Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Story Teller and His Audience

If you are visiting North India, you will probably come across a performance of kathak somewhere.
The word kathak comes from the word katha or story. Kathak dancers are traditional story tellers, showcasing legends through music and dance. A kathak performance teaches as well as entertains, using a rich and sophisticated poetic literature in Sanskrit and Brajbhasha.

I spotted this kathak dancer at the Gateway Hotel in Agra. He was on a little stage, dancing to a piece of recorded music. His audience was a bunch of foreign travellers, several of whom had just made the 5-hour drive from Delhi, and were now relaxing at the bar watching him over their beers.

The dancer told the story of the blue-skinned God Krishna and his lover Radha. It was a beautiful story, embellished with subtle glances and elegant footwork. In the story, Krishna and Radha meet in the forests of Vrindavan, he plays the flute for her, and even the birds and the deer stop to listen to the magic of his song. She quarrels with him, over the attention he pays to other women. As he cajoles and teases her into forgiveness, she becomes lost in his leela. In the eternal all-consuming fire of her love, she forgets herself and merges into the divine.

The story was well told, but the audience understood absolutely nothing.
I was not surprised - the song was meaningless to them, and the vocabulary of the dance was entirely foreign. How does someone from a strange culture understand the symbolic mechanisms that dancers use while switching roles? How do they understand what the arched coquettish eyebrow, or the sideways glance, or the delicate flick of the wrist means, when they don't even get the context of the story? Not surprisingly, at some of the most sublime moments of the performance, the audience merely stared into their beer mugs or looked around for the bartender.

The real tragedy of it was that the performer was quite competent, with at least 10-15 years of rigorous training behind him. In spite of people moving around, or ignoring him completely, he danced with grace and dedication, as if he had all eyes upon him. I felt so bad for him, I wanted to run away and hide somewhere.

That night in my hotel room, I asked myself - Why does this happen in India, this trashing of our art forms until they become a pathetic mockery of themselves?

I realized that there are multiple issues, some of them quite complex. But I believe our lack of respect and value for our art forms is definitely one of the problems. The hotel staged this performance in their lobby, in a noisy area near the bar, perhaps because they had no other venue. But because it was presented like that, as an optional "cultural" show with drinks at the bar, the dance became a trivial tidbit, a take-it-or-leave-it affair. There was no formal introduction to the performer and his background, no explanation of kathak traditions or gharanas, no story outline – as a matter of fact, there was even no seating around the stage for anyone who wanted to watch the whole performance. It is as if the hotel had decided already that this was a boring performance, and not worth the effort. Naturally, the performance just tanked. When you yourself treat something like trash, it is very difficult for others to treat it with respect.

Contrast this with my experience at The Oberoi Bali. The hotel arranged a Balinese dance show with dinner, a rendering of some scenes from the Ramayana. They had amphitheatre style sunken seating for those who wished to view the show. For others, there were tables set discreetly so that every single person had a view of the dance. The waiters were quiet and hushed, you could order food and drinks, but it was clear that there was a performance, and you had to give it due respect. On every table, there was a one page description of the show, describing the acts that it was broken into, and giving a brief summary of the storyline. I’m sure we didn’t understand all the nuances of the performance – but we enjoyed it because of the way it was organised.

Some would argue that it is not the hotel, but the artiste who is responsible for audience delight. If the audience doesn’t like something, then either the dancer is to blame, or the dance form itself is to blame. Why was the kathak dancer not able to have any impact on his foreign audience? In spite of the poor seating and noise, could he not have drawn the audience towards him? Could he not have told them the story before dancing?

Unfortunately, our classical performers are not geared to explain their art to people from other cultures. The Indian art tradition assumes that audiences come from the same broad cultural milieu. It presupposes a shared cultural background where the stories and legends are commonly understood. In addition, the classical dance forms also assume that audiences understand the format in which dance is delivered, for example, the way in which sections of story/emoting are interspersed with sections of pure rhythm/dance. The other problem is purely practical - I very much doubt the dancer had the necessary English-speaking skills to explain the origins of kathak, or its morphing over the ages, to a foreign audience.

My personal view of the matter is that in our country, it is not practical to leave the matter to the artiste. Most Indian performers, including those from both folk and classical traditions, have poor/basic English education levels, with little or no exposure to overseas audiences. Their skill lies in their art, and not in the packaging or marketing of their art to overseas visitors. In my mind, it is very much the responsibility of the intermediary – for example, the hotel, or the tourism development board or the tour company arranging the performance – to ensure both the dignity of our arts as well as an enjoyable experience for the tourist.

As someone who is part of the tourism industry, I will do my bit to make things better. But I suspect it will take a while to get to the point where "cultural" performances don't make me squirm.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Paratha Chronicles

During a recent routine check, the doctor was quite blunt. 'You need to lose five kilos', she said. 'Are you exercising?'
I stammered an embarassed answer, and promised to cut down on the carbs. But it's really hard, when you're a vegetarian, to put together a soul-satisfying meal that doesn't have wheat or rice in it.
After four days of salads and fruits and juices, I found myself face to face with a gajar-gobi paratha today. Of all the things in the world that I can't resist, this is one of them. It's actually quite a healthy thing to eat, so for those of you who are NOT afraid of carbs, here's how we made it.

