Sunday, September 27, 2015

Festivals & More

This time of year, the festivals just keep on coming. Today is the last day of the big Ganesha festival. Most of the smaller Ganeshas have already been immersed, but the big ones go today. Each Ganesha requires at least three trucks to get to the immersion site: One to carry Ganesha, one to carry women and children, and one to carry the sound system. (Men get to walk.)

Men walk behind the Ganesha truck. Lots of pink dye is flung around -- the streets are pink. (So are the men.)
A shop in Vapi that makes idols, clearly preparing for next month's Durga festival (Navratri / Durga Puja / Dussera). You can see that the statue is built around a base of straw and mud. After the sculpting, it is painted, clothed, and ornamented.
A closer view of a straw and mud base form. Last February I saw a lot of these floating down the Ganga -- the remains after the clay part of the idol has disintegrated.
On to other matters of the day.

I guess it depends upon your perspective as to whether this cow is pruning low branches or spoiling the landscaping.
During and immediately after monsoon, green grows everywhere -- including the wall of this "chawl" (traditional lower-class housing).

Friday, September 25, 2015

Thoughts on Religious Tolerance

Today is the Muslim holy day, "Eid ul-Adha", literally "The Feast of the Sacrifice". Locally it is more commonly called "Bakri Eid" (Goat Eid). In remembrance of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in obeisance to God, and God's last-minute substitution of a lamb, Muslims sacrifice animals, mostly goats, and share the meat with family, friends, and the needy. This is one of the most contentious days in Hindu-Muslim relations: the slaughter of animals is particularly loathsome to many Hindus.

Goats tied up outside an apartment block in preparation for Eid.
So that leads me a bit further afield on religion...

It's striking how much religious fundamentalism and intolerance is a 20th Century (and, unfortunately, 21st Century) phenomenon.

Traveling around India, it's clear that Hindus and Muslims (and to a lesser extent, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews, not to mention Parsis, Jains, and Sikhs) co-existed in relative peace in the past. Some Mughal kings/emperors even had both Muslim and Hindu wives. Most major Mughal forts included both mosques and temples (e.g. Golconda, Daulatabad).

Since most of the artisans have been Hindus, there is a lot of Hindu-inspired artwork in Muslim structures. Since there were also Muslim architects, designers, and craftsmen, there are plenty of Hindu temples with Islamic structural elements and decor. No one really seemed to mind much until recently.

The cave temple complexes were similarly tolerant. Although each group made separate caves, many sites have Buddhist, Hindu, and/or Jain caves, with overlapping construction timelines. The earliest caves are Buddhist -- they developed the ideas and techniques required to carve caves into cliffs. Hindus and Jains then copied and elaborated these ideas. Here are links to my posts on cave temples.
    Ellora (Buddhist, Hindu, Jain)
    Elephanta (Buddhist, Hindu)
    Badami (Hindu, Jain)
    Karla (Buddhist)
    Kanheri 1, Kanheri 2 (Buddhist)
We hope to make it to Ajanta before leaving India.

Just take a look at a few of the symbols that are used throughout India. The six-pointed star is used on many Muslim monuments -- and it certainly resembles the Jewish Star of David.

6-point stars at Humayan's Tomb (left) and Fatehpur Sikri (right).

The most notorious symbol is the swastika -- which is a symbol of welcome and good luck and is found everywhere in India.

The most common depiction of the swastika in India has an extra "twist" at the end of each arm, and dots in the middle. It is usually painted in red, and commonly found on temples, trucks, homes, shops, … anywhere and everywhere.
Two swastika patterns from ceilings in Badami caves.
I walked past this gate in Vapi many times before I noticed the swastika pattern on it. It's even more apparent when you ask Photoshop to "Find Edges".
The Nazis co-opted the swastika in their misbegotten ideas of the "Aryan" race, and ever since, in the West it has become the symbol of ultimate evil.

I love this panel from Agra Fort where the design incorporates the 6-pointed star, swastika, and cross -- how's that for religious tolerance?

A decorative panel from Agra Fort uniting the 6-point star, swastika, and cross in its design.
Just in case it isn't obvious in the first photo: the 6-point star, swastika, and cross are highlighted.

The Partition of 1947, where Muslims went to Pakistan/Bangladesh and Hindus went to India was one of the bloodiest periods in Indian history. The separation was almost entirely driven by politics, not sentiment (much less logic). But once it was set, the resulting distrust and hatred continues, and to this day violence erupts from time-to-time.

