Friday, August 28, 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Onion Domes

So many months in Delhi and this time I still haven't made it to the old town. Many reasons - I have been in and out of town, it's been murderously hot, I've been too lazy. But it's ramzan now and the Jama Masjid's onion domes and the gorgeous old Delhi food are too tempting to resist. A trip should be made soon ... if only to update my photographs. This one is about 3 years old.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hampi: Garuda's Chariot

Vithala Temple, Hampi

In all Hindu temples, the vahanas are always present outside the shrine of the main deity. There is never a Shiva sans Nandi the Bull and Garuda is always around with Vishnu. The Vithala temple is unique because here Garuda has a chariot - usually the half eagle, half man has to be content seated on a pole. The chariot is a wonderfully carved structure and - though surrounded by gorgeous mandapas and often blending in with them in perspective - the focal point of the temple's entrance courtyard. Though originally drawn by horses, it is now elephants who shoulder the load. The horses were destroyed centuries back but the ASI thought a chariot without animals to pull it was hardly a chariot at all and thus these elephants were brought from some other part of the deserted site and installed here. They make for nice photos, too.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hampi: The Virupaksha Gopura

The magnificent and awesome in every way gopura of the Virupaksha temple in Hampi almost seems to act as a navigational aid for the site. I still recall gasping at the sight of it. Nine stories, fifty three meters high, it towers over everything in the vicinity, almost providing a watchful shadow over the happening inside the temple.

A functional temple, unlike many of the architecturally gorgeous but plundered temples in Hampi, the Virupaksha is abuzz with activity early morning on - devotees make their way through the huge compound to seek their deities, rushing through the elaborately carved pillared halls, stopping in the courtyard to take the blessings of the resident temple elephant. All in all, absolutely wonderful.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


On the Tungabhadra, Hampi

Discussing this freedom

The Times of India on 15th August had an interview with M.F. Husain that talked about his recollections of 1947, independence, partition, his art and even ironically his own banishment from the country a few years ago following the brouhaha over his decades old painting of a naked Saraswati.

Over dinner later that evening this topic came up and I remarked how tragic it was that such a remarkable artist wasn't able to enter the country because of fear of arrest. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was told “Well yes, maybe, but he shouldn't have painted that.” “Why not? It was decades ago and it's hardly obscene.” At this point of course, the tired old rebuttal the one that I have heard time and time again was brought out – We keep tolerating such pictures. Why doesn't he paint Muhammad? The rules of Islam must be followed, but Hindu deities defiled?

Of course there are people who think this whole business is retarded, but they seem to me to be so small a minority as to be wholly invisible. Many of those who do agree that the situation is unfortunate, will often come out and say – but he shouldn't have painted that. The other more belligerent sort, of course, totally agree with the situation – would he ever dare to paint Muhammad naked?

Such spurious and ridiculous reasoning is most frustrating to say the least. For one those who do make these arguments refuse to reason. And they only helps illustrate how narrow, uninformed and chauvinistic a view they have of the religion they are seemingly protecting.

It's not unusual or shocking to have a Hindu deity depicted nude,” I said, “So what is the big fuss? That a Muslim drew it?” “That's not the point. The thing is Hinduism has always been too liberal and that has only led to people further mocking and taking liberties with our idols. A stop has to be put somewhere. Do you think it's okay to have Lakshmi on your earrings1 or slippers? Our idols will be commodified and abused like the Buddha and the Buddhists have never really had the strength to bother to object. On the other hand, look at the ruckus that was created after the Danish cartoon incident.”2

Excellent. So the solution is to become more fanatical, less “effeminate”. These arguments, based on such fallacious logic, are so troubling because it is almost a matter of pride now, seemingly, to become more violent and belligerent. I have always felt that Hinduism is wonderful in how it encompasses so many varied, often completely non mainstream traditions, never defining apostasy. A large reason, I guess, is that rather than being a religion dictated by a strict rule book or code, it was a collection of beliefs – of all those peoples who lived beyond the Sindh; the Hindus. The shaping of the religion as we view it today is still largely influenced by the British understanding and interpretation – their very definition of the religion. Perhaps then, it's just reaching the logical puritanical end now.

