Friday, October 24, 2008

Happy (early) Diwali

Since I am leaving for Kerala tomorrow and won’t have my computer with me, I have decided to post an early entry on Diwali. Also known as Deepavali in southern India, this major Indian festival is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists with much the same intensity as the west celebrates Christmas. Called the “Festival of Lights,” candles and lamps are still a large part of the celebration, as are decorating homes with lights and lighting firecrackers (which I have already been hearing out on my street for about a week).

During this time gifts are purchased and distributed, with beautiful saris a common purchase for women. Employers give their workers a bonus. Sweets are made, purchased, and exchanged en masse, with enough sugar and ghee (clarified butter) to make your teeth rot and stomach expand.

There are different variations as to the origins of Diwali, but most see it as a celebration of victory over evil. Regardless of one’s religious affiliation, Diwali is widely enjoyed as one of India’s most beautiful and significant festivals.

The photos I have included were taken at our school’s special Diwali celebration, occurring a couple of weeks ago.

Let it Pour

Chennai has continued its rainy streak of nearly 2 weeks in a row with rain every day (or night). Today was no exception. Despite an unrelenting downpour already occurring for over 40 minutes, I decided to head home. Already the roads were flooded, in most cases not seeing any part of the asphalt. In the back of an auto rickshaw, the open sides provided little protection, particularly when larger vehicles passed us (as most drivers here love to do). I covered as much of myself with my umbrella, turning it slightly like a shield in the direction of the passing traffic. The few manholes I saw had water bubbling out of them. Rainspout pipes gushed out the water. People huddled under the inadequate bus shelters or narrow overhangs of shops. Some donned “fashionable” plastic bags for hats or large plastic sheets over their entire bodies resembling a hunched over ghost. Others simply waded through the water. A few times my driver tried taking alternate routes, only to find them impassible. Needless to say, I was glad when I arrived back at my apartment, sandals soaked and pants damp, but otherwise surprisingly dry.

Note: These photos were taken the other day; there was no way I was going to bring out my camera in today's rain.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Memorial Anniversary Meal

This evening I was invited to my Hindu neighbor’s house for a meal. Although the wife had been cooking all day for various people, she wanted me to partake of a memorial meal as well. It was the one-year anniversary of her father-in-law’s death.

Earlier in the day a priest had come and performed some rituals, including lighting a small fire. In her kitchen she opened up what looked like a pantry door. Instead it contained the family’s pooja “room,” a place that contained statues of the Ganesh and several other gods, oil candles, yellow sandalwood paste and red sindoor powder (traditionally applied to the forehead of married Hindu women), various food offerings including fruit and coconut, and photos of the father-in-law and great-grandparents who had long since passed away. Fresh flowers were draped over the photograph and various other items including the statues. I noticed a small amount of ash on a plate in here as well.

A large banana leaf was placed on the table as my plate. My neighbor then placed small portions of a finely shredded cabbage-coconut dish, spicy potatoes, creamy sour onion dish, jam-like mango dish, and of course rice topped with dhal (a slightly spicy yellow spit pea sauce with a “drumstick” vegetable mixed in). In true Tamil style, I was to eat with my right fingers – more practice. The only one eating at the time (most Indians eat much later), I was given full attention as I ate. More helpings were piled on, followed by some small fried (but not sweet) doughnut-like items and a sweet vermicelli rice pudding dessert made with sweet milk, saffron, cardamom and blanched almonds.

