Sunday, May 31, 2009

Samosa Street Food

Traveling around India, one of the cheapest eats can be found at the stalls or directly on the street. Samosas is one fried food that can be found throughout India. In the predominantly vegetarian South India, the inside of the pastry is stuffed with flour, potatoes, onions, spices, fresh coriander, and green chilis. Some vegetarian samosas also contain peas or mint. While these fried snacks might not necessarily be the healthiest, they are definitely quick, cheap, and filling. And that's a good thing when you'd rather spend your money on textiles and crafts!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Supreme Court Ruling on Marriage

Now that we're entering June, the traditional "wedding month" in the US, this newspaper article in a local Chennai paper caught my eye.

On Thursday the Indian Supreme Court ruled that "girls above 18 years of age can live or marry with anyone of their choice." Parents, the ruling continued, may not like the marriage, but at worst they could sever ties - ruling threat, coercion, and torture as inappropriate.

The case in question involved a Hindu woman and her Muslim husband, who were harassed by police and after her parents put forth a complaint along with threats. After conversion to Islam and marriage, the woman's parents forcibly brought her back and made her marry a Hindu. Escaping, she returned to her husband. Her parents and the second husband then launched a complaint of kidnapping against her Muslim husband.

One of the teachers at my school just got married. She is Christian and he is Hindu. This caused deep strain and strife in both families, most of whom did not attend the marriage. Financial backing for the wedding was also withheld. Even for college educated individuals, arranged marriages are still the norm. Choosing your own partner is uncommon, and marrying outside of your religion is considered taboo for many. Those that choose to break these norms face difficult challenges. In a country where tradition and religion are so ingrained, it will be interesting to see if marriage practices actually change.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ice Cream vendor comes to my neighborhood

Yea, I know it's a far cry from the ice cream vendors every few feet on Belgrade's walking street, but seeing even one ice cream vendor on my street was something to take notice. The small bell and call got my attention. Like many vendors here, his business is wheeled around in a converted tricycle. This vendor stopped to sell an ice cream bar to the coconut seller behind the cart. On hot days like this (102°F, 39°C), I sure hope he got lots of customers!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Never Too Old For Pussy Cats

Seeing this old woman cuddling the contented cat reminded me of my childhood back on the farm. We were so excited finding the fresh batch of kittens, still so furry, tiny, and barely with their eyes open. We had fun during the spring and summer playing with the kittens, dressing them up in doll clothes, taking them for carriage rides, and just squeezing them. Cats in Chennai are not that plentiful, and those that are around seem to be loved. I can just hear this striped one purr away....

Also notice that the woman has double nose piercing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Two are Better than One

This endearing lady in the poor neighborhood next to mine is sporting two nose rings - something I often see, especially in older women. What a smile to warm one's heart!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Left or Right Nostril?

Going along with a theme, nose piercing is a natural next step. Nose piercing, introduced in India by the Mogul Emperors in the 16th century, is a common practice in all of India. In Hindu girls, the nostril (left for northern areas and right for South India) is pierced in girls as young as five years old. According to ayurvedic medicine, this position aides in childbirth and lessens menstrual pain. Nose piercing is considered a sign of beauty and marks one's social standing. Piercings is one way Hindu women can honor Parvathi, the goddess of marriage. A special nosering called a Nath is worn by brides on their wedding day. The Nath is connected by a chain to an earring or hair and when it is removed by the groom, represents the end of the bride's virginity. The nose ring typically is not removed while a woman remains married. Nowdays though, a nosering can be worn by all women and does not necessarily denote marriage.

This woman is from a village in the Thar Desert near Jaissalmer. She is wearing a gold disc-shaped nose ring, along with henna dyed hair.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cherry-flavored or Grape?

Somehow the red popsicle seemed a bit incongruous with the rest of the scene; brightly clad grown women donning chunky tribal jewelry who were trying to sell cheap anklets. But on hot days such as today (when it was 113°F/45°C) I'm sure that popsicle was a welcomed treat...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ear Piercing in India

My travels in Rajasthan heightened my awareness of something I noticed down in the south as well - ear piercing. Both males and females donned earrings in both lobes. Not just studs either - rubies, gold, and precious gems set in various designs. In India, a child's ears are typically pierced by the child's first birthday. The ceremony is called Karna Vedana and is an event shared by friends/family who shower the child with blessings. For Hindus, this sacred ritual often occurs when the child is 12 days old.
It is believed that sunlight passing through the hole prevents hernias and other stomach ailments. In addition, it is said that piercing activates the nerve leading to the brain.

