but for millennia she was a land of kings, emperors, nizams, and maharajahs. A healthy respect for the institutions and trappings of royalty continues to flow through the country’s veins. 

And the Queen, as the head of the world’s most visible monarchy, will always be an alluring beacon harking back to that regal past.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #12: The handstand scorpion – how yoga became a global phenomenon

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

The handstand scorpion. The side plank. The tripod headstand with lotus legs. Just a few of the more difficult ‘asanas’ in the yoga canon. Aside from esoteric-sounding names, these demanding exercises require a combination of physical strength, balance and flexibility. Yet millions of adherents around the world are willing to put themselves through this daily ritual of contortionism in pursuit of better wellbeing. 

Why? And just how did yoga become such a global phenomenon?

Picture attribution: Yoga Class by Blaise Sewell

The word yoga first appears in the oldest Hindu texts, the Rig Veda. In essence, it means to join the intellect of the one practising yoga with the “universal soul”, the aim being to transcend the suffering that is part and parcel of the human condition. Yoga’s earliest forms were developed by the ancient Indus Valley civilization and then slowly refined by generations of Brahmins and Rishis (mystic seers) who took the ideas from the Vedas and began to teach the sacrifice of the ego through self-knowledge, action (karma yoga), and wisdom (jnana yoga).Later, the first systematic presentation of yoga was set out by Patanjali, a sage and author of many ancient Indian works, in the Yoga-Sûtras. Written in the second century, this text describes the path of Raja Yoga, outlining various stages towards enlightenment. 

A few centuries after Patanjali, yoga masters embraced the physical body as the means to achieve enlightenment. They created Tantra Yoga and explored connections between the physical and the spiritual which led to the development of Hatha Yoga – the form of yoga that now commands acolytes all over the world.

Yoga first came to the attention of the West in the late 1800s at a time when it was undergoing a major revival in India under the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda. His growing fame led to yogis performing across Europe, primarily as circus entertainers, contortionists with the ability to tie their bodies into knots. In America, yoga arrived with Eugenie Peterson, a Latvian Russian who, fleeing the Revolution in her homeland, came across yoga while living in India and working in the film industry there. She subsequently opened a yoga studio in Hollywood, teaching stars such as Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo. Christened ‘Indra Devi’, she is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of Western Yoga”. 

In spite of Indra Devi’s efforts, yoga remained a niche enterprise in the West. One of its principle advocates, Swami Yogananda, a handsome Indian who wrote the bestselling Autobiography of a Yogi, became notoriousin the American press as the head of a “love cult” – in 1911 the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece about how yoga“lures women to destruction”.In the 1920s and 1930s, Pierre Bernard, an American – christened the Great Oom by the press – set up the first ashram in America. His nephew, Theos Bernard, became known as the “White Lama” and explored both Hatha and Tantric yoga in bestselling books. (In 1947, he journeyed to the Himalayas to prove that Jesus had lived in India and studied Buddhism – he never returned.)

Later still, the Beatles’ journey to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and live in an ashram in Rishikesh in north India drew world headlines. Soon the airwaves became flooded with both western and Indian yoga ‘pioneers’, popularizing Hatha yoga and gaining millions of followers.

Today yoga remains possibly India’s most widely known export, copied, evolved, and aggressively promoted by chat-show hosts. It has been entered onto UNESCO’S cultural heritage list and the UN has declared June 21st to be International Yoga Day. Few seem to care whether yoga actually works. Studies have shown that those who practise it regularly claim that it has benefited them in physical, emotional and spiritual terms. It isn’t quite a miracle path to enlightenment, but in the words of UNESCO, yoga is “designed to help individuals build self-realization, ease suffering and allow for a state of liberation”. 

So, the next time you find yourself staring at the floor whilst sweating in the downward dog and wondering why your legs have gone to sleep, spare a thought for those ancient yogis who had to go through all this without the benefit of yoga mats, lycra or heated exercise rooms. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #11: A brief history of Indian spices

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

Spices. No Indian meal would be the same without them, and no story of the subcontinent complete without reference to them. So woven are spices into the history and culture of India that even Indian films are called ‘masala movies’ – masala being the Hindi word for spice. (So-called because many Bollywood blockbusters are a ‘spicy’ mix of comedy, drama, action, and romance.) 

