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Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT – Ampang Line

More end-of-Ramadan decorations and snippets of Malaysian culture as I visit each station on the Ampang Light Rail Transit line in Kuala Lumpur.

I’m back in Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, where I spent six months in 2012, and I arrived during the fasting month of Ramadan.  To re-map the city in my mind, while learning more about Malay customs, I’ve been visiting the Light Rail Transit (LRT) stations to view their decorations for Hari Raya or Eid at the end of Ramadan.  You can see what I’ve learned so far about city and culture, food and forgiveness, at Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT, continued in Rapid KL Ramadan – Part Two.  In those posts I traversed all 24 Light Rail Transit (LRT) stops on the Kelana Jaya line, my home track of 2012.

The Ampang Adventure

The next challenge was to hit the LRT stations on the Y-shaped Ampang Line.  It has 27 km of track through 25 stations, with no tunnels so there are city views all the way (for more details, see Wikipedia).  The Ampang line trains are older than on the Kelana Jaya line (although a new fleet is arriving this year), with human drivers instead of automation and carriages that are more chunky and square.  A few of their Hari Raya displays showed more creative flair.  (Click on any photos below to zoom.)

The Ampang Line would take me to less familiar terrain than the Kelana Jaya line.  I’d been to none of these stations this year, except Masjid Jamek where the two lines cross, so there were no shortcuts this time.  I had to disembark at each stop (though found a few stations had already dismantled their displays), and chose to complete each branch of the Y on three successive afternoons.

In 1857 a local Raja sent 87 Chinese up the river and through the jungle to mine for tin in this area.  69 died of malaria within a month and more men were sent.  The mines flourished, forming the first settlement of Kuala Lumpur and leaving several lakes in the former pits – I jog around one every week.  Reflecting this history, “Ampang” means dam in Malay.  As I took a Saturday afternoon bus down Jalan Ampang to pick up the northeast terminus at Ampang Station, the vehicular flow seemed to be dammed and I almost wished I’d walked.  At last the station sign appeared and I clambered out of the bus, up and over the pedestrian bridge, and commenced phase two of my Ramadan railway ramblings.

AG8-AmpangAG8 – Ampang

A bright display at the first station, with season’s greetings in Malay and transliterated Arabic, and objects I often saw on my previous ride.  There were pelita or small lamps at the corners, and many checkered green and yellow artificial ketupat – the theme specified by Rapid KL for this year’s Hari Raya station decorations.  The real items are woven from palm leaves and packed with rice that’s boiled into a solid cake.  (I described ketupat more fully near the start of my first post in the series.)


A new feature was the Muslim prayer above the route plan on the way to the platform – Malaysia Airlines displayed the same prayer after the safety video just before taking off.


Once on board and waiting for the train to depart, I was pleased to see what is now a less common phenomenon: a girl was reading a bona fide physical book!  A heartening sight, and the name of my next stop even means radiance or light.  It seemed an auspicious start.

AG7-CahayaAG7 – Cahaya

Ketupats big and small alongside the ticket machine, along with pretty blackboard calligraphy and oil wick lamps, which were elsewhere mounted on bamboo poles.


These first stations are among the smallest in the city, just a solid awning over platforms either side of the rails, with no attached shops or indoor hallways.

AG6-CempakaAG6 – Cempaka

My dictionary says cempaka is a flowering shrub like frangipani.  I spotted a pinboard with a few flat paper ketupats over the ticket gates and wasn’t too impressed, then found the main display beneath the service counter.  It was a model village house, complete with thatched roof and furniture of clothes pegs, recalling the rocking chair I once made at a craft class in school holidays.  Providing relief from the oversized ketupats of most displays, this just had cute little ones like blossoms on the tree.


AG5-Pandan IndahAG5 – Pandan Indah

More thatching and pot plants here, appropriate when the station’s name means “beautiful pandanus”.  Plus a big pot to boil those ketupats over the fire.

AG5-Pandan Indah-hari-raya

Back on board the train, we’re now tracking along the narrow Kerayong River, perhaps one those first miners dammed.

AG4-Pandan JayaAG4 – Pandan Jaya

Continuing the botanical streak, this station’s name means “victorious pandanus”, but I was told their display had been removed.  I shot the commercial cardboard decoration in the service counter window instead.

AG4-Pandan Jaya-hari-raya

AG3-MaluriAG3 – Maluri

I don’t know what Maluri means and I didn’t understand what the guy I asked was saying, but I found no sign of a Hari Raya display here.  I heard thunder from the distant hills and a cool breeze dried my sweat as I waited on the platform.

AG2-MiharjaAG2 – Miharja

More luck here, with a couch, decorative crinkled paper discs, and collection of Hari Raya greeting cards.


It began to pour and the train waited a little at the station before continuing.

ST1-PH1-AG1-Chan Sow LinST1-PH1-AG1- Chan Sow Lin

Quite different from others with its geometric abstraction, like a work of Islamic art, capped by colour-coordinated cards and ketupats.  The top display of the line so far at this junction station, which I think is the only stop with a Chinese name.

ST1-PH1-AG1-Chan Sow Lin-hari-raya

ST2-PuduST2 – Pudu

Starting to show its age, with a few letters fallen off the sign and the right-hand pillar-case collapsing, but still a cheerful sight.  The guard who saw me admiring the arrangement thought it needed a third cartoon character to complete the scene so took a photo with me in the middle.


I thought the hanging ketupats were prettier, with duit raya envelopes for end-of-Ramadan gifts of pocket money (I described this practice in my first post).


ST3-Hang TuahST3 – Hang Tuah

An interchange station with the monorail, near Kuala Lumpur’s “Star Walk” shopping precinct.  And this Hari Raya display was the star of the entire LRT network, the biggest in every way.  The side-show at right had the best-equal real leaf ketupats I saw, in both the iconic crosshatched diamond and plainer triangular forms.

ST3-Hang Tuah-ketupat

Dominating the transit hall was the main feature, a kampung or village house of white Styrofoam, including a rooster on the roof.

ST3-Hang Tuah-hari-raya

I was joined in my admiration by characters in the style of Malaysia’s leading cartoonist Lat (see Wikipedia).  I also liked the innovative white ketupats at left, with their elegant Chinese-looking patterns.

