Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jodhpur, the Blue City

Emerging all gritty from a very sandy overnight train ride, we arrived in the desert city of Jodhpur. A pimped-out auto rickshaw took us to our hotel, navigating through the increasingly narrower maze-like lanes until even the small vehicle couldn’t squeeze through anymore. After a much-needed shower, we climbed more stairs of the narrow building up to the rooftop. The dawn light cast its spell over the huge Meherangarh fort dominating the hill above us. Small birds sweetly filled the cool morning air. As in Jaisalmer, the flat-roofed 16th century buildings carpeted the upward-sloping land, with successive rows reaching ever higher. As the sun rose, the periwinkle blue used on so many of Jodhpur’s buildings also changed color. On one rooftop some boys practiced sword-fighting and martial arts moves, waving to us and showing off their skills. On another roof, a man nervously paced back and forth on his cell phone. A woman hung out her first load of laundry. An older gentleman sat on his chair, taking in all the scenes and checking to see what his neighbors were doing. In a city with few open spaces and no grass, the rooftop was the place to be.

One afternoon was all that was needed to see the old city. I was careful to note some signs and other markers so I could later retrace my steps back through the maze to our hotel. Narrow open sewers flowed, sloping downward, sometimes blocked by garbage. Thankfully the welcome scents of varying spices typically overpowered any sewer smell. In the Sadar Market surrounding the clock tower, piles of bangles were sold next to household plastics and carefully arranged local fruits. Spice shops consisted of local and tourist varieties, with an amazing number claiming to have been mentioned in The Lonely Planet guidebook. Stalls specialized in garlic; others displayed flowing fabric in various warm hues. The bells of the clock tower chimed. At other times the call-to-prayer was heard coming from a mosque. Jain temples and Hindu temples with white gopurams (in contrast to the ornate colorful ones found on temples of Tamil Nadu) were scattered throughout the city. That evening we walked through the shop stalls, where a large number of shops displayed neatly folded piles of turban fabric. Red, yellow and pink seemed to be the dominant colors, although tan, white, and rainbow ones were also found. Each color represents a certain caste. According to a website, the Pagari style is around 25 m (82 feet) and 20 cm (8 inches) wide. It was fun watching men expertly tying their turbans, rotating the turban slightly each time a round was completed until no cloth was left. Having read that the jooti slippers were made in Jodhpur, we searched through the shops until we found some that sold the colorful footwear. Finding some slippers in my big size was a challenge, but finally I found a pair. Alas, the shopkeeper wanted too much (only going down to $3.50), but he agreed to our lower price when we accidentally walked past his shop again.

See more photos of Jodhpur on Flickr

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Gangaur Festival, Jaisalmer

With the myriad of festivals in India, chances were good that we would happen upon a festival while in Rajasthan. As luck would have it, we were in Jaisalmer during Gangaur, one of Rajasthan’s most important festival. Primarily a Hindu festival for women, Gangaur celebrates the love between Gan (Shiva) and his consort Gauri (Parvati). The figure of Parvati represents perfection in married life, so both married and unmarried women join in the celebrations. An eighteen-day festival, we were privy to the last days.

A large crowd had already assembled, composing of Jaisalmer residents, women from nearby villages, tourists, musicians, and camel herders. In the courtyard area in front of the palace were the musicians; drummers, a small boy banging a metal tambourine-like instrument, Rawanhatha, and Surpeti (a drone instrument). Later some bagpipers dressed in crisp military-like band uniforms performed. Off to another side were several brightly decorated camels and their drivers. Young women, girls, and official-looking men entered the palace. People were crawling up everywhere to get a view. Young boys pushed their way to the front of the crowd, only to be scolded by security officials who momentarily succeeded in moving them back. A brand-new SUV pulled up in front of the palace, with the maharaja promptly getting out and up into the palace.

