Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Hazards of Kolam Making

For special festivities, kolams tend to be larger and more ornate. As part of the Vishnu festival going on at the temple near my apartment, women not only made decorative kolams in front of their homes, but also in the middle of the road. As the chariot carrying the statue of Vishnu made its way through this neighborhood street, it would be sure to drive over this kolam. Although traffic tends to be lighter early in the morning, there still was plenty to contend with for the woman in this photo - an auto rickshaw (who actually was driving on the wrong side of the street), pedestrians, and a gypsy wheeling around his recycling cart. 

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Vishnu Festival

It's that time of year again for the Vishnu Festival celebrated at the temple near my apartment. If you missed the large lit display on the street corner, the sound of local instruments, lit up temple, chariot, and sheer number of people would signal something special was going on. As in other festivities, the balloon seller is a common fixture, hoping to capitalize on the event. Note the beautiful saris the women are wearing, the large kolam on the ground, and the long garlands of flowers.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

That's a Bunch of Bananas!

Wherever you go in South India, bananas are sure to be sold. Unlike some fruits that are only found in season, this fruit is sold year-round. It's also probably the cheapest. It's quick to prepare and doesn't require special soaking or other preparations in order to eat safely. I particularly like the smaller type. It's the perfect size for on top of my granola cereal.  Less than 25 cents gets me enough bananas for the entire week. What a great combination - cheap, safe, and nutritious!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Flower in the Desert

When traveling on camel through the Thar Desert near Jaisalmer, India, the typical palette is rather neutral in color. On the second day, we visited some small villages. The architecture and scene reminded me so much of Mali, West Africa, and yet it had a distinctively Rajasthani touch to it. In the sandy yard occupied by domestic animals, a young woman came out to greet us. Although quite shy, her brilliantly colored floral dress provided an exciting contrast and conversation against the scene we had experienced over the last day and a half.

Color pencil, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Weighing the Avarai Kai Pods

One of the places we visited in Mysore was the market. I enjoy markets, as it's a bustle of activity with locals carrying about their daily business, interacting with a plethora of colors and scents. This woman was one of many engaged in selling these avarai kai pods, which reminded me a bit of pea pods. Immense burlap bags several feet in height were carried in and out of the market. In this painting, the woman is carefully weighing some of the pods on a traditional scale. Like many of the vendors, she carries about her transactions right on the pavement.

Watercolor on handmade paper, 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Simple Offering

As  non-Hindu, I was not allowed inside the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa. Instead, I wandered around the area, circumnavigating the wall of the temple complex. Nearing the completion of my walk, I suddenly spotted this woman, humbly clasping her hands as she paid her respects to a cow she had just fed. Without being obtrusive, I quickly snapped a photo with my D-SLR and moved on. It wasn't until I zoomed in on the photo on my computer that I realized that her arms, hands, and face revealed scarring from burns. What was her story? Regardless, the tender moment was one I'll cherish.

Watercolor on handmade paper, 2009

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Powder of Possibilities

I am always fascinated by the kolams of South India, in which women take humble powder or flour and transform it into intricate designs, expertly released through their forefingers. This young girl participated in the Kolam contest in Mylapore (the old part of Chennai). Although her drawing was not as controlled or as symmetrical as the adults', her intense concentration grabbed me. 

Color pencil, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Persistent Tout, Back to Chennai

Because we also wanted to take a few photos at the local market, we decided to move on. At the entrance of the market, immediately we were met by the man at the hotel. Not wanting to listen to his insistence to visit certain shops, we decided to skip the market and head back to Chennai. Surprisingly, the man followed us in his auto rickshaw for over 25 minutes! Finally we were rid of the persistent man (who obviously was hoping to get some sort of commission) and were on our way.

