Friday, December 16, 2011

INA Market - Refuge of the Delhi Tamilian!

This small shop in INA Market is quite familiar to most South Indians living in Delhi. 

It's where you go for those little things that you can't do without - 
  • Bright yellow banana chips, fried in coconut oil and salted to perfection
  • Raw green bananas, for the avial that you crave. 
  • Green banana leaves, for serving traditional meals on festive occasions. 
  • Sweet banana fritters, deliciously smothered in jaggery and dusted with dried ginger powder. 
  • Fresh coconuts, without which no South Indian household can survive. 
  • The little shallots that all Tamilians call "sambar vengayam", when you want to make the perfect sambar to eat with pongal. 
  • A crazy bhujia-type thing called "mixture", there is no other word for it, but you'll find it served at 4:00 p.m. along with filter coffee. 
  • Copies of Kumudam, murukku and ten-kozhal, Kerala appalams, Tamil pappadams.....ah, I could go on and on!

It looks like just any other old shop. But it has its definite place in the universe :)

Not far from the shop, there is this stall, selling medu-vadas. Served hot with chutney and sambar, by a guy wearing a folded lungi, they bring a little dash of South Indian soul into Delhi!

The medu-vada guy. Go around 11 am and you'll find it served hot.
Golden-brown medu-vada, crisp on the outside, spongy on the inside, with tiny bits of green chili, ginger and pepper to surprise you when you bite into it. Sigh...pure heaven.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Delhi Airport Metro Express

The Airport Metro Express is a great option if you want to get into the city in under 20 minutes. Works well, is not crowded, and if you don't have much luggage it is easy to manage.

From the airport there are only 4 stops on the Airport Express - Aerocity, Dhaula Kuan, Shivaji Stadium and New Delhi station (NDLS).

Unfortunately, if you exit the Metro at Shivaji Stadium (closest for Connaught Place), it is not easy to find local transport to get you to the exact place you want to go.

There are auto-rickshaws, but they are a pretty grim bunch of guys who I don't trust much. It would be really, really nice if they had a pre-paid taxi service running from the Metro stations, to get you to your home or hotel or wherever else you want to go. I didn't see any, but maybe they do? Does anyone know?

But the Airport Metro Express does look like the perfect option for backpackers who want to get to New Delhi Railway Station. The budget hotels of Paharganj are very close to the station. The hotels also offer pickup from the railway station.

Here are photos from my Delhi Airport Metro Express trip:

Boarding from the airport. The train is not exceptionally busy.
A lot of airport staff are on the train, but also you see several people with backpacks and small suitcases.

Inside the Metro Express. Note the luggage racks.

Most of the journey is underground, but for some phases the train emerges outside and you can see the city below.
I loved this photo of the Green Bus and the Green Auto :) both running on natural gas. Delhi looks very green in this photo!

And in this photo too! This is the Delhi Ridge, the green cover that protects the city!
On the horizon you can see Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President's House) and the centre of New Delhi.

In 18 minutes, I exited at Shivaji Stadium on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, near the city centre.
I didn't see any taxis or auto-rickshaws waiting outside. Maybe there is a service. If anyone knows, please tell me.

Air India passengers can check in at Shivaji Stadium.

I'm waiting to see how this Metro Express service does, and how much tourists are able to use it. I hope it works well. It is very hassle-free and quick.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Amazing Pickle Shop

Just behind the bathing ghats in Haridwar is a very interesting market, with all kinds of spices and pickles and herbs and what not. I spent an hour walking through this market, so now I have a zillion photos, but for today I thought I'd just share this one:

Just *look* at all the varieties he has got!
I tried to count all the types of pickles, in tubs and bottles, but gave up when I reached 50.
If you find the image too small to see, try this facebook page: The Amazing Pickle Shop

As it turns out, I can't name most of them!! So here is my first attempt at labelling at least some of them, and I hope you guys reading this will be able to identify the rest!