In my opinion, fundamentalism is the root of most, if not all, of the problems. Fundamentalist Christians wish to return to the 19th Century, fundamentalist Muslims prefer the 10th Century, fundamentalist Jews also want to return to pre-Middle Ages, and fundamentalist Hindus might be able to live with the early 20th Century, but probably wish to return to the time before the Mughals. All are highly misogynistic, patriarchal, and narrow-minded. Hindu fundamentalism is truly ironic, since Hinduism is open to including all gods in its pantheon: the Buddha is considered an avatar of Vishnu, and even Jesus can be worked in.

Problems arise when political differences become moral differences. When it's just a difference of two considered opinions, compromise and accommodation is possible. But when one or both sides feel that their God is threatened -- that the opposition is not just wrong, but morally evil -- then compromise and tolerance are not possible. It has become an all-or-nothing world, and unfortunately, "nothing" is the winner.

Can't we just respect our differences and let live?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tree of Life

Sometimes it's good to go back and thumb through old photos. While looking for photos of Agra Fort, I came across this photo I took last September in the Oberoi Hotel, New Delhi:

Lobby, Oberoi Hotel, New Delhi

At the time I just thought it was a beautiful design. But it triggered my recent memory. Here's a photo I took in Ahmedabad last month:

Jaali, Sidi Sayid Masjid, Ahmedabad

This jaali (stone lattice screen used to block the view and filter sunlight) has become the symbol of Ahmedabad. I'm sure the Oberoi's use of it in their decor is a direct reference, although I can find no connection between Oberoi and Ahmedabad.

The design is known as the "Tree of Life" and is a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). In addition to a source of food that keeps for a long time (years, even), the date also provides wood for construction and fronds that are used to make baskets and ropes. It even has medicinal uses.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Ganesha, Ganesha, Cow

Forget "Duck, Duck, Goose", it's Ganpati, and it seems there are two Ganeshas for every cow on the street. (That's a lot of Ganeshas!)


Temporary pavilions ("pandals") for Ganesha are set up everywhere: in the bazaar, in housing complexes, in empty lots, tucked into any spare corner.

In the parking area of an apartment block. I'm not sure why the "snowy" scene, but you can see a relatively small Ganesha sitting in the middle.
Most of the pandals have some sort of gateway. This one is on the Gunjan bazaar in Vapi. Monsoon resumed in force on Friday, so these bamboo and fabric structures are getting soaked.
A look inside the pandal.

Today many people were having open houses for friends and family to drop by and share "darshan" and/or "aarti" with their Ganesha. "Darshan" is quite literally to see the god and to be seen by the god -- to let the god know that you are keeping him/her in your thoughts. "Aarti" is the ceremony/ritual where an oil lamp is rotated clockwise in front of the god, accompanied by music -- singing and percussion (bells, drums, claps). Whether at home or on the street, Ganesha songs are played all day long -- much like the continuous soundtrack of Christmas carols back home.

Ganesha is offered all sorts of fruits and sweets. He is usually adorned to point of being nearly completely covered up.
Ganesha displays take up a considerable portion of the typically small Indian flat -- much the way a Christmas tree can take over a house during Christmas.
The more the merrier.
Most of the Ganeshas will be "immersed" tomorrow, the fifth day after Ganesh Chaturthi. (In Pune and Mumbai, the festivities will continue for another five days.) Festivals are traditionally ended by returning the idol to the earth by immersing them in the nearest body of water: river, lake, or ocean. The statues are made of unfired clay, so they disintegrate in water, and these days, environmentally friendly paints and biodegradable adornments are preferred.


I promised cows, too, so here are this week's bovines.

As I mentioned above, monsoon has been very active for the last three days, and the cows have taken refuge under the flyovers.
I saw two new-born calves this week.
Thursday was a big Hindu holiday, Ganesh Chaturthi. Friday was a major religious holiday for Jains -- the day set aside for asking forgiveness, wiping the slate clean for the next year. This bullock, one of two, was tied up outside the Jain temple awaiting the time to pull a cart for a procession. I can't imagine the neck muscles required to hold up a head with those horns!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ruminating on Ruins

Shiva temple ruins at Naranag, Kashmir, India

What is it about ruins, especially centuries-old ruins, that is so irresistible? Is it because they remind us of the ephemerality of human life and civilizations? Is it the incredible workmanship in stone of ancient civilizations? (It's always stone, because wood, thatch, and fabrics decay too fast.) Is it the clash of the ancient and the modern? Is it because our modern civilization seems so shallow when seen next to millennia-old survivors?

