Musical pillars in South Indian temples

Early rock music – Music from Stones

Strange, the uninitiated would think, reading the title, for it is neither about rock music as we know it today, nor about the rolling stones, but about music from stones, a field called Lithophony, and its early applications in South India, characterized by the many musical pillars, staircases, idols and stone blowing instruments found in certain temples. While there are a number of articles about these music pillars on the web, they follow pretty much the same template, and some of them have incorrect information as well. Almost all these articles are about the pillars at Hampi’s Vittala temple, mentioning them as singular and unique, but seem unaware that there are many more in Tamil Nadu and Andhra. So, I thought I would put on my research cap and work a bit on it. Let’s go.

In our Tharavad house in Palghat, at the entrance, just as you climb up the steps, under the low awning overhead, is a knurled roller, which you can spin. As a kid I was mystified about its purpose, for all you could do was spin it either way, and it was just a carved wooden disc that spun over the wooden screw. My uncle explained to me that these were the master carpenter’s signature items. Some were incredibly complex, some simpler. Similarly, the musical pillars in these temples were not built by aliens, or by using rock melting technology, but were carefully chiseled and tuned lithophonic stones. But we will get to all that in due course, read on…

A lithophone is a musical instrument consisting of a rock or pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes. Such resonating stones can be found in many parts of the world and many rudimentary lithophones bear witness to the fact that ancient people found and created musical instruments out of them. In fact, some months ago, we visited the Luray caverns near Washington DC and saw the largest stone organ (recently created), the ‘stalacpipe’ as it is called, which creates plays a lovely sonata when the limestone columns are tapped, click the link for details. Even though there are other Lithophonic rock locations in the US and other parts of the world, we are going the review the ancient ones in South India. Though I have not been to the Hampi ruins, I do recall the musical pillars at Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum and the ones at Madurai Meenakshi temple. They did make some sounds when tapped but did not seem astounding, in any way, so I had not taken notice.

Musical pillars are mostly found in South India, though one has also been located at Ajanta. Most of the temples bear some connections to the Vijayanagara rulers or the Madurai Nayaks, and even the oldest i.e., the Nellaiappaar temple in Tirunelveli, still has pristine examples of such pillars. But experts feel that these pillars were added much later to the original 7-8th century temple, by Nayak era craftsmen during 17th century renovations. The oft mentioned (there could be others) locations are at the temples at Hampi, Tadpatri, Lepakshi, Dhadikkombu, Madurai, Alagerkoil, Coutallam, Tenkashi, Tirunelveli, Alwar Tirunagari, Suchindram, Trivandrum, Kumbhakonam (Darasuram), Tanjore, Shanbagaramanallur, and Kanchipuram. While the earliest factual articles one could refer to, are the ones written by P Sambamurthy, TG Aravamuthan and HV Modak, there are a few acoustical studies which the scientifically inclined reader can peruse. Let us get to the detailed studies penned by our stalwarts and their conclusions, also acknowledging their original work, with many thanks.

Aravamuthan’s article, ‘Pianos in stone’, circa 1943, is an article in poetic English replete with uncommon vocabulary, something our man Shashi Tharoor, would nod at. On many instances, I had to stop and smile, seeing his choice for words! The first aspect that a reader should take note of is that these clustered musical pillars are structured in a particular fashion with a main thick load-bearing shaft in the middle and surrounded by a number of slender pillars (as many as 48), exhibiting a lithophonic character. Though cloistered columns can be found in European churches separating aisles, dating to the 10th century, they were used only for ornamental purposes, and not with any musical intent.

Each of the stone pillars produces a different note and the range could extend over an entire octave. Aravamuthan has no doubt that Hampi musical columns were played by skilled musicians to produce dance accompaniments to tuneful psalms, while the dancers moved from one end to the other. He despairs that not many are even aware of the splendid musical pillars at the Nellaiappar Manimandapam which are 8’ tall and 5’ square. That these were chiseled out of a single block of granite, is also stated by him, and tuned to specific notes. They are not all necessarily square in cross-section and are shaped differently as square, rectangular, circular, oval, octagonal, spiral, etc., depending on the note desired, but all cut to true lines. Since many of them are crowded together, no single instrument can play these to create music as such, and he feels that for this reason, these complex structures were condemned to futility, and were just curiosities.

