Friday, December 21, 2012

The Majestic Konark Sun Temple

    In the middle of the 13th century A.D. Narasimhadeva-I, the king of the Ganga dynasty laid the foundation for one of the greatest architectural marvels of ancient India - the Sun Temple of Konark. The temple honours the Sun God, a relatively minor entity in the Hindu pantheon, and is a notable exception to the general rule of the main deity being either Lord Shiva or Vishnu or their kin. The entire temple is in the form of the huge chariot drawn by seven spirited horses on twelve pairs of exquisitely decorated wheels or chakras at its base. Though the temple provides a rare and detailed insight into the lives of people in ancient India, sadly it's mostly in ruins now.

    Tagore wrote of Konark - "Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.” These particular stones give us a remarkable rendition about the lives of people in those times. The sculptures include deities, musicians, apsaras (celestial beings), dancers, lovers, and myriad scenes of courtly life, ranging from hunts, boxing matches and military battles to the royal meetings in durbars. Intricate botanical scenes describe the rich natural heritage at those times and geometrical decorative designs like the decorated chakras show the engineering ingenuity of those times. Konark is not as much a temple as it is a celebration of life.
Ajay and I in front of the Natya Mantapa with the Temple behind it. The two gaja-simhas are just behind us.
    The temple is held together by iron rods attached to blocks of stone and a few iron bars provide earthing and structural support. Like most other temples of those times, it is built out of weathered sandstone which lends itself to creating intricate sculptures. It has three distinct structures – The outer Natya mantapa with intricate dance poses, the pyramid-shaped audience hall (128 ft.) and the partially destroyed main sanctum (229 ft.)

The Natya Mantapa:
    An appreciation of music and dance is essential to understanding ancient Indian temple architecture. The Natya mantapa of the temple is filled with 128 sculptures of artists dancing and playing various musical instruments.  Two gaja-simhas (elephant-lions - mythical creatures) at the eastern entrance welcome visitors to the temple. The temple was not just a place of worship, it provided a platform for art and culture to flourish.
The various poses in the Natya Mantapa
The Audience Hall:
    The temple displays a fusion of South and North Indian architecture and also imbibes distinct designs never seen before in Indian temples. The audience hall is surprisingly pyramidal in shape, generally not a shape associated with Indian temples, and the main sanctum is the typical Aryan shape. Orissa in those times was known to export hemp and there is a scene where Raja Narasimha Deva meets emissaries from Africa; so it is entirely possible that the pyramid-shaped audience hall temple was influenced by the pyramids of Giza. To answer the obvious question of how the people in that sculpture were identified as African - there’s a huge giraffe in the frame and the men are wearing skirts!

    Only one of the seven proud horses that carried the chariot shaped temple remain today, bravely leading alone what he once led with his brothers. The entrance to the sanctum of the main temple through the audience hall has been walled off by the British in 1905, ostensibly to preserve the 'super specimen of old Indian architecture'.
The pyramidal audience Hall behind the last of the seven horses.
The Main Sanctum:
    Though the main sanctum was partially destroyed, three granite statues of the Sun God survived and adorn the main sanctum on all sides but the Eastern one. These statues are made of granite, unlike the rest of the temple which is made of soapstone. The statues convey the mood of the Sun God at various stage of the day – the Southern statue is childlike and eager, the Western is manly and solemn and the Northern one looks tired, probably due a hard day's work! These statues are perhaps a reference to the various stages of life as described in the Hindu scriptures.
The now destroyed main sanctum of Konark(Southern Side). Notice the statue of Sun God on the top.
Rest of the Temple:
    The name Konark is derived from the Sanskrit word Kona (meaning angle) and Arka (meaning sun). The sun temple, no surprises here, faces the East and has 12 chakras that can be used to tell the time of the day based on the angle of the shadow they case. The bottom layer of the temple has sculptures of thousands of elephants, used either in battle or in construction of the temple. Elephants were used to haul stones using a specially built ramp. Some are of the opinion that these elephants were given drugs to enhance their strength and forced into musth to enable them to carry the huge rocks they would have otherwise been unable to. A few of the scenes even describe the gruesome execution of prisoners by these elephants.

     The temple has two beautiful statues of war elephants on the northern side and two intricately carved war stallions on the southern side crushing enemies. Surely a trophy of a king who loved war too much... There is a well nearby that probably served as the water source for visitors. Behind the main temple, there is a temple for the main deity’s wife - The Chhayadevi temple and another brick temple from the 10th century.
One of the two impressive war stallions on the Southern side of the temple
One of the two elephants on the Northern side of the temple
Konark Museum and ASI Restoration work:
    The Konark museum nearby has quite a few of the relics that had fallen off from the main temple. There are even pictures of how the temple would have looked if the main sanctum had not been destroyed. There is also an interesting frieze with the five main Indian Gods - Indra, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Surya. 

    This temple is unfortunately not as well preserved as Khajuraho or other South Indian temples. After enduring centuries of sea breeze eroding the walls of the temple, wars with zealous Muslim rulers intent on wiping out Hindu artifacts and British treasure hunters interested more in loot than conservation, the temple is a pale shadow of what it was. The ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) has done quite a bit of conservation work to ensure structural integrity at Konark; but just about managed to make the temple unsightly in the process. Many broken statues have been shoddily fixed using cement and and reeks of underpaid plumbery instead of stellar work by the nation’s premier conservation society.
The five main Hindu deities - Indra,Brahma,Vishnu,Shiva and Surya
Sexual Symbolism at Konark:
    Konark was built when Buddhism was on its last legs in India. In a way, its ostentatious sexual symbolism was a statement of triumph over a rival religion that promoted asceticism as a way of life. Sensuously modeled figures in various poses are placed prominently in upper levels of the temple (perhaps to avoid those pesky little kids from getting too curious at an early age). The sculptures of the male and female naga (snake) Gods coiled together symbolize fertility. 

