24 February 2008

614 steps to Gomateswara

Meher was visiting from Holland last week. We decided to take a day trip to Sravanabelagola, Belur and Halebid: three temple towns in Karnataka. We had both visited these temples years ago. I had good memories of them and wanted to see them again.

We rented a taxi for the day and set off at 7am so we could beat the traffic. This we managed until we hit Tumkur Road heading towards the north-west which was jammed with traffic, mostly trucks. Construction work was in progress to widen this busy road.

But before long we were outside the city and heading through the beautiful countryside. We passed people working in the fields and children on their way to school. We noticed that the huge old trees lining the road to Hassan were being cut down. At one point we were directed to make a detour through a field to avoid a felling in progress. The driver informed us that this road would be widened too. Traffic did not seem heavy on this road at all, though it was a weekday and maybe the scene is different on weekends. It was sad to see all these big beautiful trees disappearing and we saw quite a few trucks hauling huge logs away.

We often had to slow down to pass over long stalks of some type of grain which were put across the middle of the road by the villagers. I asked the driver what this was and he told me it was ragi - a type of locally grown cereal which is a staple in this region. By having cars and trucks drive over it, the grains are separated from the stalks, making the task a little easier for the farmers!

As we approached Sravanabelagola for our first stop, we could see the huge statue of Gomateswara standing atop the hillside. It was a surreal sight to behold. We left our shoes in the car and prepared to climb the 614 steps to the Jain temple at the top of the hill where Gomateswara was waiting. Meher couldn’t remember if the statue was male or female and I assured her that she would have no doubt about that once she saw it!

614 steps later, all 58 feet and 8 inches of Gomateswara was standing before us. This is the largest free-standing statue in the world, carved out of the granite bedrock of the mountain between 978 and 993 AD.

Once every 12 years during the Maha Masthaka Abhisheka festival, Jain devotees chant mantras while ritually pouring milk, ghee, curd, honey, saffron and gold coins over the statue. The last time this took place was in February 2006.

The Jain priests had just finished a puja. A few devotees were receiving their blessings and a group of French tourists were busy snapping photos. We had a look around and admired the spectacular view from the top of the hill before heading back down.

The priests keep everything neat and tidy.

Gomateswara's big feet!

The view on the way back down.

Next stop: Belur - the subject of a future post!

15 February 2008

Crazy about India?!

In November I came across a book I had read years ago. I read it again in the space of a few days as if I was reading it for the first time.

Fous de l’Inde’ (Crazy about India) is a fascinating study of young travellers who go to India and end up getting more than they bargained for. The author, Régis Airault, is a French psychiatrist who was posted at the French consulate in Bombay where he treated French travellers who come to India to find themselves but instead somehow get lost in the crowds. Some suffer from extreme culture shock, while others have psychotic attacks, experience hallucinations, or go through nervous breakdowns. The extreme cases he was treating made him wonder: ‘Does India make people crazy? Or do crazy people go to India?’

Dr. Airault has identified what he calls a veritable ‘India syndrome’ which seems to affect young impressionable travellers who come to India and experience psychological problems. Curiously, these people have no history of mental illness and are not drug-users, and once they are repatriated home, their symptoms disappear. It’s not only India that has a strange effect on travellers. There are documented cases of Japanese tourists who ‘lose it’ in Paris, art lovers in Florence who experience hallucinations in front of famous art works, and travellers to Jerusalem who suddenly believe they’re the messiah. It sounds crazy, and it is. But it happens. It was enough of a problem to have the French authorities decide to post a psychiatrist in their embassy and consulates in India to help these lost travellers.

An excerpt on YouTube from a French documentary based on the book features one of these ‘India victims’ talking about his experience (in French):

So what is it about India that drives people around the bend?

The author explains that a trip to India starts before we step on the plane: our idea or image of India is shaped by the clichés, myths, and legends we hear about India from childhood, and by what we hear from other travellers who have been there. Once on Indian soil, this image is confronted by the culture shock of a strange new culture and society which is vastly different from our own. Then there are the tests, trials and tribulations faced by any visitor to India: the heat, the crowds, the traffic, the noise, the filth, scenes of poverty, beggars asking you for money, touts harassing you to buy this or that...

According to Dr. Airault, these new feelings and sensations “cause an upheaval in our inner conscience which could be the trigger of the India syndrome.” He says: “More than any other country, India has a way of stimulating the imagination, stirring intense emotions which can plunge the traveller into utter anxiety”... “India talks to the subconscious: provoking it, causing it to boil up and sometimes spill over. India peels back the deep hidden layers of our psyche. They are smoothed out and juxtaposed in the here and now. For certain persons it takes a mere tremor for this sensation to cause a real psychotic explosion.”

