A Light Touch Behind the Ear

February 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

imageIn wood, brass, paintings, textiles, print and plastic, images of elephants are abundant in Fort Cochin. For live animals you have to go about 70 kilometers north to Guruvayur, the site of a huge Shiva temple visited annually by tens of thousands of devout Hindu pilgrims from all over India. On major festivals more than 50 elephants are decorated and paraded in front of huge crowds gathered to see them and their handlers compete in various ways. The rest of the year the elephants live at Guruvayur Devaswom at Punnathurkotta, a so-called elephant sanctuary. After the initial excitement of seeing more than 50 dark grey hulking bodies with white tusks gathered in one place, a much more disturbing shock sinks in; scattered across the sanctuary the animals are chained to trees and cement posts, rocking, swaying, straining their massive weight against their confinement, signs warn against getting too close or looking too long. Most of them are chained in place by all four legs, the few that have just one or two chains are restrained by a simple wooden pole leaned against their body, the light pressure of the stick enough to keep them still. Imagine the kind of training, the conditioning required to convince an animal to stand submissively for hours with the simple reminder of a light touch behind the ear.
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Families stroll, a small child points excitedly and squeals aane. I know it is foolish to read human emotion into an animal’s facial expression, but the eyes of these elephants have a look of seething desperation. Standing in their own excrement, unable to interact with each other except through some kind of subsonic tapping on the prison plumbing, they must be passing coded signals of rage or conspiracy. To be fair, they are fed, given medical attention, washed and worshiped, but these are gods in chains and they look pissed off.
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On my last day in Fort Cochin I decide to revisit the salt temple. Retracing my way through the back streets I pass a mill where men in bare feet are guiding hardwood logs through a long, rumbling band-saw blade in dust-thickened air, every surface flocked in dry, dull yellow. A crew is dismantling an old house, carefully unpegging, then unthreading stringers from rafters, stacking the wood for reuse. Inside a 4’X 8’X 6′ blacksmith’s shed beside the stinking green canal one man cranks a blower, another delicately arranges bits of coal with iron tongs, then strikes the red-orange iron billet to make a knife, a pile of blanks cooling beside his bare feet. He gestures me forward to take a closer look, but the heat drives me back from the door. A man walks his bicycle, selling small fish floating in bloody water from a blue plastic crate; chickens are confined in pens, goat families roam casually among lounging cats, one with a fish tail sticking out of its mouth. At the temple I am shocked to find the salt has disappeared and what had appeared to be a pedestal is a four foot deep well. The volume of salt in the cone now doubles, and where is it? I ask the attendant what happened to the salt, he repeats Guruvayor, points to the elephant poster, asks for a rupee.
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A cow is blocking half the street ahead and as I frame a photo, I see a much bigger animal walking toward me, a twelve-foot tall bull elephant carrying a bundle of bright green palm leaves between white tusks and pink trunk. The chains ring lightly, its feet make a soft sound of sandpaper passing over asphalt, traffic stops to let it through the confusion of cars, two wheelers and pedestrians. It delicately threads the wide load through narrow streets past a yellow school where children’s excited voices yell aane, aane as it passes the open, turquoise framed windows. Back inside its yard it sets down the fodder and steps onto a cement pad. The mahout loosens, but does not remove the chains, leans a long, brass tipped pole behind the elephant’s huge, mottled pink ear, turns on a hose and inserts it into the animal’s mouth. It runs for a good 5 minutes until the water starts to overflow, the elephant spits out the hose and lets loose a torrent of pee equivalent to the volume of water that just went in. Another mahout collects wads of dung onto a plastic sheet and tosses them onto a pile double the size of the blacksmith’s shed. Beside it are the smoldering remains of a previous dung pile reduced to hot, silver-grey ash. They say luck favors the well prepared. Persistent looking is a form of preparation in action; I was looking for salt and saw an elephant.
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Salt and Pepper

