Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Five Panch Ratha Temples of Mahabalipuram

Located in a sandy area are the ratha temples. Derived from the word chariots, the rathas were processional chariots – vehicles for the gods. They were named after the five Pandava brothers, heroes of the epic Mahabharata and queen Draupadi. Four out of the five rathas were carved out of a single rock, with the last smaller one scooped out of a rock. Each was dedicated to a god or goddess. Like many of the sculptures in Mahabalipuram, these pieces were unfinished. Chisel marks were visible particularly in the wide flat areas. Were these also unfinished or simply a texture the workers decided to leave? The Bhima Ratha and Dharmaraja Ratha buildings were particularly impressive, with imposing multi-storeyed layers, a barrel-vaulted or octagonal domed roof, and sculpted panels. A large sculpture of an elephant, standing lion, and unfinished Nandi (bull) also adorns the grounds. These temples were built from around 630-670 AD. One of the two main sites that required showing an admissions ticket, there were quite a number of people there, both Indian and foreigners. Trying to get a photo shot without people was extremely difficult, so I took advantage and used them to provide a sense of scale against these ancient sculptures.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mahabalipuram – City of Carved Stone (part 1)

On Sunday three teachers and I boarded a local bus (16 rupees - $0.34) headed southward to the city of Mahabalipuram, a pleasant 58 km (36 miles) from Chennai. Like most local busses, this one had natural air conditioning coming through its windows devoid of glass. Plugging in a pair of headphones and listening to music helped diminish the blaring sound of the bus horn, sounded frequently as the bus made its way down the East Coast Road. A bit more than an hour later, we arrived and were greeted by a auto rickshaw driver who offered to take us to all the sights, now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Located on the Bay of Bengal on a long beach, the city of Mahabalipuram was once a major port-city, built by the Pallava king. During the rule of the Pallavas, innovative styles of architecture and art emerged, with the area of Mahabalipuram showcasing these new styles including the style known as Dravida. Most of the famous rock-cut architecture dates back to the 5th – 9th centuries.

Wandering around the rock-hewn temples and other structures (a total of 40 architectural pieces), one couldn’t help but marvel at how these exquisite carvings and reliefs were created. Some of the temples were carved out of caves, whose columns flanked by lion-like figures at the base gleamed in the bright daylight and bas-relief stories of Hindu gods adorned the shadowed walls. Other temples, such as the Ratha temples were carved out of a single rock. Such carvings (including the multi-storey temples) were executed from top to the bottom, thus enabling the workers to execute their artistry without damaging things below. Therefore, unfinished elements tended to be at the bottom areas.

Much of Mahabalipuram’s rock sculptures remain a mystery. Even the purpose of the structures is uncertain, with many believing that they were not constructed for worship. Equally puzzling is why work was abandoned before completion.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Technology in India

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/25735051@N00/339450589

While reading an Indian photography magazine this evening, I came across some interesting technology statistics. They show how widespread technology is - in some aspects - while how deep the "digital divide" is in other aspects.

Mobile Phones:
  • The number of mobile users in India will increase from 200 million to 400 million by 2010.
  • The number of cell phones increases by 9.22 million each month (July 2008)
  • Only 38.76 landlines are in place (July 2008)
  • 6.5 million computers shipped in 2007 - a 20% annual growth
  • 1.8 million laptop purchases in 2007, vs. only .98 million in 2006
  • Growth in number of users from 2000 to 2007: 660%
  • 40% growth (56 million in September 2007 up from 40 million in 2006) in the number of internet users
  • However, this represents only 3.7% of the total population of India
  • 4.57 million broadband users (June 2008)
IT Industry in India
  • Exported $31 billion in software/services in 2006-2007 - a growth rate of 32.6%
  • In the last 10 years, IT revenues grew tenfold, from $4.8 billion in 1997 to $47.8 billion currently.
  • Projections for IT industry revenues for 2010 are anticipated at $60 billion.

Data source: Smart Photography, September 2008, p. 30-31,

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mylapore temple of Kapaleeshwarar

Last Saturday I finally had the chance to go and visit the great temple in Mylapore known as Kapaleeshwarar. Riding on the back of my guide’s motorscooter, we weaved through the narrow busy roads to the temple. Even in the late afternoon, this area was still abuzz, filled with vendors, bazaars, and temple visitors. The tall gopuram (temple tower) was quite impressive, full of colorful figures. To get the entire 40 foot (12 m) structure in my camera, I had to step back a bit. Then it was fun zooming in at all the details, each frame just as interesting. Dropping off our sandals, with the shoe guy, we entered the large door, stepping up and over the large steps at each end of the entrance.

The area’s original name, Mayilapura, or the “Town of Peacocks” recalls a legend between Shiva’s wife Parvati who assumed the form of a peahen. In some places I read, Shiva turned Parvati into the peahen because she was admiring a peacock dancing instead of listening to him, while others seem to say that Parvati did it to worship Shiva. The story is depicted throughout the temple including the gopuram.

The age of the current Kapaleeshwarar temple is in dispute. Some say it was built after the original (located near where San Thomés Basilica now is) was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Others believe that the structure dates back to the 7th century, while still others believe that this is the original temple once located on the beach, but that the sea has receded that much.

