Navratna – The nine gems

A holiday in Jaipur, India opened our eyes to the world of gems. Jaipur, besides being called “Pink City” is also popular across India as the city of gems. Whereas in the rest of the world, gems are used in jewellery for adornment, or as status symbols,  within India gems also play a significant part in astrology and horoscopes, which in turn is drawn out at the time of the birth.

It is believed that each individual is governed by one of the nine celestial bodies during his lifetime. This is determined based on the time of his birth and the stage of his life.  Wearing one of the nine gems as a piece of jewellery on your body, depending on which celestial body is controlling you, can help you soar to success or get over the bad phase in your life – be it personal or professional. If you are unsure which stone to wear, you can wear all nine gems (navaratna).

Scientists diss this off as plain superstition. However, there are quite a few believers too.

The nine gems are as follows :

  1.  Ruby for the Sun
  2. Pearl for the moon
  3. Red coral for Mars
  4. Emerald for Mercury
  5. Yellow Sapphire for Jupiter
  6. Diamond for Venus
  7. Blue Sapphire for Saturn
  8. Hessonite for Pluto
  9. Cat’s eye for Neptune

Besides diamonds (which are usually cut and processed in Surat, Gujarat), the rest of the eight gems are predominantly cut and worked on in Jaipur. Along with their loot obtained from conquests, the Rajput kings of ancient Rajasthan brought home skilled gemstone artisans back to their homeland. They settled around the palace with the royal family being their patrons. Many such artisans have practiced it across generations such that Jaipur has become the home of these gems and their artists.

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Indian Coffee House – the McDonald’s of Kerala

Kerala is predominantly a tea drinking state. Munnar, one of the most popular tourist destinations within the state has quite a few tea plantations which adds to its allure. Yet, one brand which stands out in the state is Indian Coffee House, with a heavy amount of brand loyalty among most. It is run as a cooperative model.

  1. McDonald’s of Kerala: McDonald’s in Kerala is limited to just 4 major cities. Indian coffee House is present with about 51 branches in almost all districts. The costumes of the servers
  2. Workers’ costume : Dressed in a style reminiscent of the Air India mascot, the workers sport turbans and all white (unlike the mascot)gal2
  3. They serve more than coffee : Even tea, and breakfast and lunch .. oh yes and dinner but with a set menu (remember McDonald’s standardization). Their biriyanis are extremely popular and so are the local delicacies which are served as snacks for tea (pazhampuri, cutlet ) – all subject to availability. The crowd at the restaurant especially during lunchtime serves as a testament to the quality. However, be warned during peak hours there is a possibility of people queuing behind your seat/ table.
  4. AKG photo: A.K. Gopalan, a communist leader from Kerala and a member of the Indian Parliament for nearly two decades played an important role in its founding. The laid off employees of the coffee houses of the Coffee Board were organized into a cooperative which currently forms the largest restaurant chain in Kerala – The Indian Coffee House. Hence, every ICH outlet has a photo of the founding member near the billing counter.
  5.  “Unique” Masala Dosa : A typical masala Dosa has a yellow masala – the yellow due to the turmeric added. Though, in ICH the masala is red, reminding strongly of the Communist colours. The red due to the presence of beetroot. Rest assured the taste is similar to the usual masala dosa

(Picture Source – The internet)

Sun, Sand & Sex @ Konark

Sandy beaches, Sun Temple and Erotic Sculptures at a place dedicated to Sun

Orissa is blessed with a lot of sun and sand. And for those looking for a good relieving smoke, or external stimulants for internal reflection, the government runs a shop selling versions of Cannabaceae in the capital.

Bhubaneshwar, the capital still gives the feel of a quaint, rustic city where time has stopped and modernity is yet to catch up. This is coming from someone who landed in Orissa from Mumbai. Konark, a UNESCO world heritage site is about an hour’s drive away situated close to the shore of Konark beach. Konark’s name is derived from Kone (Cone/angle) and Arka (the sun) and thus dedicated to Sun God. Also known as “Black Pagoda” due to the black stones used in its construction, the sailors of yore used it as a landmark.

