Saturday, January 31, 2009

Who was that masked

During the festival of Pongal, many rural people make the journey to the city. In Chennai, the zoo and the many beaches are particularly popular destinations. The festive atmosphere on Elliot's Beach in Besant Nagar (southern section of Chennai) was omnipresent. These cheap masks were a popular hit, transforming the kids into commercialist American cartoon characters. I wonder if they all knew who the characters were? Here in Chennai, The Cartoon Network and the Disney Channels are available, but I'm not sure what rural kids have on their TV - if they have TV and electricity...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rats at the Temple

Amongst the myriad of sculptures and relief carvings at the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in the Mylapore section of Chennai are some rats. They sit opposite some sculptures of cows, the Despised in most countries, rats have a special place in Hinduism as these rodents are seen as the vahana (transport vehicle) of lord Ganesh. In Hindu society, rats represent foresight, prudence, darkness (nighttime), and the sense of smell.

Looking at these large rat sculptures, I was reminded of a special temple in northern India devoted to rats, the Karni Mata Temple, which my friend Pat told me about. At this temple in Deshnoke, over 20,000 rats call the place home, protected and revered. In fact many people travel great distances to pay their respects. Supposedly there has never been an outbreak of the plague or other rat-born illness amongst its visitors, but I am wary of visiting a place full of crawling, hairy creatures with beady eyes.

Read more about the Karni Mata Temple.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Master of the Kolams

Nearing my photographic tour of the kolams in the neighborhood, some young men directed me to yet another alley. Here, surrounded by either onlookers or admirers, was an old man with thick farsighted glasses. With his cross-legged position and hands slightly bent up, it was if he was blessing something or someone. The colored mountain and sun design was quite curious, considering all the radial symmetrical kolams present everywhere else. What was its symbolism? Was this old man representing a god, lording over is dominion of nature? Or was he simply a master of the drawing in front of him?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Young girls have "a go" at it

As mentioned in Monday's entry on the kolam contest in Mylapore, there were a number of young girls who took part in the kolam drawing, including one who was only 4 years old. It must have been a mixture of pride - showing one's skills with so many admirers, as well as intimidation - seeing the intricately executed designs flowing from the hands of the adults and comparing that to your own asymmetrical kolams. The kids didn't appear phased though and concentrated hard on their design, merrily chatting at times. With continual practice and observation of their mothers making the daily kolams, These young girls will refine their skills as well.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Neighborhood Kolam Contest Winner

Today I found out who the winner of last Sunday's kolam contest was. Congratulations Valli! Here is her winning design. I found it creative, well executed (color and line form), and symmetrical - all aspects of good kolams. I guess the judges agreed as well!

Mylapore Festival Kolam Contest

Here I am, documenting another kolam contest. This one was part of the Mylapore Festival, a four-day event culminating this past Sunday. This vibrant part of older Chennai is famous for its Kapaleeshwarar temple. Mid afternoon, entrants began lining up sporting colorful saris and salwars, finding their square area and ensuring that it was swept clean and moistened. Some nervously studied their drawn plans, with mother-daughter teams ensuring that both knew what to do.

Ready, Set, Dot!
As soon as the go-ahead was given, participants of all ages descended upon the pavement of the road blocked off for the event. Ages varied, the youngest at 4 years old all the way up to white-haired grannies with no teeth. Even a couple men gave it a shot. Many dumped the provided rice flour powder into their favorite containers – plastic bowls, half a coconut, etc. Soon the square areas were filled with varying numbers of flour dots, carefully spaced and arranged to form the backbone for the artist’s design.

Documenting the Process
Walking around (and trying not to get in the way of any participant, the cameraman, and not to step on any design), I documented the process with my camera and camcorder. Lines were deftly drawn around dots in some designs, while others covered the dots, using them as strategic markers. Others preferred to add dots as the design grew. Completing all repeating parts of the same radial symmetrical design was the preferred method of some; others worked from the center outward, still others from the borders, and a few didn’t seem to have a very organized method. Some executed their designs in an expedient, confident manner. Nervousness was exacerbated as mistakes were made and the individual hastily tried to obliterate the marks with a rag and water. Line quality varied in thickness and level of control. Shaky hands or the less coordinated control of a child didn’t deter anyone. Postures also varied, with some standing straight and bending down at the hips, and others expertly squatting. All had the ability to work around their design without smearing their own creation or that of their neighbors. The more skilled women were able to create amazingly thin lines, accommodating their straight or curvilinear designs.

