Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Month of February (a little late, sorry!)

Hi everyone!  Sorry it’s been so long.  I’ve been kind of super busy.


Anyway, where to begin?  Alright.   Since I have to make up for a whole month, this post will be very long.  Don’t let that put you off though!  I’ve divided it up into manageable chunks if you want to read some and then come back to it later.  Here goes.




Several weeks ago (Feb 4), I went with a few people (Laura and Veena) to an all India music and dance festival at the Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple.  The occasion was the Brahmotsavan celebrations for the temple (the week in the lunar calendar in which the temple’s particular deity is honored).  I found out about it because my yoga teacher is one of the temple dancers.  It was quite amazing. 


The temple itself is very oddly placed, and we had a hard time getting there by rickshaw.  As far as we could tell, the temple is somewhat near the Hyderabad headquarters of Microsoft and Wipro, but once we got there it just looked like a bunch of office buildings (which is what it was).  We asked a bunch of people where the temple was, but they couldn’t really tell us.  Eventually we found our way there.  It was pretty surreal.  We turned the corner around some enormous highrise, and there was this beautiful temple!  The outside was nothing compared to the inside though.  The Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple is the only temple in all of India (and the world) to incorporate ritual temple dancing into its services, as temple dancing has all but died out, despite the fact that Hindu rituals were once considered incomplete without it.  Back when temple dancing was still in integral part of religious life, the Devadasis (temple dancers) were considered married to the god of the temple they were a part of.  For this reason, they were not forced to take (human) husbands, and had much more sexual freedom than any other women of the time.  Naturally, the British did not approve of this, and banned temple dancing, branding it as the dance of prostitutes.  The different Indian states continued to perform their state classical dances, but made sure to remove all religious and erotic elements.  Even when India got its Independence, it kept the law against devadasis in its constitution.  Only in Andhra Pradesh has this ban been lifted, and it took a lot of lobbying.  I thought this seemed odd, and asked my yoga teacher why this was.  She said that there is still great stigma associated with temple dancing even today.  Also, many of the devadasis were in support of this law, as many unscrupulous men had used the looser restrictions on the devadasis sex lives to their own advantage.  I guess everything is more complicated than it seems at first. 


For many years, there was no temple dancing at all, until the internationally renowned classical dancer Swapnasundari—my yoga teacher’s dance teacher—decided that temple dancing must be brought back.  She then sought out the last living devadasis and learned all she could from them.  Swapnasundari is now teaching classes in temple dancing to ensure that it stays alive.  We actually got to meet her, as she was there at the festival!  She’s quite a diva :o)  Rightfully so I suppose. 


Anyway, over to the service itself.  Like everything in India, it was a huge sensory overload.  Everything was bright, colorful, loud, and the smell of incense took over.  The dancers were decked out in some of the most beautiful clothes I have seen, and were weighed down with so much jewelry that I was impressed that they could move, let alone dance so gracefully!  They had bells around their ankles, as well as hanging from various parts of their costumes. 


The dancing did not go on on a stage, as I had assumed before reaching the temple.  The dancers went one at a time, with the others standing with the audience.  The first dancer began at the temple’s entrance.  The musicians, drummers, singers, incense holders, and audience members all clustered around her.  After she had done her part, we moved to a different part of the temple, and another dancer took over.  This went on until we had completed one clockwise circle around the temple.  After this, the priests brought the idol of the temple’s god (in the case of this temple it was Hanuman) out on a palanquin.  The palanquin with Hanuman on it was then paraded around the temple, stopping at various points.  At these stopping points, the dancers would again perform, so as to ward off any evil spirits that might be in the path of the procession.  This continued until Hanuman was brought back into his shrine.  At this point, everyone sat down, so we did too.  Then came the taking of the Prasad.  Before we had gotten to the temple, it turns out, food had been offered to the deities and blessed.  What the Prasad is is the sharing of the blessed food among everyone in attendance.  We were all given plates made of leaves sewn together, and we were all served rice, chickpeas, and halwa.  It was very nice, because, even though we were clearly foreign, no one seemed to care.  Everyone was there for their own reasons.  It was actually funny afterwards, because they gave us a lot of Prasad, and we’d already had dinner.  Laura and I managed to finish it, which is good, because you cannot say no to or throw away blessed food.  Veena wasn’t able to finish hers though, so she ended up bringing it home and giving it to the security guards, who also knew that they couldn’t say no.  I still wonder what eventually happened to Veena’s Prasad.