And here's the second set:

As if all these achars were not enough, he had loads and loads of interesting bottles too! Pickles, murabbas, chutneys, powders, sherbets, juice extracts, “health” drinks, ayurvedic balms, and what not.
I was soooo tempted to hang around at that shop, looking at all his stuff (and tasting it!). But we we still needed to get to the ghats, so I dragged myself away. What a shame. The shopkeeper was the friendly chatty sort too. You know the type that are proud of their wares? Those are the best :) because you can get lots of info from them.

Seriously, some day I am going back again. Or at least, the next Amazing Pickle Shop that I spot, I'm going to stop and spend a happy half hour tasting and clicking and furiously scribbling notes. Oh and I'll buy myself a lassi to drink in-between tiny achaar nibbles. Heaven!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The English are gone but...

From the intrepid Nazneen, on her solo Golden Triangle trip:
Gorgeous aerial view photos of schoolchildren queuing at Humayun's Tomb.

The queue has a strangely hypnotic quality, doesn't it? As if it has a life of its own.

I also simply *love* the way the queue is snaking its way through the centre of the Char Bagh Mughal Garden scheme.

The first Mughal Emperor Babur built many gardens, to make "that charmless and disorderly Hind (India)" feel more like home.

He was inspired by (and perhaps homesick for) the gorgeous gardens of Samarkand and Herat that he had left behind. Among the earliest things he planted in India were melons, I'm told.

In the Victoria and Albert Museum, there is a watercolour painting of Babur supervising the laying out of Bagh-e-Wafa at Kabul. It is in the Char Bagh style, and water flows merrily in the middle. The Emperor wears golden robes. There are orange-laden trees in the foreground, and birds in the sky. The brick walls enclose a little slice of paradise....

A closer look reveals that pomegranates were also among the favourites being planted. See how beautifully the fruit is detailed. There is a dove delicately perched on a pomegranate branch. The gardeners have their sleeves rolled up. Ah, the pleasures of a Mughal miniature.

As someone who dearly loves her little potted plants, and gets a great deal of pleasure from simply looking at them every day, I feel a sense of affinity with this Mongol king.

Looking at this painting, I can't help thinking that the popular image of the Mongols as "barbarians" conveniently ignores the softer and more aesthetic aspects of their life.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Woohoo!! We are on India Today Travel Plus and THE YAHOO HOMEPAGE!!

This month, India Today Travel Plus listed "10 Must-do Walks in India".

And guess what?

3 out of the 10 are ours!

My Old Delhi Food Trail, the Mylapore Bazaar Walk in Chennai, and my Matunga Market Walk in Mumbai are among them.

As you can guess, I am *very* pleased indeed!

And guess what - This story made it to Yahoo India!! So we're also the Home Page Story on Yahoo today!!

Text of article here:
Old Delhi Food Trail
What's the first thought that comes to your mind when you think of food in Delhi? Mughlai? Perish the thought. For a change, focus on the unique 'Baniya' vegetarian streetfood of Sitaram Bazaar. The Old Delhi Food Trail walks you through the bazaar to learn about the ingredients and essentials of Indian cooking. The colourful and interesting streetfood in this market caters to the Baniya community. Crisp Gol Gappas, Kulcha Chole, Bedmi Puri (stuffed with a spicy mixture of lentils), Nagori Halwa (small puris served with halwa)--the list of enticing streetfood is endless. After this, visit Masterji Kee Haveli, one of the last-standing havelis in Delhi. Here, you can choose to participate in the cooking of a vegetarian meal or just watch. This is not a cooking lesson though; it is a chance to get up close and personal with four generations of a family that continues to live under one roof.

Mylapore Walk, Chennai
This walk makes you go through Chennai's cultural hub and one of its oldest areas--Mylapore. The Portuguese arrived on Mylapore's shores in 1523 and left only in 1749, when the British took over. Despite this, the area has retained its incredible temples and the traditions that revolve around them. The walk takes you to the 300-year-old Kapaleeswarar Temple, the epicentre around which Mylapore is built.