My Beard, too please

Henna is not just reserved for decorating hands and feet. In many countries, people use it to color their hair. Although older women seem to prefer this for their hair, it's definitely not exclusive to females. This photo shows a Jaissalmer man sporting a beard tinted with this natural dye. Not as fiery orange as those with grey hair dyed with henna, but nonetheless noticeable.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Temporaray Tatoos

Adorning the hands and feet of this Bishnois woman from Rajasthan is mehendi - the decorative skin art using henna. This plant-based dye is placed in a tube and squeezed out to draw the lines, much like the process of decorating a cake. The hands and feet are the most common places of application, as the keratin here bonds better with the henna, resulting in a darker design. To ensure longer-lasting mehendi (between 2 weeks and a month), the decorated appendage can be covered in a plastic bag for several hours or overnight. When my friends and I had ours done in Rajasthan, we simply waited for the paste to dry completely and then carefully rubbed off the raised paste. In India, mehendi is a common ornamentation, particularly for weddings. The intricate flowing work is another example of Indian art that is beautiful, but temporary.

Mehendi is common in Islamic countries as well. When I was in Mali and Tunisia, mehendi was also a part of special events. It is speculated that mehendi originated in India, while others think it might have started in Egypt, where some mummies still bear their temporary tatoos.

Friday, May 15, 2009

This End Up

It's quite common to see people hauling impossibly large loads on their bicycles. Gas canisters, water jugs, crates of chickens, and even refrigerators are moved along in this humble manner. Looking at the directions of the arrows, I hope that the goods in the back made it to their destination in one piece.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jaipur Lac Bangles

Bangles are an essential element of most Indian women's costumes. In addition to the ubiquitous gold and silver bangles, most women also have a collection of colorful ones to compliment their equally vivid outfits. The Rajasthani city of Jaipur is famous for its lac bangles, which includes a sticky made from trees in south Asia. It was fun walking through "bangle alley" in Jaipur, observing both men and women forming the jewelry over heated coal. Rhinestones, seed beads, and other decorative elements were then pressed into the soft material, one item at a time.

In the southern part of India, colorful bangles are placed around a pregnant mother's arms as a form of protection, warding off evil and ensuring a safe delivery. Jaipur's lac bangles are a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Once you figure out how to compress your hand in order to get the delicate bangles around it, wearing bangles is a fun fashion statement.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Delhi - Qutb Minar and Humayan's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb
Having several hours before our flight, we decided to see a bit more of Delhi. Our taxi drove us through tree-lined streets with floral islands, grassy areas, and parks. Not quite the Delhi we had expected to see. Our first destination was Humayun’s Tomb. Built by wife of the second Mughal Emperor Humayun, this tomb (built in the mid-16th century) is a superb example of early Mughal architecture. With its high arched entrances, bulbous dome, squat building, and gardens lining a wide path, it is a predecessor to the more famous Taj Mahal. Latticework of the window cast patterns onto the marble floor next to the tomb. Out of the sun’s reach, it was remarkably cool inside. The complex also contained several other tombs, each housed in special buildings. Carved Arabic calligraphy covered many of the walls. A worthwhile place to visit.

Qutb Minar
After an enjoyable meal at a local restaurant, we visited the Qutb Minar. I had read somewhere that it was a good place to visit, but wasn’t quite sure what we’d see. We first encountered the Tomb of Altamish, whose red sandstone with calligraphy and pointed arches contrasted against the blue sky. Next to that was the Alai Mina, the incomplete tower of victory that would have been twice as high as the original Qutb Minar tower. I felt like I was walking through Roman ruins as I passed arched and columnar ruins. The Quwwat-ul-Islam Masjid (Might of the Islam Mosque), first mosque in India, was built in 1193 on the foundations of a Hindu Temple. An inscription over the east gate indicated that the mosque was built with materials obtained from demolishing ’27 idolatrous temples.’ Indeed, some of the blocks had Hindu symbols on it. I was curious to see how the Muslims dealt with the figurative carvings on the Hindu and Jain columns. Looking closer, I noticed that the figures’ faces and other parts were obliterated. Strangely enough, others were left alone. In the courtyard of the multi-arched mosque was a smooth 7m-high (23 feet) pillar. It dates long before the mosque - dedicated to Chandragupta II who ruled from 375-413 AD. Constructed of exceptional pure iron, scientists are still baffled how the iron has never rusted.

