Showing posts with label india. Show all posts
Showing posts with label india. Show all posts

April 29, 2013


Each January the Ahmedabad sky is filled with a host of kites during Uttarayan. For a few special days most everyone in the capital city of Gujarat becomes a kite enthusiast, whether personally navigating their own winged wonder or merely standing upon one of the thousands of rooftops in the city and gazing up at the mesmerizing spectacle taking place in the sky above. Uttarayan is a festival celebrating the end of winter. The auspicious date on the Hindu calendar is also known as Makar Sankranti.

With the onset of harvest season, there is always hope for a brighter future. Although Gujarat is a dry state, spirits are high during this time. A group of youth have congregated on top of the roof of a school, and I make my way up a dark staircase and join them at the top. A few kites are rotated among the more eager youngsters, while the rest just enjoy the warmth of the sun and the sight of a thousand kites dancing in the heavens.

Flying kites was originally a hobby exclusively enjoyed by the Nawabs that ruled the region, but it soon spread to the common man. Just like the individuals on the ground who are guiding them with steady hands, the kites come in all shapes, sizes, and colours.  Families start building their kites months in advance. Unlike the girls of Gangnam, each handcrafted kite has a personality all its own.

A gentle breeze lifts the kites into the clear blue sky. The slightest adjustment from the kite flyer causes his aerial steed to change course. Part of the fun of kite flying is the competitive aspect. The kite strings are coated with fragments of glass, designed to slice through opposing kites without mercy. Friendly duels take place among kites sharing the same airspace. As one kite string slices through that of a foe, the victor soars on while the vanquished flutters back down to earth.


Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country. ~ Anais Nin 

March 26, 2013

Dome Time

On a large parcel of land in a peninsula situated between Mumbai's Gorai Creek and the Arabian Sea, a gigantic dome rises into the sky. Sunlight shimmers off its golden exterior. I wear a long sleeved shirt to avoid any confusion. In 2009, the Global Vipassana Pagoda opened here. The monument to peace and harmony is not yet complete, with the final touches still being applied during my visit.

South Korea may be well known for its hollow plastic treasures, but the Vipassana Pagoda's claim to fame is that it is the largest hollow stone structure in the world. The largest stone dome without supporting pillars ever constructed, the impressive monument rises to an height of almost 100 meters. The exterior design is based on a Buddhist structure in Myanmar, and the pagoda has an expected lifespan of a thousand years.

The centre offers free ten day courses to everyone, and only asks for complete isolation from the pulls of modern day society during that time span in return. Oddly enough, India's largest amusement park is located adjacent to the meditative retreat. I had to share a crowded ferry with hundreds of families headed towards Essel World before I could experience the relative solitude of the monument.

There was a viewing hall inside the great dome, so we could witness the meditation sessions taking place within. Meditation centres always make me a bit uneasy, as I am never completely sure which of its inhabitants are actually sincere about their beliefs, which ones are faking it, and which ones are crazy.


"White, black, or brown, a man is still a man. Whoever defiles his mind becomes miserable." - inscription found on the wall of the pagoda

March 16, 2013

The Hungry Tide - Sundarbans

The Sundarbans are the largest continuous mangrove network on Earth, covering an area of over 6000 square kilometres. Two centuries ago, it was three times its present size. A combination of human development and natural phenomena have led to its shrinkage, threatening the very existence of the royal Bengal tigers and other wildlife that call these mangroves home. I took a tour of the Sundarbans while visiting with family in Kolkata.

Spread across a delta cutting its way through India and Bangladesh, it opens up to the Bay of Bengal. India's largest tiger reserve and national park can be found here. Dozens of small communities are scattered throughout the region. Boats are the primary form of transportation from one islet to another, through the Sundarbans' many rivers, streams, and vast expanses of open water.

I usually abhor the elementary school nature of organized tours, with their set timetables, unnecessary hand-holding, and annoying companions who you are forced to spend large tracts of time with in close quarters. However this tour was organized by West Bengal Tourism, so it was bound to be entertaining and unpredictable. After some initial bumbling, the tour operators did redeem themselves with generous servings of hearty Bengali fare during each meal.

After a long bus ride from West Bengal Tourism's head office in Kolkata, we were dropped off on the main street of a dusty village. A ten minute walk later we reached the pier, and waited for our ship for  a lengthy period of time. There were no bathroom facilities around, and the bladders of many a lady were bursting at the seams. They had to go aboard a docked ship and use the toilet there.

News slowly traveled through the tour group that we would have to take another boat to reach our actual ship, as there was a bridge on the river that was too low for our vessel to sail under. A rickety raft was overloaded with the tourists, who were then transferred to the barge where we would spend the next two days and one night. On the return journey, the raft had been freshly painted. I was left with an irremovable black tar stain along the backside of my designer jeans as a souvenir.

