Thursday, December 31, 2009

Golconda Fort, Hyderabad

Although the light was fading, we went to our final destination, the Golconda Fort. Located about 11 km (6 miles) west of Hyderabad, it took a while to get through the traffic to reach the fort. Once the capital of the seven Qutb Shahhi kings who ruled from 1518 through the end of the 16th century before the court moved to Hyderabad, Golconda is quite large. We had a short time to explore the complex, so I decided to head up to the top, up its many stairs. The guidebook stated that the fort is one of the best-preserved forts in India, but I couldn’t really see this from the part I visited. You could still see portions of the wall, once 18 m (60 ft) high. On the way up we passed a Hindu temple that had a painting on a rock of the goddess Kalli. We also passed by some rainwater collection pools (now dilapidated and/or full of garbage), the mosque of Ibrahim Qutb Shah, and the three-storey Durbar Hall located on the top. From here I had a great view of Hyderabad and the setting sun. The walls of the building were scrawled with people’s names. Several people asked if they could take a family picture with me in it. Now I was the celebrity…

That evening the two eye doctors and I visited a pretty Hindu temple located high on a hill. To get up there, we ascended steps which were bordered on both sides by booths selling religious items, cheap Chinese trinkets, bangles, pearls, and more. Like all Hindu temples, we had to remove our shoes. Here we also had to turn in our cell phones, cameras, and other items. Ascending marble stairs, we joined the queue snaking around the temple. This temple seemed to be a mixture of Hindu temples found in various states; a gopuram seen in Tamil Nadu, a more plain Andhra style, A bit of Jain elements, and still another similar to what I saw in Orissa.

Happy New Year from Chennai, India!

Have a wonderful New Year - 2010!

Sudha Car Museum - That's Some Car!

We then visited the Sudha Car Museum, which prided itself on its eclectic handmade vehicles, including the world’s largest tricycle. A worker from the museum (the first and only handmade wacky car museum in the world) gave us a short tour, explaining what some of the vehicles were – all labors of creative dedication by K Sudhakar. Within the sheds, one could see dune buggies, modified cards, and really wacky vehicles such as a cup & saucer car, computer car, one in the shape of a bed, soccer ball, camera, lotus pond – and even a condom!

Our next destination was the Nehru Zoo Park. Too bad it wasn’t Monday (when it is closed). Thankfully it was only a 20 rupee entrance fee. The grounds were mainly picnic spots for locals. The color black was the dominant clothing color, worn by most Muslim women in the form of burquas. Despite the sign prohibiting plastic, picnic-goers carried much of their items in plastic. Bags tumbled about in the light breeze. We all took a rickety zoo train that chugged along and toured some of the zoo. Not many animals were to be seen though.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Barn Chores (Color Pencil)

At first light I rise and put on my woolen socks, and shajkaca hat, stretch rubber goulashes over my shoes, and then head out to the barn. I have two cows there, but only one is currently milking. With my wide, strong hands, I expertly pull the cow’s teats, extracting enough milk for the day. After a hearty breakfast and cup of strong Turkish coffee, I head back out to the barn and begin my chores. First I scrape the old straw and manure away. Then I use a pitchfork to spread fresh bedding for my cows. The aroma of fresh straw mingles with that of the cows, a comforting, familiar scent to me in this place where I feel I belong.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hauling Hay (Pastel)

It’s hay season again and time to gather what my brother and I cut yesterday with a sickle. I’m grateful that my brother could help me, as my lame knee makes it painful to bend in the swooping motions needed for efficient cutting. Today I’m all alone on this slightly marshy piece of land. I use my cane to walk over to a patch of dray hay and stab the cane into the soft ground. Then I use the pitchfork to sift and gather the hay together until I have a large enough load. Hobbling over to reach my cane, the load now feels more secure on my shoulder as I slowly make my way over to the small, mounded stack. It’s tough work for an old man, but I love being outdoors. Besides, it’s the only way of life I know.