A short time later, the procession began. Young girls dressed in bright colors and decked giddily out with jewelry walked down the stairs, clutching their metal pots with a coconut on top. The maharaja dressed in a rainbow turban and clutching a sheathed spear later emerged, mounting a regal horse. Several men carried a statue of Gauri in an embroidered golden dress, Jaipur jewelry, and a garland of flowers. Hoping to get some great photos of the procession, I dashed ahead, sometimes following a reporter. Lining both sides of the procession were large crowds of people. Movement other than forwards was nearly impossible; one had to “go with the flow.” Pausing only momentarily to take photos, I managed to get some shots before the crowd threatened to swallow me. The procession went past our hotel and right down to Gadi Sagar, a beautiful tank/lake south of the city walls. Lining the steps of the tank was a kaleidoscope of colorful women eager for a view of the festivities. The golden arched structures behind them glowed in the late afternoon light. Young women carried small figures of Gan and Gauri. Soon the golden statue of Gauri emerged through the gates. I had expected it to be dunked in the water, but instead a pooja was performed at the water’s edge, the statue turned a few times, and then carried away. Some girls placed bundles of grass into the water. Others gave their dolls a drink. With the light rapidly fading, I located my friends and we headed back to our hotel, recalling the scenes we had just witnessed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Camel Safari, Day Two

The next morning we were treated to a sunrise of flaming pink, purple, and yellows. Not as magical as the sunrise in Nombouri, Mali, but quite stunning. Birds landed on the hump of a camel, silhouetted against the emerging light. The call of peacocks defied the silence. Sheep & goat bells were once again heard. Our kind camel drivers gave us some fresh chai, enabling us to sip the hot drink as we enjoyed the sunrise. Breakfast consumed and gear packed up, we once again were on the move. On the way we stopped by several small villages, including one that was Hindu and another that was Muslim. Still another was occupied by people from the “untouchable” caste. Children ran out to meet us, asking for pens, money, or photos. Most of the homes were constructed out of mud and smoothed with cow dung. Some were circular and had thatched roofs and wooden windows - a picture that could have easily been from Africa. A rickety twig fence held in a small goat. Surrounding the house compound was a wall also made out of mud. Some walls had geometric designs painted in contrasting neutral mud colors. Others were painted white and had turquoise and terra-cotta colored decorations. Near a circular hut with a linear “tree of life” design painted on the outside sat an older woman. Around her upper arms were bangles made from tapering sizes of white plastic bands. From a metal pot she poured out some fresh yogurt for us to taste. A younger woman was busy milking a cow. Inside a rather spartan hut some stick-like pictographs were spotted. One boy had fun taking photos with my friend’s camera and actually composed some good pictures. Would he ever had the opportunity to develop his compositional talent, we wondered? How fortunate we are, that the situation and place we were born into as afforded us with many opportunities and experiences. With limited education, meager finances, and isolated dwelling, his are far more limited….

See more photos of our camel safari on Flickr

Monday, April 27, 2009

Camel Safari, Day One

The following morning we boarded a jeep and left still-sleepy Jaisalmer for our safari trip. Traveling at a decent speed on the straight, smooth roads, we passed by road signs in Hindi, camels, the occasional hut, and some sheep. Sometimes the jeep had to brake for the sheep & goats which decided to occupy the road. As colors began to fill the morning sky, we got out and took a few photos. The camels and camel drivers were already waiting for us, warmly greeting us in good English. As one of the camel drivers prepared us breakfast of toast & homemade jam, boiled eggs, and fruit, an elderly shepherd wearing a bright orange turban and white kurta (long loose-fitting button shirt and loose pygama-like pants) joined us. In his hand was a decorative staff. A perfect photo opportunity, I asked the man through a camel guide if I could take his photo. Upon being told by my friend that he was so handsome, his dark skin around wrinkled in a smile. Seeing us apply sunscreen, he asked if he could borrow some. Working some of the white lotion through his mustache, the shepherd expertly encouraged a curl to appear. Still having quite a bit of sunscreen left, he paused for a moment and then rubbed the lotion all over his face and over his eyes. Our turbaned friend was then ready for his photo-op. Shortly thereafter, a brother and sister emerged onto the sandy scene. He was wearing a crotched Muslim cap and she wore a long skirt, short top embroidered with metallic thread, and an apron-like garment. On her head was a patterned veil. Covering her upper and forearms were wide silver bracelets, complemented by an equally chunky silver necklace. In a nostril was a large gold disk, matched by earrings of the same size.

