Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Around Aurangabad

For the Christmas long weekend I travelled north to Aurangabad, which the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb made the capital for a time. He was not a nice emperor, but the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Ellora and Ajanta each lie a day trip outside of the city. Everyone else in India was visiting them too, which made me a celebrity as usual, and sometimes made the holy atmosphere a little strained.

The first day I travelled to Ellora, which has 34 caves of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain temples which were carved between 400 and 900 CE. The immense central complex, Kailasa, dedicated to Shiva and still in use, is carved out of one rock, which makes it the largest monolithic sculpture in the world. The central temple some of the ancient painting still remains. Elephants face outward, and one monolithic elephant and a tall pillar stand in the courtyard. The cave temples in the three walls surrounding it have shrines to Ganesh, Shiva as Natraj, and scenes from the Ramayana. I'll include several photos in a Facebook album.

The Hindu and Jain cave temples to the north also have incredibly detailed carvings, and several very unique depictions which were new to me. Apparently it's just Mahavira who has something against me, because here I also banged my head in a Jain temple. Several of these temples were dedicated to the Digambara sect, which was not widely represented at Palitana. You can still see paint remaining on these sculptures too. Finally I explored the Buddhist caves, which I regretted saving for last because they were so beautiful, and the Hindu and Jain carvings had all started to look the same. These were also the oldest carvings. One chaitya cave was carved to imitate cathedral beams. I've included a photo of an unfinished carving to show the process.

My India travel guidebook recommends Ellora if you can only visit one site, probably because Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain temples were carved there. Ajanta consists of Buddhist temples alone, but I found it more beautiful. It stands out because of the paintings inside the caves. It was interesting to imagine the monks and nuns climbing to the temples before they built the wide stairs and pathways in the horseshoe shaped canyon. In Ellora and Ajanta I was delighted to see Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist pilgrims, and I paid my respects as well.

At the same time, it was often difficult to enjoy the artwork because of the mass of tourists, those who disregarded the requests for silence inside the caves, and some who ignored the prohibition against flash photography. Because I didn't use flash, my photos of the paintings didn't make the final cut, but you can take a look in the Facebook album. The seven metre carving of the Buddha reclining in Mahaparanirvana is one of the most famous. The chaitya where it was carved also looked very striking because of the lights illuminating the outer galleries.

The last day I spent in Aurangabad to visit the seventeenth century Bibi ka Maqbara which literally means "The Wife's Tomb" and was built for Aurangzeb's wife. It's also called "The Poor Man's Taj" because this tomb replicates on a smaller scale the famous Taj Mahal in Agra. Comparisons aside, the detailed carvings and stucco were stunning, especially the white marble latticework. My goal here was to capture a photo other than the one that everyone has seen of the Taj Mahal. Let me know if I was successful.

One Muslim family included a man in a coat and green turban which stood out, and later in the day I saw them again at the Panchakki. This reservoir and water wheel was built in the eighteenth century, and brings water into the city from six kilometres away. The mill still functions, and the fountain in the centre of the pool is powered by the same system that runs the mill and raises the water to the north-west pillar. In this photo you can see the water falling into the pool, a mosque across the road, and one of the many gates which characterize Aurangabad. I bought a necklace carved from camel bone, and a bidriware bangle, a traditional craft of silver wire designs inlaid in gunmetal.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mumbai Part IV: Sunrise to Sunset

Perhaps this should be "Sunset to Sunrise"; it's Mumbai after all! Mumbai is built on a series of islands which descend southward from the mainland, which means it can only grow in density, northward, or by reclaiming land from the sea. It also means that you can watch the sun rise and set over the water. One morning I decided to see the Gateway to India at sunrise. Boats and ships of all sizes had returned to the harbour since the 26/11 memorial, and the sailors were at work even before the sun rose.

Opposite to the Gateway of India stands the Taj Mahal Hotel. Much too expensive for me, but I did catch the moon setting beside one of the towers.

Mumbai isn't just the Bollywood capital, the financial centre and the tourist hub of Maharashtra. During the day important work goes on at the High Court, although I understand it happens very very slowly. One case can take a lifetime. Justice stands on one of the steeples. Security has changed in Mumbai in the past few years, and it's difficult to get a closer look at many of the monuments in the city.

Right next door another type of important work happens, filling brains with knowledge at the University of Mumbai. Reminds me a little of the clock tower and gargoyles in Ottawa! Apparently Gothic architecture was popular. Like many of the other names the Shiv Sena changed, locals also still refer to it as Bombay University. Earlier this year an actor was chastised by the Shiv Sena political party (no longer in power) for referring to Mumbai as "Bombay" and was pressured to apologise publicly. While I was there I also heard a radio announcer correct himself. I guess changing the name of a major city takes a lot of time and effort!