Peek into the temple's daily routine, its own schedule--one that is not usually visible to the outside world. Later, walk through the surrounding areas. Learn about life around the temple tank with its myriad chaos of small shops dedicated to everything from jewellery, brassware, silk, puja items, to fruit and vegetable shops. The walk ends with snacks and coffee at the popular Saravana Bhavan.

Matunga Market food walk, Mumbai
Matunga, in central Mumbai, has a vibrant cultural scene, an indication of the various communities living here. The Food Walk takes you through the markets of this area, and gives a peek into the food of the three communities--Tamil Brahmins, Gujaratis and Jains. All the three are vegetarian, but have different customs and rules, which are very much visible in their food.

The tour begins at the Kannika Parameshwari temple where you learn about the history of Hinduism and Buddhism. From there, head to the market area where you'll be introduced to local fruits, vegetables and spices, with an explanation of how they fit into the daily meal.

Discover inventive foods like Khakra Dosa (a plain dosa made very crisp and then dried liked a khakra), Jain Mousse (mousse prepared without egg) and Chocolate Barfi. The combinations are tantalising and designed to please every palate. Do leave some space for authentic aromatic South Indian coffee at the end.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Moolchand Paranthewala - total paisa vasool

Every taxi driver in Delhi knows that when night-time hunger pangs hit you, the place to go is Moolchand.

Nondescript thela, favourite night haunt of all truckers, cab drivers, and late night party fiends

Paratha in progress - scalded by fire. The flames go whoosh, and the paratha turns out crisp and brown

The assistant at the back rolls out the parathas and tosses it in one smooth movement, it lands unerringly on the far edge of the pan.

Then the guy with the tongs moves them around. Four or five parathas are usually underway at a time, because there's always demand. The anda-paratha is popular, so there's always a stock of eggs.

Hot parathas stacked, waiting to be handed to a long list of buyers.
Lots of people eat here, but many people come and take-away stuff too.

Usual accompaniment - a simple but delicious raita ladled out in plastic cups

Trademark garnish - fried chillies and chaat masala

We ordered the basic aloo paratha. It arrived so hot that we scalded our fingers. We wolfed it down in seconds.
Absolutely delicious. I'm definitely going back again!

Post script 2015: Moolchand has now moved near the Moolchand Metro station, near Cafe Coffee Day. See the Zomato entry for map location, phone number etc.

Monday, August 15, 2011

On Independence Day

The Prime Minister addressed the nation today from the Red Fort. He spoke on many difficult issues facing India today - corruption, education, gender discrimination, agriculture, economic development, and so on.

For me, the most important thing to take away from the speech were simply the last few words:
We should have faith that our democracy, our institutions and our social ideals and values have the capacity to deal with any difficulty. We should all have faith in ourselves. The faith that we can build a promising future for ourselves. The faith, that united we can do the most difficult of tasks. Let us all resolve to build a bright future for our country.

Given the enormity of some of the issues facing the country, this "faith" has become a matter of great difficulty for Indians. In private parties, on facebook and other social forums, I see my friends constantly expressing protest and anger. The primary emotion is NEGATIVE. There is a feeling of victimization, of powerlessness, transforming into frustrated anger.

But I ask all my friends - are you really powerless? Really? There are so many ways - hundreds and hundreds of ways - in which you can make a difference to your country. Go find them! Find those ways, and instead of just sitting at your computer screen and cribbing, go DO something. It's a heck of a lot better use of your energy!

Protest is an important aspect of citizenry. But absolutely nothing is achieved by pulling down an edifice, unless *you* are actively building another one.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A working lunch

When we feel like a hearty Punjabi lunch, my colleague Ranjeet and I usually end up going to Cosy. It is in Huaz Khas, close to our Shahpur Jat office, and very convenient.

