Geneva Diaries #53

Legacy of Persia,  South to Samarkand, French and British Authors, Engadine and Eden-Paradise


Dear Roger,

As I continue to hallucinate in this incredible fifty degree heatwave, I find myself revisiting the dreamscapes of Switzerland. Could these green rolling hills, dotted with wildflowers, crystal blue lakes inhabit the same earth as the heat and dust we seem to be enveloped by, I wonder. Perhaps, all of it was a mirage, but then what a magnificent one!

I am drawn in my hallucinations to the Engadine Valley, which in my mind is heaven on earth, paradise, the blissful garden of Eden. I find myself revisiting the picturesque Italian villages that dot the mountainsides with their painted facades, sgraffito, which is a form of engraving on stucco revealing a textured, colored under-layer and their delightful uniquely designed bay windows almost bring out the inhabitants into the alley below. The Swiss Italian charm of the Grissons is unmistakable, these painted homes could easily be a set put up to entertain us on this journey in Eden. I journey from Scuol to Vulpera and then onto Tarasp (that is a complete book which I will share with you one day), Guarda and finally to Ardez.

The Sgraffito technique: 


Travels with family-Tarasp below:

The senses are overloaded and I feel the cool crisp air of the Engadine flowing through my sweat drenched locks as lose myself in the mirage. I finally find myself outside the Clagluena Haus, a historic house with a sgraffito facade in the charming village of Ardez. The wall mural/sgraffito of this particular home depicts Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (appropriately) with the serpent taking center stage coiling its way up a fruit laden apple tree. 

See below Purnima with the wall mural Adam and Eve:


The setting, the colors, the designs, sgraffito and the fact that this was painted in 1647 and remains vivid and voluptuous for all to see, makes this a real/ virtual journey worth taking (Do see me pictured above in front of this incredible sgraffito, it seems another life, another time). This mural of the Original Sin, Temptation of Man, The “lust of knowing what should not be known”, takes me from the Engadine/ Eden, into the heart of my most recent book, “South to Samarkand” by Ethel Mannin. 

Eden or paradise is defined (by the online dictionary) as:

par·a·dise  (pr-ds, -dz)


1. often Paradise The Garden of Eden.

2. Christianity

a. The abode of righteous souls after death; heaven.

b. An intermediate resting place for righteous souls awaiting the Resurrection.

3. A place of ideal beauty or loveliness.

4. A state of delight.

 The old Iranian language Avestan had a noun pairidaza-, “a wall enclosing a garden or orchard,” which is composed of pairi-, “around,” and daza- “wall.” The adverb and preposition pairi is related to the equivalent Greek form peri, as in perimeter. Daza- comes from the Indo-European root *dheigh-,”to mold, form, shape.” Zoroastrian religion encouraged maintaining arbors, orchards, and gardens, and even the kings of austere Sparta were edified by seeing the Great King of Persia planting and maintaining his own trees in his own garden

Do see me as the little girl (elephant) in my most recent favorite song…”once there was a little girl who expected the world”

Paradise by Coldplay: 

Yes Roger, I find myself once again devoured by a book from the 1930’s, published in 1936 and probably leafed through by innumerable hands and meeting its final destination on my lap. The pages were crisp, brittle and crumbled as I sprinted through the book making my journey in virtual/fantasy space mirroring the authors journey in real time and space, attempting to relive her every moment, every passion. However, as I plucked it off the musty shelf, I noticed a swirl of dust that seemed to stay afloat in the beam of sunlight which tingled my senses as they evoked both the musty smells and sounds of an old Indian bazaar, but it was the famous couplet  “For the lust of knowing what should not be known, We take the golden road to Samarkand” from James Elroy Flecker’s poem “The Golden Journey to Samarkand” which Ethel Mannin uses as an epigram for her book – South to Samarkand, that made me reach out and grab it off its secluded space on the top shelf. For here across time and space and many oceans I found a woman who lusted for that which lies beyond the horizons, that which is censored, blacked out, blocked, impermissible or privy to a select group excluding women. I have always yearned to open that door, press that button, jump through that glass from whence none has returned to tell the tale. As outlined in the  very interesting article pasted below about the French and British intellectuals (women) of the 1930’s, the Soviet Union was such a space, a mysterious, enigmatic, unknown and unknowable place stretching across an immeasurable landmass with distinctive medley of races and cultures from where the “return and tell journey” was not assured and rarely ventured by a woman. So Ethel Mannin was truly unique in her time and space to have embarked upon this adventure where she journeyed with a female companion (often without permission and papers) from Moscow to Samarkand and back by train, car and exploring on foot. This form of journey across Asia in our day and age would be hazardous, it does say a great deal about the author and her times.

