Thursday, May 28, 2015

Datun-wali (neem-twig seller) in Varanasi

- by Deepa Krishnan

Varanasi is a city which wakes up really early. Many people visit the temples at dawn. Naturally the city's vendors also begin early. I photographed this datun-wali at 6 am.
Neem seller with cutting implements
Datun is made of neem twigs. The twigs are harvested from trees, then cut into shape (she is using a wooden board and sickle, which you can see in the photo above). Then they are bundled and sold. Datun is the traditional method of cleaning teeth. Chewing on the end of the twig releases the medicinal properties of neem.

Azadirachta indica (neem) has a wide range of medicinal properties and is extensively used in Ayurveda, Unani and Homoeopathic medicine. More than 140 compounds have been isolated from different parts of neem. All parts of the neem tree- leaves, flowers, seeds, fruits, roots and bark have been used traditionally for the treatment of inflammation, infections, fever, skin diseases and dental disorders.
Neem leaves being smoked over charcoal fire to keep away mosquitoes and insects

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Brahmanical Caves in Ellora

- By Deepa Krishnan

Ellora contains 34 caves adorned by Buddhist, Hindu and Jain art and figures. Caves 14 to 19 belong to the Brahmanical pantheon. Brahmanism is the predecessor of modern day Hinduism; it is primarily Vedic in nature and has several differences with modern Hindu practices.
This panel shows Shiva (large central figure) as the slayer of the demon, Andhaka (you can see the demon, represented in small form, speared on top right). Two hands of Shiva hold up the outstretched skin of the elephant demon Nila, one of Andhaka's allies. You can see the partial elephant head also on the top left corner of the photo. Shiva is in his fierce form as 'Veerabhadra'. In one of his hands, just under Andhaka, there is a cup, it is made of a skull, this is used to catch the blood of Andhaka as it drips (each drop spilt on the ground creates another demon). Parvati sits with her hand on her bosom, conveying either admiration or fear, I am not sure which.

The story goes that one day in a playful mood, Parvati covered Shiva's eyes with her hands. Darkness shrouded the world. From the heat and perspiration of her hands was born a dark child, Andhaka. Andhaka was raised by a demon, Hiranyaksha, who was childless and asked for a child as a boon.

When he grew up, Andhaka terrorized the world. He became the king of Asuras (demons). He tried to acquire or abduct Parvati, which enraged Shiva and led to Andhaka's death. Shiva's wrath is depicted in the panel.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad

The Calico Museum of Textile in Ahmedabad is one of the best textile museums in the world. It was established in 1949, a couple of years after India's independence from the British. 

The Sarabhai family, who founded the Museum, were in the textile business. The family was very involved in the Indian independence movement. They were close to Mahatma Gandhi, and they founded many new educational and research institutions in independent India. The Calico Museum was one of them.

Originally, the Museum was supposed to focus both on traditional hand-made textiles of India, as well as modern industrial textiles. But later, as the collection and research grew, the museum came to focus more and more on the traditional textile crafts of India.

The stature and reputation of the Sarabhais as connoiseurs of the artistic traditions of India attracted the best researchers and scholars. Eminent museum scholars and administrators such as John Irwin, Alfred B├╝hler, Moti Chandra and Pupul Jayakar have been instrumental in creating a high level of scholarship at the museum. When you visit the museum, what strikes you most is also the technical excellence - the work of designers, lighting experts and craftsmen - which offers a unique viewing experience.

In 1982, the Museum went through a period of serious crisis, as the Calico Textile company ran into losses and could not fund the Museum's activities. It was then brought under the Sarabhai Foundation, and it moved into the Sarabhai Haveli, from where it still operates.

Today the Calico Museum contains what is possibly India's best maintained and best presented collection of traditional fabrics spanning over five centuries. But it is much more than just textiles. There are two display venues in the Museum:
  • The Chauk contains textile-related displays: explanations of techniques (weaving, dyeing, embroidery, block printing etc), costumes, regional embroideries, textiles of the Mughal and provincial courts, and a display of India's textile trade with the world
  • The Haveli contains Jaina works (manuscripts, textiles, woodwork, sacred objects, etc), Indian paintings from the Sarabhai collection, ritual art of the Vallabh tradition, bronzes from South India, etc.
If you are visiting the museum, please note the following important details:

- The Museum is closed on Wednesdays and public holidays.
- There is no entry fee for visiting. 
- Visits are by appointment only; you have to write to them in advance and obtain permission.
- There are 2 guided tours per day: covering the Chauk in the morning and the Haveli in the afternoon. There is no way to see the galleries just wandering around independently.
- Bags, cameras, cell phones are not allowed. Photography is prohibited without prior permission.
- The exhibits are at multiple levels and require some amount of climbing; but it is easy to do. It is not suitable for wheelchairs.

