Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh, September 2016 - This fall I had the honor of leading my second trip for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the oldest horticultural society in the U.S. A few participants came to India a week early to explore Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, and I was able to talk them in to visiting somewhere I have been wanting to go for many years...the city of Firozabad. A major center for the production of glass bangles and beads, Firozabad is just 45 minutes from Agra, but is usually overlooked in lieu of more traditional sights such as the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri.
Bangles are a wardrobe staple for all Indian women, and are purchased to match specific outfits with the help of expert (typically male) bangle merchants. Indian bangles can be made of glass, metal, lac resin, wood, terracotta, or conch shell, among other materials. They are often inlaid with rhinestones and beads, or covered with glitter and gold leaf. Styles change from season to season, and due to their fragile nature, they are replenished on a regular basis. Glass bangles, in particular, break easily and are thus purchased year round. The factories of Firozabad produce hundreds of millions of glass bangles each year for distribution througout India and abroad. The one factory that we visited said it produces 150,000 bangles per day in a wide range of colors and sizes.
The sound of bangles clanging together is a happy sound for many families, indicating the presence of daughters-in-law at home. It is also a way for the men of the house to know when a woman is approaching. Indeed, wearing bangles is a must for all married Indian women, and gold bangles are an important part of a bride's jewelry - bare arms are highly inauspicious! Recently married women are easily recognized by the special red and white wedding bangles that they continue to wear during their honeymoon and beyond. Conversely, when a woman is widowed, she traditionally removes all of her jewelry, wipes the sindur from her hair and breaks her bangles, some of which may have been on her wrists undisturbed for decades. Despite the gradual disappearance of this practice, which dicates that widows should be unadorned, when bangles break it is still considered a bad omen, suggesting that something unfortunate might happen to one's husband.
"Raw" bangles are produced by creating long spirals of colored glass (above left and right) in small kilns. Once the spirals have hardened, they are cut along their lengh to separate the individual bangles, and then tied into bundles for distribution to home-based workshops where the cut ends will be rejoined. Some of the bangles are then sent for further decoration with paint, glitter and gold leaf. Besides bangles, the factories of Firozabad also produce glass beads, such as the beautiful silver seed beads shown in the right-hand photo below. As we walked among the kilns to see the action up close, we were struck not only by the intense heat, but by the physical strength and precise maneuvering required of the workers. Many were literally running back and forth across the factory floor with gobs of molten glass atop metal poles...a dangerous balancing act considering how many people were in the factory at one time. Furthermore, the home-based workshops in which the bangles are decorated, primarily by women and children, are often cramped and poorly ventilated. The next time I am in a local bazaar admiring a pile of delicate, glistening bangles, I will have a much greater appreciation for the harsh conditions of their origin.
Jodhpur, Rajasthan, September 2016 - While my first trip for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society focused on the plants and gardens of southern India, this trip explored the desert gardens of western Rajasthan. We began our journey in Jodhpur, which lies on the eastern edge of the Thar Desert.This arid expanse of over 77,000 square miles forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan, and was once ruled by the Great Desert Kingdoms of Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner.
Our group enjoyed a private tour of the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park with its in-house naturalist, Denzil Britto. This unique project was first conceived by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in 2006 as a way to restore the natural ecology of the area around Mehrangarh Fort.For many years, invasive species were removed and native lithophytes (plants specially adapted to arid, rocky habitats) were replanted.The 175-acre park opened for visitors in 2012, and today contains over 300 species of trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, grasses and sedges. We visited the park twice - once in the afternoon and once at sunrise - and were able to spot a number of birds, insects and reptiles that make this restored habitat their home. The park and Mehrangarh Fort are situated on a dramatic outcrop of volcanic rhyolite, an igneous rock with a high silica content and a fine-grained texture. The rhyolite in Jodhpur is estimated to have been formed between 680 and 745 million years ago in one of the earliest and largest episodes of volcanic activity on Earth.
The lithophytes of the Thar Desert have their provenance in the deserts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa. This contrasts with the rest of northern and eastern India whose plants have trans-Himalayan or Indo-Mayalan origins. Lithophytes are able to survive in rocky deserts in many ways, such as by storing water in their tissues (succulents), or by developing waxy leaves to reflect light and reduce water loss. Some open their stomata to take up carbon dioxide only at night, while others grow a coating of fine hair on their leaves to again reflect light and reduce surface temperatures. There are even a few lithophytes that have no leaves, relying on their green stems for photosynthesis. Finally, many desert plants are ephemerals, germinating with the first rains in July and flowering, fruiting and scattering their seeds before the soil dries up again in winter.
Nagaur, Rajasthan, October 2016 - This morning our group enjoyed a private tour of the 12th-century Ahhichhatragarh Fort, or "Fort of the Hooded Cobra," with Kr. Karni Singh Jasol, Director of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust.The town of Nagaur, where the fort is located, was an early center of Muslim power in North India. In the 17th century, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan gave the entire town to a member of the royal family of Jodhpur, under whose auspices it remains today.
During the 18th century, Maharaja Bakhat Singh created within the fort a beautiful pleasure complex, complete with frescoed palaces, mosques, temples, marble viewing pavilions and a magnificent garden. Over the last twenty years, the palace and gardens have been slowly restored by the current Maharaja of Jodhpur along with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, the Getty Foundation and the Helen Hamlyn Trust.The gardens feature large baoris (water reservoirs) connected by a network of water channels, 90 ornamental fountains, geometric planting beds, and the fascinating remains of an old lotus garden. A number of archeological digs and conservation projects are still ongoing in the complex. The fort recently received the Aga Kahn Award for Architecture, as well as an award from UNESCO for utilizing conservation techniques that respect traditional building methods.
The fort is small enough in scale that, standing on the ramparts, you can get a clear picture of how people might have moved bewteen the public and private areas of a royal palace complex.Our magnificent hotel, Ranvas, was situated within the walls of the old fort. The hotel’s ten havelis, where the guest rooms are now located, once served as the residences of the 16 ranis (queens) of Maharaja Bakhat Singh.
Other highlights of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society trip included:
A private tour of Chokhelao Bagh, a restored 18th-century Marwar garden situated at the foot of Mehrangarh Fort, followed by dinner under the fort ramparts;
A meeting with the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, an NGO founded in 2002 to promote traditional rainwater harvesting techniques in the villages around Jodhpur;
A visit to a thriving date palm plantation near Jaisalmer, which was organized as a joint venture between India and Israel to promote the cultivation of commercial crops in the Thar desert; and
A memorable camel ride followed by a private dinner on the sand dunes.