The next night we went back to the temple.  This time we didn’t see any temple dancing, but we watched a classical performance that was part of the all India dance and music festival.  It was an Odissi dance drama (from the state of Orissa).  It was beautiful.  The footwork was so perfect and intricate, and the hand gestures were very precise and exact.  Also very stylized were the facial expressions.  Somehow though, besides the rigid stylization, the dancers managed to be graceful and flowing in their movements, making them seem effortless.


Alright, that was the first installment.  More to come…




On Feb 6, I set off with three friends (Emily, Laura and Taylor) for Hampi, in Karnataka.  We took a train to get there, which was a lot of fun in itself.  We were actually in a very nice class of train car; we had a/c, and it was relatively quiet.  Not the real India experience I guess, but we’ll get there eventually.  It was my first experience sleeping on a train bed though, which was interesting.  I’m realizing that the rocking motion doesn’t help me to sleep, as I keep thinking about the train crash scene from the movie The Namesake.  Hopefully I’ll get over that!


We arrived at Hospet station at about 5am the next day.  Immediately, we were accosted by a rickshaw driver offering to take us to Hampi.  We asked him to take us to the ferry (we were planning on staying in a hostel across the river from Hampi proper) and off we went.  When we reached the river, it was still dark, so we allowed our driver to persuade us to take us to “the sunrise place”.  I’m glad we did.  He drove us up to a mountain, where there was a temple nestled between rocks.  In the temple was a priest performing his early morning puja (prayer).  We then climbed up higher, where there was an overlook, and a ruined temple.  There we saw a bunch of Russian tourists who had clearly not gotten the memo about the proper way to dress in India.  One girl’s shorts looked like girly boxer briefs.  Whatever.  Hampi’s a touristy place.  Everyone looks silly.


Anyway, the sun started to rise, and it was absolutely beautiful.  Hampi reminds me a lot of the American southwest.  There are huge rock formations and mountains and cliffs and canyons, and yellow rock everywhere.  Oh, and as if the natural scenery weren’t enough, the ruins of the Vijayanagar civilization are there too, so all over are temples, palaces, and shrines.  As I looked out over this beautiful vista, and observed the sun climbing higher and higher, I decided I should document this moment.  This was the point at which I discovered that my camera was broken.  Oh well.  I climbed up onto the roof of the temple and got a spectacular view from there.  You guys will never be able to see it unless you go there (broken camera, as you’ll remember), but it’s in my mind’s eye.  There were a ton of monkeys scampering around everywhere, coming right up to us, and even trying to steal our bags.  Also, the Russian tourists were being super smart, and feeding them.  Genius.  That’s ok.  We saw a lot of tourists in Hampi who were pretty dumb, which was nice, because it made me feel better about myself.  Some of the dumb tourists included an Australian guy who paid 900 rupees for a relatively short rickshaw ride (you do NOT do that).  Also some crazy Brits who were clowning around in a temple, “omming in the sanctum” as they put it.  Oh, and all the people who got really impatient with minor inefficiencies.  Come on people, it’s India!  In Hyderabad I feel like such a baby sometimes, but compared to some of the people in Hampi, I’m actually quite knowledgable about India!


Ok, after sunrise, we went across the river to check into our hostel and get breakfast.  The town on the other side of the river from Hampi, Virurapur Gaddi, has a very relaxed vibe.  Lots of hippies and crazy young tourists go there, and a lot of debauchery goes on.  However, it’s also perfect for people who want to get away from the hectic touristiness of Hampi.  It’s beautiful and quiet, and there are rice paddies and banana trees all around.  Down the road from our guesthouse, mountains and rock formations loomed.  Our guesthouse itself was pretty cool.  It was called the Uma Shankar Guesthouse, and the people who ran it were really nice.  It was only 250 rupees per night for a two person room (yeah, that’s about 5 dollars) which was pretty sweet.   


