Saturday, January 29, 2011

Books & Birds—"One Piece"

The five-day Jaipur Literature Festival turned out to be pretty fantastic albeit very busy. I saw almost 20 sessions and wrote about many of them for the festival organizer's press releases. Some of my favorites included the witty Martin Amis and southern gentleman Richard Ford. Listening to travel writers, fiction writers, memoirists, was inspiring. Learning more about Indian literature and culture was enlightening. The event ended with an author's ball at the ancient Amber Fort, which is spectacularly lit up at night underneath a starry sky. There were marigold and rose petals strewn everywhere and music throughout the evening. 
Me and Candace Bushnell at Amber Fort in Jaipur

I had a drink with A. Revathi who ordered brandy then red label whiskey. She spoke at the festival about her autobiography, "The Truth About Me" as a transgender person. Then I had dinner with a group that included Martin Amis, Isabel Fonseca, Jay McInerney and Candace Bushnell. Me and Candy are going shopping together next time in Jaipur.

Brown Hawk Owl sleeping the day away
Now, I am at The Bagh, one of my all-time favorite heritage hotels in Bharatpur next to Keoladeo National Bird Park. It's such an elegant, tasteful oasis with the most fantastic food. I can't gush enough about it. I had fresh mustard greens the other night and keema muttar, a really toothsome dish of minced mutton, spices and peas. And the 12 acres with hundreds of trees are filled with birds from yellow-footed green pigeons and grey Indian hornbills to a very rare Brown Hawk Owl. The markings on its white breast look like little brown hearts. One of the workers pointed it out to me one day and said "One piece" indicating there was only one owl of that kind in the tree, like it was a piece of toast. So funny. I love it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jaipur Literature Festival—A Really Big Show

Today is the third day of the Jaipur Literature Festival at Diggi Palace. It's packed with literature lovers from around the world, writers, authors, Pulitzer Prize winners and students whom I've seen screeching at the name of Junot Diaz like he's a teenage idol.
Martin Amis, Junot Diaz, Jay McInerney and Richard Ford.

I'm managing a team of writers covering each of the 200 plus author sessions for press releases sent around the world. So far I've covered sessions as diverse as "A Hijra's Life" about A. Revathi, a transgender woman,  who wrote her autobiography, "The Truth About Me," to "The Crisis of the American Novel" with panelists Richard Ford, Junot Diaz, and Jay MacInerney with Martin Amis moderating. Newsflash: There is no crisis as all of us as readers know.

Topics are obviously wide ranging and include history, politics, art, music, travel, writing seminars, and fiction galore. This year (my first) one of the overriding themes is preservation and care of Indian literature in its original languages (over 120 of them) and translation to English so the legacy does not disappear.

The amazing things about the festival are its accessibility to authors and artists and exchange of ideas. This FREE festival is jammed. I can't imagine how many people are here but last year there were 30,000. For authors, crew, and delegates (who actually pay a relatively nominal price of $300 for five days) the food and drink including beer and wine is plentiful and free flowing. The sponsors, of whom there are many, must have poured millions into it. The directors, William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale are tireless, as  are all of the people working it.

Aside from the literary part of the festival, it's fantastic people watching and the outdoor setting is beautiful—I can hear parakeets squawk and cows moo at some of the sessions.  There are two days left of the festival. If you're in Jaipur, come!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Baby Monkey Sitting Backwards on a Pig

Thanks to my friend Jennifer Worick, I recently saw the video Baby Monkey (Going Backwards) on a Pig. Now, I have my own version.

Baby Monkey grooming a pig

Yesterday I visited Galta, aka The Monkey Temple, a 30-plus minute tuk-tuk ride from Jaipur. Surrounded by rocky canyon walls, the grounds encompass grassy lawns, beautifully painted havelis, a three tier pool used for bathing by both monkeys and humans, and temples dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god.

Tuesday is Hanuman day so the resident monkeys, both red faced (Rhesus Macaque) and black face (Hanuman Langur) are well fed. Worshippers of Hanuman, the god of strength and valor, offer fruits, chapatis (Indian bread) and peanuts to the primates.