Admiring the Designs
About a half an hour later, even the most complicated designs and slow workers had finished. People began walking about more freely, admiring the variety of designs executed in different levels of skills. Some designs were more traditional in composition. Others were less geometric in design and featured birds, stylized animals, and flowers. Symmetry was a common element with the majority of kolams. All had a chance to vote for their favorite one.

Throughout the contest and afterwards, Indians came up to me inquiring about how I enjoyed India, what I thought of the kolam designs, how long I had been in the country, and where I was from – all questions I had answered before. Quite a number of them had been to the USA, lived there, or had family members in America. While pausing a moment in between photos, the cameraman came up, handed me his lapel microphone, and asked me similar questions. At least I could answer halfway intelligently about kolam designs. Perhaps I was on some local TV station.

Following a short stick dance performance by some young girls dressed in heavy makeup, colorful dresses, and lots of jewelry, I visited the temple and photographed the magnificent gopuram illuminated with the golden afternoon sun. Following a short stay at the nearby stage where instrumentalists and dancers performed, I took the local bus back to my neighborhood. Another afternoon of India culture was now over.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Photographing the Kolam Contest

On Sunday I went to the poor neighborhood just a couple of blocks away from my apartment to see the kolam contest my housekeeper had told me would occur that morning. Expecting to see only a few kolams, I was shocked to find extensive colorful designs in front of virtually every house. I had seen some ornate kolams on special occasions such as New Year’s Day and festivals such as Pongal, but nothing of this magnitude.

Accompanied by an ever-growing number of residents, I proceeded through the narrow lane, photographing each kolam and then taking another photo of the artist and her design. Most were made out of colored powder, but some incorporated flowers (or small flower pieces), grains, and even vegetables. Along the way, I met the judges who came to score the kolams according to their symmetry, originality, use of color, and a few other categories. They explained that the contest was part of a promotion to encourage blood donation.

Nearing the end of the maze-like assemblage of streets, I met a young man who worked at a computer engineering college. Impressed that I had photographed all the kolams, he told me that he could get the pictures printed if I made him a CD. That evening I returned to the neighborhood in near darkness (there aren’t streetlights in this neighborhood). Quickly attracting attention and then pleasant recognition, some residents led me to the man’s house. I had intended to simply give him the DVD and leave, but he insisted I come into his house to meet his extended family. I accepted some Indian coffee (sweet and with milk), but turned down his offer for fish curry, as I had already eaten. Just as I was about to leave, my housekeeper and some of her family entered, insisting that I come with her to another person’s house for some badam drink. Here I was offered the only stool in the room, surrounding by an increasing crowd around me. Once again I was offered a meal. Isn’t it amazing the hospitality of the poor? I again politely declined, explained that I was still on “farmer time,” eating dinner around 5:30. The mother accepted my apology on the condition that I return for dinner another time. And do think it all started with the intent of photographing a few designs on the pavement….

Interested in seeing more of the kolams? See my Kolams Flickr set

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mattu Pongal - A Trip to the Village: Part 2

Our narrow road was surrounded by lush green rice paddy fields, each just a slightly different hue. Emerging into the village, these homes were mostly thatched huts interspersed with some simple concrete structures. Outside each coutyard entryway was one or several brightly colored kolams, each different than the others. One based its design on mirror symmetrical peacocks. Our Indian colleague pointed out that the kolams had been painted on a thin layer of cow dung, making a nice smooth surface. To my surprise, there was no smell. One farm couple sat outside their simple hut, creating special small palm leaf brooms as part of the special pooja for the day. Next to some freshly finished brooms were some simple farm tools, an offering, and pots likely used during Pongal. Declining their offer for something to drink, we thanked them and moved on. Admiring yet a few more kollams, we got in the car and moved onward.

Our final stop was also prompted by an elaborate kolam containing a multitude of Pongal symbols: clay pots, candlelit lamps, decorated cows eating bowls of rice, and a pumpkin blossom in the center. An illustration Asian-looking girl was on one side of the kolam, as if she was the one creating it. Quickly the inhabitants came out to greet us, followed by neighbors. The kolam creator showed us yet another massive kolam, this one in rice flower. One farmer was preparing his cow for decoration, carefully scrubbing the horns. A special necklace consisting of a thick black band, pink beads, and a small conch shell was tied on the cow’s forehead around its horns. It too had new ropes. Another cow was finishing its bath. The farmers proudly posed with their prized cows as we took their photo.