The national highway connecting Bangalore to Chennai was much wider, faster, and better-maintained than most of the roads we had traveled. The hilly area around Bangalore slowly evolved into the flat plains more typical of South India. Although the road was an easy drive, one still had to be vigilant. Herders took their cows for a walk along the highway. Cows seemingly on their own happily munched on the grasses in the median strip, occasionally wandering onto the road itself. Roadside sweepers also popped up, quite unprotected. As we got closer to Chennai, we began seeing caravans of large car transport semis with the Hyundai name imprinted on it. We also passed by several buses with the Nokia logo as well as its large plant. Both companies continue to play a dominant role in our school’s enrolment. Finally, after about eight hours of driving, we were back in Chennai, ready to celebrate coming of a New Year.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lalbagh Gardens, Bangalore

After packing our bags in the car for the last time and politely saying no to a man who wanted to take us to certain places, we endured the Bangalore traffic and reached the Lalbagh gardens. Established in 1740 by Haider Ali, these gardens are spread over 240 acres of land. Its contents are quite varied – from the tropical and subtropical plants already initially over by Haider’s son Tipu Sultan, to rare species imported from London in the 1870’s. We walked past the massive rock hill composed of Peninsular Gneissic rock (said to be one of the oldest in the world), past a sleeping dog on a bench, and towards Lalbagh’s iconic structure – the Glass House. This airy 19th century structure was modeled after London’s Crystal Palace. Although it was presently empty, an annual horticultural show transforms the Glass House into a floral wonderland. In front of this was a military bandstand, also built by the British around the same time. On the park’s many paths shaded by champaka trees and pencil cedars, people could be seen strolling along and engaged in multiple forms of exercise. School children also came to enjoy the well-maintained park. Out of a hole in one tree popped out a bright green parrot with an orange beak. Crows squawked noisily amidst the branches of bamboo. Although the lotus pool had no flowers at the time, we did have ample opportunities to photograph other flowers. There are said to be over 1,000 species of flora in the park and contains India’s largest collection of rare plants.

See more photos of the Lalbagh Gardens on my Bangalore Flickr set

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bangalore TV touts "the most important event of 2009"

On our way to the hotel, we passed by some men in a truck waving a flag and holding a large photo of a man. Our driver said it was for an actor. He pointed out that most of the businesses were closed – that seemed strange, as it wasn’t a holiday. When we arrived at the hotel, we found out that a famous local actor had suddenly died, and the whole city was in mourning. Some got out of hand and began rioting. Buses were favorite targets, many of which had their windows broken. A McDonald’s (thankfully not the one we had just visited) received similar treatment. One fan even tried to immolate himself; another attempted suicide with the rescuer dying. Businesses were told to close in honor of the actor, as well as for safety. We were advised by the receptionist not to go outside – so much for sightseeing! On TV all of the news stations showed Vishnuvardhan the actor, through live updates, events that had occurred, some clips of his movies, people going up to his glass coffin, and that evening, the funeral pyre. Stations called it “the most important event of 2009.”

Thursday, February 11, 2010

At the Golden Arches

As we were warned, the congested traffic of Bangalore quickly caught up to us. Its many one-way streets made it hard to navigate. Well-trained eyes spotted the “Golden Arches” of a McDonald’s, which would enable my friend to try out a Maharaja burger featured in a movie. Located in a still-unfinished shopping mall on the outskirts of Bangalore, this was one of 17 McDonald’s in Bangalore. To the right of the door framed by an arch of red and yellow balloons was good ‘ol Ronald himself, smiling on the bench and posing for photos as giggling Indians sat next to the statue or on his lap. The flame from a brass Hindu lamp reminded us that this was not the USA. Sari-clad grannies stared briefly at us before resuming munching on their fries. Young 20-something (many likely part of Bangalore’s booming IT industry) were rather oblivious, focused more on their cell phone conversation. Also curious as to what a Maharaja burger tasted like (and because there were no hamburgers to be found on the menu), I also ordered Maharaja Sandwich, along with some fries. It basically was a veggie burger with a slightly spiced sauce, a bit of lettuce and tomatoes. The burger was ok (a juicy hamburger with bacon and cheese would have been better), and the fries were fine. But we didn’t come here for the food; we came for the experience.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Onward to Bangalore

