November 13, 2009

Buoyant Benaras

Filed under: Leisure,Religion,Uttar Pradesh — loggers @ 10:01 am

Thus far, most places we have visited have beckoned us due to their explanatory power. In our attempt to avoid repetitions, we’ve selected villages, towns and cities which have a unique place on India’s economic, political or socio-cultural map. Benaras, and Uttar Pradesh, were chosen for their ability to augment the religious and political understanding of India.

As soon as we arrived in Benaras, we headed to the Dashashwamedh ghat (bank) to attend the evening Ganga aarti (prayer). This daily ritual, witnessed by hundreds of tourists, is a visual delight that is a mandatory stop for everybody visiting the city. In fact, many tourists are drawn to Benaras by the visuals of this ceremony. The practice captures the often inexplicable religiosity of a majority of Indians who worship a multitude of objects, living beings and geographical features. The Ganges is considered the lifeline of the north as it is credited with lending fertility to the lands of several states before it merges with the Bay of Bengal. However, this knowledge and the mere existence of the water body has become a curse for these states which take the flow of the river for granted and refuse to part with their lands for any activities, thereby not fully exploiting its fecundity.


Preparations for the evening Ganga Aarti

On Diwali day we visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple, considered one of the most sacred spots in the country for Hindus. The compound surrounding the temple also contains a mosque, which is surrounded by barbed wire. The very existence of 2 different places of worship in the same complex is most telling. Not only does it reveal the coexistence of multiple communities in India, it is a comment on the insecurity of a mosque in a post-Babri India. That barbed wires have been erected to prevent another demolition is a worrying reality. The area is heavily guarded by security personnel, who themselves routinely jump queues to enter the temple in order to seek blessings. The line to enter the temple is quite heterogeneous by region, as patrons from across the country throng the site.

We proceeded to taste some Benarasi thandai, a milky concoction of saffron, almonds, peppermint and cream. These stalls are famous for their bhaang (marijuana) thandai. We stuck to the sober version which was quite a delight. We also checked in at a local chaat shop to sample various local delicacies. The tamatar (tomato) chaat is an idiosyncrasy and a must try. Another item not to be missed, which is unique to Benaras is Baati Chokha — a local favorite consisting of a coal baked wheat ball and a mixed vegetable made of potatoes, aubergine, tomato, garlic, onion and mustard oil.


Thandai being prepared


Baati Chokha stalls

To truly explore Benaras you must get hold of a local, preferably with a motorbike as the alleys of the city house its most precious sites and practices. 2 loggers and our host (a local journalist) traversed Benaras on one motorbike — it was a workable exercise in addition to being a visual delight for bystanders. This is how we made our way to India’s biggest and most pious cremation ground. The banks also serve as burning grounds for bodies of the deceased which are brought in large numbers. It is said that the process is perpetual, and the practitioners believe that there is an expressway from this spot to heaven. In order to ensure that none of the souls go to hell, the orchestrators of the last rites pull out the spinal cord of the bodies – while they are burning – and throw them into the river for purification. Apparently, all sins are washed away by the receptacle of all living and non-living things — the Ganges.

Cremation Ground

During our stay in Benaras we visited the Benaras Hindu University, one of Asia’s largest educational institutions. The museum within the campus, Bharat Kala Bhawan, is remarkable as it houses a wide range of artifacts. The curator complained of insufficient funding and as a result, a deficiency of manpower and space. In fact, only 2 per cent of the collection has been displayed. Despite these constraints, the museum has been very well maintained. The University, with ~100 departments, is a wonder in itself.


Library at BHU

To conclude we would like to submit that a part of India’s pulse can be gauged in Benaras. Its narrow streets with countless people, order in that chaos and multiple shades of every color make for the right paraphernalia for one of the world’s oldest cities. It is a confluence of history, religion and spiritualism which questions the simplicity of frameworks usually deployed to understand India.


October 22, 2009

The Bihar Buddha Trail

Filed under: Bihar,Leisure,Religion — loggers @ 11:23 pm

After a night in Patna, we pushed off for an excursion to the Nalanda and Gaya districts- centers of origin for Buddhist and Jain philosophies. Our first stop was the ancient Nalanda University, a monastery and educational institution, which dates back to the days of Buddha and Mahavir (6th century BC). The institution represented that of a modern-day liberal arts college as it offered courses ranging from Philosophy to Grammar to Astronomy. With living quarters for the monks and designated lecture grounds, and even had international students enrolled from China and Persia at its peak in 5th century AD. While the 5th, 6th and 7th levels have been excavated, much of the ruins remain underground and are yet to be seen dug up by archeologists.

Campus ruins

Campus ruins

Private monk-to-disciple teaching quarters

Private monk-to-disciple teaching quarters

From Nalanda University, we drove about 40kms to the city of Rajgir. One of the first things we noticed were signs pointing to a Japanese temple. We later found that the presence of East Asian countries with heavy Buddhist influence would only increase as we gained proximity to Bodhgaya, the city where Buddha attained enlightenment. We topped off the evening with a sunset ropeway ride down from the World Peace shrine (also built by the Japanese), which is perched upon a hill where Buddha spent time meditating.

