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Riding the white elephant: Huber’s odyssey with Safed Haathi

Robert Huber and Safed Haathi became synonymous with one another, unitedly forming a cult of their own and became the sole chronologer for contemporary India’s nobility.

Urvashi Singh Khimsar

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If one pictures the dreamers who voyaged into India through the hippie trail, the last image to muster is that of an erstwhile German noble rattling across the Afghani frontiers on a magic bus. But such were the likes of Robert Huber, who made an overland trip to India in 1978 in solidarity with the flower power revolution. An unassuming entrant into India’s kaleidoscope, his distinct photographic style enamoured many native aristocrats and over time, their families embraced this free-spirited wanderer as their own.

 One fine evening in Dalhousie, a couple of neat pegs and tobacco puffs triggered Robert into a rumination of sorts.  As the owner of a brand-new white TATA Sumo, he pensively mediated the idea of traversing through the magnificent subcontinent on this beast like a wading white elephant. And in that tiny moment of eureka, Robert baptised his fourwheeled cruiser as Safed Haathi. The following day, he sought a painter to anoint the name on the vehicle’s front fender in the Devanagari script. 

Over the course of their 1,73,000 kilometres-long odyssey across Nepal, Burma & every Indian state, Robert and Safed Haathi became synonymous with one another, unitedly forming a cult of their own. During this time, Safed Haathi rose to become the sole chronologer for contemporary India’s nobility, with a photographic documentation of portraiture, landscapes, ceremonies and architecture at an unprecedented scale. His ongoing chronicling of India’s nobility and North Eastern tribes earns Robert Huber a legendary status in his own right, and I personally consider Safed Haathi to be Rajputana’s very own Steve McCurry.

 Two reasons dominate my conviction. 

One, most of us would agree that photography is increasingly surpassing its conventional limits, and that in present times, anyone can call himself or herself a photographer. In a world that is saturated with photographers and content creators, Safed Haathi’s distinction as an age-old chronicler of royal Indian heritage gains paramountcy. 

Right from the very start, Robert consciously averted the conventional path of exclusively documenting renowned destinations of princely India. Instead, he delved into the remotest pockets of India to unearth the bygone eras’ most precious gems. His white elephant had trampled over the dense thickets of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Odisha well before the discerning traveller could trace them on his/her map. Moreover, not only did he disavow the typical white man’s Oriental fascination, but infused his artistic flare into each one of his captured frames. Whether one considers his older compositions or his more recent work, they are all held together by a timelessly captivating force that renders modern-day montages into ghastly pallor. 

Two, Safed Haathi remained subaltern in its approach and style. Which is to say that not only did Robert shy away from commercialising his documentation pursuits, but even after all these years, the veteran confesses about being constantly cash-strapped for the better part of his journey. In his own words, “The Safed Haathi project was about travelling to every state of India in the same car and photographing this vehicle over seven years at the most stunning places of India. I am not a commercial person by nature and thus, I might never be able to exploit the brand name fully. It’s more of a passion cultivated into a hobby.” His penchant to revisit a legacy that Prussia had forsaken back in 1918 caused him to stir away from the tide, and there are very few rivals to artistic expression that is unfettered by mercantile conventions. Robert’s rare gift of identifying potential destinations, sometimes even well before their own custodians or archaeologists, often translates his photographic pilgrimage into an act of service to travellers, historians, archaeologists, artists and explorers all over the world. 

The fated departure of Robert’s TATA Sumo after 7.5 loyal years of service took place due to a mechanical failure in Sayla en route to Dungarpur. Soon after the palace mechanic at Udai Bilas declared the vehicle’s demise, a grieving Robert placed it in Harshwardhan Singhji’s iconic automobile museum, the Dungarpur Mews. Even today, one will find Robert’s daring expeditions with Safed Haathi showcased, not through common tropes or souvenirs, but on the vehicle’s densely scribbled rear fender. When seen from up close, these scribbles made for a diverse array of vernaculars that spelt out Safed Haathi. In other words, Robert took back hand-inscribed typographies by the numerous indigenous communities that he interacted with and documented from the three nations.

 He laments the absolute lack of initiative on TATA’s part, but soon with the help of his friend Pradip Singhji of Gamph, found himself sponsored by Mahindra. Just within a week, Safed Haathi was resurrected as a Scorpio 4×4 SUV, and the legacy was carried forth by a changed machine that beats with a near identical pulse as its original incarnate. As its journey with Robert continues, the duo continues to produce spectacular visual testimonies to the respective households that opened their doors to them. 

