Sunday, August 24, 2014

Titali तितली


     In the springtime, the southwestern edge of my apartment courtyard becomes a butterfly highway. Sandwiched between two concrete walls, edged with barbed wire, I sit on a small patch of grass watching them fly by.  They bob through the branches of a few trees, flowing with gusts of wind, around the sharp leaves of bamboo trees, up and over the wall.  They often slip between the spaces of taut barbed wires not much larger than themselves, seemingly oblivious to the jagged spurs that could destroy a wing. 

     Sometimes they take breaks on the leaves of bamboo stalks, or on the curls of fallen leaves.  They bask in the sun to warm their fragile bodies, pumping wings providing glimpses of otherworldly colors.  The most common are the small ones that harbor pale shades of green and yellow.  Once when I held one, its color remained on my fingertips, long after it flew away, its brilliance shimmering like fairy dust.  Others butterflies are varying shades of brown, easily camouflaging themselves on the bark of trees.  The black ones with tiny dots of color flitter like small vortexes in the sky, commanding the eye to behold their fleeting presence.  My favorites are the giant ones with wings of shifting shades of bright blue and green, lined sharply in black.  They weave around various obstacles, up and over that wall, to a world beyond which I cannot see.  I sit there amongst fallen leaves, counting them fly by in haste, wondering to myself what butterfly business they could all be participating in. 

     In Hindi, the word for butterfly is Titali.  Somehow I feel this name is more fitting.  The word is broken into short and fast syllables, the sound sweet when vocalized, embodying their flittering movement and their beauty.  In Sanskrit, the word for butterfly is Chitrapatanga, composed of two words – chitra meaning “picture,” and patanga meaning “flying insect.”  Chitrapatanga then, is “the flying creature worthy of a picture.” 

     Indeed a titali is worth photographing.  Yet, the luminosity of their colors cannot be as vividly recorded in a photograph as when witnessed with the naked eye.  Modern science attributes the striking colors of butterflies to iridescence, an intricate phenomenon that involves the filtration of light through layers of scales on their wings, creating multiple reflections, ultimately amplifying color perceivable to the eye from various angles. 

     Their unique ability to play with light makes them one of the most attractive insects on Earth.  Beyond their shimmering wings, I think most people like butterflies because of their symbolism. Across many cultures, they are a symbol for metamorphosis, both in the literal and intangible sense.  Caterpillars face immense obstacles before becoming such delicate beauties. And as adults, butterflies have to take care to survive seemingly harmless natural elements like the wind or rain. Butterflies represent perseverance – the ability to face all obstacles and transform into a being of extraordinary beauty.  Their delicateness reflects this, their presence reminding us that life is fragile.

     While humans are reminded of the delicateness of life, for butterflies, daily life is becoming increasingly fragile, the obstacles growing greater through environmental degradation.  The prevalence of habitat loss, and the extensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers create greater burdens for the existence their species, not just in India, but across the world.  In a much larger sphere, climate change is disrupting natural cycles; its effects reverberating throughout the ecosystems and worsening the environmental conditions through which the butterfly must struggle to survive.

     Throughout the environmental classes I took for my B.A., I read how butterflies play the role of indicator species – a term given to specific species who are sensitive to environmental changes.  Their presence, or lack thereof, in a given ecosystem is an indicator to the environment’s health and vitality.  At an alarming rate, many species of butterflies are facing extinction; a issue that serves as a testament to the environmental degradation we are ultimately the root cause of.  The extinction of any butterfly species, in any part of the world, in any ecosystem, inevitably creates an irreversible loss to the web of life, ultimately degrading the Earth’s biodiversity.

     The threats of extinction for butterflies are also degrading something less tangible, but something I feel to be immensely important.  The disappearance of such wonderful creatures is slowly deteriorating one of the world’s greatest symbols of surviving and thriving in a world ever changing.  Butterflies are the embodiment of hope for the future of Mother Earth, its ecosystems, and all living beings – animals, plants, us.  If we lose them, we lose hope.

Indian Native Dogs - The Gems of India


     Bangalore is filled with street dogs.  Actual numbers have never been tallied, but it’s estimated that at least 200,000 dogs are left to the elements, homeless without shelter or food, or the slightest bit of pity on the part of the other residents of the city.  I remember the first time that I came here, to India.  It has been a secret of mine for a long time that the most perturbing, moving, and raw experiences I have had in the city were not me feeling for the human suffering, but for the anguish of the thousands of dogs, struggling to survive in a world that fails to care that they were born in the first place.  I have seen and continue to see animal suffering here and human apathy toward it that breaks me despite the walls I have built up around myself to shut out the reality of life here. 

     I have seen dogs with broken legs that never healed, most often caused by being hit by a vehicle the driver of which continued onward as if the animal they hit were invisible.  Left without medical attention, and the need to continue to fight for survival, the dogs struggle through their disabilities.  Sometimes the broken leg is snapped clean off, other times it becomes deformed, twisted in unnatural directions, of which the dog is forced to painfully utilize.  The loss of the use of a back leg is survivable, the loss of a front leg is a death sentence.   

     The Indian Pariah is the original Indian Native dog, its lineage most probably linked to ancient times, although their origins remain unknown.  They come in an impressive assortment of colors, sizes, and shapes, but most commonly harbor a sandy brown color and a medium size.  Pariahs have sleek, defined bodies with sharp pointed erect ears, deep brown almond shaped eyes, and chiseled faces that end in a long muzzle.  The largest populations of Indian Pariahs are often found in cities, where breeding has gone unchecked next to the more pressing issues of human populations.  Known for their intelligence, Pariahs have skillfully adapted to urban environments, learning to manipulate the world around them to suit their survival. 