He believes that these were thus played in unison, creating a chorus of sound. He adds that in the nearby Alwar Tirunagarai temple, special structures have been added to make some subtle changes to the music from the columns, making the structure even more complex, exemplifying his conclusion thus - The architect must have designed this pier in the architectural elucidation of some of the cardinal principles on which musical instruments are constructed. For hours one could stand playing on these columns, parent and offspring and brothers, all sprung of the same stock, and listening to the variety and the range of the whimsicality of the separate and the mingled notes. A gentle tap at the offspring makes it wake up with a tremulous note and, at the same time, sets the parent responding with a lullaby: a light tap at the parent makes it tuneful and makes the offspring hum.

Though he mentions - These pianos, with strings, resonators and frets that are fashioned out of a material which weather cannot warp and time… many of these pillars have lost some of their tonal qualities, as testified by musicologists who checked them out.

KC Thiagarajan visited the temple and made recordings for an AIR event, creating eight compositions that he illustrated during a radio show. He also demonstrated the types of Swaras which came from different columns in these pillars. But he makes it clear that it was not possible to expect Gamakas from these stones, and that the sounds only roughly corresponded to some Swarasthanas. One group of illustrations was based on five notes, some on four and some gave three, corresponding to or echoing Kharaharapriya, Dhenuka, Saman- chanting and Subhapantuvarali.

The musical pipe scooped out of a granite stone pillar found at the temple at Shanbagaramanallur in Tirunelveli is also an architectural marvel, as it gives the tone of the Ekkalam (cymbal) when blown from one end and the tone of the conch when blown from the other end. A miniature nagaswaram made of stone is said to be still in use in the temple at Alwartirunagari. In some temples, there are figures whose limbs give out musical notes. A musical statuette of Lord Ganesa has been found in Tanjore, and the sculptures of Rati and Manmadhan in the Vishnu temple at Shanbagaramanallur (and also at Tenkasi) are of resonant stone which produces different notes when struck. The stone steps in the temple at Darasuram creates notes of varying pitches. There is a stone Nadaswaram at the Kumbhakonam Kumbeswararswami temple as well. The Srinivasa Perumal temple in Chamarajapet, Bangalore also contains musical stone pillars but since they are not of sufficient height, the notes given by them are not quite bright.

The Manimandapam at Tirunelveli’s Nellaiappar temple is of particular interest, as it has pillars each with fifty pillarets! At the Western end of the Alankara Mantapam in the Northern Sribalipura in the Suchindram temple, we find the four clustered columns of musical pillars. The two Southern groups contain 33 shafts and the two Northern, 24 shafts in each. The entire group of pilasters is carved out of a monolith, an architectural marvel. Each shaft yields a different musical note. Facing the Kala Bhairava shrine appears the marvelous pieces of art, the musical pillars chiseled out of a single block of granite. The halls containing the musical stone pillars are referred to as Mani mandapas. Some pillars give notes belonging to the Kharaharapriya scale, some to the Hari-Kambhoji and some to the Sankarabharanam scale. The pillars at Tadikombu give out notes which correspond to the Udatta, Anudatta and Svarita svaras of Vedic music.

Nellaiappar Temple Tirunelveli

Prof Sambamurthy’s ‘Music in stones’ from Akashvani circa 1942 and his excellent treatise – History of Indian Music provide more insight– He explains that while some pillars have dim notes, the others are still quite rich and comparable to the Jalataranga notes. These granite pillars around the Prakaram (temple compound around the sanctum) of the temple, grey, black, white, or sandalwood in color, are actually of different heights (3’-6’) and shapes as explained by Aravamutham previously. Sambamurthy focuses on the technical skill and the musical knowledge of the stonemason. These were used to provide a sruti accompaniment and a musical accompaniment. Some of these give the basic swaras of classical music. These pillars were played upon with two thin sticks made of cane or bamboo, just like Jalatarangam. He explains that they were four types of pillars.

Sruthi Sthambas- These were used for sounding the drone note. With the tonic note given by the pillar, the sacred choir gave recitals of sacred music - Vedic hymns or the Tevaram or both.

Gana Sthambas-In this case, two players with thin bamboo sticks stood at opposite ends and played in a concerted manner. The compass of the musical notes of the pillars extended over one octave. In some cases, the pillars gave the notes belonging to the Kharaharapriya scale and in other cases to the Harikambhoji or Sankarabharana scales. Solo performances were also given with these Gana sthambas.

