27 December 2007

Sabarimala pilgrimage

Passing by various temples in Chennai last week, I often saw men dressed in black lungis emerging carrying bundles on their heads. These men are embarking on the Sabarimala pilgrimage to the Ayappa temple in Kerala.

December is the pilgrimage season in South India. The Sabarimala pilgrimage to the Ayappa temple in a hilly region of the state of Kerala bordering Tamil Nadu, is one of the most popular. It receives millions of visitors every year and is reported to be the world’s second largest annual pilgrimage site after the Hajj in Mecca.

The Sabarimala pilgrimage is reserved for men only because women are not allowed to visit the shrine of Ayappa, described as a ‘celibate hermit’. Before starting the journey, pilgrims go through a 41-day ‘austerity’ period during which they must eat only vegetarian food, avoid alcohol and tobacco, abstain from sex, wear a black lungi and beads around the neck, not shave or cut their hair or fingernails, walk barefoot, sleep on the floor without a pillow, and abstain from physical and verbal violence.

Before starting the pilgrimage, the pilgrims seek their blessings from a local temple. Each carries on his head a blanket and a cloth bundle containing traditional offerings like a coconut, ghee (clarified butter) and betel leaves. They make the long journey in groups, travelling in mini-buses. The last four kilometres are made on foot up a steep hill through forests, before reaching the 18 holy steps which lead to the shrine of Lord Ayappa. Here the devotees break a coconut before climbing the holy steps to receive darshan from the god.

A few years ago I took these pictures at the Kapleeswarar temple in Mylapore, Chennai of pilgrims preparing to leave for the Sabarimala pilgrimage.

25 December 2007

Merry Christmas!


Friends have asked me if Christmas is celebrated in India. Christians make up 2.3% of the population. So that means 24 million people in India are celebrating Christmas today, which is a national holiday. You can tell who is celebrating Christmas by the big, colourful star lanterns made out of paper which are hung outside Christian homes and shops. At night these are lit, adding colours and lights to the neighbourhood.

19 December 2007

Rainy days in Chennai

Dazzling NIGHT: Pedestrians and motorists were pleasantly surprised when it rained on Monday evening. Though a short spell, it left the residents pleased and provided a soothing finish to the unusually breezy day. A scene on Poonamallee High Road in Chennai on Monday. PHOTO: K. PICHUMANI © Copyright 2000 - 2007 The Hindu

As the above caption from yesterday's The Hindu newspaper reveals, rain is considered to be a blessing from the skies. At least that's how it was welcomed on Monday evening... but since then it's been pouring rain!

Yesterday morning as I was waiting for the rain to let up, the building's security guard warned me that "full rain will come today, Madam." "News," he added with a knowing bob of his head, revealing the source of the day's weather forecast. The rain continued all night, and this morning it's been raining sporadically.

These showers have been brought on by the 'north-east monsoon' which usually affects this part of India towards the end of the year. The rains affect many aspects of daily life. Schools have been closed today. Traffic jams are common and big puddles make walking on the street difficult. Auto-rickshaw drivers increase their fares by 100%. The paper also revealed that the wholesale price of vegetables has dipped due to delay in the arrival of goods from other states.

Audience numbers are also bound to be affected now that the music season is in full swing. But for some music and dance lovers, the rain is not enough to keep them away!

17 December 2007

Photo essay: Kalakshetra

Kalakshetra is a famous dance and music school located on a leafy campus in the south of Chennai. Meaning ‘temple of arts’, Kalakshetra was founded in 1936 and has become a renowned school for Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam, the Indian classical dance from Tamil Nadu.

(I apologize for the poor quality of these photos – they were taken five years ago with my first digital camera which I was trying to figure out!)

15 December 2007

A calm oasis

One of my favourite haunts while in Chennai is Amethyst. This 100-year-old colonial mansion set in a leafy garden is a green, peaceful oasis of calm in this big, dusty and noisy city.

The lounge, veranda and gardens have been transformed into a cafĂ© and restaurant where you can sit among potted palms with a good book, a good friend, or your laptop, as there’s free wifi (something which is still rare in India). They have yummy homemade cakes, which are also difficult to find.

On the ground floor there’s a boutique with (pricey) indo-western designer wear and jewellery. There’s also a flower shop selling exotic plants.

Service is a little patchy. There are plenty of waiters but somehow they don’t see you, or forget they’ve taken your order. All the reason to stay a little while longer.

Mosquitoes are regular visitors, day and night, so repellent is a must!

Despite the unreliable waiters, the pricey menu and biting insects, I’m a daily visitor while in Chennai. I just wish there was something similar in Bangalore. Or maybe not – it makes a trip to Chennai a little extra special.

See for yourself:

Amethyst is located at:

Sundar Mahal
Padmavathi Road, Jeypore Colony

Gopalapuram, Chennai

Phone: 2820 3582

Open every day from 10am to 10pm.

13 December 2007

The waiting game

A few weeks after we arrived in Bangalore almost a year ago, a friend asked me ‘what I did all day’. My answer was that I spent my time waiting… waiting for the gas delivery man, waiting for the telephone company, waiting for the cable company, waiting for the plumber...

I’m staying with my friend Raji and her husband in Chennai for the next two weeks. They had some work done recently in their apartment and were expecting the carpenter to come and finish a job. The day before yesterday he was due at 3pm. By 5pm he still hadn’t arrived so they phoned him on his mobile (who doesn’t have a mobile these days?). He promised to ‘definitely’ come the next morning. I laughed because I remembered all the times I got ‘definitely’ as a promise, only to be kept waiting all day.