ST3-Hang Tuah-lat-cartoons

I passed a bonus display on the station’s namesake, the legendary Malay hero Hang Tuah, as I headed out for a snack of roti sardin: sardine and onion wrapped in thin layers of dough and fried.

ST3-Hang Tuah-hero

ST4-Plaza RakyatST4 – Plaza Rakyat

Back to a good example of the usual style of display, with bright coloured checkers and flowers inside a village fence, and information sheets on ketupat.

ST4-Plaza Rakyat-hari-raya

ST5-Masjid Jamek-2ST5 – Masjid Jamek

This station is at the junction of the two rivers for which the city is named: Kuala Lumpur literally means “muddy confluence”.  It’s also at the intersection of the two LRT lines and I explored the Hari Raya theme of forgiveness here in Rapid KL Ramadan Part Two.  Outside the station I found a life-size character from Lat, the cartoonist who inspired the models two stations back.

ST5-Masjid Jamek-lat-character

At a street stall I paid two ringgits for three large samosas with different fillings to fortify myself for the northern stretch.

ST6-BandarayaST6 – Bandaraya

Artificial roses along a kampung fence.


ST7-Sultan IsmailST7 – Sultan Ismail

The highlight here was the domed tower, probably recycled from last year’s Rapid KL theme of mosques.

ST7-Sultan Ismail-hari-raya


A vine trellis and china tea set were the original features at the Putra World Trade Centre stop that overlooks some small river rapids.


ST9-TitiwangsaST9 – Titiwangsa

Near my favourite park in town, where locals play water polo on lovely lakes, but with no display to be found.

ST10-SentulST10 – Sentul

I guessed this was partly disassembled from its former glory, so I just zoomed from the ticket gate.


ST11-Sentul TimurST11 – Sentul Timur

At the end of the line, with flowers blossoming in the low sun, the curtains reminded me of a wedding canopy.

ST11-Sentul Timur-hari-raya

Outside the station, new concrete apartments were under construction, towering over the historical suburb with its Hindu and Buddhist temples.  I hope KL in 10 years won’t have lost its soul.

PH2-CherasPH2 – Cheras

Cartoon coconut trees and tinsel at the 48th station I visited, completing my two-week mission.


PH3-Salak SelatanPH3 – Salak Selatan

Cardboard cut-outs and pelita lamps.

PH3-Salak Selatan-hari-raya

PH4-Bandar Tun RazakPH4 – Bandar Tun Razak

An outdoor scene, with a pot to boil the ketupat and a wok with paddle for dodol.  Rice flour, coconut milk, palm sugar, and sometimes the pungent fruit of durian, are stirred for up to 8 hours in villages at Hari Raya to prepare this sweet and sticky toffee.

PH4-Bandar Tun Razak-hari-raya

PH5-Bandar Tasik SelatanPH5 – Bandar Tasik Selatan

No Raya display found.

PH6-Sungai BesiPH6 – Sungai Besi

The display from behind the ticket gates:

PH6-Sungai Besi-hari-raya-back

And the front view from the other side:

PH6-Sungai Besi-hari-raya

Having swiped out of the system, I took a dinner break: char kway teow or fried flat noodles, washed down with a cool kopi ais.

PH7-Bukit JalilPH7 – Bukit Jalil

Out here there’s more greenery and the track passes arenas built for the 1998 Commonwealth Games.  Across from the platform is Bukit Jalil National Stadium, the largest in Southeast Asia, with three tiers of 87,411 seats.  The station display is a winner as well – the biggest and best show on this branch of the line.  Real palms, ketupats of transparent cellophane that I haven’t seen before, and branches ready to burn under pot and wok.

PH7-Bukit Jalil-hari-raya

PH8-Sri PetalingPH8 – Sri Petaling

The terminal station is next to the International Medical University, where my former University of Auckland biochemistry lecturer now works.  Less action here, for a lower key end to the line.

PH8-Sri Petaling-hari-raya

So the top stop question: out of 25 stations on the Ampang line, which had my favourite decorations?  PH7 Bukit Jalil takes the prize for the Sri Petaling branch.

PH7-Bukit Jalil-hari-raya-portrait

The junction at AG1 Chan Sow Lin most brightened up my day on the Ampang segment.

ST1-PH1-AG1-Chan Sow Lin-hari-raya-portrait

And the display that gave the most delight, my overall Rapid KL Ramadan winner, which most impressively broke out of the coloured checkered ketupat box, was clearly ST3 Hang Tuah.

ST3-Hang Tuah-hari-raya-double

Last week I saw this station’s polystyrene props had been replaced with Malaysian flags for Independence Day next week.

ST3-Hang Tuah-hari-merdeka


Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT – Part Two

I continue my romp along the Kelana Jaya Light Rail Transit line in Kuala Lumpur, renewing my acquaintance with the city, viewing station displays for Hari Raya, exploring forgiveness and Malaysian traditions of Ramadan.

For the motivation for my project, and Stations 1 to 11 (Gombak to Kampung Baru), see Part One.  Click on any photos below to expand them.


There’s a warning beep, the doors slide shut, and I grab a strap as the train pulls off from KJ11 Kampung Baru.  Platform lights and advertising quickly fade away as we speed into the darkness beneath Kuala Lumpur’s CBD.  I’m en route for next stop, next photo, next encounter on my railway-raya mission.

KJ12-Dang WangiKJ12 – Dang Wangi

I presume the old mosque photos are remainders from last year’s theme.  I’d have liked to be here – there might have been more variety than the artificial ketupats (a special food for Hari Raya introduced in Part One), which are indeed pretty, but getting a little repetitive by halfway through.

Again the phrase “maaf zahir batin” that you see everywhere during Hari Raya.  “Maaf” means forgive, “zahir” means external or physical, “batin” means internal, emotional or spiritual.  In all, a request for comprehensive forgiveness, which is a major theme of Ramadan.

KJ12-Dang Wangi-hari-raya

Not only does God promise forgiveness to those who keep the fast, but in many Muslim countries prisoners are pardoned at Ramadan.  On the morning of Hari Raya here in Malaysia, Malays don new clothes (often shiny satin pyjamas) and visit family graves, then ask parents and others for forgiveness.  It’s doubtless often a mere formality, but for many it seems to be a deeply moving time.  Some say the ketupat has a rough outside of woven leaves that represents our sins, while the white rice inside, like the new Raya clothes, symbolises our new purity once washed clean through Ramadan.