Timelessness: Woman cleaning pots at the spring in the tank of an 8th-Century Shiva temple. Naranag, Kashmir, India.
Clash of civilizations: 20th-21st Century Connaught Place, New Delhi surrounds the 14th Century Agrasen ki Baoli.

Two books to recommend:
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, 2007. (non-fiction)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. 2014. (fiction)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Dehli Madness

Thursday, 10 September 2015

We spent a half-day in Delhi on our way from Leh to Mumbai. Mostly shopping. Madness it is -- TII ("This is India").

This is what happens to a water bottle when it goes from an altitude of 12,000 ft in Leh to 700 ft in Delhi. 
It's not a good sign when the ATM "reboots" after you account is debited but before you receive your cash.
This sign was all over the Delhi airport. I didn't know there were separate washing machines for men and women.

This isn't from Delhi, it's from Diskit, but it's definitely fully "TII".

What do you do when you need two electrical outlets, but only have one? Strip the wires from a plug and just stick them into the outlet along with the other plug.

Wari La

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Our return to Leh from Diskit took us over an alternative pass -- the Wari La. This pass, at about 17,200 ft, was almost as high as Khardung La. The road was not in as good a shape, but with almost no traffic, it was a far more pleasant drive. We also got a chance to see more wildlife than on the Khardung La road. (See previous post.)

It's long past time that I should recognize our fantastic, fearless drivers with nerves of steel. Second from right is our guide, Rinchen. The other six drove our Toyota Innovas.
A major flash flood occurred in Ladakh in August 2015. While the roads have been re-opened, we still spent a lot of time going over barely passable wash-outs and landslides. This small area near Khalsar was filled with rocks and debris that washed down the mountain. You can see that the debris filled this house about 3 feet deep. Fortunately, this was a market area that was empty when the flood hit in the middle of the night.
Another view of the flood area. The top of the photo is an army camp that was above the flood damage, but you can see flooded and destroyed structures in the bottom half of the photo.
This view of a road-cut shows the type of "rock" that fills the valleys. It's not so much solid rock as unsorted sediment that has washed down the mountains. Crumbly and highly erodible, I'm surprised there aren't more problems with roads than there is. I guess the dry desert climate helps.
More evidence of road problems: a small landslide and road collapse. Clearly the caution sign doesn't do much good anymore!
We turned off the "main" road at Agham village to start our climb to the Wari La. This is the village of Tangyar. It has a small monastery at the top of the hill.
Although beautiful, the people of Tangyar have a subsistence living. They farm a few fields and raise some livestock.
Of course, some people do have amenities. This house has the usual hay and prayer flags on the roof, along with a satellite dish and a solar panel for power.
A Tangyar resident and Rinchen help Madeline cross a rickety bridge.
At Tangyar we met two women cyclists from Barcelona, Spain. They were going to hire ponies in Tangyar to carry their gear, while they pushed their bikes along a trekking route. We came across two more cyclists bicycling up the pass. Lakakh is trying to brand itself as an adventure sports destination.
We had the road and the landscape mostly to ourselves.
Almost at the pass: Looking back down the valley towards the Shayok River.
Looking down the road towards the Indus River. The village of Serthi is at the bottom of the road. We joined the main road into Leh at Karu -- very near Hemis Gonpa.
Chemrey Gonpa -- just past Serthi
Stakna Gonpa on the banks of the Indus.
It's our last night in Ladakh. Tomorrow morning we fly from Leh to Delhi, and then back to Mumbai.

Nubra Valley Animals

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

On our way from Diskit back to Leh over the Wari La, we saw a number of interesting animals -- both domestic and wild.

About 350 Bactrian (2-humped) camels live in the Nubra Valley, left over from the former Silk Road trade.
Yaks (pronounced "yuks" are common in the higher pastures. Most were all black, but about 20% had the white stripe from their forehead through their tail.
Marmots were quite common, but shy and difficult to get in a photo. We were surprised to see that they were golden brown rather than the darker ones I've seen in North America.
We came across a small herd of about 8 blue sheep ("bharal"). We were assured that where there is so many sheep, an elusive snow leopard can't be far away.
We also saw a large group of bearded vultures (also called lammergeiers) hopping around on a steep slope.
More of the vultures.
As we watched, one of the vultures took flight.
Lammergeiers are easy to identify in flight because of their unique tail shape.