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Hyderabad City Tour - Nizam's Museum, Salarjung Museum, Chow Mohalla

Boarding a green bus that looked like a caterpillar (along with antennas), we began our city tour. As usual, I was the only non-Indian. One of the first places we visited was Nizam’s Museum, a sprawling 19th century Neo-Classical complex of buildings once the main residence of the 6th Nizam (ruler). The exterior of the buildings were in need of restoration. Herded to the far end of the main building, we then went inside where we saw the Nizam’s gigantic wooden wardrobe – a 73 square meter (786 sq feet) room with two levels of closets and a mechanical elevator. In addition to the large wardrobe collection, silver objects (many of buildings and maps given to the Nizam for the silver jubilee), china, and photos were displayed.

We also toured the Salarjung Museum, which contained an eclectic collection of over 40,000 objects once belonging to Hyderabad’s Prime Minister (1899-1949). Some of the items were quite beautiful (and likely expensive), while other items bordered on being kitsch. In a large open room, people sat in rows of seats, waiting for a clock to chime the hour and display its animation. I particularly liked some of the marble sculptures (European), Indian bronze sculptures, and miniature paintings such as those I saw in Udaipur. Once again we were not given enough time to truly see and appreciate the massive collection.

Moving onward, we visited the Chow Mohalla Palace. Designed in a mixture of Mogul and European style, the palace was built in several phases between 1750 and 1869. A beautiful garden surrounds the complex. In one section, a large pool reflects the classical style yellow building. Fountains spout in other areas. The Durbar Hall was particularly beautiful, with its huge glass chandeliers imported from Belgium, tall ceiling, white marble floors, columns, and walls also containing white and golden marble, topped with decorative flourishes. The Chow Mohalla Palace gives people an idea of the opulence once enjoyed by the Nizams.

Hyderabad - Arrival

This is the first of several postings pertaining to my short trip to Hyderabad and on to Agra.

After a pleasant overnight train, I arrived in Andhra Pradesh's capital city of  a bit ahead of schedule. While waiting for a doctor friend (whom I met while traveling in Vizag) to arrive, I took in the scenes before me. Probably around 70°F (21°C), many of the locals were dressed for winter. Many had on the striped caps I so enjoyed seeing in Chennai. Others had on stocking caps. Earmuffs were also very common. Babies were snuggled in fleece sleepers. Some women had on winter jackets over their saris. As in any public place, autorickshaw drivers flooded the area, descending upon people as they stepped out of the train or past the exit. Taking an uncrowded local bus (which was much nicer than most I’ve ridden in Chennai), we arrived at the grounds of the public eye hospital my friend worked at. I was to stay in the guesthouse there. After washing up, we headed out to get some south Indian breakfast, accompanied by a doctor from Orissa who was there for training. We signed up for a local tour of Hyderabad, which would take the latter part of the morning and to the evening.

Hyderabad’s nearly equal proportion of Muslim and Hindu residents was immediately apparent – so very different than Chennai. Mosques, far from being rarities tucked in a few places as in Chennai, dominated the skyline. A large number of women wore burquas and hijabs. Saris were also present, but not nearly as prevalent. White caps of Muslims were perhaps even more noticed than the forehead markings of Hindus. Signs were often marked in Telegu (local language of Andhra Pradesh), Arabic, Hindu, and English. In Chennai, one would typically see Tamil and English.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Violin Player, Subotica (Watercolor)

I have been a street performer since I was a little boy, accompanied by my father on the accordion. Now that I am an old man and on a meager pension, I once again find myself needing to play my violin on the street, hoping for some dinars so I can buy enough hleb, cheese and sausage for a meal. My favorite spot to play is next to the café on the pedestrian street. Whether it’s locals or visitors who come see this picturesque town with Hungarian-style Art Nouveau architecture, people here just seem to have more time to sit down and savor the moment. I like playing the slow, melodic songs that my father taught me, but the crowds seem to prefer the fast-moving Hungarian tunes better. Well, at least that’s what their coins tell me.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Gypsy Dancer (Color Pencil)

