Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gujarat Part II: Palitana, Photography Central

Since Frank of the famed "Frank and Sarah" broke the news on Facebook, I think it's safe for me to say here a HUGE congratulations to my good friends in Toronto, Canada, who are expecting their first child!!

Two days later I arrived in Palitana, a major holy site for Jains, and another set of steps. I warmed up with just over 1000 steps, since it was too late in the day to climb to the top, and was accompanied on the way down by a very talkative young girl. The next morning, Thursday, I arrived at dawn to begin the climb. They say that Mahavira, the founder of the Jain religion, took three steps to reach the top, but it took me about 3600, not counting climbing to the tops of temples and walls to take photos. Champaner was a great training session for Palitana! Here you could hire porters to carry you up and down the stairs, bud I sadly missed taking a photo. The best were the women porters who rested the pole on their heads.

At the top are five temple complexes, with more than 850 temples built over a period of 900 years. Jains practice ahimsa, so no one may bring leather items, or food or water inside the complexes, and pilgrims and tourists must remove their shoes. I spent between 2 and 3 hours walking the temples barefoot, and those of you who know me well will understand how pleased I was. On negative side, I'm a little too tall for India; I kept banging my head while climbing into temples...

I took 240 photos, and it was extremely difficult for me to choose only a few to represent Palitana on the blog... and just as difficult to narrow them down to another 34 for a Facebook album. A photo permit is required from the office before you climb the steps, and some of the security guards were so zealous in checking my permit that I suspected that they hoped I wouldn't have one. The site is incredibly beautiful, and it seems as if I couldn't take a bad photo! I'll let the photos speak for themselves, and only mention a few notable things about the site:

*The parrots seemed to avoid my camera lens. They refused to stay put whenever I saw a great shot. They also feature in some of the sculpture.

*The pilgrims wearing mouth-covers, to avoid inhaling insects accidentally and thereby killing them. One family arrived by elephant!

*A sculpture depicting a Digambara Jain. Along with ahimsa, Jains also practice non-possession; at the most extreme, this includes renouncing even clothing, a practice of the Digambara sect, and at the end of their life, food and drink.

*I climbed to stand on the wall of one of the temple complexes (look for the steps up the wall in front of the round tower), and to the roof of a temple using the ladder to the flagpole. Those two made me a little nervous.

In the afternoon I took a GSRTC bus to Junaghad. I had hoped to visit Somnath, but would need to wait longer for a bus, and I wanted to keep moving. Because of Divali festival and holidays, I had trouble this week finding hotels and booking busses, but I always found something, even if it wasn't ideal. Total steps: over 5100!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gujarat Part I: Champaner

Now for a 4-part miniseries on the western Indian province of Gujarat!
Over four days in Gujarat, I think I climbed more stairs than at any one time in my life.

Monday October 19 I took a day trip from Baroda to Pavagadh. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Champaner is here, a complex of temples built over the past thousand years. Because of the Divali festival, and because students have vacation, many families were making pilgrimage to the site, so it was packed with people. When I arrived in Pavagadh I tried to get a jeep from the bus stand to the steps. Unfortunately everyone was travelling in groups, and my Hindi, although much improved, was not good enough. So I stood around hoping that a driver would "sell" me a seat. (This strategy works really well trying to get an auto at bus stations and major sites.)

Soon enough a young guy approached me and introduced himself. Rajan asked if he could help, and then arranged for me to take a jeep to the steps... with him and his eight friends! I found that they were all in 12th Standard (so all around 17 years old), and only Rajan spoke much English, so I got to practice my Hindi a lot. They came from a town called Jambughoda in walking distance of Champaner.

We had lunch, and they offered me snacks, water, and sweets on the 1500 step climb to the top--and refused to let me pay for anything. The views of the surrounding countryside were amazing; I could have taken at least another day to explore the area. The boys were very patient while I stopped to take photos, and we joked around a lot, calling them my security, and suggesting that we charge people 5 rupees to look at the foreigner. Most times I feel like a tourist attraction myself; some people take my photo (not always asking permission), others want to shake my hand, and--no word of a lie--I've heard parents telling their children to "look at the foreigner"!! I protested when they called me "madam" and then they ALL protested when one of them called me "aunty" so they nicknamed me "rani" which means queen or princess. Most people find my name difficult, and I try to roll the "r" in my name to make it easier to understand.

Many shops lined the steps selling food, drinks, pilgrimage items and gifts. Many pilgrims bought red-and-gold headbands with "Hail to the Mother" in Hindi (hanging on the right side of this photo). You could have your photo taken against a backdrop of the site, or get a temporary or permanent tattoo. A fashion here is to get a permanent tattoo of your girlfriend's or boyfriend's initials. A few of these boys had done that; it seems strange by Western standards, but some of these boys will take jobs after high school, and will probably marry their girlfriends shortly after that. Also, here it's not proper to date unless you intend on marrying the person.