Less prominent but no less important, the dhobis, or washermen, work all day. The Mahalaxmi dhobi ghats take up about a city block, and the washing is all done by hand. Many of the city's uniforms are laundered here, and I guess that is a lot, since I see far more uniforms here than in Canada.

One of my favourite photos is the sunset at Chowpatty beach. I sat and took photo after photo to try to capture the best view of the city skyline between the sunset and the beach. Just when I couldn't decide whether the water was reflecting the sun or the sun was reflecting the water, these two women came down to the water to pray.

Finally, as night falls Marine Drive lights up and residents and tourists walk the promenade to court, to exercise, to spend time with their families and friends, and to enjoy the relative peacefulness of the sea. This part of Mumbai used to be part of the sea, and is called the Queen's Necklace because of the lights. Of course, like most big cities, it never sleeps!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mumbai Part III: Pilgrimage

Near every temple or pilgrimage site, puja stalls set up to sell prasad to the pilgrims. Prasad usually includes garlands of flowers, food (often a coconut at temple, or sweets at home), kumkum or haldi (red or yellow powder), and sometimes clothes for the god. Prasad can cost anywhere from one to lakhs of rupees. Prasad is big business, although usually I only make a donation.

At Hajj Ali Mosque, a Muslim pilgrimage site, prasad includes a cloth for covering Hajj Ali's tomb. The best cloths were hung around the temple, but pilgrims bring so many that bales of them sit by the gate! In the photo you can see the sign "Only For Ladies" because mosques often segregate men and women. Hajj Ali is a Muslim saint who died on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. His casket drifted back to India and came to rest at this spot. Pilgrims reach the mosque by crossing a long pathway across the bay, and the mosque can only be reached at low tide. It would be wonderful to see the mosque at high tide. Pilgrims usually dress up when they make a pilgrimage, so I usually try to wear Indian dress at least. It's fine to make puja in jeans and a tshirt though. This little boy's parents spent a lot of time on his outfit, and I loved this aunty's colourful sari. I try not to take photos of people without permission, and I don't always feel comfortable asking, but it's easy when they ask for a photo with me first!

At Mahalaxmi Temple, a Hindu pilgrimage site, I made a proper puja. Carrying a metal plate with the prasad keeps your hands full, particularly since it is very inauspicious to drop prasad, so I didn't have an extra hand to hold my camera. In addition to that, no photos are allowed inside the temple, so I don't have any to share. I thought the goddess living there was especially beautiful, though. I also briefly visited Sri Dhakleshwar Mahadev Mandir, a 300 year old temple near Mahalaxmi, which was much quieter. The priest there gave me a mini tour and lecture about the temple and the gods living there.

The Ambedkar Chaityabhoomi, a pilgrimage site for Buddhists in the Dalit movement, was extremely busy, because the anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar's parinirvana occurred on December 6. That day pilgrims lined up across the city--tens of thousands of people come from all over the country--so I visited on a different day! At the site is a stupa, an intricately carved gateway, and a column with the symbol of Ashoka.

Elephanta Island has a complex of cave temples dedicated to the god Shiva, which were carved between the 9th and 13th centuries CE. My photos of the different aspects of Shiva including his dance, his marriage to Laxmi, his triumph over Ravana, and his battle with the demon all turned out better than I hoped, but I kept those for the B list on Facebook just in case you don't share my obsession with ancient religious history! The most moving carving is Shiva as creator, sustainer, destroyer. I felt compelled to return again and again. Visitors still pay their respects to Shiva here, especially in his symbolic form as Shiv lingam, hundreds of years later.

Finally, no trip to Mumbai is complete without a pilgrimage to Khubsons Narisons, which sells the famous Tantra tshirts!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mumbai Part II: A Little Colonialism, a Little Nationalism

On second consideration I managed to bring Mumbai down to four posts. That's fortunate since I couldn't post as often as I wanted, because I was sick yesterday. One of my less charming souvienirs from Mumbai.

One evening I visited the Gateway to India, and found a commemoration of the terrorist attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel on November 26 last year. The Gateway was completely blocked off and they had also removed all the ships from the harbour. I found the event a mix of Western and Indian notes which seemed somewhat surreal. First a marching band came down the street, playing what sounded to me like a solid European march. Then came a demonstration of Indian military might in the face of terrorism, which included teams dropping from helicopters into the sea, and onto the plaza in front of the Gateway to India, where they pointed rifles at the Taj Mahal. That part was exceptionally eerie, since one of the soldiers seemed to be aiming directly at me. It made me smile to see the construction workers on the Taj Mahal take a seat on the scaffolding to watch.