The World Peace shrine

The World Peace shrine


The following day, we took another short road trip to Bodhgaya, where Japan, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Thailand have all erected their own respective Buddhist shrines with unique ethnic flavors. The town is also home to the sacred peepul tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. As a result, the town is a hotbed of tourist activity, where you can also find travelers from all over the world crowded around a snake charmer outside a Japanese temple, before grabbing lunch at a Thai restaurant- something one may not expect from small-town India.

Thai shrine in Bodhgaya

Thai shrine in Bodhgaya

Local shop signs in Japanese 'katakana'

Just another shop sign in katakana

October 12, 2009

Temple Visits in Orissa

Filed under: Economics,Leisure,Orissa,Religion — loggers @ 12:52 am

To complete our visit to Orissa, we dedicated a day to visiting the Konark ruins and the Jagannath temple. The ruins of Konark, one of the 4 sun temples in India, are located ~65km outside of Bhubaneshwar on the road to Puri. While a guide is helpful for explaining the history behind the construction/destruction of the temple, this information can also be found easily on Wikipedia. What we found fascinating were the intricate, and graphic, carvings on the temple walls.

The Konark temple ruin

The Konark temple ruin

The enormous wheels that border the temple were geometrically designed as timetables- depicting what people should be doing at different times of the day under social norms. Most of the other 100’s of carvings on the walls had one defining feature in common- they were all depiction of the kama sutra. A barrage of positions will keep you engaged as you stroll around the main structure, and a guide would be able to provide interesting insight as some may be difficult to decipher. The morning, mid-day, and evening sun gods overlook the grounds, and each is given the spotlight during his respective hour while you find the others in the shade. The geometrical precision and cultural boldness in the carvings make for an eye-opening spiritual/historical experience.

Timetable wheel in the midday shadow

Konark wheel in midday shadow



The Jagannath temple, located in the city of Puri[1], is more aligned with what we are used to seeing in Hindu places of worship. We left our cameras and phones in the car, because photography is prohibited, and headed up the 2km road to the temple on rickshaws. The shrewd locals have capitalized on this being one of the most popular religious destinations in the world, erecting dharamsalas lining both sides of the road. Later that evening, the city market was buzzing with a peculiar energy. Fish vendors, local pujas, rickshaw wallahs and snack stalls were all in action, while an old-fashioned cremation was taking place just off the road. Everyone was spending money in some way or another and contributing to the unofficial “C” that is not reflected in India’s GDP. This sparked thoughts on the suffocating grip that religion holds over the Indian economy…

What would happen if a Prime Minister ever announced that s/he was an atheist?

Can the number of religious holidays/occasions ever be curbed in the interest of productivity?

What is the country’s ratio of temples to schools or hospitals?

…Just food for thought

Puri beach- the Goa of the East

Puri- the Goa of East India

[1] Puri is also home to one of India’s cleanest beaches (comparable to Goa), where dolphins are occasionally spotted.

September 28, 2009

Vishvakarma Festival and Kamakhya Devi Temple

Filed under: Assam,Religion — namanpugalia @ 3:43 pm

Upon arrival in Guwahati, I noticed that all vehicles were sporting colorful ribbons on their bumpers and windscreens. Before I could request my friend, and host, to explain the significance of the paraphernalia, he told me that the city was celebrating the Vishvakarma festival. That also meant that Guwahati was observing an unofficial holiday. Informal local holidays and bandhs (quiet curfews) are regular features in this part of the country. Alacrity is not a virtue widely possessed  in Assam and the state prides itself on a lahe-lahe (slowly-slowly) culture, indicative of going about business in a sluggish manner.

Decorated rickshaw during Vishvakarma pooja

Decorated rickshaw during Vishvakarma pooja

Lord Vishvakarma is considered the divine engineer of the world. Every year, on September 17th, industrial houses, mechanics, artists, craftsmen, weavers and other professionals (workers) pray to the Lord, thanking him for all his creations. Demographics of a region seem to play an important role in determining religious practices, as is evident in Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand – eastern states which have a large number of industrial workers and, as a result, a vibrant Vishvakarma pooja (prayer). It is an occasion when industrial workers take over the streets, representing a coming out party of the poor.

Pooja stall during Vishvakarma festival

Pooja stall during Vishvakarma festival

Later in the day, I visited the Kamakhya Devi temple, an ancient reservoir perched on a hill with splendid views of Guwahati. It is believed that a piece of Goddess Sita’s abdomen was found at the site, rendering it to be one of 18 holy Maha-Shakti Peethas in India. Priests at the temple claim that everyone can find her/his origins at this temple and that by “touching the water in the reservoir, one will feel his/her roots.”

Kamakhya temple in Guwahati

Kamakhya temple in Guwahati

Different  beliefs can, and do, exist simultaneously and in close proximity in India. This very concurrence is often viewed as the secret behind India’s survival in spite of the rampant heterogeneity that is reflective of our society. Certain priests on a hill proclaimed that their Goddess is the creator of all, whereas down below workers chanted vociferously to thank their God for all that he has created. The creations are tangible; the creator is one’s own version.

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