Come the most advanced equipment and techniques, it takes Robert’s offbeat approach to dare to capture bygone glories in bejewelled canine portraitures, eastern martial arts and wide angle personality shots of present-day Rajputs. Most recently, he has launched an aerial photography project using a DJI Phantom 2 Vision + drone, which he affectionately refers to as the White Eagle. I will let the aerial shots do their talking while signing off with a fair speculation that the day might not be far when Steve McCurry finds flattery in being titled South Asia’s very own Safed Haathi! 

The writer is an author, blogger and editor-in-chief of Rajputana Collective.

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REWA: THERE’S MORE TO THIS MAJESTIC GREENLAND THAN WHITE TIGER

SAMARJIT MAHURKAR

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The royal family of RewaThe Rewa horsesRewa FortTansenThe Prince of Rewa

Maharaja Venkatraman SinghBirbal

Blessed with natural beauty, this 17 Gun Salute state is strategically located on the north-western side of Madhya Pradesh and was the third wealthiest principality of the Central India Agency during the British rule. Known for her lush greenery, enchanting Rewa is also home to Mohan — the world-renowned white tiger. Maharaj Martand Singh spotted him in Rewa and domesticated him when he was a cub. Interestingly, Rewa derived her name from the great River Narmada, that is also known as Rewa. 

The princely state was founded in about 1400 by Baghel Rajputs who descend from the Solanki clan, which ruled over Gujarat from the tenth to the thirteenth century. As such they are the descendants of one of the greatest rulers of pre-medieval India, Emperor Siddhraj Jaisinh of Gujarat, whose rule extended till Karnataka. The Bandhavgarh state is believed to have been found by Maharaj Shaktivardhan Deo. Their royal residence and the Baghel capital was Bandhavgarh till 1597 when the ruler shifted it to Rewa. Vyaghra Deo, brother of the ruler of Gujarat, is said to have made his way into northern India about the middle of the thirteenth century and obtained the fort of Marpha. His son Karandeo, married a Kalchuri princess of Mandla, and received in dowry the fort of Bandhogarh. The Rewa Fort houses the premier ancient temple of Mahamrutyunjay that is one-of-its-kind on the planet. 

Rewa’s royal cuisine has some exquisite dishes. The Bagheli Gravy cooked with chicken/ mutton is mouth-watering. The alluvial rich landscape has brought forth some unique dishes like Kathal Masala (marinated spicy Jackfruit to be had with wheat or rice) and Kamal Kakdi (Lotus Root) Kebab. The present head of the Royal Family: HH Samrajya Maharajadhiraja Bandhresh Maharaja Pushpraj Singh Ju Deo Bahadur is a food connoisseur himself and plays an active role in preserving the age-old family recipes and making sure it is passed on to the coming generations. He has held several events to promote royal cuisine. My father was privy to one of those in Delhi and he relished the food thoroughly, he quoted, “It is extravagant and superbly aromatic.”

Emperor Akbar was given refuge at Bandhavgarh (the then residence of the Baghel Dynasty) at age 10 when his father Humayun fled India following his expulsion by Sherhah Suri. Prince Ramchandra Singh and Akbar grew up together as royal heirs. Maharaja Ramchandra Singh and Akbar remained friends. In the mid-1550s, Maharaja Ramachandra Singh Baghela maintained a musically talented court including the legendary Tansen. Two of the Navratnas of Akbar, Tansen (originally named Ramtanu Pandey) and Birbal (originally named Mahesh Das) were sent from Rewa by Maharaja once Akbar became the Emperor of India.

The family has had alliances with almost all major royal families of Rajasthan. They’re Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Bundi, Ratlam, Bikaner, Bansi, and Kishangarh. Outside Rajasthan, they had alliances with the royal families of Bhadawar, Dumraon, Kutch, and Nagaruntari.

Maharaj Venkataraman Singh who ascended the throne at the tender age of 4, contributed greatly towards the war effort during World War-I making the provision for the “Solanki Squadron” of the Army Air Service. Hon Lieut-Col. IA 1/1/1915. He was a great patron of arts and culture like his ancestors and also a progressive ruler who greatly cared for his subjects. His son Maharaj Gulab Singh ji is credited with forming one of the first responsive governments in princely states providing the citizens of Rewa the right to question their monarch’s decisions. He was also the first ruler to declare Hindi as the state language.