Every Ramadan Malaysian companies produce videos reflecting the traditional themes we are seeing here.  On 30th June this year, for example, TV broadcaster Astro showed the above true story of ex-drug addict Herman asking his father for forgiveness.  It was introduced with the words,

“We have all made mistakes or chosen the wrong path at one stage of our lives… It is never too late to seek or accept forgiveness because forgiveness has no boundaries.  Tiada Noktah Untuk Kemaafan….  We would like to wish all Malaysians, Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri.  Maaf Zahir Batin, Kosong Kosong.”

KJ13-Masjid JamekKJ13 – Masjid Jamek

Located at the junction of the city’s two LRT lines, this is one of the busiest stations.  Their Raya display had elf-like characters in a ketupat-patterned train or bus.

KJ13-Masjid Jamek-hari-raya

The Masjid Jamek station’s advertising often narrates a story right along the wall – above is the start of a Samsung-facilitated romance.  Right now the station also has Astro’s more meaningful advertising, based on this year’s Ramadan hashtag of #kosongkosong.  The word kosong means empty, nil, no score, zero, “not written or printed on”, the blank slate after Ramadan-Raya forgiveness and reconciliation when debts are written off and past wrongs wiped away.  A man in one advert says, “I’d like to patch things up and kosong-kosong with my neighbour”.  The corridor between Masjid Jamek platforms begins with the KL skyline alongside a village scene and the words “Try forgiveness, share with sincerity.  Share your stories of kosong-kosong”.

KJ13-Masjid Jamek-kosong-kosong

The rest of the wall is painted with quotes on Raya forgiveness from local celebrities.  “I want to kosong-kosong with all the teachers at my school because formerly I was very naughty.”  “I want to kosong-kosong with the inhabitants of Kayu Ara because I used to always steal bananas near the prayer room.”  “I’m easily angered, but if I do wrong I quickly ask forgiveness.” (Left below)  “I used to skip fasting and forced my friends to buy food at the canteen.  Please forgive me!” (Right below)


A month of fasting, then the day that brings forgiveness and reconciliation.  A little like Lent and Easter.  Coming home to bright new clothes and a fresh new start, joy and gifts and a feast. Echoes of Christmas and Christ’s parables.

KJ14-Pasar SeniKJ14 – Pasar Seni

On the way to this station we pop above ground again and the train speeds through the concrete-glass jungle for more great views of this great city.


A lady stepped before my lens as I shot the simple Hari Raya display from afar, through a gateway advertising lemon tea.

KJ14-Pasar Seni-hari-raya

KJ15-KL SentralKJ15 – KL Sentral

The central train station had both a Hari Raya presentation on the ground and the largest hanging sign of any station, in an elegant Arabic-type font.

KJ15-KL Sentral-hari-raya

KJ15-KL Sentral-hari-raya-sign

The adjacent Nu Sentral mall (new since I was here in 2012) had the biggest Hari Raya village scene I saw.

KJ15-KL Sentral-nu-sentral-mall

As we pull out of KL Sentral the train speeds between futuristic glass towers.  It’s like a sci-fi movie – I half expect to see the Millennium Falcon docking above or an X-wing fighter zipping past.  Maybe this stretch of track inspired the life-size model-mural on the wall outside Masjid Jamek station:


KJ16-BangsarKJ16 – Bangsar

This station is near a Ramadan Bazaar known for its coloured kuih or sweets (see Timeout KL), as bright as the upper part of the display.


Bangsar itself is a more upmarket expat suburb, reflected in the elegant drawing-room beneath, complete with framed photos of station staff, grandmotherly flowers (again), and the rural kampung scene relegated to a painting.


One evening after dinner I found a bonus display at Bangsar station further outside.


KJ17-Abdullah HukumKJ17 – Abdullah Hukum

A station I’ve seldom visited, with a bright display that I simply shot from the ticket gates – the mosque domes perhaps recycled from last year.  Outside, the brown-cream mosque under construction in 2012 appears to be complete, and cranes are erecting new tower blocks in every direction.

KJ17-Abdullah Hukum-hari-raya

KJ18-KerinchiKJ18 – Kerinchi

Again very green – as in India, often seen as the colour of Islam.  By now it was getting late for lunch and I wouldn’t have minded if I’d had to swipe out through the gate.  Being near my old stomping grounds, I knew there was a shady street stall of tasty fare around the corner outside.  But the display was inside, so I soldiered on.


KJ19-UniversitiKJ19 – Universiti

The stop for the University of Malaya (I visited the campus several times in 2012), with annoyingly bright sunlight behind the display and an elegant banner contrasting with the cartoon figures.


Now comes a long stretch of track past a forested hill.  When I hiked through here three years ago I was a little nervous of the monkeys.  After the Masjid Jamek mural, I wonder if there are bigger creatures in the jungle now.


KJ20-Taman JayaKJ20 – Taman Jaya

A good effort from my home station of three years ago, beneath the Amcorp Mall apartment where I lived.  The only display with herons (or any bird).

KJ20-Taman Jaya-hari-raya

Inside the mall for Hari Raya was a village house façade.

KJ20-Taman Jaya-amcorp-mall

And here’s the station’s flag-draped Independence-Raya display I shot in 2012.

KJ20-Taman Jaya-hari-raya-2012

KJ21-Asia JayaKJ21 – Asia Jaya

A clean and compact display, with ketupats, duit raya envelopes and pelitas (definitions in Part One), all pleasingly balanced between ticket gates.  My sense of direction is less well-balanced as I’m on-off-on-off, and the stations are merging in my mind until I forget which platform I arrived on or which way I was going.

KJ21-Asia Jaya-hari-raya

KJ22-Taman ParamountKJ22 – Taman Paramount

Further from the centre, the tracks winds through tropical foliage that constantly threatens to submerge the buildings.


A modest display brightened up by the best electric ketupats of any station, while the bathroom entrance showed off their five-star win in the 2013 Clean Toilet Campaign.

KJ22-Taman Paramount-hari-raya

KJ23-Taman BahagiaKJ23 – Taman Bahagia

Past a golden mosque dome glinting in the sun and we come to station 23.  It’s early afternoon, my stomach is rumbling, and – despite air-conditioned trains between stations – I’m feeling rather warm.  Commuters cluster under the platform fans.  Here at the penultimate stop is a cheerful display with ketupats like slices of Rubik cubes.  Only one more stage to go before I’m done and can head for the restaurants opposite Kelana Jaya.