The Museum website is excellent and informative; please go through the rules and do's and don'ts before you visit.

Photo Credit:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneshwar

- Aishwarya Javalgekar

Bhubaneshwar is called the city of temples. And rightly so, since it is said to be home to ten million Shiva Lingas! It is one of the most celebrated pilgrimage centers in India.  

The Bramha Purana, a Hindu text refers to Bhubaneshwar as the 'Ekamra Kshetra'. A 13th century inscription by Paramardideva (the Chandela king who ruled Central India), describes Ekamra as a sacred area “...adorned with hundreds of mango-groves, wherein exists a single Devakula [temple] surrounded by numerous temples.”  

The single temple, of course, refers to the Lingaraj temple, which is the largest and most renowned amongst all of Bhubaneshwar's temples. It was first built by Yayati Kesari, a 7th century king, who shifted his capital from Jajpur to Bhubaneshwar. Bhubaneshwar remained the capital of the Kesari kingdom till 10th century CE. 

This temple has a spacious courtyard bounded by fortified walls. Its elaborately carved tower rises up to 180 feet. Built in the Kalinga style of architecture, it has four main components: the vimana (the structure which contains the sanctum), the bhoga-mandapa (the hall of offerings), the natamandira (the festival hall) and the jagamohana (the assembly hall). 
The temple displays impressive carvings of humans and animals. Inscriptions dating back to 13th century, CE of the Kalinga ruler Anangabhima III have been found here. It also houses some important Sanskrit scripts from the 6th and 7th centuries. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Le Plaisir - A haven for foodies in Pune

- By Aishwarya Javalgekar

Tucked away in a small galli near Fergusson College, Pune, is a haven for the not-so-health-conscious foodies. A petite bistro with European cuisine, Le Plaisir has won the hearts of many localites. “I named it (the restaurant) ‘Le Plaisir’ because that is what I want to do here. I want to give people pleasure through food.” says Siddharth Mahadik, owner and head-chef of Le Plaisir.

This cozy little place, with just enough room for 6 tables, is always bustling with life. Sometimes you might have to wait for 5-10 minutes before you get a free table, but the food is worth the wait. Once you are comfortably seated, you can head over to the counter and give your order. The food takes hardly ten minutes to arrive – scrumptious and piping hot. With the first bite, you transcend to a world of culinary bliss.

Priding itself in being a patisserie, Le Plaisir has some of the best desserts in town. From flavoured macaroon to a variety of cheesecakes and pastries, it has something to soothe every sweet tooth.
Le Plaisir has a unique system of customer review. Customers can write their feedback on small colourful cards, which are then stuck to the wall. Some of the cards sing praises of the food, while others suggesr which dishes to try. Words like amazing and orgasmic can be seen on almost every card.
Siddharth has no plans for commercializing this bistro. "I will expand, but I want to retain the coziness and warmth of Le Plaisir."

Update: Looks like the expansion is finally happening! They're moving to a larger place at Prabhat Road, opposite Kelkar Hospital in June 2015.

The Red and White Bridal Bangles of Punjab

- By Mansi Shanbag

It’s not uncommon to come across many stores selling red and white bangles in Amritsar, so much so that the wave of red and white is overwhelming.

The warren of lanes in the Chudi Bazaar, specializing entirely in the sale of bangles, is a hit with locals as well as guests.
Bangles can be traced back to 2600 BC, when a figurine of a dancing girl with bangles on her arm was excavated from the Mohenjo-daro ruins. Apart from this, numerous excavations of Indus Valley sites in Sind, Punjab and Gujarat have yielded bangles of shellac, clay and metal.
In Hindu and Sikh weddings in Punjab, the bride is gifted red-and-white bangles to wear on her wedding day. There is a ceremony, the chuda ceremony, which is on the day before the wedding, or on the actual wedding day itself. Traditionally, 21 bangles are gifted, although these days brides sometimes wear fewer bangles. 