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According to legend, Prince Sambha, Krishna’s son was cursed to be a leper. His obeisance and prayers to the Sun God followed by a bath in Chandrabhaga river, which ran through Konark helped him cure the disease. Ever since the place assumed significance as a holy place for Sun worship and healing properties of Chandrabhaga river. The river has dried up now.

The temple was commissioned by King Narasimhadeva in 13th century. The site was chosen due to the significance of the healing properties of the lake, and the prayer centre for sun devotees. The temple brought a lot of artisans from across the world who laboured on it for 12 long years. Huge stone blocks were carved out and they in turn were interlocked using iron bans in the structure. To keep the stone and metal intact, the crown stone contained a giant magnet. As per legend, post construction of the temple, it was discovered he crown stone could not be put unless the rest of the structure could be dismantled. With the temple nearing completion, none of the architects could find a way out. The only solution was to climb the top of the temple, put the stone, and fall to certain death in the river below. The chief architect was worried as the king had ordered beheading of 1200 workers if not completed by the next day. The day of the deadline, the workers were relieved as the crown stone was finally in place – all rejoiced except the chief architect. The architect’s 12 year old son – Dharmapada who had come to visit him had saved the lives of 1200 workers and their families at the cost of his own.

The temple itself was constructed in the form of a chariot with 24 wheels ( for 24 fortnight’s ) being driven by 7 horses (signifying the days of the week). The upper portion of the wheel signifies day whereas the lower one signifies night. The entrance to the temple has a statue of a man under an elephant, which is under a lion (NaraGajaSimha). Several interpretations exist but the most common is with the growth of money and worldly power (elephant) in man, his power and pride (lion) also grow, finally crushing him. Another interpretation of the same is Hinduism (lion) dominating over Buddhism (elephant) and both the religions dominating over man. It has also been interpreted as spiritual power (lion) overcoming worldly power (elephant) and man is at the mercy of both.  A fourth interpretation is Sun god (lion) overcoming Indra, the god of rain whose mount is an elephant.

As reinforced by the guide a system of magnets, which held the temple together. The most powerful being the magnet in the crown stone. The stone structures had iron content and bands in them. The locals allege the deity of the Sun god in the main sanctum was floating in air without any support, using the top magnet, and a set of reinforced magnets and iron bands around the temple. The statue itself had iron content.

The current state of ruins of the temple is attributed to the absence of the crown stone. Some suggest that the temple was invaded by Mughals who also destroyed the crown stone.  Another theory is that Portuguese sailors discovered that the strong magnet interfered with their navigation , rendering their compasses useless. As a result, they destroyed the crown stone, which led to a disintegration of the entire structure.

Restoration work is ongoing.  Exquisitely carved structures surround the temple. As per the guide, STP – Segmentation, Targeting and Positioning was followed keeping in mind the audience was the general public. Horses and elephant carvings at the foot of the temple were for young children. Sculptures in kama poses, and figures of women which  adorn the wall are for youth. Spiritual figures present at upper elevation are for older people.

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A vast majority of the sculptures at eye level and a little higher comprises of amorous couples (triples and quadruples in some cases) in different positions, women with varying poses. Allegedly, after finishing the brahmacharya or student stage, the student was asked to come to pay respects to the Sun God. The amorous figurines were meant to titillate him so that he would embrace the grihasthya or householder stage. Those who were unaffected by these  figurines were given the choice of sannyasa by the guru.

IMG_20170729_130224“All forms of marriages are depicted – monogamy, polygamy, polyandry,” the guide explained. He cited the examples of polygamy for Krishna and polyandry for Draupadi, and pointed to a set of sculptures. Polygamy and polyandry have been depicted as threesomes. Clearly in the Mahabharatha it was mentioned Draupadi slept with one husband and reserved herself for him through the year. He also pointed to a set of sculptures which had two women indulging each other – “Lesbians!:, the guide pointed out “Indian society was so forward thinking at that point.” “Self sex “, he exclaimed pointing to another sculpture which showed a woman in a squatting position with some kind of object in her hand.

