January 27, 2008

God of Small Things

“God is not a spectator, but a fellow-sufferer … to embrace the bitterness of the strange world he has made. - From Science and Providence.

Does the Sun differentiate between the rich and the poor or the upper caste or the lower, when it emits its life saving energy? Do the ocean waves shy away from touching the feet of Dalits (untouchables as they were once called in the pre independence era of India)?

Nature doesn’t differentiate between the extremes of the world, so doesn’t GOD; the Maker of the Universe. It’s us - Human beings who create these differences and rifts within. Its said that untouchability no longer exists in this part of the world, but is it really so? A deep probe in rural India - would leave the so called mentors of society with lots to think and ponder about. But, there is always a ray of hope, and it comes from non other than our maker himself.

Lord Balaji- the richest Hindu God (with a turn over of more than Rs. 800 crore annually) is going out with his priests to the Dalit colonies, to spend time with his set of underprivileged Dalit children and erase the caste discrimination that they face in this part of the world. Tirumala Tirupati Dewastham (the body which manages the Lord Balaji temple in Tirumala (Andhra Pradesh) – needs to be applauded for thinking of such a novel idea. Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) has decided to initiate the Dalita Govindam programme, in an effort to propagate the message of “Equality in the Eyes of God” in the Hindu religion.

As part of the programme, the idol of Lord Venkateswara will be taken to a Dalitwada (SC colony) by the temple priests and sacred rituals will be performed there after which, the temple priests will give out Veda Ashirvadam en masse to the residents of the colony and share the Srivari Prasadam with the devotees. To add to this, Lord Venkateswara along with its retinue of priests will spend a night in the Dalitwada among its residents. Until now, the Veda Ashirvadam was given only to the VVIPs who visited the temple for Lord Venkateswara’s darshan, as it’s said...

“When a man takes one step toward God, God takes more steps toward that man than there are sands in the worlds of time.” - The Work of the Chariot

January 16, 2008

Mona Lisa's Smile Re-veiled

'The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’

What’s the secret behind Monalisa's smile, everyone asks? Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Florentine businessman Francesco del Giocondo – uncovers a researcher, who apparently has evidence behind the identity of the woman behind Mona Lisa's iconic smile. So what’s the evidence everyone asks? Well, some book-margin notes written by a friend of Leonardo da Vinci while the artist worked on the masterpiece.

So, why am I so interested in this? I spent days...tracing the house of Mona Lisa in Florence, the place where she modeled for Leonardo Da Vinci and also where she was reportedly buried and it was no easy task.

October 2007, Florence, with just a list of places mentioned in history and some deeply buried records obtained from Google search, I set out to discover Sant'Orsola. With no Italian to help, I spent 2 days trying unsuccessfully, to trace the place.

Finally, a broken sign board, hidden behind a shop gave me some direction to where Mona Lisa was supposedly buried.

I couldn’t believe my luck whenI stood at the Convent of Sant'Orsola, where Mona Lisa spent her final years before she died in July 15, 1542. But to my discovery, I found there standing, nothing more than a mall.

After the first milestone, my curiosity grew – it was time to find her birthplace – which, according to many websites was a place just across the famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge. A walk over the bridge was awesome - A sheet of paper in my hand read out the documentary of Leonardo's scholar, Giuseppe Pallanti, which spoke of Mona Lisa being born in a house that once stood in Via Sguazza, a side street of Via Maggio, where Florence's antiques dealers do their trade.

Interestingly, I was in a different world while I walked through the thin lanes of old Florence where, I, at once, spotted the closed down and battered house, where the most talked about, most visited and the most analyzed beauty with the secretive smile was once born.

Was it only me who was experiencing this different feeling? Did it really matter to those, who live in these lanes? To my surprise, most of them were not even interested in Mona Lisa or the great maestro Leonardo, whereas for me, this trip to Florence was a walk through and back in history.

January 12, 2008

Diamonds are Forever!