Serbians love to dance. We Roma like to dance as well. While their dances tend to be more constrained, circular dances, our Roma dances are wild by comparison. I love swishing my colorful skirt back and forth, then working up into a twirl so strong that my skirt hem rises nearly to my waist. At such moments I am lost to the world, immersed in a feeling of eternal bliss. Dancing makes me forget all the hardships and discriminations we as Roma face on a daily basis. In addition to our brass bands and this dancing, we have our own language and culture, which we staunchly seek to preserve. Recently I was asked to perform as part of the Serbian dance group Kolo. Some members of my Roma community under the Gazelle Bridge didn’t want me to join, but I see it as an opportunity to show those Serbs and others that our dance and culture is just as beautiful. Perhaps then when Serbs see our cardboard homes with plastic tarp roofs, they will see beyond our economic poverty and look at us as a real, vibrant people.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Elderly Farmer, Aranđelovac (Watercolor)

It’s been a long spring, made lonely by the passing of my beloved wife this past January. If only I had had enough money to buy her the needed medicine for her pneumonia, she probably would be here with me now. She made the best kaymak, which I loved to place on freshly baked bread. Now I am alone on this farm with my animals, a few chickens, three pigs, and two cows. My daughter tries to visit me when she can, but I usually have to be satisfied with her phone calls. She always brings some food I can warm up in the oven and remarks at how thin I’ve gotten since Mamma died. Indeed, as I look down at my hands, made wide from years of hard physical work, I see how thin the skin has become. I will need to gather strength in order to harvest the hay.
Today I had some visitors. Why God had blessed me with visitors today, I’m not quite sure. After showing them my barn and summer kitchen, we entered my house. I felt so ashamed that I didn’t even have some rakiya to offer these guests to drink. They just repeated that they wanted to hear about my farm and me. I showed them photos of my wedding, a picture of me as a young boy, and my parents as well. After I explained that the certificate on the wall was for my service as a chetnik fighter in WWII, they insisted that I stand next to it and be photographed. Before they left, one of the American visitors gave me a strange blue cap and insisted that I try it on. It was much too big and not nearly as comfortable as my trusty old shajkaca. Once again, tears streamed down my eyes. I wished I had something to give these kind visitors. Now they too are gone, exploring more of rural Serbia. I hope my daughter calls tonight, for I can’t wait to tell her about my American guests.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sifting the Olives (Color Pencil)

Our whole family helps out with the olive harvest. While the older boys manage the nets, it is up to the women to separate the olives from the leaves, place the sorted olives in large baskets, and haul them to our donkey-pulled cart. To make the tedious work of sorting go by more quickly, we sing songs. Soon we have enough olives to fill a woven basket. I grab one handle and my older sister grabs the other one. Even as adults, this task is heavy and difficult. My daughters are getting very good at sifting through these valuable fruits, their deft fingers and keen eyes a huge asset.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pulling the Olive Net (Color Pencil)

It is now April and we are at the end of our harvesting season. I have been shaking the olives from these trees in the same manner as my forefathers did. It is so rewarding to see these black pearls fall into the net, weighing it down so much that several men in my family must help pull the net. Our ancient trees have once again yielded much, thanks to the blessings of Allah.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Around the Corner, Kairouan (Watercolor)

I have spent all my life within the walls of this most holy of cities, Kairouan. Muslims from all over Tunisia come to my city to worship Allah in our magnificent Grand Mosque. I am an imam at a smaller mosque and seek to train our young boys in the ways of Allah and Mohammed his Prophet. Even here in Kairouan, despite the Call to Prayer heard in every quarter (neighborhood), some of the younger generations are choosing to adopt materialistic, Western ways and move away from the wisdom contained in the Koran. It doesn’t help that there are so many tourists fanning throughout our city, flaunting their fancy cameras and revealing a great deal of skin and hair. Inch’allah, the boys under my care will heed my words. Ah, the Call to Prayer beckons me. It is time to head over to the mosque.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Tea Time (Watercolor)