February 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the dusk light a brilliant white cone draws my attention; five feet of crystal salt heaped on a round pedestal, overflowing its base into multiple subsidiary conical piles around the perimeter. Between the salt mound and the temple entrance, mounted on a bronze turtle is an oily, six-tiered, fire blackened column, each level with multiple shallow depressions holding lit wicks. Across a raised, tiled floor the first gate to the shrine is flanked by large posters of the same temple elephants I had seen the day before at Guruvayur. The attendant points to a poster and speaks to me; I hear and repeat aane, elephant, he smiles and gives me the distinctive, confusing Indian head-wobble nod of agreement. I say Guruvayur, he nods, Guruvayur, it could be the mascot elephant of this shrine. We repeat aane, aane, Guruvayur. The gate is lined with blue LEDs chasing around the jambs and header, strings of white and yellow flowers make a delicate canopy over the vestibule, the inner gate outlined in more lights red, blue and green. In the deepest sanctum is the goddess, her multi-armed orange body just visible through a dense cloak of red, orange, pink, white garlands of flowers and silk surrounded by live, flickering oil lamps. A sharp, hollow pop as a man smashes a coconut onto the pavement; he picks up the pieces to distribute to women at four stalls who sell oil, flowers, fruit and 500gm. bags of salt. A loudspeaker plays an endless loop of upbeat, falsetto praise-singing which abruptly stops mid-verse every few minutes, pauses, then repeats. Bells and drums briefly drown out the tape, another coconut smacks the pavement and an unmistakable, gut-thumping pulse announces the arrival of a Royal Enfield. Usually the ride of young Indian men or dissipated Europeans who look like they have had way too much sun, this one carries a family of four. Mother gets off, lifts down the 6 year-old, father hands the toddler across the gas tank to mom, they leave their sandals beside the machine and cross the street to do darshan. A steady stream of men and women from the neighborhood pour oil from small bottles onto the flames, empty bags of salt onto the cone, wait their turn to see and be seen, to exchange the gaze that develops affection. A few minutes later the family returns, mother carefully applies pigment to the son’s forehead, yellow and red, a touch on the chest. He makes the face of every boy whose mom is fussing with his appearance. 15 minutes, duty done, they remount the Bullet and head home.
In Fort Cochin today, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Christian and Jewish temples closely intermingle. From a neighborhood minaret, loudspeakers play a muezzin’s recorded call to prayers next to a large Jain temple, down the street from the Sri Krishna Cafe. A loudspeaker near the old synagogue in Jewtown blasts an earsplitting and unmistakable cadence of call and response; Hail Mary in Malayalam. Inside the church, six rows of women wearing red and pink choir robes, crowns of white flowers in their jet hair, sit on one side of the aisle, more women in saris on the other, facing an altar where a female officiant leads the recitation. The baby Jesus has a distinctly Indian look, the intense colors of a Hindu high gloss enamel aesthetic.
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Few surviving traces of 16th century Cochin remain; European influenced architecture, Catholic churches, a synagogue and a global spice trade. Fort Cochin was the port of embarkation for Portuguese armadas headed to Lisbon in the early 16th century. In addition to the primary cargo, black pepper, the armada that left in late 1510 or early 1511 included one nau carrying a young elephant. Both survived the six month journey, a fact by no means guaranteed given the hazards of long distance ocean travel at the time. Fort Cochin was a tenuous colonial toe-hold on the margin of a vast continent, its natural harbor had been used by fishermen, merchants and navies for many centuries by the time the Portuguese arrived, its sheltered channels and vicinity to spice growing regions making it a highly desirable and contested site. In the early 16th century the port was within the sphere of the Vijayanagara Empire, whose ruler tolerated and profited from the Portuguese. One theory is that the elephant Annone was a gift from the Emperor of Vijayanagara to the Portuguese King Manuel, another that it was a gift from a king in Sri Lanka. Yet another possibility is that the Portuguese bought it locally and sent it to Lisbon simply because they could.image