It was interesting though  that there was no sculpture depicting gay sex or men masturbating, especially when the latter is a far more frequent (what I did hear from my friends of the opposite sex). Probably the Indian sculptors assumed all men were heterosexuals. The primary target audience in this case was definitely straight men. Lesbians, women masturbating, angel’s threesome and a devil’s threeway.  “The women were very strong then also, and dominated men at times”, the guide went on to show a panel which depicted infidelity. The wife was beating the husband with a stick and a small bob of a lady head at the background. Apparently the husband went to meet his mistress infuriating the wife.

Besides kama poses, a panel also depicted a king riding on an elephant being received by another with his subjects. The panel also depicted a giraffe. The guide explained that the kings of that time had visited Africa, with the giraffe being proof of the same.

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The wheels of the temple serve as sundials. Tiny beads have been carved along the inner periphery of the wheel. Each bead represents 1.5 minutes, the sundial – being the axle of the wheel. The wheel itself has been divided into 8 sections and each section divided into a further half. Each section depicts what an individual/ couple can do during the day. Apparently the wheels cater to both married and unmarried women and men, couples etc. depicting when they should have food, take bath, have sex and in which positions etc.

Here’s another interesting story which I heard : Apparently, you’ll have dark sheep in families of repute and prominence as they were not conceived at the right time. So, it is best to conceive during the morning/ dawn as compared to dusk. The ancient kings would also consult astrologers to determine the best time to conceive with their wife / wives.

“How about for old people ?”, I asked. “There”, he pointed to a section above the first and second level of the temple. Spiritual figures were at a level very high up. The older folks when they come they look directly at the statue of sanctum sanctorum, with devotion in mind. The spiritual figures at the top were keeping that in mind, their vision more skyward. Temples of Chaya and Mayadevi, wives of the Sun god are also present in the vicinity.

The sheer magnanimity of the temple; the intricacy, imagination & detailing  of the sculptures, accurate depiction of time, orientation, and even the open attitude to art and life  – The ancient Indians were truly ahead of their times.

 

Dances of Kerala

Kerala is home to many arts – classical and folk, each with its distinctive flavor. Each dance immerses the viewer in a unique experience.

A trip to Kerala cannot be officially complete without watching a Kathakali performance. Kathakali was traditionally the bastion of only men, who donned female costumes as well. With colourful face makeup, elaborate costumes and headgear, kathakali artists intrigue and enthrall the viewer. The sounds of the drums and cymbals along with the accompanying vocals and the dancer himself makes time stand still and transport the viewer into the actual scene from the mythology/epic from where the story is told. It adds to the mysticism around kathakali.

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The swaying of coconut trees with the gentle breeze influenced the movements of another classical art form in “the land of coconuts” – the graceful Mohiniyattam. The only Indian classical dance form performed exclusively by ladies. Literally meaning dance of the enchantress, the seductive glances, the swaying movements of the torso, the expressiveness of the face adds to the allure and grace of the dance, enchanting the audience in the process and living up to its name. Temples in Kerala host kathakali and mohiniyattam performances, usually after twilight, for the benefit of devotees.

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Theyyam is part ritual and part spiritual dance from Northern Kerala. Performed predominantly by people hailing from the lower caste, once in Theyyam attire, the artist transforms himself and is considered equivalent to God by the locals. Sounds of chenda (drum)  in the background, the clanging of theyyam’s anklets, the headgear and face makeup add to the ethereal feel. Theyyam is usually performed in temples and ancestral homes(tharavadus) in north Malabar. If you are a culture buff like me, be prepared to lose yourself in these dances of Kerala – where journeys end and stories begin.

