Just Look at Ghat!

Ouch! Probably my worst title yet!

I can’t help it…I’ve not been well…

…well, only a cold, but you know what we men are like.

In another attempt to feel instantly better, I’ve nipped across to North India (only in my imagination, unfortunately), to picture Kedar Ghat, on the banks of the Ganges, in Varanasi.

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Ghats, a Hindi word, are sets of steps leading down to a river (and also mountain ranges or passes – The eastern and Western Ghats in Central India). It has also come to mean a level place at the edge of a river where Hindus cremate their dead.

In Varanasi, there are between 84 and 87 ghats, depending upon who you get this information from,. The Manikarnika Ghat, or Ghats (possibly this is the origin of the confusion over the number) is the ‘burning ghat’, where cremations are carried out 24 hours a day, all through the year. The source fire there has supposedly been burning for thousands of years, but photography is actively discouraged, hence my only shot is one taken from a distance.

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Of course, the ghats are also used for bathing. Hindus bathe en masse there, as a dip in the Ganges is meant to wash away sins. Important pujas (ceremonies) take place at sunrise and sunset. Boat trips to view the ghats are very popular, and finally much of the city’s laundry gets done at the dhobi ghats (dhobi meaning laundry).

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Namaste!

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Southern India (3)

It’s been a busy week again. I don’t seem to have managed to write anything, take any photographs, or even think about drawing or painting.

The news? I try to avoid it.

And to top it all, I have a cold and I feel bleurgh.

It’s at times like this I usually travel somewhere exotic in my head.

So, a few more photographs from Southern India, then.

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Ganesh Temple, Kodaikanal. Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of prosperity, is one of the most popular gods in the Hindu pantheon and worshipped widely throughout India. This shrine is by the lake in Kodaikanal, a hill-station in the Palani Hills northwest of Madurai.

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View of the lake at Kodaikanal. Besides the better known hill stations of Northern India, there are quite a number further south, of which Kodaikanal is just one example, although unique in having been originally started by American missionaries in the 1840’s.

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Raj-era bungalows in Kodaikanal. These are on a ‘prime-site’ location overlooking the lake.

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Madurai skyline. The Sri Meenakshi Temple complex, dedicated to Shiva and his wife, Sati, dominates the skyline of the old city. Often called ‘The Heart of Tamil Country’, Madurai attracts up to 10,000 pildrims and tourists on any one day. This picture was taken from the Rooftop Restaurant Terrace at the Hotel Supreme, where we sat with a beer and watched a long procession of tourists wander across the roof to take the same shot.

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Entrance to the Sri Meenakshi Temple complex, Madurai. 12 huge gopuram towers, each between 45 and 50 metres in height, are carved in highly elaborate designs featuring gods, people, animals and mythical creatures which are then brightly painted. The whole effect is more like an enormous and eccentricly iced cake, or at least plaster-work. The whole of the temple seethes with pilgrims, tourists, trinket sellers and guides. And touts, who basically cover the last two categories.

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Carved statue of Nataraja, Madurai Temple complex. I am unfamiliar with this particular god, but I like the carving!

Southern India (2)

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Another shot of the skyline of Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Trichy.

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Decorated door in the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple.The scorch marks at the foot of the door are from candles and incense sticks, which have been lit and offered to the god in pujas.

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Shore Temple, Mamallapuram. Mamallapuram is a short way South of Chennai (Madras) and is a large village which is home to hundreds of stone sculptors. The village itself has a wealth of old temples and sculptures in the form of friezes and ‘Rathas’ – literally chariots, carved out of solid rock. The Shore Temple shown here has been extensively weathered by wind and sea, but has a remarkable amount of detail still preserved.

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Carved Elephant at the 5 Rathas, Mamallapuram. An incredible complex of rock-cut temples from the Pallavan Period, 300m from the shore. They were buried under the sand until rediscovered and excavated by the British some 200 years ago.

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Sometimes it seems that there is a temple down every side-street. This one is in a village near the town of Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.