    The temple also served as a place to educate people about the arcane secrets of Kamasutra. A few of the sculptures depict various intercourse positions and orgies, bestiality, lesbianism, childbirth and age old mechanisms to treat venereal diseases like gonorrhea. In a land where the men died early in the multitude of wars their kings waged, widow remarriage was openly encouraged and polygamy was subtly encouraged through these erotic sculptures. In modern day Victorian India, quite a few of these topics are taboo; clearly ancient Indian society was more open, puns intended.
one of the many sensuous sculptures of Konark
The story behind the construction:
    There is a sad and probably apocryphal story about the construction of the temple that the local guides love to tell with embellishments. In the last stages of building the temple, the architects face trouble fixing the huge magnet on top of the second (now destroyed) tower. The king threatens to behead everyone involved in the construction if the work is not completed in time. A young boy, who is not associated with the workers, figures the way out and fixes the magnet during the night when the rest of the workers are asleep. The workers wake up, realize that they might still be put to death for their failure to get the job done and demand that the boy kill himself in ritualistic self-sacrifice to save them. The young boy surprisingly obliges by jumping into the sea. The temple gets off to an ignominious start and is deemed unfit for prayer and worship. Not sure how pleased the king was with that, if at all this story were true!
Leogryph - A mythical creature
The Destruction of the Temple:
    The guides blame the British for the destruction of the temple and claim quite a few artifacts are in the Britain. Hmm, something to look out for when I visit London museum! History however tells a different story and blames Kalapahad, the general of Bengal Sultan Sulaiman Khan Karrani. In 1568 AD, his men hacked through the stone arches and displaced the Dadhinauti (Arch stone), leading to the collapse of the tower. It is said that the presiding deity of Konark Temple was secreted away during that phase for safeguarding and never found again. The Natya mantapa survived longer and was partially destroyed by Marathas. By the end of the 18th century Konark was abandoned and turned into a dense forest and the abode of pirates.
Raja Narasimha Deva meeting emissaries from Africa - Noticed the Giraffe and the long skirts?
    The kings of the old envisioned and built these magnificent temples for posterity, structures that tell the story of art, life and the Gods themselves. If you ever have a chance to get there early in the morning, stand atop the platform of the natya mantapa; imagine the sound of the waves washing ashore while the crimson sun lights up the beautiful temple, imagine the singers and the dancers lost in their morning performance for the king and finally imagine the sculptors focused on building the next master piece. This my friend, is Konark, the place where the Sun God begins his journey.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Passing through The Temples of Odisha

     Every last minute adventure trip in India begins with an online adventure, where one generally ends up in the losing side. Four people armed with two or more accounts each failed to book a tatkal ticket for two in IRCTC for the Diwali weekend. Ajay and I were nevertheless determined to travel to Odisha and visit Konark. Come Friday, we reached the railway station, bought unreserved tickets and paid a fine to upgrade to sleeper class. We slept on the floor, in the space between beds of a compartment in our carriage, blanketing ourselves from head to toe in our sleeping bags to avoid squeaky little rats. Surprisingly I slept well that night!

   The next morning, we got down at Balugaon and caught sight of the first destination of our trip - the Chilika Lake. There were plenty of average looking to run-down restaurants on the main road and we chose the one that looked least decrepit for breakfast. Odisha is sandwiched between North and South India, the ideal melting pot for culinary delicacies. If you live in a major metro, chances are your favorite hotel has a cook from Odisha. Perhaps, all these good folks have migrated to other states for employment, leaving the kitchens of their native land in the hands of stable boys and fishermen. Breakfast was insipid and the idlies tasted like they were prepared a week ago. For the first time in my life, I wished that I had had breakfast in the train.

Chilika Lake
   Chilika Lake is the second largest lagoon in the world and known for Irrawaddy dolphins. We missed the morning ferry and ended up hiring a boat to travel from Balugaon to Satpada across the Chilika Lake. For three excruciating hours, we listened to the constant whirr of the diesel motor and even managed to sleep for a while, just to shut out the deafening roar. Unsurprisingly, no dolphin ventured near our noisy tub, though we saw many storks and geese before we finally reached our destination. Lunch at Satpada was worse than breakfast, with most dishes filled to the brim with potatoes and a gooey gel that could only have come from a failed high school chemistry experiment. At that point in the trip, both of us were tired and a bit disappointed that the trip wasn’t half as exciting as we thought it would be.

   After lunch, things started looking up. Satpada is surrounded by lagoons from the three sides. The three hour long 55 km journey from Satpada to Puri in a local bus goes through a very picturesque route filled with small lagoons and wetlands growing rice and paddy. The day ended early; it was around 5:30 p.m. when we reached Puri and dusk had settled in. Puri initially seemed like an overgrown village until we had to face the traffic in the main road. I came across a few locals and foreigners smoking marijuana and in this temple town; it seemed like a way of life. These drugs have been in use in such places for generations and they were not going to let a small thing like a government ban get in their way. Though there is a pervasive poverty in the state that even a casual visitor will notice, the people here seem healthier and fitter than those in neighboring states down south where most villagers look like overweight cops.

   Ajay and I prefer generally travel without a concrete plan on where to stay and what to visit. This gives us flexibility to visit and stay at places we want, but can get confusing at times as we end up travelling for days without seeing the back of a hotel! After a quick picture in front of the Puri Jagannath temple, we headed to the Ranger’s guest house; 20 kms ride from Puri that took about an hour. After travelling for more than 24 hours, we reached the “Rangers”, an adrenaline-pumping oasis that offers surfing lessons, forest treks and ATV training in the midst of a forest. The place is truly hippie and the main caretaker, Sachin, believes in mastering the power of the Kundalini through an indulgent lifestyle and spends his time playing a long winded bamboo shoot named Didgeridoo that produces a shrill bagpiper like music.  