KJ23-Taman Bahagia-hari-raya

KJ24-Kelana JayaKJ24 – Kelana Jaya

The end of the line!  An ex-local who has emigrated to Australia and clearly absorbed the culture – sunnies on his forehead and shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest – offered to snap me and I accepted (unusually), to prove I’d made it.  Beneath the platform, my final Raya display photo was delayed by guards toting large guns as I heard clinking and clashing.  The ticket dispensers were being opened to unload the cash into large dark sacks.

KJ24-Kelana Jaya-hari-raya“Syawal” comes after Ramadan in the Islamic calendar, a month of celebration to balance the month of self-denial.  My water bottle had run out a few stations back and breakfast had been 24 stations away at Gombak, so it was time to break my own brief fast and transit across the highway overbridge towards a celebratory lunch.  RM7 for a dried fish, dal and flavoursome sauces on rice, washed down by an ice coffee and a chat with immigrant waiters from Bangalore and Indonesia.

KJ24-Kelana Jaya-victory

Cost of an edutaining day: RM15 (under NZ$6) for three meals and drinks, plus RM12.40 on the train for 24 LRT stations and 24 Hari Raya arrangements.  I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did.  If I made any errors along the way or offended any readers, minta maaf, I hope you’ll forgive me and we’ll be kosong-kosong.  As Abu Bakar, Mohammed’s father-in-law, says at left below, “Water will not break when it’s chopped up.  Accept my sincere apology.”


And now, the obvious question.  Which station has the best display?  I can’t see a clear winner, but my favourite three were Damai (KJ8), Bangsar (KJ16) and Asia Jaya (KJ21), with a big bonus prize to Masjid Jamek station (KJ13) for its moving and amusing murals both inside and out.


Rapid KL Ramadan: Hari Raya Blessings on the LRT

Trains and tunnels, ketupats and kampungs, fasting and food and forgiveness.  I take the Kelana Jaya line across Kuala Lumpur, rediscover the city, and learn how Malaysians celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Light Rail Transit and the Ketupat Challenge

Three years ago in Malaysia I was charmed by the Muslim fasting month.  The array of Ramadan greeting cards in the supermarket, some with Arabic calligraphy swirling around lamps and mosques, others with comic cartoons in Malay slang I hardly understood.  The vibrant colours and aromas at the evening Ramadan markets, where I’d wait with hungry locals for the prayer call to sound at dusk so we could eat.  And the displays at the entrance of each Light Rail Transit (LRT) station for Hari Raya, the Malay celebration at the end of the fasting month that’s elsewhere known as Eid.  Evoking both spiritual values and the rural life of yesteryear, some reminded me of nativity scenes and Christmas.

Now I’m back in Malaysia, again in Kuala Lumpur during Ramadan, and thought it could be fun to visit and photograph each station’s Hari Raya decorations. I thought it must have been done, but Google found surprisingly few shots of said station decorations.  The challenge was on!  What better way to reacquaint myself with the city’s geography while learning more about Malaysian culture?


The Kelana Jaya line begins at Gombak to the north-east (terminus photo above), soars over roads and rivers on elevated rails for eight stations, dives underground beneath the CBD for another five, then re-emerges for more great views past 11 more stations before it terminates at Kelana Jaya to the south-west.  In all, 29 km through 24 stations.  (17 km of further track and 13 new stations are under construction.)  In 2012 I could list them all by heart, as both places I stayed were on this line.  (For more info, see Wikipedia.)


As I set out, a whole two dozen stations seemed intimidating.  Would I get through them all in one day?  At least I’d already seen and shot four or five LRT displays in the past fortnight, so could leapfrog over several stops.  I soon found that some Ramadan displays were inside the ticket gates and others further out, so I sometimes needed to exit the system for a clear view.  This meant paying another fare, but public transport costs much less than in New Zealand and it was a chance to poke around the station, practice reading Malay signs, and search outside for food and drink.

I learnt from station staff that Rapid KL, the public transportation operator, sets an annual theme for their Hari Raya decorations.  One year it was kampung or village.  The end of Ramadan brings the country’s biggest holiday (like Christmas in the West), when Malays gather with family in their home town for a week or so.  Malaysians share a sense of nostalgia for this “balik kampung” or return to the village, and malls throughout Kuala Lumpur have life-size models of village houses (see The Star’s 2015 photos here).  The day before Hari Raya two weeks ago 1.6 million vehicles clogged the highways out of town.


When I was here three years ago Hari Raya fell near Malaysia’s Independence Day so, I learnt, Rapid KL had a combined Merdeka (Independence)-Raya theme.  This explains why the 2012 LRT station displays included so many Malaysian flags, as in the photo above.  Last year’s Hari Raya motif on the LRT was mosques.  For 2015 the theme is “ketupat”.

Ketupats are pouches the size of a small fist in the shape of a diamond or a triangle.  They resemble items woven from flax by New Zealand Maori.  In one market I watched women wind ribbons of coconut palm leaf around the fingers of one hand, then tuck and turn and pull and presto – the ketupat was done!  The pouches are filled with rice and boiled until it expands and is compressed into a dense lump.  They are then cut open, and the rice cake typically diced and served with spicy beef rending or satay.  Over Hari Raya ketupats adorn greeting cards and posters, dangle on shiny green and yellow ribbons, and twinkle in chains of lights like on a Christmas tree.  You’ll see plenty below. (See Wikipedia on ketupat.)

Setting out with Lemang

Last Wednesday morning I left my guesthouse and walked to station number 7, Dato’ Keramat.  My dictionary defines “keramat” as a place that is “holy and sacred, endowed with supernatural or magical powers (such as the ability to cure sickness)” – an auspicious stop for my start.  On my way I passed a rack of bamboo tubes over a charcoal barbecue, like some infernal pipe organ as it billowed with smoke above the flames.  These were another Hari Raya special of lemang.  Hollow bamboo is lined with banana leaf and filled with glutinous rice and coconut milk.  Once cooked for several hours and cooled, the tubes are split open with a machete.  The compressed rice is sliced into disks and served much like ketupat rice cakes, with a more smoky-coconut flavour.  Lemang are in hot demand during Hari Raya – some stalls prepare hundreds per day.  Look out for bamboo tubes in the Raya photos below.