We enjoyed the tranquil scenes of the idyllic coastline as we slowly sailed by, stopping at several nature reserves on the way. As darkness fell, the boat anchored for the night. Everyone came to the top deck to enjoy a night viewing of Bodyguard, an entertaining Bollywood flick about the musclebound titular character and his seduction by (not of) the lady he was protecting.

Famed for its man-eating tigers, the Sundarbans can be a dangerous place. Many villagers have lost their lives to tiger attacks. At one point, 50-60 victims were consumed annually. Why the tigers of this region enjoy human flesh as part of their meal plan is not yet known, but is believed to be hereditary. Despite repeated efforts, I did not spot any of the magnificent beasts.

February 24, 2013

Mumbai - A Cavalcade of Life

The name Mumbai is derived from the goddess Mumba Devi. I went to visit the temple of the city's patron goddess with my cousin. The six hundred year old structure is not especially fascinating, but the neigbourhood around it is packed with the colours, smells, and sights that indelible memories are forged out of.

The streets of Seoul are quite predictable, full of bright neon lights and 24/7 life. The primary difference between day and night and from one area to another is that the number of drunken Korean men asleep on the sidewalk varies by time and location. Mumbai, on the other hand, always has something new to offer around every corner.

We chanced upon a series of vibrantly painted carts with disproportionally large bugles attached to the top as we continued on from the temple. The miniature vehicles can be hired to noisily accompany marriage processions. At another junction, a goat was parked amidst a line of motorcycles. A public washroom with an "Urine" sign accompanied by an arrow was next in line to draw my attention.

We visited a store selling burqas, the traditional Muslim body coverings, and inquired about the pricing and the different styles on sale. The store owners asked if we planned to open a burqa shop of our own, wary of freely distributing market intelligence to potential competitors. We informed them that we had no such plans at the moment.


"The thing about Mumbai is you go five yards and all of human existence is revealed. It's an incredible cavalcade of life, and I love that." ~ Julian Sands 

February 23, 2013

Christmas in Calcutta

It seems whenever I am in Calcutta (now Kolkata) some kind of celebration is taking place. On my past few visits to the City of Joy I have commemorated the ARNABirth, enjoyed the incomparable sights and sounds of Durga Puja, and attended my cousin's wedding. I happened to be in Kolkata for Christmas in 2011, and yet again the city was in a festive mood.

The most vibrant nightlife district in town centres around Park Street (now Mother Teresa Sarani), which is decked out in Christmas lights. The grand buildings from the days of the British Raj, deteriorating yet elegant, still stand tall. Anachronistic restaurants and clubs, like Trinca's and Mocambo, are decorated in the manner in which they were during their heyday decades ago.

A large audience watches a concert take place in a nearby park. Worshippers or those just looking to rest for a bit fill the church pews. Crowds clog the sidewalks like cholesterol in an American's arteries. Magnificent yellow Ambassador taxis ply the streets. Once in a while I spot odd combinations in the dense mass of humanity, such as women clad in saris wearing Santa Claus hats.

Kolkata is a magical place. There is not much to like about the city, but so much to love about it. The commonplace and the exotic come together, the poverty and grandeur live side by side, no one is in a hurry and time passes slowly, and where, even if for a little while, anyone can feel like they are home.


"Instead of death and sorrow let us bring peace and joy to the world" - Mother Teresa

December 09, 2012

Dhobi Ghat

Multiply the number of people living in a city as populous as Mumbai by the number of their clothes that need to be washed every day. The amount is staggeringly high, like the percentage of women in South Korea who have had plastic surgery. An elaborate system has evolved over the years to handle the needs of masses to have their garments washed efficiently and economically. 

Delivery boys pick up clothes from homes and stores across town and bring them to dhobis to be washed. Dhobis wash clothes for a living, often manually. Once the clothes have been washed, dried, and ironed they make their way back into the hands of their respective owners. Rarely does a garment end up in the wrong hands.

In the apartment I shared with at least 13 other men, there was always a heap of clothing in the living room. Whenever anyone wanted something washed, they could add their clothes to the pile. A few days later the clothes would be washed and pressed. I would pay a few rupees to the landlord or one of his many acolytes, and would collect my clothes.

The largest concentration of clothes washers in Mumbai is found at Dhobi Ghat, located beside the Mahalaxmi railway station. The world's largest open air laundromat is quite popular with tourists and filmmakers alike, providing an unforgettable glimpse into what makes India a place like no other. The dhobis start their work early in the morning, following the daily rhythms of washing, drying, and ironing with orchestral precision. 

