The Nag Pahar Tale – Rajasthan Diaries

I love stories. I loved listening to stories as a kid. When I grew up, fiction figured predominantly in my reading lists. I also love the stories you hear when you visit a place. It adds to the beauty and mystique of that location.

Pushkar in Rajasthan is famous as the sole location for housing a temple to Brahma, the creator in the world. For the unfamiliar, Hindu mythology has considered God to be a trinity :

Generator – Brahma (or the Creator)

Operator – Vishnu (The preserver)

Destroyer – Shiva

Logically, most temples are dedicated to Vishnu or his forms or Shiva, or their consorts. Hence, the sole Brahma temple attracts quite a large crowd. Pushkar is also famous for its camel fair held for five days on Karthik Poornima, usually a few days after Diwali. Ajmer is the closest railway station to Pushkar. Ajmer is also home of the Dargah of Moinuddin Chisthi, an important pilgrimage centre. Apparently, after offering offering prayers to this dargah, ever year for a few years, Emperor Akbar of the Mughal dynasty was blessed with a son. Ajmer also houses a famous Jain temple.

The cities of Ajmer and Pushkar are separated by a small hillock called Nag Pahar, literally meaning Snake hill. And the story behind Nag Pahar is what fascinated me enough to write this blog.

According to legend, a pious and generous cowherd lived in this area many years back. An ardent devotee of Lord Siva, he did penance at the hill and earned the blessings of Lord Siva. In fact, Lord Siva was so pleased, he ended up giving him a heavy gold chain as a reward for his good karma. Pleased with this offering, he celebrated all night. His celebrations however, disturbed the penance of a Naga(Snake) King praying at the bottom of the hill. In fact, he was so angered by his raucous celebrations, that he cursed the cowherd to live for only 12 years. The curse broke the poor cowherd’s bubble, and he crash landed into ground reality. Terribly sorry for his actions, he used the gold from the chain to set up temples around the hill. The gold pieces from the chain are housed within the temple. As per the legend, on a new moon night on a Monday every year, a person who has the blessings of Lord Siva, can see the gold in all these temples for a fraction of a second by looking across the hill.

What is so beautiful about all these tales is the celebration of diversity and  a rich heritage. Ajmer houses the famous Dargah and a Jain temple. About half an hour away is Pushkar which has the famous Brahma temple. And separating the two is a hillock which houses several temples in honour of Lord Siva. Hindu, Muslim, Jain – all found space to celebrate their distinct identity within these two small regions of a very vast India.

Have you come across any such interesting travel story ? Please comment below .. would love to hear..

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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.

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.
  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. It is more than just 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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Vishu Trivia

Vishu is a traditional festival celebrated in Kerala, India every year mid April. And it is a festival dear to my heart not only because it symbolizes the new year for us, and hence new clothes, my birthday follows a couple of days later, which means prolonged festivities.

The highlight of Vishu is The Vishu Kanni, an assortment of items which promise a good and fruitful year- and yes literally a “fruit”ful year – What you see is what you get. It also falls during the jackfruit season and the start of the mango season. An example given below :

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The flowers associated with this festival is the Konnapoo from the tree cassia fistula. It always flowers during Spring around the time of this festival.

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It is the national flower of Kerala and Thailand. Moreover, the tree, called the golden shower tree (we can see why) is the national tree of Thailand. Its yellow flowers symbolize the Thai royalty.
In Ayurveda, the tree is called Aragvadha, meaning disease killer.
As part of Malayali folklore, the flowers please Lord Krishna, and hence is offered during Vishu Kanni.
The flower has also found its way on stamps across countries (20 Rs. stamp in India, 48p in Canada)

 

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.