Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Good Morning Allahabad! First impressions from the Kumbh Mela

Finally we made it to the event of a life time: The 2007 Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad! This is without comparison the largest religious festival in the world, and perhaps the largest of any event in the world.

To get to the festival ground we had to walk for more than 8 kilometers starting at 4:00 in the morning. The walk takes you across a major bridge over the river Ganges allowing fantastic views of the festival ground. The size of this thing is truly mind blowing. In tent camps stretching as far as the eye can see you have more people than living in the entire city of New York. I do not exaggerate, when I say that the first glimpse of this sea of light simply takes your breath away. From the above picture you see the view south from the bridge down towards the Sangam (The confluence of the two holy rivers Yamuna and Ganges). What you see in this picture is just a tiny fraction of the entire Mela ground.

Here you see the view to the other side of the bridge (looking north). Already at this point well before sunrise you can see hordes of people moving down towards the Sangam to be there in time for the morning bathing ritual. We arrived on the 19th of January, which is one of the most important bathing dates of the whole festival.

After walking another couple of kilometers we had to walk back over the Ganges via a smaller pontoon bridge. We got stuck in a procession of VIPs sitting on top of trucks. It gave us a chance to talk to them a bit, which led them to beg us to take their photos.

Despite the delay on the bridge we made it down to the river bank by time for sunrise. Lots of activity there.

A little later people started taking the first dips. Remember that Uttar Pradesh is quite a cold place in January, so this water is very, very chilly. But that didn't stop the faithful.

A young man holds out his hands in silent prayer while looking at the rising sun.

Another procession of some sort. Note that most of the participants here are white Hindus, the most important of them wearing the traditional colour of Hinduism: Orange (surrounding a non-white Guru).

I managed to get access to a press tower for taking photos. Here you can really see how many people are by the banks of the river.

And then a view uphill to the west of the fair ground. This is what a small part of 20 million people look like!

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Another Varanasi Morning

My last post from Varanasi will show pictures from yet another early morning boat ride, this one a bit less misty, thus providing more clear pictures.

In the mornings there is always alot of life at the Varanasi ghats, and it is usually a strange mix of the religious and the practical. You will see old ladies doing puja, to save their souls.

But you will also see dhobis standing all day doing laundry. Notice that he is standing knee deep, for hours in ice cold water. How he avoids catching pneumonia I simply don't understand.

The beautiful Scindia Ghat, with it's sunken temple in the foreground. The whole thing was simply too heavy and sunk when it was being built. In the wet season most of the temple is covered by water.

Lots of life by Scindia Ghat. I love the way there seems to be a lot of purple in this picture.

One of the most important ghats is Marnikanika, where Hindus come to cremate their dead and immerse their ashes in the Ganges river. In this way Varanasi is both very lively and still very closely tied to death. In fact Hindus believe that anyone who dies in Varanasi attains immediate Moksha (sort of like Nirvana). Quite a short cut! In the picture above you can see huge stacks of wood, and even the smoke from a couple of funeral pyres. Notice on the right part of the picture people washing their clothes (and they also bathe) in the river less than 30 metres downstream from where the ashes of the dead are thrown into the river.

A magnificent building at Bhonsale Ghat.

At Meer Ghat there is a Nepali temple. The main part of it is mostly hidden behind the large tree, but the red and white building to the left is also part of the Nepali temple complex.

More colourful Ghat life.

A soapy man taking the plunge into a very holy and very polluted river.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

On top of the City of Lights

After our very early morning boat ride we took a nap back in the hotel. But then it was time for a closer look at Varanasi this time from the land side and partially from our fantastically situated hotel with a view to much of the action.

A view of several of the most busy ghats. Despite the mist making the more distant parts of the picture hard to see, you still get the impression of the level of activity.

Our hotel "Ganpati" has a great atmosphere and wonderful views of the river Ganges and the Ghats. However, neighbouring, hotel Alka wins the category of best place to eat your breakfast: With a stunning 270 degree view to the ghats.

A view towards the other side of the river which - in startling contrast to the impressive buildings of Varanasi - is just a sandy, desert-like bank with a few shanks. However in the water there is plenty of activity with seagulls attracted to a boat throwing something into th water.

Three women walking through the "desert" opposite Varanasi with huge packs on their heads.

More fish insignia.

As I mentioned, Ganges is not particularly clean. Much of the pollution is introduced by waste water being pumped into the river further upstream, but Varanasi is responsible for it's share also. Flowers and garbage is thrown into the river without thought, but people still bathe around it.

Ladies taking a holy dip, and not in a bikini.

Boatman sleeping in his boat.

Old grandfather with Hindu tillak in his forehead and a flower garland around his neck, and the grandson with a duck on his shirt.

Every evening hundreds of candle lights float down the river.

An evening "puja" (Hindu ritual) taking place right by the river side. It is a very lively event.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Varanasi: Misty Morning Boatride

Last pit stop on our pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela was Varanasi, one of Hinduism's seven holy cities and also know as the "City of Light".

