Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Puri Puja

The festival season has started in earnest in Orissa and last weekend was Dusheera or Durga Puja. To celebrate a group of us decided to go to Puri, a seaside town famous for it's Jagannath Temple and the nearby Sun Temple at Konark. I had been to both before but one of the great things about living in India is you can visit places more than once as well as go to those you didn't have time to see the first time round. We stayed in a fantastic hotel that offered just the right mixture of cleanliness, good food and affordability from where you could hear the sea if not actually see it. I gave the Jagannath Temple a miss this time – I'd been three times before and you can have too much of a good thing - but I did decide to re-visit Konark mainly because a lot of the group hadn't been before. The 13th Century temple was still impressive but the highlight of this trip turned out to be the sight of a monkey nursing a small kitten. Had he rescued it or stolen it? Was he nurturing it or saving it for supper? I kind of hoped the former in both cases. On the way back we visited a spectacular beach at Balighai. It was the kind of place you see in travel brochures – deserted apart from a few cows and a lone priest performing his evening rituals and was uncommonly clean for an Indian beach. To top it all, just as we were leaving at sunset, I saw a shooting star – a first for me. The on-and-off rain – it's still monsoon season – only made it more romantic. On another excursion we went to an artists' village called Raghurajpur – I suspect in high season it's extremely touristy but we were the only ones there and despite the constant requests to "Come my shop, just looking", it was a picture-postcard Indian village with thatched cottages, decorated with tribal art, interspersed with ponds and streams. The Durga Puja in Puri was less intimate than the one I attended in Bhawanipatna last year but good fun all the same with Durga – the goddess or power - paraded through the streets on hand pulled carts preceded by a live band and frenetic dancing. One of the most interesting places I visited, however, was the Burning Ghats. Hindus always burn their dead rather than burying them and, unlike crematoriums in the West, the cremations, called Antyesti, are carried out in public on open fires albeit in specifically designated areas. Seeing the smoke from the fires we went in very tentatively, unsure if we would be welcome, but the living participants seemed unperturbed by our presence and even tried to explain to us what was going on. It was slightly disconcerting to see the legs and heads poking out of the burning stacks but it also seemed a lot more honest than the more clinical way we Westerners have of disposing of the body and somehow seemed a fitting end to our otherwise jolly long weekend of sand, sea and sightseeing. Click here to see where Puri is. Click here to see more pictures.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Saying hello

I've given up cycling to and from work – first the heat of the summer and now the monsoon-season coupled with the frequent black-outs at night made cycling an exhausting and slightly precarious activity. Cows that bed down in the street at sunset are not visible in the pitch black until you've crashed into them and it seemed all too easy to accidentally cycle into the open drains. So, for the past few months I've been walking and as a result I've made numerous new friends. OK – the average age of my new friends is about 8 and our conversations are a bit limited but on an average morning I'll be greeted by up to 20 children at various points on the way – some are pushed forward by their mothers whilst others come racing up to me shouting "Hi Susie-Auntie", or Foreign-Auntie or Didi (sister). Each encounter begins with shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries in English– "How are you? I am fine" (all said in one breath) and, whilst I've taught them "Good Morning", they've picked up "I love you" from someone else. We then move onto Indian greetings "Namaska" said whilst putting your hands together and the smaller ones, chivvied into action by their grandmothers, bend down to touch my feet – a sign of respect in these parts. Finally, we get to the all important question, "Camera achho?" (Have you got your camera?) and when I say "Han, aji camera achhe" (Yes, I have the camera today), there's a flurry of activity as they round up everyone else and jostle for position in the line-up. They never seem to lose interest in seeing themselves on the digital camera and, as I squat down so they can all get a good view, they point out themselves to the rest of the crowd who will have seen an almost identical picture a couple of days before. The younger children's lack of reserve has also encouraged the older ones who now give a shy "Good morning sister" as they cycle past on their way to school before speeding off to have a quick giggle with their less courageous friends. Recently, I have also been accompanied for a few minutes by two old ladies who, clearly dying for a chin-wag, join me on their way to the water pump each morning and, with their large metal pots cradled on their hips, proceed to tell me … well I'm not entirely sure what they're telling me but I'm obviously saying yes and no in the appropriate places most of the time and we part with a couple of namaskas – they to collect their daily water and me into the next throng of children. There are some downsides to my morning ritual. A while back I developed a skin rash and noticed about the same time that a lot of my new friends were also sporting similar exzema-like rashes. Had I given it to them or they to me? The chemist seemed sure it was worms and, whilst I was a bit dubious about his diagnosis, I dutifully took the worming tablets he prescribed and it cleared up so I guess he must have been right. Skin infections are, however, only a minor irritation compared to the pleasure the morning greetings give both me and my new friends.