Amulya (2010) - My First Indian Dog (Adopted out to a kind family)
     Everywhere I have been in India, every place I’ve lived, visited, vacationed I have met an Indian dog that steals my heart.   They are all unique in their own way, in the ways in which they have survived unimaginable hardships driven purely by the will to live.  But in one way, they are all the same, when they are shown the slightest bit of human compassion, of caring in any way, they latch on to it for dear life.  You – the human who shows them kindness has suddenly become their God.  It has happened to me over and over no matter where I have gone.  A smile and a pat on the head, maybe a little food, and I have their permanent dedication, their loyalty forever.

PeePees (2010) Indian pup I rescued from the underside of a van.
     My first time here in Bangalore, it was Amulya, the street dog adopted into our small apartment building.  She became my best friend, and would climb the stairs to the second floor and bark at my apartment door for me to come out.  There was the robust and street smart alpha too, who lived on the stoop of an ATM stop, and would pick me out of a crowd of people on my daily walk to follow me to the local bakery several blocks down for cheap bread buns.  In New Delhi, it was Black Dog, a small silky girl with only three working legs who took up residence on the sidewalk outside my apartment gate.  After the first time I stopped to give her a moment of attention, she found me every where I went, hobbling after me down sidewalks, across intersections and to the market, for no other reason than to just be with me.  Now, back in Bangalore, it is Peetal, the dog I rescued off a busy street when he was just a pup, wandering aimlessly down the road without senses, to others, nothing more than a piece of garbage carried by the wind.  To me, he is my child, lucky enough to have been whisked away from certain death, a torn ear and some scars, the only remnants of a fate he narrowly escaped.  

     The majority of people who reside in India’s cities are terrified of dogs.  Despite that dogs walk among them on nearly every street, despite that the behaviors exhibited by them toward humans are largely submissive and friendly, the fear prevails.  A stigma rooted in the fear of contracting rabies.  Like a sick tradition, the fear is passed on down the generations, loving mothers whispering words of warning into the ears of their small children on the dangers of dogs. 
Black Dog (2011) My Delhite Dog

     None of this makes sense to me – planting the seed of irrational fear in the minds of children, teaching them to exhibit behavior that is more likely to provoke than protect.  Children either clearly demonstrate their fear by screaming and running, or hide it by taunting Pirahs, sometimes even resorting to violence.  Of course I am biased in that I grew up in the village, far away from the pollution (both mental and physical) of the cities.  I had more dog friends than human friends, and I still do.  The ignorance that takes form in rude looks when I’m walking my dog, the screams of children who run away, yelling to others “he will bite!” people who refuse to ride in the elevator with me, it is all enough.  But such ignorance has evolved into quite literally a blatant disregard for a fundamental element of the Hindu way of life – honoring the divine in all life.

Peetal Ji (2012) Shortly after he was rescued
     It reminds me of the time I flipped through the pages of my husband’s thick and heavy Bhagavad Gita, the script Devanagari (the language of the Gods) unreadable to me, but the colored replications of paintings clear.  One page in particular caught my attention.  Entitled “Impartiality,” it reminds Hindus that God resides in all living beings – the small glowing blue face of Krishna embellished upon the hearts of every being, the king, the sage and the farmer – the elephant, the cow, and the dog. 

Peetal Ji (2013) Happy and Healthy
     I have always been amazed at the merits of dogs – their simple happiness in just being alive, their expressions of loyalty, their inability to be corrupted.  They are pure beings, hearts untainted, capable of great love.  In Indian dogs, the validity of such characteristics is even more so, because they understand the blessedness of receiving a meal, a little attention, of small acts of kindness.  Perhaps that is what draws me to them, an ability to see beyond dirty fur and thin bodies, the ability to see their divine essence.  Maybe when we meet, it is the acknowledgement and intermingling of souls, a divine connection threaded through life. 



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Maha Shivratri महा शिवरात्रि

February 27, 2014

     The sun dips low into evening as we round the narrow road built on the bank of Begur lake, sharing the small space with oncoming traffic.  Sanjeev breaks the stream of pure Hindi spoken between himself and Akhilesh to comment in English about the number of cars conglomerating on the other side of the lake.  I lean forward in the space between the front seats and see for myself.  I keep my disappointment about the unexpected crowd to myself, knowing that I would be the only one to complain.  Normally, our favorite mandir maintains quiet evening pujas sparsely populated with devotees due to its tucked away location in rural Bangalore.  But today is one of the most sacred of all Hindu festivals celebrated in honor of the Supreme God Shiva.  Hindus across India and the entire world celebrate Maha Shivratri (The Great Night of Shiva) in a personal and spiritual manner through a fast that lasts for a full 24 hours, extensive prayer, and the recital of sacred mantras.  According to the Hindu calendar, from which the day of Maha Shivratri is determined, the planetary alignments of this day make the recital of sacred mantras particularly powerful, with the practice of yoga and meditation also providing an enhancement in spiritual energy. 

