Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tying the knot

One of the main thrills of coming to India was the opportunity to get close to and understand another culture and, as a result, the last couple of days have been a highlight, if not the highlight, of my time here so far. Two of the boys who live in my household were up for their Threading Ceremony – Upanayanam – the Hindu equivalent of Christian confirmation but just for boys and only for the Brahmin caste. The preparations had started days before with the construction of bamboo scaffolding on my roof terrace to support the awning over the "dining hall" and slowly the walls in the courtyard were painted with the names of the boys – Lokhi and Rinko; the stage was built, covered with red mud and decorated with floor paintings and people started to arrive from far and wide. Yesterday morning it all kicked off and I was woken at 7am by the loud clanging of pots – the cooking had begun - and on opening my windows, I discovered an army of cooks, six gas burners had appeared and were warming huge cauldrons of food and there were mountains of vegetables in the process of being chopped up – and this was only for the lunch on the first day. One of the great things about the whole occasion was that it was a truly family affair – with women playing as big a part as the men albeit at different times. Mothers, aunts and grandmas started off the proceedings with a puja and then, preceded by the band, they made their way to the local temple with their offerings – coconuts, bananas and the like. On their return, mother and son stepped onto the stage where they were both daubed in an orange paste made from turmeric by various female relatives amongst much teasing and hilarity. Meanwhile, up on the roof terrace the cooking continued apace – there were now around 100 people to serve for supper. Preparations were also being made for the next day and I went to bed last night accompanied by a 4-foot cauldron of fried fish heads which had been put inside for safe-keeping!

This morning, mother and father joined their respective sons for a service that preceded the head-shaving. This seemed to be an extremely laid back affair – they stopped for a banana milkshake mid-flow and the priest thought nothing of answering his mobile phone during the ritual – "Sorry dear can't talk – in the middle of performing a Threading Ceremony". At head-shaving time, however, the family disappeaed and left the boys to the mercy of the barber and the photographers. Rinko seemed to take the cut-throat razor in his stride but Lokhi looked far from thrilled about losing his hair despite the auspicious occasion. Suitably bald, the boys were now back on stage for the main event – this time only accompanied by their fathers. The sacred thread is folded three times – each strand representing the goddesses of mind, word and deed - and is worn for the rest of their life - replaced once a year in separate ceremony. There were a few more rituals that followed but by this time I'd lost the thread so to speak. The final ceremony, however, brought the women back onto centre stage with offerings to the newly formed "saints" who took on the role of beggars. Following this we, by now around 500 of us, retired upstairs for lunch. I think it was a rare privilege to be part of such an occasion which, despite the numbers, felt very private and intimate at times. To see more pictures click here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sand and seafood

Last weekend I fell in love … not, unfortunately, with a man but with a seaside town called Gopalpur. A three hour train ride from Bhubaneswar, it reminded me of a 1950s seaside town – Filey springs to mind – which in reality it is. A strategic port for the British from the mid-18th century, it was abandoned after the World War II when trade with Burma dried up and now depends on fishing and tourism. It’s long “pristine” beach has started to draw in the tourists but it remains a sleepy little place – well in low season at any rate. We stayed in a hotel that had balconies with a sea view – strangely the more modern and expensive Western hotels don't include a sea view - and in the evening we sat sipping beer bought from the bottle-shop next door and watching the spectacular electrical storm taking place out at sea. During the day we wandered up and down the beach, paddled in the sea and tried to catch the numerous little crabs scuttling in and out of their holes. We also climbed the lighthouse whose owners had clearly worked out that tourists equal money – Rs250 to get in, you have to go barefoot but there’s Rs4 charge to leave your shoes outside, Rs40 to take a picture etc but somehow all the niggles didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the place. Another big highlight was the food. At the Krisha Restaurant I had the best meal I’ve eaten in nearly a year – garlic prawns and chips with not a chilli or a grain of rice in sight - and in the evening I feasted on a delicious grilled fish in a small restaurant lit only by the flashes of lightening that had caused the inevitable power cut. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the fishermen pulling in their catches as there was a fisherman’s puja (festival) but, although it will take me 16 hours to get there from Bhawanipatna, I’ll definitely be going back and may even take my swimming costume next time so I can for a dip. Click here to see where Gopalpur is. Click here to see photos.