Somewhat almond-shaped, almost in its native condition … worth over 600 crores and missing! That’s the Nizam Diamond. One of the largest stones in the world, but little is known about it, except its size, estimated value, and its fortunate owner - the Nizam of Hyderabad, the most powerful ruler and lineal descendant of the former Mogul Viceroy of Golconda. It is believed that the famous diamond-fields popularly known as the Golconda mines were situated in his territory.

Not surprising, that the Nizam's jewellry collection - now in the possession of the government of India is said to be world's best. If one has to believe officials of Christie's - the 177 pieces of diamonds and other jewelery pieces in the collection are worth an amount of over Rs 20,000 crores which was bought out by the government of India for a mere Rs. 218 crores from the Nizam family.

The star attraction of the collection is the world’s fifth largest diamond – the Jacob Diamond... Interestingly, people rarely know about a diamond called the Nizam diamond, which weighs 277 carats and is the biggest of the Nizam’s treasure. But this diamond was not part of the collection that was sold to the Govt. of India. Major Websites dealing with diamonds have specific mention about this particular diamond but have no idea about its whereabouts.

Saifulla- the Cultural Advisor to the Nizam Trust believes that this piece of heritage treasure is still in possession with someone in the family – suggesting a possibility of a hunt to begun soon, but the success and discovery of where it is left, wide and deep to imagination.

January 8, 2008

A Prince's Ransom

Sixty years ago the richest man in the world deposited £1m in a London account. It's been there ever since, and today it could be worth £80m. But no one can lay a finger on it.

The Nizam of Hyderabad, as he was known, cut a curious figure. A frail, tiny man, and a devout Muslim, known to be notorious for his meanness - he wore the same tattered fez for 35 years, dressed in rumpled cotton pyjamas, and ate all his meals off a tin plate, while sitting on a mat in his bedroom surrounded by overflowing wastepaper baskets. But he was, back then, the richest man on the planet. In 1948, he deposited £1m - in those days, a staggeringly large sum - with the Westminster Bank in London.

The Nazim's family had ruled Hyderabad since the early 18th century, and he was the only maharajah in British India who enjoyed the title Exalted Highness - a reward for his generous £25m contribution to the British exchequer during the first world war. When the Nizam deposited this £1m in London, he was in a tricky political situation. As the Muslim ruler of an Indian territory the size of England and Scotland, he was attracted by the idea of joining the new state of Pakistan. But he faced several obstacles. Most of his 20m subjects were Hindus and his huge landlocked kingdom was thousands of miles away from the new Muslim homeland in the Punjab.

Cultural Advisor to the Nizam Trust in Hyderabad - Saifulla said that while the Nizam dithered, the man to whom he had entrusted the £1m, his finance minister Moin Nawaz Jung, took matters into his own hands. He signed over the money to Pakistan's new high commissioner in London (who rejoiced in the name of Rahimatoola). Appalled, and under pressure from India, the Nizam cabled Westminster Bank and told officials to freeze the account. Soon afterwards, in September 1948, Indian troops marched into Hyderabad and brutally annexed his kingdom.

According to Saifulla - the story would be little more than one of the curious tales from the partition of India - were it not for the fact that, 53 years later, the money is still stuck in a NatWest account in Britain. And as of last week, depending on whom you talk to, the Nizam's missing fortune has grown to between £25m and £80m.Before his death in 1970, the dethroned seventh Nizam's son made attempts to get the money back. In 1957, after several rounds of litigation between the Nizam and the Pakistani government, the case reached the House of Lords. Lord Denning concluded that the account could only be unfrozen with the agreement of all the parties. The only way forward was "intergovernmental negotiations", he averred.

Few people then, however, would have imagined that the bitter adolescent rivalry that characterised the early years of India and Pakistan's relationship would continue well into the next century.The main beneficiary of this surreal dispute, of course, is NatWest, now part of the Royal Bank of Scotland group. The late Nizam's money was initially invested in war bonds, earning interest at 3%. In the 1960s the money was shifted into a fixed-rate deposit account.

Over time most of the partners who had dealt with the account retired.Until India and Pakistan and the Nizam agree, then, to cut a deal, it seems the money will remain lodged interminably inside NatWest's shiny London HQ at Bishopsgate EC2.