Today, in attempt to honor Lord Shiva and receive his divine blessings, thousands of Hindus will visit Naganatheshwara temple (Sanskrit meaning "the god of the snakes") – a mandir dedicated purely to his worship.  Locals of Begur attest that Naganatheshwara temple is the origin from which the city of Bangalore sprouted, and that Rama himself prayed there – which if correct –would date the temple to be as ancient as 5,000 years.  Now designated as a national heritage site, the Naganatheshwara temple is actively being preserved, its grounds undergoing a painstaking process of restoration. 

The car kicks up a small sandstorm as pull into the area serving as the parking lot.  I slip my sandals off and leave them under the front seat along with my purse, taking the time to neatly fold and tuck away the 300 rupees in various denominations I will use for monetary offerings. Walking across the sandy lot, still warm from the sun’s heat, we stop at phool walle, (flower lady) her various flowers and puja necessities arranged carefully on a blue tarp.  Sanjeev and the lady discuss the price in Kannada, quickly exchanging 120 rupees for two plastic bags, each filled with a coconut, roses, jasmine garlands, and marigold flowers, agrabati (incense sticks), and small bags of vermillion and turmeric powder.  Puja necessities obtained, we walk toward the crowd at the back entrance of the temple. 

Sanjeev and Akhilesh leave their sandals at the gate entrance amongst countless similar pairs of black and brown chuppals.  We join the crowd kept in order by a passageway made out of carved wooden poles and thick rough rope, walking single file in the line into the temple’s courtyard.  I stand on my tiptoes to see that the ropes zigzag around the temple’s grounds, in and out of the various antarylas (temple chambers) like lines at an amusement park.  Hundreds of people crowd in its confines – black hair and varying shades of brown everywhere.  Despite that I can’t quite seem to stop reaching up to cross my arms, I ignore the uncomfortable sensations of being in the crowd.  Long braids of hair brush across my arms, feeling coarse next to the soft swish of fabric across my skin.  I stand feet close together to avoid being stepped on, and to also avoid committing the taboo myself. 

The Dakshin Dwaar (photo taken during the monsoons)
     We slowly file to our first checkpoint – the breaking of the coconut.  (Symbolizing the opening of our minds for enlightenment).  Normally devotees perform the act themselves, but two adolescent boys have been enlisted for the job to keep the line moving.  They stand barefoot on the elevated and narrow rain-smoothed concrete block, dressed in dirty jeans and button down shirts.  One-by-one, they smack the coconuts on the raised edge in the middle of the block, cracking noises accompanying endless coconut water that flows over the edges and soaks into Earth.  I flick my hand at the flies surrounding the sticky sweetness, and watch as the boy who cracks our coconut looks at Sanjeev in a half remorseful way and tells him in Kannada that its bad.  Akhilesh gives us the other half of his coconut and I try not to laugh when one of the boys splashes the white shirt of the man in front of me with a mix of coconut water and bits of husk– the man engaged in conversation and unaware, or just uncaring of the mess. 

(The Dakshin Dwaar Restored - taken from Sanjeev's phone)
We move incredibly slow, advancing only inches per minutes. Akhilesh tells me a story about how someone once stole his chuppals (sandals) while he was inside a temple, an issue that he solved simply by stealing someone else’s.  Facing west, I admire the temple’s Dakshin dwaar (the south facing entrance), its newly painted gold color framing a scene with the setting sun and coconut trees in a way that has me wishing I had my camera.  As the crowd gets thicker, Sanjeev stands behind me to protect me from “accidental” groping in the line.

 
(The first Antaryla with Nandi, taken on a previous trip to the temple)
  





               I carefully climb the three stairs to the antaryla (temple chamber) that leads to the first garbhgruha (the literal translation from Sanskrit meaning the “the womb house” – the room that houses the idol representations of deities).  Each of the temple’s five womb houses contains a Shivalinga (a phallic statue symbolizing the union of Shiv and Shakti – the male and female creative energies).  To the right, people crowd around a statue of Shiva’s animal familiar and protector Nandi the bull.  To the left, devotees cram into a narrow entrance into the antaryla.  A man stands at the entrance constantly alternating between yelling banni (please come) to the people exiting and nillisalu (stop) to the people entering.  I somehow manage to keep my balance as I duck down and squeeze through the gate, careful to step over the threshold.  Inside, it is like a cave, air heavy in its heat and moisture.  Amongst fewer people, I easily make my way up to the even smaller space that houses the Shivalinga.  I peak past the pujari (temple priest) sitting at its entrance to see the black stone linga draped in jasmine, marigold, and red rose garlands – the floor covered in more flowers, coconuts, and bananas.  The pujari holds out a golden aarti plate with a single diya (ghee lamp) and a bowl of vibhuti (sacred ash).  I place ten rupees on the plate, and pause to wave my hands over the diya and place them over my eyes.  I hold out my cupped hands, the pujari dropping a pinch of sacred ash into my palms.  Switching the ash from my right to my left hand, I use my right finger to make a tilak on my forehead, carefully cradling the remainder of the ash in my palms as if it is a piece of Shiva himself.  I move to the right of the room – back toward the yelling escort, and somehow avoid bumping my head on any of the stone pillars or the low ceiling. 


