An enthralling place of endless wonders, Granada is a flower-bright European city with courtly grace.
Here, divergent cultures not only mixed they were glorified. In Spain's Andalusia we reveled in a fine blend of Catholicism, efflorescent Islam and the exuberant vivacity of Punjabi immigrants who had arrived many centuries ago. These north Indians have forgotten their mother tongue but retain a vigorous art-form that had all the zest of the bhangra and was a treasured part of Spanish culture.
We were in Granada and, naturally, we headed for the Alhambra. It is much more than just a castle-palace, it is a red, fortified, city. It crowns a hill overlooking the town with the snow-capped ski slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains rising in the background. From outside it looks forbidding with high, red, walls: The farmers from the valley, or vega, of Granada called it al-kalat al-Hamra, the castle of red earth. Inside, its an unendingly beautiful series of palaces, halls with exquisitely carved ceilings, corridors with delicate columns and arches patterned after encrusted stalactites, fountains, reflecting pools and formal gardens like those created by the Mughals. It's an enthralling place full of endless wonders. Looking for a souvenir that would capture the magic of the Alhambra, we chose an alicatado tile. They have mystical and mathematical designs, more intricate than a yantra, expressing both the dynamism and the complexity of maya captured in mosaics of stone and ceramic.
We should have expected such trans-continental influences. For 800 years Spain was an Islamic civilisation, ruled by the Spanish descendants of sophisticated north Africans referred to as “Moors”. Today, Granada is a flower-bright, European city, rich with courtly grace and warmth.
Trees and lanes
Massed like a ceramic jig-saw, Granada spreads below the Alhambra with the green columns of cypress trees thrusting between the white-walled, red-tiled, houses. We trod down narrow stepped lanes, picked our way through an intriguing labyrinth of old streets. Moorish merchant princes once lived here in walled mansions with vine-shaded courtyards. They're high-priced properties now, known as the coveted carmen. This is a leisurely, shopping-browsing, area where a woman in a caftan ambled past a bearded man in chappals arranging bright displays of tooled leather goods. Spanish leather is held in high esteem all over the world.
We returned there that night to visit the “caves” of the gypsies. Their “caves” look like ordinary houses from the street but, beyond their facades, they plunge deep into the hill. There was a group of these settled gypsies standing outside. With a change of costume they would have passed un-noticed in the streets of Amritsar, Jalandhar or Gurdaspur. Yes, they admitted, their ancestors had come from India but no, regrettably, they did not speak any “Indian”. The surnames of two of them, however, did have an Indian ring. We were presented with a red business card that belonged to Manuel Martin Maya, and the chubby, smiling, duenna was Concepcion Maya. Here they live and stage the nightly performances of the heel-stamping, skirt-swirling, clapping, castanet-clicking flamenco dances and their five dancers had the proud, handsome look of Jatwomen.
In the old cities of Spain, as in those of Tamil Nadu, the town has grown around its principal shrine. These churches and temples have other things in common: They are treasure-troves of a great heritage of art. Here, in Granada, as in many other places in Spain, the Cathedral grew out of the Great Mosque of the Moors: In the forest of pillars and arches we caught an echo of the palm-like columns of Moorish mosques. Otherwise it is very definitely European Christian architecture with soaring domes, gleaming stained glass, great organs, shrines with statues, and intricately delicate wrought-iron grilles in front of the gilded altars. The main altar, as might have been expected, was radiant with gold. Spanish conquerors followed Christopher Columbus to Middle and South America. They returned with plundered gold and pilfered cocoa. The gold brightened their palaces and cathedrals, the cocoa gave us mouth-watering chocolate.
Just outside the cathedral there was another flavoursome link: A spice shop. For us, it was heady with nostalgic aromas. Interestingly, all the spices were in bins neatly stacked on racks. And all of them had labels indicating their medicinal properties. We spoke to a young man who claimed to be in temporary charge. He said, apologetically, that he knew very little about the spices, he only sold them. We did, however, converse with a grizzled-haired man with glinting, rimless, spectacles. “Indeed,” he admitted, “I have researched the therapeutic value of these natural products.” He cocked his head to one side and looked at us quizzically like a bird. Then he said, “I studied under the guidance of an Ayurvedic physician in... how do they call it now? …Shenai?”
In the divergent cultures of Granada there is a special, delectable, place for Chennai.