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This roof shrine is nearby.

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Salt workers pose for a photograph at the salt pans near Marakkanam, just north of Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherry, its original name before the French arrived). The sea is allowed to flow into ‘pans’ (not unlike paddy fields!) and then evaporates over several days under the hot sun, leaving behind a layer of salt which is gathered by hand. Salt has been gathered this way in India from time immemorial, but when the British in India imposed a salt tax, this eventually led to the ‘Salt March’ led by Gandhi, where he symbolically gathered salt at the coast after a 200km march, an action that contributed to the loosening of the hold that the British Raj held on India.

Southern India (1)

Southern India differs from the north in several respects. The first difference that the visitor tends to notice, once they have got away from the typical Indian maelstrom of airport, traffic, city centre, etc, is that with the less densely concentrated population comes a somewhat more laid-back atmosphere and attitude than in the north. The hassles and pressures, the touts, are still there, but seem somehow less intense.

The second real difference is in the culture. Southern India was never really assimilated into the Mogul empire, and only ever partly conquered, so there is a huge wealth of Hindu architecture and a proportional lack of Islamic, with next to no Buddhist remains and no continuing tradition of Buddhism at all. At times, it seems as though the visitor has entered a different country, but India has a way of reasserting itself on the senses…

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Stall outside Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), Tamil Nadu State. All over India, amongst the heat, dust and drabness that pervades the majority of the population’s day to day life, one finds colour.

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Garland seller outside Rock Fort Temple complex, Trichy. The garlands will be used to decorate statues of gods during pujas (ceremonies) conducted in the Temples.

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Rock Fort temple, Trichy.  A view of the main temple from the pathway that leads to the tiny temple at the top of the rock. Non Hindus are not allowed into the main temple, dedicated to Shiva, or the temple at the top dedicated to Ganesh…although for a small donation, the priest is willing to waive this rule…

From my journal:

‘The trip is not particularly uncomfortable. It is a typical five hour trip through India – dust, buffaloes, half a dozen schoolchildren stuffed into an autorickshaw, wait-till-the-other-guy-blinks over-taking, temples large, medium and small, huge dry river beds, The Cauvery full of water, trees, strange crops, broken down trucks, train lines stretching arrow-straight into the distance, rows and rows of stalls with neat piles of fruit and vegetables, rows of hanging water bottles from the roof, biscuits, samozas, cigarettes and crisps, a child squatting in the dirt, mum feeding the family beneath the tree, Tiffin Ready signs, smart petrol stations, mud huts, cement buildings, palm shacks, huge residences surrounded by high walls – all concrete, police traffic blocks (ignored), it all blurs into one.’

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Part of Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple complex. This is the largest of all temple complexes in India, covering a staggering 60 hectares, and is dedicated to Vishnu. The Gopuram (tower) on the left is painted white, as a symbol of purity, and is one of the buildings that non-hindus are not permitted to enter.

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The White gopuram, in all its glory.

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Pillar in Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, liberally decorated with coloured powders and with offerings of incense, rice and flowers. Devotees of the god concerned will conduct their own personal pujas to ensure health and prosperity, or perhaps for some more specific purpose, such as to request the birth of a son or success in a particular undertaking. Although this temple is dedicated to Vishnu, other gods are represented there and prayed to.

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Another, nearby, pillar in the same temple. Although in the same temple and close to the pillar in the previous picture, this shrine will be to another, different, god. Its use, however, will be the same.

Monsoon

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Monsoon – 18ins x 24ins , Acrylic on board.

I painted this a long time ago.

Although I have been caught up in a few very heavy downpours in India, I have never been there during the monsoon. And I was reminded of that a day or two ago while having an online conversation with another blogger.

It is something that I would like to experience, sometime. In India, it is an exciting, a very welcome time – after the temperature has been steadily climbing for months, and everywhere is dry and parched, the rains finally arrive to cool the air, and the earth bursts into life.

Everyone rejoices!

But westerners avoid it. Why go to India during the monsoon, just to get wet? is the general feeling.