Breakfast was good.  Because Hampi is so touristy, every restaurant offers Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Continental, and Israeli food.  Ours even had Korean!  Or so they say.  I had bread and hummus for breakfast, which was actually great.


After breakfast we headed across the river and began our day as tourists of Hampi.  The first stop most people make is to the Virupaksha temple.  It was huge, with lots of smaller sections and components.  The main tower actually reminded me a lot of Chich’n Itza (or however it’s spelled).  Inside it was dark and pretty creepy.  There was one cool section though, where the light’s reflection on the wall created an inverted shadow version of the temple.  We looked and couldn’t find it at first, but then an old man showed it to us.  For a fee of course.  The architecture of the temple was really cool, but I think my favorite part was Lakshmi the temple elephant.  For a rupee, you could get blessed by her, which I did, tourist that I am.  It was fun though.  What you do is you put the rupee in her trunk, and then she bomps you (softly) on the head.  It was fun. 


After Virupaksha we headed east across Hampi Bazaar (lots of little knick knacks) to where the monolithic Nandi was.  (Nandi is Shiva’s bull, and the reason that cows are holy in India.)  After looking at him, we climbed up some stairs behind him, thinking that they would just lead to another temple, and we’d soon be back down.  For this reason, one of us, Emily, decided to wait at the bottom.  The rest of climbed on up, and quickly realized that these were not just stairs to one temple.  They led to a path that led to many other temples, and to a gorgeous overlook from which you could see a maze of ruins.  Deciding that Emily could not miss this, we went back down to get her.  She was nowhere to be found.  In our search for her we ended up climbing an entire mountain, which required a little bit of scrambling and bushwhacking.  I think we probably would have gotten lost if a goatherder hadn’t come by and seen us and shown us the path.  Eventually, we reached the top of the hill, where there was a temple.  We climbed onto the roof of the temple, and from there we got a 360 panorama view of Hampi.  We could see temples, markets, tourists, rocks, banana plantations, rice paddies, everything.  Guess what else we could see?  Emily.  She had wandered off and was now down by one of the temples.  Mission (sort of) accomplished. 


After we all found one another again we had lunch at the Mango Tree inn, which is supposedly the only good restaurant in Hampi (according to my guidebook anyway).  It was indeed very good.  I had real fruit which was really exciting.  After lunch we went to the Royal Center of Hampi.  There we saw palaces and shrines and lots of cool stuff.  The coolest thing were the elephant stables though.  It was a huge beautiful stone structure with gorgeous intricate archways.  For Elephants.  Wouldn’t they prefer to be outside? 


Our tickets to the royal center also got us into the Vittala Temple, so of course we had to go there.  Unfortunately we had to take a rickshaw to get there, and all the drivers in Hampi are used to dumb tourists, so they had no interest in bargaining with us.  Somehow, we started a rickshaw wallah rumble, and got two guys really mad at each other.  Fortunately, in the end, we did reach the temple.  I think it was the craziest ride I’ve ever taken.  We didn’t want to have to pay more for two rickshaws, as we only had four people, and this driver didn’t want any of us to sit in the front with him (most are ok with it).  So we put three in the back which was fine, as that is the proper capacity of a rickshaw.  I then sat on a lap, which I’m actually very used to.  However, I have never experienced such crazy driving.  The road was already bumpy, and the guy went REALLY fast.  I ended up grabbing the pole on the roof of the rickshaw and kind of hovering over the lap I had been sitting on, just so I could save my knees (they had been knocking against the front).  There were times when turns were particularly violent when I sort of swung out of the rickshaw.  It was exciting.