From Dato’ Keramat station I worked my way to the northern end in almost vacant trains, gloating to see the city-bound coaches were packed.  I then shot back to Damai station, jumped over Ampang Park and KLCC where I planned to eat dinner, and continued stop by stop to the far end (bar another jump over Taman Jaya and Asia Jaya where I’d been the night before).  For our photo journey online, however, let’s embark at the northern terminal of Gombak and track through the stations in order.

KJ1-GombakKJ1 – Gombak

Serenity at the end of the line, almost in the jungle, with the vapour trail of a plane hanging still in the sky.  There’s a parking building for commuters and buses leaving for the Genting Highlands and Batu Caves.  The Hari Raya display was tucked behind the ticket office, so I had to swipe out of the station.  I bought nasi lemak for a classic Malaysian breakfast: rice cooked in coconut milk, with salty anchovies, peanuts, spicy sambal sauce and – in this case – quail eggs.  Wrapped in a tetrahedron of banana leaf for RM3 (NZ$1.20).


As well as toy ketupats dangling from the bamboo fence and filling a cane basket, the Gombak display featured other items I’d see all day.  A metal and glass kerosene lantern, wick lamps on poles and models of oil lamps or pelita that flicker along pathways to village houses during Ramadan nights.  There was a mock wood fire under a pot for boiling the ketupats, a silver bowl and teapot for rinsing fingers before eating, and a basket of white and purple onions.  Later stations added baskets of cinnamon sticks, red peppers, or other spices.


The greeting on the big green diamond (with the cute little train fronts) is in Malay – “Selamat Hari Raya”, while the poster at left is in Arabic – “Salam Aidilfitri”.  1436 indicates the current Muslim year of 1436 AH, the number of lunar years (354 days) since the Hijra, Mohammed’s move from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.

KJ2-Taman MelatiKJ2 – Taman Melati

This station featured more pelita and ketupats, and pink artificial flowers which looked more like a bouquet in my granny’s house than a Malay artefact.  There was also a greeting from the staff, roughly reading:

A blessed Aidilfitri from Rapid KL.  We workers of the Taman Melati station wish you happy Hari Raya, complete forgiveness [more on this in Part Two], and a safe journey to your village.  Drive carefully.  Be careful on the highway.  Remember, dearly loved ones are waiting your return as a family.

KJ2-Taman Melati-hari-raya

We pass a pretty mosque dome, pink with daisy patterns above the lush green undergrowth, then corrugated iron roofs scattered among the foliage, before tidy rows of tiled roofs and Chinese restaurants announce the next stop.

KJ3-Wangsa MajuKJ3 – Wangsa Maju

I simply shot this display over the ticket barriers.

KJ3-Wangsa Maju-hari-raya

I loitered here a few weeks ago at the neighbouring Ramadan Bazaar (see Timeout KL feature), where I bought the new-fangled fusion of Maggi murtabak (see Wikipedia): instant noodles fried in a batter pancake.

KJ3-Wangsa Maju-ramadan-market

KJ4-Sri RampaiKJ4 – Sri Rampai

This year’s display included paper figurines in a garden and a cane trap for fishing in rivers (at right).  From it dangled small envelopes for “duit raya”.  The National Bank reported withdrawals of RM 500 million the day before Hari Raya this year, 90% in one and five ringgit notes.  This is given in green envelopes to children as they visit houses with Hari Raya greetings.  The paper estimated that 5 million Muslim children 14 years old or under might receive five ringgit at each of 20 neighbourhood houses, making RM 100 or NZ $40 each.  This Malay tradition combines Muslim giving of alms, especially at Ramadan, and the red Ang Pow packets of cash delivered at Chinese New Year.  It reminds me of Halloween trick-or-treating in Colorado when I was six, filling my pumpkin-shaped bucket with candy as I knocked on doors around the block.

KJ4-Sri Rampai-hari-raya

A mosque from last year’s decorations (1435 AH) hung on a back wall.

KJ4-Sri Rampai-hari-raya-2014

KJ5-SetiawangsaKJ5 – Setiawangsa

Cubic cloth ketupats above coconuts on the floor.  There was also a “Pearl Word Corner” with posters of quotes like “Success comes in a can, not a can’t” and “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses” (Abraham Lincoln).


KJ6-JelatekKJ6 – Jelatek

One of my two closest stations, where I often embark.  An electric flicker in this fire, and I saw people posing for photos with the parasol.  Outside the station is a muddy lot covered in yellow cranes and again I hope construction won’t quench the city’s soul.  From the last stretch of track I saw a billboard by the motorway, “Sayangi Kuala Lumpur” or “Love KL”, and I do!


KJ7-Dato KeramatKJ7 – Dato’ Keramat

Ketupat pentagons, strange frilly balls, and the apt (though misspelt) message, “Keep calm and eat ketupat”.  My second nearest station, where I began my tour.

KJ7-Dato Keramat-hari-raya

KJ8-DamaiKJ8 – Damai

Perhaps my favourite display so far, tidy and symmetrical, with its dignified blue carpet and cushions hinting at Middle Eastern opulence.  The service counter was adorned with the tinsel greetings you see in many shop windows at this time.  Lots of hibiscuses, Malaysia’s national flower.


South of Damai the train dives below ground in a tunnel that’s sometimes square, sometimes round.  The Kelana Jaya line is fully automated with no drivers, so there is a clear view out the front window.  As we accelerate I’m reminded of the psychedelic swirling in the credits for the old sci-fi series of Dr Who.


KJ9-Ampang ParkKJ9 – Ampang Park

Here I ticked off my 24th display, the last one of the day.  Like me by then, it seemed a little tired – I pushed a letter falling off back onto the poster at right, and straightened the carpet.  Then I rode the escalator down to the platform, trained back to Jelatek Station, and walked the 15 minutes home.

KJ9-Ampang Park-hari-raya


Traditional Raya icons, including a split open bamboo-rice lemang, plus cut-out white leaves I thought looked more Japanese.  “Lebaran” is another name for the festival after the fast.  Behind me two guitarists were strumming and singing at a “Busk Stop”.


Down the station corridor is one of the city’s biggest malls, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, with a huge kampung house for Ramadan on the concourse beneath the Petronas Towers.  Outside the mall is Malaysia’s biggest model ketupat, as acknowledged in July by the Malaysia Book of Records: 12m high by 9.8m wide.