Laya Sthambas - These were used for providing a cross-rhythmical accompaniment. These pillars are so sensitive (e.g., Bugga Ramalingeswaraswami temple at Tadpatri) that any player on the Kanjira can play on them. Rhythmic accompaniment was provided to sacred music with these pillars and perhaps jatis were played on them for the guidance of the dancer or a group of dancers.

Pradarsana Sthambas - The phenomenon of sympathetic resonance can be seen and verified in the musical pillars in the Suchindram temple. The opposite corner pillars are so accurately tuned that when one pillar is just tapped, the pillar at the opposite corner which is tuned to the note of the same frequency, immediately vibrates. This vibration can be clearly heard and also felt by the fingers.

Pillai covers the musical pillars Suchindram – He states that there were constituted by four groups of pillars, two on the north and two on the south, standing parallel to each other. The two northern groups are in a cluster of 24 pillars, while the southern ones are in a cluster of 33. A striking feature is that all the pillars of each group, together with the exquisitely carved turret at the top of each group, are chiseled out of a single block of granite.

Now that we know of what is out there, their physical attributes, the purpose, etc., let us take a look at the period when these acoustically skilled artisans created these masterpieces. While the Nellaipayar temple is the oldest dating back to the 7th century, it is also established that a number of modifications have been done in the premises and by conjecture, once and surmise that the musical pillars there were not really that old, but were added in when the Madurai Nayaks were ruling over Tirunelveli. Uma Maheswari, writing about this subject and focusing on the Madurai and Travancore regions, opines that it was indeed so. The Vittala temple Ranga mandapa and pillars dates to the ~1554-time frame. Interestingly, a prehistoric lithophonic stone structure existed just 8-10 miles from Hampi at the Vanibhadreswara temple! Just tapping the Vittala temple pillars these days, seem to just produce gong and bell sounds, but the musicians who played on them, centuries ago, may have had a different technique.

The two Ajanta musical pillars in Cave # 6 are a curiosity and date back to the 2nd-5th centuries. Walter Spink states that they ring since they are so attenuated, having been quite literally cut out of the wall, when the typical fronts of such early cells were converted to fronting elements of the more elaborate pillared complexes. He demystifies the musical aspect completely and I am drawn to Aravamuthan’s comment - Blind to the obvious are they who pursue the recondite or seek quick returns.

In general, one can state that the Vijayanagar style in temples manifested during 1336-1565 period whereas the Madurai Nayak styles were predominant as they rose to prominence in 1600-1700. The artisan families in Vijayanagar must have moved South to Madurai and other temple states after the fall of the Vijayanagar empire, just like the musicians and Carnatic music moved to Tanjore.

The sculptors who came to the South made these pillars on their southward journey. These pillars are found in Meenakshi temple, Alwar Tirunagari, Tirunelveli temples, Suchindrum and at the Padmanabhaswami Temple at Trivandrum. The pillars in Padmanabhaswamy temple have sculptures of Gods and Goddesses and produce musical sounds of various instruments. The pillars in the Nellaiappar Temple have lost the capacity of producing the "Swaras" and a few pillars only produce ''sa, ri, ga, ma, pa". While the Suchindram pillars are slated to 1798, the Trivandrum pillars seem to be made somewhat earlier. The new additions to the older temple are the prakaras (outer part of the Sanctum) and this style reached its zenith during the 17th century A.D.

Modak was the first to do some scientific studies – he adds - The number of pillars in a cluster varies from three at Lepakshi to fifty at Tirunelveli and Alwartirunagari. The resonance method has been used to establish the frequencies of the Pillars in the Swami Nelliappar Temple at Tirunelveli. In general, the conclusion was that the two batches - square and circular pillars had been carefully constructed and that the theoretical calculations were a close match to the actual measurements, but arbitrarily distributed around the main pillar and most very difficult to reach. However, the ones that generate true tones are not properly located so that they could be struck to create a tune, but they seemed to be more ornamental or used only for accompaniment music composed in three to five-note combinations. as in religious hymns. It is possible to select the pillars near each other producing notes in such scales these pillars produce pleasing tones

In general, I am inclined to go along with the hypothesis that these pillars were the sculptor’s signature and mostly curiosities adding to the lure and lore of the temple, and the power of their patrons, and not regularly used musical instruments. As Dr. Raghavan maintained in 1977, these pillars, which emitted musical sounds, were not used in any music or dance rituals in the temples and were just architectural curiosities. These stones had some peculiar geological qualities and the Shilpi’s who came across them while cutting stones for the temple work created these as well to demonstrate their skill. But without a doubt, they are marvels, carefully crafted by those rock sculptors who also had a good understanding of music and tones.