Maharaj Martand Singh was also an Indian wildlife conservationist who worked hard to preserve the dwindling population of tigers in the area. Soon after becoming Maharaja, the late his highness set about conserving Rewa’s forests and tigers. It was during these conservation efforts that he came across Mohan, as a cub. Fascinated by the rare breed of white tiger which was native to Rewa, he worked to protect the species and making the region poacher-free. After the abolition of royalty, the late his highness represented Rewa in the Lok Sabha for 15 years. The Government of India awarded him the third-highest civilian honour of the Padma Bhushan, in 1986, for his contributions to society. His highness was ecocentric, gentle, and well-read. He was a good raconteur, especially when it came to jungle and tiger stories.  

Sri Yuvraj Maharajkumar Divyaraj Singhji Ju Deo Sahib Bahadur is a two-term BJP MLA from Sirmaur and is devoted to the well-being of citizens, just as a monarch would be to his subjects.

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DECODING THE ART OF TRANSFORMING BIKES WITH VIJAY SINGH AJAIRAJPURA

Vijay Singh Ajairajpura, the driving force behind Rajputana Customs Motorcycles, a Jaipur-based motorcycle outfit that changed the face of bike restoration in this part of the world, talks about the influence behind the customisation of motorbikes and further diversifying India’s curation of motorbikes.

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Thanks to his father’s long-standing affair with two-wheelers, a young Vijay Singh Ajairajpura got introduced to motorcycles much earlier than his contemporaries. He grew up riding a 500 CC BSA Falcon before getting onto bigger beasts. Upon completing his higher studies and returning to India, he found that his old motorcycle had been donated to his factory electrician. Vijay took this as a turning point by choosing to take the road less travelled — he would build a bike for himself, from scratch! He reached out to Royal Enfield, who were kind enough to sell him their brand new 350 CC Unit Construction Engine to get started. With that and with the help of a master metal fabricator and ex-racer who Vijay refers to as Shakur Ji, Vijay got down to assembling his first-ever masterpiece which came to be known as Original Gangster. After its exhibit in the Auto Expo of 2010, the Original Gangster attracted a substantial trail of customised motorcycle orders.

Today, RCM contributes approximately 12 bikes per year to India’s diversifying motorcycle heritage. And what’s more, RCM has earned the proud patronage of motorcycle enthusiasts, with the entourage being led by none other than the Bollywood celebrity John Abraham, who happened to be Vijay’s first client. Abraham’s customisation — Light Foot stands amongst the first in Vijay’s extensive fleet of masterpieces to which he ascribes unique names such as Aghori, Rajmata, Jordaar, Laado, and the likes. And what’s more, the unique essence of RCM doesn’t end here, in fact, this is just the beginning. An oft-said but firmly maintained pledge at RCM entails that no design is repeated. Hence, bespoke automobile crafting is taken to a whole new level of authenticity, whereby each customisation is planned keeping in mind the character and priorities of its future owner. The careful crafting of every masterpiece is given a final finishing touch with Rajputana inscriptions, that, according to Vijay is his personal exhibition of Rajput culture through what he is most passionate about — motorcycles. 

Under Vijay’s unparalleled leadership, RCM is presently close to 4.5 lakh followers on Facebook and many more admirers offline. Looking back at his seven-year-old journey, Vijay shares some personal and professional insights with Rajputana Collective, all of which reverberate the power of following one’s passion and dreams.

Excerpts:

Q. What sparked off your interest in motorbikes, their customisation and restoration? 

A. Having grown up around bikes, I’ve always had an eye for them and having built my first bike from the ground up, there was no turning back. Our team at RCM strives to challenge ourselves with every project in hopes of getting better at the art of customisation and restoration.

Q. Amongst the various motorcycles that you have worked on, which has been your most challenging project?  

A. ‘Jordaar’ was the first Harley Davidson we built from the ground up. We built a sleek stretched out frame to cradle an HD 883 engine at its heart. The bike also sports a one-off front linkage suspension, plenty of custom metal fab, massive 23 inch wheels, intricate koftgari, and damascus detailing. We had three months to build the bike for India Bike Week and given the amount of work involved we had bitten of more than we could chew but we worked around the clock and got the bike looking decent. Since then we have given ‘Jordaar’ a lot more TLC with time in hand and now she shines bright and stands strong.