By noon the next day there was still no sign of the carpenter. Raji phoned him again and he said he was ‘on the way’ and would be there ‘in a few minutes’. He arrived two hours later.

This is what they call ‘Indian Standard Time’: 3pm could mean 6pm or tomorrow morning or the next day – you just never know!

08 December 2007

On the road in Bangalore

Bangalore is India’s fifth largest city and the fastest growing. The city’s infrastructure is struggling to keep pace with this growth. One of the city’s problems (though this is problem for all Indian cities) is traffic congestion. There are 3 million vehicles on Bangalore’s roads but the transportation infrastructure only has the capacity to accommodate 800,000 at present.

Most people get around on scooters or motorcycles (referred to as ‘two-wheelers’ here). There are 2.1 million two-wheelers plying the roads. This is an economical mode of transport and a convenient way of weaving out of traffic jams, but perhaps not the safest way to get around. By contrast there are 476,000 cars. This is a mode of transport reserved only for those who can afford to buy a car. Many people prefer to have someone else negotiate the impossible traffic so they have a personal driver whose job it is to take them from A to B.

Those who don’t have a vehicle have to rely on city taxis, auto rickshaws or the public transportation system. Bangalore doesn’t have the black and yellow taxis common in cities like Bombay or Calcutta that you can hail in the street. If you want to use a taxi service, you have to phone them first and they will come to pick you up at the appointed time and place. Most of these taxis are white Maruti Suzuki Omni minivans or white Tata Indicab cars. Cheaper than taxis are the 94,440 auto rickshaws that ply Bangalore's roads. Drivers must wear a beige uniform, display their permit and use the meter which makes taking an auto rickshaw easier than in other Indian cities where you have to haggle long and hard to get a reasonable fare. There are 5 million commuters who travel by bus every day. Buses are overcrowded during peak times and it's common to see people precariously hanging out of the doorways. Work has begun this year on a metro line which will ease stress on the public transportation system and hopefully alleviate traffic congestion, but Bangaloreans have to wait a few more years to be able to benefit. Another common mode of traffic is the good old bicycle which usually carries at least two and sometimes three passengers!

When it comes to traffic accidents, Bangalore is the third-most dangerous city in India. Every day the paper gives a round-up of traffic accidents. I’ve included a few examples from Tuesday’s paper below:

Four persons were killed in road accidents reported in the city on Saturday. Suraj (24), an employee of ITPL, was killed when he was run over by a water tanker on Saturday. The incident occurred when Suraj, a resident of Dwarakanagar, was walking near Chikabanawara. Suraj died on the spot. The Peenya Traffic police have registered a case.

A Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus ran over two persons near Kadumane Hotel, in the Bidadi Police Station limits on Saturday. The police gave the names of the victims as Rajesh Chowdry (30) and Rakesh (25). They said that the two were heading on a motorcycle to their houses in Bidadi after finishing night shift at a factory nearby when the bus, coming from Mysore, ran over them, killing them on the spot. A case has been registered.

In another accident in the early hours of Sunday, a person died on the spot after a car hit him at Kodigehalli, near Sanjeevaninagar, in the Hebbal Traffic Police Station limits. The victim has been identified as Nagaraj (36), a tea shop owner. The police said that the incident occurred when Nagaraj went to open his tea shop at around 5.30 a.m. and accidentally stepped on a dog that was sleeping near the shop’s entrance. He ran when the dog started chasing him and came right in front of the car, which hit him. He was killed on the spot. A case has been registered.
(The Hindu, Tuesday, 4 December 2007)

This year so far there have been 7079 traffic accidents and 808 deaths due to these accidents registered with the city traffic police. Last year these figures were 7561 and 915 respectively. Inadequate infrastructure and overcrowded roads are put to blame as well as the poor maintenance of roads, a shortage of traffic policemen, reckless driving, disregard for traffic rules and inadequate emergency services. Driving at night is especially dangerous because of poor lighting in some areas, traffic lights which are ‘switched off’ during the night, and some bad habits on the part of motorists, like not turning on headlights (in the case of some two-wheelers and auto rickshaws) and using high beams (in the case of many car drivers).

The monsoon season also takes its toll on Bangalore’s roads. Huge potholes appear virtually out of nowhere, seriously hampering traffic as vehicles are forced to slow down to avoid them. There are so many potential hazards to be on the look out for – potholes, pedestrians, bicycles, cows, hazardous drivers – that it’s seldom necessary to switch to a gear higher than third gear! Now that the weather has become drier and the monsoon rains have ceased, the roads’ potholes have been patched up. There are other measures that are being taken to reduce traffic congestion and improve the circulation of vehicles like the construction of fly-overs and separators, the widening of roads and the introduction of one-way systems but still somehow traffic does not seem to ease up.

06 December 2007

Pink winter

Pleasing: The exotic ‘Tabebuia impetiginosa’ heralds the winter with splashes of pink, as it blooms across Bangalore city. Photo: K. Murali Kumar © Copyright 2000 - 2007 The Hindu

In summer, Bangalore is painted red. In winter, it's pink!

Despite it's rapid growth and development, Bangalore remains a green city. I love the huge, mammoth trees which line the streets. What's magical about them is that most of them flower. Each season brings a new colourful surprise.

When I got back after being away for three weeks, I discovered that the city has been painted a brilliant pink! I learned from the paper that this magical tree is called Tabebuia Impetiginosa. There's one on my street.

I've collected some of the flowers to float in my urli.