Grate carrots and cabbage - as much as you like, in whatever proportion you like.

Two spoons of oil, add grated stuff and saute over medium flame. Add finely chopped green chillies.

The thing reduces to half its original volume very quickly. Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, add salt, cumin powder and coriander to wheat flour.

Mix it all into chappati dough (doesn't need water), let it stand for 20 minutes.

Roll it out and cook on flat griddle. Don't use oil, just roast it on the griddle until it's crisp on the outside. Because of the veggies, it's still soft on the inside. I ate it with dal and sprouts and mango pickle and buttermilk. Sigh. It was brilliant.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A new desi delight

It is now official, folks. I have no backbone.

There I was, watching the History Channel, when they suddenly sprang a programme on the history of Chocolate. Fifteen minutes into the show, my backbone gave way, and I raided the fridge, desperate for anything, just anything chocolatey.

Here's what I found in the fridge - handmade chocolates from Ooty.

The purple ones were minty, and the square ones had all sorts of exotic spices and dry-fruits in them (I didn't stop at one, of course).

The cocoa in these chocolates is grown in spice plantations, interspersed with palm, arecanut and other trees.

Chocolate is quite a new fangled thing in India. Before 1965, the cocoa crop was not commercially produced anywhere in India. Then thanks to Cadbury India, cultivation began in Kerala, and from there, spread to other states in the South (as a matter of fact, in many places, the cocoa tree is actually called the ‘Cadbury’ tree!)

Although chocolate has been around only a few years, we're already inventing a whole new cuisine around it. Homemade chocolates (which all the honeymooning couples at Ooty go ga-ga over) are just the tip of the choco-craze. Every time I visit my local mithai shop, I see proof that we have happily combined traditional Indian milk-sweets and spices with this new upstart ingredient from South America. Have you tasted chocolate burfi yet? Or hunted down a chocolate laddoo recipe from the internet? How about chocolate peda then? Or “Jain” chocolate mousse!

Even at the poorest end of the spectrum, chocolate has made a conquest - when my maid had a grandchild last month, she rushed out of the house, and came back with a gift pack of Cadbury's Fruit and Nut for us to celebrate.

I'm telling you, there's a chocolate revolution happening in India. It's sneaking up on us, bite by heavenly bite, we just don't know it yet!

I'm off to raid the fridge again, people. (Told ya, no backbone). Almond drops, anyone?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

I begin to understand Mithila painting

On a wall in the Delhi Crafts Museum, I spotted a series of paintings done in the Mithila folk style. This is traditionally an art form done by women, painted on the walls of houses, in celebration of major events such as births, marriages and festivals.

Even from afar, the murals were striking. They were large, almost 6-7 feet in height, and spread across the entire wall in a series of arches. Each arch contained one painting. This one below, for instance, shows the Goddess Durga astride her tiger, framed inside an ornamented arch.
The colours were bold, and the flat filling-in of colour made the paintings visually stimulating. Below the painting, the artist had signed her name: Shrimati Mundrika Devi, from a village called Jitvarpur in Madhubani District, in the state of Bihar.

When I looked a little closer at the painting, I found myself loving the "double-line" approach. All the outlines were double lines, with the inner portions either left blank, or filled in colour, or filled with little lines. Here's a close-up of one of the small ducks at the top of the mural: see how the double lines and colouring contributes to the rich detailing? Every object in the painting, from the smallest flower, to the largest human, was painted with the same careful attention.
After five minutes of staring closely at small aspects of the painting, I found myself slipping into the shoes of the painter - what was she thinking, Mundrika Devi, when she drew these? Were the walls of her home also filled with these paintings? Did she lose herself in the lines as she painted, did she forget to make dinner? Or did she, as she cooked and tended her house, look again and again at her creation, mentally adding little details?

The more I visualised the life of the painter, the more the painting appealed to me. This was not "Art" as a leisure activity for those with spare time and money. This was art entwined in the daily life, in the very heartbeat of a woman.

This past week, I have been eyeing the walls of my home. I want to do this too, to fill my living space with vibrant strong lines and bold colours. I want to spend time working and reworking pigments, rushing about from corner to corner of a wall, adding a tree here and a bird there, stepping back, drawing again, wandering into the kitchen, wandering back to my walls...working on my email, but wandering back again, always to the colourful wall.

It seems to me that what I really want is to be seduced into a beautiful trance, by the creative and very personal process of decorating my own home. Perhaps that's what Mundrika Devi wanted too.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Masala Chai in Jaipur

The best tea I had in Jaipur was at a little stall called Sahu Chai, on Chaura Rasta.
We had been walking for hours in the bazaars, and while it was fascinating, it was also very tiring. By 4:00 p.m., I was beginning to flag - so my friend Swati decided to take us to Sahu's, to perk us up.