Cosy is a typical value-for-money establishment - dim interiors, basic furniture, standard crockery - that produces excellent mid-priced food. The menu is exactly what you expect; it has all the usual Punjabi suspects! :) As long as you don't stray from the formulaic stuff, you can be sure it will taste good.

I am particularly fond of the 'Cosy Special Paneer', a creamy but spicily rich paneer concoction that draws me to this restaurant again and again. Combined with a crisp missi roti to mop it up, this is the kind of food that never fails to satisfy.

See what I mean by "all the usual Punjabi suspects"? :) :)

On the table you can see the regulation mint chutney, raita, my favourite paneer, golden yellow missi roti, black daal garnished with cream, onions, lemon, and a great biryani. We usually finish off this kind of meal with chaaj, thin buttermilk flavoured with ginger, chillies and coriander.

I like Cosy because it is really unpretentious. They are not infected by 'modern' concepts of smiling customer service - what you'll get is a simple basic greeting (more like a grunt) when you enter the restaurant. Then some guy in an ancient shirt will eventually come around to take your order. No fancy English is spoken here, the only language that works is Hindi.

Usually we have lots of work related things to discuss while we wait for the food. Cozy provides the perfect no-pretense ambiance, really, you can talk as much as you like without worrying about disturbing other diners. Food doesn't take too long to be served, which leads me to think they have an efficient team behind the scenes. The restaurant is usually full around lunch time.

By the time we finish the meal we're in a pretty mellow state, and don't much feel like working. The only solution is to return to the office and have the hot lemon tea that Abhi, our office assistant makes so well !

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Photos of Paharganj (and some advice for where to stay in Delhi)

For tourists on shoe-string budgets, Paharganj is usually the first introduction to India. Often it is a difficult and depressing introduction.

Located conveniently close to the railway station, this area of Delhi is a mess of ramshackle buildings, signalling quite clearly the tourist's arrival into the third world.

Main street area, just outside Delhi Railway station

Street view further ahead

There is a bazaar area near the station, where there are small eateries and many tour operators. This market has had a total make-over, and now houses a smart-looking set of shops that sell everything a tourist needs - inexpensive food, fruits, suitcases, chain padlocks for safety, money purses, toiletries etc. And of course, there are many shops offering hotel, road transport, train and flight ticket booking.

Amrit Kaur Market, with uniform facades in blue and grey

Vaishno Dhaba and Bajaj Hotel, offering pure vegetarian fare

A typical Paharganj scam is to have a signboard that lets tourists think they have walked into a government tourist office. Although frankly, you have to be a very naive tourist to actually believe the hole-in-the-wall shop in this photo is something official :)

Shops with misleading signboards - the usual Paharganj scam

Similarly, this shop below, which is opposite the exit gate of the Railway station, says "Government Authorised", but I wonder what exactly they are authorised for!

I wish the Tourism Department would do a clean sweep one day, and get rid of misleading signboards

Once you move a little away from the station area, you can see lots of lanes which have hotels and guesthouses in them. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no local population in this area, it has only hotel after hotel, and the only people you see are cooks, waiters, doormen, touts and other tourists. There are very few women around either.

This to me is the most depressing aspect of Paharganj - everything and everybody is geared to make money off tourists. If travel is about understanding local culture, the last place on the planet where you will find it is Paharganj, because this area is like an artificial zone that came up just to deal with tourists. You have to develop rhino armor-plating to deal with the insistent touts.

Typical street with hotel after hotel, facing each other.
Rooms are usually small and dingy, and naturally there are no views.

In the middle of this stuff, you sometimes come across "nicer" buildings with higher tariffs. The Ajanta for instance, has a colonial facade and a moustachioed doorman. There is something incongruous about these hotels, actually, because they are located on these small lanes where everything else around them is seedy. My opinion is, if you can afford to pay a little more money, then get out of this area and stay elsewhere (the tripadvisor site has lots of inexpensive little B&Bs where you can stay in nicer areas, I've stayed at several of them myself).