With our camels all loaded up with food & water provisions for people and grasses for the camels, we mounted our camels. Very quickly I recalled the stretching sensation between my thighs that I had experienced when riding camels previously in the Sahara Desert both in Douz (Tunisia) and Timbuktu (Mali). This trek was going to be longer, so I had better get used to riding a wide animal. As the rider and camel acclimated to each other, the camel drivers handed us the reins. Sometimes my camel wanted to veer from the caravan to sample some leaves of a tree, but otherwise the camels typically followed each other quite well. Once in a while we took a stretching and water break. For lunch we lazed under the shade of a tree as we ate our freshly-made chappati bread and rice. Small birds chirped away and sometimes came quite close to us, accompanying the quietly blowing breeze with their sweet song. With the hottest part of the day gone and everyone refreshed from a catnap, we once again mounted our camels, holding on as the creature awkwardly transitioned from a kneeling to a standing position. With a forward & backward rocking motion, our camels moved onward, navigating around tall plants that reminded me of milkweed, prickly bushes, and a few scrubby trees. Sometimes we would spot a flock of sheep or goats, whose presence was made known in advance by the tinkling of bells around their necks. Many of these goats had long, floppy ears, horns, and long fur. Occasionally we would spot other animals including peacocks, quails, female camels, antelope, and large flying birds. One of my friends spotted an intact camel skeleton and loaded its skull into a burlap bag tied onto her camel. No doubt that skull would provide plenty of conversations to come.

The sun now low, we stopped for the evening on a wide band of golden sand. Nearly devoid of any plant life, its rippled dunes reminded me of Tunisia, but on a much smaller scale. While we waited for our meal to be prepared, we walked on the soft dunes in the warm late-afternoon light. Holes of rather small sizes were spotted everywhere, created by lizards, mice, and snakes. Still smaller holes were dug by the dung beetle. Slithering tracks and patterned 6-leg marks gave clue to the artists. The sound of peacocks and peahens added to the musical composition of camels, birds, and the sheep/goat bells. A short distance away we saw another small caravan of tourists, the only other group we saw. Along one dune I spotted some tiny white seashells. What were they doing there? How old were they? The shells didn’t equal my finds of shaped flint, petrified shells, red & yellow coral, and ostrich shell pieces from the Sahara Desert, but they were a nice memento anyways.

Having spotted the first evening stars, we gathered around the campfire and checked on the progress of our supper. The rice and veggies were cooking, chai (sweet tea) served, and our always-happy camel driver was working flour into bottled water. We all tried our hand at making chappatis, but ours never looked as thin, flat and round as his. With plenty of food to go around, we shared our bounty with a shepherd boy who joined us for a while. The silence of the desert was broken only by the camel drivers’ cell phones, complaints by the camels, and our conversations around the fire. As the night wore on, the clouds left the sky and the stars became visible. During the night I heard the chewing of a nearby camel getting louder. It had managed to drag the weighted bag around its neck towards the large bag of feed near me, proceeding to eat a large portion of food reserved for the following day. If a camel could belch, he sure should have.

See more photos of our camel safari on Flickr

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Wander through the narrow streets of Jaisalmer's living fort and admire the magnificent havelis of the old city.

Jaisalmer havelis and colorful citizens

After a leisurely breakfast on top of our hotel, we began our architectural tour of the old city. The morning light cast sculptural shadows on the sandstone havelis, built by weathy merchants in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was particularly drawn to the protruding latticed jalis, whose intricate screens were masterfully carved out of sandstone. I imagined the women who once gazed through these windows, capturing glimpses of the outside world without being noticed. Some of the havelis were converted into hotels; others contained tempting textiles and crafts of Rajasthan.

