Tag Archives: temples

Bangles and Beggars: the Charminar Bazaar

Pastel Buddha, Sikh pudding and Jain disappointment; a gallery of marvels and a market of gems: cricket and Mecca, glowing fruit and perfumed wrists and begging without hands.

On Thursday I moved to the Hotel Rajmata in central Hyderabad for my remaining four nights in town.  About NZ$20 per day for a large twin room with TV and bathroom, sheets a bit grubby, the Times of India shooting under my door each morning.  Continuing my religious education, from here I visited a number of sacred sites.  (See my Hyderabad photos here.)

I climbed a winding lane to the Birla Mandir temple, built from white marble in 1976.  A dying red ball of sun flickered over the sea and artificial lake below, turning the sky pastel pink-blue behind the slim 17.5m Buddha statue on its miniature island, which I later ferried to.  Carved stone panels cited Moses, Jesus, Confucius, Sai Baba, as well as Hindu scriptures.  The compulsory shoe, bag and camera deposit stated “Free Service – Give No Tips”, so the elderly attendant requested “change”.

I draped my pocket sweat cloth over my head to enter a Sikh gurudwara (similar to one in Bangalore I described here).  A hefty turbaned attendant woke from his slumbers and approached.  I feared I had caused offence, but was given a handful of sacred karkah pudding, prepared while reciting their scriptures and offered to all visitors irrespective of religion or caste.

I found my first Jain temple tucked away in the buzzing Sultan Bazaar.  Rice grains were spread on the floor in their reverse-swastika symbol.  No English information, but cartoons on the walls illustrated stories I recognised from our Jainism lecture (see here).  Books lay in offering before one stone idol, their covers smeared with the same paste worshippers anoint themselves with.  From a shrine on the roof I photographed the bazaar below.  Before leaving the hotel I’d switched my leather belt (forbidden in strict Jain temples) for a synthetic one, but was disappointed that no one checked, and that I didn’t see any Jain monks wearing gauze masks to avoid breathing insects.

Hyderabad was ruled by the Moslem Nizams until 1948, and the Salar Jung museum contains their collection of world art.  Signs were in English, Hindi, Telegu (the local state language), and Urdu (slightly modified Arabic script).  The day I was there, 14 November, was the birthday of Nehru, the first prime minister of India.  He loved kids so it’s also Children’s Day.  The museum swarmed with uniformed lasses and lads, the latter keen to shake my hand.

There were many wonders here.  An all marble “Veiled Rebecca” – I first thought the veil was cloth.  A mat woven from ivory threads.  Silver elephant ornaments: ear and ankle rings, necklaces, forehead plates.  Paintings of the Moghul ruler Akbar hunting with his hawk, and the sword of the last emperor Aurangzeb.  The Japanese art shared a certain sparse beauty with Muslim calligraphy, of which one style, said a label, came from a dream of a heron.  It all gave a taste of the city’s former elegance.

The city’s icon is the Charminar (“four towers”), a square tower with 56 m high corner minarettes, built in 1591 to mark the end of an epidemic.  It’s still an icon of ill-health, best known on packets of Charminar cigarettes.  From the top I admired the huge Mecca mosque silhouetted against the twilight, while feeling a little uneasy as others pushed past – there is only a one-foot-high stone wall between you and the swirling hustle below.

The Charminar is surrounded by a labyrinth of small shops and markets.  I found a street of smiley Muslims selling khowa, the milk powder base for Indian sweets.  “Chicken centres” with caged birds.  Water pumped from hand-wells.  Square-inch silver foil was hammered flat between book pages.  Tailors re-stitched shirts, feet pedalling their sewing machines.  I tried to distinguish smells of different samples dabbed on my hand at Chunilal Dayal Das Perfumers: House of Indian Attars, established 1885.

I must have given my country and name dozens of times.  Upon learning I’m from NZ, most mention cricket or cricketers like Stephen Fleming and Richard Hadlee (unlike in Korea a few years ago, where people knew the Lord of the Rings movies).  Cricketing knowledge would facilitate conversation but is an interest I lack.  Until recently the only Flemings I knew were author Ian and pharmacologist Alexander.