Above the doorway I noticed a leaf. It was explained to me that the mango leaf (a few of which I also saw outside their door) signified that an important even was taking place in the house that day. My neighbor explained that other leaves would signify other items, such as an illness in the house. After sweet coffee and a long chat, I thanked them for the meal and inviting me, at which time my neighbor said that actually she was the one to do the thanking.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Actor Politicans in India

The acting profession in India goes beyond stardom for one’s ability to act. Rather, they achieve iconic status – almost to the point of worshipping. It seems that Indian politicans (particularly in Tamil Nadu), including Vijayakanth of the DMDK party (about whose political meeting gathering I wrote on Saturday), were actors. Crowds willingly follow them and these actors use the movie screen to promote their platform. Judging from the huge numbers of youth that descended upon Chennai this weekend, I can presume that Vijayakanth has a huge following.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tamil Youth emerge in Chennai

Although the days started out rather quiet, the humid air around my neighborhood was punctuated by sounds of cheering, blowing whistles, and car horns. My neighbor explained that a political meeting was taking place in Chennai, with members of the DMDK party arriving from all over Tamil Nadu. Seeing that the sound did not die down this afternoon, I decided to take a walk around the block. The bridge overpass was festooned with the DMDK flag. Vans and busses carrying male youths wearing yellow shirts with the DMDK Youth logo were flowing (actually creeping) towards the city center. On top of the vehicles the excited young men were waving flags and cheering. I don’t think the police were feeling the same way, as they were dealing with the larger than expected numbers of vehicles descending upon the city and clogging the already crowded streets.

It's well into the evening and I still hear the cheers. We'll see how long it lasts. Gosh, if each political vehicle between noon and now carried between 10 and 150 people, just imagine how many political male youth have descended into Chennai!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Start of the Monsoon

We have now entered the Northeast Monsoon season, typically taking place from October to December. It is the major period of rainfall for southern India, with 48% of annual rainfall for the state of Tamil Nadu occurring during this time. For coastal areas such as Chennai, this figure is up to 60% of its total precipitation. Although the heaviest downpours are normally at night, we have had some torrential rain while at school.

Indians seem to take the rains with stride and joy, even though it can be quite disruptive on daily life. With the downpours, the large numbers of outdoor vendors, tailors, and other laborers are forced to seek shelter or get soaked. If the pedestrians and bike/motorcycle riders aren’t soaked enough with rainwater, they get an extra douse of dirty road spray. Due to inadequate drainage and the amount of litter, roads quickly block up with water, forcing pedestrians and motorists alike to either maneuver around the filthy flood water or go right through it. It doesn’t smell too pretty either! Of course, mosquitoes thrive in this staid water.

Despite all this, Indians welcome the monsoons, as it provides needed water for drinking, farming, and electricity, as well as cooling things down – a bit. I prefer watching the rain from inside and would rather not have to drive an auto rickshaw through the dirty water, but who am I to complain? I have a dry roof over my head that is on the 2nd floor, mosquito netting, electricity, and an occupation that doesn’t depend on the success of the monsoons.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fun in the Slum

Sneaking a quick walk in between the rains, I went to the poor neighborhood less than two blocks away from my spacious apartment. See "A Walk Down the Alley" entry for a previous posting on my experiences in this neighborhood. After taking a few photos of the kids bunching around me, I spotted a curious sight for a slum – a small four-bucket Ferris wheel. Children beamed bright smiles and giggled as the man patiently operated the device manually. I wonder if adults could fit - it looked fun!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Christian Wedding in Chennai

Last Friday my housekeeper’s parents paid me a visit. The mother opened her cloth bag and produced a silver tray and gently placed a variety of fruits on it. As the family presented the tray to me, I was also given a wedding invitation. Written in both Tamil (Sanskrit-like writing) and English, they explained that their son was getting married on Monday and that I was invited to be an honored guest. The ceremony and reception would be held at their large Pentecostal church. Indicating that I would attend, the family was pleased and in their broken English told me that they were looking forward to seeing me there.

Waiting for the Ceremony
Arriving at the requested time, I took a few photos of a bride posing outside in her white western-style gown, complete with a veil. Upon entering the entryway of the church, I was presented with a bulletin, upon which another couple’s name was written. A bit baffled, I presented my invitation and asked where this wedding was taking place. Walking up two flights of stairs, I entered a room filled with chairs, a small “stage” in front, drum set, and electronic keyboard. Noticing a few simple floral arrangements, I surmised I must be in the correct place, but the fact that there were so few people in the room bothered me.