The main star of the show was the Qutb Minar itself. Constructed in 1193 as a tower of victory, it celebrated the defeat of the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. Standing at 73 m high (240 ft), the column is an impressive site. The tower has five distinct storeys, each containing an ornate, projecting balcony. The lower three are made of red sandstone in a vertical zigzag fluted pattern, while the smoother 4th and 5th levels are from marble and sandstone. Arabic calligraphy banded the lower levels. Despite earthquakes and multiple lightning hits, the column still stands as a sight to behold.

After tea at our guide’s house, we headed over to the nearby airport. Surprisingly the flight agent didn’t even flinch when she saw our baggage; weight didn’t seem to matter. Smiling for our good fortune, we went through security. The camel skull drew lighthearted conversations by the security people, but all was fine. As we stepped off of the plane in Chennai, the heat and humidity hit us, even at 11 p.m.. No more were we in the dry desert-like climate. After two weeks in magical Rajasthan, were back in our South Indian home.

See more photos of the Qutb Minar and Humayan's Tomb on Flickr

India Elections Comes to Chennai

Tomorrow residents of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu take to the polls as India's elections draw to a close. No doubt some will be looking forward to the cessation of campaigning. Typical to other happenings, campaigning included parades/processions, dancing & drumming, firecrackers, and loudspeakers. When bigwigs came through, entire streets were closed - or traffic brought to a standstill. Pamphlets were handed out, adding to the already litter-strewn streets. The Tamil situation in Sri Lanka was a hot topic on both sides, drawing an ever-increasing amount of attention in the last couple of weeks. Politicians have noticed the increasing importance that the south plays in national politics, translating local strength to a nationwide influence. This year, Tamil Nadu will send 39 MPs to the parliament in Delhi. Bribes were also a part of the election, with "gifts" of money (between 100-200 rupees per voter or up to 5,000 rupees for a family), saris, alcohol, and jewelry given in exchange for one's vote. Those living in "slum" areas were particularly targeted.

Voters must show a special voting identity card when going to vote. A special ink mark is then placed on their finger to prevent double-voting. Ballots are electronic. Counting throughout the country should occur on the 16th. Contradicting many businesses, my school will be open tomorrow. Faculty who are Indian residents are allowed to come in late or leave early if they have a free period at the end of the day. Will it be a peacefulvoting day? Or will tensions, including the Tamils in Sri Lanka cause turmoil? What will it be like as votes are counted? And me? I'll be in my air-conditioned apartment, resting from surgery, removed from the events going on throughout the area.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Train Ride to Delhi

After a bit more shopping and the purchase of an extra duffel bag, we went to the train station for our 5 ½ hour ride to Delhi. When the late train finally arrived, people mobbed the door, crowding and pushing to get on. Our now-heavy baggage made it harder to get on, but we managed. While the baggage was now a curse, we knew the purchased items would be appreciated later. Into a sleeper car section intended for 8, people continued to crowd in. At one time we had up to 22 people in our seats, with more filling the aisle. Thankfully people were rather jovial and very flexible, seemingly unfazed by the crowded conditions. Vendors traveled through the aisles, selling chai, samosas, and snacks. Occasionally the smell of the bathroom permeated the air - unpleasant but temporary. Outside the moon shone in the dark night, a full ball glowing an eerie orange. At one stop we saw the interior of the first-class sleeper car of another train. It had provided linens, was quiet, air-conditioned, and definitely not crowded. We looked on with longing.

Our taxi honked its way over to our reserved hotel, asking directions every block or so. We were actually put up in a slightly nicer (and quieter) hotel, as the first one was overbooked. We didn’t mind the inconvenience.