Jewellers’ counters sparkle like Aladdin’s Cave.  On the street, baskets display billions of glittering bangles on pink rolls.  Even poor wrists jangle four or more silver bracelets.  In the “Moin Bangles Centre, Specialists in Immitation Stone Bangles and Jewellery”, the owner, white robed and capped, posed for me with fingers dangling inch-wide bangles encrusted with glass gems.  I purchased one.  A guy on top of a bus lifted dangling power lines snagging its roof rack.  Several kids asked to see NZ coins – I must bring some next time.

In a vegetable market, between weighing pans, heaped produce and foraging goats, sat a lady robed in black with her face and even eyes completely veiled.  She cried out for alms, with one beseeching hand malformed like a shrunken foot.  Somehow this faceless beggar disturbed me more than others.  To give or not to give?  Many beggars apparently choose to sponge off tourists – it’s more lucrative than a productive occupation (especially, no doubt, for pretty young women with babies), or are fuelling addictions.  But some are still missing hands, or drag themselves along on trolleys trailing deformed legs.  Apart from a few slices of bread from the loaf I often carry for safe snacking, I haven’t given to beggars.  I’m thinking I should donate to India when I get back, via World Vision or the like, hopefully producing more lasting change for the truly needy than any coins I might give here.

After dark, geometrically-stacked spheres of bright fruit glow under bare electric bulbs.  A line of Muslim calendars, with Arabic script and pictures of the cubic black Kaaba in Mecca, hangs above a row of Hindu gods and gurus.  I bought cards for the Muslim Eid festivals that end the fasting and pilgrimage months, and a wall-hanging with pictures of minarets and palm trees, “Muhammed” and “Allah” written in Arabic.  A friendly Muslim store-keeper told me the holy names should be held in the right hand by my heart, not swung below my waist in the left.  An outstandingly honest auto-rickshaw driver I approached directed me to cross a bridge (through smoke from smouldering litter on the unkempt river banks) and catch a bus back to my hotel instead.

See how the speckled sky burns like a pigeon’s throat,
Jewelled with embers of opal and peridote.

See the white river that flashes and scintillates,
Curved like a tusk from the mouth of the city-gates.

Hark, from the minaret, how the muezzin’s call
Floats like a battle-flag over the city wall.

From trellised balconies, languid and luminous
Faces gleam, veiled in a splendour voluminous.

Leisurely elephants wind through the winding lanes,
Swinging their silver bells hung from their silver chains.

Round the high Char Minar sounds of gay cavalcades
Blend with the music of cymbals and serenades.

Over the city bridge Night comes majestical,
Borne like a queen to a sumptuous festival.

Nightfall in the City Of Hyderabad
Sarojini Naidu


Queuing for Krishna and Avatar Blues

First-class Krishna, dreaming Vishnu, and a zoo of incarnations: revamping Noah, avenging Macbeth, and the warrior on a white horse.

After attending church and visiting Bangalore palace, I took a rickshaw to the Sri Radha Krishna temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the full name of the Hari Krishna movement.  Wearily sitting on a wall, I counted 70 sardines in one of 7 queues, on one of two entrance levels, yielding a guestimated 1000 souls in Purgatory.  I later learned that 20,000 visit per day in the weekend and only 7-10,000 on weekdays, so Sunday was a bad choice.  My mounting disinclination to bother was strengthened by signs warning against pickpockets.  I gave up and was on the way out, when I stumbled across a counter selling express tickets.

I paid 150 rupees (NZ$5), was rushered through sandal, bag and camera check-in, metal detection and pocket pat-down, and entered an exclusive lane (the “Krishna class” perhaps).  I like to think I’m more spiritually sincere than many a “mere tourist”, but I felt slightly guilty about buying the privilege.  I viewed the shrines at leisure and up close while real devotees streamed past behind me with only a distant glimpse.

The hilltop complex combines the white marble of temple towers with the blue-tinted glass of a high-rise office.  In the main hall, frescoes of Krishna’s life covered the ceiling and classical Indian musicians played in the centre.  Lamps, incense, food and money were offered to three pairs of richly clothed statues: Krishna and his consort Radha.  I kept a hand near my wallet when my luxury lane merged with the commoners’ crush.