The Medina of Tunis is my favorite part of the city. Here I can wander through the narrow maze-like streets, shop for a new chechia from the same store in the souk that my father patronized for this traditional woolen cap, and go to Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque. No trip to the medina is complete without stopping by a small café to enjoy some sweet mint tea with pine nuts. After several glasses of tea for all of us men, we then bring out the shisha pipe, inhaling the apple-flavored tobacco as we puff and blow to make the bubbles appear. After a round or two of cards, I have one more glass of tea and then head home.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dogon Bandana Woman (Oil)

Life has changed much here in my Dogon village in the last two decades. Now, paved roads enable tourists in their large vehicles to reach many parts of our area. While I know that these toubobs bring in much needed money to our poor villages, I also see how it has changed our own people, particularly the young generation. Women used to pride themselves on the large strings of cowry shells or trade beads handed down from their ancestors that they wore. Now I’ve even seen some wearing dresses made from Senegalese cloth. As for me, I’m sticking with my homespun indigo-dyed cotton.

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Merry CHRISTmas from Melissa

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Beaded Dogon Woman (Oil)

I love this time of year! It’s cooler, the harvest is in, and there are plenty of opportunities for celebration. For our women’s dance today, I decided to wear all the jewelry I have – the European beads brought down through the Sahara Trade Route, bronze ones made here in Mali, and a strand of shiny plastic ones my husband bought when he went to the capital. All the women of our village gathered together, moving around in a circle as we sang call & responses, blew plastic whistles, and trilled our tongues. Indeed, the period after the rainy season is my favorite time of year. There is much joy, song, and laughter!

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Melissa's photos of Agra

This past week I visited Agra, home to India's most famous landmark - the Taj Mahal. On my Flickr page you will find some photos of the Taj Mahal, Sikandra, the Agra Fort, Jami Masjid, artisans, and the people of Agra. Writings about my trip are still to come...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sigi Nogo (Pastel)

Early in the morning before the sun gets too intense, I go with my mamma to the Niger River to get some water for cooking and cleaning. I can now balance a bucket on my head, but it’s not nearly as big as mamma’s. I also help mamma go shopping in the Badalabougou West marché and pound millet for our evening meal. I need to get better at all the chores mamma does, as soon she will have another baby. Then I will have to carry my little brother Amadou on my back, just like mamma does now. Sometimes I get a little sad when I see my older brother Boubacar go with his friends to play football in the empty lot while I have to stay and work.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fulani Cattle Herders by the Niger River (Color Pencil)

This year I got to go with my dad and uncles to cross our cattle to the other side of the Niger River. Those cows sure complain when they are forced to go in the water, but it’s never all that deep so they really don’t have to learn to swim. The calves don’t do so well in the water, so we put them in our pirogue and then poll our way across the river until we reach the other side. Then the cows start munching on the grasses there. It’s an exciting time for boys of Diafarabé, as their cattle are judged to see whose are the fattest and healthiest. I hope my cousin wins this year!

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Preparing the Wedding Feast (Watercolor)

Weddings in Mali are a big affair, an opportunity for neighbors, friends, and large extended families to gather and celebrate. It’s a fun time, but a lot of work. I was in charge of the cooking detail. My sisters had already helped me pound the millet, so now I carefully prepared this staple food in a large calabash. Listening to the female griot singing praises about the bride’s family momentarily took my mind away from cooking, but I was eager to join the dancing. As soon as I finished cooking, I changed into my wax print boubou, made shiny through pounding of wax.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Applying the Kolam Powder (Pastel)