One resident gave us a tour of the family’s nearby fields. Here, watermelon vines dotted the reddish soil. Varieties of pumpkin and squash also were planted, along with bitter squash on canopy-like trellises. Our Indian colleague pointed out some local plants known for their medicinal properties and one that she had used to make mascara. One little pigtailed girl continued following us around, quickly warming up to us. She, like most of the other people we had seen today, was dressed her special occasion outfit, complete with matching necklace, earrings, bracelets and chain down the parting of her hair. When I commented on the John Deere tractor, she cheerfully climbed onto the seat and posed, pretending to drive.
Thanking our village hosts for the tour, we headed the 46 km back to Chennai. Although we weren’t present for the evening’s cow parades, I considered it a wonderful glimpse into the village version of the celebration of Mattu Pongal.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mattu Pongal – a visit to the village: Part 1

This fourth day of Pongal is dedicated to the cattle for all their vital work on the farm. Contrary to other schools and many businesses, our school only had off for this day. One of the Indian teachers offered to take us to a village to capture a glimpse of what Mattu Pongal was like in a rural setting. I had heard that the main cow decoration and parading happened in the evening, but I was happy to get the opportunity to see whatever transpired.

Temple Town Visit
Heading down the IT Highway and on the Old Mahabapalipuram road, modern IT buildings gradually gave way to greenery. On the way, we stopped at a town with a large temple. Walking along the edge of the temple tank, we saw some goats that also had painted horns. A new van was being decorated with floral garlands on the front grill, pooja marks, and pongal designs in the windows. Perhaps it was going to be blessed. On the opposite side of the temple tank we saw some women washing clothes in the tank water. We were told that this is normally not an accepted practice; perhaps these women do not have access to freshwater. Some of the entryways to homes and shops around the tank had colorful carved floral decorations. They also had the auspicious yellow and red painted marks along the bottoms of the doorposts. In one shop, the rather portly shopkeeper asked if we could take her photo. After giving us her address, she presented the other American teacher and me a small banana. It was the second time we were given something to munch on in the town – another shopkeeper gave us some freshly roasted chickpeas and peanuts. Next to the shop a young couple and their toddler approached us, asking if we could take their photo as well. Our Indian colleague told us that the couple had come nearly 300 km to have their child blessed at this temple and that seeing two white people and having their photos taken was an especially good sign.

Cow Jewelry for Sale
On a roadside stall we stopped to look at the coiled ropes in various tints of red, pink and white. An elderly lady was looking through the selection, carefully selecting just the right one for her cow. Baskets containing other cow decorations could be purchased: small cans of bright enamel paint, brass bangles, pom poms, brass horn tips, and snout rings. Along the side of the road some cows laid lazily in a row, seemingly enjoying their day off. These cows were already “decked out” for Mattu Pongal: white painted horns with red dots, new “necklace,” and sandalwood paste marks on their forehead and down their spine.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Kaanum Pongal

On the final day of Pongal, people travel to see family members and friends. Elder members of the family are paid homage, with the younger members providing gifts of money. It is also one of the few times that rural people take off and head to the cities, dressed in their finery. Beaches were a favorite destination, with over 400,000 at Marina beach - one of many beaches lining the Bay of Bengal from Chennai down to Mahabalipuram. Over 100,000 stood hours in line to get into the zoo, others to the Snake Park, Children’s Park, and other sites. Judging from the festive atmosphere at a beach the night before and another beautiful day, I can imagine that it was a happy day for all.

For more information on Pongal - its meaning, celebrations, customs, kolams, recipes and more, visit

Friday, January 16, 2009

Surya Pongal
Dedicated to the Sun God, the second day of Pongal is known as Surya Pongal. Representing the plentiful and excess yield (true to the literal meaning of Pongal which means “to boil over”), a special sweet rice dish is cooked in a new clay pot. It is first offered to the Sun God with sugarcane sticks. My neighbor gave me some of the sweetened rice dish and a section of sugarcane for me to munch on, sucking out the juice.

Pongal rice dish is cooked on an outdoor stove like this one in rural areas. As on other days, rice is also offered to crows.

Happy Pongal!, Day 1: Bhogi Pongal

Happy Pongal!
This week, starting on the 14th, marks the harvest festival of Pongal. Literally meaning in Tamil “to boil over,” celebrants in Tamil Nadu give thanks to the Sun God for the bountiful harvest of the year. A strongly rural festival, Pongal is also celebrated in urban areas such as Chennai, but lacks some of the richness found in the countryside. In typical Indian style, Pongal is a multi-day affair, occurring over 4 days.

