Sunday, January 30, 2011

Along the Streets of Dharamsala

The streets were a microcosm of the area’s inhabitants and visitors. Vermillion robed monks and nuns walked through the streets, their hands clasped behind them as they fingered their rosary beads. Others gathered on the steps of a store, sipping butter tea and chatting away. Bearded Hindu sadhus with their peach-colored outfits, multi-stranded necklaces, and tridents made their way through the street, seeking out donations. Many of the stands and shops selling Tibetan handicrafts and knitted caps were run by those with a more Asian look, while shops selling “Ali Baba” pants, Kashmiri textiles, and Rajasthani pillowcases had more “Indian” looking salespeople standing by the doorway, trying to entice visitors to enter their store. Tourists sporting newly purchased outfits and backpacks zigzagged through the streets, popping in various stores.
 See more photos of Dharamsala on Flickr

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Main Street Temple, McLeod Ganj

Heading down the hill from our pleasant guesthouse, we entered the main (but compact) streets of the town. Competing for space with the Airtel signs, bank outlets, pastry shops, and a myriad of souvenir shops was a colorful Buddhist temple. Its rainbow colored exterior, complemented with a golden roof and trimming, seemed to glow against the brilliant blue sky. Tibetan-looking people turned the equally colorful prayer wheels on one side of the temple.

Flight and Drive to Dharamsala

Looking out the small plane’s windows, the vast brown mountain peaks (a few distant ones capped with snow) indicated that we were near our destination – Dharamsala. A short time after the luggage was loaded airline’ red truck, we picked up our luggage on the tiny airport’s one carousel and grabbed a taxi. The taxi driver calmly navigated the narrow switchback road with its steep banks and forested surroundings. Streams flowed over stony beds. Occasionally we paused to let goats and their herder cross the road. Tea bushes formed green blankets in a few areas, punctuated by planted trees. Interspersed were diminutive clusters of homes and small shops hugging the road, with a hardware store, cement place, and tea stall almost as a prerequisite.
A pleasant ride later, we reached McLeodj, about four miles (7km) north of the actual town of Dharamsala. We knew that the Dalai Lama was not present at the moment in this Tibetan exile headquarters town, but we were confident there would be much to enjoy anyway.

See more photos of Dharamsala on my Flickr page 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Paharanj Area, Delhi

Although not a posh area by any means, the Paharganj area of Delhi where our hotel was located was bustling with energy. In true Indian fashion, it was rather chaotic, but alive. Bicycle rickshaws pedaled their way through the narrow streets. Cows ambled their way through the crowd, leaving behind presents. Vendors cooked right along the sides of the streets. Cloth, sandals, produce, and other goods were laid out for those willing to bargain. In the windows or openings of narrow shops, psychedelic baggy pants, shawls, textiles, jewelry, and other goods catering to tourists were prominently displayed. Young backpacker tourists sported their newly purchased outfits. For the more practical traveler, toilet paper and bottled water were also given their space. Due to the “chill” in the air, knitted caps and scarves, along with mittens, jackets and sweaters were brought out to the front, hoping to catch the eye of both tourists and locals alike.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Republic Day in India

January 26 is a national holiday in India. On this date in 1950, the country's Constitution came into force and India became a sovereign nation. For Gandhi and those who fought bravely for the nation, some goals and dreams were finally realized. As part of the celebrations, a major parade is held in New Delhi and some major cities. While going for a walk this morning, I spotted these flags and garland of flowers over a gate. Happy Republic Day, India!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

India Gate

By the time we reached the India Gate, the moon was prominent and the gate in a warm illuminated glow, contrasting with the cool colors of dusk. The area around the memorial (commemorates British and Indian soldiers who died in WWI and a few other wars) was a popular hangout destination for locals. A large number of vendors vied for attention, from the balloon seller, those selling light-up wands, devil horns, wooden flutes, and cotton candy. Off to one side were rows of ice cream vendors and those selling various vegetarian snacks.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

Late in the afternoon we arrived at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. Built in the mid 16th century by the second Mughal Emperor Humayun, the tomb is a superb example of early Mughal architecture. It is now considered a World Heritage Site. Many of its architectural elements were later used in the Taj Mahal. The golden light of the setting sun warmed up the red stone of the gate and tomb even further. Surrounding the tomb are spacious gardens and a pool with fountain, which reflected the structure just as in Agra. Symmetry is a major component of the structure layout at Humayun’s tomb, just as it is at the Taj Mahal. Inside the tomb, the marble lace-like jali windows cast long decorative shadows on the wall and floor. The light illuminated the white marble central sarcophagus just enough to see portions of it, and yet to retain a bit of serenity. High above, the radial design on the domed roof lent a feeling of spaciousness.