The narrow streets were a hub of quiet activity and life. Women sat on the doorsteps watching passers-by. Water poured from pipes out of the homes and into the street gutters. Men got their daily shave at barber’s. A punji player sat in a corner, puffing his cheeks as he blew through the instrument. Children sat on the floor of their school, a view framed through the large open door. Colorful marionettes hung on a wall, waiting for a buyer. Colorful laundry was strung out against a whitewashed fa├žade. Cows meandered through the streets; a long-haired goat rested in the shade, its ruffled pink tufts on its head causing curious glances.

The bus station and local markets provided particularly colorful photographic opportunities. Men wearing various colored turbans chatted as they sipped chai and caught up on the latest gossip. Women wearing tribal jewelry and dress sold vegetables and clay pots. A religious swamy paused and smiled at us before walking on, fingering the natural beads around his neck. Women carried cooking gear on their heads, gracefully walking through the busy street.

Tired from sightseeing and shopping, we enjoyed a saffron lassi at a restaurant overlooking the fort’s courtyard. Lights illuminated the courtyard’s occupants - some dogs and cows. The dogs began fighting, at which time the cows got up, charging at the dogs and effectively breaking up the fight. Satisfied with their work, the cows then laid down and rested.

See more photos of Jaisalmer on Flickr

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Walking through the Jaisalmer Fort

Once again out on the main courtyard just outside of the palace, it was easy to imagine the events that occurred in this square; announcements of the maharaja, extravagant entertainment for VIPs, and the assemblage of troops ready to do battle. Following a cow’s lead, I meandered through narrow stone-paved alleys, past temples, residents outside their doors, and a seemingly endless number of shopkeepers inviting me to look inside their shop. Sometimes the cows got a bit feisty, butting passers-by. Others lazed in the middle of the path. All left their “calling card” along the way, forcing people to watch where they were stepping. Although most of this ancient living fort was in remarkable shape, there were reminders of its precarious situation. Some of the buildings were in ruins and a few bastions had collapsed, the high water demands placing stress on its structure. Large amounts of rubbish was dumped along one part of the fortress’ walls, leading us to question whether the view was worth maneuvering around the litter.

In front of one house freshly-painted blue with a mural of Ganesh and dates below it were some women applying henna to their feet and hands. As one of the young women quickly and confidently squeezed out the henna onto the hands and feet of my friend, she explained that she had been recently married and that the date below the Ganesh mural marked her wedding. Strung between her house and the building across the narrow street was a mesh of grid-like silver tinsel. A girl created mehendi on my hand as well, but the designs were less elaborate and reminded me more of doodles, revealing that she had a lot of practicing to do before being ready to adorn the hands and feet of friends and relatives for important events.

See more photos of Jaisalmer on Flickr

Friday, April 24, 2009

Rajmahal, Jaisalmer

Continuing onward through the series of imposing gates and smooth pavement stones of the fort, I hurried past the souvenir vendors and headed to the Rajmahal, the former maharaja’s seven-storey palace. The included audio tour provided additional information as I made my way through the open courtyard, mirrored and painted rooms, blue tiles, short doorways (so people would adopt a humble pose), throne, stone-carved lattice windows, up the unevenly spaced narrow stairs and to the rooftop. From here I had a panoramic view of the fort, including its myriad of shops and temples of the Jain and Hindu varieties. Pigeons flew by, landing on the bangaldar eaves and other overhangs. Round rocks that looked like cannonballs were perched on top of some battlements, appearing ready for approaching invaders. Past the walls of the fort built in 1156 lay the city down below and beyond that the barren landscape of the Great Thar Desert.

See more photos of Jaisalmer on Flickr

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jaisalmer - arrival, walk up to fort

After about 17 hours, our train finally arrives in the town of Jaisalmer, located near the Pakistan border. Refreshed by a much-needed shower, we enjoyed a meal on the rooftop of our hotel, our favorite eating spot of the entire trip. Here we had an excellent view of the old city and the dominating fort perched above the 80 m-high Trikuta (Three-Peaked) Hill. Constructed in yellow sandstone dominating the entire old city, we would see its colors glow in the late afternoon sun, contrast with the clear blue sky, or become nearly obscured by sands blowing from the Thar Desert.