It was literally a hole in the ground, a small shop sunken below street level. But Mr. Sahu was something of an artist. I watched him make our tea with a delicate hand, adding just the right amount of tea, spices, sugar and milk. He had an elaborate yet unhurried technique of stirring the tea as it brewed - perhaps he was watching over it for some secret sign?

Whatever the secret, the tea when it came was glorious - piping hot, milky sweet and flavoured with a mix of spices. It was served in a tall glass, and as I drank it, I felt the energy rush hit my bloodstream.
"Where would we be without tea?" I said to myself. I sent a silent thanks to the persistent Englishmen who first popularised tea in India. If it weren't for the dogged campaigns and door-to-door demonstrations of the Tea Association, Indians would have stuck to the traditional lassi, milk and water.

Of course, the English didn't quite bargain for how Indians would practically *reinvent* tea by adding cardamom, ginger, and even pepper to it! Nor did they realise we'd add the milk and the sugar alongside the water, boiling all of it merrily into a thick, aromatic cup. But as anyone who has tasted a good masala chai will tell you, there's nothing better on the planet!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Delhi by Metro - Tour training in progress!

I wrote earlier about this new tour - Delhi by Metro, and the students from Manzil who are going to be the guides for the tour.

Here are photos from the practice runs we've been having. These are sample photos from only one half of the tour, the Old Delhi portion.

Thank you, all of you who've volunteered to be the first guinea pigs for this tour! I'm sure you'll have a great time.

On the air-conditioned Metro ride, from Connaught Place to Old Delhi's Chawri Bazaar. Everyone's busy memorising their training scripts.

Exit the Metro station, into the madness of Chawri Bazaar! Rickshaws are waiting!

At Jama Masjid - the gang leader is Shilpi, left-most, back row. She's the motivator and trainer, the chief force behind this tour.

Practising the script - led by Mansi, a volunteer at Manzil.

Shweta, another Manzil volunteer takes over from Mansi. Clearly whatever she's saying, she has everyone's full attention!

Shilpi explains Jainism, at the Jain Naughara in Kinari Bazaar.

After a hard day's work, the visit to Haldiram's is very, very welcome!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Delhi by Metro (A very different kind of tour!)

I am very, very excited. This season, I'm launching a new tour of Delhi...a very different kind of tour. Want to know what's different about it?
For starters, it's Delhi's first tour by Metro! And not just the Metro - this tour uses two additional forms of 'green' transport that are popular with the common man in Delhi - the CNG powered auto-rickshaw, and the cycle-rickshaw.
The guides for the tour are special too. They are a group of youngsters from Manzil, an NGO that works in children's education. The kids at Manzil come from diverse backgrounds, but they are all united by a keen sense of wanting to learn, of wanting to make something of themselves. I was amazed and humbled and challenged by the energy and spirit I saw among them. We've now selected eight students from Manzil, and have started a training program for the tour. We're teaching them history, geography, and speaking skills, using a script researched and written specially for this tour. Manzil's own volunteer team is helping with the training as well.

The tour itself is interesting, and covers both New Delhi and Old Delhi. It starts at Connaught Place, with an introduction to the history of Delhi, and a geographical orientation of the city. From there, we take tourists by auto on an exploration of 'Lutyens Delhi' - the city of grand public spaces designed by the British, which is now called New Delhi. We drive through the Central Business District, seeing the markets and businesses there. We go to the Lutyens Bungalow Zone, Janpath, Rajpath, and visit the President's House, Parliament House, Secretariat and India Gate.

After this, we board the Metro to go to Old Delhi, where we experience the bustle of the bazaars both on foot, and using cycle-rickshaws. We will see the famous Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India), Dariba Kalan (the silver market), Kinari Bazaar (wedding market) and Paranthewali Galli (Lane of Parathas). We'll visit Gurdwara Sees Ganj Sahib, built at the site where Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. We will also see Hindu temples, Jain derasars and churches, all standing cheek-by-jowl.

The final stop at the tour is the legendary Haldiram's for chaat and a cold drink. After that, we clamber on the Delhi Metro again, to end the tour at Connaught Place.
So - what do you think? Sounds good? If you are a Delhi local, tell me if you think I should improve something. If you're an overseas visitor, does it sound appealing? If any of you want to be guinea pigs at discounted prices, let me know!
Here are some photos of the tour training in progress.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The man who lived in interesting times

I was strolling through the Qutb Complex with my friend, when we came across a little octagonal tomb set prettily in a separate courtyard.

There are many grand monuments inside the Qutb Complex - the tall Qutb Minar, the grand Quwwat-ul-Islam (Might of Islam) mosque, and the ornate Alai Darwaza. Most were built in the early 13th century, by the Slave Dynasty. But this small tomb was added later, in the 16th century.
Who was he, I wondered, this man whose tomb lay next to some of the grandest structures in Delhi? Why was he such a big deal? A Sultan perhaps, or some great nobleman? I looked at the inscription - this was the tomb of a priest, a man named Imam Zamin. It took quite some reading before I found out who he was.
Imam Zamin was a Sayyid, a word that is used to describe male descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. The Sayyids trace their lineage back to Hassan and Hussein, the two grandsons of the Prophet, starting from the 7th century.

