Tuesday, November 30, 2010

School: Just a Dream for Some Indian Kids

Today's Hindu newspaper posted some wishes of some kids who for one reason or another, do not have the privilege of going to school. According to the article, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu alone, for over 193,418 children, attending school is just a dream. Reasons often include inaccessibility, lack of facilities, poverty, or general lack of awareness. Village and rural children are particularly affected.
In the words of one child "My mother is the sole bread winner for my family of five. Doing odd-jobs, she managed to put me in school. But my school is more than three kilometers away from home, and there is no public transport. Everyday I had to walk six kilometers. In bad weather it was impossible. So I dropped out of school. For two years I did not go to school. Then Rural Workers Development Society, a community-based organization, coaxed me to return to school. I go to school now but transportation is still a problem."

Another: "We belong to the Irula community. The access to our school is difficult so teachers do not come to our school. The closest school is two kilometers away but it is a Telugu medium school. Our village is located near the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka borders and we speak Tamil and Kannada. Our parents see no point in us pursuing education in a language that we do not understand and hence ask us to stay back and help them rear cattle. When I grow up, I want to build schools and hospitals for my community."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Lightning Strike on Thanjavur's Gopuram

This weekend a storm went through southern Tamil Nadu, with lightning striking one of Thanjavur's gopurams (entryway structures leading into the main temple). This particular gopuram was built during the Chola period (approx 1,000 AD). Unlike most of the structures at this impressive UNESCO site that were made out of stone, this gopuram, known as Rajarajan Thiruvaayil, was built out of brick and lime mortar. Despite lightning rods being fitted in much taller structures nearby within the complex,  lightning still was attracted to the structure's composition and smashed one of the kalasam pointed elements at the top.

The Thanjavur temple is a marvel to see - one of Tamil Nadu's most beautiful temples. Sadly, the majority of visitors to India never make it to South India.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Roma - Europe's Ostracized

I'm making a switch back to Serbia for today's blog post after reading my friend's post and referring article about the plight of the Roma living in Belgrade. While living in Belgrade, I had written about the Roma on numerous occasions. So often I had looked down below the Gazella bridge in Belgrade at the large Roma settlement below while riding across this major bridge in the comfort of a car or bus. Below I saw tiny shacks made out of cardboard, scrap wood, tin, and other recycled items. Mud and garbage was ever present. Smoke often emanated from the shacks, sometimes wafting past satellite dishes. For the Roma living there, it wasn't much, but it was home.

Now it is home no more. Prompted by a planned upgrade of the bridge, the Roma were evicted, with some given as little as 20 minutes to gather their meager possessions and leave. Some were given "alternate housing" of metal containers located outside of the city. For a population that makes its living from recycling what others throw out (as well as other small things such as washing windows of cars at stoplights or playing the accordion/violin on the streets or buses), this was a move that posted major hardships. And that was for the "lucky" ones that actually were given housing.

The over 12 million Roma (otherwise known as Gypsies) of Europe face similar hardships. In addition, they are the continued subject of discrimination throughout the area. Even people who wouldn't consider saying racist remarks about others feel perfectly comfortable saying derogatory generalized remarks about the Roma. For the 500 years that the Roma have been in Europe, they have always been on the outside of mainstream society, with many Roma not learning the local language, going to school, and typically living in separate, squalid communities. Like the Roma living under Gazella Bridge, many don't have the proper identity cards that would make them eligible for the country's medical care and other services. Due to the continued acceptance of discrimination and desire for countries to beautify or modernize, the Roma get pushed farther and farther out of society and what they call home.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Tying up the Fish Net

All done with fishing for the morning, this man is tying up his nets. Wonder how much he caught?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Fisherman and His Son

While walking on the shores of Elliot's Beach in Chennai, this fisherman asked me if I would take the photo of him and his child. I loved the way he tenderly held his child - whom I presumed was a girl until I saw  a more frontal view.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Papilionidae Butterfly

Even though this Papilionidae butterfly is not the most brilliant of colors, I found it to be quite striking on this flower. Its long "tail" hung down the flower. The predominantly brown color contrasted quite nicely with the red flame-like petals and green leaves. Another example of God's beautiful creation.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chennai: Growth of Income, Increase in Pollution

Anyone who has lived in Chennai for even a few years can attest to the significant number of changes that have occurred in the city. It is no longer the sleepy fishing village present just 30 years ago. Industries such as the IT sector, automotive manufacturing, and cell phones have contributed to the rise of the middle class. Those with additional income desire to own a vehicle; public transport or bicycles are no longer satisfactory. In April 1998, there were only 975,915 vehicles. Twelve years later, that mushroomed to 2,658,083. From the months of April to September of this year, over 540,000 additional cars joined the already congested streets. 
While this means more Chennaites enjoying the freedoms of their private transport, it also brings with it an increase in pollution - both air and noise. Well over 20 years ago, vehicular emissions tests with certificates were enacted, but it hasn't been enforced. In the average emissions testing center in Chennai, only 200 vehicles undergo the test every month. Traffic police are starting to do some surprise checks, but with the fine of only 100 rupees $2.20, I doubt that such measures will bring much change.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Colombo, Sri Lanka