Q. In your varied collection, which is your most favourite piece and why? 

 A. I really like my Second World War BSA M-20 called ‘Laado’. She’s olive green with big balloon tires and plenty of brass with black leather to go. Having been manufactured in 1942, riding ‘Laado’ on an easy Sunday with fairly empty roads is a pretty special feeling. 

 Q. Is there a particular motorbike outside your collection that you aspire to as your ‘dream vehicle’? If so, which one?  

A. There’s no one motorcycle I can think of. They all have their special magic if you tap in. 

Q. What is your least favourite aspect of motorcycle restoration?  

A. The amount of time these things take (laughs).

Q. What is your opinion on present-day motorcycle customisation/ restoration in India? 

A. It’s great to see so many people embracing motorcycling again and trying/refining their customisation/restoration skills.

Q. How would you recommend further diversifying India’s curation of motorbikes? 

A. Over the last few years the Indian two-wheeler sector has been reforming rapidly, prospering, and getting more informed globally. Everyone in the Indian motorcycle industry should push down their path and further their skills if we are to have a truly diverse and rich motorcycle heritage.

Q. In what way does your vision take forward Rajputana customs? What are your future prospects? 

A. We will always look to do new challenging things in this magical world of two-wheelers and as long as we have the drive to keep exploring, we will build, ride, and race these machines. 

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REMEMBERING HEMENDRA SINGH JI OF BANERA

From being the youngest MP to playing a match against a Wimbledon semi-finalist, Hemendra Singh Ji lived a life less ordinary.

Priyamvada Singh

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Three months ago, I shared a vintage photograph on Instagram of Rajkumar Pratap Singh Ji of Banera along with his best friend, my great-grandfather Rawat Jai Singh Ji of Meja from their days at Mayo College, Ajmer. My caption read, “The foundation of the Banera-Meja bond which was laid by these two schoolboys more than a century ago strengthened further with the passage of time. Both their descendants Rajadhiraj Hemendra Singh Ji of Banera and Rawat Hamir Singh Ji of Meja shared such a unique camaraderie that the anecdotes of their exemplary friendship and innocuous one-upmanship continue to echo the social circles of Mewar even today.” I shared this post with Rajadhiraj and his generously worded appreciation was my last interaction with him. He passed away earlier this week on 31 May 2021. 

Rajadhiraj Hemendra Singh Ji of Banera.

Rajadhiraj Hemendra Singh Ji of Banera with Rawat Hamir Singh Ji of Meja
Maharana Bhagwat Singh Ji of Mewar receiving Rajadhiraj Hemendra Singh Ji of Banera after his succession ceremony

One of the most celebrated luminaries of Rajasthan, Rajadhiraj was born on 18 January 1946. He joined Mayo College in 1952 and went on to become the college monitor and captained several sports teams. A national-level tennis player, he is remembered by the game aficionados for playing a captivating match against the Wimbledon semi-finalist Ramanathan Krishnan during a national lawn-tennis championship at Jaipur in 1961. 

Having lost his grandfather and father while he was still in school, he succeeded his great grandfather Rajadhiraj Amar Singh Ji to the throne in May 1967. His succession ceremony was exceptionally unique because the rulers of Banera having branched out directly from the first family of Mewar enjoy certain privileges that are not held by any other nobles of the region.  

On succession to the ‘gaddi’ by a new Rajadhiraj, the Maharana of Mewar sends the ceremonial sword to Banera unlike in the case of all other nobles who have to go to Udaipur for their formal investiture. Abiding by this tradition, Maharana Bhagwat Singh Ji sent Rajpurohit Vishweshwar Nath Ji to Banera for the ‘talwarbandi’ ceremony. Following this ritual, Rajadhiraj headed to Udaipur and was received by Maharana Saab at Suraj Pole. This is another privilege exclusively granted to Banera where the Maharana steps out of his abode to receive the newly enthroned Rajadhiraj at one of the city gates. 

Heading the esteemed house of Banera at the nascent age of twenty-one could have easily fuelled the arrogance of a young Rajadhiraj, but he shouldered his responsibility with the utmost dignity and relentlessly brought glory to his revered family name. Contesting the elections for the fifth Lok Sabha in 1971 from the Bhilwara constituency, he went on to create a record for being the youngest ever Member of Parliament in India. 