The Vittala Temple itself was beautiful like all other temples.  Yeah, they do get repetitive after a while.  The attraction of this one though was a huge stone chariot.  Apparently, back in the day, its wheels were able to turn.  Of course we took all the necessary touristy pictures (us pushing the cart, getting crushed by it, lifting it a la Jean Valjean, etc.)  We then headed back to the other side of the river.  There we saw some other CIEE people who happened to be in Hampi on the same weekend.  One of them who speaks a little Hindi and was trying to be helpful to another tourist had somehow managed to get himself mixed up in a botched drug deal with a dealer who can’t have been more than 13 years old, and we got to watch the conflict play out and resolve itself.  I realize that this event is evidence of the darker side of India, and that I should use it to learn and reflect.  It is however a hilarious story that I’m still laughing about. Can’t write about it though.  You’ll have to ask me to tell it to you in person.  You gotta have the voices.  


The next morning we woke up early to see the sunrise.  Well, we all woke up, two of us (Taylor and I) went to see the sunrise.  Anyway, we walked out on the road past some rice paddies, and climbed up some rocks onto some high up boulders.  And we watched the sun rise over Hampi.  Yup, kind of indescribable, but I’ll see if I can get pictures from Taylor to show you all.


After sunrise we got Laura and Emily and headed off to the Hanuman temple, or Monkey temple which is on top of a mountain.  It was aptly named.  There were monkeys all over.  Lonely Planet actually very helpfully advised us not to go there while wearing bananas.  Thanks Lonely Planet!  Seriously though, there were a lot of monkeys.  Emily even got a hug from one of them! It was about 579 steps to get up to the top, where the temple was.  Yes I counted.  After reaching the top we stumbled onto the most perfect example of hippiness that I have ever seen.  A bunch of dreadlocked, beaded, raggedy hippies smelling strongly of weed and sweat were perched on the overlook.  One was strumming a guitar, another was singing, others were writing in journals.  Quite funny.  At one point an Indian raga started blaring from the temple speakers, and one of the hippies started dancing.  Classic.  


We headed back to Hospet train station soon after, where we waited and waited for our train.  It turns out that even though white people are nothing special in Hampi, they are a huge novelty in Hospet.  A family approached us and plopped their babies in our laps.  They spoke almost no English and we spoke no Kannada, but we still had a really good time together.  We got through that we were studying in Hyderabad.  They told us that they were going to Hubli “to see God”.  Pilgrimage I’m guessing.  They got us flowers for our hair, and bindis for our foreheads.  One of the kids, a thirteen year old boy actually spoke good English.  He said he would actually be taking a computer test very soon.  Everyone was very curious about America, shocked by how much things cost there, and excited about Obama.  It was a lot of fun.




A few days after we returned from Hampi, (Feb 12) I got a visit from my Dad, which was a lot of fun.  I showed him around campus, and introduced him to people.  I also got to spend the night in his hotel which was CRAZY.  (A/c and a western toilet and hot water AND toilet paper in an Indian hotel??  What???)  The next morning we left for Warangal, which is about 3 hours away from Hyderabad.  Warangal is a LOT less touristy than anywhere I’d been in India, even Hyderabad, which was refreshing after Hampi.  Our first stop was the 1000 pillar temple.  It’s funny, Warangal is a very normal Indian town, so it’s especially surprising when you turn into a random alleyway, and are suddenly facing a 12th century stone temple.  The temple’s name, the 1000 pillar temple, makes you think it will be very big, but it’s not.  It’s incredibly intricate though; each pillar is very delicate, and the carvings are very detailed.  I read somewhere that Americans value size, while Indians value ornamentation.  From what I’ve seen, I would agree.


After this we went to Warangal Fort, which is huge.  It was very beautiful.  Unfortunately, while there we became the target of a begging scheme.  While we were in one of the buildings, I saw a man with a group of little boys point at us.  The little boys immediately scaled the fence between us and them and attacked.  They then used their English, which consisted of,  “What’s your name?  Which country?  Give me ten rupees.  Give me ten rupees. Give me ten rupees.  Give me ten rupees!  Give me ten rupees!!  Give me ten rupees!!!  GIVE ME TEN RUPEES!!!!!!!!”  Yes, it was just like that, except more intense.  We eventually got away.  It’s sad because they do need money and they do need food.  However, I know that any money we would have given them would have gone straight to the man who had sent them over to us.  And who knows what he would have done with it.