Our ride to Bangalore revealed a familiar rural scene; a plethora of rice fields, interspersed with some sugar cane fields. People were busy working in the fields, some by hand, a few using a few tractors, and others utilizing cattle. Women sifted grain by hand. Men loaded straw onto already overflowing wagons. We passed by brightly painted bullock carts moving along the side of the road. On one, a man slept on top of a large mound of hay being hauled by two cows. Sleepy men dozed in an open truck full of produce. Large truckloads of thin branches passed us. Other trucks served as public transportation vehicles. The wider road took us through plenty of small towns, providing us brief glimpses of village life.

Bangalore greeted us with its many trees, gardens, and parks of various sizes. It had a decidedly more urban and westernized feel, with its larger sidewalks and collection of Western stores. With a population of around 6 million, Bangalore has grown over 35% in the last decade. It has been transformed from “The Garden City” to India’s Silicon Valley. A majority of call center calls make its way through this city once noted for its pleasant climate and parks. Construction of additional modern-looking IT and communications complexes continues on a massive scale.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Sangam - Kaveri River

Our driver then took us to the sangam, or confluence of the two arms of the Kaveri River. Parking our car next to the large number of busses, the path to the river required us to pass buy lots of stalls selling drinks, trinkets, etc., as well as kids trying to sell postcards. At the confluence, school groups were sitting on steps enjoying mid-morning snacks of rice, briyani, and other South Indian foods. One teacher was dishing out the rice on each child’s plate from a large bucket. On the ground near the river were piles of plates and other discarded items, detracting from the nature scene before us. Sitting on rocks and some grassy areas within the river were a few birds. Further out were some people out on the coracle boat, with the oarsmen spinning them around in the circular shallow vessel.

Near a small Hindu altar right on the edge of the river, a man with shaved head walked into the river, carrying a small clay pot. Once out there, he submerged it in the river in a rather ceremonious way, leading us to presume that the pot was likely an urn.

See more photos of the Sangam on Melissa's Flickr page

Monday, February 08, 2010

Srirangapattna and Gumbaz

Getting to the different sites in Srirangapattana gave us an opportunity to drive through the small-feel village. Youngsters wore shirts but no bottoms. Men stepped out of their house still brushing their teeth. Cattle rested in barns located right next to the near house. Villagers engaged in conversations by the tea and coffee stalls; others were busy tending to cattle. Kids played in the streets while men swept the ground with large palm branch fronds.

Another place we stopped at in the village was Gumbaz , tomb of Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan. Dark outer columns contrasted with a creamy yellow exterior. Ivory-inlaid rosewood doors led the way into the domed structure that contained both tombs. Outside were more tombs, some of which were covered in decorative fabric. Lots of school children were there as well.

See more photos of Srirangapattna on my Flickr page

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Tipu Sultan's Daria Daulat Bagh

On our way to Bangalore, we stopped by the historical town of Srirangapatnam. This island town was made famous by Mysore’s raja Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, both of whom were responsible for transforming the small state of Mysore into a major Muslim power. Nicknamed the “Tiger of Mysore,” Tipu Sultan took it upon himself to try and rid India of the hated British invaders. In 1799, the British finally managed to capture the citadel at Srirangapatnam, killing Tipu and firmly establishing Britain’s presence in South India.