Being the youngest parliamentarian did not deter him from courageously voicing his opinion on several important occasions. In December 1971 during the Indo-Pak war, Rajadhiraj was the first one to oppose the proposal of unilateral ceasefire during the initial stage. He was subsequently supported by stalwarts like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and eventually by Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi herself. In 1973, he engaged in an impressive academic dialogue with the Union Minister of State for Education & Culture, Saiyid Nurul Hasan regarding the presentation of certain historical facts by the Indian Council of Historical Research. His views were later endorsed by renowned historians like Dr Raghuvir Singh Sitamau. 

When Rajadhiraj became a member of the ninth Lok Sabha in 1989, he took everyone by surprise by taking his oath in the Sanskrit language. Impressed by this act, President of India R. Venkataraman presented him with a token of appreciation. 

Rajadhiraj often shared interesting anecdotes from his political innings with us. One incident that comes to mind is from his first term in the Parliament when former President of India Pranab Mukherjee was a member of the Rajya Sabha. The two of them shared a passion for smoking pipes and often sat together in the Central Hall enjoying the flavoured tobacco that Rajadhiraj’s mother-in-law would send from Gujarat. Both of them also had a common penchant for Indian classical music and frequently attended recitals together.  

Rajadhiraj’s deep-rooted interest in classical music, history and culture made him the appropriate choice for being in the executive committees of several socio-cultural organisations like the Jauhar Smriti Sansthan Chittorgarh, Maharana Kumbha Trust Bhilwara, and Akhil Bharatiya Mewar Kshatriya Mahasabha. A culture enthusiast at heart, he often joined us at Meja during the festival of Gangaur and participated in the local ‘gair’ dance with the village menfolk shedding all inhibitions about his social stature. He was always the crowd’s favourite!

My grandfather would often persuade Rajadhiraj into rendering classical songs and bhajans during intimate family gatherings. The two of them were best friends, but my grandfather being the older one always got his way. Rajadhiraj’s immense knowledge of classical music led to his deep friendship with the renowned maestro Pandit Jasraj and they engaged in lengthy discussions about bhakti ragas and shlokas on several occasions.     

To the world, Rajadhiraj was a socio-political dignitary, but to me, he was ‘Banera Data’ who was the first person to reach my house with a bouquet when I scored a distinction in board exams. The one who sang a Ganesh bhajan to commence my wedding festivities. The one who showed up at Meja to commemorate my grandfather’s first death anniversary and stayed with us till the end of the day despite his hectic social calendar.  

Last year, on the eve of his father’s 60th death anniversary, he had said, “I am going to observe maun (silence) till sunset tomorrow. I shall indulge in self-introspection as to whether I carried my duty sincerely all these years? Have I proved to be a worthy successor of Rajadhiraj Amar Singh Ji? Did I meet the expectations of the voters of the Bhilwara parliamentary constituency who elected me twice to the Lok Sabha? I could not utter a word that day because when Rajadhiraj spoke, we just listened. That was the respect he commanded. That was the respect he deserved. How I wish I had told him that day that your introspection is reflective of the enormity of your virtuous heart. They don’t make them like you anymore.

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THE LAST SCION OF KUTCH MAHARAO PRAGMULJI-III LEAVES BEHIND RICH HISTORY AND LEGACY

Maharao Pragmulji-III restored the Pragmul Palace in Bhuj in 2013 after it was hit by the devastating 2001 Kutch earthquake, making it more ornate than ever before.

SAMARJIT MAHURKAR

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Losing a loved one is tough but when a legacy dies with the person the grief is deeper. Kutch, the vibrant town of Gujarat is mourning. For it has just lost its much-loved monarch Maharao Pragmulji-III and with his highness’s death due to Covid-19, one more ancient royal dynasty faces extinction.

Husband and wifePragmul palace post restorationMaharao Pragmul Singhji

His wife Priti Devi

He was the toast of the world when he handsomely restored the Pragmul Palace in Bhuj in 2013 after it was hit by the 2001 Kutch earthquake, making it more ornate than ever before.

Kutch ranked amongst one of the largest states of India with a rich history, high in Indian history after the princely states of Hyderabad, Mysore, Baroda, Gwalior, and Indore as mentioned by the English historian of Kutch, L.F. Rushbrook Williams in “Black Hills”.