Shivalinga 
Back outside, we move slowly down the stairs and onwards to the right almost immediately reaching a standstill against the outer wall of the main temple.  I focus on small things to fight discomfort of the 20 minutes stretched long for not moving.  I fiddle with a bulb from the blue strings of lights draping down the temples walls, then touch the wall’s faded sea green paint, made smooth with time, and find myself wondering about its age.  I catch curious glances from the group of women I am stuck around, and a young Kannadiga standing behind Sanjeev is brave enough to be the first ask him where we are from.  He asks it in English, and is surprised when Sanjeev makes his reply in Kannada.  At his sudden switch to the local language, several women around me quite unabashedly turn around to listen to their conversation.  I keep my head down and eyes averted, feeling uncomfortable at their gazes, finally distracting myself by watching a few small children play in the space between the crowd lines.  They happily run back and forth, stopping to look up at the setting sun through yellow colored plastic sheets cleverly extracted from incense packs.

The temperature slowly increases as we move toward the entrance of the second house of a Shivalinga – Akhilesh long since separated from us.  While I wait to reach the corner, I balance on my tiptoes to see clear above the crowd and watch a small group of young girls performing Bharatanatyam in the crowded courtyard away from the lines. This time, people are let past the steel gate and into the antaryla about ten at a time before a young man acting as a bouncer blocks the crowd.  Sanjeev and I manage to stay together in the squeeze through the gate, again performing the monetary offering and darshan (the viewing of the God) before quickly exiting.

(The Temple's Main Entrance)
Outside, I relish in few deep breaths of cooling evening air before I am again stuffed into the crowd that leads to the main house of the temple.  In the additional 20 minutes of our excruciating voyage, patience is running short in the crowd.  A steady push from behind eggs us around a corner serving as offering area.  Armfuls of flowers, bananas and coconuts litter the ground. Heavily burning diyas spout thick black smoke above their wicks, sending the scents of burning oil or ghee into the open air to mingle with heady flower scented wisps of burning incense.  Pressed tightly against the women in front of me, I struggle to keep my balance while I attempt to climb the few stairs to the entrance.  At a painfully slow pace, I squeeze through the gate, and am quickly rewarded with an unbelievably heavy and moist heat, its source a small shelf housing more incense and diyas lit by devotees.  Movement slows to a crawl, the crowd so thick that women’s backsides press into my front.  An elderly pujari dressed in a pale yellow dhoti, (traditional waist wrap) appears next to me and yells across the room in Kannada for us “to move or we will be stuck here forever!”   His voice booms through my ears, and I can’t resist analyzing his presence.  Several puja malas (prayer garlands) made of rudrakshas (sacred seeds believed the be the tear of Lord Shiva) hang heavily from his neck.  His forehead, shoulders, and chest are covered in clay markings – the three horizontal lines worn by Shivites (followers of Shiva). When we finally move forward, we are forced to crouch to avoid the low ceiling, standing awkwardly in line.  I place a single marigold flower on Nandi’s head as I slowly pass him – the statue deep black and smooth from being touched.  I wait for another man to clear my entrance through the small rectangle chamber, slowly making my to the aarti tray, beyond which the linga sits.  Laying my last hundred out on the plate, I again wave my hands over the flame, pausing to observe the adorned linga and to ask for enlightenment before I rush to exit the room.  

Back in the main temple room, I am suddenly aware of the dampness of my clothes, my dupatta and kurti clinging tightly to my skin.  I am about to make a beeline for the temple’s exit where the evening will have a cool breeze waiting, but Sanjeev apparently hasn’t felt enough punishment despite that he is sweating bullets and requests that we visit the final linga.  I resist the urge to whine and instead move forward with the crowd, watching pujaris deliver small spoons sacred water known as charna amrut (“the nectar from the feet of the gods”) into the palms of devotees who then sip it.  I vie for space through the room’s chamber, irritated when several women cut in front of me.  Inside the room, Sanjeev searches every crevice of his empty wallet for a single rupee to serve as monetary offering at the last aarti tray, all to no avail.  I move quickly through the darshan, squeeze my way through one last gate, before I am outside and trying not to visibly show the relief I feel at being out of the crowd.  My patience and energy spent, I join Sanjeev at the area serving as the puja offerings, hastily lighting an incense stick in the diya fire before stabbing it in a banana to hold it upright.  Sanjeev whispers his prayers, while I stand in the middle of the courtyard watching women and girls on the stage recite a mantra in unison, the girls’ voices ear splittingly sharp through the speakers.  When he joins me, we quickly head to exit through the gap in the courtyard’s walls. We walk across the sandy lot, pebbles and rocks jabbing into my feet as I try to keep up with Sanjeev’s pace to the car.  Once there, I hurriedly climb in, sprawling out against the back seat in my exhaustion.  Sanjeev swifly starts the car and exits the lot, the temple disappearing into dust and darkness as we join evening traffic on Manipal road.  On the way home, I hardly notice the jerking movements of road’s potholes, content in my moment of quiet in a maddening world.   

Om Namah Shivaya.


Friday, January 10, 2014

From a Window


December 13th, 2013

     I sleep fitfully the first night, disturbed by the constant jerking movements of the train in the conductor’s apparent attempt to reach light speed in his haste.  On the lower bunk, I feel like I am slowly suffocating from the lack of circulating air.  I look around the cabin, the dim light creeping in through the gaps around the doorframe.  Is it possible to suffocate in here?  Surely the three of us breathing would have used up the oxygen contained within this box.  I feel like breaking the window to let the cool night air rush in, and instead climb out of bed and attempt to adjust the airflow.  Like I suspected, the knob doesn’t do much, and I lay facing toward the empty space, concentrating on deep breaths. 