I walked to the top of the canyon, past the pools and satiated monkeys to find an area where lots of baby monkeys were at play among a few big pigs. The monkeys swung, scrambled, screeched, fought, and played with plastic water bottles. I fed them a few peanuts.

One baby monkey became very interested in a reclining pig—that at first I thought was dead. "He is resting," said the self-professed "monkey whisperer" standing there. Then I noticed the white bristles of his coat moving up and down with his breath. 

The baby monkey proceeded to climb all over the pig, look in his ears, search for treats (fleas?) on the top of his head, sit backwards on back and play with his tail. The only thing he didn't do was ride him.

Friday, January 14, 2011

NEW Delhi Airport

Wow. The Indira Gandhi International Airport has come light years in just the four years I've been traveling to India. The new landing pad has it all—state-of-the-art travel facilities, sleek and modern interiors, good shopping, lots of dining choices and way better bathrooms. But in a way, I miss the feel of the "old" airport.
Yogic mudra art at the New Delhi airport.

Gone are the porters roaming about ready to help with luggage for a few rupees. It's all self-serve now, I'm sure a result of increased security. The little place with tea for 15 rupees is gone. Instead, there's a chain sandwich shop.

Technology is vastly improved, but I was more entertained back then. When my luggage was lost in October, 2006 I experienced my first machinations of Indian bureaucracy. I filled out forms with carbon copy papers in between, then watched as an employee copied exactly what I wrote onto other forms. At the desk was a dusty dinosaur of a printer. I was sent across the terminal to get my lost luggage form stamped—apparently for no reason since the official didn't even glance at it. Now, nearly everything is automated.

Walking outside I breathed my first breath of pungent and memorable smoke-filled night-time air in Delhi and watched the chaos of cars and people before me. (One thing that's mysteriously missing from this modern terminal is inclined curbs—handy for luggage carts and the handicapped. They might be there, but I couldn't find them.) Now, people wait behind guard rails and taxis are ready and waiting in numbered spots in orderly queues. Yes, it's more convenient, but not nearly as lively.

Oddly, upon my arrival this time the area inside the terminal had that same smoky smell. I was nostalgically comforted.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Idol Makers

Putting the finishing touches on Krishna.
This is not about singers on American Idol. Jaipur is where some of the real idols are made. Within the labyrinth of the Johari Bazaar in the "Pink City" of Jaipur are dozens of idol makers. These artists have been hand-carving marble statues of Hindu deities for generations, sometimes specializing in a single deity. It is said there are hundreds of thousands of gods and goddesses within the Hindu philosophy, so they have plenty to choose from.

The skills of these artists are noteworthy. They carve freehand and from memory. Their workshops in the alleys are wide open. It's a fascinating place to watch the craftsmen at work.

The smallish anterior rooms are all painted a powder blue, perhaps to better show off the white marble statues. At dusk there is a fine mist of white marble dust swirling through the air, coating the dirt roads and giving the alleys an appropriate ethereal, other-worldly look. Artists in their white pajamas are purchased atop some of the larger idols, hammer and chisel and hand. Some are painting them in bright colors (I saw black idols with pink toenails). There is no room for error—if there is a flaw in the carving, it cannot be used in a temple. A small likeness of Ganesh may take 40 days to carve, a 5-foot tall Krishna may take 11 months.

Hard at work creating gods and goddesses.
Some artists not only carve images of Ganesh, Shiva, or Hanuman, but also busts of departed loved ones, freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi, and even Nobel Laureates. Some of the most startling statues are lifelike likenesses of loved ones. I mistook one seated in the lotus position for a real person.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What Would Buddha Say?

Image of Buddha at Mahadbodhi temple.
I spent the last few days of the tour with a group of eight lovely French people who had been on the same river cruise. After docking in Patna we traveled by car to several sites on our way to Varanasi. One stop was Bodhgaya, the spot where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Having neglected my research on this place I went with a simple image of a majestic lone tree on a quiet hillock that emanated sacred vibes.

Our group was short on time so we went directly Bodhgaya. It was closed. As fate would have it, the crown prince of Thailand was visiting the same day. So instead of visiting the spot of enlightenment, we went first and had buffet lunch in one of the many tourist hotels in the dusty, congested city. Afterward we returned and the prince had left, presumably going to the Thai monastery. There are many Buddhist monasteries in Bodhgaya from all over Asia including Japan, Korea, Bhutan and Tibet.