In the sixteenth century, Sayyid Imam Zamin came to India from Central Asia (Turkestan), during the Sultanate of Sikandar Lodi. In The Delhi that No One Knows, R V Smith says that the Sayyid was appointed Chief Imam of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, and that Sikandar Lodi looked to him for spiritual guidance. The Imam, who was a Sufi, preached disregard for worldly achievements, asking Lodi to strive instead for unification with the divine Oneness.

.Smith also says that Imam Zamin didn't like the political intrigues in the court of the Lodis. I am not surprised. Sufism is the most mystical aspect of Islam, and Sufi saints are renowned for turning their faces away from the material world.

When Babur (the founder of the Mughal empire) defeated the Lodis, he visited Imam Zamin, to pay his respects. Babur's son Humayun also held the Imam in high honour, and it was in Humayun's reign that the Imam's tomb was built. When Humayun briefly lost Delhi to Sher Shah Suri, an Afghan, Sher Shah also came to seek the Imam's blessings.

I find it fascinating that here, in this little corner of the Qutb Complex, there was once a man who saw so many kings rule and die. What an interesting life he must have led! I can imagine him sitting in his dusty courtyard, with the mango trees in the background, listening to the call of Delhi's peacocks, while empires rose and fell and new rulers prostrated before him for his blessings.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Green Delhi

We were stuck in traffic near Kashmere Gate in Old Delhi. But I was surrounded by green. Green buses, that is, running on Compressed Natural Gas.
There was a bullock cart next to us (greener than the bus?). I couldn't resist photographing the white of the bullock against the colours of the bus. Dramatic, don't you think?

"Propelled by Clean Fuel", I read on the side of the bus. I remember how difficult it was to push the clean fuel initiative through. But in 2001, displaying remarkable firmness, India's Supreme Court ruled that Delhi must replace its entire fleet of outdated buses with pollution-free vehicles powered by Compressed Natural Gas. It was a tough move, and although some people kicked and screamed, it got done. Delhi's air quality improved dramatically.

Last year, though, there were studies indicating that the quality of air had worsened again. The Center for Science and Environment (CSE) published a report in November 2007, suggesting that pollution levels had jumped from 115 to 136 micrograms per cubic meter. CSE blames it on the rapid increase in the number of diesel-powered private vehicles.

The Delhi government is fortunately not ignoring these reports. It is doubling the number of CNG buses from 3,000 to 6,000. It has also introduced a new type of CNG bus, a fancier more modern looking version, that is disabled friendly. And recently, it has started air-conditioned buses on some routes.
Apart from buses, there is of course, the now famous Delhi Metro, which has made mass rapid transit possible in Delhi, and is contributing significantly to pollution reduction. While I sometimes despair for India's infrastructure, there's always something positive that ensures I don't lose hope completely!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A glimpse of something new on the Delhi-Agra highway

As you near Mathura on the Delhi-Agra highway, you'll see this impressive looking building on your right. We were there on a rainy day, and the white marble looked beautiful against a somewhat stormy sky.

"I wonder what it is", I said to my friend Pooja, when we spotted this building from afar. "Maybe it's a mosque or a tomb?"
When we drew closer, there was a little surprise in store for us. Although the structure looked Islamic, it had a non-Islamic Jai Gurudeo inscribed on the arch at the gate.

"Maybe it's some kind of sect", said Pooja. "Let's ask someone."

She asked some men standing at a tea-shop nearby, and they told us it was an ashram, a place of prayer and meditation, and that many of the residents there were old people who did not have family to look after them.

We clicked a couple of photos, and then I noticed a rather prominent signboard. "No fee for entrance", it said. "No donations. Photography allowed." I thought it was very interesting that someone would choose to put up a board like that!

So when I came back home, I decided to look up the Jai Gurudeo sect on the internet. Here's their website. They preach a simple spirituality, and while their beliefs have a lot in common with Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism, they do not follow any specific religious tradition.

Their spiritual leader, Baba Jai Gurudeo, believes the human body is on a journey towards bliss, and by living a simple life (no meat, no alcohol, sorry!) and focusing the mind on prayer, we can achieve our true potential. Anyone can join the sect and attend the meetings and discourses - there is no discrimination based on gender, caste or religion. Nor do you have to forsake your current religion to listen to the teachings of Gurudeo. I can see why he's so popular in that area!

I'm constantly amazed at how new spiritual leaders emerge from the grassroots in almost all parts of India. Each of them has his or her own message and philosophy. Many of them draw ideas from the major religions of India, but interpret them in new ways to create new philosophies and ways of living. When I come across something new like this, it gives me hope that India's great tradition of philosophical enquiry is still very much alive.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hymn to the Sun God

On the first storey of a house in the Walled City of Jaipur, I saw this man offering salutations to Surya, the Sun God. The man had a wet towel draped around his waist, proof that he had just completed his morning bath. There was no sacred thread around his body such as those Brahmins wear; perhaps he was a trader or merchant. His house, like others on the street, was painted in Jaipur's trademark pink.