     At 3 a.m. I walk Bubby up and down the narrow hallway of the coach, amused by his attempts to stay upright against the shuddering movements and pee at the same time.  There is nobody around; the hard florescent lights emphasize the stark black outside the hallway’s windows.  It feels like I am on a ghost train, forever destined to move along endless rails.  I go back to my coupe and shortly thereafter, I am back underneath the bleached sheet I use as a buffer between the prickly woolen blanket, and myself, sleep still evading me.  I roll over onto my stomach and pull the curtain open to see stars glowing brightly against the black night.  I haven’t seen stars like this in months with the constant light and air pollution of the city.  I watch the moonlit scenery in the middle of nowhere go by, trees and fields, and imagine that I am looking out a window in Michigan.  I feel a sharp pang of guilt thinking about Little Pup and his distress at us leaving him with strangers.  Quite suddenly, I realize how much I love him and his constant company.

     Once the sadness abates, I finally drift off to sleep for a couple of hours, waking to seek the sun’s warm rays bringing the world to life outside my window.  It is really quite fascinating to witness India’s mornings from the window of a train.  Men stand around brushing their teeth from the sides of the tracks or on their apartment rooftops or balconies.  Auto drivers smoke their morning beadis and wipe the grime away from their autos with rags.  It’s difficult to tell that I am in Andhra Pradesh because it looks a lot like Bangalore. Telugu (the state language) uses the same script as Kannada.  It is in fact the different color of the autos (yellow and black instead of yellow and green) that informs me we must have passed into Andhra Pradesh. 

     The experience of watching India from a train is much like walking its streets, sobering, only fast paced.  Some sights are so beautiful.  We pass by a lake, smooth like a mirror and I watch a flock of stark white egrets fly up in unison and toward the deep orange morning sun.  Moments later, I am presented with the perturbing sights of makeshift slums housing the poorest of the poor, shacks haphazardly built next to trash dumps or rivers and ponds that have turned into open sewers.  Sites that serve as safe havens for the poor because they border on the fringes of undesirable environments where no one else would ever want to live. 




     Mid morning has led us away from small cities and into the more remote areas where nature reigns.  We pass by farmland, currently dry from winter’s weather, but undoubtedly bright green and full of life during the monsoons.  Mountains with smooth faces line the horizon, hazy from mist in the distance.  There is hardly a human soul about, a rare occurrence living in cosmopolitan India.  Those I do see are farmers tending to their crops or their cows, lone figures standing on a stretch of earth that seems to go on forever.  We pass a group of women and children gather around a small pond in the middle of a field to wash their clothes and bathe.  I feel a sudden urge to be out there with them, to feel the sun on my face and smell the air rich with the scents of the country.  Other than the clip clop of the tracks, and the periodic scuffle of feet outside my door, it is quiet – the perfect morning to stare out into a remote world, and reflect on one’s thoughts. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Uttar (Northwards)


December 12, 2013
    
    We leave 3 ½ hours before the train departure to ensure that our taxi makes it through the city’s mad traffic.  Much to our delight, we arrive within a little over an hour, beating the evening rush. I step out into the evening air, chilly and damp, Bubby perched on my shoulder tucked away in his kennel.  The station is buzzing with movement and our rather obtrusive suitcases either glide easily, or have to be dragged haphazardly over broken bits, stones and gaps in the concrete.  We immediately move toward a railway restaurant called Dakshin (meaning South) posted on the outside entrance of station.  I wait outside with our baggage, Bubby fidgeting inside his cage, while Sanjeev gets us fried rice packed in parcels.  Walking away from the crowd, we find a quiet corner of the building to eat.  The rice is perfectly oiled and spice, and I have to restrain myself from inhaling it for not having eaten all day in my haste to prepare for the trip. 

     Moderately sated, we move through the station, me alternating from easily carting along my suitcase and keeping Bubby’s kennel upright, to struggling to maintain my composure.  It seems as though tonight, I am the obstacle on display, interested eyes analyzing me, and the little being I carry.  I feel as though our suitcases are enormous in comparison to what everyone else carries.  We watch the signboard in the center of the room depicting train numbers and departure times to see that we are so early ours isn’t even listed yet.  Not knowing what we should do with our time, we wind our way through the room littered with droves of people lying on the floor sleeping, or sitting on top of baggage waiting.  We drink boiling hot chai at a corner food stall, the aromas of fried foods filling the air.  I pretend not to notice the exorbitant amount of stares, and instead focus on a beautiful woman sitting amongst her luggage.  Her sharply defined eyes make her look Tibetan, but her smooth caramel skin and her Indian style jewelry tell me she is from the Northeastern parts of India.  Bubby continuously wiggles and periodically lets out small squeaks of annoyance at being detained, but I keep him concealed knowing that the attention I were to draw if I let him out would be overwhelming.  The station is warm from the presence of so many people and despite the cool night breeze, I start to sweat in my pashmina shawl.  People rush in from the entrance to my right; the sounds of conversation in multiple languages are drone out by the announcements of train numbers in Kannada and Hindi. 