KJ11-Kampung BaruKJ11 – Kampung Baru

Kampung Baru is one of my favourite places in KL, a suburb of traditional wooden houses on stilts, with carved verandas and chickens on the ground and a lovely variegated roofscape of corrugated iron in autumnal shades.  Not far off above the rust loom the gleaming sci-fi Petronas Towers.  The bustling Ramadan Bazaar (see Timeout KL), was the first one I visited this year.  I bought a Roti MacGyver for dinner – a bread roll filled with black pepper beef, all wrapped in crispy deep-fried batter.  Believe it or not, that night I hung out with Chinese friends who were watching American reruns on TV (good old Fonzie in Happy Days!), and on came my first episode of MacGyver since I was a teen!

KJ11-Kampung Baru-hari-raya

At the Kampung Baru station I especially liked the cards distributed by Prasarana, the parent company of Rapid KL, listing the virtues of Ramadan in the form of a Metro map.  Peach-coloured Line 3 runs from Gratitude at top left through Familiness (how to translate such abstract nouns?),  Honesty, and Bonds of Hospitality to the interchange station at Relationship where it joins brown Line 4 (coming from Willingness via Pardoning, Happiness, Friendship, and the Blessing of Father and Mother).  The two lines proceed together through Blessedness, Sincerity, and Celebration and terminate at Homecoming.  Pink Line 5 departs from the Village Compound, passing through stations of Nostalgic Longing, Divine Blessing and Brotherhood en route to Forgiveness.


As we’re nearly halfway to the end of the line, I hope I’ll receive Raya – Jaya forgiveness if I take a break and pick up the remaining stations in Part Two.  If you’d like a break, here’s a love song to Ramadan by my favourite Muslim worship singer, a Lebanese-born Swede who also sings in Malay and tops the charts here.

You can continue the Hara Raya journey through Kelana Jaya stations 11 to 24 in Part Two.

Gemstones and Biryani: Stinking Rich in Hyderabad

I travel first class to the Taj Mahal, check what has changed in the City of Pearls, and steal a glimpse of its riches; I melt down in the fatal heat and perk up with a favourite meal.

The trip on Tuesday night from Bhopal (see here) 15 hours south to Hyderabad was my longest single stretch.  Things were less smooth this time.  The electronic signboards at the Bhopal station weren’t going and there was no sign of my train.  The young man in the tourist booth left me to browse brochures in his air-conditioned office while he asked around to find out the score: my train was running 40 minutes late and would arrive at platform three.

The second class seats had all been sold out so I splashed out on first, which was very affordable and not dramatically different.  The seat-cum-beds were maroon instead of blue, and, more significantly, were wider and longer so I could stretch out fully.  The closed four-berth compartments were more private.  My companions were a semi-retired refrigeration engineer visiting his son in Bangalore and an army colonel on leave from the troubled state of Kashmir.  Both were courteous gentleman with excellent English.  The engineer insisted I take two of his wife’s chapattis with cauliflower pickle and a carton of mango juice.

7 am arrival, so not yet too hot.  I missed the Taj Mahal in Aga but stayed in a “Taj Mahal” hotel here in Hyderabad, although cubic concrete above a highway flyover isn’t quite as romantic as sinuous marble mirrored in tranquil pools.  (And unlike the Moghul love of meat, consumption of non-vegetarian food in this Hindu-owned hotel was prohibited.)  It turned out to be a common hotel name and there’s a flasher Taj Mahal in town which is much better known.  One rickshaw driver took me to the latter, despite my vigorous “No, no, no” (in English and Hindi, with hands and head) whenever he named the suburb, then demanded more money to get to mine.

Hyderabad has about 5.5 million people and, like Bhopal, a higher Muslim proportion than the national average.  There are many more black-veiled women on the streets than a decade ago. This is not due to conservative Islam spreading, I read, but increasing freedom and education for women who were previously secluded at home and never seen.  Many work in the new IT industry of “Cyberabad”.  After the northern scarcity of online connections, I passed many Internet cafes and could see two from my hotel balcony, although the power failed as I was about to hit send.

hyderabad-charminarI spent a week here in November 2007 and saw the major tourist sites. Now I caught an auto-rickshaw to the Old City to see what had changed.  Instead of an electric horn as in other cities, the driver squeezed a rubber bulb for a Donald Duck squawk.  In the central square, motorbikes and rickshaws swarm around the base of the city’s main icon, the Charminar.  It’s sometimes called the “Oriental Arc de Triomphe”, but unlike its Parisian counterpart is square with archways on all four sides, a second-floor mosque, and four 56-meter high corner minarets.

The Charminar seemed a little more drab and soot-stained than when I saw it in 2007 (see here), or perhaps my memory had airbrushed its blemishes.  I recalled the baskets of sparkling bangles and the carts with geometric pyramids of apples and oranges.  The square would be much nicer without traffic; measurements of Respirable Particulate Matter have found it to be the most polluted area in the city.

hyderabad-banglesA network of lanes around the Charminar houses dealers of pearls and gemstones.  Hyderabad is called “the City of Pearls” and the world’s largest diamond, the Kohinoor, came from the mines near Golconda Fort (read about my visit here).  One tourist flyer listed the sacred nine gemstones of the Indian scriptures with their corresponding planets and star signs.  As a Pisces, it seems my gem is yellow sapphire, to be worn mounted in gold (as opposed to silver or copper for some stones) on the index finger.  My planet is Jupiter (for knowledge!) and Thursday my big day.  For Indian astrology, pearls represent the moon (and impart coolness to the body) and rubies the sun. Hessonite and Cat’s-Eye, I read, represent the dragon’s head and tail, or the moon in ascending and descending modes.

hyderabad-dental-clinicsIn a more down-to-earth vein, a row of dental clinics welcomed customers with photographs of perfect toothy smiles and steel-hinged dentures on the counters: grinning pink gums and discoloured incisors embedded in grey clay or lime putty.  Two boys held an injured pigeon, dipping its beak into water for a drink and gently stretching out its wings to pose for a photo.

hyderabad-hurt-birdIn one corner of the Charminar square is the 17th-century Mecca Masjid, a mosque that can hold 10,000 worshippers.  The name is due to a few bricks from Mecca embedded over one arch. I was instructed to either leave my cloth shoulder bag at the gate or roll it up so it looked small.  Actually less security than in 2007 when there’d been a recent bomb attack and riot police buses were parked outside.  (Since then two bombs killed 16 people in 2013.)  In the courtyard, goats and pigeons competed for scattered grain, while I rested alongside tombs of the local rulers in a shady colonnade.  Men read papers in the mosque’s small library.  Arabic titles wound down each book’s spine, their elegant flourishes filling me with nostalgia for a rich culture and a world of scholarship that I’ve never known.