September 23, 2012

Haji Ali

I moved to Mumbai to help work towards eliminating educational inequity in India. Five hundred years ago, Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari left behind his worldly possessions here before setting off on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He perished on the journey, with the casket carrying his body cast into the Arabian Sea.

His coffin miraculously found its way back to the shores of Mumbai, lodging itself in an islet by Worli. On this site, the dargah (shrine) of Haji Ali was built. Nowadays tens of thousands of pilgrims from all faiths and walks of life visit the well known landmark. It is only accessible from the mainland via a half kilometer long path during low tide.

Sitting on each side of the path are lepers, begging mothers with their children, the blind, and others cast an unfair lot in life. Walking through this Noah's Ark for the disenfranchised is not a pleasant experience, but a necessary one. The shrine itself may provide relief to some, while others relax on one of the many boulders behind the dargah.


"There is only one way in which one can endure man's inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one's own life, to exemplify man's humanity to man." - Alan Stewart Paton

July 11, 2012


The Elephanta Caves are the first underwhelming world heritage site that I have seen in India, having seen much better days. Although the island location of Elephanta adds some intrigue, they do not compare in any way to the diversity and scale of the sculpted caves found in Ajanta and Ellora. Nevertheless, the opportunity cost to visit it was low as it was a short boat ride away from my Bombay abode. I caught a ferry from near the Gateway of India, accompanied by a colleague from Teach For India who had recently relocated to Mumbai for the cause.

The most memorable structure is the great cave of Shiva, sprinkled with large pillars and sculptures of divine figures. There is no great buildup to the grand reveal. Visitors see the main cave as soon as they climb the staircases from the entrance and past the vendors peddling kitsch. The caves following it taper off in magnificence drastically, with many suffering from water damage. The six meter high Trimurti, a three headed figure set against the back wall of the cave, represents creation, preservation, and destruction.

The Portuguese gave the island the name of Elephanta in the 16th century, after finding a mammoth statue carved out of black stone. The complex was created well over a millennium ago, although it is hard to pinpoint the exact time period within which it was constructed. Much damage was done under Portuguese rule, which brought about an end to centuries of usage of the caves as a place of worship for the Hindu inhabitants of the island. The origins of the cave creators remain shrouded in mystery.


"Man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage." ~ Morris West

March 24, 2012

Impenetrable Sea Fortress of Maharashtra

One of my first outings while stationed in Bombay was to Alibag and its surroundings. An office girl from Chennai who accompanied me did all of the talking. Catching a ferry to Mandwa from the Gateway of India is the fastest way to get to Alibag. As the journey began, I narrowly avoided reconfiguration of my handsome face as the ferry collided with a boat anchored right beside it. I had to duck to avoid the protective tire barriers on the side of the boat from hitting me in the head. Forty five minutes later we docked. Most of the  passengers on the ferry immediately ran from the Mandwa pier to a bus that would take them onwards to Alibag. After the bus was suitably overcrowded, it ambled away to its destination. The stragglers, including us, were stuffed onto a shared rickshaw which quickly overtook the bus on its way to Alibag.

We were dropped off in the middle of a roundabout near the town center. A dozen meters away was the ticket counter for the return ferry journey. The lady manning the booth told us the tickets had been sold out a week ago and advised us to hang out at the beach and then take a bus back. We had other plans and told her what we wanted to see, including a mysterious Jewish settlement. She said none of that was interesting, reiterated that we should just hang out at the beach, but then provided us accurate directions to where we wanted to go. Five separate shared rickshaw journeys followed with a variety of co-passengers. On one segment, a mother was teaching her son how to properly throw garbage out of a moving vehicle onto the street. Due to the prevailing direction of the wind, his attempts were only resulting in his empty bag of chips landing back inside the rickshaw whenever he attempted to toss it outside.

We could not find the Jewish settlement anywhere, although all the locals were vaguely aware of knowing someone else who had heard of Jewish people. We were advised to ask for "Europe people" or "Portugal people" if we wanted to see any colonial ruins. Alibag was where the Bene Israel Jews first landed in India over 2000 years ago. Some meandering through ancient forts, beaches, and villages finally led us to some spectacular sites. One of these was Chaul, location of a famous sea battle between the Portuguese and Egyptian fleets in 1508. A rich delinquent had even built his mansion within some ruins, completely disregarding the Indian Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958.