     A thin man who looks to be in his early forties approaches us, looking to make some good money from porting our suitcases through the maze of the station to our platform.  Sanjeev at first ignores his offers but then begins negotiating after I tell him I have no intention of hauling a 40-pound bag over uneven pavement and up and down flights of stairs.  Why Indian railway stations have no easy way to transport baggage is beyond my comprehension.  The porter and Sanjeev agree to a fee of 250 rupees (less than $5) and I watch him wrap a worn rag into a support on the top of his head.  He utilizes the help of another to quickly place the first bag on top of his head, and I realize he fully intends to carry the second as well.  I protest that it is far too much for him to carry, but he ignores me and has the second bag tossed onto his head momentarily almost dropping it, but quickly regaining his balance.  He sets off through the crowds, Sanjeev on his heels and me tailing behind struggling to keep Bubby’s kennel in front of me and untouched by the rush of people.  We squish through a metal detector that appears to be long out of service and weave between the moving and rushing people on the first platform and up the first set of stairs to the bridge.  I watch nervously as the porter climbs, the bags bouncing on his head, narrowly avoiding dangling cables and signs above.  The chilling winter wind blows my hair wild once we reach the top of the bridge crossing the tracks and trains below.  The bag walla speed walks and I further lose distance, getting stuck behind slow walkers whom I respectfully attempt to overtake.  Platform 8 is one of the last exits on the bridge, and we descend the stairs struggling to avoid colliding with others.  The porter breaks into a jog once we reach the platform, walking the edge of the concrete where there is a good 4-foot drop to the tracks below.  People move aside like waves seeing him coming toward them, and I feel rather snobbish with the porter slaving away while I cart around my dog. 

     After a few more minutes of rushing we reach the spot on the platform where our coupe will be, the porter skillfully unloading the heavy bags.  I tell Sanjeev to give him 300 and he does, only to be manipulated into giving him 50 more for the labor.  I can’t really blame him, yet I can’t help but wonder how one acquires such a profession.  We settle on a small granite cube amongst a crowd of others waiting, and relax that we are finally so close to boarding.  Bubby’s persistent whines convince me to let him out, but his inability to sit still in my lap, and the immediate crowd that is drawn at his sight makes me tuck him away again. 

     There are so many people speaking so many different languages; so many sounds here.  Trains on other platforms blare their horns, the sounds deafening for a moment.  The hum of machinery in various states of movement is constant, and I hear a jackhammer somewhere nearby tearing up concrete.  The smells of train stations are as variant as their sounds.  It smells of oily and spiced food or steaming chai one moment, stale concrete, urine, or trash the next.  I wrap myself in my shawl, its warmth welcomed now that the evening’s chill has set in, and I settle myself.  I decide to pass the time by writing, immersing myself in the solitary act of moving pen across paper.  Like working in a bubble, I am untouchable for a moment, unaware of the curious stares of the people passing me by, only periodically interrupted by Sanjeev’s comments of excitement.  I scribble out my thoughts as fast as I can, hunched over under the artificial light above me, but time moves too fast, and before I know it, Sanju is nudging me to watch our train back into the platform.  He quickly stands, anxious to board, but I make him wait for a few more minutes, thoughts flooding my head.  Finally, his standing over me breaks my concentration, and I gather my things, and look for our coach.  A couple of minutes later, I am reading the white printed sheet of paper posted outside the train’s coach door, seeing my new last name in print for the first time.  Sanjeev clumsily loads the bags through the narrow entrance, and we cram our way through the hallway, squeezing by train waiters to our coupe.  I arrange our belongings underneath the lower bunk bed and in various other nooks of the tiny room that is to be our dwelling for the next 33 hours.  Bubby is excited to be free of his confines and happily plops into his beddie, snuggling up in is striped PJs and blankets.  Shortly thereafter, the train sounds its horn, it is almost time to leave the platform.  We are visited by multiple train servers, who provide us with bleached white sheets, pillows and blankets.  A man with a contagious smile takes our order for food and fascinated with Bubby, points at him and says in Hindi Maja a gaeya “I enjoy him”.  He tells us that Bubby’s needs will also be catered to.  A few minutes later, an unbelievably tall and thin man with a long face and kind eyes provides us with water bottles and pitcher with boiling water for Bubby’s food.  He looks as though he is a Jhatt – a fighter clan from North India reputed for their strength and stature, but his soft-spoken demeanor and avoidance of my eyes tells me he is a gentle giant.  A few minutes later we feel the first tugs of movement, which evolve into growing pace.  Within 15 minutes we are promptly served hot tomato soup and breadsticks before dinner, the trays on which the bowls are placed sway with the movement, but never manage to spill.  The train increases its speed and the cabin’s rocking makes me struggle with my penmanship.  Giving in to the lack of writing ability and feeling the lull of sleepiness from the long day, I snuggle in my blanket and let the journey begin.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Navaratri 2013 नवरात्रि


     
© Rebecca Delekta 2013
     Twice a year, every year, during the seasonal changes that mark the beginning of summer and winter, Hindus across the world celebrate Navaratri  – a nine night festival worshipping the Mother Goddess.  In Sanskrit, nava means nine, and ratri means night.  Navaratri is one of Hinduism’s most ancient and complex spiritual festivals. Like most other auspicious days, this festival is determined according to the seasonal and lunar calculations of the Hindu calendar. During this time, nine different aspects of the supreme Goddess are worshipped, most notably are Durga – the female representation of power, and the destroyer darkness; Lakshmi – the Goddess of wealth and Saraswati the Goddess of knowledge.

