Tag Archives: Hanuman

Prophet’s Tooth and Sarasvati’s Lute: Chasing Calendar Icons

I visit mosques of the world and unearth relics of Mohammed; I collect a pantheon of cartoon gods and choose a winning goddess.

In between my encounters with fruits, flowers, and primal colours that make even Disney look tame (see previous post here), I found a vendor of Muslim devotional items.  When I asked if he had calendars, he strode off.  I almost lost him around a maze of corners, before reaching the Naaz Book Depot.  It had racks of calendars, many designed by the owner on his PC.  He bemoaned the decline in Arabic calligraphy.  Few people have the patience to spend hours or months doing by hand what computers can print in minutes.  When I said I was teaching English, he asked whether I taught calligraphy: he’d be my student.  I admitted my ignorance of the art – Dad once compared my writing to a drunken spider staggering across the page – and asked which of his calendars sold the best.

muslim-calendar-2012-meccaI bought two, both arranged by Western dates with the Muslim lunar days in small letters.  My birthday this year was Rabi-ul-Awwal 30.  Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals are marked in Hindi, English and Urdu scripts.  One calendar shows mosques on each page.  January has an aerial night-time photo of Mecca.  The concentric white rings of praying figures reminded me of raked sand in a Zen garden.  Other months show an old khaki façade in East Turkistan, a bland concrete box in Canada, a mosque in Jakarta with blue batik patterns, and the “floating” mosque in Borneo.  December gleamed with the Crystal Masjid in Malaysia, a fantasy of metallic domes and spires.  The collection of shots gave me a sense of the worldwide community of Islam.  On the rear of each page are the five daily prayer times in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore.

The second calendar has quarterly pages and is less orthodox.  Instead of mosques it has pictures of relics: a rough-edged parchment letter written by Muhammad, the Holy Mantle of the Prophet Mohammed, the “protective case of the leather sandal of the Prophet Hazrat Mohammed”, and, in a lump of black granite, the footprint of Mohammed.  The sword of Mohammed lies alongside its jewel encrusted sheath; jewelled reliquaries contain the tooth of Mohammed and soil from Mohammed’s grave.  Something like black wool in a glass cylinder with golden caps is labelled hair from the beard of Mohammed.  (Will anyone care to save my whiskers?)   By way of variety, one page had a box and blouse from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, with two items of clothing from the Shiite martyr Imam Hussain.

muslim-calendar-muhammad-relicsEach page has a saying of Mohammed from the Hadith.  “One should be scared of death, so stand up when you notice a funeral”.  “That nation will never be benefited which is owned and governed by a woman”.  I didn’t ask my new acquaintance what he thought of Prime Minister Indira or Sonia Gandhi.  But I shouldn’t mock, for “Backbiters will not enter Paradise”, and “those who do not show Mercy to others, Allah will never be Merciful to them.”

The centre of each page is a circular swirl of colour and calligraphy.  I suspect one page is the 99 names of God; page 4 resembled a Tibetan Buddhist Mandela.  I was intrigued by the promises appended to Arabic invocations, which struck me as more superstitious than Islamic.  “Whoever recites this Darood 80 times after Asar prayer on Friday his 80 years of sins are forgiven by the grace of Allah.”  Christ said he could call on 12 legions of angels (Matthew 26:53) or 72,000 in Roman military terms.  With a few repetitions you too can engage a similar count of heavenly aides.  “Reciting this Darood Shareef prompts seventy thousand angels to register virtues for the person who recites it up to one thousand day.”

7-secrets-from-hindu-calendar-artEquipped with Muslim calendars, I went in search of the Hindu equivalent. I’d seen garish calendars of gods hanging in shops, offices, hotels, and houses and had just bought a book that explains their meanings: Seven Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art.  I drew a blank on calendars, but around another corner two men were mounting pictures of gods in gold-painted frames.  Larger reproductions were embossed with glitter.  I asked to buy one of each smaller, non-sparkling print, which gave me 18 vivid icons of the most common gods, as bright as Walt Disney cartoons and spunkier than American superheroes.

hanuman-posterMonkey-god Hanuman, green as the Incredible Hulk, strides across a mountain meadow.  One hand wields a golden mace studded with rubies and emeralds; the other holds a forested hill aloft like a waiter carrying a plate.  (He had been dispatched to get a certain healing herb that grows on this sacred hill.  His botanical knowledge falls short of his strength so he brings the whole mountain instead.)

Elephant-headed Ganesh sits on a yellow lotus, belly bulging beneath his trunk.  His right tusk is broken off.  He was the scribe of the epic Mahabharata and his nib broke as he was writing it down.  Dictation continued so fast he had to grab this tusk for a pen.  His mouse crouches at his feet and nibbles on a sweet.  Ganesh is the son of blue-skinned Shiva, who sits on a Himalayan glacier with a trident, a cobra coiled around his neck and the river Ganges cascading from his knotted hair (see my post on Shiva here).  The god Vishnu reclines on the multi-hooded cosmic serpent, or poses in his incarnation with a lion’s head (see my post on Vishnu’s avatars here).

Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, sits in the lotus position on a pink lotus and pours out a shower of gold coins – businessmen love her.  My set lacked the gory gals who are favourites with feminists: Durga riding a tiger with abundant arms waving fearsome weapons, or black-skinned Kali with a necklace of skulls, tearing out a man’s intestines.

ganesh-lakshmi-postersOf all the female deities, whether sexy or scary, my babe would have to be Saraswati.  She’s the goddess of learning and the arts and I did get a picture of her.  She wears a red blouse and modest white sari.  One hand holds a book, a second fingers meditation beads, while her other two arms play the stringed veena, a sort of long bulbous lute.  For a portrait of Saraswati that’s less garish and Mickey Mouse, I bought a card at a Bangalore art gallery.  Ravi Varma was influenced by European painting, and he seats Saraswati in an impressionist scene of lotus blossoms on a pastel lake (1896).ravi-varma-1896-Saraswati

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High Security Easter: Hanuman, Cops and Christ

I remember the death of Christ and encounter the birth of a monkey god, cross barbed wire beset with flags and escape the clash of orange and green.

On Wednesday evening, sudden gusts whipped dust into my eyes and gloom descended over the Charminar, before the first rain I’d seen in weeks.  I took shelter in a second-floor air-con café, grabbed an ice coffee and an easy chair overlooking the square, and enjoyed the show for an hour.  As twilight deepened and the floodlights came on, the Charminar glowed purple, then rose, then yellow.  Lightning flashed behind it, though I heard no thunder.  The wind whipped flags.  Pyramids of fruit gleamed under bare bulbs.  Stall holders pulled tarpaulins over their carts and bag-sellers hurried off between showers.  Looking at headlights to see whether rain was still falling, I noticed how few vehicles had their lights on.

The weather seemed to herald the gloom of Good Friday, when darkness fell over Jerusalem as Jesus was crucified.  On Google I found Baptist Church Hyderabad was 10 minutes’ walk from my hotel, with a service at 11 am.  It sounded ideal.  Four policemen sat at the gate in front of rows of overflow seating under an awning.  There was an English bulletin and worship songs from Hillsong Australia were playing as I entered.  I also heard them in Korea and Kyoto years ago: the popular Protestant equivalent of the Roman Catholic mass in Latin.  The familiar tunes warm the heart of the homesick traveller and I hummed along with almost a tear, but it’s a shame more peoples aren’t praising God in their own style and tongue.

And, in fact, they were here.  The service turned out to be hours of incomprehensible Telegu.  For each of Christ’s seven last words from the cross there was a full sermon, prayers and bracket of songs.  Although I’d grabbed a pew under a fan, by 12:30 I’d emptied both my water bottles.  I slipped outside, heard shouting at the end of the street, and found out why the police were there.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-motorbikesYoung men zoomed past on motorbikes or an occasional truck.  I switched my camera speed to ISO High.  They waved bright orange or red pennants.  The cloth triangles showed a black silhouette of a jumping monkey wielding a mace.  The Christian Good Friday was also the Hindu Hanuman Jayanti, the birthday of the monkey god.  In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman and his simian hordes helped the divine Lord Ram recover his kidnapped wife (see my post here).  From a lamp post hung a political banner, showing party members alongside the blue-skinned Ram embracing Hanuman.  When motorcyclists shouted “Jai Shri Ram”, or “Hail Lord Rama”, the crowd responded with the same words, especially to the mighty hollering of a zealot standing on a motorbike.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-political-posterI remembered the headline in The Times of India at breakfast: “Blanket of Security for Rally Today”.  “Heavy bandobust arrangements are in place” and “10K Cops Deployed”, including 32 battalions of Special Police and four companies of Rapid Action Force, with peace committee volunteers also on vigil.  In British times the ruling Nizams were marked by religious tolerance, but Hyderabad has since become known as a riot-prone city.  In 2010, Hindu flags in Muslim areas sparked stone pelting and communal clashes at the Hanuman rally, leading to several days of curfew.  This year an inflammatory leader of a fundamentalist Hindu party was allowed to speak publicly.

“Police is geared up to handle any situation proactively” assured the commissioner, with police pickets near mosques and churches “to prevent any untoward incident.”  One building the size of a shed was encircled by coiled razor wire and covered in a tarpaulin.  Through a crack I glimpsed green, the colour of Islam: it was a Muslim shrine.

Ebbing and flowing, the stream of flags on wheels seemed endless.  Organisers had expected the bike rally to attract over 200,000 participants.  They were officially requested “not to cover their faces and not to hide the vehicle registration numbers with stickers”.  Many shops were keeping security roller doors down until after the Muslim Friday afternoon prayers.  Further along the street, youths danced to pumping Hindu music.  A lad waved a banner far longer than himself.  Small plastic pockets of water were distributed to sweating devotees.  No doubt many had downloaded the Hanuman ringtones advertised in the paper.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-flagsTraffic piled up behind police barricades on side streets and to get back to my hotel, I had to climb through barbed wire strands and weave through the gridlock.  I recalled the Passover festival in Jerusalem two millennia ago, when the presence of Roman troops was pumped up to make sure religious excitement didn’t turn to revolution.  The tensions between idol-worshipping Romans and monotheistic Jews were not unlike those between Hindus and Muslims here today.

I read of the aftermath a few days later, once I was safely in Bangalore.  There were a few jitters as the procession passed a mosque and a few Muslims with slogans, but no real trouble and the cops were relaxed.  Later on, however, riots broke out.  People were stabbed.  Dead animals and dog parts were thrown into places of worship.  For much of the week the old city around the Charminar where I’d been in the previous days was completely closed.  Tourists were frustrated.  Shops lost revenue.  Residents were running out of medicine and milk.

O come the day when the Prince of Peace, killed in darkness at Easter and risen in new life, will complete his work and break down every wall of resentment, religion and race.