Monday, 30 April 2007

Hyderabad

After my "pilgrimage" to Tirumala I went to a somewhat more worldly place. The new IT-boomtown of India, Hyderabad, also known these days as Cyberabad.

One of Hyderabad's landmarks, a giant statue of Buddha, stands beautifully lit in Hussein Nagar (Lake). 8 people died and the statue sunk to the bottom of the lake when the boat originally intended to bring the statue to it's place sank. It ws later retrieved and put in place.

All this modernity hype aside, I stayed in the old town and did not see much of the IT-city. And Hyderabad does have a rich history as seat of one of South India's richest and most powerful Kingdoms. Unusually for a place so far south in India it was ruled by a Muslim Dynasty. On the picture above you see one of the main monuments of that time, and Hyderabad undisputed landmark number one: The Char Minar. It is a womderful gateway combined with a mosque, commemorating the eradication of a plague.

Here is a closer look at Char Minar giving perhaps a better sense of the size and impressiveness of it. Ordinary people can gain access to the wonderful view from the top for 5 rupees (100 for foreigners).

I paid the 100 rupees to go to the top and despite the nice view over the whole city this was my favourite thing to look at. Little yellow and black auto rickshaws looking like an army of little beetles or ants. As far as I could count there are 76 rickshaws in the picture.

Hyderabad is not a very tourist orientated city, but amongst it's attractions is a better than average zoo. I'm not too keen on taking pictures of animals in captivity, but this one I couldn't stand for. A life size Tyrannosaurus Rex in a simulated jurassic landscape.

In the middle of Hyderabad I saw the nicest cow stables I have yet seen. Decorated with large colourful wall paintings of Krishna, who in Hindu mythology is intrinsically connected to the cow.

With an IT-boom comes money and with money comes the desire to spend it on ever new experiences. So theme restaurants have become all the rave this year and I decided to try one of them out. This is Restaurant Gufaa, which as you can see, sports an African Jungle Cave theme.

The funniest part of the Gufaa experience is that all the waiters are dressed in Safari costumes. Priceless (although the food was quite expensive too).

Friday, 27 April 2007

Tirumala

Last post I showed pictures from my pilgrimage walk to Tirumala. Well this post is from the place itself: The most visited pilgrimage site in the world.

This is the center of it all. The Venkateshwari Temple where devotees stand in line for hours and hours to experience a five second Darshan, meaning a viewing of the icon representing Venkateshwari himself. Unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside, but being true to the spirit of pilgrimage, I stood in line for more than an hour, to get to experience standing in front of the lord for about 15 seconds. It was a short experience, but that was fine since I was mostly there for the people watching rather than the God watching. The fervor in this place is unlike anything I have ever seen in the Hindu world with people chanting louder and louder as they get closer to Darshan and people seemingly reaching almost a state of ecstasy when it all culminates.

Close to the temple these live fires clearly have some religious significance drawing people to pray and make offerings. You can truly see the devotion in people's faces whether you believe in Hinduism or not.

A very interesting and unique feature of Tirumala is that a very large share of the pilgrims here choose to have their heads tonsured (shaved) as a sign of respect for the Gods. Here I met a big group of guys with freshly tonsured heads.

And a beautiful little girl who had also performed the deed. Although I was really trying hard to get into the spirit, this is where I set the limit. I kept my hair.

A whole freshly shaved family. After shaving, many people put sandalwood powder paste on their heads. I have no idea if this serves a religious or a hygienic purpose, but it looks unlike anything I've seen before.

This is where it all happens. The shaving is totally free of charge, but that doesn't mean the Temple body doesn't earn anything from it. They keep the hair and sell it for wigs around the world. This scheme - amongst others - makes this the richest temple in India and one of the richest in the world.

Three little bald girls stand in line waiting for their darshan. Lines can be more than kilometers long, advancing at a gruelingly slow pace. To make things worse most of the wait is spent in closed off turnstiles, so crowded, that it is hard to move. I must admit that I bought myself a 100 rupee fast forward ticket, allowing me to merge into the line near the entrance to the Temple, shortening the wait by several hours. On the other hand I did have to spend hours getting a special entry permit for non-Hindus during which process I had to sign a paper saying that although I am a Christian I have the highest reverence for some Hindu deity which I had never heard of before and whose name I couldn't spell.