     The intricate cultural elements of Navaratri celebrations differ immensely across India.  In West Bengal, where Goddess worship has the strongest roots, Navaratri is the most vividly celebrated.  The entire city of Kolkata is shut down for the extent of the celebration.  In Gujarat, throughout the nine nights, people get dressed up in their most ornate ethnic wear, and gather in the masses to perform garba – a traditional dance performed with small colorful sticks.  In recent decades, the celebration has also caught on in the South, and Bangalore, with a growing number of Bengalis, has risen to the occasion.  This year, over fifty separate processions took place within the city.  Although I cannot imagine the cultural intensity of Navaratri celebrated in Bengal, the festivities here in Bangalore adequately satiate the outsider with a taste of Bengali culture. 

     Processions across the city are centrally focused on the pandal – the temporary temple constructed for the display of Goddess Durga, and the pujas conducted in her worship.  Although her depictions vary, the sharply lined, almond-shaped, wild eyes of Durga always give her away.  On each evening, just as the sky has turned dark, pujas are performed to awaken and conjure the Goddess’s divine energy.  For roughly half an hour, pujarees perform these sacred rites, and devotees gather to pray and receive the blessings of the Goddess. Once ode is paid to the Mother Goddess, devotees are free to partake in the festivities.  Entertainment and celebration come in a variety of forms.  Known for their talents in the arts, Bengalis often perform dances or sing.  Stalls offer the cultural foods from Bengal, vendors of all kinds sell their products, and carnival rides entertain kids in the masses. 

© Rebecca Delekta 2013
     This year on Soptomi, one of the most celebrated nights in Navaratri, Sanjeev and I decided to visit the procession organized by the Bengalee Association in downtown Bangalore.  On Saturday evening, after dressing in our best attire and braving the city streets for an hour, we reach Commercial Street’s procession gates.  Darkness has just set in and the crowds have yet to fill the grounds.  We roam, eating Krispy Crème doughnuts, and eventually proceed to the food stalls.  We patiently search for an all-vegetarian stall, walking through air thick with the smell of smoke and frying fish (most all Bengalis are non-veg, and seafood is a staple part of the diet due to Bengal’s position as a coastal state on the Bay of Bengal).  After careful deliberation, and multiple turndowns of fish offered, we find a Ganapati Catering stand.  Sanjeev gets poori (fried wheat roti) and Bengali style potato subjee.  I get two samosa snacks, hoping that they might taste like they do in Delhi.  We remove ourselves from the nauseating smell of seafood and stand in the middle of the courtyard, I pick at my Samosas, examining the masala inside, paranoid of finding meat.  It tastes different from the Samosas of the north – tangy with more lentils. 
 
    After we finish eating, we head back to the pandal display to see that the puja has already started.  The crowd is beginning to thicken, red plastic chairs aligned in rows are nearly full, and people crowd the front of the center isle to pray to the Goddess.  Sanjeev and I wind through the traffic, while he prays, I snap off quick shots of the pujaree waving a smoldering clay urn around the idols to awaken the Goddess, and quickly move on my way to make room for others wanting to offer their prayers.  I stand off to the side, and videotape the rest of the puja, large drums in front of me playing a beat that breeds excitement. 

     Once the puja is complete, and the crowds satisfied, we move to the next tent that houses the stage for the cultural events of the night.  We sit in the corner of the front row and patiently wait as the tent fills with people.  After some time, an announcer informs us in Bengali that several children’s choreographed dances will take place.  I photograph their movements in the color varying light, my favorite is an Assamese dance performed by young girls wrapped in red and white saris.  They sing as they dance, faces smiling and free. 

     After a much-anticipated wait, a stunningly dressed Odissi dancer comes on stage to inform us of the dances about to take place in observance of the Mother Goddess.  I am utterly enthralled when they take the stage, knowing that I am witnessing a dance that embodies ancient India. There are 7 different types of classical dance in India, in their varying forms they often beautifully articulate aspects of the divine.  Three of these dances are amongst the most renowned: Bharatanatyam – deriving from Tamil Nadu – the most ancient of all dance types; Mohiniattam deriving from Kerala; and Odissi originating from Odisha.  Traditional dances have been called “artistic yoga” for their controlled movements and poses, and the intricate use of mudras (hand and finger gestures that influence energies and signify meaning). 1  Classical dances were originally performed to entertain the Gods, but have also been effective in passing on stories within mythology from generation to generation through dance. 2  Those who take on the immense task of learning an ancient dance commit to a lifelong journey.  Odissi is considered one of the most sensuous, passionate and bewitching classical dances. 3  Its roots can be traced back at least 2,000 years, when rulers of the region build kingdoms and the cultural arts were nourished. 3  Many Odissi dances focus centrally on Krishna – the God of love and joy. 

     The three Odissi dancers set to perform tonight are utterly stunning – their outfits consist of intricately wrapped blue and green traditional dance dresses.  Their necks and waists draped in silver jewelry.  Leather bands affixed with hundreds of bells wrap their ankles.  Jet-black hair is neatly smoothed back into buns and covered with white flowered headdresses.  Eyes are lined heavily with kajal and complete with the third eye bindi.  With their elaborate attire and makeup, they are transformed from modern day urban Indians, into representations of antiquity – reflections of Goddess Durga herself.  The first dance is in ode to Goddess Durga, with various poses depicting her different aspects – her softness, her ability to heal and create, and her wrath of power and triumph over evil.  Several scenes articulating the dark side of the Goddess are so powerful they send shivers of energy through my body.  My heart thumps in my chest, and I struggle to hold my camera still, its weight growing heavier.  The second dance is performed by a solo dancer in honor of Krishna, depicting a love encounter at Yamuna River.  The dancer moves her hands and body in ways that make you visualize water; she picks flowers, searchers for Krishna and flirts.  Two dancers perform a final dance, it meaning mysterious but still maintaining that powerful energy.