Bringing out my invitation once again, I showed it to the older lady in front of me and asked her if I was in the right room. Looking at the Tamil section, she smiled and nodded. A young woman then sat across from me, introducing herself as a good friend of my housekeeper. Her middle school-age son and teenage daughter were also quite friendly and engaged in conversation. Her English was quite understandable, making conversing easier and time pass by more quickly as more people finally began filing into the room. Quite frequently someone would come up to me, bowing their head slightly and placing their palms together, smiling and then gently shaking my hand in a gesture of honor. Others shyly smiled from a their seats, waving at me. With a large percentage of the women wearing a bindi forehead decoration and their young children’s faces marked with the dark splotches to scare away evil spirits, it would be hard to distinguish these Christians from their Hindu counterparts. Some did wear cross necklaces in addition to other gold jewelry around their neck, wrists, ears, nose, and hair. Strands of jasmine adorned the braided shiny hair of most females.

An Honored Guest
As soon as my housekeeper’s family spotted me (not hard since I was the only white person there), large grins emerged and they came up to welcome me. The mother was wearing a special wedding silk sari, decorated with gold thread. My housekeeper’s toddler daughter was wearing an elaborate outfit and heeled sandals that cost over a month’s salary. Surprisingly, the father was wearing a very plain outfit that reminded me of a safari uniform. Soon I met the rest of the family. Indeed, they were glad I was there.

Wedding Ceremony
Finally the bride arrived, sitting next to the groom in red plastic chairs. He wore a suit and tie and she wore a pretty green wedding sari (also decorated with gold thread) accentuated with layers of gold jewelry and decorations in her “put up” braided hair. Her face was lightly concealed by a simple white veil.

The service was conducted in Tamil, leaving me to understand nothing except for a few Amens and “Jesu” phrases. I tried to focus on what was going on, but often found myself looking at the saris enveloping the bodies of even the simple villagers, contrasting with their feet worn rough by walking barefoot. People sang songs by heart, led by one of the several ministers and accompanied by the keyboard. The women around me began clapping to the music, some placing part of their elaborate sari cloth over their head. Elderly women spontaneously lifted their right hand in the air, waving bony worn fingers gently back and forth to the music. Lengthy wedding vows were exchanged. The ceremony, it seemed, had combinations of a western church wedding combined with aspects that seemed more Indian.

Reception Hall
With the service now over, people filed out of the room, out of the church, and into a sheltered area next to the church. Long narrow tables were quickly filled, with banana leaves promptly placed in front of each person on the paper tablecloth. I was ushered to sit near the stage decorated with flowers (potted and cut) and a silver sofa, cooled on each side by fans. Shortly thereafter the wedding couple arrived, taking their seat on the throne-like sofa. Standing up, the wedding couple was presented with thick garlands of cream-colored flowers embellished with red ones. The bride and groom nervously handled a bouquet of jasmine and red flowers. The official wedding photographer and video person continued to capture all events including sometimes panning the audience, Just as they did during the ceremony. I was given a bottle of cold Pepsi, a welcome item so I didn’t have to worry about drinking the water later. More people came up and greeted me, seemingly honored just to have me in their presence. One even nudged her chair as close to mine as possible as if I exuded some special aura. Only able to get in a few photos (the official photographers stood on chairs directly in my line of sight), I was then led up onto the stage as part of the family photograph (women only). It felt strange, as I was basically a stranger being given a place of honor because I was white. Out of respect for the family, I obliged.