Rao Khengarji-1 founded Kutch in 1510 after a furious struggle with his uncle Jam Rawal (founder of Jamnagar in Saurashtra). The ancient times of Kutch has some interesting events of chivalry marked by famous battles such as the one of Jhara, the second one being fought against the Sindh Sultan Ghulamshah Kalhora in 1772. The book also offers noteworthy stories on traditions of the hill-top monastery of Dhinodhar with its Kanthpat (slit-ear monks) order, or monastery of Moti Poshal in Bhuj, that preserves some of the invaluable artefacts of the Kutch dynasty. The region is dotted with beautiful forts like Rajasthan but unfortunately, these are least known.

The sparsely inhabited area of Kutch was bigger than some of the European nations. The hardy seafarers of Kutch and Saurashtra sailed their vessels to all parts of the world since the medieval ages and were very well known in the western world.

Maharao’s Pragmulji’s father and the last reigning Maharao of Kutch, Maharao Madan Singhji, was India’s first ambassador to Norway. His father Maharao Vijayrajji and grandfather Maharao Khengarji were very progressive rulers who did much for their state’s subjects. Interestingly, Kutch was closely related to the royal families of Rewa, Narsingarh, Udaipur, Kishangarh, Jhalawar, Bhavnagar, and Santrampur amongst many others.

Had a member of the family, or a jadeja anointed on the throne symbolically, the dynasty would be preserved with reigns. That is how ancient dynasties survived through the medieval ages by following a proper line of adoption.

In modern times one of the few princely states that followed this ancient practice was Akkalkot in Maharashtra and Mysore in Karnataka. I wish other royal families with no successor could also do it. Preservation of monarchical traditions is essential in our culture.

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THE PATH TO POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY WITH ANJANI SINGH

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A long time ago in a bus traveling from Jaipur to Delhi, Anjani found herself contemplating the need to be happy after an enjoyable, fulfilling holiday with her family and friends. Counting her blessings, a wonderful family and set of friends, and recounting the fun-filled memories that made the past few days, Anjani had every reason to be happy. But here was the catch- she still found herself asking the familiar question: Do you still wish you were dead? And the answer, sadly, was a big resounding YES! Anjani spent the rest of her bus ride to Delhi in profound relief. Finally, she would no longer have to feel this way for much longer. It would be when she had reached her final destination, Sweden, that Anjani thought she could start preparing for the end. 

Thirteen years later, positive psychologist Anjani Singh joins Rajputana Collective in sharing the one concept that changed her entire life. What could be the one tipping point that caused a once crestfallen girl to turn over a new leaf and catapult to the other end of the emotional spectrum, as a professional in the field of emotional healing? After all, an existentialist shift of such radical proportions is mostly seen in a situation of divine intervention or providence. But in Anjani’s case, it was sheer earthly serendipity. Here’s how. 

After that fateful bus ride, she was greeted in Delhi by her uncle, who handed over a book that he expected her to read. ‘The Power of the Subconscious Mind’ by Dr. J. Murphy. “I did not have the heart to refuse his gift especially since I was truly grateful for the gesture, so I just graciously accepted”, Anjani retrospectively explains. A week later, Anjani found herself listless with nothing to do at hand, so she curiously picked up the book that she earlier lacked the tiniest intention of reading. She was instantly captivated. In Anjani’s own words, “The book redefined what I assumed of the world. It was about how our thinking has a dramatic effect on how we feel and behave, and eventually on who we become. Prior to the book, I thought everything was sort of fixed, that things were out of our hand, especially the things that we felt. I believed pain and unhappiness just happened to us. The book, on the contrary, taught me how much of what I felt and what I was doing in my life was simply a reflection of my thoughts. When I started to consciously alter my thoughts, my life changed dramatically. And so started my love and interest in positive psychology.”

From then on, there was no looking back. Anjani proceeded to take a class on positive psychology from Antioch University and another online class provided by Harvard. Today, she is happier, more resilient and grateful than she has ever been, and has found her life’s purpose in spreading positive emotional psychology to touch the life of every child on this planet, such that everyone has the opportunity to live a fulfilling and loving life. 

A rapidly growing field and easily the most popular class for almost a decade at Harvard, what exactly is this trending branch of psychology that most of us have heard so little about? 