Picture attribution: Spices in Mapusa Market, Goa, India by Judepics

Today India produces more than two million tonnes of spices every year. It is one of the world’s largest exporters, accounting for over forty-percent of the world’s spice trade.

Where did this love affair begin?

Indian spice farming developed throughout the subcontinent some two thousand years before Christ. The earliest spice crops were cinnamon and black pepper; these became the basis for numerous trade relationships – including with the Arabians and the Romans – and, eventually, among the world’s most valuable commodities. At one point, in the 1300s, a pound of nutmeg in Europe was more valuable than gold.

In 1498, Vasco da Gama voyaged to India via the southernmost tip of Africa, driven by a desire to plot a direct route to a land where spices were plentiful and cheap. His arrival on India’s Malabar Coast, the centre of the spice trade, marked the start of direct trading between Europe and South East Asia.

Within a few short years, the Portuguese had assumed control of the coastal spice-producing region, establishing a near monopoly on the Indian spice trade that lasted for over a century and proved fantastically profitable for the Portuguese empire. 

Spices didn’t just make men rich – the spice trade powered exploration to discover new lands (Columbus was searching for a quicker route to India when he stumbled across the Americas) and trade routes, and helped tipped the balance of world power. 

In Europe, Indian spices altered local palates, and, more importantly, became a way to define wealth and social status. 

But why India and not elsewhere? 

India’s success at growing spices is largely based on her physical attributes. The environment is perfect for growing spices – high humidity, and a range of climatic conditions produce ideal conditions for cultivating a wide variety of spice crops. Turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, clove, coriander and red chilli, to name just a few. Many of these are native to the subcontinent, but others have arrived from elsewhere in the world. 

And it’s not just for their culinary benefits that spices are popular in India.

Spices such as ginger, turmeric, and fenugreek have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, even earning mention in ancient Vedic scriptures. Ginger prevents dyspepsia; turmeric is deemed to cure stomach ulcers; pepper acts as an antihistamine. 

Spices have also traditionally been used in food preservation – it has long been known that spice slows down the growth of bacteria. There are many places in India where people still preserve their food using this technique due to the lack of availability of electricity (and thus fridges). Some spices such as cloves, fennels and cardamom are used as mouth refreshing agents, often dished out in restaurants after a meal to aid digestion and prevent heartburn.

Today, as India marches on to become a global power, the relationship between the country and spices has never been more important, an integral element of her national identity. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #10: The $4m Gaitonde – India’s most expensive painting

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

The Indian art scene is booming. With record-breaking sales, art fairs that attract tens of thousands, a wealth of new talent, and a clamour of international interest, the value of Indian art is skyrocketing. 

Painting by M.F. Hussain

For many this is simply a fitting culmination to millennia of artistic tradition. 

India is a country associated with vibrant colours, expressive subcultures, and a fragmented sense of identity that lends itself to a diverse artistic enterprise. 

A quick jaunt through the history of art on the subcontinent bears this out.

Some of the earliest Indian artwork can be found in murals dating back to the 2nd century B.C. These paintings – largely religious, or the stories of kings and emperors – are found in the form of rock carvings, in caves and temples around the country, including eye-opening scenes from Indian sexual texts that so scandalised the Western explorers who first encountered them.

Miniatures paintings developed from the 10th century onwards, depicting the lives of religious figures such as Buddha or the Hindu god Krishna. These miniatures were colourful, delicately formed, and utilised intricate brushwork. 

This tradition of miniatures would later flower in the artwork of the Mughal empire.