       After the dancing is finished, we listen to live music performed by an insanely talented Tamil woman, whose voice is reminiscent of old India, and laugh at a Bengali guy too full of himself to realize that he has no talent to sing.  A small group of sari clad Bengali women dance to the music in front of us, I watch them move, clearly enjoying the time they have to dress up and free themselves for a moment from the bonds of daily life.  Once I have had my fill of mosquito bites and the deafening noise, we leave the tent to see that the crowds have grown immensely.  We drive home with the radio low, the Odissi dancers’ bells still ringing through my head. 



References
(1) Yoga Technology LLC. (2013). Mudras. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from         

(2) Cultural India. (2013). Indian classical dances. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from           

(3) Cultural India. (2013). Orissi Dance. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from
            http://www.culturalindia.net/indian-dance/classical/odissi.html

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Further Celebrations


      At ten thirty pm, I’m curled up on my couch, alone for a few hours.  I’m working on some recent photographs, my computer overheating from the task.  In the distance, I can hear the tempo of elaborate drumming.  I ignore it for the time being.  The celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi is still in full swing, and every day the gaiety of the festival seeps into my apartment.  Firecrackers go off at any time of day, their explosive booms causing my heart to skip a beat.  After nightfall, multicolor fireworks burst above apartment complexes and company buildings miles away.  A few days ago, well into the night, I watched a group of 15 men and boys celebrating courtyards over.  The quick drum beat music quickening to a climax over and over.  Full of energy, they danced wildly, bodies outlined by a tungsten lit shack housing a Ganesh idol.  Yesterday, while visiting Hosa road’s market, the street reflected the ongoing celebration.  Amongst the fruit and vegetable vendors, a large corrugated metal structure covered in plastic loomed.  What it contained wasn’t a mystery to me, I touched the plastic outside cover as we drove by on the bike and twisted around to see a dizzying display of colors inside.  Ganesh in all his splendor, drawing Hindus from every angle.  On the opposite side of the street, where alleyways between the small business shops lead to apartment villages, clusters of women were gathered around on the pavement, crafting deeply colorful rangolis (freehand design of sacred shapes using natural sand-like ingredients).  Children squatted around the finished designs, laughing and playing.  Above them, thin strings of blue, orange and green lights zigzag across the alleyway’s gap between apartments.  In the fading cloud diffused light, I stood watching them, cursing myself for not having brought my camera for fear of rain. 
      Back in the present, I’m analyzing a photograph I took on Ganesh Chaturthi during my visit to the temple, a close up of a bronze color metal entryway, Ganesh’s image imprinted alongside another God.  As I play with the sepia tint, the drumming gets louder, harder to ignore.  The bass resonates through my windows and walls, the rhythm filling me with an irresistible urge to move my body in tandem.  I toss my computer aside and run to the southwest facing windows of my bedroom pull back the curtains, and slam open the window.  I’m struck by the cool night wind, tainted with the fresh scent of rain, and further excited by the sharp increase of the drums echoing across the distance, and reverberating around the walls of my room as if it were a cave.  The subtle glittering lights from the hundreds of apartments outside provides the room’s only illumination as I search in my closet for my camera and zoom lens. 

      Camera assembled by feel, I pad across the icy marble floor and climb onto my bamboo chair propped against the wall.  I start video taping the scene before me, my camera unable to perceive the light that my eyes still see; the image grainy from pushing the ISO.  Although I could only dream of catching the constellation of Bangalore lights outside my wind at night, what I really want to document are the beat of drums.  Ten stories below, on the small road running parallel to my apartment, and disguised by the deep shadows of the buildings, I make out a tractor slowly pulling a flat trailer with a ten-foot high Ganesh idol.  A group of performers surround the idol, entranced by the rhythm of their music.  I make out the sound of South India’s classic bronze cymbals known as elathalam.  They complement the sharp and impossibly fast beat of tasha drums.  Several people make a shrill whistle common to popular Punjabi songs.  The most overwhelming sound is a deep base drum, its eerie thum thum… thum thum….thum thum… beat booming through the house and my body, reminding me of the alien heartbeat of a monster.  As Ganesh is escorted down the road, random spectators dance in celebration.  The tractor comes to a halt under the orange light of a street lamp, and passersby stop their motorcycles to observe and pray.

      Two days later, the celebration is repeated at 11:30 pm, this time the escort includes several idols of Ganesh, with a larger crowd of drummers.  A small goods truck carries an idol backdropped with a flat display comprised of small neon lights.  It reminds me of a large light bright display, the bulbs illuminating buildings with unnatural florescence in passing.  As they reach the intersection of the dirt road with Hosur main, a series of firecrackers are set off, and the beat of drums quiet for only a few minutes, before another three displays roll through.  Each night’s celebration, I spend it half hanging out the window from my vantage point, shooting the scene and attempting to keep the heavy camera body balanced and still.  I am utterly enthralled by the display, moved, and energized by the archaic sounds of exotic drums.  When both groups meet at the intersection, they meld into one giant and bedazzling herd of noise.  As they head back to their village their images slip into the night, though windows closed and wrapped in my blanket, I can still hear them playing into the distance

Check out this video, it is a closer look at a similar drumming celebration:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YKCue8KvnQ