Dec 30, 2012

The view from my window, #2


24 hours and 79 stops later my train had arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta) and I'd checked into a room in a Buddhist temple's guesthouse. I'd expected to see the smiling middle aged men in orange robes. What I hadn't expected was to have a room with a view of Christmas. A Christian church across the street from the Buddhist center is hosting a week long celebration. As I write this they're dancing in that street. A dozen women are doing the twist to an up tempo version of "Strangers in the Night".

The booth on the corner is a clothes ironing business. Customers are waiting while a man removes wrinkles with slow efficient movements of his coal-heated iron. The white-robed man sitting in the foreground has parked his hand-drawn rickshaw behind the booth and is waiting for a customer.



January 3rd I'll be heading south along the eastern coast of India to relatively undeveloped Orissa. There I hope against hope to find a relatively quick way through the government bureaucracy to a permit to visit some of the tribal villages. In any case the area has some of the great temples from India's golden age. Temples even grander than the famous temples further south in Tamil Nadu. These temples are also still in use. To paraphrase what Michael Wood said the BBC series The Story of India: if Athena were still worshipped at the Parthenon and wise men like Socrates still wandered the Acropolis in togas, then you'd have something in Greece to rival what still exists here. The last great classical civilization lives on in south east India.


Dec 22, 2012

Black Friday

Puja on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi

February 10th (Mauni Amavasya Snan) will be the most auspicious bathing day at Kumbh Mela 2013—70 million Hindus are expected to bathe then in the belief that it will wash away their karmic debt.

November 29th (Black Friday) will be the most auspicious shopping day of 2013—250 million consumers are expected to buy that day in the belief that its reduced sale prices will lessen their debt.

This is an unfair implied comparison as Kumbh Mela happens in one place, the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers. Whereas, Black Friday takes place not just at hundreds of thousands of stores throughout the USA, but also at millions of computers hooked up to online stores. However, the juxtaposition does make the point that the same vessel can be filled with different substances. Much of the mind space that is filled by religious rituals and the salvation people here believe that they bring, is filled in our hemisphere by money rituals and the temporary relief from anxiety that each new purchase brings.


Devotees at this nightly religious ceremony on the river bank


In a fever in Varanasi



In how many movies has the hero, lost in fevered dreams, lain drenched and shaking in his tent while the natives bang their drums? In my movie the natives are the chanting Hindus of the temple below my window. The jungle, of course, is the maze of narrow twisting lanes (about 4 to 5 feet wide) crowded with Hindus rushing to or from a temple, school children, cow shit, and motorcycles. At 5am, when the devotees rush off to bathe in the Ganges River it's quiet, but I'm still shaking. 



[I've moved to a room on the other side of the building. I'm able to sleep, but not to photograph much. I'll be going to the pharmacy today to resolve this. The one thing that has kept me going has been the positive comments about this blog that have been made here, in letters and dpreview. Even though the posts will be infrequent for awhile, I hope you will still follow along. If you submit your email address (and click the follow-up email you'll receive) then the posts will be emailed to you when they are published.

As I feared that coming back with such a slight post would do more harm than good I am also posting some, I believe, interesting comparisons, relevant to this adventure that I've been lying here thinking about.]



Dec 15, 2012

Train travel is time travel

After 22 hours as the only non-Indian crammed into 3rd class trains, I get a proper cup of tea. 


The direct train from Khajuraho arrives and leaves just 3 days a week. On other days you have to take an 8 hour train to an adjacent city and then a 14 hour slow train to Varanasi. Of the former the hotel management says:

"You will not want to take this train. Many people and hardware, tourists do not get seats." 

When I saw the herds of young men getting ready to surge on for the train ride, I remembered how awkwardly I moved with a heavy pack on my back and a bag full of expensive camera equipment around my neck. I recalled how weak I was from days of a lingering cold that had settled in my chest. I began to question my adventurous first impulse. Maybe re-reading all of Hemingway's novels on this trip wasn't such a good idea. 

I crashed a wedding party.  I talked to them in broken Hindi while we all waited for the train. I sat down behind them. I got embarrassed when they started to talk about me. However, their men fought their way onto the train to secure two sections of berths and they cleared a spot in the overhead luggage rack for me.  Others flowed out of the aisles. onto boarding and departing steps, with a few just hanging out the open doors.  Below me a sparkling sea of color—women dressed in their most extravagant dress, rings on every toe and finger, children asleep in their laps.

The great thing about the 3rd class trains of India is that they and their passengers seem not to have changed since the time of the British Raj. Train travel becomes time travel. Beggars, sadhus, samosa and chai sellers from local villages—all of India passes down the aisle (after the trains empty out a bit and movement down the aisle becomes possible.) Except that when Lily and I took the trains on my first trip to India every cup of chai came in a plastic cup as thin as a surgical glove. Full of chai it seemed to melt into your hand. It ruined my whole time travel trip. But here at the end of my 22 hour journey, the proper earthen cup of the British Raj. This cup full of tea costs you 9¢ and after you've finished with it you just toss it out the window so it can break up and return to the earth.

Dec 14, 2012

The “Kama Sutra” temples of Khajuraho




The intense sexual activity chiseled into these stone temples has over the decades, it seems, warped even the temple lightening rod. In order that it not warp my readers I present samples of the highest quality erotic art, rather than the most shocking. (Do your own internet search for the latter.) All the photos that follow are of the finest temple in KhajurahoLakshmana Temple built in the year 950 AD for worship of the god Vishnu. [click on any of the images to enter a gallery of full-sized images.]