As I sipped my fresh mango lassi, I surveyed the view. The flat tops of the buildings now sported black water tanks, laundry, hotel restaurants, and the occasional satellite dish. The narrow streets were nearly invisible in the sea of sandstone buildings sloping up towards the fort. The sound of drums could be heard, emanating from a Hindu temple just outside the fort. The putter of a motorcycle or auto rickshaw was occasionally heard but never became pervasive. An addition to building next to us now blocked the view to a well-known haveli, a majestic merchant’s house from Jaisalmer’s glorious past. From the 16th to 18th century, this town was a strategic position on the camel-train routes between India and Central Asia, bring great wealth. As shipping trade began to dominate and Mumbai emerged, Jaisalmer began to decline. Today it relies mostly on tourism which is subject to declines when tensions flare along the Pakistan border.

With my trusty camera around my neck, I began my ascent up the narrow streets towards the fort. To either side of this golden jungle were small shops selling silver jewelry, spices, textiles, embroidered leather jooti slippers, snacks and water. Through an open door I saw a man’s face lathered up, ready to be shaved by the barber. In front of the first fort gate several women wearing a matching kanchi (long, loose blouse), matching ghagra (skirt), complementing odhni, and assortment of bangles and tribal jewelry approached me, asking if I wanted to purchase some anklets. I could see that they were of very cheap quality, but the photos I took made the small rupee purchase well worth it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tamil Nadu for Tamil Tigers

The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (southern Indian state of which Chennai is the capital) issued a general strike for today. The goal of the strike was to demand a permanent ceasefire between the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government. Businesses, schools, government, and all other workers were asked to participate in the general strike, showing solidarity, regardless of one's political affiliation.

Regardless of the news source and supporting side, it is apparent that the Tamil civilians are the main causalties of the continued fighting. The UN estimates that around 100,000 civilians have escaped, but at least that many still remain trapped. Over 25,000 are now huddled in refugee tent camps, with others seeking to go to India via boat. It also estimates that over 4,500 civilians have been killed in the last three months. The military claims that only about 30 have died in the last few days, but the LTTE puts that figure much, much higher. The organization, labeled as a terrorist group by many countries, points blame at the government for targeting innocent civilans. The Sri Lankan government claims that the rebel group is using civilians as human shields.

Even while the strike is going on, its efficacy is already dubious. Some businesses decided to stay open, citing its production requirement ties overseas. Others simply couldn't afford a loss of one day's earnings. Opposing politicians also running in the election stated that the strike was simply a political ploy and smokescreen for garnering votes for the upcoming election - not true concern for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Our school decided to close for the day, taking precautions from potential (but unlikely) protesting, alsong with concerns about the public transport system, upon which both families and staff are dependent. Judging from the numbers of honking horns I hear outside, for many, the day continues as normal.

I pray that the citizens still trapped in the war zone are allowed to leave and seek safety. For the remaining fighters of the LTTE, the situation does not look good. They are now confined to an 8 square mile area, with a small number of fighters left and two key figures have just surrendered. The hope of a separate state now looks doomed.

Train Ride to Jaisslamer

Grabbing some fruit & water from the train station, we boarded into the 2nd class non-AC sleeper car. On schedule, the train rocked into motion, bound for its final destination of Jaisalmer. Bordering the train tracks were small, shabby-looking dwellings - a large contrast to the tree and flower-lined spacious boulevards and stately buildings we saw a few hours earlier. As evening descended, the windows were closed to prevent the mosquitoes and dust from entering. The fan above only operated at a high speed, so I was particularly grateful for the bedsheet I had brought along. Despite the repeated stops (Express doesn’t mean direct without stops), noise, occasional smells from the bathroom, and requests to show our ticket, we somehow managed to get a few hours of sleep.

