Mar 19, 2013

Picture Palace

One last time for those who commented and for those who refrained from commenting. Because it’s not just the comments I got, but the one’s I didn’t get. I was most gratified to not get any complaints that all you got from Kolkata was a coffee shop, a hotel room and badly stuffed animals. Concerning Rajasthan no one complained that you got rats instead of the famous desert forts. I wasn’t forced to explain why the palaces inside of those forts were too fabulously restored to photograph. 

However, just before I left Rajasthan I explored a palace in Bundi that was everything that the others were not.

Stairwells marked “No Entry” with no one around to keep you out. A palace no one dares to enter without a stick to beat off the monkeys. (I explored the palace with a stick in one hand and a camera in the other ever hopeful of a dramatic encounter I could share with all of you. Alas the monkeys did not attack. You’ll have to make to do with…)

A room where you could hang out with the bats. 

All of these rough edges are magical only if they frame a treasure. Or, in this case, a pleasure room or two.

This, the older part of the palace, was built about 1660. Next, the view you’d have in this room from bed.

A little like the Sistine Chapel ceiling seen through a kaleidoscope? 

From another pleasure room I call the courtyard of mirrors, a scene from the story of Radha and Krishna. Radha was a cowherd maiden until Krishna’s love made her a goddess. Here Krishna and Radha dance as brightly as when first painted in around 1800. 

They shine as brightly as my friend who is getting married today and upon whose recommendation I traveled across the desert to see this palace. Do you see, my friends, how the night is the circle in which they dance, but their stars shine in the day as well?

The courtyard of mirrors.

Even the mirrorless mirrors captivated me.

Thanks, everyone. 

I’ll be back in the USA next week.

Mar 12, 2013

Rats! - The End

[This postscript is about why, after publishing the last Kumbh Mela post, I traveled to an isolated town in the desert outside of Bikaner, Rajasthan.] 

“It is unfortunate that many tourist [sic]  especially our foreign friends visiting Deshnoke Temple, go away with the impression that it is a Rat’s temple. They remain ignorant of the Goddess Shree Karni Mata.” 
— Lt. Col. Jaswant Singh

When Shree Karni Mata was born in a village near Jodhpur in 1387 she was her parents sixth girl child. Her aunt expressed her outrage at the new born’s being yet another girl by striking the infant with her fist. Immediately the aunt’s fingers were impaired.  Lt. Col. Singh writes, “This light and just punishment to the aunt was the first miracle.”

There were many more miracles, but there was also political intrigue. Karni played king-maker in the then lawless desert of Western Rajasthan. She guided to their thrones the ruling families of Bikaner and Jodhpur. The Bikaner Royal family accepted Karni as their family deity and she is now worshipped throughout Rajasthan as well as in the neighboring state of Gujarat.

As a token of her love of all living things Shree Karni Mata provided a sanctuary to the most reviled of all animals, the rat.  The rats have been well fed here for the last 600 years. Lt. Col. Singh believes it is a miracle that in all that time the rats haven’t spread to the people of Bikaner the bubonic plague or any other dangerous disease. 

According to the Footprint guidebook Hindus believe that the rats are reincarnated saints. It may be my Western narrow-mindedness, but I prefer the Lt. Colonel’s explanation because I’d like to think that saints come back as birds.

Starting with this shot of the temple priest (wearing the turbin) and his assistants I will end this post and this blog with a series of portraits I took at this holy site and some final words about this project.

If there is anyone out there that found it worth their time to follow this adventure to its conclusion, now’s the time to add a comment. I’ve received encouraging emails from friends and family, but, just one comment from anyone else on the entire Kumbh Mela series. (And a big thanks to those that did leave comments or send emails, they meant a lot to me.)