Once inside the courtyard, , we saw several shrines dedicated to Ganesha, Muruga, and several other gods. One shrine had an image of a peahen, recalling the legend behind the place. Knowing that we didn’t have a lot of time and the likelihood that non-Hindus would be allowed in the main shrine areas anyway, I took a few more photos and walked out the smaller gopuram towards the temple tank. Looking over the tank, I spotted a small temple in the middle of the water, now silhouetted by the setting sun. I’ll have to come back and retake some photos from the opposite end of the tank, with the warm rays glowing on the tank and temple. Just outside the gate were some flowers, coconuts candles, and other items to give to the gods, bathed in the warm afternoon sun.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Under Construction

In a growing city like Chennai, construction and destruction is everywhere. My neighborhood is no exception. Smaller, older homes are being torn down, making way for apartment buildings. To shield off the construction zone, walls are woven from palm fronds.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Morning Snack

After sleeping on the cricket playing field of the neighborhood sports club, this cow decided to enjoy a breakfast of plastic, old food, and other rubbish. Crows and the cyclist also seem to enjoy the tranquil morning - before the crowds and heat takes over.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chalk - not just for kids

The other week, when walking down to the Virgin Mary church festival in Besant Nagar, I came across this man taking advantage of the auto-free roads (a marathon was going on in the area) to express his faith through a chalk drawing. While most residents of Chennai are Hindu, there is a growing population of Christians.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Fertility Tree

While visiting a small temple complex called Arupadai in the Chennai neighborhood of Besant Nagar, I came across a tree with curious items hanging from it. Couples wanting a baby would tie a cloth piece to this tree and say a few prayers to the god of fertility.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Happy Birthday, Ganesh!

Roadside Curiosities
Yesterday when coming home from school, I noticed some colorful paper decorations and other curious items being sold along the road. Dropping off my school bag and collecting my camera, I proceeded to go to a busier corner in my neighborhood to check what it was all about. Spotting my camera, one buyer explained that people were preparing for Ganesh’s birthday - Ganesha Chaturth, the day that the god Ganesh came to earth. An easily recognizable god because of his elephant head, Ganesh is known as the supreme god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune. This Hindu woman was buying a clay figure of Ganesh (with red plastic eyes) to take home for the celebration. Other vendors around her were selling garlands of various flowers, hanging strands of woven palm fronds, fruits, and the colorful “umbrellas” I had seen. These umbrellas would then be placed along the backside of the clay figure. The temple right next to the vendors was also being decorated with the hanging palm fronds. Various sizes of colorful Ganesh figures were also for sale.

Photo Opportunity
After taking some photos (including several photos of kids also selling items), I returned back to my apartment at the same time as my Indian neighbor. She explained that on the 11th day, the statues would be taken to the river (or sea) and immersed, representing the cycle of creation and dissolution in Nature. When asking about the umbrellas, she explained that it was a substitute for Ganesh’s favorite place of shade – the banyan tree.

Legend of Ganesh
Last night I watched on cable TV an animated quick story of Ganesh. According to legend, Shiva (Hindu god of resolution) was away at war. His wife Pavarti was left at home by herself. Wanting to take a bath and have someone guard the door, she fashioned Ganesha out of sandalwood (that she used for her bath) and brought him to life. Following her orders to guard the door and not let anyone in, Ganesh obeyed even when Shiva returned. Not knowing who the boy was, Shiva decapitated him. Seeing Pavarti’s rage, Shiva gave the order to his helpers to bring back the head of the first living being with its head facing north –which was an elephant. Shiva then placed the head onto Ganesh’s body and brought him back to life – an act very pleasing to Pavarti.

Treats for Ganesha Chaturth
This evening (many people had off today, including local schools) my neighbor came by to give me some foods she prepared for the special day. My favorites were the modakas, a sweet dish made from chana dal (chickpeas), rice flour and jaggery (brown sugar). Her version of this steamed delectable was formed into a pinched semi-circle, while others choose to form it into a ball. A yummy treat I’d happily trade for a few chocolate chip cookies!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Carnatic Vocal Concert - M. .Balamuralikrishna

On Friday night I attended a music concert by famous Indian Carnatic vocalist M. Balamuralikrishna. Although it took an hour and a half to get there due to horrible traffic conditions, the concert was a treat. This 78-year old vocalist didn’t just sing, he used his voice as an instrument. The incredible range of pitches and sounds showed just how supple this man’s voice still was. My co-worker, a native of Kerala, India, was only able to understand bits and pieces, as many of the songs were in Tegelu.

Some of the songs were his own compositions, still adhering to the Carnatic style but pushing the boundaries. Some songs were about love and others about the Hindu gods. A violin played in a downward position, mridangam (type of south Indian drum played on both sides), and a male vocalist accompanied this legend. A drone-like sound was present throughout the concert.

Played in an improvisational style with no music, the accompanists had to listen very closely to blend with the main melody. Although tired and relaxed from the soothing music, I fought to stay awake to hear the beautiful vocalizations and experience the lively solos by the mridangam player.

With already much quieter streets, the ride back to our neighborhood was only 15 minutes. Still soothed by the melodies, I was ready to go to bed.