The emerging colors of dawn beckoned me to sit up. Before us was a vastly different landscape. The green of Delhi was replaced by brown barren-looking earth, interrupted by occasional scrubby trees or huts constructed of stone slabs or mud. Carefully piled stones or fences made out of the same vertical stone slabs demarcated the fields. Wheat grew in some fields, with the mostly female workers harvesting by hand, gathering bundles together likely in much the same way as they did in Biblical times. The train stopped for various intervals, with the train begging to empty as we neared our desert destination. A life-blood of these Indian towns, the small train stations enabled us to glimpse part of its events: a young woman brightly clad in a odhni scarf and matching sari talking on her cell phone with her bonnet-clad infant looking up at her with his eyeliner-decorated eyes, two wrinkled men wearing red turbans chatting as they sip sweet tea, and a woman patiently squatting on the platform with a watch peeking through the large collection of bangles around her wrist. To one side of the track I see men already taking their first tea break of the day, pausing from their labor of constructing a track using concrete railroad ties. As the train once again begins, we pass by a truck carrying a mound of colorful mattresses. Children run towards the train and wave, excitedly pointing as we wave back.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Indira Ghandhi Museum and other Delhi Sights

Back in Old Delhi, we passed by small shops lining the street. A tangled mess of wires left us wondering how safe this antiquated phone/electrical system really was. Hungry, we settled on a rather uninspiring lunch. We then visited the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum, housed in her former residence. The extremely informative exhibit comprising of newspaper clippings, personal belongings, letters, photos, and explanations enlightened us to the commitment her family had towards India and the incredible hardships they all faced, including multiple assassinations and imprisonment. Outside the house was a path covered in crystal, including a very touching clear glass portion marking the spot where she collapsed when shot by a Sikh bodyguard. We left there, moved and in reverence. With some time to spare, our driver took us to the India Gate and nearby Secretariat buildings.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Red Fort, Delhi

In Old Delhi, our first destination was the Red Fort, completed in 1648. Successfully using our employment papers, we were able to get in with the drastically reduced local ticket price. We followed the tourists through the Lahore Gate, so-named because it faces the city of Lahore. The vaulted archade known as Chatta Chowk contained quite a few shops selling goods from Rajasthan, but we ignored them, knowing that there would be plenty of authentic shopping opportunities once in Rajasthan. We then quickly visited the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) and wandered through the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), admiring the graceful white marble arches with their delicate inlaid designs. We peered through the window of the hammam, the cool marble reflected by window light. We glimpsed the domes of the Pearl Mosque (1659), whose structure was otherwise obscured by a high wall. Disappointed that the restaurant did not serve food until later, we headed back towards the Lahore Gate, passing by some ugly barracks constructed by the British.

Trip to Rajasthan

For spring break two friends and I took a trip to Rajasthan, a western state of India bordering Pakistan. With two 8GB SDHC memory cards and bag less than half-full, I was ready to document the fascinating color, culture, and architecture of the area and bring back some of Rajasthan's famed textiles. Taking a variety of transportation (walking, camel, rickshaw, autorickshaw, car, train, and plane), we photographed, shopped, and ate our way through Rajasthan.

See my Rajasthan photos on Flicker

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Happy New Year!

No, I don't have my dates mixed up. Today is the Tamil New Year, coinciding with Nirayanam vernal equinox. Generally falling around April 14 of the Gregorian calendar, the Tamil New Year is celebrated by the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu (of which Chennai is the capital) and those of Tamil origin in places such as Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Primarily a time for family and friends, special food is prepared and gifts of gold, jewelry, or money is given by family elders to the younger ones. The wife gets up early (around 3AM) prepare a special pooja and perhaps also some food. An hour or so later, she then wakes up the other family members and the celebration begins.

This morning when I went for a walk, I expected to see large, beautiful kolams in front of homes/driveways as is customary for special occasions. Considering the extraordinarily early time the wife has to get up this day, perhaps they just didn't get to it yet. One of the local newspapers did fill in a bit, placing white powdered stenciled New Year's celebration greetings in front of every home in my neighborhood.

According to my Chennai friends, the Nirayanam vernal equinox also signals the start of the hot season. I definitely noticed the difference on Saturday night when I stepped off the night plane from Delhi. Hot and humid is now upon us!