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Posted at: Jun 18, 2017, 2:51 AM; last updated: Jun 18, 2017, 2:51 AM (IST)ART & SOUL

A passion for the past

A quaint Swiss village shows how history can be preserved in everyday life

B.N. Goswamy

A few weeks ago, I was with Doro Foernzler and her husband, Melk — dear and old friends — spending a couple of days in their mountain home in Filisur. If no one has heard of that place, it would not come as a surprise to me, for, it is just a tiny little place, a speck even on the map of that little but achingly beautiful country that goes by the name of Switzerland.

It is, in fact, only a little village, high up in the mountains, with a population of no more than 600 persons, with old houses that flank a narrow street that takes you to the celebrated valley of Engadin that tourists flock to from all over the world. In and of itself, Filisur has no spectacular features — monument, history, hot springs, or anything like this — that would call for special attention. Except that it has an air of utter calm, and quiet, clean charm, added to by the wonderful warmth that comes from friends like Doro and Melk and their 400-year-old home.

The thing that struck me sharply, at the same time — in the two or three days that I was there — was the air of history that clung to and almost hugged everything in that village. Filisur is not some abandoned old place untouched by modern life: it has every conceivable facility which features in today’s living: there is a tiny station on the mountain railway that serves these parts; the community governs itself from an elegant ‘headquarters’; water and electricity and gadgets and telecommunications in every home; and so on.

But the place has not allowed itself to be taken over unthinkingly by change, and jealously preserves features — practically in every home and every bend in the road — that keep reminding itself of the past and taking delight in its history. Nearly all houses bear old, almost rural, look. If at one time there used to be wide carved wooden doors under expansive low arches through which one entered the home, they are still there; if there were barns in which cattle used to be kept, the barns are still there even if they are being put to new uses without altering their outside appearance; if stone was the commonest of materials for raising buildings, it can still be seen everywhere; again, if there were open community troughs in the village where men and animals could help themselves to mountain-spring water, they continue to be there. In Doro and Melk’s own home, doors retain the elegant old iron hinges; the surfaces of walls still look roughly plastered; the windows looking out on the street are still small, and are either set deep into the wall or protected by rhythmically cast iron grills. 

One of the oldest surviving buildings in the village is of course the Church which goes back to 1492 — that is well before the Mughals came to India — but it is not the only structure that preserves its date. A number of houses bear dates: not simply of when they were constructed but when they were modified or renovated to an extent. Doro’s own home bears three dates, for instance, carved and painted high up on the outer wall: 1611, when it was built; 1911, when the railway came to these mountainous parts and brought with it widespread changes; and 1985, when some modifications were made. The oldest ‘secular’ building in the village bears not only a clear date on its outer wall — 1595, when the great Akbar was still ruling India, one reminds oneself — but also fading remains of mural paintings. Featuring on the one hand is the image of a capricorn — the Alpine ibex with curved horns, which is the symbol of the canton Graubunden to which the village belongs — and, on the other, two animals, including a dromedary, which were exotic enough for its owners to show, for they, in their travels, might have seen them somewhere. Dates apart, many houses feature, high up on the outer wall again, squarish panels inscribed with bold words, going back to the 17th century or earlier, written in Latin — that surely was the language of classic texts and certainly much favoured by the Church — which record the name of the owner of the house and invoke the blessings of God upon him and his family. One wonders if the occupants of the house today can make complete sense of the inscriptions, but they leave them there, untouched, for they belong to history.

I can go on pointing to other features that almost define Filisur and its neighbouring villages in these somewhat remote parts. But I wish to move to the point that I am trying to make: that there is here a regard for the past, for memories which need to be kept alive, which we, in our own land, need to learn from. The unseemly haste with which we are obliterating our histories, the uncalled for sense of apology with which we talk about old things and places, we need to look at again. For one is living with the uneasy feeling that in our rush to embrace change we are losing something. For one thing, the lofty idea that the past and the present do not have to be mutually exclusive; that they can even co-exist in some manner.


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