Upon entering the grounds I saw the Mahadbodhi temple on the spot of a temple originally built in the first BC. THE tree was behind it. In honor of the crown prince's visit this magnificent temple was all tarted up with golden bows made of flowing fabric, artificial lotus flowers, fake cherry trees in full blossom and glitter encrusted Styrofoam peacocks. I would have much preferred the undecorated version. Within the temple is a golden statue of the Buddha accessible through a small doorway. There was much pushing and shoving to see this image of the enlightened one. I blocked a group of pilgrims from running over the senior citizen French lady in front of me. What would Buddha say?

Leaves of the Bhodi tree.

We made our way to the back of the temple to see the Bodhi tree, which is said to be a sapling of the original. This beloved tree was surrounded by chanting and frequently dour-faced pilgrims, its heavy sprawling branches providing shade to followers, monks and tourists alike. Behind iron gates a silver throne marked the spot where the Buddha sat. I tried in vain to imagine the Buddha there. It was too crowded. I took pictures. Around the side of the temple were stepping stones imprinted with beautiful golden lotuses and placed in spots where Buddha took his first steps after enlightenment.

A monk sifting through meditation beads.
Around the perimeter of the grounds was another tree where monks from the monasteries come on a daily basis to meditate, chant, read and prostrate themselves. They have simple elevated wood palates covered with prayer rugs. One monk meditatively sifted through prayer beads. Another monk was looking at his cell phone while his family visited. A mongrel made his way among them, wagging his tail.

I looked for a quiet place and found one structure empty of people. It housed several stone carved statues of Buddha. Votives and incense burned on a small alter. The statues looked perfectly serene. I had a few minutes to sit before leaving.

On the way out there was a deluge of souvenir sellers. I didn't want a Bodhi tree leaf in a plastic baggie or a string of plastic prayer beads. I just wanted to take away the sense of peace I felt in the room of silent Buddhas.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Oh the Things I've Seen!

Sunset on the Ganga River.

Slowly, slowly we are making our way up the Ganges river. Every day has been different. And oh, the things I have seen! There is almost no way to see this part of India by way of land. It's extremely difficult to get to these spots via terra firma. Here are a few of the sights I've seen and things I've experienced along the Mother Ganga:

*   Hot pink goats in the villages. They're painted bright pink and in various patterns so they are easily identifiable.
*    Seventy species of birds. Among my favorites are the Black Ibis with its long curved beak and the golden colored Brahminy ducks.
* Entering the Ganga via a lock from a smaller feeder river. Until this boat began sailing last year, the lock had been closed for 40 years.
The decorated feet of a young village girl.
*     Cremations, Hindu celebrations of life and death. I saw four simultaneous cremations with a fifth body being transported atop a bus. 
*    Sitting on the stupa of a ninth century Buddhist University and watched the sun set on the Ganga. I longed to spend the night in that peaceful place among the ruins.
*    I watched a big black water snake swimming toward the boat.
*    Limestone statues of the goddess Tara. The carving was exquisite.
A couple of goats kidding around.
*    A ferry boat crossing the Ganga jammed with passengers and a horse.
   *     The most magnificent and glorious sunset  on the Ganga. It was my first after we entered the main river. The reflection of the sun on the water was the color of pure gold, the sun itself was a deep bright orange and the sky was lit with pink. I understood the essence of the word Glorious.
* Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of open-billed storks roosting in trees on an island with a century-old temple
*     A woman balancing a green gourd the size of a watermelon on her head. 
*     A village festival where there were dozens of water buffalo, their horns painted a deep red.
*     A child of less than three staring at me with a combination of horror, confusion, and fear. It was clear he thought I was an interloping alien.
*    Twelfth century terra cotta temples with carvings of daily and heavenly life.
*     Riding in old fashioned horse-drawn tongas.
*    A palace in Murshidabad built by one of the last Nawabs filled with art treasures from the early 19th century.
*    Baby goats butting heads.
*    Sending candles and marigolds downstream on the Ganges for Diwali. I watched the lights float into what seemed eternity.

More to come...