Chow Time
I then was directed to grab my backpack (I came directly from school so I wouldn’t be late) and head up to the eating tables. Fresh paper was rolled over the tables ready for the next batch of eaters. Observing the person next to me, I washed my banana leaf with a small amount of water. Food was quickly plopped onto our leaves, after which we began scooping up the rice, sauce, and onion salad with our right hand. A small banana and ice cream was offered for dessert. I was consciously aware of the next table of people facing me, watching me as I clumsily put the food into my mouth. The person next to me and I were offered extra pieces of chicken and second helpings, but I politely declined. It would take me longer to eat what I had anyway, not being adept at this finger eating. My right hand sticky and greasy, I poured a bit of water into my hand and tried to wash it. From the quizzical looks of the person sitting next to me, I sensed that it probably wasn’t the practice. I took out a Kleenex and dried off my hand and then placed it inside my folded banana leaf, indicating that I was finished. As soon as I got up, someone else took my place for yet another round of eating. My housekeeper then led me past the massive cauldron of rice and the other food items and out to a waiting auto rickshaw. Thanking her for the evening and for inviting me, I was now on my way back to my apartment, thus completing my first Indian wedding.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Vijayadasami and Saraswathi Puja

On the eighth day of the Navarathiri festival, Hindus offer prayers to Saraswathi – the goddess of learning and seeking knowledge. This goddess resides in books, reading materials of all types, and musical instruments. To celebrate this puja (ceremonial worship), children place their books and musical instruments before a figure of the goddess. This shows respect for such items that impart knowledge.

The 10th day of Navarathiri is seen as a day of victory for Hindus, commemorating the day the goddess Sakthi slayed the demon – a victory of good over evil. On the day of Vijayadasami , if one begins new ventures (i.e. business or education) he/she is assured of success. Young children are taught their first alphabet on this day, with parents helping them form the letters in rice flour. For some, this day marks the beginning of their formal education or training in various arts forms. Vijayadasami is also a day to honor one’s teacher.

So happy Vijayadasami all you teachers!

Above: Images of Saraswathi

Internet Sources:,

Ayudha Puja and those strange looking pumpkins

This evening I asked my neighbor about the mysterious "watermelons" I saw smashed alongside the roads when taking my Ayudha Puja photos yesterday. Smiling, she said that they were not watermelons, but green pumpkins. She explained that after a person completes his/her puja including cleaning, decorating, and worshiping the puja (i.e. auto, sewing machine, shop - see yesterday's post), a specially prepared pumpkin is then smashed signifying the puja process is finished. A hole is cut into the top of the pumpkin, into which some red powder (the same stuff Hindus use to decorate their foreheads) and coins are placed, with the hole then plugged. The result is a very deep pink interior. Because the smashed pumpkins cause a driving hazard for vehicles (particularly bicycles and motorbikes), the large pieces are removed much more quickly than they have been in the past.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Ayudha Puja

Yup – another day of festivities and day off for most people in India – but not our school. Today was the day of Ayudha Puja, which means the Worship of the Weapons. This festival is observed in honor of the Goddess Durga, who after destroying demons, her devotees thanked her weaponry for protecting them.

Although there are variations around India, the basic festival entails people blessing tools they use with which they make a living, showing respect towards these tools and cleaning them. It also reminds people of their dependence on tools and necessity in daily life.

To celebrate, vehicles, including the ubiquitous “tuk-tuk” autos, are cleaned and decorated for this day. Shopkeepers would also decorate their stores. On the front of the vehicles and framing many shops one could find stalks of banana leaves tied together, bright garlands of flowers, and sandalwood paste splattered or carefully applied in designs. A tailor might clean and decorate his sewing machine, while a housekeeper might do the same for her stove or washing machine.

When going for a walk after school, I saw busses with the banana leaf/floral decorations, also present on bicycles, motorcycles/motorbikes, and the aforementioned vehicles. Palm leaves were carefully folded in an almost origami-like hanging. Men balanced on rickety-looking bamboo ladders, hanging the palm leaf strands or stringing bright yellow garlands of flowers over their store entrances and sign. On the ground, watermelons were spattered, their brilliant interiors contrasting with the dust-covered pavement. I also noticed other fruits splattered on the ground too – will have to find out why. Alongside the roads women and men alike were busy stringing the floral garlands, so high in demand, the strands coiled like a tall snake. Others were busy buying the items, carrying their puja purchases in the golden light.