After quickly photographing the Jami Masjid mosque (built by Tipu in 1787), we went to Tipu Sultan’s summer palace – Daria Daulat Bagh, also built in1787. Walking through the yellow archway at the entrance revealed the summer palace in the middle of a beautiful symmetrical garden. Large columns were made of teak. Green sunscreens covered much of the open veranda surrounding the entire palace. The scalloped arches of the veranda reminded me very much of the architecture I had seen in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. The rather simple exterior of the palace failed to prepare me for the beauty of the interior. Every inch of the teak walls and ceiling was covered with patterns and colors. Some walls had painted floral designs with raised Arabic “window” frames. Columns were carved with zigzag stripes in blue, green, and cream colors. The ceiling had 8-pointed stars with floral designs inside each star. The floor was also patterned and quite colorful. Near the entrance was an upper balcony from which Tipu was able to view visitors. My favorite part was the two walls covered with murals. The west wall recalls in great detail the victory by Haider Ali over the British at Pollilore in 1870, painted in a Mughal style. Heroism and bravery by the Indian fighters was prominently presented. The east wall is basically narrative portraiture of the royal family, including queen smoking a hookah pipe. How I would have loved to photograph these mural treasures, but photography was not allowed. Sharing the space were scores of school kids in uniforms. They quickly snaked through the rooms & exhibits, many of whom were more interested in us than what was on the walls and displays. More busses full of kids were outside, with other groups sitting on lawn under shady trees, one class sitting neatly in a row.

See more photos of Srirangapatnam on my Flickr page

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Brindivan Gardens, Karnataka

For the evening’s excursion, we decided to go to the Brindivan Gardens. Located about 15 km (9 mi) north of Mysore, these beautifully landscaped gardens come alive in the evening when the water fountains are illuminated with colored lights. While the lines when we arrived about 5:15 there were already many people there. Unlike many places we visited, the prices were the same for all, regardless of nationality - 15 rupees admission and 50 for a camera. Groups of school children in uniforms were amongst the nearly all-Indian visitors. The atmosphere was very pleasant and relaxed. It was a happy together-time for families. Children frolicked about and played on the grass. Children eagerly accepted the peeled cucumbers and fruit snacks purchased for them. Even before dark, the grounds provided photographic opportunities, between the variety of flowers, fountains, and people asking to be photographed. Here too, we were asked to be part of the images, posing for photos with families. We waited on a bench on the hill overlooking the main area, anticipating sun-down and the grounds to be transformed with moving color. Excitement was in the air as the fountains received their nightly change. We had to be satisfied with the scene sans music, a change from the description in our guidebook. After observing the colored fountains from our high vantage point, we descended the stairs. “Fountain police” were busy blowing their whistles, telling kids (and some adults) when they got too close to the fountains. While enjoying the scene, I also practiced some low-light photography, attempting to capture scenes without flash, to blur the water and then to freeze it. More waves of people entered the gardens, filing in each side of the central fountains. When left around 7:15, there was a huge queue waiting to get in, with more cars and busses arriving every minute. It had been another pleasant day.

See more photos of the Brindivan Gardens on my Flickr set
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Friday, February 05, 2010

St. Philomena Cathedral, Mysore

After a short afternoon snooze in our wonderful hotel room, we visited the Cathedral of St. Philomena. In contrast to the Indo-Saracenic buildings of Mysore such as the Palace, the high arched Neo-Gothic church felt a bit out of place. Built in 1840, it features two 55 m (180 ft) high towers and resembles the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. Beautiful stained-glass windows illustrated events from the Bible such as the Birth of Christ, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion. Paintings depicting the Stages of the Cross were found near the entrance. Statues of Jesus and Mary adorned the sides, with Mary in a sari. A statue of Jesus was at the front, surrounded by huge sprays of flowers, along with baby Jesus at bottom. On the altar was a sculpture of St. Philomena, a third-century saint from Greece. People were lighting candles while others were silently praying in the pews.