Sorry, no photos on the train. I was too crowded to even attempt to get my camera out from under the seat.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jaipur City Palace

The following morning our other traveling companion was feeling better and eager to see a few things she had missed. We then went to the City Palace, located in the heart of the old city. Built in the first half of the 18th century, the palace is a superb blend of Rajput and Mughal architecture. Parts of the complex were closed to the public as it was still occupied by the royal family. The palace complex is an eclectic mixture of buildings, but it all seems to fit. Standing at attention in front of the Rajendra Pol gateway were two large elephants, each carved from a single block of marble. Inside some of the buildings we saw displays of weapons, miniature paintings, carpets, musical instruments, a silver throne, and a beautiful collection of exquisite royal costumes. I especially liked the silk brocade clothing woven with gold embroidery. Two giant silver urns, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest silver objects (holding over 9,000L), was a definite curiosity. To think that 14,000 melted silver coins were used for these containers, just so the maharaja could have holy water from the Ganges when he visited England! My favorite place was the Pritam Chowk, nicknamed the “Court of the Beloved.” On each side of this courtyard was an elaborately painted doorway, each representing a season. One was scaffolded to undergo restoration.

See more photos of the City Palace on Flickr

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Monkey Temple

Our rickshaw driver then offered to drive us to a place he called “The Monkey Temple.” While he sat at a table below and drank chai with other drivers, we headed up the path towards the temple. Along the way were many monkeys. Mother monkeys picked out lice from their young; others took a nap before their evening meal came. A few cows and hairy pigs also shared the path. Goats butted heads. A snake charmer swayed his punji instrument in a slight circular path as the cobra’s hood emerged from the basket. Beyond him a poor woman rocked her baby in a makeshift cloth sack cradle. A hunched swamy inched his way up to a temple building. At the top of the rocky cliff was the Surya Mandir (Temple of the Sun God). Rising about 100 m (328 ft) above the city, we had a good panoramic view of Jaipur. Punctuating the hazy air were minarets, popping up throughout the cityscape. Large gates marked entrances to the old city. On the way back down, we saw some young men throwing pieces of sliced white bread to the monkeys. Curiously enough, the monkeys ate the middle and left the crust - just like kids. If they saw more bread being thrown, the greedy monkeys would sometimes drop theirs and go after that one as well. Then a vehicle drove up the narrow path, tossing out small bananas to the monkeys. This was the treat they were waiting for.

Back in the chaos of the city streets, we were back in the traffic. A bicyclist somehow pulled six fridges. A passenger on a motorcycle cradled a computer tower in his arm. Rickshaws fluidly swerved between lanes without signaling. Almost like Chennai...

See more photos of the monkeys and the Sun Temple on Flickr

Friday, May 08, 2009

Amber Fort and Hawa Mahal

Amber Fort
The next morning one friend and I (the other travel mate was not feeling well) decided to hire an auto rickshaw for the day and see some sights - as well as doing more shopping. On the 11 km road out to the Amber Fort, we passed by a tiny chariot pulled by two horned cows wearing bold floral clothes. Coming back from the fort were several elephants whose ears, face and truck were painted with colorful decorations. The ramparts of Amber Fort snaked across the contours of the hilly landscape like the ridge of a lizard. The sandy-colored Amber fort, built in 1592 by Maharaja Man Singh commanded a large hill. As soon as the rickshaw stopped we were accosted by men and boys trying to sell postcards, carvings, camera flash cards, film, and other trinkets. Apparently detecting my disinterest, they left me alone and focused on my friend. Now at the top of the winding steps, we were greeted with grand doors and arched openings, with painted nature motifs covering every inch. From above, the gardens of Kesar Kyari Bagh resembled geometric tiles found on Islamic architecture, its star-shaped flower bed walls looking like the tracery.

From there, our rickshaw driver took us to a place that did block printing (and also sold beautiful fabric, textiles of Rajasthan, etc.). Next we visited a place that specialized in the Jaipur blue pottery. The designs and colors reminded me of the ceramics from Nabeul, Tunisia. Our driver paused for a few moments while we took a few shots of the Jal Mahal, an 18th century water palace inspired by the Lake Palace at Udaipur.

