Chennai Journal
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Last Sunday I went to Tiruvanamallai, about 3 hours from Chennai. One of my employee's wife's family is from there, and the place is famous for the Arunachala temple, dedicated to Shiva. Many people make pilgrimages to this temple at the new moon and other festivals, especially Diwali, which originated here. One important ritual is to walk around the Arunachala mountain (shown above). A famous sage, Sri Ramana, made this place famous, and there is an ashram nearby devoted to his teachings--Somerset Maugham among others came here. Tiruvanamallai is one of the great holy places of India, and it is said that one needs only to think of Arunachala to attain spiritual liberation.

The family made special arrangements for me to be able to visit the inner sanctum of the temple with my employee and his father in law, which was really interesting (non-Hindus are not usually allowed in the inner areas of most temples, where the religious observances occur). We went past a long line of people waiting for the main deity, Shiva, and into a small enclosed area that was quite hot. The priest brought a round brass plate filled with flowers, incense, and other offerings, and each person wishing to offer prayers put his or her hands on the plate in turn. The priest asked the name of the individual and those he or she wished to have blessed, including their astrological sign, star sign, and other important details important in Hinduism. The priest then went to the inner sanctum where the god--in this case Shiva--was represented. He said some prayers in Sanskrit, and then came back out with the same plate, this time with a small fire on the plate. Then each person puts their hands on the flame, and may take a small part of the offering that has been blessed, called the prasad. A small bit of red sandalwood paste is also taken and placed on the center of the forehead, the so-called "third eye" --for devotees of Shiva, or Shaivites, the mark is placed horizontally.

There is more than one sanctum to which you can go, and we also went to the one for Shiva's wife Parvati, also called Uma. This place was less crowded than the main Shiva sanctum, but followed a similar process. Then, we went to the place which I also saw in the temple in Madurai, which is dedicated to the nine planets. The custom here is that you pay to light small oil lamps, and then walk around the display nine times. Then you pay respects to a representation of Chitragupta, who is the recordkeeper of human deeds, and who decides if someone goes to heaven or hell when he/she dies. But, as explained to me, it is considered bad luck to look directly at Chitragupta, so you look only from the side of the enclosure where he is represented. Finally, there is a ceremony where you sit down and receive the prasad, and then outside the sanctum, those partaking in the blessings prostrate themselves.

Arunchala is a lively place, and being the day after Ayudha Pooja, ceremonies were still going on as depicted below. .

Although the temple is an important place for prayer, equally significant are the daily rituals done at home. Hindu homes will usually have a small room for this purpose, called a pooja room. When I am home on weekends or leave later for work than usual, I feel as if I am participating vicariously in this ritual, as the people next door--wealthy brothers who built a large complex to house their two families--have a large statue of Ganapathy (Ganesh) in a courtyard on the side of the house. Regularly at 8 or so in the morning and 6 in the evening, I hear the bells rung for the ritual, and if the porch door is open, the faint smell of sandalwood and camphor drifts over as well.

Sunday, October 21, 2007
While in Kolkata I had the idea to write a post about begging, since it is such a part of the landscape especially in large cities (though less in Chennai than elsewhere.). Begging is also big business. There was a story last year about the "richest beggar in Bombay" who owns a couple of flats and has healthy assets stashed away. One number floating around --who knows if it's true--is that beggars in Bombay alone earn about 180 crore (about $40 million) per year. One writer estimates that a beggar plying one particularly busy intersection in Bangalore takes in as much per month as a software engineer.

You see a guy like the one pictured above, huddled on the street in Darjeeling, all bundled up, or an old woman outside a fabric store frequented by wealthy Indians and foreigners, or a one-armed mother with a small baby follows you in the airport parking lot in Bombay or Delhi and taps on the taxi cab window. What do you do? Though we may feel ourselves special "targets", foreigners are obviously not the only ones solicited--beggars could never make a living from us since we're too few in number. The reaction is mixed. Some hand over a 2 or a 5 rupee piece, some ignore the beggars, and some brush them aside. People say to give a child a piece of fruit or candy, rather than money that will only be taken by the adult who sent him or her into the street to beg. Since coming to India, I have done all of these.

Beggars are seldom on their own, though they may appear so. The crippled man with a tin cup who waits for cars at a busy intersection, or the child who follows you out of Mother Teresa's house, is part of a community--on the front lines because their youth, age, or disability will attract sympathy. Some, born with defects or unable to work because of an accident or other misfortune, may have few other choices. But, as everywhere, begging is also a way of life, and a livelihood, co-existing with the small entrepreneur who sells seasonal fruit, or the streetside barber. It may be a family tradition, with the territory passed on--for beggars can be very territorial. There are stories that children and women in particular may be deliberately maimed to attract sympathy, and there was a scandal last year or so that some doctors have been involved in this, as part of a "beggar mafia."