See more photos of Mysore on my Mysore Flickr page

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Devaraja Market, Mysore

A short distance from the palace, we began to see vendors with their colorful produce propped up on top of wooden crates and shallow baskets. Bananas appeared to burst forth, an overwhelming scene of yellow. Women balancing large baskets of green-skinned oranges deftly manipulated their way through the crowd. We were now in front of Mysore’s renowned Devaraja Market. Passing through narrow entryway, we were suddenly bombarded with color and a bustle of activity. Mounded piles of powder in impossibly bright colors caught the eye and tempted the hand. The produce was a symphony of color as well; shallow baskets of reddish carrots were arranged in a spiral effect; the red-violet bottoms of small aubergines were all turned to face the outside; the green-gold star of squash pushed its way out of the basket. Green veggies of a large variety each had their particular way of presentation; some were mounded in massive piles, others neatly laid one next to the other; and still others in baskets slightly elevated from the pavement, the contents mounded higher in the center to look even more abundant. The tops of burlap bags were rolled open, revealing chilies, garlic, onions, and potatoes. Puffed rice erupted from metal bowls, while cashews, dates, and Indian savory snacks were carefully packaged in plastic bags. Men walked through the aisles with large sacks of potatoes or shallow baskets of bananas on their heads. Other aisles specialized in home goods such as whisk-brooms, coconut scrapers, wooden rolling pins, pots & pans, rodent traps, and handmade soap. A few stalls even sold long strands of hair in brown, black grey, and white colors.

Not to be missed were the aisles specializing in flowers. Massive quantities of marigolds in yellow, gold, and rust colors made it rather difficult to see the vendor sitting behind the pile. Large translucent burlap bags revealed its content of more marigolds, exchanging hands rather quickly from seller to buyer. Interspersed one could see strung flowers in yellow, purple & pink, as well as jasmine. Shallow baskets containing saffron and other flowers were also being sold. In between taking photos, observing the scenes before us, and maneuvering through the bustling aisles, our attention was occasionally interrupted by young boys asking “what is your nationality?” then “would you like to see a demonstration of how incense is made – I (or my father) makes it” or “please smell my oil/perfume – smelling is free.”

See more photos of the Devaraja Market on my Mysore Flickr page
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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Mysore - Amba Vilas Palace

The next morning we took a swim in the hotel’s rooftop pool. Rather chilly at first, we grew accustomed to it – sort of. Imagine what the locals wearing earmuffs thought of us! After a satisfying continental breakfast in the jungle restaurant, we walked towards the palace. Several “helpful” people approached us saying that the palace was closed until noon, and in the meantime, they would take us to see an incense market along with a demonstration of how incense is made. I told my friends to ignore them, as these tout’s story about the palace was likely false.

Circumnavigating halfway around the palace grounds from the North gate to the South entrance on sidewalks much better than what Chennai has, we knew we were in the right place. Even though the palace had just opened for the morning, there already were a fairly large number of people who had gathered. Young men on a pilgrimage wearing black dhotis emerged from their van that was decked out with floral garlands on the front and on the top’s rack. After paying the entrance fee, we followed the crowd through the beautiful arched gateway and into the palace grounds. Like other people, we began taking photos of the exterior of the Amba Vilas Palace, with its beautiful Indo-Saracenic architecture constructed in 1897. Large flowerbeds (including beds of roses) contrasted with the bright blue sky and grey/creamy colored palace and its red onion-shaped domes. At first the security guard would not let my friend and I in with our SLR cameras (all cameras were supposedly to be turned in to the chaotic-looking desk even though we saw scores of people successfully conceal their camera in a bag), but finally we convinced them that we would not take any photos inside.

One of the first areas we went through was the Public Durbar Hall. With its scalloped arched window openings and expansive repeating rows of more scalloped arches in the hall itself, this room reminded me of much of the Rajput and Muslim architecture styles I had seen on my travels to Rajasthan, Agra, and Delhi. Wooden portals were carved with Hindu gods. Designed for public audience, the Public Durbar Hall was 47 m (155 ft) in length and 13 m (42 ft) in width, opening into a huge balcony supported by massive columns. The ornate white and gold pillars reflected onto the polished wooden floor.