Hawa Mahal - Palace of the Winds
We also took a few photos of the famed Hawa Mahal, otherwise known as the Palace of the Winds. This pink landmark of Jaipur built in 1799 reminded me a bit of the honeycomb-like architecture at Tatouine, Tunisia. This structure, essentially a tapered 5-storey façade that is only one room deep, was built in this manner to enable the females of the royal household to watch the goings-on below without being seen. We also saw the landmark Tripolia Gate and Jami Masjid “Friday Mosque” structures. After all that sightseeing, we were ready to do more shopping. Although it was a challenge trying to also pay attention to the store windows and pedestrian traffic, I did manage to sometimes look up and take some shots of once-beautiful havelis, some of which had remnants of decoratively painted murals.

See more photos of the Amber Fort and other Jaipur architecture on Flickr

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Udaipur Old Town

Situated in the old part of town, it was easy to walk to destinations. It was fun wandering the narrow and hilly streets, getting out of the way of big-horned cows or pausing to watch colorful women herd donkeys hauling construction debris away. Women displayed baskets of fruits and vegetables before them on the side of the street. Others strung garlands of large flowers for use at the temple and Hindu rituals. Towering mounds of orange and yellow spices scented the air. Rows of older buildings were a patchwork of colors. Some contained colored glass windows of arched shapes. Others had relief figures and floral elements surrounding the windows.

Elephants, horse-riding maharajas, and painted bowl-balancing women walked across the façade near the entrance, with a mural of Ganesh painted just inside the open door. And typical of any Rajasthani town, there were plenty of spots where you could get a glass of hot sweet chai. Away from the main touristy areas where nearly every building is a shop selling miniature paintings, Ali Baba pants, and jooti shoes over 3 times the price of that in the local bazaar, things were so much more interesting and photogenic.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dance Performance, Udaipur

In the evening we attended a performance at the 18th century haveli consisting of traditional Rajasthani music, dance, and puppetry. The bright red skirt and odhni transformed into a twirling whirl of fire. Displaying incredible concentration, balance, and perhaps thick soles, a 57-year old woman successfully danced and walked over pieces of glass - while balancing twelve clay pots on top of her head! The accompanying music was pleasant but not overpowering, providing a suitable backdrop to the dancing performances. On the way out, I asked the man sitting behind the entrance table if he had a program pamphlet that gave the name and brief synopsis of each performance. Saying that he didn’t, he asked us if we’d like for him to write it down. Expecting just a few lines, the man proceeded to write a fairly detailed explanation of each, including the symbolism behind the dance movements. Through conversation, we found out that he founded the organization which was behind the performances, along with a crafts village a short distance from the city.
See more photos of the dance performance on Flickr

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Udaipur - India's City of Romance

Around sunset we arrived in the southern Rajasthan town of of Udaipur. No longer were we in sleepy desert towns where camels shared the road. Our entry into town revealed a rather modern city. Women riding motorcycles was no longer an uncommon sight. Thankfully the old city had a bit more charm. That evening we sat on the hotel’s rooftop restaurant. On the still night, the illuminated Lake Palace cast a perfect reflection on Pichola Lake. To its left was Jagmandir Island on which a 17th century maharaja palace glowed. To our immediate right the sound of Rajasthani music swelled in the night sky. Behind us the white gopuram of a Hindu temple was also illuminated. With the aid of a fellow photographer’s tripod, I managed to capture a bit of the lakeside scene.

The following morning we once again climbed the stairs of our hotel which was designed to look like a haveli. With mountains as a backdrop, the ivory-colored Lake Palace contrasted with the dominantly blue scene. Although patches of earth peaked through the receded lake, shallow boats still made their journey to the romantic and expensive (over $400 a night) Lake Palace Hotel. (By contrast, ours was less than $15 for a 3-bed room). Unable to even have a cup of tea at the Lake Palace Hotel made famous by the James Bond movie “Octopussy,” we instead toured the cream-colored City Palace located on the water’s edge. On the way to the museum entrance we passed by multiple boutique shops including the popular Anokhi store. Inside the multi-towered palace with its balconies and cupolas we saw lavishly decorated rooms filled with mirrors, and ornamental tiles. Rooms were painted in cheery colors, with the ceilings continuing the room’s theme. The mirrorwork and mosaics were particularly beautiful. Perhaps its most famous area was the Mor Chowk (Peacock Square) where one couldn’t help but admire the beautiful dimensional peacock mosaics. Other areas revealed intricate miniature paintings, a signature art of Udaipur. A few sprinkles actually fell from the dark skies, eliciting smiles from visitors.