Hyderabad was ruled by the Moslem Nizams and the last (reigning from 1911-1948) was perhaps the richest man in the world – his personal fortune included £500 million of gold, silver and jewels – and one of the most wed: he had 150 wives.  In 1967 he had 14,718 staff and dependants, including 3000 Arab bodyguards, 38 dusters of chandeliers, 28 bringers of drinking water, and several dedicated grinders of royal walnuts.  The Chowmahalla palace alone had 6000 staff.

The Chowmahalla was built in 1750-1850 and opened to the public since my last visit, giving me a taste of Hyderabad’s former opulence.  “It is the Palace of exuding invisible power and stands out for its intrinsic grandeur”, read the entrance sign, and is “compared by the historians as a Palace of Arabian Nights”.  The Nizam’s reception hall was indeed grand, with Belgian chandeliers above a vast expanse of marble before the wide white throne.  There were galleries of family portraits, a painted map of Mecca, and an elephant caparison weighing 25 kg.  The sixth Nizam was a dandy who never wore the same thing twice: his wardrobe was 72 m long, with two storeys.  The Nizam’s cars included a 1912 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, painted yellow.

hyderabad-chowmahalla-clockThe armoury seemed worthy of the Arabian Nights.  There were curved Iranian swords and Indian sabres, a double-edged Hindu sword with a tip swelling like a cobra’s hood, slim-bladed daggers designed to pierce ring mail, curved Arabic daggers with carved hilts, straight Afghan knives, and double-curved “scorpions” to be concealed in the sleeve.  The Nizam tried to remain independent after the British were ousted in 1947.  Despite all this weaponry, the Indian Army rolled in one year later and after five days his princely state (the size of Italy) was part of the new nation.

The next day I felt so exhausted that I hung the “do not disturb” sign on my door and went back to bed after breakfast.  I left early afternoon to revisit the Salar Jung museum that I enjoyed last time (see here).  It’s another Hyderabad hoard, gathered from the four seas by the Nizam’s Grand Vizier, and with 35,000 objects is allegedly the world’s biggest one-man collection.  Chinese tapestries and Japanese vases; Arabic manuscripts and Persian carpets; English china, Italian sculptures, European paintings and clocks; Indian silverware and carvings in stone, wood, ivory and bronze.  I had forgotten the museum lacked air-conditioning and most doorways open onto outdoor courtyards.  For some reason I found displays underneath a fan the most attractive.

biryaniHead throbbing in the heat, I dragged myself along the stinking river to the Hotel Shadab on High Court Road, known as one of the best spots for Hyderabad biryani: spicy saffron rice with chicken or mutton or beef.  It’s one of my Indian favourites and my morale bounced back on a padded seat under an AC unit, tucking into chicken biryani with side dishes of cool vegetable yoghurt and hot gravy.  The serving was so generous I couldn’t finish.  Check out the recipe (from here), drawn by Amrita Mohanty at the delicious site www.theydrawandcook.com.

Chicken Biryani by Amrita Mohanty

Chilling in Mosques and Boiling in Bhopal

I sleep on a train, study at a madrasa, rage at litterbugs and relax in mosques; I walk from the coast to the Himalayas in a few hours, sweat like dogs and play chess with Krishna.

The Leprosy Mission and Allahabad Bible Seminary had looked after me for over a week.  On Friday I set off on my own again, for the big push south towards Bangalore on three overnight trains.  As I waited for the driver to take me to Allahabad Junction station, I heard the students singing at Friday evening chapel, “Because I know He holds my future… all fear is gone.”  I had earlier sung with them, “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah, pilgrim in a foreign land.”

train-meal-hindiI travelled second class AC, on the upper bunk.  With my bag alongside my feet, I just had room to sit or stretch out; in third class which is three tier I’d be hunchbacked.  Towels, sheets and blankets are provided on the blue vinyl mattress.  With mesh pockets to hold bottle, book and glasses, and your own reading lamp, once you draw the curtain it’s a cosy little shelter.  Vendors move along the carriage droning “pani water pani water” – chilled water bottles, “chai coffee chai coffee” – Western teabag or coffee, “masala tea” – the Indian brew, “tomato soup” – with croutons.  Each is poured from a thermos into a small paper cup for five rupees, about ten cents.  There are cartons of juice, punnets of yoghurt, packets of chips; and omelette, “veg” or “nonveg” meals.  I bought the vegetarian for Rs 50.  Like an aeroplane meal, it comes in a tin foil tray: three chapattis, vegetables, runny yellow dal that almost spilled until I spooned it onto the rice.  I inserted my ear plugs, and had more sleep than I did on trains in 2007.

It was a 12 hour trip, arriving at 8 am in Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh.  It’s a quiet city with only 1.5 million inhabitants, and has seldom made headlines since the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak that killed perhaps 20,000 people.  (One of my English students in Bangalore is a drummer and once played there to commemorate the disaster.)  After the Hindu interlude in Ayodya and Allahabad, I was back to a more Islamic city.  Bhopal is 40% Muslim, way above 15% nationwide, with over 400 mosques.  From my hotel room balcony, I could see the minarets from two of the most famous above the jumbled rooftops.