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In muggy early morning on Bazar Street in Jewtown, dozens of trucks unload heavy burlap and poly sacks of rice, flour and spices of every kind, the smell in the air thick, luscious and complex. Bags are hooked and handed down from hyper-painted All India Permit ten-wheelers onto blue, hand-pulled, two-wheeled carts with hard rubber wheels over iron rims, or onto the heads of barefoot men in dhoties. Men, sacks, trucks, carts, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians and goats compete for space until traffic congeals to a standstill, then moves again. Bags disappear through massive turquoise wooden doors into sunny interior courtyards and dark warehouses. Inside one yard a woman scoops coarse, fragrant, dark brown granular material from sacks onto a 5X10 meter repurposed plastic advertising billboard. Back bent double, she spreads an even layer with her hands, divides it into long rows, then into piles to dry in the sun. A pigeon picks its way through the rows, a chicken eyes a cat nearby. I find the India Pepper and Spice Trade Commission, the Cochin Pepper Exchange and many shops that sell spices to tourists. Farther away from the tourist zone the price of a kilo of pepper drops until I find a merchant who is selling to local residents at half the cost of the others. He carries ginger, turmeric, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and dozens of other spices, beans and varieties of rice. I want to ship some Kerala pepper to Portugal, he will sell me as many kilos as I want, carry it on the plane he says, I think, our mutual understanding limited by meager English and nonexistent Malayalam. Pepper is not cheap today and was worth more than gold to the 16th century Portuguese. In addition to the cargo assigned to the king and his financiers, crews were allowed to bring home personal pepper in quantities according to rank. A captain was allowed 500 quintals, 10 for a regular sailor, 5 for a ship’s boy; at 59 kilos per quintal, pepper could make you very rich. I decide to buy two kilos, we do our trade and the bemused gentleman finally asks me why. It’s a long story I say, we laugh and then I tell it to him with supporting images from my iPad. He understands the gist of it, although maybe still not exactly why.image
Walking down Bazar Street with my pepper in a blue plastic bag, past ginger merchants, tea, rice and flour dealers, the chaos of the street eventually calms. Looking deep into one warehouse, through the dark vestibule, across the bright open courtyard and into a dark shed, I see women working, their forms backlit by the sun through yet another door that opens to the waterfront. One of them makes a gesture with her hand that could either mean go away tourist, or come in and look. I take a chance on the latter interpretation and enter. A gentleman in the outer office invites me to come in and sit down, I tell him I am interested in black pepper. On his desk is a shallow basket of his product, small black grains of pepper. He explains that this is second grade product, destined to be ground and mixed with other pepper, not to be sold as whole kernels; this is all he handles. Again I tell my pepper/elephant story, show my pictures, explain the origin of Annone’s name, how the Italians made “aane” bigger by adding the augmentative suffix “-one”. When I say aane, he breaks into a huge smile and shakes my hand, aane, my one word of Malayalam. Laughing, he puts it together; Kerala plus Italian makes Annone. I cross the blinding bright drying yard to the back warehouse where the women are sifting and bagging pepper into white woven poly sacks stacked 8 high, piles of loose pepper line the room and the dust immediately burns my throat. On my way out the trader suggests that I stop at the tea shop next door where a woman serves me a glass cup of scalding hot milk-tea, two deep-fried bananas and a slice of battered, deep-fried white bread. Her husband comes in for his lunch and eyes my blue bag, it’s pepper I say, I bought some black pepper. Without asking he unties the outer bag, pokes his fingers through the plastic and takes out a pinch of twenty or so grains. He puts one in his mouth and begins to roll the others on the worn formica table, pressing hard on one until it crumbles. From his expression and gesture I can tell that this is a poor quality pepper grain and for a moment I fear that I have made a bad trade, but the others grains are solid. I ask him how much a kilo of pepper should cost; he leaves the room, comes back with a newspaper, begins to flip pages and I think our conversation is over, but he is looking for the pepper quote, the price of pepper on the market today. In the columns of figures and Malayalam script he finds black pepper and points to the number 52000. Fearing the worst, I ask what that means, how much should one kilo cost? His lips move silently as he makes a quick calculation, then says 500 rupees. I paid 580, not bad for retail.image