Originally ivory-made, white bangles are now made in plastic. There are few things more picturesque than an Indian bride dressed up to her eyes in the traditional shades of red and white. And the red and white choora (bangles) do much to compliment the bride.
The bride wears the bangles as a sign of being newly married. The bangles are made of delicate materials, so that the bride is exempt from any heavy household chores. After the wedding, the bangles are traditionally worn for a year. In modern times, this too has reduced to 40 days.  Nevertheless, the tradition of bangle-wearing lives on and is quite delightful to behold. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Puppet Making in Rajasthan

- By Deepa Krishnan

I was walking in Jaisalmer, when I came upon a man making  string puppets (marionettes).
The puppeteers are Bhats of the Rajasthani Nat community, who are storytellers in the bardic tradition. The Bhats not only make puppets, but also use them to perform folk tales set to music and song.
Rajasthan's puppetry tradition is very old. The Bhats trace their history back to the legendary king Vikramaditya of Ujjain, who is said to have ruled central India in the 1st century BCE. Vikramaditya's famous Throne of Wisdom, called the Sinhasan Battisi, had 32 talking dolls, which (according to this book) are possibly the earliest account of puppets made by this community in India.

In olden times, the Bhats went from village to village with their puppets, enacting much beloved legends. Royalty and noblemen patronised specific Bhat families, and in return, the puppeteers composed ballads in praise of their patrons. In other words, the Bhats were to kings, what PR agencies are to corporates :)

Prithiviraj Chauhan, who ruled Ajmer and Delhi in the 12th century, was a major patron of the Bhats. Ballads celebrating his daring elopement with Samyukta, and his battlefield exploits against Muhammad Ghor, were performed by the Bhats all over north India. Prithviraj was routed, captured and put to death by Ghor, but balladeers and puppeteers went on to construct an elaborate myth about an archery competition, where a blind Prithviraj shoots an arrow unerringly at Ghor and strikes him dead. The legend of Prithviraj Chauhan's revenge on Muhammad Ghor has endured for more than 800 years, and is a widely accepted version of the truth.
Scene from Prithviraj Raso: Samyuka is love-struck by Kama's arrows

The revenge of Prithviraj against Ghor, Phad Painting
Another major patron of the Rajasthani Nat community was Amar Singh Rathore, a hot-headed 17th century nobleman from the house of Marwar (Jodhpur). He was exiled by his father after a fight; and found employment in the Mughal court, where he became the subedar of Nagaur under Shah Jahan. In this new employment, he squabbled with another courtier, and stabbed him right in Shah Jahan's court. In the melee that ensued, he narrowly escaped from Agra Fort with his life, after jumping across the moat on a horse. Later, one of Amar Singh's clansmen inveigled him back to Agra Fort and stabbed him.

I do not see Amar Singh's life as particularly heroic; in fact, I only see a quarrelsome guy with a strong instinct for self presevation! :) :) But that is not how the bards sing it. The puppeteers of Nagaur tell a stirring tale of what a dashing hero he was, and what a martyr his horse was. They sympathetically present his terrible betrayal and stabbing, and tell a grand tale of how his body was rescued from Agra Fort. The puppeteers of Nagaur have made Amar Singh Rathore into a Rajasthani legend. His story is popular in the desert regions of Rajasthan and performed with much dramatic flair at religious fairs even today.
Scene from Shah Jahan's court: Amar Singh Rathore is insulted by Salabat Khan
In spite of the popularity, influence and wide geographical spread of Rajsthani puppet shows, puppetry as a craft is dying today. The reasons are easy to find. Today, there are no royal patrons (in fact, the decline in patronage set in right from Mughal times). With the advent of radio and television, traditional rural performances have competition from modern entertainment channels. The wide availability of mobile phones has brought a lot of new music within the reach of audiences in remote locations. Old themes / folk tales do not appeal as much to the new generation as Bollywood. 

The Bhat community has adapted themselves to modern times. Some performers have incorporated tunes from popular Bollywood movie songs into their repertoire. Instead of long ballads, they have produced short-duration performances aimed at tourists (who typically have very short attention spans).

But many have given up their oral performances, and morphed simply into makers of colourful wood-and-cloth puppets. They are often seen in the bigger cities of Rajasthan, where tourists buy their attractive products. Rajasthani puppets are typically about 2 feet tall, but many are smaller as well. The local word for them is kathputhli. The word kath means wood, and puthli is a doll.
Beautifully decorated kathputli
Puppets are made out of soft wood, usually something like mango wood. While the carving of the wood is usually done by men, women make the decorative fabrics and clothes for the puppets. Puppets used for performances are usually never destroyed; even when they are broken. Instead, they are consigned to the river, to float away.
Puppeteers live in Nagaur, Bikaner, Ajmer, Udaipur and Jaipur, but wander all through Rajasthan performing and selling their dolls. If you are visiting any major city in Rajasthan, you will definitely be able to see a show.  And do stop to buy some of these colourful dolls - they make great souvenirs from Rajasthan to take back home!