As if to transition me back into India, the traffic became quite congested when we reached the main part of Colombo, particularly the Fort and Pettah areas. Thankfully there wasn’t as much liberal use of the car horn though. Immediately upon entering the city, I also noticed a very visible presence of army and police security personnel by booths and barriers with stop areas. The driver explained that during the war, one would have to stop every few meters, making any trip particularly in central Colombo take a long time. Hungry for lunch, we went around some blocks several times looking for a parking spot and ended up having to walk a ways. After a last curry meal at a simple eating place, we took a short walk on York Street, enjoying its colonial buildings.

Out of the parking area, we drove a short distance on the road near the sea. The beach on that stretch was mostly grassy, but there still were some people enjoying the sea breeze. Prior to heading to the airport, we drove to the area of Colombo known as Cinnamon Gardens. Here, things were greener and much more spacious, with embassies, fancier stores, and wealthier homes dominating. After a short shopping trip to a handicrafts store, I proceeded to the airport earlier than planned so that my driver could return to Ella for an unexpected funeral. Now in the company of surfboard touting tourists, Chennai visitors, and Sri Lankans, I waited for my wee hour flight back to Chennai. Another successful trip.

Happy Karthikai Deepam, Tamil Nadu!

The fireworks & firecrackers going off tonight are good reminders that it's once again festival time in Chennai. This one, called Karthikai Deepam, is essentially a festival celebrated by Tamil Hindus. It takes place on the day when the full moon is lined up with the constellation of Karthigai. The six stars in this constellation are part of Hindu mythology. In the evening on this day, lamps are lit in rows by homes and along streets. These lamps are said to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the residents of those homes.

Here is the kolam my former neighbor made in front of her apartment door. A much more serene scene than the firecrackers exploding in front of my apartment this year!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dambulla Cave Temple, Smaller Caves

The smaller third cave contained a yellow reclining Buddha and rows of seated and standing Buddha figures. The ceiling frescoes depicted seated Buddhas with arcs over them, the figures repeated over and over as if decorative in nature. The last cave had a central Buddha figure of a meditating Buddha and a small dagoba with large repaired cracks in it, a past victim of a break-in by thieves who thought it contained royal jewelry. Even though the frescoes here weren’t quite as impressive (or perhaps I was getting overwhelmed), I did enjoy the cacophony of contrasting geometric patterns, figurative paintings, and curvilinear blooming vines.

All total, there are 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings, and four Hindu gods. Murals of the cave cover 2,100 m2 (6,890ft2).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cave of the Great Kings, Dambulla Temple

The second cave is the largest, measuring 52 m (nearly 500 ft) in length, 23 m (75 ft) in width, and 7 m (23 ft) at its highest point. Here, one can find statues of two kings, the main seated Buddha statue once covered in gold leaf, some Hindu gods, another large reclining Buddha, and many more smaller Buddhas. Near the center of the long cave were two vessels that collected dripping water from the ceiling, used in rituals. Some frescoes in this cave depicted Buddhism’s arrival in the country, as well as battles and good deeds done by the kings.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cave Temple One, Dambulla

The first cave had a 15 m (49 ft) long reclining Buddha. Along the length of its body were lotuses and other flowers, all lined up in a row. A lit sign in multiple languages and in picture warned people not to sit down on the religious items. Nearby were smaller Buddhas as well as Ananda, the Buddha’s loyal disciple. Adorning the walls and sloped ceiling of the cave interior were beautiful colorful paintings of Buddha scenes as well as lotuses and geometrical patterns. Many of the caves’ paintings date back to the 19th century. Being totally surrounded by paintings and sculptures was quite inspiring.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dambulla's Cave Temple

Climbing up a series of stairs and rock, I reached the top of the hill. Tucked slightly inward on the overhanging rock was the white colonial-looking arched fa├žade of the cave temples. In front of the cave complex was a Bodhi tree with colorful flags streamed from its branches. A small pond spanning a portion of the cave’s length contained blooming lotuses, adding color to the otherwise neutral color of the scene. The exterior looked smaller than what I had anticipated, but once inside, things changed.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Golden Temple, Dambulla

