Saturday, September 1, 2012
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Two weeks of Varanasi was far too much. In something of a stupor, it took me an inordinately long time to decide what to do and where to go next. Uncertainty about the Austrian Labor Ministry's final ruling on our visa case didn't help.
Varanasi was mostly alright as long as I could remain in a poo-free exclusion zone. Never have I seen (or smelled) so much excrement. Varanasi must be the poo capital of the universe. Herds of buffalo wandering through the slum close to my guest house only made matters worse. Around Assi Ghat and nearby temples, the situation was no better.
One fine morning the wholly uninspiring cookery of the guest house laid waste to the poo-free exclusion zone within the guest house. At 2:00 AM, I awoke with stomach pains, and didn't quite make it to the toilet on time. It was at that point that I realized that I needed to make a decision regarding departure quite soon.
Several ideas were bandied about in my feverish mind. Josh-bhai suggested Kathmandu. I thought of Goa or Kovalam. Eventually I settled on Cochin, maybe to revisit the lanes of MANAM, mostly because Kerala is clean and the food is wonderful, and the South indeed marks a clear departure.
For some reason, no matter how hard I scoured, it was impossible to find a listing or even a phone number for the hilariously misnamed Park Avenue Hotel in Fort Cochin. In any case, I booked something else for one night, with the intention of coming personally to check things out on Princess Street.
Booking a trip on Air India, reckoning that if the first plane was delayed, they would still be obliged to get me all the way to Kerala, my fears in this regard were borne out. We were delayed an hour out of Varanasi. I did indeed make it to the connecting flight, which lasted a whole three hours (India is a big country). In my meal, there was a scratch card for prizes. One such prize was an induction-compatible set of pots and even an electric induction burner. That was the one that seemed the most practical, and to be sure, over my airplane chicken curry rice, I began to covet it. Eventually I scratched the card. And won!!
Of course every silver lining has a cloud, and our flight landed in the wrong terminal for me to be able to collect the prize. So I can say with a fair amount of confidence that I won't willingly fly Air India again any time soon.
The morning after my late night arrival, I duly went down to Princess Street to seek out the Park Avenue Hotel. Why? Well Cochin is kind of a special place for me. I only ever experienced happiness in this place.
The first time was in 2001, on my first trip to India. And it was wonderful enough that I was ultimately rather regretful to have left it for Chennai. That required corrective action, which came at long last in 2007. That second visit coincided with the formation of MANAM which was a happy enough occurrence that I still feel a certain nostalgia five years later.
This is Trip #3. The Park Avenue Hotel was never in the greatest state of repair. At the time of writing, it had closed down for renovations, that were probably necessary ten years ago as well. I found something cheap, good, cozy and quiet just around the corner. And as soon as I had unpacked my backpack, the receptionist asked me if I wanted to be in a Malayali movie. Without even a nanosecond of hesitation, I promptly agreed. What's more, wages for extras had gone up significantly since last I was in the never-released Har Pal. Back then, it was 500-600 rupees a day. Now it is 1000. So we shall see how this Malayali movie pans out.
In the meantime, I'm filled with a present-tense positive nostalgia when walking along Fort Cochin's renowned seaside boardwalk. It features the Chinese fishing nets for which the place is famous, as well as relics from Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial endeavors on the Malabar Coast. It's like having a personal history in this place as well; although it has been five years since my last visit, it is all so wonderfully familiar.
I can also say that I enjoy the company of the locals. In 1957, in a stroke of historical foresight, the people of Kerala elected the world's first parliamentary Communist government. One legacy of that fateful decision was the highest literacy rate in all of India (not quite 100%, but nearly). Another is the least caste-conscious society within the country, although that Kerala is home to half of India's Christians may also have some bearing on this issue. The people I meet time and again are educated, articulate, cultured, and generally very engaging. Also of interest is the historical Jewish community, of which only a remnant remains. Nevertheless, Jew Town, as it is known, still houses a 400 year-old synagogue, which is still somewhat in use, and seems to be in a better state of repair than what is left of its much younger counterpart in Yangon.
Kerala is also known as the Land of Coconuts. These figure prominently in the local cuisine, which by any measure, is delectable. Indeed, I had practically stopped eating in Varanasi, and came down south to get the mojo back into my appetite. This verily succeeded.
I am also working on the assumption that this will be the final destination in my Back for More adventure in India. I expect the Austrian Labor Ministry to pronounce itself shortly regarding our case, and once it does, regardless of outcome, I will head back to Bangkok for the next phase in my traveller's life. But for now, grilled fish and prawns in coconut curry beckon.
Friday, August 17, 2012
Thursday, August 16, 2012
Monday, July 16, 2012
In that little thumb of land wedged in between the Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan, Darjeeling is perched some 2100 meters above sea level. A bustling town and regional hub, officially in the state of West Bengal, Darjeeling has far more of a Nepali and Tibetan feel to it. Indeed, not much Bengali is heard; the main Indian language is Hindi. The local cinema, in the rather sad Rink Mall, has only played, since we've been here, Hindi films.