So, how did the relatively modern term ‘Rock music’ come about? It came about from the rock and roll style in the US during the late 40s and was popularized in the mid 50s. For decades African Americans had used the term rock and roll as a euphemism for vigorous sex!! The phrase "rocking and rolling" originally described the movement of a ship on the ocean - a phrase apparently used by 17th-century sailors to describe the motion of a ship on the sea. Pretty distant from the art of tapping on rocks, right??

References & acknowledgements
Musical Curiosities in the Temples of South India - H. V. Modak
History of Indian Music – P Sambamoorthy
Musical pillars and singing rocks M.G Prasad and B. Rajavel
Journals of the Music academy Madras – 1943, 1977 (Aravamuthan article, Dr Raghavan’s speech, etc.)
Heritage of the Tamils – temple arts – Ed Dr. SV Subramaniam, Dr. G Rajendran
The Suchindram temple – KK Pillay

 Pics - Wikimedia acknowledged with thanks

          Wishing all readers a great NEW YEAR


A Sojourn in Morocco

Off the beaten track

It did not take much effort to plan this trip once we had set our minds to it, and we were lucky to find a travel company that then worked with their Moroccan counterpart to provide a decent package. Pretty soon, we were on an Air Canada flight across the Atlantic and headed to the Western fringes of the African continent where a Moorish adventure beckoned. It sure turned out to be one, as the flight to Montreal was delayed and we just managed to clamber on the Casablanca flight, all revved up and ready to leave. The mad dash through immigration in Montreal, with a lot of help from the airport staff across gates, and exhortations and wishes to catch the onward flight, got us through the vast terminal, panting and with heaving chests into the comforting seats of a warm widebody 787. As it was weighted down by inches and layers of snow, elaborate deicing procedures were required, but we took off without any more issues, headed for the warmer climes at the lands adjoining the Sahara.

I had touched upon the subject of Morocco, a few years ago while writing on the ship of the desert – the Camel, where I mentioned the trans-Saharan gold trail (7th-14th CE) one which originating in mines and towns of Ghana, snaked through the large cities of pre-medieval Morocco or the Berber Kingdom it was then, to Alexandria in the Egyptian East. At that time, the Berbers were the indigenous occupants of Morocco (derived from the town Marrakesh or the usage Moors depending on who you discuss with), and Berber (the nomadic Amazigh tribes) was an unkind term – signifying Barbarians, coined by the early Greeks. They used a script looking somewhat like Greek, called Tifinagh, which is now finding a resurgence in Morocco, in student curriculum and sign boards. I mention this since it was quite a surprise seeing Greek-looking scripts on signboards after we landed in Casablanca. Most people speak French and the local Arabic dialects though, and a smattering of English due to the many tourists.

Soon we were headed to Rabat, the capital, after the flight which took us through the night and across the wide ocean, landed at sunrise in Casablanca. Mohammed our friendly driver, quite fluent in English, seemed very competent at the wheels, and we were sure the next seven days would be OK, with him. Though Rabat is the present capital, each of the major cities of Morocco, which are frequented by visitors, namely Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, etc., were previously imperial capitals (actually there were three more, which most people do not know - Hajar al-Nasr, Taroudant and Aghmat). I was surprised to note that the present American Ambassador to Morocco has Indian origins, and is Mr. Puneet Talwar! A couple of hours later, we were in Rabat and headed to its Medina.

While most people ask for traditional hotel accommodations, our planner suggested staying in what is known as Riads. Riads are located in Medina’s and well, being reasonably sure that the lay reader or traveler does not know either term, I have to elaborate briefly on what they are. The old city center is the so-called Medina and is laid out differently from most cities. “Medina” means city in Arabic, and are walled towns, characterized by long, narrow, winding alleys with a few entry gates. They cannot be accessed with cars, but noisy motorcycles, bicycles, and donkey carts pop up to startle you now and then. Mohammed dropped us at the entrance of the Rabat medina and a glum-looking porter lugged our suitcase nosily through the labyrinth to our Riad.