Yet I have a yearning to witness it, and to use it in my writing, too. To write…take photos…paint…

And just to experience it!

Ladakh 3

 

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The Wheel of Life, Tibetan Buddhist wall painting, Thikse Gompa. The Wheel represents the cycle of being, the various realms of existence, and the three poisons (desire, ignorance and hatred).

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View of the Stok Mountains, Part of the Himalaya Range, above farms and poplars on the edge of Leh, Ladakh.

From my diary, Friday 15th April 2005:

Outside, my hosts are planting their potatoes, today. It’s been fascinating watching over the last week, as they’ve dug over the whole vegetable garden (about an acre), then divided it up into a total of about fifty smallish and four large plots, all neatly divided with earth walls, between which are carefully dug channels to the stream that runs along the side.

Then, over the last couple of days, half of the plots have had compost dug in and the channels opened one by one to flood each plot for a set time, then closed and the water allowed to soak into the earth.

The first of the large plots is now being planted with potatoes, presumably saved from last year’s crop, and some more digging is commencing at the far end of the garden, where so far there are no small plots.

I’ve just noticed what’s happening at the far end of the garden. It’s going to be one huge potato patch. Dad is digging, Mum is planting, whilst Granny is sorting the potatoes ready for planting. The little girl is happily employed in making mud-pies, like small children anywhere in the world under these circumstances!

 

The monastery at Thikse, Ladakh. Virtually the whole of the hill is covered in buildings belonging to the monastery, whilst the Gompa or temple crowns the top. Founded in the fifteenth century by monks of the Gelugpa, or ‘yellow hat’ school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lamas belong.

Wednesday 13th April 2005:

12.45 and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable. Where else in India would you find that they don’t bother charging anyone for just going a couple of stops, or that they’d wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread? All along here, passed all this desert scenery, so similar to Oman. And so many fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like hanging precariously to the tops of cliffs. 

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Building at Thikse Gompa.

If it is so beautiful now, in winter, then what must it be like in the other seasons? I’d dearly love to come back to see! And after all the heat, dust and pollution in Delhi, well, need I say more? I’ve not even been asked once for baksheesh, either. 

Mandala painted onto roof of entrance to Shanti Stupa, Leh. The Shanti Stupa, or Japanese Peace Pagoda, is one of more than 70 built around the world by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji Organisation, which was run by Fujii Guruji. They were built to promote world peace.

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The River Indus at Choglamsar . The Indus originates in Tibet, near Lake Mansarovar – a lake sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists – and after flowing through Northern Kashmir, including Ladakh, passes into, and flows the length of, Pakistan, to the Arabian Sea. So, ironically, the river that gave its name to the state of India, flows mainly through Pakistan.

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Trees on the edge of Leh. Trees are highly important to Ladakhis – they provide timber for building, fuel, food in the form of walnuts and apricots, and fodder for animals. In all of Ladakh, the only trees that grow are willow, poplar, walnut and apricot.

Indian Cookery – Ingredients

Those people who know me particularly well, may have noticed that I am partial to the occasional Indian meal.

But never more than, say, two or three times a week. Well, okay then, four. Or five. At least, not unless I’m actually in India.

I never thought that I would ever write a post on cookery, but I was thinking recently about the ingredients that have travelled to India from, especially, South and Central America since the Spanish first arrived there, and thought it might be fun to explore this a little.

The obvious ones, that have had a huge influence upon cooking in the sub-continent, are chillies, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes. I cannot imagine Indian cookery without them!

 

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Market stall in Kalimpong

Just think. There would be no Bombay aloo

No Aloo dum.

No tomato-based sauces.

No peppers!

Clearly, Indian cookery must have changed in a huge way since South America was first reached in the late fifteenth century.

So it could certainly be said that the Spanish are largely responsible for Indian cuisine as it is today!

Of course, this is also true for most other countries of the world, too. Where would European cookery be, for example, without potatoes or tomatoes?