My ticket included a clay pot of raison-nut-rice prasad, a banana-leaf plate of rice, and a complimentary book.  I chose the Nectar of Instruction that Hare Krishna acquaintances are studying back home, and some postcards to show them.   All in all, it was one of my most expensive days: four auto-rickshaw rides, two entry fees, two simple meals, two water bottles, half an hour Internet, 25 postcards and two slim books totalled 750 rupees or NZ $25.

Hare Krishnas are a type of Vaishnavite Hindu, following the way of bhakti or personal devotion to Vishnu as the supreme Lord.  Their foreheads are smeared with white paste in a pattern resembling a tuning fork or the Greek letter psi, which represents, I’m told, the foot of Vishnu.  Hare Krishnas worship Vishnu in his incarnation as Krishna, regarding all other gods as his manifestation in different forms.

Vishnu literally means the all-pervading, encompassing all space and time.  He sleeps on the serpent Ananta who floats on the cosmic ocean.  As Vishnu dreams, the long stalk of a lotus sprouts from his navel with the next Brahma sitting on the blossom.  Vishnu wakes, Brahma opens his eyes, and a new universe comes into being, supported on one of Ananta’s thousand hoods.  Millions of years pass until Vishnu’s day ends and he slumbers.  Universe and Brahma fade into nonexistence, the lotus withers.  Nothing exists through Vishnu’s long night, until he again wakes and the cycle repeats.  It reminds me of the verse that 1000 years in God’s sight are as a single day (Psalm 90:4).

Vishnu is mostly shown with blue skin, the colour of the endless sky or ocean.  At times he rides on the back of his Eagle Garuda, after which the Indonesian airline is named.  Vishnu has had 10 incarnations or avatars, appearing in physical form to protect the virtuous, overcome evil and restore righteousness at times of spiritual darkness.

Vishnu’s first came as a fish to rescue Manu, the first man and law giver, from a global deluge.  He carried the ship containing Manu’s family on his head – echoes of Noah’s Ark.  Subsequent incarnations as a tortoise and a boar ascend the evolutionary scale.

Long ages later, the demon Hiranyakashipa was growing in power and Brahma had awarded him a boon.  He would not die inside or outside his house, by day or by night, on the ground or in the sky.  He could be killed by no created being, no human or animal or demon.  No weapon could slay him, nor anything living or non-living.  Rather like Macbeth after the witches prophesied that he could not be killed by anyone born of woman, Hiranyakashipa thought himself immortal.  He claimed to be the supreme Lord without equal and resented his son Prahlada’s worship of Vishnu as supreme and omnipresent.

As he tried to kill Prahlada, Hiranyakashipa mocked, “Is your Vishnu here?  Is he there?  Where is he?  If he is everywhere, why is he not present before me in this pillar?”  Prahlada replied, “He was, he is, and he will be…  He is in pillars, and he is in the least thing.”  In a rage, Hiranyakashipa shattered the pillar with his mace.  Vishnu sprang forth in his fourth avatar as a man with a lion’s head and Hiranyakashipa discovered, as did Macbeth, that prophetic contracts can have loopholes.

As a god Vishnu is uncreated, neither human nor animal nor demon.  He seized Hiranyakashipa and dragged him to the threshold of his house (neither within nor without) and lifted him onto his lap (neither earth nor sky) to await dusk (neither day nor night), when he ripped Hiranyakashipa open with his nails (weapons that are neither living nor non-living) and sucked out the scoundrel’s blood.

Vishnu’s most beloved incarnations are less bloodthirsty and in human form.  His seventh and eighth avatars are Rama and Krishna.  Rama is a mighty prince and archer, mostly seen with a long bow, while Krishna stands playing a flute with crossed legs beneath a peacock feather, or frolics with enraptured maidens tending cows.

At the end of this current age of darkness, Vishnu will return in his tenth incarnation as the warrior Kalkin on a white horse, wielding a flaming sword to judge the wicked and reward the good.  The description is so similar to Christ’s return in the Apocalypse (Revelation 19:11-15), that some suspect Christian influence on the myth.