The above pasted (missing) article is both in French and English as I noticed that the books from that genre appear to be. I find a smattering of French in most of the books written by English authors from the 1950’s and earlier. In this instance, the author appears to bilingual and she periodically needed to revert to French to express a sense, feeling, expression- do you see the same in the writings of that time and do you notice a change?

The book excited me primarily because the world was able to see a journey, read a travelogue from a woman’s perspective: the sounds, smells were described in detail; Basic hygiene related issues which men either cringe about or fail to report for fear of appearing un-macho like the lack of or the dilapidated state of latrines; no running water with which to wash up;  body odors, of the unwashed. Mannin did go on to describe in detail the physical appearance and dress of the people around her as she journeyed from Moscow to Samarkand, things only a woman’s eye would pick up. However, these words read in our day and time highlight the racial and cultural prejudices prevalent at the time: as she described the people and their yellow skin Asiatic features as she travelled eastwards, she was also disdainful of the sea of large white fleshy female bodies sunbathing on the sands of Sochi or the Black Sea resort which she seemed desperate to cover up which led me to furiously retort through my time space payphone “Are only the bony British allowed to bare all in the sun?”. Despite the ingrained prejudices of the period, the account is frank and for a change distinctly female, conditions that only a woman would highlight. I did find the book more of a visual/sensory first person account without delving into significant historical or cultural perspective. Many interestingly intuitively written passages with a certain flair but overall more like a timeline journal. The reality of two women from a certain background, education, and society traveling through these remote unknown lands in the early 1930′ s under conditions that would make most men cringe makes it an adventure worth delving into. She does highlight the general ignorance of the Western educated elite regarding geographical locations east of Istanbul by pointing out how to the guests of a dinner party comprising the above mentioned elite struggled to identify the location of “Tiflis” moving from India to Africa to guess its location, the place “Tiflis” was synonymous with “Timbuktu ” an unknown unreachable mythical place. Upon being given the clue of “Georgia”, even the author speculated it was somewhere in the United States (and there very well may be a Tiflis in the US but not the Tiflis of this conversation). That general ignorance of places in the old Soviet Union is something I do not think has changed in eighty years, and when prompted about Georgia I would probably say the US (as I did to a chatty fellow airline traveller). I will ask around if anyone knows the location of “Tiflis” today and I suspect I will get a similar response to Mannin… Attributing it to an altogether remoter locale. In her instance it was revealed that Tiflis was in Georgia and then there was a debate as to which Georgia, East or somewhere in the remote West. Eighty years later, we are no more enlightened. There are many parts of the globe that lie in darkness for “the majority” and Samarkand is certainly one of those places.

Samarkand, evokes many dreams and desires, a land of many mysteries, the confluence of many passions, the Mongols and the Greeks, the Turks and the Huns, the Persian and the Sakas (Scythians) each leaving their blueprint on the earth and taking a piece of Samarkand along with them on their journeys. Samarkand holds a particular enigma for us in India for we were to inherit much of that culture of Central Asia, the essence still lingering on in us today. Our favorite restaurants boast of marinated meats cooked in the central Asian style, our favorite restaurants echoing the names of Samarkand and Bukhara, of course the imprint in our language, culture, dress and bloodlines lives eternal. Thus the quest for embarking upon this journey of exploration (albeit from a cosy armchair) from whence most of the tyrannical invaders strapped up their horses rode across the icy passes and embarked upon their journey of plunder and conquest of India, the fiercest and most bloody being that of Tamerlane known for reducing entire villages into pyramids of skulls.