Varanasi is famous for it's hundreds of "ghats", which means steps leading down to the water, which in this case is Hinduism's most holy river: The Ganges. An absolutely mandatory part of the Varanasi experience is to take an early morning boatride, and we did so starting out before sunrise, going through the early morning mist until the sun's rays cleared the air.

Every morning Varanasi attracts thousands of bathers, local as well as pilgrims, who come here to purify themselves by washing away their sins in the holy (but rather dirty) waters of river Ganga, as it is affectionately known here.

Varanasi is very cold in January (when we visited) and the waters in the morning are nothing short of bone chilling. That, however, did not seem to discourage this gentleman having a refreshing swim in the middle of the river. I asked him if he wasn't freezing and he answered: "No no, it is only cold for the first 5 to 7 minutes. After that you don't feel it"! I would consider myself lucky even to survive the first 7 minutes in that water.

The various ghats vary much in their character and appearance based on a number of factors such as when they were built, who was the benefactor behind it and which group of people uses it. Kedar Ghat, which you see above, is one of the more colourful ghats.

At Man Mandir Ghat the defining feature is a large palace once belonging to Maharaja Man Singh. The Palace itself is beautiful but it further distinguished by housing on the roof a very old astronomical observatory, with various instruments telling time and other more complex things. You can see a bit of one of the yellow instruments on the right side of the roof.

At Darbhanga Ghat the great mansion you see above had a very early hand operated lift. It worked in the large grey tower in the middle of the picture, but today only the elevator shaft is still there.

At Chet Singh Ghat you will see this red building, which was Maharaja Chet Singh's fort. He was eventually imprisoned here by the British, but escaped by climbing down a rope and swimming away in cover of the night.

Varanasi is full of monkeys. Here five of them get their early morning grooming done.

Some monkeys even get fed by human disregarding that they are actually quite a pest. This could possibly be tied to the monkey's status as holy due to the existance of Hanuman, the monkey God.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Lucknowi "Wall Art"

This, my last post from Lucknow, I will dedicate to an eclectic collection of little pieces of wall art, seen at random places around town.

Posters for classic old Bollywood movies.

Fish seem to hold a special position in Lucknow (remember the fish insignia at Hussainabad?)

However, this building also had some very cool crocs...

...and peacocks, the national bird of India. Okay, three pictures form the same building might be a bit much, but what can I say. I really loved these decorative figures.

At this house the wall itself IS the art.

Outside a colourful, old local mosque.

An airplane on the facade of a house.

And elsewhere an English looking, male mermaid looks out from the gable of an old house.

This is not technically wall art and thus these are not "wall flowers". Rather they are "mall flowers", outside one of the swanky new malls in Lucknow. They should have been on in my last post but got left out due to technical difficulties.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

In the Streets of Lucknow

In my previous two posts I have shown some specific historical complexes from Lucknow. But here is a few impressions from walking the streets of Lucknow, pointing the camera at whatever happened to look interesting.

As I hinted in my first post from Lucknow, the city and indeed the entire state Uttar Pradesh, of which it is capital, has acquired a reputation for dirty and corrupt politics, with violence being a relatively common political tool. Thus it seems appropriate that Lucknow should have a "gun district". In Asia it is common to put numerous stores selling the exact same products right next each other. In Lucknow they have filled up an entire (and long) street with gun stores.

On a more peaceful note, Lucknow is also very famous for it's cuisine including wonderful beef kebabs, which are otherwise very hard to get in India. A famous kebab place called Tundy's became our favourite restaurant in Lucknow, especially because we could get delicious beef kebabs for12 rupees (DKK 1.55 or USD 0.27). The kitchen is out in the street as you see above, but there is a dine-in section for customers to sit down.

A holy cow seemingly on it's way into a store. It turned out that the cow receives a snack at this store every day, and was standing there patiently waiting for this day's ration. Quite a contrast - she is fed like a pet while her cousin is being eaten at Tundy's.

Lucknow is another of those North Indian cities that seems to have almost as many monkeys as people. In the picture above a couple of them are occupying a beautiful but decaying old house.

More monkeys. Eating peanuts. Peanuts flying everywhere. No table manners.

I earlier showed the Bara (Big) Imambara in Hussainabad. This is a much smaller but more richly decorated Imambara. Some people might think it's a bit over the top, especially those who have grown up with Scandinavian minimalism in their interior decorating. I, however, find it quite funky. I might decorate my next home this way...

"No alloued for the shoes were in the imambara". Well, you get the idea!

A tomb. Allegedly built as a replica of another very sacred tomb in Iraq.

A very old watch tower which was never finished. It was supposed to be 7 stories tall. Now it is used as the neighbourhood's garbage dump.

Local old fashioned cinema hall, showing only old, classic Bollywood movies.

Susanna tries out a Lucknowi bicycle rickshaw.