Juggernauts, Monkeys and Maharajahs: Colours of Mysore

A mélange of cultures and technologies, brutal worship and courteous apes, vibrant markets and kingly dining.

Today we rose at 4:30 am for a 22-hour day trip to Mysore, the region’s historical capital 140 km south-west of Bangalore (see photos).  As we consumed cartons of Appy apple juice, the panorama unfolded outside the bus.  Mosque minarets were silhouetted against the dawn.  Workers clambered over lopsided bamboo scaffolding on construction sites.  Many buildings had lower floors completed and occupied, concrete-and-steel pillars sticking up on flat unfinished roofs.  (I heard this both avoids tax and allows for family growth.)  Multi-coloured clothes lines and saris hung several storeys to dry, splashing colour down grey walls.  White-uniformed kids lined up in a dirt school yard.  Unlike the Americans, blasé after Egypt, I was thrilled to see camels carrying loads.

In the West, new developments supersede the old: motor vehicles replace animal carts for transport, tractors replace bullocks for pulling ploughs, wheelbarrows replace shallow round trays on your head for shifting piles of earth.  In India, as we saw out the window, the latest technology is tacked on without discarding the past.  Nehru described the country as a palimpsest, a document of many histories and cultures written on top of each other, with none fully erased.  In India: a Wounded Civilisation, V. S. Naipaul criticised the way India absorbs the new and avoids any challenge to change.

We had our first view of Mysore from Chamundi Hill.  Here the goddess Chamundi slayed the evil demon Mahishasura.  His statue stood in the parking lot, with flowing black locks and generous moustache above clenched teeth and fangs; his right arm wielded a fierce scimitar, the left grasped a long snake.  The national ten-day Dussehra festival celebrates this victory of good over evil in South India, but in North India it commemorates the slaying of the demon Ravana by Lord Rama – legends often vary by region.

Filing through the temple, we glimpsed through receding gold and silver archways a tangled pile of floral garlands and jewellery that covered an idol.  No pics, ‘cos “Photo of goddess phrobhited”.  Outside the temple I was dwarfed by what seemed like a siege tower on wheels.  A removable flight of steps lead up to an empty pagoda with red pendants dangling at the corners from silver bamboo staffs.  It was topped by a cone festooned with white, green, red, orange, blue flags.  At the front, rusty cables were coiled and twin white wooden horses reared up on their hind legs.  The temple idol is taken out to see the world in this chariot, rolling on four shoulder-high, blood-red wooden wheels.  In central East India, crazed devotees used to throw themselves beneath the wheels of such a wagon that carried the idol of Jagannath (a title of Krishna), to die in ecstasy at their god’s feet – hence our word juggernaut.

The hilltop swarmed with hawkers wearing necklaces and belts of sunglasses.  Stalls sold plastic trinkets, flowers or coconuts to break as offerings, snacks and bottled Appy Fizz: “a cool drink to hang out with”.  I was leading on a parapet to photograph heaped coconut husks below when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder.  I turned to say “No!” to the beggar or hawker and saw a polite monkey, who then continued along the wall.

Then we drove past colonial English buildings to the Maharaja’s Palace, rebuilt in 1912 after it burnt down in 1897.  It reminded me of European palaces, but with Indian and Muslim architecture.  A coat of arms bore a mythological Indian creature and Hindu temples punctuated the stone walls surrounding rose gardens and parade ground.  Apparently the royal bodyguards were paid a special allowance to keep their moustaches in good trim.

Inside were marbled floors from Italy, English mosaic tiles and a grandfather clock presented in 1860 by Queen Victoria, stained glass and cast iron pillars from Glasgow, and a collection of Continental souvenirs: Parisian statues, Belgian crystal, Venetian glass, along with Japanese porcelain vases.  Inlaid ivory doors and carved teak ceilings, royal family portraits, elephant heads from local hunting and tables with animal hoof legs.  In the car park outside, paper cones of roasted peanuts were sold from bicycles, vendors of wooden flutes played the Titanic theme song and Yankee-doodle.  I negotiated two flutes for 100R through the window as our bus pulled off.