At the top is the temple to Kalika Mata, so four of us went for darsana, which means seeing and being seen by the deity. They had security to move so many people along quickly, and it felt a little like a factory assembly line. No cameras were allowed in the temple, but a smaller idol outside was OK to photo. The climb down went a little more quickly and Rajan surprised me by buying a stuffed toy for me! Instead of taking a jeep, we walked down the hill, which was a bad idea, since my knee injury from running started to hurt, and the sun set. I started the climb at 1:30pm, and reached the bottom around 6:30pm.

At the bus stop we exchanged contact information so I could mail photos. Also, I wanted to give them some Canada flag pins, but I had left them in Baroda. All together, it was a great time. The boys are, from top left, back row: Saddam, Nirajan, Rajan (who spoke the best English), Pathan, Hitesh, and Gahnshuam; front row: Vishal (who was hilarious), Rajan, and Pravin. What's up with Indians not smiling in photos?

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Shuba Deepawali! That means "Happy Divali" which occurred from October 17 to 20. This year it was very early; it follows the lunar calendar, and usually falls mid-November. In Canada, Thanksgiving came and went, and I didn't even notice! I travelled to Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat with my flatmates Richa and Gunjan to spend the festival with Richa's aunt (mamiji), uncle (mamaji), and cousins. We arrived on Thursday morning and spent the day with Gunjan's family. On the way to Richa's family in the evening I had my first motorbike ride, carrying my big pack.

I met Richa's cousins Aprajita, Anamika, and Amrit, and got along really well with the two eldest girls, who spent the whole time I was there calling me didi, or elder sister. The first night I also lit firecrackers for the first time, and had my hair oiled with coconut oil like Indian girls do.

I spent the next few days eating sweets and amazing home cooked food. I bought a diya, or lamp, in Pune, which I brought to light. This is one of my favourite photos.

Anamika and I made a rangoli; the outline and most of the work is hers, but the design on the lamp is my own creation. With this type of art, you drop coloured powders in a pattern on the ground. Most houses drew them for the new year, and part of the round of visits during the festival involves looking at other families' rangoli. I'm very pleased how it turned out, since it was my first time trying this art form.

On Sunday I visited the city. I started at Sayaji Bagh, a large park with a zoo, a museum, and many tree-lined pathways. The museum was very interesting, with many statues from South Asian religious art, and a part of a beautiful wooden Jain temple. It also has a blue whale skeleton! Sadly, photos were not allowed inside.

I bought new Indian clothes for Divali, and tried paan, which is a mixture of betel leaf and areca nut. It has a kind of menthol taste, and rickshawallas often chew it... and spit red all over the place! It stains your teeth if you chew it too much. The girls gave me a Laughing Buddha when I left. The day after Divali is also the Gujarati new year, so people were lighting firecrackers all over the city the whole week. Students also have vacation, so a lot of families are travelling and making pilgrimages. Fortunately I only had trouble finding a hotel once, but I'll post about my travels in Gujarat in the next week. I took a lot of photos again!!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gandhi Jayanti

Friday October 2 was a national holiday for Mohandas K. Gandhi's birthday. I had the day to myself, so I decided to go to the Aga Khan Palace. Gandhi was jailed here from 1942 to 1944 during his Quit India movement. The grounds are quiet and shaded, and several school groups were visiting the national monument for the day.

I toured the rooms where Gandhi and the important people in his movement were held. Sarojini Naidu was an advocate for women's rights, and was released because of poor health. I drew her earlier this year for my Hindi class. Gandhi's bathroom was nicer than mine is, but that seems only fair if he was jailed in a palace

Gandhi's wife Kasturba Gandhi and his secretary Mahadevbai Desai both died here, and Gandhi built their samadhi on the grounds. I followed the path from the rooms where they were jailed to their tombs.

Gandhi's ashes are also on the grounds, in the same courtyard. This is only one of two places where they are enshrined. The rest of his ashes were scattered in the Ganges and the Arabian Sea.

I ignored the "keep off the lawns" signs to take photos of the palace and the fountain. The four-headed lion motif is a symbol of India that is taken from Emperor Ashoka's reign, and is on all of the currency. Gandhi's portrait is on all of the rupee notes. Coins come in 1, 2, and 5 rupees, and notes come in denominations of 10, 20, 50, and.100. Occasionally you'll see a 5 rupee note, and if you withdraw a large amount from an ATM, you usually get notes of Rs500 and 1000. Those are sometimes difficult to get change for.