Sun worship is an old tradition, that goes back to about 2000 BC. Descriptions of the Sun God in the ancient Vedic texts are awe-inspiring - they speak of the golden efflugent beauty of the Sun, riding a chariot drawn by seven white horses.

Here is a translation of a hymn from the Rig Veda, dedicated to Surya: this hymn is also a prayer against the dreaded yellow-fever /jaundice.

Swift and all beautiful art thou, O Sūrya, maker of the light,
Illuming all the radiant realm.

Thou goest to the hosts of Gods, thou comest hither to mankind,
Hither all light to be beheld.

Seven Bay Steeds harnessed to thy car bear thee, O thou farseeing One,
God, Sūrya, with the radiant hair.

Rising this day, O rich in friends, ascending to the loftier heaven,
Sūrya remove my heart's disease, take from me this my yellow hue.

To parrots and to starlings let us give away my yellowness,
Or this my yellowness let us transfer to Haritāla trees.

With all his conquering vigour this Āditya* hath gone up on high,
Give my foe into mine hand: let me not be my foeman's prey.

*Surya goes by many names - Aditya or First Born, is one of them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Of Towers and Skulls

Sightseeing in Delhi and Agra can be a dizzying blur of domes, as you trudge past mosque after mosque, and tomb after elaborate tomb. If you find yourself longing for something different, maybe you should go see the Chor Minar in South Delhi.

It is a nondescript little tower, built in the 30-year reign of the Afghan Khilji dynasty at the end of the thirteenth century. It is in the middle of a quiet residential area in Hauz Khas. I went to Hauz Khas to meet a friend, and saw Chor Minar basking quietly in the morning sun.

So what's interesting about Chor Minar, you ask? See the little holes all over the top of the tower? The holes originally held human skulls! Whose skulls? Thieves, enemies, and anyone else the Sultan didn't fancy, I suppose. Macabre, but more interesting than a boring old tomb, I think.

Closer view of the holes. My friend told me parrots nest there now.

Skull towers are not new to Asia. When Timur sacked Delhi in 1398, he slaughtered a hundred thousand people, and built a tower with their skulls. Later Mongol kings in India (Mughal kings) built skull towers too. In 1556, the Mughal emperor Akbar defeated Hemu at Panipat, slaughtered his army, and built a victory tower with the heads. Here's a Mughal miniature from 1590, showing a tower being built during Akbar's reign.

I don't quite understand what's going on in this pic. They're breaking the wall? And using the bricks to build the tower? And there's a war going on behind the wall, where the tree shows a prosperous city. Maybe what they're trying to tell us is where the bricks and skulls for the tower came from - the bricks from the very walls of the city being invaded, and skulls from the people of that unfortunate city! Maybe even the labour came from the losers in battle - the faces of the people building the wall are similar to the faces on the dismembered heads. I'm not surprised that they glossed over all this gory stuff in Jodhaa Akbar!
In 1628, Peter Mundy, an English traveller and diarist, found skull towers still being built in India. He described the towers as being made of the heads of "rebbells and theeves, with heads mortered and plaistered in, leaveinge out nothing but their verie face". Here's Peter Mundy's drawing of the tower, illustrated in 1632.

I'm not sure when the practice ended, but I presume it was the decline of the Mughal empire after Aurangazeb's death in 1707 that put an end to the towers.

Next time you're in Delhi, go take a peep at Chor Minar in Hauz Khas. It is a beautiful green part of Delhi, and a pleasure to visit. Apart from seeing Chor Minar, you can spend some time at the Hauz Khaz village, shopping in the little upscale boutiques and art galleries, or just enjoying birdlife at the beautiful Hauz tank.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Speaking of chariots

Since we're on the subject of temple chariots, this is me at the Crafts Museum in Delhi. This chariot is really beautiful. It stands in an open courtyard, exposed to the sun and the rain. The wood has a weather-beaten look that I find very attractive.

The Crafts Museum (the official name is National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum) was designed by Charles Correa. The collection was largely put together in the 50's and the 60's (the year immediately after Indian independence).
The design of the Museum displays a rare sensitivity and empathy with the objects displayed - everything seems to "belong". The buildings are low-lying, the scale is appropriate for a display of rural arts and crafts. When I walked into the museum, I felt like I was in a real village, witnessing a local fair. If you go anytime after October 1st, you'll find live demonstrations of several crafts.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Rath Yatra in Old Delhi Friday July 4 '08

Last Friday, some American guests of mine went on a Delhi Magic tour - the Bazaar walk through Old Delhi. They were right on time to witness the annual Rath Yatra of Jagannath (Rath = Chariot, Yatra = Pilgrimage).

During the Rath Yatra, tall gaily decorated chariots carry idols of Lord Krishna through the streets, so that people may have darshan (a holy viewing), and obtain blessings. The carts are pulled by volunteers; there is devotional music.

