31 January 2011

A whistle-stop temple tour

Not too long ago I went on a whistle-stop temple tour. In the course of a day I visited 6 temples in the company of ten Indian aunties. The aunties were a group of ladies made up of my landlady and her friends from her vedic-chanting group. Every month they take a road trip together, visiting a famous or significant temple somewhere not too far away from Bangalore.

The temples we visited were on the way to Mysore, just south of Bangalore. Each temple varied in architectural significance and aesthetic beauty but the aunties were not too concerned about history or architecture - they just wanted darshan from the various gods we visited in their sacred abodes. These included Shiva, crawling Krishna, Narasimha, Ranganatha, goddess Cauvery and Hanuman.

I joined this whirlwind road trip less for the religious aspect and more for the opportunity to see some old temples and take in their majestic architecture, admire the intricate sculptures and just soak up their positive energy.

We made our first stop before we had even left Bangalore at the Jalakanteshwar temple which is tucked away in a small side-street in the city market area. The aunties informed me that this small Shiva temple is supposed to be one of the city’s oldest. We didn’t linger long because we had places to go and things to do so we piled back into the Tempo Traveller and as the aunties passed around sweets we made our way to the next stop: the Sri Aprameya Swamy temple in Channapatna, 60 kilometres away. Here the presiding deity was Sri Ramaprameya, a form of Vishnu, but the aunties were more excited about seeing the idol of crawling baby Krishna the temple is famous for.

One of the other aunties in the group was Christian so she and I hung back from all the puja, priest and prayer stuff. Since I was there for the majestic beauty, I wandered around while the aunties were busy receiving the gods’ blessings. These ladies were part of a vedic chanting group after all, so they loudly launched into whatever sing-song Sanskrit prayer was appropriate for each god we were visiting. We spent maximum 20 minutes at each temple. The aunties were keen on getting their blessings before moving on to the next temple stop!

Next was Sri Nadinarasimhaswamy temple, only two kilometres away. “This temple is 1200 years old!” one auntie marvelled to me. Another told me it was 2000 years old, and then another… 3000, and so it went on… the temple was getting older by the minute! This was quite a small temple at a very scenic location on the Kanwa river.

The next stop was the most majestic temple of all: the Ranganathan Swamy temple at Srirangapatnam, near Mysore. This is one of the most important Vishnu temples in South India and it’s dominating size and regal architecture was proof of its status.

After all this temple hopping, the aunties and I had worked up quite an appetite so it was time for food – an important part of any excursion! The aunties had planned a picnic by the Cauvery river. We hopped back into our mini-bus and arrived at the Sangam: a confluence of 3 rivers. “3 rivers join here!” the aunties told me excitedly. But when I asked which were the other two rivers they had no clue.

This was a really beautiful place. There were huge granite boulders scattered here and there, with the currents of water running around them. Many had Shiva lingams on them. Some of the aunties took a sacred dip in the holy river. They did this fully dressed of course, Indian style. “This river is very sacred! That's why we take bath. You come too,” my landlady coaxed me. I wasn't interested in swimming fully clothed, sacred river or not, so I said I was fighting a cold. She then warned me not to even dip my feet into the water, out of the question!

We finally sat down to have the lunch the ladies had carefully prepared the night before. “Never eat outside food. Home food is best,” my landlady cautioned. Our impromptu picnic attracted the local crows, goats and sheep who were further encouraged by my landlady who threw pieces of her chappati at them.

After lunch it was time to pack up and after making a quick visit to the temple dedicated to goddess Cauvery on the riverbank, we hit the road back to Bangalore. On the way we made the obligatory stop at Maddur to have a quick snack of the famous Maddur Vada and managed to squeeze in a quick visit to a Hanuman temple before finally arriving home at 9pm.

That was my day spent with 10 aunties, 6 temples and 3 rivers.

12 January 2011

Kolam contest

While I was in Chennai, the Mylapore Festival was taking place. This is an annual festival of cultural events which is held in the historic neighbourhood of Mylapore. One of the events was a Kolam Contest. I knew this would be a great photo opportunity so I took my camera and headed to North Mada Street near the Kapaleeshwarar temple on Sunday afternoon.

When I arrived, there was a long line of woman waiting to register their names for the contest. A section of the street was closed to traffic. Each woman was allocated a space on the road about a square metre in size which was marked with a number.

Each space was carefully swept of debris and then sprinkled with water so that the rice powder used to draw the designs would ‘stick’ better.

First neat rows of evenly spaced dots were applied. These carefully calculated ‘dots’ ensure a geometrical symmetry to the kolam designs.

Quickly the rows of dots are then transformed into intricate and beautiful patterns made of elegant loops and swirls.

Each allocated square became an elaborate, beautiful design. Some featured flowers, peacocks, birds.

By now a crowd had gathered around the sidelines watching the road being transformed into a tapestry of decorative designs.

Drawing a kolam – also called rangoli (kolam is the Tamil word) – every morning in front of the household's doorstep is a tradition which persists in South India and is an example of how art is part of everyday life.

A kolam is like a ‘welcome mat’ welcoming you to the family home. It also has a spiritual significance: it helps gods find the way inside, bringing prosperity and good fortune to the household.

I don't know who the winners of the contest were, but I'm sure the judges had a hard time deciding!

10 January 2011

Winter in Chennai

In demand: Blanket hawkers hope to cash in on the cold weather the city has been experiencing. A scene at Anna Nagar. — Photo: K.Pichumani © The Hindu

This picture and caption appeared in today’s The Hindu newspaper. On the same page was the weather forecast for the day:

Chennai city today: a mostly cloudy sky. Haze with pleasant condition in the morning. A marginally warm and humid afternoon likely. High 29 degrees Celsius. Low 22 degrees. Relative humidity: maximum 90%.

01 January 2011

Happy New Year!

As I enter my 5th year in India, I wish a very Happy New Year to all my readers!