28 March 2007

Lord Rama's birthday bash

Above: A temple priest decorates the idol.

This hasn’t been a good week for getting a good night’s sleep. This is not only because of the summer heat which is settling in day by day and the mosquitoes who must be nature’s tiniest but most annoying creatures. Last weekend one of our neighbours had a big party with very loud music. Luckily they turned it down around 1:00 or 2:00 am so it wasn’t all-night torture. But last night was a party of a different kind and this morning I feel like I got hardly any sleep at all because of festivities going on at the temple on the main road. Yesterday was Rama Navami, which celebrates the birth of Lord Rama, and the temple priests and locals gave him a birthday bash to remember.

I knew something was up when I noticed the colourful garlands of lights put up in the main road by the temple. From the kitchen window I observed a group of women busy sweeping the small temple just behind the house and drawing huge kolam-s (decorative patterns drawn with rice powder - see one of my previous posts below) on the ground with intricate and beautiful patterns. Several of the houses in the neighbourhood also had kolam-s gracing their doorsteps which were more decorative and elaborate that usual. During the past few evenings there were loud processions of musicians playing the nagaswaram (a very loud horn-like wind instrument played on festive occasions) and tavil (a double-sided barrel shaped drum which usually accompanies the nagaswaram) in front of the temple on the main road. But yesterday was the grand finale of Lord Rama’s feast.

The loud and frenetic drumming signalled that the musicians were back in full force (and full volume). From the roof I couldn’t see much so I walked over to the main road to have a better look. A temple priest was busy decorating the idol, which was set up in a cart pulled by a tractor, with garlands of colourful flowers. A few metres away, a small crowd watched as the drummers banged out intricate rhythms accompanied by equally energetic and frenetic dancing from a group of men.

At midnight the party was stilling going on… the music was so incredibly loud that I had the impression the musicians were on our doorstep. There were moments of respite when the drumming ceased and some (equally loud) bhajan-s were played over the sound system. At least these devotional songs were more soothing and I felt like I just might be able to sleep. I think I did manage to catch a few winks before the energetic drumming started again and bolted me awake. This was followed by very loud fireworks which I could see from the bedroom window. And so continued Rama’s birthday bash the whole night long… drumming, shouting, loud music and the occasional BOOM! of fireworks. Needless to say, I didn’t hear the alarm clock this morning…

27 March 2007

Laughter on the beach

Above: Sunrise on Marina Beach in Chennai (Madras)

One of the things I love to do while I’m in Madras (now known as Chennai but I prefer the more romantic ‘old world’ ring to the sound of ‘Madras’) is to go to Marina Beach. At night the whole city seems to descend on the world’s second longest beach to take a breather, dip their feet in the waves and feel the cool sea breeze after a day of scorching heat.

But dawn is my favourite time. The day’s first morning rays are magic. Since Madras is on the eastern coast of South India, on a good day when there’s not too much mist, there’s a spectacular view of the rising sun as it suddenly appears from the depths of the Bay of Bengal.

I checked the newspaper the day before to see when the sun would be making its appearance: 6:15. As I reached the wide sandy shoreline and headed towards the shore, I thought about a similar Sunday morning in December 2004 when the tsunami hit. The scene was probably the same. It was just past 6:00 but there where already many people on the beach. By the Gandhi statue, people were meditating or doing yoga. A group of middle-aged women chatted together on a stone bench. Joggers ran barefoot along the shore and children were holding their parents hands tightly while they ventured into the waves. Two young girls walked in right up to their waists, not minding that their salwar kameez-es were getting soaked. The sea seemed rough, causing a string of fishing boats a few kilometres from shore to bob up and down. A group of young boys were doing handstands in the sand. A man was sitting by the shore singing.

When the sun finally appeared from behind the mist, it was already above the horizon. I watched as it slowly inched it’s way up and up further into the sky, signalling the start of a new day, ready to warm the sand on the beach, dry the clothes hung out on the city’s rooftops, heat the water tanks, beat against the city’s roads and buildings, and sunburn the backs of tourists’ necks.

After the sun had stopped its steady climb into the early morning sky, and the fishermen had pulled their boats in with the day’s catch, the heat started to settle in. Time to head back. The sand was still cool under my feet but in a few hours it would be scorching. As I approached the main road that runs parallel to the beach, a peal of loud, exaggerated laughter came from somewhere near the Gandhi statue. This was my first encounter with one of India’s popular and numerous ‘laughing clubs’. A jovial man led the group of men and women through a series of exercises accompanied by a chorus of hee hee hee’s, ho ho ho’s, and haw haw haw’s and then, on signal, the whole group burst out in one big ‘BAWHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAA!!!’. But the group of onlookers witnessing this surreal and outrageous early morning ritual were laughing even harder…

Watch a video of the laughing club in Pune here:

25 March 2007

Tainted grub

Above: A sign in the Meenakshi temple in Madurai

The following article was published in The Hindu on 3 March 2007:

Food buried in pit as American enters Jagannath temple

Special Correspondent

BHUBANESWAR: Food worth several lakhs meant as offering to deities at the Jagannath temple in Puri was buried on Friday morning following the entry there of an American national.

Engineer Paul F. Roediger, who came to the holy town along with two Hindus, got into the temple without knowing about entry restrictions. The servitors raised a hue and cry over his entry, thereby disturbing the rituals.

Mr. Roediger, who was detained by the police for nearly three hours, was allowed to go only after he paid a fine of Rs.209.

The food (Bada Bhog) was buried in a pit in a garden close to the temple. The temple premises were purified before the rituals resumed in the afternoon.

As per the practice in the 12th century temple, only Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists of Indian origin or neighbouring countries are allowed entry.

First such incident

According to temple officials, this was the first incident in the history of the temple, where Bada Bhog was destroyed because of the entry of a person belonging to a different faith.

According to sources, some foreign nationals were allowed entry way back in 1959 and 1960, but with permission from the Maharaja of Puri.

Indira Gandhi was also denied entry as she had married a Parsi.