Though there are some travellers who experience a ‘psychotic explosion’ and need to receive medical treatment for this overdose of the senses, this is a minority. Others who don’t ‘go crazy’ in India do truly become ‘crazy about India’ and keep coming back again and again. Though you can be confronted with difficult images and situations on a daily basis, there are also those precious ‘India moments’ where the boundaries between life, religion and art become blurred: a cow slowly rambles down the middle of a street with a flower garland around its neck. A passing motorist on a motorcycle slows down, touches the cow and then touches his own forehead and chest, paying his respects.

What’s your India moment?

11 February 2008

Saraswati puja

Today is Saraswati puja – the feast day of the Hindu goddess Saraswati who is believed to have been born on this day – and Vasant Panchami, the arrival of spring. Saraswati is worshipped as the goddess of knowledge, learning and the arts. This is an important day for schools, musicians, dancers and artists.

This morning my dance teacher invited her students to a puja (a religious ceremony with prayers and other rituals) in her home. We decorated the Saraswati idol with flowers and gathered together all the articles needed for the puja: lamps, incense, sandalwood paste, flowers, water, milk, ghee, honey, yoghurt, tulsi (basil) as well as offerings for the goddess: fruits and vegetables, sweets, kheer. My teacher also included her ghungroos (the ankle bells worn by dancers), her son’s schoolbooks and pens, and pamphlets of the dance school so that these could be blessed by the goddess and bring good fortune and success.

The priest started the puja by blowing a conch shell. He then chanted prayers in Sanskrit, sometimes asking us to repeat after him, and rang a small brass bell. He poured a mixture of water and yoghurt in our right hands which we drank and then placed on our heads. He placed a dot of sandalwood paste on our foreheads and tied a red and orange string around our left wrists. Then arati was performed before the idol: a brass plate filled with camphor was lit and then moved in a circle in front of the goddess. We our hands over the flame and then over our heads to receive the goddess’s blessing. When the puja was over, we ate some of the prasad (the offerings for the goddess which have been blessed) and some vegetarian food.

This evening we won’t have dance class as usual but will perform a few dances instead, dressed in yellow which symbolizes the onset of spring. In some Indian states like West Bengal and Orissa, it's an official holiday and schools are closed as students are not supposed to read or write today. It is also considered to be an auspicious day to start learning something new.

05 February 2008

2, 3 or 4 wheels

Photo ©Times of India, 28 December 2007.

The above image is a familiar sight on many Indian roads. Though motorcycles and scooters only have two wheels, they often carry up to five passengers. It is illegal to ride without a helmet in Karnataka but for some reason this only applies to the person driving.

The ‘2-wheeler’ has been transporting the Indian nuclear family for decades: daddy drives while the young son either stands (if it’s a scooter) or sits on the gas tank (on motorcycles) in front of his father. The mother sits across the back seat carefully keeping the pullu (sari end) of her sari close to her while she hangs on to the back of the seat with one hand and holds the baby with the other arm. This is how millions of families get around.

Apparently this was the image that inspired Ratan Tata to design the much-hyped and awaited Nano. But this isn’t an iPod, this is a car: a ‘4-wheeler’ specially designed for the middle-classes. Popularly known as the ‘one-lakh’ car, this is the world’s cheapest automobile with a price tag of 100,000 Rupees (1722 EUR / 2542 CAD / 1284 GBP / 2525 USD).

This technological wonder has been much applauded by the press and heralded as a victory for the middle classes but this has also fed the debate on the state of Indian roads. What will be the consequences of the introduction of a cheap car on the market? What will this do to the already crowded roads and rising pollution levels?

The Nano has also caused speculation about the future of the ubiquitous auto-rickshaw. A cheap means of public transportation, these ‘3-wheelers’ are so much a part of the Indian urban landscape. Will they be replaced by the ‘people’s car’ which is actually cheaper than the price of an auto-rickshaw? The Nano does definitely present many advantages for drivers and passengers compared to the noisy, polluting ‘auto’: a car offers more protection to its occupants while shielding them from rain, pollution and noise.

The debate about the future of India’s roads is a difficult one. Environmentalists are not happy about the introduction of the Nano, but those who can now be the proud owners of a car clearly are. Criticisms in the press are met with the retort: “Everyone has the right to drive!” And so continues the endless debate on India’s future: development is good but at what price and for whom?