There is an old man who stands outside a nearby grocery store that is frequented by foreigners (Amma Naana which means Grandma's). I call him Marty's beggar because Marty often slipped him a 5 rupee piece and I sometimes do as well. Of course, we are not the only ones, and I suspect this guy takes in a fair haul. But he also works. You often see him picking through garbage and pulling out bits of things that can be collected and sold.
I remember last year meeting a fellow traveler in Darjeeling, an Australian who comes to India fairly often. Years ago, he befriended a young girl who was begging outside a temple and wound up paying for her education at a convent school in Darjeeling. She is now a teacher herself, not wealthy, but happy because she has an apartment and a microwave oven.

You have to come to your own conclusions about how to handle beggars--and sometimes, as in the cases above, it's just situational. While in Kolkata, I found it difficult to walk a block without someone soliciting me. I didn't give to a single beggar while there. But I did make a resolution. Although begging may be a business, and some beggars (like the millioniare in Bombay) even dress for the part, there are still many, many destitute people here who do not have sufficient means to live without help. So for every beggar who approaches me now, I put aside a small sum, which I'll donate when I leave to a worthy organization that is helping people get a real livelihood.

Sunday, October 14, 2007
Soup's On....

Leela makes the best soups. All of them are vegetarian, since I don't eat meat here, and all of them are delicious. It seemed a shame not to capture and share her secrets, so I invited a couple of friends over to join the lessons--and help eat the proceeds....

Leela uses a pressure cooker for her soups, which I'm convinced contributes to the rich and intense flavors, despite the lack of meat. It took me a bit to get past my fear of these--I was raised in an era when pressure cookers were rather tricky and dangerous, and my mother used to make me leave the kitchen whenever she used hers.

During yesterday's lesson, Leela showed us how to make two soups, Vegetarian Vegetable and Dal (lentil) with rosemary.

Veggie Soup à la Leela

1 T olive oil
2 small onions – chopped
1 spring onion – chopped
2 carrots – chopped
1 handful green beans – chopped
1 potato – chopped
1 handful peas
1 stock celery – chopped small

Sauté onions in oil in pressure cooker until golden brown
Stir in the rest of the veggies
Add ½ litre water
Pressure cooker – bring to boil and 3 whistles
Open cooker and apply potato masher (see below!) for 1 minute
Set aside until ready to heat, may be reheated.

Note that there is no seasoning in this soup. You can add salt & pepper to taste.

Dal Soup

For this recipe, you need Mysore dal, shown below.

1 small tomato – skinned, chopped
½ C mysore dal (soaked 1 hour)
1/3 litre water
Put ingredients in pressure cooker, boil, 3 whistles

While the dal is cooking, saute a clove of garlic and half teaspoon of dried rosemary in olive oil. Stir into dal.

This soup is very simple, but delicious. Sauteeing the rosemary helps produce a very nice, aromatic quality in the soup.

Both soups give about 4 servings.

Sunday, October 07, 2007
Kolkata Part II
While in Kolkata I walked to the "Mother House" where Mother Teresa is buried. On the way there I got lost, which is not difficult in Kolkata because the streets often have different names from those shown on the map. While detouring, I found a park with this sign, which one probably wouldn't find in most parks in the world:
Not surprisingly, an enterprising fellow attached himself to me as a guide, offering to take me to the Mother's House if I would buy him some milk. We took an even longer detour to get to the shop where he traded, but in due course he deposited me at the entrance to the house, shown below.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside, except for her tomb, which I passed on. The tomb is decorated with flowers and sits in a small chapel, where services were being conducted. There are chairs around it and people just come in and sit, reflect and pray, and some genuflect before the tomb. There is also a small museum showing artifacts from her life--the chair she sat in, her dishes and utensils, her clothing, and pictures of her life in India. The house is still used by the sisters, and it is in respect to their privacy that photographs are prohibited.

You do feel a presence in this place. Despite the cacophony outside, it is very quiet in the house, except for the voice of the priest and the occasional murmurs by the small congregation--about 30 people were in the services when I was there. You wonder about the twists of fate and destiny that led this small Albanian woman to not only devote her life to the poor of another country--and eventually many countries-- but at the world acclaim that she attracted, which was largely due to a documentary created in the late 1960s. Her life and works are not without controversy, even in her own city. The poor of Calcutta are little different from the poor of Bombay or Delhi, and arguably in better circumstances than those of some of India's most destitute states such as Bihar--and Calcutta is actually a more liveable city, with fewer infrastructure problems, than Bombay. But ironically, in part due to the work of Mother Teresa, it is Calcutta which bears an image synonymous with teeming multitudes of the destitute.