A pleasant 12 km drive from Sigiriya or Kandy is the town of Dambulla. This junction town is known for its cave temples, whose history as a Buddhist place of worship dates back to perhaps the 1st century BC. The 30 m (98 ft) high Golden Temple, located at the base of the hill, commanded attention in all its kitchy glory. Built in 2000 with Japanese donations, entrance to the building was up a series of reddish stairs and into what looked like the tonsils of a lion-like creature. To one side, a large number of orange-clad monk sculptures were lined up like ducks, adding to the cheesiness of the place.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sigiriya Rock Summit

About an hour and a half after beginning my ascent, I had arrived at the summit. The foundations of many buildings and pools remained, giving an idea of how extensive the place was. A stone bench looked quite tempting to sit down on, but a sign forbade it, saying it was a royal throne. From here, there was an uninterrupted view of the landscape below – and what a spectacular view it was! Past the heavily forested land with small lakes and then a mountain lay the city of Kandy. Just barely visible in another direction was the Gold Buddha statue of Dambulla.

After soaking in the surroundings and climbing up and down some of the buildings’ stairs, I headed back down. Along the way, I stopped by Cobra Hood Cave with a remnant of decorative fresco, a platform that was an audience throne, and through a natural arch. Much quicker than expected, I had reached the bottom and had plenty of time to swim and relax at the hotel.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sigiriya Lion

After turning around an incredibly windy corner and up more stairs, I arrived at a flat area. From here, I had a great view of the surrounding jungle as well as the gardens below. I had already climbed a lot of stairs, but I could see there were many more still to go. Against the base of the main rock were the two giant brick lion paws, remnants of the Lion from which gave the rock its name. At one time, the stairway led between the lion’s paws and up into its mouth, but the brick head fell off a long time ago, probably due to its support being constructed out of wooden beams. How imposing it must have once looked! A lot of steps were still to go. A few people motioned me to pass them in these narrow sections, making me particularly glad that I had gone up early before the crowds came.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sigiriya Mirror Wall

Back down the spiral staircase and continuing up the path towards the summit is the Mirror Wall. This highly polished (and protected by threat of large fine and/or imprisonment for those who touch or vandalize the surface) wall contains the graffiti inscriptions of visitors from between the 6th and 14th centuries who made their remarks about the rock & palace – and particularly the women frescoes, written in rather poetic and descriptive manners. A large number has been studied, deciphered, and published in a two-volume book. The markings also help document the evolution of the Sinhalese script and language. I’m glad someone had the patience and ability to decipher the ancient writings from modern defacing covering it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sigiriya's Fabulous Frescoes

Partway up the steps to the summit was a spiral staircase leading to a sheltered gallery. Protected from the sun were some exquisite frescoes of partially clothed females. The jewelry, facial expression, eyes, and hand gestures were particularly well-executed. The brushstrokes were still visible, adding a more lyrical look. It is believed that these figures represent celestial nymphs –or asparas.. Out of perhaps as many as 500 portraits, only 22 remain today. How beautiful the rocks must have looked with these colorful women adorning their surface!

Sigiriya Nature, Drive to Colombo

Late that afternoon, I went for a walk on the dirt road outside the hotel. Monkeys sat on the branches of the large trees that looked like a tangle of vines and flowing roots. Others were busy trying to find mangoes that were at least somewhat fleshy. Although I didn’t know what lay at the end of the road, I hoped to see at least a clearing in between the trees; perhaps I’d see some elephants in the nearby fields. Alas, a local on a motorbike told me to turn around, because wild elephants had been spotted there yesterday at that time. Knowing that wild elephants can be unpredictable and dangerous, I conceded and walked back to the hotel.

The next morning, I woke up to pattering and thumps on the roof of my room. Looking out the window, I saw langur monkeys jumping between trees and onto the roof. Like the monkeys I saw yesterday, they were enjoying a morning snack of green mangoes. It was interesting to watch, but I don’t know how long that novelty would last, particularly early in the morning.
I left Colombo just before 8am, headed for Colombo, the final leg of my trip. The drive was through a large number of towns and villages, some still rather sleepy, and others already adjusting to morning activities. Once again, I saw mosques, churches, Buddhist temples, and perhaps a Hindu temple on the same street. Farmers were busy in the muddy paddy fields. Multiple workers were busy using a large hoe-like tool. A few used tiny garden-size tractors with hand controls and special metal wheels protruding from the rubber ones, designed to work in the paddy fields. Children in their crisp white uniforms were already at school, some gathered around the shady trees in the schoolyard.