So, what is a Riad? Well, it is a large house with many bedrooms, with entry from one of these alleys through a single gate, with no signboards announcing its existence. The wealthy Sidis’s home has been remodeled and the interiors are quite like modern hotel rooms. The courtyard is where you eat breakfast and some of the very large Riads have in-house restaurants too. The only daunting part is finding your way to the right gate at night, with little lighting in the alleyways! But Google maps works reasonably well, and we managed nicely, though the first night was a little perturbing. You know, I was reminded of the Alibaba story (I used to narrate it to my children!) where the thieves mark his door with an X, and Morgiana, Alibaba’s trusted slave, places X marks on all doors, to foil them and save her master from certain death. Now I can understand how important that X mark is when you have 10-20 identical doors on a long alleyway and it is dark at night, with no streetlights! Food was not a real problem if you are used to Arabic and Lebanese food, but cumin overrides most other spices here, and the fare is somewhat bland. Plenty of vegetarian dishes abound, and if you know French, ordering is easier.

Rabat, of course, has the modern side as well as the ancient Medina and is close to the ocean as well as the Kasbah (fort), its ramparts, and the old city walls. The Al Hassan tower etc., are of some interest to intrepid visitors. As the calls for prayer from the muezzins in the many nearby mosques rang in our ears, the bursts of wind brought us the many smells of cooking, barbecues, and freshly baked bread.  Soon we came to know that three things were part of any medina quarter, a large communal bakery, the mosque, and a hammam where the people went to bathe.

After a pleasant night, and a sumptuous breakfast (a real spread every morning with eggs, many types of bread - including mini-Malabari style parottas, pancakes tasting like vattayappams, cornbread, fruits, olives, dates, juices, coffee, and whatnot!), we were headed to the second leg – the blue city popularized by Instagram, Chefchaouen.

After a long drive up north, on a good road and minimal traffic, we reached our destination after passing many salt pans. On a hillock, with houses built on its side, Chaouen is characterized by the blue color of most home walls. An enduring mystery, nobody knows how it came about. The local guide attributed it to Judaism, for the locale had many Jewish mellah’s (quarter), and they painted their buildings blue, apparently after the sky (Some of you may remember that the ancient Jews used Tekhelet, the blue dye for priestly clothing, tapestries, tassels, etc. After the second temple’s destruction, it lost importance as dye makers drifted away, though blue remained an important color, associated with Jews). But I didn’t think that was the reason. A second guide told us that it had nothing to do with any ancient custom, but it was all due to a Chinese lady who lived there for a while, and wrote a book about the place (more likely at the time when the trade pact between the governments in 2016 was signed, making it a sister city to Kunming) and made it popular in China. This is the only place where you can find some Chinese restaurants and they celebrate the lantern festival etc. But post-COVID, the Chinese interest seems to have waned.

Still unlikely I thought, and then a third guide told us that it was due to the presence of a particular Berber tribe (Tuaregs) who applied indigo on their faces and feet to ward off mosquitoes. The area had a river and lots of mosquitoes and the people decided to paint the lower walls blue to ward off mosquitoes. Interestingly, it has been scientifically established that blue color keeps mosquitoes away (remember the use of blue in our Kerala home whitewash?). Yet another said it was the color used to ward off an evil eye…So much for the blue, but it made the area unique and attractive, and it became very popular with hordes of Chinese tourists who popularized it on Instagram.

Anyway, the place has a lovely medina snaking through the hillside, lots of shops selling trinkets, and some nice food at the square. The strategic importance comes from the fort built in the 15th century to resist Portuguese occupation. The Riad we stayed at was, of course, painted in blue, quite attractive, and provided a lovely breakfast too. The Kasbah and its dungeons are worth a visit. As somebody said, it is the only Moroccan city with a bohemian appeal, where you can sit and sip a great glass of mint tea and well, wander around, doing nothing much!

By this time, we had driven quite a good distance up North, and heading farther in the same direction would have taken us to Tangiers, but was not in our plans. Instead, the next day, we drove a good 4 hrs South towards Fez, stopping at Volubilis and Meknes. Volubilis is a city that was once headquartered by the Berber Romans, but now just a lot of rocky ruins and bits of mosaic flooring, to remind you of its lost opulence. The fertile plains and the good olive crop were the reason for the Romans to settle down here, making it its southerly border town. It developed from the 3rd century BC onward as a Berber, then proto-Carthaginian settlement before becoming the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania. After another 300 or so years, it disintegrated, following continuous attacks by various tribes and no longer defensible, the Romans lost interest and went away. It was in this area that Islam in Morocco first took root when Mullah Idris came by and decided to stay. Idris was the great-grandchild of Hassan, who was the son of Fatima and Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In 789, he arrived in Tangier before going to Walili, i.e., Volubilis.