Every morning I sweep the area in front of my house and then wet the area, preparing it for the kolam that invites blessings into the home. Today is a festival day, so I am making my design extra large and am using colored powder instead of just plain white rice flour. Even though I have done it many times, I love to see how the design grows and emerges, as if it has a life of its own. Sometimes I plan a design on a piece of paper, but usually it just comes from my head, a repository for the many designs I’ve created or seen. My fingers are now practiced enough that I can carefully control the powder, varying the pressure to achieve thin and thick, curvy and straight lines. It’s especially exciting when I see the colors transform the white outline into a brilliant design.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Before the Dance (Pastel)

My brother, his friends, my sister, and I perform our Rajasthani dance for tourists. Sometimes it gets a bit tiring performing for audiences who know little about our culture and what the songs really mean, but I need the income to support my young family as well as my aging mother-in-law. The first several songs of this performance are instrumental and vocal only. On occasion I sing as well. But it’s not until the dance numbers that I am truly happy and can showcase my talents. Then I am the highlight of the show.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fog-Enshrouded Hill, Munnar (Pastel)

Like most days in the hill station, a thick layer of fog rolled through Munnar. It seemed to slither over the contours of the tea hills, diverging as it encountered a tree. A hint of a warm sunrise tried to make its way into a predominantly cool palette. A feeling of peace enveloped the whole landscape.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Embroidering the Quilt (Watercolor)

As a Lambani woman, I learned to embroider and sew at an early age. It’s so rewarding taking small scraps of cloth and combining them with mirrors and sometimes shells to create vibrant pieces that are functional and beautiful. Bold colors of thread are embroidered throughout the piece, joining the cloth pieces and securely fastening the embellishments. Now some organizations are working with us so that we can make products that are desirable to urban markets, including those outside of Karnataka. These new markets help bring in needed income and enable us to continue our traditional craft.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Scents of the Spice Warehouse (Color Pencil)

As I grab peppers to place them into the sack, their deep aroma comes to the forefront, mingling with the other spices but commanding greater attention. Sealing up the bag, I add it to the pile in one of the rooms of this old warehouse, ready to be shipped to other parts of India. Stacked against the weathered walls of this Portuguese building are spices such as cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon, all bounties of this fertile land God has provided us. Every day I help load labeled sacks onto boats, a process that has occurred here for well over a thousand years. After many years of work here, the spices have entered deep into my skin’s pores, their scents perfuming me even when I am away from the warehouse.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

On the Haveli Balcony, Jaisalmer (Watercolor)

I live in the upper floor of a haveli located within the walls of the Jaisalmer Fort. From here, I can see the events of the day, whether it be as exciting as a festival or as mundane as a cow meandering through the narrow streets below. Around me, I see other magnificent 19th century havelis carved with equally intricate designs, but some of them are beginning to crumble, the owners unable to manage the upkeep costs. To help make ends meet, my family has set up a textile crafts shop in the lower level. As for me, I want no part of it.  This floor also has stone latticed windows that were once meant to be the way women were to see the world, but I find them stifling. I much prefer my balcony, with its smooth worn stone seat and open view to the world.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Picking the Tea Leaves, Munnar (Color Pencil)

Day after day I am out here in these lush tea fields, an endless sea of green leaves waiting to be picked. Wading through the dense bushes, I carefully pick the mature leaves with my small, nimble hands from each branch, placing the pickings in the bag on my back. To help break up the monotony of the job, the other women and I sing songs. Many of these songs are in Tamil, as a large number of us are from Tamil Nadu. I don’t particularly like this job, but the company provides basic housing, gives me a small stipend, and most importantly, provides schooling for our young daughter. The cool, fresh air is pleasant enough, but I miss my home village. After a few more years here in Munnar, I hope that my husband and I will have saved enough money to return home, to the land of the Tamils.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Snake Charker, Jaipur

I am one of a few remaining snake charmers currently attempting to eek out a living through this dying craft. Thankfully, tourists are still eager spectators, throwing some rupees into my basket lid after a short show. I practice circular breathing through my pungi instrument, the cobra swaying to the movement and vibrations of my instrument. I sit just out of reach of the snake, but it’s never even tried to strike at me. I’m not worried anyway, as I’ve had my snake de-fanged. After my little tune is over and the snake returns to the bottom of the basket, I sometimes invite the spectators to touch the snake; they almost always refuse.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Stringing the Flower Petals (Color Pencil)