Bhogi Pongal
The first day of Pongal is known as Bhogi Pongal. On this day, offerings are made to Lord Indra, hoping to please him so the harvest is blessed. According to the Malayaam calendar, this day marks the beginning of the New Year. Before sunrise, old useless things are gathered into a bonfire. In my neighborhood, I saw small fires lit during my 5:30 AM walk, symbolically consisting mostly of paper scraps. It’s a good thing, as all that smoke in a congested area really would have caused a great deal of smoky pollution!

On this day, houses are thoroughly cleaned and their entryways decorated with rice flour or colorful kolams. The kolams I saw in my neighborhood were similar in size to the festive ones made on New Years Day. A few, along with recognizable sugarcane and pots symbols, contained written greetings in English or Tamil. Others had flower petals imbedded into the design, a substitute for the pumpkin blossoms traditionally used in the rural kolams. This is also a day for family gathering.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Maattu Pongal

Tamil Nadu is in the midst of yet another festival. This time it’s Pongal, the harvest festival. On this third day known as Maatu Pongal, cows get the special treatment in honor of their essential role in helping the farmer. Cows are given a bath, their horns cleaned and then decorated with colored enamel paint. Sometimes the horns are also tipped with gold covers. These revered animals also are decorated with sandalwood paste, flowers, bells, and are even given special necklaces. On the day of Mattu Pongal, cows are allowed to roam free and are fed sweet rice and sugar cane. In some villages, the Tamil’s version of bull-taming/fighting is still practiced, even though it is outlawed.

More to come about this date of Pongal and the other days of this four-day festival.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Palm Engraving Designs

This booth, also from Orissa, had some detailed work. Created from specially processed and dried palm leafs cut into the desired shape and size, the linear designs are engraved with a special stylo. Most designs I saw depicted Hindu myths or gods, with a few portraying animals of India. Once engraved, Lamp Black or powdered coal is applied on the leaf, filling in the etched lines. Some had subdued colors, created with vegetable dyes. Some of the pieces had circular designs stitched around the border, whose flaps you could lift up to reveal another god or animal.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Orissa Appliqué

This weekend I went to a crafts show in which artisans from all over India exhibited their wares. Textiles of all sorts – purses, saris, shirts, rugs, and wall hangings – abounded. While many of the colorful textiles did originate from the Rajasthan area, one booth from Orissa caught my eye. Artisans around the town of Pipli are known for their famous brightly-colored appliqué work.

Originally produced to provide intricately-stitched awnings or covers for religious deities and hangings for festivals, the textiles have now expanded. Today’s purchasers can find garden umbrellas, cushion covers, wall hangings, hanging lantern-like objects, and bags. Amongst the designs were some ornate village scenes on wall hangings, reminding me of the Hmong story cloths. Truly a treat for the eyes.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Take a Number

Before entering the temple for the Vaikunta Ekadasi festival, everyone had to remove their footwear. Considering the large numbers of people at the event, that's a lot of sandals! To help with the process, numbers were written on the sole of the shoes. Even at that, it must have been a challenge finding your sandals afterwards. Unless you have a standout pair, such as the white flipflops with blue straps in this picture!

Long Queues

Waiting in line is a common event in India - whether it is for entering the temple for a special event (as pictured above) or for getting fuel at the pump when there are strikes (as just occurred these last few days). Considering all the "practice" they get, I wouldn't necessarily call Indians the best line waiters. Some seem to find it a sport to wiggle their way to the front - perhaps because they feel they're entitled to be there, you're not assertive enough of your spot, or simply because they can.
Nonetheless, patient queuing is important. Panicked crowds can quickly result in mass hysteria and dangerous situations. Stampedes occur on a frequent basis, particularly during pilgrimage events. Another good reason to search out the exits!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Vaikunta Ekadasi

As I proceeded to enter the street from my apartment yesterday morning, I noticed an unusually number of parked cars. My suspicions about a temple festival were confirmed when I saw my street fenced off and police only allowing pedestrians to enter through. Many of the pedestrians were walking barefoot, all headed towards the temple. Going the opposite way, I continued on with my morning walk in the dark at 5:30 AM. Near the completion of my walk, I was now near the temple. Snaking around the corner was a huge long line of people waiting to get into the temple. Some were buying ceremonial leaves, flowers, and other items. Several young people were collecting sandals from the worshippers, writing a number on the soles with chalk. The temple was draped with small “Christmas” lights cascading down over its façade.