India is a fantastic country, if (and only if) you are rich.  In Mysore I experienced the most brutal contrast yet.  Sweating through the sun and flies, we pushed past a pair of handless arm-stumps wanting food, safely up the steps into our bus.  A few minutes’ drive later, a uniformed footman saluted and opened a barrel-shaped door into a short basement tunnel, cool ice beneath the glass floor, which led to a softly lit, luxury theme restaurant.  Some tables were inside classic cars; my seat was a motorbike!  Waiters wore American cowboy hats and leather vests.  Maybe I’m an uncouth kiwi, but I do find it a bit much when an attendant (in the already overcrowded bathroom) insists on pulling paper towels from the dispenser for me.

After lunch three of us rickshawed to the Devaraja market.  Neat pyramids of apples, oranges, limes and coconuts; dangling brown and black wooden beads like rosaries; dazzling bangles; sacks overflowing with grains, spices, peppers; white, yellow, orange coiled flower wreaths; the smell of sandalwood and incense.  And a psychedelic painter’s palette of tikka or kumkum powder cones, scooped from square tins into scales and sold in paper cubes tied with string.  It’s used for cosmetic and religious forehead marking – different Hindu sects have different patterns.

Dragging the girls away from counters swimming with silks, we checked out the zoo.  More animals were cooped up behind bars than NZ zoos, but many roamed open fields behind ditches.  A sign warned “Please don’t cross the barricade.  Survivors will be prosecuted.”  The white tiger was new for me, but most entertaining were the baby monkeys chasing, springing, wrestling around outside any enclosure.  On the way back, the sun set behind green rice fields separated by muddy flooded paths, as a few farmers and a V-flock of birds straggled home.

From Sanctum to Summit: Circling Shiva’s Holy Hill

Racing bullocks and raiding temples with the god of Himalayan meditation and paradoxical percussion, the dancer of life and death, cemeteries and sex.

Yesterday we rose at 4am to beat the traffic jams for a three-day excursion south-east to the state of Tamil Nadu (see photos here).  A surprisingly well sealed highway, lanes separated by pink and yellow flower bushes.  Biblical-looking flat roofs with external stairs; corrugated iron, red-tiled, or thatched roofs above white-washed mud walls and dirt floors.  A glimpse of road-side monkeys.  A barber in a shed.  Freshly moulded bricks laid out to dry, then stacked in a grid with air holes.  Women weaving twine, washing clothes in buckets, hanging them on the line, boiling pots over open fires.  Bright saris bending in emerald-green fields.  Level crossing barriers raised by a manual crank handle.  Small wayside shrines with a few flowers or a candle.  Towering outdoor statues of the gods.  When we stopped at toll booths, sellers lifted baskets of fresh vegetables or peanut snacks to the bus windows.  We passed the turnoff to a missionary hospital town I’d heard of, Vellore.

Our destination was the small town of Tiruvannamalai, meaning “red mountain” (population 130,000).  Every full moon, thousands of pilgrims come here to circle the holy Mt Arunachaleswar.  Most are on foot, but we rode bullock carts around the 14 km circumference.  Our singing and clapping attracting friendly attention, the drivers periodically geeing up their plodding steeds (with painted blue, ballooned or streamered horns) to race and overtake the other carts.  Sadhus or holy men were asleep on benches, sitting in meditation or walking barefoot, in orange robes or bare-chested.  Many wore the Hindu sacred thread, a cord hanging for life from one shoulder to the waist.  On top of a gateway, monkeys chased each other around stone carvings of gods.  One beggar had fingerless, leprous hands.  To ward off evil spirits, rooftop corners often display a carved monster mask, and building scaffoldings have scarecrows with fierce painted faces.

At 10 hectares, the Tiruvannamalai temple is one of India’s largest.  It dates from the 11th century though was mostly built around the 18th.  We entered through a gate beneath the 66m high gopuram, a 13-storey pyramid covered in hundreds of carved stone deities.  The local Lutheran pastor is friends with the temple’s high priest.  He alone may enter the inner sanctum, an enclosed cubicle representing God’s unknowable darkness, much as only the Jewish high priest could enter the holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple.