Drive-by Darshan

February 18, 2014 § 2 Comments

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The monumental carved panels, temples and caves at Mahabalipuram were cut from outcroppings and natural formations in the native granite, and include several structures that appear as if they were free standing. Imagine five generations of skilled sculptors let loose in Yosemite National Park, carving continuously for a hundred years.
The massive composition known as the Descent of the Ganges dominates the site; the energy and complexity of the carvings are stunning. Scores of figures, as many as 146 by one count, include gods, goddesses, human and half-human beings, mammals and birds gathered around a natural cleft in the granite wall. The figures surround the natural fissure; frolicking monkeys mimic holy men, peacocks strut, wary mice watch a cat hold a yoga pose, a deer scratches its nose, an imposingly large bull elephant leads a female and several babies toward the cleft. A cistern once collected rain water the top of the site and then allowed it to cascade over half-serpent, half-human river nagas to simulate Ganga, the Ganges River, descending from heaven through the matted locks of Shiva’s hair.
Surrounding the site is the small town of Mahabalipuram. During the week tourists dominate; on Saturday the town is transformed. What were quiet streets and a large parking lot are jammed with people from the surrounding countryside in town for the market. Snack foods and drinks of every kind, souvenirs, shoes, clothes, cheap plastic toys, homemade slingshots, musical instruments, kitchen utensils, religious images and posters of pop stars are laid out on the ground, families of villagers stroll and shop. At a square public tank, steep steps lead to an acre of water choked with lily pads, discarded flower garlands and floating plastic trash. Men, women and children bathe and wash clothes, watched over by a blue half-human, half-fish water god balanced on its tail under a white pavilion in the center. A mandarin orange sun sets behind a temple; to the east, a full moon lifts out of the Indian Ocean, a lighter orange in the smoke and dust of the Tamil dusk.
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The East Coast Road from Pondicherry to Chennai passes clusters of palm leaf and mud huts; gaudy temples with their plaster gods; women raking salt from shallow ponds into dazzling white piles, the angle of repose reached first in small, then larger cones and finally into sacks; wooden carts pulled by twin white oxen with long upright horns painted jaunty red and blue, red and green. Bodies with heads wrapped against the sun crawl slowly through a tidal lagoon submerged to the neck, noodling for prawns and small fish. A man balanced on two lashed planks poles through the shallow water, destination unclear. “Plots For Sale”‘, optimistic real estate ventures with names like Luxor, Sea Breeze and Ocean Village; streets laid out and lined with painted blocks; no houses, no buyers. Five foot tall cinder block walls, freshly painted in red, magenta and yellow with black Tamil script enclose large rectangles of scrub; no gate, no entrance, no discernible purpose. A herd of sixty rust brown goats is moved miraculously across the highway by boys with long, slender sticks. On the horizon a mile away, a nuclear power station raises its stacks over the beach.
In dimming light the temples pop out from the dull surroundings, polychrome figures piled in tiers, bright blue and acid green vestibules lit by fluorescent tubes; the deities are clearly visible to the world through the narrow vestibule, dark stone bodies draped in garlands and silk scarves of yellow, white and red; fifty mph drive-by darshan.

Ninety-five Names of Ganesh

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Lakshmi the elephant was not at her station, but the Ganesh temple in Pondicherry was open and crowded with local residents, Indian tourists, a few Europeans looking silly in their socks. The Hindus stop at stalls that line the street outside to assemble an offering or carry their own bowls prepared at home with tied sprigs of grass, pieces of coconut, small bananas, yellow and red flowers, a single, large pink lotus blossom, something sweet, money, all the things that Ganesh loves. Some touch the finger-worn brass image of Ganesh on the mirror-bright money collection canister outside the door, others bend to touch the foot-polished threshold with its image of a lotus flower, the jambs and columns inside covered with more patterned yellow brass. Some of them circle clockwise through the long narrow space around the inner sanctum, a room within a room, stopping to light a lamp or receive a dab of red or yellow on the forehead from a temple functionary. Others join lines on twin raised causeways either side of the direct path to the sanctum. A few take advantage of a sort of express lane where for 20 rupees you can jump the line to enter by a side door. Temple men wearing white dhoti and a single white string across their bare chest ring bells and carry smoking lamps to the waiting devout who pass their hand over the flame, then lightly across the top of the head. They offer a stainless steel bowl of white pigment to be drawn across the forehead with an index finger in a single, double or triple horizontal line. People lean in, craning their necks to see ahead, excited or impatient, waiting their turn to do darshan, a reciprocal interaction between devotee and image. An act of looking at, beholding or simply glimpsing a divine image or holy person, darshan heightens spiritual consciousness and develops mutual affection between god and devotee. Bodies shift and for a second through the crowd, deep within the innermost sacred space where the living god resides, Ganesh is visible, garlanded and wrapped, glistening black. Intermediated by the attendants, devotees kneel and prostrate themselves to look, to see and be seen. image
Over the entrance to the inner sanctum is a large symbol of Ganesh in red neon, the pulsing tubes giving the room a pleasant, incongruous glow, like a liquor store beer sign in church. Simultaneously conspicuous and ignored, nobody seems to care that I am taking notes, that my knees don’t bend when I sit on the floor or that my expression of perpetual, awestruck curiosity could be interpreted as rude. A soundscape of hand rung bells, whir of a dozen ceiling fans, low conversations, loud voices of workmen and the distinctive metallic thunder and twang of sheets of corrugated metal being removed from scaffolding; this is not a hushed cathedral or Christian chapel. The people here are serious and reverent, but mostly relaxed and about their business. Some appear in a hurry to perform a duty, observe a ritual and be on their way, others linger cross-legged on the floor around the perimeter, meditating or talking softly. A woman takes flowers from two plastic bags, ties a garland of marigolds and pink blossoms in rapid rhythmic repetition, a simple motion practiced thousands of times. Like knitting, she does not need to look.
On one wall a serene Ganesh is flanked by floating, banner bearing attendants, adoring Tamil putti with plump bare bottoms, wings and curly black hair. The upper eight-foot band of the interior walls is lined with a gallery of portraits, a high-relief plaster frieze painted in the gaudy-bright polychrome typical of South Indian temples. In stacked tiers of three- by four-foot panels above a wide black dado densely inscribed with Tamil script and a high wainscot of dark red granite, the elephant-headed god is presented in ninety-five iterations; as a child, dancing, fat, fierce, serene, poised ready for action, worshiping Shiva, being worshiped by Ravanah, meditating, multi-headed and multi-armed. He is called Ganesh, Ganesa, Ganepathy, Maha, Bhuvana, Vijaya, Herambla, Narantha, Oorthava, Shripra, Mayuresa, Dundi, Shanmuga, Pancha Muga, Mooshi Gavahani and eighty other names.
As I stand taking notes, a gentleman who had been sitting on the white marble floor approaches me, leaning on a cane. “I am sorry to disturb you, but I see that you are taking notes and I want to explain to you that these images on the walls around you are part of a system of mystic symbolism.” I tell him of my interest in elephants and Ganesh. He says that these images have nothing to do with elephants, that Ganesh is simply a mythical being that happens to have the head of an animal, like the Minotaur. He repeats, “It is merely mystic symbolism. Some Hindus are religious, some are spiritual, some are intellectual, some are merely ritualistic.” Does a Hindu think about Ganesh when he sees a living elephant? He replies, “That would depend on the individual, if I saw an elephant come into this room right now, I would think about running away.” His name is Subramaniam, named for Ganesh’s elder brother, also son of Shiva and Parvathi. “I am 78 and I have lost many things in my life, now I come here each day to meditate for half an hour, and for those minutes all my worries fall away.” We chat, his voice so soft I need to cup my ear to hear. Taking his leave, he puts a hand on my shoulder- “May all these gods bless you.”
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Lakshmi’s Blessing