Off to the other side of the complex was the octagonal tomb of Isa Kahn and the Nila Gumbad, monument with a blue dome. Portions of the Nila Gumbad still contained colorful mosaics; how beautiful it must have once been.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lotus Temple, Delhi

Following a day of sightseeing and shopping at Fab India, we arrived at the Lotus Temple (Baha’i House of Worship) as the sun was setting. This modern-looking structure was completed in 1986 for the Baha’i religious sect, but welcomes people of all religions to meditate and attend its short services held throughout the day. As its nickname reveals, the temple consists of 27 white marble lotus petals beginning to unfurl. Even at this time of day, a long line of people gathered to visit the temple. True to most Indian lines, queuing was not a strong point, but some temple officials did try to maintain some order. Along the main path and lining the manicured lush (92 hectares – 227 acres) lawns were rows of flowers including some mums. As we waited, the sun descended behind the temple, bathing the marble in violet. Surrounding the large temple are nine shallow chlorinated pools, adding to the tranquility. Once inside (shoes not allowed), people were invited to sit on the wooden benches, each of which had a lotus symbol carved in it. Looking upward, the expansiveness of the structure was felt. A floral symbol was seen at the top, radiating.
See more photos of Delhi on my Flickr page

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Qutb Minar, Delhi

One of my favorite places in Delhi to visit is the Qutb Minar Complex. On its massive grounds, this UNESCO World Heritage site contains a treasure trove or archaeological masterpieces, dating back from between 1193 and the 13th century. Dominating the skyline is the Qutb Minar itself. Tapering from a width at the base from 14.3 meters to 2.7 meters at the top, subsequent additions by different rulers (from 1192-1388) was physically apparent. Loving detail, I am attracted to the gorgeous Kufi-style calligraphy and the ornate balcony. It is the tallest brick minaret in the world.

Elaborate calligraphy can also be found in places such as the Alai Darwaza gate and Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Looking closer at the carvings on the columns and other portions of the mosque’s ruins, one can easily see how portions of Jain and Hindu temples were repurposed. Although in ruins now, the archways in front of the mosque and leading to the Qutb Minar had particularly elegant calligraphy. Currently, restoration work is being done inside the Alai Darwaza.
Delhi Flickr page

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Scales of Justice, Red Fort

On the itinerary of most visitors to Delhi is the Red Fort. One of its many buildings is the Khas Mahal, which contained the emperor's royal apartments with special rooms for private worship and for viewing. Inside its Robe Room is a wonderful marble jali screen window containing the scales of Justice. This motif is seen in many miniature paintings, made famous in Udaipur. Pigeons flew in and out through the broken portions of the jali emphasizing the delicate nature of the carving. It would be one of many beautifully carved windows on the trip that I'd admire.

Read more about the Red Fort on my previous trip to Delhi

Monday, January 17, 2011

Birla Mandir, Delhi

Prior to visiting the Red Fort in Delhi, we stopped at the Lakshmi Narayan Mandir Temple, known more commonly as the Birla Mandir. This Hindu temple is built in the Orissan style and was completed in 1938. Dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and prosperity), the chanting of Om Lakshmi could be heard while we were touring the temple. Swastikas, lotus flowers, and elephants were some of the many symbols noted (photography not allowed inside). Throughout the interior, inscriptions from the Ghita and Upanshad holy books were placed, revealing virtues of life. Paintings and reliefs of various gods and goddess adorned the wall, along with Hindu mythology scenes and marble etchings. Devotees carried small plates of marigolds and coconuts, placing them by altars within the temple. The marble floors were cool on our feet. Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, the temple’s stipulations open it to people of all castes, including the untouchables. With the calm chanting and serene atmosphere, it was a great way to start our tour of Delhi.

See more photos on my Delhi Flickr set

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Trip to North India - Dec 2010

In December of 2010 I met three of my friends in Delhi to start our trip through Northern India. Two came from Serbia and were former colleagues of mine, and the other flew from Wisconsin, a former art professor and elementary art teacher of mine. Our journey would take us from Delhi to Dharamasala, back to Delhi, on to Udaipur, then to Jodhpur via Ranakpur, Jaipur, Shekhawati region, back to Jaipur, then on to Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, and finally back to Delhi. In this series of blog entries, I will attempt to highlight some of our experiences.