Not being able to resist the temptation of Hindi movies here in the Desh, so far I have seen Bol Bachchan and Cocktail, the only two that have played. The latter flick, starring Saif Ali Khan (how does he still look so good?), the surprisingly versatile Deepika Padukone, as well as Diana Penty, deals with a love triangle, in a modern way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. A thumping soundtrack makes it a film worth seeing. As for Bol Bachchan, it was kind of silly, but still amusing. Its fight scenes were really good though.
But I digress. It's monsoon time in India, and the putative state of Gorkhaland is no exception. The mist and clouds are always thick, and the drizzle is more or less constant. Yet for a brief period each morning, the clouds open up revealing the spectacular mountain range, in view from almost everywhere, including from our hotel room. We awake each day to monks chanting and the wafting of temple incense. The hotel Seven Seventeen is owned by a Tibetan family; they built it from an initial six rooms twenty years ago to a formidable six floors. And they've done a great job at it, too.
There is plenty to do in Darjeeling. We have been to the Himalayan zoo, with its well-kept grounds and fascinating collection of species large and small, native to this region. There are parks. There are endless lane ways to get lost in, up and down the hills of the town. Of particular note is the cable car. Although Adam was reluctant to go with so much low-flying cloud, it ended up being a blessing. Going down, we could see the tea plantations just beyond the mist below. Coming up, I had the distinct sense of ascending to heaven, enveloped in fluffy clouds. There's even a fetching botanical garden, although in the rain it was somewhat less than wonderful, save for the orchid house, which was indoors.
What's more, in addition to the very shanti vibe, the breathtaking vistas, Darjeeling has no discernible population of mosquitoes. It's quite nearly paradise. I'm thinking it may be the best place I've been to in all of India, with Kovalam as the runner-up.
We're about halfway through our stay in this delightful town. Arrangements have however been been for the following two legs of our journey. Next up: tear up the town with good friends in big city Delhi, my hands-down favorite metro in India. Thereafter, up to Leh, aka Ladakh, in the Tibetan portion of Kashmir, all of 3500 meters above sea level, with an excellent probability of snow. Stay tuned. Austrian Immigration can take its sweet time.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Konark Sun Temple is a 13th century Sun Temple (also known as the Black Pagoda), at Konark, in Orissa. It was constructed from oxidized and weathered ferruginous sandstone by King Narasimhadeva I (1238-1250 CE) of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty.Legend has it that the temple was constructed by Samba, the son of Lord Krishna. It is said that Samba was afflicted by leprosy, brought about by his father’s curse on him. After 12 years of penance, he was cured by Surya, the Sun God, in whose honor he built the magnificent Konark Sun Temple.
The Sun Temple, built in the thirteenth century, was conceived as a gigantic chariot of the Sun God, with twelve pairs of exquisitely ornamented wheels pulled by seven pairs of horses. Majestic in conception, this temple is one of the most sublime monuments of India, famous as much for its imposing dimensions and faultless proportions as for the harmonious integration of architectural grandeur with plastic allegiance. Every inch of the temple is covered with sculpture of an unsurpassed beauty and grace, in tableaux and freestanding pieces ranging from the monumental to the miniature. The subject matter is fascinating. Thousands of images include deities, celestial and human musicians, dancers, lovers, and myriad scenes of courtly life, ranging from hunts and military battles to the pleasures of courtly relaxation. These are interspersed with birds, animals (close to two thousand charming and lively elephants march around the base of the main temple alone), mythological creatures, and a wealth of intricate botanical and geometrical decorative designs.
The temple is famous for its erotic sculptures, which can be found primarily on the second level of the porch structure. It will become immediately apparent upon viewing them that the frank nature of their content is combined with an overwhelming tenderness and lyrical movement. This same kindly and indulgent view of life extends to almost all the other sculptures at Konark, where the thousands of human, animal, and divine personages are shown engaged in the full range of the 'carnival of life' with an overwhelming sense of appealing realism.
Legend has it that, the uniqueness of the temple lies in the fact that between every two stone pieces there lies an iron plate (this can be clearly seen). The temples higher floors have been reinforced using massive iron beams. This fantastic effort in human perseverance took 1200 workers about 12 years to complete and that the ’’Dadhinauti’’ (Peak) of the main temple had to be installed by the 12 year old son of the Chief Architect. The said peak being a 52 ton magnet. This magnet was the reason the entire edifice endured the harsh conditions (being on the sea front) for centuries without being affected. The main pratima (idol) was believed to be floating in the air because of the unique arrangements of the main magnets and other series of magnets. The placement of the temple had been aligned in a way that the first rays of the Sun falling on the coast would pass thru the Nata Mandir and would reflect from the diamond placed at the center of this idol in the Main Sanctum. This phenomena would last for a couple of minutes during the early morning. These magnets were later removed by the Britishers for acquiring the magnetic stone,
Other legends state that, the magnetic effects of the lodestone was so strong that it disturbed the ships compasses that passed by the coast and the ships would run aground. To save their trade and their ships, the Portuguese took away the lodestone. The lodestone that was acting as the central stone and keeping all the stones of the temple wall balanced, fell out of alignment because of its removal and eventually led to the destruction of Main Sanctum.