Yatra or Pilgrimage is an integral part of Hindu religious life. After you have fulfilled your duties as a householder, you turn your attention towards a spiritual life, and go on a pilgrimage to holy places. The Rath Yatra is actually the pilgrimage in reverse - instead of believers seeking out the deity inside a temple sanctum, here the deity appears on the streets, to mingle with the people.

The biggest Rath Yatra is in Puri on the east coast, at the beautiful Jagannath Temple. Idols of Lord Krishna, his brother Balarama (Balabhadra) and sister Subadhra are taken through the streets in a grand procession of three chariots. The chariots at Puri are huge and colourful, and it takes several people to pull them. Once set in motion, the chariots trundle on almost with a life of their own and cannot be stopped even if someone falls accidentally in the path (that's where the English word juggernaut comes from). The chariots come to a stop two miles away, at the Gundicha temple. After a week's stay at Gundicha, the deities then return to Jagannath Temple.

Beyond the colour and drama, the Rath Yatra also has a philosophical meaning. The Kathopanishad says:

Atmanam rathinam viddhi sareeram rathamevatu
Buddhim tu saarathim viddhi marah pragrahameva cha.

The Body is the Chariot and the Soul the Deity within.
Wisdom is the Charioteer, directing the Mind onwards.

(Photos courtesy Robert Taylor - thank you!)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Zeenat Mahal - Palace of Beauty

Spotted at Lal Kuan, a once-beautiful house named Zeenat Mahal.
The brick-work is gone, the beautiful latticed balconies are lifeless.
The carved arched entrance is hidden by a grey tarpaulin and a red board.
Old Delhi is a mess, we all know it.
But I am still saddened every time I see it crumbling like this.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Love And All That Jazz

I was checking my email when I saw this advertisement for a matrimonial services website:

Is it just me, or does anyone else see the irony of an arranged marriage advertisement that promises love?

Perhaps there is a blinding moment of romantic love somewhere during the lengthy process of arranging a marriage? Does love come suddenly tiptoeing in, as families check whether the horoscopes match, whether the bride is fair enough, and the groom comfortably wealthy?

Or maybe love comes later. On the wedding night, perhaps? Maybe there is a very Indian sort of love then; a heady cocktail of flower-strewn beds and dutiful sex, of virginal fumbling and earnest baby-making?

Or does it come still later, as the husband and wife settle into familiar traditions and festivals, and find their place in the larger family? Perhaps when he comes home from work bringing flowers for her hair, their relationship morphs into a real tenderness? Is it then that love develops?

If you ask me, I think the truth is that a very different sort of love develops in Indian marriages - and it is not between the husband and the wife. Parenthood - and the love of children - is the Big Love in an Indian marriage. It seems to me that when a child comes along, many couples put romantic love on the back-burner as they find a fiercer, deeper maternal or paternal love that all but consumes them. The legendary Indian attachment to children burns brighter than anything else, and provides life-long sustenance to the marriage, replacing notions of romantic and sexual love.

Maybe this sort of marriage is really what humans need - a stable, no-nonsense system that creates companionable partnerships, so that we can get on with the real business of making and raising children, populating the gene pool with little copies of ourselves.

Maybe the ancients got it right a long time ago. Why fret and fume over male-female relationships, when really, it’s all about babies?

I am too much a product of Western thinking to be happy with a partnership geared towards childrearing. But Darwin would have approved, don't you think?

Monday, June 16, 2008

The God Question

In this deeply religious country, it is hard to publicly question the existence of God.

Try declaring to an uncle or an aunt, that you do not believe in God. Worse still, ask them *why* they believe in a blue-skinned being flying around on a giant eagle saving the world. The initial response is a startled silence, followed by a quick look around to see if anyone else overheard it. This is then followed by much tsking and shaking of the head - " shouldn't talk like that!", they'll say.

I have a problem with this attitude.

What do they mean, "shouldn't talk like that"? It is an honest question, for crying out loud. I get especially upset when people say this to children. If a child asks you a question about God, you owe that child a sensible answer. It may or may not be the right answer, but it is better than giving the child the impression that even *asking* such a question is criminal.

When I was 10, I attended a discussion session organised by a Hindu religious group. In a mixed gathering of children and older people, a middle-aged woman was talking to us about God. When she said "Any questions?", I stood up and asked "But how do you know God exists?". It was a genuine question, I wasn't being cheeky. The speaker smiled at me very condescendingly, and said I was too young to understand, and that when I grew up, it would all become clear. Meanwhile, it would be better for everyone if I just sat down and joined in the prayer.

I sat down, feeling snubbed. I was seething inside. Did my question not deserve an answer, even a small one? It was my first brush with religious tradition, and I remember thinking how closed and narrow it was!

Later, I asked my father the same question. "Appa, why do you believe God exists?". He smiled and said, "Well, I don't really have any proof. But several wise and good men in whom I believe think they have seen and experienced the truth. And because I believe in them, there's a good chance God exists". I was happy with the answer - it gave me something to think about. "Who are these men?", I asked, and it led us into a discussion of Indian philosophers.

The point is not whether my father was right or wrong. The real point is that he gave me a logical answer to his beliefs. It is when people brush aside questions, or spout dogma instead of answers, that I see red.