The next day we took a car to the nearby town of Palampet, home to Ramappa Temple and Ramappa lake.  Both very pretty.  The nicest part of the day though, was when we were at the lake.  We had no idea what to do for lunch; Palampet is even less touristy than Warangal (it’s really just a village) and there was nowhere to eat.  We were just kind of wandering around, when a group of people came and asked us if we wanted to share their food with them.  They turned out to be a group of school teachers from Warangal on an outing together, as it was a school holiday.  We had a lot of fun talking.  We took pictures with them, they took pictures with us.  It was nice.


After we got back to Warangal we realized that we had a LOT of time to kill before our train left.  This was overwhelming at first, but turned out to be nice.  We wandered off on some side streets, and found a really pretty little market place.  People were selling fruits and vegetables, and fish, and chickens.  Totally not touristy, and really interesting, and according to my dad somewhat like Korea in the 70s.  After wandering around here a little, we found our way to some steps that led us to a temple on a hilltop.  Here we could look out over the whole town.  It was nice.  A bustling little town, far smaller than Hyderabad.  However, you could see the signs of development everywhere.  There was a lot of construction, and several highrises had sprouted up.  Maybe someday it will be as booming as Hyderabad.  It’s hard to tell if that’s a good thing, or if it’s sad.  I suppose it’s some of both.




On Thursday the 19th of February (yep, 3rd weekend traveling in a row!) I set off with four other people to Gokarna, which means “cow’s ear”.  To get to the train station we were leaving from we took a commuter train where I saw a hijra for the first time.  She didn’t curse us though, fortunately.  At one point two really cute little girls hopped onto the train singing and begging for money.  We didn’t give money, as that’s usually a bad idea, but one of us did give them some food, which is usually a good solution.  “I’d like to see your mama try to buy moonshine with those cookies” he said as they walked away.


The actual train ride was fun.  We were in 2nd AC again (very swanky) and ended up sitting across from a very nice older man, who we talked to for quite a while.  He works in agriculture, traveling around India and looking into agricultural practices, working for sustainability and fair trade.  He had a lot of travel advice for us, and shared a lot of interesting experiences.


We arrived in Hubli late (8:15), so we rushed to the bus stand to get our 8:30 bus to Gokarna.  Once we got there though, we were told that there was no bus to Gokarna.  We’d have to take a bus to Ankola, and from there go to Gokarna.  Confusing, but it’s India.  Flexibility is key.  The bus ride was hot and long, but very pretty, and we got to see some rural jungle areas.  Eventually we got to Gokarna, which is Paradise, in case you were wondering.  Well, for me anyway.  There are beaches, and cliffs to hike on, and rocks to climb on.  Perfect!  We stayed in a very chill guesthouse on the beach.  The rooms for 200 rupees for a two person room.  Four dollars.  Yeeha.  I would write more, but really all we did was hike, swim when it got too hot, walk on the beach, climb rocks, eat really good food, and watch spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  Lather rinse repeat. Some of us got burned.  I didn’t.  Muahahaha.  Basically, it was great.


Some stories bear retelling though.  As at all touristy places there were hawkers all over.  One kid was very persistent and really funny.  He asked if we were from England.  We said no, US.  Some of you know my Germany konichiwa story.  Well, it happened again in India!  This kid insisted that I could not be American, I must be Japanese.  Konichiwa, Genkidaska.  I said no.  American and Korean.  This kid was a lot more knowledgeable than the guy in Germany though.  Once he heard Korean he gave me a perfect bow straight out of a Jhoon Rhee form.  Someone decided to tell him that I did martial arts and he proceeded to give his own demonstration.  Quite amusing.


Another notable tale of Gokarna happened as we were searching for Kudle beach, supposedly the most beautiful beach in Gokarna.  We were told it was north of Om beach where we were staying, so we went that way.  We hiked and hiked and saw nothing, and people started getting a little cranky.  Eventually, we came to a bend in the path, and we just knew that once we rounded the corner we would find the beach.  We rounded the corner.  No beach.  So we turned around and went all the way back.  When we were almost back to where we had started, we caught sight of a sign pointing slightly west of the path that we had taken.  Guess what it said?  “This way to Kudle Beach”  Oh, life is funny.