The Mughals arrived in India in the 1500s, bringing with them a singular sense of refinement and courtly elegance. Mughal miniatures depicted the lives and triumphs of the Mughal emperors, resplendent portraits hung side by side with scenes of war and durbar. One of the most famous expressions of this type of art was fashioned in the reign of Emperor Akbar who commissioned the Hamzanama series, depicting the exploits of Amir Hamza – an uncle of the Prophet Muhammed – and his battles against the enemies of Islam.  

Western influences began to impact Indian art during the colonial period, from the mid-1700s, with artists embracing European ideas of realism, perspective, and composition, then applying them to Indian themes.

Modern Indian artburst onto the global scene in the 1990s, with artists such as M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, and Francis Newton Souza leading the charge. In the past two decades, records have been shattered repeatedly as the paintings of these artists and their contemporaries have beenauctioned by the likes of Sothebys and Christies for eye-wateringsums.

Francis Newton Souza, commonly referred to as F.N. Souza was a founding member of the legendary Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay, and the first post-independence Indian artist to achieve recognition in the West. Souza’s Birth sold for $2.5m in 2007. This work held the record for the most expensive piece of modern Indian art until June 2010, when it was overtaken byS.H. Raza’s Saurashtra which sold for $3.4m. Raza lived and worked in France for decades, his work focusing on colourful abstracts. 

Perhaps the most famous of this crop of contemporary Indian artists, M.F. Husain, began his career as a billboard-painter. Today, his paintings command two million dollars a pop. 

And the most expensive Indian painting of all? 

An untitled abstract by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde that sold for $4.4m in 2015. Like all legendary artists he died in obscurity, only finding fame after his death.

 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

 

Inside India #9: India’s Greatest Queens

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

For millennia, India has been an intensely patriarchal society. A country that reveres numerous goddesses occasionally stands accused of harbouring outdated attitudes towards women’s rights. Misogyny is a feature of certain sections of Indian society, particularly in the country’s rural areas, where village life is dictated by councils – called panchayats– comprised entirely of men.  

And yet, despite this, through the ages, a handful of women have risen to the very top. These queens of the subcontinent leave behind a legacy that continues to inspire India’s women as they seek to redress the balance of power.

Razia Sultana – Razia al-Din – was the first (and last) female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate and South Asia’s first female Muslim ruler. The daughter of Turkish Mamluk Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish, she learned from an early age the key skills of leadership: military tactics and civic administration. Impressed with her courage and intelligence, her father gave serious consideration to naming her his heir. In the event, he was succeeded by Razia’s less competent half-brother.

Not one to take such a slight lying down, Razia instigated a public revolt against her brother and took the throne in 1236. 

Her subsequent reign, though short-lived, was characterised by a just and generous rule, and the suppression of several rebellions. Initially observing the Muslim tradition of purdah, she soon decided to buck tradition and appear in public – dressed in male attire. Her increasingly assertive attitude upset the nobles who had promoted her ascendancy, believing that she would act as a mouthpiece for their own wishes. 

Ultimately, Razia was deposed. In attempting to regain her throne, she lost her life, at the age of 35, undone by another of her siblings. 

The Rani of Jhansi – real name Lakshmibai – was a Maratha queen of the princely state of Jhansi in northern India. Married at a young age to the maharajah of Jhansi, Lakshmibai suffered early tragedy with the loss of her first child. Her ailing husband adopted a son on his deathbed and left instructions that, after his passing, control of the state should pass to his widow. His wish was to remain unfulfilled. 

After his death in 1853, the British East India Company annexed the territory,  applying the nefarious Doctrine of Lapse. According to the doctrine, any Indian princely state where the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir” would fall to British management. Adopted children were deemed ineligible for the status of heir for the purposes of the doctrine. 

Suspecting opposition, the British attempted to appease Lakshmibai by bribing her with the offer of an annual pension. The pension came with a condition – Lakshmibhai was ordered to leave the palace. 

On 10 May 1857, the Indian Rebellion began. 

Within short order Lakshmibai was drawn into the fighting, proving to be an able leader with a sound grasp of military strategy. By the time she was killed, in mid-1858, at the Battle of Gwalior, she had gained the respect of the British as a fierce and intelligent warrior. 