To see more photos of the Ayudha Puja and other Indian Festivities, visit my Flickr set

Monday, October 06, 2008

My neighbor’s Kolu Display

This weekend I was invited to visit one of my apartment neighbors. In her living room was a doll display known as Kolu (or Navratri as known elsewhere in India) In addition to the mostly ceramic figures dominated by gods & goddesses, a running light strand added to the festive look. My neighbor explained that sometimes figures are passed down through generations. Amongst all the deities was a pot-bellied figure identified as a shopkeeper. During the nine days of the festivity friends and family would come to see her display and eat special treats, just as she would reciprocate and visit the display of others.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Shopping in Mahabalipuram

Aside from visiting the UNESCO rock-hewn monuments, another popular pastime in Mahabilupuram is shopping. From humble stalls to boutique shops, there are things to be purchased. Be sure to bargain though, as prices are quite inflated, particularly for non-Indians!

The biggest draw are the rock carvings, fashioned into Hindu deities, elephants, decorative balls, and other shapes. The more expensive ones are carved out of granite, an incredibly hard rock. Craftsmanship is quite good. Even if you don’t want to buy anything made out of rock, do take the time to stop at a workshop or stall where men are chiseling away on the rock, fashioning large sculptures for temples and other important places.

If stone stuff is not your thing, Mahabiluparam also has a fairly large selection of textiles and other crafts from northern India. I declined purchasing any of these, as I’d like to go up north where they are made and then make my selection. Jewelry is also a popular item.

In a boutique I noticed some wooden masks. One had small multiple skull-like heads above the main head with bulging eyes. Another was of an elephant, a favorite subject of Indian art and a reminder of its beloved god Ganesh. This boutique also has some wood carvings and brass pieces that had strong stylistic similarities to the Dogon in Mali. Alas, things were very expensive there so I went away empty-handed.

Even if you don't visit the shops, the shopping will come to you. At the entrances of stone monuments, sellers suddenly envelop the visitor, showing their wares and starting with highly inflated prices. Some are young kids, following you with repeated attempts to show off their stone-carved pendants and hoping for a sale. Quite persistent fellers!

Eagle Temple at Thirukazhukundram

You can bet I’ll be copying and pasting that village’s name instead of typing it again! Anway, on the day of Gandhi’s birthday (a national holiday), I joined some teachers to a village tour। On the way, we stopped at Thirukazhukundram, a town located 17 km (11 miles) west of Mahabilupuram। This town is famous for two eagles that arrive at noon to be fed by the priests at Vedagiriswarar Temple.

Legend of Vedagiriswarar

Our guide told us about the legend surrounding the eagles. She described how eight saint-like figures prayed to the lord Shiva when they died to acquire the form of the lord. When Shiva appeared to them, and they decided instead to become on equal status with the Lord and merging with the Supreme Brahman, Shiva became enraged. Instead of the expected promotion, he demoted them to become eagles. After begging for forgiveness, Shiva relented and instead said that they would be born as holy eagles, two in each yugam (an epoch of time in the Hindu calendar). If they worshipped Shiva sincerely, they could attain Sarupya Mukti (soul acquires form of the lord). So far, six have already attained that status, with the last two living in the final epoch of the world. These last two eagles are said to visit the Vedagiriswarar Temple at noon for food, reaching the distant town of Rameswaram in the evening.

Up we go

After taking off our shoes, we stood in line to pay the 10 rupees for photography. There even was a paid option to be carried up the 530+ stairs to the temple. The temple itself was simple (I expected its interior and exterior to be more ornate considering its fame) and dimly lit – a common characteristic of Hindu temples. A patio outside the temple provided a great view of the town, including another temple complex with tall gopurams (pyramidal gateways in south Indian temples) and a large temple tank. Surrounding the town were small green fields, with rice being a common crop. Still several hours before noon, we decided to head back down.