After I explored, a family asked me to take lunch with them. I practiced my few Marathi phrases and my basic Hindi.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nagpur Part III: Dhamma Diksha and the City

Tuesday morning I returned to the political tent for more programs. They gave me a seat on the stage, and announced my name during the speeches, which was about all I understood, since they spoke in Marathi (the official language of Maharashtra) and Hindi. I’ve only taken two Marathi lessons so far. After the speeches they served lunch to the people attending, and I was pleased and delighted to be asked to help serve the food. I’m eating lunch with a bhikku and a bhikkuni (a Buddhist monk and a nun), Prabattya, and the mother of the organization president.

After eating, more photos and English/Hindi practice occurred. This photo captures three generations of the family: Lakhan, Vachalavbai, and Prakash.

In the afternoon Prabhattya took me to the memorial stupa which was built on the site where Dr. Ambedkar took dhamma diksha, his conversion to Buddhism and the beginning of the Dalit neo-Buddhist movement. I was told that the day before–the anniversary celebration–would be too crowded, but my single regret about this trip to Nagpur was that I couldn’t be there on the actual day. Outside, statues of Ambedkar and the Buddha were set up, alongside a list of the 22 vows that Dr. Ambedkar added to the Buddhist conversion ceremony.

Sightseeing followed. I visited the Ambedkar statue at the Reserve Bank, which has relief artwork depicting the Mahad water tank satyagraha, or non-violent resistance. Dalits were not permitted to take water here. It also showed the presentation of the Constitution of India; Ambedkar chaired the Constitution drafting committee.

Next I visited Zero Mile. Nagpur is the geographical centre of India, as well as being the orange city.

We also visited the cremation grounds in Nagpur; this statue shows Ardhani, a combination of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati.

Finally, we went to an important masjid, or mosque, for puja. The ceiling of the masjid’s porch was tiled in thousands of small mirrors. Once I took a photo of these three girls, they kept trying to sneak into all of my photos! From the masjid I went straight to the hotel to collect my bags, then straight to the bus pickup for the 16 hour trip back to Pune. Or... almost straight there; the autorickshaw broke down on the way, so I had to wait while the rickshawwalla stopped to repair it!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Nagpur Part II: Dussehra

Nagpur Part II: Dussahra

When I returned to Nagpur Sunday evening I was taking some photos of political posters at the bus station when some men standing there called me over. Inside a large tent they had posters of the Dalit leader Dr. Bhimrao Ramji “Babasaheb” Ambedkar for the commemoration of his conversion to Buddhism in 1956. Dalit is the name which “untouchables” in the caste system call themselves. They also introduced me to the men whose photos were on the political posters. They told me to return at 9 am the next day for the events.

Monday morning I was honoured to be invited to participate in the Ambedkar puja. I helped to hang the garland on the portrait in the bus station entrance. I think I look a little tired and slightly sunburnt; Nagpur is very hot and sunny, and I have started a mean farmer’s tan, despite the sunscreen.

From there one of the women, Prabhattya, became my guide. (Also I got to improve my Hindi. I spent much of my time in Nagpur asking “Kya photo teek hai?”) We sat at the very front of the bus on the way to Dragon Palace Temple! Many vehicles were flying the Dalit political flag (a white chakra on a blue background) as well as the colorful prayer flag. At the temple they are building a stupa, a Buddhist memorial dome.

My celebrity status gave me VIP seats for the puja which included drumming and prayer. The Buddha statue is a gift from Japan. The little girls sitting behind me all wanted to ask in Hindi or English what is my name. They accompanied the lead drummers.

Around the temple many shops were set up to sell powder, posters, books, jewelry, and statues of the Buddha and Ambedkar. Crowds of people wanted to take my photo; this was alarming at times! Prabhattya is in the front left corner of my photo through the arch. On the way back into the city, the bus ride was probably the hottest I have ever been in my life. But I still prefer heat over cold.

After lunch Prabhattya took me to visit her home, after we did puja at the neighbourhood Ambedkar temple. Her daughter had drawn a rangoli in powder at their front step; this is traditionally women’s artwork.

Finally, we went to the Ravana event. On Dussahra, Ram’s defeat of Ravana (and Durga’s defeat of the demon Mahishasura) represents the triumph of good over evil. To celebrate the event, cities build huge effigies of Ravana and set them ablaze! The event is accompanied by prayers, and fireworks. I had a great conversation about culture with two college girls, Surbhi and Madhura.

After the event was over, there was a mad crush for the exits; this is when people can get trampled. I also stopped into a Durga temple to do puja.

Check my Facebook page for the B-list photos from my trip to Nagpur!