She goes down in history as a symbol of resistance against the British Raj, an inspiration to the Indian nationalists that would follow her less than a century later. 

Once listed by Vogue as one of the most beautiful women in the world, the Maharani Gayatri Devi is remembered for her elegance, charm, and refusal to conform. The daughter of the Maharaja of Cooch-Behar, Gayatri – or Ayesha, as she was fondly called – was greatly influenced by her mother who bucked the royal tradition of arranged unions and married for love. Such a marriage was rare in the circles into which Gayatri had been born, inciting disapproval and much scandalous gossip.  

Undeterred, Gayatri followed in her mother’s footsteps, marrying a man she had fallen in love with, an unsuitable candidate, in the opinion of many, the Maharaja of Jaipur, Sir Sawai Man Singh Bahadur, a dashing royal with a weakness for polo and two wives already in tow. Whilst wives one and two were (by all accounts) happy to remain in purdah Gayatri was not one to shy away from the limelight. 

The promotion of women’s rights became a lifelong mission for the young queen. In 1943, she opened the Gayatri Devi School for Girls which went on to become one of the finest schools in the country. She later became heavily involved in politics, winning an election in 1962 by securing a stunning majority of 175,000 votes, thereby earning a spot in The Guinness Book of Records

Imprisoned for political reasons in 1975 for six months, she later became a campaigner for prison reform. A lifelong traveller, in her latter years, she would spend summers in Knightsbridge, London. She died in 2009, at the ripe old age of 90.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #8: The curse of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

Today, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, once the world’s most valuable jewel, sits in the Tower of London, embedded in the crown made for Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), enshrined in myth and legend, gawped at, each year, by hordes of tourists, and occasionally brought out for ceremonial purposes. 

The notorious diamond was originally discovered on the subcontinent, possibly in the famed mines of Golconda, probably unearthed from a dry river bed. India, for centuries, was the only source of diamonds in the world, until the early 1700s when diamonds were discovered in Brazil. So popular were they that they soon became notable for their presence at court, a favourite of maharajas and emperors alike, used as currency, status symbol and occasional beard ornament. 

During the Mughal empire, diamonds reached a zenith of appreciation. The Mughals ruled northern India for three centuries from the early 1500s. It is during this period that the Koh-i-Noor first appears in the written record, when, in 1628, Emperor Shah Jahan – the visionary behind the Taj Mahal – commissioned the gemstone-encrusted Peacock Throne. (The Koh-i-Noor was set into the head of a peacock design on the throne.)

In 1739, Persian ruler Nader Shah invaded Delhi, sacking the city and making off with the throne, from which the Koh-i-Noor was later dug out. 

The great diamond then spent almost a century changing hands between various rulers, many of whom came to sticky ends, cementing the reputation of the Koh-i-Noor as a ‘cursed gem’ – a curse allegedly discovered in ancient Sanskrit documents, a dire warning that ill-fortune would befall any man that held on to the diamond.

The Koh-i-Noor eventually returned to India in 1813 where it came into the possession of Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh. By this time, the power dynamics on the subcontinent had changed. The British East India Company had expanded its influence across the Indian interior, plundering booty along the way. Following Ranjit Singh’s death, the East India Company forced the 10-year-old regent Duleep Singh to sign a legal document (as part of the British annexation of the Punjab) requiring him to give away not only all claim to sovereignty but also the Koh-i-Noor. 

The great gem now became, officially, a possession of the British Empire, and the property of the Empress of India, Queen Victoria.It was displayed at the 1851 Great Exposition in London, and later recut and polished, reducing its size to its current weight of 105 carats, but giving it a greater brilliance. 

Since arriving in Britain, and possibly because of the legendary curse and the litany of woes that befell its previous owners, it has only been worn by female members of the royal family.

The diamond’s continued presence on British shores incites debate and questions around how the modern world deals with colonial looting. With the governments of India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan all claiming rightful ownership, the Koh-i-Noor remains hotly contested. For its part, the British government has rejected all such claims, insisting the diamond was obtained legally under the terms of the Last Treaty of Lahore. 