February 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

To say that Ganesh is ubiquitous and beloved in Nepal is understatement, way under. The living presence of gods and goddesses is taken for granted, made visible everywhere there is a pillar, shrine, doorway, gate, niche in a tree, hump of native rock protruding the brick pavement. They are offered incense, anointed with red pigment, sprinkled with orange and yellow petals, smeared with fat, sung to, fed, clothed, washed, stepped over, circumambulated, worn featureless by countless loving hands. On cards, posters and decals, carved in wood, cast in bronze or plastic, suggested in stone, cutesy stuffed toys, fierce and friendly, the images are simultaneously divine and symbols of divinity.

  In a big Indian city like Kolkata the images are harder to see through the exigent overburden of daily life, but they are there on a taxi driver’s dashboard, the back of a pedal rickshaw, in jewelry, set into the wall in front of a hospital, for sale in smart shops. Images of Ganesh take many forms and styles, from classic to baroque to pop, kitsch, abstract and post modern, some barely recognizable, but the elephant is always there in the curve of an ear or trunk. In homes he joins the pantheon of gods with their consorts and vehicles just inside the front door, in a corner of the sitting room, on a bedroom wall. A chubby boy will be affectionately called Ganesh. Shopkeepers invoke him at the start of a business day to bring good trade.

  In Pondicherry, as in other cities in the south, real elephants live at temples where they are painted, adorned, fed, displayed and worshiped. They will give a blessing, a touch on the head with the trunk in exchange for money or food. The paper money goes directly from the trunk to the hand of the keeper, but coins disappear to be retrieved later. The female temple elephant in Pondicherry is named for Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, goddess of wealth. Her solitary, restricted life has given her the neurotic, repetitive movements of kept animals, the rocking and pacing seen in zoos, but she makes good money.

 When a rock or a sculpture embodies a living deity, we don’t feel empathy for its frozen existence, but an elephant is a vigorous, intelligent, highly social animal. They can be trained, but not domesticated. Lakshmi is not chained or bound by any visible means, but she is locked into a symbol, an expression of divinity. The blessing of her trunk is a charming, irresistable trick. The poor condition of her skin and feet is not dignified or divine, it is neglectful. The unchanging expression in her eyes is unfathomable and haunting, not cute, compassionate or fierce.

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Pondicherry

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

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Mahabalipuram

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

A thriving sea port city during the Pallava Dynasty, Mahabalipuram is on the Indian Ocean south of Chennai. It has several freestanding monolithic temples, cave temples and relief sculpture sites that were cut directly into the native granite in the 7th and 8th centuries CE. The elephants in the photo are life size.

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