As I post this I’m still photographing my way through Rajasthan. After visiting this temple in Bikaner, I traveled to the desert fairy tale that is Jaisalmer.  Yesterday I was out all day taking pictures here in Jodhpur at the “toy temples” that kids make on the anniversary of Shiva and Parvati’s marriage…

Mar 1, 2013

Kumbh Mela 5 of 5 - ending with a wedding

Western backpackers and Hindus walk in the pre-dawn darkness to the Sangam differently. We carry our burdens strapped to our backs; they keep theirs resting on their heads. We think we’re so clever to have dressed in layers of high-tech quick-dry wrinkle-free fabric. As the sun comes quickly up the temperature rises just as fast so we have to stop, take of the daypack and strip off another layer, put the layer in the daypack and put the daypack back on every 10 minutes. The Indians just keep on walking. I realized that I’d learned something, however trivial, when after leaving my sandals off as required, I stopped myself, despite the biting cold at 4 in the morning, from putting on my fleece and down vest over my t-shirt for the procession with the naked sadhus.

If I learned anything from the Mela it’s that the spiritual path is first and foremost a physical path. 

At Swami Thana Pati’s camp I was given a set of beads and shown how to count the beads with my middle fingers as I repeated, “Om Namah Shivaya” (Oh my God, you are everywhere, I want to see you in my life) for each bead. 

As one of Swami Thana Pati’s devotees is explaining as the above picture was taken:

“Do this after you bathe every day and your third eye will open. You will be connected to God and your life will be in balance.”

A joyful harmonium player performing at the Mela

I was also instructed on how to eat quickly and efficiently with my fingers and, of course, this sloucher was told about the importance of sitting up straight. As difficult as it might be to achieve this last improvement at this point in my life I think Nietzsche was on to the truth when he wrote:

“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.” 

Boys dancing in my dorm-mates’ wedding procession

I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is more wisdom in a Bollywood dance routine than in a Nietzsche aphorism. However, I think my friends will know how happy I am to end this blog with a wedding rather than a ponderous quote. 

I was astonished with delight when I found out that Oliver and Suyin, an Austrian couple staying in the same Kumbh Mela dorm room as I, were having “a real Indian wedding, with an elephant” on the last night of my stay. Oliver and Suyin have been experiencing the joy and the difficulties of making their relationship work for several years. They are in India following their spiritual path as well as their interest in exploring this incredible country. Tonight Oliver and Suyin are celebrating their love for each other and their love for India. Everyone is invited to the wedding. 

 With the elephant we didn’t even have to wait until the loudspeakers for groom’s procession arrived to start gathering in the Indian people.

Readers of my earlier posts know that in real Indian weddings the groom gets to the wedding by riding a white horse behind an impromptu troupe of young Indian male dancers, and if a horse isn’t available, a white car.  Clearly, the elephant would be a better choice for a tradition that makes, for one night, every man a maharaja. 

Faithful readers will also know how wonderful it is for me to return with delight, rather than angst to the women holding the flower table lamps in an Indian wedding procession. 

The Indian women are standing in for Oliver and Suyin’s parents who couldn’t attend.

Feb 28, 2013

Kumbh Mela 4 of 5 - Juna Akhara

I hope to convey with this reader’s hands something of the beauty of his voice. His rhythmic cadences rocked that afternoon in Juna Akhara. Across the way from the reading, Anil , a Phd. Candidate in Hindi culture, identified the chant for me. When I asked about staying in the camp the night before the next bathing day, Anil arranged that with the baba he was studying with, Swami Thana Pati.

Thana Pati is 28 years old. He became a swami after 11 years of training. This portrait was taken as an assistant was helping him dress at about 4AM on February 15th for the procession to the bathing areas. On the afternoon of the 14th when I arrived to spend the night the Swami asked me (through a translator) not to take pictures until 4am the next morning so that “everyone will be relaxed.” Later the swami made two exceptions to his request for no photos before 4AM the next morning.

The first exemption was for the beauty of the sunset—seen here behind the naked sadhu next door.

A second exception was made for the evening prayers of the swami and his devotees.

The next morning Swami Thana Pati blesses a young naga baba just before we went to the meeting place for the 7AM procession. (Pictures I took earlier that morning of the 4AM procession were used in the first Kumbh post to illustrate the mythic origins of the mela.)