I am one of several women with flower stalls lining the street in front of the temple.  I transform the buds into strings and garlands for worship and adornment. Although I have several different types of flowers for sale, jasmine is the top seller. I cut off mozham lengths (as measured between my wrist and elbow) of the strung buds for Tamil women who adorn their hair with these fragrant flowers. Having a stall in front of the temple assures that I have many customers to purchase my oleander, lotus, andchrysanthemums to adorn the deities. As it is Saturday today, I have also brought some small lamps with sesame seed-covered wicks, to be purchased by the devout seeking to appease the planet Saturn. My day starts early – around 6:15. I close up my stall around 10:30, returning to my house to make a larger noon meal for my family. It’s then off to the auction; I must be careful to get a good price in order to make a profit – perhaps about 200 rupees per day. It’s not much, but definitely better than having to take out a loan to buy flowers for tomorrow. Then it’s back to the stall, where I begin stringing in earnest in order to have cubits of flower garlands ready for sale the next day.  As darkness falls, the air is almost intoxicating, the buds having opened up in their full glory.

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

Young Girl, Jaisalmer (Pastel)

Today we are celebrating the festival of Gangaur, held in honor of the Goddess Gauri. I have dressed up in my very best, including new jewelry fashioned in Jaipur. Mehendi designs adorn my hands, applied lovingly by my older sister. I have been fasting for 18 days and hope that my devotion will bring me good luck when it comes time for me to find a husband. As I stand in line with the other young girls waiting for the procession to begin, I am in amazement of the scene before me. The sounds of the Rawanhatha, bagpipes, Surpeti instruments, and many drums fill the air. A large crowd has gathered, made up of locals and tourists. Cameras and cell phones are pointed our way, capturing the festive scene. Brightly decorated camels also await the procession. I clutch my metal pot, careful not to drop the coconut placed inside. The golden, bejeweled statue of Ganguar has just emerged from the stairs of the Royal Palace, carried by young men in splendid costumes. Soon we will follow the statue of Gauri, singing songs as we make our way to the lake.

Kamaycha Player, Jaisalmer (Color Pencil)

Although I have been playing my instrument here in front of the Royal Palace for as along as I can remember, I can honestly say that music remains a joy, not a job. For I have the best seat of the house, privy to some of the most colorful, spectacular events that have occurred in Rajasthan, all in this splendid courtyard. Even the desert sands blowing through this city cannot smother the gaiety and happiness that fills this fort. Nowadays, most of my customers are tourists. Whether they pause for a brief moment or stay for a while, I almost always see a smile emerge. Perhaps it is the music, or maybe it is the atmosphere and energy exuding from this magical place.

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Paintings and their stories: Sadhu by Temple

For my art exhibition, I wrote a short story about each painting, as if written by the person in the painting. These are all real people, and the stories are based on experience, observation, and representative/factual information typical of someone from that region/profession. Some of these paintings are still available, so if you are interested in purchasing one, please contact me.

I spend my days around the Annamalai Temple in Thiruvannamalai, that most holy of Tamil cities. There is a special aura about this place, for we are in the presence of Siddhars and Lord Shiva himself. I could sit for hours in the shadows of the massive walls, contemplating the beauty and magnificence of this most important of gods. When pilgrims come up to me, I lay blessings upon them. It’s been several years since I’ve given up my former life as a Brahmin – how many years I don’t know exactly, for I haven’t kept track. I haven’t seen my family since then. Once, I had several servants taking care of my household’s every need; now I depend upon the kindness of others just for a simple meal. I do not regret my decision, though. I have achieved a state of spiritual illumination and am well on my way to liberation from the cycle of birth and death, which is the goal of every Hindu.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Timbuktu's Disappearing Tradition