Not making it very far, we stopped at a shop just outside the palace gate. Here we had fun looking at colorful, embroidered ethnic dresses, some of which had the trademark Rajasthani mirrors. Right across the street we entered a shop filled with colorful puppets of various sizes, intricacy, and models. When comparing it to others I had seen on the trip, these puppets were the best carved. A young man invited us into the back room where he treated us to some demonstrations. A female puppet came to life, shimmying her hips and bobbing her head just like a dancer. A more eccentric male puppet dislodged its head, tossing it up, juggling it, and even placing it on the buttock area. Other shops tempted the buyer with silver jewelry, miniature paintings, leather-bound handmade paper books, block-printed fabrics, and jooti slippers. Even the turbaned figure on the temple steps was in a selling mood, offering crash courses on how to play the The plentiful supply of tourists left us having to bargain hard.

See more photos of Udaipur on Flickr

Jaipur - Mother of Rajasthani Shopping

Our final town was Jaipur, the mother of Rajasthani shopping. Part of the “Golden Triangle” also consisting of Agra and Delhi, this city is on the well-beaten tourist path. With a population of over 2 million, Jaipur is decidedly more chaotic and modern than our previous destinations. Many more cars, busses, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, motorcyclists, and pedestrians competed for road space, of which the cow was once again the undisputed master.

While we ate on the hotel rooftop restaurant, our expanding luggage was carried up to our cheery room. Consistent with the rest of the hotel, the rooftop was also decorated in a very artistic, if not eclectic style. Sculpted metal peacock heads protruded from the upper roof, partially shaded by small round huts also made of metal. Tables and the chairs were slightly Dali-esque, forming hands, faces, protruding noses, and more. Down in the expansive common room, chairs by the computers were barely recognizable beneath the smiling papier mâché face. Other furniture looked rather neoclassical. Walking through the hallway, ceramic faces smiled back at you, encouraging you to stop and admire the slightly whimsical murals, decorative ceilings, and to peek in open rooms - each one of which were unique.

Refreshed with a good (but slow) meal and a bit of lounging around, one friend and I began walking towards the old city of Jaipur. At first we ignored the auto and bicycle rickshaw drivers because we felt we could walk the trip, the increasing distance and heat prompted us to accept a bicycle rickshaw ride. That poor skinny guy really sweat and pumped his legs up and down to propel us to our destination, but he succeeded. Feeling a bit sorry for him, we gave him an extra tip.
Shopping in the Bazaars
We now were at Bapu Bazaar road, place for what else - shopping. Both sides of the street were lined with a smoky coral-colored strip mall, whose signs were alternately written in English or Hindi. Bapu Bazaar tended to be a bit more of a potpourri with its selection, a mixture of crafts & textiles from all over Rajasthan. Having done enough shopping in these cities already, we passed over this area rather quickly - but not without purchasing at least one thing. Turning onto Johari Bazaar, we now were in the jewelry district. In addition to the usual silver and gold, display cases sparkled with a rainbow of various gems. From the delicate to the incredibly chunky, these tiny shops had a lot to offer if you gave them enough time to bring out all the plastic bins and display boxes. You didn’t even need to step inside to buy one of these colored rocks; plenty of vendors sat on the sidewalk curb, encouraging you to look at their potentially dubious gems. Rather uneducated about gems - their worth and how to distinguish real from fake - I stayed clear. Having only walked on one side of the Johari Bazaar, we turned left onto Tripolia Bazaar. This area was much more domestic in its offerings, specializing in kitchen utensils, textiles, spices, and other household goods. Spotting our landmark of the Iswari Minar Swarga Sal (Heaven-Piercing Minaret), we made another left and headed down the Maniharon ka Rasta lane. Here stall after stall in this narrow lane was packed with stacks of colorful lac (resin) bangles. Both men and women craftspeople sat cross-legged near the front of some stalls, forming the bracelets over small tins of coal, pressing tiny mirror pieces or beads onto the still-soft bangles. Some shops were quite lively, filled with brightly clad Rajasthani women chatting excitedly as different stacks of bangles were shown to them until just the right ones were found to match their dress material.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Ranakpur - Jain Temple Marvel

