30 June 2010

Monsoon romance

I noticed that Indians rarely talk about the weather… Not like they do in places like London or Brussels where this topic opens every conversation. This is usually a complaint about the rain. Here rain is very common and as a result, rainy weather is considered to be bad weather.

But everything is relative and on the other side of the world things are often reversed. I noticed that Indians only talk about the weather when it’s ‘good’. And here ‘good weather’ means rainy weather. Lately I’ve been hearing: “Pleasant weather we’re having!” on a daily basis. Cloudy skies and intermittent rain is not the idea of good weather I grew up with, but then again, everything is relative. After the four months of excessive heat we had from February to the end of May, I’m definitely not complaining about the cooler temperatures and sporadic showers. It’s nice to put the prickly heat powder away for a while and not rely on the ceiling fan to try to keep cool.

In India, the monsoon seems to be everyone’s favourite season. It’s also considered to be a very ‘romantic’ time. Again, rain is not high up on my list of most romantic things. Actually it doesn’t make the list at all. But judging by all the poems, songs and movie scenes dedicated to it, rain is very sexy in India.

Ask any Indian when’s the best time to travel to a certain place or city and they will inevitably answer: “During the monsoon.” Check any guidebook to India about the best time to visit and you’ll see that the period from June to September is not recommended and even strongly discouraged.

Indeed very few tourists come to India during the monsoon. But I have to agree that this is a great time to travel to India. First of all because they are few tourists. And as a result fewer crowds and more availability on buses and trains and at hotels. Banana pancakes disappear from menus and hotel rates become normal again.

Then there’s the beautiful lush green landscapes. The cool nights and freshness of early morning. The laughter of children playing in the rain. And that marvellous smell of fresh earth afterwards… Ah the romance of it all!

23 June 2010

Channapatna toy village

If you've ever taken the road leading to Mysore from Bangalore, you would have probably noticed some roadside shops at some point along the way selling colourful wooden toys and rocking horses like the ones in the picture above. This means you were passing through Channapatna, the 'toy village'. I took a trip there last weekend and visited a toy-making factory where artisans continue this age-old handicraft tradition.

These colourful lacware toys are popular with tourists as well as parents who prefer natural, non-toxic toys for their children rather than the more common plastic ones. There are about 2500 artisans in Channapatna working in this handicraft industry which was in danger of dying out before being revived a few years ago.

Above the artisan's head is a small mirror. I noticed each 'work station' had one and asked what it was for. Someone explained that they use a mirror to help get bits of wood out of the eye... With wood flying everywhere I'm surprised they don't use protective glasses.

The colours are made with natural vegetable dyes like indigo for blue, turmeric for yellow, katakata for brown and annatto seeds for red. These are melted with lac and made into lac sticks. These coloured sticks are used to dye the wood once it has been sanded. While the wood turns on the lathe, the stick is pressed against it and the colour is transfered to the surface.

The artisans make traditional toys which have stood the test of time as well as newer designs which have been introduced more recently. A string with a little wooden ball is tied to the end of this toy. The game is to try to catch the ball into the receptacle!

This is an example of one of the older toys which used to be produced here. This piece is more than 40 years old is what the artisan explained to me.

I enjoyed capturing some of the details of the artisans' workspace. Here are some of the tools they use.

Piles of wood everywhere!

The wood used to make these toys is called Hale wood.

The floor of the workshop is covered in sawdust, bits of wood and splinters but work is worship so the artisans remove their footwear before entering their workspace.

Shiva and Parvati covered in sawdust and supervising operations.

Another corner of the workshop.

Some order in the chaos.

Waiting for the next tea break.

10 June 2010

Use your head

Carrying things on your head seems like the natural thing to do in India. The fruit seller walks through the neighbour with a big bag on his head yelling “Mosambi!”. At railway stations, red-shirted porters easily negotiate the crowds while balancing several bags piled on top of their heads. In villages, straight-backed women with colourful water pots tottering on their heads make their way home from the well. Then there are the numerous city construction sites where you can see women effortlessly carrying plateloads of cement on their heads.

Recently I was reading about Bangalore’s city market area in the paper. There was an interesting feature on ‘carriers’ or ‘runners’ who ‘run for a living’, carrying huge bags of fruits and vegetables. There are about 400 men who make a living in this way at the wholesale fruit and vegetable market.

The article featured Muniswamy, a ‘runner’ from Tamil Nadu. He gets up every day at 3am and heads to the wholesale market in Kalasipalyam. His job is to deliver huge sacks of fruits and vegetables to the nearby KR market. To do his job, he needs to use his head. He carries loads weighing up to 60kg on his head, and sets off towards KR market at a quick, measured pace. He makes eight trips a day, taking short breaks in-between. Each trip takes him 15 minutes and he makes 20 rupees each way (0.35EUR/0.44CAD/0.43USD).

The people who hire these human carriers say that they are cheaper than using trucks or auto-rickshaws and that this transportation method results in less damage to the fruits and vegetables.

This seems like a tough job for someone who needs to use his head to make a living.

04 June 2010

Tuesday holiday

The first day of June is an important day in South India. Traditionally it’s the first day of school after the two-month summer break. June 1st is also the day when the south-west monsoon is expected to set in over Kerala, bringing cool air and relief from the stifling heat as it travels northwards over much of the country.

This year the monsoon didn’t start on June 1st, and neither did school. The monsoon arrived in Kerala on May 31st: one day early. Schools however, opened one day late, on June 2nd.

While the monsoon’s arrival is affected by weather conditions and pressure systems, the first day of school was subject this year to the influence of the stars and planets.

Why did schools open one day later than usual? Because June 1st 2010 was a Tuesday. Tuesday is not considered to be an auspicious day in India. Tuesdays are associated with the planet Mars which is believed to have a negative influence. So Tuesday is not a good day to start new things, like a school year.

It’s also considered a bad day to get your hair cut. Some barber shops close on Tuesdays because they get few customers. If you’re not superstitious this could be the best day to get a haircut: you won’t have to wait! But if you’re not happy with the result the barber can say it’s not his fault; blame it on the stars!

I did a bit of web research on Vedic astrology and discovered that there are a host of other things you should or should not do according to the day of the week:

DO initiate discussions and negotiations with government officials.
DO eat mung dhal.
DON’T engage in commercial activities.
DON’T move into a new house.
DON’T do any strenuous activity or argue.

DO move into a new house.
DO make marital arrangements.
DO go to the doctor.
DO engage in betting and sports-related activities.
DO wear white.

DO engage in any activity requiring your intellectual faculties.
DO take an early morning journey.
DO plant trees.
DO wear green clothes.
DO eat beans.
DO NOT cause problems at work.
DO NOT start new ventures.

DO try to find anything you lost.
DO start new ventures or studies.
DO visit temples.
DO eat papaya.
DO NOT travel.

DO buy a new car, jewellery or a new house.
DO start medical treatment.
DO start charitable work.
DO travel.

DO attempt to solve legal problems.
DO buy food staples or horses.
DO dig wells.
BONUS: Any work initiated in the morning carries a high possibility of success!