The temple seen in daylight. If you look closely at the left part of the picture you can see a bridge leading into the temple. That is the only entrance into what looks more like a fortress than a temple from the outside. The inside is very impressive though, but again I cannot show it since no pictures were allowed.

Not all pilgrims shave their heads. These four girls not only kept their hair to remain fashionable, but they were also wearing heavy make-up! According to Western sentiments they might be a bit too young for that, but make-up for children is not uncommon here.

A little girl on her father's arm stops crying as she discovers me pointing a camera at her.

Four Brahmins who were very keen on having their picture taken.

I didn't meet only people in Tirumala. I also had this lucky and fantastic encounter with a Giant Squirrel. It is a huge animal, more the size of a dog than of your standard squirrel. As you can see in the picture it is also incredibly cute. It is chewing on some kind of large nut or fruit in this picture.

And finally another look at the road from Tirupati to Tirumala, which I traveled by foot. The red cliffs provide a stunning background for the trip and gives a very special atmosphere to the trip up the (first) hill. No wonder people early attached some religious significance to this place.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Pilgrimage walk to Tirumala

A little quiz: What is the world's most visited site of pilgrimage? Rome? Jerusalem? Mecca? Nope, none of the above. The answer is the Hindu pilgrimage site of Tirumala, situated on a hill top near the city of Tirupati, which I went to after saying goodbye to Margrethe, Lisbeth and the rest of the group. You can take a bus to the top from Tirupati, but really dedicated pilgrims walk the entire way covering 13 kilometres and more than 3000 steps. I decided to follow in their footsteps and take the walk in the gruelling sun.

A view towards the top of the initial climb. At first I thought this was Tirumala, but I would get wiser. Reaching that white Gopuram means that you are still less than halfway.

The view from the White Gopuram you just saw above, down towards Tirupati. As you can see it is quite a distance, but nowhere near the finish line.

Fortunately most of the road is covered like this, giving good protection from the sun. It may not look too appealing, but anyone who has tried walking 13 km. uphill under a baking sun, knows that the shade provided by this is a God send.

But it simply never ends. This is a large gate apparently marking nothing but the beginning of another 1000 steps.

Fortunately there was plenty of interesting nature to look at. This amazing dear was as far as I could tell a wild animal, which had simply gotten so used to people that it would lie by the path simply waiting to be fed. I bought him some cucumber sticks that he seemed to enjoy thoroughly.

Another wild animal, a more elusive spotted dear, which had found a corn cob. I like the way it looks like he is smoking it as a cigar.

And the most fortunate animal spotting of all: A wild boar. He was not about to stand still to let me get a proper image, and even to get this I had to run back down the hill to follow him. From what I hear it is rare to spot one of these animals and considered very auspicious.

The landscape and vegetation varies a lot on the route which is also refreshing. Here on a dry part you see a cactus with flowers.

But later I got to colourful, lush plants such as this one...

..and this one.


Once you get over the first pass, you walk along a large forested, valley almost untouched by man.

Another interesting feature of the pilgrimage walk to Tirumala is that you keep seeing rocks placed on top of another. I'm sure it must have some religious significance, although it makes me think of Monty Python's sketch involving the Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things

A statue of Hanuman tells you that you are getting close. In my next pictures I will show pictures from Tirumala itself.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram

On the last day before parting with Margrethe's group we went on a one-day trip to Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram, famous for silk weaving and rock temples respectively.

Kanchipuram has long been known as the place in India to get silk garments. Many from our group - especially the women - took advantage of that. I didn't buy anything, but I did enjoy a demonstration of how silk is woven. As you might be able to tell from the picture it is an incredible complex and tedious proces with each single thread being added manually.

Another picture, this one giving a good impression of the machinery used. To my amazement they still use punch card technology to make the desired patterns in the fabric. I remember seeing punch cards in American cartoons where the dog protecting the sheep herd checks in using one. But I had never before seen one in real life.

After the visit to the weaver's workshop we went to the atmospheric Sri Ekambaranathar Temple. Above you see a wonderful pillared hallway and a woman praying to an idol.

Dousins of Shiva lingams in the gallery between the pillars and the wall.

A man and a priest performing a puja in one of the inner chambers of the temple.

The main temple Gopuram (tower) standing at more than 50 metres tall.