We walked through the Doll’s Pavilion, which housed a collection of traditional dolls from the 19th and early 20th centuries. This room also had a wooden elephant howda (frame to carry passengers) decorated with 84 kg of gold (185 lb) and some sculptures. Some of the pieces were quite Hindu-looking, whereas others were very Neoclassical in appearance. An ornate curved spiral staircase graced one room. Hindu gods and goddesses were painted on some ceilings, some almost looking like angels.

One of the most beautiful rooms was the Diwan e khas, or the Hall of Private Audience. Used by the king for private audiences, it would have been a sight to behold for any guest privileged enough to be invited there. Brightly painted columns similar to the ones in the Public Hall framed the diameter of the room. Above was a stained glass roof imported from Glasgow, its colors spreading on the floor below. Similar to the ornate chandeliers I saw in the palaces in Hyderabad, I presume that these floral motif chandeliers came from Europe as well. Even the floor was ornate and colorful, done in an inlaid marble style embellished with semi-precious stones.

The Kalyana Mantapa served as the marriage hall and was rather octagonal in nature. Like the Diwan e khas, it had a colorful stained glass ceiling. Peacock motifs were also included in this glass ceiling created in Glasgow. On the floor, the peacock motif was continued in mosaic tiles brought over from England. Windows were frosted and etched with what looked like the family crest and other symbols. My friends and I all agreed the palace had beautiful elements, but we disagreed as to whether the combination was distasteful and over the top, or a shining example of India’s unique ability to combine rather disparate elements into a new aesthetic.

I enjoyed Mysore. Perhaps I'll return again - but making sure I'm there on the weekend so I can see the palace lit up at night with its 97,000 lightbulbs.

See more photos of Mysore on my Flickr Mysore page

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Mysore - Arrival

Finally, the hotel we were waiting for. It was our splurge – about $80 for a deluxe room (vs. the $13-$20 for a simple room in other places). The large beds, clean sheets & showers, shampoo & shower caps, TV in the main room and small living room, and above all- Internet – came at just the right time on our trip. The hotel also had a restaurant all decked out in the jungle theme. Here we ate non-Indian food, serenaded by the sounds of different jungle animals peering at us from the trees above or floor next to us.

That evening, we walked around to find a few small items. One of the streets in the area specialized in jewelry – nearly every store sold glittering pieces. Finally we found the items my friend was looking for. Enjoying the pleasant temperatures and actual sidewalks, we walked further until we arrived at the Mysore Palace and adjacent Hindu temple, both lit up. As it wasn’t the weekend, the palace wasn’t covered with 97,000 glowing lightbulbs, but it was pretty nonetheless.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Madumalai Wildlife Sanctuary

Wanting to have as much time as possible to also enjoy Mysore located 155 km away, we reluctantly headed onwards after buying some tea and scented sandalwood oil. We passed by tea fields appearing to flow down steep hills, some of which contained speckles of distant women picking. Suddenly the scene would change, varying between groves of bamboo plants, thin, tall trees, some banyan trees, and those of a more tropical type. A sign indicated that we were now in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, the largest in Tamil Nadu and perhaps one of the most important in the southern region. This sanctuary borders the Bandipur National Park in Karnataka and the Wynad Sanctuary in Kerala. Although we did not spot any tigers, sambar, antelope, leopards, or panthers present in the area, we did spot some elephants, wild boar, peacocks, common langur, and bonnet macaques. In addition to the variety of traffic with wheels, we now had to contend with the four-legged type – elephants on the road moving along large bundles of grassy branches. Along the way to Mysore we also passed by large strands of coconuts dangling from a tree with the seller sitting nearby ready with straws and a knife. Shepherds (men and women) carefully tended their sheep and goats, an umbrella in the left hand just in case the weather changed. Women carried large bundles of twigs, walking gracefully towards the village. So many wonderful photographic scenes passed us by.