Trekking near the beaches of Puri
   I didn’t know to swim, but there I was, ready to surf in the pristine blue beaches of Puri. We met our surfing instructor, Jessie, the next morning. An Aussie with dreadlocks and penetrating eyes, he travels around the world seeking the best waves to surf because he thinks that the Australian surfing scene was too crowded or localized. Jessie was hardly surprised when we informed him that we were not swimmers and strongly suggested that we try Stand-Up- Paddling (SUP) at the lagoon instead of venturing out the ocean. The suggestion was more of a directive and we had no option but to agree. 

Jessie started our lessons with an easy looking exercise - standing on and balancing a plank of wood on circular tube with a diameter of around 20 cm. Jessie has this amazing Zen-like knack for teaching and explained that balance and breathing are at the core of any sport when he found us struggling to balance the plank. When I tensed up at times, he came over and asked me to loosen up the muscle in question. After half an hour of balancing on the plank, we moved onto a mechanical surfboard simulator that was closer to an actual surfboard and easier to balance than the plank. Once the training lessons were over, we went to a lagoon nearby for the real deal. Paddling in the surfboard was the best fun I had had in a while. I think I need to learn swimming just to surf in the ocean someday.

    Though the Rangers is an amazing place, it might not be a place for the standard Indian temple tourist or people who are not used to the local E. coli bacterium. The place does not have bottled water. Sachin explained that the groundwater there was very pure and provided a simplistic reason like ‘I drink it and am fine’. Of course human physiology is never really that simple - don’t play Rambo; just take bottled water if you plan to head over to the Rangers.

   That evening, we left for Konark after our surfing lessons. Konark is a hustling village that houses one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of ancient India - the 13th century Sun Temple. A detailed blog on this monument is coming soon, so I will not write more about the temple here. We settled into a good hotel that was way cheaper than what we would have paid for in other states. There is tremendous potential for tourism in Odisha with its pristine beaches and numerous historical temples. But somehow in Konark, the tourist crowd was missing in spite of Nov-Dec being peak tourist season.

Ajay and me at Konark Temple
   Before leaving Konark for Bhubaneswar, Ajay and I took stock of how much we had spent for the trip. On most of our previous trips, we never had time for lodging as we spent our nights travelling by train. This time though, we had stayed in a hotel every night. This coupled with the boat ride and surfing lessons proved to be quite the recipe for an expensive trip. We decided to couchsurf, a trend that’s catching up in India and involves requesting folks to provide lodging for free in their home for a short duration. Sanjay, the founder of Rangers, was kind enough to host us for the night in spite of the next day being Diwali. Couch-surfing gives you a chance to meet interesting people. Sanjay was a great conversationalist and we spent hours talking with him on a wide range of interesting topics like “Why surfing is such a great sport and what it can do for tourism in Odisha” and “Was the Konark temple the last nail on the coffin for Buddhism in India”. He also seemed excited about the surfing festival that the Rangers were planning in January and helped draw up our itinerary for the next day in Bhubaneswar.
Udayagiri Caves - Bhubaneswar
   The next morning we headed to the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves which are partly natural and partly hewn from rock in early 2nd century BC. These 33 caves were once the abode of Jain monks. The caves are famous for the Hathigumpha inscriptions in Devanagiri script, written by Raja Karavel, the king of Kalinga (modern Odisha) in India during the 2nd century BC. The inscriptions record the royal edicts during the rule of Raja Karavel. There is even a double storied monastery similar built in the style of the one in Ellora. Though the place has a historical importance and was excavated at around the same time as the Ajanta caves, the lack of paintings in these caves doomed these caves to remain a lovers’ hangout while the Ajanta caves are known world over for its murals and beautiful paintings!

   We later visited the splendid
Lingaraj temple that was crowded on account of being a temple where prayers are still offered. There are quite a few deserted temples around the Lingaraj temple that are built like miniature Konark temples and giving Bhubaneswar the title of ‘city of temples’. Certainly quite an achievement in India where there is a temple in every other street in most cities. The temples unfortunately are very poorly maintained. Due to lack of space, kids play cricket in these temples. I am sure priceless monuments fall prey to bad batting in these temples on a daily basis. At certain locations, temples are less than a meter away from houses and some of these temple complexes also double up as parking lots. Though one would tend to blame the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) for this mess, I know that they simply are not equipped to fight such battles. The apathy towards these age old temples is the shame of a nation that doesn’t bother preserving its archaeological treasures.
Just another neglected beautiful temple in Bhubaneswar
   After spending the morning visiting temples, we left for the state museum and found it closed due to Diwali. Settled for lunch in Pizza Hut in a mall nearby as both of us had had enough of the local fare by then. 

We thankfully had a ticket for the journey back home. I loved every moment of the four days spent traveling and meeting amazing people in Odisha. Well, perhaps not every moment; there was suffering, especially with regard to food and travel. After all, no journey is without pain but at the end of it, as we were boarding the train back home, I was glad I came.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Few good men of Agumbe

    I started this blog as a tourist guide to the beautiful mountain village of Agumbe. As I kept writing more, it turned into a tirade against the political apathy towards survival of such pristine rainforests that are of utmost importance to earth's delicate natural balance. Soon I went back and deleted most of the touristy information as adding google geo-tags no longer seemed important. Now the blog is just a long rant which starts off a bit slowly.

    My cousin's wedding in Udipi gave me a chance to sneak in a one day visit to the rain forests of Agumbe,  in the western ghats of Karnataka. I reached Agumbe after a 16 hour journey from Hyderabad and headed to the house of Kasturi akka ( 'akka' means 'Elder Sister' in Karnataka) - the proprietor of a home stay in Agumbe. The 120 year old house has a huge veranda in the front, huge black pillars made of teak for support and a square-shaped area that opens to the sky in the middle of the house, like the ‘Nadumuttom’ of a traditional kerala house. The famous TV serial of the 90s - Malgudi days was filmed in this very house. Kasturi akka uses a walking stick and is slow in her moments but that does not stop her from fussing over visitors and cooking them delicious north Karnataka fare.