Meknes, hosting a large palace, the usual mosques, and medina, plus high walls, was undergoing a lot of repair work, and other than seeing all these from a distance, we could not do much. Before I forget, let me tell you that the minarets of Mosques in Morocco (the entire Maghreb region) are unique in the respect that they are square and not circular in cross-section. And, well, Morocco was never under the Ottomans, so developed quite differently from all the Ottoman-controlled regions, but was later conquered by the French, the Spanish, and occupied in parts, by the Portuguese.

By this time, we had a good idea about cost, prices, margins, etc., and the use of the local Dhiram (credit cards not accepted), as well as tipping. Seafood at Rabat, the local favorite the Tajin (stewed veggies and meat in a characteristic pot), the spicy Harissa sauce, the omnipresent fresh pomegranate juice, and so on, had all been sampled and relished.

Fez was the endpoint on the 3rd day and the Riad at the entrance to the Medina was quite large, well, I must say massive, as an erstwhile nobleman’s house. We decided to brave it out in the Medina on our own that night, phew – it was certainly many times larger than the covered bazaar (Kapali Carsi) in Istanbul and crowded. But it was ok, and the whole of the next day was spent wandering around the city with the guide, taking in the sights and sounds of Fez. Palaces, forts, pottery, and ceramic units, the ancient leather tannery, the ancient Madrassa, the cloth dyeing areas, etc., there was so much to take in. The tannery visit was something to remember, for you cannot forget the stench – now one must note that this is supposedly all organic, with no chemicals, and it was the use of pigeon poop for its ammonia that stank up the area. They give you a large bunch of mint leaves to smell, and avoid puking!! The lunch was unforgettable, and the superb salad spread, followed by the Pastilla, a bread filled with meat and dry fruits, a little sweet for our liking, but good, nevertheless.

Each Medina had something equivalent to a Turkish Caravansaray – where merchants and their animals which formed the caravan, rested and traded their goods. Though being happy, simple, and hardy people, you will be surprised to see donkey and mule carts vying for road space with Renaults and Audis (we spotted a Bentley parked outside the Pasha homestead). There are very few Indian tourists, though larger cities have one or two Indian restaurants. Rice is difficult to come by, and bread is a staple.

A long drive the next day took us southeast to Marrakech, and the next Riad, this one quite French in its remodeling, replete with a pool and a spa, and trees inside! Marrakech is where most tourists end up and is the most cosmopolitan, plus boasting the largest medina and souk. The marketplace or central square - Djemaa El Fna hosts many thousand people, hawkers, shops, henna, street food, juice shops, musicians, magicians, and snake charmers et., every evening, and is the place to visit. The trick is to get in early and find seating at one of the terrace restaurants for a lazy dinner, whilst looking down into the square. A visit to YSL’s garden (created by artist Jacques Majorelle) was in the morning plans, and it was here that we got a decent idea about the Berbers. The afternoon was a leisurely walk with the guide through the Medina, and the many other historical sites. Not that different from the medina at Fez, but much larger, I thought., with even more food options! By this time, we could get around these Medina labyrinths with some ease, no longer with fears of getting lost.

Days had been flying by, and finally, it was time to head back to Casablanca, where we stayed in a traditional conference hotel. The Corniche, the diplomatic areas, the French and the Spanish settlements, the Portuguese, the Jewish Mellah’s, and finally the gigantic Hassan II Mosque are all worth the visit. The humongous Hassan II mosque, one of the largest in the world, can house about 105,000 worshippers at a time, and is built on reclaimed land!

Sadly, we missed the fictional Ricks café (simply forgot it in the hurry). Incidentally, there was no Ricks café originally in Casablanca and was created in Hollywood, for the movie, but an enterprising Englishwoman recreated it in Casablanca and most tourists head out there for a photo-op.  The city was an important place during the WW-II and the Allied world leaders met there in 1943 at the Anfa hotel. To get a feel for the Casablanca of the 40s, see the movie with Humphrey Bogart and the lovely Ingrid Bergman, my all-time favorite.