As I grew older, I made my own observations and deductions. I now believe that we still don't know the real answer to whether God exists, but I've also come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter. All I want from religion - if anything - is a set of rules to live my life with a clear conscience. And since I have already made up my set of very satisfactory rules, it is not particularly important to me to figure out whether God is for real.

This is not a particularly radical line of thought. Several Indian schools of religion have similar views. Buddhism, for example, is most definitely an agnostic religion. It believes that the eight-fold path of living will lead to salvation, and does not require any belief in a divine being. Mahavira, who founded Jainism, said quite clearly that he didn't believe in a Creator God - he chose instead to believe that the universe has always existed, will always exist and is governed by natural laws.

The Mimamsa school of Hinduism believed that there is a natural Karmic law, where cause and effect apply, with no need of an all-powerful God to enforce the law. Carvaka, who founded a stongly atheistic sect in around 300 BC called the vedas the ramblings of rascals, and said:

While life is yours, live joyously;
None can escape Death’s searching eye;
When once this frame of ours they burn,
How shall it ever again return?

The Rig Veda itself, which modern-day "Vedic" fundamentalists revere as the one authentic source of Hindu religion, says of the creation of the universe:

Who really knows, and who can swear,
How creation came, when or where!
Even gods came after creation's day,
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start?
Did He do it? Or did He not?
Only He, up there, knows, maybe;
Or perhaps, not even He.

When you read books of Indian philosophers, it is obvious that we have a great and ancient tradition of religious questioning, of frank open thought. Tragically, the tradition is no longer alive. In its place, we have dogma, backed by political and economical lobbying. The rot has set in, and I fear it is irreversible.

- Deepa

P.S. Whether you believe in flying Gods or not, I think that painting of Vishnu on Garuda is a beautiful example of Bundi art. It is from, and retails for $50.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Grinding for everyday cooking

Near Gate 3 of Jama Masjid, I saw this little iron pestle. It was part of doctor's toolkit, used to powder roots and herbs (much more interesting than writing out boring prescriptions!).
It reminded me of a similar, but larger iron mortar and pestle in my grandmother's kitchen. Every year, large quantities of spices would be ground in it. The pestle was about 4 feet high, and you had to stand in order to bring it down hard on the mortar. A woman from a nearby village would come visit our house, she would spend all day grinding. We'd hear the rhythmic thwack of the pestle and sneeze when the masalas tickled our noses. We all tried our hand at it, of course. The pestle was amazingly heavy, and we were full of admiration for the woman who hefted it so easily with one hand.

These days, I don't see iron mortars and pestles in Indian cities. We've mostly switched to ready-made masalas. You can still see some stone grinders, though.

My mum has a tiny stone mortar-and-pestle, which she uses to make fresh garam masala for cooking. I have a small one too, that I use for crushing garlic, green chili and ginger. Every time a green chili crunches satisfying under the pestle, it awakens something atavistic in me. Take that! I want to say. And that! And that!

My motorised grinder isn't half as fun!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Lion People

Everyone knows about the Masai of Africa, but have you heard of the Lion People of Gujarat?

My daughter went to Sasan Gir Lion Sanctuary, and brought back this portrait of a Maldhari herdsman.

The Maldharis are buffalo-herders, who live in little mud nesses inside the Gir forest. Like the Masai, the Maldhari count their wealth in cattle. But unlike the Masai, the Maldharis are vegetarian and do not slaughter their livestock for meat. They live instead, by selling milk and milk products, and use the earnings to barter or buy vegetables.
Maldhari homes have no electricity or running water. Every morning, the Maldhari men take their cattle to the forest to graze, while the women gather firewood and grass, draw water, and tend to the home. While the cattle are grazing, the Maldhari have to keep a sharp lookout for Gir's Asiatic lions, for whom the cattle are an easy target.

They're good looking people, these men, aren't they? Sharp features, confident, and so very macho. Maybe you'd be macho too, if you had to watch out for prides of hunting lionesses, with only a stick or an axe to protect your herd? The lions take 8 out of every 100 cattle that the Maldhari own, but the Maldharis do not hunt or kill the lions. They have learnt to live alongside them.

The Forest Department believes Maldhari cattle over-graze the forest, making life difficult for the deer, nilgai and other ungulates of Gir. And domestic cattle can bring disease into the forest, wiping out the last surviving pure breed of Asiatic lions.

But others say the Maldhari herds are vital to the survival of the lions. A 16-month study monitoring 6 Maldhari nesses in 2006-2007 established that almost 50% of the diet of Gir lions consists of Maldhari livestock. If you were to remove the Maldharis from the park, the study says, it would significantly affect the lion density, pride size and structure.

Sasan Gir has a complex set of problems. The biggest one is that it has too many lions and too little space. So there are territorial fights among the lions, and this leaves the smaller and younger males with no choice but to look for new places outside the protected area. Gir's lions have now started migrating outside the park. I'm glad they are reclaiming the lands where they once roamed, but this brings them into populated areas and creates new sources of conflict. Relocating the lions to another park would be a good idea - but the Gujarat government wants the Asiatic Lion to be exclusively "Gujarati"! So it blocked a plan recommended by the Wildlife Institute of India to move some lions to Madhya Pradesh.