I spent my first day exploring these mosques and the markets in between.  Although one of India’s largest mosques, the Taj-ul Masjid seemed almost deserted.  On the west side towards Mecca was the prayer hall, with fluted arches, white onion domes and two 18-storey pink towers that reflected in a square pool for ablutions surrounded by plastic stools like mushrooms.  Dull pink walls lined the other three sides of the courtyard, punctuated by dozens of bright blue doors.  Arabic scriptures hinted at the world inside: a madrasa or Muslim school, with, I was told, 500 students.  Teenage boys emerged for a morning tea break after studying since 7 am, and ushered me into their room.  Perched on a bed, they eagerly asked how many Muslims were in New Zealand, and how many mosques in my city.  Many spoke little English, but an older student told me he was learning English to spread Islam across the world. bhopal-mosque-arches

Back outside, young boys laughed and chased a school of fish around a pond while their elders sat in the shade.  Beneath the stone vaults of the prayer area, students bent over books on low benches; blackboards with math sums and English vocab stood between the pillars.  As I left, I saw a wrinkled state government sign glued to the wall.  It referred to yoga, which is compulsory in most schools but may offend Muslims:

Authorities will not compel the students to undertake the exercise of Surya Namaskar or Pranayam and will not take any action … if the students of such educational institution do not perform the aforesaid exercise.

For lunch I sat on a step with a bread roll and banana.  I was looking around in vain for a bin for my peel, when a goat approached and gobbled it up: a pleasingly perfect, zero-waste solution – two of us fed from one banana!  I’m less impressed by the homo sapiens.  I saw one guy, flanked by rubbish bins one meter to either side, drop his takeaway plate to the ground.  Wanted to grab his collar and shout, “That’s why your country is such a stinking mess!”  Indian writers lament the lack of public ownership or social responsibility, although people scrupulously clean their own homes.  Shopkeepers look strangely at me when I ask for a bin, and when my bag gets cluttered with empty bottles I wonder whether I’m being stupidly idealistic and should ditch them in the gutter like everyone else.  At other times, I have self-righteously preached in my mind to onlookers: “Watch carefully sir.  See, the wrapper simply goes into the trash can.  One more time now: that’s iiiiiiiiinto the can.  It’s not so hard, is it?”  At least there’s some show of concern from the top: the paper said the Bhopal Municipal Corporation was introducing spot fines for littering.

bhopal-mosqueHot and tired and sick of wading through garbage and threatened by a headache from the symphony of horns, I climbed the steps of the smaller Pearl Mosque, removed my shoes – and socks to air my toes – and slipped inside.  Mosques are often a lovely refuge of cool, clean quiet.  This afternoon, the tiles were so hot I put my socks back on and stayed on the narrow strips of carpet crossing the courtyard.  Cables were strung overhead to hold, I presume, an awning for the Friday prayers.  I leaned against a pillar in the shady breeze of an open arcade and watched schoolgirls play hide and seek on the rooftop across the street.

At 1:30 pm men flooded towards the pool in front of me, mostly dressed in loose white kurta tops and pyjama leggings – most suitable for the heat.  They washed arms and feet, rinsed faces, blew noses, scrubbed teeth with fingers and spat the water back into the gutter around the tank, all as prescribed by Islam.  Some asked my country while they purified themselves.  As they lined up and began to pray, latecomers straggled in, often with more Western or secular clothing.  Some had no head covering and borrowed a white prayer cap from a stack on the floor.  Behind the men, two boys imitated their prostrations at double speed, giggling and bumping each other.  Apart from this quarter hour of action, there was no one much around except a few men sleeping.  With traffic muffled by the walls and reflections dancing in the water, I nearly dozed off myself, and felt little desire to re-enter the chaos.

I later realised one reason for my apathy.  In early March, the temperature was apparently lower than usual, but now it was above average.  By the mid-30s, my shirt is permanently wet.  As the mercury climbs towards 40oC, I don’t consciously notice a rise in temperature so much as increasing exhaustion – I relate to the dogs lying half dead on their side – and decreasing appetite.  I mostly breakfasted well at my hotel buffet, reading the paper, writing my diary and mapping out a plan of attack for the day.  By early afternoon I’d emptied several one litre bottles – surprised at how quickly chilled water becomes warm – but eaten little except a packet of chips to replenish salt lost in sweat.  I’d go to a restaurant by mid-afternoon, more to rest my feet in the cool than to fill my stomach.  If air con is lacking, I’ve learned to ignore the waiters’ directions and grab a seat underneath the fastest-turning fan.  When I reach my room, it’s shirt off, fan on full, collapse spread-eagled on the bed beneath it.  Some evenings I roll my sleeves up and down, up and down, as heat and mosquitoes battle to dominate my attention.  It’s always gratifying to see Indians mopping their brows too: I’m not just a wimpy Westerner who can’t handle the heat!

bhopal-museum-of-mankindThe next day I took a rickshaw to the National Museum of Mankind.  This is an open-air tribal complex where “the communities are the curators” and villagers from throughout India practise their crafts in traditional houses.  Straw was tied into bundles and hoisted onto roofs for thatching.  Guys dug a hole to erect a totem pole they’d just carved, in front of a ceremonial hall hung with horned skulls.  Murals on mud walls showed scores of figures farming, weaving, building, hunting, cooking, playing, fighting, copulating.  There was a coastal village with a fishing boat and a Himalayan village of two-storey stone buildings with balconies, slate roofs, and paintings of the Buddhist wheel of life and death inside.  Bamboo-panelled houses on stilts.  Crudely modelled clay village gods.  Past the peak season, there were few people around and again I had a sense of Bible times, as in the villages I visited with the Leprosy Mission (see here).  Had it been 10o cooler, it would have been a totally lovely day.

I descended the hill to stroll alongside India’s biggest man-made lake, bypassing the many snack carts for an iced chocolate shake and veg puff (flaky pastry with samosa-like filling) on a café balcony.  Coming from the seaside city of Auckland, the view reminded me slightly of home.  Children were feeding geese on the beach and splashing in paddle boats.  Dinghies were anchored offshore, while people rowed out to a low grassy islet with a Muslim shrine to the patron saint of local fishermen.  Across the water was the old city and minarets of the mosques I’d seen the day before.

That evening I saw a live Hindi play for Rs 50, about $1.25.  It was an excerpt from the Mahabharata epic, which is eight times longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined, or four times longer than the Bible.  (In Ayodya I saw a snippet of the Ramayana, India’s other great epic – see here.)  The audience sat on carpeted steps; I was the only white face.  The stage was simply set with several white pillars, what looked like an inverted mosquito net, and giant chess pieces: a king, queen, castle and knight.  I caught a lot of individual words and the play seemed to involve female machinations to manipulate weak men – the blurb indicated a feminist twist to the ancient tale.  It opened and closed with Krishna, the divine hero of the Mahabharata, playing his flute under soft rainbow lighting.