    Agumbe is a quaint little village that retains enough charm and rusticity to provide a refreshing vacation. It receives the second highest annual rainfall in India and there are quite a few water falls, sunset and sunrise points nearby that should keep a casual tourist occupied for a couple of days.
Kasturi akka's house in Agumbe. Malgudi days was filmed here.
Kasturi akka preparing one more delicious lunch
    After breakfast, Kasturi akka and I talked about the village and during our conversation she spoke of their fight against indiscriminate industrialization of the village. Apparently a few industrialists had  turned up in the village promising jobs and established a ceramic factory. Apart from damaging the ecologically sensitive balance, exhaust from the factory also posed a real danger to the quality of life and health of local residents. They also brought in cheap labour from other states and conned the villagers on the employment front as well. The villagers took legal recourse and years later, after plenty of visits to local as well as the higher courts, they won and the factory was shut down. This struggle strongly argues the case for industrial development that benefits local residents and does not obliterate natural habitats. After all, almost half of all the world's rain falls on rain forests that are essential to recycling water.

    Later that morning, I walked to the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station(ARRS) to learn more about the research of king cobras and conservation effort undertaken there. On reaching the station, I noticed that the Research Director, Siddharth was being interviewed by two youngsters writing an article for their college and joined them with a few questions of my own. Siddharth’s replies were surprisingly straightforward and mostly sarcastic. I guess cynicism becomes second skin when fighting to save the last stretch of rainforests in a country that does not want it saved.

    With his wavy hair and muscled arms, Siddharth could pass off as a rock-star but settled for studying snakes and lizards in the wild. His replies at times cut too close to heart, especially when he looks into your eyes and talks about city people who love snakes turning up at the station expecting to find king cobras at a research center when in reality all their ground-breaking research on king cobras happens in their natural habitat.

    “What are forest officials doing to prevent the rain forests from vanishing”, asked the girl interviewing him. Siddharth answered that question indirectly by talking about the difficulties faced by the forest department in enforcing their archaic and rigid laws like “Ensure that not a single tree is felled in the protected zone”. This law if implemented would ensure that most rangers are killed in their sleep by communities that dependent on the forest for sustenance. A sure cure for constipation that, but most forest rangers choose survival over duty and quietly ignore such on-paper laws.

    Siddharth also mentioned that the forest dept was woefully understaffed to do anything of significance to safeguard the forest. “So what do the forest officials really do?”, the girl hurriedly asked, as though her article depended on this single question. Siddharth is scathing in most of his replies but this brings out his best, “They put barbed wires in places where they should not, plant exotic trees like guava in the plains where they don't grow and do all sorts of stuff, but what do they really do, I have no clue...”. I entered the station to learn about king cobras, but left with burning desire to let people know that if we manage to destroy the rain forests through our greed, future generations are doomed to a life of struggle and failure.
Agumbe - Near Barkhan Falls
Agumbe - Jogiguda falls
    The Western Ghats has an exceptionally high level of biological diversity and was recently awarded the World Heritage Site tag. But all parties of the Karnataka Assembly, who fight each other over every other issue, cut across party lines and unanimously passed a resolution requesting the UNESCO to withdraw the world heritage tag given to 10 spots in the Western Ghats. This rare consensus was punctuated with emotional arguments like “We don’t need UNESCO to tell us about conservation of forests", "We don’t need more tiger reserves" etc. Like any convincing lie, there is a smidgen of truth in an argument like "it will create problems for the locals and forest dwellers". But that is not why our politicians are rushing in to reject the 'world heritage site' moniker and accuse the UNESCO of trying to rule the state by proxy. If the UNESCO ruling is implemented, lucrative mining rights would become worthless and that hits our politicians where it hurts most - funding.

    Kasturi akka and Siddharth are among the dedicated few fighting the same battle for the rain forests using whatever means at their disposal. Legal action, as employed by Kasturi akka and the villagers against indiscriminate industrialization takes years of effort. Meanwhile one determined lumberjack can wipe out a forest by the time the verdict arrives. Siddharth, on the other hand, was of the opinion that perhaps colleges should teach anarchy instead language and science. He talked about Greenpeace activists blowing up oil rigs to protect the environment and said that one such act did more for conservation than years of litigation in the courts.

    It is said that the fear of forest brigand Veerappan did more for the survival of the Sathyamangalam forests in Tamil Nadu than any govt could hope to achieve. Now that the brigand is dead, the lumberjacks are back with their axes. Like the Mayor of Gotham calling in the Joker to save the city instead of Batman; our nation has to turn to agents of chaos and anarchy to preserve its forests. Definitely something is wrong somewhere.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Girl on the Train

    The girl was fair, good-looking and wearing a casual blue tee shirt and green three fourths, same as everyone who called themselves cool in metros these days. She unrolled a newspaper as soon as got into the compartment.  'Interesting', I thought. Any girl who whips out a newspaper to read, notwithstanding that it is Times of India, in a train is one who's gotten her priorities right (or woefully wrong depending on how you look at it).

     Unfortunately this one had something else in mind. She spread out the newspaper below the seat and pushed a sleek yellow coloured travel bag on it after removing her iPad and a small napkin. I avoided looking at the dirty 30-litre sack I had thrown below my seat, something that had served me well in hikes across the country but had not been washed for around a year. She delicately placed the napkin on her lap and the iPad on the napkin and proceeded to play a brick game, making clucks, wringing her hands and muttering 'gone' in disappointment when she lost, with a look as though she had just lost her first born.

    A germophobic or a “clean freak” on an Indian train!? What irony. Such folks are understandably rare in India, especially on Indian trains where "Swalpa adjust maadi" (Please adjust) is the usual refrain when it comes to hygiene. Soon a stream of railway caterers overran the coach with screams of biryani and chapatti. The girl of course did not bother with such hawkers, even though they were approved by the Indian Railways. I half-expected her to dig into her bag for her curd rice but that did not happen either. A woman managing her brawling kid noticed this and offered her a pack of chips but the girl waved it away. Apparently she never eats chips for dinner.