The Koh-i-Noor diamond features in the second book in the Baby Ganesh Agency series, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

YOUR HELP NEEDED WITH A THREE MINUTE SURVEY…

Hi all,

I’m currently leading on a UK ARTS COUNCIL-funded project aimed at helping authors of all backgrounds (and publishing industry professionals) navigate issues such as cultural misappropriation and avoiding stereotypes in fiction. The project also helps readers to better understand these issues.

I would really appreciate your views on this topic to help inform the project. The tick-box survey is very short!

Please do help and also forward on to others. The survey is here: https://bit.ly/2XE8KQx

NOTE: This survey is anonymous. But if you would like to be emailed with a link to the project videos and free downloadable PDF guide when they are finished, please feel free to provide your name and email address as part of the survey. This information will be kept in line with GDPR guidelines.

Thanks for your help!

Vaseem

Inside India #7: Kashmir – paradise on Earth?

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

“If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.” So reads a couplet by the famous Persian-language Indian poet Amir Kusrau. The verse is often said to refer to Kashmir, long regarded as the most beautiful region on the subcontinent, a favourite of Mughal emperors, so much so that Emperor Jahangir, when asked, on his deathbed, as to his most cherished memory, is said to have replied: “Kashmir. The rest is worthless.”

There is little doubt that, for those lucky enough to travel there, Kashmir is a land blessed with great natural beauty: flower-filled valleys, crystal clear rivers, and mist-shrouded hills. The region is famed for walnuts and saffron, for the hand-knotted carpets and silk Pashmina shawls found in its markets, for icy blue lakes and picturesque houseboats, for the legendary ‘wazwan’, the thirty-six course meal served to visiting kings, and the Hazratbal Shrine, believed to house strands of the Prophet Mohammed’s hair.

Today, Kashmir’s tortured political status is common knowledge. The state is made up of multiple administrations: Jammu and Kashmir lies under Indian control, Azad Kashmir is Pakistan-administered, and the Aksai Chin region is governed by China. 

What is not so well known is Kashmir’s fabulous past.

Legend has it that in 326 BCE, when Alexander the Great reached the limits of his expedition to conquer the known world, and there engaged in battle with the Indian king Porus, it was to the Kashmiri king Abisares that Porus turned for reinforcements. (Not that it helped him. Alexander won the Battle of Hydaspes, only to then be forced to turn back for home by his war-weary troops.)

The arrival of Islam into Kashmir marked a watershed moment. 

The Turkic-Mongol warlord Dulacha raided Kashmir and ousted the long ruling Hindu Lohara dynasty in AD 1320. Two decades later, a Muslim minister named Shah Mir established lasting Muslim rule in Kashmir – Mir founded a dynasty that would stretch from 1339 until 1561.

With the foundation of this “sultanate”, Kashmir began to attract Muslim missionaries, sufis, and scholars from across the Islamic world. In due course Islam became the dominant religion of the valley, influencing customs, habits, dress, language – Sanskrit all but vanished during this period – and culture.

The advent of India’s Mughal emperors: Akbar the Great, his son Jahangir, and his grandson Shah Jahan – gave Kashmir prominence in the new Islamic empire. The Mughal reign transformed Kashmir once again, with the building of numerous celebrated palaces, mosques, and gardens, none more famous than the Shalimar Bagh, lying just north of Dal Lake in Srinagar. (The bagh – or garden – was built by the Emperor Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan.) 

Following four centuries of Muslim rule, Kashmir fell to Sikh control, with the arrival of the one-eyed Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab (for the curious: he’d lost his eye to smallpox). The Sikh reign was marked by a series of anti-Muslim decrees, and draconian taxes. 

Sikh rule in the region was eventually succeeded by a Hindu nobleman at Ranjit Singh’s court named Gulab Singh. Singh became the first maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir after war broke out between the British and the Sikh Empire in 1845. During that first Anglo-Sikh War, Gulab Singh sided with the British and was rewarded with control over the region. 