It would be interesting to know whether either of my readers know what the staple Indian dishes (other than dal) would have been before their arrival.

I would also be interested to hear whether any part of India has retained more of the traditional ingredients and, perhaps, resisted assimilating the ‘newer’ ones. Certainly, pretty well all of the regional food that I’ve had seems to accommodate those imports.

Visit to Kashmir

I fell in love with Kashmir.

It was 1989, and I had come to India to have a closer look. A year before, I had flown to Delhi and the same day taken the bus to Kathmandu to go trekking in Nepal.

This meant that I had a lot of hours sitting and watching Northern India go past the windows of the bus, and this had piqued my interest and convinced me I should go and have a proper look.

So I arrived and, a couple of days later, took the bus up to Srinagar, a journey of 24 hours. In those days, I never kept a travel journal, which is something I regret now. It makes it difficult to piece together the details and leaves me, at best, with impressions and, of course, a number of photographs.

The photos, though, were taken on a cheap camera, and I did not take many.

But I had a week in Srinagar and although I did not venture far afield from there, I loved what I saw of the valley with its gardens, Lake Dal with its confusion of meandering paths through fields and grass, naturally, the houseboats on the lake and also the shakiras, the sampan-like boats used by the fishermen and the traders on the lake.

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Shakira on Lake Dal

I found a houseboat when I arrived, managing to resist ending up in a hotel in town that was being pressed on me by a fellow on the bus. I seem to remember I found my houseboat by going to the lake, hiring a shakira and asking the boatman to take me to the first of a long line of moored houseboats, where I asked if there was a room. I think at the second or third I struck lucky.

I keep trying to remember the name of my houseboat.

Occasionally, during their waking day, a dreamer will catch a glimpse, a snapshot – no, not even that; perhaps no more than a hint, a flavour of a previous night’s dream. Something akin to catching a scent on the breeze that is gone before it is even realised that it was there. That is the best way I can describe the teasing hint I may get of the name of that boat. I think ‘Ah, yes, it began with ‘S’…no, wait, it didn’t, but there was definitely an ‘S’ in it somewhere. Perhaps…’ then it has gone.

But it was my own floating palace for a week. A marvel of beautifully carved wood, a magnificent bedroom and living room all to myself, and a fellow who lived on board (not the owner, I gathered) who cooked my meals. When I wasn’t ashore exploring, I sat on the deck and read.

I remember the Shalimar Gardens, and that there were at least one or two more; masses of flowers, large lawns, trees…I wandered around there with the high mountains towering above us.

And, there was the beginning of the agitation. At that point, I knew next to nothing of India’s history or politics, and although I could detect the tensions, I was unaware of what they comprised. Once or twice, there were isolated gunshots in the distance, especially at night. ‘Bandits’, said my fellow on board, rather too casually. I came across a mass demonstration outside a mosque in town, with either the police or the army, I’ve no idea which, a very heavy presence. There was a lot of shouting, and the atmosphere was hostile enough for me to make myself scarce fairly quickly.

But I personally encountered nothing but politeness and good humour, and other than the underlying tensions, despite getting ripped off now and again in shops (it was Kashmir, and I was a tourist!), I felt comfortable and happy there. When I left the valley to return to Delhi and thence further afield, it was with the thought I would return again one day.

Regrettably, though, each time I have returned, it has not been considered a safe destination.

Perhaps, though…perhaps…one day…

The Kashmir Issue

I posted a little while back that I had prepared a rather contentious post.

This is it.

Of course, I realise I risk being shot down in flames over this post. An Englishman blogging on what he thinks might be the solution to an incredibly difficult problem in the Sub-continent. So I will put on my tin hat, duck behind the sandbags, and press ‘Publish’.

As always, I welcome your comments. In fact, it is probably pointless my posting this unless there is a conversation. But, please, keep it polite.

Obviously, I am not the only person to have thought of this idea. Indeed, I read about it a long time ago, when these various options were being discussed to the backdrop of bombs and bullets.