See below: Tamerlane A great military strategician, a brutal cold blooded invader:

Tamerlane or Timur -Lang (“lang” means langara or lame in Hindustani as Tamerlane was known to have a limp) was the tyrannical Timurid chief who is known to have conquered all of Asia from Mongolia to the Mediterranean and from Moscow to Delhi and made Samarkand his capital. Tamerlane sought immortality through conquest and wished to have the world bow to him, this megalomaniac tyrant who sacked, burned and massacred indiscriminately bringing all of Asia under his submission and crowned Samarkand it’s queen, his capital,  decorating her with all his plunder, came to a mortal end, death through old age and illness. The best artists engineers and craftsmen were taken from his ravaged cities and deployed to build the spectacular structures of Samarkand. However, as Mannin points out, these blue green glistening cupolas, the magnificent structures of the Registan (Registan in Hindustani means desert), and the famous mosques like Bibi-khanum which make the journey to Samarkand surreal, this much desired dream, appear to meld into the surrounding desert. The structures as she points out seem to be crumbling, with massive pieces having returned to the earth from whence they sprung ” Not all the glory that was, still is”, “where Tamerlane himself commanded that there should be beauty and splendor, human imagination and human energy were strained to the utmost. At his command blood flowed and beauty flowered. But a mortal and perishable beauty built to perish out of it’s due time and become again a part of the soil of Asia.” 


Where I digress from Mannin, though keenly following her thought when she says “First and last Tamerlane was a destroyer; bringing no culture to Samarkand he gave it a physical beauty, but no immortal soul such as rests with the bloom of eternity upon the glory that was Greece and the splendor that was Rome.”  

While the glory and splendor of Greece and Rome live on today in essence with it’s ideas culture and philosophy, and I whole heartedly agree that it is the  language, literature, epics, philosophy, ideas that remain, that lend immortality, eternity for the spirit and soul of the civilization as the physical structures that once bedazzled and seemed to touch the sky crumble into the earth from whence they sprung, in the instance of this megalomaniacal bloodthirsty warrior Tamerlane whose stories when retold still evoke shudders in large swathes of north India, cannot be viewed merely from the prism of a single individual in time. 

Tamerlane however ruthless his assault and invasions especially on Delhi which is recorded as one of the most bloody and brutal invasions of all time was the great great grandfather of Babur who founded the glorious Mogul empire in India and somewhere somehow the continuity of the culture of central Asia continued into our lands. This culture is omnipresent today in Indian language, food, dress, customs, art architecture and philosophy. However ruthless and demonic Tamerlane was and however savage and indiscriminate his plunder and killings, we cannot say that some part of that journey to India was not completed. In this ruthless warrior lay the seeds for “the desire for India” which was artfully accomplished by his great great grandson who completed the “journey to India” not merely invading and plundering the country but settling and embracing the idea and culture and integrating into it the art and culture of Central Asia. Babur established one of our greatest dynasties, which saw the flowering of art, literature, architecture and music and  which has had an enduring impact on the daily life of the people of central and south Asia especially the Indian sub continent. So, very much like Rome and Greece who may be admired for their once magnificent structures, the pieces that endure for eternity are not the physical but the spiritual and the cultural for both the art and the architecture of the Mughals, the Taj Mahal, The Red Fort, The Jama Masjid, surround me as I sit writing this letter to you from here in New Delhi. 

The Golden Road to Samarkand-James Elroy Flecker


 Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,

   When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,

 And softly through the silence beat the bells

   Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.


 We travel not for trafficking alone;

   By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:

 For lust of knowing what should not be known

   We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.


 Open the gate, O watchman of the night!


Ho, travelers, I open. For what land

 Leave you the dim-moon city of delight?

 MERCHANTS (with a shout):

   We take the Golden Road to Samarkand!

                (The Caravan passes through the gate)

 THE WATCHMAN (consoling the women):

 What would ye, ladies? It was ever thus.

   Men are unwise and curiously planned.


 They have their dreams, and do not think of us.

 VOICES OF THE CARAVAN (in the distance singing):

   We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

— James Elroy Flecker

Lots of love hugs and kisses from Delhi



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