During his reign Gulab Singh favoured a small but influential Hindu minority, the Kashmiri pandits (Hindus of the highest Brahmin caste, who, many years later, in 1990, would be forced to exodus the region en masse), leading to conflict with the majority Muslim population of the region. 

Things came to a head – and planted the seed for Kashmir’s modern woes – with Partition in 1947. 

Gulab Singh’s grandson, Hari Singh, was the reigning ruler at the time. Rulers of Princely States (as Kashmir was then designated) were encouraged by the British to accede their states to either India or Pakistan. At the time, Kashmir’s population was three quarters Muslim, many of whom wished to side with Pakistan. Hari Singh, a Hindu, was not convinced. To postpone a decision, Hari Singh signed a “standstill agreement” with Pakistan. 

However, following a guerrilla campaign of insurgents arriving from Pakistan in an attempt to force Hari Singh’s hand, the maharajah turned to the Indian government for help. The price? Accession of the state to the new republic. 

Hari Singh duly offered accession; India duly accepted.

A furious Pakistan responded by arguing that Hari Singh could not legally sign such an accession given the standstill agreement he had already agreed to.

And from that day to this, the two sides have quarrelled over the status of the region, including several wars, a long-running separatist insurgency, draconian local policing, regular military skirmishes along the so-called ‘Line of Control’, and lasting economic, social and political harm inflicted upon the residents of the region. 

Just over a year ago, things changed once again.

India’s Narendra Modi-led government revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution – the clause that had given the state of Kashmir a degree of autonomy and many special privileges in its relationship with the country as a whole (including its own constitution and the right to bar Indians outside of the state from settling there). In essence, the Indian government has enacted its belief that Jammu and Kashmir is a part of India and should not be treated differently to any other state in the country.   

As the only Muslim-majority region to join India at Partition, the action has caused uproar in Kashmir, where mistrust of the government’s intentions is high. The government argues that by putting Kashmir on an equal footing with the rest of the country it will encourage investment into the region. Locals believe this is a way for the ethnic makeup of the region to gradually be altered.

One can only hope that the move is a positive one for the average Kashmiri, and that, in due course, the region – with all its natural beauty – once again becomes accessible to outside visitors. 

It isn’t only the Mughal emperors who would wish to appreciate India’s ‘paradise on earth’. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #6: Thug Life – India’s Thuggee cult, history’s most prolific serial killers

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Nine hundred and thirty-one. That’s the number of murders attributed to an Indian named Behram Jemedar, a senior member of India’s notorious Thuggee cult. Because of his propensity for killing he is today regarded as one of the world’s most prolific serial killers. His tally is, nevertheless, a drop in the ocean when compared with the estimated two million that the Thugs collectively murdered over a period of six centuries on the subcontinent. 

Who were these mass murderers? Why did they kill? And what happened to them? 

The word Thuggee means “concealment”, and, in essence, this was the secret to the success of this gang of professional assassins and thieves. The Thugs were bound by something stronger than greed or malice; they were united through their devotion to the Hindu Goddess Kali, in whose name they carried out their killings. This fanatical cult operated in India from the 1200s to the late 1800s, organising themselves into an incredibly efficient machine that operated with a high degree of teamwork and co-ordination. 

The Thugs’ modus operandi was to join groups of travellers and gain their trust before surprising them in the night and (typically) strangling them with a handkerchief or noose. This quick and quiet method left no blood and required no complicated arsenal. To add insult to injury, the victim would then be divested of his or her possessions and carefully buried. 

Thugs travelled in packs, with each participant assigned a role – one man was responsible for luring the unsuspecting victim into conversation, another acted as a lookout, and yet another might take on the role of killer. The gang used a secret language and signs; in this way members could recognize each other across the country. They were bound by a strict set of rules: for instance, they would not steal a person’s property unless the killing had been carried out with the proper observance of ritual. They would not kill the sick – considering them an unworthy sacrifice – or women, as they were deemed to be incarnations of Kali.