     Clearly she had rules set in stone and not eating chips for dinner was among the unbreakable ones. She probably had rules for her boyfriend as well and would give him an earful for slurping coffee on a date. I imagined her repeating her edicts regarding hygiene and life aloud every night, just like princess Arya from game of thrones reciting the names of enemies she wanted dead before hitting the bed. I laughed aloud at the thought, noticed folks in my compartment staring at me and unsuccessfully tried to convert it into a cough. Needless to say that never works like in the movies. The girl looked at me and through some feminine appendage that science is yet to discover, understood that it was a private joke about her and gave me a look that would have curdled milk.

     And as it inevitably happens in Indian trains, an old couple in the compartment started quizzing the girl - what's her Father's name? Which city is she from? Where is she working and for how long? Is she married? Does she have any siblings and are they married? The girl responded to the inquisition patiently. By the time the couple was done, they had uncovered that the old man knew the girl's grandfather though he did not delve into details. I, on the other hand, was convinced that the couple had an unmarried son and were throwing a net wide and far to find him a bride.

     The couple backed off having sated their curiosity. I tentatively asked her a question regarding the turmoil in her company (having overheard the company name). She admitted that she was looking for greener pastures because that. Hmm! My shot in the dark seemed to have touched a rather sore nerve. Admittedly misery loves company. We ended up chatting for the next half an hour regarding the gloomy situation in Information Technology sector in general. That night I was under the impression that perhaps I could take this forward the next morning and ask for her phone number.

     Come morning, the train reached its destination on time and I was yet to make my move. A tall burly guy in jeans, too well dressed to be a porter, stepped into the compartment to carry the girl's luggage.  He saw me talking to the girl and gave me a look that I recognize from one of the many National Geographic animal specials - "Back off. This one's mine". *sigh* Another battle lost to another over-attached boyfriend. Anyways the odds were too high and involved 'hygiene'.

P.S: c'est une œuvre de fiction. Vérité...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Into The Wild

    You are no lone wolf.  Stop telling yourself that you are different. You might claim that words will never hurt you; you might as well claim to be living in Mars and hosting Zeus and his pantheon of Gods for tea everyday. Admit it. You crave for acceptance. Those likes on facebook and those retweets on twitter light up your face. All those times your manager truly praised your work or some colleague nominated you for a spot award, there was a tinge of pure joy and excitement flowing through your veins.

    At the end of the day, whatever way you look at it, we are all apes. We learn by imitating. If you have ever seen a child pick up language, you know what I am talking about.  If it is society that shapes us, are we just pawns hoping that one day we might reach the end and become queens and bishops? Unfortunately no; Cinderella’s dreams generally do not come true in real life and the one of the evil twin sisters always gets the prince. Sooner or later, the masks we wear to perform the pantomime that society demands of us comes back to define us and our perception about ourselves.

    What does it feel to wake up and head to work knowing that you will end up doing the same thing tomorrow, the next week and the week after, the next year and perhaps years to come until you retire to take up gardening or writing letters to newspaper editors? Have you ever woken up and told yourself that today you will tell your boss to go f**k himself, quit your job and just travel around the world until the end of days. What am I raving about? Everyone has those days…

    I just came to know about a guy who plays around a dozen sports and is very good at most, is a top notch sniper and a Beretta pistol shooter, digs wells for villages without access to clean water, builds classrooms in villages and whose dream is to visit more countries than his age. Also before I forget, he once drove an auto from Chennai to Mumbai and is currently teaching in a school in Ladakh. Talk about developing a multifaceted personality...  When I came to know about this, something inside me stirred, the wanderlust that society and I had managed to talk into submission would not remain silent anymore. It screamed out that I should go out, live a life of adventure and explore the world with the same curiosity that drove our ancestors out of Africa. Alas, the moment passes and I always wake up. Not literally because I am already wide awake, but because I am getting late for office.

    So what about my free will? Was my destiny pre-determined based on the alignment of stars and planets the moment I was born? When was the last time I did something just to prove to myself that I am not living in a Matrix-like-world? When was the last time I forgot about society, its rigid rules and firm machinations and did something for pure thrill? The question I ask myself and you is this - when was the last time you did something crazy?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bhimbetka - The very beginning

    Let’s rewind about 200,000 years ago, to the very beginning of mankind. In Africa, there emerged a group of apes with a large brain capable of better reasoning and problem-solving than the other apes. These apes were curious beings, interested in exploring their world and developed higher level thought processes like self-awareness and rationality. Between 75,000 and 50,000 years ago, as the world was entering its last ice age, the Neanderthals were on their way out and settings were ideal for the Homo sapiens or the modern humans to take over the planet. A long time after the last Tyrannosaurus roared and crushed its opponents to pulp, earth had a dominant species once again.

    Nestled in the hinterlands of India in the midst of a rocky terrain of dense forest on the northern fringe of the Vindhyan ranges, is a uniquely preserved prehistoric site at Bhimbetka, around 45 kms from Bhopal. These rock shelters tell us the story of homo sapien migration from Africa and exhibit the earliest traces of human life in India. These quartzite rock formations have 754 rock shelters with over 500 with rock paintings. The paintings are one of the few existing legacies of a lost time, stretching from the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) era to the Historical period. The quality and quantity of the rock art shows the long lasting interaction between hunter-gatherers and the landscape and also the gradual development of the socio-cultural life of mankind.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 1
    Ajay and I took an early morning bus from Bhopal and reached Bhimbetka at 8 a.m. The bus dropped us at a railway cross three kilometres from the rock shelters. We found a MP tourism hotel named Highway Retreat where the cook kindly prepared us sandwich and tea after the guard has turned us away saying we had come too early. After breakfast we walked to the rock shelters. A few months ago we would have run those 3 kms, but  niggles and injuries from the previous running season ensured that running was out of question. I would suggest hiring a taxi at Bhopal for travelers looking for comfort.