When I left the house to walk back, I was accosted by beggars who clearly have staked out this spot as a "mother lode" (sorry for the bad pun). This situation, and a subsequent discussion with co-workers in Kolkata have led me to a new paradigm on street beggars, which I'll write about in another post.

October/November is the festive season in India, and in Kolkata the biggest celebration is for Durga Puja, culminating Navarati, or nine nights. Although Durga is a Hindu deity, the Durga Puja in Kolkata is more like a Mardi Gras--everyone celebrates, and the streets have a carnival atmosphere.

In preparation, thousands of Durga idols are produced, most of them on a single small street in Kolkata called Kumartuli, or Potter's Town. (The idols are not only for use in Kolkata, but for export as well to Bengalis celebrating the Durga puja in the Indian diaspora.) The cab driver who took me to the synagogue also took me here, where the day was just getting started.

The whole community ("Kumars") gets involved in making, painting, and transporting these idols, in work that has been going on for four centuries since the Durga pooja was first celebrated during the Mughal era. The idols are made of hay and clay (making them somewhat more environmentally friendly than the plaster of paris Ganesh idols that I showed last week), and the finishing touch--painting the goddess's eye--is reserved for the eldest of the community.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007
O Kolkata! Part I
I am back from a few days in Kolkata (renamed from Calcutta). Although compact and you can mostly walk around to the main tourist sites, I can't say it's a relaxing city---at one point, after several hours battling crowds and beggars around the markets and area near my hotel, I just needed a break from it all and had to pop into the opulent Oberoi Grand for lunch and peace and quiet. This said, it's a fascinating place and I'll do a couple of posts with my impressions.

Kolkata was the great seat of the British raj. Here, fortunes were made and lives lost....the "Black Hole of Calcutta" was the 1756 incident (hotly disputed in terms of numbers/veracity) where over 100 British and Anglo Indian soldiers were said to have suffocated from being holed up in a dungeon after the capture of Fort William. Many more in the days of the Raj--probably most-- died of disease and many were young women and children. On the first morning I was there, I wandered down to the Park Street Cemetery, where there are hundreds of graves of British residents of Calcutta, dating from the mid-1700s when the cemetery was established. An association funded by descendants of the buried and others interested in British history maintains the cemetery, which has been ravaged by vandalism as well as the effects of time. Most of the tombs are in English only, but the one shown to the left, of a Christian philanthropist, carries inscriptions in Arabic and Hindi as well.

Kolkata once had a thriving Jewish population, more than 5000 souls. Most were from Baghdad or Syria, and were traders who found themselves at home and accepted in British India. On Monday I tried to find a synagogue that was marked on a local map. I walked all the way from my hotel up past the famous Writer's Building (so called because young men from England were sent as scribes to the East India Company) but was a bit too late in the morning---by 8:30 a.m., the sidewalks were already jammed with street vendors and traffic was horrendous. I could see a sign on a building that said "Synagogue Street", but no one could tell me where the synagogue was. I finally gave up and resolved to come back in a cab, and earlier in the morning. The next day, despite having a cabbie who spoke no English (and he didn't need to, because the only people who knew directions spoke Bengali....), I nearly had the same fate, and then, purely by accident, I spotted the word "synagogue" peaking through a mobile phone advertisement and a makeshift rain canopy over some street stalls:

My cab driver parked the car and accompanied me across the street, but this synagogue--Neveh Shalom--has been totally appropriated and is no longer a shul--to put it mildly. A street vendor pointed us down the street and around the corner, where, amidst blaring horns and a few bleating goats, we weaved our way through fruit stands, shoe shiners, morning tea drinkers, and assorted other entrepreneurs to find the magnificent Magen David Synagogue, once the largest and most splendid in Calcutta. The caretaker, an old Muslim, kindly let me in when I showed my necklace with a Star of David.

Magen David is not in regular operation---it still does have two Torah scrolls--but it is clearly cared for. In stark contrast to the cacaphony outside (which you can hear on the video below), the inside was full of peace and reverence. This week is the harvest festival of Sukkot, which follows on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and members of the nearby Beth El Synagogue--the only functioning shul in Kolkata these days-- had built a sukkah outside which you can see at the end of the video. A lulav and etrog, were on a stand at the entrance to the sanctuary, along with a kippah (men's headcovering) which looked as if it, too, dated from the 1800s.

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