It so happened, that after observing the world’s saturation with studies and research on anxiety, depression and psychopathology in general, one psychologist called Martin Seligman decided that maybe it’s time to study happiness. In other words, to analyse happy people and how despite hardship and multiple failures, how some people are able to stay optimistic and have fulfilling and happy lives. How people are able to bounce back without falling into deep depression even after looking adversity in the face, such as the loss of a loved one, a failure of their business, divorce, a terminal illness, so on and so forth. Many other scholars, such as Tal ben Shahar, Carol Dwek, Barbara Fredrikson, etc. joined Seligman’s pursuit and here’s what they found out. That one of the most fundamental reasons behind better resilience and optimism was not a forced effort to stay positive and happy all the time. Rather, it was the choice to opt to factor in the positives despite whatever adversities one might encounter in their lifetimes. Through consistent self-motivation in practices such as gratitude, positive thinking and undertaking a growth-based mindset that believes in social support, psychologists found that happiness went beyond mere survival. All in all, that character strengths and behavioural changes genuinely allowed individuals to build a life of meaning and purpose. 

Even after understanding the concept of positive psychology in a nutshell, it is easier to comprehend why our world’s largest cooperations are seeking consultancy in positive psychology, and why an increasing number of educational curriculums have begun demanding the same. For example, the Government of Delhi under the Aam Aadmi Party introduced the Happiness Curriculum in 2018 based on similar convictions.”It turns out that happy employees actually work harder and have better brain function. Research shows that brain function can be boosted by about 31% if simply put in a good mood. Similarly, children who learn to regulate their emotions positively are able to handle setbacks better and are far less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. These children have also reported improving relationships in schools and at home. The reason people all over the world are getting more and more curious about positive psychology is that deep down inside, we all want the same thing from life, and that is happiness”, Anjani adds. 

At this juncture, Anjani points at a more nuanced feature that the concept’s more obvious simplicities hide- “It is possible for you to start becoming happier today with simple practices. But there’s also bad news, which is that happiness, like everything else, is gradual and requires conscious and continuous practice and effort. In simpler words, there is no quick fix. Contrary to popular belief, happiness is not going to be achieved by getting that dream job or getting the love of your life, or that house you wanted or reaching the goal that you might have been working all your life for. Those goals will only bring you a short moment of joy. Happiness will not just come to us. On the other hand, we have to build our own happiness.”

Reflecting back on personal experiences, Anjani admits to not undergoing an overnight transformation herself. But through conscious effort and practice, Anjani presents herself as a living example of the power of positive psychology. She concludes, “Today, I can’t even recognise that sweet, hurt, angry, broken-hearted sad little girl sitting on the bus. Ever since I read the power of the subconscious mind, I have never wanted to kill myself again. I have been through many ups and downs ever since, and yet, because of implementing positive psychology into my life, I sit here feeling happier than ever before, and so very very grateful to be alive.” 

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FOLLOWING FAMED KURUNJI-KODAIKANAL

The Kurunji flower is an endemic species in South India; it grows on the Annamalai, Nilgiri and Palani mountains of south-western Tamil Nadu. It apparently does not grow in any other part of the world. Although there are about 50 varieties of Kurunji, the blue variety blooms once in 12 years.

Vidya Gajapati Raju

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Driving along the winding roads around the mountains on our way up to Kodaikanal, we began to see a glimpse of blue. It was an exciting moment for us, for had we missed this, we would have had to wait until 2030. In any case the way things look, I wonder if there will be very much left, at the next 12 year cycle. This was my second sighting and I was quite happy to be heading up to be there again this year 2018.

At Dolphins NoseCloudland PeakAt the serene and picturesque lake

The elusive patch of blue that we were hunting is the Strobilanthes Kunthiana, the famed Kurunji flower. An endemic species in South India; it grows on the Annamalai, Nilgiri and Palani Mountains of  south-western Tamil Nadu. It apparently does not grow in any other part of the world. Although there are about 50 varieties of Kurunji, the blue variety blooms once in 12 years. One hears from the locals who have seen the flowerings previously that entire mountainsides used to be covered with the plants, appearing like a blue haze over the mountains.

The first recorded flowering was in 1838 and it seems that the tribals of these mountains were well aware of the flowering cycle. This plant blooms once in 12 years and perishes after the blooming. A new plant takes its place with its genetic clock set for the next blooming. This rarity in flowering makes the Neela Kurnji, a legend in itself.