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Gondola to Golden Island.. Varkala Diaries

Most people go to Varkala for beaches, yoga, ayurveda, and some good R&R. Varkala’s claim to fame are the cliffs which line the beach and being a beach person, I was eager to go there – and the R&R part too. And not too far are the backwaters which let you discover them via the indigenous Gondolas of Kerala.

 

Unfortunately for us, it was not yet the season – the sea was rough. The coast guard advised not to get too deep into the water and the waves were coming dangerously to the shore. So after a day of eating European food, getting tanned on the beach and staring at the waves, we decided to go sightseeing.

 

From the list of places suggested to us – Golden Island sounded intriguing. It was an island around 10 km away from Varkala on the backwaters.  The local name is Ponnamthuruthu – named so after rumors of the Travancore Royal family stashing their gold there.  A Shiva-Parvati temple is present on the island, a major reason why people visit. So, on Day 2 after having a hearty breakfast, we hired a scooter and off we went in search of Ponnamthuruthu relying heavily on Google Maps.

It was one of the few times we learnt Google ain’t that good for “really local”locations. Following the maps to a T, we found ourselves in some unknown street with no boat or waterbody within our view. However, the best part of Kerala is the-always-willing-to-help locals. So while we were confused about where to go next, someone suggested of a  place nearby which takes people across the banks via boats, which was a 2 min drive away. We found someone who could take us across to the island. It was 10.30 and I heard the temple shuts at 12.00 pm so I wanted to get there soon.

Thus, we found ourselves on the traditional wooden boat  gently gliding across the backwaters  taking in the Kerala landscape. Coconut and areca nut trees on the coastline gently swayed with the breeze. Small fish jumped across the water, and we found a dog swimming across the river.

I was strongly reminded of the Gondolas which glide across the canals in Venice. While my friends on exchange were taking their Gondola rides in Venice, I was having my very own Gondola ride, tucked away within the backwaters of Kerala.

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The ride took around 45 minutes but completely worth it along with snippets of information from the oarsman. He talked about the month of October when the season really began, and the place would be flooded with tourists and eateries, including on the island itself. The island was called golden island as many locals believe the Royal Travancore famiy stashed up their gold in that island. Until recently the royal family owned the island, and now it has been sold to someone else. The Shiva Parvathi temple is open in the morning till 12. I glanced at my watch. It was already 11. He pointed to an egret eating fish and spoke of migratory birds which came to the backwaters during the winter months, and gave their names in Malayalam.

He also informed us the actual place where we had to board the boat from was near a bridge, which we had overlooked. Considering the actual boat would have been a  motor boat which speeded across the backwaters, I was not too upset that we lost our way and ended up on this boat taking sights of the landscape. Lot of eagles flew around.  There were other birds also along the banks. It was a perfect paradise for nature lovers.

We reached just in time on the island. The bell sounded-signifying closing time. The island itself was very small, with the temple at the centre. It was dedicated to Shiva Parvathy. It also had the deity of Vishnu. One thing which I found interesting was the temple had a small place dedicated to Yakshi. I had seen  a lot of temples which had a small place for Yaksha, but this was probably the first temple I visited which had a dedicated space for Yakshis. Yakshis in local folklore are portrayed as demonesses who take the form of a pretty lady and seduce and kill men. Whereas Yakshas are revered but not feared, and are generally considered benevolent. I asked the priest about this curious trait. He informed me it is basically to ward off fear. For folks who have nightmares, praying to Yakshis help.

The priest does not live on the island either. They live across the backwaters where majority of the settlements were there. Outside the temple was a smaller area for worship of Nagaraja – the snake king.

The priest gave us the temple offering – Payasam, and after roaming around a little on the tiny island we decided to head back.

The ride back gave a more pronounced sighting of different bird species. dsc00840

He also told us of an amazing place where we could get sea food. “It’s always the fresh catch”, he assured us. And considering the long boat ride, the restaurant Kayalaoram, was where we were headed to right after . I was thankful for the off season for it not being too crowded.