Next stop was Mamallapuram which I have already visited before, on my first big trip around India in the spring of 2005. Some might remember my post from that visit. This amazing green fly I spotted in a souvenir shop window just after arrival, and I thought it looked very cool sitting there on a small bronze statue.

But of course Mamallapuram is not primarily known for it's population of metallic green flies. Rather it is famous for it's amazing rock temples and rock carvings. This is one of many small temples cut entirely out of the rock. Nothing has been added to the original rock and it's all in one piece. Pretty cool stuff.

Since I knew the place in advance and we were on a tight schedule I showed around some of the group tolet them see the best spots, which they would otherwise have missed. Here we made it to a human size stone altar crowned by a lion in the end. I have no idea what it was actually for, but imagine it could be a sacrificial altar. Of course that is probably just my imagination going a little wild - I haven't heard any stories of such sacrifices being made here.

And here is one of the very most important pieces of work in Mamallapuram. An amazing stone relief called Arjuna's Penance. It is 12 metres tall and 30 metres wide although I couldn't capture the whole thing in one frame. The elephants are very close to life size! It is quite extraordinary really.

And I thought it would be interesting to contrast Arjuna's Penance with a more modern one, showing India as a developed state with satelites, oil drills and steel mills. This relief is found at the memorial for Rajiv Gandhi, former Indian Prime Minister and son of legendary Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He got murdered by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991 as revenge for India's military involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war.

The actual Memorial. The big stone tablet in the middle of the ring formed by the tall columns stands at the exact place where Rajiv Gandhi was killed. A woman from the Tamil Tigers pretended to want to touch his feet - which is a customary Indian show of respect - and then detonated an explosive belt.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

A Danish Factory and Some Social Projects

Still with Margrethe's travel group it was time to go beyond traditional sightseeing. So we visited a Danish company in India and lots of different social development projects.

This is the great production hall of the Indian branch of Danish Grundfos. The company has a very green profile and has made their Indian buildings to consume as little power as necessary. They produce pumps here.

A worker operates one of the may advanced machines.

The whole group. It is probably evident that I was pulling down the average age by a couple of years, but that didn't really matter. I enjoyed myself with these people, and they seemed to accept me also. In many ways I'm not used to traveling in large groups and of course it does mean sacrificing some freedom. But on the other hand it does give access to experiences that would be hard to get on your own such as this industrial visit and the social projects below. And it was also fun being able to share a bit of the knowledge about India I have acquired over the last year and a half with someone seeing India with fresh - and sometimes mystified - eyes.

One of the many social projects. This is a school for poor slum children. As you can see they are many in a class and they sit on the floor. They are taught English amongst other subjects, but most of the learning consists in repeating sentences spoken by the teacher (who herself was less than fluent in English) and then memorizing it. There is very little emphasis on learning sentence construction and conversation skills, and consequently the kids could address us with several complete English sentences, but would have no idea what a simple question such as "What is your name?" means.

A step down in age, this is the Kindergarden. The kids seem happy enough, and did a cute little sang in Tamil for us. But there are just so very many in a quite small concrete room, which smells of urine.

Later we went to an orphanage. Here I am with some of the boys. Some of them seem happy and curious, whereas others seem very damaged and introvert. It is the first type of boys you see here.

This is the temporary housing set up for hundreds, if not thousands, of families after the terrible tsunami of December 2004. Each door represents one familiy's home consisting of nothing but one tiny room, with a single light bulb in the middle. It may not look so bad now, but in the monsoon season this whole place turns into one huge puddle of mud and sewage. Very unhealthy. It was never supposed to be more than a temporary place for these families, but here two and a half years later they still live there.

A couple of local girls have gotten their hands on some candy and are enjoying intensely.

Some tsunami survivors living in the temporary housing area.

Another two survivors. The child must have been an infant when the tsunami struck.

A nice little poster showing with great illustrations how to deal correctly with a number of disasters and health issues. Getting people the right information about these matters is a very big part of any social improvement efforts. A couple of places in India I have also seen the use of street theatre groups as a means of spreading awareness of for instance the HIV-risk (India has more HIV-infected people than any other country in the world).

Margrethe shows pictures to a number of curious kids.

In India you see incredibly many streets signs everywhere. Some of are quite creative and others just bizarre, such as this one advertising beef. What are those buff wrestlers doing there???

Let me finish my series of pictures from Madras with something of great beauty. Some central towers of the Chennai High Court. It is a very impressing building to say the least.