Now in our air-conditioned car, we said good-bye to Jodhpur and began our journey to Ranakpur. Located about 90 km (56 miles) NW of Udaipur, a spectacular Jain temple is set in this secluded wooded valley. Just hours away from the desert town of Jodhpur, it felt like we were in a different country. The area around the 15th century Ranakpur temple complex was well manicured, consisting of large swatches of grass, flowers, flowering trees, and bushes. Taking our sandals off, we quickly tiptoed over the scorching cement and onto the carpet of the steps. In front of us was the great Chaumukha Mandir (Four-Faced Temple dedicated to Adinath), one of the five great holy sites for Jains. It is also considered perhaps the most impressive example of Western Indian architecture. The marble carving mastery was apparent already at the ornate sculpted entrance. Inside the temperature was immediately cooler. The play of light through the intricately carved pillars enveloped the temple in feelings of serenity. Considering that there are 1,444 pillars, it’s even more amazing to see that each is unique, carved with different patterns of floral, animal, and figurative reliefs. Looking upward, the filigree carving on the concentric ceiling pendants was visually stunning. It was a detail-lover’s photographic nirvana.

Through one large opening I paused to enjoy the view of the surrounding landscape. Hearing a slight buzz, I was shocked to see two immense beehives clinging to the façade of the temple. Considering the Jain’s protection of all life, I wasn’t surprised that they left the hives on the temple. Before leaving the complex, I took a quick look around the Hindu Sun Temple, also carved from white marble.

After a meal at a charming hotel restaurant in the woods, we headed onwards to Udaipur. The area was well-suited for agriculture. Here we saw fields of alfalfa and others with grain, the women bundling sheaths together. Others carried bundles of twigs on their head, their smiles partially hidden behind large nose rings similar to what I saw in the Bishnois village. Water buffalo grazed in hilly pastures surrounded by stone fences. Yoked cows slowly turned a large wheel located in a field of haystacks. A very peaceful scene.

See more photos of Ranakpur on Flickr

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Marwar Crafts Villages

Just a short drive from Jodhpur are several villages, each of which focus on a different craft. I really enjoy visiting craftspeople in their homes. It enables me to view the process (which typically increases my appreciation of the product), see their surroundings and what might inspire them, and any purchases directly benefit the creator - not a middleman.

Our first craft stop was at the home of a 73-year old weaver, member of the lower-caste weavers known as the Megwal. Sitting in an indented bathtub-like hole in the earthen floor, the man was busy creating a rug on his rather crude loom. In halting English, he explained that he was the last adult weaver of his village. Thankfully some children are now learning the craft. While some colors on his woolen carpets definitely looked like natural dyes, I was shocked to hear that the vibrant pinks, greens, reds, and other colors were also derived from plants. Squeezing the pod of a tree, fluorescent pink squirted out. What knowledge of plants these weavers have!

Our next stop included pottery from a nearby village as well as block printing. A young man from Kakuni demonstrated his pottery prowess as he kicked the large stone in motion and deftly manipulated the clay to form vessels. Decorations were added with simple tools. This kick wheel was particularly interesting, as it could be tilted. Wheel-formed pieces and hand-built sculptures were displayed on shelves, ready for purchase. I particularly liked the whimsical camels, birds, and turtles. Considering the earthen kiln that the terra-cotta colored pieces were fired in, the pieces were remarkably high-fired.

Next door another young man demonstrated block printing that his family does. His family comes from the Chippas caste, the traditional block printers. Another caste carves the teakwood blocks. For the combination of colors in a design, different blocks must be carved. Certain designs, he explained, are worn by particular castes. Once again, natural dyes were used. Mud and soap was used as a resist. In addition to printing cloth for clothing and headwear (including turbans), his family prints beautiful tablecloths. The quality between their hand-printed designs and machine-printed designs was immediately apparent.