Rushing back to get ready for school, I now arrived with my camera. One young man, seeing me with my camera, asked me if I knew what was going on, to which I replied “no.” He told me that this was the festival of Vaikunta Ekadasi, dedicated to Lord Vishnu in the Tamil month of Margazhi. The Srirangam Sri Rangantha Temple I was standing in front of was one of a few temples around the state that holds this auspicious event. He pointed out the reclining Vishnu above the entryway of the temple, indicating that this temple is dedicated to Vishnu.

According to legend, on this day Lord Vishnu took the form of “Ekadasi” (female energy) to kill the demon Muran. Impressed by this female energy, Vishnu announced that whoever worships him on this day will reach “Vaikunta” – heaven. The young software employee also told me that those who have passed away throughout the year will have the chance to enter heaven on this day and those who die on this day might go to heaven directly. Worshippers say prayers for their dead loved ones in hopes this will happen. On these special temples, a special door is opened for this one day of the year – the “Vaikunta Dwaram.” This is the passage encircling the innermost sanctum of the lord. Masses of people from all over the state lined up as early as 3:30 AM to pass through the Gate of Vaikunta in the temple.

Shortly after that, the software engineer told me to step back, as the large statue of Vishnu was going to be brought out. Adorned in beautiful garlands of flowers, the stern Vishnu was a sight to behold. A moustached sculpture carried him on his shoulders. A priest began performing some rites, including draping an additional garland of jasmine flowers over the outstretched hands of the moustached carrier. A ceremonial umbrella was placed over the entire huge sculpture, shading Vishnu and his carrier. The priest also lit some candles. A double-reed instrument, special drums, and an accordion-like instrument added to the festival’s flair. Alas, it was time to leave for school.

My neighbor also told me that on this day devotees fast and stay awake the entire night. Her mother-in-law already was at the temple at 3:30, observing the poojas occur. Rice is avoided on this day, as it is believed that the demon Mura finds a dwelling place in rice eaten then. Special meals are eaten after the fast is broken.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Teddy Bear Cactus

When hiking through the desert around Superstition Mountain, I noticed a large number of bushy cacti that looked fuzzy like a teddybear's arms & legs but not tempting to touch. It turns out that this type of cactus, the cholla, has quite a nasty reputation. The version known as the jumping cholla is particularly nasty. Even the most minuscule brush against the spines may result in a hitchiker on you - a spiny segment that seems to have jumped off the plant. Those having the misfortune of having the spines imbedded in their skin described it as similar to a fish-hook, with the barb stubbornly hooking itself under the skin. There are some things better left not experienced...

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Arizona's Saguaro Cactus

This Christmas I went down to Arizona and visited my parents snowbirding in Apache Junction. Around the area, saguaro cacti are prevalent, dotting the valley in place of trees. Along the newly constructed highway, I noticed many saguaros perched up with boards, part of the mandatory relocation process for the protected cactus. Symbols of Arizona (and its state flower), saguaros are a curious species. I learned it takes up to 75 years before the first "arm" to grow. In addition, the rate of saguaro growth is highly dependent on the amount of rainfall. Since the reproductive flowers and fruit are found on the arms, more arms are desirable. Not arriving in the right season, I didn't get to see the pretty flowers and the seed-filled fruits - but I heard it's quite pretty in the area during spring, provided sufficient rain.

I wonder: How long does it take to produce the next arms? Can you tell how old a saguaro is by the number of arms? Another method?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Missing snow? NOT

For Christmas break I went back to the USA. Landing in Chicago, I took a shuttle bus up to Madison. Due to the snow, it took and hour and a half longer than normal. Snowstorms also played havoc with plans with my sisters, a family party, and then trying to fly out of Chicago. My youngest brother also came down to Arizona, all too eager to escape the frigid temperatures (it was around -50•F windchill or -46•C one day), incessant snowfall, and related joys. The deer statues had only their antlers showing above the snow, with more snow coming after that. His morning flight was the last one out of Milwaukee before it once again closed down.

Capri pants, short sleeves and sandals? I'll take it...

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year Kollams

Today’s kollams were larger and more colorful than ones I’d normally find in front of homes in my neighborhood. Although the designs varied, flowers seemed to be a common theme. I even saw one that had yellow cut flowers carefully placed on top of the design. Many of these large kollams had the New Years greeting on them, including a few in the native Tamil script.

Happy New Year!