The Gateway to India was built to commemorate the visit of King Edward and Queen Mary, and was completed in 1924, but they ceremoniously showed the British the gateway out only 24 years later. The Colaba area is largely Victorian architecture, since Bombay was the British outpost back in the days of empire. When the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist party was in power in Maharashtra in the 1990s, they changed many of the names to discard the colonial history. This included changing Bombay's name to Mumbai, and the international airport, Victoria Terminal, and the Prince of Wales Museum were renamed after the Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji. The museum is a beautiful building surrounded by greenery. Palm trees make everything look luxurious here.

Elphinstone College, where the Maharashtrian Dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar went to school, has some wonderful carvings on it. I found this face rather quirky, and he has a wonderful moustache. Along this road many local artists display their artwork for sale. I walked this way too early in the morning to see much, but I did buy a lovely watercolour of the Hindu god Ganesh from another early riser.

Trains seem a fitting image to cross the divide between colonial and national, from the image of the palatial Maharaj to the image of the second class car with travellers on every available surface. This toy train saves you a whole ten minute walk from the ferry landing to the foot of the stairs on Elephanta Island. I took a ride on it just for the experience!

Finally, I took a side trip to London England. Just kidding. It really felt like I had wandered somehow into Europe when I arrived at Flora Fountain, though. Fortunately the women wearing saris across the street dispelled this image, and the FILA signs brought me right into the modern day. Since I don't see many foreigners in Pune, I found myself looking at white people at the tourists sites in Mumbai the way a lot of Indians must perceive them. I saw a mix of underdressed, plump, sunburnt people, and "dirty hippies". With some horror, since I'm not plump, underdressed, and sunburnt, I suspected that I must look like a dirty hippy. I've been assured since that I look like a "decent" foreigner. I hope that's true!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mumbai Part I: The City and the People

I remember being so confused when I first arrived in Mumbai in August, but on this visit I had an overwhelming feeling of comfort because the city has such a atmosphere of Toronto. They both have the big city feel. I spent seven days in Mumbai, and the first cut of photos was 130, down from 688. I tried so hard to cut it down to four blog entries, but I will console myself with the thought that I haven't posted for almost three weeks, and give you five posts over the next week. Rather than taking a chronological approach as usual, I'm trying something different.

No day would be complete without a cup of chai, and I almost always have a cup with breakfast. Since I started at the Gateway of India at sunrise, I bought some from a "chaiwallah" who walks along with an urn and some plastic cups. Chai is always made with milk and sugar, and at home I like to make it with ginger, fresh cracked pepper, and mint or lemongrass. On this trip I also bought white Darjeeling loose leaves, which I can't afford in Canada. I love tea! Many people begin their day with prayer as well. I stayed near the financial district, but tucked away in a corner one street over I found this little open-air Hindu temple with a brightly painted roof.

Transportation is relatively efficient in Mumbai, considering that three million people pass through Chattrapati Shivaji Terminal every day (formerly Victoria Terminal, and an UNESCO World Heritage Site). I took advantage of the suburban train, taxis, the city bus, and the intercity bus between Pune and Mumbai. I was too nervous to ride from CST on this visit, and avoided rush hour trains, but I did take the suburban train from Churchgate Station; I stayed in the Fort area, about halfway between the two. Some train cars are reserved for women, which is kind of awesome. Taxis are a little less crowded, but slower because the traffic can get crazy. I once saw a whole street filled with these black and yellow taxis! Most days I walked until my feet were breaking, so once I hopped on a bus just to take me out of the Market, and maybe because I was lost a little.

I only went to the Market area at night, so I don't have photos, but street hawkers set up almost everywhere. A trip to Mumbai isn't complete without shopping! I shopped way more than I bought, but I did have some finds. Some of you will share my delight with the entire corner dedicated to books. I would need a fisheye lens to capture the scene, but it was beautiful! Most places also have slums, although I can't always tell the difference between slums and "temporary housing;" construction workers set up shacks where they work, and bring their families. 60% of Mumbai's population lives in slums. I found this cute girl in some of this housing near Hajj Ali Mosque. Her dad said hi to me, and then told her to come out and take a look at the foreigner.

Mumbai has places of worship for every religion, including Judaism. Bet you didn't think of that! Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is tucked away down a side street in the Colaba Area, the main tourist area. Later in the day for lunch... or dinner, thali always does the job! The dishes used are called thali, and includes vegetables, soup, daal, roti (which are on a side plate here), rice, and yogurt. Pickle (not the Western kind!), lime, and onion are always available as condiments. This was a favourite because it also included a sweet pudding.

I met these two chatty Muslim girls at Chowpatty Beach, where I tried falooda and had the required Chowpatty snack of bhel puri. I'm not sure I liked falooda, but bhel puri is always good. This one could maybe be a little spicier! While walking the Marine Drive promenade I discovered Yann-Arthus Bertrand's exhibit "Earth From Above" which I saw first in Vienna, Austria in 2004; Shah Rukh Khan apparently inaugurated it here. What a wonderful and unexpected way to come full circle!