The Ajanta Hotel, which has an amusing 'wannabe' website with an American host introducing the hotel :)

To me actually the most interesting place in Paharganj was this tiny shop, which serves food to the staff who work at the shops and hotels. Here I found a bunch of guys getting on with their daily routine of cutting and chopping onions. They have a make-shift gas burner and by noon, they will have piping hot food ready. I would have liked to come back here at lunch hour to catch real people eating real food, and perhaps I would have heard a couple of interesting stories of migrants to Delhi.

Maa Bhagvati Restaurant, named after the goddess Kali

In spite of Paharganj being what it is, there are still lots of people who stay here. It thrives because it is very convenient for the rail station, and also because there is no other place in Delhi that will give you rooms at Rs 1000 or even less. Another positive aspect is that you get to meet lots of other tourists, backpackers mostly, and there's a sense of community that you get from those interactions. You can trade 'survivor' stories, laugh off your Delhi Belly with other victims, and admire 'veteran' tourists who have met and conquered Paharganj's seedy scams. In fact, these veterans won't stay anywhere else even if they can afford it :)

If you've made up your mind to stay in Paharganj, then I've heard good recommendations for Hotel Cottage Yes Please or Hotel Hari Piorko on the tripadvisor forums, but I haven't been there, so I don't know the tariff. My own pick for an inexpensive hotel would be the Ginger Rail Yatri Niwas, the budget hotel chain of the Taj group. It is located at the Railway Station, and is very convenient if you want to take the morning train to Agra. I've stayed at other Ginger hotels in India and they are smart, inexpensive and safe.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Safari on the Chambal River - weekend getaway from Delhi

If you enjoy the outdoors and birding, then I would highly recommend spending a night at the Chambal Safari Lodge near Agra.

Motorboats in which you go on the Chambal River

Chambal Safari Lodge. Not luxurious, but very peaceful and gracious.

Our knowledgeable guide knew exactly how to approach wildlife
(without letting the motor scare them off, and he was a good birder as well)

The seats are fortunately not wooden slats :) There is some cushioning!

And the sightings are excellent!

We saw lots and lots of birds, even though we went at the end of the season when the lodge was almost closing up for summer. The last of the winter migrants were still in evidence. My old camera was simply not good enough for anything but the most basic of photos so I've only posted a couple above. I saw my first sighting of the graceful sarus cranes here. The National Chambal Sanctuary includes over 300 species of birds, both resident and migratory. It is home to the rare Indian skimmer, and also the place where you can see the gharial (in the pic above) and crocodiles. We also saw turtles.

Apart from the river safari, the Lodge also organises nature walks, camel safaris, horse safaris, jeep safaris and village visits. They also organise excursions to the nearby Bateshwar temples. I wish I had more time! I would have liked to explore this area in a more relaxed manner.

But really, even if all you have is a weekend, Chambal Safari Lodge is really a lovely way to spend it! There are only a limited number of cottages, this is not a place for someone who wants air-conditioning or 24x7 room service, but it's a great place for all nature lovers. Do read more about all their environment-friendly practices as well as the contributions they are making to eco-sensitive tourism before you visit!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Delhi by Metro tour...good things happening!

For the past two years, Delhi Magic has been running "Delhi by Metro", an offbeat and fun tour of Old and New Delhi. The tour uses local transport and is a great way to see Delhi through the eyes of young students who are residents of Delhi.

The tour is a unique partnership between us and Manzil, a non-profit that works with young people from non-affluent families. Guides for the tour are students from Manzil.

Deepa Krishnan (Delhi Magic), and Ravi Gulati (founder of Manzil)

The tour has become very popular, and for many visitors to India, it is one of their trip highlights.

Sandra Ghattas loves her solo Delhi by Metro tour.
Like all young women who visit India solo, Sandra was looking for a safe and interesting experience of Delhi. It was the first stop in her Golden Triangle tour. On her very first day, she met Nisha and Asit, who introduced her to the city, took her on a Metro ride, a green auto-rickshaw ride, and a cycle-rickhaw as well. They explored the chaotic and interesting bazaars of Old Delhi (Mughal Delhi) and also the impressive monuments of New Delhi (British Delhi).