Walking down the stairs was definitely easier and faster. Back at the main level, more Hindus had now arrived, offering prayers before going through the gate up the stairs. A small ritual fire was lit on the stairs. A woman and her children sold garlands of flowers at a table, specific types for different gods. Now I can say I’ve visited the Vedagiriswarar Temple in the town of Thirukazhukundram.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Old and New Lighthouses

Ascending the steps past a Pepsi-drinking monkey, we reached the area where the old and new lighthouses were constructed. Otherwise known as the flame-eyed Shiva, the old lighthouse was constructed in 678-800 AD. Carved out of the top of a very high granite rock the old lighthouse contains beautifully carved sides. It was used until 1900, at which time the new lighthouse took over. Of interest is that both lighthouses are a distance away from the sea.

At the base of the lighthouse rock is the famous Mahishasuramardini Mandapa cave. Here, a beautiful carved panel portrays an eight-armed Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura. On the opposite end is a reclining Vishnu, deep in meditation before creating the earth.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Krishna’s Butterball

Close to the magnificent Arjuna’s Penance is a 15 meter (49 ft) spherical boulder known as Krishna’s Butterball. Perched precariously at the edge of a 45° slope, the boulder is a magnet for tourists who photograph themselves in touristy shots such as pretending to hold up the boulder or to bravely sit in the shadow of the rock. Legend has it that several Pallava kings and their elephants unsuccessfully tried to move the stones.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Arjuna's Penance

Our last main area to explore was Arjuna’s Penance, also known as the Descent of the Ganges. Here, a sculpted frieze 27 meters (88 ft) long and 9 meters (30 feet) high dominates an immense rock with a natural vertical cleft. It is perhaps the world’s largest outdoor rock sculpture. The carvings of animals, hunters, saints, gods, demi-gods, and attendants adorn the space, with two enormous elephants dominating the smaller figures. Near an uncompleted section I spotted some figures, whose heads have since been decapitated. Near the smooth tusks of the one elephant is a cat mimicking the penance pose of an archer. Rats freely play around the cat, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of the cunning feline.

You can see more photos of Arjuna's Penance on my Flickr site.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram

Perilously close to the sea is the famous Shore Temple, perhaps the most famous of all Mahabalipuram’s sights. Composed of two towers, the Shore Temple’s architecture has significantly influenced subsequent architectural styles in south India and beyond. Due to eroding effects of the wind, sand, salt, and sea-spray, the architectural elements have a much softer, less detailed appearance. This is particularly so on the side facing the sea. Perched on the walls surrounding the temple were seated Nandi figures.

Of interest, the tsunami of 2004 revealed additional structures and animal carvings consistent with the Pallava period. Subsequent underwater excavations have since occurred, revealing new structures first chronicled by a British traveler in 1798, perhaps part of the legendary seven pagodas. It is theorized that the submerged structures were victims of an earlier tsunami.

In recent years the site has undergone renovation and a cosmetic upgrade, a suitable tribute to the temple's UNESCO World Heritage status.

Navratri Festival in Chennai

The festival of Navratri is a widely-enjoyed Indian tradition, celebrated for 9 days. During this time people worship Devi and commemorate the victory of good over evil.

In the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Navratri is celebrated in a unique way. Women adorn their houses with dolls, draw traditional rangolis (patterns on the floor made with powders and flowers), and light lamps. During Navatri (known as Kolu in Tamil Nadu), families proudly display their traditional wooden dolls, eager to show off their display to visitors. They also gather to sing songs and dance. Traditional gifts of coconuts, cloths and sweets are exchanged between families and friends. Favorite foods made on this special occasion include sundal, a special sweet made from lentils and brown sugar.

Near my house is a temple with a celebration hall. While coming home from school last night, I noticed that there was a display of dolls set up on tiered stands. Grabbing my camera, I returned to the hall and was given permission to enter – shoes off, of course. In a raised platform in front of the dolls were some women singing and playing traditional instruments. A crowd of women began to gather. Not wanting to intrude, I took a couple pictures of the display and left. If you look closely at the photo, you will notice a wide variety of dolls and figurines, ranging from brightly colored goddesses, strange creatures, humorous looking men, bobble-heads, villager figurines, and figures created in plastic, wood, etc.