    One of the oldest known prehistoric art in Asia is a series of Stone Age cupules or cup-marks-in-the-rock discovered in Bhimbetka. Geological investigations by renowned archaeologists Bednarik, Kumar and others have established that these cupules are more than 100,000 years old. In other words these were not the work of our ancestors (homo-sapiens) since they left Africa only 75,000 years ago, but of homo-erectus who roamed these plains long before the first Homo sapiens set foot in South Asia.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter No. 15 - Boar Rock/Mushroom rock
    Colours used in the paintings were derived from locally available minerals - ochre from haematite and white from lime. The binding medium used was water and fixatives like animal fat and plant extract like gum. The solvent minerals get oxidised so as to leave their colour on the rock surface. Sometimes the paintings were used several times by artists of later periods without obliterating the older figures. The superimposition of paintings of different styles and periods can be seen in many of the rock shelters in Bhimbetka. Certain images have 15 layers of super imposition. 

Here’s a snapshot of paintings at the Bhimbetka site in different periods:
Time Duration
Palaeolithic( Old stone age)
Since our ancestors started using stone tools to around 10000 BC
These are linear representations, in green and dark red, of huge figures of animals such as bison, tigers and rhinoceroses.
Mesolithic( Middle stone age)
around 10000 BC
Mainly images of the natural world and life of the hunter gatherers including scenes like hunting.
Neolithic( New stone age)
around 8000/7000 BC

around 3000 BC
Quite a few of the images in the site are from this period.
Early historical
3300 BC to 1300 BC
Most of the images are from this period. Red, white and yellow were the colours used. The paintings in this period are more refined and comprises of more elaborate scenes like royal processions, horse riding and battle scenes. This period represents the beginnings of known religion (Image of Natya Shiva).

More detailed information about the rock shelters:

Rock Shelter 1:
     Major excavation work was carried out in this cave between 1973 and 1976 and has paintings from historical period. On the upper ceiling, there are silhouetted paintings of two elephants. The smaller elephant is driven by a man holding a goad in one hand, a spear in the other and sword in his waist. And both elephants are shown with long uplifted tusks. Drawings of a horseman and a soldier are seen below.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 1 - Notice the two elephants on top and below the horseman and a soldier.
Rock Shelter 3 – Auditorium cave:
    This shelter is called the auditorium cave due to its shape. The paintings portray bulls, buffaloes, deer, a peacock, a tiger and the left hand of a child. Not sure how they classified the hand impression as that of a child as it seemed to be almost as large as my hand!

Bhimbetka shelter 3 - Auditorium Cave. Notice the image of hand of a prehistoric child in the bottom.
    The cupules or cup shapes in the rocks that I mentioned above are found in this cave. These represent the art work of the now extinct Homo erectus who roamed these plains more than 100,000 years ago.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 3 - Auditorium Cave. The cup shape in front of the guys neck is called a cupule and is supposed to have been created by home erectus species more than 100,000 years ago.
Rock Shelter 4 – Zoo rock:
    This shelter is semi-circular in shape and popularly called “Zoo rock” because the paintings in this shelter comprise of more than 252 animals of 16 different species. Apart from the animal figures, there is also a depiction of a royal procession in dark ochre colour. The horsemen are shown with long hair and head dresses and armed with bows arrows and shields and are accompanied by drummers. Except a few that belong to Mesolithic age, most paintings belong to the Chalcolithic and Historical period.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 4 - Zoo Rock.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 4 - Zoo rock with more than 252 animals of 16 species.
Rock Shelter 6:
    Contains figures of dancing men and woman along with drummers perhaps indicating that music and dance were integral to their lives.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 6 - Time for song and dance
Rock Shelter 7:
    Most of the paintings in this rock-shelter are from the historical period and you can see figures of swordsmen carrying spears and riding horses.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 7 - Warriors on horses
Rock Shelter 9:
    Various colours used in different periods are on display here. I initially thought that I had finally found evidence of aliens in the paintings but they turned out to be yellow paintings of flower pots and buds. Additionally there is an elegant figure of a horse and also an image of an elephant being stalked by a shrouded human figure.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 9 - Elephant followed by shrouded man.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 9 - Elegant Horse on right. Yellow dots and aliens on left. Actually flower pots and buds.
Rock Shelter 10:
    It is said that in the early historic eras, the first Gods appeared. Here in the desolate rock shelters, you will find the very beginnings of known religion. The painting of a man holding a trident-like staff and dancing has been christened as “Nataraj” by Dr. Wakankar. Most of the paintings in this shelter have eroded due to rain.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 10 - The Nataraj bearing trishul. Probably the beginning on known religion.
Rock shelter 11:
    Pigments used for preservation by the ASI (Archeological Survey of India) in this rock shelter had an adverse effect on the paintings. The ASI had coated a layer of wax in this shelter to protect the paintings from the rain, but the chemicals seemed to have caused an adverse effect on the paintings causing blackening of pictures that survived thousands of years.

Bhimbetka Rock Sheltor 11 - Warriors with shields and swords
Rock shelter 12:
    This shelter contains paintings of Carcasses and X-ray figures - mainly the bones of animals. Probably done by a witch doctor from those times!

Bhimbetka Rock Sheltor 12 - Hunting scene
Rock Shelter 15 – Boar Rock:
    The boar rock is mushroom shaped and has the painting of a gigantic boar with two crescent shaped horns chasing scrawny human running for his life. Clearly humour and sarcasm was also part of their lives.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelter 15 - Mythical large size boar chasing scrawny human.
    Over time, the hunter gatherers became farmers and the shelters lay forgotten until they were discovered by Dr. Vishnu Sridhar Wakankar in 1958. He was bestowed with the Padmashree by the Government of India for this discovery.