We then drove to our final destination - the village of Salwas. Here a husband and wife were busy collaboratively weaving a dhurrie, a simple rug once used as an underlay. The geometric patterns reminded me of those in Navajo rugs. As some rugs were laid out on clean gravel for us to see, their well-spoken son explained that these rugs were made from members of their village cooperative which also consisted of widows. In addition to the common cotton weavings, others were made out of jute and camel hair, each resulting in a different look and texture. Tree of Life designs, sprouting forth in vivid color, reminded me of the Mexican designs of the same name. The slightly abstracted bird designs were quite unique and were completed in various colors. Walking past a small circular hut once again covered in cow dung, we were invited to lunch. Rugs were placed at each side of the low table, where we enjoyed a meal of dahl, ghee, chappatis, crispy pampadom, and a garlic chili paste. Thanking our hosts for the excellent meal, we then returned back to Jodhpur.

See more photos of the crafts villages on Flickr

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Gudda Bishnoi village home

Our friendly driver took us to Gudda Bishnoi, where we visited a typical village home. The 22 year old woman greeted us warmly and introduced us to her four children. She then returned to her work, adding brilliant thread to a head ornamentation that looked like a miniature top. Her large gold semi-circular nose ring concealed over half of her shy smile and was supported by a chain that went back to her ear. Like many Rajasthani women we had met, her hands and feet were decorated with mehendi. On a shelf was device comprised of two cloth funnels symmetrically balanced on an iron pole with two carved wooden bowls below. Our driver explained that this was used for opium - rather common in this area but illegal. No Rajasthani visit would be complete without chai. Gingerly tiptoeing over the sunny portion of the cow-dung surface floor, we once again sat down in a shaded area. As we waited for the preparation of the chai, a relative of the family expertly applied henna to my friend’s hand.

The driver pointed out a large grove of trees close to the home, a memorial commemorating each of the 363 Bishnois people who gave up their lives in 1449 trying to protect trees from being cut down for the purposes of making cement. Passionate environmentalists, they continued to hug the trees until the blows of the tree axe beheaded them. Near the village large numbers of normally timid blackbuck deer roamed freely and without fear in the arid land which receives only about seven days of rain per year. The Bishnois believe that they will be reborn as deer.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Meherangarh Fort

The next morning we piled our increasingly heavy bags into the trunk of our taxi and then drove up long, winding road to the Meherangarh Fort. As we neared the fort, its height became apparent; battlements were up to 36 m (118 ft) high. Chiseled from the rock on which the fort stood, it appeared to rise right from the rock. Different colors and slightly differing styles revealed the constant additions. Having paid the local entry fee (only a fraction of the foreign price), we put on the audio tour headphones and headed to point number one. Past the protruding canons was a sea of blue buildings. Traditionally the blue color signified that the house was that of a Brahmin, but now others have also adopted the periwinkle blue. We then paused to listen to a young man with a slight mustache playing the rather humble-looking Rawanhathha instrument. Bowing a traditional melody back and forth over the two strings, the young man sung passionately.

We then continued our ascent up the steep ramp which then took a steep turn at the top. According to the audio guide, explained that this design prevented enemies approaching on elephants to continue their forward momentum. Past the Lahopol (Iron Gate) were 15 small handprints arranged in stairstep rows and painted in a deep terra-cotta color. These mark the sati (self-immolation) of Marajaha Man Sing’s widows, who threw themselves on his funeral pyre in 1843. Small flags in yellow, green, red and white stripes fluttered in the breeze over the pathway to the first buildings. We walked through the fort following the carefully laid-out path, admiring the lavish interiors as well as the well-preserved exterior. One of the more curious rooms was the Thakhat Vilas, the private chamber of Maharaja Thakhat Singh, with its wooden ceiling adorned with large Christmas ornaments. We also walked past large collections of palanquins, elephant howdahs (seats for carrying people on top of an elephant), and royal cradles. Another room housed an excellent collection of miniature paintings. The entire splendid place revealed the lavish spending of the marajahas while the commoners likely languished in poverty.

See more photos of Meherangarh Fort on Flickr