After the procession the devotees took turns washing the swamis feet. They caught the water that they poured over his feet in a bowl. Some of them drank every drop of that wash water. 

Swami Thana Pati seemed to me to be a very level-headed fellow with a sincere and warm smile. He is one of the relatively few babas at the camp that do not smoke dope. Other than his passion for collecting foreign currency, I don’t know that he has any materialist ambitions. It might just be my cultural differences coming out, but, still, I do think all humans ought to come with warning label that says, “Worshipping me may be hazardous to my health.”

The February 15th 2nd procession begins

I like this candid portrait because it fits so well with the dark night of the soul of Christianity. Despite all the smiling babas this darkness exists in Indian spirituality as well. As Simone Weil put it: 

“The world must be regarded as containing something of a void in order that it may have need of God.” 

Thanks to Jackie Clements for sending me this picture of me and my Pentaxes. The attached DA15mm prime lens on the camera I’m holding was used to take most of my Kumbh Mela pictures.

A mother with children as shaved and ash covered as herself takes a bath alongside the naga babas as her kids wait.

A naga baba with a modesty garland poses after reapplying ashes after his bath.

The rarely seen double dick-stick trick is one example of a great deal of horse play that goes on before and after the procession. There are mock fights with wooden shafts and a lot of sword waving.

Pilgrims that must have been waiting here most of the night to get this prime spot just behind the barricades.

Feb 27, 2013

Kumbh Mela 3 of 5 - pilgrims’ procession

Pilgrims on the way to the bathing ghats

“Science… has… examined everything heavenly that has been bequeathed to us in sacred books, and, after hard analysis, the learned ones of this world have absolutely nothing left of what was once holy. But they have examined parts and missed the whole, and their blindness is even worthy of wonder. Meanwhile the whole stands before their eyes as immovably as ever,… does it not live even now in the movements of individual souls and in the movements of the popular masses?…”

— Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Kharamozov.

I, myself, can’t stop asking questions like:

“What about all these miracles? Do you think these naga babas can levitate, appear in two places at once, and so on?”

Last night my dinner companion, an Australian about to take a three month course in Tantra yoga, answered:

“Well, since I have levitated spontaneously several times, I don’t see any reason to believe the naga babas can’t do it. Gravitation is based on a circular spiral energy [and she made a clockwise spiral motion with her hand], all you have to do is reverse the spiral [and she made a counter-clockwise motion with the same hand.]” 

Devotees bathing just after the naga babas

My favorite response to this subject of everyday miracles came at the dinner after the events described in the previous post. Someone asked me if I saw the naga baba go to sleep. I answered:

“No, but, he only sleeps two hours a night.”


“Dude, I didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“Try sleeping two hours tonight. No one can live on two hours sleep a night.” 

This guy’s Western rationalist zeal made me feel for a moment wonderfully unlearned and unlike those the Dostoevsky quote criticizes as having ‘missed the whole.’ I’d find it so easy to believe that the deep meditative states called samadhi that naga babas and yogis reach can provide a way for them to cut back on their sleep.

However, last night’s dinner companion went on to explain that samadhi is a progressive departure from the body that leads to the acquisition of siddhi or magical powers such as the ability to disappear or appear in two places at once. I felt, once again, a little left behind.

A pilgrim shows the water he has bottled at the confluence of the three sacred rivers. I met an Austrian couple who took liters of Ganges water home. Back in Austria they have a special cup that lets one drop a minute fall over their Shiva lingua. It is, they say, even without the Ganges drops, an amazingly powerful stone.

After their sacred bath the sadhus reapply ashes from bags they filled up before the procession from last night’s fire.

I arrived at the sadhus camp the night before to avoid the maddening millions. However, to return to the tourist camp I had to fight my way through unbelievable crowds. Thirty-nine people died this day in a stampede at the railway station and there were reports that ten died in stampedes at the Mela. 

Finally, I made it to the last bridge out of the Mela and was able to look back at the multitude.