Inside the temple a stone maiden (middle figure), with a sidelong glance, looks into a hand held mirror at her finely chiseled features as contentedly as she did a thousand years ago. Those of us not made of stone don’t last so long.


A Hindu woman bows, at the entrance to the temple's inner sanctum, before the image of Vishnu surrounded by his 10 incarnations.


A tourist bows before the central section of erotic carvings on the western side of the temples. The guides talk about the tantric symbolism of these couplings.


The flowing lines of these central images do lead themselves to the speculation that the images in this location represent tantric ideals.


There are also not so symbolic images of folks just doing it tucked into the corners, as a young man points out here, throughout the temple. Some guidebooks say that the erotic sculptures are all on the exterior of temple. This isn't true. Its just so dark inside that few see what is hidden in the interior corners. 


This vignette, also pointed out to me by a young Hindi male, might be the most engaging of these corner images—at least the surrounding figures (including the elephant) seem as interested as the flock of Japanese tourists that were poking me and probably cursing me while I shot this scene from several slightly different viewpoints. 


The temple builders were as focused on the everyday as they were with the ideal. On the outside base of the temple, especially, there are carvings of many everyday activities like soldiering. 


The percentage of the temple carvings that are actually erotic in nature is for some reason smaller than this presentation or the memories of many tourists would lead one to believe.





















Dec 8, 2012


"Naked sadhus are difficult to photograph because they smoke ganja always and have spears. If they offer a smoke, do not refuse."
I had a coffee today with Roshan, the Kumbh Mela camp facilitator. When I expressed apprehension about getting stoned with the sadus, Roshan said not to worry: 
"You will probably be OK if you take your shoes off, never use a flash and when you give the sadhu your business card include 10 rupees."
Today's photo shows the same Hotel All iz Well sign I photographed on my first night. This time in what I hope is this trip's first successful bit of street photography.

Tonight I'm off on my first over-night 3rd class non-ac train. I'll be traveling to Khajuraho and what the owner of my current guest house calls "the Kama Sutra temples." Roshan explained that I should have taken the (confusingly named) air conditioned coaches because they would be heated on winter nights and have blankets and glass rather than loosely wooden-shuttered windows, no heat and no blankets. 
"You will be cold, but you will survive."


Dec 7, 2012

Homelessness can be high status

View from my room of the deserted Main Bazar taken just after I arrived in Delhi


Left Portland at noon Tuesday. Arrived in Delhi very early Thursday morning. Fortunately, clocks can't measure time. The meals wheeled down the aisle like street-cars. It was a short trip.

I read Simone Weil's philosophy and watched Ridley Scott's latest sci-fi epic. In the latter some alien engineers created us, but now want to destroy us. Noomi Rapace is still out there trying to figure out why. In the former, "God could only create by hiding Himself. Otherwise there would be nothing but Himself."  Our creator has so far allowed this sinful world to exist because it makes our independent existence possible.  In India, many are, as Weil believed best, not waiting for the creator to destroy their world, but are hard at work uncreating it themselves.  The stars of the  unbelievably giant festival I'm attending are the voluntarily homeless—the naked sadhus. First the princely Buddha abandoned his palace. Later some of India's rulers fled their courts to wander through their kingdoms half naked and alone and seeking salvation. Homelessness can be high status.

Nov 28, 2012

“Hey, this is India”

Puja at Sivananda Ashram.
In Travel Snaps, the business card sized photo book discussed in the previous post I distilled the experiences of my first trip to India into these two brief anecdotes:

Hey, this is India” is a phrase tourists hear after complaining that their hotel room has no hot water, sheets or toilet paper. Just after hearing that phrase for the first time, I hiked with friends to the temple of Hanuman, the monkey god. As we did not rent the sticks used to scare off the monkeys that guard the temple, we had to fend off the beasts with hastily gathered stones. We dashed into the temple with its bells and drums ringing in our ears. A monkey ran screeching in after us. Fearful devotees dodged the scrambling monkey. The priest interrupted the ritual and with one commanding gesture waved the monkey out. I felt like I was living out a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Monkey God as I said to myself, “Wow, this is India!”

Later, in a Hindu ashram I ate silently with Catholic nuns, natives of India who had traveled to this retreat to gain insights that would help them train their sisters. On the last day, when our vow of silence was lifted, I asked a nun if she found the Hare Krishna mantras in the Shiva temple a little disconcerting. She replied, “No, this is my home, this is India.” It was in that ashram, during the pre-dawn meditation, that I felt closest to a land that had been so trying in that first hotel room and so exotic at the monkey temple. I realized then that prayer needn't be asking God for something, it could be just listening for something beyond our thoughts—waiting for what cannot be anticipated.

Nov 27, 2012

My new business card sized book

This is India is the coffee table-sized book you see behind the little books. It cost me almost $50 to print. Travel Snaps is the length of a business card. The print quality is the same, the heart of the big book is in it, but it cost me only $3 to print.

Why and how did I make Travel Snaps? 

Except for two anecdotes at the end, the little book has no text. It slips into any size pocket and it breaks through language and cultural barriers to communicate to potential portrait subjects that I know what I'm doing.

(TIP: To make this work your picture must be on the cover, or, as I hope will work with Travel Snaps, on the first page. It's better yet if you are holding your camera in that picture. Otherwise, your non-common language speaking contacts won't understand that you took the pictures.)

You can print your own 20-page business card length books on the Mac through Aperture or iPhoto or myPublisher.com for about $3 a piece.

I made Travel Snaps in preparation for a journey through India that begins next week. This photographic adventure includes an extended stay at Kumbh Mela — the biggest festival that this world has ever seen. 60 million participants — the population of France — bathing in one muddy, but holy river.

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