Five state highways pass through the Gir forest, and there is a widespread limestone mining nearby. There's a cement plant barely 15 kilometers outside the protected area. There are 23 temples, and 250,000 tourists every year. In an area that has very little rainfall, these human activities drain scarce resources, and leaves the waterholes dry in summer (lions in Gir have fallen into human wells!).

Instead of fixing these issues (which involve influential people and big money), the government has got it into its head that the Maldharis - a community that does not poach - are the chief problem. In my view, the biggest threat to the Asiatic Lion is not the Lion People. The biggest threat is that the only 300-odd surviving Asiatic lions in the world are all hemmed together in one small forest. A single epidemic could wipe out all of them. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lemonade Seller, Chandni Chowk

On a hot summer day, nothing is as tempting as an iced lemonade flavoured with mint.
The wet cloth on the rim sends out cool waves, dragging your eyes like a magnet.
The sun is merciless on the back of your neck.
You watch the lemonade seller as he stirs the juice.
You imagine its sweet-salty-sour taste.
You hear the dull clink of ice, and smell the tang of the masala.
You can't resist it any longer.
"One lemonade please", you say. Bottled water be damned.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Holiday in the Shivaliks

So - to continue from where the last post left off - I'm just back from a short summer break on the blissfully cool slopes of the lower Himalayas.

Naldhera - Abode of God - is 2500 metres above sea level, and a six hour drive from Chandigarh. It is about an hour away from Simla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh.
We took a late morning flight to Chandigarh, so we got there when the sun was high in the sky. The heat hit us like a furnace when we got off the plane. The tarmac was hot and dry and blindingly white as we walked towards the airport building to collect our bags. When we got outside the airport building, there was construction everywhere - the place looked like a disaster zone. To add to it, the May heat rose off the newly set concrete in dizzying waves.
Ranjit Singh, our young Sikh driver, was not apologetic - he waved at the mess and told us very matter-of-factly that they're converting Chandigarh to an international terminal. I have only one piece of advice for the Chandigarh airport authorities: Plant lots of trees! Your international visitors will need the shade!!

In direct contrast, Naldhera was blissfully cool. When we got there it was dark, so it was only the next morning that I figured out how beautiful the place was. .I sat and listened to birdsong at 6:00 a.m. The trees rose behind the cottage, tall and straight, everything around me was serene and perfect. (Well, almost perfect. By seven thirty, the enlightened management of Chalets Naldhera were piping some very irritating outdoor music on a tinny music system. Can you imagine ruining the peace of this place with bad music?)

The very first thing we did was go on a trek to explore the cedar and pine forests around us. The forest floor was crunchy-soft with needles, and the climb was surprisingly steep. We were rewarded with a view of the Sutlej River as it rushed down below, muddy and swirling with the silt from the upper slopes.

"There are hot springs down there, Madam", said our guide Raju. .
"Where?", I asked. .
"Tatta Pani", he said. "It's down there. Very holy place."
I'd never even heard of Tatta Pani, but it sounded interesting. So the next day, we decided to check it out. Tatta Pani, it turns out, is a little village on the banks of the Sutlej. And "tatta" is localspeak for "tapta" - boiling. Tapta Pani. Very poetic. Conjures up bubbling hot water, doesn't it?

We drove about an hour from Naldhera to get to Tatta Pani. The hot sulphur springs right next to the river were an interesting sight, especially because the Sutlej itself is so cold.

The kids had a great time jumping from hot water into cold, and from cold into hot. But Tatta Pani is not all about fun. It is also famous for its curative properties.

We saw a hopeful family of three - an ailing old man and two of his sons. They were at Tatta Pani, trying to curing their father of a sickness that had left him feeble and unable to walk.
Something about these three arrested my attention - maybe it was the fact that they were so silent. None of them really spoke much, but the sons were attentive and considerate. One son held his father's hand, while the other son made a little private pool for him to bathe. When the bath was over, they offered prayers assisted by a local priest.

Here's the other brother, creating a little impromptu spa. The water was hot, so every now and then, he would dip his hands into the cold river water flowing nearby. Since the going was slow, both brothers joined forces to dig out the pool. They gave each other quiet instructions, and used sticks and stones. I watched them hunched over the sand, patting down mud and stones, and marvelled at how it was both a labour of love and an expression of simple, abiding faith. I was glad I went to Tatta Pani.

Tatta Pani gets crowded in Jan-Feb (the month of Magha), when large numbers of people come to bathe in the waters. They believe that a dip in this water will wash away all their sins. They also visit the old Shiva cave temple nearby. Another busy day is Baisakhi Day in April.

(Funnily, locals also come here on January 26th, Republic Day, I'm not sure why! Sometimes I think I will never understand this country of mine)

For more tales of Naldhera and Tatta Pani, and my little shopping expedition to Simla, check out my flickr photo travelogue.