Global warming and modern technology are two things putting one of the oldest trading traditions in jeopardy. For centuries, caravans of camels made the 45 day trip out into the Sahara Desert to the Malian town of Taoudenni to load up huge slabs of salt and haul them back to Timbuktu. Such salt slabs, once considered nearly as valuable as gold, were used in the preservation of food. Such trade made the towns of Timbuktu and Mopti wealthy cities, with the mined "white gold" being floated down the Niger River for trade. Due to global warming and its reduction of rain in the region, oases are drying up, making the journey more arduous for the camels carrying the huge slabs, reducing efficiency and thus profits. Some Tuaregs (the nomadic "Blue Men of the Desert") have abandoned the traditional camel caravan method of transportation for salt slabs and instead are using trucks. The journey for vehicles takes only 10 days and the trucks can carry much more than camels are, resulting in much higher profits. In addition, salt miners are emboldened to charging more due to quicker turnaround time between journeys and payment.

Similar to the plight of family farms in Wisconsin, the Tuaregs are also faced with the dilemmas imposed upon them by modernization; get big or get out. Doing it "the old fashioned way" with 200 camels no longer enables the Tuareg to earn a living, particularly when compared to those using much faster modern equipment not as subject to the harsh climate. Camels, like dairy cows of small farms, are being sold off, with the owners having to either purchase modern equipment or abandon the salt trade altogether. Along with this change comes the disappearance of a great tradition and way of life.

Having traveled from Mopti to Timbuktu via traditional pinasse, I would mourn such a loss. I fondly recall seeing the huge slabs of salt piled neatly along the shores of the Niger/Bani Rivers in Mopti, imagining the journey those slabs must have taken from the dry sea bed in the remotest parts of Mali then across the sands to Timbuktu via camels, and then down the river to this very spot. Knowing that more of those slabs today are coming not with romanticized caravans but with trucks spoils it for me - and for the Tuaregs whose traditional lives are disappearing.

This entry was inspired by the BBC article from Friday on the salt caravans.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Like Beads on a String

Like most women in Tamil Nadu, these paddy workers wear saris even when out in the field, doing construction, etc. It amazes me how they can work in 6 meters of cloth that is simply tucked here and there. I never tire observing the beautiful patterns and bright colors on saris, whether the cloth is an inexpensive cotton or the most expensive silk piece.  From my vantage point high up on Gingee Fortress' Rajagiri Hill, the colorful hunched backs of these women working in a row reminded me of beads on a string.

Farm Work the Old-Fashioned Way

When nearly to the top of Gingee Fort in Tamil Nadu, India, I took some time enjoying the beautiful rural landscape, including the paddy fields below. From this height, the farmer and his two cows looked like little specks, preparing the field for rice. I'm not sure how long they were working, but the cows didn't seem like they wanted to be working. The farmer took breaks as well, perhaps partly because he also was tired, and also because the cattle weren't very willing. In a field nearby, women were working distributing bunches of rice stalks, bending over and also working by hand. How very different agriculture is when working with these methods, versus the huge tractors and equipment with fancy gadgets!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Happy Karthigai Deepam!

Tonight marks the Hindu festival of Karthigai Deepam, taking place in Tamil Nadu on the day of the full moon in the Tamil month of Karthigai. On this day it is believed that Lord Shiva takes the form of a jyothi (light of fire) on the hill of Thiruvannamali.
One of my neighbors created a pretty kolam and had a clay lamp lit with ghee placed in the middle. My other neighbor simply placed a couple of lamps outside her door. She gave me a sweet made from puffed rice and jaggery. Earlier in the evening, she had performed a puja to Lord Muruga, believing that such an action would bring prosperity to her household. She explained that away from the big cities such as Chennai, Karthigai Deepam is often celebrated with more fervor, with households creating large kolams and lots of lamps.

