28 August 2011

Jagannath’s day

While I was in Puri, I had another chance to experience the Rath Yatra. The last time I was here I had witnessed the first day of the Rath Yatra when Lord Jagannath leaves his home at the Jagannath Temple, along with his brother Lord Balabhadra and his sister Devi Subhadra, and makes the 3-kilometre journey to the Gundicha temple where they visit their aunt for nine days.
This time I arrived during the Bahuda Yatra, when they make the return journey home. On the last day, each of the three custom-made chariots were parked in front of the temple as throngs of Jagannath devotees swarmed the square for darshan before the gods went back into the temple. This is the only opportunity for non-Hindus to get a glimpse of the gods since only Hindus are allowed into the temple. Though I had a good look at the majestic, brightly-coloured chariots, I couldn’t see Jagannath or his siblings: they were too far, there were too many priests crowded on the chariots and the idols were covered with too many flowers.
The Jagannath Temple is Puri’s most famous landmark and an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. This temple is also famous for the very strict enforcement of its policy of allowing entry to Hindus only. Even Indira Gandhi was denied entry because she had married a Parsi! Then there was the case a few years ago of a foreigner who had somehow entered the temple and caused an uproar. The temple had to be ‘purified’ and all the ‘contaminated’ food buried.
The fact that I’m not allowed in this temple makes its more intriguing for me. I asked a friend to film the inside so I could see what I was missing. But apparently even that isn’t allowed. Another friend assured me that the temple is not really worth a visit: “It’s filthy and full of corrupt priests who show you around and then ask for money. You haven’t missed a thing,” she informed me.
I’m impressed with Jagannath’s annual vacation ritual and all the trouble and effort that’s taken to make it memorable for him and his siblings. When he’s not on holiday, he leads a quieter but pampered existence at the Jagannath temple.
I happened to meet one of the chief priests of the temple who described to me the temple’s and Lord Jagannath’s daily schedule in detail.
At 5am, the door to the sanctum where the idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are kept is opened. The devotees sing verses from the Gita Govinda to wake them up. Once they’re awake, they do arati (a fire ritual). The temple priests assigned to the task of dressing Jagannath get him ready for his bath. They brush his teeth and shave him. They fix his hair (this intrigues me because the idol is made of wood and has no ‘hair’ – unless they put a wig and crown on him?). Then they dress him. His clothes are changed every two hours throughout the day. A truck-full of flowers like champa, tulsi, marigolds, dayana, etc. is delivered daily. These are used to decorate him.
At 8am, Jagannath is ready for public darshan. The temple doors are opened and devotees stream in to pray and ask for his blessings. An hour later, it’s time to change his clothes, decorate him with jewellery and fresh flowers, and serve him breakfast. Breakfast is coconut, curd and bananas. While Jagannath is having his breakfast, the temple floors are swept and washed.
At 10am it’s time for sakala drupa – the morning food offering of different preparations of rice, dal and vegetables. Then the doors are closed for 5-10 minutes while devotional songs are sung before being opened again for public darshan.
Before the ‘big lunch’ or Chatrabhog, the temple sanctum is cleaned and Jagannath gets another change of clothes. For lunch he’s fed different preparations of rice, dal, curries and sweets. This lasts two hours. The temple kitchen cooks for 100,000 people each day. The food is cooked in pots made of earthenware on wood fires. After the food is offered to Jagannath, the rest becomes prasad for the devotees.
After the 'big lunch', the temple is tidied up and Jagannathan once again gets a change of clothes. From 4 to 5 o’clock, another meal is served, called madhyanadupa, with sweets, curd and cakes. This must be the equivalent to ‘tea time’ for Jagannath.
The doors are then closed and it’s time for some more singing for the god’s entertainment. The floors are washed again, his clothes are changed (yet) again, and then it’s time for evening puja and arati. Jagannath is decorated with flowers and anointed with sandalwood.
At night Jagannath is dressed in a sari covered with the words of the Gita Govinda. 40 years ago, temple dancers would dance in the inner sanctum during this time. Badasingharabhoga is the last meal of the day, consisting of curd rice, rice and dal. Then the temple is closed for the day. 3 beds are laid out in the sanctum for the idols and they’re put to sleep. After arati, the sanctum is closed. The devotees and priests sing songs from the Gita Govinda to put the gods to sleep. Jagannath falls asleep after a busy day.

15 August 2011

Jana Gana Mana

I like India's national anthem. The anthems of many countries have a military-march sound to them and are about conquests and victories. Jana Gana Mana is melodious, soulful and stirring, and was penned by the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, who also wrote the music.

The lyrics are in Sankritized Bengali. Here's the meaning:

Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people,
Dispenser of India's destiny.
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindhu,
Gujarat and Maratha,
Of the Dravida and Orissa and Bengal;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,
mingles in the music of Jamuna and Ganges and is
chanted by the waves of the Indian Sea.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.
The saving of all people waits in thy hand,
Thou dispenser of India's destiny.
Victory, victory, victory to thee.

This is the version of Jana Gana Mana played in cinemas just before the film starts. It features many of India's greatest classical singers like Late Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, and Dr Balamuralikrishna, as well as popular 'playback' singers: Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, D.K. Pattammal, Hariharan, Kavita Krishnamurthy, and of the course the famous film music composer A.R. Rahman.

Today marks India's 64th year of independence.

12 August 2011

A visit to Chettinad

Over the past two months, I’ve been away from my usual window, and looking through others… in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Orissa. I’ll be sharing some glimpses of what I saw in these places in my next few posts...

One night in June, I took an overnight bus to Karaikudi, a small town in the Tamil Nadu heartland, and arrived in the early morning. I was in the heart of the Chettinad region, a unique place for many reasons.

After a nap I was ready to explore the town. Walking through the streets, I felt like I had taken a step back in time. There were few cars and many bicycles. Most of the men were dressed in lungis, and the older men were often in white.

And at every turn, I came across magnificent houses: 2-storied structures with arches, pillared verandas and ornate gates, surrounded by protective walls. Many were in a dilapidated state and looked abandoned.

These palatial homes offered a hint to a majestic past. They were built close to 100 years ago, when the Chettiars were wealthy merchants, bankers and business people. From 1870 to 1930, they traded with other lands in South-East Asia: Burma, Ceylon, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia. They brought their wealth home to Chettinad and built these extravagant houses richly decorated with the treasures they carried back with them: solid-teak pillars from Burma, Japanese tiles, Italian marbles and Belgian mirrors.

These houses would have at least 50 rooms, many used to store their many riches and treasures. Built on an East-West axis, a typical Chettiar house had three courtyards: the first, which was used to conduct business, was the most extravagant. The middle one was used to receive guests during weddings. And the last, towards the back of the house, had an open courtyard and was reserved for women.

The Chettinad region is made up of a collection of 75 villages over a radius of 1550 square kilometres. Only about a third of these beautiful palatial homes remain today (7-8000). There are some efforts to preserve these heritage properties. A few have been converted into hotels (like the Saratha Vilas heritage hotel below) and one will soon house the Chettinad museum.

Apart from its many palaces, Chettinad is also famous for its handicrafts. In the village of Athangudi, floor tiles are made by hand:

And then there are the famous Kandanghi saris made of brightly-coloured cottons:

There's a lot to explore in such a culturally rich region like Chettinad. That's why I plan to return soon!