After briefly halting at the palatial residence of the Siddi Nawab we had a delicious fish thali (mixed platter) at a popular beachfront restaurant. Hunger satiated, thirst followed. We had heard about a local concoction called maadi, made from coconut and fermented to perfection. A man overheard us talking about the beverage and took us to a shady clearing nearby. Another man climbed down from a coconut tree, took our empty water bottle and filled it up with some liquid from a petrol canister. It was very tasty. We then walked towards the next settlement in search of another rickshaw. For a while we could not find any, but as soon we got on a rickshaw and were on our way, two lost looking English beauties walked out of a back alley onto the main street. I groaned in disappointment. "Good thing we saw them now, otherwise you would have forgotten about me." murmured my travel companion.

Our final stop before heading back to Bombay was the impenetrable sea fortress of Murud Janjira. From the opposing shore we were hurried on to a barely seaworthy vessel, made even less so by the mass of humanity loaded onto it. As we approached the fort, it looked even more dark and menacing than it had from afar. Nineteen bastions holding cannons and thick walls rising a dozen meters into the sky loomed ahead. Inside it was much brighter, murky green ponds and shrubbery having taken over most of the man made construction. We climbed the staircase to the highest point. The entire fort as well as the bay surrounding it was clearly visible. Any ship approaching the area would have been spotted from kilometers away by the guards once manning this point.

Under the jurisdiction of it's Abyssinian Siddi rulers, Murud Janjira was never captured by Dutch, Portuguese, English, or Maratha forces, a distinction no other fort on India's west coast can claim. The name comes from the Konkani word for island, morod, and its Arabic equivalent, jazeera. If the fort at Murud Janjira was not spectacular enough, another floating citadel loomed out even further out to sea, constructed by Shivaji's son after he failed to conquer it by digging a tunnel into the fort. It is inaccessible to the public. On the way back to the mainland, a grown man started whimpering on the sailboat. "Is he scared?" I asked a man awkwardly crouching beside me and trying not to fall overboard. "I think so." he replied.

February 17, 2012

It Happens Only In Burhanpur

I rolled into Burhanpur's railway station a couple of hours before my friend Himanshu's wedding. He had sent his roommate to pick me up. As we rode to my hotel on his motorcycle he briefly explained Burhanpur's claim to fame. Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, had expired in the town while delivering her fourteenth child. Burhanpur was to be the site of the Taj Mahal, but due to logistical issues the world's most beautiful building was built in Agra instead.

I was sharing my hotel room with another wedding guest. After introductions, I freshened up and got into my ethnic gear. The hotel was on the main street of Burhanpur, as was the wedding hall, so we strolled there just as the baraat was beginning. The baraat is a procession where the groom sits on a horse while his friends and family members enthusiastically dance along to the music of a marching band. There is also much waving around of rupee notes in the air.

The baraat can take many hours to complete, regardless of the distance traversed. In this particular case it was a hurried affair, as we covered around a hundred meters in little over an hour. I followed at a safe distance, careful to not get caught in the middle of the gyrating crowd. I was still occasionally pulled in for some dance lessons by the revelers. The dancing was so frenetic that a dust storm was kicked up outside the entrance of the wedding hall.

Now it was the time for the actual marriage ceremony. A couple of Himanshu's friends came up to me and inquired "Do you booze?". "A little." I cautiously replied. We headed out and one of them threw me some motorcycle keys. I do not know how to operate a motorcycle, so soon four of us were on another bike headed to the local watering hole. There I was plied with whisky, beedis, and a famous Burhanpur dish made from a mixture of lentils and rice.

The groom called his roommate to summon me back to the wedding hall, as I had not yet met his family. His other friends kept ordering more drinks. "Stop, else he will be completely out." pleaded the roommate, who was limiting his intake. "It does not matter if he has killed one man or many, he is murderer either way." was the supporting argument in favour of getting more drinks for me. The roommate was able to extract me from the bar after a while. "You don't drink much?" I asked. "It is a small town. One has to maintain a good image." he responded.

The marriage functions were winding down now. I met Himanshu's father and cousins, before posing for a photo with the bride and groom. The fellow sharing my hotel room was leaving the same night, so all the friends got on a couple of motorcycles again to drop him off. On the way back, another motorcycle was approaching the one I was sitting on from an acute angle. "What's going on?" I asked the driver of my motorcycle. The man on the other bike took out a bottle of whisky and handed it to me like a baton. "Put it in your pocket." my driver calmly said.

I was back at the wedding, standing rigidly so as not to disclose the concealed bottle of liquid sin. It was time for the newlyweds to say good night. Once the rest of the guests had also departed, the remaining guys gathered around me. I reached under my kurta and slowly revealed the whisky bottle. Everyone roared in approval and we headed to my hotel room for a nightcap. On the way a rather large ass stood in the middle of the street, unperturbed by the bright lights or honks emanating from the two wheeler rapidly approaching it. We swerved around it at the last moment, with the driver remarking "A donkey in the middle of the road. It happens only in Burhanpur.".