We crammed into an airless chamber, sweltering even now in “winter” – you’d need no mystic gift to enter a dazed visionary trance in summer.  The priest saluted the idol and dabbed our foreheads with sandalwood paste in a blessedly brief ceremony, before leading us into a cooler, roomier area and giving us floral garlands and bags of pastries.  A relief to escape the gloomy, wet-floored, black-idoled interior for the temple courtyards outside.  Monkeys ate bananas by a large water tank.  An elephant took coins from tourists’ hands.  Stalls sold trinkets like beads or god statues, flowers for offerings, food offered to the deity. Holy men and beggars sought alms at the entrance.

This morning we slept in until 5:30am.  We stepped outside past shaggy bearded Sadhus, just waking at our gate.  Women splashed water to settle the dust on their thresholds before drawing geometric floral patterns with coloured sand (known as kolam or rangoli).  People were sleeping on the street; wrapped head to toe in blankets, they looked like corpses.  We climbed part-way up the 800m hill to watch the sunrise.  The temple hovered below, shrouded in haze, and the sound of traffic horns, bells and gongs, chanting and drumming floated up.  A holy man, Ramana Maharishi, meditated in a cave up here for 20 years until 1922, then built a peaceful ashram (spiritual retreat centre) in the town below.  Somerset Maugham met him here in 1938, inspiring the holy man in his novel The Razor’s Edge (see Maugham’s account of the encounter here).  We descended past hawkers setting out the day’s trade of black and white stone souvenirs: statues of Shiva, his bull Nandi and elephant-headed son Ganesh, or the holy sound of OM chiselled like a cursive “30” on profiles of the holy hill.

Mt Arunachaleswar is devoted to the god Shiva, who is said to have manifested himself on the summit long ago as a blazing pillar of flame.  Ever since he’s been worshipped as the lingam, an upright phallic cylinder signifying virility and fertility.  Shiva’s temples contain black stone pillars, their rounded tops peeking out from chains of blossoms heaped like colored quoits around a pole.  In Kashmir, pilgrims hike for three days to a mountain cave to worship an ice lingam, a stalagmite that melts and re-forms every year.

Of India’s many gods, Shiva may be the most strange.  He’s the destroyer and re-creator, ascetic and erotic, lord of life, death, time, and sex.  He is the great yogi who meditates in the Himalayas with a tiger skin, a necklace of skulls, and live serpents as belts and bracelets.  He holds a trident and in his hair rests the crescent moon, sign of passing time.  From his matted locks tumbles the holy river Ganges.  His skin is smeared with cremated ashes and three horizontal white lines cross his forehead – and that of his devotees.

Between Shiva’s eyebrows is a vertical third eye that pierces spiritual reality.  The gods once sought to rouse him from meditation by sending the beautiful love god Kama to seduce him from his chaste austerity.  Like Cupid, he drew his sugarcane bow and fired a flower arrow.  Shiva merely opened his third eye and its fire reduced Kama to ashes.  Here he is with his wife Parvati and elephantine son Ganesh:

shiva-parvati-ganeshShiva is the divine paradox, the reconciler of opposites, and  Shaivite Hindus reflect their god’s bipolar nature.  Some are fiercely ascetic.  They live naked in cemeteries, smeared with ashes and eating from skulls.  A few embrace his other extreme, seeking seek enlightenment through hallucinogenic intoxicants and sexual intercourse.

Shiva is often shown as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, dancing on the dwarf of ignorance within a ring of flames, the circle of cosmic unity and the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.  One of his four arms grasps a small drum, sounding the rhythm of creation, and a second arm wields the fire of destruction.  Occasional depictions show the right side of his body as an athletic male, the left half as a voluptuous female.  He gains spiritual power from both austere self-denial and union with his female counterpart.  Reflecting Shiva’s duality, his consort may be the peaceful Parvati, model wife and mother, or the less demure Kali, who tears out of the entrails of mortal men and drinks their blood like all-devouring time.