Meredith Hindley, author of ‘Destination Casablanca’ states (Times of Israel) - While the film “Casablanca” is immortalized for its story of World War II refugees seeking freedom from Hitler, the real-life history that inspired it is arguably less well-known — but no less dramatic. After the fall of France in 1940, “Casablanca became a way station for refugees because of its location,” Hindley said. It was the largest Atlantic port in Africa, and, with Lisbon, it transformed into a jumping-off point for North America, South America, and the Caribbean early in the war, she said. But departure was difficult. Refugees were required to obtain hard-won immigration visas, as well as exit and transit visas, which were all issued by different governments, she said. “Getting those to line up — they all expired after a set period of days — could be nerve-wracking. That’s how many refugees ended up stranded for months or sometimes years in Casablanca,” she said, giving the example of Esti and Sophie Freud, who were stuck in Casablanca for nine months until they could obtain new visas.

Morocco has two mountain ranges, the Rif, and the Atlas, and in the Atlas mountains, you have snow. It is between Marrakech and the Atlas that you have Ouarzazate where many Hollywood and some Bollywood movies are shot. Just on the other side of the mountains is the Sahara desert which many tourists visit. Many Moroccans watch Bollywood movies, especially Amitabh Bachchan flicks, and would happily hum or sing Kabhi Kabhi mere dil mein, if asked! Shah Rukh Khan is well known, so also most actresses.

Strangely, it is quite difficult to find alcohol, Morocco is quite traditional though not very strict or too devout, you do get wines in some upmarket hotels. Argan oil is a staple product, and the food is very good – the tajines, tangia, pastillas, soups and juices, olives and pickles, salads, and of course sweets, but not to forget couscous dishes (semolina – like our upma). Those who like to shop can bargain for carpets, gowns, kaftans, furniture, and all kinds of pottery, leather, and trinket selections.

But now – I have to tell you how the Hammam is important in Moroccan family life, as explained by our last guide. By tradition women in Morocco (though quite modern today) in the old times, were only permitted to see men in their immediate family. That is why Riads have no windows and open into the courtyard, and not into the alleys, save the great double door with two slats (one to admit the man and horse, the smaller gate in the women on foot). Moroccan doors have two door knockers which sound different.  If a guest uses the knocker that’s mounted higher on the door, the woman inside will know that it’s a man, and will make sure she’s properly dressed!

As you can imagine, Men and women have separate hammams where they have a steam bath (usually once a week) and per tradition, are unclothed while at it. Now, when the son is ready to get married, his mother (or an elder sister) takes over and gets to work, and surveys the hammam. When she spots the right girl, with the right geography (the very words our guide used!), color, looks, etc., the momma calls her over to scrub her back, while keenly observing her for any imperfections. In the traditional hammam, Moroccan women and men ask their friends or people sitting next to them to help scrub their back or the entire body. The girl’s behavior and upbringing come to the fore, at this juncture.

In the hammam, no amount of makeup can hide imperfections, so it is the right place for a minute inspection! If momma is satisfied, she asks questions about the girl’s family, and finally offers the girl some nuts (walnuts or almonds) to chew – to check that she has good teeth. Good teeth mean good digestion and a good kitchen at her home!! If the girl passes the examination, the next steps are taken and the families meet, to discuss the engagement and a nikah! How do you like that!!

A snippet from history - there is an important connection between Morocco and India - One of the most prominent visitors to India, especially Malabar (1342-1347) was the globe trotter Ibn Batuta, who covered some 117,000 km in 30 years. He was a Berber Maghrebi from Tangiers – Morocco and left behind classic descriptions of Calicut and many other locales in India.

There is so much more, but well, it is time to wind up these ramblings…

After an exotic week in that unique land, it was time for us to bid goodbye to Mohammed, our driver and newfound friend of seven days, and catch the return flight via Montreal. Well as luck would have it , it was delayed and we spent a day cooling our heels in Montreal, in the care of Air Canada, finally reaching back in Raleigh after Thanksgiving, concluding quite a fascinating trip, to say the least. Thanks to KimKim and Orion trek voyages…

Before I conclude, an interesting bit of trivia - Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly independent United States, opening its ports to American ships by decree of Sultan Mohammed III in 1777. The US Congress ratified a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations in 1787. Renegotiated in 1836, this treaty is still in force, constituting the longest unbroken treaty relationship in U.S. history.

Tajine pic – Wikimedia courtesy Bawdeep2010, all the others are mine