The road was shared by lots of buses, pimped-up rickshaws, Massey-Ferguson tractors, pulling wagons of people, colorful trucks pulling loads of veggies, coconuts, and other produce. Spanning the width of the road and tied to the trees were large signs of politicians. Like in Tamil Nadu, these politicians must have loved to have seen pictures of themselves. Alongside the road, men were whacking grass with a tool the size of a golf club; a lawn mower would have been SO much faster. Signs announced the names of towns, along with its elevation, and not its population.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sigiriya UNESCO site, Sri Lanka - History and Gardens

History and Introduction
After a wonderful early morning breakfast buffet at the hotel, I headed to the massive rock of Sigiriya that dominated the view from the hotel swimming pool. At 7:20 AM, the temperature was still pleasant. The sun was trying to peek up over the top of the flat-topped rock jutting 200 m over the flat land of north central Sri Lanka. We drove past a large pond filled with lotus flowers. At the entrance, I showed my UNESCO Cultural Round Ticket ($50) that was also good for Polonnurawa and Anuradhapura (which I wasn’t going to visit). Meaning Lion Rock, the unique geological mass is actually the hardened magma plug of an extinct volcano.

According to legend, the palace and gardens were built by King Kasyapa (AD 477-495) who fled here after killing his father and usurping the throne. After climbing up the 1,202 stairs to the summit, I can see how he would think that building on top of the summit would be a safe location. There is also evidence that points to the area serving as an ancient Buddhist monastery, particularly in the caves. It is quite apparent from the remaining structures and gardens that the city was planned and quite sophisticated, even including sub-surface hydraulic systems. After Kasyapa’s reign, the area reverted back into being a Buddhist monastery, lasting until about the 13th or 14th century.


Passing through the well-preserved outer moat (which still has water), one first encounters the equally well-preserved symmetrical water gardens. How beautiful it must have looked at one time, with the fountains going and well tended gardens with flowers and shrubs – all against the majestic rock. Up past a series of stairs are the boulder gardens. Some of the boulders were used as bases of buildings.
Symmetrical water gardens

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Polonnaruwa Archaeological Site - Thivanka Image House

North of that was the Lotus pond with its five concentric rings of petals and the Thivanka Image House. Inside this large structure were some exquisite frescoes of figures (including Buddha and some gods) in various states of preservation, but with its red, yellow and green colors still quite visible in places. The outside was enclosed in scaffolding, making it difficult to see the carvings of dwarfs and other figures. This restoration (including working on the roof) should help ensure that the building not only is structurally sound enough for years to come, but also protect the fragile frescoes from the elements.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Polonnaruwa Archaeological Site - Gal Vihara

For many, the Gal Vihara is the highlight of the Polonnaruwa site. Here, one feasts their eyes on four Buddha images, carved from the massive granite rock there. The standing Buddha measures 7 m in height and is beautifully carved. Its expression is quite marked, perhaps a bit sad. The most massive sculpture is of a reclining Buddha and measures 14 m. The incorporation of the rock grains was quite remarkable. Despite the rigid hard material, there were details such as the slight indentation of the pillow made it almost seem as made of a more pliable one.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Polonnaruwa Archaeological Site - Rankot Vihara

Shiva Devala 2
We then went past several Shiva Hindu temples (some still used), a dagoba, and through a jungle area with many trade stalls. Judging from the number of stalls, the city must have been quite large during its peak. Columns and mounds of foundations jutted up, struggling against the destructive trees, roots, vines, and grasses of the jungle that threatened (and many times won) visibility and preservation. It made me wonder how much more still remained, unexcavated. In the northern area, we saw the Rankot Vihara, a dagoba 54 m in height – the largest one in Polonnaruwa and 4th largest on the island. Like the ones I saw under construction in Thailand, this one had ground covered by a brick mantle and plaster. A 12th century hospital (very little remaining) contained some surgical tools at the time of excavation, bearing strong similarity to modern ones.
Rankot Vihara

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Polonnaruwa Archaeological Site - Quadrangle Section

Vatadage with Moonstone

After lunch, we went to the Quadrangle section. One of the main structures (and my favorite) was the vatadage. Due to its religious significance, we had to take our shoes off, making walking on the carved stone a challenging affair with the hot noon sun. In the second terrace were four entrances, each with beautifully carved guardstones on each side. Almost like a doormat (the guide said part of the function was actually to help wipe the feet), the semi-circular relief carved moonstones were quite beautiful, nicely framing the stairway up to the Buddhas at the top. One of the four Buddhas was made out of marble.
Sathmahal Prasada

Across from the vatadage was the Sathmahal Prasada, an unusual pyramidal stupa. Its style resembles those seen in northern Thailand. A few Buddha relief sculptures could be seen in the front.
60-days Tooth-relic chamber

A tooth-relic chamber, built in 60 days, was nearby, in direct line to the vatadage. It also had some guardstones and a larger Buddha statue at the far end.
Gal Pota

Off to one side was the Gal Pota, a stone book measuring 9 m x 1.5 m wide, with a thickness between 40-66cm. On it were stone inscriptions – the longest in Sri Lanka, as well as relief carvings of elephants and birds that resembled geese.