Trekking to Dolphins Nose, a landmark in Kodai is always challenging and we look forward to it every time. Coming downhill from the Upper Lake Road and heading through the little village , we step down onto the path that leads very steeply down and we need to climb over gnarled roots of the trees around us. Climbing further down through the forests of Eucalyptus, we finally reach a rocky path and have to climb up a narrow rockface to reach the rocky promontory that is Dolphins Nose. Spectacular visuals from here of the surrounding mountains, the Rhodendron trees all across the sides and a beautiful visual of the valley below us. Heading back is always a challenge as it is a very steep upward climb all the way back . But we have time to catch a great breakfast at Altaf›s Cafe, that is set overlooking the entire valley. Great Bread Omelet and Masala Chai, along with healthy oats makes for a perfect choice. It is a climb up again to our starting point and then a walk home !

Today, despite the cultivation that has totally changed the appearance of these areas, we were still able to see large tracts of flowers wherever the march of progress had allowed the plants to survive. Even on the sides of the roads that we drove along, there were groups of bushes that have managed to flower.

The trip to Kodaikanal was planned with the express purpose of “Seeing the Kurunji” and of course as a “family” vacation. “Kodai” has always been a favorite holiday destination, since our childhood days, and always brings back nostalgic memories of carefree summers

Usually, the focal point of any holiday with friends or family in the hills, is trekking and walking. It is with wonderful feeling of peace and tranquility that envelops me, when I am surrounded by these mountains, that I look around and feel grateful, that there are concerned citizens and forward thinking administrators, who have, over the past few years, begun to designate areas as “protected”. Due to this, the Shola Forests have begun to thicken and expand and the Kurunji Flower has also been given a favored status. The areas between the Pambar River and Vattakanal, below Coakers Walk are protected as well.

A vacation in Kodai is something that all of us look forward to and there is so much to do there that it feels that there are never enough days! Besides the trekking and long walks, there is of course retail therapy. Great finds on the market street in front of the Kodai International School; Organic Coffee, Tea, Spices, Cheeses, quaint shops selling all kinds of interesting things and The Potters Shed for great ceramics all made in Kodai itself. Some great eating places as well!

Walking around the Lake at dawn has to be one of the most perfect ways to start the day. The air is fresh and crisp; the night’s cold has still not dissipated. The five fingered lake is about 5 km in length to walk, and twice around provides a great workout. It is peaceful, pristine  and quiet, especially if it is off season or a weekday!  My favourite Chaiwalla in front of the Boat House, serves up a really great Masala Chai, that I always look forward to !!! On our return home we are ready to tuck in to a healthy breakfast of all the organic food, which is so easily available here. It certainly does not get better than this !

Kodai has something for everyone, treks and walks, some challenging and some gentler. Among the more memorable ones are, “The Priests Walk” and “Cloud Land Peak”. The climb to the stunning Perumal Malai !There are also treks to Berijam Lake, to Jerry’s Point and Gundar Valley and a forest trek through “Nettle Shola.” The most challenging trek that I have been on in these hills, led from Kodai to Vellakavi and then down through the forests to Thope in the plains, a distance of 22 kms.

The trek to Cloudland Peak begins at Vilpatti and we begin to climb up into the hills above and head through a couple of villages and finally we are on a beautiful trail leading through the forest. As we climb the air is cold, there is a light mist and we are surrounded on all sides with lovely eucalyptus trees and their perfume fills the air. After a final push we are at the top and reach the edge of the peak . Looking down we can see into the valley below and all across, it is a stunning visual and we spend some time looking around and enjoying the feeling of being this high up and the fact that we are the only people there.

The upper reaches of the town are lovely areas to wander around and explore. There are great walks through all of these areas. The Upper Lake Road and of course, the beautiful Golf Course, one of the most stunning courses in India.  If you get lucky, you may see a herd of Bison. Several herds have made this their home, venturing out from the forest after the golfers have packed up.

It is with an immense sense of regret and reluctance that we have to leave this little paradise and return to our lives in busy, bustling Chennai. We leave Kodai, with a slight sense of envy for those lucky people who have chosen to live here and have every intention of spending the rest of their days here as well.

Vidya Gajapati Raju is a wedding planner, writer, and energetic 60 + grandmother whose biggest passion, walking and cycling has led her to pen this blog where she relives the regions of her beloved south through treks.

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