Read my Karthigai Deepam post from last year

Precious Documents in Timbuktu Get a New Home

When I traveled via pinasse (traditional boat) up to Timbuktu, Mali in 2001, I was excited to see the fabled city deemed by many to be the very epitome of remoteness. (Actually you can fly to Timbuktu now, but I find that rather sacrilegious). Amongst the sandy streets and mud brick structures was the Ahmed Baba center, a humble building belying its contents. Inside we found stacks of precious manuscripts, some dating back nearly 800 years, just sitting there on the counter, piled in shelves, and a few in a glass case. Many were right there in the open, able to be handled and touched  - or should I say maimed - by people and exposed to the elements - and termites. There was no air conditioning and the room was warm. Such terrible conditions for fragile, writings documenting the rich education & cultural history of Timbuktu, illuminated Korans, and much more. It was great that the center sought to collect documents from the region, but preservation in these conditions was a definite concern.

Today's BBC website posted an article and video announcing that a new building has been constructed to house the documents, along with people who are working to document and restore/conserve the manuscripts. Amidst the crumbling mud brick buildings, the new white building will probably look a bit out of place, but such an endeavor is necessary if the manuscripts will be around for the next generation.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Bit Tickly, Perhaps

Noticing that this young monkey was deftly picking up items and rapidly eating them, I leaned in closer to see what the tasty morsels were. Ants.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Yesterday market the Muslim festival of Bakr-Eid, commemorating the day on which Abraham was asked by Allah to sacrifice his son Ishmael. When Abraham attempted to do this, Allah instead placed a lamb on the altar, content that Abraham would have obeyed his command. On this day, Muslims purchase a lamb and slaughter it, roasting the tender meat and sharing with family. I recall when living in Tunisia seeing huge flocks of sheep and lambs by the roadside for sale just before the Eid, then seeing these same fluffy creatures tied up by neighbor's homes. Then on the day of the festival, the streets became awash in blood. The last year I was in Tunis, I was invited to the home of one of my Muslim colleagues and enjoyed some of the tender meat.

Here in Chennai, the Muslim population is rather small and lacks the physical presence around my neighborhood - unlike the majority Hindu population. While in a rickshaw in northern Chennai, we went past a mosque from which males were exiting. No doubt they were heading home to enjoy the feast. So no lamb meat, guts or blood to show you - just a picture of the people.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Granaries, Gingee Fort

These granaries were part of the complex at Gingee Fort, a nice day trip from Chennai. Imagine the amount of foodstuffs that would have been needed to fill one of these! When I look around the area these days, rice is the dominant crop. What other items were grown in the area back then?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Up to Rajagiri Temple, Gingee Fort

The steps began leading us around the hill and slightly down, only to rebound and move upward once again. Nearing the top, I had a great view of the surrounding countryside. In the rice paddies below the colorful saris of women bent over in the fields created a curved line. In another, a farmer herded his yoked pair of cattle through the brown earth.

After walking over a wooden bridge through a natural moat and then through a mandapa (pillared hall), I was now at the top of the hill. Here one could find the main citadel, a Hindu temple and several related structures, granary, and several smaller buildings. Compared to the buildings on Gingee Fort’s Krishnagiri Hill, these were very plain. Hanging from a tree were some colorful rags as well as some rocks tied to the tree. Some bangles were also attached. Our conjecture was that these were fertility-related. Just down a small path from the citadel was another canon. From here, I had a panormaic view of the Kalyana Mahal and other structures at the foot of the hill, Krishnagiri Hill and the wall snaking up the rocky hill, Chandrayandurg Hill with its smaller structure on top, the modern town in the distance, and of course lots of paddy fields. I could hear the Call to Prayer, a reminder that some of its citizens are descendants of the Mughals who once dominated the region. 

Overhead, the dark clouds began to form. Occasionally a few sprinkles cooled us. After a quick look inside a granary at the base of the hill, we drove over to the Venkataramana Temple and then proceeded towards Chennai. Our day trip had drawn to a close.