    Ajay and I walked back to the highway from the caves. We learnt that buses do not stop at Bhimbetka and climbed up a sand lorry to travel to the nearest town of Obaidullagunj to catch a bus to Bhopal. On reaching Bhopal, we visited Bharat Bhavan, a multi art centre with verbal, visual and performing arts. It provides space for contemporary expression, thought, quest and innovation. We found thought provoking masks, creative photos and lasting works of art created in towns, villages and forests. A must visit for any traveler to Bhopal.

    Later we had a quick lunch at Bharat Bhavan canteen and rushed back to the hotel room to freshen up and catch our train to Hyderabad. Our journey was at end and I realized that even though we had spent four days in Madhya Pradesh, it was really not enough. It might actually take months of traveling to really understand and appreciate the culture and history of India. The word “Bhimbetka” is said to have been derived from Bhimbaithika, or the seat of Bhima- one of the five Pandavas of the epic Mahabharata. Bhimbetka may no longer be the seat of Bhima, but it is definitely the seat of ancient South Asian history.

More blogs for further info on Bhimbetka and Bharat Bhavan:click here, here, here and here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sanchi Stupas - Buddhism's holy grail

    “You guys are obsessed” remarked an Aussie lady in Sanchi on learning our travel schedule. In three days of travelling in Madhya Pradesh, my friend Ajay and I had experienced various highs and lows. We spent mornings visiting UNESCO world heritage sites and historical forts, amazed at the cultural and historical riches of Madhya Pradesh and spent the night traveling from one place to another in trains. Consequently sleep was a luxury; we slept wherever and whenever we had a chance- in trains, waiting rooms and crowded platforms and had hardly seen the back of a hotel in three days. We ate at road-side stalls when we had to hurry but splurged on Biriyani in the Lalit Hotel when we had time to spare. We cycled at times, walked miles sometimes and once also ended up in the back side of a sand lorry with the wind billowing onto our faces as we sat on the tarpaulin sheets covering the sand. We were on a wild ride exploring the hinterlands of India and enjoying every moment of it.
Main Stupa or Stupa No. 1 at Sanchi
    In 3rd century B.C, more than 300 years after the birth of Buddha, the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka laid of the foundations for a Buddhist establishment in a place named Vedisagiri around 10km from the flourishing town of Vidisha. This place also came to be known as Sanchi. He erected a stone pillar (later to become the famous Ashoka Pillar) and a brick stupa. The empires that came later – the Sunga (2nd century B.C) and the Satvahanas (1st century B.C) made significant contributions to the main stupa by building additional stupas, temples for Buddha and erecting the four world famous gateways made of sandstone at the four entrances to the stupa. In its heydays, Buddhism enjoyed the patronage of four empires - Mauryan, Shungas, Satvayanas and the Guptas. Work continued on Sanchi till the 12th century A.D. after which it was abandoned.
    The stupas are meant to contain the relics of Buddha and are probably the most important Buddhist monuments currently standing, the holy grail of Buddhism. Two hundred years ago the British wanted to cart the Sanchi gateways to UK ostensibly to protect them and even the French emperor Napolean wished to possess one of the gateways. Thankfully the stupas remain where they were meant to be and not in some art collector's private gallery.
Stupa 1 - Northern Gateway
    We arrived at the Vidisha (around 10 kms from Sanchi) Railway station from Jhansi at around 4:30 am in the morning. Our plan was to present the 3rd AC ticket that was had used a few days ago at the AC waiting room, hope the attendant lets us through after failing to check the date of travel and get some sleep before heading out to Sanchi in the morning. But the railways played a cruel joke on us – there was no waiting room at Videsha. Clearly Vidisha is no longer the rich and flourishing city that it was at Ashoka’s time. We unrolled our sleeping bags and slept on the platform; becoming one among the nameless, homeless people sleeping in railway station platforms. We woke up at 6.30 am, took a bus to Sanchi and had breakfast at the MPSTDC centre there after waking up the cooks. We then walked up the hill to reach the stupas and hired the audio guides on offer to learn more about the known beginnings of Indian History and architecture at Sanchi.

    The stupas are a product of the Hinayana system of Buddhism where Buddha was never portrayed in sculptures and paintings. A casual visitor may scour all the sculptures in the gateways, not find a single image of Buddha in it and wonder how the gateways qualify as Buddhist. Actually certain items on the gateways indicate a milestone in Buddha’s life and thereby symbolize his presence – a lotus flower (birth), a rider-less horse (renunciation), the Bodhi tree (enlightenment), a pair of slippers (first step after enlightenment), a wheel (first sermon at Sarnath) or an empty throne (nirvana). Etched on the gateways you will find various stories from the Jataka tales – stories from the earlier lives of Buddha as a Bodhisattva searching for enlightenment. Interestingly Gods of the Hindu Pantheon are also sculpted - Laxmi the Goddess of wealth, Indra the ruler of the heavens and Brahma the creator.
Northern Gateway - Jataka tale of Vasantara reiterating importance of sacrifice. From left Vasantara is shown leaving palace with children, then staying in a hermit after giving away both his children.
Stupa 1:
    This is one of the oldest stupas in India and 36.5 m in diameter and 16.4 m high with a hemispherical dome. Work on the stupas went on well into the 12th century A.D. The entrance to the stupas is through four magnificently carved gateways or torans. These torans are one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in India. The four torans probably represent the four noble truths of Buddhism which talk about reason for pain and suffering and how to avoid it.