Membership to the fraternity was passed down from father to son. Others trained with a guru. Sometimes the children of victims were taken and groomed, inducted into their murderous future calling at an early age. 

The cult came to widespread recognition with the publication of Confessions of a Thug, a fictionalised account of their activities by Philip Meadows Taylor. The book, released in 1839, became a bestselling work of Empire – even Queen Victoria was said to be riveted! 

The Thugs’ silent reign of terror was ultimately brought to an end by the British. 

During the 1830s, the cult was targeted for eradication by the Governor-General of India, William Bentinck, who delegated the task to his chief captain, William Henry Sleeman. 

In 1835, Sleeman captured a Thug who led him to a grave containing almost a hundred bodies. The man quickly turned witness, offering up the names of many of his peers, allowing Sleeman to begin a pogrom to eradicate the menace. As a result of his efforts, within a few short years, more than 1400 Thugs were hanged or transported for life, including Behram Jemedar. In 1839, Sleeman published a government report and several books about his efforts including the colourfully entitled Report on the Depredations Committed by the Thug Gangs of Upper and Central India.

The Thugs vanished from Indian society, but rumours lingered of small operational units surviving well into the twentieth century. These rumours clearly travelled as far as Hollywood – back in the 1980s the Thugs made a notable appearance in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Today, their terrible legacy lives on in the word ‘thug’ which has found life not only as a way to refer to aggressive young criminals and antisocial teenagers but also as a dubious moniker used in the world of hip hop. 

No doubt Behram would be pleased. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

Inside India #5: The Spice Jews of India

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Salman Rushdie’s fifth novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, is set, in part, in the southern Indian coastal city of Cochin. It traces four generations of the Zogoiby family, a dynasty of Cochinese spice merchants and crime lords, of Jewish extraction. The novel was well received, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and one of the few literary depictions of the Jewish community in India, a community that today stands on the brink of extinction.  

The Jews have a long history on the subcontinent. Arriving from different parts of the world, they settled in various distinct communities, mainly in the south of India . Most prominent among these are the Malabari Jews of Cochin– who claim to have made their way to the subcontinent with traders representing King Solomon – and the Paradesi Jews – who arrived during the 16th century following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, fleeing persecution and pogroms in their homelands. 

For the Cochin Jews it is a matter of pride that they are the oldest Jewish community in India. The historical narrative maintained by the community’s elders tells a story of traders arriving from Judea at Cranganore, an ancient port near Cochin (modern day Kochi in the south Indian state of Kerala), in 562 BC. Five centuries later, they were followed by exiles from Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 AD. 

The Cochin Jews quickly established a close relationship with local Indian rulers, convincing them to give their blessing for the newcomers to live as per the tenets of their creed, including the right to build synagogues. Indeed, many Jewish refugees were offered land and materials by local rulers to aid in the construction of these temples.

The Cochin Jews became known for working in the spice and pepper trade. Over time their language and customs evolved to mirror the local environment; they dressed as Indians, ate the local food, and spoke Malayalam. Nevertheless, visitors to the region noted their devotion to their faith and the strict observance of Jewish traditions, including the teaching and passing on of the Hebrew language. 

For centuries, the Jews of Cochin prospered, but in the 1500s they were attacked by Muslims for control of the lucrative pepper trade. Many were driven southwards to seek the protection of the Cochin royal family.

It is estimated that India’s Jewish population peaked at around 20,000 in the mid-1940s, and began to rapidly decline in the 1950s when most of the Indian Jewish population migrated to Israel. Today, a handful of Jewish families remain in Cochin, barely hanging onto their ancient traditions.The main visitors to synagogues are now tourists rather than devout worshippers. 

The legacy the Jews of India leave in their wake is that of a community that managed to successfully weave itself into the fabric of India. There has been very little documented evidence of anti-Semitism on the subcontinent, something that sets this unique band of Jewish settlers apart from their co-religionists elsewhere in the world. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.