Indian art has always drawn from Hindu myths – fantastical, beautiful, sexual. And it's not only Khajarao that has erotic statues, almost every temple does – the voluptuous skimpily clad apsaras and goddesses are everywhere. Should these be covered up too – perhaps like the statues at the Vatican, with leaves? It's also terribly silly to equate Hindu and Islamic artistic traditions – they have their own styles and stories that have found representation. But the ignorance of Islamic art is striking. For one, this false notion of Muhammad having never being painted is really untrue3. He has. Miniatures, across Turkey, Iran and India, have often represented the most wondrous, often erotic of stories – Leyla Majnun, Shirin Khusrau, of unknown meeting lovers.4

About a year ago, I was attending a talk on Islamic Art at the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore. The professor talked about the kind of contemporary Islamic art he had seen in recent year – of course, mostly ignored by the international media, but much talked about in the local news. He mentioned an Islamic scholar in Indonesia who had exhibited some controversial paintings recently including one of a veiled Muhammad surrounded by semi naked houris. There had been no protests – perhaps it was just as well that these shows got little attention outside the local media.

The moral outrage people feel on behalf of a religion continues to baffle me. In the case of Husain, I just find it ironic that people have taken the mantle of protecting religious idols against a man who probably knows more about Hindu scriptures and tales than these moral guardians could ever hope to. And yet its their voice that is always the loudest, their refusal to listen to the other side rock solid, their ignorance complete. Depressingly, these people are the ones who seem to always manage to get their way.

1I don't care either way. But really, to say Hinduism isn't commodified enough already is laugh worthy.

2Talking of the Danish Cartoon incident, the Yale University Press took an amazingly tragic decision to not publish those cartoons in the forthcoming book “The Cartoons That Shook the World”. Yale press also refrained from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet including, a drawing for a children’s book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante’s “Inferno” that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí.

3The Hadiths in this case are less than clear and have been interpreted differently and applied unevenly by the different branches of Islam.

4At the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, one among the excellent miniature collection was a painting of the naked Sarmad, perhaps my favourite Sufi. The Persian Armenian Sarmad came to India and in Sindh fell in such intense love with a Hindu boy that he renounced everything, including his clothes and walked the country side naked. Sarmad became a favourite of Dara Shikoh, but this friendship and his “heretical” behaviour proved costly once Aurangzed won the war of succession . Aurangzeb ordered Sarmad beheaded, but his poetry lives on and he is still celebrated at his mausoleum in Delhi as Sarmad Shaheed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Boats on the river


Holy Men (?)



In Benares, I also met a Naga Sadhu (not photographed) who spends all his time at Rajghat, attracting his own followers, since he shifted base there decades back. I was told he was close, if not older than a hundred years and he certainly looked it, wrinkles, fallen teeth and all. Benares is full of all sort of characters, but I doubt anyone could really sham their way through that long a time, or really have the will and inclination to. The sadhu we met himself certainly didn't look like one - a shammer, I mean - but it was a general thought about all the sadhus and babas that abounded. Who really knows. Though, I guess, if some one manages to be in character for years on end, that's a pretty significant achievement too, isn't it?

The three characters we met outside the magnificent Virupaksha Temple at Hampi were quite something else, stubbornly, loudly, asking for baksheesh the moment they saw they were being photographed. I had tried being surreptitious, but they noticed and posed fantastically, living up to all those cliched images of India . As they told dear E in all seriousness as they opened their palms in front of us, "Your choice madam - demons or no demons." Indeed.

Bovine pedestrian

A shockingly common gali sight, Benares.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lane-side cooking

Gali side kachoris, jalebis. Benares.

On the steps

Many people, caught in the midst of mostly sitting.
Near Kedar Ghat, Benares.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Praying, bathing, washing, horoscope reading, walking. Benares.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Washing, in sepia.

Dhobighats, Benares.

*Am off to visit my grandparents in Ranchi for the week so the slew of Benares photo uploads might just be interrupted. But I am taking the Mac along, so hopefully not.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Mostly blue, with a tinge of red

En route to Vishwanath Gali, somewhere. Benares.