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The food was a delicious spread for a sea food buff, albeit a little spicy (for me). Rice, Tapioca with prawn curry, karimeen fry, and kallumakaya (mussels ) fry on traditional banana leaf – all for 150 bucks. And sorry – no pics of the food – I was too busy wolfing it down. Maybe next time.

Experiments Flashing Fiction

DSC00008She looked at the photo taken nine years back. A dark, lean man in his early twenties stared back at her.

“So you knew each other in college? “ Lillian asked me.

This was the time for the skeletons to emerge from the closet. She had spent all those countless hours staring at this photo back in college – the only memorable relic of his with her.

They had met at a college party. Loud music, drinks, and flashes of camera. He and she had met eyes. It was love-at-first sight.

“At a college party.” She answered back.

“But “, she countered, “He’s from your town. You never met while here ?”

“Nope”, she replied.

They had exchanged phone numbers, and he called her the next day. Whirlwind was an understatement where she never thought they could have been happier.. until the spot scared him.

The red spot never came for more than 6 weeks. The spot on the stick she peed turned blue, indicating a positive. After she broke the news to him,

“ I .. need time ”, he looked nervous. “ I have to go. I’ll call you. “, but he never did.

“He has lost a lot of weight since college. I am surprised he was still so fair in that hot place. ”,  Lillian disrupted my thoughts .

I look back at the photo.  Standing next to the dark, lean ex- boyfriend of mine was a younger, fairer and plumper version of Sam.

Two months after the pregnancy scare, on the bus back home, Sam was seated next to me. His silly jokes cracked me up, and I have not stopped smiling since.  We got married last year.

Sometimes a false positive is all it takes to put things in perspective.

Braving the Mumbai Local

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Source : Internet

It was around 8.15 p.m. I waited in trepidation at what could possibly come, anxious, and mustering up my every resolve. Childhood memories came flooding back.

I was eight years old, my last trip to Mumbai, the city I would later revisit only after marriage. Dad had taken me around for a Mumbai Darshan. And the moment, the train stopped, people had come flooding both in and out. “Bacchi hai. Bacchi hai”, my dad had cried as he lifted me and shoved me into  a train packed with people. I don’t know how he did it. He gave one arm to me which I clung on for dear life within the coach, and with his other arm, he caught the hand hold. Getting out of the train was a similar affair where he lifted me, and yelled “Bacchi hai” to avoid being crushed in the stampede of people entering and getting out.

Landing to the present – some 17 years later, I waited for the train to arrive. “Lady’s compartment is there”, a man pointed out.

A lady with a kind face and, in a black dress is engrossed onto her tablet reading a book. She looked up and smiled – which did help me calm me a little bit. “Take this train “, she said as a slow moving local made its way onto the platform. Surprisingly the women’s compartment wasn’t as crowded as the details I heard. It probably helped that it was around 7.50  pm also (I was caught in the complete thick of it the next day, and realized they were right!)

I had a place to stand. I thought it maybe because of the comparatively later hour. A saree clad lady entered the compartment at the next station to sell her stock of trinkets. A policeman briskly walked up and stood on the footboard of the train at least for the next eight stations.

I also noticed the seat reservation mechanism in the ladies compartment. I was told later by a colleague it is exclusive only to the ladies compartment. “Which station?”, they enquire as soon as they get in, and then book their seats. Some actually offer when they get up, but in the thick of the crowd, its always the seat reservation mechanism.  I looked around me. Most ladies were hooked onto their earphones with eyes fixated on their mobile. Some with seats managed to sleep. And others were looming large over potential ladies whose stations were coming up.

And finally.. it was I looked through the window and saw my station come up. When I got down, I saw my husband was waiting with a smile.

“So how was it?” He asked.

“Not so bad” I responded, with a sense of accomplishment.