Nisha and Asit are among the 10 students who we have trained so far, to become tour guides for the Delhi by Metro tour. Over the past 2 years, we have done over 100 such tours, not just for solo travellers, but also for travel groups made up of family/friends, researchers, teachers, non-profit foundations and so on. What makes me really happy is that the tours have run to high quality, and they have run profitably. Moneys from the tour have benefited not just the guides, but also Manzil as well as Delhi Magic. Tourists have gained an authentic introduction to "real" people in the city and their daily lives, instead of dealing with the usual tourism professionals. And, most important, they've had a load of fun!

My vision for this tour is simple:
  • I would like the tour to provide a means of income for the guides, so that they can continue their education without financial difficulties.
  • I would like the guides to learn about their own city's history, share it with tourists from different parts of world, and gain self-confidence and social skills in the process.
  • If any of these guides want to make a career in tourism, I would like this tour to provide a sort of early training ground, a place where they can take some baby-steps towards financial independence.
  • Ultimately, I want them to develop full-fledged careers of their own, in their own chosen fields, become fully independent, and fly away from the nest :) That will then make way for fresh batches of guides.
I am very lucky (and happy) that I am able to see this vision come true in such a short span. It is a tribute to the hard work and success of these students that two of them are leaving this year for study programs in the USA. Another fresh batch of students is now being trained to do the tour. Here are photos from my visit to Delhi last week, when I met some of them and gave them the first part of the training orientation:

Sitting in the Delhi Magic office: everyone has been handed their tour scripts

Prep work: Looking through maps and getting familiar with tour routes, reading handouts, registering names and addresses

My talented friend Shilpi will be doing further field-training sessions for these students, taking them through New Delhi and Old Delhi, and demonstrating how the tour is to be done. A compulsive walker, amateur photographer, foodie and tree hugger, Shilpi is a proud ‘Dilliwali’ and loves to take people on offbeat trails around the city. I can't think of anyone better than her to do this training!

Once Shilpi is done with her training, we will put the new guides on a 'buddy-system' where they tag along with the older guides, to see how tours are done. After some experience with it, we'll give them tours of their own to run. I expect that by Oct, this new batch will be ready to try tours on their own.

I am really looking forward to seeing how this new group shapes up.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A little primer on Hindu Literature

Working in tourism, I meet a lot of people whose religion is enshrined in a Book. The written word is held in great reverence, and the Book has a position of religious and moral authority.

Coming from that kind of background, a lot of tourists naturally ask me "What is the holy book of the Hindus?". Usually I tell them a simplistic answer, for example, I usually say "The four Vedas are the primary books".

But it's not that simple. The Vedas are not really "books", are they? They are ancient oral recitations that were written down much later. The truth is, Hindus don't really have a universally agreed upon single "written" Holy Book. What we do have, is a vast oral as well as written tradition which serves as the source of religious, moral and philosophical knowledge. Combined together, these make up Hindu religious literature.

Most Hindus themselves don't know how this literature is classified, so I wrote this little primer (my mom helped me put this together). I realise the article is somewhat school-bookish :) but this information is surprisingly hard to find.

Hindu scriptures are broadly divided as follows:

The Srutis (Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads):
  1. The Vedas are collections, of hymns, melodies, rituals and incantations. They are considered the primary texts of Hinduism. According to Klaus Kostermaier, a Canadian professor of religious studies, the beginnings of the Vedic ritual can be traced to 6000 BC in Northwest India. The dating is open to controversy.
  2. The Brahmanas are commentaries on the Vedas, explaining the rituals. These were composed in the Brahmanic period (900 BC to 500 BC).
  3. The Aranyakas - literally, forest treatises - are meant for sages living a life of renunciation. Unlike the Brahmanas, which deal with rituals, the Aranyakas deal with the philosophical aspects of the Vedas. The Aranyakas are also from the Brahmanic period.
  4. The Upanishads are mystical contemplations designed to teach the means of liberation from rebirth and suffering. Thus they are also called Vedanta - the end of the Vedas - since they teach the ultimate secret to reach the highest metaphysical state. The oldest of these dates from the Brahmanic period, but some of the recent Upanishads are from the medieval times.
The Smritis (Smritis, Itihasas, Puranas):
  1. There are several Smritis, or Codes of Law, whose authority is based on the standing of the author. The most well known of these is the Manu Smriti, thought to date between 200 BC to 200 CE.
  2. The Itihasas - literally, 'histories' - are older than the Smritis. They include the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The epics were composed between 500 BC to 100 BC.
  3. The Puranas are texts that provide information about the creation of the universe, the genealogies of kings, rules for life, and mythologies of various Gods and holy places. They are thought to date between the 300 CE and 1200 CE.
While the classification of these scriptures is more or less well accepted, their historical dating is controversial. The major languages in which these scriptures appear are Sanskrit in the North, and Tamil in the South. Apart from these, Hindu literature also includes many other treatises - for example, the Sutras are shorter succint versions of Hindism's voluminous primary literature.

The above literature is common to all Hindus. But some Hindu sects have their own sectarian writings - such as the Samhitas of the Vaishnavaites, the Agamas of the Saivaites, and the Tantras of the Saktas.

Because of the huge size of oral literature, as well as the large volume of written texts and explanations, there is no single Book that everyone accepts as gospel truth. Instead, a large body of interpretations has flourished, which vary from place to place within India, allowing for a lot of flexibility in the way you practise Hinduism.

To me, the most amazing thing about Hindu texts is that in spite of the huge volumes, they have been committed to memory by a specialized group of people (Brahmin priests). In case you didn't know, in 2003 UNESCO proclaimed the tradition of Vedic chant a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity". Pretty cool huh? :) :)

We don't usually acknowledge or realize it, but we are truly lucky that we can still hear the same chanting of these texts as was heard thousands of years ago. Not many civilizations can claim that. We don't have to go to a religious centre like Varanasi to hear this; or to a grand wedding. We can hear it everywhere in India; even at a smallish family ritual. Here are photos of typically smaller rituals where you can hear Sanskrit chanting:

Kerala Palakkad Brahmin "Bangle ceremony" - to pray for the well-being of the unborn child. In this ceremony, the mother is usually in the seventh month of pregnancy. You can see the holy fire into which ghee is being poured by the father of the child. The priest is reciting a prayer which is repeated by the father. The chanting will go on for a couple of hours, and the sound of the mantras is thought to have a favourable effect on both the mother and the unborn child.

From Mangalore in Karnataka, a Grihapravesham ceremony (housewarming). Again the priest will light a holy fire. The couple whose home it is, are sitting beside the priest. The floor is beautifully decorated with designs using turmeric and red kumkum. The prayers and the smoke will sanctify the house, rid it of insects and pests, and make it fit for a joyful life.

From Pune, Maharashtra: Engagement ceremony. The parents of the bride and the parents of the groom agree to give their daughter/son in marriage. The priest in the centre officiates. Auspicious gifts are exchanged. This is a sort of "contract" read out in the presence of witnesses.

Sanketi Brahmin thread ceremony in Chennai - The young man in the centre is being initiated in "Brahmopadesham" - the Ultimate Truth. His father (on the right) follows instructions from the priest (on the left).

If I hunt through my photo collection, I will find lots more of these...proof that in the daily life of Indians, the old ways continue uninterrupted. Even though we live in a modern world, these rituals and texts provide continuity and emotional sustenance to the people who follow them. I guess this is what characterises "a living religion".

If you're curious about how the Rig Veda sounds when chanted, I suggest you try this link: It sounds fantastic. After a minute or so, you'll find yourself caught in the rhythm and power of it.