Plus ca change.

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I fear there is only one solution that is practical in the long term, but I strongly doubt that the governments of India or Pakistan would have the courage to implement it. For the whole of Kashmir to remain in Indian hands will mean a continuation of the devastating armed conflict in progress at present, with no prospect of it ever ending, plus the ever-present prospect of it escalating into something much more serious. But for it to pass entirely into Pakistani hands would be considered out of the question by the huge majority of the Indian population, and certainly by the whole of the political class.

No, the only prospect of peace that I see is for the state of Kashmir to be partitioned in much the same way as India herself was in 1947. The areas of Muslim majority such as the Vale of Kashmir would need to be ceded to Pakistan, and the remaining ones would remain part of India. Pakistan and the insurgents would need to agree to give up all claims to these areas. This would need to be achieved by negotiation in good faith with goodwill on both sides, both conscious of the risks and the monumental steps they are taking to finally establish permanent peace, and to restore prosperity to a troubled part of the sub-continent. And upon resolution, all parties would need to declare very publicly that this was a solution agreeable to all, and give it their blessing.

It is not as though there is no precedent to that arrangement. After all, both the Punjab and Bengal were divided this way at independence, and although it was strongly resented by some, it was also generally viewed as the only practical solution. And it is what should have happened to Kashmir, then.

If the difficulties in the way of this solution are huge, then so too are the incentives for success. It goes without saying that the loss of life and the devastation caused by the troubles are highly undesirable in the first place, and then there is the massive drain in resources to both sides by keeping huge forces established on either side of the border. With the prospect of peace, then agriculture, industry and tourism could return to normal with major benefits for everyone involved. Lastly, with the removal of the ‘Kashmir Issue’ as a friction between them, it is possible that both sides might finally come to the sort of mutual respect, collaboration, and friendship envisioned back in 1947. Even if the attempt were to end in failure, then the goodwill generated by the attempt could be a positive that might spill over into other areas of India / Pakistan relations.

The alternative solution, sometimes mooted, of an independent Kashmir under UN jurisdiction, appears an unworkable ideal. The state itself is too divided for this to work, and both Indian and Pakistani players would still covert the whole country. It is unlikely that conflict would cease under these conditions; it would be more likely to simply escalate. The small state would forever be reliant on the UN for security, leading to a constant financial drain on the organisation. The peacekeepers, too, would inevitably become military targets raising the risk of  new frictions arising.

I believe that the option of doing nothing is one that must be finally put aside. At present the situation is one where a resented and hated military presence governs within its own borders through fear and the threat of violence, That is not a situation that is likely to ever change to trust. The population are never going to learn to love their rulers that way. The only option in that situation is the eternal continuation of the status quo.

But it lies within the power of the regional players to solve this crisis once and for all, and it is essential that the attempt is made.

Save Naini Tal

A rather different post from me, today. This time I am requesting everyone’s help to save the lake in the Indian hill station town of Nainital.

I was alerted to this by fellow blogger Rajiv Chopra, who has the link to the petition on his Facebook page, but for those who have not seen it, the link is also here: Save Nainital

I have a special affection for Nainital, as I visited it in 2005 and only discovered afterwards that my father had also visited it during WWII when he was stationed in India. I have a couple of previous blog posts on Nainital which, if you are interested, you can find by searching my blog – I’m not putting up the links, since the purpose of this post is to garner signatures for the petition.

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My father on Naini Tal

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My first view of Nainital in 2005, having just stepped (groggily!) off of the overnight bus from Delhi.

So, what’s it all about? Simply, the lake is drying out. The causes for this are complex, but apparently high on the list is the simple fact that more water is being taken out by users in the town than the natural rainfall can replenish. Many trees are being felled to make way for too much construction – this increases the water run-off, and means even less water is retained in the ground.

Please click on the link; all the information is there – much more than I have written here. Again, it is here: Save Nainital

There are also many articles on this subject on the web, especially those by the premier Indian newspapers. Please sign.

Thank you.