You may find more of my photos on my Flickr site.

Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, Tamil Nadu

Today I went to the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, located about 90 km from Chennai. Each winter South India becomes temporary home to migratory birds. During this time, there may be over 75,000 birds and over 115 different species. First recognized as a sanctuary in 1936 and formally declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1972, Vedanthangal is the oldest bird sanctuary in India.

The sheer numbers and concentration of birds makes it a guaranteed spotting for all. Those with higher-powered binoculars or lenses can view beyond the masses and see details such as nesting activities. Some of the major birds I spotted included painted storks, open-billed storks, snake birds, Indian pond herons, grey pelicans, grey herons, little egrets, little comorants, cattle egrets, white ibises, and glossy ibises.

See more photos at

Read a previous blog post on the bird sanctuary

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pongal Celebration in Tamil Nadu, Day Three

The final day of Pongal is known as Mattu Pongal. This day is dedicated to India's favorite animal - the cow. It is a thanks for the milk that cows provide during the year, as well as their help in the field.  On this day, cows are given the royal treatment - a bath, horns painted and decorated,  adorned with "jewelry," and given pongal rice. They are then taken to the village centers for additional celebrations.

Here are a few photos of pongal cows I've taken in past years.

You can read more about my visit to a village on Mattu Pongal on my past blog entries

Pongal Celebration in Tamil Nadu, Day Two

This is the second day of Pongal, known as Surya Pongal. Taking place on the first day of the Tamil month Thai, this day is dedicated to Surya, the Sun god. Milk and jaggery (palm sugar) is boiled in a colorful pot outside the home, and is offered to Surya. Newly harvested rice is also boiled and allowed to overflow, signifying plenitude. A special rice dish called Pongal is created, which contains dhal and sugar. Another variety is created with dhal and jaggery, which is sweeter.

All over Tamil Nadu, women create particularly elaborate kolams on the day of Surya Pongal. Some are of the white powder, while others incorporate colored powders and perhaps even flower petals, etc. Typically the kolams are larger and more intricate than what they'd make on an everyday basis. Common themes in my neighborhood included the overflowing pongal pot, sugar cane, ghee lamps, and flowers. A few also had the sun symbol.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pongal Celebration in Tamil Nadu, Day One

Today marks the first of three days of Tamil Nadu's festival called Pongal. A harvest festival taking place when the sun transitions from Dhanur rasi (Sagittarius) to Makara rasi (Capricorn), it also reflects man's transition to a more settled agrarian way of life.

On the first day known as Bhogi, households are cleaned from top to bottom, with unwanted/old items being thrown away. A bonfire may be lit, fueled by wood and cowpies, into which the useless household goods may be placed. Along with burning any agricultural waste, it also helps keep the family warm during the last remnants of winter. Girls would sing songs around the bonfire, singing praises to the gods and giving thanks for the harvest. Others may simply burn a newspaper in keeping with the burning tradition, while some restrain from any burning, as it significantly contributes to air pollution.

On the day of Bhogi, farmers anoint their  ploughs with sandalwood paste. Sugarcane, rice, and tumeric is brought in from the field in preparation for the next day.

Kolams are a part of Pongal as well, with women traditionally using the white paste of newly harvested rice, along with outlines of red mud.  Pots and sugarcane stalks are common themes I've seen for Pongal kolams.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Off the Kolams, Please!

While the women were still making the kolams, spectators were asked to stay around the periphery. A bigger challenge to photograph, but easier for the contestants to work. This woman just had her photo taken with her instrument kolam and is walking back to the outer area. I love the red splash of color contrasting with the rest of the scene.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Curly Kolam

This curly kolam is a common design, Whereas some designs are drawn directly over the dots of the original grid, this type goes around the dots. Note the woman's toe rings, traditionally an indicator that the wearer is married.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Mylapore Festival - let the Kolams Begin

This weekend marked the annual kolam contest as part of the Mylapore Festival in Chennai. About a half our before the event, women & girls (no men this year) line up to register for this rather laid-back event. Some had "cheat diagrams" ready, while most transformed the square area of pavement in front of them with a kolam from their memory. Having so many women within a small area is a great way to see the process of creating a kolam unfold before your eyes. In general, most start with a specific dot-grid pattern.

Read more about how kolams are created (along with some beautiful examples) on my website