Northern Gateway:
    This best preserved of the gateways present an insight into the life and architecture of the Sunga Period. The inscriptions on the torans indicate that the carvings are donations of the people of Vidisha, not just the kings. There is an arc on the top of the gateway with a yaksa has (Demigod) to the right. The circular ring like structures are meant to indicate rolled up scrolls. The three rows on the gateway are filled with Jataka tales. The story of bodhisattva vasantara is one of selfless generosity – He gives up all his riches, his kingdom and children and finally his wife. In the back side of the row, the story continues – finally the Gods relent on seeing Vasantara’s sacrifice and the family is reunited. 
Evil Mara tries to end Buddha's Penance. Buddha is represented through the Bodhi tree on left.
    The middle architrave tells the story of how Buddha overcame temptation in the final moments of his penance when the evil Mara gets desperate and sends his own daughters to tempt the ascetic. Buddha attains enlightenment and Mara’s evil army disperses in confusion.
Monkeys giving bowl of honey to Buddha. Buddha is represented here as Bodhi tree on left
Eastern Gateway:
    The pillar on this gate depicts the great departure of Prince Gautama in search of enlightenment. The Gods are shown to be helping the young prince in escaping the city of Kapilavastu. There are also depictions of King Ashoka visiting the Bodhisattva tree. There is also a statue of "shalabhanjika" who depicts the fertility and abundance of the world of nature. This is a Hindu motif that seems to have been adopted by Buddhism.
Stupa 1 - Eastern Toran

Stupa 1 - Eastern Gateway - The great departure. Buddha is represented by a riderless horse.
Eastern Gateway - Scene depicting Buddha's birth. Top frame - His mother dreams of a white elephant that enters her womb.
Eastern gateway - On left, the Kashyapa brothers warning buddha about 5 headed cobra. On the right, the brothers are paying obeisance after they see the cobra protect Buddha instead of harming him.
    Ashoka once dispersed a series of columns across North India with his edicts. The pillars at Sanchi were once 40 feet high but currently it stands broken. The audio guide tells us the story of how an iron monger once brought down these majestic pillars with great difficulty so that he could use them at his workplace!! The museum of Sanchi houses the crown of the pillars which was adopted as the emblem of India – four lions standing back to back. The words Satyameva Jayate from Mundaka Upanishad, meaning ‘Truth Alone Triumphs’, are inscribed below in Devanagari script.
Eastern Gateway - Shalabhanjika depicting fertility or abundance in nature.
Eastern Gateway - Buddha walking on water.
    Everybody knows that Christ is supposed to have walked on water; the stories in this gateway tell us that Buddha had done the same as well. Walking on water seems to be a touchstone that separates prophets from Gods!

 Southern Gateway:
    This was once the main entrance to the Stupa. When the Stupas were rediscovered by the British, treasure hunters and amateur grave diggers came in troves to find hidden treasure and almost destroyed the Stupas. This has a representation of scenes from the life of Ashoka and Buddha's Birth.
Southern Gateway - There are no sculptures below the four headed lions due to amateur conservation effort undertaken when the stupas were rediscovered.
Top - A despondent Ashoka find out that his favorite Bodhi tree is dead. Below Indra and other Gods taking away a lock of Buddha's hair.

Western Gateway:
    The western portion of the stupa had collapsed in 1822 during to the treasure-hunting by the British but restored 60 years later. It houses a few masterpieces - The first sermon symbolized by wheel preaches that ignorance is the root of all evil and it is called the Dharmachakra Pravarchan. 

Western Gateway - First sermon at Sarnath. Buddha is represented by the wheel. Notice the deer on either side to show that this happened in a deer park.
    This gate is famous for depiction for the first sermon of Buddha at the deer park at Sarnath. The six incarnations before becoming the Buddha is called the Manushi Buddha. The architrave is supported by pot-bellied dwarfs showing various emotions like anger, duty, pain and joy as the weight of the torans bear down on them.
Western Gateway - Story of the Monkey King. The top frame shows the monkey king making a bridge across the river.
    There is also a story of a monkey king Bodhisattva whose clan is attacked by a human king. The monkey king makes a bridge between two trees allowing his subjects to cross the river and escape but perishes in the effort. The importance of sacrifice is a motif that is mentioned many a times in the stupas.
    Also finding mention many a times is the theme that devotion to God is always rewarded. One such story is that of Sama, a devoted son of his blind parents being shot down by a king who mistook him for an animal. The King regrets and prays to the Gods who bestow
the gift of vision to the blind parents.
Western Gateway - Story of Sama. On left frame king fires arrow that kills Sama. On right the blind parents.
     The Western Gateway also depicts the story of a Bodhisattva who was a royal six tusked white elephant. His jealous younger wife feels left out, vows to be reborn a princess so that she could kill him, pines away and dies. She is reborn in human form and becomes the Queen of Varanasi. The Queen sends men to kill and get back the tusks of the six tusked white elephant. The hunters wound the elephant but find it difficult to remove his tusks. The Bodhisattva elephant obliges by removing his own tusks and presenting them to the queen who realizes her folly and perishes in grief this time... The cave paintings in Ajanta have a beautiful painting of the entire Matropaksha Jakata - here

Temple 17:
    This was built in the beginning of the Gupta period around the 5th century A.D. and consists of a flat-roofed square sanctum and a portico supported by four pillars. This is remarkable for its structural propriety and symmetrical proportions.
Remains of Temple No. 17 from Gupta period.
Temple 18:
    This is the remains of temple or stupa. Does not look special now, but in those times it was a paradigm shift in temple building and most of the Temples in India now are built in this style.
Temple No. 18
Temple 45:
    This is a temple of the medieval period and stands on the ruins of an earlier seventh century structure. Still has a glorious image of Buddha with images of River Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna on the door indicating that Buddhists adopted established Brahminical motifs over time. The statue shows Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment.
Temple No. 45 in the background.
Stupa 2 and Stupa 3:
    The second stupa stands at the very edge of the hill and its most striking feature is the stone balustrade that rings it. The third stupa once contained the relics of Buddha’s disciples Sariputta and Mahamogallena. This stupa was reconstructed brick by brick after it was destroyed by treasure hunters.The relics that the treasure hunters found were taken to London but were returned after India became independent and are now housed in the monastery in front of the Sanchi Stupas. If only the British would return the Kohinoor diamonds this easily!
Ajay in front of stupa no. 3
    On the path to enlightenment Buddha says – “It is better to travel well than to arrive”.  Ajay and I headed back to Bhopal with the satisfaction that we had traveled well and walked the path once taken by giants.

P.S. For more info Sanchi stupas and the gateways: